Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A python, a cobra, and a monkey on a leash...in Galle

A man walks down the street with a python, a cobra and a monkey on a leash...  No, this isn't the opening line of a bad joke, rather, it was the beginning of our first full day in Galle and the adventure that followed during our week in Sri Lanka....more on that in a few minutes.

Jennifer, the kids, my parents and I had all arrived at the Columbo Airport in Sri Lanka about 20 hours earlier, all of us prepared for the adventure ahead of us.  Surprisingly, in a country that saw the conclusion of a 25+ year civil war in 2009, the airport was modern, immigration was a breeze, duty free was conveniently located, and the only real oddity was the wide selection of kitchen appliances (refrigerators, ovens, etc.) available for sale next to the baggage claim belts.  We had hired a driver for the week (Ruwan), and he was patiently awaiting our arrival just outside of customs.  So far, so good.....honestly, a little boring!

After loading up the van, we were quickly on our way towards the town of Galle.  But before we could enjoy Galle, we had to endure a 75-mile trip that took FIVE HOURS (and this is not the last time we would experience this). The roads were narrow and congested with bicycles, pedestrians, tuk-tuks, cars, delivery trucks and overly packed "express" buses that would fly by our van at twice our speed and slam on the brakes at the next bus stop.  Oh, and I forgot about the random cows that would wander into traffic.  If you've been to India, driving in Sri Lanka is comparable.  If you haven't, I'd describe it as driving with the congestion of the New Jersey Turnpike, the free ranging wildlife of a petting zoo, the pedestrian traffic of NYC and literally no traffic rules.  Exhilarating!

Typical Sri Lanka Traffic

After hours of travelling through small, coastal fishing villages and dingy, over-crowded towns, Ruwan recommended we stop at a small turtle sanctuary along the coast, called the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Hatchery. With Sophia along, this was something we simply could not miss.

We quickly learned that this small turtle sanctuary, along with much of the Southwest Coast of Sri Lanka, had been devastated by the 2004 Tsunami.  Now rebuilt, the sanctuary consists of three sandy plots enclosed in loose netting, and about a dozen small concrete pools.  The three sandy plots each housed several dozen turtle egg nests, created by the sanctuary to protect new eggs brought there by local fishermen.  Three of the pools held one-day old, two-day old and three-day old turtles - while the remaining half dozen pools held older, mostly injured turtles, who could never be returned to the wild.  We were all amazed to learn the sanctuary boasts survival rates up to 10 times better than wild nests and we loved the unique opportunity to handle the adorable little turtles, some of which were just hours old.

After this short break, we were back in the van, dodging express buses, tuk-tuks and cows for the remaining hour to Galle.

Deco on 44
In Galle, we stayed at Deco on 44, a boutique hotel, originally built as the private home of a gem merchant in the 1930's.  It had a restaurant, rooftop patio, small pool and just seven rooms, each named after the seven bastions around Galle Fort.  We loved it.

We spent the first evening checking out the streets and alleys inside the Galle Fort, which was recently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The town within the fort walls was quite different from the villages just outside and had a distinctive Dutch Colonial feel.  Which makes sense, since the Portuguese first built the fort, but the Dutch fortified it in the 17th century.  There were numerous local shops, small businesses and restaurants along the cobblestone streets, but after our long day of travel, we were all ready to sit down for some dinner and our first "Lion Lager".  We found a great little place called Fortaleza, originally a spice warehouse built around 1600, where we enjoyed our dinner and cold beer in the restaurant's open courtyard.

The next morning, the kids, my parents and I ventured out at about 5:30 AM to catch the sunrise and some amazing views of the Fort lighthouse.  Standing on the fort wall, just a few feet from a 30-foot drop into the Indian Ocean made me a little anxious - even more so since it was dark and the kids were in tow.  Still, it was worth the early wake-up for the views and the kids kept themselves occupied with flashlights.

Later in the morning, we ventured a little further from the hotel, checking out other areas of the fort, including several of the remaining bastions, local churches and the fresh fish and fruit markets, located just outside the fort's walls.  It was on these strolls that we met the man with the python, the cobra and the monkey on a leash.  (I know...finally). 

Galle Fort and Clock Tower

Fish Market
1 of 2 men with "a python, a cobra, and a monkey on a leash"
Strangely, this turned out to be the first of two men with a python, cobra and monkey on a leash - and we joked that this 3-piece value-pack must be available as a mail order deal.  Both men with the "snake-snake-monkey set" were eager to have us hold the python and monkey as they charmed the cobra, and each time I found myself yelling at Cooper and Sophia to keep them from stepping on the cobra basket!  In hindsight, I'm not really sure why I trusted these "professionals" with their snakes and monkeys...but hey, everyone came out alive.

My favorite photo - note Cooper holding the monkey in the background
In the late afternoon, we wrapped up the day with a visit to the Maritime Museum, a Buddhist "Peace Pagoda" and the kids played in the Indian Ocean at Unawatuna Beach.  The museum housed some interesting artifacts found just off the coast of the island and we all enjoyed a little bit of air conditioning.  At the Peace Pagoda, we were educated on the Buddhist religion, as Ruwan talked to us about the significance of the Buddhist Stupa and the many statues.  I think I was "enlightened", so hopefully that will come in handy some day!
Peace Pagoda - Stupa
At Unawatuna Beach, the kids jumped waves as my parents got acquainted with quite possibly the most handsome man in Sri Lanka...or at least he thinks he is.  (He asked them to take his picture.)
Unawatuna Beach
"I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer that my hair remain perfect"
In all, we had a packed schedule and again were ready for a relaxing dinner, which we had at Deco on 44.  Before bed, we all sat outside on the balcony overlooking the streets of Galle and finished what was left of our Lion Lagers from the fridge.  In the morning, we knew we had another few hours on the crazy roads of Sri Lanka on the way to our next stop - Yala National Park... (next update coming soon from Yala)

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Back to Bali

2009 New Year's Eve
Many of you know my great friend, Whitney.   We have a funny yet slightly embarrassing story about how we met.  We met on a message board on theknot.com while planning our weddings (they were two weeks apart!).  When we finally decided to meet in person at a bar, she brought a friend in case I was a nutjob.  I brought no one, because I am naive and stupidly trusting by nature.  Luckily, she wasn't a nutjob either.  That night was the start of a great friendship.

The reason I mention Whitney is that she is responsible for my latest job.  We both quit our "real" jobs when our eldest children were born - I started my Baby Sophia Gifts business and she wisely chose to enter the new world of blogging.  She has had great success with Mommies With Style, and has subsequently ventured into a second blog, Family Travel Diary.  Yours truly is proud to be an Asian correspondent, along with Jason!
So when I was contacted by a PR person about reviewing two new hotels in Bali, I jumped at the chance.  We paid for our own flights (sooo cheap to Indonesia from here) but were set up with rooms for two nights at the Sheraton Bali Kuta and one night at Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran.  Breakfast, two dinners, airport transfers and two spa treatments were also included.  Lucky for us, both hotels were fabulous so I was able to honestly write glowing reviews.

Read the full reviews of the Sheraton Bali Kuta and Le Meridien Bali Jimbaran!

The first time we visited Bali, we pretty much just laid at the pool and the beach.  This time, we decided to actually DO something.   The one thing we did repeat though, was a visit to the Waterbom Water Park in Kuta.  I just cannot emphasize how much I love that place.  For more info, visit our post detailing the first trip. It just has the best slides and is very classy for a water park (I know that sounds strange!).  Cooper, however, was not acting "classy" in this picture.

We also visited the famed "Monkey Forest" in Ubud.  It's official name is the Monkey Forest of Padangtegal, and it's a sacred Balinese Hindu site comprised of a few temples and about 700 long-tailed macaques.  Locals sit at the entrance and sell bananas to naive foreigners, who in turn get seriously accosted by hungry monkeys. 

Here are two videos to give you a glimpse of the monkey forest shenanigans:

1.  Monkey thief!

2.  Beetle Ball - we were mesmerized by what the monkeys were doing with this huge beetle!

After finishing up our tour of the Monkey Forest (and after a somewhat traumatic experience for Cooper involving a monkey and a banana - out of respect for him I will not post that video) we were hungry!  Our driver took us through "downtown" Ubud and eventually found a restaurant, Adi Asri,  that a friend had recommended.  It was a perfect combination of local yet Cooper-proof.  I had chicken curry (so good, I am shockingly a fan of Indian food in general) and Jason had Nasi Goreng, which translates to "fried rice" and is the national food of Indonesia.  It's not as basic as it sounds, and usually includes a meat and fried egg. (I will also not hesitate to order this whenever I see it!)  All in all, it was a great end to our day of touring the area.

The next day we were ready to check out the famed Jimbaran Bay area.  Jimbaran Bay used to be just a tiny fishing village, but is now home to many high end resorts and villas, lending it the nickname "the Beverly Hills of Bali".  

The beach and string of seafood places were adjacent to our hotel, so we skipped on over there and randomly picked a restaurant, the Menega Café, for lunch.  At these restaurants, you just pick your fresh seafood from a huge display, and they grill it right then and there on a bed of coconut husks.  We chose lobster, red snapper and prawns.  We added some french fries for the Coops and Bintang for the adults for a pretty darn perfect meal.  I will let the pictures speak for themselves!  (The price in USD for the seafood meal for two in the menu picture is $45 total - check out what you get for that!)



So after a very busy yet fun three days, we were forced to go home.  It's not too hard to go home though, when your view is still palm trees, and it's warm and sunny most of the time (it is definitely warm ALL of the time!).  As with everywhere else, we hope to return, but even if we don't, we have plenty of great memories to always remember Bali!

Next up - Sri Lanka! 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Sophia and Cooper's Tips for Visiting Singapore

Before Jason's parents, Ed and Sharon, arrived for their much anticipated visit to Singapore, Sophia and Cooper made a video with some basic tips on living in and touring around the country. 

We will shortly be mounting a marketing campaign targeting the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Best Director - Jason (the mastermind behind it all)
Best Actor  - Cooper (the shower scene, come on he deserves it!)
Best Actress - Sophia (coming back from the zoo - so natural!)
Best Executive Producer - Jennifer (because really, I did nothing and I am fully aware that is not even an award)

What a Year it's Been!

This past month, (Saturday, March 2 to be exact) marked the one year anniversary of my move from the suburban sprawl of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (USA) to the tropical island city-state of Singapore. 

Over the course of that time, I've had the chance to visit nine different countries - most of which I never thought I would experience in my lifetime.  Jennifer, Cooper and Sophia have been with me for most of these travels...and if you include the travels of my beloved pup, Jessie, you can add a tenth country to the list we've collectively visited (due to Jessie's overnight stay at the pet hotel in the Netherlands on her long journey to Singapore).

We've seen, ate and experienced things that didn't even cross my mind 18 months ago and now, I can't help but think of what's next.  (another trip to Batu Batu in two weeks is the answer, if you were wondering.)

It's hard to put into words what we've experienced, so instead we made a video.  We hope you enjoy it - we certainly have enjoyed our first year in Southeast Asia!