Photos of Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

Continuing with the theme of the cheap photographer trick of shooting baby animals, I have uploaded my photos of our trip to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage to my Picasa website. We went on this trip during our second weekend staying in Dangolla, just before we moved into our rented house near the end of October.

The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage (there are others) is one of Sri Lanka’s most visited attractions. It is located on the road between Colombo and Kandy, about an hour out of Kandy by car or about two hours out of Colombo. The orphanage is run by the state as a place to take care of elephants that somehow are not capable of surviving in the wild. For example, I decided not to include a photo of an elephant that lost its right rear leg below the knee to a land mine. It was just too sad to see, though, like a (really, reeeeeally, big) three-legged dog, the injured elephant walks along with the others, from the enclosure where they are fed, to the river where they bathe. In all, there seemed to be about thirty elephants in the group we saw.

As the appellation “orphanage” might imply, there are a number of baby elephants. So you will find on my Picasa site: photos of baby elephants by themselves; photos of baby elephants being protected by the herd; photos of baby elephants being fed from bottles. (I can just hear you say “Ahhh!” for those.)  And  it is a good thing that I am not posting on Facebook, because, in the ultimate of “ahhhhh!”-inspiring photographs, we have a baby elephant being breast-fed by its mother.

One problem for the photographer is that at Pinnewala there is a kind of elephant overload. After you have taken the baby elephant pictures, how many pictures of adult elephants can you take? You will perhaps detect a certain desperation in the remaining compositions. In an otherwise boring photo of the blind tusker, note the way the old guy uses his tusks to keep his trunk from dragging on the ground. I wonder if Viagra would help him keep it up?

You will note a couple of shots of me feeding bananas to an elephant. When I did this, I was mid-way in my education about how people at tourist attractions get money from visitors. By that time I did know that when one of the elephant handlers offered to let me feed the elephant, he would want a fee in return, even if he did not say so up front. So I offered him 100 LKR (a dollar) and he seemed to agree. So I fed the elephant maybe six bananas with the handler taking pictures with my camera. When I was done, he wanted something like 1000 LKR (ten bucks). I think I gave him 200 LKR and told him that he had to be more clear on the price. I have no idea where the money went. He clearly was an employee of the orphanage, but whether the funds I spent on feeding the elephant went to supporting the orphanage or were just a low-level bit of graft that this guy gets because of his position, I don’t know.

One of the featured souvenirs at Pinnewala is paper made from elephant dung. Yes, elephant dung. (Clean up the coffee you just exhaled through your nose, Mom.) When you think about it, elephant dung paper makes a lot of sense. Paper is just plant fibers that have been chemically “digested,” mixed with clay to make them white, and allowed to dry. Now I imagine (and hope) that the process of making elephant dung paper involves a few cleaning and odor removing steps, but the paper produced is  very good quality paper. (No, Mom. It is not sold in rolls.) Naturally, it sells very well, mostly to the three-to-six year-old boy demographic who can’t wait to get home for the next “show-and-tell” day at school, so they can repeat the word “dung” over and over, until the class collapses with snorts and giggles and the children slide, jelly-like, to the floor, holding their tummies, out of the left side of their tablet-arm chair-desks, except for Lefty, who slides out of the right side of his.



Photos from Jurong Bird Park, Singapore

I have uploaded some photos of birds that I took while we were in Singapore to my Picasa website. Singapore has a wonderful aviary called the Jurong Bird Park. The birds are displayed in cages designed to re-create the bird’s natural habitat as much as possible. Several of the cages allow people to get inside the enclosures and get close to the birds.

For an amateur photographer, it is like shooting ducks on the water. In fact, there are some shots of ducks on the water!


P.S. The acute reader will note that I have not systematically labelled the photos with the names of the bird species and their Latin equivalents as I ostentatiously did in my “Backyard yard birdwatching” post earlier. My only excuse is that I was not yet a “birder” at the time. :^)

A constitutional crisis

There is an interesting political situation playing out here in Sri Lanka. The story needs a little background first.

Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy. Some would say, however, that whichever party is in power has too much power. That is, the government in power does not have an effective system of checks and balances to prevent misuse of that power. For example, the civil service system here does not extend to enough government employees, so that each change in government leads to widespread firings of even fairly low level bureaucrats and their replacement (often) with political party loyalists. One person even told me that government employees have learned  not to make improvements in the system, since then they would surely be fired at the next change of government for having made the old government look good. There is also the widely held opinion that the political appointees are corrupt and use their positions to make money by taking bribes to either do their jobs or not do their jobs as the case may be.

Of course, all of this is based on much hearsay evidence that I have no way to evaluate. Every government has corruption and if someone disagrees with government action, it is tempting to attribute the action to corruption than to simple disagreement. Whether this corruption is any worse than in the US, say, I have no real basis for judgment.

But having said that, people here have been pleased and interested to see that their Supreme Court is flirting with the idea of an independent judiciary.

Close to the time of our arrival, the Supreme Court ordered that many road blocks in the city of Colombo be removed as a violation of the fundamental rights of its citizens to free movement. I can report that the road blocks are still in place. This seems to have been a near repeat of a Supreme Court order of last January that police and the military could not search people without warrant during the night. In that case, the government complied with the order, but reinstated the checkpoints and searches after a couple of bomb blasts occurred in Colombo.

Then on October 8th, the Supreme Court canceled a contract between the Sri Lankan government and a land developer and fined the former president of Sri Lanka for a deal the Supreme Court determined to be corrupt. This made pretty much everyone happy (except the former president). The public saw what they believed to be a righteous check on presidential power. The current government was happy that the former president was a member of the opposition party and they could point the finger of corruption at them. The downside was the very long time it took for the Supreme Court to take this action and it really is not a blow for an independent judiciary if the ruling pleases the party in office.

Recently, the Supreme Court abrogated oil hedging contracts between several banks and Sri Lanka’s state owned oil company, the CPC. The Supreme Court ruled that the contracts were manifestly not fair, in that the banks paid out much less if the price of oil rose, than the CPC would have to pay if the price of oil fell. There were allegations that the director of the CPC entered into these contracts for corrupt reasons. This again sounded like the actions of a judiciary protecting the people from corruption and maybe it was. However, the Supreme Court action was taken after the price of oil fell drastically with the recent global economic collapse. So, in fact, the Supreme Court’s action allowed the government to bail out of a bad deal.

But then the Supreme Court went further. It determined that, now that the CPC was not paying off the hedging deal and that the price of oil on the world market was so low, the price of gas should be reduced to 100 LKR (the abbreviation for Sri Lankan Rupees) per liter immediately. The people cheered.

But the government did not. First they stalled, saying that they had to have a cabinet meeting to discuss this ruling, leaving the price of gas at 122 LKR/liter. Then the government-run newspaper, the Daily News, began to run some very scary stories. These stories quoted senior government officials as saying that an international conspiracy of Western powers, supported by the opposition party, was plotting to take away the government’s power to levy taxes for the purpose of stopping the war against the LTTE. The quoted senior officials promised the members of the armed forces and their families that the government would never allow this essentially traitorous effort to succeed. Yikes!

The stories were so unspecific about “the plot” that it took me a few days to connect them to the Supreme Court decision on the price of gas. Essentially, the government was accusing the Sri Lankan Supreme Court of cooperating in an international conspiracy to stop the war against the LTTE and indicating that it would not allow the Supreme Court decision to stand. This, coming from a government accused of making people “disappear,” defines scary for me.

That is how things stand right now. From the perspective of a foreigner who will be leaving next summer, it will be “interesting” to see how this will play out. It is rather more real and less of an intellectual exercise for my Sri Lankan friends. This country really needs an independent judiciary and, no matter what happens in this particular case, I hope the country is taking steps to establish one.


Our trip to Galle

I mentioned once before in a previous post that we had made a trip to Galle, soon after our arrival in Sri Lanka. It is high time that I got around to writing about that trip, especially since it bears on our Christmas trip to Dambulla, from which we just returned. I’ve just posted pictures from the trip on my Picasa website.

We arrived in Sri Lanka on October 10th, 2008. The US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission scheduled our orientation for October 16-17, 2008. We arrived a bit early to recover from travel and get organized. There were some difficulties, but we were as prepared for the orientation as we were going to be a few days in advance. So we decided to explore the country a bit.

We only had two days, so we limited our objectives. We decided to see the southwestern coastline on an overnight trip to Galle. We stopped at a travel agent and booked a package tour that included a car and driver and a night at a hotel. The travel agent recommended the hotel and, by doing so, unintentionally reminded us that we wanted to check out the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa (Bawa pronounced three quarters of the way between Bawa and Bava). Bawa is famous in Sri Lanka for defining post-colonial Sri Lankan architecture. Among Bawa’s best known buildings are several hotels in Sri Lanka. The one in Galle (really just north of Galle proper) is called the Lighthouse Hotel.  So it came to be that we were booked into the Lighthouse Hotel for the night of October 14th, 2008.

Our driver picked us up at our guesthouse and headed for the A2 road down the coast to Galle. The road naming system is taken from British usage. A designation of “A” means that the road is of the best quality available, while one designated “B” not so high quality. The “2” just indicates which of the A roads it is (sort of like the designation “I-5” in the US) with A2 being the road from Colombo through Galle around the south coast almost to Yala National Park and then cutting inland, north to its end at Welawaya.

The A2 is four lane through Colombo and its southern suburbs and then turns into a two lane road. The distance from Colombo to Galle is 116 km (72 miles). This turns out to be a three hour drive. The road is used by: pedestrians, ox carts, bicycles, tuk tuks, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and cars (in approximate order of average velocity). So 116 km (72 miles) in three hours means that the average speed of a car on the best quality road in the country is 40 km/hr (24 mph).

This is quite a driving experience, as you can imagine. Slow moving vehicles cannot use the shoulder as there isn’t one. You might have some dirt providing a smooth road edge, but more often the asphalt just ends leaving a tire grabbing four inch drop to the surrounding landscape. The only way one can pass slow moving vehicles is to use the lane that you would think should be reserved for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Since everyone thinks they should be able to proceed at the speed they choose, one can get situations in which a car is trying to pass a bus, which is passing a tuk tuk, which is passing a bicycle. Needless to say, this gets pretty crowded on a two lane road and that isn’t even counting the traffic coming in the other direction! And, of course, there is traffic coming in the other direction. This is when things get very exciting. I suspect a car traveling the stated 116 km from Colombo to Galle actually travels 232 km when its zig-zag path is included.

In addition to the other traffic on the road, man and Nature put other obstacles in ones path. Many times a vehicle can be found on the (conventionally designated) “wrong” side of the road, simply to avoid potholes. Every so often, the authorities will put up a barrier that blocks the lanes going in one direction followed by a barrier that blocks the lanes going in the other direction. This forces traffic to take turns going past the barriers and this slows traffic sufficiently that the police or the military can observe the vehicles. Buses stop to take on or discharge passengers anywhere and thus suddenly change from being a part of co-moving traffic to being a fixed, wide obstacle.

So perhaps it is not surprising that there is a spectacular and very rich Buddhist temple on the A2 as you approach the town of Kalutura from the north. Praying and making an offering at the temple is said to protect one on ones travels. So pretty much everyone does! Cars, trucks, and buses come to a halt at the temple, people get out, pray to the temple god, and leave a donation. In an illustration of how the different religions in Sri Lanka respect each others customs, our driver went through this ritual, even though he was not Buddhist. A few people in a hurry simply toss money out of their car, truck, or bus windows on the way past, trusting honest people to deposit their offerings in the supplied donation boxes and presumably feeling that the god knows what is in their hearts.

Eventually we arrive at the Lighthouse Hotel. Wow! The place is gorgeous. It is right on the Indian Ocean beach. It is a fantastic design. Bawa has made the hotel a seamless part of the landscape. The rooms look out onto the ocean, each room with a patio (see photos). The dining room overlooks some picturesque rocks. On the outer side of the rocks, the Indian Ocean crashes in, sending sprays of water into the air. On the inner side, the rocks protect tide pools where local children are playing. There are two swimming pools. One is merely beautiful. The second is large, set in the grass just off the sandy beach. The pool is designed in such a way that it does not have a visible edge at its boundary. That is, when you are immersed in the pool, your eye travels over the surface of the pool and out over the Indian Ocean without break, as if the pool were a part of the ocean. Just amazing. Bawa instantly becomes my second favorite architect of all time.

The next day, we visit the Galle fort, the main attraction of Galle. As it turns out, this day is our first Poya Day in Sri Lanka. A Poya Day marks the full moon and each one is significant in the Buddhist calendar. Each is a national holiday and the twelve Poya Days each year help keep Sri Lanka at the forefront of the countries-with-the-most-national-holidays list. Unfortunately for us, the fact that it was a Poya Day meant that Galle was pretty much closed up tight. We did enjoy a lovely walk along the walls of the fort and through the portion of Galle that lies within the walls of the fort. Dutch influence is still much in evidence here.

On the way back from Galle to Colombo, we stopped in the home of Dudley Silva, a batik artist mentioned in the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook. His home and workshop in Ambalangoda is full of wonderful batik art and we bought a large, colorful piece depicting a fanciful jungle scene with many detailed plants and birds.

Near Kosgoda, we visited a turtle hatchery. This was hard to find. Rather, I should say, they were hard to find. Lonely Planet Sri Lanka lists three hatcheries in the Kosgoda area. When our driver questioned local residents, none were aware of any of the three. We finally found one when a resident remembered a place where foreigners visited, presumably volunteers at the hatchery. The hatchery was on the beach side of the A2, with a sign so small that we would never have found it on our own.

The hatchery was manned that day by a Sri Lankan woman who showed us around. The small, open air, fenced compound held several concrete tanks ranging in size from three feet by two feet to twelve feet by five feet.  Four of the tanks were filled with water and each contained one or two grown turtles. These were turtles that could not be returned to the sea. Instead, they served as zoo specimens to educate visitors about the different kinds of sea turtles that are hatched on the beaches of Sri Lanka. Two large tanks were filled with sand. The hatchery buys turtle eggs  from local residents at a price just higher than the residents would get from a restaurant. They then place the eggs in the sand and wait for them to hatch. Once hatched, the baby turtles are allowed to strengthen for a few days  in a water filled tank before being taken to a remote spot on the beach and released into the sea. We were allowed to handle the baby turtles and they were surprisingly hard to hold as they were driving their little legs as hard as they could go to try to make it to the sea.

Being the cheap photographer that I am, I take photographs of any baby creature as I can be pretty sure of getting a cute shot. That day I was foiled, however, when after returning to the car and setting back out on the road to Colombo, I discovered that I had forgotten to put a memory card in my camera that morning. My camera happily took picture after picture, each time warning me on the preview screen that there was no CF card installed. However, I am old-fashioned and shoot through the viewfinder and I turn off the preview screen to enhance battery life. Sigh…

So no cute photographs of the baby turtles.You will just have to visit Kosgoda to see them for yourself.


Photos of Phnom Penh

I’ve uploaded my photos taken in Phnom Penh to my Picasa web site.  I’ve already blogged about some of our experiences in Phnom Penh in my posting that got the whole “How to pronounce Phnom Penh” thing going.

Cambodia appeared to be, by far, the poorest country we visited on our trip. To check this impression, I went to Wikipedia to see the nominal GDP per capita for the countries we visited as compiled by the World Bank for 2007:


China……………………..$ 2,485

Vietnam………………….$  836

Cambodia………………..$  597


Malaysia………………….$ 6,807

Sri Lanka………………….$ 1,622

I am a bit surprised by these numbers. To me, Vietnam seemed much more prosperous than Cambodia than these numbers would indicate. Of course our view is colored by the small area of each country that we were able to see on our visits.

In my Phnom Penh photos you can see some of the contrasts we experienced there. There are some gorgeous temples and monuments, but there are also scenes of poverty and the aftermath of war.

The largest section of the photos is devoted to the National Museum of Cambodia. Housed in a beautiful colonial era building of Cambodian style are some of the cultural treasures of Cambodia. The photos do not do the collection justice, partly because photography is limited, even if you pay the extra money to take pictures. The issue is that present day Cambodians still revere the deities depicted in many of the statues. So photography was allowed outside the building and (roughly speaking) of items in the portions of the interior courtyard that were not under a roof.

Many of the items displayed were brought from Angkor Wat at least partly to protect them from theft. We agree with the advice to travellers to see Angkor Wat first to appreciate the context in which these statues were found. On the other hand, the National Museum places Angkor Wat in a larger perspective, in relation to the overall history and culture of Cambodia. We are very pleased that we were able to have seen both. We also appreciated the additional perspective gained by seeing the Khmer artifacts in Danang, Vietnam.


Attending a Sri Lankan Muslim wedding reception

Last night we had the honor of attending the wedding reception hosted by of one of my senior colleagues. It was a lovely party, complete with dinner for approximately 300 people, held at one of the best hotels in Kandy.

I have not written anything to this point in my blog about the ethnicity of my physics colleagues. I have not done so because ethnicity really has not played any important role in department affairs that I can see. I have colleagues who are Sinhalese, Muslim, and Tamil. I have students who are Sinhalese, Muslim, and Tamil. So far as I can tell, after two months of being part of the department, all are treated equally.

I only mention the fact that it was a Muslim wedding reception because I imagine that customs may differ between different ethnic groups and so I do not know what aspects of the reception may be specifically Muslim and what aspects are common to all, or to many, Sri Lankan communities.

One interesting thing in Sri Lanka is that civil law, but not criminal law, varies by community. Laws relating to marriage and land ownership, for example, come in four “flavors”: Sinhalese, Kandyan, Muslim, and Tamil. Before entering into a legal agreement, the parties agree on which set of laws will govern the agreement.

The wedding is actually a two part affair. The actual, legal, wedding took place a week ago. The actual wedding is a small, intimate affair with only  family and close friends in attendance. About a week later, there is the “homecoming” reception, to which the families invite their larger circle of friends. Our Western logic assumed that the week in between was the honeymoon, but we were wrong. In fact, the couple indicated that they were still deciding where to go on their honeymoon.

Kris chose this occasion to wear her new sari for the first time. Putting on a sari by oneself is not for the beginner. Kris arranged for one of our neighbors to come over to help. That turned out to be a lesson in itself, because our neighbor was expert at wearing a sari in the Kandyan style, but Kris had decided that the Indian style of wearing the sari would be more fitting for her. Fortunately, our neighbor’s sister was visiting, and she is more expert with the Indian style ans she agreed to come over and help.

The women seemed to have a good time as I heard many eruptions of giggles as the process proceeded. I was called out to view the results. Kris looked beautiful in the sari, almost as if she were born to wear the sari. I learned that the sari does not just get thrown on. Rather each pleat and fold is carefully pinned into place. Mostly with numerous invisible pins, but even a decorative pin that was affixed to the sari where a man would wear a military medal was used to hold in place the end of the sari that is “thrown” (hah!) over the shoulder. The sari itself was made of beautiful handwoven cotton cloth that Kris purchased in a state-owned store that employs local craftspeople. Kris received many compliments on the sari at the reception.

We arrived at the hotel about five minutes before the scheduled start time of 7:30PM. We were among the first to arrive. There was a large, golden, love seat surrounded by an extravagant display of flowers across from the entry door. To the left and right of the entry, there were large groups of round tables set for the dinner to come, with about equal numbers of tables on either side.  We were clearly clueless and some of the other early arrivals graciously invited us to sit. However, when we approached a table on the left side of the entry, we were gently told that, if we wanted to sit together, we should sit at a table on the other side of the entry, which we did. And so it turned out that the vast majority of the guests divided themselves so that woman gathered at tables on one side of the entry and men on the other, with the few couples wishing to sit together sitting on the men’s side of the ballroom.

We arbitrarily sat at a table on the men’s side of the ballroom and watched as the other guests arrived. Our table of seven was filled out by those members of the department that attended without their spouses, generally for lack of a babysitter at home. Our host, my senior colleague, appeared and went from table to table warmly welcoming each and every guest. In this, he was ably assisted by two of his sons who admirably performed the role of gracious hosts. After everyone had been made to feel welcome, our host reappeared again with his other son, the bridegroom. The bridegroom was accompanied by two young men that I took to play the same role as that of a Western “best man.” This group went from table to table exchanging greetings and best wishes with all the guests. Again, each and every guest was made to feel very welcome.

Then came a huge dinner. Water, a fruit drink, and a soft drink, along with several side dishes had been pre-positioned on the table before the guests had arrived. Now, a large platter of rice with chunks of meat and vegetables was placed at the center of each table. We helped ourselves from the platter using a small plate as a scoop. Everyone ate with their fingers in Sri Lankan style, though Kris, having a little less practice than I, chose to take advantage of the spoon and fork offered to us in consideration of the fact that we were Westerners. Everything was delicious, one of the best meals I have had in Sri Lanka. In particular, the chicken side dish had a wonderful, spicy, dry rub, but really everything was very well prepared.

In Sri Lanka, the evening generally ends at the conclusion of the meal. In the US, we are used to socializing both before and after dinner, but here, the socializing is done before dinner. With the meal concluded, people got up to say their goodbyes to their hosts. My colleague took us to meet the bride before we left. She was lovely. She was wearing elaborate and beautiful clothes for which I have no names. Her hands were covered in elaborate designs done in henna. We posed with the bride and groom for the official wedding photographers.

The evening ended about 9:30PM. Our coach and four arrived to pick us up, but apparently at the stroke of 9:30PM it changed back into a tuk-tuk, still driven, fortunately, by our loyal driver NS.


Electrical plugs in Sri Lanka

One of my original purposes in writing this blog was to be of practical help to Fulbrighters who come after me. So let me take up a very practical topic, namely electrical power here in Sri Lanka (or at least my little corner of Sri Lanka).

I will not try to be exhaustive on the subject since there are much more complete web sites out there, mostly catering to travelers. I will write a bit about things that are of interest to those spending more time than just a two week vacation, however. I have found “Electricity around the world” to be a useful site, for example. It contains a comprehensive list of countries with details on the standard outlets and plugs as well as the AC voltage and frequency used in that country.

So, if you look up Sri Lanka on the “Electricity around the world” website, you will find the information that the country uses 230V, 50 Hz AC and that the standard plug is the British standard BS 546 pictured here. Each specification of this is different from the US standard, which uses 120V, 60 Hz AC and the NEMA 1-15 (two pins) or NEMA 5-15 (three pin) plug shown here. (Actually, “Electricity around the world” does not mention that there is a higher power outlet in use in Sri Lanka. It looks very much like the BS 546 outlet, but is bigger, and therefore incompatible with the BS 546 plug. Since this outlet is used only for high power devices like ranges and ovens, I will not consider it further here.) That Sri Lanka has single standard makes planning easy in principle, but in practice there is some good news and some bad news.

One piece of really good news is that modern electronics, like digital cameras and laptops, are perfectly happy with either 120V, 60 Hz AC or 240V, 50 Hz AC. These new devices can sense the difference when they are plugged in and adjust themselves appropriately. All the user has to do is to find an adapter to change one plug type into the other. These are cheap, lightweight, and readily available either in the US or Sri Lanka. I got a set of travel adapters from Radio Shack in the US and had no problems during our travels to Sri Lanka. (There is a small problem in Sri Lankan households. See the paragraph on “shutters” below).

Another piece of good news for travelers is that many hotels either provide wall plugs that will accept several styles of plugs or will loan you adapters. So even if you don’t bring a set of adapters along, you can still recharge your laptop or camera.

Planning ahead also helped. For example, Kris bought a travel hairdryer that was both compact and had a switch to enable it to be used with either 120V or 240V AC power. I chose a battery operated electric razor as AA batteries are a universal “standard” and available everywhere. We brought battery powered, travel alarm clocks. By planning ahead to bring nothing that absolutely required 120V AC, we have not needed to pack or buy electrical transformers to convert 240V to 120V AC. Transformers are heavy, bulky, and modestly expensive.

One final warning in the “planning ahead section”:  Any electrical device that contains a motor may be incompatible with the change from 60 Hz AC to 50 Hz AC. It may not help to convert the 240V to 120V with a transformer because the fundamental speed and power of some motors is inextricably tied to the AC frequency, not the voltage. If you need to bring some motor-containing appliance (sewing machine, food processor, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, air conditioner, etc.) you should check very carefully to be sure that it will work on 50Hz power. Do not take any salesperson’s word on this. Kris and I shopped for a portable sewing machine to take with us and I could tell that all of the salespeople were completely clueless on this subject. Partly for the uncertainty over whether or not a sewing machine bought in the US could be made to work in Sri Lanka and because shipping costs are so high, we did not bringing a sewing machine with us, instead we purchased one here and intend to leave it in Sri Lanka. (Sorry. It is already spoken for.)

Now for the bad news part. Actually, the bad news is pretty minor, more annoying than anything else. The first bad news is that if you come to Sri Lanka to set up housekeeping, you will likely find that there is only one electrical outlet per room (with a few more in the kitchen). So, after you get here,  plan to buy about one power strip per room to accommodate the greater number of gadgets Americans tend to own. (Of course you should be careful to not overload an outlet. The standard outlet here is rated for 5A, which at 240V is about 1200W. 1200W is enough for a single hairdryer, toaster or microwave on one outlet. More than one low power device can be plugged into a single outlet. We are running a fan, a printer, two laptops, an external CD-DVD drive, and our wireless cable modem on one outlet right now, for example, but I would want to do the math before adding any more.) The other great thing about power strips is that they are often designed to accept several plug styles. A good choice of power strip style can eliminate the need for many adapters.

Another feature of the standard BS 546 wall outlets in use here is that they often have “shutters.” Shutters are plastic pieces hidden in the outlet that block the insertion of the two smaller round pins of the BS 546 plug until they are moved aside by the longer, bigger, round pin. This is a safety “feature” to ensure that only three prong plugs are inserted into the outlet and to protect children who might be tempted to insert a pointy metal object into the outlet. But Americans are used to inserting a two pin plug into a three pin outlet.

And that brings us to another subject. Many electrical devices sold in Sri Lanka do not come with the standard BS 546 plug, usually because the devices are imported from a country with a different standard plug. For example, many low power electrical devices made in Europe come with the CEE7/16 plug. For historical reasons, the two round pins of the CEE7/16 plug would fit neatly into the two smaller round holes of the Sri Lankan standard BS 546 outlet. However, the outlet shutters prevent this and your travel adapter set probably does not have an adapter with the third pin.

There are some work-arounds. First, you can trick the plug by inserting a (preferably non-conducting) round object into the large round hole to  hold open the shutters while you insert the two pin CEE7/16 plug. Once the plug is in, you can remove the round object from the third hole.

Another strategy is to use an adapter purchased here in Sri Lanka. In my experience this works satisfactorily only some of the time. I find these adapters to make inconsistent connections and often fail completely. Sometimes you can get them to work by carefully draping the cord in such a way as to get the plug to lean just right so that the plug makes electrical contact with the adapter. In one case, I had to smash one adapter apart with a hammer to remove our coffee maker’s plug, when some insulating plastic melted and prevented the removal of the plug from the adapter. These adapters are probably fine for a short trip, but annoying to deal with for an extended stay.

Medium power devices and power strips often come with BS 1363 plugs. This style of plug is often accommodated in the locally sold adapters, with the same problems noted in the previous paragraph. An interesting aspect of these plugs is that the plug itself has a fuse. Another type of plug on similar, medium power devices is the oblique, flat blade type. It turns out that this type of plug is also accommodated in the locally sold adapters, but I embarrassed myself in front of my Sri Lankan physicist host when I could not figure out how the plug went into the adapter’s socket!

I have started a program of installing standard BS 546 plugs onto as many of my devices as I can. My goal is to eliminate the need for any adapters at all. You can get BS 546 plugs at a hardware store or Arpico.

The outlets here in Sri Lanka have a feature that I wish was included on outlets in the US. The outlets are switched, i.e. they have a switch mounted in the socket front plate that turns the power to the socket on or off. For the small price of the inconvenience of having to make sure the outlet is switched on when desired, you  get an increase in safety when inserting or removing plugs and the convenience of turning on or off several devices at once at the socket. Also, if you are energy-conscious, switching the power off at the switch eliminates the energy used by devices like TVs to enable them to respond to a remote control even when “off”. Similarly, “power bricks” for laptops and other electronic devices use energy even if the brick is not connected to the device.

A common misperception in the West is that electrical power in Asia is not to be relied on because it goes out so often. I can not talk authoritatively about Asia in general or even all of Sri Lanka, but I have not found the situation radically different here than in Gambier, Ohio. Gambier probably has more outages than average in the US, but one learns to live with it by having a UPS for the computer and a stock of flashlights and candles. We have had a couple of outages here, but have not been much effected. Laptops have an advantage when it comes to surviving power outages compared to desktops. A power glitch immediately reboots a desktop often with loss of whatever it was you were working on at the time. But a laptop’s batteries keep it from rebooting and the power has often returned before the laptop batteries die.

To summarize my advice for the long term visitor to Sri Lanka:

1. Plan ahead to avoid bringing devices incompatible with 240V, 50Hz AC power.

2. Buy power strips to multiply the number of outlets in a room (being careful not to overload the outlet) and to provide outlets that can accommodate the multiple plug types found on electrical devices purchased in Sri Lanka.

3. If you have the minimal skill involved, install standard BS 546 plugs on your electrical devices to further decrease the number of unreliable adapters that you depend on.


Mad dogs and Englishmen…

It was a relatively hot day today and that put me in mind of what I thought was an old saying, that “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” I was having tea with two of my new colleagues and I asked them if they knew that expression. They did not, but they both laughed at the implied “caricature  reference” to their former colonial overlords. I took the opportunity to strengthen my bonds with them by mentioning that “we Irish” had been oppressed by those same British.

Actually, I have as much English ancestry as Irish, despite my very ethnic name.  Really, I am a typically American mongrel from way back. On the other hand, my very Irish name gives me a sympathy with the Irish, who really did suffer great hardship under the British. So while my DNA may be as mixed as they come, and the most tardy of my ancestors arrived in the US by 1830, making me about as un-hyphenated American as they come, the fact of my name makes me feel like an Irish-American. One of my tea companions reads my blog and I hope he will forgive me for my lack of full disclosure at the time.

Heck, I figured the “Only mad dogs…” phrase had to have originated in one of the tropical former British colonies. It was so apt a description of the very proper English wearing suits and ties in the equatorial heat, that I figured once coined, the phrase would have spread throughout the Empire.  I did a Google search on the phrase. According to Wikipedia, the phrase comes from a Noel Coward song entitled “Mad dogs and Englishmen.” The song was composed, without benefit of pen, paper, or piano, while Mr. Coward was driving through Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. The lyrics, which really are amusing in a Gilbert and Sullivan way, can be found here and a recording of the song, sung by Mr. Coward himself on CBS TV, can be found here.

There is a bit of irony in all of this as Mr. Coward was himself an Englishman.


Photos on the Mekong River

I’ve posted (rather a lot of) photos I took during the time we spent on the Mekong River to my Picasa Web site.

The Mekong River is often overlooked (at least in the West), but it really is one of the world’s great rivers. According to The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future by Milton Osborne (Grove Press, New York, 2000), the Mekong River is the world’s twelfth longest river, traveling either 4350 km (2700 miles) or 4800 km (3000 miles), depending on the authority you consult, in its journey from its source on the high plateau of Tibet to its delta in the South China Sea in Vietnam. The Mekong’s waters form parts of the boundaries of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In fact, the only portions of the river that are not international boundaries are a long stretch in China, a couple of short stretches in Laos, and the delta in Vietnam.

Measured by volume rate of flow of water, it is the world’s tenth largest river. In Cambodia, the river has an interesting interaction with Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. During the dry season, the lake drains to the Mekong through the Tonle Sap River which intersects the Mekong at Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. But during the wet season, the Mekong’s water level rises and the Tonle Sap River actually reverses direction, filling up the lake. This annual rise and fall of the lake level is responsible for Tonle Sap Lake’s incredibly rich fish production that provides more than 60% of the protein intake of the Cambodian people.

It has been and continues to be a source of international tension. The rice farming region of the Mekong Delta had long been occupied by the Khmer people of Cambodia, but has been part of Vietnam for the last three hundred years. According to one of our Vietnamese guides (his story was probably much influenced by the Vietnamese state-controlled press, though see the Wikipedia article that generally agrees with his assessment) threats by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot to reclaim the delta for Cambodia led to the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in December, 1978.  Looking to the future, there are grave concerns by the countries on the lower Mekong about China’s growing use of the Mekong to generate hydroelectric power. This threatens other uses of the river downstream and China has not been receptive to entreaties for  international consultation and control of the Mekong.

Another draw of visiting the Mekong is that it has been a long time since Westerners were allowed access to this region. After the US exited from Vietnam, all the countries except Thailand that share the Mekong had communist governments with unfriendly relations with the West (and often with each other!). Time passes and the prospect of tourist dollars prompted Vietnam to open up the Mekong Delta. Cambodia and Laos are also more open to visitors than in the past, but tourist facilities are not very developed along the Mekong in either country, with the exception of Phnom Penh.

The photos, like most of my posted photos, are in rough chronological order. We left Saigon by SUV on September 26th for the drive to My Tho, Vietnam. Along the way, we stopped at a Buddhist temple (Vin Trang, according to our itinerary) built in 1849, views of which comprise the first set of pictures. At My Tho, we boarded a boat for a ride up the Mekong with our guide silhouetted against the gray sky as we raced up the river. The boats on the Mekong have distinctive eyes painted in their prows in accordance with local superstition. We then landed at a village that made coconut based candy, very similar to a taffy. (Sadly, there are no leftovers from the two sacks we bought.) A short walk found us at a fruit farm and Kris took lessons in carrying fruit on a pole in case she needs a new profession when she gets home. We had a delicious lunch with live folk music and then boarded a narrow canoe to be paddled along a palm-lined canal, the Vam Xep, eventually emerging back onto the Mekong where our river boat was docked. This gave me a great opportunity to take closeup pictures of our boat-(men and women).  We then returned to My Tho and were driven to Can Tho, Vietnam to spend the night. (Hmm. Good political slogan once democracy returns to Vietnam: “Yes, we Can Tho.”)

The next day saw us take a boat further up-river to the Cai Rang floating market. The floating market is just as advertised. When a village has a harvest of fruit, they load it into a boat and the boat anchors at the floating market. To advertise their wares, they hang one example of each fruit they are selling from a tall pole. Generally smaller boats of buyers then tie up alongside the bigger boats and the haggling begins. It was clearly not staged for the benefit of tourists. Our boat generally stayed out of the way and the only people who tried to sell us anything were the two little boys with the cans of soft drinks. We went up one side of the anchored boats, then down the other side, and then we returned the way we came, back to Can Tho. From there, we were driven to Chau Doc, Vietnam where we stayed at a very nice hotel, the Victoria Chau Doc (this is NOT my photo).

The next morning saw us on a fast motor launch. First I have to explain that at Phnom Penh, the water appears to flow in mathematically impossible ways. As I said before, Phnom Penh lies at the convergence of the Tonle Sap River and the Mekong River. What took me longer to figure out, because I thought it physically impossible, is that Phnom Penh also lies at the divergence of two rivers, the Mekong River and the Bessac River. So, topologically, the water flow forms a giant X at Phnom Penh, flowing in on two arms and out on two arms, the latter seemingly impossible. Now Chau Doc actually lies on the Bessac River, but there is no port of entry into Cambodia on the Bessac, so our launch first had to go downstream to the (next) confluence of the Mekong and the Bessac and then turn upstream for the final run to Phnom Penh.

The border crossing was kind of interesting. The border was actually kind of hard to make out on the water, but our captain knew where to land the boat on the Thai side of the border. (I hesitate to think what would have happened had I been driving the boat!) Our guide collected our passports and disappeared into a little building. Armed men milled about. Then the guide returned and the boat moved to another landing about 100 m upstream where armed men in different uniforms milled about. This time we had to get out and bring all of our belongings. Though we never did follow through with getting our Cambodian visas in advance, we were granted tourist visas on the spot with no problem.

Though the pictures are a little fuzzy because of the distances involved, one can see several exotic Buddhist temples along the shores of the Mekong once one crosses over into Cambodia. There is another interesting change at the border. On the Vietnam side of the border, the Mekong is rather densely lined with houses and businesses. But on the Cambodian side, the river bank is only sparsely occupied. The last picture shows the rather magical, Disney-esque, temple that dominates the skyline of Phnom Penh.

This is the portion of our journey which brought me fame and fortune. Well, fame anyway, but no fortune. And really not all that much of fame either, if it comes down to that. If you Google “How to pronounce Phnom Penh” you will find my blog entry on the subject in the number two position (as of last Friday, anyway). And since the  number one search result does not actually answer the question, one can make the case that my blog is now the world’s foremost authority on the pronunciation of Phnom Penh. Scary, isn’t it?


Train from Kandy to Colombo and back

Kris and I just returned from Colombo where we did some Christmas shopping. This time we went by train, thus completing our sampling of the various ways to get to Colombo and back. Previously we had rented a car and driver (about $40 each way) and had taken the so-called “air con, intercity express bus” (about $2.50 each, each way). A first class ticket in the observation car cost us about $3.60 each, each way.

Now Colombo is 115 kilometers (71 miles) from Kandy and all three methods take approximately the same time, two and a half to three and a half hours. We got up early in the morning to make the 6:15AM intercity express train, so our travel time was on the low end of that range.

Our train was of older stock. We rode in the first class observation car. The observation car is the last car on the train. The seats face to the rear and there are two, large, picture windows giving a rearward, panoramic view. There are also the usual side windows, so one has pretty much a 270 degree view from ones seat. There is a single center aisle with two seats on either side of the aisle, so one is never far from either the windows or the aisle. Seating is assigned when you buy your ticket and you generally need to purchase your ticket in advance if you want to ride in the observation car.

The observation car has definitely seen better days. The only word to describe the level of cleanliness was “dingy.” The seats did not leave stains on ones clothes, but I unwisely steadied my legs by digging my knees into the seat in front of me and came away with marks on my pants. The curtains were ratty and seemed not to have been cleaned in awhile. Even though they call this “first class” there was no air conditioning. This was not a big problem as all the windows open and there are three oscillating fans mounted above the aisle along the length of the car.

The ride was as rough or rougher than the train ride we took in Vietnam from Hanoi to Hue that I blogged about earlier. The car often lurched from side to side throwing me against Kris. Bumps in the vertical direction led to nearly undamped vertical oscillations that continued for quite some time. Our first encounter with one of these coincided with Kris pouring herself her first cup  of coffee in the morning. Lover of coffee that she is, she rode the wave, her hand swinging up and down to keep the cup steady and she did not lose a single drop.

But even considering the down sides, we decided that the train was the superior means of travel between Kandy and Colombo. With the car or the bus, one travels on the highway from one town to the next constantly keeping your eyes on the traffic or the visual overload of the many advertisements that crowd the margins of the road. It is a decidedly ant-like view, mostly of the businesses that have grown up along the highway. But with the train, especially the first hour out of Kandy, the view is dominated by the countryside. And the train tracks hug the side of the formidable hills and give vistas out over the valleys below. The mountains are shrouded in mists, perfect for a watercolor painting. Everything is so green that Sri Lanka might well take away from Ireland the designation as the “Emerald Isle.” Next to the view of the Indian Ocean from the Lighthouse Hotel near Galle, the view from the train gave me a sense of just how stunningly beautiful Sri Lanka can be. (And, oh my God, I just realized that I never posted about our trip to Galle! I am horribly behind…)

Closer to Colombo, one gets some very nice views of paddy fields with the green, green rice plants, the always orderly and often intricately terraced rice paddies, the oxen used for plowing, cows grazing in the company of their symbiotic cattle egrets. The egrets are either down on the ground near the cows legs waiting for the slowly moving cows to flush tasty insects from the grass, or sitting on the cows “shoulders” looking down from this perch, searching for frogs and bugs to eat while keeping their feet warm and dry.

We also had a team-building exercise with the other passengers in the observation car on the way back to Kaandy today. I was snoozing and was started awake by a commotion among our fellow passengers. The train was passing under a thunderhead and it had started to pour rain through the open windows. Semi-frantically, the passengers rushed to lower the windows. A few of us, i.e. me and some Sri Lankan children under the age of 13, had no clue how the mechanism worked, but set about pushing, pulling, prying at levers, all to no avail. Fortunately there were experienced train riders who lowered their own windows and then moved to calm the newbies,  i.e. me and some Sri Lankan children under the age of 13, by demonstrating how really easy it is to lower a train window with just a few basic actions.

Time for bed.


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