Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Last Day



Friday, my last day, I got up early (to make up for oversleeping on Thursday) and, with Monica's help, took the bus to Ravenna.

Ravenna was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and home to some gorgeous mosaics from the Byzantine era. I visited four of the most famous: Battistero Neoniano, Basicial di S. Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica di S. Vitale and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. They were truly breathtaking!

After that, I walked around the city for awhile (ahem, ZARA) and grabbed a potato and mozarella piadina, a flatbread sandwich famous in the region. I caught the early bus back to Faenza, packed and then road Monica's bike out to the farm (6k through beautiful vineyards, in the DARK, which wasn't very smart). The days are cloudy, but even in the dank darkness of November, it's still picturesque.

As an endcap to a fabulous week and wonderful vacation, Monica and Michele, their friends and I, went out to her cousin's seafood restaurant, Titon.

Let me just say, if you can get a cousin/uncle/grandfather to own an restaurant in Italy - DO IT.
We had five different antipasti's (including fish carpaccio, a tomato/squid soup, and prawn and thistle (yes, thistle) stew). Then we had three different kinds of grilled fish, and a seafood "toss" - lightly fried squid, prawns, fish, zuchinni, etc. Plus, all the wine you could drink. (and a 'tween course palate refreshener with lemon and vodka- VODKA!)

Then, oh THEN, came the dessert, including ganache, pistacchio mousse, cannoli, something like a cointreau liquer flan and creme cartanaga (I'm not sure this is the right name but oh. my. god. gargagaahghghghg Homer Simpson noise) I literally rolled out of that restaurant at midnight.

....and was up again at 4 am to catch my flight.

But you know what? Pffft...I'll sleep when I'm dead. This has been the best vacation and worth every penny (paid in Euro and in sleep!) I am now sitting in the airport (back in Amsterdam) with a huge grin on my face, refreshed, renewed - and sober.

Yes, these are what vacations are FOR.

Thanksgiving Italian Style

Thursday Monica had to work, so she left me to my own devices to explore Faenza. I ended up oversleeping, missing the town market AND the ceramic museum but the extra sleep was totally worth it. I did some laundry, had a late lunch and bummed around town.

Later that evening, I joined Monica out at the farm where she works. Several of her friends and co-workers were gathered there, cooking a 4 kilo stuffed turkey and the Thanksgiving works. In between last minute things, Monica made three squash "pumpkin" pies. We roasted sweet potatoes, someone brought homemade stuffing and Michele mashed potatoes. For my part, I snapped beans and drank wine :)

By the time the turkey was done, fifteen people had arrived. We watched Jonathan (the head chef) carve the boneless turkey and place the thick steamy slabs on a plastic platter Monica pulled from somewhere. The best part was a homemade green bean-mushroom-and-fried onion concotion Jonathan pulled from the Food Network website. No Campbells soup here! It was hands-down terrific.

As we organized ourselves buffet style, a few of the un-initiated Italians were unsure of all the food. Monica immediately gave a rundown of the basics, instructing everyone to pile their plates high. Apparently, mixing the savory items with the sweet squash and the roast sweet potatos caused the most consternation. "Plating" is a concept not yet inculcated in American households, so it was interesting to watch the Italians arrange small portions on several plates and make trips back and forth to the buffet. I'm happy to say I piled my plate high and only left the turkey skin as a remnant of my gnoshing.

During the normal course of these international holiday celebrations, talk inevitably floats towards traditions. Thinking it over, I've celebrated Thanksgiving in Switzerland, Singapore, Washington DC and now, Italy. Each time, I bring up my family tradition of going around the table saying what we're thankful for according to letters of the alphabet. In DC, since I hosted, I made everyone at the table do it. I was going to keep quiet about it, but Monica has had thanksgiving with me before and insisted that we do it.

It's a good exercise in that it reminds us what we have in our lives (my Love, was one of them; Parents were another) and also elicits laughs for the more difficult letters (Questra turque (THIS turkey, for "q"). Although hokey, it's nice to see some traditions carry over. I think my mom would be proud.

I snuck away after dinner to skype my family, but someone kindly delivered a delicious piece of squash pumpking pie (plus homemade whip cream!). More wine. Caffe's all around. Jokes. Things devolved into only Italian later on the evening, but for the most part I was able to follow the conversation. Here was a place for people to gather, laugh, care for one another and eat mightily.

Now that's home, isn't it?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Viva Italia!



On Monday, we drove to the romanticized and much loved region of Tuscany, three hours from Monica's place in Faenza. It's November in Italy, and while there's no snow, overall it's cloudy, grey and foggy. However, after crossing over the Appenines, the weather immediately became sunnier and warmer. While romantics might encourage thinking this comes from the beauty of Tuscany, Monica assured me it was strictly geographical - there is simply no Po river valley in Tuscany!

We stopped first in Cortona and later, after dark, hit Montepulciano. (Side note: turns out that several scenes from the New Moon (Twilight) movie were filmed in Montepulciano. Who knew there were vampires in Italy?) We stopped at a copper smith, who made me a small bookmark while he chatted with Monica (he stamped 8 flowers on it, "One for each children" he winked) and then on to a small winery for some delicious Vino Nobile.

That night, we stayed with their friend, Pietro, who owns a small farmhouse in Gallina and had prepared wild boar stew for our visit. Being big cyclists (Monica owns a bike touring company), the next day we biked 26k through the Val d'Orcia to Montalcino. Best. ride. ever (even if I swore my undying hatred to Monica's fiance during the last 6k - an excruciatingly long 7 degree climb to the top of the hilltown. He took it in stride though - at one point, he biked and pushed me with one hand). I was rewarded at the top with a delicious meal of rabbit, polenta and Brunello wine.

That evening, the four of us headed to a small public hot spring. Having experienced the onsens of Japan, I was excited, and expecting a small hut, or place to change and wash before entering. Nope. It really was just two pools of hot water at the base of mountain, under a lamppost, next to a road, with some benches around it. It was rustic, and beautiful. A half moon and twinkling stars dangled above the valley, a few naked men lounged along the edge. I couldn't have imagined a better end to the perfect day.

After a late night of drinking Cuban rum and playing board games, we finally rolled out of bed and said goodbye to Pietro, his chickens and his lovely Tuscsan farmhouse. We found our way to Pienza and Siena, the latter being a truly gorgeous city. We crawled home, exhausted, ordered pizza from the shop round the corner. I slept for 12 hours.

I am hard pressed to remember a vacation as satisfying and relaxing as this one. When I backpacked through Rome and Florence in college, I distincly remember not liking it very much. Too many people, too much male attention, too dirty, too touristy. I keep teasing my friends that they've singlehandedly changed my perception of an entire country.

When I arrived on Sunday, Monica took me to a truffle and oil festival. As we chatted with one of the vendors (and smelled his white truffles - wow!), he found out that I'd only be here a week. "That's just enough time to make you stay longer," he said.

He's not wrong.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kindred Spirits

I returned home from my last trip, little worse for wear (save a wicked cold). Jumped straight into work (again), and then turned around and got on a plane two weeks later to Mombasa, Kenya. There's not much to post about that trip, as I spent it mostly inside a conference room.

Now, I am in Italy - resting - and, following on the advice of Elizabeth Gilbert - eating.

I'm also visiting my good friend and her fiance, whom I love to bits. They recently got engaged and I've never been more excited to look at churches, explore reception areas and discuss life plans. Anne Shirley would call them Kindred Spirits.

Having recently hit a milestone in my life, which I feel really good about, I'm realizing that life is made up of Kindred Spirits. You need these people - the ones that understand you, sniffle with you and call internationally when need be. I would've crawled from Africa to get here.

Anyway, that's my only thought these days. Make friends, keep family close, but keep your kindred spirits closer.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Four More Days...

I can’t say that I hate Bangladesh, but it’s not winning many bonus points this week. Dhaka is loud, polluted and stinks. The pollution is so bad the air smells acrid, and my throat itches all the time. By the end of the day, my eyes are dry and scratchy. There’s so much dirt and dust kicked up that my sinuses swell and my lymph nodes kick into overdrive, causing my ears to pound and my jaw to hurt. Garbage is ubiquitous, and even if I can’t see it, I can smell the sickly sweet overripe juiciness of it floating in unexpected places. Sometimes its so overpowering, I have to cover my mouth and my nose.

My hotel, although in a “nice” area of town, seems also to be in the direct flight path of every aircraft in the subcontinent, which roars past morning, noon and evening (luckily, I don’t hear them so much at night). I’ve never slept on a harder mattress for more than one night, my feet are always dirty and, as far as I can tell, I am the only person staying here. The all male staff are also, a little too attentive. Plus, I am stuck eating room-service every night (it’s either that or sit by myself in the empty restaurant below, with all the waitstaff watching me).

Sigh. I am trying to keep things in perspective. I just came from a five-star hotel in Colombo, where I’d already spent five weeks of my life. I had a certain level of autonomy – I already had the grocery store scoped out, made a few friends, access to a spa and been able to maintain my healthy with Mr. Gin and Mr. Tonic. Plus, I wasn’t the only foreigner. I was just one of a zillion hotel guests able to come and go as I pleased, with relative anonymity. It was easy to arrive there, do what I needed to do, and have a little fun.

Here, I’m at ground zero all over again. There’s no grocery store. Project staff tell me that there are no restaurants near by (and as far as I can tell, they’re right). I don’t know anyone. There’s a “spa” next door, but it’s quite scary. The first night here, I ventured out by myself, but was hassled so much I just couldn’t take it. What little sights I did see (the National Parliament, the War Memorial) took a long time to get to through awful traffic and weren’t all that exciting to see.

So, for the past five days, I’ve basically been doing the same thing: walking to work, working, eating, walking home from work, talking a walk around the park, working, watching TV, ordering room service, working and sleeping.

So yes, Bangladesh is sucking a little bit. Luckily, I’m not here forever - and tomorrow, I’m heading up-country. Months of travelling in cushy places have sheltered me, but I know I’ll get back in the swing of things. This is culture shock. The project staff are wonderful and I know there is some charm to be had around here….somewhere.

…….hopefully.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In Today's Bangladesh "Daily Star"

...I just don't know what to say to this. Well, ok I have lots to say, but just read it for yourself.

36% women say 'wife beating justified'
Alpha Arzu

A large number of women who are the worst victims of spousal violence believe that husbands have the right to beat up their wives if they neglect their children, argue with husbands or disobey the elders, specially mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law, revealed a government survey recently.

A total of 36 percent women believe that a husband is justified in bashing his wife for any of the aforesaid reasons, but the most widely accepted reason for wife beating among women in the country is disobeying elders like mothers/fathers-in-law, according to the 5th and latest Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) 2007.

Again, 24 percent women believe that if a husband beats up his wife for disobeying elders is justified, followed by 22 percent who believe that arguing with husbands is justified, 18 percent for going out without telling their husbands while 16 percent for neglecting children is justified. Only nine percent of women feel that denying sex is an acceptable reason for a man to beat up his wife.

On the other hand, 36 percent men aged between 15 and 49 years agree that at least one of the reasons given is sufficient justification for wife beating. Men are most likely to justify beating their wives if they argue with their husbands (25 percent), followed by showing disrespect to elders (23 percent).

Like women, men are least likely to say that refusal to have sex (4 percent) is a ground for wife beating. About 16 percent of men feel that neglecting the children or going out without telling them are justifiable reasons for wife beating.

Forty nine percent married women have ever experienced some forms of physical violence by their husbands, 53 percent have experienced some forms of physical or sexual violence while 13 percent have experienced both types of violence.

Eighteen percent women are physically forced to have sex by their husbands when they do not want to.

The study showed that the most common act of physical violence is slapping. Forty six percent married women are being slapped by their husbands. The next common act of physical violence is being pushed, shaken or having something thrown at them (30 percent).

Almost 17 percent of married women reported that their husbands punch them with their fists or with something that can hurt them. Fifteen percent of women are victims of kicking, dragging and beating. An equal percentage reported that their husbands twist their arms or pulled their hair.

The survey also stated that physical violence is directly related to the duration of the marriage. Thirty percent of women who got married less than five years ago reported having their experience of physical violence, compared with 47 percent of women married off between five and nine years and 54 percent more than 10 years' after their marriage.

Women residing in Chittagong and Sylhet experience less physical violence compared with women in other divisions.

The survey also showed that age at marriage is higher in Chittagong and Sylhet compared with other divisions. Sexual violence is lowest in Sylhet and Khulna while highest in Barisal. Twenty one percent of married women in Barisal reported sexual violence, followed by 20 percent of women in Dhaka.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad President Ayesha Khanam told The Daily Star, “Vigorous campaign about the rights of women are the best way to stop such violence. This is really unfortunate that male partners or husbands here think that without torturing their female partners, their power is not being exercised.”

On the other hand, there is no alternative to empowering and making women aware of their rights in family. The law enforcement agencies should come forward to stopping such heinous spousal violence, said leader of the women's human rights-based organisation

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One of the upshots of travelling alone is that there's no one around with which to share your witty thoughts, pet peeves or general observations. Oftentimes, they're too short for blogging, and too long for Facebook (I'm not on Twitter - if I was, I'd never leave my computer).

As it is, I subsequently end up walking around composing pithy Facebook updates in my head (Mtanga...finds it hard to believe a whole planefull of people could not know about deoderant). However, not wanting to appear as socially isolated (and let's face it, lame) as I really am, most of these posts flicker through my head and then flicker on out.

But, after 24 hours of travel, I've got a buildup. I'm not going to paste them all on Facebook, but the backlog in my head is making it hard to sleep.

Mtanga....

...forgot that cell phone etiquette is a lost art in Sri Lanka. Apparently, Nokia doesn't have a "silent" option for its asian market. If her co-worker answers his phone one more time in the middle of the meeting, she might just shove it down his throat.
...finds the jewlery commercial that starts with "They arranged everything, even our marriage" creepy.
...loves having friends in all corners of the world. Hopes to see them again, soon!
...finds insecure women annoying.
...it's hard to Lose Sarah Marshall when that's the only movie on TV 24/7.
...has to stop leaving her cell phone in the backseat of taxicabs. This is just getting ridiculous.
...hates being watched.
...working at 12 am in Dubai. Either bored, extremely responsible or just lame. Voting lame.
...bought the exact same phone she lost in Sri Lanka, for four bucks cheaper. Let's hear it for global commerce!
...doesn't understand people who unbuckle their seatbelt and bumrush the front of the plane before we're even done taxing. You're not making it any easier for the rest of us!
...would like to give you a lesson in personal space.
...is not afraid to use her elbows.
...battled the world's worst baggage claim, and won.
...the smell of rotting garbage in the hot tropical sun. Yum! Haven't seen any dog-heads yet though, so that's something.
...the delivery of your fruitbasket does not supercede my need to sleep.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Numerology

One of the many conversations I had on the drive between Colombo and Batticaloa involved numerology. Thus far in my life, I'd only encountered numerology in the back pages of Cosmopolitan as yet another quiz to take to tell me things I already knew about myself (Your personality is: Normal! Your skin type is: Combination! You like: Men!)

I was chatting with our accountant whose wife just gave birth to their second child a few weeks ago. He mentioned they hadn't yet chosen a name, but that is had to start with the letter "K", according to the childs numerology. I've heard of different naming conventions across the world, but this was the first time I'd come across numerology.

So what's my number? I asked. Adding the date of the day of my birth (1+7) means my number is 8. According to our Chief of Party (also a believer) this means I am a strong leader, with the potential to go far in life.

Easy for him to say, I thought, so I sought information from the interwebs. According to Spiritual Numerology.com Number 8 is the most powerful of all numbers.

You most likely have some of the following strengths and talents at your disposal if the number 8 appears in your numerology chart: You are inspiring, result-oriented, powerful, ambitious, visionary, generous, perseverant, forgiving, broad-minded, money-conscious and self-disciplined. You have the potential for enormous success and the possibility to accumulate great wealth. You are also a good judge of character a natural leader and a survivor.
Some of the following weaknesses, which are associated with the number 8, could slow down or even prevent your progress. Most probably, only one or a few of them will belong to you: You might be stubborn, intolerant, impatient, stressed, materialistic, impatient with people, arrogant and reckless. You have the power to accumulate great wealth, but you also susceptible to loosing everything. You are a gambler, you have a strong desire for luxuries and you can fall for corruption.
Woo-Hoo!
M.

Monday, October 12, 2009

When Fish Sing

I've been spending the better part of my stay in Sri Lanka in Batticaloa. Batticaloa (or Batti) is situated in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, about a seven hour car ride from Colombo, on a tiny island. It doesn't really feel like an island - there are bridges connecting the city center with the mainland.

Although I wasn't really impressed during my first visit back in July, it does have a certain charm. It helps that I love Sri Lanka overall, but it also seems to me to be a very laid-back city, surrounded by water and a low key attitude. I may be smelling hope, too. After years of civil war, the roads are finally being repaired and development funds are coming to the city, and the tourism industry is reigniting.

All the guidebooks tout Batticaloa as "the city with the singing fish". I asked our country manager about this, who is not from Batti, and he didn't believe me - until I pointed out the sign under the town archway announcing those very words. I'm always interested in local lore, and truth be told, more than mildly amused by the thought of singing fish.

I've begun asking around about this myth. Surprisingly, the interwebs are relatively quiet on the subject. Here's the obligatory wiki positing; as well as a posting on Batticaloa online which says pretty much the same thing. There's a facebook page, but that doesn't say much.

I've also asked around to my work colleagues and (because I'm generally obnoxious when it comes to this kind of thing) anyone (busboys, drivers, kids on the street...).

The story is more or less the same: If you stand at Lady Manning bridge on Kallady between the hours of 1-3am on a moonlight night, and stick your ear close to an oar in the water, you can hear the fish sing. Some people told me that since the civil war started in the 80's, the fish stopped singing. Others have said that a Father Miller (who recently just left to go back to America) had a recording. Strangely enough, the wiki post also claims that another father had another recording, way back in the 60's.

Coincidentally, my hotel sits on the shoreline of Kallady, right next to Lady Manning bridge. I realized that the reason one must go to the bridge between the hours of 1-3 am is that that is the only time there isn't any noisy traffic. The fish could be singing the entire day, but we'd never know it! I awoke at 11pm last night, and laid awake until 2am, wondering - daring- myself to head out the bridge. However, my desire to not get run over by a truck outweighed by intrinsic interest in all things paranormal. Plus, it wasn't a full moon anyway.

So the mystery remains. I'm going to keep digging. Such a fantastic story requires some looking into.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Back in 'Bo, Then On to Bat, Ending with a Bang(ladesh)

Arrived in Colombo this evening - after two uneventful and long (13 hrs and 9 hours, respectively) legs. I just kissed three days of my life away and will spend tomorrow in a car driving to Batticaloa on the eastern part of the Island. Four days of non-stop travel is hard on the body, mind and soul.

All told though, it's fun to be back. I've arrived in much better shape than last time and I'm looking forward to connecting with some friends I made here back in July. While I'm normally a proponent of doing new things, it's nice to be in a place that's familiar. Even the much maligned (previously) Cinnamon Grand kind of feels like home.

I'm not sure if that means its time to stop travelling, or that I've finally hit my stride as a business traveller, but no matter. I'm here now and although it's 10:30 pm, I'm wide awake. Time to crack open the Advil PM.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Random Country Number I'm Not Sure.

I leave tomorrow - heading back to Sri Lanka first - and then on to Bangladesh. Thanks to Dean for schooling me in all things Joan Baez... - M.

SONG OF BANGLADESH (Words and Music by Joan Baez)

Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh

The story of Bangladesh
Is an ancient one again made fresh
By blind men who carry out commmands
Which flow out of the laws upon which nation stands
Which is to sacrifice a people for a land

Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh

Once again we stand aside
And watch the families crucified
See a teenage mother's vacant eyes
As she watches her feeble baby try
To fight the monsoon rains and the cholera flies

And the students at the university
Asleep at night quite peacefully
The soldiers came and shot them in their beds
And terror took the dorm awakening shrieks of dread
And silent frozen forms and pillows drenched in red
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh

Did you read about the army officer's plea
For donor's blood? It was given willingly
By boys who took the needles in their veins
And from their bodies every drop of blood was drained
No time to comprehend and there was little pain

And so the story of Bangladesh
Is an ancient one again made fresh
By all who carry out commands
Which flow out of the laws upon which nations stand
Which say to sacrifice a people for a land

Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Bangladesh, Bangladesh
When the sun sinks in the west
Die a million people of the Bangladesh
© 1972 Chandos Music (ASCAP)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

This is Why I Can't Have Nice Things

Two weeks ago, I got a flyer in the mail telling me I was eligible for a phone upgrade. This surprised me, but I was just thinking how crappy my phone is, so I actually read through it. Seemed like a good idea, so I went to the Verizon Wireless store the next day and bought myself the new LG enV Touch.

FANTASTIC!

So fantastic, I should've known it wouldn't last. A mere 12 hours later, round about 2 am, one bottle of wine and one very strange party bus ride later, I left it in the backseat of a random-hailed-down taxi cab.

(facepalm).

I spent last week calling around to every random taxi cab company I could track down that might have light colored cars and a Somali taxi driver with a beard.

One guy literally laughed me right off the phone.

So. This is why I can't have nice things.

I ruin them. :(

D'oh!
M.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beyond Our Differences

Tonight, I found myself at a film screening hosted by the Minnesota International Center called "Beyond Our Differences" - a movie about the connective value of global spirtuality. Last winter, I joined MIC and got these free passes to any event (that allowed them) and I've been sitting on them all year. Being cheap, and not wanting to let a good educational opportunity go to waste, I made plans to go.

Admittedly, global spirtuality isn't really my thing. I'm not interested in prosteletyzing and I don't go to church all that much. I invited my friend Megan, who is a pastor in her grown up life, but she had to bail on me due to pastoral duties. Still, in the interest of self-improvement and stepping out, I went.

I was pleasantly surprised - the movie was uplifting, even beautiful. My favorite part was when it listed the golden rule, as spelled out in each of texts of the major religions:

"Do Unto Others as you would have them do unto you" - Christianity
"Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill" - Buddism
"Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself" - Baha'i
"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." -Confucianism
"Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you." - Islam
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." - Judaism

I felt validated that it had its roots across so many other faiths. It underscored my own belief that this indeed is the most important way to live your life and the most important sentiment to take away from organized religion. The director interviewed many religious leaders - and highlighted individuals (both well known and not) who were putting their faith into action, and creating new standards for compassion and understanding.

I actually stayed for the dialogue afterwards, and it was super interesting - mostly due to the self-effacing director, Peter Bisanz, at the podium. As soon as the movie closed, a tiny woman in the back row asked: "Why didn't you focus more on the genocides of the world, perpetrated by hate and religious intolerance?"

His answer (to paraphrase): I'm not in the practice of focusing on fear. Others do that too well. I'm in this line of business to create hope and look for connections, not divisions.

(I had to leave before I fell in love with this guy.)

Anyway, it was a super interesting way to spend an evening. Please, go see the movie. It might still be airing on PBS.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Eat Your Greens, Leave the Politics

I've finally picked up Michael Pollan's "The Omivore's Dilemma". I'm barely 100 pages in, and I already feel my interest waning. I might be remiss in writing before actually finishing it, but since that's highly unlikely, I'm going to use my only platform to complain about why I'm probably not going to finish it.

The main reason is, while I find food politics interesting, I also find it hard not to get defensive. I understand that it's important to read things you don't necessarily agree with (or assume you won't agree with, seeing as you can't pick up the book for longer than five minutes). But, I have a major obstacle to overcome.

I and many of my friends in the upper midwest grew up on farms, or near farms, in small (getting smaller) towns. All in all, about 2% of the US population is directly involved in agricultural practice (3% if you include indirectly involved individuals such as farm credit bureaus, implement dealers, crop insurance salespeople, etc). And if you think most of these farms are in the hands of evil land-grabbing consolidated "corporate farms" - check out this interesting factsheet from the EPA. 90% are owned an operated by individuals or families.

So, understandably, I get a little irritated when the public eye is turned to agriculture because roughly 98% of the US population has any idea what US agriculture is like. They don't know what it takes to run a farm, live in a deeply rural area and try to make a living while the rest of them live in glass houses and throw stones. Forgive me if it feels a little....off. (Of course, if we were all limited to commenting only on things we knew about, politics and the blogosphere would die off rather quickly......)

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), the summer documentary "Food, Inc" and even last weeks' Time magazine (cover article: The Real Cost of Cheap Food) have all focused public debate recently on environmental negatives of the current agricultural structure (although, to it's credit, Time magazine gave a small nod to farmer's, saying that they're smart enough not to crap all over the land that gives them livelihood. Um, thanks?)

What Michael Pollan, et al have done for us is to put more emphasis on what we put in our bodies. Everyone has a say in that. Everyone has decisions to make when they go to the grocery or (shudder) the fast food joint. I'm not saying things shouldn't change. Every system can be improved. But I do have a problem with placing blame on those who have turned growing food into a business. This is America, after all, we're all driven by capitalism to make things more efficient, including (horrors!) food. Pretending that that doesn't apply to our food systems is just willful ignorance.

I got into a debate with a fellow at work a few weeks ago, who was pontificating pompously about the fabulosity of local organic food. Now, I don't have a problem with local, organic food. However, I find it very hard to have an academic conversation regarding the positives of organic food when the US population at large seems to have issues with eating just plain ol' vegetables regularly. I mean, let's not put the cart before the horse, here.

All of this was driven home today, when I was blithely munching away on my home-made asian chicken breast spring green salad. The director of finance, sitting across from me, blurts out:

Why are YOU eating so healthily?

I blinked at her, trying to measure my retort.
'Why wouldn't I?" I responded.

I may finish the book, who knows.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Negotiating Life

I met up with my friend A., in DC this week. We kept missing each other on my previous trips, as she’s spent the past few months in Kenya. She’s leaving her gig at the World Bank and striking out at Yale this fall on a not-too-definite work future.

“Something happened in Kenya,” she said, “Where I realized that ‘no’ doesn’t always mean ‘No.’” I pointed out that sometimes ‘yes’ doesn’t really mean ‘Yes” either and we chuckled together, knowingly (she has Midwestern roots, like me). But it got me thinking.

I recently read a book called “Women Don’t Ask”, about gender and negotiating. The book was so depressing I could only skim most of it (hence my previous disgusted flame post below), but it raised a good point. Women don’t make demands, even if they are reasonable. And, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

One of the things that stuck me from the book was that men see themselves negotiating in every day life and women don’t really think about it. Women were hard pressed to come up with a solid example (besides negotiating with kids, which is no small feat) of using these skills often enough to warrant even a memory. Simply put, men see everything as a potential negotiation whereas it doesn’t really occur to us women that we could be negotiating! (Aside: This lead me to ask for a discount in my tires last week, and I got it!)

A.and I talked about the double standard between women being treated like a doormat or being labeled a bitch (or, my personal favorite, “emotional”). Personally, I fight between standing up for myself and being liked at work all the time. It’s a tough line. We both decided that as we get older, we get more confident in ourselves, and much bolder.

“I just finally realized that if something that will mean THIS MUCH (arms out for emphasis) to me, means someone might have to give thismuch (fingers pinched) for me, it was worth asking. Not only in gratitude, but also in the ways I could pay it forward.” A. said.

I couldn’t agree more. I also think that if we don’t ask for the moon either, we won’t get it. I met a women in Sri Lanka who had taken five months of unpaid leave from her job to finish up field research for her master’s degree. When I asked her how she’d finagled that, she said she’d been emboldened by a book on women and negotiation and decided to ask for more. In the end, her company even helped her secure a visa into the country!

Turns out, that we women so undervalue ourselves that we’re happier with less. Even when we ask for something, we don’t go far enough. After reading this book, it occurred to me that I’d fallen into this trap on my last salary negotiation (which is about the time I put down the book…). Also, as a sidebar, I don’t necessarily agree that this is a bad thing - the concept of “enough” seems to be lost on the general America public.

But the fact remains, that we’re getting short-changed and double-standarded all over the place. If we play hardball, women are seen as ‘difficult’. If we try to get along, we do twice the work with less compensation.

There is a fellow at my work who claims that because he has a Master’s degree, he shouldn’t be photocopying thing all the time. His statement made me angry, but it made me even angrier that I have a Master’s degree and this thought didn’t even occur to me (perhaps because I'm not a pompous ass).

Anyway, I congratulated A. I admire her. She’s taking some big risks, hoping that this ‘no’ can eventually be turned into something she wants. When we stretch ourselves beyond what we think is possible, that’s when we find true happiness.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sexism - Not Just For Your Mama's Generation

These are actual quotes that have been said to me over the past week:

"What did you think of that married guy we interviewed. Did you think he was cute?" (Um....I didn't even notice).

"Don't worry, you'll eventually want babies."

"Don't buy a home now; soon you'll meet a man and you'll want to move in with him and then you'll have to sell it!"

(I fell off the sidewalk recently, and scraped my knee.) My aunt's response: "Did a handsome man come and sweep you up and carry you away?" (Um, no. Magically, I somehow I managed to pick my own self up...)

"What do your parents think of you going to XXX country?" (seriously? I'm nearly 30 years old!)

An article today on CNN about South African runner, Caster Semenya, who is so good, officials think she's a boy.

While some of these comments are made in jest, the message is clear: Society just doesn't know what to do with women who are competitive, independent and fearless. Also, I am obviously defective because I am neither in a relationship or married. (When I told a friend about my aunt's comment, she said the same thing happened to her, only her grandma told her to "stay down there a little while" until someone came to help). (!)

You know, I totally get why Hillary reacted the way she did in Congo. Women who show any ounce of brain, ambition or drive get harassed, harangued, teased, tormented and "best-intentioned" by all sides. There's no escaping it. It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, single, married or in a committed relationship. If you're married, you should "hurry up and have kids" before your uterus goes bad. If you've had kids, you're not a good mother if you don't stay home and raise them (or, you're unambitious and lazy if you choose to stay home).

This is a no-win situation. It's unsupportable.

Yes, I AM angry. Mainly because, if you're not angry, you're not paying attention. Women in the US still earn 75 cents for every dollar that men do. A census survey from 2004, showed that this gap is actually getting WORSE. I understand that this is leaps and bounds over what women used to get. I thank my lucky stars that women like Victoria Woodhull and Margaret Sanger came before me. And, my recent travels to Pakistan make me feel even more lucky that I can rent my own apartment, buy my own car and have a job without seeking the permission of anyone but myself.

.......but sweet jeesus. I still can't pick myself up off the sidewalk??

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sri Lanka Photos, part three

Sunset on Lake Bogoda Mt. Lavinia Hotel - beachfront view

Something...prawn-y


Galle Face hotel


Traditional Kandyian Dancers







More Sri Lanka Photos

Polunaruwa Buddha
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage














At Long Last: Sri Lanka Photos

Gangaramaya Temple, downtown Colombo, at night!








The Beach at Trincomalee







Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mind Your Please and Thank You’s

Last year, when I was in East Timor, I was asked by a former consultant to fix a passport problem. He had overstayed his visa and they had banned him from every coming back.

“How stupid do you have to be to overstay your visa?” I thought.

Today, I found out.

After extending my stay last week and moving hotels, I completely forgot. I only had a thirty day visa and my new flight had me leaving on the 32nd day. Of course, I didn’t realize this until today; the day before I leave.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

I called Susan. Her reaction was classically forthright: “What do we do now, Madam?”

We collectively freaked out and then hung up on each other. I called my friend at the US Embassy, who told me to contact American Civilian Services, who as it turns out, are only open from 1-4 on Mondays and Wednesdays. D’oh. Dead end.

Susan called a friend of a friend who said that US Citizens have a seven day grace period. I refused to believe that unless it was in writing. Our comptroller called a friend who worked in the Immigration office. Susan called another contact who said that it was only a 24 hour grace period and we’d have to pay a $50 fine to extend it. We decided to gather all the paperwork and go down to the Immigration office ourselves.

I tried not to think of the what-if’s. What if they don’t issue it; what if I have to stay, what if...Susan kept patting my hand, laughing nervously and saying she’d make it right. We both shook our heads at each other, hardly believing what an adventure we’d gotten ourselves into. Susan is like me, in that she realizes the futility of her situation when its out of her hands, and keeps her sense of humor.

I think this is what saved us. The Immigration office was a crush of people, whom I towered above. We climbed four flights of stairs (and stares) in and out of air conditioning until we came to a semi-filled room in the Visa section. We were directed to station number #2, where Susan pleaded my case. The woman there stated it would cost $100. I didn’t care; I was determined to get out of the country! Better plead my case here in the visa section and pay my dues, than at midnight tomorrow night with some ornery passport control agent.

We were directed to fill out a form, go get a passport photo, and bring it back. Luckily, there was an entrepreneurial photographer on the floor landing (in the wicked heat). The result, of course, were three very sweaty photos of me looking terrified. Dutifully filled out, we went back to station #2. Then passed to station #1, then the guy next to station #1. I had written that I only needed an extension for one day. “One day, Madam?” he queried. “Yes!” Susan and I replied together. “Just enough to catch my flight…” I explained. I thanked him in Singhalese, and gave him a wan smile.

He shook his head, disbelievingly, glanced from Susan's eager face to mine, and changed my request to three days. “Just in case,” he stated. Then he signed the papers and directed us to station #3.

A long line was forming in front of Station #3, a glass room with a large man behind a desk. Apparently, extensions are only processed before lunch and it was a little before noon. We had only thirty minutes – tops – to get this done. The line crawled. We laughed at my photos. I chewed my hangnails. Susan assured me I could live in her basement, if need be.

Station #3 hardly looked at us before signing the paper, shooing us away. We went back to station #2 ( by this time, I was feeling a bit like a ping-pong ball). They directed us to Payments, who directed us back to Station #2, who wouldn’t take our money. A woman there said she liked my necklace. Another man behind the desk just wiggled his head from side to side in that charming Sri Lankan way, which I understand now to mean “Not a problem.”

"Boham Estuti" I said to them again, "Thank you."

We submitted the final all-signed paperwork to a man behind yet another desk, next to five signs labeled: NGO, Student, Private, Clergy and Resident Indian. I wondered if they had a lot of visiting clergy… However, I didn’t have much time to ponder this, as within twenty minutes the last man came back with a load of passports, including my own. Then they shut down for lunch.

Whew! Under the wire. Susan commented that it was probably a) my saying so many thank you's and b) the innocent, urgent look on my face. "Your charm wins again, Madam," Susan said. I'm not sure, but I think I'm running short on how much I can rely on my charm. I told Susan as much and she just laughed at me.

As repayment for their help, I took Susan and the rest of the office out to lunch to celebrate my freedom. Needless to say, productivity was not very high for the rest of the day.

Police Checkpoints

Although the war is officially over, police checkpoints around the country and city of Colombo still remain. My first hotel was located within spitting distance of the President’s compound, which meant roadblocks, check points, traffic stops and lots of machine guns. I don’t feel threatened; after awhile they just seem to blend in to everything else on the street. Just one more hoop to getting home.

Mostly, the police checkpoints are just annoying. They wave over your car, check your national identity card, ask where you’re going and wave you on. No one bothers to ask me for my papers; I’ve already blogged about how un-Sri Lankan I look. However, Susan and I seem to get pulled over a lot more when we’re together, but they don’t hassle us too much. I flash a smile, meet their eyes and test out my three Singhalese phrases. Susan teases me that I use my charm on them; I think they just panic when they see my pale face.

Saturday night I was out with some non-Sri Lankan friends. All five of us piled in the backseat of a taxi to Gallery CafĂ©. I don’t know if we were conspicuously crammed, or if something was going on in the city, but our little car got stopped not once – but twice – by police checkpoints. Much to our surprise, they demanded our papers.

Three of my friends are diplomats, but only two of them had copies of their passports. Us Americans are told to leave them at home, so Anu and I were out of luck. The diplomats produced their copies, and argued their immunity to the men with the machine guns. It devolved quite quickly into heated discussions. I slunked in my seat. I thought the poor driver was going to drop dead with terror. Finally, they let us go.

The second checkpoint wasn’t much better, as everyone was exasperated, hungry and a bit shaken. More demands, more paperwork. I slunk further. The policemen didn’t seem to know what the word “diplomat” meant; nor do I think it did much good to be shouting it at them. I was thinking of Susan, and my subtle flirting, but was too nervous to even look up, let alone smile. I was tucked too far back in the backseat; and trying very very hard to be invisible.

I don’t know if anything was going on in the city last night, or if it was just plain over-vigilance by the police, but it definitely put a damper on the evening. Luckily, on the way back, we didn’t get stopped, but I no longer consider them “just an annoyance.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

You Can't Always Get What You Want

...but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

I certainly haven't gotten what I thought I wanted lately. I came to Sri Lanka content to distract myself with work, lick my wounds and order room service.

But, as always, the universe had other plans.

I am so grateful to have met and made wonderful friends in my short time here. I didn't learn much about local culture, or Sri Lanka, but I had someone to hold my hand, laugh with, and remind myself that there is still a whole world of wonderful people out there who want me in their lives.

I am truly blessed.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Perfect Sri Lankan Sunday

A few weeks ago, I opened up a book I'd brought with me and out drops my Minnesota fishing license. "Huh, that's random," I thought, "Hope I don't lose this!"

I didn't lose it; and in fact, I brought it up at a Nepali supper last Sunday with a group of friends.

"You fish?" Yacoub said.
"Sure...why not?" I replied.

...and that was the start of a lovely weekend. Yacoub ended up inviting myself, Anu, Barbara, Jill and others out to his and his uncles place on Lake Bogoda, just outside Colombo, this Sunday (today). Turns out, he's a huge fisherman. He wanted us there at 6am, but we ended up rolling in around 9, some of us hungover.....and some just really, really tired.

Still, that was enough time for a four hour troll up and down the lake, (which eventually turns into the sea). The fish they go for are much bigger than my usual widemouth bass. Unfortunately, I didn't figure this out until AFTER I got a hit, and didn't set the hook properly. So, as usual, The Big One Got Away. We trolled for a few more hours, seeing monkeys, a sea monitor (Sri Lanka's komodo dragon :) and cooking ourselves on the prow. (We literally watched Stefan turn from raw to well-done in front of us!)

At one point, Stefan knocked my flip-flop off the prow and we had to turn around to get it (once we realized it was missing; about 20 minutes later..) Yacoub announced that I'd make out with whoever found it, I think as an incentive for Stefan, but lucky for me, it was Jill that eagle-eyed it out of the weeds, and she wasn't interested in cashing in. Although little alcohol was involved, we kept ourselves diverted by the amazing number of double entendre's that come from fishing. Yacoub's friend even read all of our palm's. (I apparently, am in for two kids and I don't keep in touch with my family well..)

We got back in to the boathouse around 1pm; more friends showed up and the beer started flowing. Yacoub's house is set on a hill, with a large wrap around veranda. His mom made two large bowls of biryani, sambol and spicey chicken. After we ate our fill, the jaggery came out (sri lankan creme caramel), as did the hammock. Some unsuccessful waterskiing was pursued by the Germans, another fishing tour went out and a motorboat ride at sunset rounded out the day.

I am crispy, exhausted and I have tiny niggling ache at the back of my head - but - what a wonderful day. I don't feel I've missed the Minnesota summer at all; in fact, the Minnesota summer has come to me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

It Matters What Road You're On

After extending my stay in Sri Lanka, I was forced to move hotels. Apparently, I’d overstayed my welcome at the Cinnamon Grand (also, I was getting a little sick of hotel staff opening my door without knocking, but that’s another story). Given that, and all the maddening weddings (I stopped counting at 15) I am happy to leave.

Today I moved to my new digs, the Taru Villas in Colombo 3. Off a busy street, this unassuming gate opens up to a finely clipped fresh front lawn, and refreshingly empty grand hall, done up in Dutch and British Colonial style. There are ten rooms, and only three people staying here. After the hustle and bustle of the Grand, I am happy to find a quiet, contemplative space.

After unpacking and doing a bit more work, I headed out to meet some friends for dinner at the Mango Tree, a local Indian restaurant known for its excellent food. Seeing as I hadn’t gotten my bearings yet, I took a cab. Many streets are one way in Colombo, punctuated by occasional police check points and at times out and out road closings (for Ministers driving by), which results in some very frustrating and circuitous routes to get to a destination not so far away, actually. If you were only a bird.

This was exactly what happened to me tonight, on my way to Mango Tree. I teased the driver that he was taking me in circles, just for an extra fare (you pay by the km). He complained about the one-ways, which was indeed what had happened. I arrived at the Mango Tree, paid him the $1.50 fare and joined my gal pals for a fun evening. At the end of it, I thought about walking back, but as I didn’t really fancy a walk in the dark by myself to a place I wasn’t quite sure I could find again, so I called a cab.

I had looked up the hotel address online, and was confident it was #20 Park Road. The cab takes off in the direction of cab road; only it’s the complete opposite direction of where I think we should be going. At first I thought it was just the one-ways again, but after years of travel, I’ve learned to follow my inner compass (which is pretty darned good, if I must say). After a few zooming kilometers, I KNEW we were going the wrong way. Knowing my new place is near a local landmark hotel, I said that hotel’s name and the cab driver perked up. Ma’am, that’s in the complete opposite direction, he said.

Yes, I realize that, I said, sorry, sorry. I am new. Please just turn around. The big chain hotel was the only place I could tell him to go to that I knew was remotely close to my new place. And, thinking quickly, in a worst case scenario, I knew that the concierge there could look up the number and address of the Taru Villa and explain it to the cabbie.

This is indeed what happened. Except the concierge didn’t know, either, and he ended up walking up and down the street, asking the tuk-tuk driver’s if THEY knew.

The cabbie was mystified.

“Don’t you know the address, madam?”
Shamefacedly, I had to admit I had no idea what the address was. Apparently it was NOT Park Road. Damn.

“Do you have the hotel number?”

Um…well….

“Do you know the NAME?”

“Yes, it’s Taru Villa. It’s near here. I know it. It’s not far from the Gangarama Temple.” (we’d just passed it, but the roads are so winding behind it, I quickly got lost trying to direct him.) In that second, the concierge comes back from his night walk up and down the street, and says to the cabby, essentially, in Singhala:

“This idiot girl is staying at the Taru Villas. It’s on 20 Park Street, about thirty meters behind you.”

The cabby then turns to me and says in English, “OHHHH. The Taru VillaSSS. (extra emphasis on the SSSSss).

“Yes,” I say, “Taru Villa.”

“VillaSSS,” he says. “On Park STREET.”

“Right. Not Park Road,” I say.

“No, STREET. It’s different madam,” he says, by way of explaining.

When I finally arrived safely home, I paid him $10 for his trouble - and my embarrassment. I laughed with the hotel owner, asking him if they’d moved hotels from Park Road to Street and he gasped, “But that’s on the other side of town, madam.”

Sigh.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

National Museum Saturday

Saturday afternoon, I decided to go check out the National Museum of Colombo. I'm slowly learning my way around the city, through taxis and various rides from friends, so I'm feeling more and more comfortable venturing out on my own. Although my taxi driver didn't really seem to understand me, I ended up in the right place.


My guidebook had mentioned that it was 65 rupees (about 50 cents) to get in, so imagine my surprise when the ticketman asked me for 500 (about $4.50)!


"Why so expensive?" I asked him.
"You are not from Sri Lanka, madam?" He replied
"Well, no," I protested, "but I could be a Burgher. How do you know I'm not Burgher?"
Without missing a beat, the man said, "Then, where's your national identity card?"


...nuts. He had me there. I laughed and paid him the exorbitant amount.


Flat out, I'd say the best part of the National Museum is the beautiful colonial building in which it's housed. A large, white monolith, with ionic columns set back in a large field, I felt like I was walking into old school Washington DC architecture again. The walkway terraces between each exhibit room were wide and open, letting the tiniest of breezes flow through. I could've settled in right there on a rocking chair, a tonic and a good book.


However, that was only when I could get away from the millions of schoolchildren charging about. My guess was that they were middle schoolers, judging from their size, gangliness and rusty hygiene measures. For the most part, I was able to walk unmolested among them, peering at pottery, jewlery pieces and a pair of Buddha's golden shoes. But in one particularly boring room (photos of one of the founders in pre-independence Ceylon), a group of boys began following, surrounding me, giggling and asking for the time. In fact, I turned around so fast that I almost ran one over. They're just kids, but not wanting to play "goofy foreigner" for them, I quickly left the room.


Aside from the architecture and the overall wilted beauty of the building, I thought the jewlery, stone statues of hindu gods through Sri Lanka's history and the returned crown jewels of the King of Kandy (the place, not the food) were the most interesting. I couldn't determine if it was real or not, but in one room a giant skeleton of blue whale hangs ominously from the ceiling - that was pretty cool, too.


Despite all that, it was extremely hot and humid in the building. I was ready to leave after an hour. I haggled for a tuk-tuk, and tootled back to the hotel enjoying all the exhaust fumes that Colombo has to offer. That evening, I ended up participating in the Hash and then out for dinner with Matt (another company employee here) and some of his friends. Overall, it was an extremely pleasant Saturday. Sure beats cleaning my apartment! (Although I am starting to miss my cat...)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Poya at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara

Yesterday, July 6th, was Esala Full Moon Poya Day in Sri Lanka. The full moon period of the month is an auspicious time for Buddhists, and it's a holy day (holiday) every month. So, the entire city of Colombo emptied out over the weekend, as folks headed home to attend their local Buddhist shrines or just spend time with family. Also worth noting, no alcohol is sold on this day.

Luckily, earlier that weekend, my co-worker and I went to the Marines Annual 4th of July picnic at the State Department Recreation House (basically, a pool). We ended up meeting some fun Australian diplomats (I know, right? Party diplomacy!) and spending the rest of the weekend hanging out with them.

On Poya, two Australians, myself and another American on TDY here for a short time went to Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a little outside of Colombo. It is supposedly the spot where Buddha taught on the last of his three visits to Sri lanka and home to some beautiful friezes in the image house. We wanted to watch people celebrate poya and generally see what it was all about.

Like all Buddhist shrines, you must remove your shoes before stepping on the hallowed ground. The compound itself was large and covered in gritty sand, which snuck in between every toe and creeped up my leg. There were scores of people there, all dressed in white. Some squatted on the ground, others had brought newspapers or sheets of plastic to sit and pray on. Still others had brought mats and were curled up to sleep in the many porticos along various outbuildings.

We viewed the reclining Buddha inside the great image hall. There was a push of people going inside, all with their hands clasped to their faces, cupping frangipangi petals. We had no idea to buy flowers (although after we left, we noticed tons and tons of vendors along the walkway to the shrine), but a kind woman silently slipped me some petals from her bag, which I shared with the others. I laid them at the feet of the reclining Buddha, along with piles and piles of others. We also gazed at a frieze that depicted a woman bringing over Buddha's tooth in her hair.

Later, when we were circling the large white dagoba where its said that Buddha preached, a woman went up to my friend Jill and offered her some incense to burn. She helped Jill light the punks and stick them in the sand pot before one of the many Buddha statues.

While we obviously stood out, what with our white legs and constant cameras, people were kind to us, offering smiles and nods as we mingled among the crowd. We left after an hour and headed for a Thai restaurant, remarking how much fun it was to be out of the city, out of the hotels and part of local customs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Hey, Buddha! Wake up!

There are tons of beautiful Buddha's around Sri Lanka (on nearly every street corner, actually) and some very, very large ones. The funny part is that whenever I take photos of his large serene face, this flashes on my camera:

"Warning! One or more subjects may have closed their eyes."

Someone should tell him to stop meditating and start mugging for the camera...

Pinnewala Elephants

On Tuesday, on our way to Batticaloa, we stopped a bit out of our way to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage (and more here). We (Susan, Kanak and I) arrived right as the 2pm bath was to begin; and right as an enormous downpour started. We stood in the middle of the forest, under the canopy of the public washroom, as a herd of 89 elephants were driven towards the river (about 1 km away).

One elephant in particular, stopped near where we were waiting and wrapped his trunk around lovingly around the fence near us. It was really neat to see such a powerful animal be so darn cute, but when I went to take a picture he of course turned away.

Susan and I stole an umbrella from one of the staff and made our way to the river for an overpriced lunch, overlooking the frolicking animals. It was really touristy (and if you've ever seen African Elephants on Safari, it's hard to be impressed by the tiny size of the Asian elephant (although they are still magnificant)). The other downside was that it took us about 1.5 hours out of our way, meaning that it was late in the evening by the time we arrived at our hotel. Ugh.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Self Validation via some survey done by the Daily Telegraph

Women Happiest at 28

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5645800/Women-happiest-at-28.html

The title is a bit misleading, as the rest of the article goes on to say that women have the best SEX at 28, but "women are happiest in their career at 29 and most content with their relationships one year later at 30"...

However, "all is not lost for the over 30s, as women feel most content with their financial situation at 33 and at ease with their home and family life at 32."

Soooooo basically, I'm on track.

Whew!

Does is say anywhere in here when I get to take over the world?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Day Off

Today I was finally able to squeeze in a full night's sleep, a jog, and some pool-time. I actually find I get more done when I'm relaxed poolside, sipping a double gin-tonic under a bao tree than when I'm frazzled, hunched over my computer in grey cubicle. I'm sure most people feel that way, which leads me to wonder why more offices aren't under bao trees, but I digress. Probably lack of bao trees. Anyway, I was able to finish off one report and get a good start on another and still have an hour to swim before fun time.

Susan, my Sri Lankan colleague, had agreed to take me around Colombo for some shopping and sightseeing. We started out at a craft shop, then a gem store, then to a shopping center where I scored some seriously cheap clothes. Like many developing nations, Sri Lanka is heavily into the textile industry, sewing some of the top brands for the US markets. So, I was able to score a GAP skirt and a few Ann Taylor Loft blouses for less than fifteen USD - total.

After that, Susan surprised me by taking me to the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. There are several spread out parts of this compound, including the Seema Malaka (shrine) situated in nearby Beira Lake. The best part about the shrine were the signs up all over saying "Do Not Make Love Here" in Singalese. Apparently, it's a happening night spot!

Incidentally, we did go at night, when everything was lit up by torches and tea lights (we didn't see any amorous couples, though). According to my out-dated guidebook, the temple itself is a "strange hotch-potch of Buddhist arts and architecture from Sri Lanka, Thailand, China...with an unusually strong dash of Hindu influence thrown in." I'm not a religious scholar, but I can recognize my favorite Hindu god, Ganesh, when I see him (he's the one with the elephant head); and I saw him in the entryway. Beautiful, but strangely out of place, I thought.

Asking Susan about this, she succinctly stated, "Buddhism is open to all thoughts. It is a philosophy; not a religion."

The entryway opened up into a cavernous room with an enormous (thirty feet tall) orange Buddha. The walls were covered in elaborate paintings, carvings and mini-Buddha's. It was breathtaking. People were lighting incense, chanting and listening the loudspeakers, which were piping in a live "sermon" from another area of the temple.

From there, we walked into a courtyard dominating by a huge white dagoba, which basically looks like a white bell (click link for picture). Off to one side, stood a large boa tree tied low with strips of colored cloths. Susan mentioned that people believed that if they circled the tree, watering it, their prayers would be answered. I've had a few prayers of my own lately, so I grabbed a silver chalice and watered my heart out. Answers or not, I certainly felt better afterwards.

Lastly, in the back, behind the museum, the most breathtaking sight of the evening was the slope of rows upon rows of smiling buddhas, casting peaceful shadows far into the night. It was calming just to be there.

After sneaking a few more pictures in, Susan and I hopped back in the car where Raja (the driver) had purchased egg hoppers for all of us. Basically a crispy pancake with fried egg in the middle, it was super-delish (see previous post about me and fried food) and an excellent end to an excellent afternoon.

Tomorrow - the spa!

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Week's Worth

I haven't felt very verbose lately, so here's a quick week's worth of updates:

- eleven interviews = one very long day
- hot showers are only as available as your ability (and lucidity) to know which way the knob should turn;
- two eight hour car rides in as many days
- one of those hours locating an office space that ends up being a bombed out farmhouse
- repeat performance with another bombed out farmhouse, this one with squatters
- the "good" road is the one under construction
- hot is feeling the backs of your knees sweat
- cows are a) pedestrians b) decoration c) family members d) all of the above
- whoops? should I be taking malarial pills?
- deep fried and carbs = me likey (fried manioc is delish!)
- observed pujah at a hindu shrine on a mountain top
- watched a monkey throw up in his mouth
- visited Lover's Leap, but stood firm
- swam in the Indian Ocean at dusk;
- tried to read emails at the beach, ended up picking sand from my laptop;
- watched my underwear being fondled at a military checkpoint;
- denied access to "marble beach"
- got photo with cute military guy instead
- promised I wasn't going to post it on a website
-...but can still talk about it!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oh Caffeine, I'll Never Forsake You Again

It's taken me three days, but I've finally arrived in Sri Lanka. While I still maintain that East Timor is as close to the end of the earth as you can get (and pretty hard to get to), Sri Lanka gives it a run for its money. One 13 hour flight to Tokyo (2 hours sitting at the gate, trying to get the cargo door to close); then, upon arrival 15 minutes to run to the bathroom and board my 6 hour flight to Bangkok.

My Bangkok hotel was nice, but my internal clock was so screwed up by that point, when I finally got there at 2am, I couldn't wind down to sleep and had to resort to tylenol pm, which leaves me sluggish and sleepy. Effectively, I didn't have enough energy to go explore the city during my 12 hour layover and subsequently was forced just to hit the spa, gym and pool (in that order). One more three hour flight that evening, landed me in Colombo around 10:30 pm.

In an effort to be "healthy", I had shunned caffeine during this time, so my internal clock could reset on its own (barring the tylenol pm, which I maintain was an emergency). I thought this was a smart idea, except by Sunday evening, an achy feeling had crept into the back of my skull. What began as a dull pain, soon turned into a shooting, blinding, hammering, by the time I had made it through customs in Colombo.

The swine flu is a big deal in Asia, especially since Sri Lanka just got its first case last week. They're screening everyone from "swine flu" countries, including the US, so I had to pass a health inspection wherein they make you fill out a little form regarding how you're feeling. How would you feel after 2 days of travelling? Luckily "like shit" wasn't one of the options, otherwise, I might have ended up in Sri Lankan quarantine. Also, thankfully, "hammering migraine" wasn't one of the symptoms listed either.

After an excruciating hour long car ride, I arrived at the hotel, made myself the strongest "breakfast tea" (ie with caffeine!) and promptly fell asleep.

I've learned my lesson. Next global pandemic, I might not be so lucky. "Screaming headache" might actually be on the list.

Caffeine, I'll never try to break up with you again. It's dangerous!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Burmused.

I've not covered this much here, but I've been following the news of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi recent detention due to the ridiculous actions of American tourist John William Yettaw. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace price winner and democracy advocate, has been under house arrest for the past several years for opposing the military junta. Op-Ed's in Washington Post and this article by Voice of America do a good job of summarizing the democracy activist, and her current trial for "violating house arrest" when Mr. Yettaw decided it would be a good idea to swim the moat for a visit (Suu Kyi does not know him). But she faces an additional 5 years of jail time because he felt he urgently needed to talk with her.

I have alot of opinions about the thoughtlessness of this man, but that's not the point of this post.

I am in DC this week, attending a seminar for work on aid, development and conflict. I had lunch with a Burmese gentleman today, and I asked him about the trial. He was not optimistic. He explained that the miltary junta keeps such tight controls over everything that if one wants to have a meeting of over five people, they must get government approval (verified by google). Can you imagine that? This extends to work, play, school, religious gatherings, as well as political rally's (if they have such a thing). This would even extend to such professional seminars similar to what we are both currently attending.

Wow.

Because this was his first trip to the US, I asked him what his first impression was. His response was "Everything is very green here. In Burma, there are few trees. People cut them down to sell."

DC is a beautifully green place, with many public spaces, so I couldn't deny him that. But it wasn't what I expected. I expected something along the lines of free press, being able to say whatever he wanted, read what he wanted, gather a group of over five friends together and party til dawn without permission. Didn't he feel "free-er"?

Nope, he felt cleaner. The air smelled good.

I guess it's the small things - that which we so often take for granted - which makes the biggest difference.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Not to Pick on Zambia again but...

I went to the travel doctor this week for my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. I hate travel doctors. They always tell me to wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water and wear bug spray. (Just once I'd like someone to teach me something useful, like CPR, or maybe some hand-to-hand combat moves.) I also hear alot about the scary diseases that I may or may not attract.

For those of you who know me, this does not go over well with my hypochondriac self.

This doctor was no different. While very nice, she was also big on pointing out which diseases I don't want to get (malaria) and which ones I DEFINITELY don't want (japanese encephalitis). In fact, I may go back and get the vaccine for that one.

Aaaaaanyway, what I thought was going to be a quick 30 minute appointment for malaria drugs turned into a two-hour ordeal, with me leaving certain that I was going to die of Chagas, or at the very least, had a case of worms.

I went back to the office and vented about my experience.

My coworker, a pleasantly plump conservative mid-thirties single gal guffawed. "That's nothing," she said, "when I went for my trip to Zambia, the nurse asked me if I was going to be having sexual relations."

(Note: business trips do not lend themselves to romance).

"When I told her no, she eyed me up and down again and said, "Are you sure?"

(Note: pretty sure. And by that I mean, ABSOLUTELY CONFIDENT.)

"When I again assured her I would not be having sexual relations, she still advised me to bring condoms."

(Note: In case any unplanned orgies breakout).

"And when I told her that I would not waste my time bringing condoms, she said, 'Well, they have AIDs in Zambia.'"

(Note: part of our project in Zambia deals with people affected with AIDs.)

I get they have a duty to warn us of what we're walking into, but they must deal with some awfully stupid or dishonest people. Also, the world is a scary enough place without my having to worry if walking barefoot on beach will give me shingles. I realize that ignorance may not be the way to go here, but it is indeed, bliss.

I miss my DC travel doctor, who stuck me with needles, gave me my drugs, slapped a lollipop in my hand and let me run back to work.

M is for malaria.
M.

Random Country : Sri Lanka

A new project is starting there, so I'll be leaving in about two weeks - and gone for about a month.

From our good friends at Wiki:

Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia, located about 31 kilometres (19.3 mi) off the southern coast of India. It is home to around twenty million people.
Because of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link between
West Asia and South East Asia, and has been a center of Buddhist religion and culture from ancient times. Today, the country is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation: more than a quarter of the population follows faiths other than Buddhism, notably Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

The Sinhalese community forms the majority of the population; Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island, form the largest ethnic minority. Other communities include Moors, Burghers, Kaffirs and the Malays.

Famous for the production and export of
tea, coffee, coconuts and rubber, Sri Lanka boasts a progressive and modern industrial economy and the highest per capita income in South Asia. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka's tropical forests, beaches and landscape, as well as its rich cultural heritage, make it a world famous tourist destination.

After over two thousand years of rule by local kingdoms, parts of Sri Lanka were colonized by
Portugal and the Netherlands beginning in the 16th century, before control of the entire country was ceded to the British Empire in 1815. During World War II, Sri Lanka served as an important base for Allied forces in the fight against the Japanese Empire.[10] A nationalist political movement arose in the country in the early 20th century with the aim of obtaining political independence, which was eventually granted by the British after peaceful negotiations in 1948. In Sri Lanka about 15 % of the population live on less than US$ 1.25 per day. [11]

Excitingly enough, the 27 civil war between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Government ended in May, so that's a bit of good news. Of course, tensions don't just magically disappear overnight, so it's going to be interesting. I'm not sure if I'm going to post much about the conflict itself, for security reasons (both for myself and the project), but here's what wikipedia has to say:

From 1983 to 2009, there was an on-and-off civil war against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist militant organization who fought to create an independent state named Tamil Eelam in the North and East of the island. This has in turn resulted in ethnic cleansing of Muslim and Shinhalese from the area which Tigers claim to be Tamil Eelam. Both the Sri Lankan government and LTTE has been accused for various human right violations. However, number of notorious atrocities committed by LTTE, including suicide bombing, forced conscription of child soldier and ethnic cleansing of non-Tamils cause many countries to classify LTTE as a terrorist organisation.[citation needed]

On May 19, 2009 the President of Sri Lanka officially claimed end of the insurgency and the defeat of the LTTE following the death of its leader and much of its senior leadership.[26]

Friday, June 05, 2009

Humph. All I get is an Advil.

By nature of my strange job, sometimes I come across some unusual practices from other countries. This includes Zambian labor law, which we reviewed in a meeting on Wednesday, and includes the following:

Chapter 268: Part VII: 54.2:
In addition to the leave prescribed in subsection (1), every female employee shall be entitled to one day’s absence from work each month without having to produce a valid medical certificate.


Gee, (scratches head) once per month? I wonder what THAT’s for?

///Hello, Zambia? I wish I was working for you today.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Note to File

In my early twenties, my brother warned me that someday, sooner or later, I'd find wanderlust addicting. At that point, I thought he was crazy. I'd only been out my parent's house two years, and already I'd moved four times. I craved home; I craved a place to call my own; nice things ; a job; and a community where I belonged. I was pretty sure that once I found all those awesome things, I'd find a way to hang on to them.

I wasn't wrong, exactly, but it dawned on me yesterday that finally I'd finally come full circle.

Yes, life is change; messy, inescapeable. My twenties have been a study of this. It's been exciting, heartbreaking, overwhelming and wonderful. Throughout them, I'd used change voluntarily or involuntarily as a chance to escape boredom, bad roommates, a low-paying job, see new countries, make new friends, whatever. Wait six months, I thought, and things will be different.

What I failed to grasp was that in and of itself, change is just a thing. It doesn't actually solve any problems. For example, I used to think that if I didn't like my job, there were other ones to have (still true). However, what I see now is that the things you change to escape from will more than likely follow you anyway. I could move, get married, have kids, live in Timbuctu, and still - still - there will be challenges. Stupid bosses. Ailing relatives. Crabby kids.

I'm not addicted anymore; I just am.

And for that, suddently I feel extremely tired.

///And old.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I'll Take One, Too!

I don't know if I know anything about anything, but the latest proposed government assistance to General Motors irks me. From what I understand, after the dust settles on this, the US government stands to have about a 70% stake in this ailing motor company. This means my tax dollars may soon be going to a place that makes overpriced cars with low gas mileage that I'd never buy. (Psst - Why couldn't we bail out something I like?)

So, I heard this on the Marketplace (Kai Ryssdal = dreeeeamy) coming home from work today, and I found myself nodding my head in agreement. Author Barry Ritholtz was being interviewed by Kai (sigh) on the current state of government bailouts:

"You don't want to reward incompetent management, and that's pretty much what we've been doing. Oh, you guys drove this company into the ground, and you've lost $180 billion, here's a check. Come back if you need some more. It's insane."

I know this guy was on Marketplace to sell his book, but I couldn't help but agree. I hate incompetent management. I hate the fact that old white men (and I AM making a vast assumption here, but it's my blog and this is the direction I'm going...) sit in their leather armchairs, taking risks, assuming THEY'RE TOO BIG TO FAIL and then lining up to suck at the teat of government handouts.

The thing that really kills me is that half these guys are probably Libertarians, too (!)

But, on the other hand, I understand that GM employes almost a quarter of a million people. I don't mean to sound hard hearted to the very real reality that these folks will be facing in the coming weeks and months. Some of these folks are my friends. Why should they lose their jobs because management didn't know what they were doing?

The thing I struggle with (aside from my latent hatred for the Global Patriarchy) is: what stops us from bailing out EVERYONE? We've all got (or most of us have) jobs. Why not my company? I realize I may be late in chiming in here, but WHAT THE HELL? WHO'S NEXT?

As Barry Ritholtz outlines,

"Once you reward people for their worst behavior, for speculative, irresponsible investing and punish the prudent and the people who are careful with that money. Everybody seems to think it's a free for all. Hey, you've got yours. How do I get mine?"

So yeah, where IS mine?


///Crap.

////.......It's with GM.