India India

Welcome to Chennai – our first destination in India – our first dot on the map.

It’s a sprawling, hot, hectic, buzz of people, non-stop chaotic traffic and horn honking, animals roaming the streets and rubbish strewn everywhere. It’s true what they say – our first impressions of India have been felt through an absolute assault on every sense.

There are too many things to look at when you step out onto the street; everything seems to move around us in all directions at any and every moment, and the colours and sights of life in this city are simply incredible.

Walking out of our guest house late evening on our first night here, we were in absolute awe of what we saw, heard and smelled around us; 8pm, and this city is just getting started.

The streets are alive and teaming; the people and traffic, sounds, smells, and foods overwhelmed us, but excited us more than we could’ve possibly imagined.
Shops, street foods, hole-in-the-wall eateries, countless chai vendors who pull chai from silver cups into tiny take away canisters, people buying and selling, working and sleeping, eating and socializing, and simply just being – it’s madness and it’s incredible.

Children play, bare footed, in and amongst construction sites, held together with bamboo poles and fraying rope. People sleep in old wooden carts, on side walks, on pieces of tarp on the dirty ground and on the road side. It’s sometimes confronting, and a lot for our western minds to comprehend.

Traffic whirls and whizzes around us in a constant stream; by now – thanks to Sri Lanka – we are used to crazy driving and non-stop horn honking – but this city takes chaotic traffic to a new level that we couldn’t have anticipated to this extent.

Samosas, fried rices, tandoori ovens cooking chicken and naan, and a myriad other fried goods are readily available; people are everywhere cooking and eating all these fascinating-looking (and no doubt tasting) foods that we’ve never seen or experienced. People cook with woks at the front of tiny eateries, sending rice and oil flying high into the air with every toss, and turning fried goods in bright red batter over and over in boiling oil.
Women braid tiny flowers into beautiful little flower garlands and a speed that makes it impossible to see how their fingers work.
Men sit at ancient-looking Singer sewing machines on the side walk in the open air; their feet moving up and down as they sew tailor made clothing items with precision and speed.
Textile shops are lit up with flashing lights, and the brightly coloured pashmina scarves hanging from hooks at the shop fronts are inviting.
A shop selling elaborately decorated and beautifully made traditional Indian hats is fascinating to look in.
Little shop fronts sell the most random of goods individually (not as a whole pack) and wrap them in newspaper for your convenience. It made buying a single mosquito coil for our room too easy.
Men gather for conversation in the middle of walk ways.
Cows stand lazily within the main stream of traffic.

It’s wonderful, fast-moving madness.

Shoes off at the door, we wandered in to the show room of a sitar and musical instrument shop where beautiful wooden traditional instruments and drums in all different shapes, colours and sizes lined the marble floors. For a few moments, it was quiet.

Back on the street, a tiny open space between two buildings is being well used as an ironing business – a frail elderly man maneuvers a massive antique iron – fuelled with hot coals – over layers of colourful cloths.

Restaurants and eateries are in full swing – people are everywhere eating and eating and eating! Chai vendors are everywhere and they all seem to have their own ways and recipies for the best cup of delicious, delicious chai.

People smile at us and it seems people are happy to help if they can; our first impression of Indian people has been really positive.

Upholsters are sewing with big needles out in the open streets, people are drilling and working on construction sites, bare footed locals walk over rubbish and rubble and cracked pavements and waste – and other foreign things I dare not think about – people are weaving and working and sleeping and driving and shopping; it’s non-stop and it’s a very new and different world.

Just a few minutes of walking along the streets was exciting and exhausting; the concentration levels required to focus on and remain uninjured are high. Avoiding being hit by the continuous stream of traffic that comes at you from every angle, often undercutting you on the frequently non-existent footpaths is the number one focus, and whilst doing so, you need to watch every step to ensure you dodge any cracks, holes, dips, rubble, waste, rubbish, gooey matter, foreign objects, dogs, sleeping bodies and many other hazards. The constant crowds of people and traffic mean limited space; moving through a sea of colourful saris and foreign faces with paint-smeared foreheads very quickly becomes normal.

This place is intoxicating, our senses are feeding off the new and the different. Everything is exciting right now, and we’re now a little more prepared for what the next three months here might offer us. We know it might not always be so wonderful and exciting, but for now, it’s safe to say that our short-lived experience of ‘every day life’ here left us excited, overwhelmed, a little shocked, entertained, hungry, disorientated, and above all, in love – already – with incredible India.

And, once all of this chaos, madness and utter exhilarating excitement was enough and our first evening in this country drew to a close, it was only when I saw a small, naked child pooing in the busy main street that I finally thought to myself “…yes, we’ve done it. We’re finally, actually, really, truly here. Welcome to India.”

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Sri Lanka: Big Smiles, Honking Horns and Curry!

My first impressions of Sri Lanka?
I’d have to say the big, big smiles.

Big smiles with red-stained teeth, covering the faces of the gorgeous people here. The women in bright, bold patterned outfits, and the men in their traditional skirts. Bicycles – lots of bicycles: sharing the road with trishaws and cars, buses and tractors, chickens, cows, dogs, goats, cats, people, motorbikes and more. The roads are filled with the obligatory Asian hectic traffic, which I seem to be able to best describe as “organised chaos.”
It’s busy here. And it’s hot: really hot – humid and sticky and wonderful.

We flew in to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early morning, and headed to our accommodation in the beach city of Negombo. Holding on to the handles as our trishaw turned and darted and weaved through the traffic, we had to smile. We’re here – we are finally in Sri Lanka!

A quiet street in Negombo

A quiet street in Negombo

We spent our first day in Negombo, where we walked into the town, through the bustling and lively (and fish smelling) fish market to the city centre. It was exciting, but intimidating. We didn’t see one other tourist, and people everywhere around us were openly staring and laughing at these two very white foreigners. People were leaning out of their passing trishaws to get a better look at us, and the eyes following us were something we are not used to.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

The hectic sprawl of Negombo city was bustling with life – so much colour and noise, people and traffic!
We spent a while wondering around Negombo looking for a bank that would accept our foreign cards – it took us 8 or 9 different banks before we found one that worked. Relief.
One thing is for sure – we now know that Sri Lanka has a large range of banks, should you wish to open an account.

We spent our first night in a little restaurant near our accommodation, enjoying Sri Lanka’s Lion Beer and traditional rice and curry. Sri Lankan curries are great fun – they come with all these little dishes in separate bowls, making for a real experience as you taste each one, trying to work out what it is.

Lion Beer and Vegetarian Curry

Lion Beer and Curry

On our second day, after sharing a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with another Melbournian couple (Em was adventurous and ordered banana pancakes) we prepared for a day of travel, as we made our way inland from Negombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city with sprawling ruins that was once Sri Lanka’s capital.

The bus rides there (two two-and-a-half hour rides) were a very new and, well, let’s say ‘different’ experience.
The first leg of the journey, Negombo to Kurunegala, was pretty standard – a dodgy looking bus that sped over the pot holes and unsealed roads at staggering speeds, dodging whatever was in it’s path. We took over the back seat of the bus so our big packs would fit – luggage storage doesn’t exist here on busses, apparently – and bounced our way into Kurunegala.

Kurunegala bus station is something else – something I can’t even put into words, although, I’ll try my best.
It is a station packed full of, surprise surprise, busses. But not just a few busses – lots, and lots, and then some more – all fighting for space and room to reverse and turn and move in. Horns honk constantly, as people mull everywhere. The smell of petrol fumes was overpowering, but the sights before us were just oh so wonderfully hectic! Finding a bathroom, first off, was an experience, as every person stared us up and down as we walked through the halls. Local touters and restaurant owners tried waving us down, “come lady, sir! Come madame, sit, sit, here, you come!”

To find our bus to Anuradhapura, a little man was kind enough to show us where to go. We waved his hand for us to follow, then marched us right on through and into the centre of the station, in front of and behind moving busses, through small gaps between vehicles, through groups of people and petrol fumes…
Then, when we managed to board the bus alive and take our seats on bus 57 to Anuradhapura, another little  man was kind enough to inform us “no A C.” (air conditioning)… Oh yes, the ride was about to get very interesting – and hot.

Before the bus started rolling, the “music of the station” as I decided to name it, began to ‘play’. As the bus engine hummed and shook, passenger after passenger kept boarding our bus. The humming engine and the footsteps of people provided the hum and pulse of the song. Constant honking of horns around us provided a beat. And the melody came from the many vendors who boarded our already jam packed bus, yelling out their sales pitches in the exact same tones over and over. Pop corn vendors, snack vendors, cold drink vendors, hot food vendors, fried food and short eat vendors… and then the picture book vendor and the gold jewelry vendor moved about, squishing through the bodies and touting their goods. What a sight and sound – we had to smile and laugh.

The following two and a half hours was a bum-numbingly, uncomfortably good time (We’re keeping things positive).
As we bumped and bounced and swayed in our tiny seats, every seat and space in the aisle of the bus was jam packed with passengers – I felt so sorry for the ticket fee collector who had to squeeze and shove his way through the crowd. Jam packed does not even begin to describe it: we were packed in so tightly, at times I wondered how any more people could actually fit in! People were leaning over me, on me, and around me. There is no such thing as personal space when it comes to travelling on a public bus, it would seem. If I didn’t have someone’s crotch rubbing on my shoulder, I had a stomach pressing against me, or someone standing on my feet, or staring at me from a few centimeters away, or breathing heavily on me… But still, it was all an experience – an uncomfortable at times but positive one – and we laughed and smiled our way through it; it was really a lot of fun.

And as the monsoon rain arrived and night closed in, and the bus driver continued to honk his horn and dodge and dive and weave, we looked forward to what we’d find in the ancient city we were about to arrive in: we could not be happier to be here in Sri Lanka.