Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hidden Hills of Sri Lanka

23 January 2018

We are currently in Godakewela (pronounced gah-dah-KE-veh-lah), and the blue line shows our approximate route.  (I remembered the names of a few towns we drove through.)  There isn't a train that goes to this route, and the trains that come down from the more northern region were booked solid.  Plus we're trying to do this in a more comfortable manner given Richard's back injury.  So we hired a car and driver, who is a friend of our friendly security guard at our hotel in Colombo.

And I'm not sure if he's Hindu or Buddhist, since he had both a dashboard statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and a small Buddha.  Plus the red flowers and an emblem of I think a young Buddha, but I'm not positive.  Made for an interesting view out of the windshield.  And as we drove past the big Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Colombo, he did the hands together prayer style with a quick bow, as we've seen drivers do in Thailand.  

With the majority of the population being either Buddhist or Hindu, I'm wondering if maybe both religions have aspects or inclusions of the other, similar to what we saw in Bali.  The Buddha, whose name was Siddhartha Gautama, was originally Hindu and lived in India.  When he achieved enlightenment, he was given the title The Buddha, and he began travelling, coming first to Sri Lanka.  So that's why I think perhaps the two religions here include elements of the other.  Not sure, but the dashboard Ganesh and Buddha sat side by side, and kept us safe on our crazy 185 km (110 or so mile) trip.

This was not a two hour trip on a national multi-lane highway.  No, this was a four hour trip on a winding rural road through small towns and villages, and the occasional bustling city.

Much of Sri Lanka is rural, and farm land, especially in the coastal plains region.  Rice paddies, fields of eddo or taro (edible tubers), fruit trees, and I’m not sure what else.  As we drove more into the interior, we began to see hills and then mountains in the distance.  Not pointed or snow-capped mountains, but huge rounded peaks looming a faded blue-purple in the background.

And temples!  Buddhist temples often are announced by the multi-colored striped flags here, and I caught a lucky shot through the entrance gates as we drove by.  Tamil temples rose suddenly in the middle of towns, with their chaotic hierarchy of figures.  I don’t use the word chaotic in a pejorative sense – I enjoy and appreciate the seemingly random levels of figures that make up these Hindu temples.  There may be some order in the hierarchy, but I don’t recognize who the figures are (other than Ganesh, who is easily recognizable).  So to my uninitiated eye, the manifestations of the gods and goddesses and perhaps historic figures seems very busy and fluid and active, but without any discernable sequence or order.  Thus my use of the word “chaotic.”  And I rather enjoy the chaos I attribute to these structures.

Back to our travels – the drive itself was the usual dodge-‘em drive.  This is why we didn’t want to rent a car and drive ourselves – we don’t know the route, we can’t read two out of the three lines of print on the signs, we don’t know where we’re going, and most importantly, neither of us were prepared to drive around tuktuks, trucks, buses, cars, tractors, and the various people who run across the road at random intervals.  With a few cows and water buffalo walking along or relaxing by the side of the road.  Yes, I enjoy chaos, but not when it risks my life or someone else’s.

So our driver, Suranga, wove his way through this insanity, taking us through road construction, city markets, and rice paddies, up into the foothills.  This is tea country, full of fields of tea plants low to the ground, and large canopied trees providing shade for the delicate tea leaves for which Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) is so famous.

I think my favorite vehicles were the bread tuktuks.  I saw a green croissant tuktuk when we stopped for a cold drink – green with croissants printed on the outside, and shelves of croissants on the inside.  We passed a red bread tuktuk on the road, complete with shelves full of wrapped loaves, and playing music like an ice cream truck!  We can only imagine that these trucks drive along and pull over whenever some signals to them that they want to buy the croissants or bread.  Maybe in towns, maybe the people at stands selling fruits and vegs.  Maybe hungry drivers beep their horns and signal to pull over and sell them some croissants.  We don’t know.  It was just one of those interesting and different things we enjoy seeing.

Other than the domesticated cows and water buffalo, we only saw birds – tons of white cattle egrets, those beautiful elegant birds who seem to only eat excreted seeds from cattle dung.  Such a juxtaposition to their elegance and beauty!

Suranga had typed our hotel address into his cell phone, and the GPS guided him up the long steep winding hill to the “resort.”  This isn’t a resort in the usual sense – although it’s a large and sprawling complex, there are only twelve or fifteen guest rooms.  There’s also a pool, a restaurant with a very diverse menu, and the reception / concierge desk is able to arrange for safaris to the nearby national park.  (But that’s for tomorrow.)

Our hotel seems to be the only structure on this hill.  The front entrance is majestic, and the drive continues through rice paddies on both sides.  I asked, and the rice is grown by people who live nearby, and just need the level ground for the paddies.  Plus it is rather picturesque for us tourists, the rice paddies full of statuesque herons and egrets.

When we arrived, the ballroom was absolutely jumping with a wedding reception.  This seems to be big business around here, with another wedding scheduled for tomorrow and a third on the day after.  The woman at reception took me to peek in, and the room was packed with women in gorgeous red and/or gold saris and evening gowns, men in silk shirts and slacks or dark suits.  It was beautiful, and looked as if everyone was having a fabulous time.  (Who doesn’t love a happy wedding party?)

By 4:30 or 5 PM, the guests were all gone and the place was quiet.  Birds came back to their favorite trees, and began to chirp.  The sun began to head toward the horizon, and we could feel the peace of this very relaxing, somewhat isolated hotel.  I saw a fairly big bright blue bird, and have no idea what it is, but I'll try to find out.  It might be an Indian roller, although it looked like a solid blue and the roller has a darker blue horizontal stripe on the wings. Some bright green parrots, a small bulbul with the distinctive punk rocker hair and a red tush (internet research says this is the red-vented bulbul).  Plus bright yellow orioles, with a black head and wings.  And we've been told that the peacocks come by in the early morning, or late afternoon.  I'll try to find one and hope it's willing to pose for me!

We got a call from the kitchen, and a young man came over with menus.  It turns out that we are the ONLY guests here for the first day (yesterday – more guests are coming today).  We had the entire resort to ourselves!  And their practice is to ask guests at about 6 PM what they would like for dinner.  That way the kitchen can prepare the food, and it is ready when the guests come to the restaurant an hour or so later.

Richard was happy to find pork and beef on the menu.  I was thrilled to order the Sri Lankan chicken curry.  This turned out to be a surprise dinner.  First, the waiter came out with a platter of rice.  I mean, a PLATTER.  Enough rice for two to four people, or two to four meals.  Four meals for me, two for a young athlete.  Maybe one meal for The Rock.  Seriously, probably a good four to six CUPS of rice!

Then a tray of bowls – a bowl of chicken curry (not a yellow curry, more of a thin tomato and onion sauce redolent with spices, similar to a chicken masala recipe that I make).  A bowl of yellow dhal.  A bowl of brinjal moju, the curried eggplant I love.  A bowl of curried green beans.  A bowl of curried radish.  A bowl of onion sambal – sambal being a cross between a condiment and a salad, it seems, to add to one’s curry and give it another dimension of taste and texture.  Oh, and a bowl of pappadam chips – I think pappadam are made of a bean flour, well seasoned, and shaped into thin rounds and baked or cooked on a flat griddle.  These were cut into triangles, like tortilla chips, and then cooked.

I told the waiters this was too much food, and they should join me and eat this!  Really, it was a feast for two or more people.  Though they assured me Sri Lankans would eat the entire meal.  I’m not convinced especially considering how tiny and slim most of the women are here.  The men aren’t large either.  But this was a whole lot of food, way more than I could eat.  So, I concentrated on my favorites (dhal, brinjal moju, and the chicken), and tasted the rest.  And I should have had my camera with me, to take a photo, it was that impressive!  But the camera had to charge up after our long drive.

I wanted to mention that it’s much easier for me to be adventurous with eating when foods are vegetarian.  My hesitation with new foods tends to be a fear of encountering some gross and disgusting animal part – I hate liver, I don’t want to see an eyeball or a paw in my food, and I truly am repulsed by the thought of eating any organs or insects.  Just, yuck!  But with a vegetarian cuisine, my only concerns are no mango or any of the evil one’s cousins.  The rest I’m happy to try.  And if I don’t like it, I just don’t eat all of it.  

Anyway.  (I seem to have a lot of sidebar comments today.)Today will be a rest and relax and adjustment day.  There are all kinds of birds up here in our hillside oasis, including wild peacocks.  The pool beckons.  Power is out at the moment (thankful for my laptop MacBook!), and I think maybe reading by the pool is the order of the day. 

But activity and adventures await.  I’ve booked two safari trips for tomorrow, one early morning and one late afternoon, to see the animals of the nearby national park.  We have a third day here, and some ideas of things to do.  But I don’t want to say too much, because I try to enjoy the here and now.  Part of the Zen of travelling, I guess.

Last note:  so that people can understand the density of population of Sri Lanka, the cities are like cities everywhere, teeming with people.  But this map really illustrates how crowded the countries of SE Asia are.  I mean, over HALF the world's population is crammed into the nations in this one little circle.  I find that mind-boggling.  And then to realize that there are national parks with elephants and leopards and monkeys within this tiny island nation, that's just as incredible and amazing!

More adventures tomorrow!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Adventures in Eating, Sri Lanka Style

20 January 2018

We've been having an interesting time in Colombo.  And yes, we're still here in the capital.  Because when you travel, well, life still happens.

My intrepid partner in travel, Richard, he of the strength of Samson, official schlepper of luggage, hurt his back.  And it hasn't gotten better with rest, or gentle exercise, or any of the normal things like aspirin.  So we finally found a good hospital here, and went in for a visit.  The ER doctor referred us to another doctor who sent for blood work and a series of MRIs - and all this occurred over several days.  The upshot is that yes, he has some back issues and we're working on finding proper care and all.

But the funniest part was when a nurse gave us directions to the lab for the blood draw.  "Go back to the atrium, and you will see a big Buddha.  The blood lab is right next to the Buddha."  

Yeah, when was the last time you saw a golden Buddha in your hospital?  And with the bloodwork lab right next to it?

Just struck me as funny.  (No, this Buddha statue isn't the one in the hospital.  It's along the coast road near our hotel.)

So we haven't been venturing too far, trying to let Richard's back heal on its own.

I heard drumming one morning, and looked out our window.  (We're on the 7th floor.)  Up the street there was a procession of people, in colorful robes, saris, and sarongs, with a person on a sedan chair, a chair with poles so other people are carrying them around.  And a blue umbrella.  It was bright and colorful and interesting.  I thought about running out, but I knew they'd be farther up the street by the time I took the elevator and went out, so I stayed at the window and tried to get some decent photos.

According to our hotel reception desk people, that day was Thai Poya, a festival celebrating the harvest, or possibly the first harvest of the season.  (This was one of those language problems we have sometimes.)  There are festivals for every full moon, and each one has a different name for the name of the month.

One person continued drumming, and the group moved rather slowly up the street.  Sometimes there would be people on the sidewalk, holding items that someone from the procession would go and accept from them.  Possibly offerings for the temple?  I don't really know.  But it was one of those interesting and colorful events that we often encounter on the road.

We found a great seafood restaurant at the end of Ramakrishna Road, complete with a random elephant statue in the sand.  There isn't a beach right here, just a rocky coastline.  But it was still nice to sit by the water and have spicy deviled shrimp.

Sri Lankan food is interesting.  Much of it is similar to south Indian food, which makes sense, we're just a few miles or kilometers away across the water.  Spicy and peppery, with a lot of rice and various flat breads or fried breads.

Our hotel includes a buffet breakfast, as well as more western food items like omelettes, scrambled eggs, baked beans (for the British Empire people), and a whole host of bakery items.  But I'm intrigued by the various Sri Lankan breakfast items, and I've been trying something new every day.  Easy to do, since the kitchen has a schedule so that they make different Sri Lanken food every morning of the week.

I'll admit that I'm a bit like Goldilocks - this one is too salty, that one is too sour, ah, this one is just right.  My rule is that I have one bite and decide.  If I really don't like it, I don't.  If I like it, I eat it.  If I really like it, I can have more.  Simple.

So, a couple of items were fermented dough items that I really didn't like: idly, which is a steamed bun, and dosa, which is more of a flat pancake or tortilla like thing.  The fermented dough is quite sour, stronger than sourdough bread.  And a few items were greasy, like the poori (also spelled puri), possibly from sitting a while before I ate it.

String hoppers are little pancakes made of rice flour vermicelli.  Meh, kind of boring.  I think they are usually eaten with the curry of the morning, but I haven't convinced my stomach to eat curry that early.

There are also different things made with rice, often rice cooked with coconut milk.  There's milk rice, which is cut in squares or bars.  And pittu, when the cooked rice is rolled into cylindrical shapes.  Both have a mild coconut taste, but I though they both were a bit too salty.  (One woman today spooned extra coconut milk on her pittu.  I didn't know to do that, she said she prefers it this way.)

Other items have been wonderful.  Aloo bonda is a little spicy potato fritter thing - potatoes are peeled and boiled, drained, then spices and some chili peppers are added, then partly mashed, rolled into balls, dipped into a batter, and deep fried.  Yummy!

Dhal vadai was also tasty - dhal is the lentil curry, so this was lentil patties that were seasoned and friend.  They tasted very similar to falafel, but with slightly different spices, or more chili peppers.  Really good little things!

Oh, and gnanakatha (pronounced sort of like nya-nah-KAH-tha) are amazing butter cookies.  Wonderful and rich, soft in the middle.  They're shaped sort of in mounds, and I think that's why they stay soft instead of getting crunchy.  One of my favorites, and almost always available.

Yesterday I tried upma, sometimes spelled upama.  This is a thick and spicy porridge made of semolina flour, but the way it is cooked it turns out more like the texture of couscous.  Seasoned with herbs and spices and, of course, chili peppers.  Also very tasty.  But many of these savoury items seemed like they'd be better later in the day, possibly for brunch, or lunch, or dinner.  My stomach wakes up slowly, and hot spicy foods for breakfast don't always sit well.  But I'm still happy to try these when I can.

Today's adventures in eating: at breakfast, I tried potato bhaji roti.  This is two thin whole wheat crusts with seasoned and spiced mashed potatoes in the middle.   And cut into wedges.  Think quesadilla with only this spicy mashed potato filling.  Very tasty.  Similar to a potato knish, if you've ever tried that.  (We both grew up eating knishes.)  But more spicy.

At lunch, I went back to our neighborhood veggie place and had the thali plate.  Thali is a (usually vegetarian) platter with small portions of a variety of curries, and rice and/or some of the southern Indian breads.  My platter (covered with banana leaf) had 10 small dishes, each with something different, and a few of the crispy bread-ish things in the center.  Then the waiter gave me some rice.  And every time I finished one of the little dishes, he wanted to bring me a refill!  It was all tasty, and some things I recognized - the yellow-beige thick things are dhal, which is spicy curried lentils - and there were two slightly different kinds.  There was a tomatoey thing.   And something spicy with eggplant.  The very green dish is spinach pureed with other stuff.  The very white is "curd" which is similar to yogurt.  And the other white thing was the dessert, called either payasam or seviyan kheer - basically, kind of like a runny rice pudding but with rice vermilli, and a few raisins, and maybe some orange peel.  Oh, the little red thing is the pickle - smelled wonderful, like spicy pickled orange maybe - but I dipped my fork in the liquid and it tasted like pure salt, so I skipped that.  (Each metal bowl is about a half cup, so some of the items were barely a quarter of a cup of whatever the food item was.)

The people at the next table were laughing, because I was obviously confused.  I told them I was experimenting.  So they came over and told me what was what, and which items go with the bread and what items go with the rice.   Apparently you don't get those mixed up!

It was great fun - and I could not eat it all!!!   Oh, and I was maybe the only person in the restaurant eating with a fork and spoon.  The proper way to eat it all is with your right hand.  I'm not good with rice, though.  

Richard and I also really like Gobi 65 - this is cauliflower florets dipped into a liquidy mixture full of spices and chili pepper, and then deep fried.  SO good, absolutely the best way ever to eat cauliflower!

Okay, enough about the wonderful food here.   Our hotel also has interesting paperwork that is framed and hung on the walls in the stairways and lobby.  I've been analyzing these, and at first I thought they were intricate papercuts.  But they really look more like strips of paper or some kind of material like paper that is laid out in the pattern, most likely while wet.  Almost all seem to be in two layers, so I'd guess maybe one layer is made on glass, then a second almost matching layer is made, and the two are put together to give this interesting composition more depth and greater shadows.  I don't know, and I'm trying to get more information about this art form.  I'd like to know if this is a traditional art, how it is done, all of that.

We've made arrangements for a trip to the interior, with a visit to a national park to see the animals, some time in the hills in the tea plantation region, and then a third town for a big religious festival.  It should be fun and exciting, we'll have three to four days in each location, and then we'll come back to Colombo.  We'll be on the road for ten days, but should have wifi to blog with stories about our adventures, maps, and of course lots of photos.

So stay tuned!