The beginning of my trip coincided with a religious holiday known as Vesak, which falls on the night of a full moon during the month of May. Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and this year the country was the global epicenter of a UN-sanctioned celebration commemorating the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. The holiday kicked off in Colombo and the ceremony came to a close in Kandy. At night, the streets of Kandy were aglow with fantastically ornate lanterns called Vesak koodu. Their lighting represents an offering to Buddha. Some came in colors while others rotated on contraptions made of bicycle wheels. Of particular note was the gigantic electric neon display from which Buddhist chants echoed into the damp night. In addition, people lined the side of the roads to give away free food and drink to those passing through in accordance with the practice of alms giving. However, alcohol is not permitted during this occasion. The artisanship and generosity observed during Vesak were truly something to behold.
Welcome! I am reviving my blog to bring a refreshed look at one of the most interesting and understudied countries in the world- Sri Lanka. I previously came to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, back in 2013 in order to conduct the second leg of field work for my doctoral dissertation on constitutional environmental rights. This time I have returned to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was formally known until 1972) on a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar grant to study the environmental impacts assessments (EIAs) of development projects. In particular, I will be evaluating whether, and to what extent, the quality of these reports varies depending on who funds a given project (i.e. emerging donors like China, India, and Iran, or traditional donors like the U.S., Japan, and World Bank).
I am stationed primarily in Kandy, which is located in the Central Province, because I have an affiliation with the Department of Geography at the University of Peradeniya. I will also be making occasional trips to Colombo, located in the Western Province, so that I can conduct archival research at the library of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), which is Sri Lanka's equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reading my previous posts, I'm shocked by how long and detailed they were! This time around, however, my posts will focus briefly on one aspect of life in Sri Lanka. For this first post, I want to highlight transportation. The images below depict my primary means of getting around in Kandy- public buses.
The national and local bus systems are surprisingly extensive and, compared to Western standards, very inexpensive. I regularly take the Bowalawatta bus from my temporary housing in the Heerassagala neighborhood to the downtown area of Kandy. This ride takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes depending on the time of day and traffic, and costs 24 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) each way, about $0.16 in U.S. Dollars (USD). The current exchange rate is approximately 152 LKR for $1 USD (for a helpful currency exchange tool, check out XE Currency Converter). As you can see from the photo on the right side, the buses are lavishly decorated with cultural and religious (mainly Buddhist) items. Some buses have televisions at the front that display movies, advertisements, or music videos. Others play Sri Lankan music over separated speaker systems affixed to luggage racks near the ceiling. The doors to the bus usually remain open throughout the drive, allowing people to jump on or off haphazardly. It is not uncommon to see people boarding the bus while it is in motion (this has happened to me a couple times so far!).
What I find most interesting, however, is the system by which bus fare is collected. Every bus has a driver (who sits on the right side and drives on the left side of the road, a relic of British colonial influence) and at least one fare taker. If you get on the bus at the beginning of the route, you might be surprised to find that no one immediately asks for your bus fare. It isn't until a certain location or critical mass is reached that the fare taker inquires as to your final destination and informs you what your fare will be. This is not a strict process with consistent fares. For instance, I have paid 20, 24, and 25 LKR to travel the exact same distance on the Bowalawatta bus. When I pay 25 LKR, I do not get change back, even if the fare is 24 LKR. This is just how the fare takers seem to operate (at least with respect to foreigners). The fare takers keep mental record of every single person who gets on and off the bus, and they regularly squeeze up and down the aisle to collect fares from new passengers. Sometimes the fare taker writes down the transaction in a journal of sorts and tears off a receipt for the passenger. Other times the fare taker is equipped with a wrist-bound digital receipt machine, which prints out the receipt. I would be interested to know about the efficiency of this system. More specifically, I am curious as to whether rendering the fare taker obsolete by installing an automated bus fare machine like those in U.S. buses is more or less economical than maintaining a staff of manual fare takers. Are the wages of the fare takers detracting from the wages of the drivers? What would be the social cost of installing automated bus fare machines, thus resulting in significant job losses? Is the bus fare taker a likely casualty along the road to sustainable development? What are your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments section below!
Today the only interview I had lined up was a Skype chat with Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Director of the Institute of Constitutional Studies in Colombo. However, Dr. Wickramaratne was currently in Switzerland for work, thus necessitating the virtual interview, which I conducted using my iPad (as a side note, I have found that my iPad has been an excellent surrogate for a laptop during my field research. It is much less cumbersome, faster, and more portable. So far I haven't run into any problems when trying to execute a task for which my laptop would have been my first choice). Doing research in an era of unprecedented globalization is like that- I came all the way from the US to interview people from Sri Lanka and once I get here one of them is now over in Europe. It's a global game of chase. Our original interview time was delayed due to family issues to which Dr. Wickramaratne needed to attend, resulting in a situation which highlighted the importance of being flexible during field work. I purposely never scheduled more than two interviews during a given day because it would be (1) costly, (2) exhausting, (3) potentially troublesome if one of the interviews ran significantly over time or there were transportation problems. As I had only scheduled that one interview for the day, I assured Dr. Wickramaratne that it was no problem to push back our digital meeting. Although the interview lasted just over 15 minutes (interrupted by a couple of electronic hiccups on my part as I tried to set the voice recorder app on the iPad while I was using Skype), it was well worth my time as I found out that indeed there was an attempt to develop a solidarity environmental right in a new version of the constitution, but it never made it beyond the pages of a draft document (which Dr. Wickramaratne emailed me immediately following the conclusion of our Skype session). This was an important side story to the larger narrative surrounding environmental rights in Sri Lanka which I had not previously heard about from any of the other interviewees.
For the rest of the day I decided to go sightseeing in the immediate area and then cap the day off with a drink at the Galle Face Hotel at the suggestion of my friends Heather and Sanjee Wickramarachi back in California. I braved the stifling heat yet again as I circumnavigated Beira Lake, just slightly east of where I was staying. Once I arrived at the opposite bank of the lake I came to a Buddhist temple, the Sima Malaka Meditation Centre. I removed my shoes, paid a small entrance fee (125 LKR = ~$1 USD), and quietly shuffled around the floating holy site. Young children flocked to stoic statues of Buddha to offer prayers and flowers. They pranced around freely and joyfully except for those few moments when they switched schemas to engage in personal introspection and unexamined ritual devotion. I took several photos, as respectfully as one could given the location and circumstances, gingerly popped my shoes back on, and continued up the plank that had led me to the multiple visions of Buddha sitting pensively all around the perimeter of the temple.
I made my way around the previously unexplored side of the lake and witnessed people peddling across the waters inside large white boats meant to look like giant majestic swans and young couples snuggling beneath the cool shade trees lining the cobblestone path overlooking the lake- a post-apocalyptic vision of maritime New England. After leaving the scene behind and nodding to the armed guard standing his post at the edge of the lake, I followed the empty street behind my hotel to areas unknown. Along the way I crossed railroad tracks that ran immediately behind residential housing and another military officer who wished me a good day (the only such time any member of the armed forces engaged me in conversation). Finally, I came upon one of those psychedelic Buddha statues I mentioned in a previous post. Of course I had to commemorate the finding with several photographs. The installation was at once visually mesmerizing and seemingly contradictory, since based on what little I know of Buddha's teachings I'm not sure he would have sanctioned busts in his likeness randomly erected throughout the city and adorned with an electric neon halo that looked like a cheap fireworks display. Unsure where the end of the road would lead, I reversed course and returned to the back of my hotel where an attendant opened the large iron gate to let me in once I flashed my room card.
Gratefully I passed through the intensely air-conditioned interior of the hotel until I left through the front door, opened in advance by a white-gloved gentleman. This time I headed north on Galle Road. After rejecting the solicitations of what seemed like a dozen enterprising trishaw drivers, I found myself at the Galle Face Hotel, only a few yards from where my swindling guide flew out of our cab with my 1000 LKR note in the clutches of his dishonest grip. This time would be different, I told myself. Walking up to the Galle Face Hotel can make one feel poor and insignificant, like standing outside the ropes of the red carpet during the Oscars wearing overalls. What began as a Dutch villa in 1864 has since developed into a kind of monumental colonial compound that is as architecturally stunning as it is physically imposing. A secular temple where deep-pocketed adherents worship the decadence of Sri Lanka's imperial past, it has accommodated the likes of Richard Nixon, John D. Rockefeller, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Approaching the building in a plaid buttoned down shirt and shorts, I felt it would be any second before I was handed a shovel to dig garden trenches or towel to drape over my arm and begin taking orders from paying guests. To my surprise, I was welcomed inside without any interrogation. Once in the lobby I asked a gentleman if he could direct me to the bar, and he led me down a stately corridor to a breezy indoor-outdoor patio- the Verandah. I walked down to the gravel track separating the manicured lawn from the ferocity of Sri Lankan sunset waves. A lone national flag positioned at the edge of the track whipped violently in the ocean air. I turned back to have a seat on the terrace, a checkerboard island floating in a sea of low-cut grass, which looked out onto the crescendoing seas and fading sun. After mulling over the drink list, I selected a most appropriate beverage, a variation on the British Pimm's Cup called "Old World Charm," which substituted lime and native cinnamon sticks for the requisite cucumber slice. Surrounded mainly by attractive, swimsuit-clad European couples who had similarly emerged to celebrate the romance of life by imbibing a tropical drink at dusk in the presence of godly water and heavenly sun, I toasted to the end of the day and to the privilege of birth and experience afforded by merit which enabled me to enjoy that golden moment in my existence. I may have been by myself, but I was not alone.
Today was supposed to be uneventful. I would grab breakfast, check out the immediate surroundings, and return to my hotel to read up on Sri Lankan environmental law. All that changed when I left the comforts of the Cinnamon Grand Colombo and began to wander along Galle Road.
About 5 minutes into my walk, I was approached by a young Sri Lankan man who asked me, "My friend, where are you from?" I explained that I was from the US, and I had come to Sri Lanka to conduct research on environmental laws and the constitution (throughout our time together I attempted to paint myself as a lonely poor student, but this approach failed to garner sympathy thanks to the fact that I was staying in a nice hotel). The man said he worked for the Cinnamon Grand and wanted to thank me for my patronage and for the important work I was undertaking which would surely help the Sri Lankan people. As a courtesy, he would show me around Colombo, especially the religious sites, which were buzzing with excitement given that today is a major holiday celebrating the new moon. I already assumed that this was some kind of gimmick, but I figured it might be a good opportunity to see some areas of the city I might not get to see otherwise, and I would be glad to pay the man a reasonable fee for his services. This notion was at least partially misguided, as I would later find out.
The man flagged a random trishaw (a tiny motorized vehicle that looked like a tuk tuk mixed with a rickshaw) and we sped down broad dusty roads until arriving at a large Buddhist temple. Together we exited the red golf cart and removed our shoes at the entrance. In the center of the entryway stood a large ceramic pot of sorts with signs soliciting funds for "the children." My "guide" instructed me to leave donations for both of us. In the pit of my stomach I could feel my anxiety building as I was sure this was a test to gauge how much money I was carrying. Nevertheless, we walked into the temple and I was given a whirlwind tour of the place, which included clearly rehearsed commentary. The man led me swiftly through the temple on a tortuous path, stopping occasionally for less than 30 seconds to point out a relic, gem, or statue, implore me to take a photo (taking photos under duress is infinitely less enjoyable than snapping photos at one's leisure), and urge me on my less-than-merry way. With the speed at which we navigated the holy site, I was quite certain that my pal did not make regular visits here simply to pay his respects. At least he was kind enough to indulge my characteristically touristy inclinations by allowing me to return to the elephant we saw early on during my tour and photographing me several times in front of it. I should have interpreted the elephant's nervous swaying, as if entranced by some indigenous narcotic, as a bad omen. We retrieved our soles and returned to the little crimson tin can on wheels.
My involuntary friend informed the driver that we needed to go to the Lanka Gem Bureau, where surely exceptional deals on precious and semi-precious stones awaited us. This part of our tour seemed eerily reminiscent of the time I let my cab driver in Nepal take me to his friend's mandala workshop to "learn" about the ancient craft (as one might expect, I was offered "excellent" prices on unreasonably large paintings, with a portion of the sale likely going to my "friend" as a sort of finder's fee). Once we alighted at the gem shop it was all business. My guide informed me he had to go outside to have a smoke, and I was left to interact with a gem salesman who went to painstaking efforts to provide me with all kinds of discounts (did you know that students get discounts on gems in Sri Lanka? Now you do!) and assure me that I was getting one-time, wholesale-and-holiday-only prices. At first he tried to sell me small planets that would have set me back over a hundred dollars (US). Then, as I began to explain my financial situation, he relented a bit, offering me deeply discounted semi-precious gems which surely I could not live without. I carried on under the premise that the gift would be for my mother, but perhaps this was foolhardy because (1) it imbued the purchase with heightened significance since, when buying a gift for your mother, "you spend $1,000, but it's worth $100,000" in motherly love returns (as the man told me), and (2) the gem I was looking at was yellow, and, as anyone who knows my mother well will tell you, anything yellow is a non-starter. So there I sat, being cajoled into buying a small yellow gem stone for a mother who hates yellow with unwavering passion. I signed half the day's financial life away, and my guide suggested that we go to the beach. This sounded like a good idea because it was a public place and the opportunity for trouble seemed minimal.
Again we plopped into the little ruddy buggy and buzzed down Galle Road toward the beach. Without warning, my buddy told the driver to stop immediately, and he began to exit the car(t). He then requested that I pay the driver. I dug into my wallet and offered 1400 LKR, but the driver, a sullen man who held unspoken cab fare expectations, demanded at least 3000 LKR. This proved problematic because I had only 1400 LKR and a 5000 LKR bill (~$43 USD), which I desperately tried to conceal. I thumbed through the differentially-sized bills in my wallet and attempted to explain that I didn't have any more money. This did not sit will with either my guide or the driver. My new pal, being as keen as he was ruthless, spotted the 5000 LKR bill that was not well hidden in the back of my billfold. Proudly he assured the driver that, indeed, I had more money than I had let on (on a personal note, while I have never felt truly uncomfortable with the level of personal information of mine made available to either private companies [i.e. Facebook] or the federal government [thanks, Patriot Act!], this visual intrusion felt like the most unnerving violation of privacy I had ever endured in my adult life. If eyes are windows into the soul, my wallet was not too far removed, however metaphysically speaking). Caught between a rock and a harder rock, I struggled to determine the best course of action. Of course, my selfless friend made my decision for me. He told the driver that he would take the 1000 LKR so he could get a beer, and the driver would confiscate my 5000 LKR and drive us both to a bank where it could be broken into the smaller bills needed to settle the score. As mysteriously as my guide had entered my life he was now gone, 1000 LKR richer and cloaked in the warm fuzzy feeling one gets from swindling a foreigner out of his money. The driver, not one to delay the inevitable receipt of his payment, turned a hard right and we careened down the street into new and uncertain territory. It was at this point I decided to cut my losses and end this slide into a downward spiral by jumping the puny red ship. As we slowed down while turning around a bend I leapt out of the vehicle and sternly told the driver that he could have the whole sum.
Seeking to rectify what had thus far been quite a mixed day, I ventured to the beach where my guide had run off to chase girls with beer. I took several photos of the sparkling coastline and food huts which lined the cement boardwalk. I pondered the inconsistent messages that the developing world delivered me, being granted interviews and enthusiastic support from members of the scholarly community on the one hand, to being played for a fool during a national holiday at a Buddhist temple on the other. I paused to observe the beauty of the azure sea and its ironic gem stone clarity. It was a welcome contrast to the tall lanky man who kept glaring at me from several yards away. Perhaps I gave off the odor of a freshly wounded fish, and nearby sharks with killer instincts and an indefatigable olfactory sense hovered excitedly nearby, desperate to pounce at the first drop of blood. The serenity of the gentle salty waves began to lose ground to my burgeoning paranoia, so I turned my back to the wind and started up the wide lawn abutting the concrete walkway, hopping down the stone embankment onto a side street running perpendicular to Galle Road.
As I traveled purposively on the sidewalk, a middle-aged Sri Lankan man approached me. He asked, "My friend, where are you from?"
After a brief flight delay and 3.5 hours traversing the skies over Asia, I found myself at Bandaranaike International Airport in Sri Lanka at 1am local time. My next step was to make it through customs, although this would not happen effortlessly due to a financial hiccup that originated in Singapore. You see, I withdrew funds in Singapore, but neglected to inform my bank that I was traveling abroad (I had managed to inform virtually everyone else I know, including my credit card company). Therefore, when I attempted to withdraw additional funds prior to my arrival in Sri Lanka, I was denied, my bank account frozen until further action. So when I finally made it to my next destination, I was unable to take out money I needed for cab fare until I passed through customs unscathed. In addition, I wasn't allowed to change my Singapore dollars into Sri Lankan rupees until I had made it through the customs stage. Fortunately, I was permitted to pay the requisite entrance fee ($35) by credit card. One hurdle had been overcome.
Once my passport has been stamped and tattooed, I walked into a region of the airport that looked like a Brandsmart USA. Instead of the usual duty free shops consisting mainly of high end perfumes and alcohols, this area laid claim to aisles of durable goods like refrigerators and stoves. Business was booming. I collected my suitcase from baggage claim and headed through an automated doorway intended for foreign entrants to the country. My heart raced as I prayed that I would find a currency exchange booth and a cellphone vendor, both of which were absolutely essential to my ability to perform my research tasks and for the sake of my overall mental health. To my delight, as I crossed over into the land of accepted visitors I found multiple kiosks that could address my pressing needs. First I wheeled over to one of three currency exchange posts. I willingly submitted all of my Singapore dollars (save for the few coins I had remaining in my possession) and even tried to convert my lingering Nepalese rupees, but, as I have now come to understand, one cannot exchange Nepalese rupees anywhere in the world except for Nepal. At least now I had some working capital with which I could execute some important tasks. My next stop was one of three cellphone vendors. I opted for Mobitel, which featured signage boasting that it was Sri Lanka's official mobile carrier. I decided to purchase a SIM card stocked with 100 minutes of talk time and 1024 MB of data (600 LKR = $4.73 USD). Once the attendant got my phone up and running I walked over to the booth for my hotel, the Cinnamon Grand Colombo. On the way there I checked my Gmail and saw that my bank had contacted me regarding the potentially fraudulent activity on my account in Singapore. With the clicking of a button, I reassured my bank that I was indeed the culprit of said transaction and access to my money was restored. Tired though I may have been, what little excitement I could muster at that late hour was soaked up by the sheer jubilation I felt knowing I wasn't going to be living on $220 USD for the next 9 days. At the booth I was given a bottle of water (note: water quality is poor, so bottled water is literally a way of life), provided with free Internet access at the desk computer, and had a taxi ordered on my behalf. In only about 20 minutes, I would finally be on my way to my hotel, where the promise of sleep enticed me.
The drive from the airport to coastal Colombo took about 30 minutes with virtually no traffic to speak of. While the streets seemed reminiscent of those of Kathmandu where I conducted field work last year, I could not help but marvel at the religious installations occasionally dotting the sides of the road. Every so often we would pass what looked like a small Buddhist temple, only instead of a solemn, tranquil homage to Buddha, carnivalesque light shows assaulted one's visual field. It was as if the architects of these worship stations drew influence from Hunter S. Thompson's hallucinogenic sojourn into the neon belly of Las Vegas. Eventually the religious icons bathed in garish halos of hypnotic luminescence gave way to the pure and steady blackness of the sea as we approached Colombo.
As the taxi pulled into the Cinnamon Grand Colombo, I was immediately struck by the opulence of the hotel. As I began to exit the vehicle, a gentleman donning white gloves proceeded to open my car door and another gentleman swiftly attended to my luggage before I even had a chance to get to the trunk. Upon entering this magnificent white palace I strode up to the concierge and informed the attendants that I had indeed arrived (as if my entrance was not already ceremonial and indicative of this fact). While checking in, a man in full butler regalia appeared at my side and offered me a choice of fresh juices- black currant or guava. Drawn to its creamy pink coloring, I chose the latter. It became readily apparent that this experience would be very different from my time in Nepal.
A different gentleman led me personally up to my room while another man brought my luggage up separately (talk about a division of labor!). After I was acquainted with my room I settled down for the evening (morning?) and fell asleep without any difficulty.
The next day I awoke to the sound of birds chirping and the welcome slit of sunshine that shone through the area in between my curtains that did not overlap. After checking email and showering (not at the same time, mind you) I headed downstairs to Coffee Stop for a late breakfast. Knowing full well that I would be consuming plenty of spicy fare over the next few days, I opted for ethnic comfort food- a bagel with lox and cream cheese. My bagel arrived toasted, just as I had asked, although instead of a traditional bread heating treatment my bagel had been thoroughly warmed in a panini press, causing it to look like an oversized, circular crinkle cut French fry. It was excellent. Why had I never seen this before in all my years of professional bagel eating? The rest of the day I focused on securing interviews and writing my first blog post. Unlike in Nepal, where most of my meetings were arranged via email, here in Sri Lanka most of my contacts urged me to call them upon arriving to schedule my interview (this is why having a local cellphone number was so crucial). After making several phone calls and sending a few emails, within an hour I went from having one scheduled interview to four. Satisfied by my progress, I spent the remainder of my day putting together my blog post, which involved having to rewrite the entire thing from scratch on the app I'm using (which is actually intended for an iPhone but I'm using it on an iPad), and needing to use the business center to fix two of the pictures that had failed to upload the first time around. I also decided to stay close to HQ for dinner, so I found myself at a popular Indian restaurant in my hotel called Chutneys. However, as I was unaware of the evening dress code, upon entering I was provided with a black and white striped sarong, which covered my utilitarian khaki shorts and instantly upgraded my outfit to meet cultural standards (sadly, I do not have a photograph of this. Please just imagine me wearing a navy polo shirt, glasses, and a black and white striped sarong). The food, not your traditional Americanized Indian food of tikka masala this and saag that, and the menu was arranged by both geographic region and dietary preference. I ordered a Lion Lager, steamed white rice, a mutton dish, and a chicken dish (I won't even bother committing the injustice of trying to recall the names of these entrees). In general, the food was quite spicy, and although Chutneys is a high end restaurant, the quality of the meat was akin to that which I ate daily for lunch in Nepal (smaller, bony morsels). For dessert I had a small, yet saccharine treat- two deep fried milk balls floating in cardamom syrup. Aside from a maple sugar cookie I once ate in elementary school, I'm not sure I've ever eaten anything sweeter. I settled the check and headed to my room where I watched one of my favorite movies (Closer) on HBO, although it had been severely edited for content. Full of regional cuisine, again I fell easily into a deep slumber.
Next up: A Brave New World