Archives For Travel

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.

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!

 

Communication

March 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

Email, text messages, and cell phones have radically changed our world. This has only become more apparent as I travel.

If I had been on a Fulbright even ten years ago, my level of communication with friends and family at home would be dramatically lower. I can call the US from my Sri Lankan cellphone for a few pennies a minute, over google voice the call is free. My mom can call me from skype for about 10 cents a minute. My family can follow me realtime via my blog, twitter, and facebook.

But in this age of instant communication, something has been lost. Last week I got a call from a fellow Fulbrighter, who told me there was a letter at the Fulbright Commission for me. All week I was excited, I hadn’t been expecting anything in the mail.

A pleasant surprise

My grandmother had sent me a letter, it was a really great surprise. Grandmom doesn’t email and doesn’t use the web, so I doubt she’ll read this blog. It was a really pleasant surprise to get a note from her in the mail. Surprisingly her letter took about a week to reach me. Its frustrating that my letters can take months to reach the States, but thats just how life goes.

The letter sits on my desk, and its a nice decoration for my sparse room.

I must remember to send more letters in the future, specifically to friends who are living abroad.

Friendliness

February 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

Friendliness is a culturally relative term. What I see as friendly can be cold to some people. The ‘stop and chat‘ is a requirement in Sri Lanka, and a simple hello can often turn into an hour long conversation. Larry David does a great job explaining the stop and chat.

Growing up in the New York City Metropolitan area, I am fairly averse to the drawn out stop and chat. Sri Lanka is forcing me to change.

Sri Lankans can be somewhat aggressive in their friendliness. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked ‘where are you going?’ While cycling on Kandy road, a major highway, there have been several instances when cars and trucks have matched my speed – and brought traffic to a crawl – to ask inquire about my coming and goings.

On a Thursday afternoon, while I was riding through town, a police SUV slowed down and an officer started talking to me from the back window. As we had a conversation the driver started getting involved in the conversation, and stopped paying attention to the road. The truck started creeping towards me and I was eventually run off the road. Luckily I was able to avoid the cows and crash into a bush. My bike suffered minimal damage, but the experience was rattling. By the time I got up and recomposed myself, the police had already driven away. One officer casually waved out of the window.

Before coming to Sri Lanka I never even considered lying about being a diabetic, but now I find myself telling people that fairly often. I’m not a huge fan of sweets, particularly when it comes to beverages. When visiting Sri Lankan homes tea is a required part of the event. In Sri Lanka, tea is usually served with copious amounts of milk and sugar. I personally prefer the taste of plain tea without sugar. One afternoon I was invited over a government official’s house in Trinco, and was offered tea. I asked for ‘plain tea, no sugar’, and was shot a quizzical look. I explained that I can’t take sugar, and he obliged. I was served a very milky cup of tea, with a bowl of sugar on the side. He placed the bowl of sugar down with a sly grin, and a knowing glance; he quickly left the room and I really believed he expected me to fill my cup with sugar.

In South Asia there is a much different perception of personal space. People are very friendly, but it can feel invasive. If I leave Trinco I can expect at least one or two phone calls from friends asking me where I went – word travels quickly here. As a foreigner I constantly find myself playing a balancing act between respecting cultural differences and defending my personal space and self-respect.

Going without

February 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

Living in a developing country there are lots of things you get used to not having:

  • Hot water
  • Electrical appliances (namely washer and drier)
  • A stable (and fast) internet connection
  • Toilet paper
  • Many food items

Arguably, one of the hardest things to get used to is the lack of food items. Be it good wine, coffee, snacks, or otherwise. There are just a lot of things that you cannot buy in many parts of the world, or the cost of importing makes them prohibitively expensive. Going without isn’t necessarily a bad thing either; it forces you to adapt to the local norms, and you end up appreciating your home so much more.

photo by law_keven

photo by law_keven

My diet in Sri Lanka is quite devoid of meat and diary products. I’ve become a circumstantial vegetarian. At most I take meat (primarily fish) once a day, and I’ll eat a dozen eggs over the course of a week. Cheese isn’t widely available, and most milk is sold either in powdered form or in a tetra-pack. I also eat curd (think Greek yoghurt, but made from buffalo milk) a few times a week, its delicious.

Last week was unusual for me in two ways, I bought a liter of milk and I ate beef while in Colombo. Its been about two months since I last ate beef, and I ordered it at a Korean restaurant. I felt awesome afterwards. I didn’t realize how devoid my diet was of protein, but I had a surge of energy following the meal and into the next day. Its been about five months since I drank a glass of milk, after consuming a small glass I became ill for the rest of the evening and into the next day. The day following the glass of milk I was still popping imodium like tic-tacs.

I thought it was odd how my body reacted to two previously common items of my diet. After eating a couple of pieces of lean beef I slept great and felt energized. After drinking a glass of milk I was sick. Just a few months without regular milk consumption was enough to make me go sick. My body’s response to milk makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t try to get back into the habit.

When was the last time you went without something, or tried modifying your diet? It wasn’t until I went abroad, and was forced by circumstance to drastically alter my diet. Given how my body responded to milk I don’t really see a need to consume much of it in the future (save for ice-cream).

What about calcium? As it turns out some vegetables contain as much calcium as milk. I’ve included a few choice examples from nutritiondata.com:

  • Arugula, 1 cup = 32mg
  • Spinach, 1 cup (cooked) = 245mg (almost as much as a cup of milk)
  • Spinach, 1 cup (raw) = 30mg
  • Broccoli, 2 cups (cooked) = 188mg (about the same as 1 oz of cheese)

There are some interesting studies out there which claim milk and cheese actually deplete calcium from your body, as they are processed as acids and your body neutralizes them with calcium salts from your bones. (interestingly, fermented milk products such as yoghurt and sour cream are a neutral food) Its a hotly debated issue, but even Harvard’s School of Public Health advises you to drink less milk.

If not for going abroad I would have never cut milk out of my diet.

While most of the world was watching the Super Bowl I was standing in the rain to watch the celebration of Sri Lanka’s 65th Independence Day.

Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at the time, gained its independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948. For most citizens the day was unremarkable. Unlike India’s mass struggles to gain independence, Sri Lanka’s battles were waged primarily by the intelectual class.

At the time of independence Ceylon was one of the wealthiest nations in Asia – a model for Taiwan, SIngapore, and Korea. The education rate was extremely high and english was extremely common. Things were looking up for the island nation.

The Tamil minority had gained a great deal of power during colonization, they held a number of high posts in the Ceylon Civil Service. In 1956, the newly elected prime minister passed the controversial Sinhala only act – this act is usually a starting point for the historical narrative of the civil war.

In 1972 Ceylon changed its name to the “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1978 it was shortened to to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1977 a new constitution, modeled after France’s, was enacted; Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to liberalize its economy. The 1983 Black July riots mark the start of brought on the start of the LTTE and the official start of the war. For many years the LTTE planned to make Trinco the capital of Tamil Eelam.

For weeks Trinco has been getting a facelift. Roads are being widened, buildings painted, and signs hung. For more about the preparations in town, see this Groundview’s Article

This was the third time that the holiday is celebrated in Trinco, the first was 1953 and the second was in 1965. I woke early in the morning, to the sounds of rain and thunder. Once into the heart of town, we had to walk a good way to make it to the parade ground. Two security checkpoints later, and I was in the midst of a crowd – jostling for a sight of the President as he gave his speech.

The speech made many references to the current UN attempts to allow an independent investigation into the end of the war. Below is selected text of his speech that I feel really sums up his message.

We respond to the publicity against Sri Lanka carried out abroad by inviting foreign countries to come to Sri Lanka. We have seen that the best answer to false publicity and propaganda carried out in foreign countries is development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Do not believe something just because it is said, because you have read reports, critics have said it or the media has published it. We tell the people of the world – Come! Come Over and See for yourselves!
Friends
If freedom is a heavenly state, it is not a state one can fully achieve. There was a time when you went past the road blocks in fear of death. When you trod in fear past the roadblocks you did not see the potholes. You did not have the time to think of cleanliness of the city or new road signs. But when the fear of death and the roadblocks are no more, you notice the potholes on those roads. What is next needed is a concrete road. Once concrete roads are given to the entire country and the roads are properly carpeted one notices the absence of modern signboards. When these are completed we seek roads with more lanes for traffic. 
The expectations in a free country are also like this. The more freedom is obtained; the people expect a more advanced life.
Friends
We are a nation that has suffered immensely for freedom. All political parties in this country should understand this. It is not only the Government, but the Opposition too has the responsibility to safeguard this freedom we have won. Protecting the country and building reconciliation is not support extended to the Government or the Opposition. It is support given to the country. It is doing one’s duty by the land of one’s birth. 
The speech, once I read the translated version, proved to be unsurprisingly disappointing. The New York Times published a review of it.  
All in all, this was certainly one of the most memorable days of my Fulbright. It was a great experience. 

Over the past several months I’ve been forced to become more efficient in all of my interactions.

When speaking with someone from a different cultural background, even in English, much can be lost. After studying in China for two semesters I had a good sense of how to deal with the language barrier, but there was quite a learning curve for the style of communication in Sri Lanka.

For the language barrier it is best to:
  • Speak simply. Throw out the convoluted diction and try to mimic the commonly used phrases.
  • Don’t dance around your problems. Clearly state what your goals and
  • Repeat everything and ask questions. If you’re asking someone to do something for you, ask them to explain the task back to you. Make sure you follow up with email (also, email cannot be relied upon, always follow up in person)
  • CC one or two other people in the office. Keep your interactions transparent

Earlier in this post I said I had become clearer and more upfront in all of my interactions. That isn’t always true. When dealing with cultural issues I often find myself dodging questions and answering if half truths.

Examples of these tough questions being asked of me: This is my fat daughter, what do you think? Why aren’t you married? How much did your [computer, shirt, phone, apartment] cost?. Are you Japanese? You don’t take sugar? Some of these questions make me laugh while others have made me uncomfortable. The first time some of these questions were posed to me I stumbled; sometimes I blurted out the truth (sorry fat girl), while others I paused and said the first lie I could think of.

Take sugar for example. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I don’t like consuming sugar every day. I find myself telling people I’m a diabetic, its one of the few ways I can politely deny the sugary tea and soda that are forced upon me at meetings. As for marriage, I’ve found that telling people that I don’t have my ‘qualifications’ brings that conversation to an end. Salary has been by far the toughest issue to deal with. My stipend pays me well by local standards, and I’m often embarrassed to tell people that I make more than most doctors do. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m here as an unpaid volunteer, it just makes things easier.

The Fulbright has definitely improved my communication skills, in both relative and absolute terms. Compared to the start of my grant I’m much better equipped to handle sensitive cultural issues, I’m also better at getting things done in my office.

Time is frozen,
The days never grow longer,
nor do they grow shorter
The summer is eternal,
 flowers always in bloom
For all I know,
It could be March or June.

 

Photo by Quinn Rohlf

Photo by Quinn Rohlf

The Passage of Time

#bikeLK

January 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

Over the past two weeks I’ve started biking to work every day, and I have to say its been a welcome improvement to my daily routine. Between a cold shower, cup of coffee, and twenty minute bike ride I’m energized and ready to start teaching by the time I reach work.

It takes about twice as long to bike than to take a three-wheeler the 3 km between home and work. My bike provides freedom, I can go wherever I want in this town without worrying about the  cost of a tuk-tuk. I can stop at the vegetable stands on the way home from work, and pick out my dinner for the night. I don’t have to worry about taking a trishaw, or being dependent on someone else to get me around town.

My daily commute

It’s really quite nice to have almost an hour of exercise built into my day, I sleep better and feel better when I get home from a long day of teaching. It gives me twenty minutes to unwind and forget about stressful classes. By the time I reach the last major hill on my ride home I’m usually covered in a film of sweat, and ready to lay in my hammock for a while – until the mosquitos start coming.

People look at me strangely when I ride through town on my bike, for a number of reasons.  I wear a helmet, which is truly bizarre. I had to go to Colombo to purchase the helmet, and visited five stores before buying one. The first store I went into had a helmet for 2,500 SLR ($20.00 USD) and the last store I went into had the same helmet for 1,500 SLR ($11.00). The other stores didn’t carry helmets, and at the store I eventually purchased mine from, they only had that one helmet. I’ve been told by many Sri Lankans that it isn’t necessary to wear a helmet on a bicycle – but when I’m dodging cows, pedestrians, and busses, it is nice to be wearing one.

People also give me strange looks because I’m riding on a bicycle. Most white people who come to Trinco are NGO officials and Diplomats who are chauffeured around in air conditioned Land Rovers and Toyotas. It isn’t often that you see a white guy struggling up a hill on a push bike.

On another note, I’ve been learning to ride a motorcycle. Yesterday my friend took me into town to grocery shop on the back of his bike. You’re really conscious of what you buy at the store when you have to hold onto your parcels on the back of a motorcycle.

Learning to ride