Sri Lanka

Notes From A Sacred Island

When Marco Polo first set foot on Sri Lanka in the 12th century, he described it as “the finest island of its size in the world” and was amazed, he wasn’t the only one. Gobsmacked by its stunning landscape and wildlife but won over by its many spices, it was then, during his first expedition, that he coined the term “Anello pungiglione” or “ring sting” in English. Shaped like a jewel, the pearl of the Indian Ocean was known as Ceylon until after independence in 1972 when it was reborn as Sri Lanka, a name derived from two ancient Sanskrit words whereby Lanka means ‘an island’ and Sri is the word for sacred, sacred island. There are many other things to know about Sri Lanka that Marco failed to mention in his worldwide book of toilet habits…

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The Lion Flag – the lion represents Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnicity while the four bo leaves in each corner represent four mental states of Buddhism

There’s a couple of very simple misconceptions that some of my narrow minded countrymen should know about Sri Lanka, it’s not a ‘Paki’ country AND it’s not full of rag heads aka Muslims. Although just under 10% of Sri Lankans do in fact follow Islam, this is a predominantly Buddhist nation. Buddhism was introduced here in the 3rd century BC, a sapling of the Bodhi tree was brought over from India and the foundations for the ancient kingdoms of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura were laid. They never looked back and today Buddhists make up 75% of Sri Lanka’s population.

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Giant Buddha statue at Seenaghama

Sri Lanka has two main ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, but what are the differences? There’s the obvious ones – shades of brown. Tamils are black and Sinhalese are less black, typically. The Hindu Tamils wear chalk on their heads and have moustaches whereas the Sinhalese are Buddhists. Writer Shehan Karunatilika claims that stereotypically Sinhalese are lazy, gullible bullies and Tamils are shrewd, organised brown-nosers, but men from both races gobble rice and acquire large bellies at middle age.

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Moustached Tamil

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Lazy Sinhalese

Sri Lanka is multilingual, the two official languages being Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhala script looks like lots of circles and squiggles and has a character that reminds me of a knuckle duster. Tamil script is more like how a three year old would write the alphabet. To the ear, Sinhala sounds a lot like Geordie, whereas Tamil like normal English if you listen carefully enough, watch this video as proof, courtesy of Tamil singer Prabhu Deva.

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Geordie sign

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Top – Sinhala, Bottom – Tamil

Sri Lanka Matha is the national anthem of Sri Lanka, and sounds suspiciously like Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, which might explain why the Beatle’s hit is always played on the public busses here, oh well, life goes on, bra.

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The Emblem of Sri Lanka featuring the Dharmacakra, symbolising the country’s foremost place for Buddhism

Sri Lanka’s president is Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was compared to an ancient Sinhala king after he managed to wipeout the Tamil Tigers in 2009, and has his supporters. But like most other Asian leaders, tales of murder and corruption are rife. A commonwealth summit is taking place right now in Sri Lanka where David Cameron is questioning the government’s human rights record, largely due to the fact that 40,000 civilians we’re killed in the run up to the end of the civil war. Rajapaksa has a ruthless streak and a capacity to overlook the use of violence for political gain. Media freedom has been restricted during his reign and journalists who have spoken out against the regime have ‘disappeared’. Sri Lanka is arguably a family dynasty with all of Rajapaksa’s siblings and other relitives now holding a place in parliament, it’s said that the family alone control 85% of the country’s wealth. His excellency’s home district, Hambantota, now has a large cricket stadium and an airport named after him, is Mahinda Rajapaksa sliding towards dictatorship? Watch this space.

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MR had himself printed on the new 1000 Rupee note

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Lion – the lager of Sri Lanka and culprit of a few nasty hangovers

Sri Lankan food is amazing. Very different to Indian cuisine it uses a very rich blend of spices unique to the island. A favourite of mine is kottu, a roti stuffed with vegetables and spices, rolled up and diced into pieces, served with a spicy curry sauce. Business idea – set up a Sri Lankan kottu stall in Newcastle’s Bigg market, complete with a menu containing as many spelling mistakes as possible only to add to the authenticity…

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Curry and rice for two

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Carlike!?

There are plenty of other things I bet you didn’t know about Sri Lanka. What’s the capital? What’s the national sport? If you think both of these answers begin with a C, you’re wrong. The official national sport is volleyball and the the capital is not that 80’s crime solving detective, Colombo, it’s Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte. You learn something new everyday and what I’ve learned is Marco Polo was right, it really is the finest island of its size in many ways, cheers Marco!

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Cricket isn’t the official national sport but played by almost everyone, everywhere

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Although like the UK, fishing is the most popular sport

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Jingle All The Way

I’ve visited a lot of places in Sri Lanka and during my passages through the ancient cities, tea plantations and its beaches I’ve learned a lot about the country. After all the time I’ve spent navigating the isle from the back seat of an Ashok Leyland, there is one thing about Sri Lanka that has still remained a mystery to me. It’s not Sigiriya, nor the giant footprint at the summit of Adam’s peak, it’s the notorious Sri Lankan head wobble…

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A head wobble is most commonly associated with Indians and other South Asians, but in my opinion, it’s the Ceylonese that top the jingly league. What exactly is it? Is it a yes? Is it a no? Or is it neither? This can cause much bewilderment when you first arrive in Sri Lanka, here is a typical scenario…

Do you have Airtel recharge?

*head wobble*

Is that a yes?

*head wobble*

500 rupees worth please

*head wobble*

Thank you

*head wobble*

So in this case it seems the wobble can mean yes, ok and you’re welcome. But there’s more to it than just that. I eventually learned that a casual wiggle from side to side can be a way to acknowledge someone you know when passing on the street, a little more predominant one can be a gesture of kindness, for example, if someone lets you sit beside them on a train…

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Fancy a game of backgammon? *head wobble*

The more time I spend here, the more I seem to pick up on the jingly language. The wobble can basically be used as an affirmative, if I were talking at somebody their head would consistently move from side to side at a fair pace to confirm they are listening, in a similar way that us in the West would nod. A more rapid and vigorous head wobble begins when someone is receiving instructions as a way to say the person understands fully. So, the more dramatic the head wobbling, the more understanding there is. One time my tuk-tuk driver stopped to ask directions from a police officer, and I swear I thought the guy’s head was going to fall off.

The rhythm and movement of the wobbling can vary from person to person, some may have a smooth motion like a charmed cobra, whereas others could be more of an up left/up right bounce as if watching a fast paced game of tennis consisting solely of lobs.

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A wobble fisherman sticks his head underwater to attract fish

I observed that the dark skinned Tamils seemed to be noticeably more enthusiastic jinglys than the Sinhala folk. They rave their heads about whilst addressing you as if to say “You get me? If so, why aren’t you wobbling back!” Tamils are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the entire world, when they were devolved from a higher state of pure consciousness as Hindus believe, were the screws in their necks slightly loose? Or is this just a characteristic that spans back hundreds of generations, when actions spoke louder than words.

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Record breaking test wicket taker Muttiah Muralitharan is a Tamil. The secret behind his controversial delivery is that he actually uses his head wobbling in unison with his shoulder to amazingly generate extra revs on the ball

The wobble is highly contagious and soon enough I found myself wiggling along without even realising. So, after all this time have I finally deciphered this phenomenon? *head wobble*

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Dutch Courage On Derby Day

There comes a point in ones travelling life, when the actual travelling becomes tiresome. Packing your things, getting on X mode of transport for Y amount of hours, moaning about it and doing it all over again a week later to get to destination Z. I thought it was time to experiment with a different type of ‘travelling’, well this isn’t so much travelling, just living. That’s what has brought me back to Sri Lanka, so I can live here like a local, with the locals for Y amount of time and moan about it. Why Sri Lanka? It’s cheap, the food is great, it’s easy to get around, easy to get a visa unlike most of its Asian rivals, the beaches are beautiful and the Sinhala language is very simalar to Geordie. So back in the place I love with the one I love, and by that I mean an endless supply of Lion lager!

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The back garden

Just up the road from our modest beach house, well our acceptable four concrete walls with running water, is the town of Galle and the nearby Galle fort. Galle fort was built by the Portuguese in 1588 but was taken over by the Dutch from 1649. Galle itself is nothing more than a typical busy Sri Lankan town, but beyond the fort walls the clean and elegant streets look just like a hidden quarter of Amsterdam, minus the fishnet clad hookers and banana shows of course.

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Artist’s impression of the fort

Within the ramparts you can find a Dutch church, Dutch library, Dutch street names, Dutch hand grenade and plenty of colonial style hotels where you can prepare your own Dutch oven…

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Dutch reformed church

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Anthonis clock tower

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The British took over the fort in 1796, but all they left was this lousy postbox

Considered one of the finest examples of a European fort in Asia, the defensive walls were strong enough to withstand the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami when the surrounding settlements were totally submerged.

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Utrecht Bastian

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Meera mosque

Galle cricket stadium is situated with the fort to the South and the Indian ocean fringing both pavilion ends, making it one of the most picturesque grounds in the world. This is the pitch where Murali took his record breaking 800th wicket, straight arm or bent? Every yorker, googley and chinaman can be seen for free from the fort walls.

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The Galle fort ‘cliff jampaz’ as they are known, are a group of young daredevils who dive head first from the fort walls into waist deep water, obviously you have to pay them to do it. Click here to see a dive from Flag Rock bastion. Speaking of bizarre jobs, there is a guy who walks the entire length of our beach with a monkey and a python and charges unsuspecting Russian holiday makers a small fortune to pose for photos with them. I followed this guy for one hour and worked out he made about £10 per hour doing this, based on a 40 hour working week I calculated this amounts to almost £20,000 a year tax free – all for just walking up and down the beach with his pets.

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Dutch forts, stupid jobs and bastions to one side, the good thing about being a temporary expat is that you can drink in the British pub and watch live football, something that has been severely lacking in my backpacking life. It’s just a shame that Newcastle never fail to disappoint me wherever I manage to watch them after losing our second Tyne/Wear derby in a row…Ashley out!

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You’ll never find a Mackem in Sri Lanka!

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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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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”

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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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