Sunday, 28 December 2008

Looking ahead and reflecting back

2008 has been an immensely tough year, yet an exciting year, a year of loss and near loss amidst gain and renewal, a year where I have pushed myself beyond my limits.

I am at the brink of 2009 with a host of promises and resolutions (aren't we all at this time, every year?!) However, this year sees a certain milestone birthday, which gives even more impetus to make certain changes.

So just to get us off on the right foot, here is a refreshed image of that feisty old blue gecko!

With warm wishes that 2009 will bring peace, happiness and accord.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Saturday, 22 November 2008

.........and marketing in Mongolia

.............and how about this for a classic advertisement hoarding, which I spotted when we were living in Mongolia.

Yes, it really does boast "Meeting your every blasting need".

So far that wins the prize for the most obscure advertisement I have ever seen!


Isn't it funny how some things become amusing with just the slightest change of spelling or expression? I always smile when I pass a chemist nearby which has the proud display "Super Drugs". Totally different to Superdrug in what it conveys!

I think my favourite though, is the advertising hoard for a car repair workshop which proudly tempts custom with its sign "New and used body parts here".

Thanks, but no thanks - I reckon I will pass on all of the above!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Edible and not so edible surprises!

How ironic - lack of posting on the blog is related not to a dearth of things to talk about, but due to too many things to talk about and not enough time to write about them! So thought I would just try and jot down some short and sweet observations for the time being.

I am always interested in the variety of different fruits and vegetables available here, and usually have no idea how to prepare most of them. So I thought I would be adventurous the other day when I was shopping in Arpico (one of the supermarket chains here) and stocked up on a number of interesting vegetables which are in season at the moment. I spied a small pumpkin and thought I would be really brave and make a pumpkin soup or curry, which would go beautifully with some peppers and other seasonal veg. So far so good.

That evening I got to work, peeling and chopping and left the pumpkin till last. The peppers and onions were all chopped and ready and another pot was hosting a medley of fresh beetroot, cabbage and onions. I sliced into the fresh pumpkin flesh and opened it ready to chop. But instead of the orangey flesh I was expecting, I was greeted with white flesh and large seeds! I stared at the mutant pumpkin in horror - and discovered that it was a large, round relative of the cucumber, masquerading as a pumpkin! It was wearing the same colour of skin as a pumpkin it was the same kind of size and shape and even sitting in the same spot in the veggie counter - and worst of all, totally unsuitable for soup!

That was surprise number one - the inedible one.

After a re-think and development of a fresh plan (including relegation of cucumber to the fridge), I set to work on the rest of the dishes. Remembering the wonderful flavours of Russian Borsch (beetroot soup) from my time in Belarus and Russia, I had the idea of preparing something a bit different. A creative concoction developed, which featured a hint of chilli, a handful of cumin seeds, garlic and some of hubby's spices. A brilliant purple mix developed and a rather interesting aroma. With some trepidation, I tasted it, anticipating another disaster, and I was highly surprised to find that beetroot and cabbage curry is really tasty, even if you can see it in the dark!

And that was surprise number two! It was particularly yummy with beaten rice and eaten in South Asian style (with the hand) and results in matching purple fingers!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Multi tasking

I left home the other morning to go to work, and looking up at the sky and seeing some clouds, I decided not to take my umbrella as the sun was not too bright. Umbrellas are essential here to provide shade from the sun when you are walking. However, halfway to work, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour started to drench anyone and anything out in the open - especially me, with no umbrella. That is when I realised that I have been in South Asia for a long time. Really, a Scot has no excuse - I should know better, that the first function of an umbrella is for keeping you dry when it is raining, not for keeping the sun off you. I wonder how that approach would go down in Glasgow?? "Oh now mind and take your umbrella, I think it's gonnie be sunny the day". Somehow I don't think so!

That was one of a number of rather dramatic rainstorms these days. I have seen it called "inter monsoonal monsoon." I think that is the same as the "pre monsoon incessant rain" which I frequently saw reported in the newspapers in Nepal. What often makes the rainstorms dramatic here in Sri Lanka, is the bright sunshine through the torrential rains, giving strange light and shadows. Now how would that go down in Glasgow? Er - it's sunny and it's raining? Now that really is multi tasking!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Alms giving - or taking?

"Didn't I tell you to give the alms to the MONKS?!"

I just loved this - walking back from the boddhi tree at Anuradhapura's sacred city, we were harrassed by monkeys who were after the offerings carried by the pilgrims and visitors to the stupa. But I am not quite sure how they got hold of this!

Travels in the other north

After my visit to the other north, which was one of the most intense and extreme experiences of my life, hubby J and I took off for the weekend to the historic and sacred sites in Dambulla and Anuradhapura in a very different north.In true Sri Lanka hospitality we were welcomed to our room - with a message written in flowers on the floor.
We were staying on the shores on Lake Kandalama, with views of Sigiriya to the north and set in a very tranquil and natural environment.

I think there were more squirrels than guests - they were having a ball all around the grounds. The pool was enormous and the water warm and comfortable, and even the dining area and bar are set in open air.

It was a real break - traditional dancers at night and of course,
a flowery good night message!

Sunday, 24 August 2008

too much many....

..........makes a mickle mackle muckle.

My favourite saying, for when things get a bit overwhelming, or too much. I'd like to think it is my own creation mixing a Scottish flavour with the sub continent quaintness of expression.
And that is how it has been the past few weeks, one of those periods when lots of big things land in your life, all at the same time, each seeking energy and attention.

We were stopped in our tracks a few weeks ago by my father's serious illness. Thanks to today's global Internet and phone communications, modern health care services in Scotland and of course the ability to get yourself across the world in a short space of time I was able to spend a few precious days back in Scotland. Interestingly it took longer to get to the hospital in rural northern Scotland from London, than it did to get from Colombo to London. I was quite taken aback by the number of visitors and tourists which put accommodation at a premium both in terms of availability and cost. But good news for Scotland and probably also for the environment. It had its moments for me too, experiencing extremes in hospitality from a wonderful warm Bed and Breakfast with glorious sea views, delicious traditional breakfast, and superfriendly and welcoming hosts to a version of Mrs Fawlty who spent her time complaining about all the guests, and a night spent in what was called a guest cottage but I am sure was a converted dog kennel! It was also an unexpected and very welcome chance to spend special time with family - it is incredible that in the most intense and difficult of times, we are able to have warm and close time too. As my father's health slowly stabilises and improves we have that extra sense of support and closeness.

Time, energy and a fair bit of stress is also taken up by the latest situation here and the implications as it affects me and my work personally, but more so my friends and colleagues. As I said earlier, that is not something for discussion here or now, but that doesn't detract from the seriousness of what is going on.
So you can imagine how much I was looking forward to hubby J's arrival this week. I had just returned from Scotland drained emotionally and physically and somehow managing to end with "double jet lag", rather than the "no jet lag" I had talked myself into expecting from such a short trip. At the same time I am gearing up to the demands of an intense field trip, so all in all feeling pretty strained. Hubby was all set to travel by train from Siliguri on Wednesday, would arrive in Delhi the following day and catch Thursday evening's flight to Colombo! Wonderful! Or it was until J called with the news that there was an "all India strike" and three states in particular were completely at a standstill. One of those was of course West Bengal, where trains were stopped and even the planes were "ground landed" J's train was halted in Assam for 14 hours so he had a long and miserable wait at Siliguri until the strike lifted that night and the train finally rolled into the station where J, many other miserable travelers and a significant number of cows were waiting on the platform. He arrived in Delhi 13 hours late, far too late to get the flight of course. Thanks to technology, we were able to get his ticket changed and he arrived 36 hours later than expected, a few hours before I will be heading out for my field work, but long enough to rustle up tasty aubergine and pumpkin curries!

And you can never have too much many of tasty curries!

Friday, 1 August 2008

Eclipse perspectives

So now we have a really helpful perspective on the effects of the eclipse (thanks to Konchog's comment) "According to the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, the positive or negative effects of actions during a solar eclipse are multiplied by 10,000." So it is up to us! Think of the effect of what we do - and let's make the most of this opportunity and make sure that we focus on actions with positive effects.

On that note, it is time for a clarification - the stunning eclipse images in yesterday's post are not mine! I didn't realise that some folks might think they were, but I got them from the public domain to illustrate the eclipse. Of course I wish they were!

When the eclipse reaches Colombo later this afternoon it will be in the last stages and due to our southern position will be partial (about 20% visible). It might also be hidden by the heavy clouds which have gathered. Let's see .........................

Dreaming Of Danzan Ravjaa An American Buddhist Monk in and out of Mongolia: Religion, Culture, History and Birdlife
In the meantime, this is the link to Konchog's blog with his thought-provoking insights and experiences which are discerning, perceptive, serious, often amusing and entertaining and always fascinating!

Thursday, 31 July 2008

My birthday eclipse

I have known for a number of years that 2008 is a privileged year for me. On my birthday there will be a total eclipse of the sun!

Apparently an eclipse normally heralds a period of turbulence and change, particularly if it falls on your birthday. Let's hope it is positive.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A weekend break in Unawatuna

This is beautiful Unawatuna on the southern coast of Sri Lanka where I spent a long weekend with my friend and colleague recently.

A rather dramatic rainstorm suddenly lashed the beach and sea, passing over rapidly and letting the sun break through while the rain was still pouring down.

It is a sleepy, charming town, especially during the off season.
Reminders of the 2004 tsunami..................... and some friends............... including a chameleon disguising himself as a rock or undergrowth.

It was my friend's birthday during our stay. She didn't want any fuss but word still got around. We were sitting on her balcony that evening with some bubbly to celebrate quietly. When there was a knock at the door and she heard ' room service', so didn't think to pay much attention. Shortly after, we left the balcony and on passing through her room she was waved through quickly by the room service young man. We realised that there was some plot afoot, particularly given that the said room service young man was sprawled across the four poster bed surrounded by flower petals and leaves! "Please don't look", he pleaded. "Er - OK, no problem" we assured him. Only to hear him call after us - "Excuse me - so could you tell me how you spell your name"?

The poor lad was in charge of making the elaborate flower petal decorations on each guest's bed each night and had been instructed to do a special one for my friend as it was her birthday! Not easy to do this subtly when you don't know the spelling!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Colours of the south

A rather creative water and flower arrangement in the south of Sri Lanka - and a taste of the next instalment.........

Afghan insights

As I boarded the aircraft from Doha for Islamabad, I realised I was squeezed into a tiny seat on the huge airbus. Hope that I would have the 2 seats to myself for the 4 hour flight which would arrive in Islamabad at 3 am was soon dashed as a fellow traveller arrived at my row, gestured towards the seat and started to settle in next to me. He was a really interesting looking character, in very traditional Afghan attire but as I hoped to grab a short sleep before the crazy arrival time and anticipated stress at immigration, I kept my guard up and didn’t make an effort to engage in small chat. Neither did he.

As the plane took its passengers on board and prepared for departure, my sputnik (fellow traveller in Russian – literally someone who travels on the same path as you do) also prepared for departure. He donned his traditional head scarf and started a gentle chant accompanied by a rocking motion. His mantra took several minutes and accompanied the security announcement of the flight crew. At some invisible signal the prayer was over, our safe passage assured and the chanting ceased and his scarf was removed.

As we prepared for take off we exchanged pleasantries and names. He told me he had been in the UK and was the head of an NGO working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He asked me about my job and when I gave vague details of my organisation, he immediately named it and asked if that was who I worked for. This eroded part of the awkwardness between us and we soon started a warm discussion about work in the area. I told him about our work in India and Sri Lanka and he told me about the challenges of working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When I said I was from Scotland he said that he had worked with a colleague in the UK who was from Wales. “Is that like Scotland?”, he asked – meaning not England! ”Yes” I replied, ”very much so! ”

He wanted to know about Scotland, he said. I anticipated the usual questions – our national food, industry and history. And bagpipes.

Sure enough, I found myself describing the delights of haggis, detailing how it is prepared and its origins a staple of the rural poor in Scotland. He described the different regional specialities of Afghanistan and dishes of meats marinated in spices and yoghurt and served with exotic fruits and vegetables. If I ever visited Afghanistan he promised to make sure I tasted the most delicious of traditional dishes, which varied enormously from area to area.

”So”, he asked, ”what are your main crops then? ”

Not too difficult, I thought. “Barley, wheat, oats….”I recited.

”And what about livestock – what animals do you farm? ”

Also an easy one.

”Cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and a few goats….”

”Ah. So what is your livestock population then?”

Silence. I have absolutely no idea. And at 38000 feet I have no access to Google to find out.

I resort to one of the most useless facts I have at my fingertips, which is at last useful.

“I don’t know about Scotland but do you know, that Mongolia is half the land size of India, and the human population is only 2.6 million. Isn’t that amazing? And the most interesting thing is that the large livestock population is 28 million. Incredible, isn’t it?”

But I have no idea about the livestock population in Scotland. Absolutely no idea at all.

“So what would be the price at market of an average sized sheep then? ”, he asks.

Please ask me about rocket science, I think to myself – at least then I wont feel so bad that I have no idea.

I guess wildly “well, I don’t really know, but I would think you would pay around £500 at least for a good sheep”. Quite what the basis is for that guess, I am not sure.

”Aaah. And what would the weight be of an average sheep then? ”

My eyes scan the aircraft and passengers for inspiration. My brain develops a sudden ability to operate some desperate sift, sort and search action. With no result. Sheep are heavy. Heavier than a grown man? Groan – I just have no idea.

I blurt out the first figure that I can think of.

”50 kilos”. Where did that come from? No idea, but that is what came out of my mouth.

”So it must be around £10 a kilo for sheep meat then?” He calculates.

My silence and stupid smile tell him that it must indeed be.

I am rescued by the arrival of our in flight catering and both of us are unable to chew our Qatari cuisine and talk at the same time.

The lights are dimmed immediately after eating and conversation is replaced by a companionable silence and attempts to doze before arrival in Islamabad.

We exchange cards at the airport and I make a firm promise to find out the answers to his questions. I have been reminded of a very different set of priorities and feel an sudden and urgent need to know more about my country.

Tag-a-dag for breakfast?

On the first morning in Islamabad I went exploring with my colleague in the neighbourhood where we were staying.

He was pretty hungry and we were drawn to a set of food stalls serving mysterious food. At one stall, a dish of sizzling meat and veg was being served up for a customer and this was just too tempting for my colleague. "I think I'll have one of those!" he announced.

A guy was summoned from another stall to communicate and my colleague was able to order one of the tasty looking dishes - "You want one tag-a-dag?" he was asked. That sounded great and one tag-a-dag was duly ordered.

We stood by watching to see what this was and how it would be prepared. The cook started by taking 6 tomatoes, roughly chopping them with a cooking implement which was very like a wallpaper stripper. They were thrown on the piping hot and very large wok over a high gas flame. Water was poured on and the cook expertly picked off the tomato skins as the tomatoes sizzled and cooked. With a flourish which any TV chef would be proud of, the cook took some offcuts of meat including liver, brain and testicles, and these were added to the tomatoes and more water. These browned quickly and another wallpaper stripper appeared in the cook's other hand. Placing the sharp sides downward he started to chop at the contents of the wok with rapid and rhythmic movements making a distinct tag-a-dag, tag-a-dag, tag-a-dagga dag-a-dag noise, understandable in any language.

A rather large chunk of butter appeared and was tossed into the pot, followed by chillies, garlic and coriander and in a few moments the whole meal was swept onto a plate beside a steaming nan bread.

There you are sir, one tag-a-dag for you - balls and brains for breakfast then, cooked by percussion!

Full moon

Today is Poya Day in Sri Lanka, the day of the Full Moon. I was chatting on messenger the other day from my flat in Colombo, cursing the unreliable and expensive dial up connection. Not to worry, I told my son in the UK, it is full moon on Wednesday so that means we will be able to chat properly.

Now you shouldn't be able to hear a stunned silence on messenger, but it came across loud and clear. Finally my son asked "so what exactly has full moon got to do with your internet connection? Some kind of link?"

The answer is really simple. Every Full Moon or Poya Day is a public holiday in Sri Lanka, so that means I can take myself and my laptop to one of the many trendy cafes in Colombo and use the free wireless connections. I can upload photos and blog merrily and catch up on e-mail. Hence the number of updates today!

Monday, 16 June 2008

Trucking and transportation in Pakistan

We traveled out of Islamabad on the dusty highway to the ancient site of Taxila and on the way I was fascinated by the trucks.
They are ornately decorated and many have old wooden doors which are beautifully carved.
And some interesting sights on the backs of some of the trucks - like a tiger and a horse - and evidently some eminent figure!
And trucks don't have the monopoly on decoration either - the buses are pretty fancy too, if a tad overcrowded.
as are the smaller mini buses

But if you need something a bit less crowded, for example if you want to travel with your favourite buffalo then there are also options for you.................
or of course, there's always Shank's pony.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Where am I???

At extremely short notice I was lucky to have the chance to visit somewhere new - some impressions were very different to what I expected.

A bit like Scotland?

In some places like Nepal??

In fact, this was my first visit to Islamabad, Pakistan

More in the coming days about the journey there, impressions and of course images.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

More images of Vesak

The parade took hours to pass so instead I wandered around to take in some of the amazing lanterns around my area