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 cafĂ©, 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.