I’m (sort of) back

So nine months after my last published blog entry, I’m finally back. 

Why the unexpected hiatus? Put simply, real life took over and chronicling various meals devoured became less important. 

K and I took possession of my apartment again (purchased in 2010, rented out to tenants while I was living in Sydney) and did a pretty intensive DIY-renovation over a month and a half. This included:

  1. stripping back, patching, and sanding all walls and ceilings
  2. ripping up all carpets and replacing with floating floorboards
  3. replacing all skirting boards and trim around doors and windows
  4. gutting out both built-in wardrobes and building a new wardrobe system
  5. removing all existing blinds and curtains and replacing it with plantation shutters.

Once all that was done, we obviously had to furnish and decorate the apartment, given that we had given away or sold all our furniture when we left Sydney and went travelling. 

During renovations, there came news of another significant life change. Our little family of two and a cat is expanding – K and I expect our first human child any day now. Naturally, this has become all-consuming in the past nine months with hours of research, education classes, appointments and shopping. 

Combined with renovations and family planning, there came also a particularly busy period at work where I (pretty much) single-handedly planned, organised, and ran a 400 person conference on top of my regular work duties. This called for many late nights, and an overwhelming desire to not stare at another computer screen by the time I got home.

All that’s now over. However it does beg the question – what will become of this blog now that my goals in life have shifted and my lifestyle will fundamentally change?

Food blogger may not be the right term to use anymore. I won’t be eating out enough to justify that. I have purchased a new All-in-One slow and pressure cooker though, so there may be recipes to share as I learn to master the art of pressure cooking.

Yet I don’t think I’ll ever be a mummy blogger. However, there’s no doubt there will be parenting-related posts when this child is born and I’m left both pulling my hair out in frustration and consumed by maternal love. 

Let’s just call this a chronicle of life. In the meantime, I’ll try to finish off and publish the nine (!) drafts of blog entries that have been languishing in the back end since March.

Travel Tales: Sri Lanka Family Tour, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I can count on one hand the number of family vacations I’ve been on. For most of my formative years, my family’s financial circumstances and the sixteen hour days, 362 days of the year that my parents worked in the takeaway shop meant that they couldn’t justify taking the time or money to go on holiday.

We took precisely two family holidays between 1991 when we arrived in Australia and 2004 when I turned 18. Once in 1998 when I finished primary school and my parents decided to go back to Hong Kong and Cixi to see our family. And once in 2004 when I finished high school and my parents decided to do the same thing again.

That was the last time I travelled with my whole immediate family.

Since my mother passed away, my father has been travelling more to see our family overseas – partly I think, to escape an empty house. What it does mean is that he’s become more comfortable with the idea of taking time off to travel and see different parts of the world.

Travel is of particular appeal to my father when he can do it with his loved ones. So not just myself, my husband and my brother but our extended family – my aunts, uncles, cousins. And so, before long, our planned family trip to Sri Lanka for my cousin’s wedding turned into a larger and longer family tour around the island in a big tour bus.

Our tour group numbered 23 people in all and included two sets of aunts and uncles, cousins, cousin’s partners, family friends, and our new Sri Lankan relatives. The logistics of travel with a group of that size will always be difficult as you try to cater to everyone’s preferences – which naturally, are very diverse. The difficulties are then amplified when you’re travelling in a country like Sri Lanka where everything runs on ‘island time’ and the travel industry is still very much in its infancy. Add in the fact that the tour guide will try to bend to everyone’s wishes to be polite rather than ruling the tour group with an iron fist as is usually warranted with a group of that size – and it’s a real perfect storm.

It would be fair to say that the first few days were not without their hiccups. Veteran travellers in the group wanted to have more street food and more authentic non-tour-group experiences. Trying to take everyone on that authentic journey is near-impossible when you’re eating at small un-airconditioned stalls that can’t cater adequately for a tour group of our size. On the flip side, the older members of our group really struggled with the oppressive heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, and found it difficult to stay out of air-conditioning for much more than an hour. You can’t see much of the country from air-conditioned hotel rooms and tour buses. Finding that balance between the two opposing dichotomies was an interesting experience.

While the logistical aspects of a big family group tour had its challenges, there were definite highlights to the trip as well. My own personal highlight was a twilight safari tour we did in Kaudulla National Park where we saw herds of elephants by the water, birds in flight, and even a fox feeding on a carcass. Interestingly, one of the herds of elephants was moving around and mingling with a herd of cows that had once been domesticated but had escaped into the national park years ago.

I also enjoyed the time spent on a train to Nuwara Eliya (motion sickness not withstanding) – an old blue train winding its way through lush green forests and jungles, past distant waterfalls and into tea plantation country with curved waves of tea plants lining the hills as far as the eye can see. The time in Nuwara Eliya itself with its beautiful Colonial-era architecture was particularly pleasant with the higher and cooler climate proving to be a nice respite from the humidity elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

I’m a big nerd for cultural and historical facts as well – so I enjoyed visiting temples and the ruins of ancient Sinhalese cities. I would have preferred more of that style of historical tour to be honest, but that kind of learning-based tour wasn’t to everyone’s taste so we cut short visits to some places where I would have liked to spend more time. There’s always next time!

One final highlight – visiting and climbing Sigiriya, the site of a former palace of a dictator Sinhalese king, Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura. It is breathtaking in sheer physical size and you feel a real sense of achievement when you manage to climb all the way to the top of the rock. What I enjoyed though was the history that you could see in every part of the grounds – from the foundations of the ancient water gardens and palaces to the crude wall paintings hidden halfway up the rock. Hearing the details of the story of this dictator king was a real highlight, and helped to bring some of Sri Lanka’s history to life.

Food-wise, after a few missteps with attempting to feed 23 people at streetside stalls, we ended up eating primarily at air-conditioned, hygienic and overpriced restaurants that could cater for large tour groups. While sometimes that meant Sri Lankan curries (some of my go-to favourite options were the stir-fried kang kong and an eggplant dish called Brinjal Moju), other times it meant having a slightly bastardised Western-style meal. Not ideal, but practical…and if I’m being honest, even in those tame tour-friendly restaurants, I found it hard to have a bad meal!

At the end of the day, whatever challenges we faced along the way are the same challenges that you might face with your family under any circumstances – no matter if it’s on holiday or at home. Finding that balance between generational and personal preferences is what family relationships are all about.

I wouldn’t give up the trip for anything. Looking back now, or in five, ten or twenty years time I know that there will be only one thing that comes to my mind – the quality time I got to spend with my extended family. As K and I start to look towards the next stage of our lives and the possibilities of starting our own family, opportunities for being with extended family will begin to fade away. I’m grateful for the time that I had with them – heaven knows I didn’t get to spend enough quality holiday time with my mother before she passed away.

Family Wedding in Galle, Sri Lanka

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I thought I had an elaborate year of getting married in 2015, what with our wedding banquet in China, the actual wedding ceremony and a reception. Then my cousin comes along with a registry ceremony, a later ceremony, a reception, and then a full wedding banquet in Galle, Sri Lanka, where his wife is from. Check and mate! 

The wedding banquet is why we went to Sri Lanka in the first place. Myself, K, my father, my brother, two sets of aunts and uncles, my cousin and his wife, another cousin and her boyfriend, an older cousin and his wife, an aunt-in-law, another family friend…I think I’m losing track of everyone! Suffice it to say that we were a large group of Chinese people in Sri Lanka. Ten years ago that would have been a strange sight, but as more and more Chinese tour groups visit Sri Lanka, we were just one of many such groups.

More about the actual Sri Lanka tour in the next blog entry!

We started our stay in Sri Lanka in Galle with a free morning and afternoon to explore Galle Fort – photos of which you can see below. Galle is an absolutely stunning old town and you can see both the Portuguese and Dutch influences in the main buildings of the fort. My cousin’s wife’s surname holds these same Portuguese influences, deriving from the Portuguese surname Alves, or river bed. The history of Galle Fort is etched on every stone and it’s been surprisingly well-preserved – no doubt thanks to the conservation efforts that began not long after the 2004 tsunami which devastated the area.

Outside of the fort, the town is both frenetic and relaxed at the same time – frenetic in the rush of activity around central areas like the bus station where people tried to convince me to step onto buses going to faraway destinations I had no intention of visiting, and relaxed in more residential areas where you can look out of the window and see an overgrown jungle and monkeys in the trees. It’s a strange dichotomy, and one that makes Galle such an interesting place to visit.

The wedding reception was held at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels in Galle with a fantastic view of ocean from the bar and restaurant. The hotel was designed by the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and the eye-catching winding staircase sculpture depicts an epic battle between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese. Architecturally, the hotel is a stunner – I just wish we’d had the foresight to book a room at the hotel as it would have been a fantastic place to stay.

The reception wasn’t what I had stereotypically imagined – it certainly wasn’t the three-day long celebrations of colour, music, and dancing that I had expected. There wasn’t a Poruva ceremony as per a traditional Sinhalese wedding, and I was told this was because my cousin and his wife had been officially married in Australia and so they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) perform the ceremony in Galle. What they did do instead was the Homecoming ceremony, with candle-lighting, cake-cutting, Sinhalese folk dancers and musicians and most importantly – food. Lots and lots of food!

We had a great time meeting our new extended family who we can now bewilderingly introduce to people as ‘my cousin’s wife’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s brother”, taking lots of photos, eating lots of food, and then tearing it up on the dance floor. I’m only disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to experience the full Sri Lankan wedding ceremonies and festivities…anyone Sinhalese planning on getting married soon and want to send me an invitation?