How to cause a commotion - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 9, 2020

How to cause a commotion

Quiet, sandy roads show the country from the bottom up
Heart 3 Comment 0

NAWAGATTEGAMA -You want to cause a commotion? Ride on unmade roads all day and then stop at a remote shop for a drink.

Nobody was there when we pulled in to the right. The road was a track of sand compressed by previous travellers. It was bumpy, yes, and now and then treacherous little sandpits lusted hungrily for front wheels. But for the most part it was fine and a chance to see a country from the bottom up.

The shop was a wooden construction set back a few metres from the road, with a dusty forecourt and the usual scatter of outhouses and plastic chairs. We propped our bikes and looked around. Nobody was there. And then a shout went up. It reminded me of the day we rode into a Turkish village to cries of "Turisti! Turisti!", the locals having heard of such things but never seen one.

Within moments we were surrounded by happy, chattering grandparents, parents, children, a toddler who wasn't sure we were safe, several rice-field workers and a couple of customers who'd come for sugar or drain-clearer and reckoned we were too much of a novelty to neglect.

A father-figure appeared. He had a Buddha belly, sandals, a sarong, and a neck chain with a finger's length of wooden rod that looked significant but may not have been. Nobody spoke English once the shop girl had gone for her lunch and so, to much laughter, we got over that we were from France (Pramsaya! Pramsaya!), that no, we hadn't seen any elephants and that, yes, we had ridden from Colombo in three days.

The head man takes charge of international relations
Heart 4 Comment 0

This last point needed some emphasis.

"On this?" the head man kept gesturing, pointing to Steph's bike.

He raised three fingers. "Three days, Colombo?"

"Ov", we said. Yes.

"Just this?" He acted out looking for a motor and then mimed a bus.

We agreed it had indeed been just "this" and he slapped his forehead theatrically in the universal gesture of "Totally crazy."

The performance over and the audience laughing at the drift of the conversation even if it hadn't understood the details, he translated the story into Sinhala so loudly that a man across the road who was building a table outside his house looked up in puzzlement.

"Three days from Colombo," the head man shouted to him.

A girl balanced on the back of a motorbike took up the shouting, turning her hands to mimic pedalling. The table-maker continued to look our way, unsure what expression was most appropriate, whether to join us or get on with his woodwork. He stuck to his trade.

We give way to the greater attraction of a rice harvester on the way to the fields
Heart 2 Comment 0

All nature of small business and crafts are conducted in these linear hamlets, too small to call a village. The only traffic is the occasional, very occasional, car or a rare van and a trickle of motor-scooters and tuk-tuks.

The tuk-tuks are driven by young men of impressive confidence. The three small wheels are steered by a straight handlebar that would be at home on a bike. They weave in and out of the smallest spaces, impressively close to everyone else but never touching them. They turn in their own length.

Tuk-tuks lean to the encouraging but obscure, such as "Love is hone"
Heart 3 Comment 0

Many tuk-tuks have messages in English above their back window. Since the drivers rarely speak English beyond commercial necessity, I doubt they understand what they have painted. How else to explain "Love is hone, love is jolly"? Or the clearer but still mysterious "Love is a nice rainbow."

One day we saw a tuk-tuk labelled "Cool Beans" tussling down the road in rivalry with "Bajaj Lambodgini Racer." Bajaj is one of the main makers of tuk-tuks and shops selling their spares are everywhere. Whether the Italians at Lamborghini had any idea of their name adorning three-wheeled taxis, even misspelled, is something you'll have to ask for yourself.

Tuk-tuks being so essentially Asian, it's surprising and even disappointing that so many drivers have concocted western advertisements and stuck them in place to suggest that only their tuk-tuk can give the true jet-set experience of western travel. Either that or Adidas and Jaguar really do buy space on the back of 250cc tricycles. Although, that said, maybe Jaguar really does now that it's an Indian company.

Tuk-tuks buzzed past us every ten minutes this morning, the driver and passengers leaning out to wave and call. We rode between papayas, the unruly decadence of banana trees with their first fruit still green, and the snooty aristocracy of palm trees.

Self-satisfied egrets and scruffy black birds revel in the frequent reservoirs and lakes
Heart 1 Comment 0

We passed lakes, or perhaps tanks as reservoirs are called here, full of purple flowers and floating green leaves. Snow-white egrets pretended they were herons, standing still to admire their reflection from the corner of one eye. Darker birds unknown in Europe sat on concrete walls, shabby and scruffy like party roués who'd missed the last bus home.

When we rode paved roads, they were quiet. A stretch of main highway had a compensating wide band marked off for cyclists. The road rose past two policemen more concerned with passing the day than conducting the advertised traffic check. Barriers divided the road into a chicane - barriers sponsored by a clothing company that saw the advantage of advertisement even in frustration.

The rozzers looked up as I passed and pointed behind me, air-pedalling to explain that another loaded cyclist was just behind.

"My wife," I shouted back and they laughed and waved.

That's the happy, smiling place this is.

Rate this entry's writing Heart 12
Comment on this entry Comment 1
Jonathan HechtSo glad to see you back out on the road, and writing. Now I have something more to read than stuff about COVID-19. Take care, and keep the rubber side down.

Reply to this comment
4 years ago