I’d intended to launch straight into a description of the wonderful, ancient city of Anuradhapura, but seem to have got distracted by frills and spills. So history will have to wait till next time.
We arrived in Anuradhapura, in North Central Province, after a long journey of some six hours from Negombo. If you look it up you will find that the distance between the two places is less than 200 km. I had expected to be there sooner and worried about only having allocated one overnight stop to this fascinating and important site.
The problem with getting anywhere fast in Sri Lanka is threefold: firstly the roads – while the main roads are quite well tarmacked, there is usually one lane in each direction. Secondly, the heavy traffic, particularly trucks and buses. This of course, goes hand in hand with the narrow roads – overtaking is difficult and traffic jams are frequent, especially in towns. Out in the country you often find yourself crawling behind a long line of vehicles. Thirdly, our driver told us that a law prevents him from travelling faster than 60 km per hour when he has ‘foreigners’ in his vehicle. If he disobeyed this, he could lose his livelihood. So we crept towards our destination. While Sri Lanka, like India, is notorious for its dodgem-car driving mentality, Upali, was an exemplary driver and never took any risks.
On the road to Anuradhapura
We’d left Negombo at 6 am and so reached Anuradhapura at midday. First stop, our overnight accommodation. The Palm Garden Hotel was idyllic. The best hotel of the whole trip – in my opinion. Small units distributed throughout a lush area of parkland and the biggest swimming pool I’ve ever seen – it disappeared around the corner. After we returned from visiting the city’s ancient sites, we persuaded the attendant to let us swim in the dark, the pool only lit by low floodlights. Absolute heaven!
Of course nothing is perfect. This was the first of many hotels where the news hadn’t filtered down from the tour company that two beds in each room were an absolute essential. We were shown to our room: one glorious bed, draped in a mosquito net as romantic as a wedding veil.
It took a while to get through them. ‘We are not married!’ I joked, pointing at Pam. Not a flicker of a smile. Did they think my smirking remark was non-PC? Or was it simply that in eastern countries personal space is not a priority, and that they could not understand why two women refused to share a bed?
Eventually they agreed to bring in a folding bed. Pam and I tossed a coin. She won. So she spent the night safe from mozzies and with room for a pony, while I squeezed onto the put-me-up and exposed my delicate flesh to the vampires of the night. Luckily the bed turned out to be very comfortable and the vampires stayed away.
The hotel provided a mouth-watering evening buffet with a wide choice of Sri Lankan and Western dishes. And no concession to tender western tastes. If you chose Sri Lankan you got full-blown spiced dishes – chillies and all. Indian hotels take note: you could learn from this. We would go on to discover that almost everywhere we ate at night (usually in the hotel) offered a buffet – almost always excellent and all uncompromising.
Breakfast in the morning was so good that I noted in my journal ‘best ever – lots of fruit and curds in clay pots’. Fruit was generally papaya, water melon, hard guavas and out-of-this-world pineapples. And of course the wonderful little bananas that make you never want to eat another South American or Caribbean import again. Curds in clay pots means buffalo curd. It’s eaten with palm syrup, which the hotels all insist on labelling ‘trickle’. Curds took me back to 1996 when I had been ‘on the road’ with my Sri Lankan relatives. We bought a pot from a roadside stall and, when we got back to Colombo, had a feast. It was a taste I’d never forgotten, the syrup complementing the curds in a true fusion of deliciousness.
Naturally I wasn’t going to get through the tour without falling over. This time the steps up to our room caught me out. I went flying. The steps were hard and sharp. It hurt. No real harm done but my knees took the brunt and remained ‘delicate’ for the rest of the tour (still a bit sore now!) I wasn’t the first to take a tumble – on our descent from the boat in Negombo I’d turned round to find Pam rolling around in the sand.
The steps of my downfall
I wasn’t the last, either. No wonder Upali panicked whenever we tried to sneak away from under his watchful eye. He clearly realised we were the combined ingredients of a recipe for disaster.