We're trying a new thing!
Each month, we're going to provide a little monthly summary so that the people who don't want to read all of our blog posts can get a quick overview. They'll all follow the same format, so you can have an at-a-glance catch up on what we've been up to!
This month will include everything since we've left New Zealand, so it includes the tail end of December as well.
Where we've been
We started our trip with 1 day in Singapore, before flying to Sri Lanka. First we headed to Kandy, then Yala National Park, before heading to the beaches of Mirissa and Weligama Bay, with a quick stop in Galle on our return to Colombo. You can read a wrap up of the family vacation portion of our trip here.
After waving goodbye to Zev's family, we spent a day in Anuradhapura, before stopping off at Dambulla and Sigiriya. From there, it was a long drive to spend some time in the hills in Ella and Nuwara Eliya. We enjoyed a brief stop back in Colombo before jetting off to India!
Our first stop in India was beautiful Fort Kochi, which really captured our hearts. Next up were the green, green hills of Munnar, and on the 31st January, we arrived in Alleppey, and organised a houseboat tour to welcome in February!
Holy crap have we been busy! Since leaving Auckland on 26th December, we've travelled:
- 11,863 kms by plane
- 200 kms by train, and
- 1219 kms by automobile (a combination of buses and private transport), not to mention all the local travel in tuk tuks and Ubers!
Our whirlwind family tour of Sri Lanka followed by our whirlwind independent tour of Sri Lanka followed by our whirlwind week in Kerala have all added up to some movement fatigue. As I write this, we're parked up in an Air BnB in Bangalore for a week, taking a break from the constant stream of travel days (and doing some much needed laundry).
Singapore Night Safari
A definite highlight of the trip so far was our private tour of the Singapore Night Safari. The huge park was packed full of amazing animals who are most active after hours, and our guide was fantastic at making sure we got to see all the things we wanted. We can't recommend this place enough if you find yourself in Singapore!
Weligama Bay, Sri Lanka
Our whole experience in Weligama Bay was pretty perfect. We nailed our Air BnB booking, getting a beautiful house with a gate accessing the beach complete with outdoor shower and footbath for post-swim rinses. The more aquatically minded group members had unfettered access to the surf, and the less beach inclined folks could head back to the house for some shade and showers whenever the salt and sand got to be too much. Add in a couple of incredibly friendly and helpful housekeepers, and you've got a recipe for family holiday success!
Fort Kochi, India
While we were both excited to finally be arriving in India, it wasn't without its fair share of nerves. We really had no idea what to expect - all the reading in the world can never prepare you for the reality of arriving into a new country. We were absolutely delighted to find that we'd arrived into one of our new favourite destinations - Fort Kochi. Everything about this place is perfect. It's a photographers dream, it's easily walkable, the people are friendly and the food is incredible. We couldn't have asked for a better introduction to a country that I'm sure will continue to surprise, amazing, and possible traumatise us over the next few months!
A tuk tuk ride in Munnar on our 3rd wedding anniversary
While this might not sound to most people like a romantic celebration, we had an absolute blast! Driving through the hills in Munnar with Indian music blaring from our tuk tuk, and getting to have lemon sodas with our tuk tuk driver's family was a great way to spend our day, and is definitely one of my favourite travel memories so far.
In hindsight, Nuwara Eliya wasn't so bad. Sure, it wasn't what we were expecting, and that was disappointing, but it wasn't the end of the world. I think I overreacted to the disappointment because I was still finding my feet on this trip, and I was worried (like the beginning of our last trip) that if we weren't having fun and doing things every second of every day, that we'd get bored and hate the trip and want to go home. But it was really the first time on the trip that I wondered if we'd made a mistake, putting our lives on hold again to fly halfway around the world, only to find that it wasn't as great as we thought it was going to be. It lead to a pretty good conversation between Zev and me about what we wanted out of this trip, and after a great meal, things were looking up again. And as much as this was a personal low point for me, in the end, I think that it's probably been a positive thing to get it out of the way early in the trip!
Hiring a driver in Sri Lanka
This is not a reflection on Ajith, who was amazing! Travelling without fixed plans or itineraries can be incredibly liberating, but at times, it can make life really difficult. The trains in Sri Lanka book out really far in advance, especially at peak travel season, which coincided with when we were there. Because our time was limited by our visa, we weren't able to just wait around until trains were available. The buses are often standing room only, certainly without room for bags, and are a slow an uncomfortable mode of transport. As a result, we ended up having to hire a driver for 10 days of our trip. This gave us far more flexibility and freedom in terms of the routes we could take (ie we weren't limited by where the trains go), but we were disappointed to miss out on riding the rails in Sri Lanka, something we were both looking forward to (although we did manage to squeeze in one train trip). The driver also came at a significant financial cost - we paid nearly $800NZD for the 10 days, which is a LOT of money when you compare it to the cost of train tickets. As I said, there were pros and cons - it allowed us to visit more places in less time, and we didn't need to worry about hiring taxis or tuk tuks for the day if we wanted to go see sites out of town, but that was a lot of money to spend unexpectedly at the beginning of the trip. Ultimately though, when the choice was to spend the money or miss out on seeing what we'd come to see, we chose to spend the money.
Terrible internet in India
While I sometimes hate that we've become those people, we've really struggled with poor internet connections, especially since arriving in India. Although this blog is a labour of love and we're not making any money from it, I still like to keep it up to date as much as possible, both to keep people who are interested up to date, and to serve as a travel diary for us. In addition to that, Zev and I are both still finishing up projects for our jobs back home. Both of these things need reliable internet, and we haven't always had access to that. In Ella, we ended up having to eat dinner at 2 restaurants because the internet at our accommodation and the first restaurant was too slow, and we had to eat at the second one to use their wifi! It got worse in India because we didn't even have mobile data until we got our SIM cards sorted, and then we promptly went somewhere with no cell service! I think I'm going to try to get an internet dongle for my laptop so that even when we don't have a great internet connection where we've staying, we can still continue to work without worrying about the daily data limit on our phones.
- While walking home from dinner around the edge of the lake in Kandy, my arm suddnely felt hot and wet. I'd been shat on by a fruit bat. Think of a bird poo, and multiply it by about 50. It was black, thick and sticky, and it coated my whole arm from shoulder to hand and the drink bottle I was carrying, and splattered onto my handbag and shirt. As we continued to walk the 5 minutes back to the hotel, it started to dry and develop a delightful aroma. Zev could hardly walk from laughing so hard, and then refused to walk next to me because I smelt so bad. I think the lesson here is that too much fruit is bad for your digestive system, if that's what fruit bats are producing...
- While climbing Ella Rock, we met some other tourists who were accompanied by the dog from their guesthouse. As they stopped for a rest and we carried on, their faithful dog abandoned them, instead choosing to join us for the remainder of the hike. While we felt bad, our local four legged guide was pretty cute, so we didn't have the heart to send her back. Once we reached the top, we gave her some water, and I tried to feed her some crackers as a reward. As soon as I put the crackers down, four more dogs came out of the woodworks and I accidentally started a doggy turf war...
- On a stop off on the way back from Ella Rock, we swung by Small Ravana Falls. In a quest for the perfect photo, Zev was climbing on the rocks in front of the falls, and nearly fell over on the world's slipperiest rocks. The photo was worth it though.
- Everyone over here thinks I'm Zev's mum. They keep asking if he's my son. Including three times on our wedding anniversary. My self confidence is taking a real hammering. I'm thinking of getting some work done.
- While going through security to board our plane out of Kochi, I joined a queue for the scanners. All these Indian men kept ignoring me and shoving in front off, much to my displeasure. As I muttered under my breath to Zev about how rude they all were, I looked around and realised I was the only woman in the queue. I looked left, and saw a line of all women... A closer inspection revealed that I had joined the men's line for security... I went and joined the women's queue, and ended up side by side with Zev as I was about to go through the metal detector. Zev had just realised that you weren't allowed any liquids on the plane (in New Zealand, you can bring liquids on domestic flights), so he was chugging his full 750mL water bottle while second in the queue. As he pointed out, all those years of university beer skulling finally have a real world application.
Yala National Park Air BnB
While this accommodation didn't really tick the boxes for everyone, there was no denying that it was spectacular, and the location was out of this world. Our house was about 50m from a private beach, about 10 minutes drive from the border of the national park. The beach was scattered with incredible rock formations, huge sand dunes and bright orange sand, with the waves from the Indian Ocean breaking on the shore.
The house itself was really unusual - there were three enclosed bedrooms, but the rest of the house was basically a giant porch, with drop down plastic shades in place of windows and external walls, leaving the place feeling largely like you were outside most of the time.
One of the levels had 8 beds outside on the 'porch', each with a mosquito net, and huge fans on the walls to keep you cool overnight. That's where we all opted to sleep during our stay.
While the place was pretty rustic, with the facilities leaving a little to be desired, there was no denying it's stark beauty.
For some reason, I can't find any of the photos of it, so here's a link to the Air BnB listing if you want to check it out.
Weligama Bay Air BnB
As I've already talked about, this place ticked all the boxes.
The Gateway Hotel, Colombo
This gem was an accidental find by Zev's sister Anu, who booked it without knowing much about it solely for its proximity to the airport for their early morning flight out. Somehow, we ended up getting 2 of the 3 rooms we'd booked upgraded to suites, both of which were bigger than our apartment in Auckland. Even the executive room that Zev and I stayed in was enormous. We milked out last night of luxury for all it was worth, feasting on a huge buffet diner and room service breakfast in bed, and I even snuck in a massage before breakfast.
While the rest of our accommodation has been physically unremarkable, we've been completely overwhelmed by the kindness of guesthouse owners during the rest of our travels. We're often welcome with offers of tea or coffee, fresh fruit, or lemon sodas. The hosts are always more than happy to help out with local recommendations for things to do and places to eat, and their hospitality has been incredible.
- From the sheer luxury of the Gateway Hotel in Colombo, it was a long way to fall to our first independently booked accommodation in Sri Lanka. The taxi driver from the Gateway Hotel dropped us off to the Yo Ho Signature Grand Marine (and with a name like that, how could it be bad), anxiously looking at us and saying "Are you sure this is the right place?". Sadly my friend, yes, we're sure. The room itself was about 1.5m bigger than the bed on each side, but they'd still managed to shove a table and chairs in there, perhaps for all the in-room dining people choose to do in such a grand establishment... There was a big TV on the wall, but it didn't have an aerial. The electrical circuitry was like something produced by Zev’s year 10 Science class, and every time you plugged something in, turned on an appliance/light, the whole room flickered, crackled and buzzed like some sort of literal Tim Burton-directed Rice Krispies commercial. We had air conditioning, but the remote didn't work, so it was permanently set to 16degC, and to switch it off you had to jump or climb on a chair to reach the power point. But by FAR the crowning glory of this room was the bathroom. For starters, the term 'bathroom' is a misnomer - there was no room. In the corner of the bedroom was a shower box. The back wall of the shower had been removed, and through the shower was the toilet. Yes, that's right - you walk THROUGH the shower to get to the toilet, like some sort of scatological Narnia. With clear shower doors, and no roof on the shower box, let's just say it took our marriage to previously unmatched levels of intimacy...
- Our next 'favourite' place to lay our heads was Munnar. The OYO Meghadoot (yep, we really pick the good names) was a giant concrete box, set on the edge of a tea plantation. At first glance, it was a little run down, but the staff were great and the room was huge. The first sign that something was amiss was when I went to use the toilet and nearly fell in - there was no seat. I managed to make the best of a bad situation, only to discover the next delightful obstacle - the toilet didn't flush. The cistern didn't fill automatically, so you had to fill a bucket and empty it into the tank to get the toilet to flush. When we went out in search of food, we mentioned it to the owner, who said, 'I know. No problem." When we pointed out that it actually was a little bit of a problem, he said they were full, but they could move us the following day, reassuring us “you’ll manage”, which of course proved to be true.
Because the place was just a giant concrete box, there was absolutely no soundproofing. There were a large number of families staying, all with kids, so the night was hardly restful. Add to the mix the CCTV camera beeping every 10 seconds (not an exaggeration, it played a little beep tune EVERY 10 seconds) to let you know that it was still on, and the front door, which scraped along the floor when you opened it too far, making a noise like fingernails on a blackboard, and we were pretty frazzled when morning rolled round.
We headed down for breakfast before our hike, generally just grateful to know that we were going out for the day, to discover that 'breakfast' was toast that looked like it had been made last week. Things were not looking good for Meghadoot.
But the real icing on the cake was coming home from our hike to realise that there was no shower in our bathroom, just a tap and a bucket. Luckily, we managed to change rooms to one with a functioning bathroom, but that didn't solve the sound proofing problem. Thank god for noise cancelling headphones...
- Strangely, most of the guesthouses we've stayed in don't put linen on the beds. You might get a top sheet if you're lucky, but often there's not even that - just a fitted sheet on the mattress, and 2 pillows with pillow cases. We travel with silk sleeping bag liners, so that's a plus, but the climate here makes it tricky to get your sleeping temperature right. It might be hot and humid as you're going off to sleep, so you need a fan on to get some air movement so you don't just toss and turn. Of course the temperature drops overnight though, so we often wake up freezing at 3 in the morning, and have to get up to turn off fans and put more clothes on to stay warm. It's really hard to manage with no linen!
- Brussel sprout pizza at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Hands down the best pizza I've ever eaten in my life. Seriously though.
- On our first day in Kandy, we jumped in a tuk tuk and headed into town in search of breakfast. Our driver kindly recommended a place for a local meal, and after giving up on trying to communicate with us, the waiter just brought us what he thought we wanted. We had potato curry, and our first authentic experience of parata (a delicious, flaky flatbread, similar to naan) and string hoppers (steamed rice noodle cakes).
- Hotel Mango Garden, the restaurant directly opposite our hotel in Kandy, was incredible. For $7.50, you could order a 'buffet' of curries, where they brought out a selection of dishes to your table, and they'd keep topping them up for you. This was where we had our first introduction to Sri Lankan curries, and it quickly became a favourite dinner spot in Kandy.
- Our guesthouse in Mirissa also treated us to some local, homemade curries, and even gave us cooking lessons the next morning. We learned how to make daal curry, bean curry, aubergine curry and poppadums, and ate until we were fit to burst.
- Our first meal in India was at Farmer's Cafe in Fort Kochi, and it was the best introduction to India we could have hoped for. St in a beautiful crumbling building with an internal courtyard, the restaurant itself was dreamy, but more importantly the food was to die for. We chowed down on vege curries and warm, soft bread, unable to believe that we really had finally made it to India.
- A culinary highlight for me was my paneer quesadilla in Fort Kochi. Aside from being mouth wateringly delicious, it was such a cool fusion of cuisines, and was a nice break from curry, without really taking a break from curry.
- Also in Fort Kochi, we had some drink highlights. I had a blueberry soda ice cream float, with fresh blueberries blended with lemonade, and a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. The next day, we stopped for peanut butter milkshakes in the heat of the afternoon, which really hit the spot.
- Throughout India, we've been treated to glass after glass of lovely, sweet lemon or lime sodas. While everybody has a slightly different twist on it, they all exist on a spectrum of deliciousness, and are often just what we need when the heat has drained us of our energy.
- I don't think I'd ever had milk tea before arriving in India. Rather than just brewing the tea and then adding milk (or vice versa - I'm not interested in starting a tea technique war here), the tea and milk are boiled together, often with added spices and sugar or condensed milk. The result is sweet, thick and rich cup of tea that really hits the spot. Probably my favourite thing though is how everyone drinks tea constantly. We were on our way to a frisbee game yesterday (more on that in Feburary's status report!), and even though we were running an hour late (classic frisbee time), the driver still stopped for chai on the way.
- Breakfast almost everywhere
In some guesthouses, breakfast is included, which usually means toast and jam. If I never see toast and jam again in my life, I'll die happy. I never realised how particular I was about toast until this trip. We've received blacked squares masquerading as toast, warm soggy bread, and everything in between. I once ate toast so burnt that I ripped open the roof of my mouth and struggled to eat for 2 days. Usually, the toast is prepared so far in advance that it's cold by the time you're eating it. Breakfast became a bit of a trial on our last trip too, so we're prepared to start training ourselves to skip breakfast and start eating early lunches - there's only so much bad toast you can eat!
- After eating our body weight in toast and jam for the last month, we were less than delighted to discover that the lunch included in our hike in Munnar was - you guessed it - jam sandwiches!
- While this actually wasn't a bad meal, we've generally had excellent food everywhere since leaving New Zealand, I thought I'd include this because it was funny! While we were eating dinner at a restaurant in Ella, a fight broke out between the wait staff. There was a tussle, one of them was thrown outside, and he angrily took off his uniform shirt and threw it in the door. We assumed he had just quit or been fired, but 5 minutes later he was back inside in a different shirt, carrying on working as if nothing had happened. None of the other staff appeared to think this was strange, so we just went with it.
- We weren't very disciplined in keeping an eye on our finances during the last trip, and we're hoping that by being more aware on this trip, we can make our money last a bit longer. To that end, we've started recording our daily expenses so that we can see where our money is going. We didn't start doing this until we arrived in India though, so we'll be able to be more detailed in future reports.
- Overall, we've been doing pretty well with our cash. We were both still being paid annual leave/2017 salaries from our jobs at home until last week, so technically we've been making money! Sadly that's come to an end, but it was nice while it lasted.
- Our biggest expense was our driver in Sri Lanka. While, as we said, it was totally worth it, it was a lot of unplanned money to spend.
- So far, we certainly haven't been penny-pinching. We've stayed in a couple of Air BnBs and have basically done what we wanted, but we haven't been throwing money away staying in luxury accommodation and eating a Michelin star restaurants either.
- Generally speaking, we found the major tourist sites in Sri Lanka to be more expensive than we anticipated. Driver aside, entry prices to things were usually pretty expensive - $15NZDpp to go to the botanic gardens outside Nuwara Eliya, $25pp to enter the ruins in Anurdahapura, $75 to climb Sigiriya Rock - that's pretty pricey. That said, food and accommodation were both very affordable. Most nights we could eat dinner with drinks for less than $15 for both of us at a 'tourist' restaurant, or $10 or less at a local restaurant. Our accommodation probably averaged around $16 per night.
- India on the other hand is a budget traveller's paradise. Accommodation is about the same price, but food is so cheap it's mind boggling. Over here, dinner with drinks at 'tourist' curry restaurants probably averages us NZ$8-10, and local restaurants can be as cheap as NZ$3-5. If you go to Western style restaurants (like a microbrewery we went to the other night in Bangalore), it's much more expensive, but still far, far cheaper than home (yesterday we got 2 beers and a coke, Zev had a burger and wedges, and I had 2 massive tacos and a side of fries, and it was $30NZD - we would've paid a minimum of $60 for that at home). So we're hoping our time in India will help to stretch our money a little further!
Generally, we've both been in pretty good health since leaving home. We've had the usual GI teething issues, but no one's had to take any Imodium yet, or do any emergency in-sink washing. So far, our only ailments are allergies from polar fleece blankets, Zev brusing his ribs while surfing and boogie boarding in Weligama, and a couple of sunburns. The only thing that could have been a bit more serious was Zev going over the handle bars of his bike in Anuradhapura, but the only injuries from that were a grazed elbow and some bumps and bruises.
Where to next?
From Alleppey, we headed out on a backwater cruise, before returning to Kochi to fly to our current location, Bangalore (or Bengaluru). We're hanging out in Bangalore for a few days, and at this stage, we don't know where we're going next! We think Mysore and Hampi will be our next destinations, but we nothing's set in stone yet. We also might have a spot in a frisbee tournament in Goa at the beginning of March, so that may change our plan of attack a bit too. So at the moment, the world is our oyster! Well - India's our oyster at least.
I think that about wraps up our status report! Until next month...
Lots of love,
S & Z