Friday, January 12, 2018

Tea, Temples, Tuktuks

12 January 2018

We're in Sri Lanka!  It conjures up such romantic and mysterious images, doesn't it?  One of those countries and cultures that we don't know much about, that just sounds so exotic and different.

And in some ways, it is.

The city of Colombo is divided up into sections or districts.  We're in District 6, which is on the coast and somewhat near the central business district.  If we look out of our north windows, we see the CBD and the Lotus Tower, which is about 350 or so meters tall.  We're too far away to really see the colors and the lotus blossom shape of it - most of the time, there's too much pollution in the air to see the purple petals on the bulge.  But it definitely dominates the Colombo skyline.

Sri Lanka is located just east of the southern tip of India, at 7 degrees north of the equator.  Formerly known as Ceylon, the anglicized name, the island nation is 25,330 square miles (65,610 sq km) - about 8 times the size of Puerto Rico, or 25 times the size of Rhode Island.  Close in size to the nations of Georgia or Lithuania.  Just a bit smaller than Ireland.  So, not very big.

The weather is warm, but because we're right on the coast there is always a nice breeze which makes the days feel not so hot, and cools down the evenings.  Really very pleasant weather.  Thus far, the only rain has been at night.  This coastal region is also very flat, which makes for easy walking.

Sri Lanka has one of the coolest flags ever.  I know, I said something similar about the Seychellois flag.  But seriously, this flag has a LION!  Holding a sword!  So of course I had to find out about the flag.  The lion is considered a lion passant or a lion guardant in heraldic symbols - it is standing on three feet, in a guard position.  (As opposed to a lion statant, with all four feet on the ground, or a lion rampant, meaning rearing up on its hind feet.) 

According to the Sri Lanka Library website, the current flag is based on the civil standard of the last king of Sri Lanka, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha.  The British conquered Sri Lanka in 1815 and raised the British flag, but when Sri Lanka regained independence in 1948, the original flag was once again hoisted.

The current flag was redesigned in 1950 to incorporate symbols from the major and minor ethnic groups of the nation.  The lion represents the Sinhala people, while the four bo leaves in the corners around the lion represent Buddhism.  (The bo leaves are also known as bodhi leaves, the tree which the Buddha sat under to meditate and reach enlightenment.)  The sword indicates the sovereignty of the nation.  The vertical orange stripe represents the Tamil people, while the green vertical stripe represents the Muslims of the country.  And the yellow border represents all the other minority ethnicities, while the maroon background represents the minority religions in Sri Lanka.

Even the curly hair and the wavy tail have symbolism in this flag.  For more information, check here: 

There are about 21 million people living in Sri Lanka, comprised of many different ethnic groups. However, most of the people are either Sinhalese (Buddhist, comprising 73% of the population), or Tamil (Hindu, and 17% of the population).  There are also Muslims and Christians, but in smaller numbers.

Sinhala, Tamil and English are all officially recognized languages.
  This makes the road signs and building signs interesting to read!  I think the topmost language is Sinhala, since this is the majority of the people here.  The next would be Tamil, and then English is the bottom language.  Sinhala and Tamil are both very curvy and curly, but according to what I've read online, they originate from different other written languages and thus really are quite different.  (Of course, the sign photo here is for a building, and English is the top language on that.)  Sinhala originates from Indo-Aryan languages and sounds more like Hindi, while Tamil is a Dravidian language and sounds more like Malayalam.  (Dravidian is the language grouping that encompasses some of the South Indian and SouthEast Asian languages.  And the term Dravidian comes from Sanskrit.  Now we know.)

Of course, to our ears and eyes, these two different languages aren't distinguishable from each other.  So we are fortunate that English is the common language for all of us.

Most people wear western clothing, but we also see women in saris, or long tunics with slacks underneath.  We also see men in sarongs, although here I believe these are called kambaya.  Supposedly one can tell whether someone is Tamil or Sinhala by the traditional clothing, but we're clueless about this.  However, we also see some men and women in the long robes and hijabs, so we're fairly sure they are Muslim.

Food is always interesting in a new country.  Due to the major religious dietary laws, pork and beef are hard to find.  Chicken bacon or chicken sausage or even chicken pepperoni are available.  Sri Lankan food is in some ways similar to Indian food - spicy, curried, with rice, and very often vegetarian or vegan.  I've had delicious biryani, and dal over rice, and vegetable samosas.  As in many hot climates, hot chile peppers seem to be common in many of the savory items, and chile pepper paste is the main condiment.

Our hotel includes breakfast, featuring many Sri Lankan brekkie items.  I make it a point to try something new each day, although my stomach isn't quite ready for dal or curries first thing in the morning.  Today I tried coconut roti, which is sort of a dry griddle cake somewhat like a Scottish oatcake.  Quite tasty!  I don't remember all of the names - one item was a steamed sourdough (fermented) roll, and another looked vaguely like a bagel but was quite oniony.  (Some items only get one bite.  But at least I'm trying them.)  

My favorite new lunch food is brinjal moju which is curried eggplant!  Not curried with the yellow sauce.  I think this qualifies as a dry curry, where the vegs are sauteed with the dry spices for zest and flavor, and there isn't much of a sauce.  SO good!

I had to ask at breakfast today, there was an item called "string hoppers."  It sounded like some kind of insect, but looked like little rounds of stringy noodles.  Turns out that yes, these are steamed small pancakes that are rice noodle vermicelli.  There were white ones and beige ones.  I may have to try them next time I see them.

And of course there is the ever-present tea, one of Sri Lanka's major exports.  This tiny nation produces more tea than anywhere else, about 23% of the tea that we drink all around the world.  So I'm loving the tea every morning!  (Sri Lankan tea is mostly grown without pesticides, making it some of the cleanest tea in the world as well.)

Our hotel is located on Ramakrishna Road - as one of our friends said, this probably has good karma.  We're right by the Ramakrishna Mission, and around the corner from a Hindu temple.  (I recognize Ganesh on the front.  He's always my signal for a Hindu temple.)  So I'm guessing we're in a Tamil neighborhood, but, well, we don't really know.

We've been walking around to explore our neighborhood, but we've also ridden tuktuks which are the main taxi vehicle in Colombo.  We first encountered tuktuks in Thailand - supposedly the name comes from the sound these little motors make, tuk-tuk-tuking their way up inclines.  The front is something like a motorcycle, with one wheel.  The back is something like a rickshaw, a seating area on two wheels pulled along by the front.  The whole thing is enclosed to look like a tiny roofed bumper car.  And the steering?  More like the motorized wheelchair carts I used in the supermarket right after my knee surgery - forget about a steering wheel, this is more like bicycle handlebars with forward and backward switches.  The whole thing is something like a carnival ride.

And the roads!  Traffic is insane and never-ending.  There are cars, trucks, buses, tractors, with tuktuks and motorscooters darting around the bigger vehicles.  Traffic lanes are marked but seem to be taken as possible suggestions of where you might think about driving.  Two-lane roads?  Eh, drive on either side, weave back and forth, it's okay.  Whoever beeps their horn first seems to have the right of way.  

Fortunately, there are crosswalks.  One might have to wait a few minutes for the light to change so that we pedestrians can cross the street (four lanes in twelve seconds) - but at least the traffic stops for the red lights.

People are very friendly.  We've had lunch at a number of local places, and people (clients as well as the staff) ask where we are from, what do we think of Sri Lanka, do we like the food, on and on.  At one little café, the cashier came and sat at our table to chat with us, and several of the wait staff crowded around to listen in.  This cashier told Richard he looked like the handsome hero of "Fast and Furious" the movie - I think he meant Vin Diesel!  We had a good laugh about this!  (And he really doesn't look like Vin Diesel.)

It's busy, it's a little insane, it's colorful, and we definitely feel like we're back in Asia!

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