Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Ten days in Sri Lanka felt like a dream. I floated in from India and drifted gradually up into the mountains. Nothing travels too fast here, least of all the traffic. In Madulkelle, a village high in the hills of the countries interior, cool wisps of cloud crept through the surrounding tea plantations. There was a sense of deep, forgiving calm shaken only by the occasional shower of rain: loose and without ambition as if the weather had been a mere afterthought on the days agenda.

At night, a different story: Thunderstorms to humble Zeus himself would tumble overhead, occasionally reaching out to fork at the ground. Rooftops provided little comfort in what was a staggering demonstration of the weather system’s grip on the world.

An expensive alternative to India, it was a 5-star departure from what I had become accustomed to. After a month in Indian hostels it’s funny what you begin to appreciate from accommodation: there’s toilet paper, hot water — holy shit they even provide towels! Naturally, it was over too soon and, despite having had a delightful visit, the brevity of it left me fearing I hadn’t really gotten a handle on how things are done in Sri Lanka. Upon returning to India, I swear to god I let out a sigh of relief: this was a place I knew my way around. How things do change.

A gigantic Bhudda rests in the cave temples of Dambulla
The exterior of the cave temples in Dambulla inset into the surrounding cliffs Dawn over the tea planatations of Madulkelle
The imposing, club-house like structure of Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge — offering possibly the most wonderful stay I've yet to experience
Torrential rain fuels a waterfall amidst tea plantations in Madulkelle Tea leaves are dried in vented troughs, releasing a pungent aroma of tea into the surrounding neighborhood

On the left: Torrential rain fuels a waterfall admist tea plantations in Madulkelle. On the right: Tea leaves are dried in vented troughs, releasing a pungent aroma of tea into the surrounding neighborhood. This particular factory produced near-on 3 tonnes of tea from 13.5 tonnes of leaves every single day.

Firewood, stacked and drying, used to fuel the boilers at the tea factory The indoor-outdoor flow of Kalundewa Retreat's lobby
Cheerfully colourful scenes dance their way around the walls of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy A couple rest on the train from Kandy to Colombo

Pondicherry

Pondicherry, India

In India, it pays to ask as many people as possible where a bus is going before you board it. In doing so, it occasionally happens that you end up where you had hoped to get to. So, as I board a semi-sleeper from Madurai to Pondicherry, I proceed to question the passengers already on board. Each inquiry is met with firm agreement. The driver, too, confirms we’re headed for Pondicherry. You can imagine my bemusement, then, when after spending the night aboard I wake to find we’ve arrived in Chennai: 3 hours north of our intended destination. I’m confused, the driver’s confused and the only recourse seems to be to laugh at the absurdity of it. Hastily they pile me into a rickshaw and, in hot pursuit of the appropriate bus, we wind through rush hour. I am unceremoniously thrown aboard, wheels still in motion, and we make our way down the coast.

For any sheltered westerner looking to travel here, myself included, Pondicherry offers an excellent starting point: Blending the chaos of India with European tranquility. This peculiar mix affords the visitor a chance to dip in and out of the mayhem at their leisure – an impossibility in bigger cities.

A French colony until the 1950s, the architecture of Pondicherry is striking, colourful and wonderfully dilapidated. The fact that there isn’t much to “do” here only adds to the charm. Of particular relief is Paradise beach a few kilometers down from the French quarter: perhaps the only beach in the whole region of Tamil Nadu where a westerner can swim without attracting a crowd of onlookers.

The promenade of the French quarter. A popular stroll for locals and tourists alike, the road is closed to traffic at both sunrise and sunset
The public works building in the French quarter: A relic of Pondicherrys colonial past Beautiful metalwork adorns a gateway down Rue Labourdonnais in the French quarter
You don't often see graffiti in India, but when you do it's kind of a downer A statue of Ghandi marks the centerpeice of the promenade in the French quarter
Like a group of old, rather portly gentlemen sat about smoking, I came across this casual meeting in the botanical gardens

Like a group of old, rather portly gentlemen sat about smoking, I came across this casual meeting in the botanical gardens

The sun sets over Osudu lake, near Pondicherry The Eglise de notre Dame des Anges faces the ocean, near the promenade

When I wasn’t consumed by the arduous task of relaxation, I ventured to learn a thing or two at the local cultural centre “SITA”.

Drifting from cooking classes to art & massage, I can say with conviction that I hadn’t felt so at home in a long while. No doubt my departure came as a relief to the staff, having had to put up with my countenance continually over the duration of my stay.

Learning about Kollam, a local art-form, at [SITA](http://www.pondicherry-arts.com/en/) cultural centre Fish await sale at the open-air Goubert markets

On the left: Attending a course on Kollam, a local art-form. 10 minutes into the lesson a parrot emerges from her handbag and spends the rest of the time perched on her shoulder, passing judgment on my awful technique

The fruits of a Souther Indian cooking class on display

Here, the fruits of a Southern Indian cooking class on display. Cooking Chapatis is a high pressure situation if ever there was one

Madurai

Madurai, India

I barely stepped foot in Madurai before I had to leave again. To make matters worse, the steps I did take were plagued by an almost total loss of leg function owing to the previous days hike.

Madurai is home to perhaps the largest temple in India, the Meenakshi Amman. Thousands of granite pillars hold over 45 acres of inner & outer sanctums together. As the faithful pray to an incalculable number of shrines within, a festive elephant plucks donations from the hands of visitors, tapping them on their heads as a blessing afterward.

Each night the central statue of Siva is delivered in a ceremonial procession from his sanctuary to his wife Meenakshi’s chambers. There they rest together until dawn, whereupon the procession is reversed. Tireless, this ritual continues day in, day out, matched in perseverance only by the horde of tourists following in its wake, camera phones waving in the air. Incapacitated or not, I do my best to hobble along with them.

The West Tower of the Meenakshi Amman temple stands tall above the city at sunset
The Thirumalai Nayak Palace, a 17th century palace designed by an Italian architect
A familiar indian scene: Cattle rummaging for food in front of a bookstore on a dusty back street The entrance to the Theosophical Society Madras Library, a place to seek some peace among the choked city streets

Kodaikanal

Kodaikanal, India

As day breaks our bus begins to wind it’s way up a precipitous mountain road toward the Kodaikanal hill station. Our pilot applies the horn judiciously at each corner, continuing the cacophony which all passengers aboard had endured for the past six hours. The man seated next to me hacks and coughs and for every 100 feet we climb appears to double his efforts to exhume a lung. My only consolation comes from the knowledge that further back in the bus Nuriel and Amit, a couple of travelers from Israel, were suffering through the same ordeal.

I met Nuriel and Amit on a bus out of Mahabalipuram and they were quick to fill me in on their plans to make for Kodaikanal: a sleepy, mystical town drifting high in the clouds where the very fabric of time itself seemed weaved a little looser. Expectations are not wisely held in a country such as this, however we were sold on the dream and made our way up to find it.

Far from disappointment, the view took our breath away and the cool restored a sense of sanity I hadn’t felt since I’d left New Zealand. Popular among tourists both Indian and foreign, Kodaikanal offers a welcome respite from the sweltering furnace of the plains below.

Sunrise viewed from the banks of Greenlands Youth Hostel
Dusk falls on the hills surrounding Kodaikanal
The tourist season not quite arrived, we joined the local shopkeepers in a highly competitive game of Carrom. Essentially a flat version of pool. Curiousity: I am eyed cautiously by a lizard as I eye it right back in Bryant park

On the left: The tourist season not quite arrived, we joined the local shopkeepers in a highly competitive game of Carrom. Essentially a flat version of pool. To the right: Having climbed up my leg, a lizard eyes me cautiously as I eye it right back in Bryant park.

One of the many lookouts on the hike down from Kodaikanal. 10 minutes later the entire scene is enshrouded in clouds. Our guide informs us he planned it so

One of the many lookouts on the hike down from Kodaikanal. 10 minutes later the entire scene is enshrouded in clouds. Our guide informs us he planned it so.

After a couple of restorative days, I linked up with a Frenchman by the name of Nicholas and we decided to embark upon a guided hike back down to the plains.

A curious fellow, our guide gleefully smoked and nattered his way down the mountain. Leading us from vista to vista, enthusiastically snatching our cameras to take all assortment of creative photography. To call this a goat track would sing perhaps too high a praise and we often found ourselves skating down the loose, rocky outcrops instead of walking.

Descending from on high, the heat rushed up to greet us, delighted to enter us into its boiling embrace once again. Hiking through hill towns and farms of avocado, coffee and cocoa accessible only by foot, we eventually arrived on the flatlands only to be promptly tucked into a ragged rickshaw. As we bounced and clattered our way to the local bus depot, I was relieved just to be seated after a long day on foot. Truly, India is a country where ones sense of comfort learns to loosen considerably.

Clouds sidle up the hillside as I peer back whence we came
The path out of Vattakanal Language proves an adequate barrier when I enquire as to whether this species of spider is poisonous. The guide merely beams and tells me to take a photograph. I keep my distance

On the left: the path out of Vattakanal. To the right: Language proves an adequate barrier when I inquire as to whether this species of spider is poisonous. The guide merely beams and tells me to take a photograph. I keep my distance.

Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, India

A chorus of rock-tapping, drilling and sawing serenades you as you enter Mahabalipuram, a small coastal town with a history stretching as far back as the 1st century AD. Haven of fishermen and stone-workers, the only thing more aggressive than the noise of their trade is the salesmen heckling you to see their wares. I was deep in the heart of Backpackistan, as the lonely planet so quaintly put it.

Fervent in their worship, the Southern Indian states and in particular Tamil Nadu are known for constructing copious numbers of temples. Mahabalipuram could be the poster-child for this phenomenon as here you might struggle to walk ten steps without striking upon yet another temple enshrining one of the many Hindu gods. A galaxy of such structures, often carved into the cliffs themselves, awaits anyone willing to take a stroll through the central park.

The shore temple at Mahabalipuram. Degraded by the ocean winds, the appearance of the sculptures is almost surrealist A monkey rests on Mahabalipuram hill, in front of the lighthouse
The Vishnu tank, situated near to the Shore temple
Krishna Mandapam, a cave temple carved directly into the cliff face at Mahabalipuram hill Depictions of hindu gods are lit up at night during the 3-day fishermens festival

On the East Coast road between Mahabalipuram and Chennai lies everything from artist communes to crocodile parks. I spent the day darting from point to point on the way through. Of particular note was Dakshinachitra, an open-air museum of sorts offering a cultural history of each state of India as well as classes on glass-blowing, sari-weaving and more.

Glass blowing at Dakshinachitra
Though likely spiritual in nature, I have no explanation for what this is A very sinister-looking breeding pair of the endangered Siamenese crocodile family rest together at the Madras Crocodile Bank