Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Books For Asia

On Saturday I went to the Asia Foundation’s Christmas Party where I met Sharmini Nagendran who runs the Foundation’s Books for Asia program in the Colombo office. Books for Asia is one of the Foundation’s oldest programs (since 1954) and it provides new texts and other educational resources to schools and libraries around the country. At the Christmas party, Sharmini invited me to come to her office and see the books, so I did that today. The books are gorgeous. They are top of the line text books (over-run stock) published for the U.S. educational market and they are vibrant and appealing, the pages are crisp and clean, the graphics are beautifully done, they have that new book smell. The two main publishers who donate to the program are Houghton-Mifflin and Harcourt Press, and these are the most current texts available. The Asia Foundation gets them for free and distributes over 75,000 books to mostly rural and village schools. Sharmini was clearly very excited about the program and her enthusiasm was infectious; I immediately thought of Ellen from Emerge Global, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, as someone whose organization might need some books. Emerge Global provides housing and education and earning opportunities to young women who have become mothers as a result of sexual abuse and been forced to leave their homes. One of the goals of the program is to educate the young women in English so I thought these American texts might be useful to them. I just sent Ellen an email to let her know the books were available and to let me know if she thought Emerge Global could use some.

After I had lunch with Sharmini, I went to the British Council library and then to meet Lakshman at the coffee shop in Majestic City. Lakshman is a movie buff and we often end up discussing films. He told me about Der Untergang (or Downfall) which is a historical account of the last ten days of Hitler’s life in an underground bunker, in which among other things that go on down there, the wife of Joseph Goebbels kills her six children by first forcing them to take a sleeping drug and then clamping their teeth closed on cyanide capsules before Goebbels kills her and then himself. I assured Lakshman I would absolutely not be seeing this particular movie. I then I told him about Hamlet 2 which is about the funniest damn thing I’ve seen in a long time. Riyaz joined us eventually and then Riyaz and I went to the head shop across the street so he could buy a Zippo lighter for a friend’s birthday present. The shop was tiny and had a little smoking parlor in the back where some very stoned-looking dudes were hanging out. The proprietor appeared to be sporting the worst toupee I’ve ever seen [yes, I realize that’s apropos of nothing]. A guy named Ranjith whom I’d met on a previous trip to Colombo was in the back and seemed pleased to see me, but not so much that he was able to get up out of his chair and come over to say hello. Oddly enough, the proprietor was more than happy to let me snap a few pix.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Back to the Beach

Friday was another Poya (full moon) holiday, so my cousin Shalini, my aunt, uncle, and I went to The Beach Hotel in Negombo for the night. Negombo is north of Colombo, same direction as the no-dolphins place, but much closer to town – only a 90 minute drive (the other place took over 3 hours to get to). We left late in the morning and got there in time for lunch. After lunch, the relatives all went for a lie-down in their beautiful rooms. I think the quality of a hotel room can be judged by its bathroom; the room Shalini and I were sharing had a giant oval tub with a built-in vinyl pillow and the shower had sandstone tiles and was about the size of a walk-in closet, but I digress. I didn’t feel like napping so I put my swimsuit on and went to read the New Yorker on one of the lounge chairs which were laid out in a small grove of coconut trees. Or I should say I tried to read; the issue I had was from mid-November so there was a lot of interesting post-election analysis, but I also had my iPod with me and the music, the breeze, and the view of the blue, blue Indian Ocean* right in front of me proved to be mighty distractions.

*Short geography lesson-interlude: It has been brought to my attention that the body of water to the west of Sri Lanka is more technically the Arabian Sea, not the Indian Ocean. Upon further research, I learned that the Arabian Sea is a region of the Indian Ocean so you can decide for yourself which is more correct. Due east of Sri Lanka is the Bay of Bengal, also part of the Indian Ocean; only to the south are the open waters of the Indian Ocean itself.
I don't know how long I was out on my lounge chair but when I headed back up to the room, Shalini and my uncle were heading down for a walk on the beach so I dumped my stuff and went back out with them. There is a place for local-access to the beach near the hotel so there were a lot of non-tourists out although it was far from crowded. It was nice to see people from the small town out enjoying the beautiful beach and their own beautiful country. People seemed happy to be out on such a nice evening – children were playing in the sand, kids were playing in the surf (the water was super-warm), a few teenaged couples were sitting on the sand in the shade of fishing boats with their arms around each other, talking quietly and looking vaguely uncomfortable to be seen together, but making the most of the best and cheapest date-venue anyone could hope for.

When we got back to the hotel, Shalini and I went for a swim in the pool or rather, she went for a swim, I did half a lap then floated around on my back and wondered how I’d gotten so lucky. Then dinner, a DVD in our room, bed, breakfast, and back to Colombo the next morning.

Saturday night I went out to dinner with Anthea, a colleague of Nilan’s who is also the Asia Foundation director in Kuala Lumpur, and Melanie, Nilan’s new deputy director in Colombo who has just transferred from the Foundation’s office in Kabul. Anthea is Sri Lankan-Canadian, grew up in Toronto but has lived in various places in Southeast Asia over the last ten years; Melanie is an American from Vermont who lived in Kabul for the last five years, but who has also spent most of her career doing NGO work in Asia. It turns out that she was working for the Asia Foundation in Nepal in 1996 when I happened to be in Kathmandu and was a guest at her boss’s house for dinner. She wasn’t at that dinner-party, but she had been to other dinner parties at that house – an almost “small-world” connection to add to my list, along with 1) running into my half-sister whom I’d only met once before, seven years prior to the incident of running into her randomly in a hostel in London (this happened over ten years ago); 2) meeting people in Anchorage where I was spending a few months in 1989 who knew my brother in Berkeley; 3) my brother working with someone in Bangladesh who was the sister of someone I worked with at that same time at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle… the world is a small place. Anyway, I got to tell Anthea and Melanie my story of being a guest at that terribly fancy dinner party at Melanie’s former boss’s house in Kathmandu (Nilan had told me to call the director of the Asia Foundation’s office in Nepal when I got to Kathmandu, I did and he invited me to dinner). Before that evening was over, the degree of sickness I experienced after excusing myself to one of the guest bathrooms was like no other I’ve had before or since; I told my hosts I was ill and they suggested I crash in one of the guest rooms for about an hour while the other guests arrived; eventually I pulled myself together and tried to go down to dinner but ended up nearly passing out at the dining table. I managed to get myself back to the guest room where I remember literally falling onto the bed and staying there until the party was over. The next morning I was due to get on a helicopter bound for the Himalaya, which I did, but that’s a whole different story (and in case you’re wondering, it was food poisoning not a dreaded parasite, so I was fine in about a week). That story is a real crowd-pleaser. I told it to the other two ladies while we were dining (maybe not the best timing… I cleaned the story up quite a bit for the blog) at an Italian restaurant where we had a terrific wood-fired pizza, some decent house red, pasta, and salad. We then moved to the Colombo Swimming Club (not as posh as it sounds; it’s been under renovations forever and has the aura of a bombed-out hotel) where we were joined by Nilan and Riyaz and Nisreen and a giant pitcher of margaritas. Melanie told us about her life over the past five years in Afghanistan, where she couldn’t walk on the street without a male escort but where she was also present at a forum with the Afghan president and 500 women from the various provinces, many of whom felt free to stand up and interrupt the president with questions and concerns during his presentation on women’s issues. Nilan told a story he’d heard, which Melanie confirmed as being true, about a certain Afghan warlord’s crime against another governing minister… which now that I think of it, is too brutal to recount here. She also described what a missile flying over your house sounds like (long, loud whistling noise before impact).

This week is going to be all about the Galle Literary Festival for me. It’s half coming together, half imploding. I’ve been corresponding with writers all over the world trying to nail down their travel needs and this week I will start booking their flights – I hope; I think Nisreen might still be finalizing the sponsorship deals with the airlines. Some of the most prestigious writers who are coming have been the most friendly and easy to work with, other younger folks new on the scene have come across as a little full of themselves. Eventually I think all the issues will get worked out and it will be a very cool event.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Adamaly Place

Not much happened last week so last Sunday I went out for a few minutes and snapped a few pictures around the neighborhood. Nilan’s house is on a street called Adamaly Place. It’s a quiet, residential lane with a mosque at the end which unfortunately blocks the view of the Indian Ocean just beyond. This mosque is thankfully a very quiet one. Nilan coincidently lived next to a mosque in Jakarta, and when I visited him there several years ago, they very noisily made the call to prayer 5 times a day. I don’t know how anyone could pray or meditate on the greatness of God after their nerves had been jangled in such a manner; God knows I wasn’t feeling very prayerful after that kind of racket. But this mosque is very respectful of the neighbors. Adamaly Place is a side street off Galle Road which is the main road running along the coast in Colombo. It’s right in the middle of town, walking distance to my aunt’s house, and a block from Majestic City which is the biggest shopping center in Sri Lanka. Majestic City is a four-storey mall with a movie theater and café, a snack shop and a grocery store, several ATMs, all manner of electronic and clothing shops, and several shoe stores. Aside from the benefit of living next to a place with a grocery store and ATMs (you thought I was going to mention the shoe stores, didn't you...), the main benefit of living next to Majestic City is that everyone knows where it is, so I never have to worry about getting home from wherever I happen to be because I can just tell the tuk-tuk driver “near Majestic City” and they know where to take me – Colombo is still a maze as far as I’m concerned.

Here are some pictures of the neighborhood.

This is the ox that is usually parked at the top of the lane. He is used to pull an oil cart which I think contains kerosene - possibly for use in residential stoves. I was a little nervous taking this picture; I didn't use the flash.

The famous Majestic City on Galle Road.

Across the street from Majestic City.

Fruit stand around the corner...

...or, if you'd prefer, the place that sells WHOLE deep-fried chickens.

In case you missed that.

The local Kwik-E-Mart.

The house where I live; we have the right side of this very non-descript building which is essentially a duplex. The only way in is through the garage.

Once you go through the door from the garage into the house, you're actually back outdoors in this internal courtyard.

The other main living space is the living room/dining room. There are also a few bedrooms, a few bathrooms, a den, an office, and of course a kitchen. It sounds larger than it is, but it's very comfortable -- if a little on the shabby side (some major renovations would not be out of line).

The mosque at the end of the lane.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dolphins 3, Raiders 0

This is why I came to Sri Lanka. Well, this and to get out of paying any rent. Or cooking any meals. And I wanted to meet some new people. And hang out in cool places. I've talked about living with my brother and all that goes with that, and I've mentioned so many cool people that I've met, and it's not that Colombo isn't cool, it is, in a grimy city kind of way (who doesn't love that?), but I may have just returned from Paradise. Riyaz, Nisreen, their kids, Nisreen’s brother Moru who is visiting from New York City, and I went to Alankuda Beach in the sleepy town of Kalpitya this past weekend. Riyaz, Nis and the kids had been there twice before, the draw being the “thousands of dolphins” that supposedly swim off the shore of this resort north of Colombo. The drill is, you get up at 6am, go out in the boats, and supposedly the sea is lousy with dolphins. None of the people I know who have been there have ever seen one, but the place is fabulous and they figured the third time would be the charm. No luck. It was raining Sunday morning at 7am when we got to the boat-house; a group was just coming back in having searched for about an hour—not a fin to be found. The group coming out of the boat was cold and wet and more than a little annoyed at the lack of mammal sighting, but it’s difficult to stay annoyed for any length of time at Alankuda. I think the pictures make that case pretty well. We decided to bag the dolphin hunt and spent the morning relaxing, snoozing, reading, eating, drinking, swimming, and hanging out in pretty much the same fashion we had the previous day. Here’s what it all looked like:

You walk down this path to get to the cabanas; there are four on the property, plus a little guest house. Turn into one of the openings in the path...

The cabanas sleep four (plus two kids) very comfortably.

Everything is very open-air, including the bathroom.

The best part, as described by one of the kids: "the magic coconut tree shower."

This is the main building where everyone hangs out and it's where meals are served.

We arrived on Saturday just in time for lunch.

Crab curry!

Evening: kids are in bed, everyone else is hard-core relaxing. Notice the iPod docking station on the right.

Did I mention the pool?

There's a pool.

This is one of the boats we would have gone out in to see the dolphins that weren't there.

Rishard and Adam.

Moru, Nisreen, and Riyaz.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

For Those About to Rock...

Photos are a little random this week. 1) The view from the pool at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel where I spent most of last Saturday 2) The nightclub at the Taj, post-battle of the bands 3) The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf Cafe where I wrote most of today's post

I don’t even know what I did last week. Thinking… thinking… um, Wednesday was a Poya Day which is a national holiday in observance of the full moon. I am not kidding. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and since Buddhists use the lunar calendar for religious observances, every full moon day is a public holiday. So since everyone had the day off from work, Riyaz invited me to have lunch at his mother’s house with Nisreen and the kids and another friend who was in town visiting from France. Riyaz’s mother lives in a giant house with a lovely garden and a staff of six. The “staff of six” was mentioned by Riyaz when his mother commented to me, “I live alone, my husband passed away four years ago and all my children have left me” to which Riyaz pointed out that there were six servants in the house so how alone could she be? Nisreen’s response to her mother-in-law’s “all my children have left me” quip was to look at me and roll her eyes. Mrs. Jafferjee is actually really nice and interesting and not as much of a Jewish mother as I imply (she’s Muslim), but I have noticed many similarities between Sri Lankan mothers (irrespective of religion) and the stereotypical Jewish mother. They both seem overly interested in feeding whomever happens to be around, the marital status of those people, and whether or not you’re a doctor. But I digress. Lunch was absolutely delish, rice and chipatis and chicken curry and about five vegetable curries and even more small dishes of sambols and other tasty delights. The other friend who joined us was Alex from Toulouse; he lived in Sri Lanka for a couple years about six years ago but now he’s back in France and here on a one-month holiday. Before we left Mrs. Jafferjee’s house, he borrowed a mountain bike of Riyaz’s (which Riyaz said he'd owned for years and ridden twice) as he planned on biking from Galle to Hambantota then up to Nuwara Eliya (where all the tea plantations are; that’s an uphill ride by the way) before heading back down to the coast and catching a ride back to Colombo. Riyaz thought he was absolutely nuts and that the idea of riding 60 miles a day was crazy, but Alex is French, the French ride, it’s in their blood. On the other hand, I’ve driven along that coastal highway past Galle, the drivers are insane. We were a little worried that Alex didn’t have a cell phone; he left on Thursday and no one’s heard from him since. I’m sure he’s fine. That was Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday night I met the NGO girl-gang at the Commons Café where we were having a book/DVD-swap. That’s when all of them/us get together and throw all the books and DVDs that we’re done with into a big pile and trade. I couldn’t believe it but no one took my copy of “Seduce Me at Sunrise.” DVDs are super-cheap here and they’re all bootlegged. There are shops everywhere that sell just about every DVD you could want for about $2. My friends tell me they wouldn’t even know where to legitimately rent a DVD—that business model simply doesn’t exist here. I went in one of the shops last week and “Quantum of Solace” was already on the shelf ($2); Seasons one and two of “30 Rock”? $7 each. Met a bunch of new girls at the swap: Sophie is from England (I think), Connie is German, and Lisa had just arrived a couple days prior from D.C. Yesterday I visited Sumathi at her house and her new house-mate, Amelia from Stockholm, had just arrived that morning. All of these young women have studied political conflict-resolution or want to work for human rights which is what brings them to Sri Lanka, where this is plenty of the first (at least the “conflict” part) and not enough of the latter.

I have no idea what I did on Thursday. Nilan had been out of town all week in the Maldive Islands attending the inauguration of their new president (I really don’t know how he gets himself invited to these things). He came home Thursday night and left on Friday to meet a friend in Bangkok for the weekend. I wanted to go out on Friday night but couldn’t find anyone else in the same mood. Sumathi and Rachel were both staying in, Riyaz had to attend a friend’s baby-naming ceremony, so I stayed in too and read an incredibly mediocre book until about 1:30am which is when I usually go to sleep.

Saturday, after I got back from Sumathi’s house, I went out with Riyaz and Minoli to the Colombo Swimming Club for drinks and snacks, then we met Lakshman at the Taj Hotel where there was a “battle of the bands” competition going on in one of the nightclubs. Sadly, the competition was over by the time we got there which is a bummer because Lakshman said that a couple of the bands were really good (all the musicians were teenagers). We hung out for a few minutes anyway and then the four of us went to Sugar which is a nightclub, but as it was only about 12:30, it was fairly empty. We chatted with a few people who Riyaz knew in the club, including a girl from the Maldives who is a liquor distributor, and a guy who works in local radio; Riyaz had told him that I had worked in radio in Seattle, which prompted him to say, “I don’t want to brag, but I’m the best radio producer in Sri Lanka.” I asked him what kind of music was played at the stations he worked for and he said “all retro – 60s through the 90s.” I winced and then said incredulously, “you must be kidding me... can you tell me why no one in this country seems to have any interest in listening to new music?” He seemed completely thrown by the idea of “new music” and said with genuine excitement, “people love the Eagles and Led Zepplin, but all they know is Hotel California and Lyin’ Eyes, we give them all the other great songs that those bands did!” to which I responded, “who cares, it’s still the fucking Eagles – they were big THIRTY YEARS AGO!” Unfazed, he told me he’d be in touch.

Later that night at the coffee bar in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel where Lakshman, Riyaz, and I finally went to get some peace and chill out, I asked Lakshman (he’s the composer I mentioned in a previous post) about the bands who had competed at the Taj earlier. He reiterated that a few of them were really good, and we started talking about music and angst and saying what you have to say through art. I mentioned Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith and how they turned deep depression and tortured souls into something artistically revolutionary (Kurt) and beautiful (Elliot) [at least until they killed themselves], and he said that these Sri Lankan kids aren’t depressed and they aren’t tortured, but they have lived their entire lives surrounded by war and corruption, they have something to say and they’re saying it by writing music and ROCKING OUT, which we agreed is always a good way to express yourself; so to those kids, we salute you.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-Election Day

The excitement has died down a bit. Being in touch with friends at home has been great – I can hear the excitement in the letters and voices, and the emails that have come in from a few unexpected places have been great. A colleague from my office in Seattle wrote to tell me:
“I think one thing this election did was to bring America back to ALL the people—the young, the old, the poor, the rich, people of color, and even those life-long Republicans who realized a change was needed… We called our son at Colorado State University last night and he was so excited, so happy, so thrilled to be part of this history with his first-time voting experience.”
He and I had had a conversation one day at work during which I voiced my doubt in the American public’s willingness to elect an African-American, but he had faith that the obviously better choice would prevail. I don’t think he ever believed that McCain could win; I wasn’t so sure. There was an article in the New Yorker about a month ago about Obama’s chances among white working-class voters in Ohio. These are people who work two and three jobs to make ends meet, people who have no health care, and who “voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, by seventeen percent in 2000 and twenty-three percent in 2004.” The article quoted a registered voter in Ohio: “I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.”

I listened to a This American Life episode that followed Obama staffers in Pennsylvania who faced the same kind of ignorance and prejudice, and another segment of that episode followed former Hillary supporters and life-long democrats who were campaigning hard for McCain. The segment about the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania focused on union workers who were trying to convince fellow union-members that Obama was the right choice for them. And when they were confronted with “I’m not going to vote for him because he’s black” which they heard repeatedly, they were trained to change the subject to the issues, although one [white] phone-bank volunteer did cheerfully first try, “well, his mother was white…”

So that’s why I wasn’t so sure. And then when he won, with the help of both Pennsylvania and Ohio, I couldn’t believe it, and I have never been so happy to be wrong. But I made the comment in my last post that maybe it was time to stop talking about the fact that our new president is a black man because “at some point, that’s got to stop mattering.” I think that was naïve of me. The more I read and talk to people post-election, the more I understand how monumental this is, and the more I realize that the U.S. electing a black man as president is huge, and worth talking about for as long as people feel like talking about it. The day after the election, Velu asked me if I was happy with the results. I told him I was very happy. He said, “I think it good for a black man to run your country. I think the world think it good for a black man to run your country.”

And then I read letter to the editor in the New Yorker. This was pre-November 4th, but after the magazine had officially endorsed Obama:

“In endorsing Obama, the editors suggest that his election ‘could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness.’ As a seventy-four-year-old African-American who was involved in the civil-rights protests in the nineteen-sixties, I, too, have drawn a connection between Obama and the journey that the United States has made in its attitudes and actions with regard to race. I remember watching as black people went to the town hall to register to vote carrying American flags; the local police jerked the flags from their hands and turned them away. My parents told us of how German soldiers detained in Arkansans were served in white-only restaurants while black soldiers in uniform were forced to go to the backs of those restaurants to get food from the take-out windows. Many civil-rights workers, black and white, died attempting to push the U.S. to live ‘the values it proclaims in the textbooks.’ The election of Barack Obama will not mean that struggles about race will be no more, nor will it erase the painful memories of my generation. But it will be a clear sign that my four-year-old granddaughter will grow up in a nation quite different from the nation that existed when I was her age. And, because of that, every American has a reason to rejoice."

Gilbert H. Caldwell
Ashbury Park, N.J.
On November 4th, 2008, Mr. Caldwell, a seventy-four-year-old African-American, and the twenty-year-old white son of my colleague at work, cast the same vote. And from what I can tell, the nation did indeed rejoice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Day

Last night for me was yesterday morning in the U.S - November 4, 2008. I emailed a friend at 6:30pm which was 5am in Washington and told him I was nervous… I feel badly about that now – lack of faith. We exchanged a few emails that morning/night and he seemed to think Obama had it in the bag. The returns wouldn’t start coming in until the next morning for me so I went to bed and was wide awake today at 6am; computer was on, numbers were reported for Kentucky and Vermont – I checked in with my friend in Washington and he was seeing the same results at the same time, and commented that it truly is a small world. At about 7am, there was a power failure at the house and I was without internet for about 20 minutes; by the time I was back on-line, Obama had a substantial lead and I emailed my friend: “LOOK AT THE SCORE!” (I seemed to have mistaken the election for the Superbowl, but whatever). By 9:30am I was in the grand ballroom of the Colombo Hilton at an election-watch party given by the U.S. embassy, I’d say it was one-third ex-pat Americans, the rest Sri Lankans – several hundred people. When at about 10am here CNN finally called it, a huge cheer went up in the room and I couldn’t quite believe it. In fact I didn’t believe it because CNN was “projecting,” and only a small percentage of the precincts had reported numbers; it seemed premature to me. Until John McCain came on and gave his concession speech. Then I looked over at Rachel who was next to me and just said “oh my god!” And then I said it again. That’s when I finally believed it.

I’ll admit that I never though Obama had a lock on this, and I certainly never dreamed it would be a fucking LANDSLIDE!! But 349 to 162 [so far]? and 7 million more popular votes? Clearly I didn’t give the voting public enough credit. My brother made the comment at lunch today, “he couldn’t have done it without the white-redneck vote, so good for them!” And I have to agree. He wasn’t elected wholly by “his” people. People, perhaps millions of people, disregarded their baser instincts and decided to take a shot; they looked past… whatever they had to look past, and voted for change. They bought the message, they bought the hope, they bought they hype, they bought the promise, and for a lot of those people, they finally, and perhaps reluctantly, bought the idea that it didn’t matter that he didn’t look like them. And now I hope we can all stop talking about the fact that he is a black man and get to the business at hand – because at some point that’s got to stop mattering. At some point I hope we stop reinforcing the enormity of that one point, because if America is what he said it was in was in his acceptance speech, it never should have mattered in the first place.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."
In the history of presidential elections in “the United States of America,” has any winning candidate ever mentioned gay people in a victory speech? That was a beautiful thing and it was a great speech.

I still have a few more months left on my trip here, but I was shopping around for flights back to Seattle in February today, and I have to say, I was excited by the prospect of returning. I think it was a great day for America and I’m looking forward to getting back home.

P.S. We had a little informal balloting process at the Hilton this morning. The final count, delivered by the ambassador, was Obama: 281 - McCain: 32.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Rachel Weeks

And now on the "...people to meet" front, I'd like to talk about my friend Rachel Weeks. My brother introduced me to Rachel last December and I ran into her again randomly last Thursday at an Oktoberfest party at the Hilton (that's right, Oktoberfest in Sri Lanka, complete with beer garden and German polka band). When I met Rachel last year, she was in Colombo on a Fulbright Scholarship having graduated from Duke with a degree in Women's Studies. Rachel is the most fashionable feminist I've ever met, and therein lies her story.

Over lunch last December, Rachel told us that she had decided to start a business in Sri Lanka. Her Fulbright project had to do with "ethical fashion" and she wanted to turn her research into a living-wage business. As anyone who has ever looked at the tag in their t-shirt from the gap knows, Sri Lanka is a huge manufacturing center for in the garment industry. Reebok, Nike, the gap, Old Navy, and Victoria's Secret are just some of the major chains whose products are made here, and while the big names [probably] don't employ child-labor and [maybe] don't have huge marks against them on the human-rights violation charts, they are known for paying their factory workers [often less than] a subsistence wage. Rachel decided that she, a recent college grad with no experience in the garment industry, could do better than that for the largely female garment-manufacturing work-force. Why? Lack of greed. The profit margin on $100-sneakers is huge, and while the price of shoes continues to go up, wages for factory workers goes down. Manufacturing works as a market-driven economy; the big-wigs at Nike know that if Sri Lankan factories demand higher wages for their workers, they can simply close a plant and open another one in Bangladesh, a country so poor that workers will work in exchange for food, or India where children will act as indentured servants to work off debts incurred by their parents.

Rachel's idea was to start a garment business that supplied officially licensed clothing to colleges and universities in the States; her clothing line would in turn support a factory opened by her manufacturing partner which would pay women a living-wage to make the clothes. And the clothes would be cute. Having ethical standards, supporting women, and being anti-sweatshop is all well and good, but Rachel Weeks is a feminist fashionista… the clothes had to be super-cute.

She went home to North Carolina shortly after I met her last year, secured a small loan, hired a designer (who had worked for Calvin Klein and Betsy Johnson, among others), developed a collection, had a photo-shoot on the Duke campus using students as models to create buzz, produced a catalog, and got an order for 10,000 pieces from the Duke University Store. And now she's back in Sri Lanka working with her partner to fill an empty warehouse by the airport with sewing machines, fabric, and whatever else it's going to take to make those yoga pants, fitted girly-t-shirts, sweatshirts that don't make girls look like boys, hoodies, and tote bags, and everything else that's in her collection, all of which will be emblazoned with Duke University logos. As soon as the first needle hits cloth, she'll go back to the States to work on getting orders from more schools. She's already got an order pending from UNC Chapel Hill, so keep your fingers crossed that she gets a signed purchase order from them soon.

It's simple really, the factory she'll support is going to pay its workers a little bit more than the average garment factory-wage, but that’s going to make a huge difference. It's going to be the difference between barely surviving and actually being able to save. It's going to be the difference between barely surviving and actually being able to spend – on more than just the basics. These women are going to be contributing to the local economies of their villages where they could not before, so not only are their own incomes going to increase, but that in turn will affect the livelihoods of their neighbors. And the only difference between what Rachel is doing and what Reebok does, is that her profit margin will be narrower. Oh, she'll still make money, when the clothes sell and the orders and re-orders come in, she'll make money; maybe she won't make over a million dollars a year which is what the CEO of Reebok makes, but she'll do just fine, and 30 women will have a little more food for their families.

I spent most of the day with Rachel yesterday, and I had a great time. It turns out that being inspired by the cool endeavors being undertaken by new friends is even better than having meals prepared and served by the household help, going to the spa, and never having to make your own bed.

But wait, there's more... As Rachel and I were running around together yesterday, we ran into an acquaintance of hers, Ellen Sojka. Ellen came to Sri Lanka from Boston by way of M.I.T. to work [unpaid] for a non-profit called Emerge Global http://www.emergeglobal.org/. Emerge is an organization that supports Sri Lankan girls (mostly teens and pre-teens) who have become pregnant due to rape. It provides not only a safe haven in terms of housing, but also educational and economic opportunities for the girls through a jewelry-making business. The beaded jewelry is sold in the U.S. through etsy.com http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5570822&order=&section_id=&page=1user_id=5570822&order=&section_id=&page=1 and I have to say, the photos don't do it justice - the necklace Ellen had on when I met her was even more fabulous than it looks on the website (or in my photo).

With election day almost upon us, I’m hoping that the U.S. is about to experience some pretty damn big, sweeping, monumental changes; I’m looking for huge changes from people with vast amounts of power. Neither Rachel nor Ellen have any political power but they are affecting huge change. It may not seem like Rachel paying someone $30 more a month than she was getting before is huge, but when it’s the difference between eating to survive and eating to be full, that’s huge – if you’re the one who’s hungry.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Week In Review

This is the main street half a block up from my brother's house. His house is down a very quiet side-street, but this is what waits at the top of the lane.

Busy week in Colombo. In addition to going to the gym every day and reading my books from the British Library, I went out a bunch, and did a little work on my two projects. The first work-task was to come up with a possible flight itinerary for the author Germaine Greer to get to Sri Lanka for the lit fest at the end of January. I’ve heard of Germaine Greer and I know her to be a feminist icon but I’ve never read any of her work. She’s the big name for the lit fest this year. Her travel arrangements are complicated and involve several cities over a couple of months, but I finally found something that I hoped would work for her and emailed it to my contact at the lit fest office to run by her assistant. None of the authors will get a fee for showing up to the lit fest, but their airfare and accommodations while in Sri Lanka will be taken care of. Emirates, which is the airline I came out on, is one of the festival sponsors and is donating two business class tickets, and luckily, all legs of Germaine’s travel can be done on that airline. Sri Lankan Airlines is the other major sponsor and I pity whoever comes in on that one. Remember last December when they lost my luggage for FIVE DAYS? Well apparently, the same thing happened to Gore Vidal when he came for the lit fest last year, and he had a MELT DOWN at the airport when his bags weren’t there. For the record, I remained amazingly calm when it happened to me. The other work-task I did was to research some major film studios in Dubai, Toronto, and Hyderabad, India. The one in India is craaaaazy. It’s the world’s largest film studio (2,000 acres), has over 500 set locations, can accommodate 60 movies being in production at the same time, and is a huge tourist destination (over a million visitors a year). It’s slogan is, “Walk in with a script, walk out with a film in the can!” It’s also a popular venue for weddings and corporate events – for weddings, they’ll replant the flower gardens to match the color of the bride’s sari. The reason I was reading up on it is that the Sri Lankan government is planning to build a big film studio outside Colombo and my cousin Sam who is Sri Lankan but a film-maker from Australia, is acting as a consultant on the project and has asked me to help him with some research.

Wednesday night is quiz night at the Inn on the Green pub and I went along with Riyaz and the rest of the gang. It was a close match, but we won (again). There are about eight teams that show up most weeks, but only our team and one other is any good. This week the scores were pretty close between us and them during the whole game, and we were tied at the end of the last round. The quiz-master asked a tie-breaking question which we both got wrong, then asked another which we both got right. Finally he said, “whoever comes closest to guessing my weight wins.” We won. The prize is cash which usually covers the team’s bar bill, so it’s a pretty fun night.

On Thursday I went out to dinner with some girls I know here. Anita is a Sri Lankan-Canadian from Toronto, Sumathi is a Sri Lankan-Brit, and Bidisha is an Indian chick from Calcutta. They all work for local NGOs. We met at a South Indian vegetarian restaurant not far from my house and had a fantastic dinner – for $18. No booze, but still, pretty damn cheap. After dinner we decided to go to the bar at the Taj Hotel to have a drink. The Taj is a huge, 5-star-hotel; standard rooms are only $110 a night, so if anyone wants to come and visit me… The hotel looked pretty empty and the bar which was super-nice, was completely empty. As in, we were the only four people in there. There was a dj and a small dance floor, nice seating areas, a pool table, and three bartenders/waiters who looked very bored, but they were pleased to finally have something to do when we came in. We pointed around the empty room and asked them what the deal was, and they said that on Fridays and Saturdays it was a little busier, but mid-week, no one much came in. I asked if the hotel was mostly empty and they said that not a lot of people were coming to Sri Lanka these days, which I knew. Note: civil war is not good for the tourist industry. I don’t think anyone was blown up this week but in the first week I was here, a bomb blast at a government office a couple hundred miles north of here killed 27 people, and the following week, an assassination attempt against the Minister of Agriculture (it’s believed) by a suicide bomber killed 1 person (not the Minister). The newspaper reported where the bomber’s various body-parts landed after the explosion. Anyway, we had a good time at the Taj before catching a couple of tuk-tuks to get home; the four of us had jammed into one to get from the restaurant to the hotel – this is not the best way to travel, especially if you get stopped at a police check-point, which we did (not because we were ridiculously crammed into a three-wheeler, just a random stop to show bored-looking soldiers who carry machine guns our IDs).

The highlight of the week was definitely last night when Riyaz, Nisreen, and another friend named Minoli went to see a Sri Lankan movie called “Machan” which essentially means “dude” in Sinhala. The movie was so good! It’s based on a true story which was in the news in 2004. A group of young men (and some not so young) who had been denied visas but who wanted to get out of the country, mostly so they could work and send money home, posed as the Sri Lankan National Handball Team and got invited to a handball tournament in Germany. Once there, the just disappeared; none of them were ever caught (and by the way, no one in Sri Lanka plays handball, none of the guys on the “team” had ever heard of it before). The movie is funny and sweet and sad; it takes place in the slums and working-class sectors of Colombo, a part of town I don’t see. Nisreen who grew up in Bombay, commented that there, there is no division between luxury and extreme poverty. She said you can walk out of the most exclusive nightclub in Bombay and there might be a whole shanty village right next to it. In Colombo, while there are crippled beggars on the street in front of the shopping mall that’s right around the corner from the house where I live, the large, sprawling, impoverished neighborhoods aren’t so close to the middle- and upper-classes. The movie was well-acted and captivating. Another cool factor about this movie is that a friend of ours who is a composer and who occasionally joins us for quiz night, wrote the score. The film has already been accepted into the Venice International Film Festival, it would be so cool if it was submitted for and accepted into SIFF.

And that was my week.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Quiet Saturday

Started the day the same as always, with Velu the cook/housekeeper bringing my breakfast to me on a tray. I sat in the dining room this morning as opposed to in the open courtyard-area of the house which has comfy chairs and a coffee table. I suspect that Velu doesn’t wholly approve of me eating out there instead of at the table; he has worked as a cook for the Italian and British Embassies in Sri Lanka and is probably used to a more formal atmosphere; he addresses me as “madam” which is the custom here, and now that I think of it, he probably doesn’t know my first name. This morning I had oatmeal with banana, honey, and chopped walnuts. When I first got here, I made my own breakfast but I got the impression that I was in Velu’s way in the kitchen, so now I sit and read while he makes whatever I want and brings it to me.

Important note: yesterday I became a member of the British Council Library – a lifesaver! It’s walking distance from the house and while the selection of fiction is miniscule compared to any real, City library, I’m in no position to be picky since the last book I read was called “Seduce Me at Sunrise” and involved the seduction of (and not just at sunrise) an English maiden by a gypsy-blooded ruffian. It turns out (in case you’re wondering) that their passion for one another could not be ignored despite major obstacles such as her frail health and his violent past (plus there was the aforementioned issue of his gypsy heritage). Lot of “throbbing” went on in that book, as well as some “savage hunger” quite a bit of “heaving” and “…desire flaring high and wild, leaving no room for sanity.” I pretty much couldn’t put it down, but I owe that mostly to the fact that it was in English (and only partly to the “heaving”). But now thanks to my new library card, I have a couple of less torrid novels at hand.

After breakfast I went to the gym, but before I left, I told Velu that since I could make do with leftovers already in the fridge (my brother is away for the weekend), there was no need for him to do any cooking today, so if he wanted to leave early that was fine with me; I thought this rather magnanimous of me. Then I gave him two shirts to iron. I had a massage booked for 12:30 but was going to the gym, which is conveniently located right near the spa, first. The three-wheeler-guy who usually takes me to the gym wasn’t at the top of the lane this morning so I flagged one down which was passing by, this took less than two seconds. Three-wheelers or “tuk-tuks” are sort of a cross between a golf cart and a motorcycle, with aspects of a lawnmower thrown in. They are loud, emit stinky exhaust, and weave crazily in and out of traffic; they are my main mode of transportation around town. After working out and showering, I walked to the spa and was immediately handed a cool drink and a very cold, wet washcloth to sponge off with. It’s really hot here. Not as bad as it’s going to be in the spring, but still, even the short walk from the gym to the spa left me feeling a little grimy. The spa was lovely and tranquil, the massage was fantastic and cheap ($38 for 90-minutes; tips aren’t expected), and when I got home, my two shirts were pressed, folded, and sitting in my wardrobe.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Good Buddhists Don't Have ADD

I’ve been in Colombo for a few days now. Mostly lying low at my brother’s house, emailing my friends, and wondering what I’m going to do with myself for the next few months. I have a few leads though: my friend Nisreen has asked me to be on the volunteer staff of the Galle Literary Festival (Galle is a city SE of Colombo) and wants to assign me the task of booking transportation for 26 authors who will be coming to the festival in January. They’ll be coming to Sri Lanka from all over the world and frankly the job sounds like a nightmare, but I want to keep busy and I’d like to be involved with the festival so when she asked, I said “sure.” Also, my aunt who is on the board of the Center for Women’s Research has asked me to edit and help finalize some reports on domestic violence for the organization. Not the cheeriest of subjects but I’m happy to put my skills to use for the cause. And my friend Riyaz (Nisreen’s husband and my brother Nilan’s best friend) is trying to put together a sort of film society with the help of Sam, someone I met last December who is a distant cousin of mine and a documentary film-maker, and thinks I should become involved in that project. They’re hoping to have a film festival in the same vein as the literary festival and have already screened a few grim-sounding documentaries with moderated discussions afterwards. And since I happened to have brought my DVD of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” with me to Sri Lanka, I’m sure I can contribute heavily to that endeavor.

Last night I went to the neighborhood Buddhist temple with my aunt to hear the weekly lecture. The program started with a few minutes of guided meditation. I find that during meditation of any kind, the best thing to do, contrary to popular belief, is to really let your mind wander; I mean, a person can focus on their breathing for only so long – it’s breathe in, breathe out/inhale, exhale – there’s really no place to go from there. So I spent the few minutes having spiritual ruminations like, “I wonder what monks wear under those robes… I can’t believe I wore sandals when my toenails aren’t polished… Am I going to get West Nile virus from all these mosquito bites?... Will Nilan’s cook make that awesome crab curry again soon?... If a monkey bites you, what kind of medicine would you get?...” It’s possible that I wasn’t really meditating the way the Buddha intended. Once the guided meditation was over, the lecture began. It was on Mindfulness. Buddhists seem quite obsessed with the concept of Mindfulness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for paying attention to life, and I actually believe that when you are mindful of the body, as the dude giving the lecture said, and concentrate of every little thing – walking, eating, listening, breathing – something does happen on a physical and psychological level that probably does bring one closer to enlightenment, but the guy lost me when he talked about being mindful “…in everything… even going to the bathroom…” I… um… yeah. There are certain things that I really believe you should just do (so to speak) without giving them too much thought. But I’m glad I went to the temple. I think most Americans have a very romanticized view of Buddhism and don't really think it's a religion just like all the others, complete with doctrine and rituals that believers are expected to follow. I talked to my aunt about that on the way to her house afterwards. It turns out that one of the previous lectures at the temple this year had been on that very topic. She said that a lot of people, not only Americans, embrace Buddhism for the practical help it lends to their lives in the form of mediation and other stress management tools, but agreed that that’s not the ultimate point of the religion.

My aunt’s cook had made chicken curry and snowflake-shaped, savory pancakes for dinner. I can honestly say it was a meal that would bring anyone closer to nirvana.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Next Stop: Dubai or, The Kindness of Strangers

I landed in Dubai at about 8am, twelve hours after leaving New York. I had a 10 hour layover and I wanted to see a bit of the city before making my connecting flight to Colombo. So off I went, out the doors and into the heat. The taxi line was absurdly long and since I had inquired about the bus routes before I exited the airport, I went to the bus stop, got on a bus, and started inching through traffic. Going a couple of miles on that bus made the 520 commute seem like doing laps at Indy and there was no gorgeous lake, trees, or mountains to take the edge off – just a lot of concrete. I finally got off the bus with the intention of taking a taxi the rest of the way to the Burj Al Arab Hotel (“The World’s Most Luxurious Hotel” according to the brochure; rooms start at $3,000 per night). My plan was to eat lunch at one of the 8 restaurants in the hotel, look around the lobby, get a glimpse at who the hell pays $3,000 a night for a hotel room, then catch a cab back to the airport. It didn’t quite work out that way. After getting off the bus and walking for a while in the heat through a landscape covered with concrete and more concrete, I was starting to wilt. I walked a few blocks to a hotel thinking that would be a good place to hail a cab… I waited and waited, hand out, sweat running down the back of my legs, and my shirt sticking to me. There were simply very few cabs about, and the few that passed were either taken or seemed to be in an awful hurry to get the hell away from me. There was a guy standing half a block up from me also trying to get a cab and I realized that if any did plan on stopping, they’d get to him before me, so who knew how long I’d be out there. I was wondering exactly how long I was going to stand out there and concluding that I truly had no other options, when another person came by who was also trying to get a cab. She was rather stunning, African, and friendly, and she came over to commiserate about how awful the taxi situation in Dubai is. I told her I’d been standing out there for over half an hour and I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. She asked where I was going and I told her; she said she was trying to get the World Trade Center where her car was parked and which was on the way to the Burj Al Arab. Without really discussing it, we both understood that we’d share a cab if either of us could get one, and then finally, FINALLY one stopped for us. We both got in and she directed the driver to where her car was in her flawless English, which was smoothed over by a French accent, and topped off with a slight African lilt, giving her that sense that Africans who speak perfect English have, which make them seem as though they have a much deeper understanding of the words than anyone else. She told me she had only been in Dubai for 6 months, that she had moved there with her husband and two kids from London to take a job with Barclays Bank, and that she was originally from Senegal. She also mentioned that the Al Arab was in the direction of her house, and that she’d be happy to drop me off at the hotel when we got to her car as opposed to me continuing on in the taxi. Dubai is hot and oppressive; the landscape is harsh and jagged and monochrome; I felt a little like I was in Wall-E, and there was no way I was going to quickly give up the company of my nice new friend, so I thanked her and accepted. When we got to her car, she absolutely would not let me pay the cab fare; I kept insisting but she just wouldn’t let me do it. “Save your money for the taxi ride back to the airport” she said. She also mentioned that she wasn’t sure I could even go into the Al Arab since I wasn’t a registered guest, and mentioned a complex near it that would maybe be a better option for killing time. I thought the hotel website said that non-guests could dine there even if they didn’t have a room booked, she said it was worth a try, so we got in her car and started heading toward the hotel through a whole different part of the city which was also concrete on concrete, giant buildings, and the same depressing, unnatural, lifeless landscape which was all of Dubai, as far as I could tell. She gave me a little tour along the way pointing out various buildings and talking about how the city is laid out. It was a good 15-20 minutes of being chauffeured in her brand new SUV before the Al Arab came into sight, and I have to say, it really is ridiculous. I’m sure it’s spectacular in some sense... but, I mean, really? It just seemed like one more indication of excess beyond my wildest imagination. Of course that wasn't going to stop me from trying to get in, I mean, a girl's still gotta eat. We drove up to the gate and the nice security guard asked if we had a reservation. I said “No, but I was hoping to eat at one of the restaurants.” He told me that only people with reservations could go through the gate, but he handed us a brochure and said that I could call right now and make a reservation at one of the restaurants and then I could go in. It just seemed like too much at that point, and my new friend suggested that she take me to the complex just down the road which had a huge shopping arcade, lots of restaurants, and a nice view of the water. I said that sounded great. I asked if she had to get right home because I would have loved to buy her lunch, she said she wished she could join me but her kids would be home from school soon and she had to get going. When she dropped me off at the round-about in front of the building complex, I noticed that there was a taxi rank in front and said “Oh fantastic, I won’t have to worry about getting a cab back to the airport!” and she said “Yes, that was one of the reasons I thought this would be a good place for you.” I thanked her profusely, shook her hand, and headed in for a nice lunch and a quick perusal of the shops. I didn’t buy anything; at that point, I was pretty sure I already had everything I needed from Dubai.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

First stop: NYC

Just before I left Seattle, a friend told me he thought I was a “liberal, elitist snob.” In a text message. He meant it in the nicest possible way, but of course I was totally offended and pointed out that I couldn’t possibly be considered an elitist or a snob since I was friends with him. In a later conversation, I mentioned to that same friend that I was going to the New Yorker Festival, an annual literary and arts festival held in Manhattan every October…
“elitist” I heard him mutter under his breath. I chose to ignore him.

The festival was fun. The first talk I went to was a discussion entitled “Extreme Sports” with Greg Child, an Australian mountaineer; Andrew McLean, a ski mountaineer; and Lynne Cox, who swims long distances in arctic waters. (For an amazing article written by Lynne about swimming the Northwest Passage, check out http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_cox). The three talked about what inspires them, showed video footage from various expeditions, and took questions from the audience – most of which were directed toward Lynne; even the two mountaineers agreed that what she does terrifies them. I spoke to Greg Child briefly after the talk. I told him that I felt my own claim to fame is that if you google my name, you are directed to an article he wrote in 1997 for Outside magazine in which he quotes me; he seemed moderately amused at this news. The second talk I went to was “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” given by Malcolm Gladwell. I can’t remember a more interesting or entertaining ninety minutes. He talked about aviation, linguistics, interpersonal communication, how mitigating language can kill people, why it’s obvious that a Jamaican woman would make a better commercial airline pilot than a Colombian man, and why Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters in American literature is really a ruthless, racist jackass. I don’t know if he gives the same discussion in his new book (Outliers: the Story of Success, due out next month) but it would be worth checking out just in case he does – although I don’t think he covers the Atticus-Finch-as-jackass-topic in the book since he mentioned that he had just come up with the theory a few days prior. The third talk I went to was an interview of Matt Groening by cartoonist Lynda Barry. Matt seems pretty cool (a bit “Hollywood” but of course he can be forgiven); Lynda is a truly horrible person and is probably also a ruthless, racist, jackass... I actually thought she was really cool after the interview yesterday and had written something nice about her, but I saw her again today and she TOTALLY dissed me, and taking revenge in this blog, which might be read by literally tens of people, is my only recourse.

Okay, so that’s my first post. I have to go now – they’re waiting for me down at the dog track.
That's the best I could do for somethng non-elitist I might be on my way to. I'm not really going to a dog track... but I could be. Oh never mind.