A blue balloon conquers the rain

Day 7 started off promisingly with some lovely cycling along back roads which are always so delightful with the local people being so friendly. We circled behind Sirigiya elephant rock and got to see it from the other side. Then the two usual events occurred – the faster lady got separated from the group and this was discovered at the same time as the heavens opened. Luckily this time we were poised to have a break and some tasty deep-fried snacks in a local bakery so we could at least take shelter and doubly luckily, the main group had gone the right way so only Speedy had gone wrong. Yes, the fast lady’s name was Speedy! How apt is that?

After replenishing our calorie stores and the whole group reunited, we were off on the road again, in the pouring rain. The difference between this and the previous wet days were that I was prepared. Out came by bright blue Costa Rican rain poncho, better than any rain jacket as it fits over my rucksack, tucks under my bottom and is of adjustable length as you just tie big knots in the plastic at the sides. So, long enough to cover some of my legs but not so long that it caught in the wheels.

And off I went, and I mean off! Yes, I was fast (by my standards at least). I led the group for the rest of the day and was first to arrive, albeit with not much of a lead, to our next destination of Polonnaruwa. I know that the others indulged me in this and could easily have all overtaken me one by one and left me for dust. But they didn’t and it was as if they had made a silent pact with each other that I should be allowed to do this and so do it I did. I cannot tell you how amazing it felt to not always be at the back and to be able to revel in just how much progress I had made in my cycling.

The ruins at Polonnaruwa were fabulous – palaces, temples, rock carvings, stupas and so on.

Bathing pool
A very elaborate ancient royal swimming pool at the ruins of Polonnaruwa

As usual, they were crowded with schoolchildren in their uniforms – usually plain white to signify a government school and brightened up by their colourful umbrellas. It has been just wonderful to see them out and about learning about their own beautiful country, its history and culture. They are always so happy and desperate to interact with us, their questioning always the same – where we are from and where we are going?

Wherever we went, it was fabulous to see so many Sri Lankan children’s out on school trips
How do the Sri Lankan ladies manage to look so elegant while I just look frankly a bit crazy?

During our tours, the sun came out and the rest of the day it was almost as if the rain had been a figment of our imaginations – except that our squelching shoes stood testament to us not having gone crazy.

Lunch was at another traditional restaurant with food on a lily pad leaf. This time we all sat along the side of the room, our bench seating facing out through a windowless window to the beautifully scenic vista beyond. Better still, this traditional restaurant served beer…

Lily pad lunch
Possibly the best lunch

Back at the hotel, I watched monkeys playing and fighting just beyond the balcony of my room, often running up on to the roof. I was amazed to notice that the view from the balcony was over plains with Sirigiya plainly visible in the distance. How come I had not seen this before? Easy – the constant rain!

Sirigiya view
Sirigiya had been visible from my hotel balcony all the time!!!

Inside my room, the best towel animal ever stood on the bed – an elephant complete with tiny pieces of leaf for the eyes and ridging on the trunk. Yesterday it was a swan and I’ve had all sorts of other animals in other countries but the elephant was just fantastic. I even photographed it from all angles in case I ever felt like giving it a go at home.

Elephant towel sculpture
I’ve had some towel animals in my time at various hotels across the world but none as fabulous as this elephant

We eschewed the by now obligatory buffet dinner for a local establishment. It was not exactly salubrious and we were the only guests. It was however fun. We took part in some terrible karaoke singing, except for our resident celebrity holidaymaker who did a mean rendition of an Elvis number. More importantly, we managed to persuade the restaurant manager, a man reminiscent of James Earl Jones, to help us make a video to my mate Anne. She said she would pay the rest of her sponsorship money if I persuaded all my fellow cyclists to wear face masks from Jean’s pamper packs. I had seven masks, one for each of us but two of the guests had been suffering with skin eruptions and so I made masks for them from some tissues, meaning that I had one each left over for our driver-guide and cycling guide.

Face masks
My cycling companions are the best. They even played along with my face masks capers, as requested (or was it demanded?) by my mate Anne

I think they thought we were bonkers but the video is hilarious. Once Anne has sanctioned it, I think it should be aired publicly…

Climbing in to bed, I noted that my bed had been turned down and someone with a sense of humour had pimped my towel elephant who was now sporting my own sunglasses and a frangipani flower in his trunk.

Elephant 2
My elephant towel got pimped while I was at dinner!

Sometimes it is the small things that make your day but this day was a continual flow of small things. I fell asleep still giggling.

Alas, tomorrow would be our last day. Weirdly, I was dreading the end of the cycling. Yes, I did say that…

Taming the elephant

I had long dreaded our climb up Sirigiya elephant rock.

Sirigiya elephant rock – I climbed this!

Touted to be 1200 steps and hard to very hard in places, it was actually eased by being very crowded with visitors such that while it was steep at times and some of the steps were quite treacherous, it was at least slow.

Climbing Sirigiya
The climb to the top of Sirigiya was interesting to say the least

Again, it was great to see so many local schoolchildren visiting on a school trip. We celebrated our climb to the top with a few more photos in our pink sarongs and took in the spectacular views to which no photos could possibly do justice.

Me in a giant banyan tree

Sirigiya viewThe land below looked like dense forest but the other thing of note was the obvious fact that more raining was imminent.

Back on the road, we were due a shorter cycle due to the length of time the climb had taken. The heavens opened, me sacrificing yet another pair of shoes to the rain and unfortunately we got separated again. The faster lady followed our minibus and went the correct way while the rest of us went with the cycle guide the wrong way. We had a long double back and consequently just got more and more drenched.

Lunch was in a traditional village accessed by a tractor powered by a handheld plough and a dug out canoe.

A canoe ride in the rain was not as much fun as it might have been

This transportation was quaint and vaguely interesting but meant a long journey during which we only managed to get wetter. Lunch was served on a lily pad leaf in a wicker basket and was very tasty indeed but did not last long enough for us to dry off.

Lily pad leaf lunch
The ultimate eco lunch – served in a lily pad leaf in a wicker basket

Then we were back in the canoes for a longer ride across the Habarana Tank, hampered by a head wind. But his point I was absolutely freezing and shivering as I had never shivered before.

Back at the bus some of us decided we had already cycled much further than intended today so we could be forgiven a quick trip in the minibus back to the hotel in the name of trying to dry off and warm up more quickly. Thereupon I indulged in another massage which was very lovely. Or at least, I think it was. It was in fact so lovely that I kept falling asleep and waking myself up with giant snorts. Please don’t tell Gary, Millennial back at home, as he has never forgiven me for doing this in the middle of (and the quietest part of) a Noel Coward play in the west end of London.

After this, it was the by now usual buffet and much wishing that tomorrow would be a dry day…

Rain and aphrodisiacs

Today we cycled late in the day as the morning was taken up learning about all things related to herbs and spices with a lovely tour of a spice garden. The guide was really knowledgeable and a qualified herbalist (whatever one of those is) and clearly very compelling as my fellow cyclists seemed to buy up large in the shop at the end (although I never did establish if anyone bought his much recommended aphrodisiac).

We also all got a back, neck and shoulders massage, or at least, as much of these things that could be accessed with your clothes still on. This had to have been the most pummelling massage I’ve ever experienced and very welcome, although if I’m picky it would have been all the more so at the end of a cycling day rather than in advance.

This was followed by the much heralded coconut scraping competition. Who would have imagined it could be so difficult and I came a clear last with my basket only sporting a very meagre offering of the white stuff? The prizes were tea towels and nowhere near as cute as the tea cosies from the tea picking contest so I was pleased not to have to bulk out my luggage any further.

We had a brief demonstration of things that can be made with a coconut, including the ubiquitous coconut sambal and these strange deep-fried snacks made out of coconut milk and rice flour. They were crispy, but otherwise fairly tasteless, but I do feel bad confessing this opinion as they were quite labour-intense.

Coconut biscuits
They called these things coconut cookies but they were more like crispy deep-fried batter devoid of any flavour

After yet another buffet, this one of higher calibre than some others we’ve experienced, we all thought we’d be off cycling. Alas no! Now we were off to some rock temples. This involved us all buying sarongs on the way. I’m not sure why as some of us already had our arms and legs covered but it was decided we should get matching ones for the photo opps and I must say, they did seem to add a certain je ne sais quoi, even if we improvised with a few metres of the very cheapest pink fabric cut into seven pieces. I had a slight and unjustified grumpiness about climbing 500 steps in the heat of the day without having been forewarned but the temples were impressive and I was pleased I pulled myself together.

Reclining buddha at the Dambulla rock temples
Rock temples
Posing at the rock temples in our glamorous sarongs

The cycling at last commenced on back roads along the side of a river and we saw many children bathing in the river, one girl even attempting to run across water from the other side the get to us to say hello. There were also animals including monitor lizards and it was generally very pleasant until the rain set in. And by rain, I mean an absolute deluge. The conditions became ever more difficult and us ever more soaked through and then group separation occurred with the quickest cyclists trying to get to the hotel faster only to become separated yet further such that when our slow group turned up, only one of the other cyclists had made it. Cue much agitation about the missing cyclists and frantic setting off back down the road by the cycle guide and driver-guide but all was eventually fine and we were all reunited. This hotel was also the best of the trip – lovely big rooms set in lush gardens in the countryside – except that this buffet was so huge it was all very coach trip-holiday camp-esque and not terribly authentic. Still, the wine choice was extensive and the beer cold – just what was needed after such an eventful day.

Bling bling, ker-ching!

I like a good city tour as much as the next person but I don’t tend to buy into the obligatory shopping that most tourists get subjected to on arrival in a new country. I’ve lost count of the number of “interesting” tours I have completed in my time that end in a shop where “you can buy something if you like”. Papyrus factories in Egypt; strange liqueur breweries in Cambodia; demonstrations of tapa cloth art in Fiji and so the list goes on. And so it was when we ended up at a gem factory in Kandy during our only day off during the cycling. The mining technique was certainly fascinating. The exhibition of gems likewise and many I had not seen before. I don’t really know much about jewellery and don’t have many valuable or genuine items as I tend to go for more chunky costume items. The benefit of being indecisive is that costume jewellery is cheap and you can therefore replace it when you tire of it or fashions change. But I had no idea that Sri Lanka was the largest source of sapphires in the world and when we were steered up the stairs after a tour of the modest museum, I was totally unprepared for what laid ahead of me. A quick 5 minute round of the things of sale would suffice and then we’d be out of there, credit card intact and then we’d be off to the next stop on the tour, where no doubt there would also be things for sale. But no, my very quick walk around the gem display led to my eye being well and truly caught by a chunky white gold ring containing red sapphires (rubies to you and me) and I just had to have it. Expensive? Yes. Looked great? Yes. Would I wear it? Yes. Would it remind me of the trip? Of course. Did I deserve it? Hell, yes. And that was that. I exited this particular stop of the tourist trail with my credit card gently sighing in my purse but my purchase pleases me immensely. I don’t have any rings. No-one else is going to buy one for me, I love it and let’s just leave it at that. At least they gave me a free cup of tea for my troubles…

Me and my newly purchased bling with a congratulatory, or was it consolatory, cup of tea

After the gems, it was off to a batik factory. The ladies’ work was impressive and I enjoyed the explanation. The stuff on sale was not so great and was eschewed by all of us; even the lovely things in the shop left untouched due to crazily inflated costs.

An hour of free time in Kandy town centre was spent shopping by most people but my finances were still re-adjusting and I spent most of the time people-watching and taking photographs. After this we were on to possibly our worst lunch stop of the trip, another tourist buffet, this time with too many people stuffed into an insufferably hot room and plentiful but poor quality food. I usually find that the volume of food on offer at a buffet to be inversely proportional to its quality and this was a case that most definitely proved my point.

Next, it was quick trip up a viewpoint over the town which was nice enough but not spectacular and then on to tour of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, the main temple in Kandy. It was a lovely temple with a lot of colour but so many visitors with it being the weekend and getting around was tricky enough, let alone with a guide whose English was very difficult to follow (at least, I think he was speaking in English but the jury is still out on this one). The next itinerary stop of a display of traditional Kandyan dancing and music was not to everyone’s taste and probably double the length of time it needed to be but I enjoyed it. The colours, dancing, acrobatics were impressive; the repetitive beat of the drum and tuneless flute music less so.

Back at the hotel, it was Happy Hour and so it was on to the mojitos. The chef kept reappearing at the bar to ensure we would be going for the usual buffet dinner in the soulless dining room. Today, he promised, he would have wine available at the table, unlike the previous day when we had had this huge rigmarole of purchasing it in the bar and struggling to pay as that seems to involve multiple overly complex processes which cannot be simplified or hastened. He also promised some very special food, namely egg hoppers, a traditional Sri Lankan culinary offering we had surprisingly not encountered before (and never saw again, as it happens), along with live music with a DJ. The meal the night before had been a very average dining experience and we were not convinced. But actually, he delivered and, as it turned out, the owner of the hotel also happened to be dining in the restaurant that night…

So, all in all, it was lovely to have a day off and the events gave us a taste of Kandy without being overly stressful. The dancing into the small hours certainly limbered us up to continue on our way on the bikes the following morning.

And, with the benefit of the passage of a little time, do I regret spending so much money on my bling? Not at all.

Sunset over a giant hilltop buddha in Kandy

Total exhilaration!

Pink post office
The Pink Post Office in Nuwara Eliya

Having never really cycled before, the prospect of 55 kms all steeply downhill from 2400 metres above sea level to just 400 metres, was a little daunting to say the least, not helped by a misunderstanding meaning that the first 16 kms were cycled with us wearing our normal clothes and not cycling gear.

Downhill day
Whizzing along on downhill day – look at the movement in my hair!

But I soon got the hang of it and it was truly a-maz-ing to the extent that the middle 10 kms where we cycled two quite long uphill stretches and otherwise remained on the flat, I felt positively cheated! I actually managed to overtake people on the downhills and did not finish last for a change.

Some of our group cycling on what was the most exhilarating day
Group photo
A group shot on downhill day. Don’t we all look smart in our Variety cycle shirts?

The cycling was interspersed by a visit to a tea plantation where we picked tea leaves, aided and abetted by some local women who were more than happy to be paid to help us in our quests to collect the most leaves in 15 minutes.

The countryside today was just spectacular – beautiful lime green tea plantations that stretched as far as the eye could see, garden supply stores overhanging the steep mountains, rocky outcrops and lovely little mountain villages with the requisite colourful temples and local roadside cafes serving delicious snacks.

Rocky vista
Another gorgeous view of the Sri Lankan highlands
Mountain top selfie
A group selfie taken in a mountain top cafe. I am not sure why I look SO teeny tiny!

IMG_7916On arrival in Kandy, we were treated to a wonderful picnic lunch in the Paredeniya Botanical Gardens and were then relieved to find that the facilities at our hotel were a step up from Fawlty Towers the night before.

IMG_0151IMG_1974There was not only a pool but a bar with happy hour cocktails, plug sockets that worked, showers that did not flood the bathroom and a balcony with a view from every room overlooking a river from where we could see the sun setting.

IMG_6383And – the following day was going to be a rest day. So overall, another really great day and what a relief to now be half way through the cycling.

Climbing, turning orange and photobombing

Day 3 started with a lovely trip to an elephant orphanage to see baby elephants being bottle fed. The most impressive observation was the sheer number of school children visiting the orphanage, many of whom were delighted to see us and talk with us.

After making a donation to fund some milk for the elephants, we were off on the bikes. It was a day of gradual climbing but nothing too strenuous and a welcome relief from the difficult terrain of the day before.

Day 3 of cycling
Day 3 of cycling and still smiling

We made more stops for refreshments and ended our journey with coconut rotis before boarding our bus to climb more steeply towards our lunch stop at Ella, taking in a waterfall with a resident monkey population on the way.

Amazing viewpoint at Ella

Then it was time for an ayurvedic spa treatment, “prescribed” for us by an ayurvedic “doctor”. Not only were we placed communally into a giant pizza oven to steam, pummelled and massaged with oils (literally all over) then placed in a coffin-like steam bath for yet more heat, but this whole process appeared to turn me orange.

I turned orange
My spa treatment turned me orange. It might have been something to do with the lady not wiping off the turmeric facial scrub…

We climbed yet further to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s highest town and checked in to the local equivalent of Fawlty Towers only with several Basils and Manuels. What more can you do when faced with a hotel lacking the basics (including a bar!) than bring your own supplies and interact with the other guests? We made friends with the Indian tour group checking in at the same time only to discover the following day that some of them were actually Sri Lankan government officials! As is often the case, triumph arises out of adversity and this was probably one of the most fun nights on the entire trip!

Paul and moustache
A photo of Paul, set up to capture the impressive moustache behind him
Rachael and her friend
A new found friend, thought to be a like-minded tourist but actually a Sri Lankan government minister!
These ladies were so friendly and very happy to be photobombed!
Lift selfie
Lift selfie – even better in the iPhoto live version with hand movements!

Do enjoy the video which explains the day! xx

A day of literal and emotional ups and downs

Day 2 of cycling began well. The ladies were all looking pretty in pink, we had a lovely view of the beach from our hotel and a drive down the coast.

Setting off
The beautiful coastline at Ahangama that greeted us this morning.
Ladies in pink
Don’t we all look great in various shades of pink?

Initially cycling was great with several colourful temples en route, plenty of friendly locals waving to us and some interesting stops for fruit and coconuts. IMG_2664

Child with coconut
Everywhere we go the children want to spend time with us!
Colourful temples greet us in most towns, large or small.
Out in the country
Today we experienced the countryside first hand for the first time.

But it was a day of gradual climbing and it became hotter and more humid all the time. Eventually it became evident that there was a slow group and a faster group. In order to stay with the slow group, the guide sent the faster group down an alternate route to the hotel along the main road as this meant they were not likely to become lost. The slower group went cross country down increasingly scenic tracks with rice paddies, banana and coconut plantations, all alongside a river. But the heat and humidity took their toll and a couple of us became exhausted, probably to the point of heatstroke. We reluctantly gave in a took a tuk tuk for the last 3 kilometres, topped off by jumping in the pool at the hotel fully clothed in order to get some relief.

A welcome relief
Jumping in the pool fully clothed after a rollercoaster ride of heat, humidity, tears and laughter.

Fortunately recovery was quick and the afternoon was spent elephant watching in the Ude Walawe national park.

Elephant spotting in Ude Walawe national park.