Sri Lanka Part 1 – Colombo and Galle Fort

I owe myself an apology for not visiting Sri Lanka sooner. It is an amazingly fascinating place with deep, rich layers of history. Plus, Sri Lanka has all the travel keywords that I love: colonial buildings, fabulous food, a sweltering tropical climate, and a civil war that was both bloody and recent. Why did it take us so long to get here?

Colombo

On our first morning the three of us headed to the old colonial Colombo Fort Train Station. The British did love constricting a good railway, and the Queen left the colony of Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka) an invaluable legacy of 937 miles of rail, which is still in use today. The Colombo Fort Train Station did have a healthy amount of third-worldness, but we all agreed that it wasn’t 1/10th as distressing as our experience at Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. There was even a special ‘foreigners toilet’ that I was able to obtain a key for. This doesn’t instill confidence about the general admission toilet, but I’ll flash my American privilege card where I can….

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We were living large in Colombo!

Across the street from Colombo Fort Station is a shopping area called Pettah Market. Since it was a Saturday, the shops were absolutely teeming. Again, it wasn’t as outrageously crowded as India, but it was a sight. We spent a few hours pushing our way through the crowds of Arab gem traders, Sinhalese housewives, and jostling tuk-tuk drivers.

We visited a Dutch colonial house near the market that housed a fairly lame museum, and saw lots of fabulous British colonial buildings. By far my favorite building, though, was the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, colloquially called the ‘Red Mosque’. Built in 1909 by members of the Colombo’s large Muslim community, this is a visually unique mosque nestled right in the middle of the busy Pettah shopping area. We lingered hopefully at the entrance for a while, but unfortunately it didn’t seem like an option to go inside.

To end our day, we made our way to Mt. Lavinia Beach for the sunset. The sunset was lovely, but the company was a bit unsavory. For reasons I don’t understand lots of Sri Lankan’s have dreads, and a dreaded youngster in a Bob Marley T-shirt tried to sell us some pot. Dude, be a little less obvious, okay? And maybe don’t pick the three weeniest white people on the beach. Well, I guess we were the only white people on the beach but still, we’re not really great client prospects. We shooed him away and of course, 2 seconds later the cops showed up. I could just see our episode of ‘Locked-up Abroad’ unfolding. Cops, angry over failed set-up, take three American tourists into custody. I decided right then to sacrifice Matt if I had to… sorry Matt. Eventually the cops lost interest in sniffing around us and meandered away. That’s why you never do anything illegal abroad, kids.

Galle Fort

After getting our feet wet in Colombo, we took a 3-hour train ride down the coast to Galle Fort. The train ride was phenomenal – Jeff and I agree it’s the most scenic train ride we’ve ever done.

Galle was the site of Sri Lanka’s first Portuguese settlement in 1588, but the site’s history as a major trading port for cinnamon and other spices is ancient. Some scholars believe that Galle is referenced in the Bible as ‘Tarshish’, but the earliest confirmed reference to Galle appears on Ptolomy’s world map from 150 AD. It is obvious that Galle has had millennia of cultural cross-pollination, and to this day the town is a melting pot of Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, Persian, and Arabs (knowns as the Sri Lankan Moors).

Galle Fort is one of the most atmospheric places I’ve been and is a strong contender for my favorite place on the trip thus far. Sunset is the best part of day –  the the evening call to prayer resonates, hundreds of birds soar over the old city, and the sun dips into the Indian Ocean. The windy old streets are fabulous and a colorful mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial era architectures. The strong Muslim influence means the city is packed with mosques, Persian gem traders, and my favorite hallmark of Muslim cities – cats!!!!  So yeah, it’s pretty freaking magical and we all loved it.

After falling in love with Galle, we took the train further south to Mirissa beach. Get ready for another Asian festival…

India Part 4 – Misadventures in Coorg

I fully accept responsibility for our unfortunate stay in Coorg. It was a bad idea, and it was my idea. We had 5 days to fill after the wedding, and I wanted to avoid flying since our departure was from Bangalore. Sadly for us, there’s not much within driving distance of Bangalore, and after scouring the Internet I settled on the mountainous region of Coorg. People love Coorg!!!

I failed to give proper weight to the reality that that said lovers of Coorg like roughing it Bear Grylls style. Descriptors like ‘rugged’, ‘off the beaten path’, and ‘the real India’ should have been red flags, but I didn’t heed the warnings. Our delicate little threesome emphatically hates nature and roughing it (re: the Tumkur coffee drama of 2017). We each have our own special phobias (mice, birds, lack of internet) that ensured the long stay in Coorg would make all of us uniquely miserable.

The drive from Tumkur to Coorg was about 5 hours long, and involved winding through tiny town after tiny town. It was pretty interesting for the first two hours, and pretty car-sicky for the next three hours. When we finally arrived, we found that our home in Coorg was a rustic little cabin on an Indian hippy’s pepper plantation. The place would have been awesome if one were the type to like off-the-grid, ants-crawling-on-the-kitchen-counters hippy nature stuff…. but not for us. It was one large room with intermittent power, no Internet, and a serious bug problem. We spent the better part of two days with no electricity, and between the three of us we managed two warm showers over 5 days. It was rough.

Oh yeah, and my cousin Matt hurt his foot. One of the only things in Coorg is an elephant farm – which is a poorly planned tourist trap in which you pay a few hundred rupees to bathe domesticated elephants. From a monetization perspective, it would make sense to figure out a ‘normal’ way for paying customers to get to access this site. But this is India, so what happens is thousands of tourists a day trek across a shallow but very wide river to see the elephants. The river is very slick and very crowded, and on our return trip poor Matt lost his footing and twisted his foot. It looked horrible, and even writing about it makes my foot throb. This was our first full day in Coorg, so for the next 4 days Matt had to limp around the mountains with a walking stick (courtesy of our Indian hippy), adding exponentially to our self-pity spiral.

For a few days after Matt hurt his foot we were confined to our rugged prison. After two days in quarantine I sent the following text to my sister Hannah. It reads like a desperate Morse code sent from the Franklin expedition or something. Matt hurt his foot. Stop. We have no Internet. Stop. We think there is a mouse because a banana was open and no one remembers doing it. Stop.

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Our desperate messages to the outside world.

There was a highlight to Coorg, however, and that was chatting with our host Nachiappan and his friends in the evening. Nachi had spent about 5 years living in Bangalore as an artist, but he’d recently returned to his family’s coffee and pepper plantation to run the operation. Many of his friends ran similar plantations in the area, and had similar tales of moving back from the big city. We spent an evening chatting with these guys (and one gal) during their plantation-owner happy hour and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of this sub-culture in the mountains of Coorg. All of these guys were super well educated and engaged with the world, and it was fascinating get their perspective on Indian-linguistic politics, the mixed legacy of colonialism, and of course, Trump.

After 5 rough days in Coorg, we booked a car to Bangalore airport by way of Mysore Palace. Mysore Palace is a case study in how not to run a tourist site. The place was packed with Indian tourists, and the security guards were regrettably armed with whistles. At any infraction, a whistle was blown. Matt accidentally took a photo, and after bloodying our eardrums with his whistle the security guard demanded the camera. Jeff tried to resist on Matt’s behalf and it almost came to blows. The guard seemed to be giving some explanation that involved photos making things catch on fire. Apparently the only antidote to this is to grab unwitting tourist’s cameras and deleting the photos.

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One of the few photos we managed at Mysore Palace. Luckily nothing caught on fire… phew.

After 45 minutes of this hell, we ran back to our taxi and headed desperately to Bangalore airport. We staggered like refugees into the airport lounge in Bangalore. We were bug bitten, sweaty, and limping, but we had survived India.

We headed south to Colombo, Sri Lanka for the adventure to continue.

India Part 3 – an Indian Wedding!!!

When we were planning this part of the trip I asked my friend Bargavi if she’d be in India during May 2017. It turns out she was in India during May 2017, and for a cousin-in-law’s wedding no less. What good luck and timing I have had inviting myself (and crew) to other people’s events. After spending a pleasant three days in Bangalore we headed 2 hours east to the city of Tumkur for a wedding.

The wedding itself was an absolute delight. The stay in Tumkur…. not so delightful. Allow me to consider these as two distinct experiences.

The Wedding

Bargavi and her husband Shushruth traveled all the way from NYC for the wedding, and I’m still delighted at the serendipity of meeting up with them. As a member of the wedding party, Bargavi had to get very glammed up in amazing jewelry and clothing. She hated it, but I really loved it. Honestly I think that her discomfort was worth it since I enjoyed it so much.

The wedding was a two-day event: a reception the first day and the ceremony the second day. In many ways, the reception felt a lot like a western wedding. There was delicious food, frantic photographers, and the poor exhausted couple standing in a reception line as relatives-of-relatives jostled for a photo. Unlike a western reception, however, the Indian wedding involved phenomenally colorful outfits, a drone, a deranged flutist running around the hall, and EXTREMELY loud music. I can’t emphasize enough how loud this was – like, it felt like a CIA interrogation stress test. Matt, Jeff, and I have all confessed to having fever dreams starring the deranged flutist so I can’t image how the bride and groom fared.

The next day was the actual ceremony, and we had no idea what was going on. There was a whole lot of standing around in the morning, then the bride and groom were hustled into the wedding hall. The couple was ensconced on a tented platform, and sat facing each other holding a coconut for about 3 hours. Everyone in attendance pushed their way into the dangerously swaying platform, threw some rice on couple’s heads, and poured a few tablespoons of milk over the coconut. There were lots of other rituals (that we didn’t understand) but this seemed to be the crux of the ceremony.

Pretty much all attempts I made to understand what was happening were met by a casual hand-wave. Bargavi told me that Indian marriage ceremonies are so region and caste specific that most attendees don’t know what is happening. It was fascinating for us to see, but I’ve decided that I never want to get Indian married. It looks exhausting and confusing. Bargavi’s husband Shushruth has a theory that India’s low divorce rates are due to the stressfulness of the wedding ordeal. No one wants to do it twice. I think he might be on to something…

The Stay in Tumkur

I’ve stayed in a lot of sad hotels, but the Naveen Regency in Tumkur takes the cake. We had a reservation for two rooms, but about a week before our stay the hotel informed us that they didn’t have two rooms available. They did, however, have a suite available with multiple rooms and sleeping accommodations for 3 adults. Fine, this all seemed very reasonable.

We arrived at the hotel, only to find that ‘multiple rooms’ means one small room and ‘sleeping accommodations for 3 adults’ means one double bed… Uh, how does this work for 3 people? Are we going to cuddle up like Alvin, Simon, and Theodore on one tiny bed? Of course, the hotel staff was entirely nonplussed by the situation. After much pantomiming and gesticulation, we conveyed that one bed wasn’t going to cut it and they dragged in a fetid mattress, for more money of course. Poor Matt took it like a champ, but it was grim.

Because this hotel was in the middle of nowhere and extremely inconvenient to any eating establishment, they served no breakfast. You may know that I appreciate my ‘moments’, by which I mean 30 minutes of coffee and NY Times first thing in the morning. Without this, I am not human and frankly I don’t think it’s asking too much. The first morning at Naveen Regency I called the front desk to see if I could get coffee (because there was not a kettle in the room, of course).

  1. They told me to call ‘014’ on my phone.
  2. I called ‘014’ on my phone.
  3. The person who answered told me to call ‘014’ on my phone.
  4. Steps 2 and 3 repeated until I teared up.

After about 5 minutes of this self-referential hell spiral, someone finally agreed to bring me coffee.

At every turn the staff of the Naveen Regency seemed to willfully misunderstand me and make things hard. I tried to arrange a taxi to the region of Coorg, the hotel arranged a tuk-tuk to a small regional courthouse – which definitely seems like a place a foreign tourist would want to go on a Sunday.  It was absolutely maddening, and didn’t leave a good impression of our non-wedding time in Tumkur.

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Here we are leaving Tumkur. I’m delighted!!!

After wrapping up our time in Tumkur, we drove into the mountains for an ill-conceived nature adventure in Coorg…

India Part 2 – Bangalore and a Brush with the Hari Krishnas

After a thoroughly pleasant time in Mumbai, Matt, Jeff, and I caught a flight south to Bangalore. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore does vaguely remind me of San Francisco. Not too long ago, Bangalore was a medium sized regional city, but in the past 10-15 years the IT industry has boomed and the city has expanded beyond its intended capacity. As a result, the city is clogged with traffic and people. Long time residents we spoke with complained that the building boom has made the city hot, crowded, and unlivable. Hum, this is a familiar story to us.

Despite the lack of traditional ‘tourist stuff’ to do in Bangalore, we had a great time. Our first day we spent an afternoon wandering around the Gandhi Bazar area, and I went nuts in the kitchen goods stores. I got a super sweet high-end tiffin with sealing gaskets between layers and an insulated carrier. I can’t wait to use it. We also spent some time at the ‘Bull Temple’ and Cubbon Park.

Because Bangalore isn’t a big tourist attraction, we got a lot of attention. People made a stink everywhere we went, fawning over us and snapping photos. It felt like we were the Royals being chased around by paparazzi. No one actually asked for an autograph, but I think they wanted to. I have never experienced such a thing in all of our travels, and it took some getting used to. Matt liked the ‘selfie-mobs’, and I’m a little worried that the attention is going to go his head.

Braving the horrendous traffic, one evening we trekked to the ISKCON temple on the outskirts Bangalore. Built in 1998, this is a gigantic, gaudy, Disney-esque spectacle to behold. I didn’t read Trip Advisor very closely so I just assumed this was just a normal Hindu temple, but when we arrived I was jarred to find whiffs of cultishness. My suspicions were increased when the auntie at the ticket booth pushed hard to up-sell us more expensive tickets (‘just an extra 500 rupees will buy you more prayers to lord Krishna’). Hmmmmm. After a Google search, I realized that ISKCON stands for the ‘International Society for Krishna Consciousness’, otherwise known as the Hari Krishnas. Loosely based on Hindu cannon, the Hari Krishna movement was founded in 1966. It has ensnared artists and celebrities such as George Harrison and Allen Ginsberg, and is considered by many to be a cult.

After handing over some rupees and going through a remarkably convoluted dressing procedure, we climbed the many stairs of the temple. When we reached the highest level, we saw that people were gathering for the evening prayer. Since we’re white, we got funneled into a holding pen right at the front- nice. On the alter stood 3 priests, each in fanning an elaborate effigy of lord Krishna, Rama, and some other god I couldn’t identify. The ritual culminated in them blowing a conch shell and sprinkling us with water. I have to admit that it was pretty moving and spectacular. Cults are good like that.

After the main show a young monk tried to indoctrinate us and ‘sign us up’ for a donating a certain number of meals. Matt almost got suckered in since the monk was cute but we escaped only 200 rupees poorer.

After escaping our brush with the Hari Krishnas, we needed some food and headed to a lovely place called Samaroh. We didn’t realize how fancy Samaroh would be, and we stumbled in very sweaty and very bedraggled (as per usual). Samaroh offers a set dinner menu of vegetarian dishes centered around a theme. Since we were in Bangalore during mango season, the theme was mangos. It was excellent – definitely one the best meals we had in India!!! After our meal the manager came out and was fascinated to see three sweaty white people at her restaurant. She asked to make a video of us talking about our meal. I really hope that the video was for internal use only since we looked appalling.

After 3 nights in Bangalore we took a taxi north and east to the city of Tumkur for our next adventure – our first ever Indian wedding!

India Part 1 – Mumbai

And now we have arrived to the Indian portion of the adventure. I have to be honest, Jeff and I were dreading this part of the trip. The heat, the chaos, the crush of humanity – India is an intimidating place. Long-time travelers love to regale you with their stories of the place that broke them, and I feel like for many travelers India is that place. With this context in the back of our minds we landed in Mumbai ready to have our spirits broken. My cousin Matt was meeting us for this leg of the journey, so at least we’d get to take him down with us.

India started out on a good note, however, and we were lucky enough to stay with the phenomenal family of my friend Jahnvi (remember her from WA?). The Purwars live in Thane, a ‘small’ city of 1.8 million just outside of Mumbai. Thane turned out to be a wonderful ‘baby-step’ gateway for visiting Mumbai and staying with the Purwars was an absolute treat. Mr. Purwar is a master chai walla, and Mrs. Purwar showed me how to make aloo parathas. Could we ask for more?

After settling in to our new home in Thane we ventured the 30 km south to Mumbai proper. I expected to be accosted by homeless beggar children with no arms at every corner, but to be honest the city felt quite middle class and – dare I way it – tame. We had a lovely time exploring the colonial area of Colaba, and the colonial British buildings were fantastic.

Walking around Colaba, I was surprised at the strong presence and visible reminders left from the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Security at tourist sites and malls is high, and armed guards are stationed at every building of significance. The Purwars took us to an art exhibit at the Taj Hotel, and it was chilling to see in person the corridors, staircases, and windows I saw as grainy images on CNN during the terrorist rampage. One morning we went to the Leopold Café for brekky, and I turned around to see that the window directly behind still had bullet holes from the attack. The café has kept the damage as a memorial of the attacks, but it’s spooky to drink your tea directly in the spot where someone was shot.

In addition to exploring Colaba, we did a tour of Dharavi – the largest slum in the world – and Dhobi Ghat – the largest outdoor laundry in the world. Both were fascinating, but the slum tour in particular surprised me. We visited two areas of the slum, an industrial commercial section and a residential section. The industrial area was largely dedicated to recycling plastic, tin, and cardboard, and was filthy and horribly polluted as one would expect. The residential area, on the other had, was amazingly clean and well organized. The homes actually looked pretty comfortable, and I was surprised to learn that many slum dwellers hold legal rights to their homes. This was such a departure from my expectations of a Mumbai slum- I didn’t see a single armless child beggar.

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Jeff got a very cool photo of Dhobi Ghat – the outdoor laundry.

But lest you think our time in Mumbai was totally sanitized, I will leave you with a lowlight from our time in the city: our visit to Victoria Terminus Train Station, now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Victoria Terminus is a historic British colonial building and a UNESCO world heritage site. It also happens to be a shit show, exactly what you imagine when you conjure horror stories of India’s unwashed masses. The station is packed with people stretched out on every imaginable surface waiting for their trains, and the still hot air smells of sweat, poop, and stale food.

Seeing this juxtaposition of beauty and chaos would have been interesting save for the unfortunate fact that both Matt and I had to tinkle. A pox on our tiny Chandler bladders! Let me just say that I’ve used terrifying toilets before. I once used a floor toilet in Vietnam where live chickens pecked at my bum, so frankly I didn’t think that I could be shocked. The toilets in Victoria Terminus shocked me. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that there was an open-air poop trough (being very well used), a jumping rat in a garbage can (they can jump!), and an indecipherable social hierarchy of toilet stall usage. After 5 minutes of dumbly waiting, some nice aunty took pity on me and negotiated a toilet stall for me. I kind of wish she hadn’t since the toilet was terrifying. Matt also had an adventure in the gent’s toilet but I think I win this one… Here were our faces after the fact so you can judge.

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I’m scared and Matt is sad. Never again.

Train station toilets aside, we had a surprisingly lovely and easy first stop in India. I have to admit that my preconceived notions travel in India were mostly wrong.

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Our last dinner with the Purwars. We miss them!!!!

On our last evening with the Purwars, they treated us to a lovely South Maharashtran meal in Thane. After easing into the proverbial ‘hot tub’ of India, Matt, Jeff, and I ready for our next adventures – Bangalore and a south Indian wedding.