Friday, December 30, 2011

Home Sweet Home

Ah, U.S. sweet U.S.  I have thoroughly enjoyed being home, even if it means putting up with cold and a bit of wintry weather.  In my first 24 hours of being home (which came after a difficult and incredibly long 28 hour journey home), I had rented  a car and driven to my heart's content, gone Christmas shopping and wrapped all gifts, put up the tree, and purchased ham and my favorite sparkling water at the supermarket.  Bliss.

Since then I've enjoyed fast internet, amazing home-cooked meals (including a full Thanksgiving dinner to make up for the one I missed last month!), and lots of time with family and friends.  My grandmother has been visiting, so we've all enjoyed catching up and introducing her to the wonders of ridiculous internet phenomenons.  We were all belly-laughing after a few minutes of and LOLcats.  My mother and I have continued the tradition of skyping each other from a few rooms (or feet) away, just because we can.  One of my best friends is also home for the holidays, so we've been catching up and having a great time.  More friend catch-ups to come!

Christmas was a great time with my two younger brothers and their assorted broods, human and canine alike.  My youngest nephew got a Nintendo DS for Christmas and barely registered anyone else's presence as he bravely battled the Koopas and Bowser.  I brought back shemaghs and aqals for my dad and brothers, who humored us all by garbing up for the rest of the day. 

Right now I'm in NJ visiting a dear family friend as Grandma and I make our way south to her home in WV.  From there I'll head to DC for a whirlwind few days of appointments, shopping, and friend catch-ups.  Should be glorious!  Then back to NH to play nurse for my mother when she has a total knee replacement.  With five knee surgeries under my belt, I'm a pro at this orthopaedic recovery stuff.  Though none of mine have been quite this extensive...

More stories and photos to come as I catch up on the last few months of traveling.  I am finally 90% caught up on reading other FS blogs, so I am feeling hooked back in to everyone's holiday seasons and goings-on. 

Hope all of you have had wonderful Christmases and Hanukkahs and Kwanzaas and are ready to embrace 2012!  Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Catching Up - Or Planning To Do So...

All righty.  I've taken an inadvertent hiatus from writing blogs.  Or reading blogs.  Heck, I barely read my email these days.  No real reason - just the stress of the season perhaps, and something had to give.  But I miss blogging and reading blogs and keeping up with all the goings on of my wonderful FS compatriots (and the other blogs I read, of course)!

So I'm back, at least today.  It's still a busy few weeks until R&R...

Since I last blogged I've been to Jordan (to which I alluded) and to Egypt (great timing on my part) and will head out next week for a quick but exciting in-country trip to be discussed later.  And soon it'll be home for the holidays!  It'll be an extended trip as I stay an extra couple weeks to help my family out while they need some extra hands.  Hopefully I'll get to see lots of my wonderful USA-based friends and family!  DC-area bloggers - meet up perhaps while I'm (hopefully) in town for a few days?

So I owe about four Jordan posts and at least one Egypt post and I will definitely need at least one post for next week's trip.  Realistically, though, it'll be a few weeks.  Unless I get super motivated this weekend.  And have super fast internet.  Because that's the biggest obstacle to blogging - slow to nonexistent internet access which prevents me from even getting on Gmail some days.  And definitely doesn't lend itself to uploading pictures. 

I just have to say I'm not too pleased that Lyle Lovett appears to be taking the holidays off.  For entirely selfish reasons - he certainly deserves to take the holidays off, of course.  He performs all of December up until right before I get back to the United States and then... nothing.  I check the website every day hoping he'll schedule a concert or two in early January that I can make.  Nothing yet, alas. 

The kittens are doing quite well.  I am starting to get guilty about leaving them for R&R, even though my helper will come in every day and make sure they're well taken care of.  Having helped a colleague adopt a Consulate kitten last week, I realize my 'kittens' have somehow become full grown.  They don't act full grown, but they certainly aren't tiny anymore.  They're certainly snuggly and playful and loyal, though, and I love that.  I allowed them in my room while I tried to nap the other day, and Griffin lay on my chest staring deeply into my eyes.  Meanwhile Callaghan curled around my head and peered over it, also staring deeply into my eyes.  Creepy is all I have to say.  But somehow a bit endearing.

I haven't decorated for Christmas - partly a function of having no free time, partly because I'll be going home for the holidays, and partly because I'm tired of having ornaments broken by cats playing in the tree. 

And really, that's all the 'news' that's fit to print for today.  More coming soon, and I promise to start reading the backlog of blog posts in my reader!  Hope you're all surviving (and thriving!) this busy holiday season!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Coming Soon...

Stories and photos from my latest trip - to Jordan!  I've been home for three hours and have unpacked, cuddled with my kitties, downloaded photos, and am now finally relaxing with some soup.  It's a busy few days coming up at work, but I'll try to get some actual content up here soon.

So, coming soon to a reader near you, Jordan in November 2011. Featuring a cameo by another FS Blogger :-) - stay tuned!

And, because I can't resist, here's a teaser of what's to come...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 7-8

So it's about time I finish my Sri Lanka series of posts!  Only two months late!

My penultimate day in Sri Lanka was fairly blissful.  I got up early to take advantage of breakfast at the hotel (nice but not perfect) and then went back to bed for a few hours.

My driver picked me up around noon and took me back to Colombo for one last shopping/sightseeing trip.  I chose to go to another government-sanctioned craft center, which had some very high-quality woven textiles.  I ended up buying three tablecloths for great prices.  I am ecstatic!  Added to the two batik prints I already picked up, I was all set.  I got a few other things I had been missing on previous shopping jaunts and was then ready to go.

We drove back to Negombo and set the time for my pickup the next morning.  I stored my new treasures in my room and then wandered across the street to the hole-in-the-wall salon.  It was about 4pm.  My plan was to get a quick facial and then go hang out on the beach until the sun set.  Janet had other plans.

Janet, the salon owner and practitioner, was so incredibly excited to get a white tourist to play with.  And play she did.  I do not think she could have possibly put more assorted goops on my face, and she was aghast that I did not want every baby-fine invisible hair on my face tweezed or threaded.  I agreed to my eyebrows.  I did not agree to my forehead.  I convinced her to stop there.  Ouch.  Well, for $20 what can you expect?

By the time I emerged, more than two hours later, my face was red and puffy, and the sun was well on its way to set.  I read for a little while before dinner, ate a fairly decent dinner at the hotel, packed my bags, and got a good night's sleep.

The next morning I was being picked up at 7:45 for an 11:45 am flight.  I knew from experience that it takes a while to get through security in Colombo airport, and I wanted plenty of time to get a foot massage in the terminal.  When I arrived at 8am, I found that my flight was delayed to 14:00.  Okay, two hours, not a huge deal.  Except they weren't checking people in yet, so I had to sit and wait with my bags.  About an hour later  I convinced them to let me through to the check-in counters, and 30 minutes later they called my flight.  I checked in, and the apologized for the delay.  I said it was fine and proceeded to the terminal.  Along the way I looked at my ticket and saw that the flight time was now 16:00.  Argh.  I went to the foot massage place and spent an hour in bliss.  And then I looked at the monitor and saw the flight was now 20:00.  ARGH.  It was about 11:00.  I had a smoothie.  I walked around.  I ate lunch.  I walked around.  And then I saw the mob forming.

Apparently, my fellow passengers were angry.  The plane was now delayed indefinitely.  It had not even taken off from Jeddah yet.  Nobody seemed to know anything.  There was shouting.  And pushing.  And screaming.  And veiled threats.  And mass confusion.

We asked to be taken to hotels.  The confused/exhausted airline representatives said the airport hotel was full.  We couldn't leave because we were past immigration.  That seemed a lame excuse to me, but whatever.  I met up with some colleagues on the same flight who didn't have any additional information.  I finally found a group of passengers who were demanding access to a lounge.  That sounded pretty good to me, so I followed them, and we were given lounge access.  The lounge was quiet, temperature controlled, comfortable (I picked a couch), and had clean bathrooms and free food and drink.  This was much better.  It was now about 15:00.

Well, the lounge was good.  But not for 10 hours.  Which is precisely how long I stayed there with some of my fellow passengers.  I met some very nice people and read a lot and had random conversations.  But it was not a fun 10 hours.  Particularly because the airline representatives were not forthcoming with information and were downright patronizing and elusive.  Plus, 17 hours in any airport, even in a lounge, just plain sucks.

Our plane finally took off, 14 hours late.  Not one person was upgraded to business class or allowed in the empty upper deck.  Instead we were all sandwiched into one economy section with not even an apology for our ordeal.  Or even any hint at compensation.  But I am determined not to relive that 17 hours anymore than I already did in these few paragraphs.

I landed in Jeddah a full day later than I was supposed to and slept all day.  Luckily I had that day and the next off from work to recuperate.  Which was blissful.  But what a horrific end to a wonderful vacation.

And now for pictures. 

Negombo beach

my Negombo hotel

surf at Negombo

Tablecloth #1!

Tablecloth #2!

Tablecloth #3!  This picture does not do justice to the colors - a sort of bronzey-gold and deep purple stripe

Tablecloth #4!

Tablecloth #5!

My elephant collection

Modern Mask #1

Modern Mask #2

Brass Candlestick Holder

Woven bag

Batik Wall-art

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Evening Ramblings

I'm still here.  I haven't gone dark.  I just have been supremely busy and somewhat pensive lately.   

Luckily I have some trips planned in the next couple of months, which are always great fodder for blog entries.  Which reminds me - I am still behind on a few travelogues.

I had my first pang of I'm-going-to-miss-this-place today.  I still have oodles of time before departure, but I'm experiencing a series of 'lasts' already.  Like September and October and, soon, Hajj.  Already passed my last Eid al-Fitr.

And perhaps the most important thing to post is that we are all mourning the passing of HRH Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud this week.  He died after a long illness yesterday in NYC.  The official period of mourning begins Tuesday.

Sultan al-Khair was beloved by his people and will be very much missed.  President Obama said it best:  "[Sultan] was a strong supporter of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries...  On behalf of the American people, I extend my deepest condolences to King Abdullah, the royal family, and the people of Saudi Arabia."

And with that, it's time for bed.  More to come.  Soon.  Ish.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Lessons From A Troubadour

Ah, a blog post.  This will be a mish mash of random thoughts.  I haven't been motivated to do a lot of writing lately.  I still need to post about the last couple of days in Sri Lanka, Ramadan, Miami, and a few other things.  I have a sticky note to remind me daily.  But, motivation and words escape me a lot lately.  Part of it is a bit of paranoia.  I have been reading with interest/horror/contemplation the many posts lately focusing on FS blogs and bloggers and the potential effect on one's career.  And even though I follow most of the unwritten rules, it's still something to consider.  I'm not really all that anonymous, but, really, the FS world is so small that it almost doesn't matter. 

Work has been really great and really challenging lately.  I'm busy almost every minute of the day, which I enjoy.  I have been here long enough to know my portfolio pretty well and feel relatively established (and also who to ask when I don't know things).  Summer transfer season meant saying goodbye to some wonderful people and welcoming some other wonderful people. 

When I hit the one year mark at post, it still felt like I had a long way to go.  Which was good.  But all of a sudden it feels like time is moving entirely too fast and I'll be leaving Jeddah all too soon.  There's still so much to be done!  I think I was so anxious about bidding and finding out my second post that one year seemed like an eternity.  Now that I know and am excited and relaxed, two months have passed in the blink of an eye.  It's both comforting and discombobulating. 

Fall is my homesick time.  All this talk of apple picking and canning vegetables and fires in the woodstove and leaves changing color has me wistful for a New England fall.  It's been a while...  It's no wonder I've been making all manner of Thanksgiving foods lately.  But pecan pie on a day when it's 110 and feels like a sauna outside just isn't the same.  (And, Mom, this does not mean I'm going to get all wistful over NH winter.  I still dislike snow and sleet and cold.)

And then there's the world.  So much going on.  It's hard to keep up some days.  The 24 hour news cycle and unique perspective I have on international affairs as a result of my job means I'm never really separated from the goings on.  My dreams have been even more vivid and related to real life than usual lately.  Maybe that's why I feel less rested even when I sleep more. 

East Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa, is on my mind a lot.  For some obvious reasons.  For some less so.  Probably partly because I'm moving to the region next year.  A week or so ago I read an article in the NY Times by poet/musician K'Naan about his return to his homeland of Somalia.  It is definitely sticking with me.  As one Facebook commentator said, the article is both eloquent and heart-wrenching.  And now I've been listening to his music almost non-stop.  I always loved the very catchy anthem "Wavin' Flag" made popular during the World Cup in 2010, but I'm enjoying his other songs as well. 

I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the latest news from Saudi Arabia concerning voting rights for women.  According to most Western media, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I'm not convinced, nor are a lot of the women I talk to.  This is not the right forum to get into a discussion (see first paragraph), but there's a lot more to consider.  And some of the many, many articles I've read have raised some of the other issues.  Read a broad spectrum of articles if you want to know more.  Don't get me wrong, I am of course excited at the news and applaud King Abdullah's efforts.  But everything comes with a context, including this. 

But even with everything going on and the nonstop commentary and analysis going on in my head, I'm content.  And it feels comfortable. 

But if Callaghan doesn't stop biting my feet in the mornings and tearing the lining out of my shoes, I will be a whole lot less content.  Perhaps it's time to dip back in to my water gun stash. 

When everything else is chaos, the kittens are a constant.  As it should be. 

Why, yes, I was busy.  But if you're going to pet me, I guess I'm available.

Please, please, please take off your shoes so I can eat the linings! And are those exposed toes!?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 5-6

Before starting on days 5-6, I need to recap two events from Day 4 that I forgot.  First, I fell again.  Directly on my already sore knee.  The rug in my room was on top of a very slippery tile floor, and I went flying.  Score two for clumsiness.  So at this point walking was becoming almost impossible.

Second, I had a very sweet conversation with a young girl while on the birdwatching tour.  My counterparts took off for a short hike which, as evidenced by my two falls on my bad knee, I just couldn’t fathom at that moment.  So I sat on the banks of a pond of lily pads and watched for crocodiles.  And a young girl comes shyly up to me and then boldly asks me my name in English.  I reply and ask hers.  She tells me and then runs away.  Then a few minutes later she comes back and asks where I am from.  I tell her and ask her.  She tells me and runs away.  Then she comes back and asks me my favorite color.  I tell her blue and ask hers (red).  She stays.  She asks me my favorite food (mushrooms) and I hers (pineapple).  Then she asks my favorite subject.  I think and say math and ask hers.  She smiles broadly, looks me directly in the eyes, says “English!” and then runs away again, for good this time.  Very cute.

Anyway, day five.

I wake up super early (4:30 am) and quickly dress and head for the van.  The only time it’s worth getting up this early is when I am going on safari and, even then, it’s tough.  The guesthouse proprietor drives me to the park in his van so I don’t have to bump over the roads in an open safari jeep.  We get close to the gates just as the sun is beginning to rise and see a herd of wild boar run in front of us.  Several moms and about 20 little tiny babies.  They are gone before I can get my camera out.  I climb into my safari jeep and head for Yala National Park.  The driver and my guide go buy tickets while I watch the goings on.  The entrance is packed with safari jeeps, pretty evenly split between Western tourists and local Sri Lankan families.  There’s a family of dogs hanging out near my jeep, along with adorable puppies of various sizes.  They all look alike.  A couple of tourists are taking pictures while the puppies try to play with them.  A soldier walks by, and the dogs all take off after him.  Must be the bearer of breakfast.

My team returns with permits in hand, and we take off for the gate.  We’re there just as it opens, with a dozen or so other jeeps. 

The first sighting is of a herd of spotted deer, crossing the road.  There will be many more deer today.

Then we come upon a small pond, complete with large crocodile on the banks.  Finally!

A bit farther on we come across a group of jeeps and an excited air.  A leopard!  Maybe.  Perhaps.  A few minutes ago?  Nobody is quite sure.  We look and look and look to no avail.  There is no leopard here now. 

We go on.  We see more deer, lots of birds, some boar (but only for a moment).  But no leopards.  We take a road off the main path and come to a beautiful spot on the ocean.  I had forgotten the park bordered the coast.  There used to be two resorts here.  They were lost in the tsunami, along with 49 lives here.  About 250 people died that day in Yala.  The resorts are gone, with only a smattering of foundation remaining.  And a nice memorial on the shores.  It’s sobering, particularly on such a beautiful day. 

We move on.  Lots of leopard-friendly landscapes, but no leopards.  On all the safaris I’ve been on in my life (a lot), I’ve only once seen a leopard.  And he was moving and not terribly close at that.  So I have a bit of a complex when it comes to spotting leopards.  And Yala has one of the highest densities of them in the world.  I had high hopes. 

We did come across a herd of elephants, who paused for a drink in one of the watering holes.  More spotted deer.  A great close-up of a bee-eater.  Water buffalo.  Land monitors.  Dozens of peacocks.  More wild boar, who this time allowed me take photos.  Then some grey langurs.  One of which did a fantastic leopard impression.  But no leopards. 

Hours passed.  My hope started to wane.  We turned around and started heading out of the park.

You know what’s going to happen next, right?

We come across another group of jeeps.  I see nothing.  But the buzz is, there’s a leopard in the tree over there.  About a half mile away.  We don’t have binoculars.  But I do have good zoom on my camera!  My guide is first able to spot the big guy.  I don’t know how he did it.  With the naked eye all I can see is a black spot in a bunch of trees.  They keep talking about a tail hanging down.  My eyes just aren’t that good.  But finally with some help I was able to see, through my 80X zoom on my camera, something that kind of sort of looked like a large spotted cat.  I took a bunch of photos.  Then the leopard shifted positions and I could see him a bit better.  And could find him again in the viewfinder without too much help.  He started looking like a leopard.  Very exciting!

We stayed there for close to thirty minutes watching.  While the scale of the sighting was a bit disappointing, it was still a leopard!

We continued on toward the exit.  And came across another group of jeeps.  This time, a really rare find, a sloth bear!  He never quite came into the clear while foraging for tasty termites, but we watched for quite a while and got some relatively good sightings of him. 

The entire safari was good - not quite as good as any of my Africa adventures - but still exciting.  And three of the big five isn’t bad (especially since there are no lions or rhinos in Sri Lanka). 

We headed for the exit, I waved goodbye to the puppies, and we drove back to the guesthouse.  Going slowly in an open jeep was great for observing village life and enjoying the fresh air.  I ate a hearty breakfast upon returning and then took a well-deserved afternoon nap.  One last dinner at the neighborhood tourist trap restaurant and then bed. 

The next day we packed up and headed on our way.  The destination for the day was Sinharaja rain forest.  I had thought I’d be doing a jeep excursion through the forest the following day, but my driver explained that there was actually no road in the forest and the only way to see it was by foot.  Okay, I asked, how difficult is the terrain and how long will we walk?  I was still barely able to walk and wanted to decide whether this was something I could do.  Oh, he said, only about eighteen kilometers through the mountains.  And there are leeches.  Ummm, yeah.  Been there, done that.  Still have the nightmares.  I nixed the excursion, but we headed out to the guesthouse anyway. 

The drive was absolutely gorgeous.  Some of the scenery was familiar, as I’d driven through this region on my previous trip to Sri Lanka.  We passed tea plantations, rubber plantations, spice plantations, and countless roadside stands selling pillow stuffing.  We drove through Ratnapura, where I went a little gem-crazy last time, and saw the gem mines on the outskirts of town. 

Once we left Ratnapura we started to climb higher in elevation and were on less well-kept roads.  At some points we had to have locals help us navigate around exceptionally large potholes/flooded areas.  We took a series of turns, each one taking us into a more deserted and rural (and beautiful!) area.  Finally we saw signs for Sinharaja and eventually my guesthouse for the evening.  It seemed nice as we drove up, if a little run down.  I knew there would not be A/C.  I was not expecting, however, that there would only be electricity for a few hours each day.  Meaning the ceiling fan and light and water.   And, there was nobody there.  No signs of life, except for one employee who finally came to greet us.  I hauled my suitcases up to my room and set them down.  And looked around.  And got that feeling that this just wasn’t going to work.  It wasn’t even the lack of electricity so much but the eerie isolation and some internal ‘hmmm’ sense.  I’ve only ever had to use that sense a few times, but I trust it enough to act on it.  I don’t think anything bad would have happened, realistically, but I decided there was a better option.  So I talked to my driver about driving on to Negombo, the destination for the next day, and staying at that hotel tonight.  While only about 210 kilometers away, I knew it would take a while.  We established that the hotel had another vacancy, I agreed to pay a small fee for the change in plans (well worth it), and I apologized profusely to the nice guesthouse employee.  And we set off at about 3:30pm.

We were in Ratnapura by 5:15pm, having covered the worst of the road conditions and about 60 km. 

And arrived in Negombo at 10:15pm. 

The same thing happened the last time I drove from Ratnapura to Negombo.  That lowly 150 km stretch takes FOREVER to drive.  Most of it is on two-lane roads, like the rest of Sri Lanka.  But the volume of traffic (moped, tuk tuk, car, van, bus, truck, big truck, livestock, and tractor) is heavy and passing opportunities fewer between. 

By the time we got to the hotel, I was starving, having missed lunch and dinner.  The hotel had closed dinner service by then, but luckily there was a decent restaurant across the street.  It was by far the cheapest meal I ate all week.  I guess being in the ‘big’ city has its advantages.  Then I turned the A/C and the fan on in my room, watched a bit of BBC news, and went to sleep. 

(Note: it took a total of 16 hours to upload the following photos, and the interface is not user friendly, so they are completely and totally out of order.  So read the blog before looking at the photos for some semblance of chronology and storyline.)

Leopard, looking right at ya!

See the bear?

That large black blob is a sloth bear

Sloth bear

Grey langurs!

Grey langur doing a wonderful leopard impression

Wild boar
Spot the leopard! Look at the center of the treeline in the photo. Move your eyes left past the slight dip into the next stand of taller trees.  Then just as your eyes hit that stand of trees, look slightly down to the black, dark hole.  That's where the leopard was.

One of the clearest leopard shots I got

Leopard! His tail hanging down was the giveaway

Land monitor


See the leopard??

Heron and stork

Spotted deer with antlers

Baby boar!

Strutting peacock

Wild boar!

Spotted deer baby and mama

How many elephants do you see?

Wild buffalo

Spotted deer drinking!

The steps and foundation pieces are all that remain of two resorts, after the tsunami

Spotted deer!


Beautiful Yala and the Indian Ocean

Fishing Huts on the Beach in Yala


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Later.

Ten years.  In some ways it feels like a lifetime.  In others it feels like just yesterday.  I feel lucky that the events of September 11, 2001 did not take a loved one from me.  But, like all Americans, my world changed profoundly that day.  I grieve alongside those who did lose loved ones, that horrible day and in the ten years of war since then.  I thank and respect those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who put their lives on the line every day for the country that I love.  My decision to join the Foreign Service was not necessarily informed by the events of that day, but its legacy looms large over my profession.  I have no profound words to say; I can only relate my recollection of that day. 

Ten years.  I was a college sophomore in Washington, DC, sleeping in on a Tuesday early in the semester, my first class not until 11.  I woke shortly after 9am to the phone ringing.  It was my roommate's father calling to tell us that there had been a couple of plane crashes.  He was safe in an airport in middle America, having just landed himself.  He didn't sound terribly concerned, but the second plane had just crashed into the South Tower, and the realization was only just becoming clear.  I heard the call waiting beep and hung up with him.  My mother was calling, screaming at me to get out of the city and to stay safe.  She had been in a senior staff meeting at the hospital where she worked in NH, and she'd watched as one by one administrators were beeped out.  The Emergency Department Director.  The helicopter squad director.  The director of security.  The nursing director.  The infection disease director.  And so on and so forth.  Finally someone told them what was going on.  She ran back to her office and called me.  Hearing her panicked voice scared me more than anything.  I assured her I was fine and would stay in place until I knew what was going on.  I called my dad at work; he'd only just heard, and they were trying to figure what, if anything, to tell the students at school. 

And then the third plane crashed.  Only a few miles from where I was standing.  By then I was in my suitemates' room, watching the towers burn on CNN.  So many questions.  So much uncertainty. 

So I went to work.  The Office of International Programs.  They were in full crisis mode, even if the full extent of the crisis wasn't quite clear yet.  Nobody had any answers or concrete advice.  We didn't know if there were more planes.

And then the fourth plane crashed, thankfully falling short of its as-yet-unnamed target. 

I walked over to my classroom.  Some others were milling about, unsure what to do.  Classes had not yet been canceled.  But it was clear we weren't operating as normal. 

I walked back to my dorm.  Watched a little more CNN.  Hugged my roommate, who had come back from her early class.

We walked together over to an apartment building where, from the roof, we could watch the smoke from the Pentagon.  It still seemed unreal.  A friend, a NYC native, almost lost it when we got word that the Towers had come down.  For him, that was the moment it became real.  I don't know what my moment was.  It still seems surreal.

We gravitated towards an apartment where several friends lived.  All day we watched the news and called loved ones and friends and grieved whenever we heard about another link to a passenger on one of the planes or an employee in the Towers or the Pentagon.  And there were many.  I remember we eventually ordered Chinese food.  That was the first restaurant that agreed to deliver.  None of us wanted to go to the cafeteria, where grief counselors were already in place. 

I spoke finally with all of my relatives in the DC area.  We realized we didn't have a contingency emergency plan.  But we were all safe, and that mattered at that moment.

As I walked home later that night, I saw that chalk memorials and tributes had been drawn all over the campus.  Many of them already calling for tolerance and interfaith community support and proclaiming God Bless America. 

The next day, there was class.  But only in the form of support and discussion and trying to make sense out of what had happened.  But of course, that sense is still not here ten years later. 

There were tanks on the streets of Georgetown.  The National Guard was all over the place.  Which was both reassuring and incredibly frightening. 

I spent that weekend with my extended family.  We discussed contingency plans and grieved for our nation and hugged each other tight. 

That was ten years ago.  But the entire week is burned into my memory, for better or worse.  It became the new normal.  The defining moment of the new history of the world. 

I certainly never imagined I'd be commemorating ten years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  I'm not going to dwell on this; every news outlet in the world has been doing plenty of that this week. 

For me, one of the most poignant commemorations has been playing out in the Washington Post over the last two weeks.  Each day they've published vignettes of real people affected by 9/11/01 and what their lives are like ten years later.  The heartbreak inherent in each story is what makes the anniversary real for me.  Because the concept of 9/11 is so incredibly pervasive that it almost loses meaning in the larger context.  I hear it every day, many times, and have heard it many times each day for ten years.  But beyond the implications for foreign policy and globalization and security and counterterrorism, it's about the stories.  Of not just the 2,977 innocents who died that day but the thousands of others who have sacrificed their lives since then.  And the millions of Americans and others whose lives changed that day.  They all have stories.  And mine is an incredibly lucky and relatively mundane one among millions.  But it's part of the collective memory.  And tomorrow we'll all collectively remember, though none of us has forgotten for a moment for the past ten years.  It feels like a lifetime ago.  But it also feels like just yesterday.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 3-4

Day 3 included an easy, ambling drive along the south coast to Tangalle.  We passed some of the worst examples of tsunami destruction, with entire villages wiped out and still not rebuilt.  Too many people died in some of them to even justify rebuilding.  Other towns showed fewer signs of damage.  There were memorials and graves all along the drive, and it was a very humbling sight.  Especially given my own extremely minor battles with rough surf the day before.  I can’t imagine the horror of having an otherwise beautiful day destroyed by the entirely unexpected wall of water, destroying everything in its path, people and buildings alike.

One of the sights along the way was seeing stilt fishermen - men perched on stilts placed in the ocean with fishing rods.  We didn’t stop to take pictures because it’s become a tourist trap - many of the ‘fishermen’ no longer fish and instead sit there waiting for tourists to come along and take their photo - for a fee of course.

We arrived at today’s stop, Palm Paradise Cabanas, in the early afternoon.  It was off the main road and quite secluded, which was nice.  The cabanas were well-spaced in a garden setting, with lots of swaying palm trees and tropical plants spaced around.  The secluded beach was again only steps away.  I checked out the beach first but didn’t even attempt to swim today - similarly rough seas.  Plus, it was high tide, and there was little beach space left for relaxing.  I had a yummy lunch of vegetable noodles and then indulged in a pleasant afternoon nap.  The cabana was rustic but pristine, with a large mosquito net over the bed and a small fan providing much-needed relief from the heat and humidity.  I kept all the windows open to take advantage of the sea breeze, but this ‘natural air-conditioning’ left a bit to be desired on a hot August day.

I woke up in the early evening to raindrops on the roof.  A quick, hard rain was followed by a bit of drizzling for a while, but none of it bothered me.  After a nice dinner of curries and noodles, I headed out for another turtle adventure.

Rekawa Beach, located a few kilometers from Tangalle, is one of the best places to see turtles laying their eggs in Sri Lanka.  During the high season, an average of 17 turtles come to the beach.  The Turtle Conservation Project welcomes visitors to come learn about their operations.  After a windy drive down a steep dirt track, we arrived at the main parking area and proceeded down to the beach, another steep dirt track.  About 100 meters before we reached the beach we extinguished all flashlights - no artificial light is allowed on the beach lest it disturb the turtles.  We arrived about 8:30, and by then all the volunteers were in place.  Every night these dedicated volunteers spread themselves out along several kilometers of beach to safely escort turtles who come to lay eggs.  They have successfully educated locals on turtle nesting habits and dissuaded potential poachers.  The evening’s team leader told me he’s headed to Costa Rica next year to present on Sri Lankan turtle preservation work.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Costa Rica is not actually in the United States, as he proudly claimed.

We sat down in the HQ - a thatched hut - and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Apparently rough seas were keeping the turtles from coming ashore.  Finally, about 10:30, the signal went out.  A turtle was making her way ashore.  Problem was, she was 2km away.  Which meant hiking through the woods in the dark for 2km to get to the adjoining beach, and then hiking the 2km back to the original beach.  And with my still-tender knee, I just couldn’t fathom it.  So we bid the team goodbye and waited some more.  But no more turtles came ashore.  We waited until midnight and then headed back to the cabanas.  I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see one, but I also know I would have been miserable and foolish to try and hike in the dark with a bum knee.

It was a relatively sleepless night, with mosquitoes continually penetrating my mosquito net fortress and cautionary layer of insect repellent and keeping me awake and itchy.  And, again, the ‘natural A/C’ just wasn’t cutting it.

We set out after breakfast and headed a bit inland, towards Yala National Park.  After about two hours of driving we reached Tissamaharama, a small town that is the main gateway to Yala.  Tissa is also close to Kataragama, site of a very important temple complex for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike.  It’s an extremely popular pilgrimage destination for millions.

I stayed at a small but charming guesthouse, Elephant Camp, which is a beautiful little place with very generous and hospitable owners.  The room was large, comfortable, pristine, and complete with A/C - what more could you ask for?

After lunch I headed over to Kataragama for a walk through the temple complex.  It was very busy, even during the mid afternoon, so I just did a quick walk through.

The owner of the guesthouse took a few of us out on a birdwatching tour in the early evening.  We first passed by Tissa Wewa, a large man-made lake in the middle of town, which was very active with dozens of pilgrims bathing themselves before heading off to Kataragama.  Vendors were selling fish and fruit and cool drinks on the side of the road, and there was a lively and excited vibe.

We continued on a small track near the lake and came across an agricultural area filled with rice paddies ready for harvest.  Farmers were heading home for the day, along with their cows and buffaloes.  I don’t know what it is about it, but I absolutely love driving down roads with livestock.  It just seems exciting to me, and I’ve always been intrigued by this.

The first major sighting was a large tree with hundreds, if not thousands, of sleeping fruit bats.  So incredibly cool!  These large bats looked like oddly-shaped leaves at first until you could focus on what they actually were.  Some were waking up and flying, and they looked exactly like the typical ‘vampire bat’ silhouettes you see at Halloween.  So, so, so neat!

We continued on and watched weaver birds popping in and out of their distinctive nests, kingfishers and bee-eaters flitting about, green parrots roosting at the tops of trees, egrets and cormorants hanging out with the livestock in the rice paddies, various types of crows annoying the general population, and the Sri Lankan national bird - the jungle fowl - darting across the road.

We didn’t see any crocodiles, sadly, though not for lack of trying.  All-in-all, a perfectly lovely tour and a great benefit to staying at a small guesthouse with eager owners!  Dinner and an early bedtime - safari in the morning!!

(As much as I try to put photos in order, the Blogger interface prevents me from doing so.  Apologies for the following lack of organization.)

Rice Paddies

Green Parrot

Buffaloes in the road!!

Beach at Tangalle

Palm trees - my absolute favorite

Home sweet cabana

Banana trees!

View from the cabana's porch

Mosquito fortress

Weaver bird and nests

Kingfisher (l) and Bee-Eater (R)

Fruit bats!!

So, so cool!

Pilgrims bathing in Tissa Wewa

Time for a boat ride!