Andrew Eames takes a two-wheeled tour of Sri Lanka’s paddy fields
I was nearing the end of my 10 days in Sri Lanka, and staying in a very pleasant hotel in the neighbourhood of Unawatuna, just south of Galle. I’d done the circuit of the highlands and the forests and tea estates, ticked off the wildlife-watching in the Yala National Park, and now I was meant to be relaxing by the beach. Except I had slightly itchy feet; I’m not good at just lying in the sun.
So when I passed the sign for Idle Bikes, promoting gentle guided bike tours of the local countryside from the hamlet of Heenatigala, I couldn’t resist. I signed up for a two-hour, eight-mile ‘paddy field trail’, and just moments after setting off we were a midst a peaceful sea of green rice terraces, edged by avenues of coconut, banana and papaya trees.
It was a place of local encounters, the sort you can only have on a bike. Our guide, Sanath, stopped us in front of an elderly man who was wading through a half-grown crop of rice, spraying pesticide from a tank on his back, watched by the crop’s owner. The latter turned out to be a policeman on his day off. Most landowners around here, Sanat said, were people like him. They had other jobs, but still worked the land. All things being well, his harvest would be more than enough to feed his family for the year ahead, and with luck he may have some left over to sell.
We continued, disturbing kingfishers, pond herons, lapwings and pipits, all enjoying the insect life that the paddies produced. It was a little Eden, with peacocks poking their heads up in the distance, and bird posts erected in the fields for big birds to rest on (to stop them destroying the crops). The occasional water monitor (a lizard big enough to eat a small dog) slipped across the path in front of us.
After about an hour, Sanath called a halt on a piece of raised grassy land with cinnamon trees where a handful of coconuts were already waiting, along with a machete. After a couple of deft flicks of the blade, he handed us each a drink, and we had a short refreshment break in the sun.
For the next 20 minutes or so we were on a mix of hardtop lane and path, passing through hamlets of houses, greeting ladies in their vegetable patches. We caught up with another cyclist, a fish seller with a big box over his back wheel, calling “malu, malu” and ringing his bell. And a little further on, another vendor, this time with an even bigger box and a battery-powered jingle. He was selling bread.
And then, as we headed back on the surfaced road to the Idle Bikes shop, there was a group of excited young men waiting with a highly decorated bicycle: balloons on the handlebars, a skirt of ribbons, an umbrella above and strings of empty cans tied to the back.
They were waiting, they said, for a friend from the village, who was returning home with his new bride and this was to be his wedding jalopy for the final, short ride. But please, they urged, would we like to take turns in sitting on it. It would be an honour, they said, and the benediction of foreigners would be counted as a very propitious start to a happy marriage.
And who were we to deny them that.