Pre-Departure Orientation

Last week we traveled to Washington, DC for the mandatory Pre-Departure Orientation. The meeting was held entirely at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, DC. The activities started in earnest at 3:30PM on Wednesday, July 9th and formally ended at 1:00 PM on Friday, July 11th. Thus we were able to fly to DC on Wednesday morning and return to Columbus by Friday night. The Fulbright program promises to pay us a lump sum based on how far we have traveled to attend the meeting, but they haven’t told us how much it will be yet.

There were several highlights of the meeting. First, the Executive Director of the US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission, Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, and the Accountant for the US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission, Ms. Chitra Marambe traveled all the way from Sri Lanka for the orientation. We were amazed that they would go to such effort on our behalf. Recall from a previous post that Tissa, as he asked us to call him, was the editor of the very useful book that collected stories from US travelers to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan travelers to the US that I rated as the book that did the most to help prepare us for our travels. We, of course, were bundles of nerves as we contemplated this uprooting of our lives and Tissa was very gracious about answering question after question and generally convincing us that it will all come together. Chitra was also very kind and helpful answering questions about finances and other practical issues.

The meeting also included two, recently returned, Sri Lankan Fulbright alums: Dr. Katherine Hoffman and Dr. Murali Nair. Dr. Hoffman is a professor in, and chair of, the English Department at Roanoke College. Professor Nair holds many titles, perhaps the most interesting of which is co-director of the Center for Healing Across Cultures at Cleveland State University. Both have connections to Ohio. Dr. Nair’s is obvious from his title, but Dr. Hoffman’s father was a professor at Denison University, so she grew up in Granville. Both were wildly enthusiastic about their experiences in Sri Lanka. Kris and Katherine met privately for an hour or more to talk about the nitty and the gritty. Murali showed a video that was created from video footage and photographs that he took while visiting with one hundred, mostly rural, families during his stay in Sri Lanka. The video gave us a visual sense of the landscape and also introduced us to some of the Sinhalese rites of passage.

Several things were made unambiguous. We need to take a year’s supply of mosquito repellent containing more than 30% DEET. Though the medical insurance covers mail order prescriptions, we can not count on the medicine making it through customs. So, yes, we do need to take with us an entire year’s supply of all of our medications. The “excess baggage allowance” can be used to send a shipment separate from our air travel. We can not leave the US until we have our Sri Lankan entry visa in hand.

Dr. Richard Nicholas, MD, Chief of the Exam Clinic, Office of Medical Services, US Department of State, gave a great talk about protecting oneself from disease during our trip. He had a repeating theme: Wash your hands! He had to show us the required photos of gross tropical diseases. The one that had the most effect on me was the photo of the forearm of a person with an 1/8″ wide, meandering trail left by a worm that lives just beneath your skin and moves around under it. He said it itched like hell, and I can certainly believe it. Fortunately this particular parasite is not endemic in Sri Lanka. All in all, we already pretty much knew all the health precautions that applied to Sri Lanka, but the talk was very entertaining and there were surely people there who needed to hear the message.

One of the best talks, surprisingly, was by Michael Goodman, Tax Consultant, who discussed the income tax issues that apply to Fulbright grantees. He clarified it well: Everything we get from the program is taxable, but everything the scholar spends on necessities and business expenses is deductible, and, no, the “foreign earnings exclusion” does not apply to us. This is in contrast to the student Fulbrighters where everything is taxed and nothing is deductible, since they are not considered “employed in their profession”.  It turns out the speaker wrote many of the relevant regulations, trained the current crop of IRS specialists in the area of foreign income tax law, and recently retired. For a life-long bureaucrat (sorry Shannon), he gave a talk that was both informative and so funny that it could have been part of a stand up comedy routine.

Jay Goodrich, Senior Training Liaison Officer, Diplomatic Security Training Center, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, US Department of State gave us a no-nonsense talk about personal security. Much of what he had to say was almost common sense (“travel in groups,” “don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches when traveling in dark alleys,” “if traveling in a country hostile to the US, don’t wear clothing with your college logo as that identifies you as American”); some was too late (“take martial arts classes”); and some perhaps more useful (“know where safe havens are to be found in your neighborhood, e.g., police stations, fire stations, popular restaurants and night clubs,” “agree on a codeword with your family that signals that it is time to get out of Dodge”). He also told us that attackers pick a place to attack that is to their advantage. Maybe it is their turf somehow, or a dark place, or away from police, or whatever. So, one of your first reactions should be to “get off the X,” that is, try to leave the spot the attacker picked. This sounds remarkably similar to the Monty Python-esque “Run away! Run away!” but you are not just fleeing, but are also reducing the advantage of the attacker. An interesting concept that I hope not to have to test out in practice. I am trusting the skills I learned in avoiding attack in Chicago will serve me well should the need arise.

This was also our opportunity to hear from highly placed, career civil service diplomats who specialized in the regions we were going to. They were: Larry Schwartz, Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs, Embassy of the United States, India and Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, US Department of State. We were assured that we were not expected to defend the policies of the current administration and some sympathy was elicited for the career diplomats who must. As one might expect of career diplomats, they were well spoken and answered questions with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the region. As in the health talk, I don’t know that I learned much that I did not already know, but the experience felt like we were being given a private, confidential, briefing by insiders. The speakers also did a good job of convincing us that the Fulbright program really made a positive difference in the world by putting a human face on the US and helping to dispel some of the absolutely crazy ideas about the US that exist in the world.

We did get in two bits of sightseeing. The Renaissance Hotel was two blocks from the National Portrait Gallery. Kris headed for a special exhibit of the work of political cartoonist Herblock. I spent my time in the section of portraits of American presidents. The National Portrait Gallery’s presidential collection is certainly the definitive collection in the country. I was amazed that almost all the images we see of the Founding Fathers come from just a few images and most of these are housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Even some of the iconic images of the modern presidents are housed here. Kris and I had visited the Gallery about tweleve years ago, but we got there just at closing time and raced to see just the most famous of the portraits. This time, I went leisurely through all the presidents. The portraits are of extremely high quality, no doubt because of the tradition of every president having an official portrait done. Some of the modern presidents are done in a more contemporary style. President Reagan’s portrait is luminous, for example, and portrays “the Gipper” at his best. Those of you who know me, know that it was during the Reagan administration that I came to realize that the greatest gift given to the country by George Washington was the tradition, now added to the Constitution, of a president only serving two terms. But this portrait depicted a man who I would have loved to have a beer with.

We also visited the Smithsonian’s Sackler Museum of Asian Art. Our choice to pick this Smithsonian museum of the many available again goes back to our trip about twelve years ago when we just kind of stumbled into it. The Sackler was a wonderful surprise to us then and it lived up to our memories now. They had a special exhibit of pottery from Southeast Asia that was quite remarkable. We were especially attracted to the celadon bowls from the Mekong River area. The Sackler also has a wonderful collection of artifacts from the full range of Chinese dynasties, from the Qin to the Qing.



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