The Southern Coast

As our journey turned South, we experienced the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa, the historic Dutch fort of Galle, and the bustling city of Colombo. This was when we really hit our vacation groove (most of us had gotten through our jet lag by then) and we started enjoying more evenings out together, taking in as much of Sri Lanka as we could in the time we had.

 

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One Cup of Tea

One of my favorite parts of the trip was a two-day trek through the tea plantations in central Sri Lanka. The country is famous for tea (they export 97% of what they harvest) and the industry is a huge part of the economy here. The tea pluckers are almost exclusively women, and the men tend to do the pruning to keep the tea bushes at the appropriate height. As we trekked up and down these rocky slopes, we were astonished to see many of the women working barefoot. Our first day was a 9.5 mile hike, and the second day was 8.5, so we covered some distance and some elevation- but we did it with shoes.

 

We also toured a tea factory, which was cool but I’ve already forgotten a lot of what we learned. A quick google will take care of you if you’re interested in the process.

 

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Rice and Curry Forever

The national dish of Sri Lanka, by which I mean you can literally have it for every meal, is rice and curry. It’s basically a pile of rice and then a spread of different kinds of curries, all prepared separately, for you to create your own masterpiece. Chicken curry, dhal curry, aubergine (eggplant) curry, bananaflower curry, pumpkin curry (my favorite), fish curry… those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. We ate a LOT of rice and curry, but because of the variety of curries available at every table, it took a while for us to tire of it. This remarkable little place was a roadside stop with fantastic rice and curry lunch, where we had heaps of food for maybe two or three dollars.

 

Ajith also took us for a walk through a commercial fruit and vegetable market, which was awesome. They all knew him and were tolerant of us ooohing and ahhing over their giant piles of food, while Ajith picked up examples of all kinds of produce and told us what it was.

 

Before leaving Negombo the first day, we rose early to visit a commercial fish market. Like most island countries, Sri Lanka has a huge fishing industry and the cuisine near the coast revolves around seafood. The first boats start unloading their months’ worth of catches at 3 a.m., but thankfully we only rose early enough to catch the very end. There were piles of huge fish in varying states of being cleaned, and even a few that hadn’t finished fighting for their lives, as one guy experienced when he stuck his finger in a fish’s mouth while mugging for tourist cameras. He yelped and then tossed the suddenly wriggling fish onto another table and exacted his revenge with a large curved knife.

We saw yellowfin tuna (identifiable by their distinctive, um, yellow fins), a few sharks that had been mostly dismantled, a pile of manta ray heads the size of footballs, and bins full of smaller fish and shellfish. The previous few days’ weather had been quite severe in SL, so we weren’t sure if there would be boats at all, but even the “small” selection we saw was amazing. The hygiene, however, was less so. The fishermen slung fish bodies and guts around on the concrete, and stray dogs and crows skulked around stealing bits right off the bodies when they could. The ground was thick with fish…. juice? and small bits of bones and other discarded waste. I regretted not ordering fish curry the night before, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to order it now. The market was closing as the sun came up, which made for a beautiful introduction to the seaside town of Negombo.

 

We also had one evening where we had a cooking lesson by a local family with a little kitchen purpose-built (with help from Intrepid) for teaching. It was fantastic, but also illustrated how time-consuming the “each curry cooks separately” and “everything from scratch” methods are. Luckily, we just had to follow directions, and then eat!

 

And a couple more random bits and pieces, including the street-ish food we tried. One of the best things about having Ajith to guide us is that he knew where to take us to get good authentic food (well, mostly authentic, as the cooks generally take the spice level down quite a bit for foreigners) that was prepared in a hygienic manner. And the cooks were cool when we wanted to watch them work, too. There were also tuk tuks that all drove around blaring Für Elise, like very erudite ice cream trucks, except they sold bread and pastries.

 

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Of Monks and Kings

Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop and sits above the equator, just 30 miles from India. It’s not a big island (about 25,000 square miles) but its history is rich and diverse, with various empires warring for control over the land rich with spices and fertile farmland. The beginning of our tour took us through the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura (former capital city, from 4th century BC, until invasions and fighting led to its abandonment in the 10th century), Mihintale (an important religious site that attracts a large number of Buddhist pilgrims), Sigiriya Rock (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and upon which sits the ruins of a fortress built, incredibly, between AD 477-485), the Dambulla Cave Temple (another UNESCO site dating back to 1st century BC), and the Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba and monastery. If that all seems like a lot of syllables and dates, just look through the photos below and remember that all of these places were designed, carved, and constructed by hand, brick by brick.

On our way north, we stopped at a Hindu temple (no photos allowed), and after removing our shoes and hats, we walked around inside while Ajith explained the iconography and varying holy legends associated with Hinduism. He also explained the different stories associated with the Indian vs the Sri Lankan versions (such as how Ganesh ended up with an elephant head).

Some devotees came through while we were learning, and we were even there when a young man came in with offerings. A priest in a brown sarong came out and chanted the prayers as he set the offerings in front of the shrine. Priests must act as the go-between people they are the only ones allowed inside the shrine, though it was open so that we could see inside. We stood quietly as the priest sang the rites and circled a small candle plate in front of the statues. I actually felt a twinge of discomfort, as it seemed like a personal thing and that we shouldn’t be there, but the shrine is open and it’s not meant to be private.

Eventually the priest dipped his finger tips into small bowls of white cow dung ash (cows are sacred), yellow turmeric powder, and red sandalwood powder and then touched the young man’s forehead, leaving three dots indicating he’d visited the temple. He also received a burning coconut from the priest, which had been part of his plate of offerings. Cradling the coconut in both hands, the young man walked out to a flat stone in front of the entrance. The flames attract any “evil eye” influences disrupting the life of the faithful, and the evil is then entrapped in the coconut. Once he reached the flat stone, the man smashed the coconut, thereby disseminating the evil spirits and freeing himself from their influence. Meanwhile, the priest had brought the plate of fruit back to what I assume was the man’s mother, who then offered it to us. She didn’t speak any English but she shared her blessed fruit with us. The belief is that the gods take some of the flavor of the fruit during the offering, so blessed fruit tends to be a bit bland. However, after feeling unsure we should even be there to witness this personal ritual, I found the gift of blessed fruit to be quite sweet.

 

Mihintale was the first Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 5th century BC. We walked through the ruins of their wrestling room (one of the few exercises in which they were allowed to participate), and next to the cistern where the gravity-fed stone troughs served as a shower in the shape of a lion. We stood on the same stone floor where thousands of years ago, 3000 monks lined up by seniority to receive their alms in the form of rice and curry, and ran our fingers over the smooth, rounded stone that they used as their spice grinder. When a storm cloud passed over, we took shelter in of one of 68 meditation caves burrowed into the rocks where monks would fill a small hole with water and then sit in meditation and prayer until the water had evaporated.

We were able to visit and photograph a Buddhist shrine near the stupa, and once again had Ajithl to share the associated stories and legends as we watched the sun set.

 

Sigiriya Rock is one of the premier sites to visit in Sri Lanka. It’s a 200 meter rock rising above the surrounding countryside, and a paranoid (rightfully so, it turned out) king built a palace and fortress on top, because he expected his half-brother to come after him to resolve some long-standing family drama. The king constructed this fort for 11 years, and then lived in it for 7 more, but when the time finally came and he heard that his half-brother’s army was approaching, he sat safely inside the outer mud moat, inside the outer ramparts, inside in the inner water moat filled with crocodiles, inside in the inner ramparts, and atop this giant rock with views and tactical advantages in all directions…. and decided to leave so he and his army could meet his brother halfway. See, humans have been making bone-headed decisions for all of time.

 

The rock is in full blazing sunlight, so the king built water gardens and pond all around the fortress to provide some evaporative cooling. If you go, get to the gate as it opens, before the heat of the day comes on (and before the hoards, and I mean hoards, of other tourists arrive). Our day was misty and didn’t provide miles and miles of view from the top, but it also was slightly less scorching hot, so it worked out ok. Also, this climb is not for the faint of heart. I have no idea how this king brought all the bricks up to the top of this rock…

 

In Kandy, we visited the Temple of the Tooth and got to observe an offering ceremony. I was kind of templed-out at this point so I didn’t take many photos (plus, it was such a crush of people, both faithful and tourists, that I was just trying to keep sight of my group). Later in Colombo we stopped to see the amazing stone carving of the Independence Memorial Hall.

 

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Tri, four days in paradise

After the whirlwind tour circling Sri Lanka, I set off on my own for a few days to visit a small eco-resort in the south. I’d read about Tri in Outside magazine early in 2016 and had kept the tab open in my browser ever since, just in case I ever made it to Koggala Lake. I think it’s even what inspired me to look into Sri Lanka as a destination. I wanted some quiet, simple days of relaxation after the very busy tour itinerary. I’m also working on a novel, so I brought my notes along and hoped the four days of beauty and solitude would provide a nice setting to do some writing.

 

You guys. This place is AMAZING. It doesn’t seem possible that it could be as gorgeous as the website makes it look (www.trilanka.com), but it is. I stayed in a lake view room with my own balcony, and every detail showed the care and commitment of the architects and designers. The staff was incredibly gracious and helpful, and the grounds were like an oasis of calm gently nestled into the natural surroundings. Breakfast and dinner were included, and each meal was multiple courses with a combination of Sri Lankan and Western dishes, all sourced as locally as possible. I definitely became one of those people who takes photos of my food. Best of all, I could literally watch the sun rise over the lake without getting out of bed. It was an introvert’s dream!

 

On my last night there, before beginning the arduous journey home, I sat on my balcony watching the moonlight shimmy across the lake’s rippling water and listening as birds and frogs and insects began singing their night songs. The palm fronds danced in the breeze, making a sound almost like rain drops.  Off in the distance, probably on the other side of the lake, I could just barely hear the familiar strains of Für Elise, and I knew that somewhere, someone was buying baked goods from a musical tuk tuk.

 

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Death Valley 2016

Two friends and I met up in Death Valley for a quick weekend getaway toward the end of the superbloom of 2016. The wildflowers that had blanketed the valley earlier were now confined to higher elevations, but having never visited the park before, I found plenty of beauty. We stayed in Beatty, Nevada, in Casey’s motorhome with Bob the guard cat.

Jamaica 2014

This was a quick, 10-day trip to Ocho Rios with a dear friend. We rented a cute little seaside cottage with a private deck and gorgeous views and a friendly neighbor cat named Kayak. The weather was hit and miss, so we spent a few days hunkered down watching the waves thrash against the rocks, and others out in the sun snorkeling and snoozing in the breeze. Our open-air living quarters invited a variety of insects and creepy crawlies into our sphere, sometimes late at night, which made for some hysterical laughter and frantic batting/fanning/paralyzed-in-fear-so-the-giant-cockroach-doesn’t-fall-onto-my-face/catch-and-release moments. All in good fun.

Croatia 2012

I traveled to Croatia for a couple weeks in the fall of 2012. We spent the first week in a villa on the island of Brač, near Split. It was a gorgeous rental and very affordable for our group of around ten. A smaller contingent stayed a second week and traveled up to Plitvice Lakes National Park, and then back down through a little corner of Bosnia (called the Neum Corridor) and to Dubrovnik.

Reflections, ex post facto

nigerhseBefore I left, people told me this trip would change my life. Did it? Well, I realize the conflicts in judging one’s own evolution, but I really don’t think my outlook is cosmically different. I wasn’t appalled at the living conditions, although they were obviously far below the American standard. Cultural differences (like men refusing to shake my hand because I am female) didn’t shock or anger me. I like to think I’m more socially aware than the average American, and more concious of the great extent to which we (and, in turn, our beliefs, values and ideologies) are products of our environment and culture. Even if that wasn’t the case before I left, I’m confident that it is now.

Those who have eaten a meal with me know the comic extent of my pickiness; suffice it to say there aren’t many finicky eaters in Niger. I learned to eat things I didn’t like (or couldn’t definitively identify) simply because I got so hungry that I didn’t care. And I have a *whole* new appreciation for the availability of toilet paper in the United States. Enough said. 🙂

I did impress myself by keeping my composure in situations that could have been ugly. Short of crashing or getting hijacked, I think I’ve experienced (and survived) the worst parts of air travel, so future voyages will probably only be better. I do hope to travel more, perhaps even to Africa again, but I probably won’t return to Niger. It was a great experience, but I don’t think spending more time there would enrich it, and there are other areas I’d like to see. If I do return, though, I’ll only bring what I can fit in a backpack… that, and a roll of toilet paper.


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Miscellaneous Pictures and Stories

Another shot of that amazing gorge

Another shot of that amazing gorge

Elephants have big feet!! These tracks were at a watering hole that had long since dried up.

Elephants have big feet!! These tracks were at a watering hole that had long since dried up.

Alas, this is the closest I came to seeing a lion. Eric and I took a walk through the park and there were tracks along most of the trail- it was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. The footprint in the upper left is a lion; lower right is a baboon.

Alas, this is the closest I came to seeing a lion. Eric and I took a walk through the park and there were tracks along most of the trail- it was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. The footprint in the upper left is a lion; lower right is a baboon.

This is just interesting topography we passed while on the large mammal survey.

This is just interesting topography we passed while on the large mammal survey.

The dry season dries up the rivers forces the animals to migrate to find water.

The dry season dries up the rivers forces the animals to migrate to find water.

During the first week we took a trip to a town called Torodi where there's another Peace Corps hostel. While we were there we visited several of the bush villages surrounding Torodi to tell the villagers that new volunteers would be arriving soon.

During the first week we took a trip to a town called Torodi where there’s another Peace Corps hostel. While we were there we visited several of the bush villages surrounding Torodi to tell the villagers that new volunteers would be arriving soon.

These are some huts near Torodi.

These are some huts near Torodi.

Wednesday, December 9
We went out in a truck and visited some bush villages today- there are new PCVs getting sworn in soon and we visited their future homes to make sure the concessions were in decent shape and told the villagers that they’d have another guest soon. One of the new volunteers is black so when we went to her future village we all (Ann, Eric, Elliot, Debbie, our driver Musa and I) sat in the shade with the village leaders and tried to explain that not everyone in America is white, but that there are many different kinds of people and we’re all American and all equal. It was hard for them to understand. Finally Musa told one guy that if he went to America, he could walk around and no one would know he wasn’t American because there are people who look just like him there. He was astonished– “Like ME??” Yes, yes, like you! Then he got really excited and wanted to know how he could go to America, what he had to do. White skin is almost revered here; it symbolizes America and wealth and the Peace Corps.

I also saw ‘President’ Bari yesterday. I don’t know much about the politics of Niger, but I guess he’s sort of a dictator who’s trying to convince people that he’s leading a democracy… I’m not sure. Everyone in Torodi wore their best clothes and they all crowded around the military vehicles and chanted his name. There was a makeshift stage set up with a low quality microphone on it, and there were so many kids climbing the trees to see better that some of the trees were starting to bend over and crack. I wish now that I had taken my camera, but I wasn’t feeling well so I went home and laid down after just a few minutes in that crowd.

**Update: a few months after my return, Bari was assassinated in the airport that I flew in and out of. Rumor says that his own men turned on him and pumped him full of bullets at close range, but the ‘official’ word is that Bari died in an ‘unfortunate accident’.**

An African Mahogany

An African Mahogany

The Peace Corps hostel in Torodi

Another great part of my trip- we climbed this mesa to watch the sun set. Debbie, a Torodi volunteer, is in the foreground.

Another great part of my trip- we climbed this mesa to watch the sun set. Debbie, a Torodi volunteer, is in the foreground.

The reward for the climb... a breathtaking view. That white speck is our truck- that's where I was standing when I took the first picture.

The reward for the climb… a breathtaking view. That white speck is our truck- that’s where I was standing when I took the first picture.

Eric, me and another volunteer's dog

Eric, me and another volunteer’s dog

And the big finale...

And the big finale…

This girl lives in Niamey and does Henna to supplement her family's income. She painted both hands and both palms for 2500 cfa (about $5). I let it dry for about an hour and then washed it off.

This girl lives in Niamey and does Henna to supplement her family’s income. She painted both hands and both palms for 2500 cfa (about $5). I let it dry for about an hour and then washed it off.

The results faded to brown in about a week and a half, and I still had traces of the designs on both palms four weeks later.

The results faded to brown in about a week and a half, and I still had traces of the designs on both palms four weeks later.


Back to Niger 1998