niedziela, 17 lutego 2019


Hoy dejo mi paraíso en la isla Munroe. Me he sentido muy a gusto rodeado de un paisaje natural poco explorado por los turistas. Sin embargo, sólo tengo una semana en el estado de Kerala, por lo tanto puedo pasar sólo un día en cada lugar que elegí visitar. El plan para hoy es tomar el ferry y cruzar los ríos, canales y lagos de las “backwaters” para llegar a Alappuzha. El tiempo de la travesía será de ocho horas.

Después de ver el amanecer desde la isla en la que me alojaba, crucé el río con el barquero que luego me llevó en su moto a la estación de tren. El barquero es un hombre delgado, de estatura mediana y de unos cincuenta años de edad. Su educación y humildad totalmente encantadora me impresionaron al igual que me dieron un poquito de pena. Viajando por la India he aprendido que es una señal de sumisión hacia los más poderosos, común entre las personas que pasan toda su vida a su servicio. Al ver una persona occidental casi siempre emplean los títulos “sir” y “madam”, típicos en las relaciones entre maestro y servidor.

Tras llegar a la estación saqué un billete y se lo di. Me dijo algo en Malayalam, pero, por desgracia, no hablo su idioma. Me supo mal que en este país, y sobre todo en el sur, no puedo comunicarme con los más humildes. Automáticamente formo parte de la élite que habla inglés con fluidez. Como he podido comprobar varias veces, en la India el nivel de inglés a menudo indica cuál es la clase social de la persona.

Un día en los canales

El ferry de Kollam sale a las diez y media hacia el norte, a Alappuzha. Primero cruzamos un lago y pronto vemos varios barcos-casas, muy populares en las “Backwaters” de Kerala. Turistas indios y extranjeros los alquilan para ver la región desde su patio trasero.

Pasamos delante de varios pueblos humildes que parecen de campesinos locales. En una terminal de ferries hay un barco local tan abarrotado de gente que me extraña cómo se mantiene a flote. La gente nos mira con curiosidad. Hay algunas sonrisas, alguien nos graba con teléfono, mientras que otros nos saludan con la mano. El barco no tiene techo para proteger a la multitud del intenso calor. En cambio, en nuestro ferry hay mucho espacio vacío y un techo que nos permite disfrutar del paisaje sin abrasarnos.

Pagué cuatrocientas rupias por el pasaje: una cantidad que la mayoría de las personas en el barco local a lo mejor gasta en una semana en comida para toda la familia. Pensando en este gran contraste entre los dos barcos, miro a mi alrededor: aquí, salvo un hombre de Calcuta y una pareja mayor, son turistas blancos y occidentales. Parece que somos el primer mundo desfilando su privilegio y opulencia delante de la precariedad local.

Las verdes orillas de las backwaters están repletas de palmeras cocoteras y pequeños arbustos. La mayor parte de la travesía transcurre paralelamente al mar y a veces lo puedo vislumbrar a lo lejos gracias a un canal de salida de las backwaters. El agua debe estar bastante salada, ya que abundan las medusas. En las orillas de los lagos y ríos más anchos se ven muchas redes chinas: unos muelles con una trampa que consiste de cuatro brazos que aguantan una red y unas luces en el medio de la trampa que deben servir para atraer los peces durante la noche. El conjunto de la trampa se puede bajar, dejando la red en el agua, y luego subir. Por desgracia, los peces no están a salvo en Kerala, ya que son considerados uno de los alimentos favoritos del estado.

Más o menos en el medio de la travesía nos cruzamos con el otro barco turístico, que hace la travesía de Alappuzha a Kollam. Estamos en un lago bastante largo y durante la próxima media hora nos sigue un nutrido grupo de pequeños pájaros. Vuelan detrás del barco, aceleran, hacen un círculo y vuelven. El espectáculo dura hasta que el ferry llega a un canal más estrecho. Me imagino que los pájaros confundieron el ferry con un barco pesquero o tal vez simplemente buscaban llamar la atención de los pasajeros.

En lo que queda de la travesía nos cruzamos con cada vez más barcos-casa, y en la mayoría de ellos sólo veo a una, dos o tres personas. Aparte de los turistas está también la tripulación: el capitán, el personal de limpieza y los cocineros. En uno de los barcos veo a una chica joven tumbada en una reposera viendo algo en su teléfono. Atrás se ve la cocina donde hay un hombre mayor sentado en una silla con una expresión de cara de cansancio y aburrimiento. Puede que sea sólo mi interpretación, tal vez el hombre no conoce el concepto de aburrimiento, pero seguramente su cara no desprendía felicidad. Otra vez me acuerdo del barco de transporte local tan lleno de personas que vi hace unas horas. El hombre, seguramente de origen humilde, normalmente viajaría en aquel barco, salvo cuando trabaja para alguien adinerado que alquila el barco-casa. El cocinero debe pasar las horas mirando los canales sentado en la pequeña cocina en la parte trasera del barco.

A las seis finalmente llegamos a Alappuzha. La travesía me ha aportado mucho más que vistas bonitas. Me ha hecho reflexionar sobre cuestiones políticas que considero importantes, como la igualdad (o más bien su falta) y el privilegio injusto del que gozo aquí como viajero europeo. Posiblemente la única manera de minimizar el impacto negativo del turismo en el mundo pasa por reconocer ese privilegio y viajar con consciencia y humildad. De todas maneras, aún me queda mucho por aprender, y hoy ha sido un día muy educativo.

środa, 13 lutego 2019

La felicidad se encuentra en Munroturuttu (Kerala)

El río Kallada en Munroeturuttu
Tras un día en Varkala, llegar a las ‘backwaters’ supone un cambio radical. Paso del tumulto turístico de las playas a una pequeña isla entre dos ríos: de lo globalizado y comercial a lo local y sin ánimo de lucro.

Las ‘backwaters’ son una extensa red de canales y lagos creados naturalmente gracias a la formación de islas en las desembocaduras de los múltiples ríos que atraviesan el estado sureño de Kerala. El resultado de ese proceso no pudo ser más bello: centenares de ríos y canales que pasan por arboledas de palmeras y forman extensos lagos que juntan agua salada con agua dulce. Como me explicó una mujer local, por culpa del agua salada difícilmente se pueden cultivar plantas en esta región costera. Efectivamente, desde el tren de Kollam a Munroturuttu, conocida también como Munroe Island, vi únicamente palmeras cocoteras y algunos arbustos.

Para llegar a mi alojamiento, caminé media hora desde la estación de tren y luego me recogieron en un bote para llegar a la isla en la que se encuentra el Munroe Eco Camp: una especie de centro turístico que ofrece habitaciones pero también tiendas de campaña a un precio muy asequible. Los únicos habitantes en este momento son la encargada, el barquero que me trajo a la isla y dos visitantes. Reina el silencio, sólo el viento remueve las ramas de las palmeras que sueltan un agradable susurro. La sensación de paz se percibe desde el primer paso que doy en la isla y ya estoy convencido de que disfrutaré mucho del día aquí

El atardecer sobre el lago
Dejo mi mochila en la tienda, me cambio y salto al río. El agua está perfecta para nadar: caliente, casi sin olas. El río está conectado con un lago, así que me divierto un rato en un entorno acuático casi ilimitado que tengo delante. El sol hace fácil el secado, ni siquiera necesito la toalla. Repito el ritual a lo largo del día: nado unos veinte minutos y me seco al sol.


Por la tarde uno de los visitantes, Antonio, de Estados Unidos, se marcha a la estación de tren, mientras que Pierre de Francia y yo decidimos alquilar un kayak y dar una vuelta por los canales de la zona.

Empezamos por uno de los brazos del río Kallada y pronto entramos en uno de los laterales. Los canales que elegimos se hacen cada vez más estrechos. Pasamos por un pueblo que probablemente nunca veríamos si fuéramos caminando o en moto. Al final de la travesía por el canal estrecho llegamos al cauce principal del río Kallada, que mide unos cien metros de ancho. Quedan varios kilómetros por delante para volver, pero finalmente llegamos antes de las dos horas previamente pactadas.

Mi tienda de campaña en el primer plano :)
El sol ya está a punto de esconderse detrás del horizonte. En este momento es casi rojo y apagado, nada que ver con la bola de fuego de hace dos horas. Pierre y yo saltamos al río y nadamos hacia el centro del lago. Unos doscientos metros de la costa descubrimos que aún podemos pisar el fondo. Nos quedamos de pie un buen rato charlando hasta que empieza a oscurecer.

Observar el atardecer desde el agua, con la inmensa masa de agua con sus islas y bosques a mi alrededor, fue uno de los momentos más bonitos y liberadores que he vivido durante mi viaje. Me sentí casi eufórico por estar rodeado de tanta belleza natural y con la vista del sol rojizo prestando su color a las pocas nubes en el cielo. Me gustaría que todos los atardeceres fueran como el que vi y viví en Munroturuttu.

La isla Munroe es uno de estos sitios cada vez más raros donde la conexión con la naturaleza no es forzada. Es un lugar para desconectar de la realidad del humano moderno, dejar de lado el estrés, las preocupaciones, el teléfono y las redes sociales. Confieso que esta noche siento un poco de melancolía. Porque mañana dejo la tienda, los canales y el lago y no volveré a vivir ese atardecer. Es cierto que nada es eterno pero, afortunadamente, la ilusión es una energía renovable…

wtorek, 29 stycznia 2019

Sri Lanka: Natural beauty and unresolved tension

The view from the path to Little Adam's Peak in Ella
My time in Sri Lanka is now over and I am back in South India. I still haven't fully digested my experience and I find it difficult to compare it to the earlier stages of my journey or the one beginning now. Perhaps the reason is that India, and especially its Southern part, is, after all, very similar in culture and also in landscapes. As a result, Sri Lanka somehow doesn't feel like a separate experience.

It is inevitable to compare the island country with its bigger Northern neighbour because of their inseparable history: the constant Indian invasions in the past, the shared religions, similar experience of colonialism, and recently also the importance of India in Sri Lanka’s politics and economy. In Sri Lanka I couldn’t help comparing it to India, and now in India I will be constantly reminded of ‘Lanka’.

I began my Sri Lankan trip in the company of my friends Michal, Agnes and Paula. We explored the Southern beaches, visited the Udawalawe National Park and saw a bit of the hilly centre of the island. Visiting Sri Lanka's tea plantations was perhaps one of the most revealing experiences. Lipton's Seat is a viewpoint nearby Haputale in the Uva province from which the Scottish tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton used to supervise his plantations. The patched plantation landscape extends itself up to the horizon on all sides of the hill. The famous Ceylon tea sold across the globe is originally from this part of the island.

The way to the viewpoint is filled with ecological messages written on the stone walls which border the road. I felt it was very cheeky of the owners to give lessons on ecology when they have destroyed enormous forest areas in order to plant tea and export it. I also felt a bit guilty, since, as a consumer, I certainly contribute to such disasters. The forests were wiped out because demand for tea in the more affluent countries grew and the business proved to be a lucrative one. It reminds me of the current palm oil crisis in Indonesia, where whole forests are burnt down in order to create space for palm tree plantations. As much as I was impressed by the view of the plantations from Lipton's Seat, I couldn't help feeling sad for the plants and animals wiped out from these lands to make space for tea...

Tea plantations near Lipton's Seat (Uva province)
After Lipton's Seat we visited a couple of historical sites of Sri Lankan Buddhism such as Dambulla, and the second ancient capital of Lanka, Pollonaruwa. Finally, after an intense week and a half of traveling with my friends, it was time to take separate routes. When the bus dropped us off in Dambulla, more or less in the centre of Sri Lanka, we didn’t even have time to say goodbye as our respective buses were already about to leave. Michal and Agnes had decided to return to the South for some more surfing, Paula went on to climb the famous Sri Pada mountain while I went to the ethnically Tamil North mostly driven by my interest in the political conflict and social issues in Sri Lanka.

Tense silence in Jaffna ten years after

As I was in the bus moving further and further away from Dambulla, I felt slightly sad about having left my friends behind, but finally the adrenaline took over and I started feeling excited about what lay ahead of me. After reaching Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital of Lanka, I took a fast train to Jaffna in the far North of the country. It zoomed past thick jungles of the Tamil majority Vanni region and after two hours it reached the so-called ‘Elephant Pass’, where the Jaffna Peninsula begins. It was getting dark and the sunset over the lagoon extended to my left made me feel melancholic, especially as I recalled the tragic history behind the name of the place. The Dutch invaders of Sri Lanka named this narrow pass leading to the peninsula ‘Elephant Pass’ since it was an important point on an important elephant trade route. In the past elephants captured in other parts of the country were shipped from here to the Karaitivu island and then to other parts of the world. I felt sad imagining the hundreds, if not thousands, of elephants ambushed and separated from their herds, and then enslaved for the rest of their lives. Their fate was never to see the lush green of the Sri Lankan jungles again as they were subject to a lifetime of misery and exploitation.

Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu temple in Jaffna, founded in the 10th century.
I reached Jaffna already late into the evening and I was rather surprised to find the streets dark, silent and almost deserted. Only later it occurred to me that the silence was perhaps not a peaceful absence of sound but an unresolved tension after years of conflict.

Jaffna, the ancient capital of an old Tamil kingdom is perhaps my favourite place in Sri Lanka, with its colonial era bungalows and quiet streets. The old Hindu temple, Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is undoubtedly one of the most impressive places to visit, with its typical pyramidal towers, which are also very common in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and other Southern regions. On my second day I went to the Neduntheevu island, off the Western coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. It is a scarcely populated place, where wild horses and several species of birds can be seen away from the human settlements.

However, I came to Jaffna mostly for another reason. I knew the story of the civil war, which had ended just ten years before and I had read that Jaffna had seen some of the worst fighting. I thought it was perhaps the best place to learn what the Tamil perspective on the conflict is. I had the pleasure to meet journalists of two of the biggest Tamil-language newspapers Uthayan and Thinakkural and also of the Tamil television channel IBC. I listened to their stories about human rights abuse and saw some of the physical signs of the oppression suffered by the journalists. The room of the Uthayan office where I was talking to their journalist had bullet holes in the wall after a night time raid by goons suspected to have been sent by the army, which controlled Jaffna when the attack occurred in 2006. Two people were killed in the attack which was meant to intimidate the staff. However, I will write more about my meeting with the journalists in a separate text.

Reaching out to India from the West coast

One of the old, one-storey bungalows in Jaffna
After three full days in Jaffna I took a 5 AM bus to Mannar in order to reach Talaimannar at the very end of the Mannar Island, hoping to see Adam’s Bridge: the remains of a mythical bridge which used to link the ancient country of Lanka with India according to the holy Hindu book of Ramayana. Unfortunately I couldn’t reach the peninsula where the rocks can be seen from as it is too far from any road. I will see the bridge from the Indian side soon, but in the meantime I returned to Mannar and took a bus even further South to yet another Tamil city: Puttalam.

The bus went through the Wilpattu National Park, one of the biggest parks in Sri Lanka. For two hours I was on a free safari. Quite understandably none of the residents of the park appeared to delight us, with the exception of a sambar deer and an enormous elephant crossing a marshland some two hundred meters from the road. The dirt road was full of holes and the ride was an extremely rough one. On the more flat stretches, the driver put his foot down and I could only hope that no animal would suddenly jump onto the road and get run over. I finally reached Puttalam when it was getting dark, and caught another bus to Kalpitiya, one of the most popular places in the country among kite surfers. I hadn’t booked any accommodation and only relied on my offline mobile map to find the nearest guesthouses. In the first one I went to they were overbooked but the owner was very kind and let me sleep in an additional bed he had placed in the corridor.

Kitesurfing in Kalpitiya
As for Kalpitiya, it is an enjoyable place with picturesque beaches and few tourists at this time of the year, except for a number of kite surfers. I was in doubt whether to stay there for an additional day, however, as always, I felt restless. As soon as I saw what I was hoping to see, my mind was already focused on the East coast of Sri Lanka: the one currently hit by the monsoon. On my second day after breakfast I decided to return to Puttalam, which is located at the base of the peninsula. The tuktuk (auto rickshaw) drivers there tried to convince me to pay thousands of rupees for a ride to Anuradhapura by telling me that the bus would take three hours to reach its destination. The bus journey actually lasted an hour and a half, which reassured me in my distrust towards them. In Anuradhapura another tuktuk driver was even more adventurous: According to his calculations I needed at least three hours to get to Horowupotana and then change for another bus which would take another three hours: six hours for roughly a hundred kilometres. “Why don’t you take a tuktuk?”, he asked boldly, but I refused his offer. Finally both buses combined made it in three hours, and I was in Trincomalee before sunset.

The grey skies of the East coast

The Trincomalee Bay seen from Fort Frederick
Trinco, as many people call it, was clouded and melancholic the following day. I rented a scooter and went North to see the Pigeon Islands from the Nilaveli beach, and then to the town centre. I liked the relaxed atmosphere of the streets: busy but never too noisy or overwhelming. The long Uppuveli beach and the Trincomalee bay must be very attractive for water sports in the summer, however this time the waves seemed slightly too wild for swimming. I was impressed by the Koneshwaram Hindu temple on the hill overlooking the town. There were also several temples dedicated to the goddess Kali, as well as some Buddhist pagodas and a couple of mosques.

I greatly enjoyed the stay in my guesthouse, where I got a very comfortable room for a low, off-season price. Even though I was feeling relaxed there, I decided to leave after a day in Trinco. My stay in Sri Lanka was slowly coming to an end and there were still places I wanted to visit. Before I left Trincomalee, I woke up at 5:30 AM to participate in the Thai Pongal festival, celebrated mostly by the Tamil Hindus. All the local Hindu families prepared their traditional sweet rice dish called pongal in front of their houses and shared it with whoever wanted to try some. Each Hindu household had a cauldron with the pongal and a traditional decorative symbol drawn on the floor. Eating the sweet rice was a pleasant way of concluding my stay, and some time later I was already boarding the bus bound for Batticaloa.

Kali Kovil in Trincomalee - the temple dedicated to the goddess Kali
The journey was yet another crazy ride on one of the indestructible Ashok Leyland buses: the real kings of the Sri Lankan motorways and their fastest vehicles, which inspire respect and even fear in some drivers. Their strategy is infallible: Approaching cars, motorbikes, trucks and other buses at great speed and bullying them off the road with the help of the loudest horn on the planet. If you’re driving and suddenly hear its sound right behind you, you might have a heart attack or end up in a ditch.

After just a little more than two hours we reached our destination. Batticaloa has approximately the same population as Trincomalee, and is also mainly Tamil. I saw very little of the town as I arrived late in the afternoon and left shortly after breakfast the next day. In the evening I went to the Kallady beach, filled with families and groups of young people. The sky was clouded and it was getting dark but the people didn’t seem to mind it and enjoyed their time on the beach. The chants from a nearby Hindu temple and the repetitive sound of waves created an atmosphere of peacefulness. Before I embarked on my last journey to Kandy and the Sri Pada peak, I briefly visited the Batticaloa centre and saw a few temples and churches. However, there was no more time as one of Sri Lanka’s most exciting places was waiting!

Some more photos below:


The national route from the South to Ella seen from Little Adam's Peak

View from Little Adam's Peak

The dense jungle seen from Dambulla cave temples

Buddha statues in the Dambulla caves

Tea plantations near Lipton's Seat

Buddha statues in Dambulla caves

Buddhist Museum in Dambulla

Sunrise from the Piturangala rock, near Sigiriya

Sunrise from the Piturangala rock, near Sigiriya

Sunrise from the Piturangala rock, near Sigiriya

Sunrise from the Piturangala rock, near Sigiriya

View of the Sigiriya (Lion's) rock from the Piturangala rock

The Piturangala rock from the route back to Sigiriya

The melancholy of sunset over Elephants' Pass

The decadence of Jaffna

The statue of the last Tamil king in Jaffna

The landscape of the Neduntheevu island off the Western coast of the Jaffna Peninsula

Landscape of the Neduntheevu island off the Western coast of the Jaffna Peninsula

Banyan trees on the Neduntheevu island

A beach on the Southern coast of the Neduntheevu island

Free horses on the Neduntheevu island

Birds on the Neduntheevu island

A wall built from coral - typical material used in construction in Sri Lanka

The Jaffna Fort

The Jaffna Fort

A street in Jaffna

A street in Jaffna

Saint James's Church in Jaffna

The Our Lady of Miracle Church in Jaffna

The Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna

The Kudawa beach near Kalpitiya

The kitesurfing paradise in a lagoon near Kalpitiya

Unfortunately the only sea turtles I managed to see were dead: all three in the Kudawa beach near Kalpitiya

The bully of Sri Lankan motorways: the Ashok Leyland bus!

The Uppuveli beach in Trincomalee

Two out of the multiple sambar deers living near Fort Frederick and the Koneshwaram temple

A deer outside the Koneshwaram temple in Trincomalee

The Koneshwaram temple and its surroundings painted on one of the temple walls

One of the decorations outside a house in Trincomalee for the Thai Pongal festival

The monsoon affecting the Kallady beach in Batticaloa