Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, was the sixth country of my cycle tour and the third country on my route whose people were subjugated to British rule during the colonial era. The country was granted independence in 1948 and remained a dominion of the Commonwealth until 1972. Sri Lanka is known as the heart of the Indian Ocean and for good reason, with its golden sandy beaches, luscious rain forests, gloriously green tea plantations, national parks, Unesco World Heritage Sites and a rich history, I was surprised that it is not as popular a tourist destination as south east Asia.
Due to a delay of my flight out of Varanasi, Victouria and I were redirected and subjected to a total of three flights and at the mercy of four airports until I would walk out of Colombo airport and breath the Sri Lankan air. I desperately hoped that I had packaged Victouria sufficiently to survive such a traumatic journey. I gazed eagerly out of the window as the plane crossed the Laccadive Sea and descended upon a rich green landscape perforated with tens of thousands of palm trees. Even from high above the island looked nothing more than a tropical paradise and despite the 12 hour delay, my senses were awakened and tingled with excitement.
A somewhat dilapidated bike box was delivered to the over-sized baggage claim area. Apprehensive but mildly satisfied that Victouria was unharmed I hailed a taxi to the city. I was dropped at the hostel and I ran up the stairs in such excitement that I had unintentionally ignored and completely bypassed reception, tunnel visioned as a predator seeking out its prey. Through the door to the communal area my eyes caught sight of what I was searching for. It had been six months since we had cycled together, at that time tears were shed as we said goodbye, Jacob and I had cycled west into northern Pakistan to take on the Karakoram mountains, Mario headed south to tackle the Tibetan plateau. We had managed to meet for a festive afternoon in Kathmandu at Christmas time but this was only a brief encounter. I crept quietly into the room humming the Rocky theme tune, Mario’s ears twitched, he looked up and as his eyes met mine he jumped exuberantly to his feet and let out a wide eyed “Aaaaaah!” And with the power of a grizzly bear and the tenderness of a giant panda he wrapped his arms around me and lifted me off the ground. We were both jubilantly overjoyed to be reunited, the six month absence of our friendship immediately felt like a mere blink in time. After our chance meeting in Kashgar, China we accompanied each other for ten days, of which, only four days were actually spent travelling by bicycle but in that short time we had built and developed a friendship that could endure such a lengthy absence and span thousands of kilometres. The integrity of such a continued friendship is just one example of the benevolence, openness and altruism shared amongst the global cycle touring community.
He knew of my intended arrival time and, unbeknownst to myself, had cycled for two hours through the dead of night to surprise me as I walked out of the airport. But of the four airports that I had resided in over the preceding 24 hours, none had Wi-Fi access and with no Indian SIM card I had no means of communication with Mario. The delay meant I would arrive in Colombo from a completely different airport as I had originally planned and therefore Mario had no idea of the situation. He didn’t know which airport I was arriving from or what time, he waited patiently for three hours only to be disappointed before cycling back for another two hours to the hostel. What an absolute saint. I felt terrible when I learned of this act of such valor and gallantry. Mario is so kindhearted and often goes out of his way to please others.
I started to assemble my bike, streaming with sweat unaccustomed to the heat and humidity this deep into the tropics and close to the equator. Mario kindly offered to help. Back in India he had grown out of his sandals and much to my amusement he swanned down the stairs wearing a brand new pair of Manchester City Football Club sandals,”I didn’t know you were a Man City fan!?”
“Eh, what?” He replied, somewhat bemused. I pointed down at his feet, he looked down then back at me with his huge Chinese grin “Haha! Argh no, I didn’t know! I am not a Manchester City fan!”
He was blatantly unaware of the significance of the emblem. I found this hilarious. I would soon convert him into a Leicester City boy.
Excited to try the notoriously spicy Sri Lankan cuisine, we walked to a local restaurant. The term ‘Hotel‘ in Sri Lanka must have been misinterpreted throughout its diverse European influence and history. It turned out that ‘Hotel‘ can either represent as what we westerners understand as a hotel or a fast-food restaurant, I struggled to make the connection. After a charades dual with the waiter I was presented with a heap of rice and various vegetarian dishes including an interesting serving of curried banana, I ate my fill followed by a Ceylon tea chaser and was pleasantly surprised to be handed the bill of 95 Sri Lankan rupees or £0.41.
We enjoyed a full day to prepare and plan our route and to watch as the sun set from the promenade of Galle Face, a west-facing urban park in the heart of the financial and business district in Colombo. By far the most modern and developed city of my trip, it felt surreal to be encompassed by sky scrapers but I was treated to my first ocean sunset of the tour. For seven months Sri Lanka had felt so far away, an almost impossible feat but here I was, I stared out across the sea at the perfectly flat horizon, smiling to myself as the warm breeze caressed my skin and carried the smell of the ocean and a light sea spray.
Mario and I took advantage of breakfast at the hostel and hit the road at 08:00 for day one of our Sri Lankan tour. It was already so hot. After a short time we watched as Mario’s odometer ticked over from 9,999.9 kilometres and reset to zero. We celebrated his unbelievable milestone of 10,000 kilometres with ice cream and a selection of bakery items. What a hero.
We cycled along the western and southern coast line, perfect sandy beaches lined with impossibly tall palm trees bursting with golden coconuts. We crossed estuaries of crystal clear waters, passed Buddhist stupas and an abundance of Buddha statues, great and small. We passed roadside vendors selling an array of irresistible fruits, pineapple, mango, banana, papaya, mangosteen and there was juice bars and bakeries around every turn, signposted in the graceful and sinuous Sinhalese language. This was an absolute tropical paradise. I was elated to be here and to be here cycling with Mario.
By mid-afternoon we rolled onto the beach to find some shade and shelter from the heat. I bathed in the sea and emerged feeling triumphant, fists raised in the air “I can’t believe we are in Sri Lanka!” There was only one thing that could compliment this moment, an ice cold beer. Hell yes. I had no doubt that I would thoroughly enjoy my time on the island.
Mario was by far the more experienced cycle tourer so I was happy to drop my routine and follow in his footsteps. We planned to camp as often as possible to keep expenditure to a minimum. Mario, who had a wealth of camping experience in India, had developed the incognito ‘urban wild camping’ method. At the end of the first day Mario lead the way in search for a suitable spot, within minutes he stopped and left on a reconnaissance mission while I stayed by the road with the bikes. He quickly came back with a smile, “It’s a perfect campsite.” We hauled our bikes up the stairs and made what appeared to be an open sided classroom our new home for the night. We hid in the shadows and kept quiet as people walked past, I was anxious and worried about being caught but Mario assured me that we would be absolutely fine. I had no choice but to get used to this new way of sleeping and surviving on the road.
We had only been on the road for one day but I felt great. The air was fresh, a contrast to the pollution and burning rubbish heaps of India, the roads were in excellent condition, we weren’t deafened by horns, our lives were no longer threatened by maniac bus drivers and people were just genuinely happy and helpful. I was excited for what the rest of our time in Sri Lanka had to offer and even more so for sharing this experience with my new cycling partner.