Tuesday, October 30, 2012

cyclone nilam

as one half of the world huddles up for comfort and protection against the raging storm of hurricane sandy, the other half watches as cyclone neelam fast approaches the indian continent, sweeping through sri lanka on its way to tamil nadu and andhra pradesh.

both hitting at the same time, bearing gifts of floods, destructive winds and fear.

since my flight back home to chennai is crossing the bay of bengal at the exact same time as cyclone nilam, i wonder if my spicejet flight will make it.

my thoughts and love go out to all who are at the mercy of the hurricane and the cyclone this week, wherever in the world you may be.

for more information, i visit india today.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

the meaning of life.

earlier today i wrote how confused i felt about my future.

posting on ^tent (an open-source twitter) "what is your purpose in life?", a user sent me a link to sketch in india ink, a vignette by hjalmar söderberg, swedish novelist, playwright, poet and journalist.

for any of you out there also suffering from quarter-life crises, or simply in an existential mood, voilĂ :

sketch in india ink

one april day many years ago, at a time when i still wondered about the meaning of life,i went into a little cigar store on a back street to buy a cigar. i selected a dark and square el zelo, put it in my cigar case, paid for it, and prepared to leave. but all of a sudden it occurred to me to show the young girl, who worked in the store and from whom i usually bought my cigars, a little sketch in india ink that i happened to have in my wallet. i had gotten it from a young artist and in my opinion it was very beautiful. “look,” i said and handed it to her. “what do you think of this?” she took it in her hands with a curious interest and looked at it for a long time very closely. she turned it around in all directions and her face held an expression of concentrated thought.

“well, what does it mean?” she asked at last with an eager glance. i was caught a bit off guard. “i doesn’t mean anything in particular,” i answered. “it is only a landscape. this is land and that is sky and that is a road…an ordinary road…”, “of course i see that,” she hissed in a fairly unfriendly tone, “but i want to know what it means.”

i stood there bewildered and at a loss. i had never thought that it ought to mean something. but this idea of hers could not be shaken. she had assumed that the picture must be some sort of “find the cat.” why else would i have shown it to her? at last she put it against the windowpane so it became transparent. presumably, someone had once shown her some sort of peculiar playing card that under normal light looks like a nine of diamonds or a jack of spades, but which when held against the light, represents something obscene. but her examination brought no results.

she returned the sketch and i prepared to leave. then the poor girl suddenly became very red and burst out with tears in her voice: “shame! it’s not very nice of you to make a fool of me like this. i know very well that i am a poor girl who hasn’t been able to afford any education, but that doesn’t mean you should make fun of me. can’t you tell me what your picture means?”

what should i answer? i would have given a great deal to be able to tell her what it meant, but i couldn’t, because it did not mean anything.

yes, it is now many years since then. now i smoke different cigars and buy them in a different store, and i no longer wonder about the meaning of life, but that is not because i think i have found it.

right now, this minute...

this is happening...

...and i'm thinking about what lies ahead. a little part of me hoped that arriving in a spanking new destination, on the opposite side of the world i grew up in, would somehow show me my path in life. or, if not show me outright, then insinuate and nudge me in the right direction. hinting with a wink.

one of my favourite quotes says "the only zen you find on the tops of mountains is the zen you bring there" because it describes the essence of finding your truth within. you can run anywhere in the world, but however fast you run, when you eventually tire and slow down, all your baggage is shipped to you, express, and you must finally unpack and face what's in there, wrapped in layers of tissue and old newspapers.

don't get me wrong, moving house to a different continent is packed with lessons: the confidence in yourself blossoms as does the pride in following your dreams, the challenges of adapting to a new culture, the inspiring individuals you meet along the way, these grow you as a person and gradually shed light on the hidden corners of yourself you hadn't realized were there. the same goes for a change in career; any shift in your normal life will bring sparkling new qualities to the surface, and rough edges you'll need to polish.

but i'm talking about my purpose. that soul-searching question we all ponder in the dark: "what am i meant to do in this world?". it's been torturing me of late, an itch i desperately want to scratch and can't reach.

the one thing i have observed, however, is that while i'm on a quest to answer this question, part of the solution is: learn. when we turn passionately to learning, more pieces of the puzzle are slotted into position, revealing our place in the world.

in sadhana i was studying several aspects of hindu and buddhist philosophy. in sri lanka i took part in a vipassana course, which left me reeling for over a week in the realizations i had. now i feel at a loss, nothing doing, as they say here.

i'm unsure where to start. and that's me, right now, this minute...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

um poco de malandragem

my favourite artist of all time is cassia eller; her song malandragem has been a theme tune to my life since i first heard it and she is a great inspiration; she strove for female rights in Brazil for many years.

malandro is a brazilian portuguese term usually reserved to describe a lifestyle of idleness, fast living and petty crime. however, amongst the long list of definitions and interpretations, is the following: 

"leads a bohemian life of only fun and pleasure, is characterized by savoir fair and subtlelity. its execution demands aptitude and charisma"

it's not that i think of myself as a malandro, at all. i'm far too shy to fit the bill. it's simply a concept that fascinates me and makes me smile; in my mind the malandro in me is flamboyant and care-free, a serial entrepreneur who loves to laugh and effortlessly creates around her a life full of je ne sais quoi, passion and adventure.

so i guess it's my life ambition to embrace that specific definition of malandragem.

as i sit here, in mirissa - a beautiful, surfer beach on the southeast of sri lanka -, on the top floor of a rickety guesthouse inches away from the waves, hearing them crash all around me as i sip on an ice-cold ginger beer, we turn up the volume and sing along:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

purifying the mind.

chatting to a friend last night, we spoke about meditations that purify the mind. vipassana is just one of these, there are many techniques that claim to aid this aim.

however, i have often found, talking about this matter, that we are often missing the introspection that goes before assuming lotus.

i'll use the metaphor i came up with last night: if we imagine a scientist who wishes to filter water from a stream for it to be pure enough to drink, she will first have to study and analyze what she is purifing the water of; what organisms and particles. this way she can begin eliminating these undesired elements that make the water impure. but first she knew what needed to be done, she didn't start by creating filters with the hope of purifying the water.

so in the same way, before purifying the mind we must have an idea of what the mind needs to be cleansed of.

the clearer our knowledge of ourselves is, the clearer our understanding of what needs to be purified, the better the focus with which we shall proceed.

let's all be scientist of our mind, then.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

i was wrong.

so remember i told you all about how i thought the monsoon was an urban myth? and then how i'd caught a glimpse of it far, far away on the horizon? ok, not that far, but you get my point.


it's here.

i am officially damp and freezing cold. yesterday i was toasting on a sunbed in my bikini. roasting, some would say, judging by the pinkish-red colour i'm sporting only 24 hours later.

today i am in a hoodie. no word of a lie; harem pants pulled down to the ankes and my husband's hoodie keeping me warm as the wind buffets me around, spritzing me with a mix of sea spray, mist and monsoon rain.

it's here and i'm happy. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

healthy lunch when travelling

so you know i'm aiming to make my 27th year my fit year.

one of the tricks we've come up with to be both healthy and save a bit of cash is eating a home-made salad with fresh produce from the local market.

see, at least in india and sri lanka, cheap food you can buy on the go tends to be fried. fried, fried, fried. which sometimes hits the spot and too many times causes a break-out of spots.

so if your closest restaurant only offers a variety of samosas, sandwiches or pastries, pop down to the corner shop and then ask your guesthouse owner for a plate and a knife. now you're armed with all you need.

having a full-on sri lankan breakfast is both delicious and filling, so come lunch we buy whatever is going cheaply at our local fruit'n'veg and make a salad. today's was avo, tomato and cucumber. for some reason, avo's in india are super expensive, therefore here we're making up for lost time and cash by using any excuse to buy more of these vitamin-packed babies. (20lkr an avo, people, that's 0,33 cents of a euro!)

for desert, you ask? why, papaya on the beach, of course!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

beach bum.

from a young age my younger brother has been obsessed with mountain climbing; hiking through ice and snow just to get that picture-perfect view from the top of a peak.

the colder the weather, the happier the man. his last choice of holiday destination lead him to iceland.  a beautiful country, don't get me wrong, but bloody cold.

since we were children, mountains have spoken to him.

since we were children, the sea has spoken to me.

the moment i get a whiff of the salty tang of surf breaking on sand, i'm beaming. i love everything about beach life; the happy go lucky people, the colours, the wild nature of the ocean, the scratchy feel of sand on my skin, watching the tide breathe, my hair bleached and crazy from the salt. everything.

remember i spoke about the monsoon being a lie? well, today we woke up on unawatuna beach. it is pure paradise, soft white sand, water that goes from electric turquoise to navy blue and palm trees leaning over, grazing the frothy waves. perfection. i might never leave.

here's the news though: clouds billowed in the distance. and it rained! but before you think i was premature in my last post, let me tell you this: it rained on the sea but not on the land. so i'm still sort of right: monsoon has not touched me yet.

still, we sat on the beach and watched huge purple rain clouds burst over the sea, moving like velvet curtains across the banana shaped bay.

and it was one of the many times i've felt certain that my life will take place on a shore.

Monday, October 8, 2012

snacks on local buses

when arriving at a bus stop, sometimes even in the middle of an apparently deserted road, hawkers jump on the moving vehicle and, shouting their sing-song catchphrases, proceed up and down the aisle selling everything from chickpeas to lotto tickets, toys and kid's books to candy bars. of all these snacks to make a journey that little bit more delicious, these are the ones that get my taste buds going:

1. spicy, salty fruit chunks

since trying this popular snack in ooty, one of the tamil hill stations, I've been hooked. little bags packed with juicy mango or pineapple slices are peppered with salt and chilli flakes, combining the sweetness of the fruit with a bang of heat. easily one of my favourite things to eat on the go, especially when staring out of a local bus open window.

2. corn on the cob

i'm a sucker for corn on the cob, so easy to make; anytime, anywhere, and with anything - a bit like that loose friend of yours who's always up for a party.

on goan beaches they cook it for you right there and then, as the waves lap at your toes, beckoning the last dip before the sun kisses the horizon.

in sri lanka, they sell it on buses. somewhere between kandy and colombo, i tucked into this yellow beauty and enjoyed every bite.

3. onion bhajis

mmhmm. not usually a fan of the fried food group, bhajis make me bite the bullet and go unhealthy. the asian version of onion rings have me handing out rupees and snuggling against the open window to tuck into the oily goodness.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

monsoon lies.

this is a personal request to south asian weather.

when arriving in india, i worried you and your pregnant clouds were going to dampen my goan beach fun. granted, your threat made our stay a steal and your no-show was a welcome relief: my tan blossomed, my bank account beamed joyfully and i forgot you existed.

chasing trains and buses down, down towards the indian tip, i watched the skies like a hawk, wondering when you would finally make yourself known. as my tan faded and the temperatures rose, i began to look forward to you. everywhere i went, you were gossip central, the talk of every town i strolled through. and yet, months after your expected arrival, and you were yet to show your face. first dismissed as fashionably late, rumours of desertion were in the dry air and your disappearance shrouded in mystery. a temptress in a grey silk sari, you  skirted the villages, leaving only the half-forgotten perfume of damp soil behind.

making myself at home in sadhana forest, i settled down confident in the knowledge that your summer monsoon little sister was due within days. as the earth cracked and crumbled, as the plantlife slowly shriveled under a cruel tamil sun and dust rose from the plodding cattle looking for a taste of green, we finally accepted she had skipped out on her yearly visit.

expectations immediately shifted to mother monsoon; the mother of purple storms and daily deluges. the one that changes the landscape into rainbows and flowers, the interior designer that makes everything fresh and renewed. october, we all decided, looking at the clear blue sky, at the latest.

as i flew towards the land of cinnamon and cricket and read my guide book, my thoughts ran parallel to those on my flight from spain to india: how october is the month of water and low prices. the month of very cheap my friend but no good beach my friend. ah well, i told myself, contemplating the sri lankan palm trees from miles above, at least you'll finally get to experience proper monsoon downpours.

typing this from the most fabulous guesthouse in town, i chance a peak between the curtains and watch history repeat itself: fluffy clouds spin and dance overhead, darkening and ripening, only to dissolve in the sunlight, like sugar in a cup of tea. gone. au revoir!

so i ask you, monsoon, do you really exist? or are you the thing dreams are made of; hot, dusty dreams that crave cool raindrops to quench and revitalize the land and its people?

Friday, October 5, 2012

a story - filling the bottle of oil.

this story was told during my vipassana course. but i believe that for all of us, students of meditation or not, the lesson applies.

let's all follow lives of optimism, realism and workism. 

a mother sent her son with an empty bottle and a ten-rupee note to buy some oil from the nearby grocer's shop. the boy went and had the bottle filled, but as he was returning he fell down and dropped it. before he could pick it up, half of the oil spilled out. finding the bottle half empty, he came back to his mother crying, "oh, i lost half the oil! i lost half the oil!". he was very unhappy.

the mother sent another son with another botle and another ten-rupee note. he also had the bottle filled, and while returning fell down and dropped it. again, half the oil spilled out. picking up the bottle, he came back to his mother very happy: "oh look, i saved half the oil!". both came to the mother in the same position, with a bottle that was half empty, half full. one was crying for the empty one, one was happy with the filled part.

then the mother sent another son with another bottle and a ten-rupee note. he also fell down while returning and dropped the bottle. half of the oil spilled out. he picked up the bottle and, like the second boy, came to his mother very happy: "mother, i saved half the oil!". but this boy was a vipassana boy, full not only of optimism, but also of realism. he understood, "well, half of the oil was saved, but half was also lost". and so he said to his mother, "now i shall go to the market, work hard for the whole day, earn five rupees, and get this bottle filled. by evening, i will have it filled". this is vipassana. no pessimism; instead, optimism, realism and "workism"!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

cycling nuwara eliya

ooh, pretty.

yesterday we got ourselves two mountain bikes to cycle through the forests and tea plantations of nuwara eliya. the shop owner brought them to our guest house early this morning, all prepped and shiny for their busy day ahead.

now i dislike sport. intensely. i love yoga, i love dancing. but anything outside of that combo has me grimacing and scowling. which is why my husband's jaw dropped when i suggested renting bikes. he closed it again, i think out of fear i'd change my mind, and being the sport nut he is, gladly took me up on the offer. 

after breakfast, we hopped on them. we're staying up misty mountain (no, seriously, we are), so for an exhilerating quarter of an hour we flew downhill, flowers, fields and villagers whizzing past, shouting "hello, madam!". it was fantastic!


and so, as i sped down into town, i smiled smuggly. clearly, i was meant to be a cyclist. i was a natural, a pro. then the chain slipped and i almost shot into a three-wheeler. twice. suddenly a hill loomed ahead and i wasn't able to change gears, practically busting a vein as my thighs protested against the slope. i'll admit i did throw a mini tantrum, but after that i did us both proud. and loved it!

turning a hairpin bend in the road, a small wooden hut informed us we'd stumbled onto the Gallwaysland National park. why not? we thought, left our bikes with the pushiest sri lankan i've ever met (you come, madam, you come see. sir, you come. leave bikes, come now) and walked for hours on the forest trails, staring up in awe at the eucalyptus and elephant-ear trees and holding our breath to see if we saw deer. we didn't. but we saw hundreds of spiders. 

10 minutes back on the road, the trees thinned out and i wondered if we were in hobbiton: tiny, cute houses with laundry laid out on the tea bushes, mossy green hills rolling down towards the nuwara lake. 

as soon as we got back from the gruelling, gruelling uphill cycle from downtown - i wish roads could be downhill both directions - the heavy clouds that had spent all day getting together and uniting gave way to heavy monsoon rain. wrapped in blankets we asked our giggly guest house owner to bring us some tea. 

a lot steeper than it looks. gruelling.

 if you come to nuwara eliya, i highly recommend the Chez Allen guesthouse. it seems to be farout but with shortcuts down stairs cut into the rock, it's 5 minutes into the village, tops. the owner is hilarious and enjoys chuckling as she watches us eat, serving us bigger and bigger portions. 

the rooms are adorable, the more expensive ones (3000lrs, 18€) have to-die-for views of the valley. it's super clean and has the best shower i've had in 5 months: lots of water, from an actual shower, and HOT. usually they are lacking in either temperature, strength or structure. 

also, get yourselves a bike! it's 1000lrs per day, delivered to your door. what else can you ask for? ah yes, roads that go downhill both ends. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

introducing: the jackfruit

originating in the rain forests of india, the jackfruit is a perplexing fruit. it's huge, for starters. i mean, it can weigh up to 35kg! this is approximately what i weighed at the age of 12. HUGE. 

along with the papaya, they are great friends to have along for the ride if, whilst on the road, one has the tendency to become constipated. 

where i live, in tamil nadu, it is one of three auspicious fruits: the mango, the banana and the jack. they grow everywhere, like apples in europe. 

and i love that everything is auspicious in india, not a single thing is left to chance. the newspapers carry lists and lists of auspicious numbers for a number of activities and days of the week. especially weddings, which are a massive deal! as massive as the jackfruit. 

and because everyone should have an additional jackfruit funfact: being a relative of the durian, they share the same gym-socks smell that can knock you over. so it's best to eat it when not yet completely ripe!

local fruit stall.
it has a fleshy texture, and is in fact called "tree-mutton", cooked in curries as if it were chicken. flavour-wise it's kinda... blah, in my opinion. it's sweetish, a bit like a watery pineapple. in a world where the mango and raspberries exist, it doesn't really make the cut. but it's packed with vitamin a!

now i haven't tried this, but i understand that it's de.li.cious when baked and snacked on in the shape of chips!

the sri lankan breakfast

i'm a savoury over sweet kinda girl; chips over chocolate any day.

so sri lankan breakfasts are where it's at for me in the early morning.

in negombo, our breakkie consisted of fresh papaya, banana and pineapple juice, tea (we bought our own soy milk), a creamy dahl, string hoppers and pol sambola.

string hoppers are bouncy little bundles of rice noodles. usually eaten with dhal - a lentil curry stew type dish -, a sambol and a chutney. apparently they take quite a bit of expertise to make: the steamed rice flour is made into a dough which they push through a little mould-maker into strings. then they are steamed again. ideal to mop up the dahl, they are a fun food to eat; silly-looking and springy. 

the daal lentils are cooked slowly in coconut milk, absorbing all the delicate spice flavours, which are set off by the spicy pol sambola. pol sambola, in the photo below, is made with grated coconut, red onions, ground dry red chilli, salt, lemon and pepper. each cook will mix it up a little so more ingredients are optional, but that's the basic recipe. it's delicious and darned hot. 

pol sambola

string hoppers and dahl curry

overall, sri lankan breakfasts have scored top points in my international breakfast charts. tasty, healthy and filling.

Monday, October 1, 2012

this happened today.

we rented a swan-boat to peddle on nuwara eliya lake, in the hills of sri lanka.

we bartered down from 1500rs to 600rs. a good price to have some fun seeing the shores of the lovely nuwara lake.