Archive for December, 2009

North, South and Away

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, presents itself with a large lake surrounded by hills. AKB and I walked the periphery of the lake every day, leaving our guest-house’s perch and strolling down the hill into town. With just enough bustle to make it seem busy, Kandy held just enough attractions for us to stay a few days, enjoy good food and beer, and see some sights. Actually, there was one fairly awful meal at a near-empty restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. Ugh. Those guide books suck the more I use them. I won’t go into details here — we will post a video once State-side.

The main attraction in town is Temple of the Tooth, an active temple that purportedly houses one of Buddha’s teeth. I call bullshit — one cannot actually see the relic, nor are there any pictures. May as well be Schrödinger’s dentures. Still, the grand temple was worth a visit. And, I suppose, so were the various Hindu and Buddhist temples in the area. Still, AKB and I were, well… underwhelmed. There. I’ve said it. Maybe it was just that point in a traveler’s journey when he gets homesick, or fed up, or just plain saturated. I think some combination of those was at play. As was the torrential rain. But when it comes down to it, Sri Lanka has little to offer in terms of nightlife and hors-museum activity. Rather, AKB and I entertained ourselves with crummy HBO movies and lakeside wildlife (seriously — we saw hundreds of giant bats and a six foot long lizard on that lake.) Maybe we were missing something, but all of a sudden Mr. and Mrs. independent traveler here were craving some semblance of nighttime activity beyond a half-empty shopping center.

We moved on to visit the towns of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Each had spectacular ruins — Sigiriya’s attraction is an ancient fort atop a huge rock, and pretty incredible. But again, beyond the archaeological stuff there was little for us to do but complain. We’re in a bit of a rut, see, and both are never satisfied.

Let me be clear that I was not entirely disappointed in our Sri Lankan adventure: the food is incredible, the dagobas and Buddha statues are stellar, and the vibe is pleasantly laid-back. But let me acknowledge some unmet expectations. Perhaps more entertainment of some kind, maybe easier travel, buses with ventilation, less humidity, cheaper accommodations… More importantly, I think I expected better adaptability on our part. See, rewarding travel always has its costs, and AKB and I paid a lot forward with patience — an intolerable bus journey becomes worth it when the destination shines, no? But by the end of our stay here we felt let down. We had no reserves left to adapt to the situation, and were quickly over it.

It’s a romantic notion to think of oneself as an explorer of distant lands, etc. But we’re not treading new ground here — we’re following a guide book, after all, and fall prey to the expectations set therein. As much as I like to think of myself as an minor-league adventurer, I am coming to grips with the fact that I have an established set of Western standards, that I like something to write home about, clean bathrooms and a good cup of coffee. I guess I’m realizing that I’m in my thirties now.

We left Sri Lanka yesterday and landed in Varkala, on the India’s southwestern coast. It is tourist-central here, and I am fighting off my prejudices (having seen very few white people over the last few weeks, we are suddenly surrounded by blonde-dreaded twenty-somethings and yoga tourists.) I am fighting my natural urges to be different. I am embracing the open-air restaurants. I’m secretly sneaking glances at the “ethnic” wares on offer along the strip. I am sunbathing and swimming. I am enjoying my sea-side cappuccino. It ain’t so bad after all.

Sri Lanka Hill Country

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

After wilting in the coastal heat, AKB and I headed for the hills. We were really looking forward to changing climates, and only had to pay the cost of a couple of miserable bus rides to do so. I won’t get into the details of sardine-tin-tight, non-air-conditioned buses with the occasional dick-to-shoulder frottage. No, AKB has already posted her account of it, and i won’t beat a dead horse. (Though I just might punch the next crotch that rests itself on my shoulders.) No, let us focus on more pleasant things: cool climates, beautiful views and delicious food.

Our first stop, Ella. At elevation, its climate was vastly different than that in the south. Lo, fog! How I’d missed thee… A sleepy two-street town, Ella is perched on rolling hills covered by tea plantations. When we first rolled into town, misty fog welcomed us in its cooling arms and created such atmosphere. We would spend the next few nights hiking through the tea estates, reading, waiting out power outages, and eating excellent food. The regional specialty, it seems, is a garlic curry. Much better than it sounds, it is literally piles of garlic cloves in deliciously spicy broth. Yum. That, along with various other curries (eggplant aubergine, kankung, squash, and many others I can’t remember the names of), added up to some of the best food we’ve had so far in Sri Lanka. Highly recommended.

I think that AKB and I aren’t yet used to relaxing. Travel is different from vacation — it requires constant planning, packing and unpacking, negotiating and haggling. So, when the sleepy nothingness presented itself to us here, we felt hard up for entertainment (too bad the new police chief in Ella is a hard ass, and that the reggae bar’s “Rasta Shake” is no longer what it once was.) To wit, we were totally engrossed in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which was on the telly over dinner one night. Ugh. [Cuz you know… Indians have voodoo dolls and eat eyeball soup. Bad movie, even in a cheezy way. Sorry.] It’s a bit of a paradox, letting stresses consume you while being away, but we are adjusting, learning to relax and unwind when we can.

After a few days in Ella we took a scenic train ride further north to Hatton, and then an even-more-scenic bus ride through endless tea estates, finally ending up in Dalhousie, our homebase for climbing Adam’s Peak, aka Sri Pada. It is said that the footprint-shaped imprint at the top of this 7,359 foot peak belonged to either Buddha or Adam, as he left the Garden of Eden. To us, it proved to be a severe ass-kicking. We left our hotel shortly past 2am to walk through town and start our ascent. Not quite sure what the weather would be, we had brought layers and even invested in fleece hats (fifty cents down the drain!) only to figure out that the Sri Lankan definition of cold is a balmy 53 degrees F (ie: summer time in SF.) Needless to say, our extra layers only served to weigh us down.

Once again, I am faced with the strange internal conflicts of being a Westerner in a developing country. AKB and I have, in our preparation, purchased countless supplies — three kinds of mosquito repellent, headlamps, guide books. We have invested in new sandals and donned our finest performance wear. Personally, I fretted in anticipation of the climb, as if we would freeze atop some miniature Everest. Let’s just say that nothing made me feel more dumb and privileged that evening than seeing dozens of barefoot elderly women making their way, albeit slowly, to the top. To complain here about sore quads and calves, and endless out-pour of sweat would be shameful. No, let me rather convey the awe and inspiration in seeing entire families trekking for hours on pilgrimage — groups of old ladies wrapped in a few sheets of cotton, conquering the thousands of steps, pulling each other along in chants of prayer; fathers carrying yawning toddlers up and down the mountain; couples of every age, being brought together…

It was a wonderful experience (despite a few moments of physical misery along the way), and seeing the spectacular sunrise from the peak that morning made it all worthwhile. We were lucky with the weather — no rain or fog. We were lucky in each others’ company. We are lucky and blessed, and I am once again reminded of this.

***

We have been in Kandy for a couple of days, and are taking in this historic town slowly. Very slowly. The daily rain has put a damper in our motivation, and we have seen a few sites. We are here for another day or so, and will do the local tourist circuit, but so far our time here has been, well, carefree. We are being lazy tourists, taking a vacation from travel, opting for a beer over museums. It’s good for us, and we are slowly realizing that.

On Toddy, Turtles and Treacle

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

I would be remiss if I did not post a follow-up to my last entry. Believe it or not, what had originally brought us to Aluthgama was not its Bavarian resorts. No, it was the turtles. Along the coast are multiple turtle hatcheries, which were all wiped out in the Tsunami, along with everything else. But, they have rebuilt and are each doing fine conservation work.

We ended up visiting just one, the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, and had a chance to meet, pet and hold turtles of varying ages. A few breeding turtles reside here permanently, and their offspring are raised until they are about palm-size, then released into the sea. Having never interacted with a sea turtle, this expedition more than made up for the pale speedo/beer-gut superstars we were subjected to along the beach. As it turns out, sea turtles like to have their shells rubbed and scratched. This came as a surprise to me as I started to pet them as I do any animal. I half expected them to recoil and swim to the other end of the tank, but each one I petted scooted itself under my fingers and did a jig, a sort of appreciative rumba. Hell, for all I know I was initiating some sort of mating ritual; but let me anthropomorphise and feel a connection here.

Along the road down to the sanctuary we stopped to witness toddy harvesters. These are the men who, seemingly vertigo-free, climb high into the coconut palms to tap their fruits. The trees are strung together so that once up there they can move from tree to tree without climbing down. The coconut fruit is scored, and over the course of a couple of weeks its juices harvested. From this tree they harvest (besides coconuts) palm treacle and toddy. Treacle is a sweet syrup, often misnamed honey here, that serves to sweeten foods, much like maple syrup. We have had it with buffalo curd, a typical dessert on the island. The curd is a room-temperature yogurt sold in clay pots, and has a tart, vaguely sheepy flavor that is rounded out by the sweet treacle. Yum.

Toddy is the watery coconut fruit extract that is imbibed for its alcohol. The fresh juice ferments quickly, and can be consumed the same day it is gathered. The rest goes to the distillery to make arrack, the island’s local liquor. Having seen toddy consumed on one of my favorite travel shows, I naturally wanted to try it.* Rather awkwardly, the locals indulged me and prepared a pitcher of the stuff, filtering out debris and bees who’d met a drunken death in the toddy pots. It tasted, well, coconutty, with a light, low alcohol buzz — the same I get from a bottle of kombucha. Sort of what you’d expect slightly fermented coconut flower juice to taste, I guess.

Arrack, on the other hand, is a different story. Later that evening we tried both light and dark versions, which mercifully tasted much more like vodka and brandy than the everclear it smelled like. A very clean liquor, which, come to think of it, we should be drinking more of. Nurse!?

We’ve since moved on through the charming hill country town of Ella, and then Dalhousie where we summited Sri Pada (aka Adam’s Peak). We have had spotty internet in the past week, and so are delayed in blogging (akb is beyond frustrated.) So, more on waking up at 2 AM to climb a giant mountain to watch the sun rise from 2700 feet soon.

Ta.

* No, this did not result in a repeat of the Man vs Wild-inspired fallen-coconut-induced bout of vomiting in Hawaii, thank you very much.

Further down the Lankan coast…

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Colombo is a busy city that stretches down the west coast of Sri Lanka. It seems that the entire coast is connected by Galle road, which has so far stretched over a hundred kilometers as we’ve journeyed south. It has wound its way through every little town we’ve been to, a familiar presence and convenient directional marker. So far, travel has been amazingly simple. North, south — the train timetables read up, down.

In this regard we were lucky when exploring the capital. Not knowing much about its geography, and attempting to stick to a budget, we booked our first nights on the island at a guest house in the southern suburb of Mt Lavinia. We essentially made up the difference in room price with the taxi ride from the airport. Woops. So, naturally we tried to economize the rest of our time in Colombo by trying our luck with the local bus, with decent success.

Somehow, this type of blind luck is the name of the game here. This island of Serendib is less convoluted than India, and one can find his way with relative ease. Up, down, cross some train tracks, turn a corner…

This is a warm country – not only in weather (thank you, gods of air-con) and spice, but people as well. As with any tuk tuk country, there are touts and hawkers, but the vibe is decidedly more relaxed. We are regularly engaged: “where are you going?”, “you are from?”, “where do you stay?”, “America? Barack Obama good man”. In most other touristy areas, these would come with a hard sell. Here, people respect “no thank you.” And, as was the case with our septegenarian host in Colombo, are eager to have a deeper conversation. It comes with the relaxed pace of island time, even an island as big as this one. A languid stroll, an unhurried lunch break (things often close mid-day), an extended talk. Our host, whose suburban guest house turned out to be a relaxing base, told us of his earlier exploits as a computer man and telecommunications expert, and shared travel pictures from his earlier years — his wedding portraits, snapshots from Europe, Africa, Asia, Disneyland.

These first generous conversations would be indicative of the friendly attitude here, repeating on a train, at a café, and other lodgings. There are not that many tourists here, compared to India and Thailand. The concept of a hotel seems relatively new here, and many hotels are family-run. In fact, a “hotel” is traditionally what we know as a restaurant, a lunch place. But the real treats seem to come from the kitchens of the guest houses, which often take hours to prepare your meal. It is often required to order in advance, and for a traditional rice and curry, even the night before. You are not just another customer, you are being cooked for. It’s a rare and welcome treat, coming from crowded India.

Which is not to say that we’ve only eaten at the family table, by any means. We’ve had (mostly) excellent luck at local restaurants, which are literally ten times cheaper and ten times hotter than the tourist ones. Tourists, it seems, don’t like spicy food. Their loss. Rice and curry, a typical lunch, is fiery and eaten with one’s fingers. It is different from Indian food – much less oily and with more intact chunks of ingredient. Greens aren’t puréed but left whole. Vegetables are cut in large pieces, and so are the delicious spices — clove, cinnamon, curry leaves, cardamom, and those delicious hot peppers of all sizes. But I’ll leave the details for the Food Issue, hitting your RSS feed sometime soon.

From Colombo we traveled by train to Aluthgama and Bentota, neighboring towns about 2 hours south. We stayed in the former, cheaper, lakeside town and walked over the bridge to the resort-dotted beach in Bentota.

This town, full of hotels run by and for Germans and Austrians, was dreary. The beach-side resorts, with manicured lawns and lovely pools, looked as if they were built for previous years’ crowds. This fact was subsequently confirmed by a proprietor; the economic downturn trickles down. There are few vacationers this year, and the area’s unfilled capacity reminded me of the Waikiki i saw a few years back, empty but for an air of bygone tourism circa 1982, rusting, desolate.

We continued onward to Galle, which has been refreshing. A seventeenth-century fort, it has survived Dutch, Portuguese and English rule, and even the 2004 tsunami. And, though the town has metastasized inland, the fort’s aging fifteen-foot walls to this day enclose an active community. Despite several hip hotels and western-style coffee shops and boutiques, and even literary and film festivals, its charming streets still house Sri Lankan families. Every day, children play in the streets and neighbors leisurely catch up along its streets. There is a real sense community, as evidenced in a book, Around the Fort in 80 Lives that profiles the characters who live here — from food hawkers to the librarian, mosque attendant to mural artist.

We wandered dusty streets on several occasions, capturing the town’s photographic gems. On one occasion, we escaped the rain in a coffee shop, whose proprietor regaled us with more tales of youth — in his case, oil work in Saudi Arabia and journalism work. He gave us travel tips (rub soap on your legs to deter leeches!), told us of his many international recipes, and even gave us gemstones from his family business. The sign outside his shop reads “Fazal Jiffry Storyteller” but no words were needed when he shared post-tsunami photos. Though the Fort, with its massive walls, withstood the onslaught, the rest of the city did not. The storm’s waves wiped out much of the coast, tossing city buses like Hot Wheels cars.

***

Today is AKB’s birthday and we woke up extra early to go down the coast to photograph the famed stilt-fishermen of the area. The expedition was a bit of a bust, since they evidently fish much earlier than we had anticipated. We could have waited for the 10-o’clock tourist rush, when fishermen, possibly “real”, possibly not, pose for foreigners. But, we decided that there are probably loads of these set up photos on flickr already, cut our losses, and headed back to our favorite beach, postcard-perfect Unawatuna for more sun tanning scorching and the good life.

Tomorrow we leave Galle, and head… somewhere! We have lots of time in Sri Lanka and several days in the itinerary unplanned. We’ll let you know as soon as we do!

Pondy – a respite, and Sri Lanka first impressions

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

My only real request on this trip, so far, has been to spend my birthday in Pondicherry. I’d remembered the name from a book I read a while ago (God of Small Things? I can’t remember), and thought it sounded nice. Luckily, the guidebook also had good things to say, and so I had high expectations.

Mind you, we have quickly learned that to have expectations of any kind (time, price, interestingness) while in India is never a good idea. By and large, they will be shattered by nuance, exaggeration or good-old-fashioned bureaucracy. Therefore, I am happy to report that Pondicherry met those irrational hope of mine. It is a lovely town, and we ended up by total chance at sweet French-run guest house. Generic hotel furniture and decor was, for a few days, traded in for attention to detail, a belief in interior decoration and paint jobs, and a rare serenity. God of small things indeed — it is the details that count.

The eastern part of town, on the sea, is still very much French-colonial. With old and decaying facades and faded yellow walls, this part of town feels very much like some love-child of Hoi An, Vietnam and Kep, Cambodia. All are of the same heritage, but of the three, only Pondy has actual French people still living in it.

Beyond the boutiques and shmancy restaurants, AKB and I wandered off our map, quite by accident, and walked the streets of the Tamil quarter. Quickly we were accosted by mobs of small children who insisted on hamming it up for the camera (even as they showed us the interior of their local temples.)

It quickly became evident that this is a different India. The fast-pace of Bombay was left far behind, and the choked streets of the other cities we’ve seen were by now a distant memory (aside from a lingering pollution-induced allergy spell.) Understand, this is still India, with its beeping rickshaws and litter-filled streets, but it is slower-paced and friendlier. More than once we were greeted with a Hello/Bonjour, and invited in for tea (an invitation we are still to accept.)

AKB treated me to an ayurvedic massage for my birthday. It was oily. Very oily. But quite nice. It’s a shame that the masseur was some Indian man, and not my lovely girlfriend, but I suppose he knew better what he was doing. That evening we dined at a palatial whitey restaurant, and even had chocolate mousse and panna cotta with honey for dessert. Life is grand.

***

Somehow the transportation gods were with us, and we made it to Chennai International in record time, and, after killing a few hours at the dullest-airport-in-the-world-that-miraculously-had-wifi, we flew to Colombo.

So far, Sri Lanka is markedly different from India. For one, there is hardly any litter strewn about the streets. Second, the people have been very warm and friendly — so much so that our natural guard has seemed mostly laughable. We’ll adjust.

Sri Lanka was once known as Serendib, lending itself to the term serendipity. Our experiences here so far have had that element. More on this soon.