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Saturday, January 09, 2016

Western Coast Upto Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka

Day 01 - 18-Dec-2015 

My flight from Bangalore to Colombo is about 15 minutes delayed. I fly out at around 3:45AM and am at my destination by 5: 15 AM. The flight is uneventful. A sweet, overweight, middle aged Indian lady sits next to me and smiles occasionally. She seems very excited about this trip. And so am I. After all, I was on my first solo backpacking; a dream of 17 years. While many in India frown upon me for doing this trip, many foreign travellers may think that it is too late to start a solo backpacking. Well, I have my own reasons for all this which I will narrate in a different post later. Anyways, here I am at my destination which at a first look does not look any different from the south of India. The difference for now seems only in the way the Sri Lankan women wear their sarees. My first task after immigration (e-Visa of $15 to be made before entering the country) and picking up my bag is to exchange the dollars that I am carrying. 

Indian rupees are not exchanged here so, I had carried a few dollars. Back in Bangalore, I had exchanged several Gandhis for just three Jeffersons. But here, the same Jeffersons fetch me even more colourful notes. I am delighted and suddenly feel rich. Why not? as one Indian rupee would exchange into two Sri Lankan rupees. I also verify my Citibank debit card to be working. Next job SIM card! My friend who lives in Colombo but is currently vacationing in India had suggested me to buy Dialogue SIM. There are several such counters of different mobile network providers with interesting tourist plans for LRs 1000 or so. At the Dialogue store, the SIM cards were all sold out. The guy at the counter tells me that I could find cheaper deals outside the airport. Coming from India, I did not trust him. I felt that, he was trying to make some extra money by selling them to other customers. I double check but he seems certain. Left with no choice, I decide to trust him. I freshen up at the washroom where another backpacker is getting ready to start his journey. He looks at me and smiles, I smile back and feel welcomed to a certain community. With excitement growing, I step out of the airport. Check with the guards about directions to Negombo bus station and realise that it is a few kilometres away. Outside I meet several tuk tuk drivers who are eager to take me somewhere or anywhere. I politely refuse and walk away from the airport. This reminds me of a day in Bangalore after I have alighted a bus from Mangalore. 

A tuk-tuk driver, an old man is hell bent on dropping me somewhere. I finally request him to drop me at Negombo bus station. He is delighted and compares me to Buddha for being his first customer for the day. During my journey, he keeps asking me of my travel plans and checks whether he could actually take me all around Sri Lanka on his tuk-tuk. He assures me that his price is always 100 or 500 LRs less than others no matter where I went. I politely refuse to his overpriced offers and tell him that I intend to travel by bus or train.



At Negombo bus station, a few kind locals guide me to take a bus to Chilaw. At Chilaw, I could find connecting buses to Kalpitiya, they say. I have no agenda. All, I have is a Lonely planet book in my hand and a rough travel route in my mind - head north and then travel south. The western coast of Sri Lanka has roman catholic influence. During my travel up north of Negombo, the women have already bid farewell to the traditional sarees and have preferred shirts and skirts. I see more women on the streets than men and that gives me a hint of the sex ratio here. The vegetation looks very similar to the South western coast of India.

At Chilaw, I make my first friend. I feel so sorry for not asking him his name. He owns a small shop that makes photocopies and sells SIM cards and mobile accessories  He helps me with a very economical plan. Lrs 100 for the SIM, Lrs 100 Currency and Lrs 100 for a monthly Data plan. He speaks English with a fake American ascent and tells me that he is also a guide to foreign travellers. A group from Germany is arriving the next day and he is to travel with them. When he learns that I am heading up north to Jaffna, he tells me that he has heard that its beautiful up there but has not been there yet. I notice his politeness and attention towards other local customers while engaging me in a conversation. In that shop, for the first time, I feel the difference in culture. People here are polite to one another. Is it only my friend or is it common through out? Is it only in a small town or is it else where as well? I am yet to find out. 

I thank him as he wishes me a safe and happy travel and then decide to stop at a nearby bakery/restaurant for my breakfast. I ask the server in English for some breakfast item and he brings me this tray full of baked and fried items. 



Am I supposed to eat them all? Would I be charged for all of that? I could never manage to eat them, I think. But then I look around and see people pick what they want from that assorted plate. I do the same and order a cup of tea. The server spoke Tamil and upon knowing my origin, checks if I speak the language. When I speak in my half baked Tamil, he seems happy and talks to me about the nearby Indian factory that has a lot of Indians working in it. As directed by my friend, I board a bus to Puttalam and get off at Palavi junction. Google maps help me locate the junction as it arrives. I realise that the network coverage in this country is amazing. Here, I board another bus to Kalpitiya. The bus is filled with Tamil speaking passengers. I enjoy the view of lush surroundings. 





And it is in this bus that I meet my second friend; a wanna be guide - Zahran. Zahran is returning from his college to his grandparents house and while talking to me offers to guide me around Kalpitiya. He says that he could  help me with the Dolphin watch by talking to local fishermen. I normally would have refused but something makes me agree to his request because it seems personal and not professional. He tells me that he is going home first, attending the prayers in the mosque and then would head to the beach with me. So just before reaching Kalpitiya, I get off the bus with Zahran and go to his grandparents house. I meet his Grandmother, a very sweet lady who is curious to know more about me and where I come from. All muslims in Sri Lanka speak Tamil. So she is happy too to know that I could manage with some broken Tamil. It is time to test some of my Tamil skills again. 

Zahran tells me of his wish to get into tourism. I realise that tourism is a good source of income here in this small island country.  I freshen up and we head to the mosque. Zahran goes in for his Friday prayers as I hang around outside the mosque. The atmosphere is very similar to that in india. A moula is preaching loudly on a speaker. Men wearing a lungi and cap walk towards the mosque but not without throwing a curious glance at me. 


After the prayers, Zahran and I head back home where I meet his Grandfather. He is a very interesting man. He shows me his collection of rare shells that many want to buy but he refuses to sell. He had found them under the sea and would not exchange it for anything in this world, he says. He shows me the new house he is building and tells me that next time when I come with my wife, I could stay there. 


Zahran’s grandmother is very surprised to know that I do not eat chicken, prawns or mutton. She finds that amusing and hard to believe.  But she has several vegetarian dishes for me. The best being a ripe mango curry which tastes very close to a dish prepared in Mangalore. I relish over tasty rice and curries. She is also surprised that I am traveling alone and that I do trekking. She is specially curious of what my parents think and if they let me travel alone. I tell her that they find me to be extremely crazy to be controlled so they let me be. That makes her laugh. 

Zahran and I take a bus and then an auto to the beach. On my way, I meet his cousins and friends. I also tell him that I am already loving this country and that to me everyone seem polite here and I havent seen anyone fight. For that, he gives a disapproving expression but says nothing. I am reminded of the civil war that has ended only 6 years ago. I do not mention anything further as it seems too early to conclude anything. 

That afternoon, at the beach, the fishermen are relaxing in their shelters and mending the fishing net. Zahran tries to talk to some of them for a ride. They tell us that Dolphins only appear in the mornings. If I wanted they could take me to watch the coral reefs. But since the boat is not theirs they were unable to fix a price. They call the owner and a boy arrives on a roaring motorbike. It’s 9000 Lrs for seeing the coral reefs and with no guarantee of spotting the Dolphins. I refuse that offer and return. 





We head back home, I collect my bag from Zahran’s house and get ready to leave. Zahran is sad for not having shown me around enough. He proposes another boat ride in the backwaters but I realise that it is getting late already and I have to leave. Even though he never asks me for money, I give him a small tip and he is delighted.


On my bus back to Puttalam, I sit opposite to an old Tamil lady who is continuously trying to strike a conversation with me. She tells me how this private bus driver is speeding because of the rains but otherwise they drive slowly to have more customers (That I had noticed in my onward journey when the driver was driving at not more than 10km/h).  She also complains to me about this lady who had ignored her advise to avoid the back seat due to excessive rain showers through the door. 

At Puttalam, I board another bus to Anuradhapura. I reach there by 8:30 PM. I decide to walk to the first hotel suggested by Lonely planet - French garden but learn that they are full. The receptionist there recommends me to go to another hotel by the name London Palace which is one of their own branches. Again, my Indian experience prevents me from easily trusting him and I tell him that I cannot pay extra money and would like a room for around 2000 or 2500 LRs. He smiles and tries to explain to me that this place could offer me a discount even though it is not as less expensive as French Garden. I walk out. But something makes me want to trust these people because they were not rude and as soon as I refused they let me go. So I head back and ask them the price and they give me an offer of 2500 Lrs with no breakfast. I grab it. One of the caretaker from French Garden comes with me and drops me at London Palace. I realise that I must start believing people if I have to travel alone and this could be done only by unlearning my Indian experiences. I have to stop relating to the people here with those I have seen in india. I have to stop drawing similarities and I must not fear to take risks. With that realisation I go to sleep that that night and I sleep well.

Route - BIA Airport -> Negombo -> Chilaw -> Palavi Junction -> Kalpitiya -> Puttalam -> Anuradhapura



Continued Here 

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