Farewell India, Hello Sri Lanka, let’s get Buddhist

For Jo Sharpe

You were such a fantastically positive person. We only knew you for about 10 years but it felt like a lot longer. I think you just had that kind of effect on people. That’s because you were a friend in the truest sense of the word. Generous in spirit; generous in music; generous in friendship. We are so sorry that we were away from Brighton when you finally lost your fight, but on the day of your funeral, we went to a beachin Kerala where Hindu’s go to cremate their loved ones and send them to the sea…to reflect on one of humankind’s best.

Week 9 – 24th of November to the 1st of December

Our week began in happy anticipation of the backwater cruise to come. We got up in the morning to see that our barge, ‘Pepper’ was moored outside the homestay. Picture windows bordered the front third of the 40m barge and framed a lovely lounge and dining area. Behind this were 2 double bedrooms, a room for the captain and chef and then the engine room. All cocooned in a beautiful woven Coir skin.


narrow canoe used by locals to go about their normal daily business
A small armada of precariously narrow canoes ferry people across the backwaters

Rather amusingly but not unsurprisingly, the staff could not bring themselves to go off script (Indian tourism does not think on its feet or adapt to change at all well) and so, despite booking our cruise with the same people we were staying with, we were greeted and orientated as if we had never met. Where once this would have led to us feeling awkward, we had by now learned to embrace this kind of situation and use it as an opportunity to smile and laugh with our kind hosts.

At around midday we set off in a northerly direction towards the great Lake at Allepey. As we drifted effortlessly up the grand waterway, a flotilla of small family owned canoes, diesel belching ferries and heavily laden barges crisscrossed around us. Temples with totem like freestanding spires dotted the riverbank and men, women and children swam, fished and cleaned in the shallow waters. Whilst life on the backwaters was certainly observed by many tourists, it seemed determined not to be changed by it.

A view from our houseboat on the Kerala backwaters
The late afternoon light from the front of our barge, ‘Pepper’.

As we crossed the threshold of our particular artery, we entered the vastness of Lake Vembanad and could see Allepey away in the distance to our west. As I mentioned in my last post, we had avoided the town due to tales of overcrowding and aggressive touting. From what we could see it did indeed look crowded with tens of similar barges all congested into its watery approaches.

It’s always a bit of a risk when you decide not to go with the crowd. Often there is a good reason why everyone heads in a certain direction, but on this occasion we felt we had done exactly the right thing. Our stay in the Heritage Homestay had been very tranquil and we certainly got a good flavour of normal life rather than a tourist waterfront.

A Kettuvallam rice barge on the Kerala backwaters
One of the many beautiful organic designs applied to numerous Kettuvallam rice barges

Having skirted less than a fraction of the coastline of the giant Lake we entered another series of broad waterways and intersections. The birdlife and natural beauty were second to none and the Kettuvallam rice barges were inspiringly creative in their designs. Their exteriors are fashioned from Palm weave and Coir (a coconut husk fibre) into arches, platforms, verandas and just about any organic shape you could imagine. The scene was reminiscent of giant seed pods floating aimlessly down gigantic streams.

As the afternoon wore on we took the opportunity to stop and buy some lobsters that had been freshly caught that day. The vendor in question had many appetising fish, crabs, crayfish and prawns for sale. However it seemed that Lobster was the done thing and at the prices on offer, it seemed like an opportunity not to miss.

The local rules on the backwaters mean that all cruising barges have to be moored by 5pm. From this point on until 7.30am the waterways are reserved exclusively for fishing and other activities that might be hindered by the tourist traffic. Once moored up in a very pretty spot Catherine and I went for a long walk. This was only possible due to the continual application of liberal amounts of repellent. Still tropical water breeds swarms of biting insects that necessitate industrial levels of protection!

Man using Canoe like Gondola to cut through think patch of water plants
The water margins are used as fields and are constantly harvested by canoe

During our walk we passed through a village and got to take a look at the incredibly long and slender racing boats housed there. Every year in August, traditional boat racing is a feature of the Backwaters and every village has a boat and team. The highest class of racing ‘Snake Boats‘ are stored in 100m long sheds and the boats themselves are impossibly slender, given their length. I’m sad we missed the season for seeing these monsters tearing up the water channels and can only imagine how spectacular it must be.

Back on board we had another in a long line of wonderful southern Indian meals before relaxing in our glass viewing cabin, watching as the lights of small fishing canoes and river crossing boats slid gently around us.

After a few more wistful hours on the waterways the following morning we arrived back at the Homestay. We disembarked from the barge and said our goodbyes to the fantastic staff of both the barge and the hotel. This was an experience we had imagined on many occasions and fortunately it more than lived up to our expectations.

A sign in a resort at Varkala, Kerala
Varkala and the North Laine in Brighton have a few things in common!

As our time in India would end in just a couple more days we had decided to go to Varkala beach for our last stop. This was within a couple of hours of Thiruvananthapuram (easy for you to say); the capital of Kerala and our point of departure to Sri Lanka. On the way there was an interesting town with a particular handicraft that we had seen on the news.

Whilst we had been in India, it seems the government decided to send someone of equal stature to Blighty. Hence Mr. Modi, the prime minister of India went to visit the queen. As a present he gave her a mirror made from polished metal rather than glass.

It turns out there is only one place in India where these are properly made and as we were close we decided to stop by. The village is called Aranmula and it consists of metal mirror makers and a very old, very beautiful temple. The temple is a pretty big deal in Hindu terms and so tourists aren’t allowed in. Not that we would have been able to get close anyway. The air pressure created by the enormous PA system, blasting out mantras, prevented all but the most fervent devotees from getting too close, for fear of a perforated eardrum.

The mirror workshop in Aranmula
The mirror workshop in Aranmula, a glimpse into India’s cottage industries

After checking out a couple of shops we stumbled across a small place that was displaying the highly decorative seal of the Guild of Aranmula mirror makers. Happy that the certificate was just too elaborate to not be a good thing we struck up a chat with the owner…who turned out to be the maintenance man…who called his boss…who called the owner! 10 minutes later a nice bloke turned up and showed us through his work.

There was nothing quite right at first (we were looking for a birthday present for my mum) but then I remembered we had read a blog where the writer went to the mirror workshop, so enquired if this was possible. 10 minutes later we were walking through some residential backstreets to a large villa. The property was the centre of a magnificent little manufacturing enterprise where 5 or 6 people worked to produce the final products.

The techniques were relatively familiar. Moulds and furnaces, alloys, tinsnips and grinders were all used to create mirror handles and frames. The mirrors themselves were subject to tens of man-hours of polishing per square inch to get them just right. Once complete you can only polish them with talcum powder and velvet!

The off-the-cuff tour was another great insight into the manufacturing process of goods that end up in posh shops in the UK. It’s crazy to think how cheap we expect these products to be, given the labour intensive craftsmanship that goes into them.

In the Mirror shop, Aranmula
In the Mirror shop, check out the Guru of Afro in the picture on the wall!

Having found a mirror for mum, the owner also showed us a small mirror still fused to its polishing block and it was right up Catherine’s street. After a few minutes of trying to explain that we also wanted to buy the half finished product (we will insist of going off-script!), we agreed a price and returned to his shop and our waiting taxi.

A couple of hours later we arrived in Varkala knowing only that the beach is divided in two. One end was very spiritual and the other was a series of cliff top hotels and markets. We managed to navigate to the right end and Catherine took her turn to find us a room. As was so often the case in India, within 20 meters she had found a 4th floor room, decorated in a really nice contemporary style, with huge sea views, for £18 per night. It’s just so damn cheap for what it is.

After dumping our stuff we went for a walk along the cliff top and once again, India provided a riot of noise, food, touts, shops, views and everything in between. The cliff top had parcel shops, cooking schools, coffee shops, reggae bars, cocktail bars, art galleries and massage parlours.

All these businesses lined a path that perched precariously about 50m above the beach and as always the shop signs included some great branding rip-offs. The wonderfully titled ‘Blooming Dale’s’ was my favourite on this little strip! Although honourable mention also goes out to Google Mens Fashion.

The atmosphere was great but you might not be surprised to learn that the local signature cocktail was entitled the ‘Come into my Shoppe’. Fortunately, by this stage my brain had learnt to filter this exact phrase from any audio received via my ears.

The next day was a somber one for us. Through contact with friends back home we knew that our friend Jo Sharpe had recently passed away. Today was her funeral and we were really conscious of it all.

Hindu families and priests bless their departed loved ones at Varkala
Hindu families and priests bless their departed loved ones at Varkala

We had chosen to head for Varkala with a certain purpose in mind. The southern end of the beach is sacred to Hindus and, following cremation; many families bring the ashes of their loved ones to be emptied into the sea. Such demand is there for the ceremony that Hindu priests line the entrance to the beach and conduct ceremonies on the spot for the families.

We found our way to an elevated position and watched as sad but celebratory families remembered their loved ones and prayed for their spirits before carrying their ashes to the water. We thought of Jo and Tony and the kids and all her family and friends back home…

Later that day Catherine went to cookery school and prepared what looked (judging by the leftovers at least) to be a sumptuous 5 course meal. Apparently the chef was a little bit, well you know…chef like, but the other people on the course were really nice and we all had a good chat when it was finished. We also tried to buy a wonderful painting from a gallery restaurant we had eaten in. Despite the fact that it had been open to the elements for a year or so, we were prepared to pay £40 for it. The owner wouldn’t budge below £600. This was good as it turns out that we accidentally offered £400 instead of £40 for it. A near catastrophic decimal place fail!

Varkala Beach, Kerala
The spectacular cliff top path above Varkala beach, home for our last day in India

Varkala was the perfect place to finish our trip through India. That night we stuck a slide show of our favorite photos on the laptop and reminisced on all the things we had done in India. We thought about Delhi, Rajasthan, Johdpur and Udaipur. Watching the season come to life on Palolem beach and trekking at the Wildernest. The incredible monuments and atmosphere of Hampi and the epic bus and train journeys in between. The tea plantations, Tiger reserves and backwaters of Kerala and now this final cliff top beach.

By my reckoning, India undid about 5 years of stress, physical neglect and no small amount of mental apathy. Thank you India…very much indeed!

The next morning we said a teary goodbye as we made the short hop over to Columbo airport in Sri Lanka. Once again there were expectations; Catherine has always wanted to visit Sri Lanka for as long as I have known her. We didn’t know it yet, but the next month was going to be just as varied and intense as India had proved to be, but with a very different and distinct atmosphere as well.

A welcome ot Sri Lanka sign
That’s Mr Robin & Catrine to you!

We decided that following a series of 2 day stops over the last few weeks, we should base ourselves somewhere for a week or 2 and maybe go on shorter overnight visits. With this in mind we used AirBnB for the first time on the trip and booked a private apartment in Kandy, the second city of Sri Lanka.

Kandy is the most central city and at the base of what is known as the cultural triangle of Kandy-Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa. In the centre of this triangle of ancient kingdom capitals lays the incredible fortress of Sigiriya. Kandy is the only one of the three points on the triangle to remain as a modern city, partly due to its ability to resist invasion in the mountains.

On paper then it seemed the obvious choice and when we first arrived we were really happy with our apartment. It was spacious, the Internet worked (something you could only imagine in India) and we seemed to be in the middle of a city, around the size of Brighton with a very modern feel. In the middle of the city is a large man made lake (of dubious slave labor origin) surrounded by mountainous peaks where large villas and hotels perch on the slopes.

The mountainous landscape of Kandi, Sri Lanka's second city
The mountainous landscape of Kandi, Sri Lanka’s second city

We knew that, due to the Temple of the Tooth (a really big deal in Buddhist terms, as the tooth in question was reportedly retrieved from Buddhas funeral pyre) the town was again quite sacred, with a somewhat stoic atmosphere.

We decided to get used to our new surroundings for a couple of days rather than go sightseeing. For one thing it was really nice to have our own kitchen! On the first day we were chuffed to find that good supermarkets were we could buy a mixture of local and international ingredients were plentiful. We stocked up the fridge and made some great pastas, wraps and breakfasts over the next few days.

I went to hire a scooter and spent a couple of hours watching Tom and Jerry cartoons with some lovely kids whilst their parents went about getting the bike and its insurance documents ready. The young kids (5-8yrs old) spoke extremely good English education is universally available in Sri Lanka, right down to the cost of the meticulously clean white uniforms. It was also noticeable that, unlike India, little things like insurance and driving licenses were actually required! Fortunately we had everything we needed and soon Catherine and I were zipping round Kandy.

Large candles in Helga's Folly
That’s one hell of a candle… Miss Havisham’s residence in Kandy!

Over the next couple of days we had a nose around town. Catherine wasn’t in the mood for temples and so went off in search of some more edgy sights like Helga’s Folly, a hotel run by an eccentric aristocratic. There she had a great time drinking Tamarind juice, meeting the owner and looking through the various rooms. They were decorated in the most eccentric fashions and whimsy’s of the artistic owner. I on the other hand, got fleeced by a 12-year-old monk.

I went up one hillside to take a look at the giant Buddha that could be seen throughout town. At the top I didn’t want to go in but a young Monk (families often send their children off to monasteries), told me that the road around the monument only gave access to a temple and that I had already crossed the threshold. He was quite pissy about it really! Once I had felt guilty and paid the £5 entrance fee, I saw some older monks laughing. Realising I’d been done I said ‘There’s no temple round there is there?’, ‘Erm…No’ they sniggered. ‘He does this all the time doesn’t he?’ I ventured, ‘Erm…Yes’ they snorted. Little git!

Facade of the Temple of the Tooth
The facade of the Temple of The Tooth in Kandi, all new Prime Ministers address the country from here

After my child mugging I visited the Temple of the Tooth at dusk. The overall experience was a really good one. The temple grounds and various enclosures were lovely and peaceful.

The Tooth temple itself was very impressive and highly decorated, however, the many genuine pilgrims (all wearing white as is the custom in Sri Lanka) were somewhat overshadowed by tourists.

As is often the case, many were not going to let a little thing like not being buddhist keep them from filing past a religious relic! As it turned out we would have a far better experience of Buddhist culture in Anuradhapura (in the next post!).

At the end of the day, Catherine and I decided that, although Kandy was ok, cities were just not our thing at this point of the trip. Kandy’s noise, pollution and slight lack of atmosphere wasn’t really hitting the right note for us so we planned to use the next 4-5 days tackling the cultural triangle in a broad loop. To do this we needed a car and decided to hire one of our own, given the less frenetic state of the roads (in comparison with India). Having procured a tiny 800cc Suzuki Alto in boy racer trim from the same guy we rented the scooter from, we used our last day to visit the nearby elephant orphanage at Pinnawala.

Elephants swimming in the river at Pinnawala
Orphaned and rescued Elephants having their daily social at Pinnawala

Down the mountain we wound our way on our scooter and admired the scenery whilst slowly becoming congealed in diesel fumes. We also began to realize that the bus drivers in Sri Lanka are second only to lemmings in terms of suicidal behaviour. The buses tear around at high speed with no quarter given to other motorists, pedestrians or animals. We resolved to give them a wide berth at all times.

The orphanage was a positive but challenging experience. We had seen a wild elephant by this point and something just didn’t sit right with seeing the elephants in captivity. We know this is not necessarily bad, other grazing animals such as cows are domesticated, horses are essentially broken in from a wild state to act as chauffeurs to their human riders and yet, elephants are just so majestic that it seems wrong.

Following conversations with guides and workers at the centre it was clear that, on balance, it wasn’t a bad place. Many of the elephants had lived troubled lives and some that we had seen confined were simply too dangerous to be allowed near the public or other animals. I did wonder whether, in that case, it would be better to put that animal down rather than incarcerate it.

A baby elephant in the river at Pinnawala Orphanage
Bored… Bored… Bored…

On the positive side there were many elephants at the orphanage that were clearly healthy, happy and free range. Some have been trained so specifically in their past lives that they are allowed to continue to mimic their old roles in logging or entertainment for the sake of their mental health.

Therefore we had the chance to feed one old girl who promptly thanked us with a shake of the trunk. We also watched orphaned babies being bottle-fed. The alternative for these is most certainly death so, on this occasion, the elephant human interaction could be genuinely cute without our usual moral concerns.

The best part of the visit came when, just after 9am, the entire herd is driven down to the local river for a bathe and play session. It was fascinating watching the social interactions of the elephants as they jostled, cried for attention, strengthened social bonds or even sloped off for a bit of privacy. The magnificent sight will stay with me for a long time.

That evening we finalised our plan for our trip to the north. We had heard rumors of terrible roads, dodgy policing, fantastic monuments and challenging hikes. All, it transpired, would turn out to be true…

Hope you like the latest post and the Sri Lankan blogs will be up shortly.

Love Robin and Catherine xx

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