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

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Nangiis, Malliis, and Rice

I moved in with my host family on Wednesday, and it’s been really nice to be able to unpack and get settled in one place. I thought I was just going to be living with my Amma and Appaccii (mother and father). They are the only ones who live in the same house as I do, but there is extended family and friends in all of the neighboring houses. Except for the fact that everyone has to be in their house by the time it gets dark, the children really are like my malliis (little brothers) and nangiis (little sisters), and they all call me Akkaa (big sister).
Because we only had class in the morning today, I got home in the early afternoon and had a lot of time to play with the kids. We ran around outside, played tag, rode bikes in the driveway, and climbed trees to pick (and eat) rambutans. All together, there were the three cousins who live next door, the two Indian boys who live downstairs from me, and several other children that I don’t know how I’m supposedly related to. I love that there are so many kids to play with and help me with my Sinhala.
One thing I’m learning about Sri Lankan culture is that offering food to friends and family is very important. At every meal and between meals, my Amma tries to get me to eat more. Whenever I end up at one of the neighbors’ houses, I am always offered tea, usually with a snack as well. Fruit and cookies are popular, breakfast is papaya and toast with jam, and lunch and dinner are generally rice and curry (more rice than curry). I managed to convince my Amma that two scoops of rice, rather than three, is enough for my lunch. Tonight my appaccii gave me an avocado to eat with honey. It was definitely different from what I’m used to but not bad. The avocadoes here are about twice the size of the ones in the United States and are very creamy—luckily he only gave me half of one to eat.
Tonight, a new couple came around to all of the houses. I didn’t quite understand the tradition, but from what I could gather, when a couple gets married, they go around to all of the houses to bring a gift and show respect for the family. In turn, the family is expected to offer the couple something to eat. When news got around that a new couple was coming, all of the ammas rushed inside to quickly make something for them. My amma made soup, and we all sat in the living room as the new couple ate. I sat there, very confused and not understanding a word of what was being said.
Other than playing with children and trying to politely refuse large amounts of food, I’ve also had Sinhala class every day and have been getting to know Kandy. Several times this week, I’ve walked into town with some other ISLE students. The city is very busy and crowded, and walking around can be overwhelming and exhausting. It’s a pretty long walk from the ISLE Center or the University to the downtown area, so we often take one of the three-wheeled taxis (sometimes called took-tooks) back. This is also how I get to and from school every day.
Tomorrow is our first unscheduled day since arriving in Sri Lanka. I’ll probably end up doing something with my host family and will hopefully be able to get some rest after a very busy week.