3,000 years of religious and cultural history. Ancient ruins to prove it. 30 years of Tamil-Sinhalese conflict. 21 million people, a lot of whom get on and some who don't (go back a sentence). 21 million stray dogs (or thereabouts). A retro flag that looks destined for a dodgy fashion collaboration (I'm looking at you, Elesse). Surf and diving havens. Sealife galore. Diverse landscapes encompassing mountains, rainforest, tea plantations, safari-rich arid plains, palm-treed beaches...and topped off by 75m-tall temples that look like giant erect nipples. All of this in an area covering 65,610 square kilometres. No - I'm not talking about Elton John's mansion grounds in Windsor, I'm talking about the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Their country is shaped like a giant tear-drop: crying over the shame of the baggy-traveller-pant-wearing brigade (in short: Westerners) and they spawned M.I.A, occasionally good cricket teams...and Romesh Ranganathan. What's not to like?
So. Here's my top tips (or highlights / low points) based on our whirlwind 2-week tour, which most likely cost more in tuk tuks and taxis than what I've given TFL in 14 years of living in London (only kidding...but it wasn't always cheap)...
DIVING: I'm in my 80s and it's a blast. Ok, not age wise (although I'm really hoping to reach that number...and having a blast). I was lucky enough to log my 85th, 86th, 87th and 88th dives across two different dives sites along the east coast (Battlicaloa and Uppuveli). These were my first 'exotic' dives abroad, after diving for the first time outside UK waters in The Baltic Sea this summer (the 5 degree upwelling dive really hammered home the phrase 'brass monkeys'). Visibility at the Sri Lankan dive spots was not great across both, compared to the crystal clear "I can see for miles" images I've come to expect from tourism-board pictures of Indian Ocean dives, but it was still absolutely worth doing. Prices were about the same as the UK (£25-50 per dive depending on what you want and what people can offer) but the key difference is the water temperature. I'm used to diving in 5-15 degree water in the UK, more often than not in a dry suit. This was like bath water. For me it wasn't better than cold dives but just wonderfully different. I was hoping to see turtles, but the only ones we saw were on land (helping fishermen rescue them from a net, to guide back out to see). Amazingly, the DiveMasters out there don't carry knives, and I certainly got some funny looks from the other tourists on the dive on the boat out from beach to dive spot. It certainly came in handy: at 23 metres down drifting along the side of steep cliff edge, whilst exploring a fallen temple statues, we noticed a dangerous puffer fish trapped under a net. It must have been there a while as it was on the point of exhaustion and had a moribund expression in its eyes. The DiveMaster tried to rip open the old fishing net, but it was too tough. If it hadn't have been for the knife I was carrying on my leg, the poor puffer would have lost energy and consciousness soon after...and been crab meat. Also, a knife was quite handy as he got set free...to ward him off incase he swam towards us, as he was somewhat dangerous. He reminds me of a vomit-covered drunk guy I used to help get home sometimes after a particularly rocking night at the Student Union: he could lash out at you, and was dangerous, so you kept your distance but had to help him nonetheless (p.s: I didn't have a knife to hand, although that may have been good for potential approaching midnight muggers).
STREET DOGS: I wasn't warned in any guest house that leaving your shoes/flip flops out at night can prove precarious. It had been a long day - a 90-minute trek up to the top of Ella Rock, involving thorns, leeches and coconuts. My favourite trainers were soaked, and I was advised by the maids that there's no harm in leaving them outside to dry. In the morning (and that of my departure from not only the guest house but the entire region), I approached the porch, to find there was only one shoe. I thought "no problem, it will have fallen off the small wall it' was drying on". Nothing. "No problem - it will be nearby, maybe the thunderstorms blew it a few metres away". Still nothing. I then went on a tea plantation tour for 2 hours, whilst the staff decided to stroll into the village, checking every nook and cranny alongside the main pathways, as well as knocking on doors. I have to admire them - I should point out this was wholly their decision (I'm not sure what I would have done if they had refused to look for it - so thank god they offered straight up). Animal neutering, as with a lot of south East Asian countries, is a huge problem out here as there's little-to-no government help to provide funds for neutering. Tonnes of street dogs out here - some cute but some in awful condition / on point of death with abrasions, gammy trailing legs and in one case one of Man's Best Friends (who may want to re-visit that joyous term) with a fresh open wound where his entire tail used to be.And thence it came to be: my love/hate relationship of street dogs was spawned. If I could go back I wouldn't change a thing, as even though I'm a slow-fashion enthusiast, my travel rucksack is over 14 years' old (with eau de mustiness to match), my Jansport day bag is literally falling apart at the base...and if anything is going to make me finally prize myself away from them, its disease-ridden canine urine. I've always looked at those 'wrap your luggage in cling film' airport stalls as a fad, but now I understand their true purpose: preventing piss! To summarise this little segment (and without turning this blog entry into a recycling rant) I should mention that I actually carried my one shoe all the way across the rest of Sri Lanka. I call it 'The Pilgrimage of the Longely Japanese Tiger': I thought I'd hold onto it for a few days until I could find a place deserving of its long & honourable service and give it some nice scenery at the same time (you look so weird taking out one shoe on a tuk tuk ride). I thought that eventually a Sri Lankan charity shop or textile recycling dump would be perfect for it. I couldn't find a single one. I then considered burying it at sea to sit alongside my Portuguese great granddad somewhere along the Namibian Skeleton Coast (that's another story worthy of a separate blog)...a romantic notion, but then I'd be going against all my ethics by contributing to unneeded waste in our oceans. Another (albeit brief) consideration was to find another dog to give my shoe to, but I realised I didn't want to essentially commit Onitsuka genocide by selecting him for not only death, but death by shredding by hangry canine teeth. No, I actually decided to take it back to the UK: I loved those shoes equally. It was like being in a three-way relationship where respect was mutual amongst all (to be fair, I never asked them) and it was even better because I didn't walk all over them (that's called abuse): I walked thanks to them instead. I decided to take the remaining partner on a tour of the rest of the island, before we decided it just wouldn't have the same thrills as a three-way relationship: like one last dirty and mad-passionate fling before going our separate ways forever. After a trip we'd never forget, I dropped him at my local Crisis charity shop, for him to embark on a new solo adventure. Perhaps I'll see him again, as a garment made from recycled materials in an eco-store one day.
STREET DOGS PART 2: after doing Kandy to Ella (not a map of my romantic travails with 2 strippers), we arrived via bus by a bar that spilled out invitingly onto the street, and we ordered the hallowed gold liquid - a local concoction, crisp and true...called Lion Lager. I was sipping away, in the good company of my girlfriend and two awesome Germans that we had befriended at Kandy train station. We had decided a drink was in order (after a bit of a nightmare journey) before heading our separate ways to our respective guest houses. In mid-flow (of good beer and good conversation) a woman tapped me on the shoulder from a table behind me, expressing rather too casually in a condescending Ozzie accent that "a dog was pissing on my rucksack". My rotated my neck in horror (looking like the girl in The Exorcist), to see a dog going through the shaking stages at the end point of what looked to be the longest wee in the world. What made matters worse was that he was covered in sores and had a limp (not that I find a beautiful cockapoo's urine any more enticing when sprayed all over my vintage Jansport). The crowning moment was when my girlfriend then pointed out that there was a huge wee patch on my other rucksack (my large travel one), meaning the dog had not only pissed on both my rucksacks (and right on the back area too, between the straps, which is the only point that makes contact with the human carrying it) but he had also decided to miss out my girlfriends as clearly she didn't have a scent worthy of enhancing with eau de piss. I requested a cloth and tissue from the owners, who laughed in my face when I explained what had just occurred, and was left contemplating the event: I decided I was more annoyed at the Ozzie woman, who was clearly holding off and placing bets / snap-chatting it to see how long this dog would go for on my rucksacks. Her family were in no rush to empathise either. I wanted to follow her to the next bar, crouch beside her and wee all over her miserable Antipodean face. I'd have made waltzing Matilda into spraying Matilda.
NO SUCH THING AS PARADISE: loud morning crows, mozzies, really loud wind and rain, aircon that gets too cold. If you look at the top 10 happiest countries (according to the United Nations' annual World Happiness Report, from 2018), not a single tropical 'paradise' country is in the top 10. Sri Lanka doesn't make the Top 50. What this 2-week trip taught me is that paradise is in the mind and your attitude towards a situation: although I had an incredibly fun time here, I have an incredibly fun time when I am strolling down the Fruit Market in Hull, after having stared out at the Humber and seen some sharks swim in The Deep aquarium. Also, I remember a story in school, where they read from the Bible in our weekly assemblies. It told the fable of a man who thought he was in heaven as at first it was beautiful, scenic, he had everything he could possibly want...it was essentially perfect. He repeated this day on day and it eventually drove him to boredom and despair, and when he finally asked someone where he was, they said "hell". I'm not at all comparing Sri Lanka to hell (well, apart from street dog-gate). What I am expressing is how challenge is what keeps us alive, and keeps us focused. I enjoyed Sri Lanka not because it was paradise, but because on a daily basis me and my girlfriend had to rise to daily challenges - which were fun to overcome.
FAMILY DAY OUT: we decided not to 'waste' time on a non-scenic train route which takes up to four times' longer than a train in the UK (random stopping, all the time, with no explanation...it's like my granddad on a long walk). We needed to go from Uppuveli to Jaffna: so negotiated a taxi and spent a day in what turned out to be a family car...with what turned out to be an actual family: a Tamil husband and wife. We essentially adopted them for a whole 6 hours. The only thing that I craved for was being 10 years' old again so I could test their resolve by shouting from the back "are you there yet? are we there yet? ARE WE THERE YET?" from the other side of my impenetrable Gameboy wall. Our 'family' took us for local food on the way (entire meal + 20% optional tip = less than £5). By hour 4 we felt we'd been adopted. The most revelatory element of the trip was that I got on incredibly well with them yet we barely spoke the same language - or a full sentence at that. It made me question my entire communicative relationship with my family (I may experiment with conversing a lot less this Xmas and just muttering the absolute essentials). Around hour 5 I mused that usually with adoption it's the parents that pay for the privilege but we bought the ride and paid for their meal. Soph had her epi-pen at the ready as they bought a snack for the car: peanuts. Which they munched consistently for an hour. Like Sri Lankan Hungry Hippos. When travelling, time feels slower here (& more interesting): it took 5 hours Niluvelli to Jaffna, which was 151.7 miles. That's the same time it took for us to get Shoreham to Seahouses, which was 398 miles. I told you time moves slower here. Also, near the end of both journeys there were KFC signs (I resisted a Whopper this time). Oh - and I saw a beer shop called Boobe's Wine Shack. I almost cried that I didn't get a picture.
PLASTIC: Plastic bottles in this country is awful and I wanted to never buy a plastic bottle so long as I live.In the UK I feel like I'm doing my bit - however small my contribution may be. This place (particularly a beach north of Jaffna) awoke an even-more conscious side of my being, about plastic pollution. On our scuba dive, I was impressed that the PADI DiveMaster gave us not only a safety briefing and dive site plan, but also a spiel (I say this in a positive way) about the plastic in the ocean, and how if we see any we should pick it up during the dive and he will then put it in his pocket and bring to the surface any collective rubbish. On the dive, at 15-23 metres, I counted over 20 plastic bags that we picked up as a team. On surfacing I wasn't happy as I usually am after time underwater (I'd spend my life there if I could). I was angry. And saddened. I wanted to get back to shore and instantly enrol in a degree into microplastic research, to continue to research I assisted on in the Baltic Sea in Estonia. I blame that dive for an OCD that I've now awoken within myself: I can't go past any stretch of street without picking up litter that is lying helplessly on the street (sometimes carrying it for a long time until I reach a bin), doing a general street cleanup in the 10 square metres around my rubbish store outside my flat, or doing a beach cleanup on my walk back from sea to sun-lounger. Younger generations might say I'm 'woke'. And I'd happy to admit that I like this new wokeness. Everyone should develop a little OCD about the environment, and generate some mindfulness around the effects they have when they can't drag their lazy arse to a bin to dispose of rubbish (ideally separating it into a plastic and non-plastic one). My sense of eco-warrior continued later in the holiday (I'm not sure how much Soph enjoyed it), as I helped some local fishermen bring in their catch on Uppuveli Beach, and admired their efforts in immediately sorting out things that wouldn't sell (or things they didn't need) for the local economy: they set 2 big turtles free instantly, which had got caught in their net. They also handed me a baby sting ray to set free (I swam back out to sea and released it) then on my return a blow fish (non poisonous). This puffer fish really tested me as I swam right out with it hoping it would sink and swim off (I even kept swimming to the sea floor and holding it down). It kept bobbing right back up. I thought I'd killed the poor floating beach ball. Only when I gave up and reluctantly swam back to shore did the fishermen - in broken English (and my girlfriend laughing at the side) - tell me that the fish was fine and that it takes 10 minutes for it to refill with water and therefore sink, until it can swim off. Which it duly did - as I stared out to sea, with my girlfriend laughing still, and the local fishermen now deciding to join her in collective unwanted mirth...
It seems impossible here to not use tonnes of plastic bottles due to water sanitation and how Western bellies react to it. I thought it was just western tourists who couldn't get away from being plastic hoars (it makes you question how much our craving to travel the World makes us one of the worst pollutants abroad), but it's locals too: the north region lost half its Tamil population over the 20 years of war: of the locals who were kids then and grew up, without proper education on plastic & waste linked with the planet and conservation, a lot are uneducated on it and are just dropping vast swathes of rubbish on the beaches and in the streets. I saw this first hand, whilst I held my (most likely not BPA-free) 1.5 litre water bottle, that I'd been carrying around re-filling, for 5 days...desperately trying not to let it go. There's still not many tourists up here and it seems the ruins of war are not just bullet holes but severe ripple effects of plastic waste: like a rubbish tsunami if you'll excuse the bad taste of metaphor for the region (it's been 10 years). It's so sad to see the hoard of plastic washed up waste...and it's all very well 65 million British being told to develop more awareness and good habits around recycling (or 741 million Europeans), but how do you educate over 4 billion people across Africa, China and India? It's not all bad: some guest houses have a big filter so you can refill from a big plastic filtered tub: and you put a tip in. I felt renewed hope from this. Then on the train, a few days on, whilst leaning out the open doors channeling my inner Eat-Pray-Love-Tourist-Wanker, I saw 3 different people in 10 minutes throw plastic bags out of the train window. There weren't bins on the train like in the UK, but there were things called humans. With initiative. And common sense. And surely a wider understanding of how a simple action such as throwing a plastic bag out the window instead of putting it in your pocket will not disintegrate for 1,000 years. Even when I was a kid, I obviously didn't know this, but in some deep rooted subconscious way I did. Maybe it is upbringing, and nurture...but I could never bring myself to physically throw a piece of rubbish on the ground. To extend the (bloody awesome) Proclaimers lyrics: "I would walk 100 miles and I would walk 100 more...to drop this litter I've been holding in a bin). I went down the carriage and could see it had come from some local boys - perhaps 15 years old, maybe even their parent. I wanted to punch them all, and I am not a violent person. People say it all reverberates from education. All we can do as a society is watch this space (hopefully no one has thrown a plastic bag in the space).
MEN'S FASHION: they don't move with the seasons of think about "what's in", because there's 2 seasons & they go "consistently vibrant & undeniably practical" which echoes the vibrant buildings and boat colours. I'll admit it: I tried a sarong and it's wonderfully comfy (not just outdoors in humid weather: I trailed it indoors in an air-conditioned flat too. I've bought one for the uk to go with my Bali pants...and I even got Allen our guest house owner to show me how to tie it low (& also high like a functional nappy)
A bit of deli belly, which is natural for spicy food on a western belly. I wore my yellow shorts but only once as I was worried if I shat myself I'd look like I was wearing a banofee pie nappy sarong.
FOREIGN MONEY: apparently the Chinese fronted up the money and labour and built tonnes of infrastructure: then they can say "you owe us big time". We could see big water pipes being laid on the way into Jaffna, which said "made in China" on them.
HONESTY: In any part of the world you will meet good people and ones who will look at you, pre-judge and then take the piss. All we can do is trust our instincts and believe the person in front of us is the former. It's like my Chinese grandma says (translated from Cantonese): "one spoon of sugar, one spoon of sh*t". I just love that this phrase exists in any context. Maybe the language sums it up life: sometimes you CANT yet sometimes it's ON with EASE. I do also think, in reference to a great paragraph from the 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, that a lot of the world's problems would be solved by sitting down with a bottle of vodka (or Arrack, in this case) & saying "let's forget about the past and move forward": Tamils and Sinhalese are all from India - either the south or Bengal reason: but they all claim to be the first ones here. Neither are & they know it - the indigenous tribes were there way before, but they are proactively elusive, now few and far between, and live in the depths of the Sri Lankan jungle and hill countries. According to our guest house owner in Jaffna - Allen, who left Sri Lanka in the 70s when a teenager and lived in Germany for years before moving back here recently - the irony in the conflict (like old and New Testament believers) is that Tamils believe in Buddha too (as a smaller section of their wider beliefs), and have very similar values and principles...and that is surely what should carry through: values and principles, not specific historically-rigid rules of practise, that go against every single natural progression of mankind since the scriptures were written or orally passed down. If only all the world's political and religious leaders could sit down in a bar with their local poison of choice (not that type of poison Putin or Kim Jong) and agree a set of moral and human principles to live by, then maybe as Lennon said "the world can live as one.". Tourism to the north (& south) is political: the Chinese are gifted land in the south (reclaiming land into the sea to build luxury Dubai-style hotels and casinos as an IOU for helping building infrastructure). The south coast in Galle seems to be owned by the surfing companies O'Neill, Billabong and Rip Curl. In the north the navy and army hold a perfectly good runway in Jaffna to ransom, and won't release it meaning you have to schlep by car or train in three times the length of time it would take by direct domestic flights to Jaffna from Colombo or from India or south-east Asia: but the government seem to fear outside fingers in their pie (& tourism, infrastructure & economical boosts it seems, which is in complete juxtaposition to the policy in the north which is welcome Chinese money quicker than you can say 'gluten free paratha'.
SRI LANKAN FLIRTING: right, this one is a quick one and we only came across it once, but it is worth a mention if only for it's gloriously blunt yet oddly poetic sentiment. We were spending a day travelling around the rural coastal scatterings of Jaffna, guided by our tuk tuk driver Raja, who discreetly turned to my girlfriend (when I had hopped out to take a picture) said;
"What's your name?"
"It's a good name."
RELIGION: In south east Asia they call them Yogis or Buddhas: in the western world they call them homeless. Buddha basically says give up your possessions (mainly you shoes. IPhones hidden in your robes are fine it seems) and trek across sharp stones you'll get rewarded with a nice vegetarian meal. We met a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka: he asked us where we were from and we said London. He said "what's your postcode?". Utterly surprised at the response (why would a monk in the middle of Sri Lanka propose that as an opening gambit) I said "erm.....N4". His eyes then lit up and he mused "N4, N4, N4...near N7: Arsenal. N4 goes to Colindale right? Hold on one sec..." Then he got straight into a 10-min Buddhist chant for a local woman and put a bracelet on her (if you're holy and going to kill a conversation on a very exciting upward trajectory, that is a great excuse). When he came back to us, he revealed that he was a taxi station controller in London in his past materially-driven life. It seems odd that buddhists can appear incredibly pure in one sense, then reveal that to get to this state they have disowned an entire family, including a wife and daughters that may have wanted to know him, be supported emotionally and financially by him, and that there was a noble (but seemingly easy) way out...by renouncing everything, shaving your head, getting housed, fed and clothed, and allowing yourself all the time in the world to now rest your mind via meditation. (a severe violation of human rights in itself when ancient stone slabs have been baking in the sun all morning, only for you to have to walk across them in bare feet or socks (which make no difference to the pain). One could say "well if you don't like it don't go there. I don't mind rules, but there is a balance between adapting with the times and plain stupidity on behalf of historical respect: Buddha didn't wear shoes because (a) they didn't exist at the time (b) no one thought to invent them at the time (c) there might not have been stones but soil which is less conductive to heat than stone. Heading to see a temple here was like walking on hot coals. I know Buddha talks about renouncing all your possessions, but non-burnt soles of one's feet shouldn't count. They also charged you to put your shoes away...except you could contest with them (as I did) in which case they would tell you to just pop them in your bag. What a shame they don't make this clear...it is almost like people are trying to monetise religion (oh no wait, that's been going on for millennia). My advice: to prepare the skin on your soles: walk on hot coals for 3 solid months before your fly to Sri Lanka. Or stare at the huge temple (which is mainly about the outsides anyway) and don't go in.
TEMPLES: so let's be quick then; the rules are tops off for men and completely exposed torsos (not even a t-shirt slung over your shoulder), and cover up for women...and absolutely no pics allowed in the big sacred ones (without permission). I'm not sure what the Buddha said (or the Hindu gods) about iPhones: during a religious procession in Jaffna I saw 2 guys with the latest iPhone Xs tucked into their sarongs. After the procession I thought one of the main guys was meditating...he was looking down into his iPhone, perhaps checking his Zenmail inbox or the latest cricket score (which some fanatics regard as religion I suppose). I wasn't even surprised, since it instantly hit me that a sarong does seem a brilliant place to hide a phone. You could take so many cheeky glances at the Internet when in a seated position (some large sarongs can probably even hide an iPad). Also, as far as I understand the practise, meditation (or mindfulness as we call it now) isn't about the absence or blocking of thought. It is about stepping back from them and not getting emotionally attached. If you think of it, that means you could gratify your distractive nature with your iPhone, so long as you were acknowledging that you were gratifying your distraction. It's a buddhist loophole, to be sure...and one that Apple and Samsung must love. One girl was praying to different gods with a Samsung Galaxy wedged in her hands, as a prayer gesture is a really convenient and effective for holding (and hiding a phone)...I'm guessing the most sacred God of all to her was her Instagram account: she had a selfie pic of herself as soon as she came out of the temple, with it in the background.
ROADS: no wonder people wear the most amazing bright colours all over their body...it's so they can be high-vis for the mental traffic, and use of horns all the time (& lack of pavements).
TOURIST C*NTS: there was an unbelievably annoying western tourist who thought he knew everything but didn't know a thing and was being so so rude to the locals at Mangoes, which was an amazing local restaurant. You may be wondering: why did I want to run to the kitchen, grab a raw sweet potato and wedge it in his mouth as a gag to plug the shit eminating porously from his sad excuse for a mouth? Maybe comments like "curries only at lunchtime? Do you have ANY other food?" or "wow there's no atmosphere here, and no one is eating with their hands" or "this place is so expensive" (it wasn't and amounted to less than the cost of a Tesco sandwich), "you can get it much cheaper elsewhere"...I really wish he'd gone elsewhere, so I didn't have to lock eyes with the waiter and telepathically apologise for every single westerner who has ever stepped foot on the island with a rumbling tummy, calorifically drained due to energies spent on 24/7 feelings of empirical self-righteousness. Wanker.
DIET: the only fat Sri Lankan I saw was a teenager on a scooter in Jaffna. Maybe it's the veggie diet or the fact that your shit out just as much as you hold down (and the curry is so nice, I'm more than happy with those odds). I also noticed that Yogis are always carrying things, stretching and eating vegetarian (although never yoghurt, which would suit their namesake perfectly). No wonder they stay slim.
RESTRAINED EMOTION: my mission in Jaffna was to get an old woman smiling at me. I haven't yet succeeded. To be fair, the only time I've succeeded in this weird little game was on the suburbs of Doncaster at a bus stop, but I think she was drunk and blowing her nose with a used scratch card.
DRINKING ALCOHOL: it is hard to come by. even more so when we were in Jaffna (the northern region opened up in the last 10 years to tourism again after the long civil war). We had read about one place. This excited us both. We made a day of walking around, doing touristy tick boxes, covering a lot of ground and working up an appetite for the good stuff. Around 3pm we got to the fabled JetWing Cafe, a large tower hotel dominating the skyline, and motioning to us with their retro signage. A nice concierge opened the door for us (you can't beat an all-gold sarong with a plastic name tag), and after smiling his face dropped and he said that "suddenly" the government had announced a public holiday that morning which meant a complete ban on alcohol for the day. It dawned on us what this all meant: their rooftop bar and relatively cheap & attractive menu of alcohol was OFF...on the ONLY remaining day we had in Jaffna. To rub it in, we couldn't even go up to the rooftop bar for a coke and the view. So, we ended up, on our final Jaffna afternoon ordering a ginger ale and a Sri Lankan coffee pot. At a restaurant on the second floor, with no view and no punters. We did order some salty fries (they avoid sugar out here but do love the salt). Diabetes should never be a highlight of an afternoon. It's funny how everything starts to look like beer when you can't have a beer: the waiter's gold-coloured shirt and matching sarong uniform, the ginger ale. Even my girlfriend started to resemble the blessed liquid 5% gold. They also always seem to add government taxes - as applicable - to alcohol. It usually ramps it up by 30% to the final price. Oh how annoyed we were that the government couldn't hit us with those taxes. They just decided to do a random public holiday instead. Can you imagine the uproar and economic turmoil that would cause in the UK? Also, wine shops are odd elusive buildings dotted around the centres of towns, or in really rural areas. You order and collect through a metal grill, like you've been let out of prison on good behaviour.
COUPLES: want to rest a relationship to its true limits? Don't just go on a holiday: go on a TRAVELLING holiday together where you're both sharing the cash, you're both in backpacks (my ones covered in piss), there's duel responsibility on each person to have to manage bookings, and heat makes everything twice the effort and twice the length of time. We survived (and I think we're stronger for it). Also, this time I remembered not to roll down a mound (it wasn't big enough to be called a hill) drunk on wine, which I did on our last holiday.
THE NAMES OF THINGS = Bubees Beer Shop, some nuts called SMAK...brought to you from the House of Smak food company, and finally: Arrack (there was a cocktail called an Arrack Attack, which has to be the worst tasting and worst-taste cocktail ever named).
TRAINS: a visceral experience, harking back to the days of more experiential train travel as opposed to the sanitised (but admittedly punctual) 21st century more-economically-developed world's trains. It must be so beautiful that lot of people in search of the perfect selfie die each month via the train running over them (mainly locals) because of their craving to get a selfie directly in front of a moving train (this really is a thing, and not just here but across south east asia). These trains are naturally ventilated which is good if you have 'rotti botty' - which is a term me and my girlfriend coined whilst tag teaming trips to the loo. The trains are twice as spacious as UK trains (more room for your rotti botti to ventilate). There's more than enough room for you, your iPhone, iPad, iLife plus your big travelling bags even though all the people are thin (by 'thin' I include small to medium-sized pot bellies on the older men). Make sure you bring some loo roll, a bottle of water (ideally re-filled from a bigger tub at your guest house, remember) and 'hanny sanny' for the train toilet experience. For the Kandy to Ella route: 2 x second class unreserved, bought on the day 20 mins before, we paid 720 rpa. Remember to reserved 2nd class at least a few days in advance (needed on public holidays always on or around a full moon / weekends / backpacker-heavy trails like Kandy to Ella but not needed need for the Jaffna). Anuradhapura weekday '9.35am' service) would have cost us approx 800rpa each. Third class is even cheaper but second is a happy halfway point.
GETTING AROUND: if our mixture of transport was a cocktail, we did a sprinkle of train (Jaffna to Anuradhapura), 2 unintentional buses (Kandy to Ella, about 300 rpa across the 2 buses, plus random service station stops whenever they want...and hanging out the side so they could maximise space), tuk tuks (the longest journey being 3.5 hours from Batti to Uppuveli - for 5,000 rpa), with a lethal triple shot dose of taxis: which gave our wallet and overall budget a metaphorical hangover. Obviously barter price, and combine it if you can with insight from a local do-gooder who is ideally your guest house host (avoid studying in hotels apart from to splash out for a few days maybe near the end as a reward for good budgeting - and ideally look for a good discount deal: they hike the price up with local taxes so the cost isn't always what it initially looks like on the booking.com page until you're ready to pay). One tip we only found out near the end when booking an airport taxi was. If we'd have asked for a smaller car, instead of a private mini tank they'll naturally assume you want (they don't think to ask you one's preference) we would have got our Uppuveli to Jaffna taxi for 12,000 instead of 16,000rpa if we'd asked for something smaller (we had a 10-seater van to ourselves). Also - asking the guest house you're going to next to book your taxi to them, in advance, is good as they can hook it from their end and hopefully negotiate the best deal for you. For the Kandy to Ella train: since you never know what random public holidays they might throw in, to be on the safe side book reserved 2nd class tickets 1-5 days in advance of travel. In fact, your first mission on arrival into Kandy (if Ella-bound) should be to go to the train station and enquire about he reserved tickets. Most days "it will be fine to just rock up and buy a ticket" (& that's nonchalantly what our friends who had travelled or lived out here told us pre trip)...but we landed in the perfect shit storm of variants that day: weekend train, public holiday (both meaning many more locals travelling), Piccadilly Circus of stations for westerners following Lonely Planet routes, the train not starting there (instead full of Colombo folk who bagged seats hours before). There is a really early train from Kandy - which is the only one that day that starts in Kandy, meaning you've more hope of getting on amongst all the other backpackers...and dread-locked American hippies with surf boards talk about clogging up storage / people space). As a basic rule of thumb locals will tell you always aim to sacrifice a lie-in and do your big travel chunks in the morning as trains and buses run a lot less after early afternoon. Public transport is cheap and with that you accept the risks and unpredictable elements of the unknown - it's a deal wth the devil you can play so long as you know who may get burned once or twice, not by your wallet but by your valuable minutes spent out here.
READING: take a good book (or two): you may even get too into it. My girlfriend told me not to interrupt her on the train as she was in the middle of a lesbian love scene (if she has discovered nothing else from this trip to Sri Lanka she's discovered Victorian soft porn). Don't use your favourite small day rucksacks. They will get battered and bruised (I'm speaking the obvious now for any nomadic-style travelling).
JAFFNA IS 100% WORTH IT: it is a trek up to the very north of the country, but a trek well worth making: make your way up the east coast to Uppuveli then negotiate a taxi cross-country, or do Ella and the south, then hop on a the west-coast train line from Colombo (or Anuradhapura) the rest of the way north. The best find in Jaffna that wasn't in the guide books was a little shop on Hospital Road - also, the archaeological museum was a lovely quaint little oddity with some genuinely old and unique artefacts. Also, our guest house host Allen - (Allen's Home Stay). A few words on Allen: it's worth staying at his just for his local knowledge, his personal backstory and his company, alone. He serves you fresh fruit from his garden, or the local market he cycles to each morning, coupled with breads and little gluten-free treats (he really went above and beyond for my coeliac girlfriend - researching online first what was in typical Sri Lankan ingredients, and even calling ahead to restaurants we planned to go to, to chat with them about what ingredients they put in certain foods so he could advise us what to order and what not to order. He also organised tuk tuks for us with his driver Raja, and you know from the cheap price of these that Allen wasn't taken a commission on top. He also organised us an amazing tour of the islands, where for 3,300rpa Raja took you on an excursion from approx 10am - 3pm, stopping off at beaches. They're not really the swimming kind - that's more for the East and South coastlines (if not only to avoid to plastic washed up on the shores compared to the more 'litter aware' tourist hubs, Raja's tuk tuk travail also included ancient (and modern but equally interesting) temple sites, a military run hotel where there's no atmosphere and an eerily quiet but fine pitstop for a juice (no alcohol served) - plus a glance at the lighthouse (and retro cars). Raja will even stop off for you to tickle your fancy of Sri Lankan snacks at a local unassuming bakery on the suburbs of town to finish off the trip. The highlight was ironically being in the tuk tuk itself: whizzing past small island-scattered villages and a small irreverent sea crossing platform near the start. Be sure to explore the bullet holes in the walls by tiny ferry port; being able to put your fingers into the scars of war is eerie and a timely reminder of how humans can be so incompetent and dumb in thinking that provoking physical and emotional conflict will bring peace and tranquility. When you return to Allen's, grab a book, sit on the Sri Lankan loungers, grab a beer and check your emails and Insta: his irreverent abode is in a quieter less-polluted part of the region, which is a 5 min stroll to the epic temple & ice cream place (not so epic), and a 20 min stroll into the main centre (the Hospital Road / old town stretch). I'd recommend staying at his place - to anyone visiting Jaffna.
WIFI: surprisingly good out here - compared to South Africa. We should, in hindsight, have bought as pre-loaded sim with a good chunk of data on. You realise you need it when you have to call the next guest house you're heading to, or to use your google maps to get around (street signs have a magical Hindu power of appearing a lot in certain places then disappearing altogether).
FINALLY, DON'T (ALWAYS) STICK TO THE GUIDE BOOKS:
Let's start this point with a cautionary tale: when we rented bikes and did the 5-7 hour cycling tour of the ancient city of Anuradhapura (trying saying that quickly after 3 shots of Arrack), the Lonely Planet described it as a red-soiled car-less trails around the ancient city. Most of the trail is concrete roads, with tuk tuks, scooters, cars and trucks whizzing past you at speed. Ah - so tranquil (or not). Guide books can be a bit like GPS - people can rely on them so much (& get solace in them) that they just stick to the recommendations and don't open their eyes to actually experience the in-between bits where they might discover something amazing. We weren't even in the county's high season and sticking to the guide books means accepting that in places of limited day/evening entertainment and maximum tourist traps - you will be in front of (and behind) the same tourists from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep: it's a tourist conveyor belt. If you're happy riding it then stick to the Lonely Planet, smile and ride away (& play a fun game of spotting "that Ozzie tourist wearing a ridiculous sarong"). A healthy balance is best: I'm not suggesting you disregard every single admirable thing the guide books point out (most of which are genuinely the most interesting things to do in any area of the country) but I'm also suggesting you put the book down and just have a good wander through some streets that tickle your instincts (on instincts: streets that don't, don't go down, obvs).
And that's it. Happy travels...and let me know how you get on @mojtaylor