8. Alcohol deprivation and opulence
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Adam nudged me awake this morning before his bus out to the Knuckles Mountain Range. We hugged and said goodbye. Sad, even if I was a bit too blurry-eyed to register what was happening at first. When we met a fortnight ago in Weligama, an easy-going bond developed between us almost immediately. We have a similar sense of humour and are abroad for similar reasons. His focal points are climbing in Thailand and, along with mine, surfing here in Sri Lanka, and we’ve both been keen to have a varied trip of meeting people in hostels, experiencing some of the culture, and seeing the superb natural beauty in landscape and wildlife which this country has to offer. We’ve both wanted to save money and enhance our knowledge of the country by eating locally as much as possible, which has taken us to some weird and wonderful places in random towns – such as a fly-ridden room in Peradeniya where an army of ants was running along the cracked wall single-file a couple of inches from our faces but the roti was delicious and equivalent to 5p per piece – even if he’s had to stare at my red and dripping face on a couple of occasions when the spice has gotten to me. I think one thing that helped was the mutual understanding which stems from both being people who are borderline addicted to sport and exercise. Living in Oregon, Adam is into a plethora of outdoor pursuits and while we’ve been travelling he’s constantly been finding places to try out a makeshift little climb (such as on hostel walls) and throw in a few pull-ups. It's been a real blast and, who knows, maybe not a permanent goodbye.
Okay; Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, which Lonely Planet hails as the country's cultural capital but every backpacker I’ve met hasn’t really warmed to. My verdict: in between. There are tons of sights and places of historical and religious importance, but it’s so busy and draining that I reckon a day or two is enough. We set out to explore it yesterday with no aim, but bumped into a Sri Lankan lad who gave us some tips that turned out to be excellent. We hiked up to the giant white Buddha statue which overlooks the city for some good views and a peaceful stroll around. Much recommended. A strange little interaction occurred after we walked down into the centre on the hunt for something to eat. A bloke stood beside Kandy Lake approached us. He looked pretty well-dressed and said he owned a tea shop around the corner … even though it was 1pm and he was casually hanging out beside a lake; not looking after his shop. Predictably, he told us some things to see in his city, which included a traditional dance taking place that evening at 5pm. Without any inclination of us wanting to see it, he led us on a stroll around the lake, for twenty minutes, to the place to buy tickets for the dance. When Adam told him we weren’t interested, he just shrugged and we all headed back. I couldn’t help but wonder what was becoming of his tea shop in his absence. We ambled back around the lake to his hangout spot. En route he asked Adam whether he wanted to buy weed. Adam said no. He asked Adam how much he’d pay for an ounce. Adam told him again that he didn’t want any. The guy just shrugged and we continued. He took his perch on the wall beside the lake corner and we shook hands and parted ways. Just a thoroughly confusing three-quarters of an hour, after which I was so hungry that I had a weak moment and went into KFC … only to find that any idea of a queue was completely absurd. I momentarily joined the rabble crowding around the one guy at the counter, but soon backed away again with a sweat on.
After a good plate of kottu we visited an immaculate Hindu temple right off one of the busy and noisy main streets in central Kandy. It was amazing how serene this place could be considering its proximity to chaos. Then we went to an ice cream place we’d been recommended. Given the heat and amount of walking we’d done, this was a welcome rest stop. They served soya ice cream with just three flavour options: strawberry, chocolate, or strawberry and chocolate. Being a wholly indecisive person this was great news. I respected that. I respected the soya venture. I did not show my respect. We got our ice creams and paid for them and sat on the balcony packed with locals enjoying their cool treats while overlooking a buzzing street intersection. The ice cream was great … for a couple of licks. I haven’t dropped an ice cream since I was about seven. I was on such a good run. But here all those years of practice flew out the window as I got way too into it and pushed the two scoops clean off the cone with my tongue. I managed to juggle the colourful mess a couple of times in an attempt to try to recover it, almost causing it to land on a dude’s foot, but it splattered all over the tiles. I stared at my embarrassment. Adam was howling with laughter. Ladies across on other benches chuckled away in their saris. I felt like such an idiot, but, after a reprimanding glance from the owner, the nice people brought a fresh ice-cream out for the six-foot-three infant.
In the evening we paid Rs. 1,500 each to not even see a tooth at Kandy’s premier attraction, The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It houses a tooth supposedly retrieved from the ashes of the Buddha’s funeral pyre. For a Western traveller it might seem a little frustrating to not even see the famed object, but for those of the religion it’s a massive deal. Wars have been fought over the possession of this tooth, so it's heavily guarded and locked inside a lavishly adorned gold casket inside a temple within the temple complex. Even the casket stands behind a closed door. Puja rituals are performed three times each day and we made sure of being there for the evening one. It was actually pretty awesome. What with the drumming and some dude playing a high-pitched melodic pipe which I can’t find the name of anywhere, the incense on every available surface, and ornate decorations on every corner of every building, it was really atmospheric. After deciding to be sheep and joining a bunch of people and queuing for a long time on a flight of stairs within the temple, a gate was unlocked and the casket was revealed for a brief time. Even though this was not the tooth itself, it was actually really exciting to see. Someone in front of us in the queue saw we didn’t have an offering to give and so gave us each a flower. When it was our turn to offer the flower to a monk in front of the casket, the occasion got to me and I did this dumb weird bow. The monk looked on wearing a placid expression. Tourists.
Afterwards we went back to the hostel to meet with people we’d met the night before. Four of us spent over an hour searching for some place to buy beer to take back to the common room. Multiple tuk-tuk rides later we found ourselves in a spot that was trying to be a sports bar. Possibly because we were all foreigners, beer cans to take out were Rs. 500. They’re Rs. 190 in the off-licences and supermarkets. So, instead of takeaway cans, we had a draught in the pub and then intended to get a bottle each which we would say we were drinking inside but would actually then take away with us to the hostel. But when we returned to the bar one of the guys serving pointed to Lion beer on the menu. “Price change,” he said. The printed menu said bottles of Lion were Rs. 290. We asked the guy what he meant. “Price change. Lion,” he said. “This three-hundred fifty.” We upheld our principles and walked out. Sugary tea and ginger biscuits would suffice. To be quite honest I’m tired of being mugged off on prices because I'm clearly a tourist. Tuk-tuk rides, fruit in the markets, alcohol. So I got out of the city this morning. I did as speculated. I cheated. Have I sold out? Yes. Am I loving it? Abso-fucking-lutely.
I set out on foot, after an insanely spicy breakfast of two egg samosas (sometimes going to local places doesn’t pay) and two Nescafé iced coffees, for the bus station dubbed the ‘Goods Shed’. It’s carnage there. How any bus gets anywhere is beyond me. You have to step between big red buses shimmying towards the main road about a foot away from one another just to get where you need to be. The fumes coming up from the drain near the waiting area also win the acclaimed title of the worst smell I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing – the great e. Coli bout of 2014 included. Then I was told the bus I needed didn’t run from there on Saturdays. Could well have been a fib from a tuk-tuk driver hoping I’d jump into his taxi. Almost definitely was. Anyway I opted for a train. But the next one to Kadugannawa wasn’t for almost two hours and I’d need to take a bus to the hotel from there anyway. I decided that in order to maximise my time at the luxury resort I would indeed take a tuk-tuk. After negotiating an okay price I jumped in. Saturday on the main road between Kandy and Colombo was crazy, but the driver was adept at undertaking and overtaking into oncoming traffic before weaving back into our lane at the very last moment. “Driving is meditation,” he turned and informed me. Here I was thinking meditation was supposed to be calming. He was an interesting guy, the driver. It happens that I’d stumbled upon a true enthusiast of a lesser-known sport in a country dominated by cricket and where volleyball is the national sport: football. A player for Kandy over 40's side, he told me of his recent coaching successes and the struggles in trying to promote football in Sri Lanka when the government allocates basically no money to it. No surprises Sri Lanka stand 205th in the FIFA World Rankings table (out of 210). I decided to give him a tip as though that might change something. But then would it really be Sri Lanka if everyone had Virgil van Dijk ponytails and went around enquiring as to whether Jamie Vardy was still having a party and where they might find it?
Eventually we got out of the traffic and into the rural area in which the five-storey hotel stands. And what can I say about the hotel? In stark contrast to four days ago when check-in at the hostel near Ella consisted of a guy holding his baby pointing to a bed in a dorm, here I was greeted by three people in uniform. I took a seat on a plush leather sofa in the massive air-conditioned foyer, where I was presented with a complimentary cool bottle of locally-pressed orange juice. Outstanding. My room is stupidly big, and the thing is, it’s not even ridiculously expensive. It works out at £14 per night. I checked in and went for a wander around the village. I was soon out on a dusty lane with dense vegetation on either side that made houses difficult to spot. The view opened out and pointed up to a quite jagged and tall green peak in front. Families of macaques hung down from close branches and stared at me, like the few people walking the road, giving the impression that both had seldom experienced interactions with a white tourist before. This was proper jungle. Almost. A tea factory suddenly appeared in front of me and gave off a strong and constant aroma of the best brew you could imagine, and what I thought at first to be the sound of the waterfall I hoped to reached actually turned out, as I rounded a steep corner, to be machinery at a quarry. I turned back for the hotel. Schoolgirls laughed at me as they passed on their way back to homes hidden in the forestry. Was it at my poorly rubbed-in suncream?
I found, once back, that the hotel’s main clientele is Sri Lankans with well-paid jobs. Gucci tees and so on. I enquired about lunch at the reception and was informed that I could order from my room. Minutes later, a knock, and menus with fancy wooden covers arrived. I Googled how to do room service. This place seems built for important people. More so than me, perhaps. But since I’m here, and since – despite the beautiful surrounding scenery – there is little more to do, or I want little more to do, than swim in the pool and write, I’ll write about something important. At least, something important to me. But that’s for next time. For now, the daytime bulbuls shooting around in the trees by my balcony have been replaced by bats, and it’s time for me to take a table for one in the restaurant and pretend to do things on my phone for half an hour ... but I don't want your pity.
Top row: L'Hotel; beneath: Snippets from the quote wall at the Alleyway Hostel, Kandy.