Dropped at the shabby old colonial train station, I bought a selection of samosas – big fat, crispy spicy motherfuckers, not like the little, wet, flat kind filled with a smidge of green mulch you get from Iceland and such supermarkets back home – for a matter of pence.
I got a train to Kandy – some more pence spent – and, for one of the first times in my life, consented to pay (10 rupee) for use of the toilet – (something called the “Tourist Toilet” was locked) – which was the most God-awful place I’ve ever set foot in (though I’m sure I’ve set foot in others just like it) – the air so thick with the smell of hot piss and shit that I was afraid it would penetrate the paper bag and permeate my remaining samosa.
Sitting waiting for my train, it took me a second to realise the bag was in fact glued together pieces of scrap paper (it is this way throughout Sri Lanka) – mine was some form of instructions, printed in beautiful Sinhalese script, in 2011, with some minor corrections made in red pen and a scattering of greasy fingerprints – some mine.
How poor is a country that can’t afford brown paper bags, and has to implement this kind of re-cycling? How much are brown paper bags, anyway? All questions I’d never have thought to ask.
I sat and read for an hour, watching kids jumping the tracks rather than go all the way to the bridge, something I was really glad I saw and always think it would be funny to try in England, if I didn’t know exactly what would happen, where serious, well-off people have been serious and well-off for so many generations they forget that something as natural as taking the shortest distance between two spaces is not a heinous crime…
…then watching a man sweeping up with a dustpan improvised from an old oil carton – and couldn’t help but remember New Years’ when I woke to discover with some annoyance that Ruth had thrown out our dustpan-and-brush as it’d been a necessary tool in cleaning up my vomit the night before and I was being charged an outrageous 50 pence to cover the damages, when I would have just washed the damn thing – then snapped back to the present to join the mad rush for seats as the train pulled in and people started jumping on while it was still moving and coming in somehow from the side where there’s not even a platform, so even though I was one of the first through the door I got the last seat on the carriage and even then only by a split second and with a look that said “you can fuck right off” to the guy trying to save it for his friend.
A sign said in Sinhalese then Tamil then English, “No Smoking & No Liqueurs”.
The train eventually left the city and when passing over jungle-lipped rivers I could imagine coming across Sri Lanka at the dawn of the colonial era and could see how it got its name, which means “resplendent island” – which in turn means an island that is “attractive and impressive through being richly colourful or sumptuous”.
But then the river would pass, followed by another road of dirt and shitty houses and once again the impression returned of a place quite fucked.
From the train I saw a topless young women lit up by the blinding sunlight that spilled into the window of her wooden home. She was swept away in an instant, but I knew what I saw. This may explain why I have so much to say about the passing landscape, but eventually I did succumb to the exhaustion and the heat and all the bodies packed in swaying tight confinement, and hung my head in my sweaty lap – my sweaty thigh fused to the sweaty knee of my neighbour – nodding back and forth and waiting for the sleep that never came.
I felt a nagging pain in my folded left forearm and finally looked, to find a big-old bug hanging onto my flesh. I had to take two swats at the thing to get it loose and then never did find it or know what it was. The bite swelled up and continued to hit me with the pain to the point where I kept thinking it had come back for more – returned to the scene of the crime. I knew I’d by fine but in my tired delirium conjured up ideas of poisonous creatures and…God I needed rest.
Jumping off in Kandy, amidst jungle-furred mountains, I procured the card of a hostel from some British backpackers on their way out of town.
I took a tuk-tuk up the winding hill road, through a long, dark, dripping tunnel, weaving through traffic that the driver wasn’t even looking at – reminding me of that thrill of tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis that is one of the joys of travel, like the time I perched on the back of a moped, racing through some busy little Cambodian town to a bus I would almost miss, with backpack on back, water in one hand and a guitar-case in the other, or the time me and Ruth found ourselves stranded at a nudist beach not far from Salvador, Brazil and had to pay a couple of guys to ride us over the hills…yes, the joys of travel!
Eventually I laid down in my dorm bed, under mosquito net and sheet – thin in all respects of the word, with faded stripes of various colours – as all sheets are in Sri Lanka – and finally, sleep, 50 hours overdue, took me…
…Noises in the night, like some kind of distant street-race, squealing tyres, all of which actually the howling of animals and birds…
…I assumed I’d wake up at least partially recovered but instead the flu regrouped and laid my out for two days.
So, though I wandered around Kandy in the cooler evenings, people-watched, ate and so on, I didn’t go to the Sri Dalada Maligawa – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – apparently home to one of Buddha’s teeth, “snatched from his funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess” – bullshit! – which I’m told is sealed away in a gold container anyway, and with a hefty entry fee for tourists.
If you’re unfamiliar with this blog, or with me, I apologise, but I’ve seen far too many temples and been in the presence of enough faux-religious relics to give a shit.
For the naive or the just-starting-out, I’m sure the Temple of the Tooth sounds very cool – like one of those things you just have to see/do in a lifetime, but the truth is, the world is full of crap like that. You can’t see it all. (You can’t “see” it anyway!) Nor does it, in my experience, enrich your life in any way – unless you’re a Buddhist, or maybe a Dentist, or for some other reason have more than a passing interest in teeth – and won’t tell you anymore about Kandy that a walk down the street, or a visit to any home, shop, public toilet.
I know there’s a raging debate in the travel blogging world about “travel snobs” and “whether or not to see the sights” and I’m not trying to get involved in that or judge anyone who does enjoy seeing the main attractions, whatever they may be, as most people do. In fact, I try not to judge how anybody travels (exceptions made for complete retards)and simply ask that you don’t judge me, or label me a “travel snob” and so on.
The truth is I never meant to come to Kandy. I just came here to sleep, and then found it to be one of the best parts of the country.
I woke at strange hours, wandered the hostel like a ghost, lay out on the terrace watching the impossibly tall trees shift this way and that in the pre-dawn, so full of life. Unable to comprehend this surreal view, like something from a dream, where the red or white lights of tiny, far-off tuk-tuks seemed to appear in the canopy and somewhere, somehow there was a road, and people’s houses, in all this madness and nature. It was a view that could never exist back home.
There was an immense sense of peace here and I took back everything bad I’d said about Sri Lanka.
Soon I would be well, myself again, ready for the adventures ahead.