in the mean time, do update your bookmarks and links. and even if you don't click on my pretty link, i'm gonna transfer you automatically in say 5 seconds with the magic of scripting.
i’ve had 2 flights to colombo in sri lanka. From Dubai to Colombo, we do a transit stop to Malé in the Maldives, so you can imagine how many honeymooners there would be on board. Which is both lovely and disgusting as the same time when i’m trying to give them food yet they insist on displaying their affections in public. If gobbling up each other fills you up, don’t come back to me complaining you’re hungry.
Someone once told me to request a seat in the flight deck if we were ever flying over the maldives, so naturally when i had the opportunity to; i did. and it was mind-blowingly beautiful. i refrained from taking any photos (the flight crew aren’t supposed to allow me in in the first place) just so the pilots don’t get into trouble, but imagine seeing little islands dotted around clear blue sea with little brown chalets and a variety of white yachts.
photo credited to justpasteit
sunny all year round, unspoiled beaches and incredibly touristic; i can understand why newly wed couples would come here for their honeymoon to do nothing and make sweet lovin’ on the beach (there really is nothing else to do anyway).
on my airline we always strive to make someone’s day a little more special. hence on occasions when travel agencies actually informs us that they have honeymooners on board, we surprise them with a free cake with a big ‘congrats’ written on it and 2 glasses of champagne.
most of the time passengers turn up delighted from the little extra attention. however we had this one japanese couple that looked at us quietly unimpressed and said “but we’re not married”. then there was the few seconds of awkward silence between the couple and the crew.
before i replied; “you can have the cake anyway!”
okay so we landed in colombo airport which is actually almost an hour away from colombo city. we the crew get put into this lovely hotel in the tropics which is 5 minutes away from the airport. there’s nothing near the hotel but a main street, a couple of mini markets and fruit stalls, and the jungle…
yes it was naturally really beautiful tho. after putting up with so much of sand in dubai, i never realised how much i missed the greens until we touched down to be greeted with the lush green jungle. oh yea and the mozzies as well.
we landed during dinner time, and most of the crew decided to stay in for the night, wake up early (like 5am) to take a 2 hour bus ride to visit the elephant sanctuary and ride on elephants. Imagining waking up at 5am for a 4 hour return bus ride made me think twice if i really wanted to join them as i’ve already done some elephant riding in bangkok. So this male purser managed to convince me instead; “don’t bother with some stupid elephant ride, by the time you get back you’d be so tired and you have to do the flight. come with me and i’ll bring you somewhere fun and cheap”
so guess where he brings me to; a casino. now before you judge my senior for his destination of choice for my very first colombo layover, i have to admit, i did have a lot of fun. absolutely random but eye opening at the same time.
“ballys” and “balenciaga” were part of the same group of casinos in colombo. it wasn’t a huge one compared to the ones i’m accustomed to in melbourne or singapore, but they still had the normal tables of poker, roulette, pontoon, baccarat and more. however as long as you were a patron of the casino and you spend a little money on the tables, there’s a buffet table ready for you and unlimited drinks to be ordered. alcoholic or non. oh my how happy i was. there was a live band, free food, free drinks on the price of whatever you lost in the casino (or win as a matter of fact)
so we ate drank and won some money which paid for our taxi ride there. i was sooo glad to sleep in the next day, instead of waking up at some ungodly hour. i thought the hotel was pretty cute; as they had a yoga channel and a yoga mat in the wardrobe. so i woke up at midday, did an hour of good stretching and yoga before heading down for the breakfast buffet.
it seems like that’s what i’m living off right now; hotel breakfast buffets. anyways i did skip this one in colombo and ordered a lamprais/lampreys/lumprice from the alacarte menu instead.
so what is a lamprais? you may ask. i asked the same question after my new found hotel chef friends recommended me the dish. Its a very traditional sri lanakan meal where spiced rice is wrapped in a roasted banana leaf with sides of curries, vegetable masala and chutney. it had a boiled egg and fried mashed potato in a little ramekin on the side, but to my knowledge, some places don’t. the banana leaf-wrapped-meal is then baked in the oven allowing all the flavours and spices meld together. it was certainly very yummy and flavourful but its not something i would eat everyday as it can get a little dry. well worth a try though, if ever you’re in sri lanka or come across a sri lankan restaurant.
after lunch was just enjoying the green green jungle and some cheap grocery shopping; but that’s part two =)
right opposite the church of our saviour on spilled blood (my, such a long name) there’s a souvenir and local crafts market; aimed to trick us tourists to spend as much money as possible. its here i learnt that the babushka dolls are actually called matryoshka; not babushka (only foreigners call them this).. and its here i also met my first trans-siberian person, who looked so oriental i thought he was from mongolia.
the market opens from 9am; till.. not sure when. but naturally i got suckered in and bought myself a small faberge egg pendant. they’re so beautiful i could not resist. one day; i’ll have so much money i promise to buy myself one of those musical ones that twirl around and tell the time. soon soon.
i had a bit of extra time to spare so i decided to go looking for some meat pies! well recommended by lonely planet; lol. Stolle (Штолле) can be found all over the city, but its nice to go to the one off the beaten track into this semi underground cafe that has early 20th century written all over it.
it’s so kitsch-y, i can just image all the russians smoking their cigars in here! anyways the highlight of stolle are their pies, and they serve a wide selection of savoury and sweet pies. a large slice (250g) costs about 200-250Rubles/8USD while a small one (175g) costs about 100-150Rbl/5USD.
Dont’ they just look so pretty in display? i got myself a fish pie and a wortleberry pie. i’d say a small slice is enough for a meal as they can be quite filling. Then again i’m not a big eater.
I walked in as they opened, so the pies were all freshly made. So you can imagine how beautiful they all the smelt. It had a crispy burnt crust; with a dense breadlike texture that was salty sweet. The fish was just meh; it did taste fresh and really moist though. The wortleberry was pretty yummy; however it is an acquired taste. The jam wasn't too sweet as it was balanced by the pie crust and doesn't soak into it making it soggy which is a good thing. Reviews recommended the rabbit pie, unfortunately they didn't have any when i was there; but i did see many people order the minced meat ones, so I'm assuming they must be good as well.
and that is how i spent my 24hours in my very first Russia trip and also my very first layover. i manage to do quite a bit i must say. onwards to the next trip! yay!
ps: stolle can be found here:
Конюшенный пер., 1/6, г. Санкт-Петербург, Russia, 191186
just follow the road from the church towards the river and you will see it on the left
After a session of cam-whoring at the winter palace, we ran into the nearest restaurant for food. the meal was pathetic really. but what do you expect from a joint along the main street meant to attract tourists. however, we did try the russian beer; Baltika, and that was good.
as i waited for the restaurant’s bathroom, i did met the proprietor of the restaurant and his friend a street photographer. from first impression i was intimidated, because the owner looked like part of the russian mafia. instead they were friendly, and started speaking to me in russian. A lot of them don’t know english, so we were having a little trouble communicating to one another. when all fails we use sign language and gestures. i’m pretty sure we looked like dancing monkeys.
the photographer showed me his camera and collection of photos which were pretty rad. as i said bye he offered me one of his signed prints in exchange for a photo for him. of course i gladly obliged. how random. hahah.
baltika russian beer; the photo now sits on the corner of my dressing table right ;D
so now imagine 5 happy drunk crew making a ruckus in the middle of a foreign country. on a wednesday night. so we skipped hopped and sang in the middle of saint petersburg. then we came across an underground go-go bar! and of course we paid a visit to watch sexy (but not the most good looking) ladies dance on table tops!
so that was my first night and i got back to the hotel drunk and passed out on the bed without taking off my makeup. the next morning however i did manage to wake up really early (think 7am). i reckon i was probably just too excited being in Russia and wanted to explore. spoke to the concierge and found out nothing opens till 10am. what am i to do till 10am…
i found myself in Tepemok (Теремок), a fast food chain to try their blini. Blini is in plural. there's no such thing as blinis; and they are little Russian pancakes made of buckwheat flour.
the menu looks exactly like McDonalds and everything was horrendously in Russian. however when the waitress noticed me staring at the menu for a good 5 minutes, she whipped up an English menu beneath the counter for me. i went for the basic set meal; costing 280Rubles/USD9 which came with a cup of tea, borscht soup and a simple mushroom cream bliny. my it was yummy! Borscht is a traditional Russian soup filled with cabbage, minced meat and beetroot; hence the reddish color. The bliny isn't much different to a French crepe except it has a spongier texture having used a leavening agent. also the fact that the presentation is more of a dumbed-down meal compared to the French crepes. really, anything that has to do with french just has to be more sophisticated than the world.
i then took a stroll to the church of the saviour on spilled blood (Церковь Спаса на Крови). isnt that such a sadistic name. just saying the name gives me the chills. it’s built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and the church it meant to be dedicated to his memory. while walking along the main street, it’s hard to miss the church as you’re crossing a certain bridge as its towering domes peek out between the promenade of buildings along the river. unless you’re staring into the ground while walking of course.
I’ve seen the beautifully marbled renaissance churches in rome, the tall intimidating gothic spires of the french and the rough masculine ones in england (not forgetting barcelona’s gaudiness); so this was a nice introduction to the elaborate mosaic tiled russian church. walking towards it, it was so picturesque it felt almost magical; like a page out of a fairy tale book.
of course i couldnt help but pay 300Rubles/USD10 for a ticket inside, and guess what. more mosaics. they really beautiful though. its not a very big church; it is however really overwhelming due to its tall spaces and detailed mosaics. church is open everyday except wednesdays; 1000-1900 during summer and 1100-1900 during winters.
okay hoo-haa; the visit to the church is done. time for more food and some souvenir shopping.
my new job opened up on a high note. its like my employer is poking fun at me; saying “aren’t you glad you quit your boring old job as an architect and came with us?” i do miss it, but HELL YEAH.
they sent me to st petersburg in russia for my first layover. imagine this; its a 5 hour flight from dubai to russia and they let me stay and explore for 24hours. with meal allowances. can i just melt from sheer gratitude now?
“Zdravstvujtye” (pronounced; zdrah-stvooy-tee) is the russian way of saying hello formally; and HELLO RUSSIA! personally i find their alphabetical characters really interesting; similar to japanese ones. then again, anything foreign to me is always interesting.
we landed at 6pm; and got an hour bus ride to the hotel which was so conveniently located along Nevsky Prospect, considered the main avenue of the town cutting through the historical centre of the cit . as st petersburg was a first for many of the crew members, we decided to do some sight seeing right after albeit some of us being really tired. we’re in a new destination, of course we’d take the chance to explore no matter what!
the beautiful autumn season during august also meant that the sun sets only at about 9pm and the temperature was at a nice 20degrees. after being in dubai’s sweltering heat for a good 2 months; it was good to enjoy some cool weather. my prior research mentioned how saint petersburg was the most ‘western’ part of russia. and i could see why. walking through town; it felt a little like belgium, luxemburg and paris art nouveau all rolled up into one. There were large pedestrian walkways, squares dotted between tall stone buildings with intricate ornamentation.
Kazan Cathedral (Каза́нский кафедра́льный собо́р); a russian orthodox church dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan. We didn’t manage to get the time to go in but my first impression was what a beautiful university it was. turns out to be a cathedral instead. HAH.
Opposite the cathedral was the Art Nouveau Singer House (Дом компании) also known as the House of Books (Дом книги); part of a historical-cultural heritage of the street. Used to be the headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company; it now houses the city’s largest book store (hence the name) after Russia’s October Revolution in 1919.
fooling around with the chocolate santa claus; because chocolate is the way into my heart. one thing to note, all the buildings were of similar height; about 7 storeys, to comply to the city’s building code of structures not being allowed to be higher than the Winter Palace (Tzar’s residence) at 23.5m.
this is similar to Florence in Italy towards the cathedral and Athens in Greece towards the Parthenon. Interesting how many cities have this to maintain a kind of hierarchy in their streetscape structure. *how geeky am i. you can just slap me now*
anyways, so we took a nice stroll towards the Winter Palace (Зи́мний дворе́ц); which was from 1732 to 1917 the official residence of the Russian monarchs. It now houses the Hermitage Museum; but was closed by the time we got there. It costs an adult foreigner 400Rubles; citizens of Russian and Belarus 150Rubles. Hmm. However its free on every first Thursday of the month and to all children and students. So if you’re trip doesn’t coincide with the first Thursday, remember to bring your student card. or fake one. who really knows? oh, you didnt read it here by the way.
The Ramadan month ended last week. If you don’t know what ramadan is; its the holy ninth month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims fast during the daylight hours from dawn to sunset. It is apparently the month when the holy book of Quran is believed to have been revealed.
I am a non-muslim, thus do not follow the ramadan rules. However as UAE is a muslim country, everyone has to respect and abide to these rules. Thus there is no food displayed in malls, shops etc from about 5am till 7pm. Supermarkets are still open as normal. Restaurants and cafes close up with shutters and/or blinds; some of them still serve food but only for take-away. Bars and clubs are still open, however there is no music and only non-alcoholic drinks are served.
The reason why muslims abstain from any food, drinks and any sexual activities is highly spiritual. Through fasting, they experience hunger and thirst; to sympthathize with the unfortunate, and also to practice self-control. However, OHMYGAWD it was bloody torture for me to go through the month. As my batchmates and i finally ended our training; we could not celebrate as there was no bars/clubs that were open with alcohol. If i happened to be out during lunch time and got hungry, i could not have anything to eat out in the public. One would need to bring it back home before you could eat, or worse case scenario, eat it in the public bathroom. Imagine delicious donuts were screaming out to me as i walked past. The rules are so strict here that if you were actually caught even drinking water inside your car; you’d get thrown into jail.
The good thing however; was the iftar meals at dawn. Iftar is the evening meal when muslims would come together and break their fast together. Alot of restaurants have iftar buffets where you can eat whatever and however much you wanted for a set price. the average was about AED70/USD20 for a lower quality restaurant to about AED500/USD135 for one in a fine dining restaurant.
I had the privilege to be able to attend 2 iftar buffets. the first was sort of a celebratory dinner at Al Merkaaz in dubai marina. The food was alright; but the hospitality was just amazing as the manager took us through all the different traditional Lebanese dishes and desserts.
The night was still young and would not be complete without a session of seesha, thus we headed to look for a nice chill-out spot. As we walked onto the dubai marina, i was blown away by the sight beyond. Yachts parked in a man-made marina with scores of skyscrapers and blinding lights. Sheikh Zayed Road was alright, but i definitely found the glitzy side of Dubai.
Okay, fast forward a week later, and i found myself and my batchmates being invited for another iftar dinner organized by the cabin crew committee; held in the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.
The centre is housed in the historic traditional Emirati neighbourhood of Bastakiya. It is a lovely lovely place and would definitely recommend a walk through the maze of narrow sikkas and tall wind towers. We got lost (obviously) looking for the exact place, but when we were escorted through a series of corridors, an indoor covered courtyard laid with carpets, pillows and lots of food greeted us graciously.
We began with a little introduction to the month of ramadan, the customs and culture of muslims, what to do and what not to do, and the food of course. They had traditional names for the dishes but being in arabic i obviously do not remember any of it. except just that they were lamb, goat, rice, wheat, and donuts dipped in syrup! Breaking fast always start with a round of plain water, dates and arabic coffee. It is customary to only eat after the evening prayers end; but me being me, i popped a date in as soon as i was handed one; to the dismay of the person serving me.
No they didnt put me into jail for that but i felt bad for being such a lackwit. Oh well, after the prayers were done and dusted; time for the feast to begin! The food was alright due to the sheer amount of mass producing they needed to do to feed everyone. What made it really special was the ambience and cultural understanding i experienced, and that made the meal so much more than just a meal.