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:

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

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

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. 

Buddha's tooth is in a temple in Kandy

Tuesday, 26 April 2016
It is important to be culturally sensitive about subjects involving religion. I respect organized religion because it benefits vast amounts of people in so many ways. 

Buddhism is an important part of life in Sri Lanka. As I blog about Buddhism, Buddha, and important religious sites such as the Sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, I am doing so with respect. 

James and I went with a guide to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy last weekend to see the place that is believed to hold a tooth of the Lord Buddha. Hundreds of thousands of people come to this site each year to worship. We witnessed many men and women leaving flowers at the altar where the tooth is kept. 
We weren't able to see the relic (this is what the tooth is called) but it was fascinating to witness the serene, patient, waiting of so many people to place flowers at the altar.
We enjoyed being at the temple and experiencing the special moments of people engaging with each other as they prayed, lit candles, and burned incense. 

"Eating crow" in Colombo

Thursday, 21 April 2016
One of the first things that stood out to me in Colombo was the MASSIVE amounts of crows on the ground, in the air, in the trees, working their way through the trash, on phones lines... The House Crow is extremely common in Colombo and I would say there are more crows here than pigeons in New York City (and that's saying something).
Have you ever woken up and without looking at the clock thought, is it morning yet? Well, when that happens here, you just listen for the crows. They begin stirring before dawn and before the first call to prayer by the mosque near our apartment you hear thousands of choruses of KAH KAH!
Because of research, we know that crows are extremely intelligent, have complex social structures, and can learn tricks. They have brains the size of a human thumb which is quite large in proportion to their bodies. That's one of the reasons scientists say they are like primates.
Crows are opportunistic and scavenge for food. I asked a naturalist at one of the national parks in Sri Lanka why there are so many crows in the city. He looked at me like I was thick in the head and exclaimed, "Because of ALL THE FOODS [sic]!"
Sri Lanka is a beautiful, relatively clean country but the idea of depositing trash in receptacles and not on the ground is still catching on. This means that the neighborhood dogs and crows are able to find a feast pretty easily. When I Googled, "Sri Lanka Crows" not much came up except for an interesting excerpt in a book, Buddha in Sri Lanka: Remembered Yesterdays by Swarna Wickremeratne.
In the book, Wickremeratne tells us about a little known New Year tradition in Sri Lanka. He said that some would feed crows because it was believed to be a "meritorious act." They did this because people believed that crows were always hungry (they have been tricking people into feeding them for centuries!). As a child, the author learned of a folklore derived from Buddhism: crows were so hungry and always calling for food because in a past life they denied food to the needy, even those begging for just a morsel.
After reading this, my theory is that people in Sri Lanka have been feeding crows since the times of Buddha so the population has morphed into what it is today. Of course in the urban areas, there is more trash, and therefore more food, so these smart birds have a good life here. 
I enjoy birding and it is fun to watch what they are up to. I've even tried to get some of their antics on camera but they seem to play dumb when I'm recording. They know! 

Where the wild things are: Wilpattu

Monday, 18 April 2016
Wilpattu National Park is one of 16 national parks in Sri Lanka. We went on three game drives while there. The park is very large, with a lot of green space even in the dry season. Above is a Crested Serpent Eagle that wasn't shy at all. It was perched near the road as we were driving by in a safari jeep and were able to spend quite some time with it. I love birds of prey. They are majestic and have sharp eyes. We also saw a juvenile, a bit lighter in color and it was showing its head feathers. 
Land Monitors lizards are also common around Sri Lanka. They can grow to be six feet long here. Our guide told us that some poachers will eat them but that is not as common anymore. It is also believed that if you witness a Land Monitor crossing the road in front of your vehicle (from the right side of the road to the left) that you will soon see a leopard. We DID have one of these cool lizards cross out path, going in the right direction, but we did not see leopards. The park is large, with dense forested areas, and less roads going through the property so it is difficult to see the big cats.  
The Spotted Deer (Chital) are pretty and there are many of these in Sri Lanka and India. They reproduce during the entire year and never lose their spots. Male deer are larger than female and they have a dark stripe on their back. 
Look at these tiny frogs! There are little creatures in the park as well. We didn't see elephant, but in the distance we did see buffalo. 
There is water throughout - even in the dry season - so the birding is nice. I was excited to capture shots of Whistling Ducks. They are so pretty.

Ulgalla Resort: built for the British dignitaries

Sunday, 17 April 2016
We took a weekend away to discover animals at the Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka and stayed at a nice place, Ulgalla Resort. It was built originally for British dignitaries and the grounds are developed and well kept. There is a large, beautiful pool for the guests. I took this shot at sunset so everyone was back in their rooms getting ready for dinner. 
The villas each had a private plunge pool and due to the intense heat during the day, it is almost impossible to stay cool. Even with the air conditioning pumping away inside, it was cooler to just hang out in the water outside. The plunge pools are private and I listened to monkeys and birds in the trees above me.
We didn't spend much time at the resort because we wanted to go on game drives and the park was an hour and 15 minutes drive one way. If you are serious about game drives, I wouldn't recommend staying here but as it is one of the only "luxury" resorts nearby (read: Westernized) and we were thankful for the air conditioning during the hot afternoons. 

One night I walked to the main house for dinner (the property is so spread out that people usually ask for golf carts for transport) and toured the organic garden. The layout was creative and the gardener used natural materials to section off the areas for the different plants.
I'm getting excited about seeing the progress that my father-in-law is making in our garden at home! We live next to them so we are doing a "community" garden this year. I thought the coconut shells being used to line the beds (photo above) was beautiful and a creative use of natural resources.

The next post will show some of the amazing animals and birds that we were able to see at Wilpattu (sadly, no leopards). I've noticed that a lot of the landscaping in Sri Lanka (outside of Colombo) centers around a water feature of some kind. This small pool is for wildlife only but we watched the fish, frogs, and birds enjoy it.

Sri Lanka: What to Wear

Friday, 15 April 2016
If you are a male headed to Sri Lanka, not to worry. You don't really have to adjust your wardrobe unless you only wear tank tops and shorts. That being said, men mostly wear collared shirts with pants/trousers or sarongs (!?) so t-shirts are a bit casual for day-to-day wear but no one is going to say anything because you're a guy. Also, if you are Western, you are likely going to be taller than the general population of Sri Lankan men. James seems to tower over everyone and he is about 6 feet tall. Therefore, people are unlikely to step to you for any reason unless you are being disrespectful to certain religious beliefs. Who would do that anyway!?
When it comes to females, fashion is more diverse in Sri Lanka and it is difficult to know which rules to follow. In my experience, and from what I've observed over the last 6 weeks, there are certainly rules: 1. Most women do not show their shoulders in public. I really paid attention to this because I couldn't believe it when it is SO hot. Perhaps one in 20 women (young and old) will wear a blouse that is sleeveless. If a woman is wearing a sleeveless blouse you will almost never see her also wearing a short skirt, etc. Most women wear short-sleeved shirts and long skirts. The photo below shows ladies waiting for the bus on a Tuesday morning.
That brings us to the next rule. 2. Most women do not show their knees in public. Long skirts or trousers are the norm. I wasn't brave in preparing for this post because I didn't take lots of photos of women in Sri Lanka because I didn't want to be that tourist or make anyone feel uncomfortable. Not many women wear pants.
LOTS of ladies (I mean, everyone) has a much-needed accessory. What is it? An UMBRELLA. I was pretty taken aback by this because we're here in the dry season. It is literally 94F+ everyday with 89% humidity. [Diatribe: It seems even hotter because there is no consistent air conditioning in Sri Lanka and the common mode of transportation is the tuk tuk that is open-air. When you sit for 10 minutes at a red light or traffic jam you think you are going to die.] The reasons the ladies use the umbrellas are two fold: 1. It is very hot and it helps to keep the sun off of them while walking from one shop to the next. 2. They don't want their skin to darken. I had a hard time understanding that reason because in our culture tan skin is embraced. I prefer to keep the sun off of my skin because I'm old and I don't want skin problems so I love the idea of the umbrella! Here an umbrella is essential - especially when it's not raining. 
Women wear saris (a common fashion here) and I also regularly see ladies wearing hijab and in other parts of Sri Lanka, somewhat rarely, burqas.

Fort Galle: European(ish) in Sri Lanka

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Fort Galle is probably the most "European" style city in Sri Lanka. The Portuguese first came to this area in the 1400s but it was taken over and settled by the Dutch. There is a huge stone wall surrounding this small city and partitions the city from the sea. Almost everyone you see on the streets here is from the UK, US, Germany, or China. The city of Galle, where locals live, is just a short walk down the hill through one of two huge stone arches. 

Here, unlike most areas of Sri Lanka, there are restaurants in abundance with English menus and alcoholic beverage for sale. There are several hotels with nice dining areas around an outdoor pool. The lighthouse is beautiful but difficult to capture without thick, black electric lines in the foreground.

When James and I visited, it was a Friday and some sort of field trip day for local schools. The girls are all dressed in their while school uniforms usually with braids and red ribbons. The vendors here tried to get them to buy sweets with their pocket money. They were willing!

Our hotel had a nice view over the city and we enjoyed watching the sun warm the terra-cotta tiles on the roofs nearby. I would certainly recommend Fort Galle as a stop on a visit to Sri Lanka.

"Don't be afraid."

Tuesday, 12 April 2016
We have been here for about six weeks and in all of that time I have not felt afraid or suffered any sort of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka. We visited India for two weeks and I felt uncomfortable there a few times but not here. My mentor at the Fulbright office explained to me that at some point I would likely be made to feel uncomfortable by a male but that when it happens, I just need to be assertive.

I did not bring my wedding rings on this trip or any sort of valuable jewelry but I do wear a silver band on my left hand and regularly mention "my husband" when I'm by myself. The transportation situation here means that I have to be alone in a tuk tuk with male drivers several times a day. So far, everyone has been courteous, friendly, and respectful. Today, I met my first jerk.

It is quite difficult to know what sort of driver you are getting when you hail a tuk tuk. I should have waved this guy on but it is so hot here and I was coming back from an interview in an industrial part of Colombo where there were hardly any women. After I jumped in and he pulled away I noticed that the young man seemed to me to be high as a kite. He talked very quickly in English, his eyes were blood red and glossy, and he did not drive in his lane. (That part is normal but when cars were coming head on and honking he still wouldn't move over.)  He repeated "Princess Diana" numerous times, said he was a fan, discussed my "beauty," and about 10 minutes in the wrong direction I figured out that he was not taking me to Colombo 10, where I had requested. It was 12:00 p.m. so I wasn't scared at this point - I was just annoyed. It got even better.

(This does not look like me.)

After we were finally headed in the right direction he started asking for my phone number, repeatedly. I said, "No. My husband wouldn't like that" and he said that he "wouldn't find out." !? Then he said, "I'll give you my number." I said, "No thank you," and he said, "Don't be afraid, don't be afraid. You are afraid. I'm just a friend, not a lover." Unbelievable. Was this fine person not taking NO for an answer?

I leaned forward, smiled, allowed a beat for a dramatic pause, and said, "I.  AM.  NOT.  AFRAID! I DON'T WANT YOUR PHONE NUMBER!!!" You know what? He sort of looked afraid. We were two blocks from the apartment at that point so I gave him some cash, jumped out, said, "Thanks!" and started walking.

I don't chalk up this joyous tuk tuk experience to a generality about Sri Lankan men and male hegemony - this sort of thing happens to women everywhere, everyday. It is just a reminder to stand up for yourself and abandon ship if you don't feel comfortable in a situation. 

Journalists in Sri Lanka: covering the civil war

Sunday, 10 April 2016
I go back and forth about whether I should blog about my research. So far all of the journalists who have interviewed with me have elected to keep their identity public. However, my PhD education reminds me that revealing identities can be, literally, dangerous.

Anyway, I've learned a lot about the civl war from those who covered it in Sri Lanka. The challenges of covering a war can be immense - especially if the government fashions what you can report on. (Isn't that what usually happens in a war situation?)

Journalists had to deal with language barriers, a lack of access to areas where the fighting was taking place, a lack of verifiable information, land minds, and threats of violence to themselves and their families.

In Sri Lanka, there is state-run and "private" media. One journalist who works for a private media company explained what happened recently when she wrote something that a government official didn't like. "He held a press conference and used my name, talking about me to the other journalists. Of course we weren't invited to that press conference."

How do journalists here choose whether to work for state-run media or private media? Many say that it isn't a choice, they just seem to fall into a job, and they'll take any job to get their foot in the door. There isn't a formal journalism college degree in Sri Lanka, there is only a diploma (different level of education). Journalists who are educated may have graduated with a degree in Mass Communication (advertising, public relations, and some media writing) so they learn how to be a journalist while on the job. As one journalist explained, "If you can write decent sentences in English, you're likely to get a job." That is one of the main criteria for English media here. Concepts such as objectivity are somewhat taught by the more senior journalists to those who are new on the job.

I have found my job of tracking down journalists who will meet and talk with me about their coverage of the civil war to be difficult. Even those who have generously spent time with me interviewing, hesitate when I ask about the war. They don't want to talk about it. It is difficult for me to know exactly why (I have theories) and just asking the questions doesn't mean I'm going to get answers.

I think back now on the struggle to finish my dissertation and I realize that was great practice for perseverance. Time to make some more calls (I wrote about my love for calling people here). 

Cooking Class in Sri Lanka

Saturday, 9 April 2016
You've read about my desire to learn how to cook Sri Lankan food. My first attempt at making curry was a disaster but I finally signed up for a cooking class when we visited Fort Galle.

The chef and I started out by going to the vegetable, spice, and fish markets. We didn't buy anything because the food was purchased before the class but he showed me the veggies that are grown in Sri Lanka. They include (in order of appearance): red onions, yams, wild potatoes, snake gourd, green chilis, bitter melon, banana flower, (large purple bud, like an artichoke inside) radishes (they look like white carrots) and a sort of cucumber (the orange and green balls in the last photo).

This part of the "class" was very helpful because now I can semi-confidently go into the grocery stores here, look at the produce and know what I'm buying. I've starting purchasing radishes to go into our salads, etc. 

Next we went to the spice market to smell and taste different curry powders, saffron, turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon. The sales pitch was strong and I purchased two types. The bill was 1,900 LKR! That amounts to approximately $13 but the salesperson took me for a ride. (It happens frequently here.)

Last up, the fish market. It is set up on the beach near where the fishermen pull in the catch each morning. It is interesting to me that the fishermen, salesmen, and patrons were all men. Even though the women usually do the cooking in the home, the men shop, haggle over, and buy the fish. I did see women in the vegetable market but it is mostly the men (at least in Galle) who do the food shopping. Check out the beautiful Red Snapper and tuna in the photo below. 

After going through the markets we went to The Paddy Island where they have an outdoor, covered kitchen for cooking. We made 10 different dishes and it was hot and hard work. I have no idea how Sri Lankan women can makes these elaborate curries day after day! I guess they get used to it but you need almost two dozen ingredients for EACH curry. Besides the spices, onions, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, meat, veggies, all have to be cleaned and prepared. That doesn't even include the rice which has to be washed three times and boiled. 

Most homes have a two burner stove so it is a stream-lined process to prepare a curry, move it off the stove and cover it, in order to start on the next one. Usually for dinner, a typical curry meal would include rice, a meat curry (such as prawn curry) and two vegetable curries (beet root for instance) and/or dahl (lentils). Look how much food we had when finished... It was insane.

I learned so much and used my new skills to make chicken curry the other evening for James. We both agreed that it was pretty good. (You can watch a video I created of the steps in the curry process here.) The cooking class was worth the time and money. Below is a short video documenting the experience. Thank you for reading and watching.