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!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Bye Bye Birdies, Bye Bye 2017

1 January 2018

Last week Thursday, I went to say good morning to our red-whiskered bulbul family.  I noticed that the little babies were actually getting pretty big, and had feathers rather than baby down.  And that they had more adult coloring than they had a few days ago - white throats and chests, black backs and top of the head, and that fine black line under the eyes.  They were only missing the red patch on their cheeks.  I mentioned to Richard that they really looked like they were growing up!

That afternoon, we went to one of the local malls to check on some sundries we needed.  While we were there, we encountered an unexpected heavy rain storm, the kind that happen mostly in the tropics.  Just a sudden deluge of rain, complete with wind and short-term flooding.

We got back to our place, and I checked the nest - one of the parents was sitting on top, keeping the babies warm and dry.

Friday morning, I got up and went out to the patio, to say good morning to our birds as usual.  But they were gone!  Flown the coop!  And the nest was upside down and lower down among the branches of this small tree.

I had to go check - and it turns out that this tree, or maybe more of a bush, has thorns.  Long thin spiky thorns that are quite sharp.  (I was stabbed a bit as I checked.)  So I don't think a cat or other predator got in there.  No baby bulbuls under the tree/bush/plant.  No frantic parent bulbuls in the branches, or even around the patio.  Nope, it seemed as if the entire family was gone.  

I did some internet research, and according to what I read, baby bulbuls are ready to fly at about one month old.  So we're hoping that the parents and babies have moved to a bigger tree, that the babies can fly, and that the parents are now teaching them how to catch or forage for their own food.  Haven't seen them in the trees near here, but the parents aren't very big, smaller than a robin - and the babies would be quite small, maybe the size of a baby chickadee at this point.

I don't know - and of course we're vaguely worried.  But the birds know what they are doing, and there was no evidence of birdie trauma, so we can only assume that this is part of the birds' life cycle - they live in the nest until they move out, and maybe the parents push the nest out of the tree so the babies know to move on.

Last night, though, I was glad that our baby bulbuls and parents weren't around.  New Year's Eve is a little bit crazy around here.

I've mentioned that we've seen fireworks in stores, supermarkets, and even fireworks stands along the side of the road.  These range from simple sparklers to noisemaking things like cherry bombs to single rockets that shoot up and explode, all the way to "cakes" - the thing that looks like a batch of dynamite sticks all wrapped together into a box shape, and lit with a single fuse.  The fuse then burns from stick to stick, and each one shoots up into the air and explodes in a pretty big pyrotechnic display.

Now, keep in mind that there is a large population here that is Tamil or Hindu.  So they celebrate Diwali, which is a festival of lights.  Definitely celebrated with lots of fireworks!

There is also a fair-sized population of people who are of Chinese descent - and they celebrate the Chinese New Year.  More fireworks!

And then there's everyone who is on the Gregorian calendar, and living in the modern world, and celebrating the change from one year to another on 31 December at midnight.  Yup, you got it - even MORE fireworks!

So we've had fireworks going off until about midnight almost every night.  Quite a lot about midnight on Christmas Eve.  Then a few more every night since then.

And on New Year's Eve, it was a fireworks extravaganza!  Small sparklers, things that were like erupting volcanoes with changing colors, single bottle rockets, multi-rockets in one tube, all sort of things!

I finally sat on our steps, reading, so I could jump up and watch the various displays as they started.  There are hotels lining the coast of Grande Baie, and some of them had huge fireworks shows for their guests (and everyone else within view).  The first was a spectacular display at the far end of Grande Baie, maybe about two kilometers away from our location.  They started at 9:30 PM and went a good 20 minutes, with huge booms and giant explosions of color and light and fading golden embers over the water.  They ended with the grande finale in silver, white, and gold, just a gorgeous multi-layered explosion of light and sound - and everyone ooohed and aaahed and an older Frenchman turned to me with his face shining like an excited five year old as he sighed and said "Beeyootifull!!"  I agreed, it was just incredibly beautiful!  (Incroyable!)

Then random little fireworks continued around the perimeter of the bay for the next two hours or so.  (The bay is roughly 2 km by 4 km - or about 1.5 miles by 2.5 miles.)  Various families staying at our residence had fireworks and set them off on the sand road that runs just outside the grounds of our place, so they were really close.  Pretty soon, we had rockets going off and fireworks exploding directly overhead!  I mean, like right over where I was sitting!  Right over our bird family's tree!  And this was when I realized that it was a good thing  our birds had moved elsewhere.

Richard and I walked down to the sand road a bit before midnight - at midnight, EVERYTHING exploded!  The restaurant three buildings down set off their own fireworks display from the wooden pier that our first apartment overlooked.  There was a huge fiery display going off in the center of downtown Grande Baie.  Several of the large hotels on the coast were sending up all kinds of rockets and fireworks exploding all over!  And on top of that, people up and down the drive, the beach, and around the entire bay were setting of firecrackers, more noise makers, more fireworks - the entire sky was lit up with explosions of every color!  It was wonderful and joyful and exuberant and just slightly insane!

I loved it!

This went on for maybe 15 minutes, and then began to slow down.  Though we could hear fireworks continuing on throughout the night, until about 2 AM.

There wasn't much drinking going on, which was nice - although I did notice an older French couple sharing a bottle of champagne, just swigging it straight from the bottle while watching the fireworks.  They made me chuckle.

This morning, our very nice residence owner came around with little packages of four macarons, those lovely meringue-like cookies with the creamy filling.  Two white, one orange, one purple - no idea if the colors are significant, or if that's just what they had.  (He said he made them, but I'm not positive, sometimes we have a bit of a language problem.)  But he delivered a little package of macarons to every room at our hotel - isn't that a lovely tradition?  I don't know if this is just something he does, or if it's Mauritian, but I just thought it was so nice.

Our only other excitement - we were told by a chatty restauranteur that there's a tropical depression out at sea, and that people are keeping track of it to see if it turns into a storm or cyclone.  I've been checking the weather reports for several days now, and it seems to have increased a bit in strength and wind speed.  It isn't named yet, though it will be Tropical Cyclone Ava if it develops enough.  (Right now it is called 24S or something.)

But the weather prediction is for rain beginning tomorrow, and continuing through to the end of the week or even the weekend.  Winds up to 30 mph or so (50 km per hour?).  It is expected that even if it becomes a cyclone, it will head more toward Madagascar than right over Mauritius, but you never know.

So I've included some weather maps, so you can see what we're watching.  BBC News did mention that it looks as if it has grown a bit, so that we'll get some stormy weather.  Not the eye of the storm if it develops one - but definitely inclement weather.

And for our friends in the Caribbean, you might notice that this system is rotating in a clockwise direction.  Yup, Southern Hemisphere.  (In the Northern Hemisphere, they rotate counter-clockwise or anti-clockwise, depending on how you want to say it.)

We figure if it does become a cyclone, we'll have encountered a hurricane/typhoon/tropical cyclone in every ocean (except the Arctic and Antarctic, and they don't get tropical storms).  That might be our new claim to fame.

So, Happy New Year!  Bonne Année!  Feliz Año Nuevo!  Buon Anno!!

And thank you to all of our readers around the world!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Three Little Birds Beside Our Doorstep

27 December 2017

(Don't you worry 'bout a t'ing, Every little t'ings gonna be all right)

We had a quiet Christmas, since many restaurants and shops were closed for the long weekend, including 26 December for Boxing Day.

It's okay, we've been travelling a bit less energetically than usual as my knee heals from the surgery last June.  Six months, a lot of knee rehab and walking, and I'm on track for a total of 60 miles walked this month.  But the new knee still isn't as strong as the normal knee, and I tend to swim in circles since the two aren't quite in sync.  So we're okay with the occasional quiet weekend.

We have new neighbors, though.  Richard noticed a bird nest in the small palm right outside our patio, now that we're at our new place.  We watched, and there are two parents, the red-whiskered bulbuls, both looking exactly the same.  With three little tiny baby bulbuls in the tiny little nest of woven twigs, grasses, and feathers.  Mama and Papa bulbul both come and feed the babies throughout the day, and then one of them sits atop the nest to keep the babies warm all night.  

I know, one of the photos makes it look as if there are more than three hungry babies to feed.  I think they move around so quickly, hoping to be fed first, my camera just picked up multiple versions of the same three birdies!

They've grown in the several days we've been here.  We have another nine or ten days, so I'm hoping they grow really quickly so that we can see them when they're old enough to try sitting on the edge of the nest.  It really is a tiny little nest, so it's a good thing there are only three babies.

Richard wanted to call them Larry, Mo, and Curly.  I was pushing for something French, maybe Jean, Jacques, and Pierre.  We may have to settle for gender-neutral names like Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod.

But we have a bowl where we leave out bits of bread during the day, and the various neighborhood birds come by to have a snack.  Mama and Papa Bulbul both enjoy the snacks, and sit on the railing looking us over.  The are quite the friendly and polite birds.

We also had an incredible sunset the other day, deep pink streaks turning the bay a gorgeous rosy hue.  

This really is a beautiful island, and we've been enjoying our time here.