From Beach to near-Bronchitis, and Beyond

March 30th, 2010

[ I write this last update on our trip several weeks months after the fact. My excuse started as a busy travel schedule (it’s a hard life, i know), combined with poor internet availability; and who wants to write a blog post from an iPhone app that, on more than one occasion has lost a draft (i’m looking at you, WP)? This devolved into just plain laziness as AKB and I returned to our beloved SF. She somehow managed to crank out her last couple of updates, and I am just now getting to mine. ]

***

Oh, Goa. For many years the name was synonymous in my mind with trance and a party scene — of some sort. This was before I knew much about raves and backpacking, let alone raves for backpackers. Nevertheless, in my mind Goa was some mythical land neighboring Ibiza, a destination I may get to some day.

I am happy to report that the Indian state of Goa was much more than I’d expected. I suppose I was anticipating another Ko Pha Ngan, with not much beyond bikini-clad tourists overstepping local modesty. The Lonely Planet encouraged this, with a two-page explanation of Goan beaches and the types of tourists that visit them.

Needless to say, AKB and I stayed clear of the strips that sounded full-on hippie, or packed with freshly-deconscripted Israelis (who have a bad reputation, both here and in Thailand.) Here there are beaches for every type, and we settled on Palolem. A serendipitous mix-up deleted our reservations at the first hotel we’d booked, and after bitching out the managers (AKB even went as far as fib-lecturing them: “from one business person to another, this is no way to run things”) we ended up at an affordable and surprisingly quiet hotel on the beach. As expected, the cul-de-sac leading to the beach was lined with dozens of shops selling various permutations of the staple tourist wares — bangles, drinks, cigarettes, native garb and Nepali playa-wear (the Black Rock City kind). Interspersed were travel agents and restaurants. As much as this development was solely geared to tourists, it felt more muted and manageable than Varkala. Here, we were unexpectedly able to relax for a couple of days, swim, eat; and, yes, succumb to the shopping lure, which hits even the most resistant traveler. The beaches here are far less enticing than those in Sri Lanka or Thailand. The murky waters leave much to be desired, but beach is beach, and we did the best to get our tan on.

The music scene, too has been muted. Though raves were once a regular occurrence, they evidently turned out to be too loud and obnoxious, and loud music is now banned at night. In response, the DJ set now throws weekly headphone parties — literally, silent raves wherein attendees tune into one of a number of channels on wireless headsets. (Sadly, we didn’t make it to one, so we’ll have to make up for it in the bay area, somehow.)

The unexpected gems in Goa were away from the beach: the old, Portuguese towns (Goa was a Portuguese state until the 1960s.) We spent a couple of days in Panaji, exploring its winding, Europeanesque streets. Besides the fabulous water pressure in our highly affordable mid-to-upper-range hotel, there was much to enjoy. In the quiet, historic part of town where we stayed, colorful blocks of two-story residences esconce tasty restaurants, guest houses and sundry shops. Our afternoon walk took us from the grand, 16th-century Portuguese church in the middle of town, to the recently-built, gaudy Hanuman temple in the dusty foothills on the outskirts. We snapped photos well past dusk, trying to capture what was for us the fresh surreality of this Westernized India, this European hybrid unlike the crowded, polluted, and poverty-stricken parts of India we had come to expect (Pondy being a notable exception.)

A day trip took us to Old Goa, whose attractions are a number of Christian cathedrals and churches, scattered around a large garden green. The oppressive heat had us walking slowly among the buildings, and in the end had us cherishing the cool shade they offered. It’s a good thing, too, since there is only so much appreciation I can afford to places of worship. Yes, they’re historic. Grand, even. But whether it’s a Christian church, Buddhist or Hindu temple, I reach my saturation point pretty quickly. Don’t get me wrong — I am glad to have seen all of these places. But, I’ve been spoiled by the grandeur and majesty of Angkor, Sukhothai and, dare I say it, Sigiriya. At this point, I need to be wowed, and prefer to spend my travels people-watching, street-exploring, flâneur-style, than visit another cathedral. (I now look forward to eating my words when I finally do see some Italian cathedrals first-hand.)

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Goa and Hampi

***

Having reached spoiled, unappreciative saturation, there could not have been a more fitting place for us to visit next than Hampi, a World Heritage holy site in the state of Karnataka. What remains of the ancient town of Hampi is a series of ancient Hindu temples spread across several kilometers of hills, some set amongst boulders, others rising out of banana plantations. Affixed to the central bazaar area is a rickety tourist infrastructure, a few streets’ worth of illegally built guest houses, shops and restaurants that support the influx of Western tourists looking to experience authentic religious celebrations, while enjoying Nutella toast breakfasts and pizza dinners. At this point resigned to the ironies of tourism, AKB and I enjoyed all that was on offer (though, for the record, the afternoon street-side batter-fried chili peppers and upama breakfast were way better than the Italian restaurant with the fancy nylon signage.) Though it is true that Hampi is overrun with tourists, it is still a functioning holy site. We happened to be there for the Pongal harvest festival, which attracted hundreds of worshippers from across the state, dressed in their best duds. Young western backpackers gawked through their viewfinders at the crowds of young rural Indians, who, in turn, gawked at the young, bare-shouldered western ladies gawking at the temples… Everywhere were vendors selling religious trinkets and colored rice flour (for making kolam decorations). The crowds, the sounds, the faces, the smells; it was a wonder for the senses.

At night, the festive atmosphere culminated in hundreds of pilgrims camping out in the temple courtyard, with families falling asleep to the tunes of merry religious chanting. During the day, we trekked around the temple ruins, spread across an almost lunar landscape of brambles and boulders. We hired bicycles and set out to explore the ruins farther out. And, when we had had enough, we returned to our hole in the wall to rest. There is something to be said about sleeping amongst ruins. Imagine looking your window and having the Acropolis seemingly within reach, and you get the idea.

After a short two-night stay, it was time to get moving back to Panaji, this time not aboard the efficient train we’d taken here, but on what was falsely-advertised as a luxury night bus. To the dedicated readers of my blog (all two of you), I will spare you another long tale of awful travel, and will simply summarize it with illustrative key phrases: two-person, coffin-like bunk; a supposedly eleven-hour ride that took seventeen; a late-night pit stop at what would generously be described as a filthy restaurant, where I was the only non-Indian brave enough to eat the food (I survived); a surly bus co-pilot/navigator/ticket-taker whose permanent expression of disdain conveyed that he gave less than a shit about anyone on the bus; a panicked boredom that had us wondering if we would in fact make it to the airport in time for our flight north.

Dashing our original plans to explore Goa one last time, we did make our flight, with a couple hours to spare. We cleaned up as best we could in the airport bathrooms and enjoyed an unexpectedly fantastic meal at the airport restaurant. I guess that pretty much sums up travel in India: a constant see-saw between misery and bliss.

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Goa and Hampi

***

AKB and I flew up to the cold northern part of India to spend our last few days here before flying back to San Francisco. After having sweat our body-weights daily for several weeks, we were looking forward to a respite from the heat. It would be good acclimation before heading home, where the fickle weather always demands layers. Over the previous couple of weeks we had seen the frightening weather reports announcing 50°F temperatures and people huddled around trash fires on the sidewalks. “You call that cold?” we chuckled, expecting a repeat of the temperature wussiness we’d seen climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. Karma got the last laugh, as it had throughout the trip, and our bravado quickly evaporated as we stepped out of the Delhi airport, and into the cold, dry air. As we would learn over the next few days, cold weather is completely manageable as long as one can return to some sort of heat source. Our budget accommodations, on the other hand, provided cold stone floors and thick blankets.

Delhi surpassed my expectations. AKB’s memories of the place, from six years earlier, had set the bar low. I was prepared for thieving crowds, acute bouts of claustrophobia and at least one night of toilet hugging. Instead, I found a dense, sprawling, ancient capital, with endless nooks and winding alleys. With the streets packed with activity, we would happily lose ourselves in the crowds, visiting shops, trying popular street restaurants, wandering from one bazaar to the next.

I was equally impressed with the transit situation in Delhi. To be honest, after smog-filled Hyderabad and Chennai (as brief as our sojourn there was), I was prepared for the worst. Much to my surprise, however, it seems as if all of the city’s rickshaws use CNG fuel, as do a good number of buses. Additionally, the new subway system is easy, cheap and efficient, albeit suffocatingly crowded on some lines.

We sampled a handful of neighborhoods, from middle-class, shop and café-filled districts, to centuries-old, frenetic bazaars. We visited a the enormous Jama Masjid mosque and strolled through its neighboring bazaar, witnessing the thorough street-side butchery of a couple of live chickens (did you know there are a number of yolks inside the hen waiting to be shelled and popped out?) Later we took in a photo exhibit featuring the works of the king of Bhutan. The town was full of energy, overwhelmed our senses, frustrated and pleased us at the same time. We barely scratched Delhi’s surface, and I look forward to going back.

***

I had been told by several people that I would be remiss if I didn’t make the time to see the Taj Mahal, and so AKB and I dutifully made the trek out to Agra. As she chronicled on her blog, our trip to see the Taj was one giant misadventure, a final damned kiss goodbye from India. In brief: we had grand plans to spend the night in Agra, see the Taj in the dawn light, snap some photos, and get back to Delhi in the afternoon. However, dense fog delayed the region’s railways severely (up to 12.5 hours, according to the PA at the railway station.) After braving the sea of humanity at the Delhi train station (literally, pressing through thousands of bodies to get to our platform), we waited in cold misery for our train to arrive, which it eventually did. Our afternoon train turned into a night train, and I called our hotel more than once from the train to tell them we would be very very late. Our train sat idle somewhere between the capital and the monument in the middle of the night, while we shivered inside; we, the two unprepared white kids, huddling under a couple of thin layers while the locals slept under numerous blankets, as if they had somehow known this would eventually be a night train. The rest of the trip can be summed up as such: The 3am rickshaw haggle and bone-freezing ride to the hotel… my teeth had never chattered that much in my life. The 3:30am check-in. The 6am rise; we were, after all, on a photo quest at this point. The Taj being completely socked in with fog (did we really expect to get an innovative shot of the most photographed monument in the world anyway?) We cut our losses, explored the grounds for a while, then returned to our hotel room for a nap.

Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by the Taj Mahal. It was smaller than I had expected. But in retrospect, the adventure made the trip worthwhile. We had braved common sense to get there, and at that ridiculous hour there were no tour groups visiting, no lines; and the fog was wonderfully atmospheric. In fact, for a place I had expected to be overrun by tourists, it was spectacularly empty, solemn. Exactly what a mausoleum ought to feel like, no?

On our way back to Delhi we met a first-time world traveler, an American girl who looked like she was in over her head. After pointing her to the absolutely wrong train with aplomb, we managed to rescue her with the help of a couple of guards, and rode back to Delhi together. On the train, we conferred to her our travel wisdom, which she should surely have taken with a grain of salt at this point. I felt as if I was sending a younger sibling out into the world, knowing that some lessons cannot be taught, but experienced. I reminisced about what was surely my own deer-in-the-headlights look when took my first solo trip around the world, and remembered the lasting satisfaction of world travel. The privilege of exploration leaves me feeling alive more than anything else.

For more, see AKB’s blog post on Delhi and Agra

***

We have been back in San Francisco for a few months now. We are editing our photos, slowly, deliberately. I am trying to hold on to the freedom I felt while on the road. That sense of living dissipates pretty quickly once you come home, come back to reality. I am still trying to hold on to that feeling, to bottle it. This is, of course, the wrong approach. Life is boundless, and what we make of it. So, instead of living trip to trip, I will master living spontaneously, appreciatively, curiously and in the moment. Adventure is everywhere. We are blessed.

Planes, trains, boats and automobiles

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

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

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

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.