Archives for the month of: March, 2016

On our way to Kandy we had a quick visit to a spice garden which was just a hard sell for spices but we did get to see a vanilla creeper which had the most intense aroma of vanilla when you got near it.

It was a lengthy trip to Kandy with heavy traffic in some of the towns. After a much needed coffee for me we walked across the road to The “Relic of the Tooth (Buddha’s tooth) Temple” damaged extensively in the civil war. There were school children galore so we didn’t spend too long in the crowds. The more interesting trip for us was to the Peradeniya Royal Botanical gardens where we opted for a golf cart to cover most of the gardens. They had an collection of trees – palms of every kind and many unusual trees donated by heads of state. The most amazing tree was the cannonball tree with it’s incredible flowers and fruit and the double coconut tree with fruit which weight between 15-30kilos. Inedible unfortunately. We were dropped at the orchid house to admire the beautiful varieties of orchids with their backdrop of Spanish moss.

The Oak Wood B and B on the river was a pleasant and quiet guesthouse to spend the night. Our first stop in the morning was to the new Oak Ray coffee shop. The new coffee shops serving real espresso are really only targeted at foreign tourists or wealthy Sri Lankans because a cup of coffee costs the equivalent of a full local meal or more.

We visited one of the many gemstone shops in Kandy and found a lovely Hassonite garnet stone which we had set in a ring. On collection it looked as though it had a flaw so without any trouble we selected another stone and it was to be set and sent to Colombo for us to collect. Ravi our driver took us to his home in Kandy to meet his lovely family.

We left Kandy and visited Ramboda Falls and the Bluefields Tea Factory on the way to Nuwara Eliya. We were able to see the actual manufacturing process and then taste the tea without any hard sell although we did buy some tea.

We knew that Sri Lanka was the home of tea but we didn’t realize just how many tea plantations there were and what a large area of the country they covered. I loved the look of the hills with their very manicured tea bushes and we felt at home with the many gum trees dotted throughout the landscape.

Nuwara Eliya had a very British feel to it with old colonial buildings like the Grand hotel and the Hill Club. Our room (7th heaven!) at the hotel “Seven Heaven” overlooked the racetrack and town. Ravi took us down to “Gregory Lake” where we had a pleasant walk along the lake. The town was 1800 metres above sea level and the mornings and evenings were very cool in great contrast to where we had been where it was hot and very humid.

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Ravi our driver with his brother Johnson ran their small tour company Daphne tours. He was a very pleasant,well educated and knowledgeable man and a very safe driver to boot. He picked us up at 11am on the 16th March and we drove north to Dambulla with a few stops for road works. It took us about 5hours to reach there. Traffic in the cities can be bad and Ravi allowed for possible hold ups.

We stayed at the Piyasa Rest guesthouse with it’s four rooms and we were the only guests with our driver for the first night. It was a nice clean place with a very pleasant lady Sundria who ran the place. She had had a hard life with her father killed by an elephant and husband killed by a cobra bite. She had worked in Saudi, Dubai and Oman to support her two children and was glad to be back in Sri Lanka after 15years abroad. The driver’s accommodation was good too which is not always the case apparently in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world. One place we picked in Ella was lovely for us but really sub-standard for the driver so much so that he went and overnighted at another place.

Ravi drove us to Sigiriya for dinner where there were a lot of restaurants and many backpackers. We ate a local dish called Kotthu Rotti- a chopped up rotti with vegetables which was very tasty accompanied by their delicious hot coconut and chilli sambal. There was a power outage from 1-6pm and from 8-10pm which was a bit inconvenient especially trying to negotiate the stairs when we left
the restaurant. Thank goodness it wasn’t too hot or humid when we got back to the guesthouse.

Since the end of the civil war 7 years ago so many eateries, guesthouses and small hotels have popped up, some with licences and some without.

There are not so many motorbikes on the road and helmets are compulsory except for small children. Everyone seemed to obey the rule. There is a heavy traffic police presence but bribery and corruption is apparently alive and well here too. There are emission controls but the buses don’t seem to have to comply as many belch out thick black smoke a lot of the time. The roads are excellent with Chinese built highways and secondary roads all built or reconstructed since the end of the civil war which lasted for 30years.

Ravi told us that tourism is growing every year and we found busloads of Chinese,English, Korean and French tourists as well as a few Germans and Russians in most of the tourist locations. I was worth having a driver to ourselves was that we could wait until a busload had left or got to a destination early so we didn’t have to fight to enjoy the sites. More than any foreign tourists were hundreds of schoolchildren of all ages who were ferried to the temples, archaeological sights and botanical gardens. Most were eager and well behaved and many asked us our names and from where we came.

The 20/20 cricket was being played in various places in India and TV’s were on in most establishements. The locals were passionate about the game.

Government female workers must wear saris to work – even our driver’s wife must wear one when she visits her children’s school. The Sri Lankan saris are worn differently to the Indian sari and seem slightly less cumbersome.

There were a lot of military camps in the country areas especially towards the north and east where Tamil Tigers had been prevalent. Most people in the south and west are Singalese but also most speak Tamil and a lot speak English. Apparently the different ethinic groups don’t like each other according to our driver who was half Singalese and half Indian Tamil but was born in Sri Lanka.

Our first sightseeing day was to Anuradhapura with it’s many archaeological Unesco sights spread over a large area. It was very hot and humid but we had lots of water/rehydration sachets on hand so it wasn’t a problem.
Sri Lanka has the most expensive entry fees we have come across on all our travels and compulsory amounts for guides. Entry fees ranged from $35-$40 each.

We had all morning in Anuradhapura which covers a large area and then got to Sigiriya at 4.30pm where we climbed the enormous rock which took about an hour with explanations on the way from the guide. We both made the 1236th step and had a wonderful view from the top over the national park and countryside. The remains of the Summer palace on top of the rock complete with swimming pool and Summer palace below are an amazing feat of construction. We stayed long enough to see the sunset on the way down. There were a few monkeys around but they were not bothersome ones, just curious ones.

We went back to Dambulla for a second night and Sundria cooked us dinner. The driver and I had string hoppers for breakfast with dahl and sambal while Maurice had his usual oats. Next visit was Polonnaruwa archaeological park and we had a very knowledgeable guide there who had worked in the Sri Lankan archaeological dept for 28years. The museum and sights were definately worth a visit.
We heard a noisy rustling of leaves and found two dogs having the time of their life in the mountains of leaves.

We finished the day with Dambulla rock cave temple another amazing feat of construction with so many buddhas in caves under the enormous rock. We were swamped with busloads of school children of all ages – most carrying lotus flower offerings which many of the monkeys managed to steal.

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We arrived in the early evening on the 11th March. We had obtained our visas online so there was no waiting around at the airport. We thought it strange that the first thing we saw in the duty free area were the number of outlets selling washing machines, fridges and all sorts of whitegoods. We probably could have got the kitchen sink as well!
After getting some Sri Lankan rupees (107 to the Aud)from an ATM and a sim card we left the airport and caught a disappearing sun as we were driven the hour and a half to the residential suburb of Colombo 7. It would have been a quicker journey but we arrived at peak hour.
We stayed at our first airbnb in Longden place which turned out to be a very good location. It was near all the embassies so was a very quiet neighbourhood. When we arrived it was extremely humid and hot.
There were many more cars than motorbikes or scooters here and many were new. Most of the locals appeared to wear western dress rather than the traditional saris worn in a Sri Lankan way. Those however in an official capacity had to wear sari.

The first impressions of Colombo were of the cleanliness of the city, the very green leafy suburbs and the friendliness of the people. Individual sellers still plied their wares in the upmarket suburbs calling out to the inhabitants. On Sunday morning a fish monger was sitting in the street filleting a large fish. Every Sri Lankan we met seemed to have a brother or uncle living in Melbourne and a very good restaurant called Upali’s even had a branch in Melbourne.

The owners of the airbnb were very helpful and recommended a restaurant called “Green Cabin” which served local food which was tasty and very reasonable. There was a mixture of locals and tourists – we tried hoppers (bowl shaped crispy rice cakes) and string hoppers (vermicelli like patties made from rice flour)- with a cashew nut curry and coconut sambal. There was a sudden clap of thunder and a tropical downpour followed but it abated quickly enough for us to get an auto-rickshaw back to our guesthouse which also provided us with breakfast every day, a mixture of western and local rotis with spicy coconut sambal.

The directions that our landlady gave us the following morning were not correct and we ended up walking many kilometres before realizing that we were not headed in the right direction towards Independence Square. It was a good long walk before breakfast along the wide streets shaded with beautiful “Mara” trees with their enormous canopies.

We visited the Gangarayama temple which had an inordinate number of buddhas in all shapes and forms. It was the weirdest temple we had visited with a very disjointed layout and a museum upstairs with thousands of articles, some behind glass all practically on top of each other. There was a temmple car museum on the ground floor and a fridge and freezer on the next level amongst all the buddhas as well as various sets of tables and chairs, many ivory tusks, a grandfather clock all put hiddledy piggledy around the many rooms.
A saffron robed priest led a few people at a time into a glass enclosed altar adorned with priceless statues of white jade, green jade, quartz and solid pieces of ruby made into buddhas and proceeded to bless them (me included). It was a short walk to Beira lake with a temple in the lake and a small island connected by a bridge where locals were eating lunch.

The tuk tuks were plentiful and many were metered but in the city centre we had to negotiate each trip as they did not use meters. Each journey was only 100-200 rupees or $1-$2. We walked the length of “Galle (pronouned Gaul) Face Green” by the ocean and where we saw a stingray jump out of the water. There is much construction taking place by the seaside with an enormous “Shangri-la” hotel and arcade taking shape. A large lake was fed from the ocean and a large monitor lizard and many herons were walking around in a large built up pond.

There were many pelicans perched on the top of several lamposts and one left a message down Maurice’s back and legs! He was not impressed.

The next day we found (after getting better directions) Independence Square and Monument and the lovely extensive park where many locals walked and exercised. Next to it was a beautiful colonial style shopping arcade with many shops and restaurants over two levels. On our way back to the house we saw another large lizard (about 1/2 metre) disappear down a drain. In contrast to the canals in Pondicherry the drains were not at all smelly!

We found the “Coffee Bean and Leaf” for a much needed coffee but we decided not to return after being charged more than AUD$5 for a cappuccino. This seemed exhorbitant given the labour and food costs here in Sri Lanka.

We settled on the Kaema Sutra restaurant for a light lunch at the Independence Arcade and then walked around the “Viharamadevi” park where families were enjoying their Sunday.

We returned to town to visit the “Dutch Hospital” building with it’s courtyards and many restaurants. The famous “Ministry of Crab” restaurant was located here. We walked to Galle Face Green to watch the sunset and there were huge crowds out enjoying the breeze from the ocean.

I was looking forward to a cocktail at the Cinnamon Grand where we had dinner at the “Lagoon” seafood restaurant but had to settle for a mocktail. There was no alcohol being served anywhere in Colombo that day as a revered monk had died and his funeral was that day. There was a power cut in all of Colombo for half the day and only the large hotels had generators so we could at least have light to enjoy our meal.

Our taxi didn’t arrive the next morning so we caught a tuk tuk with just our small bags (the large ones had been left at the house for our return to Colombo) to Mt Lavinia hotel about 1/2 hour away. Maurice had stayed there as a 3 year old with his parents on his way out to Australia for 10days when their ship broke down and my mother had visited Mt Lavinia hotel also 67 years ago on her way out to OZ with her parents. The hotel had changed over the years but remained an iconic building on the hill surrounded by the ocean, rocks and palm trees.

The train line went right past the hotel and to get to the beach on one side we had to negotiate walking along the tracks and ducking off to the side when the train blew the whistle on it’s approach.
We treated ourselves to high tea on the terrace and it was refreshing to have a constant breeze,

relax by the ocean and enjoy a lazy day before being collected the following day by our driver/guide for the twelve day trip around the middle and south areas of the island. The Australian government had warned not to go north as there had been some robberies of tourists in the area so we heeded their warning when planning the trip.

We were collected the next morning the 16th March by our driver Ravi for the 12day tour around the central and southern part of the island.

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We had a nice relaxed start to our work at Mantra for the months of January,February and part of March 2016.

Mantra is located in a small fishing village 500metres from the sea to the north of “white town” or the French Heritage area of Pondicherry and belongs to the same owners of “Gratitude” guesthouse which we looked after last year and which is about half an hour’s walk away or ten minutes by bicycle. The piece de resistance is the 20metre covered pool which is most welcome on a hot and sticky day. Guests from both properties could use it at the cost of Rs200 for an hour or Rs3000 for the month. We could use it any time which was a bonus.

Maurice and I bought new bikes for $85 each rather than hire them as some looked very unreliable and old. The owners will give us half when we leave and then hire them out to guests.
The large house has two fully self contained units on the first floor with long stay guests who looked after themselves. The ground floor has two rooms with ensuites which share a common area with the two units in the basement where we were located.

The basement was a quarter of a metre under water after the heavy rains a couple of months before but had since been dried out and totally refurbished to a comforable living area with vibrant wall colours.

There are only four staff – a groundsman come watchman and three women who looked after the cleaning/washing and cooking. The ground floor guests could order breakfast for Rs200 but most just brought their own and had the use of the kitchen facilities and common area.
The house is surrounded on three sides by garden and the building of a two storey guesthouse on the block next door was started while we were there. The owners eventually want to establish a cafe on the site.

Being a fishing village there are only some basic shops nearby and local markets so the area is ready for a cafe on this side of town.

Our duties were to do inventories of everything in the house, sort out the storeroom and kitchen and make general recommendations for improvements to the house. It was not as much work as Gratitude which is run as a B and B and has a greater turnover of guests however we suffered from maintenance issues which are forever ongoing in India. We were always ringing for the electrician, plumber and handyman. The humid climate by the sea ensures that the building needs whitewashing on a continuous basis.

We were in Pondicherry again for their harvest festival “Pongal” which ran over three days in the middle of January and there were many colourful “kolams” on every street. There was a lot more noise generally in the village of Vaithikuppam where we stayed. When someone dies there is a lot of drumming and for various temple festivals much loud music from speakers in the main streets of Vaithikuppam. This was not heard in “White town”. The fishing village can be a loud place but it is interesting to see how differently the people live over this side! White town is a much more sanitized place.

We have however noticed a great improvement in rubbish collection although there is still much to be done. A young Frenchman we met has the task of spending 200million euros on the clean up of all the waterways in Pondicherry which would make a huge difference to the whole area if most of it isn’t whittled away to corrupt officials.

Medical and dental services here in Pondicherry are extremely good and the payment of $15 for an ultrasound and the same for teeth cleaning and polishing can’t be beaten.

We had our friend Tracey from Perth join us for a couple of weeks and it was lovely to have her with us and be able to show her the area. We did do rather a lot of shopping – mainly clothes and fabrics which are hard to resist and where the choice is unsurpassed – especially in a department store called Pothys.

Tracey and I got caught up in cutting and sewing fabric for decorating the Craft Bazaar for the Heritage Festival which took place over three days. Virginia an English woman did a lot of work getting the Tamil NGO’s involved and made sure things were printed in Tamil so that the local population got involved too. Large crowds of Tamil people visited the performances and the Craft Bazaar. It was wonderful and quite moving to watch the dancers especially the disabled children and to see their wonderful young teacher prompting them along the way. It was a lot of work all round but worth it in the end with the Japanese head of Unesco Asia opening the Festival.

We took Tracey to Auroville – the town twenty minutes from Pondicherry to see the Matrimandir. We also bought a few things from the pottery exhibition there where potters from Auroville and other parts of India plied their wares. We also visited the large expo opposite the Gandhi statue where stall holders came from all over India to promote and sell their goods.

One day while cycling along the Promenade (which has been cleaned up dramatically in one year) we saw a large group of children who were visiting the seaside for the first time. It was wonderful to watch. They were so excited and when they got to the Promendate they just stood there staring at the water in awe.

There seemed to have been a lot of white washing of heritage buildings in the French side of town and there was a lot of work being done at the Joan of Arc park apparently being paid for by the French.

There was something on every week – expos, free concerts, dance performances and films at the Alliance Francaise as well as the Heritage Festival and the Fair Trade and Water conservation festival.

India is definately the place to have anything fixed from shoes,bags,clothes and everything else. They are masters at fixing things – no such word as no and everything so cheap. I got an A3 photo picture print framed with glass for $7.

The majority of Tamils we have met have been very pleasant with a ready smile and some of the auto-rickshaw drivers get out of their vehicles and help the elderly (not Maurice except when he was not feeling well) across the road. I have made friends with some of the very helpful and cheerful salesgirls from the supermarkets and the boutiques with whom I can always share a chat and a laugh or with Rajesh a lovely barista at Cafe Ole who wanted me to write down my favourite ten Indian boys
and girls names for the baby his wife is expecting in a couple of months. Unfortunately our lovely friend Vijay from Gratitude left the company after six years and had us over for dinner with his family. We will keep in touch with him.

Towards the end of our stay we had Harsh Mander an author and civil rights activist come to Pondicherry. He has written a book called “Looking Away” describing the indifference of the rich and middle classes towards the downtrodden and minority peoples of India. He is very controversial and the landlords fearing retribution banned him from speaking at Sharana an NGO for underpriviledged children. Luckily “Gratitude came to the fore and he had his book reading and discussion there.

I did have the privilege of accompanying him and a couple of others to Baby Sarah’s Home for orphaned and disabled children from 3-18years of age. Steven the CEO is a wonderful caring person who feeds, houses and clothes 100 children with the help donations and overseas volunteers. He has great plans for the place but sensibly takes one project at a time. Over the years he has integrated some of his charges sucessfully into society and to jobs.

We had some interesting guests over our two months – Elisabeth who has become a friend – a former French film producer and writer who lives in Hydra. RJ a writer from Lincoln, UK, John a university professor and Alicia from Minesota, Martin a lovely English gentleman from Ipswich and Trishla a Marathon runner from
Bangalore who was running in the Auroville marathon which attracted over 3000 people. Aiyana an caligrapher and artist was staying for many months. The majority were long stay guests (two weeks to a month).

We did have a lucky escape while we were at Mantra. Maurice was in the basement and called for me to come and identify from where a burning smell was coming. As we entered our bedroom the EVS (Electronic Voltage Stabilizer) for our air conditioner had flames coming out of it’s side. Quick thinking Maurice pulled out the plug and used the thick floormat to extinguish the flame before it could take hold. If he hadn’t been in the basement it might have been a different story.
They came and replaced the faulty box so we hope that is the last of it.

It has also been my job to replace old items and buy new stock the house and I have bought a few nice plants for the house for a few dollars.

Our last ten days was spent sorting goods to send home and on to Germany and revisiting places or restaurants which were particularly good. We departed Pondicherry for the three hour trip to Chennai airport on the 11th March for an individual tour of Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks.

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