The Fingerprint of Fez

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Throughout this post you’ll find the words of author Paul Bowles, an American expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco for 50 years. He wrote an essay called “Fez” in 1984. His thoughts on the city still ring true today. I’ve interwoven my story with excerpts from his essay, noted as italic quotations.

***

We ride the train from Tangier to Fez on a rainy afternoon in Morocco. If we’re going to spend a vacation day inside, it might as well be on a train moving across the countryside. We pass hills of green and gold which hint at the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert beyond.

Upon arrival at the station in Fez, we find a taxi and ask the driver to call for directions to our riad. It’s low season and we made a reservation just two days earlier after I searched obsessively online for a bit of affordable luxury, as much as that sounds like a contradiction. If there’s anywhere worth splashing out for a night or two, it’s Morocco. The experience of staying in a beautiful riad has a permanent place on my bucket list.

Our destination is Karawan Riad. A man with a wheelbarrow meets us at the taxi drop-off. We push our bags through the busy paths of the medina until we arrive at a dark little doorway so unremarkable I don’t even think to take a photo. The door opens and we’re welcomed inside.

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

Karawan Riad :: Fez, Morocco

“From the street a house is a high wall with a door somewhere along its uneven length and possibly a handful of tiny grilled peepholes sprinkled in a haphazard design across its surface … With the exception of the door … there is no suggestion of decoration … The inside of the house is another matter. When you step into the glittering tile and marble interior of a prosperous Fez dwelling, with its orange trees and its fountains, and the combined pastel and hard-candy colors glowing from the rooms around the courtyard, you are pleased that there should be nothing but the indifferent anonymity of a blank wall outside – nothing to indicate the existence of this very private, remote and brilliant world within. A non-committal expanse of earthen wall in the street hides a little Alhambra of one’s own, a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world.” ~PB

Karawan Riad is a gorgeous discovery – grand and beautiful while authentic and understated. My favorite feature is the five-fold geometric design in the floor tile of the inner courtyard which opens to the sky.

We’ve been upgraded to the extravagant Dzhari suite. We have no idea why until later when we talk with an American couple on the rooftop terrace who tell us they requested to move OUT of the Dzhari suite because the floor plan was too big and unmanageable with an upstairs bathroom. Thanks for the unexpected gift!

We stand at the edge and get our first panoramic view of Fez. The city is sprawling, endless and so tightly packed that not even a single road draws a line through the density. How and where do we begin to explore this anomaly?

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

“Fez was built at a natural crossroads, the spot where the route from the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast intersects the east-west passage between Algeria and the Atlantic … Civilization ended at the gates of the medina; outside was the wilderness.” ~PB

Idris I, the first dynastic ruler of the area that would become Morocco, designated Fez as the capital city. The year was 798 and Idris I died shortly after this, leaving his son Idris II to carry out his plan. In the centuries since, the walls of Fez’s medina have been torn down, expanded and rebuilt with some still standing since the 13th century. Throughout its history, Fez has been the site of frequent conflict between Arabs, Berbers and Jews living in the city, with additional periods of Ottoman and French control during the past several centuries. The French moved the capital to Rabat in 1912 and Morocco became independent in 1956.

“Fez is a relatively relaxed city; there is time for everything. The retention of this classic sense of time can be attributed, in part at least, to the absence of motor vehicles in the medina. If you live in a city where you never have to run in order to catch something, or jump to avoid being hit by it, you are likely to have preserved a natural physical dignity which is not a concomitant of contemporary life; and if you still have that dignity, you want to go on having it. So you see to it that you have time to do whatever you want to do; it is vulgar to hurry.” ~PB

We dive in the next morning after a lovely breakfast at the riad. There is no good way to begin exploring the medina other than by just walking into it. With wide-eyed, curious expressions on our faces, a few people offer to show us around but we have all day to be lost and found on our own.

“The street goes down and down, always unpaved, nearly always partially hidden from the sky. Sometimes it is so narrow as to permit only one-way foot traffic; here the beasts of burden scrape their flanks on each side as they squeeze through…” ~PB

We pass small doorways and alleys leading to even smaller doorways and alleys. We navigate by curiosity and intuition, and with every turn we feel one more step away from knowing how to get back to where we started.

“There is a good deal of frustration involved in the process of enjoying Fez. The blank wall is its symbol, but it is this very secretiveness which gives the city its quality.” ~PB

Deeper into it with every step, we get bolder and braver – peeking our heads into doorways and climbing stairs to see where they lead. The reward is the discovery of incredible interiors – some old and rustic, others elegant and refined. There is certainly an exotic other world behind these tall, quiet walls.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Eventually we come to a long passageway with latticework shading the interior. We’ve arrived at a major artery of the medina which leads us to a maze of vendors who lure us with all kinds of things for sale — textiles, rugs, lamps, leather goods, ceramics, clothing, baskets, spices and more. Fez is far less aggressive than Marrakech and there is no hard sell.

We wander through the henna souq, Brassmaker’s Square and the Jewish quarter. By this point we have no idea where we are in relation to where we started. The medina is vast and the walls are just too high to glean any true sense of direction. But we’re finding more and more pockets of life and beauty that pull us through the maze. The deeper we go, the more textures and colors we see. The medina blooms around us.

“The visitor senses something in Fez which he describes as a feeling of mystery; that is as good a way as any of describing the impression the city makes. There is no doubt that to the person with a little imagination that impression is very strong; the city seems inexhaustible, incredibly complex, and vaguely menacing. It is possible that the visitor will also find it beautiful, although this is by no means certain. Fez is not a city that everyone can like. Many travelers have a negative reaction to its dark and twisting alleys, teeming with people and animals. Anyone subject to claustrophobia may well find it only a nightmarish welter of tunnels, dead-end passageways and windowless walls. To grasp the fascination of the place one has to be the sort of person who enjoys losing himself in a crowd and being pushed along by it, not caring where to or for how long. He must be able to attain relaxation in the idea of being helpless in the midst of that crowd, he must know how to find pleasure in the outlandish, and see beauty where it is most unlikely to appear.” ~PB

Fez has cast its spell on me. The artistry of the city speaks through the bespoke quality of every single door, window, design, pattern, display and handmade item. Every element of this city has a human fingerprint. Nothing is manufactured and in this way Fez feels truly unique. I cannot walk into a shop and buy eight of the same bowls, four of the same pillows, or two of the same rugs. They simply don’t exist. I can look through a stack of 20 plates and no two will have the same pattern and color. It’s easier to have a pair of leather slippers custom made than to find my size and favorite color among a wall of one hundred choices. Craftspeople here can make one hundred of whatever you like — but the end result will still be one hundred handmade things, each imperfect and unique.

In a manufactured world, Fez is an astonishing city of authentic art and identity.

After a long day on our feet, we finally sit down for dinner at a pretty restaurant smothered in tile overlooking the medina. We’ve been unknowingly sucked into a tourist trap with an expensive fixed menu in a bunch of languages. We hurry through our tagines so we can get back and relax in our palatial room at the riad.

The next day we embark on another adventure through the medina. We find more doorways and details around every corner and spend quite a bit of time exploring the tanneries (an experience of such impact I’m doing a whole post about it, coming soon).

We find ourselves at Bab Bou Jeloud square and walk through the produce market nearby. Much like Tangier, the variety on display is as surprising as the verdant countryside we saw from the train.

We squeeze into two plastic chairs at a stall serving some kind of meat sandwich on Morocco’s traditional bread, which kind of looks like a Frisbee. We share with the cats and kittens lingering in the lane behind us.

We continue our journey, intent on finding a “set” of plates to take home with us – knowing each piece of the set will be unique because … Fez. We step down into a shop filled wall-to-wall with beautiful ceramics.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The shop has been family-owned for several generations – son, father, grandfather and beyond – and the entire three-story structure above us is part of the family home. It’s more than 100 years old with intricate detail in the carvings going up one wall. The father recalls being a little boy, climbing high up the woodwork. While we assemble our set of plates the son asks us if we’d like to see the view from their home.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

“The people of Fez are not ashamed to be hedonists … they have a passion for sitting on a high spot of ground at twilight and watching the slow change of light, color and form in the landscape.” ~PB

He takes us across the footpath in front of the store, up a tiny, dark staircase to an adjoining part of the house that opens onto a balcony. The day is coming to an end and we see several people who have found their way to the upper reaches of the medina for the sunset. For the second time in Morocco, we’ve been treated to an unexpected view through the gracious gesture of a local.

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

The Medina :: Fez, Morocco

Fez is a grand world city unlike any other — a work of art and life from centuries of self-expression. We look out over the cityscape, share the experience with our new Moroccan friend and his brother, and are reminded again of some of the simple things in life that bring foreigners and locals together: sunsets, beautiful views, friendship and cultural differences which inspire us to invite each other into our homes to talk, to learn and to know respect for one another.

***

Exotic Destinations Miscellaneous

Magical Maldives

Like drops of glass in a cobalt blue ocean, the islands of Maldives look like they exist in their own world. We fly over them, gaping at their rings of aqua blue, anticipating our toes in the sand at the edge of the water. We land in Malé – a solitary airstrip in the middle of the ocean — transfer to a speedboat, and soon find ourselves at the jetty of Olhuveli island.

We’re introduced to Olhuveli by Azim, who thoughtfully explains the details of where to eat, everything to do and why we should pay attention to the currents when we’re swimming. But at this point we’re not paying attention to anything except the palm trees and island vibe around us, ready to sprint to our bungalow so we don’t miss a minute of today’s sunset.

Our bungalow does not disappoint, with a spacious floor plan and perfect deck above the water that inspire us to imagine our dream house of the future. We sleep with the doors open, hearing ocean waves and the occasional splash of a big fish-little fish pursuit below the deck. Sharks, rays and tropical fish are abundant here.

Beauty is the agenda of every day, to be savored at any hour – warm light at sunrise, illuminated water at midday, a vibrant eastern sky in the afternoon and an unpredictable sunset every evening. Even rain, fierce and forceful in the middle of the night, has never sounded more magical than from the sheltered perch of our overwater bungalow.

We’re in Maldives on Boxing Day, marking the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami that decimated many coastal communities of the region. All the resort employees we ask tell us a story of where they were on the day – most of them so young they were on their native islands, in grade school at the time, let out of class in the midst of rushing water and debris. Some islands have yet to recover from the tsunami, but most have rebuilt. Because Maldives’ was close to the earthquake’s epicenter, comparatively small waves swept across the country before they had time to develop into the larger, more destructive waves that hit Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand.

On our last night in Maldives we dine at the seafood grill, in a glass hut set up for just the two of us, and choose a fish from the live tanks. The staff catches the fish and the chef prepares it masterfully, but it’s such a large catch we can only eat half of it. Sajid, our server, tells us it’s no problem — come back tomorrow and they’ll serve us the rest for lunch. Really? Really. No problem. We move on to the cultural performance happening in the main bar. Resort employees are dressed in feylis, dancing and drumming, inspiring guests to get up and experience the music of the Maldives. It’s a perfect night, on a tiny island, in the Indian Ocean.

Our vacation passes quickly but every hour brings a sight to behold, a view not to be missed. There are lots of activities to do, and there is nothing to do. Nothing is my favorite. The water mesmerizes, the clouds drift past and we dream of eschewing all other beach vacations if we can just return here someday. The spell is cast and the magic is real.

Olhuveli Drum Line

Olhuveli Drum Line

***

Olhuveli Beach & Spa Resort is located on South Malé atoll, about one hour from Malé by speedboat. The resort is family-friendly, relaxed and more affordable than many newer, trendier resorts in the country. The island has two beaches, two swimming pools and a beautiful house reef for snorkeling. A watersports center rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and boats, and a PADI dive center is located at the end of the jetty. Excursions leave daily and dive boats are well equipped. Olhuveli has numerous dining options including large breakfast and dinner buffets, a Thai restaurant, a beachside bar and a seafood grill with live tanks and tables in the sand. Accommodations include standard rooms, beach villas and several types of overwater bungalows. Bed and breakfast, full board and all-inclusive rates are available. Overall, staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and several claimed January to March is the best time of year to visit. http://www.olhuvelimaldives.com

Exotic Destinations Miscellaneous Travel

The Allure of Sri Lanka

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

We arrived in Sri Lanka late on a Friday night, unable to see the country’s landscape from the windows of the plane. All discoveries of geographic color and contour would have to wait for daylight, and would be revealed over the next ten days as we traveled west to east, then south, and back to our starting point in Colombo. This was our first time in Sri Lanka and, although we’d read our guidebook and done some research, we had little idea of what the coming days would really bring. Comfort, kindness, fear, risk, reward, discovery and so many intangible things related to travel (good and bad) can’t ever be mapped out or predicted, and that’s just what’s so transfixing about it.

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

The Galle Face Hotel welcomed us with the palpable history of nearly 150 years on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Old and tired, the “grande dame” of Colombo just seemed happy to be there with all her imperfections, making no apologies for the wear and tear of 15 decades. The exhausted wood floor, the cracked tile, the dated finishes that were once in fashion welcomed us like a grandmother whose enduring beauty is far surpassed by the depth and character of her life. We spent one night, enjoyed breakfast on the veranda overlooking the ocean and said goodbye to the grande dame as we departed for the train station.

Colombo Train Station

Colombo Train Station

In Colombo for less than 24 hours, I was already wishing we could spend another day there before departing for Hill Country. The geographic transition from southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent was apparent in Colombo’s architecture and appearance. It was like connecting the dots between my travels north to Nepal and Bhutan and my travels to Burma and Indonesia on the east side of the Bay of Bengal.

The train station was a mess of activity, with people coming and going and the two of us standing at the curb, clueless about which way to go. With a bit of help from a local we made our way to window four. Tickets purchased and off to the platform!

On the train to Hill Country

On the train to Hill Country

Not far from Colombo the landscape of Sri Lanka began to rise and fall in an endless series of hills and valleys covered with dense trees and brush. A million shades of green extended as far as I could see. Somehow I hadn’t imagined Sri Lanka to be so lush and breathtaking. What a gorgeous surprise for our first full day in this country. I think I’m gonna like it here, I thought to myself.

Our first-class train tickets made our day trip comfortable (with air conditioning), but I wished we could open the windows and enjoy the cool air of Hill Country. In hindsight, second- or third-class is the way to go. Seats aren’t reserved, but the ride is altogether better in the open air among friendly locals.

Arrival in Hatton

Arrival in Hatton

Four hours into central Sri Lanka, we arrived at Hatton. In the bustle of leaving the train station we met a man named Sanoon and hired him to take us to our guest house in Dalhousie. Friendly and eager to get us to our destination, Sanoon packed his tuk-tuk with our bags and we were off on the next adventure.

Mr. Sanoon and Mr. Jason

Mr. Sanoon and Mr. Jason

We had more then 30 kilometers to cover on winding dirt roads, but Sanoon expertly cut the journey into smaller trips with scenic stops in between: a valley view, tea plantations, langur monkeys on the roadside, and a quick side trip to see a lake and a distant waterfall.

Between Hatton and Dalhousie

Between Hatton and Dalhousie

Roadside monkey business

Roadside monkey business

Dickoya Tea Plantation

Dickoya Tea Plantation

On the side trip to the lake, our tuk-tuk was chased by nine young boys who abandoned their cricket game to see who had arrived in their neighborhood. This ten-minute encounter, completely unexpected, was one of the very best of the whole trip. Shy at first and unsure if we were friendly, the boys stood around the tuk-tuk as we looked at the view. One boy held a cricket bat so Mr. Jason had a look and struck up a conversation. Soon we were all involved in questions and answers about cricket, first names and where we were from. I asked if they played football too? The most popular game in the world? No response. Any talk of playing ball in Sri Lanka can only mean cricket!

I had a Milo chocolate milk in my backpack (not my preferred drink, but choices on the train had been limited) so I offered it to them and one of the boys happily took it, then shared it with the others. Just before we got back in the tuk-tuk I asked them if I could take a picture. They effortlessly gathered into a perfect group photo, bottom to top, young to old, with the mischief and pride of adorable little boys. Best photo ever! We gave high-fives all around and drove off in the tuk-tuk, as they ran as fast as they could beside us until the road ran out and we were back on our way to Dalhousie.

Pocket full of sunshine

Pocket full of sunshine

We arrived at our guest house, Slightly Chilled, and checked in. Set on a hillside among tea plantations, the view was stunning across a quiet valley toward Adam’s Peak. We opted to climb the peak the second night, allowing us a day to rest and walk around Dalhousie. Sri Lanka is the world’s largest tea exporter (in US dollars), and the hills are thick with row after row after row of tea bushes. Sri Lanka has the perfect altitude, climate and hilly terrain for growing tea. Walking into the surrounding hills, we saw women picking tea and returning to the Laxapana Estate with baskets full of leaves — 20 kilos per person, per day required. Tea leaves are plucked, weighed, transported, withered, crushed, fermented, fired, graded and sent to auction where just a handful of men control all the selling for the entire country. Sri Lankan tea is marketed as Ceylon tea — Ceylon being the former name of Sri Lanka until it was changed in 1972.

Aside from tea picking, Dalhousie was a sleepy little town by day — not surprising since it sees most of its activity during the wee hours of the morning when people are trekking up and down the peak. A vendor in town gave me free samples of some Sri Lankan candy to satisfy my curiosity. The “candy” is gelatin, formed in wooden molds on the floor of a hut, in several flavors like dark brown. Not my favorite, and not very sanitary, but in our exchange I learned how to say thank you in Sinhala and took his photo. Another vendor was collecting paper money from around the world, and showed me his impressive collection. I contributed a plastic two dollar bill from Singapore and he invited me to come back for dinner. These are the travel moments I love.

Adam's Peak from Dalhousie

Adam’s Peak from Dalhousie

Picking tea on Sunday

Picking tea on Sunday

Istuh-tee, Candy Man

Istuh-tee, Candy Man

Monday morning, 3:00 a.m., we began the journey that brought us to Dalhousie. Adam’s Peak has been a pilgrimage site, primarily for Buddhists and Hindus, for more than 1,000 years. The hike to the top is about seven kilometers, with more than 5,200 steps — some of them easy, but most of them big and steep. We left the guest house at 3:00 a.m. so we would arrive by sunrise at 6:30 a.m. We stopped for tea along the way (there are numerous places along the path) and arrived with a few minutes to spare. With the sun rising, we removed our shoes and walked around the temple at the top with a 360-degree view of the landscape below. Drummers hammered out a rhythm as people made offerings and then began their descent.

Sunrise from Adam's Peak

Sunrise from Adam’s Peak

Descent from Adam's Peak

Descent from Adam’s Peak

Exhausted and struggling to stay on our feet, we arrived back at the guest house at 8:00 a.m. With no time to spare we ate breakfast, packed up and returned to Hatton where we would catch the train to Haputale. We had to be in Yala National Park by sunset, where the next phase of our trip began.

Sanoon! He was at the Hatton train station again, and helped us get our tickets onward to Haputale then told us he would be just a few minutes. We didn’t know what he meant but agreed and waited for the train. He returned 10 minutes later with gifts for us — a bag of tea from Hatton, two coins with impressions of Adam’s Peak and an invitation to come to his house if we ever returned. Istuh-tee Sanoon. Thank you for your kindness.

Like a blue ribbon, our train snaked along the top of Hill Country revealing incredible vistas from the open windows of second class, with the ground underneath dropping steeply away from the tracks toward the Uma Oya River and its waterfalls. Each stop was a window into life in the countryside, and vendors approached the train windows selling samosas and savory doughnuts.

Hatton to Haputale

Hatton to Haputale

Great Western

Great Western

Snacks on a train

Snacks on a train

Finally in Haputale at 2:00 p.m., we hired a driver for the next leg to Yala National Park. Hiring drivers was easy in Sri Lanka — the train could only get us so far, but there was always a willing party who would not only complete the distance but share some local culture with us along the way. Other travelers said the same — their drivers had enriched their experience with knowledge of where to go and how to get there. Between cars and trains we managed to see a lot of the southern half of the country.

Chaaya Wild Resort

Chaaya Wild Resort

The road from Haputale descended downhill through the jungle for quite some time, finally flattening out at as it headed south to Tissamaharama. From there we kept on and made a left turn to Yala, arriving right at sunset as a herd of water buffalo bathed in the lake next to the resort. Chaaya Wild staff welcomed us in the open-air lobby and then escorted us to our room — you cannot walk alone here at night as elephants, leopards, wild boar, etc. are known to wander the area.

Yala coastline

Yala coastline

The southeast border of Yala National Park is coastline, and Chaaya Wild Resort is located right next to the beach. It would be treacherous to swim here, but the thundering surf, bright blue-green water and long deserted beach were beautiful and well worth the visit. This was our first encounter with land that was hit by the tsunami in 2004, and just imagining the waves approaching this beach from all the way out on the eastern horizon was chilling. As we learned later that day, 47 people were killed here when the tsunami struck. But according to some, not a single animal in the park was found injured or killed — they had all moved inland with the prescient awareness of an approaching force.

Yala Tsunami Memorial

Yala Tsunami Memorial

We signed up for an afternoon safari and were paired with a driver named Priantha — just the three of us in his open-air vehicle from 3:00 p.m. to sunset. Between Priantha (20+ years of experience) and Mr. Jason (has an affinity for spotting visual effects a.k.a. animals), we saw a huge number of animals and birds at Yala as we bumped heavily along the dirt roads (ladies — word of advice: wear a good bra!).

I’ve never been on a safari before so the experience of seeing so many animals truly as they live together, with no protective fences or feeding times, was something I’ll never forget. We were lucky and saw a leopard at sunset as we were ending our safari and returning to the resort. Priantha saw it laying in the road, approached it in the vehicle, then stopped and turned off the engine as the leopard moved off the road. About ten seconds later, he (she?) appeared as almost a shadow, stepping slowly and silently deeper into the bushes. I was agape, transfixed and unable to focus quickly enough to get a photo in the extreme low light. But that’s okay — the cat’s slinky, deliberate steps are etched in my memory forever.

We went out with Priantha again, at 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Cool air and a spectacular sunrise wiped out any remaining sleepiness as we set out to look for more wildlife. A pack of jackals was out on the hunt, peacocks were perched on treetops out of reach of the dangers of the night, and a family of elephants was headed for a swim — only to turn back when a crocodile swam towards them in the water.

The land around Yala varied greatly, with vast areas of scrubby brush and tall trees followed by enormous wetlands with lily pads and lotus flowers, and dozens of huge birds nesting in the trees. To us, it was nothing short of spectacular — from the toads at the edge of a pond to the trumpet of an adolescent tusker as he charged through the brush. Other tourists might disagree about Yala — there seemed to be plenty of them driving around with poker faces and frowns, reluctant to share anything they had seen and more concerned about the quality of seats in their vehicle. Whatever. Our three nights at Yala were unforgettable.

Hambantota

Hambantota

We hired another driver, departed Yala and moved west along the south coast. Tsunami damage was again visible and our driver pointed out water levels and areas of land that had been flattened by the incoming waves. Roadside cemeteries and memorials marked the destruction. Some people had relocated inland, while others had gambled and re-built next to the water.

Hambantota, and all the towns along the way, were alive with anticipation of Sri Lanka’s New Year. It was Thursday, and Sunday would be the first day of the new year. People were out buying new clothes, fireworks and food to share with family.

Ten toes and hundreds of bananas

Ten toes and hundreds of bananas

We arrived in Mirissa in the early afternoon, said goodbye to the driver and spent the next two days and two nights on an idyllic palm-lined beach. From Hill Country to safari land to beachside relaxation, it was becoming apparent that Sri Lanka might be the most diverse, least traveled, best destination in the eastern hemisphere. At the very least, Lonely Planet got it right for 2013.

Mirissa Beach

Mirissa Beach

Never content to stay in one place for too long, we hitched another tuk-tuk and moved further up the coast to Unawatuna for our last night in Sri Lanka. Sumith was our driver — quite possibly the owner of the biggest smile and most infectious laugh in all of Sri Lanka. It would be impossible to be in a bad mood around this guy. He was good people, and happy to take us wherever we wanted to go. We hired him for the day. Sumith and I had a great conversation about language, tourism, religion, work and the New Year. People of Sri Lanka are primarily Buddhists, followed by Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Most speak Sinhala, followed by Tamil.

I asked Sumith where he was when the tsunami hit — as I was still shocked by the reality that pretty much every person on the south coast has a story about what happened that day. Sumith received news of the first wave by phone, drove the tuk-tuk to his family, picked everyone up and drove to higher ground. There were four waves total, and the second wave was the worst. His family’s home (inland, on the north side of the main road) was flooded with about a foot of water but Sumith and his whole family survived.

Sumith, always smiling

Sumith, always smiling

Sumith dropped us off at our next destination — the Villa Hotel, a tall white building that miraculously survived the tsunami except for the patio fronting the ocean that was ripped away leaving scars and debris still visible from the beach. The water was as high as the roof on the main level, just below our room. Our room was on the second level facing the ocean. Lovely and frightening at the same time.

Entrance of the Villa Hotel, Unawatuna

Entrance of the Villa Hotel, Unawatuna

Thoughtful details and pretty decor

Thoughtful details and pretty decor

Room with a cat's eye view

Room with a cat’s eye view

After a quick unpack, Sumith whisked us away on a day trip to Galle — the colonial walled town just to the north of Unawatuna. With the New Year approaching the streets were quiet, but the charm was still going strong with shops and discoveries around every corner. If you’re going to Sri Lanka, put Galle on your radar. The picturesque character of this protected enclave is blossoming with seaside appeal.

The Sri Lankan New Year came and went with little fanfare compared to the celebrations we’re accustomed to. No sleep lost! We had a fun breakfast of all kinds of little unknown cakes and dumplings. Generally speaking the food in Sri Lanka was good, but we wish we would have had more opportunity to try local cuisine. Staying in remote locations often means you’re subjected to bland buffets that have been created to satisfy everyone (and subsequently no one) in the world. However, we did try kottu roti — a melange of cut vegetables and meat that’s chopped with two blades and such distinct enthusiasm it can be heard being made all over Sri Lanka. It was good, and the hoppers at breakfast were also a new food experience.

Sri Lanka also has amazing fresh fruit, in particular pineapples and bananas. Sri Lanka has bananas for daaaaaays. Endless bananas. Bananas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you are a banana lover or banana farmer, this is your place. These are your people.

Breakfast at the Villa Hotel

Breakfast at the Villa Hotel

After breakfast we strolled down the beach at Unawatuna, once again astonished by the remaining damage from the tsunami more than eight years after impact.

Wrecked

Wrecked

Unawatuna

Unawatuna

Late in the afternoon, we hired our last driver to return us to Colombo and catch our flight to Singapore. The sun was an enormous orange ball dipping into the horizon in a final, fantastic goodbye. It was an incredible ten days in Sri Lanka — from the electric green tea plantations to the top of Adam’s Peak to the rustic backcountry of Yala to the lucent blue waters of Mirissa to the funky charm of Galle.

I arrived with few expectations, but Sri Lanka cast its spell and then enchanted me even more with the genuineness of its people. Istuh-tee Sri Lanka. May your waters be calm and your smiles be returned by the people you so graciously welcome to your home.

See you again, Sumith!

See you again, Sumith!

Exotic Destinations Photography Travel

Myanmar, Day 1: Welcome to Yangon

Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda from Sakura Tower

We just returned from eight days in Myanmar, and the words and descriptors lingering in my head include: time warp, dilapidated, adventure, smiles, beauty, surprise, hot, trash, crash, happiness, curiosity, sadness, possibility, difficulty and hope. We barely scratched the surface, visiting only Yangon, Bagan and Mount Popa, but there is clearly a wealth of exploration to be had in every direction — from the coastline and beaches in the west to the mountain villages in the north to Inle Lake and the Shan State in the east.

There are many curious things about Myanmar — starting with the confusion about whether to call it Myanmar or Burma. I’m now calling it Myanmar, after I was calling it Burma just last month. It seems everyone has flip-flopped on the name at one time or another, including Myanmar’s own government. If you’re interested, you can read all about it here.

Another curious thing is its time zone — it’s called Myanmar Time (MMT) which is GMT + 6:30, meaning Myanmar has its own zone which is 30 minutes ahead or behind its neighboring nations.

We arrived at the Yangon airport Saturday morning and exchanged some US dollars into the local currency (kyat). There are no ATMs or credit cards in Myanmar, so tourists have no choice but to carry cold, hard cash in concealed stacks of pristine bills. There can be no creases, tears, wrinkles, marks or smudges on your bills or they will be declined. (We saw it happen.) We laid out two brand new Ben Franklins and walked away feeling rich with 168,000 kyats.

From there we found a “taxi”, a term I use loosely since there are no meters in any taxis anywhere in town. Instead, you agree on a price before you get in. Taxis in Yangon are, hands down, in the most dilapidated, deplorable condition of any taxis we’ve ever ridden in anywhere in the world. They are in a visible state of rust and decay, with an occasional fancy seat pad or seat cover used to politely cover or distract from the severe wear and tear throughout the interior. It’s so ridiculous, you just have to laugh… especially at the big spider living in the door lock that stopped working 10 years ago.

Not knowing anything about Yangon, we had decided to spend our first two nights at the Savoy Hotel — one of just three upscale hotels around town (the others being The Strand Hotel and the Governor’s Residence). We checked in, dropped our bags, noticed the pool was closed due to renovation, and headed back out into the city to Sakura Tower. At Sakura Tower we paid cash for roundtrip tickets to Bagan (currently no way to pre-book them online) and went to the top of the tower for a bird’s eye view of downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Downtown Yangon near the Bogyoke Market

From the air, Yangon resembles a lot of other cities in the world. It’s not until you set out on foot that you begin to discover the nooks and crannies and unusual street scenes that seem caught in a time warp from decades ago. My mind struggled to compare Yangon to other places I’ve been — Kathmandu meets Lima is about the best I could come up with. Yangon is its own animal — full of contradictions, confusion and charming smiles from people who seem as curious about you as you are about them and their country.

High-rise living in Yangon

Trash is everywhere, apartment buildings are at myriad stages of decrepitude, colonial structures ache with a grimy sadness washed over their once-beautiful facades. Yet, there are brightly painted shutters, flowering plants and signs of life even in the dingiest parts of the city.

Typical transportation ~ five on a bike

A Yangon phone booth

Nowhere else is necessity so visibly the mother of invention. Cruiser bikes have been turned into three-wheelers to make money and move people around town. Phone booths appear on several street corners, with a handful of lines attached to old phones from the 1980s and a person who keeps track of the minutes on paper. Football, board games and even breakdancing keep the youth of the city occupied on the streets.

Streetside board games

The Bogyoke Market

The Bogyoke Market houses a huge array of stuff for sale — sandalwood combs, cedar woodcarvings, lacquerware, baskets, painted umbrellas, longyis, flip flops, artwork, food, fabric and much more. It’s a must-see and a fun place to shop for souvenirs.

Homemade

Yangon’s bigger version of custard and creme bruleé

In the alleys outside Bogyoke, there are stalls where you can sit and enjoy fresh fruit juice and avocado milkshakes while you watch the world go by.

Fresh-squeezed OJ

Just Do It: Gay pride in Yangon

While taking photos, I was surprised to encounter this person who was so proudly and happily pushing the boundaries of acceptable self-expression in a country that has outlawed homosexuality. Like Harvey Milk was to San Francisco, could he or she be the same to Yangon?

Fruits of her labor

Fruit and food is for sale everywhere, although with the poor water quality and sanitation we didn’t partake in what looked like some unusual and yummy options.

Lychees and rambutans

Everything fried

Mangosteens

Time to make the doughnuts

The doughnuts

Cinnamon at the spice market

A streetside betel nut roller

Nearly every man who smiles in Myanmar reveals a mouthful of bad teeth, stained with the rusty red of betel nut. Chewing betel nut is akin to chewing tobacco, with an effect similar to caffeine. Street vendors place areca palm nut pieces, tobacco and lime paste in a leaf from a betel vine, and wrap the mixture into a bite-size burrito. This is chewed into a red liquid that’s spit on the ground everywhere so you have to be very careful where you walk.

Yangon is a bit like Manila in that funky Jeeps in great condition are seen all over the city. These are surely some of the most well cared for vehicles in the whole country — I have no idea who is driving them and how they came to be in a city full of jalopy taxis.

Near the Botataung Pagoda

The Botataung Pagoda is located near the Yangon River, which has its own microcosm of activity near the water. Elaborate offering baskets are for sale all over — some with golden coconuts and green bananas.

Offering baskets near the Botataung Pagoda

Mingalaba!

Cooking over hot coals

More food stalls and scenes of daily life dot the sidewalks along Strand Road. Football games are everywhere — all ages in bare feet on concrete, playing The Beautiful Game with handmade nets.

Bare feet and concrete

42nd Street

Beauty in unexpected places

Not exactly the cat’s meow

Then, as if magically delivered in the middle of extreme poverty, the 50th Street Cafe appears on the side of the road.

The 50th Street Cafe

Housed in a restored colonial building, this place is like walking through a door back into the First World. Exposed brick, wrought iron, wood floors and a teak spiral staircase welcome you into a place completely unlike greater Yangon. Cheap beer is flowing, real pizza is cooking and the pool table and wi-fi are free. Wow. Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Yangon… surprise.

Like a mirage in a desert ~ is this place for real?

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