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The dry-light zone

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Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka
Tuesday, 5 February 2019

I awoke early at seven o'clock because I wanted to reach my next destination, Tissamaharama, by early afternoon so I would have plenty of time to organise a safari tour the next day. I had to wait a while before I left, though. The laundry I had given the wife of the guest house owner in Galle yesterday morning had still not dried. It reminded me of the days when I lived in Brisbane where a pair of jeans would sometimes take three days to dry in summer.

At about nine o'clock the sun came out and by ten my clothes had dried just enough that I felt I could pack them. They weren't wringing wet, just damp around the seams.

I checked out of the Old Dutch House, a great place to stay. Yes, it is a bit run-down (it's called the Old Dutch House for a reason), but it's central, the owners are friendly and obliging, and they chuck on a really good feed. I give the Official Urban Reverie Seal Of Approval to the Old Dutch House.

I took a tuk-tuk to the station, I couldn't be bothered carrying eleven kilograms through Galle's sauna-like humidity, and waited to buy my second-class ticket to Matara, the terminus of the Coast Line east of Galle.

I found the right counter, there were only four of them. There were only four people in front of me but I waited forever. "Come on, how long does it take to buy a ticket," I muttered.

The South African backpacker in front of me turned around. "Patience, my friend, there's still plenty of time. Patience helps in a country like this." He had a good point.

After the passage of an entire geological epoch it was finally my turn to buy a ticket. The railway official behind the counter stretched his arms, yawned, swivelled his chair to and fro, turned to gossip with his colleagues, turned back towards me, stretched his arms yet again, checked his watch, and basically did everything possible to ignore my repeated entreaties of "excuse me! Excuse me, sir. I would like to buy a ticket. Hello? Can I buy a ticket please?"

Back in Australia I am a public servant for the state government. Most public servants are reasonably conscientious, diligent and dedicated to the well-being of the society which pays their comfortable salaries. However, there are a significant minority of people in the Public Service who wouldn't work if you shoved a lit stick of dynamite up their rectums and they often make my professional life a living hell. But at least those slackers put on an outward show of pretending to work and when pushed will do just exactly enough to keep management happy. I didn't think it was possible to find lazier, more unmotivated workers until I encountered your typical Sri Lankan public employee.

I decided to try a different approach - studied silence. Maybe if I stopped pestering him he would start to acknowledge my presence. It didn't work. In the end I snapped. "Excuse me! A second-class one-way ticket to Matara, please!"

Mister Yawn sighed and pulled the lever on the ancient, rusty Edmondson ticket dispenser as if he were being asked to carry a one-tonne boulder up Mount Everest. "One hundred," he snarled.

I slapped a one hundred rupee note on the counter and grabbed my ticket, went through the gate where the attendant punched a notch on the edge of my ticket, and went onto the platform. I didn't have to wait long for unnamed express train No. 8040 to Matara which departed fifteen minutes late at 11:20.

The train was crowded when it pulled into Galle but nearly everyone got off. I got an oceanside window seat in a second class carriage in which about a quarter of the seats were occupied. The suburbs of Galle soon gave way to a nearly continuous string of rural villages as the train driver continually blew the whistle before every single level crossing or pedestrian walking in the rail corridor. Occasionally there would be glimpses of the ocean through the houses and trees, long, unbroken, narrow, golden beaches with long waves breaking close to shore.

The track quality was very good, according to my phone's speedometer we maxed out at 75 km/h. We stopped at many, but not all, stations; modest peach-coloured station buildings with generous awnings, lush well-kept gardens and, at several stations, a fish tank of all things. There was once a time when many Sydney railway stations had beautiful gardens and station staff eagerly competed in the annual railways garden competition. Now stations in Sydney are desolate expanses of bitumen, perspex and steel. That's progress. I think. Perhaps not.

After about fifty minutes the train arrived at the terminus of Matara. As I handed my ticket over at the exit gate I met Ted and Dave, an older Australian couple in their sixties from Brisbane. They were backpacking through Sri Lanka like me and had covered far more miles than I intend to, even making it as far north as Jaffna. And they were doing it without a phone or a travel guide, just a sheet map of the whole country, perhaps 1:250,000 scale. They had arrived in Matara still unsure whether they were going to stay there for the night or move on somewhere else. Their modus operandi was to find the nearest tuk-tuk driver and ask him to take them to anywhere with accommodation. Now that's what I call placing your trust in divine providence.

Being Brisbanites, Ted and Dave were talkative and hospitable. They ended up walking with me from the station to the bus imterchange about a kilometre away as we talked about our plans and I gave them as much information about the area as I could glean from my Lonely Planet. They were hoping to see some guest house on the way but there was none. Matara is a thriving, busy transport hub with a beach but it's the kind of place most tourists just pass through.

At Matara bus station we said our farewells and wished each other the best of luck as I went searching for my bus. Most bus interchanges in the Western world, but not necessarily in Australia, will have a nice big list of all the buses that call at the interchange, where they go, and which stand they leave from. Perhaps there will be timetables or route maps. Not in Sri Lanka. I guess that visitors are expected to use extra-sensory perception to divine which stand to go to. Or they can have a friendly helpful random local who came up to Ted, Dave and me who will tell me to take route 334/1 from the stand just over there. Which is, thankfully, exactly what happened.

I stocked up on water and snacks for the long bus trip ahead at the Cargill's Food City supermarket inside the bus station and found a route 334/1 bus waiting for me. I boarded and soon we headed east on the A2 highway along the coast.

The bus wasn't crowded when it left Matara so I choose a window seat on the right hand side two rows behind the driver. There was a solid bulkhead behind the driver. I chose this seat because it would mean I wouldn't be able to look ahead and see the bus on the wrong side of the road barrelling towards a fully loaded petrol tanker. This would mean that I would die blissfully unaware of what happened and I would save all the workers at the morgue and the funeral home the distress of seeing the unspeakable terror etched in my face for eternity. I'm sorry to be so morbid. Sri Lanka does this to me.

The bus was interesting. It was a private bus and so the interior had all sorts of garish decorations, like a row of Hindu figurines above the front windscreen fringed with blinking coloured lights like some poker machine. There was a poster of some Hindu god on the bulkhead behind the driver, and the subwoofers above the luggage racks played Sri Lankan pop music that could be generously described as sounding like cats being strangled.

The bus followed the coast, beautiful beaches and rocky peninsulas and scattered resort villages. The bus called at the major town of Tangalle and after that the population densi dropped off. The scenery became flatter and more agricultural as we went a bit inland through rice fields and cattle farms.

After a while even the farms disappeared as we went through miles of brownish scrub. We had entered what Sri Lankans call the "dry zone", the parts of Sri Lanka with savannah climates featuring lower annual rainfall and a pronounced dry season.

In the middle of the dry zone is the town of Hambantota. This was formerly a small fishing village, the home town of Mahinda Rajapaksa, a populist demagogue who was formerly the President of Sri Lanka and one of the two competing Prime Ministers during last year's constitutional crisis. In the spirit of crony favouritism that is the hallmark of every true populist demagogue, Rajapaksa shovelled billions of rupees into questionable infrastructure projects to turn Hambantota into a world-class port city right up there with Dubai and Singapore.

As the bus approached Hambantota, we entered a dizzying maze of dual carriagways, exit ramps and motorways. We would pass significant new buildings in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but miles of dry zone scrub - a gleaming new multi-storey hospital, a massive convention centre, an imposing government building called something like the Magim Ruhupunu Administration Centre. Off in the distance were huge gantry cranes at the new artificial harbour lifting non-existent containers off non-existent ships for delivery to non-existent customers.

It seems like a thoroughly silly place to put a port. Hambantota is, by Sri Lankan standards, in the middle of nowhere. There is no major centre of population nearby. There are no highways or railways connecting the hinterland to the port. There are no major manufacturing industries, not a huge amount of agriculture, and no mineral resources that I know of within the port's catchment. What Hambantota does have is a failed Commonwealth Games hosting bid. It was the only other contender for the right to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The winner was the Gold Coast in Australia.

Not long after Hambantota the bus reached its terminus at Tissamaharama, a small town that is nothing special bus is used as a base used by visitors to the nearby Yala National Park. I got off the bus and walked a kilometre on the shoulder of a busy highway to the Hotel View Point.

I was greeted by Sanjiva, the owner of a two-storey family home, the top storey of which has been coverted into a small hotel. There is a large deck overlooking an adjacent rice paddy. The way booking safari tours worksmis you can either book through your hotel, or go to this place on the village's outskirts where Jeep owners comgregate and bargain with them. I did it the easy way. Sanjiva called his brother, Lalli, who soon came on his motorbike. We sat down and he said a full-day private safari tour would be €105. Deal.

Next - like most Sri Lankans, he would only take cash upfront. There were two banks on my way from the bus station to the hotel. While on my way to the hotel I tried to withdraw cash from both the banks' ATMs. At the first, the security guard told me to go away, they only accept local cards. At the next bank, both my debit card and credit card failed. My cash reserves were running very low after paying my hotel bill in Galle that morning.

Lalli offered to ride me to another bank, the Commercial Bank, where the security guard told me the ATM accepts foreign cards. I haven't ridden pillion on a motorbike since my uncle offered me a ride when I was ten. Motorbikes are scary and terrigying. I couldn't even get on the back of the bike anyway - the seat was too wide at the back and I couldn't get my short legs over.

I got too nervous, then I remembered that the hotel advertised bicycle hire. I asked Sanjiva if I could borrow a bicycle to ride to the bank. He said sure, and brought out my trusty steed - a rust bucket hybrid bike that had obviously seen better days. But any port in a storm!

Lalli said to follow him. The highway into the town centre was flat with a generous shoulder. I got up to quite a decent speed, maybe 25 to 30 km/h. Then suddenly a bus blasted its horn as a warjing just behind my right shoulder and dead ahead parked half on the shoulder, half in the traffic lane was a tuk-tuk. To the left of the tuk-tuk was a pile of rubble.

I couldn't go left over the rubble or right into the path of the bus right behind me so I had to brake to let the bus pass. So I applied both the brake levers. There was no reponse. "Where are the brakes? My God, where are the brakes? There are no bloody brakes on this f×÷$ing thing!"

To go right into the traffic lane would have meant certain death, to go left over the rubble would have at least resulted in serious injury, and I wouldn't have come off lightly if I slammed into the back of a tuk-tuk either. I used my sandals rubbing on the rad as an emergency brake. I managed to slow down but there was no way I could come to a complete stop before hitting the tuk-tuk.

However, I had slowed down enough that there was time for the bus to pass me and the tuk-tuk one second before I could swerve to the right around the illegally parked tuk-tuk. F×#$. How many more life-threatening situations will this country provide over the next fortnight?

I continued on, not daring to go any faster than about 10 km/h. I still hit a tuk-tuk though. A tuk-tuk suddenly pulled oit from the kerb and then stopped in the lane. I used my sandals as a brake again but I still hit the rear bumper at about walking pace. There was no damage to me, the bike or any human being, fortunately.

Lalli met me at the Commercial Bank, I explained why I took so long. I then went to the ATM. I tried my debit card. Transaction declined. I tried my credit card. Transaction declined. I then tried the credit card again but instead of selecting withdrawal, I selected cash advance.

Hallelujah! 30,000 rupees in crisp, new notes! I handed over 19,500 of them to Lalli, trusting that he would keep his word and meet me at 4:15am as agreed to and not take the money and run.

I went back to the hotel a kilometre away on the edge of town, half-walking, half-cycling. I got to the hotel, returned the bicycle, explained what happened. Despite the generally decrepit condition of the bike there was nothing wrong with the brakes per se, the cables just needed tightening. It would have taken me five minutes to fix with an Allen key and a can of WD-40 to pull the cables tighter by an inch or so at the calipers. In any case, that is my first - and last! - cycling adventure in Sri Lanka.

An interesting conversation with Sanjiva, a high school PE teacher who asked a lot of questions about the Australian cricket team I fudged through, a dinner at a restaurant across the road where I met a young and engaging Spanish couple who I thought were Swedish because they were so blonde, and an early night. Please pray for me. I mean, not because I keep nearly getting killed. But pray for me because I have to get up at 3:30am for a 4:15am start. Will this incorrigible night owl make it? You will find out in the next blog entry.

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Indian palm squirrel in Galle

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Second class carriage from Galle to Matara

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu figurines and lights on bus to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

Bus from Matara to Tissamaharama

On board train to Matara

On board train to Matara

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

The View from the Hotel View Point In Tissamaharama

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Swastika Hotel and Pizza “Hot” in Tangalle

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Hindu God on bus to Tissamaharama

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Ticket from Galle to Matara

Timetable at Galle station

Timetable at Galle station

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Rustbucket bicycle without working brakes

Posted by urbanreverie 21:57 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains buses cycling sri_lanka matara hambantota yala tissamaharama galle Comments (0)

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