Timeline outline

Amazingly enough, we still do not have a firm timeline for our trip.

Partly, this is because the Fulbright grant is not finalized until we are cleared medically. That is, they want to make sure we are healthy enough to live for a year overseas. In both our cases, that involves our family doctor filing paperwork with the State Department. In Kris’ case, I guess because she is “just” the spouse, the required tests are minimal and she likely will not even need a special appointment with our family doctor since she had one recently. In my case, the clearance involves some special tests that are not part of the usual battery of tests in the US. So I go in for a doctor’s appointment next week. No big deal as I was scheduled for a regular checkup anyway. Of course, all of this does not include the immunizations we will need before we go. Once the paperwork is filed, we should get remaining details of the grant.

One can visit Sri Lanka as a tourist without getting a visa before you go. You will be issued a tourist visa valid for 30 days on arrival at the airport in Colombo. But for our extended stay, and the fact that we will not be tourists, we must get an “entry” visa before we arrive in Sri Lanka. The process is: a) I transmit a copy of the biography pages of our passports to the US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission (USSLFC). b) The USSLFC sends a request to the Sri Lankan ministry of Immigration and Emigration requesting permission for us to be allowed to enter Sri Lanka. c) If they approve, the ministry of I&E sends this information to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, DC. d) Once notified, we send our passports to the Sri Lankan Embassy in DC and an entry visa is stamped into our passports and returned to us. This process can take some time, as you can imagine. We’ve been told that the process can take from one to three months. Until that time, we can not enter Sri Lanka. Once we get to Sri Lanka, we can only remain for sixty days on the entry visa. In the meantime, we have to start the application process there for a “residency” visa. Whew!

But there are some emerging fixed points to our schedule. There is an orientation for Fulbrighters in Colombo on October 9-10, 2008. Our goal is to get there around October 1st so that we can get over jet lag and get acclimated before the orientation. Then we will move on to Kandy after the orientation and get settled in and start work at the University of Peradeniya. The grant lasts for nine months, so that means our time at UP will be ending about July 1, 2009. Of course, I have to be back to Gambier in time to prepare for the start of the fall semester, 2009. So we certainly want to be back by August 15, 2009.

We will see how this all plays out.


Starting to learn about Sri Lanka

To learn more about Sri Lanka, we have been reading “The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka” by Gavin Thomas. It is a pretty good read. Mr. Thomas writes in an erudite manner, lots of clauses, subclauses, and parenthetic remarks. It can be witty in a dry way. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, kind of like reading movie reviews. The review of a bad movie is often entertainingly cutting, but I sometimes cringe for those who worked so hard to make the movie. As an example, in the Rough Guide, a historic church is described as “…a memorably ugly Romanesque basilica-style structure whose stumpy steeple provides one of the area’s most distinctive landmarks. The church was begun in 1868 on the site of a previous courthouse – the town’s gallows might (as a sign outside gruesomely points out) have stood on the site of the current high altar; otherwise, the bare, mildewed interior gives disappointingly little insight into the history of the British in Galle.”

I’ve also been scanning on-line newspapers from Sri Lanka. I found a collection at http://www.world-newspapers.com/srilanka.html. The newspapers I’ve read tend to have a particular point of view. There is sometimes a pretense at objectivity, but each seems to represent a particular group. So The Daily News represents the views of the Sri Lankan government. TamilNet represents the Tamil rebel point of view. I haven’t quite identified the viewpoint of The Island but I am guessing that of a moderate Sinhalese community. (Of course this is how newspapers in the US began…and seem to be returning to.) These are the three I scan pretty much every day.


So where will we be? (Geography Lesson)

I’m going to try to use Google Maps here to put Kandy, Sri Lanka in geographic perspective.

Sri Lanka is a teardrop shaped island that lies just south of India:

In fact, you can tell from the satellite image that Sri Lanka is separated from India by a narrow, shallow strait, called the Palk Strait. The strait is so narrow that one can see India from Sri Lanka on a clear day. In area, Sri Lanka is the size of West Virginia. In population, Sri Lanka has about the same number of people as the state of New York, about 20 million. We will be living and working in Kandy, shown on the map to the northeast of Columbo. Let’s zoom in a bit and check out the terrain view.

Columbo is the capital and largest city in Sri Lanka (population about 600,000). It is also the location of the only international airport. As you can see from the terrain map, Kandy is in the highlands of Sri Lanka. Its population is about 110,000. Kandy is the cultural “capital” of the majority Sinhalese people. With the help of its geography, Kandy proudly fended off Portuguese, Dutch, and British attempts to capture the Kingdom of Kandy for quite some time. For us weather wimps, the elevation of Kandy (1640 feet or 500 meters) helps moderate the temperature. Being so close to the equator, the temperature does not change a lot through the year. Typical daily high temperature is 29 C (84 F) and daily low temperature is 18 C (64 F).

Let’s zoom in a bit more:

The university is located in Peradeniya, so it is probably more accurate to say that we will be living in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

I’ve found Google Maps and Yahoo Maps to have too few place names to follow the news. Microsoft’s maps show too many place names and choose them oddly. For example, it does not show Peradeniya, despite its relative importance in the region, but has about two dozen place names on a map comparable to the one above. There are some nice maps at ourlanka.com that seem to have more thought put into them.


Am I fearful?

I have been asked several times about whether I am fearful of living in Sri Lanka because of the fighting going on there between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The answer is no, not really.

First, I have been assured by friends who are native to Sri Lanka that the risk to Kris and me is small. Second, the US State Department issues travel warnings for Americans traveling abroad and they basically concur with our friends.

The fighting in Sri Lanka is largely confined geographically to the north and (now to a lesser extent) to the east of the island. We will be living in Kandy which is centrally located, away from the contested areas. The LTTE continue to stage isolated bombings outside the areas they control. However, the bombings are mostly aimed at military or political targets, though there have been some recent incidents aimed at civilians. But the LTTE have never targeted foreigners, nor are Americans specifically targeted. So, while it is possible to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, it would be a fluke if we were killed in a bombing.

If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to compare the US State Department Travel Warning for Sri Lanka with, say, the British travel warning about travel to the US. It has been suggested that we are more likely to die in an auto accident in Sri Lanka than in a bomb attack since Sri Lankans are considered to be such poor drivers. So I checked this out. About 2000 people die each year in traffic accidents in Sri Lanka, out of a population of 20 million. But this per capita rate is smaller than in the US, which has one of the largest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world.

So it seems quite likely that we will be safer spending the year in Sri Lanka than if we spent the year in Ohio!


So what is a Fulbright Scholar?

These days a “Fulbright” can mean many things. Most are examples of “people-to-people” diplomacy, that is, the programs enable US citizens to spend time in foreign countries and for foreigners to spend time in the US. The object is for citizens of each country to get personal experience in a foreign country, let foreigners get to know them individually, and then return to their home country and share their experiences with their countrymen. Think of it as the academic counterpart to the Peace Corps. As elements of US foreign policy, the various Fulbright programs are the responsibility of the US State Department.

The grant that I received is part of the “traditional” Fulbright Scholars program and is administered by the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, a private organization, and has been since 1947. You can read more about the Fulbright programs (including how you can apply) at the CIES website or at the US State Department website.

Basically, I proposed to teach half time and do research half time at the University of Peradeniya (UP), in Kandy, Sri Lanka. As unlikely as it seems, I have evolved from an experimental physicist into a computational physicist and somehow am considered something of an authority on the teaching of computational science. (“Computational physics” is the use of computers to model or simulate physical systems and “computational science” is the same thing but applied to any science.) I proposed to teach an intermediate level course in computational science and an upper-level course in parallel programming, both similar to courses that I teach at Kenyon College. Now that we finally have the official go ahead, we will begin the task of matching my proposal more closely with the needs and desires of the Department of Physics at UP.

In addition, I proposed to do research in computational science education while I am at UP. I will study whether and how the teaching methods I use in my classes at Kenyon need to be modified for use at UP. I also plan to continue my current research on numerical modeling of phase separation while I am in Sri Lanka.

So that is what I will be “doing” in Kandy, but as a “Fulbrighter” my other job is to be a good representative of all of you in the US to the Sri Lankans I come into contact with and to share with all of you my experiences of Sri Lanka and its people.

And have the adventure of my life….