Solo in Sri Lanka; Kandy to Dambulla

So after just over a week of taking in the cultural sights and ‘must-see’ landscaped treasures of Sri Lanka, paying altogether a hell of a lot more money for absolutely everything than I have been for the past month in India, I have arrived in Arugam Bay (aka probably the hottest and most touristic place I’ve ever been). Even in Uganda, I don’t remember it being this sweltering, although admittedly the lifestyle and everyday activities differed quite a bit, yoga and surfing being the order of the day here coupled with a sickening amount of loved up couples and families intent on spending every moment browsing for elephant pants and drinking cocktails on the beach. Not a bad life, in fairness. But far more expensive than what I’ve become accustomed to.

After a night at First Hostel in Negombo, I travelled East to Kandy in the hopes of witnessing the infamous Esala Perahera festival – a yearly occurrence which as a happy accident fell during my stay in Sri Lanka this year. I was excited, to say the least, with the promise of a traditional Buddhist elephantine ceremonial festival, the kind with lights and music and costumes the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on tv (and let’s face it, Instagram too)!

I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say that as a spectacle the Perahera amazes and does what you’d hope it to after crowds beginning to gather along the streets from 2 in the afternoon to wait hours in their spot until sunset. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing to watch the never-ending troupes of dancers, drummers and fire acrobats proceed up the street interspersed with extravangently dressed and decorated elephants. The feet of these elephants are chained so tightly they can only take tiny steps of about one foot a time, while their eyes somehow see out through slits in heavy, embroidered material draped over them from trunk to toe and making them resemble giant blundering tea cosies. Very beautiful giant blundering tea cosies. But let’s not forget that these are extremely intelligent, graceful, and powerful animals. Moreso than humans, when in their natural habitat.

How would you feel being forced to wear a tea cosy draped with Christmas lights and made walk up and down streets to be photographed night after night??
This, combined with the inherent whipping of the ground which signalled the beginning of the procession and more than likely served as a means of terrifying the elephants into complying, was distressing to witness and I instantly disconnected from the whole experience, festival atmosphere dwindling as each depressed and gloomy looking elephant blindly lumbered past. As I said, the spectacle of the parade was great, and the lights and costumes enough to warrant the fame and draw of the Perahera. I just couldn’t see past the chains.

From Kandy I took a public bus to Dambulla for only 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (less than a euro) which was fine considering the trip was only 3 hours long and I actually managed to get a seat. The journey back was a different story. More on that later.
Robert’s Inn in Dambulla proved a welcoming and entertaining guesthouse stay, with tours and excursions to the surrounding area available at the mere mention of a temple (Robert is very enthusiastic), and a very hospitable family in general. The town of Dambulla itself is fairly downbeat and local, but there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses and homestays tucked away down dust roads such as the one I stayed, nearly all of which offer independent guided tours and jeep excursions to the things to see in the area, which are all quite spread out and make jeep and tuk-tuk rides an unfortunate necessity. They’re not all that bad though, and considering I saw some wild elephants and climbed a pretty cool rock I wasn’t altogether bothered to have to fork out some extra rupees on transport.

This brings me on to my next point – Sigiriya Rock. Don’t do it. Several travellers I met in India had warned me about it and the expenses of Sri Lankan tourist attractions as a whole, but like anything else, the full extent and expense of the place was lost on me until I had spent a few days here and experienced it for myself. Sigiriya Rock is one of the most recognised attractions in Sri Lanka, and is part of the ‘cultural triangle’, of which I only completed one acute angle, as expenses convinced me otherwise. Because of this (as is the case with a lot of India) the entrance fees and add-on taxes for foreign guests have become extortionate in recent years. In order to dodge this in Dambulla, myself and some friendly Slovenians opted to climb Pidurangala Rock – directly opposite Sigiriya and substantially less swamped with slow-paced tourists with deep pockets and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
This thirty-minute climb – steep steps for the first ten, and thereafter a curious toddler’s dream on hands and knees up through rocks and crevices in an unclear direction,is ultimately completely worth the uncertainty as soon as the peak is reached, the rocks disperse, and all of a sudden you can see across the plains to Sigiriya Rock and beyond to the ends of the earth (or so it seems). I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Smugness materialized then as my eyes adjusted and I spotted clearly the winding line of tourists meandering the way to the summit of the overcrowded sister rock to the one I’d just conquered. The handful of likeminded climbers who had also chosen Pidurangala took turns holding each others cameras and attempting to capture the beauty and isolating freedom of the place – which proved difficult!
The descent was much quicker, and we were back down on the dust track road by 11am.

 That afternoon our host also took us out (for a fee, of course) to Minneriya National Park, a great place to spot elephants in their natural habitat, no chains or silly costumes or lights attached and a terrain that reminded me of Jurassic Park from the get-go. We were lucky to catch huge groups of them grazing peacefully and cutting across the dust paths ahead of our open-topped jeep, in search of more grass and pretty much doing whatever the hell they liked. In the wild!

We also saw herds of wild buffalo, deer, and hundreds of different species of colourful birds and dragonflies, which flitted through the open sides and top of the jeep as we trailed home through the dust. It was pretty magical!
After a night spent fulfilling necessary maintanence work like washing my clothes and budgeting for the unexpected new expenses I’d encountered, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable day of uncomfortable cross-country travel that lay ahead….

 

Serenity Eco Guesthouse, Canggu, Bali

 

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Serenity Eco -Guesthouse, Jalan Nelayan, Canggu

I’m not going to lie. I could base myself absolutely anywhere in Bali and still probably end up wanting to stay forever. Even if anywhere meant the little shack on the beach just 150 metres down the road from Serenity Eco Guesthouse in Canggu.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

 I took a taxi from the airport in Denpasar to Canggu, which took all of about 40 minutes once the driver had calmly arrived 30 minutes late and then proceeded to search the entire car and car park for a further 20 for any sign of his misplaced keys. This was my first encounter with the legendary workings of what they call ‘Bali time’, and let me tell you – it’s a real thing, people! 12388317_10153233258303483_515787682_n

40 minutes late here? An hour behind schedule there? “Sorry mate, I got carried away in the surf! Have you seen it today?”,Oh, yes, we are running late today. How would you like your eggs?”

Nearing Canggu, according to the signs I observed, I tried to commit directions and landmarks outside the window to memory in an attempt to get my bearings for when I rented my motorbike (60k IDR per day from Serenity, but available at a lot of nearby rental-sheds too).

Finally turning onto Jalan Nelayan in Canggu, we pulled up outside the bamboo thatched roof and awning of Alkaline Café, the line of motorbikes parked up outside overshadowed by a large timetable outlining a yoga-schedule for the day, and signs. My kinda place, I thought happily.

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Serenity Eco Guesthouse was everything I’d hoped it would be – and more. Initially only booking in for 3 nights, I ended up staying well over a week and making friends that I am still in contact with even now having returned home.

Maybe it was the fact that up until then I’d been staying in communal hostel rooms of up to 18 people, but the single room at Serenity was perfect. They also have double, privates, and a larger shared backpackers dorm. I splashed out on the single room. Spotlessly clean, secure, and cool even though there was no air con – December in Bali meant it wasn’t entirely necessary.

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Free breakfast and then other meals (not included) at the vegan/vegetarian Alkaline Café were honestly so delicious I was spoiled for choice every day, with the signs around affirming how to ‘Let Food Be Your Medicine’ really reassuring me that what I was getting was good, fresh, organic, and healthy concoctions of both western and Balinese dishes. My first time to try vegan ice cream was genuinely a very pleasant surprise, and I made sure to try almost every flavour of Alkaline’s homemade nice-cream.

Your choice of daily yoga class is only a small bit extra if you stay in Serenity, and the Ashtanga and Vinyasa flows proved both a challenging and refreshing change from the rather monotonous self-practice flow I had become accustomed to on my travels. A special ‘Yoga for Surfers’ is available too for those more inclined to be found on Batu Balong Beach than the yoga studio in the early hours, 150 metres down the road and only a short distance away from the popular Old Man’s, which really is the place to be during any visit to Canggu, no matter if you stay on past happy hour or not.12386743_10153233255198483_419303146_n

The staff were extremely helpful and friendly during my stay and I honestly couldn’t recommend them more – they even took care of me during an extremely rough dose of the 24-hour Bali-Belly bug, which floored me for over a day and meant I couldn’t even leave the guesthouse – DON’T eat at the dingey warungs down by Old Man’s!!

Serenity really caters for the needs of all travellers – proximity to the beach and local nightlife suiting those more inclined to surf for the day, or party at night, whilst the yoga classes schedule meant there was never long to wait before the next class. There were also a few families staying there which I thought was brilliant, the quiet surroundings catering for both young and old, whatever the daytime priority may be. As for me, I partook in all of these activities and more, exploring the local area everyday on my motorbike and returning in the evening for a relaxed chillout by the pool.

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Surf n’ Turf at Batu Balong Beach, Canggu

I really hope I can return to Serenity soon and partake in more of the yoga and meditation sessions- I made friends in the area too who showed me around many of the cool spots aswell as Old Man’s, such as Deus’, Pretty Poison, Betelnut, Café, and Crate, to name but a few (more on the Cafés of Bali HERE).

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My taxi on to Ubud at the end of my stay I shared with one of the many friends I’d made at Serenity, yet we parted ways on arrival as our itineraries differed slightly.

 Serenity recently uploaded this video online and it’s made me nostalgic for the time I spent there, and also made me more determind and eager to return as soon as possible!!

Until then,

Hati-Hati, and Namasté!!

 

 

 

Useful links:

Serenity Eco-GuesthouseFacebook/Twitter
Old Man’s Canggu – Facebook
Betelnut Café – Facebook
Pretty Poison – Facebook

The ‘Hills’ of Donegal

‘The Hills of Donegal’

‘Hill’ being my mother’s maiden name, this phrase has often proven the source of some quality punnage and cheap jokes in my family, any relatives hailing from that side automatically being granted free entry into the category so often sung about towards the end of a drunken night out in Coppers.

I came to visit some of the Hills of Donegal recently for an extended long weekend, in order to escape the haste and mind-melting suffocation of the suburbs of Dublin, and hopefully find some sort of respite. What I found here I still can’t quite put my finger on, but I just know it has been good for my soul.

Home to fairy forts, ancient standing stones, a world war 2 crash site, isolated, pristine beaches and a round tower said to date back to the time of Niall of the Nine-Hostages, the area surrounding Dunree and Buncrana where my godfather lives is truly a treat to explore. Given my haste to leave the capitol, I foolishly packed an assortment of ill-suited clothing for my undefined stay, and so on my arrival I was forced to borrow a warm fleece, and buy the cheapest set of leggings I could find in the local Sainsbury’s just over the Derry border to wear under my thin Summer-dress and tights.

Once I was properly kitted out, (for though the weather was actually fine, a cool breeze cuts through most types of clothing at any time of the year around here), we headed off down the beach for a glimpse of the sunset, after one of the first days this year when the sun has been properly visible for over a couple of minutes at a time. The battery on my phone had died after a painstaking 4-hour bus journey (NEVER travel with Bus Éireann), so you’ll just have to take my word for it without pictures – but it was beautiful.

The cottage itself is exactly what you’d expect for such a rural area – a large, cosy living area with both a turf fire and a huge range that when lit provides heating for the rest of the house too, and a slanting garden home to various plant pits, a huge greenhouse, and an impressive ‘bonfire area’ as they call it, used for parties and gatherings of local musicians and other vagabonds during the summer months. The road down to the right outside the gate leads down to a beach so large and isolated that it makes the Salthill prom appear like a kindergarden’s rockpool. This (even though it’s only April) has been the hottest day of the year so far – where are all the people??

Apparantly, this is one of the Northern-most beaches in the area, and so by the time sun-soakers reach the turn to come down here, they have already passed numerous opportune locations to spend the day roaming the sands and taking ‘shellfies’ with the local marine-life, leaving local inhabitants of Dunree free to bask in the isolated beauty of their beach without having to worry about careless carts of unsupervised children and other littering tourists – it really is a special place.

When the tide is low, there are caves and rockpools to be explored that lead around the coastline to the right of the beach, continuing on jutting in and out dangerously, yet they consistently draw my gaze as I wander up and down the sands, dodging jetstreams in futile attempts to keep my pathetic Penney’s tennis shoes dry. This is what I needed. This is where I should be right now.

Whatever your understanding of or the scientific explanation behind the sensation of ‘Déja Vú’, my aunt’s continued referral to it as ‘a sign that you are in the place you are meant to be’ comes back to me even now, and I can’t deny that there is a solace and truth in her words that ring true for me when in Dunree. I experienced Déja Vú an unusual number of times this weekend, and given that I’d only ever visited here once before as a gangly, awkward teenager who complained about every last step that had to be taken outside in the rain (even if it meant a breathtaking view at the end of the road), I found it increasingly strange and began to believe her words more and more each time it occurred. I am comfortable here. I am at peace. I am not entirely warm, but nor am I cold.

I’ve experienced a glimpse of the balance, calmness, and joy there is to be gotten out of life, if you just stop to recognise it. Because I must leave soon and return to normal life at home (if you can call it normal), I know that it won’t last. But then, I am also aware that nothing lasts. Nothing stays the same, and while I enjoy the peace and collectiveness there is to be found in this place, my sense of self and purpose being more pronounced than they have been in ages, I know I must return. I must go back, and face the inevitable shift into another reality that I may or may not be comortable with. I’ll have to wait and see.