Wednesday, 28 December 2011


17th - 22nd Dec 2011

The Shiva Shifters Bongo Band Trivandrumming
The ride from the hotel to railway station station in Trichy was entertaining. I left in plenty of time, fortunately, to catch the 0120hrs train from Trichy Junction which is about 1.5 miles distant. There were few auto-rickshaws, or any vehicles, around at midnight but I managed to collar one driven by a rather geriatric and stroppy old geyser who, by the look of the thing, had inherited his vehicle from his grandfather. With me and a couple of heavy bags inside it had difficulty moving. It was revved up and managed a short distance before stalling. Then the engine had to be restarted by means of a long lever on the floor which the driver has to crank up and down. The old chap could hardly manage it. I should have got out then, but we persevered. Well he did; I just sat in the back looking increasingly grumpy. Any uphill bit or even the much potholed road caused the machine to struggle and stop and involved more desperate cranking of the starting lever. Frankly, it would have been quicker if we had both got out and pushed the damned thing. It took an awfully long time but we made it.

AC 2 compartment. Two further bunks above.
I was concerned that having a 'waiting list' ticket I would not get on the train or be reduced to steerage class. The crucial guy on the platform, I discovered, is the TTE; a sort of ticket inspector/conductor. I put on my best pleading, grovelling and hopeless 'old git' ( I find it helps to walk with a limp and look bit gaga ) tourist look and he got me into an AC 2 compartment ( left ).
I merrily woke up the other three peacefully snoring occupants with lots of 'sorries' before clambering onto my upper berth. There was a sheet and a blanket and it was not at all uncomfortable. I had a good kip. By a sort of unspoken mutual agreement we reconfigured the compartment into sitting mode at about 8.30am by pulling up the lower bunks to form seats. We were travelling through tropical vegetation by then with craggy mountains to the north. The view was somewhat spoilt by the fact that the small windows have obviously never been cleaned and were barely transparent. We got into Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala state, at 11.15am ( five minutes early ).

Hindu pilgrims. No shoes for a month. Strange
Trivandrum is a completely different dish of biriyani to Trichy. For a start it has a relatively smart area in the northern part of the city. OK, the bus station and East Fort ( another huge Hindu temple within the walls here ) areas are typically ramshackle, crowded and garbage strewn, but the rest is comparatively up-market with some parks and well designed buildings. The ‘modern’ name of the city is actually Thiruvananthapuram, but everyone here still calls it Trivandrum, understandably perhaps. I have only been in Inja for five minutes but I have already noticed that the majority of the population refer to cities by their older names, rather than the new ‘politically inspired’ ones.  Bombay is still Bombay to Joe Singh. Largely, I suspect, through habit but also because the new names are often much longer and, especially for a foreigner, difficult to pronounce. It is most confusing when booking railway tickets ( they always refer to the new names ) and then talking to locals who use the old ones. I will from now on follow what most of the Indians do anyway and call places by their older, simpler, colonial names which are, in any event, easier to spell.
The accommodation I had chosen at random was called the Varicatt Heritage House. By complete good fortune I had hit on a gem of a place. It is a large ancient, 250 year old, sprawling bungalow surrounded by lush gardens towards the northern end of the city, just off the busy main road. It is owned and managed by a retired Indian Army officer, Colonel Roy Kuncheria. He inherited this house and neighbouring land plus several other properties from a long line of relatives. The rooms are magnificent and the place is decked out in original antique and beautifully kept furniture and fittings.It is almost a living museum, except that he has good air-con ( AC ) and wifi. Col. Roy was commissioned into the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles ( one of the six British Gurkha Regiments inherited by India in 1947 ) and went on to command their 4th Battalion. He saw active service in the Indian invasion of Pakistan in 1965 where he was badly wounded by machine-gun fire outside Lahore, also in the 1971 ‘liberation’ of East Pakistan which then became Bangladesh, and in anti-guerrilla operations in Nagaland. He was awarded the equivalent of a DSO ( the Chakri Star, or something similar ). His son now commands a Cavalry ( armoured ) Regiment based in Jodhpur. Did you know that when the Indian army ‘liberated’ Bangladesh from Pakistan they took the surrender from and led into captivity 200,000 Pakistani soldiers? It is the largest number of prisoners-of-war taken at one time in any conflict. I discovered most of this over a pre-dinner ‘chota-peg’ ( large whisky and soda ) on my first evening. I digress.
Kerala State Buildings. Smart colonial.
I did a quick recce of Trivandrum the next day and found a few places that deserved further examination. The State Government buildings were quite impressive. The police guards said I could't go in through the front gates or even take photos, for security reasons. I suggested that the place must be 'Top Secret'. They didn't get the joke. So I went round the back and straight in through the back gates, unchallenged. No problem there. They had discarded all their old furniture here outside the building grandiosely marked 'Office of the Chief Minister's Public Grievance and Redressal Cell of the Secretariat'. You couldn't make it up! I wonder how efficiently they deal with 'grievances'. I suspect most of them are chucked out too after lots of paper stamping. The Indians have a propensity for chucking things out and just leaving them where they fall, vis-a-vis litter, garbage, complaints, anything. 
Discarded office furniture. Tons of it.
The most popular thing to do in the State of Kerala has become the converted ‘luxury’ rice-barge overnight cruise through the ‘backwaters’ in the more northern parts between Quillon, Alleppey and Cochin. I was told by someone that these ‘cruises’ are magic, but by others that, like so many popular tourist activities, they have become over-done and spoilt. People get greedy. Too many boats in too small an area and now frightfully expensive. The ‘backwaters’ are also, according to my more cynical source, rather dirty mosquito ridden waterways with bugger all of great interest to see, unless you are fascinated by watching peasants growing cashew nuts or mending fishing nets, and are grossly over-hyped. In any event they cater more for the ‘jolly group’ or ‘couples with romantic intent’( and money to burn ) rather than the itinerant loafer such as me. I therefore planned that afternoon to go to loaf and lounge on the beach at the resort of Kovalam for a couple of days. It is only 10 miles south of the city. It might be ghastly, I thought, but I enjoy watching people and wandering about at will rather than being stuck on a leaky boat in a swamp.
Kovalam beach, from the lighthouse.
Kovalam beach has it's good and bad points. It was not too crowded. As always I was told it would be packed at this time of year and accommodation difficult to find. Bollocks, also as always. I strolled up and down the beachfront and picked a sort od decentish looking hotel/apartment. Cheap, cheerful and (quite ) clean with a large bedroom, balcony and great view of the sea-front. It also had a kitchen and hot water but no AC. It was just fine. No problems.

'De rigeur' Mahatma Gandhi nappies. The dhoti.
There were quite a lot of ‘western’ tourists about the place but they were almost outnumbered by the local ‘touts selling tat’ brigade. They don’t do the subtle Sri Lankan 30º off-set intercept and chat, they just ambush and clobber you. Head down and march on is one effective response or, as I amused myself by doing, engage them in conversation about a totally unrelated subject. For example, instead of taking an interest in the carved coconut souvenir masks he was trying to flog me, I asked him his opinion on the European Union, or where I could buy purple unbent bananas or somesuch fascinating subject. By day two I noticed that many touts had begun to avoid me, comme la plague.

Leela Hotel swimming pool.

The alcohol licensing laws in Kerala are obviously strictly and expensively imposed. Most of the beachside restaurants did not have a drink licence; whether because they were refused one or couldn't afford it I never discovered. They sometimes offered Kingfisher beer at exorbitant prices, but the bottles had to be hidden in a paper bag, or under the table and you drank it out of a tea cup. They were ever on the look-out for police. There were some more upmarket places that did have licences, but the drinks there were even more effing expensive. The vastly pricey and only top-of-the-range hotel, the Leela, where rooms cost between $280 and $1000 per night, charged $12 for a small gin & tonic. Imported spirits are subject to a 106% government tax! It was, however, full of wealthy Indians. As I was beginning to discover, different States in Inja have different laws and Kerala is fairly draconian when it comes to alcohol. The State of Gujarat bans it altogether. I won't be going there.
Something that should have been screened off.
The sea seemed clean and was warm. The beach was OK if somewhat spoilt by a line of black dirty looking sand up against the sea wall. I was told this had been washed ashore following a storm some weeks previously. There were many sunbathing beauties lounging on deck-chairs and some creatures that, for aesthetic reasons, should have been screened off from public view.
I had a most pleasant swim. In fact while I was happily splashing about in the waves I realised that this was the first time I had enjoyed a swim in the sea for as long as I could remember. Perhaps not since the old waterskiing days in Cyprus many years ago. I might try it again sometime. 
There is an ancient red and white hooped but fully functioning lighthouse on a promontory at the southern end of the beach. It was a pay to go up it job; R10 for locals, R25 for foreigners, R20 to take a camera, R 30 to take a video camera and they issue a ticket for each, stamped and signed. I’m surprised they don’t concoct a few more chargeable extras ( for binoculars, spectacles, woolly hat, telescope, rope, sandwiches etc. ) and they probably will. There was a group of Brit tourists and myself waiting for the ‘caretaker’ to finish his rather loud and disgusting sounding ablutions before opening up shop.  We had to take our shoes off, can’t think why, before going up the 152 steps and then up a dodgy looking metal ladder to the balcony around the top where another two ‘officials’ checked and stamped our tickets again. You would think we were entering a highly classified military establishment. The view from the top was good enough but the low rail of the balcony caused me to suffer a little vertigo. Nobody else seemed to mind. There were several working fishing boats along the shore and music and elaborate kites being flown. It was all very jolly if a little on the tacky touristy side. I quite enjoyed myself anyway'.
Hat would not be out of place at Ascot.

Back to Trivandrum on the only new, modern, air-conditioned bus that I have seen, so far, in India. It wasn’t even crowded. This was on the 21st December which, I hardly need remind you, is Sahagun Day. For those few who don’t grasp the significance; look it up on the internet.
I had promised to buy a bottle of whisky to celebrate the occasion with Colonel Roy and another guest, an amusing German lady, Ulrike, from Frankfurt. Buying alcohol, especially spirits, in Trivandrum is not easy. They most certainly do not have wine shops as we know them, or pubs for that matter. That reminds me, I haven't seen an Oirish Bear since leaving Singapore. Maybe they are banned by Hindus and Buddhists. I had to find a Government licensed store which eventually I did. It was located in a dingy looking cellar with rubbish ( as always ) all over the floor. The darkened ‘shop’ area was behind a strong metal grille and about 20 other men were queuing up at a small hatch to order their hooch. It was barely possible to see inside to choose from what they had to offer. I found that Scotch whisky was incredibly expensive ( $50 per bottle ) so I went for Indian produced Signature whisky which I know from Col. Roy to be perfectly acceptable. It took a long time to get it. The place had the feeling of an American prohibition era ‘speakeasy’ or Irish shebeen.

Merebimur! Col Roy with his medals.
So we celebrated ‘Sahagun’ in good military fashion. As it happens myself and Col. Roy share a rather distant and tenuous military connection. My old Regiment, the 15th/19th Hussars, was the result of an amalgamation in 1922. The 19th Hussars’ full title was the 19th Hussars (Queen Alexandra’s Own).  Col. Roy’s Regiment was 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles ( 3 GR ). So, the late Queen Alexandra is our common link. 
Lots of chota pegs were consumed before a delicious, and not too spicy, dinner. The only thing missing was the singing of the traditional songs. You know, ‘Twas in Quarters We Lay’ etc. I thought it a bit presumptuous to get Col Roy and Ulrike to join in on that and, especially, the Blaydon Races which might not have made much sense to them.
The museum.
The next day I went to explore the park area. There is an old museum housed in a beautiful building, haven't a clue what style......Indian, I suppose. It costs all of R5 ( 7 pence ) to get in. The exhibits are almost exclusively ancient statues in various sizes of Hindu deities ( of which there are hundreds and most seem to have four or more arms and a couple of heads ) or ceremonial junk. Many of the exhibits are badly labelled and those not made of metal or stone are in rather tatty condition. It was of no great interest to me and photography, for some unknown reason, was strictly prohibited. Talking of Hindu gods, the reason why cattle are 'revered' in Hindu culture, I was told, is because the god Krishna was supposedly saved by some cows. How, exactly, was not made clear. It is extraordinary that people here nowadays still revere cattle because of this load of old cobblers, or should I say bullshit.

Decrepit cages at the zoo
Then to the zoo. Quite a lot of animals, birds and reptiles are in residence. The trouble is that most of them are housed in very old, decrepit and dark cages behind enormously thick bars and metal grilles and you are kept a distance from them by further railings or barriers. It was often difficult to see what was inside and useless to try to take photos. I walked several times around a large caged and meshed enclosure which supposedly had king cobras inside. I never saw one! I guess they might have been hiding. Maybe they live in burrows? Or have escaped! Some of the large outside enclosures were entirely devoid of life and some were missing the plaques to tell you what you were, or weren't looking at. One large open air enclosure had lots of pigeons in it. I don't think it was intended as a pigeon enclosure. An enormous evil looking hook-beaked vulture lived by itself in one rather small, gloomy and dusty cage. It was standing morosely in one corner while a couple of rats were nibbling away at something on the cage floor. Either the rats were deliberately put in there as 'rations', or they were chancing their arm a bit, I thought.

Right: A resident monkey. I believe it is called a lion monkey because it has a tuft on the end of it's tail. Daft looking creature if you ask me. The feeling was probably mutual.

The large tiger enclosure ( left ) had a hammock and tarpaulin shelter in it, plus a washing line on which was hung a pair of trousers. This posed a few questions. Either these tigers are accustomed to new home comforts, or some vagrant had picked a very dodgy place to set up his last ever camp. Isn’t there an old children’s fable about a tiger chasing little black Sambo around a tree and wearing his clothes with his
little red shoes on his ears, then running so fast that he, the tiger, turns into ghee, or am I getting muddled. I’m sure the book will have been banned by now anyway. The trousers reminded me of this.

There were indeed four tigers pacing up and down in separate cages nearby. They looked in good enough condition but I felt a bit sorry for them really. What a tedious and lonely life they must lead, although maybe it's preferable being gawped at by tourists to being poached for daft but highly sought after Chinese medicines.  At least the British aristocracy have long ago acquired sufficient tiger-skin rugs, so there is no longer any danger from that quarter.

Left: ...and a leopard.

What also intrigued me were the zoo 'rules' for us gawkers ( right ). I had no particular inclination to tease ( telling the monkey that it looked stupid for example ) or throw anything at the wildlife, or spit for that matter. I did, however, spend considerable time looking for the enclosure containing the Trivandrum Ladies Circle, to no avail.
The zoo was quite interesting, I suppose, but it was scruffy, dirty and weed-grown and in need of a considerable revamp. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that; it needs to be completely rebuilt.

Back to the fascinating subject of transport. The auto-rickshaws here ( left ) are all much more ‘hi-tech’ than the old cranks, 'wreckshaws', in Trichy. They have meters ( albeit not used ) and electric horns and are still incredibly cheap. They are coloured a smart uniform black with yellow stripes. I think they are marvellous machines and would be of fantastic use in UK. They are cheap to run, neat, small, manoeuvrable, easy to park, efficient and probably simple to maintain. Of course, like that other convenient means of transport so effectively used and enjoyed in the USA and Mexico, the Sedgeway, they would inevitably fall foul of myriad British road transport laws and ‘elf ‘n’ safety regulations. Perhaps they could be of use on private estates.

I am also always impressed when and wherever people are allowed to ride motorbikes and scooters without wearing helmets, as they are here. I don’t doubt for one second that wearing a crash-helmet is a good idea; I did of my own accord when regularly riding a scooter in Vietnam. I also agree with launching publicity campaigns to explain the benefits of doing so. I just don’t like legal enforcement ( and being fined and otherwise penalised ) for doing something, or not, which only affects my own safety. If people are rash enough for whatever reason not to wear a helmet, I have no problem with that. We have all become far too precious and over-protected by the nanny state in my, undoubtedly minority, humble opinion but that’s what I think!

Left: An example of a pleasant cafe garden in the smarter part of Trivandrum. All the shrubs and bushes had labels attached with their botanical names on.

I have noticed that due to medical amenities not being quite as they are in the developed world there are many more malformed individuals resulting from such diseases as polio ( withered legs ) and other diseases or genetic defects. Those inflicted just have to get on with life as best they can and no whingeing. This little chap ( right ) was scarcely two feet tall. Watching him cross the road was a 'hold-your-breath' experience. How he hasn't been run over is a miracle. He crossed the road to buy a book and scampered on.

Left: The sports stadium which was probably well used but somewhat bereft of grass.

Right: I would like to say this immaculately dressed chap was the Mess Sergeant at Colonel Roy's establishment. In fact he was the doorman at a hotel nearby.

Back to the Varicatt Officers’ Mess ( left ) for a final chota peg and supper with the gallant Colonel and Ulrike before a fond farewell. This is another highly recommended place to stay if you ever happen to be passing by.                                                                    

I am due to catch the 2040hrs train to Margao in the ex-Portugese State of Goa. It should be an interesting 24 hour journey with a change of train at Mangalore.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011


15th - 17th Dec 2011

Rock Fort temple at Trichy.
The flight from Colombo to Tiruchirappalli ( Tamil Nadu, South India ) was courtesy of Kingfisher Airlines in an ATR72/500 turbo-prop. This is the same type of machine that I used to drive inVietnam. It took-off on time at 0200hrs and did a rather bumpy landing an hour later at 'Trichy', as it's commonly known. Otherwise an uneventful flight, except that I didn't have any Indian rupees, and the hosty selling tea and coffee ( no gratis drinks here; I had heard that Kingfisher were in poor financial straits ) only took Indian rupees. The chap sitting next to me bought me the coffee. How kind of him! I'm sure I was subsequently ripped off by the taxi driver but at 0300hrs who cares, and was safely delivered to the Royal Sathyam Hotel in the middle of what looked, at night, like a rather decrepit, ill lit and rubbish strewn town. This hotel, being 'Royal' sounds grand, but rest assured it isn't. Nevertheless it turned out to be perfectly satisfactory for a brief stop-over. Trichy is a large industrial city on the River Cauvery in the centre of what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. It has a long history of military conquest. The state was called the Madras Presidency during the days of the Raj. It is populated by rather religiously orientated Tamils.

To say this city is 'rubbish strewn' is perhaps understating it a bit. Maybe they have regular street rubbish collections, but like once every 100 years, on the dot. There were many very dirty and obviously impoverished specimens of humanity picking through the small mountains of streetside rubbish to salvage what they could. The poor buggers must have been a bit desperate.
Left: An example of typical street rubbish and, in the distance, people picking through it.

The old part of the city where I happened to end up is one enormous bazaar. The hackneyed guide book description 'bustling' ( which is tourist speak for 'crowded, noisy and chaotic' ) fits the place well. Indeed it is the most 'bustling' place I have seen so far. If there is a scale of 'bustlingness' from 1 to 10 then the Bustle Rating ( BR ) of this city is, lets say, 7. I am leaving a bit of space for perhaps even more bustling places that I might find. Actually, the guide book also mentions this bazaar as 'throbbing'. So throbbing equals BR7, superseded by frenetic, manic and, at BR10, a complete nightmare.
The streets are pot-holed and pavements cracked and worn. The miriad of cluttered little alleyways and backstreets would again suit the guide book term 'rambling' i.e. like an uncharted maze. There was no street map available. Right: Locals bustling about.

The people I met both in the hotel and on the street were absolutely charming and helpful. When, inevitably, they asked where I was from they all professed to say that they thought Britain was a fantastic country and much admired. Hmmmmm...I think they were harking back a bit to a more romantic era ( or listening to the BBC ).
Most of them, men and women, have that splodge of colour on their foreheads in combinations of red, white, yellow and black ( as per pic left ). I was told by the hotel manager that these Hindu symbols are painted on with a mixture of coloured cow dung and ash! They are great 'worshippers'. Cow dung?

.....As is apparent by the vast Hindu temple complex over the river to the north of the city. Due to a lack of much else to see or do I went to have a look. It is called the Sri Ranganathaswamy ( Vishnu ) Temple at Srirangam. The outer entry ( right ) is an enormous  intricately sculpted tower. There are then a series of a further seven of these monsters before you get to the middle. Then into a shoes off zone. Money ( not much ) to be paid for entry and extra for taking a camera. I was, against my better instinct, persuaded to follow a 'guide'. 

He took me to a viewing platform. This temple complex is one of, if not the, biggest in India and covers, I think he told me, 85 acres. It is huge, the size of a town, with many, I lost count, magnificently carved and ornate towers and structures. You might be able to see a gold ( several tons of real gold leaf! ) dome in the distance. This is where a large reclining statue of Vishnu resides and is only accessible to Hindus.
There were many colonnaded squares with lots of candles and burning incense with praying 'pilgrims' etc.etc.

My guide banged on at great length about all the many deities which are worshipped here and the very convoluted history of the buildings and carvings. It rather went over my head I'm afraid. I got bored. Also about how his son was at some college or other and it was costing him a lot of money.............i.e. the softening up tactic for a generous tip.

I was more interested to notice all the many old and infirm looking people lying about on the stone flagstones. They were scattered everywhere. I was told they were all cleared out at 6.00pm. After which I presume they went off to lie down somewhere else. I don't know why or how they do it. Have you tried lying down on cold stone and sleeping motionless for hours? Impossible. I don't think they were dead!
Left: Some of those lying about. There were many more crowded 'lying about' areas.

It amazes me to see so much ostentatious wealth, architectural expertise, careful planning and enormous human effort that goes into constructing and maintaining these immaculate and vast places of worship, which are then surrounded by the chaotic squalor and crumbling overcrowded slums that the people actually have to live in. I can't help but feel that if even half this money, effort and skill was spent on the city's infrastructure, the population would be entirely better off. Still, not my place to pontificate on such matters I suppose, but that's just my opinion. As this notice at a stall outside proclaimed "chill your dil". So I did.

This ( left ) is the Vishnu Hindu symbol, I think, for peace and well-being. I saw a few locals with it painted on their foreheads ( in ash and cow dung? ). The others, the Sheva sect, wear horizontal stripes. The twain do not meet.

In the middle of the old town there is this large tank, or reservoir, containing greenish-brown liquid ( right ). The village pond. It is smelly, polluted, putrid and strewn with rubbish and dead rats. It is so full of crap you could probably walk on the surface....a miracle. There are steps leading down into it and I was told that the cattle drank from it and people 'bathed' in it. What! You must be joking! I think this must be for religious reasons; it certainly can't be for the purpose of getting clean. I wondered who on earth would possibly want or dare to put a toe in that cesspit; maybe people who slap cow dung on their foreheads in the morning.

The transport in this city is quite entertaining. The place was teeming with three-wheelers, exactly the same model as in Sri Lanka but here called 'auto-rickshaws'. They are all of uniform mustard yellow colour ( left ) and are much more dilapidated than the Sri Lankan machines; some nearly wrecks. Instead of electric horns they have those quaint old fashioned air-bulb operated honk-honk hooters ( as on early 20th century motor cars ). It sounded like a herd of geese ( do geese have herds? ). A flock maybe.

The taxis and all official ( police ) cars are of this type. Very old Ambassador Classics which, I think, were originally made by Austin. There were fleets of them at taxi ranks. This one ( right ) was just about to be moved on by a policeman. Or maybe it is his car, but it left without him.
Another noticeable feature, in contrast to Sri Lanka, is that there are few street-dogs in evidence and no cows wandering around. I saw just a few goats. Yes, Bernie, goats.

This ( left ) is the Rock Fort Temple in the centre of the city. It is in fact two temples and a fortified area. It was another shoes off zone and I couldn't be bothered to climb up the hundreds of steps in my bare feet to not be allowed inside ( Hindus only ).

As inferred, there is not a lot to do in Trichy. There are few licensed bars and no restaurants of note. The hotel I stayed at could serve only Kingfisher beer in their rather dreary restaurant, but were not allowed to leave the bottle on the table because they didn't have a licence! I was told their sister hotel near the river had a licensed bar. I went to investigate. I didn't stay long. This is not the city you would come to for a jolly night out of pub crawls and gastronomic excess with the boys. It is therefore safe from the dreaded British Lads' Stag Parties.
I was to move on soon and began to study the Indian railway network and booking system. The excellent internet website 'Man in Seat 61' was invaluable for advice. I discovered that there are 8 classes of accommodation on Indian trains. I leave it to you to investigate if you are interested. It is a fallacy that people crowd on and hang all over the roof and side of the carriages. Certainly not on the main-line trains. It is necessary to reserve a seat. I went to the local railway reservations centre and managed to get a 'Waiting List 2' on an 'AC 2' sleeper carriage for the 0120hrs train on the 17th to Trivandrum, Kerala. I was 2nd in line on the waiting list for a berth. These trains get booked up quite early on, I discovered. Fingers crossed I get in, or I might end up in non-ac ( not air-con ) wooden seats in 2nd class for the 10 hour overnight journey. You will hopefully hear about it.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


11th - 14th Dec 2011

Fishing boats called 'oruvas', on the beach at Negombo.
So, having been given the shock horror news that the Colombo - Tuticorin ferry has been cancelled indefinitely I had to make other plans and sadly that will involve flying to the nearest convenient Indian airport of Tiruchirappalli ( Trichy for short ) on Wednesday 14th. How tedious. I find it difficult to understand the lack of interest by either Indians or, especially, Sri Lankans, that resulted, I think, in the ferry company going bust. How can you live on an island close to the Indian mainland and not wish to take your car or just go on a pleasant and relatively cheap and hassle free cruise on a comfortable ferry to get there. It must have been badly marketed or other forces were at work to cause this disaster.
I now have a couple of days to spare. After another wander around Colombo I decided to go and have a look at the resort of Negombo which is on the coast about 20 miles north.

Left: The old Parliament building in Colombo. I think it is still used as Government offices. Quite an elegant edifice I think but no longer a talking shop. Talking of talking, I never managed to suss out one word of Sinhalese. When listening to it, it was impenetrable except that the occasional English words were casually thrown in. Hearing a radio news broadcast it sounded like "walliwalligobblebabblegombola disaster bollywobbleumbagallylimlolo north-east abllybumblejibblyjumbly to be avoided". It left you somewhat perplexed!

Also elegant is this old colonial building, Cargill's. Not sure what it's original use was...but it will probably be explained somewhere on the internet. The old buildings are still much the best. Grandstands and sandbags were being placed outside it. More sandbags and barriers of car tyres were lining other streets. I was told they are to stage a motor race through the city over Christmas. Almost worth staying around to witness the carnage.
I wonder if there is a 'three-wheeler' category.

The bus to Negombo was fairly painless and efficient. I had to pay for a second seat for my big bag, but the total price was still only 160 rupees ( £1 ). It took about an hour and a half.

Negombo town itself is pretty nondescript except for a large fishing harbour and thriving fish market, but the beach area a mile to the north is interesting and colourful. Hotels, shops and restaurants run north for over a mile up a seaside road called Lewis Place. It is a popular tourist resort by the look of it. Originally constructed by the Dutch there are several canals ( left ) which are quite attractive. Lots of boats were tied up alongside but I didn't see any being used.

I booked in, totally on spec, at the Icebear Guest House ( right ). I liked the name. It is a lovely place. The owner is Swiss and it features some mildly eccentric decoration, comfortable well appointed air-con bedrooms, free wifi, excellent Swiss style food and, interestingly, classical music gently playing in the background. Definitely no crappy "Jingle Bells'. The sandy beach is out the front. Attention is paid to detail: tea is poured for you through old fashioned silver tea-strainers.

The owner and manager, Gerry ( left ), lives there in splendour in the colonial style bungalow building and has done for many years I believe. He is a remarkably jolly chap who obviously enjoys his job and takes a great pride in the place and care of his clientele. There were several very respectable looking guests there and the place seems popular and well run. As always, the staff were impeccable.
Highly recommended.

There are wall to wall pubs, bars, restaurants, boutique shops, and hotels ( some quite up-market by the look of them ) along the beach road. Many of the restaurants and hotels seem to have Swiss/German themes and menus ( you know, fondue, schnitzels, pork knuckles etc. ) as well as excellent looking locally caught seafood including lots of lobster and oyster. I don't know why the Swiss or German influence pervades. Some of the restaurants are top quality. I visited one such establishment, predominantly serving seafood, called 'Lords' which is owned and managed by an ex-pat Brit. It was pretty full of customers and the food was delicious.

Of course it was impossible to avoid the blasted Christmas decorations, as per this remarkably tacky display ( right ). Even the internet cafe owners, of which there are many, were busy festooning their shops with shiny baubles, tinsel and Merry Xmas banners at great expense and effort. Does anyone really appreciate it?
I don't understand it.........I give up!

The long beach was of soft golden sand and kept remarkably clean. The sand is obviously swept regularly.
Apart from swimming and a bit of beach volleyball the only other seaside entertainment on offer was trips in the local out-rigger type fishing boats, called 'oruvas' ( left ). I didn't see any punters making use of them, but there were lots around some were actually going fishing. Catching a tourist is much more lucrative, however. As the local blurb says they make an impressive sight when they "sweep home into the lagoon at sunset". They might, but I didn't witness it.
What I did often witness here, as well as every other beach and open public area I visited, was the Sri Lankan 'intercept'. This involves a local, undoubtedly wanting to sell you something, approaching from an incoming track offset 30º to your own. You can see this in the photo ( this guy wanted to sell me a ride in his boat ). Unless you turn around and run, you are trapped. He will initiate the conversation with two questions "where are you from?" and "this your first time in Sri Lanka?". Having 'established comms' and by now walking alongside you he will say how much he likes to practice speaking English and then follows, eventually, what he has to offer, often just to show you around and expecting a few rupees at the end. I'm sure these people mean no harm, they are just trying to earn some much needed money, but after a few 'intercepts' it does get rather tedious. It is difficult, eventually, not to be rude. So my unexpected sojourn in Negombo was a pleasant one.
I took a three-wheeler, grossly overloaded with my large bag and a couple of others, to the Banderanaike International Airport which is conveniently close to Negombo. I was braced for intense hassle and problems with luggage and generally being mucked around by aggressive petty officials. My flight was not until 0200hrs and I got there early at 2230hrs to give myself plenty of time to work up a bad tempered lather of mega Basil Fawlty proportions. Surprisingly, the airport security, although there were many checks, was quietly, politely, quickly and efficiently carried out at each stage. Even the check-in caused me no irritation and there were no long queues and no problems. I even had time for drinks and a light supper in the bar/restaurant upstairs. How disappointing!
Next report will be from Inja, I hope.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


8th - 10th Dec 2011

Trincomalee from Fort Frederick.

The drive to Trinco from Sigiriya took about 3 hours. The final 43 kms, as I had been warned, is over old potholed and at times unmetalled roads. Up to there the road is new and excellent. A new highway is planned here and will be built by the Chinese in the next few years. The markers are already in place to show this. Jim was upset because it was making his car dirty.
Trinco, and the road leading to it, was one of the hot spots in the Tamil separatist 'war', so the place rather fell apart during this 30 year period. It is struggling to recover, but most tourists still stay away.

The town itself is a bit of a wreck. The streets are potholed and the buildings decrepit. The guide book, admittedly 3 years out of date, labelled the place 'Baghdad-on-Sea'. It is not that bad now. At least peace reigns and the previously abundant military/police security checks and paranoia have gone. The Main Street ( left ) is in need of renovation but it is 'bustling' again.
There is no reason actually to stay inside the town, nor any accomodation of comfort either, but it does have a few points of interest.

Such as Fort Frederick on the south-eastern spit of land. This was originally Dutch and subsequently British. The walls ( right ), along the same lines as those of the Fort at Galle, are impressively built and have lasted without much deterioration. Impromptu games of cricket are played everywhere; this bit of batting practice was being carried out by soldiers from the fort.

The inside of the old fort is now, maybe always has been, a largish military garrison and the HQ of 221 Infantry Brigade.

The guards at the impressive main gate ( right ) were welcoming and noone had any objections to tourists walking around inside and poking their noses into buildings, which was quite refreshing.

Many parts of the garrison and battalions therein, such as the Officers' Mess, Battalion HQ buildings, offices and even the NAAFI equivalent were reminiscent of British military establishments of not too long ago. This ( left ) is the parade square.

I've seen this 'motto' before. The Sri Lankan infantry are upholding it, I have no doubt.
I wandered around all over the fort and even up onto the headland to the north-east where there was, yes you've guessed it, a temple with a giant golden Buddha outside. I did not approach within shoe removal distance.

There were many of these deer roaming about both inside and outside the fort. Notices ask people not to leave plastic bags lying about so as not to endanger the deer ( with modest effect outside the fort ). They are obviously welcome guests. They are very tame.

Being ignorant of these things I don't know what kind of deer they are. Perhaps someone can let me know.

We stayed for a quick look around the town. Not much to see, but the ramshackle bus station was quite interesting. The cows, many of them, were wandering around in here too. Daisy, Buttercup & Co have free rights to wander anywhere they want. This is a religious obligation I'm told. I presume that it is also a religious obligation not to complain when they cause the inevitable road traffic accidents or shit all over the streets.

Right: Jim posing in front of one of the red Government public 'kamikaze' buses, the ones that belch black smoke and are driven like stock-cars.

Left: Trying out one of these for size. It's probably safer to be travelling in one than driving in the vicinity of it. I wonder if the cows have sussed them out. Probably. The street dogs certain have. You don't see any squashed dogs on the roads.
As said, I doubt there are any tourists staying in the town itself. The remnants, or more hopefully the beginnings, of the tourist hotel and beach areas are at two small towns just north of Trinco namely Uppuveli ( 6kms north ) and Nilaveli ( 13kms north ). This coastline was also badly hit by the tsunami. There are many 'tsunami' pre-fab houses constructed along the coast. These were paid for and built by foreign aid after the disaster. They look quite neat and tidy; possibly better than some people had before. So obviously some foreign aid gets through and is used properly.

I stayed one night at a fairly basic but clean and tidy little beach hotel in Nilaveli; the Coral Bay. I was the only guest there at the time and had the beach to myself. Well, sort of..........

....because Daisy, Buttercup and her pals had decided to go for a bit of sunbathing here too.
The street dogs were happily clustered around the swimming pool wearing their shades and sipping cocktails.
This hotel, as with many others, was destroyed by the tsunami in 2004. They had several guests at the time and were relatively fortunate that only one of them was killed. The manager of this hotel was here then and explained the added problem, which was that there was a naval complex and some other military bases behind the beach hotels. These bases were surrounded by razor wire fences and people swept off the beach were caught up in the razor wire and drowned.
The next day I went to try out the smartest 'hotel resort' in the area, the Chaaya Blu, in Uppuveli. It used to be called the Club Ocanic in the 'war' days and was the drinking hole for all the NGOs and foreign aid workers. It involves a drive of about half a mile up an incredibly rough and potholed dirt track. Jim was having a panic attack over how this would ruin his suspension and seriously dirty his car.
It is indeed a very smart and well appointed modern hotel complex with pleasant rooms, free and fast wifi and international TV stations ( even BBC 24, for what it's worth ) plus three square-pin UK style plugs ( the normal Sri Lankan plug is of the long obsolete British round-pin variety ) , two bars and excellent restaurants, a magnificent swimming pool and beachside rooms which open out onto a patio ( right ) and the beach itself. It lacks two things ( in my opinion ); activities of an aquatic nature and, most noticeably, customers!
When I turned up I was shown the hotel 'rates' which were iniquitously expensive, I thought. I suggested a much reduced price, which was accepted. Better for them to  get something considerably less than the asking price than nothing at all, I suppose. It was indeed very comfortable and there was a speciality beachside 'crab' restaurant called 'The Crab Restaurant' which did many varieties of crab dishes ( visions of the Monty Python 'spam' sketch perhaps ). Very good too. The staff, who were numerous were, as always in Sri Lanka, remarkably polite, attentive and efficient. Apart from me, I counted four other guests that night. There were about 20 in for breakfast the next morning; mainly locals I think. I noted that in the wardrobe in the room was an umbrella and a life-jacket!

The beaches up the coast here ( left ) are superb and have so much potential for tourist entertainment such as the fast growing activities of kite-boarding and kite-surfing ( there was quite a breeze blowing for much of the time ) amongst many other things to amuse the punters. I hope some wealthy individuals or organisations with money to spend will invest here. It could be brilliant but, as things stand, it has quite a long way to go.

Back to Colombo the next day. It was about a nine hour drive including a few traffic hold-ups for whatever reason and several pit-stops for refreshments. I waved a fond farewell to the admirable Jim who had looked after me so well and drove so safely. He is going to start up his own 'web-site' soon so watch out for that. I can truly recommend his services if anyone out there is contemplating touring Sri Lanka, and I have his phone number and e-mail address.

I thought I would show you one of the ubiquitous Land Master tractor thingies which are used extensively in this part of the world for work in the rice fields, and many other places too boggy for normal tractors. Sri Lanka has many rice paddies in the centre of the country and these things are much in evidence. Dirty work but the Land Master in it's simplicity makes it look easy.

That day, being a 'full moon' was one of the monthly 'Poya' days. On these days people are expected to go and worship, and the older women, especially, dress up in white and do so.  Most shops are closed and NO alcohol can be served in any bars and restaurants. Hotels can deliver it to rooms. There are swingeing fines if they are caught disobeying this tradition/rule.
On the Monday morning I was given some terrible news by my faithful travel agent in Colombo. The smart passenger ferry, the Indian ship the Scotia Prince ( ex British ), which sailed from Colombo to Tuticorin on the south coast of India and which had only started operating to a great fanfare in June, and onto which I had booked myself when back in Singapore for departure on Wednesday 12th, evening, had been CANCELLED INDEFINITELY! I think it has gone bankrupt. Surprisingly, considering it is the only passenger carrying ship off the island to India or anywhere else for that matter, it never attracted many passengers. India does not allow any passengers, or crew, to go ashore from commercial freighters.  It looks horribly as if I will have to fly the short distance to India. Quelle horreur!
Watch this space........