Of waving soldiers and much personal suffering - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 16, 2020

Of waving soldiers and much personal suffering

Drying rice takes priority
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NILAVELI - Well, so much for my theorising. After a day of philosophical despair at the consequences of tribal rivalry, we are back in the land of the happy. Once more everyone waves and smiles, and passengers and drivers lean out of tuk-tuks to grin and to greet.

And we needed that on a day that turned out longer than expected - we went wrong - through long hours of scrubland made still less appealing by a headwind and repeated army and then naval bases.

What external aggression Sri Lanka expects is hard to deduce. It wouldn't stand a chance against neighbouring India and everywhere else is too far to be bothered. Challenges from India are wisely restricted to cricket: it would be a foolish ant that romped with an elephant.

Our conclusion, based on impressive ignorance, is that the bases are here because the Tamils are here. We've already seen how little the army cared for local sensitivities when it put up its war memorial.

The bases are manned at the roadside by one to three soldiers who have nothing more interesting to do than count whether more traffic comes from the left than the right. No doubt important things go on out of sight but the view from the road is that no army puts its brightest on guard duty.

The army has taken huge swathes of the north-east coast and inland. It won't say how much but it's undisputed that it evicted entire townships. It has given some back but it won't say how much, which suggests it's not much. Local people, we learned, are resentful and some see the army as an occupying force.

We passed base after base today, sometimes only ten kilometres apart. The sentries waved and called, because they were friendly and it gave them something to do. They were the only distraction until we skirted a huge lagoon. There were no houses, no traffic, just the road winding and rising and falling as the wind rose against us.

We're not the first cyclists to ride too far and eat too little and the equation hit me disastrously. After two or three breaks in the shelter of trees, it was a relief when a three-millimetre thorn deflated Steph's back tyre. By then I'd been reduced to riding three or four kilometres and slumping over the handlebars.

Bus shelters are a work of art in Sri Lanka
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Bus shelters are placed for the express use of cyclists and Steph set to work as I lay on the bench and wondered if I'd die. Such events don't go unnoticed in Sri Lanka and soon a roundfaced man of about 50 arrived on an elderly motorbike.

"You need helper?" he called.

We thanked him and said we didn't but he dismounted anyway and pulled the motorbike on to its stand. He was determined to join in.

"I am police," he said, pointing at the silver embroidery on his blue T-shirt. He wore it above light blue trousers with  two white stripes running down the legs. The embroidery had no lettering, no mention of a police force. And the police here wear brown, not blue.

If it was self-delusion then it was harmless and anyway he got back on his motorbike and rode away. But life wasn't going to offer greater distraction today than two tired eccentrics in a bus shelter and moments later he was back.

Steph's bike was still upside down and he examined the tread and tutted. The diagonal grooves, he decided, were cuts. The smooth tread was wear. His expression predicted disaster.

Steph half-pumped the tyre to see it had seated itself on the rim. The idea of a pump without a hose was new to him and he tried to disconnect it. He then tested the pressure in the tyres and declared it fine. Steph continued pumping.

When the pump came off, he looked still more closely, marvelling as she closed the thread on the Presta valve. He had never seen one.

Paradise after a shattering day
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The light was fading. We said goodbye and parted in opposite directions. We rode, or in my case survived, another seven or eight kilometres and then, over cold drinks beside the town's traffic, Steph booked us into a wildly glamorous ocean-side hotel. I didn't object. I didn't have the strength.

Far from our usual style but there are times when nothing else will do
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