Asia, Travel

About a week ago, I came back from traveling in Sri Lanka with Layth. This was our second trip there – we went two years ago for a friend’s wedding – and I guess we liked it so much we decided to go back. We also just needed some beach time, tickets were reasonable, visas are easy, and it’s not that far from Jordan, compared to flying to Thailand or somewhere.

But – have you ever gone on vacation and gotten stressed because there’s nothing to do? I think we were both in that position – we were both anxiously thinking about upcoming job interviews, and I’d been working on a paper for school down to the wire (see below), needed to make revisions and just couldn’t work on it without a computer. So instead I spent a lot of time reading what turned out to be a very stressful Japanese novel, before I gave up on that.

Me, trying to finish a paper in the Amman airport using my phone, Google Docs, and a bluetooth keyboard. I’m clearly awesome at academia.

Anyway – last time in Sri Lanka, we started with a few days in Colombo, took the train to Kandy, then went on to tea country in Nuwara Eliya, then had some harrowing bus rides down south to Matara and finished in Galle. This time, we opted to stay close to the southern beaches – from Colombo we immediately hopped on a bus to Galle, where we stayed the night in this super pretty art deco-themed hotel inside the old fort.

Galle

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Asia, Packing Lists, Travel

So, it’s been a while, and I’m not very good at blogging unless momentous life changes are taking place, or if travel is on the horizon – and both are true at the moment.

More on the life events later, but in less than three weeks me, Layth, and our friend Mohammed will be off to Malaysia for 10 days of city sightseeing, jungle trekking, beach time, and eating all the food. And we’ll all be coming in from different places: Amman, Riyadh, and Singapore.

So naturally, my backpack is nearly ready to go already – but this isn’t totally ridiculous given the amount of shooting and editing work I have to wrap up before I jet off and leave my laptop at home. And actually, since we did make our plans a bit last minute, we just barely made the cutoff to sign up for our trekking tour.

Ta da! The lightest I have ever packed – I get to automatically shed 20 pounds just by not carrying my computer and camera gear. I also have an awesome, giant purple Osprey Aura 65L pack, but I think I am gonna go with my smaller 40L backpack from REI. This one is solidly carry-on size, will keep me from bringing too much there, and will be easier to lug around for the hiking portions.

The list:

Windbreaker jacket (will wear on the plane)
Black cardigan (for cooler weather in the highlands/ covering up for mosques and temples)
2 pair cotton pants
1 pair Columbia pants for hiking (quick dry)
1 black knee-length dress (might wear with leggings)
1 pair cotton shorts
1 pair athletic shorts (not pictured; for sleeping and/or getting wet)
2 cotton t-shirts
1 athletic shirt (quick dry)
2 tank tops
1 scarf (for covering up in mosques and temples)
1 swimsuit (not pictured)
1 Turkish hamam towel (Layth decidedly does not believe in towels, so I’m not packing one for him)
1 REI quick dry travel towel
2 Buffs (one for me, one for Layth)
1 headlamp
Bandages & basic first aid supplies
Glasses & Sunglasses (don’t want to deal with the extra liquid involved in carrying contact solution, keeping them sanitary, etc)
Umbrella (not pictured, stowed in the water bottle holder of the backpack)
4 pair socks
underthings
1 pair Merrell Tough Mudder trail running shoes (for hiking and such)
1 pair Crocs sandals (surprisingly comfy and lightweight – may look around for other sandals in KL)
Kindle Paperwhite
Fujifilm X20 camera + charger and extra battery
Small crossbody purse
Toiletries bag
Canvas tote – extra space for souvenirs on the way home (yay Trader Joe’s)

Even looking at this now, there are more odds and ends I need to bring, which might push the bag to the limit, or force me to ditch a pair of pants or the cardigan or something. Then there’s all the toiletries (planning to pick up shampoo and soap there), migraine medicine, Cipro and water purifying tablets just in case…

But considering at any given time I’ll be wearing one of these pairs of pants, a shirt, and shoes, I think this’ll be ok.

So. Excited.

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Sometime last year my friend Kathleen invited me to her and Niluk’s wedding. I didn’t think we’d both be able to make it to San Diego this spring, but as Niluk’s family hails from Sri Lanka, and Layth had wanted to visit Sri Lanka for a long time, this was the perfect excuse for us to hop on a plane and go have an island vacation.

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It also happened to be Layth’s birthday while we were there, and since we won’t be traveling anywhere right away after our wedding party in July, it was kind of a birthday trip/honeymoon/much-needed vacation all in one.

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We spent our first three nights in Colombo in a little hotel called Lake Lodge, which I chose for its price, its proximity to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel (where the wedding would be) and for the fact that I wanted us to have a few days in a nice hotel before we started shlepping it across the country on un-air conditioned trains and buses with our backpacks.

And as you can see, the hotel was perfect. We were greeted with cold face towels and lime, ginger and mint popsicles. Breakfast was delicious and served by staff who seemed to radiate pure happiness. The place is tucked away down a quiet street, with fish ponds that come alive with frogs at night, and several seating areas. Only a swimming pool would have made it better.

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We were close to this little lake, which was home to birds like this (this photo is by Layth, I didn’t want to get so close to this guy), and were also near Gangaramaya Temple, which was a very relaxing, yet kind of hodgepodge Buddhist temple. There were of course many statues of the Buddha, flowers and incense for prayers, but there were also a few rooms of antique collections – old photos, plates, bowls, watches, religious figurines – along with this life-sized elephant head statue.

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If you’re traveling to Sri Lanka, especially on a short trip, I’d highly recommend looking up a calendar of their holidays beforehand – including the lunar phases. We happened to arrive on the Sinhala and Tamil new year, and while we were driving into the city, marveling at the lack of traffic, once we arrived in town it hit us that nearly every shop and restaurant was closed. The next day, some of the more touristy shops re-opened, and big shopping centers were open, but we still couldn’t visit a lot of shops or markets we’d read about.

And then, just when we thought the holiday was over, a full moon happened, bringing the country to a halt again. I think many of the restaurants we went to were owned by Muslims, since – perhaps with the exception of a couple hours for Friday prayers – they stay open the most. As one Muslim business owner there told us (in slight exaggeration), “Buddhists – they’re on their own path, they don’t want to bother anyone. But how can they be successful businessmen when they go to bed at five?”

Also, before we left I’d read somewhere that if you wanted to eat Sri Lankan food at a restaurant, you’d have to order it the night before. Someone else told me not to worry about it, but it ended up being kind of true. It’s something that still sort of baffles me – I know all food needs time to prepare – but usually when you travel, local fare is what they have on hand, ready to go. But if you want Sri Lankan breakfast, you have to order the night before. If you want Sri Lankan dinner, find a halal restaurant (aka “Muslim Hotel,” a local quirk of calling restaurants hotels). 

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But then we had a pre-wedding dinner to go to, where we got to meet some of Niluk’s family, and where we did finally sample some Sri Lankan cuisine. And then the next night was the wedding.

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The wedding ceremony was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Traditional dancers sang with drums and bells, even did backflips at one point. Then there was a complex ceremony of the bride and groom’s family being presented to one another, gift exchanges, prayers.

Kathleen and Niluk started dating about 5 ½ years ago, weeks before she and I found ourselves in the same study abroad program in Jordan, learning Arabic. We learned to cope with some of the challenges of living abroad, and we eventually became roommates and worked in similar fields (she in film, I in media/publishing). Most everyone in that group (myself included) went through breakups while studying abroad, but these two became closer even with all the time spent apart. And so being there with Layth, who I met around the same time, although we didn’t start dating until much later (and then had our own very long-distance time), just made it all the more special to see them get married in Sri Lanka. 

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We also spent a lot of time looking around for cute tea houses like this one. I had what might have been the most amazing iced tea of my life here, iced Earl Grey with honey.

Also, I don’t know what couple goes on a honeymoon and basically comes back with groceries, but that’s what we did. I stocked up on coconut oil – that bottle was about $2, but a smaller jar of it would cost about $14 in Amman – various kinds of coffee, tea, spices, chutney, fresh vanilla, etc. And we got some nice textiles and other decor for the house, but more on that later. 

Next time: central Sri Lanka – Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.