Archives For travel

Expectations

November 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a 6’1″ tall white guy, I stand out in Sri Lanka. My looks really influence people’s interactions with me here.

When speaking Sinhala I take people off guard, as they don’t expect a foreigner to know the language.

At the store today I thanked an attended in Sinhalese, ඉස්තුති (istuti), and in return I received a blank stare. Thinking I had fumbled my words, I repeated myself. When he still hadn’t registered the words I spoke, his coworker – speaking perfect English – said, “he’s thanking you in Sinhalese”.

The expectation in Sri Lanka is that foreigners don’t speak any Sinhalese. Many people aren’t mentally primed to hear Sinhalese come out of my mouth, so when I try to speak it takes them a moment to register the fact that the words I’m saying aren’t in English.

Expectations influence perception.

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.

Galle and Unawatuna

October 22, 2012 — 1 Comment

This weekend I traveled south to Galle and Unawatuna with a few fellow Fulbrighters. We left Colombo via train and headed south, only to realize that the train we were on was the wrong one; we were able to transfer a few miles outside of Colombo onto a train headed to Galle, and made up our lost time. The four hour trip cost Rs 180 (USD $1.34).

When we arrived at the Galle train station we hopped onto a bus and made our way to Unawatuna, we dropped our bags at our guesthouse and headed to the shore. Dusk was arriving, and we ran into the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. After a while of enjoying the water we headed to dinner at a restaurant on the shore.

Unawatuna is a beautiful stretch of beach, just a few kilometers away from Galle. Its a tourist attraction which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. When the rebuilding happened, many of the codes were ignored and buildings were built right on the beach. The Government tore down some of the hotels in 2011, the foundations of which still can be seen from the beach, for violating this code. It is my understanding that the hotels were all on the other side of road, away from the beach, prior to the rebuilding. It is a shame that the natural beauty of this beach is encroached upon by businesses which now are regularly dealing with waves washing into their establishments.

Galle (ගාල්ල) is the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka, and has been a major sea port for centuries. The modern city was established when the Portugese took the city by force, and the Dutch built the original fort out of granite. The fort walls kept the old city protected from the Tsunami, though surrounding areas were wiped out. Today Galle is a city full of cafes, stores, and galleries catering to western tourists and affluent Sri Lankans.

Cultrual Norms

October 17, 2012 — Leave a comment

During my sophomore year at Fordham I traveled to Kenya with a group of students as apart of the Fair Trade Micro Finance program, Amani.

There are many challenges to working in a foreign, and many opportunities to unwittingly violate cultural norms. While in Nyabigena, a small village in rural Kenya, we stayed with our business partners. Our accommodations were modest, but adequate. We spent our time working with our business partners on basic accounting and computer skills.

Theresa, a local of the village, was paid to cook our meals. She cooked over a wood fire, in a small shed. The nearest water tap was about a mile walk. One afternoon Theresa was making us lunch, and one of the men asked her to fetch some salt. They argued for a moment, and then Theresa went to get salt. Little did we know it was a fifteen minute walk for her, each way.

Upon her arrival back she sat down to eat, and I poured her a cup of tea. The men stopped eating and stared at us. I could tell that Theresa was quite uncomfortable with this situation, as you could imagine.

Unwittingly, I had broken a social norm. But once I realized what I had done, I made a conscious effort to pour tea for every woman at the table (one Kenyan and several Americans). To be a woman in Africa is to live a life of innumerable hardship. I could talk to the men all I wanted about gender equality, and the role of women in the developed world. Those words were lost in translation, or willfully ignored. The rules which governed interactions between the genders in America had little utility in a rural Kenyan village. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea was drastically different. It was a physical act which challenged the cultural norms.

The simple act of pouring a cup of tea forced a conversation.

I have no way of knowing if this made a lasting impact, but I really hope it did. Being abroad is an interesting thing, as you’re not quite bound by the social rules of either your home or host country. It is a liberating thing, but it comes with its own set of responsibilities. One of which is to challenge discrimination. I realized in Kenya that as a white male born in America my actions were closely watched, and influential.

It’s something that I will have to be very cognizant of while in Sri Lanka.


How to Avoid ATM Fees

October 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

In an article written for Under30Finance, I talk about how to avoid ATM fees. 

Beijing, Dubai, Hong Kong, Nairobi, and New York. You might wonder what these cities have in common; I’ve never paid an ATM fee in any of them.

We’ve all been there; out for a night on the town, when you realize that you have no cash on you and must run to the ATM. You whip out your iPhone to see where your bank’s nearest ATM is – six blocks away. At this point, you walk into  the nearest bodega and ante up the $3.50 fee for their ATM.

Read the full column here

Questions for Departure

October 9, 2012 — 2 Comments

Today marks the start of my Fulbright. For the next nine months I will be living and working in Sri Lanka.

My monthly stipend of 125,000 Sri Lankan Rupees ($976). The average household income is Rs. 36451 ($704). So I will be earning roughly 38% more than the average family every month.

I’m curious to learn what kind of life this buys someone in Sri Lanka, and I’m especially interested in seeing how someone lives off of the average wage.

This nation’s economy was stalled for nearly 30 years, due to their civil war. Since the war was ended in 2009 the country has begun to flourish once more; tourists have begun to explore the island while the global garment trade has embraced Sri Lanka. For 2012 the country is expected to grow at 7.2%, which ranks among the top growth economies in the world. Growth can easily be assumed to be a wholly positive event, but economic growth presents unique challenges. Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to energy shocks, as it imports all of its oil; many Americans know the pain they feel as the price of petrol increases, imagine if your income was 10% of what it currently is.

As a nation develops stresses begin to emerge within its social fabric. One of my great takeaways from China was that as a country develops the divide between rich and poor grows at an exponential rate, and this can lead to a great deal of social unrest. Growth at this rate presents many challenges for governments, from containing inflation to constructing infrastructure.

Sri Lanka has a number of things going for it. It claims one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia (over 90%), along with some of the highest Human Development Index scores. Sri Lanka also has some of the lowest infant mortality rates in the developing world, due in large part to its extensive network of publicly funded hospitals. All doctors are required to spend at least one day a week working in these institutions.

From the reports I’ve read it seems that Sri Lanka is a fairly equitable society on the rise, I look forward to investigating this for myself.

In contextualizing China’s recent growth, many in the nation refer to historical precedent. For a great deal of the world’s history, China was the largest economy in the world. India and China combined made up roughly half of the world’s GDP. To many in China, the last two centuries were an economic anomaly which is on its way to being corrected.

Ceylon, the Pearl of the Orient is reestablishing itself. Once one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it was said a man could walk across the island with just the clothes of his back and not just survive, but thrive off of the local vegetation. Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka traded with the Egyptians as early as 1500 BC. Some of the most prized spices in the world originated on this island: cinnamon, cardamom, and citronella. And many other spices flourished in this tropical climate, such as rubber. It might be difficult to imagine today, but for the vast majority of global history wars were fought over the spice trade. To this day Sri Lanka produces over 90% of the world’s cinnamon.

I’m beginning this Fulbright with many questions, and if experience has taught me anything I’m sure that my time in Sri Lanka will raise more questions than it answers.

What’s a Fulbright?

August 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

When I tell people I’ve received a Fulbright there has been two common responses:

  • Congratulations! That’s awesome, where are you going?
  • What’s a Fulbright?

The latter is more common than the former, which is quite surprising to me. So here is my attempt to answer what the Fulbright is, and I’ll try to answer this question again once I’ve completed my grant.

What is it?

The Fulbright is America’s premier international exchange program. Every year hundreds of Americans go abroad to research, learn, and teach English, and citizens of other countries come to America to do the same. It’s soft diplomacy at its finest, and the primary aim of the program is to increase mutual understanding between Americans and other nations’ citizens.

What do Fulbrighters do? 

Essentially, the Fulbright program offers two types of grants, teaching and learning. The fellowship allows both recent graduates and scholars to travel abroad to conduct research, it also sends recent graduates to teach English and scholars to teach in their field of expertise. There are grants available for Graduate School, and to learn critical languages. There’s even a grant in conjunction with MTV to research music.

Where do Fulbrighters go?

The Fulbright program operates in over 155 countries across the world. To date, more than 307,000 Fulbrights have been awarded.

Why is it called the Fulbright?

The program is named after Senator William J. Fulbright, who introduced legislation in 1946 to create this program.

How is it funded?

In it’s inception, in 1945, the program was funded by the sale of U.S. military assets after the end of the second world war. The U.S. government forgave the debts of foreign nations in exchange for funding this international exchange program (this offers some insight as to why there are so many grants for Germany).

The program cost more than $323.3 million in 2010, and its primary funding source is an appropriation from Congress; though host countries contribute to the funding of this program as well.

How do you get one?

There is an extensive application process for the Fulbright program, and I will only speak to the English Teaching Assistantships – as that is the grant I received. During my junior year at Fordham, I was in China, so my application process was a bit different than others. In the second semester I had a few Skype meetings with Fordham’s Office of Prestigious Fellowships, and I began narrowing down the countries I wanted to apply for. There are many tips for various components of the application, let me know if you have any questions.

I began narrowing down the countries where ETAs are granted. As I’m not fluent in Spanish, South America was out. I have a strong interest in emerging markets and economic development, so I wasn’t too keen on applying to a country in Europe. So that pretty much left Africa and Asia.

At this point I went nation by nation and narrowed down the nations I was most interested in to Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. ETAs are not granted in China, save for Hong Kong and Macau. Why these countries you might ask? It was some combination of cultural intrique, economic prospects, transitory factors, and gut feeling.

I eventually settled on Sri Lanka as the country to which I was going to apply, and I spent that summer writing my applications essays. When applying to an ETA you have to write two essays, and are limited to one page per essay. One essay, your Statement of General Purpose is where you answer the following questions:

  • Why do you wish to undertake an ETA opportunity?
  • Why are you applying to this specific country?
  • What do you bring to the classroom that will enrich the learning experience of English language learners overseas?
  • What specific ideas do you have for engaging with students and helping them to learn English?
  • What specific qualifications, training, or experiences do you have to prepare you to serve as an ETA?
  • How do you expect to benefit from the assignment?
  • What plans do you have for civic engagement outside the classroom?
The Personal Statement is where you explain who you are and what makes you a good fit for this program, and to be a representative of America abroad.
By October of my senior year at Fordham I had submitted these two essays, three letters of recommendation, and my academic transcripts. A few weeks later I was interviewed by a board of advisors at Fordham.
Around January I received an email telling me I had made the second, and final round of consideration for the grant. But it wasn’t until April that I was actually awarded the Grant. At that point I had to make a decision, take a job in banking (for which I had signed a contract in November) or take the Fulbright. It was a tough decision, but I’m glad to be pursuing the Fulbright!

What have Fulbrighters gone on to do?

  • 10 Fulbright alumni have been elected to the United States Congress
  • 43 Fulbright alumni from eleven countries are recipients of the Nobel Prize
  • 60 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize
  • 22 Fulbright alumni are recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards
  • 14 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Many have gone on to reach the highest ranks of government and business; this includes:

 

The week long orientation for Fulbright ETAs to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia provided me with an overview of what the next year of my life will look like. For those of you unfamiliar with the program you can reference the transcript of Secretary Clinton’s welcome address to the Fulbright Program:

Every year 8,000 scholarly exchanges are made between 155 countries and America. There is a network of 300,000 Fulbrights, since the program’s inception.

When I accepted my grant I knew only that I’d be moving to Sri Lanka for nine months of my life to teach English. This orientation went a long way to reassuring me about this chapter of my life. Ambassador Ronald McMullen opened the orientation with his nine keys to preparing for life in a new country:

  1. Language – learning a few key phrases can go a long way towards gaining acceptance
  2. Incumbent – when going into a new office move around furniture to give people a visual reminder of the change
  3. Books – read one novel about the country and one guidebook
  4. Music – music is universal, learning some of the most popular songs in the country you’re traveling too will help you adjust
  5. Maps – getting a sense of where in the world you’re going is hugely invaluable
  6. Food – make sure to prep your stomach to the challenges which may be ahead
  7. Security – let the local Embassy know where you’ll be, so they can alert you to any potential developments
  8. School – learn about the local schools, the universities people attend
  9. Sports – sports are universal, but you should learn the local sports (be it curling, cricket, or soccer)

 

The rest of the conference was split between networking with Fulbright Alumni and the Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission and sessions preparing us to teach English.

Most of the Fulbrighters were told where in the country they would be placed. While I have yet to find out my physical location, however I did find out that I’ve been placed with Sarvodaya – the largest NGO in Sri Lanka.

It was a pleasure meeting my counterparts who will be teaching in countries across the world. In general, they were among the most thoughtful and worldly people I’ve ever met. I had a great time getting to know them over the course of a week, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Nepal for the Fulbright ETA conference in November.

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A picture from the Fulbright dinner cruise – June 21, 2012