If you read my last blog about Sigiriya, firstly, what an amazing human being you are (if you missed it, you can still be an amazing human and check it out here). And secondly, and in reality most importantly, do you remember from the photos the maaaahussive green expanse spread out around Sigiriya? Well most of that is a national park. Apologies, I can't for the life of me remember/locate the name.
Anyway, living in this expansive national park are herds of wild Sri Lankan elephants (Sri Lankan elephants are a subspecies of the Asian elephant). And they are kept inside the national park via an electric fence - and a minimal one at that. Think intermittent poles, as per, and a single, solitary wire. It barely looked as if it could keep me in, let alone a 5,500kg elephant.
Fun fact, it turns out NZ tech company Gallagher Group (based in Hamilton) makes electric fences to keep elephants and humans away from each other and have supplied these fences to Sri Lanka. Who knows if they supplied the ones around this national park?
Anyway, Chana (my tuk tuk driver/good friend) had semi-promised he’d show me some wild elephants before we left Kandy but when it came to time to find them I think it is safe to say he had some concerns. Although he wanted to please, I got the distinct impression he had, in times gone by, found himself in some sticky situations with elephants. And thinking about it, tukuk v elephant could end very, very, very (to quote one Donald Trump) badly.
The problem was by the time we’d left Kandy, had lunch, a roadside tea break, stopped to see a cashew nut tree, eaten four or five roadside mangos, and I'd made it up Sigiriya and back down, the afternoon was fast becoming evening. This meant the heat of the sun was fading which meant the elephants were more inclined to play chase the tuktuk.
In hindsight I probably should’ve been more worried than I was. Having only ever seen elephants in captivity, and therefore incredibly excited about the potential of seeing them in their natural habitat, the dangers surrounding this wee adventure didn’t cross my mind. Not even once.
Being right next door to Sigiriya, we were in the national park and on the look out immediately. "Look a peacock," shouted Chana from time to time. "Yup, cool," I replied, trying to faint interest and act as excited about the situation as he clearly was. I finally told him that we had peacocks in New Zealand, and that they were quite commonplace after we stopped to look at the sixth or seventh one he’d spotted. “Oh," he said, obviously disappointed the peacocks weren’t setting my world alight.
Much like I was at the top of Sigiriya, Chana and I were on our own on this winding road through the national park. In the 40 minutes we drove, we passed one lone car. One car, 18 peacocks, not one elephant. Bah!
Somewhat deflated and fast running out of daylight, Chana said it was probably time to get me to the bus station so I could continue north to the Trincomalee and then to Nirwellia Beach where I would be staying the night, and so we headed back towards civilisation. And then, just in the nick of time, we struck gold! A herd of elephants, maybe 9 or 10 (including a baby), about 300m from the side of the road, just chilling by some trees trying to escape what was left of the day's heat.
Now I don’t have the best eyesight and I didn’t have my contacts in so I’d be lying if I said I had any real idea what the elephants were up to, but just seeing them sway about in the distance was nothing short of magic. Magic because I knew they were free. Nobody had put them thir for my viewing convenience. They had the ability to do whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it. And right in that instant, where they were, was exactly where they wanted to be. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the elephants in Auckland Zoo say, are mistreated in any way, but there is something extra special about seeing them in their natural environment, free to wander wherever, with the exception of course being outside the (potentially) Gallagher supplied electric fence.
We must have watched them for a good 20 minutes, the last 15 of which weren't particularly interesting as they walked behind some very tall grass. Reminiscent of watching the ocean move around the exposed part of a smooth rock (yay!), I was watching the grass sway around the peak of a number of elephants' backs. It was riveting stuff! I have some terrible footage on my camera. Minutes and minutes of tall grass swaying in the wind accompanied by my heavy breathing and occasional ’naaaaaawwwwwww’ as a piece of an elephant became visible through the grass.
Chana then dropped me in town with strict instructions on how and where to catch the bus, and to be very, very careful in the north. I’m not sure if his concern was a hangover from the civil war (Chana is Singhalese, and most of the north is Tamil), or things really were more dangerous in the north, but either way Chana had concerns for me.
Waiting for the bus I decided I would read the New Yorker magazine that my co-host at Newstalk ZB (and work Mum), Kerre had bought for me to read on the plane over to Sri Lanka. Opening the magazine it dawned on me... what Kerre had paid for the magazine (NZ$18.50) was pretty much what Chana would make on a good day in his tuktuk. It was one of those moments that reinforced to me just how ridiculously lucky, and awash with riches of every kind I am.
Bus after bus pulled up, going to this place and that, most of which I had never heard of, and although they all appeared to have been on the road for a good few years, each one looked like a respectable ride. As this was my first foray into public buses in Sir Lanka, I was unsure what to expect. But as I said, things looked in order, there were seats, nothing appeared too crazy, I was yet to see any cages of animals board, or get off (ahhhh Laos & Mexico).
And then came a bus so packed to the gills that there were three people hanging out the front door and two out the rear. 'What do you bet this is me...' I thought to myself as one of the three men at the front yelled “Trincomaaaleeeeeeee," and thus the panic to get myself and my bags on-board began.
“Yeeeeeeees," I yelled as I ventured forth, backpack over my left arm, right arm dragging my Kathmandu wheelie. Having barely made it onto the first step, the bus was moving again. My bag still on the ground behind me, I lurched backwards hanging onto the bus for dear life with my left hand. But within seconds there were hands all over me. Some pulling me up, others my bag, and before I knew it my wheelie bag went over my head into the depths of the bus, and I was pulled up onto the second step and into the ridiculousness that was my bus north to Trincomalee.
Imagine someone is about to drop a nuclear bomb on your town, and there is just one bus that can get everyone left in your town to safety. There isn’t enough room for everyone, but whoever gets on/in the bus survives. Imagine how many people would squeeze into that bus. I personally don’t need to imagine because this is how full my bus north was. It was it jam-packed. Sardine like, as they say. There would’ve easily been 10 people in the doorway. I couldn’t see through the bodies to see the people sitting in the front seats, let alone the what was happening behind them.
And of course, as I was the only non Sri Lankan on the bus, all eyes were on me. A couple of stops after I got on, I found myself on the third step, back to the windscreen (yay, there were now only three sides available for sweaty bus patrons to rub up against), wedged between the door and the gear stick looking towards the back of the bus. Although in a new spot, focus had not shifted, all eyes were still on me but the stares had warmed. The ‘what the hell?’ looks had turned to smiles, as Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’, had started playing over the stereo and I, happy to recognise a song, had started mouthing along to the words. It was from singing along to Bob that got me my first interaction, a guy standing somewhere near where I imagined the front seat closet to the door to be, shouted out "Bob Marley". I smiled and nodded as I continued to sing, and in that instant, everyone's trepidation about who I was and what I was about, melted away and we were all instantly friends.
The next stop saw a good five or six people get off and although this didn’t leave us with oodles of space, it meant it wasn’t nose-to-armpit any longer. Quite enjoying the breeze from the door and not really wanting to venture out of it towards the back of the bus I stayed put, which meant I was in prime ‘conversing’ territory for whoever was planning to get off the bus at the next stop. And so the chats began. I met, amongst others, a man who had been in Kandy for the day trying to locate a part for his car, a nurse, an electrical engineer, a teacher - most of whom had perfect English, and some who only knew a few words, but could barely hide their excitement at getting to use them. I chatted cricket (of course), rugby, New Zealand, and at great length, Sri Lanka, what to do, and of course my thoughts on it so far. In between those chats I also found myself the intermediary between the driver and the ticket guy, passing cigarettes from one to the other and back again.
Completely random, on many levels bizarre, and given the speed at which the driver was taking every corner, and my proximity to the door, probably quite dangerous. But so much fun. I know for many people catching a public bus in Sri Lanka, having to stand for an-hour-an-a-half, and spending a good chunk of that time embedded in the sweatier regions of various random people doesn’t sound like much fun. But I loved it. Wherever you’re travelling, you gain instant respect passing up the air conditioned ‘tourist coach’, and instead catching local transportation. And once you have shown your willingness to do what the locals do, that you are happy or even excited to be doing so, they reveal all. It's the same the world over. I’ve had it happen in Thailand, Mexico, Colombia, China. If you open yourself up for experience, show you are willing to try, are interested to learn, people are more than happy to show you, to take you, to share their lives with you.
In that short bus ride north I got offered a place to stay, not once but twice, invited to a day at the beach with one man’s family, and advice galore on where to stay in Trincomalee, what to eat, other paces to visit in Sri Lanka and (most importantly) how much a tuktuk from the bus stop to my accomodation in Nirwellia Beach was gonna cost.
There is a lot to be said for travelling with friends and family. Mainly if everything turns tits up, you have someone to look after you. But also if you go somewhere with someone you see all the time, once you return to wherever you are from, you can relive all those magic moments that happened while you were away, whenever you like. However, it’s my experience that if you travel with friends or family, rarely do you find yourself in situations similar to my bus ride north. For sure, you interact with locals, but not in the same way you do when you are travelling solo. Had I got on that bus with a friend, I would’ve talked to them. Without the friend, it was either the others on the bus or myself. I know it’s not for everyone, but I strongly recommend trying the solo traveller thing at some point if you can. It's such a difference experience.
The bus came to a complete stop when it came time for me to get off, goodbyes and thank yous were shared left, right and centre. I was so high on life it was stupid. Chana and the tuktuk ride north, Sigiriya, the elephants, and then the bus ride. Everything was perfect. And for the umpteenth time in my life I was convinced that travelling was what I was put on the planet to do, FOREVER!
And from the warmth and love of the bus, I crashed into the cold, dank and dark streets of Trincomalee. After feeling like one of the people for a good hour and a bit, in a matter of seconds, I was a once again, a walking ATM. Yet another tourist, ripe to be taken advantage of. My only redeeming quality, the cash in my wallet.
After way too long haggling, I did eventually get a tuktuk to my hotel on Nirwellia Beach. It cost twice what it should’ve, and en route I got the hard sell on everything; a different place to stay, a great tour here, a great tour there, buying weed, getting a hooker, and all at exorbitant prices (truth be told I don’t know the going rate for a hooker in Sri Lanka, but everything through this guy was NZ$100+, when comparatively, most nights' accommodation had cost me NZ$20-$30). The guy driving me was so money hungry I actually did wonder a couple of times if I was going to get to my hotel, or if he was just going to take me where he would get a backhander. And to be honest, what was I going to do if he did? I was in the north of Sri Lanka, no real idea where, alone, and therefore completely vulnerable.
Luckily this didn’t happen and he ended up taking me where I wanted to go. And so I checked in for what was a very quiet couple of days on the beach.
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