Saturday, 28 July 2012

Sri Lanka Day 5: Sushi and Gratitude

Finally, sadly, the day came when we had to leave lovely Sri Lanka and head back to our work and responsibilities in Chennai. After a quick stop at Odel to pick up a few more items, including a very 'scary' Sri Lankan devil mask that will look fantastically strange in my London flat, we met up with the 'kids' for a final lunch at one of the local sushi restaurants.

New opera house in Colombo

I just wanted to take this opportunity and use this post to convey my absolute gratitude to the wonderful people I met on this trip who were so generous with their kindness and time. This trip would have been so different without each of you and I feel very lucky to have met you all. Now, come to London!

Sushi lunch!

To Anuki, Evan, Shehani and Dylan, thank you for the trips to Odel, the site seeing guidance around Colombo, the delicious dinners and tasty sushi, and your wonderful patience while I overdosed on elephants. Anuki, thank you for your lovely gifts and for being so kind and mailing those postcards for me! And of course to both Anuki and Evan, thank you for being so patient as I hunted for my father and aunt's swimming records! I couldn't have done it without you!

"D.G." - Should be D. O'Grady I think

My aunt's record from 1962

To Sooraj and Ashwini, thank you for the hilarious comments, questionable music (ha!), the trip to the beach and for sharing your home.

President's house

To Sumitha-aunty and Raju-uncle, thank you for being the most wonderful hosts we could have ever asked for. It was amazing to meet you again after so many years Raju and I feel lucky to have done so. You both opened your lovely home to us and made every effort to ensure that our visit ran as smoothly as possible, which is something I will always be grateful for. Sumitha-aunty, thank you for all the talks and advice, they helped me more than you may have realized and I really appreciate your patience in listening to the same old thing over and over! :)

Final attempt to get the colorful mix of auto rickshaws

And finally, last but of course not least, to Samia, thank you for making this entire trip possible! Thank you for organizing the tickets and letting me stay with you before and after. And of course, thank you for keeping your cool when everything threatened to fall apart. You were a perfect travel companion and I look forward to future adventures! 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Sri Lanka Day 4, Part 2: Visiting an Astrologer

After visiting the elephant orphanage, We began the drive back to Colombo. With a quick stop for lunch at a roadside cafe, we made it back to the city in time to visit a local astrologer who our hosts have been seeing for years. When we arrived at his office, I was surprised by how busy it was with two other groups waiting to see him. The first was a mother and daughter, who looked to be about my age, and the second was a couple who seemed to be in their thirties. One by one, the couples shuffled into and out of his office until it was finally our turn. By this time, Sumitha-aunty (our host) and Anuki (Dylan's sister) had joined us and we all settled into his office.

Surrounded by books on a wide range of topics, such as medical texts and those charting the course of different stars, he looked much more professional and legitimate than I had anticipated. I guess I was expecting to be shown into a back alley room where an old crone was hunched over a crystal ball. Given that assumption, I think it's safe to say that I'm uncertain of my thoughts on astrology. I read my horoscope whenever I get a magazine but, I often feel like I only take it to heart if it says something I agree with or want. For example, "This month will give you an opportunity to improve your finances" - yes please, oh astrology, you're so legitimate! "This month you will be rude to people and they will not like you' - umm, no. Oh astrology, you're such nonsense. Etc, etc.

However, sitting with him, I realized that when he said things I automatically agreed with, then I just moved on from them quickly. When he said things that I hadn't considered or that I disagreed with, that made me stop and consider those points a lot more fully. This made me wonder if the greatest benefit of an astrologer is not necessarily to correctly see into your future or past, but rather to make you look into them yourself and actively think about the different elements of your personality and lifestyle.

I recorded the session so that I could share it as fully as possible and having listened to it again, here are the main points he shared with me:

1) 25 is a very auspicious number.

Apparently, the number 25 is a very powerful and strong number, and those who are born on the 25th day of the month will be given those qualities. I'm not sure how powerful or strong I am though. Definitely not in a physical sense but I guess this experience of moving to India on my own and undertaking this research has shown me that maybe I'm at least a bit braver than I thought I was. So maybe that's how the number's qualities are showing themselves?

2) My character is essentially divided between academic and dreamer.

This was one of the things that surprised me because I hadn't thought of things in those terms before. He's essentially right since I have chosen to pursue academic studies for most of my adult lift. But he's also correct in that I'm more of a dreamer than I think even I realized. He asked if I tend to day dream a lot and I was startled because I do tend to day dream when I'm riding in the auto rickshaws or waiting for a meeting. But, I would argue that everyone does that so I'm not sure if it's necessarily a characteristic specific to me. However, maybe that's the point: we're all dreamers who have to put that aside in order to go about our careers or other life activities.

3) I need a hobby.

Apparently, I have a stressful character and therefore I need a hobby to serve as an outlet for that stress. I'm not sure how I feel about this assessment. On the one hand, I think I'm actually a lot more laid back in certain situations than other people would be in my position. For example, when writing papers or studying for exams in university, I was always more matter of fact than emotional about them. My attitude was "I have a week to study for this, that's all the time I have, so I should use it properly rather than wasting time stressing about the exam". And, I would argue, this attitude has served me well so far!

On the other hand, I do tend to get anxious about really random things that don't make sense at all. For example, when travelling, I like to have everything ready in the right order so that the trip goes as smoothly as possible. This means that all the bags are packed correctly, passport and ticket are easily accessible, and I know where I have to go when I reach the airport. On the surface, this seems completely normal as all travellers want to avoid unnecessary stress. But, if one of those elements goes wrong, even in the simplest ways, it makes me really anxious and I have a hard time letting go of that feeling for the rest of the day. So, this makes me think he might be on to something. I had already asked my mom to bring my flute back to Rome with her because being around Nipsi (who plays the flute in her band) has inspired me to give it another go. I'm hoping that having it around will help me to deal with any frustrations and anxiety I come across as I write up my thesis this year.

4) I have uncanny judgement about people and things.

I actually would agree with this statement, although I doubt there are many people in the world who would see this as a bad thing and want to deny it! I do think that my intuition is pretty good and I've tried to make a point in recent years to listen to it. This often happens with items that I find out later were more important than I originally thought. For example, when leaving the house in London, sometimes I'll see something as I go (such as my umbrella) and even though the sky is bright blue, I'll think "I should take that". I've found when I have that feeling and ignore it, I regret it (soaked from a sudden rainstorm). This is just a simple example and yes, the idea that it could rain any day in London is probably not particularly brilliant, but I hope you get what I mean. So, I'm going to strive to listen more to my intuition and trust my own judgement on things this year.

5) I have incredible luck.

His exact words were: "You have unbelievable, incredible luck. If we were all travelling in a car and the car turned over, you would be the one to walk away without a scratch." While I'm not sure that would be the case in reality, I do think I've had some pretty close calls with injuries that could have been a lot worse. For example, I once fell backwards down the stairs on one of London's double decker buses. Slamming into the bar at the bottom, I was shocked to find that I barely had a bruise after all that. But, upon further consideration, I realized that if I had been slightly lower and hit my neck on that bar... well, things would have been much, much worse. I'm sure everyone has moments in their lives when they get a sudden appreciation for their body and how different their lives would be if something were to change so drastically and that was definitely a moment like that for me. So, I'm not sure how uniquely lucky I am but here's hoping that luck continues!

Overall, it was a nice experience and really interesting to watch him draw up a quick star chart for me and read my palms. And while some of his comments were surprisingly accurate, I do think a lot of those thoughts could apply to anyone. However, I do appreciate the introspection this experience sparked. I think this whole adventure of coming here to India on my own, following my research and navigating through the struggles and obstacles that come with the territory has really made me take a step back and think about myself, my future and what I really want out of life. Not sure if I have a better grasp on that now than I did before I came but at least I hope I'm more aware of all the different elements that make up my slightly strange existence. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Sri Lanka Day 4, Part 1: Elephants!

On our fourth day in Sri Lanka, Samia and I were lucky enough to see... Elephants! I confess, I was significantly more excited about this than Samia as I've never seen an elephant up close outside of a zoo. The drive took about 2 hours but was worth it with pretty palm trees and nice weather. This would of course change (monsoon season!) but still couldn't put a damper on my excitement. We were very kindly accompanied by Samia's friend Dylan who was amazingly patient while I bounded all over trying to take as many photos as I possibly could. Thanks as well to Samia for her equal amounts of patience!

Lovely palm trees 

And more lovely palm trees 

Our destination was the Elephant Orphanage, where elephants are brought in if they have been injured or abandoned by their mothers. On the surface, it's a really nice place as they have food and space to wander around in safety. However, while I was over the moon to be interacting with them so closely, I did feel there were some negative aspects to their existence there.

Elephant orphanage 


Can I have some fruit please?

First up, after paying the entry fee (which was ridiculously lopsided: 100 for Sri Lankans, 2000 for foreigners), we wandered over to where one of the elephants was being fed by tourists. You had to pay a small fee for the basket of fruit but I thought, when am I going to get a chance to do this next? Although I know elephants are hardly man eaters and I was high enough up to not have to worry about being trampled... I have to confess, it's still a bit frightening to be putting your hands anywhere near such a big animal's mouth! Also, I discovered elephants have very strange tongues. Ew.

Nom nom nom! 

After I finished my fruit basket and said bye to the big elephant, we wandered over to the nursery area where baby elephants were being fed with bottles of milk. They were so sweet and obviously really excited to have their lunches. But... I noticed they were chained to the floor by one of their back feet. This made me sad, even though it's obviously a safety precaution. The feeding area is set up with open sides so that tourists can stand all around it so if an elephant was to decide it didn't want any more milk and wanted to leave, someone could be seriously hurt. Still... I couldn't quite get to terms with it. I really felt that the elephant's safety and comfort should come before that of the tourists who are there by choice. This feeling was solidified later one.

Say cheese! Even you baby elephant! 

The final area of the park has elephants out and about, roaming freely around the property in big herds. I counted at least 25 elephants at one time and those were only the ones I could see. As we left, there was another huge herd of about 10 elephants being driven in by the handlers so who knows how many are actually around the property.

Just hanging out with my new friend

It was while watching these huge animals roaming around that my negative feeling started to solidify. For example, in the picture below, it seems that the elephants are free to move around as they wish. However, what you can't see is that the elephant in the foreground is actually chained there. I think this is done so that the herd will stay close to where the tourists can see them - which is of course, absolutely not ok. I don't know, maybe there is a better reason for it but since only a few elephants were chained like that, I couldn't work out what an alternative cause would be. I would have preferred to pay more and been in jeeps or something, looking for them rather than having them kept close to the pedestrian areas. That said, it is a beautiful location and the elephants did seem pretty content to stay in this area so maybe it's not as bad as I assumed.

There were a lot of good moments too and I don't want it to seem like the experience was wholly negative. Aside from those sorts of niggling thoughts, I had a great time and really enjoyed being able to see such beautiful animals. Although it was raining while we were there, I am still really glad we went. I even made a new friend who was very interested in having her picture taken.

My new photo model 

Ahhh cuteness! 

This guy was less thrilled to be in my photo than I was.

After seeing all the different areas of the park (which doesn't take very long as it's fairly small), we started the drive back to Colombo. Along the way, we stopped to pick up some of these very strange fruits from one of the roadside stands. The smaller pink fruit sort of looked like the chestnuts trees you find in Italy (although those are bright green). Called Rambutan, it has essentially a soft interior that looks like a marble. It's sort of squishy although the consistency is I guess closest to a grape. Tastes kind of like a grape too now that I think about it. You peel back the pink outside and then can pop the soft center out. Surprisingly tasty!



Rambutan on the roadside 

The second fruit we picked up was called Mangosteen and looks sort of like a plum although the outside is a hard shell that you peel back to get to the soft inner fruit. The fruit inside is divided into segments, kind of like an orange, but the taste seemed to have a vague similarity to a banana. Yes, the fruit itself is basically as strange as my description just was. But, still tasty!


Inside mangosteen 

I had to split this post into two because the two activities we enjoyed were pretty different so I'll post the second half as soon as I finish writing it up... I hope it will be worth the wait! 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Sri Lanka Day 3: Swimming Club and the Beach

*Once again, sorry for the lack of posts! I'm down to my last five days here in India and so things have been predictably hectic. I'll try and get the final Sri Lanka posts up today to finish the catch up*

Day three in Sri Lanka was probably the best in terms of weather, although my favourite activity was still to come. Taking advantage of the sunshine, Samia and I went with Evan to the Colombo Swimming Club to take some pictures and poke around during the day time. I was on the hunt for a plaque with my Dad's childhood swimming record on it, which proved extremely difficult to find. After being told to return the next day to speak to one of the other staff members, we settled for taking photos in the sunshine. I was a bit sad that we didn't get any sunbathing in during this trip! I've managed to live in India for 5 and a half months and still maintained my Casper-like appearance because it's just too hot to stay out in the sun for any amount of time. Looking forward to trying to improve the situation when I get to Rome!

View from the Swimming Club's balcony 

Swimming club

The pool! Looked so inviting! 

View from over the back wall

Main building 

Beautiful place to relax

Swimming records 

More swimming records 

After lunch, Evan took us for a quick drive around Colombo, pointing out the various buildings and sites. He was a wonderful tour guide, although I'm not sure my photos will do his tour justice!

Down by the water

It's a popular place to walk and socialize 


Ministry of Finance (I think)

Water's edge 

After we arrived home, we enjoyed some home cooked lunch with Sumitha, Raju and Sooraj. While Sri Lankan food does have some similarities with Indian food, I found it to be spicier in most instances. Not so hot that it couldn't be enjoyed, but definitely with a kick.

Lunch time!

Finally, we headed off to one of the beach areas outside Colombo for dinner with all the 'kids', The drive was about 2 hours both ways so unfortunately we arrived after dark. This meant I didn't get very good photos so instead I'll share this one from the drive... I just like the colors.

Next up: the blog post I'm really excited to write! 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Sri Lanka Day 2: Shopping and Massages

Our second day in Sri Lanka dawned with a tasty home cooked breakfast consisting of dhal, sausages, an egg curry-type dish and what I think was sambola (the dark orange element on the plate) and appams - noodle like in consistency but almost pancake like in shape... I'm not doing a great job of describing them so here's a picture. They were delicious!

Breakfast: sausage, sambola, dhal, appam, egg curry

After breakfast, Samia and I headed to Odel shopping center, which is essentially a large department store selling clothes, baked goods, tea, and souvenirs. While checking out some of the items, we stumbled upon the bakery where I found these cupcakes... Not sure why the obviously identifiable characters were renamed? Maybe it's a copyright thing or something?

SpongeBob SquarePants: "Mr. Bob"

Cookie Monster: "Cookee"

Oscar the Grouch: "Green Monster"

Big Bird: "B Birdy"

Elmo: "Elm Monster"

For someone with a love of elephants as well documented as mine, Sri Lanka was basically like hitting the jackpot. Anything you can imagine putting an elephant on, you can find there. I picked up some window hangings with little elephants on them but otherwise managed to avoid elephant overload. For example, I managed to pass this stand several times without succumbing to the adorable elephant toys.


After we finished our shopping, we headed over to the Dutch Hospital area of the city. This is a shopping center designed around an open courtyard with a few shops and restaurants. More importantly, it is also the home of one of the Spa Ceylon parlors. Our host, Sumitha, had very kindly called in appointments for us while we were shopping so we were able to head straight into our treatments after a quick snack. Samia had opted for the head and foot massage while I went for the whole body option. I figured I would never see a 90 minute full body massage for 60 dollars again so I went for it. And I didn't regret it for a second!

Massage oils and lotions at Spa Ceylon

Blurry picture of the private room

After our lovely spa experience, we arrived home to find that our host Raju had arrived with 'short eats' - little tea time snacks designed to tide you over until the next meal. These had a variety of fillings although fish seemed to be the common factor in several of them. They reminded me a lot of British pasties... but were infinitely more flavourful.

Tasty short eats 

After resting for a bit, Samia and I joined the other 'kids' for a quick meal at Commons, a restaurant close by to where we were staying. We ordered a variety of rotis, breads with different fillings such as chicken tikka, four cheese, etc. Since my photos of the food didn't turn out great, I instead offer you a few pictures of my lovely dining compaions. Sumitha and Raju were even able to join us towards the end of the evening... just in time for my obnoxious photo taking! Lucky them... :)

Sumitha and Shehani

Samia, Ashwini and Raju

Sumitha, Caitie, Samia, Raju, and Ashwini

Sooraj and Evan 

Samia, Sooraj, Caitie, Shehani, Sumitha, Ashwini and Evan