Archive for September, 2008

September 28, 2008

September 26th, 2008 by mjgran10

This weekend I did two things I’ve never done before in my life, meditated and rode bareback on an elephant. We meditated first so I will start this entry with that.

On Friday we drove to this place called the Nilambe Meditation Center. I think it was clear to everyone that this would be a bit of a disaster for me. Personally, I do not care much for sitting still nor being quiet, and meditation is a prolonged combination of both.

I’ve come to know Maria’s host family quite well, as our host fathers are brothers. I’ve also come to befriend their chaotic little dog, Shaggy. Maria’s host mother jokingly told us that Shaggy and I should try to meditate together.

Obviously, the women knows me quite well, as the meditation was a bit of a disaster for me. Basically all I did was fidget about for a few hours while trying really hard to not distract the others. However, the technique that worked best for me was to remind myself that if I made through meditation, soon it would be Saturday and on Saturday we were going to the elephant orphanage. I spent most of meditation imagining myself playing with baby elephants. That, however, was just my experience, some of the other students seemed to have gotten a lot out of the Nilambe trip and said that they planned to try and include the meditation we learned into their daily routine.

After meditation came the day that I had been waiting for since I arrived in Sri Lanka, our visit to the elephant orphanage. Although its called an orphanage they have elephants of all ages there, and most of them, are just free to roam about, and the people who visit the elephant orphanage are free to move about the elephants.

First we watched some baby’s being bottled fed, then we moved to a huge grass field with tons of elephants. I won’t attempt to guess how many there were. When you handed some of the men who worked there some money they would walk you over to a particularly friendly elephant that you could pat and have your picture taken with. Then we headed to the river and got to watch all the elephants running into the river to play and have their bath. The whole thing was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Then Nancy, our director, asked if we wanted to ride an elephant. A few of us said definitely so we drove less then a mile down the road to a popular tourist attraction and paid about four dollars each to ride this enormous elephant. Sarah, Kristen and I all rode one elephant together.

Normally, I would condone this behavior as cruelty to animals but the elephants seemed extremely well cared for and I was actually happy for these elephants because in Sri Lanka wild elephants are killed constantly by farmers. It seemed to me that tourist interest in the species was helping to protect the elephant population on the island.

When we climbed off the platform onto the elephant I was surprised because we were just sitting square on the elephants back, no fancy contraptions to hold us in place. Then the elephant walked us down to the river and sprayed us with water. Then he took us back to the platform and sniffed all our hands just to double check that we didn’t have any food that we were hiding from him.

I can probably swear that I will never meditate again but I certainly will seize any opportunity that would offer me another day in the company of elephants.


September 23, 2008

September 23rd, 2008 by mjgran10

Now that we’ve finished our first session which included Sinhala 1 and Material Culture, we’ve gotten into Session 2. So far all I can say is wow! Teaching in the ISLE program is apparently very prestigious in Sri Lanka, which means we get the most absurdly qualified professors I’ve ever encountered. I’ve already mentioned our Material Culture professor, Sudharshan Seneviratne, who is pretty much in charge of all of Sri Lanka’s archeology. I figured he’d be one of the most important people we had involved in the program, but I’m beginning to think that every teacher we have is pretty much the God of their subject.

I’m taking Colonial History from Professor De Silva who apparently wrote everything worth reading on the subject. Then there’s our Sinhala Professor, who speaks countless languages and has translated epic texts to Sinhala. I actually feel sorry for him because as our assistant director Dan puts it, “It’s like the top professor from Harvard trying to teach a kindergarten class.” That’s true too, our mastery of the Sinhala language is roughly equivalent to a three year olds. Then I have Art and Poetry with Professor Ashley Halpe, I don’t know much about him yet,except that he is pretty entertaining. When I mentioned his name, my host brother knew exactly who he was, so I assume that means he’s as important as all the others. Some people would think that learning from such brilliant teachers would be intimidating and it is, but the students all being from Holy Cross, Bowdion, and Carleton are used to some pretty bright professors.

The real problem comes during dance class, our guru is one of the best dancers in Kandy. He’s teaching us Kandyan dance which is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It involves huge swinging steps that are reminiscent of a sumo wrestler. There’s a lot of spinning and all the while theirs a pattern that are hands are supposed to make, and of course we are supposed to be in the right posture and looking in the right direction for every move. Basically I spin in circles and wave my arms in the air while bumping into the people beside me. Sadly, I actually might not even be the worst Kandyan dancer in our mix.

Members of ISLE staff actually come out to laugh at us, and we can’t get mad at them because we are too busy laughing at our selves. Three of the girls Sara, Sheila and Kristin each have some history in dancing and they can handle Kandyan dancing for the most part. As for Maria, Jared and I who have no dance experience, well I’ll just say it’s ugly. The dance teacher has taken to coming over to each of us and saying, “Ok let me tell you your problem.” Each of us have our own special problems. Now, there are seven ISLE students, but our seventh Chris vowed never to return after the first day.

One person who I must give specific credit to is our director Professor Nancy Wilkie. Now she has no responsibility that forces her to take part in our activities like dance class, but she comes anyways. You would think that she would come to demonstrate some unusual talent but instead she comes in solidarity with Jared, Maria and I in the back row. She bumps into us, spins in meaningless circles and even lets the guru tell her what her problem is. I think all of the students appreciate that she takes the effort to make a spectacle of herself alongside us. She was a director once before so when we might like to get down on our selfs for being terrible dancers, her presence reminds us that the ISLE program has had a history of terrible attempts at Kandyan dance. However, after dance class Nancy and the rest of the ISLE faculty quickly get as far from the class room as possible because we follow dance with drumming. We may be worse drummers then dancers.

September 18, 2008

September 18th, 2008 by mjgran10

Tomorrow it will have been one full month since we left America. When I left I thought this experience would be about changing how I saw the world. I never thought that my presence or probably more the presence of the ISLE program would change the way people were viewing America.

I think that everyone inherently knows that as a super power American politics do affect the rest of the world, and in developing nations the effect is of course greater. Which is why in Tanzania people had chased our van chanting for Obama and why Sri Lankan newspapers feature articles praising Obama as if he’s already won the election. I didn’t know how to feel about this until the other day when we went to the theater, and we were given a speech about change.

The word change has been thrown around so much during this presidential election, I had let it slip from my mind as nothing more then rhetoric. However, when we went to see the musical Sinhabahu, the meaning of the word change crept back into my thoughts.

Now I must digress for a moment because the play itself is an interesting part of the story.  Sinhabahu is the origin story of the Sinhalese race, however, the play we were watching had been translated to English, which was interesting. For some background info I will do the story the injustice of my limited summary, basically a princess runs away with a lion who is the king of all lions. They have children, who I think are half lion half human, but the lion keeps them locked in a cave. Finally they escape and the son kills the father.

Sinhabahu although entertaining was not was really affected me on our outing to the theater. What affected me was not the play but a woman who I believe was the principal of some school, who spoke. It might seem weird that she spoke but it was because we were at a 10 a.m. performance geared towards school children. The woman first spoke to her students then directed her attention to us, the isle students. She said that she was honored because we were Americans who came to their country and learned their language and studied their religion. The Sinhalese have been bombarded with English and Christianity since colonial times so it is not hard to grasp why it might feel like a minor victory that finally westerners were learning Sinhalese and Buddhism. Then she said, “thats the kind of change Barrack Obama is talking about.”

Well, at first we all looked at each other because it was clear she might have thought Obama personally sent us to Sri Lanka. However, after spending some time thinking about the event I realized the importance of what we were doing. Our presence in Sri Lanka means to the Sri Lankans that America cares about them and if in this time we can restore a little faith in America, I think we’ve done a good thing just by being here. Even if change is just rhetoric its nice to know that the developing world still has some hope in the capacity for the rhetoric to become a reality.

September 13, 2008

September 13th, 2008 by mjgran10

After some emails from friends I’ve learned that my entries as of late have a serious tone. I figured that would have to be corrected as I am not a particularly serious person, nor is typical day to day life in Sri Lanka particularly serious.

I’ve decided to dedicate this entry to a few outstandingly absurd incidents with my home stay family and cockroaches. Now, going to a tropical climate I had to know bugs would be a part of life, however, I chose to pretend that didn’t include roaches. Then on my first night with my home stay family I entered the kitchen and a cockroach scampered in front of me. I screamed, loudly. My host mother came running in as I came running out.     She asked what was wrong and I in typical irrational American girl fashion explained my life threatening fear of the cockroach. She said, “Ok, ok!” and quickly found some spray and killed it.
Normally, I would have assumed that everyone killed cockroaches, however my host family is Buddhist so I had to ask, “Amma (mother) isn’t that bad for your karma?” She answered earnestly, “Yes but I have to take care of you so its ok if I get a little bad karma.” We both laughed at the absurdity of the situation, and I never saw another cockroach so I went back to believing they didn’t exist.  The yesterday my Amma had been out shopping all day so we got home at the same time. Before she let me enter my room she rushed in examining the floors and walls. When I asked what she was doing she said, “Everyday before you come home from school I have to check and make sure there are no cockroaches.”  Later that night I came down and when we retold the story to my host father he ran into the kitchen and came out with an enormous industrial sized bottle with a picture of a dead cockroach on it and holding it proudly he proclaimed, “Yes! I am the cockroach killer!”

September 11, 2008

September 11th, 2008 by mjgran10

Memory seems to be the unofficial theme of the ISLE (Inter Collegiate Sri Lankan Education) Program. The book we read before coming on the program was, When Memory Dies, by A. Sivanandan. Then we had a speaker come who mentioned the way memory has been abused in Sri Lanka by both the government and the opposition. After colonialism the Sri Lankans on both sides forgot their shared history as Tamil and Sinhalese living as one people and instead remembered only the things that divided them.

This past week we spent on a tour of all the archaeological sites in the Northern part of Sri Lanka. The tour was led by our Material Culture teacher Sudharshan Seneviratne. He is the Director General of the Sri Lankan department of Archaeology, basically he’s a huge deal in Sri Lanka. He is doing something amazing with memory, he is trying to change it. He is using the archaeological sites to show the shared history of the Sinhalese and Tamil people long before the colonial powers came and divided them. Before meeting him I had never realized the immense power of the past to control the present. The question Professor Seneviratne asked us over and over is, “Whose past is being shown here?” It was very similar to the idea that history goes to the victor. In Sri Lanka it seems there is no victor and the past of the Tamils and the Sinhalese has been manipulated by a third party. Hopefully, Sudharshan and his contemporaries will literally be able to dig up a peaceful solution. I think that all of the students and I were lucky to have him as our professor because he didn’t teach us only about Sri Lanka, but instead he gave us an understanding of the importance of accurately interpreting the past.

On the last night he asked us all to hold the things we had seen on the tour in our memories and allow them to shape not only how we see Sri Lanka but how we see the world. I know that I will never be able to forget the things we did and so I wanted to share a few of the highlights. We started at an ancient burial site in Ibbankatuwa that was built in the 6th century BC and in the course of seven days we had traveled, caves, forest, mountains and rocks finally ending up at about the 13th century AD.

By far my favorite site was Sigiriya. On the first day we climbed Pidurangala rock which about 1/2 way up had a giant Buddha carved out of the rock. All around was nature and the Buddha statue had been there for so many centuries that it appeared as  much a part of the nature of that rock as the plants that grew around it. When we reached the top of the rock it felt like we were the only people on earth as we all gazed out at the world bellow in total silence. And on top of the rock, we had our daily lecture while the sun set.

The next morning we climbed what seemed like endless steps of varying sizes, ending with a nearly vertical march up tiny iron “steps” drilled into the side of Sigiriya rock. At the top we reached the remains of the ancient Sri Lankan kingdom. Being on top of Sigiriya rock you could understand why the God King, which is what the ancient kings called themselves, would want his kingdom in such a powerful location.

I’ve attached a few pictures because in this case I think the pictures really do speak louder then words.


September 3, 2008

September 3rd, 2008 by mjgran10

Things in Kandy have been crazy. We go to class an awful lot because they are trying to get us to speak Sinhala competently within the first couple weeks. It seems like a miracle but I am actually beginning to speak and understand the language — not well, but a little.

I’ve already learned so much and I haven’t even been here for two weeks, but learning the language almost seems superficial compared to what the Sri Lankan citizens are teaching us. We’re learning about a society in transition, torn by race, religion, language, and political theory. More importantly as a group we are beginning to make the connections as to why these conflicts arise. In Sri Lanka we can see the actual affects of the colonial period. In turn, we can grasp the roots of conflicts in a way not possible from a classroom. I think being here is already changing my internal views of the world and my capacity to understand the complexity of international issues. Certainly, I am glad I decided to come here because it is an opportunity for growth that I may never be offered again.

To diffuse the seemingly serious tone of this entry I’ve decided to mention a new love I’ve found: Kimbula Bunnese. As a side note my spelling of Sinhalese words is questionable at best. Because it’s a character language, the Roman script version is guesswork. Kimbula Bunnese translates to crocodile buns, which are pretty much long rolls with sugar on them, no crocodile meat! My host mother was in fact elated that after offering me every type of food possible she has found a food that I love. However, she promised she would serve them to me only once a week, because I explained to her that in America gaining weight was not the goal of most young women (in Sri Lanka the adverse appears to be true).

I think it’s time to end this entry because I can see the sun is setting and I must be home by dark to have tea with my host family and practice my Sinhala. This will be my last entry for a little over a week because the six other students and I are traveling with six faculty members to all the historic sites in the north, as part of our Material Culture course. I’m sure when I come back I’ll have lots of stories about hikes in blinding heat, maybe some snakes and, without a doubt, a plethora of motion sickness.