Kandy and Dambulla, Sri Lanka
With extra time on my hands, thanks to still-inefficient but favorable public transport, I decided to do things a little differently. Heading into Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, I opted to scour Couchsurfing and found a generous host in Leslie, his wife, Vasanti, and their young-teenage son, Jehan. They live in a village 12 km east of Kandy — not a terribly far distance, but with local buses, it meant being an hour out of the city. Despite the crowded buses, fellow passengers were super helpful and also a little surprised to see a foreigner on their rather untouristy bus route, making for a pleasantly peaceful experience, zooming by non-descript shops and the countryside.
Staying with a family in a decidedly normal, sub-sub-suburban neighbourhood away from general tourism was a refreshing break that provided a much clearer perspective of local life. Leslie and his family were incredibly welcoming, with Vasanti’s amazing cooking and their homegrown backyard bananas being an extra treat, and I was beyond grateful to be received as a friend, on super short notice and overlapping a night while they were hosting another couchsurfer too.
With Leslie at work, or at home helping Jehan with his math homework, and Vasanti seeming prepping food at all hours of the day (waking up at 3:30 to start a fire and make breakfast!), I busied myself reading or writing or watching TV courtesy of Leslie’s homemade satellite that I helped him install. Between all that though, we had some fascinating conversations about something that I had really wanted to learn more about, but was afraid to ask — and I didn’t even have to ask.
War and politics. Easy stuff, eh?
Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a great railway network with modern, roomy train cars — who’d have thought? With a four-hour ride costing barely $2, plus beautiful scenery through the mountains, it was a no brainer to take it from Haputale to Hatton.
From Hatton, I took a bus to Nallatanniya (Dalhousie), the entry point to Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada. Here, Sri Lanka’s four religions have an odd point of convergence. At the top of Adam’s Peak is a footprint. Buddhists say it’s that of the Buddha himself. Hindus say it’s that of the god Shiva. Most bizarrely, some Muslims say it’s either the footprint of Adam (as in Adam and Eve, and hence the name of the peak — kind of unlikely, given that Biblical Eden is in modern-day Iraq or Iran) and Christians say it’s St. Thomas (somewhat more likely, due to his later life in Chennai, but barely). It’s a point of pilgrimage for everyone, but for Buddhists most of all.
Haputale, Sri Lanka
After being badly sunburnt from head to toe, carrying a bag of shoes still heavy and wet from the flash flood, little sleep, and 6 hours of buses whose interiors flash colourfully like mini discos and have subwoofers blaring out upbeat Sinhalese pop music non-stop… I gotta say, just arriving in Haputale was a welcome reprieve. More tea estates? Yes please.
A small town perched on the ridge of a tall mountain, with expansive views of mist-covered peaks on one side and a tea estate and village-covered valley on the other, the geography of the town was such that getting around was far easier by walking along the train tracks than along the road. So I did just that, walking towards the outskirts of town to find a guesthouse. The first thing I notice? Butterflies, everywhere. (Given how tiny they are, they’re pretty hard to photograph.) You literally can’t turn your head anywhere and go more than two seconds without seeing a butterfly. With the fresh air and the pleasant locals, all smiling as we passed each other going opposite ways on the train tracks, I was pretty much enamored by the town within five minutes, before even finding a place and putting my stuff down.
Galle and Mirissa, Sri Lanka
Both the road and train to Galle hug the western coast of Sri Lanka, with nondescript villages and beaches (and the odd low-key resort) lining the route. I could only watch as they flitted past me on my bus ride to Galle — sacrifices needed to be made, with only 11 days in a country.
Only a few days in, I notice that most people in Sri Lanka are pretty smiley. I get on a bus, people smile at me. Someone takes the seat next to me, they smile at me. Indeed, one man did just that, but then struck up a conversation. Shukry introduced himself, and after the usual pleasantries of “where are you from?”, “where are you going?”, and “do you like Sri Lanka?”, gave me a warm welcome. A local gem seller himself (one of Sri Lanka’s more famous exports), he lit up when I mentioned where I was from; he has family in Chicago and Toronto. And that was enough for him to invite me to stay at his house, where his son was already hosting a German friend for the past month, and where he has direct access to the water, a boat, and some jetskis on hand.
Why did I not take that offer?! I’m stupid. But nonetheless, I’m struck by how open people are to strangers here.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
I had little knowledge of Sri Lanka prior to arriving. A shame, I know — I always like to read up a little before I get somewhere, and I hadn’t really this time.
My assumptions? Okay, probably South Indian-influenced… Decades of civil war just ended maybe 5 years ago… Majority Buddhist, minority Muslim. More specifically, majority Sinhalese, minority Tamil. So, what does that spell? An India-like place with sustained war damage, and lots of monks around?
So imagine my surprise when I land in a gleaming airport, and on the one-hour ride into Colombo, passed mostly immaculate, new streets (unlike most of India, with actual sidewalks!) with smooth-moving traffic and minimal honking, with people laconically walking about not in dhotis and saris, but in Western clothing. Huh. Moral of the story? Don’t assume.
Joined by Liran from Israel, who I met in Alappuzha, I headed to my final stop in India for this trip: Fort Kochi, formerly and still known as Cochin, and known for being a former Dutch colonial town that’s preserved its old flavour. Liran had already spent some time here before, so it was more for me to take a quick look around for a day before we both made the jump to Sri Lanka the next morning.
I admit, the first few hours felt a little uninspiring. Tourist shops everywhere, tourist hordes everywhere, and nothing felt authentic, more for show. Drained of energy, we hired a $1 tuk-tuk to take us around all the main sights for a few hours just to get them over with… with the catch being that we had to stop and walk around some shops for five minutes. Heh. Church here, cemetery there, palace here, temple there… and a shop. The shopkeepers know exactly what’s going on there, and so did we (even before getting in the tuk-tuk), with our driver getting commission from the shop owners for taking passengers there. With everything either straight-up unaffordable or obviously wrong for us (like women’s jewellery), we just made some small talk to kill the timer. That didn’t work, and sick of fake-shopping and checking off some sights I couldn’t really care much about, we ditched the tuk-tuk.
But then we wandered off on our own, and found a beguiling Jewish quarter complete with a synagogue, Bazaar Street with plenty of people going about their daily lives, a lively promenade, the busy evening scene of fishermen selling their catches, and most surprisingly, a vibrant arts scene, with galleries, murals, and a peaceful coexistence with the colonial charm. Definitely won me over. We enjoyed the sunset over the famous Chinese fishing nets, had ourselves some seafood, and toasted to India.
Descending from the cool, fresh air of the mountains meant a return to humidity and heat, but heading directly to Alappuzha (still also known as Alleppey) gave me a couple days’ respite. Kerala’s crown jewel is most definitely the backwaters: freshwater canals, lakes, and lagoons dotted with lush, palm-covered islands and islets. Alappuzha is one of the more common tourist access points, and the city itself is criss-crossed with canals and boat traffic, with large, high-up bridges scattered around to cross between sides.