Monday, October 31, 2011

Kandyan Karma

Kandy, nestled around a glistening, oblong lake, is a World Heritage City and one of Sri Lanka’s primary pilgrimage sites. Safely tucked away in a lakeside palace-temple is Lanka’s claim to Buddhist fame: a tooth from the Buddha. Supposedly snatched from the funeral pyre and then whisked away to Sri Lanka in the elaborate hairstyle of a princess, the Buddha tooth relic has migrated around the tiny island, most recently calling Kandy home.

The Tooth has caused much political strife among the Sri Lankans, as it is believed that whoever controls the Tooth, controls the land. Due to a terrorist attack in 1998, the Buddha Tooth is heavily guarded by military guards with machine guns, and everyone entering is subjected to a search and a metal detector. However, once you get past the road blocks and the unsmiling military guard (okay, they will smile, but only if you start it), the atmosphere is calm and reverent.

As it is free for locals, the Buddha Tooth Palace is chockfull of Lankans, with a handful of tourists for good measure (and good money). Shoes left behind, worshipers and spectators make their way up stairs, under elaborate archways, and through various museums and shrines. Slowly queuing up the wide staircases, the throngs of devout worshippers make offerings of flowers, rupees, and prayers. Seated and kneeling pilgrims fill the room of the relic, the murmurs and chanting echoing, hushed and personal.

A pilgrimage to the Buddha Tooth Temple is supposedly a Must-Do for the Sri Lankans, as well as a big boost of positive karma. Hopefully we soaked up some of that good karma as well. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rice & Curry

Lacking a restaurant culture, Sri Lanka was a challenge when it came to food. With Sri Lankan cuisine, Rice and Curry is the traditional main course. Taking two to four hours to prepare, the simple phrase ‘Rice and Curry’ does little to encompass the variety, both in terms of the complete mystery of what foods you will actually be served and what flavor combinations you may end up with.

A meal of Rice and Curry consists firstly of your choice of meat, dependent of course on what is available, and what the chef wants to cook that evening. Chicken, beef, fish, fried eggs, hardboiled eggs, mango, banana, jackfruit (meat, fruit; tomato, tomahto), you name it, they’ll curry it. Then, an assortment of small curried vegetable dishes, anywhere from two to eight, fill up all empty space on the table. Green beans, onion, tomato, okra, string beans, beets, peppers, potatoes and various indeterminate veggies abound. It’s a complete gamble, but usually also includes dhal (lentils, useful in the event of extreme spice).

And if this veritable feast from the curry gods sounds too good to be true, that’s because we haven’t yet touched on the Russian roulette of flavors involved.

As native New Mexicans living in Thailand, we thought we were acclimated to spicy foods. Sri Lanka takes spicy to new levels. Personally, I prefer to be able to taste my food and feel my tongue. From bland with horrendously spicy aftertaste to eye-wateringly spicy mango curry with a smoky flavor, the Sri Lankans certainly manage to pack in the chili. However, there is little flavor aside from the heat; rarely did we encounter sweet, salty or savory, and when we did they were overpowered. The right balance of spice and taste just never seemed to come to fruition. Ultimately, Rice and Curry turned out to be nothing but a buffet of squandered potential and burning taste buds on a heaping pile of steamed rice. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A World Away

Following a year of Southeast Asian travel, Sri Lanka provided a drastic change and a trip full of the unexpected. The climate varied between much hotter and much colder than Thailand, with little in between. While we were expecting food similar to that of southern India, we received many uniquely Lankan culinary experiences. And, all of the coconuts were orange.

Everywhere we went, we were apparently an equally unexpected sight. Dhoti-clad, shirtless men and saree’d women sent sour-faced stares in our direction; however, even the slightest smile was answered with big toothy grins and friendly ‘hello’s.

From Negombo’s pack of stray Pomeranians and the hordes of crows crowding telephone wires and trees nationwide to beach-roaming cows and Galle’s freakishly large monitor lizard population, not even the animals were what we expected.

We wanted a change from the life to which we have become accustomed, a change from the similar cultures, foods, religions, and travel experiences of Southeast Asia. And that is most certainly what we got in Sri Lanka.