Just a moment ago it was so hot and muggy I thought I could not breathe anymore. Now, only some minutes after my first contact with the hot wet climate of Sri Lanka, the air condition ensures the tiny hairs on my arms to stand in an upright position, as if they wanted to see what is going on outside.
Our posh minibus tailgates through the traffic at the international airport of Colombo – slowly, but it is as fast as it can get, with a loudly and constantly ranting driver. I imagine the scene as one from a comic book. Squeaking tires that lose street contact in curves, one time on the one side one time on the other. Three pencil strokes signalizing speed, flashes that indicate danger in narrow passing maneuvers.
Then again I am sure to be inside the Knightbus, that bus from the fantasy world of Joanne K. Rowling that can simply squeeze ist way through traffic by thinning itself on London roads. We are not as fast as the knightbus but we are driving as audacious. Without the slightest sign of regard for school kids, workers, dogs, and cows that stroll on the streets on their way into the inside of the metropolis.
Twenty minutes later, it seems like a miracle that we did not collide with anything or anybody, that the bumper is still intact, and that nobody had to chuck up yet. We have made our way out of the heavy traffic around the airport and city center and are now driving towards the countryside on a four-lane paved road. Actually, people use it as if there were ten lanes or more. It does work somehow. Scooters swarm among cars and buses, it is loud, and in regular intervals some ear-piercing honk will sound from someone. It is chaotic – and I have to conclude that Colombo really is just another Asian metropolis, a Moloch that lures the rural poor and the day laborers of the textile industry that come here daily in the vague hope of working opportunities. I have never seen cows on the road anywhere though.
They are the ones we really have to watch out for, our guide Janaka explains. It is the first time he speaks up. In the same breath he reassures us that both our driver and co-driver are highly experienced folks and that traffic accidents only happen “on rare occasions” here. What follows is a forty-five-minute speech in excellent German on the beauty of Sri Lanka and its capital city – which until now we could only vaguely discern. But to get back to the cows: Just like in India, they are sacred animals and therefore they must not be harmed. It would be unimaginable to see one involved in a traffic accident. You would rather drive into the ditch yourself than hitting the animal.
As we are leaving the boundaries of Colombo behind to go upcountry Janaka has finished his speech and we have left the dirt of the city behind. Although the air-condition is working and all windows are closed I imagine the air to be better out here. There are not quite as many pedestrians here and the streets are narrower. Still most of them are tarred. The people we are passing with the top speed of 30 kilometers per hour are watching us with surprise. Women in saris stand still and observe us quietly, young men wave at us with a smile.
I use a short rest stop in a small village to smoke a cigarette with two of my female co-travelers. We notice a small group of women positioned in some meters distance who apparently whisper about us. We wave at them and they start to giggle.
Soon I realize that the 200 kilometers we will cover that day will not be covered nearly as fast as I thought. We struggle with potholes and even though we are fighting the jetlag we cannot even think of taking a nap. The periodically returning remnants of the south western and north eastern monsoons make for the erosion of Sri Lankan grounds. The asphalt cannot hold against the power of nature. Janaka, the buffoon, notices our disbelief in the fact that apparently nobody cares about road conditions here and laughs at us. “Do you know rock’n’roll? Yes?” In the following dramatic pause I wonder what he is up to. Just before I reach a conclusion, he starts again and explains: “The roads are like waves. We call that rock’n’roll.”
We need six hours for the drive to our destination, Balawatukanda, a tiny village situated at the border of the Sinharaja Rain Forest, with a boutique hotel enthroned high above on a hill. We have seen countless cows on our way. It has started to rain and the narrow path to the hotel is muddy. We have to get out of the bus as our driver is trying to do the impossible: Driving up the path. It does not work. Just when we have come to terms with walking the two kilometers to the hotel up the hill, five men with tuk-tuks appear from nowhere.
In the morning, we walk to the bus. The journey continues. Rock’n’roll, baby! We drive by tiny huts, kids jumping about at the roadside, and women selling banana and papaya. Some meters from the entrance of a temple our driver stops. We stay seated, as does he. From the opened window he bows to a small Buddha statue next to a glass case. Then he fishes for something in his pocket, gets out some money and throws it into the case. I ask Janaka what he is doing and Janaka grins: “The Gods guard us on our journey so that we stay safe. But you do have to pay for your safety.”
I rummage around in my bag in search for change.
My trip to Sri Lanka was supported by Sri Lanka Tourism and Sri Lankan Airlines.