Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sri Lanka On A Shoe String

This is a detailed trip report for a budget traveller interested in Sri Lanka and is a long post. For a quick summary, skip to the end. For stories and details, read on.

I believe in impulse. I don’t mean to undermine the importance of prudence but I have always found the best life experiences to lie on the other side of an impulse. An impulse coupled with instinct that is.

Sri Lanka was no different. It was on a rainy evening at dinner trying to pacify my mildly upset best friend that we came up with the idea of going to Colombo. It was quickly followed with a disclaimer that Colombo wasn’t really abroad but at least we would cross the Pak Strait. Boy were we wrong!

As impulsively as we had chosen the location, we chose the date too. It was to be around the 26th of January. So we chose the block of 26-30 January for our visit.

Sri Lanka is a land where people only remotely look like Indians. If you ask me, you can clearly tell the difference from the facial structure. The jaw line and the eyes will almost always tell you which side of the Pak Strait someone comes from. But the difference is not just jugular. The Sri Lanka I saw is a land of gentle people who are ever ready to help with smiling faces. It’s a land with clean roads and calm people. Not once did I see anyone angry or screaming at anyone. The traffic is extremely disciplined and pedestrians are given right of way. The roads are filled with cars we don’t see in India but Maruti-Suzuki seems to be quite a favourite there too. The whole time one gets a feeling of being in India but a better India, an ideal one, a utopic one. And that’s how Sri Lanka is different from India. Oh but yes, it is a cricket-crazy nation too. And maybe that’s where the similarity starts.

In this trip report I hope you will discover how to enjoy a small part of the lovely country without feeling the pinch on your pocket.

REACH

The Spice Jet Chennai-Colombo connection booked a little in advance cost us INR 4008 per head with return tickets (yes, believe it). We chose the Shatabdi express to reach Chennai from Bangalore (INR 508 per head) and the AC III Tier of Sanghamitra Express for our return (INR 485 per head). 

Travel Cost: INR 5073

After a collective discussion on which towns to hit to optimize our 4-day sojourn, we froze on Colombo-Bentota-Galle. Basically the Western Coast. Eventually Bentota was replaced by Hikkaduwa, which sounded more interesting from what I was sampling in the Lonely Planet. The rest of the itinerary was broadly left to me and I followed my religious scripture – The Lonely Planet – with blind faith.

REST

From my past experience in India, I know that even the budget listings of the Lonely Planet can be blindly bet on to be out of the ordinary in some way or another while remaining reasonable. Not to mention safe since the whole content is written with the Western travellers as the target audience. So I stuck to the same listing for Sri Lanka as well. After sending emails to a few places I got confirmations from two places and they were gracious enough to just block the room based on my email; no advance payment required. One of the places even offered an airport pickup which we were glad to take given that our flight would land at 2 AM in Colombo.

We chose to stay in Mt. Lavinia instead of Colombo. Mt. Lavinia is a suburb of Colombo with quieter beaches and more reasonable stay options. 

Mt. Lavinia Stay: Tropic Inn

Cost: USD 42 per night for a triple room with AC (approx. INR 700 per head per night)
Airport Pickup: USD 31 one way for 1-4 persons (for us it came to approx INR 500 per head)

This place calls itself a hostel for God knows what reason. With its lovely wooden floors and banisters, the almost 3-star rooms and an Esteem-like car for airport pickups (with a Tropic Inn logo on the outside and stuff!) this place is anything but a hostel. And yet, they have maintained hostel-like prices. It was a steal for the price it came at and the beach was half-a-minute’s walk away. The neighbourhood quaint and the hotel staff extremely warm and friendly (a characteristic of Sri Lankans in general, I noticed). 

I would strongly recommend this place for staying if you are not keen on staying in Colombo. 

Hikkaduwa Stay: Poseidon Diving Station

Cost: EUR 18 per room (approx INR 600 per head)

There are many places lining the Galle road in Hikkaduwa and most of them are reasonable. Hikkaduwa by itself is a much more interesting, fun and reasonable option compared to the next door neighbour Bentota, which is lined only with 5-star resorts and targets the tourist. In Hikkaduwa I was looking at Why Not, a guesthouse, for our stay but Poseidon responded first. 

Poseidon is a good place to stay in especially if you are in Hikkaduwa for the marine sanctuary or scuba diving. It is filled with people who are passionate about only one thing – diving – and want to make sure everyone sees why. They will make sure you have the best experience ever not just while diving but throughout your stay. The rooms are basic but comfortable. There is no AC and no hot water but somehow when you get there, that’s perfectly fine. The open restaurant, the bookshelf, all the diving gear around, the various boards telling about the marine life you might spot while diving and of course the travellers from all around the world make this a wonderful place to stay in. This is the one place that I couldn’t bear to leave and I am sure my friends will agree. Our hearts broke somewhere while leaving.

Stay Cost: INR 3000

ROAM

The public transport system in Sri Lanka is very well established. Buses are the best way to travel as autos (tuk-tuks) cost almost the same as taxis (LKR 40 per km) and can drain your commute budget. The buses are clean and well connected within the city as well as inter-city. And they are very easily available from the main road (Galle Road).

REPORT

Day 1:

A lazy day spent around the Mt. Lavinia beach. The place is seriously addictive. We directly jumped to lunch after getting over sleep-deprivation and walked into this place with beach chairs sprawled all over. We wanted to sample Sri Lankan food which we couldn’t exactly spot on the menu. So we asked the waiter if we could get some Sri Lankan food and he said he could bring us plain rice with one non-veg curry and one veg-curry. We were only too happy with that and ordered a pot of tea while we waited. 

Sri Lankan tea is amazing. I now know why Ceylon tea was all the rage at some point. Such a joy of flavour. We ended up having two pots within 2 hours. All the while lounging in a drizzle or standing on the shore with waves lapping at your feet. Remember to order small pots if you want just one cup even if the waiters push for a big one. A small pot serves 3-4 cups of tea.

Evening Big Pot of Tea: INR 35 per head

Lunch was incredibly delicious. I had never had such good Beetroot gravy with no trace of sweet in it. I am told the non-veg gravy was a killer too. So I recommend that you custom order food instead of ordering it from the menu. You’re likely to get it cheaper and authentic Sri Lankan.

Lunch + Beer + Tea: INR 200 per head

Tip: Avoid eating in the restaurants attached to hotels since they tend to me expensive. And vegetarian food is available aplenty in Sri Lanka, you just have to ask for it.

Darkness fell soon and we decided to stay back in Mt. Lavinia instead of checking out clubs in Colombo (so party deprived Bangaloreans are with the 11 PM curfew!). We had dinner at the Lion Pub on the Galle road and some Lion Lager to go with it. We had asked for rice and curry again (ate the same combination pretty much throughout the trip but never got bored of it.)

Dinner + Beer: INR 640 per head

At Lion’s Pub, we were entertained by the members of the group Ranamonaru (Sinhalese for Peacock) who came and sang 3 songs at our table. The foot-tapping music made the wait for food shorter and the evening nicer. We soon retired to our extremely comfortable room at the Tropic Inn.

Day 2:

We had decided to explore Colombo and since we were going to be out all day and moving to Hikkaduwa in the evening, we decided to check out and keep our luggage at the hotel to save money. The hotel staff had no problems with it and we were also able to freshen up before leaving for Hikkaduwa this way.


While in Colombo we visited the Gangaramaya Temple – a beautiful Buddhist temple, the Pettah Market – the local market that is a local-atmosphere junkie’s delight and Galle Face Green – the lovely seaface in a rather upmarket area of Colombo. All these are not very far from each other by buses. In case of any confusion regarding which bus to take for where, just ask the locals. Most of them speak good English and would even be glad to lead you to the right bus.

Bus Cost Mt. Lavinia-Gangaramaya-Pettah-Galle Face-Mt. Lavinia: INR 25 per head

Gangaramaya Temple Entry: INR 40 per head

Do not forget to drink some King Coconut Water wherever you find it. You can easily spot the golden yellow coconuts and vendors all over town, especially in the Pettah Market. And you have to buy one to know just how much water a coconut that size can hold.

Miscellaneous Food Expenses (King Coconut Water + Mangoes + Flavoured Milk etc): INR 30 per head

Make sure you find a good place to eat before hitting Galle Face since this area has only 5-star hotels. We had to eat at this small bakery and make do before we ate some Maggi back at a small shop in Mt. Lavinia.

Lunch At Delights Snack: INR 40 per head
Maggi: INR 20 per head

Before leaving Mt. Lavinia we wanted to have tea on the beach one more time so we headed straight there and ordered ourselves a small pot this time.

Evening Small Pot of Tea: INR 22 per head

That’s when the trouble started. It was past 5:30 when we hit Galle Road to catch a bus to Hikkaduwa, something we had presumed would be easy. We completely looked through the fingers at the approaching dark clouds and were struck by rain that evening just as we left the hotel. It rained every evening while we were in Sri Lanka but it poured that day. Rush made it worse with all the buses being filled to capacity. And our moods started to dip.

Eventually a middle-aged man decided to wait with us and help us out. He had a very paternal look about him and he was very sweet to us. He waited in the rain until he got us onto a bus and we couldn’t even thank him properly. And that is where Sri Lanka is different from India. This wasn’t the only incident of people going out of their way to help us.

This bus journey was hellish though. The conductor kept loading more people onto a full bus and more than once we considered getting down. We all had become one mass of people and even air couldn’t have got in I am sure. It was extremely uncomfortable. But we were the only ones remotely cribbing. Each and every other person was sitting/standing/getting squeezed to death with a calm expression, even a smile on his face. I felt stupid at the end of it all really. We were just travelling at the wrong time and we just couldn’t take it. So used to luxury we had become. The locals were being gracious as ever. They took our bags into their laps and even offered us seats whenever possible. Their simple helpful nature touched me no end. 

Bus Cost: Mt. Lavinia-Hikkaduwa: INR 33 per head

Tip: Take a taxi out of town of plan for non-peak hours to travel. Check on local weather as well.

Anyway, 2.5 hours later, the ordeal ended as the bus dropped us right outside Poseidon Diving Station in Hikkaduwa. We were only to glad to be shown to our rooms and settled down quickly before ordering dinner. A guest was celebrating her birthday and we were invited to join in as well. It felt so welcome, the casual way in which the Poseidon guys treated us. No airs. We retired peacefully that night, happy to be in a place like that.

Day 3:

We were to go Scuba diving after our complimentary breakfast and we were quite excited. Immediately after breakfast we were shown a training video on scuba diving and then shown how to get into our gear. We got ready and strapped our oxygen cylinders to our backs (it felt like a tonne of metal on the back but they said you won’t feel it in the water) and felt very professional-diver-like. 

We had our own challenges in the trial dive since we had never even snorkelled before and took quite a while to get used to breathing through the mouth as required. Our trainer was determined to at least take us to the first set of coral reefs and he did. It was fascinating to see discovery channel right in front of my eyes! Unfortunately he declared that we weren’t ready for the deep dive yet and would have to make do with snorkelling. My friends did go snorkelling in the afternoon and saw more beautiful fish and even a table-sized turtle! Totally recommended.

Scuba Diving Trial Dive: EUR 35 per head (approx INR 2200)

Tip: Try snorkelling before even thinking of scuba diving. It is quite intimidating to directly go to scuba and snorkelling is much more fun.


In Hikkaduwa, I would recommend walking along the Galle Road and checking out the various quirky stores and cafes along the way. The souvenir shops here have good variety and you can easily find something nice for yourself no matter what your budget – starting with refrigerator magnets to marble Buddha statues. All that is if you get time from the beach and the sea. Our day ended with some souvenir shopping and good dinner.

Day 4:

We were to leave for Colombo that night to catch the 4 AM flight and wanted to pack in the maximum things in this day.

After breakfast we headed to Galle in a bus from Hikkaduwa. Galle is a perfectly preserved Dutch fort-town and it is the next level of the Pondicherry French Quarter experience! We had a lovely time walking in the town and mailed ourselves some postcards from the post office there. We wanted to be back in Hikkaduwa for lunch and our friends at Poseidon had arranged a tuk-tuk ride to take us around a few more places in the afternoon.

Bus Cost Hikkaduwa-Galle-Hikkaduwa: INR 20 per head


We realized that we might not have enough time to come back to Poseidon so we switched the tuk-tuk for a taxi that would show us a few more spots and then take us straight to the Colombo airport. What they called a taxi was a vehicle bigger than an Innova and super-comfortable with its AC and its space. We felt like the royalty. After getting some pictures with the Poseidon folks we left Hikkaduwa.

Poseidon Expenses for 2 days (stay + food ): INR 2000 per head

First stop was a Turtle Conservatory. We were told about various species (5 in all) and how all 5 come to nest on the Sri Lankan shores. We were also told about the reasons why they are facing extinction. The man running the conservatory lost all his family in the Tsunami and now runs the place in his sister’s memory. In addition to the entry, we could make a donation and release a newly hatched turtle into the sea, he said. So we gave him INR 200 (LKR 500) and released a baby. Hope it found its rightful place in the sea.

Turtle Conservatory Entry: INR 100 per head

The next stop was a Moonstone Mine and we saw how Moonstones (including the Blue Moonstone found only in Sri Lanka) are mined and made into jewellery, the whole process. The path strategically led into a swanky showroom and the dealers did a good job of hard selling the moonstones to us. My best friend and I ended up picking up stuff for ourselves and not even feeling like we had been pushed to buy it. And I have to say, at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful pendant that I got!

Tip: Do not buy cinnamon products from the Moonstone Mine areas. You are likely to be shown a better cinnamon making process on the river safari and will get stuff for cheaper from genuine people.

The last thing we did before getting onto the road to Colombo was to go on a river safari where we were on the vast river Maduwa and meandering around its 62 islands. We saw how cinnamon bark is prepared for being used as a spice and visited a 300-year old Buddhist temple too. It was quite an experience, the 1.5 hour safari!

River Safari: INR 500 per head

Taxi Cost Hikkaduwa-Colombo with 3 spots: INR 1200 per head

Tip: The 3 spots mentioned above are worth visiting and a tuk-tuk or a taxu makes most sense since they are scattered around. I would not recommend a bus in this case although the transfer to airport can be by bus.

The taxi dropped us off at the Colombo airport post this and it was a long 3-hour journey. The vacation seemed to have ended too soon and we were already going to be checking in to leave for home country. It had been a great vacation nevertheless and hadn’t burned a big hole in our pockets. What else can one ask for from a vacation across the Pak Strait?

SUMMARY

Destination: West Coast, Sri Lanka
Itinerary: Colombo-Hikkaduwa-Galle
Best Time to visit: November to April (West Coast), April to November (East Coast)
Travel Expense: Approx INR 5,000
Trip Expense for 4 days: Approx INR 10,000

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Weekend In The Blue Mountains

I have been travelling with Get Off Ur Ass for 4 years now. And I have never regretted signing up for any of the Get Off experiences…not one. Starting with the Barapole Rafting Trip, where I travelled with 25 strangers, to the Tusker Trail Trek, the Jenukal New Year Getaway, the Getoff Bus Roadhawk Adventure or the phenomenal Getoff Traveller’s Meet 2010. There have been smaller review trips as well but I haven’t travelled with them as much as I would have liked to. So it’s not a surprise that a Get Off trip was my first choice when it came to deciding how to spend the extended Easter weekend. My only choice really.

It was the Nilgiris again this time. A remote campsite tucked away in the Blue Mountains near Sholur. A place I had seen before but hadn’t been able to spend enough time in. A quaint British house on a small plateau on the slopes of the Nilgiris and the prospect of camping in paradise. It was an invitation that was hard to turn down.

So we headed out early on Friday from Koshy’s, the meeting point for the travellers…some old, some new. After initial introductions and paperwork, we all settled down in one of the two Tempo Travellers that were waiting to whisk us away from the city and headed out in the light Friday morning drizzle on Mysore Road. 

The first stop was Kamat Upachar on Mysore Road. After a round of filling South Indian breakfast and good old filter coffee, we resumed the journey towards Sholur. The Sun and the rain played hide and seek but the weather largely remained agreeable. Conversations flowed and ebbed in our vehicle but I was in dreamland with the cool breeze fanning me to sleep. I only woke up at the next stop – the Dreamcatcher Café.

The Dreamcatcher Café is a new travel café that has opened up a little before Gundlupet right on the highway. The place has a very different feel and character among a string of retail coffee shops that have sprung up along the way. Dreamcatcher is an experience. It’s a well-deserved break for the traveller. Do stop by the next time you are on the way to Bandipur or beyond. You won’t regret it.


After taking in the ambiance of the café well and treating ourselves to some beverages, we moved on through Bandipur and Mudumalai national parks. The RTO check post stop in Thorapalli took about an hour with all the weekend traffic and set us back in our schedule a fair bit. Negotiating the tricky turns of the ghats from that point on slowed us down even further. It helped that the landscape was either the blue-green slopes of the mountains or sheets of stark green tea leaves. My glazed out eyes from all the urban architecture (read glass and steel) welcomed the change and took it all in…when I wasn't sleeping because of the gentle swaying of the vehicle and the cold breeze of course! We reached our destination only around 4 PM, feeling slightly famished.

The view of the property, the campsite and the simple hot meals served in the cottage refreshed everyone enough to be able to pitch their own tents on the plateau. We all chose to have our tents open towards the valley and the breathtaking views of the mountains. And we spent the next two days watching these views change dramatically – sometimes by the minute, walking in and out of clouds, sleeping to the sound of raindrops falling on our tent vestibules, playing with the resident dogs and cats of the estate, trekking and walking in the mountains, exploring new trek routes, watching the many varieties of birds around, and talking/playing rummy/playing dumb charades around the fireplace or in the verandah of the erstwhile office. A regular supply of tea kept us happy even when the sky turned grey. A treat of pakoras or fruit salad now and then was the icing on the cake.


The return from Sholur was draining. It was the same road and the same distance we had covered two days earlier but the physical strain of the two days combined with the feeling of leaving pristine nature behind and returning to the daily grind weighed at least me down a little. A late lunch at the Dreamcatcher café helped a little but then the rush of the crowds returning home via Mysore Road and the 10 hours of travel got to me. I had started missing the place already as the twists of the mountain roads got replaced by the straight line that was the road to Bangalore. 

Nevertheless, I was glad to have been part of another Getoff experience and with the mountain air clearing my head. Until the next Getoff trip, I will have to make do with memories of this one.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dreams Come True...Again

The sight of the long grey wall and a thicket of trees always made us slow down. We would look at the wall dreamily and ride alongside until we saw the gate marking the entrance to the place we hoped to end up in. How we wished to drive in rightfully into that place someday. To be able to call it our own. Visvesvaraya Regional College of Engineering. Our first real goal in life. Two teenage girls chasing a dream. 

That was way back in 2001. My best friend and I would drive by this college almost everyday since she lived on the other side from our junior college. It helped that her elder brother was studying at VRCE as well. Back in 2001, it was the most eligible place to study in given its REC status and the fact that it was right in the middle of the city as opposed to other colleges that were located on the outskirts. I'd like to believe every student in Nagpur  hoped to get in to VRCE (except for the IIT and BITS-Pilani crowd of course) somehow...I know we did.

And hence for me it was a big moment when I walked down from the balcony of the VRCE auditorium on the day of admissions to the admission desk and secured myself a seat in the Electrical Engineering. It was the first time in life I really really wanted something (I did want to get into BITS-Pilani too but I don't think I had wanted that long enough) and I was getting it. All those nights of hard work had finally culminated into the big moment when my form got stamped by the college staff. I was in.

My best friend got through to a private college first. I was quite crestfallen. But in the second round she came around to VNIT too (VRCE was in the first lot of colleges that got converted to National Institutes of Technology and that too before we got in! That gave us the additional edge of studying in an autonomous university...it was the best of all worlds). We had shared the dream of entering this college and we made it! That was in 2002.

.........................................

2011 was deja vu. 

More than 4 years ago I had spotted the PGSEM notice in my office. It was the institute name that caught my eye...IIM Bangalore. From a desire to get into one of the 6 IIMs, I suddenly narrowed my preference down to just IIM Bangalore (of course an IIM Ahmedabad admit would have been a different ball game altogether...just that they don't have a course like PGSEM). Bangalore's brilliant weather and culture could have had a lot to do with it. 

The PGSEM requires a minimum of 2 years of work experience so I waited for the time I could apply to the course. When the time actually came I found myself confused by the multitude of possibilities that the city had shown me in terms of things I could do in life...copywriting, travel-writing, theatre and all that I can't think of. I floundered despite wanting to study business ever since I can remember. And I missed applying. 

It took me two more years to clear my head and get back to focussing on what I had always wanted. But all this while, all these years, I had the privilege of living in the vicinity of IIM Bangalore and driving past often. I would find myself secretly wishing I'd get to enter those gates beyond that long grey wall and into the thicket of trees rightfully someday...as a student. It kept the dream alive deep down inside.

It is a big moment for me today as I sit here writing this post with the admission offer letter from IIM Bangalore next to my computer. It is a culmination of a dream of 4 and ½ years. It is the vindication of the power of sustained dreams. It's just that this time there is no one to share this dream with. It is a solitary journey through those gates this time. But I am ready nevertheless. To walk past those gates rightfully and claim what is truly mine in this mortal body and material world...my dream.