There are a number of extraordinary ways to meet your end in Sri Lanka. The island claims the highest number of annual deaths by snakebite of any country in the world. About sixty people die from elephant trampling each year. There are the crocodiles that inhabit the manmade lakes, the sloth bears that go for the eyes, and unfortunate encounters with leopards, killer bees, and undetonated landmines left from the country’s recent civil war.
Perhaps, then, the way to avoid the extraordinary is to stick with the ordinary and to keep to the road well traveled? “Good breaks, good horn, and good luck,” is what one author described as the three things needed for anyone braving the Sri Lankan roads. Another author, Jonathan Gimlette, said that Sri Lankan driving is an effort to fill any available space. Part of this is likely due to the fact that many roads here are narrow and winding and shared with goats, cows, pedestrians, fruit carts, disabled vehicles (or parts of disabled vehicles), and tuk-tuks. The frenzy to “fill the space” with so many players of different shapes and speeds makes a driving experience here like navigating a real world Tetris game.
There are some expectations of the road. If you are going to pass someone on the right, in the lane of oncoming traffic, you have to honk first to let them know. Big buses tend to come barreling down the streets at high speeds and expect (and rightly get) priority. There are crosswalks and sometimes (rarely?) vehicles stop for pedestrians in them. In fact, our driver got pulled over by police for failing to stop at a crosswalk. Some conversation was had between the driver and policemen, angry faces turned to smiles and back-pats, and when it was done, the cost of doing business that day was a 500 rupee bribe (about $3 and the cost of half a beer). I’m not even sure there was anyone in the crosswalk…
But for those willing to toss caution to the wind, a bike ride through Anuradhapura really is the best way to experience the ancient city. Anuradhapura is the site of early Sinhalese civilization, and they sure knew how to build. Around the fourth century BC, Anuradhapuran kings used mud taken from a huge system of man-made canals and 76,000 reservoirs to form bricks and build monumental architecture that was larger than anything in the ancient world short of the Pyramids at Giza. While discoveries and restoration continue, much of these vast ruins sit covered in scrub and jungle scattered around town – too far apart to walk, too difficult to drive. And that’s where Mr Wobbles comes in.
Listen, I love to ride bikes. I spent a significant portion of my childhood on a bike. However, I wouldn’t ride my bike in Philadelphia, and it has bike lanes. With my bike at home, there’d be familiarity, shared experience, and a mutual understanding of each other’s quirks and needs. The bike my hotel manager provided looked like it had been pieced together from a 1920’s traffic accident when a couple of British guys decided to go down the hill for high tea on a slippery afternoon. But for today, this bike, its overly loose chain and piece of metal that cut into my right leg every so often would be my access to the past. A quick test of the breaks showed that they were (mostly) functional, and so Mr. Wobbles and I headed out into the streets of Anuradhapura for a day of adventure.
We navigated the back streets well. They were mostly dirt and empty, so Mr. Wobbles and I had a few minutes to get to know each other. When we came to the main road, Maithrapala Senanayake Mawatha, however, I squeezed the breaks. The wheels squealed. Cars, buses, and tuk-tuks whizzed by, all doing their best to “fill the space.” Jess and I looked at each other. We would walk our bikes to the first roundabout, using the time and sidewalks to build the courage necessary to take on the streets and the four and a half kilometers to our destination.
I’m easily startled. When startled, I scream like an old lady. And my myopic focus on navigating the road atop Mr. Wobbles only exasperated both things. It was nice, I guess, that trucks, buses, tuk-tuks and motorcycles all hit their horns to acknowledge that they were going to pass me. But every time they did, Mr. Wobbles’ inherent weaknesses combined with my own tendency-to-startle made for a more challenging ride. And then there were the motorcycle or tuk-tuk drivers who pulled up next to me and said, “hello,” to which I would respond, “hello,” (there’s no need to be rude) to which they would follow up with another question or two (“Where are you from? Where are you going?”). Manners and politeness are very important elements of Sri Lankan culture, but are we having tea or navigating a speedway here?
After a couple more roundabouts, crosswalks, and kilometers, the traffic started to die down, and we arrived at our first stop for the day’s trip to Anuradhapura: the Bodhi Tree.
The Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura is said to have originated with a graft from the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment.Tests have confirmed that the Anuradhapura bodhi is among the oldest known trees in the world, clocking in at more than two thousand years old. Today, many of its branches lay on golden supports, and as one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka, the tree is a site of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of Buddhists each year.
Flanked by hundreds of pilgrims dressed in white, we walked our bikes through the gates of the Bodhi grounds. A man sitting on the side of the road gestured us toward a thicket of trees. It was here that we would have to leave our bikes.
The thicket of trees was overrun by macaques, some as big as Labradors or eight-year old children. They sat in bunches on the ground and filled the branches of the trees with rustles and squawks. The ground, covered in monkey poo, bore witness to this being a macaque hangout.
We found a small tree whose base was covered in a termite mound. Seemingly inconsequential at the time, but we would later learn that it was within these termite mounds that many cobras live. Sssweet. As we locked up our bikes, I wondered if Mr. Wobbles would be there when I returned. As the army of macaques looked on, I envisioned them on an afternoon joyride with Mr. Wobbles. One monkey would steer while two other smaller monkeys worked the peddles, round and round (the one on the right side screeching each time the strange piece of metal that had cut into my leg dug into his backside). A band of bike-riding monkeys spending the afternoon terrorizing roadside fruit vendors with high speed hit-and-runs. Eventually, with full bellies and a day well-spent, they’d grow tired of navigating the mean streets of Anuradhapura on the old bike and return Mr. Wobbles, covered in monkey feces and discarded watermelon seeds, to the Tree Near the Bodhi (not to be mistaken for the Bodhi Tree). I should have brought some wipes with me.
Whether dulled by the day’s heat or intimidated by the bike lock, the macaques left Mr. Wobbles alone. Jess, Wobbles, and I would spend the rest of the day traversing the park, avoiding cobra and viper nests, and exploring the incredible remains of an ancient city.
After a day on the road with Wobbles, I felt more comfortable with his quirks, slashes, and squeaks. But when we returned to the busiest of main roads in rush hour traffic, we decided it best not to brave the great Sri Lankan Tetris game. Instead, we walked our bikes home on the sidewalk and counted the minutes until we could crack into some 2-bribe beers.