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.


(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.)

Electrical plugs in Sri Lanka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Timeline outline

Amazingly enough, we still do not have a firm timeline for our trip.

Partly, this is because the Fulbright grant is not finalized until we are cleared medically. That is, they want to make sure we are healthy enough to live for a year overseas. In both our cases, that involves our family doctor filing paperwork with the State Department. In Kris’ case, I guess because she is “just” the spouse, the required tests are minimal and she likely will not even need a special appointment with our family doctor since she had one recently. In my case, the clearance involves some special tests that are not part of the usual battery of tests in the US. So I go in for a doctor’s appointment next week. No big deal as I was scheduled for a regular checkup anyway. Of course, all of this does not include the immunizations we will need before we go. Once the paperwork is filed, we should get remaining details of the grant.

One can visit Sri Lanka as a tourist without getting a visa before you go. You will be issued a tourist visa valid for 30 days on arrival at the airport in Colombo. But for our extended stay, and the fact that we will not be tourists, we must get an “entry” visa before we arrive in Sri Lanka. The process is: a) I transmit a copy of the biography pages of our passports to the US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission (USSLFC). b) The USSLFC sends a request to the Sri Lankan ministry of Immigration and Emigration requesting permission for us to be allowed to enter Sri Lanka. c) If they approve, the ministry of I&E sends this information to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, DC. d) Once notified, we send our passports to the Sri Lankan Embassy in DC and an entry visa is stamped into our passports and returned to us. This process can take some time, as you can imagine. We’ve been told that the process can take from one to three months. Until that time, we can not enter Sri Lanka. Once we get to Sri Lanka, we can only remain for sixty days on the entry visa. In the meantime, we have to start the application process there for a “residency” visa. Whew!

But there are some emerging fixed points to our schedule. There is an orientation for Fulbrighters in Colombo on October 9-10, 2008. Our goal is to get there around October 1st so that we can get over jet lag and get acclimated before the orientation. Then we will move on to Kandy after the orientation and get settled in and start work at the University of Peradeniya. The grant lasts for nine months, so that means our time at UP will be ending about July 1, 2009. Of course, I have to be back to Gambier in time to prepare for the start of the fall semester, 2009. So we certainly want to be back by August 15, 2009.

We will see how this all plays out.


Starting to learn about Sri Lanka

To learn more about Sri Lanka, we have been reading “The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka” by Gavin Thomas. It is a pretty good read. Mr. Thomas writes in an erudite manner, lots of clauses, subclauses, and parenthetic remarks. It can be witty in a dry way. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, kind of like reading movie reviews. The review of a bad movie is often entertainingly cutting, but I sometimes cringe for those who worked so hard to make the movie. As an example, in the Rough Guide, a historic church is described as “…a memorably ugly Romanesque basilica-style structure whose stumpy steeple provides one of the area’s most distinctive landmarks. The church was begun in 1868 on the site of a previous courthouse – the town’s gallows might (as a sign outside gruesomely points out) have stood on the site of the current high altar; otherwise, the bare, mildewed interior gives disappointingly little insight into the history of the British in Galle.”

I’ve also been scanning on-line newspapers from Sri Lanka. I found a collection at The newspapers I’ve read tend to have a particular point of view. There is sometimes a pretense at objectivity, but each seems to represent a particular group. So The Daily News represents the views of the Sri Lankan government. TamilNet represents the Tamil rebel point of view. I haven’t quite identified the viewpoint of The Island but I am guessing that of a moderate Sinhalese community. (Of course this is how newspapers in the US began…and seem to be returning to.) These are the three I scan pretty much every day.


So where will we be? (Geography Lesson)

I’m going to try to use Google Maps here to put Kandy, Sri Lanka in geographic perspective.

Sri Lanka is a teardrop shaped island that lies just south of India:

In fact, you can tell from the satellite image that Sri Lanka is separated from India by a narrow, shallow strait, called the Palk Strait. The strait is so narrow that one can see India from Sri Lanka on a clear day. In area, Sri Lanka is the size of West Virginia. In population, Sri Lanka has about the same number of people as the state of New York, about 20 million. We will be living and working in Kandy, shown on the map to the northeast of Columbo. Let’s zoom in a bit and check out the terrain view.

Columbo is the capital and largest city in Sri Lanka (population about 600,000). It is also the location of the only international airport. As you can see from the terrain map, Kandy is in the highlands of Sri Lanka. Its population is about 110,000. Kandy is the cultural “capital” of the majority Sinhalese people. With the help of its geography, Kandy proudly fended off Portuguese, Dutch, and British attempts to capture the Kingdom of Kandy for quite some time. For us weather wimps, the elevation of Kandy (1640 feet or 500 meters) helps moderate the temperature. Being so close to the equator, the temperature does not change a lot through the year. Typical daily high temperature is 29 C (84 F) and daily low temperature is 18 C (64 F).

Let’s zoom in a bit more:

The university is located in Peradeniya, so it is probably more accurate to say that we will be living in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.

I’ve found Google Maps and Yahoo Maps to have too few place names to follow the news. Microsoft’s maps show too many place names and choose them oddly. For example, it does not show Peradeniya, despite its relative importance in the region, but has about two dozen place names on a map comparable to the one above. There are some nice maps at that seem to have more thought put into them.


Am I fearful?

I have been asked several times about whether I am fearful of living in Sri Lanka because of the fighting going on there between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The answer is no, not really.

First, I have been assured by friends who are native to Sri Lanka that the risk to Kris and me is small. Second, the US State Department issues travel warnings for Americans traveling abroad and they basically concur with our friends.

The fighting in Sri Lanka is largely confined geographically to the north and (now to a lesser extent) to the east of the island. We will be living in Kandy which is centrally located, away from the contested areas. The LTTE continue to stage isolated bombings outside the areas they control. However, the bombings are mostly aimed at military or political targets, though there have been some recent incidents aimed at civilians. But the LTTE have never targeted foreigners, nor are Americans specifically targeted. So, while it is possible to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, it would be a fluke if we were killed in a bombing.

If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to compare the US State Department Travel Warning for Sri Lanka with, say, the British travel warning about travel to the US. It has been suggested that we are more likely to die in an auto accident in Sri Lanka than in a bomb attack since Sri Lankans are considered to be such poor drivers. So I checked this out. About 2000 people die each year in traffic accidents in Sri Lanka, out of a population of 20 million. But this per capita rate is smaller than in the US, which has one of the largest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world.

So it seems quite likely that we will be safer spending the year in Sri Lanka than if we spent the year in Ohio!


So what is a Fulbright Scholar?

These days a “Fulbright” can mean many things. Most are examples of “people-to-people” diplomacy, that is, the programs enable US citizens to spend time in foreign countries and for foreigners to spend time in the US. The object is for citizens of each country to get personal experience in a foreign country, let foreigners get to know them individually, and then return to their home country and share their experiences with their countrymen. Think of it as the academic counterpart to the Peace Corps. As elements of US foreign policy, the various Fulbright programs are the responsibility of the US State Department.

The grant that I received is part of the “traditional” Fulbright Scholars program and is administered by the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars, a private organization, and has been since 1947. You can read more about the Fulbright programs (including how you can apply) at the CIES website or at the US State Department website.

Basically, I proposed to teach half time and do research half time at the University of Peradeniya (UP), in Kandy, Sri Lanka. As unlikely as it seems, I have evolved from an experimental physicist into a computational physicist and somehow am considered something of an authority on the teaching of computational science. (“Computational physics” is the use of computers to model or simulate physical systems and “computational science” is the same thing but applied to any science.) I proposed to teach an intermediate level course in computational science and an upper-level course in parallel programming, both similar to courses that I teach at Kenyon College. Now that we finally have the official go ahead, we will begin the task of matching my proposal more closely with the needs and desires of the Department of Physics at UP.

In addition, I proposed to do research in computational science education while I am at UP. I will study whether and how the teaching methods I use in my classes at Kenyon need to be modified for use at UP. I also plan to continue my current research on numerical modeling of phase separation while I am in Sri Lanka.

So that is what I will be “doing” in Kandy, but as a “Fulbrighter” my other job is to be a good representative of all of you in the US to the Sri Lankans I come into contact with and to share with all of you my experiences of Sri Lanka and its people.

And have the adventure of my life….


It’s Official!

It seems like it took a long time coming, but the letter that officially confirmed my appointment as a Fulbright Scholar finally arrived! Kris and I are very excited, though a bit anxious about all that we need to arrange before we leave for Sri Lanka.

I decided to start a blog as a useful way for Kris and I to maintain contact with all of our family and friends during our adventure and a way for us to record our experiences.

Now we will see if the old adage “once begun is half done” is true. This blog will only be useful if I keep it up!