Our Trip to Yala National Park

My sister Shannon has arrived to share our trip back to the US. Partly in honor of her and partly to get in a trip to parts of Sri Lanka we had not had a chance to see, we took a trip to Yala National Park, on the south east coast of Sri Lanka. We chose to go what I call “over the top,” across the central highlands of the island.

Going “over the top” took us through what must be the most scenic scenery of Sri Lanka. We started our trip in Kandy at an elevation of 500 m (1600 feet). From there, our rented van and driver took us to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of tea plantation country. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced roughly new RAIL ee ya) is at an elevation of 1900 m (6200 feet), so you can imagine the wind-y, twisty, slow trip up the mountain sides. But the views were spectacular. Valleys opened before us, lined with lime green paddy below and emerald green, manicured tea plantations up high. Connecting the two were waterfalls on every size scale. We stopped at a tea factory and I got my postcard shot of a tea picker.

Tea picker, Nuwara Eliya

Tea picker, Nuwara Eliya

Lunch was in the dining room of the St. Andrew’s Hotel. The dining room is known for having a decorated copper ceiling, copper being good to discourage mold. The hotel also has a small man-made wetlands area. Make that very small, notable only for some dragon flies and the hotel’s nod to ecology.

dragon fly, St. Andrew's Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

dragon fly, St. Andrew's Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya is the “top” and for the rest of the day (and the next) it was all downhill. Before reaching our hotel in the town of Ella, we stopped at a Hindu temple. The temple is at the location of an important event depicted in the sacred Hindu text, The Ramayana. An evil god, Ravena, kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita, and hides her away near the current site of this temple. With the help of the monkey god, Hanuman, Rama locates Sita and rescues her from the clutches of Ravena. So perhaps it was appropriate that there was a troop of monkeys roaming the temple, including this one, who seemed to have elevated himself into the Hindu pantheon.

site of Sita's captivity

temple at site of Sita's captivity

We spent the night in a small guesthouse in Ella. Ella is famous for the Ella Gap, a view down a steep valley from which you can almost see the ocean (on a good day. It wasn’t that good, but close.)

The next day found us finishing the decent to sea level and making it to our hotel, the Yala Village. Yala Village consists of separate “cabins” within a a hundred meters or so of a central registration, dining, and swimming facility. It was very nice and the food (all meals done buffet-style) was plentiful and good. Yala Village is close to the entrance to Yala National Park. To visit the park, you hire a jeep with driver and spend the next three hours tearing around the dirt roads of the park with screeching stops when an animal is sighted. For the first couple of hours, you stop a lot as you “collect” sightings of the most common park animals: samba deer, spotted deer, egrets, herons, storks, crocodiles, water buffalo, elephants. But the last hour is a hectic search for the “prize”: a leopard sighting. The leopards only come out in that last hour before closing time. We were in luck. The photo is of poor quality as the leopard in question was maybe 75-100 meters away, but in  keeping with my photo standards for birds and rare animals, it is a good photo if you can tell what it is:

leopard, Yala NP

leopard, Yala NP

Eventually I will get around to posting my other photos of the trip including some nice bird pictures on my Picasa  site, but I do not know when that will happen.

After spending a day at Yala, we headed from Ratnapura,  the center of the gem mining region of Sri Lanka. It is said that if you want to buy gems, you are better off in Colombo. But we had some fun looking and ended up buying a few small inexpensive items. We spent the night as the only guests in a 400 room hotel just outside Ratnapura.

The next day was a six hour drive back to Kandy and back to the task of packing for our trip home. Sigh. More when I can.



By popular demand! Kris in sari!

My colleague, Professor Careem, just sent us the only pictures extent of Kris in her sari. The occasion was the homecoming following the marriage of Professor Careem’s son that I wrote about in December. Without further ado:

Kris in sari at homecoming reception

Kris in sari at homecoming reception

Mini book reviews

It is amazing how many more books you can read if you do not have access to television. And when you have a wife like Kris who recommends really great (not necessarily “the Great”) books, reading is so much more interesting and satisfying than television.

We do have a television here with a satellite dish even. But the landlady has a package that is (naturally) mostly Sinhalese channels. The only English language channel we get on the dish is Al Jazeera. Now mind you it has been very interesting getting Al Jazeera’s viewpoint on the news, but like all other news channels it suffers from being pretty much all news and it repeats itself after awhile. I could not watch CNN for long periods of time for the same reasons.

So I’ve finished three books recently: Jeanne Cambrais’ Murder in the Pettah, Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle, and Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. If you exclude physics books and computer books, this would be about a year’s worth of reading for me back in the States.

As its name implies, Murder in the Pettah is a murder mystery. For me, its hook is that it is set in Colombo. The protagonist is a Sri Lankan who emigrated to the United States, is experiencing burn out on the job, and comes back to Sri Lanka to spend some relaxing time with his favorite cousin, a famous Sri Lankan fashion model. He has a chance encounter with a sexy Brit who ends up dead the next day and the mystery begins. He was not too comfortable being on vacation anyway and his cousin pressures him to help so she can get in bed with the dead girl’s very rich father (which is basically her retirement plan). Aside from the familiar and not so familiar Colombo locations where the action takes place, Cambrais does a convincing job of giving the character of the investigation a Sri Lankan feel. So, for example, the investigation becomes a project of the protagonist’s extended family. His favorite old aunt gathers information from her bridge club members. His cousin uses her glamour to distract and acquire information from pillow talk. The  family driver either knows or is related to the domestic help of  the various principals in the case. More help comes from the dead girl’s best friend, who turns into both a love interest for the protagonist and a suspect in the case (of course).

Kris met Cambrais at the Galle Literary Festival and liked her. Kris admires Cambrais’ frank reasons for wan ting to write: to make money and to spite her ex-husband. From what I can gather from Kris’ report, Cambrais had the first husband from hell who not only treated her shamefully, but told her he would make sure she stayed impoverished, and did manage to leave her without a dime. Writing has been Cambrais’ revenge. She authored a Playboy guide to San Francisco but under an assumed male pseudonym since she knew she would not get the assignment as a woman. And there is a sense on ets that the characters in Murder in the Pettah could easily find themselves reassembled for the next murder. In fact, I think it would make a pretty good TV series on the BBC’s Mystery. One thing she might have to tone down for TV is the sexual deviancy that is central to the story. Murder in the Pettah is not recommended for impressionable youth. In any case, for adults, while not great literature, Murder in the Pettah is a good satisfying read.

I have to confess here that I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf. The only reason I know the name is as part of the title of the Edward Albee play that might single-handedly make one decide not to teach at a small college. Well it turns out that Virginia Woolf had a husband, Leonard Woolf, who was also a writer. His book, The Village in the Jungle, draws on his personal experience as a minor British administrator during colonial times in the most southerly part of Sri Lanka, the town of Hambantota. In his administrative role, he acted as a low level judge, trying minor criminal complaints in the area. The Village in the Jungle is the story of a tiny village deep in the jungle that does not get enough rain to enable the villagers to thrive on the crops they produce. Instead they barely get by, always in debt to unscrupulous money lenders and the village headman who control the seed they need to plant the next crop. Woolf describes the jungle as evil, but the evil in the story is all man-made.

The story is not that long but is powerful. Actually, I started the book reluctantly, I tend to shy away from tragedies. But the book surprises with unexpected directions and the description of life as seen through the eyes of the villagers is fascinating. I got hooked. The real tragedy turns out to be that the villagers trap themselves. They are unwilling to leave the small jungle clearing that represents to them home and family. We  also see how little connection there is between the colonial rulers and those they ruled. Recommended.

Finally, I just finished Jesse Kellerman’s The Brutal Art. It is also supposed to be a murder mystery, but is quite unlike any murder mystery I’ve ever read. In fact, when the “who” of the “who done it” is revealed, it is almost beside the point. The story is told in a combination of the first person of the protagonist, a New York City art gallery owner, and third person accounts of significant past events. The art gallery owner is given possession of some astonishing drawings, apparently drawn by a creative genius who is fettered with mental shackles, and who has suddenly disappeared. The art gallery owner makes a desultory search for the artist, but enthusiastically puts on a show to sell the drawings. Everything goes smoothly until he gets a call from a retired New York City cop who has seen a reproduction of the central panel in the drawing and recognizes the cherubs as the faces of five murdered children. The art gallery owner starts a quest to prove the innocence of the artist and the sleuthing is on.

But just as the story gets down to the detective work, the story changes character. At first, the flashbacks seem like the usual writer’s tool to fill in background details. But the flashbacks themselves build in intensity until I was reminded of nothing else than a freight train from the past hurtling forward in time aimed right at the protagonist in the present. Without revealing the ending, let me just say that the crash of past and present knocked the wind out of me.

So, will I sign up for cable again when we get home? Probably, if only for Mystery, but now I will know what I am missing when I waste my time on Monk.


Been too long in Asia?

The Island newspaper here is available online and is one of two Sri Lankan newspapers I check pretty much on a daily basis. The Island is also available on local newsstands where its relative popularity (at least among English speakers) compared to the government organ The Daily News is demonstrated every day by the fact that the Island always sells out much more quickly than the Daily News. So reading the Island online is a more reliable way to keep up with its lead stories.

However, there is a downside to reading the Island online. The Island has a humor columnist who goes by the name of Nuri Vittachi. Humor is a tricky business but I’ve found that Vittachi manages to be funny on a pretty regular basis even with the pressure of a daily column. But the online version of the Island makes a mistake by not clearly identifying his column from among the other articles on the site. The online paper just lists the titles of the available articles and since Vittachi’s humor tend to the dry side, the titles most often do not give a hint to the humor contained within.

I got lucky the other day though and found Vittachi’s column about how you could tell when you had been in Asia too long. It seemed so apropos of our leaving and many of his “signs” rang so true that I thought I would pass it on to you all. Here it is, reprinted without permission (in the Sri Lankan spirit):

Signs that you have been living in Asia too long

My wife and I lived in a hotel at one time. Eventually we moved out and found a normal home. I was shocked to come home from work the first day and find that no one had folded the end of the toilet paper into a neat little triangle for me. “We are not animals,” I remember shouting at my wife. It took some time to realize that hotel life had changed my perception of what was normal.

In the same way, Westerners who spend a long time in Asia find themselves “going native”. One English friend went back to London after several years in Vietnam. Staff at Harrods, a fancy store, told her the price of the scarf she was looking at. She laughed scornfully in their faces, offered 20 per cent, and then marched out of the shop. Only when she noticed that staff failed to follow her, reducing the price at every step, did she recall that you just don’t do that sort of thing in London.

These memories were triggered by a letter I received from reader Jo Bunker, who has been living in Hong Kong for many years. “My list of signs you’ve been here too long would look like this,” she said. “You find yourself wondering how your friends back home can possibly survive without a rice cooker; you seek out a Chinatown when on holiday; you are shocked and suspicious when someone holds a door open for you; you manically over-pressing the ‘door close’ button in the lift; you peer over people’s shoulders at their account balance in the ATM queue; and you sneer at anyone who orders sweet and sour pork in a Chinese restaurant.”

Laurie Ashton, a Canadian who moved to Sri Lanka, wrote in her blog that she knew she had lived there too long when she stopped taking pictures of water buffalos mingling with traffic.

For Westerners in general, here are 12 Signs You’ve Been in Asia Too Long. 1) You find yourself bowing slightly when you are introduced to someone. 2) You don’t think there’s anything weird about eating a tenderloin steak with a side of rice. 3) You think of a motor scooter as a family vehicle for up to nine people. 4) You own more ethnic clothes than any of your Asian friends. 5) If you find a bug in your food, you pick it out and keep eating. 6) You no longer close your eyes when the driver of your auto-rickshaw cuts in and out of lanes missing other vehicles by a millimeter. 7) It now seems natural that breakfast buffets feature fried noodles, rice and curry. 8) When someone asks you a difficult question, you see the usefulness of responding with a South Asian head-wobble. 9) Using cutlery to eat feels weird. 10) You’re not particularly bothered when rural people defecate behind the nearest convenient bush. 11) You now really like foodstuffs you once thought weird and disgusting, like bitter melon, stinky tofu, lime pickle and stewed taro. 12) You are no longer too embarrassed to admit to other Westerners that you have servants.

But next time you visit your home in the west, remember not to defecate behind the nearest convenient bush. Especially not near Harrods.

If you want to contribute to the Island’s online ad revenue stream, you can click on the link to the article here. If you want to upset the woman in your life, read her today’s article.


What a picture I must have made…

OK. Picture this if you can:

It is 8:30PM, pitch dark. I am standing at the open gate of a neighbor’s compound.  I am naked except for a  (I must say,  ravishing), emerald green, tie-dye cotton sarong wrapped around my waist and Birkenstocks on my feet. The vast whiteness of my belly is exposed to the world, my locally unnatural furry body proclaiming my foreignness. Perhaps, then,  it is fortunate that I am alone in the dark.

Pregnant with Freudian symbolism, in my left hand I am carrying a foot long, Kenyon-purple torch (flashlight for those of you in the Western Hemisphere) and in my right hand I am brandishing (for no other word will do) a four foot, rolled up, white umbrella, wooden handle foremost. With my gray hair and gray beard I am the very picture of an Avenging Angel of the Lord. Or at least one of the Lord’s more fey, pale, and decrepit Avenging Angels.

Got that pictured? OK. Don’t worry. A couple of stiff shots of arrack and an hour or two should be enough to clear it out of your mind.

True to my avenging angel role, I am yelling angrily for the occupants of the house to come out or I will call the police. And I am angry. Hot angry. Not under total control angry. I am shouting at the top of my lungs in a residential neighborhood of a foreign city. When no one appears immediately, I call out that it is fine with me if they stay inside and call the police themselves. Either way. No one save for Kris and my nangi, Anna, have seen me this hot.

So how did I find myself in this situation? Well, it has to do with an increasingly vicious neighborhood dog. There are dogs everywhere here, mostly strays, mostly in miserable condition, feeding off piles of garbage. I have found that the strays are never a threat, too enervated from disease and starvation to challenge a human. But there are some pet dogs, elevated one might say, above the masses. This is a tale of two pet dogs.

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

Mitzi Amarasinghe Gunaratne - Doggy Hero

The first is the pet dog owned by our landlady. We willingly took on the responsibility for the dog both because we had just had experience with the difficulty of finding someone to care for pets when one is traveling and because we genuinely like dogs and knew we would appreciate its cheerful companionship.  She is a small dog with long hair, all white, weighing between 3-4kg (7-9 pounds). She is a bit small for my taste and she is a bit “yappy.”  She prances rather than walks, bushy tail high, mouth slightly open giving her the appearance of a happy smile. Her open-mouthed, excited greeting will give you a distinct whiff of “doggy breath” when you stoop to return her greeting with a pat on the head.

The dog worships the maid, who is conditioned by her culture not to return much affection, so the little dog is predictably desperate for attention, alone in the world without an accepting  “pack.”  But the maid bathes her weekly and feeds her daily and generally looks out for her. The dog is approaching twenty years old, a bit of a holdover from when the landlady thought that her two children should have a pet, and not much liked by the landlady either as we were to find out.  Though I have lived with the dog for seven months now, I am not really sure of her name. Between my difficulties hearing and my unfamiliarity with Sri Lankan names, the best I can do is “Mitzi.” And she looks like a dog an American would call “Mitzi.”

Early on, Mitzi earned a place in my personal “Dog Hall of Fame.” She is a credit to dogs the world over. Born into an unappreciative, un-understanding,  human culture, she has soldiered on doing what dogs do: standing guard; alerting on intruders; never failing to greet each family member enthusiastically even if the parting has been for only five minutes; and being continuously devoted to their family no matter how she is treated. Mitzi Amarasinghe  Gunaratne deserves a medal on this Earth and I am sure as an agnostic can be that she has a place in Doggy Heaven waiting for her arrival in the not-too-distant future.

Less charitable things can be said about the villain of the piece, a mostly black, short haired, male and maleficent dog belonging to the aforementioned neighbors. The dog is twice the size, so ten times Mitzi’s weight. I do not know this dog’s name either, but will use our maid’s sobriquet, “this bad dog” which is suitably descriptive. This bad dog first came to my attention in the first month of our stay when it challenged me as I was walking home from the University. This bad dog was hanging around the path that leads off the alley toward our house. It ran at me, growling, barking, and baring its teeth. I raised my umbrella and challenged it right back. This bad dog’s owner eventually appeared. She said that this bad dog did not like humans carrying umbrellas. I responded that humans have the right to carry umbrellas, not to mention their obvious utility in a tropical climate, and that the real point was that she should keep her dog under control. Displaying the obvious lack of control she had over the dog, she then proceeded to ineffectually herd this bad dog back toward her house. It would circle around her, coming back at me, until she would get between me and it and start the process over. The dog was totally unresponsive to her voice commands. In fact, this bad dog was one of the reasons why item number four in “101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka” was noted as true and not humorous.

From time to time, this bad dog and one of his packmates would enter our yard and we would chase them off. But not too long ago, this bad dog attacked Mitzi on one of these forays. Mitzi received a puncture wound that our maid treated with an antibiotic. The location of the bite on her hindquarters made it obvious that Mitzi was in full submissive posture when bitten. Mitzi was obviously shaken, but recovered well after a day or two. We tightened our efforts to chase this bad dog out when he appeared and to make sure that Mitzi was safely locked up when we were not around to protect her.

Mitzi generally sleeps in a reasonably sized dog house outdoors as do many pet dogs in the neighborhood. This is as much to protect them as to confine them. Mitzi, while loyal, is not particularly bright and, even after twenty years, has not yet quite got the concept about the wisdom of staying in the dog house all night. She really wants to be with her family. A few nights ago, Mitzi was able to make an opening in the screen of her dog house and escape. Sadly, this bad dog found her that night. When I awoke in the morning, the maid had taken Mitzi to the garage. She was laying at the rear of the car, shivering violently. The maid had applied an antibiotic to the wounds, but, in addition to a deep puncture wound at one spot on her abdomen, there was a second wound that had torn the skin open, exposing the abdominal wall. I was not at all sure that Mitzi would recover with just home care.

I was frustrated and angry. A dear old pet dog should not be abused like this, especially not on my “watch.”  Dammit, this was a creature under my roof, even if it was a rented roof. I was tired of not knowing what was the culturally correct way to discharge my duties heretofore leaving it to the maid, leaving it to the neighborhood. I was angry, but not in any way out-of-control angry. But Kris knew I was angry and so did the maid.

Things began to happen. The maid took the dog to the vet where it received several stitches and more antibiotics. Kris wrote a carefully considered, even handed letter to the justice of the peace in Dongolla, to whom our landlady had introduced us before she left, pointing out among other things the danger to the half dozen children living on our lane younger than six.

The dog was in much better shape upon returning from the vet and the letter to the justice of the peace was acted on the very next morning. The justice of the peace called Kris to verify details and confirmed to Kris that this neighbor had caused some trouble before. He then called the neighbors and let them know  that if they did not control the dog, he would involve the police. He called Kris back to let her know that the neighbors had agreed to keep the dog confined.

And then came last night. Kris and I were finishing dinner when we heard a ruckous in the kitchen and the maid shooing some animal out the door. It was this bad dog. This bad dog had entered our house and attacked Mitzi. Fortunately the maid’s timely action prevented any harm to Mitzi, but once I appreciated what had happened, I went off.

While the maid and Kris chased the dog out the back door, I went through the house girding for battle. By the time I had collected sandals, torch, and umbrella, this bad dog had fled from the yard, but I knew where he lived. Kris asked where I was going. “Hunting,” I said. I marched to the neighbor’s house where this bad dog challenged me. He was loose, in clear violation of the agreement.

I will give the neighbor’s credit. They did come out. I’m not sure I would have  under the same circumstances. The man was placating, apparently accepting responsibility. The woman uttered simpering excuses about how she had put a collar on the dog, but “somehow” it wriggled out. What a miserable, pathetic, ignorant creature she was. It was so flippin’ obvious that the behavioral problems of this bad dog were totally due to her. By this time, this bad dog was defying all of their efforts to rein him in, standing in a narrow, human-inaccessable space between a parked car and a wall, barking away, ignoring their verbal commands. The man assured me that he had things under control  and, though I doubted it very much, I let myself be placated and returned to our house. The justice of the peace will  be called in the morning and we will see how it plays out from here.


A footnote to my dear friend Kara. Kara is my guru for all things about international education and was very helpful in helping us learn about acculturation by recommending some excellent books. She reads this blog and has contributed a number of useful and insightful comments. And I am ashamed that she now knows that by allowing myself to become angry, I committed one of the cardinal sins of intercultural communication. I will childishly snap back that intercultural exchange is a two way street,  but then I will beg to be allowed to remain in her virtual ashram.