Sri Lanka travel- the kingdom of Kandy

Kandy Lake, Sri Lanka
The city of Kandy lies in the center of Sri Lanka and can literally and figuratively be considered the country’s heart. As a cultural hub, it is where the island’s most famous festival of  Esala Perahera is held, and where the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth is located. Surrounded by hills, Kandy also has a feisty side to it, having held out as the island’s last independent kingdom against Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders for centuries until 1815.

Nowadays, Kandy is not a kingdom anymore and though it is the country’s cultural center, as a city in terms of looks it isn’t that remarkable. It is not very big and feels more like a small town. However, it does have a scenic lake in the middle of the city, where the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth (which contains exactly what the name says) is next to. The lake also boasts a lot of birds such as ducks, herons, and cormorants. There are also several performance venues alongside the lake where you can see a Kandy culture show. These are one-hour evening performances that feature a number of different sets with drumming, singing, a bit of theater, and dancing. The performers are resplendent and dressed in colorful traditional costumes, with the women looking amazing.

The city actually doesn’t have much attractions within it besides the lake and temple, but there are a lot of fascinating sites nearby. These include the ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya and the Buddhist cave sculptures of Dambulla are within three hours’ drive from Kandy and can be done in a daytrip (which I did). Meanwhile, the Royal Botanical Gardens is right on the outskirts of the city in Peradeniya (5.5 km, less than 30 minutes by bus) while elephant sanctuaries, tea plantations and spice gardens are within an hour away.

I specifically went to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage by tuktuk, which was originally built to house orphaned elephants found in the wild. Over time, the orphanage’s elephants have increased both due to new orphans brought in and births among the orphanage’s elephants (they can never be released into the wild due to being unable to adapt). There is some controversy surrounding this center regarding how it treats its elephants. While I think people need to be very careful regarding elephant tourism, elephant rides are not provided here which is a good thing. One issue I had was that the staff handlers would often ask people if they wanted to take a photo with an elephant for a fee. One highlight is that twice a day, the handlers bring their elephants to a river across the street to bathe. While it is nice to see the elephants bathing in the river, seeing dozens of elephants cross a street is amazing.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Lookout point
Birds at Kandy Lake, Sri Lanka
Multitude of black and white birds, Kandy Lake
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Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.


Rome travel- eternal sights

Rome is famous for great historic sites such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but what makes it a fantastic city is that there are many more sites across the city. A lot of the sights are close to each other, such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill, and there are entire neighborhoods or districts that are full of landmarks. A lot of other cities have famous sites but when you visit those sites, there isn’t much to see in the immediate vicinity. In Rome, the famous sites are often next to other interesting sites, and the surroundings are filled with beautiful and historic buildings.

Besides the Colosseum and the Forum, two of Rome’s most well-known tourist attractions are the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Both are east of the Via del Corso, a straight street that was built by the Romans (from the Roman empire, not the present) and within 15 minutes from each other. Unfortunately, they were both undergoing renovations when I was there so it was underwhelming, but still crowded.

The Pantheon is to the west of the Via del Corso, while not far away is the Piazza Navona, a superb square built by the Romans in the 1st century AD and surrounded by historic buildings with an obelisk and beautiful fountains in the center. The Pantheon is a former Roman temple, from 126 AD, with a domed ceiling with an occulus (central hole in the middle of it). It is incredibly well preserved, simply because it has been in continual use as a place of worship.

Crossing the Tiber took me to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a castle built by the Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. The top of the castle gives you fine views of the River Tiber and the Vatican, with St Peter’s Basilica visible.

The Trevi Fountain, fenced off for renovations but still a crowd-puller

Parthenon, Rome

Outside the Pantheon is the Piazza della Rotonda
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The Epic City-book review

Up until the 1970s, Calcutta used to be India’s wealthiest and largest city. Since then, Calcutta (now Kolkatta) has experienced a steady decline as it has relinquished its economic crown to the likes of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. But despite this, Calcutta is still a proud city that has a legacy of producing literary and political greats. Whether it has more than just its legacy in the 21st century is a question Indian-American Kushanava Choudhury tries to answer with his book The Epic City – The World on the Streets of Calcutta.

Choudhury was born in the US to Bengali parents who later returned to Calcutta to work, then came back to the US after they realized things were not as idyllic as they had thought. By the time Choudhury graduated from university, he decided to do the same and went to his ancestral city to work for the Statesman, the city’s oldest English-language newspaper. After two years passed, Choudhury had had enough and went back to the US to pursue graduate studies, before deciding to return to Calcutta to write a book. The Epic City is the result.

Calcutta is a fascinating city, having been the home of the great Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore as well as countless famous Indian writers, poets, and politicians. Calcutta is the heartland of the Bengali people and culture, and was also India’s capital when the British ruled India. However, growing unrest made the British shift the capital to Delhi. After independence and partition, when Pakistan was created, Calcutta lost its Bengali hinterland which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.

While The Epic City starts off slowly as it introduces the city and the author’s family background, the book becomes more compelling as Choudhury tackles historical and political issues. Truth be told, it can be depressing at times as readers learn about past famines and massacres, and the city’s widespread poverty. Ironically, Calcutta has been relatively free of political turmoil in the last few decades as it underwent economic decline. This is cited by someone Choudhury talks to as the reason Calcutta lacks modern greats, with all its heroes dead, as nothing happens in the city anymore. Choudhury points out the further irony that these greats all lived during British colonialism.

There is also colour and excitement, in the form of the Durga Pujo festival when the city’s neighborhoods are filled with large pandals, bamboo lattices built to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. We are also introduced to para and adda, which mean the neighborhood and long discussions with friends respectively, that are a big part of Calcutta life. The city’s literary culture still exists, from its myriad secondhand bookstores to the “little magazines” of poetry, stories and politics.

Choudhary does not romanticize Calcutta though, he freely admits it is a tough place to live with little to do or see, which sounds a bit harsh. His wife Durba, a Delhi native who he met in graduate school in the US, detests Calcutta, which is the source of fights between them. Choudhary is hard on his beloved city as well, pointing out how thousands of years ago, the first ancient Indian cities had covered sewers but yet, in modern Calcutta, the smell of human piss is everywhere, which Choudhary hilariously points out.

The book was written in 2009-2010, so perhaps by now, even more of the old neighborhoods and way of life described by Choudhary have already gone. The Epic City is a heartfelt tribute and record of a proud city that, though a shadow of its old self, can always count on its writers to maintain its proud legacy.

China’s creeping hold on US universities

During the past few months, there has been a significant increase in tensions between China and not just the United States, but the rest of the world. While the US has been compelled to embark on a trade war with China, the fact is that China has grown increasingly aggressive, both abroad and at home. However, a lot of people might have been unaware of China’s aggression overseas since this involved industrial espionage, political interference, academic bullying, and one-sided business deals with small, developing nations.

Within China, there has been a lot of disturbing news from the restive northwest region of Xinjiang, where a huge number (and growing) of Muslim Uyghurs have been arrested and detained in concentration camps. To get a glimpse of this horror, just read an article like this one from the Guardian about Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan whose family members back in Xinjiang have gone missing for over a year since being detained.

It is tiring to keep seeing news of China engaging in efforts to bully, interfere or foreign countries, whether it be Taiwan, Australia or even the US. A lot of this is not surprising to me because having lived in China for a couple of years, I saw how Xi Jinping’s reign had become increasingly repressive and that things would worsen, not get better.

I’m picking one aspect of China to highlight here, and that is the prevalent self-censorship by academics and graduate students across the US when it comes to China. That is because China often blacklists academics and writers who have focused on subjects it deems sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, Tibet, and Taiwan. This means these individuals are denied visas to visit China, which affects their careers as they cannot enter the very country they are doing research on.

As a result, many schools, professors, and graduate students have chosen to focus on less-controversial topics or hold back on their views in order to avoid offending China. This prevalence of self-censorship is actually worse because the person being targeted is the one doing the censoring.
This is a long article but it is worth the effort to get through. Here are some choice excerpts below:

An American historian of China said, “I frequently hear graduate students and younger scholars—people with academic jobs but pre-tenure—being advised not to explore sensitive subjects in their research, so they can preserve visa access.”

The unpredictability and unevenness of how—and when and why—Beijing decides to act leads people and institutions to be overcautious, which only makes the strategy more effective.

The second, more complicated, and more pernicious part of the Little Distraction strategy is that the fixation on the Three T’s makes Americans more likely to overlook what actually are the most sensitive issues: exposing wrongdoing by Chinese leaders and criticizing specific policies; encouraging political organizing in China; calling for regime change or suggesting the Party should not rule China; and actively campaigning for the independence of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and more recently, Hong Kong.

Many people fail to see that issues involving China’s leaders and grassroots political activism—which represent the existential questions about China’s future—are the ones that actually matter.

Link said he doesn’t know exactly why he was blacklisted—the censorship system is so effective in part because one can never know for sure—but that his work on the Tiananmen massacre cemented his status as unwelcome. In the article, Link compared China’s censorship to an anaconda in a chandelier. “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’ ”

France travel- Chambéry

When I visited France, I went to a place not many people have been to, the small town of Chambéry, located in the southeast near the French Alps. The reason I visited Chambéry was because it was between Paris and Milan and I wanted to stay somewhere in the middle. While it is obscure, Chambéry used to be capital of the House of Savoy, way back in the Middle Ages from 1295-1563, which ruled a region covering southeastern France and northwestern Italy. However when the Duke of Savoy moved the capital to Turin in Italy in 1563, Chambéry steadily declined in terms of political importance.

Chambéry is still pleasant, with a heritage area that has a castle, lanes with attractive buildings, and the Elephants Fountain, built to honor Benoît de Boigne, a military officer from Chambéry, for his feats as a general with the Maratha Empire in India in the late 18th century. Apparently he served in the French military, then went overseas to India. The castle or chateau was a large, formidable grayish building which houses administrative offices and a chapel. You can only visit on guided tours held at certain times so I didn’t do that.

The town is a nice place to walk around since there isn’t much traffic and there are a number of lanes to pass through and see interesting old buildings and houses. One can also visit the nearby Lake Bourget in a neigbouring town or enjoy mountain views by cycling on the outskirts of the town. However, since it was a little rainy and cloudy, it was hard to see the mountains and I decided to stay in town.

Elephants Fountain, a local landmark built in 1826 to honour a local war veteran who served in India

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