India: Kerala

Oh Kerala, how good you were to me.

A little nervous about travelling alone on my first trip to India, I decided to take it pretty gently this time. I will definitely go back to do ‘real India’ one day but I’m going to save the long bus journeys, busy cities and hustle and bustle for when I have a friend with me…

I had two weeks before my yoga course began, so I decided to give myself some time to relax after a pretty hectic two months busing around Sri Lanka.

I spent the first five days in Varkala, a charming cliff-top town in the Southern part of Kerala. I treated myself to a few nights at a nice hotel, where I took some surfing lessons, did a lot of yoga and met some really lovely backpackers and holiday makers. Soul & Surf came highly recommended by a friend, and I’m so glad I decided to splash out and spend a few days there. We did surfing or yoga early each morning before a massive communal breakfast, and then spent the rest of the day sunbathing or exploring the North Cliff. I would absolutely love to go back to Varkala for a holiday with friends, but next time I’d stay at a cheap homestay right next to S&S on the South Cliff and then just pop next door for yoga and lunches! (just a tip, in case you fancy going to Varkala on a budget!)


One morning, we did 108 sun salutations on the beach to raise awareness of human trafficking.  It was such a #India #Gapyah thing to do, but I really loved it.

The best thing I did in Varkala was definitely an afternoon tuk tuk tour with charismatic driver, Anil. Along with a couple of Brits I’d met at the hostel I spent the afternoon driving around the area and really getting a feel for Keralan life. We visited a famous Ashram, climbed to the top of a lighthouse for stunning 360 degree views of the region, stopped off at some beautiful temples and a gorgeous green palace and watched Anil decorate his snazzy tuk tuk with the offerings he stole from the Buddhist temples we passed. The best part by far was the canoe trip on Golden Lake, which was apparently far better than any boat ride in Alleppey. Kerala is famous for its gorgeous backwaters, but most travellers fork out quite a lot for an afternoon or even a night on a houseboat in Alleppey, which lies a couple of hours north of Varkala. This means that the backwaters are completely packed, and I’ve been told that all serenity is somewhat ruined by the influx of tourists. Here, however, we were the only boat on the lake. It was extremely peaceful and a very special experience. We rowed across the lake to Golden Island, where we were blessed at a temple before finishing our trip.

Another top tip for anyone planning on going to Varkala is to go for dinner at Kumari’s, the home of a local woman who cooks the best food in the region. For 300 rupees (about £4), you are treated to an enormous meal of twelve Keralan dishes, topped off with a delicious pudding of chai ice cream. Be sure to book in advance, though, and you absolutely must have more than four people. You eat with your hands off banana leaves (although my friend caved pretty quickly and asked for a spoon), and feed any leftovers to the family’s enormous cow which lies outside the dining area. An absolute must-do if you’re in the area. (I also have Anil’s phone number, by the way, so hit me up if you’re ever visiting. I have since sent three different groups of friends to Anil for his signature tour and they have come back with rave reviews!)

From Varkala, I got the train north to Cochin, skipping out Alleppey after my amazing canoeing experience. The train was far easier than I had anticipated and actually much more comfortable than the ones in Sri Lanka. I sat in the sleeper carriage, but I was obviously only travelling for a few hours during daytime, so I had no need to actually sleep. I got chatting to the lovely old lady who was sitting next to me and was amazed to hear that she was going all the way to Delhi – a 52 hour journey in total! We just cannot imagine those kind of journeys in little old England…

Cochin was wonderful. I really liked it. The Arts Biennale runs from February to late March, and there were all sorts of exhibitions and installations going on. I paid for a general ticket which gave me access to various galleries dotted around the Fort.

I particularly loved the Cochin street art and had a really enjoyable time wandering around and looking at the beautiful little lanes.

Must-sees are a trip to ‘Jew Town’ (or Mattancherry) where you can buy clothes, spices and jewellery, a morning watching the fishermen with their famous Chinese fishing nets and a visit to the touristy Princes Street.

I had some of my best meals in Cochin, at places like Mary’s Kitchen and Oceanos, where I had the most delicious aubergine curry of my whole trip.


I had a lovely couple of days in Cochin, and really needed that time to myself to gather my energy and collect my thoughts before my trip to Goa which was no doubt going to be exhausting.

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The South Coast

So this brings me to the final stretch of my Sri Lanka trip.

From Ella, I took a particularly hairy bus ride to Tissamaharama for Yala National Park. The bus was full and I had to sit upfront by the driver with my feet almost dangling out of the door. I nearly lost my shoes and felt pretty sick with all the winding roads!

There isn’t much to do in Tissa so I paid to use the pool at a nearby hotel for the afternoon.

The following morning, we were up at 5 for a safari to Yala. I was debating whether or not to go on safari again, but Yala is famous for having the highest concentration of leopards in the world and I was keen to see one. Although it’s still quite rare to catch sight of one of the thirty leopards, we found one sunbathing on a rock within half an hour of entering the park. It ran away before we could get any photos but it was still pretty exciting. We saw elephants, peacocks, lots of beautiful little birds and even a few crocodiles, and had a fun morning in the jeep.

From Tissa, I got the bus to Mirissa, looking forward to some time on the beach. I stayed at a wonderful hostel in Mirissa which was super clean, fun and backpacker-friendly and I spent a great few days doing yoga classes and sunbathing.

I had some delicious smoothie bowls, made the most of the hostel’s kitchen to finally do some cooking, visited the beautiful ‘Secret Beach’ and even got the bus to Weligama for my first surfing lesson.

 

At the weekend, I went back to Galle to see my friend Rachel who was over from England. I joined her for the annual Tuk Tuk Polo match which is organised by her uncle, Geoffrey Dobbs. I was planning on watching the hilarious games, which involve playing polo out of the side of a racing tuk tuk, but one of the girls wasn’t up for playing so I ended up taking part in the third second match. It was really good fun and a total culture shock after my earlier Sri Lankan experiences!

I spent the weekend with the Dobbs at the amazing Dutch House hotel, drinking cocktails in the Colonial bar at the Sun House and heading to Mirissa at night to find the party. It was a real weekend of luxury and comfort after two months of backpacking, and it was obviously amazing to catch up with my much-missed friend.

On the Monday, I returned to Mirissa for a few more nights. I continued with my delightful routine of yoga, smoothies and making friends at my hostel, and started to feel very at home in the touristy beach town.

On Wednesday afternoon, in between bursts of a heavy rainstorm, I got the bus to Weligama (10km away) to visit Rachel on Taprobane Island, where she was staying. You have to walk through the sea to reach the island, and I was pretty nervous walking back to the mainland in a heavy rainstorm after sunset! We had a lovely relaxed afternoon swimming round the island and reading our books before it was time for me to say goodbye. What a treat to visit Taprobane!

After Mirissa, I got the express bus from Galle to Colombo for my final two days in the country. I had been told not to bother visiting the capital, but I wanted to get some city time before heading to India. I stayed at another lovely backpackers hostel (Drift BnB, if you’re looking for recommendations) and met up with my volunteering friend who happened to be flying out at the same time as me.

We had cocktails on the rooftop and then treated ourselves to a fancy meal at Gallery Cafe. It was such a treat and so nice to be back with a friend after a month of adventures. She had been volunteering in the wilderness on the elephant conservation project, so we had many stories to share.


The next day, I went for a long walk around all the main sights, visiting Independence Square and the National Gallery. We took the bus into the fort and had a quick walk around to see what all the Colombo fuss is about.


To close our time in Sri Lanka, we had a typical meal at a well-reviewed restaurant – lots of dal and vegetable curries for one last time. We then headed to the airport together, sitting for a couple of hours in the entrance before we could even check in and then waiting for hours (four for me, about ten for Vicky) to board our flights. Good old Sri Lanka, how I’ve come to love your laid back schedules!

I was quite sad to be leaving the country that had been so kind to me over the last seven weeks, but was feeling ready for the next stage of my journey. Next stop, India!

 

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The Hill Country

This was probably the area I was most excited to visit but I can’t exactly say why! I knew I’d enjoy the tea plantations, the beautiful train journeys and the energetic walks, and I liked the sound of ‘Little England’ with its British history. 

After my night in Kandy, I got the train to Nano Oya, the famous station near Nuwara Eliya in the tea country. I spent four hours on the floor and was hardly able to take any photos of the beautiful scenery, although I did get quite a good snap out of the loo window! 

I stayed in Nuwara Eliya for two nights, at a homestay recommended by a friend. I wasn’t best impressed with the host family, although they did make me nice dinners and their house had gorgeous views of the tea fields. 

It was also perfectly located for an afternoon visit to Pedro Tea Estate, where I learnt more about the tea production process. It was fairly similar to the factory we visited in Kandy, but it felt more special doing it in the actual tea region. 

At Pedro’s Tea Estate, they make 2500kg of tea every day. The factory runs 24 hours a day, split between two work shifts and employing 80 workers overall. In the fields, they have 700 ladies hand picking the tea leaves. Incredibly, it only takes 24 hours from the beginning to the end of the process. When the product is ready, it is shipped to Colombo for the weekly auctions. 

I don’t think I realised that the tea sold by various companies (Lipton, Dilmah etc) is actually the product of a huge range of tea factories. One week they might buy a load from Pedro, but the next week they’ll get a better deal somewhere else. Does this mean the tea is different in each box of Liptons you buy? I tried to ask the guide about this but I didn’t receive a very constructive answer. It’s interesting, though.  

From Pedro’s, I walked up the nearby hill to Lover’s Leap waterfall which was pretty and offered some amazing views. 

The following morning, I woke up at 5am to get to Horton Plains National Park as early as possible. Hundreds of people hike the loop every morning, hoping to see the beautiful views from World’s End before the clouds rise at about 9am. After queuing for ages to pay the pricey entrance fee, I was worried I would be too late for the views. 


However, when I arrived at both Mini World’s End and the real deal at about 8.30, I managed to see quite a lot. 

Apparently, you can see Adam’s Peak on a clear day, but the weather wasn’t great so I couldn’t quite see that far away. 

My photos definitely don’t capture the beauty of the hills, the light and the immense drop, a combination which really makes you feel you’re at the ‘end of the world’. 

From World’s End, I continued the loop back to the starting point, passing Baker’s falls. 

I got my tuk tuk driver to drop me off in Nuwara Eliya so I could have a little explore of the town. I visited the famous Grand Hotel for a cup of tea, walked down to the beautiful lake and popped into a little Indian restaurant for my first ever rice-flour dosa, eaten with my hands. 

Overall, I really enjoyed my trip to Nuwara Eliya but found it slightly different to what I was expecting. The scenery was beautiful and I would rank Horton Plains among the best things I did in Sri Lanka, but I don’t think I’d have needed any more than two days there. 

The following morning I headed back to Nanu Oya, ready for the famous journey to Ella. Again, I didn’t have a seat, and I was so far from a window or door that I wasn’t able to get any photos at all. I enjoyed the journey a lot more than the previous one, though, and am glad I spent my time appreciating the scenery rather than documenting it all on camera. 

My favourite part was the warm peanuts I bought from one of the many food sellers walking up and down the aisle, which were coated with chilli salt and wrapped in Sinhalese algebra homework. It doesn’t get more Sri Lankan than that! 

Again, Ella wasn’t what I expected. Frankly, I was slightly underwhelmed by the town I had been most excited to visit. It’s a horribly touristy street with many overpriced cafes and hostels everywhere. It is pretty soulless and clearly just a pit stop for the beautiful walks and waterfalls in the vicinity. Much like Machu Picchu town, in fact. 

There’s loads to do in and around Ella though, and I did have a really wonderful time overall. 

I hiked up to Little Adam’s Peak, although the foggy conditions meant there wasn’t much to see from the top. 


I walked a few kilometres down the railway to the Demodara Nine Arches bridge and then literally waited hours for the train to cross. It was three hours late, but I spent a happy afternoon at a lovely cafe overlooking the bridge, meeting other keen travellers and drinking tea. 



I completed the supposedly difficult hike to Ella Rock without much difficulty. The Lonely Planet makes the walk sound impossible to do without a guide to take you the right way but my trusty app Maps.me sorted me out completely, as did the lovely couple I met after the 2km walk up the railway and accompanied for the rest of the climb. 


Again, the views weren’t as good as they might have been on a clear day (no sign of Adam’s Peak, for example), but I absolutely loved the challenging walk and thought the scenery was still pretty gorgeous. 


I ate perhaps the best meal of my time in Sri Lanka at a tiny little cafe called Matey Hut. The restaurant seats 12 and runs out of food at 4pm every day because it is so popular. I had their famous ‘rice and four curries’ and tried my first ever mango curry (spicy, sweet and utterly delicious) and hands down the best aubergine curry I had in Sri Lanka. All for £2! I also tried the banana flower salad which was like nothing else – so fresh, crunchy and flavoursome. 



I also visited the Rawana Falls, made quite a few random friends, sent some postcards from the little red postbox, had a lot of tea and mango juices and treated myself to a cheap and slightly dodgy massage. 


All-in-all a good trip to the Hill Country! 

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The Ancient Cities

I never made it to Dambulla to look at the golden temple, although I did get the bus past it about 3 times. Despite this, I am thrilled that I bothered to visit the other ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polannaruwa. I imagine these are often overlooked by the younger generation of travellers who would much rather spend two more days on the beach than get a long, sweaty bus north to look at ruins. Even going from Sigiriya and back to Kandy felt like a bit of an effort, and I was on no tight schedule or sun-seeking agenda! 

After our safari, Rita and I got a three hour bus to Anuradhapura. The city itself is underwhelming and not particularly pleasant, and I was so grateful to have her there with me. 

Exhausted from our 5am start, we managed to gather enough energy to get a tuk tuk to take us the 12km east to Mihintale. We climbed the however many steps, had a brief look at the ruins half way up and hiked up to the temple at the top for views of the region. We were faster walkers than anticipated, but we enjoyed waiting at the top for the sunset to come and we were pretty blown away when it did. The sun was as red as I’ve ever seen it and the whole place had an amazing energy. 

On Sunday morning we set off to see the sacred Bodhi tree. Sri Ama Boodhi is the first ever human planted tree in the world, grown from a cutting brought from the Indian tree at which Buddha found Enlightenment. 

Thousands of Buddhists dress in white and pray to the tree every day. It was wonderful to see such a powerful demonstration of faith, but it was slightly offset by the hoards of tourists taking photos of the whole thing. 

The tree itself was also slightly underwhelming. It is basically just a very old fig tree, supported by a golden structure and adorned with flags. After a friend’s review of her visit to Anuradhapura, I was expecting to be very moved by this spiritual place, but I wasn’t really. (My bad..) I’m glad we went to see it, though. 

We then traipsed around the rest of the sights in the scorching midday heat. Unlike Polannaruwa, whose sights are mainly ruins, the buildings in Anuradhapura are remarkably intact and generally still in use. 

After lunch, I said a sad farewell to Rita, who was heading back to Sigiriya for a second week of volunteering there, and boarded a bus to Polannaruwa. This only took about two hours and I was thrilled by my hostel, which served a delicious rice and curry buffet looking over the rice paddies. A great recommendation from my friend! 

On Monday morning I rented a bike from my hostel and cycled off to the Archaeological museum. 

Although I’d been somewhat underwhelmed by Anuradhapura, I was completely fascinated by the history and architecture of Polannaruwa. I took my time as I went through the museum, reading about the three Kings and their magnificent palaces, summer houses and ego-boosting buildings. 

I took rather a lot of notes for some reason, so here’s a brief lowdown of the history of Polannaruwa:

Anuradhapura was the cultural centre of Sri Lanka from 500BC until the 12th century and had its heyday in the 5th century. However, the city was weakened by South Indian intrusions and geographically vulnerable, while Polannaruwa was much safer. From the 9th century, this second town became the residence of the king. This lasted until 993AD when the South Indian Colas came and imposed their Hinduism, although the town was recaptured by Vijayahabu in the 12th century. 

There were three main kings of Polannaruwa: Parakramabu I (1153-1186AD) who built many monasteries and hospitals and waged war against India, Nissankamalla (1187-1996AD), who also built monasteries and a particularly impressive summer palace, and Vijayabahu. The rule of Polannaruwa ended in 1296 with civil strife and wars. 

Unlike Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polannaruwa are spread over about 15km and are pretty much destroyed. There are a couple of ruins in the New Town, south of where I was staying, and a few around the museum area but the majority lie in the ‘Quadrangle’ a few kilometres north of the museum. 

I started with the Royal Palace Group, which dates from the reign of Parakramabahu I. It consists of his Royal Palace, which is said to have had 7 stories although it’s pretty nonexistent now, the Audience Hall and a bathing pool. 

I then went to the quadrangle to see the Vatadage (relic house), hatadage (a monument with pillars), atadage (shrine for the tooth relic) and other impressive ruins. For example, the Gal Pota is a colossal stone ‘book’ that is 9m long and 1.5m wide and inscribed with the virtues of king Nissanka Malla. 

Here, unfortunately, my bike got nicked so I guiltily took someone else’s and continued on my way. It may not have been the smartest thing to do but I still had 10km of ruins to cover and it was about midday by now and seriously scorching!

So I continued cycling further north, passing by two famous Hindu temples and a large dagoba. 

My favourite was probably the Lankatilaka temple, a huge construction with 17m high walls and a large aisle which leads to a huge standing Buddha.

 

I also liked the Kirk Vihara, an unrestored dagoba whose name means ‘milk white’. 

I made it all the way to the Gal Vihara, said to be the most impressive collection of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. It consists of four separate images, all cut from one long slab of granite, and marks the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. 

The final stop, by which time I was properly exhausted and famished, was the Image Shrine, an old building whose interior walls are covered with extraordinarily detailed paintings. 

Returning to my hostel for a nap and some much-needed food, I explained the bike situation to my extremely understanding hosts. 

I then went for another short cycle around the town to explore the New Town and visit the remaining ruins in the south. Polannaruwa is actually a stunning little town and actually has much more to offer than just the ruins. Situated along the edge of massive water tanks, the town has a very calm, peaceful atmosphere to it. The little roads are lush and relatively quiet (compared to Kandy, at least!) and the views of the rice paddies are really pretty. 

I think my experience was definitely enhanced by my wonderful hostel, and I’m so pleased I stayed there. I don’t think the town has much to offer in way of good food, so I was thrilled my hostel offered such delicious dinners at a reasonable price. Give me buffet rice and curry and I’m one happy lady! 

Overall, I loved my time in Polannaruwa and I’m really glad I bothered to visit the ancient cities. 

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Sigiriya

For my fourth and final week of volunteering, a group of us opted to leave the Kandy house and head to Sigiriya. Situated about 80km north of Kandy, Sigiriya falls right in the middle Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, whose point lies at Kandy while ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polannaruwa make up the top two corners.

After three weeks in the noisy, sweaty, bed-bug ridden Kandy accommodation, I was looking forward to getting some peace and quiet. The Sigiriya accommodation lies about 6km north of the town itself and is best described as a kind of laid back farm. The building itself only really consisted of a communal dorm, a bathroom and a separate bedroom, and it didn’t really have proper walls! The interior walls were painted with colourful designs while the outside was covered by pretty blinds. 

There was an outdoor eating area with a gorgeous hand-carved table and a few benches, a second ‘outdoor’ shower which was remarkably warm and fun to use and an outdoor kitchen area with a coal fire and a basic stove top. 

It was all pretty basic but that made it all the more special. 

Outside, there were three tree houses of varying sizes from which you can scour the land for elephants. There was a cute little wooden swing. There was also a small bonfire area, and a larger one was made on our final day and put to good use for smore consumption! 

My favourite spot was definitely the roof of the owner’s little bungalow, where I practised yoga early each morning and occasionally watched the sunset. 

It was such a peaceful place and I was very happy to be there. 

The whole week was made even more special by the lovely old man nicknamed ‘Ben’ who takes care of the property and cooks for greedy volunteers. He is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met and always seemed to have a smile on his face. 

We were supposed to be doing temple renovation for the project, so we cycled over to the pretty temple on Monday. (I fell off my bike into a ditch on the way home, but that’s a separate story.) However, after a day of sifting sand and feeling fairly useless, a couple of us opted to do gardening on the second day and the others followed suit for the rest of the week. 

For the next four days, we basically did a lot of hoeing and raking in the garden. It doesn’t look like much in the photos, but we basically cleared a whole field so that the little aubergine plants can grow in peace! 

We also watered hundreds of aubergines, planted pineapple and cinnamon, helped collect branches for bean planting and picked leaves for lunch. I really enjoyed the gardening although it was quite physically demanding hoeing for five hours in thirty degree heat! 

The gardening project finished at lunchtime so we were free in the afternoons. We weren’t really allowed to go off exploring by ourselves, although I did go for some beautiful runs around the house. 

We spent a couple of afternoons at the luxury hotel across the road, using the pool and enjoying papaya juices and even a cocktail or two. 

​On the Wednesday, we headed to Sigiriya to climb the famous Lion’s Rock. This is a must-do in Sri Lanka and the main reason most tourists even bother to go north of Kandy. The rock contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa, from 477-495AD. According to the theory, King Kassapa sought out an unassailable new resistance after overthrowing and mirdering his own father, King Dharusena of Anuradhapura. However, archaeologists have recently challenged this theory, suggesting instead that Sigiriya was not a fortress place but a monastery and religious site. The complex was abandoned after the 14th century and rediscovered in 1898 by a British archaeologist. Sigiriya has been a Unesco Word Heritage site since 1982.*

Anyway, most tourists visit for the gorgeous views, rather than the interesting history. You pay an extortionate amount, join the line of tourists and climb up some metal stairs for about half an hour. The views from the top were pretty stunning and the rock itself is extremely impressive. 

Our Friday afternoon activity was even more successful, though. After reading about it in the Lonely Planet and seeing photos on Instagram, we decided to climb up the nearby Pidurangala rock. Unlike Sigiriya rock, this one was free to go up and you have the added bonus of being able to see the Lion’s Rock from the top. The climb was less man-made (as in, you had to scramble up boulders and through openings between big rocks) and the views were really spectacular. It was a really great way to end the week. 

Finally, on Saturday morning we rose at 5am and set off to do a safari in Minneriya National Park. I wasn’t sure whether or not to do this as you have to pay quite a lot for entry to all the national parks and I was already planning on going to the more famous Uda Wallawe or Yala National Parks on my way to the coast. However, I am very glad I did decide to join my friends. We’d read that although you might be lucky enough to see a herd of 50 elephants, there are always about 50 jeeps as well. However, when it came down to it we were about the only jeep in the park. Maybe all the others found the elephant herd and that’s why we missed it, but it made the whole experience much more enjoyable. 

The elephants we did see were as gorgeous as always, and I was very happy to get so close to them. 

It was a perfect way to conclude my time volunteering with Green Lion and made me even more excited for my solo travels. Although I said a first goodbye to all my friends, I knew I’d be seeing them in Kandy the following week. I was also thrilled that my friend, Rita decided to join me for the next stop on my route: the ancient city of Anuradhapura. 

*Facts taken from Lonely Planet. 

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Kandy: Volunteering and Exploring 

I could go on for ages about my experiences volunteering in Kandy but I am going to keep it succinct. Those of you who know me will hear about it in great detail when we next speak and those who don’t probably don’t care! 

For my second and third weeks with Green Lion I volunteered at a centre for disabled girls and women and at a local pre-school. I taught monks for a day but swiftly decided it wasn’t the right project for me. I’m glad I switched to the disabled project instead as I felt like my help was much more needed there. 

Both experiences were rewarding in different ways. The disabled centre was very challenging but it was inspiring to meet so many selfless volunteers, some of whom have been there for months or even years. It’s possible to volunteer at the centre without going through an organisation, and I would definitely do this if I were ever to come back. It is run by nuns and the main sister was particularly charming. She ran little meditation sessions each morning before the project began, reminding the volunteers to ‘love than to be loved’ and do other similarly selfless things. I loved the ‘Joy’ class I helped out in and was inspired by the teacher who runs it because it must be a truly exhausting job. The centre did have certain problems, but I will not expand on these here. If I’d had longer to volunteer I would definitely have spent more time on this project because I can only imagine that you get more and more attached to the place as time goes on. 

However, I was still happy with my decision to change projects every week because there were so many to choose from and it’s what most volunteers do. 

In my second week, I decided to help at a local pre-school called Asiri. My friend Rita worked there the first week and she raved about it, so I thought it would be a nice change from my previous week. I imagined it would be physically exhausting but not as mentally challenging as the disabled centre. 

I absolutely loved my week at Asiri. It is run by a family who really care about the volunteers who go there – this is somewhat unusual for Green Lion as volunteers on most projects complained about not being put to very good use! It happened to be ‘clay’ week so we spent most of our time in the garden making things out of clay (a rather dull activity when the kids destroy everything you make…). We also danced and sung with the children first thing in the morning, which was particularly enjoyable on the Friday, when they celebrated Independence Day with their lovely teachers! 

For the rest of the day, we helped the children with typical arts and crafty type activities. 

It was quite difficult communicating with them at times (and it made me appreciate how much more useful I must have been when I did the same thing in Ecuador…), but the kids were charming nonetheless and I had particular favourites from day 1. 



Unlike the disabled project, where we got some unappetising noodles for lunch most days, the pre-school project finished in time to head home for midday. Meals in the Kandy house were always served buffet style, but with 50 or so people living there you never got to eat that much. However, there were only about five of us there for lunch and we served some truly delicious meals, always involving rice and some variation of dhal and curry. 
This also meant we had the afternoons free to explore. Feeling more brave in my third week in Kandy, I decided to walk into the city and was amazed by how easy it was. The views were stunning as well. 



There wasn’t too much to do in Kandy but it was nice to explore at my own pace. 

We also started visiting a hotel near to our accommodation, where we paid a fiver for use of their pool. 

At the weekend, we visited the Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, a few kilometres south-west of the city. These were really beautiful and filled with amazing trees and flowers, such as rare palm trees from the Seychelles and wonderful slanting pines. 




The following weekend, we went to the Millennium Elephant Foundation where we were able to wash the elephants and feed them snacks. This was an incredible experience for an elephant lover like myself! 



Food

Kandy doesn’t have many amazing restaurants but I did my best to try a fair few of them! 

My favourite was probably Empire Cafe, a colourful little restaurant serving both western dishes and classic Sri Lankan food. The juices were particularly delicious and we had a very nice mango ice cream when we went for a goodbye dinner for some of our friends at the end of the second week. Service was painfully slow though, but the Lonely Planet recommendation keeps the tourists coming despite this! 

White House was a favourite for curries. The restaurant upstairs serves yummy Indian dishes while the downstairs canteen offers a range of Sri Lankan ‘short eats’, which are usually fried pockets of veggies and rice. Here, I tried my first ‘lamprais’, a dish of rice, various curries and a boiled egg wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. 

When I passed back through Kandy last week, I met up with the remaining volunteers for fried ice cream at a popular place called Cool Corner. I had banana and peanut butter ice cream and watched them ‘fry’ it and then roll up with a pizza slice! 

I was sad to leave Kandy but probably ready to go. It had its own peculiar charm but the city was much busier than anywhere else I’ve been in Sri Lanka and I was looking forward to getting some peace and quiet. 

(Sorry for any weird formatting. A combination of awful wifi and a small iPhone screen doesn’t make for easy blogging!)

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Adam’s Peak

I’m a few weeks late with this post, as I’m no longer with IVHQ and am now travelling around the country. 

I have left myself plenty of time to do all the things I want to do, and I hope I’ll leave Sri Lanka in early March feeling like I’ve done more than just scratch the surface of what the country has to offer. 

I could therefore have saved my trip to Adam’s Peak for when I’m actually in the region (i.e. about now!), but this is one thing I really wanted to do with friends. Famously difficult, the trek up Adam’s Peak is best completed at night so you can see the gorgeous views when the sun rises at 6am. 

For our first weekend expedition, we eventually agreed that Adam’s Peak would be a great place to start. I slightly objected to my friends’ reluctance to both get the bus and stay in a hostel, but getting a taxi there and back was worth it in the end. For less than £10 each, we got a taxi to pick us up from our accommodation, drive us to the foot of the mountain and take us back home when we were done. Cheaper than a night in a hostel anyway!

After our tiring orientation week, we got ready to embark on our next adventure. We left the house at 10pm on Friday evening, sacrificing an entire night of sleep for hours of physical exercise. Hmm. 

Kandy is about 3 hours from Dalhousie, the rather depressing little town at the base of Adam’s Peak, but the roads are extremely windy so I barely got a second’s shut eye on the journey. 
Arriving at 1am, we forced down a few bananas before enthusiastically beginning the walk. This is easy, we thought, as we passed countless snack shops and temples. 


At the official base of the Peak, there was a charming little temple where we received our second Buddhist blessing of the day and were again given little white bracelets. 

After this, we began the difficult ascent. 

Before I describe the physical and mental challenges of our climb, I ought to contextualise Adam’s Peak. 

Adam’s Peak is the only mountain in the world which is considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. A huge footprint was identified by Buddhists as that of Buddha, by Hindus as thay of Shiva, by Muslims as that of Adam and later by the Christian Portuguese as the footprint of St Thomas the Apostle. It therefore has an amazing energy and thousands of people do the difficult climb every evening to worship the footprint. On poya days and throughout the pilgrimage season in April, the Peak is even busier than usual. 

There are 5500 steps to the top of Sri Pada. It sounds like a lot, I know, but none of us appreciated quite what this means until we were about of a fifth of the way up the hill. At first, the steps were interspersed with flat sections filled with shops, but the stairs gradually got closer and closer. However, they were by no means regular: some steps were small and close together, while others were remarkably steep. The shortest member of our group said she had difficulty climbing up at points – I have no idea how the many 6 year old kids we saw managed it! 

The difficult hike wasn’t helped by the heavy rain and slippery paths, nor by the aggressive crowds of people constantly trying to push past you.  

Even though I’m running a lot less than I used to and I’ve been eating much more rice, sugar and chocolate since I’ve been in Sri Lanka, I would still consider myself reasonably fit. But Adam’s Peak was by no means easy; in fact, it was undeniably challenging. 

I had to stop every ten minutes or so and I could really feel my lungs and legs screaming. One of the members of our group is an RAF pilot and she confidently led the team throughout the hike, but even she had to take regular breaks and give her legs a rest. And she’s used to military training!

By the time we reached the 5500th step, morale couldn’t have been much lower. Arriving at 4.30 am, there was none of the joy you usually experience upon reaching a summit – all gorgeous views, happy smiles and satisfied bodies. Instead, there were only crowds of grumpy Sri Lankans, rain and at least ninety minutes to wait before sunrise. We needn’t have rushed to the top, we moaned; we could have set off even later. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we had to remove our shoes and walk barefoot through the cold, wet temple and the fact that two of our team somehow acquired stomach bugs as we reached the top. And there were no loos up there. 



What followed was at least an hour of feeling utterly miserable and freezing in the rain. I ate a snickers at 5am and regretted rushing to do this climb when it would have been much more enjoyable in daylight and slightly dryer circumstances. The low point came around 5.30 when our new Sri Lankan acquaintance – who was climbing the peak for the fourth time ‘just for fun’ – told us we may not even see anything at dawn because there was so much mist. 


However, when the sun finally did come up the views did not disappoint. The midt gradually rose and the beautiful landscape was revealed to us in all its glory. It may not have been the orange landscape we had been led to expect, but it was still blooming gorgeous and my mood swiftly turned 180 degrees. 



In a rush to find our poor friends a bathroom, we didn’t hang around at the top for very long but shortly began our slow descent. 

We’d been warned that this would be even harder than the climb up, due to knee pains and aggressive crowds. However, the sunlight made a huge difference and we could finally appreciate not only how far we’d climbed but also how unimaginably stunning the landscape was. I was suddenly very happy. I remembered why I like hiking – for me, the views matter so much more than the physical achievement. I often like walking by myself so I can fully appreciate the scenery, but I was in such a good mood and wanted to share it. So we all walked down companionably, regularly stopping to take photos of one another or to replenish our snack supply. 

Sure, I may have had a minor sense of humour failure when we were nearing the bottom of the hill and someone mentioned that they may have taken us the wrong way. A night with no sleep but rather 6 hours of hiking (it took us 3 hours to climb the peak and the same back down) will do that to a person, helped along by an inadequate diet of chocolate bars and the odd mini banana. 

Nevertheless, we finally made it back to Delhousie and managed to find our lovely taxi driver who welcomed us into his car and offered us crackers and the chance to stop for besakfast. 

No one was up for speaking much, so we travelled in silence and snores back to kandy, arriving at about 1pm and heading straight to bed. I couldn’t even shower; I needed sleep that badly. 

Overall, it was an unforgettable experience and I’m so glad I did it. We’ve sort of blackened our experience of Adam’s Peak – so much so that the group of volunteers who went last weekend were surprised by how easy they found it after listening to our moans for a few weeks – but it was definitely worth the physical and emotional challenge. Beautiful views are always worth the difficult climb! 


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