Tuesday, March 3, 2009

And Then There Was Snow

That being the case, needless to say, I’m home. And it was a long trip getting here—first Bangkok, Tokyo, Portland, Sacramento, then two days in Sacramento before driving north through rain and sleet to Portland where I spent then night before making the drive home to Seattle. Except as soon as I arrived in Seattle, I dumped my suitcases and then drove another thirty miles north to my storage unit to get all my winter clothes and shoes; loaded up my car, drove back down to Seattle, and spent the next six hours unpacking. I finally got settled into the place where I’m staying (which is the same place I was staying before I left, with my friend Gail in Ballard), spent one night there, and then moved to my friend Margie’s place on Queen Anne since she happened to be out of town and graciously suggested I stay at her place while she’s away. So I’ve been on my own for the first time in five months (as has my brother; I’m sure he misses me terribly). Last Wednesday night was the first night I spent at Margie’s, and when I woke up in the morning (5am, jetlag), it was snowing and snowing and snowing. Margie’s condo is on a bluff looking over Lake Union with a view all the way across to downtown so I had a great view of the massive (well, 2 inches at least) snowfall covering the city.

But back to Bangkok.

Cheryl and I left the [nasty] beach and headed back to Bangkok and the Davis Hotel, which we had grown very fond of on our first couple of days in town. Great staff, great room, nice gym, lovely spa, roof-top pool—what’s not to love? We also found a great little café down the street which we went to nearly every day for the rest of our trip. The owner, Tay, was a young guy who had spent 12 years in the U.S., had an amazing design-sense, great taste in music, and had his coffee beans specially roasted to his specifications. The café was a lovely oasis off the busy street where we would have breakfast or lunch before heading out, usually via sky train to whatever destination was in line for the day. On most days it was one of Bangkok’s huge shopping malls, but we did also make it to another very cool temple, the night market, and the Moon Bar on the 56th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel which gave us an amazing perspective on how large a city Bangkok is. We made the neighborhood around the hotel home, ate at the same Thai restaurant around the corner several times, got snacks at the grocery store across the street, drank iced chocolate at the ice-cream place across the street; I went to the gym every day, Cheryl went to a spa every day, we both went to the pool every day – it was a nice way to end the trip.

And now I’m home. The snow has melted, the sun is out (off and on), I’m shopping for a condo, and hoping to go back to work soon. If going back to my old job doesn’t pan out, I’ll find something else to do I’m sure, but right now I’m mostly trying to find a place to live and settle back into life in Seattle. I do love this place.

Thanks to everyone to who went on this trip with me by sending me emails, commenting on the photos, and keeping in touch. Part of me felt like I never left because my friends always seemed so close; on the other hand, I missed everyone terribly and am really glad to be back. And that’s the end of the blog for now, will maybe resurrect it if I go somewhere else, but I’m really looking forward to staying put for a while.

Hugs and kisses to everyone reading,

Saturday, February 14, 2009

We Hate the Beach

So… you know how a lot of people love the beach? Cheryl and I are not two of those people. We sort of already knew that about ourselves, we’ve been to Mexico a couple of times together, and both of us have been to Hawaii many times, and don’t get me wrong, we love those places, we just aren’t sun worshippers, and god knows, I don’t need a tan. But for some reason we figured a beach in Thailand would be different; we should have known better. The beach we chose is called Railay and it’s a 45 minute boat ride from a town called Krabi which we flew to from Chiang Mai. We got here today, wandered from where the boat dropped us to our hotel… and then really didn’t know what to do with ourselves. The beach is very small, and we’re not crazy, we recognize that it’s beautiful, and sure we could slather ourselves with sunscreen and possibly go in the water for a swim (doing our best to avoid the jelly-fish), but then what? What we ended up doing was sitting by the pool for a couple of hours while both individually but simultaneously coming the conclusion that we should leave. Soon. It’s just not for us. It’s a very small beach and the area around it is kind of crowded with a few shops, a few restaurants, and lots of tourists. This seems to be the place for a typical European family vacation. It’s also full of hippies. And couples. And hippie-couples. No offense to Europeans, hippies, or couples, but it’s just not the atmosphere we were looking for. Railay is also a rock-climbing Mecca and I had considered doing a climb or two since they have a lot of beginner routes, so first I made some inquires at the local climbing school, but then left with the prospect facing some limestone cliff in the blazing sun versus heading back to Bangkok, we decided to just let the beach go – and leave tomorrow… after one day here.

I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with the beach. I love the ocean and I’d rather be looking at open water, waves, and surf than any other scenic view; I LOVED my beach-front hotel in Galle where I stayed during the lit fest, and spent what seemed like a lot of time staring at the water and letting the waves hypnotize me; I’d rather go for a walk on a coast-line in Northern California, Oregon, or Washington than anywhere else, but a tropical beach where there’s really nothing to do but lie out in the sun and maybe go for a dip before practicing my hacky-sacking skills, isn’t for me. Or Cheryl, so we’re heading back to the city—back to Bangkok.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Last Stop: Thailand

On February 7th, I finally had four months worth of stuff—both brought and accumulated, packed up, had said good bye to all my friends in Colombo, told Velu how much I was going to miss his cooking and his company, and made my way to the airport for a 1:30am flight to Bangkok. I was on my way home via a vacation in Thailand (you know, because I needed a vacation after four months of loafing around Sri Lanka). My friend Cheryl met me at the hotel in Bangkok for the beginning of a twelve day stop-over in Thailand on my way home to Seattle. We were both really tired that first day in Bangkok; I hadn’t slept at all the night before because of the middle-of-the-night-flight, and Cheryl’s connection in Tokyo had been cancelled so she was actually late getting to Bangkok and had been traveling for a day and half by the time she got there. So we napped much of our first day. Eventually we got up though and made our way to a lovely Thai restaurant which had been recommended by two different friends and had a lovely dinner before heading back to the hotel. Really good Thai food here.

On our second day in Bangkok we made our way via taxi and river boat, to the Grand Palace, former royal residence and current Buddhist temple. Cheryl has never been to Asia before and while I had been to the Grand Palace a couple of times, it was really fun to go there with someone who had never seen any Asian temples before. We wandered around the palace grounds, checked out the jade Buddha and the other lesser Buddhas, took tons of photos of the various buildings with their crazy, gilded, tiled walls and details, and then made our way down the road to the temple of the giant, reclining, gold Buddha. I don’t know if that’s it’s official name, but take a look at the photos, what would you call it? After that we were tired and hot so we made our way back to our hotel for a rest and then got up and headed to one of the night markets in Bangkok to try and find some food on a stick for dinner. The market we ended up at (via sky train) wasn’t terribly exciting so we ate at a Thai restaurant that we passed on the way, no tourists in sight, and pretty good Thai food. Then as we were walking from the sky train station back to the hotel, we passed the kazillionth road-side massage parlor and decided we needed foot massages. These massage places are EVERYWHERE, and they are CHEAP, and they are NOT fronts for prostitution (although there are plenty of those two, although not right where we’re staying). We were in a room that looked like a hair salon except instead of hair cutting stations, the room had a long row of reclining chairs with footstools in front of them. We plopped in chairs, side by side, and the little Thai ladies went to work on us. What we expected to be a one-hour foot massage turned out to be a one-hour foot, leg, shoulder, back, skull, arm, and hand massage – for $9.00. It was a much slower walk back from the sky train station than it had been to it.

The next day we left for Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a one hour flight north of Bangkok, a great town that had been recommended by friends who had been here; it’s main draw for us was a Thai cooking class that sounded like a lot of fun. We arrived Tuesday and spent most of the first day just wandering around town. We passed a bunch of temples, walked through some markets, found the cooking school we wanted and signed up for a class, came back to the hotel to rest, and then made our way to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which is a bustling night-time market. Neither Cheryl nor I are much into shopping right now so it was fun to see the sights and the booths and all the crazy stuff for sale, but we didn’t buy anything, just ended up eating some pretty decent Indian food for dinner there ($6.00 for the two of us). On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at another road-side massage place and had much the same treatment as in Bangkok—a big open room, but thick, foam mats on the floor this time instead of recliners, some Australian dude on one side of me, Cheryl on the other, and again, tiny Thai ladies who started on our feet but worked their way up. This massage was more in the “Thai massage” style, in that it was very physical—basically the person giving you a massage is contorting your body into yoga poses while you lie there like a flounder. Frankly, this is the only way I ever want to do yoga. This was also a good massage experience but there was a bit too much chatter going on in the room for my taste. I like it quiet when someone is rubbing me all over. We paid $6.50 for an hour this time.

The next day was dedicated to the Thai Farm Cooking School. We were picked up from our hotel and driven about 30 minutes out of town to the school which is part of a small, organic farm. There are cooking stations for three classes of twelve students and we had a great time with all the people in our class. Our teacher’s name was Nice and she was a lovely young Thai woman who did a great job of conducting our class. One of the cool things about this particular class was that we got to choose the dishes we made from a small selection of options. Cheryl and I both made green curry with chicken, coconut milk soup with chicken, chicken with cashew nuts, pad Thai, and sticky rice with mangos. It was all delicious and fun – starting with our trip to the market where Nice gave us a tour of ingredients and shopped for our supplies. We were tired by the end of the day and since half our food was sent back with us as leftovers, we didn’t have to go out for dinner that night.

Which brings me to today… today we went to Tiger Kingdom. Cheryl has had a life-long dream to pet a tiger and here was the opportunity staring us in the face, how could we not? Tiger Kingdom is a place where you very simply pay to pet a tiger. You pay by size. I petted a small one ($15), Cheryl petted three different sizes ($30). And sure, arguments can be made that people should not be petting wild tigers, but the fact is these tigers are bred in captivity, raised by humans, are part of a zoo-breeding program, and exist in order to perpetuate the species. And yes, it’s possible that they’re all on giant doses of Xanax, and/or could rip our throats out at any given moment (Roy-style), but… we really wanted to pet a tiger, and managed to do so without getting maimed.

Tomorrow we head for the beach.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Galle Literary Festival, 2009 -- Part II

There wasn’t much I was interested in checking out on Saturday. I went down to the fest at about 11:30 to catch Colin Thurbron talking about his 7,000 mile journey from China to Turkey. Colin is an quietly entertaining speaker, very… British in his delivery, and a hell of a nice guy. After his talk I hung out with some of my friends, we wandered around the “Fort” area of Galle which is where almost all the festival venues were – it’s an old Dutch fort from the Dutch colonial times, with ramparts all the way around, fending off attacks by sea I suppose. Now the fort is mostly a tourist area with shops and restaurants. We wandered around, running into people we knew… Sumathi and Sophie, friends from Colombo, and Jess whom we had picked up along the way; she’s on a break from university in Australia and traveling around India and Sri Lanka for a month with her mother. We also ran into Ellen, and Melony and Tenzing, and about half a dozen other Colombo homies.

We made it back in time to see Edna O’Brien who was billed as “Ireland’s most famous living writer” or something like that. I wanted to read at least one book by one of the Lit Fest authors, and the one I got my hands on was one of Edna’s. It was good, no denying her ability as a writer, but her talk was a little confusing. She spoke for 45 minutes and it was like listening to Garrison Keillor on mushrooms. She rambled and ambled on and on, and I had no idea what the f she was saying. I talked to at least three other people afterwards who said the same thing. She had notes which she referred to, made quotes, brought up Dickinson and James Joyce, and closed with a poem about Obama, but seriously, I have no clue what she was going on about.

I went back to the hotel after that, back into the pool which I had to myself (LOVE the tiny hotels with just a few guests at a time!), and then my four-poster bed for a nap. The closing night party was Saturday night so I had to rest up. At about 10pm, my brother and Riyaz came to pick me up for the party which was at the Lighthouse Hotel, probably the most prominent hotel in the area and one of the major sponsors of the festival. The party was on a terrace which was pretty much the roof of the building and it was pretty rocking. Ran into more friends there whom I hadn’t seen at the festival, had several margaritas, danced until my shirt was soaked through, and finally shut the place down with Riyaz and Sunila (who was finally, FINALLY very nearly done with her massive task of getting this event over and done with) around 2.

Slept in Sunday, packed up, and caught a ride back to Colombo with my brother. There was another party for staff and volunteers back on Geoffrey’s island on Sunday night, but I was all partied out and decided to skip it and head back on Sunday afternoon.

I thought the festival was wonderful – it was a great combination of speakers and friends and beach vacation. Congratulations to everyone, especially Sunila, for putting on such a great show.

If anyone wants to see the entire festival line-up/program, you can do so at www.galleliteraryfestival.com.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Galle Literary Festival, 2009

When I was in Colombo last Christmas, everyone was talking about the Galle Literary Festival coming up in January. I was due to leave before the festival started and was really sorry to miss it. When I planned my current trip, I made sure that I would be here for this year’s, and I ended up volunteering to help with some of the logistics, an offer that was eagerly accepted; had I known how much work I was in for, I might not have done it and there were moments when I wished I hadn’t, but now that I’m at the festival, it’s wonderful, and I’m pleased to have had a small hand in bringing it about.

First of all, a shout-out to the “real” staff… Sunila inherited the Festival Director title when the original festival director ended up dropping out. It wasn’t at all what Sunila originally signed up for but she did an amazing job. Her main staff were all so amazing – wonderful to work with and just great people, and there were so few of them working to put on this rather large and getting-to-be-prestigious festival. I spoke to Sunila a few days before it started and she told me she’d been up for 48 hours straight, but she never lost her sense of humor or her kind and respectful way of dealing with her staff – they all seem to love her as I do. My task wasn’t nearly so involved as what the others were responsible for; my job was to book all the airline reservations and purchase the tickets for all the authors who were coming in from abroad. Most were coming from Delhi where another literary festival was taking place just before this one, but others came from England, Singapore, the U.S., Australia, and one from Entebbe, Uganda. Our two airline sponsors were Sri Lankan Airlines and Emirates. So after corresponding with 14 writers from around the world, dealing with their flight requirements and last minute changes and many phone calls with my contacts at Sri Lankan Airlines, Emirates, and Cathay Pacific, I got all the tickets booked and purchased, they, along with 36 local Sri Lankan writers arrived here in Galle for the start of the festival on January 28th.

I also arrived on the 28th for my first festival event which was a tour called “Where I Escaped the Tyranny of the Typewriter” which is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke (a long-time resident of Colombo before his death in 2008), and which was a tour of Taprobane, the private island owned by Geoffrey Dobbs, the festival founder. The island is tiny and has a wonderful history including once being owned by a British count, and Arthur C. Clark had been among its distinguished guests. Geoffrey has done quite a bit of restoration work on the house that sits on the island, as well as adding a small infinity pool and overhauling the gardens. He led us around the house and property giving us information about its past an present before having lunch served on one of the terraces.

There were only a few festival events later that day, but as soon as I got to my hotel and saw how beautiful it was, I opted to skip all of them and just enjoy my room and the sound of the waves crashing just outside my windows (for my volunteer services, the festival gave me the room for four days, an all-event festival pass, and two tickets for the island tour which wasn’t covered by the pass).

Only 4 bungalows (left) and two rooms at this hotel. My room is the one surrounded by the shutters on the top right side of the photo - windows all the way around 3 sides.

This photo doesn't do my room justice. It was gorgeous - really plain but huge and comfortable.

The following day, I managed to wrench myself from the lap of luxury and make my way back to Galle (my hotel is about 15 minutes from town) for three events. The first was a conversation with Colin Thubron and Pico Iyer, two travel writers with very journalistic styles. They were both very interesting and since they were the two nicest authors I dealt with, I didn’t want to miss their event. The name of their talk was “Global Souls” and it was about their work traveling and writing around the globe, and about how technology has made it so much easier for so many of us to be global souls – that is to understand the world globally, even though we may not travel to the far-flung, we can still understand it. At the end of the discussion, the moderator (who is a professional media-type which made a huge difference in the quality of this interview) asked the two gentlemen if there was any place to which they would not travel or recommend as a travel destination. She prefaced her question by saying that when she interviewed Paul Theroux, he had said that he could not imagine going to a country that recruited child-soldiers (so I guess he’ll stay out of Sri Lanka); Colin Thubron said he had to agree and that there were places in Africa that intimidated him for that reason; Pico Iyer simply replied “Atlanta, Georgia.”

The second event I went to was a conversation with MJ Akbar and Ameena Hussein on writing about Muslim households. I know Ameena from Colombo and MJ Akbar was kind of a pain about his air tickets, but their conversation was very interesting. MJ is clearly very passionate about the beauty and compassion of Islam, and he was very articulate about its strengths and values and very forceful in his stance that Islam does not need reform, but Muslims do. What he said was so interesting because it’s exactly the way I feel about Christianity—that it is inherently good and valuable, that its teachings are universal, exclude no one, and don’t exist outside a spirit of love, peace, and non-judgment, but that a lot of “Christians” have corrupted it to a level of insanity. I think a lot of people in the audience were Muslim and he received a lot of applause when he made points against “the enslaving of women” and the twisting of the “marriage laws.” The third and last event I attended was a conversation with Germaine Greer and Tarun Tejpal entitled “Writing Taboos.” This was one of the most anticipated events for a lot of people and the most disappointing for me. Germaine Greer became an icon of feminism in 1970 when she published “The Female Eunuch,” a book I haven’t read, but one I’m sure I’d disagree with ideologically if her talk yesterday was any indication of her positions. Tarun Tejpal is a journalist who has recently published a novel called “The Alchemy of Desire,” which I gathered contains a lot of sex. I would have been interested in a conversation about “Writing Taboos,” but instead just heard two people discussing their political agendas.

I headed back to my hotel after that although there was programming on into the evening; this is my last beach-trip before heading home and I wanted to enjoy my lovely surroundings… the swimming pool, the palm trees, the waves crashing, and the solitude of this quiet, little, boutique hotel.

Today was day three and I went to two events: a discussion about the Dali Lama by Pico Iyer who has known him for 30 years, and a talk by Michael Morpurgo who is a British author of over 100 books for children and young adults. Two things: it turns out that I’m really not that interested in the Dali Lama although he sounds like a super-nice guy; and if you forget to remind people to turn off their cell phones, they won’t, and they might even take a call while an author is on stage, as one woman did in the second row while Michael Morpurgo was speaking.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Meeting of Two Blog Posts

In one of my first posts, I introduced Ellen Sojka, who at the time I met her was volunteering with an organization called Emerge Global. You might recall I explained that Emerge Global supports young women who become pregnant as the result of rape, helping them earn a living through a jewelry-making cottage-industry, as well as educating them and teaching them to care for their children. Then a few weeks ago I met Sharmini who manages the Books for Asia program for the Asia Foundation–their goal being to match libraries and other learning institutions in need of books with the books donated to them by American publishers. I knew Ellen’s organization had a teaching/learning component since one of their key goals is to teach the girls English and other marketable skills, thus making them more employable, and I thought maybe Ellen would like to get some books from the Asia Foundation program. So I tracked her down, put her in touch with Sharmini, and last Monday I went to the Books for Asia office and helped two very enthusiastic women pick out books. Ellen was thrilled to be getting them, and Sharmini is so enthusiastic about any organization that helps the needy in Sri Lanka, especially when it’s done with the goal of self-sufficiency, so it was really a great match.

Ellen has found funding for her job since I first met her; she is now committed to being in Sri Lanka for the next 18 months, working to keep this fledgling program up and running as the Country Director, along with the organization’s State-side counter-part in Boston. It’s a big job for a woman who just graduated from college last year, but when I talk to Ellen about the goals of the organization and how the girls it serves are transformed, I have no doubt about her dedication to this mission or her ability to make a difference in the lives of the people she’s working with.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Heart Singapore!

I wanted to get out of the hustle of Colombo, so yesterday I came to Singapore. Singapore is a City/State, an independent republic and former British colony, which seceded from Malaysia in 1963. I love it here. It’s Tropical-Urban-Asia-Lite. Let’s do a little comparison to Colombo – Singapore: population: 4.8 million; Colombo: 5.6 million. Singapore: pristine and orderly; Colombo: filthy and chaotic. Singapore: everything runs on time; Colombo: don’t hold your breath. Singapore: no one hassles you; Colombo: just try walking down the street without someone getting in your personal space. Singapore: safe no matter where, no matter what time; Colombo: not. I wanted a break and I wanted to see a little more of Asia than just Sri Lanka, Singapore fit the bill.

I’m only here for two days so my agenda is fairly limited. I got in yesterday at about 3pm and immediately caught the shuttle from my hotel to Orchard Road. Orchard Road is the shopping-Mecca of Singapore (and Singapore is the shopping-Mecca of Asia; some people consider Dubai to be the shopping-Mecca of Asia, but we all know how I feel about Dubai. This is making me wonder if there’s good shopping in Mecca). I expected a long road of storefronts from Gucci to what I hoped would be shops more in my price-range. What I found was a long road of shopping malls – not shop after shop, but mall after mall, one after another, both sides of the street. I know that probably sounds like hell to a lot of people, and contrary to popular belief, I do NOT love to shop, but I was in the mood, it was part of the reason I came here, and it was, if not exactly “fun,” successful. No major damage was done to the bank account; while things here aren’t as cheap as in Colombo, they’re still pretty cheap (at least in the kinds of stores I went into), and a lot more stylish. All I did yesterday was shop, eat, and walk. I only bought three things but I covered a lot of ground and watched a lot of people. At the end of the day, instead of taking a taxi or the MRT (metro) back to my hotel from the center of town, I walked back which took about an hour. It’s warm here but not sweltering and I wanted to get a feel for the place by walking; that was Day 1.

Today I started the day by eating some gyozas on a stick. There is absolutely no reason to put gyozas (I have a feeling the plural of “gyoza” is “gyoza,” but I’m going with“gyozas” anyway) on a stick, but I was emailing a friend last night who suggested I eat some food on a stick today, and there they were. This was back on Orchard Road, to which I returned in order to stop by the tourist office to find out about tours of the city. I’m not usually a “city-tour” kind of traveler, but I wanted to get a feel for Singapore outside the shopping district so I bought a ticket for one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses that are in so many places (this one was actually run by the same company that does Ride the Duck Tours; god help me). The double-decker, open-top bus travels in a circle and you can, you know… hop on or hop off at any designated stop and catch the next one that comes around when you’re ready to move on. I didn’t really want to walk around any of the places it stopped, so I just rode the entire circle to see a bit more of the city and got off nearly back where I started; this took about an hour. In a way, Singapore reminds me a bit of Dubai (although Dubai is about eight times its size), but without the soullessness and with far more green space.

Actually, the only similarity to Dubai is the prevalance of modern architecture, although I think Singapore’s is much nicer, and remnants of Singapore's colonial history remain which is also nice. After finally hopping off the tour bus, I did a bit more shopping (since I was back on Orchard Road) and then took another tourist bus to the Night Safari. This was my other big reason for coming to Singapore. So many people had told me how cool the Singapore Night Safari is and I wanted to check it out. If I understand correctly, it’s a tour that runs next to the zoo, or it might actually be part of the zoo, I couldn’t quite tell. You ride a tram around a loop that passes by about 30 animal habitats, and this being Singapore, all the animals seem to be standing right at the edge of their habitats for optimal viewing – they appear fluffed and waiting, teeth brushed, smiling for the cameras, and all but waving their paws at the tram as you go by. Lions, tigers, sloth (I just found out that the plural of “sloth” is “sloth”), a rhino, flamingos, elephants, giraffes, giant anteaters, capybara (the world’s largest rodent; not sure about the plural form but you definitely wouldn't want even one scavenging through your trash), and many others. Most of these animals are more active at night, hence the beauty of the Night Safari; so instead of trying to get a glimpse of a napping tiger in the far reaches of a den at the zoo, the habitats are designed (and the evening meal set out) in such a way that the animals end up strolling around right in front of the tram-way (okay, the lions and tigers were napping tonight, but they were really easy to spot; one of the lions was lying on his side with one leg in the air). And to address the obvious problem of animal-spotting at night, the habitats are lit so they are illuminated enough to see the animals, but the light is in no way glaring; it was however, too dim to get any decent photos – flash photography being strictly forbidden.

After the safari, I didn’t want to wait around for the tourist bus to head back to town (the zoo/safari being on the outskirts) so I took the city bus straight from the animal park to the nearest MRT station (and this being Singapore, one of the nice helpers at the park told me exactly where I’d find the bus stop, what number bus to get on, and the name of the MRT station it would go to). The bus arrived five minutes after I got to the bus stop and about half an hour later I was at the MRT. A few words about the Singapore Metropolitan Rapid Transit: it’s the cleanest metro I’ve ever seen but that should go without saying since Singapore is the cleanest city in which I’ve even been. I think littering and graffiti might be capital offenses here. You could perform surgery on the MRT station floors. And here’s a brilliant thing: all other metro stations I’ve ever been in are covered with used metro tickets; people world-wide seem to have no hesitation about dropping their spent tickets on the ground as soon as they are no longer needed. Aside from the threat of death (I think) which keeps people from doing that here (okay, I’m actually thinking hard about it right now and realizing that I’ve not seen one piece of litter, no cigarette butts, no paper, no garbage of any sort on the ground since I’ve been here), the Singapore MRT has enacted this simple anti-littering/pro-recycling scheme: when you buy a single-ride ticket as opposed to a re-loadable metro card which you would keep, you automatically pay a 1 SGD deposit on the ticket. All you have to do to get that dollar back is feed your used metro ticket back into the ticket machine before exiting the station. Brilliant.

I just remembered where I was going with all that… so after I left the Night Safari, I took the bus to the MRT and the MRT to Clarke Quay, which is the Pike Street/Fisherman’s Warf/touristy area on the Singapore River in the middle of town. My goal was to eat some pepper and salt crab which I’d been told was the city’s signature dish. Turns out pepper and salt crab is ordered by the kilo and a kilo of crab seemed a little piggy for dinner, so I got pepper and salt prawns instead – they were great and the people-watching at Clarke Quay was fun, and after dinner and a long day, I came back to my hotel room to type this up.

Tomorrow I’ll have enough time for lunch here before heading to the airport to go back to [filthy, chaotic] Colombo. Not sure where I’ll spend the afternoon yet, possibly at the Raffles Hotel where the Singapore Sling was invented; the drink actually sounds both completely disgusting and kind of good to me, but drinking alone in the middle of the day might be a slippery slope. It might just be more food on a stick and a little more shopping.
Singapore Sling
1 1/2 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering brandy
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce Benedictine
4 ounces pineapple juice
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/3 ounce grenadine
dash bitters
Singapore Post-Script [Saturday]
I had trouble falling asleep last night, so at 5 am when I was still awake, I popped a sleeping pill and finally drifted off. I ended up getting up around noon, so instead of going into town for lunch and coming back to the hotel to get the airport shuttle, I decided to take the MRT straight to the airport and kill the couple hours I had before my flight shopping and eating there. I knew from flying in that there was practically a mall at the airport (I suspect there’s a mall at the cemetery), so I knew I’d be fine. I got there (another flawless trip on the MRT for less than a quarter of the price of the shuttle) and wandered around until I saw a drugstore and a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Nisreen had asked me to pick up something for her from a drugstore (the selection of goods in Colombo being limited) and I hadn’t done it the night before so I was glad to see one at the airport, and I really wanted a nice coffee drink, so I was in luck. I had about 25 SGDs left and I wanted to spend it all before I left so I bought Nisreen two of what she wanted and picked up some other items in order to spend the rest of my cash. What I didn’t do was check the price of an Ice-Blended Mocha before I did my shopping, and when I got to the Coffee Bean, I was exactly a dollar short. Crap. I didn’t want to take out more money from an ATM (the whole point being to get rid of money) and I really wanted my drink. So I went back to the drugstore and asked the girl behind the counter if I could return one of my items and get some cash back. She hesitated and called the manager over. They were both very polite, but it seemed apparent that a return would be a problem, but finally the manager said okay and asked for my receipt. Which I couldn’t find. Not in my pocket, not in my wallet, not in the bag with the goods. The manager very nicely said she could not do a return without the receipt. I’m usually a pretty easy-going person and I know the shop-people don't make the rules, but I was on the verge of tears. Seriously, I wanted that mocha (have you had one? They’re all chocolaty and icy with a small jolt of coffee…). The girls seemed puzzled by what the big deal was and I don’t think they quite understood what I was trying to achieve. Finally I explained that I just wanted to buy some coffee but I didn’t have enough cash so couldn’t the manager please just return one of the items that I had just bought? Please? “How much do you need?” she asked. “Just a dollar” I said, “Oh, okay” she said and looked at the other girl; they smiled at each other finally understanding what was going on: crazy-lady needed a dollar to go buy some coffee. The manager smiled at me and then opened the cash register and gave me a dollar. “Oh… no…” I said, “don’t you want to take this item back and give me a refund?” I asked. “No no,” she said, “can’t do without the receipt, you take this dollar and if it’s not enough, you come back.” Big smile. “I… are you sure?” “Yes, yes, you take it!” “Thank you!” Now I really did feel like crying, but I thanked them again and went to get my coffee. As I was standing in line at the Coffee Bean I couldn’t get over how easy it was for that girl to help me once she understood what I needed. It seemed weird that she couldn’t just do the return, but I suppose it would be easier for her to reconcile the register being a dollar short than to do a return without a paper-trail, or maybe she was going to put the dollar back out of her own wallet, I have no idea. But once she understood my dilemma, her kindness was effortless. I ordered my mocha, added two pieces of cheesecake to my order, paid with my credit card, and went back to the shop. The two girls did a double-take when I walked in. “Okay? Did you get it?” they asked. “I paid with my credit card” I said, and handed them each a little bakery box and the dollar back, “but it was so nice of you to try and help me.” “Oh no!... Thank you!… Not necessary!” they laughed and looked at each other, raising their eyebrows and looking embarrassed, as though I’d given them gold ingots instead of dessert. “Thank you” I said, “that was so kind, what you did for me, I appreciated it so much.” And over my shoulder as I walked out, “you made my day.”
Sometimes when a place has been good to you, you have to pay it back. With cheesecake. Even if it means going home with a few extra bucks in local currency.

Friday, January 9, 2009

In the interest of full disclosure…

Sri Lanka is a great place, don't get me wrong. But it's not all beaches and good times.

I made a conscious decision not to write about the civil war
that’s been going on in Sri Lanka since 1983 (although the ethnic conflict has “unofficially” raged for much longer). The decision was an easy one to make, I simply don’t know that much about it and didn’t want to editorialize about such a complex issue when, unlike so many of the ex-patriot friends I have here who are working in the human rights arena or doing development work, learning more about the war and dealing with its effects have nothing to do with my reason for being here. Yesterday however, the chief editor of a local newspaper who was know for criticizing the government in general and its policies on the war specifically, was gunned down in broad daylight not too far from where I live.

From the BBC News Website:

Mr. Lasantha Wickramatunga, 52, had been highly critical of government policy and the war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. He received numerous death threats through his career and was detained on several occasions because of the controversial nature of his stories.

In his last editorial he accused the president of pursuing the war to stay in power.

"Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become [the president of Sri Lanka] Mahinda Rajapaksa's recipe for electoral success," he wrote.

According to the newspaper report I read, the hit took place while Mr. Wickramatunga was driving to work yesterday. Four men on motorcycles surrounded his car forcing him to stop. One gunman got off his bike and broke the passenger-side window with a steel bar but did not fire; another broke the driver’s side window and shot him point blank in the head; a third man got off his bike and fired through the windshield; the fourth circled the front of the car preventing escape; all four rode off after the shooting and none have been apprehended. Passer-bys rushed Mr. Wickramatunga to the hospital where he died of his injuries.

Since I feel the need to report this as something of note that has happened while I’m here, I feel I should also give a brief history of the “conflict” in Sri Lanka. The following is based on a very small amount of research.

Tamil people are an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka making up about 18% of the population. They are native to Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. Tamils in Sri Lanka are broadly divided into two groups. Sri Lankan Tamils (or Ceylon Tamils) and Indian Tamils. The latter group are descendants of Tamil people who were brought from India to work on the country’s tea plantations in the 19th century and, for the most part, are not party to the conflict. The Ceylon Tamils however have come to inhabit particularly the north and eastern parts of the island via waves of migrations and invasions over a couple of millennia.

In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was elected the fourth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. One of the first things he did after coming to power was to make Sinhala the official language of the country and downgraded the official status of English and the Tamil language. Anti-Tamil policies such as this led to the eventual formation of several militant Tamil groups in the early seventies. One of these, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), emerged as the dominant group and has waged a violent cessation campaign against the government with the goal of forming a separate Tamil state on the north peninsula of the island. The LTTE is widely considered to be a terrorist organization and wages its campaign largely by assassinations, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, and recruitment of child-soldiers; the government responds to these acts by bombing civilian-populated Tamil areas.

Many Tamils are fully entrenched in lives outside the north and east parts of the island and have no desire to change this status. These people have worked and lived in Colombo for generations, they have become fully integrated without losing their cultural heritage, and have no need or desire for a separate Tamil state. However this group, concentrated in and around the capital Colombo, faced the brunt of the anti-tamil riots of 1983, and as a result many of them have since migrated out of Sri Lanka.

The beginning of the civil war in 1983 is attributed to an incident in which the LTTE killed 15 Sri Lanka army soldiers in the North; some Sinhalese civilians angered by news of the ambush formed mobs and started killing, raping, and assaulting Tamils, while looting and burning their properties in retribution for what happened. Sinhalese civilians were equipped with voter registration lists, burning and attacking only Tamil residences and business, while army and government officials stood by. The government declared an emergency curfew in Colombo the next day; however, the police were unwilling, or unable to enforce the curfew. The army was then called in to help the police. However the violence continued the next day, and began to spread all across the country, engulfing areas with sizeable Tamil populations; Tamil people were dragged from cars and beaten or hacked to death with knives and axes.

The pattern of assassinations and the killing of soldiers/officials on both sides followed by bombings from both sides, with intermittent peace-talks and negotiations has continued since 1983.

The sunsets here are indeed beautiful, the beaches pristine, and the food fantastic. There are fabulous night-clubs, hotels, parties, and restaurants, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s a war going on even though Colombo is also a city with a huge army presence. I am routinely stopped for identification by soldiers holding machine guns almost every night that I go out; this is a part of life my Tamil friends (who can be identified as such by their last names) find much more nerve-wracking than I do. This is a city where everyone is searched for explosives every time they go into the mall or into a major office building. It is a city where government and police corruption is obvious and rampant, and it is a place where the chief editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, criticized government opposition parties for staying "mute" in the face of obvious corruption, suggesting journalists were having to do their job for them, and paid for it with his life.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas and New Year's Eve

My parents came to visit for Christmas and are still here. This is the first time all four of us have been in Sri Lanka at the same time since I was five. It has been interesting to watch my parents react to this place. They’ve visited over the last ten years or so but from the time we moved permanently to the States, there was about a 30 year gap before they ever returned, and while it’s clear that this is all familiar to them as “the homeland,” it’s also clear that this is not the same place they left. The traffic, congestion, and pace have increased dramatically, attitudes are different, and of course there’s this pesky war going on.

Christmas came and the parents and my brother went to my mom’s old Methodist Church in the morning while I slept in. Here's another this country is really pretty damn small–story: my mom told me that the lady who was sitting behind her in church had a really nice voice and she had enjoyed listening to her sing during the service, so when it was over, my mom turned around to tell her so. The lady thanked her and wished her a Merry Christmas, and then as my mom turned to go she said “aren’t you Mignon?” which happens to be my mother’s name, so a little startled, she said “yes” and the lady said “I’m… ” and said her name; she turned out to be the sister of one of my mom’s old school friend’s (who had happened to have dropped by for tea the day before); my mom didn’t recognize her, having seen her last about forty-five years ago, but the lady remembered my mom. This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME here.

Lunch at Deepika's
We went to my cousin Deepika’s for lunch that afternoon, a very nice and low-key affair which included Simon and Neluka, whom my brother and I also know, their two girls, my aunt, and my cousin’s husband and their little girl; the kids spent the afternoon chasing my cousin’s yellow lab all around the garden. Deepi had ordered the entire meal from a hotel and it was quite good, a mix of Sri Lankan curries and a turkey. We spent a leisurely afternoon at her house and then headed home to rest up for our own guests who were coming for dinner. They arrived in the evening: my mom’s cousin Bryan, her other cousin Rando, Rando’s twin daughters who are eighteen and whose names I can never remember which hardly matters since I can’t tell them apart, Melanie from Nilan’s office and her husband Tenzing, my mom’s old school friend Rani and her other old school friend also named Rani (and the sister of the singing lady from church). Velu had made a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, ham, fish, peas and carrots, and a few other dishes. The funny thing is, it’s the first time anyone in my family has served a traditional western Christmas dinner (although I guess it was more like Thanksgiving… some people have turkey again at Christmas – right?); we usually have rice and curry in California.

The next day we left for the beach. We took off from the house at about 1pm and made our way down the very busy Galle Road. Along the way, Cyril, my dad (a bit of a nutter) began, as is his habit, to read aloud the signs along the roadway. “Pizza Hut” he said, followed by “Litter World.. that’s strange… maybe it’s for cat litter…” he said (I have no explanation for the thought process that might have led him to that). “You can’t see the ‘G’ in front of that?” my mom asked. “Oh, ‘Glitter World’” he said. “Are you planning on reading all the street signs between here and the hotel?” I asked (it was about a three hour drive). “Manomi,” he replied, “I am an old man, it is my prerogative to annoy the young people.” A little while later my mom said, “there’s my grandfather’s house!” as we caught a brief glimpse of the De Alwis family home, a colonial estate and the only residential house left on the fully commercial Galle Road (the part that runs through Colombo anyway). My mom said she used to play there as a child, and that there were coffee trees in the back garden and all the cousins used to collect the coffee beans when they went over to play. I asked her if they were actually roasted and ground into coffee; she paused and said, “we gave the beans to the servants, eventually there’d be coffee.” One of my mom's cousins inherited the house and plans on moving into it from Ottowa where she lives now.

“Malay Curry Hut” Cyril said.

Eventually we got around to the bottom of the island to the Heritance Hotel in Ahungalla. It’s a nice place, a bit like the place in Negombo where I went with my cousin Shalini (Deepika’s sister; she went to Thailand for Christmas), although I think that place is actually a little nicer. Riyaz and Nisreen and their boys also joined us there as did Melanie and Tenzing, and while we shared a few meals, mostly everyone did their own thing at their own pace and just relaxed.

On the 27th we drove another hour around the south side of the island to our friends Cheryl and Jehan’s place. I’ve known them since I was around ten I think -- they used to live in San Francisco. Cheryl and Jehan have this awesome weekend place on the beach, and we spent the afternoon hanging out there and had yet another stupendous lunch with them. Then back to the hotel and back home on the 29th.

The sunset at Cheryl and Jehan's started out like this...

...and ended like this.

New Years Eve had us, Riyaz and Nisreen and Melanie and Tenzing at the Bay Leaf restaurant for dinner. December 31st is traditionally a big party-night in Colombo but we happened to have picked quite the dullest spot in town. There were lots of people dining there but for some reason there was absolutely nothing festive in the air. I didn’t actually mind, we had a nice table outside, had some drinks and didn’t get around to ordering dinner until almost 11pm, so we were still eating when the clock struck twelve. We clinked each other’s glasses, said “happy new year” to one another and went back to our dinners and conversations. I was home by 2 and on email being the first to wish a few friends at home Happy 2009.