Archives For Sri Lanka

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.

Openness

February 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

The Fulbright has challenged me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. When I opted to take the Fulbright over a lucrative banking career my family was surprised, to say the least. When asked to justify my reasoning I was often at a loss for words – I didn’t know how the Fulbright would benefit my future.

Sure, the Fulbright is a prestigious academic fellowship. The alumni network is amazing, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn about a whole new region of the world. When I started my grant, I couldn’t tell you exactly how it would impact or shape me.

One of my biggest challenges has been remaining open to the experiences and opportunities here in Sri Lanka. I get overwhelmed at times, and just want to close myself off.

I found myself in a situation like that two weeks ago. I had a particularly rough set of days, and just wanted to escape Sri Lanka for a little while. I had to travel to Colombo, and was all set for my overnight train ride. The battery on my laptop was fully charged, and I had queued up several episodes of The West Wing to get me through the train ride. I got into my cabin and my bunkmate was sitting on his bunk. I briefly acknowledged him as I dropped down my bags, and chatted on the phone with my brother (its amazing that a 15 minute phone call to the states cost me less than $2.00…).

The screech of the station master’s whistle signaled the start of my trip, and I bid my brother farewell. Getting into my cabin, I just wanted to climb into bed and shut myself off from the world. My traveling companion struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted for a few minutes. One thing led to another, and a few minutes turned into a few hours.

As it happened I was traveling with an optometrist, who worked for Vision Care. He had been in Trinco conducting free screenings and educational seminars to spot vision problems. I found out about several government schemes to provide free eye glasses to those who can’t afford them. At the end of our conversation, we arranged to conduct a session at my school in the middle of March. There are several students who need specs (as they’re called in Sri Lankan English), but don’t have the resources to afford them.

Had I closed myself off, and let the troubles of my week weigh me down, I would have missed this amazing opportunity. By turning off my iPod and taking out my headphones, I opened myself up to a conversation that turned out to be engaging and fulfilling.

Looking back on my days at University in NYC, I wonder how many engaging encounters I missed by closing myself off to the world. Openness brings opportunities.

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.

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.

L.R. Cake Shop

January 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

The first time you attend a wedding in Sri Lanka you will likely notice a beautifully decorated cake somewhere in the reception area. You may be surprised when you are served an individually wrapped piece of cake, not from the wedding cake. Upon close inspection of the cake you may realize that the core of the cake is styrofoam; cakes are made this way so that they can hold up to the heat and humidity during the entire wedding day.

My Amma (Sinhalese and Tamil for Mom) is the founder of L.R. Cake Shop, Trincomalee’s only degree granting cake decorating school. She makes the most whimsical cakes; American cakes do not compare at all. Last week, when I stopped into the shop, I was delighted to stay and watch a cake be made. I was only present for the final assembly, which took nearly an hour. It was amazing watching plain cake and pink fondant being sculpted into a princess’ dress. Next, white fondant was formed around the Barbie doll, to complete her dress. Lace was intricately cut to layer around the base of the dress, as a bow was made for the back. A lucky little girl will get this princess cake for the cost of 3,000 SLR ($23 USD).

All of the cakes are made to order. You cannot walk into the shop and buy a cake like you can in Colombo. It seemed odd to me at my first visit, but since I’ve gotten better acquainted with the area it makes sense. Trinco’s economy cannot yet support an on demand bakery, and Amma’s cakes are so varied and unique that it would be impossible to forecast the demand for something like a princess cake.

Amma can turn just about anything into a cake. She won third place in a national competition for cake making. For years she has been providing the area with cakes as well as training out of her home. It wasn’t until the end of 2012 that she felt comfortable taking the risk and opening up her store front, things were just too volatile in the East. Now every time I stop in town I visit her shop, which is usually full of students or customers placing orders. Sitting and talking with Amma is great, except for the constant barrage of cake being offered; I tell Amma she will make me fat.

It was no surprise when she told me that she will be making a cake for the President when he visits Trinco on Monday for Independence Day celebrations. Just a day in the life of Trinco’s premier baker.

26.12.20 Tsunami Day

January 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

IMG_1275

I came across this poster in town a few days ago. It is amazing how the tsunami lingers over Trinco; the shells of buildings litter the beach front. Fallowed plots of land are common sites, the salt from the ocean water have rendered them useless.

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

What to do?

January 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

“What to do?” This common Sri Lankan English phrase summed up my feelings earlier this week, when on my way home from work the pedal fell off of my bicycle. I stopped, picked up the pedal, and assessed the situation as a few curious Sri Lankans came to watch.

Fortunately, I was at the top of a hill. So for about half a kilometer I tried to ride with one pedal. As I was slowly struggling along, it started to rain. A few Sri Lankans riding by slowed down to inquire about what had happened. Unsurprisingly, pedaling with one leg wasn’t working out too well. I came to the bottom of a large hill and decided it was time to figure something else out. I hailed down a tuk tuk, and shoved my cycle in the back of it.

photo (14)

We had just departed when a police officer pulled us over to see what was wrong. He scolded the tuk tuk driver, apparently this wasn’t legal. The driver somehow worked things out, and we were back on our way towards my house. The driver had to take a series of backroads to avoid two more checkpoints along the road, because he was afraid of getting fined for having a bicycle hanging out of his vehicle.

Three months ago, I’m not sure I would have handled the situation as well as I did today. I wasn’t angry or upset. I sort of just laughed. Sri Lanka has made me better at dealing with unfortunate situations, people here don’t get as worked up about things as we do in America.

What to do?