Travel, Food, and Slices of Life


Walk on the Beach

I think my posts about India are about done and I will be moving on to other topics now so I thought sharing some photos taken a couple of days ago when my sister Laura, my son Sam and I walked on a beach south of Newport, Oregon might be a nice switch.

Sam wanted to take a selfie of the two of us on his phone.

Sam wanted to take a selfie of the two of us on his phone. Laura caught us with my camera.

Laura got into the spirit of hamming it up.

Laura got into the spirit of hamming it up.

A friend of mine takes wonderful photos of waves and birds and other natural things. She lives further south in Oregon and heads to a nearby beach regularly for her shots. I visited her a couple of months ago and she showed me how she captures and then edits her photos and I try to replicate the process but still have a ways to go. Check out her blog to appreciate how her skill is so much better.DSC_0043

The seagulls were enjoying some peace and quiet

DSC_0100until Sam started to chase them

DSC_0099DSC_0025DSC_0027The Pacific Ocean in Oregon does not usually attract a lot of swimmers, even in the heat of summer, because the water is typically cooler than the Atlantic, which enjoys the benefit of the Gulf Stream. Still, I had to put my feet in and they acclimated quickly.  The patterns of the shallow water over the sand caught my eye.DSC_0011

Sam needed to climb, even though he was only wearing flipflops. He is a boy, after all.DSC_0073


The tide was really low, the lowest Laura had ever seen in all her walks on this beach. A lot more was uncovered than she usually sees.


So, an hour walking the beach, we headed to our favorite restaurant in Newport, Local Ocean, and then visited the resident sea lions basking on the old docks.


I live in a beautiful state where the Coast is only one of the many wonderful ecosystems available to explore.




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Tidbits Seen From the Bus

Stray Dogsstray dogs

We noticed a lot of stray dogs that appeared to be calm and very quiet. Could be they were malnourished, but compared to stray dogs in the United States, the temperament was remarkably different. We wondered if living in a society where animals are treated with kindness (in other words, no one yelling or throwing rocks at strays there) there is no reason for the dogs to act aggressively.


barber shop

I rode the bus with my camera open, finger on the shutter ready to press, aperture set to sports mode trying to freeze the frame in something close to a sharp focus. This shot of a barber shop as we passed on the highway from Jaipur to Delhi gave us a glimpse of real life.


DSCF6544aMany small parcels of land are lined with stone walls to identify private ownership. Many were fallow, appearing to be not have been used for farming or forage for quite some time.



We use 2x4s; they use saplings with the bark removed, to provide support for construction projects.



I can imagine that many of these do not do huge business, but it is the kind of place where everyone knows your name.


DSCF6542Many trucks had a posy of flowers  affixed to the rear view mirror on the driver’s side.  This is only one small part of the decoration of most trucks, which are appreciated greatly as helping the family earn a living.


DSCF6548The last day we were in India, driving from Jaipur to Delhi for 6 hours, was the hottest. I noticed first one and then another places were young boys were splashing water from the community cistern. I finally got one picture where a bucket splash was not enough!



Tall smokestacks belching black smoke indicate that the bricks are drying in the kiln.








Driving Miss Daisy

India is a large country and although we visited cities in pretty close proximity, they were about 150-200 miles apart. With our Interstate highway system and posted speeds of 65, that would take 2 to 3, maybe 4 hours. Our experience in India was a bit different.triangle

A new highway between Delhi and Agra took us about 4 hours. It was a new  four-lane divided highway with tolls, and truck traffic was not allowed. There was very light traffic and yet the bus was restricted to drive about 40mph. There was a high concern about the tires overheating and bursting, and we stopped for a half hour to let them cool about halfway along the route.  There were several toll plazas and a rest area located just beyond each. We enjoyed the use of some “clean toilets”, as Arvind assured us, and the snack bar offered some light food. Lisa and I bought some packaged ice cream. I was told my  flavor was pistachio; it wasn’t.rest stop food

That was the best road we traveled. The other main highways were also toll roads but had heavy traffic of all kinds going through the center of towns and sometimes the roadway was not paved. But they all were toll roads. DSCF6283It was not unusual for the bus driver to have to move along at 25mph to navigate not only the trucks and jeeps loaded with people hanging on,DSCF6286 but also occasional hand pushed carts, a camel or an elephant.  People seem to use the roadway as a walking path as well.


And cows. More about cows later.traffic

Because of the British occupation of India, traffic moves on the left side of the roadway. I have driven in the United Kingdom, and it took a lot of constant concentration to stay to the left, especially in round-abouts and for turns.  I have driven in many of the major cities in the United States. I remember my great satisfaction after driving in Manhattan at age 20 and being able to be as aggressive as required to maneuver. And yet, I would NEVER assume I could drive in India.traffice

There seem to be few rules. There seem to be more cars spread across the roadway than the number of lanes.  Red lights were ignored often by our driver; other times he stopped. Cars on the right often made left turns and similar cross movements occurred from the left side of the roadway. Yet, we saw few accidents. Arvend said automobile insurance is required and at the time of an accident there is a lot yelling and handwaving and then everyone goes their own way without any sharing of information.  It sounded like the system operates as “no fault”.trafficc

DSCF6543Drivers’ licenses are purchased.  There is some discussion now that driving tests will be given but no written test to prove knowledge of the rules of the road is part of the process.  Cars are pretty expensive and gasoline runs about $1.50 a liter. Most people ride motorcycles and it was not unusual to see a family of 4 or even 5 on the back of a bike, the woman riding sideways because of her sari.DSCF6485

One rule that does seem to apply is the request for honking. Some car and truck bumpers even have the “Please Honk” or “Sound Horn” sign painted on the back of the vehicle. This system helps them know when someone is approaching to pass; the assumption is no one looks in the rear view mirror.DSCF6488

At the end of our tour we tipped Arvend, his assistant (who cleaned the bus at least three times each day, moved our baggage and made sure there was plenty of ice cold water for sale for us) and the driver. I gladly gave the driver his tip, telling him despite the traffic conditions, I never felt uncomfortable with the safety of his driving.   


Seeing Another Side

Imagine, if you will, a nice spring day. Your main front door is open and you are letting the sun and breeze enter your home through the screen. A knock on the door is answered by your teenager and a stranger, with 3 other people, tells him, “These people are my guests and they want tea.” What would you do?Blue Lotus Chai Tea Cup

I know my inclination would be to tell them where they closest coffee (tea available) shop is located.

Imagine instead, flinging the door wide open and inviting the four strangers inside, making tea and spending an hour, your family gathered around you, listening and learning about the strangers who entered your home.

Come with me into a poor neighborhood of Agra….feel this one with me.


When Kamal and Nilal met us at our hotel and asked what we wanted to see with our personal tour with them I had thought it was all organized already. I had been in email discussion with the BuddhaPath office in Delhi and was promised a tour of a Buddhist Temple and a mediation session and then some other things. That sounded great as I have read some about Buddhism but know the real life exposure would be meaningful. But the guys had not gotten the memo.

So, basically Lisa and I told them we wanted to stay away from the tourist areas. We wanted, while staying safe, to see how people live. We also had a list of items we were trying to find for friends and wondered if they knew of any market where regular people shop that might have them.

Nilal got on his cell phone and within 20 minutes we were out the door and into the car.  We headed to an area of town SmartTours never would have wanted us to see. This was the real deal…the place where people in the middle middle and lower economic areas live, work and play.DSCF6128

Walking through the market itself was amazing with the narrow street, the moving traffic (I inadvertently walked into a moving motorcycle at one point and was vigorously told off ), the animals wandering around. The mass of humanity.DSCF6130

DSCF6243Shopping was more fun. First of all, the prices were not super-inflated for tourists to begin with. For example, I knew I did not want a sari; I would never find a real occasion to wear one, but I wanted a shalwar, an outfit with pants, tunic and scarf. I had priced one earlier in Delhi and it was over $70.  So, with some hope, we entered a shop. Open to the street with an metal overhead garage type door, the store itself was probably 15 feet wide by 20 feet deep. This was a large shop (larger than the shop with jewelry Lisa is exploring in the photo above). Shelves stacked to the ceiling were loaded with plastic bag wrapped clothing items.  With Nilal getting into the spirit of the shopping, the request was spoken, the estimate of my size was made, and the stack started growing on the counter. Every bag was opened. Every item unfolded. Soon there were about 10 choices on display.  When requested the price was given…equivalent to $40. That was better, but we already knew the system. Bartering, arm wrestling over the price, is expected. Nilal quietly asked me what I was willing to pay, Giving the equivalent in rupees at $25, he then went into his discussion in Hindi. In a few minutes it appeared I had purchased my new outfit for $15.

We hit a few more shops and made a few more purchases. In this market, unlike the ones where the tourists go, the vendors did not chase us. There was curiosity about us; we were the only Westerners on the street. But courtesy and interest was the action.DSCF6159

We wandered south along the street and crossed some railroad tracks, entering into an area where small factories lined the narrower street. Metal works included pots and pans and also what we figured were evaporative coolers similar to what is used in the American Southwest as a less expensive alternative to air conditioning.evaporative cooler factory

Nilal lead us on and then took us into a side alley. He said he hoped we could get to see the inside of a house, and then he knocked on the door, the teenager answered.  He disappeared for a few seconds (probably to check with mom) and then ushered us in.DSCF6141

After crossing the small entryway we entered into a courtyard about 10 feet by 10 feet and open to the sky above. DSCF6147To the side was a room with a few plastic outdoor chairs and several platforms of woven canvas webbing. A middle aged woman offered us the chairs and then asked Bilal in Hindi if we would like some chai. I had no idea what he had said to the teenager that we wanted tea so we looked at him and he nodded and we smiled and nodded. DSCF6144

The room filled with people and they piled on to the platforms.  The family living in the house includes a grandmother, 5 adult brothers, their wives and their children. DSCF6148We counted about 25 people and only met one of the men who was sewing in his room upstairs.  DSCF6150(When I noticed his sewing machine I immediately flashed on the family history that my mother’s father was a tailor when he immigrated to the United States in 1905 and had probably worked in a similar setting in New York before leaving the city for literally greener pastures; he became a farmer.) We learned that the family had owned the house for  at least 5 generations. That the oldest boy was soon to take his college entrance exam.

Understanding that offering them money would be an insult I told them a bit about New York City and then, using paper and pen we drew a map of the United States and showed them other places we had lived. They knew California but nothing else, including Nashville. Marketers for Music City USA would be devastated.

When asked if we would like to see the house I grabbed the opportunity (once again thinking how my house would look if strangers came to call). I watched one of the women make our chai.



The tour wound up and up and up five flights of stairs.  We poked our heads into several of the rooms and one was nicer than the others; the man must have a good paying job.

DSCF6151The boys then proudly lead us up to the roof where they have a coop with pet pigeons.


The view from the roof gave us a glimpse that life in this neighborhood is vertical and that not all is as it seems on the street level.


We talk a lot about hospitality in this country, especially in our church communities. Since 9/11 we also are very quick to think poorly about people who are Muslim. It is so easy to generalize when you don’t know anyone.

These people live at the lower end of what is considered middle class in India. Here it would be poverty level. But the house was spotless. The people were curious and friendly and involved. They had little but were very willing to share with the strangers.

How we measure riches? How do we show acceptance?

Getting off the beaten track is what Lisa and I like to do when we travel. The Taj Mahal, visited that morning, was the highlight of the trip for many in our SmartTour group. For us, the day only got better and better…..to be continued.


World Class Wonder

He was so deeply in love with his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that when she died in 1631 giving birth to her 19th child at age 41, Shah Jahan was devastated. His heart broke and later one of his sons felt his reasoning was also questionable as he had spent down the kingdom’s treasury to build this exquisite mausoleum to honor her.DSCF6038

DSCF6123DSCF6028It took over 22 years and 20,000 workers to erect the structure. The Taj Mahal is made with the hardest marble found in the world, finer than Italy’s Carrara marble used by Michelangelo in his carvings. Makrana marble, quarried about 300 kilometers west of Agra in the Indian state of Rajastan, is so hard and nonporous that today it is marketed for table tops, knowing that no spilled foods will stain it. In the Taj Mahal the white stone gleams in the sun.  More than 1000 elephants were needed to transport the marble to the construction site. Red sandstone is also included in the site. This was brought from the area in Rajastan near Fatehpur Sikri (more on that site in another blog). DSCF6019a

The marble is so hard that chiseling it is difficult, but much of the surface is inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones also from Rajastan.  DSCF6055Many were stolen by the British during their administrative rule of India, and even today people try to remove pieces. There is a security screening upon entering the grounds and many items, such as nail files, are not permitted. DSCF6084

Postcard-Shot-of-the-Tomb-of-ITimad-Ud-Daulah-aka-Baby-Taj-Agra-2012-05-16Modeled on the Moghul architecture of the “Baby Taj”, the tomb of Mirza Ghias Beg located across the city of Agra, the Taj Mahal has complete symmetry not only in the mauseleum building but on the grounds with the surrounding structures. As a burial site, it also has a mosque and the site is closed on Fridays for the Muslim Sabbath prayers. DSCF6080 The corresponding matching building has no current function.DSCF6066

The only item inside the Taj Mahal that is out of symmetry is the grave of Shah Jahan. Deposed by his son after he learned his father planned to build another matching structure in black marble across the  River from the Taj, the Shah was placed in “house arrest” in the Red Fort down the river from the Taj. There, he could gaze longingly on his love’s tomb until his death a few years later. DSCF6073

Some of the design took careful engineering. For example, the 99 names of Allah inlayed in Arabic script around the entrance, grows in size as it rises so it appears to be the same size to the human eye.


DSCF6058DSCF6069As you approach the upper level of the Taj shoes must be removed. Our guide, was able to obtain shoe covers, another option, for us, in deference to the rising temperatures (probably about 90 degrees at 10am) and the fact that most Americans are not used to walking barefoot.DSCF6081

There is concern about the future of the Taj Mahal. Built next to the river on a piered foundation, low water levels (caused by reduced monsoons as well as increased water usage by area industry) are weakening the structure. In addition, because of the factories, Agra has some of the worse air pollution in India and although the marble is hard, chemical effects on the stone are beginning to be seen.DSCF6049

This UNESCO World Heritage site is considered to be one of the seven modern wonders of the world. I heard many in our tour group say this was the highlight of the tour for them. For Lisa and me, it was a wonderful beginning of a day that only got better.DSCF6039



Golden Triangle for a Golden Birthday

Awake way too early today as I am shaking off the 12.5 hours difference of the past week in India with my daughter Lisa. Her Golden Birthday trip choice was India and she found an amazing tour package that cost less than the retail price of airfare alone.  (I wrote about how to find travel deals in my CustomTripPlanning blog several years ago after a glorious four day trip to Paris for $499.) The price of the tour was $1299 and additional costs to us included obtaining our visas, recommended inoculations and medicines,  tips for our guides and drivers, and personal spending money.

The flight is long. I first flew from Portland to the east coast as the tour originated from JFK. Air India provided service superior to the American carrier I last flew to Europe. Not only were there small niceties like a foot rest with roller bar, DSCF5794but extensive entertainment options available through the seat-back display which also included a power port for electronic gear.DSCF5795  They offered two meals heading east, and three meals flying west.

DSCF5797I flew directly home after arriving in New York and that was a bit tough. Next long trip like this will be broken up with at least one day in an interim location.  Getting old, I guess, but making adjustments like that will keep me enjoying travelling for a long time to come.

India is a large country, about one third the size of the United States.  This map superimposes the outline of India on North America so you can see the comparison.compare INdia and Us map

India’s Golden Triangle are the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.

golden-triangle-india-mapDelhi is the capital and has an estimated regional population of over 16,000,000. (New York, in comparison, has about half the population.)  While the ancient city of Delhi has been occupied for over a millennium, New Delhi was built in 1912 when the British moved the national government from Calcutta. DSCF5859

Agra is best known to most people as the location of the Taj Mahal.  I will write about that world heritage site in another blog as well as how we enhanced our experience by hiring a personal guide to get away from the tourist areas. DSCF6049

Jaipur is located in the State of Rajasthan which has many world heritage sites. It is known for its gems and textiles which, since I sew, got me pretty excited. I stuffed an empty duffel bag in my small almost empty suitcase to carry back my expected purchases and yes, used both suitcases for the trip home. Other people in our tour group had not planned and purchased new bags.


I have a lot to share with you.  India is certainly the most culturally different location I have ever visited and I bombarded our guides with tons of questions to better understand what I was seeing.  Here are some of the topics I plan to share

  • Visiting a Sikh Temple and the kitchens which prepare 20,000 meals a day
  • Understanding the story behind the Taj Mahal and concerns about it
  • Visits to amazing high quality crafts factories for rugs, marble, textiles, and more
  • Shopping in the street markets and how to deal with the aggressive vendors
  • Exploring rooms and passageways in several other World Heritage sites
  • Getting off the beaten track and seeing how real people live
  • Visiting a Hindu Temple sunset service for Shiva
  • So much more…..and if you have questions, throw them at me.


Building Anticipation

I have been planning trips for so long that I even began to offer my services as a business venture. My custom trip planning blog was full of stories of our own adventures as well as ways to customize a trip so you have something very special to experience. No one hired me for several years, so I took a step back. That was when a friend asked me to plan a trip for him. LOL Funny

Planning a trip can take hours and hours to discover opportunities to explore a place that matches with your interests and I often told people I had twice as much fun as everyone else because I explored in front of the computer and then in person on the ground.

But in the past few years I also noticed that that wonderful feeling of excitement that I used to get heading out on a trip as a kid was no longer there. Perhaps so much prep eliminated the wonder?

So, here I am beginning to feel that old excitement. In a couple of days I will hit the road, so to speak, on my way to a week in India with my daughter Lisa. Anticipation-

She found this wonderful travel bargain for an 8 day tour including entry into places, airfare, hotel and most meals for less than the cost of a roundtrip airfare! (More on how to get bargains here)

Although I have read about the places we are going to see, I have not done the level of research I typically do, relying on the travel agency.  So, there is a lot of mystery ahead….bring it on!!!


That’s Some Spicy Meatball!

Guest Post by Graham Rankin

The title comes from an old Alka-Seltzer ad but could be applied to Sri Lankan cuisine. Since I returned from Sri Lanka I’ve been asked to write about the food, not only because I am a foodie but also because I posted a lot of pictures during the trip of what I was eating each day.

Sri Lanka cuisine is similar to Indian cuisine in that curries, dahl and rice dishes are common.  Someone told me that that Sri Lankans claim to have invented curry but that the Indians take issue with that.  I am not going to try to discover who invented it, I just enjoy them.  As an aside, “curry” means sauce so there are thousands of curry recipes found in a number of Southeast Asian countries.

Chicken curry (bowl of red in the center) with traditional accompaniments”  ( counter-clockwise from right: rice, dahl, some potato based dish I don’t remember the name, naan, chutney, and pickled onions)

Chicken curry (bowl of red in the center) with traditional accompaniments” ( counter-clockwise from right: rice, dahl, some potato based dish I don’t remember the name, naan, chutney, and pickled onions)

When you go to a typical Indian restaurant in America, you are often asked “mild, medium, hot or Indian hot”.  To that I could add Sri Lankan hot!  Actually it is not quite that bad if you stay away from the chili paste that often is an accompaniment to dishes.  The menus at some restaurants did include notice that some dishes were “very spicy”, “medium spicy” or “mild” as a guide for us westerners.

There are some dishes that seem to be uniquely Sri Lankan, two of which were often served on the breakfast buffet at my hotel.  The breakfast buffet included what we might call a “traditional English breakfast”: sausages, scrambled eggs, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.  It also included a curry, milk rice and egg hoppers.  The last two were new to me.  Milk rice (or rice and milk) I had growing up was a way of using up leftover rice served with milk and sugar.  In Sri Lanka, it is a firm, slightly salty dish, which reminded me of very firm grits or polenta.  The egg hopper is a very thin crepe like bowl made of rice flour batter with an egg cooked sunny side up in the bottom.  A special pan with steeply sloping sides is heated over a burner, the batter added and swirled around to coat the sides.  When it is set, an egg is dropped in the middle and cooking completed.  These were being made fresh at a cook station so I watched the process.  They had a spicy grilled onion mixture or chili sauce as accompaniment.

Egg hopper along with grilled chicken, yellow rice, curry, chutney and other goodies (dinner at Raja Bojun)

Egg hopper along with grilled chicken, yellow rice, curry, chutney and other goodies (dinner at Raja Bojun)

Breakfast also included an assortment of baked goods, fresh fruit and juice.  The waiter convinced me to forego the orange juice I usually ordered to be “Sri Lankan” and get the fresh pineapple or mango juice.  It was delicious.

During the week, my lunch was provided by the lab from a local takeout around the corner.  It was referred to as a “packet”, for the flat box it came in.  It was usually rice with some protein and vegetables and a thin egg omelet.  Noodles were the alternative starch component.  The servings were large, almost large enough for 2 and cost under $3.  Fruit yogurt, ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert.

Prawn curry with noodles, vegetables, tofu, and egg omelet.  The dark red dab in the upper right corner is chili paste which I was told by my Sri Lankan liaison to avoid as it was too hot for him!  I took his advice seriously. Prawns are what we would call shrimp here.

Prawn curry with noodles, vegetables, tofu, and egg omelet. The dark red dab in the upper right corner is chili paste which I was told by my Sri Lankan liaison to avoid as it was too hot for him! I took his advice seriously. Prawns are what we would call shrimp here.

As Sri Lanka is an island, seafood is frequently included on menus.  My first day, I had cuttlefish with rice for lunch.  Cuttlefish is a relative of squid and octopus and tastes similar but definitely chewier.chicken lampras

One day, Lucky (my liaison) suggested I try something different and he ordered Chicken Lamprasi which is grilled chicken, rice, a hard-boiled egg and a “cutlet” wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.  Unlike our ‘cutlet’ over here, it was a thickly breaded chopped meat filled item that reminded me of a tamale but seasoned differently.lunch

As an aside, Sri Lankans generally eat with their fingers (right hand only!) but provided me with a fork.

RajaAlthough I ate most of my dinners at the hotel because the construction on the main street made walking somewhat treacherous,  I did venture a couple of blocks down the street to Raja Bojun.  It had been recommended as having a buffet featuring dishes from all the regions of Sri Lanka.  I really needed a guide and an extra stomach to work my way through all the choices.Raja buffet

One half of the buffet (21 choices) were Sri Lankan dishes.  In addition, there was a station where chicken thighs were being grilled and another  making egg hoppers.

Raja dessertAbout one third of the choices for desserts including fresh fruit, cheese, cakes, puddings, ice cream and yogurts.

fish soupThe restaurant at the hotel featured mostly western dishes with some Sri Lankan touches.  A Sri Lankan fish soup and grilled watermelon and prawns salad were two interesting offerings.grilled watermelon and prawns

Three desserts at the hotel were particularly notable:  dessert shooteedrs“Watalappian  Jaggery coconut pudding with Karthakalabu mango and ginger shooter”, dessert shooteedrs2“trio of Kirulaga and coconut surprise, steamed coconut cake and upcountry nut roll” and “banana fritters with vanilla cinnamon ice cream and honey”.  I think I have spelled everything correctly as I am trying to read a bad photograph of the menu.dessert shooteedrs3

Wine and most distilled spirits are imported and relatively expensive.  However, a glass of Australian wine at the hotel cost about $7 which is in line with hotel prices for wine by the glass here.  I tried three different local beers and Lion Lager won out.  Good flavor and body; the others tasted like Coors Light.  Beers can be ordered in 1 liter bottles – one will do.  Lion also helped counteract the heat of the curries!

I did eat the first Friday night at the Bavarian restaurant across the street from the hotel sitting at the bar (no tables of one on Friday nights) when someone ordered the monster pictured below (not me!).  It holds 3 liters and was to be delivered to a table of 3 according to the bartender.beer

There is one local distilled spirit, Arrack, which is distilled from coconut flower sap, sugar cane and/or red rice.  It is aged in barrels and tastes like a cross between dark rum and bourbon.  I had it over ice, but was told that most Sri Lankans prefer it with soda and no ice (something they must have acquired from the British).  I was told there was a local rum and gin, but did not try those.arak

The full moon occurred Sunday, March 16th.  Each full moon Buddhists in Sri Lanka celebrates the Pula festival.  No alcohol is sold on this day; bars and liquor stores are closed.  The Bavarian was closed as most of its business was due to the bar and less from the food.  At the hotel, one could order alcohol ONLY through room service and there was a minibar in each room.  I abstained and drank only bottled water with dinner.  I had fish curry and wished for my Lion to cut the heat!

One final note,  I never had any GI problems.  I had taken Hepatitis A and B, typhoid and tetanus shots before leaving as recommended by the CDC travel website.  I generally drank bottled water rather than tap water. The hotel and lab provided bottled water in abundance. There was an article in the local newspaper that the tap water in Colombo was declared safe.  As for fresh fruits I ate only peeled fruit outside of the hotel as recommended by the USAID instructions sent to me prior to my trip.



Controlled Chaos

Guest post by Graham Rankin

My two weeks in Sri Lanka kept me in the capital, Colombo, most of the time.  I traveled across town each day between my hotel to the building where I held my training class.  It always seemed to be rush hour both ways so I had an opportunity to observe the usual heavy traffic of a major city combined with some more unusual sights of a Southeast Asian country.  tuktukI  enjoyed being driven everywhere; in the mornings by a driver and car from the hotel and in the evenings taking a cab.  Automobiles are expensive and with gasoline equivalent to $4.86/gallon, it is too much for most workers.  Salaries are low compared to the US, so most Colombo citizens take mass transit in the form of buses or by tuk-tuk (3 wheeled vehicles imported from India) or motorcycles.going to work

Being a former British colony, driving is on the left and must negotiate numerous “round-abouts” or traffic circles.  It seems that whoever honks the loudest has the right of way and the white line down the middle of the road is only an “indication” of where one drives, rather than a hard rule. 

There are some traffic lights at some major intersections or traffic cops direct traffic. The large white gloves they wear have red reflectors on the palms. Several major intersections have no traffic control whatsoever so you just have to sit back, stay calm, and let your driver honk his way through. traffic
Road construction made matters even worse along with pedestrians, handcarts and things OSHA would definitely object to. Amazingly in my two weeks there, I saw no accidents.pedestrian in road

Cabs are relative inexpensive by American standards.  It cost 900 Rs (about $8) to ride across town, about 30-40 minutes.  From the airport (well outside the city), the trip costs $28.  Cabs like other cars there, are mostly Japenese or Korean subcompacts with the occasional hybrid like a Toyota Prius.  I highly recommend taking one, but metered cabs must be arranged well in advance or you need to negotiate the fare before leaving.  Also, I had been  forewarned that even with the address written down, your driver may need to stop and ask directions.  Fortunately most know the location of the major hotels so getting back is easier than going some place.  It took a few days for the hotel drivers to learn the way to the Government Analysts Building located on a small side street off a major street so could be hard to find, and understandably, not someplace most people would need to know.  I did tip the driver of the hotel car 100 Rs (less than a dollar) as well as the cab drivers.  It may not seem much to us, but wages are low there.

A common question cabbies asked was is traffic as bad in the US as in Colombo.  I said yes in the big cities like Colombo, but at least we don’t have tuk-tuks.  Everybody hates tuk-tuk drivers there so this always got a big laugh.  Tuk-tuk drivers in Colombo make New York cabbies seem like someone’s granny.  traffica

I did brave taking a tuk-tuk from the city market.  You sit in the back and hang on tightly to whatever looks most connected.  I probably was overcharged at 250 Rs ($2) for what should have been 150 Rs.  Another gullible American, but he didn’t get a tip!  However, upon finding out that I was an American (I was often assumed to be from Australia), he asked my opinion about the US pushing for the UN to investigate possible war crimes by the Sri Lankan government.  You probably are unaware of the issue here, but it was front page news there.  My response was “I don’t always agree with what our government does, just like you probably don’t agree with yours”.  I figured that was a good neutral response and certainly satisfied my driver.

Reminder to self: next time I travel, to be a better world citizen, read up on current events.

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Pearl of the Ocean

Guest Post by Graham Rankin

I just returned from a two week trip to Sri Lanka conducting a workshop for some of the forensic chemists at their Government Analysts Bureau.  It is part of a international program funded by our USAID.  The point of this essay is not what I taught but about my observations about the Sri Lanka, its people and, because I am a foodie, its food.  This is the first of several blog posts.

srilankamapIndiaSri Lanka is an island just east of the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean.  I was told that Sri Lanka means “Pearl of the Ocean”. When it was a British colony it became known as Ceylon and was most famous for its tea, spices and sapphires. My Sri Lankan guide told me that “Ceylon,” a corruption of “Sea Land,” named so because of its importance as a port for early sailors.

Not many Americans visit there mostly because of the distance (12,000+ miles) and long flight times.  It took me about 25 hours total travel time each way.  This is a shame because it is a beautiful tropical island with a diversity of geography and some of the most friendly people I have met.SriLankaMap

My work kept me in the capital city of Colombo most of the time. Since I had the weekend free I enjoyed a guided day trip into the mountains to the city of Kandy.  More about that trip in a later blog.

The island was inhabited for over 10,000 years by a wide diversity of people, resulting in a series of kingdoms and territorial wars for centuries before Europeans arrived.  Portuguese Jesuits set up a trading center in Colombo in the 1500s.  Of course they also began to work at converting the islanders from Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions to Christianity.  The Dutch came later in the late 17th and early 18th century, establishing a fort at the city of Galle (pronounce Gaul) on the southern end as part of the Dutch East Indies company. The British made their appearance in the early 19th century when it looked like France would conquer the Netherlands and its colonies would become French.

Ceylon became part of the British Empire in 1815.  Independence from Great Britain occurred at the same time as India in 1948, but remained a member of the Commonwealth until 1972.  There have been a series of governments in Sri Lanka including a Communist leaning one in the late 70s and 80s.

There are currently two major ethnic groups, the Singhalese and the Tamils.  Each group has its own language and alphabet. I was told that because each refuses to learn the other, English is the common language.  In fact at the local universities all classes are taught in English and theses and all papers must be written in English.

The upper is Singhalese; the middle is Tamil

The upper is Singhalese; the middle is Tamil

srilankabombMost recently there has been a very bloody uprising by a faction (ILTE or Tamil Tigers) of the Tamil minority that lasted from 1983 until 2009 when the Singhalese dominated military was able to crush the rebellion.  Numerous bombings were commonplace during this time.  Several top officials of the government and parliament were assassinated.

Although Colombo is quiet and relatively safe, a number of bombings occur in the Tamil dominated northern and eastern sections of the country each month.  Land mines planted during the insurrection are still discovered in rural areas; unfortunately when elephants or people step on them.  There are soldiers at key positions around Colombo with Chinese made AK-47s and numerous police (mostly unarmed) throughout the city.  Directing traffic seems to be the main occupation of many police.traffic

I considered taking a picture of one of the soldiers but thought it might not be a good idea.Gunboat

I thought this boat was just a fishing vessel when I took the picture until I blew it up and could see the deck guns.  It was patrolling off shore opposite my hotel.

Since 2009, there has been a resurgence of foreign capital coming into Sri Lanka with a building boom in Colombo.  There is a goal of constructing 3000 new hotel rooms over the next couple of years.  A new toll road to the airport was just opened.  A cab driver told me it is an election year so the current president is seen a lot cutting ribbons on projects.


Galle Face Hotel

The hotel where I stayed (Galle Face Hotel), originally built in 1864 is undergoing the second phase of restoration to be completed next year.ViewFormHotelRoom

This was my residence for the two weeks in Sri Lanka.  A historic hotel with hardwood floors, ceiling fans and an ocean view where I could watch the sun set from either my room  or from the patio bar and pool below.  As most guests stay only for a few days, my two week stay may have resulted in some of the comps (bottle of wine, fresh fruit and candies) I received, and the service was excellent.


After a full week there I had laundry done…it was return perfectly folded in a rattan basket.MyLaugndryDelivered

I had the feeling of being in a Victorian novel where the elite made the Grand Tour of the Indies, staying at hotels like the Galle Face.  BedroomThe room had all the standard accouterments  with a very modern bath.  BAthIn addition to central air conditioning there was a ceiling fan in the room which I much appreciated especially coming in from the 90 degree 90% humidity that reminded me of summers in Houston, Texas. LibraryGalleFaceHotelThe hotel had a library,   (yes it was that yellow!) gym and spa.


woodcarvingDiningoomCarved wood trim everywhere including the dining room


ChekhovNehruLots of staff available (more it seemed that in a typical Hilton) willing to take care of any need.  The bar had photos of famous people who had stayed there including Nehru,  Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Alex Guinness and Sir Lawrence Olivier.  The general manager told me that during the filming of Bridge over the River Kwai, much of which was shot in Sri Lanka, several of the cast stayed there.  He also told me a visitor commented to him that any hotel that hosted both Che’ Guevara and Richard Nixon (not at the same time!) was his kind of place!