New Zealand nose

One thing that was interesting about travelling in a large group, is that whenever we landed in a place, within five minutes everyone in town knew who we were.

The first time this became apparent was in Kandy. We were staying at a hotel called the Highest View, which as the name suggests, was on top of a hill. Our poor minibus, loaded down with luggage and people (I had 12kg in my pack; others had suitcases of American proportions), struggled to make it up the hill and got stuck on a sharp bend. Everyone came out of their businesses and houses to offer opinions and rubberneck. Eventually we got out and carried our bags up the hill.

The next morning, walking around Kandy, more than one person stopped us to ask “are you from the Highest View?” One guy tried to persuade us that he recognised us as he works in the kitchen there. He had time off until 5pm, and was desperate to show us the local market – for nothing in return! We politely said no thank you, we would see the market later. Oh no no, that would be a problem, there is a festival today and so the market will be closed later, we would have to come now. We figured we would take the risk. And no, we didn’t want tickets for the dance show either. Surprise surprise, the market WAS open later. Whaddaya know?

Some of our group got caught between competing rackets. Tony, the owner of our hotel, was friendly and helpful but had obviously gotten offside with some people because my friends were told “That Tony, he no good. Don’t trust him. He drinks, he cheats people and he sleeps with boys.”

Then the funniest thing happened in a small town somewhere along the way. A man approached our tuk tuk and said “you from New Zealand?” “Yes” I replied. He said “I knew it, you have New Zealand nose”.

In the same place a tuk tuk back to the hotel cost more than a tuk tuk in to town. Canny, these people. Though I suspect the first tuk tuk driver hadn’t quite grasped the concept of “tourist prices”. You see, before you get into a tuk tuk you have to agree the price with the driver. The haggling commences, and hopefully you end up at a price you are both happy with. We were told to expect to pay RS200 for a trip into town. The first driver I approached quoted RS150. I was too stunned to haggle and just got in!

We rented bicycles from a man in Polonnaruwa, who told us that next time we came we should stay in his hotel. He kept popping up during the course of the day, never far away from us, then on our way back into town took us to his mask/woodwork factory. We left wondering if he owned the whole town.

Other people just wanted to have the following conversation, which we had dozens of times over the course of the trip.

“Hello good morning”
“Hello”
“Where from?”
“New Zealand” (being the easiest answer)
“Ahhh, cricket!” (or occasionally, “Anchor!”)
“Yes, cricket”
“Sri Lanka good?”
“Yes, very good!”

Kat was generally held up as the ideal of Sri Lankan beauty (she is half Samoan but in Sri Lanka was often asked if she was Japanese or North Indian!), and managed to get one proposal of marriage, and at least one declaration of love. One man in Haputale, the heart of tea country, was concerned I didn’t have a husband and offered to find me one.

“How old are you?”
“That’s not a polite question to ask a lady!”
“Thirty?”
(open mouth)
“You speak Sinnhalese? Tamil?”
(Thirty? Thirty!!) … “I live in London! I’m leaving tomorrow, sorry, bye!”

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Kat the heartbreaker…

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Restless

I’m holed up in freezing cold London, where we had snow on the ground again this morning. My feet want to wander, I’ve been inside since I took the recycling out this morning. But now the sun has disappeared, and it’s really not wandering weather.

I just had a conversation with my German flatmate and her (also German) boyfriend about all of the different words we have for walk: wander, meander, saunter, jaunt, amble, stroll, ramble, maunder, perambulate… you get the picture.

If I was in Sri Lanka right now, I would take a turn around Kandy Lake. And if I did, this is what I might see:

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(in case you are wondering, the stranded half of our party did eventually catch up with us, and arrived in Kandy about an hour after we did).

(also, that guy in the fourth picture down? Caught that fish with his bare hands)

Serendib*

After the wedding we moved into a completely different phase of the trip. Marissa and Sagar, instead of having a traditional honeymoon, decided to take 28 of their closest friends (and even family in the case of Sagar’s mum) around Sri Lanka for two weeks. The amount of organisation and work they put into this was incredible, especially on top of organising a wedding. We were all just blown away.

However, the best-laid plans of mice and men…

We had two mini-buses to transport us. The reason behind not having one 54-seater coach became apparent as soon as we got up onto the hill roads! Unfortunately, one bus driver decided he didn’t want to take the other half of our group and left them stranded on the side of the road. While Marissa made frantic phone calls from our bus, our driver suggested we beat the Colombo traffic and wait for the other bus (once there was one) on the outskirts of Colombo.

This turned out to be quite serendipitous, as we stopped outside Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a beautiful Buddhist temple. It was not an overly touristy place, and everyone we encountered there was just really lovely and not out to get anything in return from us. A nun blessed us, a monk tied a string around my wrist (it’s still there, and not showing any signs of decaying any time soon), and a woman gave me some flowers to offer to the reclining Buddha. Other people just wanted to know where we were from and if we were Buddhist.

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(this is the nun who blessed us)

*”Serendib” or “Serendip” is the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka. The word “serendipity” was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, after The Three Princes of Serendip, a fairy tale in which the heroes are always making fortunate discoveries. The word was turning around and around in my head that day, before I ever knew of the connection. How serendipitous is that!

Wedding Day

2 January, 2010. 250 of Marissa and Sagar’s closest friends and family… a church on a hill in Horana… a restaurant on the beach in Mount Lavinia.

Kat and I got up at 6. Our hotel room was full of flowers that had been delivered the day before. Some of the other guests arrived to arrange the flowers – needless to say our room was completely trashed when we got back! We waited for our driver Jayanethi to pick us up and take us to Marissa’s parents’ place for a blessing ceremony, only to discover no one had told him it would be an early morning. Poor Jayanethi – he was an absolute star that week, picking people up from the airport at all hours, and deserved all the sleep he managed to get. On the wedding day something is bound to go wrong, and that was a fairly minor thing.

Jayanethi picked us up in time to get to the salon for hair and makeup. I made sure I had my passport with me, as I’d had nightmares of being stopped at a checkpoint and arrested for not having my passport, and ruining the wedding! Sure enough we got stopped, every time we did though Jayanethi just explained that we were New Zealanders and we were waved through. I’m so glad they never did check our passports – as many of us are actually on European passports (UK, Spain, Switzerland…) there could have been some explaining to do!

We ran a bit over-time at the salon, Kat was getting worried. But we made it back to Marissa’s in plenty of time to get dressed and on our way. Once we were all together it was a lot less stressful, as a bridesmaid’s job is to attend the bride, which is something we were finally able to do! Marissa is so generous and hospitable with everyone else, all the time, that I wanted to do a good job at making sure she had everything she needed on a day where she was the centre of attention.

I have scrounged some photos from some of the other guests, namely Daria, Pip and Florenci. Quality’s not great due to me filching these from Facebook, and also the light was quickly disappearing when these were taken so some are a bit grainy… have touched some of them up but I’m not sure if that’s really improved them. I might get hold of the full-size images and have another go.

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The happy couple.

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I love this one of Marissa, taken by Daria.

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The green bridesmaid

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The entire wedding party… minus Joe that is.

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Pip and Florenci. Pip was Marissa’s flatmate after me. I’d only met her once or twice before, after she married Florenci but before she went to Spain to live with him. I got to know them both much better on the trip and I hope I have found lifelong friends in them.

Then the fun really started. We dallied a bit so as to arrive “fashionably late” at the reception. Jayanethi drove us in his battered white van, surely the best wedding conveyance ever.

We ate love cake and pistachios and attempted to get used to the standard Sri Lankan drinks measure of 100 ml… there’s barely enough room in the glass for a mixer, but it gets easier after the second or third drink…

Curried jakfruit, fried cuttlefish and prawns, egg hoppers, wattalappam for dessert… then after dinner Marissa and Sagar disappeared and reappeared in their “going away” outfits, with a special musical surprise from Sagar singing OMC’s “How Bizarre”. This was extra special because although Marissa and her brothers are incredibly musically talented, rhythm unfortunately eludes Sagar (of course she never dreamed she would marry someone so unmusical!). Marissa, Daniel and Dominic had spent the days leading up to the wedding trying to coach Sagar in his performance, and he really did very well. The photo doesn’t show Sagar’s hat very well. It’s supposedly a traditional Bengali hat, albeit made from white foam with slightly comical white foam butterflies stuck to it… if someone could explain the significance of the butterflies I’d be much obliged. They remind me of the ones the dental nurse used to give me at school as a reward for being Very Brave.

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The photogenic bridesmaid.

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Sean and Tanya, who used to come round to the house for pancake breakfasts and other parties. Turns out they live in London too now, so I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of them.

One more costume change came later in the evening:

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Wedding rehearsal

The wedding was in a church on top of a hill in the countryside outside Colombo. The countryside was absolutely beautiful, with rice paddies, coconut trees, and banana trees everywhere. Here are some photos I took on the rehearsal day:

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Shiyavanthi (Marissa’s cousin and one of the other bridesmaids) and Michaela the flower girl inside the church.

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Henna is magical stuff. When you first rub the paste off, the stain left behind is quite red. Over the next couple of days it darkens considerably, before it eventually starts to fade again. These are all the bridesmaids’ hands. I’m the one with the green sleeves.

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Poor Joe slept outside during the whole rehearsal. We thought it was the world’s worst hangover but he was still so ill the next day that he couldn’t make it to the wedding.

Happy New Year

It’s good to be back (she says, unconvincingly).

This is what I saw on New Year’s Eve:

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Believe it or not, I had never seen an eclipse before. It was also a blue moon (the second full moon in a month) and it doesn’t show in the photo, but there was a moon dog (a halo around the moon) as well. We partied under this moon on the roof of Marissa’s apartment building, while so many fireworks went off it felt like Beirut. It was such a special way to welcome in a new decade.

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Earlier in the evening we had our mehndi done for the wedding. A time-consuming process, but fun. I still have the faintest traces of mine on my hands and feet. The longer the henna stays, the better your future marriage will be apparently!

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