Archives For Fulbright Sri Lanka

I was sitting on a verandah, sipping on a cup of coffee, overlooking the main road of Kandy. At the table next to me was a group of girls, pouring through their Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, trying to figure out their next stop along their tour. We started chatting and the asked a curious, but common, question, “how can we get to know the real Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked this question on several occasions; and I think most travelers seek to get away from the toursits traps and get to know the true essence of a country (at least for a few hours…).

The benefits are incredibly apparent: a true culture experience that enables you to understand someone with a different set of life experiences. Well its surprisingly easy to do this: get out of sterile, isolating situations; throw out that guide book, and make yourself get out and actually talk to people.

It might sound simple, but just speaking to people can really alter the course of your trip. I don’t understand tourists who go around with headphones in listening to music. Riding on buses across Sri Lanka has been one of the best most interesting parts of my time here. When you’re sitting next to someone on a six hour bus ride, there is a lot of time to learn about the country from your travel companion, if you have headphones in the entire way you’ve just lost this entire opportunity. Talking to people on buses has led me to better understand Sri Lanka and its history. I’ve been shocked by what people have shared with me on a public bus, stories of war, survival, and new beginnings.

The Fulbright has been one of the best learning experience of my life, thus far. The past six months of living and working in Sri Lanka have pushed me to be a better communicator and a more open person. This experience has changed me, probably in more ways than I’m cognizant of. As a caucasian male born to a middle class family in New Jersey, I don’t exactly have a lot in common with the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman who has spent the last decade of his life running from war. Despite the differences between our worldview and experiences, I try my best to understand his outlooks. When I first came to Sri Lanka this was incredibly difficult to relate with people here. Sitting in someone’s living room and listening to their stories of life and death can evoke a range or emotions, and I often found myself falling silent – unsure of how to respond. After time I learned to understand and empathize with the hardships people have faced; I became comfortable enough to ask questions and engage in conversations.

If you want to be a better communicator, start by listening.

Sterility

March 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

Travel should be challenging. You should be slapped in the face by culture (literally and physically). When traveling you should be surrounded by the locals, and you should eat at the restaurants where no one can speak your native tongue.

I know that this type of travel isn’t necessarily relaxing. I know that a lot of people (my parents included) want their vacation to be relaxing, because their jobs are stressful and they just need a break. I understand it, but I also reject it. Forgoing some comforts affords you a chance to really explore a new place, and a new culture. If you’re lucky you may even start to understand said culture.

Every time I see a tour bus driving around Sri Lanka, I cringe. Traveling around in a climate controlled bus really separates you from your environment. I hadn’t noticed this before, but after months of traveling by bus, tri-shaw, or cycle I had the opportunity to ride in a car last week. The auto was actually cold (I can’t remember the last time I felt that sensation), and it was virtually silent. The ride was devoid of conversation. As I drove through Trinco town I felt strange. I traveled down familiar roads, but they just seemed different. I felt closed off.

I never realized how a mode of transportation could affect my perception of a place. But in my travels I’ve met a number of really great people on mass transportation. The randomness of it makes it all the more interesting, as you never know who you will cross paths with. Being open is the key to really experiencing a place, and getting to know its people.

I recently read a quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I think its applicable to travel:

“Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and you will ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’”

Part of what I like about traveling is that I get to experience how others in the world live. If that means traveling on a cramped bus or eating with my hands, so be it. Fully immersing yourself in the lifestyle of others can be challenging, but it can also be transformative. It will contextualize your life.

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.

 

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Pongal and bananas.

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.

A man walks down the street, 
It’s a street in a strange world. 
Maybe it’s the Third World. 
Maybe it’s his first time around. 
He doesn’t speak the language, 
He holds no currency. 
He is a foreign man, 
He is surrounded by the sound, sound ….
     -Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al

 

SriLankan Airlines flight 554 touched down in the predawn darkness of Colombo. Ten hours earlier we had embarked from Frankfurt, and had finally arrived a little after 4am local time. There was a light rain as we left the plane, and I was immediately struck by the humidity. Even in the early hours of the morning it was hot.

I met one other Fulbrighter in the airport and we found our driver, about an hour later we arrived at the bungalow where we will be staying for this month. After a large glass of water and a shower a nap was in order. Some hours later I woke up and made my way to the bank. Sidewalks, apparently, are not common in this section of Colombo. So the thirty minute walk was just what I needed to get out of the fog of jetlag.

After getting some currency, we made our way to a local restaurant. It was a simple place, with good food. For SLR 100 ($0.77) I had a delicious plate of food. It consisted of some rice topped with several curries – most of which were quite spicy – and a piece of chicken. Diving right into the culture, we ate without utensils; instead utilizing the tips of our fingers to mold the curry and rice into balls before shoveling them in our mouths.

Tomorrow starts our orientation.