Monday, December 18, 2006

The Need to Improve Computer Literacy

Access to the Internet is an essential part of my daily existence. I have a morning routine that includes meditating, doing yoga and then the best part – drinking tea while getting online to read the Daily News, The New York Times and The Lanka Academic, then listen to online radio updates – this is the privilege of having access to the Internet.

It was not until my last year in the late 1990s, in high school that I became familiar with using the Internet. I even traveled to Senegal as a second year university student and had to write my family and friends mostly hand-written letters as the Internet and email were only commencing and not very reliable in 1998. Yet, as the years went by in university, communicating and doing research for school – or job-searching – I became increasingly reliant on the world wide web and began my journey towards computer literacy.

During my nine months in Sri Lanka, I used the Internet on a daily basis for my research and communicating with my family and friends – either across the globe in New York or across the street in Colombo.

I had the privilege of having access to Internet in Colombo and even when I lived with my host family whose home was walking distance (a long walk) to Wadduwa where there was an Internet café on Galle road. My life was certainly made easier by using the Internet to contact people, stay in touch, find out information for my research and even email articles to this newspaper’s editor from my village.

Especially when I returned to New York, I trusted the Internet to stay in touch with friends around the world, neighbors down the street, or the trusted readers of this column. I rely on it to communicate with a significant network of amazing people I have met in my travels to Sri Lanka, West Africa and Europe.

My dependency on—or even addiction to—this to this fountain of knowledge and communication was not always the case. In fact, even at my young age of late 20s, I do recall the days of life before the Internet and checking email. Growing up in New York City, we had access to computer classes in school, and my mother who is a university lecturer, always had one at home. My classmates and my early exposure to computers were limited to learning how to type and write documents for school. I do recall even feeling shocked at the ability of children younger than I to use the computer or create a website based on what they had learned in school.

This was not available to all children in America by any means during my time of going through school. Education Statistics Quarterly indicates that in 1993, 36% of classrooms in America had computers. However, that percentage has increased significantly in just over a decade. In 2000, it nearly doubled to 65%, and finally to 93% in 2003. While the condition of these resources is questionable, the significance of this presence must be accounted for.

In America today, only 50 % of adults use the Internet according to Pew Internet and American Life Project in comparison to a large percentage of young generations with lifelong exposure to computers. In America, nearly all sectors of business rely on computers and the Internet in some way. This gap of those with or without computer literacy has harsh impacts on those seeking to adapt to the technology – based modern world.

There is certainly a “digital divide” between generations, and particularly between class, ethnicity and rural versus urban America according to the Economics and Statistics Administration. For example, they cite a lower percentage of African American and Hispanic households having Internet access in their homes than compared to the national average. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004 reported 36 million people living in poverty, and of those, 12.9 million are children. These families living below the poverty line likely have to focus on survival rather than ensuring that their computer literacy. However, with the sudden increased use of computers in classrooms, will this gap in computer literacy eventually close? Will the presence of computers in schools of America really prevail and change the population as we know it?

Sri Lanka clearly faces a greater challenge with overwhelming gaps in percentages to face. When leaving Sri Lanka, I realized that I would be able to stay in touch through the Internet with only a few of my Sri Lankan friends I had become so close to. While several of my friends are among only the 9% of the country computer literate (according to the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics), many of them fall into the 81% that are not.

While I acknowledge that some information online can be useless, incorrect and often misused (such as messages that spread hatred, misinformation etc.), I believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages – enough to advocate the widespread use of the Internet and computer literacy on a global scale. The technology is surprisingly already present to address this issue with a wind-up powered 10,000 Rupee Laptop. The question is whether the funding for such a drastic change will ever arise and will the infrastructure of countries such as Sri Lanka be ready to equip its nations with the capacity to distribute and educate entire populations in a fair and efficient way?
Trusting Relationships Enables to be Honest and Sharing

They were coming! I would finally have the chance to show my two Sri Lankan classmates the hospitality and friendship in New York that they had shared with me in Sri Lanka. One of the blessings of having my university program in Sri Lanka end early was that my American school sponsored them to complete their studies at the U.S. campus. Our school is in Vermont – about an 8 hour drive north from where I live in New York City.

I had invited the two of them to the city and we finally coordinated a visit on a Friday morning. They had a friend in Staten Island, New York – and emailed me before hand to say they would be in town.

I was happy to see them – except, I tried to explain that Staten Island was not particularly close to my house nor a place that I visited often. You see, New York is divided into five boroughs (kind of like districts) and two of them are islands – Manhattan (where I live) and Staten Island. Manhattan is the central part of “the city” and is what mostly comes up in films. In fact, I often passed film crews or actors making movies on the corners of my neighborhood while growing up, and even saw one this morning.

While Manhattan is the only borough directly linked to all of the other four boroughs, it is often well-known that people who live in Manhattan don’t frequently visit the other boroughs. This is changing though – especially as the city becomes more populated, more expensive and native New Yorkers often search for a cool neighborhood that isn’t discovered by newcomers and tourists – or has lower costs than the over-priced Manhattan.

I emailed my friends explaining that I would be happy to pick them up, but if they felt comfortable, I could give them directions to my house – taking the ferry from Staten Island and then the subway (or underground train) to my house – an easy trip. They decided to meet me at my house – promising to call from a public phone when they arrived to my neighborhood.

I get terrible portable phone reception in my apartment. I have to keep my phone in just the right spot near the window in order for it to ring. I’m not certain what the cause is, but I heard a rumor that there are random spots in the city that are just known for bad reception – I must live in one of them.

I sat at my computer editing my application for the Young Professional Program at UNESCO. According to the mail service Federal Express, I was told I could mail it the next day to get it in on-time. I stepped outside onto the street to see if my friends had arrived – there they were! The last I had seen them was at a Big Girl party in Kalutura district on a hot rainy night a month earlier. They came inside and we drank some tea and had homemade banana bread. It was so great to see them there. I knew they had worked very hard that year and felt lucky to have an opportunity to study outside their country – as I felt upon arrival in Sri Lanka.

As we shared the latest news on life, I confessed something I had contemplated for days – what to feed them! Truth be told, I know my friends adore rice and curry – yet, in New York, there are so many options that you can’t get in Sri Lanka. I was torn between providing them with comfort food of rice and curry, or taking them to something different – like Italian! As I predicted, they told me I could decide and they would be happy. I wasn’t surprised, as this was the usual polite response I was used to in Sri Lanka (although, I trusted my friends were being genuine).

We made a list of things to do – and set off outside where it was warmer than usual for the time of year, at about 15 degrees Celsius, yet I could see we were all still adjusting. It was funny to see each other with sweaters, hats and warm coats – imagining a short time ago we were under umbrellas protecting us from the radiant sun of Sri Lanka.

We first walked around my neighborhood, Greenwich Village. It is not really a village, as it has its tall buildings and developed streets, but it can feel that way. My family is on the same street as they have been for the past 30 years, and I can’t go anywhere without seeing old friends and neighbors. In fact, we passed a few that I introduced to my Sri Lankan friends. New York has a population of eight million people, yet sometimes it can feel like a small village, especially when you have been there for so long.

Our first stop was for lunch – John’s Pizzeria, arguably the best pizza in New York. I know there are plenty of places to get pizza in Sri Lanka, but not the way it is served in New York – cooked in a brick oven, with fresh mozzarella, rich tomato sauce and thin, crisp bread. My friends liked it – enough to finish it all. Over the meal, one of them shared with me how they had gained five kilos since his arrival – I believed it! I had gained two. There are many theories as to why people gain weight when in America, personally, I think it’s a combination of preservatives in the food and the frequency that people eat since there is food available everywhere, all of the time.

From lunch, we got onto the subway (New York’s Metro/Underground) going south to visit “Ground Zero,” where the World Trade Center had been. My friends particularly liked the gallery of photos from the event – they were blown up and displayed along the metal fence that enclosed the enormous sight. The scene was filled with tourists and students there on class trips – most of them were from other states in America, although there were quite a few internationals as well. Since my last visit there two years ago, I noticed that the mood was less somber this time – although you could see people still paying their respects in contemplation.

Next visit was Grand Central Station – designed in 1913 and recently restored to its beautiful present condition. After walking through the main concourse and seeing the crowds heading onto trains that connect to the suburbs and neighboring states, we walked to the nearby United Nations building situated on the East river that flanks one side of Manhattan. Immediately we spotted the Sri Lankan flag and took plenty of photos to show for it. Exploring the lobby of the visitor’s center was as far as we got – the security line took a long time and it was almost sunset. I had one more spot I hoped to visit before heading out to meet friends for dinner and dancing – The Museum of Metropolitan Art.

On our way, we passed by a Federal Express – I decided to double check that I could send off my application to the United Nations the next day and have it arrive on time. According to the woman at the office, she said that was wrong, I had to send it out by 9pm that night! It was only 4pm, so I thought I had enough time to visit the museum, go home, print out the application and send it in the mail. I didn’t want to cut my friends visit short – there were already so many sights we would not see. I was determined to fit everything into the schedule.

As we approached the museum, I felt reminded of the countless times I spent exploring the hundreds of rooms as a child, teenager and adult. My friends were just as impressed with the beauty of the building and the art that awaited inside. The clock was ticking though as we strolled through the endless rooms of art from all over the world.

Finally, my phone rang – it was their friend from Staten Island. My friends offered to let me go home to take care of my application and they would pick up their friend and meet me at my house. I was hesitant – they had only spent one whole day in New York City, was it right to let them go on their own? I thought of all the times they helped me understand the Sri Lankan bus and train system and how they seemed like naturals guiding the NYC subways. I figured, if they can figure out transportation in Sri Lanka, then they can figure out anything. They reassured me they would be fine and sent me off running to get home in time.

The sun had set and the temperature dropped several degrees. I made it home in 30 minutes after a crowded train ride. Once I was home, I looked over my application one more time – working for UNESCO has been a dream of mine, I felt it was meant to be. I hit the print button and waited for my ancient printer to produce three copies of 20 page application. Nothing. I tried several times, various troubleshooting tactics and still nothing.
I live in a city where you can get any service at anytime – or so I thought. I would just walk to a print shop and then go to mail it. I arrived to Kinko’s known for its office resources and supplies and produced my mini-disk for them to print the application. They explained they didn’t have printers at that location, but if I took the subway to another one, they would have it there. The problem was that I was running out of time.

I thanked them and went out to the street and scanned the lively night scene of restaurants, shops, apartment buildings and sports clubs. I decided to ask at neighboring stores. People were mostly friendly – I tried several restaurants, finding out if they had a printer I could use. They smiled, listened to my story and told me they couldn’t help – then sent me to another place they thought that could help. My best friend Britt called – she was in my neighborhood and wanted to see how I was doing. I told her briefly what was going on and told her I’d call her back.

Three streets later, I passed the school where I spent ten years taking violin classes. The lights were on and the sign on the door said there was a children’s concert. I went inside and someone asked if I was there for the concert. I explained my story and asked from the bottom of my heart if they could help. The office manager agreed to do it! He printed two copies – just in case and wished me luck.

I ran down the street, turned the corner and made it to the Federal Express in time to send the copies. Someone tapped my shoulder – it was Britt. She and I laughed at the experience, especially since I told her how strange it felt to be in such a hurry after not being as focused on time while living in Sri Lanka.

We walked to my house and were met shortly after by my Sri Lankan friends. We met up with another friend of mine and debated what to eat again. There are so many choices; it is sometimes hard to choose. Finally, we decided to go to my favorite place close by – Kati Roll, for Indian fast food.

The next day, my friends had plans to visit the city more with their own friend. They got their things together as if they were leaving. I told them, not so fast – I was about to cook! Nothing fancy, just a classic American breakfast – strawberry pancakes and scrambled eggs. I added a lot of red pepper to the eggs to at least satiate the desire for spice that even I had acquired. I couldn’t offer them kiri bath or kiri hodi, but I had the feeling they enjoyed the meal.

Once we all finished, I bid farewell to my friends. There were so many other things to do and places to go to in New York – only one day was not enough. But they had their last day planned and I had plenty of school work to do.

As they left, I felt proud at the start of this year we were merely strangers yet now we had become such close friends. Our communication with one another is honest and genuine. Amongst us, there is no making a cultural mistake. Instead, we ask questions and respect one another when sharing our own views. Although we have different ways of approaching our daily lives based on our cultural upbringing, our trust in one another has broken the initial barriers. The trusting relationship that we have has helped us to be honest and learn from one another. I considered how the world would be different if everyone would take the time to do the same.

Memories of Sri Lanka
SAVORY: As soon as I walked into the room I was overcome by the savory aromas of curry and coconut. Memories associated with these scents that I have missed during the past six weeks back in my hometown, New York City rushed to the forefront of my mind.

I thought of all of the wonderful meals with lovely friends I had made while in Sri Lanka for nine months. I joined my New York friends who were waiting for me at the Sri Lankan restaurant in the East Village of New York City, Sigiri owned by Tanya De Silva and Mala Rajapakse.

I surveyed the room and saw three other groups already enjoying their meals of rice and curry. I heard murmurs of Sinhala and when I closed my eyes, I felt, just for a moment, that I had never left the beautiful island.

There were four of us at the table, three friends who had visited me and myself in Colombo this past April while I was living and studying there for my post-graduate degree in Sustainable Development. As we waited for our food to arrive, we shared memories of our trip fondly - our travels down the coast to Galle District, then up to Nuwara Eliya and time exploring Colombo.
As the conversation continued, I considered the transition I have made over the past month - all that I had left behind in Sri Lanka and the events in life since my return to New York. After spending time getting to know and love the culture and the people of Sri Lanka, leaving the country was not an easy thing to do.

The last time I wrote my reflections, I was getting ready to leave Sri Lanka with an unknown immediate future - other than finishing the work for my degree while living at home in New York. I had lived abroad several times before in Africa and Europe and each time returning to New York, transitioning from one culture to another was a challenging yet manageable experience.

Yet this time, returning to my native country was more difficult of a transition than ever - I found myself pining for Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was related to having to leave so abruptly.
Instead of staying through the end of December as planned, my university in America required me to leave with only two weeks notice since they were concerned for my safety in Colombo. Several of my American classmates challenged our school's decision and stayed behind - I was proud of them, yet I also wished I could have done the same. There were so many places I had yet to visit and things I had yet to do in Sri Lanka, it did not seem right at the time to have to go, but I knew there was a reason for my return.

I spent the month back in New York, happy to be with my friends and family, yet longing to still be in Sri Lanka. How had the country left such a strong impression on me? To be honest, it took several months for me to get used to the rhythm of Colombo and the village where my homestay was.

In New York, I enjoyed the respect and freedom of being a young woman with the ability to do things on my own without feeling judged. My initial experience in Sri Lanka took a lot of time and energy to adjust to, but once I got familiar with my surroundings, I felt a deep connection and respect for the country, its culture and its people.

When I first arrived in Colombo, I had the impression that being an academic woman in the country on my own to do research was somewhat looked down upon or questioned by Sri Lankans whom I met. Although the fact that I was a student was highly respected, the element of being a young woman on my own was not. I noticed that once I built relationships with people, they respected who I was - as I was also given the opportunity to learn what others' values were and did my best to show mutual respect.

For example, when I first arrived in the home of my host family in Kalutara district, they requested that I not go anywhere by myself. This seemed preposterous to me since my purpose was to conduct research and would require me to do things on my own, frequently.
Yet I understood that their intentions were good - they were only thinking of my safety and how I would be viewed by the rest of the village. After several days of getting to know the family, I slowly did more things on my own, always sure to tell them of my whereabouts.
Fortunately, there were other classmates located nearby in the village - three Americans and one Sri Lankan, so I was sure to make use of their company so my host family felt more comfortable. By the end of the year, a strong bond of trust had developed among all of us - they no longer asked what I did or tried to influence what I should do.

They would let me take the children with me for long walks on the beach or to a field to do yoga. In fact, I shared with them what I did anyway because I knew they trusted me and we loved and cared for one another.

In Colombo, I went through a different experience, which unfolded in three stages. In the first stage I felt very comfortable walking around and doing things on my own in the capital because, I think, I was more or less oblivious to what people were thinking. I ran errands on my own, would go to meet friends on my own without being aware of the looks of disapproval that came my way.

In the second stage, I suddenly felt very aware and self-conscious of what Sri Lankan men and women thought of me - whether it was doing things on my own, what I wore and how I interacted with others.

This stage particularly increased as I was learning more Sinhala and began to hear pieces of peoples' comments around me - wondering where I was from and what I was doing in Sri Lanka. I also recall being alone for the first time after nightfall, and all of the strange looks I received - it was not the experience I was expecting, as this is a respectable thing for a woman to do where I am from. I continued to try to be respectful of the culture, but the difficulty was that I was not fully aware of what the right thing to do was.

Finally, I came to the realisation that while I wanted to respect the various cultures in Sri Lanka, I also needed to be true to my own identity. Further, I recognized that there was no one right way to live life anyway. Just as in anywhere else in the world, there will always be people to criticize and support you. After taking the time to ask questions from trusted friends on what is culturally appropriate, it was apparent that continuing to be genuine was the best approach.
This mentality prompted me to explore Colombo on foot one day, even though I realized that a woman walking alone in Colombo for leisure was unusual and perhaps not respected by some. I heard from a friend the day after going for a Sunday stroll in Colombo - they told me that they saw me walking.

When I asked why they didn't say hello the response was, "well, I was with my parents, and you know...?" Indeed, I did know - their parents would not take well to a young woman walking the streets of Colombo unaccompanied.

I don't wish to make generalizations or say that there is something wrong with all of Sri Lankan mentality. I would only like to point out that I experienced these judgments towards young women to be true in some cases.

Although I did face challenges in getting adjusted to Sri Lanka, I mostly enjoyed the friendliness that was more evident and frequent than the presence of judging and mistreating others.
The genuine interactions amongst people, especially friends, always struck me as a quality to be grateful for during my time in Sri Lanka. My Sri Lankan colleagues and friends were endlessly generous, kind and most of all - accepting.

Although clearly I was an "outsider," it never ceased to amaze me at the welcoming that I experienced in peoples' lives and homes of those I met. For all of the physical beauty of the island, I believe it was the relationships with people that made it particularly hard to leave Sri Lanka.

Although it was disappointing to have to leave last September, there was a hidden blessing for me in having to go home. I was able to spend time with my aging maternal grandmother, "Nana," who had recently become ill.

I even spent the last hours of her life by her side - something I would not have been here to do if I had still been in Sri Lanka, as was the original plan. Other than helping my family care for my "Nana," I spent time working on my thesis, writing papers for my course work, doing yoga and reconnecting with all of the family and friends I had not seen in nearly a year. I explored the streets of my own city as though I was a tourist - as though I was seeing things for the first time.

A gust of cold wind blew into the restaurant to bring me back to the present - the waiter brought the four curries to our table and I immediately felt comforted by the familiarity of the meal. I savored the scrumptious tastes in my mouth with each bite.

The spices were delicious enough to want seconds and thirds - although not exactly as my host mother in Kalutara would make it. The four of us finished all of the food on the table - rice, curries and string hoppers. We couldn't resist sharing desert - Kiri, Watalappam and caramel pudding.

Americans tend to eat rather early, especially on a Monday like this one. By 10pm, we were the last ones in the restaurant. We struck up a conversation with the women from the restaurant, providing a chance to practice some Sinhala. We chatted about food, what we missed about Sri Lanka and how I had just learned of a Sri Lankan community of over 5,000 people in Staten Island, New York.

I noticed paintings on the wall and they seemed familiar. The women explained that the paintings were done by children who had survived the tsunami in Sri Lanka and they would be sold at an art auction directed by a university lecturer, Dr. Pamela Lawton. They showed me a sign with the information, and then I realized that by chance I had met Dr. Lawton and her American students while in Sri Lanka.

I took down the information and added the event to my planning book. I looked forward to surprising Dr. Lawton and her students, who thought I was still in Sri Lanka. I also heard it would be catered with Sri Lankan food, one more reason to look forward to attending.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Lankawata mama adarai

DEPARTURE: I love Sri Lanka. I already miss Sri Lanka. I have been in Sri Lanka for eight months and planned to be here for another four. But this morning I received news that I must leave the country in two weeks.

My post-graduate degree program from an American university was meant to take place in Sri Lanka over the entire year of 2006 - as my 20 fellow American and two fellow Sri Lankan students completed our research for a degree in Sustainable Development and worked alongside Sarvodaya.

However, this morning we found out that our university has decided that to continue the program in Sri Lanka poses too much of a risk to the students and liability to the university.

SADLY MISSED: Lassana Lankawa
Instead, we all must leave the country within two weeks. We have the option to relocate where we choose and then reconvene in the US for a final seminar at the end of December.
With so many options to choose from and only a couple of days to make a decision, I first made the decision to go to India for one month for an advanced yoga teacher training program while I write my graduate thesis.

However, after contacting my family and hearing the news that my maternal grandmother is in hospital in critical condition, I have decided to return to New York to be with my family.
This past Saturday, I was thrilled to return to Colombo after a week's vacation in India. I had attended a wedding in Bangalore and while the experience was beautiful and inspiring, I was surprised at how much I missed Sri Lankan people, culture, language and food after only a week away.

While in India, I realized how much I had left to do during my remaining months here. I was hoping to explore more of the magnificent scenery of this ecologically diverse country, find a meditation and yoga centre, try new restaurants, learn to cook Sri Lankan cuisine, read more Sri Lankan literature, learn some Tamil and improve my Sinhala vocabulary.
I even had dreams of having a cameo on a Sri Lankan tele-drama, singing a song on "Superstar," being featured in a magazine or start writing a book about my experiences here!

These dreams are now lost, at least for now. If it were up to me, I would stay here and complete my year - and even consider extending my stay in the country beyond my academic year.
Yet, the decision is not mine to make. The administration and lawyers from my university have already made up their minds based on their monitoring of the situation and assessment of the risks involved.

Candidly, their conclusions did not appear out of thin air. The truth is that the political situation here has the attention of many outside Sri Lanka. When I informed my family at home about my departure, they were disappointed for not having the opportunity to come and visit me as they had hoped.

However, they were also relieved that I would be leaving a country where each day over the past thirty years has brought grim news of violence and death perpetrated by all sides.
Even during my recent week in India, people I met could only talk of Sri Lanka's amazing beauty. Yet, when I asked them if they had visited or planned to visit -they exclaimed they had no intention in light of the conflict going on.

I assured people that it is very safe here and that visiting Sri Lanka would be an experience of a lifetime. My words were in vain when they told me, "Why visit a country of conflict and bombs when there are so many other beautiful places with peace to go?"

This situation truly breaks my heart. Regardless of whether one believes the views of foreigners are an integral part of the development of Sri Lanka or not - isn't it important that this country be valued for its assets and appreciated for its beauty rather than have to be known for the pain and suffering that occurs on a daily basis?

I recall the first day I heard fireworks in the broad daylight - something that does not happen in the west where fireworks are saved for night.

My entire class jumped out of their chairs and looked out of the windows, thinking they had just heard bombs. Our Sri Lankan lecturer told us to relax and assured us the sounds were those of a celebration.

My classmates and I were anticipating violence, knowing we were in a country of conflict. These days, I hear explosions all the time - I know they are only celebrations and barely flinch.
Yet, I wonder - have I too, become immune and numb to the violence, the bombs and the conflict?

Is accepting that there is suffering in the world and moving on with our lives the only way to cope with the violence?

I realize that while I am required by my university to leave the country, my Sri Lankan colleagues, classmates, friends and readers have no choice but (or wish) to continue their lives here as usual in their home country near their family and friends.

In the movie, "Hotel Rwanda" there is a crucial scene when all of the foreigners are evacuated by bus. With tears in their eyes, they depart, leaving the Rwandans behind in the pouring rain. That moment is so bitter and portrays the fleeing foreigners as hypocrites who claim to want to help, yet all too easily.

I realize that my work here is not contributing to the improvement of society or this situation directly or as a whole.

However, when I think of the accomplishments of my classmates who have worked on various projects in five different tsunami devastated villages-and more importantly built strong relationships and bonds with Sri Lankan friends and host families-I am saddened by this sudden departure.

I had dreamt of leaving Sri Lanka at a time when there was peace all throughout the country. The pilot of my Sri Lankan Air flight from India was so positive and kind - welcoming all passengers to his homeland with many blessings - to a place that he sees as "paradise." I do hope that Sri Lanka works towards being paradise for all.

Please know that my colleagues and I will miss this country and will always have a place for Sri Lanka - its people, language, culture and cuisine - in our hearts for a lifetime.
My Sri Lankan friends have told me that they pray for peace in this country every day, and I will promise to do the same. As a dear Sri Lankan friend of mine has told me, "the situation is tense, but not hopeless."

Special thanks to my readers and the editor of this paper for inviting me into your lives. Also thank you to all of you whom I have crossed paths with - especially my dear friends (in particular the Silva family, Mrs. Rodrigo, Thalpitiya village, Sarvodaya, my American classmates, Manjula, Amila, Palitha, Kevin, Sam, Dinuka, Himalee and Wickrama) for your wonderful welcoming and hospitality. God bless you all.
Await Ruah's New York Diary

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Finding the Straight Path

Dear Friends,

In Islamic Sufism, there is a beautiful concept of life as a circle. We are all on a different point in the circle of life, trying to find our ways to the center - where truth and God are found. Respecting each person's path is an integral part to achieving a straight path to the center.I have one more change of plans which I believe is the straighter path to the center. After discussing the situation with my family, I have decided to not go to India for the teacher training and instead return to New York City.

Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother (my Nana), has been in the hospital for some time and is not doing very well. She is in critical condition and my mom and brother have been at her side daily. They have asked me to come home to share what could be the last moments of her life.

Gloria Taylor, my Nana, has been an incredible inspiration in my life and I feel compelled to be with her while I still can. My Nana has always been a strong, independent woman whom I have looked to for love, support and guidance. She had my mother at the young age of 17, and returned to school to complete her undergraduate degree. Gloria and her husband John Taylor took my mother to Puerto Rico after her graduation while my grandfather worked with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Gloria then went on to do her law degree as she moved with my grandfather to Oregon for years while he managed a dam project. When her husband gave her the ultimatum to either return with him to the East coast or complete her J.D., she opted to stay with her husband. However, when returning to New York, she instead completed her doctorate in Economics. From there she taught at Wagner college and finally at Manhattan Borough Community College for several decades. Even after she retired, she was involved in conferences and presented papers. Gloria even took up a new interest in the influence of linguistics and culture.

My Nana has been a world traveller. Gloria loved to spend her winters in Puerto Rico - which she did for nearly three decades. She traveled to Russia, Europe, Latin America and visited every state of the United States - even Alaska! When I was living in France during my junior year of high school, my Nana came to Paris for the week and let me skip school! We spent the week sight-seeing, shopping and even watched topless dancing women at the Moulin Rouge as we sipped champagne. She let me smoke a cigarette in front of her and told me, "darling, I went through that phase too- I trust you will be smart enough to let it pass." She was right - cigarettes are a past time for me with my yogic way of life these days.

I love my Nana very much, and I feel blessed to have her in my life. I can't wait to see her and share a hug with her and some untold stories. I let my know to tell her to wait for me, and I trust that she will.Please keep her in your prayers. I look forward to seeing people in the U.S. soon. I don't have a plan at the moment, but I trust that the next steps will lead me to the path I am meant to be on.

Blessings to you,

Change of Path....

Dear friends,

As fate will have it, my program just decided to end early because ofthe security situation! My class was JUST informed this morning onour first day back from break and I am in a complete state of shock.While I feel personally (as do my classmates) that this decision wasnot necessary, I recognize that this must be a hidden blessing withadventures to enjoy up ahead!

At the moment, I am mostly numb fromthis happening so quickly.So far, the plan is to go to India for a month take a yoga teachertraining course while following our last course for the degree on-linefrom there. I should be back to the states by the end of October,spend some time in NYC and finally attend the required 2 week seminarat the Vermont SIT campus and my graduation on Dec. 22.

Life's path continues and I am ready for the adventure. Again, I justfeel in shock. It is especially jarring since we are REQUIRED toleave the country by Sept. 18th - only allowing two weeks to get a lotdone.I'll try to keep you updated. In the meantime there is lots to do -buy tkts, get another visa to India, pack, get gifts, say goodbye toso many people, visit my village, write newspaper columns, write 1stdraft of thesis, read for school, organize life, ship stuff, travel toplaces in SL that I haven't seen before (with the exception of theconflict areas), etc.

Love and Peace,


Thursday, August 31, 2006

Practising Pratipaksha bhavanam

YOGA: According to yogic philosophy, the Sanskrit phrase pratipaksha bhavanam (focusing on the positive) and visualizing a state of peace helps to overcome negativity. It is important to recognize this negativity and then respond with positive thoughts in order to improve society and ourselves.

The existence of negativity in our daily lives is a reality we must face. As the Buddha teaches-life is suffering. Buddhist and yogic philosophy also teach us that facing the root of our disturbances and further educating ourselves we can overcome himsa (violence or negativity) towards others and ourselves with positive ways.

I was delighted to receive so many responses to my article on Sexual Harassment from August 17th-both in writing and in person. While the majority of the replies published in last week's paper were in support of addressing the problem of harassment, I noticed several responses emphasizing pessimism instead of hope to overcome this societal challenge.

One woman criticized Sri Lanka for its "vulgarity" -even commenting that men should go to prostitutes instead of sexually harassing other women. First of all, I think it is simplistic to state that Sri Lankan society is a vulgar one. Instead, it must be acknowledged that this is a problem concerning individuals who lack the education of dignified conduct and respectful behavior towards women.

Second, I believe the suggestion for men to seek prostitutes as an alternative only perpetuates mistreatment towards women. The presence of prostitution is a genuine problem (in Sri Lanka and around the world).

The world not only exploits young women through poverty, abuse and lack of opportunities - they are forced into having few options other than succumbing to such a desperate and unfortunate lifestyle. Another male reader criticized women for wearing revealing clothing (thereby inviting perpetrators to harass them).

This hypothesis was proven wrong by a fellow reader who explained her endurance of sexual harassment-in spite of covering 90% of her body with clothing. Clearly, the clothing women wear is not the problem here.

Finally, it is unreasonable and unproductive to blame any woman who experiences harassment-regardless of whom she is and what she is wearing. Women should be able to wear what they please without fearing harassment-or for that matter-being judged. While Sri Lanka is a society that values women dressing modestly, individuals who choose to wear what they want should not have to suffer mistreatment or disrespect.

Sexual harassment will not end by criticizing Sri Lanka through negative generalizations or blaming men and women for their conduct. While harassment is a universal problem, education for all and support from women and men of all generations will improve society.

Rather than focus on the negative behaviour, I believe it is important to practice pratipaksha bhavanam-emphasizing the positive in order to overcome the negative. I invite my readers to do the same - tiken tika, little by little-in order to encourage positive change and promote harmony.

Ruah is a New Yorker who is doing her post graduate in Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The need for changes in behaviour and lifestyles

Traditions: I am always impressed when I witness signs of respect toward older generations of Sri Lankans. The traditional bowing and touching and elder’s feet; addressing elders as an older family member regardless of whether they are related or not, the number of households that take elderly parents and grandparents into their homes - all are widespread and remarkable traditions.

In my opinion, while this respect is incredibly admirable and worthwhile, I wonder whether elders could use their influence to show respect to younger generations. By listening to youngsters’ knowledge and trying to understand their way of life could elders encourage communities of young people to make a contribution to “sustainable development” in the villages and cities of Sri Lanka?

In my conversations with both villagers and Colombo city-dwellers, I have heard from all generations that Sri Lankan society is slowly adapting to the times, but not without challenges, especially opposition from older generations.

I once interviewed a group of women, ranging between 19 and 50 years old from several villages. These women had just sat through a seminar on how to deal with social challenges in their daily family lives.

All admitted to learning new and important information that they would like to use at home. For example, they learned strategies for how to resolve disagreements with their family members and information on health care in the household.

Yet when asked if they would share knowledge they had learned with their family members or neighbours, they agreed unanimously that sharing and even using the information would not be very successful. The group explained to me that people who are used to a certain way of doing things tend to judge those who do things differently.

The 19-year-old in the group, who is pursuing her university degree, conveyed to us her experience of her parents forbidding her to be friends with males in her class. At first, her parents approved and trusted their daughter to pursue genuine (and innocent) friendships. The young woman had trustworthy friends, both males and females, as a result.

Eventually, neighbours began to judge and create rumours about this young woman and her family because of her friendship with young men in her class.

This made it difficult for the family members to conduct their daily lives and ultimately
influenced the parents - who otherwise approved of their daughter’s behaviour - to impose protection of their daughter by controlling her life and choosing whom she should spend time with.

The young woman told me that educating people to think for themselves was a good thing. Still, she asked, “How is it possible to make change if only a few do it at a time and it results in always being judged - or reverting to how things were done in the first place”

The women of the group all agreed that this situation was unfair. They also established that in
today’s society change cannot happen from within a community because people fear their neighbours will judge them as different - and associating with neighbours is an integral part of daily life.

Alternatively, they said if someone takes a stand within a community against what is accepted as the norm within the culture others who do not recognize the purpose of the stance in the first place may think it is simply invalid or assume that the information is meant for specific people in a community - and is potentially insulting to them.

“Change and sharing information must happen from people outside the community,” I was told by the group.

They explained how they enjoyed having educational classes available on ANY topic and how they hoped to have more in the future. They appreciated in particular the topic of managing their daily interactions within the household. Yet, I wondered whether it was sustainable for outsiders to tell a community how to handle life.

Once the seminar is over, then who will pass on the information? Shouldn’t knowledge come from within a community? Will members of a community accept ideas that deviate from what has been done in the past?

UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) has declared a plan for “Education for All” as part of the Millennium Development Goals that lays out six goals to achieve by 2015. In the third goal, UNESCO raises the importance of “Promoting Learning and Skills for Young People and Adults.”

This goal reminds us that “education is about giving people the opportunity to develop their potential, their personality and their strengths. This does not merely mean learning new knowledge, but also developing abilities to make the most of life.” Creating opportunities for people within a community must include a willingness to accept new information and change.
This group of women - along with their fellow community members - want opportunities and choices in their lives. They hope to gain more knowledge through education and to have the freedom to share what they know with their family and neighbours - without fear of being judged for having ideas that are different from the traditional way of life.

UNESCO’s report on “Educating for a Sustainable Future” highlights that achieving the goal of sustainable development will depend on a transformation of ethical values through adapting traditional ways of life in order to bring people within a society together and achieve their potential for development.

The document declares that means for sustainability in a society requires “changes in behaviour and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behaviour is predicated.”

The women with whom I met - and others like them - have the potential to make real changes happen. In order for socio-economic sustainable development to take place, UNESCO also calls for governments to “recognize and actively advocate for the transformational role of education in realizing human potential...”

My impression is that in Sri Lanka, while educational programs are essential, support for communities reaching their potential will burgeon once a mutual respect from all generations overcomes judging others who try to do things differently.

In order for change to take place, young generations will have to face the challenge of standing up for what they believe in, while older generations will have to invite youths to think for themselves whether they like them or not - learn to accept the new ideas and ways of life that might come up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Feedback on Article on Sexual Harassment

Well done Ruah
I was born in Sri Lanka and lived a good part of life there and right now I am living in an European country. But I read Daily News every day on the web and this particular article on Sexual Harassment - aney epa karanda on Sri Lanka through Ruah's eyes caught my attention.
I commend this young lady's guts and would like to congratulate and thank her from the bottom of my heart for having written this article about sexual harassment, which I am sure is the main crisis that most of Sri Lankan women are facing. At the same time I am so ashamed of the vulgar and stupid behaviour of our fellow Sri Lankan men.

All what Ruah wrote in her article was true. So many rape and murder cases occur on a daily basis and nobody seems to be bothered of any of these violent acts. Either they are scared to raise their voice or they just think that it's none of their businesses. It's really a disgrace to our country.

I now live in a well advanced country and men respect women and I am so glad that I am out of Sri Lanka. When I was there and when I used to travel by buses. I have experienced this many a time and sometimes have cried inside the buses. Men just think that we are some sex objects.
My question is that, when so many women prostitutes are in Sri Lanka, why are they coming behind us? I won't accept the reason that it's because of the way we dress or act. No it's not the reason. I always dress modestly and my dresses cover 90% of my body and I have never ever encouraged a man in any way. But still I get to hear some unbearable vulgar comments and even touching.

I was so frustrated when I was in Sri Lanka mainly because of this reason. But now I am very happy that I got out of that vulgar society.

But I cannot be selfish or just keep quiet when my fellow Sri Lankan sisters are going through this trauma on a daily basis. I think all the women who are being harassed by men should stand up for their rights. Otherwise, this is going to continue.

I hope the women's organizations and social service authorities will get together and discuss about a criteria to minimise sexual harassment.

Dear readers, please don't be selfish. This can happen to your own daughters, sisters even your wife. So please take a stand and try to stop this crime. Yes it is a crime.

A lady who has come from New York, cannot even do her studies and research without facing sexual harassment which has made her write an article in the newspapers. Isn't this a shame and a disgrace to our country? Once again Ruah I am very proud of you and I am so glad that you brought this subject to light. Hats off to you.


Sexual Harassment

One could understand the anger and irritation of Ruah when she was subjected to sexual harassment. It's more suprising to note if this could happen to an educated western lady in Sri Lanka what can happen to those women who are naturally shy and timid. I totally agree with Ruah in her observation that in Sri Lanka objection to sexual harassment is given only a lip service and many women travelling in the buses and working in offices find it extremely uncomfortable with this situation.

However I would like to point that this grave situation is a consequence of total moral denegration, corruption and lack of respect for the rule of law within the entire society. It's not a problem on its own.

Why I say this is because I have come across many instence of sexual harassment of young girls and even boys in buses and various other public places by both men and women of all ages. I could even recall similar experiences in my school days.

Another very ugly thing to notice especially in our public buses is that some men and women behave in such despicable manner and still others will dare say anything. Sometimes these acts are committed by lovers and some times very strangely by two unknwon parties who would have just come to known each other inside the bus. Public silence is a norm in all these
occassions probably by the fear that next time when one of them do something like that they do not want to be criticised or probably he/she does not want to open the mouth and get into trouble in an atmosphere where the society does not have time to address even greater problems like corruption and murder.

If you open your eyes and see one has to accept that these are harsh realities in a society in which a whole generation has grown up amids violence and frustration. Unless we address the bigger problems,problems like sexual harassment are going to go down the public opinion as 'trivial'.

Fazly Muhammed

Sexual harassment: aney epa karanda

The above article in the Daily News gives one side of the story. The other side is the provocative way in which girls dress these days with tight fitting pants/ skirts/ Tshirts/ blouses prominently displaying their assets which will tempt even a saint.

Why do girls have to dress like this and ignite the dormant passion in man? Wouldn't there be much less harassment if girls dressed decently?

Damien Perera

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sexual Harrassment: Aney Epa Karanda

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Living in Sri Lanka over the past eight months, I have encountered many instances of sexual harassment. I have heard stories from women of all generations, and from many countries. I have witnessed first-hand women getting harassed.

I have been sexually harassed myself. Based on this experience, I believe sexual harassment is a major issue, one that needs to be addressed by Sri Lankan society in order to affect change. Sexual harassment is an unfortunate reality that persists throughout different societies regardless of country.

There is a big difference between my experiences in the US, Europe and Africa and my experiences in Sri Lanka. In this country, I get the sense that the topic is not one to speak of in the open and there seem to be few support systems available for women who experience harassment.

In fact, I hesitate to write on this topic based on my experience of bringing up the subject in the past and receiving uncomfortable reactions. My impression is that society in general does not wish to accept that such behaviour occurs and therefore assumes instances of harassment are an anomaly of daily life - or have been provoked by the women who experience them.

As a woman from a major American city, I am familiar with being approached by strangers who exhibit inappropriate behaviour in public - men in particular.

However, a man who approaches a woman with sexual comments in my hometown of New York City is looked down upon if onlookers notice the behaviour. Friends here have told me that Sri Lankans also reject and oppose sexual harassment. Their contention, however, has not always been my experience.

I encountered sexual harassment during my first days in Colombo. As I walked down the street, young men approached me while I was still trying to learn the layout of the city. These men would make sexual comments, come close to me and even walk alongside me even though I asked them to leave me alone.

Similarly, on the bus, I often experienced men coming very close to either me or women next to me, touching any woman or young girl they could get close to on body parts not meant to be touched in public.

To my knowledge, onlookers at the time did not discourage the behaviour, nor were they willing to take a stand against such behaviour in public. Still, though, I must admit that I have heard stories from older, educated Sri Lankan women who have scolded men for their actions, asking them sharply if they would act that way towards women in their family.

Personally, I always move away or give a strong look to the perpetrator to let him know that I am aware of his behaviour and that he had better stop. Usually, that works at least momentarily. However, I believe that if society disapproved of this behaviour more openly as whole, men would not commit it in the first place.

The most significant experience I had was while at a homecoming (a ceremony and party after a wedding) several months ago.

A young naval officer was clearly respected by the guests and seemed to be a decent and polite man at first. Guests were drinking alcohol, and as the evening passed the naval officer became drunk along with other men at the event.

At one point noticed that he was inappropriately touching young girls at the party 'by accident' yet the girls just pretended that nothing happened, looking very embarrassed. Later, I was dancing with the young girls at the wedding, all of them my junior by at least a decade.

I felt the men were looking at me from the other side of the dance floor and noticed that only a few mostly married women were dancing. Deciding to not let the stares and only few women present deter me from enjoying time with the young girls, I stayed in a corner to dance with them.

The naval officer approached me and told me he wanted to dance with me. I politely declined, but this only angered him. He grabbed my arm and pulled me to the center of the dance floor. I was telling him to stop more firmly this time, mama baninawa... epa... ati... mama alanawa epa...Kamathie neheh. He only responded by coming closer to my face and saying, mama oyata kamathie. I tried to let go, but he was quite stronger than me.

I saw others watching, but no one said or did anything. Finally, I thought of the respect shave for the family and elders in this country and asked, oyage wayasa keeyida? How old are you? He was only three years my junior, just enough to say, mama oyage akka - oyage aka EPA kiyawa... epa! "I am your big sister - big sister said no... stop!" Miraculously, he laughed, told me "alright," hari, hari and let me go.

His behaviour upset me, but most of all I was disappointed that no one watching had intervened. I had the sense that even if observers disapproved, no one had wanted to be that person to stand up to him, a naval officer in the family.

The next day, I told the story to a Sri Lankan friend and he advised me to explain his to my host family that I did not want him to touch me - that I was not happy with the officer's behaviour. I was surprised by this reaction. I had thought that telling the young man and trying to get away from him had been a clear enough statement.

My Sri Lankan friend suggested that if I did not explain my intentions explicitly to my host family, they may think it was my fault - or that I did something to ask for that behaviour. This was shocking to me: How could it have been I who wanted his advances?

After much consideration, I decided to tell them. I called the mother and father - which then brought the attention of my host sisters - and explained that the wedding and the homecoming were really nice, I did not like it when the naval officer touched me and did not let me go.

They were surprised, which left me equally surprised. They assumed that he was not serious and I should not worry, but I explained the story from my perspective. I included that this young man should not just be feeling badly about his behaviour towards me, but he should not act that way towards ANY woman he encounters.

I was not sure of the outcome of communicating this, but I felt it was the right thing to do. My host father got on the phone to call the young man's family and had him apologise. I do not know if this had an impact, but at least I know that my family is aware of my disapproval of his behaviour - especially my two nangies (younger sisters) who will likely encounter similar experiences in the future.

Soon after this I spoke with a well-educated and well-respected woman community leader in a neighbouring village, who told me that when counselling young women of the community, she frequently heard stories of harassment. She even shared her own personal experiences (and those of her classmates) when she was younger.

There are five main reasons that women do not come forward with stories of sexual harassment. First, people often doubt whether women are telling the truth or think that they are only asking for attention. Second, people are rude towards women who bring sexual harassment into the public's attention.

Third, women can be too shy or embarrassed to share their stories. Fourth, women fear that if they expose men's behaviour their safety would be at risk. Fifth, women are afraid of bringing attention to themselves and risking a damaged reputation.

Considering these factors that hinder women's self-esteem and status, it is no wonder that women do not come forward and share their experiences. A study of women workers by Swarna Jayaweera, reveals one impact of gender inequality where 73 per cent of the women studied preferred to be reborn as men, 15 percent as men or women and only 10 per-cent as women. Among the men, 90 per cent wished to be reborn as men and 8.5 per cent as women."

Sexual harassment is indeed present in all societies and persists as a daily problem for women of all nations. Those who experience it are not coming forward with stories for various reasons, leaving a false impression that it is not a problem in society. I believe that in order to address this issue, the taboo of the topic should be broken through awareness and acceptance of women's personal stories amongst women, men and children through social support systems. Women of Sri Lanka - citizens, expatriates and visitors - let your voices and stories be heard.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Lankan Style of Accepting the Circumstances

EMBASSY: I arrived at the Indian Embassy at 9.30 a.m. in the heat of the morning sun, and joined the long line of visitors waiting in the queue. I had plans to visit friends in India and had set aside the morning to apply for a visa.

Once inside the air-conditioned embassy building, I realised that hundreds of others were there that morning with the same agenda. I surveyed my surroundings and saw children playing freely and people closing in on one another, vying to reach the next stage of a complicated visa process.

As I waited, I thought about being in public spaces in New York, in Senegal and here in Sri Lanka. This was part of life in a major city, and one of many times I had waited in long lines or been in a tightly-squeezed crowd to the point of losing mobility.

When living in my hometown New York, I always commuted on the "subway", the underground train system, alongside millions of other students and workers. I always left my house at a precise time in order to avoid the large rush-hour crowds.

If I was ever late, I would inevitably end up sandwiched between people on the platform. Trust and communication between people on the train was limited.

Passengers held onto their belongings for dear life and women hoped and prayed that they would be surrounded by other women and not men with wandering eyes or hands.
While living as a student and later as a high school teacher in Senegal, West Africa, the buses were equally crowded.

However, a different mentality existed there and I could feel a stronger sense of trust among riders. Passengers exchanged friendly words as bus fare was passed from hand to hand until it reached the fare collector. Parents would even entrust their children to laps of strangers on the bus - hence creating more space for an already crowded situation!

Occasionally, men would get too close for comfort for me or for other women. However, if a woman ever called out an unwelcome advance, other passengers would promptly and loudly, scold the interloper.

As in Senegal, I have observed Sri Lankans display a great level of trust and level of acceptance amongst people in public spaces. Taking the bus back and forth to a village in Kalutura District, I am always shocked to witness so many people crowding into one bus not including those hanging from the outside!

While the bus sways from side to side, I lift my heels to catch my balance and usually find my feet competing with others for floor space that seems to have disappeared.

I was impressed at the courtesy of those with seats and the trust displayed by those people who hold onto bags of those who are standing - something that would never happen in New York.
As I think about these experiences on the bus, I realize Sri Lankans display a deep level of trust toward each other, especially with respect to their children. Whether in a bank, a hospital, bus or embassy, I have seen children playing together far from their parents, much farther than most New York parents would ever dream of letting their children wander on their own.

The cry of a young boy in his father's arms brought me back to my surroundings at the embassy. I thought the room was beginning to lose any sense of order as people became restless in the fourth hour of waiting. Children crying and yelling along with adult discussions increased in volume as did the number of bodies in the room.

Reading my book, Lessons of the Lotus by the Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk, Bhante Y. Wimala, became impossible as the crowd drew in closer around me.

The last words I could read seemed relevant: "At the time of a crisis, self-acceptance enables us to relax, let go, and flow with the current rather than fight in panic.... It [self-acceptance] will easily give rise to forgiveness, love and compassion, making life more peaceful for you. This peace will then radiate to others."

I encouraged myself to follow the words of the wise man and accept what was going on. I attempted to accept the situation and think of myself as a peaceful being. I conversed with others around me and enjoyed practising new Sinhala vocabulary words.

Then a miracle occurred: Somehow I was next! I stepped up to the woman behind the counter and smiled - only to have her announce a lunch break and instructions to all in the room to return in an hour. The crowd sighed in unison and people dispersed to corners of the room to wait for the workers to return.

I spoke with two Sri Lankan men next to me, a father with his children and his colleague. They explained the three parts of their theory on why crowds ("HERE") are different from those in other places.

First, the men explained, people in their country are not overly concerned with privacy; rather space is shared collectively.

Secondly, there is a general feeling of safety around, hence the comfort of handing someone your bag to hold or letting your children play far from you.

Lastly, they explained, Sri Lankans do not emphasize doing things in a particularly ordered way,
so people are willing to go with the flow.

I let them know how I appreciated the friendly atmosphere. I noticed that those waiting were particularly accepting of the circumstances and not angry with the embassy workers.

I wondered if they felt that this peaceful approach was common throughout Sri Lanka. They thought it was indeed a part of a shared culture that transcended boundaries of differences throughout the country.

Another passage from Wilma's text crossed my mind and I smiled at the notion: "Extending compassionate love to those who may have caused us pain, the one to gain the greatest benefit-inner peace-is you."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Sunday Stroll in the City of Colombo

LEISURE: The day started with an early-morning text message from my nangie, "Ruah akka, kohomada? Apita oya matakai." I rolled over in bed and text my little host sister back that I was doing fine and I was thinking of her and the family, too.

The relative lack of noise outside my Dematagoda flat reminded me that it was Irida (Sunday). I looked at the silky blue sky and thought of what I would do on a day like today in my hometown, New York City: a Sunday stroll.

I had a free day and with my usual busy schedule, this was not something I had done before in Colombo. Other than on Galle Face Green and Independence Square, was this a common Sunday pastime for local residents? I thought I would try it out and see.

But first, yoga. I stared out the window while practising my morning sequence of asanas.
Forty minutes later, I sat crossed-legged on my yoga mat for my daily morning meditation using the Transcendental Meditation technique I learned years ago. I concentrated on my mantra and wondered what the day would bring.

Travelling southwest towards Town Hall in the shade of my purple umbrella, I remembered a website about yoga classes in Colombo.

I flagged a three-wheeler and took it to Global Fitness Centre on Jawatta Avenue in Cinnamon Gardens.

I hoped to meet the lawyer turned yoga teacher I had read about. As a yoga teacher and graduate student myself, I felt I may relate to her and even make a new friend.

The teacher was not in town, but I was given a tour of the gym with modern equipment and A/C rooms including the well-lit yoga studio. I took a copy of the schedule and pencilled-in a yoga class to attend later in the week.

The sweet smell of rambutan fruit sold at roadside stands was irresistible all along the quiet and shady Reid Avenue. I bought a few to crack open and enjoyed the savory taste as I continued walking.

As I approached a junction, I noticed Laksala, the government handicraft store. I followed along the entryway lined with wood sculptures and flanked by two long reflecting pools.
Inside, the scent of leather and wood was soothing as I explored the aisles lined with beautifully crafted works (I purchased a small wooden Buddha).

Stepping back into the warmth of the day, I ventured back onto Bauddhaloka Mawatha, and not too long after, sought refuge from the heat in a small boutique clothing shop, Wild Flower.

They had lovely shoes, bags, jewellery and some interesting clothes, too. I spotted a pair of pinstriped men's trousers and was reminded of a conversation I had with my older brother on an internet phone call.

He had recently bought a new pair of trousers at Banana Republic, a well-known American store, which happened to have been made in Sri Lanka.

In the store, I reached for the pants to inspect the label and, to my surprise, saw they were from... Banana Republic, only the price was literally ten times less than what my brother paid in New York!

Continuing west, I reached Duplication Road and turned north. I walked several streets up and saw the Queens Cafe and Cricket Club.

I turned down Queens Road and found myself in front of the elegant Gallery Cafe. I walked through the parking lot to a charming entry way with a reflecting pool filled with large fish, and purple and yellow flowers, the whole scene soaked in sun peaking through the partially exposed roof.

I then perused the gift shop noting some similar items as the other craft stores at a somewhat higher cost. I decided to do something very typical of "New Yorkers": Eat by myself! I entered the impressive dining area and was seated in a booth.

I ordered the special, tuna steak with salsa verde, aubergine, tomato and mozzarella. It was not typical Sri Lankan food, but was extremely tasty nonetheless.

The room began to fill with locals, filling about 15 of the 120 or so tables. To my right, two Sri Lankan-looking women in their 20s sat down to eat and spoke in American accents about the wedding they were apparently visiting Sri Lanka for.

I chatted with a group of pilots and flight attendants for Etihad Airways at the next table about different flight paths and their plans for the limited 24 hours they had in Colombo.
Around 3 pm, I ventured back onto Duplication Road and visited Fashion Bug, and then Beverly Street.

The bags and shoes of Beverly Street were so magnificent - I am sure that if the store was transplanted to a busy street in New York, it would be sold out in a matter of hours.

Although the store was quite filled with people, the street was practically empty, as it had been most of the day. This allowed for three-wheelers speeding down the road to do U-turns to get next to me.

They wanted to be sure that when I didn't respond to their solicitous honking I indeed did not want a ride. They seemed shocked when I responded each time with "Isthuthi, mata epa. Mama awidinawa." "No thank you, I'm walking."

I continued walking towards Dharmapala Mawatha to turn east with hopes of making it to Odel's Juicebar. I couldn't resist stopping at Paradise Road.

This shop and cafe is a larger version of the Gallery Cafe store filled with a plethora of crafts and art. While the prices are on the high end for Sri Lanka, they were a fraction of what they would be in New York or other western cities.

Though my legs were beginning to feel somewhat numb, I was determined to make it down the road. Odel's Juicebar was crowded as I enjoyed a refreshing carrot and mango juice for 100 rupees.

I smiled and waved at the group of Etihad employees I had seen earlier. I also chatted with a classmate I ran into while getting juice, who had just spent the day at the museum with friends.
Soon, though, I excused myself to start the walk home. I only made it down a third of the way of Ward Place before I finally agreed to take one of the many three-wheelers honking and flagging me down.

I arrived at my front door and heard my roommate welcome me home as I walked in. I could see on the dining room table a pink envelope covered colourfully with the familiar words, "Ruah Akka." My 15-year-old host sister had sent a letter with a classmate who had come to Colombo!
I opened it to see drawings of flowers, stars and hearts surrounding Sinhala text. As best as I could, given my limited knowledge of the Sinhala alphabet, I examined the letter and envisioned her writing it all with a smile.

I noted to myself to ask for help from Manjula, my trusted classmate, friend and Sarvodaya worker.

I washed off the soot that covered my tired feet and returned to my yoga mat, where my day had begun. I opened my windows to listen to the sound of Buddhist priests saying the pirith prayers over loudspeakers of the pansala adjacent to my flat.

I watched the sky turn to hues of grey as I sat cross-legged with my spine upright. My mind slowly settled as thoughts of the day and streets yet to be explored came and went.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Misunderstood Custom

WEDDING: I watched my two nangies fix their hair in the reflection of the only mirror in the house. They were putting the finishing touches on their best outfits as they prepared for their cousin's wedding. I stood still with my arms up to the side as my akka wrapped the ornate sari around me to the wedding.

When I had shown my family the plain dam pata (purple colour) sari fabric I had bought in Colombo, my akka insisted I borrow her purple one with beads and sequins instead. "Ruah akka, your sari is nice, but too plain for a wedding" she told me with a sympathetic smile.
Next, I showed my flat sandals with coloured sequins I had brought from New York. This immediately inspired my loku nangie to hand me an extra pair of gold Bata heels two sizes too small for my size 40 feet. "Kamaak nah," was her response: It wouldn't matter because my feet would be covered by the sari.

At the wedding, I observed my beautiful family and all of the guests in brilliant colours and designs. The saris were so amazing that it was even difficult for me to pay attention to anything else! I also realized that wearing a plain sari would have stood out even more than my white skin and blond hair.

As the evening passed through, standing out was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I felt the same hospitality and welcoming feeling I had experienced with host family in their home.

Once I got used to the beauty of the saris, I did my best to absorb other things going around me. As in my village, there were no English speakers at the wedding- at least none that I found amongst the 300 or so guests. So I depended on trusting my host family to explain things to me and follow as best as I could.

After both the bride's and groom's wedding parties had followed in procession to the ballroom, I encountered the first traditions of the wedding. I watched through the crowd as the young couple had their small fingers tied together and the groom drape the red sari around his new wife.

Next, I observed family and friends approaching the couple with sacred Bodhi leaves that would bring good luck. My akka took me by the hand to the front of the crowd and showed me what to do. I felt nervous as everyone watched me hand the bodhi leaves over and bow to pay respect. I guessed I had done it right when I stood up to see smiling faces and nods.

Guests around us mingled as we slowly made our way over to the table to sit with relatives who were inquiring about me. My host family told them my story with pride. My aiya explained his involvement with Sarvodaya and how I was placed in his family while I did my research for my post-graduate degree. I answered as many questions as I had the vocabulary for in Sinhala and let my family finish my sentences when I was stuck for words.

As I continued conversation with those around me, I ached to quench my thirst on the hot April day. As I had only recently become healthy after a long period of sickness, I was careful not to drink the tap water. I excused myself and found a waiter to ask for "unu watura" (boiled water). I waited for a while and asked another waiter, who told me I could return to my table and wait for it there.

Several minutes later, the father of the bride walked over to me with a cup of water on a silver platter. He moved the platter towards me and smiled. I felt shy and embarrassed to think that he had gone through the trouble of getting me boiled water. I thanked him for being so kind.

I took the glass with two hands - as I have learned is more respectful - and drank from it. It was cold. I wondered, did they have the water already prepared? I kept the thoughts to myself and looked up at the father with a smile. His expression changed to one of confusion, as did mine as I looked back at him. I watched him walk away briskly only to return to the table next to us with another glass of water. I turned to my akka for an explanation.

She was engaged in conversation with her cousin, and the two of them shifted their attention to me. Once I relayed the story, they started laughing. I had just drank the glass of water symbolizing the invitation to eat! The father of the bride returned to our table, and this time offered the cup to the other guests at the table.

I apologized to him for the mistake, and he told me "kamak nah." Everyone at the table laughed and looked pleased as they watched me respond in the polite way to accept the invitation by touching the platter with both hands. "Shall we go and eat?" my aiya asked. I nodded and joined my family to wait in line at the aromatic buffet of mouth-watering Sri Lankan cuisine.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bad Bada Recovery Deepens Strong Bonds

SICKNESS: It was another ideal morning in the coastal village of Thalpitiya. The skies were a brilliant blue and warm breezes blew fresh ocean air. The song of birds rejoiced in the beauty of the morning - yet I lay in my bed under a sheet shivering with the chills and a fever.
I stared out my window at the foliage and palm trees swaying and the aroma of coconut oil from my akka cooking in the kussiya (kitchen) was potent in my bedroom. Instead of enticing my appetite for the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine I have come to know and love, this time the scents induced feelings of nausea.

Sickness had overcome my body and mind, disturbing and distracting me in every way possible. I wondered if I would survive. I had not been able to eat or drink for days now, and even the thought of sitting up exhausted me. I felt utterly alone. Still, there was something that kept me going: the care and love of my host family.

Akka entered the room with a bucket of hot water and a cup of something she promised would help me to feel better. She sat next to me on my bed and spoke softly in Sinhala as she dipped a cloth into the water.

I felt some sense of relaxation from the cloth pressing in circular motions around my face and my neck. She helped me to turn over and rubbed my shoulders and back, relieving the tension in my muscles. The thought of anything entering my body was painful, yet, I trusted her, with a warm smile that touched my heart, she handed me a hot cup of liquid and fragrant spices.
My three host siblings entered the room and sat around me. I sipped the drink, rich with a flavour that tingled my taste buds. Loku nangie took the cup from me and akka helped me to lie down and cover me with the sheet. I settled into my pillow, which was soaked with tears and sweat.

My eyes closed as I lay still, feeling mildly better in the presence of my host family. I prayed for my health to return and I gave thanks for having people here who cared about me. Once I got better, for the sake of my health, I promised to better understand my body’s ability to adapt to its environment.

You see, I used to drink the tap water of my host family’s home in Thalpitiya. I thought it was a gesture towards them to show how I wanted to be like one of them-that I was committed to being a member of the household.

I also thought my body could handle it, as it had when I had lived in Senegal, where I experimented with drinking the water little by little over two and a half years until my body didn’t know the difference. Yet this time my body reacted differently to being forced to adapt to the unfamiliarity.

When I first arrived at my host family’s home in February, I followed the advice of a fellow graduate student and friend. I added three drops of bleach per litre of water and let it sit for 30 minutes, which would apparently kill whatever could make me sick. My host family was surprised at first that I did not drink the same water they did. I explained that my stomach was not familiar with the water, yet.

I sensed them feeling hurt or even offended. After several weeks of drinking bleached water, I felt inspired to experiment with drinking untreated water just a little at a time, to let my stomach adjust. I wanted so much for my family to know I was willing to adapt to their lives. I thought that by drinking their water they would see my intentions and accept me.

The first day my family watched me fill a glass of water from their tap, they smiled and nodded approvingly. I felt proud of not having to be a burden on them or my neighbors, either by asking for them to boil water or insisting that I drink my own bleached water. I sensed a bond of trust slowly developing through such small gestures as sharing the same water.

Then one day I became completely sick-the kind of sickness that takes over an entire body and mind. My akka took me to visit the local doctor, who was kind and patient. He tried prescribing several medicines, yet they didn’t improve my situation.

The one thing he was certain of was that I had something inside me that was making me ill, and most likely it came from the drinking water.

I was in bed for days as my body tried in vain to overcome what had invaded it. While the healing process was a difficult one, it was a time that I am truly grateful for.

The strong bond that I had already formed with my host family only deepened during my recovery. My akka, aiya, malli and nangies took incredible care of me - care that eventually led to me rebuilding my strength. On the hour, the family brought me medicine and sang to me, as my akka rubbed me down or massaged my temples with a hot cloth, tiger balm and loving care. They brought me boiled water with cheer, happy to bring me something that agreed with my bada (stomach).

On my first healthy day, my akka sent me to the beach for fresh air with my two nangies. She smiled and embraced me when we came back and told me I had ratu paata (red colour) in my cheeks again. Exhausted, I leaned on my giggling host sisters and I smiled back. At that moment, I felt so thankful to have this family in my life.

I remembered my promise to myself and decided to expand its scope. I once again vowed never to force my physical body-nor my mind-to adapt to its environment as I realized how my relationship with my host family was developing at its own natural-and wonderful-pace.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Welcome to Mage Gedera

THALPITIYA VILLAGE: Squeezing my hand, loku nangie (older sister), smiled and pulled me ahead in the night running over the railway tracks with hope of reaching the front of the elephant parade before it was too late. I felt like a true member of my homestay family as I sensed their excitement to show me my first perahera.

The entire family (akka, aiya, podi nangie and malli) ran directly behind us as we maneuvered through the crowd of villagers in the dark, surrounded by palm trees and homes resurrected after the tsunami.

Only the glow of flames from the perahera lit our path down a shortcut where two of my fellow graduate students finally caught up with us.
Sticking together closely we found a place on Galle road, to watch the parade of performers and elephants moving in rhythm to the chorus of singing, music and clapping.

Wiping the sweat off my cheek with a handkerchief from my host mother, my akka, I felt podi
nangie leaning on my shoulder. I sensed her petite hands playing with my hair and her body moving gently to the music passing by.
Then, tugging my salwaar she asked, "Ruah akka? heta oya yanawada?" I swayed my head from side to side, in the way that meant "Yes, tomorrow I will be leaving." Promising that I would return in another couple of weeks I felt a rush of warmth through my heart and reflected upon how I came to form such a close relationship with this Sri Lankan family that I met just months ago.

My life over the past six months has alternated between stays with a family in Thalpitiya village, doing research for my degree in Sustainable Development, and time devoted to my studies in Colombo.

There, together with 20 American and two Sri Lankan graduate students I take classes taught by professors from my American university, School for International Training,, at the Nagarodaya (Sarvodaya) Center in Borella.

As a believer in the law of kamma, which teaches that everything happens for a reason, I trusted that I was meant to come to Sri Lanka to educate myself and to share what knowledge I had with others.

After seeing the devastation wrought by the tsunami, I felt compelled to help in some way, yet wondered what meaningful contribution I could make from New York City, where I was working as the Associate Director of a language school. After much thought, I was moved to change my path to pursue a graduate degree in Sri Lanka.

Although my knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited, I was inspired to learn all that I could through books and the internet to prepare for my participation in the S.I.T. program that worked with Sarvodaya to commit to helping those affected by the tsunami.

After three weeks of orienting myself to Sri Lanka and taking Sinhala classes in Colombo, I left for the first time to a village for two weeks of shramadana (gift of labor) with my 21 classmates. Sarvodaya inspires people with their words, "we build the road, the road builds us."
This phrase has embodied our experience as we formed relationships with each other and the homestay families.

The village, the students and the Sarvodaya leadership all worked together and offered our physical labor to build roads, construct a playground and clean a temple. In the evenings, we all met together for singing and dancing.

The experience touched me deeply, and made it hard to leave at the end of the two weeks. I felt encouraged, knowing that I had the rest of the year to build relationships with people in the new village I would be placed in for the rest of the year.

I arrived to Thalpitiya in February along with four other graduate students, ready to stay in the home of a Sinhalese family while I conducted my research.

We all gathered in the garden of a community leader with cookies, bananas and tea as we were introduced to families that would host us. I introduced myself to the group in my best, if limited, Sinhala I had learned over my previous month in Sri Lanka.

The community leader's wife looked at me and we smiled at one another. She motioned for me to come - using a hand gesture that would just be waving "hi" in my own country, USA.
I stepped towards her and brought my hands together, "ayubowan." Her three children came close and smiled, adjusting their white clothes for Sunday school at the pansala, the Buddhist temple.

My new akka put her arm around my waist and led me into her home for the first time, the place I have now learned to call mage gedera (my home), too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Beginning of Sri Lanka Through Ruah's Eyes

As fate will have it, I have been presented with the incredible opportunity to write a weekly editorial column in one of Sri Lanka's leading newspapers, the Daily News ( I have been asked to write about my experiences here in Sri Lanka as an American/New Yorker.

I should admit that these days what is really at the forefront of my mind is the struggle for peace in this world and praying for those who suffer from violence and those who have power to make peace happen. However, in this weekly space I will really be focusing on my own personal experiences and perspectives of being here in Sri Lanka. I hope that this will be an opportunity to voice advocacy of my belief in the importance of seeking peaceful interactions with others through being conscientious in thoughts and actions. I will post the articles as they are published. However, feel free to go directly to them every Thursday on the Daily News website.

Finally, I feel compelled to pay special respect to my dear friends and family who provided me with feedback on the first piece. A special thank you to my dear friend and talented editor, Brian. He has been incredibly generous with his time and intellect. His 23 years of friendship is as good as it gets! Thank you!