I'm here for a few days and after walking the streets of Colombo for six hours yesterday, today I hired a bike thanks to a last-minute contact made via my friend Struan at Bangkok's famous and fabulous Spice Roads bike tours outfit. Thanks for that mate.
The dude who rented me the bike, and I have to describe him as a dude, is a South African named Peter who arrived in Colombo 20 years ago and just stayed. He lives in what's known as Western Colombo and so I had to rent a hotel service vehicle and driver to get me the 25km to his place. I found him among some 100 bikes of different shapes and sizes that he utilizes for a variety of bike tours. It seems like it's out in the sticks to be honest, so I was surprised to find he also has a shop selling brand new Trek bikes and various bits and bobs of equipment.
Peter was preparing for a tour later in the day into the heartland of the country but he took time out to sort me with an alu Trek 29er that had been fitted with "slicks" rather than knobby tyres. With the bike he printed off a couple of Google Maps, drew some markings and words and suggested I head north to and beyond the town of Negombo. So that's what I did. And it turned out to be one of the more memorable days I've spent in the saddle. I got lost a few times just trying to negotiate the outskirts of Colombo and find my way north, but that's all part of the pleasure of exploring on a bike.
The very pleasant ride to Negombo was marked by two distinct features that stuck me as odd. The first was the overwhelming Christianity of the area, with churches and murals of Jesus and especially Mary everywhere. Cross-filled graveyards opted up everywhere, including one built on a sand dune. A bit of post-ride research revealed that this area of the overwhelmingly Buddhist east of Sri Lanka was heavily converted by the Portuguese during their time as the colonial power back in the 1600s and it stuck.
Humanity came back with a big bounce as I neared Negombo, a town built around various channels feeding off the huge lagoon to the sea. Ships and boats of various shapes and sizes abounded everywhere and I lost count of the number of bridges I crossed.
I arrived in Negombo at about 1pm starving and very parched from riding for three hours in a blazing sun. The place was mobbed for the lunchtime rush and all the schools seemed to be getting out just as I pulled into Dodge. This made for a very colourful and friendly scene; I can't even guess how many times I said "hello" and answered "I come from Scotland".
Newly nourished I continued north for an hour or so, just exploring and enjoying the ramble. Eventually I turned back as I wanted to try and avoid the Colombo rush hour, but a few wrong turns here and there meant I hit town slap bang in the middle of the vehicular quagmire.
There was a sort of ordered chaos to it all, though. The Lankans have definitely got things working a bit better than their "cousins" to the north in some of India's big cities, and so I never felt in any real danger, although I had to have my wits about me. The traffic cops were out doing there thing at most of the big junctions and the drivers seemed to accept the long waits for their turn to move forward without a grumble. And they waited in a strange silence. Driving in Sri Lanka seems to involve a constant honking of the horn while in motion, yet the beeps fell silent when it was obvious they were going nowhere.
It was dreadfully slow, though. Even being able to weave in and out only got me so far and I was beginning to worry I wouldn't reach my hotel in daylight. I knew roughly where I was going as my plan was to head east until I hit the sea then south. But heaving markets, a huge mass of humanity and what seemed like an enormous conurbation of bus stations resulted in a few more wrong turns that had going in the wrong direction just as the light started to fade.
I need to return the bike to the western outskirts in the morning but my drive out there today revealed some interesting areas and roads to explore, including the fortress-like parliament built isolated in the middle of big lake. I guess that's a legacy of this country's not-so-distant history with war. Even though the peace seems to be holding, there are gun-totting soldiers everywhere in the capital.
I plan to at least ride right round the lake and then there's the possibility of another two-wheeled adventure in the southern city of Galle in the afternoon. Or maybe I'll just spend the day eating more of this country's delicious food.