Friday, 27 February 2015

Sri Lanka - Winter 2015



Never stand with your back to a Buddha
Sunday, 15 February

Another advantage of working in China is Chinese New Year!!  An occasion important enough for the students to require a full two weeks off.  Just 6 weeks after a 3 week Christmas break spent in England I am meeting my girlfriend and friends 'halfway' in Sri Lanka. I am yet to find a fault in international teaching.


I arrived a day earlier (and will leave a week later!) than the others and so I had a day to explore Colombo on my own.  I checked in to Drift BnB and headed straight out to find a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast.  Drift recommended a couple of places but upon inspection they were absent of any local diners and so I opted for a busy corner spot where suited men (didn't see any women!) congregated for their morning Ceylon tea before work.  Everybody seemed to know each other and they were clearly regulars having their orders brought out to them, without having said a word, as they sat down.  I was the irregular based on my shorts, voice and having asked for a menu.  I ended up just saying "give me a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast" which was responded to with a 'you're not from around here' smile.  Everybody's eyes followed the cheery man to the food equally intrigued as I to see what will be picked from the selection as 'traditional breakfast'.  Completely new food!  I wasn't expecting food items that I had never seen before.  My family are South Indian and so I figured it would be much of the same.  String hoppers are totally unique!  Sri Lankans are hand eaters just as Chinese use chopsticks.  So how can you make noodles into something you can eat with your hands?  Simple; take a bunch and mould them into something that represents a chapati!  Curry and noodles doesn't sound that appealing but make the noodles into flat circular pancakes and suddenly it's a perfect companionship.  Served with a thick lentil curry and a spicy red coconut mix called coconut sambol is the traditional breakfast in which he assembled on my plate in front of me so I knew how to eat the rest.  As I gobbed these he began to bring over more and more bowls of different vegetable curries, hoppers and topped up my Dhal.  What started as a light, simple breakfast became a feast as the waiter (owner) showed off every dish on his menu.  All washed down with two cups of Ceylon tea; my tea of choice in England drank from it's mother country.


Only minutes into walking along the main palm tree lined seafront road, reading my map and deciding where to go, a local man told me about a festival that is on today which he was already on his way to.  He asked if I would like to join him as he flagged down a tuk tuk.  Now I've been conned abroad enough times to smell a rat but I figured I had no other plans and would just refuse to pay anything when the time comes.  And I felt that I could take him if it came to it!  He took me to a temple to see the supposedly real hair of Buddha and then to a couple of his favourite restaurants.  He told me he was a chef on his day off; I told him I was a food blogger; we had a lot to talk about! A few beers down I was still awaiting his moment of strike when conversation went onto it being Valentines day and me having not bought anything for my girlfriend who arrives in Sri Lanka the following morning.  "Sri Lanka is the number one gem mining in the world! My friend has shop 50% discount today".  Ah! This is it! The last 3 hours of showing me around, helping me plan the rest of my trip, taking me to his recommended restaurants and showing me pictures of his wife and children was so he could take me to his shop! Right?!  Either way, he's right; it was valentines day and a stone mined in Sri Lanka would make a sterling gift!  I picked out a stone, chose a shape and design and bargained down to a price that Amazon said I didn't pay over the odds for.  Antonio even haggled for me.  I think!?  He took me to an ATM (on my request!) and dropped me off at a shopping mall I said I wanted to go too.  He wished me a safe journey and went on his way! I did a final phone, wallet, camera pat down check and walked off still confused whether it was simply a kind gesture or he some how financially gained from me.

In the evening I decided to risk a 'Ni Hao' to the Chinese looking girl sitting opposite me in my dorm.  After initially looking a little racist we ended up chatting (in both English and Chinese!) and planned what was left of an evening.  Sunset at Galle Square followed by dinner at 'Beach Wadiya' recommended by chef Antonio!  We arrived a little late for the sunset but just about saw the orange hue left behind in the sky and its reflecting shimmers in the sea.  Night stalls sell snack foods such as shrimp fritters and other deep fried spicy treats.  Crispy dough with shrimp bits in it topped with tangy hot sauce and sliced red onion was good eating whilst watching what was left of a sunset and practising my Chinese!

Onto a tuktuk we arrived to Beach Wadiya to find it was fully booked all night.  Valentines day!! It suddenly dawned on me that I am eating out after watching the sun go down with another woman on Valentines day!?  Good job I bought that gem stone!  So onto Antonio's restaurant number 2, 'Summer Garden', for a spicy pork curry, seafood platter and regular hoppers!  Very different to string hoppers and again completely original.  Light and airy and bowl shaped retaining the shape of the pan it was cooked in.  My Chinese friend had an egg hopper which was the same thing but with an egg fried in the centre.  I didn't know how to ask "can I take a photo of your food" in Chinese and without sounding weird...

There are no Dragons in Wales
Tuesday, 17 February


There are no lions in Sri Lanka, in fact there are no wild lions on this entire continent.  So why do Sri Lankans associate themselves so much with them?!  There is a Lion holding a sword on their flag and their beer is called Lion.  Elephants on the other hand can be seen on the streets and in the wild in population densities far above average.  Of whom I have asked so far it is because Lions are strong.  Do you know what animal is even stronger than a Lion?  I haven't even mentioned the fact that Sri Lanka is home to the national park with the highest concentration in the world of wild leopard too!


I met my girlfriend and friends at the airport and we headed straight to Sigiriya by driver.  It is where a big rock called 'Lion's Rock' is situated as it supposedly resembles a lion.  Like cloud formations, it can look like anything you choose.  Proven by the fact that we all saw the lion but were a split group in concluding whether it was just a lions head facing left or an entire lion looking to the right.  It also has some ancient ruins and paintings on it so lion or not; it's a deserved place of interest.  We went posh for our first few days and stayed at an 'Aliya Resort'.  Situated in lush greenery with a river running alongside and a view of lions rock from the infinity pool sat at the heart of this lap of luxury.  And do you know what 'Aliya' means? ELEPHANT!!



From what I can gather there is not much to do in Sigiriya with its only attraction being the rock.  I wouldn't be surprised if most of the hotel guests never leave the resort!  We woke up early yesterday and took a driver down to the base of Lion's rock.  The climb is not too bad and we did well to start early as the tourists really did flock in late morning with stand still queues going up as we were coming down.  The heat was also a lot more tolerable at 8am.  Views at the top were well worth the small hike with stories of old Ceylon hidden in the ruins and water pool.  Having exhausted the 'things to do in Sigiriya' list we lazed some more by our infinity pool and prepared ourselves for our first taste of of the Sri Lankan national dish; Rice and Curry.  We had to book this the night before as apparently it takes about 4 hours to prepare.  'Rice and Curry' is another identity choice of Sri Lanka's that I have to question.  Rice and Curry is not a dish! It's a thousand dishes! It's like the national dish of England being anything you roast.  It's not like they don't have unique dishes in the country.  All the types of hoppers would be a start!  Or Rottie Kottu which is chopped up rottie with vegetables.  I haven't eating it yet so couldn't comment on whether it is any good but at least it is uniquely Sri Lankan!  As I work through the dishes in the coming weeks I will point out all the ones that would make for a better national dish.  One that shows originality, identity and an insight to Sri Lankan life.  For £22 per head we did have an exquisite meal with around 6 curries, fried fish, coconut sambol, pickles and crispy strips of poppadoms.  This was certainly the high end version of the dish but ultimately it was designed to give the rich folk a taste of Sri Lanka and probably not the best representation of a typical 'Rice and Curry'.  I counted 12 different dishes; that's a lot going on for one banana leaf.


We said our farewells to expensive comforts this morning after another original (I think) Sri Lankan breakfast of Kiribath (also called Milk Rice) which is rice boiled in coconut milk and moulded into cakes.  Another potential national dish!  We are heading to Mirissa, a beach side town on the southern coast and 5-6 hours from Sigiriya.  We just had an amazing halfway stop at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  You can never be quite sure with these places whether you are going to leave feeling guilty or glad to have shown your interest and support as a tourist.  We were happy to see happy elephants.  You can't beat a scene of elephants bathing in a river and playing on a generously sized plot of lush green land.


"...a tongue the weight of an elephant."
Sunday, 22 February



Mirissa is a popular beach stop for tourists and so prices can be expected to be higher for food, drink and accommodation.  We stayed at 'Riverside Cabana' for 6000SLR (£30) a room.  It was night and the beach was lit up with multicoloured fluorescent palm trees, candle lit faces at beach side restaurants and muscled men swinging fire showing off their poi skills.  It's a buzz of excitement at night avoiding the tackiness of loud bars, strobe lighting and screaming teens.  Less buzz, more hum with nicely chilled music in sync with the crashing of the waves.  We ate another 'Curry and Rice' this time with a beautifully sweet crab curry at a restaurant called Mirissa Eye followed by cocktails (£2 each!) at Zephyr and a shisha pipe further down the beach.  I'm liking Mirissa!

By day the restaurant tables are replaced by sun beds and the fresh fish displays substituted for bodyboards to rent and tour advertisements.  The sea is warm and welcoming but once you're in it tries its damn best to throw you back out.  It is not a forgiving sea and my all day board rental soon ended with me upside down being dragged a long the sea bed and being twacked in the side of the head by the board once I found me feet.  Only to be pummelled by the next wave.  There's only so many waves to the face a novice swimmer can take!  Beach side dinner this time I picked a nice snapper fish (£7) from the ice filled wooden boat decorated with sea creatures.  It came with rice and salad and though it was super fresh and perfectly grilled I couldn't help but be a little disappointed that it was not done in Sri Lankan spices.  It was delicious but would have been perfect if that salad was replaced with a vegetable curry or local dhal.  In fact, all the restaurants here only offer western style grills.

The potential to see the worlds largest land animal(the elephant!) is enough to bring you to a country.  But to be able to also see the worlds largest animal full stop is beyond exciting.  Ok so the Asian elephant is smaller than it's African relative but it is crazy to think that both species can be seen from one small island country.  I am yet to research what brings the Blue Whale to the southern waters of Sri Lanka but I am told that it is one of the best spots to find them and that nowhere else in the world do they come so close to land.  There are many tour operators to go with all advertising several different whales and dolphins to see and offering a free tour if no whale sightings are made.  We booked with 'Rajah and the Whales' online from England as it claimed to be whale friendly and following the state guidelines to cause the least stress on the whales.  For 6000 SLR (£30) we were picked up at 7am, fed breakfast and had 3-4 hours at sea on the search.  A few hours went by without seeing a thing and as we started to think today wasn't our day, in the distance a spout of water into the sky filled the boat with adrenaline.  One of the guides confirmed from this that it was indeed the jackpot Blue Whale.  As our enormous friend dived under, our guide set his timer running and told us to pay attention once again in 10 to 15 minutes.  With our engine on low we crept behind the presumed path of the whale in the hope that its next ascent will be close to us.  In 9 minutes it had surfaced a little closer but still too far away to appreciate its magnificence.  As we tiptoed towards it and were informed to remain quiet, other boats now on the scene sped passed us on full throttle causing the whale to dive back under.  Like the annoying kid at school who barges in front of you in the dinner queue and takes the last pizza slice.  We carried on creeping and they carried on charging, edging closer and closer to the Whales surface position but with its surface time being no more than 20 seconds at a time.  The other boats were continuously in front of us often blocking our view of the whale and very clearly breaking the state guidelines.  As they had their fill of whale disturbing, one by one, they left for the harbour.  All that remained was us and a 190 metric ton whale.  With the engine switched off the only sound was the boat sloshing on the water as everyone sat silently in anticipation.  A tour guide hung off each side of the boat ready to announce the whales emergence but before the words "1 o'clock!" could be uttered the whale announced its own presence with a loud blow whole swoosh.  No more than 10-20 yards between us and an animal that could fit our boat in its mouth (maybe a slight exaggeration!).  It stayed up for 3-4 minutes before revealing its immense tail to wave us goodbye.  I 100% support Rajah and the Whales in its approach but can understand the frustration in high tourist season when, I am informed, there is a constant stream of bully boats and never a chance to sit alone with the beast like we did.  The bucket list has just got shorter!

Yesterday we visited a tea plantation (Hundungoda Tea Estate), a turtle hatchery and bummed around on the beach some more.  The tea plantation was free with the expectation that you may buy something from their shop at the end.  I felt genuinely educated in tea and enjoyed tasting all the types of tea developed from a single plant.  The turtle sanctuary, like the elephant orphanage, we did not know what to expect.  For a start, we definitely arrived at a different sanctuary to the one we had researched online to be filled with smiling turtles.  But we were here now so we paid our 500 and walked in with fingers crossed.  It was great to see that it was all done properly and genuine care was given for the turtles well being.  There was no doubt that this place was positively impacting the population of wild turtles in the area.  We were a little concerned over the deformed and disabled turtles in tubs little bigger than the turtles themselves but I could not offer any alternative methods in my head.  Part of me thinks that they should just be released into the sea and let nature take over.  At least they would die happy and free!

Today was the girls last day and a change in plan to take a taxi to the airport straight from Mirissa (£45 - 3 hours) meant that they could spend the best part of the day soaking up sun rays on the beach instead of car fumes in Colombo.  And I got to spend more time with my girlfriend which is always a bonus!  So I am on my own from here on to explore Sri Lanka; time to eat more back street and do more manly things like fishing and fighting leopards!

"Ayubowan"
Thursday, 26 February

I wasn't joking when I said going fishing.  Sunday was a full day of fishing!  In the morning I got myself onto a boat that was going out to sea for a dive fisherman.  It was just me, a boat driver and a man kitted out in the most primitive SCUBA diving gear I had ever seen;  no BCD; no 5 point decent; no BWRAF buddy check!  He was diving to catch live tropical fish to sell to an aquarium dealer waiting on shore.  Suddenly my fishing seemed so boring!  None the less, I pulled in some blinders with my biggest being a yellow and blue striped kind you see in posh hotel tanks.  I planned to throw it back in until my boat driver hit it over the head with the not so useless end of a screwdriver!  Meanwhile, the other fisherman was returning to the boat with treasures of multicoloured gems in bags you would win your gold fish in at an English fair.  He had 6 air tanks on board and this determined our time out at sea.

So I had a bag of fish, none that I had ever seen in a fish market before, and the intention to eat them somehow.  I asked the owner of my hotel (now the Amaya Resort having moved after the girls left) and showed him my bag of goodies.  His eyes widened and he too had no idea whether they were edible.  After phoning his mother it was arranged that she would come and see which are edible and cook them for me as part of my "curry and rice" meal in the evening.  For no extra cost!  Amazing!  As she started to prepare the fish I informed them that I still had an afternoon of fishing in me and they were happy to work with whatever else I brought back.


I paid a tuktuk driver £7.50 on the premise that he takes me to see the stilt fisherman and negotiate with them the possibility of me fishing too.  "Where are you from?" the driver asked me over his shoulder. "England but my family are--."  "No! You are from Sri Lanka but you study in England!" he interrupted my well rehearsed response to that question.  It took me a while to realise that this was to be my guise in order to get my backside onto those stilts and fish.  We went to three different spots to convince them of my localness and settled for a fisherman who asked for 500SLR (£2.50) and quizzed me over my life growing up in Colombo.  I am afraid to say that stilt fishing in Sri Lanka, for fishing purposes at least, is dead and gone.  And who can blame them when they can make more than their days catch from one bus load of Chinese tourists' donations for photos?  There were five of us fishing and either I was way better than them or I was the only one actually fishing.  I sat and watched them all keep the same fish on the end of their lines and raise it up pretending to have just caught it when tourists held their cameras up.  A fishing companion on shore then swoops in and asks them to cough up the dough.  They're still fisherman, but now catching unsuspecting tourists.  A prime example of how tourism can kill a culture.  Of course I am a culprit too but this time most of the tourists were taking photos of me!  My legs gave way before my mind lost interest so a decided to call it a day after a couple of hours of having my photo taken.  These stilts are far from comfortable and not all that easy to climb as they are purposely built in the rocky shallows and the waves are still as unforgiving as before.  The fisherman I paid was the one to hold on to me and navigate me to shore as I pulled him into rocks as each wave hit.   And the Chinese tourists look at me with a confused expression on their face.

I exchanged my 9 fish for 4 tiger prawns and bought 6 more from one of the many make shift beach side fish markets to add to my home cooked fish meal.  The meal was epic with 8 different dishes and a mountain of fried rice all for me!?  It was a ridiculous amount of food for one person but I managed to plough through dish after dish of delicious perfectly spiced Sri Lankan home cooked 'Rice and Curry'.





Food here is a lot spicier than I expected as I assumed it would have adopted the creamier, milder cuisine of Southern India.  The coconut sambol can add spice if needed or even further heat can be added with a spoon of 'Chilli paste' which is a crunchy mixture of fried chillies, dried shrimp, sugar and salt.  All restaurants I have been to seem to have there own brand of 'chilli paste' and tap a spoon of it on to your plate from a big mixing bowl on request.  Sits nicely on the side of a plate of fried rice or Kottu Rottie.  Kottu is only served in the evenings as it uses up the left over rotties from the day.  Rotties chopped up into tiny bits and tossed on a hot plate like a fried rice with vegetables.  Kind of stodgy, a little bit chewy and not really for me.  We discovered vegetable rotties quite early on as being the only good way to eat a stuffed rottie but again these can be seriously spicy!  I am enjoying eating more off the track and the difference in price is enormous.  Bread and Dhal, another common breakfast, with a pot of tea cost me 60p!  A selection of fried goods in a polystyrene tray from a street tuktuk vendor cost 30p!  All tasted just as good or better than the tourist restaurants.





video
For the last few days I have resided in Yala National park to have a peaceful end to the trip.  Yala is famous for its lush green safaris with a particular hype over its leopard population.  I had 3 nights booked in at Eco Island Campsite which was based in Yala just outside the gates of the safari.  A great little place built right inside the bushes next to a crocodile infested lake.  Ok there was one small crocodile in it.  I could not have picked a better place to relax for a few days.  Completely cut off from the busy world; zero internet, limited electricity and only the sound of nature.  The food was surprisingly good with curry and rice for lunch, 3 course breakfasts and a barbecue for dinner.  Walks from camp are safe as long as you don't get lost or bump into a leopard and the tents are cosy and clean.  I did, however, learn one very quick lesson; don't poke monitor lizards that use your tent roof as a hammock (video on the left).  It didn't seem at all phased by me and as I stroked its belly from underneath it would just poke its nose in the fabric sniffing and walk on.  This is when I found out that my bathroom and bedroom were two completely separate tents.  I assumed the lizard was heading to reside on my bathroom roof but instead it fell through the gap and was in the tent with me!?! Despite being enormous, they are not dangerous.  But I didn't know this!  I ran out and told one of the workers who simply shoed it out with his foot whilst giggling hysterically.  My only regret? I should have taken a photo!!  Or simply carried on recording for just a minute longer!



I booked myself a full days safari which started at 8am.  I had my very own personal safari guide who worked for the Eco Island Campsite.  He was brilliant with answers to all of my questions about every thing and anything I saw moving.  It officially has the highest concentration of leopard in the world which my guide tells me equates to just 25 individuals in total on just under 1000 square kilometres of land.  That's a high concentration?!  My chances of seeing one of these beauties suddenly doesn't seem so likely.  But from all the places in the world, my odds are greatest here!  Safaris are strange; there are few things in the world that I could sit and watch and not notice the time go by.  We parked up next a group of crocodiles eating a deer and I could have quite happily sat the entire day there.  And then again when we saw a family of elephants wading in the water and playing around.  Just after lunch (on a pristine deserted beach!) my guide spotted gold relaxing up a tree.  Gold with black spots to be precise.  Just like with the whales, my camera does not do justice to the experience.  Time simply stopped as we watched this beautiful big cat groom itself in the shade of a great deciduous.  We pretty much watched until it was time to go.  Having felt that I had seen everything I still couldn't resist booking another half day to happily relive it all again.  I learnt that very few Indian elephants grow tusks (known as tusker elephants) and the park has only 8 in all.  I believe the gods were truly smiling down at me as on my second day we got even closer to a leopard sitting in the bushes by a river and we spent the entire time in its company.  But that wasn't it!  Just as we were leaving we also witnessed a magnificent tusker named Tilak (the parks largest) wondering off into the sunset.  There is something extremely exhilarating about being up close and personal with a wild elephant that freezes you still and makes you concentrate on your breathing.  It's truly breathtaking!

My final few moments in Sri Lanka sums up my holiday as I sit on Mirissa beach writing the last few pages of this blog by candle light as the sun sets behind the palm trees.  I have eaten my final rice and curry and have come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, a perfect national dish.  It's not any old curry with rice and it is the specific combination and how it is presented that makes it unique.  It must come with dhal, popodom, coconut sambol and at least 2 other vegetable curries.  The dish is 100%, well and truly and uniquely Sri Lankan.  If only they could have thought of a better name for it...  :o)