Sunday, May 24, 2015

2015 May 24: Flags In

It's Memorial Day weekend back in the United States, so to commemorate in a small way I created a Sri Lankan inspired traditional American meal. It's nothing compared to the backyard BBQs, camp outs, and picnics back home, but this year, for reasons that follow, I wanted to do a little something even though we are not in the States.

First, I made plain rice. We never know who is going to show up to visit, so I always make a lot of food on Sundays, and rice is quick and easy and filling.

Next, instead of potato salad or baked potatoes, I made the potatoes that we all love, the ones that I bake in the oven with onion and garlic and turmeric and which are always a hit with visitors and even with the readers of our blog who have tried them.

Instead of devilled eggs, I just made boiled eggs. There are two reasons for this. First, mayo goes bad quickly in the heat, so leaving the mayo out of a dish is a prudent thing to do. Second, I suck at peeling eggs. My friend Champika told me to add salt to the water and the eggs will peel perfectly. It works for her.... but my peeled boiled eggs continue to look like someone used power tools on them! I shouldn't be surprised - thirty years later my family still loves to tease me about the time I burned the boiled eggs. 

Finally, I made coleslaw. Steve doesn't like coleslaw - he will eat it if I make it, but he doesn't like it. But me? I love coleslaw. I think it runs in the family. I remember when my brother was younger - he may have been in Grade 3 - and he would ask mom to make coleslaw every night. He could not get enough.

I put a Sri Lankan twist on today's version, however. Here is the recipe:
Put the following into a large bowl:
  • 1/2 a shredded purple cabbage
  • 1/2 a shredded green cabbage
  • 1 very thinly sliced purple onion
  • 2 very large grated carrots
In another bowl, mix together:
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup of your favourite white, cider, or white wine vinegar (I used coconut vinegar)
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of curry powder
Taste and add more salt or curry powder if needed - it will vary depending on the type of vinegar.
Pour over vegetables and mix well.
A friend from church and her twelve year old son came to visit after church, so we shared our simple meal with them. They both loved the coleslaw, and I have to admit that it was pretty good. And hey, if a twelve year old boy likes it, it can't be half bad!

But I digress....

The summer between Grade 11 and Grade 12 I was blessed to have won a speech contest. It was sponsored by the International Order of Oddfellows and Rebekahs, and the grand prize was a bus tour with two hundred seventy other youth from across North America of Ottawa and thirteen states, and four days at the United Nations. The program still exists, and I would highly recommend it. You can learn about the Pilgrimage for Youth by clicking here.

One of the places that we visited was Arlington National Cemetery. I remember walking though the acres and acres of clean white crosses and being overwhelmed by the sense of loss and sacrifice that was represented there. It was truly one of the most memorable experiences of the trip for me. Little did I know about my own connection to this place.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to pay tribute to a family member that I learned about recently from my father and his cousin Marjorie Hodgson, who lives in Vermont. In addition to being an avid genealogist, Marjorie continues to paint even though she is now, for all intents and purposes, blind. Normally I reserve such sentiments as those that follow for Canada's Remembrance Day, as can be read about here, but it is fitting that I tell this person's story today.

Sarah Maude Pittman was born December 21, 1896, in Hickman's Harbour, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to John and Mary "Polly" (nee Blundell) Pittman. She was the third of seven children, and was my father's mother's great aunt. Maude, as she was known, served in World War I, and somehow made it to the United States where she married Albert Blundon. She and Albert made their home in Somerville, Massachusetts. In August 1927, at age 30, she died while giving birth to their first child, and the babe died just two months later. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

When I saw photos of American soldiers planting flags on each of the four hundred thousand graves in Arlington National Cemetery this past week in their annual Flags In day, I could not help but think that I am so grateful that someone has been remembering this lost member of our family every year. With her emigration to another country, her dying so young, her husband now long gone, her only child passing so soon after her own death, there is no family nearby to lovingly tend her resting place, to remember her as they pass by, or even to simply clear her grave every now and then as those of us who regularly visit cemeteries do just because a grave needs some attention or because the surname is familiar. For eighty eight years her grave has been tended with care and her service during WWI commemorated by groundskeepers and soldiers and perhaps a passing tourist or family members of others buried nearby.

Whether one agrees with war or not, whether one supports war or not, it is important to remember that some of us, our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins and friends, are willing to put their lives on the line for us and for their country. Please honour them, and my great aunt Maude, by taking a moment to watch this touching short video.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

It's a Bird, It's a Plane....

Well, actually it's this 'flying' snail....

But this is a plane.

Negombo is close to the international airport, which also serves as the main air base in Sri Lanka. (There are a total of twenty air bases throughout this small island.) We usually see military planes flying overhead once a day. But yesterday I went to a wedding that was further inland, and they were flying overhead, on average, once per hour.

Sri Lanka's air force is relatively young. It was founded in 1951 as the Royal Ceylon Air Force, and is currently known as the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). It has just under thirty thousand members, both in regular service and in the reserves, and one hundred sixty aircraft. Women have been admitted to all branches of the air force (except as pilots) since 1972, including the regiment and air force police, and can become officers.

The SLAF played a major role in the country's twenty-six year civil war which killed between eighty and one hundred thousand people. I am not going to go into the politics of the whole thing, for a number of reasons, but the SLAF was responsible for providing air support to government ground forces, troop landing, and air strikes.

While the SLAF has been involved in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti since 2004 and was part of the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad, events of April of this year were historic for the organization. When the country of Nepal suffered massive earthquakes, the SLAF was used for the first time in a rescue mission to a foreign country, where it transported medical and other personnel and aid supplies for disaster relief.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 May 19: Artsy Fartsy....Or, Supper at Lords

We ate at Lords again last night. I know I have said it before, but I am going to say it again: The food there is some of the best I have ever eaten. Maybe even the best. Elanor had her favourite...large rotini served plain with a bowl of cheese sauce for dipping. 'Don't play with your food' has no meaning here for the kid's meals are interactive! Steve and I both had the mushroom and corn burger. You know it's good when Steve has the opportunity to order meat (which I don't cook because I am vegetarian) and he chooses the veggie burger instead! Stuffed with mushroom, corn, cashew, onion, and curry leaves, it's the best burger I have ever eaten.

Lords also serves as an art gallery for local artists, and while most of the artwork is for sale, some pieces are part of the decor.

Sometimes I just like to take pictures of stuff that other people might find weird. Sometimes it is weird. But sometimes I get beautiful shots that I adore.

Steve asked, "WHY are you taking pictures of water?" Well, because it's not a picture of water.
"[T]here are three types of photographers. There is the technical photographer. He is all about the equipment and the formulas. He can give you millimeters and focal lengths. There is the subject photographer. He takes photographs to study the object itself. He knows breeding habits, plumage differences, longitude and latitude. Then there is the artist. The artist has no idea what she just photographed or how she photographed it, yet somehow creates the most pleasing pictures."
I repeat.... It's not about the water. It's about these shots of my water glass, with the art installation lights shining through.

It's about these shots of my water bottle with an oil bowl burning behind it, with the camera turned sideways, one without flash, one with flash.

And it's about this shot of my drink, a dreamy concoction of ginger beer and coconut cream and pineapple, also sideways. It wasn't really purple, but it turned out that way because of the lighting.

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. -Confucius

2015 May 20: Poser

I love geckos. We usually have a few around the house. Nothing like our friend Tekla's house, though, where she has counted 22 geckos in one small room! But, we have them nonetheless.

A couple of nights ago I was washing my feet before bedtime, when a newly hatched gecko made its way up the shower wall beside me. They are only about an inch or inch and a half long at this point. It was so newly hatched that it still had not gotten the hang of climbing, and I watched it for a few moments as it worked out the intricacies of coordinating its leg movements while climbing a slippery tile.

Last night I was on my way to bed when I saw the little gecko outside my changing room door. Of course, I grabbed my camera, hoping to get a photo of this little creature, as I had already gotten a great shot of a full-grown gecko when we returned from dining out.
Nope, this photo is not upside down. Geckos can use their claws and the sticky pads on their feet to seemingly defy gravity!

My little gecko was very cooperative. As soon as I snapped one photo, it would move to a new position until I snapped another. I almost felt like I was at a professional photo shoot! Not to mention that I am in love with the macro feature on my camera. Check out my little poser!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

2015 May 19: Coconuts and Coconut Milk

Coconuts and coconut milk are staples of Sri Lankan life. Both are used daily in cooking, sambols, raw and even as a seasoning. While it is high in saturated fat, coconut meat and milk has no cholesterol. It is a good source of sodium, potassium and magnesium, three minerals that must be replenished often in this land where perspiration leaches minerals from the body at an alarming rate. It also provides iron, B12, B6 and dietary fibre.

To open a coconut, you just need a thick sharp edge to whack against the middle of the drupe. Any edge will do - just be sure that it is an edge that you don't mind having broken, as coconuts can be very hard! Most people use the back of a thick knife, but even a concrete block or a step will do in a pinch.

One of the rewards of opening your own coconut is that you get to drink the coconut water straight from the shell. You can't get much fresher than this!

To get the meat out, you should use a scraper. There are two basic kinds - one that looks like a citrus juicer that has a crank that you turn, and one that looks like a small bench that you sit on, like this one:

First you scrape along the edges to smooth them out. Then you scrape the middle, turning the coconut slightly after every few scrapes. You know you are done when no meat is left inside the coconut. (Don't worry if there is a little brown from the inside as well.)

At our Sri Lankan New Year celebration, these were our expert coconut scrapers. 

My friend Champika showed me how it is done. If you are good at it, it should take you about two minutes per half coconut, or four minutes total.

Here I am scraping coconut for the first time. 

Needless to say, it took me a lot longer than two minutes!

If you just want coconut meat for recipes or to eat plain, you are finished now. But if you are looking for coconut milk, keep reading....

Coconut milk has got to be one of the easiest things to make. Ever. I am completely serious! All you do is...wash your grated coconut.

Yes, you read that correctly. You wash it.

Take your freshly grated coconut and place it in a bowl. Add a cup of fairly warm water. Mix it around a little. Then squeeze all the water out of it and place it into a second bowl. You can use a cheesecloth if you like, but using your hands also works. This is called thick coconut milk. It is used for desserts and sauces, including curries. It is rich and creamy.

Pour another cup of water over your coconut, and again squeeze out the liquid, reserving the coconut in a third bowl. This is called thin coconut milk. It is used for general cooking and in soups.

Repeat the process one more time. You will end up with a slightly coconut scented or flavoured water. Use this to cook starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams or manioc.

If you have a food processor or blender you can wash your coconut one more time by blending and then draining the liquid. This liquid can be used the same as the third wash, or use it to thin dishes where the sauce has become too thick.

The meat is then discarded.

If you are going to drink the coconut milk, you should mix the first three washes together.

Of course, canned coconut milk is always an option when cooking. It is usually a mix of the first two washes.

2015 May 14: You Never Know What You'll Find in the Toilet

On May 14 we visited with our friends Krishan and Tekla for supper. They live in a nice house in...well...some small village that takes a while to get to, especially when it is dark and you don't know where you are going! Not that we mind - we, or I, at least, enjoy seeing every little community and going for rides.

We had a lively time visiting with them, their toddler and Tekla's mother. Tekla is a wonderful cook, and she made an outstanding meal. She once again made the deep-fried eggplant that I love, and we all thought that the curried pumpkin was fantastic.

As we were getting ready to leave, Elanor decided to use the restroom. She came running out and said, "Mom! Bring your camera! There's something in the bathroom you probably should see!"

I cannot tell you how much trepidation I felt at these words - you would not believe the number of times I hear myself saying, "Can we please stop talking about bodily functions?!?!" So, being told there is something in the bathroom I need to see was something I reluctantly agreed to.

Turns out this little guy was hiding under the toilet tank.

Tekla then told us that there are actually two of these little frogs that live in her bathroom - one under each side of the toilet tank. One day she decided she was going to get rid of them, so she caught them and took them far out into the garden and let them go. But, in some bizarre rendition of the Cat Came Back, the frogs came back...if not the very next day, then within a few days. And again took up residence under the toilet tank!

Krishan has also been learning to use the macro feature on his camera, a professional quality one with more bells and whistles than you can dream of. A few nights before we visited, he couldn't sleep, so he scrounged around their house until he found a box, a broomstick handle, some tape, some tin foil, a light bulb, some wires and a few other odds and ends...and made himself a flash! He used his new flash to take this picture of our little bathroom buddy. 
Photo by Krishan Alexsander

Monday, May 18, 2015

2015 May 18: Hammerheads

You thought this was going to be about sharks, didn't you?

Wrong! This is about a creature that is about as far away from a shark as you can get, I think. I'm talking worms. Hammerhead worms, to be exact. This thing...

When I pointed it out to Steve as it wriggled across our veranda, he said, "Cool! Looks to be some sort of planarian. Probably called a hammerhead or something similar." He's so smart. He hit the nail right on the head, so to speak.

These things are people and most other creatures, at any rate. But if you are an earthworm or a snail or even other hammerhead worms (yes, they can be cannibalistic)...beware! Bipalia can track their prey.

And when they catch it, it's not pretty. The hammerhead worm uses its muscles and body secretions to attach itself to its prey. It then extends its mouth, found on the middle section of its body and secretes digestive enzymes onto the worm's body. Finally, it sucks up the liquefied worm juice.

Nice, eh?

Oh, by the way...don't think that just because you live in North America you are safe from these slimy creatures. Since 1901 they have been found in American greenhouses. There are at least four species of bipalia that are on the U.S. invasive species list, and they have become a real problem in the southern United States, especially for earthworm raisers, as there appear to be no predators that feed on their noxious bodies. They are also found in California, New York, Illinois, most northern states, coastal South Carolina, the Gulf states, and Pennsylvania.


2015 May 9 and 14: My Friend, the Snail

The Snail

William Cowper1731 - 1800

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find
                                                Its master.

Sri Lanka is home to 246 of the world's 43 000 species of snail; 218 of these species are found only here on this small island nation.


I have always liked snails. I know that is a little unusual, and somewhat out of character for me as I generally do not like insects. (Sometimes I wonder how I wound up marrying a man who loves collecting beetles!) But snails are beautiful. And slow-moving. I love that they are slow-moving.

So on May 9 I was putting out the garbage and saw this beauty climbing the wall above the garbage pile.

'A-ha!' I thought. 'The perfect subject to figure out the macro setting on my new camera...'

As you can see, my new friend was quite accommodating, and proved to be the perfect model.

I was pleasantly surprised to wander into my garden in the early hours of May 14 and find that my snail friend had come to visit.

A few days ago, I saw this same snail climbing halfway up our three story house. No pictures of that, though. But, last night, I glanced out our sliding doors to the small side yard off our kitchen. Lo and behold! There he was again! Or so I thought. On closer inspection, I realized that this was a different snail as it was slightly smaller.

But, he brought an even bigger friend! This one has distinctive mulberry tones on it's shell, and it's foot is much grayer than the other two snails.

Aren't they beautiful?

P.S. You can see my snail video here:

Happy New Year!

What's that, you ask? New Year's in April?

Yup! According to Sinhalese astrology, the new year begins when the sun moves from Pisces to Aries, and signals the end of the harvest and the beginning of spring. It is also one of two times a year that the sun shines directly over Sri Lanka.

We began our New Year's celebrations on April 14. We went to our friends Champika and Padmasiri's house in Kochikade for the afternoon.

He is an organic farmer, among other things, and was featured in a television special a few years ago on organic farming techniques. They served us traditional New Years treats, and we toured their property, startling two very large water monitors in the process! Our driver and the elders from our church were also invited in for some true Sri Lankan hospitality.

Elanor and I left with new sandals, gifts from these very generous folks, as well as a bag of fruit that Steve helped to pick, vegetables, and sweets.

It was a wonderful afternoon!

Then, on Saturday the 18th, the local branch of our church had their New Year's celebration. Oh, the fun that we had! The organizers put a lot of effort into making this a huge success. Our day started with Champika and her girls giving Elanor a beautiful traditional Sri Lankan dress that they had made for her.
Believe it or not, Elanor and Piyumi (in the purple dress) are almost the same age. Deshika (in the green dress) is three years older than Elanor.

You can see how much we all enjoyed ourselves throughout the rest of the day by clicking here to watch the video I made.

2015 May 18: Ekay Dekay Tunay

Steve often talks about his so-called 'nemesis bird', the one species that no matter how hard he looks, he just cannot see - the Indian pitta. He has spent over two years of his life in India and Sri Lanka, and this bird always eludes him. In this trip, one small newly created national park that we stumbled upon is known for having numerous migratory pittas throughout the winter months...and we arrived one week after they left. Poor Steve.

As for me, I seem to have found my nemesis language.

Growing up, I had no trouble learning French. In university, I took German and Spanish classes, and quickly learned to read and understand those languages, and although I can no longer speak them due to lack of practice, I can still read some German and can usually understand or at least get the gist of written Spanish. I also studied Russian and Italian on my own, and can still read a little of the latter. The three times I lived in northern Canada, I learned basic Inuktitut, some Cree, and a little Chipewyan, and had no trouble learning those. Even today, almost twenty years later, I can often read and understand what my Inuit friends are saying in Inuktitut on Facebook, although I have forgotten most of the language for speaking. (Just last month, for example, I was part of a conversation about walrus meat.) When I was in China I learned enough Mandarin in six weeks to be able to go shopping, order in restaurants, ask directions, read maps and street signs, and (most importantly!) find the restrooms. About a year and a half ago I began doing volunteer work for my church, where I answer the questions that people send in to the main church website. I found that my language experience was very useful, as I am able to understand the questions asked in many languages, and using a translation program, am able to respond in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian and German. More importantly, perhaps, I am usually able to tell when the machine translation is poorly done, meaning that I have to tweak the answer in English so that it makes sense in the other language.

But Sinhala? Boy. This language just does not stick with me. I have tried phrase books. I have tried several 'Learn Sinhalese' textbooks. I have tried just looking up random words in the dictionary to get me started. Even the text that Steve swears by has been of no use to me...I have read and reread and studied chapter one a dozen times, and every time, it's like I have never seen the words before.

It's been most frustrating.

What is weird about the whole thing is that I have daily conversations with our driver, with him speaking Sinhala and me speaking English. I understand at least the gist, and sometimes more than that, of the sermons and lessons at church. Usually I can join in the conversation (again, in English while they speak Sinhala interspersed with a little English) in the weekly women's meeting.

I have managed, however, to learn a (very) few words. Mostly food related, but hey, at this point I'll take whatever I can get!

So I was pleasantly surprised when I went shopping today and had my first real conversation.

It went like this:

Me: Do you have any batteries?

Clerk: Oh. [Yes]

Me: (shows package of lithium batteries) This kind?

Clerk: (gets package and puts it on the counter) Oh.

Me: How much?

Clerk: 750 rupees.

Me: (raises eyebrows) Okay. (points to package) batteriyah ekak tunsiyah [One battery 300]

Clerk: (waggles head in the decidedly South Asian style that indicates agreement)

Me: mama tunay packages [I (need) three packages]

Clerk: 1800 rupees

Me: But 750 times 3 is 2250 rupees.

Clerk: I know. (smiles and winks at me) But you pay 1800 only.

A savings of 450 rupees for trying a few words in Sinhala. I was pretty pleased with myself.