Riding Around Sri Lanka—Cows, Comrades, and Club Sandwiches

Around the Pearl
Around The Pearl Peloton

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

Sweat pours out of every square inch of my body. The still air, heavily laden with water vapor, has no room to absorb more from my skin. I look down at my Garmin—it’s 5:00 a.m. We haven’t even started riding yet.

I first came to Sri Lanka in the late 90s with my dear friends Sammy and Asela to visit their families. The country was in the throes of civil war at the time, a brutal fight that began more than a decade earlier and one that would last for over a quarter century, causing significant hardships for the population, environment, and the economy of the country. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) fought against the government for an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and the east of the island.

After a 26-year battle that saw an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 deaths, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end. Now, Almost 20 years after my first visit, I was anxious to return to Sri Lanka not just to reconnect with old friends, but also to see how the country had changed.

ride map

The impetus for my return was Around The Pearl—a 10-day, 1400-kilometer ride along the entire coast of this island country with the goal of raising money to buy wheelchairs for children affected by Cerebral Palsy.

An estimated 40,000 children in Sri Lanka suffer from Cerebral Palsy—a neurological disorder that permanently affects body movement, muscle coordination, and balance. Specially built wheelchairs can give these children the gift of mobility, while helping to improve their motor skills and ability to communicate with the world. A single $100 donation is enough to buy a wheelchair for a child—that’s less than you or I would spend on dinner out this weekend.

Through the generosity of corporate donors, all the money raised through entry fees or monetary donation goes straight to buying wheelchairs. The 5 star hotel rooms from Jetwing—many newly built and holding soft openings just for us, 2800 liters of drinking water from Aqua Fresh, food, Land Rover support cars, logistics—all volunteer and donor based. It was touching to see the overwhelming support given by the country and the local communities along the way.

A group of 35 fellow riders set out to complete the entire tour, with a handful of others joining us on individual stages along the way. Everyone was there for different reasons–whether it was to see a new part of the country, set themselves a physical challenge, enjoy days riding with friends, or were personally affected by Cerebral Palsy in some way.

We took off from Colombo on April 7th and would arrive back where we started 11 days later, different somehow. April is THE hottest month in Sri Lanka with temps regularly soaring into the triple digits and close to 100% humidity. It didn’t help that much of Southeast Asia was experiencing a record-breaking heat wave at the same time. So why on earth hold a bike tour that month, you ask? April also features Tamil and Sinhalese New Year (“Aluth Avurudhu” in Sinhala, “Puthiyathandu” in Tamil), when the nation takes a couple of weeks off of work and kids are out of school. For most, it would otherwise be difficult to take 11 days holiday or spend that much time away from their families.

The first half of the tour, from Colombo to Trincomalee, followed a familiar routine—get up ungodly early, ride for around 6 hours until midday, eat lunch—”You can have anything as long as it’s a club sandwich, sir”—nap through the heat of the day, then a bit of sightseeing or a dip in the ocean before dinner and early to bed.

The crazy, traffic-choked streets of Colombo soon gave way to fishermen floating on stilts, radiant-green rice paddies, elephant filled forests, and the endless east coast beaches of ivory-colored sand set against a rich turquoise ocean. The bright white stupas dotting the lush tropical hillsides along the south were replaced with the vibrant colors of hindu temples and women’s saris dancing against the barren backdrop of the Eastern Province.

The first couple hours of each day were invariably my favorite time to ride. The rhythmic hum of our drivetrains serving as the bass line to the melodic sounds and sights of Sri Lanka waking up in the still, cool air.

Once the sun breached the horizon, the ride quickly descended into a battle against the heat, with stops becoming more frequent for cold water dousings, icy sweet bottles of Pepsi, watermelon, fresh king coconut, or the coveted frozen popsicle. The fresh morning air now thickened with leaf fire smoke, exhaust, dust, and the smell of dried fish and incense. The morning wake up call of the Asian Koel replaced with the jolting sound of horns or blaring temple music, and the occasional outbreak of song by the peloton trying to make the miles go by faster.

In the heat of the afternoon, the locals would take pity on us, drenching us with hoses as we rode by or better yet, full buckets of water. You could see the mischievous smile cross their face as they wound up to hit their mark.

“You look like a beetroot,” remarked one of my fellow riders the first night at dinner.

Even after a cold shower and a blast of air conditioning, my face was as red as ever. While I would gradually become more and more able to suffer through the heat as the days rolled on, I always knew it was something I may be able to hide from temporarily but could never escape.

Attempting to reassure me, Tisara rode up next to me one day and exclaimed, “As we say here in Sri Lanka, SBC. Sun Builds Character.”

I will have banked an ocean worth of character by the time this ride was over.

One of our favorite kade stops.

Photo by: Fonny De Fonseka's talented daughter!

Despite the record heat, it never ceased to amaze me when at late morning or even afternoon kade stops, fellow riders grabbed some hot tea and fried chilis to go with the “burn your face off” spicy (to only us, of course) short eats–a selection of small, delicious savories such as fish buns, roti, or vadai, more affectionately known as the Sri Lankan donut for its hole in the middle round shape.

The Jeevani powered Sri Lankans are absolute beasts on the bike, whether riding the latest carbon fiber, fully-loaded Wilier and Trek or a retro-fit aluminum mountain bike. After the last rest stop of the day, the sprint was always on to the finish, with speeds reaching upwards of 45 kph. I would invariably be dropped, which made quite amusing entertainment for the locals as they watched the foreigner try to find the right hotel.

Numerous times we were passed by young racers on their single-speed bikes and eBay purchased team kit, blazing at Tour de France speeds without even breaking a sweat. Older men on cruiser bikes wearing flip-flops and sarongs often drafted off the peloton for a few miles or kids, one on the handlebars, would race alongside.

While Strava has already achieved addiction status in Sri Lanka, sock doping has yet to take hold of this island country. Terry and I became affectionately known as “The Socks” after breaking out a new crazy pair each morning. Not one to miss out on the fun, Anuja showed up in his mom’s flower socks one day. We instantly declared him the winner.

Once the traffic of the south melted away, animals became a predominant feature of the ride—cows, goats, monkeys, bull carts, dogs, peacocks, elephants, and chickens to name a few. Cows were the most feared as they scared easily and were unpredictable. A stampede almost took out the entire group one afternoon.

Our third morning featured a much-anticipated pedal through Lunugamvehera National Park. I was warned about the infamous “banana tax” elephant who menacingly sways back and forth in the middle of the road, blocking your passage until you throw him a bunch or two. Having been charged by a wild elephant on my previous visit to the country, I had no desire to repeat the episode.

“Should I be worried?”

“Shape,” a couple of the riders replied. Or in Sri Lanka speak, “Don’t worry.”

I was worried.

Around The Pearl would not be possible without peace. In this ride, there is no politics, no religion, no race, just those who love cycling.

A few days later on our way through Trincomalee, we had the opportunity to stop at one of the camps being run by the Cerebral Palsy Lanka Foundation where they were matching children with wheelchairs. There was a young girl who had lost her leg as a result of only being able to crawl to get around—I will never forget her smile when she sat in her wheelchair for the first time.

As Sarinda exclaimed when we stepped back out under the blazing hot sun, “It really puts the ride in perspective.”

Yes. Yes it does. Needless to say I would not be complaining about my sore bum ever again.

Cerebral Palsy Lanka
Tisara makes a new friend.

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

Our rest day just outside of Trinco signaled the start of the tough second half of the ride—tough in that we were riding bigger mileage (back to back centuries) through the hot, dry, arid section of the island, and tough to witness some of the areas of the country most affected by the civil war. While positive and uplifting sights such as the never-ending smiles of villagers as we passed and the newly built roads and bridges brought hope, hidden within were the bombed out houses, shelled Palmyra palm trees, and abject poverty of a region cut off for so long. Much of the coastline remains under control of the military today—it was only thanks to their generous support of food, water, and access we were able to ride through a large section of the north.

We spent two nights in military camps as the tourist infrastructure was not yet there to support us. The first camp was at Mullaitivu, once a LTTE controlled stronghold. We found ourselves camping and swimming in the same area where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped during the end of the fighting. Surreal to think that was only a handful of years ago.

Chalai Challenge
Battle against the sand in the Chalai Challenge.

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

This was the night before the Chalai Challenge mountain bike race—a brutal 45 mile race along sand and bombed out dirt track under an unrelenting 42 degree C sun—just one part of our Stage 8 day that would end that evening in Jaffna, an intriguing historic city frozen in time. There is so much history, both ancient and recent, surrounding this race, that it deserves its own post at some point in the future.

The second night under the stars was spent at an army camp on the fringe of Wilpattu—a stunning willu filled national park that was spared during the war. We had hoped to see leopards or elephants (from far away of course) but had to settle for numerous birds and the odd crocodile.

Not surprising as our jovial, joking bunch were not exactly endearing to shy animals. “Why were you up all night screaming bloody ‘Milky Way!’ every 5 minutes, Machang?”

As we pulled out of the resort town of Negombo for our final police escorted ride into Colombo, I was given a huge sense of hope as I looked at all the riders around me—Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Pastafarian (look it up!), CEOs, lawyers, bridge builders, charity workers, and recent university grads, all happily riding together as one team. Cycling is a great equalizer that way.

Sharing the joy of reaching Negombo together.

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

As Yasas Hewage, one of the founders of Around The Pearl and owner of Spinner Cafe—the local cycling hangout in Colombo—put it eloquently, “Around The Pearl would not be possible without peace. In this ride, there is no politics, no religion, no race, just those who love cycling.”

As we lined up for the start of Chalai Challenge earlier that week, Ajith had turned to me to express his bemusement at finding himself getting ready to ride this punishing course for the third time in a row. ”The heat, pain, and exhaustion will quickly melt away once you get home and all you’ll be left with are fond memories.”

Hindu blessing
Blessed by a Hindu priest.

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

Though I didn’t believe him at the time, he was right. As I sit here in the relative cool of California, with my backside almost back to normal, I can recall only the good stuff—sunrise glistening on the paddy fields, fisherman throwing out their nets in the morning light, the blessing of a Hindu priest, the endless natural beauty, sharing a cold drink or a dip in the ocean, but mostly the unwavering kindness, humility, humor, and friendship of 35 fellow riders.

See you next year Sri Lanka. We’ll bring the socks.

To find out more or to donate, head to Around The Pearl. For a more detailed look at each single day of the ride, check out the blog written by local journalist Cecily Walker who joined us on the adventure.

Riding with my friend Asela.

Photo by: Darrel Bartholomeusz

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