Family fun in paradise

GONE FISHIN: The end of a rickety jetty offers a great spot for father and son bonding.
GONE FISHIN: The end of a rickety jetty offers a great spot for father and son bonding.

Our time in Sri Lanka is nearly up when we make the questionable decision to take a local metro train.

It's a 30-kilometre hop north from the capital Colombo to Negombo, a beachy resort town near the airport where we're spending our final night.

Wellington to Plimmerton, in other words. A cinch. A breeze, although there isn't one. A last local experience for the three of us - Harriet, 3-year-old Baxter and me - on our year-long family tramp around the world.

The trouble is we've already taken one train today in 35 degrees Celsius heat - a second- class number with slow fans and red vinyl seats.

So we're saturated with sweat as we wait on Platform 1 at Colombo Railway Station.

It's a long wait, made longer by the attention our 20 neighbouring commuters are giving us - thanks, I guess, to Baxter's blond locks, Harriet's (actually very modest) skirt and the bags we've strewn across the platform.

All down the platform, huge, heavy black crows are pecking around and flying up.

Every couple of minutes, Baxter's 30-rupee icecream topples off its cone onto the asphalt with a pale chocolate splat. We take turns getting up to replace it.

Still, the waiting's nothing compared with the train journey itself, which starts with a scramble during which Baxter is yanked out of my hands and passed up into a churn of passengers.

On board, reunited, there's such a slug of heat and we're pressed between so many bodies that the platform suddenly looks good. It's still looking like that 25 minutes later, when the train is in the same place.

Meanwhile, the 3-year-old has decided it's probably time for a sleep, a decision he conveys by a mixture of whining, pawing and rapid blinking.

Yet even now, in what is about the worst moment of the trip, with our heads beating, our hands slippery from sweat and our son transformed into one of the tiny captive monkeys we've seen here, a bit of a benediction arrives in the form of three old ladies.

Motioning at Harriet, they grab hold of Baxter, lay him out across their saris and begin fanning him with a newspaper.

He loves it and falls asleep, the train finally pushes off, something like a breeze flickers through the window, and the trio keep up their good work for the next two hours while we rumble north at walking pace.

So the worst moment of the trip becomes the best moment, at least for a while.

And in that instant, I reckon I see a microcosm of our time in Sri Lanka: a furious heat, a lot of attention, a bit of chaos, a very slow journey and a crucial, saving kindness.

We've spent three weeks doing a circuit of most of the island, from hectic, grubby Colombo, to 2000-year-old ruins in the north, from livid green tea plantations where the temperature drops to Wellington levels, to flawless beaches that stare south into the Indian Ocean. (We're not game enough to make it to the far north or east, where most of the fighting in the country's very recent 30-year civil war took place.)

Sri Lanka is helpfully small - the whole pear-shaped island is about half the size of the North Island. Even with public transport that dawdles along, you're never more than four or five hours away from anywhere.

When it gets too hot in Anuradhapura, an ancient city in the north, we hightail it to Kandy, where it's cooler. Too rainy in Nuwara Eliya - a town Sri Lankans call "Little England", lined with colonial bungalows - and we grab a bus to the beaches.

These half-day trips are about the limit of our ability to be in motion with a preschooler. Any more and he's eating the seat leather. But as long as we're well prepared, with snacks and water and pens and paper, a few hours on a bus or train are OK, even relaxing.

There are other lures for a kid - this kid, at least. Baxter loves cricket as much as Sri Lankans. He points out every crooked set of wickets we see: one for every dusty schoolyard, park or patch of flat land. He joins in games with hotel workers on their break, with kids in their neighbourhood alleys, with surfies at the southern beaches. He cheers wildly at the test match we bowl up to in Colombo.

Even better are the animals. After we splurge on a safari trip to the famous Yala National Park, Baxter lists what we see, for weeks: a leopard disappearing into the bracken, a baby elephant getting a lick from its big sister, a tree heaving with pelicans.

Tourism has been surging in Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2009, so everyone's an industry professional now. Maybe because of this or because they're still feeling out what's acceptable, the touts are extremely pushy.

At a curd-and-honey shop in one town, for instance, the owner rings his "cousin" to jack up a hotel for us in our next stop, before we even see our yoghurt.

Sure enough, the cousin intercepts us between the two towns and ushers us into his van with the promise of a free air- conditioned ride.

Likewise, when we find our hostel booked out in a picturesque little village called Ella, our tuk-tuk driver suggests we try his new DIY one-room establishment. Against the odds, it turns out to be a little charmer with a waterfall view.

This sort of entrepreneurship runs the gamut - from cheeky upselling to wilful misunderstanding.

But not everything costs money. On consecutive nights, Harriet and I join streams of Sri Lankan Buddhists in climbing Adam's Peak, a 2243-metre-high pilgrimage site in serene tea country.

Moreover, the best food usually goes for a pittance. "Rice and curry", the national meal, is actually code for a whole smorgasbord of colourful, fiery dishes.

Elsewhere, we're eating hoppers - savoury pancakes stacked with a fried egg and chilli paste - or roti snacks by the dozen, or fresh fish laid out and barbecued on the beach, or coconut sambal and dhal curry piled up on chapattis, the delicious local breakfast.

Actually, it's always a sensory experience, being in Sri Lanka. There's plenty to look at, whether it's the ubiquitous portraits of the reigning, waving president, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Billy T James, or a hazy blood- orange sun dipping into the Indian Ocean.

And there's plenty to smell, with all that vivid food, and plenty to hear, like the zillions of tuk-tuks that swarm the island, and plenty to touch, from the bell we ring at the top of Adam's Peak, to the white sands at Mirissa beach with its perfect little lagoon, to Sri Lankans themselves - at least for Baxter, who spends every day being variously picked up, shaken by the hand, and fed sweets of all description.

This isn't even to mention any of what Sri Lankans call their rich, but undoubtedly complex and often sore, heritage: a mixture of Sinhalese and Tamil influences, of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, of the layered imperial legacies of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.

A few days into our trip, hot, tired and stuck in a dive in Anuradhapura, we were ready to curse Sri Lanka and make for the airport, but a couple of weeks later we're feeling entirely different, regretful that we can't see more, go further, widen our circuit and get a bit deeper into such an absorbing place.

The Dominion Post