My lovely Chris has returned to the UK, and I've come back to India for the last few months of my trip. I'm currently visiting temples in Tamil Nadu, and trying to decide where to spend Christmas
When I left you last I was in Kandy, about to try for my Indian visa, and not convinced I was going to get it - well obviously I did, but it wasn't all plain sailing. Chris and I had specifically chosen a hotel that was close to the Indian Consul, to make things as simple as possible . . . only the visas are no longer issued at the consul - they've been out-sourced. Instead of taking five working days they now take ten. Fortunately I found out, after walking for an hour to get the office that now deals with the visas, that's ten days, not ten working days - I say fortunately, as it would have seen me overstaying my Sri Lankan visa otherwise. It was an organised set up, surprisingly, and there was even a guy in the corner with a camera, printer and photocopier, in case there was any documentation missing from the application. Once I'd paid my money I was given a receipt, and told to return on the 25th, and deposit my passport between 0800 and 1100; I would get it back, with the visa inside, between four and five that afternoon.
The business attended to, Chris and I were now free to enjoy ourselves and Sri Lanka. We got a taxi to the train station in ample time for the afternoon departure to Nuwara Eliya, in the heart of the Sri Lankan Hill Country. The train had started in Colombo, and was heaving by the time it reached us, with standing room only. We perched in the corridor, with our bags precariously close to the open door, but managed to get a seat and our bags safely stowed after an hour or two. As the train climbed, tea plantations filled the land, women picking the leaves and throwing them into baskets on their backs. The air became chilly, and then the rain began - I guess a countryside that green needs a lot of rain.
We'd hoped to have a game of golf at Nuwara Eliya as Chris's birthday treat, and went along to the course to find out about green fees. The dress code required us to have tops with collars, so we went to the market and bought suitable attire. We needn't have bothered though, as torrential rain scuppered our plans. Chris was also gutted to find out that there was a meeting at the town's racecourse a couple of days after we'd be leaving - on his birthday too. If we'd have known we'd have arranged to be there for it, but by the time we found out we'd been in Nuwara Eliya for three days, and were fed up with the cold and wet weather. It was time to go to the beach . . . again.
We plumped for the wonderfully named Unawatuna on the south coast and, as it was a special occasion, we selected and booked some nice looking accommodation from tripadvisor.com. After a very long journey on a very crowded couple of buses, we arrived at the Flower Garden around five in the afternoon, and had to wait an hour for a room to be ready. I'd admired the pool, so the owner gave us towels and told us to help ourselves - just what we needed after a long journey. As the place was pretty full, we'd be spending the first night in a room, then moving to a cabana set in the attractive gardens. The room was amazing - huge, high ceilings, wooden floor, four-poster bed with mosquito net; we were most impressed. The cabana was great too, and had the added bonus of a fridge, kettle, and a nice veranda where we'd play cards of an evening. The food was fantastic - Chris was almost in tears the first night when, after having a wonderful meal, he was offered his favourite dessert of cream caramel!
We hung out with Hugh, an interesting Irish guy who first gone travelling in 1978, and clocked up a fair few countries since then. Having now taken early retirement, he was enjoying an escape from the cold winters at home by travelling for a few months of the year. Unawatuna beach was small but pretty - although after the tsunami some establishments had got carried away, building right on the beach - and some places are now being reclaimed by the sea! The sea was warm and safe . . . well, mostly. Chris did have a close encounter with the wildlife that he could have well done without. We were splashing about in the waves when Chris looked at me with a pained expression, and cried, " there's something in my trunks - it's biting me!" I guessed that it was probably a jellyfish, and got Chris out of the water, taking him to a beachfront restaurant, and explaining the situation between giggles. Three men ushered him into a back room and by the time I got in there, doubled up with laughter, they had his shorts off and were applying aloe vera and vinegar to his privates. Poor Chrissy!
If it were not for the visa, we'd have quite happily stayed at Unawatuna until we flew out of Sri Lanka, but after six nights we had to return to Kandy. We caught a train from Galle, which was as painless as a seven-hour train journey can be. It was quite late when we arrived, but we'd booked a cheap hotel, and they met us at the station. After we'd eaten, we discovered that the room was pretty damp. Well, actually I pointed out to Chris that the bed was damp at ten thirty, but he figured he could live with it. At eleven thirty he changed his mind! When he went downstairs to see if there was a different room we could move to, we found we were locked in courtesy of a hefty metal gate with a padlock on. The ramifications had there been a fire were scary, and we both decided we should find new digs. A bit of an argument later (they wanted to charge us for the room we weren't sleeping in) we left in the hotel's tuk-tuk, headed for the hotel we'd stayed in on our last stay in Kandy.
There were two flaws in our plan: the first was that Kandy, like the rest of Sri Lanka, goes to bed early; the second was the pouring rain. It was hammering down, and we couldn't raise anyone at the guesthouse, or any of the neighbouring ones. To be fair, it was around one o'clock by now, and they weren't expecting us. We walked down the hill, splashing through puddles, rain dripping down our necks. I figured that the only places that would be open would be upmarket joints. There was one at the bottom of the hill, the Hotel Suisse, so we tried there, scruffy drowned rats with backpacks - I wasn't sure they'd let us in. The rooms were $78, and the first we looked at was minty, musty and damp. The second was a little better, so we settled for that, and finally got to bed just before three.
I got my visa the following day, and we returned to Negombo late that afternoon, for our last two nights in Sri Lanka. It had been a great holiday. Whilst the country wasn't as exciting or visually impressive as some I've visited, the people were friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. It was the perfect place for some quality time together. All too soon that was at an end, and we were saying goodbye at the airport. I flew out six hours later, only a short hop of an hour or so across the water to Chennai. Back to India for the remainder of my trip. It's a shame that Chris can't share it with me - and considering he's gone back to snow and the busy Christmas period at work, I think that's probably a sentiment he shares!
I was unsure, even as I passed through customs at Chennai airport, whether to spend the night in the busy city or head straight down the coast to Mamallapuram. It had been a long day, and I was shattered - and it was already dark . . . maybe I should stay in the city . . . but then again the coastal resort sounded more chilled out and cheaper. I checked at the information desk to find out how to get to Mahabs, as it's also known. I'd been unprepared for the speed with which Tamils talk, and it took my brain a moment to two to catch up. I'd have to get a bus to Guindy, then there was a something to do with a rickshaw, and mention of ECR - whatever that was - and then another bus. Hmmm, it sounded complicated but doable, so I crossed my fingers and set off.
A random man just off a plane chatted me up as I crossed the carpark to the main road, insisting on giving me his card: "Call me!" Yeah, righto mate. Good old India. I waited by the road for the bus, as a rickshaw driver tried to convince me to stay the night in the city. A bus pulled up, and I shouted to ask the passengers standing by the door if it was going to Guindy. They checked with the driver, then headwobbled at me, beckoning me inside when I hesitated (was that a yes headwobble or a no headwobble? Or do headwobbles always mean yes? After a total of ten months here, I still don't know). A young girl got off her seat, and her mother bade me to sit (but I thought I was in India? People don't do that here!), and I gave the driver a twenty rupee note for the Rs14 journey. "You have small change?" he asked. Somethings don't change - Rs20 is 30 pence - bloody lucky I had anything that small!
After forty minutes or so, we arrived at Guindy; I was chucked off the bus in a small but busy side road. Okay, what now? I asked a rickshaw driver, muttering ECR, bus and Mamallapuram, and he pointed me around the corner. I came out on a busy main road, and no real idea of what to do next. I asked a couple more rickshaw drivers, and eventually established that I was standing on ECR - which stood for East Coast Road - and I should wait for the bus just over there. Fortunately a young lad was also waiting for the bus to Mamallapuram, and made sure I got on the right one. I watched from the window as women wrapped in shimmering silk saris dodged cows on the filthy, frenetic pavements, ignoring the men pissing against walls. The stench of piss, shit and rotting rubbish made my eyes water - at one point the smell of feces was so strong I actually wondered if I'd had an accident! A smile spread across my face (once I'd established that the stink was not coming from me!) it felt good to be back!
The bus was all but empty - a pleasant change from Sri Lankan buses - and the two-hour journey cost Rs22. I studied the map in my Lonely Planet, and saw that most of the backpacker accommodation was along one street, so jumped off there before the bus reached the bus stand. My tiredness had morphed into a feeling of calm; I was comfortable amidst India's familiar chaos. Kashmiri shopkeepers tried to tempt me into their shops, while other men offered rooms at their hotels. I looked at a few - too dirty, too many mosquitoes, too smelly, too expensive - then found one that wasn't too bad for Rs250, after a bit of haggling, and settled into my new home.
There is a beach in Mahabs, but it's not the sort you'd want to lie on, unless you have a penchant for lounging on oil-stained sand, surrounded by rubbish, fishing nets and dog turds whilst being gawked at by men. There were a couple of ruins to see, but largely I just wanted to hang out, adjust to India and missing Chris, and catch up on my photos, which had taken a back seat in Sri Lanka. It was a good place to do it. I stayed for a week, working on the computer for a lot of that time. I got another SIM card - my fourth in India - and topped up my Internet stick, although the signal there was frustratingly bad. I do some reviews for a website called fatpassport.com sometimes, so I earned a little money too (emphasis on the little, but still). I was a tad apprehensive about seeing the temples and stone carvings - Sri Lanka's sights had failed to impress, maybe I'd just gone off that sort of thing? No - the monolithic rathas and relief carvings were great, although the Shore Temple was badly eroded and past it's prime, I thought (ever the critic!).
When I first arrived I was surprised at how good the weather was. Our last week or so in Sri Lanka had seen daily rain and, being so close, I was expecting the same here. Instead it was pleasantly warm, with beautiful sunshine and only slight stickiness. It wasn't to last though, and before long the intermonsoon had caught up with me, bringing mosquitoes in plague proportions. The first evening of rain was the worst. I had three mozzie coils on in the room, but they were still coming in. I'd killed over a dozen before going to bed (just think of the karma!), but still woke up in the night and splattered two more that were full of my blood. I headed into the loo where the air was thick with the bloodsuckers - it was like a scene from a horror movie.
With my Sri Lankan photos and reviews dealt with, it was time to immerse myself in India once more, and enjoy the last couple of months of travel before returning to the real world. My indecisiveness continued, and I ummed and ahhed about whether or not to go to Pondicherry - on the plus side, I should get a broadband connection on my stick; on the down side, big city, lots of French people - nah, fuck it! The other option was Chidambaram, where there was a temple that is one of the best in the state. I read up on it whilst waiting for the bus, and when I saw you couldn't take cameras inside I almost didn't go. I figured I'd head straight for Kumbakonam instead. A couple of hours into the journey though, after being dripped on so persistently that the entire right leg of my trousers was soaked through, I decided that four hours of damp travel was enough for one day. I'm glad I made that decision.
I've always said that I don't enjoy living Indian temples, much preferring the old, ruined variety, but Natraja temple at Chidambaram is definitely an exception. I think it helped that I visited just after it had reopened for the afternoon, and was still relatively quiet. I succumbed to the old shoe-minding stall, leaving my sandals before entering the courtyard, and finding that most Indians were carrying their shoes. Never mind - as they were wet and dirty, it was well worth the Rs5 that I paid him. I entered through the main gopuram - a hugely decorated gate, which towered above me . On it were a multitude of colourful statues of numerous Hindu deities, their many arms and legs variously arranged. I walked barefoot through puddles, feeling the gritty grime squidging between my toes. As I rounded a corner heading towards the temple entrance I saw a bald man dressed in white, resembling a chubby Ghandi, hawk and spit on the stone slabs; just past him a dog squatted and shat. This is India!
I wasn't sure whether I could enter the temple, having read that non-Hindus are not allowed in the inner sanctum, but an old man begging in the entrance beckoned me inside. In front of me as I descended the steps were two Brahims with lop-sided topknots who called me over and asked what country I was from. They made me write my name and country in an exercise book - I noted that Fred Bloggs was the most recent foreigner to enter prior to myself. "Now write how many dollars you are going to donate." I laughed and declined.
The slightly submerged stone chamber had a cathedral feel to it, and a sense of calm to it (I'm sure it is a very different vibe when full of chattering worshipers). The many pillars that support the vaulted roof were carved, with impressive lions at the top, which represent the Chobar royalty whose money paid for the temple. It is a Shiva temple - one of the Hindu holy trinity, and the most popular of the three main gods. Natraja means Lord of the Dance, a title Shiva won after a dancing competition in the forest with the bloodthirsty Kali. After wandering around in awe, marvelling at the carvings, I came across the inner sanctum the gate to which was locked - not that I'd have been allowed in anyway. At the centre of an inner courtyard stood the heart of the temple, topped by a golden roof that shone like the sun, even in the dull, cloudy light.
I've moved on now to Kumbakonam, and have some more temples to visit before landing on a beach for Christmas and New Year. Trying to decide between Varkala in Kerala, Gokarna in Karnataka and Palolem in Goa. I've got the rest of my Sri Lankan pictures online now, if you'd like a look. I hope all's well in your world, and those of you back home aren't shivering too much in the cold weather. Until next time . . .