Monday, July 3, 2017

My First Solo International Voyage

Poya Day Fun on Galle Face Green
Sri Lanka is a land full of reasons to celebrate.  There always seem to be parties, celebrations and holidays going on around us.  Most regularly are the monthly full moons.  In Sinhala, the full moon is called Poya and is a Buddhist day of worship.  Most businesses give the day off (if Poya falls on a weekday) and you are not able to purchase meat at the grocery store or alcoholic beverages at restaurants and bars.  Even movie theatres close for the day!  It is a considered a monthly day of rest and reflection.

Many times, other festivals that are celebrated in Sri Lanka are coordinated around the full moon as well.  The most notable of these are the Peraheras.  These are processions, or fancy parades, that celebrate or honor special occasions in the Buddhist calendar.  The most famous of these Peraheras is the Kandy Esala Perahera that happens in July/August every year in the city of Kandy.  There are several others that occur throughout the year and on other parts of the island, usually originating from a Buddhist temple in honor of something sacred.  But the annual Kandy Perahera is by far the biggest, grandest and most sacred one that is held in all of Sri Lanka.

Now, before we proceed, a little history.  The current Perahera is actually a fusion of 2 separate, ancient Peraheras.  The first, the Esala Perahera, began in the 3rd century AD and was meant to be a series of rituals and processions which prayed for adequate rains for growing crops.  The second Perahera, the Dalada, began in the 4th century and was meant to honor the arrival of The Sacred Tooth Relic from India to Sri Lanka.  When Buddha died, his body was cremated upon a sandalwood funeral pyre.  After the cremation was finished, one of his disciples discovered one of the Buddha’s canine teeth had survived the fire.  He scooped it from the ashes and delivered it to the king of that territory in Uttar Pradesh, India.  It was believed that whoever possessed the Tooth was the rightful ruler of that territory.  Inevitably, wars over land and rightful heirs were fought and the Tooth moved locations accordingly.  Eventually, legend has it that it was smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of an Orissan Princess dressed as a Brahmin priest.  The king was so honored to have the relic on his island that he ordered the Tooth be paraded through the streets for his subjects to marvel at.  It was kept in the capital with the King, which in the 4th century was located in the city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.  The capital city shifted a few times, until the Tooth finally came to rest in the city of Kandy, where it has remained.  Kandy is not the capital, but this is where the Tooth now stays.  A shrine was built for the Tooth in each city where it rested, the next more elaborate the last.  The temple in Kandy is no exception.  I briefly referenced this story in my post about our journey with the Jones Family.  That was my first trip to Kandy and my first time visiting the Temple of the Tooth Relic. 

Now, back to the topic at hand: the current Esala Perahera.  This celebration is definitely the longest and most elaborate of all the Peraheras that are celebrated across Sri Lanka.  It is an 11-night affair with a different processional each night full of music, drumming, dancers and more elephants than you have ever seen.  The first day begins with the splitting of a jackfruit tree into 4 sections, which are all planted in order to shower blessings on the people and act as a vow that the festival will take place.  The next 5 nights are a series of processions that are each in honor of a different guardian god called the Kumbal Peraheras.  There is usually music, drumming, flag bearers and other performers who perform in honor of each god.  Different costumed dancers perform, eliciting different requests from the gods, including everything from ample rain for crops to protection from famine and disease. These Peraheras are pretty low key compared to the ones that follow next.

On the 6th night, the Randoli Perahera begins, which is the start of the Tooth Relic celebration.  These processions typically have around 100 elephants dressed in elaborately made costumes, many of whom also carry a decorated palanquin.  The final elephant, known as the Maligawa Tusker, carries the most elaborate palanquin which houses the Tooth Relic inside its casing.  The processions tend to get longer, more elaborate and include more and more performers as the nights go on.  The bedazzled elephants are interspersed with thousands of drummers, dancers, flame throwers, plate spinners, whip crackers and a variety of other performers.  The final Perahera occurs on the full moon, or Poya, and that procession is typically north of 4+ hours long.  Each Perahera is then finished by the signal of a deafening cannon shot.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Ok, Heather, so how do you fit into all of this?”  Well, I knew soon after we arrived in Sri Lanka that I wanted to attend this grand affair.  Early in June, I began researching how much it would cost and if we could make it work.  I originally planned for us to take the train to Kandy, which is said to be the best train ride in the whole country, first for the beauty and second because I knew the crowds for this event would be immense and having a car would likely get complicated.  Then I started looking into tickets.  Typically, the businesses that line the parade route set up box seating on their balconies and sell each chair they have for each night.  If you don’t buy a ticket in advance, then your alternative is to show up many hours before the parade starts and allocate your spot along the street, like you would in the states for a 4th of July parade.  Except here, the streets remain busy with foot traffic and it is incredibly hot and humid out, so sitting on a busy sidewalk for hours doesn’t seem like the best option, especially with 2 small kiddos.  Unfortunately, as I found, there were very limited tickets left for the final nights of the parade – which I heard are really the ones worth going to.  Hotels near the downtown area were also pretty much sold out.  I gave up my hopes of this festival after discovering all of this information.

Fast forward to the end of July when we returned from our trip to the Maldives.  We were recovering from our trip and making plans for Ryan to begin a 6 week long trek away from home.  He was set to spend almost 3 weeks in India traveling by himself, come back for a few days and then head off to spend most of the month of September with the Sri Lankan Army in the northern part of the island.  As we were preparing for his absence, I received an email from the Embassy saying that they had organized a trip to the Perahera in Kandy and were still filling slots to go.  Ryan and I agreed that this would be a good opportunity for me to get away by myself before being left alone with the kids for so long.  He wasn’t completely sold on going to the event as a family anyway and we both agreed it might be tough to take the kids. We knew other Peraheras would be happening closer to home, so we decided to take them to one of those instead.  I immediately emailed back and jumped on the list to go to Kandy! 

It was just a quick overnight trip.  Our small group of 6 plus our driver met at the Embassy at 7 am on Saturday morning, ready for the 4-5 hour drive north to Kandy.  I had never met anyone of the other people who had signed up, but spending that amount of time in a van tends to bond people.  We got to know each other along the way.  Having already done this drive before, I felt prepared for the journey and had brought plenty of reading material, since I didn’t have small humans to entertain the whole way.  For this trip I decided to reread my copy of Siddhartha – I had been meaning to reread it, having not touched it since high school, and this seemed like a fitting trip.  I also spent a lot of time chatting with Alena, an incredibly interesting woman my age who won me over first by filling a role I usually take on – trip mom.  She brought snacks for everyone and was prepared with trip details, itineraries and information we might need for our adventure.  I’m usually the one in charge of all of this stuff, happily so, but it was great to hand the reigns over for once.  I knew we would be good friends right away – turns out I was right.

We arrived at our hotel, Mahaweli Reach, just north of downtown Kandy around 12:30 or so – just in time for lunch.  We checked in and headed for the dining room where we all enjoyed a delicious lunch and some more casual conversation.  It was a nice group of people who were all pretty easy to talk to – what a relief!  After lunch, we all went our separate ways for a while.  I went up to my room to enjoy the quiet for a little while, write a little and relax.  After about a half hour, it occurred to me that I saw a spa downstairs.  I looked at the clock and saw that I still had about an hour and half before I had to meet the group, so I decided to go see if I could fit in a treatment beforehand.  Luckily they were able to get me right in!  I didn’t want to feel rushed, so I picked a slightly shorter shoulder, back and head massage – just what the doctor ordered.  Spa prices are incredibly affordable here, so not a single part of me felt guilty about my indulgence.  It was worth every rupee!

Guy giving out free ice cream
I finished just in time to enjoy some tea and snacks provided by the spa before walking back upstairs to meet the group to head to the event.  We drove back down into the downtown area, getting to the venue nice and early before the crowds really packed in.  Our tickets put us at a B&B right on the front end of the parade route.  We met the manager who was excited to have us experience the Perahera from his place.  He showed us upstairs to a dining room where the included dinner buffet would be served and offered us all drinks while we waited for dinner to begin.  We had a bit of time to kill before that happened, so we all checked out the view from the balcony, watching the crowds file in and find spaces along the sidewalk to sit.  There was even a guy right below our balcony handing out free ice cream to a crowd of kids that was rapidly growing.  There were thousands of people all over the streets – it was becoming clear just how big an event this really was!

Pre Show Preparations
We were seeing the Perahera 2 nights before the final show, so I knew, after having read about it, that this was going to be an extensive experience.  They opened the dinner buffet around 6:30, which had a great spread of food: everything from local curries and rice to salad and roasted bbq style chicken.  We finished up with coffee and tea while we waited for the first sounds of the parade.  Excitement was mounting, as none of us really knew what to expect from this whole experience.  We could see a stray elephant here and there as well as performers making their way to their starting positions.  I was getting my camera and phone ready when we noticed other people starting to take their seats on the balcony.  Our seats were reserved, but we all went and sat down anyway, just to ensure their safety.

Finally, the festivities began.  It was dark at that point and the streets were only lit by lights from the businesses along the street and torches being carried by men along the parade route.  The torches were made from coconut husks drenched in some kind of gas or lighter fluid.  A set of torch carriers were usually followed by a guy with more coconut husks and fluid and another guy, who I assume was there in case something went wrong with the torch.  The streets were narrow, especially with each sidewalk packed to the edge with parade watchers.  I was nervous for the people along the sides – the torches dripped as they passed by and little kids were excitedly perched precariously close to the path of the dripping torches.  Such are the perils of a street festival in Sri Lanka.  

Whatfollowed was over 3 hours of performers: hundreds of dancers dressed in colorful, traditional costumes; men and children walking on towering stilts; plate spinners spinning both single plates as well as multiple plates at one time, throwing them high in the air, and catching them on tall poles; drummers pounding out beats from various sized drums;
elephant dressed in colorful silk robes, bedazzled with jewels, covered in lights and embroidered with beautiful threads; and palanquins carrying Buddhas and other glittering relics.  It was loud, colorful, vibrant, and long.  Very, very long.  After about an hour and a half of the performances, I think we were all beginning to wonder just how long it could all possibly go on.  And then it went on for another 2 hours.  We managed to stick it out, but after the long drive and the rest of the day we were all pretty tired and ready to head back.  We watched as the last elephant lumbered its way through the streets, after which the throngs of people filled in where the performers had once danced, drummed and walked. 
Our driver parked a couple of blocks away to avoid getting blocked in by the crowds, so we made our way back to where he had parked.

We found our driver relatively easily, climbed in the van and recounted what we had just seen.  I think we all agreed we had no idea it was going to be so long and that we all thought it could have ended about an hour and a half before it did.  Think about any parade you’ve ever been to and how after the fourth or fifth fire truck, you are checking your watch and wondering when you can make your way to the food and beer tents.  Well, this was sort of like that, except there were no food and beer tents to speak of, so we were all just ready for bed.  Once back at the hotel, we all went to our rooms, where I got cleaned up and fell asleep doing some writing. 

The next morning, we all agreed to meet after breakfast and get an early start back to Colombo.  I think some of us wanted to relax a little more, but since others seemed anxious to get back we all agreed to get a move on.  After breakfast, I ran back upstairs to collect my bags.  On my way back, I decided to take the stairs down the 4 flights.  About 1 flight down the set, I was stopped dead in my tracks by what I thought, at first, was some kind of dead foliage.  Then, upon closer inspection, I thought it was maybe a cruel joke left by some prankster or young kid.  In reality, it turned out to be an enormous Huntsman spider, sitting on the top step of the next flight of stairs…squarely in the middle, seemingly taking up the entire staircase.  If you know me at all, you might guess at my reaction. 

This was left on my pillow when I returned
and is a lot more pleasant than a spider!
Ever since I was about 8 years old I have had a fear of spiders.  I was bitten on my leg by a brown recluse around that age, a fact that my mother thankfully figured out soon after the fact and rushed me to the hospital.  The doctors biopsied the growth that had formed on my leg in the few hours since the bite, figured out the culprit and excised the growth and venom from my leg.  I still have a melanin-free divet in my calf that sunburns easily and grows spots occasionally as a reminder of the incident.  Since then, I have always tried to be rational about spiders but also can’t help the psychosomatic physical response that occurs anytime I see one.  And this one was bigger than my hand, palm to fingertip, spread out as wide as it goes.  I literally thought if it saw me, it might devour me whole.  I started sweating, my heart was racing and I quickly tried to figure out the most rational escape plan.  I briefly considered trying to step around it, but couldn’t stop imagining it jumping on my leg and finishing off what the brown recluse had started.  The mere thought of that made my skin crawl and my legs feel antsy.  I didn’t realize I had been completely frozen in one spot until I saw a hotel employee pass by the bottom of the stairs.  I saw him walk by once, then realized I should try to call out to him – someone should be alerted about the presence of this dastardly creature, nevermind simply come to my immediate rescue.  When I saw him come back by a few seconds later, I tried to call out to him, only realizing my desert dry mouth barely whispered, mostly inaudibly, something like, “Um….excuse me??  Sir??”  Yeah, he didn’t hear me.  I felt like my lifeline just floated away and now I was lost at sea.  I looked around, thinking maybe I could throw something at it to make it run away.  Then I realized it might know who threw it and head straight for me in revenge.  At that point, I remembered I had come down from somewhere up.  I turned around, went back the way I came and quite literally ran to the elevators where I ensured my safety and breathed for probably the first time in 10 minutes. 

When I got to the front desk, everyone was chatting about getting on the road.  I didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, but felt it imperative to try to explain to these strangers what had just happened to me.  I didn’t want to sound like a wuss, but at the same time this was a pretty significant survival event for me and I felt the need to have a shared human experience.  I jumped in to their conversation and briefly explained what I had just seen and they looked at me like I was crazy.  I don’t think they believed me, even though I must have been visibly sweaty.  They also may have thought I had not only overreacted, but also that the spider could not possibly have been as big as I said it was.  A typical “big fish” story, if you will.  I informed the front desk agent about what I had seen and advised someone to go check it out just in case any other stair takers came across it in their travels to check out.  I felt like saving the rest of the hotel from the perils of this dangerous creature was my community service for the day.  If you have never seen a Huntsman spider, please Google it immediately so you can have an idea of what I encountered on those stairs.  After looking at the picture, then spread your hand and fingers out as wide as you can and that is the size of the creature in question.  I would post a picture of it here, but the act of searching, copying and posting a picture of one may just send me into cardiac arrest.  But, if you can handle it, please check it out.  The image really adds to the story.  I felt vindicated many days later when, coincidentally, someone else was talking about having seen one.  At the time I had no idea what the name of this thing was, until this person described having seen one somewhere else in Sri Lanka and I knew immediately it was the same thing.  I went home and Googled it myself to make sure, and to show Ryan so that he could have some visual appreciation for my horror, and was relieved to know I hadn’t made the whole thing up.  Tropical creatures are no joke, people!

After my harrowing experience, I was indeed ready get back on the road for home.  Along the way,
we all agreed that we should stop at an outdoor market and our driver knew of a good one.  Many of us realized we had no plans or food for dinner, so wanted to stop and grab some vegetables to be prepared.  Luckily, our driver was from a town not too far outside of Colombo where there is a huge outdoor market on Sundays.  We pulled in and all got out, amazed at the size and scope of this place.  It was almost the size of an airplane hangar, organized from one end to the other by product type.  At the front end were clothes, shoes, bags and other similar items.  Then, as you moved toward the other end, the contents continued to shift.  Next was the dried fish section, with tables upon tables of salty, cured fish – the smell of which permeated everything.  Following that were the fruit and veggie vendors, lined up side by side and as far as the eye could see.  Beyond those were vendors selling packaged food items, both from stores and from handmade shops selling things like baked goods and popcorn.  I tried to quickly walk through all of them to decide what I wanted, but it was never ending and impossible to choose just one.  I knew I wanted onions, potatoes, butternut squash and some spinach.  I finally settled on a vendor, gestured to the veggies I wanted and nervously awaited the price, not yet confident in my skills of price negotiation.  Here, anytime you go to any market, you can expect to get highballed on everything and the vendors expect you to hit them back with a counter offer.  I was not super comfortable with this model at the time and started to sweat, not knowing what I would do if she tried to rip me off.  In her barely audible, unclear English I thought she said 1400 rupees.  I started to sweat more – for a small bag of potatoes, 5 onions, 1 squash and a big bunch of spinach, that sounded like a total ripoff at around $10.  I knew there was no way locals were paying anything
close to that much for these items.  I was about to dispute, when I asked her to clarify, as I started pulling out my cash.  She repeated what I thought was 1400 rupees again.  She was trying to find a way to tell me more clearly, she was even looking at my cash to indicate what I needed to give her.  She started pointing at my 500 rupee bill and that’s when I realized all of my produce was only going to cost me 400 rupees.  That’s about $2.60.  I felt silly and simultaneously confounded at what I had just paid for a huge bag of produce.  At an American farmer’s market there’s no way I would have walked out of there with what I had for less than $15.  I realized at that moment that the group was probably waiting for me, so I walked back through the market, feeling newly confident, and made my way back to the van.

We got home about an hour later.  I regaled Ryan and the kids with my tales of adventure as I unloaded my veggie haul.  I felt proud to have had my first real Sri Lankan adventure by myself.  I saw culture and nature and shopped in an outdoor market.  I met some new people and saw things I had never experienced before.  It was fun and exhilarating and made me want to get back out there and see more things.  It was exactly the experience I needed before taking on the kids alone in this new country while Ryan went away.  I had faced a Huntsman spider and lived to tell the tale.  I was ready for whatever was coming next. 
My vegetable haul from the market!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Maldivian Island Experience

After the Jones family flew back to Indonesia to begin their return to America, we settled back into life in Colombo.  As we did so, we began planning our next trip – which would also be our first trip out of Sri Lanka since we arrived.  For this journey we were headed to The Maldives.

Now, before I regale you with tales of exotic cuisines and turquoise waters, let me tell you a little bit about the Maldives that you may not already know.  It’s an incredibly fascinating nation, aside from its fantasy vacation destination reputation.  First of all, located just southwest of Sri Lanka, the entire nation is made up of about 1,200 different islands, spread out across the Indian Ocean in 26 Atolls (island groups) straddling the Equator; most of the islands lie above, while just a few small groups lie below.  The entire country only has about 380,000 residents and those residents only occupy about 200 islands of the whole archipelago.  Resorts occupy about 100 more of the islands, while the rest are either uninhabited or used for agriculture.  Each resort island is occupied by a single resort, so you are likely to remain on that island (usually happily so) for the entirety of your stay in the Maldives.

The politics of the Maldives have an incredibly complicated and divisive history.  It's probably worth its own post, honestly.  There's no short way to explain it.  The last 10 years have been rife with conflict and transition, while just the last 2 years or so have been particularly volatile.  Not to mention the impending rising sea levels around the lowest lying country in the world.  All of this has left the people of the Maldives in a tough spot.  It's a beautiful place, but like most beautiful things, it's incredibly complicated as well. 

Until about 5 or 6 years ago, tourists were only permitted access to the resort islands.  Admittance to the residential islands was strongly prohibited.  The Maldives is the only other nation in the world, besides Saudi Arabia, with a 100% Muslim population among its residents.  Because of the restrictions Muslim culture places on things like alcohol consumption, exposure of skin and public displays of affection, the restriction from the residential islands was probably for everyone’s benefit.  This meant a lot fewer shenanigans for tourists to find themselves embroiled in if they kept their cocktail drinking tanning sessions contained to the resort islands, which are not required to follow these restrictions.  However, several years ago that all changed when the government lifted the ban on tourists in residential areas.  Now, locals have AirBnB guesthouse setups where backpackers and culture seeking tourists can get a true local experience.  Trip takers can stay on the residential islands, in residences rented by locals and be fed local cuisine prepared by people who have likely never left their atoll. 

To be honest, here is where I depart a little from most people in the preferred vacation department.  Don't get me wrong, the idea of coming to The Maldives did appeal to me.  I didn’t grow up with a lot of vacation experiences and I’ve never been anywhere “exotic” and tropical like that before, so from a pure position of curiosity I was intrigued to go.  Beyond that, though, beach/resort vacations have never really been my thing.  We didn’t take a lot of vacations when I was a kid.  The one vacation we took (and still religiously take) is my extended family’s 2 week rustic camping trip in the middle of the Adirondack park.  It’s just 30 of my closest relatives, a city of tents and all the food and supplies we bring with us.  That’s my idea of a vacation – no waiters and no frills, just the peaceful quiet of wind rustled trees and sweet, fresh mountain air.

With this in mind, resorts and beaches just don’t hold a candle to this for me.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of the beach and I am, at my core, a fresh water fish.  So, if I am going to travel abroad, I’m not usually looking for 5-star service and luxury accomodations – peeing in a freshly cleaned outhouse is a luxury on my usual family vacation.  If I go to a new place, I really want to see it – explore it.  I want to eat local cuisine and sit in divey local spots not meant for tourists.  I want to really be in that space and experience it, at least in part, as the locals do.  So, this latter description of Maldivian tourism, including guesthouses and locally caught grilled fish sounded perfect to me.  However, this is not the trip we ended up planning for our Maldivian experience and that turned out to be A-OK too.

For this trip, Ryan decided that he wanted to fly in a few days ahead of us so he could meet with some people and get around a bit.  This also meant my very first solo international plane trip with the kiddos!  When you travel to the Maldives, you fly into the nation’s capital Male (pronounced Mah-Lay).  Male is one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with every square meter of its 5.8 square kilometers (about 2.2 miles) populated by about 1/3 of the Maldivian population, plus all the tourists coming in to visit.  Male is a dense, intricate and fascinating little city that a lot of people probably don’t get to fully experience.  It seems like a lot of people probably come for a few hours, either on a resort excursion or while waiting for their flight, but the majority of people don’t stay overnight or for any number of days.  The airport is on a separate island called Hulhule, just a 5 minute ferry ride away.  The totality of Male includes its central island, the airport island, and 2 other small islands close by. 

Ryan flew into Male about 3 days ahead of us for some FAO related meetings.  During one of those meetings, he got a tour of the main airport, which was a thrill for my husband who has been missing the cockpit quite a bit lately.  They even took him up into the tower, and he is of the opinion that it has to be one of the greatest control tower views in the world.  He also got to walk inside  Male’s old Friday Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the basis of its architecture and unique coral-brick construction material.  This mosque, built in 1658, is sometimes open to respectfully-dressed foreign visitors, but technically, only with permission from the Maldivian government's Islamic Council. However, representatives or staff from the Council are generally on the premises, so Ryan was able to charm his way in with lots of respectful smiling and "Assalaam Alaikums."

Fast forward a few more days, to when the kids and I prepared to meet Ryan in the Maldives.  Our flight was in the late afternoon, so that gave me all day to make sure we had everything we would need, get the kids fed, and get to the airport on time.  The flight to Male is about 1 hour, which felt like a totally manageable amount of time for my first international trip.  Once we were through the ticket and immigration lines, I have to admit, it felt a heck of a lot easier than I imagined.  We got through without a hitch and got on the plane, where the kids promptly fell asleep, having both missed their naptimes. 

Once we were airborne, I was surprised to find that they don’t do the beverage service quite the same here as in America – it is way better!  Even though it was only an hour flight, the flight attendants came around and brought everyone mango juice boxes and mini spicy curry and sambol sandwiches.  We were up and down before I even knew we had left the country.  Once we landed, the kids and I easily collected our luggage, passed through customs and met Ryan on the outside of the airport, where we were led by a hotel representative to a ferry for Male proper.  Away we went!

We were visiting The Maldives in July, which is actually “the low season” for tourism.  This is because May to November is also monsoon season.  This doesn’t mean that there is constant torrential weather, but it does mean that storms can come in and out at any time.  On the boat ride over to Male proper, we could definitely tell a storm was a brewing – a grey sky covered the rocky, turquoise waters between the island that holds the international airport and the main island.  Storm or not, I was excited to see Male, especially after Ryan had spent the last 3 days talking about how fascinating it was.

We jumped off the ferry, where we were met by a car to take us and our luggage to the hotel.  Ryan said this seemed a little silly, since the hotel was only 2 blocks away, but once we started driving I realized why it was a smart idea.  The streets were all cobblestone (making luggage dragging impossible) and packed with pedestrians, a few cars, and thousands of small motorcycles and scooters.  When they say the island is densely populated, they weren’t joking! 
The driver got us into the narrow alley where our hotel was located and we quickly disembarked, before the traffic behind us (stopped until we unloaded) turned against us.  We dropped off our bags, freshened up and got right back out onto the street to walk around.  By this point it was after 6:30, so we were ready to find some dinner.  Ryan toured us through some of the side streets, walking us by the old Friday Mosque and through the center of the city, while he talked about how the streets really come to life at night. 

We made our way to a great Thai restaurant for dinner, which was a relief to me not having had a good Thai meal in quite some time.  Ryan had tried this place for a previous meal, so vouched for its quality – and he was right, it was great!  Oddly, we were the only patrons in the place when we sat down around 7 pm.  What we tend to forget is most people in South Asia eat on a much later schedule than we do, not coming to dinner until after 8 a lot of the time.  What is a semi-late dinner time for many Americans is the early bird hour for most South Asians.  The staff were so happy to have us, though, paying a lot of attention to the kiddos – as they have already become accustomed.  We enjoyed a great meal, then wandered the long way back to the hotel through the bustling streets of Male.  I’ve never seen so many active motorcycles in my life and there were people out everywhere, walking around and taking in the nightlife.  We made our way back for the kiddos to get into bed, while Ryan and I made a plan for the following day.

So many bananas at the market!!
The fresh produce always looks amazing
The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel buffet where we met an awesome couple from the States, who were in a later stage of a lifestyle much like ours.  He was retired from a military career that took his family all over the world.  They had lots of stories and advice to share, as well as a sincere grandparent interest in our kiddos.  It was one of those travel interactions you always hope to have after which you wish you had exchanged information – which we did, so record a win for us! 

We left breakfast to walk around Male in the daylight, as we still had a few hours to kill before the ferry to the island we’d be staying on for the rest of the week.  We made our way to the local fish and produce market.  It was quite an extensive venue with vendors selling beautiful looking produce and freshly caught and cleaned fish.  The fish market had a long line of men at tables gutting and cleaning the fish that had just come in from the boats - it was quite an operation. 

Another thing that you could find in ample supply was betel leaf (pictured above).  Betel leaf, or paan when mixed with spices, sugar, and shredded coconut, is South Asia's answer to chewing tobacco.   Vendors line the leaves with lime, sprinkle with tobacco and Areca nuts, then fold them into pouches to be chewed.  Sometimes people add mint, cardamom, or saffron to individualize their flavor.  Walking through most of South Asia, you might see blood red splashes on the sidewalk, leading you to fear the worst has happened recently.  Not to fear, this is just the color the betel leaf  juice produces and is then spat all over the roadways and sidewalks as they are consumed.  Many believe there are numerous health benefits to chewing betel leaf; however, tooth decay and oral cancer are also common problems that come along with it as well.  You will often know a paan chewer by his/her red stained teeth, of which he/she may be absent a few. 

We finished our market tour through the dried fish stalls, which have rows upon rows of dried fish of all varieties and sizes.  The air takes on the salty, fishy smell of dehydrated fish, which can be a bit overwhelming after a while.  We left the markets to walk to another hotel with a beautiful view of the Male cityscape.  It was quite warm that morning and it didn’t take long for the kids to get worn out from the heat and humidity, so we wandered back to the hotel where they could chill (literally) for a bit before we caught our ferry to Kurumba.

For the rest of our stay, we decided on a resort called Kurumba on the island of Vihamanaafushi, about a 10 minute boat ride from Male.  We were picked up by a speed boat, our bags were loaded and we were directed into a cabin area to be seated.  There were cushy leather couch seats, cool washcloths for our faces and mini water bottles to drink on our way over to the island.  Rough waters made for a bumpy, albeit short ride.  We disembarked and prepared for our first ever island resort experience.  I was definitely intrigued, the place looked gorgeous already.
We walked down the dock, where along the way we spotted small sharks swimming around the crystal clear water.  Making our way inside, we handed over our passports in exchange for some freshly made coconut ice cream.  It was explained to us that Kurumba actually means “young coconut” in Dhivehi, the local language.  The island was a private coconut plantation before the resort was built and opened in 1972, the first private resort ever opened in the Maldives.  The ice cream was amazing – we craved it, and indulged in it, several times during our stay. 

It took a little while for our room to be ready, so we were escorted to the buffet for some lunch while we waited.  Eventually we got to our room, which was a villa style setup including a back entrance leading to a sandy backyard and the ocean, just a few yards away.  Maybe I could get used to resort vacation life…

Between our morning walk and the excitement of getting over to the island, the kids were ready for a nap.  They laid down while Ryan and I explored our backyard setup.  I kicked back in a hammock where I could read through the hotel's welcome guidebook (my favorite activity in ANY hotel, anywhere, even if the stay is just overnight).  Ryan wandered down to the beach and promptly got right into the ocean.  The hotel loaned us some complimentary snorkel gear, which thrilled Ryan to no end.  Kurumba is one of the only resort islands where you can snorkel the entire 360 degrees of the island – there was a lot to see!

One of the most exciting amenities of the resort, for all of us really, was The Kids Club.  We had never stayed anywhere that had something that sounded so amazing.  In this fairytale land, we could drop off the kiddos for the entire day – 9-6, for free, where they will be entertained with hourly activities and a huge clubhouse full of toys, art supplies and fun.  We barely saw Kiddo the whole time we were there.  We took her over to the Kid's Club right when she woke up from her nap and she stayed until they closed at 6.  Unfortunately, Little Boy was too small to be left all day.  If he came to Kids Club, one of us had to be with him or we had to hire a babysitter to watch him while he was in there.  That was a little bit of a bummer, but we weren’t in a place to complain about anything, so we made it work.  Ryan and I took turns over the course of our time in Kurumba doing our own activities, while Griffin either played at Kids Club or napped in the room.  He was still napping twice a day at the time, so we were always moving between the room, the beach, Kid's Club, meals and back around again. 
I won’t give you a daily breakdown of our time in Kurumba, but instead will summarize it for you more generally.  It was like summer camp for all of us.  There was a schedule of activities every day, plenty of beautiful places to relax/read/write/swim, and a team of helpful, friendly staff members who became such good friends to us.  We actually spent a fair amount of time just chatting with the staff members with whom we regularly interacted.  For instance, we got to know our housekeeper, who told us that his wife and kids lived in another  atoll and that he really only gets to seem them every 6 months or so.  The rest of the time, he lives at the resort and works, which is a pretty common tale for almost everyone who works at Kurumba.  Almost everyone on the staff was either Maldivian or from Bangladesh.  It was pretty eye opening to hear a lot of their stories.   

Ryan spent a LOT of his time snorkeling and ended up seeing a little bit of everything, from masses of tropical fish, some octopus, crabs, blacktip sharks, and sea turtles.  He told me it really reminded him of his time in Florida, where the warm sea wraps you up like a warm hug.  That made me smile.  I also went snorkeling a few times myself.  I’ll admit, it was a little scary out there by myself, among the sea creatures and corals.  I always had this feeling like I was going to end up
somewhere I shouldn’t be or in contact with something that might bite or sting me.  It was exhilarating and beautiful!

Theweather was a mixed bag while we
were there, for which the staff kept needlessly apologizing.  I’d say it rained at some point almost every day – I think we had one rain free day.  But, I felt the same way about that in the Maldives as I did at any summer camp I've ever been to: there is so much merit to be found in the restful calm of a rainy day.  I would sit on the back porch of our villa, while Little Boy slept, writing or reading while the rain poured around me.  It was so relaxing and refreshing.  Sometimes on vacation, it’s easy to feel like you have to fill every second with some kind of activity – I’m guilty of this, for sure.  But, the rain forced me to chill out and take some time to enjoy the quiet.  It reminded me of rainy days at Tanager Lodge, when we would all hang out on Shop Porch or in South Cottage.  Some of my favorite moments came from those rainy days when we were all just hanging out together, singing, chatting, working on projects and laughing with each other.  Rainy days, even on vacation, are often a blessing in disguise.

Ryan and I agreed that we would each get one extra solo excursion during our stay – he chose to go on a surf trip while I chose a morning at the spa.  Otherwise, we spent a leisurely 5 days taking beach walks, snorkeling, swimming and playing together.  Kiddo and Little Boy spent a lot of time playing on the beach near our villa.  It was so beautiful to watch them take care of each other and laugh together as they played in the sand.  Savannah probably had the most fun out of all of us – she did art projects, made friends with Ms. Sha and Ms. Aida, went to the movies, and pretty much lived at Kid’s Club.  One night they even babysat for us while Ryan and I had a date night – we had dinner at one of the resort’s 7 ethnic restaurants (we had East Asian cuisine that night), followed by cocktails, hookah and live music at the beach bar. 

By the end of our stay, I was definitely ready to go home.  You can only stay at a resort for so long, no matter how big it is, before you start to get a little bored of the same places and things every day.  Despite this, I found it oddly difficult to leave.  As we said goodbye to Ms. Sha and Ms. Aida in Kid’s Club, I got a little sad – in part because Kiddo had such a blast and was sad to leave and also because they had been so sweet to her and all of us.  Ms. Sha, a young girl from India, even bought the kids gifts from the souvenir shop on our way out – a starfish necklace for Kiddo as well as huge sea turtle and manta ray stuffed animals for each of them.  We were shocked, but not surprised – they were that sweet to the kids.

Ryan left a few hours before me and the kids, since we originally flew in on different flights.  Therefore, I had a few more hours to luxuriate in Kurumba’s offerings, which only made me realize that I really had done everything I could have done while we were there.  Even so, as we stood on the dock waiting for our boat to arrive, part of me wished that we could stay one more night – even though I had no idea what I would do with that time.  There is only one island on the planet that I can vacation on for a week or more and not get bored or tired of it and that is located in the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York.  I knew I was ready to go home, but still felt sad as we sped away on the boat. 

The kids and I checked into the airport pretty easily, having no trouble dropping bags, getting tickets and making it through emigration.  After grabbing some bites and a few postcards and magnets, we made our way to the gate.  The kids slept on the hour long flight back to Colombo – Griffin on my lap, as this was the last trip we would fly with him when he was still a free ticket.  I didn’t realize that at the time, but I do remember thinking I was so ready for him to have his own seat. 

Reality never hits so hard as in the hours that follow a vacation like the one we had.  Once we were in the cab, already reminiscing about our time, I realized I had left my (very expensive) retainer on the airplane home.  I had taken Griffin to the bathroom toward the end of the flight to change him, having left my retainer on the tray my snack was delivered on.  Because the tray was gone when I got back, I didn’t even think about it until I was in the cab on the way home.  I feverishly called the airport trying to get in touch with the airline, knowing it was likely a hopeless cause.  However, I noticed that the flight attendants don’t trash the trays, they slide them into a cart that is wheeled to the back of the plane and then unloaded.  My hope was that they could just find the cart and then find the tray.  But trying to explain these details to a Sri Lankan airport employee at 10 PM, when most flights are done for the day was more fruitless than I had imagined.  It's hard enough trying to order pizza on a Friday night with the language/accent barrier, so the details of this situation was on a whole other level.  After I thought I communicated the problem, they promised to send someone to check and advised me to call back in the morning.  I went to bed feeling dubious.

When I called back in the morning, no one had any idea who I was or what I was talking about.  Which is about what I expected, but it was a longshot that was worth a chance.  Although I was disappointed and frustrated that I lost an expensive orthodontic piece, I didn't want that to be the last experience I took away from the entire trip.  I began sorting though our things, to start the laundry and unpacking process, when I stumbled upon a painting I had done in one of my afternoons alone and away from the room.  I attended a guided painting workshop where I painted a Maldivian scene.  It made me smile and reminded me of the fun and beauty we experienced during our week in the Maldives.  I leaned the painting up in the dining room where I would see it  every day and remind me of the best parts of our first out of country trip.  It wasn't the kind of island adventure I usually crave, but it was a pretty amazing week nonetheless.