How to have an adventure in Sri Lanka:

Just leave the house.

Yesterday (Saturday) we needed to go into Kandy Town (Kandy Town refers to downtown Kandy) to run some errands. I needed some hearing aid batteries, Kris needed some medicine, we wanted to buy a DVD or two, and finish with some grocery shopping. As a treat, we decided to have lunch at a South Indian restaurant that Kris had discovered was quite good.

Challenge number one: Where to buy hearing aid batteries? I had already tried local pharmacies, but batteries are not an item carried by pharmacies. But one pharmacist told me of an optician that sold hearing aid batteries on Old Peradeniya Road. He also gave me the name of the proprietor which was approximately Kumarathna. So before we leave the house, I spend some time with the local equivalent of the Yellow Pages, here called the Rainbow Pages, no doubt to avoid copyright issues.

Challenge number two: No listing for an optician named Kumarathna in the Rainbow Pages. I am getting the impression that it is much less of a universal practice here of listing businesses in the Rainbow Pages. We look under “Batteries” in the Rainbow Pages, but it is hard to distinguish the sellers of batteries in general from automobile batteries. We call one ambiguous listing. We cannot communicate the concept of hearing aid batteries to the person who answers the phone. He gives us the mobile phone number of someone associated with the business who may be able to help. We discover that there is one digit too few in the number we are given. Things look up when we immediately get a call from the person whose mobile number is missing a digit. His English is better and he understands what we need, but he does not carry hearing aid batteries at his store. However, he will call someone he thinks carries hearing aid batteries and will have that person contact us.

So we ponder. Should we wait until we get a call back? No. Our phone is a mobile, the worst that can happen is that we get a call back and find out the hearing aids are in the other direction from Kandy Town. Who knows when or even if we will get a call back? We call our favorite tuk-tuk driver, whom I will refer to an NS. NS speaks a few more words of English than I do in SInhala, but in the past he has been a veritable bloodhound. No matter how poor our phone conversations have gone, he somehow tracks us down. He has also been enormously helpful on a couple of shopping expeditions. When I was looking for a ADSL modem and phone wires and jacks to install internet service at home, NS, on his own initiative, followed me into a computer store I had located in the phone book. I explained what I needed to the clerk in the store. The clerk knew enough English and had enough experience to understand what I needed, but he did not carry either the modem or the phone supplies. However, he knew of another store that might. So, rather than attempt to explain to me how to find this other store, he explained it to NS in Sinhalese. Off we went to the other store. They indeed had an ADSL modem which I bought, but no phone wires or jacks. Oh well. I will figure something out, I thought and was ready to head home. But NS initiated a conversation with the clerk in SInhalese. Then we left the store and I thought we were headed home, but NS surprised me by stopping . He took me into what evidently was a hardware store and he explained to the clerk in SInhalese that I needed phone wires and jacks. No problem. I show my gratitude by overpaying him and everyone is happy.

NS answers our call. He somehow knows it is me by this time. I have no idea if he somehow has my mobile number recorded on his mobile (and if so, what name does he use to identify me? Crazy white guy?) or whether I am the only person who calls him who can’t speak Sinhala and talks with an American accent (I’m told my American accent is very heavy and difficult to understand, whereas everyone understands Kris.) Today he comes quickly and without any other passengers. That was not the case a few days ago when we foolishly called him during the time (around 1:30PM) that school children are getting home from school and every tuktuk driver worth his salt has a regular contract to deliver some children from school to home. On that occasion, NS drove into our driveway with three darling littlle boys in the passenger seat. He explained that he would be back soon to pick us up after he had delivered the kids. It took him half an hour. Fortunately, we were not in any hurry.

So off we head for Kandy Town. We get about 100 yards from our house when NS stops the tuk-tuk. He explains that he is out of gas. “Ten minutes,” he says. “You wait here.” So he starts up the road, hails another tuktuk and disappears. So, Kris and I sat in the back of the tuk tuk and she explained all she had learned about leeches while passersby gawked at us sitting in the back of an apparently abandoned tuk-tuk by the side of the road. By and by, NS came back and off we went.

Oops. One more stop. NS stops at a tire store and gets air put into his left rear tire. Finally we make it to Kandy Town. We get out and I tell NS to pick us up in front of the grocery store at 4PM. I say “four” in English while holding up four fingers. I add one of my new Sinhala words “hathara” or “four” to make sure we understand each other. “OK, OK!” he says and drives off.

No call yet from the hearing aid battery guy. First stop, the DVD store we had been told about. by one of the other Fulbrighters. Our directions are good, we find the store right away, up a flight of stairs from the street. Lights are off. Bad sign. Sign on the door says “Closed Friday and Saturday” This is a sure sign that the proprietors are Muslim. Nothing to be done. I should mention that what we were going to do in that store would be a crime in the US. We were going to buy a pirated DVD. My only excuse is that, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other kind in Sri Lanka. The average Sri Lankan earns about $32 per week. So there is very little market for $20 DVDs. Correspondingly, I have never seen software for sale in Sri Lanka. All the computer stores I have visited have sold only hardware so far as I tell. But fate has prevented us from a life of crime, at least for another week.

Next stop, lunch. Eating in Sri Lanka is a little like eating in France. There is no such thing as “fast food” in a sit down restaurant. We order our lunch and wait. And wait. Our meal is served about half an hour after our order is placed. This at almost 2PM when the lunch rush has passed and the restaurant is mostly empty. Once the food arrives it is very good, however, and we tuck in with relish. The other thing that takes time in a Sri Lankan restaurant is getting a check. I can not remember ever getting a check in a Sri Lankan restaurant until I use the universal hand gesture for “bring me the check.”  The issue is the time it takes to find ones waiter to give the gesture to.

Out on the street again. Heading for the grocery store. Amazingly enough, I spot a sign at knee level advertising watch batteries. Kris had earlier had the bright idea that maybe a place that sold camera batteries might carry hearing aid batteries. This primed my mind to think that maybe a place that carried watch batteries might carry hearing aid batteries. So, we stepped into the jewelry store with the sign and asked if they had batteries. The two young women at the counter displayed the look of deer in the headlights. Obviously their English was none to good and they had no idea what we were talking about. I was both desperate for hearing aid batteries and a trifle annoyed that a store would have a sign displayed advertising something they didn’t have. And the language issue in this instance is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the Sri Lankan word for “batteries” is “batteries” pronounced with a Sri Lankan accent.  So I asked one of the young women to come outside to see their sign. Maybe that would break through, if not the language barrier, the accent barrier. She came forward a bit, but just enough to almost see the sign I was gesticulating to, but could not be coaxed further. There was enough of a commotion, that the employees of the jewelry shop next door took an interest. This was a good thing, because it turned out that the sign in question actually belonged to them. And, what do you know, they had four batteries remaining in a pack of six that work with my hearing aid. I cleaned them out and ordered four more packs to be picked up next week. The batteries were American made Energizers and cost roughly the same as in the US. The jeweler told me that he could obtain cheaper Chinese made batteries, but would not recommend it, as they were of inferior quality and did not last as long. I agreed.

My cell phone rings. It is NS. Where are we? I look at my watch. It is ten after three. I re-explain about the four o’ clock meeting time. “OK, OK. Bye.”

Finally, we head for the grocery store. This grocery store, Cargill’s Food City in Kandy, is always very busy. The reason seems to be that it is the best stocked grocery store in the province, has the best quality produce, and is located in the heart of Kandy. We have a short list and get through it efficiently. There is a pharmacy in the supermarket, but Kris is unable to find an Asian equivalent for the medicine she needs. She will try again when she looks up the ingredients in the medicine. The line to check out is slow. Checkers have scanners, but they only seem to work on half of the items. I use my umbrella and our basket of groceries to (successfully) maintain my place in line (see 101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka Reason #6). And we are out.

Oops! We did not watch the time. It is only 3:30PM. No NS in sight. It is raining. We go to the back of the store where there is a small parking garage to see if he is waiting there. Not there. I call NS on my cell phone. “We are ready to be picked up now. Please come as soon as you can.” “OK, OK.” We decide to go to the front of the store to wait. Several tuktuk drivers ask us if we need a ride. We tell them “No.” We wait under our umbrellas (see 101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka Reason #1). Even though we only have three plastic bags of groceries, they get heavy in our hands as we simultaneously try to hold up our umbrellas. Non-moving white people are targets and the buzzards begin to close in. There is a beggar woman to my right, cross-legged on the ground, holding her baby to her breast. Eventually the rain thins the crowds and she moves to find a better egging spot. A peddler stops to try to sell us gifty stuff. Keychains with crude, but colorfully painted wooden elephant fobs. “No?” Out of his bag comes a cat sized carved, painted wooden elephant whose head bobs. “For you, very special price. No?” Out comes a coconut carved in the shape of a monkey. Cleverly, the carver has used the stringiness of the coconut husk to create a beard with some realistic texture. “Not today, thanks.” “Special price. Very cheap. No?” Out of the plastic bag comes a coconut carved in the shape of an elephant. “Sorry. Not today.” He reminds us that we need to buy gifts for Christmas. After several more unsuccessful attempts to interest us in at least one of his products, he gives up and leaves, unhappy.

A tuktuk driver pulls out of line and pulls up next to us. “Your tuk-tuk driver can’t come. There is a problem because of the rain. I will take you.” We are beginning to catch on to the scams. “Oh, really? What is our driver’s name?” “I don’t know, but I saw you with him here yesterday.” “We were not in Kandy yesterday. We will wait for our driver.” “Where are you staying? How long will you be in Kandy?…” “Thank you for your concern, but we do not need your help today. Good bye.”

Finally, at 4:05PM, NS shows up. The groceries go into the back of the tuk-tuk and we head for home. “Only five minutes late!” says NS, beaming. No mention of the intervening phone call. Traffic is modestly congested on the way home. NS stops at the supermarket closest to our house. We think he is asking whether we want to stop at this supermarket as well and we tell him to keep going. Our mistake. He has stopped to a exchange a few words to his friend, another tuk-tuk driver. It is a short, few sentences, and we then finish the journey home. This time I do not overpay him and he seems a bit annoyed, but accepts the amount offered and departs.

Whew. An expedition that would have taken no more than an hour at the mall has taken three hours here. Much of the extra time is due to our lack of knowledge and experience with shopping in a new city and a different culture, but clearly there is also a local contribution to the extra time errands take here in Sri Lanka.

Tim

Pictures from Sri Lanka (but not mine…)

Alison, one of the fellow participants at the Thanksgiving dinner held at our house, blogged about the dinner. Her post includes a few pictures of us and our house. So check it out! Maybe this will be the motivation I need to get busier with my own photos.

In a funny development, after coming to believe that there was no turkey to be had, at least in the area around Kandy, we found two frozen turkeys, just like at home, in the freezer case of one of our supermarkets on a shopping trip today. Sigh. Just as well. A turkey would not have fit into the miniature oven in our kitchen anyway.

Tim

A minor insight into Asian politics

One of the most interesting things about traveling to a faraway land is that you are exposed to a completely different set of media outlets and so you see and hear things from both a different perspective and with emphasis on the news from wherever you are instead of the US.

We are experiencing a somewhat extreme version of this phenomena. Our house has a satellite dish, but our landlady selected the equivalent of basic service and wee are not sufficiently motivated to see if we can get the package upgradaed. This means that virtually all the channels we get are in Sinhala (probably some are in Tamil, we can not yet hear the difference). The only English language news channel in the package is Aljazeera. Over-the-air, we get an English language channel called Artv, pronounced “art-tv”. Artv presents Sri Lankan and Western shows drawn from several sources. There is an evening hour of CNN followed by a Sri Lankan business report. After that there might be CSI New York or an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. On Friday nights, there is a movie at 9PM, but the movies selected are always sappy and less than B grade. Also, the reception seems to get worse as the show goes on. Between the sappiness and the poor reception, we have not finished more than one Friday night movie. However, Kris has figured out how to make popcorn, so at least the beginning of the movie is an excuse to emulate our typical Friday night in Mount Vernon.

Aljazeera has changed amazingly. I remember its early years when Aljazeera had a running battle with the US government during the first Gulf War. So much so that there was what looked very much like a US airstrike on an Aljazeera reporting team. US government spokesmen complained that Aljazeera was radical and biased against the US. Today, Aljazeera is as slickly produced as CNN. As one might expect from a news channel based in the Mideast, there is a lot more news about events in the Mideast, Africa, and Asia than one sees on the nightly news in the US. Their coverage of the attacks on Mumbai and the US election seemed to me as fair and balanced as any US network. If there is a slant, it is the tendency to relate events to the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Mideast. No crime in that. I wonder if, in fact, Aljazeera has an editorial viewpoint corresponding to the moderate Muslim world, the voice that the West has long sought to bring out to oppose the call to nihilism of the radical Muslims.

To get to the point of the posting, I have been made aware of an interesting demographic issue in South and Southeast Asia which is probably also of relevance elsewhere. In most of the countries in this part of the world, the majority of people live on farms. According to www.nationmaster.com, in 2005, in the US, 19% of people live in rural areas, in Sri Lanka that number is 85%, and in Thailand the number is 68%. Each of these three countries is a democracy. The demographic issue is then, what is the effect on the politics and policies of a democratic country when so many of its people are living in rural areas?

One might explore the question by imagining US national politics if the overall US demographics were represented by  the demographics of West Virginia (in 1990 the US state with the largest percentage of rural residents, 64%) and Mississippi (in 1990 the state with the next highest percentage of rural residents, 53%). (Statistics from the US census of 1990 as quoted on http://www.allcountries.com) Our country would be a very different place. The US overall has not had the same percentage of rural residents as Thailand does currently since 1890 and the same percentage as Sri Lanka has currently since 1850.

So one of the tensions in several democratic countries in this region is that the majority of the electorate has a very different sense of what is most important for the country than the minority of the electorate who live in the cities. Cities themselves have special issues, of course. But more than that, the cities are the centers where this “Asian Tiger” economic revolution is going on. And the national policies desired by the people and companies who want to ride this wave of economic prosperity are not the policies that are the main concerns of the majority.

What prompted this posting is the current situation in Thailand. From a distance, it may be difficult to tell the two sides apart. The government is a freely elected democratic government. The demonstrators are calling for more than the resignation of the current government. They know that if free elections are held, the current adminstration would likely be re-elected. So they are calling for a government by appointees, not government by democratically elected politicians. So, being advocates for democracy, the US should side with the government, right?

Maybe. Hard to argue against democracy, especially one where elections are internationally recognized as being pretty much free and fair. The demonstrators argue that the current government has “bought” the votes of the rural areas, but I see no prima fascia reason to believe that the rural voters are not voting for representatives of their own self interest. But it is the demonstrators who, if they achieve power, are much more likely to enact policies that would more clearly align themselves with the Western, free market, economic system and with Western policies more generally. If one believes that the Western economic system is more likely to create prosperity for all, that is if we really believe in the system we are trying to spread around the world, shouldn’t we be supporting (at least morally) the demonstrators?

As I said, this tension is not confined to Thailand and the urban/rural tension is not confined only to democracies. China has made great strides in modernization and competitiveness in the world market, but its farmers are having a very rough time and have been treated, in many cases, very badly. Protests in China these days are seldom about democratic rights in China, they are overwhelmingly farmers trying to get justice. While in Vietnam, our guide told us that the farmers were blocking economic reforms that would allow Vietnam to grow its economy even more quickly. In the past week, South Korean farmers demonstrated against the nearly completed US-South Korea free trade agreement. Somehow the Korean farmers are not pursuaded that there is justice in allowing Korean car manufacturers to compete with American car manufacturers while American farmers are allowed to compete with Korean farmers. It was not too long ago that Japanese farmers threatened violence in an attempt to halt the construction of Tokyo’s Narita airport.

Even the so-called developed countries are not immune to the rural-urban tension. The US often champions democracy, but we are really a republic. Two prominent anti-democratic institutions in the US are the Electoral College and the US Senate because not everyone is represented equally in these two institutions. Residents of states with smaller populations have a larger representation in each of these bodies, per capita. The existence of these two anti-democratic institutions is the only explanation for the continued existence of the anti-free market, health degrading, subsidies received by a subset of US farmers.

This rural-urban tension is going to be a very interesting issue to see play out. Is democracy always the best form of government? What are the preconditions necessary for democracy to be successful? Is true democracy in some countries antithetical to modernization and international cooperation?

Tim

Happy Thanksgiving from Sri Lanka!

Today is Thanksgiving and we are missing celebrating with old friends and family. Of course, Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Sri Lanka, yet.

Despite Thanksgiving’s origins in American history, I think the whole world should celebrate a version of Thanksgiving. I often say that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, by which I mean, I suppose, that it is the holiday with the most meaning for me. It seems to me very important, at least once a year if not every single day, to remind ourselves of how fortunate we truly are. A cynic might say that this is easy for Americans with all of our wealth, but I do not primarily mean fortunate in material terms. Our greatest “fortune” is the gift of life itself, followed immediately by our connections with other possessors of this gift.

My God, how lucky I am to be alive! Fortunate to experience the wonder that is life. I am so thankful for all the people, including each and every taxpayer in the US and Sri Lanka, for the opportunity to be here in Sri Lanka, to meet new friends, to see new sights, to experience a different climate and ecology, to learn more about myself, to grow as a person.

My God, how lucky I am to have Kris in my life! She has taught me the meaning of love, of what it means to really, deeply, care for another person. Life would be so much more flat, dull, and less meaningful without her to share my experiences, thoughts and dreams, without her sharing with me her experiences, thoughts, and dreams, without her to keep me humble, without her as my life’s partner.

My God, how lucky I am to have such a wonderful family! A mother who has supported and encouraged me for a lifetime. My father, Dick, whose caring ways with all of my family almost define the word “husband” (in its non-marital sense, but with love nonetheless). He is as good at growing a family as he is at growing a garden. My sisters, Shannon and Anna, of whose life’s accomplishments I am so proud, of whose love I always feel, and who also work (sometimes overtime) to keep me humble. My nieces and nephews, both by blood and by marriage, who have added so much to all of our lives. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Heidi and Michael, who connect Kris to her roots, who added so much love to the last years of Allan and Delma, and who continue to bring humor and much love into our lives.

My God, how lucky I am to have so many wonderful friends that I can not possibly list them and their meanings to me in finite time. Friends at Kenyon, friends at First Congregational Church, friends from our neighborhood in Mount Vernon, and friends who live far away. Perhaps my tenderest feelings today are for my oldest friends from Wallingford, Patty and Sandy, Tim and Gen.

And, yes, I am thankful that, while I do not possess all that I long for, I certainly possess all that I truly need. That I also possess much more is pure gravy, if you will pardon the gratuitous T-Day reference.  And I hope that studying the Buddha’s teachings will help me dampen my lust for gadgets and lenses that only bring ephemeral pleasures…(repeat this thought as necessary).

Of course I am being Amerocentric (is that a word?) by calling for all peoples to celebrate Thanksgiving. I am sure many other cultures have their own versions. The Jewish Passover has similarities to Thanksgiving, for example. I guess I am just annoyed that the holiday that seems to be crossing all ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries, to be expanding around the world, is Christmas. Thanksgiving is so much more deserving as an international holiday. Its heart, its focus, its point, is so much more likely to be universally felt and appreciated.

This is all tied in with my annoyance about what Christmas has become. The true heart and point of Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of the birth of Christ. (Nevermind that the origin of Christmas was a device to replace the winter solstice celebrations of the Romans with something equally celebratory, in order to ease the acceptance of Christianity as the new state religion.) Instead, it has become an excuse for the exchanging of gifts. Not that exchanging gifts is a bad thing, but you only have to look at the meaning of Christmas to the retail stores of the US to see that it has gotten out of hand. Christmas is now about satisfying our lust for material stuff.

An, in my opinion, it is the lust for material goods that is spreading the celebration of Christmas around the globe. The biggest shopping day of the year in Singapore is Christmas Eve, despite the fact that Christians make up a small percentage of the population of Singapore. (Since the Singaporeans do not, yet, celebrate Thanksgiving, the concept of “Black Friday” has not made its appearance in Singapore, yet.) I also have come to dread Christmas muzak. Three years ago on our trip to Asia, Christmas muzak followed us to Singapore (whose dominate religions are Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam) and to Thailand (whose dominate religion is Buddhism). Only in Cambodia, a dominantly Buddhist country, did we escape the muzak. However, I attribute that more to poverty and the lack of department stores with PA systems than to a lack of potential “Christmas” spirit. One Cambodian restaurant pasted cotton balls onto the restaurant walls to simulate snow and ease the Western visitor’s homesickness at Christmas time.

I’m not sure what Christmas will be like in Sri Lanka, but I am fearful. Why? At morning tea two days ago, a Muslim and a Buddhist faculty member were worrying about whether the fall semester would end before Christmas.

Fortunately, I do not have a class to teach today, so I can take the day off to celebrate with Kris. We are having the Kandy Fulbright contingent over for a makeshift T-Day dinner. I discovered that one of my Sri Lankan physics colleagues who did her graduate studies in Oklahoma, came to love the Thanksgiving feast. She grew quite a smile when she mentioned her love of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. She was kind enough to call a friend of hers in the animal sciences department to inquire about the availability fof turkey in Sri Lanka. It turns out that they are doing some research on turkeys, but all of the meat gets turned into processed products and they knew of no one who sold raw turkey meat. So Kris is making do with a couple of whole chickens. We did find cranberry sauce in the local supermarket, so that will be on the table. A student came over to our house last night and baked a fancy apple pie. A couple from Chicago are bringing mashed potatoes and some other vegetables. So we will definitely eat well this afternoon.

No football on TV for the guys, though. I will not miss it as Kris won’t let me watch football on Thanksgiving even when we are at home!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, wherever you are in the world,

Tim

How to pronounce “Sri Lanka”

Now that my blog seems to be getting search engine hits for those who want to know how to pronounce Phnom Penh, the limitations of the intelligence behind search engines means I am also getting hits from people who want to know how to pronounce “Sri Lanka”.

I suppose I am being irresponsible by giving a non-authoritative answer, but I am currently residing in Sri Lanka and can report on what I have observed. So as a service to those search engine users who find themselves sent to this page, I provide an answer strictly from my own experience in Sri Lanka.

Despite having heard in the past that one can properly pronounce Sri Lanka as “Shree Lawn-ka” (with the last “ka” pronounced as if it were the word “cup” without the final “p”), I have never heard any Sri Lankan I’ve met say it that way. In my experience, everyone says “Sree Lawn-ka”, where “Sree” ryhmes with “tree.”

Real experts are invited to correct me by submitting a comment.

By the way, while the island has been known to foreigners by many names, the name “Lanka” is very old and has been the name used by the Sinhalese inhabitants essentially since they landed on the island. The name is so old that one of the Hindu stories related in the ancient, sacred Hindu text, The Ramayana, tells of the abduction of the goddess Sita by the King of Lanka. The word “Sri” is kind of an honorific which might be translated as “holy” or “revered” or “beautiful”.

Romans refered to Sri Lanka as Taprobane. Muslim traders used Serandib (meaning Island of Jewels) . The name Serendib gave rise to the English word “serendipity.” The Portuguese, the first Europeans to colonize Sri Lanka, called the island Ceilao, the origins of which are disputed but which may have come from Chinese Si-lan. The Dutch, the second European country to colonize Sri Lanka, used Zeillan. Finally the last European colonizers, the English termed the island Ceylon. The ancient name was restored and the honorific added in 1972.

(Sources: Those highly academic references, Lonely Planet-Sri Lanka and Insight Compact Guide-Sri Lanka.)

Tim

Fulbright student blogs

I’ve added to my “blog roll” (scan down the lists on the left hand side of the page to find the “blog roll”) links to the blogs of two Fulbright students who are here in Sri Lanka. So if you are interested in student perspectives of the Fulbright experience here in Sri Lanka, surf on over to Alison’s and Leah’s blogs.

Tim

Photos of Hue, Danang, and Hoi An

I’ve now uploaded some photos of the time we spent in central Vietnam, in Hue, Danang, and Hoi An to my Picasa website. Hoi An was the location of my visit to a Vietnamese pharmacy. I have described the trip from Hanoi to Hue by train in my report on “The Great Train Experiment.” The results of that experiment were that we slept most of the day of our arrival in Hue in order to recover from the trip.

On the next day, we set out sightseeing. Our first stop was The Citadel at Hue. Here is what I wrote earlier about the Citadel in my “Immortal porpoises” post:

“Yesterday we visited the Citadel in Hue. The Citadel is modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Vietnamese having been ruled by China for a thousand years, ending about a thousand years ago. So the Chinese influences are very strong. Hue was the capital of the last of the Vietnamese dynasties, the Nguyen dynasty, that was co-opted by the French during colonial times. The Citadel is being lovingly restored and is already quite impressive (and also a World Heritage Site). Surprisingly, I was haunted by the TV images of Hue I saw as a teenager at the time of the Tet offensive. Since I was not really close to being drafted, i did not expect to have an emotional response connected with Vietnam war. Hence my surprise. Our guide was an eight year old resident of Hue at that time and told us of how frightening an experience it was. Fortunately, her family lived on the outskirts of Hue and were spared much of the horrors. But between the heavy fighting, including shelling and bombing, to retake the city and the summary executions of some 2500 Hue residents deemed to be collaborators with the US and the South by the Vietnamese forces, some 10,000 civilians died in that battle.”

The first picture in the album was meant to capture a defining image of the battle for Hue. The North Vietnamese forces had raised the North Vietnamese flag over the Citadel and managed to keep it flying for several days, on view to the world through media reporting, before the US was able to recapture the Citadel. It was something of a psychological victory of the Tet Offensive.

We did some other sightseeing in Hue, but I did not take many more pictures that turned out well. The photo of the KFC was included to show one of the successful US businesses that have penetrated the Asian market. We had lunch there and it was clean, air conditioned, and had pretty much the same menu as you would find in the US. The prices were cheaper than in the US, but more expensive than some Vietnamese lunch alternatives.

Our guides then drove us to Hoi An, by way of Danang. It was a beautiful drive along the coast. The coast road passes by a brackish inlet from the ocean. The water is part fresh and part salt and the Vietnamese grow a lot of shrimp here. We ate very well in central Vietnam with the highlights being the ultra-fresh seafood dishes. I can not remember ever having such delicious seafood anywhere else (and, yes, that includes Seattle). One has to cross a small pass as the road turns inland toward Danang. At the pass, we saw the remains of cement bunkers used by US troops to help secure Danang during the Vietnamese War. Our main stop in Danang was the Cham Museum. This area in Vietnam was once ruled by a Hindu-derived people called the Cham and there are still Cham enclaves in Vietnam today. The Cham are culturally related to the Hindus who colonized much of Southeast Asia 1500 years ago. So the Cham are closely related to the ancient builders of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and to the ancient kingdoms in Thailand and Indonesia. So, it was very interesting to see the museum which has a wonderful collection of Cham temple sculpture. The sculptures had many similarities to the sculptures we saw at Angkor Wat on our trip three years ago.

Before leaving Danang, we stopped at the famous China Beach. As depicted in the recent TV series of the same name, China Beach was a US R&R facility. One can certainly see why it was chosen. Miles of gorgeous beach. From these photos you can see that tourism is a bit off this year. Imagine having all that beach to oneself! Kris and I are not much into just laying around the beach, but if we were, this would have been a wonderful opportunity.

It is a short drive from Danang to Hoi An. Hoi An was an ancient port city until its river connection to the sea silted up. Apparently it was a great place to hang out while waiting for the prevailing winds to change. So it was an important trading port for goods running between China and points further south and east in Southeast Asia. Hoi An’s old quarter is (you guessed it) a World Heritage City. I was not too impressed with the old city, except for one modern feature: wonderful restaurants serving local seafood. If you head to the coast from Hoi An, you run into what are described as more wonderful beaches. We can not vouch for them as we never made it out there. We stayed in a lovely hotel two blocks from the old quarter that had a lovely swimming pool and more than adequate air conditioning. If I were to return to Vietnam, I would likely make a point of returning to Hoi An just for being such a relaxed place with such good food.

At this rate, it is not clear that I will finish posting the pictures of our journey to Sri Lanka before we leave Sri Lanka. :^) I will try to make better progress so that I can eventually post some pictures of Sri Lanka itself, though, to be honest, I have not taken all that many pictures here yet.

Tim

Just because you are paranoid…

One of the predictable stages of culture shock is coming to believe that the local people are hostile to you. We have now been in Sri Lanka long enough that the negative aspects of culture shock are due to afflict us and I can sense that hostility feeling creeping up on me.

It is strange that I should feel this way, in a sense. Every Sri Lankan that I have been introduced to has been welcoming, friendly, and has both expressed a willingness to help or has actually been of great help to us. So why should there be this creeping hostility feeling?

I think it comes from encounters with Sri Lankans that we have not been introduced to, the everyday, anonymous encounters with people that one has all the time with strangers. In these encounters the experience is more variable.

I walk to and from work and our house. Drivers of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks all whiz by, very close, often with a blast of their horns. Incredibly rude! Dangerous! Why should I have to step into the muddy ditch just so you do not have to slow down on your way to wherever? What makes your business more important than my business? What makes you more important than me? It is hard not to take it personally, though my observations actually indicate that the drivers treat all pedestrians equally badly, independent of nationality.

On my walk to work, I am stared at by the people I pass. The expressions on the faces are grim. I am a freak. I am an animal in a zoo. A skunk, perhaps. Something not from anywhere near here. Parents point at me to show their children. “Look! You have seen pictures of Americans in your school books. There is one in real life. Isn’t he strange? Wouldn’t you like to take him to class for show and tell?” Car loads of people slow down so everyone can get a good look. People stare open-mouthed at me out of bus windows as they whiz by. Did you see that! Imagine a white person in Dongolla!

I’m taking some steps to combat this staring phenomena. I have taken to saying “Good morning!” to many of the people I pass. To avoid potential misunderstandings in this conservative culture, I mostly reserve this for the men I encounter. Universally the response has been positive. The hard stare dissolves into a smile and a reciprocal “good morning” is given in reply. I don’t know these people in any real way, but I am becoming part of the daily ritual in this neighborhood. The auto repair guy now initiates a friendly wave as I pass.

Actually, some of my warmest greetings come from the children who live on my path to work. Children here are all taught English is a subject in their schools starting very early. I think they are practicing their English and I think they are pleasantly surprised that it works! Sometimes a group of three children run out from their yard to the road and wave and loudly shout “Hello! Hello!” until I return their greeting. Then they switch to an equally enthusiastic “Good-bye! God bye!” until I acknowledge this as well. Very cute.

Of course, sometimes there is real hostility or real differential treatment based on our status as foreigners. If we are walking on the streets of Colombo or Kandy we are constantly assaulted by tuk-tuk drivers and by beggars and by what I will loosely call con men. The tuk-tuk drivers are amazing in their persistence. Once, in Kandy, a tuk-tuk driver watched us get out of a tuk-tuk and pay the driver. Before we could take two steps, the watching tuk-tuk driver asked us if we wanted a ride! What was his thought process? That I was in the habit of taking multiple tuk-tuks to my destinations? That I had forgotten where I wanted to go and told the first tuk-tuk driver the wrong address, but suddenly I now remembered? That I was a spy, madly switching tuk-tuks to throw followers off my track? Humor aside, it gets very old. At least on my walk to work the tuk-tuk drivers have largely gotten to know my habits and mostly have stopped asking me if I want to hire them every time they pass me.

There are not a lot of beggars here, but you will see them, mostly on the streets of Kandy. And while there are not a lot of beggars, they are pitiful. Mere amputees are put to shame by men with deformed limbs or women who seem to barely have the energy to hold out their hand holding crying babies to their breasts. Just as in the US, one has no idea what to make of any one individual case, whether contributing money is really helpful or harmful.

Then there are the con men. I’m still not sure what they are after because we always tell them to go away before we find out what they are after. They use various lines to start a conversation. Where are you from? How long will you be in Kandy? One such man told me that he remembered me from the hotel that morning, that he was one of the hotel gardeners, and that he was absolutely forbidden to speak to me, so please do not tell anyone back at the hotel that we had met on the street and talked. My best guess is that these men are trying to steer us to certain vendors, from which they expect a commission on any sales, especially if it involves fleecing the foreigner unfamiliar with the market prices. Well, I can tell you we have had no need of con men in order to be fleeced in the market. We can arrange to be fleeced all on our own, thank you very much!

And, of course, there have been genuinely hostile events. Vendors do attempt to overcharge us virtually all the time. To some extent this is part of a culture where many transactions involve bargaining, but there appear to be no limits to the willingness to quote outrageous prices to foreigners. In a real sense, this is practiced by the government. Admission to the Pinewella Elephant Sanctuary cost more than one hundred times as much for a foreigner as for a resident.

And, as reported before, my bag was stolen. I am only now learning that I had not backed up quite everything that was on my USB drive and will face considerable work to restore what was lost. Two American women of our acquaintance, each within one week of arrival in the vicinity of Kandy, have been victims of sexual harassment, and one event was pretty extreme.

Another contributor to our anxiety is the mixed messages we get about the prevalance of serious crime. Supposedly, the theft of my bag was the first significant theft in anyone’s memory in the Physics Department. I trust the people who said that. But I also note the furnishings in my office. I have three(!) desks. Each desk has three drawers. Each drawer has a separate lock. There is a four drawer file cabinet with a lock. There is a cupboard with four shelves for my books and a lock. There are no master keys for the rooms in the building. Every lock is unique with a key for authorized users and a backup key kept locked up in the chair’s office. This system is surely inconvenient. But is it believed to be necessary because of a high probability of theft? That appears to be the only rational explanation.

Our house is another example. Dongolla is considered a pretty posh neighborhood by local standards. It is proximate to the university and has nice views from its hillsides. But Is the expectation that eventually we will be burglarized? We have noticed houses in Dongolla that have razor wire on top of their walls. Or broken glass set into the concrete that forms the wall. All personal belongings in our house are kept in a wardrobe, here called an almirah. The almirahs all have individual locks. When we had discussions about security, the biggest positive factor was the fact that we had a maid who would watch the house when we were away. But the maid is not always there. What then?

The other day, we opened the curtains to let the abundant sunshine into our bedroom. We were fully dressed, of course. I went on an errand. When I got back, Kris reported that she noticed a man in the yard of a neighbor across the creek from us staring through our bedroom window for a considerable length of time. So, was he just curious? Was he casing the joint? Does he have an accomplice he will call to tell when it is safe to break into our house?

Paranoia for sure and a predictable stage of culture shock, but only time will tell if they really were out to get us.

Tim

How to pronounce Phnom Penh

If you follow this blog (bless you!) you are probably thinking that you have read a post with this title already. But actually this posting discusses my “discovery” about search engines and my blog. But, if you need to know how to pronounce Phnom Penh, I do include that as well. (Added 12/29/08): And if you want to see my pictures taken in Phnom Penh, click here.

Apparently, there is quite a bit of interest in how to pronounce Phnom Penh. I discovered this because WordPress keeps stats on how people get referred to my blog. A significant number of people have been viewing my posting titled “One does pronounce the ‘P’ in Phnom Penh” because some search engine is directing them to the post when they search on “pronouncing Phnom Penh” or some variant.

This is amazing technology in many ways, but my post was not really about how to pronounce Phnom Penh. Nor should anyone consider me much of an expert on the pronunciation of Phnom Penh. However, as a service to those search engine users, I will now tell what I heard my Cambodian tour guide say on my recent trip to Phnom Penh.

My Cambodian tour guide pronounced the name of the capital city of Cambodia, p-nom pen. That is, p as in put, followed by nom, rhymes with Tom, (p-nom as one word) followed by pen, just as you would pronounce the word for a common writing instrument.

(Note added December 15th, 2008: Here is a link to a much more authoritative answer, The American Heritage Dictionary. Note that the link includes a audio file so you can hear the correct pronunciation.

Given that the American Heritage Dictionary contradicts the comment by Don, and that Don never responded to my request for the source of his authority, I am removing Don’s comment from the blog.)

I have a clear memory of this as I thought I was demonstrating my worldly ways by pronouncing it nom pen all these years. My attempts to demonstrate my suave sophistication often end badly and this was no exception.

This incident with the search engine got me to thinking about blog stats. How easy would it be for me to enhance my statistics by merely mentioning “a condition in which one lacks clothes” and “current singing sensation whose initials are BS” in the title of one of my postings? Maybe I will start another blog just to do the experiment. Then again, maybe not, as this experiment has indubitably been done many times before.

Tim

101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka

Here is an attempt at humor. Anyone with experience in Sri Lanka should feel free to add more reasons by submitting a comment:

The reason to carry an umbrella with you at all times in Sri Lanka is that:

1. …it might rain. I do not know if it rains “cats and dogs” in Sri Lanka or not, because it rains so hard here that adding an occasional cat or dog to the mix would not be noticible. As we have come to learn, rain is a real force of nature here. In fact, amazingly, it can rain buckets here without any evidence of a storm, as such. There can be no wind, for example, and yet water fills the air, falling absolutely straight down. Which makes it easy to decide which way to point ones umbrella.

2. …it might be sunny. An umbrella used as a parasol is actually cooler than wearing a hat. Looks really cute if you are a woman. Looks really odd if you are a man.

3. …the fruit bats might decide to see what their cousins think is so great about vampirism. A cricket bat would be more effective in this application, but wouldn’t you feel funny carrying a cricket bat with you all the time? Oh, wait! This is Sri Lanka! No one would notice.

4. …you might be attacked by wild dogs. Oh, wait! This posting was supposed to be funny, not true to life.

5. …you might want to investigate something on the ground, but not actually want to touch it. I was walking to work a few days ago and saw what looked like a scorpion. I looked closely. Classical scorpion shape, crab-like claws in miniature, long thick tail. But it was a plastic-ky deep green-blue color all over. So, I poked it a few times with the tip of my umbrella. Felt kind of rubbery. So, I concluded it must have been a kid’s plastic insect. Walked by the same spot the next day. Ants were feeding on the carcass. Hmmm. Not plastic! Glad I didn’t touch it.

6. …you might want to maintain some personal space. Sri Lankans do not have the same sense of personal space as Americans. This can be a problem while standing in line for two reasons. The first is that Sri Lankans don’t believe in standing in lines and the second is that they are happy to use what you think of as your personal space to cut in front of you. I’ve found that holding my umbrella horizontally, midpoint at my side, the tip therefore rearward a foot or so, and then making sudden quick rotations about a vertical axis at random times helps keep my place in line.

7. …monkeys hang out in the trees over the paths on my way to work at the university. Enough said.

8. …Sri Lanka is a bird-lover’s paradise and the birds hang out in the trees over the paths on my way to work at the university. Enough said.

9. …you might want to get off a bus that you were silly enough to get on in the first place. Remember that part about personal space? It is amazing how many people they can get on a bus in Sri Lanka. If you need to get off the bus, there will not be enough room for you to get by. However, if you force the tip of your umbrella between two people and move the handle vigorously from side to side, you can get by. Seeing the high density of matter in a Sri Lankan bus has made me wonder if Pauli’s Exclusion Principle is actually Pauli’s Exclusion Suggestion in Sri Lanka.

Gee, if I could come up with one more I could have a top-ten list for Leno. Anyone have any more?

Tim

« Older entries