I’ve not done loads of long trips, but on the ones I have, I’ve learned, there’s always one day where everything goes wrong.
Our 24 hours of wrongness started when we arrived in Haputale. We’d spent a glorious weekend basking in the sunshine of Aragum Bay, a super-laidback beach heaven, where surfers and fishermen share the beach and yahs on gap years in bikinis can’t really be found. On the Sunday afternoon, just as the weather broke on the coast and a storm started to come in, we drove away from the sea, and into the central province, up and up, the roads getting increasingly windy, to Haputale in tea plantation hill country.
Haputale has little to recommend itself, except the most incredible view out of the town, which makes it worth spending at least one night there. On the road through all of a sudden you are presented with a vast panorama of the south of the island, the hills dropping very suddenly into broad rice-paddied plains all the way to the coast. On a very clear day, they say you can see the sea. Chilled out from our beach weekend, and looking forward to resting in front of a knock-out view before continuing our journey, we drove up to Amarasinghe’s guesthouse, where we’d arranged to stay the night, pre-ordering pol roti for our breakfast.
But when we arrived, Mr Amarasinghe wasn’t there. He didn’t answer his phone, and instead we ended up talking to his neighbour up the hill, the owner of a much less pleasant looking guesthouse, to try and find out where Mr Amarasinghe might be. ‘Mrs Amarasinghe is a little OCD,’ C had told me, ‘so it’s a cheap but really clean place to stay.’ The neighbour, the owner of Bawa guesthouse, was charging the same prices, but his place was not nice. It was damp. It was rickety. It was really creepy. There was a small landslide you had to shimmy round to get to the guestrooms. His over-earnest attempts to get us to stay with him and his family, to hear about his gem collection and eat homemade mango curry didn’t feel hospitable, they felt almost stalkerish. We turned him down and found a place to stay in town instead, but from that point on, things didn’t feel quite right.
The next day we left Haputale to pop into a CAL project in Nuwara Eliya. About 10km from our destination the car began to rattle, and then 30 seconds after that, it stopped. The engine refused to restart, just before a huge bend.
Of course there’s nothing more fascinating than two white women with a broken car on a bendy road, and before we knew it we were surrounded by offers of help. A tuk tuk driver claimed to know a mechanic, and went to fetch him from the next town.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said when he arrived and we explained that we were volunteers and not wealthy tourists. ‘I can help you. Don’t be scared.’
He fixed up the car enough to get it up to a mechanic’s garage, and then the guys there started to systematically remove the engine from the car. We still don’t know why we didn’t query them harder, but this was in fact the beginning of a bit of a fleecing.
C went into town to see if they could source the relevant part, a fairly hopeless endeavour, all told, and I waited with the car. After three hours-ish C came back, with no part, and somehow a couple of thousand rupees worse off. She had phoned a friend in a different town who had contacted someone they knew at one of the local churches. They rocked up with C in a white minibus to tow us away. ‘The church have come to take over,’ she said. But not before paying out another 1,500 rupees to the bandit mechanics for the dismantling of the engine.
Six hours after breaking down, we arrived in a damp, cold and wet Nuwara Eliya, and decided to find some late rice and curry for lunch before continuing on up to the project. As we got back into the minibus for the last section of the drive, I, for the first time in my whole life, trapped my fingers in the van door. It was almost the final straw.
We drove up further into the mist, and finally arrived in Blackpool at the Little Lambs preschool. By this point the weather had turned. Mist fell, rain fell, winds fell. It was like being parked up on Blackpool promenade in February, but without the ‘Ten for a pound of gas lighters, ten gas lighters for a pound’ guy shouting outside. Instead, we were greeted exuberantly by the project manager Jenny, and one of her teachers, Rathika, who were all smiles and welcome. They brought hot sweet tea, and then I helped Jenny to roll out the roti with my hands for dinner, earning me the title of ‘Roti akki’ – ‘Roti big sister’. We ate the roti with daal, a simple meal that’s fast become my favourite Sri Lankan comfort food. Everything might have gone wrong for a while, but when it does, it doesn’t ever last. With a scoop of hot daal, our day of disasters was finally over.