Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 7 – Mannar Island

From the same spot I’d arrived at a couple days earlier, my bus trundled off, bound for Mannar, after not much more than a few minutes wait. Stocked up with a few snacks form the shop across the road, even on a Sri Lankan bus, I anticipated that this would be a fairly easy journey. Weighing in at just 90 minutes to two hours, with a good seat and an early morning departure, I was feeling pretty good. If Vavuniya had been my first real taste of northern culture, Mannar was to ratchet it up a notch. This started almost immediately that we left the city limits. The roads quickly degenerated into pot hole filled messes. A brief chat with one of my fellow passengers, who saw the tension in my face as the bus tipped to perhaps 30 degrees, revealed that, at the end of the war, the government in Colombo had promised much in terms of infrastructure repairs for the decimated northern province, but that little had been forthcoming. This explained why the journey of only 45 kilometres or so, on a relatively straight road, took such a long time. Suspension testing discomfort notwithstanding, we arrived in Mannar without incident fairly quickly.

Mannar is referred to by just about everyone as an island. Strictly, it’s a peninsula. Access is allowed to rail and road by two parallel causeways, which give quite remarkable views over the sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean, though the city itself is not the jewel you might hope to see, when you arrive at the other side.

IMG_20150716_142022374DSC_0703IMG_20150716_142153105

As you leave the causeway – pictured above – you turn straight on, leaving the old, ruined Dutch fortress to your right and head on to the bus terminal, situated next to a series of markets and across the road from a bunch of eateries, that I would come to know well. Not having booked accommodation and unsure whether there might be vacancies int he limited range of places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, I had a walk around the market, asking people if they knew of any accommodation.

Disappointingly, no-one could suggest anywhere beyond the places that were mentioned in the book, so I decided to take a chance. I wandered down the main east-west road towards the post office where I found the most highly recommended guest houses in the town. I also found that it was full. Across the road though, a man was pulling up on a scooter and asked me if I was looking for accommodation. He showed me into his accommodation which was just across the road and, while it didn’t look as nice as the lavishly gardened place I had been looking at, it was certainly clean and offered a large room with a double bed for me to sleep on. At 1500 rupees per night, the price was also right. I accepted his offer, paid for my room and dropped my things. Walking with my bags in the midday sun had left me rather clammy, so I took a quick shower and headed out for lunch and then to explore the island a little. In a turn of events that beggared belief, the café next to my accommodation didn’t have rice and curry for lunch. So, it was fried rice, with chicken and then a walk.

IMG_20150716_145532481

The first thing you notice in Mannar, just walking around, is donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere. Sadly, they’re often not in tremendous shape and even more often eating in piles of rubbish, which might explain why they’re not in good shape. When you ask local people where they came from, the best story I managed to get was that someone brought them a long time ago. Some investigation via google and various blogs seemed to suggest that they had been used by a wealthy family group who had had lucrative linen washing business on the island. When the business dried up, the donkeys were left free to roam. Not sure I buy it, but it’s the best I can do.

Anyway, once outside the centre of Mannar town, you quickly find yourself on the rocky/sandy water’s edge, which is not hard or time consuming to reach in any direction. As I mentioned before the litter is a great shame and really stark against the pale blue of the shallow water, but nonetheless, it’s prettier than you think on first arriving in the town.

Returning to my accommodation after a few hours of walking around the coastline and talking to/scaring donkeys, I heard a commotion, with someone speaking over a loud speaker. Of course, it was a cricket match. So I grabbed a cold chocolate milk from a corner tea house and went and sat in the stands until dinner.

DSC_0684

After the match and a short nap, I decided to walk in to the town to grab something to eat. At the bottom of town were a row of eateries, opposite the bus station, as I mentioned earlier. I was tipped off about one of them and went inside to get something to eat. They had kottu ready to go, so a steaming plate of beef and cheese kottu was ordered and devoured shortly after it arrived. Hot with great chunks of chopped red chilli, the gravy was also particularly fiery. I made a note to come back here often.

IMG_20150716_203539098

Food was quickly followed by sleep, as the next morning I was going for a change to my regular programme, as far as Sri Lanka was concerned – a trip to a Christian pilgrimage site!

Waking up in the morning, I realised I needed to get breakfast before heading off, as I ddn’t know when I’d eat again. So I dashed downtown to the restaurant I’d been to the night before. I asked, more from hope than expectation, if they had anything special for breakfast and, to my huge surprise, the manager told me that they had hoppers with eggs and gravy. Tea would be fifteen minutes or more though, as they had run out. Realising you can’t have it all, I ordered a plate of the hoppers with eggs and gravy and a ginger beer. It was so nice to have something different for breakfast from the other meals I was used to eating – we were getting into the later part of my second week in Sri Lanka by now. I ate, felt thoroughly satisfied, then jumped into a tuk tuk taxi to the station.

IMG_20150717_194915908

Arriving at the station, I still had plenty of time to get my train. I bought my ticket and waited, noting that I was the only foreigner there. I strolled down to a nearby store to buy some water for my day and began to look at my guide for details of what was to be found at Madhu Junction. As with most Catholic pilgrimage sites, Madhu was a place where people witnessed a miraculous appearance of the holy virgin. It is also the place where a small statue of the virgin is kept safe. Boarding the train, I sat down in a third class seat. Diagonally opposite me was a Sri Lankan fellow, curious at seeing a foreigner on this train, he struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was from Colombo and had been working at the Mannar branch of a finance company. He was very honest about his country, expressing his frustration about the state of the government and the need for a lot of change to improve the country. He was also extremely candid about the underinvestment in the north and about his experiences of working with good people there who deserve better. We had such a good chat that we exchanged contact details and are still in touch, though he’s now been relocated back to Colombo, which is great news for his wife and young child.

Arriving at Madhu had positively comic results. As I hopped off, the station manager approached me and told me that I was at the wrong station. I told him that I wanted Madhu Road and showed him my ticket. First he smiled. Then he pulled a confused expression, and then he stopped. He asked me again just to make sure and then finally set about asking me why I was there. I told him I was there to visit the church of our lady of Madhu and he became positively excited. He asked if I had booked a taxi ahead. I said that I hadn’t and so he called his friend who was equally excited, once he arrived. We negotiated a price for the trip and set off. It was a very bumpy 30 minutes, way off from the main road into the countryside. I was beginning to think the fellow was lost – particularly when we stopped to pick up his niece from school – but we arrived soon enough, without any detours. I jumped out to see what was a huge complex. The site was one of the most important Christian sites on the island for a very long time and, with its position at the very heart of the conflict during the civil war, the church and its grounds found itself home to many thousands of refugees at various points during the war. It has received a great deal of renovation in recent years, largely owing to the visit of Pope Francis in 2014. You can find more information about the site from wikipedia here.

Now it was time to go in and see the lady of Madhu for myself. There was a sign outside saying “no photography” which was disappointing but, once inside I noticed that none of the pilgrims were paying any mind to it, so I swiftly grabbed my phone camera and grabbed a quick snap. It was a very small effigy but really nicely presented. It was interesting that some of the pilgrims there were not Christian, but in fact Hindu or Buddhist yet they were still offering up prayers to her.

IMG_20150717_125210629

After seeing our lady of Maddhu and having a walk around the grounds, looking at the dramatic, almost life-sized dark wood sculptures of the stations of the cross and chatting to a few pilgrims, I had just an hour or so to try to find some lunch before my tuk tuk driver returned to take me back to the main road. I strolled across the wonderfully peaceful gardens of the church to the canteen and stepped inside. The smiling man behind the almost surgically clean stainless steel serving counter greeted me and then looked somewhat dumbfounded when I asked him if there was still rice and curry for lunch – it was after two o’clock. Eventually, he told me apologetically that they didn’t get foreign tourists there. I told him that now they had one and pressed him on the rice and curry. He told me it was too hot for me. I smiled and told him that I’d like some anyway. So he started spooning it out for me and gave me just three dishes. first just a spoon of each on a small plate to try. I tasted each one and told him they were all delicious. He looked half confused and half delighted and so decided that I really ought to try everything. So I ended up with a mountain of rice and no less than six of the little silver pots full of curry and the associated sides. I can confidently say that this was in the top three meals I had in all my time in Sri Lanka and I made sure the extremely courteous and friendly staff knew as much. There was also, of course, ginger beer to wash it down and a mug of hot milky tea to finish. I left the restaurant with an extremely full and satisfied belly and left the staff with a generous tip. I strongly recommend this restaurant to anyone who finds themselves in the area.

DSC_0700

This left me with about twenty minutes to sit in the shade on the edge of the church garden and wait for my ride. The tuk tuk driver arrived and was quite apologetic about being a few minutes late. I hadn’t even noticed and told him as much. We hurtled back down the long straight road to the main highway in to Mannar. There, I asked him to let me off, as I knew that the train was a good hour and a half away. I stopped at a roadside café for a drink and to read for a bit. So I sat almost under the gate to the Maddhu complex for the next hour in the café, where the waiter told me that the bus back into town was a better option than to wait for the train. I followed his advice and found myself – via a typically bumpy journey, back in Mannar in time for a nap.

DSC_0701

The next day was a chance to explore Mannar itself and that started, after more eggs hoppers, with the fortress. I found myself at eight o’clock in the morning, competing with a family of donkeys to enter the old ruin. As with so many of these fortresses, it had been founded by the portuguese, reinforced about a century later by the Dutch and then finally used by the British until the end of the colonial period. Also like many of the other fortresses – particularly those in the north – it had remained in fairly good shape until the later parts of the civil war whereupon it had become a base for Tamil forces and had been bombed out by government troops. In spite of this eventful life, it still made an interesting place to visit, almost entirely deserted but for the aforementioned donkeys and a huge number of crows.

With the fortress explored and photographed, it was time to cross the the northern tip of the island. There, I would find the Baobab tree. These trees are native to the Arabian peninsula and were thought to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Arabic merchants as early as seven hundred years earlier. The one here in Mannar is treated with some reverence and has a Buddhist temple attached to it. Having never seen one before and reading that they were particularly unusual looking, I decided I had to take a look. After about forty five minutes of walking in the midday sun, I found it and, if I was looking for something strange, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed here! As you can see from the plaque, the trunk of this gigantic plant is close to twenty metres around, while it also stretches up to seven and a half metres above the ground. It’s quite impressive. The pockmarks and wrinkles on the bark are also quite bizarre.

From here I was near to the northern edge of the island, so I decided I would keep on walking and see some of the small fishing communities, even further detached from anything resembling tourism. Once up there, I found myself bombarded with the smell of fish in the air. Turning a corner to the narrow street running parallel to the shore line, it quickly became apparent why. The fishermen had laid out their catches in the sun to dry. It made for quite a sight, the sun reflecting off the silvery skin. I continued walking around the coastal road until I was struck by something that strongly reminded me of home. By home, of course, I nowadays mean Portugal. For here was a traditional Portuguese church.

At first I just spied the silvery dome over the walls and immediately I decided to go to investigate further. Coming round, finally to the front of the church, it was unmistakeably Portuguese and I will admit to feeling a little pang of homesickness. I wandered inside and the pastor of the church came to meet me and gave me a little tour, with his niece. They explained that they were Portuguese burghers, the man having one great grandparent who was Portuguese. They were also delighted to meet someone with some connection to Portugal, even if only as a foreigner who lived there. They implored me to tell my Portuguese friends to visit. I of course said that I would. Walking outside the church, I ran into more Portuguese burghers and, for the first time on my trip, they were asking me about football rather than cricket. A sign of the Portuguese influence if ever there was one!

After saying goodbye to the displaced Portuguese and having seen a very distinct cultural difference from the more British influenced folk I had met throughout the island thus far I took the slow meandering walk back inland to where I was staying. I washed a few things back at the accommodation and then popped back to what had become one of my real favourite eateries for one last meal. This time, they had something new for me. Roti bread served with a pile of fried chicken and vegetables in batter that you rolled up and ate like a burrito. Needless to say it was top stuff. After that, it was time for bed before the next morning’s bus ride on to Jaffna, the capital of the north!

IMG_20150718_135142577

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy yours, here:

SriLanka

Tavira – The ‘Other’ Algarve

My first weekend off work in almost four months, so what on Earth was I doing not just out of bed, but in a train station at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Of course, it was time for another adventure. I don’t know how it happens with my readers, but whenever I go to a train station and need to buy my ticket from a human being, I invariably have to wait for my 50 second transaction by people who take so unfeasibly long to get through their business, that I imagine them asking questions like: “so this train, what’s that?” or “which is quicker..?” and then producing a list of 40 or 50 different options for their journey. But anyway, with a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the front of the line, submitted my simple request – to the salesman’s relief – and headed up to platform four or Entrecampos station to wait for my train.

More or less bang on time, the Alfa Pendular to Faro rolled in. It was to be my first time on this, the flagship train of the Portuguese network. Even at that ungodly hour and with limited coffee propping my eyelids open, I was fairly excited to jump on board. I pretty swiftly found my seat, got settled with my magazine and we were off. The train took off, speedily charging through Alcantara and sweeping out across the 25th April bridge. I gave Lisbon a wave goodbye and by a quarter to nine, we were speeding through Setubal and onward to the south.

LisbonTrainBridgeCollage

Owing to the raft of people who didn’t know how to interface with a ticket office, I’d been unable to buy any refreshments for my journey before boarding and my experience of such disasters on British trains had taught me that I was in store for an unpleasant and expensive pseudo coffee and water which cost more per millilitre than molten gold. Thankfully, this is Portugal and for only 3 Euros, I returned to my seat equipped with a decent cup of coffee, an orange juice and a bottle of water for later. I got comfy and read my magazine, occasionally glancing out at the countryside roaring past my window or left, up to the LED speedometer, informing me of our rapid rate of advance – often around 235kph. In what seemed like a very short time, we rolled in to Albufeira and, finally, Faro.

The last time I’d been here, I was 9 years old. On my first family holiday abroad, landing at the then still quite new Faro airport and staying in the British micro colony of Praia da Rocha. It had been lovely as a 9 year old boy, sunshine, scorpions (which I cruelly poked with sticks at every opportunity) and warm(ish) sea. But in retrospect, it was something of a hellish vision. For all the beauty of the beach, with it’s starkly cut rock-grandeur and the mildness of the climate, it was exactly the kind of Brits-abroad chicken burger fest I was hoping to avoid. So this time, I jumped off the train and took my extra 26 years of wisdom on to a train east. To Tavira.

Inifinitely less finessed and filled to bursting with (mainly) Portuguese tourists, our ageing little train pulled out of Faro station within a matter of minutes and started the gentle stroll along the coast, hugging the water as it went. As if a metaphor for the slower pace at which every element of life chugs along here, in the heart of the Algarve region, no-one – myself included – seemed to mind the trains slow and steady progression through Olhao, and other places, finally stopping off at Tavira. A large handful of us jumped off and, with a quick consultation of my map, I was off down a street named after a doctor, towards the heart of town. A leisurely 10 minute stroll, and a couple of beautifully flowered squares later, and I was buzzing my way in to the Tavira B&B.

A quick chat with the owner, a quicker change out of my jeans – it was a full 10 degrees hotter than Lisbon – and I was out and off to a recommended local restaurant to try some fish. I was, after all, on the Mediterranean/Atlantic coast. I found myself in the Avenida restaurant. Described to me as being just like it was 30 years ago, it seemed like it was a restaurant from 30 years ago, whcih was just fine with me. I ordered some bread and olives to start and my travelling companion ordered a plate of mixed grilled fish, while I had octopus and vegetable stuffed pancakes, simply because I’d never even heard of such a combination before. The olives were obviously local, the main courses excellent and the bill, considering we were now well and truly in tourist country, during the Easter weekend no less, was more than acceptable.

With lunch done, it was time to wander a bit. Tavira is a really tiny place and consists of just a small few streets on one side of the river, with a further few across the other side. With much of the old town on the side nearest the station, I decided that was the best place to explore first. At the bottom of the main road into town, you are abruptly stopped by a pedestrian zone, which backs on to the river. In the middle is a column, with a water feature to one side with cafés and restaurants dotted around. It’s from here that, if you bear left, you can walk up one of the oldest streets and find the old castle.

DSC_0009 DSC_0006 DSC_0001

Beyond the stairs, you end up at a community culture centre, where an enthusiastic woman came out to tell me, in beautiful English, about the programme of culture and music they had for the weekend. I thanked her for the information and walked on up a narrow street of near identical whitewashed buildings, but for one with a door with a cute piece of street art on it. Every now and then a glorious view would peek at you from between the buildings on the left, as you got higher up over the city.

DSC_0015 DSC_0017 DSC_0024

Reaching the top of the hill, I saw that there was a camera obscura here. While unable to take any photos inside, for obvious reasons, it was a really nice thing to do, especially as I’d never been in one before. I found myself regularly forgetting it was a live picture of the city, projected onto the lens in front of me and then, as a person moved, the realisation hit me squarely in the face again. The lady giving the tour also a slightly vicious way with the cane she was using to point to different landmarks, so I made sure not to make too much eye contact. The other really nice thing about it was that it was set up inside the old water tower. A great way of utilising architectural heritage in an effective way.

DSC_0025

From here, I wandered the streets at the upper end of the city, looking for the way in to the castle. When I eventually found it, I was quite amazed to see that the entire centre coutryard had been turned into a beautiful flower garden. There were several men at work even as I walked around, keeping everything pristine, and I’m really not sure that any of my photos do any of the flower beds justice. I was also able to climb up various sections of the battlements – no British-style health and safety here, folks – and the rugged nature of the ruined parts, destroyed like so much in Portugal in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755, was quite a sight.

DSC_0042 DSC_0048 DSC_0052 Pano_0007 DSC_0034 DSC_0035 DSC_0036 DSC_0037

Love the sentiment, but that grammar... yuck!
Love the sentiment, but that grammar… yuck!

With the castle fully inspected, it was time to cross the Roman Bridge over the river and to take in the views from the tallest building in the city, the only high rise hotel, which had been recommended to me by the cane wielding woman in the camera obscura. As the only multi storey building in a city of duplexes and bungalows, you might fear that the Porta Nova hotel would be something of a monstrosity, but happily enough, it’s quite elegantly put together and sits behing much of the riverfront property, on a little plateau, so it doesn’t look too bad at all. I walked in and sat at the pool garden bar out the back and had a beer before the cocktail bar on the roof opened. When it did, I jumped in the lift and made my way to the 10th floor, for a quite breathtaking view over the city.

Pano_0008

After a few minutes of staring out over the horizon, I went back down and walked through the town, past the Roman bridge and the huge Irish bar opposite, past some really interesting architecture, including one huge, arched building, of which all but the facade has completely caved in.

DSC_0055 DSC_0029 DSC_0060

After the walk, I was beaten. So, suffering with a cold – always during the holidays!!! – and having woken up stupidly early, I retired for a nap. In the evening, I went to a Portuguese Goan restaurant, ordered the firiest thing on the menu to chase away my running nose and beat a hasty retreat back to bed.

Friday started with two pieces of excellent news. The forecast cloud cover existed only in my weather app’s imagination and my cold had indeed been beaten into submission by the brute force of chilli and ginger. I went out onto the B&B’s lovely terrace for breakfast with a smile on my face and tucked into my melée of cheeses, hams and breads, washed down with Algarve orange juice and powerful coffee. After a quick shower and remembering to put my swimming shorts under my regular shorts, it was off to the town and the trip to the beach. A quick covering of sunblock, making sure my book was in my bag and I was off.

Tavira is a city where the beach is actually somewhat disconnected from the city itself. The river flows all the way down to a small inlet of water that sits behind a small ‘island’ which separates it from the sea. The easiest way to get there is to board a ferryboat at a pier, just along from the Roman bridge, next to the old fish market, now a food hall for artisan local cuisine. But as I arrived, there was some commotion. The boat, it seemed, was not running, other than every 2 to 3 hours, as it was not yet high season. So it was a 2km walk down to the jetty, where boats still left every 15 minutes or so, even at this time of the year. At first it seemed like a hardship, but the pleasant weather, sea breeze and the chance to get a closer look at the thing that Tavira was originally founded for – salt mines – made it quite an enjoyable walk.

Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years
Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years

Arriving at the jetty, after a 30 minute walk, I bought my ticket for the unbelievably low price of 1.50 Euros and boarded the waiting boat. I watched a crab acrobatically climb along a wooden pillar belonging to the pier at water level while the boat filled up with other tourists and then we were off. The short glide across the still water to the island was quick and before long we were at the huge beach island, dotted with huts and small houses which people from far away evidently used as holiday homes.

DSC_0069 DSC_0066

Jumping off the boat and wandering through scrubby pathways among the trees, I saw a huge number of these little holidays homes and, after a few minutes, passed by a row of restaurants and cafés, before coming to a huge stretch of beach. Way down to the right was the beginning of the national park – the Ria Formosa – home to a huge number of northern Europe’s migratory birds during the cold season – but before that was an enormous stretch of beautiful sand. I put down my towel, read my book and relaxed, just what was needed. I also afforded myself a wander, a very brief splash in the freezing cold Atlantic water and a lunch at one of the grill restaurants – at less than 20 Euros, including a huge caneca (mug) of beer, not bad for a resort town. There are also a couple of attractively painted lighthouses, dotted along the coastline. Despite the fabulous weather, there were surprisingly few people on the beaches. The lady who owns my B&B told me that the resort has become really choked during July and August in recent years, but in April, it’s just perfect for a relaxing break.

DSC_0085 DSC_0091 DSC_0098

After catching the boat back and finding something for dinner, I had a few drinks in a couple of different bars, mostly half full and not holding any tourists, due to the season. Eventually, I found a hugely lively place, full of locals, playing Pink Floyd loudly and filling glasses with whatever you wanted for very little money. It was a great, friendly atmosphere, in spite of my limited Portuguese. I sadly can’t recall seeing any sign for the name of the place, but it was just along from the bridge, on the castle side and was certainly the night life highlight. Before I knew where I was, it was 3am and I was just 7 hours away from my bus to Faro, to connect with my train home and it was time for bed. But for Tavira and I, it was definitely not good bye, but more “See you later”.