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Instant Coffee

December 19, 2012 — 3 Comments

Steaming hot, bitter, and slightly sweet. The first sip is delightful, but by the end I can barely stomach another gulp. Instant coffee is many things, pleasant isn’t one of them. I’m a bit of a yuppie; there’s nothing I enjoy better than lounging in a coffee shop, enjoying a good meal, engaging novel, and a rich cup of coffee. But in Sri Lanka I’ve almost stopped drinking coffee all together.

Where tourists go, it is possible to find real coffee. In the more affluent cities, there are shops that cater to the locals. In Colombo there are a plethora of European-esque coffee houses, which serve delicious and authentic brews.

In Colombo I even found a coffee shop that really surprised me when I walked in; jazz was piping in over speakers, the lighting was dimmed, and the chairs looked comfortable. I approached the counter and could hear the familiar sound of milk being steamed, and I ordered a cappuccino. The coffee was some of the least expensive in Sri Lanka, only 100/ ($0.75), and I watched with anticipation as my drink was created. It was then that I realized this café did not have an espresso machine, and I saw the barista mixing a spoonful of Nescafé with water – topping it with foamy milk. This ‘cappuccino’ wasn’t bad, an improved version of instant.

As the wealth of a nation grows you start to see these western style cafés spring up. They are a luxury that many Westerners take for granted. It makes me happy to see locals mingling among visitors in these places. Trinco has not yet reached a state where the local citizens can afford the luxury of coffee, so for the time being my only reprieve is the occasional cup of instant.

Sri Lanka has some amazing teas; you may know them as Ceylon Teas. And prior to growing tea, Sri Lanka was one of the coffee capitals of the world. That is, until a virus wiped out coffee production across the island, and someone thought to try planting tea on the now idle coffee plantations. It worked out well for them, save for the lack of coffee production on the island.

Nescafe, the gold standard of instant coffee, is a bitterly repulsive drink. I find myself making a latte out of the stuff hot milk. Business meetings will regularly serve the stuff aside bags of tea. (For those interested, here is a great article on how to make instant coffee more palatable.)

I’ve tried most of the instant coffees on the shelves, and there is one that is a clear cut above the rest. Starbucks, a coffee chain which I tend to avoid, has introduced an instant coffee by the name of Via. My experiences in China gave me the foresight to pack a healthy supply of the stuff, which helped wean me off coffee. Now that that supply has dwindled, I am back to Nescafe, saving my Via for special occasions.

Most of the world’s instant coffee is consumed in Asia. When I lived in China most of the instant coffee I had was served in 3-in-1 packets, complete with sugar, creamer, and coffee. The instant coffee market is valued at $21bn a year, and only 5% of that is in the U.S., according to the WSJ. Nescafé controls most of that market.

Starbucks has a tremendous opportunity with Via, in the global market. Rather than selling Via in single serve packets, if they jar it and sell it in bulk I think there is quite a market in the developing world. Many people cannot afford to drink a real cup of coffee, but instant coffee is within their price range. Starbucks, which based upon their pricing in the US, would come in as a premium instant coffee. It would still be less expensive than regular coffee, especially as you don’t need to invest a large amount of money into a machine to brew coffee. And by launching their product in these emerging markets they could get consumers familiar with their brand, helping them as they enter new markets.

Starbucks has already begun to sell Via abroad, they recently launched it in China. I wish Starbucks was being more aggressive with their expansion plans – mostly out of personal desire to avoid drinking Nescafé.

Arugam Bay

December 18, 2012 — 1 Comment

The sea has a rhythm to it; its churning is constant, and meditative. In the ocean you feel powerless, as the waves bash you and the current pulls you along. Submerging yourself in the surf, letting go of control, and having your body be tossed around – weightless – by the sea is transcendental. Once you realize how minimal your existence is when compared to the vastness of the ocean, it is at once awe inspiring and intimidating. Looking at wreckages of buildings on the shore, victims of the 2004 tsunami, is a testament to how little man can do to protect itself from the sea. To think that concrete and rebar are a match to the force of the ocean is laughable.

This weekend has found me in Arugam Bay, one the top surf spots in the world. Leaving Trinco on Friday, it took me about 7 hours to cover the 300 km (186 miles) on bus. I started my journey at the Trinco bus yard, telling the driver I was headed to Arugam bay, over three bus transfers and many miles I was always told by fellow travelers where to get off and what bus to get on next. It was bizarre, as I had only told one man, but the entire bus seemed to be looking out of me. Sri Lankan hospitality cannot be understated. I arrived and checked into my hotel, the aptly named Watermusic. My friends were in transit on the overnight bus from Colombo, and I was surprised to find I was the hotel’s sole guest.

It is off-season in Arugam Bay; I’m told the real surf doesn’t start until April. The throngs of beachfront hotels are empty, not to mention those off the beach. In stark contrast, it is impossible to get a room at some of the Southern beach spots. After unpacking, I wander down the beach in search of dinner.

At the Galaxy Lounge Hotel I manage to find an open restaurant, it even had a few patrons. I ordered my meal and sat looking out at the water. I happened to start talking to an older British couple on vacation, and ended up joining them for dinner. As it turned out, the wife was Sri Lankan. She was born into a burgher family, but raised in the UK due to the troubles of the war. Her family owns a number of highly successful businesses in Sri Lanka; interestingly enough they even supplied the SL Army with barbed wire – a Tamil supplying the war effort. Due to Sri Lanka’s currency policy it is very hard to get money out of the island. So they were on vacation, paid for by their firm, as a way of spending rupees. Quite interesting, to say the least.

After a few glasses of arrack with my fellow travelers, I headed to bed. Around 3:45 I was woken, and disoriented. There was a blaring noise, and I couldn’t track its source. Switching on the lights I climbed out of bed and realized my mobile was the source of the noise; my friends had arrived at the hotel from Colombo and needed the front gate to be unlocked. There was a light drizzle, as I tracked down the night manager and let my friends in. After a few hours of sleep I woke up and went for a run, before joining my friends for morning coffee (not of the instant variety!).

The day was spent fighting the surf. As luck would have it, the day was overcast. Not exactly ideal beach conditions, but it sheltered us from the ferocity of the Sri Lankan sun. We spent most of the afternoon lounging around until the rain came, and then it was back to the hotel to warm up with some hot toddies.

The weekend passed that way, and Sunday came too quickly. I caught the 2pm bus to Batticaloa and napped on the journey north.

We pulled into the Batticaloa bus terminal a little after five, and I went in search of my transfer. As soon as I got to the terminal’s overhang the skies opened up and a tropic downpour started. I found the terminal manager and inquired about busses. I was quite dismayed when I was told the next bus would be at 4am, and a moment of panic came over me. I asked a few other bus drivers, and they seemed to confirm that fact. Now that I wasn’t in a rush to catch a bus, I went in search of the bathroom. After relieving myself I sat down, and started thinking over my options. I promptly took out my Lonely Planet, and started searching for cheap hostels in the area. At this point, someone – he didn’t work at the bus station – came up to me and said more than asked “Trinco bus.” He was pointing in the distance, and I confirmed that I was looking for a bus to Trinco. His next and finals words were “police circle, 6pm”, after which he walked off.

It was almost 5:30, and I had no idea where this police circle was, or how far it was. The rain had stopped, and I started walking towards the other end of the parking lot. Tuk-tuks were lined up about 500 feet away; I hoped they knew the place. It always seems to rain at the most inopportune time. I was twenty paces outside of the cover of the bus station and in a moment I was caught in the height of a downpour. Time was passing quickly so I dashed to the closest tuk-tuk, whose driver was holding open the flaps yelling for me to get out of the rain. I settled in the vehicle, drenched to the bone, and said only police circle. With that he started the engine and took off; we were down the street by the time I realized we had not set a price for the journey. I asked, and he said 80 rupees; it was one of those rare times when I had no desire or need to bargain. Not knowing how far away my next stop was, I was in no position to bargain – not to mention the ride would cost me on $0.60.

When I got to the roundabout I went into the largest supermarket, where several people were seeking shelter from the rain near the entrance. I inquired about the Trinco bus, and happened upon a local university student – who was home from Australia on break. He knew of the bus, and told me he’d make sure I got on it. After he made a few phone calls, we walked down a few stores where I was able to purchase a ticket and reserve a seat. The seat reservation cost an additional 30 rupees – always pay the fee to reserve a seat. The ticket salesman told me that the bus would come around 6:20.

By 6:10 anytime a bus came I would glance at the bus, and then at my new friend. After a few minutes of this he told me, “you Americans worry too much, I’ll make sure you’re on the bus”. I can’t remember if I even told him I was an American before that, but I had to laugh. After that I stopped craning my neck to look at the oncoming busses and started enjoying our conversation. Around 6:30 a bus came and he pointed at it, and told me to run. I shook his hand and was off, the bus barely slowed down – and never came to a complete stop – as a crowd of people started pouring onto it. It was crowded, and loud, but I found the last empty seat and quickly took it.

The seat placement was less than ideal. I was located under the buses single speaker – which blared incomprehensible music a few decibels above comfort level. The woman next to me had her daughter, who was around the age of 14, on her [my] lap. The aisles were so full that I was being pushed on from those crowds on the other side. No, it wasn’t ideal. But for a few hours I could manage, at least I was on my way. By 10:45 I was in Trinco, and the number of riders had thinned over the last few hours. I got a tuk-tuk back home, and passed out in my bed. I awoke right before 8am, not believing I had slept in so late, ready to start a day of teaching. A short journey

Google Maps is back on the iPhone. Happy days b

A visual comparison says it all.

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Friendsgiving

December 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

Friends ŸgivŸ ing |FRiENDsˈgiviNG|

The Oxford American Dictionary defines a friend as:
a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.
They define giving as:
freely transfer the possession of (something) to (someone); hand over to.
Though I much prefer their secondary definition:
bestow (love, affection, or other emotional support).

Friendsgiving was celebrated by the Sri Lankan Fulbrighters a week after Thanksgiving. After two weeks of teaching in our placements, it was a welcomed night – but a bit odd. I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world, even back in America. It was needed, for everyone.

The past two weeks had been a bit stressful, some of the researchers had to move quickly due to extreme harassment by a local. The first weeks of teaching were a bit rough for the teachers, getting settled. And I’m still homeless.

But things have a way of working out in Sri Lanka. The new apartment the researchers are in is beautiful, and cheaper than their house. Teachers are getting settled in, and the past week in Nepal was so helpful. While I’m still house searching, it looks like I should have a place soon.

I’m really grateful for my Fulbright friends. We’ve all gotten really close in the past two months. I shouldn’t be surprised, but we’ve all meshed really well. We all have a lot in common; recent American college grads who have an interest in Sri Lanka and international affairs. Living together for the first month helped a lot, and now traveling around the country (and region). It is amazing how close you get to people in such a short period of time. One of my friends made the comment in Nepal that she could tell when I’ve had coffee because I “… become much more interested in people.”

I’m also really excited that the researchers are starting to get out East; it will be great to have people coming to visit as I try to build a network in Trinco.


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.

 

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.

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…