Face The Sun: Let There Be Light!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are exclusively those of its author, and are not in any way meant to reflect the opinions or policies of the US Government.

Past Travelogues.

Finland, Estonia, Petersburg

Kirovograd, Ukraine


Tirana, Albania

Macedonia & Romania

Budapest to Bucharest

Balkans and Poland.

Christiania, Copenhagen.

Northern Norway

Northern Finland


Kashgar, briefly

More to come, Inshallah, as I go through old paper travel journals.

The DC experience, archived.

July '05
June '05
December '05
October '04
More to come should interesting things happen to me. Ever.

Blatent Plagiarism

The nation's largest chain bookstore has indicated that, due to lack of consumer interest, it has stopped selling books.
--Frederick Raphael, The Glittering Prizes

I feel this is the equivalent of a surgeon, skipping through a radiology department singing, 'I don't have cancer, I don't have cancer!'
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

Mum is crying with her faced turned away from me, gulping and honking like an injured seal. And I'm rolled up in the back seat wishing the old man would stop the car and make her walk. That or buy her a fish.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

I love it when well-educated women sweaar -- the words regain their original power and meaning when delivered unexpectedly with so much poise.
--Phil Robinson, Charlie Big Potatoes

She lived with her mother, who looked like an old labrador, and an old labrador.
--Will Self, Great Apes

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Dore, I saw the Lord God sitting on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Quality is merely the distribution aspect of Quantity.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

...In the frank brilliance of the bright sun, which, as we all know, is the friend of heroes.
--Jose Saramago, All the Names

He stuttered so badly that you could go out and buy yourself a chocolate bar while he was wrestling with an initial p or b; he would never try to bypass the obstacle by switching to a synonym, and when the explosion finally did occur, it convulsed his whole frame and sprayed the interlocutor with triumphant saliva.
--Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

To Stand on Jericho's Walls and Face the Sun.

Friday, June 23, 2006

About 15 kilometers outside of Pondicherry is a small place called Auroville. Auroville was the brainchild of The Mother, one of the two founding members of the Sri Aurobindo yoga ashram that draws so many people to Pondicherry. According to the website, Auroville was designed to be an "experiment in human unity," drawing together people of all nations (and all the states of India was well) to live in harmony and unity and show that people are, after all, just people.

Sidenote: honestly, I find all this touchy-feely hippy crap to be just plain nauseating.

Anyhow, Auroville's outside of Pondicherry. You can go walk around, but it sounds from the guidebook like it's an unfriendly place where outsiders aren't particularly welcome, unless you're going to stay there (minimum stay is one week, labor isn't mandatory but is pretty much regarded as mandatory, and the cost of room is 2 to 4 dollars a day), and even then it doesn't exactly sound like an open-arms kind of area. I pretty much discounted going to Auroville, for all the reasons above (nausea, unfriendliness).

Last night: I head off to a delightful open-air rooftop bar to have a beer or two before going in search of food. Everything on the rooftop is hand-carved wood with a laid-back beachy feel, and they were playing Bob Marley, and it was a glorious day to be alive. Occupying the place is me, flying solo, and a woman sitting at a long table and chatting with the waiters. I give her a congenially head nod when I come in, but she doesn't seem to notice, so I sit at a table a few yards away and started reading.

When the time came for me to find food, I stood up and walked over to her table to ask the waiter for my bill. I ask her what she's reading, and we start talking. She, it turns out, is a French woman (I later find out she's actually Swiss, from Geneva), who's been living in Pondicherry for a few months. She asks me to have a drink; I tell her I'll come back later after I get something to eat.

Interlude for dinner.

Return to the bar a few hours later, and she's still there. By this point, she's pretty much blitzed out of her mind, slurring her words, whatnot. She asks the waiter for more rum, and he tells her they're out of it, which somewhat explains her condition. So she and I and another of the waiters talk for a while (in French, which is something of a struggle, since I keep slipping into Urdu. But her English is incomprehensible, so French it was. In related news, the waiter spoke FANTASTIC French; apparantly pretty much everyone in Pondicherry takes classes at the Alliance Francaise).

She asks what I'm doing in life; I tell her I live in Pakistan. She gets a little wistful, and says "ahh... Pakistan." I ask her if she's been. She smiles a sweet-sad smile and shakes her head no.

She asks me, twice, if I've got a motorbike here. I tell her no, and after the second time I tell her that I don't like motorbikes, because I was in an accident once and I'm afraid of them. She shows me her arms, which are covered in long pockmark-like scars, and tells me that she had an accident as well. "On a motorbike, here?" I ask. She tells me that it wasn't a motorbike accident, that it was an accident "with... your Pakistani drugs."

I have never seen track marks before. They are, in short, disgusting. But this explains her sweet-sad smiling at the concept of Pakistan, since apparantly they're supplying the mainline straight to her Pakistan-admiring heart.

She tells me that she's off the sauce now, that she prefers drinking and smoking and whatnot. But drugs, she tells me, are just an everyday part of life when you live in Auroville.

I didn't realize she lived in Auroville, and I find this kind of exciting, and I ask her what it's like living there. She asks -- if you're so curious, why don't you just back with us tonight and see what it's like? There's a party.

And now I'm caught between a rock and a hard place; I can't help but think it would be FASCINATING to go to a party in Auroville with a burned-out Swiss drug addict, but it also seems like there's a damn lot of downsides to this proposition (including but not limited to being drugged and robbed of all my possessions, includnig my passports, which I have on me).

I decline, with the ridiculous excuse that I have to go to Chennai the following day. She, being wasted, just sort of accepts this at face value. But then the waiter starts asking, and I think to myself that this is an opportunity to go firsthand to Auroville and see the sights and meet actual Aurovillians, and I can't walk away from it.

So I agree, and then run to the bathroom to separate out my bankcard and 500 rupees from my wallet so that if they steal it, I'll at least have some means of getting out additional money to get me to the airport in time to catch my flight back to Colombo.

She sends the waiter off home to get his guitar. In his absence, she mentions that this maybe won't be what I normally think of as a party -- just the three of us, on a sheet spread on the beach, drinking, playing the guitar, whatnot.

I reconsider the whole affair: I'm about to be one of three people riding on the back of a motorbike driven by a hammered smack fiend to a hippy colony 10 miles away to sit on the beach and "party" with them, and in anticipation of problems have already separated out my money from the rest of my wallet so that I have a means of getting around. I realize the error of my ways.

Desperate for an excuse, I ask -- what is the date today? She holds up her scarred, disgusting and watchless arm, and cackles at the hilarity of the idea of reading the time in her bruises. I try again -- no no, not the time, the DATE today. 21? 22? I am fully aware that it's the 22nd of June. One of the other waiters helpfully calls out -- twenty two. I stand up, and feinting being flustered announce, "Crap! It's the 22nd of June! It's my father's birthday! I must go find a place to call him!" And charge out of the restaurant to, theoretically, find an open international call center and give my best wishes to dad.

Posted by Dakota on 12:44 AM link |

Thursday, June 22, 2006

It's always a struggle to pick what book you're going to read while travelling. Pick the wrong book and you're sunk -- stuck sitting at the bus station, preferring to stare at nothing rather than dragging out that piece of crap you brought thinking it might be worthwhile, and having unknown number of hours to kill in the meantime before the bus rolls in. Admittedly, there are several books I know that I'd have NEVER finished if I hadn't had them on a long trip -- The Brothers Karamazov and 100 Years of Solitude come to mind immediately, and the fact that they're both considered "classics" makes me glad I had slogged through.

But nonetheless, having a rough book -- especially a piece of trash pulp-fiction novel, the most easily obtained English-language publication one can find abroad -- can make life rough. I once boarded a long-distance bus in Argentina equipped only with The Bourne Identity, and almost had to get off halfway to go search for something else. Mercifully, the bus driver cut the lights, and the delightful Argentine next to me fell asleep on the arm holding the book, making further reading an impossibility.

The reading selection on this trip has heavily featured travel writing. I started with From Heaven Lake, Vikram Seth's truly spectacular memoir about hitchhiking from northwest China to Nepal, via Tibet, in the early 1980s. It's everything that a travel memoir should be, and it kind of gave me goosebumps. After the first 50 pages or so, I mentioned to a colleague of mine in Islamabad that it was rekindling my excitement about going back to China.

Following Seth's masterpiece, and likewise following a brief stint of reading a crap Le Carre novel (the only English Language novel my hotel in middle-of-nowhere Pollunaruwa had to offer), I found another travelogue to cling to, Diplomatic Baggage: Tails of a Trailing Spouse, Brigid Keenan's memoirs of following her husband around the globe in various diplomatic positions. And it too was excellent (although nowhere near on the same level as From Heaven Lake).

The point of all this is: I have become obsessed with publishing a travel book. I recognize that in the grand scale of things, my writing is, at best, mediocre. I am fully aware that I will never be a Bruce Chatwin or a Colin Thubron. But I like to think that I'm not as horrible of a writer as (for example) Dervla Murphy, the "legendary" and "indefatiguable" British travel writer who, incidentally, really loved exclamation points, or Frances Mayes, the shining author who's sold zillions of copies of her hideously unreadable memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun.

Anyhow, I'm not looking for this to happen quickly -- publishing a travel book has been tagged onto a long list of "life goals" (along with "learning a language that involves clicks" and "running the Antarctica Marathon"), rather than under "immediate priorities" (which includes "discovering my abdominal muscles and making them visible" and "having one more beer in another rooftop garden"). But should anyone happen to have a friend in the publishing business, please do perhaps maybe consider passing along my name and contact info.

Posted by Dakota on 11:03 AM link |
There is no zoo in Pondicherry.

It's an odd place, this one. Supposedly it feels like a small tucked-away corner that's barely a part of India, and if you've been travelling in India for weeks or months, it can seem like an oasis of calm. But I haven't been travelling in India for months -- I'm pushing 48 hours at this point -- and it does, in fact, definitely seem like India to me.

There are no notable Hindu temples within a few miles -- there are, of course, over 100 not-notable Hindu temples throughout the city, but there are none that people who aren't Hindu take trips to see. But there is a fairly large Yoga ashram, a yoga/mysticism teaching institute, where fairly large amounts of hippies take classes on flexibility and chakra alignment and whatnot. My hotel on the first night was a popular dormitory for people studying at the Ashram, and had regulations like a 10:30 curfew, no alcohol on the premesis, and signs everywhere asking guests to REMAIN SILENT AT ALL TIMES.

I am woefully ignorant of the Hindu religion -- something about one big god, who manifests himself as other gods, all of whom seem to be just another reincarnation of Shiva in one form or another. I can't even begin to speak competently on the subject. Add to that the various and extremely numerous branches of Hindu mysticism, and I'm completely out of my element.

This much I can say: there are quite a few westerners in Pondicherry, many of whom seem to be living here on a permanent basis. More or less everyone in town, exclusive of Westerners, has a bit of paint on their forehead from the temple (or maybe just for decoration -- again, woefully ignorant). In front of almost every door and every shop and whatnot is an elaborate chalk mandala, that appears to be re-drawn every morning. They're all symmetrical, all relatively similar but generally distinct from one another, and quite pretty to look at; I have no idea what they mean or who is drawing them. But they're everywhere.

The town is full of touts, something I think one can expect pretty much anywhere in India. But they yell at me in French, which I find endearing, and then switch to English when I don't respond. One guy wanders the streets with a small wooden chessboard apparatus, which he is desperate to sell me. He offered it in French, and to get him off my back and stop following me, I told him (first in French, then English) that I don't know how to play chess. He responded: "Ah, but you are French! You must have lots of friends who can teach you! The French, they love chess! Come, I give you good price." The city is small, and I run into him everywhere, and he will NOT take no for an answer.

The town is also chock full of tuk tuks, but the majority of them don't have mechanized horns attached to the vehicle itself. As such, the drivers have strapped on small plastic clown-esque horns with a plastic squeezy bulb to make it work. It sounds vaguely like an onslaught of clowns, and equally vaguely like a screaming monkey. I enjoy it.

I've always said that when the time finally came for me to go to India, I wanted to do it right, go for at least a month, preferrably 3 to 6 months or more, and to make it everywhere and not just isolated pockets. I had also wanted (or hoped, as it were) to learn Hindi before setting out. Hindi: check.

But I'm only spending like 72 hours in country, and that is, perhaps, a mistake; likewise, despite proficiency in Hindi, I'm in the south, where no one speaks an Hindi (although the border guard at the airport did, and was rather excited that I could chatter away with him, despite the fact that I have (as he put it) "a very Pakistani accent"). There are so many obvious downsides to life in India -- the crushing poverty of such a large percentage of the country, the overwhelming trash and filth in nearly every corner, and the grating and constant feeling that everyone -- everyone -- is trying to take advantage of you, not to mention the overbearing heat and humidity and general bedraggled feel of the place -- mean that it's hard to quickly make out the positives and not get distracted by the negatives.

I of course do still fully plan on coming back to India, preferably at a time that doesn't involve the dead heat of summer. But this two-day jaunt has somewhat blunted the impact of making the grand voyage to India. I recognize that it's completely unfair to judge a country (and particularly a country as huge and multi-faceted as India) based on 72 hours spent there, but it's hard not to walk away with that initial impression of nothing more than crumpling buildings, piles of rotting trash, and unbearable poverty.

Anyhow, the town of Pondicherry itself is small, coastal, and full of nice restaurants featuring French-influenced Indian food. I'm now winding down my vacation, heading back tomorrow to Chennai and then flying back to Sri Lanka in the evening; the day after I fly home to Pakistan via Dubai. (I do find it a little hilarious that in order to get from Madras, the 4th largest city in India, to the capital city of neighboring Pakistan, requires going through two other nations first. And by hilarious, I of course mean "maddening").

The point here being that I'm not really out pounding the streets looking for fascinating tidbits to write about or searching for cultural gems or that sort of thing; I'm pretty much content with sitting in nicely manicured rooftop gardens, sipping Kingfisher, the local beer, and eating meal after meal after meal. So that's all the news from South Asia; I don't anticipate any good stories from my brief stops in Chennai, Colombo and Dubai, so I'll pretty much be incommunicado until I get back to Pakistan.

Posted by Dakota on 2:42 AM link |

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I was pretty much chased out of Sri Lanka by the rain. I was expecting to spend a few leisurely days on the southern coast, sipping Lion Lager (a delightful local beer, which comes with the slogan Is there a LION in you?) and diving and eating fish and whatnot. I had been warned that it's monsoon season, but as previously mentioned, it hadn't rained at all, so I found it a bit hard to believe.

So we departed Ella, walked to a crossroads and hopped a bus to a place where there were supposed to be onward buses, found none, and then took a cab and then another bus to ultimately arrive in Galle, on the southern coast. We arrived just after dark to cool breezes and a smattering of stars. Life was good.

The next morning is when the rain set in. It felt Forrest Gump-esque: one day it started raining, and didn't stop... until I left Sri Lanka. Monsoon rain, hard ropes of thick rain bouncing off the poorly paved and dirt spotted roads, turning everything into a thick sludge. And while Sri Lanka is tropical, it got surprisingly cold after two days of rain. I couldn't take it. Despite falling in love with Galle (a Portuguese colonial town, with a walled city and narrow streets and whatnot), I had to get out and get away from the rain.

So I debated my options -- fly to India, fly somewhere else (I tried hard for Mauritius with no luck), or go back to Kandy and hang out in the hills till it's time to leave. I couldn't conceive of it not raining anywhere in Sri Lanka -- it was the sort of soul-sapping, all-encompassing rain that soaks everything you own and leaves you feeling damp and unclean for days -- so I bought a plane ticket to Chennai, formerly Madras, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

I had planned to get to Madras and try to find an onward flight to Delhi, to hit the Taj Mahal before coming back to Sri Lanka. But they were all cost prohibitive (almost $500 round trip). So I wandered Madras for a few hours. It's dusty, and has no discernable center that I could find, and while I assume it has it's highlights and more endearing parts, I assuredly couldn't locate them.

So I got in a bus and went four hours south, to the city of Pondicherry, a small slice of land that was colonialized by the French instead of their more famous European neighbors, and which served as the hometown of Pi Patel in The Life of Pi.

And here we are. I certainly have things to say about India, but now is not the time. More from me shortly, inshallah. For now, I'm off to see if there really is a Pondicherry zoo, and if there was, perhaps, ever a tiger named Richard Parker who lived there.

Posted by Dakota on 7:43 AM link |

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Kandy. Capital of the hill country, second largest city in Sri Lanka, and a damn pleasant place to be. Set on a lake, ringed by hills, and graced by cool breezes in a country that roasts during this time of year.

I decide it's time to buy plane tickets to India. This would've been smarter to get done in Colombo, where all the major companies have their offices, but you'll recall that I left in a rush to chase my pilgrimage. The agent tells me that tickets to India will cost me around 700 bucks, and that almost all the flights to Delhi are full, and that a train from Madras to Delhi will take 2 days to arrive.

This is sort of the excuse that I'm looking for. I'm in love with Sri Lanka, and the fact that flights are costing a fortune means that I can take my time, wander at a leisurely pace, and not worry about having to move to quickly. I mentally cancel my trip to India, pencilling in scuba diving in the south in it's stead.

Having thus concluded that I'm not going anywhere fast, I decide it's time to get over my unreasonable fear of Sinhala. I buy a book -- Say it in Sinhala! -- and a notepad, and start jotting down notes on grammar. The language is full of long words, and nouns are a thing to be grappled with, but overall I'm quite pleased to discover that Sinhala is, in the end, a surprisingly easy language.

Hop in a bus headed South. I decide to tag along with the pair of Georgetown students I met in the hotel, the same ones with whom I went to the elephant orphanage -- Mollie, Chuck. They're fun and witty and easy to get along with; they make me wonder if I was as pleasant as they are when I was an undergraduate. Final conclusion: probably not.

We tag southward on an uncomfortable bus, and I sit in the front row next to an amiable Sri Lankan. He tells me that he owns a garment business, clothing for export, and that his main buyer is an American company named Wiktoria Secret. He also mentions that the driver's doing his best to make good time because the road becomes impassable after dark, as it tends to become covered in wild elephants. I force him into practicing simple Sinhala with me -- he appears to be happy to do so, although I'm fairly sure he's bored to tears by the end of it -- and by the end of the bus ride I'm feeling relatively comfortable with simple sentences.

We arrive in a town shortly after dark, about 20 K from our destination. We have the option of taking another bus to an unmarked junction down the road and then waiting there for a third bus which is probably still running, or hopping in a taxi. We take the cab. The driver's a bit of a sleazebag, mentioning to Mollie that he really only likes white women. He then turns down a side dirt road that he proclaims is a short cut. I promptly transfer all of my money and credit cards to verious pockets, putting my bank card into my right boot; I assume he's going to rob us. Mollie assumes she's about to get raped. Chuck didn't realize anything might be amiss until she and I freaked out; he responds by getting out his knife, "just in case."

Anticlimax: after being jounced on a back road for 20 minutes, we arrive. We are not raped or robbed or gutted. Chuck does no slashing, hacking or chopping.

We are in a tiny town in the heart of the Sri Lankan hill country, ringed by mountains. We have dinner at the somewhat out of place-seeming Bob Marley cafe, listen to some Sri Lankan reggae, and have a few beers. Street dogs keep approaching the table, and the owner of the place tells us that they're from a guesthouse, and trained to act as guides for people who hike in the mountains.

The next morning we set out for Ella Rock, a two hour uphill hike that promises waterfalls and great views. We buy muffins, and biscuits made out of lentils to eat at the top. A small golden dog, female, breed unknown, sees us going and trots along ahead of us to act as a guide. We hike along railroad tracks, cross a metal bridge, and start going uphill.

At the first turn, the dog promptly abandons us. Shortly thereafter, we get lost. We see some Sri Lankan farmers, and I ask them in Sinhala where we should go. They point, and we immediately go the wrong direction. One of the farmers sighs an audible sigh, and starts hiking along with us, playing the role of impromptu guide.

We're surrounded by bushes that are well-manicured and far too numerous to just be decoration. They don't appear to be food plants, but we can't be sure. We pull off leaves, but they just smell like regular plants, nothing interesting. I, thinking I'm being clever, ask our guide what the name of them is in Sinhala. He tells me -- Dalu -- and I write it down, planning to ask the people who run our guesthouse (and speak fantastic English) what it is.

We keep hiking. The guide continues with us, occasionally stopping to pull leaves off trees and crush them for us to smell; eucalyptus grows wild on the way up. He occasionally talks to me in Sinhala; I understand nothing. We're in forest the whole way, no views to speak of, until we finally hit the peak. At the top of the path, a rock just out from the forest into the chasm below; we're higher than anything else around us, and because of the way the rock is angled, we have an almost uninterrepted 330 degree view of the surrounding mountains. They're green and lush, terraced with rice fields, covered in trees. We eat muffins, put our cameras on timers and take photos.

We head back after a while of sitting and admiring. We eventually make it back to the farmer's house, and tip him for his time. Chuck, who doesn't speak Sinhala, asks him in English -- hey, what kind of plant is this? And he responds, in English, "That? Oh, those are tea bushes. Hey, don't forget your sunglasses."

If a Sri Lankan rice farmer in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere can come up with English vocabulary like "sunglasses," there is officially no point in learning Sinhala, as there is clearly no one in this country who doesn't speak English. I feel that I've wasted a few hours of my time, although it remains a fun language to babble in.

We stop for a few hours at a waterfall on the way down, swim, and lounge on the hot rocks. We meet two American girls who look no older than 12 and just graduated from Middlebury, and an old man with bad teeth tries to sell me an "antique" Sri Lankan coin.

It is monsoon season in Sri Lanka, a fact that's easy to forget since it hasn't rained much at all, except for a 20 minute spat when I first arrived in Colombo. But at the waterfall the sky clouds over, and we walk back on the railroad tracks through close lightening and torrential downpour. Mollie had, for some inexplicable reason, convinced me not to wear boots for the hike, and my sandals become slippery and miserable, giving me adequate excuse to whine to her for the rest of the hike home.

And then a hot shower, food again, more beer. It is, in short, glorious.

Posted by Dakota on 8:32 AM link |

Friday, June 16, 2006

So then: left Anuradhapura to head to the equally unpronouncable Pollunaruwa. Took the bus, standing room only. Standing on a bus for three hours turned out to be considerably more pleasant than sitting for three hours; it was bouncey, of course, but there were plenty of handholds (other people included -- a small Sri Lankan kid had her arms wrapped around my leg for the majority of the trip). Towards the end, yes, perhaps a different little kid did in fact puke on my foot, but why dwell on the negative? Let's focus on the positive: seventy cents gets you over a hundred kilometers of distance, and that's the kind of mileage I'm looking for out of my hard-earned rupees.

To reminisce, briefly: when I was 19, I went to Indonesia. I decided that instead of taking a cushy flight from Singapore to Jakarta, that I would go overland so I could see something of the southern part of the island of Sumatra before starting classes. So I went via boat, and then bus to bus to train to bus to boat to bus to finally get to Jakarta. The buses were small and packed with people (friendly Indonesians who taught me my numbers), but my predominant memory of the trip is being unbelievably uncomfortable.

I met a British guy at the port after getting off the boat in Indonesia, a neurosurgeon on vacation, who went to the halfway point with me before taking a bus in the opposite direction to see the orangutans in the north. He had an 8 to 12 hour trip in front of him, and I remember thinking that it was inconceivable -- completely and totally out of the question -- that I would ever be willing to sit on a bus like that for 8 to 12 hours.

It's amazing how you change with time. 8 to 12 hours on a miserable bus to see orangutans is pretty much right up my alley at this point in my life.

Anyhow, Pollunaruwa. My hotel rented me a rickety bike, probably older than me, and I biked from ruin to ruin to ruin, temple to temple and back. A glorious day: sunshine, Buddhas, and overpriced Fanta in the shade of the Bodhi trees. You're supposed to go from one end of the park to the other, exit, and then take the main road back to town, but I was on a bike and the main road is busy; the policemen didn't bat an eye at letting me back in to take the back roads home. Nice people, Sri Lankans. And there's something about the way the light catches a half-grown rice paddy that makes it shine with an inimitable, luminous green light; it's impossible to describe adequately without getting sappy, but it's possibly the most pleasant cycling scenery you could ask for.

And then to Dambulla, to visit the mountain temples. My tuk tuk driver gives me the low down on Sri Lankans in the States -- apparantly the main enclave is in Oregon. He's got friends there, all illegal. He tells me that it's really hard for a Sri Lankan to get a US visa, but that once you do, you're welcome to stay in America for as long as you want -- the police won't bother you as long as you don't break the law. And there are plenty of jobs! he tells me. I don't mention that I'm a visa jockey by trade. Although the temptation to explain the laws is almost ovewhelming -- as in, sir, you have just spelled out the exact reason why it's so difficult for Sri Lankans to get visas to the United States.

Cave temples. And then to Sigiriya, 30 kilometers away, to climb the mountain to a fortress built 1000 years ago. I've got serious ruin and temple fatigue at this point, but Sigiriya ("Lion's Rock") is too cool to pass up, standing on top of a lone mountain that rises out of the plains and rice paddies; the climb goes through a set of stone carved lions paws. As far as national symbols go, you could do a lot worse than the lion, I think.

And then back to Kandy, the capital of the hill country and second largest city. It's set on a lake and ringed by green hills, and it's unbelievably pleasant. I meet up with 2 Americans (Georgetown students -- hoya hoya saxa, if you will) and a Swede. Head out with the Swede to the Temple of the Tooth, which theoretically holds one of the chompers of the Buddha himself. The story goes that when Indian invaders came to steal the tooth (dirty, dirty tooth thieves), the Sri Lankans cleverly hoisted a fake tooth off on them, preserving the real tooth for themselves.

The temple is a working temple, full of people bowing before an altar that -- again, theoretically -- contains said tooth under 7 auspicious protective layers. But it's different than most temples in Sri Lanka, carved from dark wood with hammered metal doors. And there are drum players pounding out rhythms, and the whole place has an eerie Indiana Jones quality to it.

And then in the afternoon, the four of us spring to hire a car and driver, and head 45 K out of town to the elephant orphanage.

We get to the orphanage at about 3 minutes till four. We buy tickets, and they tell us that the elephants are in the river, having their afternoon bath, and will be until 4. We start heading down a side street that leads to the river, when three policemen come through to clear the road. We're too far down the street for them to get us back off of it, so they wave us to the sides and tell us to stay there.

And then about 60 elephants come tromping up the road, heading back home to the orphanage. Being in a place you're not supposed to be, surrounded by elephants who are walking back home, is magical beyond words. They were curious about us -- a few nudged us with their trunks, others turned to look as they passed -- and we were close enough to reach out and scratch their hides (rough, leathery) as they went by. No cages, no bars, no tenders or minders or keepers, just us and a herd of elephants.

Unbeknownst to us, one of the elephants had given birth to a new baby (Vishnu) on Saturday. We stayed for bottle feeding for the five day old new guy, and then headed back home.

And now I'm headed off to the south to go hiking in the hills in waterfall country. I'm supposed to go to India at some point, but plane tickets are looking expensive, and I'm not sure if I'm going to go. Sri Lanka is pleasant beyond words, with great scenery, fantastic food and ridiculously friendly people, and I'm basically in no rush to leave. There's still hiking, and scuba diving in the south, and beaches and other sacred mountains and whatnot; India, I think, can wait.

Posted by Dakota on 1:07 AM link |

Thursday, June 15, 2006

An explosion in Anuradhapura, where I was; I have moved on, and am fine. No need to worry about me.

Posted by Dakota on 10:31 PM link |
Dubai: the world's most annoying layover from 10 am to 2 am. Aforementioned movie, then the joys of the western world in the form of an irish pub, fish and chips, world cup soccer and beer on tap. Arrive at the airport suitably blitzed and sleep through the flight. I notice a surprisingly large number of Americans on the flight, middle age and well-heeled. I find it odd that they're braving rumors of civil war to go to Sri Lanka. But the flight continues on to the Maldives after Colombo, and they don't leave the plane when the rest of us do.

Colombo. Bus station downtown doubles as a warehousing area for fresh fruit. Durian, the legendary tropical fruit shaped like an oversized spiky rugby ball that smells like an open sewer, is in season. The bus station smells, in short, like shit.

I hop in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, identical to the ones in Thailand before they modernized and upgraded the diesel engines to something more environment-friendly, and named for the sound the two-stroke engine makes when they run -- tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk. They're everywhere in this country, cheap and easy. Take the tuk tuk to the area where I'm planning to sleep.

Sri Lanka: national languages are Sinhala and Tamil, spoken in the south and north respectively. The ridiculous bracing difficulty of both these languages can't be understated, making even asking a tuk-tuk driver to take you some place damn near impossible. I'm headed to Bambalapitiya; he asks me where to and I tell him: Bamba... and he fills in the blank for me. This will be an ongoing theme of the trip, as I struggle with obscenely long place names, Anuradhapura and Mihintale, Pollonaruwa, Dambulla, Sigiriya. Differing accents mean that everyone pronounces them all differently, and there's no hope to get them right.

I memorize thank you -- stuti -- in Sinhala and write off the rest of the language as far too difficult. The script is obscenely hard, zillions of letters, all of which are nearly-identical swirls and loops; no straight lines to speak of, since pre-paper they wrote on starched leaves, and straight lines would break them.

My driver asks where I'm going in Sri Lanka, and I mutter a few place names. The mercifully easy Kandy rolls off my lips. He tells me that it's poya -- a full moon festival -- but this isn't just any poya, it's Posun Poya, commemorating when Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka. This year is the 2550th anniversary of it's arrival, and the biggest place to see it go down is in Mihintale, just outside of Anuradhapura, where the first ruler to accept Buddhism took the plunge.

And suddenly I'm chasing a pilgrimage.

Wander the rougher part of Colombo, Pettah, the market area where actual Lankans go to do their commerce. My colleage in Pakistan is fond of saying that Islamabad isn't South Asia -- too clean, too quiet, not lively enough. Pettah is the South Asia I think he's talking about. Packed with people and livestock, overpowering smells of rotting fish and burning trash. I assume there's more durian to be had, but then I realize that there are piles of shit all over the street. It's sensory overload. See a sign written on a shop in English: PLANS: Making and Foiling (Curses! Foiled again!).

Meet up with my friend from the embassy, who was down the hall from me during language; I was in Urdu, she was studying Sinhala with a Sri Lankan monk who loved guacamole. She was an acquaintance more than a friend, but she remains as friendly and outgoing as I remember her to be, and it's great to see her again. We go to dinner with her friends -- all NGO, all cool as could be -- at a luxurious south asian restaurant, outside on the terrace. And then dessert (chocolate fondant, hand-made orange ice cream) at an art gallery with paintings on the wall and a zen reflecting pool in the middle of a thatch-roof open air patio; for this, she makes 20 percent differential, laughing all the way to the bank. Bar, dance club, then a late-night cocktail at her place. Glorious.

Up early, to the bus station to follow my pilgrimage. I have no idea where I'm going or what the festival entails; I'm under the impression that people climb the mountain to the temples at Mihintale under the full moon.

Bus to Kandy: I had previously noticed that I'm taller than 95 percent of Sri Lankans. Which means I don't fit on the bus -- the distance between my hip and knee is greater than the distance from seatback to seatback. I try sitting at an odd angle, but I'm wedged in by the man next to me, and am extremely uncomfortable. But I'm next to the open window, and am pleased to discover that Sri Lankan fields and farms are shockingly fragrant. We pass through pockets that smell overpoweringly like fresh tangerines, cinnamon, green peppers.

Stop in Kandy for lunch. The national dish of the nation is rice and curry, which entails not just rice and curry but the three to five other dishes as well -- cabbage, stir friedgreens, lentils, green beans, what have you. The come in separate bowls, to be mixed up at the table with your rice. And the dish is always served with a side of Pol Sambol, a simple Sri Lankan condiment made of freshly grated coconut mixed with diced chilis and a tiny bit of onion. It's as delicious and addicting as you'd expect it to be.

Bus to Anuradhapura. I can't remember the full name and mumble it at the bus station. Everyone who repeats it back says it differently. I get on a bus marked "Anu-Pura" and hope I'm headed to the right place. If I am, great. If not -- well, it could be worse.
The last bus was crowded; this bus is packed, standing room entirely taken, people wedged in everywhere. My waiter in Kandy told me that they're expecting 3 million people in Anuradhapura, but I found that number a little hard to believe. But there's over 100 people on the bus -- probably more like 120, 130 -- and we keep passing people in carts hooked up to tractors, all headed in the same direction we are, so maybe he's right after all. I contemplate the fact that I haven't booked a room, but decide that if I have to sleep on the street or at the temple, that I'm ok with that. The 2550th anniversary of pretty much anything doesn't exactly happen every day; I can be uncomfortable for a night.

A guy enters the bus and tries to sell calendars that mark Poya days. He meets with little success, and then returns to the front of the bus where he straps on a home-made altar apparatus. It's covered in flowers and has two different set of drums plus a set of cymbals made from pie-pans to are topped with a plastic Barbie head with the hair dyed blue. He alternates between singing and playing a kazoo while playing all the drums, the cymbals, and a small blue plastic tambourine meant for children. He's got great rhythm and can carry a tune surprisingly well. I can't figure out if he's playing for coins or just in worship for whatever unknown religion he subscribes too. I also can't figure out if it's fantastic or completely horrible. Before I can come to a conclusion, he exits the bus.

The drive continues. I note that kool-aid stands seem to constitute a surprisingly large part of the Sri Lankan economy, since they're everywhere. We stop for gas and people get off to smoke. An old woman, begging for coins, enters the bus and starts singing. I'm again impressed by how well she carries a tune; Sri Lankans, it seems, are a musical people.

40 K outside A-town and the bus is packed to the point that people are hanging off the door to catch a ride. We keep stopping to pick up people who flag down the bus. The conducter is shouting at people to move inside more, but there's no room anywhere. The discomfort factor was considerably higher -- metal bars on all sides, including the front, and the bus is hot in the way that only really crowded places can get. I feel filthy from the dust and heat, and I doze off repeatedly and slam my head on the metal bar to my front and side. I am gleeful when we finally exit the bus.

It's after dark and downtown Anuradhapura is PACKED. Every merchant in town is out on the streets, hawking their wares, and people are wandering in packs. The majority of people are in white, the traditional pilgrim's color. I'm the only one in dirty camoflague cargo pants that I can see. I'm also the only non-Sri Lankan that I see. Apparantly Westerners either didn't know about the Poya, or didn't want to come.

I don't know what's going on -- no clue, really -- so I strike up a conversation with a guy who's selling enormous (and rather creepy) airbrushed photos of babies. His English is limited but better than my Sinhala (still limited to 'thanks'). I ask about Poya, and he says "Mihinitale". Tonight? I ask. "Mihintale, yes, poya tonight." I'm still thinking people climb the mountain at night.

As mentioned, A-town is packed. I assume I have no hope of getting a room, but for good measure I find a phone booth and start calling the places in the guidebook to see if any of them have vacancies. The first place I try says he has a vacancy. I can't believe I'd be so lucky, so I reclarify -- for tonight? You... you HAVE a room? He does. I'm giddy with excitement.
I find a tuk tuk driver and ask him to take me to Mihintale. He asks what time, and I tell him now. It's about 9 o'clock, the full moon is over the city, and I want to go to the temple. He asks again, tomorrow what time, what guesthouse? I try again. We dance, we flounder, but finally he gets it. NOW?!? But it's NIGHT TIME! he tells me. Apparantly I've been misled.

I eat dinner -- Kotthu Rotty, a dish of thin-sliced flatbread that's stir fried with garlic, onions and peppers. It's another fantastic Sri Lankan dish, always cooked on a large flat metal grill, and made with two metal cleaver type things that clatter on the grill and make enough noise to advertise to everyone passing by that Kotthu Rotty is on sale. It's an addicting dish, completely filling, and less than a dollar.

I'm still trying to get to Mihintale. Another tuk tuk shoots me down, and I admit defeat. I decide to follow the crowds.

At this point, I basically have no idea what's going on. I round the corner, and there's a 30-foot buddha poster that's covered in colored lights and neon. There's a monk on a loudspeaker speaking in fast Sinhala, and people are standing, staring at the Buddha and swaying back and forth. No one's talking except the monk. When he finishes, a recording starts up that appears to be a dialogue in Sinhala. At one point, a girl on the recording starts screaming. I stare at the Buddha for a while and sway back and forth, and then realize that I still have no idea what's going on, and head down the street.

There's a poya street fair, and I wander through it. People are out selling everyday things that you'd find in stores -- cutlery, dishes, toys -- nothing seems particularly special, but everyone's out shopping for housewares. I guess (but get no confirmation) that a knife bought on poya would be more blessed than a knife bought some other time. I buy no knives.

I keep walking, and get to the big temple at the edge of town -- not Mihintale (which is 20 k away) but another temple, with cows and monkeys hovering near the entrance. Temple etiquette requires ditching my shoes and going barefoot. I struggle with the laces on my heavy boots, briefly ponder what sort of fungus I'm going to get from wandering South Asia shoeless, and then move forward -- it's quite nice to ditch the boots and go without for while.

I wander the temple. Monks are leading people in prayer and everyone's chanting from prayer books. Sri Lanka has a ridiculously high literacy rate -- upwards of 85 to 90 oercent -- and it's impressive to see the old and the poor following along in the prayer books with everyone else.
And then I buy a chunk of pineapple, and head back to the hotel. I have yet to see another Westerner since leaving Colombo.

My tuk tuk driver advised me that in order to dodge the crowds, I need to leave for Mihintale by 6 a.m. I haven't come to Mihintale to dodge crowds -- I came to chase them. I leave for the temple at 9:30.

Mihintale is a temple on a mountain; hundreds of stone steps pave the way. The route is jammed with pilgrims, ranging from newborns to the extremely old. Two monks at the base of the mountain chatter on cell phones; fresh mango is sold the entire way up the hill. I'm sweating like a mule, and embarrasingly out of breath as compared to the old people in front of me. 3/4ths of the way up, there's another shoe checkpoint, and everyone goes barefoot.

I tell you this: hiking on sun-baked stone in the midmorning heat while not wearing shoes is approximately as pleasant as you'd expect. The odd patch of air that smells like urine is not comforting to we few barefoot pilgrims who worry about disease. But the top of the mountain is like disney land -- long lines for each of the individual sites (Buddha on a hill, stupa with a view, spot where the king accepted Buddhsim), but everyone in a good mood. Each individual place on the mountain has at least a pair, and they hand the microphone back and forth and take turns chanting. Solid views of the surrounding countryside (the odd spiky mountain rising in the rice paddies, lakes scattered here and there). A few people ask to take their picture with me, and I of course am happy to do so. I throw a few coins for good luck, and then head down.

I spend the rest of the day wandering from temple to temple, bodhi tree to historic ruin, what have you. Temple fatigue sets in quickly -- one can only look at so many stumps of walls that demarcate where a building was 2000 years ago -- and my feet by this point are cracked and blistered from hiking barefoot, as required. After sunset, I headed back to the guesthouse and met a British couple. I told them that they were the first westerners I'd seen since leaving Colombo. They told me that they'd been dogged by two tour buses full of old and cranky German tourists, and that there were tons of other Westerners as well.

So that was the poya experience. Not at all what I was expecting, but it's not every day that I get to hang out with thousands and thousands of Sri Lankans and climb a mountain in my bare feet.

More stories to come as time permits, but I'm off now to get some lunch before heading out to an elephant orphanage. Chances I adopt an orphaned elephant: high. Chances Emirates Air lets him fly in the overhead compartment: slightly less high.

Posted by Dakota on 2:56 AM link |

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Going to Dubai is always good for a bracing little slap of culture shock. You never see it coming -- Dubai is, after all, about as Western as a place can be. But then you're in the mall, and you see that Yves St. Laurent is advertising their goods with an odd campaign that involves oversized gold-painted hand grenades, and you think ... where am I?

And then you go to the movies, and they sell popcorn, of course they sell popcorn, this is the movies. But then just down from the popcorn stand, they sell unpopped corn -- not dried, but just corn, like you'd get out of a can, served in a cup with a spoon and your choice of flavored salt. And let me tell you this: just about all I'm looking for in an afternoon is to eat a cup of corn with cheese salt on it, and watch Wolverine get the majority of his clothes blown off by another mutant. Exactly how (and why, for that matter) the pants managed to survive the onslaught was anyone's guess, but I think we can all agree that it's a tragedy.

In related news, I'm in Sri Lanka. Updates coming once I get to a city with more stable internet, and less sticky keyboards. The best of days!

Posted by Dakota on 1:08 AM link |

Saturday, June 03, 2006

And now that I've got internet at home, I think I would never be forgiven by a certain Phil if I didn't post a certain photo that he's been waiting for since January. And so, without further ado, I hereby present to you a portrait of Vientiane, Laos, in a single photo entitled Monkey Riding a Weiner Dog.

Posted by Dakota on 2:02 AM link |
Continuing our little romp down photo memory lane, we have the following photos, all of which were taking at least somewhere in the proximity of someone who is, in some way, important:

You'll note that in the above photo, there's no one important. It was taken while waiting for the arrival of the principle. That said, you'll also note that the above photo is UNBELIEVABLY suitable for internet dating. For those wondering how I managed to get my hair so perfect: I too, wish I knew. Since god knows if it could look like that every day, I'd be a lot less single and a lot more not single.

Moving on:

Ahh yes, Dakota with the wife of the leader of the free world. She's a compact package of literacy initiatives mingled with Southern accent. I'm not sure we could ask for much more in First Spouses. And of course, with the wife comes the husband:

Some would say this photo -- Dakota with the mouth and nose of The Decider is not the best photo in the world. I would argue that THAT particular maw is very distinctive, and that it's pretty damn easy to identify Mr. President from it. Fortunately, I did manage to lean across the riot fencing that Secret Service had spread around US Embassy Islamabad to snag the following photo, which I think we can all agree ranks amongst the greatest photos ever taken at any given time:

Posted by Dakota on 1:38 AM link |

I've spent more or less every day this week out at the military airbase in Islamabad, doing the glamorous work of baggage detail for incoming high-level visitors. Few things make for worse stories than recounting the details of hauling around hanging garment bags for elected officials, so instead I've decided to delve into the archives and perhaps post a few photos. The advent of internet at Casa de Dakota makes this a possibility; some people would question why it took 9 months to get internet. To them I say: that's enough out of you. Anyhow, let's get started with a few set-the-stage type photos: to the left there, we've got me trying to hide the fact that I'm plastered while taking a photo with the Ambo. The ambo is a gigantic ball of intimidating, and just standing next to him to take a photo very nearly ended in wet pants for this little Dakota.

Moving on, we've got some more solid photos: ahh yes, Dak with Marines. Go ahead and keep your snickering to yourself.

And then comes the hit parade. A series of high-level visitors means a series of high-level photo opportunities, as referenced in previous blog entries. Note the inside of the red circle: hold me, sir.

Posted by Dakota on 1:17 AM link |
Current Location:
The People's Republic of China.

Stop by any time: everyone's welcome.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem to Be Born

Comments and requests for dates should be directed to email.

And here I am.

And for all you random folks out there whom I don't know, for the love of god, email me. I'm abroad, know no one, and look forward to hearing from you. I'm especially looking at YOU, whomever YOU are who's Facing The Sun all the way from Kenya. And Sweden. And Canada. And whatnot.

Books Tackled, 2006:

1. Jarhead, Anthony Swofford
2. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, Dennis Covington
3. A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
4. A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, Anonymous
5. Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, Dawn Prince-Hughes

This year's movies, in chronological order:

1. Kung Fu Hustle
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Pi: Faith in Chaos
4. My Big Fat Independent Movie
5. The Winter Guest
6. Voices in Wartime
7. What Dreams May Come
8. Farewell My Concubine
9. The Ring
10. Like Water for Chocolate
11. Sahara

Foreign Service Officers by day, Bloggers by day as well.

The Diplodocus
(Islamabad, Pakistan).

The Permanent Mission of Joshie
(Zagreb; Libyaward).

Prince Roy
(Chennai; Taiwanward).

Sue and not You
(Tbilisi, Georgia).

Life on the Mekong
(Vientiane, Laos).

FSO Globe Trotter
(Lahore, Pakistan).

Vice Consul: Diplomatically Transformed
(New Delhi, India).

Adventures in Good Countries

Our Man in Tirana
(Tirana, Albania).

Anne's Blog
(Kazakhstan; Greeceward).

(Bogota, Colombia).

Furnish Worldwide

Tasman's World
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

(Lome, Togo).

World Adventurers
(Seoul, Korea).

Aaron Martz

A for Adventure
(Chennai, India).

The Excellent Adventures of Nickie P
(Paris, France).

Permanently Disco
(Dhaka, Bangladesh).

Consul At Arms
(Kingston, Jamaica).

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