Of fallen bottles and encounters made - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 8, 2020

Of fallen bottles and encounters made

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MUNAMALDENIYA - I usually do it without a problem. But even the pros get it wrong sometimes and, this morning, I had a problem too. I took a long gulp from my bottle, fluffed getting it back into its rack, and it dropped to the road with a plop and rolled into a verge of dry grass and sand.

A dog began barking. The dog watched me stop and walk back to the bottle. And the dog's owner watched the dog and then watched me.

"You have problem?" he asked.

I said I didn't, or rather that I had for a moment but that now it was over.

"I dropped my water."

"You want water?" he asked, not understanding. "You come."

We were half an hour out of Negombo, which itself is 40km north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, and half an hour by taxi from the airport. Negombo exists primarily for tourists, with signs in English and Russian and almost every hotel, however humble, advertised as a"resort". Most people start their tours there because starting closer to the airport is worse.

"No, we've got water," I said, and I shook the bottle as proof. The dog, which had stopped barking, looked up with revived interest and hoped it could bite something.

The man seemed no less clear about the situation and he looked at us with friendly,old eyes. Tourists, clearly, were a mystery. He smiled. Sri Lankans often have prominent teeth and his grin showed he had lost as many as he had kept.

He gave up on the water and moved to the spiritual.

"What are you?" he wanted to know. "You Catholic?"

We said we weren't.

"What you, then?" It seemed that everyone in Sri Lanka had to fit a category.

"We're not anything," I answered.

He grinned.

"I also not anything," he said proudly. "We are the happy people."

He pointed to his house, a square place of covered breezeblock set in a dusty yard lined by mature trees and bushes and a fence which, we assumed, was supposed to restrain the dog. He had wild black hair and clean but well-worn clothes of the sort you'd wear if you were more likely to work around the house than welcome royalty.

"Please, you visit my house." He waved at it welcomingly. "I'm lonely man. Please, come."

We said our journey had only just begun but that we'd come to see him when we returned.

"What time you return? This afternoon?"

We explained we'd be away for a month, that we were touring the whole island by bicycle. We'd already noticed that few people had grasped riding a bicycle further than a few streets. Bicycles are the poor man's transport, what you ride if you can't afford one of the ubiquitous motor-scooters

"You know my house in a month?"

"The first after the railway crossing," we confirmed. The line to Colombo crossed the road at an angle a hundred metres further on, protected by a short barrier and an array of lights.

"Please, you make safe journey," our friend said.

Our journey has indeed been safe so far. There's been traffic all day as we struggle out of the vortex of the capital. It's never fast by western standards but it's hectic. The rules are different. The rules are that you drive on the left, with permission to dive into any gap provided it's safe. This is unnerving at first but it's a lot different from the driving in neighbouring India. There, size matters and pedestrians and cyclists are expected to scatter like hens. In Sri Lanka, there's respect and there's also skill.

Another difference from India is that a quarter of the population speaks English. That's the official statistic, anyway; it doesn't say to what competence. Only two per cent of Indians speak English, which is nevertheless an official language, and then only the educated and the nabobs.

That so many speak English is convenient but it's not necessarily good news. Widespread English, within a country and across the world, tends to subdue or even kill local languages. The British on the Indian sub-continent left the caste system untouched and simply appointed themselves as superior even to the brahmins. That meant that English, too, was superior. Those who aspired to run the country during and after the colonial period began to do it in English and therefore grew more western and more distant from those they were governing.

Sri Lanka has two official languages: Sinhala in the larger and mainly Buddhist south and Tamil in the mainly Hindu north. Linguistically,the two are not so different but, culturally, they are, and that difference led to a 20-year civil war which the murals on bus shelters are fighting still.

The civil war rages on in bus-shelter murals
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After just a day in the south, we have made little inroad into Sinhala. Like Tamil, like Hindi and even like English, it grew from a single soil. They all four have an Indo-European root that prospered somewhere around Ukraine but they have diverged too much to be understood by those who speak more distant languages of the same ancient source.

Sinhala looks beautiful, with rich, rounded characters like plump fruit hanging from a branch. We have mastered only the word for thank-you, which I will render here as iss-tooty. It's written ඉස්තුති, which isn't at all obvious.

We practise iss-tooty on everyone, no doubt to their amusement. We don't even know whether Sri Lanka, like western Europe, is a country in which you thank everyone for anything, however slight. We just like saying it, and people are delighted.

Meeting people is something we've done all day. On a bike, you stop where coach parties pass. We're such a novelty at cafés that the family turns out, two or three generations, and giggles as it asks for a photo. At lunch time today, the women smiled and waved and kept their eyes fixed for any sign that, as Europeans, we'd do something unusual or, better still, foolish.

Young girls peered round a wall and giggled and withdrew when we saw them. We waved them to join us but they giggled again and vanished.

Eventually a decision was taken and the whole lot came out for a group photo, our two white faces and unexciting clothes contrasting with their dark Dravidian faces and bright clothes.

The traffic is still rolling past our homestay as the sun starts to set. It falls behind the trees with noticeable suddenness here in the Tropics. We haven't seen proper countryside yet other than a stand of coconut trees but the open spaces can't be far ahead.

The adventure has begun.

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Dave MorganI stumbled across your journal in my exploration of cycleblaze. Serendipity. I leave for Sri Lanka in ten days.
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