Saturday, February 23, 2013

Early Impressions of Sri Lanka

It is nice here in the "undiscovered kingdom."

Lodging is comparably priced to India, but food is about twice as expensive.  Taxis and tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) are slightly more expensive as well.  The food is very good, but they're keen on over-sized portions, which usually ends in us ordering two menu items for $5 each and then lamenting that we could have just split one.  Yet we never learn.

(Colombo seaside)

Colombo is a nice city.  It probably wouldn't be very fun to stay as a tourist for more than a couple nights, but it is a very livable city--the air is fresh and the sea breeze very nice, it has a beautiful, long coastline, a very nice sea walk, good roads, clean streets, lots of restaurants, etc.

(Colombo sea walk and pier, with the Sri Lankan flag flying above)

Another big factor in its favor is that the people are extremely nice.  We were helped by any number of people who went out of their way to assist us, without any thought of recompense.  (One woman in particular, an employee at a travel agency that we had not booked with and were not interested in booking with, spent 20 minutes making phone calls for us so we could find where we needed to go to validate a train ticket. She then made another employee accompany us to the place so we didn't get lost.  And not once did she try to sell a flight or bus pass or tour.  She just smiled and said she hoped we had a wonderful journey.)

(Lani's Place, a seaside restaurant in Dehiwala, Colombo)

In our experience, this kind of thing does not happen elsewhere in the world (and certainly not in India, where any request for assistance is either ignored or followed by an immediate appeal to a quorum of passersby until a small crowd has collected to discuss; the crowd will usually decide that it is unimportant, but occasionally they will provide conflicting instructions).

As it turns out, that kind of thing doesn't seem to happen elsewhere in Sri Lanka, either, for that matter.

Kandy is a lovely, hilly town overlooking a lake. It has a great climate, and even better views.  It also has one of the most sacred sights in all of Buddhism, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.  But it is clearly a town that has grown accustomed to moneyed tourists. Every person we've run into who has wanted to talk to us has tried to convince us to go to a different hotel, or a different restaurant, or to a cultural show, or to buy something. 

For example, we met on the sidewalk a toothless old man who recommended we go see a cultural show (fire dancers, baby elephants, the President of Sri Lanka would be in attendance!).  It was $5 a piece, and we walked away thinking about it.  He caught up to us, told us if we bought tickets early we could get very good seats, and weren't we lucky the president would be there today of all days?  We followed him to a school (was it a school for teaching dancing?  a school for children?  a workhouse for children?  it might have been all of the above).  The man claimed to be a firedancing instructor, showed us an album of photos featuring a man who looked nothing like himself.  He saw Nora had allergies and found some green menthol stuff the consistency of glue (think of a really potent, soupy Vicks rub) and massaged it into her temples. For good measure, he put some on his fingertips and stuck it into her ears.  This, he claimed, would cure her allergies.  After all, his hand was very lucky, he assured us.  Then he began a 30 minute sell of the dyed wall hangings covering his office (made by schoolchildren, half the price of the tourist places, all the money goes back into the school, he can give us a very good price, how are Nora's allergies and would she like him to rub some more green stuff?).  He was very disappointed when we told him we just wanted the tickets to the cultural show and did not buy any $30 wall hangings.  Needless to say, the president was not in attendance at the show (nor were there any baby elephants).  

Many of the people who we pass by on the streets have the familiar staring/pointing/laughing complex we remember all too well from India. It's not as ubiquitous, and it's not as aggressive, but it's still uncomfortable and completely unnecessary. From what we have observed, older white people don't get this treatment here, either (they do attract the touts in droves, though).

Our hotel in Kandy is great, however.  It's outside of town, across the lake, on the hillside, and has a balcony that looks over the town.  The room is large, the hot water in the shower actually hot (too hot, as it turns out, but that's a small problem compared to the icy showers of India).  It gets noisy early, and we have to be up by 7:30 to get our included breakfast, but it is a large breakfast (plate of fruit each, choice of style of eggs, toast, a pot of Ceylon tea to share), and it is pleasantly cool on the terrace.  Walking down into town and around the lake is nice, but walking back up the hill is not very enjoyable.  Then there is the unfortunate problem that Nora is allergic to something in the room (we suspect dust; there is a horizontal concrete support beam that, when I stood on the bed to get a look, displayed several years worth of accumulated dust).

We have discovered there are two pubs in town (100,000 people live here) and both close at 11.  There is also one shop to buy beer/wine/liquor to take home.  Apparently a few restaurants also serve beer, but that's about it for nightlife.  We're not big drinkers, but after a long, hot day of walking up hills, a nice, cold lager can really hit the spot--it's just a rather difficult to actually find one.  It is the little things that count, as they say, and the difficulty to find a drink has joined the touts and the stairs and the midday sun in a cloudless sky to knock Kandy down from our list of must-visit places.  

We'll be here a few more days, then we're heading higher into the hills to a smaller town where, hopefully, there will be fewer people preying on tourists, less traffic, less noise, and a little more peace.  If we want to be really hopeful, there might even be a terrace with a frosted mug containing an ice-cold lager.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

India Break

3 weeks into our trip, and we've decided to quit India for awhile.  We've been to 7 different places (Mumbai, Nasik, Aurangabad, Pune, Panjim, and Anjuna) and 8 different hotels, and until the last two places and hotels we had the same opinion everywhere: this is not a very fun vacation.

Some of the reasons why I detailed below.  Suffice it to say that both of us were having to work very hard to enjoy ourselves, and we weren't very successful.  We had a long talk and both admitted we were trying to make it work, which is kind of the opposite of a vacation, so we decided to pick up and go somewhere else instead.  We thought about flying back to the States and renting a shack on the beach somewhere; we thought about going to Samoa or the Maldives; we even considered going to Israel.  In the end, we settled on the short trip to Sri Lanka.  

Of course, by the time we had made this decision, we found a place where we actually enjoyed ourselves a bit.  There are some downsides to being here in Goa: there are a lot of aged white hippies all around, the power goes out all the time, it is hot and humid constantly.  But it is much more relaxed, less conservative, and the people are more used to seeing white women, so not as many stare at Nora and for not as long.  It's the little things that really add up.  There are even more white people in Anjuna than Panjim, and the dress is even more relaxed (first place people regularly wear shorts), but most of those white people seem to either be 70 year old burned out hippies or young 20-somethings with a chip on their shoulder, out to prove how cool they are.  Still, aside from a very frustrating driver yesterday who refused to take us where we wanted to go, we mostly like it here. It's the most relaxation we've had so far, at any rate.

Beginning to have a good time once you've decided to give up: This is how things usually go in our world, but we're making the best of it. This guest house is well shaded by trees, and there's a pleasant breeze blowing, which also helps keep the mosquitoes away.  There are lots of places to sit outside and watch the sunburned tourists zip by on scooters. We've got a mini-fridge in our room now, and it's filled with beer and white white and cheese and other snacks.  In fact, that sounds like a good idea right now...

Monday, February 11, 2013

2 Week Update

It's been a little over 2 weeks now, and I thought I'd update everyone on where we've been and are, and what we're planning next.

After leaving Mumbai we went to Nasik via train.  We got a reserved seat in an A/C car, and it was pleasant enough, until we got off at the wrong station and had to pay a rickshaw driver the cost of one train ticket just to get to our hotel.  This seemed to set off a series of unfortunate events, as any number of things that could muck up a trip began to happen after this: rude hotel staff, crazy shower, no toilet paper, harassed by beggars and street sellers, stared at, laughed at, and had pictures taken by just about everyone else.

Then our train to Aurangabad was a 2nd class no A/C seat, and it was more than overcrowded.  We had to shift a family out of our two spots on the bench seat, and then stare at them for the next 5 hours (supposed to be 3 1/2) as 3-4 adults and 2 children sat on the opposite bench at any given time.  People were standing in the aisles, sitting in each other's laps, crawling over our legs, and we had to hold our luggage the entire time because there was no space in the racks above.

Aurangabad actually turned out somewhat nice, aside from the mothball and diesel smell of the room.  We took day trips in private cars to the caves at Ellora one day (side trip to Dautalabad and the mini Taj Mahal) and Ajanta another day.  These were the first, and so far only, instances of the awe-inspiring sights I had imagined India to be filled with.

From Aurangabad we came to Pune by bus (which left 45 minutes late and took 1 hour longer than the "maximum" time we were promised), also with no A/C.  In Pune we took the opportunity to get caught up on work, and stayed in our hotel room for nearly 3 days, only venturing out occasionally. There was nothing in Pune we wanted to see, and we had a lot of work to get caught up on. Plus the cheapest food options anywhere nearby were delivery food (our hotel was apparently in a posh neighborhood, with an internationally famous--and expensive--ashram nearby).  This suited us just fine.

Next we are going to Kolhapur by bus, then Panjim by bus, then a night in Madagao to catch the morning train to Hampi.

All in all, it has not been the most pleasant trip so far.  We still have hopes for things to look up, but we have no evidence thus far to support those hopes.  I'd also add that white female travelers should probably avoid this country, especially if they are alone.  It's not dangerous that we've seen, but it is frustrating and difficult and exasperating to always be stared at by everyone everywhere.  I mean people twisting completely around on motorbikes, chairs scooting in restaurants as people with stuffed faces follow your progress through the dining area--things like that.  Everywhere.  From what we've seen, older white people are mostly ignored, as are Asians.  Not sure how Africans fare, as we've only seen one or two.  I know they got similar treatment in Korea, but maybe it's different here since there are so many dark-skinned Indians.  We have friends who have traveled in India, and have gotten mixed responses: of the two white women we know who have gone, one loved her two week trip and the other had the same problems we're having over her longer trip; a woman of Asian descent loved it; most of the others were white men, most of whom loved it, but at least one of whom had a number of frustrations that have become familiar to us.  This isn't to say one shouldn't travel here, only be aware that who you are and what you look like makes a very big difference in how you will be responded to--and, obviously, how much you will enjoy your trip.

For example, I went out across town by myself once, and after dealing with two rickshaw drivers and four bus station personnel, had no real trouble with anyone.  People were polite or, when not, at least reasonable.  Nobody harassed me, nobody stared, nobody asked to take my picture.  This makes me suspect it is younger white women who face these problems.  It also allowed me to say to Nora, "It's not me, it's you."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mumbai Wrap-Up

winding down our 7th day in Mumbai, and here are my overall thoughts on the city:

there are some cool looking buildings, if you can see them through the smog; there are some neat sights outside the city, if you can manage the crush of bodies on public transit; the food is very good, and cheap in most places; you can get really cheap clothes, too, in both quality and cost, if you don't mind the pushy touts;

it's very noisy, very dirty, and the number of kind people is far outweighed by the number of very rude people.

i've never been anywhere quite like this before, but the annoyances are hardly worth putting up with for the positives.  it's just so difficult to relax here.

overall, except to fly out at the end of our trip, this is one city i've no desire to return to.