Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The sweet city of Kandy!

Dec 5th. Woke up to a beautiful day! Had to think about what to do while im here until my brother Myles and his fabulous fiancee, Helen arrive in about 2 weeks for their wedding - how exotic and exciting eh!!!! Went for a walk to check out the town (im staying in Negombo BTW)...and its so obvious there are not many tourists here, cos every store you pass, people are coming out to talk to you "please come in and look, no pressure to buy, looking is free". I must have heard that about 10 times in 5 minutes - although everyone is so lovely, im happy to oblige! You can tell things are really tough for the people here. First the tsunami (which was so horrific and devasted swathes of Sri Lanka, and killed many, many people) and now the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the government has resumed. Tourism has been decimated with those who may have been interested in visiting Sri Lanka at one point, are no longer coming to this "jewel of the Indian Ocean". If you do your homework, you find out that 99% of the places tourists go are very safe, and there are rarely any problems here, as the conflict areas are isolated in the north. So the local people were telling me things have changed so much for them in the last few years, and they are finding things really difficult as historically, tourism has been such a big part of their economy.

However, even with all of that doom and gloom in their lives (and please, I truly don't mean to sound trite here), one of my first impressions of the Sri Lankan people I have met so far is that they seem very content, happy even and they are definitely the biggest smilers..even more so than all of my Indian peeps (and that is saying something!). Again, this is somewhat humbling when you realise what they have gone through recently. When chatting to some of the folks i met, they said you have to work with your lot in life, things happen for a reason and there are always people worse off than you. Amazing.

Sri Lanka, as it is now known (the island used to be known as Ceylon until 1948 when it gained independance from the British) is famous not just for tourism, but also for the production and export of tea, coffee, coconuts and rubber, and it boasts the highest per capita income in South Asia. There is so much natural, untouched beauty here, with tropical forests and beaches, and a very rich cultural heritage. See - I know my stuff! Please note - on your left you can see what beautiful henna tattooing should look like! I decided i wanted to get my hand done for the wedding so found this lovely lady who worked at the Alternative Medicine clinic who told me she has been doing it for years..all natural and would last for weeks! Ahem - 2 hours later my hand looked like it had been shoved in a bucket of mud and left there too long, leaving me with measles all over my skin! Lets just say it was NOT the best henna tattoo I've ever had ...but what can you do!

As the town was pretty quiet, I decided to just chill out, have a wee drinkie over dinner, and as I sat watching the waves roll onto the beach in front of me, I felt so content (maybe this Sri Lankan thing was rubbing off on me)! I mean really - what more could you ask for! Actually, a new travel pal by the name of Simone from Berlin. She had just arrived that day and was spending quite a bit of time in Sri Lanka. Although I had done some initial research into the many fab things to do here, this was the first time I didn't have a guide book (see how anal i usually am - and how I'm finally starting to wing it!). So I wasn't completely sure where I wanted to go apart from Bentota in the south, where Myles and Helen were getting married. Simone filled me in on what she considered the hot spots, so I thought, hmmm sounds good to me! See - this is the joy of traveling on your own...meeting great new people, sharing ideas about where to go, being fluid and just changing your plans on a I've changed, eh!!

Dec 6th. Tired today ..think im finally winding down from all of this running around ive been doing! Had decided on a game plan with Simone, so it was off to pick up my laundry (hey this might be glamourous travel but you still gotta have clean clothes folks!!) then pack and head out to Sri Lanka's second biggest city! Using the term "city" is a bit of a stretch as SL is definitely one of the most rural places i have ever visited on my travels. So I have to 'fess up - normally you know me. I take great pride in finding and taking public transportation. This time Simone was running the show, so I know it sounds super deluxe (which I'm a bit embarressed about) but Terry drove us to Kandy. To try and defend myself a little, public transport is not the greatest here so most spoiled rotten tourists do have drivers to help them get around SL. Come on, you know that's not me usually! But as I said, Simone had organized it already, so I would have been a bit silly to say "I'll meet you there two days later 'cos I was taking the bus!"...Do I "doth protesteth too much"? Maybe, but that's just me.

Got into Kandy about 3 hours later (I know, I made it sound so far away, eh!) and thanks to Ms. Simone, we decided to stay at the Kandy View Guest House - complete with the world's smallest - and cutest - swimming pool just recently installed! What a fabulous place - WITH a swimming pool too (how sad am I)!

Once settled in, we met a Dutch lady also traveling alone, who told us about a cultural evening going on that night(sign me up, dork that I am!) and of course the Buddha Tooth Temple which is one of the most important places to visit when in Kandy (it is a big deal really, but I'll get into the background on that in a moment!). Wow - we've only just arrived and already we have our whole evening planned! And what a night it was! The cultural event was absolutely incredible. A plethora of plate spinning, fire eating, gorgeous girls dancing and celebrated costumed men singing.....and then there was the walking through fire. WOW! It really was an amazing evening! After all that excitement, we headed off to the see the famous -or is it infamous? - Buddha's Tooth to be found at the Sacred Temple (aka The Sri Dalada Maligawa) set in the centre of town. Dated approx. around 2,500 years old, and wrapped up so no-one can really see it, this tooth is so very holy to so many Buddhists, it is quite amazing to see the reverence surrounding even the holy room the Tooth is housed in! Although the cynic in me was like "if it's always wrapped up, how does anyone actually
a) know it's really there and
b) thats it's really the one and only Buddha's Tooth and not any old person's molar"??? Hmmmmn! The temple itself was so pretty at night....and very interesting ..yup even though its probably one of the 700th temple/church/mosque/holy place I've seen on my travels!!

We met a very friendly ("very" being the operative word) soldier who asked for his photo to be taken with me (why?), then asked if he could show me round town tomorrow! Ahem, very nice of him but i think not, thank you! Primarily because he looked about 12 and followed Simone and I around the temple for long enough for it to feel a tad creepy! Trust my luck!

So after all this culture we needed food of course! Walked and walked trying to find a restaurant.. not that easy to see on a dark night in Kandy when everything seems to shut around 6pm! Finally! We found a wee local hole in the wall place which just happened to be at the bottom of our road - fantastic! Thank goodness, 'cos our feet were on fire (haha not like the dancer we saw earlier tho'!) We felt a tad guilty as Kandy View does have a great restaurant themselves and Kai asked us if we would eat there, but hey, we wanted to do our bit to prop up the local economy too!!! After chatting away to the owner, we find out he is the uncle of Kai ...small world eh!! Apparantly everyone knows everyone in Sri Lanka! Too funny! Great local food even tho' I dont know what it was and can't even really describe it but it was gorgeous! When we got back to our humble abode, we talked to Kai, (real name Kanchana) who used to be in the US Navy based in Bahrain, then came back after his contract was up and is now building his third hotel and doing fantastic! Definitely a mover and a shaker in Kandy and SL !!!

Dec 7th. Ahh sooooo relaxing here! Had breakfast on the beautiful balcony this morning watching the birds and looking into the green forest behind the hotel. It is so lovely here in SL. I'm really enjoying being here! It still feels so unspoiled and free even with all the tourism they have had in the past.
Think down south is much more touristy but will see when I go there with my family in a week or so! As we had breakfast, Kai came over and asked me if i would maybe take some pics of his new swimming pool for him so he can post it on the internet for the hostel websites.. so of course i had to oblige! What do you think?

Simone and I decided to head downtown to check out Kandy "city" for ourselves! Unfortunately, it rained pretty much all morning....the local store owners told us they couldn't believe there was so much rain and how unlike December weather it was.. yeh, great for us! We met this jolly fellow who basically badgered us into coming with him to the local market. We knew the drill - he takes you and shows you his friends or family's stalls and if you buy something, he gets a cut! But hey, the local could you resist!
We spent ages talking to the spice stall guy. I bought some fab Ceylon black tea and some smelly incense sticks. Simone went mad and bought up half the shop - to the delight of the owner who proceeded to give her a back massage! How is that for service! Still raining so we grabbed a tuk-tuk, driven by the one and only wonderful Sunil, who was a tad crazy but awfully nice! Apparantly he takes people all over SL in his tuk-tuk! Rather than a luxury or even regular car with windows and air-con, you can enjoy the beautiful countryside and all its glory in his fabulous tuk-tuk. Some may see it as a tin can on wheels, where you are squashed with no windows so you get whatever the whiff of the moment is - in cities usually a ton of carbon monoxide! But hey im a romantic - I would have happily gone off into the sunset with Sunil and his mean machine, but alas, I was meeting my brother in Colombo in a few days so no tuk-tuk traveling for me!

We had dinner at the hotel that night..the food was indeed incredible and actually much spicier than Indian food!! Didn't know that! Kai came to join us later.. indeed a very friendly host.. and we shared almost a whole bottle of red rum (a delicacy SL is well known for apparantly)! When you open a bottle in Sri Lanka, it is rude if you do not finish it! What - this sounds scarily like Scotland! I think Kai felt like chatting away 'cos I got his life story that night .. don't want to betray confidences but suffice it to say, there was a ton of inner turmoil going on, shocking father-son issues in the past, under-age joining of the US Navy to get away, horrendous racism he experienced, lots of broken hearts along the way and so much more!! He could definitely write a book about his life so far!!

Dec 8th. Woke up today feeling slightly worse for wear due to the red rum - yuk! Never again but hey, you have to be polite! But it was such a gorgeous day, Simone and I decided we couldn't waste the day. We had to explore so headed off for a wee hike into the jungle land behind the hotel.Very steep! Let's just say my high level of athleticism has sadly gone by the wayside (hgh - really - was it ever, I don't think so!). I'm now a complete blob and added to all of this, it was probably around 100 degrees! And then there were the lovely leeches - which surprise, surprise decided they liked the taste of my feet and ankles! Gross! I had blood splurting out all over the place where the wee beasts were trying to suck the life out of me...disgusting! There is a knack to flicking them off you - I clearly didn't have it as they continued to chomp on me for quite some time!

After a while, we came across an opening in the forest, where we met a family hanging out, enjoying the afternoon together. One of the sons and his friends were climbing a tree nearby. They were too cute and delighted when we asked if we could take a pic of them. In fact, their dad asked if I would take a picture of the whole family for him! They were so lovely, rushed into their kitchen to get us fresh mango and water, then gave me their address so I could send on the photos to them! I think they seem happier in the one without me in it - hmmn, should I take a hint (just kidding, they were so,so kind and lovely)! And very interested in what we did in our home countries, what we thought of Sri Lanka, and proudly told us about their jobs! The daddy worked for the Municipal Government and loved what he did - which pathetically I now cannot remember what that might be! After a lovely visit, we finally said our goodbyes and headed back down the mountain (ok mini-hill!) to the hotel, where we decided to jump right into that teeny tiny swimming pool 'cos it was sooooooo darn hot! Kai had told us the pool cost a mere 25 million rupees!!! And was less than one week old!!! Later that evening,Kai asked me if I could help out with a brochure for him, taking more pics of his hotel as he had updated lotsa stuff lately and wanted to promote it online and with new marketing materials! Hey, sounds like that sort of thing is just down my alley, and as we were all getting on so well, I said, sure, no problemo! So after the "shoot" as it were (haha)!, we went into town and downloaded everything onto a CD for him at the local internet cafe, where no surprise, Kai knew everyone. He said he was very impressed with my technical capabilities! Ummm, as many of you know, I'm about as technical as a loaf of bread, but it was a very sweet thing to say! There was also a sort of sub-one upmanship going on here which he later explanined to me! He said he was so happy and proud to be seen in town with a white woman. Ahem, I had to tell him I can only take credit for half of that compliment, now that I was in tune with my Indian peeps!! And btw, I thought my tan was pretty impressive at this point - but clearly I wasn't fooling anyone!
To think when I was younger I got called a ton of names for being darker and different, now I'm being called out as a white woman in other countries! Life is strange - and funny! Kai was so sweet he treated Simone and I to a fabulous and quite sumptuous meal at the hotel to thank us for our help! See the fab people you meet when you travel! We had a great giggle that night. And yes, clearly more red rum was involved!

Dec 9th. Simone was up early today - 6:30am 'cos she was heading down to the south with a Japanese guy and his driver who were also staying at the hotel. They were going the same way so offered to take her with them - not bad eh! I would have gone too, but was meeting Myles and Helen at the Colombo airport tomorrow then the three of us were heading down to Bentota in their hotel car! So we had a final farewell breakfast together and then lotsa hugs, kisses and off that new gang the sunny shores of the south and its' wonderful beaches! I was really sad to see Simone go. Lets just say that girl is a hot ticket and she has lived a million lives! I definitely felt like a boring fart compared to her, let me tell you! So now that I was "alone" again, I decided to potter around. I chatted to Kai's manager, Ann -what a wonderful girl, who was very bemused at the idea of me popping around Asia on my own. Yet again, unbelievable how many lovely folks I have met. It's funny .. a few times over my travels people like Ann have said to me, "You are so open and seem to be so very happy all the time. Why are you like that?" Well, it might have something to do with the fact I'm on the trip of a lifetime? How could someone not be happy. I don't tell you this to sound big headed, but just to share with you how many wonderful people I have met, people who were so kind and good to me,in so many different situations in so many countries. One of the few wise things I can take away from this traveling lark, is that if you smile at someone, 9 times out of 10 they tend to smile back and then a whole different dynamic begins.. ...well, that's been my experience anyway!!! I have felt so loved from complete strangers in every one of the 18 (she said somewhat proudly!) different countries I have visited over the last year and a half! It totally brings to life the fact that there are so many incredible, amazing, interesting, wonderful kind people in the world. I just happened to be lucky enough to meet many of them on my travels! OK, OK, enough of me waxing lyrical! I'll do my trip round-up at the end of my blog (will this blog ever really end though?)...but for now, lets get back to reality!.

Yet another example of loveliness...Kai drove me down to the bus to take me back to Colombo where I was going to meet up with my brother Myles and his soon to be wifey, Helen.. However this was under duress as he felt awful that i wouldn't let him drive me all the way to Colombo himself after i had helped him with his brochure and web site. Uhhh - what!!! Super nice guy!! Anyway, off i headed to the 4:15pm bus (see that's why i gotta journal, otherwise how on earth would i know what time my bus was, and then the story would be so boring -ha - right I hear you all say in stereo!!) 75 rupees and 5 hours later, I got off right next to what I thought was the airport, where I was going to hang out for a while till Myles's plane came in. Ahem, the bus was a wee bitty off the beaten track and my bloody backpack, laden with a few (not that light shall we say!) wedding presents for the happy couple, OK lets be honest, it weighed a ton...and a half i think! 15 minutes walking past about 50 or 60 of Sri Lanka's best army and police security (Colombo has had quite a few bombs going off lately - which does go against my earlier note about it being safe here, but I certainly didn't experience anything at all). These folks were all very nice and kept pointing me in the right direction towards (slowly but surely) the darn airport. Finally, I got to a checkpoint where cars were being searched and the lovely army guys took pity on me and my giant pack, and flagged down a van they had already searched and told the men to drop me off at the arrivals terminal! How sweet is that. Or more realistically, how badly off did i look that they saw I needed the help! Either way it was awfully nice of them indeed!

Got to arrivals and was all set to settle in for the night as Myles' plane didn't arrived till about 2am and it was only 7:30pm at this point. Then my plans of snoozing in the terminal were nixed. Due to security and new construction, you couldn't get an entry pass to get into the airport arrivals hall until about an hour before the plane was going to land!! What!! Now, not that i was scared or nervous. I really wasn't but when the army personnel were telling me to watch out, that this was the capital of Sri Lanka which had been hit with quite a few car bombs and other not nice stuff recently.. . and that the place they said I could sit and wait was a wee bit dodgy and to be careful, well, I wasn't that overjoyed, lets just put it that way! Plus, the make shift waiting area, was actually set up outside in the fresh air. Gulp! But luckily enough in the midst of lotsa dimly lit garden areas with random men sleeping everywhere, the interim Airport Information area I was told to hang out in, didn't look too bad when I arrived. Lit up, and with chairs and a gentleman in charge of giving out info on planes arriving or departing, I thought, not too shabby! Thankfully, although some folks had scared me a tad, the older airport security man I spoke to told me to sit in this area, and I would be safe - well, he did add "probably". Great - thanks!! I mean, it was a mere 7 hours or so until Myles plane arrived (around 2:30am Colombo time) and then we were all driving down to Bentota in the south together, so no point me getting a hotel room for just those few hours. Hey, im a real traveler. We don't go for comfort and safety! Live life large man! Or at last get a crick in your neck trying! Actually, yet again I was SO LUCKY in that the security man who took over just after I sat down with all my bags was called Dilip and he was so lovely. Am I naive when a complete stranger says to me..."Miss, please feel free to go to sleep. I will watch your bags for you!". Hey, he worked for the airport - and you could tell he was a nice guy! What more did I need to know? We chatted a bit about the country, the current situation, what he wanted to do with his life, the fact he wanted to travel, he asked me where in Sri Lanka I had been.Kandy - did I visit the Buddha's Tooth - see, told you it was a big deal! He checked when Myles' plane was going to come in, then I kinda snoozed off and on, while either hanging onto or falling over some of my bags. Hey, I'm not totally daft! But i did feel safe, I have to say!

OK, so it took a while but eventually Dilip gave me a nudge to let me know Myles flight had arrived. In fact, he personally walked me over and through security!! How nice!!! Ta-da....and there they were! I can't tell you how brilliant it was to finally meet up with some of my family again. This was the longest I had ever gone without seeing them....nearly a full year and yah!!!!Happiness!

The soon-to-be wedded couple looked great if a wee bitty tired....we jumped into their personal car service which was taking us the 3 hours down to the south coast (yup, these guys were doing things in style...well it was their pre-wedding, wedding and of course honeymoon holiday!) What do you expect? Don't you know by now that my family are a touch of posh? :)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Heading off to Sri Lanka, my 18th country - can't quite believe it!

Really cold this morning...well, it was 3am! Got a taxi to the airport...saw so many people on the streets, some sleeping, some sitting chatting.. its like a completely different, ghostly world that you don't really see during the day... and as I've bored you all before, I've seen my share of early mornings on my travels! But really, this would break your heart to see how these people have to live, literally at the side of the road, with nothing to shelter them, until they get up and do another day of hard work. For me, it's yet another example that makes me realise how incredibly lucky I am, and how much I have - definitely humbles you. The taxi driver told me that apparantly there is alot of drug use in sad...and these people have pretty much no resources to help them with the poverty issue never mind drug rehabilitation.

I arrived at the airport and for it being so early, it was pretty busy. Chatted to the chai men over a cuppa then checked in. No probs at all on the flight . Arrrived in Chennai around 8ish - ahhah now i had to wait around for a mere 13 hours till my next flight which only takes bloomin' 50 minutes to get to Sri Lanka...ahh the joys of cheap flights! But as i said - i realise i have absolutely nothing to complain about!!!Hmmn what do to with the time...let me think? Well, its me - so obviously I had to partake of some of the airport's delicious food stalls! A few veggie samosas and pakoras later i settled down to catch up on my journal and find a comfortable place to have a snooze. I know, i know i should have made a mad dash into town to check out the sights of Chennai but for once, i felt a bit knackered and just wanted to sit in one place - ok, maybe not for 13 hours but you can get a multitude of things accomplished in that time! So off to the viewing gallery for me! I remember this kind of area from my childhood - ok those who know my memory issue are laughing at me trying to say i remember being a child. Anyway, somehow i do remember seeing people off or meeting them and visiting the viewing gallery and watching the planes - exciting stuff when you are a wee thing! Well - this gallery was PACKED! I mean packed! There were people crying, saying goodbye, others in suits and beautiful saris dressed up to the nines, waiting for people to much activity in this place. One of the reasons being that Chennai is a hub for many Indians who work abroad (99.9% being men) - the key travel point to Dubai and Singapore primarily! Then it quietened down and i thought, ah , a good place for a wee snooze.... well, it was until i was woken up by two (very attractive i might add!) airport policemen with giant guns asking me where i have come from and where i am going to....gulp! Even when you know you havent done anything wrong, you do feel a bit guilty for some reason! Anyway once i explained they applauded my choice of sleeping area, and left me to it!

I had a wee surprise when i got on the plane to Colombo. For some reason i was in business class! Yah! I was of course the only woman with the rest of the cabin being Indian men, every single one of them with large moustaches! What is it with the moustache in India - its everywhere!!! Very quick flight and then hurrah, I was in Sri Lanka - country number 18! Met Terry, who owns the place i was staying at! Lovely man and we had a great chat about the current political situation in Sri Lanka, and how it is ruining the tourism industry as so many people feel it is too dangerous to visit - absolute rubbish by the way as long as you stay away from the areas of conflict! I felt like i was living in luxury - especially compared with my skankville room in Calcutta. This place reminded me a bit of an old colonial home ...and the garden looked right onto the beach.. so beautiful! Met "Peru" who works there who showed me around. Off to bed in my luxury room and off to sleep ...soooooo tired!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Kolkata - the City of Joy, and it really was!

Nov 25th. Arrived in Kolkata around 9:30am. So funny, the train was supposed to get in around 7am according to the timetable, but as Mahindra told us, ever since he has taken it, the train has never arrived before 9am...sometimes as late as 11am! Aah... the Indian train system (actually it has never let me down to date, so i have no complaints!). In recent years in India, there has been a growing movement to revert away from colonialism towards state-specific independance, which has meant many cities are changing their names to their state language hence Kolkata is the new Bengali name for the city previously known as Calcutta!

Got into fab yellow cabs, reminiscent of NYC (sorta!) although these guys are all the traditional Ambassador make! Off to the Hotel Victerrace. First impression of this, our last city on our whistlestop tour of magical India, is - fabulous! For some reason (many residents of this splendid locale blame the film "The City of Joy"... with Patrick Swayze) Kolkata gets a bit of a bad rap. Also interesting how there are so many of these "public announcement" type signs everywhere, some of them feel good; but some of them with pretty startling statements e.g. Say no to child labour and yes to school!!! Walked around for ages trying to find the one that said "Infanticide is immoral"....seriously! But couldn't remember where I had seen it! So apart from the City of Joy thingy, not entirely sure why people are so hard on Kolkata, apart from those who say the constant influx of refugees here from other parts of the country increases the already large poverty problems this city faces. However, the locals like to think of themselves as the "intelligentsia of India. What Bengal (the state here) does today, India will do tomorrow". (again thanks to RG for this insight!).

Hotel was just dandy.... quick drop of the bags then a bunch of us headed off to the Indian Coffee House ('member I went to one of these in Bangalore!). Hilarious to read the description in our guides (lets just say they make it sound quite posh; then experience the reality).. hmmn a tad different shall we say, but had a great time all the same, and great chat! Oh dear... break up time is coming! We headed out for dinner at Peter Cat, a fab restaurant on Park Street (see how we know our way around already!). Lindsay and Ewan were heading off later that evening for their flight to London so there was a slight pall on the proceedings! There is definitely something about spending nearly three weeks with the same people.. ok, ok the word I'm looking for is not 'tension' hahaha, more like attachment! It's easy enough to become connected to people when you only spend a few days with them (or is that just me?), so you can imagine after three weeks living pretty much in each others pockets, its kind of sad to say goodbye to this bunch!

But, it had to be done, so after a fab evening, we headed back to the hotel lobby where we said our proverbial goodbyes - and had our team photo taken! Poor guy at reception had to take 11 different photos as we all passed him our cameras, one after another.. but he did a brillo job! So a fond and tearful farewell to Lindsay and Ewan. Tomorrow we would say more goodbyes as people headed off in new and different directions.. and then there was me, faffing around trying to decide my next port of call. I had thought about (aka talked up a good game!) staying in Calcutta to volunteer for a while. Ahem.. that was before i took my detour to Nepal and Tibet so i didn't have too much time left in India before heading off to Sri Lanka to meet up with my brother and his soon to be wifey, Ms Helen Patten! Soooo.. I would have to decide what i was up to over the next few days!

Nov 26th. Up early today to say our fond farewells to Mahindra, the worlds best tour guide! Such a sweet man; he taught us so much about his country. He was genuinely passionate about us understanding how and why they do things here the way they do, and really wanted us to get a taste of authentic India! I think I almost drove him mad over the last few weeks, asking question after question! Hey, I admit it! I am a complete travel geek! So when I quizzed him about issues surrounding the caste system, how women are treated, why certain customs are still undertaken today.. you know, general stuff like that - he was very patient and did his best to explain it to me! !! Helen and I had a wee cry as we said our goodbyes to him.. yup, we are pathetic! So what do girls do when they are feeling low - yup, you guessed it! Go shopping! You can always shop in India.. no matter where you are! After a potter, we decided to have a wee bitta culture so visited the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful marble building with formal gardens that everyone in Kolkata seemed to be enjoying! There were so many families there, picnicking and generally just hanging out (ok, not in this particular shot - round the back of the building, that's where the crowds were, trust me)! Afterwards, taking a taxi home, we saw these two boys hanging out after marching with their local band downtown! Do like this shot! Back to the hotel, then a bunch of us attempted to see a Bollywood movie! Ahh of course how silly are we! You dont show up 40 minutes early for a film in India. Uhhh try at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours early and you are lucky if you get a seat! Movies are magic in this country.. and Kolkata is no exception. So with no luck there, we decided it was time for Western food (only my 2nd time eating Western food for dinner since I arrived in Asia in June.. not bad eh!) and a slumber party, watching TV in Liv's room! As we waited for our order to arrive at Pizza Hut, a strange phenomenon unfolded in front of us. About six or seven of the staff began to line up, then music from a band called Blue? (no idea who they were!) blared from speakers around the restaurant, and then we were given an impromptu singing and dancing routine to the lyrics of this apparantly well known band (think they are British?). It was absolutely fantastic! The staff were totally into their routine - in fact they "gave it laldi" as we say in Scotland (110% for effort in the US ?)...This is truly one of the most interesting things about Indian culture. These people have absolutely no qualms about performing in public; you dont see any nerves or awkwardness, in fact they seem to thrive on it, but not in an overdone, false way. They just seem so delighted to sing and dance for an audience! Completely unabashed and delighted with themselves and their standing ovation (well, the four of us stood and clapped; some of the other diners must have seen it before and seemed more interested in their deep dish pepperoni pizza, but hey, what can you do!). Another fun evening!

Nov 27th. Can't find my notes on today for some reason (ok i hear the sighs of relief, thanks!) but know we visited the famous Kalighat temple in town, situated right next to Mother Teresa's home for the destitute and the dying. Mother Teresa specifically built this home here, the city's most important centre of Hinduism, in the knowledge that many of the poor specifically came to this temple to die. The temple itself was a hive of activity. Like most temples in India, you must take off your shoes (yes, there is always a wee man willing to look after them, for a price, for you!). For anyone who is in any way squeamish about where to put their feet (when you are not wearing shoes!), especially when you are shown the area where the sacrificial goats are killed, its a bit dodgy. But as everyone is in the same situation, what can you do! There are so many pilgrims here, you need to "ask/pay" for a volunteer holy man to show you around, and actually we were so happy to have him, otherwise we would have been squished to death!!! such were the frantic crowds, waiting to see the dramatic monolith of Kali, the black goddess and form of Shakti (the female principal of divinity). Lotsa good stuff about Shiva going into a frenzy after his wife Sati died, and Vishnu chopping the body into 51 bits but enough of that! The tour ended with us receiving yet another tikka and a red dyed bracelet tied around our wrists and the usual request for a donation to the temple, to help feed the poor. If you don't offer enough, the priest has no qualms about making you feel bad and how if you give more now, your next life will be oh, so much better! Needless to say, we were all wimps..! So yet another interesting day in this fair city!

Nov 28th. Ingrid left at 4am this morning (did i even wake up to say goodbye - how rude of me, i can't remember?). Helen and Liv were leaving this evening and most of the others had already gone, so i had one last night in the nice hotel, then i was heading over to Sudder Street tomorrow, also known as the skanky traveler section of town to hang out till i decided on my plans! Breakfast at Blue Sky Cafe (we were fast becoming regulars there.. then what to do girls do when they have eaten and shopped? Go for pedicures of course! Lets just say I had to double my poor mans fee for taking care of my paws after 9 months of walking around in grotty flip flops... he was a saint. I felt like something out of Lord of the Rings; he, however, made me (or at least my feet) look beautiful again!! Ahhh..soft feet! Afterwards we treated ourselves (haha do we ever do anything else?) to afternoon tea at Flurry's, a very posh and hip cafe-bakery where all the trendy Kolkatans come to hang out, drink tea and look good! Lets just say im a picky customer and my scone could have sunk a ship it was so bloomin' hard.. but then, my family are good ole sconemakers so its a hard act to follow! Back to the ranch.... couldnt believe i was saying goodbye to Helen (going back to England) and Liv (to Melbourne). My two wee pals, leaving me! Sad, sad stuff but had to be done, so packed them into a taxi, and headed back to what would be my last bedbug free night (yup, more on that later!).

Nov 29th - Dec 3rd. AAhhh... the joys of Kolkata! So many experiences as i whiled away my time here. Moved into my new abode, run by a lovely Sikh family. However, as I later realised, I would be sharing my attractive space with some mice, quite a few bedbugs and of course, the man next door, who seemed to cough up a lung every few hours, it wasn't the most salubrious of dwellings (but hey, I was only paying 100 rupees (about $2 a night so not allowed to complain, even tho' that's more than other travelers i met were paying - what!!!), so I counted the days before I could hightail it out of there to my last country on this world tour - Sri Lanka. Yup, I made my decison and its official! I am a loser! Just a big talker, that's me! Felt bad about not volunteering here I have to admit, especially having met so many incredible people who were doing it for up to a year; quite humbling actually as these folks were so inspiring yet very quiet about their work. I did have such high hopes. And I am being totally shallow i know. It is relly no excuse, but I'm kind of knackered, definitely running out of money and I'm almost at the point where im ready to go home! I suppose that is no surprise as ive been on the go for nearly 14 months (with a short stop back in Boston) but that's no excuse for my lack of good will towards others, so i do feel quite the bad samaritan here!

So, I spent my last few days getting to know Kolkata a little better. Being in the same place for a while, you get to recognise the regulars and they, you! So began hanging out with some street ladies a little, chatted to them most evenings for a wee while, then they realise you are a soft touch (I sound cynical here but its true!) and then managed to pull a fast one on me...more than once too (yes, Im useless!). They don't ask for money, just that you buy them rice and flour for their family instead. Made sense to me! But once you have bought the food, and say goodnight, they turn around and sell it back to the store keeper... at a discount to him, but still its cash to them. OK not so great but what can you do? These people still need money... but apparantly this little scam is quite the racket here, and only certain families are allowed to "do business" on this part of Sudder St. The women called out "sister, sister" every time they saw me, and said they would pray that i met a nice man on my travels. Hmmn, thanks for that, ladies!

Did some more exploring on these last days; St. Pauls Cathedral erected in 1847. Lovely building. Park Street aka the Scottish Cemetary - gorgeous place. A haven from the busyness of the streets; so quiet and lush and green, loved it here! Described as one of the city's most haunting memorials of its imperial past, it has a ton of obelisks, headstones and pavilions, dedicated to both well known figures as well as young women, who came here to be with their husbands and died very young. Also saw Indira Ghandi's statue, near the Maidens.

Met my pal, Shahil, a young lad with a smooth tongue, who invited me for chai, every day, when I passed his stall on Park Street, until I finally acquiesed (don't worry mum - he was about 12 and didn't seem like a serial killer)! What a giggle, as we sat talking, his two pals arrived and sat behind us, texting him on their mobile phones. I think they were all about 20 but as we chatted, Shahil decided (as he practised his English) to announce his undying love for me! I couldn't help it - I burst out laughing and said "ahem, thanks very much, and by the way, are they your pals sitting behind us?". After a bashful silence, Shahil turned around and gave his pals the look of death...then we all had a laugh about it and sipped some more chai together, chatting about life in India for young folks today!! Ahh.. to be young again! After we were chai-ed out, the boys very kindly walked me back to Sudder Street, afraid i wouldn't be ok walking around on my own (eh, thanks boys but I have managed so far!). But very gentlemanly of them, I have to say!

Love this Indian bag Helen bought when she was living and working in Kolkata before she started traveling around India! It was great to get her input on the best places to visit; she did a great job and was quite chuffed to show us around and of course we were delighted! One of the places I really wanted to see was Mother Teresa's "Mother House" so I headed out to go to mass one morning at 6am. Met and chatted to some lovely nuns and volunteers. There was a huge mix of people working at the mission; gulp, guilty feeling returned due to lack of volunteering effort! Returned to hotel (tad strong description for my wee room!) and chatted to owners about strike going on right now. Local farmers angry with TATA steel corporation taking over good agricultural land instead of buying up barren land to use for new factories. Ongoing fight in the Kolkata assembly erupted with desks and chairs thrown; the newspapers wrote about their disgust at the failure of parliament to come to an agreement on this and other current political problems in the province (yup, im reading the local papers!).

Finally got to a Bollywood movie -yah, Dhoom 2 the big blockbuster! As i waited to get in, a gentleman sitting with his family asked me "Excuse me, madam , could you tell me which fair country you are from?". That is the typical way most questions are phrased here - very polite. I explained I was from Scotland and enjoying my time in Kolkata. After looking very puzzled, he asked if i was going to see Dhoom 2. I replied, yes, i was very excited to see my two favourite Bollywood actors, Aishwarai and Abishek, in this new film! But after quizzing me and realising i knew it was a Hindi film and i didnt speak Hindi, he sat looking at me completely puzzled, then related the whole tale to his wife when she arrived with the rest of their family. I just smiled .. its not hard to understand a Bollywood blockbuster. You always get a little drama, lotsa action, and of course, full blown singing and dancing routines - and the odd bit of romance too! I loved it!!! Funny enough, I was the only Western person waiting to get into the movie! I was delighted - you gotta love being one of the locals!!!

Last day i pottered, had farewell chats over breakfast with Cyril (amazing Irish guy who works with the homeless in the city's train stations every day), Collum (also Irish, who works with the dying at Mother Teresa's in Kalighat), and Chris (Swiss-German who had previously worked with NGO's in Tanzania and Denmark before coming to Kolkata for a while). Hmmn... see why i feel such a heel! These people are truly incredible and inspiring. Also met up with Michelle and Leigh, two hilarious English girls who had been in India for 5 months and been seriously sick about 15 times. They couldn't wait to leave and definitely couldnt believe i had never been sick here (yup, the only person who comes to India and puts weight on - thats me!!!). Said my final thanks and got hugs from Sirikantin and Samsi, who have worked at the Blue Sky Cafe for years. Such sweet and lovely men, were very good to me, and definitely didnt look their ages - Samsi was 46, with three children, yet he didn't look a day over 26, I mean it (well, apart from his moustache of course)!!!

My flight was really early so I left my wee hotel at 3am... my last hurrah in this wonderful, magical, incredible country of India. This was the place I was most excited about visiting; in a way most nervous about too (before I came!). What I found when i arrived was so much beauty. From the incredible, wonderful, totally different landscapes, the south with its backwaters and tropical lands to the north and its dry deserts and mountains, i loved it all. And then there were the people; their friendliness, their curiosity and desire to find out everything about you, their need to practise their English, to share their passion and pride for their wonderful country with you and their desire to know if you love it as much as they do! The people of India could not have been kinder to me - I would like to think I could be half as hospitable to people visiting my hometown as these people were with me. I smiled from the minute I arrived to the day I left. Of course it goes without saying that there are also many, many reasons to cry at the poverty here, the street children born into awful, immeasurablely sad lives, the issues surrounding womens rights and the lack of opportunities for them, the caste system and its complicated unfairness. One cannot ignore these very difficult aspects of Indian society. But I have to speak with my heart and although there were times when it felt full of sadness, there were more times when the kindness of others brought the smile to my face! I truly love this country and know i will be back again..and again....and again!