Don’t Turn Your Back To’m!

One day last week we were visiting a town called Dambulla where there are ancient Buddhist cave temples. This site is quite amazing and a major tourist stop.  You have to hike up a relatively steep rock to get to the actual temples. On our way up we came across a vendor selling what I felt were some pretty interesting items.  I planned to  stop by on our way back down.

We got a tour of the temples which we’re really interesting. There’s nothing like these in the U.S.

On our way back down we stop at the vendor to take a closer look and do a little bargaining. After about 5 minutes we come to an agreement on the first item, and the vendor wraps it in newspaper print, puts it in a small plastic bag and gives it to me. We’re then bargaining on the second item, and I turn the other way to show my supposed lack of interest.

All of the sudden something hits in the chest, and Sheeni and Dharshi (our friends and hosts) scream! I thought someone tried to steal the gift I’d purchased, but then I looked down.  I’d been accosted by a monkey! He apparently thought that I had some type of food in the bag, jumped up and tried to nab it.

First of all, many of you may already know, I don’t like monkeys. They are evil little things and if you ask me not to be trusted. Don’t turn your back to a monkey! Ever since seeing those darn flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, monkeys and I don’t mix. So who gets jumped on by a monkey? Me!


Dambulla Monkey


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My Kingdom for an Umbrella

When I think of umbrellas I generally think of England with its cold and wet weather, the illustrious English gent carrying one to ward off not only rain but the occasional villain as well.  The most famous example being from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade  in which Sean Connery saves the day by opening his umbrella and scaring a large herd of birds that cause the evil Nazi pilot to crash.  Extreme- I think not, my trip to Sri Lanka has taught me the very importance of an umbrella.

Being so close to the equator, the umbrella is more than likely used to ward off the penetrating rays of the sun.  Ladies carry them like parasols, their varied colors bobbing up in down as they pass along the streets.  Sri Lankans shun the sun with good reason, their skin color is such as I would like to attain by a week or so at the beach, so there is little purpose in subjecting themselves to the dangerous and scalding rays.  As I sit in the open, the umbrella women look at me as though I am crazy wondering why anyone would subject herself to such torture.

Suddenly there is a rain shower as is common in a tropical climate.  Immediately people scurry but those with umbrellas bravely shuffle on, protected from the rain by the handy umbrella.  The rain feels good it breaks the sweat on my skin, but as I am the only one standing in it- I succumb to peer pressure and run under an overhang.

Now I come to my favorite use of the umbrella.  In such a crowded country private space can be hard to find, particularly for young Sri Lankan lovers. Using the umbrella as a sort of makeshift wall- Sri Lankan couples court each other behind the privacy of the umbrella.  I see many, many of these couples as I walk allow the Fort at Galle, I try not to look- to offer them their privacy but I must say I find it terribly romantic.  In this conservative and densely populated community, finding quality time together is of the essence and the young people of Sri Lanka have found a way to make the ultimate British accessory- the umbrella- uniquely Sri Lankan.


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Return of the Muturs

IMGA0213IMGA0220IMGA0218There are so many stories to tell from this last week of travel. Some amusing and others heartbreaking. I feel the need to start with the most serious events of the week which consist of separate visits to a pair of very unfortunate communities. This is a report on one of these sites.

The morning after our homestays in Trincomalee on the east coast of the island (which Meg will report on later) the group met at the Trinco port to board a ferry bound for a sandy village called Mutur about an hour away. When we arrived there was quite a long line of people buying tickets and even more masses already huddled at the gate hoping to enter the controlled area and board the relatively small ferry. Our influential host of day was able to get our tickets and jump everyone else in line into the secure area and ultimately on to the boat. I wish I had a visual of the scene, but photos are strictly prohibited at security checkpoints. We were obviously glad to be able to go on this trip and thankful to our gracious host, but once again the rules obviously don’t apply to everyone in the same way.

The village of Mutur and the surrounding communities are on the other side of the bay. It would take about 3 1/2 hours to drive there or a 45 minute boat ride. Our ferry was packed and there were very few if any non-locals on board, and westerners visiting the area are practically unheard of.

Upon our arrival at the Mutur dock once we cleared security we were greeted by a wall of posters of the president which is obviously meant to intimidate. The majority of those living in the area are Tamils.

We’re transported through a number of small communities to a primary school that has been damaged by the most recent battles. We got out of the van and walked through the school yard. There are no doors or glass windows at the school. The roof in a couple of places has been severely damaged by mortar fire, the playground equipment is decrepit and generally falling apart though a few children were still managing to play on them. School isn’t typically in session this time of year, but there is one class of children around 7 years old being taught so we went over for a closer look.

Typically Sri Lankan school children wear astonishingly white uniforms, but this obviously was not an option for these students. These children and practically everyone from the area were removed and placed in camps due to heavy fighting that took place as late as a just over three months ago. Half of the people have returned in the last month, and power was restored only one week before our visit. It appears this one class was making an attempt to catch up on what it missed.

We spoke to them briefly and took a few pictures. We were told most had probably lost close family members in the fighting. They greeted us with all smiles, a few words in English and were totally adorable. The resources of this school were scant. The desks were made of wood grayed from extended use and weathering and rather splintered without a speck of paint or varnish. The legs were metal and quite rusty. While the resources available to these students were shocking to American standards, the spirit of the students and enthusiasm of the teacher could not be surpassed.

After we left the classroom we walked over to three young boys along with someone who seemed to be a grandfather in the playground to ask them a few questions. Our host is Tamil and translated for us. We asked if they were there when the fighting took place and the school was damaged, and they all were. “Do you dream about the fighting?” “Are you afraid it could return?” Yes and yes. They were all glad to be back home despite all of the challenges. It was definitely better than living in the totally controlled environment of a camp. These are just a sampling of the questions. It was was quite poignant. I have a video of most of this interaction.

Later we visited a secondary school in there area where we met with teachers, the principal and others connected to the schools. We discussed the situation, challenges and needs. Access to school supplies such as pencils and paper was actually a major concern. Meg and I introduced them to YLI and promised to provide any of our lesson plans that they would like including a selection that have been translated into Tamil. They seemed excited about that, and we exchanged contact information. We asked if anyone had access to the internet which is when we found out that they only have electricity for the past week.

The visit to Mutur and the surroundings was the most important site visit in regards human suffering that has taken place due to the recent battles. At the same time, there is room at least in this town for a bit of optimism. The people are at least starting to return. And when we asked those three boys what they wanted to be when they grown up, there answers were a principal, doctor, and engineer which amazed considering the circumstances. None appeared interested in being a soldier.

Check out the video at .


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There’s No Place Like Home….

Driving down a dusty road near Trincomalee I gaze at the homes and wonder what it is like to live inside. Most of the structures are made of concrete, a perfect material for this climate, or of clay or dung depending on how rural the area is. The priority of course is to deal with the heavy heat and strong sunlight, so windows are few and covered by shutters or porches. In the evening, light shines out and it reminds me of home.

I love looking at the light coming out of homes in the evening. There is a glow that is universal, the sense of home and family that one can imagine living within. I try to imagine a family, sharing dinner and conversation- the laughter falling out into the evening air. Idealistic-yes but it is my wondering and so I imagine that this is what is happening in Sri Lankan homes as well. I hold these thoughts as I approach a home stay in Trincomalee.

Upon arriving the lane is dark. Two large dogs are barking from behind a gated yard. Security is an issue here and most people who can afford it have personal security to protect their homes. After several calls a light goes on and a servant answers our call. We are escorted into a world that resembles my own but also is a world away. It appears that my host has been delayed on business so my colleague and I are left to the hospitality of his grandmother.

This kind woman welcomes us and we are shown to our rooms to wash up- always a treat after a long, hot day of site visits. She is wearing a beautifully colored sari and a gorgeous gold necklace that turns out to be a wedding necklace given to her by her husband. The cord is of thick gold and it holds important charms symbolizing their union. These necklaces are similar to wedding rings and are traditional in this part of the nation. I notice the next morning that all of the women in our meeting are wearing similar necklaces.

It is obvious that this family has wealth. There is an abundance of furniture and a television. My room is comfortable despite the lack of air conditioning, a strong fan keeping my room cool. It seems that I have been given the master suite, as a lavatory is attached. Alas, the shower and water has been turned off- not uncommon in a region where water is rare. I share a small bathroom with my friend and try to wash off. The shower has very little pressure so washing all of the sweat off my body will be impossible. I do the best I can and then shuffle off to dinner.

We are escorted to a kitchen table. Our hostess doesn’t join us; her servant serves us a meal of small rolls and curry. I am still recovering from “Buddha belly” and I have to force myself to eat the meal which is quite spicy. Following the meal we rinse our plates and are escorted to a sitting room where we read quietly, there is no interaction between our hostess and ourselves except when she informs us that she is going to bed- surprised that we chose not to watch television.

I sleep in my clothes, lying on the bed covered only with one sheet. It was surprisingly comfortable and despite the situation I get a good night sleep. In the morning we are served breakfast- bananas, coffee and the leftovers from dinner the night before. The coffee is delicious! I make friends with the dog, Dinah and that breaks the ice with our hostess. She proceeds to talk to us about her various pets-parrots, fish, and some cats. We discuss our families and then she brings out the family photo album and shows us her Hindu home shrine.

My visit ended on a high note so although covered with sweat and dirty from the day before, I feel great when I leave. It was quite the experience and gave me a bit of an idea of what is behind the lit windows I pass on the roads of Sri Lanka.


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The Sound of Silence?…

Sri Lanka is a noisy place. It is as though everything is competing for a small space of recognition in this busy world. The temple with its drumming, the took-took with its honking, the shrieking of crows, the constant chant of a Buddhist shrine. You might think this makes Sri Lanka unbearable but it is one of the charms of the place.

It isn’t disorderly instead it is layer after layer of sound that makes the country so interesting . Where else can you hear an elephant call, the speaking of three or four languages, the crash of the waves, and the call of a muezzin in one day.

My weeklong voyage across the country has allowed me to experience a lot of the voices and sounds of this diverse and vibrant nation. In Dambulla we experienced the story of Buddhism with trips to Sigiriya and the Dambulla Caves. Monkeys added their voices to the tale watching each visitor carefully and plotting to separate them from their food.

In Trincomalee we heard the crash of the waves upon a crystal clear beach. Spoke with Buddhist monks about Michael Jackson, and the giggles of school children curious about the white people visiting their classrooms. The hum of a ferry and fishing boat guided our trip and deposited us at a town where the sound of learning had been silenced by war. Citizens were just returning to the town after its destruction, a make-shift school bell rings across an empty school yard and the hum of electricity had finally returned after the torment of war.

In Arugam Bay the lingo of surfers from around the world entered our lexicon of sound. This welcome sound heralds a sense of return to normalcy for this beach community that has been rocked by Tsunami and political unrest. Sitting around a table, beneath a palm thatched hut drinking Arrack we share the stories of our voyage and learn about the experience of our host who has had to hide his ethnic identity from his neighbors in order to survive economically.

Making our way back to Colombo we hear the influence of colonial powers- the English, Dutch and Portugese with the ringing of church bells and the clock tower at the Galle Fort. Once again, crashing waves help to define the place as they emphasize the size and strength of the stone walls that protected the fort and its inhabitants from the wrath of the Tsunami.

This short essay is a feeble attempt to describe the experience of sound in this lush and thriving land. The return to the sounds of Colombo are welcome to my ears. Perhaps I have become Sri Lankan?


Video in a Hindu Temple:
Unawatuna Beach:
SL v Pakistan Cricket match:
Kandy Esala Perahera parade:
Coast of Matara from Buddhist Monastery:

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Busiest Day Yet

We had quite a full schedule today.  It started with a visit to Equal Ground, a gay rights organization based in Colombo. While the law has never been inforced, homosexuality is actually illegal in Sri Lanka. Equal Ground is working to get this law changed and improve the situation of the community across the country. We had the opportunity to meet one of the members of the 18 that visited us back in March. It’s really cool when we get the chance to reunited with our Sri Lankan friends.

Our second stop took place at the Business for Peace Alliance. Their mission is “to encourage understanding and tolerance of diverse cultures and environments through inter-regional business networks and Corporate Social Responsibility, to create a sense of ownership and responsibility within the business community to spearhead the process of conflict transformation and regional empowerment, and to be the voice of regional business and a platform for dialogue with policy makers. BPA is a partner of our host organization and led the selection of the 18 that went to the U.S. one of which is a spirited member of their staff. They are also involved in the planning of our two day symposium during the third week of our trip where Meg and I will teach sessions on civic engagement, advocacy, and free internet technologies. We worked on the symposium’s schedule today as well as enjoyed a tasty Sri Lankan spin on a steak and cheese (definitely not on my low cholesteral diet, but it was delicious and just what I needed).

We then moved on to the University of Colombo where we met with a political science professor to learn more about the political and governmental systems of Sri Lanka. Such conversations are always quite interesting here. I won’t  go into detail about all we discussed. The most surpising thing I learned was that while military service is not compulsary in Sri Lanka, a term of service lasts for 15 YEARS!

Our final business stop was with the staff of the One Text Initiative. This organization was founded by the political parties of Sri Lanka to gather members of the parliament from all parties to discuss their various perspectives off the record. Their rules include no publicity, no press, and no names on the record. America or any other country could use an organization like OTI!

The day concluded with a truly unique experience.  We had the opportunity to attend a major cricket match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Wow! These guys know how to have a good time! About 30 friends of our host took over practically an entire section of the Colombo cricket stadium and bought tickets for and hired a papare band which in this case was made up of trumpets and drums. It was similar in sound to mariachi music, but was definitely its own thing. Cricket band

The whole section was on its feet, dancing and waving flags from start to finish. Wait till you see the video! All of her friends were very friendly, some of them too much so! After about an hour and a half Meg and I moved to another section to take a break and breathe a little fresh air. Cricket is the national sport of Sri Lanka, and they’re a lively bunch. It was such an awesome experience!

Visit to read more about papare bands and music.

Tomorrow we start on a 7 day trek across much of the nation where we’ll visit projects that the March participants started with small grants from our host organization plus some visit some tourist sites along the way. The projects include an Eye Care Camp, an engagement program for tea plantation community youth, an internet technology program for youths, a health and social program for marginalize sanitary laborers, and the implementation of a youth empowerment program based on the Youth Leadership Initiative’s Democracy Corp.

Our internet access while on the trip will be inconsistent if it exists at all. Please check in on the blog but don’t be surpised if we are incommunicado for a few days. To our loved ones, it’s likely we won’t be able to make any phone calls. We return to Colombo on Saturday, August 15th.

Thanks to everyone for keeping track of us!


Cricket Match video at .

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Mystery, Monkeys and the Kandy Perahera

Parade scene

Parade scene

Kandy PeraheraWednesday, August 5th was a travel day that consisted of two events. The first was participation in a discussion with university professors from the University of Peradeniya in the central mountain city of Kandy. The second was attendence at the Kandy Esela Perahera, Sri Lanka’s most important festival and parade of the year.

We went to the university just after lunch.  The format and content of the discussion was a mystery to us as well as our host. We were just guessing it would be a round table or something like that. I jokingly mentioned to my roommate, Dov Wilker, that we would probably get there and find out we would be serving as panelists in a room full of people. That is exactly what happened.  We all introduced ourselves and organizations. Discussions that resulted compared civic engagement in the U.S. and Sri Lanka and well as the differences in our systems of government. It was quite an interesting discussion which lasted about 2 1/2 hours. On an amusing side note, when I arrived the name on my tent card had been misspelled.  I’ve seen it spelled in numerous ways, but this version was a first. The second “a” in Daman missing!

We returned to the hotel to relax a bit before the evening’s event. Dov and I were sitting near the window of our room. At one point we glance outside and saw a bunch of monkeys running around on the neighbors roof! People around here apparently have to be really cautious about keeping a watch on their windows and doors. The monkeys are known to be excellent thieves.

One of the Sri Lankan participants from last March who owns a computer/cell phone shop on the parade route met and took us there at about 8PM. His shop is further down on the route so the parade wasn’t supposed to be there until between 10:30 and 11PM. We had a lot of opportunity to meet his family which was cool. The sidewalks were packed with Sri Lankan with no other westerners in sight. It was such an amazing scene. All the street lights were off. Some of the shops had strands of lights on them in honor of the event, and a few businesses had lights on inside. The parade was lit, however, by torch barers. They were shirtless with red scarves wrapped around their heads with all but their eyes covered. This was apparently so the ashes and coals of the kerosene soaked coconut shells wouldn’t fall and catch their hair on fire. We had to look out to make sure none of them landed on us. The scarves also help them keep from inhaling the fumes and smoke which made me a slight bit nautious after two hours of parade.

The parade started with men dressed in regalia with long whips. People would throw change into the street which the men would collect, then get in a row and loudly crack their whips. A police officer was a little too close once and got nicked. The next performers to come along were older boys with balls of fire at the end of cords which were attached to their hair. The cords seemed to be around 6 or 7 feet long, and they would spin them round and round with their heads. I’m telling you, you had to see this stuff to believe it. All of the costumes throughout the parade were very detailed and well made. We later saw guys with spoked wheels about 6′ across with fire at each spoke. They spun them with gave the appearance that the fire was continuous. There were three men on stilts doing the same. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There were 60 elaborately dressed elephants throughout the parade including the largest which carried a replica of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Palace of the Tooth keeps what is supposed to be a tooth of Buddah (refered to as the Sacred Tooth Relic) which is the reason for the entire event.

The Perahera went on with continued amazement. Words just can’t fully describe all that I saw. Drums were beaten, songs sung. The instrument I enjoyed the most was the snake charmer’s horn which sounds a lot like a high pitched bagpipe. We saw young men pulling others with 4 lined metal hooks piercing the skin of their backs. It was performance, dance, costume, decorated elephant, and song after another. I could go on and on. Never have I seen such a spectacular event as the Kandy Esela Perahera.

Check out my YouTube video at


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