Archive for August, 2008

One Final Post – Quintessential India

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

 One more picture, with all group members, courtesy of Joanji

back: Mary, Diane, Samantha, Karen, Aimee, Joan, Daniel, Angela, Callie

front: Julie, Elizabeth, Jill, Cathy, Yael, Ally, Karinsa


Sri Lanka Part 2 – The rest

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Final group shot in Sri Lanka

back row – Daniel, Joan, me, Aimee
middle row – Soraya, Yael, Angela, Cathy, Julie, Elizabeth, Karinsa, Ramya
crouching – Jill, Karen
front row – Diane, Tissa, Ally, Marty, Chitra


Hello from foggy Oakland. I’ve been back now for a little over a week and am slowly settling in. It’s good to be home with time to see my loved ones and some much needed time by myself. My trip was wonderful, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to participate in this program. Each place we went, people had taken great care to ensure that we had a positive and enriching experience representative of the great diversity that exists in India and Sri Lanka. Each leg of the trip, there was something new that would cause us to grin with joy or to breathe deeply in awe. My challenge is going to be in preserving those memories and adequately conveying even some fraction of what I got out of this journey to my friends and my students. I also feel very fortunate in getting to share this experience with my groupmates – a fantastic collection of intelligent, funny and caring people.

My only complaint about either of the programs was that I always wanted more. I think the organizers did an amazing job considering the impossible task they were set – to give us a comprehensive view of two countries in such a limited amount of time. I plan to return to both countries now that I’ve gotten a glimpse.

So now, my final installment – about the second half of my stay in Sri Lanka. After Kandalama we drove south to Kandy, a small city in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. At the very end of the 16th century, Kandy became the capital of the last kingdom in Sri Lanka, successfully fending off invasions by Europeans until it fell to the British in the early 1800s. Because it was the capital, Kandy became home to a very important Buddhist relic – the Buddha’s left canine tooth, taken from his funeral pyre – which remains to this day in the Temple of the Tooth. Many Buddhists pilgrimage to Kandy to visit this temple, and each year there is a big festival celebrating the sacred tooth. Usually the tooth is kept in an inner chamber, but during the festival it is paraded around. I didn’t take any pictures inside the temple, but here are a couple from wikipedia:

The relic chamber inside the Temple of the Tooth and a painting inside the temple of how the tooth got to Sri Lanka










We were in Kandy just before the festival, so we got to see people (and elephants) doing preparations, like stringing up lights and sewing costumes.

An elephant helping with preparations for the festival

Elephant Helping with Preparations

A bodhi tree (Bo to Sri Lankans) in the Temple of the Tooth complex

Kandy was special for us also because Tissa, the executive director of the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, whom we had met in Austin and who met up with us again in Sri Lanka, has a strong connection to the city. He grew up in Kandy, attended university there at the University of Peradeniya, and has taught at the university for years, so he was eager to show us the city.

One of my favorite parts was our tour of the botanical gardens.

Mary, Aimee, me and Tissa in the orchid house; Avenue of Palm Trees


On Monday the 4th we had one of our fullest days, that left all of us happy. In the morning, we visited craftspeople in their homes. The people in this area of Kandy work from their homes to produce beautiful crafts that are sold in Sri Lanka and beyond. One of the craftsmen even produces work for Tiffany. We met metalworkers and woodworkers and were able to ask questions about their craft, meet their families, and buy some of their work to take home. In the home of a woodcarver, I was befriended by the artist’s teenage daughter, who took me and another groupmate back into their home to show us more about her father’s work. Before we left, she gave me a bracelet and Cathy a necklace “to remember her by,” and her little brother, not to be outdone, presented the two of us with a tiny wooden carving. Moments like these when we were able to have personal time with native Sri Lankans were so precious.

In the afternoon we traveled out of Kandy to the village of Medawala Raja to visit a temple and watch a dance and drumming performance by the villagers. The temple is tiny – about the size of my walk-in closet – and covered in murals from the 18th century depicting the past lives of the Buddha. There is also an after-the British-have-arrived temple immediately next door which is bigger and has large sculptures akin to images we had seen in other temples. Ramya (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned her yet in my blog, but she is one of the best things about Sri Lanka. She’s the program officer at the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, was the one who did most of the planning for our tour, and, like Tissa, she traveled with us throughout our stay. She is also one of the best poets in Sri Lanka today.) translated for us, so a couple of us were able to have an extensive discussion with Ramya and a woman from the village about Buddhism.

And then, just when the day couldn’t get any better, we settled in for the performance in the central courtyard, for which the entire village turned out. We sat down first, on some mats up toward the front, and then at some invisible signal, everyone else sat down. The children poured into every available space, and when you turned around, you could see people all the way up the stairs behind us as well. The performance was fantastic and of a tremendous scale, with experienced dancers and small children, with dueling drummers and dazzling costumes, and the head monk presiding over it all to the left of the performance area.

The next day, we left for Colombo for our final few days. On the way, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. It was originally founded to care for orphaned elephants found in the jungle, but it has expanded over the years to include a captive breeding program as well. We got to feed the elephants contraband bananas and pet them. They are covered in surprisingly coarse hair that’s kind of prickly. Twice a day, they get led through town down to the river so they can have a bath, which was also fun to see, though it can be intense in the road with all the elephants coming through.  Notice my friends huddled in the doorway across the street in the second picture below.


In Colombo, we had another academic program, with lectures about development, politics, women and gender and ayurvedic medicine. It was really nice to have a low-key, air-conditioned day with people who could answer some of the questions that had been surfacing about Sri Lanka. We also met Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of the Sarvodaya Movement, an extensive program based on Buddhist and Gandhian principles that seeks to initiate and sustain self-governed development in Sri Lankan villages. They are active in about half the villages in Sri Lanka, including some that are in LTTE occupied territories. Dr. Ariyaratne is the grandson of the founder, and I was really impressed by their philosophy and the strategies they use in helping people bring about change.

That night, Wednesday the 6th, we had our farewell dinner at our hotel. This was the final time we would see most of our Sri Lankan friends, since we would be heading down the coast on our own the next afternoon.

The next day, we had one final artistic morning in Colombo. We visited the Cathedral of the Living Saviour, an Anglican church in Colombo, where we viewed a mural of the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, as interpreted by the Sri Lankan artist Stanley Kirinde, who was there to show us the mural and answer questions about his artistic process. Then, we visited the galleries of the Sapumal Foundation, which focuses on Sri Lankan art from the 1920s to present.

And, just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, we left Colombo for our final night’s stay, at Blue Water, a beautiful hotel about an hour south of Colombo on the ocean. Like the gorgeous hotel in Kandalama, this hotel was also designed by Geoffrey Bawa, and it was built to maximize the view of the water. We had that night and the following full day to relax before leaving for the airport at 9:00 in the evening on the 8th. As you can see from the pictures, we were pampered to the last.  We fit in a round of bingo on the veranda (it was so Dirty Dancing), and we even got to see a Sri Lankan wedding in the afternoon.

Jill, Callie and Mary in the ocean; me, Karinsa, Joan and Elizabeth hard at work at bingo; the bride arrives:

And, finally, a few last bike pictures:


 And one final warning to keep in mind:


Thanks to those of you who’ve been reading the blog.  It’s been fun writing about my journey as it was unfolding.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.



Sri Lanka – Part 1, Kandalama

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

We have been in Sri Lanka now since Tuesday, and it has far exceeded any of our expectations. Because there was a conference in Colombo this week, our itinerary was changed around so that Colombo will be our very last stop. Instead, we headed into the interior of the country into the hills. We’ve been staying in Kandalama and doing day trips from there. As I type this, there are monkeys about 10 feet away making their way through the trees.  Every single person we’ve met in Sri Lanka so far has been tremendously kind and open.

On our way to Kandalama, we stopped in Pannala at the Slimline Garment Factory for a tour of their facilities. They are the world’s largest supplier for Victoria’s Secret and other well-known brands. It was very interesting to see the factory. They are a very progressive company that takes very good care of their workers, which was good to see, including health and other educational programs.

We are staying at the Kandalama Hotel, an amazing hotel that is built right into the rock and which is designed to be harmonious with nature, as well as a luxury hotel at the same time. There are corridors in which one of the walls is the natural rock face of the hill and many that are completely open to a view of a large reservoir and hills in the distance. Bats fly through the hallways at night, monkeys roam the grounds, chameleons dot the ceilings, and at dawn and dusk we’re warned to take care because wild elephants are out at that time. Two of my groupmates had intimate encounters with monkeys on our very first morning here. One had left some clothes out on the balcony to dry and ended up in a tug-of-war with a monkey over her underwear. Another came out of the shower and went into the bedroom to find a monkey inside, a teabag in one hand and packets of sugar in the other. She froze, the monkey froze, then she yelled and the monkey ran.

On our first full day in Kandalama, we drove to Mihintale, the site of a 4th century monastery, which was so beautiful and peaceful. This is the place where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka and is highly revered by Sri Lankans. Before the monastery was built, monks lived in a series of 68 “caves,” which are really just areas where enough space was cleared out between large boulders to provide shelter.

The refectory at Mihintale

Black Water Pond at Mihintale

Me at Mihintale

Aimee in front of the pond

Thursday, we went to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which was positively amazing. There is a temple built around the oldest bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. It was started from a branch from the original bodhi tree under which, according to Buddhism, the Buddha meditated and achieved enlightenment. Nearby, there is a magnificent stupa, the Ruwanveli Saya Stupa, which is about 300 feet tall with a circumference of 950 feet. If you don’t know, a stupa is a mound-like structure that is built around Buddhist relics. We were there in the evening, and it was one of the loveliest and most peaceful places I’ve ever been.

The Temple in Anuradhapura

Stupa in Anuradhaura

On friday morning, I rented a very poorly maintained bicycle to go around the lake here at the hotel, which gave me some much needed alone time and time outdoors.  It’s so very beautiful here, with cattle grazing, beautiful birds and friendly villagers.

That afternoon, we went to the Dambulla caves, which are home to an impressive amount of Buddhist paintings and statuary.  I’m waiting for other people to share their pictures with me since I didn’t really get any good ones in the darkness of the caves.

And today, we went to Sigiriya, the ruins of an ancient palace and gardens from the 5th century.  There is a deliciously gruesome story behind it.  Kasyapa I, the son of King Dhatusena from a non-royal consort, killed his father and took over power of the kingdom, while his half-brother went into exile in India.  Kasyapa built his palace on Sigiriya rock, 600 feet over the plains surrounding it.  After 18 years, his brother returned, and Kasyapa committed suicide on the battlefield.

The view from Sigiriya

Me and Jill on the Lion Staircase at Sigirya