Monday, December 9, 2013

home again

We always go into our trips filled with excitement and hope. Often, the places we go are places we've dreamed about for one reason or another; with India, for example, we both had a deep love of Indian food, I'd longed to see it my whole life, and my favorite writers were Desi. I felt such a deep affinity for the place before we left, and could hardly have been more excited. That was the only trip we've taken where our expectations were smashed and we were so disappointed. All our other trips have at a minimum met our expectations, and some (like Vietnam and Bali) far far exceeded them.

I think Sri Lanka exceeded both our expectations. We went into the trip hoping we'd love it, of course, and we had some specific thoughts about what it would be like (primarily focused on the food, which we were somewhat familiar with after watching a lot of youtube videos and eating at the Sri Lankan restaurant in New York), but otherwise not a lot of specifics. We thought it would be similar to India (but better, we hoped).

Sri Lanka is its own thing, its own place, even though curry is a common food with India, and saris are frequently worn by women there, too. But the curries are more varied (and sometimes much spicier), and the saris have a little peplum of sorts. The wonderfully evocative head waggle is everywhere, and I never got tired of watching the full range of variations -- a single dip, a rapid waggle, a dip and waggle -- a kind of morse code, it seemed to me.

The trip was probably our best eating trip together, characterized by wonderful breakfasts (Marc will learn how to make egg hoppers for me, and that delicious onion sambol and the various chili condiments). Of all the egg hoppers we had, the very best was made by Ravi's mother at Pedlar 162, the guesthouse we stayed at in Galle:

DANG it, so so so so good. Onion chili sambol, and a perfectly cooked egg in a crisp little
hopper, topped with dal curry that was so warm with spices
We ate a lot of curry. A LOT of curry, including 17 at one meal, which topped the earlier record of 10 at one meal. The best curries we had were at a little shack-type place in the corner of the bus station parking lot in Tangalle. I'm still daydreaming about the okra curry we had there, at Prem. Surprisingly, we had very little kotthu roti, and it was much harder to find than we thought it would be!

We saw such beautiful scenery; Rekawa beach is the most wonderful beach either of us had ever seen, and Marc spent a lot of time there.

The wall of Galle Fort was a nice place to sit and watch Indian Ocean sunsets. The incredible tea hill estates up around Hatton were otherworldly in their rich green beauty. And then Kandy, which surprised me more than Marc because he'd been looking at pictures of it during his planning. And then the whale trip, and the elephant trip, both experiences I'll remember the rest of my life.

Some random impressions and notes I made throughout the trip:
  • Sri Lanka is thronged with crows! They're the most common bird, thick flocks of them everywhere. Sometimes the sound of them in the trees was kind of eerie, there were so many. They weren't glossy black crows, they were kind of dull with a paler gray collar around their necks (and sometimes their necks were strangely scrawny), but they had that giant crow beak, that crow caw, the whole crow thing. I didn't know to expect that, but it was a distinctive thing about Sri Lanka.
  • A common side-of-the-road food was roasted/steamed corn in the husk. Driving along the highway we'd see stand after stand of a smoking pot (or, on occasion, a kind of wheelbarrow) with corn on the cob for sale. One cab driver asked if we wanted to stop for some corn. It always looked and smelled very good.
  • The randomness of signs in English kind of surprised us. We couldn't figure out why some things would be in English, in small towns where every other thing around it was not in English. "Artyfishell Flowers" made me laugh. "Cargill's Food City: On Your Way Home" made me curious.
  • Bob Marley (and reggae stuff) and Che Guevara are ubiquitous. 
  • Sayings printed on tuk-tuks were sometimes funny, like "Too much ego will kill your talent."
  • There were scarecrows, or something, hanging from the fronts of buildings. I'd think it was a man hanging off the building's front, and it would startle me to death -- a grown man's pants and shirt, stuffed, with a cloth head attached at the top, just kind of affixed to the front of some buildings. It was invariably jarring, and I wonder what it was about.
  • Although 70% of the country is Buddhist, 13% Hindu, and 10% Muslims, Christians were represented. There was even a Jehovah's Witness place we passed, and a giant Catholic church with a huge sign that read "Lazarus Come Forth!"
  • As always, we ate a lot of very sweet little bananas. When we were on our way to Negombo, we passed a stand that prompted Marc to say the bananas were all the colors of M&Ms (in the pre-blue M&M years), and it was so true. Vivid reds, oranges, yellows, green, and browns. Love those sweet little bananas and wish we could get them here.
  • In a place so dense and lush with the most gorgeous flowers, we'd occasionally see a little plant nursery -- never large, but with some hanging baskets and potted plants. It always struck us as funny. 

It was just a wonderful, close, loving trip, another in a long series of such trips, and we had such fun together. We'll remember Sri Lanka with happy tummies and warm memories, and I think we'd both be glad to return some day.

we loved the tea estates

Here's a link to the whole huge Flickr set, if you're interested (or really bored!).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

the elephants

Our last day in Kandy was a little sad. Kandy is truly an amazing city, and I hope we get to return some day. It's a UNESCO World Heritage City, and it's so easy to understand that. It's the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, an ancient capital of kings. And just so physically beautiful on top of all that. Plus, it threatened to be sunny today, unlike our previous days which were cloudy at best, and drizzly/rainy more often. But Kandy is beautiful even in that weather. I was so sorry not to have more time there. The night before we ate in the hotel restaurant for their dazzling specialty of 17 curries. SEVENTEEN CURRIES. My word that was a lot of curry, but they were all (but one) incredible. Neither of us was too nutty about the manioc, which was mostly like eating a tasteless bit of compacted bread or something. After all that food, we had a substantially lighter breakfast this morning and hit the road around 10:30.

Along the way to Negombo, we stopped at the elephant orphanage. It's a huge tourist destination, the kind with a parking lot full of giant buses and lots of shops selling elephant doodads, calendars, magnets, shirts, etc. But it's the real thing, too. They rescue orphaned babies and elephants that have been badly hurt, and take care of them the rest of their lives if they can't be rehabilitated, and those that can are cared for until they can be released. The highlight is when they take the elephants to the river to bathe.

we really loved seeing the elephants

I didn't notice it when I took the picture, but those two are in step!

I have a much cuter picture of Marc with this little elephant -- will upload in NYC.

SUPER bristly, more than I ever imagined.

Love, but I would really not like to see this charging at me.

he really gripped me HARD, and tried to put me in his mouth. it was great and also a tiny bit creepy feeling.

the cross-legged baby has a deep and sorrowful-looking wound on that crossed leg.

I was hoping to feel that baby elephant kick, but no dice. Elephants gestate for almost two years,
and she was due in two months. That water probably felt very good to her.

splash water! splash water! splash water! (the mahout kept shouting at me)

and so I did. she kept lolling her trunk around, and then piping it up out of the water for some air.

Being in the river with that mama elephant was one of the special moments in my life. She stood there for several minutes, unwilling to come when the mahout was calling her. He called, she ignored. He called, she ignored. He reached out to tug her ear toward him, she jerked her head away. And then, slowly and as elegantly as a pregnant elephant can, she lowered her rear end and then her front end, and then rolled onto her side with her back to us. Nope, she was not going to move, we were going to have to come to her. I loved her for that. If you are pregnant for as long as elephants are pregnant, you get to decide what you will do, as far as I'm concerned.

The trip to Negombo was rough, due to roads that were sometimes so bumpy I felt like I was in the back of a military transport vehicle with no shocks or padding. We finally arrived in Negombo, where we'll stay until a cab picks us up at 2am for the trip to the airport. It was a genius idea of Marc's, to get this little room. It isn't fancy, it's just a small guesthouse, but we have a place to leave our stuff, a place to rest, a spot to hang out for the long last hours. We took a tuk-tuk to a restaurant for dinner and now we're just hanging out. Marc went back into town on his own to get some snacks, and the tuk-tuk driver kept trying to convince Marc to go get a sex massage. "Very pretty girls," he pressed. Marc laughed.

The airport is actually on the outskirts of Negombo, a town north of Colombo, so staying here for the evening puts us closer to the airport than if we'd returned to Colombo. Our flight will leave at 4:30am for Dubai, and then we'll connect a couple of hours later for our flight back home to New York.

When we're back there, and before I leave for Austin on Tuesday, I'll do a wrapping-up post with my last impressions, things I've been noting here and there that never quite fit in a post, but that I do not want to forget. I don't need any help remembering that I love Sri Lanka, the warm people, the sheer beauty of the place. I'll miss it very much, and I feel forever grateful to have had the chance to come see the bit we saw. Lucky me, lucky mud.

Friday, December 6, 2013

speaking English in Kandy

Despite the heavy skies, complete absence of sun, and rain, we decided to go into Kandy anyway. So what -- we have umbrellas, we're here, and who knows if it will be better tomorrow? Our destinations were the botanical gardens, the Temple of the Tooth, and the market. We'd passed the botanical gardens on our way into the city and they looked absolutely beautiful, but they were even better than we'd expected:

beautiful botanical garden

this giant tree is a BOUGAINVILLEA, y'all!

the exotic PETUNIA.

that tree looks like it belongs on a movie set!

the walk of leaning trees

a blossom from one of those orange-covered trees

beautiful flowers

crazy tree

crazier tree
When we were walking through the botanical garden, we came upon a group of 8 to 10 girls, very young teenagers. We passed them once and they seemed to want to talk to us, and we paused, but they kind of giggled shyly and we kept going. They came back and approached us, and the girl who spoke was shaking with nervousness. They were taking an English language class and wanted to know if they could speak to us -- "can you help us?" they asked. We were glad to talk to them, but it turned out that they really wanted us to sign their papers with our name, nationality, email address, and signature. But for each one of them. And they wanted it from Marc and from me. If they just wanted to speak English that would've made sense, but they wanted us to fill out these forms. So we did, we stood there and filled it out for each of them, and then they tried to speak a little more English, explain more about what they were doing, what they'd do after they completed the course. We thought it was a little strange, but it was also kind of sweet because they seemed sweet.

But it turned out the park was full of these big groups of kids, all of whom wanted the same thing. Their English wasn't good enough to understand our answer -- "we've already done this with one big group of kids, sorry we don't want to do it again," so finally it hit me: We pretend we don't speak English. I speak a bit of French, and to ANYONE else in the world it would be obvious, once you heard me speak, that I am not a native French speaker. But people here can't tell whether we are from London or America or Germany or France when we speak English, so I felt pretty good about the experiment. When we were approached by the third group, I launched into my French: "Nous ne parlons pas Anglais. Je suis desolee." They asked where we were from and I said, "France, Paris." (The Coneheads were in my mind: France. We come from France.) They kept trying, do you speak English, we kept responding, "Parlez-vous Francais?" and Marc would say Hola, Adios, Habla Espanol? It was so funny, but it worked. If only they wanted to speak English, we'd have been glad to do that, but all that writing, all that information, we had stuff to do and places to see and only one day in Kandy. It made me laugh, every single time I played a French-speaking non-English-speaking person.

After the park, we went to the Temple of the Tooth, which apparently contains one of Buddha's actual teeth. The rain had stopped and we enjoyed walking through the place:

This was on the base of a statue in front of the Temple
murals above

big giant tusks welcome you to the Temple of the Tooth

exterior architectural detail

every temple needs a moat

Temple of the Tooth. Plus rooster.

more murals inside, really beautiful

more architectural detail

interior detail

schoolgirls with their flower offerings

to the far left is a tiny little inset with a box or some kind of container that we assume holds the relic itself.
here are all the Kandyians placing their flower offerings.
lots of incense outdoors, plus candles

so serene -- inside the temple

so serene, outside the temple
We decided against going to the market because my head was killing me, and the camera battery was completely dead. Heading back to the hotel led us to consider the tuk-tuk, which is our very favorite form of transportion, ever. As Marc said, it's half taxi and half amusement park ride, which was the perfect way to say it. The tuk-tuks generally have things written on them; ours somewhat ominously said "Better You Don't Come My Way." I didn't like to think about what that might exactly mean. We saw one that said CHEGUEVARA across the back, and a couple with skull-and-crossbones across the bottom.

Kandyians crossing the street

rainy tuk-tuk driving day

giant street-level Buddha watching over Kandy
Tonight we're eating 17 curries for dinner -- shocking, how can we possibly eat 17 curries -- and tomorrow morning we head to Negombo, where we'll hang out before we board our flight at 4:30am. I'm surprised by how much I adore Kandy; my expectations were unreasonably low for some reason, but it's really a beautiful, beautiful city. I hope we get to come back to Sri Lanka one of these days.

Hatton to Kandy

Yesterday morning, Marc snuck out of our prison hotel in Hatton to take a walk in the tea field just beyond the hotel, before breakfast. It was so glorious we decided to sneak out again after breakfast. We made the hotel staff extremely nervous, trying to do things by ourselves. If they had their way, they would just drive us here and there and never leave our sides. I guess we made each other nervous, because we just wanted to be left alone to explore.

people bathe here

bamboo, morning glories, and other kinds of trees we don't know

this one grows in the tea fields --  really cool looking

walking to town

unreal, it's so dazzingly beautiful

this is a tea plant -- such a thick old trunk! Right around here is where the leech attached itself to my foot.
BOY did it creep me out. BOY did it hurt, too. And BOY did it bleed a lot after Marc pulled it off me.
Luckily I felt it the moment it attached to my foot, before it buried its head. GROSS.

terraced tea

Marc pretending to pluck tea, being silly and making me laugh so hard

this is our favorite kind of tree in Sri Lanka

tea fields

tea workers' village in the hills

a panorama shot combining three photos
Our breakfast was once again delicious -- we got a new traditional Sri Lankan food, milk rice. It's cooked in fresh coconut milk and it's wonderful:

breakfast on the terrace

local organic bananas (love the tiny ones, sweet as honey), homemade bread, and homemade yogurt
that was the best yogurt I have ever had anywhere

milk rice topped with onion sambol
We were extremely glad to check out of the prison hotel, but sorry to leave Hatton, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Despite our telling the driver and the hotel staff over and over that we would let them know when we wanted to leave for Kandy, the staff decided that the car would take us at 10. That was just typical of our stay there -- we were to do what they wanted us to do when they wanted us to do it. So goodbye and good riddance to the hotel, but a sad farewell to the tea hills. I waved goodbye to the southern coast with a sad farewell, and I did the same to the tea hills.

The drive to Kandy took a couple of hours, and while it was winding and stop-start as the other trips, it didn't make me so sick -- maybe because it was just a couple of hours, instead of 4+. When we pulled into Kandy I was so surprised by it; it's surrounded by hills and mountains and lush with the tallest trees of all kinds, and a big lake in the middle. It's utterly cosmopolitan in a way the other places weren't, and it feels bigger and more dynamic than Colombo, which was also a big city. But Kandy feels like it has it all: the pleasures of a big city, but also the incredible physical beauty of the best of Sri Lanka. It's also quite busy with monkeys, which we haven't seen elsewhere beyond an occasional one here or there. Here, they're running along the ground, climbing the trees, and climbing all over our hotel.

The hotel is way up above Kandy, and it's just gorgeous. It's so nice to be back among traditional Sri Lankan hospitality -- unlike what we experienced in Hatton. The people smile at us with great warmth and talk, but also help us graciously to do whatever it is we want to do.

the foggy view from our hotel room -- that's Kandy down below

also our view; we SO love the trees here

a bit of movement caught my eye, just one of the naughty monkeys

a corner of the lake in the middle of town

it's been this kind of weather since we got to Kandy: cloudy, rainy, foggy, overcast. little to no visible sun

we stopped at this little shop to buy ginger biscuits. you can buy all sorts of things here,
they're just kind of tossed in as one-offs
we saw this, a blister pack of M&M-type candy. strange, right?
We took a tuk-tuk down into town for a light lunch of kotthu roti, but they didn't start serving it until 4pm so we instead got three little roti bundles -- veg (which was dal curry), chicken, and fish. They were kind of little very small burritos using a roti instead of a flour tortilla. Really good. Later in the evening we took another tuk-tuk ride down the mountain for dinner, at a place called Devon Restaurant, which was a kind of nondescript restaurant, OK food, not more. According to our research on TripAdvisor, Kandy is strangely without decent restaurants, so we weren't expecting much and are happy just to get OK food here.

Breakfast at the hotel was yet another wonderful Sri Lankan feast -- the components are familiar by now:

salt and pepper, flowers, and a bell grace our breakfast table

clockwise from L: string hoppers topped with dal curry and onion & tomato sambol, milk rice wound around
honey and sultanas, a mound of plain milk rice, an egg hopper topped with dal curry
and onion and tomato sambol, and a small coconut roti. We also got beef curry which was great.
We have a full day here in Kandy, but it's been raining and so overcast so far, and it's only going to get worse as the day progresses. We may just stay in and read and relax, watch movies, organize our pictures, etc. If we have to have a day like this on vacation, we're SO glad to be at this hotel instead of the one in Hatton. This room has big windows and a view, even if the view is of clouds and rain. We hope tomorrow is sunnier or at least not rainy, because we'd like to go see the gorgeous botanical gardens, the huge market, and the Temple of the Tooth. Tomorrow we leave for Negombo, our last stop in Sri Lanka, and then to home.