Monday, September 30, 2013

On an island on a lake in a volcano on an island

Coffee, volcanoes, civil war, orangutans, epic surfing and the epicenter of the 2004 tsunami make Sumatra a well-known island in Indonesia. However, it is not very popular with tourists (yet) probably because of the lack of infrastructure and fear of something going down in Banda Aceh where most of the violence occurred several years ago. 

Padang: great for food! But that was about it
Sumatra is a great place to visit but perhaps not during Ramadan. Although food was generally available to non-Muslims (and those Muslims who decided to cheat), it was tough to find good food. 

In spite of this hiccup, we still had a lot of fun especially because one of our good friends from California came out to visit. The top two destinations in Sumatra, in our humble opinion, are Lake Toba and Pulau Weh. As a side note, the biggest trap in Sumatra, we found out, was the Mentawai islands, one of the world's surfing meccas. The locals have taken advantage of the surfing fame and charge insane prices for food, lodging and transportation. A simple 10 minute round trip on a local wooden boat to a surf break will cost you $200 US dollars and most people buy instant noodles in Padang, the launch point, because local food is outrageously expensive. No thanks!!

Joyriding around Lake Toba
Lake Toba, on the other hand, is an amazing destination just a couple of hours outside the terribly crowded and polluted city of Medan. Lake Toba is actually a lake inside the crater of a giant volcano and it is, in fact, the world's largest crater lake. An island called Samosir sits in the middle of this crater lake and is larger than all of Singapore. 

Tuk Tuk, a small village on Samosir, is home to the Batak people, one of the few Christian communities in the world's largest Muslim country. 

Batak architecture 
Batak culture is very unique and they have their own architectural style, consisting of beautiful wood carvings on large roofs dominated by red, black and white colors. The island has many lake front guesthouses, great cafes and lots of delicious little hole-in-the wall restaurants. 

Chilling and kayaking on the lake (with Guiness on board!)
Each night, you can enjoy fresh, locally caught fish which is barbecued to perfection, along with an ice cold beer plus fresh fruit salad for no more than $6 bucks total. The fish at Lake Toba was definitely some of the best we had in all the countries we visited (up there with Masqouf in Dubai and the fresh fish in Zanzibar) due to its freshness and the slow roast preparation over coals. 

The lake is surprisingly clean and really fun for swimming or kayaking. Our day activities consisted of lounging by the beaches on the lake, taking a cooking class (Batak cuisine was one of the best we had in Indonesia), renting bikes to explore Tuk Tuk, hiking up to see the small lake on the island on the lake in the volcano on the island or grabbing scooters to see the incredible views from the top of the island. 

You can easily spend two weeks on this awesome lake eating like royalty, relaxing and exploring.

Pulau Weh's pristine waterfall
Pulau ("island" in Indonesian) Weh is an awesome little island off the north coast of Banda Aceh. Banda Aceh itself was a very nice city and we wouldn't have minded spending a little more time there. Anyway, Pulau Weh sits very close to the epicenter of the 2004 tsunami and is a gem of a spot. 

The humidity is remarkably low and temperatures are not too high, making the weather in Pulau Weh extremely pleasant. Pulau Weh is a big island, completely covered by dense jungle where tons of monkeys and snakes thrive. 

There is a beautiful waterfall tucked away in the thick of the jungle but accessible by foot and there's even a local 'volcano' where sulfur hot springs abound. A tour of the whole island can be done one a scooter in just a few hours.

The view from the top of Pulau Weh's hills
The fame, however, behind Pulau Weh is its awesome diving and snorkeling. The northwest part of the island has the best beaches and diving spots so we parked it there for almost three weeks. Although the local reef suffered very intense damage and bleaching from a freak rise in water temperature back in 2010, the abundance of marine life is amazing and definitely makes up for the lack of color. 
Fine diving with the folks at LumbaLumba

We saw some of the largest schools of parrot fish we had ever seen, there was a honeycomb eel the size of Eliot (he's 6'3"!), sea turtles, reef sharks, psychedelic crazy looking octopi and hundreds upon hundreds of colorful little reef fish all over the place. 

Unfortunately accomodation was mediocre at best and the food, unfortunately, is just average. However, we were lucky enough to find lodging at the only Italian restaurant on the whole island for our last week. Drea got to practice her Italian with the owners and their ridiculously cute multi-lingual child. We ate heaps of lasagna, pasta puttanesca and drooled over some of the best tiramisu ever. 

Tiramisu madness at the one and only Italian restaurant: Bixio
Pulau Weh sucked us in a little bit and we suddenly realized we were running out of time. Although we would have loved to go white water rafting on some world class rapids that apparently rival the Karnali in Nepal and hiking on some of the volcanoes north of Lake Toba, we couldn't make anything work because of the craziness of the week after Ramadan. We can't wait to get back to Sumatra during a different time of the year so we can avoid Ramadan, find some cheaper surfing spots and get our paddling on!

But for now, we were going to escape to the nearest Buddhist country: Thailand...

Co-posted on 

Our backyard for a week @ Pulau Weh!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tropical intrigue

Hard at work in paradise

Our first mistake was to fly from Colombo to Maldives on the first Friday of Ramadan. Maldivians take their religion seriously and not only is there no food for sale anywhere during the day but no ferries run between the islands either. For a country made up of thousands of tiny coral atolls that's a serious transportation challenge. We were forced to stay in the capital city of Male, a tiny island where skyscrapers appear to jut straight out of the sea.

Going fishing
Gone fishing
Luckily we met a friendly local who invited us to join his family on a night fishing trip to celebrate the first Friday of Ramadan. We cruised out under cover of darkness and fished by throwing hooked lines over the side of the boat and hauling them back in with gloved hands. Everyone caught a number of fish and we even dragged up a few eels (don't worry, we threw them back). For our first time fishing, we were amazed we managed to catch anything!

Our local friend has political ambitions to become the senator for island where he was born. Recent Maldivian political history is a veritable soap opera of tropical intrigue. A very popular young opposition candidate ousted the longtime incumbent from the presidency a couple of years ago. He had big ideas for changing the country, opening up the tourism sector and developing the outlying atolls. But the incumbent wasn't happy losing his throne and organized a coup with the help of the Male police. Our friend was actually alongside the young president during the coup and was on the front-lines of the subsequent riots between police and angry constituents.

No sex scandals for this little guy
A new election was about to take place when we were there and tensions were running high. A non-stop series of incidents have rattled the political scene, from complex corruption schemes to high justices involved in sex scandals (especially big news during Ramadan!).

Luckily we were able to escape the embroiled capital unscathed to the beautiful island of Maafushi. Maldives is best known for its massive, five star, all inclusive resorts. But those were far beyond the reaches of our modest pocketbook. Luckily over the past few years the country legalized 'local guest houses' (thanks to the ousted young president). These are the equivalent of a nice budget hotel in the US. They had relatively spacious rooms with AC and all the amenities but without the attached resort.

We both felt like this after the Maldives
We spent our week there relaxing on the snow white beaches (a different shade of white compared to Zanzibar), swimming in the perfect turquoise water and diving pristine coral reefs. The marine life is in exquisite condition and residents are very aware of its importance to the local economy so they keep it well protected. There was no shortage of sharks, turtles, napoleon fish, sweetlips, eels and of course, plenty of Nemos. We munched on fresh seafood in the evenings and slurped down coconuts throughout the day (well hidden from the prying eyes of Ramadan of course). Though the coconuts were sub-par compared to Sri Lanka's King Coconuts, they still did the job and kept us well hydrated throughout the hot, hot days.

It was a wonderful week, all the more so because a week is the perfect amount of time to spend there. It's a great place for a short-term holiday. But our ambitions ran beyond the scope of a short-term holiday, we had our sights set on the smoldering volcanoes, verdant jungles and deserted beaches of Sumatra...

Co-posted on

Can't complain
Island life
On our way to unspoiled reefs
Shade on the Indian Ocean
Our home for a week

Monday, September 23, 2013

High on Ceylon tea

It was hard to leave Arugam Bay. The warm ocean water, the chill surfer vibe, excellent food at Ram's and delicious breakfasts at Happy Panda kept us there for as long as we could push it. Eventually though, we knew we needed to start heading inland because we had spent nearly three weeks on Sri Lanka's north and eastern coastline.

Home made okra, eggplant and, oh, papad fried in ghee!
With one more week to go, we had little time to see one of the highlights of this awesome little country: the tea country!

Both of us are really into tea and we wanted to go tea tasting and hike around all the tea estates we had heard about. We had to take a series of small buses to get to Ella from Arugam Bay, which naturally ended up taking all day. Upon arriving, there was a cool little guesthouse tucked away in the hilly portion of the town. We were greeted by a nice pot of home-grown ceylon tea while the owner made us a delicious home-cooked vegetarian meal consisting of okra and eggplant curries, dal (lentil) and rice. For about $2.50 each, we ate all we could, still had left-overs and went to bed happily stuffed.

The train tracks that lead to Ella Rock
Ella has a chill vibe and is a great little place for outdoor activities. There's a great half-day hike that starts by following train tracks carved into the hillside. Half-way through, you can climb down to see a waterfall that flows underneath the tracks all the way down to meet one of the rivers in the valley several hundred feet below.

After the waterfall break, we continued our trek and a very nice local barefoot man asked us if we needed help getting to Ella Rock - our final destination. Feeling a bit cocky we politely declined his offer and kept on walking. We missed our left turn and the very same man caught up to us and recommended we follow him. We walked through beautiful tea plantations and rice paddies and our friend signaled that he'd be happy to take us to the top.

With the very nice local barefoot man at the top of Ella Rock!
It turned out we did not really know what the hell we were doing so we welcomed our new guide. We thought it would be a slow hike up the steep slopes all the way to the top but we couldn't have been more wrong. Our friend practically ran up these very, very steep slopes and we got our asses kicked. We were huffing and puffing and trying really try to keep up with him. The terrain was rocky, uneven and very steep and the fact that our friend had no shoes, didn't bother him or slow him down one bit. It actually reminded us a lot of the incredibly fit sherpas and porters in Nepal.

Ella Rock view on the way to Little Adam's Peak
The final destination at Ella Rock was magnificent. The top of the hill overlooks the entire little town of Ella, all the tea estates, the hills rolling away towards the east coast. Plus, we could see several waterfalls flowing down the mountains. We thanked our guide and gave him a tip for his excellent services. He smiled, thanked us and went sprinting down the hill.

Directly across from the top of Ella Rock, we saw Little Adam's peak, our next hiking destination. It's nothing like the real Adam's Peak (or so we hear) but fun nonetheless. The 360 degree views from the top of Little Adam's peak was a treat although it is much lower than the top of Ella Rock.
Fresh pressed Ceylon tea with custom hourglass

From Little Adam's peak, we saw the beautiful tea estates of 98 acres, a fancy-pants resort with a swimming pool, restaurant, bungalows and, well, 98 acres of tea. We took a break and sat on their outdoor deck, nested in the midst of thousands of tea plants with excellent views of Little Adam's peak and more rolling hills of tea. They served delicious Ceylon tea in individual french presses with an hourglass that got the steeping time just right.

To Eliot's delight, the restaurant boasted its use of fresh and locally sourced milk for the ceylon tea so he decided to order a full glass of it. Drea had to try a little and we both agreed that it was the damn finest milk we had had in a long while!

The glass is always fuller... with fresh milk!
The tea adventures continued as we did a short little hike to one of the only green tea factories in Sri Lanka, conveniently located close to 98 acres. The tour of the factory was fascinating and the smell of green tea was amazing! We got a great deal by getting a quarter of a kilo of Sri Lanka's finest Gun Powder 3 (GP3) for less than $5 bucks.

Although there is not a whole lot more to do in Ella, it's definitely worth a one or two night stop. Plus, you are really close to Haputale, another magnificent little town where you can watch the sunrise and enjoy some of the best 360 degree views in all of Sri Lanka (if you're lucky and don't' get fogged in!) at the famous Lipton's Seat. If you do decide to go, we recommend heading out there early and hiking the 6 kilometers of tea paths all the way to the top instead of cheating and driving up in a tuk-tuk.

"Unfortunately" for us we had to leave Sri Lanka because our visas ran out and we had to hop on a short plane ride to this little country you may have heard of... the Maldives!

Co-posted on

The amazing tea country views from Lipton's Seat in Haputale

The waterfall break at Ella
Tea paths throughout Ella

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bus rides through mine fields

Enjoying coconuts on the train
We chugged out of Colombo on one of Sri Lanka's British colonial era trains. The track wound its way North through bright green rice paddies and coconut plantations. The leg space was generous as Asian transportation options go. We were serenaded by vocal toddlers and lulled into semi-consciousness by the potent nasal onslaught of cow shit and locomotive exhaust.

After a few hot, humid hours we arrived at the next destination of our sabbatical: the unpronounceable city of Anuradhapura. A tuk-tuk driver ferried us through the unremarkable town to our guest house for the night. The old couple who owned the place explained that the famous temple complex in the old town had extraordinarily high entry fees for foreign tourists (on the order of ~$30 per person vs. ~$1 per person for locals). Instead we elected to take his suggestion to support the local economy and hired the same tuk-tuk driver to smuggle us into the various sites. 

Drea experiments with surf yoga
Our valiant driver took us through the various secret routes to avoid the ever-watchful gaze of the tourist police and park attendants. Once inside we were blown away by the scale of the temple complex. Anuradhapura is one of the less-talked-about stops on Sri Lanka's cultural tourism circuit but the Buddhist stupas, statues and carvings there rival anything in Asia. Make sure to check it out if you get the chance to visit. 

The next morning we caught a bus to the Northern tip of Sri Lanka, a city called Jaffna. Jaffna was the center of the long-running civil war and the home base of the Tamil Tigers. 

The war ended violently a few years ago in the midst of some complex geopolitical posturing. After quietly supporting the Sri Lankan government for years, the US withdrew its support just as they were mounting their last major offensive against the rebels. Obama is quite unpopular in Sri Lanka because he also tried to sway the EU and other international parties to push for a diplomatic resolution with the Tamil Tigers due to (well-grounded) concerns about human rights violations perpetrated by government troops. Luckily for the government, China stepped in to take up the slack. India sat back, worried about its huge Tamil population getting upset over any action.
Elephants are the national animal

China actually has a long history of international support for Sri Lanka. When we arrived in Colombo we both wrongly assumed that Sri Lanka and India must be close allies. Their actual relationship is far more complex, and far less friendly, than we thought. The straight is fraught with tension and constant political bickering. China supported Sri Lanka for centuries as a strategic trade hub and came to the rescue with funding and military supplies when Colombo decided to wipe the Tigers off the map. Many Sri Lankans saw this as the only viable solution because of the singularly failure-ridden track record of peace negotiations. They saw Obama and the US as trying to subvert a final resolution to their civil war by claiming to support peace when their actual (secret) goal was protracted conflict that benefited US weapons manufacturers. 

And you thought the Eiffel Tower was big
Our experience of Jaffna was surprisingly mundane. We had to stop at a few military checkpoints. Burnt out, bullet-ridden shells of ancient trucks occasionally marred the landscape. "CAUTION, LAND MINES" signs were common. But the city of Jaffna was a slow-paced, laid back place. There wasn't a lot to see but the town was in good repair and the infrastructure was better than in many other parts of the country. We visited the sights that did exist: a remote island with wild horses, an ancient colonial dutch fort built out of coral, a colorful cemetery overlooking the coastline where the 2004 Tsunami hit hardest. But we were quickly ready to move on.

That next move turned out to be the longest bus ride of our lives. The crowded vehicle bumped along from Jaffna to the beach town of Trincomalee on the Northeast coast. Mind-numbing Indian pop music blared through the speakers at volumes they weren't designed to handle. We quickly muted it out by listening to our default road trip soundtrack: The Heist. Road construction slowed our pace to a crawl. The driver's constant extended bathroom breaks hinted that we weren't the only ones suffering from Sri Lankan indigestion. The mix of dust and heat was enough to break the strongest soul. Objectively the drive took about eleven hours. Subjectively it took exactly four and a half months.

Eliot takes up a new profession
Lucky for us our next two designations, Trinco and Arugam Bay farther south, were the most laid-back beach towns we had visited yet. We spent the next few weeks swimming, snorkeling, and sipping on fresh king coconuts. We caught up a little on our writing. Drea surfed the best wave of her life and experimented with surf yoga. We watched Wimbledon and chilled out to the constant background hum of reggae. Arugam Bay oozed soul. Local tailors made us ~$10 custom bikinis/board shorts from high quality local textile. Resident chefs whipped up delicious local rice and curries. We relaxed and were able to let loose after our rather harried tour of the North. Hell, we even had some fun nights of Jenga along with Sri Lankan beer on tap, the first good beer on tap we had had since leaving California!

Eventually we realized we were at serious risk of succumbing to the East Coast's chill vibe completely and missing the rest of the country. It was time for our next adventure: the mist shrouded peaks of Sri Lanka's famous tea country...

Co-posted on

So THAT's how you wear a sarong!

Gettin' jiggy with it at the temple


Yum 2!

Hindu temple in Jaffna (we didn't bother going in but it was cool to look at anyway)

Tsunami cemetery at Point Pedro, in the norther-most area of Sri Lanka

The unfortunately named Tsunami hotel @ Arugam Bay

A day at the office...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why Colombo is a food (and shopping [gasp!]) heaven

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka may not have the best reputation. We were told by many to just fly in and get the hell out as it was supposed to be a noisy, boring, "whatever" city. We considered this for a brief second but as soon as we arrived, we completely dismissed this advice.

King Coconut, the Best Coconut!
Colombo is a foodie paradise. We explored sections of city center brimming with street hawkers selling fresh king coconuts (Eliot's favorite), savory fried snacks and Sri Lankan chai.

The cafe at the Dutch Burgher Union serves mouth-watering lampreis, chicken, curried vegetables and beef croquettes baked in a wrapped banana leaf. Burghers are an ethnic group of mixed Sri Lankan/Dutch heritage dating back to colonial times (think Spice Islands).

They have their own micro-culture and sophisticated cuisine and their community is thriving in Colombo. Oh, and Drea discovered delicious cinnamon iced tea soda which she plans on bringing back to the U.S.!

Lampreis, a Colombo delicacy
From there we went on to explore the culinary delights available at an open farmer's market on a lake in the city. They do it every Thursday and we were lucky to have arrived on a Thursday morning. We had brown rice served with five amazing curries on a giant lotus leaf instead of a plate and devoured it in seconds. They had at least 30 different fresh fruit juices at the next stand so we got two and then made sure to try Sri Lankan hoppers: a crepe-esque snack with an egg on top with chili sambal.

Sambal is a delicious mixture of fresh red chili peppers and ground coconut meat and other spices that vary according to the chef. The feast that day ended with a delicious rooibos lemon iced tea and a homemade passionfruit yogurt made by a British/Sri Lankan couple.

The amazingly refreshing cinnamon iced tea soda

Our days continued with a lot of sampling and eating and we became big fans of kottu: a seriously loud dish of chopped up rotti, loads of veggies and usually egg and chicken all wrapped up in plastic and then newspaper.

Kottu dinner
Cutlery options are either a plastic spoon (for the foreigners) or your hands (local style).

In spite of its carb-heavy nature, kottu was delicious and we ate it almost every single night while in Sri Lanka -- Colombo's version was better than any other city we visited in the country.

To top it all off, we came right during mangosteen (the queen of fruit!) and rambutan season so we bought them by the kilo and snacked on fruit throughout the day. 

One of Sri Lanka's fashion houses
Colombo also turned out to be a fashion hub. In between meals and snacks, we'd usually go to various shops. Most of you will know how much we both hate shopping but we actually had a ton of fun exploring the textile markets. Local designers do wonders with hand loomed fabric and the results are extraordinary. Drea actually found her wedding dress and Eliot also picked up wedding attire plus very cheap custom-made clothing!

As far as capital cities are concerned, we usually opt to jet out as soon as is humanly possible. Colombo definitely broke that mold and turned into one of our favorite places. If you're headed to Sri Lanka any time soon, let us know and we'll hook you up with the most honest and nicest tuk tuk driver around so that you can savor and explore this cool city!

What do you think? Colombo: love it or hate it?
Co-posted on

Yucca snacks on the streets of Colombo

Mangosteen and rambutan season!

Coconut sambal (left) with string hoppers and dal (right) for breakfast