I am currently staying at a yoga retreat deep in the jungles of Sri Lanka. For five days now I have embraced the Ayurvedic lifestyle: I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol or caffeine, smoked a cigarette, consumed any meat or fish or tasted anything with added sugar. My diet has been pure and vegetarian and I’m supposed to do yoga every day but I pulled a muscle trying to do a too complicated pose last week so I’m having to rest. I’m not sure how I’m feeling, I think I might be having ‘life’ withdrawal symptoms; my back aches and I get headaches. The thought of a large latte and a big hunk of Fruit & Nut make my mouth water.
Last week, at my beachside yoga retreat I had my first Ayurvedic experience, good practice for where I am now. It came via a lovely elderly lady called Maggie, a Scot living in Australia, who told me about this wonderful young male ayurvedic masseur she’d been to see; he’d given her the best massage she’d ever had and she couldn’t recommend him more highly. Naturally I thought I must visit him too, given the glowing praise, so I made an appointment and zipped over to his house in a tuk-tuk.
It was, as my elderly Edinburgh companion had promised, very good. When he massaged my breasts I didn’t over think it, as I knew it was Ayurvedic practice to include breast massage so that was fine. What did make my inner antennae shoot up was when he began to circle his fingers slowly around my areolae in ever decreasing circles, before tweaking both my nipples as a final flourish. My inner antennae went on full alert. All sorts of thoughts tumbled around inside my head as I lay motionless like a corpse on a stone slab: is nipple tweaking normal, or is this man a pervert? Not knowing what to do, I opted to just lie still and keep my eyes tightly shut for fear of what I might see if I opened them. Thankfully the massage finished soon after and he was all smiles. It was all very disconcerting and I left wondering if nipple tweaking was actually OK and maybe I was just being a neurotic westerner making a big deal out of nothing.
When I got back Maggie asked me enthusiastically how I’d enjoyed it, her face a picture of sparkling eagerness. I replied that he had been very thorough, I then asked her, with a tinge of embarrassment, if she’d had her nipples tweaked. Maggie looked aghast, no, she hadn’t! I asked her if she knew if that was part of Ayurvedic practice and she responded, still agog, that she had no idea.
Maggie told me firmly, as I said goodbye to her at the weekend, that she would find out if this was orthodox practice and let me know. I’ve had a few more Ayurvedic massages since then and not one has involved nipple tweaking, so I think I will just have to remember him as the ayurvedic nipple tweaker.
I have three days left before my flight home, I’m excited to be heading homewards but sad too that this amazing adventure is coming to an end. There might be time to squeeze in one more blog in between meditation, yoga and massage…and imagining what sugar-laden, bottom-bulging goodies I might feast on at Colombo airport.
Despite its beauty, travelling in Sri Lanka has not been a bed of roses. The Sri Lankans have a distinctly, er ‘Sri Lankan’ way of doing things which often involves bouts of inexplicable head wobbling (only inexplicable to us, they know the subtleties) and lots of time spent patiently repeating everything many times over before things are understood and everybody gets to breath a sigh of relief, or make a mad dash to the nearest bar for sanative beer and cigarette smoking (yes, very bad but there were three of us doing it which made it seem…hmm, less bad).
We’ve sunbathed on the gorgeous golden beaches of the south & east coasts and braved the oppressive, humid heat of historic Galle, Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa. We’ve safaried with a safari guide whose grasp of English was almost zilch and who knew as much about safari animals as we did. His vocabulary amounted to ‘Look, elephant!’, ‘Look, water buffalo!’, ‘Look, monkey!’, followed by ‘Now, lunch!’ and ‘Now, safari over!’, all delivered with a rhythmical head wobble. We suspected he was somebody’s ‘brother’ who was a stand-in as all the other safari-goers seemed to have had amazing experiences with wonderful, knowledgeable, English-speaking safari guides. This streak of ill luck continued the following day on our whale-watching trip which involved seeing exactly no whales at all. This wasn’t a surprise really, there were so many whale-watching boats waiting to pounce I wouldn’t blame the poor whales for sticking two blow-holes up at them all and heading elsewhere. Anyway, as I was struck by sea sickness shortly after I’d eaten my tuna paste breakfast sandwich, I spent most of the six-hour outing dozing and trying to quell the queasiness which increased every time I thought of the revolting tuna paste.
Sooz, Phil and Swoody
With the Edinburgh gang now sadly gone, my first solo day began in Kandy (to clarify, Kandy is a town, not a girl) last Saturday, where I bought a second-class ticket to board a train to Ella (yet another place with a girl’s name), a little town nestled deep in tea plantation country. This train journey is famous for its spectacular Hill Country scenery and is considered a ‘must do’ for every western traveller, so it wasn’t a surprise to find myself standing amongst at least 200 of them on the station platform, a moving crowd of white skin, backpacks, beards, high buns and unbrushed hair. As the train drew to a halt my heart sank as I clocked, along with everyone else, that it was already jam-packed. This did not bode well; laid-back travellers suddenly mutated into elbowy, pushy commuters pretending they were boarding a London tube in rush hour. It was not pleasant and with my large wheelie rucksack in tow, I felt more like an OAP with one of those boxy tartan shopping bags on wheels, woefully ill-equipped to cope with rush hour style crushes. And so it was, after a few attempts to get on at different carriage doors, that I found myself standing alone on the platform, with the sickening realisation that I was not going to get on this train.
My condo in Ella…
View from the train
Old colonial station master’s house
This says ‘Reserved for the Differently Abled’…..think they meant ‘Disabled’!
Just as despondency set in, a guard spotted my forlorn figure and motioned me down to a third-class carriage where he manfully ordered several young Sri-Lankan men off the train so I could get on. They then all somehow squeezed back on after me, which meant we were all standing within a metre or so of the open carriage door packed together like sweaty sardines, my rucksack like a giant boulder at my feet. I was so relieved to have made it on, and so busy saying pink-faced flustered sorries to everyone (I wish I could have said it in the right language though), that it took me some time to work out that from where I was standing there was no way I was going to see any of the promised jaw-dropping scenery, just a sea of dark-eyed Sri Lankan men. And I was going to be in this position for seven long hours. I told myself to man-up, people have experienced far worse.
Clearly I am not made of strong stuff though as, after two hours of the train rolling, swaying and jolting, I felt sick as a dog, cold sweat prickled my forehead and I couldn’t stop yawning. With nothing to distract me from my woeful condition, I thought I might faint and all I could do was hope that someone would help me if I did, and not throw me out the open carriage door whilst pinching my money and passport. But thankfully these thoughts remained just that because, in the nick of time, we drew into a station where half the carriage tipped out and I was finally able to get a seat where I could look out a wide-open window. The fresh air soon dispelled the heavy burden of nausea and relief seeped like honey through every vein in my body. It was heavenly.
I spent the next five hours gazing out the window drinking in the magnificent scenery and counting my every blessing. It was astoundingly beautiful; villages, waterfalls and lush green vegetation rushed in and out of focus as we wound our way up into Hill Country. Tea plantations draped over the undulating hills like patchwork quilts making me wonder what life must have been like for the British colonials before independence in 1948.
With hindsight I was glad to have travelled third-class as it was a ‘real’ Sri Lankan train experience. There were a couple of other travellers near me, but most had ruthlessly elbowed their way into the cramped second-class carriages. Surrounding me were Sri Lankan women and children (their menfolk were mostly standing in the aisle and by the doors, where I had been), they gave me kind, curious smiles. A mother and her baby boy sat opposite me for a large part of the journey, the baby was intrigued by my very white hands and took great pleasure in thoroughly inspecting every finger, rubbing the nails and pinching my palms as if they weren’t quite real. This was heart-warmingly sweet, until his mother lobbed all their food wrappings straight out the open window as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Oh dear.
Yesterday I had a very pleasant, uneventful taxi ride from Ella down to Talalla on the south coast, where I’m now ensconced at the first of two yoga retreats I’m visiting during my last fortnight in Sri Lanka , this will be an interesting experience as I’ve never really done yoga. I have plenty of time to think about blogging though so if you can bear it, there may be more!
Hello, hello! It’s been so long since I last wrote I expect you thought I’d given up the blog; I haven’t it’s just that I’ve been living life in the fast lane for the past month and haven’t had time to pause and think. Joining my Intrepid ‘Indo-China’ tour changed everything; in one day my pace of life upped from that of a Ford Fiesta to a speedy Ferrari and ever since then life has sped by in blur of glorious colour. But before I go on I want to wish you a belated Happy Christmas and New Year. Mine was celebrated in Siam Reap in Cambodia, against the spectacular backdrop of Angkor Wat.
Opening my Secret Santa present on Christmas Day
Where to start?! It’s difficult to condense everything into one blog without sounding like a badly written guidebook. I’ve toured Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, where I am now. Each country has been unique. Laos was green, vibrant and lush, with elegant French architecture and influences as reminders of its colonial past. Sadly it’s beauty is diminishing as the country’s natural resources are trampled through by China; like a beautiful tapestry that’s gradually being picked apart.
Vietnam was more urban and gritty, its population is 92.7 million compared to neighbouring Laos’ 6.8 million. We marvelled and trembled at the sea of motorbikes on the roads in the main cities, and the way they flowed around the stationary traffic like river water. In Saigon we saw and read about the horrors of the French and American wars, a stomach churning experience. We visited the Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon, a vast network of narrow tunnels the Vietnamese guerrillas built in the jungle to fight the Americans. We also saw their gruesome booby traps; no number of weapons could save the poor American soldiers prowling through the dense jungle from the horrible deaths inflicted by the spokes and spikes of these cleverly disguised traps. It was like something out of Indiana Jones.
Cambodia was enthralling; a mix of beauty and poverty. The Khmers, the people of Cambodia, have, as the Lonely Planet puts it, been to hell and back. The atrocities of the Pol Pot years are still raw in the minds of many. We travelled to the Killing Fields and heard the appalling stories of how men, women and children were horrifically tortured and executed, mostly for the simple sin of being ‘educated’. It was a stark reminder that man is capable of so much horror and brutality.
I skim over much of what we did as I don’t want to prattle on, but I think the parts I’ve written about above made the greatest impression. On a lighter note, I have seen so many glorious temples and Buddhas in the past month that they begin to blend together. During our stay in the pretty town of Luang Prabang in Laos we had the privilege of visiting Mount Phou Si, a religious site on a hill standing in the heart of the town. Unfortunately for our tour guide it’s pronounced ‘pussy’, which meant that every time he said it we all fell about laughing. Intrepid travellers we may be, mature travellers….perhaps not!
As I write this I’m sipping a beer and sitting in the shade at a peaceful bar in Arugam Bay on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. I had a wonderful reunion with my Edinburgh gang at Colombo airport on the 30th December and spent a fun-filled New Year with them by the beach at a very cool, hip bar where we were not quite the oldest party-goers, but not far off it. We didn’t let that get in the way though!
I can’t believe my adventure will be drawing to a close so soon now; this time in a month I will be home and back to wearing polo necks. I will endeavour to write a few more blogs before then though!
One of the joys of visiting Thailand is the amazing massages; they’re everywhere, they’re unbelievably cheap and it’s a perfect way to pass time if you’re on your own. An hour or two of zoning out from the world in a semi-sleep state whilst all the tension in your body is pummelled away is like entering the Garden of Eden for a massage lover like me.
Walking through the busy streets of Bangkok on your own in the intense heat is jolly tiring, trying to navigate with the photocopied A4 city map provided by the hotel is challenging, politely turning down tuk-tuk drivers’ advances is wearing, sight-seeing is exhausting, crossing the road in Bangkok traffic is a feat, and taking in the mind-boggling assortment of objects for sale in the street markets and the wonderful smells from the food stalls is sensory overload. It was all wonderful and utterly draining, I was teetering around with a bottle of water in one hand and a sweaty soggy map in the other by the middle of the afternoon. So it was simply bliss to have a smiley Thai masseuse work her magic on my aching limbs. There’s no frills to the experience, no soothing relaxation music or tables with holes for your face to look through, it’s all very basic; the customer lies on a floor level futon and the masseuse works round you, kneeling on the floor and using her body weight to press down on various pressure points round the body. Heaven.
An older American lady (sixty-something) in our tour group didn’t have such a positive experience. She booked a three hour massage and was shocked when her male masseur produced a condom half way through and showed it to her. ‘No’ she spluttered, ‘that’s not what I’m here for!’. Unsurprisingly she didn’t enjoy the rest of her three hour massage and ended up escaping early. I think the top tip there would be not to have a three hour massage as that really is quite a long time and not to have a male masseur. We (the rest of us are non-Americans) all found it very funny, but she was traumatised by the episode.
Back to the here and now. Our tour group is currently in Laos, having started out in Bangkok and moved on to Chang Mai where I honed my Thai cooking skills, turned a year older and bathed with elephants at a local elephant sanctuary, such majestic, gracious creatures. It’s heart-breaking that the future survival of elephants in Northern Thailand lies in sanctuaries due to the greed-driven actions of man. We marvelled at some amazing temples (they do begin to look a bit alike after a while) and travelled for two days on a traditional slow boat, sailing up the Mekong River from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang. The Mekong is wide and low and carves a powerful path through the dense, green jungle. Controversely, the Laos Government plans to build a huge dam across the Mekong, the effect it will have on the river’s aquatic ecosystem can’t be anything but disastrous; the river is already heavily polluted with litter (and goodness knows what else), we saw so many plastic bags and bottles floating alongside us, it was saddening to see.
Chilling on the Slow Boat
Looking out from the boat
With my other Intrepid Travellers
On the way to the Elephant Sanctuary in Chaing Mai
Next stop: Vang Vieng and Vientiane, followed by Cambodia for (a very strange, warm, turkey-less, but hopefully fun) Christmas.