Tuesday March 5th, 2024
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Fifth Wheeling in Sri Lanka: A Singleton’s Fear In A Traveller’s Dream

Being the fifth cog in a four-person machine is the stuff of Elm Street nightmares and the-blonde-person-dies-first horror movies. Now, imagine this taking place in a foreign country.

Layan Adham Ismail

Fifth Wheeling in Sri Lanka: A Singleton’s Fear In A Traveller’s Dream

*All names were changed for humour-related reasons. Oh, and to protect everyone’s privacy or whatever.*

There are a couple of semi-valid but mostly “I-decided-to-get-bangs”-level masochistic reasons why a human being of sound(-ish) and only slightly demented mind would willingly decide to not third wheel, but fifth wheel two couples over the course of ten (ten!) days in a foreign country.

The main one being – I​ f***ing didn’t. 

When my then-friend BigButtConsultant, a self-proclaimed femme fatale yet entirely under the mercy of FOMO, asked me to join a planned trip to Sri Lanka with her failed-actor-turned-waiter-and-is-now-of-course-trying-to-be-a-model then-boyfriend BigHeadedFrenchBoy, who would literally verbal-diarrhoea things like “I’m easily bored, so I used to have a girl for every day of the week”, I was obviously more than just a little hesitant. 

“Oh, that’s definitely…one idea.” I had said, not even trying to hide my Heath-Ledger’s-Joker-esque grimace.

“Right?” she had grinned, my obvious (like neon-sign obvious) repulsion flying right over her freshly-coiffed head. “Oh, and since ArabWhiteBoyLawyer and BangsLovingFilmmaker are back together, they’re coming, too.”

Fifth wheeling?! Third wheeling her and her “ugh”-prompting boyfriend was bad enough but fifth wheeling?! No way. Hell nah. Nuh-uh. No.

But here’s the thing… 

Spending my anxiously-awaited fall break on campus, after weeks of hallucination-inducing and eye-twitch-instigating sleep deprivation and mind-numbing hours spent in the dungeon-like and South-Pole-temperatured film editing room, was as appealing as a quick trip to the ninth circle of hell.

So, I did what one does when faced with the looming threat of becoming a minority single person in a vast sea of couples - I brought a friend.

With my saving-grace-bestie OnlyTravelsToAsiaGirl in tow, and after a run-Forrest-run short layover in Muscat, we landed in Colombo.

The capital, and frankly the least picturesque of all the cities, Colombo is more of a I-have-to-land-here destination, rather than a bucket list one. We basically just ate at a random place (about which my Sri Lankan friend later had this to say: “This is literally the worst place to eat in the entire country, what the hell were you thinking, Jesus.”), walked around until my feet were not obeying my orders to move, then sat down on a random street corner to give my rapidly deflating lungs a break.

That’s when OnlyTravelsToAsiaGirl suddenly turned to me and blurted out, “I want to leave.”

And I wanted to scream. 

She proceeded to explain how her previous solo I-want-to-find-myself-in-a-random-Asian-country backpacking trip to Nepal had enlightened her and how she now wanted to jump on a random train, get lost in the jungles of the country and recreate that life-altering trip.

See, the poet in me was actually rooting for her to achieve her tumblr-inspired goal of “finding herself” but my crippling fear of being any sort of wheel made me want to climb all the way up to the famed Sigiriya Rock Fortress in Dambulla (yes, there’s actual information in this story, don’t let my soap-opera personal life make you forget that this is a travel feature) and scream for a solid minute.

I think we’ve established that brevity is not my strong suit but long story short: She ran to the hotel, grabbed her bags, hopped on a random train like she said she would and disappeared into the Sri Lankan countryside. And I was left to spend the rest of this seemingly-infinite trip with two loved-up honeymoon-phase couples, journeying around the ridiculously romantic beaches, sanctuaries and (oh, for f***’s sake) waterfalls. 

After I was done with my understandable hysterics and had adopted an “It is what it is'' attitude, I turned to the two couples snuggling and giggling in a sort of bubbly high-pitched way beside me and shook my head. I remember thinking then: This country better be the most beautiful touched-by-God earthly haven sanctuary nirvana paradise there is, otherwise I’m gonna throw a fit so big it could easily rival the one in White Chicks.

And, you know what? It was.

We started by hiring a car for the trip (don’t come at me, it’s recommended by everyone since you’re literally crossing the country), helped our driver Sudhith stuff our (my) numerous bags into it, then headed off to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage to see what BangsLovingFilmmaker liked to call “Elle-ey-FAANTS”.

There, we were mesmerised by the elephants’ definitely-consensual à-la-mode metallic anklets and their surely-this-must-be-consensual non-stop laps around the area to greet eager visitors.

But the orphanage really became enjoyable once we ignored the nagging question: Wait, how did they become orphans in the first place?

Afterwards, we continued on to Pidurangala, a rock formation that has the best view of the actual attraction in the area Sigiriya, which we cheaped out on getting tickets for. By the time I got to the top of the insanely tall and stamina-requiring Pidurangala to enjoy the sensational panoramic views, my face was a chic shade of monkey’s butt red and the couples had already started taking a menacing amount of young-lovers-lovingly-loving-each-other pictures.

A few hours - and asthma inhaler puffs - later, we were on our second (and already two above my preferred number) hike of the day. The Golden Temple of Dambulla, and the impressive towering golden buddha statue I’m assuming it was named for (check TripAdvisor or something, I can’t do all the legwork), awaits travellers who dare embark on what some websites falsely claim is a “gentle” climb. And, let me tell you, it’s so worth the wheezing and the imminent muscle cramps.

We got there ten minutes before closing time (the tardiness was largely due to my lack of agility) and rushed inside the temple, just as the monks were starting to chant. With an entrancing view of the leisurely setting sun colouring the distant Dambulla houses violet, we gave in to the enchanting song of the monks, finally, and shockingly for a group with a total of like nine mental health issues, feeling kind of calm.

Exhausted, out of breath and generally physically unwell, we rushed off to our lodgings for the night at the off-season Hotel-California-type Sundaras Resort and Spa, which had zero guests and a bone-chillingly overly-eager staff. To be fair, if it weren’t for my abundant trust issues and the fact that I had recently watched Psycho, it would have actually been a really affordable luxurious stay. And it was generally somewhat pleasant.

Well, once we managed to ignore the teenie-tiny frog issue, that is.

After wolfing down a dollop of extra-spiced Kukul Mas Kari (chicken curry), BangsLovingFilmmaker was ready for a bathroom adventure of the number two variety. As she lifted the lid off the reception toilet, a fireworks display of slime and reptiles showered her in stomach-churning filth. Metaphors aside, she was literally attacked by an entire family of frogs, cohabitating inside the f***ing toilet.

Her insanely justified banshee shrieks sent the birds in the surrounding jungle into an ear-drum-bursting screaming match, the monkeys went ape-s*** (see what I did there?) and the frogs triumphantly returned to their humble dwellings after having won the war on filmmakers. But don’t worry about BangsLovingFilmmaker, her therapy sessions were covered by insurance. The next morning, we were off to Kandy, home to the must-visit Royal Botanical Garden and its we-like-communal-massages monkeys (they’ve really cracked the evolution code, haven’t they?) and The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which BigButtConsultant and I decided to visit - my very first and very welcome reprieve from the endless odd-one-out-singleton Sri Lankan excursion.

Yet, on brand for the “Layan-can’t-catch-a-break”-theme of the trip, karma seemed to be working overtime that week because the moment we got out of the temple, the entire area was flooded with gun-owning, pocket-knife-wielding warring drug cartels.

Finding ourselves in the middle of a literal turf war, a fact that was later revealed to us by the heroic tuk-tuk driver that headed our escape, we were understandably ready for a brain-fogging experience. So, we spent the night discovering Sri Lanka’s, umm, local plants.

Up next was Nuwara Eliya, an idyllic city with a fine selection of gushing waterfalls and massive definitely-not-unethical-at-all (read about it, it’s messed up) tea plantations. We could have literally chosen any waterfall to visit, like literally any, but, of course, we had to go to the one called Lover’s Leap. The only person wanting to leap off the waterfall was me.

A few hours with only Sudhith (a man of literally no words) as company later, I was just so uncomfortably done with the fifth wheeling Salem-witches/voodoo/what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this curse, I just wanted to fast-forward to our next escapade, whatever it may have been. And boy, would I eat my words soon after because next on the list was the most daunting and PTSD-inducing of all our exploits.

Entering a semi-abandoned, in the middle of butt-f*** nowhere, cabin-in-the-woods hostel in the pitch-black darkness of night, I was definitely not optimistic about our upcoming stay. In a horror movie, I’d be the first to go, so things were not looking good for me at all.

As we approached the valley-guy American receptionist (he was wearing a souvenir shop “Sri Lanka” shirt with a figure holding a riding crop standing in front of a vague beach sunset background, for f***’s sake), I could hear myself yelp.

“No way. I’m not going.” my voice was quivering but I still sounded resolute.

None of them even turned to look at me. BigHeadedFrenchBoy was facing the receptionist head-on, discussing terrifying logistics that were dissuading me even more from doing this.

“It’ll take you about four hours to get there, if you’re athletic. Although it is Monsoon season, so the rain might slow you down a bit.”

Yeah, did I mention that this entire Stephen-King fever dream was taking place during the rainiest (like typhoon-level) and most humid (you can imagine how my curly hair fared during this frizz fest - I was not pulling off the Lion-King-look) of all seasons?

“We don’t have raincoats.” I chimed in, hopeful it was enough to get them to go back to the room, which was a literal sardine can, and forget about this plan altogether.

“We can just wear our hoodies.” BigHeadedFrenchBoy - who was becoming more and more big-headed and Putin-level controlling, as the trip went on - brushed me off in an instant. “Are there bathrooms or anything on the way?”

“Barely.” 

“No problem. We’ll deal with it.” NO PROBLEM?! Was he being serious? There are types of spherical bacteria that are bigger than my bladder.

“Oh, and since you’ll be going at night, you’ll need to be careful of the leeches, leopards, lizards and all that jazz.”

Okay, connecting with nature is grand and all but peeing in the middle of the forest, at night (they wanted to catch the sunrise), while hiking up the monstrously tall Adam’s Peak Mountain, in the pouring rain, while an audience of feral cats and sharp-toothed lizards watches is probably something I’d wish upon someone deserving of this experience. Like Mussolini. Or my ex-boss.

Look, I know what you must be thinking. Of course this group of intellectuals was, well, intellectual enough to, I don’t know, abort the mission and run from the hills?

Yeah, no. I learned the hard way that intellectualism and cleverness can, in fact, be mutually exclusive.

So, despite my wails, shrieks and tantrums, we packed our backpacks, tested our flashlights and set off on our wheeze-inducing quest.

Along the way, we ran into several blood-loving leeches (they were very fond of me actually, just like their human counterparts), food-stealing monkeys and robe-wearing monks that blessed our “fearless” journey. And finally, we reached the final stretch - a one-hour hike up a vertical stairway to hell. No, unfortunately, I’m not joking.

Around the five-hour mark, and with only the thought of breathtaking views to keep me going, BigButtConsultant literally had to shove me up the stairs, just so I could make it to the top. My muscles had already started atrophying by the time I finally took the last step and gazed around me at the beautiful, unparalleled 360-view of the…completely fogged up mountains.

Yes, we climbed all night to catch the sunrise, only to be covered in fog so dense, we couldn’t even see our hands.

I could make a funny quip here about how being booksmart is as useful as sunglasses indoors (seriously, I don’t get the hype unless you have a black-eye the size of the ozone hole) or about how letting a white man - BigHeadedFrenchBoy - take the lead on anything, ultimately leads to destruction (check world history, I know I’m right) but truth be told, our next stop was so therapeutic, it nearly made up for this major ball drop.

The beachside Hikkaduwa and its Sea Turtle Hatchery and Rescue Center (baby turtles!) were perfect in every way. A soothing haven, Hikkaduwa was the medicine I needed to mentally fix the damage that was done over ten days. Physically though was a whole different story.


I spent two weeks walking around like a penguin (some charming local Sri Lankan men even pointed at me, laughed and whispered to each other: “She must’ve climbed Adam’s Peak.”) but if I really have to pass judgement on the whole experience, I would only be able to say this: If you have any money in the bank (lol) and you’re looking for an adrenaline-infused, yet simultaneously calming destination (or you want to run away from your financially/socially/just generally sinking country), Sri Lanka is the destination to jet off to.

Just make sure you plan well, bring mosquito repellent and inhalers (yes, plural), check the weather forecast (if you read this feature and still accidentally book your trip during Monsoon season, then you seriously have a problem) and for the love of all that is holy: don’t you even dare consider being the third, fifth, n-wheel on any trip ever. Just. Don’t. Do. It.


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