Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sri Lanka - Save A Prayer Tour

Diana and I do most of our travel 'alone'. Exceptions are times like when we traveled with her parents to the Colombian coffee area, to Cartagena, and to Rome. It's not that we avoid traveling with others, it's just never really come up. But, starting last year, we got to talking with Diana's cousin and her cousin's husband who live in Frankfurt about the four of us going somewhere together. During what seemed like forever, we went back and forth with a bunch of ideas never being able to decide.

One of the early ideas was a recommendation from our friends Lena and Toni from Sweden. While they were living in the U.A.E., they had gone and said we should go. Between discussions of going to Hawaii, Mexico, Cuba, Iran, Iceland, South Africa, and even the north of Spain (yes, we really went crazy and, I know, 'first-world problem'), we kept ending up with Sri Lanka. Finally, while on Skype one night and just weeks before our planned departure date, we pulled the trigger and booked tickets to Sri Lanka!

We would all arrive into the airport and spend one night at a beach-front hotel in nearby Negombo before setting off on an adventure to visit about half the country over the following week and a half.

Fish drying on a Negombo, Sri Lanka, beach:

And a Bollywood-style movie being shot right around sunset (the star is wearing white pants):

When Diana and I travel, we usually try to squeeze every second out of the trip. We can often be found returning home only hours before we're due somewhere. Because we were going with the Schmidts (as I'll be referring to them because of privacy wishes), this trip would be different as we'd be traveling and experiencing everything at group speed. But, the reality was that booking a "free" day at the beginning of the trip to recover from the 17 hours of flying and nearly 24 hours of traveling (more about that in a later story) ended up being an excellent idea. Being able to nap and lounge around our incredible hotel and its incredible setting was quite, well, incredible.

Sunset view from our hotel's pool. Oh, and see that 'bird' flying above the palm trees? It's actually one of probably hundreds of (giant) fruit bats that were flying around. Although they looked like something right out of Jurassic Park, they were super cool (and hard to photograph).

Like I mentioned, our plan was to explore a little less than half the country. Lena and Toni told us that getting around might be a bit slow using public transport and that they didn't recommend driving ourselves. They did recommend we hire a driver they used who they said was super nice and did a good job for them. Well, bright and early the next morning, our driver showed up and we started our adventure.

Stopping for what seems like Sri Lanka's national fruit, King coconut, on the side of the road:

From Negombo, we drove about five hours to the town of Sigiriya, which is almost in the center of the country. We would spend a couple of nights and, while there, visit Lion Rock. Being that we arrived around mid-afternoon, we decided to take a (what turned out to be ridiculously expensive) 'village tour'. It starts with a mile-or-two ride via ox cart:

The cart takes you to the edge of a lotus-filled lake where you get into a small rowboat. The guide rows the boat around the lake, which is beautiful for its setting, the massive amounts of lotus plants and flowers, and the view of the nearby Lion Rock. The final stop on the tour, which is also by far the highlight, is at a house where a local woman taught us how to make several traditional foods from scratch using traditional methods.

Diana showing off her mad skillz:

The tour is definitely worth doing but, as we quickly learned, very overpriced. Our group chalked this up to being our first day in town and not knowing that we needed to negotiate (almost) everything down. In other words, learning occurred.

We woke up early the next morning and enjoyed our local-style breakfast at our excellent family-stay accommodation. Almost all of the places we stayed were owned and run by a local family and, for our group, were a great opportunity to get a (very brief) view of local life.

Our driver took us to Lion Rock, which was the first of many palaces, temples, and landmarks we'd see. It's a capital (city) complex dominated by a 660-foot-tall (formerly palace-topped) rock that sticks out of the surrounding area similar to Mavecure.

Prior to coming, we knew we'd get to see some wildlife as we were planning on taking a safari as well as doing some whale watching but, much like in Gibraltar, seeing monkeys in silly quantities like they were pigeons in Barcelona, was still a big surprise.

Prequel to Planet of the Apes in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka:

One of the must-dos in Sri Lanka is climb the 84,000 steps(or so it seemed) to the top of Lion Rock to see the views of the surrounding area. About half-way up, there's a spot where you can check out, up close, some very old cave paintings, which I would have taken photos of if it weren't clearly prohibited by way of several attendants and the maybe 500-or-so signs indicating  that it was prohibited/illegal to do so. Not wanting to "sign the guestbook", which is, legend has it, where rule breakers/photo takers must write and sign a full admission of guilt and apology after deleting their photos, three of us came, saw, admired, and continued on our way with no photos taken and no issues at all.

The next stopping point is almost all the way up. It's a plaza-like area where you can still see part of the old lion entrance marked by the feet, which remain.

The day we went was a national holiday so the place was packed with locals. We saw relatively few tourists compared to the number of locals, which was probably partly to do with the fact that we went during the small window between summer and rainy season.

The view from the top was well worth the climb and the whole palace complex reminded me of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico (no story link - this was pre-whereisdarrennow).

On our way back down, we briefly stopped in the (lion feet) plaza and watched monkeys systematically sort through the discarded bottles to pull out those with sugary drinks. Silly me fully expected them to open the cap to drink. But they have different plans choosing to instead bite a small hole in the bottom of the bottle and slurp out their prize. The greatest thing was how they could clearly and quickly discern the difference between regular and "diet" labels tossing the latter in favor of the former.

We weren't sure how long we'd be at Sigiriya's Lion Rock so we didn't plan anything else for the day. It turns out that it only took a few hours so we decided to go up to see the UNESCO World Heritage temple complex at Polonnaruwa, which we had considering visiting before coming to Sri Lanka but had ruled it out as too far away to fit into our schedule.

About five minutes after we left the Lion Rock parking lot, our driver stopped the van and pointed to a couple of guys WASHING THEIR ELEPHANT in a stream. It was almost a joke when he asked if he wanted us to stop so we could get out as we were practically jumping out while he was asking.

Mr. Schmidt and I talked about whether we should go into the water. Yes, we seriously spent time standing on the side of the stream deciding if we should get closer to the the Sri Lanka. The girls were already in the water and we weren't far behind.

The two guys were cleaning (or massaging or both) the elephant's skin with pieces of King coconut shells. They were super cool and let us 'pet' the elephant. Did you know that elephants are covered with a small amount of very coarse, maybe one-inch-long hair? It was funny to see how the elephant just laid there, relaxing while getting a massage, all the while using its snout as a snorkel.

In retrospect, one of the two or three coolest moments of the entire trip:

About an hour or so from Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa is a massive complex filled with lots of old temples, palaces, and other structures and is one of Sri Lanka's holiest places.

Because of its size and in order to save time, we used the van to go between the various places. One of the many highlights is the reclining Buddha below. Did you know that it's a sign of disrespect to take a photo with your back to Buddha?

Many of the most famous archaeological sites around the world tend to be constructed of stone. Polonnaruwa and quite a few of the places we visited in Sri Lanka were built with brick, which results in structures that have unique forms but, unfortunately, make them somewhat less durable. They've taken care to restore many sites and have left others, like the one below, (yet) unrestored. Even the giant Buddha statue on the back wall is made from brick and was coated with stucco or other material, which, over time, has come off exposing the bricks.

Okay, so here's a little secret I can share now. Back in the 80s, there was a band named Duran Duran (sorry to the fellow old people reading this) that was quite popular with the alternative music set. One of their videos, Save A Prayer, was shot in 1982 all around Sri Lanka. If you watch it, you'll see Lion Rock, Polonnaruwa, some southern Sri Lankan beach scenes, and even people in rivers with elephants! Yes, so far, we've basically done the 'Duran Duran Save A Prayer' video tour!

Rock on, right?

The next morning we started heading back down south from Sigiriya and our first stop of the day was at the Dambulla Cave Temple. Is this not a very cool photo?

Climbing up the couple hundred steps reminded me of Shikoku's many temples. This one's different because it appears to be built next to this cliff...

...but in reality those buildings serve as entrances to vast spaces carved into the rock. Inside are giant Buddhas and other religious artifacts. The room below is probably 75 feet wide and a few hundred feet long.

If you're claustrophobic you need not apply.

Our next stop of the day was at a herb and spice garden, which sounds kinda' nice, doesn't it? One could imagine seeing all sorts of spices growing in their native setting. Yeah, just like this photo below where the guide demonstrated a natural hair remover on Mr. Schmidt's leg.

The gardens were lovely and 'guides' where also nice. But, think more herbal remedy than chili peppers and curry powder. The hair remover may have been impressive but I probably wouldn't do this one again.

Oh well, our next stop was very cool. It was a Hindu temple and school the likes of which I've never seen before. Exceptionally intricate and colorful:

The crappy thing is that I don't have any decent photos. It was seriously hot and humid so we spent most of our time out of the sun and the photos I did take were mostly washed out.

But, just as we were about to go back to the van, we stuck our heads inside an open-air building to see what it was about. It turns out that it was a grade school we were told for poor and orphan kids. An older woman teacher gave us a tour where she told us about the school, the students, teaching methods, and even showed us some of their writing and projects. It was a great experience that would have only been topped if the students, like that time in Tibet, would have been there.

Much like Chiquinquira is Colombia's religious heart, the city of Kandy is Sri Lanka's. The most famous site to visit is the Sri Dalada Maligawa temple, which is located on the grounds of an old royal palace right near the lake that practically runs through the center of town.

But, before we could go in, we were told that we (Mr. Schmidt and I) would have to either buy or rent sarongs because our shorts were not considered respectable enough. It was no surprise as we've encountered this same type of thing before like when were in the U.A.E. The problem was where to get one quickly.

Well, that didn't turn out to be much of a problem either as right across the street was a guy with a wide selection. The choice was ours, buy for like five dollars or rent for like three. Diana and I picked out one she liked and paid full purchase price while Mr. Schmidt opted to go rental but still scored a more macho print.

We spent about an hour exploring the old palace, which has a variety of worship areas spread throughout the scenic property.

The most important part is the temple itself, which is also known as the Kandy Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Yes, it's the site where one of Buddha's teeth is kept.

Before going into the temple, we needed to check our shoes much like you'd do a coat check at a theater or dinner. From there, it was into the temple, which is impressive for its beauty as well as for the level of reverence and worship taking place inside. I had only ever seen anything like it when I was in the Jokhang Temple in Tibet.

The photo below is taken just as we entered the very center of the temple. To the left, you can see people waiting in line to get close to the relic and, in the center, the flower offerings of the worshipers.

The story is that, after Buddha died and was cremated, one of his teeth was recovered from the ashes and came to represent the Buddha himself. Moved around over time, its current home is inside the the space just past where these people are praying:

While we were inside the temple, we watched a series of offerings and rituals including a group of drummers playing. Even though it was full of worshipers and had a very solemn setting, I never felt like anyone was looking at me asking what I was doing in 'their' space. It was nice to feel welcome, which, in general, is how I felt during our entire trip. The people of Sri Lanka were warm, welcoming, and always interested in speaking with us. It was refreshing as in some places, tourists aren't always super popular with the locals.

This is part one of our visit. Stay tuned for part two.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Biert - French Pyrenees

While we were in Paris visiting Monica and Olivier (and seeing the Tour de France), they mentioned that they were going the following weekend to the Pyrenees to get their kids who were with the grandparents. From there, Olivier and the boys were going camping for a few days then they'd all spend time in Spain. Monica's not big on camping so it'd help them if she could go back to Barcelona with us to wait for the guys.

Diana's talked about Olivier's parents before and especially how I needed to meet his dad who's a big wine fan. Monica and Olivier invited us to meet them and, with Diana's brother in town, Monica needing a ride, having no real plans, and, of course, the promise of some great French wine, how could we say no? I reserved a car as soon as we got back to Barcelona.

During the week, I continued to check for cheaper car rentals and found one on Thursday night, which I booked immediately canceling the original reservation. I went to the rental place Friday afternoon but, when I got there, the agent asked me like three times for my name. I finally just gave her my identification but she couldn't find the reservation. Pulling up the email my heart sank when I realized that I had booked the new reservation with the website-default date a couple of months later. Argh!

The agent's reservation computer wasn't working so she needed me to book a car using my phone but the system showed nothing available. Panicking, I was finally able to find a car at another agency and went to get the car all the while Diana and her brother were waiting for me at home. Our original plan was to leave about 6 p.m. so that we could arrive around 10.30 p.m. We ended up leaving at 8.00 p.m. meaning we'd get to their folks house around 1 a.m. Oh well, no big deal. At least we were on our way.

The house is basically a farm house kinda' like Diana's parents' in Chiquinquira, which meant that finding it at 1.30 in the morning proved to be a challenge. A couple of U-turns at various houses (and waking up one poor family), we had finally arrived and headed straight to bed. It wasn't until the next morning when I went outside that I realized just how rural the "neighborhood" was. That's their house on the right:

After proper introductions all around, Oliver's mom made us breakfast Saturday morning. She included an assortment of breads she had bought at a shop in town along with some different homemade jams and the craziest rock-salt butter. It's exactly like it sounds, butter with big, crunchy rock salt throughout. Apparently, every family uses it. I. Was. Hooked. You know when you're making chocolate-chip cookies and you've mixed the brown sugar, white sugar, butter, and vanilla how you just can't resist sneaking a little of the mix before adding the eggs? Yeah, it's that good.

To work off the buttery goodness, we went for a nice looooong walk...

...all the while enjoying the scenery:

My only experience with the French side of the Pyrenees was a quick stop just across the Spanish border with Juan and Carol a couple of years ago. Biert, which is the closest town to their house, is basically a village a bit more than an hour or so past Andorra. In quite a few ways, the "tri-country" Pyrenees feels a bit like the mountains inland from San Diego and Los Angeles; good views, clean air, fairly dry, nearby snowboarding/skiing, and a good place for a weekend away. In the case of this trip, there's one major addition...French wine!

After our walk, it was time for food...again! This time the meal was a team effort with everyone helping out in some way. Olivier's dad lived up to his reputation by opening bottle after bottle of the good stuff. And, in classic French style, dessert was another bottle of wine and a big spread of cheeses from a local cheese shop.

Olivier's dad giving Diana and me an overview of the yumminess yet to come:

All of this relaxation and gluttony got the best of me and I crashed for the next hour or two. Diana woke me and said Olivier's sister would take us into to town so we could buy cheese at the shop where our dessert was from. Biert has all the requisite sites, a church, some cafes, a plaza, and a bunch of family-style shops including where we bought cheese:

Later that evening, it was even more wine, snacks, and conversation. I've mentioned this in other posts but I love, love, love hanging out talking story with groups with such diverse backgrounds and experiences.

A big thanks to Olivier's family for hosting us. You've all got a place to stay whenever you're in Barcelona. Hope to see you all again soon!

The drive home from France involved much less mystery but I think the key was that Monica was guiding. As a bonus, and consistent with our seize-the-moment planning, we even did a quick detour at Montserrat on the way home.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Tour de France In Paris!

Back when I lived in California, I watched the Tour de France every year. Often, I'd Tivo it (remember that?) and catch the highlights at like 3x speed. It's always been on that loose list of things I'd like to see in person one day.

Well sometime in late June, our friends in Paris said their kids would be with their grandparents and that we should come for a visit. When I noticed the dates coincided with the last day of the the Tour and, oh, that Diana's brother would be in town, I blurted out to Diana that we HAD TO GO! It took me about twenty seconds to buy airplane tickets once Diana confirmed with her brother that he was interested.

I decided that this would finally be the trip where I'd pack super light and actually use every single item in my bag. In the photo below you'll find every item (except my flipflops) that I'd have with me. One pair of shorts (that I wore on the plane), a plain T-shirt and undies for each day, my toiletries, camera charger (why can't I charge my camera with a my phone charger?), my lifeguard hat, and my backpack. That's it, super lightweight and I even had space for the jamon Iberico I picked up for our hosts!

Monica met us at the bus station and we headed into central Paris to walk around for the afternoon. Here we are about five minutes after arrival in front of Notre Dame:

Our first day in town was spent seeing the city center as Diana's brother, visiting from Colombia, had never been to France. We walked through the Marais (the Jewish quarter), had lunch in the Sorbonne (the Latin quarter), and then went to visit the Louvre, which is something I've never done.

First off, if you've never been there, it's MASSIVE! So big that I have no idea how actually big it really is. The plan was to stay for a few hours and see some of the important works like the (copy of the) statue of David and, of course, the Mona Lisa.

We passed by these two sculptures on the way into one of the museum's wings. They're sort of like before and after images. On the left, you can see the guy's holding (what looks like) a bottle of wine up to his head probably thinking to himself I probably should stop now and not drink the whole thing then, on the right, you see the same post-full-bottle guy pawing some chick and biting one of her nipples while she seems to be thinking oh great he's drunk again. I'm sure the artist intended some lesson here.

I had heard that the Mona Lisa was a bit of a let-down from more than one person so I didn't expect much. I figured that it'd be super crowded with selfie-taking masses and, on this, I wasn't disappointed. It was way better than I had expected and it was great to see something that's such a part of world culture. Oh, and about those other paintings in the room with the Mona Lisa? They could have been the most amazing works of art but, like the not-to-be-missed Casa Amatller next door to the Casa Batllo in Barcelona, they get NO love at all.

Apparently, in the entire Louvre, there are no (working) fountains. It was getting to the point where I would have drank from a random bottle in a trash can. The only choices you have are to pack in your own water, go all the way back to one of the shops in the lobby and pay like five euros per tiny bottle, or do what I ended up doing which was to drink from the faucet in one of the bathrooms. I get that this is a total first-world problem but, really, no water anywhere. So, take heed weary Louvre visitor, pack in water. It's a loooong journey through the desert!

Other than the Louvre desert, Paris really is one of the all-time-best cities. I'm not sure how it'd be to live there as I'd imagine, like London or San Francisco, it's best if you're a millionaire but some things you encounter really are very cool. On our way to meet up for dinner, we saw this orchestra playing in one of the metro stations. Talk about impressive public art/performances:

Another only-in-Paris item we saw was this public fountain located along one of the river walkways. Public fountains usually don't get much attention (although it'd be nice to have one in a certain museum) but this one offered not only 'regular' water but also sparkling water! At a public fountain on the street! Love it!

Dinner that evening was at the Boullon Chartier, which is a popular French restaurant complete with traditionally dressed waiters and typical cuisine. I opted for the steak tartar because, well, it seemed the French thing to do. Our group, which included some of Monica and Olivier's local friends had a great time sharing travel stories and more than a couple of bottles of nice French wine.

The three of us were on our own for day two so we decided to visit Versailles where I had also never been. Wow - talk about crazy! The serpentine line out front reminded me of our visit to the Vatican with Diana's parents a few years ago. I'd guess there were more than a thousand people waiting with us.

We spent maybe three hours visiting the impressively-detailed palace. I was telling Diana how it reminded me of the palaces (like Hohenschwangau and Ludwigsburg) we visited when we lived in Germany and she laughed at me (definitely not the first time!). Ah, yeah, she said, they were copying this one. Oh. Okay.

A note about visiting Versailles. A friend of mine said that we should stay to see the evening light and music show so booked tickets for both in advance. After spending the better part of the afternoon visiting the palace and surrounding (amazing) gardens, we hung out for a couple of hours in the park waiting for the gates to reopen (they kick you out around 5pm and reopen around 7 or so). When the time came, we went to the gate and...they said sorry, this is a daytime ticket, which is no good for the show. Argh! Well, it seems we're not the first to have this happen. Turns out the company that runs the show is completely different and it needs to be booked separately.

So, we bailed on paying an additional like 20-something euros each and went for dinner at the nearby Notre Dame (not the church) Market where there's a bunch of outdoor, cafe-style restaurants.

La Creperie. So very France!

And so came the big day! Sunday, the final day of the Tour de France when the peloton arrives for a mostly ceremonial run through the cobbled streets of Paris!

I had read that a good spot to see the action was, surprisingly, right out in front of the Louvre. I had my doubts but our group headed that way and arrived just as the parade was going by. The spectacle of floats, funny costumes, and freebies is every bit looked forward to I'd image in the same way that people watch the Super Bowl to see the commercials.

When we arrived there was still about an hour or so until the peloton would pass by and we were able to claim a spot opposite the museum right up against the railing. Woohoo! All the sudden a line of fast-moving cars with advertising on the side and bicycles on the roof went rushing by. Not more than 30 seconds later, the first rider went by. FAST! Like a rocket. Then, 20 seconds or so later, the peloton arrived! There's this year's winner, England's Chris Froome, in his yellow jersey (just above the photographer):

Diana was excited to see Colombia's Nairo Quintana who's been tearing it up and finished second this year. Not only is he from Colombia, he's from Boyaca, which is the state where Chiquinquira and Villa de Lleyva are and where Diana's parents are from. You can see Nairo with the blue jersey and yellow helmet just at the bottom left corner of the pyramid:

The disadvantage of our amazing viewing spot was that the peloton only passes once. We decided to head over to the other side of the Tuileries Gardens where the peloton disappears into the tunnel. The riders passed by twice in the short amount of time we hung out there. Actually, it's amazing how fast they go up to the Arc de Triomphe and back. I would guess it was like 10 minutes but it has to be more. They move so fast; that was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

From there, we walked over to another of the park's edges and watched the riders go by a couple of more times. After the final lap and it was clear Froome had won, we found a nice place to get a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. Oh, and one of the last surprises, they served those amazing peanut butter flavored (cheese) curls I love from when we lived in Germany!

Thanks to Monica and Olivier for hosting us at their new Paris place! Last time it was Istambul, Turkey. Like whereisdarrennow, I wonder where they'll end up next! Something I do know, if they do go somewhere new, we won't be far behind! :)