The traffic jam started on the outskirts of Pussellawa, Sri Lanka. Lorries, buses, cars, and tuk-tuks were crammed on both sides of the road. There seemed no way to go. But with a bicycle, there’s always a small gap to squeeze through. Sam, our guide, had told us it would be busy. We weren’t expecting this.
We swerved in and out of the traffic, broke every cycling rule. We pushed and shoved our way around people and cars and squashed ourselves between high-sided lorries and buses, belching black fumes.
And in front of us, there was a giant pink elephant. We’d cycled long and hard, up bend after bend; the heat was oppressive. And as if it wasn’t hot enough already, the country was in the throes of a heatwave. Pools of water prickled our skin. We felt a little feverish, so it wouldn’t have surprised to see pink elephants. But this one was real.
We heard drums beating, trumpets blasting, and whistles whistling. A policeman waved his arms and urged us to move our bikes off the road. The elephant, resplendent in a pink-and-red-jeweled overcoat and headdress, led a procession of women dressed in purple and pink silk saris; there were ripples of color, splashes of orange and red. The women walked behind the elephant pulling a wheeled temple, children in tall orange headdresses followed trailed by muscular, bare-chested men wearing white sarongs.
It was an extraordinary, chaotic scene, a multi-colored microcosm of Sri Lankan life on a small town’s streets. As the procession passed and we cycled out of town, we passed a funeral procession, a black car bedecked with flowers. Men and women dressed in black and white were walking up the hill. We skittered past¸ embarrassed, uncomfortable, intrusive spectators at another aspect of local life.
But this was the real pleasure of cycling in Sri Lanka. We could have gone by car, but we wanted to see everything close-up, experience the country’s sights, sounds, and smells, see behind the tourist veneer and take the roads less traveled.
Our cycling took us along river banks, canals, lakeside paths, and undulating rural back roads. At every pedal turn and bend in the road, we felt the thrill of the unexpected. We saw giant, muddy elephant footprints on the tarmac, glimpsed the flash of the white-throated kingfisher, watched monkeys tightrope walking on the wires across the road, amazed at the giant jackfruit’s green pimples in roadside stalls, smelled wood-burning fires, and eyeballed crocodiles in the lakes.
Every day was full of surprises and strange and beautiful moments. It wasn’t just the unusual things we noticed. We spotted the commonplace, the stray dogs and sweepers, and the smiles on the children’s faces as they raced to their front gates to wave while shouting friendly greetings. We witnessed the gentle rhythm of everyday life.
But like the pink elephant episode, there were unexpected delights. We stopped to drink water and found ourselves outside a nursery school. It was the start of the Buddhist New Year celebrations, and parents were invited to watch their children perform. We were also invited into the garden. We walked down the slope to a grassy hollow where beaming children in blue and yellow satin dresses and shirts danced and sang, and where their mothers, in dazzling silk saris, watched and took photographs. Like everyone, we were given a bag of homemade sweets to take away.
We lingered in another village to take photographs of a red vested bulbul sitting on a wire. A man appeared from his house and invited us into his garden to see the little bird’s nest, which sat in a tree just outside his front door. Soon, the whole family came out to say hello and chat. As we were about to leave, they offered fresh coconut juice. The man pointed to a palm tree in his front garden where the fruit was still on the tree. Sam climbed up, passed down the heavy coconuts, and we soon drank fresh juice. Rehydration didn’t come any better.
We took a break from cycling and stopped at a mountain stream and swam, still in our cycling clothes, in the cool gushing waters, holding onto rocks to prevent ourselves from being washed downstream, while fish nibbled at our fingers and toes.
In the evening, we headed down an orange, dusty road to a village in the Tambalawawe district to a family’s simple home in the jungle. The man, an agricultural worker, told us that he had been bitten by snakes 21 times.
His wife prepared a traditional vegetarian meal of rice, dahl, and bean curry with spicy greens and coconut. She cooked it over a fire in the garden, where only the previous week they had discovered elephant footprints quite close to the house. We sat at a long wooden table under a teak tree, the moon shone down, and lightning flashed across the sky.
The next day, we headed into the Hill Country and soon learned how the terrain got its name as we climbed toward tea plantations. We pedaled slowly, bend after bend, cocks crowing, jackfruit the size of rugby balls hanging from the trees, pink bananas and giant watermelons in roadside stalls, and the verges edged with yellow and flame-colored lilies.
Up and up we went, and the vegetation changed. There were leggy eucalyptus and cypress trees, and the air was fresher with pine and wild mint aroma. There were odd patches of shade. The reservoir under my helmet was still overflowing and creating a secondary pool on my top lip. We could see the sturdy tea bushes, closely planted in ridges like well-trimmed hedges, as though the hillside were covered in a brilliant green carpet of moss.
After nearly four hours of pedaling, I gave up. I got off my bike and walked the final 300 yards to the tea plantation, some 6,000 feet above sea level.
But of course, the struggle to cycle uphill had its reward. The next day, we free-wheeled downhill for two-and-a-half hours.
We had talked about the Buddhist religion and reincarnation with our guide, Sam, and whether it would be nice to be reincarnated in a flat country. We decided we weren’t yet ready for reincarnation or cycling in a country with no hills.