Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Kandy is Dandy But Liquor Is Quicker" -W. Wonka

I can't believe how much Kandy we crammed into just two days!

1. Went for a run around the lake. My second time around I noticed so much more (plants, animals, men bathing)! Just shows you how important it is to take a closer look at things. There is so much to gain just by paying a little more attention. Saw turtles, giant crocodile-sized iguanas, ducks, so many kinds of birds, snails the size of my fist and a monkey riot! There were over two dozen jumping on cars and causing an awesome raucous. It felt like Kenmore Square after the Red Sox won in 2004.

2. Temple of the Tooth: The sacred relic was obtained from the sandalwood pyre in which the Buddha was cremated. It has a long history in Sri Lanka, before it arrived in its current resting place in Kandy. My favorite part was actually the story of Raja the Maligawa Tusker, whose body was taxidermied and has its own little shrine on the temple grounds. Apparently when the elephant came across the sacred tooth relic, he kneeled down as if to pay his respects. From then on it was his and only his privilege and duty to transport the tooth as it traveled from town to town.

3. Hit the shops: included tea, scarves and spices. Some awesome finds! Thank goodness for our Sri Lankan hosts and "local" prices.

4. Tea plantation. I never realized how tiny the actual usable part of the plant is. What tedious work to harvest! I'll have to remember this the next time I enjoy a nice cup of tea.

5. Drive through the hills above Kandy. The light was gorgeous! Views that help you understand where cliches such as "breath-taking" and "awe-inspiring" come from.

6. Drive through downtown Kandy in a trishaw. Makes you realize where cliches such as "death-defying" and "scared shitless" come from.

7. Traditional Kandyan dance show. Interesting costumes, fun instruments, fire dancing, hot coal walking.

8. Hiked around rock caves and giant rock of Sigiriya, home to a monastery in 1-2 centuries BC and then the palace/fortress of King Kassapa later on (plus his hundreds of mistresses). 

9. Several quick, drive-by views and activities on our way back to Kandy from Sigiriya. Wood carving workshop, Golden Temple at Dambulla, fruit stand where I tried bale fruit, "Ayurvedic" (legitimacy of this place questionable) spice garden tour (aka the place where I was offered "a full body massage, ma'am"), Aluvihara rock cave temple in Matale, Hindu temple in Matale.

10. The food: bittu (rice-shaped noodles made of coconut and flour), more curries of course, egg hopper (an egg fried inside one of those thin crepe bowls), egg roti, parata.

11. Drinks with cast and crew of Sri Lankan cricket film at Queen's Hotel. Met the Sinhalese voice behind Antonio the mouse on "Tom & Jerry." He's also guest-voiced for a few villains on "Scooby Doo!"

12. Three-hour dance party in room nine at Devon Hotel to send me off properly for my 2 a.m. solo ride to the Colombo airport.

13. The next time I'm given the opportunity to take a risk and embrace spontaneity, I hope I will always remember this trip. It doesn't have to mean spending a month's worth of income on a plane ticket across the world, but I'm glad this time it did.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Training it in Sri Lanka

We opted to take the train for the six-plus hour ride from Hikkaduwa to Kandy as I heard it was "unreliable" and was looking for the adventure of a scenic train ride and the good photos that would inevitably result. We were not disappointed.

1. Sri Lanka is truly beautiful. At times the tracks ran parallel to the palm tree-lined Indian Ocean -- so close that it felt like we could graze the waves with our fingertips. At times verdant and lush. At times embelished with dilapidated shacks and bony cows instead of the waves and palm trees.
 2. Train snacks. Our lovely Sri Lankan hosts treated us to a number of goodies from the peddlers passing through the aisles. Lentil fritters. Spongy, coconut oil bread. Corn on the cob.

3. The cars got so packed that men were literally dangling off the side of the trains for hours. As every banana leaf, sign post and tree branch whizzed by, I held my breath and sighed with relief upon confirmation that our side door friends' limbs were still all intact.

4. For the second half of the ride, two goofy Brits were forced to cram into seats directly across from us. They were impossibly chatty and I would say obnoxious if I didn't find them so endearing in the most tremendously entertaining way. It was like watching a three-hour spin-off of "The Office" that involved a pair of young med students lost in Sri Lanka instead of employees at Wernham Hogg. My dear friend Candice did not agree, but she also admitted that she hates British comedy.

5. Inspired by the dangling man, I too hung from the side of the moving train for a bit...just for fun. And it was!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hikkaduwa: Food...and other things that happened

Sunday is market day in Hikkaduwa, and lucky for me, our guest house is a one-minute walk down the railroad tracks to this amazing temple to all things delicious in this town.

I know this may sounds sacrilegious and gluttonous to many, but the same reverence and love people sometimes reserve for their faith, I hold for food. Especially when I'm traveling, I regard every meal as this sacred, precious moment in my life to experience a new flavor in someone else's culture -- to appreciate and savor all the time and labor sacrificed by farmers, traders, cooks and everyone else in between that made this dish possible.

My mother (no joke) told me recently that love always changes in a relationship. I have to remember that it's temporary and can disappear as quickly as it manifests itself. But my stomach will always be hungry -- this I can count on. I must find a man who knows how to eat like I do, so we can happily share meals together every day.

So when I stumble across markets like this one in Sri Lanka, it's like finding this special place of worship -- an edible holy grail. I love the opressive heat, the dust, the smells of ripe fruit and exotic spices, the frantic yelling in Sinhalese, the fresh piles of produce and unfamiliar sweets, the chaos!

I spent less than a couple US dollars total and come away with a 100-piece bag of "honey corn" cookies (orange, cone-shaped pastry filled with basically pure sugar...the filling has this nice grainy honey texture but is unbearably sweet); a bunch of adorable, little bananas (apparently there are over 60 varieties of bananas in this country!); and five small packets of spices.

Other notable happenings in Hikkaduwa:

1. Afternoon of splashing in the ocean, playing in the sand, and starting an in-the-water beach brawl among a dozen Sri Lankan teenagers and 20-somethings. Punches were thrown. Bodies slammed into the water. We later realized our snorkeling guides were defending our honor after one of the opposing group of drunken drum circle boys rather inappropriately groped me underwater and then asked in Sinhalese how much I cost to rent. Have never witnessed such a dramatic display of misogyny and chivalry all at once.

2. Refreshing downpour during our snorkel. Beautiful. Saw a big turtle! Got a sea cucumber shoved in my hand. Dazzled by fat, neon fish.

3. Food. Glorious food! Crazy spicy, incredibly flavorful, veggie curries with rice. Coconut sambal. Dal. Green beans. Cabbage salad. Coconut roti. Veggie stir fries and omelets. Papadum. Cucumber and tomato salad seasoned with lime (fresh from the backyard!). Papaya smoothies (also from the backyard!). Milk Ceylon tea. Coconut water.

Everything here is infused with coconut, and from this day forward I would like to infuse my entire life with coconut.

4. The family who runs the guest house (Star Holiday) is lovely. We flip through wedding albums. Discuss the 30-year history of the place. Inquire (without success) about favorite Sri Lankan specialties...after much discussion between the wife and her mother-in-law, they turn to us in English with only these words: "Watermelon. Yes, or Cucumber."

5. The mom, wife of the late owner of the establishment who passed away last year, cooks our meals, and she seasons each entree with the love only a mother could possess. Her dal curry is the best of the trip thus far.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Colombo: The Yang to Yesterday's Yin

I am a drama queen.

I'm finally OK accepting that about myself. The drama tests me and keeps things interesting. I look back at my childhood and appreciate all the conflict because it helped me grow.  Now, because I know the drama of life can't be avoided, I almost relish it...every problem or awkward situation is a new opportunity to watch how I internalize discomfort.

And it's getting to be quite comfortable.

After what was a pretty unstable upbringing, there's a balance of conflict and resolution and of sadness and happiness that I'm slowly understanding more and more. I needed that dark period to be able to enjoy the lightness of my life today.

My dear friend and current travel companion Candice put it beautifully when she described the contrast of our first two days in Sri Lanka: "I don't think we could have appreciated today without yesterday."

"Yesterday" being filled with drama, stress and general feelings of unease, and "today" being perfection. Here is why:

1. Breakfast of string hoppers (noodles made of rice or flour and formed into floppy, thin disks), curry, veggie and fish roti, samosas, stir fried rice. The flavors here are so intense. A very heavy hand used with salt and all these amazing spices. 

 2.  My friend's friend's Sri Lankan friend arrived from Dubai and gave a wonderful tour of places of worship in Colombo (with almost every major Sri Lankan religious temple represented with the ironic exception of a mosque as most of the group is Muslim). The highlight for me was the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. We even saw a Protestant church!

Fun fact: Telling of what a big part of the culture the diversity of religions is here, the Sri Lankan flag is made up of three blocks of colors -- green, saffron and crimson, which represent Islam, Tamil and other minor religious and ethnic groups respectively. Buddhism, the country's major religion, is represented by the four leaves of the Bodhi Tree.

3. Stroll through the beach. Admire Indian Ocean and a mix of adoring and angry looking couples under umbrellas.

4. Went for a lounge around and a dip in the hotel pool.

5. Dinner of Kottu Roti, which are chewy noodles made of sliced roti. The fast paced chopping is so rhythmic and entertaining -- it is the most musical meal I've ever seen prepared.

6. Hit the clubs. My travel buddies are an incredibly dynamic, thoughtful and fun bunch. They also hang with fro-yo shop tycoons and Sri Lankan American rappers. I'm not cool enough to have heard of the rapper guy, who is now apparently starring in a Sinhalese movie about cricket. However, I was very familiar with the fro-yo shop...wonder what that says about me.

I later found out that the rapper was trying to take advantage of me the whole night. Neat, right? Maybe I could have morally compromised myself into the next music video.