Kovalam and Kunakumari

20130612-000709.jpg

Lighthouse beach in Kovalam seems to have two sides: a local beach and a tourist beach. The two are not distinctly defined, and you can find a mix of everyone at both spots, but the tourist beach is patrolled by tourist lifeguards… And they make for some incredible people watching!
I doubt any one of the tourist lifeguards could actually save a life. They are dressed in full clothes, sometimes even jeans, and most look as though they are beached whales themselves. If you find yourself drowning at Lighthouse Beach then you better hope one of the many talented (or untalented) surfers pick you up on their next wave in, because these lifeguards are probably useless in that department. These lifeguards are paid to whistle. They blow their whistle to push along any creepy locals who stray too close to a scantily clad female tourist. They blow the whistle if a pack of young local men stare too long at the bathing beauties sunning themselves in the sand. And they blow these whistles ALL. THE. TIME.
Myles and my favorite pass time was sitting in one of the many restaurants of Kovalam with a pot of coffee and our morning breakfast and watching the debacle of whistle-touting lifeguards all afternoon. We watched as a group of boys snuck towards a couple unsuspecting women to try to chat with them. Then the whistle! We made bets on how close a guy could get before getting caught. Then the whistle! And we laughed every time a wave crashed into a guy, accidentally pushing him towards a tourist. Then the whistle! Even innocent mistakes were cause for whistle blowing. The sounds began long before we woke up, and continued until the sun set behind the smog and the beach lay deserted. It was hilarious.
Kovalam beach was an amazing escape from the dusty, overcrowded streets of landlocked India. The beach was stunning, the vibe more relaxed, and the people more friendly. We had heard that Kerala was a different world and the rumors didn’t disappoint!
Myles and I moved into a slow routine right away. Long breakfasts with lots of coffee then an afternoon beach activity. A stroll into the local parts of town for the cheapest lunch we could find, then a late dinner with luke warm beers and games of rummy well into the night. We had no word from Kelsi about when she could return.
“All I want to see is the backwaters!” She said to me in an email a day earlier. “Other than that, you guys see whatever you’d like!”
The backwaters were just a couple hours North of Kovalam, so we waited and relaxed and for the first time in 3 months, took it slow.
One day we decided to go on an adventure to Kunakumari, the Southernmost tip of India, where you can see three seas converge! We had no guidebook, 5 dollars in our pockets, and could only occasionally remember the name “Kunakumari”. (Very well prepared, yes I know).
The two cities are not that far apart. Probably no more than 60km or so. An hour and a half each way and we’d be back for dinner! Or so we thought…
Unfortunately, even though there is a direct bus from Kovalam to Kunakumari, there is not a direct ROUTE. Our bus ended up backtracking to Trivandrum and then stopping in every tiny village between there and the southern tip. The trip took 4.5 hours. Each way. Kill me now.
What was supposed to be a three hour round trip turned out to be 9 straight hours of bussing! Luckily, we DID get to see the three oceans converge. And do you know what three oceans all converging at one focal point looks like?
Well I’ll tell you.
It looks like ONE ocean! It looks like any other ocean or sea or large body of water that I’ve ever seen. Yes, okay, it’s neat to be able to say that I saw the meeting point of the Indian seas, but it may not have been worth 9 hours of public transport.
What was worth it, was our local lunch stop that afternoon. We stopped in at a hole-in-the-wall Thali joint that was packed with locals. The owner must have thought we were lost when we sat down.
“Only thali!” He announced to us.
“We will have two please” we said back, much to his astonishment.
Thali’s are a delicious way to eat in India. They are served at most restaurants, from the grubbiest dive to the classiest joint, thali’s can differ in a million ways. But essentially they are all the same. It’s an all you can eat meal, with a base of rice, that comes with sauces. Sometimes there are curries or naan bread, desserts, aloo gobi, paneer masala, butter chicken and all sorts of wonderful cuisine. Other times there is a huge helping of rice with three sauces that could be anything. At this place it was red, yellow and green. The green dish had an okra base, and the okra was so tough you couldn’t chew through it. The rest we just guessed on; but any guess was as good as ours! The place had no napkins and no utensils. Perfect! (And I don’t mean that sarcastically for once).
We had been looking for a place to eat with our hands for a while. This was the first place that didn’t have some sort of food that could also be used as a scoop. It was just rice and sauce. A truly authentic hand eating experience!
Turns out, eating rice with your hands is more difficult than I had anticipated. It really takes skill! We tried a number of techniques: holding the rice if your hand like a bowl and hoovering it out. Taking the rice in your fingers and using a shoveling effect. Or pinching the rice and dropping it into your upturned head like a crane. I preferred the crane: Myles the shovel. We still both looked like idiots. C’est la vie!
When Kunakumari was all said and done we decided against day trips out of the city. When 60 kilometers turns into nearly 5 hours, it’s difficult to find places to visit nearby. So instead we learned to surf!
Let me just start by saying this. What were we thinking?! Or maybe more appropriately, what was I thinking?! We started out in the morning trying to find boards. We wanted ones as long as possible, for better balance. This was a problem right at the start. Nearly all the boards were short. Great.
When we’d finally found some longer ones at a decent price, it was mid afternoon. This meant big waves. Who the Hell learns to surf in 6-8 foot waves?! Myles and I do! That’s who.
We got out to beyond the breakers fairly fast. (Retrospectively I’m amazed by this). I could hardly even sit on my board without falling off, but a young local guy and his girlfriend gave us some pointers. Our first wave in was a fail. Obviously. As were the next couple. Although Myles was getting much closer. After that, it was 20 minutes of being beaten and thrown around by waves much bigger than us. We got spun around and knocked in the head by our boards. We came up spewing salty brine from our noses and mouths and trying to wipe the stinging from our already reddened eyes.
At one point, closer to shore I looked back to see Myles finally catch a wave! The thing was massive. I don’t even think he realized its size. He was paddling hard towards the shore as the wave lifted him. The wave loomed large and dark and blue behind him. He had a massive grin on his face as he started to push himself up.
“Oh my god,” I thought “he’s going to do it!”
Then, right as I thought, that the wave came crashing down on top of him. His expression turned to a muddled shock and fear as his face disappeared into the wave. Then I saw feet. Then head. Then feet. Then board. Then wave. Then nothing. Then feet again. And finally Myles came up spurting water again.
I couldn’t stop laughing. We decided to take a break. I thought we’d been out on the water for hours. It had been twenty minutes. We contemplated going out for a round two, but the waves just kept getting bigger. So we went for a beer. We’re much better at drinking beer. Maybe next time we should stick to what we’re good at.
Surfing: 1
Myles and Hilary: 0
You win this round Kovalam!

20130612-000633.jpg

20130612-000645.jpg

20130612-000656.jpg

20130612-000719.jpg

20130612-000729.jpg

Advertisements

3 Packs, 3 Buses, and 1 Hell of a Day

I looked like a crazy person as I walked out of the hotel. I could hardly see over top of Kelsi’s bag that I had strapped to my front. My own bag was balancing me out on my back: my little legs looked like they were about to snap under all the weight. I hobbled sideways down the three stairs to the street level. I hadn’t fallen thus far, which meant I was doing much better than I had visualized while I was strapping myself in!
A Tuk Tuk drove by just as I stumbled into the street.
“Hello Tuk Tuk?”
“Yes, to the bus station please”
He didn’t even rip me off that much. He probably looked at me and thought I was in enough trouble.
“You have a lot of bags!” He yelled back to me while we were en route.
“I needed one for my shoes.” I yelled back.
He looked confused. To this day he probably thinks I’m one of those crazy backpackers that carries 19 pairs of heels and a hair straightener with me.
No big deal. If I have it my way I’ll never be back to Madurai again.
I looked even crazier at the bus station as I put all my packs back on. Not only did I have to walk partially sideways so that I could see, I was also giggling to myself at how ridiculous I must look to everyone.
“I need a bus to Nagarcovil” I said as I reached the bus official’s stand
“Where are you going?” He asked
“To Trivandrum.”
“You can catch this bus to Tirunivelli and catch a transferring bus to Trivandrum” said the bus attendant from a neighboring bus.
“I’d rather not. Buses for Trivandrum from Tirunivelli only leave every three hours, I’d never catch the connecting bus. Plus it’s not a By Pass Rider, so it’ll take twice as long.”
The attendant turned to the officer behind the desk, shocked that I had any opinion on the matter.
“She’s right. Nagarcovil is the best”
I am SO glad I had the full spiel from Muthu the waiter the night before.
“This is the best route. Only use a by-pass rider, they take half the time and cost the same amount. They leave every 20 minutes” he had explained.
I might look like an idiot but I sounded like a pro.
“Go ahead and sit down, a by-pass rider to Nagarcovil will be here in five minutes.
And just like that I caught my first bus!
I majorly lucked out and got the only, single seat at the front of the bus. I attached one pack to the side of the seat next to me and the other in front. I threw my feet up on the bag in front and was set to go! Finding space for our luggage on buses has been the most trying task for us in India. It grieves Kelsi and I each time we drag ourselves on to a crowded state bus. Finding this seat was my equivalent of winning the lottery (well, a small lottery).
The first bus was 5 hours. 5-hour bus rides don’t phase me in the slightest. After traveling South America, where we leaped for joy at any journey less than 14 hours, 5 hours was like taking a nap. I can zone out and stare into nothingness for at least 7 hours before getting restless.
To my surprise, the estimated 5 hour time was spot on. I was dropped of in Nagarcovil almost exactly five hours after leaving Madurai.
It took me a while to stumble off the bus, but when I did I smelled something only a Vancouverite knows well: rain. It was that scent that means you have a five or ten minute window before the skies open up and you and your 150 liters worth of luggage get soaked to the bone.
I ran off to find my next bus. And let’s be honest, by ran, I mean I hobbled my way crookedly to the next bus stand.
Turns out the bus was leaving that exact second. What are the chances?! I hopped on just in time to feel the first few drops of rain hit my face. Good thing I’m under the cover of the bus!
But I should have known better; in India, things are never that easy.
It took a total of 30 seconds of torrential downpour to realize the bus wasn’t waterproof. Water leaked in through every crack, every opening, and every seam on the bus. The floor started to flood, and the bags were soaking up the rain water. The poor man in front of me tried desperately to save my things. I hauled my bag onto my lap, and he pulled Kelsi’s towards him. Water was dripping in on our heads and down his back. Everyone desperately shut their windows in an attempt to stay dry; problem was, this made the windshield fog up.
Indian buses are clearly not cut out for rain. The windshield wiper only covers about 1/10th of the windshield. I’m not joking. Just the upper right hand corner where the bus driver looks out gets wiped. Not that it mattered on this bus really, since the single wiper blade had so many holes and bends that it didn’t work at all.
Even as the window fogged, our driver swerved madly through traffic, honking all the while. He was one of those horn-happy Tamil Nadu drivers… My favorite. He incessantly used the horn at the sight of anything! You know a society has a horn problem when they can actually lock in their horn so that it will go off continuously until you unhook it. Our driver would lock in the horn for a solid ten seconds while he used both hands to weave through cars at speeds way too fast for a bus in rain.
When the window fogged the driver turned to me.
“Getting foggy” he smiled at me.
Oh god. How in the world can you see anything at all?!
From the looks of the bus, there was absolutely no chance of a defroster. The dashboard had wires hanging out of it in all directions, all leading somewhere down by the driver’s feet. The driver leaned back and grabbed his 2-litre water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it out the window. He then took the two litres of water and began spraying it in front of him wildly. The water splashed against the windshield, dissipating enough fog for the driver to see. The rest of the water soaked down onto the dashboard and onto the wires.
What about this situation is safe?! This is crazy!
All I could do was laugh.
All of a sudden something on the roof opened up and a huge bucket of water came splashing down onto the man in front of me. It soaked both him and the bag that he was carrying… Kelsi’s bag. Goddammit that girl has the worst luck in the world! Even when she’s not here her bag gets a bucket of water poured right down into it.
I sighed. What can I do!
About 20 minutes of driving through the rain later, we finally came out of the cloud. Abruptly, the water all stopped. The streets were dry, the people on the streets unphased: it was like the water had just come out of nowhere!
Another couple hours and a bus change later I made it to Kovalam. I strapped on my 100 lbs of bags and inched my way down the windy road towards lighthouse beach. About a kilometer later, I’d made it to the edge of town.
“Excuse me, do you know where Ganesh Tattoo is? My hotel is next door to it.” I asked a guy on the side of the road.
“Ganesh tattoo?! Looking for a tattoo? Yeah! I know it, follow me!”
By this point I was dying. The sun was scorching, sweat was dripping down my face and my legs were jelly. I was so excited to just sit down. The guy that was helping me wouldn’t stop talking.
“What country are you from? Where are you coming from? You sure do have a lot of bags! Do you need a hotel for the night? Are you going surfing later?”
I could hardly answer I was so out of breath. You think he’d offer to help me with at least a small bag! Everyone could see I was struggling to stay upright. Finally we came around the corner and into a shop.
“Here you go! My friend does the best tattoos!”
“Is this Ganesh tattoo?” I asked.
“No!” He said “This is a way better tattoo parlor. My friend does the best in Kovalam. Here, look through his stuff”
“I don’t want a tattoo!” I exclaimed “I said my HOTEL is next to Ganesh tattoo!” I was exasperated. The entire time I talked about how I already HAD a hotel, and it was next to Ganesh tattoo… He hadn’t listened to a word I said. Who in their right mind gets off an 8 hour bus ride with two huge packs and before even checking into a room decides “hey, I should get a tattoo RIGHT NOW!”
“I’m sorry,” I explained “I am looking for Ganesh tattoo”
Totally unimpressed, the man sighed.
“That way” he said, as he flicked his hand in the general direction of the parlor.
Thanks. You’re so kind.
It was about a five minute walk further before I stumbled across it. I FOUND IT! A young girl outside knew where the tall Canadian guy was staying and pointed me in the right direction.
As I struggled up the stairs I called Myles’ name. I wasn’t half way up the flight of stairs before he poked his head out the door.
“Oh my god!” He exclaimed, looking at the state of me. He grabbed both the bags and helped me inside.
“Guess what? I’ve got beers!” Said Myles excitedly.
I nearly cried. It was the best news I’d heard all day!
The trip was over, the bags were in one place, I wasn’t stranded alone in Madurai, the sun was shining on the beach, and Myles and I had a cool beer on our patio. India round two is looking up!

Here I Go Again On My Own

Back in Madurai. Great.
My flight in was fairly uneventful. To sum up: an old lady stole my window seat and my in-flight magazine. Too tired to fight an octogenarian, I sat down in the middle seat and chatted to the man next to me. Turns out he was one of the lovelier people I’ve met in India and he had his personal driver drop me off at the hotel instead of finding a Tuk Tuk on my own in the dark. Win. We spent the whole ride into town chatting about Indian food and the best places to visit up the coast. It was refreshing talking to a genuinely nice man in India.
When I arrived at the hotel the staff were ecstatic to see me. Everyone came out of their rooms to see that I had returned safely.
“But where is your friend?” They asked.
“She’s not coming back for a few days” I said.
This seemed to be a trend in the city. Apparently we had made an impression during our 24 hour stay. Random people stopped me every hundred meters or so in the streets to ask where my sister had gone!
The owner of the hotel wanted to hear all my stories about Sri Lanka, and he checked me in to a cozy single room for myself. He even went as far as to kill MOST of the cockroaches in my room.
He looked embarrassed as I caught him stepping on one.
“Cockroaches?” I asked as he slid his foot casually across the floor after stomping on one.
“Ahh… Errr..” He stammered, trying to come up with something to say.
“Cockroaches don’t bother me!” I smiled as I dragged myself and all the luggage in behind me. I now had a lot of luggage. Kelsi and I both have 75L packs for the trip. Kelsi’s bag alone weighs 20 kilos. Then I had my purse, which was like hauling around bricks with the lonely planet guide inside. What in the world am I going to do with all this? Not knowing the answer, I just went to bed.
The next day I heard from Kelsi.
“Sorry dude, with the holiday here I can’t even get a response on my visa until the 17th at the earliest.”
That was 8 days away. Screw that. I’m sure Madurai is a lovely city, but it was beginning to be my least favorite in India. I’m not sitting here for a week.
Luckily, Myles was on the coast. He was supposed to meet up with us to travel through Kerala for a couple weeks. When we found out about the visa issue he had already booked flights to Trivandrum. He was hanging out in Kovalam waiting for our next move.
“Okay Kelsi, I’m going to Kerala, I’m bringing our bags and we can meet up there.”
There were daily flights from Colombo to Trivandrum, so it shouldn’t be a problem to fly in that port instead.
I felt bad though, Kelsi was NOT having a good time.
“I’ve been to two Embassy’s, I’m paying three times the amount I should on a closet sized room, I’ve made two women cry today, I had to PAY for my deportation flight back, AND I had to pay for another Sri Lankan visa on arrival since mine had expired.” Worst day ever. Luckily, her plan was to head back to Hikkaduwa and wait it out on the touristy beaches. Not the worst place to be deported to…
After a huge fiasco on my end, I finally figured out my plan. The trains were full for the next three days at least, but the waiter at the only hotel with wifi in Madurai was nice enough to help me out.
“You can take three buses to get to Kovalam. But I’m not sure the best route” he said.
He called all of the bus companies for me. Which is the best route? When do they all leave? How long will this all take?
Before I knew it I had an eight hour day ahead of me. Madurai to Nagarcovil, Nagarcovil to Trivandrum, Trivandrum to Kovalam. I had great instructions from Myles on where he was staying in Kovalam: “It’s near to the lighthouse, by Ganesh tattoo… I don’t know the name. Maybe Seabreeze?” Thanks Myles.
The only concern: I had about 100lbs and 150 litres of luggage to carry. Well, it’s that or I hang out in Madurai forever!
I spent the evening in contemplation back at the hotel. I played hide and seek with the mouse-sized cockroach for a while (it won), watched a movie, and finally sat down to think about what the hell I was doing in India.
I was amazed at how much India had changed in the week I was gone. I went from hating the men, hating getting ripped off, and hating the crazy noise and bustle to having a very welcoming return. I had a safe ride in from the airport, a warm welcome from the hotel staff, my waiter went out of his way to help me with buses and I didn’t even mind the honking. Maybe I needed the break, or maybe my outlook on everything had changed, but for some reason I knew this second journey in India was going to be very different!
“And hey, if you get stuck anywhere at all, give me a call” said the waiter “I have a motorbike and I’ll come pick you and your 3 tonnes of luggage up anywhere you get stuck!”
I laughed. Oh god, please don’t let THAT happen!

Signed, Sealed… Deported

I sat there with my Chennai newspaper not knowing quite what to say. Kelsi is being deported? That thought had honestly not crossed my mind as a real possibility.
“Okay” I finally stammered and I followed her up the stairs.
When I got up to the immigration room I saw Kelsi coming towards me with the angriest look I’ve ever seen. She just shook her head at me.
“What happened?” I asked
“They are deporting me.”
“I heard, but why?!”
Then came the story…
What every single person we spoke to failed to inform us over the past month was that to get a second visa on arrival you have to have left the country for two months in between. Kelsi’s travel agent, the immigration officer in Delhi, our travel agent in Delhi, the immigration officer in Madurai, all the officials at two airline companies in Sri Lanka, the embassy – BOTH times we called them – and the immigration officers in Sri Lanka: not a single person mentioned a two month delay. The visa stamp you get on arrival is supposed to mention this rule, but the stamp that Kelsi got in Delhi was so smudged that no one, not even four officials in Chennai, could read what it said.
The immigration officer in Chennai told Kelsi her visa was denied and she flipped out at them.
“Do you know how much we’ve gone through to get here?! How come I was never told about this rule?”
She yelled and screamed at the officers so much she was asked to leave the room and sit outside in a chair. The officers came out after a brief discussion alone.
“We can call the head boss,” they said “he makes all the final decisions on these matters and sometimes he makes exceptions.”
But when they called the head hauncho, he was taking an afternoon nap. “Sorry.” they came back with, “We will have to wait until he wakes up.”
40 minutes later they finally woke him. Clearly he wasn’t happy with being disturbed from his beauty sleep, because he immediately denied the request.
“Send her back.”
And that was the final word.
More screaming on Kelsi’s part and then someone was sent to get me. And so there we were, standing there, the two of us and four officials, coming up with a game plan.
“So where does that leave us?” I asked
“She has to go back to Sri Lanka, now. The plane leaves again in 20 minutes” said one official.
“And what do I do?” I asked
“You will carry on with your flight to Madurai” he said.
“Really? You think this is a good idea splitting us up? You think it’s safe for two young white women to travel the country on our own because of a problem with your visa system?”
“It is not our problem, those are the rules” he said.
“We’ll why weren’t we told about them? What is wrong with your officials in Madurai? They never told us we had to leave for two months and they never told us you couldn’t get a visa on arrival there. What is wrong with your staff?”
He did not look happy about that.
“Those are not my staff. That is Madurai, and the visa on arrival rules are new.”
“We’ll then shouldn’t your staff be briefed on these new rules? Or shouldn’t you be able to make an exception considering you are splitting us up and it is unsafe?” Kelsi chimed in.
In the end, the answer was no. They even refused our request to explain our situation to the chief ourselves. Kelsi had to leave.
“Look,” said the official “go to the embassy in Colombo and apply for a visa. It will take two days.”
It was Tuesday. Kelsi couldn’t make it to the embassy until Wednesday morning.
“So I could be back in India by Friday then?”
“Well,” said the guy hesitantly, “Friday is the Sri Lankan New Year. So it’ll be a holiday. Maybe not until Monday.”
We just glared at him silently.
“You can always put in a special request for a rush order” he suggested.
Yeah, because those have been working out SO well for us lately.
“It’s time to go.” Said another man “The flight is leaving now.”
“What are you going to do?” Asked the first man to me.
I looked at Kelsi.
“Do I go with you? Or do I go get our bags and meet you in a couple days?”
“I want you to come with me, but we don’t have the money for more flights. It’s two days, I’ll meet you in Madurai”
“Ok” I said. I took the $40 US dollars we had exchanged for a THIRD time out of my pocket. “You’ll need this more than me. Good luck exchanging it again.” We chuckled, only to stop from screaming or crying.
“I’m at breaking point” Kelsi said to me.
I gave her a half hug as she was pulled away by three officials. “Just in case I never see you again” I said. We smiled goodbye to each other.
If Kelsi can’t make it back to India, then she goes back to Australia. I leave to go to Canada. The possibilities of not seeing each other for years to come is a big one. But then again, we always sucked at goodbyes, this one would definitely make the books for worst parting ever. It would be ironically fitting for our friendship.
And just like that I was alone.
The lady who found me downstairs escorted me through customs.
“Better not be late for your next flight” she said.
I left the terminal and walked towards the domestic terminal. The whole time I had a very uneasy feeling.
This isn’t right. Kelsi is at breaking point and I just LEFT her? To get our bags?! Money is money, I will pay for another flight back to India, I just can’t imagine her having to go through all this visa crap on her own. I’m going back with her, I decided.
I ran back to the arrivals gate. I was sweaty, out of breath and my pink hair (still from the color festival) flailed around me in a matted mess. I was a sight for sore eyes: a wild woman.
I tried to walk back through the door I had just left but was stopped by two guards with rifles.
“You can’t come in here”
“No, no! It’s okay, I’m going on a flight with my friend, I just have to talk to that woman.”
“What woman? Departure gates are that way”
“I know, but I just have to go through here”
“No. No one goes back through here”
“Please!” I begged “You can walk with me, I just need to talk to someone”
“Tell me what the situation is.” Said the guard.
Ya, like I had time to explain all that.
“Look, do you not remember me coming out these doors about three minutes ago?”
“Yes”
“Then please, will you just walk back to customs with me? It’s like 50 meters.”
He hesitated, then finally agreed.
I ran through customs backwards.
“No running!” He shouted at me.
“Okay, okay”
Then I spotted the chief of customs that had been chatting me up for over an hour.
“What’s wrong?” He asked me.
“I want to get on the plane with my friend.”
“But it’s leaving soon.”
“I know. I want to be on it. Can I talk to the woman from before?”
“Uhh, she’s in her office.” He pointed to a room across the whole bottom floor of the airport.
I ran towards it.
“No running!” Said the guard still holding the rifle.
Right, right. I walked briskly towards her door.
“What are you doing here?!” She asked genuinely shocked that I had found my way backwards through armed guards and a whole customs crew.
“I want to get on the plane with my friend!” I just imagined the look on Kelsi’s face when I sat down next to her on the plane. I couldn’t wait.
“We’ll you can’t.”
“Wait, what? Why not? You said, what are you going to do? And I said stay… Well now I want to go!”
“I can’t just deport you for no reason!” She said.
“But before you were going to let me on.” I said confused.
“No. You could have BOUGHT a ticket to go back, but we can’t just send you back for free because you WANT to.”
“Hmm, okay, how much?”
“No! You can’t buy a ticket less than two hours before departure!”
“So what you’re saying is there was no possibility of me EVER being on that flight with her?”
“No!” She said exasperated.
Retrospectively I realize how ridiculous my request seemed. But at the time, probably half in shock, half afraid I’d never see Kelsi again, half unsure of where to go in India on my own with 150 liters worth of bags for three weeks, my request seemed completely logical. I gave up.
“Okay” I said disheartened
“How did you even get in here?” She asked. “We have rules you know! You can’t just come in here like this”
C’mon, I thought. It’s India. Rules shmules (apart from visa entries I suppose).
Defeated I finally gave up. I walked back through customs for a third time and left the building. I ran out the final door just to make a point, then turned back to thank the armed guard for letting me through. He smiled and waved and let me carry on running.
I got to the check out counter of Spice Jet just before closing.
“I’m here!” I announced as I slid, Cramer style, into the check-in counter.
“And where is the second passenger?” The lady asked
I laughed “Being deported back to Sri Lanka” I said matter of factly.
“So she’s not coming?” She asked.
I rolled my eyes “No, not this time.”
She checked me in and sent me through security.
My gate number was M-9. When I spotted the gate the sign read “last call for boarding.” The bus outside the door was already full and the gates were closing. I sprinted across the room to the doorway.
“NO RUNNING!” Three officials shouted at me at the same time.
Gee! What’s with the no running rule? Don’t people always run in airports?!
Turns out my running was all for naught. My plane was delayed by 45 minutes and I was left to stand around in the overcrowded domestic terminal for another hour. I looked around and noticed that I was the only tourist in sight. Thousands of Indians all crowded in the room… and then there was me.
I took a breath in and out.
India round two: here we go!

Back to India… For real.

The morning after our day from Hell did look better. A nice sleep in, a beautiful, sunny morning, what could be better?
We wandered down the main strip to find breakfast. We sat at a little mom and pop owned restaurant. The place was empty apart from the lady who owned it and one young waiter.
We ordered poached eggs on toast and some fruit juice.
The waiter came out with a tumbler glass half full of whiskey.
“We have to get rid of the last of the bottle,” he said “so here you go!”
Whiskey? It was not even 9:00am. You know it’s going to be a weird day when you get served whiskey first thing in the morning. We took a sip and nearly gagged. This was the last thing on earth that I wanted right now.
The lady who owned the place was setting up flowers on all the tables.
“You like yellow?” She asked as she placed a flower down on ours.
“Yes, we love yellow!” We said as we admired the pretty yellow flower on the table.
“Hmmm, I like purple” she said in a sad voice. “My husband liked blue… But he died”
We looked up as if we hadn’t quite understood what she said.
“I’m so sorry” I said to her
She continued as if she hadn’t heard me, “Electric shock.” She said “He was holding a metal pole, and was in water. Just died of electric shock”
We sat there, unsure of what to say. I took the glass of whiskey and took another excruciating sip. I’m gunna need this if this conversation continues.
“You see my hand?” She said pointing to her hand. There was a lump on the side of it. “Can’t move it anymore” she motioned how her thumb no longer moves. “I crushed it. With wood. Now it doesn’t work.”
We looked at each other. What’s going on? The lady wandered off as we mumbled confused apologies.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I often have random people coming up to me and telling me intimate or horrific details about their life out of nowhere. But sitting in Sri Lanka, having a glass of Whiskey at 8:30am and an old lady telling me all the sad details of her life was strangely surreal.
So we just sat and waited for our breakfast, politely sipping on our whiskey.
Breakfast took an hour to show up. Maybe they were waiting for the chickens to lay the eggs, I’m not sure. Either way, that made us late for our Tuk Tuk to the airport. Not this again!
We showed up to the airport late once again. Other than the Vancouver Airport, I am pretty sure I’ve now been to the Colombo airport more than any other airport in the world. We rocked up like pro’s: through two security checks, exchanged money with the same exchange guy and up to the Sri Lankan airways desk.
“Two to Chennai!” We said with smiles as we handed over our passports and day packs.
The ticket lady checked me in first, them she turned to Kelsi.
“Where is your Indian visa?” She asked.
“I am getting one on arrival” said Kelsi.
“India doesn’t give visa’s on arrival” she said, staring at us blankly.
Hmmm, I’m having a sense of déjà vu.
We sighed. “They do for New Zealanders arriving in Chennai. Trust us. We went through this all yesterday, we talked with the embassy twice and we’ve gone through a huge process to rebook flights. They will give us a visa on arrival.”
She stared blankly some more then turned to a lady next to her. They discussed and shrugged, then brought over a supervisor.
“I have to call the embassy” said the supervisor.
“No problem” we said.
While she called, we looked at each other with ‘oh please, let’s NOT go through this again’ looks on our faces. A couple minutes on the phone and the lady turned back to us.
“No problem, they can do visa’s on arrival.”
Thank god!
They processed our tickets and sent us on our way. We had no problem with immigration and then hopped on our plane with no issues.
While we were on the plane we laughed at the ridiculousness of the past 24 hours. Only in retrospect can a situation like that be funny. Sri Lanka was incredible, but it was time to continue on in India. Kelsi had a list of 21 cities she wanted to see in the three weeks we had left until Mumbai. Oh god. We were already one day late, so we couldn’t waste a second!
Our plane landed after an hour and a half and we safely cruised into the Chennai airport for a second time that month.
Side note: Sri Lankan Airways, SO much nicer than Spice Jet.
When we pulled up to immigration we saw a big sign on the wall that read: Visas on Arrival for the following countries… New Zealand was one of them.
We looked at each other with giddy joy.
“Yaaaaaaa!!!” We cheered. We even went as far as to do a little happy dance. I went through immigration first.
“What’s going on with your friend?” He asked as he watched Kelsi leave the line and walk towards the visa on arrival room.
“She’s getting a visa on arrival” I said.
“Oh. Hold on a minute!” He yelled to Kelsi “I’ll be over to process your visa when I’m finished with this line.”
“No problem” she said with a smile.
“Kels” I yelled to her “ill meet you at customs downstairs with our bags!”
“No worries”
I went down to find our bags. When they didn’t show up right away I chuckled to myself. That would be the icing on the cake, we finally make it to India but our bags don’t!
In the end, they both showed up, and I sat down against a pillar on the floor to wait for Kelsi.
Everyone collected their bags and moved along through customs. I was left on my own, sitting on the dirty airport floor. The airport staff kept looking over at me and laughing.
“Can I ask, what you are doing here?” Asked an official looking lady finally asked on her way past.
“I’m just waiting for my friend to get her visa.
“Oh okay” she said, as she went to tell the rest of the staff who were probably making bets about what was going on.
Twenty minutes later my ass fell asleep and I moved to a chair I found next to the Chief of Customs office. The chief himself made sure to come over and hit on me.
I was sitting reading a local Indian newspaper
“You like reading the newspaper?” He asked
“Yes,” I said “when I get the chance. I haven’t seen many newspapers in English here” I replied
“You are smart. I like smart women”
Great. I put in my headphones and ignored his smiles and waves from the corner. He came over a few more times to ask me what kind of music I liked to listen to and if my husband listened to the same kind of tunes. I rolled my eyes.
“Can I go back up to Immigration to see if my friend is okay?” I asked
“No” he said, all of a sudden serious “once you pass through you can’t go back. Your friend will be down soon, I promise”
“Okay” I said as I put my headphones back in and went back to reading.
Side note again: the Chennai newspaper is probably the most interesting newspaper you will ever read. Albeit depressing, every article is full of murders, suicides, fatal car accidents and all that horrific stuff that the media is full of. On top of that, they don’t have any censorship, so all the gruesome details are explained in full. It’s terrible of me to enjoy that, but reading “police incident: details confidential” in all our newspapers at home drives me crazy. I want to know what happened, or don’t mention it at all!
Before I knew it I’d been reading the paper for over an hour. And waiting with our bags for an hour and a half. Okay guys, our ticket counter closes in 45 minutes for our flight to Madurai. What’s going on?
I was almost starting to get worried when the lady that I spoke to before came up to me.
“Hilary?” She said calmly “Your friend is being deported from the country, if you’d like to say goodbye, come with me now please.”
My heart sunk again. Shit.

20130502-195239.jpg

Back to India

Even our final morning in Sri Lanka was an early one. Our decision to spend a night in Hikkaduwa meant we had to be up at 7 to bus the two hours to Colombo. We wanted to spend a couple hours at the market and then head off to the airport for our 2:30 flight.
Unfortunately, the two hour bus ride turned into three. We didn’t reach Colombo until quarter to 11. We wanted to be at the airport by 12:30. At first we gave ourselves a half hour to bus to the airport, but the English guy in Hikkaduwa had offhandedly mentioned that it took 1 hour to get there. Good thing we met him!
But when we arrived in Colombo, we were dropped off right in the center of town. The fort and markets looked lovely as we passed them, but with all the traffic, we wouldn’t have time to see them and get back in time. We wandered a market next to the station, but it was a locally geared market, selling daily household needs as opposed to touristy trinkets. After a half hour we were bored. Not knowing what to do next, we just decided to hop on a bus to the airport.
The bus was hot, and crowded. We squished ourselves onto the back of the bus with three other men on the same bench. Then we drove. We drove through the town, inching along with the traffic and picking up people every hundred meters. I remember seeing a sign that said “KFC 180m ahead”. I remembered the amount of KFC we’d eaten in Kandy three days earlier and felt ill. Nearly ten minutes later we passed the restaurant. I think that has to be a record for the slowest 180m ever driven! It was painful, every half hour I kept thinking we had to be there!
an hour and forty-five minutes later we pulled up to the “airport bus stand”. It’s 2 kilometers from the actual airport. From there you have to pay either a shuttle or a Rickshaw another dollar to get to the terminal.
By the time we reached the airport it was just after 1:00. Thank god we left early!
We rushed inside, had to make it through two security checks BEFORE reaching our ticket desk. When we got up to the counter we were exhausted, burnt out and sweaty. We handed over our passports and weighed our bags.
“Do you have a visa for India?” One of the guys asked Kelsi
“No, not yet. I get one on arrival.”
“You can’t get visa’s on arrival in India” said the man confused.
“Yes, for New Zealand you can. I was just there last week. They gave me a one month visa and said I had to leave then come back for a second. They will only give you two in a year.”
The man stood there unsure what to think. Then he turned to another guy and spoke to him. The two chatted and shrugged and then turned to another guy. He did the same thing. Then they stopped an agent from Sri Lankan Airways. She joined in the confusion.
“I don’t think you can get a visa on arrival in India” she said
“I was just there” said Kelsi “only a couple countries can do it, and New Zealand is one of them”
“Hmmm”
They called over the Spice Jet supervisor and explained the situation. We looked at each other with worried faces. Oh great.
“I’m going to call the embassy just to make sure. We have to check these things before you get on the plane. You don’t want to be sent back.”
So he called the embassy, explained what happened. Turns out, yes, New Zealanders can get visas on arrival. We now had a very minimal time to make it through security. They checked our bags, gave us our tickets and we ran towards immigration.
We handed over our tickets and passports to the first security check. Just as we were doing that, the Spice Jet supervisor yelled to us.
“Wait! Wait! Don’t go through!”
We stopped. So close!
“I’m sorry,” he said “they embassy just called back. They can do visas on arrival at all airports EXCEPT for Madurai”
“What?”
“Yes, Madurai does not have a visa processing area.”
“So what does that mean for us?” I asked
“You can’t get on this flight. Well, you can, but your friend can’t.”
Our hearts sank. Oh no. We were so exhausted, just spent 5 sweaty hours on busses that day and just wanted to get on the plane. We walked back to the desk with him to discuss.
“So where can we fly to?”
“Anywhere except Madurai”
The closest airports would be Chennai or Trivandrum. Trivandrum is where we were going next, so it would be perfect… Had we not left all our luggage in Madurai. Also, flights to Trivandrum stop over in Madurai first, so we’d have to go through immigration there. Chennai was our only option. It’s an 11-hour train ride to Madurai from Chennai. We had just done that journey in five days!
“Fine, can we change our flight to Chennai?”
“Yes, but there aren’t any more that go today.”
Awesome.
“Okay, then tomorrow?”
“Yes, but you have to go online to book. We can’t do it here at the airport.” Explained the supervisor.
He was nice enough to call his boss and ask for a refund on our tickets. She worked it all out to refund the money back to my credit card.
“Just use the wifi here to book a flight for tomorrow, then you can come back later”
Turns out the wifi was down that day. We’d have to go to a hotel and book it from there. The idea of getting back on that bus to Colombo was sickening.
“Okay, here’s my suggestion,” I said “we fork out the money and take a Tuk Tuk back to Negombo. Marshall was so helpful, the place was beautiful, cheap, on the beach and had great food. It’s only a half hour from the airport instead of two hours and we know they have wifi!”
Okay. Plan complete.
We walked backwards through security. Everyone stopped us.
“No, madam, the other way, you can’t come through here. Security is that way”
“We’re not getting on a plane thanks, we’re coming through.”
We pushed our way back through security and went up to the money exchange. We had just exchanged all our Sri Lankan money back into US dollars. The man we had dealt with looked confused when he saw us standing there.
“Hey! Remember these beautifully crisp US dollars you gave me just a half an hour ago?” I said smiling “Sooo, is it possible to just pretend that transaction never happened and I can get my six thousand back?”
He laughed at the state of us and handed back the money in full. Wow, that could have gone much worse. Our first win of the day.
We grabbed a Tuk Tuk to Negombo for nearly the same price as it would have cost us to get there by bus (Tuk Tuk to bus station, bus to second station, then Tuk Tuk to hotel.) we arrived at Marshall’s Guesthouse in a haggard state. When we walked in, the lovely guy who ran the place when Marshall was away recognized us.
“You!!” He exclaimed with a gasp “I thought you were leaving!” He rushed over to us with a worried look. We briefly explained the situation in broken English until he understood. He gladly showed us to our room, then we came back downstairs to book flights.
“All the Spice Jet flights to Chennai are booked for the next two days” said Kelsi when she finally got the website working.
“I found one with Sri Lankan Airways but it’s more expensive.” After a while we’d sorted it out. We found a reasonably priced flight to Chennai and then three hours later we found a Spice Jet flight from Chennai to Madurai. Hopefully that would give us enough time, and we’d still get into Madurai by the night. Perfect!
Kelsi went to pay for the flight to Chennai. We got all the way through the slow process, with the wifi cutting out a couple times, just to get a message at the end saying: this flight is unavailable for online booking. What?! Great.
We decided to call the airline.
“Can we use your phone?” We asked the guy that worked there.
He looked confused. “You want me to call someone?”
“No no, I just need to call the airline to book a flight”
He stood staring at us with a blank look.
“Your phone, can we use?” We tried again.
He smiled. “Hold on!” He said and rushed to grab his cell phone. We could see the hotel phone. We were just being polite before using it. We had even pointed to the phone when we described what we needed. Maybe he was going to give us the cell phone instead.
He dialed a number then handed us the phone. “Mr. Marshall!” He said with a big grin.
Oh great.
“Hello?” Said Marshall.
“Hello, I am here at your guesthouse, I want to know if it’s possible to us the phone to call a local number.”
“What? I can’t hear you”
“I’d like to use the phone here at guesthouse, is that okay?”
“What?”
Oh my god. This is the biggest process ever. After a few more times he understood and I passed the phone back.
“Ooooh! Yes yes!” Said the man when he hung up from Marshall.
Kelsi grabbed the hotel phone and dialed.
“Hello I would like to book a flight to chennai tomorrow… To Chennai… No, tomorrow… Chen-Nai… Chennai.” She looked over at me exasperated. No one in India or Sri Lanka can understand Kelsi’s accent. It’s become an ongoing joke between us. Even with words that to me sound normal, people get confused. I got up to talk to him.
“Hello, can we book a flight to Chennai for tomorrow?”
“Yes, what time”
“1:15”
“Okay, your names please”
I went through the process, spelling out both our names, giving passport numbers and confirming times and dates.
“Okay, I’m going to transfer you to an automated system so you can put in your credit card information”
“Okay thank you”
The phone went on hold for a while, I handed the receiver back to Kelsi. A few minutes later the man came back online.
“Hello, I’m sorry, we have a problem. We cannot process the flight on the phone if it is less than 24 hours away”
I came back on the phone “well what do we do?”
“You have to go to our booking agent in Colombo”
My heart sunk again.
“Is there a booking office in Negombo? That’s where I am”
“Okay, hold on ill check”
The man came back on five minutes later and gave me the address to another city that was NOT Negombo.
“No, no, Ne-Gom-Bo. Is there a booking office in Negombo?”
“Oh I’m sorry, ill check”
Five more minutes on hold.
“No, there is not. But there is a booking office in a place called Seeduwa. It is near to Negombo, on the way back to Colombo.”
“Okay, what time does it close?”
“5:00”
Oh god. It was 4:20. No time to get to the bus stop, so we tried to grab a Tuk Tuk. The man who ran the place’s son did most of the Tuk Tuk driving to and from Marshall’s. it was usually the cheapest price.
“Ok, I call my boy!” He said with a smile. He dialed him up and explained the situation. After a few minutes he hung up the phone.
“Sorry, he is in another city, it will take him a while to get here”
Time was one thing we didn’t have. So we rushed outside to haggle on the street. It took a while, but we finally agreed to 600 rupees for the driver to take us to the place, wait five minutes and then drive us home.
“We won’t be longer than five minutes!” We promised “all we have to do is pay the guy!”
We hopped in the tuk tuk at 4:35: 25 minutes to closing!
It took 15 minutes just to get out of the city. We were sweating with anticipation. There was no going faster with the amount of traffic on the road. We didn’t even know where Seeduwa was, but we followed street signs until we assumed we were around the right place. 4 minutes before closing Kelsi spotted a giant sign that read: Sri Lankan Airways.
“There it is!!” She screeched at the driver, “pull over!”
The guy stopped and the two of us jumped out into the middle of 4 lanes of crazy traffic. We ran across the street and saw the janitor setting the alarm on the building.
“Noooo!!! Please! Let us in!”
We burst through the front door breathless. There was one lady sitting behind her desk still. The janitor looked less than impressed at us. We smiled sheepishly as we went off to talk to the woman.
We explained our situation, gave her the reference number and handed over the credit card with a smile! I can’t believe we made it!
“Who told you to come here?” She asked us, when we’d finished talking.
“The Sri Lankan airline guy on the phone.”
“We’ll I’m so sorry,” she said “but we are no longer affiliated with Sri Lankan Airways. I’m just a travel agent. I can’t book these tickets for you”
Our hearts sunk again. You have got to be kidding me! How can so many things go so wrong in one day?
“I’ll try to see what you can do” she said. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. As she chatted away I looked out at our waiting Tuk Tuk driver. He did not look happy about the delay.
Eventually the lady turned to us again.
“Okay, to book this ticket you will have to go to the airport. The Sri Lankan ticket agents will book it all for you”
Oh my god! Isn’t that where we started this whole fiasco?! We were both exasperated. Now we had to deal with the Tuk Tuk.
The driver was pissed about the change of plans. He tried to charge us 1200 for a return trip when the airport was really on the way home. After a big fight we just had him drop us off at the airport and we tossed him 500 with a scowl as he drove off.
There was a huge lineup when we got to the Sri Lankan booking desk. Of course there would be. We pushed our way to the front of the crowd as best we could.
“Yes, I can book the tickets” said the man behind the counter, “just let me see your passports please.”
Oh god. We hadn’t brought our passports because we were only supposed to PAY for the tickets. We explained the situation and he let it slide. They had to check the passports the next day anyways when we checked in. Another five minutes and we’d booked and paid for the tickets. I never thought the day would end.
“See you tomorrow!” Said the man.
Even though the fiasco was over, we were still cranky. We had spent an entire day’s budget in transportation today and all to end up back where we began. We tried to grab another Tuk Tuk back to Marshall’s.
“Yes, 900 to Negombo beach” said the driver. I flipped out.
“Look buddy. Who do you think we are? I have done this trip four times today, I know what a Tuk Tuk should cost. I will give you 400 or ill find another driver.”
He paused.
“Okay, 850”
Screw off. I walked away as he yelled out 800. I saw another Tuk Tuk up the road.
“I’ll give you 400 to Negombo beach”
“500”
“400 or I’m moving on”
He smiled. “Ok, get in”
On the way home the driver got lost. We ended up having to call Marshall’s and the guy who ran the place came out to get us. Wen he saw our haggard faces pull up he started laughing.
“You!!!” He laughed again “it has been hours since you left! What happened?!”
“Long story” we said.
I paid the guy 400 rupees on the way out.
“500” he said “it took longer!”
“Only because you got lost, buddy.” We walked away with the hotel manager still giggling to himself.
What a day.
We crashed early that night. Worst day ever. All we needed was a good night’s sleep and the world would be a better place.
Tomorrow things will be looking up!

Hikkaduwa

20130502-194446.jpg

Our final full day in Sri Lanka was a little more laid back. We were up early and made the hour trek to Galle.
Galle is a gorgeous little port town with an amalgamation of cultural influences. It was used by the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the English during its history, and has a gorgeous Dutch fort right next to the shore line. We spent the morning walking around the fort’s ramparts, wandering the quaint and narrow streets inside the fort’s walls and watching the locals swim in the waves. This is also an amazing spot to watch the fishermen catch fish by their traditional stilt fishing. The men sit on large stilt-like wooden poles and lean over with a small fishing line to grab their daily catch.
When we’d finished exploring the fort, we made our last leg of the day to Hikkaduwa. Hikkaduwa is another touristy stretch of beach that screams “paradise”. Much like Mirissa, hikkaduwa has a string of bars and restaurants right along it’s palm-fringed, white sand beaches. This is where people get stuck for weeks, meeting other tourists and partying it up until the sun rises. We arrived on a Sunday, so the vibe was a little more relaxed.
“Can you imagine staying here for a week?” Said Kelsi while we were sitting having a beer on the patio “you would meet such a great crew of people. I wish we had three weeks to stay in Sri Lanka instead of 6 days.”
“Me too” I agreed.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have that long, so we just made the most of what we could in a single afternoon. We walked up and down the endless stretch of beach, checking out the array of guesthouses and resorts along the coast. We sat down on some shaded chairs to have a relaxing nap and was harassed by a man to buy his pineapples for the next hour. Eventually we meandered our way to dinner and out for a couple of beers.
The bar we ended up at was pretty full for a Sunday night. We met a lovely British man who had been living in Sri Lanka for 9 years. He had a tonne of recommendations for nightlife places in Hikkaduwa, but by 11:00 we realized how burnt out we were from the past week.
We had a seven AM wake up time and decided to head to bed, our six day whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka finally over. We’d seen a lot of the country in such a short time. From Negombo beach to the ruins of Anuradhapura, the abandoned palace of Sigiriya to the temples of Kandy. We explored the tea plantations in the central highlands, managed to relax on pristine beaches, climb the Dutch fort ramparts in Galle and eat seafood in paradise. Not a bad trip!
The next morning we had a stop in Colombo then a flight back to India. Sri Lanka, I can’t wait to visit you again!

20130502-194424.jpg

20130502-194512.jpg

20130502-194546.jpg

20130502-194606.jpg

Mission to Mirissa

20130430-163112.jpg

When we told the hotel manager that we wanted to see a tea plantation and make it south to Mirissa beach to lie in the sun all in one day, he laughed at us.
“You can’t do that! Do you know how far Mirissa is from here? It’s an 8 hour drive at least, and the tea plantations don’t even open until 9:00. There is a direct bus to Matara, which is twenty minutes outside of Mirissa, but it leaves at 7:15. If you take that, you’ll miss the plantations. Or you can take a connecting bus at 12:30 and switch busses half way, but you won’t get to the beach while the sun is up! 8:00 at the earliest if the busses connect.”
Great. We wanted to do both! There’s no way I’m going to be in one of the most famous tea regions in the world and not see a plantation, but all I want to do is hang out on the beach with an icy beer. So that’s what we’re doing, No matter what. Where there’s a will there’s always a way!
We were at the plantation before opening, and finished by 9:45. We arrived back at the Nuwara Eliya bus station by 10:15.
“We want to go to Matara!” We announced. We had missed the direct bus, and the usual connecting bus didn’t go until for another 2 hours.
“We don’t care how we get there, we just want to be there as fast as possible.”
The guy looked at us for a minute and thought. Then he turned around, dragged us to a bus that was pulling out a couple rows down and told us to get on. He yelled to the ticket man about where we wanted to go. He nodded and we sat down.
“Hmmm, where do you think we’re going?” I asked Kelsi
“Who knows!”
“Well wherever we’re going, I promise you I will have a beer in my hand, sitting on the beach in Mirissa, watching the sun go down, this evening!”
Everyone on the bus was curious about where we were going. Two guys in front of us each came up with their own plan of were we should change busses. Nothing made sense to us, and no two people had the same plan of action. As long as we were headed in the right general direction, I was happy.
We drove for a couple hours, pulling over in small towns here and picking people up on the side of the road there. I had no idea where we were. Finally we pulled up to one stop and the conductor motioned for us to get off. He pointed at some random man that was standing next to the bus stop. Without a word, the second man motioned for us to follow him.
“Where are we going?!” I asked like an excited little kid.
“To the hospital.” He said nonchalantly.
I looked back at Kelsi confused. She shrugged.
“Ok” I said.
“Yeah I have a bad heart. I Need to get it checked out, you know?”
I most certainly did not know. I had no clue what was going on, and yet we continued to follow the man through the bus station.
“Okay, get on” he said as he motioned to the bus. We looked at each other and decided his guess was better than ours. We climbed into the packed bus and the man walked off.
Is he coming with us? Is he going to the hospital? I have no idea what’s going on…
The bus was so full Kelsi and I grabbed the last two seats a few rows apart from each other. About 15 more people piled on as the bus pulled out of the station.
“Hello,” said the little old lady beside me, “Where are you from?”
“Canada” I replied.
“And where are you going?”
“Hopefully to Matara. Does this bus go to there?”
“Oh yes, you should be there by 4:30” she smiled and then offered me some of her roti bread to eat.
Victory! I don’t know how we did it, but we ended up on a bus going the right way!
The bus system in Sri Lanka looks like a disaster, but I honestly think it’s one of the most efficient bus systems I’ve ever been on. Every conductor knows the routes, everyone knows when and where the connections are, and which bus leaves from which stand. Yes, people jump on and off the busses while they are moving, and yes sometimes they are so full that there are twice as many people standing as there are sitting, but, we never once waited longer than 5 minutes for a bus going our direction. It was unreal.
We got to Matara, switched buses, grabbed a Tuk Tuk to a guesthouse and sat on the beach with a beer in our hands in perfect time for the last hour of sunshine. We watched the sunset, had an amazing dinner on the beach and called it a night. Success! And the rush was worth it. Mirissa beach is a beach that should be photographed for travel magazines. Perfect white sand, excellent for surfing, leaning palm trees that stretch all along the coastline. This place is paradise! On top of that, April is off season for tourists in Sri Lanka, so although there were enough people lounging on the beach to have a good time, essentially the place was our own. Our little escape from the bustling world, to relax and unwind. Exactly what the doctor ordered after a month in crazy India!

20130430-163150.jpg

Tea Plantations in Nuwara Eliya

20130430-162804.jpg

When we left Sigiriya we bussed the long trip to Kandy and spent a whirlwind couple hours checking out the lake and the Tooth Temple. I have to admit, most of our Kandy experience was spent in KFC. We’d been craving American fast food for weeks now and when I spotted it I nearly jumped out of my skin in excitement. As usual with fast food, the idea is always better than the experience and we left too full and feeling sick.
When we were done with Kandy we make the final three hour trek to Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya, meaning “city on the plain” or “city of light” is nestled in the center of the beautiful tea plantations of Sri Lanka. Its slightly higher altitude made it the perfect weather to walk around, even in the height of the day.
Nuwara Eliya is considered the most important area for tea production in Sri Lanka, so Kelsi and I took full advantage of exploring the region. The next morning we were up early and on another state bus heading into the plantations. We hopped off at a plantation called Mackwoods Labookelie a half hour before it even opened.
The backdrop to Labookelie was sensational. Green hills covered in rows of tea plants, small temples scattered off in the distance, and a river running through the bottom of the ravine. We watched the little old ladies walk down the dirt road with their baskets to begin work. They trudged off into the plantations to begin harvesting for the day.
We sat down at an outside seating area to have breakfast. We sat, staring out at the landscape, eating the fresh fruit and yoghurt we had bought in Kandy the day before.
Finally, a guy that worked there came around.
“Are you here for a tour?” He asked.
“Yes we are!”
“Okay, come with me” he led us towards the factory. There were only two other people, an older German couple, and us on the tour. And as a bonus, the whole thing was free!
For someone who drinks tea all the time, and I mean ALL the time, I actually have no idea how to make it. I don’t know where it comes from, or how different teas are classified; this was an eye opening experience for my tea ignorance.
So here it goes…
Black tea, green tea and white tea are all made from the exact same plant. Yup, probably common knowledge, but I had no idea. Only the top three to five baby bright green leaves are used to make the tea. When they are picked, they go through a drying process, the leaves are separated from the stems, fermented, and are finally broken down into different grades of tea. This is black tea. Green tea is the exact same process from the exact same leaves, except they are not fermented. Who knew! White tea, on the other hand, is made only from the buds of the plant. Each plant has a single bud on the top of the plant, and that is what is used for the tea. Five kilos of picked leaves makes one kilo of black tea. Seven kilos of buds makes one kilo of white tea. Thus why white tea is more expensive than black or green.
There are a few different grades of black tea. This depends on how coarsely the leaves are broken down. The coarser the leaves, the higher the grade. The fine, dust-like powder tea that comes in the cheapest, pre-packaged tea bags is the lowest. The chunky leafy teas are considered the highest grade, and yet the midrange grade (where the tea is finely ground, and yet not quite dust) is the most favored, because of its more rounded flavor.
All of these black teas are orange pekoe. Another one of my ignorant tea moments. Orange pekoe is plain, black tea. All black teas have a base of orange pekoe. If you are trying a rose tea, or earl grey, or fruit flavored, that is made by adding oils or spices as a mix afterwards. I seriously had no idea.
The tour of the plantation was about a half hour. We wandered through the factory, saw the whole tea-making process, and finally sat down to a wonderful cup of tea in the tea bar.
It was exactly what we wanted to see in Nuwara Eliya and was perfect timing to get back on the road. In just a short hour I had learned more about tea than my whole tea knowledge of the past 26 years! Pretty successful morning if you ask me!

20130430-162512.jpg

20130430-162621.jpg

20130430-162717.jpg

20130430-162745.jpg

Sigiriya: The 8th Wonder of the World

20130429-095300.jpg

Like Anuradhapura, Sigiriya was yet another, albeit short-lived, capital of the Siganese empire. Also known as the Lion Rock, Sigiriya was built by King Kasyapa in 477. The royal fortress was built on the top of a 200m high rock that unnaturally emerges out of the earth. In an otherwise flat part of the Sri Lankan countryside, Sigiriya’s impressive-looking rock anomaly is awe-inspiring to see. When the palace was abandoned after King Kasyapa’s death it was then used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Sigiriya is considered by many to be the 8th Wonder of the World, and is one of the many Unesco World Heritage sites that Sri Lanka offers.
We woke up in Anuradhapura and were back on the road at a ridiculous time of the morning. We switched buses in Dambulla and made the final 45 minute trek to Sigiriya’s base: it was 9:30am. Not bad!
Even from the road, Sigiriya was impressive. It just seemed so unnatural. The surrounding area was a beautifully kept garden that spread out across the flat land. Right down the center of the garden was a path that led towards the rock face.
Sigiriya was impressively huge.
“It’s going to take us hours to climb this” we both said. But surprisingly it didn’t. Without stops, you could climb up the 200m in less than a half hour easily. Along the climb you can see perfectly preserved fresco paintings, coloured into the side of the rock. On a small plateau 3/4 of the way up, was a massive gateway in the shape of a lion. The lions paws create the entrance for the final steps to the top.
From the top, the views are breathtaking. Just endless miles of green jungle and palm-fringed lakes. Apart from a couple smaller hills, the land is flat, making Sigiriya even more of an oddity.
Kelsi and I sat under the shade of a tree with a little stray dog just taking in the scenery. Apparently the little dog climbs the huge rock every morning with the first tourists. At 6:00, when Sigiriya closes, she climbs back to the bottom with the last stragglers.
The shade was wonderful and the breeze even nicer on such a scorching hot morning. We explored the ruins for about a half hour before finally making our descent.
At $30 US dollars, Sigiriya is a pretty expensive entrance fee. But the climb is fun and the views are worth it; you can’t come to Sri Lanka and not visit it. And who knows, maybe one day this wonder will make the top 7 list! Either way, I’m glad I can check it off the bucket list.

20130429-095323.jpg

20130429-095350.jpg

20130429-095418.jpg

20130429-095544.jpg

20130429-095617.jpg

20130429-095741.jpg