The Road to Sigiriya
By Dave Fox
En Route: Colombo to Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
A ridiculously crowded bus ride in a developing nation is a hard-core traveler’s rite of passage – one I’ve somehow managed to avoid until now. I’ve taken plenty of long-distance busses in places like Turkey and Vietnam. Naively, I thought conditions would be similar in Sri Lanka. Kattina, on the other hand, has survived many economy class bus rides in Mexico and knew what conditions would really be like. She was lobbying for an early morning train instead, but after two exhausting days in Colombo, I insisted on sleeping past the 6 a.m. rail departure.
We set off for the bus terminal at mid-morning. Finding the right jalopy amid 50+ bus bays and 50-trillion people was an odyssey in and of itself. Our hotel receptionist had assured us buses would be “very comfortable, air-conditioned” vehicles, but such luxury did not exist on the route we needed.
We squashed into tiny seats and braced for our four-hour journey. Thick incense filled the air. We sat for 45 minutes before the driver decided the bus was sufficiently full to start driving. Those who boarded late endured four hours of standing in the aisles, except during lucky moments when we took a curve fast enough for them to tumble into a seated passenger’s lap. The bus creaked and rattled, and could have used a shock absorber or two.
At one point an evangelist from one Eastern religion or another (I won’t speculate; I couldn’t understand his Sinhalese) preached for a good ten minutes, yelling so the people at the back could hear him. Those of us at the front heard him better than we wanted to. When he was finished squawking, he then squeezed through the aisle, and sold special cards I think were supposed to keep us safe in either this life or the next. Once the evangelist was done, the driver blasted Sri Lankan pop music, with an occasional Bob Marley tune tossed in for good measure.
We slalomed at daring speeds, dodging tuktuks, monkeys, and other crazy bus drivers. To reach our hotel, we needed to get off at an obscure shop. I asked the guy next to me for help. By the time we reached our destination, we had about a dozen other passengers all making sure we knew where we were going.
We survived the journey, and the pain in our spines dissipated after a few days. I promised Kattina that next time, I would wake up early for the train.