Archives For Sri Lanka

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.

Why Should I Care?

January 3, 2013 — 4 Comments

There have been several times during the past few weeks when I wonder why I should care about teaching.

  • When I walk into class and a student yelled, “No Sir, please no lesson.”
  • When my class lied for fifteen minutes about not having notebooks that day
  • When I walk into class and my students are playing with henna, because their teacher did not show up
  • When classes are canceled erratically, without notice to me

Teaching is tough, regardless of where you are. Teaching is a lot tougher in one of the poorer cities of Sri Lanka. Why should I care? Because if I don’t than no one will.

Teaching is frustrating most of the time; but those few moments keep you coming back. I liken it to golf; I’m out of practice, so my game is atrocious. But once or twice during an 18 hole round I’ll get a perfect swing in, and its a swing like that which keeps me coming back. Once or twice a day, I find I really made a connection or drove a point home. And that is why I wake up the next morning to teach.

A few days ago I taught a poem by Shel Silverstein, No Difference:

Small as a peanut,
Big as a giant,
We’re all the same size
When we turn off the light.
Rich as a sultan,
Poor as a mite,
We’re all worth the same
When we turn off the light.
Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to reach out
And turn off the light!

This poem was a bit of a reach for most of my students, but I’m glad I pushed them. I tried an activity called creative copying, and had my students try to make their own stanza to fit in with the poem. I spent too long trying to explain what I wanted out of them, and this lesson didn’t go great in my first two classes. But by my third, I had a stanza of my own

Allah, Buddha, Jesus, or Ganesh
Whatever God you worship is right
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

After showing this to my students, one of the girls in my class came up with a really great verse:

Old as a teacher,
Young as a student,
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

Explaining it was too hard with the language barrier, but by showing an example things went much better. It was a great lesson for teaching, and life in general.

And its amazing when you realize that you’ve been getting through to your students all along. I was really touched this week when my toughest class gave me a New Year present. I was touched when I opened it, and had to work hard to stop laughing. I don’t think they realized the gramatical errors in the plack. It is something that I will keep in my office forever. 


New Year’s Party

January 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

Women were adorned with countless kilos of gold and dressed in vibrant glimmering saris. The men had new shirts on, and their shoes were spiffily shined. I rang in the New Year with the staff and students from Sarvodaya’s Trinco District center, and it was quite an event. On Tuesday, January 1st, we gathered at a nearby lecture hall for the festivities. The official start time was 9am, things got rolling around 10:30.

I arrived around 8:30, and it wasn’t until 9am that I started helping my fellow staffers set up for the event. I would have loved the extra half an hour of sleep, but it wasn’t to be.

The morning started like all other Sri Lankan festivals, with a cerimonial lighting of a lamp. The town’s holy men – Monks, Priests, Swamijis, and Imams – Sarvodaya’s Directors, and of course the American. Its odd that my skin color and nationality bestow a level of respect on me, but thats just the way it goes here.

After the lighting of the lamp, speeches were made in Tamil and Sinhala. While speeches were made, short-eats were given out to all attendees. Short-eats are a particularly enjoyable form of Sri Lankan cuisine, they’re snack items that can range from pastries to fruit. Then the district coordinator, Mr. Jeeveraj, was presented with a cake and various plaques for his 34 years of service to Sarvodaya. After that gifts were presented to the staff. I was sitting in the back of the room when a fellow staffer grabbed me and pulled me up to receive a gift with the rest of the staff. We were each give 101 rupees and a new towel. Very practical, and nice gifts.

When staff members started collecting plates, from the short-eats, halfway through the event I joined in. It reminded me a bit of time spent catering, but it also caused quite a stir. It was unusual for men to be doing such things, even more so for a guest from America. I’m glad that a room of 200 Sri Lankans got to see me bucking the cultural norm.

It was an auspicious day, so many performances took place. The first performance was a dance performed by a group of girls dressed from head to toe in gold – even their faces were painted gold. Then Mr. Jeeveraj serenaded the crowd, performing a traditional Tamil song. Various students performed elaborate dance numbers, all to booming Bollywood songs.

I’m really glad I was able to celebrate the New Year with the staff and students here in Trinco, it really helped to make me more apart of this community.


A Vagabond Year

December 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

2012 will cease to exist when the Aleutian Island chain off of Alaska crosses into 2013. According to the International Date Line, this will be the last place to leave 2012 behind for the New Year. Looking at a map, I can’t determine why this was chosen as the end of separation between calendar days.

Time zones are an odd thing; they are a creation of man, and have only been around for a few hundred years. Prior to that, humans traveled at a pace slow enough never to notice a difference in time and date. Some countries, China most notably, ignore time zones all together.

Two thousand and twelve, for me,  was a vagabond year. I spent a great deal of it traveling, battling jetlag and timezones more often than I’d care to admit. It has also been a year of great change, some expected but most not. Looking back, I’m really surprised where the last few months of my life have taken me. If you had asked me at the start of 2012, I could have never anticipated what my life would be like today.

Sure, I expected to graduate from Fordham. That was a great day; there was nothing quite like having my Grandfather hand me my diploma as I heard my family (most notably my Mom) cheering in the background. It was a day I’ll never forget, and was surely a highlight of they year.

Aside from that, a lot happened this year that was completely unexpected.

  • I expected to work for a bank, but was given the chance to work on a Fulbright
  • I expected to spend the summer working at my parent’s restaurant, instead they bought a bagel shop and I got a chance to work with Project Breaker
  • I expected to spend the summer in Chicago, but instead got to head to Germany

And then, there were the completely unexpected things that have occurred in 2012

  • I never expected deferring a student loan would be so hard
  • I never expected teaching English to be so hard. I speak English after all
  • I never expected to learn how to make curry or egg nog
  • I never expected to live in a hostel for two months
  • I never expected spending a holiday alone could be so depressing
  • I never expected to go to Nepal
  • I never expected to celebrate Christmas in shorts
  • I never expected to live alone

This past year has been among the most eventful and surpassing of my life; at the rate 2012 has gone, I have no idea what to expect out of 2013. Just because I don’t have expectations doesn’t mean I don’t have goals. My abbreviated goal list includes:

  • Starting my research with SEEDS Microfinance bank
  • Finding a Boy Scout Troop in Trinco to work with
  • Driving a Tuk Tuk across Sri Lanka
  • Get some more articles published
  • Have Sri Lankans open up and speak to me about the war and tsunami
  • Go on a ten day silent meditation retreat
  • Cross some more books off of my reading list
  • Learn some basic programing, probably ruby on rails
  • Figure out what I want my career path to be, or at least the next step

An end to limbo

December 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

After living in Trinco for about two months, I have finally found a home. It was a frustrating, and long process. But it taught me a lot about the city I’m living in. While searching for a home I’ve met with Trinco’s Mayor, the head of Trinco’s Economic Development Council, various shop keepers, and even a priest.

It is really nice to have a place that I can call my own, for the next six months. A handwritten lease gives me claim to this property for the price of 20,000 SLR a month ($153), it comes complete with a couple of couches, bed, bathroom, kitchen (mysteriously the refrigerator has disappeared), and a bicycle. I have my own garden, where I am told mangos will grow freely soon. I have my own pit to burn garbage in. It is nice to have a place to call home. Thats for sure.

Now I’m off to settle in, hang my hammock, and plan my lessons for the week.

My house!Kitchen Living room My Bedroom

The World Is Shrinking

December 30, 2012 — Leave a comment

How is it that with seven billion inhabitants this world is still a small place? Sure, the internet has shrunk the world considerably, but I’m amazed at the amount of times I’ve crossed paths with acquaintances.

From running into a classmate from high school at a bar in Beijing to crossing paths with a friend in SoHo on a busy Saturday afternoon, moments like this are quite serendipitous – and often surreal.

It amazes me how two of my fellow Fulbrighters were separated by one mutual friend.

The world might be small, but Sri Lanka is even smaller. An island of 22 million people, and it amazes me how often random crossings happen. Just yesterday, I was shopping in Colombo and happened across someone who had helped me sort out travel from Bati to Trinco. Then later that evening, while enjoying a wonderful jazz bar in Colombo, I happened to strike up a conversation with the cousin of the Director of the Fulbright Commission.

In Sri Lanka it seems like everyone knows everyone else. According to a local, up until three years ago there was only one bar to go to in Colombo on a Friday night, because most of the city’s affluent circles went there. In his opinion, it was a shame now because now those circles were spread between four bars.

When I started thinking about this, it seemed less surprising. In a country of 22 million, only about 2% are accepted to university. If we adjust this number up, to say 5%, it should more than account for all those who attend university outside of the country. That gives us about 1.1 million people who I would consider to be in the elite of the nation. Colombo, the political and financial capital, has only 800,000 people residing in it.

Looking at those numbers, its not surprising that everyone knows everyone else in Sri Lanka.

December 25th

December 25, 2012 — 2 Comments

The sun is shining bright, the barometer is pushing 90, and the air is thick with humidity. It’s Christmas Day; the mistletoe has been hung, tree is decorated, and holiday jingles are piping out of the speakers. Last night was our holiday gift exchange, and tonight will be spent cooking and watching Christmas movies.

In spite of all the effort, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas. The weather isn’t quite right, and the most crucial Christmas element is missing – family. This is the first Christmas I’ve spent abroad, and it just doesn’t feel right. Growing up, everyone always spoke to me about how the holidays are about family. This year it has become really apparent how true that statement is. Sure it would feel more like the holidays if there was a foot of snow on the ground, but without the family (and 24 hours of a Christmas Story) it just feels like any other day.

I’m grateful for my friends this holiday season, because we really have tried to make the most of Christmas. For most of us, this is the first Christmas without our family; I think I speak for all of us when I say nobody wishes for a second Christmas like this. It helps to have friends who have similar traditions, it makes the experience that much better.

I am really looking forward to the holidays next year, being abroad has made realize how valuable my family is to me.

Merry Christmas


The Apocalypse

December 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

For all I know the world could be over right now, and no one will read this final blog post of mine. Or the world could just go on spinning, grinding along as normal. I have this set up to auto post on December 21st at 11:11 UTC.

December 21, 2012 will be marked as the last day of the Mayan calendar and, according to some (though I’m not really sure who), possibly the end of the world. The end of a calendar, and the beginning of a new one somehow is supposed to bring on the apocalypse.

All week the pressing question from my students had been about the end of the world. On Monday morning the first thing one of my students said was, ‘Sir, twenty-one December world end. Tsunami coming. No sir’. All this concern about the end of the world has only been heightened by unrelenting rain since Saturday, and the flash floods that have been brought on. The rain has caused persistent power outages.

My students survived the Tsunami of 2004, which devastated the beachfront communities of South-East Asia. I can only begin to speculate about the scale of devastation and loss that my students lived through. My eldest students would have been 15, while my youngest would have been around seven or eight. Many of my students’ families subsist off of the sea, fathers employed as fishermen. I can’t imagine how many lost family members and friends; last week I had my students write pen pal letters, and I was surprised how many students had lost fathers – I guess I shouldn’t have been.

It was quite coincidental that I had planned on teaching emotions this week, and the word afraid was frequently used to describe the attitude of my students towards the end of the week – and possibly the end of the world.

My colleagues at Sarvodaya had a much different approach to the entire situation. The viewpoint of one of my female coworkers was especially poignant. She expressed some concern over the possibility of the end of the world, but then shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘if the world is ending there isn’t much I can do.’

Sri Lankans tend to go with the flow, and I haven’t seen people get really upset over anything. Its not that they don’t care, its just that people here take time to enjoy the little things life has to offer. The heavy rains this week have led to many hours with no power; on Tuesday night in particular I was trying to use the internet and was frustrated by the sporadic connection. I got fed up with it and started walking back to my room, in the dark. Along the way I saw a few of the employees here sitting, sipping tea, and enjoying the sound of rainfall. For them the power cut wasn’t ideal – but there was nothing to be done about it – so why not enjoy it.

It is a much different attitude than we have in America, and I still haven’t gotten to used to it. But I like it.

For your viewing pleasure:

Instant Coffee

December 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

Steaming hot, bitter, and slightly sweet. The first sip is delightful, but by the end I can barely stomach another gulp. Instant coffee is many things, pleasant isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a yuppie; there’s nothing I enjoy better than lounging in a coffee shop, enjoying a good meal, engaging novel, and a rich cup of coffee. But in Sri Lanka I’ve almost stopped drinking coffee all together.

Where tourists go, it is possible to find real coffee. In the more affluent cities, there are shops that cater to the locals. In Colombo there are a plethora of European-esque coffee houses, which serve delicious and authentic brews.

In Colombo I even found a coffee shop that really surprised me when I walked in; jazz was piping in over speakers, the lighting was dimmed, and the chairs looked comfortable. I approached the counter and could hear the familiar sound of milk being steamed, and I ordered a cappuccino. The coffee was some of the least expensive in Sri Lanka, only 100/ ($0.75), and I watched with anticipation as my drink was created. It was then that I realized this café did not have an espresso machine, and I saw the barista mixing a spoonful of Nescafé with water – topping it with foamy milk. This ‘cappuccino’ wasn’t bad, an improved version of instant.

As the wealth of a nation grows you start to see these western style cafés spring up. They are a luxury that many Westerners take for granted. It makes me happy to see locals mingling among visitors in these places. Trinco has not yet reached a state where the local citizens can afford the luxury of coffee, so for the time being my only reprieve is the occasional cup of instant.

Sri Lanka has some amazing teas; you may know them as Ceylon Teas. And prior to growing tea, Sri Lanka was one of the coffee capitals of the world. That is, until a virus wiped out coffee production across the island, and someone thought to try planting tea on the now idle coffee plantations. It worked out well for them, save for the lack of coffee production on the island.

Nescafe, the gold standard of instant coffee, is a bitterly repulsive drink. I find myself making a latte out of the stuff hot milk. Business meetings will regularly serve the stuff aside bags of tea. (For those interested, here is a great article on how to make instant coffee more palatable.)

I’ve tried most of the instant coffees on the shelves, and there is one that is a clear cut above the rest. Starbucks, a coffee chain which I tend to avoid, has introduced an instant coffee by the name of Via. My experiences in China gave me the foresight to pack a healthy supply of the stuff, which helped wean me off coffee. Now that that supply has dwindled, I am back to Nescafe, saving my Via for special occasions.

Most of the world’s instant coffee is consumed in Asia. When I lived in China most of the instant coffee I had was served in 3-in-1 packets, complete with sugar, creamer, and coffee. The instant coffee market is valued at $21bn a year, and only 5% of that is in the U.S., according to the WSJ. Nescafé controls most of that market.

Starbucks has a tremendous opportunity with Via, in the global market. Rather than selling Via in single serve packets, if they jar it and sell it in bulk I think there is quite a market in the developing world. Many people cannot afford to drink a real cup of coffee, but instant coffee is within their price range. Starbucks, which based upon their pricing in the US, would come in as a premium instant coffee. It would still be less expensive than regular coffee, especially as you don’t need to invest a large amount of money into a machine to brew coffee. And by launching their product in these emerging markets they could get consumers familiar with their brand, helping them as they enter new markets.

Starbucks has already begun to sell Via abroad, they recently launched it in China. I wish Starbucks was being more aggressive with their expansion plans – mostly out of personal desire to avoid drinking Nescafé.