First night in the field

20170612_102315Fieldwork has begun and it has been quite a start. There was a pre-pre-dawn departure, a delayed flight, a sweaty, steaming sprint between terminals, and then eventually touching down. But then it was on to the next leg. Two flights and a three-hour drive through windy, hilly roads with nothing but coffee sloshing around in my stomach did not make for a happy camper.

So, when the friend of a friend who had been helping me asked if I wanted to come to his parent’s place for dinner, my first instinct was to say no, thank you. I was tired and confused, and a little homesick already. Feeling completely out of my depth and in need of some decompression time. Fortunately, it struck me how rude it might have been to refuse the invitation so I accepted. Only after this I remembered my India survival technique. You have to say yes. Or at least shrug and go with “why not?”.

Because, much like her auto drivers and tourist touts, India doesn’t take no for an answer. She demands that you say yes. Obviously there are some fairly major caveats to this advice, I may be a solo female traveller in India but I’m not a complete idiot. It’s maybe not the best idea to follow shady dudes down dark alleys because they asked you too. But new experiences, meeting new people, eating new things, they’re kind of the reasons we travel in the first place. While India may be intimidating, so much so that the first instinct is to withdraw and regroup, that’s not why I’m here.

So we piled into our local host’s tiny Tata car and set off along the narrow mountain roads. The area was lush and green and stunning. The front seat were talking about how there had been elephants in the village two days early. The road curled around a tea factory and the air smelt like overbrewed tea.

As we pulled up in the village, there was a bit of a stereotypical moment. The car pulled up and we strangers got out. Two from the city, and me from somewhere else entirely. The men who were loading a truck with bags full of tea leaves stopped and stared. The children who had run up to the car initially hid behind each other and gaped. I pasted on my best goofy “hello” smile and followed our host up the hill.

We met his parents who smiled and welcomed us into their pristine home. It was warm inside, with the low ceilings and doorways trapping the heat in a way that was cosy, not smothering. Introductions were made complete with some broken English and completely butchered Tamil (mine obviously). “Come, we’ll take our tea outside.” It was hard to leave that toasty house that was just starting to smell like an amazing dinner spread. But it was worth it. The air outside was cold and crisp. We sat on plastic chairs and sipped on steaming hot, sweet chai. The village was on a steep slope, and this patio seemed to be on the main thoroughfare. This might not have been accidental, it turns out our host’s father was the village headman. People were constantly stopping by to have a chat and gawp at the foreigner. Two of the braver children stood near enough to headbutt me but were too shy to say hello.

It was pretty magical. Sometimes in the chaos and the filth and the poverty and the frustration, it’s easy to forget that India is indeed a special place. Bitch is manipulative. She makes you wait in ridiculous queues and tries to run you down with a trolley first, then a car, then a cow. She bakes you in steamy humidity then chills you with dry, dusty winds. She taunts you with images of delicious curries and rice, but then serves you a cheese sandwich. Still not sure how that happened.

Anyway, but then India turns in on and all is forgiven. It certainly was that night. After the long day of travel, I somehow ended up in a postcard of what fieldwork in India should look like. On a rooftop in a remote village, eating biscuits and drinking chai. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and the air smelt of cooking smoke and cows. “This might be what it’s all about,” I thought, as my host generous pushed the plate of biscuits towards me again. I declined though, gotta save room for that curry.


The hornets on Lion Rock

Sigiriya, the sign and the nests

As an aside, the title sounds like it could be an episode of Game of Thrones. Alas though, brothers, this be not a tale of elaborate deceit and twincest, tis simply a tale of the hornets on Lion Rock.

Yesterday we left the cool mountain air and Perahera madness of Kandy for the scorching plains, home to Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. The itinerary was Kandy -> Dambulla -> Sigiriya -> Anuradhapura, or A-rad as it will henceforth be known. Our driver suggested we change our itinerary, visiting Sigiriya first, then Dambulla. Yep, fine, no worries, why? “Sigiriya very dangerous, 12 o’clock after,” he told us seriously. Yep, ok, heat stroke, hot, maybe crowds, why? “Many wasp attack.” Wasp? That was chalked up to the mountain of what is and has been lost in translation.

It took us about two and a half hours to go the 90-odd kms from Kandy to Sigiriya. There’s a few theories about the history of Sigirya but nothing concrete. Archeologists say it was most likely a meditation spot but locals maintain it was a palace or a fort. A rock fort. Sigiriya is most commonly known as the rock fort of Sri Lanka.

Something I’ve noticed, and I’m not sure if it’s the Bundaberg showing, is my cavalier attitude towards things that people in other countries tell me to watch out for. African sun? No worries, mate, I’m from ‘Straya. Second degree burns and superficial pride wounds ensued. Snakes? Mate, we had a red-bellied black the length of your ute in the back yard the other day, now THAT would make you run like a rat up a drain pipe. I swear I even get more of an accent. The wasp warning was no exception. My scorn grew at the Sigiriya ticket booth, when we were told we could only proceed to the summit at our own risk. They recommended coming back at the Lion’s Paws. Mate, if I’m gunna pay 3900 rupees, I’m gunna bloody well go to the top of the bloody rock.

So we did. Joined by a British/Aussie couple, we climbed countless stairs to the Lion’s Paws, about halfway up. People lingered, posed with the paws, and the more cautious collected apiaries costumes from the First Aid shed before making the summit climb.

How we laughed! Those paranoid tourists sweating in their modified raincoats! Signs warned us to be quiet but we simply mocked the scale of the hornet illustrations. Then, we climbed the narrow iron stairs, bolted into the rock face. About 100m up, we saw them. They clung to the rock, five or six, each one the size of a human child, their surfaces shimmering with the movement of a million wings. The nests. The line of summit-bound tourists hushed as they saw them. I began calculating the reaction of a hundred tourists on a narrow stairway when faced with a swarm of angry hornets. Humbled, I tiptoed past and triple-checked my flash was off when snapping a few pics.

To summarise, thus far Sri Lanka has left me humbled. Not in a Buddhist-enlightenment kind of way, more like when they say watch out for hornets, they’re not fucking kidding.


Missing Saigon

Saigons in Saigon
Saigons in Saigon

It’s been a while but I’m finally getting back to Vietnam. The place that gave me a terrible, incurable case of itchy feet, among other various tummy ailments. I haven’t held that against you though, Vietnam. You’ve changed a lot over the last few years and I can’t wait to rediscover Ho Chi Minh City once again. I’m sure I’ll fear for my life crossing the road and spend a lot of time marvelling at the perfect chaos of it all. Just like the first time.

It will be great to go travelling again. I know I’m seven weeks into moving countries, the irony is not lost on me. Packing up and moving your whole life just so you can put it on hold to go travelling. The two are so different though. Moving is taking your life with you and travel is leaving it behind. As much as I love my new life in Singapore (#blessed #grateful #vomit), I’m looking forward to leaving it behind for a weekend. Not worrying about the everyday things like buying groceries and putting off cleaning the bathrooms will be nice for a few days.

I’m hoping to spark some more creative writing too. This month I’ve been trying to write a novel (more here), I’ve been aiming to churn out 3 000 words a day on that and also 1 000 words on my thesis. It’s been fun and quite unsettling to see what I’m capable of when I force myself to do it, but it does lose a little of the magic, for want of a better, less wanky word. I suppose that is inevitably what happens when you do what you love for work, it is called work for a reason. Anyway, in short you won’t hear from me for the next four days. I’ll be sitting on the street in Ho Chi Minh City with a cheap beer, a pen and a notepad. Wish you were here!