Slow race to Colombo

Logan has not been feeling so good lately.  She hasn’t been her normally smiley self; before about 4 weeks ago she would smile really big as soon as you made eye contact with her, but starting about a month ago she began to just stare you down instead – no smile.  She still giggles and laughs whenever Zoe is running around near her or paying attention to her, but she’s very serious with Carolyn and I.  We thought it was just a developmental stage and lamented the loss of the adorable smiles.

On our flight to Sri Lanka on Thursday, June 19th, Carol had Logan in the papoose for the flight and towards the end of the 3.5hr flight she said Logan was really hot.  Logie was asleep with her hair all wet from sweat, so I held her outside of the papoose for about 15 minutes and she cooled down a lot.  We decided it was just from being sandwiched up against Jean and the body heat getting her hot.

When we took the train ride on Friday, June 20th, we noticed again that Logan was really hot.  Her arms, chest and head were very warm and she was sweating, so I held her in a way that allowed lots of cool air to get to her.  She cooled down and again we decided it was just body heat from her being snuggled up to us while she took a nap.

On Saturday and Sunday Logan was really cranky, crying a lot, rubbing her eyes and just generally being upset at the world.  We decided that she was finally about to sprout some teeth.  Zoe had been in pain and wasn’t so happy when she cut teeth, so Logan was the same.  It was hard to get Logan to calm down.  We tried everything – feeding her, changing her diaper, putting orajel on her gums, and so on.  She was just crabby and nothing was soothing her.

On Monday morning it got even worse.  On Sunday night we had setup for a van to transfer us from Bandarawela to a hotel in Colombo, leaving our hotel at 9am.  We planned on having breakfast from 8-9am and then taking off, but when we got up for showers at 6am Carolyn noticed that our crabby baby now had a rash on her chest.  After I got out of the shower Carol announced that it had spread to her face.  We panicked…

We told the front desk to postpone the transfer service to 10am and asked that they arrange for us to see a doctor immediately.  They called a tuk-tuk and off we went down the road to a local doctor in Bandarawela.  I was really freaking out because Zoe and I had received about a dozen mosquito bites the night before when we were outside, and I was fearful that Logan had been bitten earlier and developed dengue fever.  All the recent symptoms came together in my mind and I was terrified for my little girl – fever on the plan and train instead of being warm from cuddling with us, painful joints and headaches instead of cutting teeth, and now a rash.

We pulled up to this dumpy building with the front door open and a couple of patients sitting in the waiting room.  We took our seats and waited for about 10 minutes until the next group rotated into the doctor’s office and came out, then we were asked to go in.  We explained what symptoms Logan had shown and the doctor told us it was a viral fever, which he said are common for children, and he said that while it certainly could be dengue fever he thought it was unlikely.  The doctor said to keep her hydrated and it’ll have to run its course.  He suggested that we get blood drawn and have it tested to completely rule out dengue, but I asked if she’d be OK for the 5 hour ride to Colombo and he said “for sure”, so I told him we’d wait and have the blood drawn there instead.  I wasn’t comfortable with her blood being drawn in this tiny town and if she’s good to go for the ride then I’d prefer to get her checked in the capital where surely the medical services are better.

The doctor gave us a prescription for some medicine to control her fever and we went outside to pay for the visit.  I asked how much I owed and the young receptionist-chemist told me “fifty”, so I gladly handed over LKR 50 ($0.38) for the consultation with the doctor and the prescription.  That was the cheapest doctor visit I’ve ever experienced in my life.  At the time I thought, “you get what you pay for”, but now it is exactly a week later and I realize that he hit the nail on the head, it was a viral fever that went away on its own.

We took the tuk-tuk back to the hotel and ended up being actually swindled for the first time in Sri Lanka.  I asked how much we owed him for the 30 minutes of riding us around the corner and back and he thought for a second and said “300”.  The ride would have been probably 50 for a local, but I paid the $2.31 and we went to breakfast.

After breakfast we loaded into the van as a wedding party gathered in front of our hotel to take photos.  The wedding party had on some pretty fancy clothes and they looked cool posing next to a vintage VW bug.

Even though Colombo is only 200km (123 miles) from Bandarawela, the ride took almost five and a half hours.  It’s times like these that you really appreciate the road systems in the US, where at most this would have taken 3.5 hours.  I understand that it can’t go too quickly because about 85% of the drive is through twisting roads that hug the sides of the mountains you’re trying to come out of, but there are many places where a little extra dynamite would have gone a long way.  Another factor that led to the excruciatingly long ride was that almost every road we went on in Sri Lanka was two lanes (one lane for each direction of traffic), and they never have any sections with double lanes on the same side for passing, so that leads to lots of honking and overtaking of slower vehicles in blind turns.  We got behind many slow buses, tuk-tuks and motorbikes.

In case you’re planning a trip and want to know the cost of things, we paid LKR 18,000 for the van ride, which included air conditioning.  I don’t think $138 is a huge number for 5 hours in a van, especially considering the driver most likely doesn’t have a fare going back for the 5 hour return trip, but if we’d had more time on this vacation we would have likely saved money and taken the train back to Colombo since the ride was much more comfortable and it felt like a much safer way to travel through Sri Lanka.  We were offered a “special discount” price of LKR 16,500 for the ride to Colombo when our driver originally picked us up at the Haputale train station several days earlier, but we couldn’t find him the night before our departure so we ended up paying an extra $12.  That being said, the hotel in Colombo tried to absolutely gouge us by offering transfer services for LKR 32,000 ($246), and they quickly dropped it to LKR 22,000 after I responded to their email by telling them they were crooks and trying to rip us off.  If you’re making this trip, or something of similar length in Sri Lanka, it appears that LKR 16,000-19,000 is a fair price for private vehicle transportation.  By the way, that same hotel tried to gouge us on the ride to the airport by more than doubling the price of what we ultimately paid to a regular taxi that was a brand new Toyota Prius and very comfortable.

During the slow trip to Colombo I sent several emails to private hospitals and lined up a visit for Logan as soon as we arrived.  We checked into our hotel, were given a room with a nice view along the waterfront, then Carol and Logan went to a nearby private hospital for Logan to get checked out.  Zoe and I stayed behind and worked on getting our room moved since they were doing heavy construction above and beside our room.  Carolyn was back within an hour and said the doctor told her that Logan had a heat rash and wasn’t used to the tropical heat.  She tried to explain that Logan was born in Singapore and has lived her entire life except for a 2 week trip to the US in the tropics.  He tried to explain to Carolyn that the heat in Sri Lanka is different than what we Westerners are accustomed to, but apparently he hasn’t looked at a map recently or he’d know that Singapore and Johor Bahru are much closer to the equator than Sri Lanka.

Apparently this doctor had seen children with dengue fever before though and he said that if Logan had dengue she’d be screaming and wouldn’t let Carolyn hold her like she was because she would be in too much pain, and he said she wouldn’t have been eating or drinking like she had been.  Again, in retrospect the first doctor in Bandarawela was correct because now that this all happened almost a week ago I know that the rash cleared up over the next two days and Logan started smiling and playing again as the viral fever cleared up, but Zoe and I caught whatever it was and we were both violently ill for a little over 24 hours just after getting back home from Sri Lanka.  My temperature got up to 103.2F and I was shivering underneath a comforter even though Carolyn said I was burning up and sweating, and Zoe threw up a half dozen times and had a fever too.  We’re all finally good to go now, but it was a bad situation and very scary when we weren’t sure what was wrong with Logan.

We eventually relaxed at our hotel in Colombo and wound down or Sri Lankan trip in a quiet fashion.  We were relieved that Logan would be ok, we had really enjoyed the train ride and tea plantations, and the people in Sri Lanka were the undisputed highlight – all very friendly.  The rooftop bar had nice views looking down towards a large green area along the ocean, and late into the night they served some pretty decent mojitos.  The next morning I got up early and walked along the oceanside with Zobug, where she posed beside a cannon and a policeman let us pet his horse.  We finally checked out of our hotel and caught a taxi to the airport and left Sri Lanka.

We got to our car around 11:45pm on Tuesday night and didn’t get back home until almost 4am.  I slept for a couple of hours and went in to work on Wednesday.  On Thursday and Friday Zoe and I were very sick, and this weekend was a long holiday weekend because Ramadan has begun here in Malaysia.

Here are the final pictures from our trip to Sri Lanka, taken just before our departure from Bandarawela (while our little Logie was sickly) and of Colombo:

Pekoe plants and pluckers

Of the three main things that I wanted to do in Sri Lanka, we’d already done two by Saturday morning.  I had wanted to see Buddha’s tooth in an old temple (a bust), I wanted to take a long train ride into the Sri Lankan mountains (it was excellent), and now I needed to visit some tea plantations and factories!

Sri Lanka was a British colony from the early 1800’s through 1948, and during that time it was known as Ceylon (pronounced “Say-lon”).  The British wanted Ceylon for the same reasons the Dutch had wanted and controlled it before; of course it was in a prime position to control trade routes, but one of the reasons was that it had the right climate for producing agricultural goods worth a lot of money in Europe where food had no taste until spices from Asia showed up and if it were a British colony they could profit heavily from the spice trade.  Besides things like cinnamon and pepper, Ceylon has also been producing a favorite product for the Brits – tea.

We visited a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands area of Malaysia last year and we loved it.  The weather was incredible (60’s in the morning, up to the high 70’s in the afternoon), the landscape is gorgeous with rolling hills and smooth mountains contoured by the greenest green you’ve ever seen, and it just feels like something from the turn of the 19th century.  Unlike the massive agro-businesses dotting the sides of the 5 freeway in Central California, these don’t feel like major industrial powerhouses with millions and millions of dollars in equipment and sophisticated fertilization and irrigation techniques to make products grow in an environment that is otherwise unsuitable (thousands of acres of plants growing in a desert?  c’mon…).  Tea plantations feel like small time production that is very hands-on and almost feels like it requires the craftsmanship of a small bourbon distillery to get the correct product instead of millions of dollars of chemicals sprayed onto acres of trees in a very scientific and mechanical way like big industry does it in the US.  It just feels more natural and like an art instead of a science.

Anyhow, we woke up on Saturday morning (6/21) at our little British colonial B&B in Bandarawela.  We picked Bandarawela as the base of this leg of our trip because it was probably the largest town in the area (still pretty small though), but we could have easily stayed in the nearby towns of Haputale or Ella.  Our B&B was built in the 1870’s and definitely had a colonial feel to it, which we felt was perfect for a base while exploring tea plantations in Ceylon.  We ate breakfast in the dining room and it was really good.  We wondered what the items being served to the surrounding Sri Lankan families were – they’re called string hoppers.

After breakfast I spoke to the lady at the front desk and she said she’d arrange a half day outing with a trusted driver to take us up to Lipton’s Seat and then down to a tea factory for a tour.  We waited for our driver in the garden out front, and then the playground area.  Our driver eventually pulled up and we decided to start by going to Lipton’s Seat, then down to the factory and back to the hotel through Haputale in a circular path instead of up and back on the same road.  The ride up was said to take an hour and a half, the drive down an hour, plus time to stop for photos, a stop up at Lipton’s Seat and the stop for the factory tour.  The cost for the trip was something like 4500 or 5500 LKR, I don’t remember the exact amount now that I’m writing this a week later, but it was basically in the range of $35-$45 for the van to take our family of four on this 4 hour tour up into the tea plantation area — not a bad deal!

Lipton’s Seat is the highest point in the area, where the tea baron, Sir Thomas Lipton, would go and survey his massive tea plantation from time to time.  Yep, that’s the same guy who’s name is on the box of the tea in your cabinet at home.

We took off and slowly made our way up into the mountains surrounding Bandarawela.  The road was narrow, just wide enough for our van and maybe a bicycle or a pedestrian on the side.  We came to one turn in the road where a huge bus rounded the bend just before us, coming towards us, and our driver quickly backed up.  We heard a funny sounding horn and then a little crunch.  Our driver threw it into park and hopped out; it turns out that he was so quick to back in order to make room for the bus that he didn’t allow time for the tuk-tuk that was tailgating us to back up and he’d smacked the front of the diminutive vehicle.

We continued on until we got to a gate blocking the path.  A gatekeeper approached the van and wanted something like LKR 200 (maybe 250 — I don’t remember).  Of course I didn’t have small bills because ATM’s in Sri Lanka give out LKR 5000 and 2000 notes and neither of our hotels would really provide adequate change for these bills.  The gatekeeper charged me a “fee” of LKR 10 to make change, and $0.08 didn’t seem unreasonable for this service.

We continued up further along the sides of the mountains, with one side being a precipitous drop and the other side being against raw stone from the mountain where the road was carved out or tea plants sloping upwards.  We eventually made it to a point where several tea pluckers were standing between rows of tea plants on the side of the mountain so I asked him to stop so I could take some photos.  He stopped to let me out and continued up to the turn in that section of switchback and parked to wait.  I walked back down the road a little and when all the pluckers noticed me they began talking, laughing and smiling at me.  I waved and they waved back.  The pluckers were all women and we were later told they are all from Tamil descent.  They wear bags down their backs that wrap around their foreheads which they deposit the picked tea leaves into.  Every single one that noticed me had a huge smile and waved; they were just as genuinely friendly as every other Sri Lankan we’d met up to that point.  After taking in the view and getting several photos I made my way back to the van.  I noticed above me, up the next section of switchback road, the bosses were watching.  The bosses were 3 men all standing together and watching the pluckers and me.  When I looked up at them they all smiled and we exchanged waves.

We continued on higher and higher.  The air was fresh and cool, every once in a while you’d catch a whiff of a wood fire, but the temperature was about 68F, the skies were blue and the tea plants were an amazing green.  It was spectacular…

We eventually made it to the top and then Jean got out while we while the van.  She took some photos and then we continued on.  We went down into a little valley where a bunch more pluckers were at work, so we asked if the driver could stop again and he drove another 100m to a wide spot so other cars could get by on the narrow road and we parked for about 20 minutes.  Carolyn walked back down the road with her camera and Zobug while Logie and I walked around checking out the views.  Seeing green tea plants in all directions with colorful pluckers slowly making their way between rows in this cool air was wonderful and I was glad we decided to visit to Sri Lanka.  When Carolyn finally got about 200m down the road I noticed 6-8 of the pluckers making a beeline straight for her while she was taking photos.

They had all wanted to see Zoe up close!  The ones in the rows wanted to touch her hand and see her face up close, the ones one the road wanted to hold her or touch her hair, and Zoe wanted to play with a couple of the young boys coming home from school.  The pluckers actually live in housing that is in the center of the plantations, where they have their own tiny communities with a temple (mostly Hindus), some tiny shop, a school and their homes.  It reminds me of how mill villages were in the US back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s (watch The Grapes of Wrath).  Carolyn yelled for me to bring Logan for them to see because they all wanted to see her — apparently they’d seen her when we drove slowly past them.

I walked down there and more and more pluckers were heading away from their work and towards us with big smiles.  I was worried that we’d get them in trouble if their bosses were watching, but they kept coming.  One lady was holding a staff and a bag, but when Carolyn asked if she’d like to hold Logan she threw everything down immediately and was beaming as she eagerly grabbed Logie.  Zoe and Logan seemed to enjoy the attention, and the ladies appeared to enjoy the break from the monotonous work.  Again, the Sri Lankan people are extraordinarily friendly, always smiling and kind…

I tried to get some photos, but by this point several had gone back to work so I only got maybe 4-5 of the pluckers surrounding our girls, but at one point it had been about 8-10 all smiling and commenting on the girls and wanting to get closer looks.  We thanked them and said goodbye, then got back in the van and headed on.  We eventually made it up to Lipton’s Seat, where we stopped for about 20-30 minutes.  A group of about 6 young Sri Lankan men were underneath a gazebo at the top playing music, which actually sounded pretty good.  We picked the tops of a few plants to check out the tea itself, and we admired the same view that Mr. Lipton had admired a century ago.

We made our way back down the road, but not before a young kid came up and gave us a bottle of whiskey to give to the gatekeeper below, who was his father.  We delivered the package and then slowly made our way off the mountain and into the valley below.  When we got to the lower valley we stopped at the Dambatenne tea factory.  The factory was built by Sir Thomas Lipton back in 1890, but today it isn’t directly related to Lipton according to the plant manager who greeted us upon arrival.  We were told during our tour that this factory produces black tea in bulk that is then shipped to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where it goes to auction, and approximately 80% of this factory’s output is purchased at that auction by Lipton.  The other 20% presumably goes to other tea packagers and distributors.

We took a 30-40 minute tour of the factory.  At first it was just Jean, Zoe, Logan and I, but after we got upstairs our “guide” disappeared for about 10 minutes so a group of 4 other guys could join us, but they kept slowing down the tour so it was a pretty disjointed affair after trying to combine our two groups.  It was interesting to see the process though.  Upstairs they weigh the bags of leaves coming from the pluckers, then they spill them in these long troughs with fans attached at one end so that they can be dried out.  Apparently the leaves have a high moisture content, and of the 25,000kg (25 tons) of leaves that the factory processes in a day, that yields only about 5,000kg (5 tons) of tea product after being dried and processed — I can’t confirm these numbers but that’s what we were told.

After trying the leaves out they are toted by hand, in huge bags over the heads of barefooted workers, over to 3 holes in the wooden floor.  The holes lead down to these “rollers” that basically grind up the leaves into smaller parts.  The resultant crushed up leaves travel up and down a series of conveyors and through a few crushers that tear up the leaves even more until it is sifted and small particles are laid on the floor in the center of the factor to ferment.  The oxygen coming in contact with the leaf particles during fermentation, which takes about 3-4 hours, changes the taste ultimately.

Next the fermented particles are moved into another room where they put through a wood fired roaster (at 290F I believe he said), and then the tea comes “black”.  The black tea is then put through another series of mesh sifters because the size of the particles determines the quality and concentration of the taste, and that determines the values.  The individual piles are then packaged in large bags (50kg?) and sent to Colombo for auction.

We learned that there are several different grades of tea, including the BOP we saw being processed.  BOP stand for “broken orange pekoe”, which is broken because it has been crushed up into little particles instead of whole leaves, and orange pekoe stands for the size and location of the leaves used for that tea.  For BOP they use only the new buds and the newest small leaves closest to the fresh budding leaves, not older big leaves.  I suppose the older and bigger leaves have a less desirable taste.  We got to see a box with actual examples of several different grades of tea, such as BOP, FBOP and dust.

I had hoped that we’d get to see them packaging the tea into individual packets, but that isn’t done at this factory.  They also didn’t offer any samples, but I’d had some good local tea on the train ride and for breakfast, so it didn’t really matter.

We finally got back to the van and headed back down to our hotel after passing through Haputale and into Bandarawela.  It had been an amazing morning and afternoon checking out the tea plantations and the views and air were the best we’ve had in a long time, plus we learned about the tea process and most importantly we experienced even more of what is apparently Sri Lanka’s best attribute, friendly people.

Here are the photos from our trip up to Lipton’s Seat and to the tea factory:

Train up to Haputale

Last Friday (6/20), after visiting the tooth temple in Kandy and then getting ready for the day, we caught a taxi over to the Peradeniya train station.  We needed to catch the 12:31pm train from Kandy to Ella, getting on in Peradeniya and getting off up in the tea plantation area at the stop in Haputale (pronounced “Ha-poo-ta-lay”).  The government apparently has a regular train service on this track, but two companies, Expo Rail and the Rajadhani Express, both offer “luxury” car service in railcars that are attached to the same train.  I had pre-booked tickets with ExpoRail over the internet, and I had the guy in the ticketing both print out our actual tickets after handing over my internet reservation printout.

The ride from Peradeniya to Haputale takes 5 hours (12:31pm to 5:27pm), and the first class tickets on Expo Rail cost LKR 1750 ($13.43) for adults and LKR 1400 ($10.74) for children, so the total cost for our 4 seats was LKR 6300 ($48.34).

The train was about 20-25 minutes late, but there was a tiny kiosk at the station selling glass bottled Cokes, so it wasn’t a bad wait at all.  Once the train arrived it was a scramble to the head of the train to find out car and then we got the whole family up into the train and situated.  The two guys that were the stewards (is that what you call service people on trains, or only on planes?) were great.  They were very friendly and took care of our big backpack.  The website had said you needed to pre-register luggage larger than 7kg, and presumably pay some fee, but when I asked at the station the ticket guy just waived me past and the stewards just said to sit our bag down and they’d take care of it — they did and it was on the platform waiting for us when we arrived in Haputale at the end of the trip.

Zoe was loving the train ride, watching everything out the window.  She wanted to know why people were carrying umbrellas when it wasn’t raining, she was curious about what animals were in the “forest” and “jungle” areas we passed by, she asked about the other kids on the train car with us, and so on.  Logie was more interested in eating some crackers and cuddling with her mommy.  Our railcar was full, and all the other people were locals except for one European couple that appeared to be slightly younger than us and backpacking.  The majority of the other riders consisted of two Sri Lankan groups, one with about 6-8 teenage kids who stood in the aisle gossiping and flirting the whole time, and another with 5 adults and several of their young kids and the adults partied and joked the whole time while their kids played dance music.

We were served a meal that was horrible, but really that was the only thing on the entire ride that was a disappointment.  The seats were comfortable enough, the service was fantastic (one of the stewards went to the other first class car several times for us to buy Cokes), the other riders were really friendly and asked if they should turn down their music and their kids played with Zoe towards the end, and best of all the scenery we passed by was amazing.

I take back the part about the meal being the only disappointment — the other disappointment was that Expo Rail’s website clearly shows a really sweet car that is attached to the seating car where you can go view the passing scenery in an al fresco setting.  This car wasn’t on our train, so we were disappointed that we couldn’t take the girls outside to see the sites while chugging through the Sri Lankan countryside, but in the end the views were spectacular from the regular cars.

The majority of the ride was spent with Zoe asleep next to me in her seat and Logan asleep in my arms while Carolyn was in the almost empty first class car behind our’s taking photographs.  Carolyn hung out one of the car windows and met some of the other riders, and she really enjoyed herself.  With about an hour left in the trip Carolyn returned and took over with Logan and I walked back to the next car to watch the scenery up close.  I ended up hanging out of the door in the next car back for a good 30 minutes.  It was phenomenal!  It reminded me of the train ride into Mexico’s Copper Canyon.  In the US it would be illegal in a dozen ways to do that, for safety and security reasons, but it is an unbelievable way to experience a train ride.  The forests turned into tea plant covered mountains, the air got very cool (mid-60’s), a light mist was hitting me in the face, I’d look back at the rest of the train cars whenever the train was in a turn and I could see others leaning out of doors and windows too.  I loved it.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Zoe and Logan were old enough for me to take them with me so they could experience it, but I don’t think I’m ready for them to hang out of moving trains until they’re at least 5…

Another thing we noticed on the train ride that we observed in Kandy was that the Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly.  Lots of people were walking the tracks or beside the tracks waiting to pass as we rode by, and every single one would smile and wave as soon as you’d smile or wave at them.  All the Sri Lankans on the train with us were also exceptionally friendly.  It reminded me of Cambodia and Laos, where the people were all just friendly without trying to scam you.  Sri Lanka moved way up on my list of favorite countries after only 2 days – gorgeous country and friendly people makes it hard to beat.

Here are the photos of our train ride from just outside of Kandy to Haputale:

Looking for a tooth in Kandy

We spent our first night in Sri Lanka in a town called Kandy.  Kandy is famous for having a Buddhist temple that supposedly has a relic of the Buddha — one of his teeth.  This was actually the only thing I wanted to check out in Kandy, and since we would be in town for just a little over 12 hours we needed to act quickly.

We got into town late on Thursday night (6/19), and we ate dinner at our hotel.  While we had dinner we enjoyed watching a Sri Lankan Calypso band walk around and serenade each table.

The next morning I went outside on our deck that looked over the lake in the center of town and Zobug joined me a couple of minutes later.  It felt fantastic out there; Kandy is in the mountains so the temperature was in the high 60’s with a very strong breeze in the morning.  We had stickers on the sliding glass doors that led out to the deck that said there were monkeys and to not feed them, but we never saw any.

We decided to go ahead and visit the Buddhist temple (Sri Dalada Maligawa) before showers and breakfast so we could see the Buddha’s tooth before we had to catch a noon train to Haputale.  We went to the lobby and asked them to get us a tuk-tuk (they call them “3-wheelers” in Sri Lanka) to take us to the temple.  We waited for about 20 minutes before a tuk-tuk arrived, and off we went.  When we got to the drop off point our tuk-tuk driver told us we couldn’t go into the temple with shorts on and he disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back with two pieces of fabric and an old dude following him (the fabric owner I suppose), and he said we should buy them for 2,000 rupees ($15.38).  I told him no way, we didn’t need to own them and he could just take us back to the hotel so we could change.  Immediately he lowered the price and said we could “rent” them for 200 rupees each ($1.54 each), but I refused and we got back in the tuk-tuk and went back to the hotel.  We changed clothes and he took us back to the temple.

We spent about an hour at the temple and the main points of interest were the following:

  1. Foreigners are forced to pay to enter.
  2. Foreigners are forced to leave their shoes with a caretaker for a fee.
  3. You can’t carry an infant in a papoose for “security” reasons.
  4. The tooth is inside a golden box in a wooden building behind a gate and is never seen.  Apparently they break out the golden box sometimes, but we didn’t even see that.  Instead we saw a room full of devotees lining the wall praying towards the tooth.  Not exactly what we expected when reading the hype about this place.
  5. A room full of ghee fueled lamps were neat looking and guarded by a sleeping dog.
  6. The Buddhist temple is apparently a popular field trip location for school children.
  7. Sri Lankans are some of the friendliest people on the planet.  Everyone smiles and is genuinely interested in you.  We weren’t scammed by anyone (other than the attempt from our tuk-tuk drive), but dozens of people approached us to talk before smiling and wishing us well and walking off as they waved.

After we finished with the temple tour we collected our shoes and went to wait for our driver beside the lake.  Zoe met a nice lady and sat with her on a bench while Jean took photos.  We eventually made it back to the hotel, where we ordered room service for breakfast while we got showered and ready for our train ride to the tea plantation area of Sri Lanka.

Here are the photos of Kandy and the tooth relic temple:

Glad I’m not driving…

Last Wednesday (6/18) we drove up to the airport in KL after I got off work.  We spent the night at a hotel connected to KLIA and the next afternoon we took a taxi over to the next terminal, KLIA2, so we could catch our flight to Sri Lanka.

The new airport terminal is so far beyond the old LCCT (low cost carrier terminal) that we flew out of a couple of times that I can’t even describe it.  The whole thing is just a million times better.  No more creepy parking lot with dozens of cars blocking lanes from parking illegally — a brand spanking new parking deck.  No more massive crowds sitting around outside the tiny immigration area as they wait for room on the other side to free up — many immigration booths and tons of room on the other side so no wait at all.  No more cooling from huge fans about 60 feet above your head — all air conditioned now.  The new terminal has tons of shopping and food options, all very nice and clean, versus the old with minimal options and all being dirty and mildewed.  No more walking 2 miles outside to where your plane is waiting — all gates are reached from indoors and every one we saw had jetways leading to the planes instead of a staircase beside the plane.  KLIA2 is fantastic, but it appeared to us that they still have more to go because several shops are yet to open and lots of lighting fixtures had wiring hanging out and no bulbs, but once it’s complete it’ll rival any terminal in the region – even Changi.

We took the three and a half hour flight from KL to Colombo, Sri Lanka.  After picking up our luggage and withdrawing some Sri Lankan rupees from an ATM we met our driver, Sachi, who was holding a sign with my name on it just outside of the arrival area.  Sachi led us to the van and just like once before when we flew to Bali, Zoe slipped while she was getting in the van and smacked her face.  We spent the first 10 minutes of the ride searching for ice and finally found a place that gave us a huge block of ice that I held against Zobug’s eye for a few minutes.  Eventually it still swelled up pretty good and turned purple, but as always she was a trooper and after the initial 2 minutes of sobbing she was fine.

The drive from the international airport in Colombo to our hotel in Kandy took around three and a half hours.  Kandy is almost in the very center of Sri Lanka.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, Sri Lanka is an island nation just off the southeastern cost of India.  The drive there reminded Carolyn and I of driving in India – complete bedlam.  Cars, trucks, buses and tuk-tuks swerving around everywhere, people trying to pass in the oncoming lane around blind turns, lots of horn beeping, and just basic insanity.  It makes driving in Malaysia seem like riding around in a retirement community in South Florida.  I’ve included several pictures below that were taken on a regular two lane road, with one lane going one direction and the second lane going the other.  You can see a bus passing an SUV and forcing an on-coming bus to drive on the shoulder to pass, and another shot that shows maybe 5 separate “lanes” on this two lane road.  It made us nervous, especially since our van only had a single seat belt, which we used on Zobug.

We finally made it to our hotel once it was dark, and they had supposedly upgraded our room (I don’t know if it was an upgrade or what we had actually paid for), and it had a nice view over the lake of the mountain on the other side.

Here are the photos of our travels to Sri Lanka last Wednesday and Thursday:

Robbery intervention

Two weekends ago we woke up late on Saturday (noon on June 14th) and we decided to go up to our favorite Chinese restaurant to pickup take away.  I let Jean drive because I wasn’t feeling so good (out late on Friday night), and she needs the practice since she has only driven over here one other day in the year and a half we’ve lived here and you never no when an emergency will come up and she’ll have to drive.

Carol drove us up the rode without any problem.  We went to the bank and then ordered the food at our Chinese place, then she drove us around to tBlogger for a coffee while we waited for the food.  Once we got the coffee we headed back to the Chinese place and I had Carolyn pull sideways into several empty spaces across the street instead of trying to squeeze our car into a space normally in front of the restaurant.

Carol hopped out and went inside to pickup the food, and since I was in the passenger seat (front left seat), I was leaning back over the seat so I could talk to Zoe.  Beyond Zoe I could see the street and cars parked along the side of the Chinese restaurant Carolyn had just went inside.  While I was talking to Zoe I saw a motorcycle pull up really fast right up against the last car parked on that side of the street.  I instantly knew something was wrong because this guy looked really squirrely, swinging his head back and forth looking around and leaning over to look into the windows of that Honda parked in the last spot.

I stopped talking to Zoe and watched the guy, and within 5 seconds he started shaking the Honda really hard.  I scrambled to roll down the window, but rolled my side down first, then leaned across and rolled down the driver’s side window.  I started screaming at the guy and hitting the horn.  About that time I heard the glass smash and the car alarm went off.  The guy stopped for just half a second and glared at me, and at that time a younger Chinese couple got out of a car they’d just parked maybe 3 spaces down from where this was happening.  I pointed at the guy and yelled again, “What the hell are you doing?! STOP!”.  The couple looked back and forth between me and the thief and then they ran into the building.

I scrambled again to get my iPhone out of my pocket and I leaned over out the driver window and started taking photos of the thief while yelling at him.  I was trying to unbuckle my seatbelt by this point and I started seeing the drapes inside the Chinese restaurant open and faces peeking out.  I jumped out of our car and stood up, holding up my phone and snapping pictures while still yelling at the guy.  He glared at me again, swiveled his head back and forth, then took off as I was rounding the front of our car, heading towards him.  He looked back over his shoulder at me, and was gone out of sight within another second.

The entire thing happened in 30 seconds or less.  I crossed the street just as Carolyn came running out.  She said there was a big commotion inside as all the people eating got up from their tables and ran to the window to watch me screaming and taking photos of this jerk.  The owner of the vehicle and one of the restaurant owners both came out and thanked me.  I sent all the photos to the vehicle owner and later that night he sent me a text message again thanking me.  I asked if the couple that pulled into the parking space and ran inside were able to get the license plate number and he said I was the only person who saw anything.  I can’t believe these people wouldn’t help this guy.  There were literally dozens of people peeking out of the drapes by the time I got out of the car and started towards this guy as he sped off.  My main concern was getting photos of him, but looking back I should have focused on his license plate number.

A co-worker told me I should be careful because these thieves are desperate and you don’t know what they’ll do.  I explained that I’m a member of this community and I want it safe for my wife and kids and this jackass doesn’t know what I’ll do either.  I explained that if everyone continues to be afraid and not confront these people than it will only get worse as they operate with impunity with  no fear of any consequences.  The police are obviously not going to help.

The next day, Sunday, we went for a dim sum breakfast for Father’s Day and it was fantastic.

Here are the photos:

Into JB-Town

Two weekends ago we went to Singapore for yet another doctor appointment, this time for Zoe.  We went on Saturday morning (June 7th), very early so we could avoid the jam at Woodlands.  We went to the appointment, then we went for some dim sum at Din Tai Fung in Paragon — dim sum breakfasts have almost reached the same level as Chick-fil-a chicken biscuit breakfasts for us.

Carolyn and I are no longer dim sum newbies, but we’re still far from experts.  The first time I can remember having Chinese dim sum was at a place in Hong Kong when Carolyn and I were on our first RTW trip back in 2007.  Back then we just pointed and tried it, liking some and spitting others out because we never had any idea what any of them were or what they had in them.  Dim sum is similar to Spanish tapas in that when you order dim sum or tapas you get a relatively small set of some little snack.  For tapas it may be a cutting board with different cheeses and for dim sum it could be 4 or 5 steamed pork dumplings.  For dim sum we almost exclusively prefer the steamed options and of those we stick to mostly the ones with the thin translucent wrappers, but occasionally we try a steamed bun with the thicker (more “bready”) wrapper.

We know our chee cheong fun from our xiao long bao and our shumai from our har gow.  Zoe refuses to try any, but we’re hopeful that Logan will branch out once her teeth come on in…

Anyhow, after our dim sum breakfast we went over to some imported Italian food wholesaler that Jean found online and we bought some prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, then we headed back over to Malaysia spent the evening at home.

On Sunday, June 8th, we decided to start out by getting our groceries and then to spend a day going around Johor Bahru.  We headed over to Cold Storage in Pelangi, picked up groceries for the week, dropped them off at the house, then decided to eat local Malay food for lunch before venturing into town for the day.  We went over to Tebrau City to a hawker stall center and picked up several little items.  Jean took several photos of the hawker stall center which I’m posting below.  We did get a pork dish that was pretty good (this is a mainly Chinese hawker stall center, so pork is available).

The locals usually call the downtown area in Johor Bahru “JB-Town”, so off we went into JB-Town.  On our way there we stopped at a local shop that sells about 60 different types of teas, coffees and fruit juices, called TBlogger.  I got my usual, a Black Dragon for RM 4.90, and after about 20 minutes we were in the center of town.  We went to a park along the water where I went late one evening with a buddy of mine last year.  The park has a large grass field where sometimes we’ve seen soccer tournaments, and it also has a huge yellow clock tower.  We took some photos and walked around a little bit, then we headed up the coastal road towards Danga Bay.

Just before we got to Danga Bay we saw lots of cars and maybe 40 tents setup, so we pulled off and parked.  It was like some sort of festival.  They had lots of tents selling knick-knacks and clothes, and they had the big inflated jumping things for kids.  We checked out all the shops and ended up buying some clothes for the girls.

After we’d had enough of the Danga Bay festival we went back into JB-town and parked in what we believe is maybe Chinatown because there were lots of Chinese people and the buildings looked Chinese.  I am almost sure this was where we parked back in 2012 we we came down into town one morning and we ended up at some banana-leaf Indian joint.  There was some art festival going on, but after some photos we decided we’d had enough of JB.  We battled traffic for about 45 minutes and finally got home.

Here are the photos from two weekends ago:

Sisters

Logan and Zoe are growing up so fast!  Logan finally took what Carolyn and I consider to be her actual first steps yesterday (June 14th).  I was sitting downstairs on the couch while Carolyn was rushing around trying to get ready to go out somewhere, and Logan was in her downstairs playpen directly in front of me (between me and the television).  Logan was on the far right side of her playpen when she turned around and looked right at me, smiled from ear to ear, then she swung around to face the left side of her playpen, let go of the side and with her arms out to both sides raised up at shoulder level she took 3 wobbly steps and crossed the entire playpen to the other side where she grabbed on.  She looked back at me and smiled and I went completely apeshit — clapping and yelling for Carolyn to get back in the room so she could see.  Logan started giggling and before Carolyn could round the corner from the back play room Logan spun around again, let go and cross her playpen for a second time with 3 more steps.  Right when Carolyn arrived Logan was looking back smiling and I was laughing and clapping again.

Logan just stood there smiling and Carolyn waited for like two minutes but Logan wasn’t doing anything but smiling and giggling.  Carolyn walked out of the room and as soon as she left Logan spun around and flew back across the playpen without holding on for a third time!  I flipped out and yelled for Jean to get back in there because she was missing it.  Logan was loving it — I was making a big production because I was so proud of those wobbly little steps, Logan had a huge smile and Zoe was bouncing around the playpen by this time cheering for Logan too.  Carolyn sat down on the couch on the far side of the playpen and held up some toy and finally Logan showed off for her mommy by crossing for a fourth time.

Zoe is growing up too.  She says all sorts of things that blow me away each day.  Just this afternoon we were in the car park at Cold Storage while Carol was inside shopping and I usually let Zoe up front to play around (she pretends that crocodiles are in the floorboard so we play a game involving staying away from them).  Zoe loves to mess with all the dials and buttons on the radio and air conditioning control panels, so today I she kept turning the air-con blower all the way up and trying to eat the cold air.  I’d turn it back down because it was getting cold in the car and Logie was asleep in the back without a blanket.  Eventually Zoe turned it all the way up and laid back in the passenger seat and put her hands behind her head like someone would do in a lounge chair beside a pool.  I turned the air down and with a very serious frown she sat up and said “No, daddy!  Don’t turn that down, I’m trying to relax!”  I started laughing and we played back and forth with her turning it up and “relaxing” by putting her hands behind her head as she laid back in the seat and I’d turn it back down, over and over.

Zoe also asks about which foods and drinks will make her “super-duper strong”, and she flexes her muscles all the time.  Zoe loves to dance and do ballerina moves — she’ll say “watch my moves!” and hop around doing pirouettes and standing on the tips of her toes.  It is amazing what a fantastic imagination she has, and she could not be a sweeter little girl; she always acts so sweet towards Logan, even when Logan is pulling Zoe’s hair, and whenever Zoe does something “bad” like dropping something or knocking something over she’ll run up to the closest adult and grab their leg and say “I’m soooooo sorry, mommy.”

Anyhow, I’m super-duper excited that my two little ballerina body lifters who want to be musketeers and fight dragons are almost to the age and stage where they’ll be able to play with each other.  Logan definitely has some teeth coming in on the bottom finally and now that she has started to walk it’ll be interesting to see if they’re buddies or frenemies.

Here are some recent photos of our little girls:

It’s time for a checkup

Two weekends ago we had scheduled more doctor appointments for Carolyn and I in Singapore.  We decided to not do the early Saturday morning Woodlands crossing, see the doctors and then a late afternoon crossing to come back — we end up sitting in traffic for 3-4 hours and it is miserable.  Instead we decided to stay in Singapore for the entire weekend.

Friday (May 30th) I got off work and came home to get a shower and pack up the car, then we picked up dinner and came home and ate.  We didn’t want to attempt crossing at 7 or 8pm since we thought the rush hour traffic would be horrible.  Instead we waited and left around 9:15pm, and it was perfect.  To get from our home, to the border, through Malaysian immigration, cross the bridge, through Singaporean immigration, a bathroom break between immigration customs, the obligatory customs trunk check, and then out into Singapore took us exactly 37 minutes.  I could not believe it; we’ve never gone that fast on any previous crossings, not even in the middle of the night.  It would have been slightly below 30 minutes if we weren’t in the midst of potty training, but when we get the alert we head straight for a restroom, so we had to make the pitstop at the Singapore immigration building.

We made our way on into Singapore and eventually to our hotel.  When we came over to Singapore recently for doctor appointments and to bring a colleague from work over to check out ‘Pore we had visited Clarke Quay (pronounced “key”), which is an entertainment district we hadn’t previously visited that is right on the water.  When Logan was born we did stay at a hotel right on the river just north of this Quay, so we new it was an unexplored area that we needed to check out better.  For this trip we decided to stay in Clarke Quay so we could explore.

We checked in and basically went on to bed.  On Saturday morning we got ready and had a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel.  Carolyn had a doctor appointment and we decided to split kid duty, so Logan went with Carol and Zoe stayed with me.  Jean and Logie took a cab while Zobug and I went walking around Clarke Quay.  We checked out the boats, walked across a couple of bridges, got a juice and some water, and walked around to watch some early morning photographers taking pictures of the area.

When Jean and Logan returned it was time for my appointment, so we all caught a cab together to go to mine.  We spent about 2 hours at my doctor appointment because I had several tests run — my lungs are ok and my hernia is much smaller than the last doctor guessed that it was and I can wait a little longer before surgery.

Once all the doctor visits were finally over we went back to the hotel and I ordered room service for lunch, then Carol left the girls with me and she went to get her hair done.  Zoe played on the iPad and Logan watched tv until both of them fell asleep.  Once Carolyn got back it was already dark so we decided to go for a boat ride.  There are apparently several different boat options and we accidentally chose the “40-minute tour” boat where you go from Clarke Quay down into Marina Bay and back without stopping anywhere.  They have some cheesy video playing on a flatscreen and it narrates what you’re riding past, but the views were really nice and a part of Singapore we hadn’t yet seen.  I wish we had instead taken the S$3 boat taxi ride from Clarke Quay down to Marina Bay and then back.  We would have had the same views, we could have gotten out and walked around in Marina Bay, and it would have been much cheaper (the tour was like S$25/adult).

When we got back to Clarke Quay it was hopping.  The riverside walkway was packed with people, some crazy outfits worn by the young club-goers, we stopped outside of a bar so Zoe could listen to the “singing lady” on stage, and it was probably the most lively area of Singapore we’ve seen yet.  We loved it.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel again, then we checked out and headed over to VivoCity Mall so Carolyn could go shopping and so that Zoe and I could go see Maleficent.  Zoe loved the movie and I agreed, it was good.  All the stuff Zoe loves were included: dragons, fairies, flying, bad guys, spooky forests, sword fights…

It was a great weekend in Singapore and infinitely better than the single day back and forth we normally do for doctor visits.  Here are the photos: