A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka: Negombo/Kandy

Madurai is just a short plane away from Colombo, and so we decided to make the jaunt over to this nearby island nation, now peaceful after many years of civil war. At the last minute we had to make other arrangements for a place to stay in Negombo, as we had not heard from our guest house. They surprised us by showing up at the airport, and initially feeling guilty about changing our plans, we went with them. Golden Sands, however, turned out to be a dump, and so we went on to Serendip, which was quite nice, and we returned there for a couple of days of R & R at the end of our stay in Sri Lanka.

Next morning, we took the four hour bus to Kandy, where we are now. Greenhaven is a comfortable guest house about 2k from the main part of the city. It overlooks the mountains and has a pool. It also has a well reviewed guide service, and we had arranged for car and driver to take us around to a number of sites within the cultural triangle. After a dip in the pool followed by a torrential downpour, we met our driver, Lalinda, who speaks English well, and seems quite easy going.

View from Greenhaven
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Later we took a tuk-tuk downtown, and went for dinner with a German couple who are staying here. Although, Kandy initially appeared to be as hectic and chaotic as Indian cities, the main drag turned out to be quite pleasant,and even a bit upscale. Things do seem cleaner here than in India, as we had been told by Hitesh and Ruchi. Although our plan had been to head out to the Knuckles Range for night, we decided to spend another day in Kandy going to the botanical gardens and a few small Buddhist temples. Although the Temple of the Tooth is the most famous one, the steep admission charge put us off. In fact all of the main cultural sites have high admission charges. It seems the government has decided to gouge foreign tourists for as much as they think they can get. Understandable in a way for a poor country, and yet many of the charges seemed excessive.

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Photo by Nanette
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Posted by jonshapiro 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged postcards Comments (3)

Madurai

We left Munnar by private car a day early, and came here to Madurai, a bustling, hot, typical Indian city, with cars honking, buses belching black smoke, and plenty of garbage.

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Our hotel, JC Residency, is a bit of an oasis. Cool, clean, nice room, and nice pool, though also in typical Indian fashion, no place to lounge around in the shade. The only staff person who seemed to know what he was doing was Sam, so we asked for him as often as possible when we needed information about the town.

The Menakshee temple did not disappoint. It is a huge complex,dedicated to Parvati (Menakshee by another name) and Shiva, her consort. Reports about it age vary widely, from the 6th through the 15th century, although at some point it was destroyed by the ruling Muslims and then rebuilt. It has 12 large towers, gopurams, full of Hindu Gods standing on top of each other, painted in bright colors, with an assortment of demons as well. Each tower is different from the next, and the overcrowding of figures is very much like the rest of this crowded and sometimes overwhelming country. Luckily, we got there in the morning when it was relatively cool and uncrowded.

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They did not however, let us bring our camera, though we could use our cell phone to take pics. Something about security. We were also not allowed, as non Hindus, to go into the inner sanctums.

We did manage to get in here
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All in all, we spent about two hours, listening to the recorded chanting, and gazing up at the towers. Pigeons flew around the gopurams in widening circles, perched on the various Gods and demons, and of course, shitting on them. There were also many lingams, yakshis, yoginis, and other statues scattered about, and in the on site museum.

Indian women gazing up at Temple
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We returned to spend most of the rest of the day lazing about the pool. Just too hot to do anything else. The following day we went to see the Gandhi museum, which was somewhat interesting and the palace, which was not. In the afternoon we were back at the pool where Nanette started chatting with an Indian- American family now living in Madison, Wisconsin. Interestingly, Josephine's husband, was a surgical resident, as is our daughter, and made the switch to interventional radiology. She was visiting her mother Rosalyn, with her very cute 3 year old, Annabelle. They have English names because they are Christians, which seems to be the trend here, as they were originally named by the Portuguese when they were converted hundreds of years ago. Now that I reflect on it, they should all have Portuguese names.

It wasn't long before Rosalyn invited us over for dinner the next night, and we promptly said yes.

It was a long tuk-tuk ride to their modest house on the other side of town.

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Stanley, her husband, was there, as well as their youngest son, who is almost finished with his accounting degree. Two other sons, one of which is married to Josephine, are still in the states. Both Stanley and his wife lived in Chicago for a while, but decided they liked the lifestyle in India, and so returned several years ago. Now they are both retired. They made a number of local dishes for us including avial, dosas,chappattis, chicken curry, appum, and several others whose names I can't remember, and although there was one servant helping in the kitchen, Rosalyn, it seemed, did most of the cooking. We ate at a small table, with Stanley, while the women, as well as younger brother served us, much like in the Burmese families in the US, who we tutor in English. Over dinner, we chatted with them about their lives in India as well as the US. Josephine's marriage was arranged, and she really didn't get to meet her husband until shortly before moving to the US. He was accepted into a residency program in Madison after finishing medical school in India. She was 24 at the time. Right now, she appears to enjoy life in the states, especially Madison, although her husband is just about finished, and they will move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this summer, because he has a job there. Prior to her marriage, she had trained as a dentist in India, but has not practiced in the US. Annabelle takes up most of her time, although she did work as a dental technician for a few years in Madison. Everyone was very gracious towards us and it was a highly pleasurable way to end our time in Madurai.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:43 Archived in India Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Munnar

We are in another isolated place high in the Western Ghats, much greener, cooler, and more rugged than Wayanad. It is surrounded by tea plantations, cardamom fields and rocky peaks.

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The place we are staying in is a two story house, and we have the upstairs honeymoon suite, my nomenclature, with two rooms and a balcony, overlooking a spectacular mountain valley. Unfortunately, Regi, who I have been communicating with for several months, does not actually stay here, and the only folks that do, the caretaker and a Tamil woman with a baby, have very little English. So when I wanted stronger coffee this morning, I made a muscle with my right arm. Hard to tell whether that made any difference.

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Food has been a problem, as they ordered veggies and rice for us from a restaurant several klicks up the road, and it was greasy and gave us both indigestion. Breakfast of idly was marginally better, as it was homemade, but they are clearly not set up to serve meals, despite what I had been told earlier.

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We feel a bit marooned, and I suspect that there have been few, if any, Westerners staying here, especially without a car, as we are about 12K from Munnar, on a narrow, winding road.

Earlier today, we went on a hike with a guide. We thought we would be climbing one of the nearby mountains, but got a late start,and he seemed reluctant to take us up the highest peak because there are "wild elephants up there." It seems that if the Naxalites are not hiding out on the peaks, then the elephants will get you. We spent most of the time in a nearby forest, and in and out of tea plantations.

Tea pickers
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Wild Morning Glory
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On another day, he agreed to take us up on the ridge line of a lower mountain, and I hope to be over my nasty head cold by then.

We also took a tuk-tuk into Munnar, and ate lunch at a thali place that received good reviews. Unfortunately, neither the town, nor the restaurant are worth writing about.

Despite the isolation at Regi's place, and the rock hard bed, which reminds us of China, the sunsets are as brilliant as I have seen anywhere, as is the view from our balcony. We have enjoyed sitting out there, drinking a beer, listening to world music on my travel speaker, and just gazing out at the last light of day. The sun goes below the clouds as the sky turns pink, and then the mist descends, so that it is hard to tell mountain from sky. Subtle shades of grey and orange dominate, as the outline of the ridge line above merges with the darkening sky as dusk turns to night.

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Posted by jonshapiro 11:03 Archived in India Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains photography Comments (4)

Kochi

We arrived here after departing Payyanur in the morning for the seven hour train ride. Our Indian friends left later the same morning, and so we are truly on our own for the first time. Kochi is the most touristy place we have been to thus far, and white faces seem to outnumber Indians in this, the old section of town, known as Fort Kochi. On our first evening we ate a recommended place, where they seemed to dumb down and de-spice the food, especially for us westerners. We despaired of finding good food, but that turned out not to be the case.

Yesterday, we went to the old Jewish synagogue, dating from the 1500's and were surprised to find that it was Purim. No one was allowed in except Jews. It was one of the few times we did feel like the "chosen people."

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To our astonishment, there was a Lubovitcher Rabbi from Israel, who was in Kochi to help the tiny Jewish community still left celebrate both Purim and Passover. There were two elderly, Jewish ladies, one of which, Sarah, age 79, was, we had been told, the last Jew left. But Miriam was also there, and apparently there are still a handful of others, seven in all. The Rabbi also told us there was another group of 20 or 30 "black Jews" in a nearby community. Black because they look more like Indians. Also in attendance was a young Jewish man from the upper west side of Manhattan, and two young cousins, Zachary and Amy, both Americans from Denver. The Rabbi seemed quite glad to see us, even though I told him about my secular upbringing, he offered to put teffelin on me. How could I refuse? One black box went on my head, and another on my arm, held up by leather straps. Each box contains prayers, and the purpose is apparently to link head and heart together in the worship of God. We then said a few Hebrew prayers together, or rather the Rabbi said them, and I attempted to repeat them. A Bar Mitzvah, he said, after we were finished. I guess I had to come to India to get in touch with my Jewish roots. I did not tell him of my former Bar Mitzvah, which was a series of Yiddish skits written by my father, and performed by my class at the very secular Sholem Alechem Folk Shule.

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While this was going on, Nanette was chatting with Miriam and Sarah in the women's section in the back of the synagogue. They told her that the Jews of Kochi lived in peace for many years, with a cosmopolitan mix of Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus. The only group to persecute them was the Portuguese, not surprisingly, as they arrived during the time of the inquisition. It seems they were also interested in converting the local Hindus, as well as the spice trade, as evidenced by the presence of several Portuguese churches. Although they were kicked out of Kochi relatively early, they remained in the adjoining state of Goa until 1961, at which time the Indian Army finally forced them to leave. They were followed by the Dutch and then the English, who, from the late 1700's, were to rule all of India until the middle 20th century.

After my "Bar Mitzvah," we listened to the story of Purim, in Hebrew, as spoken by the Rabbi. He was accompanied by his nine year old son, who bobbed up and down, davening, while chanting with his father. He also pointed out a word here and there, that his father forgot. It was all quite charming.

Nanette with Rabbi and his family in Kochi park
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We then walked through Jew Town, formerly shops run by Jews, and now mostly owned by Kashmiris who cater to the tourist trade.

Shop in Jew Town
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Nanette with Sarah in her embroidery shop in Jew Town
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We stopped off for ginger ice cream and a cold drink, and I spent most of my time talking to Zachary, who works for the US State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Zachary and cousin Amy
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I was hoping to find out how he landed the job at such a young age, so I could pass it on to the son of our good friends, Bill and Debbie, but it seems he had no special connections, and was just brilliant enough to score in the top two percent of the college grads who take the grueling series of exams and interviews that are offered to anyone. The strange thing is, he was hoping to be posted to Beijing as he speaks fluent Mandarin, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, was sent to Dushanbe because that is where they had an opening. Equally strange, his job is to distribute money for narcotics interdiction, most of which I assume, ends up in the pockets of the very corrupt government officials. Zach told me about the national sport of Buzkashi, a kind of polo, in which a galloping group of men try to pull apart a headless goat, and drag it toward a goal. It is more or less a free for all without teams, and sometimes goes on for days. Although they speak Persian in Tajikistan, as does Zach after a nine month intensive class, Russian is the lingua franca for most of the Stans. It seems like a fascinating place to visit, but Nanette has already informed me that if I am going there, it will be on my own. A bit too macho for her I'm afraid. Perhaps she can hang out in Istanbul, which seems to be the gateway for most of these countries, but first, I have to practice my survival Russian, an uphill battle at best.

As noted, we had given up finding any serious Indian food in Fort kochi, but the number one pick on Trip Advisor, Fusion, did not disappoint. In fact, I would have to say that the fish pappas, a spicy mahi-mahi with Kerala veggies, had to be one of the best meals I have enjoyed in India, and a bargain to boot. I also very much enjoyed the Jewish pepper chicken. With Syrian food on the menu as well, it was indeed, a delightful fusion.

After 9 or 10 AM, it gets quite hot here at this time of year, and so we have done things in the morning, and returned to our ac room in mid-day, before venturing out again around 4. As well as a bedroom, we have a large air conditioned living room to hang in, and although no one else is staying in the adjoining rooms, a staff person is almost always around, and it feels somewhat intrusive. The concept of personal space in India, seems to be lacking. As I am writing this, Nanette is trying to paint, and the maid, Bridgett, is constantly peering over her shoulder and asking what she is doing.

We went back to Jew Town on another day to do some jewelry shopping, and when we can stand the heat, have visited a number of tourist sites, including Vasco Da Gama Square, with its famous Chinese fishing nets. They are, "believed to have been introduced in Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, from the court of the Kubla Khan. The fishing net established itself on the Kochi shores between 1350 and 1450." (Kerala Tourism.Org).

Photo by Nanette
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We have also been to the Dutch Palace, so called because it was renovated by the Dutch, although built by the Portuguese. There were beautiful painted murals of the Ramayana on the walls. Yesterday we took the ferry to Vippin Island, which is very close by, and walked there for a bit.

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Not a lot to see, but the view back to Fort Kochi was a good one, and there were more Chinese fishing nets. We saw one being hauled up, but it looked as though there were no more than a handful of fish. Everywhere it seems, the sea is overfished and depleted. There were also nice churches.

Old Portuguese Church on Vippin
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Church detail
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Across the street from our service apartment, is the upscale Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Located in a beautiful, though recreated,19th century building, there is an outdoor bar right on the water, overlooking the ferry dock. It's a nice place to have a Kingfisher in the late afternoon, when there is still a breeze. This has become part of our daily routine, as well as dinner at Fusion, and breakfast at an art cafe, Kashi, where they make a big, filling omelette, excellent coffee, hard to find in India, and they actually serve dark bread.

Back of Brunton
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View from bar
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This being the end of our 4th day in Kochi, we will be more than happy to head out tomorrow for the hills of Munnar. It should be cooler in the Ghats, but how much so, remains to be seen. Pramila continues to call or write on an almost daily basis, and to help with travel arrangements. Although I am aways effusive with my thanks, I sometimes feel that we are imposing. She assures me that she enjoys it, and will not know what to do with all her free time when our trip is over.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:02 Archived in India Tagged train_travel tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (4)

Valiyaparamba

We are here with Hitesh and Ruchi, on a tiny spit of a an island, with a wild, totally undeveloped beach on one side, and a wide, series of backwaters on the other. This place is really off the beaten track, and we have seen no other tourists except for a couple of German girls, who joined us on an excursion around the backwaters. The beach goes on for miles and is lined with coconut palms. The surf, while still a delicious temperature, is, if anything, rougher than Kannur. Even though the sea appears calm, near the shore, short waves crash into each other both coming and going, and produce a powerful wave sandwich with a great deal of spray. It is easy to get tossed and body slammed. Despite this, we have managed to get in and get wet every day, as the heat seems to increase almost on a daily basis.



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Usually as the day goes on, there is a fresh breeze and and the upstairs terrace provides views of the palms and the beach, as well as the backwaters. Sunsets are particularly spectacular.



Beach view
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Backwater view
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On the down side, the place itself could use a few more creature comforts, like real sheets and more towels. Also the water is almost the color of mud, and does little to clean the body after a dip in the salt water. Clothes come out dirtier when they are washed than before. We hear it is a problem with the well, but clearly they need to invest in a serious filter. Also, despite the mosquito netting, sand flies and mosquitos seem to find a way into our rooms. The food on the other hand is quite good and plentiful, but we shall make our way into town for the last night, and stay in a place with ac and better water.

A local ferry makes the trip up the main backwater route into town, and then back again a few times a day. It takes about 3 hours, but the journey gave us a chance to see how the locals travel.





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Up until a few months ago, the only way to get to this narrow island was by ferry, but now they have completed a new and substantial bridge. The backwaters have a wide assortment of birds, small fishing boats, like canoes, and areas where the locals are cultivating mussels with the aide of the government.

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After the ferry dropped us, we had about 20 minutes to stock up on various snacks, especially calicut chips. Made from tapioca, they taste like very crunchy potato chips. We have been enjoying them every night with beer we brought from Payannur. Finding and purchasing booze in Kerala is quite a chore. When we arrived in town a few days ago with our driver, it took about 15 minutes to find the only liquor store, which was up three flights of stairs and unsigned. They would only sell us five beers, but Hitesh and our driver were there, so we managed to purchase a case, which we have made short work of in these hot, sticky nights.

Yesterday we hired a boat to take us on a tour of more of the backwaters. It started with the engine failing. After half an hour or so, and with the help of the boat owner, our somewhat hapless drivers finally got it started.

Boat driver
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We toured around, but because of the shallowness of some of the narrow backwaters, they were reluctant to proceed too far. It was unfortunate, as that is part of the reason we hired the boat in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still an enjoyable ride.

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Earlier in the day, we walked down the island to check out another hotel, and see where the road ended. More than half a mile past the road, it was nothing to rave about. It was, however, interesting to see the villagers living simply in their thatched and concrete houses, coconut shells piled high. Everyone seemed quite friendly, and although they are not that used to foreigners, they seemed happy to see us. Perhaps that was why they were happy to see us. Last evening, an older woman was walking along the beach with a child, who I assume was her granddaughter. She was more than happy to pose for a picture.

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Tomorrow Hitesh and Ruchi head back to Delhi, and we shall go on to Kochi. They have have made excellent traveling companions, and we shall miss them. Although not everyday has been entirely comfortable, overall things have been pretty relaxed, and I feel the sense of gratitude that I usually do, when I have the opportunity to travel to out of the way places. At home it is hard to sit still, but I seem to be able to do this more easily on the road, in part because the traveling life is simpler, and there are fewer things that we have to attend to.

Pramila continues to help us with various travel arrangements from her home in Mumbai. She calls most everyday, and we have taken to calling her mom, even though we are almost twice her age.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:02 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches Comments (5)

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