Archives For Sri Lanka

Yesterday I received a gem of an invitation, I was asked to go to a Bachelor Party. I happily accepted, as I thought this would be a great opportunity to get better acquainted with a colleague of mine at Sarvodaya. Also, I hope to attend a Sri Lankan wedding – so this is a good step in that direction.

I was picked up at 10:30 in the morning on a motorcycle, and rode to the groom to be’s house. When I arrived, a bbq was going and some chicken and fish were being grilled up. Six other guys sat around a table, in the shade of a coconut tree, as we munched on shrimp and sipped arrack. For several hours we sat around leisurely eating, enjoying the cool breeze, and the warmth of the arrack. Back and forth we shuffled, three times, moving the party in and out with the whim of the rain. We finally settled on staying inside, after it seemed that the rain would be with us for some time.

I was stuffed from the fish, shrimp and chicken when it was announced that now lunch would be served. A heaping bowl of rice was brought out, along with dal, chicken curry, vegetables, and a fruit salad. A friend and fellow fulbrighter told me that the best meals she had in Sri Lanka were served in someones home. And I couldn’t agree more. This was one of the best meals I have had in Sri Lanka, its a shame I was so full when it was served.

Aside from the little differences, this was very much like a party in America. Friends sitting around, shooting the breeze, and enjoying the moment. Good food, a stiff drink, and some tv playing in the background.

All in all, it was a great day. And I’m glad that I was invited, and that I’m starting to get a little more connected into this seemingly isolated city.

 

Funny Boy

November 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

For the past week the international community has been trying to grapple with a number of questions revolving Sri Lanka’s civil war. Namely, how were they so unaware of the scale of civilian casualties in the final months of the war?

It is estimated that 40,000 civilians died in the five months leading up to the surrender of the L.T.T.E. in May of 2009.  The United Nations abandoned its mission in the Tamil-controlled areas on the eve of the Government’s final blitz. In an effort to reconcile this humanitarian catastrophe, the UN published their Internal Review on the fifteenth of November.

In my own efforts to understand Sri Lanka’s turbulent past, I spent a lot of time reading old news articles and watching documentaries. During our orientation we heard from an astonishing woman who told us the horrors her family, as Tamils, suffered during the 1983 riots. More recently I’ve finished reading Funny Boy, a novel written by a member of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora community, Shyam Selvadurai.

The story recounts life in a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo. It is a story of coming to age, as a boy grapples with his hidden homosexuality in a complex and divided society. It is incredibly well written, and makes for a quick read. One of the most striking parts of the book is the epilogue, which recounts some of the horrors of Black July.

The 1983 riots began when the Tamil Tigers killed a group of 13 soldiers, and the government brought them back to Colombo to be buried. At the funeral alcohol was provided, along with the names and addresses of many Tamil families in the capital. Chaos quickly ensued.

Now, some excerpts from Funny Boy:

“The radio news is beginning again. We have listened to the broadcast at 6:00, 7:30, and 8:45, but there is still no mention of the trouble. If not for the phone call … we would think that nothing was going on in Colombo” Page 288-89.

“As he cycled towards Galle Road he saw that all the Tamil shops had been set on fire and the mobs were looting everything. The police and army just stood by, watching, and some of them even cheered as the mobs joined in the looting and burning” Page 289.

“7:00 P.M. Curfew was lifted for a few hours so people could buy food. Yet there was nothing to buy. A lot of the grocery stores are owned by Tamils, and they have all been destroyed” Page 301.

“…I long to be out of this country. I don’t feel at home in Sri Lanka any longer, will never feel safe again” Page 304.

“The mob had set the car on fire with Ammachi [Grandmother] and Appachi [Grandfather] inside it… ‘We’ll have to wait until the ambulance comes and takes the bodies away… Until then, I’ll go and keep watch over the car. Someone has to look out for . . .’ he moved uncomfortably in his chair ‘stray dogs and crows’” Page 306-7.

Reading this book has given me a new lens with which to view the streets of Colombo I have leisurely strolled down countless times before.

The shocking events of the July 1983 riots were not the start of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflicts, but they marked the official start of the war. They also sparked Sri Lanka’s brain drain, when the Tamil elites fled the country. Recently it has been this diaspora community that is being courted to invest in Sri Lanka, and their hesitancy to do so is understandable.

There have been a number of projects to reconcile the atrocities of this war. Recently, a Kickstarter project was launched. Check it out.

Funny Boy (Harvest Book)

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012 — 2 Comments

Thanksgiving has come and gone in Sri Lanka, largely it was unnoticed. In an attempt to share some American culture with my students, I decided that the entirety of my classes today would be based on the American festival of Thanksgiving.

I began class by writing the following on the board: Today is Thursday, November 22. In America it Thanksgiving, a holiday that is like Pongal.

The comparison to Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, helped. But I was surprised that the word holiday caused some problems. My students were confused about the difference between a holy day and a holiday. For my later classes I opted to exclude the word holiday, in favor of festival. Things went better.

I then spoke for a few minutes about the festival, telling my students about turkey, parades, pie, and football. Most of this was lost on them, so I pulled out my secret weapon – Charlie Brown.

We watched a great YouTube highlight reel of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Having these visuals helped to convey the holiday. I then brought up some footage from the Macy’s Parade, and they got the concept; they preferred saying big balloons though.

Turkey was a hard sell. They thought I meant chicken, and it took a lot of selling on my part to convince them that a turkey was distinct from a chicken.

When we got to the word pie, I was heartbroken. They had no idea what a pie was, the pictures were of no help. Imagine leading a life and having no conception of pie. After I told them that pie is a sweet, like cake, they were accepting of the strange dish.

Football was an easier sell. Like Europe, Sri Lanka refers to soccer as football. But I had a miniature football that I broke out. My class of boys thought I meant rugby, while the girls just accepted it.

Class went pretty well today.

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As for me, my dinner consisted of rice and curry. This was the first, and hopefully only, Thanksgiving that I ate dinner alone. It was an unremarkable occasion, and it really made me appreciate all of the great Thanksgivings with the family.

A Thanksgiving delayed is better than a Thanksgiving denied. Growing up in a restaurant family you get used to celebrating holidays on off days. The date of celebration doesn’t matter as much as the act of celebrating. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of next Friday, when the Fulbrighters of Sri Lanka will join together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Living and working in Sri Lanka has made me much more thankful for all the amenities we enjoy in America. But this year, the thing I’m most thankful for is my fellow Fulbrighters. It’s great to have someone in your own times zone (and country code) to call or text during those rough moments that invariably arise when living abroad.

I can’t wait to write the blog post Thanksgiving Part Two.

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Plain Tea

November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Tea is life in Sri Lanka.

It’s always tea time. When you wake up tea is served, when you meet someone tea is served.

Sri Lanka grows some amazing teas, mostly of the black variety. Green tea is grown here, but mostly for export. If you want to buy green tea here, your best bet is to go to the pharmacy section of a grocery store.

Tea in Sri Lanka is typically served with milk and lots of sugar. Occasionally, it is served with cinnamon and other spices. In Sri Lanka, ‘plain tea’ is black tea with sugar and without milk. I’ve found that if you want just a plain cup of tea, you must ask for ‘plain tea, no sugar.’

Trinco Town

November 19, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last Monday I arrived at Sarvodaya’s headquarters in Moratuwa. I had been staying with a few other Fulbrighters who rented a house in Colombo, and I had enjoyed a great weekend strolling about town. I was all packed, and my car arrived at eight in the morning. When I was going to put on my chacos (quite comfortable sandals), I noticed a huntsman spider blending in on the bed of my shoe. I recoiled as it ran off, in a state of shock. After chasing it towards the door, my driver whacked it with a broom and killed it.

What a start to the week.

It was about a 45-minute drive outside of Colombo, and when I arrived I was shown to a hostel before going for the obligatory cup of milk tea. The first day I spent most of the morning reading in my room, waiting for a few people to get out of meetings.

After lunch, I was shown around the campus, and introduced to many of the organization’s key people – from the acting director to the founder. Sarvodaya is a large scale NGO; their operations include all of those things you’d expect an NGO to do: education, orphanages, peace training, microfinance, disaster preparedness, and many others. They are also involved in some surprising enterprises: furniture manufacturing, printing presses, and a meditation center. As the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, they are involved in many projects.

On Wednesday I was able to hitch a ride to Trinco with Shanti Sena, the peace-training arm of Sarvodaya. They were conducting a three-day session, training youths in inter-religious cooperation.

A ride out to Trinco takes covers about 270km (170 miles) and takes about seven hours (the mathematically inclined will note that’s a speed of about 25 miles per hour). The condition of the roads is poor, and they wind across the mountains. During the drive out one of the workers asked me why I choose Trinco; he proceeded to tell me that he hates the town, as there isn’t much to do outside of work. My expectations were dampened, to say the least.

The Sarvodaya District Center in Trincomalee is among the newest of their facilities. It was reconstructed with donations from countries and NGO’s across the world, following the 2004 Tsunami. For three days I sat through workshops – conducted primarily in Sinhala and Tamil – with participants from all religious groups in Sri Lanka. While I missed a great deal of the specifics, in general the sessions were meant to showcase the similarities between the religious groups. It was fun, but a bit perplexing at times when I had no idea what was occurring.

On Saturday I spent several hours walking through Trinco, taking in the sites of the town. It was about a half an hour walk from Sarvodaya’s center to Trinco town, and along the walk was a military checkpoint. Trinco is home to both the Air Force and Naval Academies. The military presence in this city is extensive, as the final months of the war were fought in this region. The town itself is quiet, and almost pastoral. Cows leisurely stroll along the main avenues in town, and an axis deer has made its home in the bus depot. There is one supermarket at the heart of town, but many small-scale shops. Trinco has many beautiful Hindu temples, they’re scattered across town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, after an early breakfast, the District Coordinator of Sarvodaya invited me to a USAID event. I asked him if it would be in English, and if other Americans would be present. He assured me that representatives from USAID would be there, and it would be in all of the languages of Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil, and English). I eagerly ran upstairs to throw on a button down shirt, and head to the truck. We arrived, and I quickly realized that I would act as the USAID representative. In fact there would be no English, but instead Tamil speakers would display their Sinhalese skills and vice-versa. It was quite funny, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the event, a German friend and I strolled down the street. I was inquiring at guesthouses about long-term rentals – to no avail. We stumbled across Chaaya Blu, an upscale western hotel. Stepping into the lobby of the hotel was like entering another country. The beaches on this stretch of land were immaculate, and everyone suddenly spoke English. We were ushered to the pool and seaside restaurant, and sat down for a cocktail and some sautéed cashew nuts. It was lovely, but this is not the Sri Lanka I have come to know over the past month and a half. While I was sipping on my gin fizz, I was suddenly stuck by thoughts the remains of buildings from the tsunami just up the beach. Westerners coming to this part of Sri Lanka can visit and remain woefully ignorant to the complexities of a country that was torn by war for nearly three decades. One of my fellow Fulbrighters wrote a great article on the ethics of tourism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today I started teaching classes, and I was in for a number of surprises.

For five days a week I will be teaching three classes for an hour each, in addition to this I am working with the staff on their English skills (most of the staff speak on Tamil, and limited Sinhalese and English). I had woefully overestimated the English competency of my students, and had to immediately tone down the lessons. My first class was teaching a group of 28 seamstress students, and they were giggling the entire time. While they are all about my age, the maturity gap is huge, we come form different backgrounds – and I’m fortunate to benefit from the best university system in the world.

In my second class I was becoming frustrated during the first fifteen minutes as two in a class of six remained silent and would not join in with the class. When their teacher returned and started signing to them I quickly realized that they were hearing and speaking impaired… I started writing out instructions, and then they got with the program. The boys were much less shy around me than my earlier class.

My last class was with a group of girls studying to become preschool teachers. I had a lot of fun with them, but they got through my lessons much quicker than others. So I had to break out Cat In The Hat, which I don’t believe they really understood all that well.

All in all, my students loved to see pictures of my family and friends. They were amused by the pictures of my cousins and I at Christmas, and perplexed by pictures of snowboarding. Teaching this year will surely be a challenge, but I look forward to it.

 

Oh, and I’ve started to get a serious sandal tan here, along with a lot of bug bites.

 

Brownie

November 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

He hadn’t noticed me approaching in the predawn darkness. Sitting, it seemed that he had fallen asleep while watching the gate. It was only as I opened the gate did he regain consciousness, startled by the clamor of the latch and sliding of the heavy door. Rising, he limped towards me. As I begin to close the gate he comes out to the street; he stares at me as his tag softly wags.

Brownie is but one of the many stray dogs in Sri Lanka. Unlike many, he is plump and fairly clean. His front paw is deformed, and apparently he’s been here for as long as anyone can remember. Here at Sarvodaya’s headquarters, in Moratuwa, Brownie has found a home. The streams of international volunteers feed this pitiful creature, and he is grateful for the attention. The local staffers laugh at us, as we feed him scraps; over the course of two days I caught more than one of those who mocked rubbing his belly.

As I leave the headquarters, on my way to Trinco, he sits by the gate watching me and cries.

Sri Lanka does not know what to do with its dogs. In a country where not every human has access to the basic necessities of life, it makes sense that dogs are not looked after. Some people do keep dogs as pets, and those dogs range from muts to pure breeds. A few of my friends are renting an attached house in Colombo; their landlord’s dog is an ancient creature, who is quite mangy.

You become accustomed to the dogs in your neighborhood. When I stayed in Dehiwala, outside of Colombo, a few of my neighbors took to feeding the neighborhood strays. While you might recognize these strays, it’s generally advisable to avoid them.

Three weeks back I spent the weekend by the beach, in Unawatuna. On Sunday morning I woke with the sun and decided on taking a leisurely jog through town. As it turns out, stray dogs don’t appreciate someone running through town at seven in the morning. An emaciated one eyed dog started snarling at me as I came through town. I stopped and slowly started backing up, looking at a neighboring car I could jump on. Out of nowhere a coconut struck the dog and it ran off with a yelp. An elderly man, skin wrinkled and garbed in a sarong, started laughing and waved at me – urging me to continue on my run. I smiled and thanked him; as he likely saved me a trip to the hospital and round of rabies vaccinations.

In a country where the President is trying to impeach the Chief Justice, the Universities are set to close on yet another strike, and the scars of a civil war – which lasted for nearly three decades – still run deep, the fate of a few stray dogs is not a matter of concern for most.

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A stray dog escaping the rain at Sarvodaya in Trinco.

A few days ago I ordered dinner from Maldivian Bliss, a restaurant that is right up the road from the bungalow where I am staying. I stopped in on my walk back from the grocery store, around 5 pm, and ordered food to be delivered between 6:30 and 7pm.

After getting home and unpacking my groceries 7pm quickly rolled past, and I still had no food. By 7:15 I was really hungry, and getting cranky. I searched Apple Maps on my iPhone; unsurprisingly I could not find the listing. The new Apple Maps might be bad in America, but its worthless in Sri Lanka. For some reason Apple thinks its best to show me roads in Columbus, Ohio over roads in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I quickly switched to Google Maps, which is usually quite good here, and was frustrated when I couldn’t find the restaurant listing.

I figured as a shot in the dark that I’d do a quick search on Google, and I was shocked that the restaurant had a foursquare listing. I called the number listed on the page and was connected with the manager of the restaurant, who told me the delivery boy had gotten lost on a side street while trying to find my bungalow. A few minutes later, after being connected to the delivery boy, I had a delicious serving of chicken cheese Koththu Roti. It was really surprising that FourSquare was the platform which enabled me to find the restaurant I was looking for, especially since Google didn’t have the listing.

Since this happened I’ve been utilizing FourSquare much more on my iPhone, and its been really helpful in finding restaurants when I’m wandering through city streets in Sri Lanka. I’ve used it with great success in Colombo and Kandy, and I’m curious to see if any listings have been built up out in Trinco – which doesn’t have many tourists visting.

FourSquare has a great opportunity to build its listings in tourist destinations. If they were to partner with someone like Lonely Planet they would be able to capture vast amounts of information and help make it more accessible, by letting travelers comment and build upon the data base. Lonely Planet has great guide books, and a decent forum. Whereas FourSquare is built around discoverability; if I find a great new restaurant I’m a lot more likely to check in with Foursquare than email Lonely Planet about it.

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Google Maps is usually spot on when finding locations in Sri Lanka. Since Apple released iOS 6, Google Maps is no longer the native map app. This means I have to access it as a web app, which can render it unusable at times in Colombo – especially when I’m trying to figure out when to get off the bus.

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Apple Maps, the native app in iOS 6, is built upon TomTom’s database. It’s utterly useless in Sri Lanka. It cannot find common locations such as the US Embassy or Galle Face Hotel. and it doesn’t recognize addresses inputted into it. Many of the street names are incorrect, like School Road on this map; if you look Google Maps it is correctly labeled as College Avenue. It’s only use is determining your location.

 

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Foursquare, which on the iPhone utilizes Apple’s Maps, is surprisingly helpful. As it utilizes the native app, its able to provide real time tracking about my location (which is really helpful when I’m making sure my tuk-tuk driver is headed in the correct direction). Since it has users provide GPS coordinates for businesses when they ‘check-in’ to a location, it is able to plot them on a map. It has been incredibly helpful using FourSquare to get around, and I’m sure that this app will become one of the most valuable ones on my phone.

Last weekend I went to a Sing-A-Long fundraiser for the Peter Weeraekera Children’s Home. This was my first introduction to Colombo society, and it was a great deal of fun. I attended the event with several other Fulbrighters, it was held at the BMICH hall in Colombo.

The Orphanage houses about 50 girls, all of whom attend school. The money raised at the event goes towards covering their living expenses and providing scholarships for academically gifted girls to attend private schools.

After settling into our table the music started a few minutes later, and the band played a few introductory songs to get the crowd going. All of the attendees were provided with a booklet of song lyrics, ranging from Sinhalese favorites to “Old Suzanna”. After four or five songs, tables started going up to sing. It wasn’t long before the event organizer came up to get our table up to sing; the song we choose was “This Land Is Your Land”.

After singing, it was only natural that our host insisted we start dancing. For a while we were the only ones on the dance floor, but soon we started to be joined by others at the party. The little girls, dressed in beautiful saris, enjoyed dancing with a few of the Fulbrighters.

The highlight of the event was towards the end of the night when a kind Sri Lankan brought over some rum for our table; sadly we had not been informed that the event was a BYO. Ganesh, the man who pitied us enough to share some liquor, was a really interesting man. I will never forget what he told me:

If you have any problems let me know, not that you will have problems in Sri Lanka. We are a very kind people. But if you do, we know police, the army, and the ministries  If they cant help you, I know the President. He can help you, a very nice man. 
I doubt it will be necessary, but I’ll be sure to keep his business card on hand…

 

Sigiriya

October 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

While in Kandy we decided to make the trip out to Sigriya, the ancient rock fortress and monastery near the center of Sri Lanka. From Kandy it was a two hour drive out to the historical site, and we arrived shortly after nine in the morning. It is an impressive site, and the main site sits some 500 feet in the air. 

The cost of admission is 3900 LKR (USD $30) for non-residents and about 70 LKR (USD $0.54) for locals. You enter the grounds by first passing through the ticket booth and then crossing a bridge over the moat which surrounds the rock. Walking along the entrance path you are surrounded by pools, walkways, and other architectural features. It is really quite amazing that some of the man made ponds still have water in them today.

 

Along the walk up to the stairs there are many signs warning you about the imminent threat of hornets, though I never saw any flying around. 

 

 

The original staircases are still intact for much of the climb, until you reach about halfway up. At that point you have to switch to metal steps that are considerably rusted and wobbly, after a frightening few minutes you are rewarded with some truly amazing frescoes.

About an hour after we started climbing, we reached the top of Sigiriya, and the views from the top were amazing. Somehow a few stray dogs had managed to get up to the top as well, I was really shocked to see them lounging in the shade. I was particularly drenched in sweat, but I could not have been happier.

Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s greatest historical sites, and its commemorated on the 2,000 LKR bill, if you have the opportunity to visit this site I really recommend it. Just don’t forget to bring a few liters of water with you for the hike up.

Poya

October 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

            October 29, 2012

Darkness surrounds me as I’m awoken by the rhythmic sounds of chanting in the early morning hours. I lie awake for some time, and make out the sound of rain falling; eventually my alarm alerts me that five am has arrived, and it is time to rise. After wrestling with my mosquito net, I escape my bed and begin to don white clothing.

Barefoot, I step out into the rain and begin my walk to the temple. Along the way people try to sell me flowers and incense to offer at the temple. Countless people, all of whom are clad in white, surround me.

Today is Poya, a Buddhist holiday in Sri Lanka which commemorates the full moon day. Poya Day is a public holiday, and most institutions are closed today. Grocery stores cannot sell alcohol or meat on Poya.

The early morning is quiet, save for the sounds of rainfall and chanting. I pass through the metal detectors at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, then make my way through the monetary towards the main temple. Walking down a long path I approached the Temple. After wiping my feet I enter the main building, where two temple workers beat a drum and play a conch shell. The sound of their music reverberates through the halls. Walking up a flight of stairs I am shown to the queue by a man clad in white robes, who turns out to be a member of the police force. I shuffle up towards an open door, which is attended by several monks. For a few brief seconds I am allowed to gaze into the room, and see a brilliant gold casket. The gleaming stupa shaped vessel is a series of domes of diminishing size. Inside is a tooth of Buddha, which is said to have been snatched from the flames of his cremation in 438 BC. Kandyan kings built the Temple of the Tooth in 1687, as apart of the royal palace. The relic for which this temple was built makes it one of the most important sites for Buddhists across the world.

After a few brief seconds I have to move on, and exit the procession line. Once out, I join dozens of families who are sitting on the ground in prayer. For a good while I sit silently and watch the devout offer their prayers and gifts. There is an indescribable energy in this room, as an endless line of devotees silently files into the room. Sitting there is incredibly peaceful, so much so that I was compelled to meditate. Several minutes later I rose and walked down a set of stairs into another chamber of the temple. Walking into another room I am greeted by a monk clad in saffron robes, who tied a piece of white string around my right wrist.

I spent some more time exploring the temple before exiting, and I had returned to my hotel by about 6:30 in the morning. Vap Poya Day is celebrated in the month of October in Sri Lanka, it commemorates when the Sri Lankan ruler, King Devanampiyatissa, established the tradition of Buddhist Nuns in the country.

My first Poya day was a great experience, it differed drastically from my experiences at a Tibetan Monastery. I look forward to celebrating eight more of them during the course of my Fulbright.