Village life on Baffin Island

We visited two towns on Baffin Island: Clyde River and Pond Inlet. The Inuit people who populate the Canadian arctic didn’t traditionally live in towns, instead moving between small camps following the seasons and the natural resources. It was only in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that the Canadian government began establishing towns, driven by a desire to assert sovereignty over the arctic and sometimes-misguided efforts to assimilate the inhabitants. Inuit were encouraged to settle down with a promise of amenities like schools but the line between “encouraged” and “coerced” wasn’t always clear.

In contrast to the colorful Greenlandic towns, the prefab houses in the Canadian arctic are mostly painted in pale tones, further muted by a layer of dust kicked up by ATVs buzzing around the unpaved roads. The generous financial subsidies that Denmark lavishes on Greenland are clearly not provided by Canada to its arctic citizens. Not only is the infrastructure more primitive but food in the grocery stores was exorbitantly priced except for a few subsidized staples. A single can of soda was $5.

In each Canadian arctic town we visited, residents volunteered to be tour guides, usually by signing up on a sheet hung on the bulletin board of the grocery store. None were pros and each offered a unique perspective on their home towns. Our guide in Clyde River was a retired teaching assistant. She was a woman of very few words, which might not be an obvious plus for a tour guide, but she had a welcoming personality and would unexpectedly open up to unselfconsciously tell us very personal stories in response to what we thought were innocuous questions. We heard matter-of-factly about her time in jail for drunkenness, her husband’s unsuccessful battle against cancer, and her father’s pet polar bear who would accompany him as a hunting partner. But even that initially sweet story had a grim ending when her father had to kill and eat his beloved companion during a harsh winter famine.

Inuit across the arctic from Russia to Greenland speak related languages that are usually intelligible to the neighboring region but become increasingly distinct with distance. The dialect used in Nunavut is called Inuktitut and written with this cool syllabic writing system that was introduced in the 1800’s. The other Inuit dialects are written with our boring old roman letters.

We weren’t sure how literally we should believe the story (especially since it ended with ghostly polar bear cubs showing up at her father’s death bed) but it was a good illustration of the close and complicated relationship that the Inuit have with their animal neighbors. They still rely on hunting for most of their food and/but have a longstanding ethos about respecting the animals. Killing an animal for sport or letting any of it go to waste would be taboo. The traditional foods of seal, narwhal and polar bear are all important parts of their modern culture and daily lives. They are still the only reliable and affordable food source in the arctic. We couldn’t imagine eating any of those charismatic animals. Yet we did. These “country foods” are so integral to what it means to be Inuit, as is the sharing of food, that we couldn’t pass up a tasting held for us at a local community center. The narwhal was prepared with a little bit of skin and blubber on each bite, as simultaneously chewy and silky as you might imagine with subtle taste like an extremely rich sushi. Both the seal and polar bear were more traditionally meaty with hints of liver. Laurel enjoyed the tastes and textures more than Brian but felt a queasy loss of innocence afterwards.

Cutting narwhal meat with an “ulu” — a traditional knife that is also symbol of Inuit culture.

The two high school girls who were our volunteer guides in Pond Inlet couldn’t have been more different from our taciturn Clyde River guide. Like small town teenagers anywhere in North America (and maybe the world) they were alternatively giggly, chatty, gossipy and bored (with small town life and occasionally with us, whipping out their video games). Their main concern was to keep us from getting hit by a speeding ATV on the road, which happened to a “rude French tourist” they were guiding earlier in the year. The attraction in Pond Inlet they were most proud of was not the work of the famous local stone carvers but the “most northerly Tim Horton’s”, an iconic Canadian snack and coffee shop. Their excitement was heightened even more when we offered to buy them their favorite frozen coffee drink, the Iced Capp. It was all they could talk about as we walked up the hill toward the restaurant, which turned out to be a counter tucked into the corner of a grocery store. Sadly, the Iced Capp machine was out of order, so they could only get a brightly colored fruitless fruit slushy. They bore their disappointment with barely a shrug, resigned to the difficulties of arctic life.

Our Pond Inlet guides seem to have recovered from their disappointment over the Iced Capp.

On our way out of Pond Inlet, we met a pod of orcas who were feasting on an invisible underwater bounty. The orcas in the region are a larger variety than we have back home because they take on bigger prey, usually other whales and dolphins. They looked to be a very healthy family with several babies. We learned to track submerged whales by looking for the crowd of seabirds overhead who are hoping for leftovers.

Urban, Suburban and Icebergin’

After Qaqortoq, we visited three more towns in Greenland. They all shared the same distinctive appearance: brightly colored houses perched on rocky hills surrounding a protected bay. We found them all charming and hadn’t seen anything quite like them elsewhere in the world. Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and the largest town, with about 18,000 residents. It had a proper downtown area with some less colorful high-rises and a pedestrian shopping street a few blocks long. The stores were large and well stocked, perhaps buoyed by being in a pre-Amazon.com economy. Nuuk was also home to a few trendy restaurants and art galleries. A surprising amount of amenities for a town that size in that location.

This sculpture depicts the legend of the Mother of the Sea who punishes Inuit hunters who break taboos by entangling all the local animals in her hair. A shaman must then travel to the bottom of the ocean to comb her hair and release the animals and find out which rules were broken.

While ogling the stores, we saw a group of 20 or so young people carrying signs, wearing pointed hats, chanting slogans. We assumed it was some kind of protest but couldn’t be sure. Then a few blocks away there was another group, dressed differently and with a different chant. Rival gangs? A day of rage? A traditional Inuit cultural festival? We eventually found out they were students from the vocational college on a team-building scavenger hunt. An explanation that was a bit disappointingly mundane but perhaps more telling about daily life here.

In every town we visited, the houses and shops were all packed together. The suburbs were for the dogs, literally. Dog sleds are still a part of everyday life in Greenland, especially in the more northerly towns like Sisimiut and Ilulissat which we visited after Nuuk. Dogs are kept on the outskirts of the towns, in acres of fenced kennels. We were warned not to approach the adult dogs who are all business. A warning would not have been necessary after we saw the dogs tear apart hunks of seal meat that their owners tossed in for lunch. There were however a few free-ranging and curious puppies who were safe to pat.

And here are our non-dog urban pictures from Sisimiut and Ilulissat.

Ilulissat was a cute town but the real draw is that it sits at the opening of a long fjord. At the other end of the fjord is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, calving off 20 billion tons of icebergs every year. The icebergs march down the long fjord and then out to sea. It is believed that the iceberg that struck the Titanic came from here. Some of the icebergs are so massive that they have floated as far as Africa before melting. The icebergs are visible from town as they pass but for the best view we took a boat tour among the giant ice sculptures, though they were often shown up by a pod of humpback whales who crashed the party. (Here’s a little whale video.) We also hiked down a long boardwalk to a spot where the fjord gets a bit shallower. There the largest icebergs become grounded, causing a traffic jam of ice until the larger ones melt or are pushed out by force of the ice behind them.

Greenland really is

Well, not so much the east coast. By a quirk of ocean and atmospheric currents, the east coast of Greenland (facing Europe) is barren and rocky, though quite impressive with countless glaciers marching down the craggy mountains toward the fjords. The glaciers deposit icebergs into the water, each one a one-of-a-kind abstract sculpture. For most of the year, sea ice prevents ships from reaching the coast. The few inhabitants are cut-off for months from the outside world. Our ship didn’t get a chance to land there but we enjoyed the view and naming the icebergs like a Rorschach test.

The harsh weather from the east is blocked by the mountains and icecap of Greenland which act like a wind-break to protect the calmer and warmer west coast. We had a chance to experience some of those winds as they were funneled though a gap between islets at the southern tip of the main island. It was challenging to keep our cameras steady to photograph the beautiful scenery with 80mph gusts slapping our hands (and occasionally a painful slap to the face by a wind-whipped coat collar). Perhaps it wasn’t wise to be out in the weather but it was fun to experience such strong winds in a relatively safe environment.

Just around the corner from the southern tip but tucked safely away on the west coast is Qaqortoq. It is the fourth largest town in Greenland with a population of about 3000 (we will visit numbers 1, 2 and 3 shortly). The first thing you notice about Qaqortoq and other Greenlandic towns are the colors — all the buildings are painted in a crazy quilt of bright colors, like someone spilled a bag of Skittles on the steep hills rising up from the sea. When towns were established in the 18th century by the Danish colonizers, the buildings were color coded. The doctor’s house as yellow, shops were red and blue was for workshops. Today it is a free-for-all, though hospitals are still usually yellow out of habit or homage. We also finally saw the famous green of Greenland, with many grass and flowers mixed among the houses and rocky outcrops.

Despite the remote and dramatic location, the feel is of a Scandinavian town with all the modern conveniences. The supermarkets are piled high with fresh produce and everything else you can imagine. The harbors of southwestern Greenland are ice-free all year round and are kept well supplied with frequent cargo ships from Denmark. The roads are nicely paved, though with only 90 miles of roads in the entire island you can’t get very far. None of the towns are connected to each other by road and the harbor is full of small boats, the primary means of getting around.

We never mastered the Greenlandic language.

We had a brief city tour of Qaqortoq with a very unlikely guide: a middle aged woman born and bred in the American south who moved to Greenland after marrying a Greenlander. The two met in an online chat group in the 90’s and became friends over the years. Eight years ago they met in person for the first time when he visited Florida. After a whirlwind romance, she was engaged and moving to Greenland. As a tour guide, her facts were a little confused but her wide-eyed enthusiasm for Greenland was heartening and infectious.

Our guide Katy showing one of the many new art installations around town.

Qaqortoq was also the center of the largest Viking settlement in Greenland (though technically we should say “Norse” rather than “Viking” once they settled down and were no longer a warrior culture). The Norse settled Greenland in the 10th century and mysteriously vanished around the 15th century. A number of theories have been floated about what happened to the Greenland Norse, from disease to climate change to war with the Inuit who were settling southwestern Greenland at about the same time. But none of these theories are supported by archeological or written evidence. It is possible they just trickled back to Iceland or Scandinavia without drama. The last written evidence of the Norse in Greenland was of a marriage in the Hvalsey church, near Qaqortoq. The ruins of the stone church are fairly intact and we visited the site. Tall grass dotted with tiny blueberry bushes just inches high (yum!) cover the rocky slopes around the church.

Iceland: land of fire and ice…and tourists

On our first day on the mainland of Iceland, we visited two of the biggest tourist areas on the island: the downtown pedestrian core of the capital Reykjavik and a park outside of town that is the original site of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Our first impression of the island was: wow, people are right, Iceland is seriously over-touristed! In both places, we were forced to shuffle along behind a sea of other tourists from all over the world, like we were in an arctic Disneyland. On day two, we experienced a completely different Iceland, one with endless empty roads and quiet neighborhoods. As the cliché in every tourism brochure from every place in the world says: “a land of contrasts.”

Despite the crowds, Thingvellir (the site of the original Althing) was quite interesting and beautiful. The Althing is the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world but moved from this original site in the 1700’s and today no visible signs of it remain. Instead, you see a geography lesson writ large. A giant crack in the earth runs through the site, the spreading gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Interpretive signs say that the site was chosen as a meeting place because of its central location and abundant resources but surely the imposing topography was an attraction as well. Grassy plains and lakes surround the cliffs of the tectonic canyon, which itself is filled with lush grass where it isn’t paved over for the thousands of tourists disgorged from the tour buses parked in the acres of overflowing parking lots (plural).

The center of Reykjavik is a tourist circus of souvenir shops and cafes. I suspect the locals avoid it when possible during the summer, as we do the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And somehow they manage to have traffic jams in the most sparsely populated country in Europe (unless you count our next destination, Greenland). Bookending the main tourist street are two architecturally impressive public buildings. On one end is the Hallgrímskirkja church, whose tall stone tower echoes the country’s mountains. It is on top of a hill and a helpful landmark visible from everywhere in the city. Inside, the music from a giant pipe organ echoed around the circulating tourists. At the other end of town on the waterfront is the very modern Harpa Concert Hall. We only saw the outside and the lobby but its soaring honeycomb of glass was made us wish we had time to see more.

In Reykjavik we met up with our friends Dave and Amy who were old-hands at Iceland and they planned our escape from the tourist throngs. It turns out that even a short way out of town (unless you are heading to the “Golden Circle” of the most celebrated tourist sites) the traffic dissolves and you can see a less hectic side of Iceland, with quaint villages and uncrowded natural wonders. We were the only people at one road-side steaming/boiling mud pond and enjoyed other volcanic attractions and a giant waterfall with a very manageable number of other sightseers.

Back in Reykjavik outside the tourist quarter, we enjoyed a blog-worthy meal at a nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant that overlooked a city park. And what trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in a slightly gritty neighborhood (by tidy Icelandic standards) on the outskirts of downtown. It is a gruesome personal collection of dried, pickled or otherwise preserved penises from every species of mammal native to Iceland. On second thought, maybe a trip to Iceland would have been complete without it.

A hot spot in the Atlantic: The Westman Islands

There are pluses and minuses to living in one of the most volcanically active places in the world, the Westman Islands just off the southern coast of Iceland. On the plus side, the locals had a front row seat to the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Luckily the wind was blowing away from town so the only inconvenience was that it shutdown air travel over much of Europe for several weeks. They also were able to watch Surtsey, one of the most significant new islands formed in recorded history, rise from the sea in 1963. On the down side, in 1973 a volcanic crack unexpectedly opened up just outside of town that forced the sudden evacuation of the entire population of 5,000 and the loss of 400 homes to the flowing lava and rain of pumice stones. But even that had a plus: a square mile of new waterfront property!

Where the town and lava flow meet

The people returned after two years of exile and we arrived for our visit on a beautiful sunny day 44 years later. A new museum sits where the town meets the lava flow. It was built around a house that was covered in pumice during the eruption and recently excavated, its preserved contents from 1973 still in place, like a modern Pompeii.

Some of the recent lava is still barren of life but most of 5-square-mile Heimaey island (the largest island among the group) is lush, green and sheepy, with dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Faroes. Our mission on Heimaey was to see the puffin colony, the largest in the Atlantic. Puffins nest in deep burrows dug into the grassy cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the town. The island tour we were on had 30 minutes scheduled for the puffins but we decided to let the tour leave without us and we spent a couple extra hours there. The puffins did not disappoint, even though we couldn’t get too close to their steep nesting sites. They buzzed around like frantic giant hummingbirds, heading out to sea and coming back with mouthfuls of eels to feed their babies hidden in the burrows. It was lovely to sit quietly on top of the cliff after our tour group left, watching their comings and goings.

For those of you who can’t get enuff of the puffs, we have many more photos below and a few videos:

We planned to take a taxi back to town but the three taxis on the island were all booked so we decided to walk. Not making much visible progress across the windswept grasslands in 20 minutes, Laurel shook a thumb at a passing car and we hitched a ride. We happened to get a very good driver, in fact he’s the island’s driving instructor! He was also the high school Sociology and Psychology teacher, which shows quite a diverse curriculum for a remote school with only a couple hundred students. His perfect English was honed as a high school exchange student in Manhattan…Kansas.

The town itself is tidy but fairly spartan, as you might expect from an out of the way fishing port that was largely rebuilt in the 1970’s. We enjoyed popping into a few small shops and a cafe run by a jaded French expat but we didn’t spend much time in town. More exciting city life hopefully awaits at our next stop, Reykjavik.

P.S. About the name, the Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar as they say in Icelandic). “West-men” is what the Vikings called people from Ireland, which is west of the Vikings’ home base in Scandinavia. The Vikings had some settlements in Ireland but also enjoyed plundering and taking slaves from there. During the early settlement of Iceland in the 800’s, a group of Irish slaves in Iceland revolted and fled to these islands… where they were later found and all slaughtered. So the name basically means “the place where we killed a bunch of Irish people.” If you’ve ever read any of the ancient Icelandic Viking sagas, they pretty much all end with a bloodbath. And begin with one. And have a few in the middle.

The Faroe Islands: grass underfoot and overhead

Depending on the weather and your mood on the day you arrive in the Faroe Islands, you might describe them as “windswept, treeless and gloomy” or “lush, dramatic and charming.” We definitely fell into the later camp.

See if you can spot Laurel waving on the cliff in a white jacket.

The Faroe Islands are between Scotland and Iceland and home to 50,000 hardy souls descend from the Vikings who settled the islands in the 9th century. The grassy islands are kept treeless by the relentless scouring of hurricane-force winter gales and the munching of 80,000 of the fluffiest sheep you can imagine, grazing nonchalantly on the precarious slopes. While breezy, the weather was mostly sunny and warm for our three day stay. When someone in our tour van asked to have the air conditioning turned on, our guide said it was the first time in her 30 years of guiding that she had that request in the normally chilly islands. Despite her perfect English (like all the locals we met), she struggled to remember the word for air conditioning.

Although the islands have well-maintained roads and several impressive mountain-piercing and sub-sea tunnels, we were glad that someone else was doing the driving. The roads are often one lane (sometimes even through tunnels) and frequently wind along the edges of cliffs. To add a little more challenge, dense fog can blow in suddenly. We only experienced that once during our charmed visit but the thought of driving on a one lane (but two way!) cliff-hugging road in a white-out is probably more adventure than our white knuckles could handle.

When you can turn your eyes and camera away from the vivid green fjords, the visual highlight is the sod-roofed houses. Some are historic old buildings but the sod roofs are also part of their modern architecture. Many of the houses and small businesses are topped with beautiful long grass. This is a sign of how proud the locals are of their traditions, which is tied to the bristling defense of their independence from the parent country Denmark. The Faroe Islands have won considerable autonomy since WWII after a period when Denmark pushed hard to assimilate the Faroese in the Danish culture. Though from the same original stock as the Danes, over the centuries the Faroese have evolved their own tongue-twisting language and culture. For you video fans, here is a roof rippling in the wind.

Though they honor their traditions, it is a thoroughly modern country. The capital of Torshavn has trendy restaurants and stylish shops. The infrastructure is top-rate, probably in better shape than Seattle despite the harsh environment. But it is sized for a small population. Several hotel construction projects are going on downtown, signaling a future surge in the level of tourism which will strain the existing resources. The locals are already complaining about how “crowded” the most picturesque villages and hikes have become. By this they mean maybe a dozen tourists’ cars, which is pretty pristine by normal measures but at times we did feel like the tourists (us included) were overrunning the petite villages. It is will be increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between the growth in tourism and the desire of both the locals and the tourists to see the unspoiled beauty of the islands.

Kerala: India for beginners

India has a reputation as a colorful, crowded and chaotic country. The state of Kerala on the southern tip of the country shares those characteristics but with a decidedly more laid-back vibe. No cows block traffic (even Hindus eat beef in the area), begging is outlawed and Kerala boasts the highest levels of health and education in the country (we were told thanks to the policies of the local Communist Party). If you squint at the ubiquitous coconut palms, you might think you are on a quiet tropical island.

But when you open your eyes fully, you are still frequently reminded of the difficulty of living and traveling in India. Even before arriving, we had to fill out the lengthy and intrusive Indian online visa application, trying to avoid the numerous scam look-alike sites on the internet. On the morning of our arrival, our eyes and lungs burned from air pollution that was so thick that you could barely see a block away. Luckily, after a couple of hours the wind picked up and the pollution level decreased from dangerous to merely distressing. On the day of our departure from the glistening eco-friendly Kochi airport, a security guard seized our souvenir wooden cobra, saying it was too dangerously realistic to be allowed on the airplane. It was a nice carving, though we probably wouldn’t have even bought it if weren’t for an especially persistent hawker who followed us for 30 minutes while we explored the Kochi waterfront.

The biggest tourist draw in the area are the “backwaters” — hundreds of miles of interconnected canals, lakes and rivers that you can cruise in one of thousand or so houseboats that ply the waters. You can stay in the houseboats overnight but we just took a day trip starting from the houseboat hub of Alleppey. The backwaters mostly pass through rural areas and you can watch local people going about their business along the palm-lined banks: farming, washing clothes, bathing, fishing. Local ferries frequently passed us, further emphasizing that the backwaters are still an active part of life in Kerala, not just a tourist trap (though the houseboats are only used for tourists these days). The view is pretty and the air pleasantly clean and cool on the water away from the hustle and bustle of Kochi where we were staying. Here is a video from our ride.

The biggest attraction in Kochi is Jew Town. No, it isn’t a theme park where you can get deep-fried pastrami-filled-bagels on-a-stick (we wish!), it is the old Jewish quarter of town where thousands of Jews lived until most left for Israel. Jews are documented to have lived in Kochi for at least a thousand years and oral tradition says over two thousand years. Today only 5 aging Jews remain and the area is mostly a tourist-focused shopping district where you can find clothing, handicrafts and spices among the Portuguese colonial buildings. The centerpiece of Jew Town is the Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568. Not enough Jews remain for it to remain active as a house of worship but it is a big tourist draw. When we were there, a long line of Indian tourists queued to get in. It seems that the people of Kochi, or perhaps all of India, have a lot of interest and pride in their Jewish heritage.

Don’t rain on my elephant parade

Full moons have special significance to Buddhists because the most important events in Buddha’s life and early Buddhism occurred during full moons. In majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka, every day with a full moon is a national holiday and celebrated with prayers and festivals of varying importance. The largest full moon festival in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo is Navam Perahera, held annually in February. The highlight is a parade of dancers from different parts of the country and about 50 colorfully decorated elephants. We were lucky to be Colombo on the special day and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it.

Getting ready for the parade. Is that elephant smoking a giant cigar?

We had spent the day exploring Colombo on foot (more on that later) and were very glad that the parade was to start after dark (at 7pm) because spending even more time under the blistering sun probably would have done us in. Because the streets around the parade close down as the appointed time approaches, we had to arrive about 6:00, get in position and wait for the fun to start. And wait. 7:00 came and passed. Somehow after the sun went down, the humidity went up, so our nighttime respite from the heat never arrived. We sat dripping with sweat, watching the crowd, until the parade started at about 8:15. After a troop of acrobatic dancers and a elephant in a glittering robe passed by, we felt a few sprinkles of rain — finally some relief from the heat! People around us grumbled and scrambled for umbrellas but we were enjoying it and wouldn’t let a little rain interfere with the exotic scene in front of us. Famous last words. The rain increased in intensity until it was like literally pouring down like buckets. The dancers and elephants retreated and the parade ground to a halt before it really got started. Here’s a video to give you a taste of the rain.

We know that tropical showers pass quickly, so we sat patiently and waited. And waited. At some point it became so ridiculous how wet were that we had to laugh. And laugh, and wait, and soak. The downpour kept up for almost an hour. Finally it tapered and the parade resumed, with more gusto than before because they were behind schedule. Dozens of troops of dancers in different sparkling ethnic dress, most performing with props of various kinds: deafening bull whips, spinning plates on tall poles, stilts, musical instruments, hoops, you name it. Between groups of performers, an elephant would come by with its handlers (and pooper scooper). Most of the elephants were covered in ornately sequined costumes, their eyes peeking out through cut-out holes, looking like they were heading to a Venetian masquerade ball. A few of the elephants seemed to have a role of special honor, decked out in electric lights and carrying what were possibly holy relics (it would have been nice to have a play-by-play announcer telling us what was really going on). Around 11pm it became clear that the parade wasn’t going to end any time soon, so we left, still soaked to the core.

A few more videos from the parade:

Colombo is a surprisingly easy city to get around in, by foot or in the ubiquitous 3-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. The roads and sidewalks were well maintained and drivers kept to their lanes and followed familiar rules of the road. If it weren’t for two factors, we would have found it a joy to explore: 1) the heat was unrelenting and 2) an endless parade of people (no elephants) wanting to give us a city tour. We couldn’t walk a block without someone approaching us. About half the time, the approach would be a friendly “welcome, where are you from” which would always end eventually with the man (always a man) pulling out a city tour brochure from his back pocket. Laurel eventually came up with a brush-off that worked better than the “no thank you” we had been trying: “we did the tour yesterday.” The most sophisticated tout chatted us up for a couple blocks without letting on about his motives. He told us about his time in Colorado going to school, joked about how white we were, subtly informed us about a chance to see the parade elephants getting dressed. But eventually we became suspicious (and very hot) and begged off to take an air conditioned break in a tea shop. It was only as we tried to pry ourselves away that his motives finally became clear. The faux-friendliness left a bad taste in our mouths and made us appreciate the tuk-tuk drivers who pulled-up and just asked us straight-up if we wanted a tour.

Hopeful tour guide noting Brian’s Seattle pallor

Sri Lanka is developing fast, apparent both statistically and visually. The tuk-tuks idle along with Mercedes and BMWs in the traffic jams. A whole new downtown is currently under construction just south of the old colonial downtown. The project is massive, with dozens of partially-built highrises and another huge area of new landfill that is being prepped for more. The details of the financing are a bit murky but China is heavily involved. Sri Lanka does seem to have a lot going for it, but it isn’t clear whether this “if you build it they will come” strategy will transform Colombo into the next Singapore or leave them with a ghost town and a mountain of debt. We have visited more than one developing country lately that has had to surrender valuable assets to China such as fishing rights to settle debts from ill-advised “development” loans.

A few miles from the new Financial City, Colombo’s Lotus Tower is now South Asia’s tallest self-supported structure (1,150ft) and lights up at night.

Laid back Sri Lanka

Most of the news you hear in the US about Sri Lanka isn’t good (if you hear any news at all). There was the horrible civil war that raged for decades and introduced the world to the explosive-vested suicide bomber. The country was hit hard by the 2004 Christmas tsunami, killing tens of thousands of people, more than anywhere except Indonesia. You may have heard earlier this year about a sort-of-coup that led to the prime minister being illegally removed from office by the president.

But on the ground in Sri Lanka, it is hard not to see the country as a success story with a bright future ahead. The civil war ended in 2009 and the country seems determined to put it in the past. The “losing” ethnic group now votes predominantly for the victorious general’s political party. No signs of the tsunami devastation remain. The supreme court reinstated the prime minister and the politicians grudgingly made up. It is still a poor country but the economy is growing fast, malaria was eradicated in 2016 and there is universal free healthcare. We saw almost no begging, homelessness or glaring disparities in wealth, a big difference from Seattle. The cities are tidy and the countryside lush. Overall, the vibe in the country is one of friendliness and optimism.

We started our trip to Sri Lanka in its second largest city, Galle (which we found hard to remember is pronounced “Gaul”). Galle is divided into two parts: the Fort and New Town. The Fort is a 400 year old walled city built by the Portuguese as an important European trading post for spices and other Asian goods. While the Portuguese left long ago, the Fort today is again occupied by Europeans but now they are tourists. We walked every cobblestone street in the Fort and the well-preserved colonial buildings were all filled with trendy boutiques, boutique hotels and restaurants. We were excited that the shopkeepers were so unexcited by our presence that we could browse unmolested. We were a bit torn about what to make of it. On one hand, it was very pleasant and picturesque (the giant stone walls of the fort have a beautiful ocean view) but we also couldn’t help thinking that it was missing the essence of the country by being such a Disneyfied tourist trap. But as we explored more of the country, we did learn that the tidiness and calm of the Fort was in character for Sri Lanka, though perhaps the Fort was the most extreme example of that unextremity.

The New Town of Galle is only “new” compared to the Fort and didn’t have the glistening skyscrapers we would see later in the capital Colombo. It was a real working smallish city that was just as easygoing and approachable as the Fort but clearly did not expect to have any stray tourists wandering about. No souvenir shops or fancy boutiques were visible among the busy storefronts. But they had something for sale that is the stuff of our dreams: piles of fresh mangosteens, our favorite fruit in the world, for about 10 cents each. In the rare times you can find a mangosteen in the US they cost at least 20 times as much and are usually rotten inside. Brian got a good workout lugging around 12 pounds of mangosteens while we finished our sightseeing.

Outside of town, we took a tour of a tea plantation. Sri Lanka shares the title of largest tea exporting country with China and Kenya(!). The tea is still harvested by hand and processed by giant iron machinery, much of it looks to be left over from British colonial times. The process of making tea is surprising complicated: plucking, withering, disruption, oxidation, fixation, sweltering, rolling, drying, curing, and sorting. When you drink a cup of tea, it isn’t just some shriveled up leaves.

A longer excursion into the countryside was a trip to the city of Kandy in the central highlands of the country. It is a traditional tea growing region and we flew over beautiful terraced fields on the seaplane we took there. The main attraction of Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. The temple is a large complex built to house the left upper canine tooth of Buddha, one of the (too) many little bits of him that are said to have survived his funeral pyre and are housed and venerated in temples around the world. The tooth is kept in seven nested golden caskets which are housed in an ornate wood and ivory shrine inside a large temple. We were told by our guide that the temple is a popular destination for pilgrims, especially so because the tooth is sometimes taken out for public viewing while most of the other relics around the world are encased permanently in sealed structures called stupas. As we stood by the shrine being circled by worshipers from around the world, we asked our guide when was the tooth last displayed, hoping that maybe we’d get lucky. About 20 years ago.

Instead of flying back from Kandy, we took a train. Trains are always an interesting way to see an area from behind the scenes. We passed through amber fields of rice, watched several back lot volleyball games (the national sport) and peering into people’s back yards while they were doing their laundry. We did pass through some shanty towns built along the tracks but they were pretty nice as shanties go, with concrete walls and satellite dishes.

Our last countryside excursion was to Brief Garden. It was the estate of Bevis Bawa, a mid-century architect who, along with his brother Geoffrey, created the “tropical modern” school of architecture and landscape design. Bevis died without an heir and left his estate to his gardeners who now run it as a public park/museum. The official web site for the estate says that during his lifetime Bevis had to fend “off the unwanted attentions of Colombo society who saw him as one of the most eligible bachelors around.” The numerous statues and paintings of nude men around the house make it clear why he remained a “confirmed bachelor.”

The house and grounds are beautiful but unremarkable today because of the success of the Bawa brothers’ architectural movement. We’ve seen many similar places in Hawaii and around the world. But we can appreciate how amazing it is that a 90 year old house and garden still looks “modern”, not unlike seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. We had some fun wildlife spotting on the trip: a troop of shy monkeys and many flamboyant birds in the garden, and a 5 foot monitor lizard strolling down the driveway as we left. We also saw one close-up basking in the sun outside the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

This post is getting pretty long, Colombo will be saved for another day.

Mini-Manhattan in the Maldives

If you come across one of those Tropical Island Paradises calendars at a mall kiosk, the chances are good that the cover photo is a tiny green island surrounded by a ring of white sand and impossibly blue water. And that island will be in the country of the Maldives, a string of atolls between the Seychelles and India.

An island in Baa Atoll, tantalizingly out of reach for us because high winds prevented us from visiting it.

That is why we’ve been eager to come to the Maldives and experience some of that trademarked Tropical Island Paradise but our first stop in the country was the capital Malé, which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Its unexpectedness was the highlight. The Maldives economy is tourism-based but they have not encouraged tourism in Malé where about a third of the population lives, instead directing it to isolated high-end resorts on remote islands. The taxes, leases and salaries that these resorts pay flow mostly back to Malé, which has grown into a surprising metropolis of highrises and swarming motorcycles on a tiny island with about the same population density as Manhattan (albeit with only 110,000 inhabitants).

Malé island, that’s the whole thing, packed coast to coast

It was unlike anything we had seen before. Though the island is a very walkable mile square, everyone buzzes around on motorcycles which meet at uncontrolled intersections but somehow the streams of cycles pass through each other without a honk or traffic jam (video). The shops were well stocked with everything a modern city dweller could need and absolutely nothing geared to tourists. Some fellow travelers we talked to were disappointed that there “wasn’t anything to see or do” but that contributed to its unexpected allure to us. We enjoyed being the only obvious outsiders on the street but encountered no frowns or touts. We just walked around and soaked in life in a place that was at once both completely different and completely familiar. One of those familiar/unfamiliar sights in the city (which is short on both land and fresh water) was a small park where the grass and most of the trees were plastic and festooned with lights, now apparently in disrepair. Even the birds in the trees were artificial. It was a whimsical, colorful and absurd respite among the densely packed buildings.

AstroTurf and giant plastic birds of prey fill this city oasis

The Maldives is a Muslim country and until recently practiced a very relaxed form of the religion that didn’t emphasize public displays of piety such as headscarves and frequent prayers. But in the past decade, a more conservative vibe has grown in Malé, apparently as a tool by one of the local political parties and with the usual money and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. Now headscarves are almost universal on the street and every shop closes for 20 minutes during the calls to prayer. But this piety appears to be at least partly superficial. For example, we were wandering in a large shop when prayer time came. The staff apparently didn’t know we were there and turned off the lights, locked the doors and retreated into a back room. When we peeked in on them, they weren’t on their mats praying but instead sharing YouTube videos on their phones. We were able to escape the shop and noticed similar scenes when we peered into the darkened windows of other “closed” shops. The more liberal political party has recently returned to power so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.

So we had a good time in Malé but one day was enough. Now we wanted to see those calendar-cover islands and the colorful life below the water. But the windy weather that has followed us through the Indian Ocean continued during our visit and kept us out of the water for the next two days. Finally on our last day in the country, off South Ari Atoll, we had the great snorkel we had been waiting for. The fish were plentiful, of many varieties, good sized and not scared of us. All of those are positive signs that they are well protected from overfishing.

Healthy fish, dying reef

We also had a chance to see the fish while eating lunch in the world’s first underwater restaurant, at a resort on the same island. You descend from a dock down an enclosed spiral staircase into a glass dome. Inside is seating for maybe 20 diners. Someone periodically feeds the fish from above which encourages a constant parade of colorful visitors and even some small sharks. It was an amazing experience despite merely OK food at an extravagant price.

Fish for lunch

On a more depressing note, the coral was mostly dead, probably from a combination of warming seas and runoff from the resort. The fish are having a good time now, living in the skeleton of the dead coral and eating the algae that is fertilized by the nutrient-rich runoff. But the party won’t last long. The reef is visibly breaking down, eventually leaving the fish and the islands exposed to the wrath of the open ocean. The highest point of land in the Maldives is only 6 feet, so the entire country may disappear beneath rising seas within a few generations.

Here are some additional videos:

And as always, plenty of other photos: