“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Saturday, April 19, 2008

5 Things I love about Sri Lanka

5 Reasons I really love Sri Lanka

1. It’s tropical.
How can you not love the endless greenery and lushness especailly when it brings forth things like frogs in the shower, leaping lizards, and a temperature suited to sandals and summer. Okay, the consistent infernal sweating isn't so great, but that's why there is the hill country to escape to. Mosquitoes are also a downer. Did you know they truly love my thighs?

2. The friendly people.
Everyone wants to know where I'm from (they love NZ cricket!) and where I'm going (a bit more intrusive), and whether I need help (no so plesant). But the key here--they go away! Where else can I feel as confident as a single female explorer that they are truly genuine people, although I've also never felt like such a bitch for my rudeness.

3. It has beaches.
Ah glorious tropical oceans! White sand, black sand, snorkellign, surfing, whales, dolphins, diving. Even the tanks they have as local lakes for swimming in. What other country offers your lady's eye so many of the male population's sumptious tanned god-like muscles and shapely shoulders for your undie-clad, belt-off perusal?

4. It has history.
No other tropical place has so many and so different ancient cities and monuments from different eras. Also, it has been significant in history: from Queen Elizabeth II’s house to ancient mildew buildings, antique furniture, the colonial feeling to being a WWII base.

5. Tea!!!
Just how I like it—milky, and well brewed without bitterness. It’s locally grown on historical bungalow style plantations. If anywhere was the home of tea, this is. It’s Ceylon after all, they named tea after this place. Earl Grey, Lipton, they all got their starts from English lords here!

If that doesn't convince you, there's always the shopping opportunities for batiks and wood carvings, with not too many touts to annoy you. There are not many tourists and it isn't crowded like India can be. The food is great, similar to Indian. It is the center of the world (look at it on a map!) with a Mediterranean feel (the Portuguese established the lovely tiled roofs, for example). It’s Buddhist but they have religious diversity and a semblance of respect despite war, although of course they, like us all, could do a better job.

Just to be fair, it's not perfect. Here are some things that I didn't
1. War and therefore intolerance
2. Poverty
3. Far away & isolated (yet it’s the center of the world!)
4. An island at the end of the world
5. I can’t go everywhere
6. Some prices are high

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

To the Ancient Cities and the North!

On Tuesday I had a long drive - around 9 hours. I went from the coast in the south (Mirissa) up through tea country (just gorgeous, but it was a tiny mountain road) past the Sinharaja Forest National Park. It's rather romantic seeing all the signs for the tea estates... they mention their bungalows and I was dying to just pop in and have a cuppa looking over the hills (see pic). There are rest houses everywhere in Sri Lanka and they also convey a colonial mentality, except they're all mid-range hotels now and quite lovely places to stay, always in the best spot in town of course! We passed through Ratnapura, where I grabbed a quick bite, then we kept on driving up to Kandy.

I'm sad that I couldn't do Kandy more justice. I didn't even see the Tooth Relic, but then, no one ever sees it as it's just the house that it's in that you visit. Kandy is the mountain city--it took quite a strong British force to conquer it (and the Dutch and Portuguese never succeeded) (see street pic). One thing that was amazing... monkeys crossing the road. There are monkeys everywhere in Sri Lanka. Mischeivious, dastardly little things that can scare the daylights out of me! But it was getting late in the afternoon and I still had a ways to go so I went north to Sigiriya, but stopped at Aluvihara and Nelanda.
Aluvihara was a rock temple--the ancient Buddhists really used the rocks they had in the most "back to earth" way. This one was particularly memorable for it's carvings of evil and sinners, which just sounds too catholic to be true, but there you go. I remember brains being scooped out by demons, and a man being ripped apart by his legs. Just lovely... all in comic cartoon like 3D sculpture!!
Nalanda was an old temple, much like the many in Bagan, but it was in a beautiful setting near a tank... the tanks were everywhere. They're basically dams built since the biblical times for local water storage. Picturesque, smart, and make lovely ponds for fishing in!!


Sigiraya - amazing!!! Did you know there was a big rock temple/fortress/palace high on an eroded extinct volcanic plug in the middle of Sri Lanka? It is truly spectacular! (see pic)Depending on which legend you wish to follow it has either been an ancient monastery for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism for millenium, or one king (King Kassapa AD477-495) decided he wanted a secure place to hide after being attacked continuously at his other city, Anuradhapura. I would like to be THAT big of guy! It was huge, with wonderful views over the tropical plains, and of course, to make it that much more perfect, it had a giant lion guarding the gates, but you can only see his paws now. They were twice the size of me, at least. The rock also had exotic rock paintings of exotic women (painted by men, no doubt, because their boobs were so(unrealistically) bountiful, round and perky.
..............Long break................. okay, I just tried to add a picture of these lovely ladies and discovered that I've managed to corrupt the files from most of Sigiriya, certainly all of the rock paintings and all of my time on top. I am incredibly bummed about this. I'm so bummed and it's also so late on Saturday night (and I fly to Yangon early tomorrow morning) that I'll have to finish this another time. So, interesting wedding party, Dambulla (monkey) caves, Polonaruwa, Anuradhapura... that'll be for next time.
June 12, 2008

I'm back to update this...

The edge of Sigiriya has the feet of a giant lion--such a neat thing to create. If ever I reincarnate as a giant temple builder, that's what I'll create! On top of Sigiriya I bumped into a wedding party from England. What a great idea for a place to have a wedding trip. It's unlikely that most would go there otherwise. I think that'll have to be how I have my wedding!!

After Sigiriya I went to Damballa caves. They're these ancient caves with Buddhist paintings and statues inside. However, I must say that despite these sacridities (a word?) myself (and most locals) spent more time looking at the monkeys than at the sites. They were everywhere and showed some of the bad attributes that humans have--jealousy, grabbing/snatching, stealing, growling and biting!!

After a reasonably short drive, I was at another ancient city, Polonaruwa. This was an area of flat land near one of the amazing tanks that the ancient peoples built (basically they're dams, but are feats of engineering in terms of water management). I can't say that Polonaruwa had any one amazing item, but in combination the sheer number of buildings shows just how amazing the ancient peoples were. I did watch a lovely sunset though, with some more fabulous tea in the state hotel overlooking the tank. It's the same place that Queen Elizabeth the Second stayed when she was there.

They had a fantastic museum in Polonoruwa. It was small enough that you could get through in a timely manner, but laid out in a really logical way. They basically divided up the ancient city into parts, then showed the archaeological finds they had from each place, along with miniature models and photographs. I loved it, but sadly, no photos were allowed. :(


After a mixup with the park guards (they stamped the wrong date on the ticket), we drove to the third and last ancient city, Anuradhapura. On the way (after a brief encounter with some elephants in a river), we stopped at the ancient site of Mihintale, which had several Buddhist monuments including the giant mounds, an ancient tree, payas, and caves of prophets.

I had a terrible map of Anuradhapura, so I ended up visiting an out of the way place, not realizing it was a major place. The sheer size of Anuradhapura and the rolling fields of rooms and houses and buildings surrounded by grass park area and trees is what was so amazing. There were a several sacred mounds as well, but I really don't think they're all that picturesque (although they are phenomenal from an achitechtural standpoint considering that one was the second highest man-made monument in the world after the pyramids until the 1800s). A long drive home summed up my trip. I had such a great time, and it really is one of my favorite countries now!

Oh, and by the way, after a few months I discovered that I had not deleted the photos off the original drive, so I actually didn't lose all my photos. Yay!!

See more photos here:


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sri Lanka plans

Rachi recommends:

Kandy/Dalada Maligawa
Pinnawala elephant orphanage
sandy beaches

Colm recommends:
Kandy by overnight moonlit train
Shopping in Colombo--Barefoot, Paradise Rd, Odel

Making plans for Sri Lanka was something that I put off and when I had barely 20 minutes left of my flight, I realized that I just wouldn't get there. Anyway, it didn't matter because I knew where I was sleeping that night. Thank you Liz Dent!! An old colleague/friend from Kuwait had wonderfully offered me her home and hospitality. Wasn't it funny for her in the staff room that morning to discover that a colleague of hers also had an old student coming in that night! Wait: it was the same person: me! What a small world we live in!

The Burt-Mahons and Liz toured me around Colombo to all the spots--Galle Face Road, Gallery Cafe, and Odel (many other choices were shut for the new year), and I was surprised by the security everywhere. This time, what with the corniche and the road blocks, I felt like I was in Beirut!

On Sunday, I joined the Burts on their family vacation to Mirissa in the south--lovely beaches, and amazing to see all the developments since the Tsunami (honestly, if it had been Burma, it would truly have been a tragedy because they'd never have recovered... idly, I wonder how Banda Aceh's doing?). It was a pretty hair-raising drive. Small roads do have their drawbacks no matter how good they are!

I want a house in Galle old city! The fort town was just lovely--similar to Morocco's Essaouira but more gently and less pedestrian based. Once in Mirissa, had a seafood BBQ and a lovely swim, I was set!! The sand was very pervasive--every crevice filled, eyes included! Amazing to see tankers passing in front (did you know they used to WALK elephants across from India, because it's that shallow?) and even more so to know that they are frolicking with the whales there (or the whales with them).

Next step: rent a driver for the ancient cities!

Friday, April 11, 2008


Colombo was what I expected Colombia to be like. I'm not really sure why I got that connection, but it may have been the soldiers and checkpoints at the airport!! I also didn't expect Colombia to be as prosperous as it was, what with my South East Asia background. Before I came, I knew/had heard of Adam's Peak and World's End (but really, I thought they were the same thing, so I don't know if it counts). I knew about the beaches and diving and the Tsunami of course. I knew probably more than most about the LTTE (internal ethnic rebel group), but didn't really know details. I'd even been to Colombo in transit (on my way to Kenya via Dubai, 1998), though to be honest, I remember more about another expat in Manila talking about her transit in Delhi than I remember about Colombo (she whinged about how the lovely people at Delhi airport came onto the plane and using a metal detector homed in on the gold rings in her suitcase and made them miraculously disappear).

Sitting on national airlines is so interesting! The stewardesses are (usually) the REAL people (the real beauties, and of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder). I noticed unusual skull shapes, dark skin and lovely wholesome features. The men are also interesting. I'm always interested/annoyed to discover how they chat (i.e. are they being friendly or trying to pick me up). The nouveau rich one who sat next to me with his daughter (the other side had VERY bad B.O.) only wanted to talk about cricket! That was when he wasn't standing up during take off to click pictures of his daughter with his mobile phone!

Three things I learned on the plane (from the airline magazine)! They make lace!! There are stork-like fisherman in the south (men fish from stakes-very picturesque at sunset). They make tea! Well, I'm sure you're saying, "Of course, duh, Natalya!" and really, I did know this before, but it's one thing to know, and another to apply that knowledge. The last thing I realized (made the connection), was that it's right next to the Maldives. If anyone knows her world-map geography, it's me, but again, connections!! And Camilla is right now sailing from there to the Red Sea, so of course I was surprised it was so close.

An easy arrival at the airport, and it was a pretty fancy, recently-done-up place (a big indicator!!). The duty-free was also a big teller. It was a walk through mall, except the mall had stores of everything. I always feel like I should buy in cases like these because I've lived in places where this type of duty free was always a must-visit. I often have to wonder what it's like to be a local at times like this. What's it like to often sit in that transit lounge, what's it like to come down those stairs jet-lagged or with a ton of hand-carry luggage (a frequent occurrence for me!). As I moved through, I took a turn and thought I'd gone the wrong way--there were no crowds, well, no people at all!!

It was a cross between Myanmar and Manila... not quite up to the over-perfection of manicured glitziness that is Bangkok. Cars were older. There were no street lights. Roads were decent. I like that hand-painted number-plate! Things have been allowed to fade a little. There are wires that little bit askew (in bunches of at least 10). Signs are less ritzy, less perfect. Ah, an old bus in many colors--that's familiar. No malls, no lights. What's that? Rain!! After the obnoxiously stifling heat in Bangkok it's refreshing, but I am glad it's outside! Tint on the windows--that reminds me: on Wednesday, Aung was telling me on the bus home from school that apparently that's how you can tell who's someone special in Yangon (they have "stickers" on the windows; it just took me a while to figure out what "stickers" meant!).

My pre-conceived notions of the south-Asian continent were dashed: where were the vibrant colors and more important, where were all the people? Shock of all shocks--it's orderly and quite quaint! No Indian crowds, yet this island the size of Ireland has 20 million. There was no sign of extreme poverty (although I'm sure someone coming from Europe or the West would disagree, but I'm coming from Burma!). I'm sure it's there, however!

With its simple 1 lane highway and one to three story houses, well, this could be NZ! But wait! Where to park! And what's that? A tuk-tuk! We (NZ) would also have space between the buildings (and between the buildings and the road) and nice manicured lawns. The parking barriers--what a traffic hazzard!

But I was more than excited! This is what makes my soul sing! I needed my new-country fix. After all, the last was Colombia and that was last June! I need to get my pristine money (a collection). I need an opportunity to make constant annoying connections to places I've lived. Somehow, Sri Lanka is exotic. Why? Who knows? Well, it's obviously fascinating or I wouldn't be here.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I haven't posted for a while... now I'm going crazy. I wrote notes on all sorts of things that I wanted to say, but of course have forgotten the drive that made me want to write about them. Anyway, life update:

I am moving to Azerbaijan in August-woohoo. One obscure place to another. My friends in Myanmar insist that it is a good fit with my personality. I'm stressing about the technicalities of moving right now though.

Summer... ah what plans!! Dubai? The US for Kara's wedding? Central America? Switzerland? Alsace in France? The train to Belarus? A dig? Norway? Ladakh? I have some decisions to make.

But now: To Sri Lanka. Tomorrow I fly to Colombo to reconnect with old friends and teachers (Hello Burts!!) and to see that beautiful country. As another NZ friend in Myanmar said, "Ah, it was lovely. It was chaos! Now I'm back in this chaos! I think I prefer this chaos to that chaos!" I am excited!! :) More news to come.

Bangkok Aerobics

Earlier this evening, I left my bag on the bed, tucked all my money and my room key into my bra and hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi to try out the Thai phenomenon: group sports. The taxi driver misunderstood Lumpini Park (the Park) as Lumbini Park (an appartment complex), but after a detour to the same place twice, we were on the right route. What a hair-raising journey! The driver warned me to tuck my knees in--and I was very concious of the fact that not a bit of fabric was protecting them as I sucked in for car mirrors and doors, people, taxis, and cars. We wove in and out trying to beat the traffic, and almost came close a couple of times to some grazed knees--what an injury to explain! Very vulnerable but exciting! I got to the park, had a jog, and then I found them: 100 or so women doing aerobics in the park! The tourists come and take pictures of their craziness, but I must admit it makes so much more sense than being cramped in a small room with mirrors. So I huffed and puffed and likely turned as red as a watermelon. The sun slowly descended behind the high rises and the traffic built up as rush hour progressed around us. The sky turned a beautiful blue and the city lights came on above the trees. After it was done, I wandered back through the park -- in what other major cities could you be in a park after dark?! -- and caught another motorcycle taxi back home again. This one had no speedometer (I checked), but we were going fast enough that if there had been a crash, there would have been serious damage done. I simply closed my eyes and felt the wind rush past, and smiled at the tourists in the taxi next to me. I closed my eyes and emphasized my faith. Not necessarily faith in the driver, or in the motorbike, or in the traffic around me, or in the laws of Thailand to ensure that drivers' licensing is safe and sufficient, but in life. I really enjoy feeling that faith. It's not faith that I'm going to live (or die). It's just faith that what will be will be. It's faith in fate. If I am meant to crash, so be it, but I will have faith that things have their purpose and it all happens for a reason.

Okay, a bit too psychological there. But have you ever just let go like that?

A good day

I had such a great day. The spirits were with me today! I got everything done that I planned to do, with almost no hiccups!! Or if there were hiccups, it still all happened.

I needed a signature for the certification paperwork, and Hayley was great enough to help while I was on my way to the airport. So even though my plane was late, I made it to the embassy. So even though I caught them in the middle of lunchtime, they told me it was fine and that I could come back--sure enough I got the visa I needed in record time. The hotel I wanted had a booking. I posted the letters I needed to post. I got to do the aerobics I wanted to do--and it was fun too: in the park at sunset. So even though there were no decent movies playing, I bought the two random things (very unusual items) I was looking for. So even though all the restaurants at Siam Paragon were closing, I got the taco/wrap that I was craving.
I'm sure none of this makes sense to anyone but me, but basically, despite adversity, I succeeded and it feels good!