White sands, great snorkeling in the Maldives

Tuesday, 31 May 2016
We stayed at the Park Hyatt in the Maldives. When you land in Male, you have to transfer to the domestic flight area and fly to Koodoo Island. From there, you take a 35 minute speed boat ride to the island where the Park Hyatt is located. It is the only establishment on the island so it is truly an island resort. We are on the fence as to whether we would recommend this resort to others. The villas are not properly air conditioned and a bit tired. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the food and the gorgeous surroundings. The service was also very nice.
The most enjoyable part for me while being in the Maldives was the genuine opportunity to simply relax. I wrote everyday, blogged often, and reviewed the transcripts from the interviews I conducted for research but for the most part, I enjoyed the island breeze and the gorgeous aqua-colored water.
James and I walked on the beach every morning and admired how our toes just sunk into the soft, white sand. It is hot in May (you are very close to the Equator in the Maldives) but there is a nice breeze close to the water. The below photo shows the jetty where passengers disembark when they arrive on the island.
We also very much enjoyed the snorkeling just off the beach. James selected the Park Hyatt because it has a wonderful house reef fairly close to the shore. We brought our own snorkels and fins and enjoyed studying the wildlife underwater such as the beautiful Parrotfish.
Our pool villa was the second villa we stayed in at the Park Hyatt. The water villa that we tried was situated over the ocean and incredibly hot. The air conditioning system is not built to keep up with the 12 hours of direct sun and lack of insulation. The villas that are in the jungle enjoy the shade from large palms so we could get it down to 25C during the day. We thought the pool villas were the best anyway because they have awesome private plunge pools!
My favorite feature of the pool villa was the private and direct beach access. I even went for a moon-lit swim one night and just floated in the warm water while enjoying a FULL moon. Plus, if you go for a swim in the ocean, you can sort of rinse off in the pool before relaxing on the outdoor sofa.
The experience was relaxing and invigorating. I enjoyed swimming every day and the walk to the restaurants and main pool of the resort was probably a 1/4 or a mile or so. We walked about 2 miles everyday and that was wonderful. 

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.