Fear and loathing in the mountain kingdom

Excerpt from ‘The Arrack Diary’

Fuck. I clattered a pot hole at 70kph in The Beast during a questionable overtaking manoeuvre. My acceleration stalled and I lost important ground. Split-second analysis: the rusting red provincial bus to the left, listing treacherously and belching out rotten black smoke, and the Lanka Ashok Layland truck looming ahead like a monstrous yellow wall show no inclination of slowing.

I am committed. Goosepimples spread out over my neck and arms in a heartbeat. Foot to the floor, The Beast’s 796cc engine wails like a banshee and adds little to the cause. A sharp turn to the left almost inseparable from a vast yellow blur to my right is accompanied by a crescendo of noise, and I’m past.

The Colombo-Kandy road is brutal. Lines of frustrated drivers snake their way through dense jungle and slowly up into the foothills of the mountain kingdom. The tedium is broken by the many crazy locals who perform near-death manoeuvres as a matter of cause. I don’t quite class myself among that category yet.

But with the teeth-clenching low speeds comes the opportunity to take a look around. This important artery reveals the Island’s industriousness as single story, small scale businesses cluster together in ramshackle huts of wood or unfinished concrete for most of the way. And I’ve coined them all: there’s wicker ally, with all manner of furniture, hats and curiosities; pineapple lane, where the sheer quantity of the fruit leaves a sweet taste in the air; and inflatable avenue, a strange ensemble of blow up plastic toys and bathing appliances.

How do these people survive when competition is so fierce and prices so low? And why would people stop on a whim to indulge themselves with a lilo? These are just some of the questions that present themselves and remain unanswered on a daily basis.

On the final ascent to Kandy the road gets steep and drivers curse the clouds of exhaust from the tired, coughing, mechanical relics of Sri Lanka’s varied past. The Beast is a simple animal. He has AC but powering it up reduces acceleration to zero, so it stays off and I drive with the windows open. This is nice on an empty road, but now the cabin is thick with hot, humid pollution. I am blind to the sublime landscape unfolding as we climb.



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