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.

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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

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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!

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Mission to Mirissa

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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!

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Tea Plantations in Nuwara Eliya

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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!

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Sigiriya: The 8th Wonder of the World

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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.

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Anuradhapura

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Marshall had told us that it would take us all day to get to Anuradhapura.
“If you leave really early, you may get there by 3. Then you can see the city the next day”
Well we didn’t have two days, so we were determined to do it all in one.
Well, where there’s a will there’s a way!
We woke up with the sun, grabbed some crackers and water at the bus station and set out. The train that Marshall had told us to take didn’t leave until 9:30. From there we had to stop in a city half way up, and take a bus to Anuradhapura.
“We have to get out on the road earlier than that. Let’s take the bus and figure it out from there.” We decided.
Everyone at the bus station (all bus stations in fact) were so helpful. Their chaotic, rapid yelling of destinations and gridlock mess of moving busses seemed daunting. But their state bus system is actually incredible. We never had to wait more than a few minutes to catch a bus heading in the right direction.
The bus operators found us a bus heading half way to our destination.
“From there, you change busses and go straight to Anuradhapura!”
Perfect! We hopped on the bus heading off to the middle of nowhere. Let’s hope for the best!
Our bus transition was effortless and we were on a second bus within minutes of arriving at the station. Just a few hours later we found ourselves at a guesthouse in Anuradhapura, with a juice in hand, organizing a tour of the ancient city for that afternoon: it was 1:30. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
By 2:00 we were on a whirlwind, 4 hour tour of the best sites in Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura was the royal capital of Sri Lanka over 2200 years ago. For nearly 1000 years, Sinhalese monarchs ruled from the palaces of this ancient city. Today, a network of ruins exists. The ancient city is full of history, and as a tourist you are free to explore the palaces, gardens and ancient monasteries in the area.
Kelsi and I were lucky enough to have a young guide take us around the area. He was wonderful at bringing the ruins back to life by telling stories.
“This is where the king and his concubines bathed” he would start, “this place was full of running water, it rushed over the rock walls and created private rooms.”
The whole place slowly came to life as we passed through sleeping quarters and bathing ghats and bathrooms. The area was interspersed with ancient monasteries where monks would come to meditate. The whole place was full of lush green trees and big lakes; it was a stunning place to put a palace.
Still today there are working temples in the area. Large domed temples dedicated to Buddha, and monasteries built around sacred rocks or trees. The Bo tree found in Anuradhapura is considered the oldest tree on earth. It is supposedly 2000 years old. We arrived at the tree just before 6:00, when all the women and men came to pray at the temple. For some reason, I had expected the oldest tree on Earth to be massive: but it wasn’t. It was actually surprisingly unclimactic as we realized it was just a normal looking tree, half shrouded by the walls of its encircling temple. In the end it was the rituals of the people that were most interesting. Women crowded their way up one staircase, while the men did the same on the other. They all prayed at each of the four altars, and then somehow ended up in a procession line that circled around the grounds. Kelsi and I were as much a spectacle there as we were in India, but it was more curiosity. The school girls giggled and waved and shyly came up to shake our hands before running off to tell their friends. Parents would point us out to their small children and get them to wave to us. Our guide said the school girls would be gossiping about us in class for weeks to come. The whole afternoon was incredible. Our guide had wonderful insights into the Buddhist religion and was happy to share his beliefs with us. There’s something about the Buddhist culture that I really like; it seems like everyone is so at peace with the world, no matter their situation.
The day was busy, but in the end successful. We had made it half way across the country and seen the ancient capital all in a single day. It was home to eat and off to bed early. Another long day ahead of us tomorrow…

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Negombo Beach

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Our first stop in Sri Lanka was a city called Negombo. Only 16km from the airport, Negombo is a two part city: town and beach. We opted for beach: clearly. At the bus stop we paid less than a dollar to catch a Tuk Tuk to a guesthouse at Negombo Beach.
The beach was beautiful! White sand, palm trees, warm water: it was paradise. There were little fishing boats with huge sails scattered across the horizon and locals and tourists swimming in the waves (in bathing suits might I add. Completely opposite to India). We headed immediately to the beach to lie out on the sand as relax in the late sunshine. We’d been in the country only a couple hours and I was already in love.
The guesthouse we stayed at was called Marshall’s Beach Guesthouse. Marshall, the owner, was so lovely. He was also a tour guide around Sri Lanka, so he had a million suggestions on places to visit and stay for the night. When I asked him about guesthouse recommendations for Anuradhapura, he gladly flipped open a huge binder with guesthouse business cards all in alphabetical order according to city. So helpful.
But although Marshall himself could not have been any nicer, the man that ran the guesthouse when Marshall was away wins as my favourite person in Sri Lanka. Although his English wasn’t perfect, his hospitality and his constant concern about our happiness made him the sweetest person we had met in ages!
“You happy?” He would ask us with a huge grin. “You happy then I am VERY happy!” He would genuinely ask us this after every meal, or showing us our room, or after we’d come home from the beach. We wanted to stay forever!
The town of Negombo Beach was small but lovely. It was a single street with a mix of restaurants, souvenir shops and beach guesthouses. All the restaurants served delicious fish curries or traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Everyone in town wanted to say “Hello” but no one seemed pushy about coming into shops and buying their wares.
“Do you hear that?” Asked Kelsi when we were walking down the street.
“No, hear what?” I asked.
“Exactly.” there were no honking, screeching, deafening car sounds. It was amazing. I don’t understand how two countries, right next to each other can be so different! But I’m not complaining.
We wandered the town, relaxed on the beach, and spent a whole lot of time doing nothing. It was great.
That night I met an English guy named Max that had been traveling Sri Lanka by motorbike for three months already. By luck, he was able to offer us the best places to see in Sri Lanka. With his suggestions, we tweaked our original plan and had an epic 5 days ahead of us. Next stop: the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura!

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Sri Lanka

Kelsi and I had absolutely zero expectations about Sri Lanka. Until the night before we arrived, in fact, the only thing we knew about the country was that Colombo was the capital and it has tea. Yes, we’re ridiculous. We had expected Sri Lanka to be our relaxing vacation time. Check out Colombo for a day or two, then lie on the beach for 5 days and unwind. Then we googled it…
Sri Lanka has SO much to offer. It has pristine beaches, ancient ruins and abandoned palaces, a rich history of Buddhism, and some of the most incredible tea plantations in the world. It has the most Unesco World Heritage sites for a country of it’s size (8 in total) and is home to the ancient fortress Sigiriya, that is considered by many to be the 8th Wonder of the World. On top of that, Lonely Planet has rated it as one of the top ten places to visit in 2013. For a place that was wrapped up in a brutal civil war until 2009, the country is still off the beaten track to most tourists. Wow.
This meant both good and bad news. The good thing was that we were about to see most, if not all, of these things. The bad news was, our relaxing five-day beach holiday was going to have to be put on hold.
In only a few hours we put together a 14 day sightseeing tour of our own. The problem was, we only had 5 and a half days, and a small budget. What to do?
Wen it came to our week in Sri Lanka, I think the phrase should be “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” We were not about to let limited time and money get in our way. We would wake up at the crack of dawn, figure out the local bus systems, eat the cheapest street food we could find, and make it work!
Our first hour in the country was almost discouraging. We stopped at a tourist office in the airport to ask directions to the bus.
“Why would you take a bus? I can organize a taxi for you to Colombo no problem: 1600. Or we can organize a whole tour for you! What’s your budget?”
“$25 a day!” we replied with a smile.
“$25 a day?!” The two tour agents laughed and laughed at us. “That’s impossible. The entrance fees to
Anuradhapura and Sigiriya are $25 and $30 alone! You can’t have that low of a budget!” They laughed until finally pointing us in the direction of the bus stop. We were going to do it! We didn’t have any more money, and we weren’t going to miss out on anything.
And in the end, we came back 6 days later having spent $28 a day and we managed to visit BOTH Anuradhapura and Sigiriya! It could have been $25 if we hadn’t spoiled ourselves with beer and seafood on the last night! As I said, where there’s a will, there’s a way! Sri Lanka, here we come!