Friday, January 27, 2017

Pororari River Track

Not to sound jaded or anything, but today's hike, while quite pretty, wasn't really more spectacular than anything one might find in the Pacific Northwest. It was a long walk through a deeply forested area, but when the Olympic National Forest is in your back yard, it's hard to be too impressed by all the shades of green. Still, a very nice day with lots of exercise. We had a picnic lunch on the shore of the Tasman Sea, followed by a drive to the sleepy vacation village of Okarito, where our guides Bas and Marisha prepared a lovely dinner of grilled meats and salmon (despite the fact that they're both vegetarian), plus veggies, salad, corn-on-the-cob, and ice cream. My muscles ache and I was very happy to crawl into bed and type this up. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Kiwi Country

the Southern Alps
Today seemed like an occasion to do something special, to be somewhere special, so yesterday I flew to Chirstchurch from Colombo, and today I met ten other travelers and two guides for a tour of the South Island of New Zealand. For the first time ever, I wasn't interested in doing any travel planning, I didn't look forward to getting guidebooks and taking notes or doing tons of internet research and making my own way, so instead I booked a tour through REI Adventures and it started today - on quite an occasion for me, commemorated by a candle in my dessert at the group dinner this evening, but first there was a drive to the west coast, during which we had views of the Southern Alps, took a hike to Devil's Punchbowl Falls, drove some more until we got to the Tasman Sea, took a walk along the Punakaiki (pancake) Rocks, experienced enough rain to feel like I was back in the Pacific Northwest, made a new friend and temporary roommate, chatted with my group of very well-traveled companions, and felt like the occasion that is today passed very well marked. 

clockwise from left: Mike, Emily, me, Terry, Jack, Peter, Dale, Bas (guide), Lisa, Don, Merisha (guide), Claudia, and Jennifer - my companions for the next 10 days.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Here Come the Brides

Friday, January 20th, 2017 must have been an auspicious date on the calendar because when my mom's cousin took me to the Mount Lavinia Hotel for breakfast that day, we counted five different bridal parties, and it wasn't even 9am.

Food... Glorious Food!!

To have a personal chef is an obvious luxury, but I wonder if those who aren't lucky enough to have one, even temporarily, like I do in Colombo, appreciate how MUCH of a luxury it is, and understand all the things a person doesn't have to do when someone else is employed to cook for you. Velu has been Nilan's cook and housekeeper for years. He stays employed here even when Nilan doesn't live in the country, he's that valuable. He has cooked in embassies and managed large kitchens. His English is fairly rudimentary but I make myself understood by just talking really loudly. I'm kidding. Velu truly enjoys cooking, that's obvious; he can cook western food but why would I possibly eat western food when Velu's rice and curry is top-notch? He makes my breakfast in the morning, brings me coffee or tea, clears up, does the shopping, cooks four or five curries a week -- chopping this and that, crushing spices and fragrant leaves; he measures nothing and makes a huge mess in the kitchen, and when he's done, the kitchen is so clean that there's no indication that anything went on in there. I haven't been in a grocery store in three weeks and I've only occasionally washed a dish. I've learned over the years of visiting that he doesn't want me to bring my plate to the kitchen when I'm finished eating, and that asking for something complicated is fun for him. I usually only want scrambled eggs for breakfast (he makes perfect scrambled eggs) but the other day he told me he was making something "special" for breakfast and whipped up a potato masala, some roti (think Sri Lankan tortillas), and served it to me rolled up like a breakfast burrito. Over the years, this house has been let out to ex-pats who have lived here with their families, and friends have used it as a short-term rental, and Velu comes with the house. He told me that one family of six stayed for a while and that by the time he cleared breakfast, it was time to make lunch; by the time lunch was over, he had to start dinner. He said he was exhausted by the time they left -- but when I'm here, it's like a 'vacation' for him. So there's clearly no reason to take my plate to the kitchen when I'm done eating.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Galle Lit Fest - Last Couple of Days

Katherine Boo, John Gimlette, Christina Lamb
I had a relatively early night last Friday after my day at the fest since I had a ticket for a 9am session on Saturday. My extremely helpful host at Elephant Rock Cottage called a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the Fort, and I went to a discussion about travel writing with Katherine Boo (Pulitzer Prize, MacArthru 'Genius' Award, to name a few of her accolades), who writes extensively on poverty in the U.S. and India; Christina Lamb who wrote I am Malala, as well as a book about another extraordinary teenager, Nujeen, who fled Syria and made her way to Germany while confined to a wheelchair due to her cerebral palsy; and John Gimlette, whom I had heard speak on my first day of the fest. This was an interesting discussion about writing about other places and writing for other voices (Christina Lamb like Katherine Boo is also a journalist, in addition to ghostwriting those two books), and how the content is influenced by the writer's perspective. John Gimlette made a point of acknowledging that he does not write in the same vein as the two women, and the important distinction between travel writer and journalist was made clear. Journalists need to be objective and give facts as they experience and investigate; John writes to give information about a place, based totally on his subjective experience of that place. The women expose corruption and shine a light on some of the most tragic aspects of humanity; John writes to entertain -- but this contrast of styles made for an interesting conversation.

After that talk, I didn't have anything going on until later in the afternoon, but I met up with Nisreen and Riyaz who had been invited to a friend's house in the fort for lunch. I was a little apprehensive about tagging along for a meal, having not actually been invited, but when we got there, there were about 25 people in all stages of having lunch, and food for possibly twice that many. The house was enormous - I saw a fraction of it, but that fraction included a huge outdoor seating area, a semi-outdoor dining room and kitchen, which was obviously not the 'main' kitchen, a more formal indoor dining room, a massive indoor/outdoor living room, and a completely empty room which could have served as a ballroom. And that was just what I saw between the entrance and the outdoor dining room where we ate, I have no idea what was on the second and possibly third floors.

Colm Toibin reading from Brooklyn
After lunch, I went back to the outdoor lounge and read for a while, and then went to an interview with Colm Toibin, who wrote Brooklyn, which I did not read, although I enjoyed the movie. By all accounts, Mr. Tobin's book aren't the cheeriest lot (the movie, Brooklyn could be described as melancholy at best), but the man himself is an extremely jolly sort. He talked about his early life in Ireland, the women in his family who inspired him (the protagonists in all his books are women), and read some passages from Brooklyn.

Michael Fehr, a German poet 'performed' two pieces before
Colm Toibin spoke. Was it poetry? Was it rap? Was it performance
art? I'm still not sure. 
I had made arrangements with my tuk-tuk driver to pick me up after that talk, and through some miracle (which you'd understand if you've spent any time in Sri Lanka), he arrived exactly on time. I went back to my room for a while and rested up for the last event of the night which was a cabaret show at a beautiful boutique hotel called the Sun House. I had no idea what the show would be like, but I really didn't expect a semi-drag performance by a really wonderful singer who accompanied herself on the ukulele. It was a fun performance in a beautiful setting and a great way to cap the day.
she goes by the name Tricity Vogue

And then the last day of the fest was Sunday and one of the best sessions of the whole event. I had heard Christina Lamb talk during the panel discussion on travel writing, but she had a solo interview on Sunday morning during which she spoke extensively about two of her books: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, and Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair. These were two amazing topics, stories of two extraordinary teenage girls, and her admiration for both of them was clear. Malala underwent a 5-hour operation to remove a bullet which had traveled through her skull and lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord and spent 8 days in a coma. Nujeen has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, she left Aleppo in 2015, pushed by her older sister Nasrine, traveling 3,500 miles to Cologne. Malala now lives in England and Nujeen lives in Germany, both girls are preparing to enter university. Made me rethink complaints about bad traffic and poor service in restaurants.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Galle Literary Festival, 2017 - Day Two

My first Lit Fest event today was with another writer whom I had never heard or, Jason Licker, which is a great name for a pastry chef, which is what he is. He started in New York but has spent the last 12 years of his career cooking in Asia: Shanghai, Macau, Singapore, and Hong Kong. He did a fairly basic tart demonstration for us, focusing on tropical fruits, but it sounds like his signature dishes involve interesting ingredients like macha, green and black tea, and kumquat peel. The demonstration was fun, and the two tarts we sampled were good - one, made with mixed fruits including some spectacularly delicious mango and a lovely almond cream, was especially tasty.

After the pastry demonstration, I had some time to kill so I walked around the fort area of Galle. Galle was extensively fortified in the 17th century by the Dutch, and the ramparts comprising 'the fort' are still intact. I walked on the walls for a while and then went back to the festival lounge area to wait for the others. I was hanging out, reading a book by the Canadian author, Carol Shields, when I fittingly ran into some old friends from my childhood in Sri Lanka who now live in Toronto.

After lunch, I went to a session with a writer whom I've not only heard of, but whom I actually know, Sunila Galappatti, who was the Lit Fest director in 2009, when I was living in Colombo and was a festival volunteer. Sunila was so impressive all those years ago as the festival director, and she's even more so now all these years later, as author of the book The Long Watch, which is a memoir she wrote after three years of listening to Commodore Ajith Boyagoda tell her his story; the Commodore was the highest ranking officer in the Sri Lankan Navy to be captured by the Tamil Tigers during Sri Lanka's civil war; he was held as a prisoner of war for 8 years. Sunila's interview, during which she talked about the book, the Commodore, the very long interview and writing process, the delicacy needed to write another person's story, and the experience of taking on such a sensitive and nuanced project was interesting and engaging, and it made me want to read the book.

Galle Literary Festival, 2017

a photo from her childhood in India
It has been 5 years since I was last in Galle, and 8 years since I was last at the Galle Literary Festival. I arrived with Riyaz and Nisreen on Thursday and went straight to an interview with Brigid Keenan, whom I had never heard of. Brigid was born in 1939 to Irish parents in Bombay, India where her father was an officer in the British Indian Army. She lived in India until she was 8 years old and from the emotional reading she gave of excerpts from one of her books about her early life there, India still has a place deep in her heart.

Brigid became a fashion journalist by accident - she was an assistant fashion editor at the Sunday Times in London in 1960, and in 1961 when the actual editor who was pregnant, was put on bed-rest, she became the editor by default, and spent the next several years writing about the fashion of the 'swinging 60s.' In the late 60s, she met her husband who was a diplomat, gave up fashion writing and spent many years of moving from country to country - mostly in Central Asia and the Arab world; she wrote Diplomatic Baggage, and Packing Up: Further Adventures of Trailing a Spouse about the very real job of being a diplomat's wife. The interview was fun and I was disappointed that I couldn't get a ticket to the another talk she is doing at the festival, one focusing on the fashion of the 60s, because I do love a good mini-dress.
After the morning session, Riyaz, Nisreen and I headed out of the 'fort' area which is where the lit fest venues are, and down the beach road to our different accommodations for the weekend. They dropped me off at Elephant Rock Cottage, which is where I'm staying. I'm in a very nice room up on a hill, with a balcony that looks into a bit of jungle.
it's hardly a "cottage" - my room is on the top, the big
windows are part of another rental until below mine. 
And then back for an afternoon event: John Gimlette, whom I had also never heard of, talking about his book Elephant Complex, about his travels through Sri Lanka. He also talked a lot about the British Tamil community where he lives in Tooting, a neighborhood in South London, which I have been too, and in which I have had wonderfully authentic Sri Lankan food. It was a nice talk - nothing earth-shattering, but always interesting to get an outsiders perspective on this island.

When we were done at the fest for the day, I went with Riyaz and Nisreen to the place where they and some other friends are staying, and walked around the beach neighborhood for a bit, before settling in with some drinks in the garden area of their bungalow for a competitive game of iPad Trivial Pursuit; Asita and Nisreen against Riyaz and me - pretty evenly matched teams, but we never finished the game as Lalith arrived and we moved onto the beach for dinner, which could not have been more spectacular: