Friday, December 16, 2011

Stairs and Sarees

It’s over. The ISLE Program has officially ended. I’ll admit, the first few weeks here dragged on FOREVER, but for the most part, the past 16 weeks have flown by. Turning in my independent study was a strange feeling—my obligations were finished, but the fun was not.
Wednesday night, I set out for Sree Pada/Adam’s Peak with Alex, Erica, and Malik. Although this is not the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka, it is the highest point in its immediate vicinity, making it seem huge. At the top, a depression in the rock is said to be the footprint of the Buddha. There is now a temple constructed around the footprint (entirely obstructing it from view), and thousands of pilgrims climb the mountain to worship. We left at night, so we could reach the top for sunrise. We started walking at 12:30, following the path marked by prayer flags and lit up by streetlights. The hike is essentially four miles of stairs, very steep stairs in some parts. It was definitely challenging and hard to believe that pilgrims of all ages make this journey. The fact that we were doing this in the middle night, having gotten no sleep, did not make it easier, but we made it to the top, where it was cold and windy, at around 4:30 with one and a half hours to kill before sunrise. We put on all of our layers and huddled together inside the temple to try and stay warm and get some rest while pilgrims prayed all around us and other tourists milled around. Unfortunately, it was cloudy so we couldn’t see the sunrise, but there were still some incredible views. The hike down, although not as challenging as the hike up, was still difficult and reached the van, exhausted and sore.
Adam's Peak

Malik, Erica, and Alex getting ready to climb the steps

Watching the sky get light

Walking down from Adam's Peak

The day was not over for us yet though. Yesterday afternoon was the final tea, where we all got dressed up in sarees and came to the ISLE Center with our families to drink tea, eat cake, take pictures, and say goodbye.
In my saree with my amma and appacci

Somehow the four of us who had climbed Adam's Peak managed to stay awake for the tea

Although most people are going home today, I’m sticking around for a couple more weeks. My parents are arriving this afternoon, and I’m going to Colombo to meet them and see Sri Lanka as a tourist.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Research in Nuwara Eliya

I’m back in Kandy now, after spending 11 days in Nuwara Eliya, learning about land use in the area. The first week was great. I got out almost every day to interview fruit and vegetable farmers, researchers, or home gardeners. The second week, although still interesting, was not as enjoyable as it started raining on Sunday and still had not stopped when I left this morning, 7 days later. I used to laugh at Sri Lankans who complain about Nuwara Eliya being cold, but I understand now. The first week, when it was sunny, I got cold in the evenings and ended up sleeping in the fleece jacket I bought on my second day there. The second week, I was always cold, day and night. It makes me worry about what’s going to happen when I return to Massachusetts and then Maine in January.
One thing that I loved about this past week and a half is that I got to spend every day going outside into some beautiful place, although I did get a little bit sick of seeing leek and carrot fields. Perhaps what surprised me most during my research is that very few people seemed to think that organic is possible. Everyone wanted to reduce their use chemicals, but even people at the Agricultural Research Station said that without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the farms just won’t be productive.
The most eventful thing that happened to me was having my food stolen by monkeys at Hakgala Botanic Gardens. I was sitting in a small pavilion, eating strawberries, when all of a sudden three monkeys appeared and grabbed the (almost empty) container of berries. They were sitting in the door, seeming to be expecting me to give them more food. Wanting to get out of there before they came after more of my stuff, I climbed over the waist-high wall rather than walk through the doorway guarded by monkeys. Later, they tried to take my mango, and as I was putting a plastic bag, full of trash into my backpack, one grabbed the bag out of my hand and climbed up a tree to share it with the others. I let them keep it and continued walking around the gardens.

Vegetable farms

All of the terraces in the background are vegetables, mostly carrots, leeks, potatoes, beets, and cabbage

The view from Hakgala Botanic Gardens

Old tea plants in Hakgala Botanic Gardens

Ambewela Dairy Farm

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Finishing the Second (and Second to Last) Session

Although the past week has not been the most interesting of weeks, it sure has been busy. Classes for Session 2 ended on November 4, and then we had a week for exams, papers, and final projects, while also preparing for independent study. I spent the week reading, writing, photographing plants for a botany project, and attempting to study for my history exam. Needless to say, it’s hard to study for an exam, which requires two detailed essays, for a class that covered 450 years of history in 5 weeks and has no reading list. It was slightly reassuring, though, when the professor’s assistant told us that the professor knows how to deal with students like us (i.e. Americans). I was able to take plenty of study breaks, however, to play hide and seek, run and catch (aka tag), and Carrom with my mallis and nangiis. We also had our dancing and drumming concert on Friday. We definitely made a fair number of mistakes during the performance, but it wasn’t a disaster, which means it exceeded my expectations.

After unsuccessfully searching the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens for a breadfruit tree (needed a picture for my botany project), I discovered that there was one in my backyard.

Practicing Dance in the Hall

Nervously awaiting the start of our performance

I’m now in Nuwara Eliya, getting ready to start research for my independent study. I’m going to be studying the environmental impacts of agriculture in the Nuwara Eliya District, and starting tomorrow I’ll be going out into the fields with officers from the Agricultural Research Station here to talk to farmers about their use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and erosion control. I’ll be staying here for 2-3 weeks, living with a very nice family (a grandmother, mother, and two daughters) before returning to Kandy to write my paper.
It’s hard to believe that I only 5 weeks left until the program ends (I’ll be staying in Sri Lanka for an extra 2 weeks, traveling with my family). There are definitely parts of me that are ready to go home, but I know that I’m going to miss being here—I’ve gotten close to my host family (I’m going to miss them just spending 2 weeks in Nuwara Eliya), and Sri Lanka really is a beautiful country—there just isn’t enough time to see everything here.

Some pictures from my home in Kandy:

The orphaned baby squirrels my family is keeping until they are large enough to fend for themselves

Nangii sitting on the porch at Attamma's house

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Weekend Adventures

I’ve really settled into a routine over the past few weeks—class every day, dancing and drumming on Mondays and Wednesdays, batik on Tuesdays, and spending my evenings helping to make dinner, doing homework, and watching TV. I also have been to a nearby orphanage a few times. The kids are all really sweet and eager to play with us. Although I liking having such a clear schedule, it’s nice to spend weekends, seeing different parts of the country.
A couple weeks ago, we went to Hikkaduwa, a small town on the Southwest coast. We spent all day on the beach, swimming, walking, relaxing, and trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid getting sunburned. Coming from New England, I associate oceans with cold water, but the Indian Ocean is different. It felt sort of like swimming in a bathtub with huge waves—not bad if you ask me.
Chelesea and Erica on the beach

Last Friday, we went back to Nuwara Eliya to get a tour of a tea factory.
Drying the tea leaves

Tea and chocolate cake served at the tea factory

On Saturday, I had made plans to go hiking with Alex, Mimi, and Meg at Hantana, a mountain range right next to the University of Peradeniya. Several people mentioned to us that we had to be careful of leeches there, but the past two months have been full of people warning us about perfectly harmless situations that we didn’t think much of it. I wore my sandals, which have been perfectly acceptable for all of the other hikes we’ve done—BIG MISTAKE! Luckily, a couple of Meg’s friends, who are students at the university and had been to Hantana before, came along and brought supplies to remove leeches. The leeches weren’t actually that big, but they were EVERYWHERE. The whole time I was thinking about how we had just learned in my colonial history class that one of the reasons it was so hard for the Europeans to conquer the Kandyan Kingdom is that they kept dying from infected leech wounds. I don’t even know how many I got on my feet, but we pretty quickly decided that hiking through a leech-infested jungle just isn’t very much fun, so we turned around and spent the morning in Kandy Town instead. At least we fared better than the colonists.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elephants and Poya

Saturday, we took a trip to Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Although some of the elephants were born in the orphanage, many were rescued after having been orphaned or injured, often as a result of the war. There’s not a lot to say about the trip except that the elephants were adorable, especially when they were bathing in the river.

Cooling off in the river

Playing on the rocks near the water

Today was a Poya (full moon) day, making it a Buddhist holy day and a public holiday. Although I had class in the afternoon, my morning classes were cancelled. No one else in my family had school or work, so I spent the morning at home with them. In the evening ISLE took us on a fieldtrip to a Buddhist temple, where we lit candles and incense and gave flowers as an offering to the Buddha.
Lighting a candle

To correct my explanation of who I live with, it’s true that my amma’s younger brother and his wife don’t live next door (although their daughter does), but they only live about 45 minutes away. I’m pretty sure that the brother in London is actually a brother-in-law, who is from London but now lives in Sweden with my amma’s sister (his wife), my amma’s daughter, and my amma’s younger brother’s elder daughter.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Breath of Cool Air

When I woke up on Saturday morning, the first thought that popped into my head is that it is not supposed to be so hot in October. It, therefore, seems appropriate that I spent the weekend in the coldest part of the country. Ask any Sri Lankan about Nuwara Eliya and their response will almost definitely involve something about the fact that it is unbearably cold there. My amma reminded me multiple times to bring a sweatshirt and socks and assured me that I could buy a jacket, hat, and scarf there. While it was considerably cooler there, and I did get a little bit cold at night (I had to use the warm blanket that was on my bed!), I didn’t need to buy any of the coats or ear warmers for sale all over the town. Besides, it felt really nice to get out of the heat for a couple days.
We took the observation train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. Despite our second class tickets, we ended up in third class, where there are considerably more people than seats. We had to stand for a little while but eventually were able to sit down. I ended up sitting with a 20-year-old girl, her mother, two of her aunts, and a man traveling alone. They were very excited when they found out that I speak a little bit of Sinhala and were eager to talk to me. Even though we all had trouble understanding at times, it was good practice for me and they were very friendly. They even let me sit by the window, so I could have a good view of the rolling hills, waterfalls, and small villages as we passed by. Like good Sri Lankans, when they bought snacks from the vendors walking up and down the aisles, they demanded that I try everything, despite my claims of “baDa Pirilaa” (“stomach is full”). As we were getting close to Nuwara Eliya, the girl had the idea that we exchange addresses so we can write each other letters, so I now have a Sri Lankan pen-pal!

View out the window of the train

On Sunday, we got up early and went to Horton Plains National Park, where we hiked to Mini World’s End, World’s End, and Baker’s Falls. Rather than trying to describe the incredible beauty, I will just show some pictures.
Sarah and Chelesea as we start out on the hike

The view from World's End

Our feet at the end of the world

Baker's Falls

When I got home on Sunday, my neighborhood was full of armed police officers and soldiers, including one at the bottom of driveway. Even though I knew that the president was coming to Kandy and assumed that this was reason for the security, it was a little bit alarming. When I got to my house, I found out the president wasn’t in Kandy Town, where he usually goes, but was in a house just down the street from mine, speaking to about 1,000 people, including my amma, appaccii, and a couple of my aunts and uncles—no wonder the security was so high in my neighborhood!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Feeling Like Home

It’s finally starting to feel normal to be here. Since returning from the Northern Tour, I haven’t left Kandy, and I’m starting to settle into a routine and learn my way around. As part of my attempt to get to know the city, I’ve been trying to walk as much as possible, instead of relying on tuktuks. I’ve managed to walk home from the ISLE Center and between the ISLE Center and the university by myself and plan on spending some time in Kandy Town soon. I’m also trying to figure out the bus system, which is not easy. The bus barely stops at the bus halts, which means you can’t hesitate when getting on or off, and the doors never close, so to eliminate the risk of falling out, you have to make sure you get pretty far in. I’m also never sure exactly how much it costs to get from one place to another, so I just give the money collector loose change until he looks satisfied and hope I’m not getting ripped off (so far, I haven’t had to pay more than about 15 cents for a ride).
At home, I think I’ve finally figured out who everyone is. In my house, it’s me and my amma and appaccii, who rent out the downstairs to a family with two little boys (ages 7 and 5, I think). In the house in front of mine, live my amma’s mother (my attamma), my amma’s sister, my amma’s older brother, his wife, my amma’s younger brother, his wife (although I think they might just be visiting because I thought my amma said that she only has two brothers and one lives in London), and their 21-year-old daughter, who’s a student at the University of Peradeniya. In the house next to mine, is the son of my amma’s older brother, his wife, and their children (two daughters, Supuni who will be 13 on Monday and Yasasvi who is 4, and one son, Yasas who just turned 7), and they rent out the downstairs of their house to a family with a 4-year-old boy.
However, where someone actually lives isn’t of much consequence during day light hours. At any given time, anyone could be in any of these houses, chatting, cooking, watching TV, or eating, although the main hang out is my attamma’s house, where I spend a lot of time on the porch. My amma’s older brother really likes to ask me about the United States and warn me about Sri Lankan mosquitoes but can be very hard to understand sometimes. A lot of the women also like to talk to/about me.
If I’m not on the porch, I’m usually with the children, who all call me Emma Akki (big sister). Supuni generally doesn’t play with the younger children, so I spend a lot of time talking to her. Even though she’s fluent in English (pretty much everyone is), she’s always willing to speak in Sinhala with me. I still need people to talk slowly, repeat themselves often, and define words I don’t know, but my Sinhala is definitely improving. I can usually understand the basic idea of what’s going on around me and even participate in simple conversations.
With the younger children, playtime is usually very active and consists of some combination of running, biking, and tree-climbing. They’ve tried to teach me some of their games (including cricket) but tend to lose interest before I’ve figured out the rules. For less strenuous activities, we watch TV and play Carrom, which they’re all considerably better at than I am.
Session II started on Monday, which means that now, in addition to Sinhala, I’m taking Tropical Economic Botany and Colonial History of Sri Lanka. We also get to take Kandyan Dance/Drumming  and Batik classes, which I’m really enjoying. Botany seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun, and we’re in the field for one of our two classes every week—today we took a walk through the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. History should also be interesting. Like most classes I’ve taken in college, we’re expected to read at home and then in class, we talk about colonial history. The only catch is, there’s no syllabus. The professor says he doesn’t want to burden us with a reading list. When we asked for some recommendations, he said he couldn’t remember any titles, but there are lots of books in the library. He demands questions of us after every other sentence he says, so we need some background in the colonial history of Sri Lanka, so hopefully I can find some good books. As for tests and papers, he said, “There will be an assignment,” but that there is no reason to talk about it now.
After school, I spend time with my family and do homework (after I have my tea, of course). My little brother put it very well when I came home today, by saying, “You should go up to your house. You put your bag down. You drink tea. You come down to play,” which is exactly what I did. It’s dark by 6:30, so everyone is in their respective houses by that time. In my house, Amma cooks dinner and cleans the kitchen, Appaccii watches TV, and I move around, sometimes doing homework, sometimes helping Amma, and sometimes watching TV with Appaccii. This wouldn’t be my first choice of activities, but it’s the only way I can spend time with Appaccii. He pretty much watches from the moment he gets home until he goes to bed at 8:30 with a short break for dinner, which we don’t eat together (I eat first, then Appacci, then Amma). Amma sometimes tries to get him to help her with something, but he usually manages to sneak away and get back to the TV. Amma also watches a fair amount of TV. She has her two teledramas (one at 8:30 and one at 9:00) that she watches every night after she cleans the kitchen and Appaccii goes to bed. Talking to other ISLE students, it sounds like such teledramas are popular in every Sri Lankan household—some students say that their families eat dinner while watching. I guess it’s how people entertain themselves, since no one goes outside after dark.
This weekend, it’s off to Nuwara Eliya to see the tea plantations and and Horton Plains National Park, including a hike to World’s End. Everyone says it’s incredibly beautiful there…I’ll try to get pictures up early next week.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Northern Tour

I’m back in Kandy after a fun but exhausting week to Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruva. Everyday was spent visiting ruins and museums, and I’m not sure I’ve ever done quite so much sight-seeing in one week. Thankfully, we were given a few hours to rest during the middle of the day when it really was too hot to move. I’m not sure exactly how high the temperature got, but according to the thermometer on my alarm clock, it was about 29-30 degrees in the middle of the night (that would be Celsius. In Fahrenheit, that’s the mid 80s)—not the most comfortable temperatures for sleeping. There were a few days that we were able to swim during our long lunch break, which was very nice. At all of the sites we visited, we had discussions on the historical significance of the site, the current cultural and environmental issues regarding the site, or how ancient culture has influenced the current cultural, social, and political issues in Sri Lanka.
Despite the heat and busy schedule, the trip was very enjoyable. We left on Monday to drive to Anuradhapura, the ancient royal capital of Sri Lanka. We stopped en route at Ibbankatuwa, an Early Iron Age burial site, where I earned myself free ice cream by finding the hidden symbol on one of the gravestones.

Sudharshan, our archaeology professor talking about Ibbankantuwa

The symbol on the gravestone--a square with an antenna

On Monday afternoon, in Anuradhapura, we saw the citadel, Vessagiri, the Sri Maha Bodhi, and Ruwanveliseya. Vessagiri was a very cool place with a bunch of overhanging rocks, under which the forest-dwelling monks of the 3rd century BCE meditated. The Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Tree of Enlightenment, which is said to have come from the Bodhi tree in India under which the Buddha attained enlightenment) and Ruwanveliseya (The Great Stupa) are both very sacred Buddhist sites and were quite magnificent to see. Tuesday, we visited several museums, stupas, and other archaeological sites at Anuradhapura. On Wednesday, we saw Mihintale, a monastic complex at Anuradhapura, which is also the place that Buddhism is said to have first been introduced to Sri Lanka. We first went to a pristine and beautiful meditation center, then drove a short distance to a big rock, which we climbed up for views of the entire city.
In one of the drip ledge caves that protected the monks from rain

Lotus flowers to put on the altar at the Sri Maha Bodhi
The Great Stupa
Our driver, Sumanasena, tries out the bathtub at a monastic hospital

We left Anuradhapura on Thursday and drove to Sigiriya, a palace complex built on top of a huge rock. After visiting the Sigiriya Museum, we climbed and scrambled up Pidurangala Rock, right next to Sigiriya. On Friday we hiked up Sigiriya itself. 
At the top of Pidurangala. Sigiriya is in the background.
Frescoes on the way up Sigiriya

At the top of Sigiriya

All of the hiking and climbing was a lot of fun, but it’s really exhausting in the heat. Coconut water makes everything better though.
Alex with her coconut

On Saturday, we drove a couple hours to Polonnaruva and somehow managed to visit the museum, citadel complex, Sacred Quadrangle, Hindu shrine, monastery, Buddhist shrine, lotus pond, and Potgul Vehara (huge rock carving consisting of a seated, a standing, and a reclining Buddha), spread out all across the city. To use the word of one of my fellow ISLE students, we were all pretty “stupa-fried” by the end, but I learned a lot and enjoyed myself, and Sudarshan, our archaeology professor is a really great teacher.
An ancient toilet in Polonnaruva

The seated Buddha image at the Potgul Verhara

Not only have I been learning about ancient Sri Lankan culture, but I’ve also been participating in several current cultural activities. Last weekend, before leaving for the Northern Tour, I went with my host family to a Buddhist prayer meeting, called a Pirith. There were several monks who led us all in prayer and meditation and, at the end, gave everyone a pirith string, which is tied around the wrist and is supposed to give protection. My family also took me to the homecoming party for the wedding of my amma’s brother’s wife’s sister’s daughter (“close relations,” according to my amma). The homecoming happens several days after the wedding and is basically a catered lunch during which the bride and groom greet all of the guests and get their picture taken with all of their various family members. Although living with a host family is not always easy, it’s definitely giving me good insight into Sri Lankan culture, and Kandy is beginning to feel more and more like home, especially after spending a week on the road.

Friday, September 9, 2011


This week has been full of classes and homework. In addition to Sinhala, we’ve also lectures for Material Culture every day in preparation for the Northern Tour to the archaeological sites of Anuradhapura, Sigiri, and Polannuwura next week. We went to an orphanage on Tuesday and played with the children there for a while, but other than that there hasn’t been a lot of time to see more of Sri Lanka than the ISLE Center and the University of Peradeniya until today. This afternoon, I went with Erica to the Maligawa, the temple that houses the tooth relic of the Buddha. The tooth is kept, hidden from view, in a shrine and is only taken out once every seven years, but the temple itself is also pretty amazing. In addition to being able to see the temple, there are exhibits on how the tooth arrived in Kandy and the damage done to the temple when it was bombed by the LTTE in 1998.
Outside the Temple of the Tooth

Inside the temple

Another room in the temple
The elephant that carried the tooth to the temple

The tooth was carried in this basket

We went out for dinner in Kandy tonight, and as we were leaving the restaurant, we saw a Hindu devotional procession. It’s hard to see in the pictures, but the people are hanging by hooks inserted into their skin. It was a little bit gruesome to see, but supposedly they are in a trance, protected by a god.
The Hindu parade

Kandyan dancers in the Hindu parade

As a culmination to the evening, we went to a Perahera, which is a week-long celebration that takes place everywhere that has, at some point, been the home of the tooth relic. The Kandy perahera happened in August, a week before we arrived, so we had to drive about 30 minutes to Lankatilake. Near the temple, covered in lights, was the parade. There were people carrying torches, riding elephants, playing music, dancing with fire, and doing traditional Kandyan dancing. The whole event was pretty incredible.
This man was dancing with a ring of torches at the Perahera

Posing in front of an elephant

Even the elephants were lit up

Drummers in the Perahera