Dodge the buffalo and you can have some fun
Hambantota: Sri Lanka's city of the future. Where wild elephants block off traffic until tolls of bananas or wood-apples are exacted. Where palatial council buildings and immense cricket stadiums rise up from the paddy fields and thick scrub. And where, if you're lucky, you might just get to observe politicians from a range of parties, undisturbed in their natural habitat, resplendent in their impunity.
In the four years the Hambantota stadium has been active, cricket writers have largely not been fond of having to cover games in these parts. That the ground is actually nowhere near Hambantota is first among their charges. Public transport is rudimentary. Taxis are rare. There is a better chance of being eaten by leopards than finding a hotel room a convenient distance from the ground.
And the cricket is not always high quality here either. After some dreary low-scorers were played out in the first 18 months, the pitch initially had a reputation for being too slow. When the surface sped up and became bouncier a while later, concerns arose about whether Sri Lanka were gifting their home advantage away. On top of all this, the weather has interrupted cricket far more than it should at a dry-zone venue, and the furious cross-wind that sometimes sets in virtually fences off one half of the ground.
A lot of that is hard to defend. But then, can you trust the gripes of people who are paid to travel the world watching sport? Hambantota has its challenges, but Sri Lanka's wild southeast spikes the touring experience with a sense of primal adventure almost certainly unique to this ground.
Where else do you dodge metre-long cobras on the way to a press conference? Or throw nervous glances either side of the road, hoping an elephant won't suddenly charge out of the bush. While heading back to his hotel after a recent ODI, a local photographer saw the vehicle in front stop with an almighty thud, then felt the night around him begin to move like thunder. The two-car convoy had hit a herd of water buffalo; their black hides closeting them in darkness. The animal that was struck died immediately. The car didn't fare much better. Thankfully, passengers and driver were unhurt. Bars and restaurants are the setting for a thousand great touring stories, but there's nothing quite like being stuck in a stampede.
Sri Lanka's deep south has parallels to its American equivalent, in that it is fiercely religious and socially conservative, but at times it can feel like the old West. Another touring story has a local journalist of large build, being treated like royalty upon entering a dodgy bar in the ground's vicinity. Only when he was about to leave did the writer realise the staff had mistaken him for a local crime boss, who had enough of a reputation to un-ironically call himself "Sooriyawewa Ceasar". Murder rates are notoriously high in the region, but have recently been substantially curbed by Hambantota's finest. Cardboard cutouts of the local politicians that oversaw the cleanup stand manfully astride town centres, like gun-toting sheriffs of yore.
If all this sounds a bit frightening, the edge, it has to be said, is taken off by local custom. While there could be other places in the world that are Sri Lanka's match in hospitality, surely nowhere else are guests treated with more warmth and care. Directions aren't just glibly recited, locals offer to get into your vehicle, direct you to the destination, then refuse a lift back to where they were. Even the cops who wield power with a surly manner in other pockets of the country, are generally polite and patient here.
The stadium at Hambantota may not become the next Lord's or MCG. The bat flapping about in the stairwell outside the press box as I write this, is possibly testament to that. But if you dodge the buffalo, and pay the elephant tollbooths their due, you could just end up having a bit of fun.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando