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The Great Wheel of Colombo

Back at the Hotel Nippon, our return was met with resounding glee by the three women who worked at the front desk, and an inexplicable coldness from the manager. We had been so happy with our last room at the hotel, which, we could plainly see from the key hanging on the wall, was not occupied. So we asked for it back. But it seemed the room had magically transformed itself into an A/C room during our time in Kandy, and the manager refused to give it to us at the previous rate.

Fair enough. So we asked to be shown to a new room, after which we threw down our baggage and were preparing to relax when we noticed that not only was this room carpeted in filthy red fabric, lit only by a small greasy window, and featuring a truly unnerving cockroach infestation, but the toilet lacked the sprayer that we had come to know and love as a standard component of AsiaWheeling’s lavatory experience. This was simply too much. So we demanded a different room.

The new room was much better, with the standard tile floor rather than a carpet, and we celebrated by wiling away the rest of the evening working on correspondence, waking up the next day to bright sunlight pouring through all four of our windows, the last fragment of an Indonesian style anti-mosquito incense curl still smoldering in the room’s ashtray. Feeling so great that we dared venture out before coffee, we strode downstairs and hopped on the cycles. We were interested in buying the latest issue of The Economist, AsiaWheeling’s favorite publication, but unfortunately it was Saturday, and the only shop in Colombo that carried the magazine was closed. Switching gears, we decided that coffee and food would be vital to our continued existence in this city. So off we went, searching for a place that looked reasonably affordable, sanitary, and open for business.

Somehow, we ended up on a street full of jewel and precious metals merchants, which was protected from all non-two-wheeled traffic by a large security gate. The guards were not interested in AsiaWheeling, though, flagging us right through. Inside we found a strange little hotel (which is what they call restaurants in Sri Lanka). We entered and immediately the owner pushed the normal waiter aside and insisted on serving us himself. We ordered two coffees and two chicken and rices.

When the owner asked whether we wanted large or small coffees, though it was the first time we had been asked such a question in Sri Lanka, we thought of how hard it had been up until this point to get properly caffeinated, and responded “large.” And while the large was quite large, it was positively too sweet to drink, and gave only the weakest signs of containing coffee.

Vast quantities of sugared milk aside, the meal was incredibly tasty. I am quite sure we paid a pretty hefty foreigner tax, but in return we were given a steaming plate of freshly fried biryani rice, topped with succulent, juicy roasted chicken, with a papery crisp skin clinging to it. Ah Sri Lankan food…

As we were leaving, I noticed my bike was making some strange noises, and I wheeled back to the shelter of the hotel’s awning to investigate. As I stared into the depths of the rear tire, the owner and a few of his waiters came out to assist. It turned out to be a rock, glued by street grime to the inside of my rear fender. Easily removed. In exchange, the owner of the restaurant asked us whether we could sponsor a visa for him to come live and work in the USA. We told him that we did not know whether or not we could help, but gave him our cards and told him that if he sent us an email, we would see what we could do (unfortunately, we have yet to receive an email).

Quite satisfied despite the marked lack of caffeine, we hit the road and began wheeling hard for the outskirts. I do believe this is evidence, dear reader, that during our time in Sri Lanka, the AsiaWheeling team was actually beginning to wean itself from its coffee addiction. We had not even had a cup of java yet, and we were wheeling hard, with almost full lucidity.

Scott and I made our way out of the city center and into what turned out to be the Muslim quarter. We attracted a significantly higher number of looks, but none of them were threatening, and the roads were still quite good, so we wheeled on. We wheeled past the port of Colombo, where the air reeks of rotting fish, and large concrete barriers hide its inner workings from the prying eyes of roving adventure capitalists.

We stopped for a cup of Nescafe at a small bakery that appeared to be constructed mostly out of broken mirrors. The owner was happy to chat with us, but suffered from some strange eye ailment, which caused each of his eyes to wander in meandering and completely uncorrelated ways. It was one of those bizarrely unnerving situations in which one feels both compelled and dissuaded from looking.

Back on the road, we picked up a fellow wheeler for a bit, when a young Sri Lankan pulled up on his Chinese mountain bike. He gave up when we decided to tackle a large uphill and disappeared without a goodbye. Wheel safe brother. On the other side of the hill, we found ourselves at a security checkpoint bridge, on the other side of which was a totally different world, which one might call rural Sri Lanka. As we pedaled onward, the roads dissolved into crumbling pothole-ridden obstacle courses, and sported, for one reason or another, huge piles of rock spilling onto the road at regular intervals . Perhaps these were the leftovers, or the groundwork for some vast repaving project.

We had made our way pretty far from the city, and even the roadside goods sellers were beginning to peter out.

We used the vast grid-work of irrigation/sewage canals that seem to cover this whole region to help us navigate, for the roads would often wind this way and that, or simply peter out.

Our water was getting very low, and we began searching for a beverage seller, but there proved to be none around. We were driving by a large construction site, when I spotted a kind of dilapidated stand that had been erected there presumably for the purpose of selling food and beverages to the highway workers. As we wheeled over to it, a large crew of workers were finishing their cigarette and Coca-Cola break.

Without using any words that the woman who worked behind the counter could understand, we asked if they sold water. No, she replied, but they had coconuts. We looked to our left, and sure enough there was a giant cluster of golden coconuts hanging there. We ordered two.

The coconuts in Sri Lanka are perhaps a different species than we had found elsewhere on AsiaWheeling,  for they invariably appear a bright golden color. Any more data on the Sri Lankan coconut situation is more than welcome in the comments.

The coconuts were about 15 cents each, and we settled into a couple of plastic chairs to sip them through two neon straws. It seemed from the insignia on the signage and the uniforms of the employees that this was a Chinese-run construction project here to develop infrastructure by the port and expand an expressway in Sri Lanka. Just as we were speculating about the nature of the project, a van full of workers arrived, and their Chinese boss climbed out. He was on a mission to get coconuts and cigarettes for his men,  but was not in so much of a hurry that he could not spend a little time speaking Chinese with Scott. The man seemed quite thrilled at our mission, and confirmed our suspicions that they were building a highway. It was in fact a highway from the airport to the center of Colombo. As the Chinese man climbed back into his van, we slurped the last of our coconuts, reveling in what a great waypoint that had been.

From there we made our way back toward the main road that connects Colombo with the airport.

We knew its general location now, from the fact that we could see the direction of the new highway that was being built to replace it. Back on the road, we were finally able to buy water and a few snacks at a giant grocery store called “food city.”

The snacks were just barely enough to fuel us all the way back to Colombo, where we found ourselves badly in need of a savage meal. The solution presented itself as we rode past a middle eastern restaurant, which promised us that fantastic dish known as shawarma. We even made the foolhardy decision to purchase a Greek salad from them. This was of course wilted, sandy, and tough on the guts. But whatever…we were thrilled. It had been a great day, a savage wheel, and we were content with the world.  If we had been in an overly celebratory mood, it’s possible we would have purchased a four pack of The Happiest Drink in the World, “BabyCham”.


  1. Mark/Dad | April 11th, 2010 | 9:28 am

    I was wondering about the religious composition of Sri Lanka, and you touched on that a little. It also sounds as if there might be some de facto religious segregation. What have you seen?

    The pictures raise a few unanswered questions. After School (Adults Only)? The three wheeled green vehicle being service?

    And at a brief glance, your panama seems to blend in with the construction workers white hard hats.

  2. Woody | April 13th, 2010 | 1:32 am

    @ Mark/Dad

    Sri Lanka is mostly Buddhist. We saw Buddhas everywhere; but we also met plenty of Sri Lankan people who came up to us proudly announcing that they were christains.

    Here’s the breakdown:
    religion percent
    Buddhism 69%
    Hinduism 15%
    Islam 8%
    Christianity 8%

    Curious about the “After School (Adults Only)” operation? Well, Mark, I think that’s a discussion we should have when you get a little bit older…

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Woody | April 13th, 2010 | 1:34 am

    @ Mark/Dad

    Oh, and the three wheeled vehicle. It’s an auto rickshaw (colloquially called an auto). It’s like a little dangerous taxi. In Sri Lanka they really trick them out with all kinds of after market sound systems, decals and the like. This one was obviously getting serviced, along a road we were riding so we stopped to take a pic.

  4. Val | April 13th, 2010 | 1:36 am

    I’m enjoying reading your Sri Lanka entries, and I have some thoughts about them . . . But no time right now to ruminate.

    However, I can tell you about those coconuts. In Sri Lanka they are called “taembili” or “king coconuts” and are a different species from regular coconuts. In other places you’ve been (and I’ve been), we’ve been served young coconuts (“klapa muda” in Indonesian) and if the coconut matures, it becomes, well, a coconut. Taembili never mature, they just, well, get old. This was all cleared up for me by my friend Garrett Kam (my friend in Bali) who is also a ritual specialist. He explained they are a different species, and, in Bali, they are called “ivory coconuts” and used only for rituals.

    So, that’s all I know about taembili except that they are really good for you (lots of good electrolytes) and I drank them whenever I could.

    It doesn’t sound like you tried any of the buffalo curd in Sri Lanka? Or, maybe that’s coming?

  5. Sujeev | April 16th, 2010 | 2:27 am

    It was so much fun to read this and now I feel like I want to visit my mom for some Sri Lankan food!

    Woody is so right about our weak coffee, too!

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