Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Yabba Dabba Dooooo Time!

We've spent the last four nights sleeping in a cave. On purpose, not because we've run out of money. This isn't just any cave, either- it's the Flintstones Cave! How novel is that? Our cave is probably considerably fancier than Fred or Barney's though. We have two levels, the top one being a loft with two extra beds and a window from which we can watch the hot air balloons at sunrise, a heater, a comfy bed and a modern fancy bathroom. Our cave doesn't have wifi, but there is one in the common cave lounge...Cave life has never been so good! We are in Cappadocia, our second and only other stop in Turkey besides Istanbul.

Cappadocia is everything we need and want it to be right now, at this point in our trip. The days have been glorious and sunny- which is not only wonderful, but also necessary- because its even colder here than in Istanbul. The thermometer on the bus here varied between 2 and 4 degrees Celcius. Maybe you've missed this, but we've been sweating our buns off in Asia for the last year- we aren't really carrying around a lot of winter gear. Thankfully, with the sun, I can get away with layering on every single piece (no exaggeration) of clothing that I have in my bag, including my pyjamas, and be comfortably warm during the day. It also helps to get the blood pumping. Goreme, the town in the region of Cappadocia where we are staying is perfectly located amidst countless valleys and trails, great for both exploring, and taking in the stunning scenery. We spent a happy four days doing just that!

Its certainly not tourist season here- which means we pretty much have all the valleys, trails and lookouts to ourselves. It really adds to the adventure of it. I'm under no delusion that we are pioneers out discovering hidden cave-houses and -churches that have been lost to the world for centuries, but wandering through the deserted cave villages, with not a soul in sight- it feels like it. When we stumbled upon an ancient secret cave church, built back in the first century when Christians carved out the caves of Cappadocia to live in, out of sight of the Romans, I felt like Columbus discovering (so our history books say) North America. It was so cool. Of course, we had to climb up some pretty precarious sandstone footsteps, and teeter across a narrow ridge to get there- but it was so worth it. Right, J? The church had three rooms, carved enclaves and frescoes painted on the ceilings and walls. Much of the outside wall had fallen away affording spectacular views over the landscape. Now, this would be a great place to attend Sunday service....

Cappadocia has been a refreshing and relaxing stop for us. We are really happy that we made the effort to get here, and that we spent time getting to know the area. Tonight, we head back to Istanbul on the overnight bus (where they give you free cake and tea!) and in a few short days we'll be flying to Brussels, where our wonderful friends Kevin and Vicky (whom we met back in NZ) will be picking us up at the airport (luxury!!) and whisking us back to Brugge, their hometown, where they have promised us two full days of gorging on Belgium chocolate, waffles, Trappist beer and great company! Can't wait!

p.s We also have been munching on delicious Gozleme (kinda like a quesadilla) on the recommendation of Leone- SO yummy and cheap! Thanks for the suggestion, Leone!

p.p.s There are lots more pics on our Flickr- click on the picture badge to the right!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Its Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks. Thanks to Sarah and Ed for this stroll down childhood memory lane.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lovin' the 'Bul

We absolutely love Istanbul. Its more a collection of little things that we like so much about this city, rather than any one thing specifically.

Lets start at the beginning. Half of Istanbul lies in Asia, and the other in Europe. The cliche says it really is, physically (we wouldn't say culturally, though), where East meets West. For us though, Istanbul is a warm welcome back into Western life. First, at the airport, the quintessentially Western Starbucks chain greeted us at the gate. We don't even go to Starbucks at home, really (unless Airica was working). But it was decorated so festively, the red cups all had little ice skaters on them, and they were playing Christmas music. And... a cup of hot chocolate was more than our entire day's food cost in Sri Lanka. Yup, we were in the West. We swallowed hard at the price list and what it meant for us and our 12 days in Turkey. But we didn't buy anything-not at those prices.

Jonathan literally danced out of the airport. He had felt his first gust of cold November air in between the airport doors. He yelped in delight. Chilly, Autumn weather! People glanced over and pulled their winter coats tighter around themselves. I practically went into shock. What was this feeling, and why was I still wearing a t-shirt and flip flops? We went back in and borrowed some of Starbucks' cozy chairs to pull on our socks and shoes and I rummaged through my bag for the fleece I had, until this point had been wondering why I was carrying around for the last year. And my scarf. And my raincoat. Jonathan started dancing again.

I was not expecting it to be cold in Istanbul. Especially because in the Bahrain airport, where we had just had an overnight layover (uggh) had big screens advertising 'Weather in the Middle East' and claimed (repeatedly-all night long) that Istanbul was a 22 degrees Celsius. The high was 29 degrees and the low 21 the screen told us! I'm glad wherever they got their information from wasn't in charge of air traffic control. It was maybe 10 degrees, during the day, if the sun was out. And I'm not complaining. After we went out on a mini shiver-induced shopping spree and bought toques and mittens at the Grand Bazaar, even I found the crisp, fall days to be delightful.

Istanbul is a mosaic. There are so many wonderful things to see. For us, the city offers endless strolls through neighbourhoods as contrasting as ancient cobble-stoned streets jumbled around a mosque commissioned by a long ago sultan, to modern, fashionable, rooftop restaurants. Everywhere we look, there is something else to explore.

We spent a happy few hours strolling through the Grand Bazaar, bantering with the shopkeepers. 'Grand' being no understatement. I read that this is the largest covered bazaar in the world! Its a labyrinthine of over 4000 shops and kilometers of lanes. It contains mosques, banks, restaurants and workshops-its a city all on its own. Its fascinating- and a tourist trap extraordinaire: 'Come here! I can help you spend your money!' was a common greeting. It was all in good fun. I was in especially high spirits because many of the scarves that they had on offer were the exact same ones I had bought in China and Nepal- only I had paid less than a quarter of the price! If that doesn't put you in a good mood, I don't know what will. Next on my list was the Spice Market... or the Sampling Market, if you're me. 'Come! Try our Turkish Delight! Best in Turkey.' Free samples? Sounds like a free lunch to me! I like bazaars.

We are staying in a less touristy part of town, a neighbourhood called Beyoglu. This has more to do with the fact that we knew nothing about Istanbul when we booked the cheapest room we could find on the internet from Sri Lanka. It has turned out to be fantastic, and one of the things we like best about Istanbul. We are right around the corner from cheap, local food (chicken kebab = YUM), there aren't any pesky touts, shoe shiners, or roving men who have a brother/friend/cousin who would just looove to show us their carpet shop which rover could conveniently lead us to- they're free after all... not to buy, just to talk, of course, and have tea, conversation is free.... blah blah blah, you get the idea.

Even more wonderful about Beyoglu, is the wide walking street that runs for a couple kilometres down the city's main shopping district. At night, the lively promenade is strung with festive, white Christmas lights, there are chestnuts roasting on street-side carts, the air is fresh and nippy, and everyone is out for their evening stroll. Its a wonderfully atmospheric place for a stroll. Its the first time its felt like the holiday season for us in a long time.

Thus far, the Turks have been very friendly and helpful. When we first arrived in Istanbul and couldn't find our hostel, we asked a lady for directions. She didn't know, so she ran up to her office and printed us out a map of how to get there!

We love watching the fishermen on the big, main bridge that connects the old town to the upper town. The bridge, probably a few hundred metres long, is crammed with fishermen donning massive poles and reeling in seemingly endless amounts of small silver fish. All day, everyday, thousands of these fish are being reeled in constantly... how are there always so many fish- and why are they all so stupid? (J: Because they're fish.)

Another great thing about Istanbul- not once has anyone attempted to run us over while we were crossing the street! There are designated sidewalks to walk on and only once was there a motorbike driving on the sidewalk (he must have come from the Asian side of town). People don't huff and puff when they have to make change for larger bills, and there even appears that restaurants have some noticeable semblance to hygiene- some cooks even wear gloves when touching your food! Istanbul is home to countless stray cats, but they are all furry and fat and they don't even look as they have rabies! This is all good, in our books.

And now, the not-so-good. I have only two complaints. First, is that everyone and their brother smokes here. For non-smokers, it is pretty gross. Second, is the exorbitant visa fee that the Turkish Government charges Canadians. For Canadians, a standard Turkish visa is $60. Its not the fee itself that flew me into an angry frenzy at the visa counter- its the fact that Canadians, and Canadians ALONE pay THREE times the visa fee that any other nationality in the entire world pays. And no one seems to know why. Or if they do, its some sot of National secret grudge, and they certainly weren't telling me the reason. Most other countries, if they require a visa, pay $20. The next closest to what we Canadians pay is poor Moldova, who pay $30. And then its just us, hanging out at $60. Why? Don't even say 'reciprocity' because I will bite your head off and then go into the five point lecture that I originally had in mind for a blog I was going to write solely on this issue- I was that annoyed about it at the time. Consider yourself lucky that I've spared you from my rant. If you really want to get me going some time- just ask me about Turkish visa reciprocity when I get home-boy do I have a spiel prepared. Anyways, I like Turkey so much that I don't want to get all revved up again over $120 right now. Its a drop in the bucket at this point. Hey! There's something else that's not reciprocal. We love Turkey, but apparently they don't love us. Who would have thought? Not everyone loves Canadians.

p.s: It is against the law in Turkey to 'insult Turkish-ness.' Vague....

p.p.s: In case you were wondering, Lao doesn't like Canadians either, but I probably already complained about that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Would the Real J Mooney Please Stand Up?

It was Uncle Dan who brought the issue up, which is funny. Usually the role of worrying falls strictly on the laps of Gramma and Mom. Either way, the puzzling predicament has now been brought to light, for us all to ponder:

How is Jonathan going to get back into Canada?

Under which highly unlikely circumstances might this problem arise, you may ask?

Exhibit A: J's passport pic 
                                          Exhibit B: J last week

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Girl with the Pearl Earring

We spent our last week in southern Sri Lanka beach bumming. This was not J's choice, as you would all know, but I just didn't see how we could be all the way over here in Sri Lanka and not check out any of it's world class sand. After much (much) deliberation, I settled on three golden stretches. First, was Tangalle, then Mirissa and, finally, Unawatuna. Tangalle was the most absolutely perfectly sublime beaches I have ever seen in my entire life. It was absolutely breath-taking. The kind of place where, more than a few times, I just stopped and looked around in awe: 'I can't believe that I am actually here!' There were very few tourists, no pesky beach hawkers, our cabana had hammocks, I found a book I hadn't read before in their book exchange and there was a fabulous breeze. Without a doubt, we spent 95% of our days there horizontal. The other 5% of the time I spent cooling off in the turquoise water. It was paradise. Well, I thought so. J even concluded that it was only 'mildly horrible.'

We moved down the coast to Mirissa. It was much more touristy but the sand was hard and perfect for strolling, there was a (half) local restaurant with delicious food, AND there were massive waves (by far the biggest I have ever seen) which I had planned to spend many hours frolicking in. Who doesn't like to play in the waves? (Besides a certain boring Mr. Mooney... and not one that is my dad-in-law) Wave wars!! It was at this beautifully breath-taking beach that the tragedy struck.

It was all going as planned. My days were organized in intervals of sitting and reading in the shade, strolling along the beach and then jumping around in the waves like a kid on vacation (ok..maybe I am a kid on vacation..). The waves were enormous. I waded out to waist deep water and the waves crashed over my head! The first wave was terrifying (and resulted in my drinking a litre of sea water) but I quickly got the hang of it. I was wearing my sunglasses. Because I always wear my sunglasses. If I don't, I think it is a very real possibility that I will die-or go blind. My eyes are so sensitive to the light. I never go anywhere without sunglasses and I wear them all the time, all year round. I do realize that perhaps wearing my sunglasses in the waves isn't the best idea I've ever had. J even makes sure to ask, 'Are you sure you want to wear them while swimming?' But, I argue (in my head, with myself) that I've got these waves all figured out, I hold them on when I go under water, and its not like the waves sneak up behind you...I can prepare for them. Right....

I am out swimming by myself because my former lifeguard of a husband hates swimming. (It doesn't make any sense to me either). There is a couple beside me in the waves wearing cool surfer clothes. Billabong shirts and shorts. They are masterfully riding the waves into the shore by jumping at just the right time into the wave and riding its white top all the way in. Wow! Maybe this is what body surfing is? I don't know- but I do know that I can most certainly do that to! I think... I try to imitate them. Mistake #1. I pick the biggest, meanest most ferocious wave for my first go. Mistake #2. I turn my back to the wave (Mistake #3) and prepare to allow the wave to guide me on its crest to shore. (I'm just going to stop counting all the mistakes now..) Needless to say, it doesn't work out quite like I am expecting. (Read: its a disaster).

It's not a nice wave. It has no interest in allowing me to ride its wake like those super-cool body surfers. No, instead, it wants to kill me. The wave (with the power of the entire ocean behind it, it seems) totally crushes me. Complete devastation...of my body. Surprisingly, I'm caught off guard by this. The wave pushes me down, down, down to the ocean floor in the 'enth of a second. Darn. As I'm hanging out down there, in the sand, pinned down by (probably) the biggest wave that this beach has ever seen, except (maybe) the tsunami, two increasingly terrifying thoughts cross my mind. #1.'It would be really crappy to die like this' and then #2. Ohhhhhh NO! My SUNGLASSES!!' The mighty wave continues to press me into the sandy bottom (where the sun dances beautifully through the crystal clear water onto the golden sand- not that I am noticing any of this at the moment). The wave pushes harder against me, allowing millions of grains of sand to find their way into my bathing suit and burrowing my head, and more importantly, my hair, deeper into the sand.

I wave my arms wildly (well, as 'wildly' as one can while being pinned down by the world's largest wave) hoping for any chance that my glasses had yet to stray to the middle of the ocean. Sigh.. (gurgle). No dice. And, to top it off, I was getting a little low on oxygen. After my body had been sucessfully wrangled into a flat pretzel, and every crevice was full of sand, the wave finally released its vise grip. Much in the same way a champion wrestler would after an utter and complete knockout of his unworthy opponent. At this point I wold have been wonderfully impressed by the awesome power of mother nature if (A) I didn't just nearly die and (B) if my sunglasses had somehow, in this show of ultimate power, magically reappeared on my face. This didn't appear to be the case, however. This because when I checked my eyeballs again they were squinting into the blazingly bright golden sun, sans the aid of the said glasses. Sigh. How stupid of me! Why was I wearing my sunglasses in the waves? And more importantly, why did I think that I could ride the waves with the same pizzaz as thse two (probably) Aussies? I mean, they had Billabong shirts on (obviously they were experts!). Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I started what turned out to be a fruitless search and prayed for a miracle. As I mentioned before I was quite convinced that I would literally die without sunglasses. So I figured it was grounds to pray for a miracle. The enormous wave had stirred up the otherwise perfectly perfect golden sand in the abnormally amazing crystal clear waters. And right then I couldn't see a darn thing. I meticulously made a search plan and felt around with my feet and hands systematically back and forth, back and forth and back and forth towards shore. The waves, albeit smaller than before, continued to crash down, jumbling everything all about. My search had made it to the shoreline, where hopefully my precious sunglasses would have washed up with THE wave. I was sad that my glasses didn't appear to be here, but happy when I saw my loving husband at the ocean's edge. Good. I could use some sympathy. A wave just tried to kill me, after all. Failing that, it stole my sunglasses and ran. And I was sunburned. I pouted a bit at my husband, standing there with his big 'ole sunglasses on. He must have seen all that just went down.

'Well, that was stupid,' he quipped before turning around and sauntered back to his shady hideaway.

My husband, who has a reaction not dissimilar to that of a vampire when it comes to the sun, had come all the way down to the beach just to tell me how stupid it had been to where sunglasses in the waves. Helpful. I gathered that he was probably not going to jump into the water and help me with my search.

I faced the waves again, still hoping for that miracle, and swung my limbs around wishfully. Eventually I gave up and came to shore still hoping that maybe my glasses would wind up on the beach at some point.

Let me take this opportunity to say that, really it wasn't these specific sunglasses that I had any sort of emotional attachment to. I had bought them way back at the beginning of the trip at MEC in Vancouver, because I needed sunglasses and they were on sale for $16.99. I had successfully not lost them for the last thirteen and a half months. This is a record of sorts for me. Usually sunglasses don't last a month before I lose them, sit on them, or lose them. So, not only were these sunglasses way past their expiry date, they were also scratched to smithereens. Everytime I put them on I thought about how nice it would be to get new ones when we get home. Ones, that when I wore them, my eyes didn't have to make special adjustments just to see through the scratches. Of course, there had been countless places to buy cheap, crappy sunglasses back in South East Asia, but I had read somewhere that low quality glasses are bad for your eyes- and I have expensive eyes, so I didn't want to risk it.

Anyways, I was frustrated when I came back up the beach. This meant it was the perfect time to stub my toe. Hard. Stupid toe. Stupid sharp rock just barely jutting out of the stupid sand outside the gate to our stupid guesthouse. My middle toe. Who stubs their middle toe, anyways? And oh boy, did it hurt. I wanted to scream. A near death experience courtesy of a sunglass stealing wave and now my toe felt like it was going to fall off. It started throbbing. And going purple. A dark, mean, deep, painful purple. Nothing good has ever come from this shade of purple. I gingerly showed my toe to J. 'Your toe nail is probably going to fall off,' he says. Nice. SO apparently I married the days bearer of all news that is bad and obvious. First he tells me how stupid it was for me to go swimming with my sunglasses (obvious) and now I was going to lose my toenail. (bad) Sigh.

I slump down into my shaded beach chair and contemplate what my life is going to be like without sunglasses. As it would be, we are in a middle-of-nowhere beach town in Southern Sri Lanka, the only country on our trip which has exactly no beach hawkers selling sarongs, beach balls, or sunglasses. It was an aspect that I found fabulously refreshing-until this moment.

As I was sitting there, dividing my time equally between feeling sorry for myself and glaring at the Bad News Bear (aka: my husband), I watched my fellow westerners frollick in the waves merrily (none of them stupid enough to be wearing their sunglasses, I noted.)

A couple of Eastern Europeans came out of the ocean. They had something in their hands. I got excited at the off-the-wall prospect that they might have somehow discovered my glasses. They had had goggles, I remembered (because I had been super jealous of them when I noticed). Darn. They were just holding their goggles.
But THEN- what was that? Something else in their hands too? They seemed to be inspecting whatever it was with a reasonable amount of curiosity. Since they were staying at our guesthouse they came up the beach towards us. The object was the right size to be glasses... the right colour....but the odds were just too low. I just lost my sunglasses in the OCEAN. A needle in a haystack. A grain of sand on the beach....

The couple took a last look at their newly discovered treasure and laid it down on their beach towel with their goggles. I peered from a distance, holding on to the glimmer of hope- and then, in a quickness that shocked even myself I ran down towards the (slightly startled and maybe a little worried-looking) couple. 'MY SUNGLASSES!!!' I shouted, again maybe a little too loud and with no small amount of excitement. The couple, whom I'd never met stared at me blankly (probably in shock of the wildy crazy woman who had chased them down the beach and was now screaming in delight right in their faces. They might not have even spoke English for all I knew. 'You found them!! Thank You! Thank You! THANK YOU!' I shouted, dancing around. The couple is now staring at me more than a little bewildered. Maybe its because I'm yelling and talking really fast or maybe its because I'm claiming that these sunglasses that they had just randomly plucked from the ocean, as my own. Either way they smiled and said 'You're welcome,' probably realizing it would be the easiest way to be rid of me. I couldn't believe it. My sunglasses that moments ago, I was sure I would never see again, were now sitting in front me. I tried them on, just to be sure. Yup. Still scratched to near uselessness. But they were mine- that much was certain! CRAZY.... lucky.... crazy! Really- what are the odds? I lost these suckers in the OCEAN!

it wasn't until the sand settled much later in the day that the real tragedy of all these shenanigans came to light. In the end, the ocean most definitely won the battle. It had quietly, sneak-ily, without my noticing succeeded in stealing something that had actually mattered to me, something that I was actually emotionally attached to- one of my favourite pearl earrings. I had bought the pearls months ago in Halong Bay in Vietnam and had been wearing them ever since. I was completely smitten with them.
And now they were gone. It was a very, very sad turn of events. I was/am very upset about the matter. J says we can go back to Vietnam and I can get another pair... one day. That made me feel a little better- an excuse for another trip.

So, the tally at the end of the day shows a clear winner.

The ocean re-claims my perfect, prized pearl...

And all I'm left with is a lousy pair of sunglasses...

A purple (maybe) broken, or (probably) sprained but (definitely) ugly middle toe...

And a sunburn.

'You know, this is all so characteristically you,' J says to me that evening as I am recounting my whole sob story (yet again) over a delicious rice and curry dinner. Its a hat-trick of unhelpful comments for the Moon. (J: I am becoming increasingly certain that I am married to Amelia Bedelia).

To make matters even more interesting...

Later we were strolling(me-hobbling) along the beach as the sun was setting. I was walking along the waterline in hopes that the sea would allow for a second miracle of that day and my pearl would magically wash ashore at my feet as I was passing by. Just when I was thinking what a wonderful story that would be- a ten rupee note washes up with a wave and lands directly atop my purple toe. The ocean was offering a meager condolence for all the trauma it had caused me that day. J, enticed by the cash, rushed forward (dangerously close to the water) and plucked the bill from my toe. Dangerous because J hates salt water. Yes, the man hates sun and salt water. And sand. He probably hates palm trees, puppies and Easter chocolate too....

'Well, its no pearl earring- but I'll TAKE it!' he exclaims, happily, shaking out the sopping note. I glare at him. For the record, dear family and friends- ten Sri Lankan rupees is worth approximately nine Canadian cents. CENTS. (J: In my defense, regardless of the amount it was a bill and not a coin. A ten cent bill would be more exciting to stumble upon than a one dollar coin, don't you think?)

K: It was nine cents.

Monday, November 14, 2011

If you get lost, they'll show you where to go...

I admit that before we landed at the Colombo airport that I was a little leery about Sri Lanka. Mostly it was the fact that more than a few times, our guidebook goes out of the way to detail all the different ways, shapes and forms that the people here go about trying to rip foreigners off. Not only is the constant fight with tuk tuks, hotel owners, waiters, touts and bus drivers trying to squeeze you for an extra quarter really, really annoying, its also exhausting. After 13 months on the road I no longer (not that I had much to begin with) have neither the patience nor the energy for these sort of shenanigans. Of course, being the staunch budget traveler that one needs to be, traveling for so long, I was still prepared to put up a bit of a stand for my extra fifty cents of hard earned (ok, earned) money, but I was really, really not looking forward to it.

In total contrast to all my fears, Sri Lanka has been probably one of the easiest, friendliest, most hassel-free places that we have been to in all of Asia. Even more surprising was that it all started on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Delhi to Colombo. We were seated in the emergency aisle and the aisle seat was free. Before we took off one of the smile-y flight attendants sat beside us for take-off and struck up a conversation. She was about our age and genuinely interested, and interesting. Oshadi told us about her flights to Paris and London and then invited us to stay with her and her family.

At immigration the visa we had been fretting about (we were worried it would be really big and need its whole passport page- J has a total of 1.5 free pages in his passport and we have a whole bunch more stamps to cram in) turned out to be the tiniest of stamps (and free!) And the officer even smiled at us! The friendly tourist info stand was open 24 hours, and the first taxi we asked agreed to take us into town at the government fixed rate! (This is more impressive in Asia than it sounds).

Since then, Sri Lanka has been a wonderfully surprising series of super friendly, honest, genuine, happy-to-see-us locals. So refreshing! After discovering what a local restaurant looked like from the outside and when it was open, eating in Sri Lanka has become one of our favourite experiences. The owners in the little eateries are enthusiastic to show us everything that they have on offer, load our plates full and then happily charge us the local price. We have yet to be charged more than a local for a bus ticket and can count on one hand the number of time people have hassled us in any way.

People, in general are some of the friendliest and most genuine people we have met. Many speak at least a little English and are excited about practicing it on us. They all want to know, usually in this order, where we are from, how old we are, if we are married, why we don't have kids yet (we've been married THREE whole years already, afterall), how we like Sri Lanka and what our next stop on the island is. There are very few North Americans here. (Actually we haven't met any). There are very few independent travelers at all. Most tourists are middle-aged Europeans in tour groups. Because of this (we think) people know very little (re:nothing) about Canada. Sometimes I think that people haven't even heard of Canada before. They just repeat the name, rolling it around in their mouth like its a completely new, foreign word with no meaning or reference to them. 'Is that in the West?' one guy asked us. 'You mean America?' confirmed another. 'Germany?' a woman wondered. 'Is everyone rich there?' yet another person wanted to know. This is as new and interesting of a reaction for us as it is a country for them. People who have never heard of the second largest country in the world? Where are we? There has been a very odd exception. When we told the kid at our guesthoue in Kandy that we were from Canada his immediate response was 'Ohhh Niagara Falls!' He was quite excited about it. He followed up his first comment with, 'You know, the big waterfalls...' We laughed. We'd heard about it. 'We live there,' we told him. 'Yes, in Canada,' he said. 'No, in Niagara Falls,' we confirmed. His eyes grew wider. He was shocked. We were shocked because he is the first person we have ever met who had not followed up the fact that we live in Canada with 'Toronto or Vancouver?' or 'English Canada or French?' In fact, he was one of the very few people who had ever even heard of Niagara Falls. Most Europeans we meet have no idea what we're talking about when we say we live in Niagara. Just to get even a little more odd, the iron fence of our favourite open-air eatery in the next town was adorned with a massive panorama of the Falls sweeing from Rainbow Bridge all the way across both falls and up to the Sheraton, Embassy Suites and the Fallsview Casino (Cachino in Asia)!

Another wonderful thing about the people of Sri Lanka are their smiles. They don't just stare at us, wondering what sort of strange planet we fell off of. Almost every single person we pass, young, old or somewhere in between, smiles, waves and says hello. Especially friendly are the children. They aren't timid around us at all. They run up singing and dancing and yelling 'come! come!' in their miniature voices. (We think 'come' means welcome. Sometimes they say 'come in' too. Maybe they just all want to have us over for dinner?) They run in circles around us, giddy with excitement. They don't ask for anything like sweets or school pens, they are just genuinely happy to greet us. One particular little girl, a little more serous than the other children her age wasn't satisfied with just the waving, singing and dancing. She broke away from her parents and ran towards us. She was about 5 years old, super cute with short black hair and a poofy be-dazzled dress. She flung her arm behind her like she was about to throw a baseball and then flicked it straight forward at us, holding her hand out limp at our waists. She wanted a handshake! haha She waited patiently for us to clue in and then smiled professionally at us as she shook our hands, in turn. When we had been greeted to her satisfaction she turned proudly and ran back to her giggling parents. It was hilarious.

Being up in the tea hills, as we are now, we have the opportunity to pass many tea pickers either in the fields or on their way to or from the fields with huge bulging sacks of leaves strapped to their backs and secured around their foreheads. You would think that all this carrying of heavy loads would make them cranky and tired. Not so. They are, perhaps, even the friendliest of all. Without fail, whether they be high up in the fields, almost out of sight, or passing us on the uneven dirt path that curves through the tea plantations, they smile widely and say hello brightly. When we pass them while they are on breaks from picking and sitting on the edge of the path eating their lunches of rice and curry- they offer us their food! Its a wonderful, overwhelming experience just to go on a stroll here!

I really could go on and on with examples of just how wonderful the people are here in Sri Lanka, but I think you get the picture. Plus, we need to have some stories left to tell when we get home... which is fast approaching, by the way....

ps. Our title is from the Great Big Sea song, 'Good People.' Download it: it will make you smile like you're a Sri Lankan!

p.p.s. In Haputale we are staying at SriLak View Holiday Guesthouse, and its simply perfect.. in case any of you happen to find yourself here....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Misty Mountain Morning in the Lipton Tea Fields

When we woke up this morning we happily admired the spectacular view that stretches from the mountain ridge that we are on in central Sri Lanka all the way down to the south coast. From our high vantage point we look out at the rolling green hills getting smaller and smaller before they eventually flatten out into plains dotted with lakes that glisten in the morning sun. What a view to wake up to!

Needless to say, it appeared to be the perfect day for the hike up to Lipton's Seat- the view point that Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton tea, himself would climb to to survey his tea empire from. The views were meant to be breath-taking and I had been looking forward to it since I had started planning our Sri Lankan itinerary. First, though, we had to go to the Dambatenne Tea Factory, started by Lipton in 1890, and still 'growing' strong, providing Lipton tea lovers around the world with their morning cuppa for over a century. Pretty cool. Sri Lankans are proud of their tea- and rightly so- they are the world's second most important tea-growing nation, and, from experience I can say that their tea is pretty darn tastey.

I steam-rolled Jonathan until he agreed that it was time to get up and start the day. We went to our fave local eatery, where they love us and seem intent on stuffing us full of delicious Sri Lankan food and tea for as long as we'll keep nodding at their re-fill offers. In the end, our bill came to a whopping total of $2.75 and we were sure we wouldn't have to eat again until dinner. The friendly bus station men led us to the exact spot in which our bus would stop and then we collected (by no effort of our own) a group of overly-helpful locals who made it their mission to ensure that we were entertained while we were waiting, and ready the second the bus pulled up in front of us. As we waited the clouds started to roll in. Boo. By the time we had paid our 20 cent bus ticket and the rickety bus had rumbled and belched its way down the cliff-hanging road of a hundred turns and deposited us in front of the factory, everything was enveloped in clouds. Up here in the hills, the sky doesn't just get cloudy, the sky actually falls around the town. We were in the clouds and mist and could visibly see cloud wisps as they blew by. It would have been great, if I hadn't known that there was something spectacular hiding out there beyond the clouds.

Travelling off season has many benefits. Lack of other tourists being the main one. We paid our $2 and set off on our private tour of the Lipton tea factory. We started up on the second floor where 10kg bags over-flowing with tea leaves were being hauled in from outside. Tea leaf collectors, all women, bring their loads in to the factory three times a day. Each woman collects about 20kg a day! During the day, the factory processes thousands and thousands of kilos of tea leaves. It takes 1kg of leaves to make 250g of bag-worthy tea! Ponder that next time you are enjoying your Orange Pekoe.

The process is fascinating. First, leaves are individually inspected for quality. Only the youngest, lightest leaves will do. They are then poured into troughs where they are aired for 16 hours with warm air from a big fan underneath. Our tour guide dug down to the bottom of the trough and let a gust of air blow up through the leaves setting them off into a dancing frenzy, blowing up into the air and swirling around us. Tea leaves scattered everywhere. Judging by the amount of tea in its various forms laying at random around the factory floor, I figured that they had some to spare. This may be a world renowned international brand, but we are still in Sri Lanka, we laughed. After they're blow dried, the tea leaves are dropped down a hole into huge barrels. More dancing ensues, as the leaves shake, rattle and roll themselves into longer stick-like form. They are cut one, two and three times down to miniscule size with a little more bouncing around in between, of course to separate the superior quality from the seconds. The tea is fired, separated again and then bounced around some more to divide the different size morsels. The best quality tea is packed up and shipped away for us westerners to enjoy. Lucky us!

Its amazing that within 24 hours tea can go from a young leaf on a branch to a black pinch of dust ready for your mug. It was also funny to walk around the factory and see all the millions of cups of tea bouncing, cooking, or just lying around. There was tea absolutely everywhere.

After our lesson we left the factory to wander around some of the hundreds of acres of tea plant covered hills. Unfortunately the clouds had not lifted in the least and we could see no more than a couple hundred metres ahead of us. I was disappointed again as we started to stroll, but the spectacular atmosphere changed my tune pretty quickly. The clouds/mist itself was beautiful to walk in. The vibrant green tea plants that immediately surrounded us were a bright contrast to the opaque whiteness of the cloud and the trees that dotted the plantation looked like blurry silhouettes adding dimension to our limited view. When the clouds momentarily parted to reveal steep green mountains lined to their peaks with rows of tea plants and speckled with butterfly-like tea pickers in their colourful sarees, it was absolute magic. The scene vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared, almost as if it wasn't actually there at all.

Speaking of things appearing out of the mist, on our way back down through the hills, I turned back momentarily and my heart stopped. Was that... could it be... a gorilla emerging from the mist behind me! A gorilla in the mist! Gasp. A quick second take calmed my nerves. No gorilla... for better or worse, it was just my hairy, hairy husband bringing up the rear... haha!

ps. Ceylon tea is tea from Sri Lanka. I didn't know this. The Brits changed the name of the island (from the name the Dutch had already changed it to, from the name the Portugese had changed it to...) to Ceylon back in the day. And then they planted a bunch of tea in 'Ceylon'. Ceylon Tea! In 1972 Lankans restored their island's name to what they had always known their country as, 'Lanka', adding 'Sri' as a respectful title.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Packing Like a Pro

We have written about packing before, more than once. But how you pack really does impact your travel experience. The impact is either positive or it is negative. As an independent backpacker you will never have a neutral feeling about how and what you shoved into your rucksack. One person might snicker at the seventy to one hundred Liter packs labourously being hauled past her. Conversely, the poor soul carrying that eighty Liter pack will see a thirty Liter bag hanging seemingly weightlessly off the shoulders of another person and vow to himself to pack like that savvy traveller next time. We have each been travelling for a total of two out of the last eight years, almost always together. Not once in this time has a seventy-Liter-plus backpacker been evangelical about their pack size to us. But more of these folks than I can remember have asked us, "Is that all you have?" We can almost see a twinkle in their far away eyes when we say, "Yes." When you are considering what size your primary bag should be, keep in mind that just because your trip is big, doesn't mean your bag has to be. Mine is twenty-eight Liters and Kristen's is (an exorbitant) thirty-two Liters.

While on the topic of bags, it is important to have a good day bag. Thin, light and easy to stuff away are good characteristics for a day pack to have. We both carry a twelve Liter bag that we can pull out if we need to pack a picnic lunch or to carry whatever else.

Probably where we see most backpackers over-pack most often is with clothing. Carry five complete outfits if you really want to. For us, we find it works perfectly well to wear an outfit and have a second outfit folded in the bag. Depending where and when we are venturing, we will also pack a warm layer or rain wear. That being said, it is nice to have a supply of five pairs of socks and maybe even that many pairs of underwear if you get all funny about the hypothetical possibility of wearing them for more than one day in a row. All of this goes along with my thought that even in "regular" life, a lot of people seem to wash clothing that really doesn't need to be washed just yet. Its partly a water conservation thing. Anyway, I'll get back on track.

As for clothing, there are so many outdoor stores that are more than happy to outfit you in the latest outdoor performance clothing. You can find anything from quick dry fabric to moisture wicking material to shirts with SPF 40 ratings. That stuff is pretty expensive, though. It doesn't get the flashy marketing that these other products get, but Poly-Cotton mixes dry very quickly, don't wrinkle, are surprisingly durable and are available in every imaginable colour and pattern at every department store for less than $20.

You see, any fabric with at least thirty to forty percent polyster content or nylon is quick dry and wrinkle free, a good combination for any traveller. All you have to do is look at the shirt or pant tags to find out what will work for you.

Socks deserve special attention. There are so many options out there. But all socks are not created equal. You will probably come across the wool-nuts. One tag line for those in love with wool is, "Even if your wool is completely soaked, it will still keep you warm." They sell wool as if it is the obvious accessory to a machete that will be used to slice through uncharted Amazon territory. But if you're like us, you just want to adventure around the relatively well charted lands and not become the next Survivor Man. Besides, who really thinks walking around in wet socks is a novel idea anyway? Every department store has a wall of socks of all sorts. Most are 100% cotton. These aren't good travel socks. Look around the thinner, dressier socks and you will find polyester socks. Don't be put off by the idea of polyester: these are what most men wear when they dress up and they don't even know it! These socks are cheap, thin (read: more can be packed into less space) and dry super fast.

While talking about feet I should mention just how important good shoes are. I wear walking shoes and they double as hiking boots when I need them to. When they feel old-shoe-comfortable when I try them on in the store, I know I have found the right walking shoe. As I break them in they only become more comfortable. The comfort is important, but being waterproof is great too. I have worn Goretex walkers for years and haven't found anything better or more multi-purpose. This comes at a price, though. Where my whole travel wardrobe costs about $100 to $150 and lasts at least four years of travels, my shoes cost around $300 alone and seldom do they last even two years with the amount of walking I do. To me, it is worth the cost. Also, it doesn't upset me too much when they come as a birthday present.

Aside from over packing and carrying more weight on your shoulders while searching for a guest house than necessary, maybe the single worst thing a traveller can do is bring a quick dry microfiber towel. Ask anyone who has carried one what their experience with it was and I am pretty sure most people will mention how awful they smell after very few uses. You can wash them, but the first time you use it after washing it the horrible smell comes triumphantly back. Cotton is generally not a good fabric for travellers. It dries rather slowly and wrinkles notoriously. But a really thin cotton sarong will dry quick enough to be useful and it will efficiently dry you off after a shower and will never develop a smell. It is the only piece of cotton that I carry. These things are cheaper and much superior to the microfiber smellowels.

Electronics won't get much floor time here, but there is one product that I would like to mention. I am a book-lover. I love how they feel in my hands, I love how even the most simple cover design looks, I love that a book is there to impart something that interested another person, and I love how books smell. But they can be heavy in a backpack. Until this trip I was quite anti-Kindle for all the above it couldn't provide. But now the pros of the Kindle have interested us enough to make us really consider whether its cons might be outweighed, at least for travelling. A bonus to all the book side of the Kindle is that some models come with 3G. We haven't travelled with a Kindle yet, but it is possible that we might in the future.

Probably the best bit of packing wisdom we stick with is to pack for the best case scenario (or at least the most realistic one) and buy yourself out of problems. No, you won't be considered crazy if you only pack one 100g bottle of shampoo on your trip. Everyone else in the world bathes, too (some more often than others), and they have to buy their shampoo somewhere: its called a store and you can buy more shampoo there when you run out.

There is just one more thing. Whether it is the beginning, middle or end of your trip, the feeling of clearing customs and walking straight past the luggage carousels (where less fortunate travellers are waiting for their big, bumbly bags to appear) and then right out of the airport with your carry-on size bag is nothing short of wonderful. It really wouldn't be an overstatement to say that this is one of the true joys of travelling. Smart packing is light packing.

Friday, November 04, 2011

We're in Sri Lanka... Let's Eat!

'Why Sri Lanka?' You might be wondering. It sure isn't a place on the radar of many North American travelers. Well, it all started many months ago on a hot, crowded bus in Northern Lao. There were so many people crammed onto that bus that they had brought folding chairs (if you were lucky) and minisule plastic stools (if you weren't) onboard to fill the aisles and every available space with seating. When they ran out of 'seats', they started doubling up- by using laps as extra seats. There were four foreigners on the bus. Us, the cute German with coke bottle glasses sitting beside us (whose lap was currently occupied by a young local kid) and a red-haired American sitting in front of us (whose lap was somehow still available). This was more than enough common ground for us to form an instant bond and then continue to do our best to pass the bus time with random traveler chit chat. It came up that the German, Tobias, spent his summers being a shepherd high up in the Swiss Alps, caring for prize cows and making cheese. J and I fell a little bit in love with him then and wistfully started dreaming of our mountain rendezvous. But he has nothing to do with Sri Lanka, really, I just wanted to reminisce. It was Randall, the Californian expat living in Bangkok, who planted the Sri Lankan seed. 'The food is even better than Indian food!' he claimed. We gasped in disbelief. Could it be true? Could anything really be better than Indian food? How could such a food exist and we had never even tasted so much as a morsel? That just wasn't right. We decided right there and then that this was a statement we were going to have to investigate ourselves. It was quite a serious thing to say... better than Indian... scoff. And so, seven months later, here we are in Sri Lanka, eating our little hearts out... for research's sake.

Sri Lanka has turned out to be so much more than just delicious food... but let's start there, because let's be honest, food is always on the forefront of our minds. 'Criminally under-rated' is what our guidebook has to say about the cuisine here. Its probably one of the only things written in the guide that we agree with. Rice and curry is the national dish. A boring name for something that is such an explosion of flavour. The rice is just rice, but the 'curry' means at least two different varieties of whatever the chef has concocted that day, with lentils or veggies or fruit or coconut or meat, and a super spicy coconut sambal on the side. Mix it all together, or savour the flavour individually, either way- it is a delight. Then there is the khottu rotti, which is rotti (like a thin naan bread) cooked on a flat grill/pan chopped up into a size that more resembles noodles and then flash fried with any variety of veggies (for us) and a generous handful of chilli. Its something completely different than anywhere else in Asia and super delicious. Where are all the Sri Lankan restaurants, I'd like to know. I read in the newspaper here that Canada, Toronto specifically, is home to the largest Sri Lankan community outside the island...I guess if we were going to find Sri Lankan food anywhere the Tdot would be a good place to start our search.

We've been in Lanka almost a week now and we were beginning to think we had this new menu under control. So many people speak English here, and are so friendly that we have been able to grill (haha) our wait staff with (probably stupid) questions. What do you mean by 'khottu rotti' and how is it different than regular 'rotti?' It is probably akin to asking 'What is this 'toast' and how is it different than 'bread.' Anyways, now we know. We arrived in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lankan's highest town, looking forward to more rice, curry and khottu. We had been on the train all day (we had travelled about 75km, after all) and were starving. We were surprised to find that Sri Lanaka's third largest city only seemed to have about three restaurants and they all seemed pretty touristy. We settled on a slightly over priced Indian restaurant that served tourist-friendly mild, spice-less food. How boring when we know what we could be eating. The next day when it wasn't dark and we weren't blinded by hunger (am I allowed to say that in a third-world country?) we discovered a few interesting tidbits. First, that in Sri Lanka, restaurants are called 'hotels.' You can't stay there. They have no rooms. But for some reason they are still hotels. 'The Queens Hotel,' 'The Royal Hotel'- yup, they are restaurants. Second, the 'hotels' all looked like convenience stores from the sidewalk. A big counter on each side of the store, manned by a cashier and stocked with biscuits, chocolate bars and all the other random things that are sold at such stores across Asia. Behind all this, hidden in the shadows at the back of the 'store' we discovered when we popped into one to buy a bottle of water, is a huge, lively, bright and cheerful local eatery! Even more surprising was that once inside, the eatery was quite bright and welcoming and not at all the dark, dungeon-y looking cell it appeared to be from the sidewalk. The food, as we expected (although we only had the chance to try a snack at first) was authentically spicy and flavourful and less than half the price than it was across the road. Problem solved. Our local eating spot was chosen. So we thought.

We were so excited that we had 'discovered' these local eateries that we waited around all day, working up an appetite so that we could eat as much rice and curry as our stomachs would allow. It was four in the afternoon by the time we felt suitably hungry for our feast. We went to the first hotel. 'Sorry, rice and curry is all finished.' They said. Darn. Good thing it turned out that the whole street was lined with hotels cum convenience stores cum eateries. We'll just go next door. 'Sorry, all gone.' They said again looking around as if they could scrounge up some scraps for us. Ok. Fine. Next place. 'No, sorry....' He didn't even finish. 'Well when can we get some rice and curry? I asked impatiently. 'Oh, we only serve rice and curry for lunch, between 12:00-2:30.' ERRR. SO this is the thing about local restaurants. Its not like at home where there is a menu and you can order whatever you want off it whenever you please. No. They have only whatever it is specifically that the locals eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and only the specific times when it is meant to be eaten. This is all fine, of course, if you know what and when all of this takes place. We're just stupid hungry tourists. So, finally, after two days, we had figured out where the food was and when what was available. We would get it down the next day, for sure. We really had it all figured out now, I was sure of it. Its now day three in town. We ate an early breakfast and plan our whole day around being at the 'Queen Hotel' at 12:30pm, on the dot, for a delicious rice and curry lunch. We show up right on time and find what? The restaurant is closed. Along with all the other ones along the street. I throw my arms up in the air in disbelief. What?! We stand on the street corner completely discombobulated. 'Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk!' a guy is shouting at us from across the street. We are ignoring him. Blatantly. He thinks we can't hear him and that we must be standing on the street corner staring at the restaurants in disbelief because we can't find a tuk tuk. He comes across the street to rescue us. 'You need tuk tuk? he asks. 'WHY are all the restaurants CLOSED?!' I explode at him in response. 'Oh, they are all at the mosque. They will open again in a couple hours,' he answers congenially. AHHHHH! I sigh with visible frustration. 'There are restaurants open over there,' he says, quietly, pointing across the street to the touristy restaurants we had eaten at previously. He is genuinely nice and is trying to be helpful. He is definitely wishing he hadn't crossed the street. I huff and he takes the opportunity to slink away.

I follow J and stomp across the street to the open and waiting tourist restaurant. We eat the rice and curry specially created just for the prototypical tourist palate (read: near flavourless slop that will never be buoyed in anyway with any sides spicier than a dry piece of toast). Nonetheless, it filled the void just in time for us to see the local hotels opening up for business once again. Seriously, just as we shoveled in our last mouthfuls of rice overwhelmingly delicious smells started wafting out of the hotels across the way. Sigh. Thankfully we still have another couple weeks here in Sri Lanka to eat our little hearts out. Obvious Lesson: if flavour excites you as a traveller in anyway (even in a country as gastronomically enlightened as Lanka) don't eat where you don't see locals eating.