Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Old Blue Bike.

Once upon a time, maybe 17 years ago, in a small village in the UK, two twin brothers D and T were given matching blue bikes. D and T (Wills' Godfathers) are now strapping, handsome young men who tower over me, have graduated college and are making their way in the world. The blue bikes and their family moved to California about the same time we did in 1997.

D and T soon grew out of the two blue bikes which were passed on to younger bro N, now also taller than me and at college. Once N had out grown said bikes they were passed on Ads.
As a consequence of an unfortunate incident shortly after Ads took ownership and before the use of the gears was correctly mastered the two bikes had to be merged into one and a pile of spare parts. Ads happily rode the blue bike until yes, you've guessed it he moved onto bigger things.

The old blue bike, now getting on in years but much loved and much used was passed onto Wills with whom it arrived in India:
Sadly, when Wills' knees started hitting the handlebars it was time for him to get a new bike, his first really 'new' bike and the Towers family's need for the old blue bike was done.

And the blue bike trashed and forgotten? No way. It is now in possession of our driver's son who apparently is a very happy owner and has been riding it around his neighborhood from dawn to dusk, pausing only to go to school and sleep. So the old blue bike at age 17 still has many useful years ahead, is now with it's fifth owner, its third family, on its third continent and as well as having stories to tell is an excellent example of recycling (no pun intended)!!

We are a 'hand me down' family. I have always had a thing for charity shops (tho' I don't always fess up to this when asked where I got a specific gently used item) and Ads has always liked clothes handed down from friends as they are so much softer than new ones. Wills being the younger, by definition has more than his share of used stuff. I love it when Ads' old clothes got passed off to someone else for a few years and then handed back to me for Wills. I hate waste. I hate seeing anything trashed unless it is seriously beyond repair and reuse.

The old blue bike is just a small example of reusing, repairing and recycling. In India it is much easier to repair. It is also just as easy here to pass anything on to a second/third... home as it is to trash it. In the West I think we just need to try a bit harder!

Thanks to J, the original mother of the old blue bike(s), for the idea of blogging its story!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sri Lanka - dance yourself dizzy

I was never one for watching national country dancing, until that is, we arrived in this part of the world. In Europe the national dances always seems a bit stilted and formal (what you had to do at school and hated especially in an all girls school) but not here in the subcontinent where dance is inherent and the colors and movement flow, the rhythm contagious and enthusiasm abounds!

Where else to end our first trip to Sri Lanka!!!

Sri Lanka - Kandy - eye candy in Kandy!

Our last stop was Kandy. Home of the Temple of the Relic of the Tooth. If you care to google you'll see the Buddha's teeth are housed far and wide around our planet. Fact or fiction - does it matter?

On route to Kandy we found more road side delicacies to keep us replete. First stop curds.  Curds is essentially yogurt but these were made with buffalo milk which apparently makes them special - they were good.

The curds were served with some sort of coconut/palm syrup which was seriously yummy. A good mid-morning snack.

We then stopped for lunch at a road side buffet inhabited by lots of locals. By this time Harsha had worked out that we preferred stopping at this sort of joint than western hotels for our lunch breaks when on the road. After seeing the kitchen where this meal was cooked I should never whine (but I'm sure I will) about my Indian kitchen again. There was a buffet of two types of rice and at least 5 or 6 different curries (veg and non veg). This was the cook in action and her kitchen.

In Kandy we stayed at the river side Mahaweli Hotel. We knew that the Pakistani cricket team were touring Sri Lanka but I had checked and saw there were only five day internationals while we were in Sri Lanka and as we couldn't spare five days thought no more about it. Sitting by the pool, suddenly a bunch of guys in the grey and yellow of Pakistan stripped to their swim shorts and started to play water volleyball. The Pakistani cricket team - very nice - my eye candy in Kandy! Soon followed by the Sri Lankan team - Wills was excited to see Dilshan and Sangakarra in the flesh. We were very restrained and didn't take any pics - I always feel so sorry for these guys to constantly be 'on show'. The guys all seemed really down to earth, happily eating breakfast in the same dining room and at the same buffet as everyone else, smiling to anyone who smiled at them. Two opposing teams, no conflict. Can you imagine any of the premiership teams and their WAGS in the same hotel, mixing with the likes of us. Can't behave civilly on the pitch for an hour and a half....we'd have witnessed fisticuffs and racial insults.....

Anyway back to the tooth relic! There is long story behind the tooth's eventual arrival in Sri Lanka (smuggled in someone's hair) and its many subsequent adventures (hidden from the dastardly British) but it is now safe and a pilgrimage point for many Buddhists. They bring flowers, and especially the lotus flower. Flowers are a symbol of the transitory nature of life, from a bud, to full bloom to shriveling and dying. Not a pleasant thought, but the way it is!

The temples were beautifully carved and decorated:
 I loved the little Buddha's on these stairs
And of course there wasn't a shortage of Buddha's round every corner:

We didn't get to see the tooth, which is kept safely hidden away behind locked doors but the temple was very impressive. As the five day test got underway we moved homewards!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sri Lanka - Trincomalee - Beach bums!

Off to the beautiful beaches, the peace of the Chaaya Blu hotel which altho' full of people had an air of tranquility. The kids swam day and night! The beaches......speak for themselves.....

Passed the time, doing not a lot, just watching other busy at their trade.
Every afternoon these guys would spend a few hours hauling their nets in.
 They had a little ditty going that kept them in rhythm, the back man replacing the front man in rotation, as the nets pulled closer to shore. For a couple of hours they would be totally in step as they pulled and hauled. A few of them had a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean thing going but sadly no Captain Jack!
We ate in the candlelight in the beachside shacks - fresh calamari and shrimp. A little taste of paradise!
Ads and Simon worked up enough energy for a day snorkeling and were rewarded afterwards by delicious sea food, freshly caught.
In all, lazy, lazy, lazy!

Sri Lanka - Sigiriya - watch for bees!

We left Colombo and drove in land. We stopped to sample some of the local fare on route. We first passed through lychee territory. The biggest, reddest, juiciest I had ever seen, let alone tastesd!
We also passed through cashew land - had to stop again. The road side vendors just made it too easy and stop and indulge!

We stayed at the Kassapa Lions Rock Hotel which was convenient for both Sigiriya and Dambulla - our two major sightseeing venues in the region. Sigiriya is a UNESCO world heritage site which means it is very well looked after but expensive to get access to.
Sigiriya was originally a monastery back in 3rd century BC but subsequently was taken over by King Kasyapa who had to hide from his enemies. His father was planning to leave his kingdom to another brother after spending a lot of the family fortune on the good of the country. Kasyapa saw red and killed his father, ran his bother out of Sri Lanka and took the kingship. However, he lived in fear of his brother returning to reclaim what was rightfully his, so he needed a castle he could protect. What better than one on a giant rock? Anyway Kasyapa ruled for 18 years before his brother returned. Kasyapa rode into battle on an elephant not realizing the grounds were muddy. The elephant started to sink and Kasyapa tried to turn to drier ground. His army thought he was retreating and ran off. Kasyapa stranded all by himself on a elephant stuck in the muck in the face of an oncoming army led by his brother impaled himself on his sword, or so the story goes.

Anyway the ruins of his castle and gardens are now a historical monument.
It was quite a climb to the top. The King had a sort of lift installed to get up the last part of the rock but we had to climb! The rock is a favorite hang out for bees, by the swarm. If the weather is windy or it is noisy they can get disturbed. Even in that morning's newspaper there had been reports of 8 people hospitalized with 150 stings between them so when protection was offered we took it!
Eventually we got to the top and saw the ruins of the castle and the views:
At the end of the gardens down below was a Buddha, which Ads held in the palm of his hand!
After Kasyapa's demise this castle reverted to monastery as the new king settled elsewhere. The beautiful rock paintings of Kasyapa's rule were in the most part painted over incase they led the monks off the straight and narrow but some remain:

We then head for the Dambulla caves which also involved some step climbing. No wonder our original itinerary had these on different days!
At the bottom of the climb was another Buddhist temple with a huge Budha surrounded by lotus flowers. 
The caves are shrines built into the rock and have beautifully painted walls dating back to the first century. The cave was originally a small monastery that sheltered a king in hiding for many years. As part of his thanks to the monk that sheltered him the king had numerous statues of Budha made for the monastry.
The caves were in his huge rock.
 The history was quite magnificent, by European standards, let alone American!

Sri Lanka - Colombo.

We have been back from Sri Lanka for two weeks and already it seems like a distant dream. In Sri Lanka we were four and are now temporarily down to two at home base! Ads departed for the US over a week ago and Simon followed a few days back. So Wills and I are alone for a couple of week. Very strange. You'd think I'd have plenty of time to blog Sri Lanka but seemingly not!!

Sri Lanka, so geographically close to India (25 miles), but yet so different. Roads without potholes, no trash, comprehensive rules of the road followed by the majority, no gratuitous horn blasting, less overt poverty...... So not Bangalore!! I'm not slamming Bangers but however one feels about this city the infrastructure in our neck of the woods is the pits. Interesting question is why such differences. Sri Lanka has also suffered civil war (tho'  internally this seems to be referred to terrorist attack/activity) from 1980's to 2009 and was also a victim of the tsunami along one of its coastlines. Sri Lanka has a long and complicated history - invaded by India several times - great stories of murder, fratricide, betrayal, exiles, bloody battles..... and settled 3 times - by european empire builders - the Dutch, Portuguese and of course the Brits. Despite all the ups and downs Sri Lanka seems to be victim of much less corruption in its administration than India and stuff seems to get done! Everyone gets free education including college, free healthcare (apparently good but crowded) and post the "troubles"  bridges, roads etc. have been rebuilt quickly and efficiently. Tourism being key, Sri Lankan's are proud to show off their country and sing its praises. Our guide, Harsha, I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. We had a huge van for the week which could have comfortably sat eight, air con etc.etc. and Harsha was a fountain of knowledge of his country past and present. He was also very flexible and although we had a sort of itinerary he was quite happy to accommodate when we deviated here and there. In arranging the trip I had decided up front where we wanted to go - we only had 9 nights and also had an eye on the weather. Sri Lanka gets hit by two monsoons so you need to get your seasons and geographical areas right! I then used trip advisor and other travel companies to select my hotels and then realizing we needed a driver as we wanted to stay in four different areas turned my plan over to a travel firm referred by a friend and they produced Harsha.

We got a direct flight from Bangalore to Colombo (all of an hour and twenty mins) the Friday evening, so Simon got in a full day at work. We met up with Harsha at the airport and after maybe a one hour smooth (I may keep harping on about "smooth" roads - but believe you me, for a Bangalore resident they are a luxury!) drive were settled into the Galle Face Hotel.  This is probably one of last years we can get one room for all of us. It works well, a king size double Simon and I share with Wills and a single bed brought in for Ads.  But I'm guessing Ads will soon want a bit more privacy and Wills will, without doubt be getting bigger and bigger. But for now it keeps the costs down! The Galle Face is perfectly positioned, ocean side, breakfast to the sound of the waves crashing. I didn't want to move!

The hotel was positioned alongside the main promenade and park which came alive in the late afternoon and evenings. I could have sat there for hours people watching, especially as was different from much of India, no one was particularly interested in us and we could just sit and watch!
It was a huge family affair. walking, playing, eating, visiting, chatting and of course cricket... It was really misty from the ocean (she said to excuse the equality of the pics!)
The food on sale from these vendors looked and smelt so yummy.
With the wind off the sea it was a kite flyers mecca.
We saw the highlights of Colombo - a lot of architectural hang-over from the Brits. I was reading Jeremy Paxman's book "Empire" while we were in Sri Lanka which as well as giving an interesting perspective on the effects of the empire on England today in Jeremy's usual witty style, also gave some history, including the Brits takeover in Sri Lanka. Normally most of what one reads about the old Brit Empire is the effect on the countries the Brits marched into and not the long term effect on Britain itself. It is an interesting book and worth a read.

Sri Lanka is a generally a Buddhist country. Though Buddhism was banned by those awful Brits and also under some Indian kings. The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists but there are also Tamil descendants in Sri Lanka who are mainly Hindu and some muslims. In ancient times some of the Sinhalese Kings married Indian Queens to try and keep peace with India. So in some Buddhists temples there are the odd shrines to Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu originally erected to keep the Indian spouses happy. But as Buddha is not a God as such, one learns from his teachings but cannot ask him for anything one wants, some Buddhists will also pray to an Indian God if they want something specific so the religions are a bit intermingled!
The flag is also a sign of intermingling. There have never been lions in Sri Lanka but the symbol of the lion which was imported by an Indian King in by gone days represents the Sinhalese bravery. The maroon color and the four leaves symbolize Buddhism. The saffron and green stripes were added later to represent the Hindu and Muslims in Sri Lanka who were feeling left out.
 In one of the Buddhist temples we visited we were presented with threads in all the colors of the Buddhist flag which were tied round our wrists. I still have mine, It doesn't feel right to take it off, even though the colors are now not so bright and it looks a bit ragged. I learnt quite a bit about Buddhism while we were in Sri Lanka and tested our drivers English to its limit, though he was keen to try and answer my questions. There are different kinds of Buddhism which made it all a bit more complex. In Buddhism the eventual aim is enlightenment and you go round and round in different lives until this is achieved and then nothing, all is done. To a believer in heaven and an afterlife the concept of such finality seemed a bit bleak and took some explanation!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The adventures of little bro's iPod!

Wills' iPod touch had a very different experience in Sri Lanka from the rest of us and it deserves a blog of its own!

Big bro borrowed little bro's iPod on our short pop from Bangalore to Colombo. However, we when all disembarked little bro's music machine remained in the pocket of  seat 14C on the plane. This error was not discovered until the airport was well behind us and big bro then had to sweat it out - would he have any of his savings left or were they going to be fully extinguished on a replacement iPod for little bro. First news flash from the airport was good news -  the iPod had been located. Sadly after a few hours of relief, the second news flash was in - only the red case had been discovered. We could collect it at the airport before we flew out nine days later. 

After a wonderful time in Sri Lanka (see subsequent blogs) we returned to Colombo airport, luckily with a few hours to spare. After a few false leads and red herrings we worked out how to get to the lost and found -via the transit desk? However the lost and found office was near the arrivals terminal and the transit desk post check-in and security at departures. So Simon and an airport escort set off in search of the missing item and the boys and I wait and wait and wait. An hour a half later Simon returns.

They arrive at the lost and found desk where the attendant pulls out a big ledger, finds the relevant entry which refers him to a further huge dickensean ledger.  He looks around his little empire and then remembers electrical goods, after two days in his office, have to be despatched to customs. Simon and escort move on to customs. It now appears that in order for the item to be returned to us, the rightful owners, customs needs a letter from Sri Lankan Airlines to authenticate the fact we had reported the item as misplaced. Off to the Sri Lankan airlines desk who start typing and provide the necessary. Only a slight delay here when it transpires the printer is out of order. Once an alternate has been located and the letter produced, Simon, escort and letter return to customs. After a lot of humming and hawing, referring the letter to those in higher is finally determined that Simon and his claim to the iPod are legit. Another large ledger is produced and from the relevant entry it is determined that said item is in the safe. A smaller ledger is then referred to, which reveals the exact location of said item in the safe and then the package in produced. Yes, a package, wrapped in brown paper, tied up with string and closed with a red wax seal. 

The string is cut and the red case still actually the containing iPod is revealed. Time for celebrations - not yet a while. Now Simon needs to prove the iPod is indeed ours. Bit tricky when said iPod is by now well and truly out of charge. However Simon's escort - by now getting a little stressed as he does have a real job to do somewhere else in the airport - finds a solution.  And even now all is not yet done, we have to pay for little iPods board and lodging at the airport. Being ultra efficient we have got rid off (spent) all our Sri Lanka rupees. So Simon and escort now have to exit the airport and find an ATM which works. Rupees to the ready, Simon and escort - after a bit of difficulty re-entering the airport as tickets/passports etc are inside with me - return to customs. But oh no...customs can't take payment direct - one has to go to another desk in the airport to make payment, get a receipt and then return to customs. This final (yeah......really final) step goes smoothly - once the officials have returned from their teabreak and Simon eventually (now a lot more aware of the complex functioning of Colombo airport) has little bro's iPod in his fist.

Little bro can be reconnected to his music, big bro can return to dreaming as to the future uses of his savings, Simon has a good story to tell and I can reflect on the goodness of some Sri Lankan Airline cleaner who could have made a big handful of rupees but elected to take the better path........