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The dry-light zone

overcast 26 °C
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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)

Namo, namo, namo, namo Matha

overcast 26 °C
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Galle, Sri Lanka
Monday, 4 February 2019

February 4 is Sri Lanka's National Day, also known as Independence Day. It commemorates the anniversary of Ceylon, as the country was then known, becoming a self-governing Dominion within the British Commonwealth with the same status as Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in 1948. (It wouldn't be until 1972 when Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka with its own President.)

National Day is celebrated with a massive military display and flag ceremony on Galle Face Green in Colombo every year, but there are smaller celebrations in every city. In Galle, there was a parade in the streets around the Galle International Cricket Stadium just north of the Fort. A rather relaxed and indifferent-looking procession of military cadets, marching bands, school students in uniform and women in colourful traditional dress marched on the streets around the stadium as local VIPs looked on from the shade of marquees on the road shoulder opposite the central bus station. There weren't too many spectators. I asked a few Sri Lankans during the day how they celebrated National Day and they told me it was just a day off work for them.

In other words, it is like what Australia Day used to be before the bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation in 1988. I have now witnessed the celebrations of national days in four countries - Australia, Brunei, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka - and none of the last three are anywhere near as unpleasant as what Australia Day has become. Of course not everyone who participates in Australia Day celebrations is a drunken racist sunburnt bogan with a brain cell count smaller than their shoe size who openly revels in the fact that January 26 is a day of calamity for Australia's first peoples and thinks the day is a great opportunity to harass foreigners with impunity. But it certainly helps if you are such a person. As for me, the only good thing about January 26 is the fact that the Sydney Bus Museum runs their vintage buses around the city centre for the general public to ride on. Otherwise I cannot wait until the date of Australia Day is inevitably changed. The sight of xenophobic alcoholic thugs' empty skulls exploding in apoplexy shall be too marvellous for words.

After I checked out the modest National Day celebrations, I went on a self-guided walking tour around the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Galle Fort. Some travel puritans look down on Lonely Planet and travel guidebooks in general but I would be utterly lost without my Planet. My Sri Lanka Planet is already showing signs of wear and tear. I shall be pleasantly surprised if it survives my three week holiday without disintegrating.

There is an excellent map on page 113 with a self-guided walking tour that mostly followed the Fort's ramparts in a clockwise direction. I started at the Old Gate, a narrow opening in the walls near the northeastern corner. This gate has the British coat of arms with the lion and the unicorn above the outer portal while the Dutch United East Indian Company's coat of arms graced the inner portal.

The fort is shaped like many European forts of the era, essentially a large pentagon with bastions on salients at each corner. The bastion at the northeastern corner, Zwart Bastion ('zwart' being Dutch for 'black'), is the oldest portion of the wall and was most likely built by the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century.

I had trouble finding the Zwart Bastion. The only way up there seemed to be through the grounds of a police station. Surely that couldn't be right? I certainly didn't want to risk being charged with trespassing on government property. I then saw an elderly white couple coming down the driveway. I asked the man if this was the way to the bastion. He confirmed that it was in a slow, broad Australian accent that sounded Queensland or perhaps an inland rural area. I said something like, "thanks, mate. Wow, another Australian." He was the first Australian I have met in Sri Lanka so I thought he might respond positively. He just grunted and walked away.

I walked up the steep police station driveway, a policeman in the sentry box waved me through and said "number eleven, that way" as he pointed to a path that led behind the station building. There must have been very many people with the same Lonely Planet map asking where number eleven was over the years.

I checked out the bastion with its crenellations and embayments and continued on past the long white arcades of the Dutch Hospital to Lighthouse Beach. This small, sheltered, child-friendly beach was much more popular with the locals than the tourists and was full of young families enjoying the public holiday in the sun and water. It did look very inviting and I promised myself I would return later.

The beach is overlooked by a tall white lighthouse built in 1938. The lighthouse is at the southeastern corner of the Galle Fort and here I turned west. The ramparts descended straight down to the sea. It was a hot, sultry, sunny day and I felt like diving off the ramparts and right into the crystal-clear turquoise sea.

The next corner at the southern tip of the Fort is Flag Rock. The Dutch took this natural feature and built a bastion on top of it. A flag was flown from here to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals and skerries just off the coast. There were also scam artists trying to charge people for the right to jump off Flag Rock into the water below. Why anybody would want to participate in such a dangerous activity, much less pay for it, I do not know.

The next bastion was the Triton Bastion, and it was here that I descended off the ramparts and into narrow shady alleys lined with alleys Dutch colonial houses. If the temperature was thirty degrees lower and the houses made of unpainted brick rather than whitewashed stone, you could easily imagine it to be an inner neighbourhood of your typical Dutch city. Another Dutch thing about Galle - it's the only place I have seen in Sri Lanka where cycling is a popular mode of transport for both tourists and locals.

I ascended the ramparts again at Clippenberg Bastion at the western corner of the Fort. North of here, the ramparts are bordered by a rocky, barren valley. Inside the craggy crevice are various doors leading to underground chambers. Until recently, this part of Galle Fort was a Sri Lankan army base. Some derelict, presumably abandoned modern depot buildings border the valley to the northeast.

By this time I was thirsty and exhausted. Galle is renowned for its ghastly humidity in a country that is itself renowned for its ghastly humidity. Several people in Colombo warned me about Galle's torrid climate when I told them of my plans. My theory is that Galle, being located on a peninsula with water on three sides at the far southern tip of Sri Lanka, is the place where moist maritime air masses from the Arabian Sea to the west and the Andaman Sea to the east converge. This would explain the frightful storms I have seen here.

The humidity in Galle is so bad that mere static existence leaves me drenched head to toe. Genetically I am a Briton. My DNA evolved on a cold, rainy, cloudy island off the northwestern coast of Europe at about fifty-two degrees north of the Equator. I think it is fair to say that tropical climates and I are not a perfect match. I must have been a human sprinkler when I arrived at a nearby park kiosk to buy a bottle of soft drink and a doughnut and another litre of iced bottled water.

I found an outdoor table and sat down to drink my 7-Up and recuperate. After I had rehydrated I bit into the doughnut expecting the most tender sweetness. Instead I got a surprising dollop of chilli. Yes, the doughnut had a sambal filling. Other countries put jam or whipped cream or custard into their doughnuts. The Sri Lankans put puréed chilli. I love spicy food, but Sri Lankans really do take it too far.

While I was sitting at the table in the park I watched Sri Lankan families having picnics or playing cricket on a welcome public holiday. There was one family playing cricket with makeshift stumps on a flattish pitch. Every player in the family was bowling the ball with bent arms. Chuckers! Most Australians would remember the famous Sri Lankan cricket player Muttiah Muralitharan and the massive controversy that erupted around twenty years ago about his unorthodox bent-arm delivery style. A procession of videographers and physiologists and forensic scientists and what not were brough out to prove or disprove the fact that Murali was a chucker. In the end, the International Cricket Council ruled in Murali's favour. Based on what I saw in that park, I think it's fair to say that every Sri Lankan has taken the ICC ruling to heart and is bowling as they please.

After the 7-Up and the water had replenished all the cells in my body I made my way to what is probably the largest and most impressive bastion, the Star Bastion at the northwestern corner. There is a great view to be had over the coast to the west of Galle. A short distance to the east is the Clock Tower where the ramparts bulge out to their greatest width. There is a large flat grassy area from where I could watch a cricket game in progress at the Galle International Cricket Stadium, one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world. The stadium is located on the isthmus between the Fort to the south and the New Town to the north and is hemmed in by water to the east and west. The sea breezes that come in off the ocean must make for some interesting play.

I walked down a steep side street to the Main Gate where I first entered Galle Fort yesterday. This was built in 1873 by the British to allow larger, heavier vehicles into the old town. At the northern corner east of the Main Gate is the Sun Bastion. It was while I was on top of this bastion completely exposed to the elements that the heavens opened. Again.

I didn't bring an umbrella from Australia, I wanted to cut down on bulk and weight, but I did have a Macpac rain jacket that collapses into its own zippable pocket. I didn't bother getting it out, it is worse than useless in a humid climate. I wore it during the rain storm the previous night when I went out to get dinner and I ended up even wetter than if I hadn't worn it because it it so stifling and sweaty.

I tried finding shelter in some chambers in the ramparts that might have been prison cells or barracks or casemates. However, the locals had been using these cells as illicit rubbish dumps. The smell in those chambers was indescribably obscene.

I ended up sheltering with six other people in this archway between two open areas. The arch was probably one metre deep and two metres wide. In the end I thought to myself "stuff it, it's only water, it won't kill me" and continued on my way.

I went down Church Street past an open grassy rampart where three cows were grazing, then found myself in the political heart of colonial Galle. In this small nook of the fort along Church Street you can find the Amangalla, formerly the headquarters of the Dutch administration of Galle and later used as a hotel. There are two major churches - the Dutch Reformed Church, and the All Saints Anglican Church that looks like it had just been teleported from Cornwall or Adelaide.

My last stop on the self-guided walking tour was the Dutch governor's residence. Above the door is a triangular tablet with the inscription "ANNO 1683" and a red rooster. The rooster is the symbol of Galle. 'Galo' is the Portuguese word for 'rooster'. Galle? Galo? Geddit?

I went back to my guest house and had another one of their excellent rice-and-curry buffet lunches for Rs. 650. I then retired to my room and cleaned myself up. I was sodden from head to toe and I must have been a distressing sight to anyone who had encountered me on the street.

While I was relaxing in my room on such an exhausting though fulfilling day, another storm broke. The power went out for a long time, the wind buffeted the windows, thunder constantly rumbled, the roof roared from the heavy rain falling on it. This isn't good rain. It's not rain that purifies the air or brings relief from the heat or the kind of rain that brings me joy and comfort as most rain does. This is sticky, soupy rain that makes the heat even more unbearable and makes all my possessions and clothes stick to my body like Araldite. Swimming at Lighthouse Beach in this storm was out of the question. It wasn't until well into the evening that I ventured out for dinner.

The restaurant I picked was on the expensive side, Rs. 2,400 for two courses and a soft drink. Galle being so oriented towards foreign tourists has prices to match. The restaurant, Fortaleza, has free Sri Lankan newspapers for guests. I picked the Daily Mirror, a top-selling English-language daily broadsheet. I tried reading about Sri Lankan politics and failed miserably. Is there anything on earth so confounding, so perplexing as South Asian politics? It is a hodgepodge of acronyms that are far too similar, party splits, party reunifications, more party splits with even more hyphenated suffixes to differentiate the new parties, politicians with impossibly long surnames and up to four initials before the surname, politicians crossing the floor, politicians crossing the floor back to where they were before, and even for a brief period in Sri Lanka in 2018, two competing Prime Ministers both claiming to be in office at the same time. Then there was news of strikes about this, strikes about that, work-to-rule campaigns in protest of some issue the antagonists had long forgotten, accusations of corruption from one side to the other and the very same accusations going the other way. I can read a Dutch or German newspaper in their respective languages and get a better understanding of the current state of things and where the major players stand on the major issues of the day.

The weather had thankfully cooled down a lot so I went for a post-prandial stroll, I decided to check out a few lanes I hadn't explored yet. I came across a troupe of performers, young Sri Lankan men in traditional dress outside a hotel beating drums and twirling torches and doing somersaults and breathing fire for an appreciative audience. Traffic was held up and some tuk-tuks were beeping their horns but the performers were not to be deterred.

It is with some regret that I leave Galle and its magical little fort tomorrow. Staying here was just what I needed. This walled gem is like its own little tropical snow-dome, a world within a world where all the hurt, all the worry, all the frustrations of the world outside can't reach. Within these eternal ramparts I feel safe, I feel relieved, I feel soothed. Galle is a most welcome holiday within a holiday, away from the frenzy, the exploitation, the madness, madness, neverending madness that awaits me outside.

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Galle Fort crenellation

Galle Fort crenellation

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort cows

Galle Fort cows

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

National Day parade

National Day parade

All Saints Anglican Church

All Saints Anglican Church

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Parawa Street

Parawa Street

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Sudharmalaya Temple

Sudharmalaya Temple

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Lighthouse Beach

Lighthouse Beach

Galle Lighthouse

Galle Lighthouse

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Governor’s house

Dutch Governor’s house

Posted by urbanreverie 21:33 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged fort weather sri_lanka galle national_day Comments (0)

Galle bladder

storm 25 °C
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Galle, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 3 February 2019

Four days after I arrived in Sri Lanka culture shock, or something like it, has finally set in. It's not like the sudden traumatic shock that I had soon after arriving in South Korea or Brussels, but a more gradual build-up of a thousand little frustrations, chief among which would have to be the hordes of touts, con artists and tuk-tuk drivers all contriving to part me with my hard-earned money.

To take an extreme example from last night. I was leaving Galle Face Green after sunset intending to return to my hotel via a one-station train ride from Kompannavidiya station. At the busy intersection opposite the Galle Face Hotel a friendly man about my age approached me. He showed me what he claimed to be an official employee ID card from the Galle Face Hotel. We made innocent small talk until he told me about this temple festival that I just had to see! It was the biggest Buddhist festival of the year! Hundreds of thousands of people will be in attendance!

"Oh wow, I didn't know about this festival thingie, where is it?" I asked.

He gave the name of some temple I hadn't heard of.

"I might be able to walk there, so show me where it is," I said as I opened Google Maps on my iPhone.

"No! You can't walk there! You must take a tuk-tuk!" And what do you know, a tuk-tuk driven by somebody who by pure chance happened to be this man's best friend appeared out of nowhere.

"But I don't want a tuk-tuk! I would rather walk or take a bus. So please tell me where it is."

"It's in Colombo 7," the so-called hotel employee said as the tuk-tuk driver revved his engine to tell me to get a move on.

"Cinnamon Gardens? That's not far, so please point to me on this map where it is."

"It's there!" he exclaimed as he pointed to a location in Slave Island in Colombo 2.

"Hang on, you said it was Colombo 7, but you're pointing at Colombo 2. So where is it? Please zoom in to where this festival is."

He zoomed into some random location in a whole other postal district where there was certainly no temple, not one visible on Google Maps in any case.

"Listen, I had other plans, I'll go to this festival some other time."

"No! You cannot miss this festival. There is a giant Buddha with a giant necklace made of blue sapphires. This festival is only one night of the year and it goes for one hour, starts at 6:35, it is now 6:30. Do you know what sapphires are?"

I made some sarcastic remark about how Australia has a functional education system and that I was therefore familiar with the major gemstones of the world.

"So you cannot miss this festival. It is the biggest Buddhist festival of the year. You cannot miss it! The festival costs forty-eight million dollars!"

My bullshit detector, already going haywire, melted down after short-circuiting. Even the Sydney New Year's Eve fireworks on the harbour costs less than six million Australian dollars.

"I'm sorry, I had better go now, I will miss my train."

"No. You must not go. You cannot walk away. You must go to this festival!" that scumbag shouted at me as he and the tuk-tuk stalked me from close behind. I quickened my pace and ended up in a district of expensive business hotels with dozens of soldiers standing guard outside protecting the VIPs therein. The sight of so many soldiers and policemen with high-powered rifles standing in stern martial poses must have scared them off because they stopped following me.

Not all the dozens of touts and hawkers and scam artists who approach me every single day are quite so noxious, but it's bad enough and extraordinarily tiresome when it happens so often every day. Needless to say I missed that train and took some other tuk-tuk back to where I was staying in Kollupitiya.

These ratbags are turning me into a terrible person. A cynical, distrustful, anxious, unfriendly person. The day before I was trying to navigate through Lipton Circus on foot, a dizzying complex of two roundabouts and roads radiating in every direction. I was looking at the map in my Lonely Planet trying to make sense of this nonsensical junction. A random stranger came up to me and offered to help.

"No, thank you," I said sharply.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. You looked lost so I was just trying to help. Please have a nice day."

I instantly felt gut-wrenching remorse. But truth be told, it's hard to tell in this country who is honest and genuine and who just wants to stick a vaccuum cleaner in my wallet.

I got back to my hotel, was pleased that my shitbox Samsung Galaxy tablet was now fully charged - saints be praised! - finished a few more blog entries, and had a satisfying sleep before the alarm woke me promptly at seven in the morning. In my ordinary life I am a terrible insomniac and it takes me an hour to drag myself out of bed after the alarm goes off at half past seven. Why can't I be such a morning person all the time?

I packed my bags and checked out of the City Holiday Bungalow, a hotel I can certainly recommend. It's close to buses and trains and food, had wi-fi, air conditioning, was clean and secure and the management was reasonably diligent, and my room only cost about fifty Australian dollars a night. What more could you ask for?

I caught the inbound 8:30 commuter train from Kollupitiya to Colombo Fort, grabbed some roti, dhal curry, coffee and an apple for breakfast from a café on the station forecourt, stocked up on water for the train trip ahead, and went to buy my ticket to Galle. I looked at the big sign telling me which counter to go to to buy a ticket for the line to Galle and Matara. I went to the Slave Island to Matara counter at Counter 13 and waited, and when I was finally served I was told that this counter only sells third-class tickets, and if I wanted second-class tickets I would have to go to the All Railway Stations counter at Counter 4. Sigh.

I had a wait of about an hour for my train. Platform 5 was a mixture of locals and a large number of foreign tourists with enormous suitcases and bulging backpacks on their way to southern Sri Lanka's famous coastal resort towns. A lady smiled at me and we struck up a conversation. Her name was Natalie and she was from the Greater New York City area, an intelligent and engaging young woman who owns a gourmet cheese wholesale business back home and spends several months a year travelling the world. We talked about our travel plans, where we had been before, our observations about Sri Lanka, shared hints and tips. One of the things I love most about travelling is about meeting all the kindred spirits along the way, my fellow oddballs for whom the curiosity to see as much of this world as we can before we die burns just as brightly in their chest as it does in mine.

The train arrived, a lengthy rake of ancient-looking red carriages with tiny rectangular windows hauled by a sooty M4 class diesel locomotive that looked like it would be eligible for the age pension by now. Both Natalie and I had bought second-class tickets, all the carriages along the part of the platform where we were waiting were third-class so we ran with our backpacks down the platform towards the front of the train where we had seen second-class carriages passing us as the train arrived. As we got to the second-class carriages, every door was a jumble of suitcases and backpacks and people. The doors and vestibules and aisles were so narrow nobody could get on board. Natalie was in front of me on the top step and I was right behind on the step below with my backpack and body hanging out of the train. There was no way in which I could move forward. I have ridden on enough Sri Lankan trains by now that I know that trains start moving with little warning. I had a disturbing premonition of my early death caused by my backpack striking a signal post as the train passed it at speed.

Thankfully, a short time before the train moved off, enough space opened up in the vestibule for me to lunge forward. Natalie and I squirmed our way into the saloon. Every seat was taken, as was nearly every standing spot. We managed to carve out enough space for us to stand in the crowded, airless cabin. Electric fans ineffectually swivelled on the ceiling above us. The train was so crowded that very little airflow came in through the open doors and windows. It was made so much worse by the fact that every couple of minutes, hawkers made their way up and down the carriage. Every time one of these hollering salesmen passed with buckets of soft drinks or fruit or peanuts balanced on their heads, everyone had to bend over the seats to make way for them.

Natalie and I continued talking as we made our way down the coast, the Indian Ocean lapping at the rocky seawall to our west, scattered suburbs and villages and farms to our east. Occasionally the train would slow to a crawl as it passed along a truss bridge over wide, smelly estuaries. At other times the train would get up to 95 kilometres an hour. That's faster than some Australian trains. The track quality was mostly very good. I suspect that the Coast Line was comprehensively rebuilt after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. A crowded train along this very track was washed away by the tidal wave. At least 1,700 people died on that train, the deadliest railway accident in history.

Natalie's destination was Hikkaduwa, well before my destination of Galle. We said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch, hoped that our paths would cross again.

I eventually got a seat as more people got off as the train increased its distance from Colombo. Some two and a half hours after leaving Fort, the train arrived at Galle. Galle station is on a terminus stub, trains continuing on to Matara have to reverse direction, so I took pleny of video footage of the shunting procedures.

It was a short walk through yet another swarm of tuk-tuk touts who wouldn't take no for an answer before I arrived at the Main Gate of the Galle Fort. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (my first in Sri Lanka), was built by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It is located on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus.

I walked through the Main Gate and found myself in the most charming little place. Imagine your typical small Dutch town with straight, narrow, cobblestone streets. Throw in a few buildings with curved Dutch gables and long floor-to-ceiling windows just to increase that amount of Dutchiness. Now transpose all of this to a tropical location with whitewashed walls, terracotta roof tiles, verandahs, luxurious green vegetation with gardens full of orchids and vines and epiphytes, the aroma of tropical fruits. Tropical Holland - that's Galle.

Another thing that is typically Dutch is that in this historic town centre, entry to motor vehicles is heavily restricted. Except for tuk-tuks and privately owned motor scooters and a very small number of cars, the streets belong to pedestrians. After the madness of Colombo which would have to be one of the most hostile places for a pedestrian to walk I have ever seen, this place is just paradise.

I checked into the Old Dutch House guesthouse on Lighthouse Street. My room was already prepared with the key in the door. The friendly owner showed me around and gave me a complimentary bottle of Coke Zero. The Old Dutch House has a large courtyard that reminds me of many of the backyards of houses I lived in in Brisbane - a verdant riot of orchids and aloes and pawpaws and palms and hanging pot-plants. Lizards dart to and fro through the foliage as hundreds of invisible birds sing their quiet songs.

Four days in Colombo and the train journey had left me a nervous wreck. I sat out in the courtyard for a few hours, just listening to the birds tweeting in the cool garden. This place is a refreshing balm and I feel better already.

After two hours I felt I had recovered enough to start exploring the Galle Fort. But I could hear thunder in the distance. I went to open my phone's Australian weather app to check the radar until I realised it wouldn't work here. I tried searching for a Sri Lankan weather radar online to no avail. I could only find Japanese satellite imagery which only shows upper-level mass cloud movements across continents which give little indication of ground conditions in a particular location.

There is so much we take for granted in the West. Public transport maps and timetables available online in PDF format. Universal map literacy due to geography classes in every primary school. Safe, clean tap water that is as pure as anything from a bottle. Weather radars that allow the common citizen to see an approaching thunderstorm and gauge its severity, what time it will arrive and how long it will last, so they can plan their day accordingly. How did we Westerners ever survive without these things? It wasn't so long ago. I don't think I ever saw an online weather radar until about 1999.

Sri Lanka is a country that is going places. I have never seen so many cranes and construction sites as I did in Colombo. But there is still such a long way to go. I have no doubt that Sri Lanka will get there eventually and will take its rightful place in the world's list of developed countries. But not just yet.

I patiently waited for the heavens to break. And boy, did they break. A torrent of water fell from the grey heavens. Without a weather radar I had no idea when it would stop. The storm eventually stopped about half an hour before sunset, too late for me to go for a walk on the Fort's ramparts. Exploring Galle would just have to wait.

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Posted by urbanreverie 21:37 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains fort sri_lanka colombo railways galle Comments (0)

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