Tuesday, August 16, 2011

FINALLY.....Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Flag
Ok, so I am finally getting around to posting about Sri Lanka exactly one week after our arrival.  To be honest, it has taken that long for me to adjust and get over a very bad cold I caught on the plane (unfortunately, Shari is suffering through it now).  My first thought of this new and strange place?  In a word:  Different.  Now I have traveled to quite a few places and seen some interesting and different ways of life, but for me, this has been a place far far different from my place of birth.  And you know what?  I think I am really going to like it here...

First indication that we were not in Kansas anymore Toto....a large blue and white lettered sign hanging on the wall next to the immigration desk that read "Possession Of Illegal Drugs Carries Death Penalty".  Who's the guy that figures out whether or not your drugs are illegal?  I won't be taking any chances thank you very much-dump that Tylenol and those cough drops!
Now That's Harsh!

Next indication:  appliance stores in the duty free section of the airport!  Now everyone likes duty free...I mean come on!  Tax free booze, chocolates, an international power outlet converter...hell, I may even buy a new watch or pair of sunglasses, but washers, dryers and cook ranges?  In the airport?  I was warned by Shari, but had to see it with my own eyes and it was my first hint that Sri Lankans, at least in Colombo, were going to be some hustling people.

Third of course came the driving.  I was getting used to cars driving on the wrong side of the road (in our eyes) in England and France so that didn't bother me.  I have even been in some pretty crazy traffic while traveling in Egypt and Korea, but what really got me about the this traffic were the pedestrians.  These guys must be the bravest people on the planet because when they want to cross the street, they just go!  And they aren't too worried about the 10-ton public bus barreling down on them while laying on the loudest horn I have ever heard.  Oh, and forget about a crosswalk-who needs those?  If I'm crossing the street, I'll do it wherever the hell I want to.

First Look at a Tuk Tuk

Typical Roadside Stand
All jokes aside, Colombo is a bustling metropolis and it was fascinating to see how everyone just kind of flows along-it works in some crazy kind of way.  There is some sort of unwritten rule of the road and as wild as the traffic may seem, I've only seen ONE very minor fender bender since I arrived.

The first place we were slatted to go was to Shari's parent's home in Nawala to have dinner.  It took a good hour from the Colombo airport to get there, but we arrived safe and sound and were treated to a wonderful Sri Lankan meal of vegetable fried rice (elavalu buth), chicken curry (kukul mas curry), lentils (parippu), stir fried potatoes (ala thel dala), pineapple curry (annasi curry), deviled shrimp (isso thel dala) and crab curry (kakuluwo curry).  Sounds like a lot and it was, but you meter what you want to eat by taking a bit of each thing on your plate.  Oh, and you eat with the fingers of your right hand with a kind of smush action.  A little rice, potato, chicken and lentil and... smush it into a little ball then pop it into the mouth.
Pineapple Curry

Crab Curry

Deviled Potatoes

Curry Chicken

Dahl or Lentils

Vegetable Rice

Deviled Shrimp

The food was excellent and the hospitality even better, but I was about to learn another valuable lesson of Sri Lankan culture...everyone is out to feed you...A LOT!  My first thought when we made the decision to come here was "oh great, I'll get to lose some weight because I'll be eating mostly veggies and smaller portions at that".  Forget that notion!  Although the food does consist of more veggies and less meat, Sri Lankans love to feed their guests and, they love their sweets.  I figured out real quick that it was going to take some discipline to lose weight in this country.

After dinner we were driven to a home that Shari’s friends Harendra and Roshi Balapatabendi are renting while their home is built.  Harendra and Roshi have been living in Australia with their family for quite a few years, but recently decided to move back to Sri Lanka.  Luckily for us, they were gracious enough to offer their home to Shari and I while they vacationed back in OZ.

We arrived at the Balapatabendi’s home late in the evening and were greeted by Maggie and Samarakoon (the maid/cook and the driver).  They already knew Shari so they broke into conversation in Sinhalese while I tried to follow what was being said.  No luck-I had no clue what they were talking about-it was all new to me.  Shari did teach me a few words in Sinhalese when we were still in LA, but this was something completely different-it was going to take a while to catch on to the language.

The day after our arrival (Wednesday) was recovery day.  We had Lamprais for lunch with Shari’s parents and rested.  Lamprais is a recipe originating from Dutch Burgher cuisine and is a combination of aromatic rice, chicken curry (kukul mas curry), eggplant pickle (wambotu moju), boiled + fried egg (biththara), stir-fried onion (seeni sambol), ash plantain curry (alu kesel), fish cutlet (malu cutlet) and prawn and coconut mix (Blachang) all wrapped up in a banana leaf and baked.  The banana leaf adds an element of flavor and fragrance to the dish while it bakes-believe me, it is fantastic! 


In addition to resting that first full day in Sri Lanka, Shari called our friend from London, Suranjan’s tuk tuk driver, Ben, to see if he could help us find a place to rent.  A tuk tuk is the motorized three-wheeled vehicle and is one of the most common methods of transportation for people trying to get around the city.  What I didn’t know about tuk tuk drivers is that they can pretty much get their hands on anything you need, or find out who can.  Their network is amazing-if you need anything, make friends with a good tuk tuk driver-they will hustle to meet your needs as long as you take care of them.

Unfortunately, Ben was tied up with something, so he set a meeting for us to see some places with his friend Suresh (another tuk tuk driver) and broker on Thursday.  We woke early and received a pleasant surprise from one of Shari’s other close friends; Ihsan and his wife Nishreen and their family.  They brought over Sri Lankan pastries (called short eats) made of flaky pastry crust with different spicy fillings.  The food was great and it was nice to meet Nishreen and the kids.  I had already met Ihsan in the states, so it was nice to see a familiar face.

Ishan showed us a place where his sister used to live, then we walked over to a new apartment complex nearby before heading back to Ishan’s for more food and a fantastic avocado milkshake.

Soon after arriving at Ishan’s, Suresh, our new tuk tuk driver pulled up and whisked us away to our first appointment.  Suresh had a cool look with long curly hair, a few tats and darting eyes.  He drove us to meet with our new broker, Selvaraja to look at a nice three-bedroom house.  We really liked the house-it was in a great location and was large enough to meet our needs.  The price was good as well 60,000 Rupees (about $540 US with an exchange rate of 111 Rupees to $1 US).  Selvaraja called the owners of the home and handed the phone to Shari.  I learned that this was probably not the best strategy since many property owners do not like renting to Sri Lankans.
Suresh Commanding His Tuk Tuk-The Man With a Plan!

Suresh Says, "Let's Make This Deal!"

The first question out of the owner’s mouth to Shari was “are you Sri Lankan”.  Shari explained that she was, but had lived in the states for 23 years, was a US citizen and that her boyfriend (me) was American.  No matter, the owners did not want to rent to us, because Shari was Sri Lankan.  I thought to myself how illegal this kind of question would be in the US because of the fair housing act.  This was certainly not the states-there were no housing rights-owners could rent to whoever they wanted to for whatever reason.

After looking at a few more places, we decided to set an appointment to look at some more places the next day with our new friends.  One thing I found amusing about this team was that the broker was getting around on a bicycle, while we were getting carted around in a tuk tuk.  Every time we left one location for another, the broker always beat us to the new location without breaking a sweat-I was beginning to like these guys!

Suresh was back at the house early on Friday morning to take us to see a few more places.  Unfortunately, our crack team could not locate the owners of two of the places we were supposed to view, so we were only able to see the houses from the outside.  We did see a nice apartment, but it was a bit out of our price range.  No matter though, we had plenty of time, to find a place before our shipment arrives at the beginning of September.

Ihsan picked us up back at the Balapatabendi’s to look at the new home he was building right around the corner from Shari’s parents house.  Arriving at the construction site, I was intrigued by the building techniques and unconventional (by US standards) methods the workers used to build the home.  The entire structure was built out of concrete and brick and materials were hauled up to higher floors via a five-gallon bucket.  No safety harnesses, hardhats or shoes for the matter…in fact, the workers actually lived on the site during the workweek.  Absolutely incredible!

Ihsan and Shari Checking Out The Construction

Hard Hat?  How About Shoes????

Workers Making Themselves at Home

The Ol' Five Pound Bucket Lift
Since we were in the area of a property our broker told us about earlier, we decided to drop by to see if they were home so we could view the place.  It was right around the corner from Shari’s parent’s house and Ihsan’s new pad, and was supposed to be pretty cheap at 35,000 Rupees per month.  The owner; however, was not home, so we linked back up with Suresh to look at a four bedroom home in the Colombo 5 (Havelock Town) district. 

As we pulled up to this home, we were immediately struck by how nice the outside looked.  Stepping inside for a look around, we met the owners of the property and were delighted to see all of the new and modern fixtures throughout the home.  The owners were very nice and the house was fantastic, with great views and plenty of space inside and outside on a series of balconies, but the home was a little outside of our budget at 85,000 Rupees per month (about $765 US).  As we left the home, our real estate moguls, Suresh and Selvaraja felt confident they could get the owners down to 70,000 Rupees, but we were a bit skeptical.
Living Room of Our New Pad...Nice!

Balcony Outside of the Master Bedroom

Indoor Atrium and Planter Boxes
After a brief discussion back home, Shari and I decided to take a serious run at the four-bedroom home.  The location was central, the house was great and the owners were very nice.  We felt like they liked us, so I gave them a call and asked if they would accept 70,000 Rupees per month.  Initially talking with the husband, the phone was quickly passed to the negotiator in the family, the wife.  She explained to me how much she and her husband liked Shari and I, but that they just couldn’t come down any lower than 75,000 Rupees because they had just remodeled the home and needed to ensure they covered their expenses.  I told her I understood and explained I would have to discuss this with Shari before we made a final decision.

Upon hanging up the phone, we called team S&S (Suresh and Selvaraja) and asked them if they could get us to 70,000 Rupees.  They were already on the case talking with the owners!  They came back in a few minutes and said that we could do the deal at 70,000…we were very happy with that and made an appointment to meet up and sign the lease the following day.

Shari’s parents picked us up back at our home base to celebrate and had Rasika, their driver, head over to the economic center to buy some fruit and vegetables.  This place was pretty neat and featured a number of fresh fruit and veggie stalls in what looked like old warehouse space.  Rasika grabbed a fresh king coconut (Thambili) and had the owner hack off the top so I could drink the water-it was fantastic!
Economic Center Stand...MMMM-Short Eats!

Veggies I Have Never Seen Before!

King Coconut Getting a Haircut

MMMM-King Coconut Water
Saturday morning we woke up excited to meet with our new landlords to sign our lease.  Most rentals in Colombo require one year’s rent up front in addition to a one-month refundable deposit.  Since we negotiated our price down to 70,000 Rupees, we were going to have to change over $8,000 US to get the 910,000 Rupees required at lease signing.  Normally, this would not be a problem, but it was the Buddhist holiday, Poya (full moon) and everything was closed.  Luckily, Ihsan had some contacts he was able to call on to bring the Rupees to his home for exchange.  As we waited for the money changer to arrive, we chilled out in his awesome (and air conditioned) home movie theater and watched a flick.  Ihsan had to step out for a moment to head to the mosque behind his home for prayers (Ihsan’s entire family are devout Muslims) but was back in no time to catch the rest of the movie.

The doorbell rang and in walked a skinny kid with a bag full of cash.  It was quite interesting to see what 910,000 Rupees looked like-especially since the money changer could only get his hands on 1000 notes.  No problem, they spend just as good as larger notes, so we asked Ihsan for our US cash to make the exchange since he was holding onto it for us....slight problem, the cash was not in Ihsan’s pocket where he had been carrying it!  We rushed back into the theater to see if it had fallen out onto the couch we were sitting on, but no luck.  Ihsan combed the rest of the house as I thought that maybe it had fallen out of his pocket while he was praying.  Ihsan thought this was not possible since he was carrying two cell phones in his pockets, and he still had them.  We headed back into the theater for one more look and Shari found the money under the couch….WHEW!  That as certainly a load off our shoulders!

After that little heart stopper, we met with our new landlords and their attorney to sign the lease.  After a few questions and some corrections to the documents, we exchanged the money and signed three copies of the lease.  All done…or so we thought!  Just at that point, the attorney pulled out the bill for HIS services and for the stamp fee (a fee required to record the documents with the city).  We certainly weren’t expecting this, but apparently it is normal for the landlord and tenant to split these costs, so we reached in our pockets and pulled out another 21,700 Rupees (about $195 US) to pay the fees.

The next big event that day was to break fast with Ihsan’s family.  August is Ramadan in the Muslim faith and that means that all Muslims must fast during the day.  A small meal is allowed in the morning prior to sunrise, but no food or water is allowed again until sunset.  Now, I could handle the food thing, but no water in Sri Lanka?  That is tough-I don’t know how they do it, but they are devoted-even the young boys participate.

You can imagine how festive breaking fast is to a family who hasn’t eaten all day, so I was looking forward to this experience.  Amazingly, our hosts were gracious and ensured we were served first before they took any food.  We had the traditional porridge type soup called Congee along with short eats consisting of Samosas, fish and egg cutlet, chicken pie and a chicken wraps for the kids.  There was also chocolate chip cake, chocolate meringue that we picked up from a local cake maker and ice cream.  I was stuffed as we moved from the table to the TV room so I could show Ihsan how to use i-movie.
Chicken Pie at Break Fast

Samosas and Chicken Wraps
Since we got a lot of work out of the way so quickly, we decided to do a little sight seeing on Sunday and Monday.  First order of business was to head to the Galle Face Hotel on the beach for a drink and a snack.  The Galle Face is an old colonial hotel located right on the water.  It is beautiful in an old colonial sort of way and a very cool joint to grab a beer on a Sunday afternoon.
Galle Face Hotel

Saltwater Swimming Pool at the Galle Face Hotel

First Sri Lankan Beer
After Galle Face, we walked across the street to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  As we walked, a man tried to run some game on us thinking we were tourists until we told him we lived in Colombo.  He abruptly stopped the conversation and moved on to his next target.
Cinnamon Grand Hotel
Shari called Ben, the original tuk tuk driver we called initially, and he picked us up and took us over to the Barefoot Café on Galle Road.  The Barefoot is a great little spot with an open courtyard style bar and dining area.  There was a live band playing so we invited Ben inside for a drink.  After our drinks were consumed, Shari and I headed inside to look at the items in the store.  Very cool art, clothing and house wares-a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but cool nonetheless.
Live Band at the Barefoot Cafe
Shari received a call from Ihsan inviting us to break fast again at Cinnamon Lakeside, another great hotel on Beira Lake.  We headed home, washed up and had Samarakoon drop us at Cinnamon Lakeside for dinner at one of their restaurants.  Nishreen’s entire extended family was there so I had a chance to meet a lot of people.  She even got me to bust some Sinhalese which was met with a cross between amazement and amusement and we ended the night by taking a quick stroll outside by the pool.
Pool at Cinnamon Lakeside
We started our Monday off by tending to the household shopping.  First it was off to a wholesale market to buy bulk items.  You can find rice, eggs, sugar and other items all priced low at this place.  A truck was offloading some rice with a worker carrying about six twenty pound rice sacks on his back at a time!  Next was the vegetable market (may favorite of the day) called Jathika Pola.  This was a series of veggie stands with some super fresh stuff brought down from the upcountry farms in the early morning.  It was an open-air market, so there were a fair amount of flies, but you couldn’t ask for fresher stuff!
Wholesale Market-Look at Big Man Muscling the Rice!

Super Fresh Veg

Dried Fish 

Fruit Stall-Check Out the Buddhist Flags
We finished our shopping at a fish market, then a chain grocery store, then headed out to get some ideas for some furniture items we needed for our new home.  There are no closets in most homes in Sri Lanka, so you have to get a standing wardrobe in order to hang clothing.  We figured we would get some ideas, then see if we could find a woodworker to make some pieces for a lower price then items sold at the furniture stores.

Later that day, we went to a place called Abans to look for a cook range, washing machine and some air conditioning units.  Our strategy was to find the items we wanted to purchase, then see if we could get someone to get our stuff at the duty free stores in the airport since the prices are about half of what is charged in the stores (I would assume this is due to the high taxes the country places on new for sale items).  We finished our shopping day at Odel, a small mallish kind of place with different shops and restaurants.
Washing Machine-Crazy Looking Eh?

Gas Range With Stove
After Odel, we headed to the Galle Face Hotel for late night eats and drinks since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.  It was very relaxing and beautiful to end the evening watching the waves crash on the seawall at the edge of the Hotel grounds.
Galle Face Hotel

The Great Looking Couple!   
Today, we have just been relaxing-Shari caught what I had (a very nasty cold) so we thought it best to stay in and rest.  We did visit her folks for lunch, but we have been laying low.

Some of my observations after my first week in Sri Lanka…did I say it was different?  Since we didn’t see the “tourist” spots until about four days after my arrival, I think I may have seen two foreigners (or white people to be more blunt) during that entire time.  It quickly struck me that this is the first time in my life that I am the minority in a society where I do not speak or write the language and am completely confused by the street system (I usually pride myself on my navigation skills-but I am lost here).  It is not like we've come here to visit-we've moved our lives to Sri Lanka and during this first week, I feel I've gained a perspective I may not have had before about the difficultly newcomers to the US must go through coming to a new and strange country for the first time in the attempt to make a better life for their family-it is certainly not easy…

I must admit that I do so admire the Sri Lankan people.  Everyone I have encountered has been extremely nice, giving and helpful.  The food is fantastic and the place is beautiful.  It is third world-streets are in various states of repair and development, the buildings aren’t always the nicest and you may see a stray dog or two or even a cow wandering down the road, but there seems to be great optimism and opportunity here especially since the country is moving forward from a very long civil war.  It is definitely an emerging country undergoing very rapid development.  I am very happy to be where I am right now and grateful to all of the people who have helped Shari and I along the way.

I’ll keep posting (maybe more often since this turned out to be a marathon post) so keep reading and get those passports ready-we now have plenty of room!  

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