Archives For Sean

Costs of War

April 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’m continually surprised by the challenges of working in a post conflict area. Trinco, the town where I live and teach, was relatively unaffected by the war. By this I mean there were a few bombings in town, but they did not suffer from heavy fighting. Just a few kilometeres outside of the town there are areas that were really hard hit by fighting.

Over the weekend I had the privilege to travel to Mannar to celebrate Easter. On Saturday I went sea bathing with a friend and his older brothers. They are divers by trade, and collect sea cucumbers and conch shells.

Raj, the eldest brother, and I were sitting on the beach chatting. We were sipping on toddy and eating fish and crabs that we had cooked over a fire. His English is good, and he told me how he loves working outdoors. When the conversation came to my studies at university, sadness flashed across his eyes. Raj told me that he was supposed to go to uni for science, but due to the war those plans changed. He spoke of his life and how he enjoyed the simplicity of his trade.

Every year in Sri Lanka only 2% of students get admitted to university. Only the top students can study in the science or medical faculty. Raj seems genuinely happy with his life, but its hard to imagine how different his life would have been had he gone to uni. It is impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of war. How many future scientists, engineers, and doctors found it impossible to continue their studies?

Sterility

March 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

Travel should be challenging. You should be slapped in the face by culture (literally and physically). When traveling you should be surrounded by the locals, and you should eat at the restaurants where no one can speak your native tongue.

I know that this type of travel isn’t necessarily relaxing. I know that a lot of people (my parents included) want their vacation to be relaxing, because their jobs are stressful and they just need a break. I understand it, but I also reject it. Forgoing some comforts affords you a chance to really explore a new place, and a new culture. If you’re lucky you may even start to understand said culture.

Every time I see a tour bus driving around Sri Lanka, I cringe. Traveling around in a climate controlled bus really separates you from your environment. I hadn’t noticed this before, but after months of traveling by bus, tri-shaw, or cycle I had the opportunity to ride in a car last week. The auto was actually cold (I can’t remember the last time I felt that sensation), and it was virtually silent. The ride was devoid of conversation. As I drove through Trinco town I felt strange. I traveled down familiar roads, but they just seemed different. I felt closed off.

I never realized how a mode of transportation could affect my perception of a place. But in my travels I’ve met a number of really great people on mass transportation. The randomness of it makes it all the more interesting, as you never know who you will cross paths with. Being open is the key to really experiencing a place, and getting to know its people.

I recently read a quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I think its applicable to travel:

“Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and you will ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’”

Part of what I like about traveling is that I get to experience how others in the world live. If that means traveling on a cramped bus or eating with my hands, so be it. Fully immersing yourself in the lifestyle of others can be challenging, but it can also be transformative. It will contextualize your life.

Mid-Phase Review

March 20, 2013 — 2 Comments

On Friday, March 15th the Fulbright Commission held a mid-phase review. All of the English Teaching Assistants, Student Researchers, and Senior Scholars gathered together at the Fulbright Commission’s villa offices in Colombo for a day of presentations.

This year there are a total of 15 American Fulbrighters in Sri Lanka, and the conference provided a great opportunity for all the Fulbrighters to get together and see the progress we have made at this point.

Part of the reason why I enjoy the Fulbright so much is that it has brought together such a diverse group of people.

The five ETAs are spread across the island, and teach at institutions ranging from primary schools to universities. Our instituons are: University Of Sri Jayewardenepura (2 ETAs are placed here), the University of PeradeniyaSujatha Vidyalaya, and I split my time between the Vocational School at Sarvodaya and the Trinco Jesuit Academy.

The Student Researchers, with whom the ETAs have gotten very close, study a wide range of issues: the political economy of the plantations, contingency planning and the ownership of disaster management, gender based violence in Sinhala Cinema, the informal fishing sector in postwar Sri Lanka, the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, and alternative solid waste management systems.

The Senior Scholars are range from a professional dancer to senior lecturers, their research topics are: the architectural development of Sri Lanka’s forts, transformative dance in Sri Lanka, the climate services of Sri Lanka, and a social science study of village life.

This lecture was the first time that I met two of the Senior Scholars. It was great to get a sense of what they are studying and where their research has taken them thus far. Sri Lanka’s Fulbright program is unique in many ways, one such example is the close relationships between ETAs and Student Researchers. When I attended the ETA conference in Nepal I was surprised to find that many other ETAs did not know the Researchers in their countries.  In Sri Lanka, many ETAs live with Researchers. Since we are a smaller program, we get to have many opportunities for interaction. When all of the Fulbrighters converge there is little distinction between the groups.

Surviving

March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

He intensely gazes at the sea, looking for signs of fish. Something catches his eye, and he points it out to his son. The young boy is learning his father’s trade. Slowly he wades into the water, stalking his prey. He readies his net and casts it onto the sea. There is tension in the air as he reels in his dragnet, unsure of whether his throw was successful. The reward for his effort is a tiny fish, the size of a deck of cards.

pictures to animation

Just feet from the Farah III I watch this Tamil fisherman work. One month before the climax of the Sri Lankan civil war he fled his village. He has no boat to fish in the deeper waters, as his was destroyed in the final weeks of the war. He has a net and that enables him to survive.

Paper

March 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Paper, a film by 

  • Based off of the name of this film, what do you think it is about?
  • When in your life do you use paper?
  • Could you use less paper in your life than you currently do?
  • What would your life be like without paper?

My students at Trinco’s Jesuit Academy walked into class those questions written on the board, and I gave them ten minutes to answer before we moved on to watching this short documentary about a newspaper based in Jaffna.

In my four months of teaching, this was hands down my best class. After the video I was able to foster a discussion with my students that lasted nearly half an hour. They talked to me about their media consumption, and why they think its important to be informed. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they don’t trust the government run newspapers. I did not expect that kind of open criticism.

Sri Lanka’s education system is not geared towards creating independent thinkers. Notebooks are routinely referred to as copies, even by my students who speak little English. My students, who are among the best in Trinco, were initially frustrated by the questions written on the board. One girl complained, because there wasn’t one correct answer. This sort of open ended discussion is not common in Sri Lankan education. It was a tough class to start, but once the discussion got rolling I was thrilled with where it went.

After the class I reflected on what had transpired, and how a nation’s society reflects on its education system. Sri Lanka has an amazing medical system. Many Sri Lankan doctors leave the country to take positions at top hospitals in London, New York, and Toronto. Medical tourism is growing, as foreigners come to Sri Lanka for quality, affordable healthcare. The education facilities of Sri Lanka are doing something right, if they’re producing such top notch doctors, but medicine is just one factor that comprises a country’s society.

There is a divide in the world’s education systems.The two best education systems, Finland and South Korea, have taken radically different approaches. South Korea’s system rewards students who excel on exams, and focuses on rote memorization. Finland on the other hand doesn’t measure their students for the first six years of their formal education, which begins at 7. Finland’s holistic approach differs greatly from South Korea’s rigorous exam based education system.

While there is merit to both systems, I cannot emphasize how much I value creative education. I feel that my greatest educational achievements are a result of project based learning. My students may not have gotten as much out of the film as I wanted, but it was an encouraging start. I look forward to working with them over the next several months.

Link Structure

March 8, 2013 — 3 Comments

You might not have noticed, but last week I changed the link structure of my blog.

Previously the link to this post would have been: brightful.ly/2013/03/05/link-structure/ Now the link structure is such that the post is brightful.ly/link-structure/

Its simpler, cleaner, and easier to remember. I was inspired by a post I read from Zen Habits, a really terrific blog thats worth checking out. After thinking about it, I could see no reason why not to have a cleaner link structure. Its super helpful. There are a lot of web services out there that haven’t optimized their service to make the link structure easy to remember. Compare LinkedIn and Twitter:

LinkedIn.com/in/aseoconnor
Twitter.com/aseoconnor

Which one is easier to remember? Easier to share? Its pretty obvious that twitter thought more about their link structure from the beginning.

If you self host your WordPress site, then it is really easy to make this change. Sadly, freely hosted sites are required to use the standard WordPress link structure. To change it all you have to do is go to Settings -> Permalinks.

Check out the pictures below, and make your blog easier to navigate.

Changing your permalinks

 

Permalink options

 

Coffee is something I’ve struggled to live without while living abroad. After a month of living off of instant coffee, a friend turned me on to Hansa Coffee.

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Great coffee can be found on Fife Road, in Colombo

Hansa is a local coffee producer, and they’ve quickly turned into my favorite coffee brand. They have a small shop in Colombo, where you can purchase a variety of coffee drinks, snacks, and packaged coffee.

Hansa is unique because they roast their beans at the same altitude as they are grown, which is supposed to improve the taste and flavor of the bean. Sipping the Arabica blend – a favorite of mine – one picks up subtle notes of blueberry and chocolate. Needless to say, I’m glad to have made their coffee a part of my life.

Aside from producing coffee with a rich, fresh taste, Hansa makes coffee that you can feel good about drinking. Over the past few years I have grown more aware of the effects of my consumption on the rest of the world. My experiences in Kenya opened my eyes to the shocking working conditions and standards of living that tea and coffee workers often endure. Designations such as fair trade, organic, and rainforest alliance can help guide consumers to make more informed purchasing decisions, but there are flaws with these systems.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hansa’s roasting operations in Nuwara Eliya. Lawrence, the founder and master roaster of Hansa, gave the Fulbrighters an open invitation to visit whenever we were in the area – I’m glad I obliged. Hansa might not be certified organic or fair trade (yet), but after visiting Lawrence I have no doubt that they are among the best coffee producers in the world.

The coffee used by Hansa is sourced from small growers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, in contrast to the original coffee industry that existed on the island under British colonial rule. During that time, Ceylon was the world’s largest exporter of coffee in 1870, producing  51 million kilograms of coffee annually. The coffee plantations were built in deforested lands, and their monoculture ultimately led to the entire industry being wiped out by 1890. Hansa educates small scale farmers on techniques such as shade-growing, composting, and organic farming.

Hansa is trying to revive the coffee industry without causing further deforestation. Shade grown coffee has a longer yield cycle, but this slower growth leads to a coffee with more complexity and taste. By teaching farmers the benefits of a polyculture farm, Hansa is reducing their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides.

Once the beans are harvested, they are brought to the factory, where they are sorted by hand. Beans with any defect – insect damage, mold, or cracks – are removed. As it turns out, half of the coffee in America is contaminated with mold. This mold produces mycotoxins (not only do mycotoxins make your coffee taste bitter, they cause cancer and brain disease). After the defective beans are sorted out, it is time for the roasting to begin.

Hansa's Roaster

Hansa’s Roaster

When I entered the roasting room I was struck by the intense heat and the overwhelming smell of fresh coffee. The coffee is roasted in small batches, and their special Indian-made roaster is a relic of a bygone era. Periodically the beans are checked for their progress in the roasting process. Watching the pale coffee beans transform into the familiar black ones was fascinating. When I started to hear a cracking noise, the beans were released from their primary chamber and emptied into the bottom hopper. The steaming beans continued to crack. The roaster was brought back to temperature before more beans were poured in.

Hansa is my coffee of choice for a multitude of reasons. It is delicious, but it is also made in a socially and environmentally thoughtful manner. Lawrence is a humanist, who cares deeply about the tenets of organic farming. His company is both a reflection of his beliefs and an attempt to make a better cup of coffee.

A fellow Fulbrighter recently had an article published about Trincomalee, Pockets of Optimism in Trincomalee. Here is an excerpt:

Sri Lanka, the geographic teardrop falling just south of the Indian subcontinent, is fabled among tourists as a land of untrodden beaches, jasmine-scented temples, and tea plantations that recall a bygone era when Britain ruled the waves. Alternatively, journalists and academics know Sri Lanka as a hotbed of human rights abuses and ossifying authoritarianism. The ethnic conflict for which the island is most famous pitted the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamils, but the country’s larger history reveals a saga of haves versus have-nots, with violent undercurrents running both between and within ethnicities, religious groups, and social classes. Though the war officially ended in 2009, the peace of the past four years has been tentative at best.

To read the full text please visti Let’s Go.

World View

March 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the reasons I applied for a Fulbright was to expand my worldview. I had never been to the Indian subcontinent, and The Fulbright provided me a vehicle to get there. I find myself continually searching for new ways to expand my worldview, I think it’s really important in our connected world to have a sense of other cultures. So much so, that I get frustrated by those around me that don’t look outward.

Recently I took a trip to visit a Fulbrighter living in Matara, on the Southern shores of Sri Lanka. She’s the farthest Fulbrighter from me, it would take 12 hours on a bus (16 hours on a train) to reach Matara from Trinco.

When I was hanging out with her husband and some of his Sri Lankan friends, I was really surprised at how little to find they knew about the East. The asked me how I survived in Trinco, because it is so hot. They also thought that people were quite dangerous out East, “you know how Tamils can be”.

When I got back to Trinco, a friend was visibly concerned that I had been to Matara. She told me, “those southern folk are dangerous, the heat makes their blood boil”.

One thing I can say, after visiting most of the island, is that everywhere is hot (save for the hill country) and most people are really nice here.

It’s shocking how little interaction Sri Lankans have with each other. Many people here never leave their hometown, if they do its only to travel to the capital. If you only speak Sinhala, ten traveling to the North and East can be challenging. Likewise, if you only speak Tamil you won’t be able to communicate well in the South.

It frustrates me when people are unaware of the world they live in, be it Americans or Sri Lankans.

Last week I had the fortune of playing host for my friend Keith, it was a much needed refresher. Keith and I studied abroad together in Beijing, and it was great to reconnect while traveling around Sri Lanka.

After living in Sri Lanka for five months, I needed a break. I was reaching a point where I was growing frustrated and tired with life here. Traveling around the island with someone who had never been before was exactly what I needed. It provided a fresh perspective on Sri Lanka, and rekindled by appreciation for the island.

Keith wrote an interesting blog about the sounds of Sri Lanka. Check it out!