Tuk tuk riding 101

We arrived in Sri Lanka after a 15 hour journey at midnight (5.30am back home). The transit through immigration and customs was fluid and we had to laugh at the duty free stalls – one side was your customary perfumes, cigarettes, alcohol; the other side was all about white goods… because you just never know when you might need a 400-litre fridge when you’re travelling around.

I was super pleased with myself for arranging our hotel driver to meet us at the airport because it didn’t look that there were any taxis available at that hour, and he knew exactly where our hotel was. In a city as big as Colombo there are literally hundreds of accommodation options. The USD30 we paid seemed like a small price to pay for the peace of mind, particularly a mind that was surviving on a few hours of sleep and the imminent jet lag.

In we piled into a Prius hatchback, 2 bags, a backpack, surfboard, 3 tired bodies. But that tiredness soon evaporated as we hit the empty streets and flew down the freeway towards Colombo. A few kilometres out of Colombo we hit a traffic jam – at 1.45am. What the??? People lined the streets, along with decorated elephants, parade floats and other vehicles. Our driver explained that it was a Buddhist festival.

We reached the hotel and fell asleep promptly.

IMG_0364Colombo(21)The next day we decided we would head into the Old Town and visit the Pettah Markets. Tuk tuks are ubiquitous and rule the roads, or in Colombo anyway. Our first venture in a tuk tuk was jointly terrifying and exhilarating. As we careened through the traffic in a little 2 stroke vehicle, I could not help thinking that it was like real life Mario Bros. At each red traffic light, they weaved and jostled for pole position before taking off in a chorus of straining gears. While I squealed in the back seat, the tuk tuk drivers traversed the roads fearlessly, judging gaps in traffic to the exact, death-defying millimetre.

Most are metered. Those that aren’t mean that you just need to check the price with the driver. And make sure you bring lots of small notes with you as the drivers don’t have a lot of change. We did have a lovely driver who didn’t even charge us to go around the block back to our hotel in the hottest midday heat. We insisted on paying him and gave him lots of isthuti (thanks). Such is the generosity of the Sri Lankan people.

Tuk tuks are super cheap and a very efficient way to travel. Some of them even have roof racks and big boot spaces. We grabbed one of these to travel from Mirissa to Galle. A particularly wise decision when we easily weaved our way through traffic when we hit the traffic on the outskirts of Galle. One of the funnest ways to travel and very memorable.

Food Part 1 – the glory of bananas

Local markets
One of many banana stalls in the local markets in Nuwara Eliya

It’s hard to write about Sri Lankan food without mentioning bananas.

There are literally hundreds of loads of bananas in Sri Lanka. They are transported in massive bunches in trucks to a Dedicated Economic Centre aka growers’ markets (where they are auctioned to or bought by Colombo restaurants). Or they are sold in one of the many stalls that are set up in local markets or dotted on the roadside from town to town. It didn’t seem to matter if we were in the hills, on the edge of an ancient UNESCO world heritage site, or in a small town not detectable by Google Maps.

A very long banana!

Before going to Sri Lanka, Marcus found out that there were about 18 different types of bananas. There are bananas that are just for cooking, there are red bananas, there are bananas as long as a child’s palm, there are bananas as long as my forearm!

Being a bit of banana connoisseur, Marcus was very determined to go over there and try as many as he could. I think we ended up trying about 6 different types. Marcus was a bit more daring than Callum or me. Callum and I loved the small sugar bananas. Their skin was soft and very easy to peel, the flesh sweet, making it a handy snack on the road. We did find that we weren’t the only ones that loved them. If we didn’t wrap them up tightly in plastic bags overnight, the next morning there’d be evidence of geckos, ants or squirrels having feasted on them!

We were on our way to Kitulgala on a long winding road and decided to stop to buy some bananas at a roadside shelter that had been built at the front of someone’s house. The going rate for bananas (if you’re a tourist) is 50 rupees a kilo. 50 rupees is about 50 cents. Even with the tourist markup it’s extraordinarily cheap!!! I needed to use the bathroom so I left Marcus to buy some fruit while I followed the daughter to the back of their house to use their bathroom.

When I came back, they were settling the bill. It cost 1100 rupees. I’m no maths genius, but even I knew that either:
(a) Marcus had bought an entire village’s production of bananas; or
(b) we were being ripped off; or
(c) it was a very expensive toilet trip; or
(d) all of the above.

I looked at Marcus with utter astonishment on my face as I wondered what he could have bought! Marcus picked up a small bunch of small bananas – nothing that could have possibly weighed 22kgs. Scratch option (a). Back into the car we piled to the tune of, “Oh, it’s ok, we’re helping the local economy” and “Doesn’t matter, we’re on holiday” and “At least the toilet was clean and had running water.”

Service….que?

This post is a nod to John Cleese’s magic and brilliance of Fawlty Towers.
How many Sri Lankans does it take to change a light bulb?
8.I kid you not. There was a power outage on a main road outside Matara after a bus had crashed through some houses’ walls, taking out a major power line, before coming to an abrupt halt in someone’s front garden. There was one person up a ladder looking unremotely like he knew what he was doing, with a serious SERIOUS lack of occupational health & safety awareness. I’m not sure he was even wearing shoes. It only took 7 hours before the power came back on. In the meantime, we were starting to sweat – not from the heat, but from concern with how our beers were going to stay chilled.

We asked how long the train journey is from Kandy to Ella, a particularly beautiful train trek through the tea plantations. Our driver’s face breaks into a half smile and he shrugs casually, as if he is apologising for the state of his country’s train service. “Six and a half hours,” he says. There is a slight pause. “But sometimes it can be a whole day because the train has to climb up the mountains. Sometimes there is a landslide.” Great. I am filled with confidence.

I decide that like most things in Sri Lanka, there is no real urgency to anything, not even if it means throwing an entire city’s population, or a hefty number of tourists, into disarray due to delay.

I can’t be sure if some people working in the hospitality industry in Sri Lanka have absorbed their nation’s colonial background too much; so much that they now model a standard set by Basil Fawlty. Maybe it’s just those who work at one of the outlets around the beach areas. Maybe they got too much sun. Maybe they have been hypnotised by the amount of flesh (see my first post) on display. Yet, I found it difficult to accept the fact that it took FOR-E-VER to get any service, and a further eon to actually be the beneficiary of our order.

Me: Hello, Could we please have 2 teas with milk and one coffee.
Waiter: 2 teas with milk and one coffee.
Me: Yes. Perfect. Thank you.
5 minutes pass. 10 minutes pass. 30 minutes pass. Don’t tell me there’s another power outage.
Waiter [approaches our table]: Sorry madam. The other guy did not understand your order. You want 2 teas with milk and one coffee yes?
Me: Yes. Please.
A further 20 minutes pass before we get our two teas with milk and one coffee.

I finally understand how Bruce Banner feels before he morphs into The Hulk.

I know we’re meant to be on holiday, but the saying “on Sri Lankan time” makes me shudder and my face contorts like I’m agonised. Before heading to Sri Lanka, I knew that things might be a bit slower than what we’re used to. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much slower. I kept wondering what Gordon Ramsey would have to say if he saw how half these kitchens ran – you’d get an episode consisting of a soundtrack of bleeps and it’d make for a very short series.

In the end we adjusted (as you do when travelling). We brought snacks for our 8 year old to tide him over or ordered for him first, and we partook of the Happy Hour(s) menu which ran from 5pm to 10pm. Gold. Ordinarily this would be a costly exercise, but when mojitos, the local Arrack Attack cocktails and a raft of other spirits are only AUD$4, why would you not? The irritation from terribly slow service is numbed and all is right with the world again. If only Happy Hour was 24-7.

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The good, the bad, and the ugly – Our Sri Lankan adventure (sponsored by chocolate creams and Marie biscuits)

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I start at the end in a hotel by the beach in Bentota. By anyone’s standards, it would seem a great way to end a month of travelling semi-backpacking-style with an 8 year old in tow. 

Except that I should have known that we are not the type of family to enjoy staying in a 100+ room hotel, with a pool as warm as a bath, and full of western tourists with too much dimply, wobbly flesh squished into too-tiny swimsuits. The ladies reminded me of strings of sausages where their bikinis tied off bulging flesh – yes I know that probably sounds terrible, believe me it was and I do not exaggerate.

It was a painstaking 36 hours of awkwardness where I wasn’t sure if I was meant to avert my eyes or openly stare. I took my cue from the senior hotel staff and took the former option. Unlike the seedy touts standing at the edge of the hotel on the public beach leering at half naked bodies. 


I’m happy to say that this was not my total experience of Sri Lanka, a country that is at once ancient yet innocent. For a small island, it was surprising to discover the different geographical and topographical features, the co-mingling of cultures and religions, a musical cacophony of sounds with the ever-present bus horn. It was like being blindfolded and being fed something, to find that you were tasting the most delicious morsel ever. It is a beautiful country, an intriguing country, an enchanting country. We were challenged physically, mentally and (what I was most unprepared for) emotionally. 


So began a month of creating some happy, lovely, wonderful, tiring, bad, breathtaking moments. 

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