A rabies scare and some yoga

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.

Sunrise in Uppuvelli

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!

Joey waiting for rabies jab number 1

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.

Trincomalee War Cemetery

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.

Public library Jaffna

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.

Joey supervising the frying of aubergine. Obviously with a beer
Becca getting her free fish pedicure

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!

Ticking off the beaches

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.

Galle Fort lighthouse

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!

Japanese Peace Pagoda in Unawatuna

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.

The tail of a blue whale

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.

One of the hell punishments

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.

The world’s second most underwhelming blow hole

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!

Lanka love

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.

Coconut utensils hanging from coconut leaves

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.

The Buddha memorial at the site of the Tsunami train disaster

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.

One of the turtles in Hikkaduwa- no zoom needed here!

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!

Devil masks on display in Ambalangoda

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!

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