Further down the Lankan coast…

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

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.

Cough, sneeze. Repeat.

December 5th, 2009

Mumbai was an interesting place to end up after a long flight. Forced acclimation — to the weather, the crowds, traffic and incessant honking. Akb and I took our time and wandered the streets and beaches, taking turns feeling exhausted and cranky. We saw (some) sights, enjoyed good food and settled into a travel rhythm. What a sprawling, packed city. Its past splendors are all black with pollution, yet it retains a certain charm. Well, charming isn’t exactly the adjective that comes to mind when you think you’re about to get run over for the eighth time, but it’s easy to imagine the city’s former splendor. Once, long ago, probably.

Akb and I realized the hard way that it’s easy to get cocky. Time and again, we were forced to eat crow as soon as we thought we’d had things figured out (most likely, due to taking off the good-luck red/yellow string bracelets we were given in front of a temple.) The worst example of this was missing our 6:10am onward train. Sigh. Lesson learned — always double check the information you are given, no matter the uniform of the giver (in this case, something like a white doctor’s robe, worn by train station employees.) Eventually, we said some hasty goodbyes to Mumbai, a city I may one day visit again, but not any time soon.

***

We eventually got on another train, and I quickly discovered the delicious world of Indian train food. At every station hawkers sell fresh chaat, chai and coffee, and every station has its delicacies. One station was in Indian wine country and grapes were sold by the bunch, but I passed on the fresh fruit in favor of Wada Pav, my new favorite snack. Deep-fried potato thing + hot chili pepper all wrapped up in bread. Yum. And every station is slightly different — my favorite slightly roasted(?) the pepper and coated it in salt, and wrapped the whole thing in a focaccia-like bread. drool……

[Needless to say, the food here is, by and large, pretty fucking delicious. Akb and I are starting to write down our favorite items so far. Maybe we’ll write up a food post later.]

Eventually, we made it to Aurangabad – a sprawling township several hours east of Mumbai. Its claims to fame are a cotton/silk blend fabric and some tourist sites, some better than others. Bibi Ka Maqbara, a 16th-century “mini Taj Mahal” was neat (though I still feel like I should visit the real thing), and the large Daulatabad Fort was worth a visit (“one of the best forts in the world”, if one of the touts there was to be believed), but our main draw to this part of the country was the ancient caves at Ellora. These were built over several centuries by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, each with different styles and representations. Wishing I’d taken more interest in archaeology in college (beyond a 9am class first-semester) freshman year, I snapped a few magic hour photos to content myself.

But beyond the rock carvings, the fun that day was being approached by dozens of Indian kids who wanted to have their photos taken. They were happy to just have us take pictures of them, but ecstatic to have us pose with them. In a book I recently read the protagonist repeatedly talks of Indians being entrepreneurial. Well, here we saw it first hand, as on-site photographers seized the opportunity to have us pose with gaggles of school kids and print out the pictures for them on the spot, using portable printers. I guess it’s only fair, what with my taking pictures of strangers all the time and all…

***

That night we took a train (a second-class sleeper, for which i was badly underdressed, froze on, catching a cold) to Hyderabad, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Oh Hyderabad – ye of sprawling size and awful pollution. Your exhaust hath shaved at least five years off my life expectancy. Thank you.

The city’s massive bazaar and Islamic architecture were impressive to see, and Akb and I enjoyed a few delicious meals here. However, we simply could not get used to the pollution — dark clouds of diesel exhaust and unrelenting congestion nearly made us pass out on a couple of occasions, and we finally caved in and hit up a posh multiplex for an opening-day screening of Paa, for which we had been seeing advertisements all week (good acting despite some slow parts, and easy-to-understand story made knowledge of Hindi largely unnecessary.)

We were quick to leave Hyderabad, but before I do so here, let me just note that for a “high-tech city” dubbed Cyberabad, it’s remarkably difficult to find an internet cafe (and don’t get me started on the draconian rules making me give passport information just to check my email…) If these blog updates are lacking in frequency, let’s blame it partly on this.

***

This morning we flew from Hyderabad to Chennai (which we are skipping), and quickly found a bus to Pondichery. I’ve been looking forward to spending my birthday here, and so far it’s been a very pleasant experience. Our french-flavored guest house is lovely, Tamil Nadu is pleasant, and this manageable town is a welcome respite from the last few days. It’s going to be a good birthday 😉

***

More updates soon, I hope. We go to Sri Lanka on the 8th, then back to India for New Year’s. In the meantime, I’m going to tuck into some required reading, including a tome I just picked up that may shed some light on mysterious modern Bombay. Bye.

Jetlag is a bitch

November 30th, 2009

There’s nothing quite like hitting a several walls throughout the day to make you feel useless.

After a 30+ hour journey, I was all-too-pleased to devour a delicious take-away meal from Kailash Parbat, what is apparently a Mumbai legend – and akb and my new favorite Indian restaurant (so good we returned for breakfast.) As auspicious as this midnight snack seemed, however, the next couple of days dealt with the delirious reality of jet lag.

It’s amazing how easily I fall into patterns of self-criticism, especially around the need to feel productive. While traveling, this manifests itself in needing to explore as much as possible; to check items off the travel book list; to spend each precious second seeing, tasting, experiencing new things.

Nobody needs to tell me that this is a fallacy. My other strong, and contradictory, personality trait is that of the flâneur — after all, i am happiest when wandering around without a rigid agenda. Still, the self-critic manifests itself whenever he senses weakness, and jet lag is a time when judgment falters and senses play tricks.

I know this to be true. And, i pledge to ease up, give myself (and my partner) a break. I don’t need to maximize my time on the mountain all the time, much less when i’m not on the mountain. Acclimation, rest, taking it easy. Om shanti, yadda yadda, om.

Lastly, allow me to acknowledge that jet lag is also a malady of privilege. I have so little to complain about in my life (though i do), and nowhere is this more evident than here in India. I have steeled myself in preparation for what I would see here. Namely, the terrible contrasts and discrepancies in the realities of life here. To see it all so easily, as a white, wealthy, healthy Westerner. To visit the Taj Hotel of $500/night rooms and manicured lawns and swimming pool, then to see the conditions that so many live in right past the city center… It’s a trite observation that hardly needs my voice, and i’ve just blogged it. This is privilege.

Let me not forget it.

And we’re off… soon

November 26th, 2009

After a full day of packing and cleaning house for our subletter, akb and I are at SFO. With (waaay too much) time to spare, sushi is on the menu for our last stateside meal (of 2009). Yum, Ebisu. [And, what better way to waste this extra time than by posting a silly blog post from the jebusphone.]

Bye bye SF. We lurv you.