Tuesday, September 30, 2008

More bad news

I'm on vacation in Rajasthan, north India right now. It's great. Full update and pictures to come, but...

Horribly sad news. Every time there is a celebration here there seems to be a risk. We were in Jodhpur three days ago, visiting this massive old fort on a hill there - really fantastic site. This morning, on the first day of the annual Navaratri Festival (also called Durga Puja), the crowd waiting to enter one of the temples in the fort turned into a stampede as the gates were opened. Over 140 people died of suffocation, according to official reports. This follows another stampede on a hillside temple in Maharashtra a month ago, when 160 people died. The tragedy is that much more in our faces because we were JUST there.

Slightly fuller story here: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/000200809301502.htm

I don't mean to keep posting upsetting news on my blog, but I'm guessing that news from the east rarely makes it into the western papers.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I went to Sri Lanka over India’s independence day weekend. Because that’s what you do when you live in South Asia – you hop over to Sri Lanka for the weekend.

As with most tropical island weekend trips, it was pretty spectacular. To answer the questions of
those who follow world news, no, it was not dangerous. We stayed away from the north and northeast where the Tamil Tigers are fighting the Sri Lankan army (long, sad story) and generally avoided Colombo, where large parts of the city are on lockdown. Instead, we rented a van and driver and spent a day each on three activities: a beach, a hill station and a rock fortress.

We found a resorty little village on the southwest coast with a nam
e I can’t get enough of: Unawatuna. It sounds like something you’d say in Swahili, except that “kutuna” isn’t a verb (although it should be – to tuna? What better word could there be?). We bunked up at the first guest house we found right on the beach, and spent the day lounging and swimming and body surfing and getting $6 beachfront massages. We ate and drank our way through the closest restaurant to the guest house, and went out for the local Arrack liquor that night. The next morning we explored this cool old Portuguese/Dutch fort in the neighboring town of Galle. This was one of those days that made me wonder, no, seriously contemplate, why I haven’t yet decided to leave it all behind to set up a B&B on some idyllic white sand beach and while away my days in paradise.

I contemplated this even more the next day when we got up early to leave paradise and embark on a 10-hour journey inland to the hill city of Kandy. After a set of roads reminiscent of my days in Kenya, we arrived just in time to cram ourselves into the crowd that had amassed to view the climax of the Perahera Festival. Like typical ignorant tourists, we hadn’t realized that we had come to Sri Lanka during the weekend of this event, also known as the Tooth Festival. Kandy is the site of a very famous and sacred temple in Buddhist tradition, where they house what they think is one of Buddha’s teeth. Every year they parade the relic around the city with grand fanfare, to the tune of 80 adorned elephants and countless traditional dancers, saber spinners, and fire throwers on stilts among other performers. It was quite a spectacle, and well worth leaving the beach behind.

On Day 3, we went a little farther north to check out Sigiriya, the site of a 1st century rock fortress. Some king built his palace on top of a huge rock overlooking his kingdom for many miles around – an even better strategy than mountaintop and shoreside forts, if you ask me. The ruins still remain, complete with an inner and outer moat, fountain garden, terrace garden and wall frescos (which I assume have been redone). It may have been a tourist trap, but it was still a 2,000-year-old tourist trap.

Did I mention the seafood? After 3 days full of prawns and crab in every meal, it was difficult to get on the plane back to Chennai. Especially difficult when the 1:00am flight was delayed 2.5 hours, getting us home at 6am Monday morning. This is extreme weekend travel at its best.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Two hours south of Chennai, by public bus, is a sweet little temple-filled town called Mahabalipuram (ten points if you’re not Indian and have never been to India and can pronounce that). I went to check it out a few weeks back with my friend Mike.

My first experience with public transportation in India was a far cry from the speed racer matatu mini bus death traps of Kenya, but it was an experience all of its own. We were pretty psyched to discover that the bus was leaving just as we got to the station so we wouldn’t have to wait… until we realized that it was leaving because all the seats were full, and we had to stand, packed like sardines among dozens of other people, for the entire 2 hour ride.

It was worth it once we got there though. Right along the beach there is this fabulous ancient temple, the main attraction of the town. Europe, I see your 16th century cathedrals and raise you a 7th century Hindu temple. The temple is surrounded by a wall of protective stone rams and contains a few hard-to-see but intriguing sculptures inside, including a reclining Vishnu (one of the three gods in the Hindu Trinity).

Then we spent about an hour walking around this vast park within the town that I like to call The Big Ancient Rock Playground. It is essentially a set of massive granite slabs that you wander around and randomly bump into really old shrines and reliefs carved into the stone. My favorite was a massive oval rock egg perched precariously on a heavily sloping rock slab. Not sure what the significance was, but it was pretty fun to take pictures with it.

Incidentally, last Saturday I revisited this little seaside town and experienced the other side of Mahabalipuram: local shopping, mopeds for rent, open roads and restaurants that serve drinks (which Chennai does not). I even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to ride a motorcycle down a narrow side alley. It was a far cry from temples and granite sculptures, but equally worthwhile.