Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Rest of the Road Trip

I’m sure you can barely remember my two most recent blog posts, since they weren’t that recent anymore. Sorry about that. We went on another trip (which I’m sure I’ll blog about at some point since it involved sea turtle hatchlings and was awesome). Anyway, to recap, we survived getting lost taking the scenic route and a trip to the elephant orphanage.

Rather than drag this trip out into thirty seven and a half more blog posts, I’m going to hit the highlights for you today. Someone also told me I’m not getting paid by the word, which probably means I should be a bit more brief. Then again, I’m not getting paid at all, so I guess it doesn’t really matter, unless any one of you Fellow Adventurers wants to send me a check. I promise not to spend it all on beer, but only because beer is cheap here.

Getting back to business, I’ll summarize some things. Our hotel in Kandy was awesome. It was back off the main road toward the mountain a bit and it was very much a part of the surroundings, almost like a hotel had grown out of the mountain.
We ventured out our first morning there to see Kandy’s main tourist attraction and the most important Buddhist holy site in all of Sri Lanka, The Temple of the Tooth. The temple holds the tooth of Buddha. The belief is that after the Buddha’s funeral pyre, some guy went and snatched a tooth, and, to make a long story short, during the 300’s AD, the tooth was brought to Sri Lanka for safekeeping. Interestingly, it was believed that whoever possessed the tooth was the rightful ruler of the country. True to belief, Kandy was the last home of the Sri Lankan kings. The temple itself was very interesting as well as super crowded. It happened to be a time when the reliquary holding the tooth was going to be displayed. Apparently they never display the actual tooth. Being there on a day you can see the reliquary and visiting the temple in general is supposed to give you good karma. After fighting the crowds in the main temple I was hoping that getting our karma recharged was worth the hassle. The monks also bathe the tooth once a week on Wednesday in some special water and then hand the water out to worshippers to take home because it is believed to have powerful curative properties. I wish I’d known that before our visit. I could not figure out why people were carrying what looked like dirty water home in bottles. Everyone in the temple also wanted to touch our kids, which The Little Explorers do not find endearing in the least.

There were some other interesting things about being around the Temple of the Tooth, like the crazy monkeys living in the area around the central pond. They have little fear of humans and beg for snacks and such. We even got to see a monkey fight. Big entertainment. Less entertaining and more frightening were the chicken ducks. These things were freaky. I swear, it was like a Frankenstein combination of a chicken and a duck. I’m not generally one to get freaked out about animals, but these things gave me the heeby jeebies. They were so frightening and weird I took some pictures to share with you. When I got home, I asked my brother-in-law, who is a bird watcher, about these freaks of nature. He told me they are Muscovy ducks, and are really neither ducks or chickens. Freaks of nature, indeed.

Tell me that's not horrifying.

Shudder. Freaky deaky.

After our time in Kandy, we headed to Nuwara Eliya, which is in the mountains of Sri Lanka and in the heart of tea country. For some reason we can’t figure out, it’s actually pronounced Nurellia, as if it’s all one word. Try to pronounce it as two words and native Sri Lankans will look at you like you have two heads and speak Pig Latin. Hey, I’m not the one who named it a name that is clearly two separate words. That’s all you, Sri Lankans. While there, we visited a tea plantation, which, in the interest of proving that the workers are no longer actually slaves, is now more politically correctly called a tea estate. I’m sure that doesn’t make much difference to the practically indentured servants who live and work there, but it might make us westerners feel a little less guilty about drinking tea, which I guess is the point. Human rights aside, it was actually very interesting. Did you know black tea and green tea are actually the same thing, only the black tea leaves are left to ferment for three days? You do now. Amelia Earhart was the most captivated with the process and was excited to get home and tell her Grandma, who likes to drink tea, all about the tea production process.

In Nuwara Eliya, every road seemed to lead us by the same really beautiful park. Each time we passed it, The Little Explorers would exclaim, “A not-broken playground! Can we go play at it Mama? Daddy, look! Can we please go to the not-broken playground?!” I guess that gives you an idea of what the playground was like, and what most of the playgrounds we find here in Sri Lanka are like in comparison. Finally, on our way out of town, we obliged the kids and stopped at the park. We immediately understood why this playground wasn’t broken. There was an admission charge to go into the park and garden. We once again confused the heck out of some Sri Lankans by asking for the resident admission fee, got that straightened out, and headed inside. We strolled leisurely through the park on the way to the playground. Upon reaching the playground, all three Little Explorers took off running gleefully and began playing on all the equipment, most of which was, indeed, not broken. Of course, all that fun came to a screeching halt when Gertrude Bell announced, “I have to poop, NOW.” (You didn’t think we could go an entire blog post without talking about poop, did you?!) The International Man of Intrigue agreed to take Gertrude Bell on a quest for a restroom, since we figured there was a high likelihood of there being a potty in a place that had an entrance fee. About two seconds after they turned to walk away, Arthur Dent walked headlong into the side of a metal slide, fell, and started screaming. I sprinted the five feet to him and just as I was scooping him up, heard Amelia Earhart let out a shriek of terror. I whipped around just in time to see her trying to scramble out of some sort of drainage ditch. I screamed and tried to run over with a still hysterical Arthur Dent in my arms. Luckily, since The International Man of Intrigue had only gotten two steps in the search for the restrooms, he was by Amelia Earhart’s side before I could take more than a half step. This is how we roll, Fellow Adventurers. If one thing crazy happens, several more must happen in quick succession. It’s just our life. Lucky for me, The International Man of Intrigue is trained in acting quickly in emergencies and wasted no time in assessing the damage to Amelia Earhart. Our big fears were broken bones and snake bites, so when she came up a bit dirty and scraped up, missing her glasses, we took a deep breath of relief. Not so, Amelia Earhart, who kept screaming hysterically, especially once she realized her glasses were gone. The International Man of Intrigue bravely went over the side of the foot bridge (really just a dug-in plank) in the search for the glasses. He came up with them, and while they weren’t completely smashed, it was painfully obvious Amelia Earhart had stepped on them in her scramble for safety.

Can you blame us at this point for cutting our losses and deciding to head home? We did stop back at the hotel we had already checked out of and begged use of their facilities one last time. Once we had Amelia Earhart cleaned up and Gertrude Bell feeling relieved, we hit the road for Colombo.

I’m going to admit, I wasn’t sure of the drive home at first. We were on a one lane road in the mountains. I mean one lane, not as in one lane in either direction, but one lane. I got my passenger brake foot ready and warmed up my vocal chords for lots of screams of, “Red bus!” Fortunately, while there were a couple of moments I slammed on my imaginary brake, for the most part, it was a very scenic drive, complete with waterfalls and only a few moments of panic. Of course, the closer we got to Colombo, the crazier the traffic became. Apparently we didn’t get the memo that it was “No Brake Light Friday”. It definitely kept us on our toes, and probably explains the first ever car accident we’ve seen in our time here. We were coming up on a small village when traffic inexplicably stopped. In Sri Lanka, this, of course, means that everyone jockeyed for position and drove on the shoulder until cars were jammed in three wide on our side of the road (with a few cars actually being partially or mostly on the wrong side of the road). We were wedged in behind a van that claimed to be a Nissan Homy. We laughed at the name until a group of about 9 guys piled out of the car, all in matching black slacks and each wearing a different color of pastel button down shirt. Then we absolutely roared with laughter. A Homy van full of homies?! You have got to be kidding me! As they came back to the car, they made motions indicating that there was an accident ahead. We figured that meant we’d be sitting for hours. Nope. Cars started to go around the accident and eventually we were close enough to see a bunch of men prying the door open and pulling some guy out of a van. By the time we got up to the scene, there was no scene. Someone else pulled the car off the road and that was that. No police, no ambulance, nothing. Weird, right?

Other than that, it was a pretty uneventful trip home, except for that time we passed a mobile fish cupcake truck three wide on a two lane bridge. Gotta keep it interesting, after all.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Elephant Orphanage

When you last left the tale of the Intrigue Family’s first Sri Lankan road trip, we had survived red busses, driving blisters, and potty breaks and had just pulled in to our first destination. Realizing that it was past lunchtime and that Amelia Earhart and I get hangry when we don’t eat, the International Man of Intrigue suggested we have some lunch before heading across the street to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. You don’t know the term “hangry”? Well, let me introduce you. Hangry, this is a Fellow Adventurer. Fellow Adventurer, this is hangry. It is a combination of the words hungry and angry. While I didn’t make it up, it is the perfect description for the snappy, emotional place Amelia Earhart and I land when we are hungry or haven’t had enough protein and our blood sugar gets a bit off kilter. Lucky for us, the International Man of Intrigue and Gertrude Bell don’t have that problem and could live off of only cotton candy and sugar packets for days. We’re not sure about Arthur Dent yet, since he hasn’t missed one of his six-ish meals a day since he started eating solid food. We passed out lunch: Peanut butter squeeze packets for the International Man of Intrigue, Amelia Earhart, and myself and peanut butter crackers for Gertrude Bell and Arthur Dent. We washed it down with some swigs of water and put a few extras in the International Man of Intrigue’s pocket just in case.

Paying the parking “attendant” in Sri Lanka is one of those things that one has to write off to not causing a stir most days. At more upscale places, the attendant will be wearing some semblance of a uniform. Most of the time, though, it’s a pretty gritty looking person that may or may not have just purchased their receipt book at the office supply store in the hopes of making a buck. We paid the guy with the grubby receipt book and waved off the guy trying to hustle us into a “tour” and we were off. We entered the gates of the elephant orphanage and found the ticket booth. This is another part where things get entertaining. In Sri Lanka (and India, and other countries in the region, I’m told), there is a price for residents and a price for tourists. Sometimes there are even different prices for different tourists. Can you imagine going to see the Statue of Liberty and seeing a sign that says, “US Residents, 25 cents. Non residents, $25.” That’s exactly what happens at almost every tourist destination we visit here. The hilarious part is when we tell whoever is working that we are, in fact, Sri Lankan residents. They inevitably raise an eyebrow and mutter something that I’m pretty sure translates to, “Crazy white people don’t know what resident means.” Once we convinced them that we do, in fact, live in Colombo and showed them the resident visa stamp on our passports, we were in for pennies, literally. If we hadn’t had the visa, it would have cost us around $17 a person. Since we’re residents, it cost us less than a dollar for the adults and 20 cents for Amelia Earhart and Gertrude Bell. Arthur Dent was free either way, which is always good since he generally sleeps through everything, unless he’s busy eating, that is.

After our obligatory stop at the restroom, we were off to see the elephants. We knew that bathing time was almost over so we didn’t need to trek down to the river. We headed back over to the area where we saw a huge “tusker” as the locals call elephants. About the time we got near, we were rushed inside an area fenced in by large log fencing. We weren’t sure why until it happened: We saw dozens of elephants walking up the path we had just been standing on! Amazing. We took pictures. We oohed and aah-ed. Suddenly I had a thought. I let the camera swing freely around my neck as I grabbed the International Man of Intrigue by the shirt and hissed, “Oh, my Lord. We are insane. We are the worst. Parents. EVER. How strong do you think this fence is?!” He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. It’s a look he gets once a day, at least, and probably with due cause. I whispered, “What did we have for lunch? Peanut butter. What is an elephant’s favorite food in all the cartoons? PEANUTS! We’re going to cause a stampede! I knew I should have eaten the tuna!” There is never a dull moment in this family. Luckily, not an elephant even glanced in our direction, so I cautiously resumed taking pictures, convinced a tusker was going to reach over and snatch the peanut butter packets out of the International Man of Intrigue’s cargo pocket, or worse, snatch cute, little, rosy cheeked, peanut butter cracker crumb coated Arthur Dent right out of the Ergo Baby carrier on my husband’s back.

Eventually, all the elephants made it to the pasture over the rise, and the people who had walked from watching them bathe at the river made it back, too. At that point, all the tourists just sort of stood where the path ended and took pictures of the elephants in the pasture. Some were posing to have their pictures taken with the big elephant under the awning who was busy eating his lunch, which looked to be peanut free, by the way. We cautiously wandered over, still feeling like this was a bad idea no matter what one had just eaten. The elephant handlers, or mahouts, were offering to bring elephants over from the herd for tourists to pet them and take photos. One of the mahouts was insistent that he would bring a baby elephant over for the Little Explorers to pet. The International Man of Intrigue politely refused and he and I exchanged that knowing glance that married couples have when one spouse can tell what the other is thinking. In this case it was, “We had peanut butter for lunch and now you want to rip a baby elephant away from its mother and bring it over to us? We saw Dumbo. We’re not stupid.” We continued to watch in amazement. Yes, we were amazed by the elephants, but we were also amazed that people could just walk wherever they wanted to. This seemed like Bad Idea Jeans. Really Bad Idea Jeans. I kept looking around. Shouldn’t there at least be a sign saying something like “__Days Since Our Last Fatal Elephant Stampede”?

Eventually, we were ready to head back to the car, but not before another mahout tried to convince the International Man of Intrigue to have his picture taken petting the huge old elephant under the awning. When he refused, the mahout said, “Don’t worry, he’s blind.” Um, yeaaaaah, that makes it seem sooo much safer. Let’s all go poke the blind elephant, shall we? My Lord, were we the only people who realized just how bad an idea this whole place was? Does no one here ever catch a few seconds of “When Animals Attack” while flipping channels? Brand new, just born baby elephants are bigger than big strong guys, people. Yes, elephants are beautiful, and nature is amazing, but she is also mean, people. Luckily, since no one seemed to have thought of this besides us, I figured that upped our survival chances at least a thousand percent if the poop started to hit the fan.

Hot and ready for safety and a break, we stopped and got sodas at the snack stand. The four sodas we got cost us 600 rupees, while our entrance to the park had cost us 250 rupees. After cooling off and rehydrating a bit, I suggested we go across the street to where they make paper out of elephant poop. Sounds gross, but Amelia Earhart loves arts and crafts and I figured she’d be fascinated. All of our kids love to say the word “poop”, so I figured they’d be excited to use a bathroom word outside of the bathroom. She was. They were. We even got a tour of how they make the paper. Tuskers eat mostly fibrous leaves, so when their dung is boiled, clean fibers that look like what is found in handmade paper is all that is left, and it’s used to make (stink free) paper.

After that, it was time to load everyone back in the car, remind the parking “attendant” that we had already paid for parking once, and head to the Botanical Gardens outside of our final destination for the night, Kandy. Kandy was the last native kingdom in Sri Lanka and held out against colonization until 1815. It’s also home to The Temple of the Tooth, a Buddhist shrine that holds the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth.

True to Intrigue form, it started pouring down rain and we missed out on the gardens. Truer to Intrigue form, we got lost took a detour on the way to the hotel, which was on the far side of Kandy. Luckily, this gave us the lay of the land for the next day’s adventures. When we finally did get to the hotel, The International Man of Intrigue and I collapsed in heaps on the bed. The Little Explorers proceeded to bounce off the walls with abandon. Since it was raining, there was no pool time in their future. Irritatingly, no one in this country eats until well after preschoolers’ bedtime, so most restaurants don’ t even open until 7:30. This was fine with our girls, who love getting “food service” and eating in the hotel room. Our room had a covered, private balcony with a great view and an adorable table and chairs, which made the little ladies’ dining experience that much more fun, and let Mr. Intrigue and I enjoy a semi private dining experience inside the room. Well, so maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word, but it was nice to only have one kid eating all the fries off my plate and dropping silverware on the floor. After dinner, we turned in early to prepare for another day of adventures. (…to be continued, probably…)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our first Road Trip

We just got back from our first Sri Lankan road trip, or as we call it in the Intrigue family, ADVENTURE! As anyone who has ever attempted a road trip with three small children knows, this was no small undertaking. Add on the fact that we are currently leasing a Daihatsu Terios and packing the car becomes an adventure in itself. A Terios may sound like a breakfast cereal, but it is a small SUV that seats five. On a regular day, Amelia Earhart’s booster doesn’t fit in the back and she has to settle for a lap belt-don’t judge unless you’ve lived in Sri Lanka, Judgy McJudgerton. I mean it. For one thing, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten out of third gear, for another, there are no carseat laws here, or even helmet laws that seem to be enforced, as evidenced by seeing a parent and three kids riding a motorcycle, a common sight around here. Also, don’t think it doesn’t bother me, but cars here are ungodly expensive, even used, and we just don’t have several TENS of thousands of dollars in cash waiting to be thrown away on a not so gently used 1982 minivan. So, you can sympathize or you can judge, but if you’re judging, kindly keep it to yourself.

Anyway, we piled everything in the car, tightly packing so much stuff around the Little Adventurers that they wouldn’t be able to move, much less poke each other, for at least the first 20 minutes. The International Man of Intrigue dumped a log book, the Lonely Planet guide, a handful of maps, and his old (non-talking, non-direction giving) Garmin in my lap and proclaimed me Chief Navigator. I wondered if this was the best idea, considering I had just tried to get in the wrong side of the vehicle. Darn right side steering wheel and left side driving!

It seemed like we had barely watched the gates shut behind us and turned off of our street when we were lost taking a detour. We were driving through parts of Colombo I’m not sure any westerners had ever ventured near. I’m pretty sure as people saw us they were thinking, “White people?!? There goes the neighborhood!” The problem with being lost taking a detour through Colombo was that driving here is less than boring. While there is a method to the madness, at first glance, it can seem like there are no driving laws at all. Two lanes painted on the road can mean three driving lanes. Drivers will drive on the wrong side of the street if it will get them around a car that is driving slower than they are, then come to a dead stop in front of that car to make a right turn. The powers that be will change the direction of a one way street, or make a two way into a one way seemingly on a whim. In short, it’s crazy.

The major problem with being lost taking a detour before we even got out of Colombo was that traffic got crazy. The International Man of Intrigue had a death grip on the steering wheel and I was wearing out my imaginary passenger break. I kept screaming things like, “BUS!” and “There’s a guy walking with his scissors point up!” Cars zipped around us with abandon. Motorcyclists in their standard black windbreakers we dubbed Lankans Only Jackets wove in and out of traffic. We tried to figure out where we were in a town where maps are sketchy and roads change names whenever they feel like it. We dodged busses. Busses in Sri Lanka are terrifying. Did anyone have the game Simpsons Road Rage for Playstation 2? Those busses were modeled after Sri Lankan ones, I’m sure. If you didn’t have the game, let’s just say all busses are homicidal and driven by a not entirely sober person. Red busses are the worst. Soon any form of danger had me screaming “RED BUS!” The absolute worst moment came when we found ourselves with a bus on either side of us and they were both jockeying for the position where our car happened to be located. I’m pretty sure the laws of physics state that one bus can’t occupy the space occupied by a Terios, let alone TWO FREAKING BUSSES! One bus was two inches from our right bumper and closing in. The other was two inches from our left and closing in. The International Man of Intrigue swore. I swore. I screamed. He honked. The Little Adventurers kept poking each other in the back seat, oblivious. By some miracle I in no small part contribute to the two St. Benedict Medals in the car and our guardian angels, the busses returned to their own lanes and we came out alive. I was shaking and almost started crying when it happened: an improper emotional response. Apparently I was so completely stressed that some wire crossed in my brain and instead of crying, I started laughing hysterically. I laughed and laughed. The International Man of Intrigue looked worried but he was too busy driving to do anything about it. This was around the point we figured out where we were, but things were still crazy. I screamed “That van is going to t-bone us!” as a van decided his red light was optional. The International Man of Intrigue asked, “Tebow?” as he obligingly slammed on the horn and accelerator simultaneously. I thanked him and said if we got out alive, we should all consider Tebowing for a while.

Now that we were found, we high-tailed it out of the city at a brisk 40 km per hour. That translates to about 25 miles per hour for you non-metric speaking people. Luckily, our destination was a mere 60 km away. For some reason, the laws of motion do not apply to Sri Lankan “highways”, so that meant we were about a half a day’s drive away. This gave us plenty of time to take stock of our driving injuries thus far. Turns out the International Man of Intrigue had developed a blister from gripping the wheel too hard and my leg muscles were twitching from trying to shove my feet through the floorboard. Other than that, we were fine, so we enjoyed looking around at the surroundings. A KIK Cola billboard proclaimed, “Lankan to the Last Drop” and I proclaimed, “So is her headband and matching plastic earrings.” We saw a business that advertised itself to be “Volunteer Caterers.” What the heck does that mean? They cater for free? They only cater for volunteers? They are from Tennessee? We also got to stop to take the Little Explorers potty on a fairly regular basis. Lucky for us, you can’t just pop in somewhere and use their facilities. For one thing, there’s a good chance they don’t HAVE facilities, or the ones they have aren’t “western style”. For another, they just don’t let you do that here. Luckily, we have the coolest travel potty ever made. If you have small children, you need it. Look here. As we drove, we also realized that each town seemed to specialize in selling something: ceramic tiles in one, clay pots in another, inflatable kids’ toys in another, and one seeming to specialize in Lankans Only Jackets. So that’s where they come from…

Finally, after hours of driving, we turned off of the main road toward the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. That’s when I saw the most shocking thing I’d seen all day. Two women in saris were walking along the roadside. They held leashes in their hands. The leashes were attached to PORCUPINES. I SWEAR TO YOU, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. These women were walking porcupines on a leash. Large porcupines. I still can’t get over it. And with that, I’m going to end this chapter of our trip. Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of the Intrigue family as we do exciting things like eat lunch and visit orphaned elephants.