Month: July 2013

Southern India – Kerala Backwaters

Southern India – Kerala Backwaters

Kerala Backwaters

Little”backwater” about it

One of the most scenic parts of Kerala state is the “Kerala Backwaters”. It’s a large area of once swampy ground (think Florida Everglades) with dozens of rivers, that was transformed, over thousands of years into a series of higher lands (where people live), canals (where they travel/wash/trade), and rice paddies. It is lush, fecund, verdant, and enormously scenic. One way to see the backwaters is “in-style”, renting a rice-barge houseboat (see left) and spending the night somewhere in the backwaters. Of course, we were traveling the Intrepid way, and that means… cheap. So our boat was quite a bit less fancy than these craft. Two simple benches below-decks, and a host of plastic chairs on the “upper” deck. Not too exciting, just safe, economical transport – and the views were every bit as good. The only thing missing were the Gin & Tonics. The Intrepid way also means a chance to interact with locals, and unlike the vast majority of backwater visitors, we had a chance to experience day-to-day life in the backwater, with a homestay.
A day in the backwaters

We spent a couple of hours on the rivers and canals to our homesay. The homes we stayed in were very comfortable for India – concrete walls, had electricity, indoor plumbing, hot water, even cell phone coverage. Hardly”backwater”.

Our host, Tomas, is a farmer and was also active in planning the future of their small island community. He spoke excellent English, and was passionate about his work and efforts, articulate as well.

The setting was idyllic: riverfront with kids playing, some collecting mussels for dinner (below, right) in the river, dugout canoes and the occasional lux tourist boat passing by. Life revolves around the river, both for tourism and daily needs. Fish, irrigation, a place to have a shower, do laundry (movie) , wash the dishes, transportation, goods movement… The island we were on could be circumnavigated on foot in less than an hour. After we got settled in our respective lodgings and ate a lunch largely consisting of vegetables (and a chicken…) grown on the farm, we sat a while and talked about life on the island. Tomas gave us a tour of “his” island, introducing us to the various exotic fruits and vegetables, other crops grown around the island. Papaya, mango, breadfruit, tamarind, guava, pineapple, tapioca, manioc, bananas, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, curry, cardamon – every plant on the island seemed to be something to eat, drink, or flavor with. The villagers had seen foreign tourists before, but we were greeted with curiosity and invariably with smiles. Kathy took what seemed like hundred of pictures of kids along the way, its a great “ice breaker” to take their photos (they were seldom shy), put the digital camera into playback, and show the kids their pictures. Always a hit!

BoysRiver Where we stayed Bathing & brushing in the canal Gathering mussels

Ducks are raised here, by the throusands. Every evening, at dusk, a river of ducks is herded home from where they’ve been feeding to their pens. It can take 10 minutes for a flock to all swim by. It’s like watching a river within a river.

Tomas talked about the the role of caste in the community. Work was still centered around caste-based expertise – the palm toddy tappers (who collect juice from palm flowers to make a mildly-alcoholic drink), the carpenters, etc. A critical caste were the wall builders – walls keeping the water in place in canals had to be rebuilt every three years or so. At rice harvest time, everyone, regardless of caste, went out to the field to help out.

Rebuilding the walls along the canals – a never ending task River of ducks, on their way home for the night Capturing juice for making palm toddhy

At dusk, the steps into the water were filled with people bathing in the canals and rivers – stocked out with soap, shampoo and towels, and fully clothed while they bathed.

A fair number of the homes were quite large and upscale. We asked who owned these. They were bulit by locals who went to worked as contract workers overseas, in both white collar and blue collar positions – primarily to Middle Eastern countries. It was very hard on the families – they returned home at most once a year. But, several years overseas could provide for a large home and savings that would allow the family to live comfortably for years. When we were in the relatively upscale countries of Singapore and the Maldives, we met many Indian and Sri Lankans who were in just such positions – often well educated and fluent in English. They missed home very much, but this was there way to get a start in the world.

 

Photos from around the island

Click on any photos for a larger version and caption.

 

Bath Time Small manmade hammocks provide additional living space, but are new ones are prohibited because of eco-system concerns Laundry time You can travel the backwaters for dozens of kilometers – it’s a huge area Flooded water paddy – easy to do, when the land is so low Local “bus” Evening stroll along the riverbank Fancy house probably built from overseas remittances

Nitin, our Group Leader (51kb) Bath time (152kb) Cross-river taxi for some of our traveling companions (90kb) Washing (50kb) Herding ducks by boat. Who knew? (61kb) Tasting tamarind right from the tree (41kb) Home kitchen (88kb) Rice & Curry in a family setting (65kb) Toddy tapper (produces mildly alcoholic drink from coconut water) (82kb) Working the rice field (59kb) Shoring up rice irrigation canal (108kb) Washing & Brushing — just like home (97kb) Neighbors home (115kb) Sunset over the rice paddy (48kb)
Next Page — On the Road

Previous Page — Kerala Backwaters

Fifteen Minutes of Fame in Cochin, India

Fifteen Minutes of Fame in Cochin, India

Envisioning the chaos and pollution of Delhi, it was some relief to find that Cochin, the first stop on our southern India tour, was relatively unpolluted and sane. Cochin has always been atrading city, and there are descriptions of the picturesque Portuguese sections, colorful Chinese fishing nets, etc. We didn’t find it particularly picturesque, but the food was good and we found a ultramodern, superfast Internet cafe, so we were happy. And it was cheap…even  better

Especially in India, you never know what unusual event you’ll unwittingly walk into. We were luxuriating in the a/c of the superfast Internet cafe, when a film crew came in. We figured it was just some promo piece for the local news or something – we ignored them & kept on surfing. One of the things Kathy was doing was ordering more of these great no-stink T-shirts we’d found in a catalog – they have some fabric that kills bacteria, and are a godsend for backpacking.

It turns out they also have men’s underwear in the same fabric, and Kathy had a full page featuring men’s briefs on her display. We were the only foreigners at the cafe, and at this point the cameraman decided to do a close-up on us (and the underwear). I was leaning over and discussing underwear with Scott when we received our 15 minutes of fame (more like 60 seconds of fame). He muttered “this is annoying”, and the cameraman moved on, as if on cue.We then learned that it was not for the local news, it was for some TV series that needed an Internet cafe scene. We looked around, and there was a big crowd of onlookers outside, watching the stars. An armed guard was stationed at the door. So, if you’re watching Indian TV in the next few months, watch the for foreigners discussing men’s underwear

 

After meeting up with the other Intrepid group members, we headed off to see the famous Kathakali dance performed. It is the trademark for the state of Kerala, and the traditi
tonal version is danced at a Hindu temple, lasting all night and telling the story of good and evil, gods and demons. Tourist versions of the dance last for about 45 minutes. Dancers train for years, and every movement and muscle twitch has meaning. The costume & makeup is elaborate – and the audience gets to watch it being put on! The performance was in a sweltering tent, but thankfully they had a ceiling fan – which promptly went out (along with the lights) as we sat down. The lights/fan flickered off and on a couple times, and we finally went outside to cool off before the show started. Behind the theater, one of the assistants had climbed up power pole and was finagling with the lines, trying to get the power to come back. It never did – and we watched the performance the way they do in a temple, illuminated only by a kerosene lamp. The dance pictures you see here are much more than we saw at the dance (the pictures are lit by our flash – we were in the front row.

 

 

 

Sourthern India Overview

Sourthern India Overview

Cochin, India

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Envisioning the chaos and pollution of Delhi, it was some relief to find that Cochin, the first stop on our southern India tour, was relatively unpolluted and sane. Cochin has always been a trading city, and there are descriptions of the picturesque Portuguese sections, colorful Chinese fishing nets, etc. We didn’t find it particularly picturesque, but the food was good and we found a ultramodern, superfast Internet cafe, so we were webworld internet cafehappy. And it was cheap… even better.

Especially in India, you never know what unusual event you’ll unwittingly walk into. We were luxuriating in the a/c of the superfast Internet cafe, when a film crew came in. We figured it was just some promo piece for the local news or something – we ignored them & kept on surfing. One of the things Kathy was doing was ordering more of these great no-stink T-shirts we’d found in a catalog – they have some fabric that kills bacteria, and are a godsend for backpacking. It turns out they also have men’s underwear in the same fabric, and Kathy had a full page featuring men’s briefs on her display. We were the only foreigners at the cafe, and at this point the cameraman decided to do a close-up on us (and the underwear). I was leaning over and discussing underwear with Scott when we received our 15 minutes of fame (more like 60 seconds of fame). He muttered “this is annoying”, and the cameraman moved on, as if on cue.

We then learned that it was not for the local news, it was for some TV series that needed an Internet cafe scene. We looked around, and there was a big crowd of onlookers outside, watching the stars. An armed guard was stationed at the door. So, if you’re watching Indian TV in the next few months, watch the for foreigners discussing men’s underwear.

After meeting up with the other Intrepid group members, we headed off to see the famous Kathakali dance performed. It is the trademark for the state of Kerala, and the traditional version is danced at a Hindu temple, lasting all night and telling the story of good and evil, gods and demons. Tourist versions of the dance last for about 45 minutes. Dancers train for years, and every movement and muscle twitch has meaning. The costume & makeup is elaborate – and the audience gets to watch it being put on! The performance was in a sweltering tent, but thankfully they had a ceiling fan – which promptly went out (along with the lights) as we sat down. The lights/fan flickered off and on a couple times, and we finally went outside to cool off before the show started. Behind the theater, one of the assistants had climbed up power pole and was finagling with the lines, trying to get the power to come back. It never did – and we watched the performance the way they do in a temple, illuminated only by a kerosene lamp. The dance pictures you see here are much more than we saw at the dance (the pictures are lit by our flash – we were in the front row.




Sri Lanka – Colombo

Sri Lanka – Colombo

Colombo, Sri Lanka
“It’s not Delhi”
We didn’t visit Colombo until the end of our three weeks in Sri Lanka. As developing-country big cities go, Colombo is not bad. The air is relatively breathable, the driving habits somewhat sane; there is a complete absence of cows and other large animals wandering around, there are no ox- or human-drawn carts. The heat is unbearable, but that’s true for most of the places on our itinerary.
The first part of our visit we stayed at a faded glory old British colonial hotel – it was the place to be seen a hundred years ago. It was down in the “Fort” area, where all the government buildings are. Though there has been a ceasefire for a couple years, the government still had troops stationed every half block or so with machine guns; sections of streets were blocked off; and it was absolutely forbidden to take pictures. It was a little spooky. Given the faded glory, the night we arrived we went looking through the area for a decent place to eat; ended up in a miserable “thought-it-was-upscale” Food Court in a shopping center — we found out later that our hotel lobby restaurant was outstanding as well as personable and inexpensive. We ate there for the remaining nights of our stay.
At the official end of our tour, we headed off to one of the residential areas where we stayed at a delightful (and, unfortunately, expensive) boutique hotel. After two weeks of traveling down-scale, it’s nice to have predictable, functional hot water, air conditioning, and food. We had high-speed, albeit expen$ive and unreliable Internet access, and we spent most of the time getting caught up on email & uploading our website.

Our big adventure in Colombo was discovering the “House of Fashion”, probably the most famous store in all of Sri Lanka. As you know if you read your clothing labels, a fair share of the world’s garments are sewn in Sri Lanka. And some of those make their way to the “House of Fashion”, to be sold at prices 10% of what you’d normally pay. We went on a weekday morning, and it was packed, mostly locals but also in-the-know foreigners. Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike shirts and pants for $1.50 – $2.00. Here’s Scott (right) looking for clothes (he bought more than Kathy).
After our couple of days back in the “first world” Colombo bungalo, it was with some trepedation that we headed off for our second tour, through southern India – while we had greatly enjoyed our trip to Rajasthan last year, it wasn’t an easy visit – Delhi was so dirty and polluted; there was always the risk (and actuality) of food poisoning, etc. We’d heard that southern India was easier to visit, but one never knows…..

Next Page — India Intro

Previous Page — Sri Lankan Wildlife

Sri Lanka Wildlife

Sri Lanka Wildlife

Sri Lankan Wildlife
Garden of Eden

One of the magical things about Sri Lanka was the abundance and exoticness of the wildlife. We got introduced to this fact early on, when we were rudely awoken to the demolition of the room directly above us. But – wait – we were on the top floor! It was a band of monkeys taking an early morning romp on the tin roof. Fantastically colored birds were everywhere, peacocks strutted by the roadside, parrots cackled in the trees, and the rice paddies swarmed with white egrets. Mongooses scurried across the road. Lemurs hung out at the temples, snatching the tasty offerings seconds after they were left. Even the squirrels were magnificent.

The flowers were equally astounding. The roadsides were littered with wild flowers in bloom – including most of the species that are cultivated in western gardens. Just about every spice known to man grew here – both cultivated and wild. Tropical fruit trees of every variety had their branches bent low under the weight of the fruit – dozens of kinds of bananas, jack fruit, bread fruit, papaya, mangoes, guava, dragon fruit.

Most stunning of all were the wild elephants we visited at Uda Walawe National Park. We headed out in a safari jeep (a first for us) and within 5 minutes had spotted our first elephant. We say dozens of them over the course of the afternoon.

 

   Monkey hanging out at temple Flowers everywhere Fancy squirrel   Monitor lizard Going on safari Egrets by the dozen 

Next Page — Colombo

Previous Page — Farm Stay

Sri Lanka – Make Yourself at Home

Sri Lanka – Make Yourself at Home

Sri Lanka Farm Stay
“Make Yourself at Home”
For all the pomp of the temples, and grandeur of the ancient ruins, there’s something unforgettable about being able to spend just an ordinary day with an ordinary family — with a culture and background very different than one’s own. Bruno, our guide, arranged for us to stay with a local farmer family – actually, it was an extended family, with several brothers living in adjacent houses and working adjacent fields. Despite the fact that each family had only a couple acres to grow vegetables on, the families were solidly middle class, Sri Lankan style – they had sturdy concrete houses with four or five rooms, electricity, running water, furniture, and a TV. To western eyes, it would look akin to a simple cabin in the woods, with a few utilities, minimal furnishings, and a toilet out back. To most Sri Lankans, it’s something to aspire to. We forget how spoiled we are.
We started out with a tour of the farm – they grow various vegetables and flowers, about 6 acres worth between the various brothers. We even helped out with the weeding. We then had a fabulous rice curry, homemade by the women and served to us out in a resting hut in the field. An older auntie (picture at right) told stories about her devotion to the art of meditation – she has traveled all over Sri Lanka to study. She sang a meditational chant for us; when I started recording it as a movie on my camera, she insisted on singing the entire chant – which lasted about ten minutes. You can view/listen to a (short) sample here.

We spent the late afternoon and evening playing Sri Lankan versions of familiar games – draw the eye on the elephant while blindfolded & spun around; egg-in-the-spoon race; a pinata-like game involving hitting pots with colored water strung up between trees; and musical chairs – for a real cross-cultural video, watch this. We westerners taught them the hokey-pokey. In the fun and games, it was clear that though the culture and background are very different, families are very much the same. We hated to say goodbye, and they were sad to see us go. I’m sure we’d be welcome back anytime.

   The 1.5 acres farmed by our host family. We had a delicious rice curry in the hut in the field. Grandpa, still working in the field Kathy enjoying her rice curry   Cooking in the kitchen. They primarily used wood for cooking, but also had a gas burner. Kathy leading the group in a rousing rendition of Hokey Pokey. Here we are putting our “whole selves in”. Uncle with his two cute boys.    Uncle showing us around his fields. Scott & adorable child Scott trying to find the elephant so he can draw the eye in

Next Page — Sri Lankan Wildlife

 

Sri Lanka – Tamil Tea

Sri Lanka – Tamil Tea

Sri Lanka Hill Country

Most of the hill country is planted in tea plantations – hills and mountains and steep slopes of tea shrubs. Historically, Sri Lanka had been a major coffee exporter, but then a blight killed off all the coffee trees in the 1860s, and tea was  brought in as an emergency substitute. It turns out that the Sri Lanka hill country has the perfect climate for tea, and Ceylonese became famous worldwide. It’s still one of their largest export earners.
We learned an amazing amount about tea production and tea pluckers during our time wandering through the hill country. Tea plants can grow to 30 feet tall, but they are kept to shrub height by a severe pruning every 4 years. A bush can produce for 50 years or more. Only the bud and top 2-4 leaves are plucked for tea (the fewer the leaves, the higher the grade). The bushes have to be plucked every 4-7 days. By hand. One the side of a steep mountain. It’s hard work, and the British weren’t able to convince many of the local Ceylonese (as they were then known) to become tea-pluckers. So they imported workers from Tamil Nadu, in southern India – and they have stayed and worked in the tea plantations ever since. The tea pickers are some of the poorest of the poor in Sri Lanka – they earn about $1.50/day. The women do all the plucking, the men do the pruning, terracing, and other heavy work. The absolute poverty line is either $1 or $2/day/person, according to the United Nations. A Tamil family of six, with two workers, lives on about 50 cents a day/person. (They do get basic medical care and schooling for free, and are often able to grow a small vegetable garden). They live in concrete row houses, one family to a room, that were built by the British early last century. Not an easy life.
We met tea workers and their families all along our trek. It was heartening to see all their kids dressed up in school uniforms, coming home from school. It was disappointing to see that about 70% of the students were boys. According to Bruno, the local schools only go up to 7th grade or so; to continue on means going to live in a larger town, boarding at a hostel. Most kids drop out at this stage – their familes don’t have the money to pay for the hostel, and don’t see the value in education when all you’re going to do is pick tea. Several kids we talked to said that they wanted to drop out and start working so they could help out their parents, who were getting old. And so the cycle continues.
We were followed by school kids for a good portion of the hike – foreigners were a relative rarity. And they were hoping to get their picture taken.
To finish our education about the tea industry, we took a tour through a Lipton factory – built by Sir Lipton himself. Although some of the machinery was newer, it looked every bit the 1900s tea factory. 

 Freshly picked leaves are partially deydrated by blowing air over them for 16 hours The leaves are then moved by hand and shoved down through a hole in the ceiling…. …into a grinding machine that pulverizes them and starts a fermentation process going   

The ground leaves are hand carried over to a sorter, that separates the stems from the leaves The ground tea leaves are moved by hand to a section of the factory floor, where they are piled for 20 minutes to ferment. This has to be timed rather exactly. Once they are perfectly fermented, they get baked for 100 minutes or so – again, this has to be done exactly. At this point, they have changed from green to black tea.   

The black tea is then run through several rounds of sorting, by size of the pieces. The size of the broken leaf dictates how it will be branded. The least valuable, the”dust”, is for the local market (it’s surprisingly difficult to get a good cup of tea in Sri Lanka, ironically).
After being sorted, the tea is scooped into large bags for shipment. The tea master at the facility tastes the tea from each batch, and grades its quality.

Next Page — Homestay

Previous Page — Trekking Tea Country

Trekking Tea Country

Trekking Tea Country

Trekking Tea Country
Two days of soaring vistas and sore feet

After the “cultural triangle” visits, we “headed for the hills” — the mountainous central highlands of Sri Lanka. In constrast to the stifling heat and humidity at sea level, the hills are delightfully cool – high 70s during the day, 50s at night. It’s a perfect area for growing cooler-weather fruits, vegetables, and most of all, tea. We travelled by train from Kandy to a hill country town called Bandarawela. The train & stations seemed locked in time – British Colonial, 1940. The stations had “2nd class ladies waiting rooms”, “parcel rooms”, “station master rooms”, and various other class distinctions so important back then (not clear whether they are used for the same purposes today). The train was old & slow, but the view from the window was to die for (as in the topmost picture).
We then set off on a two-day hike through the tea plantations and forests of the hill country. It was quite arduous for two relatively-sedentary middle-agers (carrying a pack with warm clothers, drinking water, toiletries, etc); by the end of the first day (about 6 hours hiking, mostly uphill) we were pretty much exhausted, and our feet felt ready to fall off. The trek took us down railroad tracks, up mountainsides, through conservation lands, jungle areas, across tea plantations and through small villages of rural tea workers (more on the tea industry on the next page). The vistas are incredible: we found ourselves taking dozens of pictures each more captivating than the previous — but it is hard for them to do justice to what we actually saw “in the whole”.
When we were about 30 minutes from our evening destination, a remote and simple inn, we got our guide Bruno to phone ahead, to ensure that our promised beer supply was cold. You’ve got to picture this: four parched trekkers standing in a tea plantation, anxiously surrounding a Sri Lankan guide (who is 10 years younger and 20 years more fit than either of us). He’s trying to make a cell phone call in the middle of nowhere, the connection isn’t good: “THE BEER? DO YOU HAVE THE BEER?”. “Is the beer cold?” “Please ask Mr So-and-So to please put the beer in the frig”. He was shouting at the phone, repeating the phrase a dozen times, in English and Singhala (just for good measure). Ah, the power of modern telecommunications.

In reality, the beer had not yet arrived — but when it did… we drank a lot of it — all that they had bought, in fact. Between the beer, the exercise, and the crisp weather, we all slept very well that night.

The second day we took lunch at a stunning waterfall — of course we had to hike through jungle to get to it. They only told us afterwards that this was the place they’d alluded to — where travelers tend to pick up leeches — but that they were prepared with material to get them to fall off. We managed, leech-free.
We were headed downhill, mostly at this point, which takes its own toll (knees take the brunt; your toes start to hurt, as each step shoves your footware into them). As we descended, the temperature increased and what had been fairly comfortable in the hills was now hitting the mid-20s (mid 80s F), the humidity building.
This trekking was quite rural, where there were driveable roads they were only barely so. Yet all of a sudden we rounded a corner (one of so many switchbacks) and a van is heading up the hill we’re going down. This is an odd place for a hotel van. Hey, isn’t that the name of the place we’re staying tonight? What a coincidence!
As you might guess, our Leader had arranged for us to be picked up around that point (we’d go down, the van would head up, we’d meet when we met). You can’t imagine the thrill to realize we didn’t have to walk another several hours in the hot sun, jamming our toes the whole way. We were spirited off to another fine-night’s rest — and, more beer. In retrospect Bruno (who neither drinks nor smokes) must have thought us quite the lushes — but with the bad influences of an Australian and a Brit, what could we do than to partake?
We enjoyed the physicality of this tour (not to mention the views). Motivation to build up more stamina once we get home.

Next Page — Tamil Tea

Previous Page — Eating Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – Eating Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – Eating Sri Lanka

Eating Sri Lanka
Rice & Curry, String Hoppers, and “Rotty”. Sound appealing?
With a generic name like “Rice and Curry”, Sri Lanka’s national dish may seem simple, but in no way is it plain. Rice and Curry is the main event here, but there are some other South Asian staples available as well: fried noodles (bee hoon — the skinny ones), fried rice, and deviled chicken/beef/etc — which is more “sweet an sour” than “devilish”. These are pretty much what we ate during three weeks in Sri Lanka, with rice & curry predominating.
The root of the dish, as you might guess, is rice. Lots of it. The diners are served from a communal plate of rice which is CurryPixabout twice their collective ability to consume. Diners (or servers) place a big mound of rice in the center of the plate, then take the curries (more on this later) and surround the rice with them, leaving a spot toward the diner to mix them. Click on the photo to the left, and our guide Bruno will explain the dishes served in a typical rice-curry.
Rice and Curry is traditionally eaten with just the fingers of the right hand. There’s a bit of art to it; you mix bits of all the curries together on a patch of rice. Form your fingers into a shovel sort of thing. Squeeze the bundle together in your hand, and pop! it into your mouth, using your thumbnail as a launcher. Yes, you end up with curry-colored, curry-flavored fingers. Thoughtfully, a water bowl appears as if by magic to rinse off the hand, and a towel (also shared) to dry off — or newspaper in bargain places. You might get a napkin, but they’re always small, and the mess is way too much to clean with a little bit of paper.
A typical rice & curry meal (example above):

  • Rice (either white or “red” — what we’d call brown rice or whole grain)
  • Dal — a curry made from lentils — like a thick soup
  • Two or three vegetable dishes
  • One or more meat or fish dishes
  • Almost everything is cooked with coconut milk or features grated coconut
  • Various levels of spiciness and textures. Some ordinary, some quite potent.
  • Beer. Lots of beer, in 600ml (about 1 1/2 pints) bottles. Beer drinking demonstration photo below.

Almost everything is cooked with coconut milk and/or features grated coconut. The dishes have various levels of spiciness and textures. Some ordinary, some quite pungent. You order by specifying if you want veg or non-veg rice & curry—if non-veg, you get to specify the type of meat. Whatever they have in the kitchen is what you get for the veg dishes. Sri Lankans eat rice & curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So did we (usually).
Food is typically completely prepared just before service — it took so long that typically, we’d place our orders well in advance (an hour and a half, or the previous night for breakfast), and specify when we’d be back for the meal. This is a great idea for freshness and food safety in such a hot climate — but it does take some getting used to.
It was challenging as Westerners, to get a decent level of spiciness in the food. I’d guess this has a bit to do with most light skinned people here being European and not accustomed to “fiery” food . Erik and I (Scott), who both enjoy some kick in their food, had a lot of trouble convincing the locals that yes, indeed we wanted our food spicy. Then we learned about kata sambol, a paste-like preparation of shallot, red chilies, fermented fish, and a bit of lime juice; “sure to liven any party”. When we would ask for it, waiters seemed astonished that we’d eat it, and would ask us “whether that was really what we wanted”. It wasn’t that hot. One brought “chili sauce” (ketchup) instead.
Rice and curry is also available on practically any city street in the form of lunch packets (see picture to the left), selling for 40 or 50 cents. Since you’re eating it with your hand — no utensils required!
Hoppers are a bit like soft-shell tacos (you fill them with various tasty bits, roll them up and eat them) made from rice flour. String hoppers are just strange. They’re also made from rice flour, but extruded into vermicelli-thin disks maybe a half-inch (1cm) high and 3″ (10cm) round. They’re boiled briefly, cooled and served in piles (like the mounds of rice). You top the vermicelli disk with dahl or what-have-you, and pop it into your mouth. It is certainly efficient. Our guide couldn’t come up with any explanation for the term “Hopper”, but later in India we found a similiar thing called, eponymously, appam. That mystery might be solved.
That leaves us with rotty. While “hopper” sort of evokes a feeling of grasshoppers (which I’ve also eaten…), rotty just does not sound that appealing. Actually, it comes from the Indian word “roti” — which refers to about any bread. Some are plain, some stuffed, and served with the same variety of dishes.
There was plenty of western food to be had in Sri Lanka — but it invariably disappointed. Besides, if you want to just eat “like home” — why not stay there… it’s cheaper!

Learning to Cook, Sri Lankan Style

eating managerEverybody helped prep
…Guided by Woodlands’ Manager
One of our more “interactive” tours (where we actually did something rather than simply be told about it) was a visit to Woodlands Network. Woodlands is a small, women-operated non-profit organization in Sri Lanka, our Intrepid Leader Bruno (photo top-left) effectively is employed by them and “sublet” to Intrepid. 
Bruno’s mananager (above, right), also does Sri Lankan cooking lessons at their HQ in Bandarawella. So one evening stayed in the town, walked over to the Woodlands office, prepared (and ate) a complete Sri Lankan rice/curry dinner. We started out with the basic Sri Lankan spices (shown on left), which include tumeric, chili, curry leaf, fenugreek, shallots, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, tamarind paste, pepper (white & black), ginger, cloves, cardamon, salt, and others I can’t remember now…. We ate in the traditional fashion (with our hands; banana leaves served as plates)… and stuffed ourselves.

Sri Lanka is certainly one of the spice islands – we saw virtually every one of these spices being grown somewhere on the island. And a bunch more besides.

I get the feeling we’re going to be pining for a good local rice/curry shop once we get home…

Next Page — Trekking

 

Sri Lanka – Kandy is Dandy

Sri Lanka – Kandy is Dandy

Cultural Triangle #3
Kandy is Dandy
The second-largest city in Colombo, and its cultural capital, is the delightfully named town of Kandy. It is the last of the ancient imperial cities, and thus is home to the current instanciation of the Temple of the Tooth — the resting place of the most sacred Sri Lanken relic, a tooth of the Buddah. The tooth is kept in the innermost of seven coffins, which are viewable only at a distance through a small window (in the picture to the right, it’s the gold object viewable between our backs) – not a particularly impressive view. More interesting is the priest’s entrance to this central temple, flanked by elephant tusks & colorful drummers (in topmost picture). Watch/listen to the temple drummers by clicking here. The temple also houses a library of ancient Buddhist scriptures, recorded on palm leaves and bound together (left). In 1998, the Tamil Tigers exploded a bomb at the external entrance to the temple, causing extensive damage. Fortunately, little damage was done to the temple artifacts. The sacredness of this site was offset by the local guide we used – an old man who mumbled in heavily accented English. All four of us heard him say “tooth fairy” when he thought he was saying “tooth relic”. We’d hear things like “The tooth fairy was brought to this city in the 1600s” and “Many people come here to worship the tooth fairy”. Combining the tooth fairy, the turbaned drummers, and the elephant-tusked doorway, it was quite a surrealistic experience.
Kandy is also famous for local dance, involving colorful costumes & drums & good-looking dancers with bare chests, and a firewalk at the end – see the actual walks here. The performance we saw was performed by the YMBA – the Young Men’s Buddhist Assocation. (There is also a YMMA, Young Men’s Muslim Association, in town).
Kandy is built around a lake, and is in the lower hill country, so it was a welcome respite from the 90 degree heat that we had been experiencing. Besides temples and culture, Kandy has a well maintainted and delightful botanical garden, which contains, among other things, the palms that produce the world’s largest coconuts.


Outside of Kandy is one of the most famous tourist attractions in all of Sri Lanka, the elephant orphanage. Originally set up to truly house orphans, it now seems to focus more on the tourist angle. Most of the elephants seem to be teenagers or older (former orphans?), and some of the grown-up orphans have babies of their own. When grown, they go off to become working elephants. The big events are feeding the babies – think gallons and gallons of milk; and taking the entire herd down to the river to bathe (which requires taking 100 elephants across a busy highway and down a crowded shopping street). They sell various souveniors, including paintings done by elephants, and paper made out of elephant dung (we decided to forgo any purchases).