I am sitting in the Ceylon Tea House in Kandy sheltering from the monsoon rains which, it turns out, they weren't exaggerating about. Kandy is a cool little town but the rain has quite literally put a dampner on things.
I travelled from Colombo early this morning so I am still suffering the after effects of my early start. I only spent a day in Colombo and that was probably enough, although the rain and my jetlag probably contribute towards a worse opinion that is really justified. It's a nice city but it is busy and chaotic which sometimes I enjoy but hobbling through the bustling crowds of Pettah market with an unhappy body clock and a still tender broken toe was not as fun as I had hoped my first day in Sri Lanka would be.
It didnt take me long to whizz around the sights, mostly because it was raining which didn't invite lingering, and then I went back to my hostel (a lovely little place called Islands Hostel in the less chaotic Mount Lavinia which I would fully recommend for anyone heading to Colombo) for a rest before heading off to meet my friend Locha who
lives here. Locha also had an injured foot so we decided against any sightseeing as neither of us were at our walking best and she invited me to her house for a delicious Sri Lankan dinner instead. I had a great time catching up with Locha and she gave me lots of tips including the fact that trains are much
better than buses here (something I can now confirm, having experienced both) and which fruit I needed to try. I have been working my way diligently through her list and so far, I have not been disappointed.
Heeding Locha's advice about the transport, I changed my plan for the following day from getting a bus to Sigiriya to instead getting the train to Kandy. The man at the hostel warned me ominiously that turning up to the station without a ticket was risky business as the trains were all likely to have sold out but perhaps I stood a chance seeing as it is now off season. For want of a better plan, I decided to try it anyway.
Jetlag woke me nice and early at 6.20 (or so I thought...) with plenty of time to make the Mount Lavinia to Colombo train and join what would surely be an impressive queue for my ticket to Kandy. Breakfast at the hostel didn't begin until 8 but I decided to try my luck with the nice people hovering about the kitchen and they let me have some coffee and bread. I took it onto the roof to savour whilst watching the ocean. Somebody else was there so I asked her what time it was, wondering how quickly I needed to eat up in order to make the 7am train.
"Sri Lankan time??!"
Turned out my watch was broken. I quickly recalibrated my plan and realised that if I caught a tuk to the city I could still just about make the 8,30 train, assuming that there were tickets there of course. I quickly finished my bread, gagged down the coffee (the bitter gritty sludge being the hostel's one failure), packed my bag and scuttled out of the hostel. Unfortunately, what should have been a clear, if heart-straining, dash up the hill to the main road became more of a slow dodge-and-weave because it turns out that the road outside the hotel becomes a fruit market on Sunday mornings. I would have liked a chance to look around, not to mention to begin my sampling of the many banana varieties that Locha had told me about, but I really had no time. Instead I dodged the neatly arranged mangoes, amburellas, and coconuts and eventually made it to the main road where I jumped into a tuk and then we were on our way!
Pausing only to refill petrol and for a vaguely explained police check, we got to the station in good time and I managed to buy a ticket with such ease that it was almost a disappointment. I made it to the train platform with five minutes to spare and a friendly man with a delightfully cheerful smile told me where to stand.
"This platform? Okay, got it.
"No, just here.
The man repositioned me about two feet to the left of where I had originally put myself. He wished me a good journey and then hurried off, coming back seconds later with a pair of German backpackers who he also arranged neatly on the side of the platform. The Germans and I exchanged bemused looks before shrugging and continuing our wait.
A minute tlater the train rolled in and then it all became clear. People from all directions rushed for the doors is a heaving mass of chaos and limbs. Realising that no queue was ever going to be formed, I took a deep breath (and an elbow to the throat- no, just kidding (just about)), and threw myself into the fray, ending up on the train and in a seat before I really knew how it had hapened. Being off-season, the train wasn't really all that crowded and only a couple of people were left standing.
Sri Lankans are very friendly and it is normal here to become good pals with the person sitting next to you within a matter of minutes. The man next to me gave me lots of tips on Kandy, his home town, before falling asleep leaving me to watch the lush scenery through the open window next to him. The train doors were open and a man was propped in one of them getting the best view. I wondered if actually he was in the best position and I itched to have a go at door-standing but I knew my seat would disappear which would be a shame if I wanted to sit down again at some point in the three hour long journey.
About an hour into the journey an old woman got on the train and I gave her my seat and went off to find a door in which to prop myself. Unfortunately the original man was still in the nearest one and a canoodling couple in the next. I thought about nustling in with them to share the view and perhaps even make a few new friends to boot but there really wasn't space for a third person so instead I hung out in a nice spot between the toilets.
Eventually the solo man got off the train and I was able to slip into his spot. It was a rush standing in the doorway, getting the full force of the breeze and the first view of the scenery that really was stunning. Perhaps it is all due to the current monsoons but the land was spectactularly lush with green fields, palm trees, jungle, and water buffalo as we wound our way up into the hill country. I didn't have the guts of the Sri Lankans to sit right on the edge of the door because the drop into the valley below was a very long one and I didn't trust myself to aim for the bouncy bits of the tree tops should I find myself catapulted into the depths below by a badly timed train lurch. I also drew the line at the casual swing on the door frame which the hardier of the young men seemed to engage in, hanging off the train side to get a full frontal view of the upcoming landscape. Not only do I not have the coordination to carry this out with any degree of success, I also had no idea where the upcoming bridges and narrow rock tunnels were. The last thing I wanted was to swing out jauntily from the side of the train and come face to face with a sheer rock side whilst travelling at 20mph. Ouch.
A seat became free again and I jumped in and watched the view from this more comfortable, if less exciting, position. Now we were high in the hillsides and we soon came out over a stunning valley that dropped away beneath us for hundreds of metres, filled with jungle. We sped back into the trees and I caught glimpes of swinging monkeys and tropical hanging fruits as we whizzed through.
The three hour journey felt like no time at all and soon we were in Kandy. I got into a taxi and set off for my hostel. It turned out that we were passing a place called the Garden Cafe which the taxi driver spent most of the journey recommending to me, pausing only to point out sites of interest such as the holy lake (in which, he stressed, I must, under no circumstances, go fishing because everything in the lake is holy as well so it is forbidden to take them) and the white buddha on the hillside.I promised him that I would try the cafe and that I had no plans to go fishing, in the holy lake or otherwise, and so, after checking in and making friends with the hostel dog, I returned to the Garden Cafe and was soon tucking into a vegetable roti and a plate of vegetable curries. It was spicy, delicious, and there was lots of it, all for the impressive price of R150 (approx. $2).
Afterwards, I undid my top trouser button and set off for a not-so-brisk waddle around the lake. About thirty seconds into my lakeside stroll, the skies opened. There was none of the usual build up that accompanies a rain shower in other places. Here, you get a three drop warning and then, by the time you have fumbled for your umbrella and wrestled with the broken opening mechanism, you are drenched through. I carried on walking and every tuk driver nearby tried to offer me a ride.
"No thanks! I'm out for a walk!"
"It's started to rain!"
In case I hadn't noticed.
"It's okay, I'm enjoying the walk!"
Unfortunately, an extra big gust of wind chose this moment to wrench my umbrella inside out and almost tore my arm from its socket.
The tuk driver looked at me with some concern and I gave him an extra big smile to reassure him that I really was having a lovely time circling the lake on foot before I realised that at this point I wasn't even kidding myself anymore. I ended up sheltering in a bus stop with a group of teenagers who kept looking at me and laughing (I still haven't quite worked out why). Eventually the rain slowed enough and I got to continue my walk and it really was very nice. The lake is huge and full of wildlife. On my walk I spotted swimming monitor lizards, cranes, ducks, and enormous fish. Beyond the lake, the surrounding mountains rose up into the mist making for a dramatic setting for the houses that are dotted into the hillsides.
I made it around to the townside of the lake and had to dodge a few touts who tried to sell me tickets to dance shows. To escape, I ducked into the nearet side street and it became less touristy immediately. I liked it instantly. The roads of shops were busy and bustlng but in a far less chaotic and crowded way than Pettah in Colombo. I roamed around and completed some chores such as finding an ATM that accepted Visa and sunscreen that didn't contain skin bleach (both surprising challenges). Now I am resting up in the tea house drinking mediocre chai and feeling guilty after Locha told me that we dastardly Brits nick all the good tea from Sri Lanka.
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