Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Planes, trains, boats and automobiles

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

Over the past few weeks AKB and I have weathered a full spectrum of transportation experiences, ranging from miserable to surprisingly pleasant. Since our travel emotions (ranging from gleeful to stabby) are shaped by the mode of transportation we surrender to, let me structure my retelling of our return to India around these parameters.

We escaped the monsoon downpour of Sri Lanka’s northern cultural triangle by bus. AKB and I have already complained at length about Sri Lankan buses in these blogs, and I hate to continue to rail on them. It’s not really fair, is it? I mean, why should one expect some sort of ventilation system in 90-degree/100% humidity weather? It’s asking too much. Being pressed against a dozen other bodies for a few hours ought to wick the sweat, no?

Given our prior experiences with Lankan buses, AKB and I high-fived each other in anticipation of a relaxing train journey back south. “No more buses! Yay!” We should have known better. After all, throughout our trip, every time we make this sort of declaration (yay, hot water! yay, we’ve mastered the cryptic railway timetables…) we have inevitably jinxed ourselves. And so, after several hot and humid hours of sightseeing in Anuradhapura, we were kindly informed that our afternoon train would not, in fact, be stopping in Negombo — where we were to spend our last day in the country. And this is how we found ourselves on yet another Sri Lankan bus, careening full-speed down a two-lane highway, overtaking cars, rickshaws and scooters in a torrential downpour. By this point, we were used to bus travel and had set our expectations low. But our abrupt dumping on a dark street in what we were told was Negombo was punctuated by the fact that, after a five-or-so-hour journey through the rain, our packs were now soaked with water, dirt and god knows what else. Harumph. Luckily, our brief stay in Negombo turned out to be nice and relaxing, with a cush (and pricey) room at a well-run hotel. We celebrated our last day in Sri Lanka with an excellent rice and curry at some hole in the wall, and a ginormous serving of Kottu Roti, which we washed down with beer in our air-conditioned pad.

In the early morning, we cabbed over to the airport in bleary, eager anticipation, for we had booked business class seats back to India. B-class was all that was available, and we certainly enjoyed it. Unfortunately, we somehow missed the business-class lounge at the airport, so only got half the experience. But, frankly, the cush seats, hot towels and ceremonious unfolding of placemats for breakfast brought us unexpected joy. After weeks of first-world-suffering in rolling sardine cans, we took in these perks with utter glee; all seventy minutes worth.

***

We landed in Trivandrum, India and quickly made our way to the train station. Oh, the Indian Railways. How they now appeared to us modern and efficient, replete with reserved seats and available timetables. Alright, the whole system is practically undecipherable without having an advanced degree, but its massive stations and endless acronyms prove it to be a functional means of transportation. This, we got. This, we’d done before and were comfortable with. It was by now familiar, and we accepted the Indian train system’s warts and idiosyncrasies with a chuckle. It is a graceful old lady of a system, with a vast network and aging cars, but it had gotten us where we needed to go surprisingly reliably. With cockiness, we assumed that we understood its intricacies, and thus we would jinx ourselves in the days to come. But on this day, it got us to Varkala with speed.

We spent a couple of days in Varkala. The main draws are a couple of beaches and a cliff-side strip of restaurants perched between them, overlooking the ocean. The guide-books tout it as a lighter, more relaxed version of Goa, but it is literally a kilometer-long chain of restaurants and shops, each begging for the attention of tourists; the former with multi-ethnic cuisines, the latter with “please, sir, look at sarong, good price for you.” It’s a baby Vegas strip, and too little of anything for us to make us stay. Well, at least we had some excellent cappuccinos and a tan.

As I’ve said before, AKB and I are very much alike in that we can never be satisfied, especially when traveling. We don’t want to be like every other tourist, but drop us in a town with nothing going for it but an ancient ruin and we whine for hours. It’s the ever-looming existential question we’ve attempted to tackle throughout this trip. Surely there is a middle-ground to be found, but Varkala was not it. On new year’s eve we put on a brave face and had dinner on the strip, but before long we had had it. Loads of people (both local and not), dressed up for celebration, cruising one restaurant after another, evaluating this one’s 90s dance hit and that one’s psy-trance… We were cynical, still in our rut. We retired early, both tired and cranky, unable to surrender to the cheesefest outside.

After checking out, we headed for the train station. Unwilling to be bamboozled by the lone dickhead rickshaw driver, we hiked quite a ways with our packs before getting picked up by a local guest-house owner. He took us to the train station, warning us that the train wouldn’t leave for another six hours, and that his cousin’s father could give us a ride for a good price. We were distrustful. When everyone is trying to sell you something, and most are trying to get the most they can from you, it’s hard not to be. But, we were proved wrong, and said guy got us a cheap taxi ride up to Alleppey. We spent the next few hours in relative silence, and I pondered the contradictions that arise during travel — how relatively good, generous people steel themselves with defensive walls of cynicism and distrust and short-tempers. How, in search of some mythically “real” experience, one has expectations exactly when they oughtn’t. And, how that tourist’s experience is manufactured whether they like it or not — surely there’s a post-modern philosophical text about that somewhere.

***

We spent only one night in Alappuzha, aka Alleppey, but it was, refreshingly, what we had been after over the last few weeks. No tourist restaurants. And nightlife in the form of night markets, buzzing with traffic and people. It wasn’t the biggest or best we’d ever been to, by any stretch, but it was antidote to boredom. And, we had some of the best street food we’ve ever had: after a glass of sugar-cane juice, we sampled some deep-fried battered peppers, with some fiery chili sauce. My mouth burning with deliciousness, I even exclaimed that I was finally eating the street food I had been anticipating all along. Some people like bland, overpriced curries at a beach resort. I, on the other hand, prefer this. Sampling something authentic and not being hassled by a shop-owner for your business, this was a moment of bliss, and it was worth the wait.

The draw to Alleppey was the town’s elaborate system of canals. In fact, Kerala is known for its backwaters, and we got up extra early the next morning to take a cruise while the light was good (we are, after all, Photographers, aren’t we?) For the next five hours we floated through canals and lakes, paddled by a couple of seventy-something-year-old men. The more talkative of the two (not the one who, as AKB put it, looks like an Indian George Clooney) told us he had been touring the area for thirty years. He pointed out schools, a two-hundred-person boat reserved for races, churches and rice paddies. We got to hold a hawk. We had some chai in a dark tea shack. We relaxed and held each other, floating on in our Indian gondola.

***

Managing to score a fantastically priced taxi, we drove up in style to Cochin. The city is split into a few distinct towns, Fort Cochin and Ernakulam being the two most visited. Suddenly, our prayers whining was being answered. In the Fort area we explored the meandering streets, visiting old churches and the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. Along the water is a lengthy strip of spice shops, picturesque not with large vats of colored goods as you might imagine, but rather with busy commerce — weathered traders with sacks of wares behind them, trucks being loaded for their onward journeys, goats wandering into storefronts to steal a bite… it was a photographic goldmine, and AKB and I were happy for it. I dubbed this area a little SOHO, for it also houses an emerging art scene, and galleries and studios are sprinkled among its dilapidated buildings. We spent some time chatting with an artist family, looking at photographs and paintings.

The rest of our time here was spent in neighboring Ernakulam, where we watched the latest Bollywood film, 3 Idiots, which we enjoyed immensely. In fact, our entire stay in the Cochin area had been wonderful. We had finally rediscovered our joy for travel and all was right with the world. We had even managed to book a couple of train tickets to get to Goa, which were difficult to book during the holiday season.

And so we found ourselves at the train station at 11:30pm, waiting for the train. We were tired and had everything packed for the night train — extra layers here, a pillow and sleep sheet there… We had it figured out. Except that we didn’t. Apparently, we hadn’t deciphered the acronym on our tickets that told us we were wait-listed for the first leg of the journey. Never assume you know anything in India, or you will be schooled. Panicked and livid, we managed to get a refund and found another hotel, checking in at one in the morning. And that is how Cochin managed to keep us in its loving arms for another day.

***

We managed to book a night bus to get us out of Cochin, and deliver us in air-conditioned comfort (it even came with blankets! where are we??) in Mangalore, the transport hub we had been trying to reach for the prior couple of days. Lonely Planet describes Mangalore as “not an especially picturesque” place to visit. That may be true, but it most definitely did not suck. In fact, it was a completely hassle-free place to kill six hours, with friendly people and delicious food. Seriously, if you ever find yourself in Mangalore, head straight to Janatha Deluxe for some amazing and affordable food (just note that the map in Lonely Planet is wrong.) We had such a great breakfast that we came back for a Keralan thali lunch, which was even better. Hands down, one of the best Indian meals I have had in my life.

***

Our bellies full, and legitimate train tickets in hand, we eventually boarded a train to Goa. As we continue our journey north, I’d like to think that AKB and I are getting wiser to travel — not only its emotional trials, but logistical pitfalls as well. We’ve done planes, trains, boats and automobiles so far, each to varied success. We may soon add scooter to the list, and if we do it will surely come with its own trove of stories.

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!