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.