Sunday, June 22

The ICSS BBQ, 2014

I'm not sure why I stopped writing about the ICSS BBQs - the last post was made way back in 2009. I've been to all of them except for one, and it's been interesting to see how each year had evolved from the last - the last few have been quiet, intimate affairs, and for some of us for the better.

We decided to throw open the doors again this year to celebrate the tenth year of ICSS - a pretty amazing feat in itself - and it was good to see the old faces and new all coming together to, well, stuff their faces. We were obviously out of practise hosting such a large event as the flow of meat dried up at times. But it was all worth it as always, and I like to think the guests were forgiving of us. I do think that we broke some kind of record with the sheer amount of cake we had though.

But otherwise we had the usual face painting, henna, cake decorating and bouncy castle slide as well as the not so typical in the form of Silkroad playing some live music. The sister school CWSS was also on duty providing some much needed help.

I guess all that was left to do is start the countdown for the next decade's anniversary. Good times until then.

Food: Bounce Click for more info

Okay this might be a bit of a cheat here - although I had a pizza dinner here Bounce isn't primarily a restaurant, but what I can only call a "ping pong" bar. I didn't count the exact number but you're basically in a room full of table tennis, uh, tables and loud music, the idea being to have a bat around while chilling with friends. They even had ultraviolet lights at one point.

It certainly was novel and if I'm honest... not that pricey if the group is big enough. Unfortunately the music was way too loud which kinda defeated the purpose of having too many people there. The food (which pretty much consisted of pizza) was decent if a touch overpriced, so all in all Bounce is probably a place to try rather than frequent.

Aamir Rahman: The Truth Hurts Click for more info

I'm happy to accept my reputation as a cynical hater when it comes to fun stuff, and my ability to analyse anything to death comes secondary to genuinely not accepting the usual Facebook/Twitter fodder as anything of quality. But brown comedians get a special mention here - I just don't think they're funny. I've already attempted to explain why elsewhere - the built in censorship, the fear of offending an unsophisticated and immature audience, the lack of originality - but in all honesty I don't care enough to have to explain it: brown comedy just isn't funny. Well, except for Aziz Ansari (I hope).

But it's not fair for me to introduce Aamir Rahman with a diatribe of my own issues. He describes himself as a political comedian, something I haven't yet had a chance to see live, so there is that. And there were some genuine belly laughs throughout: there's no doubt about it, Aamir is a charming guy. On the other hand, it did feel like he was holding back a lot of the time (I think he dropped the f-bomb once) and yes, not only had a lot of the jokes already been made in groups of friends, but most of the political points too. There's something about a guy on stage complaining about how we all have to apologise for terrorism that feels so patronising. Where's the depth? The irony is that in the few moments Aamir had to improvise or react he was actually funny. Maybe that's the trick here.

So yes, a decent night out but not really one that lasts in my mind. Still, at least it gave the audience something to tweet about - amusingly at least five people in the audience claimed to "know" Aamir. You gotta love social media, eh?

Thursday, June 12

Film: 22 Jump Street Click for more info

If a film could be deemed schizophrenic, 22 Jump Street most certainly would. Just like the first one, I couldn't quite place my finger on whether this was a spoof, a situation comedy or improv - it was probably all three, a fact alone that makes this a unique film (well, again, apart from the first one).

But my confusion regarding the film doesn't end in trying to classify it: I honestly don't know if I enjoyed it or not. The good bits were really good, the bad pretty poor, and at time it laboured the point (some of which were comic genius - like the self deprecating references that they were in a sequel cash in) oh so much.

Hmm. So I guess I'll recommend this, but perhaps only for DVD.

Tuesday, June 10

Book: 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, Chetan Bhagat Click for more info

Oh man. I generally have the belief that books which make it out of their native lands do so on merit. Not so with 2 States, a book about two kids' struggle with their love marriage.

I guess such a concept isn't really novel here in the UK: we've been exploiting the theme for the past thirty years (even overdoing it in the past decade as Muslim women decided to use their newly found literary freedom to write about love and how the guys they were matched with always seemed to suck).

If I sound crabby it's because I'm just so bored of the genre. But the book is just too clich├ęd and predictable to be labeled a sell out. I tried enjoying it as a trash novel but even that didn't work, because not only is it badly written (Twilight was a masterpiece in comparison) but the characters were one dimensional and, well, boring. They did make me feel like punching them each in the face, so I guess some emotions were evoked.

Those who don't read much (read: Brown people) will love this, just as they lapped up GGM and got excited with the Ferreiras. For those who actually care about what they read this is definitely one to skip. On the other hand, the film adaptation has Alia Bhatt in it so I'm looking forward to watching that. Silver linings, eh?

Thursday, June 5

Food: Olives and Figs Click for more info

Just when I thought there could not possibly be any more room in London for yet another generic Turkish, here I go. There really wasn't much I liked about Olives and Figs; the service was poor, the place cramped, the food unsubstantial - even the price made no effort to redeem coming to a princely 20 quid per head for starters and mains.

Yes, I had a fun night but that was more due to the company than the place, although I do suppose there aren't many restaurants who would be willing to host a rowdy bunch of fifteen so I guess that's one silver lining. Otherwise move on - there's nothing to see here.

Tuesday, June 3

Film: Edge of Tomorrow Click for more info

Yes, it is exactly as you think: EoT is just Groundhog Day with futuristic guns. And despite the exoticness of time travel there's not quite that much originality here. If you're expecting Star Trek then prepare to be disappointed.

On the other hand, as a film EoT is pretty solid. It's well paced, looks great and has some charm courtesy of Cruise and the lovely Emily Blunt. The plot develops well - it would have been very easy to waste the context here - and the payoff is decent. There may have been a bit of an issue with the ending, but it's forgivable enough given the rest of the film.

Thoroughly enjoyable, EoT gets a reccomendation from me.

Friday, May 30

M.F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting Click for more info

Tonight's random cultural visit was to the Victoria and Albert to see an exhibition of works by M.F. Husain. The first adjective I thought of when I saw the preview on the web was "fun", and seeing the pieces live proved that - with vivid colours and an almost cubist yet accessible style. Yes, I suppose it was modern art, but I understood what was going on anyway.

I learned that Husain started his career painting Bollywood cinema movie posters, which I suspect explains why they appealed; you can see the influence once you know it's there.

The only downside of the exhibition was the length - it was pretty much over within ten minutes. If you're in the area then it's definitely worth a look, but unfortunately it's just not enough to warrant a trip to see.

Film: X-Men: Days of Future Past Click for more info

The premise itself was sound: a tie up of all the various X-Men movies done right would have been quite the coup. Add time travel (otherwise known as "how to get away with rebooting") and we have all the ingredients of a classic comic book flick of Avenger proportions.

Alas Days falls slightly short of its potential. I wouldn't call it a bad film, but it is certainly a wasted opportunity. The old guard is underused, as is the context, and I was just kept wanting for more for most of it. The last 45 minutes or so do redeem the movie somewhat, but it all ends up being passable rather than great.

It's more disappointing than bad though, and if you are a comic book junkie then you'll definitely enjoy this anyway.

Thursday, May 29

Book: The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan Click for more info

And suddenly it clicks - and the sheer scale The Wheel of Time will present became apparent for me in this, the fourth book in the series. We're given a peak behind the curtain in this volume - enough for me to be very excited at the prospect of reading the ten or so more books to come. It actually threw me back to the the handful of JRPGs I played when younger - with headspinning layers upon layers of plot, character and development, all presented in a way that all but forces you to invest in the long game. I actually wouldn't be surprised if some JRPGs borrowed from WoT's storytelling techniques.

As a book The Shadow Rising does drag a little (it's the longest so far in the series), but it's all essential I suppose and does more than enough to whet the appetite. And as far as epics go I'm still pretty early in the whole thing; I can't even guess what's to come.

Wednesday, May 21

Film: Godzilla Click for more info

Let's face it: the version that was released way back in 1998 (which, for those of you in denial was 16 years ago) wasn't that great. It was more a showcase of special effects, the type of shallow film that was gaining traction back then and one we haven't really managed to shake off since. Any newer version was always going to be better, but even so I was expecting some bad things today.

Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the film. Yes, it was still pretty shallow and a good showcase of special effects, but it managed to handle that inevitability by fully embracing the b-movie heritage from which it draws. There wasn't much emotional baggage here, no forced depth of characters, and although there wasn't quite enough Monster fighting for my liking, I didn't seem to mind as that gap wasn't filled by the film makers trying too hard to overcompensate (Pacific Rim, I'm looking at you).

So yes, a jolly good romp and one that I recommend at least for a home viewing.

Tuesday, May 20

Food: StickyWings Click for more info

Most times it's the simple things that work the best. Take StickyWings: not only is it exactly what it says on the tin but also does it so well, and any misgivings I had over a place that only did chicken wings were immediately dismissed when our order arrived.

The simple nature of place didn't limit it though - I can see this as a place for the guys, for mixed groups and for dates. The food was solid and fulfilling, and 20 quid worth of chicken and sides was more than enough for the three of us guys who were eating tonight.

Alas the pessimistic in me can see exactly where StickyWings is heading though - either it'll go under because people will dismiss it or it will become super popular and start cutting corners. It hasn't happened yet, so I'll be sure to be checking it out as much as possible before it does. Totally recommended while it lasts and for me a brilliant alternative to the current spate of "American burger diner bars" cropping up every five minutes.

Thursday, May 15

Food: Notting Hill Kitchen Click for more info

I've not had the chance to try tapas for a good while now - not since 2007 according to these pages, so I was especially looking forward to tonight. I was fortunate enough to be invited once more to a foodie meet-up (and yes, I feel dirty just saying that) at the Notting Hill Kitchen, an almost boutique like joint hidden in plain site in, well, Notting Hill.

Being in such a suave and quiet central London location, the experience started before you even enter the restaurant - you just know this would be a place where the classy and sophisticated go to eat, and in fact I found it a little awkward spoiling the vibe with our oversized and pretty rowdy party. On the other hand I would imagine it being perfect for smaller, more intimate groups, with the maze like layout of the place providing plenty of nooks and crannies in which to embed.

The food was good - well, what I could eat of it as a good 30% of it was meat based (usually pork). That was the fault of the set menu of course - I'm pretty confident that the restaurant has fish and veggie options too. What I did eat was pretty fun - the mini fish burgers and doughnuts placing high in my picks of the evening.

So a pretty interesting place albeit not for large groups - I'm also not able to comment on the price since I didn't pay - but it's definitely somewhere worth checking out if you happen to be in the area on a lazy Sunday lunchtime.

Wednesday, May 14

Food: Meat And Shake Click for more info

Oh Tinseltown, what have you done? Okay, perhaps it's a little unfair to blame what I see as the veteran place for the "fancy burger" epidemic we're currently facing, but I don't remember ever seeing this pseudo-genre of food much before the late nineties. And it would be fair to say that these later ones are an evolution on Tinseltown - they certainly are when it comes to price - but I have to say so far I've been disappointed with most of them. And alas despite the hype coming out of South London about the place, Meat and Shake is no exception.

It all comes down to style over substance - the place does pretty well if all you want to do is take pictures of food and post them on Facebook, or check into whatever app the kids are checking into nowadays. But when it comes to the real point of a restaurant - the food - M&S falls short of the mark. And not before robbing you of a decent amount of wonga too. The whole experience was just so shallow... But I will give it some kudos for the few touches of originality it had on the menu (check out the rack of ribs for example).

But otherwise no, no recommendation here I'm afraid.

Sunday, May 11

Food: Molana Click for more info

"Persian food" has long since lost its effect in making my mouth water - the conclusion being that it would always ever just be bland Indian food. But after finding myself in Ealing and being taken to Molana, I think I've found a place that is not only a decent Iranian but also rather special.

It comes down to basics really - Molana scores top marks in the usual categories: generous portions, good service, a presentable environment. But where it really does amazingly well is in the sheer quality of the food. It was so good, I began to wonder where exactly they must have sourced their ingredients from.

And all this without a premium price - a decent meal won't cost more than 15 quid per head which, for what you get, is pretty good value.

The only downside is the location, but who knows? Maybe I can suggest the place on the way to the airport or something. Recommended.

Saturday, May 10

Food: Vapiano Click for more info

You know, I don't think I eat enough Italian food. Chinese, Indian and (for heaven's sake) Turkish always seem to be the default choices, which is a shame because I think I prefer Italian over most of those.

Whatever the case, it was refreshing to visit Vapiano tonight - the food was good and prepared in pretty novel style, right in front of where you queue to place your order. We went to the Bankside location which was clean and spacious, with some very polite if overworked staff. As as a bonus desserts were good too - and served in both small and large sizes which I considered a masterstroke. The bill was easy to swallow too, with my main and dessert coming to around 12 quid.

Vapiano isn't the most amazing places I've been to, but it's most certainly a solid choice and one I'll definitely go to again if passing.

Thursday, May 8

Film: Bad Neighbours Click for more info

Acting seems like fun. But of all the actors I'm jealous of because of that fun, those who make films like Bad Neighbours top the list. That scatter-shot approach of "here's a context: now go nuts and don't worry about the camera" makes me realise that these guys aren't actually here to film anything; no, they're just having a party and a doss, and as a bonus are selling us the footage.

Because let's face it: we don't watch these films for the plot or the acting. We watch them to see Zac Efron's abs, hear jokes about pee pees and boobies and to witness the sublime Rose Byrne say mofo multiple times. This is pure slapstick, nothing more.

It's also a risky strategy, as slapstick can be very hit and miss. And although there were more than a few laugh out loud moments here, I don't think there were quite enough to carry the film the distance. That's a shame really, as all the ingredients were present and accounted for - they just weren't put together as well as they could have been.

One for a home viewing then.

Wednesday, May 7

Film: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Click for more info

It says a lot about the state of comic book cinema when you go into an adaptation expecting to hate it. Of course the plus side is that with the low expectations comes a better chance of enjoyment, and such was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Yes it was sappy (just like the first was, it seems), yes it was confusing and yes there was something quite smelly about the pacing.

But Emma Stone was great, the chemistry between Gwen and Peter electric, and there were some seriously thrilling moments. Whether there was enough to justify the film I'm still trying to figure out, but I do know that I enjoyed the film while it lasted.

So a tentative recommendation then? If you liked the first one, and can get through a couple of hours of wanting to punch Andrew Garfield in the face, then you should definitely check it out. The rest of you should wait for the DVD.

Monday, May 5

Superhanallah Click for more info

Speaking of class creativity that really hits the spot, I'm really loving the stuff that comes out of Superhanallah. Not only does he hate on the Internet and hate on Muslims, he also hates on Muslims on the Internet:

Of course the reason why he's so brilliant and astute has nothing at all to do with him not being brown. No way.

Friday, April 25

Because We're Crappy

Even if it does mean blowing my own trumpet I do see myself as the (if not, one of the) original proponent of seeing women in a hijab as human. But just to reiterate the more subtle point of that post, I wasn't excusing egregious behaviour but more arguing that the standards to which any person is measured should depend on more the specific attribute of whether a woman happens to have her hair covered or not.

I mean hey, it's not like I'm particularly modest or well behaved myself. A case in point: I love music way more than I should and I still have N.E.R.D.'s Lapdance on my track list and loved Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines (and not just because of that video). Both tracks happen to feature Pharrell Williams, someone who won't need any further introduction if you happen to be in that most wonderful and cherished of demographics - a Muslim on the Internet - right now.

But seriously, I'm really not sure what's the worst thing about this whole Hashtag Happy Muslims topic (and no, you won't find any links to the video here) that's keeping everyone so busy on Twitter and Facebook right now. The video itself was bad enough but at least that just made the makers of it look like fools, however the following halal vs haraam debate, although inevitable, made common folk like us really look dim and shallow. That debate was such a pointless distraction that I wonder if it was actually deliberate and strategic - perhaps it came for free with whatever paint-by-numbers media consultant was hired to advise on the video?

I can't write such strong words without actually explaining why the video really was such an awful thing, not just for Muslims, but for the universe as a whole:

  1. The insecurity and irony of it all. Just like their rich and religious counterparts, truly happy people really don't need to shout it out.
  2. And even if you did want to tell people how happy you were, creating videos backed by chart hits just smacks of tacky overcompensation. Happy people generally do not suck up either.
  3. It's inconsistent. If any of these guys and gals danced at a non-segregated (I'm pushing things, I know, but baby steps eh?) Muslim wedding, then maybe I'd give them a round of applause. If they instead made an exception for some media exercise, then no, sorry, you're fired.
  4. It should have at least tried to plausibly deny its political agenda loading. Even worse, the people behind the video seemed ready to fall on their swords and defend themselves before they had even published it. But hey, martyrdom is our thing I suppose.
  5. The only thing worse than the professional management of an idea is when that professional management tries to dress things up as a grass roots enterprise. At least be subtle about the spin - although admittedly this is harder to do when your KPIs are measured in "number of retweets and likes". But hey look - rock star imams, yay!
  6. The Internet sucks, and anything that relies solely on in will remain virtual and always lack credibility.
  7. For heavens sake stop making Islam a brand. I have no intention of buying your blummin' t-shirt.
  8. And finally, it's a bit outdated. There's a reason why we don't see happy happy joy joy United Colours of Benetton and Gap ads any more: they're lame.

There's more here on Fug's blog. And hey: all of the above is invalid and void if, as I'm still hoping it will be, the video turns out to be a massive joke and example of some genius satire.

You see, here's the thing. This isn't about religion or Being a Muslim™, but about our shocking level of creativity, depth and critical thought, the lack of which we so desperately seem to want to hang on to. The dumbing down and common denominating of such a rich way of life is disappointing at best, and it seems the only way we can think of making it accessible is by creating some kind of Islam-by-numbers, easy listening variant that also happens be easy on the eye.

The consequences of this are both internal and external. Bandwagon jumping is obvious to all but those doing the jumping and as we continue to dumb ourselves down and volunteer for these self inflicted lobotomies, we push others away. On the other hand, the self harm comes in the form of us normalising our ever increasing shallowness. It's just so immature and not only unhealthy for us, but unattractive for those we may want to collaborate and work with.

The real shame is that we were doing pretty well for a bit. Outlandish are an excellent example of a truly creative and spiritual venture (although it doesn't count if you only liked Aicha because: OMG hijab). Real grass root initiatives like those from Imran JK (<3) and the much loved Rebel Muzik did more for us than this video ever will. But things seemed to have stagnated over the past decade as things like the GPU become the main event of the calendar with which we're all associated. Because, well, Islam innit.

The real measure of maturity, confidence and security of us as Muslims will come when we don't see these kind of stunts any more - when we'll be provoking instead of responding, actively pushing forward with society instead of actively defending ourselves against it. Will it come soon? Who knows, but I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, April 15

Film: The Raid 2 Click for more info

By what I assumed was design, the first Raid was a clinically pure and focussed beat em up action flick - that actually what made it great. As such, I had a feeling that the 2.5 hour runtime of its sequel would be a pivotal factor in it repeating that success: either the makers had managed to create 150 minutes of unadulterated bone crunching violence, or they had succumbed to the criticisms of the previous movie and decided to add irrelevances like "plot" and "characterisation".

And it turns out it was the latter, and unfortunately the film does indeed suffer for it. Granted a lot of that disappointment stems from wanting more of the amazing same that was delivered before, but even if we rebase our expectations and consider this a film in its own right, it does somewhat fall short of being the balanced film of action and depth that it strives to be. The plot is longwinded and, well, boring, with characters being manufactured out of nowhere just to progress it. It all makes for a film that doesn't seem to recognise it's own worth.

On the bright side the fluff is superfluous to, and not instead of, the real goods so with patience you do eventually get rewarded. The film is much more violent than the first, sometimes in a worse, more cringworthy way, but all that is excused for some amazing set pieces, some of which exceed that we saw before.

But alas the dilution is enough for me to recommend saving this one for a home viewing - who knows, perhaps by then there'll be the 90 minute edit this film really needs to be awesome?

Sunday, April 13

I Once Ran a Marathon

There are pivotal moments in every person's life which are so life changing they end up remembering them every year in the form of anniversaries. The obvious and generic ones are birthdays (which if you think about it might be more special for a parent than for a child) weddings and deaths, but there are many more which although more personal and intimate can be just as potent. The start of a new job maybe, or a season in which a Muslim performed a Hajj - perhaps even a house move. Some dates you just remember.

Today marks ten years[1] since I ran the London Marathon (back in the days when it was a Flora and not Virgin), and I've never understated exactly how much that day (as well as the six or so months leading up to it) had an effect on me. I could say that the lesson was that anything is possible with hard work or something, but I think what I actually learned was that everything in life has a cost, and the more major it is, the higher the cost. In those terms it's a pretty obvious statement to make, but then I guess most life lessons are.

Blogs (well this one for me anyway) are quite handy in that they catch the moment at its most raw; before one has time to process or even misremember it. I regret not having Radio Shak for many pivotal life events, but the two I do the most are the marathon that I ran and the Hajj that I performed. Still, I did manage to get a "one year later" post down, which captured part of what I was feeling at the time. On the other hand a part of me is disappointed with how hard I'm clinging on to the achievement, if only because this essentially implies that the last thing I managed to do of any great value was a decade ago - and that compounded by the fact that I don't really run any more at all.

But lament aside, I am proud of being in that club of people who have managed to run 26 odd miles in one go, and although I'm not quite sure where my medal is the whole day ten years ago does stay with me. Perhaps that's another reason why anniversaries are useful - to both remind us that not only is time always moving, but that it makes space for further achievements too.

[1] Well not exactly - we ran on the 18th of April in 2004.

Sunday, April 6

Sri Lanka, Day Fifteen: The Return

And there we have it, the end of my time in Sri Lanka. Just like the other wedding-cum-holidays I've been on (Australia, South Africa and Mauritius/Madagascar come to mind), this was a pretty complete and epic trip, consisting of friends, family, good times and some amazing travel. The people, food, natural scenery and overall vibe were all top notch and I honestly can't think of any downsides to the place. It would even make for a great honeymoon - it makes a great cultural compliment to a few days of relaxing in The Maldives for instance.

In all honesty Sri Lanka was never on any travel list of mine, and I'm very thankful for not only having a wedding to draw me to the country but also the opportunity of enjoying the place under such a wonderful context. My sadness at leaving is only consoled by a genuine desire to return (although perhaps without a wedding), and I've already begun to strongly recommend the place to everyone I talk to, and if you're reading this I really hope you consider checking it out in the near future.

Saturday, April 5

Sri Lanka, Day Fourteen: The Gap

And so it finally came - the last day of our tour. We decided to take it easy this morning and left the hotel at a relatively leisurely 10am, heading to the last major point on our itinerary, The Ella Gap. On the way we got to see the scenery we missed last night due to the rain and lack of light, but even those amazing views didn't prepare us for Ella - by this point I had given up trying to not be impressed by the things we saw. A small drive into the gap brought us to Ravana falls, which was nice too, but nothing beat sitting at the top of the gap in one of the hotels taking in the view with a milkshake.

Although we were running out of time (Colombo being over four hours drive away) we found it quite difficult to leave the area and managed to fit in both the Diyaluma and Bambarakanda Falls, each which had their own price to pay. Diyaluma was reached via a hour long drive on an under-developed road, which wasn't too fun but did present us with some more amazing views as well as the opportunity to visit some of the more smaller villages in the area.

Bambarakanda Falls required the use of rickshaws to get to a viewing point. In hindsight the whole plan turned out to be a bit of a disaster - further torrential rain, our rickshaw breaking down half way on the 20 minute trip and even leeches all made it a trip to remember - and considering how dry Sri Lanka had been over the recent weeks most of the waterfalls weren't as spectacular as they should have been (although sure, the aforementioned torrential rain did help a little with Bambarakanda).

But we eventually made the decision to make our way back to Colombo, tired, hungry, wet, but totally fulfilled with today and the whole tour. We got back to our hotel pretty late, hunted for dinner and got ready for bed, myself preparing for the flight I had back to London the next day.

All photos from today can be found here.

Friday, April 4

Sri Lanka, Day Thirteen: The World's End

Another unholy start meant we were out of our hotel and on the way to Horton Plains by 5:30 am. The main reason was to catch the trek at its best - visibility decreases as the day goes on - but for us we also wanted to be back in town for Jummah prayers. Early starts aside, the trek itself was worth it, if only to see the impossibly incredible sights from The World's End. I don't think my breath gets taken away too often but the sheer immensity of the gap was pretty gobsmacking. Also on show were waterfalls and other examples of natural beauty, and I strongly recommend anyone who visits Sri Lanka to make time on their schedule to check out the plains. Photos can be found here.

Although the trek is described as easy you do need to be of a decent level of fitness and surefootedness to get through it unscathed - oh and some sun protection as although the sun isn't particularly bright, it is searing. But complete it we did, although it turned out we should have left a little earlier as the normally 3-4 hour trek turned out to take a little more for our group. Still, a mad rush back to Nuwara Eliya ensured that we made it for Jummah on time, so it all turned out okay.

To treat ourselves we spent the afternoon checking out the Heritance Tea Factory (photos), a boutique hotel situated in the middle of yet more heavenly views. Although we had a lovely time having tea (which means milkshake for me) and cake, it was all too brief and another reminder of just how many shortcuts we were taking timewise during this tour. If only we had another couple of more days or so to plant ourselves in a hotel and relax - it would have been pretty great.

But alas it was time to say farewell to Nuwara Eliya and head to our final destination of Haputale - due to the lateness of travel we were cheated of the views, but what was even worse was the torrential rain that had decided to break during our drive - at time pretty scary. But we eventually made it to our hotel safe, if not a little damp.

Thursday, April 3

Sri Lanka, Day Twelve: The Tea

As we were not planning to stay for more than one night anywhere on this mini tour, early starts were vital to get the most out of the limited time we had. This morning we mopped up the remainder of Kandy, managing to visit both the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Tooth) and Kandy's Botanical Gardens (photos) before lunchtime. Both were pretty interesting and I would say unmissable in Kandy - get the timing right and you might get to see the Bhudda's Tooth enclosure like we did.

Kandy (photos) itself is a very pretty city, nestled in a valley leaving it a very magical and mysterious vibe - almost like it's a secret. I regret not being able to spend more time there actually, but alas we had to leave (oh, but not before visiting a "Gem Museum" - we managed to get away relatively unscathed).

Interestingly when previously asking around about Nuwara Eliya I seemed to get the exact same response from all Sri Lankans: That it's a little England, it's a bit cold, but the views you see on the drive there are pretty amazing. Starting from the last point, the views were pretty stunning, with vast tea fields, rolling mountains and hills and some of the most amazing vistas I've seen anywhere.

It got so much that there came a point where I gave up taking pictures because 1) there was always another similar or better view coming along, 2) pictures really didn't do much justice to what you could see and 3) I wanted to spend as much time experiencing them with my naked eyes than through a camera.

Speaking of tea, we did stop off at a tea factory where we saw how the stuff was produced, as well as given the opportunity to purchase some freshly packed tea.

But we finally arrived late in the afternoon. It turns out that the universal assessment of Nuwara Eliya was based on truth - between the British architecture and climate it really did feel like we were in a quaint little countryside village in England. We even managed to find the time to walk around town - it soon became clear that this was another place I wouldn't have minded spending a couple of nights in instead of just the one we had.

More photos of Nuwara Eliya can be found here.

Wednesday, April 2

Sri Lanka, Day Eleven: The Elephants

Okay so I lied - yesterday wasn't the end per se. Those of us who are still in Sri Lanka began our mini tour of the country this morning and it was in the early hours that we packed into a van to head to Kandy.

On the way we stopped at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, exactly what it says it is, and got to see a whole herd of elephants bathing and feeding by the river. Now I've certainly seen elephants before, usually in zoos and the like, but seeing so many of them so... free was quite special. You could almost feel the power these animals had. Going into full tourist mode we paid a few extra rupees in order to feed the animals, which was a surreal experience in itself.

More photos of the elephants at Pinnawala can be found here.

Since we were on an organised tour in Asia, we were fully expecting to be introduced/stitched up by various "cultural" shops along the way. The first of these was a herbal medicine shop where we were given a no obligation tour of a herbal garden and even a free massage before being given the hard sell. Judging by the amount we spent they seemed to have done a really good job (on us). I look forward to using the snake oil we were sold.

We eventually hit Kandy this evening where we caught a somewhat entertaining cultural show full of dance and acrobatics after which we called it a night and headed to our hotel. Oh and if you were looking for a place to stay in Kandy, the Earl's Regency is top notch.

Tuesday, April 1

Sri Lanka, Day Ten: The End

And so this was it: the last day on the wedding itinerary.

After an unholy start of the day in order to catch a dive this morning (which had actually turned out to be one of the best I have been on), the rest of the morning was spent lounging on the beach, dossing, joking and playing beach volley - hanging out for what would probably be the last time under such circumstances. It was nice but poignant - a lot happens in a wedding week to bring people together and it's a bit jarring when you face the reality of having things go back home.

But indeed after lunch back home (by which I mean Colombo) we did head. Our hosts provided us dinner (haleem: amazing) one more time, and then that was it: it was all over.

Monday, March 31

Sri Lanka, Day Nine: The Beach

As a further testament to exactly how well the baraat was being treated by our Sri Lankan hosts, we were all to be taken to a beach resort in Ahungulla for a couple of days and a night in which to bond, enjoy each other's company and bid our farewells - a sort of long winded but very much appreciated goodbye if you will.

The resort was, of course, beautiful, with a semi private beach we all spent way too much of today on. The Indian Ocean (which I've never actually stepped in before) was wonderful: just the right temperature to stay comfortable while popping in and out of, while the waves were of just the right level of thrilling and calm in which to have fun in. I don't think I've spent so much time in the sea before today.

We built castles and faces in the sand, drew diagrams and messages and even buried people. It was the kind of carefree fun that only really happens during that perfect moment after a wedding while on holiday (that is to say: not too often). Sunset eventually came, and with it showers and dinners.

The late evening was spent with all of us (so around 40 odd) playing games including quizzes, charades and truth or dare: more silly stuff that took us well into the morning of the next day. It really was Sri Lanka Good Times.

(Photos of my time in Ahungulla can be found here)

Sunday, March 30

Sri Lanka, Day Eight: The Valima

Another easy going day, with lunch hosted for my immediate family at the Colombo Club at The Taj. It was yet another great meal with great company (I lose count how many I've had this trip) and yet slightly poignant as it also marked the end of the first chapter of this trip: our time in Colombo.

Tonight's Valima at the Cinnamon Grand was the last of the wedding events and a nice way to end all the proceedings. Guests and family had started to leave by this point too so it was also a chance to say goodbyes and make promises to cement the new relationships and keep in touch - as well as maintain existing ones as by yet further chance I bumped into that honeymooning couple again (I think they were getting bored of serendipity by this point).