Archive | May, 2011

Ah Sri Lanka!

16 May

After reaching record levels of frustration in India over our visa issues and the soul destroying paperwork demands of the Bangalore Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office, Alicia and I headed nervously to Bangalore airport with the hope of seeking refuge in Sri Lanka.

Best. Decision. Ever.

If you have not been to Sri Lanka or have never thought about going to Sri Lanka do yourself a massive favour and book a trip immediately. Or at least google it. And then book a trip immediately. It is probably… Big call here… My favourite country in the world (after Australia of course). I enjoyed, loved and found peace in every second I spent on this gorgeous island and I already can not wait to go back. For all it’s positives and pleasant suprises, it came at the perfect time. Feeling battered by the Foreigner’s experience of beauracratic India, it was just the time out needed before I returned for India Round Two. Sri Lanka soothed my stressed out soul, recharged my sucked-dry enthusiasm, and restored good will to my normally optimistic nature. Dramatic. But true.

Tuesday 26 April 2011
Actually getting to Sri Lanka was a ridiculous comedy of errors. It was a bloody miracle we even managed to get there at all what with visa issues and so on. My ego would rather gloss over the ‘so on’ but as I’d like this blog to be a fairly clear representation of my experience, I do admit, even with all the excessive stress associated with visa dramas, I did manage to complicate matters further by turning up at Bangalore airport a day late for my flight. Yes. I know. Embarassing. Not like me at all, and in my defense I was having an extremely STRESSFULL week when I booked that ticket. Yes I blame India, or rather the Bangalore FRRO. So after turning up bright and early Tuesday morning I was not allowed into the airport (in India you can only gain entry to the airport with a valid flight ticket, and even then only within a certain time limit of departure). Alicia, with enough stress to deal with for the time being, had already gone ahead of me, and turned around to find us seperated on either side of the glass, her inside and me outside with a trolley and BOTH our backpacks! Maximum stress overload!! I was already not feeling so great that morning and now felt like hell as I ran up and down the counters outside trying to find a way to get on Tuesday’s flight even though I’d unintentionally been a no show for Monday’s (I still feel really bad for that!) Finally, between me talking to someone outside and Alicia talking to someone inside, I managed to get myself on the flight and only had to pay a $30 no show fee. Still mentally thanking everyone in the universe who helped me out there!

Now back to the stress at hand; in the end my visa attracted a good inspection but I had no problems leaving. Kind of expected, I was more worried about getting back in than leaving (I’ll just emphasise again here that the problem is not my visa. I am on the right visa and I’m doing everything by the book, it’s just that in my experience in India there seems to be many interpretations of that book depending on the official you are dealing with at any given time and this can make things PAINFUL and me somewhat PARANOID!) Alicia did attract some scrutiny on hers and I nearly had a heart attack as she was lead away to talk to an official somewhere else! I had to keep going through security but it was with massive relief I saw her by the departure gate ten minutes later! And so that is how, after stress galore, Alicia and I departed India together and gratefully collapsed into the warm, soothing embrace of Sri Lanka.

To top it off we were lucky to be travelling with Sri Lankan Airlines and were immediately greeted onboard with a friendly smiley welcome. Same on touchdown. Same at immigration where we recieved a passport stamp and a grin in one easy motion.

Operation Sri Lanka was a last minute replacement of the cancelled Andaman Islands trip which we had booked months prior in anticipation of needing a little luxury following our internship which had followed twelve months of hard work saving for our trips. This is how we justified a stay at the swanky Galle Face Hotel right by the sea in Colombo. In a gorgeous, yell-across-the-room massive, creaky floorboarded room with an ocean view. After settling in I ventured for a walk by the hotel and along the seaside promenade, burning off the nervous energy of the morning. We investigated the Galle Face’s impressive building which is the longest serving hotel in Sri Lanka, having opened in 1848. It is a popular spot for weddings and we were only there an hour before we’d sorta, kinda, unashamedly gatecrashed a traditional Sri Lankan wedding dance ceremony in the grand foyer which preceded an exquisitely dressed bridal party. As you do.

The hotel was old world charm top to bottom; from cheeky signs next to the antiquated cage elevators requesting guests to ‘walk down the stairs, it’s only two flights and it’s good for you’ and in the hallways asking ‘please don’t smoke in bed, the ashes we find might be yours’ down to the creaky wooden floors, the hidden service corridors, the impeccable politeness and courtesy shown by the hotel staff and the ghost that kept turning our room light on after I KNOW I turned it off when leaving the room.

The dining options were first class, our first night we heartily indulged at the 1848 fine dining restaurant, and said thanks again and again for finding a lil bit of paradise. It was sweet dreams for us finally!

Wednesday 27 April 2011
We were up blissfully late and wandered downstairs to the seafront buffet brekkie. Afterwards we went for a walk through town, did a little shopping then back to the hotel where I curled up in an armchair reading The Alchemist over a room service cheese platter and a glass of white. Honestly, I languished there all afternoon while rain pattered on the windows and I drank endless cups of peppermint tea. I could feel my body physically unwind and relax. Heaven.

I realise it all sounds so lackadaisical but after an intense 18 months, it was utter bliss! No apologies!

Thursday 28 April
Again we greeted the morning at our own pace and were back to the buffet brekkie again (oh banana pancakes, why do I not eat you more often at home?) Although I only had five days to enjoy Sri Lanka (I know, a pathetically insufficient amount of time to spend on this fabulous island) I knew I wanted to spend a couple of days seeing something outside my indulgent Colombo experience, so we packed up and checked out, and got a tuk tuk to the bus station. Within 60 seconds we were whisked onto a local bus heading south to the historical town of Galle. Time to experience another Sri Lankan gem, a rattley old bus, sticky hot inside unless it’s moving and the sea breeze flows through, pumping with Sri Lankan groovy island tunes. What a mood setter! We took off along the coastline and drove alongside it the whole three hour trip to Galle; such an enjoyable ride! And for 160 Sri Lankan rupees (that’s $1.40 to you Aussies).

We arrived at the Galle bus stand and were greeted by the usual cluster of eager tuk tuk drivers. We challenged one of them “if you can fit us in that (… point to tiny little tuk tuk …) you can take us!” We both carried a stuffed 15kg backpack with other assorted bits and pieces hanging off us. To his credit he did fit us in and the grin on his face was worth the squishy ride! We turned up at a guesthouse listed in the Lonely Planet without a reservation but as we’re travelling at the very tail end of the travel season we don’t need one. All our hosts everywhere have told us the numbers had dropped off weeks ago and they only had the occasional guests come through now. It’s actually a wonderful time to travel as the staff everywhere are winding down after the busy season and have the time to chat and extend information and generousity to their few guests. We stay in a charming little place, it’s architecture reminiscent of the previous Portuguese settlement.

Galle is a unique city, founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, and boasting a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a large Fort surrounding the old part of Galle built in the 17th century by the Dutch.

We spent the late afternoon dusk hours walking around the top of the fort walls which extend all the way around the old part of town and take about an hour at a leisurely stroll. Much of the walk follows the coastline; the sea breeze is strong and revitalising, with much to watch and explore as you go along. The black birds that populate the coastline in place of seagulls were playing about in the breeze, flying up and floating in the gale amongst the cliffs. We watched a faded sun setting behind the clouded sky and then hunted for a place for dinner. The groovy Serendipity cafe was a great place to unwind, listening to Norah Jones, studying the abstract art on the grungy graffiti covered walls and browsing the wall length bookshelves.

Friday 29 April 2011

We loved Galle but it was time to find one of those gorgeous beaches Sri Lanka is famous for. We headed back to the bus stand and again, within 60 seconds we were pulled onto a moving bus and on our way back up the coast. We travelled about an hour north and tumbled out at the beachside town of Bentota. A side note about the awesomeness of Sri Lankans – they are so happy and so friendly! Their curiousity of us foreigners rivals that of the Indians but in a different manner. Where I notice an Indian will watch me in a sort of studied way, fairly detached, as though I may do or say something interesting, a Sri Lankan watches me with a big smile on their face, visibly acknowledging that Im different, but in a ‘isn’t it great you’re here in my country’ kind of way. Case in point, getting on and off local buses, with a 15kg backpack (which we found out later most tourists don’t do, they generally get the train). The bus usually slows down to about 20km as it aproaches a bus stand and the conductor sticks his head out and yells out the destination names without pausing for breath until we’re well past the stand. In that time a Sri Lankan or two or five or ten may have jumped off the bus, or jumped on the bus. In the case of foreigners, they see us by the side of the road and they’ll actually pause the bus! The conductor (with a big smile on his face) will grab the top of your bag or an elbow and help haul you onto the bus, which will take off again as soon as both your feet are in the vehicle, and as you stumble to a seat with a 15kg bag strapped to your back and attempt to get it off without knocking anyone unconcious and get your butt on the seat and your bag anywhere, you notice all the smiley Sri Lankan faces pointed at you, nodding hello and absolutely chuffed that you’re on the bus, and amused it had to stop (well, pause) for you. And you smile and nod and they smile nod and it’s SO friendly! And again you feel the warm soft hug of Sri Lanka.

Getting off the bus takes longer as we fumble around trying to pull our bags from where they are wedged and drag them from the bus. I can’t help but giggle as the seconds clock by, aware that every second is one more longer than the bus has ever had to stop for a local. My bag gets snagged on a chair and I can’t move it quick enough, Alicia’s thong has broken again and she’s hopping around trying to pull it off her flapping foot, we’re giggling and falling out of the bus, and as it roars off, the bus load of faces are smiling and laughing out the window and the conductor is waving out the door. Oh I love you Sri Lanka!

Our arrival in Bentota heralds the start of my favourite day on my trip so far. We get in a tuk tuk and head to another Lonely Planet recommendation, it’s more expensive than we like but the room is beautiful, with a balcony and a tv – we’re aware it’s the day of the royal wedding and we have both admitted to wanting to watch Wills and Kate get hitched so we splurge. We were drawn to this area because we wanted to visit a turtle conservation project and we are lucky to be staying at a place that actually runs one. Turtle egg poaching is a big problem in Sri Lanka, and the conservation projects like the one here exist to ensure eggs hatch (instead of being sold and eaten at the market) and the babies make it into the sea (instead of being eaten by birds on their way). The project buys the eggs from the poachers at a higher rate than that offered at the market. It’s a conflicting strategy as it endorses poachers to continue taking the eggs, but it’s realistic about the problem, poachers will steal eggs and will sell to the marketplace anyway. The project steps in between that process. They also go to the markets early and buy the eggs being sold there. Then they are buried in the sand in an enclosure on the beach and periodically checked for hatchlings. We were lucky enough to be there on a day where we assisted a lovely Sri Lankan guy, aka the Turtle Papa, who has been looking after the turtle babies for six years. We went with him to the enclosure where he dug into the sand at unmarked places (he must have a great memory) and pulled out handfuls of little teeny tiny wriggling, flapping turtles. SO cute! He checked the belly of each one and put some in the bucket and some back in the ground. He explained he was checking their belly buttons to determine how newly hatched they were. The baby turtles need to stay buried under the sand for four days after hatching so he puts them back in til they’re ready. We helped put the four day old turtle babies in the bucket and carried them to the pools they keep them in until they’re ready to go to the ocean. At the pools we also see a 30yr old Albino turtle, he’s pretty big but still young by turtle standards (they can live to over 150years). There is also a baby three week old albino turtle born with no eyes, aw! Albino turtles are rare, only one born in a million, and most are born with a handicap. Another handicapped turtle shares the pool, a few years old with a shell that has curled up the wrong way, his little back legs not really working. Both these turtles are kept and looked after by the project, which runs on donations made by the guests of the resort. The experience of getting to be hands on with the turtles is priceless!

Later in the night, after an afternoon boogie boarding at the beach and after a dinner complete with a Sri Lankan band playing cruisy island tunes, we have the amazing opportunity to help the caretaker pick out the turtle babies from the pool which are ready to make their big break for the sea. The markings on the shells reveal which turtle babies are ready for their first sea voyage so we pick them out and put them in the bucket. I carried the bucket to the beach (earning the title ‘Turtle Mama’). On the beach, Turtle Papa drew a line in the sand and told us to start the race. Alicia and I plucked the little babies out of the bucket and lined ’em up! Some took off immediately for the sea, some turned around and headed in the wrong direction, some took their time. It was a wonderful feeling to be on the beach in the pitch darkness with only a torch light zeroing in on the babies as they scurried around. We watched the first ones hit the sea water, waves gently washing onto shore, carrying them a little bit and leaving them to try again. Eventually all the little turtles were in the water and off they went! It was so dark we couldn’t see them, and I was standing knee deep in the water feeling the occasional one brush past me. I was filled with wonder and also paranoia about moving my feet in case I squished one! Turtle Papa scanned the beach with his torch and spotted a little lone ranger near the bucket, who hadn’t quite found the ocean. I picked him up and walked him down to the sea and put him on the sand. A wave came and he disappeared into the dark; such a magnificant moment, so peaceful in the quiet except for the energy and roar of the ocean. We slowly walked back up the beach, an amazing memory to keep forever.

Saturday 30 April 2011
We woke up and enjoyed brekkie on the balcony overlooking the beach and then went for a walk along the golden sand. I couldn’t stop thinking of all my turtles babies that I helped into the sea the night before and wondering where they were now after a long night, thinking that they grow up so fast, such a proud turtle mama I am!

It’s my last day in Sri Lanka and a walk on a gorgeous, almost deserted beach is the perfect time to reflect and feel gratitude for the wonderful experiences I have had here and in South India, and feeling blessed with still six weeks ahead of me to continue enjoying the privileges of freedom and discovery that travel brings.

There’s something amazing about Sri Lanka and without having left the country yet I’m already eager to return again one day and travel it properly!

We soon pack up and head to the bus stand, again in less than 60 seconds we’re trundling back up the coast on a bus. We get to Colombo by midday and are cheerfully dropped off at the Galle Face Hotel even though it’s not a bus stop, again with the smiles and waves goodbye as the bus leaves us on the side of the road.

For our last night we are back at the Galle Face Hotel, a final night of luxury before I head back to India for Round Two: North India, a la backpacker style.

Before settling into idle relaxation at the hotel we get a tuk tuk to the Gallery Cafe which I’d read good reviews about online. It is a stylishly chic place to eat, a gallery inside with a trendy outside cafe. The food is devine including the decadant desserts, totally recommended to while away a couple of rainy lunchtime hours in Colombo.

That night was not only my last night in Sri Lanka but also my last night with Alicia. I was flying to Delhi in the morning and Alicia was being joined by her dad the next day and staying in Sri Lanka for one more week. After an awesome 11 weeks sharing not only our apartment in Bangalore but also our internship experience, the highs and curveballs of life in India and travelling around South India and all the way to Sri Lanka together, it was sad to part ways. However I’m aware how lucky I was to make such a wonderful friend so far from home who so positively impacted my time away. Although we now embark on new paths we have certainly forged a friendship beyond India.

Sunday 1 May 2011
So it is goodbye Alicia, goodbye Sri Lanka. And hello again India… If she’ll let me back in… To be continued…

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As I’m on the road and away from my laptop I’m sorry to have to post this without any photos at this stage. I will add them in later when I am more technologically connected. Prepare to melt at the cuteness of baby turtles!
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Indian Bureaucracy: Sucked In and Spat Out.

16 May

I’ll start this post by making it clear how much I have loved living, working and travelling in India so far. The people, the food, the work, the traditions, rituals and quirks have all made my stay awesome up to this point.

There’s a flip side to this incredible awesomeness though, and that is Indian Bureaucracy. The official kind.

As stated, it sucks you in and spits you out. No matter if you’re trying to do the right thing, no matter that you were obviously let into the country at some point by some other official authority, no matter if you’re just trying to contribute some good to the country by WORKING FOR FREE for THREE MONTHS OF YOUR LIFE. Sorry, still a bit bitter.

Maybe writing about my frustrating experience at the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO) will serve to offer some info to anyone considering an extended trip to India. I’m sharing a frustrating aspect of my Indian experience but it won’t interest everyone so skip this one if I’m already boring you with my ranting (it will continue til the end of the article).

I came to India on an Employment visa (EV) as per Indian visa policy – even volunteers with NGOs in India require an EV to stay and work in the country. The issue at hand was basically that all foreigners coming to India on a visa valid for more than 180 days must register with the FRRO within 14 days of arrival. Generally the visa in the passport is stamped ‘must register within 14 days’. Mine was not, though registration was mentioned in the generic fineprint at the bottom (but who reads that!??) in my defence I had been told by the YCA programme that I didn’t have to register because I wasn’t in India for more than 180 days, so I didn’t think any more of it. Towards the end of my internship I made enquiries about the possibility of extending my visa as I finally got an invitation to a Hindu wedding, (but sadly not meant to be – bummer). This was when I found out I was supposed to register. Woops! Registration of an EV is required based on the validity of the visa period not the length of stay. My visa, issued for six months, equals 182 days regardless that I’m only staying in India 120. My lateness was not such a big deal, I apologised (verbally and then in writing… by their request. Yep. I had to write the Indian government an ‘I’m sorry’ letter.) I had to pay a fine (about $30) but it seemed to be fairly commonplace and they didn’t make a fuss about it. The problems that came about, and which saw me make nine visits to the FRRO (four in one single day) for a piece of paper I need to leave the country, were caused purely by inconsistent advice dispensed by officials and the soul crushing Indian addiction to superflous paperwork. My visa was correct, I had the paperwork required on the printed checklist, it should have been easy.

No. Not easy. On my first visit to the FRRO office I got the application form with the document checklist attached. I returned the next day with my two passport photos, passport and visa photocopies, letters from my employer clarifying my dates of employment and confirming the accommodation arranged through them and a letter requesting registration (strange considering it’s COMPULSORY).

The second visit saw me join the queue at the Token window, I was about number 30 in line to get my number to join the waiting masses in the processing rooms upstairs. After about half an hour some bright spark Official decided the line that had grown to about 50 was too long, so after the 8th person he drew an imaginary line in the air and herded the rest of us toward a bay of waiting chairs announcing that the line will continue from the chairs. Huh? So at least 42 people stampede for the chairs. The person formerly 10th in line becomes the 40th, and the 50th becomes 15th and so on, in a big mess. My place at 30 becomes something like 23rd. But new people coming in the door join the standing queue, slotting themselves unknowingly after the eighth position. Finally the oblivious official is inundated with peeved foreigners shaking their heads and fists at him. He starts telling the newcomers to sit down, but where? No one knows how the queue is supposed to move. The official is plucking foreigners out at random whilst assuring everyone the queue is in effect. But he’s not looking so sure. In fact, he’s starting to look a bit frazzled. And maybe beginning to doubt his strategy. Finally, we organise ourselves and the queue begins to operate in a zig zag direction. We all stand and shift one seat along whenever someone graduates to the standing queue. It’s the most ridiculous system I’ve ever seen, and my 30th then 23rd position becomes about 40th due to the zig zag but I don’t care because finally it is possible to anticipate progress. The official attempts to direct the crowd again but he is ignored and the zig zag stays in motion. Once he realises that an order has been brought to the chaos he looks relieved and then busies himself enforcing it.

Finally getting a token allowed me to proceed upstairs to wait my turn. Finally my number was up and I approached a counter and joined the throng at the desk (the number doesn’t seem to entitle anyone to any ordered service). Once my paperwork was handed to an official it entered the system and had the process sheet attached to the front of it. Doesn’t sound like much but I came to learn that it meant on any visit after this I could butt in on any queue without necessarily waiting. I say neccessarily because everyone else could do the same to me with their paperwork… So I guess it evened out.

The rest of the process was generally a nightmare, inefficiency with the occasional unexpected stroke of good will. The officials were generally frustrating as hell but then out of nowhere one would go out of their way and help me beyond expectation. Upstairs was confusing, every official was talking to multiple people at once, flipping through the application of one person while asking questions of another, turning mid conversation to start one with someone else. Twice I was handed back the paperwork and passport of someone else. At first my experience made me resent everyone who worked there with a burning passion of indefinable proportions, but then I began to feel some compassion for the officials. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was infuriating pompous-ness and superiority complexes. But on the other hand, how can they concentrate? There is no system, everyone is confused, and the multiple language barriers must be hard. One official actually thanked me for my good English! As frustrated as I was with some of the attitudes and service I recieved, I could at least see that their day there must be as stressful as mine… But stuck on repeat, like EVERY day. Ganesh help them.

I can’t adequately explain the nightmare there, it wont seem that bad, after all it’s just paperwork. The infuriating part was not knowing when it would end. I needed the registration certificate to hand over at the airport when departing otherwise I might not be allowed to leave. But try as I might I couldn’t get the piece of paper. There was always something more. Basically it went like this:

Official flicks through my paperwork. ‘Letter from company of employment not on coloured letterhead madam, get it on coloured letterhead’
‘Really? Is that necessary? It was emailed to me like that.’
‘Madam, must be on coloured letterhead’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

Go to work, ask HR for a new letter, come back with letter on coloured letterhead.

‘Madam, must have company stamp on it’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’
‘Stamp? You didn’t mention stamp before!’
*head wobble, hand flick*

And so on. Repeat similar exchange for:
– Signature on employer’s letter not in ‘real ink’ ie hand signed.
– Date on employer’s letter suddenly (after four visits) not adequate. The letter is dated 2010 when I was offered the position at Janaagraha. It needs to be today’s date.
– Letter from employer validating accommodation arranged by employer not good enough. Must ask our sweet 80-something year old landlady for a letter AND a copy of her Voters identity card AND a copy of her last electricity bill.
And so on. Little things like that. Over and over.

The worst was when suddenly the date of my volunteer period on the employee letter is questioned. Even though my visa application had stipulated a volunteer period followed by a period of travel they now claim I’m not allowed, I must leave after my internship ends. The whole process had taken so long I am now told ‘Madam, you must leave the country tomorrow’ *head wobble, hand flick* ‘Next’.

That’s when I cried. Completely and utterly broken. The official ignored me for awhile. But with a *head wobble, hand flick* he tells me I must get a new letter from my employer claiming responsibility for me for the entire period of my stay. I leave disheartened, and pretty stressed out. It’s my second last day at Janaagraha and I’ve spent most of the past week at the FRRO. I go back across town in morning traffic to the office, get another document drawn up and return to the FRRO, I scrutinise the document in the 30 minute auto ride on the way checking and rechecking to make sure it covers my whole stay. As I rejoin the queue I look down at the letter and the date at the top catches my eye. The 2010 date is back. Shiiiit!! I’m absolutely done. I call Rashmi at the office and beg her to bring me a new letter. I can’t go back there again, I can’t, I can’t, you can’t make me!!! She comes to my rescue, and it signals the beginning of the final run. With her presence things start getting ticked off and processed. She has energetic conversations with the official that I can’t understand but I keep my fingers crossed. Finally, finally, finally I get a slip of paper telling me to return at 2.30pm. It’s too much to believe, but when I come back the much sought after piece of paper is delivered into my hands. On the stipulation I return after the Easter long weekend to register my change of address. Fine, that’s fine, Rashmi helps me out there again.

I’m finally sorted but Alicia’s experience has been worse than mine. The Indian visa office in Melbourne didn’t issue her an EV even though she applied with the same paperwork as me. Again and again she quizzed them but they were adament, they issued her an Entry X visa. Wrong! Major confusion and trouble in India. She was passed around the officials at the FRRO for as many days as I was there, and was told she didn’t need to register; she did need to register; she was in the country illegall; she had to get the Melbourne embassy to vouch for her (after unsuccessfully trying to contact them on the Easter/ANZAC long weekend and then finding out they were closed for a week for relocation, they still refused to help); she had to leave immediately; and then finally, they would allow her to apply for an Exit visa.

We both have to return after the weekend but with fingers crossed I decide to think optimistically and book a Bangalore to Colombo flight for Tuesday, early morning. The Andaman Islands had been taken from me but I refuse to let the whole week, my supposed to be week-of-rejuvenation, disappear completely. I had planned on going to Sri Lanka during my time away anyway, and since it appears Alicia’s unresolved visa issues would be best solved by fleeing the country, it seems like the right time.

Alicia, expecting to finalise her visa requirements by Wednesday, with fingers crossed books a flight to join me in Colombo on Thursday. Monday arrives and it’s touch and go but at 1pm I’m done; free to go. Relief like I have never known. Thank God! Thank Ganesha! Thank you Universe!

Alicia attempts to begin applying for an Exit visa but against all other advice, she’s now told it’s not necessary, she can walk out of the country. Really? We’re not so sure but the official won’t let her go any further in making enquiries, even though days before, officials upstairs gave different advice. As far as he’s concerned she doesn’t need to do anything. It’s too good to be true. So we’re not convinced it is. We decide to both try leaving on Tuesday together. We’re stressed. We’re wondering whether, after all the different advice we’ve recieved, Alicia can leave the country on her visa, and whether mine will let me leave and come back. An early Tuesday morning dawns for us… Where will the evening see us? All will be revealed in the next installment…

Mini-Break: Goa

16 May

Another three day weekend, another mini-break… Such is life people! This time to Goa, which is on the mid-west coast of India. Famous for its beaches, markets, hippie havens and laid back attitude, we were in for a cruisy weekend, particularly as it was the end of the season and many of the establishments were getting ready to pack up before the monsoon arrives in May.

We went by overnight bus and pulled into the state capital of Panjim early Friday morning. We got an auto to Anjuna Beach straight away and walked about the town before settling into some ocean facing seats at a cliff top restaurant, enjoying cold drinks and watching the sun begin it’s descent to the horizon. Ah peace!

On Saturday we took an auto ride about an hour further up the coast to Arambol Beach, a welcome white stretch of sand with a lone establishment serving cold drinks and food right to the water’s edge. We chatted with Lama, a Nepalese guy who works with a group of other Nepalese guys at the cafe, they spend the six month tourist season in Goa each year and then return to Nepal to work the summer season there. It suits them as Nepal shuts down for the cold of winter and Goa closes during the monsoon. With the monsoon around the corner, Lama and the others were getting ready to leave within the fortnight; but not before dismantling the restaurant which they build at the start of every season and then take down before it’s destroyed in the monsoon.

It was hard to picture the destructive winds and rain that would arrive within the month when we were enjoying a perfect blue sky and 40 degree sunshine. We spent the day there – swim, sun loungers, swim, sun loungers. Clothing wise it was the most exposed I’d been since arriving in India; I take care to dress appropriately here, knees and shoulders and all inbetween covered up. At the beach I was prepared to stay just as covered even though generally the dress code is more relaxed in Goa as a result of the tourist saturation. But I’d also heard that it’s not uncommon for bus loads of Indian boys to swamp the Goan beaches on the weekends in the tourist season to unabashedly stare at the bare skinned tourists! Luckily we didn’t find it so bad due to it being end of season, but we were still the object of some curiousity. It’s been interesting to note that the Indian women swim in their normal clothes, a salwar kameez or sari, no cossies for them!

That night we got an auto to the famous Anjuna Saturday night markets. Wow – white people! Lots of them! I hadn’t realised how long it’s been since I saw other white people – the whole market was packed with tourists, but where did they come from? I’d been wondering if there were even any in India since I never see them anywhere. It was crazy busy but a lot of fun, and really awesome shopping. Prices start high but drop fast and the stall holders are friendly in their haggling. There was an overpriced part of the market where snooty white hippies were selling assorted handicrafts and didn’t seem to haggle, but I certainly enjoyed supporting the local stallholders :-)

Despite half hearted efforts to keep my money in my wallet I spent every rupee and then went into overdraft at the Bank of Alicia, the result of no ATMs nearby (if you go, fill your wallet, then take double more!)

I did purchase a beautiful quilt made with old sari scraps which was an Indian speciality I specifically wanted to go home with. Well actually, I’m going home with two. It just sort of happened after I unintentionally starting haggling and the price went so low I couldn’t walk away (seriously, I couldn’t. They were beautiful, but more to the point, at that price it would be embarrassing to walk away!)

Apart from severe over-exposure to over-exposed sun-burnt/sun-tanned tourists, the market had a good vibe with funky music playing and a great variety of things to buy including clothing, shoes, jewellry, bags, art, trinkets and textiles. I’d definitely recommend the markets if you’re in the area on a Wednesday or Saturday night.

Monday at Silk Cotton Resort at Bogmalo Beach in South Goa was a suprise luxury stay after we changed our plans last minute to skip a day trip to Old Goa (I confess complete utter immersion in beach mode made not even the 15th century former capital of Portuguese India worth getting out of my cossies for) to stay one more night by the beach, this one a lot closer to the airport for our super early flight the next morning.

We stayed in a lovely little villa in a garden overflowing with beautiful flowers and boasting a sparkling swimming pool. The couple running the show greeted us at the gate, brought us cold fresh juices and drove us down to the beach. Bogmalo was a really small place; a decent stretch of sand with a cafe shack perched on the edge, a few little shops and that’s about it! But perfect for a last night stop before a flight as it’s a 15 minute drive to the airport, to which our male host drove us to well before sunrise. We were even sent on our way with a takeaway brekkie in brown paper bags since we had such an early flight, aw!

So Goa was a beach, markets and food-by-the-water kind of weekend; highly recommended no matter where you are in the world, but particularly enjoyable here in Incredible India!

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As I’m on the road and away from my laptop I’m sorry to have to post this without any photos at this stage. I will add them in later when I am more technologically connected!
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Mini-Break: Kerala

12 May

Continuing the theme of relaxing weekends, what a way to follow Pondicherry – a long weekend on the backwaters in Kerala.

I feel the need clarify that the term ‘backwaters’ really doesn’t do the beautiful, serene waterways of the state of Kerala justice. The ‘backwaters’ are a network of lakes and canals fed by 38 rivers and cover more than half the Arabian Sea coastline of the state of Kerala.

Alicia and I flew down from Bangalore on Friday afternoon (no the snorer didn’t put us off the buses, we just left it too late to get a seat!) and stayed at a really lovely guesthouse called Ashtamudi Homestay in Alleppey, an hour south of Kochi where the airport is. It was a good place to stay with a big open balcony where we enjoyed breakfast and met a lovely Lithuanian couple with whom we were able to exchange a few suggestions from our travels around India.

The owners of the homestay were also very friendly and helpful; we wanted to explore the backwaters straight away so they arranged a 4hr canoe cruise for us with a local village guy on Saturday. He took us away from the main channel and through the narrow passages feeding the canal system to tucked away villages. At one point a little girl started chatting to him from the bank, then he pointed to her and proudly told us it was his daughter! A little while later we met his wife the same way, he really was a local villager!

 

Watching village life pass us by on the banks was fascinating. The water really sets the scene for much of day to day life; we passed women doing the laundry, washing pots and pans by the bank side and collecting water in big buckets, there were kids swimming, people bathing, canoes coming and going loaded with goods to buy or sell. We even witnessed a woman walk up to the edge of the bank and empty an entire rubbish bin into the water (ignorance? I don’t know, but very difficult to watch!) Some people smiled and waved, others ignored us, the kids always laughing and calling out ‘Hello, what’s your name? One pen?’ obviously accustomed to recieving little gifts from visitors.

Our guide was friendly, pointing out all the wildlife and explaining the different types of boats on the water. His efforts rowing us for four hours in the humidity was impressive especially his friendly nature right to the end!

That afternoon we had a wander around the town of Alleppey and had dinner before watching the Cricket World Cup Final where India claimed victory and defeated Sri Lanka! Cricket mad India was filled with anticipation, and the long weekend for Ugadi (New Year) just added to the festival vibe of the occasion. As soon as the Indian team had won the game there was cheering from everywhere and our hosts even had fireworks to celebrate the win.

One of the must-dos in Kerala is to cruise the backwaters on a houseboat, so on Sunday we boarded one that would be ours for the next 23hrs. It was cosy, featuring some comfy chairs and cushions on the front deck, a bedroom with ensuite, a kitchen and a top deck with a couple of chairs. We also were accompanied by a captain and a cook. All resulting in one of the most relaxing days of my life!

We travelled along the main water channels which were almost like highways, they were so busy with houseboat traffic. The hours were ours to lounge on the seating options and watch the landscape and village life pass us by. I also read, listened to music and dozed. Our cook kept us supplied with tea and Indian style snacks like spiced fried bananas, and we were spoilt with a delicious spread at lunch and dinner.

It is so humid in Kerala, and away from the water it is quite unpleasant but on the water there is a breeze that drifts by and keeps it cool. Just as dusk was approaching we felt the temperature and humidity drop and looked out to the horizon to see some ominous clouds appearing. The Captain and the Cook (incidentally both their names are Muni) hurried around us dropping all the side tarps down and securing one on the top deck. At first we were a bit miffed, it seemed a bit premature and now we were sitting in our comfy chairs enclosed by tarps where the gorgeous view had just been, but then we heard the first rain drops fall and within a matter of minutes a crack of lightening, the boom of thunder and the rain downpoured – on the water, in a houseboat, in the middle of a thunderstorm! The crew had acted just in the nick of time. So we settled down to listen to the show outside whilst enjoying being cosy in our boat. We caught glimpses of the storm as the tarps billowed in the wind and we saw the rain slashing the water, the lightening flooding the dark night and the thunder following.

It was a brilliant closure to such a relaxing day, with the added bonus of dropping the temperature and cutting back the humidity to make the nights sleep much more bearable. Sleeping inside the dingy mosquito net was the only unappealing aspect of the experience but after hearing some little scuffles in the night and then finding a nibbled hole through my little paper bag of Laddus (Indian ball-shaped sweet) in the morning, we were more grateful for the net than we’d realised!

After a relaxing brekkie on the deck it was time to return to dry land. We got a lift with our host back to Kochi where we planned to have a quick look around before going to the airport. When our host realised how little time we had he found an eager auto rickshaw driver who took us on the fastest whirlwind tour I’ve ever been on! In less than three hours we hooned around Kochi seeing churches, temples and a spice warehouse, we snuck into a hidden courtyard heaped with piles of ginger, then checked out the museum at the Dutch Palace and strolled along the waterside to see the iconic Chinese Fishing Nets.

It was fast but fun, though it meant one helluva speedy ride to the airport afterwards where we arrived only in the nick of time to check in!

Another fabulous weekend trip in south India. I wish we’d had longer to check out Kochi but think we made the most of the time we had. Unfortunately there is never enough time to do everything, but I guess that just means I’ll have to come back one day!

Hello Stranger!

9 May

I somewhat expected this, I figured at some point I would be offering an apology for an unintended absence from my own blog. The Indian experience continues, and you’ll still hear about it, it’s just that it’ll come a little delayed due to a seriously hectic final fortnight in Bangalore, a rejuvenating week in Sri Lanka and now life as a backpacker. What can I say? I’m on India time.

I’m now in the second week of the travelling part of my trip, with less than six weeks left before I return to Australia. Holy moly. Time is flying!

For a little atmosphere (to make up for the lack of visuals) picture me right now as I’m typing this on my iPhone, travelling on a non-AC local bus making a five hour trip from Agra to Madhogarh, a rural village in the heart of Rajasthan, on a 43 degree Indian summer day. The sweat is trickling down my back but the hot wind is on my face and the two little Indian girls seated behind me are sneaking opportunities to play with my hair through the gap in the seats (the fascination with ‘lighter’ is rampant in India like elsewhere in Asia). Rural India passes the window, the colourful women in saris, the nonchalent holy cows, the smells, the noise. Like nowhere else…

Because I am now on the road I am not as well equipped as I was previously, having left my laptop in Bangalore to travel as light as possible before I pick it up on my way back home. This means my blog posts will be sadly sans-photos at this point. I hope to post the pics up at a later date though.

I’m now going to play catch up with some of the trips I made before leaving Bangalore, the end of my Janaagraha experience, and the visa registration hell of my final week.

Here we go…