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Last week I went to Udappu. Udappu is a small Tamil fishing village on the arid coast of western Sri Lanka, a couple of hours north of Colombo. Off the main road, visitors to Sri Lanka don’t go there. Not even many locals know where it is, or have a reason to go there.

udappu -6But Udappu is a very special place. It has a large Tamil Hindu community, with a large temple. And once a year there is a very special festival. For a couple of weeks from the end of July to the beginning of August, 1000s of Hindu people descend on the otherwise small and sleepy town. Many camp on the beach. The festival centres around the Mahabharata epic. Each day the community comes together for parades, and story telling, and music, and special temple poojas. And it all culminates with a big evening of fire walking.

udappu-2Back in January, we had been a for a little road trip, exploring this part of the coast of Sri Lanka, stopping at windswept fishing villages, and driving along narrow sandy lanes. We went to Udappu – and there is nothing ‘touristy’ about it. Which is what makes this whole thing so special. It is such an important part of the community, of the families involved. Nothing about it is put on to make money, or attract tourists – it is just an important part of the life of this Tamil Hindu community. It is very hard to find much information about the details and the specifics of the festival online. We found out about it through a photographer friend.

I went late one afternoon last week. As we pulled into town I wondered if my information was correct. This town seemed as sleepy, as wind swept and as dusty as it had been in January. Wasn’t there supposed to be a big festival happening?udappu -5

We parked the car, and I decided to try and visit the temple. I left my shoes in the car, and spent the next 3 hours happily wandering through the temple and the village barefoot. I was welcomed into the temple, and encouraged to take photos. It soon became obvious that there was a group of men preparing for some event in the temple – maybe something was going to happen!

udappu -3The men were all dressed in white sarongs that had rich coloured borders. They took their shirts off as they entered. The women wore gem coloured saris with gold borders, lots of jewellery, and scented flowers in their hair. Everyone entering the temple applied kumkaman to their forehead, with parents and grandparents helping out children.

Suddenly the bell started ringing, and the atmosphere changed – there was an air of expectation. I went outside, and from nowhere people started streaming to gather in the temple grounds, or along the street. Many settled on the sand as the men I had just seen in the temple began reciting the Mahabharata epic. Everyone smiled, and made room for me, and we exchanged a few words or actions. I only made one baby cry with my camera!

udappu-8But many more were gathering on either side of the street. I joined them, wondering what was going to happen. The crowd built and built. People asked where I was from, many have families and friends who have migrated to Australia over the years. Suddenly music started, and some balloons appeared at the far end of the street – the crowd surged forward, and I found myself at the back with no polite way of getting through or being able to take photos. I’m not very good at asserting myself in these situations! A man nearby noticed my plight and asked if I wanted to take photos – and helped me work my way to the front of the crowd – and kneeling in front I was in a prime spot for some shots.udappu-1

I still don’t understand all of what I saw and with most people I asked there wasn’t enough common language to go into the details. But it was very special, and as the only foreigner there that night, I wasn’t in the way, I was welcomed – but I also knew this was not for show, and a very important event for those involved. There were men in horse costumes, and dancing purple men; a huge parade around the temple with a man in a trance and more drumming, with crowds chanting and following; more story telling.

udappu-10And then at some appointed signal, everyone entered the temple. I was swept in with the crowd. Everyone was reaching to apply kumkaman. Some people were following their own personal paths of devotion – kneeling, praying; others were with family and friends chatting as they went into the inner sanctum. The drums were playing, the oil lamps glowing. The temple was abuzz.

udappu-9I left with many goodbyes from the crowd, and invitations to return for the next day, the final day of the festival (which unfortunately I was not able to get to). But I was so grateful to have been involved, to have seen what I did. And to have been welcomed into the community. It is just another event in a string of serendipitous events that I have been caught up in recently – in the most part because of the generous and welcoming spirit of locals here in Sri Lanka. Thank you once again – and don’t worry, I’m not taking these opportunities for granted!udappu -7

 

 

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galle (1 of 10)Travelling by train is always an adventure! Even if it is just the slow train from Palavi Junction to Colombo!

This is a route that I’ve taken several times over the last few months, and it always starts the same way – with an apology from the ticket clerk because there is no 1st or 2nd class – only 3rd. Which is not a problem for me – but as I’m pretty much the only foreigner on these trips, I guess they expect that I would like to travel something other than 3rd class.

For 110 rupees (less than $1) I get at least 4 hours of entertainment, sitting on a bright orange, hard plastic seat in a carriage that has not been cleaned since the windows were left open during the last storm! It’s important to sit at a window that does open – this is the only cooling provided. It’s only about 120km but travel (by any means) always takes a long time in Sri Lanka – you really do learn to appreciate the journey rather than just thinking about the destination.

This is certainly no express train! With stops in every town along the way – and at least once each journey, because of the single track, the need to switch back to let trains going north through – it is very slow going!

The country side changes – from the lagoon views south of Palavi; to rivers and farming land; then as we get closer to Negombo and the airport, all the towns begin to merge into each other as we enter the sprawling metropolis of Colombo.

But it’s the people that are interesting to watch – and as the only white face aboard, I certainly know I am being watched too!

There is a large Muslim community in and around Puttalam where the train originates – there are always fully robed women with their children. The children are shy but interested – getting them to smile is a treat! Encouraging their mothers to smile is a small victory!

And then there are the other travellers – business men; families visiting each other; people with shopping or business to do in the bigger towns. I always seem to have more luggage than everyone else even though I’m only going to Colombo for a couple of days! As we near Negombo, the train fills up with school children – in pristine white uniforms and black shoes – and workers using the train for their daily commute. Some are ‘brave’ enough to sit next to me for a chat – always asking where I am from (Australia – ah! cricket!) and whether I like Sri Lanka.vardai-1

It is also interesting watching the various sellers and buskers/beggars make their way through the carriages. Peanuts, samosa, prawns, egg rolls, pineapple, vardai and water – all available in handy snack sizes. Blind people singing, people with physical disabilities begging, salesmen with toys and books – all trying to make their living day by day. For some reason on this train, all the doors connecting the carriages have been blocked and closed off – the only way to change carriages is to alight at a station and climb onto the next carriage – sometimes it can seem a long way between stations when the singing is particularly off tune!

It is never a very peaceful journey – with such old carriages and ricketty tracks, it is nearly impossible to read or doze. Once, the train was trying to make up time and we were all bouncing off the seats as we went over a bridge – I burst out laughing which brought out a few smiles from my fellow travellers.

The one thing I always find stressful about this trip – and I have to work out a way to manage it – is the arrival at the main Colombo station, Fort. As we arrive (always late) the platform is crowded with people waiting to board for the next destination. And the throngs begin pushing to get on as we are still trying to exit. I’ve been caught in many a tussle to and fro as the bottleneck quickly forms at the door . No matter how prepared I am for a quick exit, there seems to be no way to avoid it!

Once I make it through, slightly battered and bruised, and find my ticket to give to the clerk so I can exit the station, the next issue is to find a tuk tuk that will either use the meter, or charge me the standard price, not the inflated price! Ah, but that’s another story for another day…

If it seems too good to be true – well, it probably is!

I arrived in Bali yesterday, a place I have travelled to at least twice a year for the last 13 years. And I still nearly got caught up with a money changing scam! And I don’t know whether to be more annoyed with myself or the guys involved!!

b05ef74a936411e2829822000a9f1487_6I knew that the airport exchange rates were not likely to be the best, so I asked Made, the young guy who regularly drives me in Bali, to stop in Seminyak to change money and do some shopping on the way to Ubud, Along the way I saw better exchange rates and thought, ‘Good’.

On the street front was an exchange place that had an OK rate but down the little alley was a sign for a small place indicating an even better rate.

From the first moment I stepped in the pressure was on. What currency? How much did I want to change? What notes? I said USD 500 and as I went to pull it out of my wallet they were looking over my shoulder and making comments about the money. 7f88e50e936411e2954322000a9f134e_6Then began the spiel about if the notes were all from the same series they would get a better rate and maybe I should change more, and maybe there’s a problem with this note do I have another? Before I realised it I had pulled out USD 600, or had I? As they recounted in front of me there were only 5 x USD 100 notes. Maybe I was wrong. But I’m sure I saw a note being passed to another guy behind the counter. I asked what I would get, still not sure – they were out to get this over and done with really quickly. But I stopped to recount what was left in my wallet – and knew that I had given them USD 600 and not the 500 they claimed!

And then I began yelling at them – and I was given back the other USD 100 note without a fuss as they knew they had been caught out! But I was so annoyed! I told them off in English and Indonesian and said I would go to the police – and if I knew where the nearest police station was I would have! I grabbed all of my money and kept yelling at them as I marched down the alley to the more official looking place – which was still a better rate than the airport.

In the midst of all their talk and pressure, how many people have been caught out in this situation?!

colombo-9Ok, I’m probably being a bit cynical here but I am beginning to wonder if there is ever a good time to drive in Colombo?!

Speaking to locals and long term residents, one ends up with such a long list of when NOT to drive in Colombo:colombo-3

  • don’t leave at 4.30 pm – you’ll get caught in peak hour traffic;
  • and forget about 12.30 – 1.30 pm – that’s when school is finishing for the day and buses and tuk tuks are doing the school run!

three wheeler-1

  • then of course there’s the morning school run…
  • the rain always causes havoc – no matter what time it is!
  • at any time the president could be coming through with road blocks and diversions and police everywhere – or it could just be a family member or some other VVIP…
  • leaving town for a long weekend, or returning at the end of a weekend is painful too…

colombo-7I’m sure there are a few more conditions that could be added to the list!

As I seem to have been caught in all of these situations recently, I begin to wonder if there is ever a good time to drive in Colombo? Maybe at midnight?

colombo-6Saying that you’re stuck in traffic is always a valid excuse in Colombo!

But it does provide some great people watching and photo opportunities!! Belching buses, overloaded tuk tuks, white gloved police officers strategically placed at busy intersections so that all vehicles ignore them, bikes and motor bikes weaving in and out of the traffic, overloaded trucks bearing down on pedestrians and of course over all of this, the constant sound of horns blaring at a range of pitches!colombo-7

colombo-18All this providing a colourful snapshot into daily life in Colombo…

Ah! What a delightful change Galle is after Colombo! Although to be fair I only really had one day in Colombo.  But on the other hand there is many a person that recommends skipping Colombo all together when coming to Sri Lanka!

I love traveling by train. And whilst Sri Lanka doesn’t have an extensive train system, some key places are accessible by train. So I opted for the train from Colombo to Galle. But even that wasn’t going to be as simple as I thought. Half of the line from Colombo to Galle is under reconstruction. So rather than look at other options, I decided to catch the train half way, and once I got to Kalutara then I’d work out how to get the rest of the way!

Because of the limited train service I travelled 3rd class. And considering the Lonely Planet recommends that solo women travelers do not take the train at all, I was a little apprehensive (as in other parts of the world, women traveling solo can experience problems here). But after meeting a mother and daughter who were traveling the same route, I had a safe trip, enjoying sitting at the open window, as we followed the sea south. This was certainly no inter-city express – we stopped at stations every 5 – 10 minutes all the way, barely getting up to full speed in between!

I met the delightful Mr Suji (more about him later) as he was finishing his shift at a beachside resort just before the last stop. He helped me negotiate a tuk-tuk to continue the journey – taking advantage of this option to get where he needed to go too!

But 2 hours in the back of a tuk-tuk on a relatively busy road takes it toll. And whilst it is nice to have the constant movement of air, the layers of dirt and grime that came off me once I arrived were incredible!! I began to question my adventurous determination – why didn’t I just take the A/C bus all the way?! Coming into Galle we made our way through the new city – with its bustling bus station, touts looking for unsuspecting travelers, a busy market, and the cricket oval where the 1st England/Sri Lanka test match was held last week. It was hard to believe that the city was decimated by the tsunami 7 years ago.

I am staying in the fortified old city of Galle (Galle Fort) – surrounded by the fort wall on all sides, and beyond that water on 3 sides. Arriving as 1000s of students were being dismissed, all traffic routes become one way, and could only leave the Galle Fort area not enter it. So I walked through the gate, and surrounded by the girls in their pristine white uniforms, instantly felt the stress of travel and uncertainty fall away.

Galle Fort is full of traditional homes built from the only material that was available – coral. Many are being lovingly restored with dark wood and brass fixtures, each painted a different beachy hue. The area has a large Muslim population – many things close or partially close on Friday. There are galleries, and restaurants, and guesthouses. And in the midst, the locals going about their daily lives – warehouses, training barracks, law courts, small businesses and manufacturers.

Once the sun’s strong rays begin to lessen at the end of a day, everyone heads to the walls of the fort – to play cricket, fly kites, enjoy an ice-cream, take the breeze, or steal a moment with aloved one – culminating in a beautiful sunset.

Yesterday was the full moon, but arriving on Thursday, the moon was still fairly impressive! I was watching the sun set to the west, but looking back to the east, the nearly full moon was rising, and the surrounding clouds colored by the opposing sunset.

Life seems more relaxed, it is easier to get about, people are welcoming; I can see why for some it is their only destination in Sri Lanka, and for others it becomes their home. Wherever I travel I ask myself whether I could live there – and it is a resounding ‘yes’ for Galle.

I love getting to somewhere new and exploring, discovering how to make it work for me. That’s a big part of my attraction to traveling. To help with this process, I normally do a bit of research before arriving  – establishing a tentative plan for my limited time there; possibly confirming some accommodation and/or transport options; checking the weather, currency, tipping practices, etc. But for many reasons, I was very disorganised with the planning for Sri Lanka!

Arriving very late at night into Colombo (why do airlines do that?), the one thing I had managed to organize was two nights’ accommodation and an airport pick up. Nothing worse than arriving after midnight, exhausted, and then trying to negotiate the local currency, taxis, and hotels!

Even with only a few hours sleep, there was no time to lose – I was a little way out of the city centre (as the Barmy Army were in town for the 2nd test match against Sri Lanka all other accommodation options I tried were booked up) but found a nearby shopping center  and the necessary money exchange, supermarket, and a coffee for breakfast.

Feeling fortified, it was decision making time! Utilizing the hotel wifi, I shot off a few emails regarding accommodation around the place – whatever came back would determine my next steps!

And then I braved the world of the metered taxi to head into the city centre. Now that might sound a very sensible form of transport to use – but in reality it is a tuk-tuk, and like tuk-tuks all over Asia, there is scant regard for road rules, the constant buzzing of the small engine, and the sense that every trip is urgent and one has to get there as quickly as possible! Whilst moving, the breeze can seem refreshing, but stop alongside the back end of a bus and that all changes!!

At the main Fort Station, thanks to the kindness of strangers, I developed a better understanding of the Sri Lankan railways, and made tentative plans for the trip to Galle the following day.

Across the bustling road from the train station is the Pettah Market area – each street and laneway specializing in a different type of merchandise. I was warned that it may be busy and overwhelming – next week is the Sri Lankan New Year, and, as is customary, people buy new clothes to celebrate. Many people also travel during this time back to their home towns, taking gifts – so the shopping was in full force!

Despite the crowds I enjoyed a couple of hours exploring the market – discovering the electronics, the clothing, the shoes, and determining from the smell, the spice area. Then the fruit and vegetable market – one of my favorite things to photograph! Later the stationery and wedding invitations, then the fabrics for saris and sarongs and lunghis, and then the bracelets and jewelry.

It was busy, I was jostled aside at times as I stood in the way of porters with their overloaded carts, but it was all good natured, and everyone was friendly and happy to be photographed. I only saw one other foreigner the whole time. I love exploring markets – they help me get a better understanding of life in that place.

Then came the time to negotiate my way back to the hotel – I couldn’t find a ‘metered taxi’ so the bargaining skills had to come to the fore pretty quickly!

The next day would bring its own adventures as I was off to Galle, with some possible accommodation, and transportation for part of the journey. But with very little pre-planning I was finding my feet and ready to go!

Ah, the joys of flying!

It’s nice to know it hasn’t gone all ‘high-tech’!

After hurtling through Bangkok’s morning peak hour traffice to get to the airport ‘on time’, upon check-in I was given an ID sticker to wear – I felt like a child on a school excursion! And I was warned to be at the gate early as we would be bussed to the plane. No problem.

There were a couple of big flights going out that morning, so the passport control and security queues took a while. Still time to wait though – over a cup of coffee that was more expensive than what I pay in London! Eventually I wandered down to the departure at the allotted time. And waited. And waited.

Eventually, 5 minutes before the supposed departure time, the handful of us were ushered downstairs – to the waiting Air Laos mini-van! With a capacity for only 10 passengers I guess it wasn’t going to be a full flight!

Turns out there were only 6 of us on the flight to Luang Prabang – we could have had 12 seats each! A team of 15 staff members lined up on the tarmac to very ceremoniously bid us farewell.

No inflight entertainment. No safety announcements. Although according to the sign on the back of the seat in front of me there were no life jackets anyway and I must ‘Use bottom seat cushion for flotation’.

Certainly no alcohol and the meal consisted of a glazed bun stuffed with some sort of sausage, and a slice of lurid green cake – in lieu of St Patrick’s Day?! No hot towels – just a moist towelette.

In the past I have flown with livestock, and once had a huge plastic bag of water and gold fish above me in the overhead locker! I’ve waited in hope for the last flight of the day before it would get too dark to fly in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. I’ve flown Aeroflot – need I say more?!

Flying this way certainly meant there was no rush to get off to beat the crowds! Whilst it is nice to be reminded of how simple flying can be, for long haul flights I’ll stick to airlines which offer some ‘luxuries’!