Posts Tagged ‘Sri Lanka’

pil·grim·age  (plgr-mj)

n.

1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

At 2550m, the Lankan name is Sri Pada (literally, Holy Footprint) and by Sri Lanka’s 70% Buddhist population, it is viewed as the place where Buddha’s footprint was left on his visit to Sri Lanka. Christians and Muslims call it Adam’s Peak, accounting a similar story, that this is where Adam first stepped on earth after being banished from heaven (Sri Lanka being Eden). Tamil Hindus consider it Lord Shiva’s footprint. There are six or so “routes” up to the top, the easiest one being a mere 5,200 nice, relatively even steps the entire way. The back-side route is roughly twice as far, and takes seven hours or so, and other locals had told me the only way they do it is up the rocks, on the Western face… but I figured I’d leave that for another day…

Things started off badly. Or maybe not….

Hopping off the bus in Hatton, I called Helga to see when she’d be arriving and where she’d like to meet up. We had agreed back in Kandy to climb together, as a pilgrimage is not to be a lonesome task, but upon answering the phone she explained that she had walked into a library at about ten o’clock that morning, and was simply not yet ready to leave the comfort of a few thousand books. I was angry at first but sympathized, and on the phone I chuckled, vaguely recalling the time I nearly had to be physically removed from a library in Taipei at closing time.

It was on the next bus, to Dalhousie, a miserably crowded Ashok Leyland, where I spent the entire trip squashed onto the stairs, that I met Vejay, a tiny, balding Tamil man who was a little bit tweaky and whose breath smelled like booze. His English was quite poor but he was enthralled with the fact that I came on the local bus, and said repeatedly, “We climb together!”

I was down, but there were issues that first required slight thought, and then apathetic discarding. The first was that I was told my many, many people to not start climbing before 2am or so, as it is very, very cold at the top, and waiting around for the sun to rise is less than comfortable. The second was that I wanted to stash my bag somewhere, as even though it’s small, it’s still about 12kg.

Through broken english and some interesting pantomimes, I concluded that he worked at one of the shops on the way, of which there are many. These shops sell tea, basic food and water and such, at incredibly inflated prices, as everything has to be hiked up. The hiking itself is done by local Tamils, who I truly hope charge by the step: the shops at the top are literally 95% of the climb, and thinking about making that climb with, say, a case of bottled water, or a 50lb propane tank, balanced on my head, makes me shudder.

We stopped for a tea and a cigarette or two, both good things to have before climbing a 2,500m mountain. Then, a few shots of green apple Arrack, which is what I was smelling on his breath on the bus. Tasty.

I was still somewhat confused as to what we were doing when we started up the hill at sundown… we kept on in broken english, and I think he was explaining that we’d go to his shop, eat, and then I could climb up the rest of the way, leaving my pack there. I didn’t want to pay for a guesthouse I wouldn’t sleep in, so I agreed and we went along, my whole pack on my back… I figured, hey, I can hang out at the base for seven hours, or I can hang out halfway for the same amount of time with this teetotaling, seemingly well-wishing local… I guess I’ll take the weirder option.

gateway to the climb, with Vejay posing as menacingly as he can muster

Sri Pada is interesting in that the government rents out those lots to the vendors, who all peddle basically the same goods: tea, water, roti, candy, incense, etc. We stopped at a few on the way up. Everyone knew him, which was a good sign: it was barely 8pm but for some reason here I was, following this half-drunk local up a mountain, about six hours earlier than I was expecting to. Surely there is logic in this somewhere, I thought.

At the second stop, I got to grill a shop owner about the circumstances of these tea shops: how the hell do you compete with a few hundred others selling the exact same wares? (barely — location is one thing but dumb luck is another). How do you deal with water and power? (again, barely — each shop pays a flat rate for [spring fed] water and a 240v hook-up, both of which fail rather often). How much does a stall cost? (not much – about 25,000 LKR, roughly $250/month, before power and water). Finally – I had to ask – how much do you pay the local Tamils who lug up all your goods for you?

Of course, he wouldn’t answer this one. Not much, I bet.

Anyway, we’re maybe 30% of the climb, and my pack is getting heavy. It’s not a huge pack by any standard, but after 2,000 vertical feet or so, it’s feeling heavier and heavier. We’re stopped at another tea stand, and I ask if I can trust the guy to drop my pack there.

“Hey man, I really want to drop this pack… can I leave it here?” (obviously I’ll keep all my crucial items with me)
“Hmmph? Yeah… he has bunks over there, I think I’ll take a nap there until my shift…”
“Wait… what? I thought we were going to your shop?”
“Yes, I’ll go later. It’s okay, you can leave your stuff here, I will sleep now and meet you at my shop later…”

No you won’t, I think. He’s smoking one of my last cigarettes and the arrack is gone. I realize I may have just made a terrible mistake following him here… pilgrimage, my ass, this guy is suddenly as shady as a mangrove. I chew on it a bit in my head…

At this point, I’ll note that not a single tourist is on the mountain. Not one. We’ve passed only locals, Sinhalese and Tamil, and the occasional barefoot monk. Of course: the tourists don’t start until 2am. I went for weird, and I got it. What next? I drank another tea.

“Look man, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but I’m going up… I’ll just take the pack, don’t worry about watching it for me…”
“No, no, it’s no problem! It’s safe here!”
“I am… so sure that’s true (this was said in the voice of Ray Gillette)… but still, I’m just gonna head up with it…”
“Okay, I’ll walk with you to my shop…”
I burst out laughing. Of course you will! I realize now that he’s a bit tipsy; hell, he’s probably been a bit tipsy all day. The Sinhalese are relative light-weights: drink a fifth with them, and they’re all smiles. Drink another, and they’re all slurs and stumbles. This is not at all a harsh generalization; they’re just… small… with big appetites.

“Nooooo, noooooo, you stay! You need your beauty rest! Gotta sleep off that arrack before the boss sees you…”
“I… am the boss.” Immediately, Rick Ross starts playing in my head. Not gonna argue with the boss, am I? I smile.
“Sure. Lets go.”

His logic, and words, and mannerisms, all confound me. I have no idea what he was on about with the sleep and all, and while there’s a corner of a thought in me that suspects that he has no shop and the whole bit is an elaborate rouse to part me from my bag, he just doesn’t seem smart (or sober) enough for such a task. I chew on the order of events, and decide the course…

As we keep walking, more and more locals are eclipsing the steps. The crowd varies from infants to elderly, and from all walks of life. And here I am, walking with someone I no longer trust and wishing I’d brought more arrack…

Eventually, we make it to his shop, which by this point I am mildly surprised to learn exists. On top of that, it is much bigger than almost every other we’ve passed, with a huge kitchen looking out over the steps, and lots of primitive benches built from split timber. The staff looks at me funny. I am officially the first tourist of the evening, and they’re surprised to see a white fellow here six or seven hours too early. I have a cup of tea and refuse when Vejay asks if I’d like any food. I refrain from asking any of the other employees if he is, in fact, the boss, somehow seeing that information as useless. One of the employees is eager to show me his wooden leg, and I’m grateful for any break in the awkward silence: it’s only 9:00pm, which is nearly nine hours to sunrise.

I’m sitting there, sipping tea and feeling foolish, when a large, twenty-something Sinhalese woman walks up and basically starts force feeding me cookies… she’s smiling this huge, bright smile, and I can tell she’s baked (or “made” – they didn’t quite seems baked) them herself. Her pride exudes from her eyes as I smile, chewing what is basically a lump of floury dough with brown sugar rolled on the outside… and then she gives me another. And another. And then some odd, oat filled bars. She’s one of those who genuinely enjoys watching other people chew. I indulge her.

A crowd is gathering to watch, which makes me exude more “mmmmmmm”s and “ahhhhhh”s, leaning towards facetious but carefully restrained. I smile and say “hari usai!” which basically means “good eating”, and after laughter and smiles, the crowd disperses. Vejay gives me an odd look, something like shame… he says nothing as he walks past with a bowl full of dough and starts rolling out roti.

The woman asks if I’d like to walk up with her and her family. I hesitate to respond, but looking at my other options, this one makes me smile, and I accept. I shoulder the pack and we stroll out.

The contrast of walking up a mountain with a teetotaling rotiwallah and walking up with a family of twelve is quite stark. The young woman speaks English quite well, and we chat, in between her wrangling kids, helping her parents, and feeding an infant. That’s what pilgrimage looks like for her, and she handles it with a deft stride. I never catch her name.

It’s about this point that I began just sort of floating along from family to family, a giant white orphan on the side of a mountain… everyone gives me something, food, water, bangles, conversation. It’s interesting to note that the locals seem to buy absolutely nothing on the mountain — everything is carried with them, entire mess kits for the whole family, kilos of curries and rices, everything. They occupy the shops to eat their own food, without comment.

The cold is starting to bite, and even coming from Nuwara Eliya, I’m chilly… many of those I walk with are in shorts and t-shirts, with nothing else to add later. I try asking at least a dozen locals over the course of the night what the plan is when they get to the top, all to confused looks or answers that are unintelligible. At our current rate, we will arrive right around 11pm or maybe a little earlier, leaving six hours or so to dawn. None of them seem to care, and most I ask have climbed up before… I give my curiosity a rest.

Eventually, I fall in with a group of teenage boys, most of them right around age 19 or so. They didn’t come with their families — no, they came with each other, twelve of them total, crammed into a van from Colombo, something like a camping trip. They are all, every one of them, full to the brim with piss and vinegar and hope and energy and smiles. After hearing my age, they are all shocked to learn I am not married — a shock that I witness every day here, but that is odd coming from a bunch of teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them…

The Marriage Thing: a heathen westerner’s perspective

A basic introduction from any local here involves these three questions, usually in this order:
1) Where are you from
2) What is your age
3) Are you married
and, if no to 3),
4) Why not?

Those first three are easy to answer, but number four can get tricky, as the cultural divide can be daunting to cross. Whatever you do, don’t say “I don’t believe in marriage”, as this will be met with the harshest of criticism and defense. I will not describe my own failures of description, or the senseless lies told in the interest of studying their responses, even though some of them were incredibly funny… needless to say, this is even a running joke among those traveling around here, and everybody has a story to tell about their own explanations and lies.

Later on, back in Kandy, an attractive, well-traveled Australian woman in her forties told me this one:

“The first time I came here, I told them I wasn’t married, and sometimes I tried to explain why… but then I decided to just lie about it. This made problems, though, because then the next question is ‘Where is he?’ and if I told them he was back in Australia, they’d say ‘But why? Doesn’t he love you?’. Okay, so now, I had a husband, and he was in Colombo… but then they’d ask if we had any kids, and when I told them we didn’t, they’d say ‘But why? Why do you not have children?’ Okay, so we have a daughter… but then it was ‘Why no son? Don’t you want someone to carry on your name?’ So it just sort of spiraled out of control, in this organized way… and suddenly, I had a husband, and two kids, a boy and a girl, and they’re all in Colombo, and he works as a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I’m just here for the weekend before going back to him and my children….”

We were all in stitches laughing about this one, and we all had our stories to tell. Sometimes, it’s transparent: an older man who has two daughters is asking me if I’m married, and when I tell him I’m not, he invites me to dinner (I politely declined, even though the pictures he showed me of his daughters made me think twice). I can only assume this ‘angle’ changes with each person, and I’ll explain the kids on the mountain, and my own take on it: when an 18-year-old asks someone in his late twenties if he’s married, he’s not really asking about the marriage part: he’s asking if you’ve been gettin’ any. It’s the culture: if you’re not married to them, you’re not touching them, so if you’re in your late twenties and not married, what the hell is wrong with you?

back to the mountain
So we’re on our way up, me and this crew of teenagers, bellies full, and still not a tourist in sight. The kids are fun to joke around with, and they just really want to do one thing: smoke. They’ve smuggled in cigs and flavored cigars and some Rizlas, and the climb be damned, priority one is sparking up… and again, I can sympathize. My thoughts drifted back to Honduras, in 2002, my first time out of my own country. I was 17, and found it fitting to smoke a Cuban cigar every night or two. Since those nights on Roatan ten years ago, I smoke somewhere between zero and two cigars each year (directly proportionate to how many cigars I am offered by people who know something about cigars) and have never once craved one.

my posse's on Broadway...

The five young men I was climbing with turned into twelve near the top, where the steps become much steeper, much narrower and much more in disrepair, and we stopped for a proper session of cigars a few hundred steps from the summit. I felt like I was 17 again, passing around a chocolate cigar with a bunch of kids. All of them spoke at least limited English and a few were quite well versed, and when one asked if I smoked them back home, I couldn’t lie: “These things? We split these things in half and then throw away the tobacco, put something else in there instead…”

We summit. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand locals are already there, huddled together for warmth on the steps and grounds surrounding the small temple. Many have prepared and brought blankets and hats and long pants and such, but at least half are wearing whatever they stepped out of the van with, my homies included. Most start shivering immediately, and after putting on a little music, I realize I’m carrying four kilos or so of clothing that I’m not wearing.

The thought hits me like a brick, and I start clawing through the pack, passing out every article of clothing I have to this rag-tag bunch of teenagers, all shivering in their shorts, sandals and t-shirts. I’m wearing the only long-sleeve, jacket and pants that I have, but that doesn’t stop them from layering in the spare t-shirts, shorts and even the four pairs of socks I’m not currently wearing. One of them even took my trunks and tied them up around his ass, so as to cover his knees and tibiae, and the sight of them all standing there wearing my entire wardrobe was quite a laugh… it will be six and a half hours until the sun rises, and the temperature is still dropping.

We huddle up for warmth on the steps, thirteen of us trying to cover ourselves with two bed sheets, and keep chatting. It would be silly to say that we covered every topic under the moonlight, but we came pretty close to covering every topic that matters to a 19-year-old, things like girls and cars and music and tattoos and traveling. And still, not a tourist in sight, and still, every family with more than they needed coming over and sharing their food with us. It was a magical night there, watching the bright, red moon fall into the hills, and without a bit of sleep, we all eagerly awaited the big ball of fire rising in the east…

…And then the tourists showed up. They trickled in, slowly at first, mostly an older crowd, many of them in groups. My smiles were genuine but many of theirs seemed forced, as if they were expecting something else on the top of this hill. I stuck with my posse until the crowd was so dense that it was hard to stick together. It became very, very cold in those last hours, and on the South side of the mountain, just beneath the temple, locals were making small fires out of incense boxes and coconut oil and anything else that would burn, huddling around the meager flames for just a little bit of warmth to come into their fingers.

Just before the sunrise, I kicked off the sandals and walked up to the temple, which was already very, very crowded. In my wandering, I came across a huge group of tourists who had not removed their shoes beforehand, and sort of politely whispered to one, “you’re on the temple grounds now; you should remove your shoes…”
He looked at me incredulously. “Yes, but it is very cold,” he said in a thick German accent.
I was shocked. He wouldn’t take his shoes off because it was cold? Perhaps he was not aware that he was standing on one of the holiest places in the country… I smiled and said something like “you’re kidding, right? This is a TEMPLE. You are IN A TEMPLE RIGHT NOW.”

And then he turned around. He actually turned around and ignored me, continuing to chat with a large group of very well-outfitted, presumably German companions, all with $1k+ DSLR cameras around their necks. I was flabbergasted. I simply could not process it, so I kept walking, my toes freezing on the concrete.

I approached another tourist couple on the far side, and again, politely explained to them that they were on the temple grounds and that they should remove their shoes. The male replied, “Yes, we thought about that, but it is very cold up here, and we’d rather keep them on…”
“You thought about it, eh? And the conclusion you came to was that being comfortable was more important than being respectful?”

He looked at me like a child might look at his younger sibling when told to do something by them, a look that says “who the hell are you?” Then he turned away.

I considered the method I might use to tackle one of these louses to the ground, pry their shoes off and toss them over the side of the temple. Maybe I should just grab the camera and toss that? They’re European, so it’s probably insured anyway… should I pop the memory card out first, as a courtesy? No, that would show too much consideration… really, it would have to be the shoes. Yes, that would prove the point much more succinctly. They would have a nice long time on the barefoot walk down to think about why they no longer have their GoreTex North Face trainers… should I go for the tall one? I bet he’s a size 48 or 49, which I know from experience is impossible to find here… or maybe the chunky one with thick glasses… he’d put up the least resistance…

Dark thoughts on that hill waiting for the sun to come up. Why you gotta come hate on my magic, Germans? Are you that hopeless? You can’t have the respect of doing the one thing — the ONLY thing — that is asked of you on this pilgrimage? It’s a PILGRIMAGE, for chrissakes..

I sat there, trying to contain my rage, when an older Sinhalese gentleman in a funny looking ski mask walked up and smiled at me, a smile that had to be returned. He must have seen me fuming. “It’s okay” was all he said, and then he patted me on the shoulder. Then he walked away.

The sun rose. It came up strong and fast, illuminating the valleys around us and torching the clouds with orange furor… It was, in fact, completely beautiful. I didn’t take many pictures of it, as others did, and the older guy in expensive boots with a tri-pod and a bag full of lenses screwed up my best shot, but I sat there watching it, echoing the man’s words… it’s okay…

speechless

 

good morning

A ceremony proceeded which I will not attempt to describe here, ending with a prayer. At the start of this prayer, the Germans were still running around like clueless rabbits, snapping photos of monks and citizens in their pilgrimage, not having the faintest clue of what they were taking pictures of. I was sat lotus near the SE corner of the temple, which was at this point packed wall-to-wall with others sitting lotus on all sides. The tourists dispersed and departed, apparently not interested in this particular part of the pilgrimage (no shit). Yes, they had gotten their high-def pictures of monks and barefoot citizens clasping their hands, and now could go back to their respective homelands, proud of having gotten such great cultural understanding.

I stuck around. The prayers were led by loudspeaker, and followed by the crowds around me. I don’t know quite what those prayers held in them, but I listened intently, and in my head, they were saying things like,

take care of those around you and be taken care of… love others and be loved… be respectful and be respected… feed and be fed… quench and be quenched… clothe and be clothed… smile and be smiled to…

and take your goddamn shoes off when you enter a temple…

up the frickin’ mountain, down the frickin’ mountain

The walk down was amazing. I had lost my homies (perhaps they didn’t stick around for the prayer) and so all of my clothes were missing, but I was not particularly concerned about this fact at all. Some odd, superficial darkness had been lifted, and the sun shined bright above us, and with a mostly empty pack and the clothes on my back, I started walking down. I returned every smile, and spoke to everyone who spoke to me. I bet if you haul, you can walk down the whole thing in under an hour, but for me it took three and a half, and that was just fine — all of the conversations were simple and some of them were brief, but all of them were genuine, and I felt like a million bucks.

I stumbled upon the man in the ski-mask from earlier, walking down with his wife and another friend. Without the mask I could see he was around 60 or so, his wife about the same, and she struggled with the steps — oh, sure, walking down 5,200 steps is easy, but doing it after you’ve just walked up them is much harder, as your hamstrings and quads are a bit fried. I walked slowly with them and we chatted about life and the start of summer and a few other topics. At one point they asked where I was going and I said, blankly, ‘North’, as my Indian visa would not be ready for another four days, and I had time to kill. Then he offered me a ride to Kandy, where he and his wife and friends were heading (they had chartered a van) — no small offer, as getting there my way (read: the cheap way) entails three different local buses, all of them packed to the roof, and that was just the start of my journey North (Kandy is a transport hub, and getting from anywhere in the hills to the north requires going there first). We parted ways so they could rest and agreed to meet at the huge standing Buddha just south of the river, at the foot of the mountain.

It was about halfway down that I considered the implications of losing nearly every article of clothing I had, and that it would be at least a minor set-back, though not a great loss by any means, as most of my clothes are falling apart anyway. During this thought, I saw a man with one leg and a crutch, walking uphill and singing, with a bowl in his free hand. I picked a fifty rupee note out of my pocket and dropped it in, and at the same moment realized I knew this man — he was the one with the wooden leg at Vejay’s shop. “Wait… I know you…” he smiled and put his finger to his pursed lips, and I picked the fifty out of the bowl. “Here, let me get you a tea with that…”

Of course, we were just barely upstairs of Vejay’s place. I walked in and ordered myself a tea with the fifty I had just re-appropriated, then went looking for the man’s leg. I found it leaning against the wall in the back room. I considered grabbing it and walking it up to him, spoiling his rouse, but then considered how hard it must be to walk up those 3,000 or so steps every day to get to work with a wooden leg. I picked it up. It was much, much heavier than I expected, a rather primitive prosthetic. I stood there for a second and then mentally shrugged.

Vejay was still working, cleaning the kitchen and wrapping up roti. He gave me a cigarette, perhaps a peace offering, and said nothing. It was now clear to me that this man would not have taken anything from my bag — he works on the damn mountain, for starters, and while it would have been easy to find him, the key word here is ‘works’. He’s a drunk with poor English, not so unlike me, and after I thanked him for the tea, I turned to pay, and he snuck a few wrapped up roti into my bag.

I found most of my clothing in a neat, folded pile near the gateway to the mountain. Perhaps the crew had waited for me, and in my conversations and dallying, had grown weary of the wait. A few t-shirts were missing, and maybe a pair of socks or two, but I didn’t care — there are plenty of shirts and socks in the world, after all, and after everything I had been given that night, it seemed, quite literally, the least I could offer…

I cried when they would not take off their shoes, until I met a man who pretended to... oh, nevermind

 

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A new series! Check it out, I’m like Anthony Bourdain, but much less qualified, respected and successful…

the basics: ten fingers, toes and chilies for each plate

Spicy, strong flavors, lots of carbs, and clearly inspired from Tamil (Southern Indian) food, I love the food in Sri Lanka. Curries, masalas, ground coconut, chilies and saffron make up for rich, intense tastes, and when it’s good, it’s really good. Though not nearly as diverse as the options in India, the following are the basic and most easily found dishes. Everything is eaten with your right hand, and even soups are generally served in cups. Most restaurants have spoons on request, but going local is preferable, and not just for the experience: some foods simply have to be eaten by hand anyway, and I’ll never forget the first time I was told (this mantra was repeated to me by many), of rice and curry, that “There is no point in eating this food with a spoon. You will not get the flavors.” I know that sounds ludicrous, but I found it to be true. Part of it is that you cannot mix the food in the same way. It’s common to have several curries and veggies served separately, and the mixing of them not only makes every bite just a bit different, but getting the proper consistency requires you to thoroughly mix the rice with the curry, completely covering and spicing every single grain. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you eat one plate with a spoon and another with five fingers, the difference becomes obvious.

The other part of it is even harder to really explain. Obviously, there are tons of foods eaten exclusively by hand in all cultures and countries (except by Donald Trump, but he’s more of a robot anyway), but in many countries, everything is eaten by hand, and eating a food (particularly one as seemingly unweildy as rice and curry) with your hands connects you to it in a way, makes you focus, makes you more mindful of what’s going into your mouth. It’s true: I found the food simply tasted better, and that line, “There is no point eating this food with a spoon” echoed with each meal… I think Bourdain was really on to something when he wrote that food tastes better with bare feet. I’ve preached this mantra plenty over the years, and maybe this is just the natural extension of that. By my second week here, I was eating every meal with bare hands and bare feet. I highly recommend trying this, no matter where you are and what you’re chewing…

Rice and Curry

Truly the national dish, though obviously no nation can truly lay claim to it. It sounds like a simple meal, but generally “Rice and Curry” can be construed as “Rice and four to six different curries”, sometimes served as sides, sometimes served in a neatly striped pile, and often self-serve. Out of perhaps 50 or so meals of Rice and Curry, I can confidently say that no two are ever alike, and that is the broadness of the whole meal: obviously there are veg and non-veg curries, stewed options, steamed veggies, fried bits and more, and there are really endless possibilities… here are some visuals to chew on…

YUM

clockwise from left: a big ol' red chili, red rice (on the whole plate.. duh), stewed green beans with chili, fried roti (sort of like tortilla chips), lentil dhal, steamed spinach, and pan-fried jackfruit. all veg, all delicious

left to right: beef curry, a sort of broiled chicken, rice, stewed root veggies, dhal. the little dish on the bottom was this lovely yogurt/onion/chili chutney

this stuff was INSANE. see all them little seeds? yup, they totally work...

this is what Al looks like after eating it. seriously, this stuff was HOT

clockwise: lentil Dhal, potato curry, curried chicken

I totally ate the cheeks out of this little guy. the fish, that is, not the nice Belgian fellow holding it...

Dhosa/Paper Dhosa/Masala Dhosa

These are… just awesome. Basically the dhosa itself is a crepe-like bread, always made fresh (if it’s worth a damn). You can purchase the batter by the bag/bucket in stores, but again, if it’s worth a notion, it will be home-made. Here again is a food you can eat hundreds of times and always have a different meal: the batters are sometimes a bit sour, sometimes just a little sweet, but always different. My favorites have a strongly fermented, sourdough taste to them, and in Kandy, after trying three or four shops, I stuck to the one guy. Plain dhosa is just like it sounds: a huge freakin’ dollop of fresh batter, with nothing on it. Paper dhosa is also pretty self-explanatory: like a dhosa, but thinner and more crumbly (think pan pizza vs thin crust). These are generally more expensive than their bigger kin, as it’s simply harder to make it thin without burning it, making itmore labor intensive. Masala dhosa is a plain dhosa with spiced chunks of potato (and sometimes other veggies) mixed inside. All of these are eaten with Dhal, Chutneys and Curries, none of which you technically pay for (in shops, guys just walk around with cute little 4-leaf-clover buckets full of them). A good plain dhosa will generally set you back about 60 rupees (about $.60), and I don’t think I ever paid more than 130 rupees for a Masala dhosa, which makes them nice, cheap, fast and tasty. I have eaten four in one sitting (well, standing – that was a street vendor, where they’re typically about 16 rupees each instead of 60) to the great pleasure and amusement of the vendor: one is usually filling.

plain ol' dhosa

This is the standard option. The little bucket-looking thing is loaded with dhal, potato curry and a spicy chutney...

this man is my homeboy

I called him J, because I couldn't pronounce his name -- you can find him here seven days a week

heavy!

curries and such are made off-site, delivered by tuk-tuk, piping hot. here J and company load in fresh dhal

String Hoppers

Imagine the same basic principle of the Dhosa or Rice and Curry (carbs+curries=awesome) but replace the carbs with patties of rice noodles, then serve it next to only mild curries (like Dhal), and Sambal, which is ground coconut with chili and other spices. If you like noodles, your mouth should be watering at this point. Generally treated as breakfast food, this is something I’d never seen before (although I’ve now had the same thing in India, as a form of idly), and it was really, really hard to not gorge myself on this every day. The great thing about hoppers is that you pretty much have to eat them with your hands; you simply can’t do it otherwise. First, take a paddy, some dhal, and some sambal, and then just mince it together with your fingers, mixing in the curry to make it the right consistency. Then work it into a ball with your thumb and all your fingers (it’s easier to do this with hoppers than it is with rice, as the noodles sort of congeal with the curry), pinch it, slide your thumb across to shove the ball into your mouth, and savor that awesome flavor. Crazy whackos like me can add more chili paste, but be prepared: even the locals will look at you funny for doing this, as it is breakfast, after all, and is considered more “temperate” food. I made the diagram of eating food with five fingers with hoppers instead of rice because the pictures are prettier:

left to right: dhal, hoppers, sambal

fig A: the cleanest your hand and plate will ever be

fig B: mince it all up

fig C: smash it all together. use all four fingers for this part.

fig D: the thumb is used like a spoon (really, more like a shovel) to sweep the food into your awaiting gullet. your fingers should not enter your mouth while eating...

fig E: repeat until this is what you see

perhaps the most crucial step: remove shoes beforehand

Along the path, I met a lot of other travelers who never once tried these. If you go, do not follow their example, particularly if you are a noodle geek like me…

Roti: a versitle bit of dough

Roti is perhaps the most common, and diverse, eats on the go. Plain roti is very similar to a tortilla, much thicker than dhosa but generally smaller. It’s made from a dough rather than batter, less like a crepe and more like leavened bread, just a bit thicker than nan . Sometimes it’s served with dahl, or some other curry, sometimes just chili paste, sometimes dry, in a stack (it’s rarely made fresh in front of you). Fancy-pants roti is generally a much bigger piece, folded over with fillings such as veggies, cheese, meat and curry — except for the fact that it’s square instead of rolled, it’s very similar to a burrito, really. Generally, a veggie option will set you back 70-100 rupees, with meat varieties being about twice as much. New Muslim Hotel in Kandy is particularly renowned for their rotis, and here is their steak option:

mmmmm

cut with spoons, eat with hands, repeat

which is perhaps not the prettiest picture (at this restaurant, the roti was cut up in front of me with two spoons, which was so amusing that I chose not to argue for the sake of cleanly framed photographs) but should get the point across. That particular one is steak, onions, spinach, tomato, and a light sauce. I wasn’t very hungry when I came in, but ate two of these. The spoons seemed a tad dull by the second… I considered saying something but held my tongue.

British Food

It has to be said: relatively British fare is widely available in the cities, mostly ending up as bar food in pubs and such. Fried is the key word here, and it is generally over-salted, like most bar food, to make you drink more. Still, at some places, it’s really quite delicious: at the Royal Pub in Kandy, the batter is very light, with just a bit of chilli, and some citrus highlights. They do local mushrooms there that are, in a word, amazing. I ate them nearly every day. Their other mildly addictive dish isn’t even on the menu; David called them “saltfish” (as a Brit, I figured he’d know) but these are not salt-preserved fish, but rather small fish that are battered and fried whole (apparently very common in pubs in Britain). These plates were relatively expensive (the mushrooms were about 380 rupees a plate, enough for four or five dhosas) but the beer at this fine establishment is drought, fresh, and only 120 rupees a pint (oddly, not an imperial pint) so it sort of balances out.

left to right: salty mushrooms, beer, salty fish, empty beer, salty mushrooms

Honorable Mention: king coconuts

Obviously not a particularly “national” food, I have to mention them anyway. For starters, they’re quite delicious, and the coconut water within is as fresh as you’ll get, nearly bursting from the thing as the knife strikes the surface. Secondly, this is a very good thing to drink on 36c days that are spent in the sun, as coconut water is loaded with electrolytes and sugary goodness, rehydrating you quickly. I drink and eat at least one of these a day, sometimes three or four. I think even more than that, though, I like that they are almost exclusively sold by bicycle, often by people who have almost nothing, as all you need to get into business is a bike, a blade, and access to king coconuts, which are no rare thing in Sri Lanka.

poker face

You also get a built-in chance to talk to each vendor for a few minutes, because if you stick around, when the water is gone, they’ll chop the thing into halves, chip of a piece of coconut for you to use as a spoon (a sanitary, biodegradable spoon) and you get to gorge out the fruit. These conversations are fun, when you can have them (many vendors speak very little english) and a pretty transparent window to the lower class here. I met one man (his name sounded like ‘At-heed-a’) who lived in a one room shack with his wife and two children. His wife washed clothes for money on the riverbank across from their home, about a kilometer from his regular coconut spot, across from a temple in a quiet neighborhood with little foot traffic. Both children were in school. His cache of goods were mostly stored at home, and when he ran out of coconuts, he simply went into the jungle to get more (which sometimes involves serious climbing) or he could buy them from another man who sold them out of his tuk-tuk for perhaps 1/3 of retail. He seemed pretty happy, and certainly well fed. Sometimes, though, the vendors’ stories were different…

ego trippin’: a tale of two coconuts

A few weeks ago, while in Puducherry (very much not in Sri Lanka), I met one pair of ladies who worked on the same corner, but not together. My buddy Henry had designated one as his coconut mama and frequented only her, as I had done to Atheeda and many other food vendors. After the second time I went there, I wondered about them a bit more.

“It’s weird that they’re on the same corner… you think those two get along?”, I asked while we were walking away.
“Hmm? Oh, I don’t think so… they don’t speak to each other.”
“Wait… like, you haven’t seen them talk to each other, or you asked and she told you that?”
“No, I asked. I thought it was interesting that they worked the same corner but clearly weren’t working together, so I asked… anyway, she told me they used to speak – I think they even worked together, as partners – but yeah, they don’t anymore. I asked her how long ago that was and she just said ‘years’.”

I considered the implications of this. They were both probably in their late forties or early fifties… Wow! This was… very interesting. They work next to each other for 12+ hours a day and won’t speak.

“Actually,” he went on, “one day I didn’t have enough change to pay here, and she said ‘tomorrow’, and when I went back the next day, she wasn’t there. I asked the other lady if she would give her the 15 rupees for me, but she just shook her head and said ‘later’. So I went back later and paid her.”
“So… let’s get this straight… they won’t talk to each other, even enough to exchange 15 rupees… but she didn’t just take your money and keep it. That would mean that not only is she honest, she may be spite-less as well, maybe even traces of some honor or good intention mixed in there…”
“Yeah, I thought about that too.”
“And why doesn’t one just move? Even, like, across the street? Is it like a turf thing? Or just pride? I wonder what happened to male them stop speaking…”
“Yeah, it’s weird, I think they generally only work one the same days, too; I walked by the other day and neither of them were there…”

We never found out. I think about them sometimes. I’ve decided it’s all pretty hip-hop, actually, refusing to leave your corner after splitting shop with your partner. A corner beef. With coconuts.

another long hiatus

I left Japan exactly seven days before the earthquake back in March. This was not my first close call… I was in Kunming two years ago at the exact time the Yushu earthquake hit. That killed about 2,700 people and left the province in shambles. In Japan, it was much, much worse: a six-minute magnitude 9.0 quake followed by a 133 foot high tsunami that can reach 6 miles inland is a seriously deadly event, and the results were tragic, nearly 16,000 dead and something like 3,300 missing, with ongoing nuclear meltdowns at three reactors. The earth has actually shifted on it’s axis, shortening our days by about 1.8ms. This is not a small event; while the death toll in Japan wasn’t nearly as high as in Haiti or during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it was very, very serious.

The pieces I had already written about Japan seemed meek and pithy in the light of the earthquake, and I decided not to post them (I’m sure they’ll find their way to these pages eventually). Some of the stories and photos that emerged were heart-breaking. Some were downright amazing. All of them were much more visceral, and real, than anything I write…  “What Luck!” was the common response, but I found myself wishing I’d still been there when it happened. And then I felt evil for wanting to be closer to that visceral reality.

I became very unhappy with my writing. I’ve talked with many artists and writers about this since that time, and the general consensus seems that self-criticism is the hardest there is; the need to improve and the disappointment we find in ourselves is sometimes the greatest motivator, and sometimes just a deterrent… one of my best friends, an amazingly talented artist who is also a harsh self-critic (though he would never describe himself that way), hit the nail on the head: I just didn’t want to write anymore. So I stopped.

This was, admittedly, very easy to do… self-criticism was one thing, but the speed of life is a helluva force. Months slid off the calendar, my hair full of brake dust and CV grease, nails black from pimping my hands out to those in need of good hands, legs sore from riding trails every chance I got, belly full of local food and beer that I have the pleasure of buying from the hands that grow and brew it, ears full of good music from hands that are attune to the feel of vinyl, eyes full of history books and newspapers and crossword puzzels, pockets filling with money that I’m lucky enough to earn by working, or what passes for work these days (you know you have the right profession when you feel like it’s what you’d be doing anyway), and while my brain is still often ill at ease, I must admit: I enjoy a damn fine life…

But I am lucky. Well, that’s not strictly true… I am lucky by 2002 standards. By 2012 standards, I am miraculously, incredibly, undeniably blessed. In the years following my loss of academic momentum, many of my friends graduated from higher learning, nearly all of them to debt, perhaps only half of them to jobs. This is a very, very raw deal, especially as tuition costs continue to skyrocket year after year (one wonders what would have happened if our Occupy movements looked like what they do in France when tuition gets hiked), and while they were earning their educatiion, my own disolusion to college meandered me through a different path: a young business where I was able to grow into a very profitable sales gig, through which I was able to save a good deal of money (dumb luck/slight dicipline), the savings from which led to business ownership (a true education), the continuation of my trade (reliable and/or fun), and, amazingly, traveling (awesome). The irony is not lost on me that, to date, you cannot turn a wrench through a phone line, but you can write a computer program, or process a mortgage, or animate a film, or engineer complicated machinery, and probably a whole load of other jobs that are soon to disappear in our country… jobs for the educated. “For those with higher learning.”

I am, of course, not knocking higher education at all, and I look forward to reigniting my own academic momentum, but I am making a point: millions of people in my generation are in debt, without work in their field, and they are very, very pissed off about it. In a country where half the population is earning less than $42k/year , I am in the 24th percentile, earning under $20k/year, and the major reason I am able to enjoy the life I have at this wage is partially due to dilligent savings and frugal living, but mainly because I have always remained debt-free. I enjoy the liberty of financial independence, and for that I am, again, lucky as all hell…

It’s been a hell of a year; Year of the White Rabbit, or perhaps the Year of the Lifeboat. In America, while we all still holding out for some Hope and maybe even a little Change, Obama, his financial cabinet, and the rest of congress is hard at work mailing our house keys to the bankers and passing laws directly abusing the language of the constitution. The Occupy movement was pretty fun to watch, and it felt as if there was good, peaceful momentum, until the hired thugs went in, city by city, under cover of night, tearing down tents and macing old ladies (one wonders how much pepper spray the NYPD can buy with that $4.6mil from JPMC). And of course, in Wisconsin, what started as a public union battle has become a full-scale fight to keep the “fiscal conservatives” from selling our teeth out of our jaws, rife with liesmoney and hipocrisy. Oh, and lest we forget, corporations are people with the abillity to throw limitless amounts of money at prospective public servants, and even Obama, who spoke of this as “a threat to our democracy” has now, of course, kneeled in front of the money (if you haven’t yet signed Bernie Sanders’ petition for a constitutional amendment reversing this travesty, you can do so here). Everything seems, in a word, broken, and it seems we’ve forgotten how to run a government with public opinion, without the millions of lobbying and ad-time. The idea in America that everything should turn a profit, and that that profit is tantamount to volume of speech, is choking us to death. I love my country. I don’t want to see it whither and spoil like this.

I sit, writing this, in the hillsides of Sri Lanka, a country with similar problems and contradictions to our own. A nation that is 70% Buddhist, but that has the death penalty. A country that has spent 30 years in civil war over class and religion, with obvious, transparent class struggles still in place. Still, a place of relative financial independance. Well over half of all Sri Lankans own their own home (I assume this number includes family estate), and the cost of land ownership remains reasonable. 20% of the labor force is unionized, and the unemployment rate hovers around 4%-5%. 23% of Sri Lankans are at or below the poverty line, just a few percent higher than in the US (what does this tell you?). Source for these numbers: CIA Factbook

My life is filled with contradiction wherever I go; yesterday, I washed my laundry in a tin vat, squatting in the dirt with the sun on my back, listening to Jay-Z sing about how there is no limit on his Black Card.  (No Limit is also a brand of rice here in Sri Lanka, which makes me wonder if Percy P has asked for royalties yet). A public bus that will take you 100km costs about a dollar, which is the same cost as the 2km tuk-tuk ride to get you to the bus station. Most of the tuk-tuks here have wonderful slogans written on them, like “your jealous my prospects” or “get rich or die trying” or “margin of safety” (occasionally I see “peace begins with smile” and yesterday I spotted “I like to Sri Lanka”, both of which I wholeheartedly agree with). All sorts of things flood my head at all times, and picking the meat off the bones is sometimes hard. The garbage trucks in Ulan Baatar, one of the most isolated cities on earth, play ice cream truck muzak. There is a law against wearing your pajamas in public in Shanghai, which does not stop thousands of grown men from doing so each day. South Koreans, in conversation, will tell you straightaway that they distrust the Japanese more than they do the North Koreans. Japan is one of the world’s largest welfare-states, and their population is on track to decline by about 30% by 2060. What does this all have in common? Not much, besides that it’s all fascinating to me, regardless of my frame of reference for it…

I started writing these stories because they were my favorite to read. I never liked reading travel writing that sounds as if the person is explaining their slide-show; “then I went here, then I saw this…”. No, I liked the ones that were short, and true, and amusing, and stranger than fiction sometimes. One-Night-Stories, I liked to call them, though my friends have come up with much better labels, my favorite being “Puke Journalism” (I will admit, the visual one gets of literally barfing text onto a blank sheet of paper is pretty damn close to how I write anyway) . Perhaps this moniker is too true… I sometimes feel like I write the same story over and over, or that the writing itself is, at best, too personal, and at worst, downright self-indulgent. Beer seems to come up every twelve seconds or so, which makes me look like some twenty-something lush-about-town, which is maybe not so far from the truth, though a bit closer than I’d like it to be… or look, anyway.

I aim to change this. I want to take writing less seriously, and at the same time, more seriously… I want to write different tales, more thoughtful stories, pieces with some damn heart to them. Oh, there will still be beer involved, I’m sure, but I want more out of myself. I am lucky enough to be able to travel, and to be literate, and to have people who seem to like reading my rantings, however vile and repetitous, and goddamnit I’m gonna write stuff that people want to read, that people want to share. I’m standing on a bridge, breathing diesel smoke and feeling grit on every square inch of my body, whispering to no one in particular, “damn… I wanna write again…”

disclaimer

I should probably mention that a good portion of this was written just after I took my first warm shower in three weeks (warm showers are a serious luxury here, as in many parts of the world), a shower that left me feeling quite amazing, and the word ‘lucky’ appears something like a dozen times in this transmission, and that is probably no coincidence… so the next time you take a shower, if you are able to go into your bathroom, and turn a knob, and have hot, clean water come out, as much of the world is not able to do, you might consider saying something like, “Hot diggity, I sure am lucky to be able to turn this knob right here, and have hot, clean water come out! Damn, I’m lucky!”

Because… you know… you are.