Six hundred miles and Sri Lankan smiles: views from the back seat

20160224_201202The creases in Ranjith’s shirt sleeves were razor sharp. Two first-timers to Sri Lanka in the back, with a 600 mile wish list, and no pre-booked transport? This was a big day for him.

At the wheel next to Ranjith: his friend Nandana. Sensing a flinch as we squeezed between two tuktuks and a trash cart, Ranjith passed us a Fablon-covered, school exercise book containing a good half dozen customer testimonials and bearing the handwritten label: “Best Driver in Sri Lanka“.

We’d met Ranjith only days before, in the crush of a Colombo station platform with the train to Galle due any second. As the crowd’s chatter got more excitable, he ordered us to follow. We nearly lost him in the squash, but suddenly we were heaved in–and stuck fast in a noisy melee in the aisle. Ranjith was wrestling his arms free to wave other travellers away from the seats he’d appropriated for our benefit; extending his ‘tourist guide’ lanyard officiously at any detractors.

Not only was he able to find us seats in the scrum, but offered, once we were on our way, to book us a driver for the next, unplanned stages of our journey: the roadtrip to Tangalle, and on to our camp safari stay in Yala too, if we liked. ‘Call me,’ he urged, handing us a scribbled phone number before plunging back into battle to find a seat for himself.

A couple of days and several phone calls later, the two men rolled up at our hotel in Galle, bang on time, in an eighties Toyota minibus. ‘You see?’ laughed Ranjith, tapping his watch. ‘We are on the dot.’

P1030167We settled back into the relative comfort of our chariot: complete with air conditioning–until the road’s gradient required more engine power, and it got unceremoniously switched off, replaced by a buffeting breeze through all four open windows; hairdryer-hot.

We swept and swerved though an occasionally shambolic mix of ‘high streets’, offering groceries, bridal frocks, ECGs and ‘auto-tinkering’ ; then on through miles of hand-to-mouth rural communities fronted by almost identical roadside stalls, groaning under the weight of jewel-bright exotic local fruits; pre-schoolers beside them flashing us shy smiles as we passed.

Between the busy communities along our way were breathtaking views: sweeps of open plains, dense, lush green rainforest foliage, hills peppered with tea plantations and roadside paddy fields–this chaotic place was truly beautiful, too.

P1030329As we parted company with our driving duo at the Tangalle beach house we’d booked; its young waiters eyed up our taxi with a blend of derision and opportunity. One whispered that he ‘knew someone’ whose vehicle had smarter seats, cooler air con. But the deal had been sealed, and so a couple of days later, with Ranjith away on business, it was back into Nandana’s trusty Toyota for the next stretch to our safari stay in Yala, and then on, and up and up, into Ella. Like many hired guides and drivers here, Nandana was knowledgeable, friendly and helpful–pointing out temples; tumbling waterfalls, wildlife; stunning views to stop at and snap, and cafes with tea for twenty pence a cup.

Two days later, a hot and heavily overcrowded train from Ella to Kandy had us longing for the relative comfort of the open road again. Our homestay host had a stable of drivers at his disposal, who whisked us around the delights and culture of Kandy town, and off to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa to climb the Lion Rock and see the stunning cave temples.

A gold braceleted Ravi took us on the last leg of our trip to Negombo before our flight home–this time in a super-smart people carrier. The last ‘high street’ on our route was bustling: little lottery stalls with tickets on tiny pegs; girls eyeing up ‘redda’ skirts in bright, brash prints. Suddenly, the mood changed, as a monsoon started hammering down on heads and metal and merchandise.

P1030465Traders and customers scuttled under shopfronts to wait; tuktuk drivers pulled over to unfurl their vehicles’ plastic side-shields. The whole scene was stuck on freeze-frame until, after just a moment, the motion of a lame dog hobbling over to lap at a freshly filled pothole puddle, seemed to release the pause button.

Shoppers moved again; unrolling telescopic umbrellas that had been yesterday’s sunbaked parasols; others clambered on to scooters, still holding brolleys, toddlers and shopping, and wobbled precariously home. In a paddy field outside town, a man in bare feet trudged on through the boggy mire. Opposite, two water buffalo grazed and chewed; impervious to the old man cycling past them in drenched shirt and sarong, topped off with a candy-striped, plastic carrier bag hat.

Ten minutes later, the monsoon ended as we neared the airport. Schools along the route were closing for the day; pupils dressed immaculately in pure white, spilling out like snowflakes; soon melting into the steamy heat of the street. A mile or so and they’d all be home. Five thousand more and we would be, too–with a million memories of trains, tuktuks, proud drivers, never ending fruit stalls… and wide, Sri Lankan smiles.

Where have your best road trips been? What are your favourite memories?

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