I love Kandy

Well not really. It’s not quite the green and pleasant place I had wanted it to be. It’s one of those places I remember seeing on the world map in my bedroom as a kid and wondering what it might be like. Over the years I probably built a picture in my mind of lush bush surrounding a quaint old colonial town. Not really much like that. Kandy was the kingdom that for centuries successfully fought off the Portuguese and the Dutch invaders, only to finally succumb to the British in the mid-19th Century. There is certainly pleasant countryside surrounding it but it brims with stinky traffic. Dambulla (68)Not on an Indian scale mind you. Sri Lanka has been comparatively mild compared with India. There is not the dreadful polluted air and manic traffic zooming around amidst odious mounds of thoughtlessly strewn rubbish. It has been a treat to smell things here – fresh air, hints of flowers. The traffic here is said by all guidebooks to be manic and lawless. But again, compared with India it is positively tame. The roads are generally well kept with all the white lines in place and there is far, far less of the eternal rubbish that despoils beautiful India. This is meant as a statement about some of the immediate and largely superficial differences between the two countries. I could not be said to be anything but an admirer of the chaos and swarm of humanity that characterises India and have blathered on about this at some length before. But India does take it toll on the senses in many ways and a brief respite is not such a bad thing. At this point, after a short foray further north to various ruins and things, Kandy has been where I have spent the last two days. It is something of a permanent traffic jam which does greatly detract from its charm. There are glimpses of what it has been and probably can be at times as you look over the lake into the green hills behind. But sadly, it hasn’t quite matched my preconception. But I’m not going to complain as it is pleasant, nonetheless.

Colombo was an immediate contrast to previous months as the streets were well paved and the rubbish piles relatively well contained. I found it a bit souless really. Not a particularly interesting city but I don’t think it is really fair to judge places in this way. There is a lot of development going on in the old Fort area which makes for some pleasant walking but has probably diluted some of the old charm of the place.

I have probably seen enough of temples for the time being despite some of these being quite striking. We didn’t really have time to explore the ruins of Anuradhapura and learnt on that visit the first problem of temple visiting here – hot feet. The sun that beats down makes the ground so hot, walking through them impossible at times. The answer is to take a pair of socks that makes it a bit more bearable. We then went south to stay at Sigiriya, home of the famous rock fortress. Too famous as it turns out. It is a tourist cliché here and if the climb to the top in unpleasant temperatures wasn’t enough then the crowds detracted from it as an impressive site. See the photos of the crowd waiting to go up the stairway. I imagine at the right time it would be magical but we didn’t see it at its best. I tend to grin and bear the heat a bit but it does make some of the trip quite hard. The ruins at Polonnaruwa were very impressive both in their scale and the attractive setting that surrounds them. I had thought to leave a visit to them off the itinerary at one point but was rewarded for the effort. “Effort” may not be the right word. We caved into pressure and went with a car and driver here. Public transport is not the greatest and the cost of taking individual cars from place to place was pretty much the same or more than hiring our own driver for much of the time we were here. It is hardly my usual style of travel but you can get used to it. At least it is to our own timetable and itinerary. The sweat factor very much in play and the increasing oppressive heat can make sightseeing tortuous at times. But I have persisted and the sweat-dripped climb to the top of Sigiriya rock was the dedicated labour of a long-term traveller. This was even more heroic given the unexpected violent vomiting I had experienced at breakfast that morning. For some reason a glass of freshly prepared pineapple juice seemed to induce it. I brushed it aside and persevered nonetheless. It is otherwise refreshing that my battered legs and foot survived the climb with no problem. It is a great relief to me that the foot that I almost cut in two before embarking on this journey has proved to be pretty much problem free. While my reconstructed toe has no power of its own, it neatly and agreeably falls into step with the rest of my foot and causes me no bother.

So today we headed higher through the tea plantations and gorgeous green foliage interspersed with colourful flowers that are part and parcel of the tropical highlands. Another day up here and it’s off to the hotter lowlands and coast.

I’ve added some photos here. But there are more to come.

Heading east then south

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chennai on the eve of a flight to Sri Lanka. The journey since last writing has taken us from Kerala to the state of Tamil Nadu. The last leg of the Kerala journey was up into the hills. We stayed at a place called Munnar. It was blissfully cool and green. The area is known for its tea and the tea plantations themselves were a sight to see. The wonderful sea of green was surrounded at times by beautiful wildflowers and trees that also had uniquely coloured foliage. The contrast from place to place in this country is quite amazing. Of course, I have been to Himalayan areas and know how different they can be but the more I see of India the more I realise I have seen so little and that will probably never change.

There wasn’t an awful lot to actually see around Munnar as the wildlife park I had wanted to visit was closed as the rare nilgiri thar (a kind of goaty antelope) were having their breeding season and they didn’t want them to be upset or put off. But the scenery made up for this deficit as it was verdant and the air was the freshest we had breathed in some time. In fact, the air of south India so far seems better. We will return to the north and probably much worse air later. As I banged on about before, the air pollution is one of the worst things about being in India.

From Munnar we got a car to Madurai. This is in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Down from the Western Ghats to the drier plains. It was a beautiful drive and thankfully over fairly decent roads. The previous year there were very bad floods during the monsoon that caused quite a bit of damage, but a lot of road building had gone on and it was better than most we have experienced so far.

Madurai (26)Of course, with the drop in altitude came the return to the heat. A drier heat than Kerala but very hot nonetheless. We were staying next to the huge Meenakshi Amman temple. It is one if the largest in India and quite imposing. We went inside but large areas are off limits to non-Hindus. We did see enough to see the extent of it and it was impressive. Madurai has been referred to as the spiritual heart of Tamil Nadu and this temple is at the centre of that. There is more of the history of it here. Out hotel was right next it and we didn’t know but the roads around it were all closed and so this necessitated a walk with luggage under the hot sun. We had to repeat this when we left. Madurai is a pleasant town and not too big, around one million, although this has probably grown since the last census in 2011. This is pretty small by Indian standards. It had some quite ridiculous traffic jams that belie its size, which is clearly an area that needs work. It was very low on western tourists as well so it was Indian breakfasts eaten in very downmarket places. Not really a problem for me and quite a refreshing change in some ways from much of the touristy areas we have visited. There was also a quite imposing palace, the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, that apparently used to be much larger. It had huge pillars and I was left wondering what it must have been like in its better days. Like most things in Madurai, the prices have not yet been jacked up to sting foreigners. These can often be quite high. Understandably they should pay a market type price in order to maintain them and that poor Indians should be able to visit them, but sometimes this is a bit steep. Foreigners are frequently made to feel they have the same status as a walking ATM in India. There is an understanding that they should pay more but sometimes it grates a bit. This is sometimes why I find myself bargaining down a tuk tuk fare by 60 cents. Unfortunately, you need to do this to an extent otherwise you will be treated with a degree of contempt. When someone is honest with me, I am happy to give a large tip.

So, we flew from Madurai to Chennai to catch the flight to Sri Lanka. This was poorly researched on my part as, when I got to the airport I realised there were direct flights from Madurai to Colombo! They are not particularly expensive either. So, I added an unnecessary flight to the trip. I didn’t need that as I have lost track of tge number of flights we have done here and airport security is a real chore. Some airlines in India perform an extra security check after you have gone through normal airport security.

Photos of this part of the trip can be seen here.

Kerala continued

From Kochi we have headed south. Kerala is a beautiful place, all lush and green. It was lovely to journey through the small roads with the coconut palms and glowing green foliage. Not entirely different from other parts of India but it feels quite a bit more tropical anyway. Certainly the heat and humidity is cranking up although that is largely due to the change of seasons. I have been in north India before around April/May and I know it gets hideously hot. That’s something to look forward to, not.

Among the many sights that is striking is Indian men often hold hands when they are walking together. This is not a sign of a same sex relationship but quite a common thing, more an expression of friendship. It is a strange thing at first but easy to get used to. It is common in many cultures around the world and was once quite common in Western societies especially in the nineteenth century. It can look a bit incongruous when you see a man in western dress holding hands with his friend wearing a short mundu (local skirt).

Alleppey backwaters (259) (2)The mundu or its close relatives, the dhoti and lungi, are very common dress in Kerala. I’m not sure if I have an exact handle on the difference among them. It probably relates to length, style and colour. “When unbleached, the mundu is called “neriyathu”. In modern times, two types of mundu are prevalent—the single and the double. A single mundu is draped once around the waist, while the double is folded in half before draping. A mundu is usually starched before use.” Then we start on the lungi: “In Kerala the Lungi, locally known as Kaili or Kalli Mundu, is worn by both men and women. It is considered a casual dress or working dress of labourers. Most men in Kerala use lungi as home dress or sleep dress. Lungis are generally colourful, and with varying designs. Lungis are not used during occasions such as weddings or other religious ceremonies.” Thank you Wikipedia for that info, further reading is here. I’m still confused personally but suffice to say that blokes in this part of the world wear skirts and seem to prefer it to western trousers most of the time. This is not surprising considering it is stinking hot. I don’t think I’ll be making the switch just yet.

Kovalam (1)

Indians in the sea are an ongoing source of fascination to me. I think I have written about this before. As an Australasian, I have a distinct relationship with the sea. I love to swim in it, preferably playing in the waves. That is in my DNA, from childhood that was our beach culture. Swimming was regarded as a life skill that everyone should learn. It was funny to see Europeans in Goa lazing endlessly on their beach lounges just looking at the sea. They only occasionally venture into the sea Kovalam (4)and only when it’s not too “rough”. That is when there are waves of any sort. I struggle to spend hours at the beach as much as I love it.  But it is nice to enjoy the sea. Indians on the other hand are a different bunch again. Many of them can’t swim of course and to see them in places like Goa and Kerala as visitors borders on the comical. Beachwear is pretty much unknown to them so they frolic in the shallows in their clothes. I loved to show off in the sea by catching wave while bodysurfing which is often met with gawping stares by wading Indians. Also at the pool in our apartments I would jump in and do a four lap medley again to gawping stares.

Kovalam (14)

Kerala has had Communist Party led governments on and off since the 1950’s. They are certainly influenced by these ideas but function mostly as a reformist, democratic socialist style government. The flags with hammers and sickles can be seen in many places and there are some more festive and stylistic interpretations to be found on the walls in some villages. The history is rather convoluted with various factions and splits of the Indian Communist Party forming coalition fronts with other left wing parties to form governments over the years. Either way, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in Hammers and sicklesIndia, 95% vs 74% for the country as a whole. Overall, Kerala scores relatively high on the Human Development Index compared with many other states in India and other countries. The reasons are mixed and debatable. Left leaning governments have focused on healthcare, education, women’s rights, basic infrastructure and sanitation with consequent positive results. But Kerala appears to have strong grassroots organisations that are active and successful. Many Keralans have benefited from working in the Gulf however their success there can also be attributed to higher standards of education.

Kerala is a lovely part of India for a variety of reasons but it has an interesting political history and has achieved some success in human development that outstrips much of the rest of the Indian subcontinent.

See photos of Kerala at https://easytravellerdotnet.wordpress.com/kerala/

On the road south

The first stop past Goa was Bangalore or Bengaluru which is now its correct name. It comes from the local Kannada language Benda-kaal-uru. It means essentially “place of the boiled beans”. There is a legend behind it but that is open to some debate. Follow that link if you want to delve deeper. It was surprisingly green and pleasant. The tree lined streets were not what I was expecting. It doesn’t seem as big as it is, at 12.3 million people it’s not very large by Indian standards but hardly small. It is one of the main centres of Indian IT so that should probably make it one of the centres of world IT. Not that I really saw much evidence of that. I had booked a stopover here for a couple of days with the thought of just having a look at the city itself but that was, in hindsight, a bit of a mistake. The neighbouring places of Mysore (Mysuru) and Ooty are attractive destinations in themselves. I knew we were not really going to make it to Ooty but only realised later how attractive the sights were in Mysuru. It is a pleasant place itself and has a famous palace. In the end we made a one-day trip there by hiring a taxi which included a stop off at a place called Srirangapatna, which is home to another old palace that was rather fascinating. I have included some pictures of it under the Mysore tab. It was about 150km to Mysore from Bangalore, a 300km round trip. That is quite long by Indian standards as roads are usually in poor condition and clogged. This road was better than usual but still was a bit of a slog. I was a victim of my own poor planning. It was worth the journey anyway but I left both places feeling I hadn’t really done them justice. Not to worry, we still saw quite a bit during our stay.

In the background of this has been the latest dust up between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. This was triggered by a hideous loss of life (more that 40) in a suicide bombing of an Indian army convoy by a terrorist group in Pulwama, Kashmir in February. This led to an Indian incursion into Pakistani territory to bomb a supposed terrorist training camp, an Indian plane getting shot down followed by the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, handing the surviving captured pilot back to India in a gesture of supposed goodwill. Pakistan has been fairly conciliatory but the sabre rattling on the Indian side has been louder. This is not least because Indian elections are due soon and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his BJP party are in danger of losing their parliamentary majority. This whole episode brings a largely welcome distraction from India’s inconvenient problems such as rising unemployment. These incidents can be a gift to incumbent politicians everywhere who are under pressure. I expect this to blow over but we are keeping travel plans up north to a minimum and seeing how it all goes.

From Bangalore we flew to Kochi (previously known as Cochin). These new names for places are seemingly used interchangeably. I haven’t met any Indians yet who feel particularly strongly about it. Bombay is still frequently used in Mumbai. It is largely the same with Bangalore and Mysore. These were essentially Anglicised names that have been officially dumped as an unwelcome vestige of imperialism. I’ve yet to hear anyone call Chennai by its old name of Madras but I haven’t been there yet so I’ll wait and see.

Kochi, at least the area of Fort Kochi is lovely. Pleasantly laid back and not overwhelmed with tourists. The places to eat and stay are largely decked out more tastefully than Goa, where the evidence of its Indo-Portuguese character has largely been wiped away by rapid development. There are a greater range of nationalities among the tourists with a more noticeable presence of French, Australians and even Americans. Although not the worst of your loud Yankee tourists by any means. One great advantage of this is the greater availability of halfway decent coffee.

I finally made good on my threat to hire a Royal Enfield motorbike for a day and rode out west of the city. The roads were a bit less clogged than Goa and not quite as infested with speed humps or speed breakers as they are called here. These are frequently not marked and take you by surprise and leading to hitting the breaks hard or being uncomfortably tossed in the air and threatening to break the suspension. Annoying as these are, they are really necessary because there would be terrible mayhem without them. There are few road rules here and stupid behaviour is common but it has some logic to it with an underlying code of practice. It is possible to ride here fairly comfortably as traffic is generally pretty slow. Even on the old Royal Enfield I barely got above 60kph. There are just too many daft drivers and other obstacles like stray cows, dogs and pedestrians who don’t mind walking three abreast and getting in the way of passing traffic.

This state, Kerala, currently has a communist led government and I have yet to investigate what changes they have brought here. There are numerous slogans and murals on walls concentrating on social issues and warnings about the dangers of drugs. The red flags with white hammer and sickle emblems fly in many places.

Now the plan is to head south through Kerala and then back north across to Madurai and Chennai before a side trip to Sri Lanka.