The Little Island with a Big Soul: Sri Lanka

Arriving in Sri Lanka felt like coming home. I liked the vibe immediately. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t India, but i don’t think so. Sri Lanka is magical.

We arrived via ferry. In july of 2011 the first ferry from India to Sri Lanka set sail after 30 years. Leaving India & going through immigration was very tedious, and it was there we were told we could not re-enter for 60 days. After long discourse we were told we just had to go to the Indian high commission in Colombo & get a letter of exception as we were tourists. In India you have to ask the right question & if you want the answer you seek. For example, in one airport I asked if i could go past the domestic terminal to the international terminal to go to the information booth. “no, madam”. after about 5 minutes of back & forth,  (they never volunteered the fact that there was an information booth about 50 meters away) I had to ask “is there an information kiosk in the domestic terminal?”  “ah,yes madam.” See,  I just didn’t ask the right question……

our berth on the ferry

big ship

Colombo is a big city. and if you hate big cities, Colombo will not be for you. Me, I like cities. and the fact that there were no cows in the streets made it all the more appealing.

I normally hate posts like the one I am about to write, itinerary posts, i call them.  “First we/I went here, then we/I ate that, then we/I went there & had so much fun…….. blah. blah. blah.”

Stay with me, people.

Sri Lanka’s mood is a happy one. I think that’s what is so appealing. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is thrilled about the 2009 cease fire. For those of you who are not up on your world history, Sri Lanka was a country embroiled in a bloody civil war from 1985 to august of 2009. Sri Lanka was not a safe place to live let alone travel. Adding insult to injury, the Tsunami in 2004  killed over 30,000 people. Sri Lankans are ready for some peace. And, it seems, they may have it.

Here are some highlights from all the places we visited. Maybe you, too, will be inspired to come visit this lovely gem of an island.

Colombo: big city. great food. unbelievable clothes shopping. many upscale brands are manufactured in Sri Lanka, so, good quality clothing is dirt cheap. I got a banana republic skirt for 5 bucks. columbia fleece jacket. 12 bucks.  Everyday I was atwitter with the anticipation of the next great deal. Ok, you think I don’t know it’s a sickness? I am girl with a 40L backpack, preaching the gospel of packing light & i am shopping like one of those crazy suburban housewives on hoarders. What else can explain it? I have an illness, plain & simple. I’m sure there is a DSM diagnosis code for it somewhere.

leaving colombo train station

Galle Fort: so charming it will make your teeth ache. The entire are is a UNESCO heritage site.  Cobblestone streets. colonial historical architecture. It is absolutely a lovely place. Unless you want to have a beer. or three. There is one reasonably priced restaurant that serves beer. Oh, sure you can drink at the amangala, or the galle fort hotel, but at 7-8 bucks a pop it’s less than affordable. Galle suffered very little damage from the tsunami, the ramparts built in 1649 by the Dutch, held.

Galle street scene

walking on the ramparts

Unawatuna: A lovely stretch of beach that was completely wiped out during the tsunami. I mean WIPED OUT. Every building is new. And while it is popular with European package tourists it manages to retain a laid back beach village vibe. I managed to get in some diving before the cyclone came. Yes, you heard me a cyclone. The locals were terrified. They scooped up their children & ran for cover, meanwhile there were foreigners drinking on the beach & swimming in the huge swells who seemed oblivious to the history or potential danger. Enrolled in a cooking class here. learned how to make pol sambal, or as i like to call it, crack. This is my favorite condiment by a mile. It even makes   a toasted cheese sandwich with white bread & processed “cheese” singles taste good. like really good.  The cyclone made us retreat to higher ground.

stilt fishermen near Marissa

unawatuna beach

our feast from cooking class (the crack is in the orange bowl)

wendy with our teacher

porch at beach haven guest house in Galle

Kandy, Sigiriya &Bandarawella:: Away from the heat & humidity of the coast are the central highlands. Kandy is a sweet little town & home of the temple of the tooth, a buddhist temple that purports to have one of buddhas teeth. It is a very holy place.  There is also a magnificent botanical garden nearby. Sigiriya, is an ancient & giant rock that once had a temple palace built on top and another UNESCO heritage site. Bandarawella is a little sleepy town in the hill country with nothing to do or see, but, my traveling companion is a bit of a heritage hotel freak & she has always wanted to stay at the Bandarawella hotel, an old tea planters club. It was a great place, with a relaxing vibe and a BUFFET!  I had mashed potatoes. once again, with feeling: MASHED %*(&$!!!** POTATOES. with butter. and gravy. and beets. and lettuce. it was like mana from heaven.  The wonders just kept coming, as the bar served Balvenie 12 year old double wood.  OH, AND they had tortoises in the garden. seriously. good. accommodation.

botanical gardens near Kandy

big palm

Sigiriya

view from the top of Sigiriya

porch on the Old Empire in Kandy

flowers for the temple

Nuwara Eliya is famous for it’s tea plantations. Sri Lanka exports more tea than anywhere else in the world. We hired a tuk tuk for the day to take us around to the tea plantations. I learned more about tea that I ever thought I wanted to know.  The British started planting tea when they could no longer get tea from China. Another leftover from the Brits is fabulous produce. Nuwara Eliya grows beets, turnips, lettuce, and all sorts of cool weather crops.

Our bob Marley loving tuk took driver

tea pluckers

lovely produce stall

the tub at the bandarawella hotel. my first hot bath in a year!

There are a couple of foods unique to Sri Lanka: Hoppers & string hoppers. String hoppers are a airy rice noodle served in little piles with all sorts of curries & yes, pol sambal. Hoppers are thin pancake like things shaped like a bowl & piled high with your choice of curries. Rice & curry is also very popular here. All are eaten with your hands & they are absolutely delicious.

rice & curry

hopper

string hoppers

So there you have it, folks. Sri Lanka in a nutshell. It is one of my most favorite countries to date. Can’t wait to return.

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Ayurveda & Ink

beach at coconut bay

One of the things on GPMs “must do” list while in India was to explore the art of Ayurveda, and while  I am not sold on the “healing” properties of ayurveda, I will never turn down an opportunity to have a massage. After some internet research, we settled on the coconut bay resort. WCT was looking forward to a beach experience and maybe a foot rub or two,  but she was no way as into the “treatment program” as me & GPM, but being a good sport, she went along for the ride.

The first thing in our program was to meet the ayurvedic doctor and have our doshas diagnosed. Doshas are based on the elements & you get “diagnosed” through a questionnaire & physical appraisal. I am a Pitta, which is apparently fire with a touch of water. Once we got assigned a dosha we got a “package’ of treatments. We also chose to eat our meals from the dosha buffet. Bland & vegan but ayurvedically appropriate and supposedly helps strengthen your constitution.  In for a penny……

So while GPM & I readily ascribed to the ayurveda cult, wendy was a bit more reluctant, not being a massage person & all.

The treatment chamber

My day began on that stool. naked. yep. naked. But that’s not what worried me. It was the gigantic rope suspended from the ceiling. “uh, so what’s the rope for, Githa?” Foot massage, madam”, was her reply. Uh, okaaaay.  After i spent some quality naked time on the stool getting my head rubbed , the girls pulled out that mat from under the table. I am instructed to lay on it, prostrate like DaVinci’s man.  Then  about a liter of brown, smelly oil gets poured over me &  Githa lowers the big rope from the ceiling. Using the rope to steady herself she rubbed my body with her feet. my entire naked body, being rubbed by feet.  Not. what. I. expected.

My treatment team

Treatments last for about 2 hours. 2 hours of laying in various positions while copious amounts of medicinal oil gets rubbed into your skin & hair.

hair treatment pack. very gooey & very heavy.

The treatments end with a little chant or prayer & a sandalwood tikka on the forehead.  Githa dresses me in a comfy robe & sends me off to drink banana stem juice. The first morning, after treatment, GPM & I were walking up to our cabana & we see WCT strolling along replete with flowing robe, doo rag & forehead tikka. Uh, say what? She shakes her head & simply says “yep. I’m drinking the kool-aid, too”

our bungalow

The girls post treatment

cult chic

We left kerala & sadly, GPM had to head home, so WCT & I were on our own again. After some exploration of Tamil nadu, we boarded the ferry to Colombo, Sri Lanka. From the moment I landed in Colombo, I felt at home. I said to WCT right off the bat, “I could live here”. You know some places just feel like home, and If i believed in past lives  (reincarnation seems more plausible to me than the virgin birth) which I don’t, i would say i perhaps once lived here.

Back up several months. When I was in Borneo I became intrigued by the Iban people & their tattoos. I wanted one then, but needed a tattoo to mean something. I was set on the place. Inner right wrist. and i knew i wanted words. inspiring & meaningful words. I want a constant & visual reminder of the journey that has been my life for the past year. I have changed, or not changed perhaps, but i have become more clear about my life and what i want to gain & give in this brief moment of time, on this amazing planet.

I found the words. dream big. I never want to forget that i have the power to change my life and make it what i want. At first I thought I would write it in Hindi or Tamil, but then Mother India drove me batshit crazy, and i didn’t want a constant reminder of her. I sort of gave up on the idea, but then when i landed in Sri lanka & saw the beautiful script of Singhala & felt so at home here, i knew SL was the place to get my first tattoo.

me, pre tattoo

in process and no, it didn't really hurt

DREAM BIG

Whatever your dreams, know that they can come true. You only have to believe.

Posted in India, Musings | 6 Comments

From Mumbai to Madurai: The food of South India

me enjoying a vadi at a local "tea stall"

The food of India is as varied as it’s people. In the north there are tasty tandoors & meat centric dishes with rich gravies, which are good but I soon grew tired of the richness & lack of fresh vegetables. Not to mention a daily dose of butter chicken cannot be anyone’s idea of healthy eating.

Arriving in Mumbai brought not only new sights & sounds but a whole new cuisine. Mumbai is the home of behl puri, my favorite street food, but also boasts fantastic fish dishes & curries. The cuisine of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capitol, is redolent with coconut, cashews & peanuts. Eggplant,one of my favorite vegs, is prominently figured as well as okra aka bhindi.  The most famous Mumbai dish is “Bombay duck” which is really not duck at all but a dish made from sundried fish. I never had the courage to order Bombay duck, but now wish I had.

chutneys! coconut, coriander & tomato

We had some absolutely divine food in Mumbai, ranging from the humble Behl puri (eaten from a cone of newspaper while standing up on a crowded street) to huge, sweet grilled prawns at one of Mumbai’s finest restaurants.

I even had a terrific (& pricey) ham & gruyere sandwich on a baguette at the Sea View Lounge in the famous Taj hotel. (yeah, I know, give me a break, already)

The humble masala papad

One of the great things about traveling with WCT is that is she is always pulling out these magazine & newspaper clippings about obscure & invariably interesting “must see” restaurants, shops & sights. Britannia was on one such scrap of paper. Britannia has been an institution since 1923 when Mr. Rasheed Kohinoor, signed a 99 year lease & opened his doors to British soldiers stationed old Bombay. Kohinoor was an Iranian Zoroastrian & like all exiles, had a hankering for his native foods. The junior Kohinoor, who is 90, is a fixture at Britannia. He is also a vocal anglophile (“Bring back the British” he crowed) & was eager to show us a letter on Her Majesty’s stationary. The fact that it was signed by HRH’s lady in waiting was an irrelevant & minor detail. Britannia’s signature dish, is berry pulav and the recipe is a secret. It’s a tasty rice pilaf with stewed chicken, lamb or veg, & topped with fried cashews, crisp onions & a delicious current-like berry imported from Iran. If you want to experience a bit of the old raj at Britannia,  come soon as the lease expires in 2022.

Britannia

2 generations of Kohinoors

Chicken salti at britannia. Chicken stewed in sweet & spicy gravy, topped with shoestring fried potatoes.

Berry Pulau, Britannias signature dish

Me, wendy & Gwyn enjoying our meal at Britannia

Next stop Kerala, where coconut is king   and the smell of warm coconut oil  permeates the air. Everything, and I mean everything is cooked in coconut oil. Even potato chips. Kerala is  also at the center of the Indian spice trade. The main spices in Keralan cuisine are cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, cumin, ginger, tumeric & peppers. These all purported to have medicinal qualities and are often used in ayurvedic medicine. (Kerala is the mecca of Ayurveda)

Curry powder does not exist here. The closest facsimile is garam masala which means “hot mix”. Rather, curries are made from a paste of a variety of spices, chilies and things like ginger, tumeric & garlic. In short, keralan food is fantastic. I feasted on prawn & mango curry which had sweet & plump prawns covered in a spicy & tangy sauce with big chunks of mango in Kochi. In Kovalam, Gwyn & escaped the healthy but boring, ayurvedic buffet and had a memorable prawn feed. We met a charming man the day prior who ran a small beachside fish shack. He had no menu, only a notebook with handwritten notes from previous diners attesting to what a fantastic meal they had eaten. We took such a liking to him that we requested one kg of prawns, and before we had time to change our minds, off he went to the market.  That night, as we walked down to the beach, in the distance, we could make out our perfectly set table, complete with plaid tablecloth and candles. We had the entire beach & star filled sky to ourselves. Upon our  arrival, he proudly showed us the heap of cleaned & spice rubbed prawns, all ready to plop on the grill. The perfectly cooked prawns were served with a fragrant rice spiced with cumin, raisins & cashews. We devoured that mountain of prawns and washed it all down with beer served on the down-low from a paperbag. Sluuuuuurp.

rava dosa

South India is also home to banana leaf thalis, dosas, idli, vadi & sambar. This is good eats at it’s best. There are “meals” places on every corner. You just walk in, sit down and after the staff & customers stop staring at the foreigners long enough to figure out you aren’t lost, you get a banana leaf put in front of you. And then the food comes, and comes & comes until you fold over your banana leaf which tells them “I’m topped off, full, stuffed, Could. Not. Eat. Another. Bite.” Usually you get rice, a papdadam, some sort chutneys, sambar (savory veg stew) and maybe one or 2 other cooked veg dishes. Oh, and this is all eaten with your hand so be prepared to get a little messy. I just make a little well in my rice & pour my sambar in it, and, well, go to town. I am serving banana leaf thalis in my backyard next summer. Who’s in?

Banana leaf thali

sambar

masala dosa & vadi

Wendy tucking into a dosa

Puri cart in Kodaikanal

Green manago with chili

samosas

Some foods are even a bit too weird for me. I mean what exactly is viral fish? do I even want to know? and spine & brain fry? yeah….. not so much.

viral fish... hm

brain fry anyone

goat heads with a side of eyeballs

sidewalk vendor

me mawing on a samosa

deep fried delectables

but sometimes, and by sometimes I mean once, you get a hankering for some american pizza. was it the best pizza? not even close. was it edible? yep.  But best of all it reminded me of home.

and, yes, they deliver

Brain fry anyone?

Posted in Food, India | 4 Comments

Girls Gone Wild: Hampi

Leaving Mumbai we are now 4 travelers: Me, Wendy, Gwyn & Gwyn’s bag. And the 4 of us needed a little fun. We hoped Hampi would provide a little respite from the chaos of the city.  However, Hampi is one of those out of the way places that takes a considerable amount of effort to reach, but well worth the trouble.

The state of Karnataka

Hampi is otherworldly. Ancient Hindu temples & former royal residences dot a landscape lush with rice paddies, palm tress and huge boulders formed over millions of years.

And although there is no doubt I am in India, it is quieter. Calmer. Peaceful….. well, almost.

Hampi countryside

Main temple in Hampi Bazaar

River through Hampi

GPM on her hog, um, I mean scooter

The best way to see the temples is by motorbike, so after some serious negotiating we hit the open road. We rode through small villages, around temples and were gobsmacked by the beauty of the land.  Yes, I know a 90cc scooter with bad brakes is no Harley,  but it was still exhilarating. I see aVespa in my future. Green? Blue? Maybe steely grey?

We stayed on the other side of the river from the main town and because the small boats that carry travelers back & forth stop running at 6 pm, it was very tranquil. (ok, so maybe the frequent power cuts contributed to our feeling of solitude) Just down the dirt lane from our charming bungalows ($6 per night) was a great traveler hangout.  It played nightly movies on a big TV and served up some pretty tasty pizza. (Sadly, there were no bhang lassies) Cushions on the floor & low tables made it the perfect place to spend an evening. Or three.

queens temple

elephant stables

On our way out of town we had some time to kill. (night bus, ugh) I got a massage & Wendy had her feet painted with henna. Then inspiration struck. “Why don’t I get my nose pierced?” I said aloud  “Yes, why not?” said the girls.

pain and MRSA free

Motorbike riding, nose piercing…… all I need now is a pair of assless chaps, a tramp stamp & a leather halter.

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Snack food of the Gods: Puri

I love to eat. I particularly love to snack. Thailand had great snack food & Malaysia, you are always ready & willing to ply me with some great snack food, but the ultimate snack food? Puri. Behl puri, sev puri, pan puri, dahi puri… you all are rock stars.

Puris can be found mostly in Mumbai & surrounds. Behl puri is the most famous but, sev puri was my favorite. So what is a puri? Well, every vendor has their own spin on it but essentially puris are fried or puffed rice (or sometimes wheat) fried vermicelli noodles, combined with finely minced tomato, onion, cucumber, potato,cilantro sometimes chickpeas, with tamarind chutney, sometimes curd & masala spice. The result of the varying combinations are a crunchy,sweet, spicy flavor sensation.

puri menu at chowpaddy beach in Mumbai

Puris are street food. Pani puri can be found at roadsides & are meant to eaten quickly. Each pani puri is one bite. The vendor pokes a hole in the top of the puri & a thin, spicy, delicious tamarind “water” is poured in the hole. Sometimes they are more substantial with a bit of potato or dal in the water. You simply pop them in your mouth as the vendor fills them. They are a great snack & a way to fill the midday void. 5 pani puris are 10 rupees or about 25 cents so they are a bargain too boot.

pani puri vendor

pani puri

me enjoying pani puri in Amritsar

behl puri is usually served in a newspaper cone & mixed to order. I tried a plethora of Behl puri in Mumbai but my favorite, by a mile, was from the vendor next to Fabindia in the Fort district. There is also a a great lime soda vendor nearby, which is the perfect accompaniment to the spicy Behl puri.

Behl puri... use the wafer as a makeshift spoon & eat it last.

sev puri. like behl purr but with more tamarind & is therefore, usually wetter

dahi puri. pani puri filled with dal & topped with curd. spicy, cool, crunchy. yummy.

not technically a puri, but so damn good i had to include it. It's a chaat. similar, street food, crunchy spicy goodness. these one had potatoes, tamarind, curd, really damn tasty.

So there you have it folks, my favorite snack food. I think there is a portland street cart that needs to open……

Posted in Food, India | 1 Comment

Whirlwind tour of North India or, “If it’s Tuesday this must be Amritsar”

Not having our fill of long & uncomfortable car rides, Wendy & embarked on another 14 hour  bumpy ride through the mountains from Leh to Srinigar. The road was slightly better but the company was not. Our drivers companion (why he needed a companion was anybody’s guess… oh, wait, I know.  The  dude wanted a free ride from Leh to Srinigar) Along the way he began proselytizing about Islam and tried,unsuccessfully, to convert me to Islam. Those of you who know me can only imagine how well THAT went over. Then he started in with the “why are you Americans always killing innocent people?” and my favorite “9-11 was an inside job. by americans. not muslims” ok, somebody get me out of the car before I kill this jackass. It was a long and  trying day.

The road to srinigar

Srinigar is situated on Dal lake in Kashmir, which has had it’s fair share of troubles and has been quite unsafe to travel in recent years. It was undisputed territory between Pakistan & India for many years & the kasmirie people really want Kashmir to be autonomous. They do not identify with Indians or Pakistanis. They will proudly tell you “I am Kasmirie!” The military presence is everywhere, men with machine guns, razor wire, and while we were there, 19 Kashmirie were killed by Indian soldiers, a fact of which we were blissfully unaware until much later.

houseboats on Dal lake

The main reason people go to Srinigar is Dal lake. During the British Raj, foreigners were prohibited from owning land in Kashmir, so they got creative & worked  around this little obstacle by building houseboats. They were known as floating palaces and many are still quite grand.

our parlor.... cue music... bom chicka bow bow.....

We had heard horror stories about houseboat scams and foreigners literally being held hostage until they paid excessive fees beyond what was agreed upon, so we were a bit skeptical, until we met Husam of Ambassador houseboat. Husam was genuine, kind, fair & had a lovely houseboat. His wife even bought me flowers on my birthday. Truly nice people.  We spent 4 days relaxing, having the world come to our doorstep. Shikaras or small passenger boats carry people & goods around the lake. need toilet paper? a sim card? postcards? saffron? flowers? potato chips? batteries?  You name it, it can be delivered to you on a shikara.

veggies for sale

out on a shikara ride.... that poor man paddled us around for 2 hours!

Floating convenience store

Very clean & friendly kabob joint

We had heard that Srinigar had a BBQ “chowk” or street and were intrigued. What we found was the shera cafeteria. The kabobs were delish!

vat o' mutton

Condiments!

nothing says yummy like meat on a stick

Not being able to face another 10 hour car ride,surprising, I know,  we flew from Srinigar to Jammu, a miserable & filthy town. We had a nice hotel room that we shared with about 15 cockroaches and an AC unit that blasted stale & musty air. could not leave soon enough. It was a necessary evil pit stop on our whirlwind tour, so it had to be endured.

On the train from Jammu to Amritsar we met some nice Indian men & one helped us make our hotel booking. Another, a restauranteur from bangalore on holiday with his family, starting asking us questions about our itinerary. When we told him we were going from Amritsar to Pushkar he elbowed the other man & said “yaar, they are going from Amritsar to Pushkar…… by TRAIN….. oh, only God can help you.” The other man, shook his head & nodded, “we will pray for you”. Seriously?  And it was a slog. A slog that almost didn’t happen…. but I am getting ahead of myself… back to Amritsar.

golden temple at sunset

Amritsar is home to the golden temple & the majority of india’s Sikhs. Sikhism believes in a casteless society and where men & women are equal. They believe in a common kitchen where anyone, beggar or king, can come & sit for a meal.  While in Amritsar we spent one night at the temple in the free accommodation and ate in the communal kitchen which feeds some 30,000 people a day.

plate storage for the communal kitchen

sikh meditating at the pool of nectar

When we arrived at the “dharamsala” or travelers resting place, we weren’t sure of the program. turns out there is no program. Find an empty bed. throw your stuff on it. it’s now yours.  There we met the lovely Ashton from Texas & her beau, Matt. Ashston, says with a slight texan drawl, “we heard there’s bed bugs. bad bed bugs. we saw a girl yesterday & she looked like she had the pox.” super. I have made it 9 months without bed bugs. dammit. The 4 of us decided to sleep outside. There were only about a million other people, but for foreigners it was a no no. “you have too many valuables” the sikh responsible for us, kept saying, clearly distressed that we were not staying in our foreigner bunker. so we moved. to a buggy & hot & noisy alcove. our sikh was satisfied. we, however, were not. we surrendered. back to the bunker. 4 of us in a small cell. then in came to german boys to sleep on the floor. make that 6 of us in a cell. Now the sikh was delighted. all foreigners present & accounted for.   It was a bit rough, and not the most comfortable sleeps, but well worth the experience. ( and i escaped with nary a bed bug bite)

our lovely room where the 6 of us slept... at least it has high ceilings

Anytime of day you can help do some prep work for the kitchen: peel & chop potatoes, cucumbers, garlic, etc. we opted for garlic detail. We sat on the floor while a  beautiful  lady in a sari prattled on to me in Hindi. When i said i didn’t speak Hindi, she just laughed & kept right on talking. Can you imagine that happening in the states? first, everyone would have to have a food handlers license, and we sure as hell would not have been able to peel garlic on the floor, and everyone would have to be over 18….   good lord, the list of requirements would be endless.

The dining halls are massive & we all sat on the floor in rows with our metal plates in front of us while men came by with buckets of dal mahkani, coconut rice pudding, pumpkin squash puree/curry, sambar, curd & as many chipatis as you need to scoop it all up. very satisfying but no lingering.

In the evening we watched the sun set over the magnificent golden temple, which has been plundered, bombed & rebuilt have a dozen times at least. It is one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen.

One other “not to be missed” adventure in Amritsar is to visit the border ceremony between India & Pakistan. It is a total spectacle. There are grandstands & people cheer & wave flags. The Indians go nuts. The pakistanis…. are subdued. It’s all pride & ego & it is a lot of fun.

The indian side

The pakistani side

ok, so we left for our 2 legged train slog, 12 hours one leg & 9 hours the other. we had confirmed tickets on the first portion but were waitlisted for the second. No problem we thought. well, when we arrived in Delhi (and we all know how I feel about DELHI)  at 430 am with no seats, we were a  bit deflated. What were we going to do in delhi? But, wendy managed to finagle chair seats for the remainder of the trip. Pushkar at last!  Our hotel was charming as was Pushkar, or so I was told. I spent 2 days in bed with a nasty bought of bronchitis. Then we had a whirlwind stopover in Udaipur and now, now we  are in Mumbai, this crazy wonderful city by the sea.

Posted in India | 3 Comments

Manali to Leh: The highway from hell

I have always loved a road trip. As most Americans of my generation, I grew up with road trips as family vacations. My sister & I would sit in the back of the wood paneled station wagon & usually poke & pester each other and constantly whine “are we there yet” until one or both of my parents would threaten to pull over and punish us both. They are fond memories. So it was with those vacations in mind that I was eager to undertake a road trip on the Manali to Leh Highway.  About 15 minutes into the ride my wistful memories were obliterated when a truck sideswiped us & smashed the side mirror. After a loud conversation, lots of hand waving &  an exchange of a few hundred rupees, we were back on the road. Ah, Incredible India!

view of the "highway"

The Manali to Leh highway  is 475 km (about 300 miles) and took about 19 hours… so imagine a trip from Portland to Vancouver BC taking 19 hours. That gives you an idea of the condition of the road. Bone jarring is one descriptor. Death defying is another. The road is wide enough for one car in most places, with vertical mountain on one side & a 1000 meters down on the other. So when we met oncoming trucks it was a game of chicken and the trucks were always the victor. (Rules of the road in India: the bigger vehicle always has the right of way…. well, except for cows, cows always have the right of way)

sneaking past

Me beside our quality transport

We trudged up, up up & down, down, down 4 mountain passes, the highest elevation being about 17,000 feet. But despite the discomfort of being in a jeep with a suspension built sometime around 1950, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. We crossed pastel blue rivers as I gazed in awe at the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. All under the bluest sky I have ever seen.  I know it is a cliché, but it was awesome. (Awesome as defined by Webster, not your 13 year-old kid).

just one of the many spectacular views

breakfast at a dhaba stop

It was at approximately hour 15 that I was completely over being jostled & jarred & thrown about & I wanted to yell “are we there yet?!” I was short of breath and had a constant headache from either (or a combination of the following): the altitude, the constant smell of diesel wafting up through the floorboards or the loud pop music favored by our driver. Whatever. I was done.

We arrived in Leh about 6 pm. Eager for a shower (my pants had dried urine spray on the cuffs after a hasty toilet break on the side of the road, not to mention I was covered in dust & filth ) We were so exhausted & happy to be still & horizontal that we skipped dinner & collapsed after our showers.

bathroom break

Leh is in Ladakh, a semi autonomous region in Kashmir &  Tibetan Buddhist enclave. Leh does not feel like the India of guidebooks or Bollywood. It is a starkly surreal landscape:  Cerulean blue skies juxtaposed against barren & craggy mountains. And once the sun goes down it is downright frigid. The people here are calm & there are few touts. It is relatively clean & quiet. Ladakh has escaped the violence & political fighting that has plagued the rest of Kashmir. Perhaps it is because it is so physically isolated, perhaps it is because the population is primarily Buddhist or perhaps people are just too busy trying to survive the harsh landscape to fight, but whatever the reason, it makes for a peaceful & unbelievably beautiful destination… even if it is hell getting here.

The palace in leh

view of Leh

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Solo Traveler No More!

For 9 months I have been traveling solo. It has been exhilarating, stressful, satisfying & occasionally lonely. When i was planning this trip, I looked to my good friend wendy for sage travel advice about India. Wendy & I went to college together & have been friends for over 20 years. So, when I asked her about Mother India, her eyes lit up & she was so excited to talk about her beloved India, where she has spent so much time over the years, so I said “why don’t you come with me?”

 

 

Wendy & I will spend the next 5 months exploring India & Sri Lanka. It is truly a gift to spend this time traveling with a good friend & veteran of India.

Posted in India, Musings | 2 Comments

Manali: The travelers resting place

“Holy crap, I am a little drunk”,  I think as I walk along the dusty streets of Manali, hoping the 3 km walk home will sober me up. The buzz of hard cider has got me feeling all warm & fuzzy, and i declare my love, yes, out loud, to Manali. Yes, I know, It seems like only yesterday i was all atwitter over KL, what can I say? I am a mercurial girl.

my undoing. local hard cider.

My first stop in India, after a brief overnight in Delhi, was Dharamsala (Mcleod ganj). And I was led to believe this was nirvana. Everyone I met, spoke of Dharamsala in a wistful & almost reverent way. It was the home of the Dalai Lama, so what place could be more tranquil? I was looking forward to spending some time here, absorbing the vibe, chatting with monks, doing a little yoga, & just resting from last weeks whirlwind travel from eastern Borneo to India.

I wanted to love this place,I wanted to feel the presence of the Dalai lama (even if he was in Canada) but I just didn’t. I told people I loved it, with the hope that it would make it so. I mean what kind of douche doesn’t love the home of the Dalai Lama?

Mcleod ganj

So what was it? Maybe it was the rain. It poured rain virtually 24 hours a day while I was there, turning the streets into fetid & muddy rivers. Maybe it was all the hippy tourists, trying to get all enlightened & shit.  I mean I am all about self reflection & finding a way of life that works for you, but for the life of me I can’t understand why westerners come to a country as a guest & then seem determined to look & smell like homeless people. Maybe it was the drivers plowing through the roads, hands permanently affixed to the horn, daring someone to get in their way.

Overheard in a café “I’m going to a Tibetan healer to get my nervous system re-routed”. The gist of the conversation was that he could not deal with all the horns, sick dogs, aggressive monkeys & maniacal drivers. But, nonetheless, was hell bent on staying in Dharamsala because it is so “cool, ya know”.  Seems logical to me, but as a traveler, if a place makes you entertain re-wiring your central nervous system, you might consider going someplace else. Which is what I did.

That's right (shakes fist) you better run!

Boarding the night bus to Manali was really a leap of faith. The bus was a ramshackle vehicle held together with bailing wire & duct tape. In for  penny in for pound… I was seated close to the front,with New Yorkers & new friends Amy & Michael, feeling only slightly better that I wasn’t alone. Sitting close enough to see out  the windshield  is mistake. Some things are best left unseen. Honestly.  It was a harrowing ride, 12 hours through the mountains at unbelievable speeds skidding in the gravel with 1000 ft drops on either side. We arrived a little damp (the windows leaked) and a lot tired, but still standing.

The luxury hotel provides that little something "extra"

Manali is what I hoped & dreamed Dharamsala (mcleod) would be: serene.

Manali is our departure point for Leh, where we will hire a jeep to take us through the second highest navigable pass in the world over 2 days.  I am planning to rest up before the next road trip and I have chosen well. Manali has everything a weary traveler could want. Numerous paths through the forest or along the river, friendly locals, good coffee, massages, (the food situation is a bit disappointing, but you can’t have everything) good budget accommodation & travelers that don’t look like court jesters.

forest in Manali

yak cheese & tomato toast

Exploring Manali has been a treat. It is so low key, which probably has something to do with the ubiquitous, potent & cheap hash. Keeps locals & travelers alike very mellow. Manali looks a little like Colorado, or maybe Montana. Snow capped mountain peaks, alpine forests, raging rivers.  (how many clichés can she fit in one sentence, she wondered…) anyway, it’s beautiful here.

the view from one of my daily walks

I spend my days walkimg. Walking through the forests, the neighboring villages, along the river. I read, I write & I contemplate what I am going to do with my life (which is another post for another day).

*Even though Mcleod was not my scene, it is an important place. It is shame the Dalai Lama lives here. It is a disgrace that the Tibetans have no homeland. What China did, as the world watched & did nothing, to Tibet & it’s people is nothing short of genocide. We owe it to the Tibetans and our own humanity to learn more about Mao’s cultural revolution and it’s disastrous results.

If you are so inclined:    Tibet: cry of the snow lion & a good history of the Mao’s cultural revolution & how it affected Tibet

“We must recognize that the suffering of one person or one nation is the suffering of humanity. That the happiness of one person or nation is the happiness of humanity.”

                                                                               Tenzin Gyatso, The Fourteenth Dalai Lama

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Confessions From an Addict

I never intended to become an addict: “I’ll just try it, see what all the fuss is about”. That’s a common justification by all addicts, isn’t it? It starts out innocent enough, and before you know it, it’s all consuming. You think about it night and day. When & where can I get my next fix? And as with most addictions this a particularly expensive habit to support. My drug of choice? Diving. Although Gudang Garams come in at a close second.

I had troubles at first, for sure. There was my little “freak out” in Koh Tao, then there was the divemaster-bitch-from-hell in Bali that made me doubt whether or not this was my thing. But like all good addicts, I kept coming back for more, and then, before I knew it, I was hooked.

The feeling of weightlessness & the silence is so peaceful. The world that inhabits the sea, is a magnificent place. And there is no feeling like hanging out in the blue. At first I was only interested in the “Big Stuff”; sharks, mola molas, sea turtles, (there is still something about a turtle….) manta rays & barracudas. Those things are cool:I am still awestruck when inside a school of big fish and manta rays & a mola molas are definite show stoppers.  But on Mabul I discovered “macro diving”, or finding joy in the little critters. There is a seemingly endless amount weird and wonderful stuff that is less than a centimeter big. Stuff like nude branches, oranguntan crabs, frog fish, razor fish, banded pipefish & bubble coral shrimp. I saw some very weird & rare things like a flamboyant cuttlefish & a blue-ringed octopus. I was extremely lucky.  I love poking my head into small crevices & gaping at the all the weird & wacky little guys of the sea. It’s an amazing & stunningly beautiful world and I am enchanted by it all.

So now my current obsession is figuring out where & when I can dive next? The red sea?Micronesia? Sulawesi? Central America? the Andamans? And list grows with every diver I meet who says “you  absolutely must dive THERE”……  It seems all addicts find comfort in the company of other addicts in order to justify their habit.

But now I am headed to India, where there is precious little diving. I just hope the withdrawals don’t kill me.

nude branch

another sweet nude branch

common lionfish

shrimp on a ledge

hi everybody!

Ads, our friendly gear dude.

me & the best dive buddy a girl could hope for! Roger made me laugh so hard i nearly spat out my regulator. Miss daisy misses you, man.

The dive resort side of the jetty on Mabul

The village side of the jetty

Mabul is an island off the east coast of Borneo, near the town of Semporna. Unlike Sipadan, which is a national marine park & protected from fishing & has strict permit use laws, Mabul has some problems. The “locals” are not malay but filipino refugees whom the Malaysian government doesn’t recognize as citizens. There is no infrastructure on the island such as trash pickup, so everything gets chucked in the ocean. There is some help from dive resorts who provide eco education, provide trash bins,  and do monthly reef clean ups. But it is a steep learning curve. The locals have little interest in sustainable fishing practices & shark finning is common. Work is being done to try & get Mabul park status, but so far the Malaysian govt is slow to react.

Because Sipadan is a marine park, there are only 120 permits per day, including snorkelers. I applied for my permit in July & got one for September 3rd. Dive resorts get them by lottery & ours, scuba junkie, gets 7 per day.

Sipadan  is home to some odd 3000 species of marine life. The coral is simply spectacular. Turtles are abundant, both green & hawksbill. There are white tipped & gray reef sharks, huge schools of trevally, barracuda & bumpheads. This is “big stuff” diving at it’s finest.We had a great sipadan day, I was clearly the odd man out as our boat had 5 divemasters, 3 rescue divers & me. (next step: rescue diver)  We had all become friendly during the week at Mabul, so it was a relaxed & comfortable group.  The perfect day was completed by a steak dinner & red wine. Really good, actually.

I hope to make it back to Mabul & Sipadan someday….. but for now, Mother India awaits.

turtle!

me in fish soup

reef shark

sipadan and me

Posted in malaysia | 3 Comments