From Colombo to Columbus

Tuesday, 24 May 2016
The above photo shows our neighborhood. We lived in Colombo 10 and I once had an editor of a newspaper tell me that he was impressed that I wasn't living "where most Westerners live." I wanted to say, "Where do they live!?" LOL. Our living situation occurred out of two months of me trolling every website that offered short-term renting opportunities in Sri Lanka. One day, I found the apartment that we rented: 4-1 Hedges Court Residences. In the photo, our building is the high rise on the left. It is pretty modern compared to other places in Colombo but the neighborhood lags behind slightly.
We live near Norris Canal (pictured above) which is so funny to me because, when I attended Powell High School in Tennessee, we would go to Norris Lake for skiing, boating, and swimming. You would not want to swim in the canal but I do think this is why we noticed ample urban bird life - there is a water source close by.
Since I haven't mentioned traffic in a while, I just had to take a moment to admire the men and women who ride motorbikes, tuk tuks, trains, buses, all modes of transportation with no fear. I took the above photo of two women riding a motorbike in Jaffna. All over the island of Sri Lanka we see amazing courage by people who risk their lives in chaotic traffic to get to where they need to be. I will say that nearly everyone wears a helmet. What a modern concept (looking at you, USA)!
My most fulfilling contacts in Sri Lanka were Mr. Kumar Lopez (pictured above) and Mr. Sukumar Rockwood, both leaders of the Sri Lanka Press Institute. Both men introduced me to journalists, helped me learn some of the culture of Sri Lanka, and were very modernized in their thinking (they didn't discount me because I am a woman). I will never forget their generosity in helping me, a complete stranger from another land. I vow to do the same for foreigners in the United States needing help with professional contacts. 
Above is one of the groups I talked with at the press institute. This training session (designed, arranged, and presented by me on a volunteer basis) was entitled "Technology and Today's Journalism." Many in the class were younger journalists just getting started in their careers. They are interested in the best ways to use social media when it comes to news and also the integration from print to online reporting.
James and I begin the long journey home today. I have very much enjoyed my time as a Fulbright Scholar and plan to reflect on my experiences and growth in a future blog post. (The above photo shows us in our apartment, dying of heat stroke, but sipping REAL champagne that James found at the airport duty free.) Thank you for reading and for being part of the journey.

The animals of Kumana National Park

Friday, 20 May 2016
We so enjoyed camping in Kumana National Park. I wrote about our campsite and XTreme Nature Tours in this post. There was so much to talk about that I didn't have a chance to share photos of some of the animals we spotted. 

One of the beautiful creatures that is taken for granted in Sri Lanka is the majestic and colorful Peacock. People visiting the park can see them around every corner. This one was perched on an ancient artifact, one of the pillars that monks used to use to hang their robes as they were bathing. 
Peacocks are so interesting because they spread their tail feathers and shake them to entice the peahen for mating. Did you know that if a peahen has two males displaying in front of her, she can determines the amount of "eyes" in the tail feathers of each bird, compare them, and will mate with the genetically stronger bird?
We saw many Golden-backed jackals in Kumana National park. They usually travel in pairs because they mate for life. They don't have a natural predator in Sri Lanka so there are several of them around. The jackal below was pretty relaxed and enjoyed a scratch in the sun.
One of my favorite parts of Kumana National Park is the Kumunavillu marshland. 22 species of aquatic birds nest here. A couple of favorites (above photo) include the open-billed stork. The picture I took here was of one with breeding plumage. Also, the Painted Storks are beautiful with the tinge of pink feathers and pink legs. In the below photo you can see a Spoonbill in the foreground, also sporting its breeding plumage. It has a yellow "mullet" of feathers and a bright patch of golden feathers on its lower neck. 
Our favorite wildlife sighting besides sloth bears (they were too skittish to photograph), was the mighty leopard! This one loved snoozing on high rocks while viewing his kingdom. We were fortunate enough to see him twice during our time in Kumana. He was shy and preferred to regard us from a distance.
This older elephant hung around for a while so we could take his photo. Because he is a senior he prefers eating grass around water holes because it is softer. Elephants sadly die from starvation. Eventually their teeth are no longer strong enough to chew food enough for digestion. With an already poor digestion system, they have a hard time getting nutrients.
The wildlife in Sri Lanka is glorious. I prefer not to compare it to wildlife in other countries because each experience provides lasting, special memories. The park rangers and guides are different, the terrain is different, and there are unique species and sub-species of animals throughout the world. For instance, the leopards we saw in Sri Lanka are different to those found in African and in India!

If you have questions about game drives in the national parks in Sri Lanka - just ask! I wrote about wildlife viewing at Wilpattu National Park here and Yala National Park here

Camping in Kumana National Park

Wednesday, 18 May 2016
While in Sri Lanka we have made a point to visit as many national parks as possible. There are 22 in and we have been to five of them. Tour company Ayu in the Wild was able to arrange a unique, intimate experience for James and I. We camped IN Kumana National Park one weekend.
On the trip, we booked a camping stay with Xtreme Nature Tours, a Sri Lankan company. The camp director, Chris Perera, and his father Shirley (who was once a park ranger) started the tours because of their passion for wildlife. They set up our campsite along the beautiful Kumbuck River and this was our view from our campsite (below).
The trip was unique because out of all of the national parks in Sri Lanka, people are only allowed to camp in Kumana. Also, there is, as of now, only one company that sets up sites in the park - Xtreme Nature Tours. Chris told us that they are quite selective on who they agree to take on safari. They prefer to deal with nature lovers and not "partiers." I'm glad we fooled them! ;)
Do note that there are no alcoholic beverages during the camping trip and of course no wifi and no cell service. We only missed a cold beer while walking in the river in the heat of the day (we camped for three nights) but we indulged in some of the books in the library. By the way, check out the library below. Isn't that cool?
It is my fault that the photos don't exactly capture the amazing beauty of the site (my shots are a bit dark) but the sun is harsh even at 10am!

The camp "crew" works like a well-oiled machine. Do you know that we had some of the BEST food in our entire stay in Sri Lanka thus far at this camp!? We were in the middle of nowhere so how did they do gourmet food!?

Also, we had stand up showers with no "hot" water but it was warm from the river. Trust me - because we picked the hottest time of the year to camp - a "cool" shower was amazing!
The wildlife on our drives was spectacular. We photographed leopards, deer, mongoose, jackals, raptors, water birds, wild board, wild buffalo. Can't wait to share the pictures in my next post. 

Castlereigh, in the clouds of Sri Lanka

We stayed at a beautiful property in the village of Castlereigh in Sri Lanka. It is located at a high elevation and we were amongst the low clouds most of the day. One day we toured a nearby tea factory. You can read about that here and we also took long walks up and down the hills to see how the locals live.
 It rains a lot here (it is super green and tea grows easily) so the roads are pretty bad around the area so that makes communication a bit tough. We came in the season before the monsoon so we enjoyed cool temperatures and a breeze.
The women of the villages pick the tea leaves. They work in the sun and rain and usually pick 700 leaves a day. Here, they were taking a break to weigh their work and then they were going to have lunch. 
Pickers work until they are 60 years old and receive a pension of sorts. Pickers can start working when they are 18 and depending on the company that owns the land, most receive housing, childcare, and health benefits. The men work in the factories and perform other maintenance jobs. 
At the end of their shift, around 3:30 p.m., the women carry their bundles of tea to a drop-off area in the nearby village. I watched dozens of women carrying bags when I was walking back to our lodge. It looks like very hard work.
When James walked with me, the boys in the village would run up to him and say "Photo, photo!" This group was excited to show us their cricket bat and they enjoyed posing for the camera. Another younger boy really wanted his picture taken later that afternoon. He roped his unwilling friend into it and they loved seeing the images. (This could be one of my favorite photos from Sri Lanka - below.)
We stayed at the Castlereigh Bungalow which is part of the Ceylon Tea Trails properties. It was gorgeous.

Taking Tea in the Highlands of Sri Lanka

The first part of the tea making process is picking the leaves. Female workers pick about 700 leaves a day, six days a week. Male workers will also pick during the abundant months but as our guide said, they are not as good as the women. The workday for pickers is seven hours and they get three breaks during that time and the leaves are weighed.
Once the leaves are picked, they are “withered.” The leaves are placed over hot air for 8 to 12 hours. The hot air doesn’t exactly dry the leaves but it removes about 43% of the moisture. The withering process changes the leaves chemically and physically.
The leaves are then sifted and move on to huge rollers. The rollers pass over the leaves in a circular motion, rolling the leaves, but not breaking them or tearing them apart. The extracts more moisture and it is spread on the surface of the leaves, supporting oxidation.
The next steps include sifting again, sorting, and cutting the leaves. They are cut three times during the process with the goal of making fine particles. The particles are then spread out to rest and ferment for two hours and 40 minutes. During this time the tea turns from a copper red color to dark brown.
Onto the drying! The tea particles are dried in large drying chambers and the fermentation is deactivated. This turns the tea into a jet-black color. Then the tea is sifted and sorted again into “grades.” The finer particles are graded higher. The grade also determines the cost.
The Dunkeld tea goes to auction in Colombo where buyers will bid on the different types. Demand determines cost and the weather dictates how much product the estate can produce.
Tea grown in high elevations (5,000 – 6,000 feet above sea level) is known as “high-grown” tea and is regarded as the finest in the world.

I put together a short video of the process as well:

Random questions about Sri Lanka answered

Sunday, 8 May 2016
Q. Why do some men where sarongs in Sri Lanka and others do not?

A. The sarong is the national dress for men in Sri Lanka. When the country was Westernized the British (and Dutch, Portuguese) made sure that trousers were the norm as far as attire is concerned for men. Even now there are some men who wear sarongs and some men who wear pants. The driver who drove us to Kandy told us that he wears jeans or pants during the day while working but as soon as he gets home he changes into his sarong.

Q.Why do Sri Lankans shake their head "no" when they mean "yes?"

A. The "head wag" is a common Sri Lankan gesture. When you ask a question, such as, "Is it okay to stop for a bathroom break?" The person will bobble their head while shaking left to right and then rotate their head in an up and down motion while shaking it back and forth. There are less hand gestures here and more gestures with the head. Dipping the chin and turning your head to the right has different meanings depending on the situation. It can be pretty confusing to foreigners, especially Westerners who use their hands more to gesture.

Q. How do so many different religions co-exist peacefully in such a small country? (Hindu, Buddhism, Muslim, Roman Catholic)

A. People mind their own business and calmly respect others.


Q. How do dozens of different types of bananas grown in Sri Lanka?

A. This is a land of plenty. Sri Lanka really only has to import wine and types of liquor because everything else they can grow or raise here. The fruit selection is beyond amazing and the veggies are fresh and plentiful. Bananas come in 22 different varieties here: sweet, sour, small, large, green, yellow, red... They are absolutely delicious.

The way things work in Sri Lanka

Thursday, 28 April 2016
I went to Kandy, Sri Lanka to give a lecture at the U.S. Embassy's American Corner about using social media to promote social issues (that was the requested topic and because of my research on social media and teaching experiences, I was excited to do it).
Kandy is 68 miles east of Colombo (110 kilometers) and due to the narrow, winding roads, heavy traffic, and pedestrians, three wheelers, busses, tractor-trailer trucks, wild dogs, the odd cow, etc. it takes about 3.5 to 4 hours to get there by car. There are trains but they are less reliable and rarely have air conditioning.
Photo from: secretlanka.com

We arrived over the weekend and stayed at the Kandy House. James didn't stay the whole time and I was able to conduct research, write, build my presentation, practice, and attempt to make contacts with a few journalists. The PRIMARY reason I was in Kandy was to do the lecture so my entire time there was planned around the important task of getting to the location early, setting up, and being cool, calm, and collected for the lecture. A nice thought...
My photo of The Kandy House (my hotel) at dusk

The evening before the lecture, I spoke with the manager of the hotel (the hotel is not a hotel - it more of a guest house, so think Bed and Breakfast rather than hotel) again, and confirmed that a driver would pick me up at 2:00 p.m. the following day for a 3:00 p.m. lecture at the library. We even spoke about which library, etc. I had estimated 15-20 minutes to get there but being early is always a good thing.

At 1:45 p.m. the next day, I was ready. My computer was charged, I'd emailed the presentation to myself as a backup, and was watching for the car. Let's do this! The driver did not arrive at 2:00 p.m. Now, I've been here for two months so I know if the person is not already there at the appointed time, there is likely a "miscommunication." I called the front office. A woman said no problem, she would call the driver. My heart beat slowed a bit. A few minutes later a staff member arrived holding a phone. He gave it to me, motioning that I should take the call. "Hello? Hello?" I was getting frustrated. The man on the other end said, "Madam, I'm the driver that brought you to Kandy from Colombo. I am not there today." They had called THE driver not a driver who was supposed to just pick me up for the library. Clearly, no one understood what was going on and the manager that I'd confirmed with was not there.

It was now 2:15 p.m. Luckily the staff member holding the phone understood enough English to know that I needed to go to the library. He asked me to wait. I suggested he call a tuk tuk. (I'll arrive sweaty, hair on end, and with running makeup but at least I'd get there on time!) He did not like that suggestion and went to talk with two other staff member that were gathering to watch. LOL!

He came back 10 minutes later and - no problem. A driver was on the way! Okay, 2:25 p.m. I can still get there - plenty of time. Five minutes later another knock at my door. "Sorry, Madam but the driver is stuck in a big traffic jam. He will be another 20 minutes." Oh My Goodness! I said okay and thanked him for his help. What could I do?

Long story short, the driver shows up at 10 til 3:00 p.m. and takes the scenic route so I can see the lake at the center of Kandy. !?!? He believes he is being helpful to me and kind. I am late and there is no way to communicate this to him without seeming rude. I have to take deep breaths, try to relax my shoulders, and stay calm. In that moment I said to myself, "I'll get there when I get there" and tried to watch for rare birds.
Photo of Kandy Lake by viplankatours.com

I arrived 10 minutes late and about 25 people were there waiting for me. They were actually ON TIME because a Westerner was doing the presentation (we are known to be punctual)! Sri Lankan time is LATE. Role reversal. Haha! It went well but I was so embarrassed. The manager of the hotel apologized but I could never figure out if someone forgot to book my ride, if the ride didn't show up, if my request was thought of as more of a suggestion, or some bizarre combination of all three.
Photo of D. S. Senanayake Memorial Public Library from panoramio.com

Also, as of today, I have had four journalists cancel meetings with me at the last second. I'm sure it is a cultural thing (and also they are doing my a favor with their own time) but I wish I knew how to play the game the right way. As soon as I figure it out, I fear, it will be time to head back.