The Singer brand name

One real, if trivial, puzzler during our time here concerns the brand name Singer. In the US, Singer is known only for sewing machines and for having been associated with Sears, the one-time retail giant, the mother of all department stores, the Amazon.com of its day. In the US, Singer and Sears rose and fell together. Sears, Roebuck, and Company created a catalog mail-order business that catered to rural America. That catalog had solid, basic, practical products. The early Singer sewing machines were among the offerings in the catalog. Solid, straight-stitch machines that lasted forever. There were treadle machines if your farm did not have electricity, or you could add an electric motor to the same basic machine if your farm did have electricity.

But US demographics continued its inexorable shift of people from the farms to the cities. Sears added retail outlets and pioneered the three choice sales model. There was the basic, low priced model. There was the expensive, high priced model. And then there was the intermediate model that the vast majority of people ended up buying. Sears called the choices: Good, Better, and Best and this sales psychology is still used by many companies to this day. For example. You tell the used car salesman what you can afford. He then shows you a disappointing, clearly worn out clunker at your price. You hesitate. He then shows you a really sharp model sports car or SUV that turns out to be well outside of what you could possibly pay. And then, more often than not, you buy the next car he shows you that costs more than you had planned to pay, but is a step up from the clunker. You tell yourself that you have been thrifty and responsible for not splurging on the SUV and drive away happy. The salesman has milked you for all that you are worth and so he is happy as well.

To update itself, Singer added machines to their sewing machine lineup that did a zig-zag stitch and decorative stitches.   But the new Singer sewing machines simply did not work very well, for all their fancy new stitches.

Neither Sears’ nor Singer’s adjustment to the times was entirely successful. Sears began an agonizingly slow decline to the point today where it is only the Craftsman brand of tools that keep it from disappearing entirely.

Kris is an accomplished and skillful seamstress. She waxes poetic about learning the basics with an old Singer “Featherweight” sewing machine. When she finished college, Kris’ mother wanted to give her a very special present. She purchased a brand new Singer sewing machine and presented it to Kris, who was thrilled. But the thrill turned to frustration and then to anger. The machine just would not work right. Kris took it to a repair shop multiple times to no avail. She developed one of those good news/bad news relationships with the sewing machine repair man. The good news was that she learned a lot about sewing machine cleaning, oiling, and repair that has helped her maintain her later sewing machines. The bad news was that every lesson was due to a failure of her new Singer sewing machine. Eventually, Kris gave up on the brand-new Singer and purchased a used Bernina and the rest was history, as they say.

However, I do not think Kris ever forgave the Singer company for turning the milk of her mother’s kindness into the bitter bile of such frustration. Thus, it was a bit of a shock to come to Sri Lanka and discover that Singer seemed to have a virtual monopoly on the sewing machine market. Determined never to give any more of her money to Singer, Kris searched the island for alternatives. We found a shop in Pettah, the famous shopping district of Colombo, and met a man who started his own, local, brand of sewing machines: Chears. After a couple of hours of talking about politics, watching the technician set up a machine, Kris trying the machine out, the technician fixing the problems Kris pointed out, comparing Singapore to Sri Lanka, Kris getting a lesson in oiling the machine, we bought one. The Chears machine does 64 stitches and cost $150, about half the cost of comparable Singer machines. Kris has been using it for a couple of months now and her verdict is that it is no worse than a Singer.

But we remained surprised that Singer was such a big brand name here. And not just sewing machines, but all sorts of household appliances. In Sri Lanka, a Singer store is a high-end (for Sri Lanka) home appliance store.

There is the Singer washing machine in our house. The machine is clearly ancient. It’s front panel calls itself a “semi-automatic” washing machine. The only thing that is automatic about the machine is that it has a timer that stops the agitation after a set amount of time. Otherwise, you have to fill the tub with water from a faucet, start agitation with the timer, throw a switch to drain the tub, remember to reset the switch before filling the tub with the rinse water from the faucet, repeat for two rinses, then transfer the clothes from the tub to a separate tub where the spin drying will take place, set the timer for the spin dry, then take the clothes and hang them on the line outside to dry in the sun. I think “timer operated agitator” is more descriptive than “semi automatic.”

Just like me, the washing machine developed a leak last week. The throw rug at the door to our bathroom had a wet spot. Not feeling well, I did not do a thorough investigation and blamed the dog. (That poor dog. She was locked up in her dog house as punishment. Another injustice I am going to have to explain to Saint Peter someday soon.) A few days later, the rug is soaked again, but this time I notice a thin trail of water coming from under the washing machine. I pull the machine away from the wall to get at the back access cover to investigate. I am greeted by this:

Dead spider behind washing machine

Dead spider behind washing machine

For scale, that guy/gal is at least 130 mm (5 inches) from leg tip to leg tip. I generally encourage spiders in my house. They eat other insects and do not bother me. When they get this size though I draw the line. Or I would have drawn the line if I had know he was there. And if he was not already dead, of course, which he was. Well, I could not be sure he was dead and so I gave him a mighty whack with a rolled up newspaper. The dog cleaned up the juicy mess, perhaps considering it a small consolation prize to make up for the previously cited injustice.

With no small trepidation, afraid of what I might find there, I then removed the service panel on the back of the machine. The inside of the machine was as dry as dust with most of the volume filled with cobwebs. Shining a flashlight around, I spotted the problem. The drain valve had sprung a leak. Clearly a new part was needed.

Not very hopefully, Kris called the Singer service center listed in the phone book. They would send someone that day. Kris had to run an errand, but I was resting at home after my illness, so it fell to Rani and me to host the repairman when he finally came in the early afternoon.

The repairman was nice, clean, and efficient, and apparently had long since lost his fear of rooting around in the cobwebby insides of old appliances. He confirmed that the machine was thirty years old. He disassembled the drain plug housing and discovered that a rubber boot had developed a crack that was responsible for the leak. I was braced for the bad news. No one could expect a company to still be manufacturing  rubber boots for a thirty year old, hardly automated, washing machine.

But how wrong I was. He went out to his truck and returned with the required rubber boot. He installed it and checked that the valve did not leak. Then he did an expert check of all of the washing machines other systems. Then he wrote out the bill. Total cost inclusive of parts, labor, and the fee to come to the home, $12.50. Then he gave me his personal phone number and insisted that, if there were any problems, I should give him a call directly. Oh, yeah. And the repair was warranteed for one year.

Now I could see why Singer might be a better respected brand name in Sri Lanka than in the US. This was service and quality that we would associate with Maytag. So how could one brand name have such a schizophrenic reputation?

Tim

Obama Inauguration

I cried. I knew I was going to cry even before the benediction was given. In fact, my eyes were moist from the moment Obama appeared on the platform.

This must be the last posting on the Obama inauguration on the planet. My only excuse is that I was on the downward slope from feeling sickly to being really, really sick the night of the inauguration. It was night here, 12N in Washington, DC was 10:30PM in the Sri Lankan time zone. (Yes, Mom, Sri Lanka has its own time zone.) I had napped after dinner and Kris woke me at 10PM.

I cried for two reasons. The first is the one everyone recognizes as historic, the election of the first African-American president of the United States. The first presidential election of which I can recall anything was in 1960. There were serious questions at the time about whether or not John Kennedy, as a Catholic, could (politically) or should (as a matter of policy) be elected president. After all, through his church affiliation, Kennedy was supposed to obey the Pope’s directives. In the event, he was elected, and though I am a bit cynical about all the accolades laid at his feet after his assassination, he served well and, more importantly, truly led the Nation. We have come so far from 1960.

In 1960, white America did not know black America. The only points of contact were in the city slums or the rural South. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was still seven years from release, James Whitmore in Black Like Me is still four year’s off, the Civil Rights Movement is active, but the Nation is only starting to pay attention. Sure there were lots of people who would never vote for a black man for any office out of active racism, but there were many more who just would not know what to make of it, and so would not vote for a black man for any office out of ignorance and confusion. And I use “black man” as opposed to “black person” quite deliberately, since politics was not considered a suitable occupation for a lady, either.

Much has happened since then. Probably most of it, as painful as it was, had to have happened. Thank God for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his philosophy of non-violence or it would have much more painful and taken much longer to heal.

In 1986, I was in graduate school in physics at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was an activist time in my life. I co-authored a report with other physics grad students and attended a hearing opposing the City of Seattle’s cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA, lately of Hurricane Katrina infamy) in setting up evacuation plans for the city in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I signed a petition opposing the deployment of Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense system.

In addition, I became involved, for the first and only time really, in presidential politics. Jesse Jackson was making a run for the Democratic nomination. I had spent 1972-6 as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago. I was  horrified to see the conditions that most blacks had to live with on the South Side, conditions for which they were actually expected to pay rent! If I had to live like that, I would be angry, too. In fact, being students living in Hyde Park, we got a just a tiny taste of being treated like blacks by the local merchants and slumlords. The University of Chicago ran its own police force, the fourth largest police department in the State of Illinois at the time, at least partially to keep its students from getting  a taste of how the Chicago PD treated slum residents.

And in this milieu, there was Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson had not quite inherited the leadership position left by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he certainly represented that tradition. Jackson’s oratory was powerful, as compelling as King’s own, gospel preaching turned to political  ends. Being in Chicago, I heard both sides of his message, the challenge to white America, but also his challenge to black America that I don’t think was heard by many whites outside Chicago. Jackson’s challenge to white America was to heed King’s call for “justice to rain down like water.” But unlike many black leaders at the time, Jackson also had a challenge for black America and it was a difficult one, one that has not been fully addressed to this day. There was an obvious fact staring anyone in the face who was willing to look: that much of the misery inflicted on urban blacks was inflicted by other blacks. The Black Muslims could see it, but preached hate and separation as the cure. Other black leaders might have seen it, but while they had the courage to “tell truth to power,” they did not have the courage to “tell truth” to their own people. But Jackson saw it and spoke to anyone who would listen.

In 1986, I wanted Jackson heard beyond the South Side. While I may have known he would be unlikely to get the nomination, I wanted his views on race in America as part of the Democratic platform. And I wanted to hear other views, on other topics, that this courageous man had to offer. And he was making a serious run, winning three Democratic state primaries, collecting 20% of the primary votes. With thousands of my fellow Washingtonians, Kris and I went to our local caucus to make our views known. I will save the story of my being selected as a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Convention committed to “Uncommitted” for another time.

Jesse Jackson ended up disappointing me. He was not the force that Martin Luther King, Jr. was. He could have taken on several political jobs that would have advanced his agenda, but he ended up sitting and sniping from the sidelines in mostly predictable, unhelpful ways. But my point in bringing up Jackson’s candidacy in 1986 is, that for the Democrats to have nominated him in 1986 would have been nominating a black man to be president in order to bring race to the forefront and deal with it as a primary issue of the age. But Obama’s nomination was fundamentally different, at least for white America. Obama was nominated not because he was black. He was nominated despite being black. His color was largely secondary to the campaign, the campaign was fought on the issues. And I think that this election thus marks an even more significant milestone for America than electing a black man because he was black. I could not be prouder for America than I was on inauguration day, 2009.

But there was a second reason that I cried. Kris will testify when my sobs reached their peak when Obama intoned during his (First) Inaugural Address: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”

Knowing that I am a scientist, you might think this just rooting for my own profession, but it goes far deeper than that. There has been a “War on Science” in our country that was being fueled actively by the Bush administration. It was, moreover, a “War on Reason” one of the founding principles of our country. Reason was attacked from the Left by “if only”  Marxists, by “postmodernists,” and fuzzy-headed liberals with no ability in quantitative reasoning or ability to make tough choices. Reason was attacked from the Right by extremists for whom ideology triumphed over fact, over common sense, over reason, over practicality. These are not the values of our Founding Fathers. They were guided primarily by the progressive thought of their day, the Enlightenment. They were wholly sick of endless wars fought in the name of iconoclastic religion. It is no coincidence that Benjamin Franklin was both a prominent scientist and a leader in helping form the new Republic. No coincidence that Jefferson had cut-and-pasted himself a Bible he could believe in, wrote a treatise on the natural history of Virginia, sent Lewis and Clark to explore the headwaters of the Missouri River, and was a key political theorist in creating our founding documents. (I get so mad at the Right for co-opting our Founding Fathers. The only way they can do so is by distorting the historical record beyond belief. If he were alive today, Jefferson would be a Democrat!)

And did it not chill your blood to hear Obama talk about our ancestors’ struggles for us? Not for white Americans. Not for African-Americans or Asian Americans, or Native Americans, or any hyphenated Americans. Just Us. He said, for example, “For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.” Think about those wars, how different the demographics of the country were at the times those wars were fought, how different the demographics of those in power and those doing the fighting when those wars were fought. When the first black president of the United States legitimately could have been talking about how his election was signal moment in race relations in the US, instead he was saying that we are, and always have been, one people. That we are defined as a people by our belief in America’s ideals, not by the last stop each of our ancestors made before coming to America.

And that is a great thought. Let’s stop arguing about who the “real” American’s are, how long you or your ancestors have to be here before you are a “real” American. Instead, let us ask who, whether your ancestors came on the Mayflower or you crossed the border yesterday, who is going to pick up a shovel and join in with all of us in digging ourselves out of the hole we have gotten ourselves into and who will join in with all of us in fighting for our founding principles of justice for all, the rule of law, and a government of the people.

Tim

Hospital care in Kandy, Sri Lanka

You may, or may not, have noticed a pause in my rate of posting. Those of you who do not know me very well may have imagined that, perhaps, I was busy getting some useful work done. Those of you who know me better may have imagined that I had completely exhausted all the words I could ever have written in a lifetime, spewn out in the short time since we left Ohio. But the boring truth is that I have been as sick as a dog.

Tuesday, I did not feel well and went home early. Kris bought me a thermometer to confirm what my forehead was telling me: I had a bit of a fever. Wednesday, I had a class to teach, the first class of the semester, and did not feel too bad. So, instead of walking to work, I conserved my energy by arranging for a tuk-tuk to deliver me to campus shortly before class and to return me home not long after class. Class went OK, but soon after I got home, I began a sharp decline. My fever hit 39C (102F) and then my gut started producing only a distinctly Dickensian watery gruel apparently requiring for its production extensive, internal, painful laboring. My head hurt. My symptoms took turns keeping me awake that night: rush to the bathroom, back to bed, can’t get to sleep due to a throbbing headache, finally doze off, wake to feeling of knives in stomach, take some Tylenol, start to doze as pain dulls, rush to bathroom,… Lather, rinse, repeat.

By Thursday morning, I was exhausted, feverish, and with no desire to add to the feedstock for the gruel factory. So I told Kris that I was ready to go to the hospital. The Fulbright pre-departure orientation program had provided us with a list of hospitals in Sri Lanka that were the most up-to-date and with English-speaking doctors. In Kandy, the recommended hospital was Lakeside Adventist Hospital. We had passed it several times before. It is situated right on Kandy’s central lake, close to one of Kandy’s nicest, older hotels, the Hotel Suisse. We had been pleased about the recommendation for a kind of karmic connection in that Kris’ sister, Heidi, had been a nurse at a Seventh-Day Adventist Hospital in Paradise, CA for many years and, to this day, works for a pediatrician who was an Adventist missionary doctor.

Now this was clearly not an emergency, so while I suffered hellish torment, Kris called the hospital to make sure they could receive us. They could, but we were told to “come before noon.” Not a problem, in my book, attempting unsuccessfully to dodge yet another spear thrust from the little devils inside. But we could not leave right away as every tuk-tuk driver worth his salt in Sri Lanka was busy taking children to school and the ones not worth their salt could not have made headway on the clogged roads. So Kris made an appointment with our favorite tuk-tuk driver to come at 8:30AM, which allowed her time to have breakfast.

Off we go at the appointed hour. Let me tell you than when your stomach hurts, tuk-tuks are not the luxury traveler’s first choice. The little devils rested on their spears and let the many rough patches of roads do the torturing. Finally, we arrive at the hospital. The tuk-tuk driver stays with me, carrying my backpack with an overnight kit, while Kris approaches the desk. We are moved immediately from the entrance lobby to rather comfortable seating outside a pair of exam rooms. The doctor calls us in (not including the tuk-tuk driver, who waits outside) and listens to me describe my symptoms. It is all shaping up to be stomach flu. “We just want to do a couple of tests to be sure. We will need a blood sample and a stool sample.”

This was good timing as I was very ready at that very moment to provide a stool sample. We go to the lab for the appropriate accoutrement and the toilet is pointed out to us. There is a a bit of shuffling back and forth on the balls of my feet as the three of us (the tuk-tuk driver is back with us) wait for a bathroom to become free. And then it becomes free…

Now in comment number 3 of my “Arranged marriages” post, I promised to post more about the different toilet facilities and habits between East and West in some indefinite future. And I have been doing some theoretical research to prepare that posting. Good thing. Because here was the final exam. Squat toilet? Check! No toilet paper? Check! Student wearing western clothing? Check! Student operating under strict time limit? Check! Standing in that open doorway my life flashed before my eyes. My mind was completely distracted from my pain. The only thing that got me into that toilet and the door closed behind me was my quick evaluation that the worst outcome of attempting to use the toilet was essentially equivalent to the outcome of not using the toilet.

Fortunately, my Examiner was a fair one. Sturdy hand rail? Check! Previous occupant left room clean, even if wet? Check! Plastic bucket in room? Check! Plastic pitcher in room? Check! Working water faucet at test taker’s disposal? Check! But, wink, wink, we mounted the faucet at a 45 degree angle from straight down.

OK. Concentrate now. By the numbers. Put bucket under faucet. Turn on faucet. Water shoots off to left, missing bucket, adding to wetness on the floor. Turn off faucet. Estimate trajectory of water and adjust bucket accordingly. Turn faucet back on. Bucket begins to fill, but more slowly than expected. Examiner announces “You only have a limited time before you will proceed to the next phase of this test.” Right. How full does the bucket have to be? This is the problem with not doing the practicals. Well, I could add more later, if needed, right? What would be the harm?

OK, proceed to step two. Fill plastic pitcher from faucet. Place within easy reach. Open stool sample container and place within easy reach. Stand on the raised footprints on toilet, the ones that resemble those footprints used to teach dance steps and have the same purpose, to make sure the dancer has his feet in the right spot relative to his partner and is facing in the right direction. Basically roll trousers and pants down from waist keeping trouser legs from sagging onto wet floor. Squat slowly while doing so. Once the trousers have been neatly rolled together with the pants, grasp firmly in one hand as if both your feet had been cut off and you were applying a tourniquet to both ankles simultaneously.

Half way home. Collect sample of gruel. Set aside. Finish evacuation procedure. Splash water from pitcher to cleanse backsides. Pause a moment for air drying. Now begin process of returning to an upright position while unrolling trousers and pants. Fasten belt. Step off the footprints.

Almost there. Put cap on sample. Use pitcher and bucket to “flush” toilet and leave room clean for next visitor. Retrieve sample and exit room to face a crowd thundering with applause at your accomplishment. Well, maybe not that last part, but after surreptitiously checking that the backs of my trouser legs were not stained with telltale brown spots, I was pretty proud of myself. My euphoria lasted about six seconds.

Back to the lab. Lab takes blood sample. We are told that the results will take about an hour. Do we want to go home and come back then? No. The thought of two, twenty minute tuk-tuk rides for twenty minutes of the relative comfort of being home is not a difficult decision. It was the correct decision, too, as five minutes later we are called in to see the doctor again. At Lakeside, they do not wait until all the tests are complete if the lab spots something right away. My platelet count was  90 dodecahedrons per cubic femtometer (or whatever units they use) when normal is between 150 and 400 whatevers. As the doctor is telling Kris that they would like to admit me for observation, I second the motion by vomiting into the doctor’s washing up sink. The die is cast.

The three of us (the tuk-tuk driver is still with us) walk up one flight to my room. It is a nice room with a white-tiled floor, a single hospital bed, a couch for my visitors, a tray table for my meals, and a cabinet. Apparently I am supposed to know my role. I don’t, so the nurse looks at me, then at the bed, then at me, then at the bed. Finally I get it. I am supposed to lie down on the bed. Soemthing seems off, but I don’t pick up on it until later. The hospital is used to train nurses and a small flock arrive, all in white, egret-like in their identical starched uniforms, to measure my tempurature, blood pressure, pulse rate, and blood sugar levels. You can tell how long each of them has been in practical training to be a nurse by how assured they are as they approach me, a grown man and a foreigner at that. They all do fine.

One of them even shows some real “can do” spirit. To get a drop of blood to measure my blood sugar level, there is a specialized device that drives a needle a calibrated distance into my fingertip to release just the right amount of blood, minimizing the pain. (Every diabetic will know exactly what I am talking about.) Well, their device was acting up and after repeated efforts to get it to work, the nurse just grabbed the needle and stuck it into my finger tip up to its hilt. Some day I hope they teach her about the many nerve endings in our fingertips and that there might be better places for such a strategy, but it got the job done.

Then it was time to put in an IV. No student nurse for this operation, except as observers. In my later years, it has become harder and harder for nurses and phlebotomists to get me stuck right the first time. This is a terrible curse. I have had similar deviations from the norm, but this is one of the worst. For example, it was annoying when I was in my twenties and wanted to wear contact lenses so I would not look so dorky. I did not know then that dorkiness is not curable, it is a way of life. So, a few months into my first “real money” job in San Leandro, CA, I visited the optometrist to begin the process. Well, it was the usual hassle. The time overlapped with my courtship of Kris and she has her own tales of these events. I had a heck of a time sticking my finger in my eye every morning, but I gave it a good try. The problem was that at several times during the day, the contact lens would partially break contact with my eyeball leaving me with blurry vision at the most inconvenient times. The optometrist concluded that I had “tight eyelids” and gave me my money back. Tight eyelids?? Who has tight eyelids? I’ve never heard of anyone, even on a daytime TV soap, who was diagnosed with tight eyelids.  (“Marsha, I love you, but my family will never allow me to marry someone so disfigured.” “Your family is so narrow minded, John. What can it matter? Our love will sustain us. Let’s run away together!” “And give up two million bucks? Get real, Marsha.”) But the diagnosis was confirmed some ten years later in Los Alamos when I decided to give the contact lens experiment another try with the advent of the new breathable plastic lenses that could be worn for a week, hence reducing the number of times I would have to stick my finger into my eyeball, a wholly unnatural act. The results were indisputable the day I was seated on the edge of a twelve foot pit, both hands full, working on some very fine wiring on my low temperature physics apparatus and, with one blink, out popped one of my contacts, falling out-of sight into the bottom of the pit.

Tight eyelids I can live with. Now that I’m fifty-five and out of the business of contributing to the gene pool, it is poor consolation that thick, black-rimmed glasses are all the fashion rage. But hard-to-stick-veins are another story. An intermediate level nurse examined my left arm. Eyes already showing worry. She tapped, as if sending a coded signal for my vein to appear. No response. She rubbed an alcohol-soaked swab lengthwise along my wrist. Coaxing it out with the offer of a drink? No response. More tapping. Sonar? In goes the needle and the search begins. And continues. And continues. And then is abandoned. Back to the beginning, with a new quarry. Same result. Mutter, mutter, the flock takes flight. Minutes later, a new face appears. An experienced face. One who has seen all the places the shy veins hide in. She immediately switches to my right arm. Picks out her secret spot, along my ulna, close to the wrist. Needle goes in. A quick search and the deed is done. I have never had such a comfortable IV in my life.

They start a liter of saline to help me rehydrate. But the day is spent pretty miserably. I try to sleep but wake in cold sweats. I’m hot. I have to drag my IV with me to the bathroom. There is a western style toilet, but no toilet paper. No soap. No towels. Kris makes a shopping list.

Decisions are needed. First the nurses come to gather data. How many bowel movements have you had? Watery? Are you in any pain? Yes, but the saline IV seems to have improved things a bit. Then, lower ranked doctors. Two of them, each in succession. Same questions. Then, the Man, himself. My platelet count is still low. They will keep me overnight. Antibiotics intravenously, anti-cramping and anti-emetic drug orally, and a painkiller in the only orifice left over. I thought this latter was a bold move, to give someone with diarrhea a medication by suppository, but he was likely just showing off to the crowd his long experience at judging patients conditions to the smallest detail.

Blissful, blissful, sleep. Kris returned after having her dinner and restocked the room with necessary  supplies. She brings me a choice of my robe or my sarong. It was warm. I choose the sarong, which turns out to be a great hospital garment. But here is where I realize what was wrong when they put in my IV. They put it in while I was wearing my shirt. So to get my shirt off, we have to remove the IV bottle and thread it backward through my sleeve. We gained control of the air conditioning and it was all a smooth ride from there. I slept most of the evening and only awoke five times during the night. I awoke in much better shape the next morning, Friday. Throughout the day, my headaches slowly receded and my cramping lessened. The only symptom that remained obstinate was the gruel thing. Still is a problem actually.

Mostly on Friday, I continued to catch up with my sleep. I also eat very well, especially a lunch prepared especially for me. The only roadblock that appeared was when one of the visits of the flock yanked me almost violently from a deep sleep. At first I was disoriented, then annoyed. It was at that point that the head nurse appeared for, what the evening before had been, the pre-doctor visit to gather information. When she asked me how I was feeling I had to fight back the urge to say “Don’t you read charts? I’m the same as the last time a student nurse asked me that question maybe five minutes ago!” My Irish zen training kicked in, however, and my answer was that she had caught me at a bad time. My stool still resembled that of the geese on the lakeshore outside after a monsoon, my head still hurt, as did my stomach. I think that was when it became clear that I and my discharge, would be discharged that night.

All that was needed was the approval of the Man. Apparently, except for the goose turd- gruel thing, all my vital signs had returned to within normal bounds. We were led to believe that the Man would be by around 6:30 or 7PM. A lessor doctor appears about the same time as the night before. “Seems like you are ready to go home?” “Well, I am doing better, but would feel better staying one more night to see if we can get this diarrhea under control.” “Hmm. We will see what the Man says.”

One of my colleagues is kind enough to insist on on driving out to visit that evening and to drive either Kris or the both of us home depending on what the Man decides. Another blessing. My colleague arrives around 7:30PM. We are a little startled to realize that the doctor has not appeared as we had been assured. We chat together for an hour. During this chat, my colleague explains, in a kind way how, from a Sri Lankan point of view, I have gone about this all wrong and have just cost myself a lot of money. First, a Sri Lankan would never have let the bug get so far. Antibiotics are available over the counter. Sri Lankan homes are as prepared to deal with E. coli, salmonella, and all the stomach virii, as American homes are to deal with colds and flu. Not feeling well? Think back. Oh, yeah, chicken last Thursday night. Out come the antibiotics to kill off the salmonella bacteria.

So my first mistake was to treat a stomach virus as I treat a flu virus. I know intellectually that viral diseases cannot be cured, so treat the symptoms, suck it up, be a man, stiff upper lip, and  ride it out. Don’t contribute to the rise of super-resistant bacteria. But trying to ride out a stomach virus led me to the brink of dysentery.

A more minor (i.e., monetary) mistake was going to the hospital when all I really needed was a doctor’s opinion on what to do. Being associated with the University, I could have asked my colleague to take me to the University Health Clinic which is also staffed by top med school faculty. They would have evaluated me for free.

The evening grows late. My colleague goes out to discuss the doctor’s schedule with the nurses on duty. Ah! It’s Friday. The doctor is 150 km away and is not scheduled to get there until 10PM at the earliest. Hmm, 150 km, top speed 35 km per hour, I think 10PM is a tad optimistic.

At this point I should say a bit about doctors in Sri Lanka. Medicine is socialized here. Everyone gets free medical care. That is the good news. The bad news is that doctors are not paid much more (if any) than physicists in Sri Lanka, which is to say, not much. Sri Lanka seems to have modified its socialist past somewhat better than Cuba. In Cuba, recent reports indicate that the government was finally considering raising the pay of doctors, because the doctors were making considerably less in fact than the busboys in the new luxury resorts who get tips from Westerners. Here in Sri Lanka, doctors work their day jobs for their government salaries, but then are free to see private patients at rates the doctors set, before and or after work, earning the extra fees that keep them the highest paid among the professions. My colleague reports that in some cases, doctors see as many as 100 private patients each night between the hours of 4PM and 12M. Lakeside Adventist Hospital, being private, is staffed similarly, but with a twist. Lakeside is the premier hospital in the Kandy area. Its staff are drawn from the best of the teaching faculty at the University of Peradeniya’s Medical School, the top medical school inthe country. So, at Lakeside, the patient gets the care of the best available doctors, sometimes on kind of an odd schedule perhaps, and in much better facilities than the public hospitals. As importantly from the patient’s perspective, it is also the plum place to work for nurses, who are motivated to do their best work by simple consideration of the alternatives.

The evening was getting late and Kris is exhausted. My colleague has already done a lot. So an agreement is reached with those on duty. My colleague drives Kris home now, leaving his phone number with the staff. The hospital agrees that even if the Man decides to release me upon his arrival, they let me stay in my room until my colleague can drive me home at 7AM. Kris makes her goodbyes and off she goes to get some much needed sleep. I turn off the room light and roll over on my side to do the same. Oops. Maybe one more visit to the bathroom before I settle in. When I return to the room, the room light is blazing. Something is up.

In walks a doctor I have not yet seen. Maybe it was because I was back in bed when he walked in, but this guy is so tall that I think he would have gone far in pro basketball. He turns out to be the house doctor that night and the Man has telephoned in the orders for my release. “But my ride just left, I protest.” “No problem. He has already been contacted by phone and will return for you at 10PM.” And so it was. My colleague was kind enough to make another round trip, spend another hour and a half of his time away from his family to ferry me home.

And the discharge was the right decision. They sent me home with antibiotics to finish the course of treatment, an anti-emetic, and some Tylenol. I got a relatively good night’s sleep and continued to get better today. I plan to take it easy for the next few days.

Bottom line. My narrative may sound a bit critical, but that is primarily due to my unfamiliarity of the practice of medicine in Sri Lanka. The hospital staff made all the right calls and restored me to health as expeditiously as any American hospital would have. Oh. And the estimated bill for two full days of professional medical treatment and lab work and a one night stay with all meals? About $200.

And, I’m fine, Mom. Really. Sorry for worrying you.

Tim

(Note added 1/26 after paying the bill: The final bill, inclusive of hospital stay, food, all doctor’s bills, all laboratory work, and the medicines that I was sent home with, was $134. And this was the total bill, not after any insurance payments. I had no prior agreement or arrangement with the hospital. To them, I was a total stranger off of the street.)

Our Christmas Trip (part five)

Well, it happened again. I waited too long to write about day five of our Christmas trip. So the only memory I really have of the day is what I remember from looking at the pictures. I sure hope that I never get accused of murder. I can see myself on the stand being grilled by the prosecuting attorney: “Do you have an alibi for the afternoon of December 26th, 2008, Mr. Sullivan?” “Ehhh…maybe. I’m not sure. Can I ask my wife?”

The photos tell the tale that we first went out on an early morning bird walk around the hotel grounds.

Indian grey hornbill

Indian grey hornbill

This walk kicked off at 7AM (yes, Mom, AM, really). We were looking for birds, but ran into a) an elephant (who turned out to be our afternoon ride, see below) and b) a land monitor that seemed to be so reluctant to leave his sunny spot on an exposed rock that he let me take some closeup pictures. Or maybe he was hoping that I got a little closer so he could show me how those mean looking front claws worked. Or maybe it was a she. Who can tell? Who wants to get close enough to tell?

The birds we saw on the walk were:

Rose-ringed parakeet

Indian grey hornbill

Asian paradise flycatcher

Sri Lanka junglefowl

I have posted photos of all of these birds on my Picasa website, except for the junglefowl. That little guy was quick on his feet, so all I got was blur.

Logic would have it that we then went back to the hotel and had breakfast, but the breakfasts are all starting to run together in my mind. We must have occupied our time somehow until 11AM when we walked on down to the water for our elephant ride.

I know. It is corny. Go to Sri Lanka, ride an elephant. As touristy as it gets.

Tim and Kris ride an elephant

Tim and Kris ride an elephant

This elephant is so “un-wild” that it poses for the camera, as you can see.

But you know, I can not remember the last time I rode an elephant. (This, of course, is not saying much for someone who cannot remember what he was doing on the afternoon of December 26th, 2008 if his life depended on it.) So, just once, I was going to ride an elephant in Sri Lanka. And Kris allowed as how it had been before she left Thailand since she last rode an elephant (more years ago than is polite to blog about) and so she joined me.

I had a bit of an accident climbing into the howdah. I was not sure whether I was supposed to step on the elephant’s spine or avoid it. My foot went down half on and half off the rather prominent spine. I stumbled and caught myself on the back rail of the howdah and sprained my right middle finger badly enough that it is still stiff and sore. (Good thing I am not trying to drive in Sri Lanka as I really would need to use that finger.) For a brief time, I thought that maybe I had broken the finger and I imagined how I would have explained it to my family doctor, Doctor Carroll, back home. Me: “I think I may have broken my finger.” Dr. C: “Oh? How did that happen?” Me: “I stumbled getting into a howdah.” Dr. C: “What’s a howdah?” Me: “It is a kind of saddle for an elephant.” Dr. C: “Riiight. I think you may have bumped your head as well. Let’s take a look, shall we?”

I do not remember lunch, but logic suggests it must have occurred. (“Mr. prosecutor. Logic says that I must have had lunch that day. Does that help?”) The entire afternoon is a black abyss in my memory. But I do remember the dinner. Not what I ate exactly, or even approximately, but the fact that we were seated outside on a grassy terrace, a welcome, goose-bumpy, cool breeze blowing from over Kandalama Rock, Polynesian-like torches the only light to eat by. A gazillion stars, so bright that you could not see the constellations for all the many other bright stars in the sky. Kris’ eyes so bright as well, her face warm with torch light, our conversation intimate and easy. It was the most romantic meal that I can ever remember.

Of course, that is not saying much for someone who cannot remember what he was doing on the afternoon of December 26, 2008 if his life depended on it.

Tim

Pictures of our walk and our ride are posted on my Picasa website.

Sri Lankan Driver’s Test

Before you will be licensed to drive in Sri Lanka, you must pass the following test of your knowledge of proper procedures while driving in Sri Lanka. You have fifteen minutes to complete the test.

1. In Sri Lanka, traffic a) stays to the right like in the US, b) stays to the left like in the UK, or c) efficiently uses the entire roadway.

2. When approaching a blind, uncontrolled intersection, you should a) slow down drastically and proceed very carefully, keeping a careful eye out for intersecting traffic, b) take your foot off the gas in preparation for braking and watch out for intersecting traffic, c) maintain full speed and honk your horn loudly.

3. You are overtaking a private bus on the right, which is itself overtaking a trishaw on the trishaw’s right, thus your right tyres are very near the right edge of the pavement. Looking ahead, you see a large lorry coming from the other direction.You quickly calculate that you will not be able to finish passing the bus before the lorry is upon you. You should a) brake sharply to let the bus pass you, move left behind the bus, and wait for a later opportunity to pass the bus, b) honk your horn to let the bus driver know that he needs to move to the left, running the trishaw off the road,  so that you can move to the left to avoid the lorry, or c) push the accelerator to the floor, flash your lights, honk your horn, and finish passing the bus, trusting  the approaching lorry to take steps to avoid a collision.

4. When approaching a “zebra crossing,” you should a) reach into the back seat to get your camera and prepare to take some great, close up pictures of wild zebras as they cross the road, b) slow way down, prepare to stop to allow pedestrians their legal  right-of-way to cross the street, or c) push the accelerator to the floor, honk your horn, and try to intimidate any pedestrian who attempts to enter the crosswalk.

5. When making a right hand turn from a side road onto an A class road, you should a) come to a complete stop and wait at the intersection until there is a sufficient pause in the traffic both on your left and on your right to allow you to safely complete the turn, b) never make a right hand turn onto an A class road, instead, once there is a pause in traffic from the right, turn left and then find a safe place to make a U-turn, or c) slowly edge your vehicle out into the traffic coming from the right until they are either forced to stop or run into you, repeat with the traffic on the left, thus blocking both lanes of traffic on the A class highway, and then complete your turn.

6. (This question requires an explanation  for drivers who have not driven in Colombo. Even though you have never seen such a thing,  a “traffic light” is an electrical device that displays a red light to traffic at an intersection who  are then (theoretically speaking) expected to come to a complete stop; a green light to traffic that is allowed to continue unimpeded; and a yellow light to traffic to indicate that they should accelerate immediately to high speed as the traffic light will soon be turning red. )

If you are driving a trishaw and you approach an intersection where the traffic light is red, you should a) come to a complete stop until the traffic light changes to green, b) come to a complete stop, look both ways, then continue if it is safe, c) ignore the red light altogether.

7. When approaching a sharp curve in a highway that might cause you to skid if you maintained your current rate of speed, you should a) slow down so that you can safely stay in your lane and maintain control over your vehicle, b) maintain your speed so that you can practice controlling your vehicle under skid conditions, c) maintain your speed, honk your horn loudly to warn oncoming traffic, and cross over into the oncoming lane  to “flatten the curve” and avoid the skid.

8. A man is in the middle of the road. He appears a bit disoriented, taking a few steps this way, then that way. You should a) flash your lights to warn other vehicles of the danger, stop your car in such a way as to protect the man from being struck by other vehicles, then exit your car and gently lead the man to safety at the side of the road, b) slow way down, honk your horn to alert the man to your presence, then pass the man giving him a wide berth, c) maintain your speed, honk your horn loudly and continuously, and only turn your car enough to just miss the man.

9. A puppy is in the middle of the road. He appears a bit disoriented, taking a few steps this way, then that way. You should  a) maintain your speed, honk your horn loudly and continuously, and only turn you car enough to just miss the puppy, b) slow way down, honk your horn to alert the puppy to your presence, then pass the puppy giving it a wide berth, c) flash your lights to warn other vehicles of the danger, stop your car in such a way as to protect the puppy from being struck by other vehicles, then exit your car and gently lead the puppy to safety at the side of the road.

Answers:

1. c) Almost all post-colonial Asian countries have abandoned colonial era laws which only served to publicly humiliate subjugated peoples and visibly demonstrate the authority of the colonists. Singapore is the exception and who would want to end up like them?

2. c) While it is true that no one driving another vehicle (except, perhaps a bullock cart) can hear a horn with their windows closed, their air conditioning on, their music blaring, and talking on their cell phones, it is well known that (insert your deity here) hears all and will protect the righteous from harm. Of course, if you are feeling a little guilty about some little transgression or other, perhaps you might want to pick another answer and then head directly to the temple/mosque/church of your choice.

3. c) Studies show that nine times out of ten the oncoming lorry will slow down to avoid a collision. As for the remaining one time out of ten, you will be pleased to know that you will be doing a valuable public service as an organ donor in a Sri Lankan hospital.

4. c) If the rules of the road gave right-of-way to pedestrians, cars would never get anywhere!

5. c) The added advantage of this procedure is that you also allow other cars from the side road to make this turn as well. Thus, the side road can completely block the main road until the side road is empty of cars.

6. c) Sorry. This is a trick question. There are no rules of the road that apply to trishaws, just as there are no limits to the fares they can charge!

7. c) On the off chance things don’t work out, then see the answer to question 3, above.

8. c) The pavement is for cars, not for pedestrians!

9. c) The killing of an animal is really bad kharma and the killing of a defenseless little puppy is really, really bad kharma.

How did you do? If you got eight or nine correct, congratulations! You will be a typical, successful, happy driver in Sri Lanka for your entire life (however long that may be). If you got six or seven correct, then you will be  an obstacle on the road, slowing traffic on the highways of Sri Lanka. However, you have passed the test as long as you promise to apply the lessons learned on this test to your driving habits in the future. If you got fewer than six correct, try again tomorrow!

Tim :^)

Our Christmas Trip (part four)

The next day, Christmas Day, Kris and I went our separate ways. Kris’ knee hurt from her fall the previous day and so she backed out of an early morning birdwatching boat trip on Kandalama Lake crw_6112crwfollowed by a 1202 step climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock. So you will have to check in with her to learn about what she did on Christmas Day and I will tell you what I did that day.

I met the naturalist at 6:30AM (no, really, I did). He took me on the short walk to the water’s edge, during which I shot some photos of an apparently tame, spotted deer on the hotel grounds. We boarded an aluminum boat that had a flat deck mounted on two pontoons. The naturalist and I sat cross-legged near the front of the boat (near the “bow” in nautical lingo) and two men straddled the pontoons near the back (“aft” for the cognoscenti) and propelled us through the water with paddles. This primitive propulsion system had the advantage of being nearly silent, allowing us to approach water fowl rather more closely than twin Yamaha 350HP V8 outboards might have, though this meant that our time on the water was in excess of one hour when, with outboards installed, the entire distance could have traveled in less than five minutes, thus achieving much higher efficiency in terms of bird species sighted per unit time.

This slow means of locomotion did give me the opportunity to take some photographs of several bird species. Not to say good photographs of bird species, however.

Great egret

Great egret

I have posted the bird photos from this expedition on my Picasa web site, but I must warn you that my quality control standards for my bird pictures is considerably lower than my usual photographic quality control standards. For bird pictures, the rule is that if the photo is clear enough that you can identify the species of bird, that is good enough. A little out of focus? No problem. Under- or over exposed? No problem. Blown up from about 10 pixels by 10 pixels in the original file? Can you tell what it is? No problem! Great photo!

Here is a list of the birds we saw (an asterisk indicates that there is a photo of that bird on my Picasa web site):

  • Indian pond heron*
  • Great egret*
  • Indian nest swifts
  • Brahminy kite*
  • Green bee eater*
  • Common coucal
  • Common sandpiper*
  • White-bellied sea eagle*
  • Spot-billed pelican*
  • Indian comorant
  • Scaly-breasted munia*

In addition to birds, I also got a close up look at fishermen tending their gill nets.

The boat slowly, quietly made its way back to our starting point and I returned to the breakfast trough to join Kris. We used our new found naturalist’s skills at the buffet. We would split up to do a survey of what was available that morning, then get back together to compare notes. Then we would take our plates carefully out of the warming racks and stalk our buffet prey. Generally successful in capturing our sluggish prey, we got back together at our table to sip coffee, clean our plates, and admire the view of the lake out the windows.

Then it was time for me to go to Sigiriya Rock. We had arranged for a car and driver through the hotel. The drive took about 45 minutes. As we approached Sigiriya, we came upon two elephants that had been decorated with what looked like sidewalk chalk and were staked out by the roadside. You have already seen one in our Christmas “card.” The other

Decorated elephant

Decorated elephant

had what I presume were similar sentiments written in Sinhala, though I hope that one of my Sri Lankan readers will correct me by posting a comment if I am wrong. Both elephants seemed to be celebrating Christmas by “dancing,” swaying back and forth, weight shifting from one front foot to the other, trunk actively moving around. I like to think these were happy elephants putting on a show, but I have also been told that these ritualistic movements may be signs of elephants in emotional distress.

The car drove up to the entrance and I was transferred to the care of a local guide. Kris and I are somewhat ambivalent about the use of guides. If you do not know anything about the site, then a guide is definitely in order. But it seems like the rare guide who knows more than what can be found from a little reading. Or, as in Sigiriya,

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

the guides knowledge is entirely based on local mythology, unleavened by any archeological research. Sigiriya is an extreme example. Local lore has it as the palace and citadel of an ancient king, King Kassapa, with 500 wives. This explains the rock paintings of beautiful women, the enormous bathing pools, and the buildings high up on this granite rock. Archaeological research, however, indicates that the site was always used as a Buddhist monastery and never as a palace. My guide stuck to the local lore exclusively. Despite that, I accepted a guide on this trip out of lassitude, the hotel had arranged for a guide. In the end, I was glad I did, but not because of my guide’s knowledge of history.

It was Christmas Day, of course. The site was packed with visitors, mostly Sri Lankans. Christmas is one of two national holidays allocated to the Sri Lankan Christians. This means that most Sri Lankans, not being Christian, have a day off with their families with no rituals to attend to. I am told that on most days, Sigiriya has only a few foreign visitors, but today the trail up the rock was overflowing with a festive, holiday crowd. I was also somewhat taken aback to discover that a man began making sure I did not fall on the sometimes uneven steps. At first, it just seemed to be the guy behind me in line being nice, as so many Sri Lankans are. But then it got too regular. He was still there after my guide would stop and explain some feature to me. I knew the drill. Not asking for money now, he would expect to be paid at the end. But we had gone someway up the trail by that time and it was hot. So I said, what the heck! and turned him into my bearer. He both carried my camera bag and gave me a lift under my arm during much of the climb. This was a bit embarrassing, and I am pretty sure that I would have made it up the 1202 steps by myself, but it did make the climb easier. My guide ended up saving me considerable time by knowing ways to bypass the line. There was some awkwardness when we rejoined the line, but the guide acted like he was a park official and I soothed my conscience a bit by telling myself that Sri Lankans were used to cutting in line, that I was paying my bearer and guide to negotiate the line in the Sri Lankan way, and that I was, only this once, taking advantage of a queuing system that I had been so often inconvenienced by in Sri Lanka. (I know, situational ethics is never very pretty.)

Sigiriya is most famous for some remarkable and mysterious paintings. The paintings, originally numbering about 500 but with only a handful remaining, are almost modern in their use of pastel colors, almost like they were painted by Gauguin. They are realistic, but with some exaggerated features.

Sigiriya cave painting

Sigiriya cave painting

They are typically dated to the 6th century CE but modern scholarship indicates much is very uncertain. But the biggest mystery is who the paintings are of (if they are of real people), or who the paintings represent (if they are representative of mythological or religious characters). There is a bit of titillation about the paintings as they are all of women, all of beautiful women, and mostly of rather scantily clad women featuring, in the rhyming Cockney slang used by an Oxford trained colleague at Peradeniya, enormous, and often bare, “bristols.” So are these women the 500 wives of King Kassapa as local legend would have it, are they representative of the angelic dancers, the Hindu “apsaras” whose representation in sites as far away as the former Cham kingdom in Vietnam also often feature large, bare, “bristols”, or do they represent Tara Devi, a very rare image of an important Mahayana Buddhist goddess in an otherwise monolithically Theravada Buddhist culture?

The rock paintings are also interesting technologically. When modern recordable DVDs can not be trusted to last more than about a year or so, these paintings have lasted 1400 years or more, outdoors, protected from direct sunlight and water only by being under a rock overhang on the north side of Sigiriya Rock. Many more would have survived except for several incidents of vandalism, presumably perpetrated by those morally offended by the subjects of the paintings. I did not take notes on the techniques used, but from what I remember, the rock face was covered with a plaster and, before the plaster could dry, the paintings, which use only vegetable-based paints, were executed. This allowed the paint color to seep deep into the plaster. Then, the paintings were covered over with some kind of clear glaze to protect them.

Another interesting feature at Sigiriya is a wall that has preserved graffiti for centuries. The graffiti is so old that scholars have used the graffiti to follow the development of the Sinhalese script over the centuries.

Sigiriya Rock graffiti

Sigiriya Rock graffiti

Reaching the top of the rock is a bit anticlimactic. The view was remarkable, a 360 degree view of the flat land and tanks surrounding the site, the foothills of the Hill Country to the south. Better still for the weary climber was a steady, cool breeze. There are ruins at the top, but they are just that. At the highest point, there are two steps to nowhere, the two in the 1202. My guide wanted to take my picture at the top of the steps (guides often seem like the hired emcee at a wedding reception, making sure that all the cliched conventions are performed). I stuck with only climbing 1200 steps, but the guide’s photography skills would come in handy once we got back to Terra Firma.

And, after a restful pause to look around the ruins, photograph an unfamiliar snake that the guide warned me was venomous, but later identification indicated was harmless, we headed back down. At the bottom, there was a snake charmer. Though knowing that the entertainment would not be free, I decided to take an advantage of an opportunity to take some close up photos of snakes. I mean, how many snake charmers are there in Ohio? I was also well aware that snake charmers de-fang the venomous snakes and that a well-fed constrictor is pretty harmless to a human, so it was all perfectly safe.

It was great fun. I got some great shots of the cobras and a large number of the other visitors took myriad camera phone shots of the crazy foreigner playing with the snakes. So here is one shot of a cobra:

Wrong end of cobra

Wrong end of cobra

This next shot (by the guide, obviously) I dedicate to my sister Shannon. Shannon posed in a similar fashion some years ago as I snapped what turned out to be a nice sequence of pictures of her with a boa constrictor wrapped along the length of her body. On that day in Seattle, she had taken me along on a visit to an amateur herpetologist who ran a kind of one-woman Humane Society for snakes and lizards in her two bedroom apartment in the Queen Anne neighborhood. (I have often wondered what the landlord thought of that.) I learned a lot that day, including the fact that, visual evidence to the contrary, snakes are not slimy and cold. In fact, it is pretty much all muscle aft of the head and the skin has the pleasant texture that makes snake skin purses and wallets so desirable. So, much to the delight of many onlookers, I jumped right in with the following results:

Tim and his new friend

Tim and his new squeeze

At this point, I was feeling pretty happy about the excursion. Then it got somewhat less pleasant. On the way into the site, I was approached by a man who wanted to sell  me a carved, wooden, box in the shape of a moonstone. Kris loves wooden boxes and the moonstones have been something we have enjoyed learning about. Also, the way to open the box was kind of like a Chinese puzzle, you had to know the correct sequence of steps. This was a pleasant reminder of the handsome almirahs here, some of which have secret drawers. Since we are unlikely to be able to return home with an almirah, this box seemed like a nice remembrance. So I expressed some interest, but was not about to haul it to the top of Sigiriya Rock. So the man said he would meet me when I got back down.

Sure enough, he was waiting for me near the parking lot. I still value things with my US sense of worth and made a poor bargain, giving him about $30 for the box. I also purchased a softbound book about Sigiriya including many photos in order to share my excursion with Kris when I got back to the hotel. Then it was “time to say good-bye” to my bearer. Boy, these guys had this down to an art. Neither the bearer or the guide would name a price for their services in advance, saying only that I should pay whatever I felt it was worth when the tour was over. Several times during the climb up and down, the guide remarked about how today, Christmas Day, was his birthday. Maybe it was, but by now I am so used to being lied to that I did not believe him, nor did I care,  assuming it was just one more trick to get more money out of me. For reference, by the time it was “time to say goodbye,” the guide and the bearer had been with me for about three hours.

Like I said, I was in a pretty good mood and prepared to pay what I thought was a generous amount. I have adopted the policy to be generous especially when I get really good service. Hence my habitual overpayment of our loyal tuk-tuk driver, NS. So, I gave the bearer the equivalent of $20. He huffed off without a word. Then it was time to “say goodbye” to the guide. I gave him about $40. “Was there something you were unhappy with, sir?’ What? This is a country where the average earnings is $1600/year or $0.80/hour for a 2000 hour work year. I had just given this guy more than $13/hour and he was unhappy? Sixty bucks is more than I paid to get into Disneyland (at least the last time I went). I gave him another $10, but my mood was considerably deflated.

Then another, very persistent man attached himself to my “retinue.” He wanted to sell me a carved wooden box with a secret compartment, but this time in the shape of a book. I made the mistake of remarking that I wish I had seen his first because it seemed to be made from a nicer quality wood, but that I had already purchased a carved wooden box with a secret compartment and that may already be one more such box than I really needed. But, he pressed on, undaunted. “Here, take it, try to open it.” Been there, done that. “It is in the shape of a book. You can hide it on your bookshelf.” Yes, I get it. Really, I do. But don’t you think that a carved wooden book would stick out like a sore thumb in a bookshelf? That if you really were in the security business you might make it out of a book, perhaps? “Look, carved out of rosewood.” It did look kind of like rosewood, but I don’t believe or disbelieve your statement. (As it turned out later, the moonstone box was made out of such green wood that the lid to the secret compartment has already badly warped, and we haven’t even returned yet to a dry, air conditioned climate.)

Do not get me wrong. I feel for these guys. Tourism is way down and these guys need to sell this stuff to eat. But I am not an ATM with a public password and I do not feel it is right to treat me as such. Then I made another error. I offered to trade him boxes straight up. By this time I was climbing into the front passenger seat of the car. Counter-offer: Trade plus $20. I have sometimes found that showing the offer in actual currency will close a deal. I pulled $10 out of my wallet. Trade plus $10. Big mistake. Like chumming for shark. Suddenly I am being prevented from closing the car door. Arms are reaching for the money in my right hand (which is my side away from the door in this country). I find myself in the childhood situation of using my older child height to hold something wanted by my little sister, Anna, just out of her reach. I tell the driver to “get me out of here.” He acts confused and does nothing. My God, they are all in it together! Counter offer: $15 and no trade. Done! Box comes in the door, $15 goes out the door, and off we go.

Whew! We start back for the hotel. I know a $25 charge for lunch awaits me, so I tell the driver to stop somewhere for “shorts” along the way. We pass several likely looking places. Where is he taking me? Probably looking for someplace that will give him a kickback, replies my either paranoid or getting smarter mind, I don’t yet know which. So I spot a bake shop in Dambulla and order him to stop. The proprietors are surprised but happy to see a foreigner in their shop. Are they tired of drivers taking all the business to restaurants that offer kickbacks? They charge me the going rate and I have a delicious lunch for less than $2.

Finally, I get back to the hotel and catch up with Kris. Kris relieved my mind, unhappy with itself for overpaying for the wooden boxes, by being delighted with both boxes. I sorted pictures on my laptop until it was time for dinner. Dinner that night was not quite the same extravaganza as the night before, but lets just say they did a nice job, with the previous night’s leftovers adding to the range of choices usually available.

So Christmas night ended quietly for us after a busy day, at least for me. I hope that Christmas night found all of you at peace as well.

Tim

More photos from Christmas Day (plus my Christmas Eve frog) can be found on my Picasa website.

Our Christmas Trip (part three)

Christmas Eve! The day that Kris and I have our annual ritual debate over when to open presents. Kris always wants to open presents during the evening on Christmas Eve. Just to keep the debate going, I always take the side of insisting we wait until Christmas morning. This discussion gets ever more pointless as the number of actual presents involved gets smaller and smaller. Really, staying at the Kandalama is our Christmas present to each other. Kris prepared a gift for each of us, partly so we do have something to open, partly to keep the yearly tussle over when to open the gifts alive for another year.

We did not have much scheduled for the day, so we dawdled over breakfast. (It was a good thing our hotel room did not have a bathroom scale.) We checked out the library on the top floor of the hotel. It was both interesting and disappointing. It was disappointing in that there really were very few titles. It was interesting as there were some very interesting titles. There was a volume of all the graffiti from Sigiriya. There was a book of lithographs of scenes of Sri Lanka from colonial times. There were some architecture books that included discussions of Bawa’s works (of course).

Somewhere in there it was time for lunch. So we paid the $50 and had lunch for an hour or two. Then we wandered over to the jewelry store. Given that Sri Lanka is so famous for gems and me being a solid-state physicist, I have a desire to buy some kind of gemstone as a souvenir of our stay in Sri Lanka. Recently I became attracted to blue topaz. Blue topaz is one of the cheapest gemstones in the world (so I might be able to buy something of larger than microscopic size) and there is a physics connection. The connection is that natural blue topaz is extremely rare, so that essentially all available blue topaz is created by intensely irradiating colorless topaz to make it blue. (This is also why it is cheap, as any treated gemstone is considered less desirable than a gemstone that gets its color “naturally.”) So we asked to look at their supply of blue topaz in large sizes. They had some “rocks.” We looked at one that was more than 300 carats. While we were in the store, we let them show us their ruby and sapphire stock as well.  :^) Needless to say, there was nothing desirable in our beggarly price range, but it was fun to look and to learn more about gems.

Then it was time to take our walk with the hotel’s naturalist to the top of Kandalama Rock,

Frog on Kandalama Rock trail

Frog on Kandalama Rock trail

behind the hotel. Kris had very carefully checked with him the day before to see if she needed better walking shoes than just the sandals she had brought with her. “No problem!” he says. WRONG! The crude, unmarked trail involves scrambling up the side of the rock face in places. It had rained a bit earlier  and the rock face was slippery in spots. The trail through the woods was strewn with large rocks and fallen tree branches. All in all, it was a trail where one wanted to have the rigidity of sole and the ankle support of a lightweight hiking shoe and not just a pair of sandals. Kris was a trooper, making it to the top, but suffering one hard fall.

Once we did get to the top, it was lovely. Being above the trees we had a nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. The late afternoon light was soft and golden, a  mist still in the air from the rain. We could see Sigiriya Rock to the northeast. We were almost at the soaring height of the two Brahminy kites that frequent the area, so we could look at them straight on as they glided in lazy circles, scanning for prey below. There was a cool breeze at the top of the hill and we considered not coming down. However, we did not want to navigate the trail in the dark and we wanted to go to the church service at 6PM. So we picked our way slowly downhill and back to the hotel.

After resting, bathing, and the putting on of fresh clothes, we headed for the top floor of the hotel where a Christian service was scheduled to begin. The service was a Sri Lankan Catholic Mass officiated by a Sri Lankan priest. We were among the first to arrive, and Kris was pressed into service (if you will pardon the pun) and asked to do the first reading. I was a bit disappointed, but the priest could hardly have known that I, not Kris, had rehearsed endlessly for the third grade (the year my voice changed and they rather rudely removed me from the choir) Christmas pageant to prepare to read those immortal words “And it CAME to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that ALLLL the world should be taxed…” It could have been my big moment. Finally, I might have atoned for having had such a squeaky voice (and an apparent problem of needing to adjust the crotch area of my pants every sixty seconds or so no matter who was watching) that, in a competition with two other boys, I came in third. I was thus relegated to doing the reading for the assembled students only, and not for the two pageants that were attended by parents. I have suffered from this humiliation for years, and apparently will continue to do so, since this atonement opportunity passed me right by.

The service was very intimate and sincere. There was a choir that seemed to have been formed from some of the hotel staff. They sang Sri Lankan Christmas carols, which were very nice, but not at all like the carols we are used to. They carols had an almost oompah band beat and there were hints of country western in the accompaniment. The congregation was mostly Sri Lankans, presumably Christian Sri Lankans from the hotel staff, and a few Western hotel guests. Kris (and I, of course) declined to take communion. Kris declined because  generally Catholic churches  prohibit non-Catholic Christians from taking communion. However, as Kris thanked the priest after the service, she learned that Sri Lankan Catholics do not abide by this discrimination and welcome all Christians to take communion with them. The homily recalled the true meaning of Christmas, the celebration of God becoming Man to enable Man’s salvation.

And then we returned to a familiar theme on this trip, eating. The hotel put on a food extravaganza. They prepared every dish they serve. They brought out ice sculptures. They had live music. They had a raffle. We had wine, indulged in thirds, and generally watched the goings-on from a table with a view more of the night outside than the celebration inside.

In my last post, I mentioned that the Kandalama was a five star hotel and gave the definition therein. The wine was a case in point. Kris and I like a bit of champagne on special occasions. There was no champagne available for less than $140/bottle and the prices went as high as $500/bottle. So, no champagne. There were some wines simply listed as “California wines”  for $40/bottle, so we inquired as to which vineyard they came from. The waiter had to consult someone in the kitchen and returned to tell us that the California wines came from the Gallo vineyard. Well, I’ll be damned if I am going to pay $40 for a bottle of what is, no doubt, Ernest and Julio’s finest, so we settled on a South African wine instead for about the same price. No doubt we bought the South African equivalent of Gallo, but my ignorance of wine is such that I can pretend otherwise. And it tasted pretty good at that.

Off we tottered to our room. We opened our presents. Both of us got books. Kris thoughtfully bought me another book on the birds of Sri Lanka to help me identify the birds we are seeing, as well as an early 20th century traveler’s guide to buying gemstones in Sri Lanka. Kris also thoughtfully purchased “The Jam Fruit Tree” for herself, a quasi-fictional account of the Burghers of Sri Lanka. However, we were unable to keep our eyes open in order to read, so we fell, insensate, into bed.

Tim

On the photography front, the only photo that turned out well that day was the frog, above. Thus, there are no additional photographs on my Picasa web site.

Our Christmas trip (part two)

Having ate well, slept well, and showered well, we were feeling in a better mood when we awoke early on Tuesday, December 23rd. Our first breakfast at the Kandalama Hotel brightened our mood even more. Every morning they put out a breakfast spread to appeal to visitors from pretty much anywhere on the planet. Sri Lankan string hoppers, made-to-order omelets and waffles, excellent Canadian  bacon, all kinds of pastries, and loads of fresh tropical fruit. We were tempted, but could not linger as our driver picked us up at 8:30AM for the drive to Anuradhapura.

We had made a strategic decision that, in retrospect, I am not sure I would recommend to others. We decided to base ourselves at the Kandalama Hotel, near Dambulla,  and make day trips from there. However, it is a two hour drive from the Kandalama Hotel to both Anuradhapura and Polonnuruwa and four hours a day spent in the car is not our idea of a good time. The upside was not having to pack up and move every day and being able to spend more time in the dining room of the Kandalama Hotel. But there are other very fine hotels in the area that I am sure would have been delightful and would likely have saved us money (it is “high season” here, however). Not that we seriously regret our decision, we enjoyed getting to know the Kandalama and its staff very much.

Anuradhapura is (here it comes again) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the site of the first capital of ancient Sri Lankan kings, the site of the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and dates from the 3rd century BCE.

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba

The capital thrived for 1300 years and was abandoned around 1000 CE after which it faded into the jungle. It is a very large site and we did not try to see it all. Our first stop was the Jetavanarama Dagoba. (“Dagoba” is pronounced like “pagoda” with appropriate substitution of consonants.) A dagoba is a reliquary, with the relics contained in the boxy portion of the structure below the spire (here a truncated spire) (the hataraes kotuwa). The spire represents a furled, ceremonial parasol (the chatta). Around the outside of the dagoba is a promenade (the vahalakda) where pilgrims circle the dagoba in a clockwise direction. Entrance to the vahalakda is through gates at the four cardinal points. The Jetavanarama Dagoba was built in the 3rd century CE and is 70m (230 feet) tall. At the time it was built, it was the third tallest man-made structure in the world, the other two being Egyptian pyramids. Even today, this dagoba is the largest and tallest structure made entirely of brick anywhere on earth and consists of some ninety million bricks (stats from Lonely Planet – Sri Lanka).

As significant as the Jetavanarama Dagoba is, our attention was diverted by the many monkeys hanging around the site.

Madonna and child

Madonna and child

As we were to learn, monkeys are all over the ancient site. At first, I carefully stalked a monkey trying to get a good shot. By the end of the day, I had had my fill of monkey photos. But monkeys can be strangely compelling, I suppose because they are fellow primates and our brains respond strongly to their almost human features. For the photographer, their docility and dependence on humans for food make them easy to approach for close up shots. Of course, one needs to be somewhat careful, as a monkey bite can be vicious and monkeys are carriers for rabies and other diseased they share with Man.

Leaving Jetavarama Dagoba, we drove to the vicinity of the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba.The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba was built around 140 BCE, though it has been remodeled from time to time.

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Thus, the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba is in much better condition than the Jetavanarama Dagoba and so we spent much more time here, slowly completing a clockwise circuit of the dagoba. The circuit was almost like a circus, there was so much going on. There were many devoted worshippers, of course, making offerings of flowers, especially lotus blossoms, and burning oil lamps. There was a monkey scrimmage as two males presumably fought it out for their position in the dominance hierarchy. Almost like gang members, others in the troop seemed to egg them on and root for one or the other. A monkey family had occupied a portion of the outer wall that was decorated with Buddhist flags. Maybe thirty feet off the ground, a cat was surveying the scene from a decorated lintel. The cat and a monkey passed each other on this narrow ledge, studiously ignoring each other. I got a good shot of a Eurasian kingfisher roosting on a light fixture. And, when we left the compound a Sri Lankan family asked me to take a group portrait, which I did.

From Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba we walked to the Sri Maha Bodhi, one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka. The bodhi tree is the species of tree under which the Buddha was seated when he attained enlightenment.

Decoration in wall surrounding Sri Maha Bodhi

Decoration in wall surrounding Sri Maha Bodhi

The Sri Maha Bodhi tree is said to have been grown from a cutting from the very tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. It has been cared for by an unbroken succession of protectors for over 2000 years and is thus the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Cuttings from this tree have been spread to many temples around Sri Lanka and elsewhere where they are much revered. None of my photos of the tree itself turned out well. There is no viewpoint with an unobstructed view of the tree. The tree is surrounded by a low wall, richly decorated and other bodhi trees. One of my favorite images was that of the swan, repeated just below the top of the wall.

By this time, we were hot, sweaty, thirsty, and hungry. So we walked back to the car and were driven into town for lunch at a dicey looking restaurant. Considering the decided lack of ambiance, the food was actually pretty good, as we have often found in Sri Lanka. Watered and fed, we went back to the ancient site for a short afternoon visit.

The engineering works of the ancient Sri Lankan people really are remarkable. In addition to the construction of large buildings, their waterworks are amazing. We often thought of Kris’s father, who spent much of his life as a water resources engineer helping to tame the water of Asia.

Kris at Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools)

Kris at Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pools)

We wished for his presence as we imagined the joy and enthusiasm he would have displayed on this trip. The sight of the Kuttam Pokuna (the Twin Ponds), our first stop after lunch, would have lit up his face with his bright eyes, broad smile, and ready laugh as he fumbled to keep his pipe lit. Our sense of loss at his passing was acute, even as we could almost feel his presence.

The Kuttom Pokuna are two bathing pools presumably used by monks associated with another dagoba close by. The only occupant on this day was an algae covered turtle, but the pools look like all they need is a rinsing to continue service as a public bath.

We next visited the Samadhi Buddha, a statue carved in the 4th century CE. The statue is in pristine condition, amazing considering it is 1600 years old, and is very skillfully carved from solid rock. As well as being truly beautiful, the Samadhi Buddha is still an active worship site. The statue is surrounded by a green, park like area, a calm, welcome relief from the heat and the dust of much of the rest of the ruins at Anuradhapura. Avian visitors to the site gave me the opportunity to get some photos (though of relatively poor quality) of a spotted dove and a white-throated kingfisher.

Our last stop of the day was to see one of the best preserved moonstones in Sri Lanka.

Moonstone at Anuradhapura

Moonstone at Anuradhapura

A moonstone is a semi-circular, low-relief carving that served as a kind of  “welcome mat” at temple entrances. The moonstone is carved in concentric semicircular bands, usually depicting animals of symbolic importance. Unfortunately, this moonstone is surrounded by a fence, so it is difficult to get a photo of the entire piece. However, the details are wonderful and were enhanced that day by some rainwater, standing on the moonstone, that had yet to evaporate in the day’s heat.

At this point we were incapable of absorbing anything new. So we climbed back in the car, returned to the hotel, and climbed back into the shower.

Bed decoration, Kandalama Hotel

Bed decoration, Kandalama Hotel

Clean and in fresh clothes, we swanked off to the dining room and stuffed ourselves like pigs at the trough. Upon returning to our room, we found the bed decorated with fresh flowers, a nice touch.

I promised in my last posting to describe the hotel in more detail. The photos associated with the last posting contain my photos of the room. The hotel’s website is here. The Kandalama Hotel is another design of Geoffrey Bawa, the post-colonial Sri Lankan architect we first started to appreciate on our trip to Galle. As with the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, the essence of the design is to make the hotel a seamless part of the landscape. It is literally built into the side of a rock cliff, Kandalama Rock. If you view the hotel from the lake, you can appreciate how Bawa has made the hotel blend in. The surrounding jungle foliage hides the lower floors. In fact, the main entrance to the hotel is approached from a driveway that arrives at the hotel on the fifth floor.  The hotel bends backward to conform to the curve of the rock face. The outer surface of the hotel forms a kind of trellis that is covered with vines, further masking the hotel from sight. There are certain strategically selected places one can see: the top floor overlook and pool, the sixth floor dining room, the fifth floor pool and bar area. The fact that the hotel continually bends backwards allows another interesting feature, no curtains on your room’s wall-to-wall bathroom. You take your shower in full view of Nature, sans the eyes of mankind. This was a bit disconcerting to a Swedish visitor who had stayed at the Kandalama before visiting Peradeniya, who related that some monkeys watched him intently during his morning shower. The bedroom windows do have curtains, but not for privacy so much, rather to allow you to sleep in on the morning.

In our travels, we have decided that the definition of a five star hotel is a four star hotel that charges outrageously for anything beyond a clean bed and a clean bathroom. The Kandalama fits this definition. It is a destination hotel and we booked it including half-board, i.e., with breakfast and dinner. The Kandalama is pretty isolated. Once we had stayed close to the hotel for the day and needed lunch. The cost, on inquiry, was $25 each in the main dining room. Well, we did not really need a the full buffet service of the main dining room, so we went to the poolside restaurant which serves more snacky stuff. We spent the minimum for a sandwich and soft drink and ended up paying $40! As another example, the hotel has apparently contracted with Sri Lanka Telecom for their in-room wireless internet service and the cost was more than I was willing to pay. How is it that, even in the US, a Motel 6 comes with free wireless, but a Hilton charges a fair fraction of the nightly room rate for the same service?

On a brighter side, the Kandalama buffet was excellent. I have already mentioned the breakfast buffet, but lunch and dinner are equally full of a wide range of cuisines. I have to admit that despite the fact that I love Sri Lankan cooking, I did not select a single Sri Lankan dish during our entire stay at the Kandalama. Instead, I gorged on fresh fruit and salad, cooked to order sate and BBQ, and other Western and Chinese dishes. It was a welcome change of pace.

Also on the brighter side, the hotel has very reasonably priced excursions. They offer birdwatching hikes and boat rides, elephant rides, trips to Sigiriya, balloon rides, and others. Normally they offer a night walk to see nocturnal creatures, but they were cancelled all week due to the presence of wild elephants in the vicinity. So we signed up for several of these excursions, which was good, since we had sent our driver home for three days to spend Christmas with his family.

So, as it turned out, the day ended by setting an early alarm clock for the morning, as we were scheduled to take a walk with the hotel naturalist at the “crack of dawn.”

Tim

More picture associated with the events in this posting can be found at my Picasa website.

Our Christmas trip (part one)

(Added January 9th: More photos associated with this post have been uploaded to my Picasa website.)

We had a wonderful Christmas. We decided to take advantage of my break from teaching to spend a week traveling in north central Sri Lanka. We saw the ancient capital cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, we visited the holy site at the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, we saw and took pictures of elephants, birds, and lizards, we stayed in a five star hotel that we likened to a non-moving cruise ship, and we attended an intimate Sri Lankan Catholic mass on Christmas Eve.

There is so much to relate that I decided that I really needed to break it into pieces, of which this is the first installment:

We had arranged to hire a car and driver to take us north. The driver, NM, was the same driver who took us to see the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. NM picked us up at 10AM and we were on our way. Kandy is in the central hill country and our first day’s journey took us to the northern end of the hill country, the the southern edge of the “dry zone.” The dry zone constitutes 65% of the area of Sri Lanka and receives less than 1900mm (75 inches) of rainfall each year. As a comparison, Seattle receives 940mm (37 inches) of rain each year, which is the same as Columbus, OH. Of course, distribution of rainfall is all important. Seattle gets it in small doses all the time and so has the reputation it has. Columbus gets it in larger doses in thunderstorms and winter snow, leaving many sunny days in between. Sri Lanka gets it in massive doses in two seasons of monsoons, leaving such long stretches of sunshine that some of the scenery we saw included cacti. (For the record, Kandy is in a region which gets between 1900mm (75 inches) and 2500mm (98 inches) of rainfall each year.)

Our trip on the A9 highway wound through the hill country, green as Ireland. The car was air-conditioned and comfortable. I was amazed that the car was about eight years old as it looked nearly new both on the exterior and the interior. Of course I live where they strew salt on the roads each winter and our driver depends for his business on keeping his car in good condition. We passed through several small towns until, about an hour into our trip, we entered the outskirts of Matale, 26km (17 miles) from Kandy.

Our (or should I say Kris’) first objective was the Noritake factory outlet store in Matale. We had been led to believe that fine china was available in Sri Lanka for the proverbial song. Kris was somewhat disappointed to discover that this was not true. The prices are a bargain compared to prices in the US, but generally not enough cheaper to make up for the high costs of shipping it back to the US. However, we did want to buy something for our landlady and Kris found a very nice tea set. For part of this long, boring, interminable process, I was outside shooting some pictures. Here is one of the leaves of a teak tree in silhouette.

teak leaves

teak leaves

Finally, we dragged Kris out of the outlet store and continued our northern trek. We did not go far, stopping at the Matale Heritage Center. The center employs batik, woodworkers, embroiderers, and brassworkers and sells their products.

Brass Ganesh at Matale Heritage Center

Brass Ganesh at Matale Heritage Center

It was a bit of an adventure getting there as the road to the place was poorly marked and in very bad condition. At one point the car bottomed out so hard that we worried that we were going to be stuck in Matale. The center turned out to be centered on a lovely home with a gorgeous view out over the valley. We could not leave without buying two fairly large, monochrome batiks, one depicting the sun and one depicting the moon. The house was surrounded by one of the most beautiful flower gardens we have seen in Sri Lanka, interspersed with some of the craftsmen’s brass devotional figures.

Forging on, we next stopped at Aluvihara, a Buddhist monastery, just north of Matale. Aluvihara is famous as the origin of books in Sri Lanka. The books are made up of long slender palm leaves, maybe 200mm (12 inches) long and 40mm (1.5 inches) wide, called “ola leaves”. Writing is done by using a sharp iron tool to scribe letters into the leaf. Then, a charcoal-based ink is rubbed into the leaf, filling in and blackening the scribed lines. Finally, an oil  concoction is rubbed on to seal the ink into the grooves, remove the excess ink, and condition the leaf. These leaves are still readable 500 years after their creation.

This method of writing is credited with influencing the evolution of the Sinhala alphabet. The Sinhala alphabet is very curvy. This is said to be due to the fact that straight strokes tended to tear or perforate the ola leaf. After the leaves are inscribed and a hole is made in one end of the leaf, they are bound together between two, usually decorated, wooden or metal covers by running a string through corresponding holes in the covers and the leaves. We had to have one and fortunately they are very reasonably priced. We also visited the rock caves at Aluvihara.

At this point, we were starving. We told NM to stop someplace so we could eat. Here, NM let us down. He delivered us into the hands of a snake oil merchant, and I mean that almost literally.

Cocoa pod

Cocoa pod

NM told us we could get something to eat at one of the many “spice gardens” along our route. What he didn’t tell us was that before we got close to the food, we would be subjected to a high pressure sales pitch for products derived from local plants. We are pretty sure that NM gets a kickback for doing this. Our “guide” claimed to be the the descendant of 12 generations of Ayurvedic doctors who cure all ills with potions derived from natural plants.  Ayurvedic medicine is considered essentially co-equal with Western medicine here in Sri Lanka and, to be fair, herbal medicine has been shown in clinical trials to be better than a placebo. But deaths due to snakebite in Sri Lanka dropped dramatically once Western medicine finally figured out how to deal with snakebite and the better results of Western medicine slowly won over more Sri Lankans, at least when it comes to snakebite.

I have become so jaded by bogus sales pitches in Sri Lanka that I doubt very much whether our “guide” was the descendant of even an Ayurvedic nurse-practitioner and I certainly did not believe a word he said about anything except plant identification. However, the spice garden itself was interesting. We delighted in the smell of various fresh leaves crushed under our noses. We enjoyed seeing several spices “in the raw”, so to speak, including the cocoa pod in the picture above. At one point, he got around to some spice that was supposed to be good for nausea. I told him that I was going to need some of that, if he did not get me some food in the next five minutes.

This threat did not get me to lunch within five minutes as I had hoped. Instead, we were shown to a kind of miniature, outdoor auditorium where we were fed a couple of snacky things and our guide determinedly finished his pitch, er educational tour, of the garden. I will say that Sri Lankan salespeople are persistent. Finally, we entered the salesroom where all the products that had been featured were for sale. The salesman was perplexed that I did not purchase the herbal tea that would clear my psoriasis right up. We did buy one packet of a wonderful curry powder and some herbal lotion, maybe five bucks, total.

Violence was averted when we were then fed a pretty good lunch at a reasonable price. I spotted NM across the parking lot with a twinkle in his eye and I shook my finger at him to let him know that I was on to him.

Our next stop was at the cave temples at Dambulla. At this point we were tired. We were miffed that the multi-temple tickets we had purchased in Kandy did not apply to the famous rock caves here. We were appalled at the modern kitsch, a kind of Buddhist Disneyland going in near the road.

Golden Temple, Dambulla

Golden Temple, Dambulla

We were not happy about hiking uphill to see the cave temples. And we were more than a little unhappy that, despite how late it was in the afternoon, they would neither discount the $25/each ticket price or allow us to use the tickets again the next day. So, in our umbrage, we decided to huff ourselves off to our hotel which is several kilometers east of the town of Dambulla and we never did see the rock caves.

Our hotel was the Kandalama Hotel. It is built into a rock cliff on the southern edge of Kandalama Lake, a tank on the very boundary of the dry zone and the hill country. We had chosen the Kandalama as it was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, the same architech we admired so much after our trip to Galle where we stayed at his Lighthouse Hotel.

Our room at the Kandalama Hotel

Our room at the Kandalama Hotel

The hotel was less than fully booked and we were offered a discounted upgrade to a  room with a better view and a jacuzzi. Notice that I said “discounted,” not “inexpensive.” There was nothing inexpensive about this hotel. Once again, we succumbed to temptation, and all in all, the hotel was so good that we ended up deciding it was worth every lahk. (The latter sentence contained a minor joke that only our Sri Lankan friends familiar with American sayings will likely appreciate.) In fact, we decided that this hotel could best be described as essentially a cruise ship at dock on the lake.

I will describe the hotel in more detail in a later posting. As it was, in our umbrage, we were not in the mood to take a kindly view of the hotel when we checked in. We did, however, take a kindly view of the luxurious shower and a very comfortable bed and turned in early.

Tim

Rhetoric matters

The childhood sing-song “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” and all of its “grown up” versions are pernicious. They are pernicious because words can do real damage. Events here in Sri Lanka can serve as a lesson to Americans about the potentially terrible effects of rhetoric.

During the most recent American presidential campaign, both sides had partisans that used extreme rhetoric in describing the opposing candidate. Extremists on the right characterized Obama as someone who would befriend terrorists, bring on a socialist state, pack the Supreme Court, and destroy America and its ideals. Extremists on the left characterized McCain as someone who would take away our civil rights, pack the Supreme Court, emasculate Congress, govern as a near dictator, and destroy America and its ideals. Support our candidate, the extremists proclaimed, or you are electing a traitor, the devil incarnate, a Hitler.

In the US, we protect freedom of speech and we do not silence those who use such extreme rhetoric. Some try to say that such things are only said in the heat of a campaign. McCain acknowledged as much in his concession speech. He “approved” many TV ads that falsely portrayed, in often fairly extreme ways, Obama’s positions. Then, in his concession speech, he congratulated Obama and called Obama “my president.” He seemed to be demonstrating that all is fair during the campaign, but that once the campaign is over we go back to the real world in which the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is sometimes no more than nuance. But you only had to listen to the partisan shouting in the hall in which McCain gave his speech to know that some of McCain’s supporters would carry on their campaign extremism into the political arena as policy debate continues. And while I used the reaction to McCain’s concession speech as an example, there are plenty of examples from the left of similar behavior.

In America, I blame this state of affairs on people who should know better. These are the cynical people who are profiting by turning what should be serious political discussion over important issues into a shouting match cum sporting event. The two “teams” are the right and the left. Points are scored with verbal “gotchas” and zingers. Facts are treated as fungible. Studies are countered with anecdotes, often invented anecdotes. No one is trying to find a practical, workable solution that is best for the people affected, rather everyone is attempting to promote whatever is best fitted to their ideological framework. Anyone who tries to stake out a nuanced or moderate position, or looks for a win-win compromise, is marginalized. The media loves this as a form of reality TV with plenty of drama and emotion with no foreseeable end. The participants and the media should be ashamed of themselves for this debasement of the democratic process that realistically could destroy America and its ideals. Rhetoric matters, and our problems are too serious not to be engaged in serious, respectful, and constructive discussions of their solutions.

Rhetoric matters here in Sri Lanka as well, but it is playing out differently. Here, many political parties have extremist supporters that resort to violence in support of their cause. I wrote recently about the “scariness” of the Sri Lankan government accusing the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka of being involved in an international, criminal conspiracy involving the Sri Lankan opposition party and the Western powers. I am happy to report that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is still among the living and the government defused the fuel price situation somewhat by announcing an economic stimulus package that lowered the price of gasoline among other things.

But other recent events have not been so peaceful. The day before yesterday, a gang of men invaded the studios of an independent TV and radio station, roughed up the employees on duty, used automatic weapons and hand grenades to destroy broadcast equipment, and finally set the building on fire. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. No one has taken responsibility for this action, but it is widely believed to be the work of extremist supporters of the party in power. Why this TV station? The government included it among media outlets that the government labels as insufficiently “patriotic” in reporting on the conflict.

The government claims not to be responsible. The president responded to the event by denouncing the attack and called on the police to arrest those responsible. Then, incredibly, he added to the instructions to the police. He told them to be sure to investigate the possibility that the attack was carried out by the opposition to discredit the president’s administration! Frankly I doubt that the president directed anyone to invade that station. He does not need that kind of publicity in these crucial times. But he and his party cannot escape a measure of responsibility. Rhetoric matters, especially if you know there are violent extremists listening carefully to your words.

And today, an even worse tragedy. Two men on motorcycles blocked the car of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, and shot him to death in cold blood, on a public street, in front of multiple witnesses. Apparently, he too was “insufficiently patriotic.”

I hope that the irresponsible people in the US who have jacked up the rhetoric to extreme levels come to their senses. I know some of us who remember the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers are worried about Obama’s security. If something violent happens to Obama, then, even though Rush Limbaugh and his ilk did not pull the trigger, they must bear some measure of culpability.

Please, everyone, on the right and on the left, let’s tone it down, let’s talk together in a civilized manner, and let’s find real-world, not ideological-fantasy- world, solutions to our Nation’s problems.

Tim

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