Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who was my roomate?

I've embraced TQ has my preferred nomenclature because of how common "Tom" is - especially in my extended family. It's the name of my Grandfather, two Uncles, two uncles, and more friends. It's no surprise that when I travel to the other side of the world, that I'm put into a room with someone also named Tom.

The above picture is one of my favorite pictures I took while in Sri Lanka. It beautifully illustrates the connection my roommate Tom made with the young students at the school. He was certainly a favorite of them - and you felt like they were all genuine favorites of him.

It did

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What does S.A.S. stand for?

Our team in Sri Lanka in was 13 people strong. Each was obviously worthy of their own post, but there are just a few I want to publicly mention. For example our Team Leader 'Nique.

And when you mention 'Nique, you best mention her sister Mary-Lourdes as well. As one who likes to assign nicknames, I was quick to refer to the two The SAS.  SAS stands for many things, such as high quality sanding standards and bags of wine - but it literally stands for South African Siblings. Initially it stood for South African Sisters, until I met their brother at the tail end of the trip.
South African Sisters

Recently 'Nique has been transplanted to Boston, but her sister Mary-Lourdes is still keeping it real in Capetown. Both, on multiple occasions, suggested I visit Capetown someday - and that I'll have a place to crash there if I do. There are many things that I hope will happen one day for me - showing up in Capetown to see these characters is no doubt one of them.

Their brother, Manny, who I only met briefly at the tail end of my trip when Team India merged with our Team for our last weekend of R&R is also a character with character - but he won't be stealing his sisters' thunder here.

Before the trip, I (as politely as I could) hassled 'Nique about many trip details. She was very quick to reply, which in other words meant she was very quick to settle my anxiety. Once on the scene in Sri Lanka - she was on top of it.  What do I mean by "it?" I mean everything. The fact that I never had any worry the entire two weeks is directly associated with her tireless preparation.

Mary-Lourdes is as cool as cucumbers come. Being more reserved than her sister - there was nobody else on the team I wanted to make laugh or smile more. MySister usually laughs at my jokes regardless of their quality (and often - regardless of her comprehension of them), but when M-L laughs at a joke - it was earned.

These two better realize that they haven't seen the last of me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How could the flight have been worse?

In my mind: this might have been an improvement
"The only way that flight would have been worse is if the plane had crashed." ~ MySister

My last day in Sri Lanka was Sunday August 14. I had woken up at 5 am in Kandy, taken a 90 minute bus ride to Columbo, waited* in the Colombo airport for 5 hours, flown four hours to New Delhi, and waited** 8 hours for our plane home to Chicago to board. This story is about that plane home from Chicago. It was a 17 hour flight - but it felt longer.

*There was another group flying out of Colombo earlier than us, it made more sense to wait the extra time at the airport instead of going back to the hotel and making another run to the airport.  **The layover in Delhi was relatively painless, we experienced a grand shopping mall that existed inside an airport and experienced McDonald's without beef as an option.

But by the time we had boarded Air India Flight 127, it was 1 AM. I had been awake for 20 straight hours and still had another hour before the flight would takeoff. That was the longest hour of my life.

The Boeing 777 jet was packed. MySister & I were unable to change our seats, which we desperately wanted because we were separated on the flight. The plane has a window-middle-aisle-()-aisle-middle-aisle-()-aisle-middle-window configuration: MySister was in one of the "side-middle" seats and I was stuck in a "middle-middle" arrangement. Same row, but just far enough away that we couldn't easily communicate with each other: we were both on our own.

The four seats to my left were for a family of four: the two parents, a 4 year old daughter, and an infant son. It was the second row of the economy (coach) section, and of the 18 passengers total in the first two rows, six of the passengers were crying babies... at 1 AM. But none of those six crying babies were my biggest problem. Immediately to my left was the patriarch of that family of four. I'm not happy to admit this, but I've never wanted to punch a man in the face more than him. The following are his offenses:
  • Instantly removing his shoes and socks after seating
  • Playing with the tray table as if he didn't know how it worked before takeoff
  • Deciding to lean entirely on the armrest between us (instead of the other one on the aisle, that was shared with no one)
  • Leaning his face clearly over the invisible border between us to read the book I was attempting to read
  • Dancing feet, row seat shaking dancing feet (he was not listening to music)
  • Punching his leg, violently, which he had placed on top of his tray table
Yes, he put his leg on the tray table. And yes, all of these offenses were occurring in the initial hour after I had boarded - before takeoff. While his leg was propped up on the tray table, he began punching it - hard. He wouldn't go 3 seconds before the next rabbit punch to his leg. I've re-enacted this scene to a few people, and each time I stress that I'm not hitting my leg as hard as he was his. The only one more bothered than me by this was the poor man in the seat ahead of him. Thank God nobody behind me had lifted their leg to lay on a table and begin rocking the hell out of it through calf violence.

It was only though a more bizarre act that I was saved on this flight. After we had taken off and the seatbelt light went off, that man moved away from me. He spent most of the flight making the rounds of the airplane and guarding watch over his family. Why would his family need a guard?  Because his wife was sleeping ON THE FLOOR OF THE PLANE! Meanwhile, his infant son was sprawled out along two seats and his daughter was standing on the third seat. If only I was an artist - I would illustrate how a mother could squeeze between two rows of seats in the fetal position under a tiny airline blanket.

Life Saver
My saving grace were my large over the ear headphones and my fully charged iPod. Specific thanks to the comic duo (and twin brothers) Randy & Jason Sklar. Their podcast helped me through that long journey. I had written them an e-mail of thanks after my arrival - and they replied in appreciation. I will repeat my sentiment in early December when I see them perform live (they usually sell merch themselves after shows).

Sadly, MySister was not as fortunate. The headphones she had brought were not as loud as mine - not louder than the many crying babies. Worse for her, she was flanked on both sides by less than positively fragrant men in a perpetual lean invading her personal comfort. The quote at the the post is very real - it was uttered before we even exited the jet-way at the terminal.

The entire situation left me more delirious than exhausted. I didn't sleep at all. All food was refused (note: if you think airplane food is bad, try adding curry to it). Did I get up once? NO. That's right - I freakin' locked myself into that "middle-middle," dialed my headphones up to volume 11 and RODE THAT FREAKIN' PLANE - RODE IT G.D. HARD.

You ran a marathon? Good for you. You swam a large body of water? Beautiful. I've had my endurance test - it was Air India Flight 127.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How much do I love Sri Lankan Airlines?

Srilankan Airlines is the greatest airline I have ever had the pleasure to experience. I was on it twice - from New Delhi to Colombo and back. Most certainly my evaluation was improved by its pairing with the long enduring trials of Air India - but even if you look at their characteristics in isolated terms, the quality shines through:
  • The planes were either new, or were kept in new condition - the leather seats had a new feel, but more importantly it had a pleasantly fresh smel.
  • I was able to watch episodes of The Simpsons on my flights
  • The complimentary magazine was a worthwhile kept souvenir (I had to consult it when writing many of these posts)
  • They weren't overbooked - on both flights MySister and I were able to have an open seat between us.
  • The flight attendants are very attractive, and were wearing semi-midriff revealing uniforms.
Sadly, I may never have the opportunity to be their customer again. Most everybody knows that if I had to select a dream vacation, it would involve Las Vegas - but in that fantasy - I'll fly there on Srilankan Airlines.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How would you react to an elephant sneezing?

The picture above and the one immediately below were thankfully taken by a fellow BTCVolunteer that had a much more high tech camera that yours truly - and I'm forever thankful that they were captured, for they are my two most favorite pictures from the trip to Sri Lanka.

Both were taken at the Elephant Orphanage in Peradeniya. There was one specific elephant with a handler that you could pay to pet and get a picture taken. While MySister and I were close, the elephant sneezed. I didn't react - I was transfixed in a Am I really in Sri Lanka, touching an elephant, is this real? trance; Too paralyzed to move.  MySister, however, well you can see her reaction.

We saw more elepants there than a lifetime of American circuses. Add in the elephants we saw later that night on parade in Kandy and you have MySister saying, "I think we saw all the Elephants in all of Sri Lanka." Visiting the Elephant Orphanage was pretty awesome - we saw elephants being fed, elephants grazing about, and elephants washing themselves in a nearby river.
Random footnote: on the way back to Kandy from this excursion, we saw someone walking a porcupine on a leach.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What was the last memory of Sri Lanka?

My last night in Sri Lanka was spent in Kandy. I had mentioned that I would be in Kandy in one of my last posts before my departure, and a friend had a wonderful response to it. But we weren't there to visit a sweet shop, we were there because every August in Sri Lanka (the night of that month's full moon) is the Festival of the Tooth. We didn't see Kandy's Temple of The Tooth, but we saw its parade.

I have the feeling that you can not be told what the Festival of the Tooth Parade is, you must experience it for yourself. As someone who is a strong advocate against parades ("Parades, Circus and Fireworks: if you've seen one you've seen them all.") I will admit that what I saw was unique.

It was four hours plus of a parade of elephants and fire. Fire and elephants. Theatrics with fire. Theatrics with elephants. Elaborate costumes on elephants. Elaborate costumes on people, people with fire. Two hours into it we saw this:

MySister said it best, "I wish this had an accompanying headset like in a museum, to explain all of this." If I had to guess, and that's really all I can do, the middle of the parade with the most elaborate accompaniment had to have been the Tooth. Basically we all stood when the others stood, watched what the others watched, and resigned to the fact that we were in the middle of something huge and important (although none of us fully understood why). Here are a couple pictures I took before my camera battery expired:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where is your secret place?

We made two significant stops at Sigiriya on the way back to Negombo from Anuradhapura to end the first weekend in Sri Lanka.

First we toured a spice garden, which provided one of the biggest genuine laughs of the trip. Our guide was an older, small, sweet man who gave (at times too long) descriptions of the various spices grown there and its applications. This one was good for headaches, this one gives you more energy, and so on. At the end of the tour (which lasted a little under an hour) the guide was explaining the particular product that was used for hair loss. He mentioned that women use it for their legs and...

And then there was a pause... a long pause.
As someone more immature than most, I knew what he was hinting at. For the goal of reducing any awkwardness, I hoped he'd just move on to the next spice. But the long pause continued - until he decided to break it with: "your secret place." Then all bets were off - I lost it and the fellow teammates and I continued to make "secret place" jokes that would make your ordinary junior high boy proud.

Still laughing from that, we visited the nearby Rock Fortress - the greatest sight of the trip. Built in an amazingly short time (7 years) about 2,000 years ago (give or take a century) it used to house the King of Sri Lanka. To summarize the story read aloud from one of the guide books on the trip: If you build a Rock Fortress, you best stay in it.  As legend has it, the King fell off his horse - leading his horse to instinctively retreat. All of the King's soldiers interpreted the fleeing horse as a signal to retreat - and thus the Fortress was lost.

I, on the other hand, felt like a bona fide conqueror after climbing its 1,200 steps to the top. The feat's reward were the best views of the trip. Next time I do something like this, I'll find a place to change into shorts (the jeans were the only long pants I had on the trip, worn out of respect to the Temples visited prior to the Rock Fortress).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How much onomatopoeia is in Anuradhapura?

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Being the son and brother of Elementary School teachers has helped me understand the difference between alliteration and onomatopoeia. Alliteration is when closely placed words sound alike, for instance Sally Sold Seashells and onomatopoeia are words that are associated by the sounds made from saying them aloud (such as Bam, Pow, Zap).  With that distinction out of the way, the former capital of Sri Lanka is Anuradhapura. It helps to pronounce the word by creating an alliteration situation by using the onomatopoeia in the word: onomatopoeia Anuradhapura.

Although Negombo (where I spent most of my Sri Lankan time) seemed mainly Catholic, the nation on the whole is primarily Buddhist. The spiritual peak of the trip was its first weekend, when we took a bus up to the ancient capital of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura. There we saw many Temples and Monasteries. In America, it's not odd to note: That building is very old, it was built in the 1890s. In Sri Lanka, I saw things older than my religion.

I'm not here to comment specifically on Buddhism, or other Eastern religions, but want to share one aspect of its faith:
Saṃsāra refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally, the word referred to a process of continuous pursuit or flow of life. In accordance with the literal meaning, the word should either refer to a continuous stream of consciousness, or the continuous but random drift of passions, desires, emotions, and experiences.
Saṃsāra: Do you know what it means?

Mainly, this post is to share a couple pictures from this trip to Sri Lanka's former capital.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What can 200 Sri Lankan Rupees (approx $1.95) buy you in Negombo?

Fellow BTCV teammate Diana (Colombian born, but 100% Miami) and I pose next to a Tuk-tuk
I have since learned that these types of vehicles exist in other foreign lands - in Sri Lanka it is called a "tuk-tuk." With the pull start motor reminiscent of a lawnmower, handlebars indicative of a motorcycle and the kind of backseat you would want in a dorm room futon - a tuk-tuk is a fancy motorized hard top rickshaw.

Nearly every night I was in Negombo, I would ride in one of these the short distance from the hotel to the "Negombo Strip" where all its restaurants existed. Three of us would squeeze into the backseat and one of us would pay the driver 200 Sri Lankan rupees for the experience, which sometimes involved racing the tuk-tuks carrying others from the BTCV team and other times coming to a halt to make way for an unknown theatrics or festival in the street.

The times we went out for dinner we would dine at places clearly named to attract English speaking visitors (i.e. "Rodeo" and "Serendib"). I maintained a very conservative approach to food, pretty much avoiding anything I didn't recognize and trusting only fish and french fries along with either the sugar formula Coke or alcohol formula Lion Lager.

We had great times at these dinners learning about the interests of everybody. One of the best instances was when my roommate for the trip ordered a White Russian and MySister shot me a quick, "Don't you dare expose your delirious appreciation of the 1998 movie by Joel & Ethan Coen" glance. I bit my lip, only to jump on the opportunity when the drink was appropriately referenced by another on the team during dinner on another night.

Something that also needs to be noted: the Sri Lankan interpretation of Western Music. The most consistent genre played was Pop 80s, but when it wasn't that it was Bryan Adams. It became a running joke as we couldn't go a single day without hearing Bryan Adams in the ambient noise of Sri Lanka. And I'm not just talking about that song from the Costner movie - there were multiple "hits" from the man.  It didn't help (or maybe it did help) that one of the BTCV team is an admitted fan of Bryan Adams. MySister wants me to make a mixtape to commemorate the trip. I told her I couldn't because, "half the disc would be Bryan Adams!"

Monday, September 5, 2011

Can I cricket?

While I was in Sri Lanka both the NFL & NBA (my two favorite professional sports leagues) were in lockouts. Even if there were actual football and basketball games during my time away, I would not have seen any of it. Sports seems to start and stop with cricket in Sri Lanka. Sure, other sports exist - but they are background thoughts at the very least.

I did have some American Sports withdraw while I was away. There was nothing I could do but trust that my fantasy baseball team (named Negombo Cricket Club) would continue to win while I was away "scouting talent" as I joked on the league's message board. There was something to fill the void: a 24 hour Cricket TV channel. (footnote: my fantasy baseball team won every week I was away in route to an eventual championship - my first in 11 seasons)

Thankfully there were three foreign born (Scotland & South Africa) members of the BTCV team that were able to give me an initial understanding of the sport. Another teammate from Georgia (the American state, not the former Soviet nation) had bought a Cricket for Dummies book for the trip and had graciously given it to me. Later the same generous Georgian gave me a cricket bat purchased at a roadside market. My transformation to Meatball Cricket fan was complete when I purchased a Sri Lankan Cricket jersey.

For those that aren't aware of the "Meatball" adjective in relation to sports fandom: it refers to someone who is very much an outwardly appearance of a huge fan, adorned in team gear and loudly cheers for a specific team regardless that knowledge of the sport/team is questionable at best.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Do you like yardwork?

My Father laughed heartily when I told him, "There's nothing like the smell of fresh cut grass when you know you don't have to cut it" a few years ago. The Saturdays of my youth were tormented by being yelled awake - a call to yard work duty.

It's been almost seven years since "Q-Manor" was sold. Seven years since my parents moved to a townhouse located in a housing community that does all their yard work for them (for an association fee of course). Five years ago I also found myself writing a monthly check to an association that funded the yard work of others. Yard work is not something I miss.

The hardest day that I've ever worked in my parents yard multiplied by the largest snowfall I had to shovel, does not compete with one day working with Be The Change Volunteers. Did I mention that I was the youngest member of the team? Well, I was. Did I let that stop me from being overtly strategic on when I would "check up on MySister" in consistent intervals while awaiting the next "tea time" break? Absolutely not.

Every time I saw a student in uniform I noticed how impeccably white and clean it was. I would arrive at the school and would be instantly dirty. I also sweated profusely every day and didn't see the bit of exhaustion on any of the locals that helped. For the record, I understand that a surgeon is going to be better than me in the fine detail of paint edging with a brush - but to also have other team members (also medical professionals) able to work a shovel better than me is another thing.

All my bellyaching aside, I know that I helped. The fact that I was there to contribute is better than if I was not there. It helped me reinforce my decision: for every large stone I carried and cement bucket I filled was further proof that I wasn't just taking a vacation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

What did you listen to?

I'm very proud that I was able to "disconnect" to the extent I did for over 16 days. Even though it resulted in a missing something incredibly major, I didn't look at one website and was totally absent from any social media. However, I was not without my iPod. In addition to being vital to my airline survival, I just don't think I can go that long without some level of control in the music I hear.

All respect to ARASH and Bryan Adams, I need my own tunes. And because I know my music isn't universally liked, let alone even known, to people I'm usually around - I need my iPod.

One of my routines I loved in Sri Lanka was taking a nightly stroll on the beach, feet in the Indian Ocean, just before sunset. After I would return from an exhausting day at the school, and a lovely to say the least shower, I would take my iPod for a stroll before the team met for dinner.

Here are just three of the songs that provided an awesome soundtrack to my most reflective and isolated moments on the other side of the world:

"God Moving Over The Face Of The World" by Moby (One of my favorite, if not #1, song all-time. Was chosen purposely to be the first song to play on the Indian Ocean)

"Terrible Love" by The National (Chosen for the obvious "it takes an ocean not to break" line)

"Literal" by The Calm Blue Sea (A newer song, that I like for its lack of lyrics and chose to share here for the apt band name)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Do they have toilets in Sri Lanka?

During the evening of Wednesday August 3, 2011 I wrote an inspired post in my Moleskine. It was titled "The morning I lost my innocence" and was ultimately deemed too graphic to share verbatim. Shortly after my return I told a PG-13 version of the tale to my parents, which was able to produce the rare feat of getting my Mother to laugh to the point of tears.

So that story is going to be kept as a "to tell" and not one that will be preserved for all the Internet to behold.

Here's the thing I want to mention about toilets in Sri Lanka: They exist.
More importantly I want to mention: They should exist more!

Luckily (and most thankfully) all the hotels I stayed at while in Sri Lanka had the type of toilets we've all grown to appreciate, value and take for granted in America. The school we volunteered at did not.

I didn't really think twice about that squat toilet at the school until the first weekend in Sri Lanka, when we took a bus ride from Negombo up to Anuradhapura. Along the way we drove through a market; one of the shops in the market was a housewares type store that sold sinks, pipes, and toilets among other such items. They had on display both a standard toilet and a squat toilet for sale.

Wait, what?

If you are building a bathroom in Sri Lanka, and you go to the local toilet shop, why would you even want the squat option? In summary, the source of my confusion about squat toilets is not that that they exist, but why they exist in places in which it's not the only option?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How were we welcomed?

The van stopped and we were there.
There was no big driveway, no large sign visible from far down the road (the usual trappings of a school in America). I was too busy looking at the tropical surroundings during the commute to realize we had gotten there -  I felt more like I was going to be an extra on the set of Lost than going to a school - the stop of the van was my only warning that we had arrived.

The campus of the school consists of a 200 yard long (nearly 45 degree angled slope) hill with school house structures on both sides. There was a white and blue (the school colors) balloon arc at the school's entrance, with all 300+ school children lining the path up the middle of the school to the top of the hill. Each student was dressed in their school uniform - waving small flags and large smiles.

The Welcome at Pope Paul II School (Sri Lanka)
As we walked up the hill, I realized that there were more than just school children welcoming us. The kids were in the front bordering our path, but behind them were their parents and others from the surrounding community. They were all there to welcome us, I never felt more like a rockstar in my entire life. But my rockstar feeling wasn't so much a yeah, we're here - let's rock, as rather a feeling of you all are hear for us? really? I better produce what you want.

I'm not sure if that last line has the intention I want - I was struck by the gravity of the situation I had placed myself. I was wondering if I had out drove my headlights, bitten off more than I can chew, (insert a metaphor that illustrates an underestimation).  I've always considered myself a "good" person but this was a venue for a "great" person. That's the feeling of a cautious rockstar, wondering if the venue booked was too large and would ultimately wreck a career.

The large scale of the welcome was thankfully overpowered by the small individual reinforcements that I noticed. The large crowd was generally stoic and at a distance when the nearby children were reaching out with individual greetings. I kept my focus on saying hello back and making eye contact with as many sincerely excited kids.
International Language of Smiles (Sri Lanka)

There was a formal welcome ceremony including a presentation of the school by the principal, speeches by both students and teachers, and a rite that I don't understand well enough to document. I did not take as many pictures as others on the team because I thankfully realized how much of "a moment" was occurring and I wanted to live and experience it as much as I could (which meant not looking at a 4 inch display of it on my camera).

Without a doubt, it was the International Language of Smiles that got me through that nerve wrecked initial moments and stamina challenging first day at the school.
Students welcoming a teacher