Malaysia’s lesser known highlights: Cameron Highlands

Our second trip to Malaysia included returns to Kuala Lumpur and Penang, while adding on the perhaps lesser known Cameron Highlands and Tioman Island to our collection of experiences. They are places at the opposite ends of multiple scales: one featuring tea plantations and a cool climate, the other a chillaxed tropical island far removed from the mainland pulse.

What was definitely true of our time in Malaysia is that the pace slowed considerably as we started to gear ourselves up, both mentally but also in starting to make real plans, for our return to New Zealand. Thus, four stops in three weeks felt like a good pace to set. So much has been written about the enjoyable albeit slightly chaotic capital KL, and the wondrous historic, culinary jewel of Penang. I thought it would be more interesting to focus on our treks to lesser known locales.

After a wonderfully social six nights in Penang, reacquainting ourselves with its history-rich streets and making new friends, we headed up to the centre of tea production in Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands. In an ‘only on the road’ kinda story, we walked into our hostel and right into the Germans we had meet in Georgetown. So we extended the social vibes for a couple more nights…

It’s pretty much mandatory to do some kind of tour while in town, and there are many options for different combinations of the area’s many different attractions: tea plantations, strawberry farms, look out points, an ancient mossy forest, and so on. We lucked out and scored a knowledgeable, friendly, and very funny Punjabi guide (self-described, interestingly, but actually second generation Malaysian-born).

Coming from a country with both strawberries and plenty of forests, and having done tea in India, and seen it again in Sri Lanka, the tour was really just a ‘something to do’ choice, but I’m really glad we did. Nick brought the area alive, explaining the history of tea in the region, as well as offering a lot of additional hot-takes and commentary about Malaysia for free!

John Russell, son of a British administrative officer, brought tea to the area in the 1920s, when he bought a large tract of land and established the still functioning Boh plantation, now run by his granddaughter. From this time, it became a popular summer retreat for British elite types, and is now even more popular among local tourists – for the same reasons – as well as Japanese retirees (remembering that Japan occupied Malaya during the final four years of WWII).

You never see the Japanese retirees, they keep to themselves; by contrast locals were everywhere, especially as it was an end-of-Ramadan new year holiday weekend when we were in town!

The original South Indian labourers have largely left tea now, moving into other business and agricultural interests, and some have done very well. Sadly, they have been replaced by cheaper new migrants from Bangladesh. Our jolly guesthouse owner, the (grand)daughter of one of those original migrants, laughed when she told us that the Chinese tourists have not discovered Cameron yet, as there are no shopping malls here!

Aside from tours, the Highlands are known as a walker’s delight, offering a large number of tracks and treks, of varying length and difficulty, for visitors to undertake (or not) at will.

On our first day, we hiked up to the top of track number ten, offering us views back down and across the Highlands. Interestingly, we were met outside of our hostel by a local dog, who started following us, and seemingly knowing exactly where we were going, proceeded to lead us all the way to the top of the track.

We decided that that’s what local dogs do, and there were a number about: play tour guide for tourists, get in their daily exercise, and nine times out of ten, get fed as a reward. Unfortunately, we literally didn’t have anything edible with us, although had decided we’d find something to feed him once we got back down. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to wait that long, and ditched us at the top for another couple that’d come along. Charming!

On our last day we took the opposite approach, walking down track nine to find a waterfall – fairly lame – and continuing down towards a reservoir and power station. We didn’t quite realise how much down was involved, and were at the point of deciding whether to continue (whether our knees could handle it) when the heavens literally opened and, within minutes, we were soaked through. So it ended up being a jungle trek scramble back to the top. The waterfall was at least a little more interesting on the return!

We also ate a lot of curry. A lot. It was cold.

If the Highlands were cold and jam-packed with local tourists (see what I did there), then Tioman Island was the polar opposite: summer daze, stunning, and largely empty.

To be continued…

Delhi and the changing face of India

Delhi is a giant of a city. Not only in terms of population or sheer scale, as it continues to grow ever outward, consuming what were once distinctive villages in the onward march of development. But also in terms of the sheer bounty of things to see and do. With two visits under our belts now, totalling nine days, there are still pockets left unexplored, attractions unvisited. We gave it a good go, though…

There’s the historical, illustrating the city’s important place in empires ranging from the ancient Hindu, through the Mughal period, and of course the British. From the architectural wonder of the Qutb Minar, to the giant splendour of the Red Fort; from Jantar Mantar, the Mughal period observatory, to the colonial era Nicholson Cemetery. The pompous spectacle of Rajpath, the India Gate, the magnificent secretariat buildings and presidential palace straddle the transition into independence.

Alongside this is the everyday Delhi that maintains rhythms of daily life that connect directly to patterns of the past. Here I’m talking about the bazaars and industries most often viewed by tourists in old Delhi, around the famed Chandni Chowk. It’s chaotic, it’s frenetic, it’s overwhelming. It’s most likely the kinds of scenes you’ve never before witnessed (and certainly at such a scale). It’s a wild ride.

Of course there’s the religious, and particular way that monuments, shrines and the worshipping of/at are often woven into daily life. I include here the stunning tombs littered across the city, memorialising past rulers. The peaceful Lodi Gardens contain tombs that are simply and accessibly part the park itself.

But then there’s also the mosques, the Jain temples, the Hindu temples, and so on, offering so much variety, so many experiences. The visits we made to the Sikh Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, as well as Amritsar’s Golden Temple, both in 2013, remain for me profoundly moving memories of peaceful, welcoming ritual (and are, whether fair or not, compared to the colossal beauty but otherwise pretty scammy experience at Delhi’s giant Jama Masjid).

And then there’s the new, the Delhi that reflects India’s growing wealth, confidence, and social change. The wonderful art galleries, where we soaked up the country’s vibrant contemporary art scenes, the museum’s ranging from national scale institutions to the quirky, and plenty oriented around historical figures too (the Ghandis, the Nehrus, and so on). Girgaon, technically just outside the territorial limits of Delhi and agricultural villages mere decades ago, is now a throbbing pulse of hitech, finance and commerce, and all the associated development that comes along with it.

And it’s on the new that I wanted to muse.

Delhi represents the face of country that has been changing rapidly in recent years; indeed, we feel like India has changed dramatically in the five years between visits. Like elsewhere, this is most immediately visible through technological change.

In dramatic fashion, India is now a smartphone and social media-connected nation.  Everywhere we went in Delhi, people are as glued to their screens as the rest of us. And, like elsewhere, this is creating a population connected globally; to new ideas and globalised cultural flows, and the youth are increasingly agitating for change they want to see (Yuss!).

Rather wonderfully, though, at least for now, there is no sense that this represents any kind of cultural imperialism, of one culture being swamped by external forces and the local being somewhat drowned out by a sea of (primarily American) pop culture. This is resolutely still India. Bollywood (and its regional offshoots) and the prevalence of religious practice in everyday life, for example, still absolutely reign supreme and remain seemingly unshakeable.

Cable TV, for what contemporary relevance it still has, is beaming literally hundreds of channels across the land, in a range of languages. It brings together a plethora of options, of not only India’s media cultures, but of global platforms too. Programme formats have been adapted from elsewhere to suit local conditions too. A particular favourite has been watching the lifestyle/food programmes, even if they’ve been in Hindi, or Hinglish as we might call the peculiar but amazing way people language-switch with relative ease here.

And the government’s continued push to make India a digital economy, while making ATMs and cash a bit of a headache for us at-times these passed two months, is resulting in the rapid take up of e-commerce.

Long before Uber Eats and their ilk, India already had a long tradition of meal delivery, via the marvel of the tiffin tin lunch delivery service, especially in Mumbai. For over a century, this has allowed wives to be able to deliver their hard-working hubbies something fresh from their kitchens for lunch (I say with a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek, on multiple fronts).

In the digital age, this has now spiralled into a number of delivery services, chiefly Zomato and Swiggy. Their spread has been so great that our usual mantra of looking for food based on finding places busy with locals had to be extended to include places doing a roaring trade in takeaway deliveries (visible by the number of motorbikes zipping in and out of places). You can even order meals to be delivered to your train seat as you whiz into pretty much any town/city, right across the country!

And, at streetside level, you can pay for things using Q codes and, increasingly, mobile apps like PayTM.

For me, the ultimate symbol of all of this change is the Metro. All over India, in every major metropolis we visited, there exists a Metro system in the process of being built or, more often, expanded. Delhi’s Metro, less than twenty years old, is already one of the world’s largest, by both length and patronage. It is vast, and there wasn’t a single place in the city we wanted to get to, that we couldn’t access via its efficient, snaking paths.

This connectivity has completely transformed the way Delhiites move and live. It has made literally millions of people mobile, able to move about and work and socialise in much larger circles and manifestly different ways than previously possible. We rode with people commuting, families on day trips, young people out and about. And women, my gosh, we saw women, in groups, alone, young, old, outside. Remarkable.

I think this new mobility (freedom, really) is creating unprecedented social change; in ways it will take decades (and some choice social historians) to fully comprehend and explain.

But one small, curious way I think I observed this is in the rise of what I’d call ‘fixed-price culture’. Previously, unless at a shop like we understand them (retail malls, boutiques, supermarkets, etc.), by-and-large, shopping in India is the artform of negotiation (or, if simply buying food and drink, for example, from small roadside shops, stalls or markets, being told the price and knowing it was inflated over and above local prices, but not really caring…much). Indeed, it primarily still is.

But all across urban centres, more and more, I noted growing numbers of humble street-side stalls with price lists and signage (mostly in English). Some produce markets even had ‘per kilo’ prices. And market stalls are being transformed into fixed priced outlets, sitting right outside glittering new label shops.

Additionally, young entrepreneurs are taking the humble street stall and giving them hipster makeovers, creating all manner of little eateries that have been designed, interior decorated, and are digitally connected. They’re expanding what street/fast food is and looks like by making their spaces accessible (and Instagrammable) in this accessibility-enhanced age.

I noticed it on our first stop, in Chennai, and then to varying degrees in other cities.

Now, of course, the growing wealth of the middle classes, who are demanding things like shopping malls, department stores and supermarkets to satisfy their growing consumptive desires, are undoubtedly having a huge impact here. But I also wondered about the impacts of this new mobility.

If previously, your lifestyle was largely confined to a more limited area and range of options, then of course you got to know your local businesses, your local shopkeepers, and you knew local prices. It’s only tourists left completely baffled. But the rise of fixed-price culture is not about tourists, it’s about locals. And I wondered if it’s perhaps about increased mobility too, as people – especially young people – are moving about in much larger circles, consuming and purchasing in increasingly diverse ways and unfamiliar locations.

New India and its residents are demanding a certain level of transparency and certainty to their new lifestyle patterns, like the global influences they are so connected to and, to a certain degree, wish to ape. By-and-large, it seems, they are getting exactly what they want.

Watching this space, with continued fascination.

Return to ravishing Rajasthan II: Chittor and Bundi

For the first part of our trek through Rajasthan, taking in Jaisalmer and a trip to the desert, click here. Here is the second part, in which we took in more incredible fort experiences, temples, palaces and stepwells.

Chittor

I would like to, but I can’t say that I enjoyed Chittor (and am resisting using a low level profanity to make a play on its name!). We were there for two nights and found the place, well, just odd. Our conclusion was that people come to see its fort complex as a daytrip from elsewhere, probably the much more tourist-friendly Udaipur, which is only two hours away.

The result is that the town is not set up for tourists, and seems to have little to offer (aside from the obvious). It was hard to find its pulse, its heart, and it was woefully pedestrian unfriendly (which I’ve come to believe is hugely important to make an urban space welcoming for visitors). It didn’t help that we were made to feel quite unwelcome at our strange, eerily empty hotel, where there appeared to be nobody staying for most of the time.

However, weird vibes aside, we were there to see the fort, and it was quite something to behold. India’s largest, it sits atop a hill, on a 6km long plateau that falls away down sheer hillside to the plains below. Like Jaisalmer, and others we’ve previously seen in Rajasthan, it’s a dramatic and arresting sight.

Just like Jaisalmer too, though, it was also prone to attack, and jauhar (ritual suicide) was committed three times, in 1303, 1535, and 1568. At this point, a new capital of the Mewars was established in Udaipur and it was never resettled.

For our visit, we simply tuk-tuked to the entrance at the top, and then wandered around and then down the hill over the course of around six hours. After the somewhat emptiness of Jaisalmer, Chittor was bustling with visitors, although very obviously skewed towards the domestic (the selfie requests continued!). It was a welcome busyness, with large family groups, school groups, people with guides, lots of cars and tuk-tuks ferrying people about, and others like us just wandering around.

And Chittor is a wanderer’s delight. There are ruins of palaces, as well as temples and tanks and a remarkable ’tower of victory’, dating from the fiftenth century, all simply dotted about the place and waiting for your attention. The tower is in the area where the jauhar was carried out, with plinths and stones strewn across the ground the ghostly evidence of its heroically morbid (or is it morbidly heroic) past.

There are also extraordinary views from the top, back down and across the surrounding areas. They were views that had us continually reaching for our cameras, as changing light and angles presented new outlooks.

The highlights for me were the Jain temples and wandering over to the eastern gate, both for similar reasons. The Jain temples are extradorinarily beautiful and intricate and they were basically deserted, as everyone was at the Hindu temples, so we had them to ourselves. A rare treat.

Similarly, the eastern gate was far less populated, even though it was really only a matter of mere minutes walk away. It was deliciously peaceful and freeing, as you’re able to wander through the gate and down some of the deserted approach that once functioned as the main entrance. The views down into the cultivated valleys below are even better here, and back up top, there is also another tower to visit, this one beautifully Jain.

To end the day, we took a pleasant amble through the village at the top and then back down through all the gates, climbing on and off the fort wall, taking yet more photos, and returning all the friendly waves and hellos from people scooting passed on motorbikes. It was a lovely end to a really nice day out, making the awkwardness of the city below well worth the effort.

Bundi

Finally, Bundi, which is billed as the super-chilled, less-touristy cousin of Brahmin Blue-hued Jodhpur, with a decaying fort and palace to explore in a town full of stepwells. Something about it sounded appealing, although there was always the risk that it was being completely oversold (hello Batticoloa!)

However, this time, they are right on the money, and we were only sad we couldn’t have stayed for longer to chill out in its chill-inducing surrounds.

We felt its beguiling charm as soon Bundi came into view: a dramatic palace rising out of the hillside, an old town dotted around a small lake, and the blues, the purple-y blues, all fringed by hills topped with historic lookout posts.

It was, is, achingly beautiful. You could not but feel instantly charmed. Wandering around as night fell, it was clear that this wonderfully sleepy town was having the desired impact on our nervous systems (although, for a little bustle, a bazaar was only minutes walk away, through one of the old town’s gates).

The next day, to explore the fort and palace, we hired a guide, which is something we don’t usually do (we normally just amble about). However, I had read about this character online, Jay, and recognised him as soon as we approached the palace entrance (it’s all informal, of course).

I’m glad we did, though, as he really was as entertaining and funny and engaging as the reviews said, promising us multiple ‘super amazing surprises’, for which we could beat him with a stick if we weren’t suitably awed (we were). He brought the fort alive with the passion of a proud local, and also acted as protector from the red-faced monkeys, of which they were many.

There’s a high chance we wouldn’t have found all the spots that he showed us on our own, or not ventured in as far we did, as the monkeys really weren’t that friendly looking.

The fort is deserted, you see, accessed via a shackle-shingle path that runs up to the top of the hill behind the newer palace, and the whole complex is being slowly recaptured by nature. Jay showed us around the fort’s crumbling old palace and the three impressive stepwells that provided its community with water, the uppermost of which has ‘super amazing’ views down into the neighbouring valley and village, the place from which Kipling wrote his infamous Jungle Book.

The newer palace below is equally ruinous, with only a portion of it publicly open (the rest, supposedly, has been turned over to the bats). It’s (part) owned by the current Maharaja, who lives in Delhi and has shown little interest in investing the funds required to restore it and/or donate it to the Archeological Society of India, who do a truly stellar job of restoring and running most of the country’s major historical attractions, from the Taj on down.

For me, this palace housed a much more folorn vibe, like it was deliberately being left to fall apart by a disinterested owner. The older palace and fort at the top of the hill are already in a state of ruin, and, selfishly, there’s something very Indiana Jones about the adventure of walking up there to explore it. The newer palace needn’t necessarily be so.

However, in sayng this, there is always a certain amount of romance in decay, and compared to the restored splendour of the state’s other palaces, this is quite a different experience. It certainly had its own charm and appeal.

In one part, there is a gallery that was once used to receive/host guests, and it contains a quite unique and impressive gallery of murals and paintings that are still in remarkable condition. Below this, you can wander through palace’s main gate and into its courtyard (complete with horse/elephant stables), before walking up to an open-air hall from where the King could presumably survey proceedings below, and then onto what felt like a maybe queen’s private residence and courtyards.

I say presumably and maybe because, sadly, there isn’t any information to accompany you, and, as he was unofficial, Jay was not able to accompany us into this part of the complex, so we had to guesstimate what we were seeing based on the other palaces we have seen.

Like Jaisalmer, the rest of old Bundi is a tangle of lanes where history appears to come to life right in front of your eyes. It’s hard to not feel like you’re visiting something out of a middle ages fable, a tale of an era filled with glamourous sandstone-hued old haveli houses. I realise this denies its residents their contemporaneity, their 2019, but as I say, it’s hard to not feel at least a little hypnotised by the alluring spell Bundi casts.

The final ingredient of this potion is the city’s stepwells. There are a large number of them dotted around the town, and the public can freely wander about all but one of them. We only explored a small number of them in the end, but including what are probably the most impressive: a pair of twin wells that sit right in the middle of the bazaar. It was quite something to disappear beneath the hubbub of the marketplace and down into the myriad of angular staircases that are staggeringly deep. Quite surreal calm in the most unexpected of places!

Return to ravishing Rajasthan I: Jaisalmer and the Thar desert

On our first trip to India, Rajasthan was one of the last places we visited on our three month-long trek around the country. By this time, quite frankly, we were starting to expire; our patience for some of the more trying and tiring aspects the backpacking the Subcontinent were wearing paper thin. Also, we thought we’d pretty much ‘seen’ India by that stage.

We hadn’t.

Rajasthan was a glorious revelation: a state and a people so vibrant and alive, so colourful and charismatic; a pride in culture and history worn in elaborate detail. We were quite entranced. There seem to be two narratives at play here.

Rajasthan is part of the Golden triangle of India’s tourism offerings: fly into Delhi, head south to Agra for the Taj, and then east into Rajasthan. It’s a well worn path, long on the tourist trail, so the state is well versed in selling its story. This narrative centres around the fabled histories of Rajput kingdoms, full of stories of gallantry, bravery, incredible riches and jauhar, or ritual mass suicide in the face of conquest.

The other narrative explains that the vibrancy of Rajasthan and its culture(s) is in direct contrast to the often arid and sparse landscapes in which its people live (although there are also many lusciously irrigated agricultural lands and valleys). Here, this sometimes desolation provides a blank canvas onto which rich cultural tapestries have been woven across millenia.

Put these together, and you’ve got a pretty intoxicating recipe.

It may be (a little) trite, I don’t know, but it does feels like it does ring true: the people here are just that little bit more flamboyant, loud, and charismatic. And whether true characteristics, ones created as tourist product, or, more likely, somewhere in between, it works: Rajasthan is an India highlight.

As we did the state’s big hitters last time – Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Udaipur – this time was about finishing what we missed first time around, Jaisalmer, on India’s far western extreme, as well as a couple of lesser known stops on our way up to Delhi: Chittor, home of India’s largest fort, and Bundi, the achingly pretty, low-key equivalent to the State’s bigger tickets.

Overall, they were good choices.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer sells a most romantic and heroic story: a 12th century fort rising like a mirage out of the Thar desert; a place where jauhar was carried out by its women and children multiple times rather than allow themselves to be enslaved, its men riding out to battle knowing they would be slaughtered in the process.

While those stories are absolutely real, the mirage is just that: a bit of a far-fetched reach. You do have to come here with realistic expectations. The fort is surrounded by a town that sprawls outwards from its base. The town is itself surrounded by a lot of no-go defence land and dotted all over the landscape are wind farms. Jaisalmer doesn’t suddenly appear like an apparition.

However, in saying this, the fort is dramatically impressive. You can sit on any number of rooftops (hopefully your own guesthouse) and stare at its magnificence for hours, jutting out of the rocky hill with that most beautiful honey-hued sandstone. It’s an arrestingly romantic visage.

Inside the fort, the tour of the palace, with requisite Audiocasters guide, further brings its history alive. So does wandering around its lanes; it is a living museum. Everywhere you turn feels like a page from a history book or adventure novel. Walking right around its 99 lower ramparts affords views looking out into the Thar desert. From all angles (apart from looking down at the rubbish!), it is quite breathtaking.

It’s also imbued with that unique vibe that seems to be present in places located in extreme geographies on extreme edges of nation states; there’s always something just a little wild west about border zones.

The downside is that the fort at least is totally dependent on tourism; it is its lifeblood. And, with not that many tourists around while we were in town, there were a lot of people hanging loose. All over India, as well as Sri Lanka, the story has been the same: this year has not been a great tourist season. The notion of dependency on such a fickle, fluctuating industry, is an uneasy thought to ruminate on.

Tourism is also, slowly but surely, destroying the fort. The pressure of all those guesthouses and their constant running water is slowly causing the fort to slide down the hill. This, and the visible signs of waste creation, is a real risk to brand Jaisalmer, which is why, if visiting, you should really try your hardest to not stay inside the fort.

The sense of the extreme saw us take to the desert on our final day, for a single day safari. We took the advice – and are glad we did – of a new Kiwi pal we met in Goa, who said a single day was quite enough.

For us, we wanted to wander about on a camel for a bit, explore some sand dunes, and get a glimpse into the life of desert people, as they call themselves. We got all of those things.

(For the record, riding a camel was not really that comfortable. Once you stop tensing so hard, believing you might slide right off the plodding meanderer, the rhythmic monotony becomes somewhat hypnotic, but I can’t say it ever becomes comfortable. The one-hour ride more than ticked that box for me.)

Excuse you, gurrrl…

As for desert life, it is always astounding to me when you get insights, even if only momentarily and fragmentary, into lives that seem so impossible, so very different from everything you can imagine human existence to be. It’s not a case of deficit comparison, of wondering how people live without screens, fridges and WiFi (lord forbid), but of simply a reality so far removed from all that you know, it’s just hard to conceive the how of life: what the practices, norms and rituals of daily life are.

(And, of course, I’m just as sure it operates the same way in reverse. At dinner, around the fire, one of our hosts told us we were sitting, effectively, in his backyard, and how he loves the quiet and how noisy Jaisalmer is. Imagining him in the middle of Mumbai, I’m certain he might wonder exactly the same: how does anyone do life in such chaotic, crowded, and noisy spaces!)

So we got to see little settlements and villages, built in both sandstone and older mud-brick styles. And indeed life happens here; schools, shops, labour associations, and so on. We were told that the wind turbines finally brought them electricity, about six years ago.  

One of the most arresting images, aside from a sadly almost bone-dry oasis, was standing in a fort above a town abandoned some centuries ago. They were both stark reminders of the extreme nature of the environment here.

And the sanddunes, of course, were beautiful. For the briefest moment, we got our Lawrence of Arabia moment (you do also need to be realistic about what the (edge of the) Thar actually can deliver on a limited-time safari; this is hardly a trek across the great Shah expanse).

Most memorable for me, though, will be the moments of silence; actual, complete, silence. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in such a vacuum before, such a total absence of sound, a total void. For moments there weren’t even insect sounds. The true sound of silence is indeed extraordinary.

To be continued…

Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Ahmedabad

After our surprisingly enjoyable half-week in Baroda, we moved on to the state’s biggest city, all six million souls of Ahmedabad. Our transfer turned into an adventurous expedition on its own!

We returned to the glitzy bus stand, expecting to stroll back to the state bus counter and ask for two tickets on the next bus. Instead, the glitz was barricaded, buses replaced by security guards. Turns out the state buses were on strike. Of course.

So, with no other option, we backtracked to the train station, where, in a slightly frazzled state, I bought two tickets for the first thing going to Ahmedabad. What we ended up with were two general class tickets that simply needed to be used on a train within the next three hours. But which one?

Fortunately, I knew there were multiple trains every hour, so, with tickets secured, we took the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, cool off, and recover the faculties!

And then it was off to match tickets to train. The absence of Roman script, which has presented such interesting challenges elsewhere, was present here again. Unless, of course, you were in the market for mobile phone accessories or whatever else it was that Bollywood figures and/or impossibly ‘fair and lovely’ maidens were trying to sell you.

Eventually, like some entitled baron, I simply strolled info the superintendent’s office, and asked there. Side note: very helpful, pointed in the right direction, and I also got to see the cool control room, all flashing track lights and switches (transport need alert!).

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, and hopefully we’ll get seats,” my ever hopeful cousin/brother/husband travel companion mused. I knew that our NZD$1 tickets were going to be nothing less than a total bun fight, but I decided to leave him to his hopeful naivety.

And sure enough it was.

The train turned up and all us general glass glamazons swarmed. The only choice you had, if you wanted on, was to join the current and ride the human wave as it lunged you forward to the door, completely unforgiving to those coming the other way who miss their three second window to exit.

Onboard, thoughts of sitting are completely abandoned. The most you can hope for is to find a space where you don’t stand on anyone, can somehow acrobat your way out of the way of the inevitable food and crap-wallahs that come strolling through (seriously, why would we want to buy wraparound sunglasses right at this moment?!?!), and try not to stand too close to raised armpits.

And so I stared at and became intimately familiar with an outdated Indian Railways menu, as we journeyed to Ahmedabad!

Our time in the city was less a tick list of sites and more a general, genial wander. The city is loosely divided by the rather pleasant Sabarmati River, which runs through its centre. Unlike too many waterways we’ve seen, this one was actually flowing and looked reasonably healthy as we wandered across a couple of its many bridges.

Along both sides runs amazing waterfront promenades, strangely underused and quite deserted though, as we discovered. I think it’s more a case of things being not quite completed yet, and the promenading habit not yet ingrained. Hopefully, because it’s all sitting there begging to be enjoyed.

West of the river is the city’s New: big roads lined with boutiques and shopping centres galore, and plenty of eateries for the post-shop graze. The university is over there too and there’s quite a big hub around it. You get the drift. On our first evening we strolled over and enjoyed soaking up the post-5pm buzz, and our final afternoon was spent chilling at the city’s largest mall, its gleaming food court, cafes and cinema. You get the drift. All very pleasant.

East of the river is Ahmedabad’s Old, and here we spent a day just strolling around its old neighbourhoods and taking a taste of its many flavours (for once I’m not talking about food). As we did in Mumbai, we simply plotted out the key points and then just ambled between them.

There are mosques and tombs and temples; bazaars, lanes and the humongous old city gate, which looks out over what is now the hugely vibrant main market (and you can freely climb to the top and wander around).

Two particular, very human, moments stand out.

We weren’t able to get into the central mosque, built by city founder Ahmed Shah in 1423, due to not wearing pants long enough. Fair enough, we should have been better prepared. We got a quick look inside, though. Very nice. Close by is the tomb of the Shah’s wife. Clearly no longer that important, it is literally surrounded by the bazaar. A bit of a fail. Third time lucky, the tomb of the man himself, along with his son and grandson.

Initially we were denied again, but, the small group of caretakers, who, by the looks of it live there also, motioned for us to wait while an elderly lady got us some sarongs. Suitably attired, we were then ushered into the tomb and left to wander about. It’s a stunning piece of architecture: a huge central domed cenotaph is surrounded by four other domes, which you can walk right around. Definitely atmospheric as we were completely alone. (Being such a sacred place, obviously photos were not allowed)

Obviously the donation plate was going to come out; we expect it to and gratefully contribute. But what was lovely was the genuine interaction; lots of head bowing and smiles expressing our thanks for their help in facilitating the visit, theirs in receiving our donation. I hope it bought them a substantive feed for their Friday dinner!

The most profound moment, though, came when we visited the first temple built by the Swaminarayan Hindu sect, in 1822 (scholars have drawn many parallels between the prophet Swaminarayan’s teachings and Gandhi’s work). Knowing nothing about it beforehand, there were nil expectations. We wandered through the gate and into the courtyard, marvelling at the gorgeous temple and its surrounding residences for visiting followers.

Indulge me.

Beginning our stroll around the temple, a man came up to us and started to talk to me. My suspicious antlers, of course, immediately go up and start looking for where the catch is going to be. Instead, he told me a bit about the sect and their key figures (Vishnu and Rama), and asked about New Zealand. As we got the farthest side, and sat down, he said it was nice to meet you and then left. Shame on you, Mackley-Crump.

After a bit, another man came and sat beside me and then indicated we had to go with him, ‘prasad, prasad’ he was saying. Antlers back up. He took us around to the other side, where a priest(ly figure) gave us a small palmful of grapes and melon. He indicated for us to eat it, and then back to the seat. Ok then, what’s the catch? (although it was funny that, walking through the market this morning, I had looked at the grapes and said how much I felt like a few…talk about speaking something into being…?!).

After a few minutes, we decided to leave, but the man indicated that, no no, we needed to stay. We presumed maybe a prayer was going to start (more and more people were arriving and circling the inner temple). We were right, and just before 4pm, the doors to the three shrines opened up and men gathered (women are at the back) and they started chanting.

With great excitement the man – who obviously speaks no English; this was all by gesture – guided us towards the shrines, one at a time (there is obviously a prescribed format to this). So we stood in amongst all the men while they chanted and prayed, while the monks were doing their thing. A little awkward, but no one seemed to care and it was fascinating, unlike any other religious practice we’ve seen.

Afterwards, our friend then gestured us towards the end of a line of men – now what’s going to happen; I’m still guarded – before pulling us out of the line and taking us to the front; exactly the kind of thing that makes me super uncomfortable (being privileged ahead of those to whom the practices actually belong).

At the front of the line, however, was the man who had talked to us first and, maybe sensing something on my face, told us that we were their guests (so why we were first), and were given another palmful of grapes and bananas as a symbolic gesture of nourishment.

And with that, the ceremony was over and we walked off the temple with the rest of the people. No scams, no sales, no offers of tuk-tuks or tours or cousin’s-brother’s guesthouse, nothing but host-guest hospitality.

As we walked back around to where our shoes were, we saw our second friend leaving, and were able to gesture our thanks to him, which was reciprocated. It was a rather extraordinary and pure experience, one that will remain long in the memory; the kind of unexpected interaction that makes you want to stop approaching so much here with guard up. We know, however, that you just can’t do that. In a positive sense, it makes the surprise of these experiences, when they do happen, all the more remarkable.

Our last day had one more unexpected surprise. Ahmedabad is home to the ashram of the state’s favourite son, Gandhi. It operated as his headquarters from 1917 to 1930, after which time he left on his famous Salt March and vowed not to return until India had gained her independence. It is now a truly remarkable public museum dedicated to his life and teachings, and you can also visit his (and his ever faithful wife’s) rather spartan living quarters, preserved intact.

What makes the museum so impactful is that the majority of the story is told through Gandhi’s own words, and you realise how much of a great orator and philosopher he really was. Despite the large crowds, the compound is huge and the atmosphere fairly reverential; there was plenty of space (physical and aural) for quiet contemplation and thought.  

Sadly, among the words of Gandhi’s I remember the most were those that, with reference to talk about partition (something he was vehemently against), suggested that a country born through an act of violence could never find peace. It was impossible to not consider how much he would be saddened by how true these words have been (and this was before the latest outbreak of India-Pakistan violence erupted).

A quintessential image of India for me, and one of the few photos I’ve taken that so visibly identifies someone anonymous (I try to avoid, if possible). It’s quintessential not because of the contrast, the apparent poverty or homelessness, but because here is a man asleep on a pavement surrounded by the buzz and noise of a city at night. As someone so hopelessly unable to sleep in all but the most controlled of situations, I’m constantly amazed how people here are seemingly able to nap whenever, wherever, to quote the great Shakira.

Visiting Ellora and Ajanta caves on a backpacker’s dime

The double-bill, heavy-hitters of Maharashtra state’s historic offerings are unquestionably the UNESCO world heritage sites at Ellora and Ajanta. Extraordinary is really the only word that can describe the experience of visiting them.

For our expedition here, which we thought would be a well-worn path, we based ourselves in the nearby city of Aurangabad, assuming it would be a sinch to negotiate; oh how wrong we were. Over the course of our weekend, we plied local buses, where Roman script was as foreign as we were, scrunched into a minivan where even the driver was double-bunked for a time, and stood in the middle of nowhere, in the naked afternoon heat, hoping that the instructions to just ‘wave the bus down’ were not going to result in our stranding.

Fortunately, across the same weekend, we also took in some of the most extraordinary and breathtaking sights we’ve seen on our trip so far. The payoff, in short, was well worth the anxious moments. So, if you’re heading this way, I well recommend a visit, and here’s how we did it.

Firstly though, Aurangabad, unfortunately, was not pleasant. We tried to like it, really we did; maybe we were staying in the wrong location? Either way, we just couldn’t find its redeeming features, its central heart.

It was just a dusty expanse centred around a main road that felt completely pedestrian unfriendly; chaotically busy but with no street life. We ended up leaving on the Sunday night, after the day trip to Ajanta, rather than staying a day longer. Positively, though, we were pretty close to the myriad transport options we utilised, so one silver lining!

Ellora

We day-tripped to Ellora first. In retrospect, I would probably do the visits the other way around, as Ellora is most immediately breathtaking; Ajanta unfurls itself in more subtle revelations.

The 34 caves comprise three groups, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain, which were constructed concurrently over a period of around four-hundred years, from AD 600. It’s believed to represent the renaissance of Hinduism in India, the subsequent decline of Buddhism, and a brief resurgence of Jainism. The caves line a gentle slope about 2km long, and this allowed their architects to create elaborate courtyards in front of the caves, containing sometimes quite detailed sculptures too.

Jain temple

As this was the closer of the two sites, we didn’t race away at the crack of sparrows to get there, instead getting underway about 10am, which proved enough time. We made our way to the local bus stand, striding passed the bank of tuk-tuk jeeps, which congregate just across the road from where we stayed, and ply the same route. They don’t leave until full though, and, as there was clearly an imbalance of drivers to potential passengers, we gave it a miss.

The folly of our confidence was exposed when we arrived at the bus stand and discovered not a single incidence of familiar, comforting Roman script. Fortunately, our second attempt at asking a bus official resulted in a platform number (12/13) and, as we made our way in that general direction, a local furiously pointing at a departing bus and saying, ‘Ellora, Ellora’. We jumped aboard the quickly moving bus with the confidence of a local (it wasn’t moving that fast), confirmed the destination with the conductor, and, just like that, about 40mins later were at the entrance to Ellora.

The musically eerie chaitya

Exploring the complex is an extraordinary experience and worth savouring over many hours (we were there about six all up). Unfortunately you do enter at the Kailasa Temple, the centerpiece of its appeal, so everything afterwards is slightly less awe-inspiring. However, there are many great moments, from the beautifully intricate and interconnected Jain temples, to a Buddhist assembly hall and a truly atmospheric chaitya.

Chaitya were early versions of Buddhist shrines/prayer halls, and we were incredibly lucky to be in there when a French tour group were creating a drone-like chant, as a demonstration of the astounding acoustics created by its curved, ribbed roof (whether they may have been used for the purposes of music and/or chanting, I’ve not been able to ascertain; missed opportunity if they never realised the possibilities though!)

The extraordinary Kailasa Temple, where everything was sculptured out of a single granite hill

But there’s no getting around it: people are primarily here to see Kailasa, a Hindu temple of such extraordinary scope, ambition, and execution, it’s jaw-dropping once you realise what was achieved.

In one single, continuous sculpting, over a period of about 200 years, the side of an imposing granite hill was literally chiseled away by first creating three deep trenches, leaving more or less an oblong to work with. This was then masterfully woven into a full temple and courtyard surrounded by covered galleries full of sculptured panels. It was definitely one of the temple experiences of all of our travels.

Of the other Hindu caves, we had the fortunate experience to find ourselves momentarily alone in the vast cave #29. It’s the last of the Hindu caves and sits away from the rest of the group, no longer accessible along the path (you have to go around the road). It’s also a few hundred metres south of the Jain temples, so you get the feeling that not so many people bother to make the effort. Which is a shame, as it’s quite different than the rest, so not just another cave; it’s huge and airy, and to find yourself alone within it just adds a further eerie layer, which can’t help but enhance the overall impact.

Returning back to Aurangabad at the end of the day was a little confusing, as we stood out on the main road, surrounded by the throngs of people leaving, wondering where we needed go to find a bus. Before we had a chance to wonder for too long, we were offered seats in tuk-tuk jeep that was going our way and was essentially the same price as the bus (50inr each, as opposed to 40inr), so we enjoyed an interesting ride back with a family from Hyderabad. 

We were to gesture a few words, but otherwise just listened to their very lively conversation and tried to imagine what world-important news they were discussing (or perhaps just the price of the bananas at the market that day, who can tell).

Ajanta

Without doubt, Ajanta is certainly the more picturesque location, the caves running along a steep horseshoe-shaped bend above a river valley. As you walk around you get all sorts of great views, and you can also walk over to the opposite side to see them as the British first laid eyes on them, in 1819.

Ajanta is also much further away from Aurangabad, some 105km along some of the worst roads we’ve had the pleasure of riding (and boy was it a ride!). So, we were up and out the door by 7am, keen to avoid the tour bus groups that arrive around midday.

This time, all prepared for the bus stand, we didn’t even make it inside. Outside of the gate, a man was selling tickets in a proper minivan for 200inr each (NZD $4; not a whole lot more than the bus would have been), so we decided to flag operation ‘which bus to Ajanta please?’ and settle for the easier option. There was the inevitable wait for the van to first fill up, and then fill up some more, but it wasn’t too long before we were underway.

Of course there’s room!

Where I would have put maximum capacity at 18 – four rows of four, plus one in the front plus driver – we ended up squeezing in 20, and a comical game ensured whereby two Muslim ladies shared the front seat, and the driver and another man double-bunked the driver’s seat, making sure at all times to maintain the respectable space required between the genders (no touching, please). Hilarious!

In retrospect, this was a good decision though, as we were outside Ajanta by 10am, and the return bus was a far longer journey.

The Ajanta caves are far older than those at Ellora, with some dating to the second century BC, and it’s believed that the rise of Ellora was actually responsible for the abandonment of Ajanta (interestingly, it also appears that cannabis (well, hemp to be precise) was used in the mixture of plaster and lime at Ellora, which helped to repel insects and has preserved the caves there better too).

Like the Buddhist caves at Ellora, the caves here are temples and shrines, and there are also another couple of fine examples of chaitya. The real reason people visit, though, is to take in the stunning paintings that adorn the inside of many of the caves. There are few other examples of art from this time that are so well preserved, so its value is obvious.

The awe of Ajanta is therefore all about its historical magnitude. To walk around and realise that you are viewing artworks created so long ago is quite a profound feeling. And although there has certainly been degradation, there is also still a lot of beauty and wonderful detail to take in. Some of the caves are so richly detailed and ornate that time really slips away as you first take in the whole, and then explore the wealth of little details contained in the sculpture, architecture and paintings.

The bookends of the experience, caves #1, #2 and #26 were particularly impressive, especially the last, a chaitya, which contained extraordinary sculpture around its perimeter, and the most joyous drag queen-like dwarf/cherub frescoes, who appeared to be doing the heavy lifting, holding up the pillars.

Also of interest was one that was incomplete, containing elaborate pillars and an archway on the outside, but not a lot within. Although containing, therefore, little of artistic value, it was an interesting reminder that these brilliants artists and architects didn’t start their work with prepared canvases; they first had to work them, very hard, into existence.  

To get back to Aurangabad, what we had read online was totally true: you simply cross the road and wait opposite the T Junction, flag down a bus going in the right direction, confirm its destination is Aurangabad, and jump aboard. We didn’t have to wait for too long, but it was in the naked mid-afternoon heat, so if I were to do it again, I’d have a nice new bottle of cool water on hand!

Also, be prepared for the stares from astounded locals wondering why on earth you’re on a local bus and not a tour group like all the other foreigners! The bus back was over three hours of stops and bumps galore, but taking in the otherwordly sparse and arid countryside kept it bearable.

And this really sums up the weekend: Ellora and Ajanta are simply mesmerising experiences, and worth every single moment of awkwardness. Despite this, and the fact of being UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the logistics of getting there and away are not quite set up for self-directed tourists yet, not in a way that makes it truly easy anyway.

It does appear that visitors are by-and-large domestic tourists, foreigners using cars and guides, or people in big tour groups and buses. I guess it’s that thing of chicken or the egg: will demand lead to improved services, or will improved services help to drive increased demand?

Either way, it was by no means impossible to do, just a little bit intrepid, and I’d highly, highly recommend all of the experience, awkwardness and all!

On Mumbai and why we decided to do a ‘slum tour’.

Taking part in a so-called ‘slum tour’ is not the kind of tourist activity you simply stumble into, or at least it shouldn’t be. To get to the point of handing over money, you are forced to reckon with a pretty simple question, but one that can bring huge moral confliction.

We ummed and ahhed for ages over this decision, both times we’ve been in this captivating city. The first time, our sheer exhaustion and the monsoonal weather made the decision for us: it’s a no for you. This time, with nary a drop of rain on the horizon, and no exhaustion or Delhi belly apparent, we had to finally confront the question: to tour or not to tour.

The ‘slum’ is called Dharavi, a city-within-a-city of around a million residents living within less than a square mile. It’s the third largest ‘slum’ in the world, after having been ‘downgraded’ because the government’s attempts to build apartment blocks for its residents is starting to gain some real momentum.

Dharavi was made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which in turn created the demand for people wanting to visit in the first place. It has been both a blessing and a curse: a curse because it popularised the image of Dharavi as a ‘slum’ to a global audience (and let’s be honest, wanting to visit can certainly be considered a kind of ‘poverty porn’); but a blessing because, funneled correctly, the money paid for tours can be used to benefit its community members.

(BTW: I’ve put quotation marks around the word slum because, as we would come to learn, locals view Dharavi as simply another suburb, in a city where an estimated 60% of residents live in similar communities. For locals, the word slum conjures up images of suburbs controlled by violence, crime and Mafia-like gangs, which Dharavi is not.)

The emotive tooing and frooing of trying to make a decision strikes right at the heart of one of tourism’s most fundamental ethical quandaries: are these sorts of activities a legitimate experience, or simply the exploitation of people powerless and without voice in the process of commercialising their apparent poverty?

In the end, after a lot of reading, we decided to do a tour.

We decided to not because we felt like it would provide a kind of life-altering experience; that we would come away with some kind of profound and uplifting revelation about life and existence.

I don’t think I’m being too arrogant when I say that I think we were already pretty realistic about life in Dharavi; that, although obviously challenging, it is also a functioning community, where families are made, live, laugh and find joy. We’re not the type to fetishise other people’s realities. They are what they are, and for all the ways that societies differ, there are also universal human similarities. We weren’t trying to purchase any kind of smug moral satisfaction, either for us or on behalf of the residents of Dharavi.

We decided to do the tour primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the company, Mystical Mumbai, is a something of a social enterprise, putting money back into the community via education projects and hiring local college students as guides (they do all sorts of tours), allowing them to invest in their own futures. In addition, the company was started by two brothers, determined to support their family after their father had to have a bypass in his mid-40s, and they didn’t want him to return to work; a worthy cause within itself.

The clincher, however, was actually quite simple: no cameras are allowed, which means no photos, which means no Instagram selfie hunters. The company is happy to send you some photos afterwards, but this means, in turn, that they are able to exercise a degree of control over the imagery of Dharavi put into the public sphere. To me, this is a great mark of respect for the dignity of residents as well, so we were in…

I’m really glad we did it.

Certainly, as you stand on the train overpass about to enter, Dharavi is quite an imposing sight. You can’t not notice its scale, obvious density and informality. As expected, however, Dharavi is like the city that surrounds it: a bustling centre of industry supported by all the goods and services that cater to and add to this. Truth be told, in our sometimes random ambling about India, we’ve wandered into and through plenty of suburbs and lanes that didn’t feel a whole lot less informal than Dharavi.

Our guide, Nick, a ship navigator when not in town and helping out his brother with the business, was really very knowledgeable, as you would expect of a third generation resident (another myth dispelled: residents are not trying to ‘get out’; why would they want to leave their communities?). He was neither trying to present an overly rosy picture to overcompensate, nor trying to rouse first-world pity; it was quite matter of fact.

And the fact of the matter is that, inside Dharavi, quite astonishing things are happening.

We learnt about how plastics are brought in for recycling, cleaned and graded, transformed into raw materials (in Dharavi designed and made machines), and then turned into products like string and rope, and used in the construction of a range of luggage products, for example. Elsewhere, discarded cardboard boxes are imported from overseas, re-covered again and again for reuse, until they are thick enough to be covered in tarpaulin and used in housing construction. In a similar sense, large paint cans can be cleaned, stripped and reused nine times before being cut, flattened, and used to make wall panelling.

We saw many examples of human ingenuity. If necessity is the mother of all invention, then Dharavi has a thing or two it could teach people of the world about both!

Aside from re- and up-cycling initiatives, Dharavi is also famous for its pottery and leather work. The pottery is pretty straight forward – three grades of clay are imported, moulded into a range of products, fired and sent to market – while the leathering process more complex and the results unquestionably more stunning. The gorgeous range of bags, satchels, jackets, belts, shoes and so on are made in both Dharavi’s own brand as well as sold to other companies to be rebranded.

The result of all this industry is that Dharavi’s economic activity is worth an estimated 650 million-1 billion US dollars annually, a lucrative source of income and jobs and taxable activity.

Therefore, as Nick explained, far from the idea of a ‘slum’ lacking basic facilities, it is actually in the government’s interest to ensure Dharavi has regular and secure utilities. Power is consistent, as industry runs 24 hours a day, and while water is available for a few hours per day, residents know the time period they have to shower, wash and fill storage to last them. ‘If you don’t have something whenever you want it, you learn not to take it for granted,’ Nick said matter of factly.

Aside from all this industry, we wandered through its streets and markets, and were just in time to see school finish for the day, the streets becoming a rush of manic youthful energy accompanied by harried parents; as it is the world over.

Finally, Nick also showed us the ongoing government regeneration project that is slowly providing residents with a more secure form of property. It was started in the early 2000s and sees new apartment blocks built, which residents own outright and which provides them with significantly more space and obvious improvements especially in sanitation matters.

The hindrance has been that every single property owner must agree to be rehoused before the land can be cleared and building begins (and these are property owners, with ownership rights over their lands). It’s fair to say that it’s taken time to build up the trust required; that residents can trust that they are not going to be evicted and left stranded (residents are housed in quality temporary apartment blocks, close by, while construction takes place).

With more and more new blocks being completed now, and improvements to residents’ quality of life so clearly visible, the barriers are slowly coming down and construction ramping up. Nick and his whanau (family) are hopeful that, soon enough, their time will come.

Let’s hope so.

(endnote: it should be pointed out that the rehousing policy, and the degree to which the future of Dharavi’s residents are being centred in the process, as opposed to other actors, i.e. private developers eyeing up a hugely lucrative block of Mumbai’s scarce land supply, is most definitely up for debate.)

(with obvious thanks to Mystical Mumbai for the pictures that accompany this post)

Why Goa is India’s must-do state…

India’s smallest state – by far – is curiously wonderful; a literal island I would argue, surrounded by sea on one side and foreign states on all others. Goa is the result of a unique history that stretches back millennia, but in a contemporary sense certainly back to the moment Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama stepped ashore in India, in 1498. de Gama came in search of trade relationships, namely spices, but his opening up of a sea route to Asia set in motion a course that forever changed, well, not only Goa, but the world really.

We’ve visited Goa twice; the first time in 2013, where we took in its Northern and Central zones, while just recently we spent a relaxing week in the South. In my mind, this is a logical way to view Goa, as offering three quite distinct coastal experiences. The North and South offer different beach atmospheres, while the centre is where its fascinating historic heart lies.

That the attraction and memories of Goa remain so strong after five years is an illustration of just how affecting it was; the recent visit only compounding and extending the allure. You can believe the hype this time: it’s well deserved. I can understand why northern hemisphere types return again and again, establishing almost familial relationships with some of Goa’s charismatic locals.

With both visits I’ve come away thinking that locals see themselves as Goan first, Indian second.

Postcolonial identities are complex and it’s dangerous to generalise, but you do get the sense that the state having never fallen to the British, remaining Portuguese until well after independence (it officially joined the union only in 1961), is a fact that Goans can point to as a point of difference. For better or worse, 400 years as a Portuguese colony created a vastly different culture and society than 200 years as part of the British Empire.

Secretly, I reckon that at least some Goans consider it for the better, something held apart from ‘India’ as a matter of pride. After all, pork, to a lesser extent beef, and certainly alcohol, are markers of Goan-ness that stand in stark contrast to (most of) the rest of the nation.

The people are different, Goa feels different, it looks different. Leaving on a late Sunday afternoon, driving up admittedly chaotic roads, I still noticed people sitting on their verandahs, chatting to visitors, enjoying a long Sunday lunch perhaps. And I wondered whether, like the other southern states in some respects, people here take a bit more time to enjoy each other and just being, rather than the seemingly relentless focus on the hustle that seems to characterise their northern country folk. There’s a bit more a feel of island time here, hence the characterisation of Goa as an island.

I could be, of course, am likely to be, simply romanticising, over-simplifying, and being offensive to the actual complexity of present day Goa. Evidently, the notion of what constitutes a Goan identity certainly attracts a lot of attention and discussion. But put that to one side, if you must, and trust me on the three zones thing…

The North is the Goa you’ve most likely heard about. It’s the Goa that has the reputation as mixing beautiful beaches with hedonistic partying, where you come to drop out for a bit, take acid and rave to Goan trance (yes, it’s its own genre). In addition, there’s remnants of its hippie history, and of course it draws in the yoga retreatests.

We actually never saw this, arriving well outside international tourist season (May!), and from what we understand, the ‘scene’ has been somewhat quashed in recent years. However, it is certainly the most hip and happening part of the state, where you come to beach during the day, socialise by night.

It’s centred around Baga and Calangute, and essentially, the further you spiral out and away from this centre, the quieter and more chillaxed its beaches and atmosphere becomes.

We started in Baga/Calangute, enjoying the buzzy vibe of coastal India in full domestic tourism season (school holidays), its beaches and streets lined and primed for everything you could need to fulfill your holiday desires. Long languid days at the beach, rotating between swimming and sunning on loungers with a drink, ending with a likely generic but actually still pretty tasty dinner, at any one of many identical-looking internationalised restaurants, and you’ve got yourself a pretty failsafe rinse and repeat holiday diary.

We did make time in this busy schedule though, for an afternoon’s walk up to the giant Fort Aguada at the southern end of the Baga/Calangute stretch.

Anjuna market

We then moved north to Anjuna, original home of the hippies and the infamous Wednesday flea market. It’s still a worthy spot, even if it’s a bit more hippy chic nowadays. Because it was literally the end of the season – Anjuna was already very quiet – we didn’t bother moving north again, but explored other beaches – Vagator and Chapora – on a long day trip, bookending our Northern stay with a second fort at the northern tip of Chapora.

Speaking of day trips, the North is serviced by the town of Mapusa, and we enjoyed a day trip there as a beach reprieve, taking in its bustling Friday market, full of seafood, Goan sausages, and uniquely Goan baked delights, as well as the usual market action.

Goan sausages, and the fierce market laydeez…
Panjim. Gorgeous.

Whether going North, South, or both, a stay in Central Goa and its historic heart is a must. Panjim is a wonderfully easy breezy state capital; by far India’s most relaxed. We spent a truly pleasant few days there, ambling about and soaking up its achingly beautiful streets and pousadas, rich in colour and history.

From here you can also visit old Goa, the original capital of Portuguese India. Once a thriving city of 200,000 (larger than both London and Lisbon at the time), it is now nothing more than its astonishing collection of churches and cathedrals in a sea of palm trees. It gives you a hint of just how important and wealthy it was, before repeated malaria and cholera epidemics saw the capital shift to Panjim. It’s a completely unique experience, and a fascinating outing.

Old Goa in a sea of palm.

Southern Goa, where we’ve just been, really struck a chord. As ‘mature’ tourists, no longer necessarily looking for the party, it’s hands down the place we would most return to in the future. In a state that is, comparatively speaking, pretty chillaxed anyway, the South takes it one step further off the throttle (probably a few steps); the place where Goans go to escape their own rat race!

Like the North, the South is serviced by a market town, Margao, a main stop on the Konkan rail line (we first arrived here from Delhi, and boarded the train to Mumbai here too). Sadly, we only drove through on the bus; arriving into Panjim on an overnight from Hyderabad, we local bussed it to Margao then onto Palolem. But it looked like an appealing place to while away half a day, exploring its historic colonial remnants – old mansions, churches and municipal buildings – while seeing to some life admin.

Further mirroring the North, Southern beach activity is centred in Palolem and again becomes further chilled as you spiral outwards. We spent four glorious days in Palolem, alternating between relaxing in our villa, situated in a quiet coconut grove, relaxing on the beach, swimming, and eating and drinking its astonishingly good range of offerings, from excellent local cuisine to its growing number of lush vegan hangouts, and I say that as someone usually adverse to places that are this-free, that-free. Some of the best eatings were had there. We explored neighbouring beaches Patnem and Rajbag as well; respectively more family-oriented and almost gloriously deserted by comparison.

This daily pattern simply continued for a further three nights in Agonda, which makes Palolem look like a bustling metropolis. We ambled about just that little bit slower, we breathed just that little bit slower, we cared about the world’s problems just that little bit less. It was a glorious end to a week’s much needed wind down, before winding right back up to hit India’s most enigmatic city: Mumbai.

To be continued…

 

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 3: Trains

Here is part three of my four-part public service announcement; my attempt to throw back into the blogosphere, that which has given me so much, pratical information given in an entertaining way, for those considering travel to the wondrous isle of Sri Lanka. Parts one and two, on food and buses, are here are here.

Trains, oh trains. There’s something undeniably appealing about train travel, at least I think so anyway. Maybe it’s a lifetime of using trains as an everyday form of transport, maybe it’s that trains don’t travel on roads so give a slightly different perspective, a different view? I don’t know, it’s definitely not Maybelline, but I find myself drawn to train travel and will use it over and above other forms if available and practical.

As in other former British colonies, a working train system is one of the (perhaps few) beneficial practical things to remain from Sri Lanka’s long colonial period (dating back to the Portuguese). We took a number of trains, riding in different classes and using a few different ways to get out tickets, so here’s our experience.

First are foremost, seat61.com is THE best source of information for travelling on trains in Sri Lanka (and many other Asian countries!).  Its wealth of information is encyclopedic! The Sri Lankan Railways website was also a good way to look up timetables and train options.

Colombo to Galle (on the Matara line); difficulty level: easy as.

Our first train ride and experience of the Sri Lankan railway system was on the popular southern coast line. You cannot book tickets, so, as seat61.com says, you turn up on the day one hour before the train leaves, buy a ticket, and get on.  

We were there a little earlier, using the intercity reservation system (discussed below) and, like clockwork, the counter I was standing at was suddenly ticket-operational at 9.30am, for the 10.30am train. The front of Colombo’s Fort station is open to the road, so you just walk along and find the counter(s) selling tickets for the line you want. I went to the counter selling ‘all classes’ tickets for the Matara line (closest to the road side), as I knew you could get unreserved tickets for both second and third classes. As I say, like clockwork, at 9.30am, the man on the other side of the counter, who seemed to be filling some kind of money change order and ignoring the world, suddenly looked at me, and it was all go.

“Two second class tickets for Galle please” (yes, it’s pronounced Gaul or Gaul-ey, or Gaul-er…it’s seems to be all and any; go with Gaul though).

“The 10.30 train?”

“Yes, thank you” (remember your manners).  

He told me the price, I gave him the money, he gave me the change and tickets and told me the platform to go to (platform 5). It was as easy as that, and two other railway workers made sure we were on the right platform, one as we were crossing the overbridge, and another who was working a train that stopped on our platform; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere: helpful!

So yes, it is a lolly scramble for seats on the Colombo-Matara line (and on any unreserved carriage ticket), and we were just plain lucky that the doors were very close to us when the train came to a full stop, so we were able to get seats on the left-hand side (which is not the coast side).  

But, actually, we were fine on this side, able to see both the sea and also the villages, towns and estuaries we passed alongside. Also, we found the patronage quite fluid throughout. At one point we were able to move over to the right hand side, and the group of Germans originally standing were able to sit down after not too long a time, as people got off the train at other stops.  

In terms of baggage, just find a space! We were able to, just, squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks.

My advice, just enjoy it wherever you are perched. It’s not worth fighting over a seat/position unless you’ve never seen a (tropical) coastline. Also, those who boarded last, probably strategically so, and perched in the open doors, were evidently having a great time. In short: it’s fluid in unreserved, man.

…where the most annoying thing will likely be tourists and their damn heads!

Ella to Nanuoya to Kandy; difficulty level: we pre-booked.

This is the somewhat famed train ride through Sri Lanka’s glorious and picturesque hill country. We broke this up into two trips, pausing at Nanuoya to spend a few nights in Nuwara Eliya and do the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage.

You cannot currently book trains before you arrive into the country via Sri Lankan Railways’ website. I wanted to make sure we had reserved seats for these trains, and in second class too, so the carriages would have windows we could open (i.e. not an air-conditioned carriage). Therefore, I used a service recommended on seat61.com: Visit Sri Lanka Tours.

I followed the instructions there and it worked just as it said it would. I received an email with reservation numbers, which I took to the Ella train station, along with my passport, and got both printed out at the same time. It did cost more than double the normal in-Sri Lanka prices to use this service – paying via Paypal – but it was worth it to secure reserved seats in a carriage that was never going to be squashed, and no jostling for space and views with people standing.

The first leg, to Nanuoya, was an extremely pleasant experience. The seats in the observation saloon were very comfortable with plenty of leg space, and the carriage itself was very roomy, making it easy to get up and move about, go and see the views from the full-length windows at the end of the trains, and so on. The windows pull up, the breeze is delicious, and you can poke your heads (and cameras) in and out across the entire journey.

This journey starts with rolling tea country, which is truly picturesque, and you’ll like see loads of locals and tourists alike moving in and around the train tracks as you pass. The valleys and mountains you steam through will have you wanting to capture the moment at each new turn. Eventually, the scenery becomes a bit more forestry, before returning to more tea country as you get closer to Nanuoya. Without wanting to overhype it, it is the train journey you’ve read about, it’s well worth doing, and I think worth securing good seats for (at our Nuwara Eliya our fellow housemates had fought out the Kandy – Nanuoya leg in uneserved third, and it sounded like a pretty hideous experience overall; it’s all luck of the draw in third).

The second leg, onto the cultural capital of Kandy, picks up where the first leaves off: loads of luscious views, tea, tea and more tea, although it does become noticeably more tropical-looking again, as you descend into the area around Kandy. For this leg, we were on the newer Chinese-built blue trains, and the ride and carriage was just as spacious and comfortable.

Polonnaruwa to Batticoloa; difficulty level: easy as.

If you are going to go to Batti – and I’m not entirely convinced it’s visit-worthy; at least not yet – the train ride is a real joy, winding your way out to the coast through rice paddy country. I’m not too sure how typical our experience was, but we turned up at 9.30am, for the 10.20am train, sat inside the clean and quiet station until tickets became available (10am) and then bought third-class unreserved tickets.

Rather than packed to the brim, we enjoyed a truly breezy and leisurely ride in an almost empty carriage the entire way, sitting in the open doors, or otherwise watching the countryside pass us by. It was truly a pleasant ride, and redunkulous value at around one NZ dollar each.

Jaffna to Anuradhapura to Colombo; difficulty level: easy as

For our last trains, we again broke up the trip with a stop in Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital.  For these tickets, we went to the intercity reservations office at Colombo Fort Station when we first arrived in the country (counter 17; it’s actually an office), again following the instructions on seat61.com.  

Inside, there are different counters for different trains, and it is somewhat confusing, so what I would recommend is this: use the timetable feature on the Sri Lankan railways website to find the trains you want to take, write down the stations you want to travel between, the date you want to travel, and the train number and name (e.g. #4004; Anuradhapura to Colombo Fort; 25 January) and take this with you.  As trains do apparently sell out quickly, it is helpful to know what other trains are travelling on the day you wish to travel, the times and train numbers, so you can book alternatives if your first choices are not available.

We were lucky and got the ones we wanted, and the experience was pretty straight forward, as straightforward as it is ever going to be anyway in these cross-cultural, cross-lingua franca situations!

The north of the country is quite radically different, as I’ve written about elsewhere. The first leg of the train ride was essentially a repetition of what we saw on the bus ride north: a quite pleasant but sparse landscape; lots of rice paddies, very few people. Our train, which was going all the way to Colombo, was quite empty all the way (I suspect it gets more and more full the closer to the capital you get, and certainly a lot of people got on at Anuradhapura). What this meant is that I was able to quite freely move around the carriage during the journey, moving from left to right sides. It was overall a pleasant ride, although quite bumpy in places; the kind of bumpy where you look at each other and think, “is this carriage about to come loose or derail?”, and you are calmed only by the fact that no local seems at all perturbed (that old trick!).

Plenty of room at the Inn.

The final train ride of our month, Anuradhapura back to Colombo, was an early start from another of Sri Lanka’s charming deco-era stations. It was really a rinse-and-repeat of the previous leg, just a whole lot more packed (as I predicted it would be) and, because we were seated in a group of four (two inward-facing seats with no table), not quite as charming or comfortable as our other rides. No biggie by this stage.

And that’s a wrap on our train adventures; hope some of the information is helpful for anyone intending to travel to Sri Lanks in the near future (as you should).

Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Chennai

Unexpected is the perfect word to describe our reasonably quick jaunts through India’s southern urban powerhouses: Chennai and Hyderabad. Our first time on the subcontinent, we’d spent a single night transferring through Chennai, on our way to Kolkata; Hyderabad we could only wave at from a great distance, as the train took us north. So both were new, and both great baptisms by fire for our much anticipated return to India.

They both contained versions of India we weren’t quite expecting to see, although in retrospect both were exactly what we should have anticipated: remnants of Empires in Chennai, and the dual (possibly contradictory forces) of IT and Islam’s great historical imprint in Hyderabad.

We noticed it our first night walking around Egmore: old churches; a few of them. I guess it shouldn’t have been too surprising. Madras, as it was known, was the key British port of colonial India’s southwest coast, and its close proximity to the French-occupied territory made it strategically important to keep bolstered and strong in appearance. Our proximity to the centre of colonial Madras made it obvious that this was once the home of a great many colonists.

I contemplated this – the long, long tail of European colonialism – as we sat in a church, watching Christian Indians worship in a way we are more used to seeing in temples. Their worship, although still reverentially silent, is much more physical, though, touching shrines and idols as prayers are offered.

The next day we continued our history tour, taking in the Government Museum, the old city and the fort. The museum is in Egmore, housed in the sprawling British-built Pantheon complex. The architecture of its collection of buildings alone makes it a worthy meander, but the oddball collections also make it appealing (the Brits did lurve their taxidermy, and it’s on full display here, that’s all I’m saying).

The fort, by contrast, was not entirely worth the effort: it was hard to find, hard to get into, and, given that it houses much of Tamil Nadu’s state government offices – hence the security – didn’t offer a whole lot of exploration. There was no walking on fort walls here.

However, it does hold St. Mary’s church. Completed in 1680, it’s the oldest surviving British church in India. It was stunning inside, reeking of its history, and replete with plaques noting the colonial elites who served mother Britain. Similarly, the gravestone-plaques outside on the ground, offer a more immediately accessible record of people who passed even earlier than 1680!

The centre of old Madras still contains some stunning examples of colonial-era architecture: grand symbols of former power. They still sit relatively unobscured, even as bustling street-level Chennai is being transformed by its subway system, making them appear almost monumental. Sadly, the Madras High Court, reputedly the biggest justice building in the world – it stretches for blocks – is hidden behind walls and trees, with only its minaret-like, deep-red spires poking up into the sky.

George Town is the pulsating tangle of bazaars that, like all old colonial centres here, rubs right up against its former power centre. And like all bazaars, it’s a pleasantly chaotic experience wandering aimlessly through its electronics lane, its produce lane, its wedding card street. So long as you stay out people’s way, no one seems to really mind the strange people ambling about their neighbourhood.

But amongst this freneticism, we found an unexpected place of temporary reprieve. In 2013, we’d found a similar place, in the tangle of old bazaars in Kolkata, so we at least knew that there was a history of Armenians who came to colonial-era India. But there, in the middle of a marketplace, a ramshackle gate announed an Armenian church; we decided to investigate.

The gate was obscured almost invisible behind the volume and movement of the street; we could have easily missed it. But nonetheless we found ourselves in the middle of a perfectly preserved Armenian church, courtyard, and the same gravestone-plaques we’d seen at St. Mary’s; evidence of those who made the crazily brave voyage.

There was a maintenance man there to show us around – there always is – and he said it is still used, but there are only a few Armenian families left now, so what exactly it’s used for, I have no idea. But it was a fascinating and unexpected find, and, since they are all but gone now, an honest glimpse into something truly past.

On our second day we went south to Mylapore, which is the actual old city, and existed for hundreds of years before the Portuguese arrived. There, we finally had a Hindu temple experience. Kapaleeshwarar, dedicated to Shiva, was built after the Portuguese destroyed the original seaside temple in 1566. In contrast to other Hindu temple experiences, which can be overly bewildering and chaotic, this was a relatively calming wander about.

Frighteningly, though, the huge tank next door – temple tanks apparently acting as good barometers of overall storage health – laid very bare Chennai’s alarmingly dropping water table (all over the city we’d seen water trucks making deliveries; water has become a private enterprise it seems).

Coincidentally, from 1523, the Portuguese constructed a giant Roman Catholic cathedral on the seaside, where, apparently, St. Thomas the Apostle, he who brought Christanity to India, died in AD72 (there is a relic of his nose bone in a tomb below, so it is an important pilgrimage spot). It was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style in 1896 and remains a strikingly dominant feature of the south part of Marina Beach.

But the best find was our last. Inland from Mylapore sits the Luz Church, which, built in 1516, is Chennai’s oldest remaining European building. It’s a lovely wee church, stonewashed white and blue and Baroque in style. The story goes that a Portuguese ship was returning from Malacca, in 1500, and was tossed into a hurricane. Lost, disoriented, they suddenly they see a light, which they follow to land, and then onwards, through thick jungle, until it disappears in the spot the church now stands. Luz Church (luz=light) commemorates this miraculous occurrence.

Up next: Hyderabad’s glorious Islamic past-present and its IT-led future.

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 2: Buses

Here’s part two of my four-part summary of our treks and travails across this most wonderful South Asian jewel. Part one, about its luscious, luscious food, is here.

If you choose to use them, you’ll quickly come to see how buses are the lifeblood of the nation. This makes bus stands, as they’re called here, fascinating places to see the nation in action. They’re a hive of activity, with people and goods moving about, on and off buses, in and out of eateries and other produce/goods shops that circle the areas. They are also fairly easy to navigate. We used both buses (and trains) to get around the pearl isle, and found signage straight forward and people overhwelmingly helpful, eager to see us on the right bus.

When you enter a bus stand, it’s not a front door situation; just walk up from whichever angle you are approaching. Essentially, you just need to walk around and look for the bus you want to catch. Red buses belong to the state corp, blue buses are private. Side note: in reality, the blue buses are a little more blingy and comfortable, and they be a little more expensive (??), but we found very little difference between them, and would just jump on the first going wherever wanted to go.

Each bus gate will likely have a sign telling you which route is served by that spot. Easier, each bus will have signs on the front of the bus that will state its origin and its destination, e.g. Colombo and Matara (a popular south coast route). On the side of some buses, the main stops along the route are also printed. So, for example, we caught the Wellawaya to Badulla bus to get to Ella, which was one of the stops along its brightly-coloured exterior (and the interiors of buses are treats within themselves!).

Each bus has a ticket seller, standing outside the bus yelling out his final destination. If you understand Sinhalese as it’s spoken colloquially then great, you’ll be able to make your way even easier. If, like me, you were looking at the name of your destination in a book/on a map and trying to imagine how you might say it, you’re imagining it wrong! What you hear will bear little relation to your imagination.

It’s more likely that you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, like all the other foreigners, he’ll make eye contact, ask you where you’re going, you’ll fumble something out that he’ll realise as a mispronunciation of where you actually want to go, and tell you to jump on!  

Moreover, we found all of these gents to be keen for us to do so, helping us to either put our bags up front with the driver, on the less busy/touristed routes, or in a storage compartment at the back of the bus, where it’ll be waiting for you when you arrive at your destination.  

The only slightly confusing occurence was, sometimes, multiple buses seemed to get plying the same route and more than one man was keen for us to jump on his bus. I’d like to think it is because they confused me with some dashing celebrity, and they wanted the bragging rights to be able to say, ‘you’ll never guess what…?’; more realistically, it’s probably just a kind of game, a bit of friendly conductor rivalry, maybe they get a certain commission from whatever they take.

If they are on commission, then certainly it didn’t feel like they saw an opportunity to charge ‘tourist prices’, as is the case elsewhere (not looking at anyone in particular, India). In fact, on some buses, the conductors had little ticket machines they used to print out tickets; on others they wrote it on a ticket and showed it to us, so we knew what the price was.

Only once were we told what the price was, which was more than we were told it should be, and given no ticket. However we’re literally talking cents here, and anyway, I had read that we might have to pay a second ticket price for our bags if the bus is busy; this never happened.  

Indeed, we found people to be overwhelmingly honest throughout Sri Lanka. Obviously we have no way to really qualify this; you only have your gut feeling. But we just didn’t feel the same kind of ‘everyone’s out to make a dollar off everyone in anyway possible’ mentally that we find in India. This is not a criticism of India, just a reality: girl’s gotta make a buck; get that cash gurrl!

Scenes from a bus…

In truth, the helpfulness we encountered is also likely just plain old efficiency. As I opened with, buses are the lifeblood of the country, vital vital networks, and bus stands are busy places. Bus operators don’t have time to ass about with befuddled tourists standing around trying to grasp the basics of Sinhalese and public transport. You gotta go go go…

Only once did we come across an attempted scam. At Wellawaya, on our way up to Ella, a ‘very helpful’ young chap told us that the bus would be leaving at 3pm (it was just after 2pm), and from the road side of the bus station. He then started to try and engage us in conversation about where we were from, where we were going, did we have a booking…the usual story.

As I had read previously – thanks Lonely Planet – buses from Wella to Ella, a main route, leave every 30 minutes or so. I was therefore suspicious, so, I thanked him and said to my compadre, “let’s go find something to eat while we wait, eh?” We wandered back over to the other side of the station, and quickly found the bus to Badulla, which stops in Ella, and left about 10 mins later.

Scams are scams are scams; a part of life on the road. I rarely get angry or show frustration, at least I try not to. I just tell myself that life can be hard in these places, and that these people are just being entrepreneurial and trying to make a buck. If they can do so via a little nefarious manipulation of tourists that nonetheless still provides the service – transport or accommodation – then, well, it’s just how it is.  

You have to have your wits about you, and if you’re at all suspicious, thank the happy helper person, make an excuse to wander off (or just wander off), and go looking for a second opinion or option. This is also where doing some reading and research prior to travelling is very helpful (although never foolproof).

Here’s the buses we took:

1. Galle to Unawatuna (day trip); difficulty level: extremely easy as.

Sri Lanka’s south coast is populated in what seems like one endless stream of villages and towns, and it felt like both locals and tourists were casually hopping on and off buses all along the coast for all sorts of purposes; it felt like quite a fluid approach to movement. I got this impression from doing a day trip to the beachside village of Unawatuna. It’s harder to tie your shoelaces drunk.

Get on the Matara bus (or indeed the Tangalle bus, if you want to go further along the coast), tell the man where you want to get off, enjoy the ride, get off the bus. Repeat in the other direction. I guess the only thing you’d want to make sure beforehand is that there are buses coming back in the other direction at the end of the day.

2. Galle to Udawalawe; difficulty level: easy as.

We jumped onto the Matara bus at Galle bus stand, switched at Matara to an Embilipitiya bus, where we ran into a plate of fried food heaven, and then boarded a final, smaller bus, to Udawalawe.  Fortunately, we were staying right beside the junction/clock tower, so got off there (there are marked bus stops, but it otherwise appear you just kinda make moves like you are going to get off, and it’ll stop somewhere soon).  The main bus stand – literally just a bus stop in this dusty one main street town – is around the corner (on the main road to the national park).

3. Udawalawe to Ella; difficulty level: again, easy as.  

Our guest house owner graciously dropped us to said bus stand above, where we awaited the number 98 bus to Wellawaya.  At the bus stand, some friendly men tried to sell us a van to Ella for 6000lkr, for up to six of us. In retrospect, if there had been six of us willing – there were some other tourists about – we might have taken up the offer as the bus was very busy and already quite packed by the time it got to us, as they said it would be!

We did manage to squeeze into a seat, but it was an uncomfortable, head-lolling-around-on-a-stick typa ride, remembering that we had been up since 4.40am for a safari, and it was hot. Oh well. The bus from Wella to Ella was much more spacious and super lovely once we started the road up into the hills, both in terms of views, and also as the heat started to dissipate, just a little.

Yup. Just is.

4. Nuwara Eliya to Dalhousie (day trip); difficulty level: pretty easy.

We did this trip as part of our midnight mountain climb of Adam’s Peak adventure. The day before we wanted to travel, we visited the bus stand and asked at the office about a direct bus. We were told there was one at 4pm and, when we returned the next day at just before this time, sure enough we found ourselves on the bog standard public bus, going all the way to Dalhousie, with a stop for refilling of passengers at Hatton. 

What is a little less clear about this route is how many direct buses there are and when they run, as I believe they only run direct during the pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.

However, the next morning, post-climb, we were on buses within minutes that took us from Dalhousie to nearby Maskeliya, where we joined a Hatton-bound bus and, once there, there were big and small bus options immediately available to bring us back to Nuwara Eliya (and so, it’s no doubt just as easy to do this in the other direction).  

In other words, nada to worry about; I just wouldn’t recommend leaving too late in the day, especially out of pilgrim season (the season runs full moon December through full moon in May).

One tip, if you are going to do the midnight pilgrimage: once you leave Hatton, the road becomes incredibly windy, dark and unsealed towards Dalhousie; the bus driver doesn’t slow down for these factors, and is in fact a driving legend. But it will feel like you are heading more and more into the middle of absolutely nowhere, and, if it’s not a busy pilgrimage night, could make you feel like you’ve made a bad life choice.  Fear not, all will be fine!

Scenes from an unexpected stop on the road to Dalhousie…

5. Kandy to Sirigiya; difficulty level: easy; a little uncomfortable between Dambulla and Sigiriya.

This trip requires a change of bus in Dambulla. The most difficult part about the Kandy-Dambulla leg was locating the right bus stand, as Kandy has a few and the most obvious one – by the clocktower – is not the one.

Guides talk about it being beside the Good’s Shed (which appears to refer to the name of a building used for storing goods needing to be shipped by train; now it appears to be just a busy marketplace). This is correct. More easily remembered, though, is that it’s simply back down beside the train station, where you may well have entered Kandy.

Walk around until you find the right bus, or, more likely, someone will ask where you’re going and point you there. This was one of the least easy bus stands to work out, due to immense numbers of buses and no sense of logical placement, so I’d just ask straight away.

At Dambulla, you’ll get off on the side of the road opposite the bus stand. When we did, some guys, trying to be helpful, told us that the bus to Sigiriya would pass by here. We were a little suspect so walked over to the bus stand, where we found the bus and jumped on. They were actually right, and the bus stopped there also. However it was already quite full, so at least we did get seats.

Lonely Planet advises that the bus leaves from north of the clocktower. This is also right as, inexplicably, the bus stopped there for ages. We left the bus stand on the hour, and didn’t leave from the clocktower stop until half-passed the hour, having only covered a distance of minutes. I guess LP is trying to save you the wait, the squash, and the sweat. Because it was all of those things both times we took it, and quite uncomfortable in the end. Maybe worth tuk-tuk-ing the last leg?

Awaiting the bus to Sigiriya.

6. Sirigiya to Dambulla (day trip); difficulty level: so easy.

Buses leave Dambulla and Sigiriya every half hour in each direction, so the only thing to consider is the comfort level on the return journey (as above). A bus stop was right outside our guesthoue; I imagine you could probably wave it down wherever you are, or just check for the nearest wait spot.

7. Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa; difficulty level: so easy.

We’re basically local bus pros by this point, so taking a bus to a random junction to then wave down a second one sounds like a sinch. You simply grab the Dambulla bus to Inamaluwa Junction (just give it your best shot; he’ll know where you mean), then walk up to the bus stop (a couple of minutes away, and easily visible) and wait for the bus.

I thought we might have to try to quickly read the bus destination sign and wave the right one down, but the reality was the first one that came along was going who knows where, but the man leaned out, asked us where we were going, and told us to (quickly) jump on board. As easy as that, and we were in Polonnaruwa just after midday, after leaving about 10am

8. Batticoloa to Jaffna; difficulty level: easy, just uncomfortable.

There’s no other way to do this trip, unfortunately, although I’m not entirely convinced there’s any point in going to Batticoloa in the first place, really. Not right now, anyway. However, if you must, it’s fairly easily achieved.

The only buses making this ludicrous trip are the state ones; no private blue buses. The main bus stand has a full timetable painted on its side, which told us that the only logical option departed at 11am (the others were early, early morning, or late afternoon, which meant a middle of the night arrival; I’ll save that craziness for India).

I don’t know if the fact that it was a Saturday and/or the day before a puja holiday, but it was pretty packed, the whole time. The bus starts in Akkaraipattu, 50-odd kilometres south, so was already quite full by the time it arrived (and that’s why the waiting passengers all stormed the bus!). There’s an opening in the middle of the long bus stand, where buses can presumably U-turn, presmably to avoid having to go right the way around (remember: go go go!). This is where the bus pulls in and stops.

We had to stand for the first two hours, literally all the way back to where we’d come from (the bus goes inland back to Polonnaruwa, onto Anuradhapura, and then up from there). Thankfully, seats opened up there – the ticket man had helpfully told us to stay standing beside them – and we sat the rest of the way. As I say, it waxed and waned across the day, but was pretty consistently full. Just one of these things you have to do to get where you’re going right? A long day.

9. Colombo to Negombo; difficulty level: slightly more complicated.

But really only marginally. We caught the train back from Anuradhapura, and were continuing straight on without stopping. We wandered along from Fort station, and you are confronted two bus stands: the private and the public. The fast aircon buses you want leave from the CTB bus stand, and you’re looking for route 240. Hopefully this will save you from walking around, packs on back, in the steaming afternoon heat like we did!

On the re-turn towards India

We’ve been in India for about a week and a half now, and what’s been surprising is how quickly we’ve (re)adapted to the patterns of daily life here. It’s like we’ve picked up exactly where we left off; well, except minus the fatigue, frustration and sheer exhaustion that had us racing aboard our decontaminated Swiss Air flight that late Mumbai night in July 2013, after three months here.

I guess it’s true what they say: time has a way of layering rose-tinted glasses over our memories, smoothing out the roughest of edges so only dreamy nostalgia remains at the surface. Dig deeper, however…

Our flight from Sri Lanka was a short hop. Getting into and out of the respective airports on both sides took far, far longer than the 1hr 20m flight. The flight was, though, long enough to unleash waves of both excitement and anxiety coursing through my electro-impulses: excitement because I knew the contact high that was awaiting us, its intoxicating masala; anxiety because I equally knew all the ways that the next two months were going to test every fibre of patience in my being, of having to accept that things would not necessarily pan out in ways you would expect.

The flabbergastingly bureaucratic and illogical check-out of Sri Lanka and check-in to India were thus a great early lesson in patience and just taking life as it is here. At least that’s what I told myself.

The upshot, though, was rather than an afternoon of leisurely acclimatisation before hitting the ground running for a two-day race through Chennai, it was nearer 6pm by the time we rode the city’s impressive new Metro to Egmore, where we were staying, checked in to our accommodation, and were finally ready to get intoxicated.

Food is a great way to make everything all right with the world (conversely, for me, a bad meal while travelling tends to make me mourn a missed opportunity). So, making all right with the world became priority numero uno. Fortunately, I had already thought ahead – I must have known – and managed to work out that a Chennai institution, Hotel Saravana Bhavan, now located in many global cities, was mere minutes walk away.

And oh what a reintroduction: the cauliflower patty smothered in tangy tomato-y curry, the thick lentil sambar, the creamy coconut sambal, the vege curry with mint, the doughy paratha to swoop it all up; all the flavours and nuances that you just don’t get anywhere but here, in close proximity to the ingredient sources.

Afterwards, walking around the streets, I noticed that both excitement and anxiety had evaporated, replaced instead with a reassuring kind of familiarity: we were back in urban India, and I know this place, I know how it works.

I know how to navigate footpaths that are part missing concrete blocks, part broken concrete blocks, part darting around piles of dirt and/or rubbish, and part walking on the road itself. I know how to cross roads that don’t have actual lanes, but are instead comprised of manically weaving motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, buses, and trucks, all beeping incessantly to let you know both that they’re there and that they see you.

The stares? Meh, hardly even register them anymore, although the first few requests for photos did catch me off guard. I’d forgotten about the apparent novelty appeal of selfies with goris (white people) for some young men here. I wonder if I’ve gone viral without me knowing?

And, beyond navigation, this sense of familiarity and confidence extended to the sights and smells, both good and bad. The wonderfully chaotic marketplaces that come alive at night, where street food walas hustle alongside piles of fruit and vegetables and stalls selling all manner of small household items, jewellery, and phone accessories, outside of shops selling the same service clustered together, so you go to this street for fabrics, and this street for photo frames and gaudy neon-lit Hindu deities (that I low-key love).

The eateries fronted by men hotplating rotis, or stretching out naan dough, the food, the incense, the jasmine, the urine, the pungent smell of slightly rotting food, the stagnant water that contains some kind of fecal matter, the marginalised people who you know probably have literally nothing, the beggars, the children being used as props for begging, whether truthfully or not…

They’re all ingredients of life in contemporary India, and when you come here as a backpacker, you sign up for it (you can, of course, sign up for a completely different kind of India experience, avoiding all of this reality, a kind of Narnia India, if you really wanted to).

A wise woman once told me, upon her coming to India almost overwhelming her, that to survive here, you cannot try to change it, nor impose a Western (or outsider’s) judgements, moral or otherwise. You can spend your money wisely, of course, or otherwise make a good impact through your choices and behaviour, but you just have to accept life as it is. And if you cannot, then you need to go somewhere else, because it will consume you and you will drown.

I remember the first time we came to India, on our second or third day in Delhi, we’d gone to the train reservation office to book some tickets (the real one, not the fake one(s)). Inside, a poor American lass, travelling solo, was having a meltdown. She’d been duped by the many and varied con artists that swarm around the Old Delhi train station, ground zero hunting grounds for fresh meat tourists.

In between her sobs and dramatics, she was saying such ludicrous things as, “I came to India with an open heart”, and “how can people treat me like this?”. You poor, stupid bitch, we thought. I know that probably sounds harsh, but really, you come to India with that sort of unrealistic attitude, you kinda deserve it.

India is not a mystical, mythical utopian wonderland, lying in wait for you to come and discover, do some yoga, make some temple offerings, give yourself freely to the grateful natives, and find enlightenment. It’s a colossal giant of nation: 1.36 billion people of multiple cultures, multiple religions, multiple castes, creeds and belief systems; a collection of separate and vastly different states thrust together as the British made a hasty and ill-informed exit, and somehow shunted into being as the world’s largest democracy.

India is infinitely complex, with nuances and social structures I doubt you could ever learn, no matter how long you lived here. On top of this, life is hard for many. You hustle; you hustle hard. If you don’t, you don’t eat. Simple as that. For many staying afloat is success; achieving social mobility beyond the edge of reason. People don’t have time for your Eat, Pray, Love-isms; they’re busy with their own lives.

I’m reading a book at the moment, about one journalist’s attempt to live here and learn to speak Hindi. In it, she talks about India having a circular conception of time, something I’ve written about in a completely different context. Unlike a Western linear sense, the past lying behind us as we move ever forward along future’s line, in one sense, there is no past and no future here, only an all encompassing now that contains all (remembering that a belief in reincarnation means life is infinitely circular; it also might explain why, in a Western sense, the past is always so present here).

I’m grossly oversimplifying, of course, but perhaps it is this sense of the now that gives India its unique ceaseless, restless, industrious energy. If there is only the now, then the now must be lived.

No India is not for the faint-hearted, or the open-hearted. You come here with your A-game ready! (or you buy a package tour)

To be continued…

(where I’ll start talking about all the truly magical things that make India so colossally fascinating and wonderful, as well as frustrating and anguishing, all at the same time!)

Strange times in Coastal Lanka: the Jaffna edition

It’s funny. When we were making plans to come to Sri Lanka, the fact that parts of the country were, as recently as a decade ago, effectively civil war-ravaged no-go zones, never really crossed my mind. Perhaps no-go zones is overstating the reality a touch, but I was certainly guilty of being somewhat ignorant, of thinking that the civil war was something that happened further back in the past. Wrong.

The civil war, which officially ended in 2009, is the North’s currently untold story. Everywhere we went in Jaffna the war remains ever present, yet is a silent presence (or, for now, has been silenced). The guides warn against talking about the war, or trying to get locals to engage in a discussion about the war, lest you find yourself in trouble with authorities. And in our month in Sri Lanka, only one local talked to us about it; a guesthouse owner, who raised the topic unprovoked. His words were insightful and telling. Sri Lankans are looking forward now.

What I mean by silent presence is that, everywhere we went, and we covered some ground, there were abandoned and/or dilapidated houses and buildings. In front of some, there were signs advising that the property belonged to a certain someone, or was reserved for some department of the state. I assumed – hopefully correctly – that this relates to a process still ongoing, and not without controversy and conflict, of people dispossessed or who fled during the war, returning to claim their property. In some places, such as the fort, evidence of armed conflict was apparent (pock holes and so forth).

Inside the fort a pile of rubble sits where there used to be a church; the information board, with its colour photos, indicate that it existed until at least as late as the 1970/80s, as the conflict began. We’re left to assume its fate. Silent presence.

Pre-historic Buddhist site, or nah?!?

On our second day, we hired bikes and cycled out of town, eager to touch the northern tip of the country. We chose the road to Kankasanturai, stopping along the way to cycle through rice paddies and track down a possibly/probably pre-historic Buddhist stupa site; around 50 monuments to monks who died there. It appears to be the job of three military personnel to guard the site, which sits in amongst what is essentially a small village of lanes and was utterly deserted. But, unfortunately, it is also part of the ‘who was here first?’ debate, which caused so many problems here in the first place, so obviously the triumphant state sees the protection of these kinds of sites as very important. Silently noted.

Further north, as you enter KKS, as it’s known, you pass through a not-grand, but what still amounts to a gate; a gate with observation structures where (no doubt armed) guards keep watch. Beyond that, for a few kilometres, the only buildings and homes that line the road are state, police, and military.

Then you get to KKS, arguably the tiniest village we visited in the country. I’m not even sure it is a village, just a name on a map now and a role in the war games that belies its size. Don’t try to get close to the lighthouse. There’s a resort there, though; it’s owned and operated by the military. We grabbed packets of curry and rice and sat on the beach close to its fence, alongside locals doing the same.

Made it to the edge of another country…

The military still controls much land around these parts, and some consider it stolen. This occupation prevents you, for example, from cycling west along the coast, to the famed Keeramalai Springs. Whatever is in that area, you can’t not notice the pretty flash new buildings and roads leading in and out of there, as you cycle around it, at a distance of course. Silent barriers.

So there is much that was strange, a little eerie, about our short time in the North. But then there was so much else besides.

The North is different. I’d read that; now I appreciate it. I wasn’t paying huge amounts of attention as we made our way there from Batti, so I don’t know when exactly the change happens. But once I looked up from my reverie (i.e my phone; I was writing), taking in the gorgeous late-afternoon almost-dusk, the differences were quite stark.

The north is extremely flat and quite sparse, both in terms of geography and flora, and in terms of population. I’d read that the government are systematically removing graveyards of the war dead, which were created in obvious discord to Hindu norms, but were created as, I guess, political symbols, martyrdom memorials. They are replacing them with different types of war memorials, and we passed at least a couple of those too. So from the outset, it definitely adds a different air to the place; it feels like you are entering somewhere else, somewhere different from where you’ve been.

The other really immediate difference is the absence of Buddhism, the huge presence of Hindu temples and shrines, and, somewhat surprisingly, or at least unexpectedly, a huge presence of Jesus. Churches and Christian shrines are dotted about the place, crosses and ‘Jesus saves’ emblazoned on the odd tuk-tuk or three.

On our first full day, we explored the city on foot, taking all of this in and falling under the spell of its gorgeous architecture and easy-feeling vibe. I loved that there were lots of people cycling; multiple forms of transport all sharing the space with casual ease.

Oh the gorgeous, gorgeous architecture…
The stunning public library, burned down by rebels in the early 1980s, causing a huge upswing in the conflict, was tellingly one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, and built as a faithful replica of the one that stood previously.

Jaffna is a really fascinating place, and I am sure it will change a lot in coming years. Second to Colombo, it is the place where we have seen the most signs of change and construction. There are hotels and buildings being built, a new (modest) mall has opened right in the centre, and you get the real sense that people are both ready for this and egging it on, eager to move passed the troubled few decades of civil strife.

On the war, it is no doubt still far too raw a memory for people, and there is undoubtedly a lot of unresolved tensions to be worked through, especially to do with people claiming ownership of lands they may have fled from, or been moved off.

It will take time, but hopefully, one day, Jaffna will be able to tell its story; in writing, in oral histories, in museums, and so on. It feels like Sri Lanka really is about to boom, tourism-wise, and the North is in prime position to capitalise on this and use the cash for its own development. I am sure a lot of people would be interested in coming here to learn/see more.

Furthermore, in my humble eater’s opinion, Jaffna should also be promoting itself as Sri Lanka’s culinary tourism capital, as the food here was mesmerisingly outstanding (and I speak from having tread a path already filled with Lankan gastronomic highlights!).

In short, there is much here to celebrate and share. I could easily have spent another couple of days here (if not longer), exploring more of its countryside: Point Pedro, the west coast of the peninsula, and south-west of the city, over the causeway and into the countryside. It really is a fascinating place, and I hope the change that is coming keeps what is unique about the place, and simply enhances it. As with anywhere that courts and then comes under the intense and sometimes destructive gaze of the tourist, it risks losing its casual, easy nature and replacing it with something a little more harsh, unfriendly, jaded. And the North has had too much of this already in its recent past. It’s time for something different.

The famed Keeramalai springs, with its ancient healing waters. We got out just before the crowd arrived; what a glorious swim!

Strange times in Coastal Lanka: the Batti edition

When we did ‘the big trip’ of 2013, rarely, but it did occasionally happen, you’d decide to go somewhere, arrive, and from the first moment, something was just not quite right. Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Vientiane in Laos, and Madurai, India, in spite of its temple magnificence, spring to mind. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like something about the aura, the energy of the place, it’s just a little off, out of sync. Batticaloa, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, can now join that list.

E is for extra. Empty!

I had anticipated Batti, as it’s called, to be a restful two-night stopover on our way to the far north; a chance to recharge the batteries with coastal air. Our train out there, a most leisurely ride in a breezy, almost empty third-class carriage, seemed to be setting us up for this. Everything I’d read about the place screamed ‘mellow vibes’.

Beautiful, beautiful rice paddy country…

When this disconnect happens, it does seem to happen from the moment you arrive; first impressions and all. And sure enough, as soon as we exited the train station, I remember thinking that this is not quite what I was anticipating. Now of course expectations are no-one but my own’s to manage; the problem, I’ve come to think, is that there was just no vibe at all. In spite of the not insignificant amount of coverage Batti gets in the travel guides, it appears we arrived in a town that is just not set up for and does not seem to receive visitors; non-Sri Lankan visitors, at least.

We had a slight moment of confusion finding our accommodation – never great when carrying your temporary life on your back, in the hot midday sun – and when we arrived, I’d not exactly call the reception welcoming. Nonetheless we got settled and thought great, the most highly-rated cafe on TripAdvisor is only a few hundred metres away. Except that, when we got there, it was closed; well, the gate was open but it was deserted. All we found was a dog gnashing its teeth at us down the street.

So we walked into the new town to find lunch. Look out for bike rentals on the way, I said. We’ll want to hire bikes tomorrow so we can explore the coast. What’d we see? Nada. Nothing. Bizarre.

After finding lunch – biryani, perfect – the rest of the afternoon was actually fine. We wandered south, across a bridge into old town, which is actually a small island, and explored the small Dutch fort, the bazaar, and wandered around its interesting suburban streets – there are lanes and alleyways all over the place – finding many of its pretty churches. It is quite pretty, surrounded by a lagoon, and I really loved a lot of the architecture, both religious and more domestically functional. Certainly, it felt pretty chilled, even if people were staring as if to say, ‘what on earth are you doing here?’.

The glorious, glorious architecture.

Tomorrow will be fine, I said: beach day, and then we’ll find the tourists.

Except we didn’t, and it really only got more bizarre. I had imagined finding a beach, not crowded for sure, but with people beaching, and being able to lounge somewhere for lunch, and hiring bikes to explore the sandy peninsula.

We found the beach easy enough. Over the 1924-built bridge east from the new town, and a bit further east from there, and you find a glorious, long, wide expanse of golden sand, stretching up and down as far as you can see. And there was no one there; no cafes, no bike rentals. The only place we came across was padlock-closed.

Beach day, anyone? Anyone…no?!

In New Zealand, finding yourself on a deserted stretch of beach is not completely unusual, and in fact it’s rather lovely. But what made this eerie was that it’s set up for beachgoers: a long boardwalk, street lights, and chairs and pagodas. Deserted.

And then you see a reminder of that Boxing Day in 2004, when the wave came ashore. And then you start to realise that you’ve been walking passed the evidence all along. Empty sections are dotted about the place, and all the houses are new, and if they’re old, they were lucky at the time, now most definitely unlucky looking.

And then you see the memorials.

And then you see the temple now sitting like the Leaning Temple of Batti; except no-one’s visiting.

The Leaning Tower of Batti; its replacement in the background.

And then it started to feel like it made sense, and we wondered whether we had arrived at a party already over, or way too early for one that’s yet to begin, in this country now atop the ranks of must-see nations.

So we returned to our inhospitable hospitality provider with many questions. Was Batti once on the holidaymakers’ radar, and has never recovered from that day? One of the memorials seemed to have a lot if nonlocal looking names among those so unlucky on that fateful day. Or is it yet to be put on the map, but lacking the resources – both natural and financial – to compete with its long popular southern coast cousins?

It appears to be both, neither. It’s true that tourists were among those killed on that day in 2004, but I couldn’t find anything to suggest that Batti was ever a tourist Mecca of thousands, suddenly wiped from the map and struggling to recover. In fact, Batticoloa – and all up the Eastern coast – were quite heavily impacted by the ongoing Civil War (I had thought it more concentrated in the North). This kept tourists away and primarily concentrated in the South, and the region was therefore dealt a double blow when the wave hit as well. Batticoloa was actually the worst affected district, with well over half its population impacted in some way, and over 10% of the lives lost in the country were lost here (3,500 out of 35K).

So it is what it is, and what it is I’m still not sure. Perhaps Batti is more of a domestic holiday spot, coming alive during Sri Lanka’s New Year holidays in April?

I certainly don’t regret coming here. There was enough to make it interesting, and it was a timely reminder of the destructive power of our watery origins and an event that is – rightfully so – most often framed in terms of its impact in Indonesia.

On religious pilgrimage and climbing Adam’s Peak

It was as we were hurtling along a ludicrously winding, unlit metal road, in the middle of nowhere, in a 1960s-era bus, original condition, that I realised just how bizarre our pilgrimage had already become.  We were essentially rally driving in a bus, watching the left hand side swing wildly to the right, and back and forth; trees, houses and small temples flashing passed, in and out of darkness. Beep, oncoming tuk-tuk; beep and veer, oncoming van; beep, veer and slow down, oncoming bus.

On paper, it had always seemed like a pretty crazy proposition: catch a bus, maybe two, to what sounded like the back of beyond, to wait for the middle of the night, to climb a mountain, using a festoon-lit path of 6,000 steps, to see a sun rise.

Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak, is perhaps Sri Lanka’s most preeminent religious site. Every year, from full moon in December until full moon in May, untold numbers of pilgrims come to ascend its peak and see what is believed to be the footprint of Buddha as he ascended to paradise.

If your beliefs are elsewhere, it is the place where Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) first came to earth after being turfed out of heaven, or, further still it’s the footprint of St. Thomas, the early apostle of India, or even Lord Shiva himself. Essentially, what this means is that the site is rather holy for a whole lot of people, and January is right in season!

Cleverly, actually more just dumb luck of timing, the night chosen for us to make our ascent was neither a weekend nor a puja night (full moon). On these nights, the reported crowds add hours to the climb, as the masses descend on the area to heave themselves up the lit path to devotion. Of course, there is a certain appeal to timing the experience to coincide with this.

Our night was far quieter. The carnivalesque scenes I’d read about, and quietly hoped for, even just a little, transpired as sitting in a brightly-neon restaurant waiting out the ticking clock, listening to what sounded like a local equivalent of love songs to midnight on the local FM station…groovy!

Thankfully our bus ride included an unscheduled local cultural experience, added in for free.

We thought we’d struck it lucky: a direct 4pm bus from Nuwara Eliya (I still can’t give a pronunciation guide), where we were staying, to Dalhousie (as it looks), at the foot of the mountain.

Then the bus filled up.  Then it filled up some more, and for the next 90 minutes, we were squashed into the back seat with three adults and a child. No mind, it was lovely ride through gorgeous tea country; the estates and plantations holding our attention the whole way.

We arrived at Hatton, a major interchange, half an hour earlier than expected, so thought we were #winning.  The conductor said that we’d break for about ten minutes. We’d already worked this out, the ‘local bus pros’ we are now, that the bus in front of us would leave once full, then we’d take its place, filling up while inching forward until we breached the traffic current and either moved off or got tooted into oblivion.

The road out of Hatton slowly becomes more rural, windy and narrow, and, as the last light disappeared from the day, the rally driver was awoken. The bumper car part of the ride began, and it looked like we were going to make excellent time. I had read that the road can become log-jammed in season, so I wondered if that’s what the driver knew lay ahead.

However, as we got closer and closer, no scenes of mass pilgrimage appeared, nothing but chilly darkness. That sinking feeling that we were going to arrive into a ghost town with hours to burn added to the rally-induced knots already performing acrobatics in my stomach.

Until suddenly we stopped.

There, in front of us, around a sharp bend, a bus had broken down.  The road was too narrow for anything larger than a small van to pass by, so it soon became pretty clear that, until the other bus moved, we were going nowhere. Ignition off.

We’re coming Buddha, we’re coming…

The first hour passed by easily enough. After ten minutes or so a local man, who works for the local education office, got on the bus and started chatting to us about all manner of subjects: education, jobs, NZ (of course), Sri Lanka (of course), cricket, and how easy it might be for his sons to migrate.

After an hour, I lay awkwardly across half the back seat, head resting on bag, and dozed as the kids became ever restless and fellow passangers’ conversations louder.  Our new friend moved on to practicing his English on a Russian woman who got on. The whole atmosphere was fortunately pretty jovial; an acceptance that sh*t happens.

Suddenly, at 9.17pm, the bus roared back into life, and the traffic jam slowly cleared.  Where I’d thought that the bus driver might think, “well, f*ck it, we’re already two hours late, might as well just cruise in”, he instead seemed even more determined to test the limits of his bus’ suspension. And so it was we found ourselves hurtling down the road, me considering my life’s choices. That we made it safe with internals albeit shaken is a testament to both the driver’s skill and obvious muscle memory; he knew these roads, every corner and bend.

And so we found ourselves in Dalhousie, in a restaurant, drinking tea and diving into a bag of fried ‘short eats’ deliciousness.

It’s 11.07pm, and I’m now so wired from the afternoon’s ‘adventure’, I’ve started writing this post on my phone. A large group of young local teenagers left a little while back to begin their ascent. Another group wandered passed a few minutes ago, and now three young local guys have wandered in, in search of pre-climb sustenance. When we arrived there were a couple of groups of tourists at the bus stand; I assume they started the climb early too. Otherwise it’s fairly quiet.

There’s loads of stalls lining the streets around us, but 90-95% of them are closed. I imagine they’ll spring to life closer to the 2.30am start time recommended to get to the top by sunrise. I assume that’s when people will emerge from their hotel cocoons.


It begins: the small collection of lights is where we’re heading…

I won’t be trite and call the climb a religious experience, as I’m not (yet) religious. No it was a physical endurance test through which I was able to experience and appreciate more the concept of religious pilgrimage. It was sublime, a once-in-a-lifetime that will no doubt be recalled for years to come.

It starts out slightly otherworldly: you’re walking between rows of stalls selling everything you could imagine one may possibly need on pilgrimage, like food and drink, religious material and stuff with which to make offerings.  But there is also much more stuff that you could never imagine anyone needing: a plastic cricket set, anyone; giant cuddly toys? This is hardly Bruce Forsyth’s The Generation Game.

The stalls slowly start to wane, but are a fairly constant companion most of the way up. Again, mostly closed however. Where they were open, at least at first, the strangeness of two foreigners walking through in the dead of night meant that there was always at least an acknowledgement communicated with eyes: yup, we are all bonkers! Other than that it was just us and the occasional person or people returning from having done an earlier evening climb.

However, from about half way up, we started seeing more people: groups of young people, couples, families including grandparents, the occasional tourists. Not many, but enough to make the experience not solitary.

So. Far. To go!

The grandparents-included family were particularly memorable as they were walking accompanied by a soundtrack of recorded chants, adding a fitting soundtrack to a still might. The way up was accompanied by a lot of music and lights, in fact. There was a monk leading a group of presumably his students, chanting the entire way and becoming increasingly animated with each repetition, and groups of teenage boys and many stalls with boomboxes; Sri Lankan and Bollywood pop the order of the day.  

In addition to the street lamps, there were many illuminated and hyper-coloured religious displays and stalls on the way up too.

We barnstormed our way to the top. By 3am we were approaching the summit but sunrise wasn’t until six. Bugger. So we stopped at a rest stop and had a couple of rounds of tea, marvelling at how they manage to cart food and drink supplies all the way up a mountain.

So. Far. Down.

The top is actually quite a large complex, with showers, toilets, shops, a kitchen, waiting rooms, and, of course, the temple. This was a welcome site as the very steep narrow stairs leading there, combined with visual confirmation that the sides of the mountain were rapidly encroaching, and view the backwards, which, even in dark night was spectacularly expansive and exposed, had my vertigo in a very overactive state!

By 4.30am we had found a possie, and rugged up: jerseys, jackets, hats, trouser extensions, double socks, and scarves. We were sitting close to the bell that you can ring, once for every time you have completed the ascent. The number of repeat visitors ringing out to the heavens, combined with annoying tourists taking their instagram selfies, soon extinguished what was left of my over-tired patience, so we moved around to the Eastern side, conveniently, of course, where the sun would soon breach the dark sky.

Lying in wait.

I took a moment to go into the temple to look at Buddha et al.’s footprint, which you really can’t see, as it’s covered and surrounded by a lot of stuff indicating its significance.  But certainly, my fellow line companions, making offerings and kneeling to tap their heads against the rock, were taking it very seriously, as was the policeman making sure everyone behaved.

Not long after 5am, it was becoming increasingly busy (although it was never packed) and was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and cold lying-sitting on cold concrete anyway, so we got into position for a reasonable view, and waited.  

Dawn actually broke not too long after, around 5.30am, and suddenly you could see just how far up we had come, as hills and mountains emerged from the cloak of night all around us. And slowly and surely, excruciatingly almost, the sky went from charcoal to blue and green hues with an every-brightening fierce orange glow at the centre; temple musicians playing along, willing the sun to break over the horizon.

And then the pay-off: the kind of feeling and elation that comes from watching a sunrise in a significantly sacred and stunning location, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing the endurance and effort expended to get there.  

There was a lols-worthy elderly British gent sarcastically laughing at us all and saying, when you get to my age, all sunrises are the same.  And, although he is correct, he is also wrong, for what precedes the sunrises that humans experience in waking hours is not the same, and some are just more special than others.

It was all over relatively quickly. Most tourists buggered off as soon as they had their new Facebook cover photo; they didn’t stay to witness the Monks make their daily offerings and listen to the daily prayers of the faithful.  Despite my lack of religion, it was still sublime to witness. It appears they also didn’t know that, shortly after sunrise, if you go over to the Western corner of the complex, you can see a magnificent shadow of the mountain cast onto the landscape below.  Luckily, a former colleague, who completed the climb in the 1970s, had told me about it, and we got to experience that final piece of the experience trifecta, while prayers were still going on, more or less alone.

Adam’s Peak casting its mesmerising shadow.

We descended rather more quickly than we ascended, although the pain we are now feeling is definitely the result of the latter. It also allowed us to take in the views that were now before us in clear light and to really make sense of just what a feat we had achieved: our crazy pursuit to climb a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Yup, definitely one for the long-term memory banks, this one!

A fort, the beach and an elephant safari

I’m going to start with our experience of the Udawalawe (ew-dah-lah-wahway, kinda), so I can end with superlatives when describing luscious dreamy tropical beach landscapes!

Udawalawe, oh Udawalawe: you were supposed to be so much; instead I left slightly conflicted and a bit underwhelmed.

We arrived in the small one main street town of Udawalawe after an epic three bus connections adventure (I’ll write about this in another post). We were pretty knackered after five days in Sri Lanka and pretty much hitting the ground running on each of them, so we didn’t explore the town and just stayed in, enjoying the rather lovely family-run guesthouse we were staying at down a long, long drive; it felt like (and sounded like) being in the bush.

Soon enough, a young Spanish couple travelling with a third friend/family member and their young son turned up, and we spent an enjoyable evening chatting, learning about the small town they’re from (Alcorisa), their mining history, olive oil production, and strange Easter festivities!

A dull thud at 4.40am, like a muffled hammer to the head, woke us. It was hot; the fan really only recirculating heavy air around our interior bedroom. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a morning person anyway – never have been and clearly never will be – so this was never going to be an ideal wake up call!

By 5am, we’re in the truck and speeding off in the dark, joining a rapidly multiplying caravan of converted 4x4s along the road outside the main entrance to the national park. This was the first of a few stops actually, and we didn’t get into the park proper until just after 7am. This is just the way it is: all the trucks line up, and then, slowly, you inch forward, as they let in more and more small groups of trucks. I just wish I’d known; I would have taken a book or podcast to listen to, and the time passing would have mattered little.

Look: a herd of 4X4s in the wild!

Once inside, what the experience was going to entail became clear: a lot of trucks circling around and zeroing in when something notable was ‘found’. I did remark at one point, it was like herds of 4x4s chasing herds of elephants! Who’s doing the safari-ing, them or us? This did, though, became slowly less intense as the experience continued and, I guess, trucks were able to spread out as we reached further into the what is a huge park.

However, to be clear, there were no moments when it was just us, alone, driving about, spotting this and that. This is no David Attenborough spying on the great wilds experience! We’d drive around, find something (or find other trucks and swarm behind/around them), stop for a bit and move on usually when other trucks arrived and wanted their share, and we’d had ours.

What we did see was: elephants, alone, solo or couples with baby elephants, or in small packs; lots of buffalo, a few crocodiles, coyotes, and plenty of bird-life (including peacocks who all refused to peacock, those prima-donna bishes!

Udawalawe reservoir

At the halfway point, we stopped for a break beside the huge Udawalawe reservoir (a lake, really), which offered some stunning vistas and a chance to get out and spread the legs. Some of the fancier safaris brought out tables and chairs for a lakeside nosh. Ow, flash gurrls! We may have stopped for a little longer than needed; in the end we were standing under one of the few shady spots (actual shade from a tree, not just us throwing shade), waiting to get going.

For me, the one moment that demonstrates the slightly unsettling feeling I left with, came when we stumbled across a solo elephant grazing by the roadside. It quickly came out and strolled amongst the trucks, all and sundry agog at the up-close-and-personal moment. Of course it was wow-ing; I won’t say it wasn’t.

But, for me, it was also hard to read: was this elephant so docile and domesticated that it was truly comfortable strolling among humans (which is, in itself, not necessarily a good thing)? It seemed to be reaching into trucks looking for, or expecting, food. Is that its party trick, or was it starving?

I couldn’t tell; I don’t know: what do those eyes tell you? Because the sad reality of safaris and protected zones, is that they have resulted in an unintended consequence: people feed the elephants – they’re not supposed to – and the elephants have learnt how much easier this is. Also, the electric fences, which are supposed to keep poachers/people out, also keep them in, and they are therefore forgetting how to properly forage and graze, to search for food.

In short, it’s complicated. We did see elephants in the wild, which was a pretty special experience. But, for these few moments, it was a lot of hours of otherness, and in the end didn’t feel too far removed from just visiting a zoo. The possibility that our presence there may be creating adverse impacts, especially on the part of the elephants, is unsettling.

Would I do it again? Doubtful, not a safari that uses this current model, anyway. Would I have not done it in the first place, knowing what I know now? It’s hard to say.

Bathing

Funnily enough, one of the best moments came on the drive back, once we had left the park and were driving along the road beside the reservoir but on the other side of it, far away from where the trucks explore. There, on the other side of the fence, I spotted an elephant, on its own, just grazing on a tree and plonking about in the shallows. A magical few seconds.

The paved streets of Galle fort

Now, onto the two days beforehand, in the wondrous Galle. Galle is an old Dutch fort town, but the fort is very large and is extremely well preserved; by far the best we’ve seen in our travels throughout other former European colonies. You can wander practically right around the whole thing, along its walls, and, inside, exists a preserved little town, full of paved streets, a lot of colonial architecture (houses, guesthouses, boutique accommodation, museums, churches, and a bucket-load of shops, cafes, and restaurants), and some real charm; it really is like a living museum.

Our guesthouse host, in Galle town proper, explained that, pre-2004 tsunami, the fort wasn’t anywhere near as populated or anything like it is today. People who were in the fort at the time didn’t even know a tsunami had hit, that’s how protected it was. Afterwards, as you can imagine, the fort became hot property, as people poured in.

The result is, yes, admittedly, a lot of gentrification, (re)creating that particular kind of generic-ness that pervades popular tourist spots of this type: galleries and boutiques, cafes and accommodation, all serving up a kind of localised Western-ness. At it’s best, it’s fusion, at its worst, it’s a place where people can say they’ve been (tick) and not really experienced anything that much different than their local gentrified neighbourhoods.

Galle fort and lighthouse

However, in saying this, we found the place more charming than not. The whole old town has not been renovated, yet, so there are still some places that are awaiting their facelifts, and many places that just look original (even if they have no doubt been maintained). Moreover, many of the renovations have been really quite tastefully done, and it was lovely to look at some great architectural and design work. In short, we really loved strolling about its streets, and soaking up the atmosphere. Watching the sun set while wandering across its walls was a particular highlight.

Galle fort
Unawatuna, look left…

Sri Lanka’s south coast is populated in what seems like one endless stream of villages and towns. We jumped a local bus to nearby Unawatuna beach for a day trip, and, combined with our bus ride right around the coast the next day (onto our next destination), it gave the impressions that the pace here is quite casual, with both locals and tourists hopping on and off buses, or riding tuk-tuks and motorcycles, all along the coast for all sorts of purposes; business, tourism, the everyday. It felt like quite a fluid approach to movement and life, something that’s extremely appealing.

Unawatuna itself is stunning: golden sand, a beautiful bay, palm trees for ever, and warm, warm water. Glorious, as indeed many of the beaches we passed are here. Coming from our Pacific backyards, full of beaches, this is really saying something I feel: we’re normally a little hesitant when people tell us about beautiful beaches. Yeah right, goes the Tui ad!

But truly, ‘tis was a magical few hours lying in paradise. It wasn’t even too packed. Had we had longer, I could have happily spent a few more days here, jumping buses and exploring many of its nooks and crannies. And I’m not even really a beachy person, such was its intoxicating impact. Oh well, will have to leave this for another time…we had Hill Country to get to!

…then look right. Repeat!