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!

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!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Tale of Two Islands

7 January 2018

We're currently in the Seychelles, back on the main island of Mahé.  But I wanted to cover the end of our time in Mauritius, because it was interesting.

We can now say that we've experienced some kind of tropical storm in every ocean that has tropical storms.  Richard and I got to know each other in Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in the Caribbean, just off the Atlantic Ocean.  (And we went through numerous hurricanes after those two.  Got married in a tropical depression, but that's another story.)  When we were in Japan, we encountered two typhoons - basically, a hurricane that develops in the northwest Pacific region, pretty much west of the International Dateline.  And then a tropical cyclone is a tropical storm that originates in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean.

They all officially become a hurricane-typhoon-tropical cyclone when sustained winds reach 74 mph (119 kmh).  And they are named, although often they are named when they reach tropical storm status (39 mph, or almost 63 kmh).  Due to the Coriolis effect (the rotation of the earth), storms and cyclones in the northern hemisphere rotate counter-clockwise (or anti-clockwise), which storms/cyclones in the southern hemisphere rotate clockwise.  So the satellite imagery of Ava, our most recent storm, definitely shows clockwise rotation.

We didn't get much in Mauritius.  Ava was much closer to Madagascar, and made landfall there.  But we had the outer bands, with intermittent light to heavy rain showers, for about a week.  Winds up to about 30 mph (48 kmh).  Just wet and grey and dismal weather.

Grande Baie is fairly enclosed - you can see on the map that the mouth of the bay is much smaller than the rest of it.  Sort of like an upside down heart, with the point chopped off.  Just outside the mouth is a coral reef, which slows down some of the large waves as they come into the bay, so that this really is a tranquil body of water, a very smooth and safe harbor.  At times, it looks like a lovely lake.

During the storm, however, the waves were crazy!  They were crashing against the rocks and small retaining walls, and splashing onto the road.  One of the small piers where people gather to fish was half underwater with most of the waves, and completely submerged at times.  It really was a dramatically different bay.  I'm not sure if we were getting some of the storm surge, or if this was all wave action due to the winds from Ava.

While we rarely use our rain jackets or umbrellas, weeks like this are why we always pack waterproof items, including shoes.  It was quite an event.

Every time the rain stopped, the birds would come out.  They obviously know not to get drenched in a deluge, because so many of them are really small birds.  Plus they can't fly well with wet wings.  And I suspect insects and worms come out of the ground when the rain is this constant and heavy.

We had some dried out bread that I crumbled into a bowl, and put on our patio for our bird friends.  Little Mr. Red Fody was often the first to show up, and he was not happy about sharing.  Then the various sparrows and ground doves would come over, and a yellow-masked black bird (which we call the bandit bird, but it turns out this is a common myna bird) would show up.

But I noticed we had several red-whiskered bulbuls, a few noticeably smaller that the two biggest.  And that when one of the larger bulbuls picked up a piece of bread and flew off with it, the smaller one would fly after that bird.  Plus the smaller bulbuls were very hesitant about coming to the porch and taking a crumb of bread.

I think these were our red-whiskered bulbul babies, grown to adolescent birds!  I don't know who else they might have been!  I'm so glad we saw them again, so I know they left their nest as part of their normal life cycle.  (And they tended to go back to their original tree and check the collapsed nest, I'm not sure why.  But they definitely knew the tree.)

Whew!  Really, we were so relieved to see the young bulbuls.

We were scheduled to fly out on Saturday, the day our visas for Mauritius expired.  Good thing the planes were flying and all was normal.  Except for a rather officious and confused ticket agent.  Certain countries require a ticket "home" or for onward travel to ensure that travellers don't get stuck in this new country, and then that country has to deal with people.  To prevent any problems, as well as ensure that the airline isn't fined for letting people on planes who don't have onward tickets, the ticket agents ask for proof of that onward travel.  A ticket, a reservation, an itinerary from a travel agent, we've even used our cruise ship itinerary.

Well, our ticket agent was perplexed by the fact that our proof of onward travel was a ticket to another island nation.  He kept asking when we were going home.  And our response of "we don't know" made him more confused.  I finally told him that our next destination, the Seychelles, only asked for a ticket onward.  We had given him the tickets to Sri Lanka, proving we will not overstay our time in the Seychelles.  And we also have tickets out of Sri Lanka before the visa expires, again proving we will not overstay.  I told him that nothing says we must go to our country of origin, only that we have proof of onward travel.

I don't think he was happy with that, so he took our passports and paperwork to his supervisor.  She apparently told him that we were just fine and not to worry.  Nothing said we couldn't travel forever and had to go "home."  We just had to ensure that we wouldn't overstay a visa in any country.

So he came back and told us all was okay.  We already knew that, but didn't make a point of it.  Grrr, just a pompous little tyrant keeping watch over his job and overstepping his responsibilities.

We're back in the Seychelles, where the weather is warm and partly sunny, partly cloudy.  We're at a small guest house vaguely in the neighborhood of the first place we stayed (give or take a mile or kilometer or two).  There's a beach, giant tortoises, and a couple of eating places nearby.  Plus orchids.  Incredible orchids that don't even look like real flowers.

We are dreading our next flight.  Take off is scheduled for 5:30 AM.  That means we should arrive at the airport here at about 3 AM.  Getting up at 2 AM.  Not happy with this, but the airport is roughly 10 minutes away, and we have a driver booked.  

I just hope he - and we - all wake up on time!

Next stop:  Sri Lanka!