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.

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).

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 1: Eating

Of course I would start here! Welcome to my four-part attempt to sum up our month in Sri Lanka, providing information and anecdotes across four themes: food, buses, trains, and a general tips and tricks conclusion. It’s my attempt to put out there, into the internet ether, some practical – hopefully entertaining – information for people who may be considering a visit (and you really, really should).

For those who know me, or follow my Instagram, it’ll be no surprise that food would be topic numero uno. Eating and food is not a prime motivation of travel, it is the prime motivation! Maybe that is overstating it just a bit, but, for me, one of the biggest attractions of starting in Sri Lanka and working our way back across to Singapore/Hong Kong was the knowledge of how many glorious cuisines that path would cover.

Additionally, the ‘things to see’ – the monuments, landscapes, historical features, and so on – are all written down in guides, explained in detail; sniffing out that most basic of human needs – sustenance – is one of the great unknown joys (mostly joys) of every day on the road. For me, anyway.

In saying this, I’ve mulled over this post for quite a while. I’m a Sri Lankan cuisine convert for sure, and definitely not someone who sees it as some island offshoot of the complex motherland. Of course there are similarities to India, but a cuisine is also about how food is enacted, how it functions and the role it plays in daily patterns and social life. And here, Sri Lankan cuisine had me sold.

I could rhapsodise on and on, but, I feel, I would only be rhapsodising endlessly about what are variations on common themes. So, instead of some kind of blow-by-blow account – I’ll leave that to moments of personal remembering (there’ll be many) – I offer instead reflections on what I consider the key culinary components I picked up from this most wondrous adventure.

Eating in vs. eating out

Lonely Planet makes the observation that, completely at-odds to other Asian nations, there is not (yet) a great culture of eating out in Sri Lanka. Therefore, eating in at your guesthouse is often your best bet.

I don’t know that this observation holds as true as it implies. It is true that we found more limited options right across the country, but we never had any trouble finding local eateries serving locals eating. True, they did seem to close early – one stark difference between Sri Lanka and India is the calm quiet of most places post-about-9pm – but we’re not Argentinians or fancy Europeans who eat at 10pm. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

However, in saying this, I’m all for eating in, especially when this means being served ‘mother’s cooking’, and mother’s cooking is always best (we all know that). Some of our best meals were unquestionably in-house.

Breakfast

Ahh, the most important meal of the day!

We swung between self-catering oats with milk and bananas (sometimes you need a kind of reassuring familiarity and routine), and eating local breakfasts in-house.

Sri Lankan breakfasts, with similarities to their South Indian counterparts, are culinary marvels. Our sugar-ladden cereal fixation needs a serious overhaul! Simple, yet endlessly varied (each cook has their own recipes, remember), it consists of dal, coconut (pol) sambal, and some kind of rice and/or coconut-based bread to mop it all up (roti, dosa, idly, etc.).

Served with tea, sometimes coffee, and often fruit (pineapple, banana and watermelon being most common), it’s a delicious set up, and always saw us through to lunch. Even better was when it came with pani pol, a pancake stuffed with coconut and jaggery (a darkly delicious unrefined sugar). My heart always slightly sank when we were served an omelette and toast-based Western breakfast, however nice it may have been.

The one great unique component is the hopper, a rice & coconut-based pancake but cooked in hopper pans to make them like little cups of heaven. They come in egg version, with a joyous golden egg at its centre, and also the string hopper, less cup like, but a round mound of squidgy noodles. However they come, they’re a perfect addition.

Drinks

Tea is phenomenal, of course. Drink it white, drink it black, sweetened and not; drink pots and pots of it. I’ve been a tea + milk drinker my whole life, but I came to really enjoy black tea.

Coffee was a bit of a different story. We didn’t find a single worthy café-style coffee anywhere in the country although, admittedly, I barely bothered looking and just adapted to local options, to avoid inevitable disappointment.

I almost gave up on Ceylon coffee too, after my own aborted attempt at making a cuppa in Sigiriya. However, our last two places served us pots of the stuff, and it was magic; lusciously dark, with a deep flavour all of its own, and made just that bit more wonderful with milk and sugar.

We didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, but the local Lion beer really hit the spot when served chilled in a chilled glass. The local spirit arrak, with notes of whisky smokiness, is also worth trying and rather cheap from alcohol stores (about NZD16 bucks a bottle).

Soda water was available everywhere and became our go to over sugary or chemically-enhanced soda. In saying that, the local Elephant House ginger beer, so much more gingery than our stuff (same goes for the gingernuts; get into them), was enjoyed quite a few times.

Woodapple, fresh and juiced.

Otherwise juices and lassis are the way to go. Mango, pineapple, watermelon, lime, even carrot and lime, were all wonderfully alive. The pick of the bunch for me was definitely woodapple. I described it elsewhere as apple with a tart, tamarind edge. A second, fresh, glass, had me thinking it was almost sherry/port-like. How fancy. The fresh experience I described here.

Bakeries and ‘short eats’

These are the heart of Sri Lankan snacking. These people know how to snack.

We didn’t consume a lot of baked goods, partly because same-same-but-different, but also, I have to confess, partly because of snobbery about the quality of baking from countries without a rich bounty of a available dairy. In fairness to me, this is also based on a lot of disappointment on previous travels (and see my point above about coffee).

However bakeries are everywhere and doing a roaring trade. What we tried was carbrageously yummy. There’s evidently a strong baking tradition on the island. Colonial period? I did particularly enjoy a couple of lump cakes. I couldn’t find anything about them online, but I suspect they came from a drop cake-like recipe flavoured with jaggery, given the vaguely coconut-sweet flavour (and the colour!)

Lump cake!

But short eats is where it’s at for me. A delicious, delectable range of small fried snacks, often centred around vege curry contained in some kind of moorish wrapping. From egg and potato curry samosas, with a heavenly crumbed coating, to vege curry roti parcels, savoury doughnuts and fried lentil discs (vadai), these glorious morsels are available literally everywhere. We mostly ate these in and around our transport journeys and at some historical sites, and they were uniformly delicious and comforting, even cold and clearly the end-of-day stragglers.

Short eats 4EVAH

One thing though: if you are served a plate of short eats, don’t panic, and don’t assume it’s a challenge. You’ll pay for only what you consume. Apparently it’s common practice in some parts/places. It happened to us once, and we overate; not that we regretted it, not one little bit! But don’t feel obliged to be so greedily grateful.

The many faces of Kottu…

Kottu and Lamprais: the indigenous masterpieces

Kottu I’d seen on TV; lamprais I read about just before we came. Kottu is ubiquitous; lamprais is sadly far less common.

Kottu is genius. Roti or string-hopper, chopped and turned into ribbons of carblisciousness, cooked on the hotplate with your choice(s) of meat/vege/egg/cheese, and served with a curry gravy for you to do the dousing. It’s street food mixed with comfort food mixed with a use-everything imperative.

It’s utterly delicious, and I rarely failed to inhale the entire plateful, even when I thought I couldn’t possibly indulge the pile put before me. That familiar clack-clack-clack sound, of knife on hotplate, which followed us across the land, has now entered the banks of sounds that makes me feel instantly hungry.

If I were to try and hazard an intelligent guess, I would say that the rice and curry ‘packets’, served up across the land as takeaway lunch on-the-go for busy types, may well have their origin in a dish like lamprais.

Foolishly (colonially, even) thinking that it was simply a reverse Anglicisation of its English name, lump rice, lamprais actually evolved during the Dutch colonial period and takes its name from lomprijst (“packet of food”). In its original form, it featured a three-meat curry, ash plantain curry, eggplant curry, a frikkadel (meatball), fish paste, maybe a fried whole-boiled egg, and specially prepared rice, baked and served encased in banana leaf. Sublime.

Evidently, at least the three times we tried it, lamprais has undergone some evolution, although there is evidently still some kudos to be gained from maintaining some allegiance to the original. I was happy, more than happy, to have it any way it was coming to me. I just wish I could have had it more often. There are some similarities, in its evolved form, to the truly ubiquitous rice and curry, but nothing beats an all-in-one meal cooked in banana leaf. The gentle flavour imparted by the encasing is utterly unique, as any tropical islanders or cultures with similar dishes would attest.

Lamprais, arrack cocktail, and fruit; heaven.

Curry and rice/rice and curry

And that brings us to the truly national dish, the bland-sounding but infinitely surprising rice and curry. I was a little bit skeptical at first, if I’m honest, but I was quickly won over. Now I could be said to be evangelical!

The genius of rice and curry is that you just order it. There is no thinking and barely any decisions required. It would either arrive, a collection of whatever the day’s curries were, or, if a so-called buffet, you needed to choose which rice, meat (if you were having), and then vege curries you wanted; a bit like those awful Chinese fill-your-own takeaways of yesteryear, which is an awful comparison, but you get the idea.

And what you get is always a surprise and anything other than generic. Firstly, of course, every cook has their own recipes, their own masalas and spice mixtures. No two chicken curries, or bean curries, or even dals for that matter, were ever the same.

Most of all, it felt that, with each curry & rice I ate, I added more new tastes, more new vegetables and dishes to my palate; curries that I probably wouldn’t have ordered on their own. I’m talking about vegetables like loofah, banana flower, jackfruit, leek/spring onion, amberella, cabbage, winged bean, bitter gourd, plantain banana, and baby aubergine, as well as ones more familiar, like cassava, potato, pumpkin and beans.

I was never any less that completely satisfied with rice and curry. It provided endless variety and tastes and, to me, builds in an inspired flexibility that responds to, well, whatever there is to hand, whatever is in season; and that is the real essence of an ingenious cook.

Just finally, there are a few things I picked up that I would describe as key differences between Sri Lanka and India (although, rightfully, India’s cuisine is really cuisines). Firstly, the curries are singular and ubiquitous, similar to curries in Fiji. We did come across dishes like Jaffna-style, and I’m sure there are regional differences, but it was essentially chicken curry, or pork curry, or fish curry, etc. There weren’t kormas and vindaloos and so on.

A lot of coconuts are used throughout the cuisine, similar to what we saw in South India, but seemingly more so. Coconut in dal is a dream. We also found a lot of dishes had a pronounced use of pepper, which was a lovely surprise, and unexpected.

Completely unsurprisingly, there is a lot of seafood here. What was more surprising was the use of dried fish. It appeared as a background (or more pronounced) note in curries, and is a key ingredient in the utterly addictive lunu miris, a chilli condiment with a base of roasted chilli, dried fish, fried onion, salt and lime juice pounded into the most gorgeous dry paste.

I’m sure there’s much more to Sri Lankan food and cuisine, but this hopefully gives you enough of an idea to realise Sri Lankan cuisine can certainly be considered distinct and unique. I look forward to learning, cooking and eating more when we return home.

Sri Lanka: surprise-filled final days

It’s the closing days of our month-long trek around Sri Lanka, and in this time, we’ve concluded our visits to the ancient capitals, completed the Jaffna to Colombo train journey, and come slightly north, to Negombo, to hang out in a kind of waiting room for our flight to Chennai this afternoon (Sunday).

The last couple of stops have essentially been ‘winding things up’ stops, where the intensity of pace slows down a little, and you start to say your metaphorical goodbyes; who knows when we may come back this way? You inevitably start to reflect.

While on the road, I’ve also been compiling some interesting observations and stories, and have turned them into some hopefully entertaining yet informative posts for potential visitors (and you should all fall into this category!). These ideas have spun out into a four-parter – eating, buses, trains, and general tips and hints – so, although this will be the last post from Sri Lanka, stay tuned for more stories to come; of food, of negotiating public transport, and some observations about tourists and their behaviours.

Just wow.

First though, Anuradhapura. The city holds a special place in Sri Lanka’s history, as the country’s first true capital, from 380BC. It changed hands multiple times over the centuries, as invading Cholas from South India made repeated attacks, and this led to the capital finally being moved further south, to Polonnaruwa, in the early 11th century (a place we visited a week or so ago). Monks lived here for another couple hundred years, or so.

Lonely Planet describes the vast ruins of Anuradhapura as “one of South Asia’s most evocative sights”; elsewhere I saw it referred to as Sri Lanka’s Angkor Wat. Both comments are a bit of an overreach, to be frank, and it does both places a disservice. As I’ve mentioned about the other historic sites here, the nature of the ruins means you have to think and imagine a little more to bring them to life; they’re not going to whack you in the face with Angkor Wat-like ambience. Helpfully, plaques have been placed in front of anything worthy of being noted, and these provide all the material you need to be able to imagine what once was.

Besides, although the ruins are vast – we spent a loooong day, 8.30am-after 6pm, cycling (happily) around its vastness – it’s the dagobas (stupas) that are the real jewels here.

We started at the northern reaches, in the massive Abhayagiri Monastery, which dates back over 2,000 years and housed 5,000 monks at its peak. The ruins are scattered over a large area, so perfect for cycling about. Wonderfully, because it was early, there was hardly anyone around (in contrast to Polonnaruwa).

We started out by taking in a twin set of bathing pools (makes our luxe rain-shower boxes look pretty pale by comparison!), and a very important if a little unremarkable Buddha statue (the only one of four remaining intact, placed facing cardinal directions and looking out from a boddhi tree under which a relic from Buddha was apparently buried).

Our day’s first dagoba was hugely impressive, and we were completely dwarfed by its towering size. At the time, it was one of the largest monuments in the world. Fascinatingly, we were also there as the maintenance crews were weeding. Crikes.

And you thought window-washing skyscrapers was a perilous job!

Beyond that, the rest of the site was really just a lot more ruins, of halls and residences and so on and so forth, really lovely to wander about and appreciate, but individually not particularly remarkable. What was remarkable was the huge elephant pool, not a pool for bathing elephants, as we discovered, but an impressive ancient water storage facility.

South of the monastery area is the citadel, dating far later than either of the main sites, but now almost completely reabsorbed by the forest. Lonely Planet says it’s a pertinent lesson in the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. Yup. We passed through reasonably quickly, although finding a massive trough, used for placing alms (or rice) as offerings/gifts to monks, was pretty cool.

The alm trough (in the background), and a pretty cool kitchen water tank!

The other key area is Jetavanarama, dominated its gigantic dagoba and surrounded again by a whole bunch of ruins, giving hints about its once town-like livelihood. Even larger than the first, it was the third-largest monument in the world, behind only the two great pyramids of Egypt. Again we were extremely fortunate to be there when it was almost empty, in calming silence, and able to take time to appreciate and take in the scale of the place. The only real soundtrack came from locals coming to make offerings, chant and pray. That part was definitely evocative.

Hard to make out, but guarded by 372 elephants!

You’d think two huge dagobas would be enough, but no. We spent the remaining few hours before dusk, exploring the final area, east of Jetavanarama, and around the massive water tanks (lakes) built by ancient kings. More important dagobas are here, so we rinsed and repeated the previous experiences, and they were all just as enjoyable; such calm, quiet, and reflectful places. The only bung-note, but not really, was our drive-by of the massive new stupa being built (off-and-on, since 2010) by the government. It’s essentially a monument to the victory of armed forces in the civil war, and, well, you can imagine that not everyone thinks this is an ideal use of a Buddhist monument. Hmmm…

Stupa, stupa, hmmm…

We finished the day visiting what is believed to be the oldest authenticated tree in the world, the sacred Boddhi tree. It was grown from a cutting taken from Buddha’s birthplace, brought here by Princess Sangamitta, sister of the man who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka). Sunset was indeed a lovely time to visit, and even though there appears to be significant work being undertaken to secure longevity of the tree, which included noisey saws, it was still a lovely way to end the day, watching the many people coming to make offerings, pray and chant.

Puja at the sacred boddhi tree

Rather wonderfully, we had allocated two days to explore Anuradhapura, but after one very long, very enjoyable, immensely pleasant day, we were done. This gave us our first rest day of the entire trip. Bliss.

Now THAT is what we call a church ceiling!

Onto Negombo. We’re staying bang in the middle of the city, only really because it was close to our transport in and on to the airport. It’s a reasonably generic town, with some colonial influences still visible and some beautiful churches but, as I say, pace slowing, winding up, so I wasn’t expecting much. However, it’s surprisingly been quite pleasant and gave us some quite unexpected memories to end our month with. The first was the fish market, which includes a fish drying operation that really had to be seen to be believed; so much fish, all sorted and graded, gutted and opened out, preserving themselves in the hot hot sun and ready to be sent to a market near you!

Fish, fish, as far as the eye could see!

Yesterday, we took a pleasant stroll up the canal (so long as you didn’t look too closely or sniff too deeply; but boy, the Dutch love(d) their canals). We were making our way to the Negombo where the majority of the tourists go: the beach. The scale of it was quite unexpected; I hadn’t realised there would be so much. It was easily the place that felt the most like an internationalised tourist zone, and least like Sri Lanka, in our time here, with a long, long main street lined with hotels and guesthouses, cafes and bars, shops and pizzerias. It was bustling and actually quite pleasant. The beach itself is not quite south coast standard, but made for fine afternoon of strolling and sanding. I can see the attraction of planting yourself here for a bit. It also gave us a phenomenal (and very gratefully eaten) final feast of rice and curry.

But the really unexpected surprise was still to come.

On our walk there, we had come across yet another pretty amazing looking church: the church of St. Sebastian, a Roman Catholic church modelled on the Reims Cathedral. Like the ones we had seen the day before, it was also being dressed up for something; must be a wedding we thought. But, as we were leaving, we noted that the scale of the dressing up seemed to be far more elaborate and we wondered if, perhaps, there was some kind of church festival or feast day happening. We thought no more about it.

On the (long) walk(ing off the curry walk) home, towards the southern stretch of the main road, the street suddenly became draped in lights, creating an archway tunnel effect. How cool, we thought. And then it didn’t end, but went on, and on, and on, and on. And then another street, also festooned, merged into ours, as it continued ever southwards. And then there were speakers chanting Sinhalese something-or-other. OK. And then I was pretty sure I kept hearing the word Sebastian.

And as we got closer to where we had found the church earlier, and the lights continued to twinkle, the penny started to drop. We had found ourselves slap bang in the middle of the massive annual St. Sebastian festival, which takes place around this time of year in many places around the world. Furthermore, St. Sebastian is the patron saint of the city of Negombo, so durr…

What the actual…?

It was certainly a sight to behold, and I’ve definitely never seen something Christian on this scale before (and this brightly and colourfully lit). It turns out that similar (and similarly vibrant) St. Sebastian festivals are held across Kerala, South India, so I assume there is a connection here. But the fact that our earlier stumble across the church, as we’d left the canal, and our stumbling back across it later on, were such moments of serendipitous cool, made for a great final memory. It’s something we would never have experienced, if it weren’t for a series of unconnected random decisions, about what to do, where to walk, what to eat, and what to stop and look at; it’s such a nice affirmation of our ambling method of discovery.

And that’s that. I’m now sitting here, packed, ready to go, and trying to comprehend that, in mere hours, we are going to be back in India (I’m also trying to prepare for the inevitable sensory explosion that’s about to hit). I feel a bit anxious; that’s probably not a bad thing. Time to activate the hawk-like defences that we’ll need on the daily.

And I think that’s been probably the biggest surprise about Sri Lanka. We came here expecting mini-India, in some ways, but pretty quickly learnt that India-level defences are not needed here. People are actually genuinely, without-agenda, friendly and helpful. No scammage. No dramas. It’s been an incredibly easy country to travel in (my forthcoming posts will detail all the ways how). And this then leaves far more mental space and energy to relax a bit, ease into island time, appreciate all the many little things that have the last month a dream start to personal sabbatical 2.0.

There is much history here, both historic and more recent, obvious rich culture, gastronomic orgasms galore, and and the kind of variety that people often attribute to the joys of travelling New Zealand. You can do glorious tropical beaches, you can explore its towns and lively bazaars, there’s ancient sites, colonial-era sites, religious sites, hiking and hill country wandering, pilgrimages, and so much more. I’ve loved it all, immensely, and so much more than I thought I would. So my only advice, if you were thinking about visiting, is get here, and quick.

Ancient guardstones and moonstones, and dwarf-lifting staircases…

 

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!