Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

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Varanasi: Confronting India: 13 – 15.09.2013

Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.

We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.

We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s  sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.

Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.

Welcome to Varanasi.

I was so excited to be here.

We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.

The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand,  rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.

Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.

Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.

When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.

We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.

By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.

There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.

Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.

The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.

Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.

We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.

One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.

The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.

Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.

On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.

We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.

At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.

Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.

As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.

Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”

Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.

Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.

Ancestral India – 05.08.2013

As we rolled into Ooty in the early, early hours of the morning, we saw scenery like we had never before seen. As the sun began to rise, it revealed to us thousands of tiny, colourful houses dotted and lined throughout the greenest hills at bewildering heights, and closer to the road, shop vendors and tea stall holders began to turn the lights on in their shop fronts. The air was freezing, and when we stepped out onto Ooty’s wet ground just after 5:30am, hawkers selling beanies and scarves surrounded us.

We’d booked accommodation ahead of time at an old, Brittish building complex-turned-guesthouse/hostel.

We walked there as the sun was rising, through the cold air and mist, feeling the refreshing rain drops on our sun burned skin.
On arrival, we were shown to our dormitory my worst nightmare; a tiny space that resembled a prison cell with four metal beds, sinking mattresses, dirty wet  blankets, a dirt floor and tin roof ceiling, gaping holes in the walls and ceiling, a bin that had not been emptied in what I can only assume has been months, a strong smell of damp rot and several mosquitoes – bigger than I have ever seen. As for the bathroom, all I can say is what bathroom? There wasn’t one.

Seeing as it was already raining, and the temperatures here get well down into the very cold range, we thought, amongst some other contributing factors (see above), we might have to decline this room cell, and so were offered another cheapie room, which when they opened the door to reveal another sinking mattress, the smell of paint fumes almost knocked us down. Needless to say, we never removed the packs from our back and decided that we would find somewhere “alternative.”

Marching up the road in the rain, exhausted from little sleep, I imagined we looked like two turtles with heavy shells plodding silently along. The scenery was beautiful and the walk was really lovely; it was so nice to feel cold for just a little while. In town, we hoped a tout would pounce and be able to show us to a room – which they did – but it was another shit-box complete with wet carpet, a swarm of flies and a 60’s porn-star look-a-like manager who was, to say the least, a little off putting. Again, it was time to find an alternative.

Standing at a chai stall more than an hour later after we’d arrived in Ooty, we downed cup after cup of tea alongside a group of tiny smiling school boys, before moving on to find some where suitable. Finally, we let a tuk tuk driver take us to a place that was half decent and reasonably priced, where I spent a shamless half hour sitting under the hot water – my first hot water shower in what feels like forever.

Not that I’m complaining at all though; this place is beautiful and we had all the time in the world to just be here, seeing as we’d arrived here as the sun was rising.

The reason we’d come to Ooty was not only because it’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint little city, unlike other places in India, but also a personal one: Jake’s grandmother grew up and studied at a prestigious school in a small town called Lovedale, just 10km from Ooty city, and it was important we took the opportunity to visit.

We took a tuk tuk out to Lovedale and spent an hour and a half or so at the school. The staff there were unbelievable, they bought out huge hand-written record books that dated back to the 1800’s, and spent their time scouring the names of past students, trying to find Jake’s grandmother.
They were successful in finding her name, and were able to give insight into her history here at the school. We were greeted by the head of the school, deans and head-staff, and given a personal tour of the massive school grounds.
It was very special, and an experience no doubt Jake will hold dear to him forever.

Beautiful Building - 155 years old

Beautiful Building – 155 years old

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

A very special record

A very special record

 

We spent the next few hours exploring the town, which is set amongst hills and mist, colour and a sprawling main strip. We had another dodgy looking late-lunch at a local joint that tasted pretty decent, before heading back late afternoon to our hotel. In the evening we made a futile attempt to get some chai, but the FREEZING weather saw us quickly retreating back to our room.

Needless to say, today has been amazing and exhausting, and we look forward to tomorrow where we can more-fully appreciate this town with a fresh perspective and a good nights sleep behind us.

Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…

The Ancient Cities: Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa – with lots of monkeys.

“Hello! Where from?”

Travelling on from Anuradhapura to Mihintale, a sacred area 13km away, we prepared ourselves in the early morning for a massive climb to the top of the Mihintale hill – a sacred area associated with the first introductions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This place is a really big deal; particularly for a nation whose state religion is Buddhism.

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

1843 (and the rest!) steps up, 4 hours and way too many scary monkeys later, we’d done an exhaustive climb whilst our guide had given us an equally exhaustive history lesson.

Cute from a distance

Cute from a distance

Standing at the very top, after climbing bare-footed up tiny steps carved into sheer rock, we looked out over the mountain whilst trying not to be blown away by huge gusts of wind. This is a place that looks damn good from up high – it’s good to be the king.

The final climb to the top

The final climb to the top

It's good to be the king!

It’s good to be the king!

….

Moving on from Anuradhapura and Mihintale, we took the local bus to Polonnaruwa – another ancient UNESCO heritage city, 3 or so hours drive away.
Oddly enough this bus ride was rather event-free; besides a few horn happy moments and a few too many pot holes, it was rather empty (only a few people had to stand for the journey) and the driver maintained a reasonably safe speed most of the time.
We’ve been making a list of all the different vendors who make their way through the buses here in Sri Lanka – it’s amazing what people sell, and how they go about selling things on the bus. Need a lottery ticket to get you through the journey? What about some faux-gold jewelry? If so, you’re in luck!

Traveling in comfort and style

Arriving into Polonnaruwa, we could barely make it off the bus before a tuk tuk driver had taken our backpacks and stuffed them into the tiny storage space behind the seats. You quite often don’t seem to get a choice – it can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your mood.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town area, stumbling upon an impromptu fresh market where the locals all yelled “hello” or tried to shake our hands. One man would not let go – things got a bit weird.

“Hello! Where from?” is a saying we are now very used to. Even more so, the response that follows our chorus of “Australia” is getting very predictable. It goes a little something like this:

Locals: Hello! Where from?
Us: Australia
Locals: Australia!…. Ah! Ricky Ponting!/ Shane Warne!/ Gilchrist!/ Ah! Good cricket!/ Ah, cricket team very bad in moment!/ “……….” (insert something cricket related here).

We have to smile. Thank goodness Jacob has an interest in Australian cricket and can hold up a conversation – I just sit there like a stunned mullet, smiling and nodding. I’d hate to confess to them that I actually hate cricket and have no interest, nor any idea of what the hell they are talking about… Who is this Shane Warne person they speak of? I thought he was just some guy who liked getting married a lot, or some guy they just decided to make a musical about.
They say ignorance is bliss – I guess if I have the choice between cricket and bliss, I know which one I prefer.

Our guest house, Leesha Tourist Home, served home-made dinner for the guests, and we enjoyed an incredible feast of traditional Sri Lankan curries and rice. I’ve been on – am on – the hunt for the “best vegetarian Sri Lankan curry” and so far, this place wins hands down. We spent our first night feasting, drinking Sri Lankan Lion beer and chatting with fellow travelers; it’s a hard life, but we love it, and someone’s got to do it.

Feast!

Feast!

We spent our only full day in Polonnaruwa exploring the ancient ruins and historic sites, marveling at the archeological wonders that have remained for more than a thousand years.

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We walked through structures that had once belonged to royalty, our bare feet standing upon intricate stone carvings of elephants, horses, lions and bulls.

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

It was simply incredible.

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We wandered about the sites, through old monastery complexes, around dagobas and amongst sacred crematorium.

A snippet of a Monastic Complex - 'Monk Cells' in Polonnaruwa

A snippet of a Monastic Complex – ‘Monk Cells’ in Polonnaruwa

The old Monastic Hospital was incredibly interesting to see; a medicinal trough still stands in place in one of the ‘rooms’ of the hospital, and the Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum displays many ancient surgical and medical tools found there during excavations.

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

And if these ancient sites couldn’t get any more stunning; we literally had the areas to ourselves. Where are the tourists? I wonder what this place will be like in years to come…

Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Spectacular Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Our time in Polonnaruwa was brief, but incredible. We saw an enormous amount in a short space of time, and furthermore, we managed to scrape through without any monkey bites – winning! (No need as of yet to carry a “monkey stick!”)

Next we’re off to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital Kandy, leaving the ancient cities behind us – but probably not the monkeys – they seem to be everywhere.

Snippets of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our time in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, has been a brief but wonderful two days. We spent time exploring the ancient city on bike and by foot, and took in the spectacular sites of the enormous dagobas, temples, spiritual sites and ancient ruins.

Our slick wheels

Our slick wheels

Riding our bikes in the sweltering heat, we rode through the city centre – past people and animals, cars, buses, trucks and tractors. People were constantly smiling, waving and yelling “hello” as we passed them. The ride was often really peaceful: around rice fields and lotus ponds, through empty stretches of road and path, and past remnants of ancient monasterys and palaces. At other times, you could feel the breeze of the passing bus or truck as it honked and whizzed past, only centimeters away from our bikes.

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

We bought a ticket that allowed us entry into the historic areas, and spent time riding between each site on our maps.

Lankarama

Lankarama, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st Century BC

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st or 2nd Century centerpiece of monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery – a ruined 9th Century school for monks

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery – 8th Century guard stones

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Thuparama Dagoba - constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

Thuparama Dagoba – constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

The Royal Palace, Citadel - 12th Century

The Royal Palace, Citadel – 12th Century

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba – 3rd Century

Cycling through the 'Buddhist Railing'

Cycling through the ‘Buddhist Railing’

Vessagiriya - Remains of cave monastery complex  (4th and 5th Century)

Vessagiriya – Remains of cave monastery complex (4th and 5th Century)

Isurumumiya Vihara - Rock Temple

Isurumumiya Vihara – Rock Temple

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Sri Maha Bodhi - the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba - (140 BC)

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – (140 BC)

Our Top 10 Picks: Reasons to Travel

Hard to believe it’s already March – I thought Christmas was just last week…? At least, it sure felt that way!
12 months ago today, we arrived back in Australia after backpacking in S.E. Asia for just 6 short, but 6 incredible weeks. Ever since then we’ve been dreaming of, and talking about “our next big trip.” We’re obsessed; we love to travel. Why?… here are our Top 10 Picks for ‘Our Reasons for Travel:’

1. Culture! – We’re culture buffs, and we love to get in amongst the local culture, traditions and customs. We love learning about different cultures and the way of life for people in different countries. Asia is so exciting in this respect – there is so much to learn and discover, and to appreciate and admire when it comes to learning about and experiencing culture. We love to simply ‘people watch’ – it gives incredible insight into the day-to-day lives of people, and it teaches us something.

2. Food! – We are wanna-be Asian chefs; anyone who looks at the cookbooks in our bookshelf, the ‘Asian Food’ section in our pantry, or at Jake’s ever-growing herb garden, will quickly realise this. We LOVE Asian food – the herbs and spices, the sauces and aromas, the cooking methods, the foreign looking vegetables and other things we probably aren’t pronouncing correctly, but add to our dishes anyway…
We love to eat where the locals do, sample hawker foods, participate in cooking classes, and eat the local specialties. We’re food obsessed; we feel it’s a big part of experiencing a country’s culture and way of life, and it’s really important to us that we try (almost everything…) when given the opportunity.

3. New Perspectives! When we first travelled to Asia, both of us grossly underestimated how life-changing it would, and can be. But of course it’s not just in Asia – travel anywhere has the ability to give people a new perspective; ‘open your eyes’ so to speak. It isn’t until we experience situations, or witness events that alter us, and affect us in some way, that our perspective is changed; and usually, this is a really positive experience!

4. Learning Experiences! – How much have we learned from travelling? So much; and what we have learned is invaluable; it’s not stuff you can read in text books, or learn in lecture theatres. A lot of the time, it’s not things you can learn by being told by someone else. It’s the people you meet and the things you do yourself, experience yourself, witness yourself, and achieve yourself, that teach you. It’s those life experiences that you learn from, that hold you in good stead for the rest of your life.

5. New Experiences! – Cliche? Yes, but oh so true. How often in your life can you watch the sun rise over ancient temples, or eat heart stew and rice at a local’s house in Laos? It’s not that often I’ve been able to dance with the Khmers on the river banks of Phnom Penh, or that Jake has got to drink beer with his tuk-tuk driver and their extended family. We’ve seen down pours of rain that have caused Phnom Penh flood in a matter of minutes, and  ran through the streets of Bangkok with water up to our thighs. We’ve eaten street food that was incredible, and street food that made us sick. We’ve watched monk processions, and lit incense at memorials.
Whatever we’ve done, we’ve tried to make the most of it, appreciate it, and remember the experience for what it was.

6. Meeting New People and Making New Friends! – We are social people. We love meeting new people; be it new friends for the evening, the week, the month, or for life. We love talking with the locals, communicating (or trying to) with silly faces and exaggerated hand gestures. Bartering over the price of fruit at the wet markets, or chatting over a beer with our new” house mates” in our dorm rooms. People are so interesting, and the more you talk to them, the more you learn about them, yourself, and the world. We’re going travelling together, but we’re also going with many, many friends… we just haven’t met them yet!

7. Adventure! – We love a good thrill.  We (usually) don’t mind getting a bit lost in a maze of little alley ways and old town squares, as long as there are interesting people to watch, beautiful buildings to be seen, and interesting sights on display. Be it zip lining through the tree tops, or getting caught in the masses at a local bazar, we can’t wait for new and exciting adventures.

8. History and Architecture! – We love to learn about the history of the countries we are travelling in, and marvel at the architecture. When we learn more about the history of the place we are in, we feel we can better appreciate where it has come from and where it is now. Not only do we gain insight into the country, but also about its culture, food, way of life, it’s people, beliefs, and – about the architecture!

9. Challenges! – Travel challenges you; physically, emotionally and mentally. You are often pushed to your limits or put into uncomfortable, awkward or challenging situations. These can be character building and help you to grow as a person. In the past, being pushed to our limits travelling has had some incredible positives, and been the base for some amazing experiences! We like challenges! (Most of the time!)

10. Facing Fears! – There are things we’ve done while traveling that have scared us. And then we got through them. It all comes back to learning experiences, and facing your fears and coming out the other side, better than you were before. (You hope!) There are things about our upcoming trip that scare us, but maybe it’s because we’re frightened of the unknown. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be really rewarding, and that is exciting.

What are your reasons for travel?

Happy travels.