Archives For travel

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.

Yamu

April 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

Yamu means ‘let’s go’ in Sinhala. Yamu.lk is a startup based in Colombo. Right now they’re a city guide, but they’re quickly evolving to cover all things Sri Lanka. If you’re looking for a good restaurant, bar, or activity they’re your source.

Every day about 1000 unique visitors come to the site to find out whats going new in Colombo.

I’ve recently started writing for Yamu, so things have been quiet here on brightful.ly. Check out some of my recent articles:

Its great to have an excuse to get out and visit new restaurants…

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.

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.

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

Go and Come

January 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Go and come. Its an odd phrase; but it is commonly used in Sri Lankan English, and I’ve really grown to like it.

I spent five days between Colombo and Galle last week, traveling around 850km by bus and train. It was a great couple of days. I had the best Japanese food of my life, ranging from sashimi to curry leaves tempura before heading to the American Center to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. The Center was holding a photo exhibition  displaying the work of a Sri Lankan who received a Fulbright to study at UC Berkeley.
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After the event, I went to Galle Face Hotel to have a drink and watch the sunset. That day marked the completion of three months of my Fulbright, just six more to go. It seemed like a fitting way to commemorate the day.

Sunset at Galle Face Green

The following day, I headed down to Galle. I spent a few days with one of the Senior Fulbright Fellows – someone who holds a PhD and is an academic. It was great to get to know one of my colleagues a little more.

On Sunday I took the overnight train back to Trinco, and got in around 7am. It was the first time I had traveled since moving into my house, and it felt great to be home. It is odd, I’ve only lived in this house a few weeks, but it already feels like home. Going and coming made it feel much more like my house. Its funny how that works.

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Its good to have a home.

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.

Polonnaruwa

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