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.

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.