HITTING THE WALL IN SRI LANKA By Bill Johnston (article)

We had such high hopes for Sri Lanka and yet we've been here only five days and are already talking about leaving.  (Luckily, we cut back on our original plan to spend two months here!)  If it weren't for my Celtic parsimony and having scored two tickets from Colombo to Rome for $325 each we'd probably bail next week.

'Why?' I hear you ask.  

Frankly, I think we may have hit the wall.  As marathon travelers, I suppose it is inevitable that sooner or later we would test our endurance limit.  While we have had some great moments here, Sri Lanka has challenged us with some unexpected negative serendipity.  

It started when we reached Colombo on the local bus from the airport which left us 1 km. short of the railway station in a huge bazaar reminiscent of Old Delhi.  (I let slip that the guidebook had described Sri Lanka as a "tropical India" and just ducked in time to avoid the beach bag Jan hurled at me.  The author of the guidebook also declares Colombo his favourite city in the world; we concluded he doesn't travel much.)  We secured a tuktuk, piled in our luggage in the blistering heat and bumped our way over people, chickens and refuse to Colombo Fort train station, our next challenge.  

Despite ditching our winter clothes suitcase at the station, we still had too much luggage to stow on the oven-like, overcrowded rail car carrying us down the coast to Beruwala, and, with all the seats and aisles taken twice over, this meant we had to squat near the open train doorway.  


Jan (Tilley hat, lower right) chats up fellow travellers in Colombo Fort Station


Not much change in SL Railways rolling stock since my last visit in 2000

By the time we reached Beruwala, we were wet, worn-out rags.  

Our homestay is above a Mlesna tea shop and is for the most part wonderful with the exception of the trucks, buses, tuktuks and motorbikes that honk, double clutch and seemingly drive right through our room at all hours of the day and night.  That said, we have a lovely view from our back terrace and a delightful hostess who is just back from a jungle pilgrimage complete with bears and elephants and is going to tell us all about it over breakfast tomorrow.  Below is her picture in the tea shop:


Hostess Champa and shop assistant Mutu ("Pearl")


View from our terrace


Naturally, we headed straight to the beach which, as the pics below attest, is great:  


Wonderful walking and bodysurfing beach at Beruwala Beach; the 80 degree seas are perfect for Jan


Jan takes a dip in the Laccadive Sea


Jan enjoys a calm lagoon


Fishing skiff with school of minnows

It was only when we started to itch later the first night that we realized the beach is infested with sand flies.  Four days on we are still dealing with the dilemma of how to frolic in the sun and surf without adding to the dozens of bites we sport all over our bodies.  We haven't found a solution though spraying them with boiling hot water provides temporary relief.

The beach is also thick with "beach boys", basically touts trying to sell anything they can.  It is hard not to sympathize with these fellows though:  after three decades of civil war topped off with a tsunami which destroyed much of the coastal infrastructure while killing 35000 and leaving 800000 homeless, they are struggling to find any work whatsoever.  Although there are many newly-built and refurbished resorts, the money spent there doesn't seem to be trickling much into the local economy.  So today, we succumbed to the pressure to go on a backwaters boat trip through the mangroves.  We called our favourite beach boy who gratefully made the arrangements.  We made it about 400 yards before the boat engine died.  Though our pilot managed with difficulty to revive it, the engine continued to splutter out smoke so we decided to discontinue the trip rather than risk being stranded leagues from home.

You would have had this update much sooner except that the electricity has been cut three days on the trot for periods varying from most of the day and half the night to a few hours here and there.  Apparently, a local transformer station blew up during the first repair.  Given the unseasonably warm "feels like 39 degrees C" and the lack of air in the flat---lest we invite in mosquitoes and the roaring street traffic---you can imagine that, with both our fan and A/C down, we have slept better elsewhere.  Luckily, the stove is gas so I've still managed to keep Jan happy with morning lattes and the odd meal.  I'm using the pages of the aforementioned guidebook to light the stove.

Our hostess disclosed that since the new government was elected, nothing in this country has worked properly.  We see this in the crumbling infrastructure, the rampant un- and underemployment and the failing electrical grid, but we also couldn't help but notice that prices are way out of whack here.  Despite shopping at local supermarkets, bottled water, a necessity, costs five times more than in Thailand, a litre of natural juice (made with SL's beautiful, diverse fruits) starts at $5, imported dairy items (local supply being irregular) are double Canadian prices.  This leaves us wondering how local people cope at all in a country where average GDP per capita is just over US$1000.

Given that frequent walks are part of our routine, yesterday we decided to walk  the six kilometers to the nearby town of Beruwala, which looked delightful from the train (at least what we could see peering through several dozen people and a pile of luggage).  The first part went well:  we navigated through the beach boys and the ladies selling overpriced beachwraps to over-wienerschnitzeled Germans and soon found ourselves in the midst of a crowded Muslim festival at the thousand year-old mosque which looked sort of like a Mongolian yurt made out of white plaster.  The traffic jam was so thick that even pedestrians couldn't pass, leaving Jan distraught at having to witness goats and chickens en route to their imminent demise to feed the multitude of believers.  We were wrecks by the time we reach Beruwala which luckily didn't matter as the place seemed tatty and devoid of charm.  (We must have been hallucinating on the train.)  


Tags: Bill Johnston