Archive for March, 2008

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Good Friday

March 21, 2008

 Mendin Poya Day; Good Friday – Helen  I stayed at Ruki’s during the day finishing a book while Tom ran errands.  He went to pick up the car and the repair (remember the palm tree incident??) only cost him $32.  This is the place to be if you are banging up your car!!  As he left the auto place he said, “I have been here twice to pay my rental fee and twice to have the damages repaired.  The third time should be a charm and no more accidents.”  Remember this quote!!  He also went to the Fulbright and the Chinese Embassy (to get visas for our next trip) and did some shopping as well.  He made it back in time to attend 5:15 Good Friday services at St. Theresa.  See the pictures; the masses are said in three languages and the paintings depict Sri Lankan figures.

  

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 We ordered Pizza Hut pineapple/cheese pizza for dinner.

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Mumbai (Bombay)

March 20, 2008

Tom – Travel day, in van at 6am, flight to Mumbai (Bombay) on Jet Airways India (1.5 hours), 5 hour layover. 

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Our flight to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines (2.5 hours), arrived about 6pm, bought 2 liters ($31.50 each) of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch for Ruki at duty free store (got free travel bag).  Mano & Traci’s driver picked us up at the airport with their van and dropped us off at Ruki’s about 7:30pm.  Irene had dinner for us at 9pm, we showered and Helen was in bed by 9:30.  I spent another hour copying photos to a DVD with the hope of mailing two DVDs with all of our pictures/movies (to date) to Stacy for safe keeping.  On past trips cameras have been stolen and we have lost all of our photos (e.g. southeast Europe trip a couple of years ago).

 Helen – We asked for a 5:45 am wakeup call but received it at 4:45!!!  Go figure!!  I heard Tom repeat the time several times the night before, so we just dosed the next hour before we got up.  I was ready to go in a few minutes so made coffee while Tom packed his suitcase. We were in the lobby on time eating the last of the tangerines with the others because we were not going to get any breakfast.

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Jaipur, India

March 19, 2008

Helen – Our group decided to play hooky today and go into town to see the sights and shop rather than attend the conference.  There are seven members in our group and only six could fit into the rented taxi so Tom and I ventured out on our own.  We walked out to the main gate and thought we would be able to grab a cab there. NO. There are no cabs or three-wheelers outside the resort because we are so far from town.  Not wanting to wait while we ordered a taxi, we decided to take the local bus.  The gate keeper told us to take the #11 and as one came up he put us on and gave directions to the conductor to let us off at Amber Fort.  We paid the 12.5 cent fare per person and commented that this wasn’t so bad.  The bus was the size of the 10 seater van we used the other day except now the seats ran along the sides of the bus and had overhead railings to hold on to.  We took our seats and smiled as everyone looked at us.  In a matter of minutes the bus got pretty crowded and we gave up our seats to an old woman and a young mother with a small child.  We now were getting pretty well squeezed into the back of the bus and after about a half hour they told us we had reached our stop.  As we got off, everyone watched us as we looked around for the fort.  We couldn’t find it and the people on the bus were pointing out of the windows trying to tell us something.  We looked around again, still didn’t see anything, the bus waited, the people pointed, and finally we understood that we were to now take a three-wheeler for the rest of the way.

 The first one asked for $25 but the next young man was very nice and said that he would do it for $5 (200 Indian rupees).  This seemed reasonable since we still had about 7 miles to go. He was also very accommodating and stopped several times for Tom to take pictures along the way.  The first stop was the city gate as we passed through Jaipur.

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Tom – The “Old City” part of Jaipur is known as the Pink City, which can be readily seen from the pictures.  It was founded in 1727 when Sawai Jai Singh II moved his capital here from the Amber Fort.  It is laid out in a grid like pattern replicating sacred Hindu principles.  It was colored pink in 1853 to celebrate the visit of Prince Albert.  It reminds me of when I was a kid and we would call a store and ask if they had Prince Albert in a can (chewing tobacco).  They would say “Yes.”  We would then say, “Well, you better take him out!”

 

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Helen – Driving out of town, we passed the Water Fort; and as the name suggests, it was in the middle of a big lake with the water level just below the window sills!!  When we finally got to the Amber Fort, he asked if we wanted to take the jeep ride to the top since it was a long steep road.  We said no, we would rather walk.  

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Then he drove to where the elephants were; people paid $15 /person to ride them to the top.  We just got out, thanked and paid him and not knowing any better starting walking the road with the elephants.  It was a pretty narrow road, two elephants wide with one line going up and the other coming down, and we walked wherever we found a space (dangerous!!).  We notice that there were not any other walkers but thought they were either taking the jeeps or the elephants. 

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It was pretty messy and smelly and finally near the top someone yells down to us and says, “take the stairs, it is shorter!”  When we got on the steps we discovered the walking trail for the pedestrians and felt pretty stupid for walking with the elephants!  The fort was amazing and had a golden glow in the morning light.  It is painted a pale mustard color and was quite large with an ornate wall around it.  We toured without a guide and just climbed, walked, and looked.  It was nice to be at our own pace and not be responsible for anyone else.  They always have a section at the end where local merchants want to sell their wares and two men were playing their flutes to get the cobras out of the baskets.  View from near the top of the fort –

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Tom – Amber City (Amber Fort) was the capital of the Kuccdhwaha Rajputs from 1037 to 1727.  From the ramparts you can see fragments of an 18 km wall that encircled both Amber Fort and Jaigarh Fort.  There are several contiguous palaces (e.g. Man Singh Palace, Summer Palace and Monsoon Palace) as well as courtyards and gardens within the fort.  The Summer Palace had a room called the Jai Mahal where the maharaja went to escape the heat.  There was an intricate lattice screen on the east and the west side was open to take advantage of the west wind.  There were water tanks on the roof that funneled water through a copper pipe to Khus-Khus mats that covered the west entrance.  So, when the wind blew, it would produce a cool breeze.  The Man Singh Palace had an area that is called the Zenana Mahal where the maharaja had rooms for his 12 wives.  A secret passage circling the 12 rooms allowed Man Singh to enter each private chamber without the other wives being aware of his movements.  Of course this doesn’t even come close to the 2,000 concubines (plus 4 wives) that Shah Jahan had in Agra!

Palace ceiling

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One view from fort toward other fortifications

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At the bottom we hired another tri-shaw to take us back into town to tour the City Palace. 

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Helen – We were glad that we decided to pay the fee and tour it because it had a great museum showing fabulous old palace carpets, old manuscripts which were hand painted, the warrior/weapons room, big crystal chandeliers, royal costumes, and the world’s largest silver urns which were unbelievable.

 

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Now it was time for the bazaar and some shopping.  

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We got fried bread, a hot stuffed something or other, and fresh squeezed pineapple/orange juice from the street vendors for lunch. The bazaar was overwhelming (can you believe I just said that??) and not being able to ask or read for directions we just wandered up and down the streets in a pattern.  

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Street vendor selling freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.

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I had a list of things that I wanted to look for including material, leather purse and shoes, jewelry, and shawls.  

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You had to watch out for the cows!

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We found all the shops but I didn’t find anything that I really had to have except in the jewelry area.  I discovered two little shops where the owners were not “pushy” and bought 4 silver chains from one and a lovely turquoise/silver pendant, piece of turquoise to repair a ring back home, and another interesting chain from the second. I also bought two pashema shawls, and material for a sari.  I also bought two small packets of saffron.  It doesn’t sound like much but I looked at the bangle bracelets, old locks and keys, tried on shoes and much to Tom’s amazement declined on it all.  

So about 5:30 I said I was ready to return to the complex, he shook his head and said he expected me to close the bazaar at 9. He found us a three-wheeler and home we went.  Another view of ethnic village –

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That evening the conference had arranged another outdoor eating event with a DJ and dancing.  We had a chance to talk to the many friends we made and exchange email addresses.  I hope that Alenka and I stay in touch.  We then ate and danced the night away.  I guess the music was a little strange for the locals because they were looking over the wall and from the trees as we danced and carried on.  Tom even jitterbugged a dance or two with me when we could find a beat!!  Back in the room I packed my bags while Tom worked on the pictures and I fell asleep long before he came to bed.

 

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Dinner in Ethnic Village

March 18, 2008

Helen – This morning at breakfast I met a fellow Fulbrighter (Alenka) from Croatia.  She is currently living in Virginia with her husband and children and is in Nepal for 8 months.  As always, I love speaking Serbian with anyone who will tolerate me and we will meet again this evening.  I went to the conference with Tom this morning to hear several of the 10 minute presentation from the Fulbrighters on their projects.  Both Tom and Traci present this afternoon and then we will hopefully go into town to the bazaar for a little shopping.

 Forget the shopping!!!  The session ran almost two hours late and we finished about 6:45.  Tom and Traci were both near the end of the session and many of the participants had left.  Tom’s presentation was very good but he had some technical difficulties with his PowerPoint presentation (e.g. the power in the room went out!) which ate away at his time limit.  The technical difficulties were the main problem, computer shorting out and the microphones malfunctioning, causing the extended session; but then there were also those people who ignored the warning signals and just kept on talking until they finished their presentation.  We were tired and irritated by the end. 

Dinner plans had changed and it was arranged to be in the ethnic village. The restaurant was set outside on a raised platform with rugs and low individual tables.  Women preparing bread for our meal –

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Tom and Tissa, our Fulbright director, both had chairs brought in because they could not sit cross legged for that period of time.  

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The waiters served us our dinner with a flare and much chattering (which we didn’t understand).  They slopped the different curries into small dishes around our main dish then put rice and some other treats on the bigger dish.  The milk and yogurt drinks were served in pottery glasses (some leaked) and we enjoyed the waiters’ antics as they overfilled our plates even when we said “no.”  They would laugh and say “yes” as they put more on our plates.

 

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After dinner, we strolled around the complex to see the events and marveled how exotic everything looked at night with the twinkling lights.

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Ethnic Entertainment

March 17, 2008

Happy St Patrick’s Day!!  Helen – Holidays just don’t seem to be the same here!!  In fact, they are non-existent!!  After breakfast Tom and Traci went to the first session while Charya (Traci and Mano’s 10 year old daughter) and I explored the complex, went for a swim in the lovely pool, and played cards before lunch. Being tired from yesterday and the heat gave us a good excuse for a nap after lunch.

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Tonight was the reception dinner which began with a colorful, musical performance by local artists on the outdoor stage located on the lawn area by the pool.  The show represented the various ethnic areas of this state called Rajasthan.  Thank heavens they first sprayed for mosquitoes because they were hungry as well.  We arrived on time which meant we were about the first ones there and so took one of the front tables for a better view. 

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We got the view and also the effects of the loud speakers which were blaring on either side of the stage.  The music was a little strange for us, especially the singing, but the dancing was great with elaborate costumes.  One of the unusual instruments was an accordion which was placed on the floor; the left hand played the keys while the right hand moved the bellows.  Another was the cassinette style clackers which one man played with much body movement.  

 The first group of dancers sat on the floor as they did intricate hand and arm movements while swaying their bodies with knives gripped in their mouths and bowls of flowers on their heads (pretty good trick!).  The second dancers dressed in glittery black dresses, did lots of foot stamping and twirling and then invited the audience to dance with them (no, Tom and I did not volunteer to participate!).  The third group was dressed as peacocks in colorful dresses and huge feathered tails.  This group also had a male dressed in silver glitter and they danced around him.  Seems this group was a little unorganized, and when one dancer began ordering some of the others around with glaring looks, one dancer left the stage before their act was over.  During the performance, we were served non-alcoholic drinks and tasty snacks of grilled chicken and fish with various sauces. 

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Dinner was buffet style, either standing or sitting at the tables, with dal soup, salads, grilled chicken, fish curries, vegetables and vegetable curries, rice, and desserts of cake and ice cream. We finished after 9:30 so decided to walk over to the village complex which is part of the hotel establishment.  This is a reincarnation of village festivals from this state and offers nightly entertainment of animal (elephant, camel, and ox cart) rides, dancers, puppet shows, magicians, game stalls, gift and souvenir shops, hand propelled ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, and food stalls/restaurants.  This village is open to the public and many tour buses come nightly from the local cities.

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Agra, India

March 16, 2008

 Helen – We were up very early and met in the lobby at 5am because our group from Sri Lanka had arranged to tour the Taj Mahal and nearby Agra Fort, both of which are in Agra about a 6 hour drive from Jaipur.  We had rented the Fulbright 10 seater van with driver for the day and were to pick up the tour guide when we arrived in Agra.  The drive there was very interesting with camels (larger than the ones we saw in Egypt) pulling carts.

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There were also conical haystacks piled in fields, dung disks drying then piled into a herringbone pattern cone shaped mounds to be used for fuel, women working in the fields dressed in the most beautiful, colorful saris, men wearing turbans and scarves, fruit stands with clusters of tiny green grapes which we bought and found to be so sweet (grapes are only found in the super markets, not local stands in Sri Lanka), and large trucks with “Blow Horn” painted on their back doors or bumper.  This sign was to signal when you wanted to pass them, otherwise they drove in the center of the road where there were fewer holes.

Rest stop entertainment (expecting tip)

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Road hazard, wait for the sheep to move –

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 We stopped for breakfast after about 3 hours on the road.  It was a good restaurant but it took us an hour to order and eat.  Driving into Agra was chaotic with the traffic, vendors, and pedestrians on market day; I was drooling as we passed the colorful materials spread out on the ground wishing we could stop just for a few minutes.

 

Our guide was well informed but seemed to be more interested in his commission from the lunch restaurant and shopping stops (which we chose not to do) that he actually rushed us through the Taj and fort but was quite laid back for lunch break and then really upset when we said we didn’t want to visit the marble handicraft shops and other shopping stops.  Upset, he took us to the fort and brisked us through then asked what else we wanted to do.  When we mentioned several other historical sites, he said they were too far (hoping we would now go shopping) so we said that we would then go back to Jaipur since the ride was so long and we wouldn’t get there till after 10pm.  Visibly irate, he dismissed us as we stopped to tell the marble shop we would not be coming in.  We were really tired when we returned to the complex and went straight to bed without dinner.

 

Tom – I have seen hundreds of photos of the Taj Mahal and so thought that our visit might be anticlimactic – wrong!  The structure, size, setting, balance and beauty are incredible.  What is amazing is that humans 360 years ago were capable of producing this immense piece of art AND that it exists today in its wonderful state of preservation.  Even after millions of individuals have walked on its stairs, there is no indication of that traffic on the marble.  It has been cleaned and small repairs made but overall the structure is essentially the same as when constructed.  The Indian government has taken some steps to enhance its preservation by requiring that electric cars be used to drive to the main gate and that shoe slippers (or bare feet) be worn when walking on the monument.  Beyond the descriptions, photos, and physical presence it is the feeling of “awe” that will remembered. 

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Agra Fort (also called the Red Fort for obvious reasons) was also impressive.  It is huge with most parts still occupied by the Indian army.  It is considered the most important fort in India.  It is ironic that the builder of the Taj Mahal, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, was imprisoned here by his son Aurangzeb.  His accommodations were quite elaborate and included views of the Taj about 1.5 miles down river.

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The end of our tour –

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Brick furnaces driving back to Jaipur

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Chokhi Dhani Ethnic Village

March 15, 2008

 Helen  This is the traveling day from Sri Lanka to Jaipur, India.  It is another one of those long days on planes, airports, and cars.  We drove to the Colombo airport with Traci and her family in the chauffeured van and met the other travelers at the airport.  With parking being such a problem in Colombo, Mano, Traci’s husband, decided it was better to rent a vehicle with a driver rather than just a car and drive it himself as we do.

 We had to fill out departure forms at the airport and as I was doing it I came to the visa number…I said, ”I am not giving my visa number to anyone; why do they need it?”  Tom replies, “they mean the visa number from your passport for India not your credit card!!”  I can tell already that it is going to be a long trip.  It was a 2.5 hour flight to Bombay (Mumbai) with a four hour layover there and then another 1.5 hour flight to Jaipur.  We will be staying at the Chokhi Dhani ,Ethnic Village Resort, a 5 star hotel about 3 miles out of town; it is a lovely complex arranged as a village with rooms located around the grounds. 

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Our room is isolated on a second level with a circular room and private balcony.

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Sounds quite plush and really is with a few problems, the main one being that the toilet tank leaks and we are constantly standing in water while we take care of business there.  The air conditioner is quite loud, but hey we have it, and it reminds us of the rolling ocean of our beach home in Matara.  One interesting thing is that when we open the balcony doors in the morning, before it gets too hot, we often have visiting sparrows come into our room for brief stays. It is not always easy to get these visitors to leave when we have to lock up the room when we go out. The main door is wooden with two sides which you pull together then take the chain and insert it over the hook and finally lock it with a big brass lock and key.

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When we arrived at the complex, there was a dinner waiting for us even though it was after 10 pm.  We thought we would grab just a bite, but ended up eating quite a bit and it was delicious.  The food here is not spicy and we enjoy the various tastes.

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Visa Fiasco

March 14, 2008

Tom – It has been a nightmare going through the Fulbright office for our trip to India.  I have had to jump through hoops to do a ridiculous amount of work related to both my presentation and the visa application.  Every time I finished one task, there was another hurdle.  The program form, including abstract of the presentation, autobiography, and special size digital photo was over five pages long.  The Fulbright office has had our passports since we arrived!  I have had to fill out the lengthy visa applications twice (Fulbright gave me the wrong ones the first time around), obtain special sized photos (two to be pasted on the same page – go figure), and get the info back to the office immediately!  Yet, as of this morning, the office had not obtained our visas; we leave tomorrow morning! 

I spent most of the day at the Fulbright office shepherding the process.  I turned in the money for Helen’s plane ticket three weeks ago but had to wait until 3:30 this afternoon to have their travel agent bring the tickets to the office.  The travel arrangements and costs from Jaipur to Agra are still not settled and we take that trip leaving at 5am on Sunday!   Lots of complaining here, in the end, I think it will all be worth it.

We took Ruki to dinner at the Xilation Chinese restaurant.  We are getting our tummies ready for our trip to China!  She is working on finding us a house to rent in Kandy.  She has been a great asset for us.   

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Goodbye S.K. Town, Hello Stilt Fishermen

March 13, 2008

Tom – Last Morning S.K. Town Beach – We were up at 6am, beach walked, said goodbye to the locals, breakfast on the patio feeding the fish, frog and crabs in the pond and packed the car (did I ever, how are we going to get the pottery, shells, Fibretec dishes, gifts, etc. home?), showered, paid the rent (Kamala brought us curd in a pottery dish and snacks for the car), visited briefly with Kanthi (brought us a Sri Lankan picture book in English),

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Nicole (gave her food items we could not take) and Rachel (gave her the turtle shell and some eggs), stopped at the ATM and started the drive to Colombo at 10am. 

View driving into Matara on our way to Colombo

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It took us 4.25 hours of tense driving to reach Colombo.  That’s 96 miles averaging 22.6 mph and it feels like you’re going 50-60 mph.  You drive on the left side of the road (remnant of 150 years of British rule).  I have to constantly remind myself of where I should be on the road, especially when turning.  There are very few traffic signals (even in Colombo), probably because most drivers just slow down and proceed through.  Most roads are one lane in each direction with pot holes and other unmarked road hazards.  It is not uncommon to have a bus, truck, motorcycle and bicycle coming directly at you – yes, it’s like a wall coming at you and it might even be as you are going around a curve!  I have had to pull off the road many times, providing there is someplace to go.  Sometimes I stop as far left as possible and hope someone doesn’t hit me.  In traffic, it’s the law of the bumper – if you get your bumper in front of someone else, you can cut them off.  Three times my side view mirrors have hit bicyclists/motorcycles who have moved into me.  There are also parked vehicles, Tuk-Tuks, people and animals on the road and/or on both sides of the road.  Buses are the worst; they just blast their horns, flash their lights and pass into oncoming traffic.   You just have to get out of their way.  To make things worse, Helen is constantly putting her foot through the floor and yelling “Oh my God!”

On a lighter side, I did get a few pictures of the stilt fishermen today.

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Kids getting out of school in small town

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Helen – I was so glad to get out of that car!!!  I am glad that the morning was rushed because my mind was on something else, rather than leaving.  After the walk, Tom had to walk to the corner store to get milk for our cereal and coffee.  I meanwhile threw the sheets in the washer and began sweeping the floors.  The advantage to having a smaller home with few things in it is that these chores are quickly accomplished.

 I had my last swim in the ocean with Nicole and Rachel yesterday afternoon and Tom had his last swim just before dinner near sunset.  We have gotten into the habit of watching the sunsets from the plank deck sitting on the wall.  They have been beautiful.  Earlier we were haphazard about it and now wish we were more serious about it.  They have been magnificent with the palms silhouetted against the sky.  It was also nice shaking hands with the people on the beach.  Usually we just wave to each other and say morning or “aayu-bowan,” but this morning the handshake was more personal and we told them that this was our last day here.  It has been fun seeing them each morning and when we were away, they always were glad to see us again.  The tides have been getting stronger and will continue to do so until the rainy season comes in another month.  With these stronger tides, the beach has been swept cleaner and it reminded us of our first days on it when everything looked so pristine.  We originally planned to return here with Tom’s brother, Pat, when he visits in April, but we may change our minds and explore the northern beaches which we have not seen.

Returning to Colombo and Ruki was almost like going to a parent’s home.  They were awaiting our return with clean rooms and open arms.  Tom returned the car to have his door repaired (remember that palm tree incident?) and to leave it there while we are in India.  That week rental should pay for the repairs!!

When he returned, we watched an Indian film, Earth, about the bloodshed (over a million people died) and changes that took place when Britain granted India independence in 1947.  The British rule was over and now the internal religious groups were fighting for control.  Sri Lanka won its independence one year later from Britain.

Not wanting to go out for dinner, Ruki and we ordered pizza!!!  It was our first since we came and we couldn’t decide whether to get Pizza Hut (they have Dominos also) or another called Harpo (which her daughter prefers) so we got one of each.  What a treat!!!  I liked the PH Hawaiian pizza with pineapple, but must admit that the other one which was more like a folded pizza (calzone) was really tasty with the spinach and mushrooms. Our tummies were full and satisfied as well as happy!!!

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Morning Glow

March 12, 2008

Tom – There was a nice glow this morning as the sun rose on us during our beach walk.

 

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About 8:30 Ghana and her husband brought us a Sri Lankan breakfast.  Like the one that Sarath gave us last week, it was way too much and we gave a large part of it to Luke and Nicole at the hotel.  They also called and came over last night with their son and daughter to bring us going away gifts (e.g. necklace for Helen, small Sri Lankan flag).  The shirt for me and dress for Helen were too small but we dare not mention it for fear that a good chunk of time today would have to be spent on doing an exchange.  As they left, each knelt in front of us, bowed, touched our feet, and gave us the Buddhist peace sign.  We were embarrassed and in awe but they assured us that this was their tradition.  All of the last minute (unplanned) attention that we are getting is nerve wracking as we are trying to pack to leave and also prepare to go to India.  We are truly thankful for the thoughtfulness and attention but cannot understand why they have waited till the last minute to make these connections.  Further, we really do not like them spending their money on us – they do not have enough as it is!  By the same token, we understand that this makes the gifts extra-special.

 Helen – talk about unwanted company!!!!  A tiny kitten, really sweet and good tempered, has found us as well.  The first day I tried to ignore her, but her constant mewing finally got to me and yesterday I sneaked a bowl of milk to her in the outside kitchen.  You know that now means she is not leaving and has caused havoc to our lives.  Last night I fed her milk and bread and forgot the milk outside so it was sour this morning for our coffee!!!  Also, when we woke this morning, she was in our bedroom.  Seems she can jump pretty high and came in our bedroom window which was open with the wooden slates to prevent people entry.  Now she is constantly coming in whenever a door or window is open and she just cries as she rubs against your ankles.  What to do???

 Took a break from packing to go out and look at the pond.  I noticed a strange brown head peeking out of the water and called Tom to bring the camera thinking it was the turtle.  I motioned to him to be quiet and walk softly so as not to scare it off.  As Tom steps outside, the head emerges from the water and it is that huge lizard.  It really caught us by surprise and now I am worried that it has eaten our fish and frog!

I just rechecked the pond, and thank heavens, I saw the frog!!!  I was worried about him!!  He is the brightest green and our favorite pond critter!