Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Islander and India

Last time I wrote, I was preparing to visit the Islander Center, which turned out to be an excellent trip. I went there expecting to focus on environmental conservation projects and the impact of the center on the landscape, but the highlight of my time there was learning about the center's residential leadership program for rural Sri Lankan youth. Youth from all parts of the country come together for three months to learn organic farming, business management, nonviolent communication, and other leadership skills while designing projects to address livelihood issues in their home communities. Every morning and evening, I worked in the garden with the students, and I participated in their nightly program of sharing songs, stories, dances, and games with each other. Occasionally, I would join them during their free time to play volleyball or cricket, two sports that they all have considerably more experience with than I do. Although conversations were hard, especially with those who come from Tamil-speaking parts of the country, I loved spending time with and getting to know these people, and I, as a foreigner, was incredibly popular among them.

Watering the garden
Carrying tools back after gardening
More recently, I just returned from a short trip to South India. Last week, was the Fulbright mid-year review conference for South and Central Asia in Chennai. It was really fun to meet Fulbrighters from other countries and hear about what they’ve been working on. I even enjoyed giving a short presentation on what I’ve done so far. After the conference, a few of us headed down the coast to spend several days in Pondicherry, an old French colonial town, where we explored the city, saw some South Indian beaches, and celebrated Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, during which people throw and smear paint on each other. We also visited the ancient city of Mahabalipuram with its rock carvings and temples.

Holi in Pondicherry
Sarah and me at Mahabalipuram

I’m back in Kandy now, and it feels good to be home. I’m spending the next few weeks writing up what I’ve done so far and making plans for the next stages of my research.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Farm Visits

Monsoon season is over, which means I was able to return to the Sinharaja Rainforest to try to do some more research. Of course, even when it’s not monsoon season, the Sinharaja is still a rainforest and precipitation is not uncommon, but the afternoon showers (downpours) were refreshing and cooled everything down quite nicely. (You may notice that I seem to mention the weather fairly often in this blog, which I think is because I’m starting to miss winter. I realize that it’s been unusually cold at home and that many of you who are reading this probably wish you were living on a tropical island, but as someone who has always lived in New England, I appreciate winter and to not have any snow or ice this year is weird and a little bit sad. It’s a struggle to even keep ice in our freezer because we lose power every so often and end up with puddles in the refrigerator.)

During my nine days in the Sinharaja region, I split my time between Nilmini Estates in Morawaka and small tea and mixed crop gardens in Deniyaya, a town close to one of the official entrances to the protected rainforest. I visited many farms, spoke to farmers and villagers, and spent a day hiking in the jungle. I learned about organic tea production, about the work being done to convert smallholder tea fields to organic, and about the flora and fauna of Sinharaja. I also learned that traveling by myself can be very lonely but also rewarding. I enjoyed spending time and staying with people in these rural villages, even if I sometimes felt isolated and a bit out of place. I was also very glad that I had spent some of my time over these past few months improving my Sinhala.

Madushani and Nadeeka, two of the office workers at Nilmini
who spent a lot of time showing me around the estate
Heading back to work in the Nilmini
factory after taking a tea break

A waterfall in the Sinharaja

These fish, endemic to Sinharaja, are known for "massaging" (i.e. nibbling on) people's feet. It's a very strange sensation to have 10-15 fish tickling each foot as you stand in the stream.

My forest department guide, who led me around the
rainforest, showing me a snake (apparently not poisonous).
I’ve also been getting involved with a new organic certification program organized by the Good Market, the large farmers’ market in Colombo. It’s called a participatory guarantee system (PGS), and the idea is that volunteers visit farms around the country and evaluate their practices to determine if they are actually growing food organically. It does not give farmers international certification, but it provides consumers with some reassurance that their produce is organic and eliminates many of the costs farmers have to pay to get export level certification. So far, I’ve been on two trips, one to organic tea farms near Deniyaya and one to small home gardens in the Anuradhapura District in the dry zone. Although I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of work and wasn’t able to contribute very much, I’ve loved seeing the farms and learning from the more experienced evaluators.

Kelsi, another Fulbrighter who's been helping out with the PGS visits, talks to a farmer in his tea field in Deniyaya

Evaluating home gardens in Anuradhapura

Next week, I’m heading back up to Anuradhapura to spend some time at the Sevalanka Islander Center, an organic farm, sustainable development training facility, and retreat center run by the national NGO, Sevalanka. Hopefully, this will be another enjoyable and productive journey!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Small Adventures

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here. I wish I could say that that’s because I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to write anything. Sadly, it’s the exact opposite. There really isn’t that much to report on. My day to day life isn’t all that thrilling, and although I’ve had a few small adventures, as far the research goes, things are moving pretty slowly. I plan on returning to Nilmini Estates soon. Other than that, I have a lot of contacts who have agreed to help me, but nothing has materialized yet.

Here are some pictures of everything I’ve been doing when I’m not trying to figure out what I am doing and how I am going to do it:

I went to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens with my pen pal, who I first met on the train when I was here in 2011, and her mother:

I’ve been to the Udawatte Kele Sanctuary a couple of times. This is an area of preserved rainforest right on the edge of Kandy and is a great refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city:

Looking out over Kandy Town

Don't worry--the snake was dead when I found it
The first time I went, it had
just rained,which means
theseguys were active

In December, I climbed Sri Pada (Adam’s Peaks) with last semester’s ISLE students. There’s a saying that anyone who doesn’t climb Sri Pada is a fool, but anyone who climbs it more than once is a bigger fool. I guess that makes me a pretty big fool, but at least this time, it wasn’t raining, so we could see the sunrise:

Anna, Alex, and I added some holiday decorations to our apartment:

And made use of them when we looked after the puppy that one of our friends adopted:

 I went whitewater kayaking and rafting with Anna, who is a raft guide:

Shuttling a raft on a three-wheeler

And today, I bought a working blender (in contrast to the broken blender we bought before) and can now make smoothies instead of buying fresh juice every day, which will both save a lot of money and allow for some creative combinations of fruits.

I want to try blending one of these:

It’s a lavalu/egg fruit. It has the consistency of a hard boiled egg yolk and tastes like a very sweet pumpkin or yam. You never know what new fruits you’ll find at the market…

Thursday, November 28, 2013

It's Called the Rainforest for a Reason

Last week, I had an excellent three-day visit to the Nilmini Tea Estate, an organic and labor friendly estate next to the Sinharaja Rainforest. In addition to tea, the estate grows spices and has a small paddy field, a vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. Needless to say, I ate very well while I was there, and, of course, drank an unbelievable amount of tea. I got a tour of the estate and tea factory from some of the workers who live in the nearby village, and although my tour guides deemed me unfit to walk in some of the more forested areas, it was still enjoyable.

The northeast monsoon is late this year, so although it should be over by now, this is actually one of the rainiest times, and it rained every afternoon that I was at Sinharaja. Within the course of about one hour, the weather would change from hot and sunny to overcast to a light drizzle to rain so loud that carrying out a conversation was a challenge (as if speaking in a foreign language isn’t hard enough). The owner explained to me that every day the rain starts earlier and ends later until eventually it doesn’t stop for about two weeks. Of course, the rain brings with it one of my least favorite animals (see my post from October 26, 2011), and as the owner of the estate asked me within a few hours of my arrival, “What’s a rainforest without leeches?” At least I’m starting to get used to them and am getting much better at flicking them off of my legs.
Nilmini Estate. The blue building in the background is the tea factory and the tea is growing in the shade of the fruit trees.

I’ll be returning to Nilmini in January, once the monsoon is over, for a longer visit and to see some of the surrounding villages with their home gardens and other nearby tea producers. In the meantime, I’m trying to improve my Sinhala and Tamil to better communicate with everyone at the estate, who with a few exceptions speaks almost no English. I’m also still working on finding one or two other sites that I might be able to compare to Sinharaja.

This past weekend, Anna and I went to Horton Plains National Park to go hiking. Our plan was to take the train to Ohiya, find a place to spend the night, walk the 11 km along the road to the park entrance, hike the 9 km loop past World’s End look out and Baker’s Falls in the park, and continue walking down the road to the train station in Pattipola, also about 11 km from the entrance. We got off the train at Ohiya just as it was starting to rain and saw a sign for a guesthouse, so we started walking down the road. We quickly realized that Ohiya is not actually a town but is really just a road with a train station. We ran into a couple walking the other direction who told us they were spending the night at a small guesthouse next to the train station. We continued walking but eventually decided to return to the train station where we learned that Ohiya consists of more than we had originally thought—there is also one house that has a small store, a restaurant, and a few rooms for rent. It was a very enjoyable night with homemade rice and curry and a friendly Sri Lankan family wanting us to stay for the month and teach their children English.

We got an early start the next morning, as we knew we had a lot of walking ahead of us. The one trishaw driver in town wanted to give us a ride to the park entrance, but we chose to walk and were rewarded with some incredible views. 

Our guesthouse with the town trishaw out front

Ohiya train statin

The entire town of Ohiya with the station on the right and the guesthouse/store/restaurant on the left

Some deer in Horton Plains

Baker's Falls

The view along the road connecting Ohiya and Pattipola

Sri Lankan Thanksgiving: curried macaroni and cheese, cucumber and tomato salad, pumpkin (more like squash) pie, and coconut/pumpkin/pear sauce

Thursday, October 31, 2013

My Month in Colombo

I’ve finally started to make some progress figuring out the details of where I will be and what I will be doing for my research project, which is good considering the fact that my month in Colombo is coming to an end. I plan to start by studying land use around the Sinharaja Rainforest, the largest remaining tract of rainforest in Sri Lanka. My main contact in Sri Lanka has offered to put me in touch with an economist who owns an organic tea estate close to Sinharaja and is working to make tea production sustainable and compatible with conservation of the rainforest. I hope to learn about what he is doing and how other people are managing land in this area. I’ll see where the research takes me, but right now, I’m thinking I then may want to do a comparative study looking at land use around a different protected area somewhere else in the country.

In addition to this preliminary research, I’ve had some time to get to know Colombo, and despite my initial dislike of this city, I’ve had an enjoyable month. All of us Fulbrighters went to a reception at the Fulbright Commission early in October, where we met some Sri Lankans about our age, who have been showing us around the city and even spent a weekend with us in Mirisa on the southern coast. Even though Mirisa is on a protected inlet, I was reminded of just how rough the Indian Ocean is, as the waves pushed me over, and I swallowed large amounts of sea water.

Last week Anna, Kelsi, and I started going to a fitness class that happens in the evenings in a park in Colombo (being outside is nice, but the heat and humidity make excessive physical activity challenging even after dark). Coincidentally, the leaders of the class are coaches at the Colombo Rowing Club, which was very exciting for Anna and me, both former rowers. They invited us to a regatta last weekend, and we even got to row in a double this morning!

Other highlights include the Good Market, a weekly market with fresh produce, crafts, and food from all parts of the world. It’s great to be able to buy a falafel sandwich, frozen yogurt, and coconut roti with lunu miris (chilies and onions) all at the same place.  Continuing on the food theme, fresh fruit juice has become a staple of my diet. I particularly enjoy the papaya, passion fruit, avocado, and wood apple juices. For those of you who don’t know what a wood apple is, check out this website: and here’s a picture: Don’t let the picture fool you, it’s actually quite delicious, and the health benefits are pretty impressive.

This is the house I've been living in for the past month


Some beach pictures.

Walking down the streets of Colombo

Oktoberfest in Colombo (don't be fooled by the German outfits--they're actually British)

Anna and me on the bus. We were lucky to get a seat--sometimes on buses and trains, there's barely room to stand.

The regatta between Royal and St. Thomas High Schools at the Colombo Rowing Club

Saturday, October 5, 2013

I'm Back

I finished my last post (written almost 2 years ago) by explaining the meaning of “gihin ennan,” literally translated as, “I will go and come,” and used as the Sinhala expression for good bye. When I left Sri Lanka after spending four months here with the ISLE Program, I longed to come back, a dream that at first seemed impossible in the short term, then slowly began to feel attainable as I put together my Fulbright application last fall, and ultimately became a reality after I heard last spring that I had received a student research Fulbright to model land use in the Sri Lankan hills and study the environmental impacts of upcountry agriculture on the country’s water resources. I spent the following six months going back and forth between excitement and nervousness as I finalized my travel plans.

I arrived here early Sunday morning after a long journey with two other Fulbrighters, Alex, who was here with me in 2011, and Hunter. I’m staying in Colombo for one month, taking language classes with some of the other Fulbrighters and preparing for my research. We took a trip to Kandy earlier in the week, where I got to visit my host family and the ISLE Center and was reminded of how much I loved being in this country. Now that I’m back in Colombo, I’m anxious to return to Kandy, where it is noticeably cooler, I am familiar with the city, and there are people I want to visit.

Now that our orientation is over, I'm starting to make plans for my research.  I’ve realized that, given my experience and language skills and the challenges of traveling in this country, the project I designed last fall will be nearly impossible. I have yet to figure out exactly what I will be doing, but I’m reaching out to my contacts here and hope that soon I will at least know how to start my research. In the meantime, I will continue to read and think about sustainable agriculture in Sri Lanka as I recover from my jetlag and culture shock.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Gihin Ennan

The two weeks spent in Sri Lanka traveling with my family were unbelievably different from my previous four months there. We were traveling on the same windy roads, so it still took a long time to get anywhere, and, like before, it was impossible to know what to expect when we arrived at a new place, but it was amazing for me to realize how much easier it is to be a tourist than to live there. However, this may also have something to do with the fact that I could rely on other people (i.e. my parents) to make all the plans.
We started our vacation at the beach in Tangalle (disappointingly not as nice as the beaches I had been to in Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna), then made our way up into the hill country. Not realizing what we were getting in to, we took a slight detour up an incredibly narrow, winding road to a tiny guesthouse next to Bambarakanda Falls, the tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka, where, despite the rainy weather, we went hiking. I remembered the lesson from Hantana and wore close-toed shoes, but still the leeches managed to find their way onto my ankles and legs.

Bambarakanda Falls

Saying good bye to my family in Nuwara Eliya

After a couple days in the small village of Ella, we visited the family I stayed with in Nuwara Eliya and then made our way to Kandy. We saw some Kandyan dance shows, visited the Maligava (Temple of the Tooth), and walked up the hill to the large Buddha statue overlooking the city. What is more memorable than this sight-seeing, however, was Christmas Eve dinner at the Queen’s Hotel, complete with food ranging from rice and curry to sushi to roast turkey to a “U. log” for dessert, a dancing Santa Clause who handed out candy bars, a live band playing a 20 minute version of Jingle Bells, and center pieces that burst into flame at various points throughout the evening. It was a Christmas like no other.
For me, the most meaningful part of the visit to Kandy was saying good-bye to the people I had met there. I visited the ISLE Center, one of my professors, and finally my host family. As I’ve said before, nothing is easy in Sri Lanka, but these farewells, particularly to my host family, were some of the hardest parts of the semester, and were definitely the saddest.
Here I am with some (not all) of my host family and American family

After leaving Kandy, we went up to the Cultural Triangle to see the ruins at Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and Dambulla. We also spent a day at the Beach in Trincomalee (much less developed than the beaches in the south) and saw several herds of elephants by the side of the road—an incredible sight!
Wild elephants!

I got home a few days ago and am already Sri Lanka sick and miss my host family (parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and everyone else) a lot. In the end, they really felt like my family. In Sinhala, there is no word for “good-bye.” Instead people say, “Gihin ennan,” which means, “I will go and come,” implying that the good-bye is not forever. My time in Sri Lanka is over for now, but I hope that someday I will be able to go back and visit. Gihin ennan.