Archives For Sean

Last weekend I went to a Sing-A-Long fundraiser for the Peter Weeraekera Children’s Home. This was my first introduction to Colombo society, and it was a great deal of fun. I attended the event with several other Fulbrighters, it was held at the BMICH hall in Colombo.

The Orphanage houses about 50 girls, all of whom attend school. The money raised at the event goes towards covering their living expenses and providing scholarships for academically gifted girls to attend private schools.

After settling into our table the music started a few minutes later, and the band played a few introductory songs to get the crowd going. All of the attendees were provided with a booklet of song lyrics, ranging from Sinhalese favorites to “Old Suzanna”. After four or five songs, tables started going up to sing. It wasn’t long before the event organizer came up to get our table up to sing; the song we choose was “This Land Is Your Land”.

After singing, it was only natural that our host insisted we start dancing. For a while we were the only ones on the dance floor, but soon we started to be joined by others at the party. The little girls, dressed in beautiful saris, enjoyed dancing with a few of the Fulbrighters.

The highlight of the event was towards the end of the night when a kind Sri Lankan brought over some rum for our table; sadly we had not been informed that the event was a BYO. Ganesh, the man who pitied us enough to share some liquor, was a really interesting man. I will never forget what he told me:

If you have any problems let me know, not that you will have problems in Sri Lanka. We are a very kind people. But if you do, we know police, the army, and the ministries  If they cant help you, I know the President. He can help you, a very nice man. 
I doubt it will be necessary, but I’ll be sure to keep his business card on hand…

 

Expectations

November 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a 6’1″ tall white guy, I stand out in Sri Lanka. My looks really influence people’s interactions with me here.

When speaking Sinhala I take people off guard, as they don’t expect a foreigner to know the language.

At the store today I thanked an attended in Sinhalese, ඉස්තුති (istuti), and in return I received a blank stare. Thinking I had fumbled my words, I repeated myself. When he still hadn’t registered the words I spoke, his coworker – speaking perfect English – said, “he’s thanking you in Sinhalese”.

The expectation in Sri Lanka is that foreigners don’t speak any Sinhalese. Many people aren’t mentally primed to hear Sinhalese come out of my mouth, so when I try to speak it takes them a moment to register the fact that the words I’m saying aren’t in English.

Expectations influence perception.

Voting as a Signal

November 5, 2012 — Leave a comment

This past week the news in Sri Lanka has prominently featured two main stories: Hurricane Sandy and the American Presidential Election. Most of the world was following Hurricane Sandy as Cyclone Nilam – which displaced 70,000 Sri Lankans – raged through the Bay of Bengal. Now, even as Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice is being impeached, eyes are on the outcome of this election.

When I was making my way to Sri Lanka, in early October, I spent a week in Germany. When people found out I was an American the topic of the election was sure to come up. It really amazes me how much the world is following our choice.

The race is incredibly close at this point, and either candidate could win.

With the election only a few hours away many in Tri-Sate area are still without power. Getting out to vote is low on the list for people as they deal with the destruction and try to catch up on lost work. But I urge you to take the time to go to the polls and cast you vote. If you’re in a State where you don’t believe that your vote won’t matter in the national election, then I implore you to vote for your local elections.

In commerce, purchasing products sends a signal to factories. There is a constant flow of information to firms, and they can leverage that data to stay current in their productions. In politics, casting a vote sends a signal to political parties. The flow of information is staggered, and it takes a while to incorporate this into a platform.

If you’re like me, frustrated by the polarization of our political system, then consider voting for a third party. In this race, a few percentage points will be the difference between the winner and loser. Third parties usually snatch a few percentage points; this year it seems like Gary Johnson might even capture 5% of the vote. Jill Stein is also polling well. If these two candidates are able to capture a significant chunk of the vote then it will hopefully influence the primaries to lean towards more moderate candidates in the future.

This post was inspired, in part, by a Seth Godin article

Sigiriya

October 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

While in Kandy we decided to make the trip out to Sigriya, the ancient rock fortress and monastery near the center of Sri Lanka. From Kandy it was a two hour drive out to the historical site, and we arrived shortly after nine in the morning. It is an impressive site, and the main site sits some 500 feet in the air. 

The cost of admission is 3900 LKR (USD $30) for non-residents and about 70 LKR (USD $0.54) for locals. You enter the grounds by first passing through the ticket booth and then crossing a bridge over the moat which surrounds the rock. Walking along the entrance path you are surrounded by pools, walkways, and other architectural features. It is really quite amazing that some of the man made ponds still have water in them today.

 

Along the walk up to the stairs there are many signs warning you about the imminent threat of hornets, though I never saw any flying around. 

 

 

The original staircases are still intact for much of the climb, until you reach about halfway up. At that point you have to switch to metal steps that are considerably rusted and wobbly, after a frightening few minutes you are rewarded with some truly amazing frescoes.

About an hour after we started climbing, we reached the top of Sigiriya, and the views from the top were amazing. Somehow a few stray dogs had managed to get up to the top as well, I was really shocked to see them lounging in the shade. I was particularly drenched in sweat, but I could not have been happier.

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest historical sites, and its commemorated on the 2,000 LKR bill, if you have the opportunity to visit this site I really recommend it. Just don’t forget to bring a few liters of water with you for the hike up.

Poya

October 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

            October 29, 2012

Darkness surrounds me as I’m awoken by the rhythmic sounds of chanting in the early morning hours. I lie awake for some time, and make out the sound of rain falling; eventually my alarm alerts me that five am has arrived, and it is time to rise. After wrestling with my mosquito net, I escape my bed and begin to don white clothing.

Barefoot, I step out into the rain and begin my walk to the temple. Along the way people try to sell me flowers and incense to offer at the temple. Countless people, all of whom are clad in white, surround me.

Today is Poya, a Buddhist holiday in Sri Lanka which commemorates the full moon day. Poya Day is a public holiday, and most institutions are closed today. Grocery stores cannot sell alcohol or meat on Poya.

The early morning is quiet, save for the sounds of rainfall and chanting. I pass through the metal detectors at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, then make my way through the monetary towards the main temple. Walking down a long path I approached the Temple. After wiping my feet I enter the main building, where two temple workers beat a drum and play a conch shell. The sound of their music reverberates through the halls. Walking up a flight of stairs I am shown to the queue by a man clad in white robes, who turns out to be a member of the police force. I shuffle up towards an open door, which is attended by several monks. For a few brief seconds I am allowed to gaze into the room, and see a brilliant gold casket. The gleaming stupa shaped vessel is a series of domes of diminishing size. Inside is a tooth of Buddha, which is said to have been snatched from the flames of his cremation in 438 BC. Kandyan kings built the Temple of the Tooth in 1687, as apart of the royal palace. The relic for which this temple was built makes it one of the most important sites for Buddhists across the world.

After a few brief seconds I have to move on, and exit the procession line. Once out, I join dozens of families who are sitting on the ground in prayer. For a good while I sit silently and watch the devout offer their prayers and gifts. There is an indescribable energy in this room, as an endless line of devotees silently files into the room. Sitting there is incredibly peaceful, so much so that I was compelled to meditate. Several minutes later I rose and walked down a set of stairs into another chamber of the temple. Walking into another room I am greeted by a monk clad in saffron robes, who tied a piece of white string around my right wrist.

I spent some more time exploring the temple before exiting, and I had returned to my hotel by about 6:30 in the morning. Vap Poya Day is celebrated in the month of October in Sri Lanka, it commemorates when the Sri Lankan ruler, King Devanampiyatissa, established the tradition of Buddhist Nuns in the country.

My first Poya day was a great experience, it differed drastically from my experiences at a Tibetan Monastery. I look forward to celebrating eight more of them during the course of my Fulbright.

Galle and Unawatuna

October 22, 2012 — 1 Comment

This weekend I traveled south to Galle and Unawatuna with a few fellow Fulbrighters. We left Colombo via train and headed south, only to realize that the train we were on was the wrong one; we were able to transfer a few miles outside of Colombo onto a train headed to Galle, and made up our lost time. The four hour trip cost Rs 180 (USD $1.34).

When we arrived at the Galle train station we hopped onto a bus and made our way to Unawatuna, we dropped our bags at our guesthouse and headed to the shore. Dusk was arriving, and we ran into the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. After a while of enjoying the water we headed to dinner at a restaurant on the shore.

Unawatuna is a beautiful stretch of beach, just a few kilometers away from Galle. Its a tourist attraction which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. When the rebuilding happened, many of the codes were ignored and buildings were built right on the beach. The Government tore down some of the hotels in 2011, the foundations of which still can be seen from the beach, for violating this code. It is my understanding that the hotels were all on the other side of road, away from the beach, prior to the rebuilding. It is a shame that the natural beauty of this beach is encroached upon by businesses which now are regularly dealing with waves washing into their establishments.

Galle (ගාල්ල) is the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka, and has been a major sea port for centuries. The modern city was established when the Portugese took the city by force, and the Dutch built the original fort out of granite. The fort walls kept the old city protected from the Tsunami, though surrounding areas were wiped out. Today Galle is a city full of cafes, stores, and galleries catering to western tourists and affluent Sri Lankans.

Cultrual Norms

October 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

During my sophomore year at Fordham I traveled to Kenya with a group of students as apart of the Fair Trade Micro Finance program, Amani.

There are many challenges to working in a foreign, and many opportunities to unwittingly violate cultural norms. While in Nyabigena, a small village in rural Kenya, we stayed with our business partners. Our accommodations were modest, but adequate. We spent our time working with our business partners on basic accounting and computer skills.

Theresa, a local of the village, was paid to cook our meals. She cooked over a wood fire, in a small shed. The nearest water tap was about a mile walk. One afternoon Theresa was making us lunch, and one of the men asked her to fetch some salt. They argued for a moment, and then Theresa went to get salt. Little did we know it was a fifteen minute walk for her, each way.

Upon her arrival back she sat down to eat, and I poured her a cup of tea. The men stopped eating and stared at us. I could tell that Theresa was quite uncomfortable with this situation, as you could imagine.

Unwittingly, I had broken a social norm. But once I realized what I had done, I made a conscious effort to pour tea for every woman at the table (one Kenyan and several Americans). To be a woman in Africa is to live a life of innumerable hardship. I could talk to the men all I wanted about gender equality, and the role of women in the developed world. Those words were lost in translation, or willfully ignored. The rules which governed interactions between the genders in America had little utility in a rural Kenyan village. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea was drastically different. It was a physical act which challenged the cultural norms.

The simple act of pouring a cup of tea forced a conversation.

I have no way of knowing if this made a lasting impact, but I really hope it did. Being abroad is an interesting thing, as you’re not quite bound by the social rules of either your home or host country. It is a liberating thing, but it comes with its own set of responsibilities. One of which is to challenge discrimination. I realized in Kenya that as a white male born in America my actions were closely watched, and influential.

It’s something that I will have to be very cognizant of while in Sri Lanka.


Pol Sambol

October 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

Sweat rolling down your face. FIrst your mouth goes numb, and then the sensation envelops your esophagus and stomach. Quickly, you reach for water. Then you scoop rice into your mouth to try and balance out the intense heat of the meal you are eating.

Sri Lanka is renowned for its spicy food. It is really quite delicious, but if you’re not careful it can be a challenge. You must eat strategically here, as most meals are a combination of rice and three to five servings of curries or other side dishes. Saving a portion of mild food until the end helps cleanse your palate.

One of my favorite dishes in Sri Lanka is Pol Sambol, a sweet and spicy dish made out of coconut. It’s refreshing, chewy, and savory. Tonight I made some of this for dinner, and I’ve included the recipe I followed. All you need is one coconut, a tomato, onion, lime, some garlic, and a few spice.

  • Grate a bowl of coconut
  • Chop one small purple onion, peel and chop 2 cloves of garlic, chop one small tomato
  • Add a scoop of red chili powder and course black pepper and mix with the coconut
  • Mix tomato with coconut mixture
  • Pound (with a mortar and pestle) the onion, then add garlic, then coconut mixture. Pound together
  • Add juice of one lime and mix by hand in a bowl

Enjoy!

In Country Orientation

October 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

The US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission is housed in a beautiful 1930’s era mansion in Colombo 3.

This was the first time that the English Teaching Assistants had the opportunity to meet the researchers and senior researchers, who’s topics range from architecture to the informal fishing economy.

Orientation began with an overview of our contract and expectation of us for our grant period. After an hour session on this we broke for tea and cookies before heading to the US Embassy for our security briefing. They encouraged us to enroll in the Smart Travel Enrollment Program once we received our local numbers; in the event of an emergency they will text all registered numbers.

The US Embassy in Colombo is  housed in a large concrete cube, which seems to have been built in the ’70s. It’s situated between Galle Road (the main drag in Colombo) and the beach. The overview provided a lot of insight into the servies the Embassy offers to citizens.

The other sessions covered were: A panel of previos Fulbrighters, Sri Lankan English, Media in SL, An Address by the Ambassador, An Overview of the American Corners in SL, Government of SL, Development of SL, Medical Concerns in SL, and Biodiversity in SL.

 

Shangri-La Bungalow

October 14, 2012 — 1 Comment

For the first month of my Fulbright I will be staying at Shangri La Bungalow, in  Nedimala, Dehiwala. I’m here with my fellow ETA’s. It’s about thirty minutes to downtown Colombo from this location, and the house is beautiful. If you care to see where it is on a map, click here.

The house is quite spacious, and we have a great caretaker – Siva. He tends to the property and helps us with various odds and ends. Every morning he has a pot of Sri Lankan tea for us; its black tea mixed with milk, sugar, and spices. As he speaks Tamil, communication is a bit of a challenge, but we manage.

Yesterday I purchased a coconut from a store, and Siva shook his head. A moment later he was climbing a tree and grabbing a coconut off of it, and bringing it in the house.

Our Sinhalese classes will be held here, and they being tomorrow.

Here are some pictures (click to expand them!)