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.