After a breakfast of tea and a rather weird cheese croissant-type thing, we walked back up Galle Road towards the train station in the full heat of the mid-morning sun. Under the white blast, the unkempt, brown hair on my head suddenly felt thick and unnecessary.
On the road we saw the President of Sri Lanka whizz past twice in his heavily escorted limo, each time in an opposite direction. Every pass involved a person-by-person clearing of the road by a team of blue-fatigued soldiers hustling every last pedestrian and car into side alleys and behind closed gates. Upon the passing of the lengthy convoy, there ensued a spectacular wave of traffic and people pouring back out into the street, Truman Show-style.
Walking along the beachfront promenade amongst the young couples and wandering old men, we met Sebastian- a friendly, informative little guy of about four-foot nothing who spoke excellent English. He was a local gardener on his break and had an hour to kill; would we like him to help us around the city and show us some sights? Yes. Yes, we would. He launched into an enthusiastic description of a ‘festival with elephants’ to mark the 2,550th anniversary of the Buddha’s arrival in Sri Lanka- ‘You don’t know about this?!’ He explained that, by coincidence, our appointment to confirm our connecting flights to India in a month at the Sri Lankan airways HQ and the train station are all right by this festival.
He quickly hailed a tuk-tuk to take us to this festival, via a stop at the train station where Sebastian and Alec popped in to check when the next train south to Hikkaduwa was, while the tuk-tuk driver did his best to sell me a ‘bouncy-bouncy’ massage (as he himself put it).
Presently we arrived at the Buddhist museum a few blocks away, set into a quiet wooden courtyard area under the shadow of a towering tree covered in prayer flags and multi-colored ribbons. Dashing in our bare feet across the scalding hot, black marble floor and into the shadows, we were given the piece-by-piece tour of the establishment. We were shown all manner of Buddha statues including one bizarre wooden carving of an emaciated, almost skeletal Buddha close to death. We also climbed a walkway to get close and personal with the awesome 500-year old tree that we were invited (‘Mr. Alec, Mr. Ben, you come’) to water with silver urns to give us good luck, pay homage to the Buddha and do the caretakers job for him. We were blessed, made a small donation and were given thread bracelets to commemorate our blessing.
This place was an idyllic environment, and as shady, relaxing and Buddhist-vibed as you would hope it would be, except that it was a seriously rushed tour, with Sebastian hustling us on to the next room at every opportunity. The 2,550th anniversary was being celebrated by the fact that we were allowed to take pictures only today. Hmm. Festival-spirited, I guess.
I suppose we should have become suspicious when Sebastian told the rickshaw driver to wait outside the museum and barely devoted about ten minutes to the tour. We headed to a park, where Sebastian popped the question; an inevitable one, in our enlightened hindsight.
“I help you, now you help me. We are friends, and friends help each other, yes?” He eyed us expectantly with an outstretched palm.
Travel lesson number two: It’s always handy carrying small notes with you if you can. It’s never great if you’ve spent a lot of effort haggling down to a good price or are paying an arbitrary amount- a tip or something- and all you’ve got is a thousand rupee-note. Small change suddenly seems to be a valuable and rare commodity that no-one seems to possess, least of all the trader you’ve just been locked in a haggling death-match with. Oh dear, looks like it’ll have to be a thousand then(!)
Paying him this little something wasn’t an awful or unforeseen happening, but when we stopped and got out of the tuk-tuk, the driver tried to get one thousand Rupees out of each of us. Sebastian attempted a spot of reassurance that this was a fair price (“Don’t worry, I pay too!”) before- predictably- getting back into the same tuk-tuk. Sebastian and the driver practically started dividing up the money in front of us, and before we know it we are eating dust with their imaginary, money-counting chuckles ringing in our sweaty, sunburned ears. We had been blagged, hard. He left us with a casual wave across the green as the tuk-tuk buzzed away: “There are elephants in that park”.
We had on our hands a long, hot walk of shame across town and back to the Airline offices. He wasn’t even telling the truth about the office and the ‘festival’ being near each other. Nice touch, Sebastian.
We eventually caught our train down to Hikkaduwa, via what seemed like a hundred stops on the busy suburban rail network and a changeover once we had cleared the city altogether. On the second train we got involved with a big group of commuters, most led by a banter-spinning, camera-posing, arm-wrestling protagonist. It was a hilarious train ride with some very friendly people, and a beautiful sunset out our right window over the palm trees and out to sea. We are now sat in a Hikkaduwa guesthouse, sunburned, hungry and only slightly bitten.
We’ve just had a gorgeous potato curry in an empty little roadside restaurant covered in before-and-after pictures of the Boxing Day Tsunami and Massive Attack on the sound system. Afterwards, I stopped the patron and took a couple of the sausage roll-come-samosa objects she was carrying away. They were very tasty indeed. Take the filling of a vegetable samosa, add a touch more potato, some crunchy onion, some fresh chilli, lemon juice and some soy-sauce and serve it up warm inside a thin, soft pancake-style wrap and you have a what is apparently a vegetable Roti. She tells me they are common-as-muck round these parts. We’re going back for breakfast.