Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 9 – Galle & The End of my Trip

For anyone who missed the previous episode of my tour of Sri Lanka, I was starting my trip to Galle anything but fresh. Standing on Colombo’s Fort station after perhaps 90 minutes’ sleep during a 14-hour journey where I had been folded into the shape of a tetris block, I was eternally grateful for two things. First of all, the strong, milky tea and the tea bhanis that I was eating as a sort of makeshift breakfast and second the advice of a really kind fellow who directed me to the best place to stand to get a seat for the ride down the coast to Galle. I didn’t have too long to wait and, before long, I was sitting at a seat with enough leg room in front of me to not be crippled and looking out of the windows as the outskirts of the city gave way to dense forests with the occasional house on my left and the endless Indian Ocean coastline to my right, the calm water lapping at the sand as high tide approached. It was around 7am and the train was little more than half full.

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Even with so little sleep, it’s hard not to appreciate views like this

The ride to Galle was mercifully short and, on arriving, I managed to stumble upon some Australians who were also staying inside the huge fort complex and were more than happy to split the tuk tuk fare. I zombie staggered my way to my hostel and asked the fellow in charge if I might leave my bag there until later when it was time for me to check in. He was kind enough to allow me to do it and also to tell me where I could get coffee, a stone’s throw away. The coffee was expensive, but it was real filter coffee and iced coffee at that. The temperature was already high, the humidity ahead of the coming storm which you can see in the photo above, just making it worse. Even at a cost of about £2, a cold, strong coffee was too good to resist.

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After a short period of sitting in an extremely comfy armchair, checking the highlights of the cricket on the big screens, and having allowed caffeine to course through my veins for a bit, I was ready to take a walk around the fort. What a beautiful place it is. If you’ve read my other blogs about Sri Lanka, it will be a familiar history. Founded by the Portuguese, the fort was taken over by the Dutch and expanded, and then finally occupied by the British until independence. This one being so far south, though, meant that it had remained largely unscathed by the civil war. The result is that it’s one of the best preserved forts in the country, so much so, that the vast majority of life – tourist life, at least – takes place within the old stone walls. Despite some negative experiences – more on that later – it means that Galle really is somewhere that travellers to Sri Lanka should see.

If you think the sky has a foreboding look about it in these images, you’d be dead right. Just after this period of wandering about, I approached the lighthouse that juts out on the rocky coastline and watched as a storm swept in, remarkably quickly too. Most people dashed for cover ahead of time, but a handful of us decided to watch as the driving rain rolled in with the tide. The air held its balmy warmth and the chill of the rain was very welcome. It also came just before noon and presented a chance for a quick nap to recover some energy from the previous night.

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Refreshed by the power nap, there was only one thing on my mind and, of course, it was food. So I approached the extremely helpful folk in the hostel for some guidance. I walked around the corner to a recommended small restaurant and picked up the menu. Then I abruptly nearly swallowed my tongue in shock. The prices were exorbitant. A sandwich would set me back about £11. There was no rice and curry after 3, and I’d slept a little longer than planned. I scanned the menu for a spicy vegetable stuffed roti. I found it but, while everywhere else on the island I’d paid between RS70 and RS200, they wanted RS1600 for it. I was pretty shocked. But I ordered one, regardless. It was on the ‘main dishes’ list, so perhaps it was bigger than usual. Then it arrived. And no, it was not bigger. If anything, it was a little smaller than elsewhere on the island. I ate it and it was fine, but considering it was something like a 1000% mark up on every other place, it’s fair to say I was disappointed. The rain still thumping down, as it would for the next 18 hours or so, I went back to my hostel to ask the host why things were so expensive here. He explained that pretty much only tourists go into the fort centre to eat. Even worse was to hear that the servers and chefs in the restaurants here earned no more than their compatriots in other cities. They all had to take their meals outside the fort near the train station, like the other Sri Lankan folk. This left quite the bad taste in the mouth and showed the fort up to be really the worst kind of rip off, with just a handful of rich western owners creaming a fortune off of the guests and passing none of it on to their staff. I vowed not to eat there in the evening.

The rain kept beating down and so I elected to write postcards and generally relax a bit. The next morning I was going to have a hectic day seeing a tea plantation. When the evening came I walked across to the train station in between bouts of torrential rain. A really interesting chap who was a former Sri Lankan olympian, who had played field hockey at four olympic games joined me for the walk. He proudly carried around his tokens of participation and cheered me up on my way to grab a steaming plate of kottu for the somewhat more reasonable price of RS140 or £1 to me. With the rain bucketing down as it was, there was no option but a taxi back. I fell asleep with my book still in my hand, the soothing rhythm of the rain on the sheet metal roof overhead lulling me into dreamland.

Waking up to the smell of frying eggs and tea, not to mention a clear, blue sky, did wonders for my mood. I sat at one of the hippyish tables and ate my two fried eggs on fluffy white toast and drank two long mugs of delicious, strong tea, one after the other, then waited for the taxi driver from the night before, to see if he’d remembered our arrangement.

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Right on the strike of ten o’clock the buzz of the tuk tuk neared and sure enough, my taxi man was outside, beaming a smile. Just at that moment, two dutch brothers – both seriously strapping young lads – asked me where I was going. I tolkd them I was off to see the tea plantation and they asked if they could join. Miraculously, the taxi driver didn’t even try to hike the price, so we all squeezed aboard and were off.

Twenty five minutes down the main road, after surprisingly few close calls for any Sri Lankan road experience, we were bouncing up the humped gravel track to the small tea plantation, nestled into the hills above the south east road. Our tuk tuk pulled up and the manager of the tea plantation was there to greet us in a matter of moments. He was already showing some others around the plantation and urged us to join immediately. He was an extremely warm chap and clearly knew his stuff, imparting countless tidbits of information just on the way to the house before the grand tour. Our driver came with us, but told us he’d been many times before. I wondered why, until I saw that he, too, got a free cup of tea and a generous slice of cake. A great deal for any visitor.

With cake scoffing behind us, our driver went to catch forty winks in the back of the tuk tuk while we embarked on our tour. We learned about the different processes involved in the white, green and black tea production, something I’d had little to no awareness of previously. He took pride in showing us machines made in London, Dublin and beyond at the early part of the twentieth century and which remained in remarkable working order. He introduced us to the tea picking ladies, using tweezers in their latex gloved hands to protect the tiny tips of white tea from even the tiniest amount of moisture. No wonder, we though, as we learned that this tea is imported to places like France at around 200 euros per kilo. As a Brit and a person who appreciates a good brew, it was a fascinating visit.

After the tour, it was time for the most exciting bit – the tasting. I was curious to taste the white tea, supposedly harbouring more anti oxidants and good stuff than any other tea on earth. I assumed it would, as such, taste vile, but it didn’t. It was delicate and a bit floral and certainly wouldn’t work with milk, but was quite tasty none the less. I tried a host of varieties and bought some as gifts for a few of my friends and family. If you are interested in finding more information about the tea plantation and visiting, which I would highly recommend, you can consult their Facebook page here.

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Yes, there were 48 teas. Yes, I did try them all. Yes, I did have to go to the toilet before I went back to Galle.

After this it was back down the coast road to Galle. Arriving refreshed and invigorated fro my tea education, I remembered one authentic and not so overpriced restaurant I’d heard about, called Mama’s. It offers only a narrow range of curries, but all very traditional and with a god range of seasonal fruit curries. After my experiences of fruit cury in Polonnaruwa and Jaffna, I was excited to hear this! I arrived and answered the usual questions about being able to handle my spice, in spite of my Britishness and was soon tucking in to an excellent curry with a variety of chicken, vegetables and fruits. The lassi to wash it down was also most welcome.

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With lunch done, I grabbed my last opportunity for a bit of beach time, before grabbing my things and heading to the train station to get back to Colombo, ahead of my flight. On the way to the station, I met what must have been Galle’s friendliest and most well kempt cat.

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The train ride to Colombo was swift and, in no time, I was wandering around the city, waiting to meet the person who’d been my guide when I first arrived in the country for a final afternoon on the galle face green, watching the kids fly their kites and people eating street food, which I naturally indulged in. Some hours later and it was time for the big off.

After the best part of a month in Sri Lanka, I was exhausted and feeling somewhat strange about the whole trip. Perhaps folk that have been to this part of the world before will understand me when I say that I enjoyed the trip, in many ways, more after I had left. I saw so much, enjoyed so many wonderful tastes, sounds, smells and so on and these memories remain, even now, almost a year later, utterly vivid. But as you try to walk in countries like this, the curiosity of people, while almost always friendly and with good intentions, can be exhausting. I answered questions about my marital status and city of origin more ties during these 26 days than perhaps in the rest of my life put together. But that’s not to detract from a country that has a huge amount to offer the traveller. I would certainly say that I enjoyed my time in the north a good deal more than in the south and that’s as much to do with the calmness of the people and the lack of a rip off mentality that comes where tourism is embryonic or non-existant. I don’t know if I will ever go back to this magical island at the base of India, but whether I do or not, I will definitely say that I have no regrets and would recommend anyone to visit.

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily upon the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get your copy, here:

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 8 – Jaffna – The Capital of the North

This being a holiday, I had no desire to get up early, so, after going to a local hotel to fetch breakfast, coming back and packing my things, I found myself on a bus around midday. I boarded more or less alone and so realised I’d have a bit of a wait before we set off, so I stuck my head in my book and read a bit more about what was awaiting me in Jaffna. Just before we left, a pile of boys came in, wearing sports gear with someone that appeared to be their father. They made a beeline for me and the older chap introduced himself as in fact their uncle. He was taking them to a football match, where they play in the national league. Premier League this was not. I could not imagine the likes of Mesut Ozil or Sergio Aguero on a clapped out old bus to the match. But anyway, they spoke English and we had a chat about the league there, their prospects for the game today. It almost made me forget about the state of the road, which was pretty miserable. As I mentioned in my post about the road to Mannar, it seemed that the further north you went, the worse it got.

About half way along the two hour journey to Mannar, the football players got off at their pitch and I wished them well. At that moment, a small, cheerful looking man waved me over to sit with him and so I did. He informed me that the football players – when making asides in Tamil, which they had been doing regularly – had been saying extremely rude and abusive things, to and about the other passengers. I was pretty horrified and told him that I’d had no idea. He then told me that he was a priest from the reform church on the edge of Mannar and that he was finding it very difficult to provide support to the widows and orphans created by the civil war. He showed me photos of families with husbands, fathers, brothers and so on missing or killed. It was a tragic tale, but he also explained how many of the families are finding ways to get past it and continue with their lives. I gave him a few football shirts that my uncle had given me, to give out to some of the boys and young men in his care. So, once we arrived into Jaffna, he said he’d show me a great place to grab lunch, right next to the bus station. Sure enough, he took me to a great place, where we managed to get rice and curry for about one and a half euros and which was delicious. They charged extra for an unordered little plate of grilled, spiced fish, chicken and crab claws. I would have been angry, had it not been so delicious.

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With lunch taken care of, I wished my companion well in his endeavours and gave him my email address, in case I could be of more help to his cause after my return to Europe. Then I had a couple hours to take a walk around the city before finding my host in Jaffna.

As the capital of the north, I’d anticipated that Jaffna might be a bit busier than the sleepy places I’d been spending time in, since leaving Kandy a couple of weeks before. And so it was. The main thoroughfare, running from the train station, past the shopping mall and the bus station to the old town centre, was heaving most of the time. In the middle of the road, near the mall, was a parking zone for the tuk tuk taxi drivers, which perpetually seemed full and sporting every colour of tuk tuk that money could buy.

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After a bit of a snoop around the city and a stop off for a cake, it was time to meet my host. A fellow called Martin, whom I’d shown around Lisbon after seeing a request for a bit of tour guiding on couchsurfing.com, had offered to host me at his house in Jaffna during my stay, which was extremely kind of him. He is an English language teacher just like myself, but was working at the British Council in the are at the time. So I took the gentle walk down to his school to wait. I’d waited no more than five minutes when he poked his head around the door and told me to hail a taxi. We did so and the taxi driver took us the short trip to his house. The house was a wonderful old colonial building. I almost cried when he told me how much it cost – a lot of money in Sri Lanka, of course, but peanuts in Europe, even in Portugal. As soon as we arrived he showed me to what would be my room for the following three nights, warned me about dangerous snakes climbing in the back door, near the bathroom, during the nights an then suggested we go to the balcony and have a gin and tonic. If ever there was music to my ears.

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We sat and caught up on life, work and everything for a couple of hours, looking out at this lush canopy of tropical trees. Fruits of various types were dotted around all over the place, chipmunks climbed the trees and, a couple times, on to the terrace itself and, as night drew in, bats began swooping in and taking their share of the fruit. Once the gin had dried up, we went downstairs and ate the Greek chicken recipe that Martin had cooked up with a glass of chilled white wine (he’d previously lived and worked in Greece). After slumming it for the past seventeen days or so, this whole evening felt positively decadent. Before too long I was in bed sleeping the sleep of the dead. I didn’t encounter any snakes.

The next morning, we’d decided to take a walk around the city, starting with the fort. As with most of the forts in the country, this one had been built by the Portuguese, stormed by the Dutch and reinforced and eventually ended up in the hands of the British until independence. It was a huge structure and had, at one time, been the best preserved of all the forts in the country. Sadly, during the latter stages of the civil war, at one stage the Tamil Tigers had holed up in the fort for a time and had been bombed out, leaving no small measure of destruction behind. Nevertheless, it’s a great place to walk around, with excellent views out to the small islands beyond the mainland.

From here, we walked back in to the centre, past a Buddhist monument of some kind, a fish market, and the great library, which has been lovingly and beautifully reconstructed after sustaining damage during the war. It was the city’s first priority when funds for renovation were released and you can see the pride with which people treat the place.

I also went to the post office and managed to post 3 postcards to Europe, by airmail, for less than a Euro. My mind was boggled by the price, but I didn’t complain. After all this walking and listening to Martin explaining some of what he knew about the city, finding ourselves back in the centre, it was time for lunch and I had read very good things about a place called The Malayan Café. Described in the Lonely Planet guide as the place to pick up dosas, it was high on my list of places to try. We arrived at the middle of the lunch time rush, but quickly managed to get a table. I ordered a vegetarian dosa and it very soon arrived, served on an open banana leaf, filled with medium spiced chunks of potato, onion, cauliflower and other vegetable and was quite delicious. The coconut sauce on the side was terrific.

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From here, we took our time and mooched around the market, looking at the silks, fruit & vegetables and other bits and pieces. We were casually accosted by stall owners, but none of them with any real vigour. Martin’s knowledge of Tamil was a big help in informing them that we were only looking.

From here, there was just one thing left to see – the city mall. On our way there, I was informed that this place had the only escalator in the north of the country. That’s not a misprint. There is just one. The escalator only goes up. To come back down, you have to take the stairs or a lift. The story gets stranger when I learned that a great many people come to the mall from all around the city, simply to have their photo taken on the escalator. I decided that, when in Rome…

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After the thrill of that – and the puzzle of trying to find the stairs to get back down, we went home to relax a bit before the puja. Near to the house was the largest temple in the area, the Nallur Kanduswamy Kovil. A tower of burnished red and gold images of the Hindu pantheon above a large temple complex, with a side pool for ritual purification and a courtyard, around which the procession would take place. We wandered in, shirts off, as is the rule and stood near the back, observing as sacred fires were lit in various corners of the temple. Some local people were urging us to take part but, in true British fashion, we declined and stayed near the back. But the matter was taken from our hands when the priests finally came to us and gave us the sacred buttermilk to drink and pressed blessed ash to our foreheads. The locals who had been encouraging us looked pleased and, honestly, it felt nice to be included, despite our obviously being outsiders. The detail on each effigy from each shrine was magnificent and the whole feeling of being at the temple for the puja, with the pipe and drum music and the chanting of some of the more energetic pilgrims quite intoxicating.

With the puja over, we decided to go around to a little guest house nearby for a refreshing beer. We sat and had a drink and chatted for about an hour, before finally stirring to go and find some dinner. Dinner was to be at another of Jaffna’s most highly rated restaurants, again just around the corner from the house, this time at Mango’s, a vegetarian restaurant serving South Indian cuisine. I had something like a dosa, the name of which escapes me, but this was more smashed together, something like an omelette, served with 3 lightly spiced, vegetable-rich accompaniments. We also some of the parathas which were perhaps the fluffiest I’ve ever seen. Everything was washed down with fresh, local fruit juices and cost very little. It’s certainly a place I would recommend. With dinner washed down with a cup of milky tea, I went home to my still-snake-free bedroom and slept to be ready for the trip of the following morning.

Waking up the next day, I stepped out of my bedroom and could swear I could smell coffee. And eggs. And toast. And so it was, the miracle had been performed and I tucked in to two fried eggs on fluffy white toast and a cup of milky filter coffee. There are things that you miss and I didn’t feel even a little ashamed to enjoy the breakfast as much as I did. My host had a lot of errands to run that day, so I made my way into town, to the bus station and found myself a bus out to Point Pedro. It’s the northern tip of the Sri Lankan mainland, was a major stronghold of the Tamil resistance (thus is now contains a heavy military presence) and it was also one of the worst affected areas in the 2004 tsunami. With it being a relatively small settlement, the bus journey was a long, bumpy one, even with a distance of just 40km or so, from Jaffna. Finally, as you edge towards Point Pedro itself, the bus cruises along the beautiful oceanside before stopping here:

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One of the oh-so-many houses, shops and other buildings whihch are ruins of their former selves. It’s depressingly difficult to tell, for the most part, whether they are victim to the war or to the tsunami, but damage is everywhere. I wandered into the town square which was pleasingly well restored. A three storey blue building sits at the centre and acts as the hub for buses heading out of the city. It’s surrounded by shops, markets and other places of trade. It has a real hustle and bustle to it. From here there are just two ways to go, out to the sea, or inland, along a line of businesses running south. I decided that the best place to find lunch might be there, so I wandered down until I came to a cute looking little local restaurant. All vegetarian, and offering a simple rice and curry lunch, it seemed like a good bet. Dimly lit, even in the searing midday sun, I went to the desk and asked the elderly proprieter if he spoke English. As happens so often in this part of the world, he answered by telling me a story of his living in Putney, south west London, for 5 years. I took a seat and, within a couple minutes, a steaming plate of rice arrived. Then there came another waiter with 5 buckets on a tray. He served up a scoop of the contents of each and then some dried chillies on the side of my plate. Despite being so opposite to anything we might think of as gourmet, the food was terrific.

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With my stomach no longer talking to me, I decided to stroll up to the coastline and see what was there. With the sand reaching far out into the shallows, fishing boats moored up here and there, Point Pedro’s waterfront is a real picture postcard location. The golden sand snakes in and out and around, with clumps of palms dotted here and there. Just a few metres back from the shoreline though, stands row after row of building s that were ripped up and, amongst them, still last year, more than a decade after the tsunami, fully populated temporary housing from United Nations charities, full of displaced people. It’s all quite sobering. As I considered this, it was brought home when some young kids came running to me, asking me the usual questions, but finishing off by asking for money and telling me “Dad gone. Mum have no job.” I gave them some sweets and toys that I had prepared with me for just this kind of occasion and they seemed happy enough, running off to a little ruined shack to check through their spoils.

From here, it’s a short walk up the coastline in baking hot sunshine, to the fishing area. You can see fisherman setting out or returning with their catch more or less perpetually and, once in, you can see the fish, gutted and opened up, on nets, to dry in the sun, flies abundantly inspecting what’s there. It was here that I had one of the oddest experiences in Sri Lanka. A group of fishermen, sitting around at the waterside, called me over. Not wanting to be rude, I went and joined them, only to discover that they were all seriously drunk and drinking super strength Lion lager. They offered me one, but I declined. I spoke to them for a short time, then tried to make my excuses, claiming I had a bus to catch. At this point, one of them told me he would give me a ride on his motorcycle. Being, as he was, almost completely unable to even stand, I was alarmed at the prospect and managed to talk my way out of it, hurrying back along the road in case he changed his mind.

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My last stop in Point Pedro was to look at the lighthouse. Built in 1916, the lighthouse is, as you might expect, on the very edge of the land and so was hit by the full force of the tsunami in 2004, but it remains completely undamaged.

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Right next to the lighthouse is a huge, rebuilt church and the priest was standing outside and invited me to have a look around the building. It’s a coral coloured structure, quite simple, with a single tower to one side and a large, rectangular hall. The priest filled me in a little bit on the reconstruction project, the damage to the city and the ongoing recovery work with the UN, helping with education, and more.

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After this it was the short walk back to the bus and the long, bumpy ride back into Jaffna. This time, I spotted that the bus went past the temple, very close to the house, so I jumped out a little early and went to the very famous Rio’s Ice Cream Parlour. Even though it was well into the early evening, the air was still warm and an ice cream was most welcome, though the level of sweetness meant I will never dare to tell my dentist about it. I had a huge sundae, though in truth this was something like the tenth largest on the extensive menu. There were many kinds of ice cream, wafers, fruit, smarties, gummy sweets and more inside. It was just what I needed. After that it was home to a dinner of home made tarka dahl, and a few glasses of wine on my last night there.

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The next morning (still no snakes!) was met with some cereal for breakfast and then heading out a little early, as my host was back at work after the weekend. I was able to leave my bag at his school during the day, to collect before the evening train. My first port of call was the train station, to try to buy a sleeper ticket to Colombo. I managed to get one of the last few 1st class sleeper tickets for the journey down to Colombo, from where I would head on to Galle. At a cost of some 1250 rupees (about 10 euros) it was a lot, but I understood it would be worth it on the fourteen hour journey. I could not have been more wrong, but more on that later.

I wandered back into town to have a last look around the market, picking up a few provisions for the overnight journey and then deciding to get myself a haircut and shave from a barber there who turned out to do a great job and also to be a very good conversationalist, with his friend who simply seemed to lurk in his shop most of the time.

There was just time for a king coconut by the huge reservoir in the middle of town, known simply as the tank, before heading to the school, to say my grateful farewells to Martin and then to go to the station and jump on my train.

Then came the train. It rolled in an hour early, and a polite Sri Lankan family I’d been talking to told me it was a good idea to jump on immediately, to grab your bunk before someone else did, which could result in quite a bit of hassle. So I did so. Except that there were no bunks. I was quite confused. I asked the guard where the bunks were. He told me simply that the sleeper carriages had not been available that day, but that my ticket would be valid for a reclining seat in one of the additional regular first class carriages. He gave me a crappy little blanket to put over myself. I got to the seat which had been reserved for me in the carriage and discovered that the reclining seats were very comfortable, if you were shorter than 5’4″. Despite not being a giant at 5’10”, I can honestly say that it was the most uncomfortable night of my life to date. As if the cramped space was not bad enough, the air conditioner switched on with some fury during the early hours, dropping the temperature in the carriage to what must have been about 10 degrees centigrade. Not something any of us were prepared for and I spent the next three hours or more until arriving in Colombo shivering with my fellow passengers. The gentleman next to me was a regular traveller on the route and he said that this fiasco with the non-existent sleeper carriage happened a couple times a week. There would be no partial refunds. I would strongly advise against using the sleeper services in Sri Lanka, unless you are a particularly short person. They are longer, slower, and infinitely less comfortable than the day services (unless you’re lucky enough to get a bed). After a quick breakfast in Colombo’s fort station, I made my sleepy way on to the train onward to Galle. My last city stop.

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

SriLanka

 

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:

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1 – London – Doha – Colombo

So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.

The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.

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Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.

I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.

The Arabs know how to do breakfast
The Arabs know how to do breakfast

After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.

Nice mosque Doha

So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.

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Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.

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Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.

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So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.

How do they make any money?!
How do they make any money?!

Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.

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The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.

I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.

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Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.

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After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.

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With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.

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From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.

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Looks dreadful, but tastes delicious!

With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.

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With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.

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Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here:

SriLanka