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Sorrento and Pompeii

Sorrento 2/24/15

The drive from Rome was easy, but we got bad advice about the route and went first to Salerno, which is on the southern end of the Amalfi coast. This was 60 or 70K out of the way, and then we had to drive back the 50k up the narrow coast road just as it was getting dark. Though not quite as scary as some of the Himalayan roads I have been on, it was nonetheless extremely narrow, with many curves and steep drop offs to the sea, hundreds of feet below.



Unlike in India I was driving, but we made it, and then struggled to find our Airbnb apartment in the narrow lanes of Sorrento. Our host's English was poor, she couldn't understand our Spanish, and she didn't seem to recognize any of the landmarks we mentioned. Also, our phone GPS was useless, a harbinger of things to come while driving in Italy. Exhausted we were glad to arrive.

Yesterday we made the pilgrimage to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the sun was out for part of the day. Pompeii was especially impressive as it goes on for what seems like miles, and gives you a real feel for what a Roman town of some 20,000 must have been like. However, having seen Angkor Wat and its vast ruins, we are a bit jaded.

Pompeii with Vesuvius in background

Long avenue in Pompeii

House details in Pompeii

Sport complex

Street Scene Herculenium

Today was spent wandering the postcard pretty streets of Sorrento in the rain, which lasted for the entire day. At one end of the Amalfi coast, the town still had it's share of tourists even at this time of year. The narrow lanes did not lend themselves to driving, and I was only too glad to leave the car at our little apartment. Even walking was difficult, what with the other traffic and the rain. Nanette went to a museum of wood inlay objects and purchased a couple of music boxes from the factory, and then we spent the remainder of the afternoon reading before I ran out just before dark to get more pasta and arugula for dinner.

Tomorrow we drive to Matera, and luckily will not have to repeat the coast road again.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:52 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (3)


Our last stop turned out to be one of the best in terms of ruins, particularly the almost 3D reliefs carved out of rock.

"Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbour of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of South-East Asia: Kambuja (Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But the fame of its role as a harbour has been transferred to its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated at Mahabalipuram between 630 and 728." http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249

Our original intent was to go to the ruins yesterday after we arrived, but the heat acted as a soporific, and we fell asleep until 6 PM. By then, it was too dark. We awoke early the next morning, and got there before the heat of mid-day. Considering their age, they are in pristine condition, and in many respects, they are the equal of anything we have seen thus far. The shallow caves are carved out of solid rock, as are the relief figures of Hindu Gods, animals, demons, etc. And to think that they did it all with hammers and chisels.

Arjuna's penance, was the most incredible of the lot. It is described as follows:

"This magnificent relief, carved in the mid-seventh century, measures approximately 30m (100ft) long by 15m (45ft) high. The subject is either Arjuna's Penance or the Descent of the Ganges, or possibly both. In additive cultures like India's, logical alternatives are often conceptualized as "both-and" rather than "either-or."

Arjuna's Penance is a story from the Mahabharata of how Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, performed severe austerities in order to obtain Shiva's weapon. The idea, which pervades Hindu philosophy, is that one could obtain, by self-mortification, enough power even to overcome the gods. In order to protect themselves, the gods would grant the petition of any ascetic who threatened their supremacy in this way - a kind of spiritual blackmail, or "give to get." (This meaning of the word "penance," by the way, is specific to Hinduism. Unlike the Catholic rite of penance, it is performed to gain power, not to expiate sin.)" (www.art-and-archaeology.com/india/mamallapuram/ap01.html)

I found this explanation quite interesting, assuming you can believe the internet

"The Ganges story is of the same kind, in which the sage Bhagiratha performs austerities in order to bring the Ganges down to earth. Shiva had to consent to break her fall in his hair, because otherwise its force would be too great for the earth to contain.

The symbolism of the relief supports either story. Furthermore, both stories were interpreted in a manner flattering to the Pallavas; the heroic Arjuna as a symbol of the rulers, and the Ganges as a symbol of their purifying power."

It was impossible to capture the whole relief with my camera. Here are some details.





The rock sanctuaries were also impressive. And they too had intricate bas reliefs.





There were still other temples and statues.



As well as Krishna's butterball.


Mahabalipuram is still home to many rock carvers, who sell ornate, and often huge rock statues. Of course they have the benefit of electric tools, but perhaps they are related to the ancient Pallavas? The shopkeepers on the other hand, all seem to be Kashmiris. Like the Chinese, they are the businessmen. They come down for the winter and spring months, and most will head back up in the next few weeks, as will I. We considered buying a large statue of Shiva and Parvati dancing together, but we don't really have a place to put it, and so we opted for a much smaller one of Parvati.

The town at sunset, from a rooftop beer garden

Our trip is rapidly winding to a close, at least Nanette's portion of it. Tomorrow we taxi to Madras (Chennai), and then fly to Mumbai, where Nanette flies back home after lunch with Pramilla. I will stay the night and then fly on to Srinigar in Kashmir, to meet Tashi. The next part of the journey promises to be very different than the first half, as well as much cooler, which I am really looking forward to.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:18 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (1)

Temples of Trichy, Thanjavur, and Kubakonam

We have been on a temple whirlwind. Flew from Colombo back to Madurai, and then a hot 2&1/2 hour bus ride to Tiruchirappalli, or as it is more commonly known, Trichy.


In the AM we hired a tuk- tuk to take us first to the Rock Fort Temple, and then to Sri Ranganathaswamy.



Rock Fort involved a lot of steps cut out of solid rock and many variations of Shiva.




And no, this is not Mary and Jesus

Good view of the city, but even though we went early we were dripping with sweat.


The piece de resistance however, was the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu and as large as a small town, many shops are located in the outer walls.

Not everyone takes their religion seriously, or lets it interfere with a nap

We hired a guide for this one as there are as many as 49 separate shrines, according to Lonely Planet, and it would have been easy to get lost. There are also many towers or goparums, where there is a mass of humanity, Gods, demons, and animals, all climbing on top of one another, procreating, sometimes dying, destroying, etc. These Goparums seem to be the perfect religious symbol for India, in this crowded, sweaty, grungy, but incredibly colorful and vibrant country.


Sex plays a prominent role in many of the Hindu temples with lingams, aka phallic symbols, both short and fat, and tall and skinny, some reaching up to the ceiling. Our guide pointed out that Krinshna was quite a playboy and had more than 16,000 girlfriends. How they arrived at this number I don't know. On one spot on the biggest goparum, he showed us a frieze of Krishna watching women bathing. They had left their saris on the shore of the river, and before they returned, he stole their clothes so that he had a good view of all them naked. There were sacred statues of bulls ,many Ganeshas, Hanumans, and of course, Brahmin priests, dressed in white, waiting to bless us in exchange for a small amount of money.





They didn't want us taking pictures inside the temple, and I noticed these two cute girls. They didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken.



On the way back we noticed a ceremony taking place on a side street that looked like a marriage. It turns out that it was a kind of coming of age ceremony for Brahmin boys of around 15 years. Similar, it seems, to a Bar Mitzvah. At first we stood in the back taking pictures, but it wasn't long before we were ushered to the front and warmly welcomed. Many people seemed eager to have us there, and to explain the ceremony, which involved the boy and his father and many other men of the community. When we left they gave us a bag of party favorites, consisting of a scarf, a sweat rag, very necessary here, and a bag which said construction and catering and the name of their company. Obviously not a poor family.



Then it was back to our hotel, where we showered for the 3rd time of the day, and then took the bus to Thanjavur. Once again, we spent the afternoon by the pool before getting up early to see the Brihadishwara Temple, built by the cholas around 1000 AD.



There were many big stone walls around the temple. Shiva's bull was once again in evidence, as well as this giant lingam.


At one point there was a yellow liquid pouring forth from the lingams that looked very much like sperm. Fertility it seems,is prized here, despite the overcrowding.


The architectural details and statues were brilliant.



Next was Kubakonam, where we are now. Our hotel is quite comfortable, which is a contrast to this obviously very poor town with many temples. Our favorite was Airavatesvara, which was built by RajaRaja's son around 1146 AD. Similar to Brihadishwara, it had the feel of spiritual mystery about it, with dark colonnades, many candles, dark Ganeshes, and wonderful, detailed sculptures. It was also surrounded by granite walls, which were reddish in color in the fading daylight. Even though our tuk-tuk driver took us on a temple dash through the town and we saw five others just before sunset, none of them had the character of Airavatesvara.






Posted by jonshapiro 14:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings photography tourist_sites Comments (2)


Anuradhapura proved to be the most interesting of the ancient cities, as well as the oldest, dating to approximately 400 BC. The city was abandoned after an invasion some 1300 years later, and the jungle took over until the British rediscovered it in the 19th century.

Nearby to Anuradhapura is Mihintale, one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka, where King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism in 247 BC, by Mahinda, an Indian missionary. However, we got there around high noon, and you know what they say about the mid-day sun in the tropics, only mad dogs and Englishmen, etc. As with many sites that are considered holy, we were not allowed to wear shoes or hats, and the hot stone literally burned our feet on the way up. I managed to cut my toe while attempting to move faster from step to step. We therefore did not spend a lot of time here, and skipped over several stupas or dagobas, as they are called. Perhaps the locals have more calluses and are able to handle it, but it seemed crazy to insist that we remove our shoes just to walk up to the base of the stupa during the hottest time of day in the hottest time of year.



So, we went from there to our hotel, and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling our sizzling feet in the pool, before heading for the Bodhi tree, in the center of Anuradhapura. This tree was supposedly grafted from the fig tree in India, where the Buddha first reached enlightenment,and said to be the oldest continually tended tree in the world, dating back some 2500 years. The cutting was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamittra, an Indian Buddhist nun. Actually, it is not just one tree, but several, and although spread out, none of them appeared to be that large.



Nevertheless it was an impressive place, prayer flags flapping in the wind, monks and others chanting at the end of the day, and people silently praying or meditating. So far, of all the places we have visited in Sri Lanka, it felt truly spiritual.



We watched the special caste of tree tenders, carrying water to each tree as they must have done for thousands of years.


As noted in a previous blog, even though the Buddha preached against the caste system, there is nonetheless a caste system in Sri Lankan Buddhism, which seems as rigid as the caste system in India. It would be nice to believe that somehow Buddhism is different than the other religions of the world, since many aspects of it appeal to me, but that clearly is not the case. Not only is the caste system proof of this , but so are the war atrocities committed by both sides during the 30 year civil war.

The next day we got up early to visit the other sites of Anuradhapura. We did not see them all. The brick dagobas, enourmous round structures with a squat part near the top, and then another narrrow spire pointing skyward, were especially noteworthy. They are, we are told, the tallest and largest stupas in the world, exceeded in height, only by the pyramids of Gaza. How they built them is still a mystery. The sloping round walls are far from uniform, but rather are undulating forms with indentations and bulges. Perhaps this was not how they originally were built, but a function of the bricks shifting over time. We did manage to circumambulate several of the largest ones, barefoot of course, but this time we came prepared with socks so that we did not burn our feet.



There were white ones as well.


Detail from elephant wall

Detail from step. It looks almost Mayan

And then we went out again, when the sun was low. We viewed another temple, seemingly built into and on a low rock face.


Temple detail

At sunset, we walked up to the large tank or artificial lake, also built thousands of years ago, as were so many of the lakes in this part of the country. There was a nice breeze across the lake and we watched the many birds, as the sun went down.


In the morning, we got up early for a safari jeep tour in nearby Walpattu National Park. It was mostly several hours of bone rattling riding in the back of the jeep. We did see many deer, their version of buffalo, eagles, some chicken like birds, but the highlight was a juvenile leopard stretching himself out in a tree.

From a distance, I managed to get a fairly good shot of him.


Back in Negombo, we said goodbye with some sadness to our very personable driver,Lalinda, but coming back to Serendib felt like coming home. Our hosts here, are a rather odd couple. Belinda, (a he not a she) is a 40 year old Sri Lankan, and the much older, and somewhat infirm Hillary, who is from Scotland. It is hard to know the true nature of their relationship, but suffice it to say, that they run a wonderful small hotel, and really make you feel at home. Belinda, it is clear, does most of the work, accompanied by other paid Sri Lankan staff who come in the mornings to clean.

We spent the evening watching, to us at least, the arcane game of cricket. It was the world cup final between Sri Lanka and India, taking place in Bangladesh. Belinda kept us supplied with beer, and gave us a running commentary of the game, attempting to explain how it is played to us cricket newbies. It was not intuitively obvious, but by the end we sort of got it. It was a pleasure to see the Sri Lankan team win, and then to hear the celebratory fireworks in the town afterwords.

Today, we are once again in the small pool attempting to stay cool. I may try to swim in the sea later in the day,but there is not much shade to be had there. The thing about travel, at least the way we do it, is that it forces you to slow down. Way down. I suppose you could choose to rush around from place to place, never staying more than a day here or there, but that is not what we do, particularly on this trip. In places, it feels like one day too many ,but that means you simply have to hang out, and more or less do nothing except read or swim. Maybe the heat also has something to do with it. Who wants to rush around in the day time when the sun is like a knife. Slowing down means relaxing, noticing the crows, the squirrels, the mangoes falling from the tree next to the pool, the clouds building up in the afternoon and the slow approach of a thunderstorm. You don't have a house or anything else to keep you occupied. You don't have people to see and talk to, other than whoever happens to be staying at your guest house. Depending on who they are, this can actually take up a fair bit of time, but other than that, your life is about noticing the things around you before you move on to the next place and do it all over again.

Almost a form of meditation.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trees animals postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

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)

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