Category Archives: Sri Lanka

No Shoes, No Shirt, Please Worship

I had a free weekend so I took a break from humid, coastal Colombo into the hills of Kandy. Moving from 90-90 weather (temp – humidity) to 80 – 80 actually feels quite refreshing. Kandy is of course Sri Lanka’s sweetest city. And also one of the most venerated by Buddhists. Situated there is the Temple of the Tooth, a famous religious landmark that houses a tooth of Buddha. Only thing is, this tooth, plucked from Buddha’s funeral pyre in India 483 BC, was spirited around South Asia for almost two millennia before alighting in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth in the 1200s. It was stolen and recovered at least twice. And since the 1600s no one has actually seen the relic, it (theoretically) resides inside seven nested gold boxes. I participated in a brief walk-by of the outer box…along with scores of faithful pilgrims.

Sunday morning I went for a jog along Kandy’s rural winding roads. A bit different than my jogging route at home. Here I passed by an informal cricket match in a vacant lot. Serendipitously, just as I passed by, the batsman angled a ball out toward the road. Since it was coming straight at me I fielded it and threw it to the wicket keeper. Yup, I have picked up a few cricket terms while here. I did bobble the ball and drop it twice before firing it home. I suspect that would be scored as a fielding error in cricket’s American sister sport.

I also passed a lady heading down to the river with her laundry, as well as a three foot long monitor lizard. For clarification, the monitor was not with the lady. It did look a bit fearsome but a Google review afterwards revealed that it was unlikely to attack me. These reptiles have “a predominantly carnivorous diet, eating eggs, smaller reptiles, fish, birds and small mammals.” Good news for me and other large mammals.

My first week here I spent a few days in Jaffna, capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. This is one of the provinces targeted by the government – – and supported by USAID – – for rebuilding. In fact I was there to assess a manufacturer of pre-cast concrete blocks, the sort used for building (and rebuilding.) Most workers at this block factory are female, many are ex-combatants. They have difficulty being accepted at work and in the community. The government requires them to report for questioning. This is disruptive to their work and makes it obvious that they are under suspicion. The locals don’t want to rent rooms to them.

I have discovered that middle income countries, like Sri Lanka, while substantially advanced over developing countries, are not yet at the level of the developed world. In the block factory, as well as at a steel fabricator, and on a construction site I saw that the workers were underdressed, wearing flip flops and singlets. Fine for a hot tropical climate, but not great when moving hard, heavy objects around. No steel-toed boots in sight. Also no hard hats either. But the workers at the block factory donned surgeon’s masks when I asked to photograph them. Previously they had no nose or mouth protection against the fine factory dust.

And speaking of underdressed, while in Jaffna I visited Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Sri Lanka’s leading Hindu temple. The entrance sign depicted the rules: no photography, no shoes, and – – for males – – no shirts. Casual is the rule of the day. You may recall the simple and insubstantial dress worn by the most famous Hindu of all, Mahatma Gandhi. I came close that day in the temple.

Moving on from Jaffna, I evaluated a rural rice mill whose owner wants to expand and provide more rice, more jobs, and more raw rice purchasing from surrounding farms. The mill has already bounced back from adversity. During the final battles of the country’s civil war, the factory was destroyed. The owner’s adjacent home was bulldozed as well. I met several of the brothers who form the factory’s management team. One brother had one leg, the result of an aerial bombing near the end of the war. After seeing photos of the destroyed factory and home, and meeting the brother, I had to take a minute to compose myself before continuing my interview with them. In all of my recent travels I have yet to find an instance of a good war.

I observed many infrastructure projects underway: roads, railways, government buildings; but the people still need private sector businesses and regular jobs. There is a lot of reconstruction but not so much reconciliation. For example, there is still a massive government military presence in the Tamil region with highway checkpoints manned by armed soldiers. No Tamil police force has been created to police the Tamil region. The government doesn’t want to give guns to any locals – – even to those who never supported the defeated Tamil rebels. Tamils complain that the government is settling Sinhalese in the Tamil areas in order to dilute the local population. This is similar to complaints from Uighurs in western China that the Chinese government in faraway Beijing is settling Han Chinese in the Uighur region.

Geez, the world is a complicated place. In the immortal words of the late Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”

All Quiet on the Northern Front

Sri Lanka’s brutal thirty year civil war ended in 2009. The north and the east of the country were decimated. This is the homeland of the (Hindu) Tamils, losers in this wasteful endeavor. The victorious (Buddhist) Sinhalese government has come in for much criticism about their final push into the Tamil region at the end of the war. Innocent civilians were mowed down along with the Tamil rebels – – the notorious Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers introduced the world to suicide bombings aimed at innocent civilians. They extracted “war taxes” from civilians of their own Tamil sect. My take is that neither side in this sectarian conflict can claim much moral high ground.

Well, now that the war is in the past – – four years of peace, no lingering violence – – I have a new assignment. The US government is helping to fund the rebuilding of the devastated north and east of Sri Lanka. Believing that rebuilt businesses and factories will lead to jobs and livelihoods that in turn will secure the peace, USAID is providing grants to new and rebuilt businesses. My job will be to evaluate a few of these business to ensure that they are worthy of receiving your tax dollars.

First stop will be Jaffna, capital of the North District. I will evaluate a company making pre-cast concrete blocks used in construction. There is much rebuilding to be done here and an expanded factory can turn out greatly needed building materials to speed reconstruction. Second, I will work with a destroyed rice mill to determine if their request for a grant to purchase a building and equipment is appropriate. At present there is no mill in the area where farmers can sell their rice crop, have it milled, packaged, and shipped to retail stores. Nor is there a place to grind the rice into flour for use in noodles, crackers, etc.

Increased employment, especially of ex-combatants, will solidify the peace. Especially so, since wages are pretty good here: at $160/month, enough to keep a former fighter more interested in a secure job than in an uncertain conflict.

Sri Lanka is classified as a middle income country – – ranked 147 out of 229 listed in the CIA Factbook – – not normally poor enough to warrant such US funding. However the damage caused by 30 years of grinding warfare has created the need for assistance.

Sri Lanka is that tear drop shaped island to the lower right of India. The equator passes just south of Sri Lanka and then there is nothing but water all the way to Antarctica. I am spending my first few days in Colombo, the country’s commercial capital and largest city, preparing for my trip north and getting acquainted with my Sri Lankan colleagues.

I suspect I could spend several weeks just learning their names. Here are the workers whose names begin with T: Thangavel Sakthiyanlingam, Thanujani Kurukulasuriya, Tharanga Gunaratne, and Thayalini Jeyachandran. My bad if I have misspelled any. People appreciate it when addressed by name – – accurately, so memorizing these names has become my challenge and obsession. Sorting through the thick Sri Lankan accent (similar to an Indian accent) makes it difficult for me to even capture a correct spelling for my notebook.

At my high end hotel in Colombo I have been observing a string of weddings all weekend long. Very elaborate, very colorful, and I suspect, likely arranged by the bride and groom’s respective parents. The Sunday newspaper is full of bride- and groom-seeking classified ads, all placed by the parents. Here is a typical example. Read the entire ad, it is culturally enlightening.

“Colombo suburban Govi-Buddhist parents seek an academically/professionally qualified well brought up slim, pretty and fair daughter fluent in spoken English, preferable a doctor for their handsome proportionately built, 30 year old, 5’10” height, MBBS qualified doctor son, owning substantial assets, currently following a post- graduate training programme in a govt. general hospital in the Colombo District. Please reply with family details, contact telephone number and horoscope.”

If you know of such a woman (and if you are not personally interested in her yourself) please pass her contact info along to the prospective groom’s parents. They will be most appreciative.