South India

Saturday, October 2, 2010

There was blood at first sight. The first time I saw the leeches, blood streamed from every one of them. I had been walking in the rainforest for the past two minutes with my brother, a surly local guide, and a false sense of security. "I don't need gaiters," I recalled saying at the forest department hut after finding out they would cost me sixty cents; "I've been to Nepal, the country of leeches. During the monsoon. Didn't get bitten once. Porters there wear jandals - just flick them off their legs before they can attach themselves."

"That's so interesting," replied the Swiss girl two months earlier at a rooftop cafe in Mamallapuram. "Yes," I agreed. As was the surreal, Edvard Munchian short-haired family selling beads at the crossroads below me. It was a particularly hot day on the Tamil Nadu coast so most of the locals sat in the shade of their shops, gloomily gazing as I did at the sweating sightseers passing through the crossroads on their way from cheap hotels to a cave painting or Israeli restaurant. The beadsellers approached every one of them, and watching the various hateful reactions of the tourists was pretty interesting too. "Yeah..." sighed the Swiss girl, shutting her moist, languid eyes. "I can't believe this pizza is only one hundred rupees. I can't believe you're here for nine months by yourself!" she smiled with her mouth. She was here for three weeks on a honeymoon with an unhappy overworked husband, who was still at their hotel lying in bed. We sat in silence for a while. I thought of the smiling old lonely man who bought ten kilograms of rice for the beadsellers earlier that day. What a stupid old man! who does he think he is, playing the benevolent condescending missionary, flying to "the third world" and bestowing gifts on the suffering helpless natives; reinforcing the image of westerners as weak-minded money bags with large, self-satisfying egos. And yet, what a simple, kind, good-hearted old man - out of a hundred travellers only he retains enough unquestioning human sympathy to actually do something, to actually give food to the hungry, instead of writing disjointed and long-winded complainist blog posts. As usual, cold, calculating cynicism formed a blindfold over my soul, hiding from myself the simple, theoryless love that is inherent in everybody, that would mean heaven on earth but for the cold, calculating human brain.

Happiness reigned on the bus to Pondicherry. My diary entry for that day, the first day of August: "Bus to Pondicherry, very good - it's nice when things go well. Walked up on board with big bag, had to stand dangerously on stairs but helped by really nice guy (bus was full). Put bag in good place, didn't fall over, eventually given seat, everyone smiling - the small things in life! Arrived knowing that the sun sets in the west and that I had to go east, but due to brain explosion walked 3km west anyway - 8km total walk in sun with bag. Couldn't take Rs. 30 rickshaw because too expensive (later spent Rs. 140 on iced chocolate). Pondy is ok, lots of people actually speak French, bakeries sell croissants, great value quiche and French sticks. Friendly place it seems. Might have to move to more expensive room tomorrow (this one is crazily hot, heat seems to eminate from the bed itself)"

In Trichy I saw the Rock Fort and a massive temple complex, and after good luck in meeting the right people, taking the right buses, and staying at the right place, decided that it was a very underrated city. After being patted on the head by an elephant at the incredible, bustling, barefeet-dirtying Sree Meenakshi temple complex in Madurai, I changed the initial tone of my blog completely and bused up to Kodaikanal in the misty pine forests of the Western Ghats! The deck of Greenlands Youth Hostel overlooks the eastern plains, and from here I spent my time failing to read about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, because a distant horizon is a surprisingly moving distraction from words.

Sitting in an icecream shop. A voice: "I want icecream bro, not meltcream." I had encountered another rare, special Kiwi. Dan, 32, from Whakatane, was pretty stoked to see me but gutted that he got icecream and shit on his Mint Chicks shirt.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything was confusion in Mysore, on the seventeenth day of August. A small boy had just been hit by a motorbike on Gandhi Square, and the mother, screaming, was running through swerving traffic towards his small body. The father sat cross-legged on the road and tore at his own hair. An immense, crushing circle of onlookers quickly formed, makeshift bandages of cloth were applied to small, bleeding limbs. Screaming gave way to wailing, but the mother's despair was barely audible above the hostile chaos around the fallen biker. The father tore off his shirt, pain creased his face. Emotions were raw, unrestrained, honest and unforgiving. An ambulance came, perhaps too late for the small boy, perhaps just in time for the scared, surrounded biker. Voices made themselves heard even after the ambulance had gone, but, reluctantly, the crowd began to disperse. Life continued, and futility weighed tragically on my soul.

I slapped madly at my ankles, but the first wave of leeches clung on valiantly. Thunder claps roused the monkeys above us to screaming pitch, lightning illuminated the surrounding forest, and a great rain began to fall, faster, faster even than the downpour that hit me upon my arrival in Hampi. During that latter downpour my Parisian friends and I took shelter with a ubiquitous cackling old lady under some leaky temple ruins, and hailed a rickshaw.

But when the sun rose the next morning, I realised that Hampi was magical, and it became one of the most memorable places of my trip. My diary entry on the 20th of August: "Drenched again by sudden rain after registering at police station built into temple ruins & columns. Long main street some distance from hotel, beginning with large Madurai-style temple and extending to the rock-strewn hills. Climbed a rocky mountain with the others, impressive views for km either side. Will easily spend a week here. Great place. Classically India - big monkeys fighting in the ruins with mangy dogs; orange lizards; rocky desert; parrots by day, bats by night; cows and goats; Indian people. Played French card game at night on rooftop, luckily it was 'scum'. Earlier had googled the Dreyfus Affair to impress French people, luckily forgot"

A sleeper bus from Hampi, overnight to Mangalore. I only stopped there in order to break up the long journey to Trivandrum in the far south, but ended up staying a few days. Its cleanliness and unusually flawless western ways were pleasing to my sanity, though my spirit rebelled against the place. I watched Inception and Toy Story 3 here at one of many flash shopping mall cinemas, and realised the degree to which I had been removed from my usual Nelson life these past six months.

Trivandrum was not up to much at all, so I quickly took another bus with some Irish guys to Kovalam beach. 4/9/10 - "I'm essentially staying in a homestay, with a sweet Italian-Indian woman who lives nearby. Sat around for a few hours on the porch with her and a French yoga-karate guy, who is here for six months studying Keralan martial arts. Temperature perfect for being otuside - hot sun cool breeze. The Italian told me about a good place for a Keralan thali near the small general store where I met the tout who took me here. And it was amazing food for Rs. 40 - banana, beetroot, mock potato curries with fat white rice grown in Kerala and, instead of dal, some soupy cheesy veg mixture. Ecstatic reading On The Road, googling the actual people, rediscovering Bob Dylan, discovering Janis Joplin - Cry Baby!! - getting totally into, in awe of, that whole era. Then as I walk through the little alleyways behind the beach, shaded by bananas and palms, I am filled with happiness. Also played football at night with local guys on the black sand at dusk"

Another short bus ride to Varkala, where I had some intense chai-chats with the Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis, and Karnatakan gypsies who own most of the shops, and then a train back north to Kochi. I spent one night in transit there, bused to Munnar for a few days, lost my wallet, cancelled all of my ATM cards, found my wallet again. And then back to Kochi, this time to spend a few days in the Dutch-Portuguese fort area as I awaited my brother's arrival in India.

We often spoke later of this fact: that although the lightning flash was undoubtedly the brightest either of us had ever experienced, and although the simultaneous thunder clap was definitely the most defeaning we had heard; the most frightening aspect of our experience lay not in either of these truths. It is easy and tempting to talk slightingly of the fight-or-flight response while in the comfort of a home. But when your stern, unflinching local army guide, who causes leeches to drop from his clothes with nothing but a look - when this guide drops his walking stick, screams, and bolts back the way you came - when he does this because of an apocalyptic lightning blast that sends butterflies of death into your heart - only then do you understand fight-or-flight. James turned with terror written all over his face, I covered my head and dropped to the ground. I cannot exaggerate the size and proximity of this shit. One minute later, after we recovered, we walked past a tree which had fallen across the path, the only visible victim of the unrelenting blitzkrieg - for now.

Leeches, leeches. As we finally made it back to the hut two hours later, our relief was short-lived. Leeches. They never cease to remind you of their humble presence. Another two hours in the hut surrounded by - this worried me more than anything - genuinely concerned park rangers. Leeches produce an anaesthetic, so their bites are painless, but they also produce a chemical which prevents your blood from clotting. Six hours and two rolls of toilet paper later all of my bites were still bleeding. I was stoked, this is entertainment!

I did other things with my brother. We played football with the locals in Fort Cochin, rode elephants and boats at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, and, in what will prove to be one of the highlights of my time here, OD'd on scenery and culture on various boat/canoe rides through the Keralan backwaters. We also learned why Indian men wear moustaches. But generally we had a good time, it was nice to see a familiar face after seven long months.

After a Jimmy-esque mad rush to the airport in Kochi, I took a train to Goa, from where I am typing this very word...

Goats in Mamallapuram

One of many people sleeping around the rocks, noontime at Mamallapuram

Trichy Rock Fort

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Trichy

Inside the Sree Meenakshi temple in Madurai

Madurai temple elephant taking donations and giving rewards

The three guys on the left asked for a photo, the one on the right is a notorious Indian photobomber

One of the seven towers at Sree Meenakshi temple

Sree Meenakshi temple, Madurai

A tea plantation near Ooty

Kids at the tea plantation

Near the tea plantation

Mysore Palace

Sad elephants in Mysore Palace gardens

Benoit, Alix, Florian and Solveig at the top of the mountain in Hampi

Part of the ruins spread all over Hampi, taken from the mountaintop

Banana plantations, ruins, winding paths, snakes - Hampi

The river in Hampi after it flooded overnight

Alleyways behind Kovalam beach


A houseboat on the Keralan backwaters

This guy was riding the local ferry service with a fridge. No one batted an eyelid of course

Schoolgirls onboard the local ferry

Not a big photography fan


James and a long string of fishing nets



Transprting fish on the backwaters

Loving it










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Leech bites

Sri Lanka

Monday, August 16, 2010

The purpose of this blog is not to dwell on despair; nor is it to consider the questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, importance and unimportance. It is merely to give an account of my travels on a basically superficial level - and the impression made on me by my time in Kolkata cut me far too deep to be touched on superficially. After many failed attempts to write about it properly, I will pass over it completely, and though the things I have seen shall always remain in my memory, ready to stab pride and vanity in the back, they won't bother anyone else just yet.

Around five days in Kolkata, then a long train to the nothing-city of Chennai, in the south of the country. The highlight of this place was experiencing a South Indian meal for the first time. Immediately after sitting down at a local restaurant, I was given a large, round piece of banana leaf with around ten different curries in a circle around it, and with a portion of rice in the center. On top of the rice lay a couple of papad, a kind of giant wafer-thin potato chip. I was completely at a loss as to how I should begin. First, I hesitantly tasted all the curries, one after the other, much to the amusement of the lingering waiter. There was spicy potato, sour curd, lentil soup, something red and green which looked dangerously like sliced chili, a chutney vaguely resembling marmite in taste, a sweet desert, as well as a few other dishes. By this stage the waiter had called over his friends, and about six of them had gathered behind me out of curiosity. I decided to mix everything together, like they do in North India, but as I did so the group of waiters burst out laughing, some of them bending double in the agonies of excessive good humour. Only now do I realise that I was supposed to mix a little rice with each curry in a clockwise direction and eat them separately. I was still a naive gora, but now that I'm used to it I find myself looking strangely at other tourists who break this rule, as well as people who point their feet at me or give me change with their left hand. Anyway, after I had destroyed my taste buds with this faux pas, and after the waiters had partially recovered, I was given a banana (quite a lot smaller and sweeter than the ones we get in NZ) as well as a kind of Indian smoothie, which topped off a meal that would become a staple when I returned a month later.

Following a couple of sleepless nights in Chennai, plagued by giant mosquitoes, monsoon floods, and homosexual airport security guards, I boarded my flights to Sri Lanka. It was a pretty nice flight (once we had flown out of India's polluted skies), over unbroken expanses of jungle which eventually gave way to coconut plantations, tiny settlements, and then urban sprawl until we landed safely at Bandaranaike International Airport, ninety minutes north of the capital, Colombo.

My first, and lasting impression of Sri Lanka, was that it is a country with far fewer hassles, and much more general tourist appeal than India. It is smaller than the South Island and has even more climatic and geographical variation. It is tropical, so temperatures are constant throughout the year - with maximums of about 30 degrees on the coast, 40 degrees inland, and 20 degrees in the mountains. Two monsoons strike the country each year, one hitting the southwest in and around July, and the other hitting the northeast over Christmas. I had a month here before my return flight, and didn't really want to waste time in the modern city of Colombo, but I spent a couple of days there resting and crashing a wedding on the top floor of the World Trade Center before catching a nice train to Sri Lanka's second city, Kandy. Centered around a lake and situated in the foothills, it had for me an indefinable charm despite the lack of anything in particular to do. It actually felt like New Zealand, as did most of the hill country, and understandably - eleven year-olds walked round in BlackCaps caps and AllBlacks shirts; milo, marmite and ginger beer were all available in the numerous roadside food stalls; Anchor Milk advertisements, showing cows in a field next to Mt Taranaki, were everywhere. It was a good feeling, especially with the lower temperatures at night; and largely because I was staying with a brilliant Sri Lankan family at The Pink House, I spent a few nights there. In the daytime, giant monitor lizards would rest alongside pelicans and turtles on the exposed branches of a tree which had fallen into the lake. Despite the noisy main road running alongside, Kandy Lake was always a peaceful place to spend a few hours until the sun went below the surrounding hills; then, when a massive chorus of birdsong would suddenly break out from the trees above, and an immense mass of fish would gather at the shore and gaze up at passers-by, the monitors and pelicans would slowly be tempted back into the water, apparently quite content.

I took a bus south to chilly Nuwara Eliya, which far too populated to live up to its scenic reputation, and then I took another bus to Haputale. This tiny settlement is perched on a ridge overlooking the hill country basin, and, to the south, the distant plains, which extended all the way to the coast. Nearby was the original Lipton's tea estate - I managed to get a place on the bus from Haputale for the tea workers, who all thought me pretty hilarious. In fact the whole atmosphere of the plantation was, perhaps surprisingly, a pleasant one - as I walked up the road to the spot where Thomas Lipton used to survey his empire, the smiling Tamil pickers, mostly old women, would stop working to come over and say hello. Tiny children ran excited circles around me, while their fathers asked for a photo and then gave me an address in order that I might send it to them later on. The walk took a few hours, and on the way down some local tourists from Jaffna offered me a ride. Their van sped around hairpin bends and over potholes as the guys, university students, asked me about New Zealand and told me about Daniel Vettori while Vanity Fare's "Hitchin' a Ride" played at full volume, and astonished, elderly workers watched us go by. I was very happy to be there - happy to be travelling.

On the 11th of July, I took a train to Ella, quite nearby. Despite basically consisting of a string of small guest houses and restaurants, this little one-road village was probably one of the highlights of my Sri Lanka trip. There were great day-walks in the area, through pine and eucalyptus forests and up mountains. The locals were again very friendly and taught me a lot about Sri Lanka, directly and indirectly. I hate to sound like a patronising colonialist from the 19th century when I keep talking about "friendly natives", but I was truly impressed by how sensible, generous, and happy everyone seemed to be, including bus drivers and rickshaw drivers (who are consistently hostile in India). Even the tourists in Ella were more interesting than usual, and it was sweet when all the locals and foreigners in town got together to watch the World Cup Final at the only place still open - officially, all bars had to be closed by 10pm, but in reality the town police chief was a big fan of Spain. My hotel was called Rawana Holiday Resort, and the family running the place cooked the best meal in South Asia - a little bit like the South Indian one I described before, but with distinctive Sri Lankan curries made using ingredients like jackfruit, coconut, and mango.

After a couple of weeks in the mountains, I took another enjoyable train through the fog to Sigiriya, breaking the journey with a night in Kandy. Sigiriya blew my mind. Amid dense jungle lies a small village where monkeys wreak havoc and where nightwatchmen scare away the wild elephants which still endanger both crops and lives. And, towering above the village, is a giant rock formation which once housed either a royal palace or a Buddhist monastery - but which is impressive either way. After you climb past ancient paintings of Sri Lankan women and equally ancient Sinhalese graffiti, the views from the top are wild. The next day I cycled around the ruins and giant pagodas of Anuradhapura, and then it was onward to the east coast.

The East has a tragic history which somewhat diminished my enjoyment of the beaches touted by Lonely Planet. While most of Sri Lanka is inhabited by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, the East is almost exclusively populated by the Hindu Tamils. And, unfortunately, the two very different ethnic and religious groups have clashed repeatedly over the years. Since the 1970's, until 2008, the country experienced a long period of civil war, which became especially violent a few years ago when the Sinhalese-dominated government launched a massive invasion of Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. The Tamil Tigers, one of the most effective separatist organisations in recent history, alternated between terrorism tactics and full-scale military operations as they pretended to represent the whole Tamil population in violently pushing for independence. The Sri Lankan government, which originally merely neglected the rights and the welfare of Tamils, now persecuted them. The conflict grew more and more violent over a thirty year period, interrupted only by brief periods of ceasefire to recruit more child soldiers, until eventually the Sri Lankan army invaded the Tiger-held areas. And my time on the east coast was mainly spent talking to crippled old Tamil men whose sons had been killed in the civil war, whose daughters had been swept away by the boxing day Tsunami, and whose wives had died of neglect in a refugee camp somewhere.

After this provoking experience, I caught a bus to Galle, on the south coast. The bus driver and conductor were great guys, and despite a couple of punctures it was a (partially) light-hearted bus ride. Galle was originally a small Portuguese fort, but it wasn't until the Dutch captured it that it was developed as Sri Lanka's major 18th century harbour. Within the fort walls today, many of the old Dutch buildings still remain, and I liked the city for its strange character, its seamless blend of cultures. It's not uncommon to witness scenes like a Hindu procession marching past what was once a Dutch church, but what is now a mosque from which the Muslim call to prayer resonates, distracting a couple of Buddhist monks who are trying to read their English-language newspapers in a French cafe owned by a Romanian gypsy. Sitting by the lighthouse at night, on the walls of the fort, as waves crashed against the rocks below and the smell of salt permeated the air, I saw fireflies for the first time in my life. The full extent of my childhood dreams had been realised.

After Galle I went to the Unawatuna and then Hikkaduwa, both of them uninspiring and overdeveloped beach resorts. I don't understand why we look as tourists to classy hotels and full moon beach parties for happiness, when the most perfect bliss can be found in something like a little firefly on a night too dark to see much else. I took a train up the coast from Hikkaduwa to Colombo on the 28th of July, to catch my flights back to Chennai the next morning. Since then I have been in Tamil Nadu, and for the next couple of months will remain in South India.

Kandy Lake

At Thomas Lipton's tea estate

Outside a school for the kids of the tea estate workers

Schoolgirls walk home through the tea plantation

A village girl near Ella

The view from Ella Rock

The meal at the Rawana Holiday Resort. I have the recipe

Taking the hill country train from Ella to Kandy

An elephant gives rides, with Sigiriya in the background

Monkeys near Sigiriya

Millenniums-old cave paintings halfway up Sigiriya

A monkey surveys the views from Sigiriya

A massive Buddhist Pagoda in Anuradhapura

An even bigger, and much older pagoda, again in Anuradhapura

A Buddhist Priest considers a statue of Buddha in Anuradhapura. During India's independence movement, Nehru contemplated a photo of this statue to give himself courage while languishing in prison

Uppaveli beach, near Trincomalee on the east coast

Uppaveli beach

Passekudah beach, near Batticaloa, also on the east coast

A jeweller in Batticaloa

His wife, and son who invited me to their house for tea

Kids play soccer on the fort walls - one day before this photo was taken, Muralitharan scored his record 800th wicket at Galle stadium in the background

A newly-married couple take a stroll inside the fort

Dutch architecture, I think

Romance in the battlements

On the fort walls

On the bottom floor, my room in Unawatuna. Sri Lanka has some amazing plaecs to stay - this one was set in a coconut and banana grove

A temple or monastery adjacent to Unawatuna beach

Unawatuna beach during the full moon festival of July 26

Unawatuna beach during the full moon festival of July 26

A small part of the procession, approaching the temple/monastery


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