Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sri Lanka and Maldives

Before the trip:

Due to our schedules we were, for the first time ever, unable to research, plan, and reserve this trip on our own so we sought the assistance of a travel company.

We were unable to find travel companies in the US (we would quickly learn Americans are not common in Sri Lanka or Maldives) but we found some in the UK.  There were a couple of other places we researched but one thing or another discounted them so we settled on Tikalanka: http://www.tikalanka.com/HTML/intro.asp.

It was a bit out of our comfort zone though really at the start.  One, we were working with a stranger (aka sending gobs of money to a stranger) on another continent.  Was that his real name?  Was the “office address” on his website really “an abandoned warehouse” outside of town?  Two, it was for travel to the other side of the world.  What if we got there and there was no guide?  No hotel reservations?  And no answer to our calls and emails pleading for help in the strange land?  Chris: always been a cynic.  Carrie: eased into it during law school (me exclaiming with sincere surprise: the FDA doesn’t solely have our best interests in mind?).

But it all worked out perfectly!

We had a general idea of the areas we wanted to visit and John Beswetherick from Tikalanka emailed with us for over a month to answer all our questions and make great suggestions in order to tailor the perfect itinerary for us.  What I was particularly pleased with were his lodging offerings.  I gave an example of a place we found online we liked for one city and said “find us places like this in the other cities” and that he did!  More on the lodgings later.

John took care of all the reservations (room/half board-vegan) and ticketing for travel and paired us with a fabulous guide.  More on him later.

We were very happy we chose Tikalanka and would def recommend their services.

We registered with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program through the Bureau of Consular Affairs at https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/.  Man I hated that website.  I had to enter stuff over and over and over and over and over again it was maddening b/c it wouldnt save.

We went to Penn Travel in Philadelphia and met with Jim who was *excellent* and recommended the following for our trip:

Shots.  Lots of them.  Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B (got regular A and given timing an accelerated version of B which is a series over a few weeks), Typhoid, Polio (got when we were little but the care provider said something about benefits of getting it again though I can’t recall the details).  Was about $1,000 total for both of us and was told insurance won’t cover but to submit anyway “in case someone is asleep at the wheel.”

Mosquito protection.  Lots of it.  We sprayed all our clothes with Permethrin and (after ridiculous amounts of research on various brands) packed ample amounts of Ben’s Deet Spray.  More on the mosquitoes later.

Pills for Malaria.  I wasn’t sure this was really necessary based on my research but figured if Jim recommended it, wed do it.  Malarone was the drug of choice.  Began taking 2 days before arriving in mosquito zone, took once a day while there, and 7 days after departure.  No side effects for us.  And no Malaria so far.

Pills for poo.  Jim spent a great deal of time on drinking water safety and we heeded his warnings.  We brushed with bottled water, drank bottled water, and showered with bottled water.  Just kidding.  But he did say to beware in the shower not to inadvertently take a big refreshing gulp. He recommended bringing extra toothbrushes just in case we accidentally put one under the water which I thought was a good idea (we were so cuckoo about it though we never needed the extras).  The poo pills were in case something went awry and despite our efforts to avoid contamination we got sick-people-poo.  You may know it by the more common but less fun term “traveler’s diarrhea.”

He also recommended avoidance of raw vegetables and of fruits that aren’t able to be peeled since they likely had contact with unbottled water.

Medivac insurance (which we already had).

He closed with what seemed a strange and random piece of advice at the time: if you wake up with a bat in the room assume you have been bitten and medivac home immediately.

This may all seem extreme and may not be everyone’s preference but again these measures were precautionary and we were happy to play it safe (especially when conjuring visions of being in the hot dusty middle of nowhere climbing temple steps when the runs hit or slapping a mosquito that bites you as you watch the elephants trudge along the plains later realizing the effer gave you dengue fever).

Our final step in preparing was packing.  For the fashion conscious:  Clothing for the Maldives was basically maxi dresses for me, lounge pants for him, bathing suits, and flips.  Clothing for Sri Lanka was cute but comfy, lightweight, and generally quick drying.  Hubs chose REI zip offs, some other cargo-y pants, Eddie Bauer tees and long sleeves (which he really only used on the plane) and a pair of Teva tennies.  I chose a few simple leggings, an array of very thin and slightly fitted long and short-sleeved tunics to layer from Alternative Apparel, and a pair of Keens.  Chose a Patagonia shoulder daypack which was great because it was big enough to carry passports, small bug and sun spray, money, sunglasses, etc. but was small enough we couldn't over pack and defeat the purpose of leaving behind a giant backpack.  Both had buffs and giant sunhats which screamed TOURISTS.

We were diligent to be packed and ready well in advance and avoid our usual mad rush to pack up until the last minute and immediately speed to the airport.  We were packing until the last minute.  Then sped to the airport.

Picture time! If you’d like to follow along you can click here.

Ok let’s head to Sri Lanka!

British Airways flight from Philadelphia to London.

Pertinent points: night flight, lots of turbulence, screaming babies, frequent toot smell*, 3-4-3 configuration so had a third wheel with us, forgot to request vegan meal and flight attendants were very accommodating, had some Pringles, though had seen it in the theater-watched Super 8 twice.

*Chris, in frustration: why does it constantly smell like farts.

Arrival in London.

It was grey, cool, windy, and rainy. Rented a car, drove to Stonehenge (Picture 1) and “the English countryside,” were too tired to do so and were crabby patties the whole time, had researched a Jack the Ripper Tour to take that evening (so close to Halloween how could we resist!) but given the weather we skipped, stayed at Hilton London Dockside as a freebie when booking our BA flight (was ok-a bit removed from things), no place in the vicinity appealing to eat that night so settled for a local pub which was only ok. Luckily had some Pringles back in the room.

Day in London before departure night flight to Sri Lanka.

Had researched and decided to visit the Highgate Cemetery. Can I just tell you how cool this was? The epitome of a spooky cemetery-it was beautiful though. Pathways framed with dense lush undergrowth invited us into a land of vine-shrouded obelisks heavily dotted with crooked crumbling headstones whose faces time had wiped clear. Id share pictures with you but, oh, our new memory card was faulty. No images saved-boo! Image searches provide an accurate portrayal. Here the website: http://www.highgate-cemetery.org/. The cemetery is divided into 2 sections-East and West. While I think both would be very interesting we had time for only one and my research revealed West was the way to go. You can only explore West with a cemetery-appointed guide and you are encouraged to make an appt a week in advance. The East you can explore on your own at your leisure. The West tour took just under 2 hours and ended up being really one of our favorite things we have done in London. All locals on the tour by the way.

SriLankan Airlines night flight to Colombo.

Pertinent points: about 1.5 hours late (we didn’t care), turbulence, screaming babies, flight attendants have pretty outfits, guy in front me reclined seat for entire 11 hour flight.

Arrival in Sri Lanka-woo hoo!

Amazed at how quickly we were able to exit the plane. And then amazed at how long it took to wait for the rest of the people to exit the plane after I had to return to the aircraft to locate my work-issued blackberry case.

Got our bags no prob, customs no prob, changed money no prob, then, while we could’ve purchased a washer/dryer set and other various appliances from the airport, we settled on a cell phone for use in emergencies from the Dialog store. About $38 for the phone and sim card. We had considered renting or buying one from National Geographic beforehand but this was just way cheaper and ended up working perfectly (lucky for Hubs who had insisted we take that route).

By the time we met our guide we were pretty late-given the late flight, the blackberry incident, the money change, and the cell purchase. As we walked toward the airport exit we saw a line of gentleman holding cards with names (I always laugh to think of seeing “Dr. Livingstone” written on one of them). Looking looking looking…there we are! And there he is! Oscar, our guide! The individual who’d been enlisted to care for us over the next 9 days cheerfully escorted us to the grey chariot of steel that would, like a trusty steed, guide and protect us as it resiliently motored through the beautiful country of Sri Lanka!

Our first day in Sri Lanka was comprised of a drive to our hotel located a few hours away in Habarana. Now, wed read hundreds of reviews left by Sri Lanka travelers and many objected to the amount of time spent in the car, the bumpy roads, and the driving habits of the residents. We found the complete opposite. Well except for the roads-the others are right, they are bumpy. We knew from our detailed itinerary how much time each day would be travel so we were prepared. And we found the driving habits of our guide and the locals to be perfectly acceptable. Perhaps we are simply used to aggressive driving in our country, heh.

The drive was to take 4 hours but we did end up arriving later than expected due to our delayed flight, rainy weather during the commute, and an accident which halted traffic for nearly an hour. To memorialize our first glimpses of Sri Lanka we took loads of pictures out the window of our van en route to our hotel. We relished this (and most) time on the road and welcomed the opportunity to dreamily take in our new surroundings.

As we neared our destination the road grew even bumpier and more desolate. Night had fallen and as we approached our hotel I saw the soft, welcoming flickers of candle light. The proprietress and her two associates warmly greeted us at the end of a lit pathway and led us back to their tranquil lodge set in the forest. Welcome to Galkadawala: http://www.galkadawala.com/.

The lodge was simple, rustic, peaceful, perfect. I love the fact that we arrived at night because the lighting just adds to the vibe and ambiance (Picture 2 ).

Though it was late they prepared us a fantastic vegan dinner. We were the only guests so the table was set for two and adorned with candle light (Picture 3). It was a lovely experience and, without a doubt, in all my travels, the best food I had ever eaten. And it set the bar way high for the remainder of our trip. And I should say here that, having had zero previous experience with any type of curry/curry powder/curry leaves, plus the restrictive diet, I had no idea what to expect. The curry was much much more varied and delicious than what I had imagined and I was certainly not prepared for the feasts I enjoyed! I soon realized that the cliff bars Id brought from home could remain tucked away in our suitcase.

Our quarters were just as pictured on the website. With the addition of some roomies who kindly shared their space! There were two little frogs living in our bathroom. One hung out in the cup of the light fixture on the ceiling (Picture 4) and the other hung out in a cubby of the wood trim of the bathroom door (Picture 5). Also, we had two rare birds, a couple, that visited us every morning (they’d built a nest in the upper eave of the wall behind the bed) (Pictures 6-8)!

The soft lighting was so peaceful (Picture 9 ). We settled in to our first night in Sri Lanka. Well, hubs settled in. I was too excited to sleep! After all, I’d just read in the guestbook that a few weeks before the crunching of elephant steps on forest floor greeted a couple at 4am! And while the first few “noises” I heard were more scary than exciting I quickly grew accustomed to leaping out of bed to see the action! Always hoping to come face to trunk with a (friendly) elephant I would’ve been happy seeing anything really-a monkey, a rare nocturnal bird…a dog. Anything. I grew tired of getting out of bed every few minutes to investigate (just to find nothing) so I resigned to sitting up, throwing on my glasses, and straining to see what I could through the mosquito net into the dark abyss. Not one thing. But oh something was out there. Later I learned it was still dry season and the tank (water reservoir) frequented by the elephants had dried up for the time-so the likelihood of elephants visiting was low. On one hand it would’ve been good to know that the first night because I wouldn’t have had my hopes up thinking I might be lucky enough to see an elephant but at the same time thinking I could see one right outside my room was pretty exciting. Kind of like Christmas Eve when you’re little waiting for Santa.

Our first full day in Sri Lanka began with a yummy Sri Lankan breakfast before heading over to Polonnaruwa. First things first here: wild monkeys. Hilarious. Loved them (Picture 10). And couldn’t for the life of me get the Wild Boyz macaque clip out of my mind…

Polonnaruwa was very temple-intensive of course. There was a lot of land to cover and it was hot hot hot hot (among other clear identifiers carrying a giant bottle of water was a tell-tale sign you were a tourist). Oscar was amazing. I know others have mentioned drivers often try (and fail) to double as guides but that was not the case here. He was def a guide first and a driver second and I think that is the distinguishing factor. We learned so so much from him that day I am embarrassed to admit I can’t even remember it all. One tip: throughout Sri Lanka you remove footwear and headwear when in the temple. If you are wearing sandals you will be left barefoot hurting it out across hot stone temple floors. We brought a pair of temple socks for this and it made things very comfortable. For whatever reason this type of activity (ruins, temples, etc.) isn’t normally our thing but Tikalanka really encouraged us to include the Cultural Triangle area in our itinerary and I am so glad we did. It was really an amazing way to begin our time in Sri Lanka (Pictures 11-16)!

After Polonnaruwa we were to head to Minneriya National Park to check out some wild elephants. Oscar was concerned we would not observe many (or any) given the tank had dried. This had been echoed by our Galkadawala hostess as well who also remarked things were tough as they waited for the rainy season to begin (I told her maybe we’d be good luck charms and the rains would start). He instead took us to Kaudulla National Park (Picture 17). He procured a jeep, driver, and personal park guide who rode with us in the back as he pointed out various flora and fauna en route to the main event. It was raining, then thundering, and sometimes lightening. The park guide told us elephants do not typically like the rain. They are in the park to eat grass and they do not like the wet/muddy grass. Thankfully there were some brave souls mulling about and we got some good pictures! I will say the grey of the elephants against the wet lush greenest of green grass under the darkening sky was actually very vibrant and gorgeous. I think the rain really enhanced the colors (Pictures 18, 19). There were babies, preg mommies, and even a male hanging around. We learned that the males often roll solo and only really join the herd when they are…feeling amorous. As we wound our way through the park every now and then we’d see a dot of an elephant waaaay back along the tree line (Picture 20). The males! Seemed like a sad life I thought! Perhaps they simply enjoy being bachelors.

Afterwards we headed back to our lodge and upon arrival were told another couple had arrived. Admittedly we liked having the place to ourselves plus we are both actually pretty shy in person so we weren’t sure what to expect. Conversation over dinner quickly gave way to past travels which made for a really interesting night! Ok, they can stay, heh

We woke up early morning to get a good start on climbing Sigiriya (Pictures 21-23). This was something I was personally super excited about because I’d been looking forward to this day for a very long time thanks to Megan McCormick (Globe Trekker)! There are steps. And more steps. And then even more steps. Then you get to the lion paw entrance (Picture 24) and I should say the views even here are rewarding (Pictures 25 and 26). This is a Robert Frost area because you have a choice of two paths: either you sit and wait and watch the wild monkeys pick and eat mites from each other or you continue the climb-the steepest part-to the top (Picture 27). Really though once you’ve made it this far you can totally see the top and it’s not at all intimidating.

Now I will say both Oscar and Chris are a foot taller than I (5’3” versus 6’3”). So one of their steps is like 2.5 of mine. Yeah I timed it. So I am taking breaks when I’m feeling out of breath but nothing major. I’m young, healthy, relatively fit. I just needed to go at my own pace. You’d think though that I was drenched in sweat grabbing my heart and giving myself last rites. Actually I was drenched in sweat but so was everyone else. Oscar kept encouraging me to stay behind-wait by the monkeys-things are going to get harder. As expected there is a bit of a language barrier so I figured it would be useless to describe the Megan McCormick thing and how I simply had to do this. And the important thing to keep in mind here is I didn’t doubt that I could. I just needed to go slower. This fell on deaf ears.  Chris hung back with me which was nice. I should say though that maybe Oscar was thinking we had to keep on schedule or something I don’t know. It was the only time I didn’t feel totally supported by him so I give the benefit of the doubt. So we are going up up up and I am taking breaks and these random men standing around keep trying to “help” me up the steps. No no no I say I am fine. One guy insists. He works here I guess. And really-cupping my elbow in the palm of his hand isn’t really “helping” me. But, since I didn’t really NEED help I just rolled with it. Figured it made him feel good to know he was doing his job or whatevs.

So we get to the top and it’s nice (Pictures 28, 29). Oscar had given us the history on the way up and then discussed the various features at the top. Mad I forgot to yell Sri Lanka like Megan did. And this was b/c my mind was elsewhere. It was on this:

Something key I want to point out here: if you’ve ever done a killer hike-you know, spent hours or even days getting to the summit, you like to chill a bit at the top. I think it would’ve been nice to chill a bit atop lion rock. But we had Oscar standing and the worker standing kind of like “waiting” for us. Nobody said anything but it just seemed like they were ready to go right away. I mean, I get it. You’ve prob been up here a hundred times but it’s all exciting and new for us. What I would like to propose is a. have a discussion at the outset how you want things to be (e.g. go at my pace and leave me be to hang at the top as long as I please) or b. your guide give you a time frame to complete the trek-warning that the day is in your hands. If you are late it might throw things off. Ok, understood. So he gives 3 hours say. And then waits at the base. You hike up yourself, at your own pace, then have down time at the top. And let me tell you going down is a cinch (certainly compared to going up) so you don’t need to leave as much time assuming you are in good health. One other tip I would like to offer is wear light-weight shoes. Personally I’m not into those Teva type sandals but something like that would actually be ideal (I am assuming they are light but could be wrong). My keens were on the heavy side which made things a bit harder-it was like hiking in my 1995 doc martens. And really, even flips are ok. It’s not rugged terrain, just steps and stuff. And I guess now is as good a time as any to specify to try to get flips with the nubbies on the inner sole. I had smooth inner soles and when the rain came in Sri Lanka, and it did come, they were a nightmare to wear-feet kept slipping out, feared Id bust that crucial in between part…

Ok back to the topic at hand…we get to the bottom and Chris and I discuss tipping the worker. We decide the equivalent of $1.00 is good (more on tipping later). He says no, it is $10.00. Are you serious Clark? And I recall how he had quietly asked Oscar earlier where we were from. Not sure if that played into it but arguably suspicious given how things turned out. And now we find out he’s not a “worker” but just a dude that hangs out to “help” people for money. Naïve us? Sure. But we didn’t know. So he gets mad and I am glad Chris handles it. Finally the fake worker accepts the cash for his ten minutes of “help” and leaves us alone. Oscar explains this is common and that a firm “No” is in order in these situations. Hopefully my experience will prepare others in the future! Wasn’t a big deal just a bit annoying.

Note at the base of Sigiriya there are stalls selling stuff. “Tat” as I have seen it described in other reviews which cracks me up. It was like the Bahamas for a minute there with everyone offering us the best price on the best goods. Was waiting for someone to ask me if I wanted my hair braided. Anyway, if you are looking to buy tat you can plan to find it there beyond that regal banyan tree (Picture 30).

Our itinerary had us heading back to the lodge to escape the hottest part of the day but since we were out and about and the next stop was Dambulla (cave temples so out of the sun anyway) we decided to press on. When we arrived (Picture 31) we were welcomed by our lovely host (Picture 32). As we approached the steps leading up to the steps leading up to the steps leading up to the steps leading up to the caves (Picture 33) two fighting monkeys rushed by us. This was very strange as we had not witnessed aggressive behavior to this point (but of course knew it existed). Then, out of nowhere, this big guy swings out of a tree towards Chris and in one quick action grabs a plastic bag from his hand. We had a small bag of bananas wed purchased from a roadside stand where wed tried Thambili (milk from a king coconut) and then scooped out the flesh from the coconut with a piece of itself (Picture 34). It was madness! I guess they are serious about their bananas. Really though we recognize this could’ve ended badly so were thankful everyone was ok. The thief ran his newly acquired goods back up the tree and sat solo on a thick limb smashing his face into the bananas, peels and all (Picture 35). Meanwhile, this guy literally appears to be in heaven with his snack (Picture 36).

The series of cave temples are really very interesting and of course Oscar was a plethora of information (what I liked learning the most was re the offering of flowers to the Buddha). Some are large, some are small, some are more simple while others are more ornate (Pictures 37-40). Aside from the section of stone walkway b/w where you leave your shoes and where you enter the temples it is all shaded so if you happen to be barefoot here it’s not an issue. During our visit we shared the temples with a large group of young girls presumably on a field trip. I really enjoyed watching them offer flowers to the Buddha. They were adorable and all smiled shyly at me as I saw them looking and taking note of all the things different about me from them. It was very sweet. We did not encounter many white skinned people in our daily excursions and certainly didn’t encounter any our age (most were older) so we were a bit of an anomaly but we knew that in advance so were prepared.

After Dambulla we headed back to our lodge (seeing a lot of “CheDay” signs along the way (Picture 41)) with the afternoon at our leisure. We chose to spend time on the hammocks (Picture 42) listening to birds, watching monkeys, and noticing the clouds roll in. Later that afternoon the downpour began. As our hostess and her associates lowered the large outdoor curtains against the incoming water she looked at me, smiled, and yelled over the sound of the storm: You brought the rain! That was one of my favorite moments at Galkadawala. Strange to me now how special that seemed but I can still recall the feeling and it is good.

(Picture/Video 43)

We gathered for dinner as the rain fell around us. The female half of the other couple shrieked and quickly stood from the table waving her hands. The male laughed.  Chris and I looked over as the staff congregated to address the cause of the freak out. Did you see that?! she asked. It sounded like a helicopter! A big black bug! I should say here that up to this point I hadn’t seen many bugs at all. Some ants in our room (not near our bed) and important to note: not a single solitary mosquito. I almost wished I had seen the giant black bug-I am not "good with bugs" but surely I would’ve been brave!

Our conversation with the other couple lasted long past dinner. Discussion of an elephant’s nature led to them telling a story of a friend who had an encounter with a bat on her honeymoon. She’d been bitten by a bat. She knew she’d been bitten and was in the healthcare field so realized the consequences. Still she did not seek aid. A few days later she grew feverish and finally sought care but it was too late and she passed away. Tragic. The discussion returned to elephants and how the couple had walked to the dry tank earlier that morning and seen elephant footprints! I was so excited to hear this because it meant the elephants were in fact among us! But at the same time I was sad because I didn’t get to see those footprints and now with the rain I knew they’d be washed away.

The night ended as we headed to our respective quarters while the rain pounded hard on the timber roof like a lullaby.

We returned to our rooms and milled about preparing for bed as we listened to the rain outside. I shed clothes pre-shower and head to the bathroom and close the door given the lack of walls in our room. There is a window next to me and I take a seat to pee and watch as the wind billows the small thin curtain to and fro. Then, it happened. It buzzes around me and immediately I feel a tinge of guilt for thinking I could’ve handled the “helicopter” incident better at dinner. The biggest blackest beetle I have ever seen in person, pictures, or movies. I am getting the gross chills just thinking about it! Naturally, I scream. It was like a horror movie-due to the powerful rains nobody heard a thing. NB: when one is freaking out clear and rational thinking is not in the picture. In my bout of flails I manage to get the door open and get the attention of Chris. He runs in and gives the normal reaction when faced with an alleged crisis: he gets mad at me. WHAT!? He asks with an angry face. Then, still shrieking, I frantically point at his feet where the beast is buzzing around along the ground and he does a funny little hitch kick and starts matching my school-girl shrieks. He grabs the thin small curtain from the window and tries to shoo it out. Not happening. The beast flies through the open bathroom door into the bedroom. He follows it and I think at least I am safe now. Wrong! Another one flies into the bathroom! Now I am completely helpless! I can’t even stand up less I flash full-monty to the workers still below. I scream. Again, nobody hears. Eff the nakedness I run out to the room, grab something, anything, and cover the important parts and rush onto the bed under the mosquito net! Whew, I think I really am safe under here!  Chris continues to fight the first beetle while the second one now buzzes around him. I yell encouraging words through the netting and point out coordinates of the black shelled monsters so he can attack. “One behind you!” “The other one is by your leg!” “Get them out get them out!” I yell…”But don’t kill them,” I add. He pauses from his large arcs of window curtain shooing motions, turns to me, and gives an expression as if I have just asked the absolute impossible. As he returns to his attacks I continue to shriek and exclaim-still completely amazed nobody hears this. Finally, it ends. He joins me under the netting. Sweaty and out of breath he says, “They are gone-and I think I just injured them not killed them.” We head to the shower in high alert and take turns: one on watch while the other is under the water to bathe. We felt a small amount of protection given we were behind a shower curtain-trying to forget about the ample openings on the top and sides. Afterwards:

The power has gone out. We light the candle. We head to bed and, as if he had just slain dragons in my honor, we fall asleep in each other’s arms (Picture 43).

Sadly, this morning we knew our time at Galkadawala was coming to an end as our itinerary had us heading to Kandy.  Breakfast was a sad affair as I thought how I would miss the place, the people… I waved a tiny gnat away and the caring staff immediately hooked up a fan and directed a gentle in our direction (so attentive). The other couple joined us and showed us pictures the man had taken. That morning he had gotten up early to photograph the sunrise. He scrolled along on his ipad through some really amazing pictures-it was clear he was very, very talented. He said that at the moment it was only a hobby but that perhaps in the future it would become something more. As he scrolled along, selecting ones he deemed worthwhile to discuss, I considered what was so different about his photographs than mine. And I considered this because I, too, wanted to be able to so beautifully memorialize my experiences. I concluded that, whereas his pictures evoked emotion from anyone who viewed them, mine evoked emotion only from me-and that they were largely empty when viewed by others. He had a way of capturing moments such that even if you weren’t there you felt that you were. That, I think, is truly a gift. My wishes of wanting even a fraction of his talent were interrupted when I saw the most beautiful photograph ever. There they were: the elephant footprints (that I was so sure would be washed away by the harsh rains), one after another, pooled with rainwater, glistening in the morning sun. It was one of the prettiest things I had ever seen. And I missed it.

Disappointed, I headed upstairs to pack.

Hours later, in Kandy, my heart absolutely sank. Why did I think I had missed the opportunity to view those amazing footprints? He had taken those photos just that morning before breakfast. They would’ve still been there. I could’ve walked down to see them. By that time of course (in Kandy) I really had missed them. No chance to go back now. Earlier when I had expressed my fondness of the photo he took he offered to send it to me. Very kind, indeed. But you know it is just not the same. Being there is what mattered. Frustrated with myself I sank into my seat in sadness. That is my only regret from Sri Lanka.

En route to Kandy we make two interesting stops. The first is to a Spice Garden. This is right off the roadway and I imagine a stop for many tourists. It goes like this: they show you around the garden, show you the products made from the plants, then shuttle you into the gift shop offering keepsakes at inflated prices. From the get-go I figured this and had resigned that I’d go ahead and plan to buy something at the end-this way I didn’t have to stress about it and could enjoy the “tour.”

And really, I did enjoy it.  Chris wasn’t interested but I thought it was cool to see where so many familiar spices originate. You follow a pathway flanked with spice trees/bushes as it winds through the garden. The trees are labeled and along the side of many are tiny dishes which contain the corresponding spice. So next to the nutmeg tree is a container of nutmeg, etc. He’d have you smell the spice, show you what part of the plant is used for the spice, explain how it is processed, etc. (I liked this) and went on to describe how each spice cured this and that (I didn’t like this). “Remedies” included: arthritis, gastro problems, acne, liver conditions, wrinkles, headaches, sore joints, fatigue. Most of the tour was geared towards these cures so I think I tuned out a bit during this part though still looked like I was paying attention. We tipped him a few bucks, bought an overpriced tiny jar of aloe, then continued our journey towards Kandy.

But not before we made another very important stop. Over the years of reading or in conversation or maybe books or movies have you ever heard of a fruit that smells so so so so bad that it is actually banned in some public places? That the smell is enough to make some people physically ill? Well I had. And I simply had to try it for myself. The fruit in question is called durian. Id mentioned to Oscar I really wanted to try this so when we drove by a cart he immediately pulled over to fulfill my request (Picture 45). So, this fruit is about the size of a cantaloupe and super pointy on the outside. The cart operator cut the fruit in half and handed us the quilled snack housing two Ping-Pong ball-sized fleshy seeds. The points were pushing too hard into my soft hand so I was unable to dig the seed out. The gentleman kindly then held it for me and helped scoop out seed 1. Ok. I don’t think it smelled *that* bad, truth be told. I was expecting it to smell like those gross wafts you get every once in a while on a city street times 100. It wasn’t. The consistency of the flesh as you bit it away from the seed (and I made a specific note to remember to explain it to you just like this) was like when you’d heat up Velveeta cheese- that thick creamy layer of skin that formed on top? That’s what this was like. It did not taste like Velveeta though. A few chews in…what is that? I know this flavor but can’t place it…  Chris had since scooped and bitten and he called it: garlic. Yes, the first few chews were almost like garlic before it turned just a tad sweet in your mouth. I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat all the flesh from my seed.  Chris barely finished his and looked sickened when I offered him mine (he refused). At least we did it though! Until the cart operator showed us we still had a whole other half to eat. Oh... So, this was not a juicy fruit. Not a refreshing fruit. Probably not a fruit Id reach for at the market. But it was very cool to be able to bite into a piece of infamy.

Oscar had noticed a problem with our chariot of steel so his boss, the Sri Lankan business partner of Tikalanka, Pathi, met up with us as we neared our next lodging in Kandy. Pathi had a much stronger personality than Oscar. We are a bit more laid back so felt good we were paired with Oscar who was courteous, professional, and genuinely eager to please (not that Pathi wouldn’t have been these things-just a different personality, that’s all).

The four of us stopped for some “short eats” (which are basically “snacks”-some sweet, some salty, some meat, some veggie-no real distinction other than they are smaller items) at what looked like a banquet hall. I am not quite sure what happened next. There was a lot of low conversation and hand shaking between Pathi and a man, or two, in suits as we entered. It reminded me of a politician shaking hands, kissing babies. Maybe he was saying “these are our guests, treat them well” because that they did.

They escorted us to their display case. As usual, Oscar kindly relayed dietary requests to the staff (no milk? no meat? no eggs? etc.). Oscar was fond of fish rolls so he picked up some of those. They suggested a vegetable roll I think it was (Picture 46). Maybe a meat item or two for Chris. There were some spicy vegetable patties (not the correct term) they chose for me as well as some sweet mini muffin looking items. Plus the best thing ever-what looked like giant sugar cookies. They weren’t. But they were similar. Big sugar crystals on top of large cookie-ish discs that were crispy and chewy at the same time (Pictures 47).

After we made our selections we were ushered into the banquet room. Off to the side I saw (empty) buffets set up and centerpieces gathered which is why I say banquet room. They bring us tea, water, etc. The vegetable rolls were good but not my fav. Bready with only a little inside. Was only a bit spicy-esp compared to those patties which were mad spicy and immediately required a beverage cool down! The muffins were tasty-sweet, cakey, thick (Picture 48). And those cookies? Gooooood. Trust me, I tried to a. ask and b. remember all the delicious foods we had throughout our journey but without taking notes it was simply impossible. You will just have to take my word for it! And if you see baby muffins or look-alike sugar cookies: buy them!

Ok onto our next stop-our lodging for the next two nights as we explore Kandy! Remember early-on I mentioned how Id found a place online I loved? And wanted to Tikalanka to find others like it? This was the place Id found online.

Like our previous lodging, the road grew bumpier and more desolate. After a sharp turn here, going up a hill there, we arrived at Kandy Samadhi Center: http://www.thekandysamadhicentre.com/.

Our welcome was not like what we received at Galkadawala. I should point out though that perhaps this is because we had Pathi with us. He immediately hopped out and began walking and talking with who we later learned was the owner. Discussing business we guessed? Not really sure. We sat in the car, kind of waiting to see what was next. We were eventually given a signal from others to exit the van. We were told to follow Pathi and the owner, who were a ways ahead of us now, to our room. We started off-then oh called back for a cool towel and a refreshing drink of juice. So, I mean, I think the welcome had the potential to be nice but it was just very disjointed. Again, I think b/c maybe the host had pulled away and the others weren’t sure how to proceed. I will admit I was a bit disappointed though-I mean, I’d been waiting for months, literally months, to experience this place. And I set my expectations high. And coming from Galkadawala, the bar also was set high. Nonetheless I stayed positive and tried to give the benefit of the doubt.

So I will take a moment and explain the layout of this property. The eating area is the building which is also the main entrance-but it is on the second level so you can’t really see into it from street level. All other rooms are up in the surrounding hills reached by steep winding stone paths (more on that later). All rooms except ours. We walk a ways down the road to a small, tight cluster of buildings. We can see through various opening this is storage: equipment, etc., piled up. Also, there are some various items lying around which, if I am going to be honest, should probably be picked up before guests arrive. What looked like a large overturned bashed in oil drum, random piles of rocks and cinderblocks. And at the moment it looks like this guestroom, due to the location and the surroundings, was more of an afterthought than a planned lodge offering. I point this out for a few reasons which I suppose I will spell out here: you are removed from the rest of the property (the rest of the lodgings are back near the main house). Good or bad, that is a fact. Also, see below re staff….

We go down a flight of steep steps and arrive at a massive bright blue wooden door with a giant, Willy Wonka type key in the hole-I loved it (Picture 49)! Also thought the little lantern sitting nearby was very cute. We open the door and the room is perfect! Large open-air design (Picture 50), the river rushing by right below (Picture 51), great rustic yet stylish décor, concrete bathroom-it is really just great. “And no mosquitoes!!” our host excitedly proclaims! “You know-we haven’t seen a single mosquito since we’ve been in Sri Lanka,” I respond with equal excitement-starting to think all our preparation at home (sprays, creams, pills, etc.) was unnecessary.

We are asked to return to the main house after we are settled for a tour of the grounds. We are left with two umbrellas. As we tour our awesome room we notice what we guess are staff milling about the neighboring buildings. One down to the left, one up to the right, one walking shirtless down the bank to the river. We didn’t feel unsafe or anything at all like that but they were there and they were looking-probably just curious about the new guests I suppose. I mention this because you are kind of secluded and kind of not. On one hand you are secluded from the main property and the other guests and on the other hand you are staying near the staff.

We walk up the road back to the main part of the grounds for our tour. It begins to rain pretty steadily as a host guides us through the hills showing us flora and fauna, the other rooms offered by the resort, the laundry area, the house pets (more on these furry friends later), The yoga and meditation area. I see what reminds me of the lone cypress on a neighboring hill (Picture 52) and ask if he’s climbed to it-no, he says-though he admits he has tried, and failed! He asks us about America, Area 54, films, music. The rain is harder now. Remember I told you about the flips with the nubbies on the inner sole? This is where I learned that. It was impossible to walk in my flips-they were soaking wet and my feet were slipping out with every step. I noticed our host had no probs whatsoever in his flips: note, the nubbies.

By now the sun has set and gas lamps have begun to light our path. We end the tour as our host hands us flashlights and shouts over the rain Dinner is at 7:30. But…there is a resort jeep right there. We aren’t the Sakaros but it would have been cool if we’d gotten a ride back down the road to our place. Not a huge deal, just saying. So we make our way down the rainy potholed road to our room to a very unpleasant surprise. Mosquitoes. Lots and lots and lots of mosquitoes.

They are flitting around our lights sure but they are really in full force in the inner corner of the hallway leading to the bathroom and then also inside the bathroom. We used an entire full can of our Bens spray. There were mosquito bodies everywhere. I want to make sure I make this clear because while I want to be fair to Samadhi I have to be forthright because the reality is these mosquitoes can carry disease and could potentially cause harm to guests: there were a lot of mosquitoes. Now, I do not believe the kind people at Samadhi intentionally mislead, or trick their guests, etc. I am thinking that perhaps this particular room is not often used since it is further from the property thus they simply aren’t aware? Or because this room is the only one located by the river that somehow makes it a haven for mosquitoes? And since the other rooms are not by the river they don’t get mosquitoes and so the resort in their heart of hearts believes there are no mosquitoes? Or perhaps because rainy season had just begun mosquitoes are out but then die down after a few days? I don’t know the reason and I guess the reason doesn’t matter. There is no netting. There are no fans. These are typically offered to aid in keeping the mosquitoes at bay. But since Samadhi doesn’t think they have mosquitoes they do not offer these items. Just be prepared-I guess that is my bottom line.

Now onto more fun and positive things: dinner! When we arrived at the dining area on that second level of the entrance building it was like the inside of a castle! Huge wooden tables-each adorned with a giant gas candelabra (Picture 53). That open-air room lit only by candles in the dark night was gorgeous, really. It was breathtaking I will even say. And because we were the only ones present to dine at that time it was as if that beautiful ambiance was created just for us.

I can’t recall what was served that first night. The food wasn’t “bad” it just wasn’t “memorable.” Remember-we were coming off days at Galkadawala with what I will claim was the best food on the planet so we’d been a bit spoiled. Nonetheless it was a pleasant enough event and afterwards we said goodbye to a little friend who’d joined us (Picture 54) and we returned to our room where we were warmly welcomed by a blazing lantern by our doorway which had thoughtfully been lit by our hosts (Picture 55). I will say here that while some mosquitoes remained the bulk of them, without a doubt, were gone (gone = dead, repelled, whathaveyou). That was a very nice relief.

But we had a new concern. Bats. Now, we have bats at home. They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them. And in our room at Samadhi bats, in couplets and side by side like Ponch and John from CHiPs, would fly in one window and out a small opening of another window. And when I say window you should really be thinking “wall” because nearly the entire space is open. And in this type of room we are prepared and expect to share it with the wild. So, again, those bats are fine. We aren’t concerned. But what happens next does concern us a bit. A bat flies in solo and not only does he not fly out he hangs around for quite some time flying this way and that in the room with no real direction-almost as if he is struggling to keep himself in the air, if that makes sense. And he was foaming at the mouth. Ok not so not so. We can laugh about it now but his actions were enough to cause us concern and a sleepless night (in a self-constructed fort in the corner of the room using popped umbrellas, random furniture, and many sheets) given the what I said sounded like strange and random medical advice we were given before we left which kept running through our minds (“Immediately medivac home. Immediately medivac home. Immediately medivac home."). Plus that awful story the night before about the girl who died on her honeymoon after being bitten by a bat. We figured: rare or not, it happens and we don’t want it to happen to us.

As early as possible the next morning (literally, sunrise) we approached our hosts. We have “complained” maybe three times ever at a hotel in our lives. And while this wasn’t intended to be a “complaint” we felt bad and weird addressing this. We said how beautiful the room was and the river view and the décor and then nervously asked if it would be possible at all to perhaps, maybe, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to be moved to a new room…..(holding breath, waiting for them to kick us out for being ungrateful guests). Of course, he says! No problem at all! Leave your luggage in your room before you head out for the day and we will have it moved to room 4 (or 14, I forget). Us to each other on our way back to the room: wow, that went well. Certainly a strange bat was not the fault of Samadhi or within their control such that they should be in anyway obligated to appease us yet they kindly agreed without any hesitation to accommodate our request. All is right with the world and so happy I chose Samadhi!

We return to our room and get ready for the day’s activities which included what I was certain was going to be the lamest excursion in all of Sri Lanka….Temple of the Tooth.

So early morning off to Temple of the Tooth. I can’t recall why I thought TOTH would be lame. I likened it a bit to The Basilica of the Holy Blood (Bruges) which I saw years ago and apparently didn’t much enjoy? And I guess the fact that it was a “tooth” made it seem, I don’t know, not very serious? But we can’t pick our relics. And I couldn’t have been more wrong about TOTH.

The details are beginning to fade (better get the rest of this report written) but I believe the temple is only open during certain hours/for a limited amount of time. So if you arrive late or if you are too far back in line I think you miss it. Oscar has us arrive early and we are near the front of the line that forms inside. And when I say line I mean mob. Because people are pushing constantly and for no apparent reason. The doors aren’t open yet, there is nothing to see yet, and people are pushing. Anyway, we are standing but there is a large group sitting near the perimeter. I ask Oscar about this and he says these are people that have come but cannot wait in line for the tooth because they have young children, they are old, whathaveyou. The group grows bigger as we wait. We are the only white people. Everyone here is Buddhist. Oscar explains that a trip to TOTH is a special one. That some come from all over the country, sometimes only once in a lifetime, to pay homage (which I suppose explains the pushing). Nearly all of them have a gift of some sort to offer the Buddha. Flowers, mainly. But some bring food. Others bring clothing. Oscar explains that these items go to the monks.

There is history behind the tooth which I will let you discover when you visit.

A guard of some sort herds us even closer together and I see an elderly gentleman nearly knocked over. It brought tears to my eyes that part of his little flower offering was broken off and crushed on the floor in the act. While hubs and I nonetheless attempt to respect those around us by not jamming up in their business we quickly realize the notion of “personal space” does not exist for anyone else. Not a big deal, just saying be prepared to be packed in. Tight.

Something’s happening. Men in white shirts who appear to be in positions of authority are walking around. Oscar says the doors are about to open. We funnel from the waiting area into a more narrow area which leads to the tooth (Picture 56). Stay along the perimeter of the wall, Oscar calls to us as he is pushed ahead in a sea of people. Its madness. Really. People are pushing like they are running from a fire, no lie. It reminded me of those videos I’d see from Tokyo where people are packed into subway cars.

There is a large lotus flower display on a table along the way and we see Oscar and others bend down and appear to touch their hands to the flowers then to their face.

We continue on, staying close to the wall. And this is why Oscar said stay close to the wall-the relic is on that side. It is not single file so some people will not be right next to the tooth-you will have the best view if you follow his advice and stay near the wall. We are approaching an opening that looks like a big window whose shutters have been opened. In the background there is a tiny casket which houses the tooth. You wouldn’t know what you were looking at unless you knew what you were looking at. There is a monk, looking a bit panicked, rapidly collecting the offerings from people as they are pushed through. It reminded me of way back when in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Has anyone done this? You’d work so hard climbing all those steps then get to the top and you weren’t allowed to spend time there. There were people ahead of you, people behind you, and you were to basically just walk by the little windows and keep things moving. TOTH was just like that. There was no stopping, no meaningful observation of the tooth. More like frantic glances to see as you are pushed through.

And then it was over.

One tip: you are able to make a monetary offering here. I wish I’d known that in advance as it would’ve been neat to be a part of the offering. There are several locations throughout the temple to leave a monetary offering as well which we did but, again, would’ve been cool to give it to the tooth. We left ours in a little room housing many many palm leaves on which is written the story of Buddha (Picture 57).

Also very cool is drumming which is happening during all this. Some really really cool drumming. We watched for quite a while (Picture 58).

The area surrounding the tooth is worth exploring (Pictures 59-61). Probably one of the neatest things was a small glass building housing rows and rows of candles being lit in prayer (Picture 62). You’ll also have a chance to see Raja, the elephant who for many years carried the tooth in the Esala Perahera (a grand ten-night parade in Kandy). Here is a site I found on Raja: http://tinyurl.com/raja-toth. You will notice he is no longer with us thus the Raja you see at TOTH is, well, stuffed (Picture 63).

There are also what I will call sub-temples, including some Hindu sites of worship (and I should’ve mentioned this is also so in Polonnaruwa, or “P-city” as we affectionately called it because we seemed to pronounce it a different way each time we said it). Perhaps most interesting were the many chanting prayers we had the opportunity to observe that day. Prayer, for me, has always been a private affair so I felt honored that I was able to share in the prayers of others.

TOTH turned out to be my favorite activity in all of Sri Lanka. To be part of an experience that is considered to be the holiest in the land was quite special and extremely memorable. What really struck me was that it was like I could *feel* the devotion. I could feel it in the air. It was intense. It was amazing.

After TOTH we spent some time in the city of Kandy (Pictures 64-66). We aren’t souvenir people but mainly wanted to get something for our niece and nephew who are 11 and had been quite curious about our travel to Sri Lanka.

I’d been thinking maybe a necklace or bracelet for my niece so we stopped in a few jewelry shops. One looked a bit too formal but the owner/manager/whathaveyou shuttled us in to watch a film on gem mining in Sri Lanka. I told him I was shopping for a ten year old and that these “gems” seemed a bit formal for her but he said watch the film, there is no obligation to buy. So we were ushered into a little room with about 20 chairs and a large screen. The lights dimmed and the film began. Almost immediately Chris fell asleep. I have to admit my head fell a few times but I was really fighting it. It wasn’t that the show was boring it was because really we were just exhausted. My head falls again and I wish I am in the back of Oscar’s van. While heading home to our lodging after our daily excursions in Sri Lanka, try as we might to avoid it, wed fall asleep in the back of Oscar’s van. Heads bent back and rolling uncontrollably against the headrest, mouths agape, enter sandman. Must’ve been a sight to see in Oscar’s rearview. I’m guessing with the adventure of the day coupled with the gentle cushy rocking of our chariot as it guided us home this was unavoidable.

But I’m not in the van. I’m in a basement watching a movie about gems I know I am not going to buy. I try to pay attention. There are a handful of gems they focus on and one gets my attention (Tourmaline) because of how it appears to change color. The film ends and we are escorted to the showroom where we are presented with a large black piece of felt showcasing the gems we just learned about. What did you think? the Boss with the mustache asks (all the Bosses and politicians in SL seem to have mustaches). Oh very interesting I say. And mention the attributes of Tourmaline as if to prove I’d been paying attention. Ahh yes Tourmaline-see here how it changes color? he asks as he pivots it with his pointing tool. Ooooh yes lovely I say as I see no color change. Now over to the glass displays. I am first shown a bracelet priced at $900.00. I remind them I am shopping for a ten year old. She just turned eleven really but somehow at the time in the uncomfortable situation of feeling pressure to buy something I knew I didn’t want I felt that saying she was ten was like saying she was five and better drove my point that she was a child. A child that a. might not even want or like this gift and b. even if she did it would, due to the nature of being a kid, likely be lost or broken shortly after receipt.

The Boss with the mustache says something to the female worker and gives an arching wave of his hand that one might give when turning down a beverage because you know you are about to leave and don’t want to put your host out: “Oh no that’s ok” (gives wave of hand). Except his wave didn’t say that. His was defeated and seemed to say “Ok, they aren’t falling for it, show them the cheap stuff” because I am then escorted to a different glass case with charms. Frustrated and mad mad mad at myself that I am such a wuss I look at the options and decide if I have to buy something to get out of this mess what will it be. I see a cutesy little elephant charm with a teeny pink gem eye. Oh what about this one I ask. $275.00. I say I am looking for something in the $25.00 price range, do you have anything like that? No. No? Ok, well thanks anyway.

We exit and I see a (local) lady carrying a small purse with an elephant embroidered on it. Cute. I think niece would like. And with that the purse becomes item #1 on list of souvenir ideas for niece right next to coconut carved like a monkey for nephew. We come upon government-run Laksala (Hubs had read about this). No purses and only one animal-carved coconut but his one eye is pointed wrong so we move on. We come upon another store (not Laksala). Not only do they have tons of elephant purses and carved coconuts but a bunch of other stuff that kids would love. Eventually, after way too much thought than required, I decide to get them both coconut animals. What did it was this elephant coconut with little tusks. Very cute. The elephant was def more serious than the silly monkey so elephant for her, monkey for him. Oh, and earrings for me! I’d forgotten to wear/pack earrings for the trip and had been on the lookout.  Chris saw these really cute lobe-hugging thick silver hoops that were perfect!

I should say items in the stores we saw weren’t really my speed. Like, I’d been looking for “something nice” maybe for my parents. I didn’t have anything in mind. Just wanted “something Sri Lanka.” And it of course is simply a matter of taste/personal pref but I didn’t really find anything like that.

After some shopping, some soya ice cream (not very flavorful), and a chance to try mangosteen (Picture 67) and jackfruit (Picture 68) we headed to the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. Not Botanical. Botanic. We spent quite a bit of time here as Oscar impressed us with his knowledge about the gorgeous flora (Picture 69). And normally, normally, this would totally be our thing. It’s just that it was so so so so hot. We went through the motions but most of the area is not shaded and the heat was almost unbearable.

There are some really awesome sights to see though and I would def recommend checking this place. I was thinking it would be nice to bring a picnic and sit under one of the huge trees! And people did just that, very nice (Picture 70). A few things: no white people here. And I know that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody else is “local” but it does mean that it’s not a huge tourist destination. At least it wasn’t on the day we were there (more on white people = tourist later). So we really liked this because true or not it makes one feel they are immersing themselves in the real culture when they are hanging where the locals hang.

Some other things: giant bamboo stalks (Picture 71)! Huge regal gorgeous trees. Oh and bats. Would you believe we got guano-ed? Lucky I had on my enormous movie star glasses (which some SL teen girls loved and others straight up laughed at) which took the brunt of the poo. I wondered whether bat poo held the same “luck” that bird poo held. Not sure where I heard it but somehow committed to memory was this notion that it was good luck when a bird pooped on you (just googled it and given the first result it must be true). Oscar got a huge kick out of the whole thing. Maybe b/c the Gardens are enormous and only a few trees had bats we managed to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe b/c he was tired of us sleeping in the van and this was payback.

Another thing: there are trees given/planted by leaders from other countries and I found this really interesting. You’d walk up to a tree and read the plaque to learn X from country Y presented this Z tree to Sri Lanka in 1921.

Last thing: if nature is your bag you could seriously spend all day here. It is just that gorgeous. And we could’ve if 1. it hadn’t been so hot (it was so hot we almost didn’t care about the gardens anymore) and 2. We didn’t have tickets that evening to the worst experience in Sri Lanka.

Status so far: emotional from experience at TOTH and completely exhausted from outdoor activities on what I will go on record as saying was the hottest day ever in the history Sri Lanka. As we shuttle to our next and final event of the day, naturally, we fall asleep in the back of Oscar’s van. When we arrive Oscar sees to our tickets, makes sure we are settled…and leaves. Now, never before has Oscar *not* accompanied us. Sigiriya, various temples, elephant safari, etc. So this is unusual (though in retrospect maybe he was escaping while he had the chance given what he knew was about to go down).

We wait for “the show” to begin in what I will call an auditorium because there is a stage and there are seats. The seats though are folding chairs and it all reminds me of a church basement. There is “a concession stand” off to the side and I put this in quotes b/c it is a guy sitting at a folding table selling Pepsi cans, Pringles, and Snickers from large cardboard boxes. Except the maximum amount they are allowed to charge by law has been covered and they are charging like way more. So I guess in that sense it really is a concession stand (overpriced).

And there are men walking through the crowd selling jewelry and other stuff. And the crowd is what I’d like to discuss next. Ok, first-nearly all white. And keep in mind until now wed seen nearly none on our excursions. Next-rude rude rude rude rude rude rude rude rude. I don’t think I’ve ever been around so many inconsiderate, impolite tourists in my life! Ugh! We laughed as we discussed how Americans have a bad rap and we were by far the best behaved there (these were all Europeans). We were both quite thankful our time around this crowd was finite. And yes I realize this doesn’t mean all Europeans are ignorant travelers, as these were, any more than it means all Americans are considerate travelers, as we are. Just saying this was the state of the surrounding crowd that particular day. So we get our Pepsi and Pringles and wait. The curtains open and the show begins: The Kandyan Dancers.

Now I should say this “dancer” thing is even less our bag than I thought TOTH would be. But I’d been so wrong about TOTH I tried to keep an open mind.

Chris is immediately asleep and I envy this “gift” to drift off whenev, wherev as I sit through dance after dance, actually taking pictures (out of obligation perhaps? respect?), wondering who would knowingly attend this event. I paid attention to each dance hoping that some how some way things would get better. I despised my time there so much I hate to even write about it but just as speakers tour the talk show circuit to help save others from suffering some awful fate that had befallen them I too will tell my story.

There are maybe 10 dances. Each one has a different meaning and different costumes and I guess different moves though it was kind of hard to tell because it was all so awful. Were the costumes neat to look at? I suppose. Were the drummers ok to listen to? I suppose (though couldn’t hold a candle to the fresh beats we heard earlier at TOTH). But the dancing…(slowly shaking head)…was so so bad. Nobody was in synch and I mean nobody. And they were doing the same moves so they should’ve been in sync-this wasn’t like improve where peeps were individually showcased. It was painful to watch and reminded me of a grade school performance. And in fairness I should say that even if the dancing and drumming had been outstanding it still wouldn’t have really been our thing. But because it sucked so bad it just made it that much worse.

Ok, so the ten dances or whatever end and this crowd of Asians (where did they come from) no lie totally and completely bum rush the stage with such speed and panic that seriously at first we thought there was a fire or an emergency that they were fleeing. Alas, they were trying to get good seats for the final act: fire eaters/walkers. This takes place not on the stage but in front of the stage so apparently their tour director had tipped them off-which makes me laugh as I wonder how those instructions were explained (“hey, listen this is very very important: during the final act gather your belongings and stand from your seats, near the end before the performers are actually off the stage what you’re gonna need to do is run like you’ve never run before-run straight for the stage-and sit on the steps in front or you won’t see anything, you’ll miss the highlight of the entire show, of your entire journey in Sri Lanka”). Anyway, they sat on the stage steps and the rest of looked around having no idea what was going on. There were no instructions. People grew uncomfortable. Some climbed on top of the stage while others straight up left. Despite us being only a few rows back we relied on the logic “if you’re the only that’s right you’re probably wrong” and joined the crowd on the stage. Things were slow going and already tired and annoyed we debated rolling out before this fire stuff even began. The mind is a fascinating thing. What made us stay? Again, obligation? Respect?

After this final act we were free. We left the building and Oscar was waiting there for us. He asked us what we thought and my response included something like “the drummers were ok.” See what happens as details fade? I can’t recall the conversation exactly. We enter the van and its dreamtime.

When we arrive back at Samadhi the owner welcomes us-not the manager we were expecting. He immediately escorts us to the dining room (gorgeously lit with candles as before).

Two things notably different from dinner the night before: One, the food was amazing (Picture 72). Very very good (you may recall the previous night wasn’t bad but was just “nothing special”). Plus I got to try my first taste of Arrack! Two, we had some special guests-Anita (Picture 73) and Braum (Picture 74), two of the four dogs at Samadhi! Anita was a good sweet girl and she laid on my right through dinner. Braum is a lover boy and he laid immediately on my left. I pet them and asked if I could give them a little bite of dinner (yes)! I am a dog lover and missed my own pet back home so this was really so nice to be able to chill with these two!

The owner checks in with us and we chat together a bit. He says he has moved us to a new room: Oh thank you-room 4 (or 14)? I ask. No no he says, smiling, the honeymoon suite. Oh I am delighted! I tell him we are in Sri Lanka celebrating our 10 year anniversary so this is really a treat. I am not sure I was able to thoroughly communicate this though. No matter. We were thankful and I am certain we were able to convey that. Best room in the house, he says, as he and Braum lead us to our new abode.

And that it was (Picture 75-79). Again, not for everyone but if your taste is classic meets rustic you’ll love this as I did. And seriously if we ever return I wouldn’t stay in any other room (not b/c the others wouldn’t be nice but b/c this one ruled). The only problem was we were so so tired from the day we didn’t get a lot of time to enjoy it-though I certainly took a bath in that super badass tub! We settled into the comfy bed for what became our most peaceful night’s sleep in Sri Lanka.

So today we had to get up super early-like 5 something. We get our bags ready for the helpers, open the door, and who do you think is laying on the patio waiting to greet us? Well it’d be weird if it were anyone else-it was Braum! How cute! He wagged his tail and came over for some pets then escorted us down to the dining room. After we quickly inhale some breakfast one of our hosts packs us in a jeep and we make our way down the bumpy road to meet Oscar. We are headed to tea country!

Our first destination is “the city of light” (?) Nuwara Eliya which is pronounced almost nothing like it looks: New Railya. But you say it all at once like Newrailya. The drive was gorgeous. Sri Lanka reminds me of California: it has so many different landscapes it’s like you can be in a different world in a matter of a few hours! The roads are narrow and you are close to the scenery.

Along the way we stopped at a Tea Factory-Labookellie (Picture 80). Id looked this up beforehand and it seemed to be one of the best tea factories to visit. After wed returned my mom saw a special on Sri Lanka and they also talked about this being the best tea factory to visit. We took a tour of the factory itself, guided by a Labookellie employee, which was informative but also brief enough that it remained interesting (all the teas come from the same tea leaf-the difference is how the leaf is processed). There is a backstory for how Sri Lanka got into tea but I’ll leave that and a lot of other history up to the locals to explain when you visit b/c that is part of the fun. Plus I just can’t remember.

So after the tour we took some pictures of the giant hillside and tea plantations (Pictures 81, 82) before we sat on white metal furniture for some tea and chocolate cake (Picture 83). I didn’t eat the cake but hubs said it was fine. The tea was fine, nothing mind blowing but I’m not a tea expert (just like Cristal tasted like any other champagne I’ve ever had-no, this was not in Sri Lanka). After the tea factory we saw some pickers checking in their leaves (Picture 84). We drove around a bit and saw something that looked like a lake and Oscar asked if we wanted to stop and we discussed and said sure but for some reason we never did. No matter.

We arrived a bit early to the Nanu Oya station for our train ride to Ella, which I’d been looking fwd to for a very long time. The train station is more modern than I expected but this is coming from someone who initially wasn’t sure they had internet in Sri Lanka (Pictures 85, 86). Oscar waits until he has word the train is on its way then departs to drive so he can meet us in Ella-leaving us with a note that has our train stop in both English and Sinhalese which I thought was neat. As I read this to my husband he exclaimed “it was more MODERN than you had thought?” he said “it was more dilapidated than I thought. It looked like they hadn’t done anything to it in the last 30 years. There was grass and weeds growing up between the tracks.” Well, yes there were grass and weeds growing up between the tracks but I suppose I more meant they had buildings (Picture 87). Like, when we flew into the Dominican Republic the airport was a thatch hut. So I guess I am sort of comparing it to that =)

There is a big room you can enter that has food to buy at the back. It was hot and there were many flies. I did not like this and did not partake. I thought I might try to pee before the train ride but be warned be warned be warned (and this is from a non-exaggerator): the bathroom was, and I’m going to choose my words carefully here, the most disgusting thing ever. And I came to that conclusion without even going fully in. I walked into what was a door leading to the door to the girls bathroom-so keep in mind I am not even *in* the toilet area yet-I dry heaved, and immediately aborted. It smelled so gross that I’m making my stomach sick right now thinking about it. This is what I’d expected the durian to smell like. I’d take durian smell times a thousand-no, times infinity-over what I smelled at the train station that day. Had to hold it.

More people have gathered and it seems everyone is going our way (Picture 88). And, aside from the “dance show” the night before, it’s the most white people wed seen. They are mostly gathered at one point on the platform so we went further down to be away from the crowd. The train pulls up and a few people get off further up in the train but otherwise nothing is really happening. So an older guy who really if I’m honest had been a bit loud and disruptive as we waited quickly ran and got on the train. I looked at the car and nobody seemed to be moving so I too went up the steps-not really confident it was the right thing to do. Then a really tall guy tries to get off and I immediately regret my decision to follow the old man. I suppose as foreigners not familiar with the stops nobody was really sure this was where they were supposed to get off so there was some delay on their part, which is why it looked like inaction from our perspective. I am able to squeeze into the vestibule with the conductor but the old guy is in the way and really not even trying to accommodate and move. So the tall guy is annoyed he can’t get by, sort of understandably but like chill, you’re gonna get off eventually. He starts speaking loudly to the conductor to have the old loud and annoying man removed so the passengers can disembark. It reminded me of the Zax by Dr. Seuss-but this type of combative interaction is exactly what we saw over and over at the dance show the night before. Anyway, those who want to get off manage to get off and we all manage to board.

Now, we have tickets for the observation car. I’d done research on this and had talked to Tikalanka beforehand. Oscar had purchased our tickets days in advance as sometimes they sell out. Being a weekday off season that turned out not to be the case but I’m getting ahead of myself. Hubs and I boarded and though every seat is sort of next to a window we had a large partition right in our view (note, you can actually choose your seat if you buy in advance so research which you’d like). We didn’t want to take anybody else’s seat that had paid for a ticket so we were going to wait until people were seated then see if we could switch seats. Well, that didn’t work b/c everyone else, who hadn’t purchased a ticket beforehand, got on the car anyway (and when I say “got onto the car” I mean pushed TOTH style to get a seat, though there were plenty) and choose a seat and then paid the difference as the conductor went around. Well that sucked. I felt we had done our due diligence to research and purchase beforehand yet still kind of got the short end of the stick. So learn from my lesson: push and shove and yell to get the seat you want if the view is important to you.

About the view: Remember that old annoying guy? He was like, “Oh there’s nothing to see the first hour. Then the second hour all the good stuff is on this side.” Not sure who he was talking to but I wasn’t surprised to find out for myself that he was wrong. People like that usually are. And while it is correct that for about the first half of the ride the scenery is on one side (the left, keeping in mind you ride backwards on this car) and the second half of the ride the scenery is on the other (the right), there isn’t much time where there is “nothing to see.”

That said, I didn’t really “see” anything I hadn’t seen from Oscar's van. We were close up with locals working on their land, we saw deep valleys and amazing vistas. The sites from the train were no better. And while I would’ve regretted *not* taking the train ride b/c I never would’ve been sure whether Id missed out on something great I prob wouldn’t do it again. There was just no benefit to it. As I said: same scenery but now you have to view it with a bunch of (mostly combative) tourists. And the “experience” of taking the train wasn’t really an “experience” b/c you weren’t really travelling with locals. At least not on this car you weren’t. Based on my experience that day I’d say skip it (Pictures 89-93).

We got off at Ella (Picture 94). And not much later than expected as the train did break down but for less than 30 minutes. Oscar was there to meet us. He had mentioned there wasn’t much of a “town” to explore and he was right. There were like no lie ten buildings. So, off to Haputale for Kelbourne Mountain View Cottages (Picture 95): http://www.kelburnemountainview.com/.

We arrived after noon and it was raining as we were warmly greeted by a small group of individuals which I found out later included the gentleman assigned to host us (our age) and the chef (a bit older). Tikalanka had initially booked us the Rose Cottage for our itinerary but research revealed it lacked the views of Aerie and Wildflower so we had requested either of the other two and he had been able to secure the Aerie cottage for us. Now the following is not a matter of opinion it is a matter of fact: Aerie offers the best views. Why? Well Rose isn’t even in the running as it is set back. Wildflower is in the middle and while it’s a close second and its views won’t disappoint, they are a bit truncated on the left. Aerie is off to the side and offers sweeping views of the entire countryside (Picture 96).

Aerie interior was as pictured on the website-it’s a bit outdated but it was a nice change to have, like, walls and enclosed bathroom. The front of the house has a living room, a sitting room (my fav), a bedroom with 2 twin beds, and a bathroom with a tub. A formal dining separates this area from the back of the house which has a family room and what I will call the master bedroom with two twin beds and bathroom with a shower. There are various doors which are closed off from guest use but more on that later. The family room has large windows overlooking the valley and the master bedroom also has windows and a door leading out to the private veranda. When we arrived it was afternoon and clouds had rolled in so we weren’t able to see anything at all! Our host said something along the lines of “In about 2 hours the rain will stop and the clouds will disappear” and he was right on-it was gorgeous! Not just gorgeous, unreal. Peaceful. So so pretty. And so so different from Sri Lanka we had seen thus far. Our time in tea country was mostly “leisure” which was actually a nice way to wrap up our trip.

The living room had lots and lots of books, old magazines (tons of National Geographic!), and games so that first afternoon we played a game and napped and of course spent time admiring the view. Dinner was served in the dining room by our host. Remember those various doors I was talking about? Well one of those is in the dining room and remained opened during the day. This apparently leads to the kitchen. I thought I would pass this on to future guests b/c the door had been closed, I took a bath and walked back through the dining room and the door was open and there was clanging of pots and pans and shadows of people and whathaveyou. I mean, personally I wouldn’t have cared that they might’ve seen me in my towel but for those less modest just keep this in mind. There was another “secret door” in the master bathroom which to my knowledge remained closed the entire time.

Ok back to dinner. Our host turned all the lighting on for us in the dining room (I later turned a few off to add to the ambiance) and arranged our place settings next to each other on the large table. He also laid fresh flowers from the terrace on the table which was a thoughtful touch. “Sir Madam,” which is how he would address us, as if calling us both by that name, as he would place the rice and various curries on the table.

We were in agreement that the food was a bit on the bland side. It was without a doubt the least exciting of all our lodgings. But, and this is big, they had the most amazing basmati rice I’ve ever had. It was so perfectly cooked and so fluffy. Oh, and had a touch of lemongrass (which I have failed to replicate since I’ve been home). So really, huge thumbs up on the rice. And there was the aubergine curry which was good so I should def give a shout out for that but otherwise, again, a bit on the bland side. Now, the chef did come out (was the first time we saw the Sri Lankan head roll) and ask how dinner was. In retrospect I’m sure it would’ve been fine to say something like “don’t be afraid to use some spice, we like it,” or something similar, but we didn’t. He did ask if we’d like a curry breakfast or an American breakfast so we opted for American.

We were offered tea but passed and spent the balance of the evening reading in the family room about Lipton’s Seat-which we were slated to experience the next morning.

It’s a good idea to keep your curtains closed at night if you are staying in the back bedroom and have things you’d prefer to keep private as your host will thoughtfully arrange breakfast on your veranda mere feet from your quarters (Picture 97). We settled onto the sunny terrace as our American breakfast was served which for hubs consisted of I think eggs and bacon and maybe even sausage and for me consisted of toasts and juice, which was actually just fine as I hadn’t had “bread” in days.

We found out our host was accompanying Oscar and us to Lipton’s Seat. At first we figured he just wanted to tag along but later they explained that b/c this is a Tamil area and Oscar spoke Sinhalese it was beneficial to have our Tamil host with us. Apparently this isn’t necessarily for “safety” so much as it is a courtesy….Anyhow, our host this day had on casual clothes (good style) and white horizontal markings on his forehead (Hindu). Oscar also had casual clothes on (this had been a day at leisure but if we requested Oscar’s assistance we were allotted a certain amount of mileage-Lipton’s Seat was well within our range).

A journey to Lipton’s Seat requires an early departure to ensure your views are not interrupted by the morning clouds. Driving up the mountains of tea country was really very lovely (Pictures 98-101) but cars can only go so far. There comes a point you have to abandon the car and walk. Oscar stayed back with the van while our host guided us first up steep steps, then more steps, then more steps. We get to the top and its very pretty and I think, that wasn’t too bad. Host takes our picture and we are talking and laughing and he says ready to continue? Continue? Oh yes, this isn’t the Seat…. …Oh. Onward and upward (Picture 102). I am slow. I had originally had my flips on which frankly would’ve been fine but our host had urged me to wear my tennies which you will recall from the trillion other steps I had climbed thus far are extremely heavy. It was labor-intensive but I suppose a labor of love as once we finally did reach the top (Picture 103) it was gorgeous . There is a general look out which is quite nice (Picture 104) but to get even higher you can pay the guy who runs the snack shop 50 rupees a piece and climb a ladder to a wooden fort-like structure: the Seat. Funny, this fort would never pass muster in the US, we laughed. Not that it was blatantly unsafe but if in the US it prob would’ve been enclosed in glass. It is quiet and peaceful and we are just in time to enjoy the views which, according to our host who has seen both views uncountable times, are superior to World’s End/Horton Plains (Pictures 105-108). Before long the clouds joined us (109).

There was a guestbook we were later presented and reading through apparently those before us had been offered tea while on the Seat. We wondered where our tea was. Much later we were offered but declined.

Unlike Sigiriya we felt we had a bit more time to chill here atop the fort. The guy we paid came up and talked with our host while we enjoyed the views and watched the clouds roll in. When we got down the guy let us pet his little baby kitten and his dog (Picture 110) which was nice as, again, I really missed our pet at home.

Going down as always was much easier and we returned to Oscar’s van in no time. After passing some gentleman sorting the tea leaves (Picture 111) we enjoyed the scenery (Picture 112) and spent the return trip saying stupid things in Tamil and/or Sinhalese to see if our hosts could translate into English. It was a good time for all.

Our Kelbourne host was really pushing hard to get us to tour another local tea factory. But Oscar confirmed what we figured: once you’ve seen one…. And really we just weren’t interested. There had been a monastery we had wanted to visit (Adisham) but it was closed that day-just something for future travelers to keep in mind.

We had earlier turned down an offer for the chef to make us lunch b/c we figured we’d get something out after the Seat. Oscar dropped off our host and took us to the “village.” I put this in quotes b/c there is not a lot around this area for lunch or even snacks. Oscar stayed with the van as he pointed to a little alcove of a store where he suggested we try to find our snacks. First on the list: grapes. Had a craving. After a few charades we got grapes no problem. They were in a single bunch in the back of the store in what was apparently not only the sole refrigerator (Coke) but the only use of electricity for the operation. Hubs got cookies and an orange “soda.” And this is in quotes b/c it wasn’t soda really. He describes it as half Orangina and half orange drink.

Next craving: Pringles (which by the way I never eat at home but ate constantly on this trip). Or even the Sri Lankan generics: Mr. Tapioca or Mr. Crisp. I used my guidebook to look up the word for potato maybe (I forget how I tried to explain this). I was saying the word in Tamil but I guess my pronunciation was completely off b/c they had no idea what I was saying. Then, genius that I am, point to the word I am reading thinking if they see it in Tamil they will know what I am saying. So I keep pointing to this page and they all look at the page, look at me, and shake their head in that “I don’t know what you mean” way. So we skip the Pringles and head back to the cottage which is when I realize what an idiot I am. I’d been pointing the English pronunciation of the Tamil word. Duh. Of course they aren’t going to know that! I laughed at my stupidity and decided as my punishment I didn’t deserve those Pringles anyway.

Upon return we noticed our host had thoughtfully pushed the two twin beds together and prepared them with sheets and blankets as if they were a double bed. We also noticed, and now is a good time to discuss the topic anyway, he folded up our clothing we had hand-washed and laid in the sun to dry, undies and everything. We had hand-washed all our clothing along the way. The water is…different than at home. The water…smells different than at home. So be prepared your clothes will also smell different after you’ve washed them in this water. Anyhow, clouds rolled in (Pictures 113, 114) and the afternoon was spent chilling and napping. Very relaxing.

Dinnertime was upon us and as I arrived in the dining room I shivered and wrapped myself in my arms. “Madam you are cold, would you like me to light a fire?” Ooooooooh yes! Yes yes yes indeed how nice (Picture 115)! Then I realized our host had set our lighting to the way I had set it the night before. How observant. Really. I loved it. Dinner was the same-basmati rice (yay!) and some ok curry (boo!). This evening we did take tea and asked that it be served by the fireplace and it was here we spent the night along with some trips to the terrace to look at the stars above and the few glimmers of light from those living in the valley below (Picture 116).

I felt like today our trip was really wrapping up and our departure from this amazing country was inevitable. Again, our host prepared breakfast on our terrace, this time adding a shade umbrella to the mix (observant, see!?). Afterwards he walks us out (Picture 117) and we say our goodbyes. Upon departure we take our final observations of tea pickers. We notice two ladies are close enough to the roadway that, hey, we think we can make it down! I ask Oscar if we can go: Sure! He says! I motion to the ladies in a gesture “Can I come down?” Yes! They nod and smile. Now, you might not be able to tell from the pictures but these hills are very steep. I had flips on and my feet were pushing so hard against that middle piece I thought it might break! I took the shoes off and continued weaving my way through the bushes. We smiled. I do not speak Tamil. They do not speak English. But through smiles and motions we are able to agree I can pick a tea leaf as they’ve demonstrated and place it in one of their bags! This may seem pretty mundane but I thought it was awesome! Someone, somewhere, is enjoying a warm mug of tea containing a leaf I picked! I motion “can I please take your picture?” they smile and nod (Pictures 118, 119). We had read before it is customary to offer a monetary thank you when one has allowed you to take their picture so we made this offering, which the ladies accepted. One of them also offered me a leaf she had picked to take with me. I will frame this. This is my souvenir from Sri Lanka (Picture 120)!

Afterwards, once wed checked for leaches, we settled into Oscars van for our long trip back to Colombo. The trip itself was uneventful-pretty scenery and interesting to watch people of Sri Lanka go about their daily activities. And of course, the obligatory cows in the roadway (Picture 121). We stopped for lunch at “Traveller’s Paradise” which offered some tasty short eats (Pictures 122, 123). Oscar never failed to point out various flora and fauna (e.g., rubber trees (Picture 124) had never seen one in person) which kept things interesting. We shared our Cliff bars with him which he never ate but instead saved as a treat to give his son afterwards (we later gave him one each of all the flavors we had).

Our final night in Sri Lanka was spent at the Tamarind Tree: http://thetamarindtreehotels.com/index1.html.

It looked perfect as we drove down the street lined with large regal trees. Our bungalow was clean, spacious, and contemporary (Pictures 125-128). Two things that I in particular liked: horses. This seemed quite random but for whatever reason there were two ponies/small horses tethered a few bungalows over. We approached and they showed interest (Pictures 129, 130), we gave some fruit, and laughed as they wrapped their giant fleshy lips around the fruit (Picture 131).

Later, we sat on our private porch just relaxing as dusk set in (Picture 132). We took a walk around the grounds and I saw a sight I wanted to capture-the silhouettes of birds in a tree against the purple sky. Hubs worked on getting a good photo (Picture 133) while I explored the nearby area. I noticed something scamper by-a kitty! Pss pss pss pss kitty kitty, and over she came (the only photograph I took wasn’t a good one, Picture 134)! I pet her and she followed us back to our bungalow. Hubs went in to take a nap and I sat out with the little girl. She was quite vocal at first, doing a lot of meowing. She didn’t look thin and I didn’t have anything suitable to feed a kitty but I did offer her some water which she repeatedly rejected. Over the next hour or so she warmed up to me a bit. Shed lay at my feet and look up every once in a while to see if I was still there. Confirming my presence, shed lay her little head down again. She almost climbed onto my lap but stopped just short, still unsure so remaining cautious. After hearing a noise which I can only guess alerted her food was about to be served she scampered off and though I looked for her later on I did not see her again =(

Dinner that night and breakfast the following morning was served in their restaurant buffet style which had, for the first time I’d seen in Sri Lanka, a salad bar. Ignoring the advice to avoid fresh vegetables I had a small scoop. Heaven. We have no complaints at all about this hotel.

The next morning Oscar arrived to take us to the airport. We had tipped him every other day (more on that) and gave him a final cherry on top amount to show our appreciation. My eyes did tear a bit saying goodbye. It’s funny how someone can have such an impact on you, but for it not to work in return. Like, sure Oscar prob “remembers” us but I assume at least to some extent we are just another couple he hosts. But for us he was so much more. I feel like one of those bud light commercials: Here’s to you Mr. Show-Me-Around-Sri-Lanka man (holding up beer can in genuine appreciation).

Anyway, I was working hard internally to pull myself together but did get sad again when I saw that sign at customs:

“We hope adventure followed you everywhere you went.”

That it did.

We waited for our flight in a glass-walled room where nearly every seat was taken. While the plane was stopping in Maldives to let lucky folks like us off for a peak at paradise it was continuing on to London with the remaining suckers.

I rise to get some water from a nearby cooler and pass a heavy teenaged boy trying to pull himself from a too-tight sweater and wonder instantly if he is teased by cruel children.

I return with water and Chris and I continue our conversation. I hear someone say “How was your trip?” A few moments later, “Did you enjoy your time in Sri Lanka?” “How long were you in Sri Lanka?” It sounded like someone was on a phone conversation b/c you only heard questions, not answers. I see the teenager has moved across from us now. Because many people are around we do not realize the boy is talking to us. Now is a good time to explain, if you don’t already know, Chris is not “a people person.” Especially, well, annoying people which is what this fellow turned out to be-and I cringe a bit to even say that b/c I know it sounds mean but….

He says he heard us speak and knew we were Americans. He said he heard us asking about upgrading to first class. “Are you flying economy,” he asks. Yes, yes we are. “My dad always sends me first class.” “Do you know who my father is?” Eyes of those sitting nearby roll as the boy continues, haha. I am the only one purporting interest-and I am not interested, really. Not b/c he is annoying ("I've been with Del Griffith, I can handle anything") but b/c Chris and I were having our own conversations about the exciting things to come and I really would’ve preferred to return to that. But I am too concerned I may hurt his feelings if I excuse myself from the conversation so I stay and listen about his wealthy father, divorced-he lives with his mom, and the vacations they take, and the private school he attends (he is incredulous that I am not familiar with it, and further incredulous we did not know the latest cricket scores). I feel bad b/c I know people like this. Who talk, but do not listen, and yet are desperate to have a connection with others. (Wasn’t sure whether I would include this in my trip report but did so in case you have felt forced to endure the words of others while in a small area waiting for a flight.) Relief as “first class” is called and the boy disappears.

On to more exciting things…

The water and surrounding islands as we approached landing in Maldives made me think I was crazy to be so sad to leave Sri Lanka when I had *this* on the horizon (Picture 135)! The airport is something between Colombo (very modern) and Dominican Republic (literally: hut). They check your bags for alcohol and any alcohol is taken and not returned. We had decided to get my Dad a bottle of Arrack as a souvenir but knew it would have to wait until the flight back to London. Anyway, alcohol-free, we make our way to a predetermined location to meet up with boat that will escort us to Banyan Tree! Excitement level is high high high! It is our tenth anniversary this very day and we are about to spend it in the middle of the Indian Ocean!

Not a huge deal, I recognize, but a personal disappointment: The guy who met us was talking on a cell phone, giving us hand-motions to the boat, whispering to us as he also listened to the caller, interrupting our answers when he had to respond to the person on the phone, providing no clear direction on the process. I have to say: I expected perfection on this portion of the trip. Sheer perfection. And this was not starting off well.

After departing with cell phone guy we boarded a very nice boat branded Banyan Tree. It was classic and plush inside and I wondered if this was how "the rich" travel.

There was only one other passenger. We smiled, I said hello. He asked if it was our first time to BTV. I answered yes. He replied "good choice," and pushed his life vest to the side a bit to reveal a BTV logo on his polo shirt. Turns out this was the head chef, Neil. We had actually been in contact with him previously when discussing meal options for the sandbank dining.

Oh right, I haven’t told you about the sandbank dining!

As if being in Maldives wasn’t enough we were looking for something special to celebrate our anniversary. We saw sandbank dining on the BTV website and thought this might be neat. I should say, this type of thing isn’t usually our bag. "This type of thing" being, I don’t know, extras at a resort. We had stayed at Sivory in Punta Cana years ago and "beach dining" was an option. While we didn’t opt for it we saw other couples who had. And basically, you are like 20 feet away from the rest of us dining (practically) on the beach in the open restaurant. We didn’t see the excitement in paying hundreds of dollars for this.

Nonetheless, we thought we may only be here once and better safe than sorry-let’s do it!

I should say, I was more optimistic that Chris. Which is usually the case for life in general, not just sandbank dining.

Anyway, there are multiple menus you can choose from for this event, and you can go mornings, afternoons, or evenings (though I had read in previous reviews going during the day can be quite hot). We chose the dinner option not only b/c that worked best with our schedule but b/c there was something endlessly romantic about staring up at the stars together on our own little island in the middle of nowhere. The dinner menu, nor the other menus, fit our needs b/c a. I choose to avoid animal products and b. hubs is not a fan of seafood (many seafood choices). Neil emailed with us to create a personalized menu to accommodate our special night. But more on that later.

So we all shake hands and laugh at the chances of running into each other like this as I really wonder if maybe they always check out the guests beforehand in these "chance" encounters. maybe messaging to the team at the resort "these guys seem like real jerks," or whathaveyou.

The details are fading which is so so so sad but I believe the boat ride was about 20 minutes or so. Excitement builds as Neill points out the little dot of an island which will be home for the next 5 days. We pull up to a large dock tastefully designed with seating and lighting. We are immediately greeted by a hostess as fair-skinned as I and I wonder how she manages to so successfully avoid the sun working on the island. her long skirt flutters perfectly in the warm island breeze as she escorts us down the long wooden walkway linking the dock to the island as a gentleman followed behind, softly playing a drum. The world disappeared. The gentle beats played just for us as our feet sunk into the warm white sand of the Maldives http://www.banyantree.com/en/maldives_vabbinfaru/.

From the walkway you enter a large gazebo-the "lobby" were reception resides. The island is teeny tiny-you can see across to the other side. And while I didn’t think of it at the time one giant wave and...well, you know. We were offered cold tea and cool towels (Picture 136) in welcome as our host explained the time difference (the island is an hour earlier than Male) and she urged us to set our watches to ensure we did not miss any of the resort events.

Once our picture was taken (immediately I figured this would be posted in the dorms for employee memorization) she urged us to take advantage of the seaside lunch that was nearly ending. As we had read in previous travel reports, the guests were entirely Asian (save for 4 guests from England-no Americans).

We approached the buffet and were immediately greeted by name. Not only that, they already knew of my dietary requests. I should say here that most places do not "cater" to an animal-free diet. Be it resorts or restaurants. And yes, we have been to nice ones =) My experience is typically: they offer a salad. Not really eating meat since 8th grade things have gotten better as vegetarianism/veganism has become more popular/trendy but it is still uncommon to have service I am about to describe.

I was escorted around and the chef personally described which items would be suitable. I was so appreciative of this. I had not even planned on asking-I figured I would stick to the basics (salad) and prob lose a few pounds while there. The complete opposite happened. I think I lost about 5 pounds trekking through Sri Lanka then gained 10 in Maldives!

Not only did the chef discuss the options available at each meal but he also prepared me special dishes throughout our stay. They made me so much tasty food I was never able to finish an entire meal! Bowls of curry, plates of tofu, piles of veggies-mm mm mmm! I felt like a queen as the dishes kept coming and coming out of the kitchen. Other guests looked on with keen interest, presumably wondering how/why I was getting these special meals. After talking with the chefs I learned this was a bit of a challenge for them that they found interesting. They had not been limited in such a way before to create dishes without animal products and it was a chance for them to put their creative talent to the test. They passed!

After lunch and the gorgeous view from our waterside table (Picture 137) we were escorted to our room. We paid for a Deluxe Beachfront Villa. There was so much forethought put into deciding which room I can’t even tell you. At the same time it is a relatively important thing as you are spending a lot of money and want the best experience possible. So, Beachfront or Oceanfront, Deluxe or Standard? Which side of the island to request? What about those sandbags on the beach I kept reading about? I will begin by telling you what my research showed. Beachfront v. oceanfront: many seemed to think oceanfront, which is set back a bit, was "more private" than beachfront. For anyone wrestling with this decision allow me to set the record straight. Starting with the sandbags. I personally would rather not stay at a villa whose view includes the sandbags. I understand they serve a purpose but just saying-if you can have a villa that doesn’t include the sandbags...Though perhaps these rooms are discounted, I don’t know. In which case it’s better to stay at a room with sandbags than not stay at all =)

Each villa has a little porch, then a walkway leading to your private gazebo. None of the gazebos are secluded. Whether you’re in an oceanfront or beachfront your gazebo is on the beach and you can see all your neighbors and all your neighbors can see you (waving: hi!). The only thing that may be more private for the oceanfront rather than the beachfront is the porch/front of your villa. We spent little time sitting here, however, if you plan to sit on the porch rather than gazebo you are set back a bit. People still see you but you’re not front and center like you are for the beachfront. That said, If you like the idea of a completely unobstructed view of the beach and ocean (which we did) then go for the beachfront. It is more expensive for a reason =)

So my rec: beachfront rather than oceanfront.

Next decision: Standard villa or Deluxe. At the time, the Deluxe villas had been "upgraded" with regard to decor. I had no idea what this meant other than I presumed the standard villas were more outdated. Again, without having something to measure (I couldn’t really find clear reviews that showed pictures of each) we chose to simply pay more and ensure we were getting the best of the best. While I did not see the interior of any other villas I can only say I was more than pleased with ours).

The island is set up in a circle with reception and bar and eating and spa at say six o'clock. The villas circle the perimeter of the island and the employees stay in dorms in the center. You walk through sandy walkways to a sandy path to a private door. Here is your "bell" employees ring, a mailbox which gives you an itinerary of the day’s activities, and a cute sign to signify "make up my room." Finally you walk along a shorter sandy path with stepping stones to your entrance (Pictures 138-146).

As we entered our villa relaxing music was playing, scented oil was burning (Picture 147), and the waves crashed in front of us through the large glass doors leading to the beach. Well, "crashing" is a strong word. "Lapping," maybe.

The decor was fine. I had no complaints. I would decorate differently, however, it could have been a lot lot worse. So, again, I felt pleased with the results. After recovering from the breathtaking view wed be enjoying for the next few days we took a look around. The tall snail-like ceiling, the flowers and anniversary wishes on the bed, and a wittle turtle-wed later learn wed receive a goodie like him each day the room was made up for us (Pictures 147-159).

The bathroom is really very nice. Plenty of storage in the closet-which came equipped with banyan tree robes and flips (NB on the flips: they are in the drawers). Lots of nice touches like the cute soap containers and the little flowers in the soap dishes (Picture 160-165). An indoor and an outdoor shower. We usually opted for the outdoor b/c hey when else do you have the opportunity (Picture 167)? While there is a door separating the villa living space from the bathroom, there is no door separating the potty from, well, the world. So anything you do you are doing out of doors.

Doing things outside you don’t normally do outside caused a bit of paranoia. Not REALLY. Well, maybe kinda. But not really... I will admit as I was under the shower stream or sitting on the potty I’d look around and make sure there were no "gaps" in the wood around us or blank spaces that were forgotten about such that one might peer, even accidentally, into our private garden.

The only thing "meh" about the bathroom was the Jacuzzi (Picture 168). Ours didn’t always heat. I think maybe he had run his course in life and was on his last legs. Even if he did work hot tubs I think would be cooler. And BTV agrees as they are upgrading (by now it may already be done since I know it seems I am taking my sweet time writing this).

Now for what we’ve all been waiting for (Picture 168)!

The porch with a little sitting area (Picture 169) (highly recommend having breakfast delivered to your villa. Not only can you enjoy the meal solo and right by the sea you get to pick what you want-after days on end of curry in Sri Lanka and congee (Japanese) and baked beans (English-I don’t blame them one bit as they are simply making assumptions based on their experience-but if you are white in Sri Lanka/Maldives you are assumed to be from Great Britain and they really think you must love baked beans for breakfast-it was funny) on previous morning at BTV Chris was quite happy to order "an American breakfast." The one morning we had breakfast on our porch was the best. I would’ve done it every morning prior if I’d known how perfect it was going to be). Then the wooden walkway with trees on one side for privacy and shade to house a hammock (ahhhhhh the hammock. We spent countless hours together in the hammock-despite that hole in the upper right weave which caused our bottoms to scoot across the sand as the gentle breeze rocked us to napland) and your private gazebo (Pictures 170-172). Heaven. Just heaven. Heading back to your villa from the beach there is a cute water container with a flower floating within and a giant ladle laying across to clean sand from your feet. The day we arrived I saw a little sticker floating inside-the number 10. Naturally, I figured someone, somewhere, somehow, had made that 10 appear b/c we were there celebrating our 10th anniversary (Picture 173-175).

So now we have begun to take in our amazing surroundings we are left on our own before for a few hours before we need to meet at the dock to take our private boat to our private island for our private sandbank dining experience! Of course, we put on our bathing suits!

Here is something to keep in mind when requesting which part of the island you’d like (and we requested "secluded, we don’t care about sun," basically): the island is encircled by an awesome reef. You can snorkel within that area and see some awesome stuff. BUT you can also snorkel beyond the reef if you’d like. To do this you have to follow along the inner reef until you get to a channel where you can swim through and go out to sea. Depending on where your villa is you might have to swim a bit to get to a channel. This is by no means a huge deal-just pointing out how convenient this was for our location b/c there was a channel close by. We seemed to have the best of both worlds (inner reef AND sea)...though I chose to stay in one world (inner reef).

So we swam for a bit in the clear water then headed in with plenty of time to get ready for our special evening. We are in the shower then "ring ring," the phone. We were to be at the dock at 5:30. It was currently 4:30. Or was it....Though Chris swears he set his watch to match BTV time, it was not set. So much for time to glamour and pamper before our big night! Quick out of the shower, running through sand, wet hair to the dock!

Immediately they speed us (literally, the boat was going super fast-due to our error and their desire to make up for it I am sure) to our sandbank. So allow me to describe. We are on the boat going going going...I can’t see our resort island, I can’t see anything but water all around. The sun is certainly not "setting" yet but things are starting to turn that pretty yellow color that they do right beforehand.

Then we see it! A sandy island in the middle of nothing! Admittedly spatial relations are not a forte but I will try to explain the size. Sitting here thinking....ok I cant. I will guess and say 1/4 of a football field? In length. And maybe....20 feet wide? It’s small. It was oval shaped. On one side was a small cluster of trees and this is where our hosts were preparing dinner. Also on this side was our dining table-though I tried not to look at it until the official reveal. As we pulled up to the island we had to walk in the water to get to shore. Not too high-maybe to knees-well, my knees. Prob Chris's ankles heh. The first thing we see is the message drawn in the sand: Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Smith! So amazing! I can’t even explain how I was feeling at that moment!

They offered for us to explore the other side of the sandbank and enjoy the sunset until dinner was prepared. We had perhaps 15 or 20 min (grr details fading) to walk around and take things in. And by "take things in" I mean ask ourselves "can you believe we are really here?" Even Chris, who is more apprehensive than even I to these sorts of resort extras, was like yeah this is pretty awesome. Even if we had to get back in the boat then and there and return to the resort it would’ve been worth it-watching the sun set together in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Luckily for us though we also got dinner! Shortly we were called to our dining table. I must explain in detail as it was gorgeous and the details of this sight will not fade. Our table was (here we go again) maybe...ten feet from the water’s edge. There was a man-made hill of sorts built of sand around the perimeter of the table (more on that later) with tea lights along the edge and various shells that our hosts had collected and placed! The table was of course set for 2 with another tea light and a hurricane globe with a larger candle inside and a bottle of wine (had requested the substitution from champagne). I’d like to show in a photograph how lovely this looked but I can’t because I later discovered, after seeing how crappy most of our pictures turned out, Chris thought this trip to the other side of the world would be a good time to experiment with our camera and leave the default setting, after years of being on automatic, on manual. This from the boy who also thought it a good idea to get a brand new haircut the day before our wedding.

(Update: have added blurry picture below)

So you will have to take my word-it was really just indescribable. Hubby's eyes meet mine and he takes me hand. We smile softly at each other. He starts to speak, presumably to say something completely romantic.

Him (coy): I have a giant sandbag between my legs.

Me (rolling eyes and laughing): Oh are you serious? Can we not talk about sex for five minutes?

Him (serious): No (lifting tablecloth) I really have a giant sandbag between my legs (he reveals a legit giant sandbag between his legs used to secure the tablecloth).

The sun was nearly set and the stars were coming out-which was key. A cloudy night on a secluded sandbank in the middle of nowhere would be nice, but a clear night on a secluded sandbank in the middle of nowhere was awesome! I totally felt like Fievel-thinking my friends and family could be looking at the same stars "underneath the same big sky" (though later realized, after I thought about it for real and not just in the magical sense of how I was feeling that moment, of course for various reasons, not likely the case)! As it turns out this was the clearest night of our stay. Makes you wonder!

Our hosts were wonderful. They did not rush us one bit. In fact I swear it’s like we could be sitting there to this day and they would still be waiting patiently. Darkness came and you could see nothing but the stars and the candles. It was not scary or ominous it was amazing. You could hear the small waves lapping-it was peaceful, unreal. Pinch us!

I had put my glasses on to get a good view of the stars and oh what’s that? By the water? Still can’t see in the darkness...Grab the camera and take a picture with flash: CRABS! On the smaller side but hundreds of them! All lined up looking at us? Naw not true. They were facing the water-eating their dinner too I presume? But funny they weren’t there until nightfall! It didn’t bother me-they weren’t like coming for us or even interested in us, however, I had read on previous/earlier reviews you can get pinched by crabs as you sat dining on your sandbank so I imagine that prompted the protective wall of tea lights. Great idea-kept the crabs at bay and of course helped create a really pretty ambiance.

Dessert was served-I forget what hubs had requested/suggested but it was nothing special. I had asked for maybe a mini "wedding" cake for him so, again, felt a tiny tinge of disappointment that it was just a standard, yet nice, dessert. And really, things had been perfect so I tried not to dwell.

Then, our small group of hosts approach. They present us with an anniversary cake! Accompanied with a cake slicer tastefully adorned with a red silk flowing bow. Perfect perfect yes now things were perfect! The cake was animal-free made for both of us to eat-so wonderful!

On one hand we did not want the night to end. Who else can say they have celebrated their 10th anniversary in such a way? Not many, I suspect. It was so special. I recall a movie where once you died you had a period of time to select one memory from your life to carry on with you (After Life). I believe this experience on the sandbank might be my memory...

After our magical evening on the sandbank we returned to our room. In addition to a traditional turn down service our scented oil was lit, the soft lighting by the outdoor tub was on, as was the soft light on our beach gazebo. A fresh flower was placed in our outdoor water container. Our robes and slippers were laid out on each side of our bed, soft music was playing. What a thing to come home to! We spent the balance of the evening under the stars.

The remaining days in the Maldives were largely similar. And I don’t say that in a bad way. In fact, ideally, I could have had a few more days of "ho-hum time in the Maldives." Most days were spent snorkeling (save for the one day a storm was brewing and the water was rough-strong current that made the ocean look like it was flowing right to left). And of course we went diving. Gorgeous sights, as expected. Our guide was excellent (Miza?) and patient-sadly I don’t go diving often enough to fully grow comfortable with the process of breathing through a rubber tube. It feels claustrophobic. Man I bit that mouthpiece so hard the entire time my jaw was sore the rest of the day. We got pretty close to a nurse shark who was chilling in a little nook. Too close, imo. In my case at least. I kept floating closer and closer...the problem was I was trying to be so careful not to touch the coral of course that my legs were raised up and I floated along, becoming surrounded by coral such that I couldn’t easily just turnaround. So closer and closer I get. I am floating into the nook. I look back-of course nobody sees my expression of panic. I whirl my hands to frantically try to put things in reverse. Not happening. Instead I float helplessly-deeper, deeper, deeper into the nook I go. Um, anybody going to grab me? Pull me back maybe? Somehow, someway, I am able to escape, only narrowly cheating certain death.

We spent time visiting the baby turtles (BTV is the only resort approved to house turtles, more here
here and here) in their tank and witnessed the release of a turtle into the sea which was slow going and mildly exciting. The staff was emotional which was touching and what made me stay to see the big guy off. For this event people from surrounding islands boated over which I did not like just because I liked keeping our little paradise to ourselves!

Anyway, it was during one of our visits to the turtle tank that one of our hosts (was it the chef? I don’t recall), upon hearing my experience with the shark while diving, mentioned the sharks never come on "this" side of the coral. Remember how I said there is a ring of coral? And some channels to go through to the rest of the ocean? Anyway, not that we were concerned about sharks getting us while we snorkeled but it was comforting to know.

Fast forward to oh about an hour later. Chris and I are snorkeling inside the reef (the safe, non-shark part). La la la, pointing out interesting coral. Cute and funny looking sea life. Random things burrowing, etc. Time above water seemed to freeze as we were having a chill time exploring-slowly flip...flip...flip...flipping around beneath.

Then, it happens.

I find myself about 10 feet away from the shark.

I lock eyes with Chris and somehow even with that snorkel mouthpiece he is able to translate my cry of, "SHARK!" We 180 and our slow flip...flip...flips become frantic FLIPFLIPFLIPS and I wonder if all the commotion might interest the shark and draw him near. It’s like, do you slowly slink away or mad rush get the heck out. While it would’ve made sense to just flip towards the shoreline we somehow both, through osmosis since we are not otherwise communicating, decide the best thing is to just swim away laterally. We flipped all the way back to the front of our villa and only THEN did we aim towards shore. Anyway, we left nothing to luck and flipped ourselves all the way to the shoreline-long after we could easily have stood, we are still swimming/flipping. Our backs and butts are completely out of the water now. Things are about 12 inches deep. And we are still flipping. We roll up into the sand on our bellies. Peel off our facemasks. Look at each other, both out of breath. "I’ve been beached," says Chris. And we laugh. Just another day in the Indian Ocean.

Our next to last full day at BTV Chris was "sick." I put that in quotes b/c though I tried to be understanding I was annoyed. Who doesn’t feel well their last day in paradise?

Also annoying, save for the first night in our room, things were never done consistently. Our lights were not turned on again. No more fresh flower placed in our water container. I think the only thing that was done each night was the oil being lit. And even then-it was supposed to be a different scent each night but they all strangely smelled the same. Maybe b/c they were the same or b/c the previous oils were never cleaned out. Robes were sporadic. Sometimes they were nicely displayed, sometimes not. Aside from that very first night it was never perfect. And like, I’m not asking for much here. It’s a checklist of like 5 things: lay out the robes/slippers, turn down the covers, turn on the soft outdoor lights, oil and music, fresh flower. Boom. But no, never done. I even so badly wanted things to be perfect I actually asked at reception to please help make this happen. Not in a complainy way, but in a "things were so perfect that first night" kind of way. Nonetheless, we never enjoyed another night of all the things on the checklist being done. That is one of my two complaints about my time there. And this I hope can be improved upon.

The second complaint? The people. Luckily, thankfully, gratefully, most of our stay either nobody was staying in the surrounding villas or they never came out. Aside from one couple where the guy was taking pictures of the lady on the beach morning noon and night we saw nobody on our side of the island. It was like The Blue Lagoon. Then, I think our last full day...they came. We were surrounded. And the mere presence of people isn’t bothersome. In fact, I expected it (realized we had lucked out thus far). But the issue was how annoying the people were. One couple in particular. They were really really loud. The lady would like lay in their gazebo and sing songs at the top of her lungs. They would do hand claps, like miss Mary Mack Mack Mack all dressed in black black black incessantly. And while one might say how loud could that possibly be? I will say: loud enough =) The bottom line is some people were just really inconsiderate. They don’t seem to appreciate others are there on vacation also and maybe hearing you sing isn’t part of my vacation plan.

Aside from our sandbank dining one evening stood out to me as absolutely perfect. I should explain here dinner runs from blank time to blank time (I forget the times). So you are not under pressure to attend-you can arrive at your leisure. You have your own table. There is a dress code but about 5 people, including us, seemed to follow it. Most people were wearing shorts, tank tops, flip-flops, etc. Not sure why they even have the rule if they don’t plan to enforce it. At the same time, we don’t care what other people were wearing-just saying.

Also now might be a good time to say: the crowd that was on the island during our stay had a pretty regular schedule. They spent their days in the bar spread out with backpacks. Each and every person was on a device. Be it a MacBook, iPhone, iPad, iPod. We don’t care how people spend their vaca-if that’s how they want to spend it cool, do so. But we laughed b/c being on our blackberries or any other device was the *last* thing we wanted to do.

Also, evenings were empty. Meaning, This crowd did not partake in night life (which to a degree was fine as we def did not want a Margarittaville nightlife). They ate dinner and immediately retreated to their villas. The bartenders confirmed this is how it always it. Anyway, quite different from other vacations but actually better for us b/c again it made us feel like we had the place to ourselves. The only night I felt bad about it was when the staff put on a show. It was actually really really cool. Drums, singing, dancing-the Maldivian people. It was really such a neat experience. But there were 3 couples there. Us, a British couple, and a British mom/daughter duo. The other guests stuck around for a short while but quickly rolled. You can imagine things might’ve been more lively with more spectators but whatevs.

So anyway back to the special night: This particular night the dining area was a bit busy so we headed to the bar to hang out for a bit. He grabbed the chess board and ordered some drinks (I ordered the ginger tea Id received on arrival. N.B. The gentleman in charge of the bar made it perfectly each and every time-there was a night he must’ve had off and the other staff member who prepared it.....bleh). We played for hours. Hours. It was the most intense chess game ever! We’ve played maybe twice ever so not much to compare to but... Enrobed in warm candlelight which softly illuminated the chessboard, we sat. Ocean waves lapping behind us. Stars shining above us. We seemed to be the only people on the planet. Until a host approached and we were served the best little snack ever! Shelled pistachios and giant black olives. I have yet to figure out the type of olives they gave us. I have tried numerous times to recreate that snack. Should I email BTV? Is that weird? "What kind of olives did you give us?" I’m totally going to do it. Nothing was happening, nothing stood out, but that night, those hours we spent together, quietly hunched over the chess board, was one of the most memorable moments of my life (Picture 176).

We really had a wonderful time at Banyan Tree. The service was really just outstanding. Outstanding. Well except for the room guy but I can’t hold it against the others. Our time there will stay with us forever and I thank those that hosted us for ensuring it was special (Picture 177).


My closing thoughts on our time in Sri Lanka and Maldives:

I wish I wish I wish I had taken pictures of every sunrise, every sunset, every place setting, every breaking ocean wave, every candle flicker, and every lovely face we encountered on our journey. I was so living in the moment though that I often didn’t even think of preserving these experiences any place other than in my heart.

Thanks for reading.

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