Touring small islands in the Madu River

Thursday, 31 March 2016
Part of the allure of The River House in Sri Lanka (one of our weekend get aways) was the offer of an early morning tour of the Madu River.

On the tour guests visit three islands where locals live and work. Our first stop was on a tiny island where a local woman showed us the production of cinnamon. Cinnamon is actual harvested from a tree. Do you use cinnamon in dishes? There is a chance that it comes from Sri Lanka. I put together a short video to show you the basics of how it is harvested:

The next stop was a Buddhist temple on another tiny island. The temple here is 700 years old but is still in disrepair from the Tsunami. We were able to speak with a monk who showed us the ancient books and gave us a blessing. He said that we both had "good foreheads." He really liked James' hair and laughed when he rubbed it during the blessing.

The last stop on our tour which allowed ample time for bird watching and monkey viewing was a stop at a fish farm on the edge of the river. You could pay 500 rupees to have the fish nibble your feet but we opted out of that experience. Our guide showed us how it was done. 

The River House, Balapitiya, Sri Lanka

Monday, 28 March 2016
As far as luxury properties go in the world, The River House is a fairly special spot.

Disclaimer: I may not qualify "luxury" in the proper way. I don't need a bidet in the bathroom. French cheese is nice but not paramount for me in a dining experience, and I appreciate a nice wine collection but if there is something decent to drink, I don't get too fussy.

Therefore, your opinion of this place might be different than mine but allow me to show you the simple but chic and refined accommodations and tell you about the impeccable service. This is the balcony to our room that overlooked the Madhu River and had a private plunge pool:

Also when it comes to this sort of privacy and decor, I was shocked at the affordable (relatively speaking) price. Sri Lanka is great cost for value but you have to find the right places. The River House with its great location on the water (this is not a beach property mind you), fresh food, and amazing attention to detail was a lovely weekend respite from the hot, busy streets of Colombo. 

The mattresses in Sri Lanka are about the thickness of two pizza boxes stacked up and they are FIRM. The people believe that a thin, firm mattress is good for the body - so we're adjusting. Literally. 

The bathroom had a "wet shower" walk-out to the plunge pool so you didn't have to drip water all over the veranda. 

I should have photographed more of the inventive dishes but for lunch the first day we were served on our private porch. I tried the cold cucumber, yogurt soup with mint infused oil and garnish. I also had the grilled prawns with mango and fresh greens and pepper salad. The dishes were perfectly seasoned. 

The next morning we went out on a river tour of the islands in the area and experienced first hand a Buddhist monk blessing, the production process of cinnamon by a local woman, and a fish farm growing fish for market. I'll tell you about the excursion in another post. 

Calling all research participants

One of my advisors at the Fulbright Commission in Colombo set up a meeting for me with an editor of one of the weekly papers. I was nervous meeting him but went to his office, had tea (part of the culture here is to have a cup of tea at meetings, usually with cake), talked about his role at the newspaper and his history as a journalist. Before I left, he was kind enough to call one of the representatives of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and handed the phone to me. Voila! I now had meeting number two scheduled in my quest to find journalists. (You probably remember that my research focuses on journalists who cover conflict.)

My meeting at the press institute was successful and I had an opportunity to meet with professional, kind, helpful people. One gentlemen asked me to plan and conduct two 1/2 day media training sessions (no need to pay a fee to a Fulbright scholar conducting research). In exchange, they helped me out with what I needed the most: contact details for journalists who might be interested in participating in research.

I am slowly learning that things work a little differently here than in the U.S. First, email is not the prevalent mode of communication. We take for granted that most folks in the West check their email 999 times a day and respond in less than a few hours. In Sri Lanka, it is more common to simply call the person. Call. As in, use the telephone, dial the person up, and talk to them. That person may or may not answer and probably doesn't have voice mail so it is like the pre-answering machine days of telephone calls. They don't answer? You just call back again, and again until they do. Also, for someone who only speaks English (you really notice how ignorant you are when you're the only person in a group that speaks just one language), I am at a disadvantage. While several people in Colombo speak English, that is not the first language or second language here. I will also be working with journalists who speak Sinhalese and Tamil.

So, not only do I hate calling people (When did that happen, anyway? I used to love talking on the phone...), I have to call people who may or may not speak English, have no idea who I am, and have no reason in the world to speak with me. This is cold calling at its best. I don't even have a product to offer, I'm just hoping that out of the goodness of people's hearts they'll want to talk with me for research's sake. Right...

This is taking quite a bit of bravery on my part but I've been scheduling interviews with journalists and asking who they might recommend as someone else to talk to. Not all of the information or meetings are helpful. That's something else I've learned... here the idea of "telling a story" is important. Answering questions in a direct way is not as common. This is challenging as a researcher - or interviewer for that matter - but I'm drawing on my experience to keep learning and keep going.

I hope you are having a wonderful start to the week. Everyone faces challenges on the job - maybe you too are able to draw on your experience to figure out solutions, keep learning, or just stay sane. 

Culture shock in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 23 March 2016
Last night I was in bed reading when I felt tears rolling out of the corners of my eyes. I had felt frustrated, a little angry, and just down all day. There wasn't really a reason to be upset except that I missed my cats, my family, my friends, and many of the normalities of our life in the U.S. We've been in Sri Lanka for three weeks (time flies!) and have eight more to go. I realized that the upset feeling was probably related to culture shock.

(Here are photos of our little kitties at my parents' house... Lily is the blonde kitty and Violet is the black kitty.)

After reading up on the phenomenon of culture shock, I learned that there are three stages: Euphoria (you're in a new place, everything is different, there's so much to see), Frustration (nothing is the same, you don't have comforts of home, your new life style is different and possibly more difficult), and Acceptance (you take the good with the bad and have knowledge about how to deal with differences). I'm currently in the Frustration stage.

I don't remember having as much of an issue with culture shock when I moved to London for two years. I was pretty lonely at times but there wasn't a language barrier and there wasn't such a harsh climate.

It is comforting to know that my feelings are normal and the sadness and frustration will pass. James has had his moments too. One night as much as we calmly tried to guide our tuk tuk driver to our apartment, the young man just would not or could not follow our hand gestures. The driver finally stopped to ask a police officer! We of course had to pay more than we would have... Not a big deal but because that scenario has played out a half dozen times already, James was understandably frustrated.

My mom is going to send us a box with a few things from home and I will continue to journal and blog. We are trying to take short excursions on the weekends to play the role of tourist and see more of Sri Lanka. That is certainly helping. (Below is a view of the Madu River from The River House lodge in Balapitiya.)

I also have research and lecturing goals that give me something to concentrate on and work towards. Plus - we are not alone. I know you are there rooting for us. Thank you! 

Packing List for Sri Lanka

Monday, 21 March 2016
Yesterday James and I talked about what we would bring to Sri Lanka if we had a chance to do it all again. The information I received before coming over was to pack anything and everything that you could not do without. So… we packed toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, conditioner, soap, razors, etc. That was completely unnecessary. You can buy almost anything (except certain feminine products – bring those) at the grocery stores here. That being said, we are thankful that we brought over-the-counter medications that we might need during the next few months. 

Recently I’ve embarked on a little project to create a video montage of tips for people (Fulbright grantees or others) who may be coming over from Western countries that are not sure what to expect. Video topics so far include: how to operate without a clothes dryer, how to use a rice cooker, how to hail a tuk tuk, what to expect at the grocery store, how to use the key pad locks for the apartment doors, and a peek into what traffic is like.

As far as what we’d bring with us if we had to do it all again – James said he would bring more quality sunscreen (the sun is SO HOT here and if outdoors at all you need to reapply every 1.5 hours at least). On our first weekend out of Colombo he got a bad sunburn on his hands when we were out on the water whale watching.

I would bring more warm weather clothing to wear while hanging out at the apartment. Being so worried about offending others and not seeming modest enough, I only brought shirts that are elbow length or longer plus pants, long skirts, and capris. Stupid. I need tank tops and shorts! Those are not readily available here. Also outside of the city, in the more tourist-driven areas Westerners are every where and my attire compared to other is quite modest. I’d rather be modest than be stared at but warm-weather clothes would be a bonus.

My first curry - a bust!

Saturday, 19 March 2016
Research is going well but I won't bore you with that right now.

Now to my first love (besides James, of course, and the kitties) I've been stressing out about making curry for James. That's the traditional dish in Sri Lanka of course and every part of the country does it a bit differently. People in India have a different way of doing curry as well. After watching a few "easy chicken curry" videos on YouTube, I gave it a try.

Here are the videos that I learned from:

Please feel free to try the above recipes and let me know how you fare. We purchased pre-made roasted curry powder that I used in the dish. I chopped up red onion, three cloves of garlic, a bit of celery root (I thought it was flat leaf parsley when I bought it but I didn't want to waste it) and a small tomato.

First, I put oil in the pan and added the onion, stirring the entire time until it was golden brown. Then I added the garlic and ginger powder, still stirring. When those elements were cooked and starting to meld, I added one Tablespoon of the roasted curry powder. Stirring... still stirring. Once that seemed to be coated and cooked, next I added the tomato and continued to stir until all of the ingredients formed a sort of paste. This was all over medium heat.

I added the marinated chicken pieces (marinade: olive oil, salt, pepper, little bit of lime juice) and about 3/4 cup water. That simmered for at least 15 minutes. Next, I added the coconut milk (it was at room temperature) and simmered the mixture for another 10 minutes.

We both agreed that the taste just wasn't that great. HA! I'm going to try again, however, and this time use curry powder that is not roasted. I will also use fresh ginger and use more of curry powder than this time. It is a learning process for sure.

I also had no earthly idea how to use the rice cooker that is supplied with our apartment. It is so super easy but if you've never used one, and there's no instruction manual, how would you know? Luckily I found this awesome video of a woman teaching her younger sister how to use one:

Grocery Shopping in Sri Lanka

Friday, 18 March 2016
Because I love food and talking about food, I wanted to do a quick post about shopping for groceries in Colombo. First of all, the seafood selection is tremendous. This doesn't help us, however, because James will not eat seafood. When he was gone the other evening I purchased some prawns but when I began preparing them they didn't seem fresh. At the large grocery stores you can find some beef and lamb but mostly people eat chicken and fish.

When you select produce, you have to wait in line at a weighing station to have the produce weighed and tagged. I didn't realize this the first time and in line the cashier looked at me like, "Um, what are you doing?" She just pointed me back to the produce section and a different young lady clerk just smiled and started taking peppers, potatoes, and garlic out of my cart to weigh them. 

While I haven't purchased them yet, curry leaves are a big deal here. There are usually piles and piles of them near the weigh scale and almost everyone in the produce section buys a bag full. 

While I have asked around about an informal cooking lesson once a week (paid for of course) I haven't found any takers. I'd love it if I could get an escort to the market, watch to see what the proper ingredients are, and then go home to make a simple curry. I have viewed YouTube videos on cooking but buying the right items at the store can be daunting. 

For instance, during our last trip to the store, James and I went out on a limb and selected these things (that we normally would not buy): ginger powder, roasted curry powder, and basmati rice (it isn't instant). We have a rice cooker in our apartment but I don't know how to use it.

I'll try to break it out tomorrow and make some sort of curry. (No kidding - you can watch YouTube videos about how to use a rice cooker. )

At the store, many people also buy dried supplies - lentils, spices (I think) by the bulk. Not exactly sure what some of these ingredients are but I'm learning. 

Life in Colombo; similarities and differences compared to the U.S.

Thursday, 17 March 2016
When I speak with my family or close friends they ask: "What's it like in Sri Lanka?" This post is dedicated to answering that question with a short list of what I find to be different about life in Sri Lanka (compared to the U.S.) and what is sort of the same.


1. Colombo is a big city with five million residences. With big city life comes traffic snarls, crowded public transport, and pedestrians hoofing it to their jobs each morning and early evening. There is a rush hour here but it is pretty much always very busy when it comes to traffic.

2. The larger grocery stores offer a wide selection of food that is typical here as well as house hold items. When you walk in, you grab a buggy, load up your choices and check out in lines with other people.

3. Cable TV is fine. We have about 60 channels including TLC and Discovery.

4. The Wifi in our apartment is pretty fast.

5. The apartment is large with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a nice kitchen and living area.

6. Because this is a large city, people are very blasé about greeting others, smiling through a sales transaction, etc. I feel like I'm in NYC.

7. For the most part, especially in smaller towns, people are friendly and polite.


1. No indoor ovens or dishwashers. That means I do the cooking over a stove (usually twice a day) and James does most of the dishes.

2. You can really only carry so many groceries at a time so we go to the shop almost everyday. It is a bit tiring. Also, the refrigerators here are small so we can't keep much food at a time anyway. Note: Don't take your car, your well-stocked grocery store, and garage for granted!

3. There are not many restaurants around our apartment and local people do not seem to go out to eat very often. There are small take-away shops, and some food-truck style eateries but we're never sure what to order there. We have some research to do regarding restaurants.

4. Dryers are not used here but our little outdoor washer is nice. We just hang our things on the provided drying rack and it all takes less than a day to dry because, even with air conditioning, it is so hot here.

5. It is so HOT. Really. I cannot express how different this has been for us. Yes, it is hot in Tennessee in the summers and I've experienced that - with the humidity it is brutal. But here, with the lack of central air conditioning, the sun being closer to the earth, having to walk many places, and wearing clothes that at least cover your shoulders and knees makes for very warm morning, days, and nights. It is HOT.

6. Personal space is different here. People stand and walk very closely to one another and you just can't get freaked out about it.

7. The best mode of transport is the tuk tuk! Like taxis, some are metered and some are not. It is best to find a metered tuk tuk but if you cannot, settle on a price to your destination before you get in. Traveling by tuk tuk is fascinating because they ZOOM in and out of traffic and squeeze through cars in between lanes. I haven't seen a collision... yet. Here's a quick video of my morning commute to the Sri Lankan Press Institute:

Watching for the big Blue near Weligama

Sunday, 13 March 2016
This weekend we went on a quick trip to Weligama in Sri Lanka - south of Colombo. It was booked through the company National World Safari out of the U.K. Blue and Sperm whales frequent the waters off the coast of Sri Lanka and this is one of the only places in the world to regularly see them. (I took this photo of a Blue whale the first day we were out on the water.)

On the second day of whale watching we found a Bryde's whale. It was pretty calm and just amazing to see. Bryde's whales are smaller than Blue whales and you can tell the difference because the dorsal fin is less "pointy." The encounter was incredible.

The research aspect of this trip is interesting. In the photo below you can see our guide (Patrick Dykstra) with a "hydro phone." He places it in the water to listen for whales or dolphins. With this tool he has learned that Blue whales have a sort of "song" and Sperm whales communicate with a clicking noise.

We stayed at the Weligama Bay Resort (please note that there is heavy construction next door that has been going on for three years so I would recommend waiting for it to be completed before booking with this place) and Sunday afternoon I went out with a body board. While I wasn't really able to catch a wave, I brought my GoPro out and videoed the attempts. They aren't worth posting here but I love the smile in this picture - happy to experience new things.

What the heck is she doing?

Friday, 11 March 2016
My friend Katie commented on a previous blog post asking about my research and I realized that I haven't given many details about what exactly I am doing in Sri Lanka.

My dissertation highlighted the research I've conducted over the last four years regarding journalists who cover conflict. I was able to interview and follow up with people who have reported on fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Many have been shot at, wounded, and many have watched their colleagues die.

While researching for my dissertation I learned that journalists need basic first aid training (many have no idea how to conduct CPR or apply a tourniquet) and often pursue dangerous assignments because the "bang-bang" accounts are most likely to make it on air or into a magazine or newspaper. I believe there is much more to learn about this phenomenon. That's why I applied for the Fulbright and was awarded a research grant to Pakistan (never mind, their government wouldn't give Fulbrighters a visa) and then the location was switched to Sri Lanka.

Over the next few months I will be working with The Sunday Times, the Sri Lankan Press Institute, as well as other news outlets all over the country to explore more deeply what influences the coverage of conflict. Sri Lanka was a war-torn country for many years. There are still signs of the civil war that raged between the north and the south. Journalists here were killed, beaten up, threatened, and coerced after and before running certain stories. I hope to speak with as many as possible who covered the civil war and record data regarding their experiences and perceptions. I'll update my progress here. Thank you for reading. 

Official business in Sri Lanka

Monday, 7 March 2016
Neither of us really slept last night. Jet lag is still hurting us but I took a nap between the hours of 3:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. Then it was up and at ‘em for my first official Fulbright meeting at the US/Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission in Colombo 3. James and I left the apartment at 8:30 a.m. in order to get me to the breakfast at 9:00 a.m. It was supposed to be a 30-minute walk but about 5 minutes in, a tuk tuk (electric 3-wheeler) pulled up beside us. The driver was very nice but didn’t know where the commission was located even though I had the address and showed him the name of the street (albeit in English). Thankfully, James, ever prepared, had the location pulled up on his phone and used Google maps to navigate us there.

After security greeted us and we walked through the gate to the Fulbright commission (sweating even at 8:45 a.m.), I asked James to take a photo of me in front of the Fulbright sign. My face looks happy but flushed in the heat but I’m thankful to have the photo – my first official business in Sri Lanka! 

James went on his merry way to do the grocery shopping (he is an excellent stay-at-home husband). The meeting was informal but informative and Sue Borja, Branch Chief with the South & Central Asia Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State was there from the U.S. I am the only scholar in Sri Lanka that is conducting full-time research and the other senior scholar here (currently) is from U Mass and is teaching English plays at a university in Kandy.

The food for the breakfast was traditional and included rice, spicy chutney, banana leaves filled with a sweet, date-like substance, sweet baby bananas and of course, tea. The rice and chutney are traditionally eaten by hand. (Not easy to do!) You are supposed to take some of the rice which is slightly sticky, put some chutney on it, mix the two on the plate with your fingers, ball it up and place a bit in your mouth. I did my best but the chutney was really too spicy for me to eat. I used tiny bits and it was delicious but HOT.

After hearing about the progress of the 10 Fulbright Teaching Assistants (they are recent graduates from college and teach English throughout Sri Lanka), I talked about the research that I will be conducting. People were friendly and helpful and I have a positive vibe about the program here in general. I was also able to start on the road of paperwork and red tape for residency visas, a bank account, and payment for equipment for my research here.

James and I agreed that today was a good day and that (maybe) we are very slowly getting used to the heat. He even found a bottle of Jacob’s Creek sparkling wine at the superstore (we don’t recommend it but it was fun) and we had some bubbles with the quesadillas that I made on the stovetop (there’s no oven here). I hope your week is also off to a good start. Much love.

A home and food

We have moved into our apartment in Colombo. It is basic but in a decent location because we are close to two grocery stores. One (Food City – nothing like the Food City we know in the South) is close by and I can pick up essentials: milk, eggs, and some decent produce. The tomatoes are all over-ripe and I wonder if this is how people use them here. 

I could spend hours in the grocery stores looking at spices and writing down ingredients to Google later and learn about. At the Food City they only sell chicken and fish. (Remember in Sri Lanka the population is mostly Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. Hindus don’t eat beef, Buddhists don’t eat meat, and Muslims don’t eat pork.) I was sweating it a bit because James won’t eat seafood or eggs (!). What in the world am I going to make to eat? There are also no canned beans and the avocados are unripe. I was starting to think that I'd have to make only chicken and pasta for the next three months.

Thankfully, today we tried a different “superstore” that is about a 20 minute walk from our apartment. We set out at 9:30 a.m. and walked carefully, watching for tuk tuks speeding by and hesitating at crosswalks because we weren’t sure if drivers stop for pedestrians. We followed the lead of a small but stout Sri Lankan man (everyone seems tiny here) and he stepped out in front of traffic! Surprisingly no one honked or seemed annoyed, they just slammed on the brakes and we crossed – almost running - behind our fearless leader.

After entering the superstore, our eyes lit up. This looks more like a super Target than the market with willy-nilly items. (Okay, not really, but think of a third-world version of a super Target and you’ve got it.) I started wandering the aisles with my mouth slightly open. I saw Ponds Cold Cream, L’Oreal shampoo, vinegars of all kinds, pasta sauce, and at the meat counter – minced beef. I also noticed cuts of lamb! We are going to be okay. What I’m most interested in, however, are the piles and piles of fresh curry leaves that are found in the produce section. I’ve watched two cooking shows featuring a Sri Lankan chef who is also Australian (Peter Kuruvita). He uses curry leaves at the beginning of most dishes with a mixture of ginger, onion, and garlic. I’m on it! I hope to record my culinary journey either here or in a written journal but I'd like to learn some easy authentic Sri Lankan dishes.

(Leave it to me to write about food in one of the first posts from this fascinating island in the Indian Ocean.)

The journey begins

While waiting for my flight to board in Frankfurt I began thinking about what I hope to achieve while on this appointment. Why haven’t I thought about this carefully before? Life is busy and with the preparations of leaving the country for three months and I hadn’t given much thought to goals. If you know me at all, you know that I am goal-oriented and feel motivated by accomplishments.

My friend, Max, posted a comment on a Facebook photo that I took of myself upon departure at the airport. He said something to the effect of: Selfies are useful to historically document moments in time. I look forward to seeing the photo you take of yourself when you return.

Interesting. When I get back from this Fulbright adventure and look at before-and-after photos of myself what do I hope to see or feel?

Without getting too complicated, I’m working toward three things:

My research is taking me places (!) and I commit to deep exploration of the phenomenon. Specifically, I will create a plan to use the data that I gather to inform others.

The practice of yoga is a large part of the Indian and Sri Lankan culture and I’d like to return to the U.S. with a stronger body. I hope to participate in classes each week. The temperature in Colombo will be around 95F during the day but the mornings will be a pleasant 77F. Why not practice yoga bright and early? My other option is swimming. We have a roof top pool and while there is no shade, I could exercise, again, early in the morning.

I’m also looking forward to experiencing all things new and exciting with James. In the states, we live in the same city as our families and we rely on them for quite a bit. This will be a special time to grow together as a couple and have more autonomy.

Thank you so very much to you, my reader, for supporting this journey. As I write these blog posts I think of you and imagine you reading the posts and I do not feel alone. Please post a comment and let me know a detail about your life so we can stay in touch.