This is a hard blog to write as we’ve chosen to cut our travels short and come home.
You’d have to had to have been in a hole to not know that the WHO has declared the Coronavirus a Pandemic and with countries shutting their borders and others imposing quarterines on arrival we feel that now is the right time to head back to the UK, for the meanwhile at least. I suffer from an autoimmune condition so if I get the virus I want to be at home.
This morning we arrived in Khajuraho, which is actually the last Indian town that we wanted to visit. Our original plan had been to stay two nights and catch a train back to Varanasi and cross the border into Nepal on Wednesday. Friday morning we woke to the news that Nepal were no longer issuing visas on arrival and imposed various conditions.
So we could still go to Nepal if:
we got a visa beforehand
We flew into Kathmandu
We submitted a medical certificate declaring us free of Coronavirus
We self quarantined for 14 days.
We had a flight booked out on 16th April and had intended to get a 30 day visa so we didn’t much fancy spending half of our time in quarantine. Or incurring the extra costs of a flight.
We ummed and ahhed a lot about what to do. We considered flying to Thailand but with everything so up in the air and the situation changing hourly we made the difficult decision to fly home.
It had always been our intention to fly home for a bit in the summer anyway, so we’re just coming home a little bit sooner than planned. Once things have calmed down and travel restrictions are lifted we will be off again to continue our adventure.
It’s obviously disappointing to not be able to carry on at present, particularly as I had been looking forward to going to Nepal and seeing some places that my dad had visited. It’s not over yet though and we will make the most of our time in the UK.
So instead we’re being positive and there are loads of things I’m looking forward to:
Catching up with friends and family and seeing babies who’ve grown in the last 6 monthsCelebrating my best friend’s 40th with her in personEating cheese Drinking wine Camping Flushing my toilet roll down the toilet! Washing my clothes in a machine We’ve an overnight train booked to Delhi and whilst we are on that train we will book a flight and hopefully head straight to the airport. So we may be back as early as Tuesday! In the meantime, keep washing those hands!
Sri Lanka has two main seasons; the south west monsoon between May and November, and the North East between December and March. This means that you can always find somewhere with decent weather no matter the time of year. Bearing this in mind we still decided headed to Uppuvelli, just north of Trincomalee on the east coast. It was off season so a lot of restaurants and hotels weren’t yet open and the sea was too rough for anything more than a quick paddle. We were fortunate with the weather though and only really experienced one evening of very torrential rain. Looking out of the window it looked like a hurricane report from the BBC, it was pouring heavily with rain and palm trees were barely holding up against the wind.
We planned to chill here for a few days doing nothing more than catching some rays and relaxing. We set off just before sunrise on our first morning for a run along the beach. We haven’t really done much running since we’ve been away due to a lack of pavements and the packs of dogs which roam the streets. We’ve stuck to beaches to avoid these dogs so it was typical that morning to run into a particularly playful, boisterous dog. He kept jumping up at us and Joey was kind / brave enough to let me run on whilst he tried to distract said playful pup. Unfortunately the doggy got a little bit too excited and ended up scratching Joey. So off we headed to hospital to get a rabies jab! We were sensible and we did get all our jabs before we went away, but the rabies jab just buys you a little more time and means you only need a few post exposure jabs.
We arrived at the hospital and joined the very efficient queue. This queue was made up of rows of chairs with everyone moving one chair along as the queue moves. After a very short wait Joey got pulled out of the queue by the security guard who asked him for his passport and then quickly returned with a queue jumping number. She then ushered him to the doctors room for assessment. The doctor ummed and ahhed a bit then wrote out a card with his jab schedule on it and sent us to the drug store with a nurse. We got the price, then were accommpanied to accounts to pay and finally to the injection room. All in all it took less than hour. Two things really stood out for me and they were that white privilege is real. The amount of queue jumping that we did was insane and embarrassing and then there was the lack of patient confidentiality. People were being consulted in the same room as Joey and I was pulling faces at an old man whilst he was being injected. Not to mention everyone peeking round the curtain to get a glimpse of the white people!
The only other thing of note we did in Trincomalee was to visit their War Cemetery. It’s maintained on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is a beautiful peaceful place to visit. The gravestones are all equal shape and size and separated by bushes.
After our chill time we headed north to Jaffna. Jaffna was out of bounds thanks to the civil war until little over 10 years ago and even Sri Lankan’s we have met along the way say they have never been. It was certainly different to the rest of the country – grittier and definitely more like India! Even the bus ride there involved an army roadblock. Everyone piled off the bus, we were told to stay in our seats whilst everyone else had ID and luggage checked. A soldier boarded our bus, searched it and checked our passports and before we knew it we were on our way again.
We started our city explorations at the Fort which we had pretty much to ourselves. The fort is a few centuries old and is Portuguese/Dutch origin. The literature we were given was poorly translated and wasn’t really clear on a lot of things but still better than my Tamil and Sinhalese. Then we wandered to the Clock Tower and the library. The library was destroyed in the 1980s by (some say pro government) forces but was the first thing to be rebuilt when the war ended. We took a stroll to the railway station and booked ourselves on the express train out of Jaffna the next morning to Colombo where we’d then head north to Negombo, a beach resort.
The train took 7 and half hours, far and away the longest journey we’ve had in Sri Lanka, but a blink of an eye compared to some Indian journeys. Everyone started to gather their belongings up and I took a quick glance at google maps, we were definitely almost at Colombo Fort station. So we piled out the train with everyone else. I pulled my phone out again and started looking at where we needed to go to catch our bus and it looked a bit more complicated than when I’d previously looked. I took a moment to glance at my surroundings and realised that we’d got off the train a stop too early. For a brief moment I considered not telling Joey and seeing if he’d notice the extra long walk to the bus station. Maybe I could just style this mistake out? I’d had almost 40 years of styling out my mistakes, I’m sure I could do something with this. Maybe if I said it really quickly Joey wouldn’t notice?! In the end I did confess and suggested that as it was really hot maybe we should just take a tuk tuk to the bus station? Thankfully he agreed and we didn’t get divorced. Mistake styled out.
We had a nice couple of chilled days in Negombo lying on the beach and playing in the sea. We also needed to get Joey’s third rabies jab done. Only two more to go!
We have spent the last 4 days at a yoga retreat just outside of Kandy. We thought we were signing up 4 days of being told what to do which to be honest, sounded bliss. We quite liked the idea of all decisions being taken out of our hands. We had to let the staff know an hour ahead of time when we wanted to take a shower so they could light a fire to heat the water. We thought they were joking until we actually saw the barrel of water being heated by a fire. Yoga itself is definitely harder than it looks. I’m not flexible at all and with all my joint problems I really struggled, maybe it gets easier the more you practice!
We did enjoy a cooking class and got to enjoy the fruits of a labour as well as a trek to a waterfall. We all had to participate in the cooking class, I got to play with grinding a coconut. Joey thought he had the easy job of deep frying the aubergine but he had to stand over the hot fryer for about an hour! At the waterfall there is a natural pool which is full of the fish that nibble your feet. So whilst everyone else was swimming I got to have a free pedicure! It is a very strange sensation as the fish latch onto you and I really can’t believe people pay for the privilege.
It’s hard to believe our two months here have now ended and tomorrow it’s back to India! The intention is to only spend a maximum of three weeks there. We know what we want to see so it will be a couple of weeks of focus and bashing out the sights!
The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka is a must see on any traveller’s list so off we headed. This is made up of Kandy, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. We had spent the previous day sleeping and recovering after climbing Adam’s Peak and we both woke in agony – putting one foot in front of the other for the next two days was so painful and I won’t even mentioned our attempts at stairs.
We struggled downhill from our hostel in Kandy to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. This tooth relic is reportedly the tooth of Buddha which was saved from his cremation and smuggled away in someone’s hair. A belief grew that whoever held the tooth had the right to rule the land so it has been the subject of some removal attempts and various resting places. The tooth nowadays is kept in a very elaborate gold casket, shaped like a pagoda and locked away apart from being displayed three times a day during puja. We went for the second viewing between 9.30am and 11am. It was such a scrum! There was a lot of pushing and shoving and people were acting very unBuddhist like to catch a glimpse of the casket. (There is another rumour that the casket itself does not hold the original tooth but instead a replica). All this and you don’t actually get to see the tooth in question! We then explored the temple complex which itself is quite interesting and contains lots of statues and various displays, including one with photos from when the temple was bombed during the civil war and subsequently rebuilt. By then it was approaching 11am so we decided to try and see the tooth again. As we were now at the end of Puja all the crowds had dispersed and we were lucky enough to get right in front of the casket without any pushing or shoving. So my tip would be go towards the end of Puja! Also within the temple complex is the World Buddhism Museum which was utterly fascinating. It has displays on Buddhism from various countries such as China, Malaysia and Myanmar, all on our itinerary, and as they are laid out next to each you can see the subtle differences in statues and temples from all over Asia and I’d like to say that we can tell now tell the difference between a Thai Buddha and a Sri Lankan one.
On our last day in Kandy we took it easy and went for a gentle walk around the lake and to the British Garrison cemetery. Some of my friends know we love a good cemetery and this was no exception. The caretaker showed us around and told us stories about the ways in which people had died. There were of course the usual tropical diseases but there was also someone who had been impaled on a stick and someone who died running away from an elephant. The story goes that he ran away from the elephant and died from sunstroke/ a heart attack. The caretaker counted this by saying that the moral of the story was that fat people can’t run. Very politically incorrect!
Kandy was definitely a lot busier and more hustling than any of the other places we’ve been to in Sri Lanka and leaving the city tested our patience. Even our hostel tried to scam us by overcharging us for our laundry (unlucky for them I wasn’t born yesterday), tuk tuk drivers wouldn’t leave us alone even though we were waiting at the long distance bus stop. Then when we finally got on a bus it smashed into the back of a tuk tuk. Luckily no one was injured but it did mean stopping the bus, calling the police and all of the passengers piled out of the bus to gather round while discussions were had between the two drivers. This delayed us for an hour and when we finally got moving again the driver actually seemed to drive faster and more crazily. I guess we’ve been lucky (?) that we’ve only been on two buses which have been involved in minor collisions – one in India and one in Sri Lanka – but I hope this doesn’t mean that we’re destined to be in a crash in every country!
We made it to Polonnaruwa eventually and early the next morning borrowed bikes from our guesthouse to explore the vast ancient ruins. Polonnaruwa was established as the capital city in the late 10th century and held that accolade for three centuries, enough time to build a royal palace, various temples and carve impressive Buddha statues from a single rock. All of these now lie in ruins but are important and impressive enough to have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site almost 40 years ago.
We wanted to get an early start to avoid the worst heat of the day and because we needed to travel onwards in the afternoon, but our first problem was finding the bloody ruins in the first place! We passed one vague sign pointing up the road to the ticket counter but it seemed that was where the signage ended. We eventually found it thanks to the help of a local going the other way. Polonnaruwa’s ruins are set out in five main groups and our guesthouse told us it would take around 5 hours to see them all. We started with the Royal Palace group – not that there was much left of the palace and what was left looked like two huge teeth!
The next group was the Quadrangle and this seemed slightly more impressive with temples still holding strong. This is where we were first introduced to the concept of the Moonstone, not the precious stone, but instead a semi circular stone carved with fire, four animals (elephant, bull, lion and horse) swans and a lotus flower at the centre. Depending on what you read you get a different meaning but our understanding was that the flames represented desire, the animals the circle of life, death, decay (the bull bizarrely – such a strong animal) and disease, the swans are the distinction between good and bad and the lotus flower represents the attaining of nirvana. We saved the best group to last – the northern group. These contained the ruins of a temple with a huge headless Buddha statue but also large statues of a sitting Buddha, a standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha, all carved from the same piece of rock. The detail was breathtaking and you could see the use of the natural marbling in the stone. From here we decided we’d had enough and we didn’t have the energy to venture to the other smaller groups, entry to those was also free so we figured they may not be as impressive as what we had just seen so best to finish on a high!
We cycled back to the guesthouse where the mum of the guy who ran the place insisted on getting a photo with me. I was standing my safe distance away from her so as to avoid a repeat of the nit incidence from Rajasthan when she grabbed my head (almost in a headlock) and forced me to rub heads together. I’ve had the nit comb out a few times since just checking!
We had to take two buses to reach Sigiriya, the jewel of Sri Lanka, probably the most famous sight of the country, which towers over the town. We got up early to ensure that we did our climbing before it got too hot or too busy and it paid off. We started climbing the steps and there was hardly anyone in front of us. It seemed though that we couldn’t get enough of stairs at the moment, I’m not sure how many steps Sigiriya has but I’d read various figures between 750-1000. Luckily there are a few attractions on the way so you can take a breath. The first is a small section of frescos featuring lots of topless ladies! These were very colourful and just above these sits the mirror wall. The mirror wall is actually a strip of wall highly polished and we could kind of see a reflection from it although now it’s covered in graffiti from olden days.
Then it’s up to the famous part – the lion’s paws. They are incredibly impressive, very large and definitely leave you wondering what happened to the rest of the lion. Then it’s on up an iron staircase to the summit. This staircase felt very rickety and I was definitely struck by a bit of vertigo going up and no one seemed particularly comfortable doing this part. We reached the top and were greeted by the foundations of an old palace. You don’t really get to appreciate the scale of these ruins until you go to the museum at the bottom and view the aerial photos – it was astonishing and left us with more questions than answers. How did they scale the rock in the first place, never mind carry the material required to the top to construct the palace. It was certainly a prime location though – you could see any attacks a mile off. We headed down and spent some time by the Lion’s Paws watching some very naughty monkeys! I took some great action shots of which I’m incredibly proud. There are ample gardens and other areas to explore at the bottom meaning we spent half a day here.
Later that afternoon we decided we hadn’t quite had enough of stairs or climbing so we headed to Pidurangula rock from which you can view Sigiriya and sunset. The initial climb was straightforward, up some more steps until you reach a reclining Buddha. From here to reach the summit you must scramble over various rocks, hoisting yourself up and squeezing through gaps. The view was stunning though and sunset was worth the effort. The way down is poorly lit however and it gets dark very quickly here so as soon as the sun disappeared everyone made a getaway, meaning a large queue to squeeze back through the gap before reaching the steps, we’d also decided to walk the 4km there meaning a long walk in the dark back to our tent (we went for a really upmarket hostel this time!) but it gave us the perfect opportunity to gaze at the stars.
The next day was jammed packed too. Up early for the fourth day in a row and catching another two buses to reach Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was the capital of the island before Polonnaruwa and is an important pilgrimage site thanks to the Sri Maya Bodhi, a sacred Bodhi tree, now documented as the oldest Bodhi tree in the world. Yep there are records for this kind of thing. There was no rest for the wicked though for as soon as we reached our guesthouse we engaged a tuk tuk and guide to drive us around some of the free / separately ticketed sites. You can hire bikes to explore but the city was large and it looked as though some of the sites were quite far apart so we decided to treat ourselves! The hot afternoon was spent visiting the tree, quite an awe inspiring sight, as well as various dagobas. Our guide was knowledgeable without being intrusive, giving us the background but leaving us to explore on our own. He dropped us at the royal park, giving us directions on where to go and a trail to follow back around the lake to Isurumuniya Vihara, a lovely rock temple. We spent the majority of our time at this particular temple throwing coins at a small ledge in the rock trying to make them land there and not in the pond! Third time lucky for me, Joey of course was far better at this than me. It was a charming afternoon and we were glad we took the easy option on this occasion – so much so that we engaged Pala the following day!
This was the big day as it was time to splash the cash on the ticket for the rest of the sites. Being cultural does not come cheap, entry to these three sites cost us $80 each! We actually missed out part of the triangle at Dambulla too as we’d seen plenty of cave temples in India! We covered palaces and temples- some more impressive than others. There was the palace with the 8 metre high door, lots more moonstones and lots of dagobas and stupas. One Stupa was constructed with approximately 90 million bricks – apparently enough to build a 3 metre high wall all the way from London to Edinburgh! There were Stupas that purportedly contain various relics of Buddha such as his right collarbone, a belt and an unnamed relic. The government have commissioned the construction of several new stupas around the city and Pala told us this was mainly to give the army a job since the war has ended.
It was an exhausting few days, so much so that I actually put off writing about it. We normally don’t do activities on days that we travel (unless it involves going to a beach) so we definitely feel in need of rest over the next couple of weeks before we have to head back to India!
We arrived in Ella on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays are the busiest day to travel in Sri Lanka and we always seem to manage to travel on them! We needed to change buses and the first bus we got on was packed to the brim and we really thought we stood no chance of boarding with our backpacks. Luckily the conductor hauled our bags into the boot and a random passenger took my day bag with our valuables on his lap for the duration whilst we stood. Ella was quite different to what we’d experienced so far – there were hills and it was noticeably cooler. The first stop was actually to a medical centre to get my face checked out following my accident in Dickwella. It was still very swollen and painful and I was actually starting to believe my jokes that I’d fractured my cheekbone. The medical centre seemed to be in a hotel lobby, there was another western couple waiting – we got the comfy seats and WiFi in the lobby and all the locals were waiting outside on plastic chairs! Thankfully a quick check over revealed that I hadn’t fractured anything and instead had a hematoma. She sent me packing with four lots of drugs and a gel to reduce pain, swelling and prevent the infection spreading to my brain (these were her parting words to me so I ensured I diligently took all my drugs!). I was just grateful I didn’t get a jab in my behind like when I was in Colombia! Thankfully the drugs did what they were supposed to and I no longer resemble a chipmunk, nor whince every time I touch my face.
The next day we set off to hike Ella Rock. This took 4 hours in total. You spend the first 45 minutes walking along the railway track and jumping out the way when the train comes. Then you climb steadily uphill through tea plantations and forests of eucalyptus trees. I found this such hard going, I realised we have barely seen hills in our time away and my hill fitness has massively diminished (if it was ever even there). I don’t mind admitting that I had a little paddy about the whole thing and was regretting all my life choices. What was really weighing on my mind though was a hike we’d planned to do a week later. We did make it to the top though and the views made it worthwhile. The descent was equally as bad as there was lots of loose gravel and everyone seemed to slip and slide their way down. We rewarded ourselves afterwards by going to a bar for a pint. Ella is definitely the most backpackery place we’ve been too and this was demonstrated by all the bars and cafes and more travellers than locals.
The next day we got up at stupid o’clock to hike up another hill, Little Adam’s Peak to catch the sunrise. It was beautiful and worth the effort. That day was Independence Day in Sri Lanka but celebrations seemed low key compared to when we had celebrated Independence Day in Chile. We also took a bus to some waterfalls and quite frankly, they were a little disappointing. They were nice enough, but honestly? Once you’ve been to Iguazu Falls anything else seems a little underwhelming. Maybe I’m becoming too well travelled?
That afternoon we set off for the famous Nine Arches Bridge. Again this was a 40 minute walk along the railway track. The bridge was a nice piece of architecture and it led to Joey and I having an interesting discussion about how many sights are must see now because of Instagram and social media? 10 years ago would we have walked to see a bridge?!
The next day we walked miles to a tea plantation. As the previous day had been a national holiday no tea had been picked so there was no production but it was still interesting to see the equipment and learn how it is produced. We also tasted some tea which even I managed to sip.
Then it was time to do the famous train ride to Nuwara Eliya. The train journey between Ella and Kandy is reported to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It was very pleasant, through hills, clouds and tea plantations. The most amusing thing about it though were all of the people trying to get *that* shot of them hanging out of the train door. I’m sure you know the one I mean. Couples seem to do it kissing and we watched one couple spend about 20 minutes trying to get the shot, shouting to their friends getting them to take it and retake it. She was hanging on the bottom and nearly banged her head on low hanging things and walls more than once! Not for us thank you!
Nuwara Eliya is described as Little England and is certainly the coldest place we’ve been to! Even then it wasn’t as cold as I’d been led to believe. We have to confess to this being the first place in Sri Lanka that we didn’t fall in love with. I didn’t hate it, but it’s not somewhere I’d choose to come back to. We arrived and then after some discussion opted to not do the big attraction in the area- Horton Plains. After our time at Udawalawe we have been reluctant to do any more national parks as we fear they won’t be as good. Plus the cost was quite high. Instead we chilled for a few days, going to a town park and another tea factory. This tour was dialled in by our particular tour guide who was definitely more interested in flirting with the guys in the factory then showing us around. From Pedro’s tea factory you can walk to another waterfall, I actually found this one more impressive than the other one, but we did have this one to ourselves so maybe that made a difference?
From here we took three buses to reach Dalhousie. Dalhousie is one of the starting points of the hike to the summit of Adam’s Peak. Adam’s Peak is 2,243 metres high and at the summit is a footprint. Some purport that the footprint is that of Buddha, some that it is of Shiva and some that it is Adam’s footprint from when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. To reach the summit you have to climb over 5500 steps (no one seems to know exactly how many there are) and start in the middle of the night to reach the summit for sunrise. So here we were taking three buses to get to a town which the sole purpose of visiting was to climb 5500 steps in the dark starting at 1am. If climbing Ella Rock hadn’t made me question my life choices then this was definitely making me wonder whether I was drunk when I included it in the itinerary.
So we went to bed at 6pm as our alarms were set for midnight. Our guesthouse had very thin walls and you could hear all the comings and goings and when I’m trying to sleep before a big event I start to think very irrationally and was getting annoyed at all the noises. How dare they have a conversation outside my room at 7.30pm! We did eventually get some sleep before the bizarre act of getting up at midnight and trying to eat something and drink some coffee before leaving. It was a Poya Day (full moon) a couple of days before which had caused me all sorts of angst. Climbing Adam’s Peak is a pilgrimage for Buddhists, often to be undertaken on Poya days and we’d heard story after story of people almost making it to the top but not being able to reach the summit as there was an hour long queue to climb one step! I was fearful of it being too big a challenge for me and fearful that even if I did make it to the top I wouldn’t even get to see the footprint. I spent the nights leading up to it having lots of anxiety dreams.
We left our guesthouse just before 1am and started the slow ascent. According to the Lonely Planet it takes between 2 and 4 hours to ascend and 1-2 to descend depending on fitness and crowds. I definitely expected it to take me nearer 4. The first hour was quite easy. You start off very gently, going through a small temple and receive a blessing (in exchange for a small donation of course!), then you ring a bell to mark your start and off you go! As I say, it starts gently at first and there are flat patches. There are also tea houses and benches all the way up so you can rest regularly. We had our first rest after about an hour, stopping first for a bite to eat then about 5 minutes later when we spotted the first tea house selling coffee rather than tea. Then we ploughed onwards, passing pilgrims on their way up and on the way down as well. Our guesthouse has told us that Sri Lankan’s climb with the intention of performing Pooja at the top so don’t really worry about when they climb. They also do the climb in flip flops! We saw one guy with his leg in plaster and wearing flip flops so this definitely spurred me on. We stopped about 40 minutes later for another coffee break. As we went further up the hill the refreshments got more expensive – I guess someone’s got to carry the supplies up!
As we continued on the steps got narrower and steeper. It was impossible to get into any rhythm. We had a quick bathroom break and then we realised that we weren’t that far from the top which lifted our spirits. The last hour had been tough but honestly? It wasn’t as bad as thought it was going to be. Ella Rock had felt tougher. It took us 3 hours to ascend which was way better than I expected. Upon reaching the top there’s another bell to ring to signal that you made it. You are supposed to ring it once for every ascent. We heard one person ring it 16 times. Then we queued for the temple to see the footprint. The actual footprint is covered in gold and it’s massive!! I obviously hadn’t done my research properly as I was surprised at how large it was. It’s over 5 foot long so I guess it’s not often that something’s bigger than you expect! Then it was time to wait for sunrise. It is cold at the top and there’s quite the wind but it was fun to watch the first blue of the sky gradually appear before the sun came up. Was it the best sunrise we’ve ever seen? Probably not. The best part was Actually once the sun was up seeing the perfect triangle shadow cast from the mountain appear on the other side. This is quite the phenomenon as it’s not the shape of the mountain!
Then it was time to make our way down. The first hour was hard going, everyone was leaving at the same time so it was busy and the steps that were steep on the way up were steeper on the way down. We had borrowed sticks from our guesthouse and were so grateful to have something to lean on. We breaked once on the way down and it took over 2 hours to reach the bottom. It was hard, hard going.
We reached our guesthouse just after 9am and were greeted with a huge breakfast! We spent the morning catching up on sleep and then went for a gentle walk around the town. As the day went on we could feel the aches and pains gradually creeping in but at that point it was manageable. It was enjoyable and quite the achievement, particularly for me with my lupus and arthritis. Would I do it again so I can ring the bell twice? Definitely not!!!
Apologies, I know I wrote a blog yesterday and I’m really not intending to spam you all but today was such an incredible day I needed to share it whilst it’s still fresh in the mind.
We caught the bus direct to Udawalawe from Tangalle, there’s one direct bus a day run by the government and it was amazing – we were the last remaining passengers on board and the driver diverted to drop us pretty much outside our hotel. Have I mentioned how much I love the buses here?! So cheap and helpful. I looked at my spending stats earlier today and in the four weeks we’ve been here we’ve spent less than £13 between us on transportation. In four months in India we spent over £600. That’s probably partly because towns are smaller so we don’t need to take tuk tuks around, but even in India we very rarely took tuk tuks unless we really had to!
Anyway I digress. Udawalawe is home to a national park. There are a couple of national parks in the south, with Yala being really famous and popular which is part of the reason why we opted for Udawalawe. Our hotel just happened to be opposite the Elephant Transit Home, which is basically an orphanage for elephants where they prepare them for life in the wild and release them into the park when they are ready. They feed the elephants four times a day and you can go and watch. There is no audience participation and you just sit and watch which was beautiful. They let the elephants into the feeding areas in small groups where they are given milk and then they go to another area to feed on leaves before going off into another area for the evening. It was so sweet to watch them drinking their milk and waiting for each other to finish before going off together. There is also an adult elephant housed there who is missing part of a leg so they have given them an artificial leg. Who thought that I needed to see an elephant with an artificial leg?! They even removed the leg during feeding and gave it a wash.
Then this morning we got up at 4.45am to go on safari in the park. We were picked up at 5.30am and driven to the park entrance in a jeep. The jeep is a separate cost to the entrance fee. We were lucky enough to be the only ones in ours. It was surprisingly chilly at that time in the morning, particularly as the jeep was open top and driving quite quickly so I would definitely recommend taking a shirt for the first part of the day. It will soon warm up though!
You join the queue to buy your ticket (I’d definitely recommend using the washroom here as your only other option is a bush!) then head back to your jeep and go off in search of elephants and anything else you may find. The sunrise was stunning and we watched it accompanied by a couple of peacocks. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first elephants in the distance. Seeing elephants in the wild is something I’d wanted to do for a while and it really didn’t disappoint. It’s hard to describe how bizarre it is. They are so big and at times it looked almost like CGI because it was so surreal. Up close they are really wrinkly and leathery (who knew my twin was an elephant!) and their tails have almost feathers on the bottom to bat away the flies.
We headed on further and saw so many birds – I noted them all down and counted 17 species, including peacocks, kingfishers, eagles, owls and the pied kingfisher which our guide told us are only found in Udawalawe. We saw several peacocks putting on very impressive displays for their peahens and the way one of them was shaking himself – well I definitely would!
We saw loads of buffalos basking in the reservoir. We learnt from our guide that water bufffalo have short and curly horns and normal buffalo long and straight horns. They were just standing in the reservoir which they do during the day and they eat grass at night. I asked our guide if they just stand there all day and he replied with a completely straight face ‘no, no, no. Sometimes they lie down’ then he told me they have four stomachs so consider this my request to come back as a buffalo.
As we moved on I was impressed at how few jeeps there were in the areas we were in. There was never once when there were more than four jeeps in an area which meant that elephants weren’t boxed in or anything which we had heard happened in Yala. We stopped for a group of four elephants in the bushes and they got closer and closer to us, eventually crossing right in front of the jeep. At this point we were less than 5 metres from them and they stared us in the eyes. They weren’t in the least bit bothered by us. We saw lots of young elephants and discovered that females travel in packs and the males were lone. We saw a few lone males including this fella who insisted on showing us what he had before putting it away!
We moved on again and saw a couple of crocodiles basking in the sun with their mouths open. I was glad we weren’t any closer. Apparently freshwater ones only eat fish and birds, it’s the saltwater ones you need to watch out for.
Most people seem to opt for the 3 hour tour which you can do either between 6am-9am or between 2pm-5pm but we opted for 8 hours. I’m glad we did as it meant we could take our time going round the park and spend longer at the stops we did make. The last stop we made was at a different part of the reservoir where there were 4 elephants, including a baby one who was barely 2 months old At first they were just eating grass with the baby one trying to join in. Then they moved to the edge of the reservoir and started dousing themselves with water. What a magnificent sight that was! To see the water being sprayed out of the spout was breathtaking and I have a video of this on my Instagram page (@meandering_maxwells) Then they all got in the reservoir to have a little wade and walk to the other side. It was amazing! We were so close to them and they were so passive and so breathtakingly beautiful!
I think the Sri Lanka tourist board should give me a job as I have been waxing lyrical to everyone about how they should immediately book a holiday here! If you want to see elephants in the wild then I would definitely definitely recommend Sri Lanka and Udawalawe. I would even go as far to say that this ranks as my top travel thing ever!
We’d heard lots of good things about the city of Galle and we weren’t disappointed when we arrived. Galle is a city fortified by the Portuguese and expanded by the Dutch. The European influence was clear to see and wandering around the streets felt at times more like a holiday than travelling. I’m sure that most of you think we’re on an extended holiday but there’s a difference in feeling between travelling and holiday that’s hard to explain unless you have travelled. Whilst in Galle we experienced a lengthy power cut. We had become very used to frequent power cuts in India but these never tended to last very long. We’ve been lucky enough to not have had too many in Sri Lanka but this one started at around 8am and affected most of the city. We were to find later in the day that it was a scheduled power outage for 10 hours to allow maintenance to take place but it would have been helpful for our guesthouse to inform us beforehand so that we could have prepared ourselves and do useful stuff such as make coffee, take a shower and charge phones etc! We spent a very hot day wandering around trying to get cool. We’d planned for a day in museums but a lot of them didn’t have generators so were closed. We also had to be very picky about where we ate that day as call me fussy, but I wanted my food to have been refrigerated all day.
From Galle we headed a very short distance east to Unawatuna, a beach resort. We ended up extending our stay here as we enjoyed the beaches and our accommodation- we had the place to ourselves and a massive roof terrace where we could watch the afternoon rains roll in. We visited a couple of different beaches here and took a Sunday morning stroll to the Japanese Peace Pagoda, gifted during the time of the civil war. It was quite a stroll uphill, through jungle which reminded me at times of Tayrona in Colombia. From here it was a very short stroll to a tiny beach called Jungle beach. This was a very pretty cove with still crystal clear waters. We also stumbled across another small beach, Wijaya beach, where we were swimming one day and to my surprise a turtle appeared alongside me. Unlike in Hikkaduwa people weren’t trying to touch this one or pick it up. One day on our way out to dinner I tried to navigate us a short cut. I’m not great at directions so this was never going to end well. It had just about stopped raining and some movement caught my eye – a huge snake slithered UP A WALL about a foot away from me. I mean I’ve known some snakes in my time but this was the biggest of all. This obviously didn’t put me off the short cut though and I blithely carried on only to be barked away by a huge pack of stray dogs. I decided that actually maybe we should stick to the main road!
From Unawatuna it was off to Weligama, a place famous for surfing and renowned as somewhere good for beginners to learn so we thought we’d give it a go. I have to say I was quite sceptical about it before hand as I didn’t think I’d be any good at it. We were paired up with an instructor called Michael (that well known Sri Lankan name) and he demonstrated how we needed to lie on the board, paddle, push up, put the back foot up and then the front foot, Joey went first and surprisingly for him he didn’t get it straightaway. Soon it was my turn and it turned out that I was actually the natural! I got up really quickly and accurately and only needed a couple of practices. Could it be that surfing was my sport?! I’m extremely competitive and was very excited about the possibility of actually being better than Joey at something (other than Shithead). Unfortunately all of the above happened on the beach and not in the sea. When it got to the water it was a totally different story. Joey picked it up really quickly and I, well I spent most of my time in the sea trying to scrabble back onto the board. I got thrown off so many times it was like being in a washing machine and I was really starting to resent the leash! Can it be called a wipeout if you don’t actually manage to stand up?! I had friction burns on my fingers from trying to get back on the board that lasted a week.
We also did a whale watching tour which was incredible. We sailed about an hour out to sea and eventually saw a spout of water, a tell tale sign that one was about. When we eventually spotted it on the surface it was breathtaking, it was HUGE. You never really think about how large they are, but it must have been as long as the boat. We saw it dive under the boat, and got some pictures of it’s tail as it headed back under.
Then it was straight to Dickwella. Yet more beach time (well we are on an island!). We wandered to the main Dickwella beach which was so wide and long and also surprisingly empty. We couldn’t understand why it was so empty, it was a little bit of paradise. About two minutes later we realised why when a massive wave came crashing down and caught me totally unaware, I did a very impressive cartwheel /forward roll and ended up whacking the side of my face on the sea bed. I still have a very impressive bruise and am being a drama queen about the whole thing and keep telling Joey that I think I’ve fractured my cheekbone. I’m sure once the swelling and bruising goes down I’ll be able to laugh about the whole incident.
Dickwella is home to the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka so we popped there. It was very quiet on the morning we went and they have a very impressive / disturbing collection of statues acting out scenes of hell. Some of the punishments being displayed definitely made me wince.
The world’s second largest blow hole is also just outside Dickwella so we headed there. I wasn’t in a great mood that day but I was left distinctively underwhelmed by the whole thing. I’m sure it’s all about timing as it’s not often I’m left underwhelmed by a natural phenomenon.
Our last stop on the coast was Tangalle. It’s at this point that all the beaches seem to merge into one. We spent a couple of days here swimming in the clear seas spotting lots of colourful fish and working on the tan. It’s here that I cracked and opened the marmite. Not because I’d had a bad day but because I wanted to! You can actually buy it fairly easily here so I decided that we might as well enjoy it and buy a back up jar for our last couple of weeks in India! Now the plan is to head inland firstly to Udawalwe national park and then towards the tea plantations and cultural triangle. It’s incredible to think we’ve almost had a month here already and that our South Asia leg is over halfway through. We’ve been planning our summer return which is exciting for more than one reason but more on that another day!
I am rubbish at thinking up titles for these blogs so please bear with me and if anyone has any tips please let me know!
We’ve been in Sri Lanka for a fortnight now and our absolutely loving it. I feel so relaxed, chilled and happy here. India at times felt like an uphill battle whereas Sri Lanka is definitely a downhill gentle meander!
Even the arrival into the airport and navigating immigration was straightforward, we took a bus from the airport and it really was easy as pie. We checked into our hostel and set off on an explore of Colombo. Now normally Joey and I hate big cities but Colombo surprised us immediately. We were totally seduced by stupid things like pavements, rubbish bins and traffic lights! We knew straightaway we were going to love it here. We took a wander to the seafront and watched the sunset and we could both feel a weight lift from our shoulders.
We’d booked a hostel for the first couple of nights and were shattered after an early start so decided to go to bed quite early. Only about 11.15pm I was woken by someone shaking me. My immediate thought was ‘oh god I was snoring again’. Snoring is something I only do when we’re in dorms. I don’t quite know how I have this wonderful talent to only snore or talk in my sleep when we’re sharing a room with strangers but it’s such a skill I’m considering listing it on my CV. However this time it wasn’t Joey shaking me, it was the hostel owner, accompanied by several members of the police. They were asking to see our passports and visas. The hostel owner seemed surprised that he’d woken me, I mean goodness knows why I would be asleep in my bed at that time of night but at least I wasn’t snoring. It was a very surreal and new experience but all was well and we were just left wondering if that was something that happened every night!
The next day we headed to the immigration to extend our visas. Currently you can obtain a 30 day stay for free but we wanted to stay 2 months and research had thrown up that it was cheaper to get the 30 days free and extend whilst there rather than arrange a visa in advance. It was a very bureaucratic process that Joey found quite frustrating but I quite enjoyed playing the game. Then I’ve worked in 2 secretariat departments so I love rules and processes! Afterwards we headed to meet two of Joey’s childhood friends who were now living in Sri Lanka.
From Colombo we headed down to Bentota on the coast. We caught the train which again was super easy – you got to the station, buy a ticket and get on the train. We totally marvelled at this idea having struggled with waitlists in India. We have clearly been travelling too long that we’ve forgotten that this is how it works in the UK! Bentota was a little gem. White sand, clear seas and really calm. We spent some very days here laying on the beach and playing in the waves. We also managed to catch up with another old friend of Joey’s who just happened to be on holiday here. I don’t know, you wait four months to see a familiar face then you see three in three days! We did a boat safari which we’d been sold with the premise of seeing crocodiles in the mangroves. Of course we didn’t see any crocodiles but we did see lots of water monitors – they are huge! Honestly, it’s ridiculous how big they are. We were also taken to a coconut plantation, where we heard how there are two types of coconut in Sri Lanka, the green and the orange. The orange one they just drink here, but the green coconut they drink, eat and use all the pieces. It was fascinating to learn how every part of the coconut is used – the wood for making spoons, hair pieces and anything really, the shell for bowls, the fibre on the husk is used to make ropes and even the leaves are woven together in order to hang the wooden utensils. I love coconuts and this made me love them a little more.
From Bentota we hopped on the train again to Hikkaduwa, again on the coast and apparently a backpackers haven. We stayed a short bus ride again from the main centre of town and again the beach was beautiful and the sea transparent; it definitely feels like we’ve landed on a tropical island! Hikkaduwa wasn’t all just laying on beaches and topping up my tan, there were some sights to see.
Just north of Hikkaduwa was the site of the tsunami train disaster. On Boxing Day 2004 some 1200 plus people were on a train originating in Colombo when the tsunami hit their train. The wave was so powerful that the train was upended and ripped from its wheels. There were only 10 survivors. At the site there is now a Buddha statue which is 18 metres high, the same height as the wave. Getting up close to that is a stark indication of just what those people, doing the same train journey that we had done the day before, were faced with. The train track was also surprisingly far from the shoreline, maybe over 100 metres. There is also a tsunami education museum and photo museum. They are both run by people who survived that day and some of the pictures are incredibly graphic and harrowing but it was important to go and remember the victims.
After these and a visit to the official memorial (which is also a mass grave of those individuals killed in the train tragedy) we thought we’d cheer ourselves up with a visit to the local turtle hatchery. Only the turtle hatchery was actually probably as depressing as the tsunami museums. The guy running them probably does have the turtles best interests at heart, but by hatching eggs there he inhibits nature as turtles like to go back to the same spot where they where hatched to lay their eggs, and well you can’t choose to go back to a hatchery can you? That coupled with lots of tourists picking up the day old babies and handling them actually made us feel very sad. The next day we walked to turtle beach with the hope of seeing turtles in the wild, and that we did. It was incredible to see them almost swim up to you, quite moving to see nature that close. There were plenty of tourists touching them, feeding them seaweed and even kids trying to pick them up. We opted not to touch these wild animals and it felt like they migrated towards us because we didn’t want to touch, their flippers almost touching our legs. Joey and I had a deep discussion about how we found it hard to reconcile our desires to see wild animals in their natural habitat with the local destination’s need for tourism and to sell their town as a place to be able to touch wild animals. It felt wonderfully moving and deeply exploitative at the same time.
We also took a bus to Ambalangoda – home to a devil mask museum. Devil masks are everywhere in Sri Lanka, so it was great to pop to a museum and workshop and see the history and work that goes into making these. They are all handmade from balsa wood and the intricacies are amazing. It was during a wander round the shop that we were both truly regretting not having the room in our rucksacks to take one home, definitely an excuse to come back here in the future!
So far life in Sri Lanka has been incredibly easy, we’ve caught local buses everywhere, the people are so friendly and the food has been absolutely delicious. It’s definitely somewhere we would come back to on holiday and without a shadow of a doubt I would recommend it to all my friends with kids old enough to handle the flight here. It’s cheap, a great introduction to Asia without all the hassle of India and so far there’s been no need to open the marmite!
Well aren’t you all lucky, two blog posts in a week! Don’t worry this isn’t a New Year’s resolution to spam you all twice a week, it’s actually me wanting to tie up loose ends and finish blogging about India (for now at least) for tomorrow we fly to Sri Lanka, so this is an update on our last 10 days or so and some reflections on our four months in the subcontinent.
On Boxing Day we left our lovely posh treat hotel and travelled down to Kanyakumari. We were winging it on this occasion as we had neither a bus nor accommodation booked. The bus was definitely the easy part, it was very cosy with Joey’s rucksack on his lap for most of the journey. We alighted and set about trying to find some accommodation. We’d looked at google maps and identified a strip of hotels so headed there, the first one we tried turned us away as they were full, as did the next two. Ok, we’d now tried three hotels and kinda felt it was a little ironic that Joseph was a trying to find room at the inn on Boxing Day and they were all full. Thankfully the fourth guesthouse had a room which we snapped up at an overpriced rate, just thankful we got to take our rucksacks off.
The point of us being in this random town was that it was a semi pilgrimage – this was the southern most point of mainland India. We’d spent the last 110 days travelling south to reach here. It’s one of the few places in the world where thanks to the geography you can stand in the same place and watch the sunrise over the ocean in the morning and watch it sink into the sea at night, it’s also the place where three seas meet, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. You can see the amalgamation of these oceans as the different colours swirl together and the waves travel in different directions. So we watched the sunset, then rose early to watch the sunrise. The sunrise was insane. There were so. Many. People. I have never seen so many people gather for a sunrise. I busted some Indian guys taking some sneaky selfies of us which annoyed me (just ask – though after four months of this I’m more than likely to now say no. Unless you’re a cute kid, then I feel like the Queen when they say ‘excuse me ma’am). So from here on in its north (or east) we travel.
We caught a bus to Madurai, home to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the pinnacle of south India’s Temple culture and considered as important to the south as the Taj Mahal is to the north. It was incredibly colourful and a very peaceful place to wander around. Best of all, no phones or cameras were allowed so we could wander without being pestered! We were both suffering from colds at this point and tired thanks to a dorm mate threatening someone else in the dorm the night before and not allowing us to switch the air con on so we’d had a very restless night. We took a short walk to the shop and Joey got touched on the arm by an old arm who then proceeded to ask him for money, this had happened quite a few times over the last few days but this guy was the straw that broke Joey’s back and he just said to me ‘I can’t do another temple town’ which was exactly what I had been thinking, so we started working on a get out plan. We raced back to the hostel and booked a bus for that night to Pondicherry, an old French Colonial town.
We arrived in Pondicherry at 5.30am and couldn’t even gain access to our hostel to leave our bags for another two hours so we headed to the beach where we’d intended to hang out at a 24 hour cafe the hostel had told us about. Arriving at the beach though we stumbled across a Rangoli competition. Rangoli is an art form in which patterns are drawn on the floor using rice flour and is thought to bring good luck. It was fascinating to watch 400 women draw these incredibly intricate patterns on the floor just using their hands and we actually enjoyed being homeless on this occasion as we dropped our bags off and then went straight back to view the art. Whilst in Pondicherry I got in touch with an Indian family who owns the old family home of a friend of mine and we were invited to view the home and for lunch. This was such incredible hospitality from a family who didn’t know who we were, to invite us into their incredibly beautiful home, show us around and invite us for lunch. We have met some incredibly kind and generous people during our time here. As Pondicherry is a old French colony we were able to buy some decent cheese for the first time, and more importantly a jar of marmite! We haven’t actually opened the marmite yet, we are saving it for a really really bad day, the thought being that if we do have a bad day then we can comfort ourselves with the marmite. So if any of my friends get a message from me saying ‘I opened the marmite’ know it was a really bad day and I need you to be kind!
From Pondicherry we took our last local bus to Chennai. Upon arrival we took a town bus to our Air BnB apartment. Local buses have been great and the conductor is always so helpful telling us where we need to get off. Until now. It was quite clear that they didn’t want us on the bus and kept trying to throw us off at various points. In the end when it became abundantly clear they didn’t want us on anymore we got off and walked.
We decided before heading to Sri Lanka, we really needed to rest and regain our strength and patience, so we arrived with the intention of doing nothing for a few days. Which is more or less what we’ve done. We have visited a shopping centre a few times and have been bowling. However bowling was the straw that broke my back! The day before we’d bought some ice cream (mint, obviously) and spotted some men taking our photo whilst I am trying to eat my ice cream! Then during bowling people kept coming over and watching, fair enough, we are in a random area of Chennai and there aren’t many westerners here, but I snapped when I saw a group of men filming us. I went over to them and absolutely lost my shit at them for about five minutes and made him delete what he had taken. It was clear he didn’t speak any English so I got the staff involved too and made doubly sure that he understood that it was not ok to film us without our say so. I think he got the message.
So after four months here it’s time to say goodbye to India, for now anyway. We are flying back in March and have a couple more places we’d like to see, but at the moment we can’t see us spending more than two or three weeks here. All the research that we had done prior to arriving suggesting that you will love India and you will hate India, sometimes both at the same time, and I would say that is the most accurate thing that I read about the subcontinent. I have tried to not sugarcoat our time here, but as well as frustrations, we have had some incredible times here and we’ve met some amazing, generous people. The last couple of weeks have been tiring as we have visited a lot of places in December alone and I feel as though I have been constantly ill with one thing or another in the last two weeks.
We’ve travelled 10,440 km in total from place to place (you can tell I’m international now as I now speak in kilometres!) and that only involved one flight! A third was done by rail and the rest spent on buses, probably get dropped in the middle of nowhere. India lives up to every stereotype image that you have heard about it – piles and piles of rubbish everywhere, cows in the street (eating the rubbish), monkeys everywhere, women doing their washing in streams and tuk tuk drivers everywhere. But far and away the thing we loved the most is how helpful and friendly the people are. You will always find someone to help you and to say hello to you.
Our top five experiences were:
The Taj Mahal
Backwaters of Kerala
The ruins of Hampi
Desert safari in Jaisalmer
Watching the sunset over the lake in Udaipur every night
A Cheeky sixth- The India/Pakistan border closing ceremony
So now it’s onto Sri Lanka and we have high hopes!
After some beach time in Gokarna we headed south to Kochi, in Kerala, one of the southern most states which is famous for it’s backwaters.
Gokarna station was tiny, but the train arrived only an hour late, and we’d opted for 2nd class as opposed to our usual 3rd class ticket. This looked really promising, there were only 4 berths in each section as opposed to 6 and each section was divided by a curtain for added privacy. The toilets were also remarkably clean so I was looking forward to getting a pretty good night’s sleep.
Of course when we boarded the train there was someone in our seat, there’s always someone in our seat, I have had to wake people to throw them out of my seat. I’m not sure why this is but he turned out to be pretty friendly and bought us Chai and snacks. He left us after about four hours and a family of three got on in his place. They were also friendly, offering us food again but as we started to settle down for sleep the baby started crying and this went on for about three hours. I say baby – he was actually three years old and he just would not stop crying. In fact he only stopped when I turned on my light, sat up and gave him a serious hard stare. I’m sure the rest of the train carriage will be forever grateful to me. (I’m sure none of my friends babies would have done this!) so we arrived into Kochi at 3.22am, shattered and homeless. Train stations in India are well set up though and you can pay for a dormitory bed or a waiting room. We opted to pay for an AC waiting room for three hours until we could arrive at our hostel at a reasonable hour.
In Kochi we’d planned to visit the Jewish quarter, taking in a synagogue. Kerala is a predominately Christian state so we visited our first Indian church as well, meaning that we had then ticked off religious buildings of 7 major religions in India. Kochi is also home to the largest shopping centre in India so we spent a day there, taking some time out from sightseeing to have some fun. It was a great way to take a break from feeling like you have to see everything. The other must see is the Chinese fishing nets – best viewed at sunset and quite a sight!
After Kochi we headed to the mountains to a small town called Anachal, near to the more famous tea plantation area of Munnar. We’d booked into a hostel that had newly opened and was a little out of town. Who did we find staying at our hostel upon arrival but Ellie and Jake, the English couple that we’d first met in Agra and had subsequently bumped into in Goa (twice), Hampi and Gokarna! It’s a small world when you’re travelling. We took a trek to a tea plantation the next day which was good fun, with tea bushes as far as the eye could see. It was a hard climb but worth it. We went with two other British girls from the hostel, one of whom had cycled from Bristol to Kazakstan and flown to India from there to continue cycling. Just when you think you’re doing something extraordinary, someone else pops up to blow you out of the water! Along the trek as well as seeing tea bushes there were pineapple bushes. I actually found this to be the highlight of the day! I knew how pineapples grew, but I’d never actually seen a pineapple bush before so to see some up close was amazing and one off the bucket list! As we were walking I could see the guide staring intently at my trainer and it seemed it had spotted two little leeches on my foot! Something made me lift my trousers up and lo and behold there was a huge one on my ankle – cue lots of girly screaming and the fear for the rest of the trek!
The next day we took a bus to Alleppey, we’d set off early from the hostel with another girl and waited patiently for the bus. There was a quick toilet break, but the ladies was locked so I had to wait for the men’s to become free which delayed me a little longer and when I emerged the bus was starting to pull away so we had to quickly jump on. I got on first and swapped seats with Joey who had patiently guarded the toilet for me and who then ended up sitting next to the woman I’d been sat next to for the last two hours. Less than five minutes later the woman was promptly sick all down Joey’s leg and rucksack. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up. I breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t me as that would have started a domino effect for sure! Luckily Lou who we’d travelled with from the hostel had some face wipes so we were able to clean up most of the sick before it dried.
Alleppey is a major gateway to Kerala’s backwaters and is known as the Venice of the East. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and it quickly started to pour down with rain and I mean pour down. It lasted hours and by the time we ventured out four hours later all the streets were flooded. The next day we arranged for a tour of the backwaters by bamboo canoe which was amazing. It was so peaceful and serene as you quietly sail past villages along tiny canals, rice paddies and people going about their daily life in the backwaters. We started the day being taken to an Indian family’s home for breakfast and chai which we had to eat with our hands. To get to the home we had to wade through water in the front yard. There was one stop along the way which was chance to go to the toilet but to do so you had to walk along a narrow plank to get there – it was harder than it looked and we were definitely all waiting for someone to fall in. After the tour we went back to the Indian family home for lunch, this time served on a traditional banana leaf! The backwaters canoe tour was definitely one of my top five Indian experiences.
One thing that we also wanted to do was hire a houseboat for the day and sail on the backwaters. It was an expensive thing to do as it cost over half of our weekly budget for one night but if you are going to do something only once in your life, you may as well do it properly. The boat was amazing, luxurious with two sun decks and we had three members of crew looking after the two of us! We were served a welcome drink of coconut juice, followed by a huge lunch, then banana fry for afternoon tea, then dinner and breakfast the next morning! We docked up in a quiet spot which was surprising as earlier in the day we had seen so many houseboats it was akin to an armada! The next day we got up super early to watch the sunrise over the backwaters, such a beautiful setting.
From Alleppey we headed south to Varkala, a holy beach resort. Varkala is also the only place in Kerala where cliffs can be found adjacent to the Arabian Sea. We’d book some pretty low budget accommodation here, it wasn’t the worst place we’d stayed but every night in the bathroom there was some sort of insect gathering. I wasn’t well during my time here and having to fight with army ants and cockroaches to use the toilet wasn’t my idea of fun. In fact it was so unpleasant I actually chose to find a spot outside to be quietly sick rather than use the bathroom!
It was a joy to move onto Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. We had an initial two nights here and just visited the shopping centre where we found the Salvation Army singing Christmas carols which we thoroughly enjoyed and I found quite moving. We also took the opportunity to go to the cinema. We picked a film at random which was screened in Malayalam, the local language, with no subtitles. We got the gist of the storyline and there was some helpful sinister music every time the bad guy appeared on screen and some incredibly graphic violence. All films in India start with the national anthem and have intervals. Everyone gets terribly involved and shouts at the screen so it was definitely a fun thing to do.
We stayed within Trivandrum for Joey’s birthday and Christmas, treating ourselves again to a nice hotel with a pool where we did nothing but eat, drink and hang by the pool. Christmas whilst travelling is always a little odd, but we managed to have turkey and carols so it felt a little Christmassy but it seems that even if you have 30 degrees and sunshine you can’t avoid the Christmas cold and I spent most of the day feeling ill!
We’ve only a few short days left in India, how quickly time moves when you see so many new things and places.
For now it’s our chance to wish you all a very Happy New Year!
Most people arrive in Agra from Delhi and head to Jaipur as part of the Golden Triangle, but we like to be different so headed there after Rajasthan. This was for two reasons, Agra was well connected on the railway network and we needed to start heading south and also it was approaching my birthday and we wanted to mark the occasion at Taj Mahal.
Our arrival in Agra coincided with Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. We had booked into a hostel with a roof terrace with incredible views of the Taj and took part in preparations for the Diwali celebrations with staff and other guests. We prepared oil lamps and took part in prayers and blessings before heading up to the roof to light the lamps and set off firecrackers. All this was accompanied by lots of alcohol and the incredible discovery that if you try really hard you can fit eight people in a tuk tuk. Aside from the Taj the other big (and possibly only other) attraction in Agra is its Fort. Although large and intact it was rather lifeless and underwhelming and having visited several forts in Rajasthan it left us concluding that we definitely do not need to visit any more forts for quite some time.
After two nights in a hostel dorm, including our first encounter with inconsiderate dorm mates leading to a sleepless night we were extremely excited to check out and into a fancy hotel as my birthday treat. There we did nothing but hang by the pool and marvel at the luxury (There’s a bath! Infinite hot water! There are proper napkins! The bed has a duvet!) whilst laughing at ourselves and how grateful we were for small details such as that.
We got up at 4.30am on my birthday to ensure we were amoung the first in line for sunrise. Obviously we had already seen the Taj from the hostel roof but to experience it close up was something else, particularly in the ethereal early morning light. It was so beautiful, I had never considered calling a building beautiful before but this the most beautiful, romantic building I have ever seen. The detail was astonishing and close up it becomes even clearer as the morning sun glistens off the jewels set in the walls. You’re only allowed three hours in the grounds and we spent a large part of that time just sitting and taking it all in.
After that we were back at the hotel and spent the rest of the day by pool. What a perfect birthday! When were travelling five years ago we visited Machu Picchu on my birthday so we have now decided that every five years on my birthday we have to do one of the new wonders of the world!
From Agra we took the overnight train to Jalgaon from where we intended to visit the Ajanta Caves. These are a complex of 30 Buddhist caves made up of monasteries and temples and full of statues and wall paintings. These were just stunning. Some of the caves were so dark you just couldn’t help but be mind blown by the fact that this detailed work was carried out in the dark. How the accuracy of the Buddha statues and the details in the colourful paintings were achieved in the pitch black we can only imagine. We had caught a local bus to the caves and the roads were the worst we had encountered. They were full of pot holes following the monsoon and it took 2 and half hours to drive 60kms. We spent the whole journey being thrown around the bus and were dreading the journey back. Once we finished in the caves we stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus to flag down. Then a car stopped containing three guys who had asked us for the arbitrary selfies in the cave and offered us a lift to Jalgaon. We jumped in with seemingly no hesitation, grateful that we didn’t have to do the bus ride again. It was only when we were in the car that it dawned on me that we’d gotten in a car with three strange men. Everything your parents tell you not to do. I spent the journey in a heightened state of alertness making sure my metal water bottle was close at hand so I could use it as a weapon if required. Luckily it was fine and they really were just doing a nice deed. Not sure what it says about my cynicism or India as a whole.
The next day we caught the train to Arangabad to visit the Ellora caves. These were a set of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cave temples, equally as impressive as the Ajunta Caves. These are also home to the world’s largest monolith and a UNESCO world heritage site. Unfortunately for us, the world’s largest monolith on a weekend means hundreds of locals and that means hundreds of selfie requests. It got so overwhelming that I had to ask Joey if we could leave. Foreigners are charged 600 rupees and locals 40 so given that we were paying 15 times what they were I really wanted to enjoy the caves! We did find some quieter caves to enjoy which helped.
Again we found ourselves on the side of the road waiting for a bus. This time we were rescued by tuk tuk that contained two elderly Indian men and we shared that back to Arangabad. Joey was in the back with the elderly men and I was perched at the front with the driver who of course took selfies of us whilst driving. Upon arrival at Arangabad the heavens opened and we took shelter in a doorway at the station and waited for the rain to stop. And waited and waited. In the end as the streets were flooded and it was getting dark we decided to make a dash for it. We only had to go 300 metres but we were soaked by the time we got back.
We were due to catch a bus to Mumbai at 11.30pm so we had a lot of time to kill and headed to a shopping centre with the intention of either going bowling or to the cinema. In the end we did neither, heading instead to McDonalds and Marks and Spencers. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of home. Upon leaving the centre we tried to get a tuk tuk and inadvertently got caught up in some tuk tuk mafia warfare. Other drivers tried to stop us getting into one particular tuk tuk and even dragged the driver out for a ‘word’ it was a little bit scary but we stood our ground and made it back despite his best efforts to divert us along the way.
From Arangabad we headed south to Mumbai where we were spending a couple of nights before heading to Goa. We were a little underwhelmed by Mumbai, it felt like just another hectic city full of scams (hello milk lady!). It was a good place to get some laundry done and stock up medical supplies but otherwise it left us jaded, cold and feeling like we would rather spend time in more interesting smaller towns. We did take a boat trip across the harbour to Elephanta island and caves, again a set of cave temples. This time there were only 5 of them so I left feeling very cheated at paying the same price as we did for Ajunta and Ellora caves but the boat ride there was pleasant and it was a nice way to escape the city. There’s also a hill on the island that you can climb which we did. As we started the descent down we met a boy who stopped and asked ‘Auntie can you see me down the hill?’ It turns out that he was scared of monkeys and didn’t want to walk on his own so we accompanied him down. ‘Auntie’ is a term used towards older women so I was a little bemused by this! I can definitely pass for 27 right?!