Blogging From All Over The World

Thursday, April 27, 2006


You've seen the photos of my apartment at Global Towers, now its time to meet the inhabitants of this place.

Rajitha, our fearless leader on this ADP project, hails originally from right here in Colombo, Sri Lanka by way of Brisbanne and now London. She spent up through her teenage years in Sri Lanka before her family moved to Austrailia where she finished school and college and joined Accenture. After a few years working down under, Rajitha headed for cloudier pastures in London where she now resides. Rajitha has been a lifesaver time and time again here, doing everything from driving me around to negotiating with touk-touk drivers over 50 rupees. Though Rajitha laughs at pretty much everything I say and do (for example learning to tie a Windsor knot from a web page or asking questions to waiters in Sinhalese), she herself provides comic relief to the rest of us with her classic British vocabulary. I mean, she actually seriously used the word "fortnight" in a conference call the other day.

The third joiner of our magnificent trio (or three stooges) is our left coast friend Renuka, who makes her home on airplanes and in hotel rooms, but lists Los Angeles as her hometown. This California girl loves flying so much, in fact, that her itinerary on the way over here included stops in five, count 'em FIVE, cities in five different countries all on one trip (LA->Taipei->Kuala Lumpur->Singapore->Colombo). Renuka enjoys...well so far all I've seen is her working...but I'm sure she enjoys other stuff too. Don't be fooled by Renuka's diminutive stature and youthful glow like our colleague Phyllis, who asked whether she pulled a LeBron and skipped college to go straight into the workforce. Renuka enjoys watching people take long walks on the beach from her balcony, curry and rice (wait till she realizes what she's in for), and has been know to party down with the best of them in everyone's favorite D.C. nightclub - DREAM!

The Hill Country

After an absolutely fantastic night of sleep, we struggled to get up and out of bed early Sunday morning. Vacations are not really that relaxing considering how much you want to get done in the limited vacation time. After another great breakfast that included waffles, coconut juice and chocolate crossiants, we piled into Harry's car and headed off to Nuwara Eliya. Unlike Saturday, there weren't any major attractions planned for Sunday since the experience of Nuwara Eliya comes in driving through the mountains and taking in the sights and feel. This area of Sri Lanka, squarely in the central part of the country, is known for its cool climate perfect for growing tea and other plants. The region is full of tea plantations and roadside stands selling fresh fruit and vegetable. I was delighted to find out that avacados, or butterfruit, is a major crop in Sri Lanka. The windy road through the mountains offers great views and several stopping points at natural waterfalls carved out over the years. In fact, the entire journey through Nuwara Eliya was really about the scenery, and so we stopped at random points throughout the way. Our first main stop was the Glenloch tea plantation. There we got a chance to tour the tea production facilities and learn about the process and different types of tea. We also sampled some freshly produced tea which was very satisfying.

After the tea plantation we headed for the main town center of Nuwara Eliya, though along the way we stopped at some waterfalls and overlooks for photos. The road is really winding and at times seems a bit dangerous, especially with all the overtaking that the drivers along the road do. It was actually amusing seeing Harry get annoyed at touk-touks and slow cars in front of us. But we made it to Nurwara Eliya around noon, and spent a little time walking around the city. Since it was the new year, lots of Sri Lankan twentysomethings were in N.E. partying and hanging around, and we saw our fair share of creepy dudes starting at Nima as we were walking around town. There wasn't much to see in the town, but we did stumble across an authentic open-air market that didn't have any tourists, and it was nice for a change to see that we weren't being hassled by the shopkeepers because they weren't interested in tourists.

By early afternoon we decided to just head back to Colombo, because Nima's flight was that night and we wanted to have time for a decent dinner before she left. The ride back took really long because the rains started and driving became difficult. Harry did a great job getting us back around 6:00pm, and we were able to get a reservation for dinner at Beach Wadiya, the world famous seafood restaurant right across the street from my hotel. The food was so good, it wouldn't be right if Beach Wadiya didn't have its own blog entry.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Busy Day at the Rock

Friday morning started quite well despite a less than desirable night of sleep. We had a nice, filling breakfast at the Earl's breakfast buffet, highlighted by a selection of fresh juices including mango, pineapple, woodapple, coconut, papaya, orange, and mixed fruit. I can say one thing for certain, the Asian hotels know how to do breakfast buffets. We set off very early as our main goal for the day was to head a couple hours north to Sigiriya to hike up Sigiriya Rock.

NOTE: I just realized I had my story all out of order. We actually did Dambulla the same day as Sigiriya since the Cave Temples were on the way. I guess Friday was pretty much spent driving to Kandy.

We got to Sirigiya right around 11:00am, not quite in the middle of the blazing heat, but it was definitely warming up. As with most attractions in Asia, tourists pay more than locals for admission, but at Sirigiya it was a bit out of control. The local entrance fee is 20rs, while the tourist fee is 2040rs. Seems pretty steep, but Harry explained to us that Sirigiya is maintained by a U.S. non-profit and they have a seemingly good record about putting the money to use. Also we agreed that Sri Lankans should be able to afford a visit to their own attractions.

Sirigiya Rock - the "8th wonder of the world" as some like to call it - is simply a huge rock among the mountains of Sri Lanka. It was used as a castle by King Kasyapa in the 5th century AD, who built a wall and moat around the perimeter and gardens along the base. At the top was the throne, offering magnicifent views of the country for miles all around. There was even a man-made lake at the top that looks very much like a swimming pool, and it is wondered how they managed to fill such a lake without pumps (most likely manual labor, slaves were free). On the way up there's remnants of a collosal carving of a lion in the side of the rock with its paws still in tact, which provides for a good midway rest point.

The hike takes about 2 hours up, and parts of it were quite congested. Sri Lankans of all shapes, ages, and sizes come to Sirigiya as its one of the best attractions in all of Sri Lanka. Nima and I climbed at a steady pace, stopping for plenty of water breaks and to take in the views. We spent about 45 minutes at the top, taking lots of goofy pictures and just relaxing at the summit. On the way down we moved quick so at to not get stuck behind large family groups. There were some steep parts of the climb, and portions of the stairs were wide enough for maybe one foot. Overall though the climb is very safe and plenty of people are around.

After the climb we were starving so we headed to a nearby hotel for a lunch buffet, which was surprisingly good. The hotel, Sirigiya Village Hotel, was a collection of bungalows and appeared to be a tranquil, peaceful hotel with a fantastic view of the rock. If I were to come here again I would stay at this place.

We started the journey back to Kandy after lunch and still had a couple more things to do along the way. Harry took us to a spice plantation, something I'd done last year in Kerala but Nima's never done. This stop was clearly a scam as the "guide" kept telling us he'd give us an Indian Brother special on herbal oils and medicine. I did discover though that Nima is a natural botanist, as she was able to identify an impressive number of plants just by smell. They offered to give us some strange massage with herbal oils, but we quickly passed on it and got out of there before enduring more mosquito bites than we already had.

We finally got back to Kandy around 4pm, just in time for the Temple of the Tooth. It is said that a tooth relic from the Buddha is housed in this temple, and that the tooth has been used in the past to perform miracles such as bring rain to a drought-stricken Sri Lanka. The tooth is housed in a secure case behind the main Buddha statue, and monks bring it out a certain times during the day and month for religious reasons. The temple also has a museum with some interesting artifacts and a pictoral explanation of the history of the Buddha. Sadly, in 1999 a terrorist attack on the temple severely damaged the enterance, and the museum contains a wall full of photos documenting the damage and rebuilding of the temple. Nima and I were foolish to leave out shoes outside the temple without cover, and were caught when a monsoon shower came as we were in the museum. We hurried outside to rescue the shoes and in the process got completely soaked since we didn't bring an umbrella. Harry hurried us back to the hotel for cover.

Back at Earl's, the hotel manager informed me that he was sorry for our subpar stay last night and that we were upgraded to an executive suite with a river view for the night. SWEET! The sweet was roomy, clean, and had nice big blankets on the bed. That made my day because I was previously in a sour mood regarding the hotel. Harry, I believe, also had something to do with the upgrade since he knows people at Earl's, proving the value of a good driver.

We decided to take it easy for the night, ordering room service (dinner for two, $15) and getting a good night's rest before a big day in Nuwara Eliya.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Kandy Man

Last weekend was the Sinhalese and Tamil new year in Sri Lanka, meaning a long weekend for all to enjoy. Nima came over from Singapore to spend the weekend with me exploring the paradise island. It was my first chance to get out of Colombo, and everyone here tells me that the beauty of Sri Lanka really does lie outside of the capital. With that in mind, Nima and I headed off for a weekend journey through the lush, beautiful central region of the island. I will have several entries from the weekend trip, but this one starts off with Friday's journey to Kandy.

We started off at 10:00 Friday morning with our fearless driver/guide Harry and his Toyota Corolla. Our plan was to end the day in Kandy while hitting some key spots along the way. While Colombo is scorching hot at this time of year, the central region of the country is a perfect comfortable temperature, great for visiting in April. Traveling by road also allows us to see the countryside and pick up tidbits about Sri Lankan culture along the way.

The first stop we had was the roadside pineapple stands en route to Kandy. Best. Pineapple. Ever. We bought a fresh, juicy, ripe pineapple for 35rs - about 1/15 the price I'd pay back home. The guy even chopped the pineapple into bite-sized pieces for us and packed it to go. In addition to pineapple, Sri Lanka has amazing coconut, guava, mangoes, and even avacadoes.

Our first "real" stop was at the Pinawella Elephant Orphanage. Its the largest elephant orphanage in the world and it is particular about ensuring the site is truly for the benefit of the elephants residing. They dont do tricks, rides, shows, or any sort of labor. There are over 40 elephants there, ranging in age from 6 months to over 60 years. Three times a day they do a public feeding, which we were lucky enough to catch, followed by a trip down to the river to bathe/cool off. Nima and I easily passed over an hour watching the elephants and then having a snack at a riverside cafe during the bathing. I'll let the photos do most of the talking.

After the elephant orphanage we made our way to the Cave Temples at Dumbulla. This sight consists of 5 Buddhist temples that were built within caves on the side of a mountain. Inside are dozens of statues, carvings, and paintings of The Buddha, including impressive frescos on the ceilings. Despite the overflow of European tourists there with us, we got a good look at all the temples and had a pleasant walk up and down the mountain. Once again, the photos do the talking here.

By this time it was late afternoon and we decided to forego any other activites (shopping) and head to Kandy. My colleague Rajitha recommended Earl's Regency as a nice place to stay in Kandy, so I had my travel agent Sri book the weekend for us. The hotel is situated a short drive from the center of Kandy on a majestic mountain overlooking the river. From the reviews I read, and the price, I was expecting a 5-star experience. Unfortunately we had about a 2-star experience. The hotel only has one choice for dinner, the buffet, so if you don't want that you're stuck with mediocre room service. Since we checked in late in the evening our room was probably the worst one on premise, as we didn't have proper size sheets and there was a hole in the wall that allowed the crying baby next door to keep me awake all night. I was pretty pissed about the whole deal and planned to complain in the morning (cliffhanger blog, I know). Anyhow, we got to bed early to rest up for our big day ahead on Saturday.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thirty Cent Fire

Yesterday - Tuesday - was my first experience of a Sri Lankan holiday as it was the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. In Sri Lanka, its a public and bank holiday and many businesses are closed. I spent the better part of yesterday making plans for the upcoming New Year holiday this weekend, and in the evening I continued to explore my neighborhood by walking around Galle Road. For dinner I decided to try a random street restaurant for some good ol' south Indian food. I forgot the name of the place but it was about a block south on Galle road from my apartment, and advertised as "Pure Vegetarian" on a large board above the shop. I ordered two idlys, with sambar and other assorted side items. I was please to see that my meal cost all of 30Rs, or thirty cents. The milkshake I got from the hotel bakery was double the cost of my food, the grand total checking in at 90Rs.

I had my food packed in newspaper and plastic bags for "Take Away", and I proceeded back to the hotel to dig in. The sambar looked normal and tasty though a little reddish in color. The chutney looked just like my mom makes, which I like, and the other two items I didn't get into (one looked like dhal). I submerged a piece of my idly in the sambar and took a bite - very tasty! I could get used to this for a quick, cheap dinner. However, about 5 bites in I thought I must have bit a chili or something as my mouth was hot. I quickly downed a glass of mango juice (I already took down the shake) to cool off, and proceeded to the next idly. Again, after about 3 bites my mouth was on FIRE. It was seriously one of the hottest Indian food dishes I've ever had. I went into that masochistic mode of continuing to eat despite tears rolling down the cheeks. I managed to finish both idlys and most of the sambar, though I'm now not quite sure why. Needless to say, Sri Lankan style food is very spicy and makes for an interesting experience. For 30 cents though, I'll certainly be going back for the experience.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Choo Choo Choo

I've been way behind on the blog folks, mainly because I have limited internet access and have been quite busy settling in and trying to find a meal every night. I have a lot to write and lots of pictures (get a sneak preview at my SmugMug site) to include so sit tight...

Last Saturday was my first chance to explore Colombo since I had nothing to do all day. My goal was to attack on foot and spend the afternoon walking around, stopping by random spots to eat, and gain an understanding of key landmarks along the way.

Global Towers, my hotel/apartment, is in the Wellawatte district of Colombo - known for its high concentration of Tamils, the Savoy Cinema, and the Beach Wadiya seafood restaurant. Wellawatte rail station is also close by, just across Marine Dr. and about 100m south.

Wellawatte is situated along the coast, south of the "main" center of Colombo known as the Fort area. The attached map shows Colombo and its districts/neighborhoods. My plan was to begin the day up north by the Fort and work down back home. I was feeling adventureous so rather than taking a touk touk up north I decided to head over to the rail station and take the train. I got to the station and looked around for signs - nothing in English - so I went to the counter and asked for "Slave Island" - a stop right before the Fort. The attendant handed me a little cardboard ticket, collected 5 rupees (that's $0.05) from me and directed me to the platform where the train was scheduled to arrive in 2 minutes. On the platform I got a few stares - common in South Asia - but was a little creeped out by a guy who for 15 minutes was staring at me dead in the eye, nonstop. I looked away, moved around the platform, even made faces, but every time I looked back at him he gave me the stare. Strangely, right before the train came (20 minutes late) he rolled out and left the platform.

Anyway, the train ride was surprisingly easy. No overflowing cars or packed spaces. The track runs along the beach so the view is magnificent and a cool ocean breeze carries into the train. I didn't get a seat but had plenty of room to stand which was more than I expected. The train stopped a few times along the way at other stations, ones that weren't well marked or labelled except maybe in Sinhalese, but I managed to pick the right spot to get off because I followed a Hilton Colombo employee off the train.

I ended up getting off right by the Colombo World Trade Center, also close to the Hilton, the Galadari, and the Galle Face Inn. I first decided to check out the WTC - a set of twin towers (20 stories) built within the last 15 years. Not much going on in there on a Saturday, though I caught a glimpse of the gem & jewellery exchange, a collection of dozens of jewellery and gem shops in the WTC. Sri Lanka, known for its sapphires, thrives on the gem business.

After walking around the WTC area I decided to head to the Hilton for lunch. The Hilton is known for its restaurants but I was really in the mood for some bar food so I ended up sitting down at the Echelon Pub. I had a nice big much of "Hilton" Lager - not sure what it was really but it quenched the thirst. For lunch I had a surprisingly tasty tandoori chicken melt at the pub, something I plan on going back for at some point.

After grabbing a bite I headed down Galle Face Green for a stroll. The idea of Galle Face Green was to be a park for anyone, rich or poor, to enjoy. Unfortunately the maintainence hasn't been up to par and its now more like Galle Face Brown. Still, it was filled with kite fliers, cricketers, and a bunch of young couples under umbrellas doing things they can't do at home. As I was walking down the boardwalk by the beach a couple young boys playing cricket waved me over, so I obliged and for the first time in my life tried to play cricket. What a debacle. I swang and missed several times, even when the guy bowled the tennis ball as slow as he could. To my defense, the "bat" was little more than a 2 foot piece of plywood I was flailing. Anyhow, it was fun to goof around and play cricket with the boys, and afterwards I spent some time chatting with them over a Coke. I told them I'll be back in the next three months so watch out.

After an exciting run at cricket I kept walking down south, stopping by the Queen's Cafe for a drink of fresh mixed fruit juice. I ended up walking down Duplication Rd., which houses a good number of restaurants, bars, cafes, and higher end shops. A fellow Accenture colleague who was in Colombo last year for an ADP project, Dan, recommended a few bars and restaurants along Duplication including the Cricket Club Cafe and Bistro Latino, so I'll be sure to check them out.

I spent much of the afternoon walking down Duplication and Galle, really just taking note of places and streets. I feel like I have a good grasp now of the main street in Colombo, which should help when I'm trying to get around or negotiate touk-touk rates. As a bonus, I can also say I've taken an inner-city train in Colombo, a feat that was received with surprise and even bewilderment among my colleagues at work. Some said they haven't been on a train in 20 years. What can I say though, I'm a man of the people here in Sri Lanka.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Lunching in Sri Lanka

Here's a run down of my lunches during my first week of work in Sri Lanka:

Monday - Fries and a sandwich at the hotel, $4.
Tuesday - Curry and rice, $1.
Wednesday - Curry and rice, $1.
Thursday - Curry and rice, $1.
Friday - Curry and rice, $1.

Needless to say, the Sri Lankans specialize in curry and rice.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Coming to Sri Lanka

As I alluded to earlier in my previous post, getting to Sri Lanka couldn't have been more difficult. I know I'm verbose with my blog entries, but I think this is a story worth telling.

If you've read the blog you know that I was really supposed to be in Sri Lanka in late February (its April now). After waiting and waiting, I finally got word to book my ticket for Sunday, April 2 from Singapore.

First off, there are only three flights from Singapore to Colombo: Srilankan Airlines' flight at 3:30pm, Emirates at 10:30pm, and Singapore Air's at 10:45pm. I already had ticket for the Singapore Air flight, for which I had to cancel the original booking that was for Feb. 26. Since I was flying out on Sunday I didn't want to arrive late into the night the first day in Sri Lanka, thus I decided to try to get on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight. This meant I would also have to swing by the Singapore Airlines office at the airport to get a refund on my original ticket, because that was something on my to-do list for the 4 weeks I was in Singapore that I was too lazy to actually do. This is where things got dicey...

I checked out Srilankan Airlines' website for a booking, though the site was down at the time I checked. Looking back, that was foreshadowing of things to come. All you Accenture people, pay attention here. I went on the Horizon Travel site and searched for SIN-CMB flights, and found that the 3:30 Srilankan Airlines flight was available, but for over $500 USD one-way. I paid $650 for the fully flexible round trip Singapore Air flight, so this one, though at a more convienent time, was blowing my alloted budget. However, Horizon also showed that Emirates had a booking available at 3:30 Sunday too, for only $250 one way. I quickly booked it and thought I was set. The site indicated that the ticketing process would take up to 4 hours, so I waited patiently for an email confirming my itinerary and ticket. No luck. After a few hours I called the support line and spoke with a nice woman who checked my booking and informed me my credit card was denied. Wierd, but no problem, I have the handy, trusty Amex Blue as backup. I gave her that card number and was off to bed relieved about my ticket.

The next morning I did receive an email confirming my "pre-ticketed" itinerary. The itinerary included a note saying that 1) the flight was operated by Srilankan Airlines (I figured that out anyway) and 2) they could not ticket me electronically, so I had to go to the airport to actually pay for my "confirmed" ticket. I called Horizon and a young woman, who I pictured as the curt pregnant teenage girl in "Crash" who worked at the locksmith office because of her tone, confirmed that I indeed had to pay for the ticket at the airport. At this point I told Nima the deal and mentioned I was sketched out by this flight, but we'll see.

Sunday afternoon we left Nima's at 1:00pm sharp and headed off for my 3:30pm flight. If I haven't mentioned before, Changi International Airport is the world's most efficent airport. One of Nima's friends says she never gets to the airport for a flight more than 30 minutes in advance (and since Singapore is so small, all flights out are international!). Nima's a bit like my Dad in that she LOVES getting to the airport super early, and since Changi has plenty to do I had no problem leaving at 1.

We get to the airport and I head to the Emirates check-in counter. I tell the agent I'm heading to Colombo, and he tells me that I'm too early for check in, come back at 4. I show him my itinerary and he directs me to Srilankan Air's counter since the flight is operated by them. Ooookay, interesting. So I head to the other side of the terminal and BOOM!!! FLIGHT CANCELLED all over Srilankan's row. Debacle, right? It gets worse. I push my way through a sea of angry and confused brown people and ask the agent what's going on. She says the flight is cancelled for unknown reasons, but they're rebooking everyone on the Singapore Air flight. At this point I show her my Horizon printout and ask her where to pay for my ticket. She is clearly confused at my situation, so after consulting with a colleague she informs me I have to go to the Emirates ticket office, not the check-in counter, to pay for my ticket because it was booked by them. Once I do that she can book me on the Singapore Air flight. Hrmmmmm. Now I'm starting to get a sinking feeling about all this. Oh, and the Airline offices are upstairs, through some narrow halls, over the river, and through the woods. Nima and I take some back elevator up to what's most likely a restricted part of the airport, and after running around we find the Emirates office. The guy there takes one look at my print out and looks up at me like I'm from Mars. He's never seen anything like this. He makes a quick call, yaps something in Singlish, and comes back to me and says that I need to call my travel agent about this ticket because nothing was ever really booked.

At this point I say screw it with this flight, I'm gonna try my luck with that Singapore Air ticket I never cancelled. It is about 7 hours before the international flight I want is about to leave, and I'm just now making a booking. Can't say I've tried that stunt before. Anyhow, we head over to Terminal 2 which is basically all Singapore Air. What a difference. While T1 was all chaotic and disasters everywhere, T2 was calm, relaxed, clean, and had an air of efficency. I called ahead to get the ticketing process started, and it was fairly smooth except for the 15 minute hold time and waning cell phone minutes. But I got booked no problem and headed to the ticket office in T2 to pick up my ticket. BOOM! Just like that I was on the Singapore Air flight, and since they're Star Alliance I get miles to boot. With 7 hours to spare I check in early - and no worries about losing luggage because Singapore Air is too perfect - and head back to Nima's for a few extra hours of chill time. The best part was when Nima walked into her place with a look of sadness because I had just left, and Anji being a sweetheart and trying to console her. Right as Nima tells Anji "I wish Satyan was still here" I leap through the door with a hearty "KAPOW!" You should have seen the look on Anji's face.

I headed back to the airport around 9:00 and swiftly made it to the gate. The flight was great, had the whole row to myself and the dinner meal was probably the best I've had on an airplane (I've never flown higher than economy class so I've never had a great meal). I even got a chance to watch Fun With Dick and Jane - not a bad airplane movie. I arrived in Colombo just past midnight, and after waiting through immigration and baggage claim, I spotted my driver holding a placard that read, "Mr. Sathyan Merchant" - I was finally in Colombo.

Lessons from this escapade:
1) Never trust Horizon booking (Accenture people). What a debacle.
2) Despite flight schedules, don't pass up an opportunity to fly on Singapore Air. They're simply the best.
3) Chill places like Sri Lanka don't care about schedules. Always expect delays when traveling to such places.
4) Laziness pays off, in this case thank goodness I never got that refund.
5) Most importantly, things always work out.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Welcome to Sri Lanka

After a long, enjoyable yet frustrating delay in Singapore, I'm finally in Sri Lanka! First off, chances are I won't get much time to write long blog entries anymore since I have limited internet connectivity, but I'll do my best.

This entry will just be a few pictures I took on the street and from my apartment in Colombo. Hopefully this week I'll add some stories about how it was a struggle to get to Sri Lanka in the first place, and how its nice to have 10:00am and 4:00pm tea delivered to my cube every day.

As always, my photos will primarily be available on my SmugMug site so keep checking that.
I'm even adding captions to some pictures to describe the scene.

Photos from top to bottom:
1) Arriving at 1:15am in Colombo
2) View of the beach from my Global Towers apartment
3) Facing Galle Road from the steps of my apartment
4) View of the sunset from my apartment

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Juuuuuuuust Kidding!

Sunday, April 2 7:08am - SuperSports Asia broadcasting the Final Four. SWEEEEEET! This is awesome, I'm so happy to be watching. GO GMU!

Also noteworthy, I'll finally be leaving for Sri Lanka, this afternoon. So I'll probably need a recording of the championship game, since it will be at 8:00am Tuesday morning for me.
I'll pick up the blog once I'm in Sri Lanka, until then....