Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Rest of The Perahera Post, weeks later.

Yes, I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, but I brought you the International Man of Intrigue, so we’re square, right?

Oh, my pictures of the Perahera? That’s what you’ve come to see? I was hoping that The International Man of Intrigue’s guest post would distract you. Hmm…well…how do I put this? Let’s just say after agonizing over the pictures, and after much soul searching, I came to grips with the fact that I’m a writer, not a photographer. I think rather than water down my blog with a bunch of crappy pictures I’ll just stick with what I do best and write for you. I really struggled with this because I feel like a good travel blog needs lots of gorgeous pictures. Really, a good travel blog, a good travel magazine, a good travel book, they all have great pictures. I don’t. Then I realized, Bill Bryson doesn’t clutter his books with lots of pictures, and people still love to read his writings. I know I’m no Bill Bryson, but I do think I’ll just go with my strength on this one. I will still include the occasional picture, it’s just not going to be a focus, or in focus for that matter.(Ba-dump-bump-ching!)

Anyway, do you still want to hear about the Perahera? It was amazing! We walked the two blocks down from the hotel. As we got closer, a carnival atmosphere filled the air. There were vendors everywhere. There was all kinds of food and some of it smelled delicious. Wooden carts filled with corn had little platforms with flames burning on them. The salesmen would roast the corn right there and hand it to you. Of course, being westerners, we didn’t eat any of it, since we had no desire to spend the next week living in the bathroom. As anyone who has done it can attest, when you move, or even travel, to a Third World Country Emerging Nation, you spend a lot of time thinking about poop, enough time to devote an entire blog post to it. Anyone interested in reading that? That’s why we don’t eat street food, even though it often looks and smells delicious. Sometimes it doesn’t look and smell delicious. I still regret not photographing the fish cupcakes we saw on one of our first days in Colombo. FISH CUPCAKES, PEOPLE. Yes, little cupcake looking things with dried fish, complete with eyeballs, on top. Eating one of those would definitely result in a blog about poop, no question.

I’m the master of distraction today, no? Blame it on the fact that my kids have interrupted me about every third word. I’m not a slow typist, so that’s pretty often. As I was saying, the Perahera was amazing. We had VIP seats on a raised platform, so everything was up close and personal with a great view and none of the elephant poop that could hamper a good time if one was sitting at street level. (Poop again, I know.) The parade started off with young men in local costumes with what I first thought were huge pythons wrapped around them. The pythons were actually whips and the young men started cracking them with such speed that they sounded like firecrackers.

Well, crud. I stopped after writing this paragraph a couple of days ago, and here I am, trying to blame it on my children and the fact that the movers came Wednesday night at 7:30 and brought our stuff and I’ve been unpacking ever since. This is officially the longest blog post ever. And by longest, I don’t mean number of words. I mean amount of time per word. The Perahera was on February 7th. It’s now February 25th. You’d think that would make the writing better, since I’ve spent about a day per sentence. I’m a good writer, but not that good. Anyway, tonight is the night. I’m finishing this blog post and this beer I’m drinking and then going to bed. Now if the International Man of Intrigue calls me over to see another picture on Facebook of a friend of his I’ve never met or some cool thing he’s done on the Playstation, I’m going to scream. I have to write this Perahera stuff and then never promise you I’ll write about something again, because it just gives me writers’ block on the subject and makes me want to write about all kinds of other cool things, like the people who work for us or the room under our stairs.

ANYWAY, the parade, which I think was actually considered a procession since it was marching a relic of Buddha from place to place, went on, with the first elephants coming by. They were completely decked out from trunk to toe. They even wore masks. Many of their gowns were intricately decorated, beaded, or embroidered. The first elephants and the ones at the very end of the procession, nearest the Buddha relic, had little lights running up and down their masks. I set Amelia Earhart to the task of counting the elephants. I figured it would be good practice for her to keep track of something while she was excited and there was lots going on, and I knew I’d immediately get distracted and forget to count so I could tell you how many elephants marched in the procession.

There were lots of other amazing sights. Kandyan Drummers dressed up in their intricately beaded red and white costumes, Buddhist monks, some not much older than the Little Explorers, marching two by two, and my favorite, Cane Dancers. I searched the internet to try to link to a video, but I couldn’t find anything. I had seen these dancers when I watched from the breezeway at our hotel. From that vantage point, I was impressed by the rapidly spinning and spiraling groups circles of dancers, weaving in and out of one another. From the ground, it was an entirely different story. It turns out that these male dancers, who were in two concentric circles, with one guy in the center of the smaller circle, were all connected and interconnected to one another with bendable pieces of cane. The guy in the very center of both circles seemed to be holding the ends to all the pieces. They all walked along in formation until it was time to perform. Then, the guy in the center dropped to the ground and began spinning. All the other dancers in the two concentric circles began twirling and weaving in and out of one another at a dizzying speed. It was like the most insane Maypole dance ever, but the guy in the middle was the Maypole. I couldn’t believe it!

The Perahera went on for hours. The Little Explorers enjoyed it, but we could sense it was getting dangerously close to a melting point. One spilled water, one miscounted elephant, and this was over for us. We rounded up the kids and got ready to make our way back to the hotel. There was only one problem. The procession went down to a certain point, turned around and came back down the same street. Right now the beginning of the parade was just making its way to the point where we were sitting. It was double parade right down the street we needed to walk up. We did what we had to and walked two blocks in the *opposite* direction of the hotel, dodging elephant poop and people who wanted to touch Gertrude Bell’s blonde hair. When we turned off of the main parade route to double back, there were plenty of tuk-tuks waiting to rip off tourists. Normally, we wouldn’t consider letting the kids ride in the three wheeled, open sided cabs, but it was late, we were as exhausted as the Little Explorers, Gertrude Bell was going to have a meltdown if one more person touched her, and there wasn’t much traffic. Lucky for us, we didn’t show up in Sri Lanka yesterday (more like a month ago), so when the first driver tried to charge us triple what a fare should have been, we laughed and kept walking. We’re the Intrigue family. We know better. Sure enough, ten steps later, there was another driver who was willing to take us for a decent price. We all squished in the back seat and held on to the kids as tightly as possible. The girls decided it was almost as much fun as a ride at Disneyland, rushing down the back streets of Colombo toward our hotel. The full moon was bright and the breeze helped cool us all down.

So, there you have it. The Perahera. I am sure we’ll do many more exciting things during our year here, but I think I’ll always look back on the Perahera as a big deal. Walking through the crowds, experiencing the sights and sounds, that was what I really imagined it would be like to live here.

And, on that note, it’s way past my bedtime, and I’m out of beer. But, hey, I finished this post, right?! Oh, and Amelia Earhart counted sixty elephants. That's a lot of elephants for one parade!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Guest Blogger: The International Man of Intrigue

So, I'm tired and have writers' block. I texted the International Man of Intrigue this morning and asked if he'd like to guest blog. He majored in History, so I thought maybe he'd like to discuss the political history of Sri Lanka. I got home from book club tonight and he had composed a blog post that makes me look way awesomer than I am. He's the one that's way awesome.

Without further ado (drumroll, please)... The International Man of Intrigue!

I enjoy traveling. I enjoy going to new places. I enjoy experiencing different cultures and learning, first hand, how societies outside of my own function. I am, after all, The International Man Of Intrigue. I also enjoy Dorothy NOT being mad at me, so I try not to let all my cultural enjoying get in the way of things like…her sanity.

That said, she may tell you that she is just as into cultural learning as I am, but that’s a big fat lie. She WAS just as into cultural learning as I am, but then two wars, three deployments, three kids, four moves, a dog, and a fish happened. Now, whether she admits it or not, she needs her cultural learning to follow a couple simple rules, like “no lessons during nap time! For crying out loud, the kid just got to sleep and you’re ringing the doorbell to make sure I don’t want to be disturbed?!” Unfortunately, life listens just as well as our kids when handed bubble wrap in a library. However, Dorothy is showing this adventure she can roll with the punches and learn a few tricks of her own.

Life, no matter where we are, doesn’t seem to follow the rules we try to lay out. Colombo is no different, but the challenges here, at least, are outside our norms. And that, kind readers, brings us to yesterday. Yesterday, oh that often happy place because we already lived though whatever craziness it brought, was a great lesson in Household Staff Management. Yep, I said it. We have a staff. Okay, so it’s a maid, driver and part time gardener, but that’s one more maid, driver and part time gardener than we have ever had before.

I guess I need to pause here and explain how we’re not pretentious, old world Westerns taking advantage of the locals for mere pennies. Dorothy and I don’t sit back drinking cocktails while someone else does all the work. Dorothy, more or less, spends her time teaching and protecting Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Bell, and Arthur Dent from things like 220v electric outlets and Dengue fever. We are finding, however, that the staff is essential when one moves into a developing economy, and here’s why:
1. They understand the local customs and help us learn at our own speed without accidently causing an international incident.
2. They understand local driving customs and reduce the risk of us driving into oncoming traffic because we didn’t know that one way streets are two way if it seems convenient at the time.
3. By default, they are also interpreters, and they know how to say, “we gave at the office.”
4. They know how “stuff” works around here, and we don’t have to get frustrated wasting hours in a mall only to find that the term “copying keys” is called “cutting keys” here.
5. Having a staff gives Dorothy some serious blog material.
6. And my favorite reason-Hiring a staff makes use of local service providers and reduces unemployment in a developing economy.

Okay, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Yesterday. Yesterday 1,150 pounds of the consumables we purchased in California arrived at our door step. We were anxious for this delivery. It meant we no longer had to ration the peanut butter because 36 jars could be stacked on the shelves. That’s no hyperbole.

It also happened to coincide with the arrival of a pack of hungry roof repair guys our land lord sent over to fix the leaks we found in the roof during the last rain. So, in the span of minutes, Dorothy and I went from daydreaming about 24 cases of Ramen Noodles to a house filled with no fewer than 7 Sri Lankan’s, some carrying boxes, some carrying a ladder I think Moses may have used, and all asking us for direction at the same time in a language I’m pretty sure they knew we didn’t understand.

Enter Dorothy. Her 8 days of experience as a house hold manager took charge. Where I was willing to let the chips fall where they may and hope these guys did something close to whatever task I thought they were there for, Dorothy stepped up as the “Madam” of the house and took charge. With Arthur dent on her hip, she tossed me one of our Motorola radios, delegated tasks to the staff, and went up stairs to supervise so I could count boxes of peanut butter come off the truck. It was then I realized she had learned a few cultural lessons and acted in a manner these guys were accustomed to.

So, as I counted cases of TP and Mac and Cheese, I reflected on how much I enjoy discovering formal and informal cultural norms, and apparently, how good my wife figures it out, whether she notices she’s learning or not. I guess it’s tough to discern life’s lessons when you’re actually living it. It’s tougher when you don’t have peanut butter reserves. Trust me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Super Bowl and Perahera

Some of my military readers may not find the first part of this post very unusual, especially if you’ve been stationed overseas, but in the interest of those that haven’t, here’s a little taste of what it’s like when Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t fall on Sunday evening. Afterwards, I’ll tell you about the holiday the locals here in Colombo are celebrating.

For us, the Super Bowl started Monday morning at 5 am local time. It was a day off here for other reasons (stay tuned), but it’s not uncommon for it to be a day off for folks like military stationed in Germany or deployed in harms’ way, so military men and women can enjoy the game whether it falls in the morning or in the middle of the night. We were going to watch the game with other Americans at our rec center. Lucky for us, we were streaming the game from the internet instead of watching on American Forces Network (AFN). If you watch on AFN, there are no commercials. Isn’t that at least 60% of the reason we watch the Super Bowl? Instead of commercials, you get public service announcements, like how to recognize depression and mini history lessons.

By the time we showed up at 7, the third quarter had just started. Wow! We had some typical Super Bowl things, like adult beverages and spinach artichoke dip, and some that fit with the time of day, like waffles, sausage, and eggs. I thought it was a great football game. I’m a Chefs fan, great googly-moogly, so I didn’t have a vested interest in either team, but I guess I was rooting for the Giants just because I like Eli Manning better than Tom Brady. Last time these two teams met up in the Super Bowl, the International Man of Intrigue was off shooting terrorists and Amelia Earhart was a baby. We left the party we were at early, thinking the game was “over”, but by the time I got home and put her to bed, things had taken a turn and I ended up cheering and screaming all alone in my living room until the wee hours.

Anyway, the most exciting moment of the game for me, and everyone we were watching with, was the moment right before that crazy final touchdown. The play had just started and our screen went blue! Screams of anguish filled the air as someone dove to wake the computer! Luckily, it was just in time to see Bradshaw stop and sit/fall over the goal line! What The What?!?! With that, we watched the Patriots’ final attempt and then jumped into the pool for a swim. We were home and ready to feed the kids lunch and take naps by 10:30!

Now, it just so happens that Super Bowl Monday was also a holiday in Sri Lanka. It’s not because our Sri Lankan hosts were putting on their Giants and Patriots jerseys. Every full moon is a holiday called a Poya Day here. Poya Days are Buddhist religious holidays. Banks and government agencies are closed, along with many schools and shops. No alcohol or meat is sold in stores. This Poya Day is also the Perahera in Colombo. It is a huge celebration and parade. We were lucky enough to be invited by an acquaintance at the hotel to watch from his penthouse apartment. The view of the little Buddhist temple sitting on the water in the pond near the hotel was even more beautiful than usual. The entire temple was covered in lights. Trees all around the pond were lit up. There is a bridge to a small island and it was covered in blue lights.

Unfortunately, that’s where my story of “movin’ on up to the east side, to deluxe apartment in the sky” ends. The little explorers were not dealing well with being out past bedtime. The parade of 100 elephants, jugglers, dancers, drummers and more was supposed to start at 7 pm, but this is South Asia. Nothing starts on time. By 8 I had the screaming, wailing children in bed and was headed to the kitchen for a drink and a snack, moping because The International Man of Intrigue was still upstairs watching the parade.

But wait? What was that noise?? Could it be??? YES! Even though our room faces the wrong side of the hotel, I could hear the drumming so loudly, I stepped out into the breezeway/laundry room to look outside. Yes! I could see the turnaround point of the Perahera. I could see the elephants in all their splendor. (Apparently in the world of elephant fashion, if one is marching in the Perahera, one should wear formal attire.) I saw the dancers spinning and whirling. I heard the drums. I’d love to say I took pictures, but it was really far away. There is no way, unless I had some crazy professional lenses, that I could have gotten a decent picture. If I had taken pictures and posted them on here, it would be like looking at an ultrasound picture when you’ve never had a baby. You would all smile and nod and pretend you could see the elephants but be secretly annoyed that you have no idea what you’re looking at. Lucky for you, I didn’t take pictures. Luckier for you, I found this guy’s blog, and he did. LUCKY for MEEEE, we got tickets to go down and watch the Perahera tonight. Oh, I didn’t mention the Perahera goes on for two nights? Well, it does, and who has ten thumbs and tickets for tonight’s events? The Intrigue Family! I will try to get some awesome pictures and report back.

Oh, and if all that wasn’t exciting enough, we should be moving into our house tomorrow. Because I’m not sure if we’ll have internet from the get go, it might be a few days, but I’ll report back as soon as possible, Adventurous Readers.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Grocery Shopping

I feel as though I’ve been remiss in not describing Sri Lanka in better detail. I had these delusions that I would go out with the good camera and take lots of pictures and show you. Then I remembered I have three kids, one of whom is generally strapped to my back and two who are holding my hands every time I go out, and I realized it’s probably not going to get crossed off my to-do list any time soon. How about I use the old method where I use some descriptive words and you use your imagination? As a reward, I’ll post a few pictures of food and things from our apartment at the end.

The first day we were here, we walked to a grocery store adjacent to our hotel. As we approached, the door opened seemingly automatically. In actuality, it was an old man in a flowing white outfit ushering us inside. Wal-Mart greeters be warned, this guy is gunning for your job, and he will be awesome at it.

My initial impression was that the store was dirty, crowded, and small. I sucked in my breath. I knew from co-workers that this was a good store to frequent. How was I going to make it through a year? The produce section looked like a slightly shady booth at a farmers’ market. There were wide open bins of grains like rice. There were fruits and vegetables I recognized, like apples, green beans, and bananas, and lots I couldn’t place, despite the fact that at one point in my life I watched the Food Network almost exclusively.

Past the produce were narrow aisles packed with things I couldn’t always identify. There was a large section of spices, some in little containers, but mostly in bags. Brightly colored cellophane bags of ramen noodles filled much of one aisle. The cookie aisle was called the “biscuit” aisle due to the British influence. The only thing I recognized was, blessedly, the soda aisle. There it was, not exactly the same, but enough to make me comfortable: The Coke Light. For 95 Sri Lankan rupees (rs.), approximately 85 cents, I could have a 500ml bottle of Coke Light.

I was confused when I looked at the freezer section. Down the center was the low kind of open freezer open on top, and it was almost completely filled with various kinds of chicken sausages. Really? Just chicken sausages? Yes. Turns out Sri Lankans love chicken sausage. Without speculating too much, I’d say it’s because they really don’t eat much pork here. The population is primarily Buddhist, followed by Hindu and Muslim. None of those folks really eat pig, which is dandy with me.

The one thing that still has me a bit frustrated is that there is almost no frozen or refrigerated food here. Nothing prepackaged. You can’t just pick up a frozen pizza or a pack of deli turkey. I really like to have frozen veggies on hand for dinner, but they really don’t have that here, either. Turns out when you live in a developing nation, electricity isn’t always reliable. So far in Colombo, we haven’t had problems with the power, but local grocers sometimes turn off their freezers and refrigerators at night to save money. Luckily, you can tell so you don’t shop there by looking for ice buildup on the frozen food. Unluckily, that means no shortcuts for me. If you want it, you’re making it from scratch.

Dairy is interesting. We buy our milk in the UHT boxes. Try getting your kids to drink that. I’ll admit to taking a bite of Cheerios and milk that Gertrude Bell walked away from. I didn’t exactly gag, but I did wash that bite down with a swig of Coke Light and a grimace. Fresh milk goes bad quickly, and cheese costs an amazing amount. Think $7 for a brick of cream cheese or $9 for a package of shredded cheese. Once we’re in our house I’ll definitely have to rethink my “normal” rotation of recipes.

We have found a few things we enjoy. Milo is delicious, and thankfully, even though it may contain a lot of sugar, it does claim to be low on the glycemic index. Whatever. It gets my kids to drink milk. We’ve enjoyed trying lots of different kinds of chips, called “crisps” here. Some have been better than others. One was called “Jays” and looked exactly like a Lays bag, but not. The International Man of Intrigue and I found an instant soup made by Knorr that we like. The best part was that it came in a three pack with a free bowl.

When I look back on that first trip, I think the only things we bought were Coke Lights and a couple of packages of biscuits. In the time since then, I’ve been to that store and another grocery chain many times. It doesn’t seem dirty to me any more. Maybe it’s because everything here is a little dusty. I’ve found things I like and tried new things that I didn’t care for. I’m a bit anxious to see how we’re going to manage to eat healthily this year and still have food we’re comfortable with. I’m all for trying local foods and really want to immerse myself in life here, but I do not have any desire to eat curry three meals a day, seven days a week. I have a feeling it’s a good thing we brought a year’s supply of peanut butter with us.

Gertrude Bell and Amelia Earhart drinking Milo.

Jay's- Betcha Can't Eat Just One!

Coke Light. Mmmm.

Not Pringles. Mister Potato.

Not Pringles quality control, either.

Our new fancy soup bowls. Hope the kids don't break 'em.

Bonus photo: Hotel water, because you can't drink the water in this country.

Oh, and I have no idea about the spacing on this post, and I'm too frazzled today to figure it out. So, if you don't like it, feel free to offer your layout and design services, or keep it to yourself. Also, I know my pictures aren't super blog perfect and worthy of Pinterest or something, but you'll have to wait until I'm done raising kids before I become an expert photographer.