Monday, September 20, 2010

The Lost Glamour of Munson Mountain

If you've ever driven down highway '97, you can't miss Munson Mountain, it's the little mountain next to Okanagan Lake with PENTICTON spelled out in big white letters a la the Hollywood sign. I'm totally ashamed that I've been up only a few times in my life despite having driven past it countless times on my way home. Most tourists cruise past this little jewel as well, with the lure of free wine tasting just around the corner!  Well, one afternoon we stopped and walked the short distance to the top. Under-appreciated Munson mountain needs it's glamour restored!

Penticton from the top. During the summer months, 
teenagers and tourists gather at dusk to watch the sunset.

This humble little mountain has an interesting history. Firstly, the land was donated to the city of Penticton by J.R. Munson, hence the name. Secondly, the mountain is the remains of an ancient volcano. A volcano! In Penticton! Who knew? What's more, it's the remains of not one, but TWO! volcanic cones.

Up until 1974, the view up the valley from this mountain was on the back of the Canadian $100 bill. (Way back in 1974, when hundred dollar bills were actually worth something!) (Interesting side-note: My parents bought a house in Naramata in 1973  for $4,500.)

That $100 dollar view up the lake, looking towards Kelowna. 
Naramata is on the right, Summerland on the left.

I "borrowed" this picture, as I have none of the actual letters....yet! 
(To be replaced at a later date!)

The letters were originally placed up there in 1937 to create a landmark for Penticton. When I was a kid the sign was made of thousands of tiny white silica rocks, but the sign was upgraded to poured concrete letters with embedded silica in 1998. It is, and has always been, maintained by volunteer groups from Penticton, notably the Jaycees, the Rotary Club and the Boy scouts.

View from the top, Munson is surrounded by wineries, vineyards and orchards.

A few deer also live on and around the mountain. The day we visited we saw one doe just under the Penticton sign, and last week I saw three deer grazing on the back slope next to the road - which is why I hope the proposal to build an amphitheater up on top doesn't come to fruition. I like the idea of keeping this mini ancient volcano as pristine as possible.

A recent commercial, which got mass airtime during the Winter Olympics, features Kim Catrall of "Sex ad the City" fame raising a glass of white and smoothly delivering a single word, "Sophisticated", with Munson Mountain in the background. Thanks Kim! Glamour! That's what I'm talking about!

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Search of Sri Lankan Cuisine

One of the most pleasantly surprising things about Sri Lanka is that even though it's just a stone's throw away from India, it's not really like India. In fact, Mel and I observed several times that Sri Lanka reminded us of a mix between Thailand and Goa, (Yes Goa is in India, but Goa is nothing like India either!) 

This is particularly true when it came to cuisine. I love indian food and can rattle off six dishes right now that I count among my favorites. None of those were to be found in Sri Lanka. I think that's a good thing, but the problem is that traditional Sri Lankan cuisine is getting harder and harder to come by.

Our guesthouse owner in Kandy sat with us one night and lamented that there was no decent place to eat in town outside his guesthouse, (we concur!). He'd taken his family and friends out to dinner the night before to celebrate his son's birthday. 

"Chow mein! Chop suey! Fried chicken! Why can't I find anything really Sri Lankan beyond a Sri Lankan-style curry?"

He was right. Every menu we encountered was the same. Only in a few select quest houses did we find real Sri-Lankan home cooking. I can hear people now saying, "Yeah, but you probably only ate in touristy places", I assure you we ate with the locals more often than not!

Ella weekly market - notice the vegetable that translates as "snake vegetable". 
It tastes like a cross between zucchini and okra, we ate it mostly on veg curry.

Eggplant and limes! Buying this way in markets is my favorite way to buy
produce. I love how basic ingredients can transform from this..... this.
A very monotone guesthouse dinner in Sigiriya, the dishes on the left are not spicy,
the ones on the right are. Sri Lankan curries are renowned for being spicy - they have kick, 
but not burn-your-taste-buds spicy. Then again, Mel and enjoy a curry that can
 make your eyes water and your nose run!
This was served with rice. 

Vendor on the train selling fried snacks.
Each piece just costs 10 cents! Idli and vadai with shrimp and chilies.
The vendor served up his snacks in cones made from his children's 
recycled math textbooks.
At last! Traditional Sri Lankan cuisine! With some chow mein thrown in for good measure!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sri Lanka - In Pictures

Between the lion's paws at Sigiriya

Where do you go after a month in the Emirates to unwind on short notice? Mel and I pondered this question just a week before we were due to catch the plan in Vancouver to Abu Dhabi. In our minds, we both wanted to return to India and spend time in either the north or the east, but we both knew it wasn't going to happen because of the long and sticky visa process, which we simply didn't have time for. 

I was randomly surfing maps on the lonely planet website when Mel yelled from the next room, "What about Sri Lanka?"  I did a quick search, and learned that Canadians could enter Sri Lanka visa free. Our decision was made. 

To even further confirm our plan was a good idea, our good friend Jonny who lived in Colombo for years turned us onto a few "must see" places. Other friends, Dave and Sandra, who we'd also met in Istanbul had just moved to the island and offered us a room in their gorgeous villa to base ourselves.

How much do I love travelling by train? A whole lot! These are kitchen workers watching another train pass us somewhere in the mountains between Kandy and Ella, where the temperature was downright chilly!

Mel taking pictures out of the window of the same train. 

Travelling by bus. This is how it looked at the beginning of the trip. Notice how skinny the seats are? Not a comfortable ride. This bus filled to well-past capacity in lass than 20 minutes. I spent a larger part of the trip sitting on that yellow bag of onions. 

The children of Sri Lanka are gorgeous and polite. Unlike the kids over in India who chase you down for "One pen! One pen!", the Sri Lankan kids are content with a wave and a smile. 

Stupa and prayer flags in Anurahapura - we were fortunate to have hit nice weather in that part of the island's rainy season.

The wildlife in Sri Lanka is probably the most prevalent and diverse I've ever come across, (except maybe Naramata!) Mahout washing his elephant in lake near Anuradhapura.

Old mosque in Galle, a small, relaxed colonial town we really loved. Unfortunately, the walled town lost thousands of inhabitants in the 2006 tsunami. 

Boys from the nearby Islamic school leaving the mosque.

Inside of a church in Galle. The floor is paved with tombstones, 
the bodies are in a crypt outside.

The beach at Unawatuna. Even though we hit this beach at the worst possible time, (huge Buddhist festival that involved crowds of people and near 24 hour chanting over loudspeakers hooked up to every corner of the town), we really enjoyed this place. Also notable as our friend Jonny met his wife on this beach.

This area was hard hit by the 2006 Tsunami. 
A few reminders remain.

Early morning fishing up the road from Unawatuna with a very simple set up - a bamboo stick, a hook and line and  plastic bag.

He caught this little guy within the first 3 minutes of fishing. 
No idea what kind of fish this is. He said it's a baby barracuda, 
but I really don't think so. 

The most frightening part of our trip. We decided to take a boat out and around to see the coastline. We were the first into the boat and watched as more and more people piled in. By the time we pulled away from the shore there were 36 people in our little boat. We tipped dangerously from side to side as people wiggled for a spot where they could see over the side. 

To make matters worse, as we got further from the shore, the waves got bigger and the boat rocked dangerously. The ride didn't last long, and we gave the boat operators a piece of our minds back on the beach.

Lastly, I love the facade of this old Dutch church - like dusty chalk on a blackboard. We spied this church from the train station, bought a ticket, ditched out bags in the baggage check, and set out to find this church before our train departed.

Sri Lanka was such a surprise! The weather varied from blistering hot to chilly, we visited churches, mosques, plus both Buddhist and Hindu temples. We tramped through ancient cities, climbed mountains and relaxed on pristine beaches. We met a few travellers along the way, mostly from Europe and many people travelling with kids. I'd definitely go back, particularly to the south end which was hit badly by the tsunami.

More to come....