Cycle touring life in Sri Lanka was good, the country and its inhabitants were relaxed and everything was stepped down a gear. We travelled light, I no longer carried my cold weather gear, stove, fuel, pans or cooking utensils, it was too hot to cook so we were at the mercy of shops, bakeries and restaurants and we were never more than a few kilometres from either. We sampled every item on offer from vegetable roti, egg roti, egg roll, egg buns, samosas, sweet buns, sweet treacle cakes, cookies and all for an absolute bargain. Often, my morning highlight was to watch in bewilderment as Mario the machine would not dip biscuits into a cup of Ceylon tea but dunk his savory, spicy egg roll, sometimes even a spicy fish roll. Strange Chinese ways.
We continued to follow the coastline and enjoyed an afternoon at Galle Fort. Originally a Portuguese construction that had been further developed by the Dutch and then the British. It certainly had a distinct European ambiance. We passed fish markets, fruit markets and stopped to observe hoards of surfers “hangin’ loose” just beyond the surf in anticipation for the next wave.
One morning, whilst loading up on egg roti we met Adrian, a Swedish adventurer and tour guide. He was staying a few kilometres down the road and offered us a place to camp, deciding that this was an opportunity to rest, explore and enjoy the day, we gladly accepted. We shared travel stories over ice cold tropical fruit smoothies. We pitched our tents round the side of the apartment in the shade of a banana tree, perfect. Adrian was so accommodating, we were extremely grateful for his generous hospitality. Mario and I wandered to the beach where I attempted to teach Mario how to swim. The negative buoyancy of his thunderous thighs was hard to balance, my poor tuition ended with the submergence of Mario’s head as he desperately clawed at the water whist I supported his legs, he resurfaced coughing and spluttering. We laughed it off and decided that it was perhaps best not to attempt try that again.
The southern beaches of Sri Lanka with their golden sands and palm trees are a magnet for tourists. We strolled along the beach passing ambiently lit restaurants, emanating the familiar sounds of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, palm trees illuminated with golden pearls of warm, enticing orbs, coiled with fairy lights. Well dressed, perfumed tourists downing bottles of imported wine, eating fresh seafood platters that cost more than two days cycle touring budget. Knowing that mountains of cash were not absolutely necessary for travel and adventure, a small part of me loathed the blatant display of consumerism, materialism and the obscene inflated prices just to enjoy a meal by the sea. Though another part of me wanted to pull up a chair to a candle lit table, just as they had, order a fresh avocado and egg salad, a pint of ice cold beer, and then ask them to switch out Sheeran and the Beebs for a dose of high octane rock and metal. Mario and I pondered this notion whilst perched, for free, on a bench reluctant to spent another penny as we watched hermit crabs scuttle across the sands. Mario thought it preposterous, I eventually resigned to the fact that actually, not everyone enjoys the minimalist ventures of a cycle tourer or back packer. These tourists or holiday makers had perhaps worked ridiculously hard all year and saved every penny just for one or two weeks of divine, tropical luxury and indulgence. They had every reason and every right to be enjoying themselves in the way which suited them and their lifestyle. Besides, in four weeks I would be free of the cycle tour shackles and emptying my bank account to enjoy the marine life and scuba diving delights of the Philippines.
We left the sanctuary of Adrian’s apartment, my bike a washing line, and headed north, away from the sea and deep into the tropical jungle. After a few days of sea level cycling we were both excited for a meaty climb up into the Sri Lankan hill country. Within a few hours we were engulfed by waves of hills in a sea of green as the landscape transformed and we were reunited with the familiar churn of first and second gear.
Each night we would erect our tents, make our beds then sit and enjoy each others company as the air cooled. We camped anywhere from sports fields to Buddhist temples and were grateful for the slightly kinder temperatures as we gained altitude. Nights would welcome us with peace and solitude. Besides from the occasional mosquito, our only company was the twinkling of stars of the night sky and the gentle illumination of fireflies as they hovered about in a magical display. Each morning we would watch the sunrise above the distant hills.
I was in such a good mood as day by day we conquered the ascents. Something about Sri Lanka just made me smile. I took to mine and Jacob’s old Indian habit and waved at and greeted everybody with a quintessentially English “Good morning!” The natives were so friendly and welcoming and to my delight, not demanding or irritating. They would gladly return our good morning greetings or at the very least welcome us with a friendly Sri Lankan smile. Life was fantastic, roads were quiet, in good condition and we cycled along to a melodic ensemble of birds singing from within the jungle and we cruised between tea plantations as tea pickers filling their baskets in the perfect rows on the steep hillsides.
As the days rolled on we developed a routine and settled into a rhythm, Mario tried repeatedly to pronounce “Rhythm“. We cycled only in the morning and late afternoon and would shelter out of the stifling midday heat. We ate lunch and would dip ginger biscuits into sweet Sri Lankan tea, something that quickly became our favourite past time. I devoured deliciously fresh pineapple and watermelon in the afternoons. Before dinner we would search for a stream or river to bathe and wash away the sweat and grime. What a life. There is almost nothing better than a dip in a fresh mountain river, so rejuvenating, so liberating.
As we climbed to Ella, a small village in the hills where the air is cooler and provides respite from the high levels of humidity of the lowlands, I surpassed my 5,000 kilometre milestone. A feat that I was proud of but it was nothing in comparison to Mario’s heroic 10,000 kilometres the previous week. We joined the crowds of tourists, walked along the railway in search of the Nine-Arch Bridge, built by the British and we also hiked the short distance to Little Adams Peak for a fantastic view of rolling hills and valleys.
Cycling up, into hill country in near 100% humidity with temperatures exceeding 35° Celsius was physically demanding. We were extremely grateful for a day of rest, relaxation, coffee and curry.
We devoured a large breakfast of egg samosas, egg roti and sweet black tea in preparation for the final big ascent, 800 metres to Nuwara Eliya, another quaint village nestled into the hills situated at 1,900 metres, the highest altitude of our Sri Lankan cycle tour. By 10:00 the sun was already high in the sky, few clouds hung in the air and the inevitable heat started to beat down on us, we were sandwiched between the sun and the radiating heat of the black tarmac. We hit a long, steep section that wound up into the hills, beads of sweat began to form on my forehead. Mario was only a short distance behind. Where my small frame is built more so for endurance, Mario had sheer power, I heard him close in as his thighs of thunder hammered through the gears, he slowed to my pace. Climbing is tough but the slower pace enabled us to cycle side by side which was great, but this meant Chinese question torture;
“Who was the first to climb Everest?”
“Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay”
“Ah yeah! Tenzing Norgay is Nepali pride! Do you know Mallory?”
“Yeah! George Mallory! Where is he from?”
“Where in England?”
“I have no idea, but he trained in Wales” I wiped sweat out of my eyes with my t-shirt.
“Is George a typical English name?”
“Is Elizabeth a typical English name?”
“Yeah, and Mary and Charles and Richard and Edward and William” Hoping to pre-empt the next string of questions as I felt sweat drip from my ear lobes.
“Can you get a boat from Scotland to Iceland?”
“I’m not sure, it might be easier from Norway”
A car came past in the opposite direction, the smell of hot brake pads, a sure sign of a long climb.
“Yeah. Have you ever been to Cambridge University?”
“Have you ever been to Oxford University?”
“Nope, but I have seen some of the colleges”
“Which is best?”
“I have no idea, but they compete at everything” I glugged at my water bottle.
“Who is your favourite English politician?”
“I can’t say that I have one”
“Who is the most famous politician in English history? Like Ghandi, Ho Chi Minh and Chairman Mao”
“I have no idea, maybe Churchill for winning the war… maybe Margret Thatcher, she was the first women prime minister, but politics isn’t my area of expertise”
“Do you know Adele?”
“Is she English?”
“I don’t know”
“Are the Beatles from Birmingham?”
“Liverpool I think”
“Have you ever taken a train from Leicester to Manchester?”
“British railway is the best, so ancient. Who is the most famous man in the English army?”
“Haha, Mario I have no idea”
“Oh OK, shall we stop at the next bakery?”
“We only stopped 15 minutes ago! Let’s push on until 10:30”
My endurance held out and Mario fell behind slightly. From behind I heard a joyous “Come on Leicester boys!” I turn around and see that cheeky Chinese grin, I responded “Go on my son!”
I say its Chinese question torture, it’s not, it amuses me and is one of the reasons why I enjoy cycling with Mario, it was a pleasure and a privilege. Mario is ten years my junior, he is intelligent and so inquisitive, he often knows more about England, English history and politics than I do. We have great conversations and often talk into the night before retiring to our tents. We found a bakery just before 10:30 and enjoyed sweet buns and black tea to energize us for the final two hours of the climb. My all time favourite Mario question was “Who is the greatest dramatist in Finnish History?” I have no idea why he thought that I would know the answer.
Arriving at Newara Eliya was not only the final big ascent of our tour of Sri Lanka, this was the final big ascent of my entire Asian cycle tour. I took this as an opportunity to seek out the most luxurious coffee shop in town, the Coffee Bar at the Grand Hotel. I ordered a bucket of coffee, a praline eclair, a slice of tiramisu and toasted to our final summit and my 5,000 kilometre milestone.
Cycle touring in Sri Lanka was hard work. It was hotter than a Turkish hammam and more humid than a British steam locomotive, more sweat leaked out of my face than I could drink, I was soaked, beads dripped from my nose and my ears, my arms and legs streamed with sweat but I was in my absolute element, relishing every moment and loving life.