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 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.