Monday, January 30, 2012

Rice and Curry, the Quintessential Food of Sri Lanka

We arrived in Galle late yesterday afternoon, and were able to walk around the Fort a bit before dark.  (Being near the equator, the sun sets around 6:15 and then rises again about 12 hours later.)  We were looking for a restaurant to have dinner, and found that the vast majority cater to westerners, and only offer western food.  We came across a very small cafe with only three tables and a limited menu but with Sri Lankan food and very inexpensive.  Last night I had Kottu Rotty which is basically a stir-fry of sliced up roti (flat bread) and vegetables and spices--delicious!  We had a chat with one of the two young men who run it--a year ago he took a leave from teacher's college to open the business, and since then he has become fluent in English as a result of the number of foreign patrons.  I enjoyed the meal so much that I persuaded Lloyd to return for lunch today and I had Rice and Curry Vegetables.
About to enjoy a delicious lunch after a hot and sweaty morning walking around the fort!

Rice surrounded by dahl, lotus, beans and salad, and presented with a fork and spoon so that I don't have to use my hand!
I have had Rice and Curry at many places--all different.  One of the challenges is that it's usually way too much food for one person, but this little cafe was different.  This was a much more reasonable size.

An added bonus was that at the end of the meal, we had a pleasant chat with the owner of the building who was on the verandah with his grandson.  He says he has been very happy to see this little cafe do so well, especially because it's the only place within the Galle Fort walls for Sri Lankans to eat their preferred food at good prices.  Before this, they had to leave the Fort and go into the "new town" if they wanted a meal out.  And then he invited us into his home to have a lesson on precious gems.  He is a gem wholesaler, and loves to talk about his stones.  And because he's a wholesaler, he's not interested in selling to the public.  We have been invited back to view his jewelry collection.

We're enjoying Beach Haven Guest House so much so that we've decided to stay an extra 2 days and bypass Colombo.  The WiFi connection is good here too hence this posting so soon after the last one.

Tomorrow I'm taking a bobbin lace workshop all day!  We came across a shop called Shoba that is an artisan collective, and they offer one-on-one workshops.

And now we're relaxing in our room under the fan in the heat of the day...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Some 4800 steps up and then back down…

We’ve emerged from a WiFi vacuum and are now in Galle on the south coast at the Beach Haven Guest House for a couple of days.  On Friday (January 27) we climbed Sri Pada, also known as Adam’s Peak, in the hill country of Sri Lanka.  This is a triangular shaped mountain that rises sharply out of hills covered in tea plantations, and has been of religious significance for over 2000 years.  At the top there is a depression which Buddhists have long claimed to be a footprint of Buddha.  Muslims later claimed that this was the footprint of Adam when he had been cast out of heaven, and while the name “Adam’s Peak” has stuck in English due to the British colonial influence, it’s definitely a very special place for Buddhist pilgrims especially between December and March.  As a result, the small village (Dalhousie, pronounced Del-house) at the base of the mountain teems with pilgrims.  There were plenty of tourists too, but we were outnumbered by Sri Lankan families, many dressed in white—the women in white saris or white blouses and gathered skirts, and the men in white shirts and sarongs.  There were people of all ages, from the very elderly being helped along the path to babes in arms and kids on shoulders.

The most auspicious time to be at the summit is at sunrise.  This means leaving the village around 2 AM for the 7 km hike to the summit.  Talking to other tourists at the guest house we discovered that some were planning an earlier departure so as to take their time, and others figured they would be moving more quickly so were planning a 3 AM start.  We decided to split the difference, and set the alarm for 2. Meanwhile, this being a place of pilgrimage, drumming and chanting started over a PA system at 7:30 PM.  It was still going on while we were settling into bed at 8:30 (yes, Lloyd too!) so in went the ear plugs.

After a somewhat fitful sleep (Would we hear the alarm?  What were we thinking!) we were on the path by 2:20, and were surprised that it seemed to be only tourists at that hour—where were all the pilgrims?   As we walked, we realized that the pilgrims were coming towards us—did they walk up there once the evening service was over??  We’ll never know.

The path was well lit the entire way.  In fact, the path at the beginning is lined with stalls selling all manner of goods—fake and real flowers, sweets, tea, food, fleece jackets and hats. 

The path lined with stalls
There were lots of Sri Lankans bundled up in towels or sheets and wearing thick fleece hats but still either barefoot or in flip-flops.  It was certainly cool to start, and we were also wearing a couple of layers (it actually felt wonderful to be in the cool mountain air) but as we climbed, we shed the top layer.  The temperature was about 15 degrees Celsius which our driver says is cold.  (If you’re used to 30 – 40 degrees, then yes that’s cold.)  The path is quite lovely at the beginning—gently undulating pavement and occasional steps down.  The stairs up start in earnest within a couple of kilometres, and of course they’re not even.  There are tea and food stalls along the path, probably about 500 metres or so apart, and we stopped at one just as the path was getting steep.  We enjoyed a cup of black sweetened tea.
The tea vendor, all bundled up, and Lloyd.
As we climbed, we greeted the people coming down, “Good Morning!” and they responded in kind.  One delightful encounter was with an elderly woman, very petite and dressed in a white sari who grasped my hands, and said “Happy?”, and I said “Yes!” and she laughed, “Good!”  

Happy Janet and Lloyd, about half way up.
Just as the stairs were becoming VERY steep, we stopped for tea again to get ready for the final push, and the price was four times as much as the first—understandably because all of the vendor’s supplies have to be carted up the mountain.  Indeed when we were nearing the village at the end of our hike, we encountered barefoot men of all ages with bundles on their heads starting up the path. The final set of steep stairs (with handrails that I used to pull myself up) was GRUELING.
Looking up, up, up...
We arrived at the top at 6 AM, but the clouds had rolled in.  So not much sunrise…oh well…   The “footprint” itself is covered by a pavilion and surrounded by concrete—we didn’t bother to take our shoes off and climb this final set of stairs to see it because by all accounts it’s disappointingly unimpressive for the non-believer.  We did arrive in time for a ceremony that started at dawn, a procession of men drumming and chanting.  A couple of them were carrying special containers and entered the shrine.  We couldn’t see what they were doing, possibly washing the footprint??  There were lots of pilgrims at the top—they must have climbed up the night before and had slept in one of two shelters.  The devotion of these people was touching.

Once we realized that the clouds were not going to lift, we set off back down those awful steep stairs.
Looking down, down, the daylight.

The handrails proved useful once again, and I side-stepped a lot of the way to save my knees.  It took us much less time of course (2 ½ hours) but our legs were like jelly by the end.  Those stairs seemed to go on for ever…  The only saving grace was that it was now daylight and we could see the surrounding countryside.  We stopped again at the first tea stall to be treated like old friends.

Returning to the village through a tea plantation--looks like a nice stroll doesn't it!
Back at the guest house, after a welcome breakfast of toast, eggs and tea, we climbed up to our room (which was a bungalow set up on the hillside above the guest house, so about another 40 very unwelcome steps!) to shower, rest and pack before moving on.
The view of Sri Pada from the veranda of our bungalow--that's where we were just a few hours before!

Even today (Sunday) we’re still feeling the effects of the climb—sore calves, glutes and quads.  

We left Dalhousie around noon Friday and drove on twisting roads through the hill country. The steep hillsides are covered with tea bushes.    

Pickers on the hillside.  Only the bud and top two leaves are plucked.
We stayed a couple of nights in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s highest town established by the British in the 19th C.  The colonial influences are still present—our hotel was The Grosvener which has an English country house feel.  Saturday we had a lazy day.  We visited a tea factory and had the best cup of tea ever, so I bought a couple of boxes.  Unfortunately being a Saturday, there were no workers in the factory so it was very quiet.  The guide did a good job of explaining the process however.  And then we visited the Hakgala Botanical gardens, again established by the British in the 19th C. and very different from the one at Kandy. Today (Sunday) we drove to Galle on the south coast where we will stay for a few days before venturing north towards Colombo and then on to India February 3rd. We will be on our own—we said farewell to our driver this afternoon.  He’s provided us with an excellent introduction to Sri Lanka—we have only just skimmed the surface.
Our driver, Mr. Bandara, and me in front of his Nissan

As for my knitting, I’m now casting off the shawl with a picot edging.  I started to knit a leaf edging, but realized I don’t have enough yarn left.  This will have to do for the moment!  Maybe I’ll do something different to the edge once I get home. 
Just about done.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sri Lanka Adventures Continued

Yesterday we climbed Siguriya, a very tall bit of rock that was an elaborate palace and gardens about a thousand years ago.  Our pictures don't do it justice!
The walk starts off with a very pleasant stroll through the "pleasure gardens" which are under restoration.  The original fountains still work if there's enough water in the pools above.

This one's for you Dad!  Except you would never build stairs this high!

The climb is about to start with the passage between two boulders.

Almost there!  Just the last set of stairs.

At the top.  The royal pool has been restored and has filled with rain water which the workers were using to wet down their bricks--they were restoring some of the walls.

On the way back down--can you see the lion's feet at the bottom?

Looking at the staircase with the lion's feet either side.

Continuing down...
Today we spent part of the morning in Kandy at the Temple of the Tooth Relic--one of the Buddha's teeth was saved from cremation fire and somehow made it to Sri Lanka over 2000 years ago.  It's been housed in several places, and has been in a special temple in Kandy for the last several hundred years.  The casket holding the tooth comes out for a special festival and procession once a year, but otherwise stays behind locked doors in the temple. It's a very special place for extremely devout pilgrims.  But full of tourists as well.

And then our driver helped find a barber shop for Lloyd to have his beard trimmed!

Lloyd says it was probably the best barbering experience ever--complete with scalp massage.
We spent a good part of the afternoon at the Botanical Garden--a wonderful place--some very unusual trees like a "cannon ball" tree, precocious monkeys who came running over when we started eating our lunch, and a HUGE flock of fruit bats that had been disturbed from their roost by the lawn mowing.  I'll sort through those images and post some tomorrow.

When we arrived back at the hotel, the laundry was still drying on the front lawn.  This was the view from our 2nd floor room:
Sheets and towels from guest who had checked out this morning.
As I type this post at 10:30 PM Wednesday, many of the drivers, hotel staff and some guests are out on this lawn drumming and singing (I assume) Sri Lankan songs.  While it's quite pleasant at the moment, I will have to put in my ear plugs shortly in order to get to sleep!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Greetings from the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka

We've been without internet for the last three days and nights hence no posting.  I'll make up for it now!

Our driver, Mr. B., is driving us at a very sedate pace through the tumultuous roads of Sri Lanka.  I use that descriptor to refer both to the traffic and the state of the roads.  There are lots of bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, cars, vans, trucks (small and large), and buses on the road, and along with pedestrians...well, there have been a few hair-raising experiences but we feel we're in good hands.  Some of the roads are full of potholes and he slows right down to a snail's pace to protect his precious car, a Nissan station wagon.   It's amazing to us to see the risks that some drivers take, especially bus drivers--they don't always come to a full stop to take on or let off passengers, and we've seen them overtake others (and us) on corners at what seem to be break-neck speeds.  We haven't witnessed any accidents however.

I'll now insert a selection of images from the last couple of days when we explored the ancient ruined Sri Lankan capital cities and monestaries (from 1000 - 2000 years ago).

The Cave Temples of Dambulla were cut out of an enormous granite outcrop about 160 metres above the surrounding countryside (a very steep 10 minute stair climb).  These were first established about 2100 years ago, and later embellished and restored around 1200 AD and then 500 or so years later, and right up into the 20th century.

The protective entrances to the caves

A small shrine next to Cave 1.  Note the rock beneath the wall--this is the same rock out of which a reclining buddha is carved in  the first cave temple.

The reclining buddha's highly decorated feet.  This figure is carved out of the rock.
Anuradhapura, the royal capital and Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka for over 1000 years, until laid waste by Indian invaders in 993 AD.  The city was finally abandoned in 1073 in favour of Polonnaruwa (which we visited the following day) and fell into ruin, being reclaimed by the jungle but still inhabited by reclusive monks.  The British "discovered" it in the 19th C.  Restoration and archeological explorations have been on-going since the 1950's and with some vigour since it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980.
Abhayagiri Dagoba, still under scaffolding.  You can just make out some vegetation near the top which hasn't yet been removed.  This restoration has been going on for the last 5 years or so.  Note the pilgrims dressed in white--this is a holy Buddhist site.

Carved staircase and balustrades at the entrance to monk's living quarters, Jetavana Monastery. 

The carved dwarves 

A moonstone at the base of the stairs for rubbing your feet clean.  Some of these were very elaborately carved.  This is a simple one.

Jetavana Dagoba, restored.  About 70 m tall.  

A carved Gana or obese dwarf which were all over the site.

Entrance to the Royal Palace

The Twin Ponds, restored, and home to lots of little fish and turtles.  We stopped to watch a brilliantly coloured Kingfisher catch a fish and kill it by repeatedly dropping it on the deck.
  Visiting Anuradhapura was a day of continually taking off shoes and socks and walking on scorching hot paving stones.  When entering any of these sacred Buddhist dagobas, temples or shrines, we had to leave our shoes at the entrance and take off our hats--a bit of a challenge in the heat of the day!   ("Mad dogs and Englishmen....")

The Ruvanvalisaya Dagoba, completely restored and painted a gleaming white.  A major pilgrimage site--many people dressed in white particularly older women in white saris.  We decided not to enter, because we weren't pilgrims, and contented ourselves with a view from the outside.  I also decided I wanted to keep my shoes and socks on!  Note the elephant heads--most are modern replacements--on the outer face of the terrace.

Elephants supporting the platform of the dagoba just as in Buddhist cosmology they hold up the earth itself.  Or, as the Rough Guide points out, they also helped in the construction of the stupa by stamping down the foundations.
The next day (no pictures--they're still in the camera) we spent at Polonnaruwa which was where the Sinhalese retreated to when Anuradhpura fell.  This is a more compact site, and we were able to hire bicycles to explore at our leisure.  This place too was abandoned to the jungle for about 7 centuries until restoration began about 50 or 60 years ago.

These last four days have been an intense exploration of ancient and medieval Sri Lankan culture.  While Europe was in the dark ages, the Sinhalese kings oversaw huge engineering projects notably dams for irrigation.  Their buildings, like those of the Romans, incorporated lavatories and urinals to keep waste water away from drinking water.  They must have employed a tremendous number of skilled craftsmen such as stone carvers, incorporating beautiful features into all their buildings, whether on stair cases or supporting pillars or the many images of Buddha and other deities.

We've had some interesting meals, and some disappointing ones too which is to be expected.  Some of the surprises have been meals at cafes known as "Bakers".  Walk into the shop and you think you're in a bakery, faced with glass cases of baked goods.  And then walk a little further into the seating area, and there will be a steam table full of "Rice and Curry".  We just point and ask for single bowls of whatever looks beans seem to be available all the time as well as dahl, plus rice.  The staff are a little nonplussed that this is all we want, rather than taking one of everything, but we insist, "Yes, this is what we want".  The Sri Lankans all eat with their right hands, scooping a bit of rice and vegetable or meat together and then into their mouths, all without the aid of a roti or chapati as the Indians do.  We are always offered spoons!  Thankfully.  We're pretty sure our driver would prefer to take us to more tourist-oriented restaurants as he did on our first day (to a lovely open air building with a buffet, but there was way too much food and it was very expensive even by Canadian standards...)  We have had to be firm that we prefer to eat less and more simply.

Our hotel here in Kandy has WiFi so I'll post again tomorrow.  Thanks for all your notes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sri Lanka...first few days

We've spent a wonderful couple of days unwinding in Negombo, just north of Colombo, at the Dephani Guest House.  We're right on the beach and have been serenaded with the breaking surf on the beach about 50 metres away--mind you, the sound competes with the whirring of the fan or air conditioner too...
Sunset from our verandah! The sun dropped below the horizon within 2 minutes at 6:15 PM.  Note the shower head on the left side--very welcome after swimming in the salt water.

I was so stimulated by our Singapore experience that I didn't want to do much besides knit and stroll along the beach.
An inshore fisherman heading out to set his nets

A catamaran waiting for customers!  This is where the word "catamaran" came from:  the Tamil word is ketti-maran.

One day of that was just what I needed, and today we had a more active day.  We hired a tuk-tuk this afternoon and travelled due north about 20 kilometres to visit a tile factory (where they were making roof tiles) and a batik workshop.

The batik workshop
Filling in the spaces with the resist wax

The tile factory--these are roofing tiles.  All women, except for two men.  Lots of heavy lifting!  These people worked in a marvelous rhythm--as each woman finished a task, the next tile was put in front of her.  The clay was extruded in another machine, cut into blocks, and then each block placed on the press.  The women in the foreground were the expert trimmers.
And of course there was a wonderful shop attached to the batik workshop.  We bought a couple of sarongs from which I'll make a shirt for Lloyd, and I bought a simple short sleeved dress.  All-in-all, a very satisfying day!

Tomorrow we move on to the interior.  We've booked a car and driver through this guest house.  We'll be back here overnight before flying to India on February 3rd.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Singapore Vignettes

An amazing two and a half days in Singapore!!  We were so busy that I didn't take the time to post.  The architecture is overwhelmingly diverse--there were many old buildings similar to the Sino-Portuguese styles that I described in Phuket town.
A street near Little India

This is a concert hall in the Marina Bay area--it reminded us of the Durian fruit!
And then there are incredible skyscrapers towering in the backgrounds...
At the mouth of the Singapore River

The Double Helix bridge--the biologist just had to see this!  And another stupendous building complex in the background--three skyscrapers capped with a ship-like penthouse.

Double Helix bridge based on the DNA molecule

Singapore is in a mad frenzy of preparation for Chinese New Year which is this weekend.  We are rather pleased to be out of the fray and in a much calmer Sri Lanka.

The highlights were the museums:  The Asian Civilizations Museum where I spent a wonderful two hours in the "Patterns of Trade" special exhibition of Indian block-printed and batik textiles that had been traded in the 17th - 19th centuries to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Built by the British in the late 19th Century and housed government offices until about 20 years ago when it was converted into this magnificent museum.  Surrounded by a wonderful green space

And then the next day, we went to another museum for a special exhibition on sarongs and were guided by a delightful Singaporean woman who explained the intricacies of all the patterns...and then we went with her to the National Museum where she was also the guide for an exhibition of 140 paintings from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  I was thrilled to see famous works by Millet, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and others--especially having just completed a 19th Century art history course in December.  I could cheerfully have spent another couple of days in these fascinating museums.  We took the time only to visit the special exhibitions and so missed out on their permanent displays of local history and art.

Another highlight was successfully navigating the MRT (rapid transit) to a yarn shop where I happily picked out a selection of cottons for my next project, and Lloyd made himself comfortable on a stool.

This is the shop, and they also sell fabrics, dress patterns, notions, and gadgets!  I just focused on yarn.

I will probably make another shawl using the same size needles.  I had a delightful encounter with one of the sales clerks--I asked her what the difference was between three of the cottons, and she replied that one was finer than the other.  After a pause, as if for emphasis, in her thick accent, she said "just like people, some are big and some are small!"  And I said, "like me and that guy over there!"  referring to Lloyd, and she laughed and laughed...and then went over to him to repeat what I'd said!  I'm sure this gave all the staff something to chuckle about for several more hours.

I had expected Singapore to be a sterile city of steel and glass.  Well, yes, it's certainly clean and there are signs posted in all the subway cars describing $500 fines for eating, drinking or smoking in the cars or stations.  There are lots of staff pushing brooms and carts to keep the platforms tidy.   And there are lots of skyscrapers of glass and steel. But there are also lots of green spaces, large and small.  Every building seems to have roof top gardens, including our hostel.
The Green Kiwi Hostel on Lavender Street--a very convenient location near two MRT stations.  About 30 mins from the airport by MRT.

Behind the hostel on the other side of a park, was a large high rise apartment complex (probably about 10 buildings each 5 - 10 floors) and under each building were open spaces for people to congregate--to get out of the sun or away from the rain.

Lots of places to hang laundry from windows!

  Most buildings (old and new) had verandah-like spaces in front of them where we could walk under cover (had to be careful to watch your step however--there were usually small changes in levels between businesses).
Walking under cover.

Another place we enjoyed was the Botanic Gardens--it was wonderful to get away from the ceaseless traffic and be serenaded with cicadas instead!

And finally, we enjoyed the food, especially from Hawker Centres like this one--they're huge food courts located every few city blocks, we assume set up to pool resources and keep the food centralized rather than ad hoc on the street.

How we wound up the day on the roof-top garden of our hostel.
Not a lot of choice in wine...found this 275 ml bottle in a 7-11 and it cost plenty!  Had to drink it from the bottle too...
Note Tilley hat, and damp neckerchief in an attempt to keep cool...