Tuesday, March 20

Travel Notes from Sri Lanka | Day 2: Five Houses

Sishir Chang recently spent 5 days in Sri Lanka. His travel notes are reproduced here: raw, unedited, and uncut. One post for each day.

Day 2: Five Houses
The second full day in Sri Lanka started out early with the consulting engineer, Amitha, for the Sri Lanka Student Association project picking me up at 7:30 to go Kalathura to see their project. The drive to the site was through beautiful rice paddies and bustling towns. At one point we passed through a school group and saw several boys in white school outfits climbing onto a moving truck with a Sri Lankan flag.

["Minnesota Happy Structures"]

As we drove I talked to Amitha about a variety of subjects. Amitha is a civil engineer who works for a factory run by Koreans. One thing that he mentioned that was very interesting was that his factory hired a lot of Indians because Sri Lankans wouldn't do the dangerous steel work for as low a wage rate as the Indians. Also that Sri Lankans would unionize and ask for more benefits. This struck me as interesting for my knowledge of Sri Lanka was that they exported labor to work construction in countries like Singapore and Dubai yet here they were importing labor also for work that Sri Lankans wouldn't do. We also talked about the education system in Sri Lanka and that one big problem was that most education was being done in Sinhalese so that there were few English programs and also few people qualified to teach them. This made such programs very in demand but also was hampering Sri Lanka's development. I asked him about if Sri Lanka was developing an IT sector like India and he mentioned they were trying to and were sending people to India to study IT. One big problem he felt that hampered Sri Lanka was the ongoing Tamil insurgency which he blamed both on the Tamils but also do-nothing politicians. He also felt that corruption was a big problem.

[construction workers mixing cement]

At the project site itself the 5 houses in the project weren't quite completed. Three were nearly completed awaiting some finishing while the fourth one was getting its external finish put on and the fifth one was structurally complete but still had finish work just getting started. An official handing over ceremony though had been conducted on January 18th even though they weren't completed. The houses still lacked infrastructure and I was told that the government was planning on adding internal road access to them, currently access to the site was on unpaved paths but the site was adjacent to a new paved road. The government was going to provide water but the engineer felt that that might not be sufficient and so had dug a well at the site and was planning on building a central water tank for the 5 houses that could provide water during even the drought years. Amitha explained that well water in Sri Lanka was also of fairly high quality…

After visiting the site we headed back we passed by a large Buddhist monastery with a giant stupa in Kalathura. The story behind the temple was that a bridge crossing the river in front of the temple had been built a long time ago and at the time it was uncertain that bridge could be built. People prayed at the site and miraculously an island appeared in the middle of stream providing a middle support for the bridge. So the temple was built and people come to pray there for miracles.

We stopped outside of Kalathura to have lunch at a luxury hotel built on the ocean. I asked if this hotel had been affected by the tsunami and they said it had but only to a small extent and looking at the green yard leading to the beach it looked like if it did they had cleaned up quite well. He dropped me off in the early afternoon and later in the afternoon called a driver and headed out to check email. After I had finished checking email we went to a beach south of Colombo and I got to enjoy the sun setting over the Indian Ocean. This beach appeared to primarily cater to locals and there were several of them also enjoying the sunset, playing cricket or swimming. The beach itself was OK but wasn't white sand and seemed slightly dirty the water too wasn't particularly clear.

Travel Notes from Sri Lanka | Day 1: Arrival

Sishir Chang recently spent 5 days in Sri Lanka. His travel notes are reproduced here: raw, unedited, and uncut. One post for each day.

Day 1: Arrival
I arrived at about 5 PM local time after flying Lanka Air. The flight was OK although I wished I had a window seat to be able to check out Sri Lanka from the air. As it was I got some glimpses of the landscape below that looked interesting especially the central mountain range which while no Rockies or Sierras were larger than I expected and were mysteriously shrouded in cloud. The airport and much of Sri Lanka seems less developed than most places I've been in Asia. The capital of Colombo doesn't seem to possess the size of many other Asian cities and there doesn't seem to be a big modern commercial district. Most of the urban areas look like most other Asian Third World towns with rather narrow streets with small shops and stalls lining them and 3 wheeled tuk tuks on them. Driving in Sri Lanka is an adventure best left to skilled locals as it is in many developing countries. I'm amazed that like China I haven't seen many automobile accidents or even cars with scratches even though cars drive on the wrong side of the road regularly and cram by each other with less than inches to spare.

For the first full day in Sri Lanka I spent mostly in Colombo the capital. First getting a sim card for my cell phone, which appears to be the primary means of communication here, then checking internet and seeing some sights. Internet access is something that back in the US I take for granted but here in Sri Lanka I've been treating it as an almost precious commodity as there don't seem to be many Internet cafés and wi-fi networks almost nonexistent.

My driver dropped me off at a relatively modern shopping mall where he said there was an internet café. Unfortunately the mall didn't open for about an hour so I waited outside. While I was waiting an almost continuous stream of devout Muslims walked by. This was strange to see this as Sri Lanka is a predominately Buddhist society, with a large Hindu minority while the Muslim community vies with the Christian community for third place in size. Yet here in Colombo was a continuous stream of white clad bearded Muslim men wearing tight fitting hats of the kind commonly worn by SE Asian Muslims along with women in white or light colored hijabs toting along small children also white colored but wearing fanciful tight fitting silver hats. I'm not sure where they were going or what they were doing but I had the feeling there might've been a religious festival of sorts.

With the working sim card in hand and email having been checked my day was relatively free so I settled on lunch. My driver took me to an upscale buffet restaurant with a sea view where I had an excellent lunch of Sri Lankan food. I invited my driver to eat which I'm sure isn't standard practice as he seemed relatively surprised to join me but I felt it was a good gesture and as that he could also give me some information about what I food I was eating. Had a meal of a few kinds of rice including a red kind that is popular in Sri Lanka, several kinds of curries and a few types of sambols (spicy sauces) some of which were thick and chunky like chutneys while others were almost like coleslaw. Dessert was a mix of custards, bread pudding, jellies, fruit and something that seemed exactly like a marshmallow.

Other than the food and the view the amount of security precautions at the restaurant stood out. Driving up to the building the car was examined with a mirror underneath and the trunk examined along with the drivers ID. After getting off the elevator we had to walk through a metal detector and have our bags searched. No doubt this level of security was due to the threat of terrorism from the Tamil Tigers and throughout Colombo there were reminders that an active conflict was ongoing with Kalashnikov wielding troops a common sight along with checkpoints.

After we ate, my driver took me to a see another hotel and visit the beach. The hotel was a fairly elegant European style hotel and the beach was decent although relatively deserted. I hiked a bit down the beach and a few hundred yards away the hotel property gave way to a fishing village. It somewhat surprised me that there would be a ramshackle fishing village right against a luxury hotel and also that such a ramshackle fishing village would still be in the middle of a major city. I was invited by a resident of the village to come and see it and he showed me around. The village was fairly small and mostly consisted of single story shacks made of a variety of materials. Running in the back of the village was the coastal railway that had been hit by the tsunami but since then had been fixed so the village was sandwiched on a narrow stretch between the railway and the sea. My host fetched a coconut from a tree and cut it open for me to drink from. Even though I've been to tropical places several times before had fresh coconut I had never had one plucked and cut from a tree right before me. The water within the coconut was warm and not quite refreshing but unlike the processed coconut that we're accustomed to it wasn't very sweet and even slightly salty. Not bad but not quite the thing on a very hot day. The villager also told me that the tsunami had hit the village and that the government had wanted them to move but had not done anything to enforce that order so they went ahead and rebuilt on the same location. As I left the villager made an appeal for some money for his family. I didn't give him the 1,000 Rupees he wanted but he settled for the 300 I did. I had figured he was going to ask me for some money and appreciated the tour and coconut but even 1,000 Rupees (a bit more than $10) is tight when traveling on a budget.

We next briefly stopped at a Hindu temple where they didn't let us enter for pictures and then went on to a small Buddhist temple. This temple was unlike most Buddhist temples I had been too and was octagonal in layout with brightly colored statuary dioramas depicting the Buddha and important events in the Buddha's life along with Buddhism relating to Sri Lanka.