Sunday, June 26, 2011

The News We've all Been Waiting For

Almost six weeks ago we started the process to get our flight home scheduled.  The flight is taken care of by the university so naturally buying the tickets gets outsourced to a consulting agency.  Time ticked by and yesterday we were finally heard back from the consulting agency with our reservation.

We're leaving here early in the morning on August 4th and get back to Detroit by the afternoon of the 4th.  We're flying Lufthansa because they have the best pet program of the airlines that fly from Jeddah.  I flew Lufthansa when I first visited Saudi back in 2009 and I remember them being nicer than most airlines.

We also got Algebra registered with the airline, and it ended up being hilarious to listen to Steve talk with their representative on the phone.  The first call involved spelling out our names using the Alpha/Bravo military technique.  The second call was even funnier because the representative thought we wanted to take a baby on the flight.  So when Steve said that we already had a carrier and were going to put her under the seat, I think the representative thought we were crazy!  I of course didn't hear all of this, and just got the quotation "This is an animal, not a baby!"

We're just getting started on all of the things we need to do before we leave.  Aside from the typical packing, discarding junk, and cleaning, the administrative side to leaving is impressive.   We need 7 signatures from departments across the university, exit visas, a housing inspection, 6 cards turned in, a mailbox to close, and a bank account to close.  All of that is going to result in a lot of needless running around in the next month or so!  I'm impressed that they managed to condense all of that running around into a single one page form, but I was less impressed when they tried to tell me it was prohibited to fold it because it would need to be filed.  Needless to say, that paper got folded.

So, we're coming home, and so far (almost) nothing has been screwed up! Let's all keep our fingers crossed that it stays this way!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kandy: Views from the Train

After several great days in Colombo, we were ready to move on to Kandy.  This was the easiest and nicest train ride we took the whole trip and the only reason it was so much nicer was because it had assigned seating.  We took an early morning intercity train between Colombo and Kandy because it was going to be faster than a train that stopped a bunch along the way.  Almost all of the ticket sales for the train system are done un-electronically so each station has a certain number of tickets they are allowed to sell for each train and class.  Unfortunately, this results in massive overcrowding of the trains, and the intercity train was the only one we took that had any kind of computer booking and as a result wasn't overcrowded one bit.

The train moved surprisingly quickly compared to everything I'd read online, but the scenery was beautiful.

Flood irrigation.

Walking through the fields.

Like I said, the scenery was beautiful.

The scenery from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was even better, but you'll have to wait a few days to see that.  The train ride only ended up taking a couple hours so we got to Kandy early enough to do some sight seeing that day after we found a place to stay and had a lovely disaster of a time finding the guesthouse.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Colombo: Fort

Most of the travel books we'd checked out spoke really highly of the Colombo Fort area, which is basically the downtown area, so we spent a morning walking around checking out the sights.  All of the hotels in the Fort area were super expensive, so not many people outside of tourists stay there

We took the train from our "suburban" station to Colombo Fort, which is the main train station for the city.  The track runs along the coast almost all the way up.  It was also misty, dreary, and gray, especially right on the shore.  You can sort of see a misty fog hanging over the tracks in this picture.

The waves here were pretty intense.  Apparently it's the undertow that is so dangerous, and everyone who mentioned it warned us that it wasn't safe at all for swimming.

Waiting for the train.

Here comes our train.  It was about a 15 minute ride; so it was longer than a tuk tuk (taxi) ride, but significantly cheaper.  I think it cost less than 80 cents for both of us to ride.

It turned out that there wasn't that much to do in the Fort area.  There was one supposedly great shopping market, but it ended up being a pretty typical maze of tiny stalls selling useless junk.  We also stopped at the Dutch Museum, which seemed like it might be interesting, and turned out to be a slight waste of time.

It was housed in a beautiful, big house (mansion?) Like most places in Sri Lanka, it didn't have air conditioning, and unfortunately didn't have any air flow through the rooms so it was sweltering hot inside.  It was easily the hottest, most uncomfortable place I've been because you just had to step inside one room and you were instantly sweating through your clothes.  Sadly the museum wasn't really that impressive either.  Overall, we probably could have skipped it and not missed it.

The clock tower made from an old light house.  This was in a really high security zone, and right after we took pictures of it, some military guys came up and told us we had to move because the President was going to be driving through.  We hung around long enough to watch the motorcade drive past, and then wandered back the way we came because so many of the streets were blocked off.

Islamic mosque.

Pretty old building

Old VW parked downtown

We also wandered back to Beira Lake and took a ride on the swan boats.

Steve paddling hard.  These boats were clearly not meant for Westerners - we were both too tall to comfortably paddle.  Even I was taller than most Sri Lankas regardless of where we went.  I thought it had to do with a genetic predisposition to being short, but apparently it's a result of poor nutrition as babies and children.

Bridge over Beira Lake with one of the temples in the background.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Colombo: National Museum

After wandering around Viharamahadevi Park we decided to head to the nearby National Museum.  On the way we stumbled across this monument commemorating Boy Scouting in Sri Lanka.  They also had a similar monument for Girl Scouts.

It's always interesting to see where organizations have sprung up.  I'm pretty sure we saw signs for the Rotary Club in Sri Lanka too.

The museum was housed in a beautiful, huge mansion (palace?).  I love this style building with all white exterior with intricate details.  The museum has a really unique entrance policy.  The first three rooms are open free to the public and then if you want to wander through the rest of the museum, you pay the entrance fee.  The museum was only open for about another hour by the time we arrived, and this coupled with the lack of air conditioning  or basic air movement making wandering through these rooms terribly unpleasant we decided only to stay and see the free rooms.

I can't imagine living in one of these houses in reality because the hot, stagnant air was really miserable. It wasn't as bad as the Dutch Museum, but still too hot to really enjoy.

We wandered around the grounds and found the cafeteria, so we stopped for a well deserved break.  Sometimes finding food in Colombo was challenging.  Most areas didn't have many restaurants so we often delayed lunch by several hours until we managed to find one.

Two huge wrap around patios.

The writing in Sri Lanka is really pretty, despite us having no hopes of deciphering it.  This might be one of the prettiest languages I've seen, and while it looks vaguely similar to Arabic, it's much more loopy and round.

The museum had exactly what we'd been hoping to see for a while.  This shows the various hand and leg positions we'd seen in Buddha statues.  It unfortunately didn't explain the significance of the poses, but at least it identified them.

Check out the rest of our Sri Lanka travels:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Colombo: Viharamahadevi Park

Our next stop on our tour through Colombo was the Viharamahadevi Park...yeah, I can't pronounce that either, but it was fun to explore!

After walking around the exterior searching desperately for a way in (most of the gates were chained closed) we finally found the main entrance and were greeted by this sign.  I'm pretty sure the sign is either mistranslated or someone has a really skewed idea of what parks are for!

At one end of the park is the Old Town Hall building, which looked cool against the super moody about to rain clouds.  There were a lot of days that looked like this because of it was monsoon season, but the rain never really lasted very long.  It mostly came in strong short bursts, especially towards the evening hours.

The very large golden Buddha looking out to the town hall.  There was a big scaffolding system set up behind it, but it didn't look like they were actually using it for anything.

More moody clouds

Steve wandering around the park.

The flowers in the park were really pretty and these around the Buddha were really well maintained, which wasn't always the case in other areas of the park.

The park was used by the military during WWII, but I'm not sure if that's what the train tracks were used for or not.  Now they're just abandoned with some old equipment lying around.

An old locomotive left on the tracks.  Maybe a kids play area?

Like many other areas, the park was filled with huge old trees like this.  As a whole the park seemed a little rundown and forgotten; they had really cool old buildings for areas like orchid growing and urban agriculture, but it didn't look like they had been used in years.

There was also a rocking loud mini amusement park next door, but we could not for the life of us find the entrance to it.  We found the exit, but they turned us away pointing vaguely to the entrance.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer Reading

Frolicking around Sri Lanka for 17 days without internet left me with considerably more free time than I would have expected, but thankfully Kindle saved the day.  I managed to read 13 books (some new and some old) while on vacation!  Packing that many paperback books would have been prohibitively heavy; we had all of our stuff packed in backpacking packs, and I  never would have thought to pack so many.

Here's a run down of the books I read during our vacation:

A World I Never Made
A Tailor-Made Bride
*Making Waves: A Novel
A Chance In Time
Two Wars
*The Strange Case of Finley Jayne
Paid in Blood
Beyond The Bougainvillea
Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are
Eye of the God
Harry Potter (Book 1 and 2)

*Hands down great books (in my opinion)

Lest you think I spent over $100 on vacation reading, I snagged all of these books while they were free on Amazon.  It can be hard to get them because they aren't free for very long, but they have a great RSS feed of popular free books, which I mentioned a while back.

One of the best (or worst) aspects of the free Kindle books is that the first book in a series and a new author's first book tend to be free as a way to get exposure.  I've found several new authors and series this way, but the whammy is that the later books come at the typical $10 price.

Hopefully this gets any lofts reading plans out of my system, because it seems that the only thing I'm going to be reading for the next 3 weeks is research articles for projects.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Colombo: Dehiwala Zoo

I love going to zoos so I was glad to find out that Colombo had a pretty big national zoo.  While we didn't end up going to the zoo in Cairo, this zoo was easily a higher quality zoo, but nowhere near the zoo standards most Americans are used to.  One of the biggest shocks was the entry price.  Most places in Sri Lanka have two separate prices: one for residents and one for foreigners.  Not surprisingly the foreigner entry price is always higher, sometimes 10-20 times more than for locals.  This was definitely the case here where locals paid about $1 to get in and we paid about $20 each!  I'm not quite sure it was definitely worth the high cost, but it was a fun way to pass the morning.

Most of the animals were caged as opposed to more open natural environments.  This was the worst part of the zoo because no one likes to see animals housed in too small spaces.

 Brown bears and other North American animals are always fun to see because we're so used to thinking of them in the wild rather than in the zoo.  They also had porcupines, a squirrel!, and a few other common animals.

The landscaping around the zoo was really pretty, but there didn't seem to be any way for the zoo to expand because everything was packed really close together.

A duck!

Big cats in small cages.  There was definitely not enough space for them, and they were all housed in groups of two, so they had to share the space even!

The elephants were hands down the worst part of the zoo.  All of them were chained up on their front and back legs so not only could they not move around hardly at all, but also it looked like they didn't even have enough chain to be able to stand comfortably.

Every now and then, they'd unchain the biggest elephants and let them walk around, but I think it was just so that they could use them to move around heavy logs.  They also had the terrible ankle pokers and you can see that they do seem to use them to control the elephants.

We were going to visit the Pinewalla Elephant Orphanage on our way to Kandy, but after seeing how poorly elephants were treated here, we didn't want to pay an outrageous amount to see elephants poked, prodded, and controlled inhumanely.

This baby chimp was pretty active and was swinging all over the enclosure.  It especially liked the tire swing, but I couldn't get a good picture of that mischief.

I don't remember the name of these animals, but those twisty antlers are something else!

This is one wrinkly, lumpy giraffe.  I've never seen one that is so lumpish, and I'm hoping it's not a result of poor treatment or diet.

Not all of the park was sad; there were so many huge trees throughout the zoo.  These trees must have been standing long before the zoo, so the inclusion of natural foliage and these huge trees was really beautiful.  Sri Lanka seemed to do a really decent job keeping old, huge trees standing.  It was something we saw not only at the zoo, but also all throughout the country.

Another sad, sad animal.  It's painfully easy to see that this lion is super skinny and probably not getting enough of the right food.  They had 4 or 5 lions and they all looked like this.

This was the extent of the Bengal tiger enclosure. The lion enclosures looked pretty sparsely similar.

While this wasn't the most uplifting experience, it makes all of the zoos we've seen in the US look even that much better.  It's a great experience for kids to get to go to the zoo, but it makes me wonder if it really is worth it if so many animals seem to be living so poorly. This is what zoos all used to be like and hopefully more and more zoos will get with the program and start upgrading their enclosures, and the care of the animals in general. At least we got the sense here that the keepers cared about the animals, but simply didn't have the resources or training to do a better job, unlike what we heard about and saw at the Cairo Zoo, where at least some of the keepers just don't care about the animal's welfare at all.