Saturday, January 31, 2015

Have Visa, Will Travel

On Wednesday my husband and I went to Washington DC to get our Visas at the Sri Lankan Embassy. We were told that it could be done in an hour, but we didn't really know if that was true.

As we walked down a quiet street lined with embassies and former embassies, it began to sink in that this adventure of ours is not, indeed, a dream. And then we saw it, the saffron, green and maroon of the Lion Flag of Sri Lanka. We walked through the small but well-tended garden passing beautiful reproductions of ancient Sri Lankan statuary, approached the door to the passport and visa office, down a short flight of steps....

And the door was locked.

So, we went back up the stairs, past the beautiful statuary, up another flight of stairs, into a portico, and through the main Embassy entrance, where we were met by the Liaison officer, a young bright-eyed graduate or intern. She came with us back to the door, but also could not open it. Newly appointed to her position, she tried every little doorbell and knocker she could find, and eventually hit the right one. Turns out the door wasn't locked, just stuck! The gentleman who came to our rescue gave a huge smile when Steve spoke to him in Sinhala, one of the two official languages of Sri Lanka.

The liaison was surprised to hear that Steve spoke both official languages - Sinhala and Tamil, and after a brief discussion about the merits of various universities where one could learn them and Steve's Fulbright project, we were invited to attend the Ambassador's Independence Day Party on February 4th. This national celebration commemorates the political independence of Sri Lanka from the British in 1948. There are flag-hoisting ceremonies, dances, parades, performances, a presidential speech, tributes to national heroes, a two-minute period of silence, a show of military might, and religious observances, all designed to promote ideas such as commitment, bravery, confidence, dedication, national unity, patriotism, nationalism, peace, national responsibility and awareness of national history in the minds of people. Unfortunately, we were unable to accept the invitation, but were invited to meet with the Ambassador when we return to give him a report on our trip and Steve's research.

Everyone who passed us expressed happiness and surprise that Steve could speak the language. The woman at the desk told him that his Sinhalese was very good, and promised us that she would have the visas ready in an hour. We were invited to have some Sri Lankan tea (Our answer was " මම තේ බොන්නේ නෑ", roughly pronounced Tay bon ee nay, or "I don't drink tea") and to wait in the sitting area if we liked. After looking at the many wonderful pieces of art in the small but cozy lobby, we sat on the traditional cane furniture. Steve read a Sri Lankan newspaper, in which there was a full-page spread on the use of the English word 'need'. This was lesson 48 in the series, so it was readily apparent that many Sri Lankans are interested in learning English. I read a pamphlet that discussed the seven senses found in Sri Lankan culture - the five that we use (sight, sound, taste, touch, scent) and two others (feel, balance). Feel is concerned with the relation between form and function; balance concerns the wellness of the soul.

After a few moments, the person at the desk came out, and informed us that she did not realize that I was a Canadian, and returned a portion of my Visa fee. I looked at Steve, smiled, and said, "See? It pays to be Canadian!" Since both Sri Lanka and Canada are members of the Commonwealth, we do not pay as much as Americans for the visa.

As we waited, Steve continued to speak Sinhalese to anyone who passed by, including a woman who told him about a Sri Lankan restaurant nearby. A scant thirty-five minutes later our Visas were ready, with an added surprise - the Ambassador had decided to grant them gratis (no charge) because Steve was a Fulbright recipient.

We left to do some other errands, and then later that evening went to the Banana Leaf Restaurant for my first experience with authentic Sri Lankan food. What a feast! We began with Masala Vadai (lentil patties with Sri Lankan spices), Spring Rolls (potato, green onions, and spices covered in a crispy batter), and Vegetable Cutlets (reminiscent of a samosa, but without the wheat wrap on the outside), served with hot sauce and mint chutney. I usually do not care for mint chutney, but this was far and above the best I have eaten. Nor do I usually eat spicy food, but I decided go for the hot sauce anyway, and to my surprise, found that it was delicious and did not upset my stomach at all. But it was HOT! One tiny drop touched the soft palette at the back of my mouth, and instantly the blocked sinuses and ear canals that I have been struggling with for nigh on two months cleared. I could hear again!

Next we had String Hoppers, "a famous Sri Lankan dish made with spaghetti like strings steamed on small cane trays accompanied with kiri hodi (coconut and onion gravy) and coconut sambol." I could have eaten these all day! The coconut gravy was so good that I actually used a spoon to eat the remainder like a soup.

This was followed by Coconut Roti (a sort of unleavened bread made of wheat and coconut flour and served with an onion relish). The piece de resistance was the Vegetable Lampris, a neat little package packed full of goodness: "A special dish created by Dutch who lived in Sri Lanka 600 years ago and it has been remaining since now and became a very special festival meal. Specially cooked saffron rice.... Accompanied with cashew curry, eggplant moju, seeni sambol, ash plantains, boiled egg.... Wrapped in a Banana Leaf and baked."

And what sort of celebratory dinner would it be without dessert? This was another dish I could have eaten all day - Watalappam, a rich pudding made from coconut milk, jaggery, cashews, eggs, spices that was originally from Malaysia.

Just like the door, where we tried and tried and were finally greeted by a nice surprise, our dinner was also a nice surprise for me. I cannot wait to sample more Sri Lankan food, and perhaps learn to make some of the dishes myself.

Have visa, will travel...will eat!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2015 Jan 25: Where Are We Going, Anyway?

Many people have not heard of Sri Lanka, a tiny island (about the size of West Virginia or just slightly smaller than New Brunswick) that is located off the southeast coast of India. It used to be called Ceylon, a transliteration of the Portuguese word for the country, which itself was a form of an Indian word for the country - śrī laṃkā. (Remove the last two letters and you have Srilam, or Ceylon.)

Lanka literally means 'island', and the term sri means 'holy' or 'blessed', so we are going to the Holy or Blessed Island. That sounds like a good deal to me!

To learn more about the country, we invite you to visit some of these links:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sometimes Life Brings Changes When You Least Expect It

For the past few years, my husband has been applying for grants to do research overseas. We were disappointed once again last spring when we received yet another rejection letter. We moved on, made plans, I got a job working part-time in an after-school daycare in the town where we live, I went back to school, he started planning his classes for spring semester, our daughter enrolled in dance classes and a basketball league...and then, he got a call saying that a major grant institution - Fulbright - had changed their minds and he was getting his grant after all. Five months to study and record a little-known language in Sri Lanka.

Not a problem! we thought. He could teach his semester, I could take my courses and work until the last week of the semester, our daughter could finish out her activities, and then we would go. After all, they generally give you four to six months to work out all the details, get visas and other documents together, and basically arrange your life so that you can be gone from it for an extended period of time.

Little did we know! Somehow, the Sri Lankan authorities, Fulbright, and my husband's work all agreed that we should leave as soon as possible, and they would make it happen. Suddenly, instead of four to six *months*, we had four to six *weeks* to get everything ready! I'm not saying this is a bad thing - given the choice of spending winter shoveling snow in Pennsylvania or spending winter sitting on a warm sandy beach in Sri Lanka, I would rather do the latter!

And so, we are almost ready to go. Our rental house is almost packed up and most of our belongings are put into storage. We have arranged for our daughter to be home-schooled while we are away. Our big 100 lb+ dog is staying with a very generous friend nearby and our two little dogs are moving back in with their 'grandparents' in Canada. My husband was released from his classes for the semester. I decided to take the semester off. And sadly, I had to give my notice at the daycare. I will really miss each and every one of those little treasures, who made me laugh every day. It has been such fun watching them grow and learn and discover. And I will miss my co-workers as well, most of whom have been so helpful over the past four months.

We are just one week away from the beginning of this new chapter in our lives.

Let the adventure begin!