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Polonnarwu and Passikudah Beach

After Sigiriya we continued to Polonnarwu, stopping first at Ritigala.


This is one of the more remote and less touristed sites on the cultural tour. And, because it is far less developed, it is free.


Former site of an ancient Buddhist monastery dating to 100 BC, it is the highest mountain (2500 feet) on an otherwise flat and dusty plain. Rumor has it that Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God, dropped a small piece of the Himalayas as he was delivering medicinal herbs to Lanka. As in India, the rangers told us we could only go part way up the mountain because of wild elephants and leopards. Too bad, as it was a nice place for a hike and blissfully, there was no one around.

Termite mound

Urinal stones

After a half hour or so, we got to a place with a fence and a big sign telling us to turn around. Nearby there was a trail off to one side, and so we went a bit further. Not long after, Nanette heard some rustling noises in the trees. Then a monkey threw a small stick at her. We continued on, but then one of the monkeys with consummate aim, maybe Hanuman, pissed on her head. That's it, she said. I'm turning back. Leopards and elephants are one thing, but monkey piss, that's another thing altogether. And so we walked down the we had come.


Polonnarwu was another 2 hours, but when we got there it was just too hot, and we didn't feel like shelling out another 50 bucks for the ruins of an ancient city that is not as old as Anuradhapura, our final destination. Instead, we spent most of the rest of the day lounging about the pool of a nearby hotel. Our guest house, Seyara, was small and comfortable, but no pool. They served some excellent food however, and it turned out that the daughter of the owner, our server, had recently returned to Sri Lanka after living in Staten Island for 7 years. She plans to go back to the states when her daughter, age 3, is older. In the meantime, she seems pleased to be spending time with her family, and acquainting her American daughter with Sinhalise culture and language.

In the morning when it was a bit cooler, we walked around the parts of Polonnarwu where we didn't need an admission ticket.




We ran into this group of very friendly Chinese women. As always, most of them were hiding from the sun.


And then we drove on the remaining distance to Passikudah beach, a bit of a detour from our cultural tour. We passed the time chatting with Lalinda, our driver, who we have gotten to know fairly well by now. He is an easy going and educated chap who has told us a bit about his own background. Unfortunately for him, he married a Tamil, and he is Sinhalise. His wife is a lower caste Tamil as well. His relatively well to do and high caste parents, have more or less disowned him ever since, and his sister, now studying business in Japan, has become their favorite. We were surprised to learn that Buddhists, at least in Sri Lanka, have their own caste system, and we thought Buddha broke away from his royal Hindu background to free others from this repressive custom.

Belly to belly: the author with Lalinda

In Passikudah expensive hotels and some restaurants are going up on one side of the bay,


while on the other side, not much is happening, at least not yet, and it is still a largely wild beach.


The sea is dead calm, in contrast to our time in northern Kerala. Our hotel, while not right on the beach, is spanking clean, with a nice pool. It is empty, as is every other place, as the season doesn't start for another week when school lets out for a month. The owner is quite chatty, and divides his time between here and Colombo. He is a Tamil, but converted to Jehovah Witness. When he found out we are Jewish, he seemed quite pleased, and told us all about the connections between Jehovah, and Yahweh. We of course, know far less about this than he does We assume his family must have money, because they all scattered when the civil war came to his home town,Jaffna, in the far north, which it did early on. Several of his siblings live abroad in the West, and are highly educated.

For two nights now we have eaten alone in the dining room. The staff is almost too attentive. They seem to hover over us, very anxious to please, but not that understanding of our need for space. Perhaps if there were more people here, they would have more to do and pay less attention to each individual guest.

Aside from lounging around the pool, and taking afternoon dips in the ocean, which feels like a bigger pool, yesterday we took a trip to Thoppigala Heritage Park. This was about an hour drive away through several small villages. It is essentially a small mountain, that overlooks a vast flat area of rice fields and forest, and was the site of several ferocious war battles.


The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, took over the hill early on because of its strategic significance. They stationed a garrison of 5000 men nearby, and a much smaller force on top of the hill. We climbed up, accompanied by Lalinda and Franklin, a staff person at the hotel, as well as a park ranger. It was steep and hot, though short. On top, there was a bunker, now filled with solar powered batteries.


We asked questions about the war, which went on for more than 30 years. They said it was started by an uneducated Tamil, who wanted a separate country for the Tamils, who are Hindus, and speak a different language than the Sinhalese. We climbed down and went to the war museum at the bottom. There were few pictures of the LTTE members who are portrayed as terrorists by the Sri Lanka government. The museum clearly presents the government point of view.


From what I understand, many atrocities were committed by both sides, and in fact there is a debate now going on in the UN, whether to look into the war atrocities more closely in order to prosecute those involved. Lalinda, and the other two men we were with grew up with the war, although it was mostly fought in the east, where we are now,and in the north. For the last five years there has been peace, after the government forces decimated the LTTE in Jaffna, and if memory serves, killed many innocent people in the process.

Other people we have discussed this with, both Tamils and Sinhalese, say that the two groups lived in peace, and that the war was started by opportunistic politicians. Quien sabe? My understand is that the war was a result of years of hostility between these groups, started because of the colonial legacy employed by the British of divide and conquer. They apparently favored the Tamils, and later, there was the predictable counter-reaction from the Sinhalese, who far outnumber the Tamils.

On the way back from Thoppigala we saw this man, going about the chore of gathering firewood for cooking.

Tamil or Sinhalise? You decide.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged people postcards tourist_sites Comments (2)


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.



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.





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

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

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.


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)

Kalpetta, India

We are now in the hill town of Kalpetta, near Wayanad National Park. Hitesh and Ruchi, who we also met in Ladakh and last saw in Delhi six years ago, met us here. When they arrived, it felt as though no time had passed, and we had the same instant connection that we felt the first time. Now in their late 30's , they looked the same, and they felt the same about us.


The guest house here has just two adjoining rooms with a sheltered terrace surrounded by tropical vegetation. It is located just far enough off the main drag of Kalpetta to be quiet and peaceful, except for the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our host Mary, a Christian, is taking good care of us and is obviously well educated, as is her son Sunil, who spent 20 years living near Toronto. This time of year, Wayanad doesn't get much rain, although we have had a few showers. There is still a lot of green, but plants and trees look a little parched. It is also much hotter than I expected, quite different than the hill towns in Malaysia. Nights are fine, but afternoons get very warm.

On the first day we hired a car to take us around to some of the local sites. The first and most interesting place was a bamboo factory. It was run by an NGO, and there were several Nigerians studying building techniques with bamboo, which is also plentiful in their own country. Just by accident, we learned that this same NGO was building a nearby eco-resort, also out of bamboo. As it turned out, we had heard about this place from Henry, the Swiss architect, who was staying next to us on Thottada Beach. We had wanted to visit, and found it quite by accident. Though incomplete, a few of the basic structures were in place, which gave us a good idea of how it will eventually look.



There is also a separate house, where the architects are currently living. It is quite an unusual design, looking vaguely like a Swiss A-frame with a Chinese twist. It is built directly over a small pond to keep the place cool in the tropical heat . Henry's idea.


From there, we went to the "Wonder Caves," which didn't quite live up to its name. It is privately owned, and the proprietor more or less insisted on showing us every rock and plant on the mountainside, until we persuaded him to speed it up, and finally got to the top of a rocky outcropping with a fine view of the valley below.


Then we rode 20K or so to a waterfall, which, despite the 1k walk to get there and the admissions charge, the place was packed with Indian families. It was, after all, a Saturday. Due to the crowds whooping and hollering, and most likely peeing in the water, the swimming did not seem inviting. It was a very Indian scene, with men in singlets and underwear, and women in full saris, standing or attempting to swim in a few pools of water underneath the falls.



The drive back through tea plantations with Chambra Peak in the distance was the highlight of the day. The tea plantations have a different feel than those in Thailand and Malaysia, with their orderly rows. Here they are somewhat more chaotic, and the plants different shapes. Perhaps this is a statement about the Indian temperament, or maybe it is just because they grow different varieties of tea. Or both?


Kalpetta is not a particularly attractive town, with the usual run down shops and potholed streets, along with a large assortment of auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks, by another name, as well as Tata trucks.

Even with the incorrect spelling, I couldn't resist this sign of an umbrella shop

There are also hammer and sickle banners flying about in various spots, representative of the Communist Party, although they are no longer in power. There is clearly poverty here, but most everyone has enough to eat, and there are few beggars on the streets.

CP parade outside of town

Yesterday we attempted a climb of Chandra, at 2200 hundred meters, the highest peak in this part of the Western Ghats. Unfortunately, we were told we could not go beyond the small heart shaped lake about half way up. We tried to sneak past the guards on two different occasions, but they caught us each time, after we got a little way up the treeless ridge line. Very visible I'm afraid. We were told that there are Naxalite terrorists higher up on the peak. This seemed completely absurd to all of us. Most likely someone got hurt higher on the mountain, and the local officials got blamed. They are obviously unprepared to launch any kind of rescue. They also told us not to go into the forest. Wild elephants might attack us.

Elephant forest in foreground, Chambra ridgeline in back

While there were some other people around, it was still enjoyable to hang out by the small lake and dip our feet in, until we were told that that too was not permitted. It seems they are quite big on rules here in Wayanad. Whatever happened to good old chaotic India?

Hitesh wading in the pond

The views were impressive, and the hour climb with maybe 500 meters of vert, gave us our first bit of exercise in two weeks.


Today we decided to forgo the car, and set out across a tea plantation to see what was there, and to look for a small stream that both Mary and Sunil had mentioned. We walked up and up on a narrow road, getting hotter by the moment, but unfortunately the only stream we could find was barely a trickle at the edge of the forest. On the way back, we saw these school kids out on recess, and then managed to snag a tuk-tuk about half way down, to avoid some of the long walk back into town.


The only liquor store in town is tucked away in a small alley, in a place we would never have found on our own. There was a long line, and of course, no women, but luckily we were able to send Nanette and Ruchi to the front of the line, simply because they were female. We have spent most nights imbibing beers, and gin with sprite, since there is no tonic available, and have discussed just about everything from politics to babies. One night we enjoyed an excellent tandori dinner in town, and last night Mary cooked a great meal with various local specialties, including a cucumber, coconut curry whose name I can't recall.

At the moment, I am sitting out on our terrace, and a nearby Hindu temple is playing some Hindi, or more likely Malayalam music (the language of Kerala), in an apparent attempt to one up the mosque. Our white noise machine has proved quite handy at night, while they are battling it out. Thank you Bill and Suzanne for this. We never leave home without it. Tomorrow we head out on a long car ride through the mountains and back to the Arabian Sea, to an area of northern backwaters, less touristy we are told than Alleppey, which is further south.

Now this last pic could very well turn out to be a collector's item. Somehow, when I uploaded the photo to my tablet from the camera, David Hasselhof, from Bay Watch fame, showed up in the background. We, of course, had no idea who he was, but later learned that it was some kind of April Fool's prank. Several photos were corrupted, but luckily I only uploaded a few on that particularly day.

Nanette, Ruchi, and yup, you guessed it, David Hasselhof

Posted by jonshapiro 08:50 Archived in India Tagged waterfalls mountains people Comments (2)

Theyyam in Northern Kerala

Last night we awoke at 3 AM to attend a Theyyam, a local religious ceremony, native to this area of northern Kerala. There are many different kinds of Theyyam's, and each one held in a different community is somewhat unique. The custom of ritual worship appears to go back thousands of years. It is rather difficult to figure out the meaning , at least for outsiders, but the one we attended seemed to have aspects related to fertility, coming of age, and even house warming.

Wikipedia says the following:

It can be said that all the prominent characteristics of primitive, tribal, and religious worship has widened the stream of the Theyyam cult, where "even the followers of Islam are associated with the cult in its functional aspect,"[2] and made it a deep-rooted folk religion of millions. For instance, the cult of Bhagawathi, the Mother Goddesses, had and still has, an important place in Theyyam. Besides this, the practices of spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease, and the worship of Graamadevataa, (Village-Deity) are included in the main stream of the Theyyam cult. Along with these Gods and Goddesses, there exist innumerable folk Gods and Goddesses. Most of these Goddesses are known as Bhagavathy (the Mother-Goddess that is the Divine and United form of the three principal Goddesses namely, Brahmani (Saraswati), Vaishnavi (Lakshmi), and Shivani (Durga).

Unfortunately, our driver showed up almost an hour late. Just when we had given up and gone back to bed, the other couple who was going with us knocked on our door to tell us he was here. We piled into his Tata Nano, a lot like a smart car, but cheaper, and we drove the 15K over very pot holed roads to the village where the ceremony was taking place. There were several hundred onlookers, men, women, and children, but we appeared to be the only foreigners This was clearly the real deal, and not something being done for the benefit of tourists.

It seemed we were not that late, as the first of three avatar Gods was being fitted out with an enormous headdress and face mask just as we arrived. After a short while, he began to dance around, accompanied by a cadre of furious drummers, conch shell blowers, as well as the occasional blast of what sounded like a renaissance sackbut (an elongated trumpet).




After a time, he was joined by some other man, also with an enormous headdress, rather large artificial breasts, and a face mask with several flaming torches set about three feet from his face and attached somehow to his costume. His headdress was also set aflame in various places. There was more drumming while he went around blessing everyone with yellow powder.



At odd moments, there were earth shaking booms of what sounded like cherry bombs, and then some actual fireworks.


A young teenage boy was then dressed in palm leaves and face mask. He danced to even more rapid drumming, and proceeded to gather the village elders, all men of course, and then blessed each one in turn. One of them became so emotional over this that he started to cry. Perhaps this was the boy's father?



After a time, the teenager was fitted out with even longer palm leaves which covered most of his body. In the meantime, a bonfire had been started in the back, and by now, had died down to a large and very hot bed of coals. After much preparation and blessings by the head Brahmin, he was led back to the coals and placed on top of them face up, but head resting on the coals. He was there for several minutes until his palm leaves started to catch fire, at which time he was lifted out and the flames tamped down, although his head and back were still smoking This happened repeatedly, perhaps a half dozen times. This was clearly the culmination of the ceremony.





Several hours had gone by since we arrived, and by now it was 8 AM and the sun was fully out. Finally, not wanting to miss breakfast back at the guesthouse, we decided to leave, although it was unclear whether or not the boy was finished with his ordeal.

It was quite an evening.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:11 Archived in India Tagged people Comments (5)

Thottada Beach, Kannur (Kerala, India)

Blue Mermaid

We have now been at this lovely beach resort for six days. Pramila, our friend and caretaker extraordinaire, left yesterday to return to Mumbai. The beach itself is completely undeveloped, although there are several guest houses that line an adjacent small road. There is clearly some house building going on up the hill, and I shudder to think of what the next ten years will bring. Isn't that always the case with deserted beaches. The water is a perfect temperature, just cool enough to be refreshing, although the undertow and surf can be rough. The lack of shade and the scorching sun tend to restrict our beach time to early mornings and late afternoons.




Tapping tree for palm wine, photo by Nanette

There have been a number of interesting guests staying here, at Blue Mermaid.


View from our terrace

One of the more interesting couples live in Scotland. They have spent the better part of their retirement, 26 years ago, on the road. The first three years of which, they didn't return at all, except for their daughter's wedding. They are really intrepid types, always taking local transport, even carrying their own gear up to Everest base camp. Now they have paired their luggage down to a mere 6 kilos each, roughly two changes of clothes. I thought they were ten years older than we were, but as it turns out they are about the same age.

Another younger British woman, staying here with her husband, used to work for the UN in Sudan, and is now a development consultant with plans to go to Afghanistan.

Staying right next to us is Henry, a Swiss gentlemen our age, who runs a cross-cultural architectural firm in Bangalore. He has Swiss students do an internship with him in India, and in turn, sends Indian students to do the same in Switzerland. One of his major projects is building an eco-resort for a non-profit NGO in the hills of Wayanad. He is here to visit a factory in Kannur that makes fabric, some of which he is hoping to use with this project. He designs the interiors as well as the exteriors of the buildings. From his description, the place sounds fascinating, and as we are headed to Wayanad from here, perhaps we will stop by.

Today, an American family showed up with two young kids. They have been traveling for six months with plans to continue for another six. Being here, is once again a reminder that there are lots of folks doing the same things that we have been up to. Sometimes this is easy to forgot when we are home.

There is indeed, not a lot to do here, and we spend our time lazing about, finding shade where we can, talking to the other guests and to Pramila, when she was here. This is punctuated by two extended dips in the Arabian Sea. The south Indian food, largely vegetarian, is quite good, and our host, Indu, most hospitable. She made us feel at home.

Indu, her husband, and lovely daughter

Posted by jonshapiro 07:31 Archived in India Tagged beaches people Comments (2)

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