La Vida Lanka

...Lankan-born, raised in America...what happens when a mother of two returns with her kids to a country she loves to reconnect with family, friends, food and culture?


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Farewell…and an invitation

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As we leave Sri Lanka, I wanted to post some images that have burned themelves into my memory.  They represent people we’ve met along the way who’ve exuded that genuine Lankan warmth and hospitality as well as photos that capture a special moment in time during our journey that makes me smile…and sometimes tear up…

My invitation to those of you who are in Sri Lanka, please help keep La Vida Lanka alive by sharing your travel photos and a few words about the place you’ve visited. Email me at: lavidalanka@gmail.com with your words and images in a jpeg and they’ll be featured as guest posts such as the Vesak entry by my friend Mick.  Your posts will enrich this blog by highlighting the cultural, culinary and historical gems Sri Lanka has to offer with other travelers, both local and foreign…

Our first morning in SL, from the terrace of the Mt. Lavinia Hotel

On the road down south to Ahungalla, our first drink of king coconut

   

Our river cruise down south: making cinnamon; a boy with his pet monkey

  

The “Captain” of the river cruise; policewoman who befriended Ava in Galle

Owner of the Royal Dutch Cafe in Galle who’s also a fabulous storyteller

school kids crammed into a hot bus but full of enthusiasm (Galle)

 

a boy in Galle who invited us to play pick up cricket; more king coconut water from this friendly shopkeeper who gave us cashews and other delicacies to sample on our road trip 

stilt fisherman (Galle)

Sunil, our long distance driver - an exceptional man and a very skilled driver - an essential, especially on these roads!

On the road…

Kataragama temple grounds

Bandarawela market merchant who showed the kids various types of grains and beans that they’d never seen…and kept them and me sheltered at her stall while our group walked around the chaotic market

We met these guys walking through tea fields in Ella


The fare guy from our first bus ride who was so helpful, ensuring that the kids and I got off at the right stop, and that the bus actually stopped for us to get off (I realize later in our trip, after taking many more bus rides, that this doesn’t always happen!)

Prasanna, one of our regular trishaw drivers who actually went slowly as per my request as he shuttled us around Mt. Lavinia…I really did say a quick prayer everytime I got into one of these…Ravi’s going to miss him!

 

One of the many friendly, caring staff at Mt. Lavinia Hotel who welcomed me each morning during my coffee and writing time on the terrace; Ranjith, our awsome Sigiriya guide, who had a superior knowledge of the rock fortress’ history but more importantly, was an incredibly nice person who helped get the kids up the rock!

Pettah Market cart pusher who actually paused to give me a beautiful smile despite his heavy load

The “banana guy” at our local pola (farmer’s market)

An unforgettable image for me - this guy was at the kite fundraiser and just needed to be captured on film

A scene from our Vesak open-top bus ride

 

Deep in prayer during Vesak; the Chief Monk who facilitated the cow release

My favorite view from the Galle Face Hotel where I had many memorable outings

To everyone who made this journey so special and enriched our lives in countless ways, we’ll never forget you or this trip…bohoma isthuthi


Aqua - A hidden gem

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The view from our balcony

As I relish my final days here, tryng to maximize Lanka to its last drop, I was thrilled to discover Aqua, a boutique hotel a few kilometers from Galle Fort.  The first property in the Cantaloupe Villa portfolio, Aqua has 16 beautifully appointed rooms and suites and is situated on a quiet beach with stunning sea views.  

   

 

Views from our room and balcony - I felt like I was on the water; external view of our room from lounge area; the plunge pool situated in the bar/lounge area overlooking the sea

 

The room contained a luxurious king sized bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, which was a welcome treat after 6 months of sleeping on a very “firm” mattress sandwiched between two kids; a contemporary bathroom 

After depositing our bags in the room, I headed down to the outdoor lounge.  I finally felt myself slipping into a state of pure and utter relaxation as I sipped my mojito and gazed at the ocean.

 

I couldn’t bother moving my foot for this shot while sipping cocktails in the outdoor lounge; the clean, white decor of the hotel’s lounge (foreground) and some of their standard rooms (background); decisions, decisions…what cocktail should we order next?

The beach was serene, with a few locals flying kites and playing.  It was a Herculean effort to remove myself from the comfort of my lounge chair and take a walk on the beach…life’s hard…

  

Some locals soaking up the sea air…and my cousin doing a little sun salutation…

A sunset walk along the beach and all the sea air whetted my appetite.  Little did I know that Aqua’s hidden gem, Chef Nandana, was busily preparing culinary marvels for his dinner guests.  I had the good fortune to catch Nandana in the kitchen and chat with him about his food philosophy. This extremely humble and understated man became impassioned as he described his culinary style - fusion - stating that there are two to four “nations” on his plate at any given time. I got a peek at the gorgeous bounty of fresh, local ingredients he was using, eagerly anticipating what form the end product would be…

 

Chef Nandana, hating me for making him pose for a photo; fresh veggies about to be sliced and diced for tonight’s dinner; Nandana and his assistant chef whipiping up a masterpiece

I was thankful that dinner was NOT a buffet.  We had the honor of having Nandana prepare something of his choosing for us and boy did he deliver!  The other guests staying at the hotel seemed to be as pleased at their dishes as we were!

  

Coconut Restaurant; a guest enjoying her dinner, having just arrived in SL for the first time from the Ukraine; Coconut at night

We shared two entrees which were sumptious.  One was a Chicken Harrisa with stirfried kankun (aka morning glory which is similar to spinach) and creamy potatos - the chicken was extremely moist, tender and well spiced.  The other dish was a prawn curry in a coconut-base with lychees and long beans, accompanied by a fragrant jasmine rice and my favorite - a fresh and tangy gotu kola (local herb know for its health benefits) salsa.  Not one crumb remained on our plates!  Despite feeling incredibly full, we found room for dessert, which consisted of more unique creations.  One was a buffalo milk based panne cota in a lemon grass syrup - the tartness of the buffalo milk and the sweetness of the syrup was a lovely combination. The other was a “Nandana original” and my favorite - freshly sliced papaya drizzled in a chili caramel sauce beside a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

   

 

Chicken Harissa; Coconut Prawns; dessert; plunge pool

We woke up the next morning to the sound of waves lapping outside our room.  You really do feel as if you’re floating above the sea when you gaze out from the comfort of your bed - a great way to wake up.  I was still stuffed from last night’s dinner, but when we made our way downstairs, Nandana greeted us with a warm smile and said he had both a Sri Lankan and Western style breakfast ready for us. You couldn’t go wrong with either selection as both dishes were beautifully presented.  

 

Sri Lankan and Western breakfast dishes

We started off with a fresh fruit platter, coffee and tea.  The Sri Lankan plate arrived with mini rotis, string hoppers, red rice kiri bath (milk rice) and was accompanied by chicken curry, dhal, and some terrifically spicy sambols.  The western breakfast was a flavorful omelette with spiced potato hash, chicken bacon, grilled tomatos and baked beans. We somehow found the space in our stomachs to do our breakfast justice - but I couldn’t imagine eating for another 2 days!  We rolled out Aqua feeling rested, rejuvenated, and satiated…a great way to spend a weekend away from the hustle and bustle of Colombo…


Another perspective on Vesak

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I’m thrilled to share my first “guest post” by my friend Mickael Le Paih, who joined us on our walking tour and our open-top bus ride during Vesak with his son Ronan.  We met Mick, his lovely wife Valerie and little Ronan while we were visiting Trinco (there’s a great shot of Ravi and Mick in my Vesak post!) Originally from France, Mick and Val are currently based in Colombo, providing much-needed health care to Sri Lankans up North as part of the well respected NGO, Doctors Without Borders.  We hit it off immediately!  Having met friends like Mick and Val, among a small group of others here during our 6-month journey, makes leaving somewhat bittersweet. But instead of feeling sad to say good-bye, we think of our new friends as a strong foundation of amazing people whom we love and look forward to seeing when we return to SL. Mick’s posting is in French, and, since my French is pretty much non-existent, there is not translation. However, his photos transcend linguistic boundaries - enjoy!

Pluie de lumière cette semaine au Sri Lanka!

Rien de semblable à la très surfaite nuit blanche Parisienne, ici on parle du PariNirvana

On parle, on observe l’illumination d’une réalité philosophique ou religieuse.

Bien qu’il y ait des détracteurs à voir dans cette célébration populaire un manque de modération, ce qu’on peut aisément concevoir en arpentant les rues et quartiers de Colombo,

l’exubérance fait sens pendant 2 jours sur toute une année, non ?

Ces soirées passées à marcher, déguster, photographier,

Mais je ne dirais pas contempler…

car la cacophonie ambiante ne prête à l’éveil,

mais au réveil.

Expérience inoubliable, il n’est de bonne compagnie qui ne se quitte,

Et de se revoir un jour peut-être sous ces lumières…

 

Kites for a Cause

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Last Sunday, our friend Nadeem gave us a head’s up about a fundraising event hosted at the Golden Mile Restaurant in our hood at the beach in Mt. Lavinia (finally, we didn’t have to trek to Colombo for an event!)  Participants were invited to buy a kite (Rs 600), the color of which corresponds to a particular cause.  My daughter Ava chose orange, so donation would support organizations working to prevent animal cruelty.  

  

Ava trying to get her kite airbound; Ravi’s flossing his teeth with the kite string; Priyantha, one of the event organizers

The beach was filled with people flying colorful kites in the spirit of social justice and welfare.  We hung out at the beach till dark flying kites, sipping beer at the Golden Mile, and enjoying the cool night air. This was a great way to spend our Sunday evening…and we could walk home!

I have no idea who this man was but he was trying to help everyone launch their kites…

Vesak: Our 3 day Odyssey

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I couldn’t help but chuckle at this quote written on my dinner menu a few nights before Vesak.  Greed and “excess” are exactly the opposite of what “good Buddhists” are supposed to be practicing, especially during the most sacred holiday of the year.  It was hard to focus on the path of “moderation” while I was indulging in a lavish meal that night…but then again, it wasn’t Vesak yet…

In Sri Lanka, Vesak is celebrated in May during the full moon.  Informally referred to as Buddha’s birthday, Vesak actually encompasses His birth, enlightenment (nirvana), and passing (Parinirvana). A time during which Buddhists rejoice and ponder, celebrations can take the form of a gala event replete with vegetarian food and festivals as well as more subdued affairs, characterized by quiet contemplation. Buddhists observing Vesak usually start off with a visit to their temple with offerings of flowers and joss sticks; these symbolic offerings are reminders about the impermanence of life, for just as the beautiful flowers will wither away and the candle’s flame will soon burn out, our lives will also come to an end. Temple goers will spend time engaged in meditation and listening to sermons.  Our Vesak began with a visit to our local temple, followed by a 5-hour evening stroll through the streets of Mt. Lavinia and Dehiwela to view the lanterns and take in the festive atmosphere. 

  

An offering of flowers; the lighting of oil lamps is said to help with focus and meditation and is significant for removing darkness, symbolizing the transformation involved in the quest for enlightenment

While at temple, we witnessed a Buddha puja.  Food offerings were carried in a procession by children and adult patrons of the temple, through throngs of devotees waiting to touch the offerings - a way of expressing devotion for Buddha’s teachings and wisdom similar to the giving and receiving of a blessing.  The offerings will be placed in front of a Buddha statue in the temple’s shrine area, then offered to the monks, and finally, distributed at a dhana to devotees observing sil (read more about dhanas on the May 10th posting, “An Almsgiving”).  Devotees taking sil will spend the day (from early morning through the evening) at temple observing the 8 precepts of Buddhism (the regular 5 precepts in addition to 3 more stringent ones that prohibit eating after midday, abstaining from dancing, singing and other displays of vanity, and the overindulgance of sleep). Typically, the day is filled with prayer, meditation and listening to sermons by the monks.

Taking a break from morning prayers

 

Devotees participating in sil dressed in the traditional white attire, honoring (via a light touch) the food offerings as part of the Buddha puja

   

The Bo Tree at our temple which devotees will pour water on from one of the multicolored pots (seen above) as part of the day’s many rituals; a member taking sil deep in prayer 

During Vesak, temples and city streets around the country are adorned with colorful lanterns (Vesak koodu) and pandols (electrically lit panels illustrated with stories from the 550 past lives of the Buddha).  Before Vesak, entire communities, schools, social welfare societies, private businesses and individual households proudly begin making their lanterns which will be hung outside their house or business or displayed in an area where there’s a festival, often as part of a contest.  The lanterns symbolize the light of the Buddha, His truth and wisdom;  they are usually made of wire and paper mache or tissue paper and can be very simple or highly detailed.

   

Examples of some intricately illuminated Vesak displays 

An example of a pandol illustrating one of the stories from Buddha’s life (above); the same pandol lit up at night (below)


Dansälas (food stalls) are set up by Buddhist devotees and provide free food and drinks to passersby with items like chickpeas, tea, milk, rice and our favorite, ICE CREAM! (My kids were seriously impressed by the civility of offering free ice cream to the masses that night).  Often, these dansälas are sponsored by businesses such as banks or restaurants.

   

This dansäla offered a delicious beli fruit tea served in coconut shells (above); a roadside dansäla offered fried chickpeas and one based at a temple served ice cream (below)

   

On the first night of Vesak, we walked for hours with the kids, who were real troopers. I highly recommend taking part in these festivities, at least on one day, via foot.  Yes, it’s chaotic, hot and noisy, but you’ll never experience anything quite so invigorating and as authentic as this - it’s how the majority of locals who have modest means experience Vesak. Be prepared if you have young kids - I think it’s a great experience for them but we had a good ratio of adults and responsible teenagers on hand to help “herd” them along and keep out of traffic!

   

Ravi & Ava took a rest by hijacking a parked trishaw; this family (yes, there are 5 people on this bike) was able to deftly weave through the crowd viewing the Vesak displays

After a crowded bus ride and lots of walking through chaotic mass of festival goers, we wound our way back through Mt. Lavinia and stopped for some late night egg rotis and yet another ice cream dansäla.  We ended our night by hopping a local bus back home which was an adventure in itself, as the bus driver wasn’t really into stopping fully upon disembarkation. I learned that the profit is in loading people on the bus, without much care about how they get off (they’ve already paid their fare); minimal stopping ensures that another bus doesn’t pass and “steal” potential passengers waiting up ahead.  After a brief stop whereupon we got the kids off safely, my friend looked up at me, still in the bus and yelled “jump” as it began to pull forward - good thing I listened quickly because the bus was not going to stop for me to unload!

 

I’m not sure Ravi’s really even awake while he’s eating his roti at 11:30pm; but they all surely woke up when they passed the 4th ice cream dansäla of the night…

    

A late night roti shop was packed with hungry festival goers; we passed this bull who was happy to be petted…quite appropriate on this holiday which asks one to abstain from killing animals and eating meat; our bus ride back home…midnight and still packed

DAY 2:  Exploring Ratmalana and the surrounding neighborhoods

On Wednesday of Vesak, we hopped another bus and headed to Ratmalana, famous for it’s giant Vesak lantern that you could actually walk in to.  Sadly, upon arriving, we realized that the seemingly endless line of people was not for another food dansala but for entry into this display! With 6 kids and throngs of people, we decided to pass on the display and instead, continue our exploration of the area and its Vesak decorations.  We also raided a food stall and savored (or to be more accurate, “gulped down”) some piping hot, freshly prepared hoppers with lunu sambol (spicy onion based spread).

 

A local resident who set up an ad hoc hopper stand for hungry Vesak goers

   

Enjoying some hot hoppers; chaos on the streets; Ravi bumming a ride on Michel

DAY 3:  Vesak on wheels

 

We decided to conclude our week of Vesak festivities by viewing Colombo’s decorations from an open-top double decker bus.  Ebert Silva Touring Co., conducts Colombo city tours and was offering a special Vesak ride through areas known for their lanterns and pandols.  This method of sighseeing was the total opposite from days 1 & 2 where we pounded the pavement with masses of excited festival goers.  We sat atop the bus in the cool evening air and leisurely wound our way through various neighborhoods, including the Gangarama Temple, Bauddhaloka Mawatha Vesak zone,  and Independence Square.  The 3-hour tour commenced and concluded at the Galle Face Hotel; there was pre-assigned seating and riders were given a hot, vegetarian snack (rolls and paties), popcorn, and a drink during the tour.  

Some sights from our perch above…

 

After our bus dropped off its passengers at Galle face, we got a ride back to Mt. Lavinia, as the bus was headed past our house to the depot in Ratmalana.  This was definitely a highlight of the night. It took a long time to get through the Vesak traffic back to Mt. Lavinia but we didn’t mind - there were more sights to take in along the way and we were on our own private bus!

  

A perfect ending…


Ships Ahoy!

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A recent trip to the Colombo Dockyard Limited (CDL) was one of the most fascinating “field trips” yet.  We were taken on a behind the scenes tour of the docks by my cousin Darshi, who is the head of Marketing & Ship repair there.  

 

A bird’s eye view from Darshi’s office roof (above, left); descending to a dry dock for an ant’s eye perspective of a repair operation of the “VB Ruler” from the Maldives.

Strategically positioned in the Port of Colombo, CDL serves as a shipping hub that connects the major lanes of the West, Middle & Far East, Africa and Australia. Initially planned as a fun trip for the kids, I think I enjoyed it the most - upon arriving at the dockyard, I couldn’t believe the scope and awsome nature of this facility; on average, 3,000 + staff and contractors navigate the docks, building and repairing ships as well as heavy engineering and offshore work; there’s also a training center that conducts various types of workshops.

  

After being suited up with hard hats, we set off for a walk around the yards.  We descended hundreds of feet down to the bottom of a dry dock for an “ants-eye” view of a ship repair.  We learned that after a ship pulled in for repair from sea, the dock would be drained of water in order for work to begin; we were literally standing at the bottom of the ocean, which explained the corrosion on the stairs and railings. The dock was a flurry of activity, with workers painting and welding, to the hum and drone of forklifts and trucks rushing back and forth.   Although the pace of activity was frenetic, it was all very organized.  I could fully appreciate the need for hard hat, understanding how being distracted could lead to serious injuries!

  

Evidence of corrosion; safety precautions are everywhere, with good reason; a ship painting lasts about 5 years.

After ducking under the massive Maldivian ship which was undergoing a propellor repair, we were invited to board by a very friendly chief engineer who saw us wandering around the yard.  This was the highlight of our trip.  From the upper deck and control room to the bowels of the ship that housed the engine room and cargo hold, it was hard to grasp the logistics involved in handling this beast.  

    

Ravi and Ava got to play with the equipment (left, middle);  descending several floors down to the engine room (right)

Upper deck (above); Ravi “helping” one of the crew do a repair (below)

 

After touring “VB Ruler”, we headed to the Logos Hope, a massive, floating book fair operated by a private, non-profit, OM Ships International.  Since  1970, as part of the global Christian training and outreach movement, OM’s ships have visited over 500 ports in over 160 countries. An international crew of staff and volunteers is the “engine” behind this effort; visiting each port for several weeks, Logos welcomes visitors to tour the ship and purchase books at a considerable discount.  Volunteers also visit surrounding areas to supply aid and relief work.

  

The Logos was well stocked with lots of printed and audio materials, and several friendly, knowledgable staff & crew.  The bookstore offerings included a wide range of material: science, sports, hobbies, the arts, medicine, dictionaries, languages, and philosophy.  There was also a large selection of children’s titles and academic texts. I felt like I was at my local Barnes & Noble or Borders back in Los Angeles.  The tour included memorabilia and information on the ship’s mission, and an interactive display that targeted the younger audience, conveying the virtues of love, respecting one’s family, and the dangers of vices like greed and substance abuse, through an audio-visual storytelling medium - it was pretty engaging for the kids.  We ended the tour at the ship’s cafe which offered an array of hot and cold snacks and a play area for kids.  I highly recommend visiting the Logos Hope if you’re in the Colombo area and want to do something different, especially if you have young kids. 

Another interesting day in Colombo…

A Trip to the Pola

   

Our local pola; Uncle Lucky’s “coconut and pineapple guy”; coconut oil

A recent trip to a local pola, or outdoor food market with my Uncle Lucky proved to be fruitful and quite a bargain.  Back in LA, we often hit the Sunday farmer’s market for some fruits or veggies, but I still rely on the mainstream grocery stores for the bulk of our shopping needs, for no other reason than comfort and sheer laziness.  The pola we go to near at the “Bakery Junction” in Mt. Lavinia is more like an unstructured version of the LA farmer’s market and way more exhilarating at the end of the day. First of all, Lucky knows exactly which stall to buy the best produce from, whether it be pineapples or papayas, kankun or jackfruit - he’s got his cadre of trusted merchants lined up and ready to be of service to their loyal customer.  When they see him, they immediately start gathering the types of produce they know he usually buys.

 

We buy most of our vegetables from this guy, whose wares look freshly picked and are always beautifully laid out (above); a lovely array of chilis; cutting jackfruit

What can seem like a chaotic and confusing endeavor is actually very orderly and efficient once you’ve got your routine down.  Now the other problem with me shopping for produce is that I can’t pick a ripe papaya or pineapple, nor a great egglplant or mango if it hit me on the head, thus, my strategy ususally consists of pretending to squeeze a few fruit, acting like I know exactly what I’m doing and then “checking” pathetically with the salesperson at the grocery store about whether my choice is indeed a wise one (usually, they select another fruit and hand it to me in a patronizing manner).

   

A merchant’s most valuable tool, his scale; gorgeous papayas, my daily breakfast, which I’ll miss sorely when I return home; Lucky selecting various types of leaves 

For some reason, I didn’t feel quite so lame at the pola.  The merchants were quick to select the choicest fruits and vegetables for us when I indicated what exactly I wanted - it was faster for them than for me to poke around or bruise their fruit in my attempt to “expertly select” the ripest mango! I left with a backpack and beach bag full of produce, at a fraction of what I would have spent at a grocery store. It also felt like more of an outing, as opposed to a mundane trip to Arpico, walking up and down the sterile isles under flourescent lights, checking off “groceries” on my list of things to do. My biggest challenge is my lack of fluency with numbers in Sinhala - it seriously slows down the pace of business and spoils any chance of haggling!  

Ok Miss, but what type of bananas do you wish for?”  A hard question when you have so many varieties to choose from…

An Almsgiving

We recently participated in a dhana (thoughtful, ceremonial giving), also known as an alms giving, in memory of my maternal grandparents. Almsgiving is the practice of charitable giving to the poor; it’s not restricted to any one particular religion - several teachings share the philosophy “There is no real love if one does not share what one has with the poor.”

Getting ready to serve food to 150 people at our temple out of supersized pots that Ravi could fit into

  

We needed a truck to transport the massive pots filled with rice, lentils, soy meat, and vegetables; the kids helped put plastic lining on over 150 plates that would be used to serve food 

Buddhists give alms in memory of loved ones who die so that these departed members may accumulate merit (similar to frequent flyer points ) which helps them in their subsequent births. Alms are also given to commemorate special occasions such as weddings, births, moving to a new house, job promotions, business anniversaries etc. The most important reason to give dhana is for no specific reason at all.  The act of giving is encouraged, as one Buddhism’s fundamental precepts is to reduce your “thanha” or greed because it leads to sorrow and unhappiness (the less we have, the happier we are…)

 

Once we arrived at the temple, we plastic-lined the plates that would be used to distribute food, and set up the pots assembly-line style so everyone could participate, as well as to expedite the process!

    

Once the plates were prepared, it was time for distribution.  Ava hung back at the temple at the start of the line while Ravi, God knows how, ran around barefoot with the rest of us on the scorching hot ground and brought plates to people at both the lower and upper temple areas (is it because he’s lighter that he doesn’t feel the stinging heat of the ground?)  It was an interesting process that the children and I were honored to participate in.

Pettah Market

A much anticipated trip to Colombo’s Pettah Market was worth the effort.  Located immediately east of Fort, Pettah is one of the oldest and ethnically diverse districts in Colombo. This open air market is abuzz with vendors, pushcarts, and customers hurrying about in what seemed like organized chaos. You can find everything imaginable here, and I do mean everything - from jewelry, clothing, shoes and cooking utensils to light fittings, wedding supplies and fresh produce -  each alley or throughway has its own specialty and the savvy shopper can get some excellent bargains.  

  

We started off hitting a few of the Ayurvedic shops where I bought some essential oils

Rue and I were NOT savvy shoppers, but we didn’t really have a shopping agenda; we got dropped off at Gabo’s Lane around 5th Street, known for its Ayurvedic products, and, after buying a few essential oils, we soon found ourselves walking through alleys filled with dried fish, and fresh produce.

 

 

We didn’t have time to visit the Dutch Museum or any of the religious sites like the Jami-Ul-Alfar mosque with its striking red and white candy striped design.  I’d like to revisit Pettah, perhaps after reviewing an area map the next time around so I spend less time aimlessly wandering about, although, there is something to be said about being lost in the moment…

Final Stop: Habarana

We left Anuradhapura for the lovely little oasis in the town of Habarana called the Cinnamon Lodge Hotel.  I had stayed here years ago when it was Habarana Lodge; friends had told me that under the Keell’s Group, the hotel had undergone an extensive and much-needed face lift - we were very pleased with what we saw upon arriving.  Our deluxe rooms resembled a two floor  bungalow - very convenient if you’re traveling with a larger party and want to stay near each other; the kids occupied the ground floor room while my sister settled in just above us.

Our bungalow - each room had a private deck / balcony

 

The Lodge’s serene grounds - I got lost a bunch of times (not surprising to those of you who are familiar with my sense of direction) but I eventually found my way…

The grounds are pretty extensive and include a children’s play and picnic area, large swimming pool, the lake from which we saw elephants drinking and bathing in the early morning and evening, and various little paths and walking areas for guests to wander about and soak up the tranquility of their surroundings.  This was a perfect place to end our trip; after hours of driving and sightseeing, our plan was to “have no plan” except for an evening jeep ride to see elephants at the nearby eco-park and an Ayurvedic massage - mission accomplished! We spent hours relaxing by the pool, snacking and sipping cocktails, playing cards and walking around the grounds.  We also tried out the Lodge’s Spa - the skilled therapists were incredibly friendly and professional, providing us with an amazing array of signature treatments (I tried the 4-point hands and feet accupressure massage and felt totally rejuvenated afterward while my sister and Jose enjoyed a massage and body scrub).

   

Lots of relaxing by the pool;  Ravi moving in on Sadana’s iced coffee

We set off for the nearby eco park in an open-top jeep to do some late afternoon elephant watching - we saw about a hundred in all, spread throughout the park in their pods.

 

 

Thanks to our skilled driver and tracker we observed pods of elephants feeding, bathing and playing - close enough to reach out and touch them (which we were well advised NOT to do); the only adrenaline pumping moment was when a few of them started trotting (one could consider it to be the beginning of a full-on charge) toward us, probably to warn us away from the baby they were protecting - we got the hint and backed away fast.

Not even at Yala National Park did we come so close to these peaceful beasts in the wild…I was amazed at how easily they allowed us to get near them - it was never an issue unless there was a calf nearby

We ended our safari with a sense of utter contentment, heading back to the Lodge for another memorable meal.  Ehala is the Lodge’s open-air restaurant and offers buffet-style dining, similar to most higher end Sri Lankan Hotels.  I have to say that I found the food here of a higher quality than most of the other hotels we have stayed at. They consisted of various “action stations” including grilled meats, Thai food, a noodle bar, and a pasta bar.  The variety was all encompassing, ensuring that there was something that would satisfy every palate.  Having eaten our way through many a buffet on this 11-day trip, I was craving something simple.  I was pleased to discover a fresh tossed salad area where I could choose my ingredients along with a dressing for a custom creation that would be prepped by one of the line chefs.   Chef Jeeva, the regional chef who oversees several restaurants in the Cinnamon line including the Lodge, has aspirations of bringing locally sourced, organic food to guests at Habarana.  He himself is a vegetarian and is passionate about ensuring that his offerings are not only tasty but healthy as well.  The organic honey and vanilla yogurt with freshly cut fruit and cereal is perfect if you aren’t in the mood for a heavy breakfast.  In the future, Chef Jeeva is planning to allow guests to pick and choose their own fresh ingredients from the Lodge’s greenhouse before meals, to be used for lunch or dinner - sort of his own take on farm-to-table for Lodge guests.

Before leaving Habarana we grabbed one last glimpse of the lake from “the Tree House” - a hidden spot off the lake, and our kids; favorite “secret spot.”  This gem is not to be missed as adults will love it to.