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!