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Incredible India

Delhi & Rajasthan - March 1-20, 2014

sunny 35 °C
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The well-chosen slogan from India's tourism authority sums it up in two words: Incredible India!

Delhi: A total assault of the senses from the minute you step out of the airport terminal even at 4AM. If there's one piece of advice to offer, it's act like you know where you're going and how you will get there even if you don't, because if you waiver, for even a millisecond, you will be pounced on by eager men with varying means of locomotion. But Indians are efficient if not organized and the prepaid taxi stand will ensure a fair price and provide reference for future rides which you'll be thankful for the next time you have to negotiate a fare.

Our hotel, Grand Godwin is in Paharganj a bustling, dilapidated, noisy area near the New Delhi train station popular with backpackers and famous for its crowded Main Bazaar. The streets are jammed with yellow and green auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws - affectionately referred to as Indian helicopters - motorbikes, cars and pedestrians weaving in both directions with little regard for one's side of the street! Looking up all you can see are neon hotel signs receding to infinity. While the neighborhood isn't as pretty as the circular colonnades of Connaught Place, the room is 4 star and much better value than anything I will visit in a nicer area (30€/night).
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We do however, eat almost all our meals in the restaurants around Connaught Place which range from basic to ultra trendy. One favorite is the United Cafe: mirror, velvet and crystal of a bygone era serving scrumptious food.
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Delhi is full of contrasts. Honking is akin to breathing here, but it is possible to escape the deafening noise. Sites like the Red Fort, Humayan's Tomb and the Purana Quila offer immense manicured grounds to stroll through and wonder at the majesty of ancient cultures. Once you get the hang of using the metro with its Smart Card, getting around is easy and less chaotic than the exhaust-filled roads.

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There is a large Muslim community and India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, sits high above Old Delhi offering a 360° view. Most popular though is the mosque of Nizam-ud-din where on Thursday nights, thousands flock to listen to traditional singing. Getting to the mosque is a challenge, winding through narrow streets lined with vendors selling flowers, incense, food and other offerings and worshippers hurrying to arrive by sundown. Uncomfortably, we make our way with the mob, the air thick with Incense. Shoes must be removed, but we hold out until the last possible moment before bearing our soles.
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Delhi to Jaipur is a 5 hour train ride picking up dust as we rattle our way into arid Rajasthan. Temps are rising and within a few days, we'll be trying to remember the chill we felt in New Delhi. We visit the City Palace and the beautiful Hawa Mahal, but the highlight of the pink city is the majestic Amber Fort perched on a hillside outside the city. On the way are the beautiful white and beige marble tombs of a long line of maharajahs. Save for a group of local boys playing cricket in front, we are the only visitors.
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The Pearl Palace Heritage hotel in Jaipur is an unexpected find. Although a new construction, it's quite charming. The lobby is hand-painted and old black and white photos cover the walls leading up bleach-white marble stairs. An oversized lock and bolt opens fort-thick wood doors to our "Jaisalmer" room and we step into what looks and feels like the inside of a sand castle. Call it elegant kitsch! The rates are ridiculously reasonable (30€/night) and I wonder if this will last when word gets out that the hotel was one of the shooting locations of the upcoming sequel to The Best Marigold Hotel.
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A friend joins us for 5 days and in order to optimize our time together, we hire a vintage Ambassador with driver and set off on a highlights tour of Rajasthan.

The Samode Palace, an hour outside of Jaipur, is our first stop. The tiny town of Samode is all of one winding, pitted, gritty, road lined with a few local shops. At the end of the main street we pass thru an arch and morph from a dusty, sepia-tone atmosphere, into a brightly-colored scene of bold green lawns, bordering a flower-lined drive. As the car turns in and stops at the base of grand stone steps, our gaze climbs to meet the warm yellow facade of the palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Samode, this 450 year old gem sits like a glowing ember in a cluster of hills. Most enchanting, is the manageable size of this palace. In addition to our elegant suites (113€/night), as first-time guests we've been automatically upgraded, there are two particularly beautiful historic rooms, the Darbar and the Hall of Mirrors. The craftsmanship is palpable in each room with fine glimmering details that cover the walls and ceilings in rich, saturated colors and intricate fabrics. These are gathering rooms for important events where lavish celebrations continue to take place today.
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Dinner is a royal treat which starts with a visit of the kitchen to meet the chef and his team and to plan our meal. We dine alfresco with a lovely bottle of Indian wine from the Sula Vineyards.
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Pampered and well-rested, we drag ourselves down those magnificent steps to our ivory Ambassador and bump out of town towards the lakeside town of Pushkar. On the way, we stop in noisy, crowded Ajmer to visit 2 very different places of worship. At first glance, the Nasiyan temple looks like a typical, red stone, Jain temple on a busy street. We wind our way up a dingy metal stairway several flights to a very large glass enclosed room that can be viewed from 2 levels. Emerging from the dark stairwell, the scene is simply astonishing: an enormous diorama depicting the Jain interpretation of the ancient universe. Even more astonishing is that this fantastical scene is made of pure gold!
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The most important muslim pilgrimage site in India also sits in Ajmer - the Dargah (sanctuary) of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. Our driver inches thru a sea of claxoning rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians until he can go no further. We walk the rest of the street in the blazing, blinding sun amidst thousands of worshipers and very few tourists. We are funneled towards the entrance where we reluctantly hand over our shoes wondering if we'll ever see them again. Somehow, over the shouting, a kind, French and English speaking man gracefully offers to accompany us. We cover ourselves head to toe and enter the flow toward the gate, pressed tightly against one another, until we are ejected from the bottleneck inside the grounds and the noise level resolves. Resting place of the most revered Sufi saint, long lines of people shuffle around the 13th Century tomb, while others pray in the mosque, or simply sit with their families in contemplation.
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Although famous for its annual camel fair, on most days, Pushkar is a mellow enclave of pastel-blue tint whitewashed houses, lining the ghats around a sacred lake. We check-in at the charming Inn Seventh Heaven (25€/night) then quickly head out to find some cheap clothes for Holi, the infamous color festival celebrating the change of season taking place the next day: I know from experience that it's imperative to be prepared.
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"Happy Holi!" a passerby says as his hand caresses my face leaving a trail of hot pink powder on my cheek. In the same beat, I feel the cool spray of a water pistol and jump as the bright orange liquid hits my throat and trickles down inside my T-shirt! I reach out to shake an extended hand as a fistful of electric blue powder hits my shoulder and when I turn to see where that came from I find myself face to face with a group of jubilant boys yelling "Happy Holi!" Each one shakes our hand, hugs us and throws more color at us. We are not 10 steps from our hotel and already color-coated! The streets are teeming with people carrying small plastic bags filled with bright colored powders, water guns, buckets of colored water, and kids are running around in a frenzy of friendly-fire. We gravitate toward distant beating drums, abandoning ourselves to embracing strangers, slapping hands and chanting Happy Holi, Happy Holi, Happy Holi... The main square is like a huge Rave party, with hundreds of gyrating bodies, all throwing color at each other. The atmosphere is joyous, festive and just plain fun. The party slowly dies down as the sun sets and one can imagine the entire country showering off in exhaustion.
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By day 4 we are getting used to our driver zig-zagging through traffic and tailgating cars before darting past on either side, honking incessantly. Sometimes it's just better to close your eyes. Driving into Jodhpur wins him accolades as he navigates the overly congested streets squeezing the car thru the gate of the old city and pushing forward as the streets tighten around us. We transfer to a rickshaw for the ultimate, theme park type, twist and jerk weave through a labyrinth of tiny streets lurching to a halt at the door of the quaint Shahi Guesthouse (30€/night). The steps leading up to the funky colorful rooms are cut for agile giants. The view of the blue city with its majestic fort from the rooftop is mesmerizing.
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As this part of the journey comes to an end, we look forward to coming back to Rajasthan in the cooler winter months. For now, we are heading south into sweltering heat and humidity...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 01.05.2014 02:12 Archived in India Tagged india new delhi rajasthan Comments (5)

Apple & Feta

From New York City to Greece

sunny 23 °C

New York City, an intricate maze of glass, concrete and brick sprouting from a narrow land mass that is Manhattan. In perpetual upward motion, the city never looks exactly the same and each visit reveals new buildings scratching at the troposphere. Dominating the skyline is the nearly complete Freedom Tower, the kingpin of the new World Trade Center complex.
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It's been over 10 years, yet the wound is wide open.
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On this particular visit to the Big Apple, a dear friend treats us to a breathtaking flyover of New York from his 4 seater. We glide along New York's sandy shores before turning inland towards the southern tip of Manhattan, flanked by the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island on either side. Trying to decipher plane-speak and scouring the airspace for aircraft announced by air traffic controllers is a fun exercise.
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On the ground, New York's waterfront has blossomed over the last 15 years. In addition to the classic Staten Island, Statue of Liberty, Circle Line ferries and other private boat trips on offer, there is now a bustling network of short-hop ferries shuttling people to and from New Jersey (Hudson River) and Brooklyn (East River) in just minutes.

With an all day pass on the East River, we hop on and off and visit Brooklyn, but spend most of our time on the waterfront taking in the magnificent view of New York City from the well-deserved, most popular spot - DUMBO. It's a picture-perfect day and the parks along the river are teeming with a mix of tourists, film crews and local residents.
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In the shadow of Manhattan's tall buildings, Roosevelt Island rests in the middle of the East River offering a sublime view of the city and in particular the United Nations. The short tram ride carries us over the city's busy avenues, by the mid-floor windows of several apartment and office buildings and dangles us just meters over the East River before easing into the tram terminal on the island. We walk to the newly refurbished FDR Four Freedoms Park and marvel at the view.
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Across town, running between Gansevoort Street and West 30th street, the former railroad known as the West Side Line has been reincarnated as the High Line. Just over a mile long, this elevated park offers a delightful stroll and mid-high view of New York's rehabilitated Chelsea district.
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With a belly full of oversized American food, we head towards a Mediterranean diet in Greece.

Arriving in Rhodes is like taking a colossus (pun intended) step back in time.
The largest island in the Dodecanese and adjacent to Turkey, Rhodes is an ideal starting point with low cost flights from Europe and endless island hopping options via an extensive ferry network.

The Old Town is a masterpiece whose beauty is trumped by a multitude of souvenir shops and restaurants fronted by overzealous touts. I admire the grandeur of the fortified walls against the pristine azure sky and revel at the relevance of this ancient civilization to our own, when suddenly the sound of the wind rattling the "I love Greece" paraphernalia that covers every inch of retail space, jolts me back to the present. It is mid-October yet the frenzy of tourists continues to beat fervently.
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We find the Panorama hotel outside of town for 20 euros a night. It's a good half hour to walk to town, but there's a bus for lazy days, and a taxi home at night is just 5 euros; no haggling necessary. The family-run place is a steal at this time of year. The room is actually an apartment. Breakfast by the pool in the morning is delightful, but we remind ourselves that it's off season and it's probably a different scene during peak months.
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With a barrage of offers at the waterfront, we settle on a day trip to a small island called Symi. What a revelation! The picturesque port is lined with freshly painted neoclassic buildings. Leaving the majority of tourists behind, small alleyways lead to wide stone steps that wind up into the hills in an endless labyrinth forcing us left, then right, no back, around. Symi oozes charm and we can easily imagine spending more time here. We head back down to the port for a feast of grilled octopus before dragging ourselves back on board the ferry.
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On yet another picture perfect day, we hop an island bus to Lindos the other highlight of Rhodes. From a distance, the town looks like a pile of white sugar cubes neatly fitted into the rock. A steep walk down a winding road leads us to a charming bleached-white village with narrow winding streets and pretty hotels marred only by wall-to-wall tourist shops. The beach here is a perfect crescent of sand with clear blue water, that is likely jammed during the top months. Clearly, the best way to visit this and most islands in Greece, would be on a private boat. We hike alone, along the plateau opposite offering a splendid view of the village, the acropolis and the bay.
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The 9 hour ferry to Santorini turns into a 2 day adventure. Gail force winds prevent the boat from docking leaving the captain no option but to continue another 8 hours to Athens. While everyone yells at the poor man and his staff, we seize the opportunity and are offered a cabin, which will be ours until the ferry takes us back to Santorini the following night. The next morning, with a full day to spend in Athens, we head off to explore.
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We arrive in Santorini in the middle of the night. At the Blue Sky Villa, my name is taped to the entrance with instructions and the key to our room. It's a charming hotel in the main town of Fira, off the tourist trail (read: no spectacular view), for again 20 euros. The room is bright and clean with a tv, fridge, terrace and though we won't need it at this time of year, a/c.
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I get why people flock to Santorini. Colorful rugged rock formations crowned with whitewashed dwellings that change color as the sun shifts in the sky and wide-angle views from heights that leave you breathless. Beautifully appointed hotels and restaurants tightly terraced along the cliffs, with private balconies, infinity pools, candlelight dining and sunsets on the 10 side of the scale. But, at least 2 cruise ships drop anchor each day bringing thousands of day trippers and I cannot fathom why one would pay for the privilege of having hoards of people parading through the tiny streets and alleys that weave through these establishments.
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Thankfully, there are ways to escape the crowds. We explore the traditional villages of Pyrgos and Megalochori delighting in local eats. But the prettiest and most popular is the 10km hike along the cliffs from Fira, through Firostefani and on to Oia (pronounced eeya) at the northern tip of the island.
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At sea-level below Oia, lies Ammoudi, a mini port lined with nice looking restaurants and a ferry to the small island facing Santorini. As we step off at Thirasia, an eager restauranteur ushers us, the only tourists, to his rather unassuming resto. After a tasty batch of small fried fish and homemade wine we hike up to the top of the island to admire the fantastic views of Santorini. The homes along the winding street seem deserted but we encounter a few locals and learn that during the high season, approximately 2000 tourists traipse through daily.
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As November approaches and temps drop, businesses slowly shut down and ferry schedules dwindle. We agree to return to Greece at a later date, perhaps before the season starts, when we'll have more time to visit the hundreds, no thousands, of islands scattered in the Aegean.
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 30.12.2013 13:31 Tagged new york greek_islands Comments (8)

The Sri Lanka Highlights Tour

sunny 30 °C

Over the last 5 months we have visited most of Sri Lanka at a leisurely pace. With "the kids" coming for their summer vacation, we put together a 1 month, best-of tour. It was over in a blink. As they discovered the many facets of Sri Lanka, we enjoyed returning to our favorite places, seeing familiar faces and the wide smiles when people recognized us. Everything seemed the same yet different.

The heat was much more tolerable than the stifling hot and humid weather we endured the previous months. Retracing our steps down the west coast we were shocked to see that the wide sandy beaches we had strolled on in March had been swallowed by the ocean and sandbags now provided a figurative barrier between the crashing waves and the hotel terraces. The turbulent sea reflected thick heavy clouds as they passed over stopping briefly to unload buckets of water before rebuilding their loads. Yet most days were beautiful and there were few tourists. Many of the guesthouses and restos were closed, hastily renovating or expanding to meet the increasing demand. Come November, the sea will have retreated and with Lonely Planet's label as destination of 2013, as well as several recent TV features, resorts like Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Tengalle will be throbbing at capacity.
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Aching to see leopards, we returned to several national parks and this time Yala National Park, did not disappoint. However, as it was now high season in this part of the country, there were dozens of jeeps jostling for position when one was spotted. We were not as lucky as those just a few yards ahead of us, and for an unbearably long time we had to endure watching the joy on their faces as they wielded their cameras in front of the spectacle. Our driver did his best to inch into view and at one point someone motioned to me to stand on the roof of the jeep. As I clambered up searching over the vehicle in front of me, a leopard nonchalantly strolled across a clearing about 30 feet away! I was unable to capture the moment and unfortunately my jeep-mates only caught body parts, but four safaris later we were elated to have seen a leopard.
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Elephants on the other hand are plentiful throughout the country and we saw them doing everything from crossing busy roads, bathing in rivers and lakes, devouring leafy greens, carrying heavy loads and marching in processions elaborately dressed.
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We headed back to Ella, our favorite hiking base in the Hill country with hands-down the best laundry service on the island, great coffee and all the western food one could crave: These things begin to matter after 5 months! The area offers easy hiking through rolling hills blanketed with a patchwork of tea plantations. Trains putter through the countryside dotted with waterfalls in strict contrast with the seascapes of the coast.
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From a town called Haputale, the 4 of us squeezed into a 3-wheeler winding along a narrow road up to the estate once owned by Sir Thomas Lipton. At the pinnacle, appropriately named Lipton's Seat, is a breathtaking 360° view which was, to our dismay, completely socked in. But as we sipped a cup of namesake tea, a strong wind gingerly pushed away the dense fog ever-so-slowly revealing a good part of the majestic view.
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Next up were the beaches of Passikudah and Kalkudah on the east coast where the season is in full swing. Although much busier now, we were still practically alone swimming in the clear waters of Kalkudah beach. It's obvious though that this will not last for long as all the virgin land has been sold and properties are sprouting like weeds in a garden.

We returned to Sigiriya and Pidurungala to walk where monks once scaled sheer blazing rock, without modern-day stairs and hand-railings, to admire the expansive vistas as we reflected on the willpower and determination required to lead a life of meditation and self-discipline in such austere conditions. We rode bicycles around the ruins of the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and revisited the large lying Buddhas of Dambulla Rock Temple.
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Perhaps the only area left in Sri Lanka that doesn't require advanced booking during the high season is Jaffna in the north. Bastion of the Tamil, Hindu culture, the area was the headquarters of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan) during the war and was severely damaged including the railroad which was completely annihilated. The wounds are still open as attests the sole military checkpoint we encountered in the country, but rebuilding is in full-swing. The landscape is flat and arid making it ideal to visit by bicycle. Sights include the Dutch fort and several elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples both on the mainland and surrounding islands which are reached by questionably sea-worthy vessels, reeking of petrol. The boats are packed with devotees carrying offerings for their respective gods and we are welcomed aboard with the usual, "What is your country? What is your name? Where are you going?"
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We board another one of several buses to spend few days on what we consider one of the nicest beaches in Sri Lanka, Nilaveli, just outside of Trincomalee. It's high season now and lodging is limited and overpriced compared to our previous visit, but the soft sand and clear blue sea are delightful for swimming. We pack a picnic and motor out to Pigeon Island once again for a day of great snorkeling.
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Sri Lanka's largest and most important Buddhist festival is the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy honoring the (Buddha's) sacred tooth relic, preciously guarded in a gold reliquary within the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. For 10 days, actually nights, participating temples parade dancers, drummers, and glittering elephants through the streets. People flock from around the country in growing numbers as the festival reaches its climax on the full moon. Some pay for the wood grandstand seats, others pay more for chairs dubiously set-up on balconies, but most just claim an inch of pavement with a piece of plastic and sit on the street all day waiting for the evening's festivities to begin. A few hours before the festivities, around the temple grounds, elaborate preparations are in motion. Elephants are bathed, fed, dressed and their costume lights tested, dancers don their costumes, and buckets of coconut shells are gathered for the torches that accompany the entire procession. At nightfall, we watch the 2 hour procession from our hotel balcony (booked months in advance). What a privileged view!
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At the same time, another major festival is taking place in Kataragama, a sleepy town in the southeast part of the country that springs to life when thousands of (primarily Hindu) pilgrims end their 45 day trek from Jaffna in the north. Here devotees perform acts of sacrifice and self-mutilation to endear themselves to the gods. The festivities end with a symbolic "water cutting" ceremony in the hopes of bringing bountiful rain to the area.
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With just a few days left before we leave the country, we decide to head back to Hikkaduwa, the beach resort where we started our trip 6 months ago for a very special reason. In 2004, we had planned to spend the winter holiday here but opted for New York instead at the request of a family member who adores everything Christmas in NY conjures. On December 26th, we watched the horror of the Tsunami on TV including images from Hikkaduwa! Last year as we prepared our trip, it seemed logical that we should start our travels here.
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The monsoon waters are slowly receding and while many guesthouses, restaurants and shops are still closed, a few of our favorite places are open and the weather is beautiful. It's the perfect place to end this first leg of a very, very long journey.
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 12.09.2013 15:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (6)

Teacher! Teacher!

Volunteering in Galle

semi-overcast 28 °C

I consider myself a caring person, but to be honest, the only people I have ever done anything for are my family and friends.

When the opportunity to spend 2 weeks on my own presented itself, naturally, like any self-respecting JAP, my first thought was to check into a nice hotel and spend my time lounging around in between spa treatments and yoga classes. But having seen first-hand the aftermath of civil war and natural disaster in Sri Lanka, I decided to look into volunteering. Well what a surprise that was. Did you know that you actually have to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to volunteer? Not to mention that most projects on offer are geared towards 20-somethings. The hotel was looking better by the minute, but before giving up I added a key word to my search - "senior". Horrifying thought I know, but up came New Hope Volunteers. I still had to pay, but I'd be housed and fed 3 times a day for a more than reasonable fee. There were several projects to choose from: An orphanage - changing diapers? Not really my thing. A turtle hatchery requiring late night hours for releasing hatchlings? Nah, I need my beauty rest. An elephant orphanage? Pay to shovel elephant dung? Pass. So I settled on teaching English to Buddhist monks, no experience required.

I understood that I'd be living with a family where hopefully, I'd have my own room. I figured I'd be sharing a bathroom but I could survive anything for 2 weeks and if it was unbearable, I could always check into a hotel. It turned out that ALL the volunteers for the orphanage and the monastery were staying at the project coordinator's house. Including Michael's family we were about 11. Thoughts of comfort and privacy evaporated.

Michael Ferreira (3.5 from left) and his wonderful family:
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My roommate Julia was from Russia,
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and together we were 6 female volunteers sharing a bathroom. I was 30 years older than most of the group, but they all seemed to think I looked younger so we got along great! Julia and I would be teaching together at a monastery and while her English wasn't quite up to par, her enthusiasm was endearing and I was grateful not to be alone. On our first day we went to a different monastery to observe another volunteer's class. Liz from Australia is studying to be a teacher and she was well prepared. The kids were eager to learn and well-behaved. An older monk sat in to ensure that everything went smoothly and even brought us tea during the break. The bad news was that there was no curriculum to follow, just a few books and flash cards left behind by previous volunteers. It was up to the teacher to prepare the lesson.
We were in trouble.

Our monastery had a slightly different vibe. There was no one to greet us, but within a few minutes boys began to appear and we followed them to the classroom... which was locked. Eventually, a key appeared and we were in business. Well, almost. There was a board but it was white, chalk wasn't going to work. There were about 6 boys ages 8 - 15 and most of them were literally running around the room, jumping on the tables, flipping over the benches, screaming, and fighting; just what you'd expect in a monastery classroom. I had to quell an overwhelming desire to run.

We had some cards with simple words and they eventually settled down to playing word games.

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They had notebooks and pens and most wanted to write. Class was 2 hours and we quickly realized that we could keep them relatively focused for an hour and a half before hell broke loose.

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When we felt we were losing them, we'd switch to more physical games like hopscotch, ball games, balloons, bubbles, etc. Julia was an ace at inventing fun games.
Right before he lets go of the balloon...
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Monks have a tough life. Their days consist of studying, meditating and chores.
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They are not supposed to play, laugh or otherwise engage in un-monkly behavior. Our class was perhaps their only opportunity to let loose so we were proud of them when they behaved. While our teaching methods were somewhat unconventional, they were improving their spelling and vocabulary as well as their motor skills. Within a couple of days most of the boys were waiting for us at 8:30 when our tuk tuk pulled up, and when we'd offer a break, they wouldn't take it. "Teacher writing, teacher cards..."

By 11 we were back at the house. We were under no obligation, but Michael suggested that we go to the orphanage for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Listening to the other volunteers talk about the kids there, Julia and I decided to go. Afterall, we were here to help.

As I walked into the office to sign in a woman yelled at me, "Who are you and why didn't you come this morning?!" I explained that I was on a teaching project and politely reminded her that I was a volunteer. She looked me over, grunted the house rules, mainly no photos, and pointed me onward. By the second day she was much friendlier. It must be really hard running an orphanage.

I followed the other volunteers through a fenced playground with 2 swings, a rusty slide and a couple of seesaws amid a few patches of grass into a building where there were about 50 babies from about 6 months to 3 years. Another building housed about 15 4-5 year olds. The noise was deafening. As I walked around, kids stood up in their cribs reaching their arms into the air, some smiling, others crying, noses running, diapers full, some healthy, others not at all. Once again I had to surpress the urge to run. Suddenly a local woman barked at me, "You! Wash baby!" Sensing my panic, a more experienced volunteer swooped the baby up. A few minutes later she was putting on a diaper and I was fetching clothes from a huge pile. Girl? Boy? Doesn't matter just grab anything. As I turned, I saw a toddler climbing out of a gated area and rushed over to put him back in. Those little devils could climb out. With another volunteer we climbed into the play area and soon the babies were crawling all over us instead of trying to get out. This was much more fun than wash duty albeit a bit overwhelming. 2 hours later, exhausted and covered in all sorts of bodily fluids, our ride home came. I wasn't sure I wanted to go back, but Yvonne, who's Scottish accent I'll never comprehend, Sara (pronounced Seerah, from Northern Ireland, and Lisa, the first German with an Aussie accent that I've ever met, 3 20-somethings for whom I have immense respect, convinced me that it would get easier and it did.

Yvonne (left) and Sara
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Lisa
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The girls had given the kids English names and with each visit I'd look forward to seeing, George, Fat Sam, Forest (Gump), Brenda, Amy, or just hearing about what had transpired that day. The kids were astonishing. They remembered me even though I wasn't there every day. They'd bring over a toy that we had played with, or walk me over to the swing I had pushed them on asking for more. It was simply heart-wrenching.

Time flew by and we said goodbye to our class with pinched hearts and many questions. I wondered, what had we really accomplished In just 2 weeks? How, if at all, did the boys perceive the separation? Wouldn't it be more efficient for this endless rotation of teachers to follow the same lesson plan picking up where the previous one had left off? In any case, we were relieved to hear that a new volunteer was arriving to take over. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

At the orphanage, the girls were saying their goodbyes and I'm certain it was harder for them than for the babies. Thankfully, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers ready to change diapers and dispense unconditional love.

Will I be going back like some of the girls who plan to return next year? Probably not, but I can safely say that I'm the one who learned the most from every one of these kids ages 6 months to 30 years old in the last 2 weeks. I will never forget them. Well, how could I, Yvonne put her picture on my phone...

With a couple of days to kill, I checked myself into a nice hotel on the beach. Check out the view from my balcony... I'd show you the bathroom, but I'm not sharing!
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 15.07.2013 20:48 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (7)

Drenched in Culture

Hill Country and the Ancient cities of the Central Provinces

semi-overcast 27 °C
View Sri Lanka on SpiceChronicles's travel map.

Having stored sufficient quantities of vitamin D, we head for a change of atmosphere. At 1900 meters, Nuwara Eliya is the Hill station where tourists and locals flock to escape the scorching heat of the coast. Peak season in the hills is around Christmas but for Sri Lankan's it's THE place to celebrate their New Year in April. June it turns out is NOT the best month to visit. To get to Nuwara Eliya, we pass through Kandy. It has been raining for weeks we're told and it hardly lets up during our stay. Welcome to monsoon season. It's not cold in Kandy, but oppressive grey clouds bring the sky down to just above our heads, dumping buckets of water on us with little reprieve. Hoping for better weather, we board a now familiar train through tea estates and head for altitude. Stepping off the train in Nuwara Eliya we are jolted by the extreme drop in temps and pounding rain! I dive into the bottom of my pack happy that I have my ultra-compact UNIQLO down jacket to layer under my North Face raincoat. Just one problem, EVERYTHING from my hips to my toes is soaking wet within 5 minutes and will remain soggy and bone chillingly cold for the next few days. It's impossible to dry anything, particularly our shoes. Despite the horrendous weather, Nuwara Eliya is an interesting mix of British colonial architecture and modern Sri Lanka tack. We visit all the restored governor's mansions, gentlemen's clubs and grand hotels, sipping tea and defrosting by the working chimneys in use in June. Our guesthouse, a bit out of town, sits high on a hill and between storms we are briefly rewarded with a beautiful view from our balcony. At night, we huddle under the duvet (in Sri Lanka!) listening to the havoc outside and wondering when the roof will detach. Electricity is precarious, but when it's on, we have the hottest shower with delicious pressure to date.

Unable to take advantage of the hikes and visits the area has to offer in this weather, we hit the rails again in search of drier ground stepping down a day later in Dambulla, famous for its Rock Temple. Dambulla Rest House, recently renovated and renamed Heritage, is a former government rest house with just 4 rooms and a small restaurant. That we are in the off season makes it even more attractive, and we are the sole guests.
The temple, parts of which date back to the 1st C, is comprised of 5 caves filled with over 100 buddhas and other figures of various sizes and importance. The cave walls are covered with more recent well-preserved paintings. It's a fairly steep but short walk up the hot rock and the views from the top are beautiful. Sigiriya Rock stands majestically on the horizon.

Nearby Dambulla, The Heritance Kandalama hotel, designed by the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, is an immensely interesting property. Built in 1994, this 5 star hotel is completely integrated in its environment. All the rooms and public areas overlook a vast tank (man-made lake) lined with lush foliage and a cookie-cutter mountain backdrop, while the backside of the hotel fits snuggly, like a puzzle, into the jungle. Giant boulders protrude from the floors of the open-air corridors, thick hanging vines and shrubs grow along the facade and balconies, and the terraced levels, are covered with vibrant green grass. It's like being inside a diorama! The place is truly ingenious, but I can't help thinking that hardcore city dwellers might not appreciate the monkeys running freely, or the birds nests strategically tucked into corners at 5 star prices.

The ancient capital cities of Sri Lanka were located in the central plains and today this region is bursting with archeological sites. Our first stop in the Cultural Triangle is Sigiriya, a gigantic rock formation that is actually the plug of an extinct volcano that eroded away over centuries. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the rock has an elaborate, highly-debated history dating back to prehistoric times. Definitely a monastery, maybe a king's palace, a fortress; whoever lived on top would certainly not want to have forgotten anything at the bottom, and just standing on the extremely windy plateau is a serious challenge! The climb up, a combination of old stone steps and modern staircases, is well organized and not too difficult as long as you're not afraid of heights, with statues, frescos and caves along the way.

On a much smaller scale though no less grand, and sans the hoards of tourists, is Pidurangala Rock, Sigiriya's next door neighbor. The climb is a bit more difficult as there are no handrails or modern stairs and towards the top there are enormous boulders to negotiate. On this occasion, we are happy to have a local guide lead the way who provides sticks for tapping the stones to scare off the cobras lurking under the leaves. We get through having seen just a few shedded skins... The reward is the breathtaking view of Sigiriya Rock and the surrounding countryside.

There are several unfenced national parks in the area, allowing elephants to roam freely as they move with each season from one to the other. On local advice, we decide to skip better-known Minneriya National Park and instead head to Hurulu Eco Park about 20 km from Sigiriya. While Hurulu is possibly the most beautiful terrain we've seen recalling the parks of Africa, after an entire afternoon bouncing around in a jeep with hardly a stir in the bush we turn back onto the main road a bit disappointed. Suddenly, we screech to a halt in front of a group of grazing elephants about 10 feet in from the road! Within minutes, another group strides up to the roadside, looks both ways (I swear) and then nonchalantly crosses at their leisure, much to the delight of all the stopped traffic.

Polonnaruwa, the country's capital 1000 years ago is a fun day trip from Sigiriya. The bus drops us off in the center where we rent old-fashioned bicycles for a few bucks and set off on a 10 km loop stopping to visit the remnants of temples, shrines, palaces, and... Buddhas.

Anuradhapura the much older capital dates back to 380 BC and we arrive during one of the most important festivals in this region, Poson Poya. If you've been paying attention, you'll recall that Poya is the full moon and every full moon is a nationwide holiday. Poson Poya, commemorates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 247 BC. The nearby town of Mihintale is where the first Sri Lankan king was converted to Buddhism and every year on this day, hundreds of thousands of people come to pay homage at this holy site. The buses are crammed, the streets are overcrowded and everyone is headed for the top of Mihintale Hill, a mere 1843 stone steps. This special poya will last 5 days and people from all over the country have descended on the area by bus, car motorcycle, and tractor. Families sleep in the parks and around the ruins, bath in the lakes and canals and line up for the huge buffets of free food. Vendors sell anything you can imagine (except alcohol which is forbidden during Poya) and the atmosphere is joyful. At night, small white lights illuminate the monuments and buildings and colorful paper lanterns glow and sway in the breeze. We spend the following day visiting the numerous and spread out sites of Anuradhapura on bikes though this time we have to battle the crowds and traffic remembering to stay left ringing our bells like mad to caution those in front, or simply to say hello as EVERYONE waves at us!

As we slowly make our way back to Colombo, we stop off in a remote village to visit the Yapahuwa Rock Fortress. It's not a very big rock but, the rock served to defend against South Indian invaders several times over the centuries and the ruins are impressive. The steps leading up to an ancient shrine, which once housed the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, now heavily guarded at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, are practically vertical. It's off the tourist trail and even the monkeys who are busy dismantling a tuk tuk, wonder what we're doing here. It's well worth the detour.

About 20 km further south, we jump off the bus in Padeniya, a small town with a hidden gem of a temple Right in the center. The Raja Mahavihara, tucked away behind a modern structure is a medieval temple with ornate wooden pillars and an intricately carved door which opens on the main shrine. The key to the door is just as impressive as the door itself. The exterior is lined with lion statues, we're told, to scare off the elephants. A buddhist monk from Nepal shows us around and we have a nice conversation in English. This in preparation for my upcoming volunteer effort in Galle where I will be teaching English to Buddhist monks. More on that in the next entry.

Posted by SpiceChronicles 28.06.2013 03:32 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (3)

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