Airfare Update IV

Okay, I must give it to ADEC.  They’ve come through.  Although it was an entire 3 months late, they’ve credited my wife and child’s airfare allowance into this month’s pay.  Granted, we can make the case that they’re contractually obliged to give us this money and it is supposed to be prior to traveling, not afterward.  But regardless, we’re glad to have it (and also glad that we had enough money to cover our own tickets during the summer holidays, or we’d have been stuck in Al Ain).

This means that despite being late, as regards pay (except that raises have been frozen during the last two years) ADEC has always come through.

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A Scene from France

The baby is asleep in his Graco car seat. The wife and I share bits of conversation as the miles (excuse me, kilometers, for we’re in France) drift lazily past. We haven’t gotten to the interstate highway yet, and I don’t think we will. It’s become increasingly obvious that those green signs with white letters that clearly pointed toward Luxembourg in the center of Reims weren’t indicating the most direct route.

Pop music plays on the radio until we get tired of it and switch it off. Most of the songs are in English, and it’s nice to turn the dial and be able to find any number of radio stations playing music that is comprehensible to the average Western ear.

We zip from one small town to another. The speed limit’s not posted, but the other cars on the two-lane road seem to be moving about 100 kph, so that’s where I keep it, more or less. Sometimes the road gets rough, the faded blacktop mottled with pockmarks, and I slow, and at one of these points a guy in a heavy black BMW sedan who’s been behind me for a while blows past. I wonder how he can move so fast on this rough pavement and not be endangering himself and his passengers.

The sun comes out for a little while just as we leave another of the villages, and as the gray clouds peel back to expose blue sky, we marvel at the beauty of the gently rolling hills that stretch out until the eye can see no more to either side. There are pastures and recently cut wheat fields in shades of gold and green. Monolithic windmills spin slowly in the gentle breeze, and farmhouses and barns perch picturesquely in the distance.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The vast and lovely French countryside.

“I know why Van Gogh found this worth painting,” I tell Jenia.

“It’s beautiful.”

Van Gogh's Wheat Field, 1888.

Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, 1888.

As we continue, the road is lined with trees on either side, trees that jut proudly upward, forming an umbrella over the road now and again. Beyond these, there are no trees to the left or right, just fields reaching out into the distance.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

When we make our way slowly through a tiny town called Cauroy, there’s a community yard sale that seems to be in its final moments.

“Oh, I want to go,” Jenia says. So I take a side street that I figure will lead back to the little square, but the road instead brings us to a big shed and farm equipment. A man nearby watches us curiously. After turning around, I park beside the road and watch chickens through a fence while Jenia goes to browse the junk on sale. She comes back in 10 minutes with a couple of kitchen goods, items unique and inexpensive, nifty souvenirs.

This is because we took the long way.

The Traveling Turtle or 1 Baby, 2 Months, and 7 Countries

Disclaimer: everything you read below is only our experience and our opinion.

I feel I should begin by saying that even before our Little Turtle was born, we kind of promised each other that as long as he turned out healthy, we would not stop traveling (and living) only because we have a baby.

This dialogue from the “Paris, Je T’Aime” movie is very close to my heart:

Vincent: Claire, make Gaspard a balloon, not a ball and chain.
Claire: Was I a ball and chain?
Vincent: Mon Petit Claire, You were not the ball and chain. You were the zeppelin.

Well, we got us a sweet little zeppelin (in my best Southern accent.) I tend to think that some of it is luck, and some of it is our decision.

After 8 weeks and 9 flights I came to the conclusion that traveling with a baby is not different from doing everything else with a baby. We only needed 4 things: my milk, diapers, patience, and flexibility.

There were only 2 times, I believe, when Turtle thew a fit: once in Maine, when his 5 cousins aged 7 to 14 were overly excited to meet him and he didn’t know what to make of it, and in the car somewhere in Europe when he was just tired of being in the carseat. The rest of the time, he ate (at every sight worth seeing, in every museum), slept in his carrier (we have a Boba Air and love it!), observed his surroundings, and made friends.

A side-note on the carrier: there was only one time we wished we had a stroller.  In Sri Lanka, it would have been nigh impossible to roll it, in Europe, there are cobblestones everywhere. There was never the question of folding/storing/hauling something, which we loved.

Some practical stuff:

In Bonn, we ended up in a bigger hotel room, because they saw we had a baby. I suspect it would have happened at other places, too, if we went to check-in together.

In the Dubai airport, we didn’t have to stand in a single line. In Amsterdam and somewhere in the US we were allowed to board first. KLM was fantastic: the staff was very friendly and thoughtful. They actually provided us with an infant life vest, an infant seatbelt, and a little bag of goodies (even though Turtle was a bit too young for it.) Delta was much less impressive, I’m sad to report.

We were given a bassinet on 2 flights, and an extra seat on 2 flights. We found the extra seat to be more convenient.

At one of the restaurants, the waiter picked up Ari and carried him around during our whole meal, so that we could relax and enjoy our food, which we did!

Not once did I catch anyone giving me the evil eye for nursing in public (I don’t go all-bare, but I don’t use one of those nursing tents either.)

Everywhere we went, people on public transportation were quick to give up their seats so that one of us could sit down. So very sweet.

So there are definite benefits 🙂 The drawbacks are few and far between, the main one being the slower pace: we had to stop to feed him, or he’d get tired of being in the carrier, or our arms/back would get tired. But it’s such a minor thing! We just travel differently now, that’s all.

Thursday List: Lessons Learned

In no particular order, allow us to present lessons we learned while we traveled this summer.  Humorous?  Maybe (or maybe not, you be the judge).  True?  We think so.

1) The Toyota Yaris is one of the worst cars ever built.  We rented one for a day in Georgia (that would be the state, not the country).  The steering had less feel and was more vague than a careless comment that could be either a compliment or an insult.  The blind spots were larger than a Ford Expedition.  The centered gauge cluster is less sensible than a drunken, raving Mel Gibson. The acres of plastic swathing the interior epitomize the notion of “cheap,” along with every other aspect of the automobile.  Also it has no power.

2) The author of the CNN article “The New London, Paris and Rome” is totally wrong about Ostend.  Ostend is boring and the beach unappealing–not “oddly restorative.”  Besides, we got locked in a Japanese garden while there.

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Ostend. Bland, forgettable, and certainly not worth visiting.  Sorry Belgium.  We love some of your other cities.

3) Couchsurfing is infinitely more fun than staying in a hotel.  And couchsurfers are, as it turns out, not all hippies–they’re a varied group of interesting folks.  We stayed with a guy who works in the Belgian steel industry, two air traffic controllers, and more.  We met fellow surfers who had careers as mind-blowing as molecular modeling researcher and astrophysicist.  Not kidding.  The astrophysicist, a guy named Lorraine from France, is also a beekeeper.  He shared a story about how he was asked to deliver a beehive to the Prime Minister (all true, mind you). He said yes, of course.  “But I told them that because it is summer, if I put the beehive in the car to deliver it, it could be a problem.  Because of the heat, the bees could die.”  The person he was speaking to said, “No problem.”  “Yes,” he said, “It would be a problem.  The bees could die.”  The other person reassured him–“No, no problem.  You will not have to stop.”  He ended up having a police escort through the center of Paris so that he didn’t have to stop and wait in traffic, and he delivered the beehive and set it up at the Prime Minister’s place.

4) Traveling with a baby is not only possible, but for the most part, quite easy (and there’s a post about that in the making).  As a side note, carrying a baby in a carrier starts to hurt one’s back after a couple days (but it is notably easier than pushing a stroller all over creation).

5) We now understand our friends who told us a year ago that they were looking forward to being back in the UAE. Then, we thought they were, well, nuts. Now, we are those people, too.

6) It can be rather hard to explain to those back in the US – or the people we met during our travels – what life here is really like. It seems that there is a backstory to every story. Also, for some reason, it’s easier to tell about the negative experiences.

7) Speaking of backstories, here’s one now: just kidding.  Lesson learned when telling stories to family back home–trim the backstories to the bare minimum, or your loved ones will tune out before you get to the good stuff.

8) Strangely, following the most obvious road signs from one place to another doesn’t always yield the fastest route.  Take our trip to Reims from Luxembourg, for example: this should have been a short two hours, judging by Google Maps, but it took us no less than six hours of meandering secondary roads.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany.  This was just over the German border.

We found some great mountain roads between Luxembourg and Germany. This was just over the German border.

Somewhere in France...

Somewhere in France…

9) That brings us to this point: enjoy being on the verge of lost or completely off track.  Make it a point to simply have a great time exploring.  Make the best of sore feet (an excuse to stop at that little cafe!) or winding back roads (pull over and get a photo of the picturesque mountain pass).  The single best day of our trip was when we were driving, completely by accident and thanks to the road signs, the French countryside.  And enjoy the crummy places you end up, too (within reason, of course), like Ostend.  Where else would we have ever gotten locked in a Japanese garden?  It was a memorable experience at least.

10) It’s good to come home.  We already knew this.  But what we didn’t expect was to grow tired of traveling, since we both love it.  Still, we did.  After what started to seem too long on the road, we found ourselves especially grateful to have our own space and the chance to return to our routines.

Advice (and a book on help) to New Teachers

Tonight Jenia and I attended a snazzy welcome party for new ADEC teachers at the Rotana hotel in Al Ain.  We met a few of the many new teachers on hand, and when a young lady named Kim asked for advice on how to make it here and survive the year to return for another, I told her this: “Go with the flow.  Relax.  Don’t worry about the pressure–it just doesn’t matter.  Don’t let them stress you out.”  Yeah, my biggest and best piece of advice is that pathetic.  I mean, the best I can say is “roll with it, baby?”  Pretty much, but I do emphasize the “it just doesn’t matter” part pretty heavily, too.  Generally, we Western teachers have a work ethic and such that will more than get us by here, and if we just apply what we already know and don’t allow administrators to stress us out, we’ll be solid additions to the workforce.  Oh, and, as one veteran teacher told me last year, “Take the tea” whenever it is offered by your Arab co-workers.  Go have a chat, ignore whatever work you might have for a few minutes, and be social.  That helps you build relationships, and those can be helpful (if not critical, in some cases) to succeeding at work.

One other thing that is an incalculably helpful resource–there is a group of expats called Al Ain Life (the ones that staged tonight’s get together) that has put together a truly splendid booklet offering insight into the whole residency process (how to get your electricity switched over to your name, for example), unraveling an extremely and unnecessarily complex part of settling in.  We picked up a hard copy tonight at the event, and it’s wonderful.   Al Ain Life (people we know personally, by the way) are more than happy to share a digital copy with you.  If you’re interested, comment below, and we will sort out a way to get it to you.

Sri Lanka, Part II

Since we shared the basic story of our trip to Sri Lanka in Pre-Vacation, this post is a way for us to share some photographs that we are fond of.  Each one has a story of some kind that goes with it, of course, but not all stories need to be written, for they can be guessed at, and sometimes guessing is as rewarding as knowing the actuality of a thing.

ADEC Discounts

Working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council has its perks.  Summer vacation is the main one, of course, but there are some vendors that offer discounts to ADEC teachers and employees.  And, if you missed it in one of my posts from last August (Flexible Pricing), there are vendors that take advantage of ADEC newbies and actually increase their rates (Infinity Services, if you’ll recall).

Now, for those of you who are prospective ADEC teachers, you may well be interested in what sorts of discounts that are available here in Al Ain, right?

To begin with, some furniture stores offer a discount to us.  Home Centre comes to mind.  In order to get this discount, you just need to furnish your ADEC identification (or visa, which is sponsored by ADEC, or some proof of employment with them).  If they have another sale going on, though, that will override the ADEC discount.

Most of the local hotels offer a discount to ADEC teachers for health club memberships (as well as food and drink from the mighty expensive hotel restaurants).  For example, the Danat Hotel Resort (near the Hilton) offers a 15% discount.  Some hotels actually have a welcome party event and they’ll offer deeper discounts than usual at those events, too, so keep your eyes peeled for those (the Danat has one coming up Tuesday the 11th, actually).

The Rugby Club offers a 10% discount to ADEC teachers.  They’re one of the more cost-effective places to go if you’re looking for a decent gym and pool, plus their restaurant has reasonable prices since they’re not a hotel (hotels attach very high taxes to food and drink; 16%, if I remember right–we avoid hotel eateries for that reason).

It might pay to know that Etihad Airlines offers 20% off airfare to ADEC folks.

At any rate, wherever you go, particularly if you’re looking at some kind of membership, it pays to ask if they offer an ADEC discount, because there are quite a few places that do.

Pre-Vacation: Sri Lanka

We’ve maintained near blog silence over the last month or so because we’ve been doing other things–traveling to and around Sri Lanka, to start with.

If you don’t know, Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island off the southeastern coast of India, near Goa. It was once a Dutch colony, and then was taken over by the British, who returned it to its people in 1948, the same time period the ailing Empire released many of its colonies from its grip.

Now the island of Sri Lanka was perhaps best known to me as the place where most of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed. I loved that movie as a kid, and despite its inherent silliness, I still enjoy it today. Scenes involving giant fruit bats, elephants, and huge ravines are etched into my memory. The idea of visiting that place appealed to me ever since I found out that traveling there is inexpensive from the UAE. The opportunity finally presented itself after school ended and we had a little time to kill before departing for the USA. So, along with a fellow teacher and her family, we planned a trip and made our way abroad. We traveled via FlyDubai, a low-coster operating out of Dubai, and tickets were $540 for the three of us (of course the little one flies well nigh free for now). So getting there isn’t any more expensive than it is to fly within the States from Georgia to Maine–and right now much less. Lodging wasn’t looking too expensive, either, at about $60 a night for a nice looking B&B in Kandy, and many other places for the other leg of our trip looking affordable, too.

Now, when we arrived, our thoughts and opinions of the place were sometimes similar, and sometimes remarkably different. So we’re going to split writing duty on this blog post. My thoughts follow my initial (S = Shon) and the wifey’s follow hers (J = Jenia).

J: To begin with, I was not thrilled with the idea of this trip from the start. Normally, I’ll jump on any opportunity to travel, no matter the destination. This time, however, I had too many concerns: money, time, diseases, the safety of taking our infant to a 3rd world country… I have done virtually no homework (unheard of!!) before this trip. I was pretty much just dragging along. “Sri Lanka?” – shrug – “I guess it will be okay.”

S: I’d never even toyed with the idea of going to SL before we moved to the UAE. It was so far off my radar that it wasn’t even a blip in the distance. But after discovering that it was a cheap place to visit, I was all about it. Exotic places (at least safe ones) appeal to me. I found my wife strangely uninvolved with the planning process, but I spent time exploring places to visit and things to do on TripAdvisor and other websites, and even spoke with a travel agent who tried to up sell us like crazy. Finally, with the helps of our friends, I felt like we had a pretty good itinerary.

J: In my defense, I was planning another trip at the time… and was dog-tired!

So, our experience in Dubai airport was pretty nice: there is nothing like a crying baby to move you through the lines quickly! The flight was nothing special apart from sitting next to a friendly Iraqi woman. After about 4.5 hours in the air, we landed in Colombo and the adventures began.

The very first adventure was the ride from the airport. Our “air-conditioned vehicle” was, indeed, well-ventilated… with the help of open windows. There was no carseat for Little Turtle, so Shon and I held him in our lap during the 2-hour drive. Our driver chose to take a less popular=less developed road, and the first 30 or so minutes of the ride I hardly noticed my surroundings. I was freaking terrified! It’s quite surprising that in my horror I did not crash my baby’s bones, pressing him close to my chest… Imagine this: one-lane road (not one lane in each direction, one lane, period), traffic going in both directions, everyone honking, everyone trying to pass everybody else; our 7-passenger van competing for road space with both trucks and tuk-tuks… In short, I am not ashamed to admit I cried out at least twice.

S: Arrival in SL was painless, as was the flight there, other than getting too little sleep. The B&B owners had arranged a driver for us to get to Kandy, and he was there and waiting for us when we got through customs and all that junk. We waited outside the airport for a couple minutes as he got the van to the curb, and we beheld the most beautiful palm trees–lovely in their difference from date palms–and our eyes feasted on deep, dark shades of green in the surrounding vegetation. At 6:30 in the morning it was already warm and humid. The ride was exciting. At first I tensed up a bit as vehicles seemed headed straight for us, and when Jenia cried out in terror at one point, everyone laughed and the driver explained, “This is how it is.” Our friends, Fadi and Susanne and their pre-teen boy, adapted quickly to the seeming chaos on the roads. In fact, their son fell asleep in no time. As my gaze wandered out the open window, riveted to every new detail, distracted only by my wife’s nervousness, I was startled at how truly third-world the place seemed. Outside of the airport grounds, the roads quickly narrowed and tuk-tuks vied with cars for space. Homes looked crummy, the people clearly flat-broke, and everything looked run-down.

J: Once I got used to the driving, and was able to look around, I was both impressed and saddened by what I saw. On one hand, I was in a real, honest-to-God jungle. Enter wild monkeys and parrots. After nearly a year in the yellow and brown UAE, the abundance of green seemed opulent. It was very clear that nature ruled here. On the other hand, like Shon said, it was very much 3rd-world. None of it was dirty, though: it was clear that people took care of their property and tried to keep it presentable. Yet, with poverty and wet weather like theirs, nothing looks good for long. And no matter how much you try, your very run-down shack will probably look dirty to somebody coming from a first-world country.

S: The Kandyan Manor is a bit outside Kandy. To get to the place, the driver had to take roads so narrow I wasn’t sure he could make the final turn, the driveway was so close to a rock wall. But he did, and the vehicle motored through a beautiful virtual tunnel, with vines and trees growing forming a roof over the pavement. I was blown away by the lushness of the Manor’s property. It sits atop a hill, jack trees with their huge cruel-looking fruit hanging off, and mist rolling through, blocking the view of hills beyond. One of the owners, Suzy, greeted us. She was warm and friendly. When we stepped into the neat looking house, I was taken aback by the mildewy smell.

J: Now, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about our stay at Kandyan Manor or about our fantastic hosts Suzy and Bhatiya. And yet, it’s not for everyone. Like Shon said, the first impression of our room was not too favorable: there was the mildewy smell, the room was very basic, the sheets felt a tad damp from all the moisture in the air. I was freaking out just a little bit. We got used to it quickly, though. The delicious food cooked by Suzy, the lush jungle just outside our door, and the friendliness of our hosts made up for whatever I thought the room might have been lacking.

IMG_0506

The Kandyan Manor.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

S: We spent three days in Kandy, and rather than recount exactly what happened each day, I’m going to mention a few highlights from these days. First off, flora and fauna are both astounding. A visit to the botanical gardens helped make this concrete, for there we saw monkeys, a huge lizard (“Iguana, water iguana, or just ‘water lizard,'” said Bhatiya, “They can be deadly. Their tail is sharp, yes, and they hit you with it.” A little post-trip research reveals this to be not an iguana, but a monitor), giant fruit bats (just like in Indiana Jones!). Second, dining on inexpensive and interesting new foods both in-town and at the B&B was great. Oh, and how could I forget evenings relaxing on the porch with Suzanne and her family, who are interesting, fun people and excellent traveling companions?

J: Those were so very nice! Remember that time the lights went out because of a particularly bad rain, and we had tea by candlelight? As for food, if you ever go to Kandy, I strongly suggest getting kotta at Muslim Hotel and tea cookies at Bake House. Yum!

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A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.

A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.

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Monkeys!

IMG_0275IMG_0245S: For the next leg of our trip, taking a taxi to the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee would cost about the same as hiring a driver for a few days, so we opted for the car and driver route. We stopped at Dambulla Cave Temple on the way, which was a fairly short hike up a steep hill, and this was beautiful–but cheapened by the vendors who perch along the trail, hawking post cards and other trinkets. Monkeys were everywhere. This was great until one of the little bastards stole my granola bar as I paused to open it on the way back down. He growled at me.

J: They were so cute! There were several baby monkeys, too, and Shon had to drag me away from them. I wanted pictures!

S: I momentarily wanted to shoot one.  And not with a camera.  Anyway, I expected Trinco to be more like a typical coastal resort town in the US (or anywhere I’ve been, come to think of it), but found it totally different. The place is run-down. It’s dirty. It has a rambling, sprawling, cluttered and even small-town kind of vibe. Really, it feels almost the same as anywhere else on the island–but drier than Kandy, thankfully. Despite this, as we drove out of the town, past a Hindu temple, and out of the city limits, I still somehow expected our lodgings at Seaway Hotel to be at least decent. It wasn’t. It does sit close to the water, which is great, but a huge spot of mildew on one of the walls and a toilet that has to be shut off because it won’t stop running through are just a couple of the lowlights. If the place is bad, I thought, at least the beach will be good. But then we got out to the beach, and it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. There were cigarette butts and empty cans and various other bits of trash strewn about, including a plastic bag half-buried in the sand against the hotel’s gate. And then there were the folks trying to make a buck off the white tourists. Jenia got sick of contending with that, and was quite rude to a youngish man, telling him, “We are here to relax,” but he still wouldn’t go away until he’d talked to me for a few minutes, showed me his Dubai driver’s license, and somehow, not attempted to sell me anything. Finally, he left, and a slightly nervous cow joined us for a fleeting moment.

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Stairway to Dambulla.

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IMG_3013IMG_2972J: It was so strange… We both knew that Trinco area was only beginning to draw tourists, but we still expected some tourist attractions. And there were none! On one hand, it was great not to see the strip with McDonald’s on it, on another hand, we were ready for something other than fried rice (which is not fried, by the way) – the only vegetarian dish the town could offer.

S: Before going to bed, I made use of the hotel’s wifi (which worked really well) to use my Booking.com app and get us a better hotel. Our driver was most excited when he found out we’d switched hotels. “They have driver’s quarters,” he said. “Very nice.” The Pigeon Island Beach Resort definitely was nicer. It had actual decorations in the room, never mind a TV and nice bathroom, a good pool, and a strip of beautiful, pristine beach (raked every morning).

J: Usually, I am the stingy one, choosing not to spend money when we can make do. This time, though, I was so glad we paid extra and got a better hotel. It was nice, and clean, and pretty. Finally, I felt I could relax.

IMG_3005IMG_3012S: Me, too. The relaxation factor made the extra money well worth it. The hotel offered affordable food (albeit not cheap by Sri Lankan standards) and it was delicious, with a wide range of options suitable for us. But anyway, on to more adventurous things: I got sunburned while snorkeling. But it was well-worth it to swim among jellyfish and see a different world just beneath the surface of the Indian ocean.

J: I could not go because of Ari 😦 We had a good time by ourselves, though. Both of us enjoyed the pool quite a bit.

S: We got to the airport hours early. The baby’s diaper leaked. We sat and waited. We paid a whopping $8 or so for a meal for two, including tea. Man, eating was cheap there. Speaking of that, “I’ve enjoyed the food here,” I told Jenia, “But I’m so ready to bite into something and not have my mouth suddenly light on fire. I can’t wait for some western cuisine.”

J: Overall, I liked the experience, but it was not relaxing for me except for the last 2 days. It’s hard for me to properly relax in a third-world country, I guess. There is always the question of space, and cleanliness, and safety, and getting around… And Sri Lanka was much more third-world than I imagined. I guess I expected a nice and clean little downtown and then the run-down stuff around it, but it was run-down more or less all over.

S: Indeed, it was nothing like the pristine post-card images online suggested, except in a couple locations: the resort kept its grounds looking great, and the botanical gardens did too. By and large there wasn’t the structured upkeep I’m accustomed to.

One other note about the place has to do with the people–while there are guys that approached us and tried to sell us stuff (usually their services as guide, when we didn’t need any help finding things), even these guys are usually pretty authentically friendly. While they might hope to get something from your wallet, they’re also actually interested in you and will enjoy simply talking to you. The trick is knowing how to gracefully exit such a conversation and avoid providing handouts, and that’s more easily said than done much of the time.

Jenia mentioned another trip that she was preoccupied with when I started planning our Sri Lanka pre-vacation–stay tuned for more about that.