Monday, March 30, 2015

2015 March 23-28: Steve's Report: Trip to the South

We got back Saturday night to find our internet service gone, and didn't get it restored until just now (Monday AM). We left Monday morning for Mirissa on the south coast a beautiful touristy resort city with a lovely (but boring) beach. We stayed in a very interesting hotel built in a series of levels up the side of a hill. It had a rooftop swimming pool, so it was quite luxurious. I have no interest in beaches; our real motive for going to Mirissa is that it happens to be the place where the blue whale tours -- now famous worldwide -- originate. It was only recently discovered that large numbers of blue whales live year round off Sri Lanka's south coast.

Tuesday morning we climbed aboard one of more than a dozen smallish whale tour boats (ours seated thirty people or so) and headed out into the Indian Ocean. On the way out, we saw flying fish, very bizarre creatures that erupt from the waves and glide rapidly along, banking and changing direction as their long fins flutter like wings. There were few seabirds aside from the ubiquitous whiskered terns. To everybody's (and especially Elanor's) delight, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge school of acrobatic spinner dolphins (as many as 200 individuals) that leaped and pirouetted in groups of five or ten at a time. We watched them for quite a while. Much farther out to sea (about 15 miles) we finally found blue whales -- five in all, and one pair that we were able to approach within a hundred yards. They are truly enormous, visibly much larger than the humpback and even the fin whales we see so often in Newfoundland, and do quite a bit of rolling and fluke-displaying between dives. One of them must have been nearly 100 feet long. Standing in the presence of the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (or perhaps, anywhere else!) was a nearly religious experience. On the was back to shore, three pomarine jaegers -- very rare birds this far south -- flew past the boat. Elanor and I spent quite a bit of time in the hotel swimming pool, and she's now really learning to swim quite well. She learned to do a passable crawl while we were there, as well as to swim on her back all over the pool and to tread water. She's now fearless in the deep end, and I've ceased to worry about her drowning.

On Wednesday we went over to Tissamaharama (near Kataragama in southeast Sri Lanka), a lovely town near both Bundala and Yala national parks. We stayed at a small hotel beside a lake full of lotuses that absolutely brimmed over with birdlife, including such beauties as pheasant-tailed jacanas, purple swamphens, lesser whistling-ducks, and black bitterns. The woods and paddies around the lake were also alive with birds. The huge pipal tree at the Buddhist shrine near the hotel usually had green imperial pigeons roosting, and the newly-cut rice paddies were full of little birds like ashy prinias, scaly-breasted munias, and the dauntingly-named zitting cisticola. I racked up quite a number of new species for my growing ebird list just walking around the lake. Also, several mugger crocodiles lived in the lake; one fair-sized individual often lay out in the sun on an islet, daring the lapwings, cormorants, and other waterbirds to come within reach. Elanor enjoyed observing the epic numbers of geckos around the hotel and following around the large monitor lizard that patrolled the grounds.

We headed out at 4:30 AM for Yala National Park in a safari jeep. The driver was pretty knowledgeable. We told him we didn't want to participate in the mad rush into the park when the gates opened to go to the spot where leopards were usually seen. If we saw a leopard, fine, but we wanted to go at a leisurely pace, along less-traveled roads, and see lots of birds. We arrived at the park gates while it was still dark and waited in the gloom for dawn to break. Accordingly, when the gates opened, the other jeeps tore off in the direction of the main leopard sighting area, and we took "the road less traveled" by ourselves. As a result, we didn't see any leopards, but we saw many other things, mostly without other vehicles around. The first prize of the day was a lesser adjutant, a very rare giant stork species, standing in the middle of the road. We got a good long look at him. We found large, very entertaining flocks of Malabar pied hornbills that cackled and cavorted in the trees along the road. Also present were plenty of grey langurs and tocque macaques, as well as wild water buffalo (one of the few places in the world where they can be seen), and lots of mugger crocodiles, including one that was more than 15 feet long. The landscape was surprisingly beautiful, with scrub jungle punctuated by ponds and lakes, as well as ranges of striking rocky hills and tors, one of which resembled a human profile. We stopped at every pond and tallied species, with Pam taking oodles of photos. Near the sea, we found a beautiful flock of herons, painted storks, and spoonbills probing in the mud for snails and whatever. Behind then stood two great thick-knee (the first burrhinids I've ever seen) and a host of shorebirds. While we were watching these, a grey-headed fish eagle sailed up and landed on a log; Pam got nice shots of him.

Back inland, we found many more birds, including the crested treeswift, the golden-fronted leafbird, and the ashy-crowned sparrow lark, among many others. We saw several mongooses and at least three Indian monitor lizards, hers of spotted deer, a pair of sambar, quite a few wild boar, and finally, a number of elephants. The first one we encountered was a large tusker walking down the middle of the road, which we followed, along with several other jeeps. Eventually, he let us pass -- so close that we could see his cheek glands. Elanor, of course, was ecstatic. A little further along, we came across a female elephant with two half-grown calves bathing in a pool. We watched them blow water on each other for a while. We later encountered another large tusked male. by the day's end we had tallied more than 90 bird species.

Friday we went to Bundala National Park, known primarily for its birds. Here we were accompanied by a park guide who knew where to find the birds. We racked up lots more species, including a pied cuckoo and common thick-knee. Our real hope was to find the black-necked stork, of which only one lives in Bundala and the other ten or eleven (Sri Lanka's entire population) in remote corners of Yala. At one point, we came upon two huge saltwater crocodiles mating at the edge of a lagoon; they glared at us and began swimming slowly out into the lagoon, passing within a few feet of our vehicle. Bundala also had enormous numbers of langurs and macaques all along the roads, and Elanor happily kept a tally. Finally, just past noon, in a remote salt pan full of painted storks, spoonbills, and smaller shorebirds of many kinds, we found the black-necked stork, a very shy bird that stayed just close enough for a good long look in the spotting scope. As a bonus, I spotted a small group of rare pratincoles, a sort of cross between a swallow and a sandpiper. Once again, we ended up with nearly a hundred species for the day.

After we got back to Tissa, we took a took-took (!!) up to Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka's two holiest places, revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists alike. The sprawling complex of temples and shrines extended over many acres. For me the most interesting thing was the cell phone tower built of reconditioned sewer pipes, which had become a preferred roost for the Malabar pied hornbills that frequented the area. The place was of course full of hawkers and beggars, as well as Hindu holy men and Buddhist monks, and monkeys were everywhere. The temple elephant was getting its daily bath in the Menik river when we arrived, which Elanor watched with rapt attention.

Saturday we took the only air-conditioned bus of the day back to Colombo (a six hour trip, including a rest stop in Matara). We got home to a dead internet and a new water leak in the upstairs hallway, but it was a great trip. Elanor is now a very seasoned jungle adventuress, and can't quite decide if she likes the monkeys, elephants, or dolphins the most. I've nicknamed her "Elanor of the elephants."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

2015 March 20-21: Foreigners

"Foreigners! Foreigners!"

That's what was being whispered all around Elanor and me when we went with our church women's group to go river bathing on March 5th. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Sinhala, but whispered, nonetheless. Once people realized that we were there with a large group of our friends, and that we were not there to gawk at them like some other foreigners who passed by, we were quickly included in the fun and games, and yes, even the bathing. This is the way I like to travel, fitting in as best we can, joining with our friends in their ways of doing things, learning about their culture by taking part in it.

I don't blame them for their hesitation at the beginning. After all, we could just easily have been like most others, there to gaze at the natives like they were some sort of exotic specimens there to be studied. I have seen similar situations countless times.

In Pond Inlet, we went to a feast at the community hall shortly after we arrived. We sat on the floor - like everyone else - with a couple that we knew, and sampled the food and tried to blend in. Two other couples stood on the sidelines, sometimes taking pictures, and making comments such as "I can't believe they're eating that", "That looks disgusting", and "People back home are never going to believe that this is what they eat." Pretty soon, we found that we were the only new 'Southerners' or Kablunaq (literally: bushy eyebrows, in reference to the Scottish sailors who first visited the Inuit in modern times) who were being invited to community feasts. (There were a couple of long-term white residents as well.) Others sometimes showed up if they found out about the feasts, game days, and dances, but someone always made sure that we knew about them. Sometimes we would be listening to the local radio station in Inuktitut, would hear our name mixed in among the announcements, and sure enough, within a few minutes we would have received several phone calls and a knock on the door, telling us of some community event.

This was especially apparent after a confrontation at the local 'mall'. I had gone to the Co-op store to get a few things. A woman approached me and said, "I don't think it's very nice of you to make the teachers do so much work!" Confused, I asked what she was talking about. "Your daughter is at our school and her teacher doesn't have the time to teach our children and then to teach your child everything again in English!" I replied, "Well, actually, the teacher is not teaching everything two times. I told her that we wanted Amber to learn Inuktitut, and to not teach her in English." "You want your daughter to learn Inuktitut?" was the incredulous reply. "Your son has to learn English. Why shouldn't my daughter have to learn Inuktitut?" I countered. By the time we left two years later, Amber could read primary books and write journal entries in Inuktitut, using their syllabic alphabet with thirty-nine characters. We found out later that with the exception of two families that were basically life-long residents and a principal's daughter, every other white child in the community had been home-schooled.

In China, I spent the summer in Beijing. Other members in my group traveled around China when our teaching was finished, spending a day here and a few hours there. I stayed in Beijing. Most people spend four hours going through the Forbidden City on the short tour. I spent thirteen hours there over a two day period, and when some of the workers noticed that I was interested in all the little details, they made sure to point things out to me and explain how things were built. At the Summer Palace when I showed an interest in how the ponds were built and other "non-tourist" items, people refused to believe that I was foreigner and could not speak fluent Mandarin, but could not figure out why I was white instead of 'yellow' (their word, not mine). Then they decided that I must be Russian and insisted on speaking Russian to me. I saw things that literally no other white person had seen, such as a small house museum in honour of a famous Chinese writer. In fifty years, I was the only non-Chinese who had visited. I know this because the curator checked the log book while I was inside, a logbook going back to the opening day, and in which every person who had ever visited had signed in with their full name and address. When an old woman that I knew found out the types of places I was seeing and the types of things that I was doing, she and a local teacher we both knew arranged to have me move to a different hotel. Four stars just off Tiananmen Square was not too shabby, especially when it ended up costing me nothing. The hotel was owned by a man whom the teacher had taught English classes to, and when he found out that I was interested in learning about 'real' China and not just 'tourist' China, he refused payment.

When we went to Muthurajawela, we saw a different type of foreigner, the kind that tries to get every last penny out of a people who are already poor. The entry fee at the marsh was about 1000 rupees per person, but about half that amount for children. (It works out to about $7.50 each for a two hour tour, with personal guide, boatman, the boat, and gas. Similar excursions back home typically begin at $50 per person.) When another couple heard that Elanor was getting the child discount, the husband quickly quipped, "Hey, my two kids are children too! They should get the discount, too!" and his two children chimed in. I am sure he was joking, but when you don't speak English well and are used to being taken advantage of, it creates awkward situations, especially when the 'children' in question are obviously in their late teens. It's a difficult situation for people to be in. Do they treat it as a joke? Maybe he's not joking. Do they give the customer the benefit of the doubt? What if he then tells everyone and they demand discounts? Do they say no and perhaps lose that business? Do they say yes and then take a loss for that tour in order to keep the customer happy? Did they actually understand what was said, given that English is a third language for most people?

We see it in the stores, too. We are used to getting charged the tourist price, although some of my regular places now charge me less. At one vegetable stand that I frequent, I used to get charged 100 rupees (76 cents) for a particular vegetable, still only a fraction of what I would pay back home. Then I was charged 50 rupees (38 cents). Two days ago I was charged 30 rupees (23 cents). Another day I bought two dresses - one for Elanor and one for me - for 2400 rupees ($18.18). I knew I was getting charged more, but back home this would have cost me $40 for Elanor's dress alone. At the same time, another couple in the store were haggling over the price of the two dresses they were buying. I stood there at the counter as I listened to them haggle back and forth, trying to get every last rupee they could out of this shop owner. Their dresses started at 2400 rupees, too, and they managed to get it down to 2200. I could have done the same, but honestly, the $1.51 I would have saved was not worth it.

People notice things like this. As we were leaving the store, the woman stopped me and said, "You didn't bargain." I said, "Did you give me a fair price?" "Oh, yes," she replied, "I give you morning price. Morning price always cheaper. I no make enough money, evening price is higher." I smiled and told her we would be back when we were ready to buy more. She then went over to the cabinet full of purses that Elanor had been eyeing the entire time we were there, pulled out a few and asked Elanor which one was her favourite. When Elanor told her, she presented it to her. I took out my wallet again, and was quickly told by both her and her husband that it was a gift, and that when we come back, we would get the morning price or better even if it was evening.

When we went to the natural area in Kandi, Steve was signing us in at the entry gate and paying the entry fee. He began speaking to the woman in Sinhala and mentioned that we were here for several months. After conversing for several minutes on a variety of subjects including what he was doing in Sri Lanka, she asked him what kind of visa we had. When she found out that we had resident visas, our fee dropped from 600 rupees ($4.55) per person to just 30 rupees (23 cents) each.

A third type of foreigner that we have seen is the type that smacks of the old colonial attitude. When our order came during breakfast in Kandi, the bread was not toasted. We just assumed that there was a miscommunication with the waiter or a misprint in the menu and didn't think anything of it. As we were eating, an older man sat nearby. The waiter approached him and the man started talking. He didn't want anything on the menu, he just wanted toast, orange juice and coffee. The waiter looked unsure and asked again what he wanted, as he pointed to the menu. The man repeated himself, then added, "Is that slow enough for you? Do you understand?" (Remember that while many people here speak English, many do not. That is why in restaurants with menus, you order by pointing at the number next to what you want to order. That way there is no confusion.) The waiter again pointed to the menu, which, incidentally, has a note on the top that tells patrons to "Please order two hours early to avoid disappointment". The man very loudly said, "Get me a manager immediately. Do you understand? I want to talk to your manager immediately, and he better be able to speak English!" The poor waiter ran from the room.

A few minutes later, the manager came in and asked what the problem was. "Your waiter does not speak English. That is the problem. I told him that I just want toast, orange juice and coffee for my breakfast, and he cannot understand that." The manager replied, "No problem, sir. I will bring you some bread..." "Toast," the man interrupted, "I. Want. Toast." "There is a problem, sir. I cannot bring you some toast. Our toaster broke this morning. But I can bring you some nice fresh bread." "Well that doesn't help, does it? Having a broken toaster is not very useful, is it?" "I am very sorry, sir, it just broke this morning." "Can you get a new one?" Silence. After all, it was 7:30 in the morning. "Well?" "I will get you some toast, sir." "That wasn't so hard, then, was it?" was the response.

The kind of foreigner you are while traveling can have a big impact on the way that people treat you. Steve and I have both seen this during our travels separately, and now, together. For both of us, it has led to some amazing experiences as people share their lives with us. For Steve, it has meant being welcomed into homes wherever he has traveled. The last time he was in Sri Lanka, it meant becoming welcomed into a Tamil fishing community as well as his church community. This time, he is garnering respect among the gypsies of Sri Lanka. He met with a family last Friday and Saturday. They were very reluctant at first, and told the tuktuk driver that they couldn't help because they don't speak English. "No problem!" the driver replied. "He speaks Sinhala!" They quickly welcomed Steve into their home, and after a discussion about what his project here actually entails, they are eager to help him because he wants to actually learn about their language and culture. So eager, in fact, that early Sunday morning the father called Steve to find out when he was coming back and to make sure that Steve knew that they want to help him, and that Elanor and I are welcome too.

Looks like Elanor is in for yet another huge culture shock.

We can't wait.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

2015 February 19: Splashed by a Tamil

February 19th was a rare perfect day, as some of you may remember.

One of the things that made it so perfect was a boat ride we took in a traditional outrigger fishing boat. These types of boats are owned by the middle income fishermen, the ones who can fish up to a couple of miles from shore. These are also the same Tamil fishermen who greet me with "Where is your husband, the man who speaks our language?"

Pushing off from shore.

A whiskered tern flies by.

More terns join in, hoping for a fishy treat.

Our captain, or at least the guy in charge of the rudder!

The view overhead.

A fishing boat owned by the wealthiest fishermen - these can go several miles offshore, maybe further, and are equipped with motors, not sails.

Another overhead view.

See the little stick on the right hand side? This is the stick of the outrigger that the captain walked on in the heaving Indian Ocean to take our picture. He asked Steve if he wanted to come out, and when Steve said no thanks, began jumping and down on the log while laughing! We were sitting a few feet above the water on some wooden slats covered by a thin mattress. Notice how the boat is held together with rope! The captain also didn't think that we were getting wet enough, so he made sure that he splashed our legs with warm ocean water before we returned to shore. See how the sail is on the left here? This picture was taken just after they turned the sail. Instead of turning the boat around, the sail is changed from the front to the back using a complicated series of ropes, and then the rudder is moved from the back to the front.

Sunset two kilometres offshore.

This is the poorest type of fisherman - just a little raft, sometimes made of molded plastic if he is fortunate, and a paddle, and a net.

Hauling the boat ashore.

Steve jumps out to help.

Back on land again.

A wonderful ride!

Fried Dough Odyssey

Growing up, my brother and I loved when mom made homemade bread. If we were lucky, she would save us a little bit of the dough so we could flatten it out between our hands, then fry it in some butter in a pan on the stove. Maybe add a little rhubarb jam or molasses afterwards. Toutons, we called them. So yummy!

Sometimes when we went camping as a family, or when we went camping with the Girl Guides or the Boy Scouts, we would wrap the dough around sticks and roast it over the fire. Smoky mouthwatering goodness, straight from the hot coals to our eager maws.

These days, mom doesn't make bread in the old bread bowl, but she and dad do use a breadmaker. No stovetop toutons, though. But she does make an incredible onion pudding:

Norma's Onion Pudding
1 cup flour
2 tbsp butter
1/3 cup milk
2 tbsp baking powder
1 medium onion grated

a bit of sugar

Mix flour butter, baking powder, salt and sugar together. Add onion and milk to make a soft dough. Grease pan, cover and boil over water or bake in oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Try centre to check that it is done.
This one is steamed, but we like it baked better.
In 1998 my daughter Amber and I moved to Pond Inlet, Nunavut. There we fell in love with bannock. We eagerly waited for special occasions at the school, like Inuit Games Day, where one of the stations that the children rotated through was the refreshment tent. It served hot deep fried bannock, fresh out of the cooking oil. Amber and the other children would gobble it down as fast as it could be made. There was nothing quite like fresh bannock cooked outside and eaten outside.

I lost my recipe years ago in an unfortunate moving incident. I had a bag that was filled with all my old recipes, some of them irreplaceable as the people who had shared them with me had passed on. My then-husband, thinking he was being helpful, saw the bag sitting in the kitchen and threw it in the dumpster near our townhouse. Before I realized the bag was missing, the dumpster had been emptied. Bye bye recipes.

I recently sent out a plea to my friends in Pond, hoping to replace my bannock recipes.

"For frying, 2 cups of flour, 1tsp baking powder. And salt if you want and 1 cup water mix it up," said Donna Pitseolak-Kublu, who got the recipe from Morty Pitseolak, who was the post-mistress in Pond when we lived there. Get some cooking oil good and hot and drop in pieces of the dough and fry until done. I asked Donna, "And what about the one that you bake? The recipe's almost the same, I think, but maybe has a little sugar in it? and oil?" This is the way that Rebecca Qitsualik, the elder who taught me Inuktitut, made hers. She was an unusual woman, the only Inuit elder at the time who was trilingual in Inuktitut, Innuinaqtung, and English. (Her favourite food was Philadelphia cream cheese, because it tasted just like the baby seal stomach that her parents used to feed her as a child. Think about that the next time you eat a bagel!) Donna replied, "I don't put sugar in mine. I find it too sweet. I remember my late mother Seanna used to use flour, baking powder , salt and little bit of oil and water and she wouldn't use any measuring cup." 
Courtesy of

Incidentally, Donna's mother made my kamiks - traditional boots made from caribou leg skin with the fur attached and an inlaid chevron design of alternating black and white seal fur. They were stunningly beautiful. She also made matching kamiks for the guy I was with at the time, but his had the fur reversed - the main part of the boot was made from sealskin and the design from caribou. She explained that these were wedding kamiks - the man's used a sea animal and a little bit of land animal, while the woman's used a land animal and a little bit of sea animal. This way, the family would always be provided for, because the man would not insult the sea creatures while out on the ice, and the woman would not insult the sea creatures back home on the land.

But, back to the fried dough....

Naomi Tigullaraq, my friend and former teaching colleague at Ulaakjuk School, told me, " I never measure mine, when I'm making one, might give you the wrong measurement. Flour, water, baking powder, lard or oil, and pinch of salt if you want to add some, and some people used milk instead of water."

And my former student Nina Kautaq said, "We just dump everything together."

This reminds of the old Newfoundland cookbook my mother has, which lists the ingredients, and that's it. No step-by-step instructions, no oven temperature, no bake time. Those were things you were expected to know already!

In 2002 I went to China. There we had salted youtiao, long strips of fried dough, with our morning breakfast congee, or rice porridge. In the late afternoon, we might sometimes have a similar dish called tanggao, but shorter and dipped into sugar. Either way, they were yummy. 
"Chinese fried bread". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
In 2007, I moved to a Dene community in the Northwest Territories. Again, bannock was heavy on the menu at any cultural or school event. Sometimes they deep-fried it, but just as often they pan-fried it, like Newfoundland toutons.

3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp baking powder
1/3 cup oil
1 1/2 cups water

Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Mix the wet ingredients together in a measuring cup. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and mix together until it forms a ball. Knead on a floured surface until it is no longer sticky, adding a little more flour if necessary. Divide into two or three pieces, depending on the size of your frying pan. Flatten each piece to about 1 inch thickness. Fry in a greased pan on medium heat for about fifteen minutes each side. Serve with jam. 

In 2012 I moved to a Cree community in Manitoba. The Cree people love their bannock! And for good reason - fried or baked, smeared with butter and jam that drips down your doesn't get better than this! 
Elanor and a boy in her grade three class enjoying some fresh bannock.

The remains of the bannock station at cultural days after a class had passed through.

We were invited for supper at a the home of a friend from church a couple of Sundays ago. Well, not exactly their home. Her mother-in-law's home, because it was close to where we lived and they didn't want us to get lost going to their own home, which is apparently in some little village some distance from here.

While Steve has been in typical Sri Lankan homes before, it was my first time. We walked down the long lane through the small Tamil neighbourhood near the beach in Negombo. The front yard was immaculately swept - a chore performed every morning by the woman of the house - and the front door was surrounded by a large beautiful jasmine bush. We entered the small home and sat chatting with our friend for a while. As we chatted, she formed the dough that her mother-in-law had made into flat little rounds, and began frying them. They were delicious.

Then her mother-in-law came home, removed those from the table, and replaced them with ones that she herself had made! Only the best for guests - and while our friend's dough was great, her mother-in-law's was incredible. (It reminded me of my own bread-making experiences with my daughter, Amber. We could follow the exact same recipe, but her bread always tasted better than mine.)

So, now I have eaten the lightest, thinnest fried dough I have ever had. Crispy on the outside, with pockets of warm soft dough inside in some places, bubbles of air in others.

I had four.

Maybe five.

Or six.

Plus the two I had already eaten that were made by our friend.

Now I have to get that recipe!

2015 March 21: Buffalo Curds and Walrus Meat

I've eaten a lot things I never thought I would eat.

In Pond Inlet I ate raw seal, raw frozen char, caribou jerky, narwhal, beluga, polar bear and aged walrus. To make aged walrus, catch your walrus at the floe edge in April. Butcher it and cut it into football sized pieces. Wrap the pieces of meat in the skin and tie it shut with the intestines after squeezing out all the offal. Bury the whole thing under a big pile of rocks so that animals can't get to it. Go back to get it in October. Eat frozen.

I didn't actually want to eat aged walrus, but when you are at a community feast and one of the oldest elders in the community offers you some, it would be very rude to turn it down. Besides, he looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself, slicing off bite sized pieces as fast as he could and just wolfing them down, smiling and nodding his head and smacking his lips. How bad could it be, right? So, when he looked at me, sliced some off the hunk in front of him, and held it out to me on the tip of his knife, and said in halting English, "You want?", I couldn't say no. After watching me swallow it practically whole, the elder held his side as he laughed so hard that tears flowed freely down his face. With a smile, he leaned towards me and said, "You want more?" "No thanks," I replied, which sent him into further gales of laughter, and which led to him telling everyone that I had tried it, and which then led to everyone else offering me little bits of everything else that was being eaten. Hence, the seal (looks like beef, tastes like fish), char (dip it into soy sauce and it ain't half bad), caribou jerky (pretty good actually), and polar bear (looks like pork, but don't eat the liver). I passed on the seal eyeball and caribou fly larvae, though.

Amber didn't care much for some of the food in Pond, but one thing she loved was char. I could not feed that girl enough of this fish that is similar to salmon in colour and taste. I took her two best friends - Heather and Amina - and her to a feast one evening, and I could not cut up the char fast enough for the three of them! Two other ladies nearby and a man next to me starting tossing the three girls char as well. They could not get enough! Word soon got around just how much she loved char, and rarely more than a few days went by without someone knocking on my door with fresh frozen char for Amber.

Another evening, my parents had come to visit from Newfoundland. When Heather and Amber learned that we were having char for supper, they ran around the house yelling, "Yay! We're having char!" in English and Inuktitut. With supper ready, I called the girls down from the bedrooms, and they eagerly ran to the table, then stopped dead in their tracks. "What's that?" they asked, as they surveyed the gorgeously baked char with lemon and onions. "It's char," I replied. And both girls ran sobbing back to the bedroom because "You ruined it! You cooked it!"

And when Amber and I moved to Ontario, there was a seafood restaurant that she loved to visit because they served char. The first time we went there, they asked how she would like it cooked. "Raw and frozen," she replied. You have never seen such a strange face made by a waiter. "Is she serious?" he asked me in disbelief. "Oh, yes," I said, "She is quite serious." Every worker in the restaurant - and not a few patrons - hovered nearby to watch her eat her raw frozen fish with absolute gusto.

When I went to China with a group of teachers as part of a course at Brock University, we ate as a group. We sat around a large round table, and the hotel restaurant just brought us about twenty or more different dishes every day. Most people tried to figure out just what each dish was before eating it, but after the first few meals, I quickly learned that you don't ask, you just eat. Chicken stomach tastes like oyster mushrooms, but chewier. Duck tongues were pretty good except you have to be careful of the bone. Chicken feet are rather rubbery, but it's the way that you eat them that can be a little off-putting: hold the claw between thumb and first finger, put the foot in your mouth, and use your teeth to strip the bone as you pull it out. I almost ate scorpions, but was put off of the idea by the girl next to me saying, "It's pretty good except the legs are stuck in my teeth."

One day I found a real treat on the table - deep-fried caplin! I took the whole dish and finished them all myself. It was such a treat to get something directly from home.

In St. Pierre I had horse steak. Enough said.

Now that I am vegetarian, I eat lots of things that I never ate before, but none so exotic as my previous meat-filled adventures. Here in Sri Lanka I am trying all sorts of fruit and vegetables that are new to me.

And buffalo curds.

When Elanor and I went on a church ladies trip a few weeks ago, one of the men who came along asked me if I had tried buffalo curds yet. I had not. For more than five minutes he extolled the virtues of buffalo curds and honey, telling me how wonderful it is and how healthy it is.

When I say buffalo I mean water buffalo.

To make buffalo curd, first milk your water buffalo. Then, bring the milk to a boil and simmer for ten minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let cool. When cool, add a little plain pure yogurt, yogurt starter, or a little leftover from a previous batch. Put into clay pots, cover and let sit for ten hours. Eat soon, or refrigerate. To eat, add a little honey or brown sugar or jaggery or palm syrup or molasses.

Buffalo curd is sold in supermarkets and road side stands throughout Sri Lanka. When buying it, buy it early in the day if it is not refrigerated, and make sure it is white, not yellow. Yellow is old; white is fresh. But, if it is not in a clay pot, it is not considered real buffalo curd! 

You can make a reasonable facsimile by using pure unflavoured Greek yogurt, instead. Don't use the North Americanized versions of yogurt, though - most of them have been tainted with gelatin, sugars, flavours and colours. Astro makes a Balkan style yogurt that would also work. It's even better if you drain off any liquid from the top so that the yogurt is a little thicker - buffalo milk has twice the fat content of cow milk. Or, if you are really ambitious, you could substitute sheep milk and make it yourself from scratch!

Like I said, I have eaten many things I never thought I would eat. Homemade water buffalo curds is one of those things that never even crossed my mind!

But, boy, it sure was yummy!

2015 March 20: It's Finally That Time of Year!

It's finally that time of year! No, not springtime, although I am sure that our family and friends back in North America are fervently wishing and praying for signs of spring after the mountains of snowfall that they have received.

It's jackfruit season.

Steve is in heaven. He loves jackfruit, although it is an acquired taste. The first time he tried it many years ago he thought it tasted strange. But now he is a true jackfruit connoisseur, and has been eagerly anticipating the beginning of jackfruit season. Every time we pass a jackfruit tree he comments on how the the fruit is coming along.

Jackfruit season is so anticipated here in Sri Lanka that when I asked our tuktuk driver - a different one than we usually use, as 'ours' was away yesterday - to take us to get some samosas for supper, he said, "No! No samosa! You need jackfruit!" Then he drove us to the fruit market in central Negombo, and personally chose the jackfruit he thought was at the perfect stage of ripeness. After looking through them, feeling them, and smelling them, he chose three. "This one you must eat today. This one you must eat tomorrow. This one, just eat later."


So, we returned home with our fresh jackfruit, as well as green jackfruit and chopped jackfruit for cooking. Unfortunately, in all the commotion, I ended up with three bags of the goodness, rather than the two that I paid for. All night I dreamed that I was on a Wanted Poster at the post office, for theft of jackfruit! Today our regular driver took me back to the vegetable stand where I bought them, and somehow between four market sellers, my driver, myself and lots of pantomime, I was able to make it know to the owner that I owed him money! 30 rupees (22 cents) is not a lot to pay for peace of mind and sweet dreams.

Jackfruit is a strange fruit. It grows directly from the trunk of the tree instead of from the branches because the fruit is so heavy - one fruit can weigh up to 80 pounds!
By Shahnoor Habib Munmun (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Huge soft yellow kernels with a texture reminiscent of mango slices or peaches that are just a little too soft cover edible seeds the size of macadamia nuts.
"Jackfruit Flesh" by Mullookkaaran - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Delicious raw, it is also good cooked into savoury dishes. Here are some recipes that look like the ones I like in different restaurants we have eaten, but I confess to completely ripping them the recipes...from other sites!

Green Jackfruit Curry - eat this as a cold side dish with rice
Recipe and photo courtesy

1 Green jackfruit (2 cans of green jack fruit)
Turmeric powder
Salt to taste
2 tspn Mustard powder
1 tspn black powder
chopped 1 clove garlic
1 tbsn curry powder
shredded coconut(1/2 cup)
1 tspn mustard seeds
Sliced onion
Curry leaves
Rampe(pandan leaves)
2 or 3 dried whole red chillies

Peel the outer skin of the Green jackfruit and chop it into very small pieces.Now add salt and turmeric powder and a little bit of water and cook for awhile.Chop all the (a)Ingredients together with shredded coconut and add a little salt and add to the boiled green jack fruit mix.When the coconut mix is well heated take it out of the stove.

Heat a pan with a little cooking oil and temper the (b)ingredients and add it to the cooked dish and mix well.

Green Jackfruit Curry - if it looks like tuna, tastes like tuna, but is's jack fruit.
Recipe and photo courtesy

3 cans of Young Green Jackfruit
1 onion, chopped
1-2 green chillies
2 tsp garlic, chopped
2 tsp ginger, chopped
1 sprig of curry leaves (optional)
1-2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
2-3 tsp curry powder
3-4 cardamoms
3-4 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
2-3 pieces of goraka
1 can of coconut milk
salt to taste
Fry the onions, green chillies, ginger, garlic and curry leaves in about 1 tbsp of oil, till golden brown. Next add all the spices, fry for a minute for so till fragrant.
Now add the rest of ingredients, except coconut milk, stir to coat. Add salt.
* Transfer the mixture to a slow cooker, add coconut milk. Stir and cook on low heat for at least 6 hours. The curry would turn a dark brown color when done. (I usually let it cook over night)
Serve hot.
* You can cook this also in a pressure cooker. Cook for about 20-25 minutes at steady pressure (Since cooking times, vary depending on the type of cooker you have, use your judgment here)
** If you want to cook on the stove, cook under low heat in a heavy bottom pan.

Deep-Fried Jackfruit Seeds
Recipe adapted from and photo courtesy

1 cup jackfruit seeds
oil for deep-frying plus oil for frying
1 sliced onion
1 tsp red chili flakes
1/4 cup fresh or dried unsweetened coconut flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the jackfruit seeds until the shells soften. Let cool. Cut in half and remove shell. Heat the oil and deep fry the seeds until golden brown. Drain. Deep fry the onion slices until golden brown. Drain. Roast the coconut in a dry pan for a few minutes. Put everything into one bowl and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

And of course, our favourite, just plain jack fruit, fresh from the tree! (You can buy these canned in the International section of grocery stores, and they are almost as good as fresh.) Monkeys love the fruit as well. When we were in Kandi last week, Steve and Elanor watched a troupe of about thirty toque macaques happily sharing some with each other. Three were breaking apart the fruit and then passing it to the others.

All this talk of jackfruit is making my mouth water. I think it's time to go have some right now!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Idiot's Guide to Cricket

I am not bragging when I say that I know a lot. I do. I know a lot of things about a lot of things. I even know some pretty useless things - I used to collect useless elephant facts in my early twenties, for example. (Did you know that elephants are the only animals with knees and ankles that cannot jump? Or that they are the only animal you can teach to stand on its head?)

But one thing I do not know much about is sports. I suppose if you broke it out into all the different sports that I don't know much about, it would be a lot things that I do not know. Take hockey. Don't know much about it even though I once lived with three star players on an elite university hockey team. Or football. Don't know much about it, either, even though the same university was also known for its football program. In fact, in seven years in university there is just one non-graduation photo of me in the university yearbook, and wouldn't you know it, it is of me at the one football game I attended. On the two page spread, I am just about in the middle of the page. Everyone else in the stands are on their feet with their hands in the air, mouths open, as they cheer for...well, for something, but I have no idea what. And there is me, sitting there with a confused look on my face.

So it is not surprising that I know nothing about cricket either. In fact, the only cricket I had seen prior to this last week was the groups of men and boys that play in the sports fields that dot the country.

Steve does know a lot about cricket. Having spent time in India and Sri Lanka before, he has come to love the game. At Pizza Hut last week his eyes were glued to the television screen, as were everyone else's except mine. Yesterday he tried explaining the game to me as he watched the highlights reel of a big match from last weekend while we were eating at Burger King in Colombo, and while I sort of got it, it still really made no sense to me. Then again, I was distracted by the most awesome veggie burger I have ever had and was composing a "please extend your Asian veggie burger to North America" letter in my head to Burger King.

Cricket is a big deal in much of the world. It ranks number two only to football - soccer to North Americans. Yesterday when we were in Colombo we were slowed down getting to our destination due to a huge parade that stretched at least four or five city blocks. It was a precursor parade rally to a big cricket match that was happening between two high schools. There were numerous floats, countless instruments being played, music blaring from flatbeds, dancing, decorated cars, shouting, cheering, chanting, flag waving.... All for a high school cricket match. When Steve asked the tuktuk driver about it, he replied, "It's a very important game today for the school." With such fervour over a high school match, you can imagine how things get when the Cricket World Cup is on. In India alone, the big cricket match today between India and Sri Lanka was watched by 195 million people. India won, by the way, much to Sri Lanka's dismay.

Today, Steve, hoping to further enlighten my sports befuddled brain, found this piece which explains the game quite well, and could easily be dubbed "The Idiot's Guide to Cricket". Here is an except from the section on how the game is played:
  • The pitcher (called a bowler) sends the ball bouncing off the ground, rather than directly through the air.
  • When it gets to the batter (called a batsman), his primary goal is blocking it from hitting a set of three stumps stuck in the ground behind him, called a wicket. These stumps (roughly analogous to home plate) have a pair of small sticks (called bails) balancing on top of them, and if the ball knocks them off, the batter is out.
  • Instead of four bases, cricket has just two wickets. The batsman's other goal is hitting the ball into the field, which allows him and the other batsman (there are two at any given time) to score runs by running back and forth between the wickets until the ball is returned.
  • There's no foul territory: the batsman can hit the ball in any direction. If it goes past the boundary, he automatically gets four runs (if it bounced over) or six runs (if it flew over).
  • There are no strikes, and the batsman doesn't have to run after hitting the ball. In the form of cricket played in the World Cup, each batsman gets one at-bat per game, but the at-bat can last a really really long time — it goes until he gets out, either by hitting a ball up into the air that gets caught, or getting caught running between the wickets, or by allowing the ball to hit the wicket behind him, or by blocking a ball with his body that the umpire thinks would have otherwise hit the wicket.
  • Each team bats for one extended period of time (called an innings), then fields for the rest of the game, instead of switching back and forth like in baseball. A team's innings is finished when ten of its eleven batsmen are out, or when the other team has bowled a certain number of times (as measured in "overs," which are sets of six consecutive pitches).
  • In the form of cricket played in the World Cup — called one-day cricket — each team can bowl 50 overs, and matches generally take about six hours.
Okay, that's pretty basic, right? But apparently this kind of cricket is played only to make the game more accessible. Real cricket is a grueling game called Test Cricket, which is designed to see which team has the most endurance and real skill, and can last up to five days!

Here is my favourite explanation of how the game works, from a sign on the wall at Lord's Restaurant....

That just about sums up the game, right?

2015 March 18: Whoa! That's Not the Sort of Thing You Want to Find in Your Bathroom!

Our home, like many Sri Lankan homes, has become the abode of many and assorted creatures. In a place where no house is completely sealed to the outside elements due to slatted window spaces for airflow and the need to air out houses daily in order to keep the insides from mildewing, it's just a fact of life.

We have had our share of winged creatures. Butterflies drift through. All sorts of flies - damsel flies, houseflies, gnats. Mosquitoes, the bane of mine and Elanor's existence. Despite mosquito coils, mosquito screens in the bedrooms, mosquito nets over the beds, Elanor and I still awake with mosquito bites every morning. Yesterday a tuktuk driver in Colombo saw Elanor's legs and told us about a product called soffel which is supposed to keep mosquitoes away. It is on our list of items to find today.

Beetles have also made their way through. Yesterday we had a scarab beetle trudging along the floor until Steve put it outside. Beetles are his thing, not mine. He loves beetles. That's why he and his best friend Sam have a collection of about 35 000 of them from all over the world. You can read about some of Sam's beetles adventures here.

Spiders are common as well. There is a species here that I am calling a ghost spider, for lack of a better name. So transparent you barely see them, with tiny bodies and long legs. Most of the time I only know they are there as I see them scurrying away from the morning's dust pile as I sweep the floor. We love watching the jumping spiders. Completely harmless - to us! - but they sure make quick work of other insects.

Geckos are also plentiful. Last night Elanor had the tiniest one I have seen yet crawling down her wall. While I was cooking supper another ran along the wall in front of me. Every night we fall asleep to the click click click sounds that they make. Surprisingly loud for such little creatures. We love them. Sri Lankans have a love-hate relationship with them. They love them because they eat all the bugs. They hate them because they can get into your food and they do poop on your walls.

Ants also come and go. We had harmless big black ants one day, but I just swept away their trail as they went out the door and they haven't been back. There are also tiny little red ants. They mostly leave us alone, unless we are in the shower. And they are surprisingly strong. Elanor and I watched a dozen of them carrying a bite of pancake that she had dropped, all twelve tiny ants moving in perfect unison to carry away their prize.

There is a palm squirrel that thinks he owns the place. We think he lives in the roof in the two feet of space between the red tile shingles on the outside and the wooden slats on the inside. The same palm squirrel that tried to move into the spare bedroom one day.

Our yard is slowly becoming populated as well. A koel spends part of every day in one of our trees now. I am not sure which wakes me in the morning - the koel calling or the local mosque! He also starts telling us about 4:30 every evening that the day is done.

Sometimes creatures show up in the bathrooms, Elanor's bathroom especially, since it is on the ground floor. Geckos are common, as are ants, mosquitoes, gnats, beetles, damsel flies, as she chooses to keep her bathroom light on so she "doesn't have to turn it off and on all the time" despite both Steve and I frequently telling her that she is attracting insects by doing so. Like many ten year olds, she knows best and her parents could not possibly know what they are talking about.

And so, a few nights ago, she took a shower, then came into her bedroom where I was sitting in the A/C and working, and said, "Uh, Mom? Something skinny and black just went under my shirt that's on the floor." Note: We have also been telling her that she shouldn't leave things on the floor.

I looked at her said, "I don't have anything to do with skinny black things in bathrooms. That's Dad's area! Go tell him!"

Steve went into her bathroom, and the next thing I hear is "Whoa! That's not the sort of thing you want to find in your bathroom!"

I don't know about you, but that's not the sort of thing I want to hear. Ever.

Apparently one of these things - or one very similar to it - crawled out of Elanor's drain, across her floor, and eventually into a crack in the wall.
It was a centipede. A scolopendra, for those interested in knowing the scientific name. These (not so) lovely creatures can get up to 30 cm (1 ft) long in the tropics. The big ones can take out rats and bats, and their bites can be very painful, though not fatal.

That is not very comforting, though, when reading the experiences of Chulie de Silva on her blog. She writes: "The pain was sharp, excruciating, just below the elbow.  This must be the pain that precedes a heart attack  says my sleepy mind and  if so might as well die in the comfy bed – why get up?  Coming out of deep layers of slumber I wait for the heart attack that shows no sign of coming."

But don't kid yourself - they are found in smaller varieties all over the world. In Newfoundland we call them 'earwigs', and we were cautioned by adults to steer clear. With good cause - even the small ones can deliver a painful poisonous bite.

I never wanted to find these in my bathroom back home.

And I really don't want to find them in my bathroom here!

I get the heebie jeebies just thinking about it. As I said, Steve is the bug guy, not me!

Monday, March 16, 2015

2015 March 16: Global Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka finds itself in a strangely awkward position.

Life for many people is still very much conducted in third world conditions. Little or no indoor plumbing. Low wages. Menial jobs. Small houses with poor planning and little knowledge of basic things we take for granted, such as traps to keep sewer gas out of the house. I passed a cement block home on the main tourist street, Lewis Place, early one morning, that had its door open. There was a small clay oven against the wall outside, an outhouse in the backyard, and only one room in the house. It had a wooden chair against one wall and a pile of blankets in the corner.

Oddly, though, the average family only has two children, not the three to seven children that one would expect in such conditions given the average fertility rates in other similar countries. Family planning is very much in effect here. One woman we know told us that while she and her husband love their children, they will not have more than two because they are very expensive. She didn't mean to raise. She meant in case they get sick and needed medical attention. One trip to the doctor can cost 3000 rupees - 1/7 of the average monthly income. Thankfully, most pharmacies here do not require prescriptions. You show up, tell them what's wrong, and they give you the medication for it at a very reasonable rate. Or, if you are like me, you take a picture of your husband's heat rash and show that to the guy behind the counter, who then gives you the cream your husband needs for 200 rupees ($1.53).

Yet, for others, life is good. Very good. Hotel owners that we know paid $65 000 cash for a luxury car recently - 8.5 million rupees, or 32 years salary for the average worker. The gap between rich and poor is so wide that ordinary people are being shut out of their ordinary neighbourhoods, as land prices are on the rise exponentially in popular areas like Negombo.

Sri Lankans in general are very well-educated. According to wikipedia, "Education in Sri Lanka has a long history that dates back two millennia. The Constitution of Sri Lanka provides for education as a fundamental right. Sri Lanka's population has a literacy rate of 98.1%, higher than that expected for a third world country; it has the highest literacy rate in South Asia and overall, one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. Education plays a major part in the life and culture of the country and dates back to 543 BC." Girls have a slightly higher literacy rate than boys.

This focus on education has led to many Sri Lankans looking for work overseas. The Middle East is a popular option, as is Australia, Malaysia, and France. They are even finding their way to Newfoundland. This is in addition to the many people who left Sri Lanka during the civil war. Many of those who leave are the most educated.

And this has led to many Sri Lankan families becoming truly global citizens. One friend of ours has several children, all of whom live overseas. To visit them, he has traveled to Switzerland, France, Canada, the United States, Australia and Malaysia. Some of his grandchildren he can speak to - they don't know Sinhala, but they do know English. Other grandchildren he cannot speak to without a translator, because they speak French or another language as their mother tongue. But he, like many others who find themselves in similar situations, do not begrudge this one bit. They are happy that their children are happy, their grandchildren are happy, and that they were able to help their children rise to a level of success that would likely not have been possible here.

Even businesses reflect the diverse international community. Drive down any major street in Colombo, the capital city, and there are billboards and signs advertising jobs abroad and language classes in Japanese, Chinese, German, English, and a host of others. Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Indian restaurants abound, North American chains such as Pizza Hut and KFC and Burger King are easily found. There are even restaurants that serve Swiss and German fare!

Steve receives many compliments on his ability to speak Sinhalese and Tamil. One tuktuk driver actually stopped the vehicle, turned around, and exclaimed "You're Sri Lankan?" when Steve gave him directions one day. Some Tamil fishermen we met on the beach near the hotel we stayed at for the first week we were here often greet me with "Where is your husband, the man who speaks our language?" if I run into them without Steve.

But it's different in Colombo. One tuktuk driver asked Steve why he was bothering to learn Sinhalese since it's not an important language. The answer is simple. Sinhala is an important language. While Old English was just getting started around 550 A.D., Sinhala had already been around for almost a thousand years, with a rich literary history that influenced the development of Buddhism, now with over 300 million followers around the world. While the Western world was floundering in the dark ages, Sri Lanka was famous as the "rice mill of the east" and was trading cinnamon globally.

And so, we come full circle to the awkward situation that Sri Lanka finds itself in, this strange mix of keeping long held traditions and culture alive, while moving forward and working its way out of third world status. This is why the government is pro-Chinese waterfront development, why it is involved in so many infrastructure projects to rebuild roads and town services, and why it is against huge Australian casinos being built here.

Sri Lanka deserves more credit for what it is doing right from the global community. Perhaps then it would not find itself in the strangely awkward position it is in.