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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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Adventures in Greece Part 2 – The Acropolis & on to Naxos

Having explored our local area of Piraeus, we decided it was time to go to what was our real reason for coming to Athens – to see the Acropolis. First we had to find the metro. We walked away from the marina area towards what looked like a denser part of the suburb and decided we would walk for a few minutes and then, if we hadn’t seen anything, we’d ask someone for the way to the metro. So we walked past umpteen cafés, purveying wide varieties of cappucino freddos and then, at the end of the road, we saw the metro line. We crossed the city highway via the footbridge to the metro side and had a choice: to turn left or right and to follow the track to the next station. Inevitably turning left was completely the wrong decision and the one that we took. So we walked, and walked… and walked some more and eventually found ourselves in the very heart of Piraeus. We walked past a busy street market and came, finally, to the statue, next to the port. ImageImage We went to one of the many ferry offices, and asked how we might find the metro station. We were directed across a bridge to a huge yellow building. When we arrived, we finally saw the tiny sign for the metro, that was inside. We went in,  bought day tickets and boarded the train that was sitting in the station. The metro was quite modern and comfortable and there were only a small few people onboard. Quickly though, as its departure time approached, more and more people boarded and it became quite cramped. I ended up surrendering my seat to a heavily shopping laden elderly woman. Before coming to Athens, I had read a lot about crimes like robbery, pick-pocketing (and worse) on the metro, even during the day, so I had a fierce determination to keep my wits about me and a strong hand on my camera. But as we set off in the direction of the city, there was seemingly nothing untoward happening. The first stop (agonizingly close to where we had initially started tracing the metro route on foot) was at the impressive stadium of Olympiacos, one of Athens’ 3 top flight football teams. At this stop though, the atmosphere became quite different onboard. 2 young roma children boarded the train, one with a violin-like musical instrument. Immediately an old man (the husband of the woman I had given my seat to) rushed over to him and scolded him through gritted teeth. People were visibly uncomfortable, all around, but no-one seemed to do anything. The situation didn’t escalate further, thankfully, but the atmosphere lasted right until we arrived at the central station: Monastiraki. DSC_0058 DSC_0160 As we walked out of the station, into the bustling market place, with art, jewelry and touristy crap being sold in every available square metre, I began to ask Ania where we might find the Acropolis. She simply pointed over to the right hand side and there, above us, was the mountain platform with the parthenon and other assorted ancient buildings on. It was quite a sight! It was also quite a way up and, as yet, we had only eaten breakfast and a cake. With the time approaching 3pm, we decided to go for lunch. We wandered around the narrow streets on the way up to the summit for a few moments, before finding a quiet place offering gyros in pitta, that had a few tables free. We started off with some fresh bread and tatziki and then were surprised when our “light lunch” arrived. N.B. there is no such thing as a light lunch in Greece. These people REALLY feed you. DSC_0059 So, with our faces royally stuffed, it was time to make the ascent. We wandered first past Hadrian’s library – a long, fenced off area that is still being excavated by the looks of things. No more than 30 metres from the town square, people selling their wares almost completely block your view of it. But I managed to get a couple of shots of it on my way past. DSC_0062 DSC_0060 Next, we happened upon a restaurant with a truly wonderful view up to the mountain, as well as into a nearby historical site which was largely unmarked. DSC_0065 DSC_0066 DSC_0069 DSC_0070 From here, we followed the signs, as the slender road wound its way around the hillside up to the Acropolis plateau itself. We stopped off briefly to buy some water and postcards from a small shop, and to take in the ever more impressive view during the ascent. Then, finally, we had arrived at the gate. We bought our tickets and were instructed to finish our drinks before we went inside the Acropolis complex. So we found our way to a shady bench, not far from a line of sleeping dogs, who must have been roasting in the heat. Once we had finished off our water bottles, we went in. As you enter the Acropolis gate, while your view is dominated by the huge, busy outcrop above you, your attention is soon diverted to the right where a large theatre – still in occasional active use today – sits below you. With the light rigs still mounted for summer performances, it’s easy to imagine yourself sitting in there watching a concert or a play. DSC_0079 After staring down at the detail here for a few moments, we went on up to the main Acropolis area. DSC_0081 DSC_0082 DSC_0084 DSC_0085 DSC_0087

Once on top of the plateau, besides the phenomenal ancient structures all around the place, I was struck by two things: first, just how high above the city you are and secondly that it’s really very windy up there (I realise these issues are connected). As I left the stairs up onto the plateau, to your right you see the really quite enormous structure of the Parthenon. As is to be expected, it’s in an almost constant state of renovation, but in spite of all of the scaffolding, you cannot help but be struck dumb by the enormity of it and to feel the ages that it has borne witness to atop the lookout point over Athens and the Mediterranean beyond.

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From here, your view is drawn left, to the “old” temple of Athena, with its extraordinarily detailed pillars, in the shape of the temple maidens. This is a far smaller structure than the Parthenon but, hugging the cliff edge as it does and with the fine detail of its construction, no less impressive.

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Once you’ve taken in these wonderful sights and the Museum, located behind the Parthenon itself, there is a wonderful lookout point, with a huge Greek flag flying. At any given time a swarming mass of people sits up there, gazing out across the sprawling city below and to the other 2 significant peaks in this mountainous landscape. Even with the wind trying to blow you away, it’s something of a must-do while up here.

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Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall
Amazing what you can see through a hole in an ancient wall

After wandering, sitting, and staring for a good hour or more, we decided it was time to descend back down to the street. We tread carefully on our way down as the huge, ancient stones – worn down by countless millions of feet – are really quite slippery. We stopped in at the same little store for more water – all this walking is thirsty work – and then continued to Monastiraki square. On arriving back down to ground level, we realised that what our day was crucially missing was ice cream. Imagine our surprise then, when we found it particularly difficult to find anywhere selling the stuff. This was, in fact, a huge blessing in disguise, as central Athens (and seemingly all of the touristic areas of Greece) are currently awash with frozen yogurt bars. We found one such place and I served myself a huge portion of strawberry frozen yogurt and then covered it in fresh, ripe blackberries and flaked almonds. So we sat on a step, outside the station, watching the last art and craft sales of the day, in the marketplace, while we ate our delicious frozen yogurt, hardly speaking as we mulled over the things  we’d seen up on the mountain. After we finished, we realised that we needed to head back to our hotel in Piraeus, as Ania’s friend Dmitris – an Athenian native – was returning from his holiday that night and had offered to take us out.

After the short metro hop, and a mercifully more straightforward route back to our hotel, we quickly showered, changed and rested for a short time. At around 9pm, Dmitris showed up in his compact Citroen car and told us he would take us somewhere “with a view”. We drove across the city’s impressive, efficient central highway and quickly found ourselves back in central Athens. We took some turns into one suburb or another and eventually found ourselves on a near sheer hill street. During the journey, I had quite an interesting conversation with Dmitris – a business owner himself – about the living situation in Greece at this time. Of course, you read about it on the news, but to hear from a local that the minimum wage of the nation has tumbled from around 800 Euros per month to 450 in two years is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to live in Greece right now. The sparkling lights of the city were a good ten minutes behind us now, and an air of quiet and natural darkness was descending. We parked up in a large car park and jumped out. I looked up at the stars, shimmering brightly in the sky above, such was the lack of artificial light pollution here. As I remarked and gestured towards them, Dmitris assured me that I hadn’t seen anything yet. And boy was he right. As we walked into the quite exclusive looking bar and found a table with an open air view looking out to the city, I just stopped being able to talk and stared for a few moments. The music wasn’t especially to my taste, the bar was perhaps a bit swanky for me, and I was disappointed with the lack of Greek beer, but the view truly made up for all of that. With my camera sadly lacking at taking photos in darkness, I feel the need to direct you here to get some idea of the view from our table. All of Athens is laid out in front of you, with the bulging orange orbs dotted through the middle, signalling the route of the central highway. It’s a place I would recommend to any and everyone. We chatted over a cold bottle of beer and the now typical complimentary mineral water and snacks, about life in Greece, Poland, Britain, and Scandinavia. About Dmitris’ business and his ability to keep afloat in difficult times, but the obvious hard work that he has to put in to achieve this. After a time here, we decided that we really ought to eat something. So we drove down to a spot where, we were reliably informed, restaurants opened at lunch time and stayed open until breakfast (along with accompanying bars, too). Here we managed to get some Greek beer (Alfa – the least good of the 3 main beers of the nation, in my humble opinion) and probably the best souvlaki I ate in the whole of my stay in Greece. And all for about 15 euros, for 3 of us. Quite remarkable. As we finished eating, I looked at my watch and was utterly flabbergasted to see the time was approaching 3am. Always the sign of a fine evening. So, once we had all drained our beers, we got back into the car and made the drive back to Piraeus. We thanked Dmitris sincerely for what had been a great night and promised ourselves two things: a lie-in the following morning and a relaxing day.

So it was that a lazy day was spent, interrupted by lunch at the waterfront, and a lot of time around Piraeus’ fine beach. After hardly stopping still for the past month, it was most welcome. The highlight of the day was watching this cat trying his very best to catch a bird in a tree.

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We wandered back to our hotel at the end of the day, stopping off at the Blue Star Ferries terminal, on the way, to pick up our tickets for our ferry the next morning. After this we headed early to our beds, so that we could be up and ready for breakfast at 6:30 and climbing aboard our ferry for the 7:25 departure.

Arriving at the port on the Tuesday morning, there was no shortage of hustle and bustle as, along with the multitude of foreign tourists, Athenians were setting sail for their summer holidays. With money for foreign expeditions drying up, we were told that the vast majority of city dwellers were also taking advantage of the relaxed and beautiful islands scattered off the coast and down into the Aegean and Ionian seas. The biggest of the ferries travelling every day, in-season, to the Cyclades, the Blue Star Delos is bloody enormous. We climbed aboard and dragged our bags to the topmost decks, set out with scores of (but not enough) seats for the “economy” ticket passengers. After some fruitless wandering, we realised that we were not going to get a seat, so we were staring down the barrel at five and a half hours of standing, or sitting on one of the outside decks. The sun was, predictably, shining brightly though and it didn’t feel like any sort of hardship, as the ship began to pull out of Piraeus’ harbour.

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We stood, we sat, we watched the sea drift by, along with other boats and smaller, often uninhabited islands. We drank water, we listened to music, we laughed at elegant, well behaved dogs and aggressive, irritable little ones. Becoming acclimatised, as we were, to the Greek summer culture, I dashed to the bar at the half way point to pick up Cappucino freddos for us both. The spray from the sea was pleasantly cooling, as we sped across the water in the full glare of the sun. With little more than an hour to go until our arrival time at Naxos, we saw the first larger islands and rocky outcrops and finally, the ship descended on Paros. Significantly smaller than the place we were to call home for the coming days, Paros had a bustling harbour, which was a flurry of activity as our ship landed. Dotted with historic buildings and with a typically cycladian backdrop of brown, earthy mountains, it looked like a nice place.

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Perhaps more crucially than anything though, some of our neighbours on deck disembarked here, freeing up some chairs to us for the remaining hour or so of our journey. So we sat in comfort and shade, as the trajectory had somewhat changed, as we made the final leg of the trip towards Naxos. Feeling the 6:30 wake up call now, I was pleased to remember that the proprietor of our hotel had offered to meet us at the port and take our luggage on to our hotel. After a short while we had arrived.