For the first time on our trip we decided to a) travel by bus b) not book the transport in advance c) not book a hotel in advance. As usual Jan was pretty relaxed about all of this. Unusually though, I too was happy enough with the travel plan. We knew Trincomalee was about 100km from Anuradhapura and we'd been told that it would take about 2 hours. We turned up a little early at the bus station to ensure we got a seat as Sri Lankan buses get very busy very quickly. The bus station looked to us like a bus scrap heap. The old coaches were battered and tired. The paintwork was chipped and faded from the decades of rain and sun and general maltreatment.
We asked a few tuk tuk drivers where our stop was and we got a couple of different answers. We stood in the general vicinity of the entry road hoping to catch a glimpse of our bus as it pulled in. A couple of street vendors overheard our conversation and pointed us in the right direction as did a smiling lady who gestured that she too was getting the Trincomalee bus and that we should stand by her, which we only too happily did. Sure enough, right in front of where we all stood, the knackered hulk ground to a halt.
We all boarded, and as Jan and I decided which seats to occupy, the conductor gestured for us to sit at the front, leaving our backpacks resting precariously on the narrow dashboard. We opened the window and waited for the off.
The street vendors wandered on and off touting their wares, fruit, nuts, newspapers and wadas were the items we could identify.
We left 10 minutes late and within 15 minutes of our departure there was standing room only. We stared out of the open window and tried to ignore the wires hanging out of the ignition, the gaping hole in the floor and the numerous cracks in the windscreen. No one else seemed worried so why should we be? And that was how the journey went, the mainly straight road (the A12) was in a state of disrepair, there were roadworks being carried out the whole way but there seemed to be little in the way of progress. The potholed surface ensured that speeds were kept low and our 100km journey looked like it was going to take about 4 hours. This was until about 4km from our destination. We were so close but the driver wasn't happy about something and he pulled the bus into a garage. Two tyres had to be replaced but we must have missed something as the tyres that were being put back on were completely bald. Oh well, only 4kms in city traffic, we weren't going to skid off the road now.
The scenery had been a mixture of countryside, villages and towns. There were no spectacular views and instead we had independently found ourselves watching the driver. We had both been convinced that he was dozing off at the wheel, his slow blink and lolling head had put us both on edge. However he never missed a gear or took a bend incorrectly or missed an opportunity to sound his horn. We think his sleepy demeanour was possibly boredom.
We got off at the final stop and as our feet touched the ground, up went the call from the tuk tuk drivers. We wandered out of the terminus and looked for suitable lodgings or food stop. We saw a restaurant that took our fancy but thought we'd look just a little further down the road for other options. There were none and we headed back to the first place and in that five minutes they had closed.
We were stood at the side of the busy road deciding what our best bet was when a rickshaw driver pulled up along side. He asked us where we were going, how long we were going to be in town, where were we from, what were our names, did we need a tuk tuk, can he drop us somewhere.
We said no and walked a little way down the road so that we could have some privacy. He got out of his tuk tuk and was standing next to us, chipping in his opinion on our decisions. We had had enough and decided our best bet would be to get ourselves to Nilaveli, a coastal village about 16km away. We also rather hurriedly decided we'd go by bus.
We found our bus easily enough and it was already mostly full. We dumped our backpacks at the front of the bus and made our way to adjacent seats near the back. We were a little nervous about our bags being out of sight for so long but there wasn't any alternative.
The bus got fuller and fuller and when we thought no-one else could possibly fit on, 4 or 5 people did.
There were two people in each seat, and in the aisle people were three abreast (personal space does not exist here). A few passengers clung on by the doors, only the strength of their grip keeping them aboard. An elderly gentleman was trying to get on, his frail frame inched its way on to the high step at the back of the bus. The conductor shouted "oldie, oldie, oldie", and like the parting of the Red Sea, people move aside and the OAP is given a seat and he gives a gummy smile to all.
We had no idea where we were going and we asked some fellow passengers where we needed to get off. Cue the deep discussions in Sinhalese about the best place for us to alight. The main two guys just couldn't agree and it was decided by the conductor who simply said "you get off here". We thanked everyone, grabbed our bags and jumped off. The bus pulled away leaving us isolated at the roadside by a T junction. To our right was where we had just come from and to our left the bus disappeared in the heat haze. This left us with only one option, straight ahead down a dirt track.
It was about 3 o clock and the heat of the day was upon us, bags on backs we trudged down the track. On either side were vast fields, from the built up plots within we could see that they were once paddy fields but now they were overgrown with grass and brush.
500 meters down the trail, a car passed us and Jan contemplates hitch hiking. I wasn't sure that that was such a good idea.
Another 100 metres or so and we come across a tatty looking motel. We were feeling a little desperate and we went and had a look. The row of sheds had corrugated tin roofs, in the monsoon this didn't seem very appealing. They did look clean though and Bridget the owner took pity on our bedraggled appearance and very kindly offered us a drink which we took her up on. Cold water never tasted so good.
After a brief rest we headed out to see if we could find anything a little less basic. We did, we found one beachfront hotel that was way out of our budget and another just 50 metres away for a fraction of the price. We plumped for the mid-range hotel, negotiated hard and got a bargain.
We dumped our bags and headed out to the beach. A five minute stroll down a sandy track found us on the new best beach we'd been on this trip. Pristine sand, again as far as we could see, (we know that it's at least 9km long as there is a place called 9 kilometre Point).
As we arrived at the shoreline a small herd of 10 cows mooched passed us and then sat about 50 meters from us. We sat looking out to sea, they sat looking out to sea.
The cows showed no interested in us and so we felt it would be ok for us to leave our stuff by them and go for a dip.
The water was crystal clear and as a waves formed, the sea revealed hundreds of small fish, that then disappeared as the wave barrelled over. Occasionally, a few bigger fish appeared in the wave, causing the fry to jump clear out of the water like tiny breaching dolphins to avoid being eaten.
The water temperature in the Bay of Bengal is a great deal cooler than that down south and it feels great getting the grit and grime of the day off our skin.
As we relax in the water, we see a few clear jellyfish which give us a bit of a start. We waft them away and sink back into the water. Then we saw a few more and then some unusual looking blue ones that resembled blue passion flowers. Then we felt the stings on our bodies and we ran to dry land. As we checked each other's skin we could see we were covered in small red blotches that stung like a mild nettle rash. We didn't know what type of jelllyfish they were and I asked a couple of armed naval guards that happened to be patrolling the beach. To our relief, both the clear and the blue jellyfish were harmless (we double checked with a local fisherman too) the sting dissipated after about an hour and they didn't stop us venturing back into the ocean.
We walked back to the hotel and were met by the manager who asked us what we wanted for dinner. The vegetarian options were veg rice or veg noodles (here we go again). Sensing our disappointment, he offered to make a mixed vegetable curry especially for Jan. Happy days! What eventually turned up was veg rice and boiled vegetables in butter and pepper, we queried what had happened to the curry and the guy asked us to wait 15 minutes and he'd go and make one now. We told him not to worry as everything else would get cold. We continued with our meal and as we were finishing, out comes a potato curry. It was a lovely gesture on his part but a bit pointless at this stage. In fact every meal here ended up as a bit of a farce as nothing that was promised was ever delivered on one occasion we were asked if we would go and eat at the hotel next door as the manager didn't want to put any pressure on the chef. We thought they were trying to tell us something.
The following day, there were telltale signs that cows had been all along the beach. The sand was not as pristine, in fact it was covered in pats. Treading carefully, we tried to take a stroll along the long shoreline, we got about 200 metres when another armed Naval guard blocked our path. We thought he'd just come to talk to us, but he barred our way and then broke into a smile. He apologetically explained that we couldn't go any further as they were 'conducting high frequency tests'. They were killing Flipper, the swines.
We turned on our heels and walked the other way instead.
We spent a few hours at the beach, the impending full moon created a choppy swell and it was great fun catching a wave and being washed up on the beach, covered in harmless jellyfish stings and grazes. The beach got busier as the day wore on, a mixture of extended families and groups of overtly ogling men came and went by the bus load.
Our stay in Nilaveli coincided with a full moon festival, Poha (Poo-ha). Groups of friends and family gather and eat, sing and the case of the other guests, consume a satisfactory amount of booze. The group played drums, guitars and sang really badly but they sounded like they had a great time. The miserable faces in the morning confirmed this. The festivals apparently start a few days before the full moon and last until a few days after to make sure everyone who wants to celebrate can do so around work commitments.
Our hopes of being invited to the celebrations came to nought, despite our very best smiles, oh well, we had nothing to wear anyway.
We were due to leave for Kandy early the next morning. A five hour bus journey into the inner hills lay ahead of us and we drifted off to the dulcet tones of 25 drunk Sri Lankan men singing their hearts out.