To Fly!

We started our New Year at 4:30 AM, when the east coast of the US still had 6 hours left in the Old Year.  Alex took the call reporting favorable winds for flying, and an hour later we were in a pitch-black jungle clearing, filled by a huge ballon laying on its side and the white noise of hot air being pumped into it.

Ten minutes later the balloon and its basket were standing upright, the pilot had switched from the electric to the propane version of white noise, and we were loaded into that basket.

Several time-tested cliches apply to cruising along in a hot-air balloon over the jungle canopy of Sri Lanka, but the one that came to my mind was “pictures don’t do it justice.”  Pictures don’t do it justice, esp the ones we can take on our cell phones (our camera met its end a few weeks ago).  This is a blessing and a curse. It lets you relax, live in the moment, harness the power of now, all that good stuff. At the same time, it raises the question of how we will remember moments like this.  We have taken thousands of photos on this trip, forced the kids to write occasionally in the journals, and done a terrible job of finding and sending home meaningful items to remind us of these places.  I often wonder how we, especially the kids, will remember this trip in the years to come, and moments like this put a fine point on that question.

Back in the balloon, we flew up and over misty hills and villages. Maybe it was the landscape, maybe the time of day, but there was a lot of quiet in that basket. We looked in vain for elephants, and the few words spoken were to point out eagles and peacocks and buffalo (buffalos?) below us.  Eventually, we wondered how one lands a balloon gracefully in the jungle. Our captain answered by quietly (of course) lowering us into what could be generously called a meadow. He broke the silence, along with a few mediumish trees, as he barked out orders to the ground crew that somehow had figured we’d be landing at that spot, behind a chicken farm.  In Sri Lanka. A place that wasn’t much on my radar twelve months ago. Pretty wild.

This adventure was echoed the following morning as we once again set our alarms,  4:15 AM this time, for 14 hours of flight to New Zealand. I’ll take this opportunity to make a point:  People, if your driver says to get to the airport three hours early, he just might know something you don’t.  In this case, Anura said there was construction on the airport access road. We were unjustifiably skeptical, and I never saw any construction, but when we pulled up to the airport we saw hordes of people and lines (a.k.a. queues) that all of a sudden made our two hours of lead time look puny by comparison.
We’ve all got nightmarish airport stories and I’ll spare you the details of this one, but it will suffice to say this was one of countless episodes where Alex’s skills of confrontation and sharp elbows won the day.  I promise there have been others where my expertise in finessing our way through an awkward situation proved equally useful.   At least that’s what I told myself as she got us past a line of about 300 other travellers in the Emigration department in about ninety seconds.  I was already having a hard time recalling the serenity of the hot-air balloon.

So we made it onto the plane and off to Kuala Lumpur, where an eight-hour layover provided the opportunity for further reflection. Instead of reflection, however, Alex and I used the computers in the American Express lounge to conduct business that had been ignored over the past few weeks, and the kids drank a million Sprites and watched TV.

After ten event-free hours on our second flight, the captain just announced that we are landing in Auckland in 15 minutes, so I am signing off.  More adventures to come, most immediately as I drive into the city on the wrong side of the road in our new (to us) minivan. That’s right, we now own minivans on both sides of the equator.  Pretty wild, indeed.


New Balance 

A major balancing act of our trip: to expose the kids (and ourselves) to the cultures, people, and places we are encountering in a meaningful way, while also providing the kids (and ourselves) some continuity and connection with life back home. It’s amazingly easy, even in places like Sri Lanka, to eat processed chicken nuggets, gorge on American media, and surround yourself with people (other tourists) who look just like you do. It’s also easy to forget, in the desire to wring meaning out of every moment, that kids can only take so much cultural immersion before they become exhausted, oversaturated, and you realize you’re probably defeating the purpose.

Striking the right balance sometimes seems an elusive goal.  In India, we often felt we were missing the real country, ensconcing ourselves in ITCs and traveling in a chauffeured luxury van rather than sleeping in homestays and making use of India’s famed train system.

Here in Sri Lanka, we find it difficult to walk past restaurants welcoming “Foreigners Only,” where we know the girls will have options other than grimace-inducing rice and curry.  (I’ll admit that we never walk past Foreigners Only Restrooms.  While we’ve all grown accustomed to the Asian toilet style, a nice American Standard potty is always a treat.)

But every time we feel like we might as well be at Epcot Center, the balance suddenly seems to shift.  Like the time we found ourselves indefinitely delayed in the insanely crowded domestic terminal of the Bagdograh airport.  We were the only Westerners among hundreds of other passengers and the only remotely kid friendly snack was curry-flavored Pringles.

Or, on a happier note, the time we were invited by our luxury van driver to his home in Jaipur during Dewali.  We ate holiday treats and drank tea with his wife and daughter-in-law, who, according to the tradition still followed by some Indian women, uncovered her face and spoke (in excellent English) only when her father-in-law left the room. A warm and welcoming family, we were so lucky to spend part of their holiday with them.

And then there was the time (just yesterday) when we visited one of Sri Lanka’s famed national parks, Horton’s Plain.  Sitting at 6,000 ft in the center of the country, the plain covers 10,000 hectacres and terminates to the south with a 4,000 ft sheer cliff that provides breathtaking views to the river valley below. (Brendan showed me the press about tourists falling off the unguarded cliff only after our visit. I appreciated that.)  It’s a 6 mile hike to the cliff, known as the World’s End. As we made our way there in the late morning hours, we saw several Western tourists on their way back, but curiously none headed in our direction…  Only later did we learn that any right-minded person unaccustomed to the Sri Lankan heat starts the hike, which offers virtually no shade, several hours before we did.

Sri Lankan holiday makers, on the other hand, trailed behind us by an hour or so. Apparently, they prefer to start the walk after lunch. And on 26 December, a national holiday in Sri Lanka, many, many of them make the journey.  Thus, as we death-marched ourselves back from the World’s End under the scorching sun, with not enough water and genuinely concerned about heat stroke, we ran into what seemed like hundreds of Sri Lankans.

As worried as we were about our beet-red faced American children, they offered biscuits and water (and, of course, took our picture).  This kindness was matched only by that of the man who, at the beginning of the hike, loaned me his size 10 hightops, after I realized I’d left my hiking shoes two hours away, back at the inn.

A tourist experience for sure, but one that definitely did not feel at all like we were at Epcot.

What we’ve learned these past five months is that it’s probably impossible to achieve true balance between authenticity and ease in any one experience or even on any given day. Overall, though, we’ve found that if we’re patient, we get just about as much as we need of both.

Christmas certainly delivered in that regard.  Our kids really cherish our Christmas traditons, about which we’re pretty religious.  As the 25th approached, they made increasing reference to what “we would be doing now if we were at home.” And Brendan and I grew increasingly anxious that they would feel completely unmoored being so far from our home for the holiday.

Thanks in large part to the kids themselves, that was not the case. It was far from a traditional Christmas, to be sure. This was the Christmas tree in the dining room of the otherwise lovely mountain inn where we spent the 24th through the 26th.

Yes, that’s right, it’s constructed of wine and beer bottles.

And instead of candy canes, which seem to exist nowhere in SE Asia, we had this Sri Lankan delicacy, rambuttan, as a Christmas treat.

Delicious, but really no substitute.

For the most part though, with some minor adjustments, the most important aspects of our traditons traveled with us.
Holly and William spent hours using our arts and crafts travel kit to make homemade ornaments and fashion a pretty festive Christmas tree.

The girls constructed cookies for Santa with milk biscuits, Nutella, and sprinkles. The reindeer got a mango and peanuts. And on Christmas morning, we opened stockings in bed just like we do at home.

After that, the loot under the tree was revealed with great ceremony.  The pile was small, lots of travel size shampoos, new toothbrushes, and books…

But everyone seemed pretty happy, especially with the Secret Santa presents the kids carefully choose for each other.

I’m sorry to say, we didn’t make it to Mass.  The nearest English speaking service was a two-hour drive away.  But we climbed a beatuiful Sri Lankan mountain, then played together in the pool before dinner.  It felt like a pretty fitting birthday celebration for JC and definitely a Christmas we’ll always remember.

The next day, as we got ready to move to our next stop, we tackled a more balancing act of the trip: scrutinizing the contents of our bags to see what we could donate or ship home to lighten our load, being careful not to give up any essentials.  As we completed the task, I had the feeling this was a lot like a backpacker’s Boxing Day.

We’re taking the train now from Ella to Kandy to explore more of Sri Lanka’s gorgeous interior. Our packs are more balanced and, not to be corny, but so are our spirits. Christmas can have that effect, even so far from home.


Christmas 2016: Ella, Sri Lanka

^^^ Check out the sweet, sweet muscle-tee that I got for Christmas!! I was not allowed to wear it to Christmas brunch and that is lame. Tank tops and the like carried the day this Christmas, which is what happens when you spend pretty much all of December in a small surf town with an undiversified retail community. I also got a Bob Marley sticker and Phoebe scored a wicked-cool Himalayan Hemp hat.

Some traditions, however, managed to travel all the way from DC.  Alex and I found ourselves wrapping presents at 1:30 AM on Christmas Eve, just like every year at home.  We left a carrot (hard to find in SL), apple, and cookies for the Santa and the reindeer. Santa left stockings outside the kids’ door and we opened them together before getting out of bed. Phoebe was 1 thousand times more excited than she looks in this photo.

Alex and I spent much of the past several weeks worried that Christmas on the other side of the planet would lead to a major upswing in homesickness, but I am happy to report that the kids rallied around a smaller, more tropical version of the holiday than might normally be the case.  We are staying at a beautiful lodge in Ella, thanks to a little splurge from Alex. That helps.

It also helps that these kids have (knock on wood) settled into a rhythm of life with one another in which they see the ups and downs that each experiences, feel their own highs and lows, and put forth a genuine effort to make the most of this experience.  They are forced to take turns being the leader, the voice of reason, the loner, the camp counselor, or the squeaky wheel crying out for emotional grease. They have each had their moments, as have their parents, but all are rising to occasions like having Christmas in a very unfamiliar place with the same five people they’ve spent the last five months with.

Or the 5 AM wake-up that awaits them tomorrow as we head north to a place called Horton Plains.  It has taken a little while, but we have bonded with a country to which we hadn’t given much thought more than a year ago. The south shore of Sri Lanka was warm and welcoming over the past three weeks.  I will admit that we haven’t done a huge amount of cultural exploration, instead focusing on the surf, diving, schoolwork, and siestas.

There was also a quick side trip to Udawalawe Park for a couple of very cool safaris.  Way too much to fit into this writing, but elephants and peacocks and buffalo and crocodiles and an amazing variety of birds were our hosts there.

It’s a bit hard to make out, but the tree in that photo is holding three types of herons, an egret, two marabou storks, a couple of ducks, a hawk, and several unidentifieds.  The pelican is off to the left, doing his own thing.

That’s it for now.  We head north the day after tomorrow, to the land of even more tea estates and some very large Buddhist temples. Then we move on to NZ. Will check in again soon. Until then, Happy New Year, faithful readers!