Posted in Travel

Bodhgaya, India (Where Buddha became enlightened and I became ill)

What a novel concept, typing with both hands on a laptop rather than tapping out one letter at a time on my iPhone. Thank you to those that made it through all the unedited ramblings of my journey. I made it home safely and am now dealing with jet lag in the comfort of my bed, with my dog by my side. Before I get back to all the busyness that home brings, here is my last post (for now at least).

I hadn’t originally planned to come to Bodhgaya, I was supposed to go to Rishikesh instead. But after my time at Kopan monastery, I felt like I should at least visit the spot where Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree. A friend at Kopan Monastery told me about the Root Institute (a meditation center), so that’s where I planned to stay for my final 6 nights in India. I actually had no idea that it was connected to Kopan, having been opened by Lama Yeshe back in 1984. What a lovely surprise to discover this and to also see a few familiar faces from Kopan when I arrived, including one of my Kopan roomies. It’s like I had come full circle and it felt like home. Three of us went for dinner the first night and visited the Maha Bodhi temple complex which houses the famous Bodhi tree where Prince Siddhartha sat and meditated until he found enlightenment (became a Buddha). Although not the original tree, this tree is said to have been grown from a branch of the original 2,500-year-old  tree. Right behind the tree is a massive stupa/temple to mark the spot where Buddha became enlightened, which was fully restored in the 1880s. You cannot take your phone into the complex, so I will borrow some photos from the Internet. At night the temple is lit up and most of the visitors are devotees from all over the world coming to circumambulate, prostrate, meditate, and/or pray. The energy permeates the air, your body, and your mind.

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Maha Bodhi stupa at night. Source: https://speakzeasy.wordpress.com/tag/mahabodhi-temple/

The day after I arrived at the Root Institute many of the participants started the Green Tara retreat, which meant that everyone was in silence. This was completely fine with me and I welcomed the time to process my trip. I thought about my Buddhist practice, going over what I thought I had done well and where I could have dealt with things differently – all without judgement. I was happy to get back into a routine and join the morning meditation sessions and eat yummy buffet-style food, with salad! It was on that second day that I was so excited to finally have “safe” salad but quickly decided that I am no longer going to pretend to like cucumbers. There are conversations you have in your head while silent – in mine, I literally broke up with cucumber. It was also that salad, I believe, that made me sick. Seriously, I gave away what I thought was all my meds, thinking there was no way that I would get sick in my final 6 days at a meditation center. I had eaten at some very questionable places in India and in a month had not gotten sick, so I thought I was in the clear. Whatever it was, it knocked me out. I got up and meditated at 6:45am and then crawled back into bed until noon. Stayed up a few hours reading and then went back to bed. I couldn’t eat anything, which wasn’t the worst thing after all the over-indulgence. Thankfully I found a strip of three azithromycin tabs that I missed when giving everything else away. After 3 days of antibiotics, I was feeling normal again. Part of me also thinks that my adrenal glands are completely shot. Imagine walking along and a driver sneaks up behind you and then lays on their horn. Then imagine that happening about 50x per day. That’s what it’s like in India. they seem to think that I am going to randomly toss my body into the intersection so they’d better let me know they are there just on case. Thanks for that.

Green Tara statue at Root Institute

I visited the temple three more times just to circumambulate and meditate. I visited once during the day and confirmed that evenings were the better time to visit. Less tourists but thousands more mosquitos, so repellent is a must. The meditation park sounded nice but it’s actually under construction and was filled with men supposedly working, more like napping. During my meditation I felt like I was being stared at so I opened an eye and sure enough there is a huge group of Chinese tourists watching me. Better to just pick a spot amongst the crowd around the stupa. On my final evening there, a monk from Thailand handed me a leaf from the Bodhi tree saying that it was a gift. I thought, “oh how lovely” put my hands in prayer and said thank you. He then put out his hand and asked for his gift, I laughed thinking that he really didn’t understand the meaning of “gift” and handed him 10 rupees.

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Source: wetellyouhow.com/amazing-pics-worlds-top-10-heritage-sites-in-india

I also visited the 80 foot Buddha statue, which is just basically a place to take selfies from what I saw. There are many other Buddhist temples in Bodhgaya, built by/for Buddhists in many different countries. I did not visit many of them as I was done being a tourist and I preferred the quiet of the meditation center. I spent most of my time reading, including a book about a Buddhist nun from the UK who spent 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. I also watched a movie with the nuns and monks staying at Root about the Dalai Lama’s time in India. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, but it was very good. Other than the illness, my time at the Root Institute was nice and an important segue in preparing me for my trip home.

80 foot Buddha statue
The Thai Temple

The temple complex was beautiful and peaceful as was the Root Institute, everywhere in between was dirty, loud, and extremely poor. It was the first place in my travels where I felt worse for the people than I did for the dogs. There are literally people everywhere with bowls out and hands outstretched for food or money. It was also the first place where I felt I needed to give what I could as the people were not aggressive about it and in obvious need. I am truly blessed to live a comfortable life in Canada and be able to afford to travel. Sometimes you need to be reminded of that. I’m still processing everything and am very happy to be home. I am not sure if I’ll visit India again but if I do, I still want to make it to Rishikesh one day.

bodhi-tree
Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi. Source: https://tamilandvedas.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/bodhi-tree.jpg
Posted in Travel

Varanasi, India (Mayhem, stench, burning bodies, and puppies. I loved it)

I had pre-arranged for someone to pick me up from the Varanasi train station and I’m grateful for that as it was complete mayhem when I arrived. My hotel was near the Ganges at Kedar Ghat, which is in an ideal location between the more touristy main ghat and popular Assi Ghat. Once you get close to the ghats, you have to abandon your vehicle and walk through an intricate maze of alleyways to find your hotel. Thankfully my driver took me straight to my hotel and there were plenty of signs pointing me in the right direction once I was on my own. I was tired but also hungry, so I enjoyed the beautiful view of the river from the hotel rooftop restaurant and then had a nap. I didn’t want to feel intimidated by Varanasi and just hide out in my hotel all evening, so I put my big girl panties on and ventured out on my own to the Ganga Aarti, a nightly devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering to the Goddess Ganga. There were tons of people, a mix of tourists, locals, and pilgrims. I felt okay but I got lots of stares and questions. It was all very fascinating though and I’m glad I went.  

First night at Ganga Aarti

The next morning I went down to walk the ghats at sunrise. There are tons of people offering boat rides along the Ganges, but I wasn’t up for it and the walking was nice. When I got to Assi Ghat, I found a very sad looking dog that had a ruptured abscess on his face and who just looked so emaciated and depressed. I looked up an animal welfare agency in Varanasi and thankfully found Varanasi for Animals (vfa). Since it was still very early, I took a photo of him and promised I’d be back. When I called I was told the clinic was quite far away and was given another number. The person who answered the phone didn’t speak English so I called vfa back and was given the name and number of an Australian volunteer (Neeta) who had also planned on bringing him in. I called her and asked if I could come with her and she graciously accepted. I cancelled my tour for the day and met her and the dog (Matru) at the ghats. Off we went in an auto rickshaw to the vet. I was super grateful for Neeta’s help as she really cares about these dogs and she conveniently spoke Hindi. We left him at the vet and I started scheming on how I could bring him home. After much deliberation and research, I decided that this wasn’t the best idea and was reassured that there are people on the ghats that will look after him. 
How I found the poor love in the morning
Off to the vet we go!

With my new friend Neeta, I was shown a few great restaurants and ate many delicious western meals. She also walked down to the main burning ghat with me, which I can only describe as surreal. There are upwards of 300 bodies cremated here daily! One guy brought us right up to a row of active cremations and when I looked over and literally saw a leg melting, I nudged Neeta and said that we should move further away. It felt really disrespectful to be that close. Of course there are still scams even at this sacred spot. You will be told that the surrounding buildings house poor woman in hospice who cannot afford their own cremations, then your heartstrings will be pulled on to visit and buy them a pile of wood. Thankfully my driver had already warned me of this scam. From a distance we watched the process. First the bodies come in on bamboo stretchers, decorated in fabric and marigolds. Then the body is washed in the river for purification and set aside until it has dried, in the meantime cows will happily eat those marigolds right off the body, which is actually a good omen I am told. The body is then placed on a pile of wood and covered with more wood. It takes 3-4 hours for the body to burn and then the ashes are kept by the family for 2 weeks before being brought back to the river to be released. 

Sunrise at the small burning ghat (no active cremations, otherwise no photos allowed)

Varanasi is said to be the spiritual capital of India and it definitely feels this way with the numerous temples and cremations. The reason it is so spiritual and why so many people bathe in the Ganges River here is because this is the only place where the river turns back on itself. That’s what someone told me anyway. However, from what I’ve read, it is also the spot where Lord Shiva and Parvati stood when time started ticking for the first time. Whatever the reason, Hindus from all over come to bathe in and touch the river, and celebrate along the river banks. I was there during wedding season so there were many couples coming to the river for luck in their marriages. I swore, all of those women looked extremely unhappy, so I hope the river brings them all the happiness and luck. 

Married the day prior, the new couple receive river blessings

Varanasi is not a pretty place. There are times when the ghats can seem quite peaceful with men playing cards or badminton and kids playing cricket or flying kites. But there is also the pungent smell of cow manure and human urine, since the men seem to have zero bladder control and pee on everything in sight.  There are also literally hundreds of dogs, goats, chickens, water buffalo, and burning bodies too. And then by late morning it is swarming with people. All of that aside, the ghats are generally quite clean. There are people paid to sweep up the steps and there are garbage cans everywhere where men do their best to spit their red betel into. Garbage and bodies are no longer allowed to be tossed into the Ganges either, but I did see a dead cow bobbing down it once. I’m told the river is clean and was dared to go have a bath in it. No thanks. Which is probably why I didn’t risk getting into a boat either. 

At least I would have had my own boat!

One of my favorite moments was watching the sunset from the roof of my hotel. The sunset was beautiful but what really struck me were the hundreds of kids flying kites and playing the game of cutting their opponents string, like in the book, The Kite Runner. I also saw families of monkeys playing and jumping from rooftop to rooftop; a rooftop cricket game; and two men that spent hours hollering and spinning rags at a flock of pigeons that called their roof home. 

Rooftop view with purple kite in foreground

On day 3 I went to Sarnath to visit the Dhamekh Stupa (and ancient grounds), the location where Buddha gave his first sermon after becoming enlightened under the Bodhi tree. There is also a temple, deer park, and museum. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site not to be missed (unless of course you don’t care about Buddha). 

Dhamekh stupa – Sarnath

The rest of my time was spent walking along the ghats, eating great food, and playing with lots of dogs and puppies. One night I bought this sweet mum of 7 puppies a chicken dinner for 200 rupees. That is more than I pay for my own veggie meals. The men at the shop thought we were crazy and proceeded to take out their cameras to document the crazy westerners feeding a dog a perfectly good chicken dinner. 

One small section of the ghats: 4 chickens, 3 cows, 11 dogs

My final day was bitter sweet, I was happy to move on but I also grew to really like Varanasi. It was also the day that Neeta was going to check up on Matru and I would have loved to have gone. I had a great breakfast at the best cafe owned by an American woman (Aum Cafe). I then headed to the train where once again I felt a bit afraid standing there in the platform by myself, unsure if I was going to get on the right train or not. And then my fears were validated when two women swarmed me talking a mile a minute in Hindi. I thought they were trying to ask what train I was getting on but then a sketchy looking guy that knew them came over and asked if I had crack and that he needs crack. I said no and that the stuff was bad for you. Thankfully a train came (not mine) and I used the opportunity to move far away from them.  
Good times at Underground Cafe with Neeta, Tim, and Nora

I got my update on Matru. He is still not better. We suspect it’s nasal TVT (a type of tumor) but the vet doesn’t agree but will give him chemo anyway?! In any case, he would not be healthy enough to come home to Canada anyway. I did what I could, got him treatment and made a donation to vfa. Hopefully he’ll be better soon. 

Posted in Travel

Agra, India (a must-see monument and a rug I didn’t know I needed)

On the way to Agra we stopped at Khole Ke Hanuman Ji Temple complex, a Hindu monkey temple that was interesting but had an outrageous amount of begging and holy men that let you inside the temples and then forcefully ask for a donation.

Hanuman Temple near Jaipur

We then stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient city built of red sandstone. After acquiring a guide I did not ask for, I didn’t feel like paying an additional 500 rupees to see the palace side of the complex. My driver was not impressed with me but I don’t think he understands what it’s like to be a small blonde woman in India, where no doesn’t seem to be accepted as an answer. I was fine with what I saw there. 
My guide took this great photo at Fatehpur Sikri

The one thing I did not want to miss on my trip to India was the Taj Mahal, which is located in Agra. The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan in 1632 to house his wife’s tomb after she died giving birth to their 14th child. It took 22 years and 20,000 artisans to complete. Constructed of white marble and semi-precious stone inlays, this mausoleum is nothing short of amazing. The first night I viewed the Taj from across the Yamuna River at sunset and then went to my nice hotel and watched TV for the first time in 4 months. 
First glimpse of the Taj Mahal!!

The next morning I arrived at the Taj at sunrise but because so many tourists jumped the queue, I didn’t actually get to see the sunrise. It didn’t matter once you got in because the magnificence of the Taj made you forget the sunrise and that there were hundreds (thousands?) of other people there. The only thing that I found a bit disturbing was that they give everyone a pair of disposable shoe covers and a bottle of water – with 50,000 visitors per day, that is a lot of waste. Not that it helps much when it’s only a few people, but you can decline, which I did. Unfortunately you cannot take photos inside the Taj Mahal, but trust me when I say that the intricate carving and stone inlays are impressive. 

Obligatory Taj photo

Although the Taj is the highlight of Agra, Agra Fort is also quite nice. Yes another fort, but this one actually had really beautiful architecture, so it was definitely worth the visit. Next up was the baby Taj Mahal (built 1622-1628), another tomb of someone I’ve never heard of. It doesn’t actually have any family correlation to the Taj Mahal but I believe it’s called this because it was used as a draft for the Taj Mahal.
Afterwards, I finally agreed to go to some shops. Just a marble shop and then a textile shop where I firmly said I wasn’t looking to buy anything. “Don’t worry ma’am, looking is free.” $375 and a rug later, I was done looking. I love my new rug but my bag is very heavy now! 
This is not my rug, but this is how it was made

My train to Varanasi wasn’t until 8:30pm so I paid extra to stay longer in my hotel and let my driver get back to Delhi. The Agra train station was a little daunting and the train was late. I migrated towards a young male couple from Spain and together we bombarded any harassment. I then shared a “cabin”  with a French couple – I’ve never been so happy to see other westerners. I didn’t really sleep and the only food offered was a veg cutlet sandwich, but 14 hours later, I was finally in Varanasi. 

Sometimes Indian trains serve decent food, this was not one of those times. Lol

Posted in Travel

Jaipur, India (no love for the pink city)

Jaipur is about a 5 hour drive from Delhi and I was grateful to travel in a nice, air-conditioned car. Sitting in the front seat of a car however, made the road kill a lot more prominent. We passed many dead dogs and cows along the way that I wished I hadn’t seen. Before checking into my hotel, we stopped at Amer Fort and Palace, Jaipur’s principal tourist stop. The best part was this beautiful mirrored room (Sheesh Mahal) said to have been built for the Queen of Jaipur so she could feel like she was sleeping under the stars.

Sheesh mahal – palace of mirrors

As we continued on to the hotel I saw a beautifully painted elephant walking along the road, so we stop and for 50 rupees, the trainer allowed me to pet her and have some photos with her. I declined riding her as I am very against elephant riding. However, just getting to pet her all on my own was the highlight of my stay in Jaipur. 

I know I’ve posted this photo everywhere, but I’m just so happy with this moment!

Feeling a little sheltered by riding in the car I decide to venture out on my own in search of a late lunch/early dinner. I ate a delicious meal at a tiny hole-in-the-wall for cheap and then start walking back to the hotel because there is really not much else Jaipur can offer you, unless you want to shop. I pass by a young guy on the street who starts the usual line of questioning and I must have been short with him because he accused me of not liking Indian people. I told him that this was not true and he asked me to join him for tea, to which I declined. I chatted with him a bit and then of course it turns out that he co-owns the nearby textile shop. I agree to come have a look and a cup of tea. He didn’t pressure me into buying anything but I did actually want to have a kurta (top) made, so I said I’d return the next evening after my day of touring. 

The following morning we started at Birla Mandir, a modern Hindu temple, followed by the nearby Ganesha Temple. Neither of them are must-sees. Just outside the Ganesha Temple a man offered me a free massage and then practically begs for sex. I put my hand up to his face with a firm no and proceeded to the car. My driver was very angry and wanted me to show him who it was. Thankfully for the perv, he was nowhere to be found. I then visited a very nice museum called Albert Hall and enjoyed a proper latte at the museum cafe. 

Albert Hall Museum

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the pink city, City Palace and Hawa Mahal (the Palace of Winds) the famous pink palace wall where women of the Royal family could stand behind and observe street festivals without being seen by people from the outside (see cover photo).  The city of Jaipur is pink because the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria visited India in 1876. Pink is the color of hospitality so the Maharaja of Jaipur ordered the city to be painted pink. 
The city really is pink!

We then visited another fort, Jaigarh Fort, which houses a massive cannon and has nice views of Amer Fort. Jaipur has a third fort, but I didn’t feel the need to see yet another one and I wanted to go back to the textile shop like I had promised. 

View of Amer Fort and Amer city from Jaigarh fort

The guy I had talked to the day before wasn’t there initially so I started looking at fabrics with his business partner, who was very kind and helpful. I only wanted one kurta but after an hour or so, I had an order for five.  I thought I had gotten a good price but have since found out that I paid too much. While they were being made I drank some tea with the guys and then 2 of us moved on to rum and coke. I was careful not to drink too much but at one point I ended up hiding from their dad/uncle in the backseat of a car with the guy from the street – the whole thing was a little weird/awkward. Thankfully my shirts were done soon after and I was on my way. Trust me, it sounds way more sketchy than it was – the guys were nice. I was happy to leave Jaipur though. 

The guys from the shop

Posted in Travel

New Delhi, India (where princess hires a driver)

I admit to being nervous about traveling in and around Delhi on my own. Also, after over a month of public transport I was ready for some luxury and ease in my travels, which is why I hired a car and driver for my first 6 days back in India to tour Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra (the Golden Triangle). 

The good thing about having a car and driver is that you get to see many things in a short period of time. You also get hassled less by touts and rickshaw drivers and you can have them help you with finding an ATM and a SIM card, which I needed to do right after landing. I started touring at 3:30pm and managed to see Humayun’s Tomb (a beautiful mausoleum built by Emporer Humayun’s widow in 1565-72 A.D.), the Parliament Buildings (great architecture), the Delhi Gate, and Lodi Gardens. 

Humayun’s Tomb

Lodi Gardens was full of healthy/fit people running along the perimeter path, beautiful temples, a lake, and many people walking dogs. It was really beautiful and even in the dark I felt safe. I was actually surprised at how clean and modern New Delhi was. I was really expecting it to be more like Kathmandu. 

Lodi Gardens at night

The next day was another busy day of touring. I saw the big Mosque where despite wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, I still had to wear the stupid gown. They asked me to pay afterwards and I said no, especially since I had to pay for a guide I didn’t ask for. I then took a cycle tour through the Old Delhi bazaars.  Now this was how I thought all of Delhi would look. It was dirty, chaotic and full of markets and people. Each street specialized in a different item: shoes, sari’s, spices, flowers, books, paper, etc. My rickshaw driver took me into a spice market and up to the roof. It kind of looked like the crack houses you see on TV except instead of crack and junkies, it was full of spices (and rats, garbage, and people sleeping in corners) with a smell that made you choke. It was fascinating, really. 

The spice markets from the roof
 

I then went to the Hindu Temple complex, Swaminarayan Akshardham. The main attraction, Akshardham Mandir was the most amazing architecture I have ever seen with intricate carvings including 148 life-sized elephants. Sadly we were not allowed to take our cameras inside, but I just stood there in awe talking to myself in my head about how incredible it was. It was actually refreshing to not have a bunch of tourists snapping pictures. If you go to Delhi, do not miss this!

The only photo of Swaminarayan Akshardham I was able to take

Next up was the Raj Ghat where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated and then the Lotus Temple (Baha’i House of Worship) where I happily took some time to meditate. We finished off with a visit to the Sikh Temple and then Qutb Minar, a 73 meter rubble masonry minaret. 

Qutb Minar
The Lotus Temple

I really enjoyed my brief time in Delhi. I felt safe and I enjoyed the eclectic mix of old and crumbly with modern and new. Add to that the crazy driving, the elephants and horse drawn carts on the highway, the nice people, and beautiful peaceful parks and you’ve got Delhi. 
Just a couple elephants, walking along the highway!

Posted in Travel

Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (where my heart broke and I wanted to go home)

With a week to spare I had to decide where I wanted to go. I narrowed it down to three choices: Trincomalee, Jaffna, and Kalpitiya. It is off season on the East coast (Trincomalee) and Jaffna was getting mixed reviews since it was hardest hit by the recent war and due to it being so remote, I was a bit nervous about traveling there alone, so that left Kalpitiya. With kite surfing, Dolphins, and scuba diving, I thought it would be a nice, relaxing end to my time in Sri Lanka. 

When the usual Buddha buses were now Jesus buses, I knew I was in different territory. When I got off the Jesus bus, I was immediately followed by a tuk tuk driver that just wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally I said fine, I’ll go with you (and pay 10x more than I would have taking another bus). Sensing my frustration, he stopped at the wine shop (that sadly doesn’t really sell wine) to let me pick up a cold beer for the road. He seemed disappointed that I only bought one small can – maybe because along the way he tried to invite himself to stay at my guesthouse for the 3 nights I was there and maybe if I had drank more I would have said yes?? Ya, no. 

Upon arriving at my guesthouse, I witnessed the manager berating a couple of guests for thinking his 1200 rupee BBQ chicken dinner was too expensive. Having also just arrived, they wanted to see what else there was. The manager told them that if they didn’t decide right then, then no dinner for them. I mouthed “what a dick” to them and they agreed and declined the chicken dinner. I asked how much for a veg dinner and he said I could pay what I thought it was worth. He went on to complain about being short staffed and having to do everything himself. He told me his wife had died of cancer and that he became an alcoholic but then his friend bought this place and let him run it. I felt empathy for him but looking at my very dirty bathroom, he obviously wasn’t doing everything. 

I checked out the beach, which was pleasantly non-touristy but also very windy and strewn with plastic and dead fish from the local fisherman’s nets. I could see all the kite surfers down the beach at donkey point (which I assume was named because there are actually lots of wild donkeys here) and decided that maybe I wouldn’t try a new sport that I would likely never do again anyway. I wanted to dive the next day but the one PADI certified dive center was a 20-minute drive south. Like everything else in Kalpitiya, it cost twice as much as the rest of Sri Lanka and they didn’t have space for the next morning either, so I said I’d come the day after instead.  

I forgot to take pics of beach, kite surfers, or cabana, so you get this donkey instead.

I spent that evening reading on the porch of my overpriced, yet not that nice, not even on the beach cabana being swarmed by the most annoying tiny little flies. Dolphin watching didn’t interest me either, so with nothing to do the next day, I just planned to visit the beach and hang out on my porch. Thankfully I had just started a good book, so that was okay. 

When I asked the manager how much a tuk tuk would be to get me to the dive shop the next morning, I was told 1000 rupees (it should have been no more than 300) – that’s when I snapped. You can say it was the rupee that broke the donkey’s back. I told him that I’d like to leave a day early and he said no refunds for the money I already paid for the room.

After breakfast, I went to the beach before the winds picked up and did a cost-benefit analysis of my decision to leave and decided that it was worth giving up $35USD for my happiness. On my way back I came upon a lone, skinny puppy looking for food. I had seen a mother dog with full milk bags earlier, so I picked up the pup and started to look for her mum. Within minutes the pup was asleep in my arms. I finally found the rest of the litter and a male dog that seemed to have adopted them. I put her down and tried to walk away but all 6 of them followed me out into the road. I stayed and played with them for a long while and finally 3 of them ran off into a yard, but the little one I had been holding stuck with me along with a litter mate and the male dog. I finally just sat on the side of the road and the two pups fell asleep at my feet. That’s when I got up and ran and cried and couldn’t stop crying. I felt so guilty. 

The pup who broke my heart

And then while back reading on my porch, I heard a tiny little mew of a kitten. Just beside my cabana was a very young kitten just looking at me – of course I had to pick her up. I tucked her into my lap and continued to read. She started nursing on my hand, then had a bath and fell asleep. I asked the manager if I could give her some milk and he said no, that she’d just keep coming back. Also the resident dog, one that the manager rescued from the street (he’s not all bad), kept trying to attack the kitten so I handed her over to some passing Brits. 

Whenever I left my guesthouse, I’d run into the pups. That little one that I’d grown attached to had also become attached to me and she always followed me and I also had to try to lose her, which just broke my heart more and more. And then the kitten came back too. Because I’m not going straight home I can’t really be picking up strays at this point in my trip and the kittens and puppies are actually the better off animals. That didn’t stop me from contacting an animal relocation service though. Unfortunately the cost to ship that puppy home was $5000USD. It’s just not practical. A western couple that live in Sri Lanka were also playing with the pups one time. They are considering getting a pup, so I begged them to take the skinny one. All I can do now is hope. 

That evening I had planned to go elsewhere for dinner, but now all of a sudden the manager was all nice and said that he told me I could eat dinner there for free (he did not), but sure I’ll eat for free. Maybe he thought I’d stay but no, my mind was made up. 

The next morning the wee kitten was sleeping on my porch sofa. Oh my heart. Before the manager saw her, I had to take her away from the guesthouse and went to the beach to try and find her some fish. Sadly the beach dogs are very territorial and the kitten was terrified. I ended up leaving her with my pup and as luck would have it, they were curious and distracted by each other, so I was able to make a clean break. I still tear up thinking about them and wonder if I could have done more. 
My 8am pre-arranged tuk tuk didn’t show up and I wonder if the manager sabotaged that as its not like them to not show. With the help of some westerners on the street I got another one but now I was already 45 mins behind schedule. My “free” breakfast hadn’t been ready before I left and the samosas I bought the day before were covered in ants, so off I went with no food and no water. When I got to the bus station I had to choose between the rustic public bus and a nice a/c bus. I asked which one was faster and did not get a clear answer. With a 4 hour journey ahead of me, I chose the a/c bus. Wrong choice. That one sat there for an hour waiting to be filled up as I watched 3 local buses leave. Normally I wouldn’t care but I had a train to catch and now I was certain I would miss it. My “hanger” and my emotional past few days got the better of me and I had a total meltdown. I was done with this country and I wanted to go home! My friends talked me off the ledge (thank god for cheap data plans), I put on some music, and the bus finally got moving. Yes, I missed my train so add another bus and another tuk tuk ride and 11 hours later I was back in Unawatuna. 

Although Unawatuna hadn’t been my favorite place, I knew I wanted to dive and this was the closest, good dive location to the airport. There is something comforting coming back to a place that you’ve travelled to before. The guesthouse I’d stayed at when I was there previously had a room for me and once I dropped my bag, I went straight to the dive shop where they were also happy to see me. Within 1/2 hour of my arrival, I was on the back of a scooter and on the way to the wine shop, where they actually had a California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Back in my happy place

I had two full days there. I knew where all the cheap places to eat were, where the best coffee was, and where to get the cheapest King coconuts. I didn’t need to see any sites, so I just dove and read my book. I did 5 dives there in addition to the 4 I did last time- all at different sites. 

Gil illustrates our next dive – sadly no sharks at shark point

The dives weren’t amazing and the dive master was a little too pawsy, but I was just so happy to be there. It was totally worth the excursion. My final day was spent on the beach, which I hadn’t actually done yet in Unawatuna. It was nice and I was in no hurry to get to Negombo (the closest town to the airport) anyway. I had a final veg/cheese roti for lunch and then had a pleasant 2 train journey up to Negombo before heading to Delhi early the next morning. 
Sri Lanka was great, but I think I would have been fine with just a 30-day Visa instead of spending that $100USD to extend it a week. I secretly hoped that going to the Maldives would have been easier/cheaper from Sri Lanka, but sadly it wasn’t. 

Posted in Travel

Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura (Rain, rocks, and ruins)

Within 10 minutes of arriving to my guesthouse in Sigiriya, a monkey broke into house and it was a hilarious scramble with broomsticks, screaming and laughing to get him out. I immediately knew I would love it here. From my patio I could see Sigiriya Rock, which is why you come to Sigiriya, to climb the rock. Unfortunately the rain was still coming down hard so with time to spare, I waited it out. Unlike Kandy where it felt lonely sitting in my hotel while it rained, my place in Sigiriya was different. First off, Sigiriya is a tiny town that you can walk through in about 30 mins. Secondly, sitting on my private patio doing nothing but reading, listening to and looking at nature is like heaven to me. And thirdly, the hosts treated me like a family member. I hung out with the kids, developing a special bond with their 13 year old daughter, and I got to help cook our Sri Lankan dinners. And as an added bonus, two elephants wandered onto the property one night! We watched them with flashlights until the neighbour scared them off with firecrackers. 

The sweetest family (Shady Mango Villa)

On the 3rd day, I figured I should probably do something. I chose to go to Polonnaruwa instead of climbing the rock because it’s much better to see ruins with an umbrella than to miss a view due to rain and clouds. Polonnaruwa was an easy 2 bus excursion from Sigirya, despite having to deflect the standard line of questioning that includes being asked if I want a Sri Lankan boyfriend. I’ve followed all of my Buddhist vows except for the no lying one – telling these men I have a husband or boyfriend at home usually stops the annoying advances, but sometimes it doesn’t at all. 

Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

After 8 straight days of rain, I was surprised to finally see the sun. Once I got off the bus, there were bikes right there to rent for the day. It was perfect toodling around on a one-speed cruiser looking at old broken stone and brick buildings and statues. Polonnaruwa was formed in the 11th-13th centuries A.D. as the second Sri Lankan capital after Anuradhapura. I find it fascinating to think of the history of these places and to try and imagine what it might have looked like back in the days when it was full of royal palaces and monasteries. The museum showcased carvings, jewelry, statues, hospital instruments, coins, and a host of other things that give you a glimpse of how this ancient civilization lived. I could do proper research and give you more information about the place but I’m a bit lazy and I figure if you really want to know, you can Google it for yourselves. 

Vatadage at Polonnaruwa.

At a cost of $25 USD, I’d say it was worth it. I mean obviously I’d prefer it to be cheaper, or free like in Hampi, but for a days worth of exploring, it was okay. And the best part? I saw a herd of about 25 elephants from the bus on my way back to Sigiriya. 

Image hall – Polonnaruwa

Due to a booking mix up at my guesthouse, the following day was my last, so I had to climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. I was up and out the door by 7am to beat the crowds and was on top of Sigiriya by 7:40. The good thing was there were hardly any people, the bad thing was there also wasn’t a view due to fog and I paid $30USD to be up there. I waited over an hour and still no view. I was going to keep waiting, but then it started to rain. Feeling very sad that I’d wasted the one sunny day touring Polonnaruwa, which would have been fine in inclement weather, I made my descent. I’m still happy I went early because as I was leaving, there were bus loads of tourists going up. I spent some time touring the grounds and the museum and then headed over to the next, smaller mountain, Pidurangala.
Sigiriya grounds, all surrounded by a moat
Pidurangala Rajamaha Viharaya is a cave and rock temple which came into prominence when the king who built Sigiriya (477-495 A.D), moved monks living around Sigiriya Rock over to the new Pidurangala temple and monastery. Thankfully the clouds had cleared by the time I summited and I had a great view of Sigiriya. I would recommend this climb over Sigiriya at only 500 rupees instead of 4500. From the distance I could see the long queue of people waiting for their turn to reach the summit. No thank you! 
View from Pidurangala (zoom in to see the queue)

I said goodbye to my sweet family and then headed to another UNESCO heritage site, Anuradhapura. Right away it was weird to be back in the city and I didn’t like it that much. That evening I visited the famous Bodhi tree, which was grown from a clipping of the original Bodhi tree around 2000 years ago. There was a massive puja that night so I couldn’t get anywhere near the big stupa (Ruwanweliseya 161-137BC). 

Ruwanweliseya at night
 The next day I rented a bike and with map in hand, I went to explore the ancient ruins of the first kingdom, capital, and center of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (from the 4th century B.C. to 11th century A.D.). The ruins here are much older and more ruined than in Polonnaruwa and are quite spread apart. There seemed to be a lot more Buddhist history and lots of stupas; I took the time to circumambulate each one, but overall I wasn’t that impressed with many of the sites. Maybe it was the constant harassing to buy trinkets, the wannabe guide who followed me along on his bicycle, or the massive suffering of the dogs that I just have such a hard time turning away from. Or perhaps I was just done with ruins. 
Abayagiriya Buddhist Temple – Anuradhapura
Whatever it was, I decided to give the small ruin site and town of Mihintale a miss and get myself back to the beach for my last few days in Sri Lanka. 

Posted in Travel

Kandy, Sri Lanka (Where it rained on my cultural parade)

The train from Hatton to Kandy was pretty uneventful, though it was standing room only and having been up since 1:30am and with the last remnants of my cold, it was a tiring 3 hour journey. I didn’t do anything but watch a movie on my first night in Kandy. And thanks to the Samahan (an Ayurvedic tea) the locals kept giving me, my cold was gone by the next day. 

Magical Ayurvedic cold killer

Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city and the cultural center at a population of only 109,000. I chose a homestay up in the hills away from city center and with monkeys outside my window, it didn’t feel like I was in a city at all. On my first day, I visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, where the Buddha’s tooth relic is apparently stored – no one is quite sure if it is the real one or a replica. Three times per day there is a puja where devotees line up to see the gold casket the tooth is kept in. I decided to skip the mayhem and visit at a quieter time where I could make offerings outside the room where the tooth is held without having to queue for hours. There are several museums and temples within the complex and I easily spent several hours there. 

The tooth is stored here

Unfortunately the unseasonal rain was still blanketing down so my urge to explore Kandy’s parks and outdoor spaces was minimal. This brought me to the shopping mall. Modern and no doubt, overpriced, I felt a sense of culture shock as the bright lights, air conditioning, and consumerism slapped me in the face. I found a curry buffet and a proper latte and planned my next move. I walked around Kandy lake, a man made lake which is sacred, so it’s actually full of fish (since you’re not allowed to fish) and huge water monitors. I was even offered some marijuana on my little rainy adventure – um, no thanks. 

Pretty lake in the middle of the city center

That night I went to a Kandyan dance show that was quite entertaining at only $12 for the show and a beer. The only reason I stayed three nights in Kandy was so I could go to a nearby yoga and meditation center and go on a hike to the non-touristy Knuckles Range. Sadly the yoga classes cost $25USD, which I refuse to pay. The hike is quite remote so you definitely need a guide. I was prepared to pay the $75 USD for a day of hiking, but after being in the rain all day, I changed my mind. Normally rain doesn’t bother me, but this is not like Victoria rain, it is like Alberta rain, coming down in sheets. Plus with rain, comes leeches – tons of them. So yes, I cancelled because I’m a wuss when it comes to the little black bloodsuckers. 

Kandyan dancers – Kandy Lake Club

I also considered going to the elephant orphanage, but that would have cost me about $60 and I question their ethical practices anyway, so it was probably best that I skipped it. In case you haven’t realized it yet, nothing is free in Sri Lanka, nor is it cheap. I’m hemorrhaging money at a fast rate. That said, I was happy that I chose a nicer place to stay because other than going out for lunch on day 3, I stayed in my room all day. The rain not only literally dampened me, it also started to dampen my spirits and I was actually quite sore from my hike up Adam’s Peak. So I moped about with a general feeling of malaise and no motivation to do anything. There were no other travelers at the homestay and for the first time in my travels I felt bored and lonely. Because of the isolated location of the homestay, it wasn’t convenient to go out. 

View from homestay

Up until a few days prior, I had been scheming on how I could extend my leave to visit friends in Thailand or perhaps make it over to the Maldives. But now, with my money quickly dwindling and feeling a bit done, I am happy that I’ll be home in a month. Besides, I have a very privileged dog to get home to. 

I miss this little lamb like crazy

The next day, the money I saved on hiking, yoga, and elephants was spent on a $50 tuk tuk ride to Sigiriya. I just didn’t have the energy to deal with the public bus in the pouring rain. Other than the unsolicited 2 hour detour to a waterfall on a bumpy road while having to pee (a special kind of torture) which then cost 1000 rupees to see (I declined), it was an okay ride. Due to the detour, I skipped seeing the massive Hindu temple in Matale, but I did stop at a nice organic spice farm and the Dambulla Cave Temples, which were great and wait for it… FREE! 
Inside one of the caves

Posted in Travel

Haputale and Delhouse, Sri Lanka (Horton Plains, Worlds End, Lipton’s Seat, Adam’s Peak)

Haputale is just one access point to Horton Plains National Park. I chose to stay here because it is far less touristy than Nuwara Eliya and I also wanted to hike up to Lipton’s Seat, which is nearby. Based on reviews and location, I chose a super cheap guesthouse with a fantastic view. I was served tea upon my arrival and then we all celebrated the owner’s birthday, with cake. I was then sent on a hike to a nearby monastery and bird sanctuary. On the way, two men on a motorcycle asked where I was going, so I said that I was just walking to the bird sanctuary, their reply was, oh you are going into the jungle? I didn’t think anything of it, so I said, yes, I think so. The monastery was closed, so I carried on into the “jungle” which was thickly wooded with no one else around. Or so I thought. I heard rustling in the hills above me and then noticed two men with a camera watching me – I didn’t know if they were the same two guys. I kind of freaked out and wasn’t sure if I should go deeper into the woods or turn back. I chose to keep moving forward and once I lost sight of them, I ran. So that pretty much took any enjoyment out of the woods portion of that hike but the walk back along the train tracks was nice. I stupidly had about $500 worth of rupees and my passport on me, so I really didn’t want to risk getting robbed, or worse. I’m sure I overreacted, but there was no need to find out. 

View coming out of the scary woods
Haputale was so much colder than anywhere else I had been so far but we sat outside anyway & our host let us drink a beer around a fire, despite the Muslim house rules of no drinking – he even had one himself because it was his birthday. Other than a Russian couple who kept to themselves, there were two other solo travelers at the homestay. It was nice to socialize with some friendlies. 

Friendlies in the tea plantations next to where we were staying
The next morning, the three of us woke up at 4:45am to share a tuk tuk to Horton Plains. The hike, which costs $25 USD, takes you through beautiful grasslands, a cloud forest, and up the side of a hill which takes you to the aptly named Worlds End, a 1,200m sheer cliff. Despite the price, the amount of tourists, selfie-sticks, and even a drone, I actually really liked it there. 

View from little Worlds End
The grasslands of Horton Plains
Our English friend, Beth, set out after the morning hike, so me and my fellow Canadian friend, Gavin, hiked up to Lipton’s seat that afternoon. This was through the Dambatenne Tea Estate, which was started by Sir Thomas J. Lipton in the late 1800’s. Lipton’s Seat is at the top of the hill and gives a 360 degree view over the massive estate. You can also get a ride up here, but it was such a beautiful walk and a great workout too. We enjoyed a cuppa at the top and then took the bus down instead.
One of many small villages on the Dambatenne Estate

And then the cold got to me, literally. I woke up sick. After making the 3 hour trip from Haputale to Delhouse, I checked into my room and pretty much slept for 13 hours. The only reason you go to Delhouse is to climb Adam’s Peak. Not only is Adam’s Peak the highest mountain in Sri Lanka (2,243m), it is also a famous pilgrimage site. On the top is a footprint (Sri Pada), which the Buddhists believe is that of the Buddha, the Hindus believe it is from Shiva, and the Christians and Islamics believe it is that of Adam. Needless to say, it is an important site for all four religious followers. For us tourists however, it is important to get up there for the sunrise and before the mist surrounds the hills and spoils the view. I had planned to stay one night, starting my hike around 3am and then leaving early the next afternoon. Unfortunately I was flattened by the sickness, but determined not to leave until I climbed Adam’s Peak. With a rainy next day and literally nothing else to do in Delhouse, I was forced to rest. 

Adam’s Peak

I had a wander through town looking for tissues and met the nicest guys who told me to sit down in their shop and have some tea. They gave me a stack of serviettes, some Ayurvedic cold stuff, and ginger tea for free. There I had a chat with an interesting German woman who just bought land here – she’s 71 and also planned to hike up the mountain that night.  I woke up around 1:30am with no fever and less of a drippy nose, so I downed an energy drink and was out the door by 2:15am. The power went out in the entire town, so it was a bit sketchy but I met a nice Scottish gal to walk up with. It was much harder than I thought, 5500 steps up to the top. There were tons of devotees coming down as we were going up and lots of people sleeping on the steps. After waking the German lady who was sleeping in a bush, we made it to second to last tea stop in only an hour, so we decided to have tea as it was getting windy and we still had 3 hours until sunrise.  Lauren (the Scottish gal) waited for friends that she’d left behind and I carried on. I’m glad I did because there was a 2 hour queue to reach the top. I finally got to the top just as the sun was rising. Due to the ridiculous amount of people, I couldn’t see anything, not the footprint or the sunrise, so I went back down the stairs for a couple photos, then ran all the way down. I made good time, so I ate breakfast and raced back to Hatton to get an earlier train to Kandy. 

There wasn’t much of a sunrise to see anyway
All the people and of course, selfie-stick Sam

Posted in Travel

Ella, Sri Lanka (hiking, tea, and aggressive guides)

I don’t talk about transport in between locations on purpose, it’s just that they are an adventure in and of themselves. This time I had power in numbers as the German couple staying in the same guesthouse were also heading to Ella. With help, we boarded a very packed bus. The German’s bags fit in the luggage storage but mine did not, so with my backpack on, I was crammed into the back door stairwell and the Germans got in the front door. Thankfully there were about 3 men between me and the door so it eased my fear of being flung out on a crazy turn. I had a tiny space in front of me and when the bus stopped I didn’t think we could possibly fit more people in, but apparently 3 women could squeeze themselves into that small space. One arm was trapped against my chest and the other was stretched out with my hand gripping onto the door. I actually just laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. After about an hour or so we came to a stop and were told to get off. I had no idea what was going on and hoped to spot the Germans coming out the front. Turns out it was just a tea break. When we got back on, I found a place for my pack and then jammed in with the Germans at the front for another hour. The second bus wasn’t nearly as bad and in another hour, we were in Ella. Perhaps Sunday is not the best travel day. 

Ella is a quaint little town in the hill country. It is also very touristy. There were so many guesthouses to choose from that it was actually overwhelming. In the end, I chose a place that was equidistant to Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. Unfortunately I also chose a place that has a huge resort being built right in front of it. I don’t mind the scar on my view, but people who know me know how much I love noise and listening to constant hammering is anything but relaxing. I will also mention that the workers were wearing flip flops and no hard hats on site and liked to stare at me anytime I was on my deck. The family that owns the guesthouse were very sweet and helpful, so I just didn’t have the heart to break my reservation and go somewhere quieter. It just meant that I was away for most of the day.  The day I arrived, I checked out the town and was happy to discover several places that served real espresso – a rarity in Sri Lanka. I’m sure it’s some sort of blasphemy to order coffee in tea country, but I drank plenty of tea too. I found a trendy little cafe to hang out in and after secondhand smoking a pack of cigarettes (omg, Europeans love smoking, *gag*),  I tried relaxing back at the guesthouse. Nope, construction ends at five, so I went to see the sunset from the top of Little Adam’s Peak instead; sadly it was too cloudy. I ended the day with a fancy, overpriced dinner and had a yummy tea cocktail too (see, I’m drinking the tea!). I’ve also forgotten how to use a knife and fork after 3 months of using a spoon! 

Looking at Ella Rock from Little Adam’s peak

In the evening and pretty much all through the night is a cacophony of dogs barking. Starting at around 6am (and 5pm) are 45-minutes of prayers coming over the loud speaker from the Budshist temple. So yeah, it’s pretty noisy for a small little town.

The next morning I headed over to nine arch bridge and back up Little Adam’s Peak. It’s not a tough hike and the scenery was okay, but I admit I’ve been spoiled with some spectacular hikes this past year, so the bar is set pretty high. 

Nine Arch Bridge

After a decent coffee and some lunch, I walked the 7kms to the black tea factory. It took about an hour up and down hills through huge veggie patches and tea plantations. Every person I passed smiled and said hello. Tuk tuk drivers couldn’t understand why I wanted to walk. And that’s exactly why I wanted to walk, because no one else does and it gave me an opportunity to meet the locals. The tour of the tea factory was informative and interesting but I don’t have photos since I was the only person who heeded the signs saying no cameras. After another hour walk home, I was pretty exhausted and had an early night after dinner. 

Part of the scenery to the tea factory.
This woman asked me to take her photo, she then asked for a pen- I happily obliged
 

The 6am wake up prayers were fine the next day as I wanted to be up and out by 7am to climb Ella Rock. Not because it was hard but because I wanted to beat the heat. To my surprise, the coffee shop and the rotti shop were both open at 7am. I had heard about the men wanting to “help” along the trail and went prepared with very detailed directions along with photos, so I wasn’t worried. Walking along the train tracks with no one but the locals walking their children to school and the company of dogs and one cat was probably the highlight of my time in Ella. When I couldn’t imagine it getting any better, a young girl’s voice came over the loud speaker reciting prayers or singing in what sounded like Sanskrit – I imagine it came from the school since it was 7:45am. It was so lovely (see/hear video on Instagram: @yoginicam).  

Friends along the track

And then it turned. I came upon a group of men, one of them pointing that it was “this way” to Ella Rock. I knew it wasn’t, so I told them that I was fine and that I had a map. Yet one of them kept following me. I got to the turnoff and 2 other travelers were standing there, not sure if it was the correct spot but I assured them it was. They wanted to wait for the train, so I carried on. The man that had been following me conveniently stopped to wash his feet in a pond but as soon as I passed, he was up again and back on the path. I finally turned to him and said, thank you but I don’t need your help. He started yelling at me, calling me a f’ing tourist and telling me that this was his village and he was just walking home. I did my best to diffuse the situation and then waited for the other girls. We carried on but when we got to the next turn off we were supposed to take, he blocked the trail and said this was his house and we weren’t allowed to cut through. We carried on and then one very nice lady let us pass through. As an added bonus, we were “attacked” by 4 puppies. We arrived before anyone else and as others arrived, most had guides with them. The cost? 2000 rupees ($20!!). It is not a confusing trail or a very high peak so it’s quite a lucrative business. We helped a Quebec couple back down since their guide abandoned them and all went for lunch in town. 

View of Adam’s Peak from Ella Rock

I then spent the afternoon “trapped” with a pregnant cat in my lap while I read a book. Later, I discovered my new favorite drink, the Ella Mule: cardamom infused vodka, ginger beer, lime, and fresh ginger. The next morning I took the train to Haputale, just an hour away from Ella. It was a beautiful journey. 

View from train