A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010

Sri Lanka and the Maldives

On my first morning in the Maldives I was chatting to the 21 yr old son of the family I was staying with:
Me: "I hear there's quite a big drug problem here?"
Him: "Yeah.... I actually used to be an addict. I also did quite a lot of dealing too and only got out quite recently".
Me: "Of prison?
Him: "Yeah, I had a 6yr sentence but got released after 1 year".
Me: "1 year! How?"
Him: "Well, when the government changed I used to deal for one of the new ministers that came in so he pulled some strings and got me released".

Justice in The Maldives- that's what happens when you bring in democracy you see...

But before that I first spent a few weeks in the island formerly known as Ceylon. I first went to the beaches on the south coast, though after having recently been in Goa I was not impressed. Sri Lanka had been slowly building up a European package industry until the deadly 2004 tsunami destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure.
Since then they've rebuilt but in a display of unforgivable greed and unbelievable stupidity on virtually every beach the hotel owners have had a competition to see who can rebuild closest to the sea. Some have made doubly sure by building literally in the surf and unsurprisingly the beaches are fast getting washed away so I wouldn't recommend the South coast for a beach holiday.

After leaving Colombo and the South I headed towards the more Tamil dominated areas in the North. I'm sure you're aware this was the main area of last years' war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the North of the island. The roots of the conflict offer a slightly different view of Buddhism as always being peace and light. There's been a Hindu Tamil community on the island for a long time and the British increased their numbers by bringing them in from India to work the tea plantations here but they've never been accepted by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and there have always been tensions.
Sri Lanka was on the Buddha's itinerary on his wanderings and became one of the first places in the world where Buddhism became entrenched as a national religion. They've always practiced the most conservative form of Theravada Buddhism and even today the Sri Lankan Sangha (group of elite monks) hold huge power both socially and politically within Sri Lanka while the rest of the Buddhist world still looks to them for theological guidance.
Most Sinhalese would never tolerate another state on the island where another religion was practiced and it's sadly ironic that the only leader who showed a friendlier approach to the Tamils SWRD Bandaranaike (husband of the more famous Mrs.) was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

Tensions between the 2 communities increased until the civil war began about 30 years ago and the story of the Tigers is a fascinating one as they changed the face of world terrorism during their existence. For some years they were the de facto (border points, customs etc.) rulers of large areas of the North and led by the utterly ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran they successfully pulled off a number of huge attacks including destroying almost the entire Sri Lankan airforce in one night and even assassinating Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 after they felt he meddled too much in the conflict. They became the first terrorist force to form naval and even air forces but their most memorable legacy was in being the first group to use suicide bombers anywhere in the world.
The 2 sides had been fighting for some time with no real breakthroughs but then the Tigers made a huge tactical mistake in forcing the Tamil community to boycott the presidential election in 2005 and allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to become president. He's a charismatic figure with an ego not much smaller than the island itself (his picture is up everywhere and he even put himself on the bank notes) and he instructed the army to go on an all out offensive to finally put an end to the conflict. This was very controversial as after kicking all foreign observers out of the area, various human rights abuses by the army are alleged to have taken place including over 7000 civilian deaths. The UN has launched an investigation into these allegations but the refusal by Sri Lanka to co-operate or give visas to UN officials, even at the expense of losing lucrative trading agreements with the EU/USA indicate that they have plenty to hide.
I tried to go the Tamil heartlands around Jaffna but was told I'd need to apply for a special permit from the Ministry of Defence which I probably wouldn't get because of my EU passport so had to go to another of the coastal areas nearby. Things were much quieter than I imagined with little visible war damage and absolutely everyone I spoke to about it thinks the alleged human rights stuff isn't that important, as after 30 years the country is now at peace. Unfortunately the President sees this as justification to slowly turn the island into his fiefdom. He has appointed his brother and even 23yr old son as ministers and is changing the constitution so he can lead indefinitely. Most Sri Lankans are not impressed after finally being at peace and he's so far done little to change the inequalities and lack of opportunities for the Tamils that were the cause of the conflict in the first place. Most people are very optimistic about the next few years but the lack of Tamil progress means a conflict may start up again in a few years.

Despite the relative peace, security is still very high and in Colombo especially it's not unusual to wander down a normal looking street only for a soldier to appear and say 'Sorry this is a high security area'. As in Myanmar however, unlike the moody glares you get from soldiers in most places in Sri Lanka they'd greet you with a smile and a chat as bored rigid in the middle of a 12hr watch shift any diversion was gratefully received.
I found Lankans to be incredibly friendly and easily talkative all the time, after spending most of the last 4 months in Bangladesh and India I didn't realize how much I'd appreciate the gentler, almost village pace of Sri Lanka. Even in Colombo things are much more relaxed than the clogging crowds of India and conversations were noticeably less invasive than across the Gulf of Mannar. In a relatively small area there's a fantastic variety of things to do with beaches, colonial cities, some ancient culture and the wonderful hill country it's a great place for a 2-3 week holiday. The only real criticism I'd have of the island was that it's hard to escape the feeling that you're viewed as something of a cash cow by the government.
Whilst local products (food, transport etc) are very cheap, as a foreigner you have to pay spurious taxes and surcharges on things like hotel rooms but the decision a couple of years ago to put up the price of tourist attractions 400% means you mainly just don't do them. Whilst I drank the Kool-Aid in paying the $50 entry for the ancient cities they did at least occupy a few days but I balked at the price of nearly everything else with the $20-30 entry fees for any of the national parks feeling particularly excessive as you're only allowed in for 2hrs anyway.

I took 3 of the best train journeys I've ever taken in Sri Lanka, one down the West coast with constant views of the ocean, one across the tea plantations in the mountains and one through the jungle to the 2nd city of Kandy. Here I had a fantastic experience staying with a Sri Lankan family- whilst it was great staying in the jungle and speaking to them etc I'll most fondly remember it for the Mum's cooking. Sri Lankan cuisine must be one of the most underrated in the world- trust me, dig out a Sri Lankan restaurant and you won't regret it. At times it felt like I was walking round in an epicurean wonderland as I found myself constantly gorging on the cinnamon and coconut heavy curries and some of the best fruits in the world (soursops, durians etc) which are just impossibly expensive to get in Europe.

The food in the hill country is regarded as probably the best in Sri Lanka and I think it was my favourite part of the country. Sri Lanka is the world's 3rd largest producer of tea and pretty much anywhere the Brits could build a railway and grow tea, they did so. Tea cultivation is one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms of agriculture and the hiking in and around the plantations was phenomenal. Amidst the bushes looking down on the 'toytown settlements' below they felt almost like Northern mining villages. Despite their poor wages and terrible work burdens they have an incredibly strong sense of community and the almost exclusively female pickers were uber-friendly and helpful as I frequently got lost on the hillsides.
The island also plays a significant geographical role in various religions legends; Adam's Bridge, the group of islands that connects India to Sri Lanka plays a big role in the Ramyana (the most important Hindu story) but probably my favourite thing I did on the island was climbing Adam's Peak. It's one of the most holy mountains in the world as Buddhists believe it's where Lord Buddha stopped and mediated before spreading the word in Sri Lanka but it's also long played a role in Christian mythology and Marco Polo wrote about it extensively in his travels. The story goes that when God ejected Adam out of heaven into the Garden of Eden this is where he dropped him; after a pre-dawn ascent I found it easy to put myself in Adams shoes (well he didn't have shoes actually but you get the idea) at the beginning of the world 6,000 years ago. With my ribs starting to itch as Eve was forming, looking out over the beautiful green landscape below I couldn't help but think "Nice one God, you picked a great spot". And it's the lush, fecund landscapes of the island that I'll definitely remember most positively about Sri Lanka.

When you read 'The Maldives' in the subject I can imagine most people thinking 'how the blazes can he afford to go there?' well the answer is The Maldives are pretty close to Sri Lanka and India so easy to get to and if you stay with a local family rather than in a 5 star resort it actually came out OK in terms of costs. As you can probably predict, the Maldivian image that is most vivid to me is of the sharpness of the blues and the whites i.e. the sea and the sand. The Maldives are made up of a series of atolls (ring shaped series of coral islands enclosing a lagoon) so the sand is of a coral white that isn't found in big quantities in many other places and as the water's so shallow, the warm sea is always a glorious shade of aquamarine. If you want to 'relax' on a beach there are few better, more aesthetically pleasing places in the world and the tourist board markets the place as 'the holiday of a lifetime' which is unusual in that there's a great deal of truth to it.
I certainly did a lot of sunbathing, swimming in the cobalt blue and snorkeling at night (incredibly exciting but definitely a bit scary too) but the place is actually a lot more culturally interesting than most resort visitors have any idea of.

Before the first resorts started opening up in the early 1970's by all accounts life in The Maldives was pretty tough, being a loosely connected group of island fishing communities with few prospects beyond a week to week existence. However, in the space of little more than a generation the country has been transformed through tourism to the richest country in South Asia and even the remotest islands now have 24hr water and electricity and through cable TV and the internet are relatively well connected to the world.
The government pretty smartly aimed only at top end tourism but have found it difficult to manage the high rolling tourists alongside the local population. The Maldives is a fiercely devout Muslim country, indeed it's impossible under the constitution to be both Maldivian and a non-Muslim and tourism has created a slightly schizophrenic feel to the country. Whilst on the resort islands most things are allowed (booze, swimwear, unmarried couples and even Israelis!) for the locals life is much stricter with the smaller islands in particular having a cultural and legal conservatism a world away from martinis and bikinis. In order to maintain this strict you might say hypocritical stance the dictatorship that ran the country for 30yrs effectively banned foreigners from leaving their resorts and visiting other islands. In order to actually see the country you needed invitation letters and permits which were unlikely to be granted as they were determined not to interfere with the traditional Islamic culture.
Whilst the arrival of democracy a couple of years has removed much of this system, over time the influence of the tourists has been felt and the islands have definitely developed social problems.

The rapid change in the wealth of the people has now created a somewhat disaffected generation compared to their parents and grandparents. Like many countries which have rapidly acquired wealth most Maldivian youths all but refuse to do menial jobs anymore; whilst 'front' jobs like resort barmen and receptionists will be taken by locals almost all the cleaning, cooking jobs etc are done by Bangladeshi immigrants (many illegal) who now make up a staggering 30% of the population. So whilst the impoverished Bangladeshis are breaking their backs sending money home the young Maldivian population now just look and act bored much of the time. Whilst a country like the Maldives looks incredible and is extremely luxurious etc for a few weeks, living here as a young person would be much harder. There are few professional level jobs and since they're wealthy enough to avoid doing lower level jobs many people turn to drugs for something to do. The Maldives are believed to have one of the biggest drug problems in the world per head of population as unfortunately the drug of choice here is a cheap and nasty version of heroin called 'brown sugar'. With my St Francis of Assisi build and insistence on wearing sunglasses during all daylight hours I fitted in pretty well with the packs of youths which haunt even the smallest islands and whilst they omit to mention it in the tourist brochures it's a huge problem the country faces.

Another strong feeling about the country I had was how precarious life there felt and how their destiny is largely out of their own hands, both metaphorically in how the country survives financially but literally in regard to their environment.
The economy is now almost totally reliant on tourism with 90% of tax revenues coming through it, a workforce entirely dependent on it and few other long term options to generate income. They've focused exclusively on top end tourism with virtually 0 accommodation options below 4* and a stay in a resort will cost a bare minimum of $100 per day, but if you want to you can easily spend $5000 per day in The Maldives. This is probably a shrewd decision bearing in mind how reliant the tax system is on tourism revenues but this also makes the economy and therefore national quality of life extremely susceptible to downturns in the market. The global economic downturn cost the economy an estimated 5% in 2009 and the Icelandic volcanic ash incident of earlier this year looks set to cost the economy 2% in cancelled holidays etc.
In a country this strictly Muslim the government are absolutely paranoid about the threat of Islamic extremism as just 1 bomb or killing of a tourist here could seriously destabilize the economy and consequently the country for many years.

Probably the more serious long-term threat though is the survival of life in the islands at all. The highest point in the Maldives is a laughable 2.4m but the atolls support nearly 400,000 people. Through the use of tetrapods and other ingenious land reclamation schemes islands have been expanded and put to specific uses (e.g. the airport island or my favorite 'rubbish island') but on staying on a smaller island I got a view of how peoples homes here are quite fragile. Most atolls have a small reef offshore which acts as a breaker to the waves but one morning I woke up to find a few stronger waves were flowing over the reef... and they kept on coming. They flowed right into the low lying island swamping the streets and carrying various bits of debris with them. These didn't look or feel at all like big waves but the sheer lack of relief in the islands means if the reef is broken there's little they can do to stop the waves ie you can't get to or build on higher ground. The 2004 tsunami led to the abandonment of 13 islands and the President made headlines round the world in 2008 when he announced the creation of a 'rainy day fund'. The idea is that if sea levels continue to rise and life eventually gets untenable on the Maldives then they would buy a new homeland in probably India or Sri Lanka and give themselves a new start. It's pretty smart thinking as probably no other country on the planet is most at risk from sea level change.

I really enjoyed staying with locals and outside from the hectic capital Male which has over 100,000 people in just a few square km, life is wonderfully tranquil and just feels very easy. There are string easy chairs everywhere on the islands and sitting out by moonlight smoking endless cigarettes and listening to the enjoyably vague philosophies of someone who's lost half their brain cells I definitely realized how lucky I am to be able to come to places like The Maldives and see how other people live. In my last couple of days the son of the family went missing as apparently the police ordered him to go to detox, (well he only weighed about 90lbs) but I was lucky enough to see the Independence Day celebrations. Seeing the street dancing and flags everywhere was a wonderful way to end my time in these beautiful islands and as I flew over the great big holes in the sea that pass for islands I felt darn upset to be leaving.

So after Buddhist Sri Lanka and the Muslim Maldives I'm now back in the land of the Hindus, Hindustan which over time became shortened to India. I'm off to Mumbai tomorrow from where I'll head to the West of the country.

From Trivandrum,

Posted by carlswall 13:34 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Southern India

Hi I hope you're enjoying the Summer and the Rojiblancos storming World Cup run. I'm writing from Mamallapuram just South of Chennai and it's been a few weeks similar to the last in that having seen barely any foreigners anywhere I've now got to a beach resort and there's a lot around. I've been pretty shocked in India how most visitors seem to be content with a few of the biggest sights and staying at the beach- for a country with so much diversity and different aspects of the culture to enjoy I'm just shocked how unambitious most backpackers are here.

After leaving Goa I headed to the 2nd biggest mountain range in the country called the Western Ghats. It was nice getting into the highlands cooler temperatures but the 2 hill stations I went to provided very different glimpses of India. The Koorg region was lovely, quiet and covered with coffee and vanilla plantations as well as Tibetan refugee communities it was a great area to hike around in, and for the first time since Sikkim in the North have anything like some tranquility in this hectic country. Ooty on the other hand was a bit different; Indians understandably seem to like to go to relaxing rather than 'interesting' places on holiday and the old English station of Ooty located near the 2 giant sweatboxes of Chennai and Bangalore makes it an obvious draw. Whilst the area has a pleasant climate and surrounding vegetation it was almost like they lifted a normal, polluted, crowded and insufferably busy Indian town of 100,000 people and put it 2200m up in the hills. It's probably the worst place I've been to in India in just how ruined the area has become and I spent my first day there ensuring a horse got put down after it had been abandoned following an accident and then happily left the next day.

After Ooty I went to the Southern state of Kerala which is without doubt one of the most interesting in India. Geographically it's made up of wide rivers, spice, cashew, red banana plantations and a beautiful palm fringed coastline which attracted traders from all over the world. The Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Arabs and even Jews all left a varied religious legacy including Catholicism and Syrians Christians; they also created cosmopolitan coastal trading cities resembling those on the Malacca straights in Malaysia or even across the Indian Ocean on the Swahili coast of Africa making it a fascinating place to be for a while.
The interior of the state is covered in waterways which are still a very popular way to get around, aside from the relaxing waterborne serenity it's also a great way to see why for the poor Kerala is probably the best place to live in India.
India has a political system somewhat similar to the USA in that each state has it's own Parliament and elects its own government. In 1957 Kerala became the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government and (sorry Fidel) it's probably been the worlds most successful attempt at it.
The people are really proud of the tradition and you see big marches and the hammer and sickle symbol up everywhere, many people even have names like Lenin and Stalin. It's really noticeable how even the poorest villagers are much better educated and have a decent home as well as plenty of access to schools and clinics unlike in some of the Northern states like Bihar or Uttar Pradesh where if you're born poor your life chances are very limited.
The Communists achievements here are many, from female emancipation to infrastructural growth and a life expectancy of 75, fully 10 years higher than the Indian average. To focus on one thing however, Kerala has achieved a literacy rate of 94% one of the highest in the developing world and I've found education in India a fascinating thing to look at on my travels here.

Any Indian will proudly tell you their extremely capable Prime Minister Manoman Singh is the best educated leader in the world and the importance placed on education here is one of the things I've find myself most admiring compared to other developing countries. Whilst ensuring your kids are educated doesn't guarantee them a better life it certainly gives them more chance.
One of the single most common things you see in India are posters advertising schools or extra tuition classes with the qualifications of the tutors and their schools plastered everywhere. Most of the time its for Maths, Physics etc though I'm still weighing up whether to get some of the 'Personality Development' classes offered too. The focus on education undoubtedly shows the diaspora community in a good light; in the UK Indians rank only behind the Chinese in all ethnic groups results and in the States an Indian girl has just become the 8th Indian-American winner in 11 years of the American National spelling bee. The importance placed on education is definitely based on an imperfect system though, firstly in quite how judgmental Indians are about people according to their level of education. In part due to the caste system (the highest Brahmin caste are traditionally teachers) you seem to be completely marked down if you're not educated and where access to education is so uneven it's not exactly an equitable system.
Indian parents are notoriously competitive over their children (the mothers in Goodness Gracious Me was about right) and success in education seems to take on an almost obsessional tone which can be good but can also border on being slightly unpleasant at times. Exams seem to be over-competitive here to the point of being unpleasant, normally on the advertising posters for schools kids as young as 11 or 12 are made into mini celebrities. Their photos and details of their successful results are used to sell tuition classes in posters or in ads in the newspapers rather than the pass grade of the school as a whole like schools might use in England. When kids do really well e.g.at a national level then they can expect to be in the first few pages of the national newspapers along with several hundred word articles about them, which just for kids school results feels both well over the top and surely not what education should be about.

Critics of the system in Kerala like to point out that due to its higher taxes the state has been far less successful than others in attracting overseas investment and it triggers quite an interesting debate about education in India and other developing countries generally. India like most other developing countries is arguably too top heavy on education spending; whilst it annually churns out millions of university graduates in Engineering and IT fields etc it simultaneously has an appalling literacy rate of just 61% overall. In contrast somewhere like The Philippines has a fantastic rate of 92% yet doesn't produce enough high quality graduates. Consequently India has a large body of qualified workers who form the 'engine' to its fast economic growth whereas The Philippines has consistently struggled in this area, but is definitely a 'fairer' system to begin with. For countries with limited budgets for education and the impact it has on the wider society deciding where to spend the money is a hard one to manage and it's interesting both to debate and to see the differing approaches relative success.

In true Socialist fashion Kerala is also the only state in India with a visible drinking scene, or problem depending on which way you look at it. Many states like Gujarat and some in the NorthEast are completely dry and in most other states drinking out is both heavily taxed and not a very attractive option. Outside from the big cities with Western style bars (with prices to match) generally booze is only available at either bottle shops where you're given it in a paper bag by a man behind bars or at 'permit rooms'. These are incredibly depressing places where middle aged men escape from their wives to drink around dimly lit tables and as in most drinking establishments in Asia there are no women anywhere near the premises.
Therefore outside of Goa I've barely drunk but Kerala's great as dotted around the landscape are 'Toddy (palm beer) shops' which are reminiscent of the rum shacks in the Caribbean for their awesome prices and enjoyable ubiquity. I liked them of course but alcoholism and the probably related high level of mental health problems and suicide rates is becoming a serious problem which is largely unknown in the rest of the country.

Aside from the lack of booze Indians are pretty healthy in other ways, out of respect to the various religions you virtually never see pork or beef on a menu and I've been pretty amazed at how few Indians smoke. Having said that many men chew pan (sort of chewing tobacco) or betel nuts which do very bad things to your teeth and whilst they get up surprisingly late the lifestyle is generally pretty healthy.
An area where health isn't so good is sanitation; nearly 100 years ago Gandhi wrote that the lack of sanitation was 'the shame of India' and things haven't changed nearly enough.
Another of the most common 'Indian sights' are blokes pissing anywhere and everywhere and it's unusual to see Indians covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Much more seriously though is the 'toilet problem' the country faces. To much public hand wringing about the direction of the country, the number of mobile phones recently overtook the number of toilets and in most of the countryside a shocking 1 in 4 households actually have toilets. If you're wondering where do they go? well the answer is they take a small pot of water out and simply pick a spot they like the look of. Unsurprisingly Indian villages are often really unpleasant places to be as with the wandering cows everywhere too you're never far from the smell or sight of excreta.
At certain times such as on a train first thing in the morning you're 'treated' to the disgusting sight of seeing up to 20 or 30 people simultaneously squatting by the tracks. When you bear in mind this is a country that eats with its right hand and you have much of the answer for why India's found eradicating certain diseases so hard.
The consequences of this lack of sanitation can be seen everywhere in the country; the sheer number of beggars in the country is of course one of the things India is famous for ans astound most visitors. They vary considerably, the so-called beggar families are everywhere where parents will send out their often very young kids to guilt trip you into giving money and when you realise that they've probably been begging for generations and probably don't know any better than taking their kids out of school it's darn depressing.
Less forgivable are when ordinary seemingly solvent people ask you for money, the most memorable examples I've had of this were chatting for 20minutes with a guy who claimed to be a retired MIT professor (and talked the talk) about whether global warming exists only for him then to turn round and ask to 'borrow' some money. In Bihar at a Hindu shrine for hopefully the only time in my life I told a shotgun wielding police officer to piss off after he asked for 'baksheesh' for absolutely no reason.
However, without a doubt it's the polio sufferers/beggars I've felt most sorry for. Polio is transmitted via the 'fecal-oral route' and whilst it's been wiped out virtually everywhere else, in India it's still fairly prevalent. I'm too young to remember any cases in England but seeing it here it's a horrible disease that to differing extents leaves sufferers essentially with withered up limbs that don't work. Therefore everywhere you see beggars who are mentally fine but are unable to do virtually anything with their legs and arms; whilst better access to vaccines amongst the poor etc would undoubtedly help, just having better basic hygiene practices would certainly cut down on the number of cases.
After leaving Kerala I went to India's southern most state of Tamil Nadu where aside from seeing where the subcontinent ends to look out over where the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean at Cape Cormorin, some of India's finest Hindu temples are located. There are many things I really like about Hinduism; aside from the beautiful multicoloured temples it has by some distance the most visually interesting worship rites of the major religions. I think the fortunes of the C of E would be revived overnight if every medium sized church and up had their own resident elephant to bless you and the elaborate music and dance rituals the ubiquitous pilgrims perform are always entertaining. On a more philosophical note the lack of proselytizing and (certainly that I've seen) tolerance of other religions put the Abrahamic faiths to shame.
However, one area of the religion I'm really struggling to respect is the role of the Sadhus (holy ones) or so called 'God Men'. Almost every temple will have a few who'll uninvited mumble a few words to 'bless you' then demand exhorbitant (e.g. $10) 'donations'. With an unsettling glint in their eyes and a deeply unpleasant, almost lascivious aura about them they remind me very strongly of when I met Michael Howard several years ago.
But these are the unsuccessful ones; a key part of Hinduism is the belief that in order to show you the 'right path to enlightenment' you need a Guru (teacher) in order to point you the right way. Therefore India has a simply huge industry of God men (it's very rarely women, although you may have heard of Amma the 'Hugging Mother') where a man claims to have found the secret to 'a pure life' etc. If you can convince enough people that you've discovered 'the way' then you can become very, very (as in multimillionaire) rich. They remind me of American mega- preachers like Joel Osteen or Billy Graham Jr both in how often you see them on posters or TV but also in the degree of power they have over so many people.
The Beatles gave up on the Indian dream in the Mahesh Yogi Ashram when after a while they realised that the yogi spent more time asking for money and trying to sleep with the female guests than he did actually being 'holy'.
And that's a fairly neat summary of how they come across to me too; almost every week since I've been here there's been a big scandal involving a God man always involving money and sex. The influence they build up is incredible however, when one of the highest profile of the God men was arrested a few weeks ago with a truly appalling charge sheet including sex with minors, pimping, kidnapping, extortion and people trafficking by the next morning the former head judge of the High Court had gathered a group of celebrity backers to protest his innocence in all the newspapers- because he was their guru. As Louis Theroux felt when he did a programme on them, I find it incredible how a person can claim to have attained spiritual enlightenment and then firstly to use said enlightenment so blatantly to make themselves rich and famous - and that people actually believe it. Whilst it's a situation where I'm obviously at least partly wrong as they give a degree of spiritual wellbeing to so many people, it's definitely something I've struggled to accept here.

So with my visa running out I headed up the coast to the incongruous spot of Pondicherry. I remember it well from tedious French lessons at school and is basically a town the British for some reason allowed the French to keep on the East coast. The French part of the town feels nothing like the rest of India and it felt surreal to wander along tree lined avenues eating baguettes and seeing the odd tricolor. It's where Life of Pi is partly set if you've read it and whilst the more modern Indian influences make it look a bit ragged in places it was definitely a nice spot to watch Englands heroic draw against Algeria.

Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka which I'm both excited and quite anxious about as due to visa issues I'm not sure what's gonna happen when I get there. Hopefully I'll be there for a few weeks and whilst I'd like to look forward to getting a break from not so much the love affair as the all consuming white hot passion Indian drivers have for their car horns I think my eardrums will take a similar battering in Sri Lanka.
Whilst the only things I really miss from home are my dog and watching the Os having now been away for over a year it feels my life has little connection with England, like all my thought processes are wrapped up here so I hope you're able to still get through the emails!

From Mamallapuram,

Posted by carlswall 01:57 Archived in India Tagged mountains beaches Comments (0)