Saturday, February 10, 2018

Year of the Dog, Three Years of the Cat

10 February 2018

We're back in Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur.  The  Chinese New Year begins on 16 February, and it will be the Year of the Dog.

But the last time we were in KL, late November / early December 2014, I helped mother a lost little tiny kitten.  The short version is that he somehow got into a hollow pillar in the dining room of the hotel where we were staying.  He was rescued (through a removed electric outlet), and raised by the hostess for the dining room.  For about a week or two, I gave him his post-breakfast bottle, then snuggled him as he napped, or played with him when he felt feisty.

And then we left for Vietnam.  After very heartfelt good-byes to Comel the cat (pronounced cha-MELL) as well as all the kitchen and dining room staff, who all became friends with me as I helped feed the baby cat.

For anyone who wants to read his whole story, here are the links:

The kitty is lost:

The kitty is found:

Breakfast with the kitty:

Continuing kitty:


Saying good-bye to the kitty and kitchen crew:

What can I say, I'm a cat person.  (In case you couldn't tell.)

Anyway, that particular hotel was booked for our arrival dates, so we're staying at the slightly more posh sister hotel on the other side of the intersection.  I figured I'd go over to our original hotel to find out what is going on with my kitty buddy Comel and his mother Anna.

We arrived exhausted, since our flight left Sri Lanka at 7:30 AM (meaning arrive at the airport no later than 5:30 AM), so we went to the restaurant down in the lobby of our hotel for a bite of dinner.

And the new dining room hostess?  Yes, Anna the kitty mother!

She looked up and recognized me instantly, just as I had recognized her.  Before I had a chance to say more than "good evening," she had whipped out her phone and said, "You must see pictures of Comel, he is all grown now!"  He has turned into a gorgeous big grey cat, and apparently is quite pampered and maybe even spoiled - he was posing regally for several photos, and looked very happy with his life.  "My husband!" said Anna, proudly, and she and I laughed.

So my little baby cat buddy Comel is doing well and is well taken care of, and his adopted mother continues to adore him.  Don't you love a happy ending to the story?  I always do!

And back in Malaysia!  It almost feels like a second home, although of course there have been changes in the past three years and a couple of months.  The bus station next door no longer has as many vendors - that was always a good spot for a quick meal, but the many shops and stands are no longer there.  The city has grown and there are more tall buildings on the skyline, though the KL Tower and the Petronas Towers still dominate.  

And many places are the same.  Our favorite local/Indian restaurant still serves wonderful biryani, though in Malaysia it's call briyani.  The market is still down the road, and I'll get there to do some batiks.  (Plus the dramatic thunderstorms are the same!)

Every place is gearing up for the Chinese New Year, hotels and shops are decorated with Year of the Dog signs.  Most are cutesy, as in dogs in Chinese clothing.  Or cartoony, in a very juvenile kind of way.

But one shop had a really great sign with a very Chinese style dog complete with chrysanthemums and all.  I asked if it would be okay to take a photo of the sign, because this was the best dog I had seen.  The young man said yes, no problem.  After I had finished with my photos, he then handed me a package with five envelopes that had the same dog, in reverse.  I thanked him very much, it was a lovely gift - and I think these are the kind of envelopes you put money in for gifts to people for the New Year.  (The sign said you get this packet if you buy something in the store for 200 ringgit or more.  I guess being a friendly traveller was close enough.)

Our hotel has red pussywillow for the New Year - and yes, the stems are rather red, so these are normal grey pussywillow steeped in red water to dye the fuzzy buds red.  (I'd have thought they'd just go with red flowers, but I guess pussywillow is seen as a late winter/early spring flower?  Though you'd think seasonal flowers wouldn't change much here, we're 3 degrees north of the equator.)

The supermarkets and grocery stores have lion dancer Happy New Year signs.  Even Coca Cola has a special Happy New Year (or maybe good fortune for the New Year) cans!

Not everyone who is Chinese is celebrating the Chinese New Year.  Malaysia is an interesting mix of people - there are the Malay and Bumiputera people, the original inhabitants along with some other smaller ethnic groups; the Chinese and Indians who came and stayed during various kingdoms; and Europeans arriving during the great age of exploration, colonizing and then centuries later leaving.  Malaysians are rather mixed ethnically, although most of these groups have retained their distinct cultures adding to the broader Malaysian culture.  Just as Deepavali (Diwali) is celebrated by more than the Hindu Malaysians, and Christmas is celebrated by more than the Christian Malaysians, so too is the Chinese New Year celebrated by more than Chinese Malaysians.

We're hoping for fireworks.  We've been told that there aren't big organized fireworks displays.  That families celebrate the New Year within the home. 

We're hoping that those families have some fireworks stashed away to fire off into the night on 16 February!  So that we too can help celebrate the Year of the Dog!  (Rather ironic, though, considering how many poor dogs are terrified by fireworks.)

Richard is working on his dentist visits (and the dentist recognized us), and finding a good neurologist to get a second opinion on his back.  Plus finding a physical therapy facility.  We'll be in KL for a while, it seems.

Good thing there's so much to do, and that we like this city so much!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sometimes Good Karma

6 February 2018

These photos are from our hotel - they have wonderful black and white photos of Sri Lankan sites and arts and crafts all around the hotel.  My apologies to the original photographer(s), since none of the photos include names.

Yesterday morning, I had an interesting conversation with one of the waiters at breakfast.  Richard and I have a favorite table that we like to sit at - near a window so we can see out, not too close to the air conditioner but not near the door to the smoking area, all that.  (I know, I feel like Sheldon in "Big Bang.")  I came down for brekkie, but the table was occupied.  So I got my watermelon and chose another table.  But then the people left, and our friendly waiter cocked his head to our table.  I nodded, and moved my watermelon as he cleared and reset the table for us.

So I smiled and said that I often have good karma this way.  He looked startled, and said "You know about karma??"  I explained that I was a child of the 60s, that the Beatles visited India and came back to the western world and shared concepts like karma and other ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism.  (Seemed like the simple and quick explanation.)  The guy said that in Hindu, "karma" means destiny.  But that in Singhala (which is the language of the Buddhist people in Sri Lanka), "karma" means more.  I said that my understanding was that karma means the intention and the actions that you put out into the world, which then comes back to you according to what you put out there.  That there is a balance to how you act and what you receive.  That that balance is karma.  He looked even more surprised, and said that yes, that is karma in the Singhala perception.  I said that I thought that dharma is more like one's destiny, which is influenced by one's karma.  And he agreed again.  Then commented that he was just very surprised to have me talking about karma and dharma, and understanding the Singhalese point of view.

Well, I'm not sure my karma is holding.

We were supposed to fly to the Maldives today.  We had our plane tickets booked and organized, we booked a hotel for four days in the capital, MalĂ©, and we identified several places on other islands that we thought we might book once we were there.

I don't know how much info the US has re the political situation in the Maldives. It's all rather confusing and hard to follow. For some reason, the President had some twelve or so Members of Parliament of the opposition majority thrown in jail on charges that were basically either fake or immaterial. The Supreme Court ruled against this and said these MPs should be freed. The Attorney General backed the President and wouldn't let them out. The Supreme Court ordered the police to free these people, but the President has fired two police chiefs in three days. On Monday morning, the President called back all military to the capital, suspended Parliament, and by Tuesday morning the military had taken over Parliament building. 

The nice hotel we innocently booked turns out to be 1 km from the government house, and 3/4 of a km (less than half a mile) from the Parliament.

And people are demonstrating against both sides, calling for impeachments, fighting the police or each other, all over the capital.

You can just picture how we were feeling, right?

I spent Monday morning cancelling our flights and getting a refund.  Then cancelling the hotel and getting a refund.  Booking a flight to where we've been talking about going to next, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  Finding out our fave hotel there was all booked up, but their slightly more posh sister hotel half a block away has room, and booking that for 11 days. mThen booking our cheaper, less posh, but homier hotel for the following 10 days.  Getting all the paperwork organized, and booking one more night here in Sri Lanka - except I booked the wrong night and had to Skype the toll-free number of the online booking agent to straighten that out.  (Only because I explained the political situation to the guy who answered, and he could tell that I was a bit frazzled at that point.   It was a nonrefundable rate, but he cancelled and refunded it, and re-booked the correct dates for me.   Such a nice guy!)

Tickets and hotel reservations printed and packed away.  Itinerary and contact info sent to all of our brothers.  Clothes all packed.   We will leave on Wed., and arrive in KL.  And look for another dr for Richard who can prescribe physical therapy while we're there.  Also, he can see his dentist there. (He has favorite dentists in a few spots.)  I can also go do some batiks in the central market.  We'll be happy, and our hotels are incredibly inexpensive. 

That was our crazy Monday morning.  Today, Tuesday, the situation in the Maldives has gotten worse.  Some of the Supreme Court justices have been arrested and jailed.  The previous president, who was in exile, and is a member of the opposition to the current president, returned and was arrested.  And get this - he is the half-brother of the current president!

The current president has called for a 15-day state of emergency, ostensibly to investigate the situation with all of these jailed politicians and what he is now calling an attempted coup.  (Which is quite confusing, since he's the one who had these politicians thrown in jail, as well as called for all the military to return to the capital.) 

So while we both were looking forward to the Maldives, we're happy to avoid what is rapidly turning into political turmoil. We'd rather avoid martial law and curfews, which I'm sure will be the next step.

I never paid so much attention to the political situation in small nations until we started travelling!  

So off to Kuala Lumpur in the early morning!  I hope to check on my little buddy Comel (pronounced chah-MELL in Malay), the little tiny lost kitten I helped care for the last time we were in KL.

I also wanted to include some information about our hotels in Sri Lanka, since they really were great places.  We booked through since we get a free night for every ten nights stayed anywhere - but these are the names and links directly to the hotel's websites.

In Colombo, the Fair View Hotel has been great - comfortable, clean, reasonable prices, friendly staff, and a great breakfast.  They have other hotels on the coast, but we never got there.  I'd probably like them too.  Anyway, the Fair View:

In Godakawale, we stayed at the OwinRich Resort - again, comfortable, affordable, clean, and helpful staff.  They organized my trips for the safari through the national park as well as the visit to the Elephant Transit Home.  Totally recommend them, and in hindsight, it would have been a good place to stay and take day trips throughout the area.  Their website seems to be acting up, but here is their Facebook page: and the link:

In Kandy, we stayed at the Residence Rivora.  It's a truly lovely place, a bit outside the city but I like the quiet of not being right in the middle of downtown.  Nice staff, comfortable room, and really great decor - very Italianate!

Okay, packing to finish and an early wake up.  Tomorrow, Kuala Lumpur!!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Rolling on the Rails of Sri Lanka

4 February 2018

Today is National Day in Sri Lanka, the day that 70 years ago the country was once again free from British rule.  This is a big celebration as people fly the Sri Lankan flag and watch military parades.

We're not so into the military part, but we did see lines of Navy ships on the coast sailing up to the downtown harbor area of Colombo.  And then Air Force squadrons flew overhead.  Definitely a show of military strength.

But we enjoyed the tuktuks and businesses and homes all flying the flag, and I think everyone can appreciate independence and national pride.  (Though we were hoping for fireworks, but that isn't part of the celebration.)

So, last week on Monday we left Kandy, heading back to Colombo.  Our original plan was to arrive in Colombo and take a taxi to Kelaniya, a town maybe 7 km (4 to 5 miles) away.  But Richard was uncomfortable after all of our time in cars on bumpy roads or tuktuks on slightly less bumpy roads, so we decided to be adults about it and skip Kelaniya.  (I'll explain more about that later.)  And we agreed that we'd arrive in Colombo, call our hotel to see if they had room for us, and we'd try to see the recommended neurologist as soon as possible.

So we settled down to enjoy the train ride.

We had purchased first class tickets, which had the cushiest seats as well as a little more room and air conditioning.  It was fairly comfortable, especially once we were able to turn the seats around so we were facing forward.  (I don't do well riding backwards.)

The actual train route is drawn in purple on the maps at the end of this blog.  And there are three maps because the first had the actual train tracks marked.  The last one shows the topography.  So you can see that the train took us out of the hills and highlands of central Sri Lanka, down through the foothills, and then on to the coastal plains.

The trip was beautiful, and we were able to each get a window seat.  (Seats were assigned, but two people decided they didn't like the AC so they moved back to second class.  So we spread out a bit.)

The scenery was dramatic, with hills and table mountains and tranquil valleys inbetween.  We rode through numerous rocky tunnels coming down from the highlands, when the most direct route was for the rail builders to just blast through the hills.  At other times, we were in what seemed like a green tunnel, almost a ditch cut into the hillside with trees and plants growing on the sides and towering overhead.

We went past small towns, stopping at a few of the larger ones.  Past banana trees, palm trees, occasional temples or statues of Buddha keeping us safe on our journey.

As we approached the flatter land, there were more and more rice farms, since rice paddies need to be flat so that the water can stay level while the rice grows.  So there were terraces paddies, and then eventually huge fields of rice.  Some were newly planted and muddy.  Others were growing well and bright green.  And other rice had been harvested, with the plants shorn and drying in the sun, ready to be burned and the cycle to start again.

I'm always interested in the kinds of houses people have in the countries we visit, and how they might be similar to or different than what we usually see around the US.  So I took photos of houses, not so easy from a moving train.

Basically, houses are built of cinder block or brick, and covered with cement.  Most seem to be painted either white or bright colors.  Houses tend to show the income level of the owner - small houses for people with lower incomes, huge mega-houses for the richer people.

Roofs were slanted, since this is an island nation that gets monsoon rains part of the year.  Some roofs are trimmed in scalloped woodwork, others in scallop or egg-and-dart cement work.  Most houses are covered in cement, but a few have areas of exposed brick.

But all have the most interesting windows!  All seem to have gorgeous wood-framed windows, usually opening from the center out, like shutters.  Often, there is a decorative panel above the side-by-side windows.  The most basic windows have criss-crossing dowels, almost like cross-hatched bars.  Fancier windows have intricately carved wood panels above the windows.  And others have a half-moon divided into sections, like half an orange rendered in glass and wood.  I loved the windows, and tried to capture a variety of styles.

Many of the medium to large homes also have brick and cement walls surrounding the property, with ornamental blocks set in the wall.  And if there's a wall, there's almost always a huge ornate gate, in all kinds of fancy filigreed metalwork.  Gorgeous gates!

And almost every single house had laundry drying outside.  In a land of just about daily sun, it makes sense to hang the laundry.  It also adds a colorful pop to the photos!

Various regions of Sri Lanka have upcoming elections for local offices.  The election is scheduled for 10 February.  Different political parties have different colors to represent them, so there were flags and banners and pennants in either solid red, bright green, or deep blue to indicate that this is the candidate for that party.  We went past a variety of political headquarters, but one place had their flags on lines heading up to telephone poles, so it really looked festive, like a carnival.

On the train, there didn't seem to be a dining car.  Different people came through with snacks or drinks, my favorite being the guy selling hot tea in a small plastic cup (served Sri Lankan style, already mixed with sugar and milk).  So if you take the train in Sri Lanka, either eat before you leave the station, or pack food with you.  We both had something at the Kandy train station, and brought water aboard with us.

We arrived two hours earlier than expected, but I think there must have been a typo on the schedule.  It said we arrived at 5:45, but we arrived at 3:45 PM - which would be 15:45 in 24-hour time.  Anyway, the people at the train station were very nice and sent us to the station master's office to have them call our hotel.  We don't have mobile phones, and wifi wasn't available.  So we relied on the kindness of strangers, and Sri Lankans are very helpful.  The station master called the number, and yes, our hotel had one room left for the two nights we needed to stay prior to our actual reservation.  We found a tuktuk, piled in our luggage, and off we went.

All of that was Monday.  Tuesday, we called the hospital and while it took a while, we got a call to come in before 11:45 AM and the doctor could squeeze us in.  Basically, Richard pulled a muscle in his back, it has become quite irritated and inflamed, and just needs anti-inflammatory meds and some ice and some stretching.  Physical therapy would help.  We have a plan in place, and his at-home medical person (me) is making him follow the plan.

And we're okay for continuing our travels, which was a major concern.

Now, for Kelaniya.  We never did make it there, due to our concerns about Richard's back.  But the reasons we wanted to go - there was a huge religious procession and festival called the Duruthu Perahera.  Duruthu is Singhalese for the month of January, and Perahera is the actual procession itself.  The Kelaniya Perahera occurs yearly at the big Buddhist temple in town, the night before the full moon.  (Yes, there were two full moons this January.  But the Buddhist calendar is a lunar calendar, so this was the full moon for the month of Duruthu.)  

The site of the temple in Kelaniya is where Buddha himself is said to have stood on his third visit to Sri Lanka some 2,500 years ago.  (Some sources say 2,005 years ago.)  At any rate, this particular temple, the Raja Maha Viharaya is an extremely important temple in Sri Lanka, and has maintained its significance despite the periods of time the country was held by invading forces.  

The Kelaniya Duruthu Perahera reconsecrates the temple as well as renews the dedication of the people.  The procession is full of musicians, dancers, drummers, fire dancers, and elephants dressed up in opulent blankets and head coverings.

This all takes place at night, from about 8 PM until midnight.  The temple is covered with strings of small lights, the streets are lit up, even some of the elephants have small lights sewn onto their apparel.

Exciting, and thrilling, and a cultural extravaganza.

Except, of course, for the poor elephants.  I always have mixed feelings about things like this.  Elephants have been part of Sri Lankan and Asian culture since humans stood upright.  We humans learned to tame animals and use them to our advantage, helping us move heavy loads, or dig, or build.  And we use them for entertainment.  So it seems perfectly normal for elephants to be dressed in finery to walk in the Perahera, and carry sacred relics on their backs.

But this is 2018, and we're aware of animal rights and eco-systems and global warming and species of animals that have become extinct.  And I visited elephants in their natural environment, wild and free and happy.  I also visited orphaned baby elephants, and watched my sad little friend grieving for his dead mama elephant and adjusting to life in the elephant orphanage.

Yeah, mixed feelings.

But Richard's need to see this one doctor meant we didn't stay in Kelaniya.  And then it rained.  So, we took that as a sign that we weren't supposed to go to the Perahera.  Where I of course would be thrilled and excited and taking tons of photos, all while feeling terrible for these poor captive elephants who couldn't run in the national parks, wild and free.

Yeah, I was saved all of that mental anguish and conflict.

Part of our need to get in to see the doctor is that 31 January was a national holiday.  Every day of the full moon is a holiday on the Buddhist calendar, and this is a predominantly Buddhist country so that means the full moon is a national holiday.  Schools, banks, the government all close.  The holiday is called Poya, often with the name of the month attached.  This would have been Duruthu Poya Day.  Anyway, our time was limited because of this month's Poya day.  And Sunday (today) is National Day.  And we're scheduled to leave on Tuesday (if things settle down in the Maldives) - so our time was limited.

Anyway, in Kandy I bought three small batiks that show what the elephants look like in the Perahera.  You can see that they're all dressed up in beautifully decorated headpieces and blankets, carrying a little pagoda-like structure on their back.  Since these are batik elephants, of course they are all happy, and never chained nor beaten.  So they will be my imaginary Perahera, and will remain forever wild and free.

As I said, we are scheduled to leave Sri Lanka on Tuesday.  But word is that there is some political unrest in the Maldives, where the courts ordered the current president to free some jailed opposition leaders as well as a dozen politicians.  Not only is the current president refusing to do so, he also has fired two police chiefs because they were going to carry out the court order.  Yeah, civil unrest.  We're trying to check out if this is perhaps a situation we should avoid.  We have until tomorrow to make that decision.

Life on the road, right?