6. Sweaty buses and Monopoly money
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
I read in a guidebook before the trip that it’s easy to get stuck in Weligama as the days and even weeks roll by. I can completely understand that now. Alas, the time came to break the surf routine and do some exploring inland. But not before a final night at The Doctor’s House. And after this third round there, I was feeling less bad about having to leave.
Saturday was indulgence day … for myself, in my head. I had a lie in, and then, instead of surfing, I met up with mates from Spindrift for a second breakfast with iced coffee. Then I rode around on my teal scooter feeling like a boss going at 40mph. I almost had an accident. Apparently indicating in good time, pulling into the centre of the road, and planting your foot down to wait for oncoming traffic to pass isn’t a good enough hint that you want to take a right turn off the road in Sri Lanka. As a gap in oncoming traffic was fast approaching, I started to swing right, but a barrage of beeping and shouting rendered me frozen. A group of five or so motorbikes tore past on my outside, centimetres from my front wheel. After this I needed third breakfast and local spot Zam Zam happily obliged. (Really this was lunch, I’m not a monster.) We took the bus to The Doctor’s House early to enjoy the afternoon market and sunset there. It was a really good night. New editions to the Spindrift, with whom I was still tagging along to events with and generally pestering, were just as fun as those who’d left. An American guy named Sam and I had bought cheap and nasty Hawaiian shirts and just about managed to get to the entrance gates after fending off countless scores of drooling girls. No but really, Sam and his girlfriend Ashley had recently become engaged in Malaysia so we toasted to that with a beer. The food at The Doctor’s House is a little Westernised and expensive, but it was indulgence day and I was glad of it. The pulled pork burger I had was absolutely unreal. There was a live band, plenty of laughs, and beer was being drunk. At one point, what with the food and new shirt I never wanted to take off, I found myself with Rs. 700 left in my wallet. That’s about £3. A tin of Lion beer in the venue is Rs. 350 and a tuk-tuk ride home can range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1,000 depending on how drunk and willing to barter you are. I was caught in a situation: use my final rupees to buy beer, or be able to get home. Reader, I spent up on beer. All was good. Friends spotted me money for the ride home and I actually wrangled a few more beers (paid back the next day, I’m not that bad).
But the night took a turn at the afterparty. Music was pumping over the packed dancefloor (actually just a sandy beach) when a fight between two Sri Lankan men broke out. People moved to give them their room to sort it out. But then a couple more people got involved. Then a few more. Soon, a fighting ball of some ten people was freely roving around the dancefloor. Things got pretty ugly when one guy seemed to be singled out and was kicked in the back hard, repeatedly, by a number of people. It was scary seeing all this played out, and the fighters didn’t seem to hold back in any way. But locals fighting happens every weekend in almost every UK city. So I guess I shouldn't have been so shocked. The main difference here, though, was that while back home people who try to intervene are often shoved away, told to back off, or are actually successful in breaking things up, here anyone who tried to help the guy – who was now in a strange kneeling position being choked while a ring of people who had been fighting stood around looking outwards and guarding the guy doing the choking – was immediately a target. A couple of tourists tried to stop the pretty harrowing scene as it reached a frightening duration. Each one was thrown onto the group and kicked and punched by multiple men. There was no reasoning. As a tall guy, though wet as a flannel, I felt obliged to help if possible. But even as I was stood at the fringes trying to work out if I could do my bit one guy started on me and pushed me away. More guys stared me down and started to march in my direction. I saw what was happening to interveners behind them. I knew it was not worth it.
I’m not sure what happened to the guy who was being strangled. The fight seemed to have fizzled out and the police sauntered in – giving the impression I had been considering, that trying to stop it was futile – when I saw two local guys debating what had happened. They seemed to be just talking. Then one of the men crushed his empty can of Lion using the other man’s forehead. It was time to leave. We got a tuk-tuk back to Weligama and stopped for kottu on the way to help to stop thinking about the fight and the devasting news that, back home, due to time difference it was results time in England, and Sheffield Wednesday had lost by five goals at home to Blackburn Rovers.
Next morning my Dutch friend Marc and I decided to check out the beginner’s reef break at Plantations near Midigama. We took my scooter, and on the way to the surf spot just 5km down the road, we passed two police security stops and saw an oncoming truck hurtling past loaded with unusual caged cargo: two massive elephants. By luck or by my slow and unsuspicious driving, the police didn’t stop to check us. I had a Rs. 1,000-note in my pocket as a bribe just in case. Because of the night before, we were later than our usual crack-of-dawn surf and the wind was already making the waves at Plantations a little messy. Only really advanced surfers seemed to be getting anything, so we went back to good old Weligama bay and both had a really good surf. I managed to achieve my first hang five … I think. It was not a thing of beauty. It just got the job done. And I didn’t (aka can’t) cross-step, so instead just shuffled my way to the end of the board, hence why I’m uncertain of whether it counts. But I got there and got those five toes over and it still felt bloody half decent.
Then it was time to go. Adam, my friend from Oregon who also gets slightly aroused by seeing good wildlife, wanted to go to the national parks over in the south and south-east. We took a bus out to Tissamaharama (shortened to just Tissa), a jumping-off point for Bundala and the world-famous Yala National Park, in the afternoon. Buses here are way cheaper than tuk-tuks (we’re talking 10x times cheaper on a trip of this length), so mode of transport was a no brainer. But I’d seen images and heard stories about how packed they could get. We changed buses at Matara, about 18km from Weligama, and the afternoon breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean, which is usually a source of frustration for messing up the waves, was a welcome respite; after initially feeling thrilled for finding a spare seat on the bus, for the entire hour-long journey a dude stood in the aisle had his belly rested on my shoulder. And he didn’t give a single shit. When we rounded corners it just pressed closer into my cheek. I thought about using it as a pillow and having myself a little sleep, but perhaps that would’ve been rude.
And anyway, while this made me laugh, the truth is those sweaty bus journeys are a daily reality for almost everyone on there. Maybe it doesn’t help to think about such things while ‘on holiday’, when you’re supposed to relax and take care of yourself and indulge, but it’s hard to visit a place like Sri Lanka and not think about what lies behind the pleasant tourist attractions. Around the back of the main blocks of restaurants and surf shops on the beachfront in Weligama, there is a street where I’ve seen a man barely more than a skeleton with skin on, who sits in a doorway between a stinky open sewer on one side and a wooden shack selling skinned, whole chicken carcasses on the other. As far as I can see, he does this all day. This man doesn’t ask for money when you walk by, he just sometimes smiles as he sits in the sun. I’m not fully sure of why I’m writing this, other than that I just feel compelled. I guess these moments put your own circumstances into perspective. It’s sometimes actually hard to take good care of yourself when you know there is so much suffering and poverty in the world. Right before our bus to Matara, some of us went to Hangtime, a trendy, chilled out café overlooking the beach. I got a coffee and a piece of banana cake. At Rs. 650 it wasn’t even £3 for both. And both were exceptional. I thoroughly enjoyed them. But it’s a little troubling to think how this is more than half the daily average wage in Sri Lanka, and I’d just spent it on a post-meal snack. In a relatively cheap place like this it’s easy to throw cash around as though it doesn’t have real value. It's a bit like using Monopoly money. I had a really good conversation about this kind of stuff with another fantastic person I met on this trip, Elisa, and we were discussing how these kinds of things can make us uncomfortable. But sometimes it doesn’t pay to think too much into it, and instead just get on and enjoy the moments you have and not feel guilty about it (easy for some), all in good faith that the money you spend goes towards helping at least some of the people living there.
Ever since playing Pokémon Blue in the late nineties, I’ve wanted to do a safari. This was the chance. Bundala National Park is much less visited than Yala and, while it doesn’t boast the same array of mammals, it is home to loads of great bird species. Adam and I were both set on visiting the Bundala alternative option rather than mainstream Yala ... It took us about ten minutes of being in Tissa to change our minds. Everyone here talks about Yala. Whenever we mentioned Bundala to a tour operator their faces looked awkward and a little disappointed. Of course this could have been a ploy; Yala earns them around Rs. 2,000 more per person. But I think, even though tours start every morning before dawn, it seems that jeep drivers and guides are perpetually excited to dip into Yala and try to find all the great fauna for their groups of tourists. We checked into our lakeside cabana and before we knew it an alarm was going off and we were sat drinking a cup of tea under a dried palm frond shelter at 4am. The jeep picked us up and tore through Tissa, stopping off at a hotel to fill up the seven seats, to reach Yala around 5.30am. Busy with jeeps and rushing drivers, the start to the day was looking like exactly what we wanted to avoid about Yala. But it turned out we had made a good decision. As we bumped along dusty tracks beside plains, lagoons, and rocky outcrops, we saw spotted deer, many crocodiles, elephants within touching distance, herds of possessed-looking water buffalo, gray langurs, and wild boar. In terms of birdlife, highlights included painted storks, pelicans, various types of kingfisher (common, white-throated, and pied … I know you wanted to know), a ton of colourful bee-eaters, Malabar pied hornbills, and a crested hawk-eagle tucking into a little egret on a branch. All of this was amazing and gave us energy after a short sleep and early start. But the flagship animal of Yala is undoubtedly the leopard. Drivers receive and make lots of calls during the safari to let each other know of any notable animal sightings. After breakfast at 8am, our driver put the phone down and started racing away along a bumpy lane. When we got to the place, there were jeeps everywhere and at all angles. People were pointing and had binoculars out. A park warden had to wave vehicles on so they didn’t take up too much time in the spot from which you could see the tail of a leopard from. Luckily for us, as soon as it was our turn at said spot, the leopard started moving, and with our direction. We followed it as it travelled parallel to the road through undergrowth. Then, at an intersection between roads, our driver spotted another leopard in the middle of the track to our right. We sped along it and had a incredible sighting of the second leopard, almost all to ourselves before the masses swooped in. Perhaps not the most natural way to search out animals, but it was an amazing day.
After a nap followed by a healthy lunch of a coconut, sweetcorn on the cob, a banana, an apple, and a mango and passionfruit smoothie … oh, and a full sharing-sized bar of chocolate, we went to meet with a friend I met on the flight over called Cameren. In one of those crazy coincidences travelling sometimes induces, Cameren was the first person Adam and I saw in Tissa. We didn’t even know he was there! We met for beers and arrack last night, and got to speaking in broken English with a bunch of local lads who thought Cameren looked like New Zealand cricket captain Kane Williamson, and I like English bowler Stuart Broad. They reminded us of this every two minutes after that initial comparison. We got a bit tipsy trying everything they sold at the bar: arrack, Lion, and Lion Strong (Carlsberg Special Brew equivalent). Fun night.
After a morning chilling out at our lakeside cabana, where animals find their ways into every crevice – we had a cat asleep under the bed, a frog on the plug for our fan, a decent-sized monitor lizard plods around camp, and a big croc was yesterday sat nearby on the water’s edge like a statue with it’s mouth agape (I think we’re safe) – it’s onwards and upwards now, literally, into the hills and the beautiful town of Ella.