Saturday, January 18, 2020

Ceyendurance NCC Sprint Triathlon

Last weekend, Elise and I competed in our first triathlon in Sri Lanka. It was also my first triathlon in more than 15 years and the first triathlon Elise and I competed in at the same time. 

It was the first race I'd done with a pool swim. I was a little skeptical at first, but thought the swim and the whole race was executed really well. 

The swim was 600 meters. All the racers started at one end of a 25 meter pool and zig zagged back and forth 300 meters in the first pool before climbing out and jumping in and swimming 300 meters in the second pool. We started 10 seconds apart, so it was inevitable people would be swimming over, around, and on top of one another just like in an open water swim! 

Surprisingly, the race started on time at 5:45. We brought the kids with us, having to rise them early, and planted them in the concrete bleachers poolside with a book, some snacks, a supply of mosquito repellent, and instructions to keep an eye on one another. As I completed the swim and sprinter into transition, I saw them cheering for us and gave them high-fives as I ran by. 

The kids found their way to the road, too, and we were able to see them as we completed seven laps of the bike and two laps of the run course. Even though I hadn't swum or cycled very much, I was happy with how I did.. finishing first in my age group and fifth overall. Elise finished second in her age group.

After the race, it was the boys' turn. Peter and Sam competed in the Junior Aquathon and they both totally brought it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Ella, Part Two - The Train from Demodara

Shortly following our arrival, our host, Anne, referred to her elusive husband, Jon, who we had yet to meet.  She mentioned he would be able to take us down to the waterfall on their property if we liked (the waterfall was otherwise in accessible due to a locked gate they had installed to discourage trespassers) and when she talked about him, Elise and I imagined a man who spent most of his time tromping solitary through the jungle.

When we finally did meet him at the evening meal, we were both immediately reminded of the character in one of the kids' favorite picture books, Professor Wormbog, who curates a collection of 26 monsters, one for each letter of the alphabet, but cannot locate a specimen of the extremely rare Zipperump-a-zoo, only to discover they'd been hiding in the walls of his house, acting as tiny house pets, the entire time.

We'd originally planned to travel to Ella from Colombo by train.  Elise even went to the train station, a wad of multi-hued Sri Lankan rupee bills in hand, only to have all the tickets sell out minutes before she made it to the window.  Train tickets only go on sale a month in advance, and most our bought up by travel agencies within days.  We had largely planned our trip to Ella around train travel, so it was when that was no longer a possibility we went the van and driver route. 

As bad as a the drive to Ella was, the train trip may have been worse.  No doubt it would have been magnificently beautiful and memorable. It would have also been long. About nine hours one way, departing from Colombo around five in the morning. So, we may have dodged a bullet after all. 

But we still really wanted to go on a train ride.  The Nine Arch Bridge is one of the architectural wonders of Sri Lanka, and a train ride over the bridge is supposed to be in everyone's Sri Lanka bucket list. 

But we didn't have tickets and we didn't know how to get train tickets except for to just show up at the train station and try and luck. 

So, that's exactly what we did. 

I looked up the train times on Google.  We drove about a hour north to the small town of Demodara with the plan we would hop on the train at Demodara and travel back south, over the Nine Arch Bridge, and disembarking in the town of Ella. 

Of course, the train schedule Google had was nothing like the actual train schedule, and we arrived an hour early for the train to Ella. 

Demodara train station.  The dog is alive.  Promise. 

We were fortunate enough to snag nine 2nd class tickets to Ella, a 10-20 minute train ride for the U.S. dollar equivalent of about $2. 

Now, we just had to wait for the train.  

It wasn't long before Clementine and the boys had given names to all the stray dogs wandering in and out of the station. 

These monkeys were watching another family of monkeys playing on the telephone wires crossing the tracks. 

And after about an hour, the train came!

All aboard!

Boys playing cricket in a field. 

One of the most interesting aspects of traveling around the island, whether it be by car or train, is the way humanity weaves itself through the natural.  The island has been continually inhabited for 125,000 years.  The roads wind through the countryside, over hills topped with the alabaster white domes of Buddhist temples hidden among the jungle foliage and through valleys of carefully segmented rice paddies cordoned off with deep green grass berms.  As you drive past the fields you will see a lone man or woman toiling in the field and perhaps wonder what they are doing there, think passively or unconsciously about their existence, their life around the rice paddy, surrounded by tumbling green hills in all directions, accompanied by a lone, deep blue, bruised black, sleek-furred water buffalo with massive curling horns and bone white herons slicing the sky like an archer's arrows.  The roads twine past small houses out in the middle of nowhere with clotheslines crossing gardens and small storefronts, a pile of coconut husks by the open door outside, a bunch of green bananas hanging next to vines of plastic bags of potato chips in the open store window, a store which must exist to service the community, a symbiotic existence, if not really a business.  An endless, coiling maze of humanity hidden in the jungle, surviving, living, thriving. 

I never did get a shot of the Nine Arch Bridge, because I had to give up my choice window seat to the professional photographer. 

Not long after we crossed the bridge, however, we were rolling into Ella station. 

We walked from the train station into town where we stopped and had lunch at the Chill Cafe.  Ella was a hip hiking town nestled into the hills.  Think the Sri Lankan version of Boulder or Bellingham with tie-dyed flags, peace symbols, hookas, and dance clubs.  It was the backpacker depot for this part of the world, a modern resupply point for all those heading into the mountains, a place to stock up on a decent burger, a stop at the wine shop for a bottle arak or beer, and dress shops catering to Western proclivity, a place to buy leather sandals and t-shirts.  

That night was New Years' Eve. Though we would never make it to midnight, we would hear the loud pop of firecrackers echoing over the valley and perhaps see the flash of fireworks in our sleep underneath the mosquito netting. 

Monday, January 6, 2020


Our trip to the tea country of Sri Lanka was off to an inauspicious start when Clementine and I got locked in the master bedroom about 30 minutes before we were to hit the road. I'm not exactly sure how it happened. I closed the door and the next thing I knew the bolt was stuck in the door frame.

Realizing there was going to be no quick escape by traditional means. Clementine and I were forced to evacuate over the balcony, throwing all the bags over the edge and down to the first floor.

We were traveling with friends who were in town for the holidays, visiting from Jordan.  Because there were nine of us, we ended up renting a van and driver to take half of our party.  The driver, Kelly, pictured above helping Clementine down from the locked room, suggested we take the scenic route through the mountains, driving past Kandy and through Nuwara Eliya, rather than the route I had mapped on Google. I had never driven to this part of Sri Lanka before, so I deferred to Kelly.  I should have known better. Never trust anyone with red-stained teeth. Kelly chewed betel. 

Betel leaf comes from an Asian evergreen climbing plant and is used in Asia as a mild stimulant. Parings of areca nut, lime, and cinnamon are wrapped in the leaf -- tobacco, too, sometimes -- which is then chewed, causing the saliva to go red and, with prolonged use, the teeth to go black.  The in-betweens of his teeth were stained maroon, and as we followed him around the winding mountain passes of the interior of Sri Lanka, a string of thick red spittle intermittently ejected itself from the driver side window. 

The scenic route was, indeed, beautiful, but turned an already long six-hour drive into an excruciating nine-hour slog.  Though Sri Lanka is about the size of West Virginia, there are no interstates and few divided highways.  The entire country is connected by a web of two-lane roads filled with tuk-tuks, bicycles, tractors, stray dogs, water buffalo, and women in bright chartreuse and violet saris walking four abreast under matching parasols. 

Clementine rode in the van for awhile before succumbing to two separate bouts of car sickness.  Peter threw up once. The winding mountain roads forced us to drive slow and cautiously.  

Exhausted by trying to keep up with Kelly, we stopped for pastries and Nescafe near a waterfall outside of the alpine village if Nuwara Eliya.  The boys devoured the entire contents of the glass display case, sausages wrapped in fluffy bread, tea buns, and cakes.  We listened to music with the windows down, ostensibly to keep the car sickness at bay, also enjoying the cool, thin mountain air.  We listened to a podcast about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's early years making Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars.  Young Tamil boys ran alongside our car trying to sell us flowers.  One was successful, a dedicated young sprinter who caught us on the switchback of a mountain pass by clambering over and through the dense vegetation, bouquet in hand.  

Elise wrote on Instagram: "The kids play this game on long car rides where they create an imaginary elfin character who jumps along from car to car as we drive, to pass he time.  Sometimes, I try to see what they still see and it certainly wasn't hard as we made our way to Ella. I imagined them sending her leaping from tuk to bus, through the villages of Sri Lanka.  Cartwheeling upon the lazy, low morning clouds and swinging from palm to palm over waking farms, on beams of filtered morning light.  She'd pounce gently on tufted tea shrubs to reach the terraced tippy-tops of the island.  In the end, she'd gently washed her hands in the river pool before they set her free into the trees." 

Free from our tether to Kelly and the van, we followed Google Maps, our instincts, and a prayer over hills, through tea plantations, and forests of towering eucalyptus trees. At one point, a cow blocked the one-lane narrow path.  Calling it a road would be a disservice to actual roads.  

We arrived at our destination, Ravana's Secret just outside Ella close to 5:00 p.m., tea time. We took tea and sweet breads on the patio with a view of Ella Gap and the darkening sky.

Ravana's Secret, named after the nearby Ravana Falls, ended up being a diamond in the rough. I had desperately searched the internet for a holiday getaway in tea country only to find most places booked.  Ravana's Secret had a vacancy, so based on a few grainy pictures I found on the internet and mostly positive reviews, I booked it. 

Our bungalow at Ravana's Secret.

The view from the bungalow, overlooking the valley.

The main lodge. 

Anne, Ravana's Secret's real secret, was our host.  She oversaw the serving of tea, breakfast, and dinner and shared with us the virtues of her mountain home, including the two hornbills, Henry and Henrietta, who perched just outside the breakfast room, giant squirrels that looked like lemurs, monkeys, and small mountain deer, the kind you see in small pens at the entrances of zoos, with white spots and small horns, animals that are often overlooked in the rush to the elephants, giraffes, lions, and pandas. 

The late tea would be followed shortly by dinner.  Clementine was done.  Exhausted by the drive, she was asleep in our bungalow a short five minute walk through the jungle amid fireflies in the tops of the palms overhead, under her mosquito net, by seven.  Given the bungalows distance from the main lodge and eating room, I decided to stay back with her.  Anne, particularly, expressed concern.  "What about your supper?" she would ask in her British patois.  The last person I heard call the evening meal 'supper' was my mom, so Anne had immediately endeared herself to me. 

Though I was not able to come down to dinner, Anne made certain I would not go hungry. While Clementine slept, I had chicken curry and rice from a giant metal tiffin. 

The next day, was Peter's 10th birthday! 

After the birthday breakfast, we were going to meet a co-worker who happened to be staying across the valley for a tour of Alba, an organic tea plantation, and lunch, followed by a plunge into a nearby swimming hole. 

We hiked to Amba. It was about a 20 to 30 minute hike across the valley.  The kids were super stressed out because of the possibility their may be leeches along the way, but Anne supplied us with a special oil we rubbed between our toes, on the soles of our feet, and around our ankles to keep them at bay.  Nonetheless, all five kids high-kneed it through the tall grass as fast as they could. 

When we got to the bottom of the valley, we had to cross the river and the rapids.  The only way to do that was a suspension bridge stretching from one bank to the next, sagging in the middle, Indian Jones style, mere feet above the raging torrent below. 

After we crossed the suspension bridge, it was a short walk to the tea plantation.  We arrived at the start of the short presentation before the tour.  After the tour, we would all take part in a tea tasting.  It was -- by far -- the most tea myself or any of the kids had ever drank!

The view of Ella Rock from Amba. 

Pete made a friend. 

Sam with his friend, Tenzing, from school, learning about how tea is made. 

After the tea tasting, we had lunch at Amba. Then, it was time to head back across the valley, stopping at the river to swim. 

Sam had a huge meltdown as we were leaving the tea plantation.  He absolutely refused to walk back across the valley for fear of leeches. He was irrationally frightened.  Elise and I finally just walked away and left him at Amba. A few minutes later, he tearfully followed us after we had compromised by telling him we wouldn't hike all the way back to Ravana's Secret; instead, we would hike back up to Amba and take a tuk-tuk around the valley.  We didn't end up having to do that...and Sam later apologized for his outburst (a display which included him yelling "Paul!" at me across the tea plantation).

The swimming hole was the main reason Sam's tune changed to dramatically. 

Looking back on it now, and thinking of it from the kids' perspective, there really is nothing more magical than tromping through the jungle only to come upon a watering hole, stripping down to your swim trunks, and plunging off a cliff into a frigid river, moments that can neither be planned nor forecast, a true gift. 

The day ended with fish curry, beer, singing, and a birthday cake.  I hope Pete had a good birthday. 

The birthday boy. 

Friday, January 3, 2020


I've longed to be a writer. 

When I was in high school I drew and wrote comic books, poetry, and short stories.  As I moved to college, I found I expressed myself better with words than I did with pictures.  I felt what I could write more closely hewed to what I pictured in my mind than a drawing did.

I attended writing seminars at Johns Hopkins -- specifically fiction workshops -- which had a fairly reputable writing program at the time, led by the likes of John Barth and Stephen Dixon (who I just learned passed away from complications of Parkinson's disease at a hospice center in Towson, Maryland on November 6, 2019; he was 83. 

When I was still trying to find my voice, I was most influenced by Ernest Hemingway, Padgett Powell, Raymond Carver who could write stories about seemingly nothing, commonplace occurrences, everyday life, but still have the ability to comment, to say something, about life and the world we live in, and Stephen Dixon, the author of a collection of short stories, 14 Stories, that had the uncommon power to make me feel...uncomfortable.  Though I didn't particularly like the way it made me feel, I was impressed by the power a story could have, that it could move a person in such a way. 

In my last two years at Hopkins, I focused on screenwriting, finding I had a particular aptitude for writing dialogue, my instructors commenting on the authenticity in the way my characters spoke to one another.  My screenwriting teacher, Marc Lapadula, casually mentioned to the class at the end of spring semester junior year if we continued to work on the screenplay we had been working on, he would take a look at it again in the fall.  I say he 'casually mentioned' because he seemed somewhat surprised when I showed up at his door during office hours the following fall with my screenplay, the story of three brothers I had spent all summer working on.  It was the summer I decided to stay in Baltimore, rather than come home to Florida.  Probably the most seminal summer of my life when I lived in a six bedroom row house in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore, a few blocks from campus and a few blocks from Greenmount Ave., a predominately black neighborhood I wondered into frequently to buy used vinyl, tapping away on my roommate's Apple in between working as a lifeguard and teaching swim lessons at the Coldspring Country Club.

I don't recall his specific feedback, but he liked it enough to encourage me to enter it in a screenwriting contest sponsored by Universal Studios.  The first prize was a paid internship at the studio in Los Angeles. I was runner-up.

Despite this achievement, I didn't write another screenplay. I moved back to Florida, back in with my parents for a short while, waiting tables and working on short stories, pieces of a novel that would become In Full Bloom, a novel I sent to several literary agents. I was young, and the novel was likely youthful and unimpressive.  Not surprisingly, this was a day and age before everything was on the cloud.  I had to type my screenplay and the novel and I have since lost both unless they are in our storage unit in Maryland.

When I moved to Colorado, then back to Florida four years later, in 2001, I concentrated on writing short stories.  I remember sharing four of them with my grandmother, Sitti, before she passed.  I read them to her out loud when she lost her sight at the nursing home.  I don't exactly remember her impressions either, but I do remember her telling me I hadn't experienced anything to write about. 

That stung.  She was right.  She may have said it before I had gone to Colorado, an adventure at the time akin to packing up my Conestoga wagon of a Jeep Cherokee and setting off across the prairie.  Yet even if she had said it after I had lived in Colorado, she still would have been right. I hadn't done anything.  I hadn't experienced anything to write about.

Since then, I've done a lot and experienced much.  That writing is here now, in this blog.

But those stories were still there.  They still spoke to me on some level.  They were stories written during an unsure time by an unsure person, figuring out where that person fit in the world, wondering what their future may hold. I thought they merited a place, somewhere to be told.

I recently revisited them and collected what I thought were the best ones in a short collection I titled Cerulean, the color of seawater, of the ocean, a reference to the Florida setting of several of the stories.

From the story "Luna":  "I often wonder if I am the only man who looks up at a cloud bank and thinks of what it would be like to float above it. Or looks out across the ocean and thinks what it would be like to swim through its waters, not the foam and waves across the top or skim just above the sandy, ocean floor, but through the layer of completely still, midnight blue water that has no up or down nor no beginning or end."

From "The Sounds Mute Dogs Make":  "Marty sat in the arch of the door. That’s when I noticed the TV was on, the volume turned very low. A woman on CNN was reporting a tidal wave had washed ashore in the Indian Ocean, striking beaches from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, dashing fisherman on the rocks and sweeping sleeping children out to sea. Marty looked at the TV and at me alternatively. I immediately thought of Zero, but didn’t know where he was. Addison sniffled, pulled her face out of her leg, and looked up at me."

From "Making Love to Men with Wings":  “I feel like the ocean today,” she said. “Do you ever feel like that? Like that…ubiquitous?”  We passed by two kids playing with plastic lightsabers on their stoop. One of them was wearing a Storm Trooper helmet. The toys made a hollow sound when they smacked together.  “Do I ever feel like seventy-five percent of the Earth’s surface?” I asked.

But I still struggle with their relevance.  Especially in the current climate.  The world is such a busy place with so many voices.  Literature is dominated by white male writers. I am especially sensitive I am writing from a place of white male privilege, that the trials of these characters are only trials because they, too, are experienced by white males.  Is there even a place for another white male voice?  Did it matter? Conversely, do white males stop writing?  No one wants to see more women and minorities writing more than I and the world should be a big enough place for all voices. 

I don't know the answers to these questions and I still struggle with what I want these stories to say or what I want them to be. I just wanted to write a story that read how a Counting Crows song made me feel.

I self-published Cerulean.  It is available here for purchase.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas 2019

We broke down and bought the kids a Nintendo switch.

While touched by the kids' desire to want to buy gifts from r one another, we consciously decided to scale back this Christmas (despite the Nintendo purchase), and encouraged them to write cards to one another. They included coupons redeemable for chores.

After opening presents, we headed to the pool for a quick dip and to allow Clementine to try out the mermaid tail Santa brought her.

Christmas dinner.