Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Best of London (Part 3)


On to my last Best of London post! I'm sure if I was staying here longer I'd have loads more to write about (notice that Britishism I used there?) But alas, back to the States I go. I've loved the time I've spent here, London is one of the most diverse, vibrant, cities I've ever lived in. I know a lot of people complain about the dreadful weather (it does rain an awful lot) and about the cold, uptight nature of its people, but I've found most of them to be quite lovely (except one crazy old lady who called me a "sick, lying little thief" in the middle of Piccadilly Street. But that's a whole other story).

Despite its reputation I've found London to be a city where: you can get around easily, sans car (it has some of the best public transport in the world.) Where you can a get good chicken biryani AND decent sushi AND a nice, spicy thai curry- on the same street. Where the people work hard, but play harder. Where no one thinks twice about bringing their glass of Pinot Grigio into a movie theater (I'm looking at you, Curzon). Where girls start sunbathing at the first glimpse of sunshine, in any available patch of grass, big or small. Where boys walk around with a footballs under their arms, and where an impromptu game could start at any moment- on the tube, in the street, in a shop. It's a place where employees take actual lunch breaks, and actual holidays, and don't feel guilty about either.

I'm not saying London is a perfect city. It's not. It has many problems, just like any huge metropolis. But I've found much to admire about my new home away from home. And so, without further ado, the best of the last:

Parks

1. Hyde Park/ Kensington Gardens- The 350 acres that make up Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are probably London's closest equivalent to Manhattan's Central Park (although not quite as expansive). Hyde Park is located in the heart of London, close to all the major tourist attractions, and yet it's big enough that you don't feel like you're pushing through crowds on Oxford Street.


With plenty of space to play (impromptu cricket, football, and Frisbee games are a common sight, plus tons of rollerblading, biking and horseback riding) and the lovely Serpentine boating lake (a perfect activity on a romantic summer's day) plus the famous Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park really does have it all. Kensington Gardens, lying immediately to the West of Hyde Park, boasts the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk (seven miles through lush greenery) the Albert Memorial and the gorgeous Italian Gardens. It's a must see.


2. Hampstead Heath- This is the park Londoners flock to when they need to get away from the stale city air. The first thing to know about Hampstead Heath: it's enormous. Encompassing 790 acres and located a little over three miles north of Trafalgar Square, stepping out of the tube to Hampstead feels like entering another world. The Heath is probably the wildest of London's parks, with high grassy fields, meadows, ancient woodlands, ponds (that you can swim or fish in) and plenty of hills to climb. Make your way up to Parliament Hill, the perfect picnic (and kite flying) location that boasts incredible views of the city. The stately Kenwood House adjoins the Heath, and is the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday.

Neighborhoods

1. The City- The oldest part of London, the Square Mile (the space that was contained within the Medieval Walls of London) is now the nation's financial center, and boasts the striking St. Paul's Cathedral (pictured above) the Tower of London, London Bridge, and the Bank of England, among other notable landmarks. It's a perfect tourist destination, but also one I frequent for its impressive selection of shops and restaurants. But beware- the City basically shuts down at night.


2. The West End- Known to many as the the heart of the London theatre district, the West End is that and so much more. Every few blocks a new play seems to pop up, with their bright marquees, the patrons pouring out of them and into the night. The West End encompasses everything from the world famous Trafalgar Square (with the enormous National Gallery) to Piccadilly Circus (pictured above) to Chinatown and Leicester Square and more, the West End has something for everyone.


Soho, with its many cafes, restaurants, and gay nightclubs, is always a hit with the younger crowd, as is Covent Garden, Carnaby Street and Oxford Street. The West End is the area I frequent the most, and for good reason. The many bakeries, restaurants, cafes and shopping areas I mentioned in my first two Best of London posts are all located here. It's one of my favorite areas in London.


3. Camden Town- Camden Town is where you'll find all the punk, goth, bohemian, hippie folks in London. Known as the center for alternative culture, Camden Town is a must see, especially for its famous Camden Markets, where you'll find the strangest (and most unique) collection of clothes, accessories, home decor and everything in between.


Camden Town also has a lovely canal, and plenty of diverse food options. Camden Town is home to many famous Brits, including the late Amy Winehouse (pictured above) and Abbey Road Studios in North London isn't far from here. It's just an all around cool place, and one that's refreshingly different from any other part of London.


4. Notting Hill- Ascetically this area couldn't be more different from Camden Town, but Notting Hill has its own charms and quirks about it. Although its international fame comes from the eponymous Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romcom, Notting Hill is also known for the Portobello Road Market, which is open every day (excluding Sundays). You can find anything and everything there, from jewelry to art to antiques to funky clothes and old books. There are plenty of pubs, restaurants and cafes lining the street, but when I went I indulged in one of the many pop up crepe stands. I don't know how you could resist the intoxicating smell of nutella, bananas and melting sugar wafting through the air. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.


5. South Bank- Another great tourist destination, the South Bank is home to the world famous London Eye (pictured below) the Tate Modern (free entrance except for special exhibits), Shakespeare's Globe Theater, The Old Vic and the Riverside Walkway, where you can take a lovely, tree lined stroll, the Thames at your side. I did this many times the first couple weeks after I arrived, it's such a beautiful area, and definitely a must see.


For more food options, head to the Borough Market. Open Thursday- Saturday and within 2 minutes from London Bridge, the Market has home grown, organic produce, diverse ethnic cuisine from all over the world and some of the best bread and cheese I've ever had. Also- cake. So much cake!


6. East End- An area close to my heart, since this is where I've been living for the past three months. The East End generally consists of the Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, with smaller sub- areas like Whitechapel, Spitafields (with its Christ Church, pictured above) and Hoxton, among others.


This area has a history of being a little rough around the edges, but is slowly transforming into a hub for the young, artistic crowd. You've got Brick Lane and Spitafields Markets, which I've already discussed, you've got tons of great curry and authentic Bangladeshi and Indian cuisine, you've got the sophistication of Canary Wharf, and you've got the almost always sold out O2 arena.

There are so many other awesome neighborhoods in London that I haven't had the chance to visit yet, but these have been some of the places that most impressed me during my stay here.

I'll be back in Las Vegas on Friday, but I won't be there for long!

Stay tuned to find out where I'm heading next....

Monday, October 15, 2012

Best of London (Part 2)

So now that I've shared some of my favorite restaurants, cafes, and bakeries with you, it's time for more of my Best of London series. Off we go:

Shopping

London is home to some of the best (and most expensive) shopping in the world. Everyone knows about Oxford and Regent Streets, home to some of the most famous designers on earth. Then there's Harrods and Hamleys and all the other quintessential tourist shopping destinations. Those places are not on my list. They're great, but once I settled in here, and started exploring, I discovered many other hidden (and not so hidden) gems scattered about this city. Such as:



1. Foyles- Oh, how I love Foyles, let me count the ways. This legendary independent bookshop (est. 1903- see above pic) has such a unique selection, it's hard to know where to start. Looking into cognitive psychology? Head to level 3 for that. Interested in the Philosophy of Religion? Look no further than the 2nd floor. How about some French poetry? Coming right up. And on top of all that, Foyles has an extensive contemporary fiction section (it basically covers the entire ground floor) and its own cafe. Definitely one of my favorites.


2. Paperchase- Let me preface this by saying that I used to work in an overpriced stationary store, so cards and gift wrapping and bows and pens and all things paper- related are kind of my thing. And the first time I walked into a Paperchase, it happened to be the huge one on Tottenham Court Road, and I was blown away. Three enormous floors full of beautiful, carefully selected greeting cards, ornate, hand made paper, notebooks, diaries, art sketchbooks and more. Simply lovely.


3. Scoob- This is a really cozy secondhand bookshop located near Russell Square. The place is tiny and cramped and every square inch is filled with books. They are piled on the floor, on chairs, on desks, teetering off shelves, stacks and stacks of them, everywhere you turn. Scoob has an impressive selection of international literature, American and British classics, and everything in between. AND it's super cheap. Awesome find.


4. Selfridges- The department store that trumps all other department stores. Like Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom in the States, Selfridges is THE high end destination for anything your heart desires- everything from designer bags, women's fashion, shoes, accessories, makeup, fragrance, oh- and they have stuff for men too. And kids. And a food and wine section. Selfridges has a nice mix of high and low end designers, everything from Alexander McQueen to Adidas. They also have the most amazing Shoe Gallery, basically an entire floor dedicated to women's heels. Trust me, you'll never want to leave.

5. Waterstone's- Last bookshop, I promise. Although Waterstone's is a chain (I know, I know, lame), their flagship Piccadilly store is simply stunning, and must be included on my list. So the store is enormous, and the amount of space makes you feel like you could spend your entire day there, perusing their carefully stocked aisles. And with all those invitingly plush armchairs scattered about, I dare you not to eventually succumb, and sink deeply into one, with a pile of brand new books in your lap. That's what I did, anyway.


6. Shops at Canary Wharf- So Canary Wharf is not the first place one would think of in terms of shopping. Known to many as the financial heart of London (it's the European headquarters of many big banks, including Barclays, HSBC, and J.P. Morgan, to name a few). Canary Wharf actually has a really cool underground mall, with the likes of Hugo Boss, Zara, Gap, Next, Ted Baker and even a Tiffany and Co. Plus it's home to plenty of restaurants and bars. So head on over to this warm underground mall on a chilly afternoon and prepare to do some damage.


7. Brick Lane Market- So I'm especially partial to Brick Lane Market (otherwise known as the Truman Markets) since David's flat happens to be in the area. He took me here on my first Sunday in London and I fell in love immediately. Brick Lane was once known as the best place to find an authentic curry (due to the large Bangladeshi community) but has now morphed into an artistic hub for young Londoners, foodies, hippies, and everyone in between. Street performers, food stands from all around the world, vintage shopping and even tea and cake rooms make this the perfect place to spend your Sunday. With five unique markets, you're bound to find something you like.


8. Spitafields Market- Another awesome market near David's neighborhood, this one's open seven days a week and boasts a plethora of cool shops (like Dower and Hall for jewelry, Bedales for wine and Evan's Cycles for- you guessed it- bikes) and of course all those wonderfully unique pop up stands (pictured above). Spitafields also has lots of great restaurants, bars and cool events, like free salsa classes, lunchtime concerts, fashion shows and more.

Now, I know I said I'd get to the best neighborhoods, parks etc etc, but those may have to come in another post, this is getting long. For now, I'll leave you with that play I keep raving about:


The Busy Body- Instead of seeing a traditional West End play, David has been introducing me to fringe theater, which I've enjoyed immensely so far. The first play we saw was at the Southwark Playhouse (a charming little theater located under the London Bridge train station, with patrons like Michael Cane). I had no expectations coming into it, but The Busybody blew me away. Written in 1709 by Susanna Centlivre, this play centers on two witty women, both of whom are trying to escape arranged marriages to be with the men they love. Marplot, the busybody, just gets in the way of it all, causing mischief and mayhem everywhere he goes. Musical interludes pack a punch, both mocking and encouraging the characters, a chorus that is brilliant and cheeky and hilarious, all at once. It was just such a great show all around, everyone left the theater smiling, ear to ear. The Busybody has now ended its run, but I hope another company picks it up soon. It's simply too good to miss.

So there you have it! Stay tuned for Part 3, where I promise I'll get to everything I've missed (and more!)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Best of London (Part 1)


So, when we first started planning my trip here, David immediately informed me of all the places he wouldn't be taking me to- Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, etc etc (all tourist traps that I've already been to anyway). I was going to see the real London, from an actual Londoner. And I did just that, and more. Here are some of my favorite places I've discovered in the past two months:

Lattes and Sweet treats


1. Fix. This is a total hipster hangout, and I love it. Fix is an independent coffee shop with two locations, although the one I frequent is near the Barbican (an awesome performing arts space to check out- tons of free theatre performances, film screenings and art exhibits. And don't let the communist-style building fool you, it's actually lovely inside.) Anyway, Fix has low, comfy couches, indie music and serves one of the best chai lattes I've ever had. Come for the cool ambiance, stay for the chocolate croissants.


2. Konditor and Cook. Known for their scrumptious cakes, Konditor and Cook have an incredible selection of goodies (they do an amazing brownie, fyi) and the one I've been to is part of the Curzon, this really awesome movie theater. The Curzon has many locations, but I went to the one in Soho (coincidentally, one of my favorite neighborhoods in London). Basically, this Curzon has three levels. Konditor and Cook are on the main floor, but you can take your latte downstairs and chill in the lounge, with comfy couches, free wifi and a fully stocked bar. Go one level down, and you're in the movie theater. The Curzon plays lots of European and indie films, something that's sorely missing back home. An awesome place to hang out and people watch as well.


3. The Hummingbird Bakery. So David has quite the sweet tooth, and for his birthday I decided to do a double whammy of cupcakes at midnight and then cake and ice cream (plus presents) the following night. He loved it, and the whole thing was a big surprise, which made it even better. For cupcakes, I went to the Hummingbird Bakery, which happens to be on all the top 10 lists of best "American style" cupcakes in the city. Their Red Velvet is to die for.


4. BB Bakery- One rainy day in Covent Garden, David and I were running around, just trying to find somewhere dry and warm to rest in until the rain stopped, when we stumbled upon BB bakery, and fell in love. This adorable little cafe is the perfect place to stop for tea and cake. Their tea comes in beautiful, antique tea pots, and their pastries are to die for. A really nice place to spend an afternoon.

Good Eats

I'm not a foodie. Let's just get that out of the way right now. But I do like good food. And, despite its reputation, London is shock full of amazing cuisine, from all around the world. I'm telling you, it's true! I don't think I've had a typical 'British' meal since I've been here. It's such a melting pot, and the culinary culture reflects that. Here are some cool places I've been:


1. Abeno Too. This is a cozy little Japanese place where they cook the food in front of you (Benihana theatrics not included). Known for their delicious Okonomiyaki (pictured above), all the tables have little open top grills, and you end up smelling like your meal at the end, but that's besides the point. Authentic, reasonably priced food, good service, and the opportunity to try something new? Verdict: Awesome.


2. Bodeans. For the British, finding authentic American-style barbecue can be tough. Every BBQ restaurant in London claims to be 'just like the real thing' but they usually disappoint. Bodeans is the exception. Huge portions, enormous ribs (see pic above), plenty of fries, heck, they even serve American root beer (something you can't find here normally). Plus, it's cheap! Just make sure you're hungry.



3. Caravan. This place is the definition of cool. Located in Farringdon's Exmouth Market, Caravan is inviting and open from the get go, has a great selection of small appetizers (sort of like tapas), with really unique combos, like goat's curd with butternut squash, shaved fennel, pine nuts and pomegranate dressing: yummm. They also have a huge wine selection and for you coffee fiends out there- Caravan even boasts a roasterie in the basement, where they brew their own coffee. The place has a really fun, lively atmosphere, a diverse selection of dishes, and great service. It's a must-go.


4. Comptoir Gascon. Getting a little fancy now, this bistro (with food and wine from the South West of France, specifiquement, mes amis) appears to be a super pretentious joint, but it's actually really cute and unimposing. Little wooden tables, romantic lighting, Edith Piaf crooning in the background, it's a perfect first date restaurant. They have an impressive wine list, and you can do a sampler of three (just don't ask for a full glass of one- they only serve them by the bottle). Oh and vegetarians beware- there is not a single item on the menu that doesn't have meat or fish in it (impressive bread selection though! You can always count on the French for good bread.)

I'll leave you with that. Coming up next- Part 2, where we explore the best parks, neighborhoods and shopping in the city. Plus, a sneak peek at one of the funniest plays I've seen in years (spoiler alert- it wasn't on the West End.)

Cheers till then!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life Update (aka 2012 so far...)


Londontown.
Sooo...it's been awhile. I know, I know, I'm sorry. It's been a busy year, what can I say? I want to tell you all about where I am now (hint, it's pictured above) and what my plans are for the future but first, let's step back to reflect on the past year.



I rang in the New Year in one of my favorite cities in the world (and one which I thought would become my future home) San Francisco. I went up to visit Lauren, and the kooky O'Connor- Korb clan, and we had a blast, as we always do. Plenty of gourmet food, way too much wine, and the entire first season of Downton Abbey made the trip a perfect way to start 2012.


Jumping in the vineyards of Napa Valley.
When I came home to Vegas, I was in for one of the most stressful semesters of my life. I had a full load of classes plus I was interning at KVVU Fox5, my very first foray into broadcast journalism. That internship taught me more about myself than anything I've ever done. I had no clue what I was doing, and I learned so much in the process. Within my first few weeks I was sitting at the assignment desk, listening to the police scanner, going through press releases, and sitting in on the live broadcast. Then I was out in the field myself, first with photographers (aka camera men) then shadowing reporters, we went everywhere, from a Ron Paul rally to a Metro police press conference.


The Fox5 Live truck. I was in there a lot.
I eventually wrote, edited and produced three segments on my own, which I was extremely proud of. 


Editing myself for my very first segment.
I was at Fox5 from January to May. Those months were a whirlwind of school and running around with reporters and trying to have a social life and finding time to just breathe. In April, my brother Janaka came to visit from London with two of his friends, Ryan and David. This is significant because David ended up having quite the impact on me, and I happen to be writing this in his apartment, in London, where I've been living for the past few months. But we're getting to that....


Waving after walking across that stage. I was SO happy. 
Soon enough, it was May. Time for graduation! After all those years of moving around, I finally stuck it out in Vegas long enough to get my degree. May 12, 2012 was a great day indeed. My friends, family and loved ones all came together to celebrate my achievements. What more could a girl ask for?


With my proud mom after graduation.
Well, my birthday was right around the corner, and in June I celebrated in LA with a few of my closest friends. But the whole time I had something else on my mind. There was another upcoming trip I couldn't stop thinking about. David and I had been emailing (and then calling each other) daily since his visit to Vegas, and we decided to meet up in New York, for a long weekend at the end of June. This was the most exciting/romantic thing that had ever happened to me. I was so scared, but also had this feeling in my gut that it was going to be great. Better than great. In fact, I had a sneaking suspicion our weekend together would change my life. And I was right. Our time in New York confirmed what we both suspected- this was the real deal. Everything felt so effortless, we were so comfortable with each other immediately, it felt like we'd been together for years. And walking with him, hand in hand, through my old neighborhood, in one of my favorite cities in the world, I felt happier than I've felt in years. Unfortunately we lived in different countries, and our storybook romance would have to be put temporarily on hold.


Reservoir in Central Park.
This was for a number of reasons, but mostly because I'd already decided to spend the month of July volunteering in Costa Rica. I spent 3 weeks there, taking daily Spanish lessons and caring for children at an orphanage near San Jose. It was an amazing way to spend my summer, it went by in a flash, yet my time there was so meaningful to me, and my heart has never felt so full. 


At the orphanage with the beautiful Fabiola.
I loved have a purpose, getting up at the crack of dawn every day and doing something good for the world. I taught the kids English, we played games together, but mostly I was just there to love and support them, to make them smile, and to make their days a little brighter. And I hope I did that. I also got to explore the country, make awesome new friends, and get out of my comfort zone. It was an incredible experience I'll never forget.


With my little man Jefferson.
The only downside was that I was missing David like crazy. The timing couldn't have been worse. But everything fell into place, because a few weeks later I was on a plane to London, and I haven't left since. I've been here since early August. At first I was only supposed to stay a few weeks, but we both decided we needed more time together, and we were right. It's been wonderful, and I've loved every minute I've spent here.


David and I in Barcelona for his birthday.
Unfortunately, because of visa restrictions, I can't stay forever, and I'll be leaving at the end of the month. But I wanted to use this blog to showcase some of the awesome places I've discovered in my few months in London, and to give you all an update on what's next....

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reflections on 2011


Hello Dear Readers,

I'm sorry it's been so long since I've written anything. God, Sri Lanka was almost 6 months ago! School, work and life have kept me busy. But I thought I'd take the time to reflect on the past year.

Although 2011 hasn't been quite as dramatic as last year (Moving to Chile! Earthquakes! Tsunamis! Argentina! Theft!) There have been some major developments in my life this year. Basically, school has been the main priority for me in 2011. I know, boring. But I did make time for a few other things...

2011 was good for:


1. My Career
Although I'm still in school, I will be graduating in May and I'm trying to get a head start on my career ASAP. This year has been particularly good for my burgeoning professional life. I was published here, here and here. Oh, and look for another article by moi in Tea Time Magazine sometime in 2012. I started writing for Destination Guides, a travel website, which you can check out here. I'm particularly excited to be working for DGuides, because as many of you know travel writing is sort of a dream of mine. And then, to top it all off, I scored an internship at KVVU Fox5, one of our local TV stations here in Las Vegas. This is probably the biggest departure for me, in terms of my career in journalism, but I'm so excited to get some experience in the television industry. Who knows? Maybe you'll see me on a TV near you someday...


2. Domestic (and a little International) Travel
2011 definitely can't compare with 2010 in terms of International Travel (Chile and Argentina come to mind) but I did my fare share of traveling within the U.S. this year. I started off 2011 in the amazing, always eccentric San Francisco (I will be repeating my New Year's adventures in the Bay Area this year as well) then I ended up in Austin, Texas for Spring Break (definitely my fav city in Texas). I spent some time in Wilkes Barre, PA with my family, spent the day in NYC (Oh, how I missed the city! I must spend more time there next year) and visited a number of small towns in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. And OF COURSE I can't leave out the one BIG international destination of the year: Sri Lanka. Hands down the highlight of 2011 for me, our epic family adventure to my father's homeland remains the best experience of the year.


3. Friendships
When I first moved to Vegas I was so against the idea of living in this strange city that I immediately decided I wouldn't make any friends while I was here. What's the point? I thought. I already have an amazing group of girlfriends back in California, why should I engage, or, god forbid, open up, to people in this shitty town? I know, bad attitude. And it's weird, because I'm a super friendly person by nature. It was bound to happen. In 2011 I decided enough was enough, and I finally started actually enjoying my time at UNLV. I opened up, I met really cool people, and I discovered that not everyone in this town is bad. I cheered on the Rebels at basketball games, I went to pub nights with my new girlfriends, and I actually started appreciating my life, and the bizarre nature of living in a city that's created for a life of superficial fantasy. That's when I realized not everything in this town is fake.


2011 was bad for:

1. The Economy. Duh.

2. Dictators. Osama Bin Laden (thank god we finally found him... only took 10 years), Moammar Gaddafi (to the dismay of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who had a field day with his kooky style), Hosni Mubarak, and, of course, Kim Jong Il all had a terrible year. What a pity.

3. President Obama (Although he did get to meet me, which I'm sure brightened his otherwise dismal year. But it's okay, because he'll have four more years to make it up to us! Amiright? People? Anyone?)

4. Congress (They had their lowest approval rating ever. And they deserved it, too. Let's hope they can get shit done next year.)

5. My love life. I know what you're thinking. But Aneya, isn't it always a bad year for your love life? Yes, yes it is. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Even though many new friendships blossomed this year for me, romance did not. I think romance died before it ever hit Vegas, probably somewhere near Barstow. Needless to say, finding a sane, reasonable man in a city where guys visit specifically to behave badly (and the men who live here seem to think they have that same sick freedom) is like finding a needle in a haystack. A dirty, sticky haystack filled with drug paraphernalia and broken beer bottles. I'm not gonna dig through it. And it's okay, because I'll be out of here soon, and my strange relations with the men of Sin City will be but a distant dream.

So all in all, I'd say 2011 was a productive year. Was it fun? Sometimes. Was it boring? Sometimes. Was it helpful, in the long run, for my life, my career, and my education? Hell yes it was!

So here's to 2012, bringing more travel, laughter, fun and joy to everyone's lives, including mine. Here's to more time with family and friends, and embracing the great big changes to come.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reflections on Sri Lanka


Sunset in Sri Lanka.

My dear readers,

I recently returned from a 17 day expedition to my father's homeland, Sri Lanka. I'd been wanting to go to this mysterious island since I was a child, to see where my dad grew up, to experience the culture first hand, to truly understand my heritage. And I accomplished all that, and more. The trip was at once exhausting and exhilarating, it was hectic and stressful at times, but also beautiful and moving. It was intense, and I'm still trying to process everything, days after returning to the strange city I begrudgingly call home, Las Vegas.

I flew to Sri Lanka with my dad and a group of about 30 people (my father never travels light.) My entire extended family came with us (mom, dad, stepdad, four brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it- they were there). Most of us met up in London, where there were many hugs and kisses and reunions, and a buzz of excitement running through the air. After a beer at the local pub, and a good night's rest- we were off! Stepping onto Sri Lankan Airlines, the beautiful stewardesses adorned in turquoise saris, bowing down to us, with the now familiar greeting "Ayubowan" (may you live a long life) I got chills. We were off!

The trip had many highlights (and some lowlights) and instead of going through the whole itinerary with you (which was so jam packed we barely had a day to breathe, let alone lounge on the beach with cocktail) I've decided to categorize things, to make it easier (for me, and for you). Off we go!


Beaches of Colombo.


Tea Plantations in the high country.

The Landscape:

Sri Lanka is a tropical island, and you could feel the humidity the moment we stepped off the plane. My hair seemed to grow five feet in the span of seconds, and the sticky air had me sweating in no time. Obviously the country has some beautiful beaches (the water was warm and inviting, apart from the giant waves) and I loved the time we spent near the coast. But one of my favorite areas was the high country. We took an old fashioned train up there, and you could feel the air changing, the fog rising up between the hills, waterfalls and pine trees, pure beauty surrounding you. There were tea plantations everywhere, and if you looked closely, you could see hundreds of white figures scattered high up on the hills, painstakingly picking tea leaves for four bucks a day. These women worked hard for their money. We visited a tea plantation later on and ended up learned all about the tea making process. We also visited Kandy, which was lovely, with a big lake and huge Buddha statues adorning the surrounding hills.


Sweet Sri Lankan dancers.

The People:

From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were treated like royalty. Almost all of the hotel employees (and we stayed in a record seven different hotels) treated us with a mixture of kindness and curiosity. The men in particular had lots of questions for me, which I was happy to answer. When it was revealed that I was, in fact, one of them, their eyes seemed to sparkle, their smiles grew wider. "Sri Lankan?" they'd ask, as if not believing me. I would nod. "Oh, that's very good!" they'd say, encouragingly. And I would smile. Yes, yes it was very good. We'd then resume our conversation, somehow a little bit closer than before.

We toured the country in a large bus, and spent many hours traveling through small villages to get to our various destinations. I have never seen a people so happy to see a big white bus coming their way. Nearly everyone we passed waved and smiled. I'm talking, old men, young men, women, and especially children. At one point when we were leaving the tea factory, a young man selling flowers motioned for us to stop. Unfortunately we were trying to make a sharp right turn down a steep hill, and couldn't. Finally, after many dramatically tight turns, we made it to the bottom. The boy was there too, panting, still holding two bouquets of flowers in his hands. He had run down an enormous distance to reach us, it seemed impossible that he'd made it in such a short amount of time. When he finally climbed on board, we gave him a standing ovation, and the boy's smile seemed to light up the entire bus. Of course we bought the flowers.

Another moment I'll never forget- at one point the bus made a pit stop to grab some snacks and drinks for the long ride ahead of us. Sitting near the stand were two boys, a young girl and their mother. The kids waved frantically at us, smiling and giggling. The girl seemed to be making gestures with her hand, but I couldn't understand what she was saying. My mother did though. She opened her window and handed the young girl a pen. The look on the girl's face after receiving this pen was priceless. I've never seen anyone so happy to receive anything in my life. She jumped up and down with glee, then ran over to her mom to show off her new gift. The girl's ecstatic reaction and pure gratitude after receiving something as simple as a pen almost brought tears to my eyes. Of course now her brothers were jealous. They wanted pens too! And so my mom gave them her last two pens, and they too were consumed with happiness, bouncing around like they'd just won the lottery. My dad later handed the family some money, but the kids hardly seemed to notice. The pens were all they wanted.


Wild elephants.


Elephants in the Perahera parade.


An elephant at the orphanage.

Elephants:

Elephants are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. They're on postcards and bags, statues and buildings, they're taking baths in the river, carrying wood down the street, they're in parades, they pick up passengers at luxury resorts. Sri Lankans sure do love their elephants. They're sacred here, and after awhile, seeing a man riding an elephant down the street seems perfectly normal.

We went to an elephant orphanage, which was amazing, and yet it saddened me to see the chains around the elephants' legs. We also saw an elephant parade, where they were adorned in glittering costumes and lights. This also kind of depressed me, because once again their legs were chained up, and they just didn't look very happy. We spotted the parade elephants the next day, chilling out and eating their dinner on the street. Some were still dancing, the music of the parade apparently still in their heads, their trunks swaying from side to side, their large ears flapping in the wind. I swear, I could've stood there all night, watching the dancing elephants eat their dinner. We also went on a safari, where we saw elephants in the wild. You could immediately tell they were different from the other ones we'd seen. They seemed skinnier, and walked in a tight pack, at one point charging at a jeep that got a little too close. "Get out of my way," they seemed to say. 'We're not here for your entertainment."


The Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy.


The massive reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa.


A Buddha statue in an 800 year-old temple.

Buddhism:

I'm not a religious person by any means, but if I had to choose something to worship, Buddha wouldn't be so bad. There's something very calming about being in his presence, and I like how sometimes you can see a hint of a smile in his face. It's like he's in on a secret.

Obviously not all Sri Lankans are Buddhist. I saw a few churches, some Muslim Mosques, and some Hindu stuff, but Buddhism is definitely the most prominent religion in the country. Every town we visited had a Buddha statue somewhere, all lit up with rainbow lights and flowers. Buddhas hailed from the mountains, from the streets, in caves, in shop windows, in ancient relics and tombs. He seemed to be everywhere you looked. We visited the Temple of the Tooth, which is said to hold Buddha's actual tooth. We all dressed in white, and were told to take off our shoes before entering the temple. I was also told to pull back my hair and button up my blouse (no cleavage in front of Buddha!) Inside the temple, it was madness. Thousands of people, praying, squatting, chanting, praying some more. It was overwhelming.

In Polonnaruwa (which was the island's capital from the 11th-13th century) we saw ancient ruins and huge statues, including a 46-foot reclining Buddha. We visited these sights near dusk, and it was raining slightly, so the air was crisp and clear, the falling sun reflecting off the ruins beautifully. Later, we went to the Dambulla caves, where hundreds of Buddha statues lined the walls, the ceiling covered in Buddhist art. It all felt very sacred and a hushed silence came over the crowd when they entered the caves, as if all the energy in the room was emanating from the powerful statues within.


"The French Connection" as Uncle Terrence called us.

Travel Companions:

In the end, it didn't really matter what we saw, it was who we saw it with. Having my entire family around (especially those I don't see very often, such as my Sri Lankan relatives, my French family, and those who live in Australia) made the whole trip even more special. Of course, there were 20 or so other people on the journey with us, and although I can't say I enjoyed every single one of them, all the time, we all actually got along surprisingly well, considering the circumstances.

When I say this was a once in a lifetime experience, I mean it. I don't know if we'll ever go back, or if it will be the same if we do go again. So I'm just grateful I got the opportunity to experience Sri Lanka with the people I love. Next time though, I'd like to be in charge of the itinerary. Less bus trips, more beach time, please!