Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Of Languages and Dialects

Languages Repressed

After visiting Les Combarelles cave, Abhaya asked our guide where the name of the cave came from. The answer was a little unusual. It apparently came from a word in a language called Occitan and as far as I remember that word meant cave. I tried to verify from the only Occitan-English dictionary I could find online and the nearest word I found was Comba, which means a gorge or a hollow. It still fits. So, perhaps that’s what she was referring to. But the best part of the conversation was the discovery that there is a language called Occitan.

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France wasn’t traditionally French-speaking. Since after the revolution, targeted policies have been followed to repress, even destroy, “patois” or “dialects” in favor of a unifying French language. It was considered essential for democracy (else non-French speakers are excluded!) and for making France a unified power to contend with. Some, like Occitan, have survived to date, but like many Indian languages and “dialects”, they also have mostly older people left as speakers and hence are endangered. There are some scattered efforts here and there for these languages, but it doesn’t look like they are a priority. French is the only language of the French Republic and there is really no space for other languages to flourish under official patronage.

By recognizing a large number of languages in the constitution, India did a better job than the Republic of France with the languages. Since each of our states can have their own official languages, which can be different from the official languages of the central government, it has ensured that at least some languages are not yet obliterated. But there has been a sweeping classification of a large number of languages as dialects even in India (and Hindi – to whose dialect status many of these languages are consigned – might be the worst culprit here).  Large modern nations just don’t seem to know what to do with their languages.

And Multilingualism!

Luxembourg stands in stark contrast to France as far as the language policy goes.

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In Luxembourgish: We want to remain what we are

People in shops and streets of Luxembourg are effortlessly multilingual. The default seems to be French, but English and German are easily switched into. There is also Luxembourgish, which has refused to succumb to the status of a dialect of German. It is, in fact, the national language of Luxembourg and one of the three administrative languages apart from French and German. Perhaps if we had more city- and micro-states in the modern world, we would have had more languages and fewer dialects.

Luxembourg seems to take its multilingualism seriously.  Looks at the description of how different languages are used in education.

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Click the Image for a clearer screenshot.

This, in particular, blew me over:

Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.

There is something to learn here. A multilingual country like ours should have much more emphasis on learning multiple languages in school than it currently has. Multilingualism, as a talent, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society, but it can be a great practical asset to people.

Then there was Brussels. Walking down one of the streets Abhaya suddenly told me something like, “They have such rhyming names for places. See, they have a chapel that’s called Kapel. I noticed other such names too.”

“Huh? A chapel called Kapel?” I hadn’t come across a chapel by that name in Brussels during my research on the places to see there.

He dragged me back to show me the street sign. It read

Chapelle
Kapel

“Uh oh! It’s not a chapel called Kapel. It chapel written in French and Dutch!”

Henceforth, this story shall be known by the title “A chapel called Kapel“.

BrusselsStreetSignWikimedia
By KapsuglanOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Belgium consists of three regions. Flanders is Dutch-speaking. Wallonia is French-speaking and Brussels is officially bilingual (hence those bilingual signs). There is also a German-speaking minority in the country, but it isn’t a separate region. Dutch, French, as well as German, are official languages of the kingdom. We didn’t visit any places in Wallonia. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, all in Flanders, sported Dutch-only signs. But the multilingualism of the country seems to accommodate English also amidst all this without any signs of grudge or snobbery.

Language Troubles

French snobbery about their language is much talked about. Although in smaller places like Les Eyzies we faced language problems, we, thankfully, didn’t find anyone who was rude to us for not speaking French. In fact, in the place worst known for its language and cultural snobbery, Paris, we had a super nice Airbnb host. The elderly lady spoke very little English, but she was infinitely patient with us and went out of the way to help us at every stage. Since she had an easier time understanding written English, she always had a set of post-its about her and would ask us to write down when she didn’t understand what we were saying or asking.

At many places in Les Eyzies we had to resort to keywords, gestures, and pointing to written words – especially to get food! I suppose the Indian experience of often not knowing the local language even while traveling within your own country makes us more used to it. We are more likely to smile apologetically for the language trouble and make attempts to overcome it than act like it’s their fault that they don’t speak English. So, most people also respond in kind. Sorry for stereotyping, but many (not all – obviously) clueless American tourists seem to think it is everybody’s responsibility to learn English for their pleasure and this sense of entitlement gets returned in kind in some cases.

In Paris, people in shops, streets or restaurants usually always started by speaking in French, even when it should have been obvious that we don’t know the language, but most of them switched to English when we started using gestures and keywords (always with an apologetic smile!) to respond.

At the tourist attractions all over, even in Les Eyzies and other less visited places, there was almost always English-speaking staff available.

But, Museum Troubles

Unfortunately, information in English was missing in most of the museums. So, wherever available, one should take an audio guide.

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One of the cards at National Museum of Prehistory

National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and Musee du Compagnonnage in Tours were two very interesting museums which didn’t have information on the exhibits in English and had no audio guides available either. However, at the Prehistory museum, there were A4 cards available which had some information in English about all the exhibits in a room. It took some effort to figure out where they were for different parts of the museum and what they described, but they were ultimately fairly informational. One member of the staff did something very sweet for us there. Although her English was so labored that we understood very little of what she was saying, but she voluntarily came forward to speak to us and tried her best to explain how the exhibits in that room were chronologically arranged. After struggling with the cards for a while, what she was pointing out made sense to us and we were better able to use the cards.

At Musee du Compagnonnage we discovered a little late that the landing place, which was so crowded with a large group of elderly French tourists that we had thought it was a meeting/resting place and had skipped it, had some background information available, which helped to understand the rest of the museum with the help of a little pamphlet available in English.  So the visit was slightly frustrating, although we did finally get a hang of the place.

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At Musee du Compagnonnage

At Lourvre we had opted for their “Welcome to Louvre” guided tour in English. At other museums in Paris and Brussels audio-guides saved the day.

We had popped in for a very quick look into Museum of National History and Art at Luxembourg and the cards in English there were fairly easy to use.

The Industrial Museum is Ghent turned out to be unsatisfactory. There were no audio guides although there were booklets provided in English for each of its floors. But in some cases, there was too much to read. Then on the main floor showcasing textile industry equipments, after the first few, we couldn’t match exhibited machines to their description in the book very accurately. But the Plantin Moretus Museum (related to printing) at Antwerp was very English-language friendly. All the information was available in all three languages – French, Dutch and English.

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From Plantin Moretus Museum, Antwerp (Fragments of Dutch on the left, French on the right)

The Language Families

This is purely academic information, but one which I became aware of only after this trip. French is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic language, as is Dutch. So, English and Dutch are more similar than English and French are. But if there are many words in French that you recognize from your knowledge of English, it is because English borrowed most of them from French. After what is known as Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, a large number of such words entered the English language. More might have been borrowed over time too, because before English started donning the mantle sometime in the 20th century and after Latin had been displaced, French was the lingua franca of Europe!

Given that last bit, we can excuse the French some languages-snobbery, can’t we?

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Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Lessons in Smelling

Of Wine

We went on a wine-tasting tour in Bordeaux. To educate us in the art of appreciating wine, they had a game for us. They give us four vials which had four different smells (pretty strong, not subtle like in actual wine) and we had to figure out what each of them smelled like. There were four couples on the tour and each couple was a team. We were also given a huge list of all possible kinds of smells a wine could have. I gave up on the game almost instantly when the very first vial confused the heck out of me. But Abhaya was more sporting; so we stayed put.

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This is the story of two vials and their smells. While handing us one of those, our host said something to the effect that it was difficult for the Indians to recognize that smell. We glanced through the list of and without even smelling the vial, wrote “Truffles” against it. So did everyone else, we realized later. That was one vial we were all right about.

The second one, Abhaya was very sure, was cinnamon. He tried to get me to confirm, but for the life of mine I couldn’t figure out the smell. “Yeah. It’s spicy,” I mumbled to get him off my back. When it came to checking the answer it turned out that the correct option was pepper. We smelled it again. Of course, it was pepper. How could we ever think it was anything else? How on earth could it ever have smelled like cinnamon?

Indians usually get spicy smells right, our host informed us. It is all about what kind of smells you are used to, he was trying to explain with badly-behaving examples. We blushed and shrugged and giggled dutifully in response.

And Of Smelly Feet

Rains were our constant companion on the trip. One fine day in Paris, I realized after leaving the Airbnb that my shoes had not properly dried. but I didn’t want to go back to change and decided to keep it on. That evening we visited a fromagerie (cheese shop) and bought some cheese. We had decided to savor the cheese in our room. I freshened up after reaching the Airbnb and settled down to lay the cheese out. When Abhaya walked into the room he declared, “Your feet smell. Did you wash them?” “Not with soap,” I conceded as I was also smelling sweaty shoes or the stink they leave on your feet. I had been wearing the wet shoes the entire day. So, it was totally possible to have smelly feet. I went to the bathroom, washed and made sure that my feet were as fresh as daisies (or fleur-de-lis). But the smell won’t go. It must be the shoes, we figured. Abhaya collected both our shoes and socks and left them out in the balcony. That should keep the smell away also help them dry. But the smell in the room was still there. So, now Abhaya decided to give a soap treatment to his feet. We were still not entirely free of smell, but we decided the smell must be inside our noses now and it will subside in a while. It did. Either because the smell was finally getting out of our noses or our noses were getting used to it. We focused on cheese.

After eating a bit, Abhaya started reading about them on Wikipedia. He read thoroughly – all about their history, how they were made, what their chemical composition was and then he reached to this particular piece of info:

Camembert cheese gets its characteristic odor from many compounds. These include diacetyl (buttery flavoring for popcorn), 3-methylbutanal, methional (degradation product of methionine), 1-octen-3-ol and 1-octen-3-one (degradation products of fats), phenethyl acetate, 2-undecanone, δ-decalactone, butyric acid, and isovaleric acid (odor of gym socks).

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Yes. We were eating Camembert cheese. After this experience, we ate blue cheese in a restaurant.

Every bad smell in France can be explained by some good cheese. And with wine and cheese being the thing, I don’t know how they ever manage to smell wine.

Travel

Snippets from Europe Trip: Kabhi Ruk, Kabhi Chal.

 

Bhai chaal mein koi baat honi chahiye!

Do you remember this old ad? Kabhi ruk, kabhi chal was how our plans on this trip were executed. French railway played its part, Bangalore rains and traffic did, and Belgian railway didn’t want to be left behind.

We were to take a flight to Paris overnight, land there on a Saturday morning and then the same day take a train to a place called Les Eyzies. Les Eyzies is a village in South West France which is an excellent place to stay to see a large number pre-historic sites and cave paintings. We had a booking to see the famous Lascaux cave the next morning. The day after we were to attempt another interesting cave called Font-de-Gaume.  Then we were to travel back to Paris after spending a day each in Bordeaux and Tour.

A few days before the trip, I got a notification that the first train we had to take in France, which as you would recall was on the day of us landing there, could be disrupted due to the strikes. It looked like a generic warning message about the potential disruptions and I couldn’t figure out a way of determining if that specific train was disrupted or not. Strikes go on for months in France. Different unions or sets of employees go on strike on different days. From the “strike calendar”, I figured that they were going to be on strike on alternate days. So, every other day the trains would run normally. And since not everyone went on strike, it looked like you could mostly find alternatives even on the strike days. so we decided to stay hopeful. Now SNCF – the company that runs French railway – releases a definitive list of which trains are canceled and which will be running at 5 pm the day before. Which was about the time we were doing the last-minute packing and were about to leave for the airport to take our flight to Paris. To SNCF’s credit, they let you change the trains at no extra cost (even if the tickets were booked in advance at low, non-refundable fares, which ours was). But! This free exchange is not possible on their app or their website. Only at the train station or through a phone call. Afraid of being distracted and forgetting something important while leaving for the trip, I didn’t even try what would have been an international call from India and where I expected the language problem to make things difficult. What I did realize with my online attempts, however, was that there was no way we could reach our destination Les Eyzies by train on that day because ALL trains to that place had been canceled. If we didn’t reach Les Eyzies by that evening as planned, then our pre-booked Lascaux tickets would be wasted, as would be the money on the pre-booked hotel and on a last-minute hotel we would have to book elsewhere. Some desperate search for alternative places to reach by train threw up the name of Perigueux. But Les Eyzies is still almost forty-eight kilometers away from there. Although France and Europe supposedly have great public transport, this particular region is an exception. Reaching from anywhere to anywhere without a car is an ordeal. So, I searched for taxi companies in Perigueux and shot frantic e-mails to them to arrange for our transfer from the station at Perigueux. Given that most people in the hospitality industry in France had been rather laid back in replying to my emails earlier, I was sincerely doubtful of receiving a reply in time. Besides reaching Perigueux was also not guaranteed as of yet, because our tickets were not yet changed.

As we made our way to the airport, what to do after landing in Paris was not the only problem on our mind. It was raining heavily and Bangalore traffic obliged by creating a long jam on the road to the airport.  At the suggestion of Google Maps, we took an alternative road. Still, for almost forty-five minutes it seemed like we would not make it in time. The problem of what to do after landing would be solved because we would never land there!

It is because the destined pattern was not just “ruk”, but also “chal”, that a few things fell in place. Even as we were wondering if we would ever take the flight to Paris and whether we would get a train from Paris to Perigueux, a taxi company responded and agreed to take us from Perigueux to our hotel in Les Eyzies for (gulp!) 100 Euros. Have you known what a bleeding heart feels like? Nope – you haven’t unless you had gone through this. Months of careful budgeting thrown out of the window. But given everything else that would be disrupted if we didn’t reach Les Eyzies, we swallowed the bitter pill and confirmed the taxi.

Because I am so careful a traveler that I normally spend inordinate amounts of time on the airports, on this fateful day we braved the traffic and managed to reach in time for our flight. The immigration at Paris wanted to see everything from our tickets and hotel bookings to cash and cards. But we had enough time in hand. So, we cleared all that, collected our luggage and reached the railway station well in time. As we had already figured out, there were no trains to be had to Les Eyzies. Thankful for my research, I requested them to change the ticket to Perigueux and they obliged. We didn’t get pickpocketed the entire time we were at the station in Paris. The driver at Perigueux station turned up in time and we reached Les Eyzies only about an hour and a half later than planned and a hundred Euros poorer.

Phew!

Lascaux visit the next day should be a highlight of the trip, but compared to all this, the day felt uneventful.

The visit to Font de Gaume the next day was also supposed to be a great highlight of the trip because it is one the last remaining pre-historic caves in the region with polychrome paintings done almost 17000 years ago that is still open to the public. But my mind suffered so much excitement in what happened before, that I seem to have forgotten most of what was inside the cave!

As has been the case with most caves, they have reduced the number of people allowed per day into them every successive year. Right now at Font de Gaume, you can’t even book tickets in advance. You have to go there the morning of your visit, occupy one of the numbered seats outside the ticket counter and if you are among the first 52 people who occupy those seats, you get to go in. Else, better luck next day.

We had only one day left in Les Eyzies. It was then or never. The ticket counter opens at 9.30. We woke up before six and were there at the counter by 6.30. We weren’t the first ones to reach. A man was already there. I walked up to him and wished him Good Morning. He was surprised. “How did you know that I spoke English?” “I figured no local would be here this early,” I replied. He was trying to get access for the second time. The last time he had come, he was in a group of four. They had gotten three tickets. So, he had missed it. This time, he was the first in the line. Fair enough!

It started raining soon. We put our umbrellas over the chairs and stored our small bags under the umbrellas. That contraption would mark our place in the queue, while we took shelter under the small canopy hanging over the ticket window. After half an hour another small group came. Then more people trickled in. We figured we would have gotten a seat even if we had reached by 8.30. But we are not the people who take such risks! Remember the drive to Bangalore airport?

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At 9.30, the employees started appearing. We witnessed what looked like some frantic activities inside the bookshop cum ticket office. Then a woman came out and spoke at length for 10 minutes. In French. I understood only one word she repeatedly used. Désolé. It means ‘Sorry’.

People who understood started getting agitated. This American before us in the queue understood some French, but he couldn’t quite decipher that monologue. Finally, she took pity on the rest of us. And summarized the situation in English. There can be no tour of the cave. There is no electricity.

No. Electricity.

What can we do?

Perhaps come back after two hours and check again.

Problem is, if we came back after two hours, what was the guarantee we will be among the first 52!

We hang around. The tickets for another cave Les Combarelles are also sold there. What about that one, we ask?

It will take her 10 minutes to find out.

So we hang around some more.

We see lights coming on inside the bookshop. Some anticipation. But no announcement is forthcoming.

Then the désolé lady is sitting behind the ticket counter. And she asks – who is number one. It will be much later that I would think of how that “number one” guy must have been feeling until then. It is his second attempt. And he has been there since BEFORE 6.30!

Well, we get into the first English tour at Font de Gaume. We get an afternoon tour at Les Combarelles too.

We feel victorious.

Despite some confusions, we managed fine with the trains in the next few days. From Les Eyzies to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux to Tours. And from Tours to Paris.

Then the strike struck again on the Paris-Luxembourg train. We had wrapped up the day early in Paris. We wanted to be rested well the night before the early morning train to Luxembourg. But the SNCF app and website informed us that our 7.40am train the next morning was canceled. Just before this, we had done a pushy negotiation with our Airbnb host in Luxembourg to allow us to drop the luggage before the check-in time. Assuming we got into the next 8.40am train, we would now have to request them to be available at a different time. Well – it was what it was. Changing tickets for free through the website or the app was again not possible. But now we were in France. In an Airbnb. With a super nice host, who could call and talk to them in French. Her spoken English was limited. We sometimes had to communicate by writing, because she understood written English pretty well. That’s what we did. Helpful as she was, she immediately called.

Surprise, surprise! Nobody picked up the call.

Being the careful people we are, we didn’t want to wait until morning to change the tickets. We decided to go to the train station then itself. Wrapping up the day early be damned. We had only a day in Luxembourg and we didn’t want to lose it. It was raining heavily by then. We braved the rain. Since Abhaya forgot his transport pass, we also spent four Euros extra on the bus ticket to the station (what was that after a hundred Euros for the earlier strike, eh?). While buying the ticket on the bus, he also got a lesson from the driver that it was Gare de l’est that he wanted to go to. Not Gare l’est.

We reach the station. We stand in the line. Only to be told that change requests were being entertained only for the trains leaving that day. We should come tomorrow. In desperation, we seek help at another “info” counter that isn’t so busy. They give us a printout of the page showing 8.40 train, write something down on our e-ticket and ask us to board the 8.40 train and stand our ground if somebody asks. With that signature on the e-ticket, we have the right to board the train. That is not quite comfortable. It would be a TGV train that needs a reservation. You get a seat number there. But no point banging our heads. We come back.

The next day, the original counter issues us a new ticket. With seat numbers.

The train that was scheduled an hour later than our originally booked one, decided to get delayed from its own schedule too. We had negotiated the new timing with the Airbnb host. But now it looked like we would reach not before noon, which was when they wanted us to check-in originally. So much for benefitting from our negotiation skills.

We reached a little earlier than noon. The host was cool about all the confusion. Given the timings of the walking tour and late opening hours of Bock Casemates, we had enough time to see most of what we intended to see. The only gripe was that it was raining the entire day – just like in Les Eyzies, Bordeaux, and Tours! Just like the last day in France. When we finished the day, however, and returned to our accommodations at around 7pm, it was bright and sunny again! Arghh!

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We want to remain what we are

The next day it is the turn on Belgian railway to add spice to our trip (the company is conveniently called SNCB). These SNCB trains have no assigned seat numbers or reservations. We could basically take any train on that route on the day the ticket was booked for. We had a plan though. We had planned to catch a 5.10 am train to make the maximum of the day in Brussels.

But “Houston, we have a problem”. The displays at the station are showing no 5.10 train to Brussels. There are some for later. But we are at the railway station at 4.30 in the morning. What for? For the 5.10 train.

There is a train at 5.10, but it is to a destination we don’t recognize. After some complicated online search, we realize that the destination of that train is a place in Belgium which is a stop even for the train we had planned to take. The planned train was supposed to leave that unfamiliar station at 5.37 am. And that unfamiliar station indeed has a train to Brussels at 5.37 am. Neither the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station nor the 5.37 train from the unfamiliar station has the same number as the planned train. There is absolutely no info about the planned train number on the displays. It does show up in printed timetables posted on various noticeboards. But that printed schedule was supposedly only valid till February. So now? Take a later train to Brussels? Or take the 5.10 train to this unfamiliar station and a 5.37 train from there to Brussels to reach at the planned time. Will these two turn out to be the same train? But if they are different trains, will we have the time to change to the other one at the unfamiliar station? We don’t know. The information counters won’t open until 6!

Armed with the info that our ticket allows us to travel to Brussels on any SNCB train, we take the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station. Unlike the SNCF trains, ticket checking is frequent in SNCB trains. A ticket checker comes. I hand him the tickets. Hopefully, he will not shout at us for boarding the wrong train. He doesn’t. I am emboldened. I ask him if the same train will go to Brussels.

No, it will be a different train, he tells me. He isn’t surprised that we are on this train though. Good for us! The other train usually leaves from the same platform, he adds. We sigh in relief. As the train reaches the unfamiliar station, the helpful ticket checker has info on the next train. It is going to leave from a different platform. How can it not? It has to play its role in creating travel memories for us. We rush with all our luggage. We are panting, but we make it into the 5.37 train.

We reached Brussels at the planned time. If you need proof, here it is.

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After all, Bhai chaal mein koi baat honi chahiye.

From here on, it is uneventful as far as the trains are concerned. There are only day trips to other cities until we take the flight back home. The trains are frequent, we have the train pass figured out, no reservations are needed and there are no strikes!

 

Travel

Snippets from Sri Lanka Trip

Dress Code Like No Other

The religious places all over the world have their dress codes and I don’t care enough about religions to complain about them. But Sri Lankans are the most bull-headed about its literal implementation, more than any other place I have been to till now (to their credit they hassle men and women alike – no sexism there!). In most other places they stop you only if your dress is blatantly improper and don’t get offended by every centimeter of departure from the prescribed length! Not in Sri Lanka. Their definition of covering the shoulders includes covering the upper arms too. This was the part I was not prepared for and had to go around with a jacket on my shoulders on the first day (it was HOT and HUMID!) and then a towel (Because, unlike what you would expect in tourist places, there weren’t even any vendors around selling stoles or sarongs to the trapped tourists)!

While at most places covering upper arms and a below-the-knee dress or trouser was enough, in Dambulla you were required to cover the legs all the way up to the ankles (there was also a totally unnecessary and super unpleasant encounter with a culture-supremacist uncle there, but I will skip the details). At Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura, there was a diktat against wearing black or dark-colored clothes. You should wear white! Our driver told us that they don’t impose that restriction on tourists and thankfully he was right. They didn’t bother me about my black shirt (perhaps it was compensated by my super white skirt).

Finally, hats and shoes have to come off almost everywhere. And the stupas, as they were being built, seemed to have gotten into a competition with their predecessors; so they kept getting bigger and bigger. Just to go around them, you have to walk over the stone-paved surfaces for a long time. At other times it is sand you are walking on. While scattered here and there may be some carpets, they are not available with any reliable frequency and they might also get dangerously hot besides being prickly depending on the material used. Not wearing socks proved daft. Did I burn my soles or what!

Taking all this into account, here are the suggested best practices:

  1. Wear full-length clothes. While below the knee works at most places, you never know where they decide to become more competitively pious and demand longer clothes.
  2. Cover upper arms. Perfectly modest, but sleeveless dress or shirt is not enough.
  3. Wear socks even if the heat doesn’t encourage it and even if your shoes don’t demand it. Your soles will thank you for it.
  4. Wear shoes that are easy to remove and put back on.
  5. Wear white or light-colored clothes. They would anyway be more comfortable in the heat. But even if worry about dirt tempts you towards black clothes, don’t give in.

Hindi in Sri Lanka via…?

The first site we visited was the fort at Yapahuwa and the person at the ticket counter immediately started talking in Hindi. He was pretty fluent too, unlike the waiter serving us our first meal in Italy. So, this time I managed to ask how he learned Hindi. It turned out that he had worked in Dubai for ten years and an obvious outcome was learning Hindi!

We also came across other people who could communicate a bit in broken Hindi.

Ancient Hygiene-awareness

Sri Lankans have been hygiene-aware for a long time, it seems. Urinal and lavatory stones in monasteries, lavatories & septic tanks in palaces and an ancient hospital speak to that. Urinal stones were the most decorated elements in some monasteries. Apparently to show the monks’ contempt for worldly beauty!

On and off the Tourist Map

Given the limited time, we decided to stick to the area called “Ancient Cities” for touristic purposes – specifically Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla.

  • Anuradhapura was the capital of the main Singhalese kingdoms from few centuries BC until 10th century AD.
  • At that point, Cholas conquered them and ruled the kingdom briefly. They shifted the capital to Polonnaruwa. When a Singhalese king ousted them, he continued to rule from Polonnaruwa.
  • After 13th-century the capital shifted again, and then through the usual complicated processes of successions, divisions, and assimilations different kingdoms and dynasties came, slowly capitulated first to the Portuguese, then to the Dutch and finally to the British.
  • The last native kingdom remaining was Kandyan kingdom, with its capital in Kandy. It succumbed to the British in the 19th century. Among other things, they had patronized the already existing monastery at Dambulla and there are a bunch of cave paintings and statues there from the Kandyan period.
  • Mihintale is a place near Anuradhapura, where Mahinda (Emperor Ashoka’s son who took Buddhism to Sri Lanka) is supposed to have met the Sri Lankan king who converted to Buddhism – Devnampiya Tissa.
  • Yapahuwa was the capital for a short period in the 13th century, and currently has the ruins of the fortified city.
  • We were planning to visit Ritigala too but skipped it because of lack of time. It houses an ancient monastery and is supposed to be the place from where Hanuman jumped back over the sea to reach Lord Rama after finding out the whereabouts of Sita.

Anuradhapura and Mihintale do not seem to be on the main tourist circuit. So, tourists are outdone in number by the local pilgrims. But these places have some of the oldest sights Sri Lanka has to offer to the history-lovers.

The ancient cities of Sri Lanka also boast of early expertise in water management and irrigation system. They were already pretty advanced in centuries before Christ. We saw Nuwara Wewa which is a tank built in 1st century BC and covers an area of 1200+ hectares. Two other tanks in Anuradhapura area are also spread over hundreds of hectares. Parakram Samudra in Polonnurawa is 2000+ hectares. The tanks and canals powered irrigation system was the backbone of this ancient civilization.

Other places on our list were more likely to be on typical tourist itineraries. But the most common places on tourist radar – Kandy and then the beaches in South – were not on our list this time. We didn’t have enough time. So, hopefully, there will be another trip!

Museum at Anuradhapura was sadly closed for renovation, but those at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa were useful. If you take guides there, they would usually skip museums. But if you have time, visiting the museums is highly recommended. Dambulla Museum is a hidden gem, which most people don’t visit. But it is well-organized and gives just the right amount of information about Sri Lankan wall paintings through the ages. It also sets the right context before you visit Dambulla caves.

The Buddhist Country

Sri Lanka is an interesting country in that it has been Buddhist for a long time (since 4th century BC). Hinduism had a strong influence and the big Tamil minority continues to be mostly Hindu. There still are tribes whose faith is pre-Buddhist and there are also Muslim and Catholic minorities. But if there is a country that can lay claim to the longest, sustained Buddhist tradition, it would be Sri Lanka. The Buddhists have also diligently maintained the written history of the island (although those histories delve into fantasies too often to be comfortable to modern minds, but dealing with that is the fate of historians all over the world). Not only is the island, then, a rich source for Buddhist history, but also, given the strong Indian connection, for reconstructing the history of India. We would never have known that those inscriptions strewn all over the Indian subcontinent were from Emperor Ashoka, but for a Sri Lankan Buddhist source that mentioned that Devnampiya Piyadasi (the name mentioned in those inscriptions) was Ashoka himself.

Tourist Experiences

In terms of tourist facilities, even Sri Lanka outdoes India. Usable toilets were easy to find. Although at some places, toilets for foreigners and locals were separate. Presumably to maintain better ones for the foreigners who paid a much higher price for the tickets. This segregation was uncomfortable, but hey, the toilets were clean and even had toilet paper available most of the times.

We had booked one taxi for all three days. So, we do not have any other experience of dealing with local taxis. But this one was a good experience. Unlike most tourist taxis in India, the driver was not trying to cut corners. Not only was he proactive in taking us to all the planned sights, he was equally comfortable with any additions and modifications. Not having to be on your toes all the time makes the experience so much better.

The experience with guides was mixed. In Mihintale, our homestay host was also a guide and we took him along because apart from his belief in the levitation abilities of Buddha and Mahinda, his knowledge of history seemed to be all right. He showed us all the sights and explained the finds in detail. In Yapahuwa there was limited number of things to see and we didn’t look for a guide.

In Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, we spent almost an entire day each. So, we didn’t take a guide. Using our own research and the information available on the sites, we had a satisfactory experience. In Sigiriya, since we wanted to finish it quickly, we looked for a guide. Our driver was, by then, aware that we liked “going deep” and tried to arrange for a guide who would do that. That proved to be a counter-productive! They put forward a guide, an elderly man, who claimed to have a relevant university degree and assured us that he would explain it all to us. He also charged heftily. But he was worse than any guide we have ever had. We didn’t do much more than climbing up and down the hill with him. We got more information from the boards at the site and the museum we visited later. He didn’t show us even what we saw other non-university-graduate guides showing people. Next time we must warn any well-meaning drivers against looking for elite guides!

At Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, the ticket price of Indian passport holders (perhaps for all SAARC countries) was half than that of other foreigners. It is always a good idea to ask if there is a discount, before purchasing the tickets.

Local food was good and mostly cheap. Our driver did a good job of taking us to nice places.

VISA and Currency

For Indians, you can apply for an ETA online. It is issued quickly and is valid for six months from the date of issue. Within a 30-day period in those six months, you can enter the country twice. ETA is as good as a VISA in the sense that you don’t have to separately get a VISA on arrival. You can go straight to the immigration queue.

Changing INR to Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is almost not possible. So, if you are depending on currency exchange, it is better to carry dollars. The exchange rate at the airport was the best and all the counters there had the same rate. At the places we visited, there weren’t many shops with clear signs for currency exchange, but it was possible to do it. Our driver guided us on that.

Almost every service we had booked in advance (taxi and homestays quoted prices in dollars and they were happy to accept dollars too). At some of the major sights (Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa), you can also pay for the tickets in dollars. But for other expenses, we stuck to converted LKR.

If you are depending on ATMs, be sure to withdraw money in major cities and towns. Along the highways or in smaller places, ATMs didn’t seem to be easily available. Credit card acceptance is limited in many of these places.

Travel

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Performances and Shows

What we saw

Catru

I am no connoisseur of traditional dance or music of different places, but while traveling I don’t mind tagging along with Abhaya to see a few of them. Because like a lot of other things – from the people we meet to the food we eat to the sights we see – they reveal something about the place and people. We caught a Catru performance in Hanoi Old Quarter at a temple cum old communal house called Đình Kim Ngân – one among many such places to be found in the older parts of cities like Hanoi and Hoi An. This performance was organized by Hanoi Catru Club whose website www.catru.vn was not working when I wrote this post. Thang Long Ca Tru Guild also organizes Catru performances. Their website was also not working when I wrote this post!

Catru was traditionally performed in royal courts and for the entertainment of the wealthy. The performance we attended also included other forms of songs and dances from Vietnam which had their origins in temple rituals or folk culture.

The Quintessence of Tonkin

Even if slightly expensive, The Quintessence of Tonkin is worth seeing for its grandeur and vision. It combines traditional performance forms with modern props and lighting to create an impressive and spectacular performance requiring the coordination of hundreds of performers. The venue is slightly far from Hanoi, but they provide shuttle services from (and back to) Hanoi. We caught the shuttle at a mall that was called (for some reason) The Office!

They have converted a large, natural lake with hills in the background into a stage. This part gives me pause because I wonder what this stage creation has done to the environment of the lake. But even if they have not, I think others copying the concept can do it responsibly. And I would want the managers of our heritage tourist spots to see this and get inspired. The Quintessence of Tonkin is what our light and sound shows need to become.  This is the 21st century and given how much visual stimuli is available to us, the light and sound shows in our heritage buildings have become staid and won’t entertain even small kids.  They need to upgrade and this show can show the way.

Water Puppetry

Water Puppetry is a traditional entertainment performance of Vietnam. While you can find the shows in all major tourist places, the authentic place to see it would be Hanoi. We didn’t see one of those street performances of water puppetry. But The Quintessence of Tonkin show mentioned above also included water puppetry among other kinds of performances.

What we missed

Variety Shows

On the pattern of Cirque du Soleil, there are a couple of famous variety shows in Vietnam, which can be watched in Ho Chi Minh City’s or Hanoi’s Opera Houses (or other venues). Unfortunately for us, on the dates we were in the two cities, there were no shows scheduled. IONAH and AO Show were the ones we were interested in.

Travel

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Translate and Tripadvisor

Beware of Google Translate

Despite the huge technical advancement in the field, automated translations can be a source of humor, embarrassment, and bizarre inaccuracies. You have to particularly careful in Vietnam if you are relying on knowing English to decipher their script. If you are typing Vietnamese in Google translate, don’t do so without getting the diacritics right. Else you may get bizarre results. A sign we often saw on the road from Hai Phong to Hanoi, translated as “doubtful”. Since it made no sense to see so many of those on the road (coming to think of it, that sign will be scary to see on the roads), we tried again by observing and getting the diacritics right. Then it translated as “motel”. I can’t remember what exact word had we translated there (we might have made some mistake with letters too, not just diacritic). But here is an example I have been able to recreate.

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Autocorrect doesn’t work very well if your diacritics are wrong, because slight change or absence of diacritic may very often still make a meaningful word, only a totally different one.

Even if you get diacritics right, the usual precaution of not blindly using the automated translation applies. At Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, there was a box outside the toilet, where you were supposed to give a small voluntary donation. Somehow something like a “voluntary donation box” had been translated to “quadrilateral” in English, much to our guide’s annoyance with the use of Google Translate!

An Altar for Tripadvisor

writereviewflyerThe tourism industry in Vietnam might as well make a pagoda for Tripadvisor in every city and an altar for it in their homes! Yes – like it or not – Tripadvisor has become the biggest source of customers for a large number of businesses in tourism industry world over. And hence far too many of them have gotten too busy optimizing themselves for Tripadvisor reviews. In Vietnam, it seemed to happen at another scale altogether. I don’t mind a gentle request for a review, but in some cases, they were annoyingly repeated. And in case of our very first tour to Cu-chi tunnels in HCMC, it was simply outrageous. The guide kept insisting that we should use our phone and the free wi-fi available at the site or the restaurant to write a review there and then. Because later we will forget. As if it is our duty to write a review! When I expressed my disinclination explicitly (because he won’t take polite hints), he went into the misery-tourism mode of how it is important for him to get all the reviews to keep his job etc. A quiet, young woman from Hong Kong who was also on the tour with us obliged. I was too annoyed to do that. But his continued insistence even after telling him in clear terms that I am not comfortable doing that spoiled the tour for me. It was perhaps no better or worse than a tour provided by any other company would have been. But simply because of this nuisance, if I had indeed written a review, I would have rated them rotten.

Travel

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Drivers and Money Changers

Vehicles, Drivers, and Taxis

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A fridge magnet bought in Vietnam

Vietnam is big on two-wheelers. A lot of Saigon traffic jokes are around the number of two-wheelers in the city. Apparently, the number of two-wheelers there stands at 70% of the total population!

Tour guides are perennially apologetic about the traffic and bad driving. But don’t worry about it if you are an Indian city-dweller. The drivers in the tourism industry, to my Indian taste, were driving a bit too carefully and a bit too slow. The snail-pace of the drive from Hai Phong to Hanoi fried my brains with boredom. But our Spanish co-passengers still seemed terrified. So, I couldn’t really have requested them to speed up.

They also seem to wash their vehicles a lot. They stopped, not for a food or toilet break on the five-hour slow, boring drive mentioned above, but for vehicle washing! Given that they dropped us at a handicraft showroom for the half an hour they took to wash the vehicle, I wonder if vehicle-washing is a euphemism of some kind!

Many four-wheelers have a plastic cover on the ceiling. These are well-fitted around the lights, air vents, and other fixtures; so most likely done by the car company/dealership or other professionals. Not sure what for though!

Taxis are the most convenient means of local transport, and rest assured they will scam the heck out of you. There are tons of taxi companies whose cabs you can hail. A couple of them are supposed to be reliable ones, whose meters won’t run faster than a cheetah and whose drivers won’t take you on a wild ride through nowhere just to push the fares up. But they have an ample number of copy-cats ever eager to dupe you. There are precautions you can take to identify the right taxis. From the information available online I compiled a guide for myself. Even then, after a couple of good rides, in the third one, the driver started taking us “for a ride” taking random turns after reaching close to the destination to avoid actually reaching there. When we objected he didn’t understand English (or pretended not to!). The taxi was from one of the “reliable” companies – we had made sure of that. But that went only so far. Finally, we asked him to stop and walked a short distance to the destination. After that, we stuck to grab and there the experience was pretty good in all the cities we went to. The only problem was that sometimes you have to speak to the driver on phone to confirm your location and language problems might surface. One way to deal with that is to choose a conspicuous starting location – say in front of a big shop with clearly visible signboard and enter the name of the shop in the app, instead of just your current location. Or to book from inside the last restaurant or shop you have visited and take help of their staff in talking to the driver.

Money Matters

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An old lady selling fake currencies, which they burn for their ancestors! (yep – those are fake dollars)

Money exchange is easy, although you should be careful about where you do it. When we exchanged USD to VND at the Saigon airport we got a rate of ~22650 VND per dollar. Inside the cities, the prevalent exchange rate with money exchangers was 22500 VND per dollar.

Although it isn’t as official as in Cambodia, most shops and tourism companies will also accept cash payments in USD. But the exchange rate is always tipped in their favor. If they have quoted the price in VND, the scrupulous ones will take payment in USD at the rate of 22000 VND per dollar, the unscrupulous ones at 20000 VND per dollar. If the price is quoted in USD and you are paying in VND, then you need to pay 22700 VND for every dollar. So, the prudent thing to do would be to pay in the currency in which you have been quoted the price originally. That’s what we did most of the time.

There is one exception to this prudent advice though. Converting VND back to USD fetches even worse rates than any mentioned above. So, if you find yourself with extra VND towards the end, it is better to spend in VND even at an unfavorable exchange rate, because trying to convert it back to USD will only get you a worse deal.

Credit card transactions are not welcome and many places charge extra if you are paying by credit card. Many may not accept credit cards at all. We went with cash everywhere except any pre-bookings we had paid by card online. Withdrawing cash from ATMs seems to be a costly and confusing affair. Fortunately, USD we had carried in cash lasted for us and we didn’t have to make any ATM transactions.