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 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 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.