Archives For Fulbright

Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.

I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.

Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!

After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.

When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”

Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.

Go and Come

January 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Go and come. Its an odd phrase; but it is commonly used in Sri Lankan English, and I’ve really grown to like it.

I spent five days between Colombo and Galle last week, traveling around 850km by bus and train. It was a great couple of days. I had the best Japanese food of my life, ranging from sashimi to curry leaves tempura before heading to the American Center to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. The Center was holding a photo exhibition  displaying the work of a Sri Lankan who received a Fulbright to study at UC Berkeley.


After the event, I went to Galle Face Hotel to have a drink and watch the sunset. That day marked the completion of three months of my Fulbright, just six more to go. It seemed like a fitting way to commemorate the day.

Sunset at Galle Face Green

The following day, I headed down to Galle. I spent a few days with one of the Senior Fulbright Fellows – someone who holds a PhD and is an academic. It was great to get to know one of my colleagues a little more.

On Sunday I took the overnight train back to Trinco, and got in around 7am. It was the first time I had traveled since moving into my house, and it felt great to be home. It is odd, I’ve only lived in this house a few weeks, but it already feels like home. Going and coming made it feel much more like my house. Its funny how that works.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 11.58.24 AM

Its good to have a home.

Coloring Book Academy

January 15, 2013 — 3 Comments

I studied finance at Fordham. When I started University I was in the College of Business Administration; during my senior year we became the Gabelli School of Business, thanks to a major contribution by Mario Gabelli. During my four years there I had a lot of internship experience and I got an offer from a top bank to work as a credit analyst post graduation.

Now I am teaching nursery rhymes and coloring. My classmates studying liberal arts didn’t call the College of Business Administration the Coloring Book Academy for nothing.

Life is good great. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.




Back in November, which seems like an eternity ago, I taught my students about the American Festival of Thanksgiving. I compared Thanksgiving to the Hindu festival of Pongal, which is celebrated in January. Pongal is a festival to celebrate the harvest.

Pongal (Tamil: பொங்கல்) means ‘spillover’, as in overflowing pots of rice. It marks the reaping of the harvest, and the change of seasons – the end of the rainy season. Here in Trinco, the population is overwhelmingly Tamil, and Tamils are generally Hindu.

The festival lasts four days, but only the first day is a national holiday. Today marks the day of sun worship. WIthout the sun, crops would not grow, and the world would be consumed by eternal darkness. Tomorrow is a day of worship for cows. Cows are crucial to the farming process, before tractors they were the sole means of tilling land (and still a popular method here in Sri Lanka). Cows provide the milk that is used to make Pongal, a sweet and savory rice cooked with  cardamom, jaggery, raisins, and cashew nuts. The last day of Pongal is a day of bird worship, and also a time for sisters to pray for their brother’s happiness. (Sorry girls, there is no day for your brothers to pray for your happiness)

This morning, one of my coworkers from Sarvodaya called me and asked if he could stop by. He brought me a heaping pile of Pongal, and two bananas. It was delicious. Tomorrow, at 5pm, I will be joining his family for their Pongal celebrations.

I’m curious to see whether any of my students show up for class tomorrow, as it a cultural day of festival – but not a national holiday. As often happens, I’ll find out in the morning whether I have class.



Pongal and bananas.

Wadi, wadi, wadi!

January 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

Anyone who has traveled through Sri Lanka will be familiar with the plethora of food vendors that sell their snacks on trains and busses.

Wadi, a fried ball of chickpeas, curry leaves, and seasonings, is a staple in Sri Lanka.

Sometimes your food comes in plastic bags, sometimes newspaper, and occasionally it is served on homework.


  • He only visited France.
  • Manik only reads schoolgirl stories.
  • Wimal only listened to classical music.

Today it seems the student did quite well. By the time I finish the snack I find that this student got a check plus. It’s always sad to get served food when the student failed their test.

Three Months in Sri Lanka

January 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

The smell of salt water, sounds of soft jazz and sight of the setting sun overwhelm my senses. I’m sitting on the green of the Galle Face Hotel sipping on a cocktail made of arrack and Pimm’s, garnished with mint, lime, and cinnamon.

Today marks the completion of three months in Sri Lanka, time is going by too quickly.

I spent the night on the train from Trinco to Colombo. In the afternoon I went to the American Center for a photo exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright. A Sri Lankan who received a Fulbright to go to Berkley had his photos of dias de los muertos celebrations in San Francisco. It was fitting to view this Mexican holiday, celebrated in America, through the lens of a Sri Lankan.

Looking back, the past three months have been eventful – to say the least. I’ve experienced a lot of firsts this year, and the Fulbright is certainly changing me. It’s hard to be aware of changes as they happen, especially in terms of personal development. But after three months, looking back, I’m sure I’ve changed.

Over these three months I’ve experienced a lot of firsts:

This year has been challenging, but after three months I’ve found my groove. Life is going well for me here, and I look forward to the challenges of the next six months.




January 7, 2013 — Leave a comment

Two transfers and eight hours in transit, its 11:47pm and I’m back home in Trinco. This morning I woke up early and headed to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. When I arrived it was about noon, and I spent a few hours walking along the ruins, and really enjoying landscape. Two friends, who had been staying with me, joined for the trip – I was glad to have the company.

Polonnaruwa was the site of Sri Lanka’s second capital. It was populated from the late 600s until about 1200 a.d. The city declined when the South Indian Empire of Chola defeated King Nissankamalla. After the King’s defeat the city was largely abandoned and lost to the jungle, until British explorers discovered it in the 19th century.

I’m hard pressed to think of a situation in the States where I would spend eight hours on mass transit for five hours anywhere, but in Sri Lanka it seemed natural. Things take much longer here, the 70 mile trip from Trinco to Polonnaruwa for example.

Like a boss Foot washer Hands of Buddha polonnaruwa Stuppa Buddha

Swinging in a sari

January 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

Swinging in a sariFace painted gold to lighten and brighten. Bangles rattling on her arms. Adorned in ounces of gold. This girl had just performed a dance at Sarvodaya’s Trinco New Year’s party. She was tired, sick of sitting in the auditorium, and ready to play outside.


A Sri Lankan Dinner Party

January 4, 2013 — 1 Comment

The Americans cooked Sri Lankan curries.

The Sri Lankans prepared American pastries.

Last night I had my amma (Sinhala for mother) and mallis (Sinhala for younger brother) over for dinner. This family found me the house I am renting, and has been looking out for me. Amma was extremely concerned about my ability to eat while on my own, frankly she did not believe a young single male could cook. She has fed me lots over the past week, and I wanted to repay the favor.

With the aid of a fellow Fulbrighter and her visiting boyfriend, we cooked up red rice, dhal, beets, and curried cabbage. Amma made fish puff pastries and brought ice cream. I had invited them over for dinner at 7, and around 7:50 I heard a knock on my door. They had arrived. We sat in my living room, talking and chatting until around 9pm. It was time to eat, and we sat down and enjoyed a meal.

In Sri Lanka, people typically leave as soon as the meal is done. So you really want to stretch out the pre dinner activities. Its nice to have a home, where I can invite friends over to.

A dinner party

We all bleed red

January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

Looking down at my watch I realized it was past 8:30 in the morning, time to get to work. I had lost my sense of time as I was consumed in my thoughts while sipping on a real cup of coffee.

I headed out the door, and crossed the street. On the corner of Champa Lane and Kandy Road all of the tuk-tuks hang out, waiting to chauffeur the citizens of Trinco to their destinations. This is the last day I will be taking a trishaw to work, as my landlord will be delivering my bicycle today. And it was a great end to the week.

I approached the line up of vehicles, and one of the drivers pointed at beige rickshaw – my appointed vehicle. I dropped my head down and greeted the driver in Tamil, vanikam. I told him I wanted to head to, Sarvodaya, NGO – kenenk. Uppuveli. We quickly settled on a price of 200 rupees ($1.58) for the ten minute, 5km ride.

Once we were on Kandy Road, headed towards town, the driver turned to me and said, ‘I Tamil no. Vanikam no. We all Sinhala, in the morning say ayubowan’. Race matters a lot in this country, a war was fought for three decades between the two major races. And the international community is closely watching the development of race relations here.

After a moment of silence, he asked me why I came. And I told him I was a volunteer, this seemed to make him happy. I learned his name, Prabath, and that he has lived in Trinco for all of his 31 years on Earth. He told me that up until four or five years ago, no foreigners came to Trinco. ‘Fighting very bad. Tamils, Sinhala, all killing. Why? All people bleed red. No need to kill. Peace is good.’

The English was broken, but the message was clear. Growing up, surrounded by war, this generation has embraced peace. Whether that peace will be sustainable is another question entirely; but for the moment at least one tuktuk driver is sleeping easier, happy to know his daughter will not be awoken in the night by the sounds of war.