Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sri Lanka

Almost eight months ago, a Southeast Asian budget airline called Tiger Airways sent me an e-mail with crazy, crazy flight deals to random places in Asia. Thinking we would be in Asia for at least a few more years, we looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Why not go to Sri Lanka for Spring Break for $400 USD for the three of us?!?"

Between then and Spring Break, a lot happened and a lot was in the air. Fabio got a new job, we didn't know if he would still get his full leave, we were leaving Asia years before we thought we would, etc... So we just kept putting off deciding about whether we would really go or just eat the tickets.

Until two and a half weeks before our flight was booked to take off, when I casually looked at a calendar, was struck with the reality of how fast this year is going by, and said, "Fabio!! We have to decide about Sri Lanka RIGHT NOW!" 

We figured out Fabio gets to keep his leave, and when would we ever take the chance to go to Sri Lanka again... So we ran around like crazy people booking hotels and drivers, applying for rushed visas, and packing what seemed like a lifetime supply of baby food "squeezies." And before we knew it we were squished into a little airplane flying over the Indian Ocean, hoping that we didn't forget anything important.

We spent our trip in the southern part of the island, famous for gorgeous beaches and practically untouched wildernesses teaming with wildlife. We started with the beaches, which definitely lived up to their reputation. We stayed at a little local-owned resort with a handful of villas on a quiet beach well outside of town, which was all the sweeter to check-in to after a 3-hour white-knuckle van ride from Colombo on rain-slicked winding roads.

The sand on our little beach was so soft, and the coastline was breathtaking. It was so fun to be the only three people on the beach, and to play in the ocean for hours, jumping over waves, building sandcastles, and sinking our feet into the sand.

We were a little worried about spending several days with JP with nothing to do but swim on the beach, since historically he has been terrified of waves and hated the feeling of sand on his feet... But our little soldier not only faced his fears, but embraced them! He even wanted to surf with Fabio and was heart-broken when Fabs didn't take him out into the open ocean with him; so we sat his little sharkie shorts on the board afterwards and held his hands as he "rode" (i.e. splashed in) the more shallow waves to shore to his heart's content. He was pretty pleased with himself.

On our last morning at the villas, we got up at the crack of dawn to join a whale-watching tour. Because of Sri Lanka's proximity to the continental shelf, and its relatively un-developed shores, the island boasts one of the densest (if not the densest) Blue Whale populations in the world. Blue whales are the biggest animals to have EVER lived on the earth. Yes. Bigger than dinosaurs. I was surprised too... but it's true.

So naturally, Fabio was prepared to do whatever it took to see one... even if it meant getting up at 4:30 am. Jonathan was pretty grumpy about the early hour until we promised him he would ride a bus and a boat on the same day. Then he sat straight up, climbed out of bed, and ran around the room exclaiming, "BUS! BOAT! BUS! BUS! BOAT!"

And with that we threw on our life jackets and set out on to Sri Lanka's pristine, cobalt ocean... accompanied by local fisherman,

Huge pods of spinner dolphins (and I mean huge, 40 to 50 of them) showing off their stuff while the ship's crew whistled. (The crew said the dolphins love the attention and applause, and actually seek it; they must have because they followed us for almost an hour.)

And then, the incomprehensibly enormous blue whales. After the first surfaced, we were so thrilled and felt so lucky... then started to settle in for the ride back. We couldn't believe it when the first mate called out, "There! There!" again, and then again, and then again... as we saw more and more whales surface. It was amazing.

Next we drove to Yala National Park, a beautiful national park right on the shore, where the next day we would embark on an open-jeep safari with our 18-month-old son. What? What could go wrong? Why are you looking at us that way?

J's face in this picture says it all...

Once again we got up early--even earlier than for the whales--and once again Jonathan's grumpies were cured with the promise of a bus ride (fortunately anything big with wheels counts as a bus for him, including the jeep). With cameras and lunches packed, and slathered in sunscreen and bug-repellant, we set out on a skeleton-rattling ride on "dirt" roads (I think the term is a little generous for what we were on...) with the hopes of seeing lots of wildlife. And we were not disappointed.

It was surreal to think that these animals really were wild. That is where they live, and we were not in a zoo. All the while enjoying scenery like this,

And this.

We even saw a mama water buffalo take on a crocodile stalking her calf and send him swimming away as fast as he could. Our driver just turned around and said, "A mother's love." Seriously, the saying should be "mama water buffalo," not "mama bear," because wow.... she went crazy on that croc. And I love how the calf is just standing behind her, not even worried.

Much like our little cub when once again, an entire nation tried to pick him up. Only he knows to hide behind his papa.

But the real attraction that Yala is most famous for, is leopards. We really hoped to see one, but it wasn't looking good for us to. No one at the hotel had seen one the day before, and the weather was not the best for leopard sightings. Fabio and I both told the drivers not to worry because we knew they didn't have any control over whether or not leopards showed up, and we said to each other that we probably wouldn't see one, since there are only 50-100 in the whole huge park and they are nocturnal, after all. And yet we both still held on to secret hopes of seeing one before we left.

But, by 3:00 Jonathan was well past his nap time and it was getting really, really hot... so we decided to call it a day and to be grateful for all the amazing animals that we did see. The drivers understood, and  turned back toward the park exit. Fabio and I relaxed and started playing, "Where's my nose? Where's your belly button? Where's your teeth?" with Jonathan when all the sudden the engine killed. We looked up, desperately hoping we weren't stuck in 12 inches in mud (again) when we looked up and saw something in the road. We squinted to make out the dark shape in the shade. "Is it another boar?" Fabio asked. I looked harder and gasped... "No Fabio. That's a leopard.... Fabio!! That's a leopard!!"

We scrambled for our camera, and looked on in total quiet awe of such a beautiful animal, just meters away from us. It felt like time slowed down and we just sat in total wonder. Even the drivers, who have seen leopards dozens if not hundreds of times before, whispered excitedly about being so close to something so special. She laid in the road for a while, then stood up and walked across the bushes so we could see her even better. She hissed, and yawned, and strutted.

Suddenly Jonathan, who had just sat quietly the entire day enjoying the ride, sleeping a little here, eating a snack there... hit the end of his limit and let out an ear-piercing scream. Not the scared kind, the "I'm-one-and-I'm-out-of-patience" kind. The leopard whipped her head around and looked right at him, and as I watched through my super-zoomed camera lens a sudden mental switch turned in my mind from a casual "What could go wrong?" to a panicked "This could go very, very, VERY wrong!" Fortunately, Fabio was ready with a piece of coconut roti for Jonathan, who after a few bites went back to his barely-audible "Roars" at the giant predator... and she was more curious than hungry, which made for some great shots. 

So turns out Jonathan is just his mother's son... willing to risk life and limb for a great picture.

The famous coconut roti... Jonathan's favorite part of the trip. 
Our guide, Mahinda, gave J one from his lunch one day and J devoured it, 
so Mahinda had his friend make six for Jonathan on our last day.
I have to admit, they were quite delicious.

The whole day was an incredible end to an incredible (although thrown together) trip, which concluded with an awfully familiar scene that I will really miss when this stage of our lives comes to an end.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chinese New Year

Last month marked the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, which probably went unnoticed by most of you, over-shadowed by holidays like "Valentine's Day" and "President's Day." But in Singapore, the second new moon after the winter solstice is a big, big, BIG deal.

The best way to describe the nature of the holiday is to say it's Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Spring Cleaning combined into one, huge holiday. Chinese New Year music plays in the stores and malls for weeks, red lanterns adorn almost every door, cleaning and catering services inundate mailboxes with hundreds of promotional flyers... basically the entire country is all a hustle and bustle for a month and a half. I have grown to really appreciate, and even love this time of year. Some of the traditions are so smart that they could only have come from a very old, experienced culture...

Some of my favorites:

-Everyone spends hours and hours cleaning out their entire house leading up to the holiday. Every corner of the house must be cleaned meticulously... the worse a year you had last year, the more rigorously you clean. You get rid of your old stuff and buy new as much as you can afford, at the very least a new outfit. This is olympic-level deep cleaning.

-The holiday is really a week of celebrations and traditions, part of which includes two days for visiting family. The sons visit their parents and family for a "reunion dinner" the first day, and the daughters visit their parents and family for a "reunion dinner" the second day. No "taking turns" or jealous in-laws. Genius. People do everything in their means and power to make these visits happen. They spend thousands of dollars to go back to China if they have to, because it is Chinese New Year and that is the day you visit your parents. Couples whose parents live in different provinces will travel for hours through the night to make it from the son's family to the daughter's family on time. It is pretty incredible.

-During and for several days after the reunion dinners, there is absolutely no cleaning. None. Lots of people even have two sets of dishes so they can host their sons and their daughters without doing dishes in between because it is such bad luck.

-No gifts. Just "ang pau", little red envelopes filled with and even amount of new bills of money. Not old bills, new ones. Not $4, or $40, or $400 though... because the Chinese word for "four" sounds like the chinese word for "dead" and you are basically wishing someone dead. Chinese are so superstitious that doing something so unlucky would be basically the meanest thing you could possibly do to someone. And only older people give them to younger people.

-Symbols, symbols, symbols. Some make no sense to me even after someone explains them, but the ones I like include: two fish decorations to signify having enough and then some; tangerines with leaves to symbolize long-lasting friendship; Red and gold EVERYTHING to symbolize good fortune and prosperity; tangerines and pineapples without leaves to symbolize wealth; firecrackers to chase away bad spirits; and so on... everything means something during Chinese New Year.

-Along the lines of symbols, rubbing a blonde child's hair is considered very, very good luck (it's gold, which is an auspicious color). Last year Jonathan almost had a bald spot rubbed off--it was the Dragon year, which (for reasons I'm still not totally clear on) is really important it go well for people. So lots and lots of blonde-baby-rubbing happened. The hair rubbing happens all year around, Jonathan doesn't even notice or flinch when people rub his hair because he's so used to it, but it is especially intense during CNY. People will rub his head, look at me, smile and say, "It will be a good Snake year, now. Thank you." You are considered extremely fortunate if you actually have a blonde baby in your house. Basically nothing can go wrong for you... I can't disagree. We are pretty fortunate to have our little tow head around.

So in the spirit of Chinese New Year, some friends and I bought our kids little Chinese outfits and took them to a beautiful monastic garden to take pictures. Because, you know... that's what happens when you get a bunch of expat stay-at-home moms together. As Jonathan and I left to meet our friends that day Fabio called out to me, "Have fun playing dolls with your friends today!" It is what it is. But look how cute they turned out!

Jon and the ladies... S, O, A, J, and Z

We also had a little "reunion dinner" with our Singapore extended family. Jonathan played with his buddies (read, ladies) while we ate egg drop soup, lettuce wraps, and brownies (no authentic Asian desserts for me, thank you very much). We couldn't bring ourselves to be totally authentic, so we did the dishes afterwards too. Hopefully we didn't send all our luck for 2013 down the drain (literally).

And with that, we wish a belated but sincere Gong Xi Fa Cai to everyone!