Sri Lanka by Bus
Kandy to Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
The bus sped along. Music blared at full volume, glittering decorations fixed to the windscreen fluttered in the breeze and the lights on a display above the driver’s seat flashed in a colourful dazzle whenever he indicated or braked. The speed, the lights and the noise drowned my senses.
View from the Bus
The trip was a white-knuckle ride. With the wind lashing around my ears and adrenaline surging through my veins, I was having a great time. We overtook two cars side-by-side in the face of on-coming traffic, the drivers hooting and indicating at each other in an exchange only they understood. If this method of communication breaks down, as is common, horrible accidents ensue. I had passed several on this journey. Whenever a blind bend came up, the driver prepared to overtake whoever or whatever was in front. The other passengers, used to the local driving-style, were dozing peacefully or glanced, bored, out of the windows. They became briefly animated after a particularly close shave with an on-coming bus then fell back into their stupor. So we raced on towards Dambulla. The landscape flashed by, a haze of green-on-green, occasional splashes of colour betraying flowers, people and villages as we shot down the road.
In Dambulla, I had to change. Finding the right bus proved to be tricky as touts descended on me, trying to persuade me to stay the night by any means possible, from pleading to blatant lying (“No bus until tomorrow, madam!”). They kept getting in the way as I tried in vain to decipher the destination on the buses leaving from the town centre. Eventually, I shouldered my backpack and took a three-wheeler out to Mirisgoni junction on the A6 east. After waiting on the corner for a while, not sure where the buses were meant to stop, I spotted a man with a travel bag further up the road and went to join him. After five minutes, a bus pulled over where I had been waiting originally. Cursing, I picked up my bag and turned to walk back, when several armed police boarded the bus. Shortly after, all the passengers disembarked and made their way to where we stood while their bus was subjected to a thorough search. Now there were at least 100 people waiting to go in our direction. Most of the passengers were staring fixedly at the empty bus, I surmised they had already paid for their tickets. That was our luck, because soon another bus pulled up and their hesitation gave us just enough of a head start to run over and scamper on board before the mob cut their losses and turned to join us, rammed in so tight that hardly any breathing space remained. I settled into a window-seat.
The journey continued through a wide, marshy landscape dotted with painted storks, egrets and ibises. Peacocks perched on trees in the dusk, silhouetted against the evening sky, their long graceful tails trailing behind. Once, we passed a herd of elephants foraging on a rubbish dump, among polythene bags and battered oil drums. I worry about their future. After the sun had set, the bus became an island of light, rattling through the darkness towards Batticaloa and my overnight stay.
The following morning, I sat at the bus station, looking out over the lagoon and sipped a cold soda, undecided whether to visit the beach resort of Passekudah. After a moment’s hesitation, I resolved to head straight out to Arrugam Bay further south. The trip involved a change at Akkairaipattu, where I traded my cabin seat in a van driven by a friendly geriatric with a place on a bus driven by a homicidal maniac. We drove roughshod over potholes, which cratered the narrow road across the marshes while the driver floored the accelerator and blared the horn. There was little traffic, so the usual game of chicken was not played with oncoming buses or lorries but with cyclists who weaved down the road, precariously balancing heaps of firewood or sacks of rice on their scrawny bikes. The bet was on whether they could safely made it to the verge before we thundered past. Somehow, this made it all the more frightening.
Just past Akkairaipattu, the road crossing the lagoon was flooded and I thought the journey had come to an early end. The waters streamed from the lagoon into an angry boiling ocean reminiscent of the famous Corryvreckan whirlpool in Scotland, the third largest in the world. I watched in fascination as the driver pressed on undeterred. We made it across without being swept into the maelstrom and immediately picked up speed again. Before long we ended up trailing behind one of the ancient, battered and slow local buses servicing this region. As usual, it was packed with people hanging out of the doors and windows. Our driver pulled up close behind and impatiently bleeped his horn, edging the swaying yellow bus on to ever greater speed. On the narrow and uneven road it started to lean precariously into the bends. I expected it to topple over at any moment. I was greatly relieved when it finally pulled over at a sandy lay-by so we could pass.
We flattened a baby terrapin that was gamely struggling across the road, but a mongoose shooting across a little further along narrowly made it. Even the cows in the shrubland knew to get out of the way, as did a solitary elephant we surprised around a bend. Just. The animal suddenly appeared before us like a solid, grey rock. The driver jumped on the brake and the elephant, spooked, shook his head, flapped his ears and turned away towards the bush. The driver clutched his chest and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He slowed down a little, at least for a while.
In the end, we all made it, apart from the baby terrapin.