India / Sri Lanka June-July 2011. ~mike gradziel.
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Joy and I went to Bangalore and Colombo for a wedding, and it was amazing - colorful, tasty, interesting, steeped in history and tradition, set among dramatic landscapes home to cute animals and diverse peoples, basically offering all the things for which I like to travel. Photo captions still to come.
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Bangalore, via Hong Kong, is a third of the way around the world from San
Francisco. This was a long journey! I packed sandwiches before we left
for the airport around noon on a Saturday, extracting small satisfaction
from not paying exorbitant airport lunch prices. It was quiet in the
spacious international terminal, a lull before the constant roar of four
giant turbofan engines that churned the sky all the way across the ocean.
If I didn't know better, I could be convinced that we were all reclining
inside a sixty megawatt space heater anchored somewhere in the San
Francisco fog for no good reason. Time passed, everything outside the
window stayed the same, and those engines just kept making a dull roar
that would be absolutely deafening if it suddenly came on in the San
Mateo library. It all seemed so slow and feeble, all noise with no punch
except a day later we did exit the plane nine thousand miles from where we
Descending to Hong Kong in the evening reminded me of my last arrival there in 1997, at the old airport in Victoria Harbor right in the middle of the city. As we glided down I looked out at the same foreign-looking rocky islets and boats and recalled that trip, my first to a distant land. It was mainly the clouds that were the same, towering thunderstorms above low clouds with wispy mist and haze drifting in all directions, lit golden by the low sun. The new airport is far outside the city in a less dramatic, safer place with more room so I did not get to re-live that thrilling final approach through the city. In the big empty terminal, we walked every hall and waited for three and a half hours.
When we arrived in Bangalore it was the middle of the night which enabled our driver to move at great speed on account of the light traffic. The one-hour drive to our hotel was as dark, fast, and dangerous as any I have experienced. We tore through dimly lit streets, soared over bumps, swerved around trucks, rocks, and shadows, and eventually arrived at our hotel around 3am with pulses racing. Our plain room was reasonably clean but there was no hot water.
We awoke at 7am, feeling rested but still tired, to bright sun streaming in our window. Traffic honked incessantly outside. The complimentary breakfast arrived at our room: hot black tea with milk, buttered toast, and fried eggs. We passed time reading the newspaper and our travel books, waiting for Joanna and Howard to arrive on their morning flight from Dubai. Once they were checked in and settled, we all went out at noon to a market area about fifteen minutes distant through traffic-choked streets traveling in a hired car.
Joy's friends were there. We had come for a wedding, and there was shopping to do: jewelry for the bride, sarees for the women, and for the men, long formal shirts. We could wear suits too, but for one day I decided to buy an Indian outfit which I hope I can wear again sometime. We split up, the women to buy fabric and be measured for their sarees which are made custom within a couple days, and the men to help Praveen, the groom, select a suit and to do our own shopping. In the evening we all met again at the saree store, made a stop at a cell phone place to load up a borrowed SIM card for Joy's phone, and went our separate ways; with Joy, Joanna, and Howard I returned to our hotel by three-wheeled motor rickshaw.
The rickshaw is an enclosed carriage on diminutive wheels with a tiny sputtering two-cycle engine that drives about twenty-five kilometers on a liter of fuel (that's almost sixty mpg). It may be efficient, but it is not at all clean nor is it very safe. In Bangalore there are fare meters in every rickshaw but hardly anyone uses them, leaving us newcomers to learn the hard way that the fair price is one third what we were being offered. Arguing over a dollar-fifty ride, trying to get it down to an eighty-cent ride just seems so wrong especially considering that some of these guys have to sleep at night in the back seat of their rickshaw, because they have nowhere else. Still, in principle it is no fun getting fleeced.
We turned in for the night after taking a short walk around the streets near the hotel; it was getting late and not much was going on. It had been a long and tiring day with alternate hurrying and waiting, with lots of people to meet and conflicting recommendations on what to do and how much to pay for it. It was definitely time for sleep.
We woke early in the morning again, but had not planned to leave until 10am to allow ourselves some rest since we did not get to sleep until late the night before. It was very calm and quiet outside on the streets at 7am. We repacked our belongings, separating enough clothes for the next three days and preparing the rest for storage at the Sheraton hotel. We would be going overnight to Mysore, a city three hours away, and then coming back to our same hotel but they did not have a secure bag storage area, or anything like that, and being uncomfortable with their storage arrangements we hired a car again and had the driver take us by the Sheraton en route to the train station. The newly opened Sheraton is likely the nicest hotel in Bangalore, and our bags were well cared for there until we checked in three days later.
Arriving at the train station at 11:30, we were able to buy tickets (a confusing process) and get to the next train a minute or two before it's 11:45 departure. The train was third class, packed with people and without assigned seats. Windows had no glass, just iron bars. There was standing room only and people were hanging out in doorways and lying on the luggage racks. The feeling was not of chaos, crowded but relaxed and casual, laid back and ready for hours chugging along through the countryside. Fortunately the weather was pleasant, not too hot, and there were many electric fans going in the car.
People came through selling snacks, various fried things and coffee but we were not bold enough to try them because they came from plastic buckets and were wrapped in old newspapers of questionable origin. However in hindsight these foods were probably perfectly safe to eat, unlike the clean green salad I munched my way through at a nice restaurant in Sri Lanka. The train made occasional stops but it remained crowded, though we did eventually get to sit down.
Near Bangalore the land was thickly covered with trash and every creek and stream was running black, but farther out it seemed cleaner. Most of the journey was through farmland, a patchwork of fields and palm trees. People were harvesting rice by hand using sickles and bringing wagonloads of rice stalks to a tractor-powered threshing machine that sputtered and spewed rice stalks out one end and grain from the other. Even here however people threw trash casually from the train windows. I always wonder what their perspective is - could they simply not value neatness and cleanliness? I suppose this could come naturally, living in India.
I talked briefly with some people near me and got the impression that they had not seen many tourists. We had not seen many other foreigners, but it was the off-season. One man tried the ploy of asking to see what some US money looked like. Next thing I am sure he would want to keep it. He seemed genuine, but almost everyone we met on the streets of India wanted something from us. At the Mysore station we decided to walk fifteen minutes to the city center mainly on account of a rickshaw driver who followed us around the station making all sorts of offers. These guys may be desperate for income, but because of the way he sought us out and persistently followed us, there is no way I could have agreed to his offer without feeling like I was falling helplessly into a financial trap.
Over time we got better at dealing with these situations, by gathering swarms of rickshaws and bargaining down together. They would try to talk with each other first to see how high the price was starting, but as newcomers pulled up we could catch someone by surprise and drive down the price. I was sorry to see that the least pushy, most pleasant and honest drivers were the ones who did not get as much of our money; sometimes, we tipped these drivers extra. This probably worked to erode those qualities we appreciated, driving home the message that we foreigners should always pay more because we think nothing of spending an extra fifty rupees (one dollar US) on a fifty-rupee ride across town. Of course there is some truth to this, and I might travel at peace with my conscience by insisting on paying the equivalent of San Francisco cab fares for every ride, since that's what it's like where I come from, but that's no way to run a tourist economy.
In town we saw our first wandering urban cows. Southern India has a large Hindu population which respects cows and keeps them only for milk, never for meat, and feral cows are generally allowed to roam as they wish. I wondered what would happen if one wandered into the vegetable market, but before long I saw a vendor shooing off a cow so clearly there are some limits. Actually the situation is rather sad, because the revered free cows are starved and diseased and they gather around dumpsters and rubbish heaps like stray dogs. I heard that many of these cows are retired dairy animals sent out on the streets as an alternative to killing them for meat. With so many hungry people all around, it is a shame to let four hundred pounds of beef stew languish in the gutters like this.
Our hotel Pai Vista was lovely, so much nicer than the place where we were staying in Bangalore and for just a little more money. We got upgraded to larger rooms for some reason. In the hallways, a crew appeared to be filming for a movie. There were lights and cables running all over, and actors loitering about - noticeable on account of their idleness, and their light skin tone. In India, light skin is basically a requirement for any role in acting, advertising, or television, even in well-educated circles that know better.
We ate a late lunch at the hotel restaurant and then went off to see the markets. It was the perfect time of day to be out, with the evening sun revealing rich colors while the alleyways were less crowded on account of the late hour. I love outdoor markets, the colorful and unsophisticated kind with tarps strung overhead above piles or produce and flowers, incense, metalwares, or cloth. There were tins piled high with chalky colored powder, used to make dots on the forehead and for offerings at temples. I took so many photos, trying to capture the glowing vendor stalls piled high with goods and visited by colorful people under tattered awnings and worn buildings that spoke volumes about human effort and accomplishment. My effort was only partly successful; you would have had to be there to know the sounds and the smells and the warm evening air.
Across the street we went to a silk shop and stayed a while looking through stacks of scarves. They were machine woven but local, not different at all from things you might find in a store anywhere but still attractive to me as a keepsake from India. I don't buy carvings or statues any more, just blankets. The shopkeeper made us coffee. It was dark when we left.
We walked by the Mysore Palace to see it illuminated at night. This palace was built by the last king of Mysore, in 1906, replacing an older palace that had burned. At night the ornate gates and the distant palace buildings were lit up nicely. We did not linger however on account of postcard-pushing hawkers who would not go away. Instead we walked across town toward the hotel, missing a turn and straying well out of our way. It was nice that many people spoke enough English to help us with directions.
In the narrow streets near the palace there were food vendors and I wished I had brought along my metal camping cup and a spoon, so I could try some of the freshly cooked foods without having to stay to return a plate, or for that matter without having to eat off a lightly-rinsed and reused plate. I used to travel prepared like that but it had been a while since we last went to a place lacking clean dishware. There were cows on the sidewalk, walking among people and stopping to drink from slop buckets. It seemed dangerous to be so close to large animals with horns and bad tempers in the confines of the dark sidewalk, penned in by vendor booths. We ducked into a doorway and let the cows pass.
Back at the room we enjoyed luxuriously hot showers, a vast improvement from the tepid weak stream that our Bangalore hotel shower could provide. There were many large tour buses parked outside the hotel and we resolved to rise early to enjoy the complimentary breakfast buffet before the tour bus crowd. This turned out to be a good decision, as we were able to enjoy a quiet and leisurely meal from the well-stocked breakfast buffet and were ready to leave as the restaurant filled up. There was both Indian and western food, all of it tasty.
After breakfast we hired a car from the hotel to take us to Chamundi, a hilltop temple outside the city. There were cows up there too, hanging around nowhere near grass but not begging for food. Maybe people feed them there. We saw monkeys too, several with baby monkeys clinging to their bellies. A local man insisted that we let him show us the temple, which he said was free, but of course cost us a small sum of money collected afterward for his services. We had to remove our shoes and leave them at a check counter outside. In the temple, we made offerings of colored powders and little white flowers. It was a nice experience, except for feeling led on by our enterprising guide.
We located our driver and arranged for him to meet us part-way down the hill at the other end of a footpath that led to a carved stone bull. Someone had told us about it at the temple, but until we arrived we were all thinking we would find a stone bowl, not a bull. No wonder nobody was understanding our hand gestures as we tried to ask directions along the way!
We got back to the hotel in time to wash up in our rooms before the 12-noon checkout time. At the lobby we stored a couple bags and then walked to the palace and around to the entrance on the far side where we bought admission tickets and proceeded to the main palace building within the grounds. We had read that cameras would not be allowed inside the palace, but the bag/camera check counter was inside the palace gate and once inside with my camera I resolved to keep it stowed in my bag for safekeeping. I am very protective of pictures I've taken. However after we had checked our shoes and walked to a security checkpoint, an x-ray machine attendant picked out my camera on the screen. Then the security guard said in a low voice, "I take tips." For less than a dollar we were on our way with cameras safe and sound in our bags. Ironically, just around a corner another guard was inviting visitors to take pictures with their mobile phones. He acted disappointed and disbelieving when I said I had no camera phone. A little farther on we saw signs saying mobile phone cameras were ok. What a runaround!
I don't know why we had to remove our shoes inside the palace. It wasn't a place of worship, and it was actually rather dirty with gritty floors. Plus since most people wear flip-flops, most people have dirty feet. Maybe there is less wear on the floorboards this way?
The palace made me feel a little sad. It was so empty and a little run down, elegantly built but feeling sort of like a pavilion at the county fair, a large open space with no character aside from the things brought into the space once in a while when some event was happening. It looked as if it had been built mainly to show off great parades on the palace grounds; there was even a huge covered grandstand seating area at the front of the palace. Painted murals inside showed it full of men in uniform, cavalry, and processions of elephants. Those days are gone.
We all got free audio tour headphone sets which were actually quite nice to listen to. There were official guides roaming around, but they were not free. At the end we retrieved our shoes and walked back to the hotel. The streets were very busy then at mid-day, with lots of pushy vendors selling jewelry and handicrafts, people asking for handouts, and even clingy dirty children trained to pester people and reach into their pockets. It is very easy to change from a sympathetic friend of humanity into a culturally superior snob who can readily brush aside the hungry little vermin with mounting exasperation. I will admit that I am selfish when away from home. People need to take care of their own, first, and for me that is beautiful San Mateo and the rest of the clean and well-cared-for USA.
The bus station was directly across the street from our hotel but it took us a while to locate a bus to Bangalore. It was a driver who ended up recruiting us to get on his sleek air conditioned bus, where tickets were sold onboard, after we had made circles through the station and ticket counters finding no help. The journey took just as long as the train and was less exciting but more comfortable; however it cost 270 rupees apiece instead of 42 on the train. Either way seemed like a great deal, at forty-five rupees to the dollar, for a journey of three hours. At the Bangalore station we tried to walk a short way to get situated on better streets for catching a cheap rickshaw ride back to our hotel but in the evening rush there was an insane amount of traffic and walking seemed quite dangerous. From where we were in some alley off the main roads we took rickshaws to the hotel. It was always hard to explain where we were going on account of the illogical system of naming streets in Bangalore, together with our limited geographic knowledge, and the drivers never seemed to know the streets well either but for four of us arrived within minutes of each other, having taken two different rickshaws.
We went to dinner at the restaurant in our hotel, which was quite good with lots of flavorful food mostly North Indian style. We had wanted to try a place down the street based on a review in our guidebook, but it was closed. A man who worked in a store nearby saw us huddled over our guidebook reading about other options and recommended this restaurant, saying he takes his family there. Choosing to eat in rather than venture out someplace exciting seemed completely ok once we had this recommendation.
We had them wrap up some extra chicken and rice from our meal, thinking we might eat it later, but I soon thought better of leaving warm chicken overnight without a refrigerator (we were far too stuffed to eat any more that evening). Instead I took it along when we went out walking. It wasn't long before we met a teenage girl wearing a rumpled sari and making motions of eating, asking for money; these people were often out at night. She took the bag of food but after seeing several more girls asking for handouts I got the feeling that they might just be sent out by their families to beg for money downtown, and that our leftovers might have been better appreciated by several more desperate-looking street people whom we saw later. Nonetheless, at least someone got to eat our leftovers.
Along the road from Mysore we saw numerous groupings of tents, most made from blue tarps and cloth, where people tended their belongings or cooked while children ran around underfoot. These people have so little. Once I saw a woman sitting in a harvested rice field, collecting forgotten heads of grain. It would be so hard to make a meal this way.
We walked around at the intersection of Church and Brigade road, nightlife central in downtown Bangalore with crowds of people and trendy shops. They all close by 9:30 or 10pm.
The following morning we rose early again, this time to catch a rickshaw across town to the tour office where we met the bus that would take us on a day-long tour to several temples three hours west of Bangalore, about half-way to the ocean. The bus left at 6:30 am, early for us, so we had no breakfast. Our assigned seats were in the first row, directly above and behind the driver with an unobstructed view out the windshield, and this was the most scary and dangerous place of all. We could see and feel all the weaving in and out of traffic, the hard stops and near misses and times when other cars went head to head with the bus. This usually happened when our driver jumped out in front of oncoming traffic and forced it to yield so he could pass freely, in his big white government-operated bus that he felt had right of way over everything including oncoming fuel tankers or fast cars trying to overtake us. Several times on divided highway cars suddenly appeared coming against us on our side of the road. The other side was under construction, so they had been routed over to our side without any warning signs, markers, or barriers. It was insane; we passed one serious wreck.
After an hour or so we pulled into a bus stop (after making a u-turn and driving backwards a short ways on the wrong side of the divided highway) where everyone got off and went inside. The bus driver and his assistant were speaking English to the group, though everyone else looked Indian; within India there are many dialects so English is often used. It was still hard to understand them but at least we knew how long we had to eat. A waiter came over and stood at our table. There were no menus. At least we had some working knowledge of what one would eat for breakfast there, and we settled on the rest of our order by pointing at other people's food. Out came tasty crisp dosa filled with potato masala, fluffy steamed idli, and some sweet and savory foods rather like cous-cous. Howard bought some green coconuts at a stand outside. Alongside the stand, there was a mountain of coconut husks. We were amazed when the bill came: 190 rupees for the four of us, just a dollar US per person! We were stuffed.
Our bus shared the four-lane divided highway with farm tractors. Later, on rural roads, we saw a novel way of threshing grain: villagers had laid their cut stalks on the asphalt and were letting vehicles drive over it at forty miles per hour which surprisingly did not cause the stalks to scatter in the wind. There must be a second stage of separation where they sift out the sand that must get mixed in with the grain.
Our first stop was a hilltop Jain temple called Sharavanabelagola where there is a thousand year old gray stone statue that looks like it might have been made ten years ago on account of its smooth form and also its exceeding cleanliness, likely on account of cleaning after ceremonies that douse the statue with butter every so often. The rest of the temple looks old, and was more impressive than the statue for its architecture and its stunning hilltop setting. We had to walk up several hundred feet on steps hewn into the rock, barefoot, to reach the temple, and once inside we were ushered in by priests who gave us blessings and orange dots on our foreheads and then collected money. Afterward, we had to hurry down to meet our bus at the appointed time. The rest of our group drifted in slowly and we ended up waiting a while. Maybe they plan it that way.
Our skilled but reckless driver took the bus at top speed through rural villages, past farmers plowing fields with oxen and crowds of children wearing school uniforms. We yielded to no one, blaring our horn to beat traffic into submission. Once, a car passed the bus and sped away (quite a feat, considering how fast the bus was going) and this seemed to personally irritate our driver, who became even more impatient and aggressive. It was a nerve-wracking ride seen from our front seat perch.
The weather turned cloudy with some light drizzle which soon let up. The next stop on the tour was an ancient temple called Belur, a finely carved soapstone complex in the middle of a town. There a guide joined us and took the group around, speaking English. The single story building was set in a plaza paved with gray granite, elevated on a star shaped pedestal. Inside and out, all the walls were ornately carved with figures and designs no two alike. I ended up discretely following people wearing colorful sarees, taking pictures of them against the brooding gray stone and sky. The tour lasted about forty minutes and then we had twenty minutes more to look around, but it would take much longer to see everything.
Next the bus went to a restaurant in town. It was not so cheap nor as satisfying as the breakfast stop, and we were rushed in and out to stay on schedule. My main objection was that regardless of what we had ordered, everything was made with identical yellow curry sauce of mediocre and uniform flavor. At 2:30 we were once again on the road.
Our final stop was at the Halebid temple, a stone complex surrounded by grassy lawns but otherwise very similar to Belur. Again we were appointed a guide who took the group around and explained in English the significance of various carvings. Some small areas on the walls were incompletely carved, revealing how the designs were chiseled from the stone blocks. It must have taken an enormous amount of time to complete everything. Outside the main entrance at Halebid there were relentless sellers of postcards and statues, and they succeeded in making me feel bad for not spending a few dollars for their sake. I could certainly have afforded it, but for two problems: one, I did not want to buy trinkets that would clutter my home and be forgotten, and two, having said no several times I could not possibly give in without feeling subservient. Not that I know anything about sales, but to me a good strategy is to make a customer feel like the salesman is doing him a favor, rather that the truthful opposite.
When the bus pulled out from the last stop at dusk, Joy and I moved back from our scary seats. Other passengers seemed puzzled by this and we soon observed how infinitely less scary it was riding blind and oblivious to all the near-collisions. However I had been seriously concerned about hazards of the dark roads, and about headlights shining in our eyes. The bus ended up stuck in traffic for an hour in Bangalore, and it was after 9pm when we took rickshaws back from the bus stop to our hotel.
We went directly on down the street to find dinner, mindful of how early places had closed up the previous night. The streets were packed with people. Faced with more Indian food, we decided to go instead to Pizza Hut where nonetheless we got two small Indian-flavored pizzas (tandoori chicken and paneer cheese). These were good, but just not satisfying in the way that really great pizza can be. When we finally got back to the hotel, we were exhausted.
Friday morning began with our usual hotel breakfast of buttered toast, sweetened black tea with milk, and thinly fried eggs. The toast came with plastic packets of "mixed fruit" jam that was colored brilliant red and tasted like Twizzlers. Whatever fruit puree it had per the ingredients was simply a filler for the flavored sugary starch goo. These were good breakfasts, however, reliable and comfortably enjoyed in our room.
We checked out (our bags were still at the Sheraton) and walked around MG Road for a while, looking inside some silk and craft shops and then ate a good lunch at the food court of a shopping mall. Electing to take rickshaws across town to the Sheraton, we were reminded again that no one knows where this new hotel is nor do they know the street names. Our driver stopped to ask directions half way through and then needed more money having not realized how far it was. We could have taken a taxi for the four of us for the same price, and traveled in comfort, but the rickshaw drivers probably need the money more.
The Sheraton is such a fantastically nice hotel compared to where we had been staying. It had all the architectural details and furnishings one would expect of a luxury hotel, and polite staff attending to all our needs. We had to leave again soon after arriving, to meet at Dasu's house across town for the henna party at 4pm. In the hotel lobby we met for the first time many of the the other guests who had come from the US like us. Riding rickshaws ten minutes to the house, some people paid three hundred rupees while we got lucky with an honest driver who used the government-mandated meter and charged us 33 rupees. He also asked directions along the way and guided us to the exact house, which was a huge help since the streets are not well marked. I gave him a tip for this but still felt bad that the honest man was getting the least amount of money.
Three teenage boys were doing the henna painting, working with five-inch-long conical plastic tubes of pre-mixed henna paste. As one would decorate the frosting on a cake, they snipped the tips off these tubes and deftly squeezed out the henna in smooth rapid motions to make floral and leafy designs on our hands. Sumati had her forearms entirely covered with designs, and her feet too, but the rest of the women mostly just had a design on their palms extending part-way up the inside of their forearms. The men wouldn't typically get henna designs, except maybe the bride's name written on the groom's palm, but we foreign men each had the palm of one hand painted, not often having this sort of opportunity.
The henna took about two hours to dry, and during this time lemon juice was dabbed on to darken the markings. It took a long time for everyone to have their turn. There was food, catered small plates of tasty south Indian specialties that we had nowhere else. It rained a little outside. At the end of the evening I was trying my skills painting on my arm using discarded mostly-empty tubes of henna, and one of the boys gave me a couple extra tubes. It is very difficult to lay down the paste in smooth curves, because there is no touch feedback through the soft flexible tube. You just have to commit and go through the motions, skimming the tip of the tube along the surface. I ended up with a lightning bolt on my arm, but it didn't get very dark. The chemical process that fixes the dye works best on warm oily skin, such as the palms of the hands.
Afterward, back at the hotel room, Joy and I painted our feet too but without the special oil they used on our hands before inking, and without lemon juice afterwards, or feet turned out very light. This was just as well since our work was far from professional quality.
Saturday was another early morning. We were up at 6am to depart at 6:45 and be at a restaurant across the city at 7:30. There we ate especially tasty and buttery dosa and also idli and chutneys. After breakfast we walked around the Malleshwaram neighborhood with Joanna and Howard, browsing vegetable markets. We broke some bills into smaller change at a bank, bought fresh fruit juices at a juice shop, and tried some fresh ripe jackfruit that Howard bought. Once peeled and seeded, the brilliant yellow flesh is very sweet and has a texture and appearance rather like steamed tender squid.
Along the quiet and relatively clean residential streets we came upon some cows. They were emerging onto the sidewalk from what looked like a house, and munching on fresh green cornstalks. While we were stopped looking at this spectacle, a smiling young man hurried down from an upper floor and greeted us. He explained how the cows are milked and the milk sold every morning. Inside we could see many more cows. Imagine coming upon an urban dairy like this in San Francisco! It seemed very much out of place, but it was definitely in the spirit of the local food movement.
Returning to the hotel around noon, Joy and I washed some clothes in the bathtub. I had brought some detergent powder. However I was trying to do everything with one hand so as not to fade my henna painting, and consequently this took a long time. I ironed some clothes, too. At 3:00 we met in the lobby with the rest of our group and packed in to cars that shuttled us ten minutes to the wedding hall. This event was not the main part of the wedding, which would be the following morning, so it was more lightly attended and the big wedding hall was only partly full.
Beyond an arched gate adorned with flowers there was a courtyard, bordered by city streets, which led into the wedding hall. The hall had seating for about 300 people and a low stage at the front, with high windows all around and many electric fans mounted on the wall and whirring constantly. We were brought to an adjacent hall first, where a light meal was served South Indian style on banana leaves set on tables covered with white paper. The long rows of tables were set with metal stools for sitting, every two rows facing each other so the servers could walk down the middle aisle with pails and bowls of food. The service and setting were plain, practical, and an efficient way to accommodate an uncertain number of guests.
Servers brought us dollops of rice dishes, chutneys, and sauces which traditionally would be eaten with one's right hand, but small metal spoons were provided for us foreigners. It was not usual to find soap and water available, even there at the event hall, and in my mind this did not work so well with the finger food. Waitstaff brought finger bowls after the meal, but none before. People familiar with the art first rinsed their banana leaves by pouring a little water over them, hardly enough to move some dust around. I am not really a germophobe, but I do feel like I have a grasp on what it takes to get something clean. I wonder how public health statistics from India compare with Western Europe and North America.
The long ceremony was held on the stage at the front of the hall, after a welcome ritual where we all crowded around the front entrance to welcome the groom and his family. Seated in rows of chairs at the front of the hall, we could not hear the words being said by the priests on account of the fans blowing from all around the room to keep us cool. There were chants and verses and sometimes the priests would signal for music to be played by a band in the back of the room. The experience was rather like watching play, because the small group of people gathered onstage were not interacting with the audience. Unlike most weddings I have been to, this was not a show.
Heavy rain began outside forming deep puddles. Fortunately we had hired cars again to shuttle us back to the hotel, and we did not have to wrangle with rickshaws in the dark wet night. It was late, I was exhausted, and we would have to be up early again in the morning.
At 6am, the appointed time, the drivers were not yet arrived as there had been a change of plans, so we had time to enjoy a hurried breakfast buffet at the hotel. This was included in the special room rate package negotiated for our group, but the planned schedule had us leaving before the kitchen opened on every single day! As one would expect from the nicest hotel in Bangalore, the breakfast spread was lavish and multi-cultural with Indian chutneys, rice, and steamed cakes, Chinese congee rice soup, western style eggs, sausage, and pastries, fresh fruits and juices, and even fresh salads and roasted meat carved to order. It was overwhelming especially while keeping watch for our drivers to arrive; we did not want to be late for the ceremony which was set to begin at a particular auspicious time.
As it turned out however the actual marriage moment was several hours later, and while we arrived in time to see it all, many guests drifted in over the first couple hours. The bride and groom and their parents wore many different sets of clothes throughout the morning, acting out rituals and ceremonial stories. By some unexplained quirk of Indian tradition, the groom's father had to sit aside for parts of the ceremony while the groom's sister and brother-in-law stood in because a married couple was required, and the groom's mother had died.
In an iron cauldron a ceremonial fire was lit and all sorts of spice and color powders, oils, and bits of plant material were poured into it. The stage was becoming rather smoky. Throughout the ceremony it was expected that we in the audience would feel free to get up and move around, come up to the stage to take photos or listen, and even leave for a while to be served a light breakfast in the meal hall.
There were many photographers and a video crew walking around with bright lights and big cameras that trailed power and data cables across the room to a computer that looked twenty years old. They did a nice job, though; we saw some of the pictures on television screens. Later in the day, towards the end of the six hour ceremony, everyone was served another meal on banana leaves. Even the wedding party joined in this time.
The event concluded with a ceremony in which the groom brought the bride into a room appointed as his house and ornately decorated. Inside, in the bright glare of the video lamps, guests crowded in and from a big plate fed pinches of sugar and sweet nuts to the bride, to wish the couple well.
Back at the hotel, showered and changed into different clothes, we met up at the poolside bar. Joy went for a swim but the weather was actually not very warm; it even started raining a little. Drinks there in the hotel each cost as much as a four-door car hired to go across town, or a dinner for two at a decent restaurant on MG Road; in other words, prohibitively expensive to almost everyone living in Bangalore. We had drinks anyway, beer at least because the wine was actually very expensive even for us.
Joy, Joanna, Michael, and I went to an Italian restaurant at the hotel. It was mostly empty, like the rest of the hotel which is still under construction (just the outdoor grounds and the neighboring buildings). For an upscale restaurant the prices were quite reasonable, and the food was a welcome change from the Indian fare we had been eating. We must be spoiled living where we do, easily able to eat from all the cuisines of the world and disinclined to have the same style of food more than a few days in a row.
As we were finishing up, the chef came out to talk. He had been brought in to open the restaurant; that is what he does all over the world moving every 18 months or so. Born in Uruguay, trained in Italy, and brought up all over the world he spoke fluent English as well as Spanish and Italian. His wife was Japanese, he said, and they and the kids were about to depart for Canada where they would embark by RV on an epic fishing trip for arctic char, trout, and salmon. He was quite an accomplished person, and he brought us his tiramisu complimentary. "I met my wife because of my tiramisu," he said. It was indeed tasty.
Monday morning once again began very early, but this time the hotel agreed to open breakfast early for the twenty of us. Waffles, eggs, fruits and juices and pastries, smoked meats, carved roasts, Indian curries, soups, and even some salads all met their ends on our plates. It was hurried and so early that I was not especially hungry yet but I was satisfied having the chance to try everything. It is only rarely that we get the chance to enjoy such a decadent bed and breakfast for the price of a cheap hotel in the suburbs back home.
A big city bus arrived to take us and our small mountain of bags to the airport forty kilometers distant for a flight to Colombo. Our group trickled through the airport entrance in twos and threes as each group of people negotiated with security officers who decided whether to accept the varying degrees of completeness of our printed itineraries. Anyone could make up a printed itinerary and security would never know the difference; I wonder why they go to such trouble. Once inside the terminal building we went through the usual process of checking in, getting boarding passes, and going through security.
Flying with a group of twenty people, filling ten percent of the airplane, was a new experience for me and being in a distant part of the world made it that much more of a novelty. It felt as if we could have been anywhere in the US, but despite the familiarity we were still in Bangalore half a world away from home. On the plane I had a window seat and after we took off I passed the time watching the landscape go by below. There is not much water between India and Sri Lanka, and it is packed with sandbars and islands.
On the plane, I ate the sandwiches handed out by the stewards, which we agreed several hours later were the cause of queasiness felt in much greater proportion by those of us who ate sandwiches than by those who did not. It might also have started with the unsteady flight into Colombo which was battered by gusty winds and plagued by some amount of unskillful piloting that had us lurching around with abrupt dips and slides. I was relieved when we landed and emerged from the open aircraft doors into sweltering tropical heat.
The airport was tiny. I changed some US dollars to Sri Lankan rupees, marveling at the absence of fees and the good exchange rate. Later when our guide explained the horrendous inflation rate, business prospects from buying foreign currency seemed considerably brighter even without revenue from fees. Outside, we boarded a comfortably air-conditioned bus and set out immediately on narrow but well-paved roads through the countryside. We would not see any of the city itself until returning to Colombo a few days later.
We stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant where bowls of food were set out family style. Around plates of rice we scooped dollops of sauces, curries, and chutneys, some with eggplant, another with curried unripe jackfruit, and several other chicken and vegetable dishes. The Sri Lankan way of eating uses forks and spoons, and porcelain dishes. No banana leaf plates here. Ginger beer is a popular soft drink.
Back on the bus, I watched the forest go by broken by occasional clearings mostly planted with rice. The western lowlands near Colombo appear very tropical and wet, green and covered with palm trees, while higher in the central region of the country the forest is more open, a hardwood jungle. Along the road I occasionally saw small lumber operations with stacks of cut logs being split and hewn by hand into smooth straight timbers for building. I asked our guide Bandu, who had met us at the airport and would stay with us through the tour, about the logging and he said the yards were regulated by the government, to ensure the health of the forest. My compliments go to the government of Sri Lanka, if this is at least partly effective.
Villages we passed were small, clean, and quaint. There were huge piles of coconut husks everywhere, and extensive groves of coconut palms. Trucks rolled by heavily laden with coconuts, and the rice fields glowed green. Everything was green.
After crossing about two thirds of the country we came to Sigiriya town, a collection of tourist resorts surrounding an ancient rock fortress of the same name. Bandu explained that a paranoid king, having killed his father to take power, built this fortress and lived there in decadence and fear. Unlike just about every ruler before and since, this king was not religious and so built a unique and unusual fortress, formed purely to show power and privilege, ornately decorated and painted with images of topless women, and well appointed with live versions of the same. We would visit the ruins on the following day.
It was evening when the bus arrived at our hotel, a sprawling complex with cottages for sleeping, a thatch-roofed restaurant with an elegant bar and lounge area, a swimming pool, pathways among vines and trees, and nearby, a vegetable garden supplying some of the restaurant's needs. We were advised not to stray beyond the paths at night, because wild elephants come to raid the garden. There were monkeys leaping around in the trees.
We sat out sipping drinks in the lounge for a while, and then Joy and I went over to the restaurant to eat a light dinner. Back at our room, the toilet was not flushing properly. I removed the tank lid and discovered three little frogs in the tank! - though this was not related to the faulty operation. They must have crawled in through a hole in the back. One by one I took them outside. I'm not sure if this was an improvement for them; there would be more food, but more predators. We turned out the lights and tried to get some sleep, but once again we had to wake early at 6am.
It was Tuesday morning. I saw more monkeys as we walked to breakfast, which felt a little rushed because we were supposed to be on our way to climb the rock fortress before the weather became hot. It was pleasantly cool so early in the morning. After buying entrance tickets, we made our way into the ruins passing moats formerly filled with crocodiles and several rings of stone walls. At the center of the grounds was a huge rock monolith, oblong with straight sides rising hundreds of feet high to a relatively flat top, on which the heart of the fortress had been built. Little remained up there but low brick walls and an enormous water pool cut into the rock.
The way up to the top traversed sheer rock faces into which shallow steps and handholds had been cut. Iron stairways had been installed but somehow the original design had been adequate for carrying everything up the rock, probably including the king himself. The entrance to the route up the cliff face was between the feet of an immense lion statue that must have towered high overhead; all that remained was the great paws and forelegs sculpted from mortared bricks. I think the guide said we would have entered through the mouth of the lion.
On the way down we passed many vendors and also a man with a python and a cobra in a basket. I don't like all the pressure to buy things but I did agree to hand over a couple dollars to the snake charmer having petted the python and taken a bunch of photos.
Comfortably back on the air conditioned bus, we were all content to rest and enjoy the ride to the city of Kandy, high in the hills. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a spice garden restaurant, a place built for tourists. On the grounds were plantings of cinnamon and clove trees, nutmeg, cardamom, vanilla, and my favorite: black pepper, growing in bunches on small shrubs. The bright green peppercorns smelled strongly of pepper when crushed. They can be eaten that way, green, where available. There were also many fruits growing, coconut and banana and jackfruit, pineapple, and others. The staff there produced various medicinal concoctions from these spices and fruits, some soothing oils and ointments as well as questionable things like weight loss creams. They enthusiastically offered these for sale to us. I ended up buying some vanilla extract to try at home, because it was concentrated in water rather than in alcohol which is not something I have found available at home. It tastes good but I am a little uneasy about it, not knowing if they might have put in other flavorings or ingredients. I think I can detect a subtle coconut flavor.
Our noontime meal at the spice garden was another buffet of Sri Lankan curries and sauces self-served over plates of rice. These were a nice change from the Indian food we had been eating, though the style is quite similar.
In the city of Kandy, which I would classify as a large town, our bus threaded its way high onto a hillside on narrow streets where we stopped at a government gem shop. There were some interesting displays about how shafts are dug and gem-bearing gravel removed, washed, and separated by weight, but the main purpose was for us to shop in the gallery. Sri Lanka has rich deposits of sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. I asked several different ways about getting a high quality uncut sapphire (they had a workshop in-house, but it seemed to be all metalwork and stone setting) but they had nothing of quality, just some display gravel in the small museum. Cut stones were priced from tens of dollars to many hundreds of dollars, but to me they all looked indistinguishable from colored glass. I am not a gemstone enthusiast.
We went next to a cultural performance at an arts center. Successive groups of Sri Lankan dancers performed on stage. The audience looked entirely of European descent, that is, all tourists from abroad. It was a nice show, concluding with fire walkers who stepped boldly across a bed of glowing coals laid out on a tray about twelve feet long. The thermal conductivity of glowing charcoal just isn't high enough to transfer much heat to their feet as they walk, but the radiant heat coming off the coal bed must have caused quite a burning sensation. The men also rolled flaming brands along their chests and even their tongues. This was all interesting, but I still thought the best part was when the men threw handfuls of powdered tree pitch into the air in a flaming fireball that left a pleasant aroma of pine smoke. The kid in me still likes to play with fire.
After the show we walked a short way along the lake at the center of town to the Temple of the Tooth, the site of a coveted Buddhist relic. After the Buddha was cremated in a pyre 2500 years ago, monks collected bits of bone afterward. The tooth became a symbol of power - he who had the tooth, had the power - and it was spirited out of India to protect it from Hindu leaders. In Sri Lanka it had, and still has, great significance. At one point not long ago the tooth relic was displayed in a grand ceremony to bring about the end of a severe drought, according to a display there, and this was followed by massive floods.
The tooth is supposedly concealed within an enormous gold-covered casket, ornately carved and surrounded by ivory tusks and elaborately carved wood panels. We waited in line for a long time and each got a glimpse of this in passing, through a narrow opening into a long room. There are rumors that the tooth itself is not really there, that it is instead locked away in some vault especially since Sri Lanka only recently emerged from a period of guerilla warfare between ethnic groups. There was a heavy security presence outside the temple, and just to walk close we had to pass through a razor wire perimeter and metal detector.
We looked around the temple some before taking the bus back up into the hills for dinner at a restaurant, incidentally right across the street from the gem shop. Dining on an open-air balcony three floors up, we had a nice dinner with the group - our first evening meal all together besides the wedding events. Speeches were made, stories were told, and it was not until late that we made our way to a hotel high in the hills via a small shuttle van. Our big city bus did not fit the small roads.
The Randholee hotel was in a nice hillside location, well built with comfortable lounge areas and a swimming pool overlooking the forested valley. Unfortunately Joy and I ended up with a room on the ground floor that seemed added as an afterthought, architecturally bland and for some reason lacking hot water. The price for our group tour was astoundingly low, about $400 per person for five night's accommodation and three days of bus travel with a driver and guide, plus rides to the airport for each of us at the end of our stay, so I couldn't be too critical of our water situation but it was annoying.
Too tired to rise early, Joy and I emerged only in time for breakfast and then after an hour or so we were packed up and on our way again, with no time to enjoy the hotel except for admiring the view outside from our breakfast table. This had been true throughout our trip; it would have been better to leave more time for appreciating the hotels, if we had been able to plan our itinerary.
At the hotel with us there were Sri Lankans on vacation, families with children and young couples. Some dressed like us, while others followed Islamic traditions requiring women to be completely covered in black cloth except for a slit open at the eyes. These women were wearing fashionable clothes and stylish shoes beneath these coverings (Joy saw one woman adjusting her garment in the ladies room) and the black fabric was usually very fine, often frilly and sometimes with a hint of sparkle at the edges. The women toted handbags, herded children, and sat by the pool just like everyone else, and their attire stood out to me especially strongly alongside our group which admittedly was pushing the boundary of locally accepted non-poolside attire with tank tops and shorts. The men, in comparison, wore t-shirts, shorts, and thick beards.
Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist but it has a mix of ethnic and religious groups, and while this has fed wars it also sets an example for coexistence in more peaceful parts of the country. People may dress as they wish, but personally I would not attempt more than the simplest business or social engagement with someone hiding all but their eyes. Some people argue that this is the very motive behind conservative Islamic womens' attire - for suppression - but I imagine that most people are simply keeping with norms and expectations. We do that in the US too: would you wear heels or a necktie (as applicable) for your own comfort and spiritual well-being, or do you just feel like these things are expected in certain situations?
The shuttle van brought us downtown to where the big bus was parked at the roadside. Our next stop was at a place that offered elephant rides. They had three or four elephants which were walked around on a path through the forest by their handlers, carrying two or three people sitting astride their backs on a blanket. The elephants carried chains draped back and forth over their shoulders and looped around a forefoot, ready for tethering the great animals but also giving an unpleasant feeling of imprisonment.
The Sri Lankan elephant has lost most of its habitat, is hunted illegally, and is threatened like elephants elsewhere, but it is also a symbol of wealth and status. No wonder - an elephant eats hundreds of pounds of vegetation each day and so is enormously costly to care for. Asian elephants are less aggressive than their African counterparts, and they can be trained to labor alongside humans and to participate in ceremonies. These gentle giants (once tamed) seemed unbothered by their duties as slow-moving thrill rides but Joy and I were content to stand by and watch, considering that there were many people from our group and others waiting to ride, and that it wasn't doing the elephants any good. I tipped their handlers for letting us take photos and pet the elephants, which have thick leathery skin with sparse, stiff bristles.
Our guide appeared with a big bag of bananas that we could feed to the eager elephants, which took the bananas with the soft grasping appendage at the end of their trunks and transferred them one at a time to their mouths. The elephant is truly an interesting creature, huge and rather clumsy except for its trunk, with which it can strip the leaves from a branch, draw up water to squirt in its mouth for drinking, throw dust on it's back for protection from sun and insects, and interact with other elephants; physical touch is very important to them. Without the use of its trunk, an elephant is completely helpless. I got a great photo of one elephant's trunk reaching for my camera, hoping for a banana.
Just down the road our next stop was an elephant orphanage, where a herd of about fifty elephants roamed freely, looked after by caretakers. There were no fences between us and the herd, and the caretakers periodically drove the elephants at us so we would see them more easily. They are all accustomed to people.
Some people in our group paid an extra fee to help bottle-feed what turned out to be very large baby elephants, five years old and bigger than a horse. They downed liter bottles of milk formula in seconds. We saw a five week old baby, about the size of a miniature pony, that was much more house-pet sized and very cute, but very shy.
Later, as we ate lunch at a restaurant in town, the whole herd was brought through town for their daily trip to the river. Some of the elephants were tethered by a long chain around one foreleg once they reached the river, but most elephants were loose. Once in a while the men had to retrieve a wayward elephant. The animals splashed water, sprayed their backs, and lay down immersing most of their bodies in shallow pools. The caretakers, four or five of them tending the herd, would sit with their elephants and splash water over the parts of them not fully immersed. The elephants seemed to enjoy this very much, laying happily in the water and breathing through their trunks which they extended above the surface. Some of the elephants affectionately held their caretaker's hand with the tip of their trunk, while he sat on their shoulder as they lay in the river. They are very intelligent creatures.
When it was time for the herd to leave the river, the men climbed onto their elephants by commanding them to raise and bend a foreleg so they could climb it like a staircase. Then away they rode, using no saddles; just poles for prodding.
Three hours later our bus pulled into Colombo, having descended from the hills and driven deep into the sprawling urban landscape surrounding downtown Colombo. Our hotel, the Galle Face (pronounced ga-ool in a single difficult-to-pronounce syllable), was directly on the beach. Built in 1864, its English colonial style is quaint and comfortable. A long outdoor verandah looks out on a manicured lawn and scattered palm trees leading a short way to the sea wall and sandy beach. The rooms are wood-paneled with renovated bathrooms and lots of character. Across the street, we ate dinner at a German pub, a welcome change from South Asian food.
At two am, noise woke us. The ceiling-mounted air conditioner in the room below ours had developed a severe imbalance, and the floor was shaking. Our stocked mini-fridge rattled, and the teacups on top of the fridge clanked incessantly. The guests below us must have just come in and turned on the air. I flagged down a hotel attendant and showed him the problem, and he agreed to contact maintenance. A short while later two men came, listened for a bit, and went downstairs; they never came back. The sound may have eased slightly, but it did not go away. I moved the teacups and we tried to sleep some. This must be a hotel's dreaded moment, having to disturb a guest because of someone else's complaint about a mechanical problem. Repair men came again the next day. I was a little surprised that they remembered the trouble call; they had to wait until the downstairs guests were out to make repairs. The next night there was less noise, but they hadn't fixed it completely.
For the first time in a while we got to sleep in, but we still rose in time to enjoy the breakfast buffet included in our room rate. Then we took a rickshaw to a nearby temple to attend the first ceremony of the Sri Lankan part of the wedding. There was a big elephant there on the temple grounds, looked after by several people. It had enormous tusks and was used in many ceremonies. In the temple there were many old things on display in glass cases scattered haphazardly around the rooms - coins, gold boxes, carved ivory, etc. - apparently collected over the years and preserved for some reason.
We were given lotus flowers with which to make offerings. The short ceremony was conducted by orange-robed monks who tied cotton strings around each of our wrists. Afterward, we talked out front for a while before taking a rickshaw back to the hotel and then to a bazaar area where based on our guidebook we hoped to find a spice market and other interesting shops. It turned out to be a broad region of many streets choked with traffic and lined with uninteresting shops. We learned later that some number of streets away there was indeed a vegetable market, but after wandering for a while dodging cars and people and putting up with pushy salespeople we bought some oranges and persuaded a rickshaw driver to take us back to the hotel for 140 rupees, all the small bills we had left. I noticed later that the stickers on the oranges showed they were from California!
Getting rides by rickshaw in both Bangalore and Colombo was tricky business. Our most dissatisfying ride was on the way to the bazaar in Colombo with a guy who set out in the wrong direction and asked to take us to a gem showroom, hoping we would buy something which then would earn him free gas for the rickshaw. Returning from the bazaar, I tried a new tactic - negotiating, then finally displaying the money we had selected for the fair (small bills were hard to come by, even at banks and stores, so getting a small sum together was hard) and then turning to walk away. Our driver agreed, and a few minutes later we were back at the hotel. Going through the economics of rickshaw driving in my head, however, calculating miles per gallon and dollars per mile, I could see it must be very hard to make any more money than is required to buy and maintain the rickshaw. In Bangalore, at sunrise we saw some drivers sleeping in the back seats of their rickshaws where there is hardly enough room for three people to sit. That is a hard life.
At the hotel Joy and I bought pastries at a cafe and then swam in the pool, then got drinks poolside and sat watching the waves come in. We showered, dressed up a little, and went down to the verandah for afternoon high tea, a fancy affair with lots of food and hardly any tea. What tea there was came in only one ordinary black variety and was difficult to obtain from wandering waitstaff. This meal served as dinner, and we stayed until 7pm watching the sun sink low into clouds on the horizon.
Friday the first of July began early, at 6:30am when we woke and went downstairs for breakfast. I wore a suit; Joy, a saree, and we were ready and waiting at the hotel ballroom at 8:15am. As in India, weddings in Sri Lanka also occur at auspicious times. The groom arrived wearing an elaborate king's costume, complete with a dagger, while his bride wore the most gaudy saree yet, a white gown studded with bright gems and lace, along with lots of heavy jewelry.
It was a nice ceremony in a rather different style from the one in Bangalore, with many elements familiar from western-style weddings: a canopy covered with white flowers, a candle-lighting ceremony, a champagne pour and cake cutting. But the was more - Sri Lankan dancers, music, rituals, and opening of a coconut flower which was very interesting to me not having seen one before. In a vase on one of the tables there was a great green spear, looking like an ear of corn two or three times larger than normal. It's green sheath had been slit from end to end and was lifted off in a single piece, revealing a tightly packed cream-colored bundle of stalks. These were ceremonially separated and spread open, leaving the flower looking like a tuft of ornamental grass.
We watched most of this while seated at one of the many round tables set with linen, china, glasses, and plates of light food. This too was more familiar and western style than the arrangements in Bangalore had been.
There were dancers beating drums and doing backflips, performing for the bride and groom. Then we all went out to an adjacent room where a fantastic buffet had been spread, and piled our plates high before returning to the dining room. Unlike the Indian celebration, here there were alcoholic beverages though few people drank any. There were two buffets, one vegetarian and the other not, plus a generous dessert bar with cakes, fruits, and custards. A man fried breaded shrimp in hot oil fresh to order. The cuisine spanned Sri Lankan, Indian, and Southeast Asian styles so as to provide something for everyone.
After a while the bride and groom, who had disappeared, came back through the main doors and were gracefully greeted and led in by dancing girls holding candles. There was music, mostly Western tunes, and we danced a little. The party was over at 3:15pm, once we had showered the newlyweds with handfuls of tiny flower petals and sent them off in a car.
Joy and I went back to our room to rest for a bit, then swam in the pool and walked knee-deep in the ocean for a minute or two. After a shower we walked down the street to a shopping center and bought spices and fruit at a grocery store. The spices were astoundingly cheap, while packaged Mac-and-cheese meals were outrageously expensive. Later back at the hotel, we ate the mangosteen fruit that I bought. A little smaller than a tennis ball, dark purple and looking a little like a persimmon, these fruits had a thick and intensely bitter purple rind surrounding a pure white core that looked outwardly like a tiny pumpkin and came apart in wedges like an orange. It was sweet and very mild in flavor.
For dinner we ended up back at the Bavarian restaurant, where there was free wireless and familiar food. I was quite happy with my spaghetti and sausages. Afterward, late at night, we gathered at a nightclub that gradually filled with people and smoke. This all got to be too much for me, so we retired at about 12:30; some people stayed out three hours more.
Nonetheless everyone showed up at some point during breakfast, those who had not already left the country that is, and we set out on a trip around the city to see a few more things before our departure late at night. After visiting several stores selling carvings, crafts, and gems we arrived at a place called Barefoot that sells clothing, handwoven cloth, and things made from the cloth - table linens, pillow coverings, stuffed animals, etc. I bought a colorful tablecloth, and Joy selected a small elephant named Aliya and a rather large fish called a Peacock Rock Cod, made with the correct coloring and patterns woven into the fabric. We had lunch at a cafe there and I decided I would take a chance eating the clean-looking, colorful, and tasty green salad.
After lunch we walked for a while and visited more stores, then went for drinks and desserts at a place called the Gallery Cafe, a stylish restaurant tucked away in an alley. I felt like we had just about worn out my interest in Sri Lanka by the time we walked back to our hotel at dusk. The ever-present solicitations for business, chaotic traffic, baking sun, and hazardous green salads were wearing me down. Once we reached the airport by a hired car arranged through our tour package, my salad came back out the way it went in and I was obliged to neither eat nor drink anything for the next six hours or so to Hong Kong via Singapore. Once in Hong Kong, however, I felt like I was almost home as we lunched on hot soup and chatted at a table in the airport terminal. The nearly fourteen hour journey across the ocean to California eventually proved this wrong. Then, finally, we were home.
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