The Not Trip to Knuckles & War Heroes Weekend

Last weekend we had planned a trip to hike the Knuckles range, a mountain range in Sri Lanka in the shape of a human set of knuckles. It never happened.

After a gridlock inducing mind numbing journey that should have been 10 minutes but was instead 1 hr to get to the train station, we bought our train tickets in anticipation of a fantastic weekend of hiking.

After waiting half an hour for our train, we stepped on to find crowded standing room only, no lights, and no fans. We weren’t quite in the mood to make the 4 hour schlep so instead just gave up. (It was much easier). Knuckles will be one more thing in Sri Lanka that won’t be worth effort of me seeing.

Last weekend was a bit hellish mostly due to the fact it was the 4 year anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The government proclaimed it “War Heroes” weekend and organized a massive parade on Galle Face Green.

A few days before I had gone running up Marine Drive. It made for one of the more interesting runs of my life, as first navy numerous patrol boats moved by going north, followed by squadrons of military jets and helicopters and finally a mock paraded even including paratroopers landing on galle face green (an impressive feat).

Apparently one of those patrol boat capsized and one of the sailors died. From my earlier experiences with the Sri Lankan navy on Mannar, where their drain plug on their skiff came undone and water started flooding the space where the engine was (a converted lawn mower engine), and the skipper started whittling the wooden plug down so he could jam it back in the hole, I don’t have much faith in the Sri lankan navy.

Galle face green was totally blocked to all access. I had the curious satisfaction of helping a lost tourist navigate her way to the train station. It’s neat to be able to help someone, especially in a friendly manner. Many times when you ask for directions here you have to be wary of who you are asking because they may have unsavory intent.

Well, I’m sure the actual parade didn’t disappoint, but I was in no hurry to see it.

A Letter I Wrote to My Grandparents Last Week

I am currently sitting in a cafe adjacent to a mosque in central Colombo, Sri lanka. The cafe is run by a Korean man and his English wife. Colombo is a majority Buddhist city with a sizeable Hindu/Tamil minority. It has a decent number of East-Asian expats and more bad Chinese restaurants than I care to count. Thought I’d share that strange note on globalization.

I recently have been accepted as a Fulbright researcher to work on the Early Press in India and the Bengal Renaissance. This is a very prestigious fellowship. My grant will start in August. I am also waiting for an additional research grant, called a Critical Language Enhancement Award (the US State Department thinks of the oddest names) to study Bangla, which would extend my time in Kolkata, India to about 15 months.

I’m thrilled to start. I specifically intend to conduct research into trials surrounding James Augustus Hicky, founder and editor of the short lived Bengal Gazette, 1780-1782, the first newspaper in Asia. He was brought to court multiple times on charges of libel (some by the then Governor-General Warren Hastings). Along with being a colorful character, he was also known for accusing the Governor General of having stolen the wife of another man (a Russian count) and of nepotism, of accusing the chief justice of India of judicial murder and corruption, and of accusing the head of the protestant mission of stealing money from the orphan’s children fund.

Most of these accusations were actually true, but no matter the truth of certain charges, it’s a bit hard to plead your case when you’ve attacked the troika of most powerful men in India.

In recent weeks, I have done a bit of traveling around Sri Lanka. Last weekend Sheela, a few friends and I traveled to the small village of Mediwachiya in north central Sri Lanka, where one of the Fulbright researchers is working on a type of kidney disease prevalent in the region. We also went to Mullaitivu, where the Sri Lankan civil war ended. It’s a harrowing and surreal place, made more surreal and unnerving by the fact that busloads of grinning Singhalese (the ethnic group that won the civil war) travel to see where the war ended as a holiday. I oon intend to co-publish a post in a Sri Lankan news outlet about my time in Mullaitivu, anonymously of course, since journalism is quite dangerous here.

Sheela has become increasingly disillusioned with her project. Sri Lankan cinema, simply put, is awful. Low production values, relatively depressing plots, all with a surprising amount of sexual violence thrown in does not make for fun research. Consider that the country has recently overcome a thirty year civil war, which combined with strong tones of sexual repression, has badly damaged the Sri Lankan psyche. (Though, see if you can watch the movie, Machan. It’s about the Sri Lankajn handball team, who after playing a tournament in Germany, disappear. Not only is it a true story—the entire Sri Lankan handball team managed to escape as undocumented immigrants in Europe—but some of the crew of the movie did the same thing, escaping into Europe.)

Life goes well, and I am wrapping up my last month in Sri Lanka. Work at the white water rafting cum adventure sports company, Borderlands Sri Lanka, is increasingly frustrating. I have been working here since November. Currently I am working on developing a new website for the company. But since I am paid Sri Lankan wages (I don’t even want to tell you how low that is), and have received no incentives from Borderlands’s detached and incompetent management to do better work, I feel little compunction to care about the company, which has given me a mercenary attitude. While work is rewarding, I am increasingly excited to leave and move on to something closer to my ideal career path. I don’t know if that means academia (History per se) or otherwise, but it certainly is not doing sales and marketing for an adventure sports company. I’d prefer some career path that is intellectually stimulating. Barring that, I’d like something that pays well. Borderlands is neither.

I leave for Washington D.C. In June to attend the Fulbright Pre-Departure Conference and will be traveling back up to Connecticut thereafter, before I leave to India in August. I hope to visit you this summer, perhaps in July.

Fulbright Award

From August 2013 to December 2014, Andrew researched the Early Press in India and the Bengal Renaissance under a Fulbright Nehru Research Grant in Kolkata and Delhi. Afterwards, in 2015, Andrew traveled to Germany and the UK to complete his research for his book on Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. You can read Andrew’s Statement of Grant Purpose and Personal Statement here.

Media on Andrew’s Fulbright Award:
United States India Education Foundation Fulbright Award Page
University of Rochester Fulbright Award Article
Campus Times Fulbright Award Article
Hartford Courant / Chicago Tribune Fulbright Award Articles

Andrew conducted research at:

High Court of Calcutta
National Library of India
West Bengal State Archives
Kolkata Municipal Corporation
Serampore College
National Archives of India
Nehru Memorial
Supreme Court of India

British Library
University of Cambridge
University of Heidelberg
Franckesche Stiftungen

United States
The Morgan Library

Andrew conducted his Fulbright in affiliation with:

Presidency University, Kolkata
Jadavpur University, Kolkata
Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
University of Rochester

Years ago, while looking for resources in my university’s library stacks, I noticed an unmarked brown covered book, dusty with age and disuse. Inside, I found the Memoirs of William Hickey, lawyer for journalist James Hicky. As a member of England’s upper class in the late 18th century, he represented clients in India, the West Indies, and England, all of which he documented in precise detail. His descriptions of Calcutta struck me, with their colorful characters, complaints of a deleterious climate and entanglements between Indians and British.

Much like a travel guide, he introduced me to the following story of Hicky and his gazette:

On June 16, 1781, an armed gang of Europeans and sepoys (Indian soldiers), surrounded James Hicky’s house, beat down his gate with sledgehammers and overpowered his servants to force their way inside. As curious onlookers gathered, the Europeans and sepoys produced a warrant for his arrest. He was accused of writing “gross libels” against the Calcutta Government in his newspaper, the Bengal Gazette, recognized as the first paper founded in Asia. What followed were years of show trials and punitive sentencing that condemned Hicky to a decade in debtors’ prison and a life as a pauper.

When I read this account, I knew I needed to find out more. What followed has been many years of intensive research as I’vd worked to piece together Hicky’s life. History and journalism share a most integral similarity: they are both about weaving narratives into a story that stimulates, intrigues and captures the mind. It was then I knew I had found a good story.

Hicky’s defense stands out as the media’s first attempt in colonial Calcutta to assert free speech rights. Calcutta’s early wealth of media sources attested to its reputation as India’s intellectual capital. These media were formative for the Bengal Renaissance, a 19th-century social reform movement crucial to developing the concept of India as a nation-state. The Renaissance’s rich cultural and scientific heritage can be seen in the influence of thinkers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. Many early Renaissance leaders, including Raja Ram Mohan Roy, had backgrounds as editors and publishers. Papers, founded at first by Europeans, followed Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, slowly forming a free press in India. Newspapers are important to society due to their ability to expose corruption and guide discourse. They act as strong influencers of public opinion. These early papers, with their expressions of free thought and vigorous debate, are integral to understanding the Bengal Renaissance and contemporary India.

How about that airport now, El Presidente?

How about that airport now, El Presidente?

Update of Life in General

It’s been too long since I’ve written on my blog. I apologize. Too many things, which are not really excuses, have got in the way.

Since I don’t know where else to start, I’m going to bullet point my life for the last few months.

1. I was going to write a blog post on this same topic two weeks ago. As I was hitting post on tumblr, my hard drive crashed, giving me the blue screen of death. I had to get a new hard drive for my laptop, which has convinced me that I need a new computer.

2. At the end of February, I got Typhoid, which effectively knocked me out for a month. It was pretty horrible. Cyclical fevers, once every five days. The fever usually came in the afternoon, on feb 23, 28, and mar 5. Same symptoms each time—fever, weakness, loss of appetite and headache. The first time Probably contracted in Sri Lanka since I left to India on the 24th and had the first symptoms on the 23rd. Luckily I was with a doctor: Sheela’s mother, during all of this, and had good care at he hospital. After the treatment I felt nauseous for weeks.

3. Had food poisoning too, while I had Typoid, from some fruit custard in Hyderabad. Projectile vomit everywhere on the street. Luckily, I had just got off the back of the policeman’s motorcycle from whom I had been hitching a ride (hitchhiking is accepted as a form of transport in India).

4. In the meantime, I’ve been back at work at Borderlands, which is incredibly ineffectual. Something new is always going wrong with the company and the office. For instance, yesterday we ran out of drinking water, which baffles me. How do you run out of water in an office? The water company refuses to come and give us water. Our phone lines also don’t work, and each telephone company says its the other company’s fault so we go in circles going nowhere. Additionally, we apparently had a server at one point, but that no longer works—it would have been helpful to have a server to share files. The managing director of the company is constantly distracted or never in the office. Nevertheless, we have new webdesigners so we will hopefully have a new website! (If our managing director’s design sense from the 1980s doesn’t get in the way of it.)

5. I GOT A FULBRIGHT! … to research the Early Press in India and the Bengal Renaissance! I’m incredibly thrilled. I have a pre-departure orientation in June (12-16th) in D.C. and I leave for Calcutta in late July/early August. My grant will last for at least 9 months, and I am awaiting news on a Critical Language Enhancement Award, which will allow me to study Bangla for an additional three months in Kolkata. In total, my grant will last from August 2013 – August 2014. Fulbright will be the culmination of my research at the British Library and at Rochester into British Colonial Newspapers.

6. Fulbright U.S. State department is paying for my flight back to the US from Sri Lanka. Hell yeah!

7. My friends are still getting harassed. The latest involves our teacher friends in Matara, as well as some Jesuit priest trainee who thinks it is acceptable to text one my friends love messages and threaten suicide if she doesn’t love him back, and to do so despite repeatedly being told to BACK off.

8. End of May I’m done with Borderlands. YES!

9. Travel & plans. Sheela and I have been doing more traveling. We went down the Matara again to visit J and A, and we went up to Negobo where we had an aborted plan to rent a scooter. Negombo is a hell hole. Avoid at all costs. We also traveled to Trnco and spent an enjoyable weekend with lots of friends at S and S’s place. Snorkeling among the coral and fish at pidgeon island is something I’m not likely to forget—especially the sunburns. The bus ride on the way back was unreal—elephants munching on greens on the side of the road at dusk. Great stuff. This weekend Sheela and I (likely also a few friends) will be visiting K in Mediwachiya. We’ll likely also travel to Mullativu, where the war ended. While I don’t condone war tourism, I do think visiting this area will give me a different sense of life in Sri Lanka and is important to better understand Sri Lanka. Week after that, we plan on going to Jaffna, the Tamil cultural hub of the north. In June, when N comes we’ll be going to Ella and Sigiriya.

10. There’s much much more. But I’ll reserve all for new blog posts. In the meantime, I’ll be praying for cold and monsoons.

May Day Manipulation

Today I passed a banner printed in stark black and red on a white background. On the poster were the words in the succession: NGO, UNP, JVP, LTTE.

It didn’t take knowledge of Sinhala to know what the sign said. The sign’s writing equated foreign non governmental organization, the opposition party, the UNP, to two militarist organizations: the JVP, a violent marxist rebellion in the 1980s that the military brutally repressed, and the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

The banner was a stark reminder that I live in a country with family despotism masquerading as a democracy. By El Presidente’s right, he has achieved what no other South Asian political dynasty has achieved: total control. The government of this “socialist republic” sponsored these rallies as part of a patriotic-nationalist movement centered around the Sinhala majority and xenophobia of others: Muslims, Tamils, Foreigners included.

The signs next to them featured massive heads of MR (El Presidente).

Next to the banner were crowds in blue shirts preparing a May Day march.

NGOs are seen as a foreign institutions encroaching Sri Lankan autonomoy. You can see the hostility. In fact, we have witnessed it first hand with certain ministers, for instance, forbidding research if it might involve an NGO..

You can see it in the crowds wearing blue shirts chanting Sinhala nationalist slogans walking down the street.

You can see it in the ministers that make our friends’ lives difficult.

You can see it in the harassment we encounter daily, even from the most powerful and dangerous in society.

You can hear it in the stories of severed heads floating down rivers and bags of body organs landing on beaches.

But, you don’t need to see the hostility to feel it.

Still in Shock

Still can’t believe that I got Fulbright and will be spending 10 months – 1 year in Kolkata! Who’d have thunk that I’d be paid to conduct my own research in an independent setting. Awesome!

My Day From Hell

Background: One of our managing director’s friends is coming to visit Sri Lanka. He’s dumping a load of much needed money for B—-s, which will help pay for a new boat (and also which will be paid into our managing director’s personal account). We had been going back and forth arranging a hotel for whale watching in the south, at Weligama for weeks.

Saturday, Feb 16, our managing director’s friend emails us, says one of his friends (hereafter referred to as “client”) is traveling to Sri Lanka, and “Can we come up with an inexpensive plan for him from for Feb 22 – 27?  Ideally he could do 2 days at B—-s and some other cultural stuff that isn’t too costly.” our managing director says yes we can.

Our Sales and Marketing manager and I go about making an itinerary. Finally, on Monday we reach an agreement with our managing director’s friend. I send the invoices out. Yesterday (Thursday) our managing director’s friend’s payment has still not arrived. Without payment, I can’t make travel arrangements. I email our managing director’s friend a reminder—he pays it promptly. I rush to make arrangements. With our Sales and Marketing manager’s incredibly helpful contacts (Thanks!), we get a hotel (G—-a) booked, a driver, and time at B—-s. We call the driver, I—-a to come in to the office later that day. our managing director gives him a briefing and they sign an agreement that the driver will take the client from Feb 22-27, and will have everything paid for except meals.

6:50am. I—-a calls me to say he cannot find our client at the airport.

7:02am. I—-a calls me again, says he found our client. Starts driving the five hours to Dambulla to see ancient cave sculptures.

I feel sick. Bike to work, no breakfast.

11am I—-a calls me asks for G—-a Hotel’s contact info.

I—-a calls again, tells me that G—-a hotel had made our booking for next month, and has no rooms.

I call G—-a in a panic, explaining that our client is coming in an hour. I email booking made clearly for this month. Ask, what can we do?.

Hotel rep says if we make payment immediately, we might be able to get a room.

I call our managing director.

He says we can make visa payment immediately.

I call G—-a.

They say they cannot accept credit cards. Cash only, and they can only accommodate our client for 1 night, not 3.

I call I—-a. Ask if he knows any other hotels.

He suggests K—-a Hotel, says a friend runs it.

Fourth time on toilet today. Food poisoning? Queasy and nauseous.

I talk to our managing director, saying we have an alternate hotel. What to do?

our managing director says go for it.

I call I—-a. Ask for contact details of hotel / bank details.

He gives me his details, saying we can pay him—it’s easier.

I ask our managing director if this is ok.

our managing director says get hotel’s bank details instead.

I call I—-a. Ask again for hotel’s contact details.

I—-a gives me contact details

I call K—-a hotel. Get bank details. Price drops by $20 per night from previous quote.

I call G—-a hotel. No answer. Write them an email saying we’ve cancelled.

I create a “payment voucher” for K—-a hotel for three nights.

Everything seems sorted!

I—-a calls me. Tells me that the client does not want to do our itinerary. Has seen “too many Buddhas.”

I put I—-a on the phone with our managing director, let them figure things out. 2:00pm Haven’t eaten anything yet today. No breakfast. Go to kade to get a parotha.

Feel sick after parotha. Come back. our managing director is on phone with client. We (mostly him) rush to make a new plan. Client is to spend 1 night at K—-a hotel, then go to B—-s Camp.

Our managing director changes his mind, wants to know if I—-a is ok with taking client on a safari tonight. I point out that the Safari is likely to be more expensive, we will need to ask our driver to pay the cost for our client, who says he has no money—not good business practice to ask a driver to front money.

I call I—-a, ask if it is ok.

I—-a says ok. We can pay him at trip’s conclusion.

Now the plan is the client will go to Safari tonight, spend one night at K—-a Hotel, then drive tomorrow to B—-s and stay 4 nights.

I ask our accountant if she made payment to K—-a hotel for 3 nights, as per the prior invoice. Thank god she hasn’t! I amend invoice for our accountant for K—-a Hotel, 1 night only now. Everything seems sorted!

Our managing director asks if we can ask our driver if he is ok finishing his job tomorrow after dropping our client at B—-s. We have already made a contract saying his employment is for another five days—so I’m not sure how ethical this is.

I call I—-a if this is ok. Thank god, again, he says this is ok. He will quote a new price tomorrow.

Left unresolved:

  • What will happen to I—-a’s payment?

  • Without a driver, how will our client make it to Whale Watching after our B—-s camp? our managing director left this one vague, saying he could meet our client halfway in Colombo and drive the rest of the way. I leave unsaid that this means our client will have to take a bus to Colombo. (Oh heavens no!). Figure our managing director has it covered.

End. Now I have to write an article for a magazine. My last day before vacation to India!

To The Breakers

One of my favorite things in Colombo is to walk out the half block to the ocean, sit or stand upon the rocks that act as breakers, and view the sunset, made all the more vibrant beautiful by those pollution particles in the air. The sun drops from the sky in a matter of minutes, turning a bright day into night without second thought.

On the rocks, facing due West, is to the right the harbor of Colombo. In the distance you can see the line of ships making their way to the port, lights flickering in the distance, just above to blue horizon. To the left is a small military installment (a shack, really) and beyond that, Wellawatte beach—the haunt of umbrella couples: young couples illicitly kissing or just sitting underneath an umbrella, often, I’ve read, too poor for anything else.

Every hour or so, a train rickets by, blowing its horn loudly to announce its passage.I’m also under the suspicion that these breakers are where people go to light up, which would explain the smoke that certainly does not smell like cigarettes.

From the balcony where I sit typing this message, I see the ocean and all of the apartment blocks of Colombo to my right (north), their tropical tin, clay or, concrete roofs, as resplendent as the blue sea. Life is easy, the breeze is nice—but damn, as soon as you’re in the sun—murderously hot.

Business in Sri Lanka

I think I get it. Or, at least I’m done fighting.

I’ve moved on to a mix of passive resistance and giving up. Two stories to elucidate my point:

Story One

Since I arrived at this company, I’ve been working on the website, along with our web designer. Events have not moved as fast as I would like. Content wise, most of the core element are near completion, but in terms of design it’s a ways off.

For the last three weeks, we’ve been unable to FTP to our new site. For the last three weeks, we’ve been constantly frustrated and working at 1/10 our efficiency, and we’d even sent in over five different requests for support to our webhost, none of which were answered.

I had just made plans to go to the webhost’s office in person, when a coworker asked, “Have you been trying to change the password for cpanel?”

Yes, I explained. I had been trying to figure out which email we had our login information under, so I could go to our webhost in person and explain our problem. We hadn’t been able to FTP for weeks.

The problem was that our webhost had changed our password for FTP weeks ago. Our webhost had only emailed my coworker the new password. But, my coworker explained, “I can’t give the password to you, because, you understand, we can’t give it to everyone in the office,” he said patronizingly.

“I don’t need it, but our web designer needs it. Why didn’t you email it to her when you got the email? We haven’t been able to do anything for weeks!”

“Well, now you have it,” he said.

No admission of sorry, no, “I didn’t realize that not having this information would make your life harder.” My blood was boiling, and I left the office. To my coworker’s credit, he had gotten married. However, he had been in the office when he received the email and is in a management position here.

There are a couple things wrong with the above.

First, my coworker did not forward the crucial email for our jobs, even though we were working on the website and likely knew we needed the new password.

Second, the webhost, when we sent in help tickets, ignored all of them, and instead called my coworker only, not informing of us any of the details.

Story Two

Last week, we needed a poster made for the office, to give to a school group. I had designed the poster, and finished it on Tuesday. I gave the poster to my coworker (a different one than above) and told him we needed it printed urgently.

I asked him on Wednesday how the printing was going. He said he would do it Thursday.

I asked him on Thursday how the printing was going. I got a response indicating he was working on it.

I asked him on Friday if he had printed it. He said that he hadn’t been able to print it for the past week because it was too pixilated. Why didn’t you tell me it was too pixilated? I could have fixed it! If I had known that the image was too pixilated, I could have immediately avoided all the problems and wasted time. But culture here dictates that you cannot disappoint someone asking for help. For instance, if you ask for directions and someone doesn’t know, they’ll just point you in a random direction, rather than saying the don’t know.

We needed it delivered later the same day! quickly remade the poster and gave it back to him. He said he thought it was ok if he could print it on Saturday. I said, “no.” I need it now, we need to deliver it to the school by 4pm!

He went to go eat lunch.

He came back and I told him we needed it now, or, “my head was off.”

In order to help a “machan” (brother) out, he drove to the printing office. But, then called me and told me he forgot the file.

I emailed it to him.

He then called and said he couldn’t reach the phone number of the schoolmaster we were delivering it to and had forgotten the backup number.

I texted him the backup number, and cycled off to the school, where I waited for him to deliver the poster.

I called and asked where he was. He said he was lost. 5:30 he showed up, quite the sight on his scooter with a life size poster between his legs


(Saying the word, “hurry” is a criminal offense.)

Today in the life of…

I went on a walk today, which is a totally normal event in the ccourse of my life. I rather like walks. They’re pleasant after the end of a long day.

My walks must also be pleasant to a significant portion of Colombo’s male population. Six people said hi (not all were in a strange manner), a couple young men gave a few strange leers, and groups of teens made lewd sucking sounds with their mouths or shouts to get my attention..

Someone once said (I think this was about Sri Lankan men that they grew up and live in a family. Then comes that awkward age between puberty and marriage. In this time they have the internet, and of course, time to harass people. In all, I’m a bit perplexed. I think I’m about to begin a spreadsheet documenting all the strange attention I receive.

Luckily no one said “Wowwww!” this time.

El Presidente’s visit

El Presidente is going to Trinco (a Tamil city in the North) this weekend to celebrate Tropico’s National Day. This is to celebrate Tropico’s nationhood, (by the way, the four year anniversary of the end of Tropico’s brutal 30 year civil war is coming up in May). Not all might be thrilled at the prospect of celebrating Nation Day, especially the Tamils, the community from whom Tamil Tigers (LTTE) drew its supporters. The LTTE were notoriously anti Tropico-nation.

El Presidente is busing supporters for his weekend to Trinco. Sean reports that he’s never seen so many Klingon speakers in Trinco. Trinco is a city with mostly Tamil residents, who due to some, you might say, questionable human rights policies during the war and thereafter, may not be the biggest fans of El Presidente.

Moreoever, El Presidente’s upcoming visit to Trinco means that the city’s infrastructure is getting a much needed boost. Hey, at least they’re paving the roads now. Now, about that harbor…

(Using acronyms to CMA [cover my ass])

Mail and 11 Things

1. Sheela and I made a list of all the people we should mail post cards to a couple days ago. I think my count was 90 people. Time to start. 

2. It’s hot. Hot, humid, sunny. 90+ deg. 85% + humidity. Every day. I would like a day of snow, please.

3. I learned to never but grease on a bike chain. Yesterday, the derailleur on my bike bent like a piece of licorice. Apparently, I was the laughing stock of the bike shop yesterday. which is a little difficult if the bike shops don’t sell chain oil. So I’ve ended up trying to decide whether to use diesel engine oil or coconut oil. 

4. Serious about doing research into preventing death/aging. Living forever would make things much easier.

5. Work is certainly relaxed. I think one of the employees comes in only once a week though he is full time. Island life…

6. My favorite cheap restaurant is called “Muslim Hotel” Fantastic curries

7. I will never understand huge portions of rice here, proportion to curries. So much rice, so little curry! I do my best to befuddle Sri Lankans by never taking rice with my dishes.

8. I recommend never shipping anything valuable to Sri Lanka. You have to go to the main post office to receive your packages. Customs will open your mail in front of you, and charge you incredible rates for importing goods, esp technology. Also potentially humiliating depending on what you have shipped to you.

9. Long live El Presidente. Ahem.

10. So very excited that I have been recommended for a Fulbright research grant to India. Cannot wait until April when I should hear back if I become a Fulbright Researher. Arghhhhhhhhhhhh!

11. Sri Lanka is incredibly diverse. Where else in the world can you go to a British Hill Station, enjoy great tea and 40 deg weather at 6 deg north of the Equator while being only 5 hours away from Colombo and the Coast? Or see the beautiful beaches of the South, the Dutch Forts, the national parks and elephants, the stunning ancient cities with the Buddha carvings, stone buildings and massive stupas and the intriguing north, recently over from a devastating 30 year war.

Yogurt like Jello

I had a very strange realization today. Sri Lankan yoghurt reminds me of jello. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s just a little more wobbly than I’m used to.

There’s curd here, as well, which is just buffalo milk that’s been curdled. Curd and treacle (a syrup much like maple syrup) is almost like a national desert.

In news that doesn’t involve gelatin, I’m excited to head up to Trincomalee this weekend to visit Sean and Sarah, where she’s been doing much of her research work and where Sean has been teaching English and being the representative white person in the region.


Got a new bed yesterday. Things are looking up, but can’t get no sheets. I can’t get no sheet-a-faction. Spent all yesterday looking for big sheets.

Off to the tailor to sew two double size sheets into one queen size sheet.

It’s hot here.


The last week I’ve been working truely 9-5 at Borderlands. I got a raise that boosts me up to about $460. The value of two thai migrant laborers is how I prefer to look at it. Depreciation aside, it’s a very good salary for many Sri Lankans, and nothing that I have right to complain about.

But in many ways, it’s still not commensurate with cost of living here or my work. I can make $460 in a week in the US working at a temp job, which is not ideal either. Anyways, that’s not the point of this blog-rant.

Work has been draining. Draining in ways that are wholly unlike the US. I can’t just say print 1 big poster, 10 smaller posters and 1000 flyers to my coworker, a graphic designer. I have to say: Print 1 A1 size poster, 10 A3 posters and 1000 A6 flyers. Then, I have to explain exactly what the sizes are for the A1 etc. Then, I have to specifically label what I want to print. Then that becomes too difficult, the printer doesn’t know the sizes either. There are so many difficulties on each level that working here is incredibly frustrating to my delicate western sensibilities of productivity, initiative and efficiency.

W, our manager was designing posters and splicing video himself because he doesn’t trust our staff to make it. We have a distinct lack of talent for marketing to Western senses. Also, our staff seems to mysteriously disappear for extended periods.

That’s all.

Sadu Sadu Sad!

“Sadu Sadu Sadu Sad!” came the shout.

“Sadu Sadu Sadu Sad!” came the reply.

One group of pilgrims would yell to another, “Sadu Sadu Sad!”

Down the mountain, hundreds of yards, came the distant but clear reply, “Sadu Sadu Sad!”

At 11:30 pm on new years eve we began our ascent of Adam;s Peak, one of the holiest sites on the Island for Buddhists and Christians. At the very peak is a small Buddhist shrine, surrounding a curious rock formation, said by Buddhists to be the footprint of Buddha, or by Christians to be of St. Thomas Aquinas.

At midnight we spotted a tea shop near the base of the mountain, had cups of hot tea to steel us for the chilly climb ahead, and cheered the new years with strangers, and the vendor.

As our van winded its way through bumpy mountain roads, in Sri Lanka’s rumpled heart, we caught glimpses of stunning views in the deep dark. Nearly four hours into our journey, turning a corner, we saw Adam’s peak for the first time. The trail of maybe 5000 steps that leads it’s way to the Mountain’s peak, is lit brightly against the night sky and looks much like the tip of an ant trail winding its way across your apartment wall.

Seven kilometers later and a couple thousand feet difference in elevation, we completed our trek. At the base, the climate is warm and temperate, and remains that way until near the very top, where you feel warm (mostly from your own expenditure of energy climbing). But at the very top, after your heart rate slows, the windchill makes itself known. If you’re like me, and hiked in a bathing suit, you soon realize how dumb of an idea that was. With three and a half hours to sunrise, we huddled together at the top for warmth.

Sheela and I decided to go a third of the way down the mountain, including the most difficult final stages to grab a bottle of water and a cup of tea from one the last, highest up the mountain refreshment station.

We returned with half and hour to spare before the sunrise. Our legs were certainly numb. When the sunrises, Adam’s peak’s shadow often forms a a second faux peak, which quickly moves across the horizon as the sun continues its ascent. Unfortunately, we did not see the faux peak, but the view was stunning, and you can see, I think, all the way to near the coast of the Island, including all of the central mountainous zones.

After staying at the top for the better time of an hour after daybreak, we made our way back down. The innumerable stairs are not pleasant for the knees, so we ran down. I recommend climbing during the daytime. It’s warmer. There are less people, and you’ll get great views both on the way up and way down.

Makebelieve in Nowhere

(City in the jungle.)

We went off in search of Mahinda Rajapaksa TeleCinema Park, Sri Lanka’s new big 250 acre location designed to draw filmmakers the world over to shoot in Sri Lanka.

Great idea, right? Innovative—driving economic development through film, right? The downside?

It’s empty.

Entirely empty.

In the middle of the jungle. This Telecinema complex is 20 miles from the nearest town of 2,000 people, as about as far as you can get from Colombo. The biggest “city” in the region is Hambantota, pop. 11,000.

Named, like everything else here, after the Rajapaksa family, the family that essentially runs Sri Lanka’s. Mahinda, it’s benefactor and creator is also the President, probably for life. (He’s eliminated term limits).

But the Rajapaksa vision can be a bit interesting. The President’s hometown of Hambantota has now been turned into Sri Lanka’s largest construction site. The region is literally ablaze with new monstrous building sticking out of the jungle. What was once a little town where the shops closed at sundown will, for no other apparent reason than it being the President’s hometown, be the ill thought out center of what I call “Rajapaksa Dream Land.

The cineplex has a mock town and a city (front of buildings only), a lake and a studio. Renting out the city or village is something to the tune of Rs. 5000 per day, and the studio I think is Rs. 10,000 per day. So, between $40-80 a day. Quite the steal.

But who the hell would literally go out to the middle of nowhere to get their films/commercials etc filmed? Turns out. No one, really.

To date, only one international film has filmed here.

How has business been, I asked our tour guide. With a shrug and a shy laugh, she responded “It’s…ok”

The project comes at the immense cost of Rs. 1.5 billion of which Rs. 750 million has already been invested, funded almost entirely by the country’s very high import taxes on movies and DVD sales here.

With Chinese support, labor and loans, the president is constructing a harbor designed to fit the world’s largest ships. The downside? The harbor is not deep enough and will need to be constantly dredged at extreme cost. It also ignores the fantastic deep water port of Trincomalee, a majority Tamil city.

He is constructing an international airport. The downside? It’s in a jungle in the middle of nowhere. Literally. Just google map “Hambantota International Airport”

Which is where the nation’s second airline, Mihin Lanka, a Rajapaksa pet project will be based out of. The downside? Mihin Lanka has been losing hundreds of millions of rupees a year.

The list goes on. It seems that Hambantota will be the next capital city of the country at this rate. It is the focus of pretty much every major development project in Sri Lanka.

Building a cineplex here makes just about as a building an international airport, or an internationally sized cricket stadium, in the middle of the jungle, which is exactly what the Rajapaksa family has done.

It’s shocking that I see such little resistance and opposition to these delusional dreams. The ‘whys’ of that is a blog for another time.

Beautiful Skin at the Gym

“You have such beautiful skin.”

Why, because my skin is white?, I think.

I had just taken off my shirt in the changing room. My extreme farmers tan contrasted heavily with my otherwise near translucent whiteness.

“No, my skin is awful. I get burned. I can get skin cancer very easily”

“But it is such beautiful skin,” said the trainer at the gym again.

At least, I can say, after I put my shirt back on, that his line of questioning is not creepy like it could be. It’s just a statement of fact. Much better than my Indian stalker at the gym at U. Hyderabad two years ago, who insisted on visiting my hostel. I obliged, and when I told him I would see him later and that I was going to take a shower, to which he said “Oh, you have nice body.”

That was awkward, and also vaguely creepy.

This was different, like he was just informing me of something that might be important to know.

Tuk tuk Driver Ramzan

He never foresaw himself driving a tuk tuk.

Three years ago his business crashed. He was working in importing, with a small retail shop. “And I lost everything,” he says.

Now, he has turned to driving a tuk tuk for his livelihood, which he says he can make up to 3000 lkr a day on. At about $23 a day, that’s a handsome salary. (And coincidentally, about twice what I make). Petrol, however, eats up a significant portion of his income.

“But I don’t have much time” to be a driver, he says, “I need to study.” He began his career as a government servant, and then moved into business. Now, he’s getting a certificate to be a manager in the tourism industry from a Canadian institution.

Tuk tuk drivers are an interesting sort of people, if I can be allowed to stereotype   them. T-shirt wearing, little to no English skills, and quite a bit of paan chewing. It’s a low skill and very cutthroat job. Competition is fierce, and sometimes violent. We’ve been in tuk tuks where drivers have had public spats with others. (In one instance, our driver attempted to intimidate another tuk tuk driver off the road, and then stepped out of his tuk tuk in what could have easily become a brawl with the other driver, as our tuk tuk kept rolling.)

Ramzan is different. His appearance is put together. He wears slacks, a button down, and a watch. He carries a nice phone and his facial hair is cropped nicely into the many scruff you see many fashion models sporting. What really sticks out is his command of English—which the first time S and I rode with him, he said was “poor.” I beg to differ—the English when he next is exquisite, none of the hi, how ru” stuff.

In other news, our refrigerator is broken and repairmen came today to fix it. This is a task that Ramzan, in another life, could have done. Seeking to add another string to his bow, he said he once got a certificate in refrigeration repair. “I know the theory, but can’t do that practice.”

On a metaphysical level, the routes in which our actions in circumstances take us in life are interesting. What’s the difference between a refrigeration repairman, government servant, tuk tuk driver and a successful businessman?

In the future, he hopes to open a business in Dubai, in the tourism sector. I wish him all the best.

Christmas in Colombo

Incessant Christmas music and santa hats abound in this rather tropical climate. Christmas comes early in Sri Lanka, and in full force.

But people are in decreasing numbers Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and then Christian.

So, why all the cheer?

(Please make it stop. It makes me uncomfortable.)

Everything is Christmas. In every mall, in many work places, in every grocery store, in cafes. Hop in to Java cafe, and they’re playing Christmas music. Want to go to a mall? Christmas music. Need groceries? You’re store clerk is wearing a santa hat. There’s even a store on Duplication road devoted entirely to selling Christmas paraphernalia.

Religion plays an interesting role in this country. You’ll see on buses a image on Jesus adjacent to one of Buddha, or a line of Hindu gods and goddesses, all brightly lit. Tri-shaws/tuk tuks are equally multi-religious. There may be strong overtones of Buddhist/Singhala militant nationalism, but it certainly doesn’t preclude the adoption and integration of other religions into the mix—even if they are only idols and partially understood holidays.

Now, all we need is snow.

Sri Lankan Work Style

Work, what is that? 

It’s lunch time now in the office and the workers are settling down to chow into some rice packets. I think this is their second lunch. There’s certainly plenty of web browsing and facebook checking and smiles and giggling. The whole office is now looking at something funny on someone’s computer. My desk in the center of the office, so I get to observe all the action. Normal office culture.

*Begin Rant*

Yesterday the managing director came in a berated one of the Sri Lankan employees for not initiating a bank transfer. Apparently it was something that had been sitting around for a while, and the managing director had promised it to his colleague. All the Sri Lankan needed to do was was get the director’s signature, something he had not done.

As we have learned with Lanka Bell, things operate on their own time here, irrespective of the wishes of foreigners. Western notions of urgency certainly don’t apply, not that that comes as a surprise. It’s certainly something that I’m used to given past experiences in Africa and India, where, for instance, I’ve been on trains over 8 hours late.

What is frustrating is the uniquely Sri Lankan promise of a service which is not delivered, repeatedly. We get it that things are slow, but promises that are not kept are eminently frustrating. When we remind them that they promised us something, we usually get another promise that we know can’t be true. An, “ok ok” with a glazed over look rather than a “Sorry, I’ll get it you later.” Continual promises, four or five times over, none of which are kept. In the case of internet, someone has to stay home, just in case they do arrive.

The surprising next thing is that when they arrive *ahem Lanka Bell* they call us five times within a few minutes. Yes, you don’t reply for days that turn into weeks and drag your feet, and then for the 15 minutes we’re not around, everything becomes incredibly urgent.

Rant over.

Adam’s Bridge with the SLN

The waves were choppy, and as our skiff was rocked roughly by them, the crew member operating the motor yelled in Sinhala to his captain that we had a bit of problem. Sheela had her eyes firmly shut in an intense I-will-not-vomit-concentration on our return trip from Adam’s Bridge, the 36km wide chain of shoals, islands and sandbanks that connects India to Sri Lanka. Faring better, I turned back to examine the problem, which was that we were taking on water.

The plug in the back of the boat had popped out (in this case, a crudely fashion cylindrical piece of wood). We weren’t exactly in danger of sinking, but I gathered from their conversation that the building water levels could swamp the lowly placed motor (this 40hp motor used a kerosene and petrol mix). Small skiffs have a plug that fits into the rear of the boat, which makes for a convenient way to drain water from them. As you increase the boat speed, the front end will rise off the water and any water in the boat will drain from the back. Eventually, at higher speeds, the boat will “plane” and become level again.

The captain asked me for a handkerchief to plug the hole, which I didn’t have, so he whipped out a pocket knife and started whittling away at the plug. Crisis averted.

Until 1984, there was a ferry that operated between the two countries, and for a few months in 2011, it reopened. Now, the Sri Lankan Navy offers tours of Adam’s Bridge going out 10km from their base in Talaimannar to the second island from the Lankan side. On clear days you can see India. The sailors were a good natured bunch and tld us in 2015 the ferry should resume.

The islands are beautiful, and it took us about 1hr to get to the second one. They are desolate, white, treeless and you really feel like you’re at the end of the world: the type of place that someone more spiritual than I would say they could “find themselves.” Enough with waxing poetic, I’d say the spiritual seeker would die of thirst. Some good photos later, and with Sheela impressing the Sri Lankan Navy seamen by spelling her name in Sinhala in the sand, we returned.

Traveler’s reports and lonely planet are sorely wrong on the details of the tour. You DO NOT get lunch, or water, and it DOES NOT cost 600lkr per person. The tours are priced instead by boat, at 3600lkr per boat. I had a bit of fun in helping them push the skiffs out to sea before we got on them. See, I can join the armed forces too!

The Road to Mannar / Vavunia!

The road to Mannar Island, the A14, is supremely different than it likely was five years ago, and will be unrecognizable in five more years. Every fifty meters lies the remains of a Sri Lankan Army post. These posts, placed at such intervals, and the road they are on, acted as the line that kept the LTTE out. The road is undergoing incredible construction. Now it is a black tar road just wide enough for two buses to fit by each other. In five years it will be an American-like highway, with a wide median—wide enough that I saw someone house and farmland in between the sides.

We took this road out from the border city of Vavuniya on Saturday. A bit about Vavuniya: It is a majority tamil city with not a whole heck of a lot to see, but there is something peculiar about it, besides from being the last city on the way to the former border. Just about 3km to the east of the city is a Buddhist monument famous for holding Buddha’s “sacred tooth” sometime around the 4th century CE on it’s way from India to Sri Lanka. The city also has a neat mosque, but that’s about it. Oh, the cargills had some interesting beer, including an Irish Dark Red Stout, which I’m curious to try.

Our hotel, shall we say, had some character. The toilet (which unintentionally auto-drained) flushed only under the condition that you fill a bucket of water and poured it into the tank. Hot water existed only in the afternoon, presumably when the sun had heated the water up. Sorry, no “hot rod” here! There was no shower head, just a pipe. The room had three beds of varying sizes, all in different stages of destruction. The pillows smelt of must and dirt, the type that your grandmother has at her house that haven’t been washed in 10 years. The fan had two settings: decapitation speed and off. Most of strange of all was the entrance: the hotel was buried at the back of a narrow alley way. Other than that, it was a great place designed more for Sri Lankans than tourists.

Why did we choose it? It was the only place open at 6am. Good business policy. The other hotels should think of opening when the night train gets in. For 1500, LKR, I suppose we can’t complain.

Mannar Island is something else. It has a big Baobab tree, planted by Arabs in the 15th century and a whole ton of DONKEYS. The island was heavily fought over, all muslims and sinhalese at one point were evicted by the LTTE, and is still dotted with mines and the usual detritus of war. We left early morning from Vavuniya, barely catching the first bus out on Saturday 6am. Buses out here are not numbered, so don’t even try to make sense of them—you just have to ask people, and ask and ask and ask—until you find someone who knows what they’re talking about and when the bus will actually depart. Immediately after arriving in Mannar we went to Talaimannar.