"Traveling by bicycle allows time and intimacy to absorb a place with all of your senses" - This sentiment perfectly captures the 2-week cycling experience in Sri Lanka for Jo Ann, an explorer, photographer and writer. The story of her journey across the country introduces you to this scenic yet sensational destination and will leave you dreaming of your own trip.
A few years ago, I moved back to New York City from Colorado where I did a lot of road biking. Missing the easy outdoor access of Colorado but having time to travel created an opportunity to combine the two in an adventurous way. After researching bike travel in Asia I discovered Grasshopper Adventures and found a new way to enjoy two favourite activities; cycling and travel.
Traveling by bicycle allows time and intimacy to absorb a place with all of your senses. There are no bus or car windows to gaze through, each bump on the road is felt, and every day is charged with unexpected adventures and encounters with local people. Every smile and "hi/hello/bye" exchanged with strangers, while rolling along on our bikes, is one of the many reasons why I travel with Grasshopper Adventures. It is an up close and personal experience with a twist of local culture and anyone can do it. Being curious and with a basic level of fitness are the only requirements needed for this style of travel!
I became interested in visiting Sri Lanka after reading the novel, Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje who was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka but emigrated to Canada. I wanted to experience Sri Lanka's culture, spice trade history, religions, and the changes in the country since the more recent civil war. The book was the catalyst and as I researched travel options, the decision to travel by bicycle in Sri Lanka, was an easy one.
My years of road biking have definitely helped during the more challenging climbs and longer distances covered during a 2-week trip in Sri Lanka. As a 64-year-old woman (3 grand-babes!) with many miles and lots of saddle time, I was confident in being able to finish but always at my own pace. There were some challenging climbs, though the finish was always sweet and celebrated as a group.
There is a wonderful comradery formed on Grasshopper trips and the bonds created in the group are completely supportive and without judgment. I’m a slow and steady cyclist but never felt pressure to keep up. Having an experienced local guide and a designated driver is critical as they provide lots of encouragement as well as physical support. Without confidence in the professionalism of Grasshopper’s guides and drivers, I would be just another tourist gazing through the windows of a car watching the world go by.
The first day of a ride you are always challenged by what I call, the head-spinning moments of being in a country chock full of unique smells, sights and sounds. Our first few kilometers of the ride were in the central dry area and it was quite hot. Despite the midday heat, the town was bustling with activity; fruit and vegetable stands every few meters, an endless parade of colorfully painted tuk-tuks & buses and groups of school children dressed in their pristine white uniforms were just a few of the signs we were definitely in Sri Lanka.
I was filled with a sensory overload of spices and curries, beautiful women in colorful saris, shimmering temples and oh so many stares from people as we passed by on our bicycles. As different as everyone seemed to me, I had no doubt we must have looked quite unusual to them as well. But, that is exactly why the first day is so joyful and exciting!
Often, we were in the major hubs of the country’s must-see tourist places. In between the visits to the more popular religious and archeological sites, there were endless roads traveled through small villages filled with unexpected encounters with both Sri Lankan people and wildlife. Stopping for cows crossing, photographing the gorgeous tropical birds flying overhead or taking 15 minutes to watch monkeys tease us with their playfulness were some of the spontaneous moments throughout our rides. I am reminded of just how impossible it is to experience this daily cultural intimacy we had on our bikes while in a car or bus.
One afternoon while riding through some local villages we passed an older local man in a flowing white sarong on an old rusty bike. He smiled broadly as we called out our hello/hi greetings and he quickly picked up his pace until he earned his first in line spot. The warm smile of this older man was so genuine and memorable for everyone.
What could be better than a connection like that for a first-time visitor? No words were exchanged but the world became smaller through the beautiful bond of our group of one American, two Scotts, a Spaniard and this lovely Sri Lankan man on his rusty bike who helped make us all smile with gratitude. At that moment, I knew coming to Sri Lanka was the best way to live out the book I read so many years ago.
The surprise of this particular trip was the terrain and the incredibly diverse geography and climate in this small country. We began our ride in a very hot, dry zone with fairly flat terrain and finished in a remote rain-forest with a beautiful downhill descent over 100-km long ending by the sea in the colonial city of Galle Fort. Each day was filled with stunning scenery, diverse wildlife and while in the heart of the more mountainous areas, surprisingly steep terrain.
Two weeks of biking also included a long hike in a cloud forest, a sunset hike to a 2,000-year-old fortress, a gorgeous 4-hour train journey through beautiful towns and tea plantations and a safari jeep tour through Yala National Park. In between cycling, hiking, touring and lunch stops, we were always well fed with plentiful fresh fruits and hydrated with our daily dose of sweet young coconut juice. Our great guide, Nishan, even performed an entertaining display of the fine art of “uncorking” a fresh young coconut that any sommelier would admire.
As much as I love traveling and biking, I am also an admitted foodie and enjoy the experiences of tasting new and authentic local cuisines while traveling. However, curries were never my favorite flavors until I was fortunate enough to be in a country where curry is on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I have now become a seeker of all things curry, especially the more nuanced flavors of the ones I discovered in Sri Lanka.
A traditional Sri Lankan diet is hoppers with a side of curry for breakfast, rice and curry for lunch and curry and rice for dinner. What isn’t represented in this interpretation are the variations on that theme of all things curry. Each day we were in a different town or region, the ingredients shifted slightly as the specialties of the area were explored. Having a local guide like Nishan, with a wonderful knowledge of these subtleties, was appreciated and our meals became a place for discovering the fine art of curries.
One afternoon, I attempted a traditional utensil-free lunch with some much-needed instruction from Nishan. It’s not as simple as filling up your right hand with the chosen combination of six or seven different curries and a handful of rice. The goal is to choose a few flavors, blend with a small amount of rice while using only the top of the fingertips. With a slight push of your thumb, it meets your mouth and there is a blissful taste of perfect curry flavors with just the right amount of rice. Less is more and with each meal of six or seven curries served and bowls of rice, it becomes a game of choice; a subtle blend but without creating a mess below your fingertips. This, I learned first hand, is a challenge.
It's said that "third time's a charm" and after completing my third consecutive summer trip with Grasshopper Adventures in Sri Lanka, it's impossible to decide on any order of favorites other than they were all the best. Each country I've traveled with Grasshopper; Myanmar, Vietnam and Sri Lanka and a one-day tour in Angkor Wat, have all been spectacularly interesting, culturally enriching and just incredibly fun. As they say, the first trip gets you hooked and fortunately, after four amazing travel experiences, there are many more places yet to be explored with Grasshopper Adventures.
Special thanks to Jo Ann for her article and photos. If you would like to publish your travel story with Grasshopper Adventures, feel free to drop us a message.