Our New Whip
“Good luck,” said the tuk-tuk driving instructor, as he handed me the keys with an unsteady hand and worried look in his eye. I felt the same apprehension after just failing the tuk-tuk driving lesson and now planning to drive across the country over the next week.
Learning to drive the tuk-tuk wasn’t easy. I had to think about the clutch and shifting gears with my left hand, throttle in my right hand and break with my feet. At the same time I had to avoid the insane bus drivers that pass around corners and ignore any object in their way. But hey, it should be fun right?
We headed off for a three hour drive to our next destination – Kataragama. It’s considered a holy city that’s revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Thousands of people from across the country complete pilgrimages here for the annual Perahera festival in July or August. Some pilgrims travel over 300 miles on foot from the Jaffna peninsula through untamed jungle and harsh weather conditions. The festival runs for about 2 weeks and is dedicated to the Hindu God of war and wisdom, Skanda, known to Sri Lankans as Kataragama Deviyo.
It’s a major spectacle with parading elephants, firewalkers, musicians and acrobatics. Some even perform self-mutilation rituals like swinging on hooks pierced through their skin or walking on hot coals. Although our timing doesn’t align with the festival, we decided to make the journey to Kataragama to witness the daily offering, or puja, which occurs each morning and evening at the temple.
Descending the mountains surrounding Ella, we zipped around winding roads and hairpin turns in our trusty steed. The misty mountains turned into lush valleys and the temperature began rising quickly. We passed by locals along the road or in other vehicles, and their reaction always made me laugh. They see us and don’t think much of it – just another tuk-tuk. Then a double take and a confused look on their face – Is that a whitey driving a tuk-tuk? Then we exchange smiles and I give the non-verbal “Whats up” gesture, like when you see someone you know and nod upwards.
The Elephant Encounter
The road from Ella to Kataragama cuts through Yala National Park, one of the biggest parks in Sri Lanka known for its leopard population. We crossed into the park and noticed a sign that read “Do not stop along the road or you may be susceptible to elephant attack.” Hmmm… not sure how I feel about that. Seeing an elephant: awesome. Being attacked by an elephant: my worst nightmare. Not to mention the fact that we’re riding in a tuk-tuk, which doesn’t provide much protection.
About 20 minutes into the park we noticed that passing cars and tuk-tuks were flashing their lights at us. My initial thought was there must be a speed trap set up ahead with the police handing out tickets to unsuspecting drivers. But then we saw a damaged street sign laying in the road up ahead just before the road curves around out of sight. We began to realize that the flashing lights were not warning us of a speed trap, but rather something much more ominous.
As we passed the downed street sign and turned the corner, a giant elephant appeared. It was standing in the road and not looking like it was going to move anytime soon. I froze, unsure what to do. Should we stop and wait for it to move out of the way? Then I remembered the sign at the park entrance about elephant attacks. “F**k it” I thought, and shifted into fourth gear.
The elephant was not happy with my decision. It reached out with its trunk as we sped past it, almost as if it was reaching for something in our tuk-tuk. Fortunately, the elephant wasn’t quick enough and we managed to pass by unscathed.
We learned what it was reaching for thanks to our next elephant encounter 15 minutes later – lunch! The elephants in Yala are clever trolls. They block the roadway and refuse to let anyone pass until paying up, usually watermelon or bananas will do the trick. During our second elephant encounter we were following behind another car that knew the rules, so they tossed a watermelon into the road and the elephant allowed us to continue onwards.
Joining the Brotherhood
From the moment we landed in Sri Lanka, tuk-tuk drivers have been Madison’s arch nemesis. They do not take no for an answer. Tuk-tuk drivers have followed us, harassed us and lied to us in hopes of luring us into their rickshaws. However, all that changed when we joined the brotherhood.
We witnessed the unspoken rules of the brotherhood when our tuk-tuk driver got a flat tire in Ella. Every tuk-tuk driver that passed us stopped to offer a helping hand. They offered him tools and sat in their tuk-tuks, smoking cigarettes, calling out advice.
The first day in the tuk-tuk I definitely looked like a foreigner out of his element. By day two, people were flagging me down for rides, so I guess you could say I was a natural. Once we joined the ranks, tuk-tuk drivers went from being our enemies to a tight-knit support system.
We got lost a lot. Road signs were rare. We would pull over sometimes just to make sure we weren’t driving in circles. Tuk-tuk drivers would frequently stop and ask if we needed help. Directions? Engine problems? Petrol? They were always willing to help out a member of the brotherhood.
Madison was still suspicious of their antics, but started warming up to being a member of the rickshaw club. One time we took a wrong turn and ended up on a bumpy dirt road in the jungle. Trying to get back on track, we turned onto a very steep hill leading up to the main road and I killed the engine. It was too steep to start the tuk-tuk, not even the emergency brake could help us now. Out of no where, a tuk-tuk appeared. It pulled over and a man got out. He grabbed a stump from the woods nearby. He came and placed it under our back wheel and held it in place. I was able to gas up the tuk-tuk and gun it onto the road. We called out thanks as we sped off.
We finally made it to Kataragama unscathed. After a few wrong turns, we checked into a scenic and peaceful eco safari lodge called Gem River Edge. We only had a few minutes to rest before making our way to the temple complex to witness the evening puja.
We drove into town, planning on parking in the main lot outside the temple complex. A fellow tuk-tuk driver flagged us down and told us about a secret entrance. This route was only for tuk-tuks and would take us directly into the complex. We followed his directions over a narrow bridge and drove all the way up to the door of the temple. The brotherhood strikes again!
The temple complex in Kataragama comes to life at puja times when crowds of pilgrims come to participate in the offering. People from all walks of life, backgrounds and beliefs gather to meditate, pray and chant. Everyone was wearing white from head to toe. As if we didn’t stand out enough, both of us just so happened to be dressed in all black. Traditionally, everyone bathes and dresses in all white before attending the puja. Lesson learned.
A long street connects the Buddhist temple to the Maha Devale. Stalls selling marigold chains, oil and incense for offering line the road. Cows, monkeys and stray puppies lounge in the setting sun. The hawkers yell out to us as we pass by.
When the puja begins, a long line of pilgrims make their way into the temple to present their offerings, which usually consists of fruit platters. A group of people are seated on the ground outside the temple playing instruments while chanting and singing. Adjacent to the temple is a Buddha shrine that wraps around a giant tree where people pay and circle the tree.
As a notorious fruit-bowl organizer, Madison was extremely impressed by the fruit platters that were being offered. They were so elaborate and colorful, stacked high with fresh pineapple, bananas and flowers. Although we didn’t quite understand everything that was going on, it was evident Kataragama is a special place.
The next morning we started up the tuk-tuk again and headed off to our next destination, Udawalawe National Park. It was here that we planned a safari to view the park’s most notorious inhabitants, elephants, and the many other animals.
When we arrived into town Google Maps took us off the main road toward our accommodation for the night. A few more turns and stretches of dirt road led us to what appeared to be someone’s back yard in the middle of a small farming community. We thought we were lost, but an old man working in the field (he looked over 90 years old!) motioned us to continue down the dirt path.
Finally we reached a small cottage at the back of the property and our host emerged to greet us. It was actually pretty impressive that this farming family built a cottage in their backyard that had electricity, running water and even wifi. They also cooked us a huge meal for dinner that was super delicious. Milk House Cottage was one of the most peaceful and comfortable places we stayed in Sri Lanka!
We got up before sunrise the next morning for a full day safari in a 4×4 jeep. Our safari guide was incredible. We would be flying down a road in the middle of the jungle when he would just slam on his brakes. “Look” he would say as we would scan everywhere, clueless to what we are actually supposed to be seeing. He would point out a large crocodile hidden in the pond or a totally camouflaged owl in the tree. He knew the park like the back of his hand. The best part was that he knew when and where the elephants would take their afternoon baths. It was so amazing watching the elephants splash around in the water to cool off.
The South Coast
The final leg of our journey in the tuk-tuk would take us from Udawalawe National Park along the south coast of Sri Lanka to the beach town of Unawatuna. It was too far to drive in one day, so we stopped halfway for a night in Tangalle, another beach town on the south coast known for surfing, whale watching and diving.
Unawatuna has grown significantly in recent years as a popular beach destination for travelers, so we were excited to see everything it has to offer. There is a long, banana shaped beach in the center of town, known as main beach, that is lined with hotels, restaurants and palm trees.
We chose to stay off the main strip on a hill on the other side of town at a laid back, chilled-out hostel – Mr. Funk’s Hostel. It was cheap ($10 per night) and basic (we slept in a room with two beds and a sheet hanging from the doorway). It was run by a 20-something British girl who started dating a local Sri Lankan dude and they decided to open up a hostel together.
The sad part of our stay in Unawatuna is that we had to say goodbye to our beloved tuk-tuk. On the flipside, it was my birthday! We celebrated by spending the day scuba diving in the Indian Ocean. Since there was a storm the day before, the water was rough and visibility poor, but YOLO! Also, if you want to see the most ugly creature ever, google stone fish. Imagine running into that beast while down on the sea floor.
My one birthday wish – pizza and beer. Madison went to great lengths for us to avoid another meal of veg curry and rice to celebrate. We had frosty mugs of beer and delicious pizza at a beautiful hotel right on the beach, Sun N Sand Hotel. We questioned whether the pizza was really that good or if it had to do with the fact we have eaten curry for the last month. In the lobby of the hotel, there is remnants of a beaten up door on display. During the 2004 boxing day tsunami, the owner of the hotel held onto this door to avoid getting swept out to sea by the powerful waves. It was heartbreaking to learn about the destruction to the area caused by the tsunami.
So Long Ceylon
We finished our month in Sri Lanka by catching the train to Colombo. This time we stayed in the nicer area of the city, as evidenced by the BMWs and high-fashion stores. Colombo 8 and Colombo 1, although just a few miles away, are worlds apart. We did some shopping and laundry before heading to the airport for our flight to the Maldives.
This month has been full of challenges, adjustment and growth. We sweat through our clothes (mostly me), cried (mostly Madison) and fought with tuk-tuk drivers (all Madison). Madison told me she wanted to go home when she found 3 huge cockroaches in the shower, also when she got a case of the travelers tummy, and again when she had her first day of teaching. We have learned to appreciate small things like toilet paper, mosquito nets and the time of day right before or after the sun rises/sets when the temperature is just right.
Thank you Sri Lanka, the island of coconuts and copper sand will always be a special place for us!
Pit and Peak
Pit: Saying goodbye to my beloved tuk-tuk (until we meet again my love) and a 4-inch beetle that flew into our curry one night.
Peak: Surviving a dangerous encounter with a hungry elephant and spending my birthday scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.