Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bas-es, Classes And Sunglasses

One of the many things I love about Sri Lanka, is that public transport is so cheap, you don’t really feel your budget has taken a hit on a travelling day. For example, a third class train ticket for a seven hour ride to Nuwara Eliya from Colombo costs 165 Rupees, 86 pence exactly. Sri Lankan buses can go one of two ways, they can be fun and humorous or they can push your patience to the very limits. On a good bus ride, or ‘bas’ as they call it, you could get a seat with just enough leg room, other times your knees will take a hammering the whole way, and that’s if you get a seat at all. Sometimes the Sri Lankan party/pop/fusion soundtrack will be at a reasonable level of volume and can be quite enjoyable, alternatively it could be at full blast to the point where the speakers, and your ear drums are ready to blow.

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You’re always guaranteed some in-bus entertainment with the hawkers who board at the longer stops. In a few hectic minutes you can get geography teachers selling maps of Sri Lanka, lottery ticket salesmen, magicians doing cheap card tricks and what I call the ‘soowoddy’ men who sell deep fried snacks and shout ‘soowoddy-woddy!’ One thing you can be sure of is that the driver will never drive safely and there will always be some kind of drama…

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Our bus stopped and let everyone off, just to look at this

In between travelling around, we’ve spent time partaking in some volunteering, yes working for nowt! Mi Ella is a small village situated in the Matara district, and is predominantly a Muslim area. At the small school we have been teaching English to Children from the ages of 5 to 10 and also tutoring young adults.

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Our ABC wall

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Playing on our hammock

Not many Westerners make it out to this part of Sri Lanka, so every time I took a walk through the village, I felt like a celebrity. Everybody wanted to shake my hand, ask my name, chat and I was once even asked to autograph a woman’s breast. We were invited into a few families’ homes for tea and biscuits on numerous occasions, it’s Sri Lankan ritual to have foreign guests at Sinhala new year time and is believed to bring good luck. Even though they couldn’t speak a word of English, they seemed quite content just taking photos of us eat. One villager let me shoot his riffle, but not before the entire family were invited over to enjoy the show…

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Back at the school, I was surprised at how rewarding it felt teaching, the kids were eager to learn and I was gaining something from the experience as well. In fact, I learned more from a ten year old boy than I did from some of the so called ‘top dogs’ in my previous line of employment…

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Our Flags of the world wall

When I was teaching a 23 year old man, one of the sentences in his text book mentioned The Beatles. He pointed at the word and said ‘What is this?’ I could not believe that he had never heard of the Beatles, considering a Sinhala mash up version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a favorite on the local busses. So it goes to show Maccas, you haven’t conquered the world just yet…

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Firdouse and Family

Whilst waiting for our Indian visas to be processed, we stayed in Hikkaduwa on the South Coast. Hikkaduwa is one of my favourite beaches of all time, a long stretch of golden palm lined sand has a constant haze on the horizon, making this beach the most idyllic and dreamy place to kill time reading, playing carrom, practicing some yoga and eating some pretty good food…

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The cactus playing carrom

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My favourite place in town, Ranjith’s beach hut

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Beach Dog

The fine chap at the consulate decided to pull his finger out and get our passports back the day before our flight, bravo! After numerous trips to Hambantota I was glad to see the back of the place, even though we were now on first name terms with all the tuk tuk drivers at the bus station. This visit to Sri Lanka was only meant as a stepping stone to India, but its fine beaches, fine food, fine people, fine bus journeys, fine head wobblers and fine tuk tuk drivers who always say ‘OK, come’ have reminded me just how beautiful this country really is. Now, the promised land of India awaits!

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Like a stilt fisherman

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Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Indian Bureaucracy And Derby Day

If you’re Sri Lankan, you will have almost as many days off work as a regular on Jeremy Kyle. Public holidays are plentiful, which can sometimes make certain things, such as applying for visas, a nightmare. This particular holiday is Sinhalese New year, when in Sinhalese astrology the Sun moves from the house of Pisces to the house of Aries, marking the end of the harvest season.

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It just so happens that this New Year fell on a very important day for myself, derby day between Newcastle and Sunderland. Football following over here is pretty much non existent due to the popularity of cricket. The faces of cricket players are everywhere, Kumar Sangakara seems to be like the Sri Lankan David Beckham, advertising everything, including suits, mobile phones, designer jockstraps and curry powder.

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Beach Cricket

So in order to watch the derby I had to make it to one of the most touristy resorts in Sri Lanka. A long, sleepless, moquito ridden overnight train from Trinco got us to Colombo Fort station at 4am. Just in time to catch the first train to Galle. Sinhalese New Year is all about families and rituals, hence Galle resembled a Ghost town. We eventually made it to a popular resort town down the road with a name that sounds like one of the songs from the Lion King, Unawatuna…

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In the words of Desmond Tutu’s chiropodist, De-feet is not so bad.

I’d watched live football the last time I was in Unawatuna so knew where to look. The bar was closed as it’s a Sunday. But now happens to be owned by a fellow Geordie who opened up just for me and the local Newcastle supporting community…all two of them. Beer, cottage pie, huge TV and a bunch of lads all with one thing in common, a burning hatred for 5under1and football club. However, you win some, you lose some, and the whole journey didn’t end with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…

In order to make it to Hambantota, the following day to apply for our Indian visas, we had to get up at 3am to avoid the aftermath of the holiday weekend traffic, the things you do to watch a game of football. Everywhere was still either closed, really busy or not running to scedule and anybody you asked why just replied ‘Happy New Year!’

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Not a great idea making the 0 permanent

Hambantota is, to put it simply, a bland Sri Lankan fishing town. I was amazed to learn that the town put in a bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth games, you’ve got more chance of Jarrow hosting the 2020 olympics…

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The main square of Hambantota ‘Commonwealth City’

I had purposefully checked all the Sri Lankan public holidays to be sure we would recieve our passports back in time. We arrived at the consulate early and were made to wait till exactly 9.30 to hand in the paperwork, even though we were the only people there. The security guard ran outside and told me to delete all the photos I’d taken while waiting, I guess they thought I could have been a Pakistani spy. After going through a lengthy security check and told to leave everything but our documents, we were finally allowed to literally step over a white line into the reception area. The visa officer came out with a stinking attitude quizzing us about why we were not applying in the U.K. He was probably annoyed with the fact that he actually had to do some work, and obviously us paying one hundred pounds each is not enough to justify him making a few calls to England. He told us he would not issue the six month visas we wanted, only three month short term visas, as we’re not applying in our home country. Also one day this week is an Indian public holiday, which I failed to check. Seen as it somehow takes a dozen Indians a week to glue a sticker into a passport, we will now receive them back a day later than expected. Whether we can make it to the airport in time for our flight that same afternoon, only time will tell. And that pretty much sums up the worst derby weekend of my life… Happy (Sinhalese) New Year!

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Not happy..the guard didn’t know the difference between ‘save’ and ‘delete’

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Go East

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On my previous visits to Lanka, the East was ravaged by civil war and monsoon seasons. This time I was determined to make it to the untouched coast. Arugam Bay is ranked as one of the top ten surfing destinations in the world, although those who’ve surfed the waves of Indo and Hawaii may beg to differ. A-Bay was devastated by the boxing day tsunami of 2004 but thankfully has got itself back on its feet.

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The bay has a nice mellow vibe and we didn’t get up to much. Our highlight been a delicious curry cooked up by one of the local bogus Rastas. After making the huge meal he proceeded to sit behind me in a hammock, light up a joint and kick the back of my chair whilst churning out all his one lined philosophies about war, corrupt politicians, media poison, and how when you cut us all open, we all bleed the same colour, or something like that. He then admitted that he was too stoned to figure out the bill and kindly asked his son-in-law to help him out before disappearing into a cloud of smoke…

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A long bus ride up the coast took us to Trincomalee, or Trinco for short. Trinco is in the North East, so I suppose that the locals here are like the Geordies of Sri Lanka. That is where the similarities end though, as there’s no stottie cakes or whippets here, just a lot of Kothu shops, some quiet beaches and cows everywhere…

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Batticaloa bus station

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Kothu Roti

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Trinco is known for its fine natural harbour which has made it prone to all kinds of attacks during the years. During WWII, there were many British seaman situated in Trinco, many of whom were killed during a Japanese air raid on the harbour that sunk a dozen vessels. Almost 200 British men are laid to rest in the beautifully kept commonwealth cemetery.

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Fort Frederick was built by the Portuguese some time ago and a stroll through the compound leads to Swami Rock and the Koneswaram Kovil. The temple is one of the most important Hindu sites in Sri Lanka and houses the lingam, the Hindu phallic symbol, which actually looks more like R2-D2 on acid than an oversized penis…

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A Hindu Tommy the Trumpeter

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“Excuse me sir, but that R2-D2 is in prime condition, a real bargain”

Categories: Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

This Is Little England

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We arrived at Colombo International airport after dark where a hoard of hungry rickshaw drivers awaited us outside the terminal. I started an auction to see who would take us to the city for the best price. A bidding war commenced, the winner was a driver with the most wobbley head I’d seen in a long time. We were, without a shadow of a doubt, in Sri Lanka.

Now over the last six months, I’ve stayed in some pretty rough hotels and guesthouses, but you know you’re not onto the a good thing when the guy showing you the room comes out with this, “A few things you need to know, keep the doors closed, keep the windows closed and what ever you do, never open that window over there, because if the rats get in, we have a problem.” After a sleepless night I didn’t quite understand what he meant, there was never a chance of the rats getting in, as this place was so dirty even the rats turned their noses up at it…

I’ve passed through Colombo a few times before without having any desire to look around this sprawling city, and I still don’t, hence we headed straight up to the hill country. It’s difficult to get a seat on third class Sri Lankan train, time to use my imagination…

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The scenic seven hour train ride to Nuwara Eliya makes its way through some lovely vallys, pretty waterfalls and many small Sri Lankan villages, including Alawwa, the town where the phrase ‘Alawwa the shop’ was coined…

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It’s a long journey for some

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Like a Sri Lankan Stand By Me

Nuwara Eliya is one of Sri Lanka’s highest towns, and the climate is a lot cooler than the rest of the country, perfect. The town itself has generated the nickname ‘Little England’ for its resemblance to my motherland. I don’t mean the urban decaying, 80’s council estate England with an alarmingly high rate of knife crime, I mean the pleasant, countryside England where you’re likely to find Toad of Toad Hall…

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The post office is oh so very English

We took a walk to ‘Lovers Leap’, a waterfall that, legend has it, was the location where a couple of star crossed lovers leaped to their fate. What I think really happened is this, after a long sweaty trek up the hill, the lad had enough of the lass’ moaning over the mild heat so threw her over the edge, only to slip and fall down after her, a situation I could totally relate to by the time we’d reached the top of the waterfall…

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After only a few weeks I was reunited with my good friend, the Lionel Richtea plantations. Ceylon is one of the world’s leading suppliers of tea. The most famous company being Dilmah, whose name you will find in the small print of a Tetley tea bag. Walking through the plantations for me, was absolutely stunning, every tea plucking lady we passed give us a huge smile, a cheeky head wobble, and seemed thrilled just to hear us say ‘hello’, to which they normally reply with ‘is it tea you’re looking for?’

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We’ve originally made this detour to Sri Lanka, a country I’ve become ever so familiar with, just to fix up our Indian visas. In the short time I’ve been back, I’ve remembered all the other things I love about Sri Lanka, looks like I’ve found what I’ve been looking for. Welcome back to the Subcontinent.

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The Rest Of The Peninsular

Penang or ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ served as a major trading hub between the East and the West. Its capital Georgetown doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, with a mishmash of Hindu/Chinese temples, British Churches and Arabian Mosques. Today Penang is a major hub for the young gap year travellers heading off into Thailand to party hard and get robbed. On our first night in Penang, we were approached by a lost young chap who was obviously tripping something rotten and looking a little worse for wear. We attempted to help him pull himself together for a moment but this was all in vain, he just kept blurting out singular words such as ‘Army, port, butterworth’. Unless this lad had eaten a full packet of Rowntrees Randoms, I suspect he’d been listening to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds…

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Sri Mahamariamman temple in Penang’s ‘Little India’

Driving a motorbike on the highways of Penang wasn’t as fun as driving on deserted coastal roads elsewhere, but served its purpose and got us to the snake temple. The temple was built in circa 1850 in memory of Buddhist monk Chor Soo Kong, a spiritual healer who was believed to have given shelter to the snakes in the jungles. Snakes started appearing at the temple shortly after its completion and the burning incense inside is said to render the vipers harmless. The doped up vipers can be found literally hanging around on most of the murals, picture frames and shrines inside the temple…

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Melaka was founded by Hindu prince Paremeswara from Sumatra in the 14th century. Since then it was involved in a massive game of pass the parcel and has been in the hands of the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British. The splendid town is mainly crowded with domestic tourists, but it was a nice to spend a few days trying out the amazing food. Pak Putra Pakistani restaurant, cook their meat in the tandoor oven on the street and served up the best meals I’d had in Malaysia, albeit with typical Asian service…

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From the Tandoor

The first time I came to Singapore I was impressed with its organisation and cleanliness, I thought it was like the city from Demolition man! Fast forward six years and the city seems to have lost its futuristic charm, shame.
The Raffles hotel is the oldest lodgings in the city, the old school courtyards resemble that of a English country garden. I’m surprised they let me in sporting a filthy pair of tea stained shorts and the t-shirt I bought from a porter at Dumeguete pier, but they did. The bar inside is where the world famous Singapore Sling was created by Hainanese bartender, and for £16 only, you can try one all to yourself!

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We took a long walk through the city, through yet another Little India, into yet another Sri Mahamariamman temple and eventually back to marina bay for some token skyline photos. The Helix Bridge next Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort is considered an engineering masterpiece and was designed to represent a DNA double helix.

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A Hindu wearing traditional ceromonial clothes inside the temple

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Marina Bay – The Helix, Marina Sands and the Science Museum

Not only was our day in Singapore Good Friday, it was also my birthday! So we decided to celebrate it by going to the world’s largest aquarium on Sentosa island, bad idea. On this day, it was more like the world’s largest queue, with a giant fish bowl attached. First you had to queue for a ticket, then get in another queue to enter the building, then queue again to get into the aquarium, it took a total of two hours to get in but the waiting time had doubled by mid afternoon, ridiculous! It seems queuing is one of the only British traditions that is yet to die out in Singapore. Inside the aquarium can be described as a riot of exited children. We spent less than an hour in the crèche, I mean aquarium, as I thought my head might explode. I thought the aquarium was ok, but not a touch on scuba diving and being up close to the marine life. So another valuable lesson learned from visiting a major tourist attraction on a public holiday, don’t do it…

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Believe it of not it was this man’s 28th birthday when he joined the queue

There was one thing that put a smile on my little birthday face though, after seeing a record amount of Manchester United shirts on the Malay peninsular, it was nice to see at least one person had the right idea!

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Categories: Malaysia, Singapore | Tags: , , | 2 Comments