This is it

The semester is truly coming to an end. We’ve done everything, and now the only thing left to do is say goodbye. I was able to spend my last two weeks in this wonderful country doing some great things, so I have nothing to regret for how I spent these bittersweet last days here.

For one, my independent study project = DONE. My paper was written and my project was presented, meaning I have no more obligatory work for “Education and the Role of Children on Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations” (the title of my project). I don’t think that means I am finished, though. Working on that project was shaping in so many ways that I think it will be impossible just to drop it. Watching the children on the tea plantations learn to respect themselves enough to give themselves an education despite poor circumstances was an invaluable experience and, at the very least, I want to return just to see how those kids turn out.

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The preschoolers on the last day with paper birds I made them

Because we were left with some free time after our projects, I was also able to go to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage one morning which, if you know me at all, actually brought out the five-year-old child inside of me. I absolutely adore elephants and to be able to see, touch, and BOTTLE FEED young elephants actually turned me into a clown, I was so excited. Although I am still a little bitter I did not get to see the sea turtle hatchery on the coast that I was hoping to visit, the elephants came pretty close to making up for it.

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As for my host family, I can’t even begin to describe how much I am going to miss them. They are hilariously wonderful, and I am so lucky that they welcomed me into their home for four months. My host sister and I made a gourmet meal of scrambled eggs and French toast for the family one night, which was kind of an ordeal. In the end, it worked out and I am pretty sure my host parents liked it, but then again they could just be phenomenal liars.

Last Week 001

Our DELICIOUS meal

Giving the dog a bath (hehe)

Giving the dog a bath (hehe)

Writing this post is hard because I don’t even know where to start to wrap up my semester here. Learning to love a culture so utterly different than your own is an invaluable and indescribable experience. I thank everyone who I encountered, regardless of the circumstances, because it all shaped (or will shape) me in some form. It is too weird to think that I am going from this land of Buddhas, elephants, and fruits that I have never heard of to a land of highways, wi-fi, and 2am pizza. Yes, I am excited, but I am also incredibly sad. I know I will return someday, though.

As for my last night in Sri Lanka, I am headed to the Maligawa with my host family. This is the temple that holds the Buddha’s tooth relic, and is probably the most iconic thing in Kandy. How I managed to not go until the very last night is beyond me, but maybe it will be an auspicious ending for my time in Sri Lanka. I will definitely miss it here.

The whole group at the final tea

The whole group at the final tea

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School Photos

Now that I have been more directly involved with the primary and preschools on the plantations, I figured I’d just post some pictures of what I’ve been up to lately. Mostly I just spend my mornings observing regular school days and afternoons with teachers and parents, and I even went to this spectacular Hindu dance performance!

Warleigh Estate Preschool

Preschool girls on a swing

Preschoolers

The littlest preschooler

Warleigh Primary School, Grade 1

Primary School, Grade 2

Primary School, Grade 3

Primary School, Grade 4

Primary School, Grade 5

Going to work

Hindu dance performance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First Week of Independence

Leaving for the independent study was a lot weirder than I expected. We have all been thinking in terms of this project for virtually the entire semester, and we were all psyched to go. But talking to a few of my other friends on the program, we all agreed that it was one, really weird leaving our host families in Kandy and two, unexpectedly lonely. Regardless, I know I am really enjoying the bizarre whirlwind that is an independent research project, and I think everyone else is too!

Our dance performance before we left for our independent studies!

Although I am doing my project on education, I have yet to see a normal school day because of the Diwali festival earlier this week. Diwali is a Hindu celebration and since the area I am in is primarily Hindu (although there is a Church, Mosque, and Buddhist Temple all within a 200 meter radius of my house) the schools were closed for the celebration and the streets were PACKED with frantic shoppers. It was madness, not only were the permanent stores entirely full but there were temporary “shops” and stands popping up everywhere. I didn’t realize how normal the streets of Hatton actually were until all of this was over and cleaned up. This festival apparently is pretty notorious for the amount of alcohol consumed, and so one of the programs PREDO was advocating for was to celebrate without liquor. Their hopes were that this extra money would go towards educational funding in the form of books and other materials. I helped a children’s club in Kottiyagalla (an estate in the area) hand out cards with this message on it and made live announcements via loudspeaker to the towns of Maskeliya and Hatton to help convey this message. It was really refreshing to see how enthusiastic the members of PREDO were when it came to this campaign!

Some children presenting a card advocating for a “Diwali sans Liquor”

The “line houses” where the plantation workers live

The whole group!

Making a live announcement, eeek!

Another day I went to an awards ceremony in Kotogala. The ceremony was a celebration for children on the plantation who scored high on their national exams, such as the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam. I was expecting a nice, organized, quiet award ceremony for this but when we arrived we were given a special welcome and seats of honor were reserved up front for us (myself and the head field coordinator of PREDO). They actually asked me to sign some certificates as “Chief Guest” and I presented some awards to the students. Before we left, they also gave me a small trophy, which I was not expecting at all. It was just a trophy for community service, and I think they were giving them out at random to people who they thought deserved a gift, but it still was entirely unexpected. Overall, the ceremony was very loud and chaotic, with everyone squished into this small shed-type building. It was adorable, though, when they had the preschool children dressed in traditional clothing doing Hindu dances. Some just stood there and some cried, but some were actually impressively good dancers with rhythm and even a little bit of sass. It was really great to see a community so invested into honoring the educational achievements of students and others involved.

On Monday I begin my work in the actual schools, which I am really looking forward too! Only four more weeks in Sri Lanka, ah!!

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Wrapping it Up

This past week or so has been incredibly busy with activities closing the second session of the program. Field trips, final exams, papers, and independent study prep has basically consumed me, but it’s pretty wild because on Friday I leave for my independent study, the final portion of the ISLE program… The semester is flying by!

Our last field trip as a group was a short “southern tour,” visiting areas such as Kataragama and Galle near the southern coast of Sri Lanka. We were exposed, for some of us the first time, to various Hindu traditions on this trip, which was awesome. At one temple we visited we all performed a coconut-cracking ritual where we smashed a coconut with a small burning flame onto a stone slate on the ground. It is meant to represent a “vow,” or possibly a prayer that if your coconut breaks, it should come true. We also visited the Kirinda Temple on the ocean, which has an interesting mythological context. Apparently, a queen named Viharamadevi landed here on a boat after her father sent her to sea as an offering to the gods. It was a really beautiful temple, and the first sight of the ocean! The southern tour’s final visit was to Galle where we learned a bit about the island’s colonial history, and could see the remnants of European influence in the buildings and road structure. We even had an afternoon to ourselves on the trip as we relaxed on the beautiful beaches of Unawatuna!

A Veddha man, one of the indigenous people of Sri Lanka

A Hindu Temple

Kirinda Temple

 

 

Later during the week we visited an Ayurvedic hospital just outside of Kandy, focusing on herbal and ritual healing. It was really fascinating seeing this perspective on medicine, since I have always been all about popping in an advil or tums with every little pain or ache I have. The Ayurvedic tradition puts more value on natural healing elements along with ritual tradition for healing,  sometimes proven to be more successful than Western medicine for certain people. We saw one man being treated for headaches, lying on his back with oil dripping over his head and another man massaging his scalp. Not sure if it’s something I’d like all over my head, but I’d try it!

The next few days are devoted to final exams, papers, and presentations, and a dance/drumming performance on Thursday. Some of the students took an optional dance or drumming class (I took dance) and have the opportunity to strut our stuff for the other students, staff, and host families. I’m a little nervous for this, not going to lie, but am really looking forward to trying to dance!

The day following the performance the students all disperse for their independent studies, and we really are going to every corner of the island. Some are going to Colombo, some to the east coast, others to the southern coast, one to Anuradhapura, some in Nuwara Eliya, and even a few in Jaffna. For a month we will be researching our respective topics, and I know everyone is really excited to get started. I will be going to Hatton, a town in the Nuwara Eliya district, to study the value of education and the role of children in the communities who live on the tea plantations. These people are mostly Indian Tamils who live on a very small income, so I am interested to see how education is perceived within the community. I will be working with PREDO, Plantation Rural Education Development Organization, to talk with people and work in schools while I am there. Can’t wait to get started!!

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Nuwara Eliya and Nilambe

Last weekend we piled into the vans and made our way through the mountains to the “roof of Sri Lanka” : Nuwara Eliya. Known as “Little England,” this part of the country is virtually a different world compared to the other parts I’ve seen of Sri Lanka. The cooler climate and green, lush landscape really was like England, but the hills dotted with small colorful houses with clotheslines and sporadic tea pickers added the essential Sri Lankan element. This area is famous for its tea plantations, formerly owned by British companies during the colonial era, spanning over the vast, rolling landscape. Later in the day we visited the tea factory of Labookellie to see just how extensive the export of tea was in this area. It really is the heart and soul of the economy in Nuwara Eliya, as well as the society and culture.

Hills full of tea!

My favorite part was learning about the Indian Tamil community that works on the plantations as tea pickers. During the colonial era, their ancestors were actually brought from Southern India to work on the plantations because willingness to work as a tea picker was so scarce within the country. It was considered very low-status, and thus laborers were difficult to come across. The Indian Tamils continue to be the primary workers on the estates, not really associated with the Jaffna Tamils up north or the Sinhalese majority, which ethnically isolates them to a certain degree. Although the conditions they live in are largely regarded as “godak duppat” (very poor) the community was very welcoming during the brief period we had to visit them. If all goes according to plan, I will actually work with this community at a school to study the education on tea plantations for my independent study.

Some families who work on the tea plantations

The next day at Nuwara Eliya was devoted more to the environmental beauty and biodiversity of the area with a hike at Horton Plains. Even the drive there was breathtaking, with a quick detour due to a herd of cows taking up the entire road. I started off the day by actually being cold, despite the fleece I was wearing. It was really bizarre going from constantly sweating due to the heat and humidity to requesting an extra blanket at my hotel, but I loved it. On our hike we saw Baker’s Falls, a large waterfall, and World’s End which is supposed to be an amazing view of the area and the remnants of the colonial charm of Nuwara Eliya. Unfortunately for us, we were in the middle of a cloud and literally could only see white at World’s End. It actually was pretty hilarious, how anti-climactic it was. It is really stunning, though, how you can actually watch the clouds creep around a neighboring hill and literally engulf you. Lucky for us, the cloud vanished a bit for us to get a short glimpse of the view.

The “Cloud Forest” in Nuwara Eliya

On Sunday, after returning from Nuwara Eliya, we went to Nilambe Meditation Center for our Buddhism class. The actual center is literally on the top of a mountain, so it was a little frightening as our dilapidated van chugged its way up the narrow roads. When it finally made it to the top, the views were gorgeous! The actual meditation was limited, since most of us are beginners, and was led by a Buddhist monk originally from Holland. It was really interesting talking with someone who was so spiritually invested in Theravada Buddhism from Europe, since he was not brought up in that religious context. The perspective he gave on certain meditative values was very insightful and I appreciated the different angle he took to explaining things. Although I was pretty awful at the actual meditation and kept squirming around, I really enjoyed the experience. After we meditated, some of us went on a short hike. I did not come prepared with the proper footwear and had my fair share of leeches, which was disgusting, but otherwise thought the hike was awesome. One meal and one torrential downpour later, we made our way back to Kandy. Tomorrow we’re headed to Galle and the southern coast, and I can’t wait to see the ocean!

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Weekend in Colombo

I have realized this past week or so that I’ve reached a crucial point in my time in Sri Lanka where I am really getting a sense of life here, both good and bad. When at home preparing for my semester, it was close to impossible to think beyond the peraheras, dancing, crafts, and other cultural gems highlighted in travel brochures. Now that I’ve spent almost seven weeks in Sri Lanka, I’m starting to get a sense of Sri Lanka beyond this layer. In the way it’s like the icing on the cake, the part that is most visible yet hardly makes up the bulk of the substance. The “icing” activities have been absolutely wonderful, but I have also been to funerals, chased a cockroach out of my room with a broom, got ripped off countless of times by tuk-tuk drivers and market salespeople, road crowded buses much too close for comfort, put up with the obnoxious and excessive cat calling, and much more. It doesn’t take away from my time in Sri Lanka, but it definitely adds a three dimensional perspective to the country. I have also met successful independent women, made friends with kids walking to school, got praise from strangers impressed with my Sinhala, and other little positive things that add to this third dimension, so it’s not necessarily negative. It’s just a stage that I am going through post-culture shock, which is cool to think about. I have been here long enough that I no longer feel like an alien dropped down on Earth, but rather am seeing more and more snippets of true Sri Lankan life!

Last weekend I visited Kurunegala with my host family to visit my host mother’s sisters and their families, which was so much fun. They all live in this village and are really close, so it was so nice to experience their hospitality. They all have little fluffy dogs like the one my host family has, so it was funny to see four of those little guys running around. One of my host sister’s cousins has a little baby girl who was absolutely adorable, but the second she saw me she burst into tears she was so terrified. My host mom explained that it was probably because of my skin color, which is kind of a bummer because she was so cute and all I wanted was for her to like me! By the end of the trip I think she was warming up to me and I’m pretty sure I even got a smile out of her. Overall it was a really fun day with a LOT of great food!

And yesterday and I ran my first half marathon in Colombo! It was definitely an experience. My friends and I took the 6:15 AM train from Kandy to Colombo on Saturday, tuk-tuked around to our various destinations, picked up my running number, and then crashed in our hotel rooms. Or I did at least, drinking a tambili watura (king coconut water) and watching an entire disc of Scrubs episodes was a perfect pre-race routine. My friend Sam, who ran the full marathon, and I even found a place to eat some pasta the night before! I actually ended up liking Colombo a lot more than I expected I would because it was not nearly as congested and/or dirty as I expected. Some parts actually reminded me of Boston, which was totally bizarre and out of my element in Sri Lanka.

The actual race went off at 6am, meaning that I had to wake up at 4:45am to get ready and get over to the starting line. It was still pitch black when I woke up but I was psyched to get going. Sam and I walked downstairs of our hotel, ready to grab a tuk tuk, when we realized that our tiny hotel staff actually left for the night and locked the door, so we were locked in. We actually had to ninja our way out of the hotel, climbing off of my balcony, over a fence, onto a concrete platform, then finally a defying jump down to the parking lot just to get to the street. It was pretty ridiculous, but funny to laugh about on our way to the starting line. Everyone in the race was really nice and friendly, so the experience was outstanding. The roads weren’t entirely closed off, so there were times when I was literally running next to buses and pedestrians, but I finished in one piece so I can’t complain! The entire weekend gave me a new sense of self accomplishment mostly because I was able to figure out bus and tuk-tuk situations on my own, and my friends and I got to and from Colombo with much ease. Not to mention running 13.1 miles ended up being a breeze, so sometime in the near future I’d like to train for a full marathon!

Me with my numbers the night before!

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Everyday Nonsense

This past week, relatively uneventful due to the exams and papers coming with the end of session 1, made me realize that I have yet to really talk about what I do or see day to day. It’s funny actually, because it is during the everyday experiences when I often feel the most connected to Sri Lanka. I could do without the occasional cockroach in the bathroom, endless amounts of ants, and geckos that scurry up and down my bedroom walls, but I’m even getting used to those things as time goes on.

I start my days by walking to class at 7:30 AM, about a 10 minute walk from my house up and down the rolling hills of the Kandy area. My amma, or host mom, is wonderful because she makes me a packed lunch of rice and curry everyday. The walk is pretty uneventful, mostly just filled with strangers passing by and buses taking up the entire narrow road. If I haven’t already mentioned the amount of stray dogs in the area, it is absurd. I have been getting better at ignoring them, but lately there have been these two adorable puppies in my area that melt my heart every time I see them. The roads in Sri Lanka are also interesting because even though there are buses and tuk-tuks flying around every corner, there are also random cows that roam around and eat the grass. I see one almost every morning.

Neighborhood Cow

The class portion of the program has been interesting so far, in terms of both material and classroom expectations. The amount of work hasn’t even come close to the amount I have back home, but the time slots we have to get it done are very limited. Plus, just adjusting to this new life is enough of a learning experience in itself that it is often difficult to also invest yourself into the school work. The frustrations regarding this, and anything else, are just part of the experience though, and are often easy to shake off. For me, all it really takes is a good run. Luckily I have been able to run almost everyday! I have actually done all my running at a gym near my house (definitely not what I expected) except for one run at the Botanical Garden, which was beautiful and filled with monkeys. Sometimes running on the roads can be dangerous because of the buses and dogs, so it is a very convenient option that the gym is about a 10 minute walk from my house.

My favorite time of day is going home to my host family. They are so unbelievably nice and  really are the core of why I love the people and culture here so much. The evenings are pretty simple, mostly just hanging around the house and talking, but still so enjoyable. Lately my host mom and sister have been finding random clothes around the house for me try on, my favorite night being when we put on saris. They were beautiful and I definitely want to buy some as gifts to bring home! My family also has these TV dramas that they watch every night, my favorite being an old Japanese show from the 80s called Oshin that is voiced over in Sinhala. I still have no idea what is going on, but I am determined to find an English version. My host dad and I bond over the fact that we both like Oshin, and we have even rehearsed how to give and receive tea in a Japanese style. It’s pretty funny, especially since I really have no idea what I’m doing.

Behind my house!

Banana tree in my backyard

Although this week did not have many excursions, we did have a few. For one, we visited the ICES center which is where our classes in session 2 will be held (starting on Monday). We also visited a Woman’s Development Center in a village just beyond Kandy that caters women who suffered from abuse, and often from incest. It was really powerful hearing the stories and the mission of the center, and I’m glad there is such an organization for the women who fall victims to gender related violence. Yesterday we also visited this home that had the most beautiful collection of art that I have ever seen. Various individuals stopped by to read to us their poetry or prose, show us tapes of their music, or talk about paintings and sculptures. It was really wonderful way to kind of get a crash course on modern Sri Lankan art! Unfortunately, our final excursion of the week was cancelled due to the anti-American riots among Muslims throughout the world in response to the video made in California depicting the prophet Muhammad very unfavorably. We were supposed to visit Puttalam, a town on the west coast of Sri Lanka, to learn about the communities there who were forced to leave their homes in the north during the civil war. These communities are Muslim, though, and there have been some riots in the area lately, making it unsafe for us as Americans to visit. Hopefully we’ll be able to reschedule it at another time!

Next week is the beginning of session 2, which is already hard to believe. I will be taking Sinhala, Buddhism, and Sri Lankan Politics as my core classes with dancing and Tamil as extra electives. Definitely looking forward to a fresh schedule!

A playground that I pass on my way to class every morning

A small shop across the street from the playground

 

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