Monday, January 25, 2016

A less than auspicious bicycle ride that could have ended up much worse

Coming to Dehiattkandia in what might have seemed a kind of random move has actually accomplished something great for me. It changed my conception of Sri Lanka by making it smaller. The no-mans-land east of the Mahaveli Ganga is much better defined than it was before. You might think of Dehiattkandia as a backwater but instead it feels like just over the hill lie Badulla, Kandy, and the rest of the country. 

We learned this in part today on a ride south of town. We were aiming for a couple of tanks. Ended up seeing one from a distance, but also got the feel for traffic headed south toward points more populated. What we ended up seeing is pretty much the side journey of our day. So I'll tell you how things unfolded. 

I asked yesterday morning for bicycles for today. The guesthouse we're in advertises them as one of the things you can do here (there isn't much else to keep you busy believe me) but there weren't any bikes to be seen on our first day. He was very obliging and bikes appeared late yesterday afternoon. "This one's for you," he pointed to a garish road bike, "and this one," with a sort of flourish, "is for the Madame." In the dim light of early evening Janet's assigned bike looked the better and it made me happy. Why put her on a terrible bike when she's being such a good sport holed up here in the Alaska-like countryside (tropical though) while we look at fake tanks?

This morning was a different story. We hopped on the bikes after breakfast under a dingy, humid sky and took off southward toward Dehiattkandia town. By the time we reached the main road we'd discovered that Janet's seat was ridiculously low and we turned around for some serious adjustments. Changing the height of the seat I realized that one tire was flat and the other flabby and low, so the boy who was helping us was ordered to take the bike into town by tuktuk. 

As he started the uncooperative motor of the three wheeler going the manager stuffed Janet's bicycle-to-be into the back seat. Front wheel first probably wasn't the best way to fit the bike in. The back third of the bike was sticking out the door and the manager went in to find tools to remove the far panel. That way the bike could stick out a little bit on both sides. 

Though it's never appropriate here to lend a hand as an honored guest, especially an older one, no one said I couldn't get into the tuktuk. So I climbed into the back, snaked my way around the bike wheels and chain, and then pulled on the bike and used my weight as a counterbalance. The bike was still a third of the way out but with a slow drive through the incredibly pitted streets into town there was a chance it wouldn't fall out and hopefully no one would be injured in this little experiment. 

It makes me think. Being and behaving here in Sri Lanka demands different standards of "dignity" than we're used to. Leaning back in a tuktuk using your weight to hold on to a bike for dear life isn't such a biggie. And like every other time you pass a pair of eyes, people only look at you for an instant. 

The manager had given the boy something like Rs 150. It probably was less. And so we rambled on the rutted road up to a repair shop in a muddy alley in the center of town. What an interesting place. The bike repair shop was filled with wheels, at least as far as I could see, and probably lots more behind. It was about big enough to fit the mechanic and a small table, a few steps above the alley on a covered concrete platform. Like every other space in Dehiattkandia it was built according to plan when the town was erected in 1986 as part of the Mahaveli scheme. What a contrast from our bike repair stores at home where thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of bikes and accessories are on display. 

The funny valves of Janet's wheels needed to be removed, spat on, rubbed clean, and when that didn't work, taken into the shop for some kind of treatment. The pump, uneasily balanced over muddy , betel-stained concrete pavers, didn't work efficiently. The boy and the mechanic, both barefoot, had a go at it and a few words were spoken. Then the mechanic took a small piece of rag from an old sarong, just a few cm square, and put it between the valve and the hand pump nozzle. With some work the tires were both inflated and I told the boy I'd ride back home, less than ten minutes up the road. 

Did I mention indignity? As I stood watching the unfolding drama of inflation I had some visitors. The past two days I've been walking around in wet sandals and small bloody points have developed at the top of all my toes. I've written about this but the wifi at my place is too weak to send the past few posts, which include pictures (not of the toes!). Anyway flies started to land on the raw spots, at one point a bunch of flies on each foot. Kind of gross but I couldn't do much about it  because I was holding the bike by the handlebars, using the brakes to keep the bike stable for my comrades' struggles. 

Yes. Handlebars. When I started the ride on my bike I noticed that the brakes were high above the handlebars. I wrestled them southward to where they belonged and much later in the ride discovered they were under the handlebars, unreachable. This led to the discovery that the handlebar itself was loose. Very loose. So when I needed to steer on back roads (the ride south out of town had been smooth and relatively straight on a well-graded road with decent shoulders for bike riding) it was as if I had tremors. Couldn't control the bike, nor could I brake and control. So things felt like a real mess. Did I keep my balance? Yes. Did I maintain composure? Yes again, though with effort. Don't take a shaky bike down a muddy hill with silty water of unknown depth below on the causeway. 

Our ride brought home to us how this area was carved out of jungle. Kind of like what you'd expect in Amazonia I suppose. Intense humidity all around and not much of a breeze. Traffic was a breeze though, and lots of people were happy to say good morning and hello. A nice smiling ride. 

The views were few, the military posts many and large. It brought home again how militarized this part of the island is, how we are in a perceived borderland, and perhaps how tenuous peace is here. It's a Sinhalese place in what was once a Tamil-majority region. We passed only one spot for Hindu offerings at the roadside, a large Ganesh on display but not a fully developed kovil, and the single church we saw, St. Mary's, was near the very end of our ride. 

Below lie the tank we were after, the entry to it muddy and inhabited by cattle, later a large herd of deer. We had ridden around the back side of the tank so going down would have meant encountering the catchment, which would be wet after the recent rainy days. 

We agreed to head for home, a nice downward ride that we had both perceived coming would be uphill. Town was muggy and muddy as we approached and I thought to myself how if you could make yourself comfortable in a place like this, full of unreadable landscape signals, you could succeed at doing this anywhere. The sky darkened as we approached our guest house, where we shared a delicious one liter bottle of soda water. Within a few minutes it was showering and an hour later the rain was pouring down. Our ride could have turned out a lot worse. 

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