Crude Statement
I really appreciate the butt-washing apparatus in my bathroom. It resembles nothing so much as a kitchen-sink-sprayer but it’s attached to the wall between the toilet and shower. Not only is it good for butt-washing (I begin to understand why people here think using paper is dirty and gross), it’s excellent for foot-washing, something one wants to do often under the road conditions of rainy-season-mud. I sit on the closed toilet and cheerfully scrub’n’rinse with reachable soap, aimable water, and casual aplomb.
Let the Nice Life Go Along With You

Hear hear! Give thanks for being in Sri Lanka, sayeth Jill Gavin and I in a remarkably poor caricature of a Thanksgiving lunch. (Rice and two lame curries. That restaurant came recommended, even! Harumph.) We hadn’t really even planned to have a “Thanksgiving lunch” but just to hang out, and then I was reminded that oh, it’s Thanksgiving.

The title, above, is imprinted on the handles of some pretty plastic spoons I bought. I think the set is from Japan; who else but the Japanese puts such things on plasticware? Each spoon is labeled with the name of a fruit and a nice little color drawing of that fruit. I find them charmingly cheerful. Each time I grab one from my glassful of cutlery, I have a moment of delightful anticipation—what fruit, today? Watermelon! Apple! Mango! The phrase is a good mantra for me, half blessing and half ‘hakuna matata.’

Yesternight I wrote long and hard in my journal about last Thanksgiving. I saw things I had never seen before:

“…it may have been the first time I realized how irrevocably we are all getting older, all the time—words deepening in complexity and savor in mouths as we speak them. I started seeing the family—both my families—not as people who happened to be related, but as people who chose, year by year, to relate; to come together and torment and love one another as only family (of biology and habit and grit) can do. Plans are made, dates are set, side dishes cooked, favors done, small niceties remembered. It’s all intentional, and I am so grateful.”

So, thanks, family. Remind each other to read this, as I’m not following through on my promise of pinging people when I post. As you can see, my use of em-dashes and semicolons and horrid run-on sentences is even more lavish in my private writing. Curses on the finished thought!

I would have been more thankful yesterday if the darn Peradeniya Library people would stop being such sticks-in-the-mud regarding my application for Postgraduate Reader status. (Doesn’t that sound lovely?) They will accept me, but want me to pay the way-exorbitant rate of Rs.600/ a month for library access. We’re not talking about taking books out, by the way; this is just to get in the door and read stuff. You can’t even bring outside books in, just pen and paper and a small purse if you’ve got one. So annoying! I should be able to pay the local rate of Rs.100/ a month, as I have a residence visa and I work at a local institution which is technically affiliated with the University.

However, the head librarian says that “space is at a premium” in the reading rooms. Total lie, they’re always at least 90% empty—like, rows upon rows of chairs in carrels. He implied that the higher price was thus to discourage me from being there, which is ridiculous. They know that they can basically extort the money from me, because I’m a foreigner and probably have it. It’s totally unjustified, though.
I feel a little guilty about this because I’m thinking of joining a gym at the rate of Rs.750/ a month. Obviously my work should merit at least similar financial consideration. However realistically I am going to go to the gym at least twice a week; not so with the library cuz my office has a pretty good one. Maybe I can get the Fulbright Commission to pay my library access fees. Besides twice-weekly gym visits will do immeasurably more for my self-esteem than twice-weekly library schleps.


Woman Sues Over Loss of Breasts, Doctor Sues Over Loss of Reputation
(a headline in today's Island, the Herald of Sri Lanka)

I'll let you figure that one out for yourself. The article was about two column inches long. We're not talking about a tabloid, folks; this is one of the older and more widely read papers in the country.

In other news, have people been following the political shit that's going down here? Last week a Supreme Court judge was assassinated, presumably by LTTE cadres but no one is saying for sure because that would be finger-pointing on a grand scale. It must have been a very secret thing of course, because all officials at that level are highly guarded. That no one has been caught means it was REALLY sophisticated; usually assassins are predictably cornered and shot dead. I'm sure this inspires confidence in you statesiders.

The (wack, politically adept but falled into her own snares of late) President declared, with the certainty that goes along with the Executive Presidency here, that the death penalty would be reinstated in order that it might be used against the assassins, when they are found. And you thought Bush had power! Well. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty (in a Buddhist country, folks) three guys have been condemned to hang for murder and conspiracy. Unrelated to the judge guy. Sri Lanka has ordered four new special hanging ropes from China and is training the youngest hangman in the island's history.

The Norwegian moderators of the peace process have all but decamped, not because things are dangerous for them personally but because the talks have stalled. A delegation from the Norwegian government, much more powerful than the SLMM (--Monitoring Mission), visited last week and prodded the LTTE to stop their human rights abuses, like recruiting kids and shooting folks in their beds, and criticized the government for restricting regional authorities more than they previously agreed was appropriate. At heart this conflict is regional and minority representation in a country that is ridiculously, inefficiently, corruptly centrally administered.

If that weren't enough, well, Saturday is Martyr's Day, when charismatic/deadly LTTE leader Prabhakaran typically makes a big speech about all the stuff that has gone down in the past year and what's to come in the next. As you might predict, this is not a happy holiday for most Sri Lankans; I mean, he's the orchestrator of about 20 year's worth of the last 40 years' civil unrest.

How this plays out for me is harder to analyze. I have a deep attachment to this country and these people. I also have a certain arrogance, related to being a northeastern liberal Amerikan, that the problems are not really so complicated, and the guns that are being stuck to (in some cases quite literally) are really, really pointless, and we'd all be better off if Some People in government and civil society both would stop being so stubborn.

I even get this feeling with people I love and respect--my Sinhala teacher, for one. He's one of my favorite people here; constantly happy, overjoyed when you (I) learn anything, easy to make laugh, sympathetic, infectiously enthusiastic about any experiences or insights you (I) have. I don't like to talk politics with him because I know he actually believes the plan for regional devolution of governmental powers is a ploy orchestrated by the LTTE to start a separate country. He supports the Wack President. He's not entirely wrong though...

It's a case where both sides, the Government and the LTTE, have broken so many rules, so many expectations, so many agreements--so many times--that a stalemate seems like the only possible solution. People are exhausted, and the merits of "peace" as opposed to "no war" (significant difference; one involves a settlement and disarmament) are not well understood and not desirable to all.

Case in point: a major incentive to peace, under the previous government, was that development, investment by international corporations and funding from nongovernmental sources would simply flood the economy once a strong ceasefire held up and progress was apparent in negotiations. For many reasons, including that the Wack Prez dissolved the government as is her wont and habit, that didn't happen. Poor folks stayed poor, and rich folks didn't suffer, and the prices of rice and petrol keep rising. Suddenly peace is irrelevant and expensive and detrimental to (many) people's vision of a strong nation, because we've got to Compromise, Settle, Share Power. This is after all a socialist country and folks expect the government to Provide. A government that is engaged in a negotiated attrition of power isn't one focused on getting the bread (rice) on the table (banana leaf) and the monks in the temples.

In some ways they were right. Development isn't guaranteed or even likely to help the poorest people's economic woes, and will probably exacerbate their perceived poverty by elevating the attractiveness of consumer goods and Western values. A country as proud of its history (disputed as that history is) and culture (divisive as that culture is) as this one had better be careful about what is getting imported along with all those potential jobs. The newspapers, even the better ones, are chock-full-o'-editorials about the need for a return to Lankan values.

Those values, as I am fond of pondering while enjoying my third teatime of the day, really have something going on: respect for family and leisure time, disregard for making a lot of money or getting ahead, devotion to personal life and introspection. Sri Lankans are not workaholics or greedy or ignorant, in ways that are inconsistent with how many of them are undereducated or unexposed to the world. Their values really are worthwhile, and certainly for me, a good antidote to the anxious frenzied individualistic cults of Amerika.

Enough political/psychological rambling. I can only hope that the ceasefire holds and the stalemate at least continues if not improves. Martyr's Day, I'm having a tea/cocktail party. Unrelatedly.
Has anyone read A Room With a View? It's so good. Unfortunately it's short. I watched "Mona Lisa Smile" yesterday and was disappointed by how little I found to criticize in it; was hoping for more covert feminism-bashing and censure of female liberation even as the movie sought to promote it. It seemed pretty nuanced and unobvious, except for the part where Julia Stiles explains her desire to Really Be a Housewife, in this stupidstupidstupid fakey Boston Brahmin accent. The synchro scene was far too short, as well.

and, for some laughs--
topics for possible descriptive analysis: vote for your favorite! these are all funny but Old News.
1. My two stalkers, by the names of "Sham" and "Buddhi" (say it with me: Booty).
2. My career as a homewrecker has just begun.
3. My valiant efforts not to pay an exorbitant Rs.600/ a month to use the friggin' library.
You just can't make this stuff up.


Good Taste is its Own Punishment
or it is laziness and greed?

Waiting for the page to load. Waiting for the page to load.
Oh, there was that little bit of chocolate left from dessert--three squares of Lindt; what's the harm in that?
Stand up. Attempt to walk around desk.
Snag pants on edge of open metal drawer. Raise small welt on leg and RIP MOST COMFORTABLE PANTS IN THE WORLD!

...or at least, the most comfortable pants that I own and can wear publicly. Somehow wearing scrubs on the street in Kandy just doesn't command the kind of respect that scrub-clad people in stateside metropoli usually get. I'll just have to mend them. (In the middle of the fabric! augh! They'll never be decent enough to attend Embassy functions again!)

In other food news, dinner was borderline. I made tofu (plus) with broccoli (plus) and other veg (meh.) in a spicy (yes) sesame (yes) garlic (yes) curry leaf (NO NO NO) sauce. This all after another exhausting yoga class. My shoulder is really causing me problems and I ought really to a) get a bag that's not exacerbating the asymmetry of my back and b) find a chiropractor. Both of these are difficult-to-impossible.

Working theory about why yoga makes me almost-cry every time:
1. Janaka is a tyrant and will come and shove you around into the proper positions. Ow.
2. I keep stress and sadness in my lower back and/or hamstrings and therefore any stretching releases difficult feelings.
3. I have my period, and last week I was revving up for it, and the first week I was really really out of shape.
4. Some part of me can't handle the fact that I am arguably the worst student in the class, and certainly the only one who can't do backbend-pushups.
(5. I keep having what I can only assume are stress dreams where I am infinitely flexible. Could someone analyze this in a nonobvious way for me?)

I'll get around to outlining the grand tour of Dad and Kathleen ("my parents" to bloody half of the country; sorry Mom, remind me to tell you about "stepmother" in Sinhala) tomorrow or so. I have many tasks to do and one of them is have Sinhala class at 8:30 tomorrow for which the homework is not done. I should also describe this dream I had:
Star Wars + Stargate + The Amber Spyglass (Philip Pullman) + pirates + complicated semiotics of color + Cirque du Soleil + ancient ruins in Sri Lanka


Packaging Antics

"Fried Salted Jumbo Peanuts
If you're nuts over peanuts, here's something to make you even nuttier!
A nutty appetizer--A nutty picnic companion--Your child's nutty friend--Makes family times nuttier
The Oxygen absorber keeps foods fresh. Do not eat."

One packet peanuts: Rs.21/
Entertainment: priceless!
Now imagine the four 'nutty' phrases illustrated with scary line drawings.
I want to be someone's nutty friend.
Where My Hip-Openers At?

I finally found a yoga class! And went to it, and it kicked my ass. In a good way. I am extremely sore today. It’s at a hotel above the lake in Kandy and in a lovely space which just happens to be a sort of large hallway enroute to a bunch of the hotel’s rooms. We yogaed intensively with random people walking through at times. The teacher, Janaka, focuses on backward-bending stuff, which is the bitter medicine I need. I do find myself yearning for Swarthmore Power Yoga, on squishy mats, breathing aggressively, with plentiful “hip-openers.” It just doesn’t feel like yoga without at least ten minutes of Pigeon poses.

Janaka introduced me to his [English] wife Billy, who apparently has been living in Sri Lanka fo-eva. They have two adorable kids. They make a great pair, in some literary sense; he has a lazy eye (like, really really lazy) and she has/had a cleft palate. She looks and sounds like Wendolene from “A Close Shave,” but pretty. What accent is that anyway? Aaron, you reading this?

They gave me a ride down to Kandy-town where I purchased, among other sundries, carrot-based “vegetable sausages.” They were pretty good with soup (what else? As predicted, I cook nothing but) for dinner. The sausage package didn’t have an ingredients list so I can only hope they weren’t meaty somewhere deep inside. Didn’t taste like it.

Am trying to plan Dad and Kathleen’s trip and I keep running up against the problem that living here and visiting here are really really different things. I have to figure out how to show them as much stuff as possible without making the whole trip a mad scramble from place to place. My instinct is to allow leisurely chillin’ but of course Kathleen isn’t much one for that. Mad scramble it is, then.

One thought about cockroaches: why do they bother me so much in the kitchen and not at all outside the house? I have now successfully removed two from the premises (though one hung around, yearning for my company, I think) and each time found myself horrified to discover them but totally indifferent once I had got them out the door. Pinker writes about the evolutionary usefulness of a stomach-turning response to grossness and I know what he means; it’s a revulsion I feel almost on a cellular level.
Why can't I write an internally coherent blog?


photos should be working better. check it out.
Sorry, Mom, but you're just too wonderful

from this morning's email:
it's been a long day, i'm still not jiggy with the new time, and after a week of poor sleeping because of the time change, i'm exhaustamundo.
(did i use the term 'jiggy' correctly?? i hope it doesn't mean anything to do w/sex... but i just can't recall if it has wider ranging uses... ah, sleep).
Yes, you've used it correctly. Yes, it does have to do with sex, but only in a mild way. (Comments, assorted slang-observant peeps?) Hope your 'exhaustamundo' abates and I promise not to put more of your charming emails on here...too often at least.
Bush honday naeae!
Sinhala pantiya goDDak amaruy, needa?

This morning was one of those extended arising sessions that make you feel like you barely slept. I woke up at 6.25 and spent the next hour-plus waking up every ten minutes and thinking, oh, I can go back to sleep. When 8 rolled around* I hauled myself out of bed to find a beautiful day outside and hustled through a shower in order to be presentable for my 8.30 Sinhala lesson.

Two years ago I had two Sinhala teachers, Kamini and Herath. Kamini is a 70+ year old super-strict hilarious aristocratic Anglophile woman who’s taught several decades’ worth of diplomatic folks; Herath is a jolly and avuncular** fellow whose speech in both languages is characterized by a lot of excited exclamations and unfeigned shock. He’s awesome and I’m so happy to have private lessons with him.

Our lesson today consisted of three short paragraphs in Sinhala which I would read to him and then slowly translate and discuss. The topics today were ‘Rain,’ ‘Walking,’ and ‘Fruits.’ I feel I should offer a translation so that you-all will get a sense of where my language skills are at:

These days it rains from time to time. It’s hard to say what time it will rain. Because of that, you always want to keep an umbrella in your hand. Some days it rains from morning until evening. It won’t dry up even a little.
My house is a bit far away. Therefore, I can’t walk every day. But, walking is very good exercise—although if you do it every day you will get tired of it. So some days I go by three-wheeler. From town to my house the driver will take fifty rupees. That’s not a big amount.
In Sri Lanka there are a lot of kinds of fruit. Some types of fruit are very tasty. They grow in the dry zone (ed: not the mountains). The dry zone fruits are very tasty. I like mango, woodapple, pear, and anoda type fruits a lot. But those are a bit sour. It’s hard to eat them if they’re not ripe. You can eat some types of fruit when they’re unripe. Kids often like to eat sour mangoes (ed: me too!). You can’t eat anoda or durian type fruits when they’re unripe.

My conversations are, shall we say, limited. I have noticed since the election that my Sinhala is perfect to express my opinions on American politics: “Bush is bad for all the people—American people and Sri Lankan people both. He says he will care for the people but he does not. He is always telling lies. He takes money from poor people and gives it to rich people. He makes a big war and because of that the schools are broken and the people suffer. It would be better if we had a monkey for President.” Any more complicated views I have are really just commentary on this elegantly succinct phrase: “Bush is a bad man.” (vide title!)

*It never before occurred to me that a time ‘rolling around’ is a phrase particularly suited to describing those old-school ‘digital’ clocks where the numbers are on little strips of plastic and they flip over, or the ones on actual rollers which turn. It’s pretty stupid to describe such a thing on a fully digital clock where the time lights up…
**it doesn’t sound like it, Mr. Kholawitski.

Constructive Escapism: Vol. X
I'm so thankful for weekends

So I went to the beach, and then to Colombo for to watch the election. Was out about a week and now that I’m back it’s the weekend and I can’t get anything done except copious reading of election analysis, which is pretty pointless: Phil Frayne, the head of the cultural wing of the Embassy, told me on Thursday, ‘you can read all the articles you want, but Bush will still have won.’ Phil’s a nice guy; excellent taste in suits though he looks like a tall young Jewish Richard Nixon. He also has a lisp, for those of you who know what that means. He’s the official chair of the Fulbright board so technically he’s my uber-boss or something, but he has pretty much nothing to do with us.

Anyway it’s been a while and I feel I’ve got to say something about my travels and thoughts. After this much time who cares about chronicling stuff—especially as the stuff fades in memory and emotions which were so strong at the time of their presence come to seem faintly quaint in retrospect.
Case in point: I cried three times during the election returns on Wednesday. By Thursday morning when I woke up I was pretty resigned. Since then my shame-fear stuff has more or less abated into crusty, prickly, angry, rueful indignation.

Side note: shame-fear is an important Sri Lankan concept; called ‘lajja-baya’ in Sinhala, it’s the essential quality that keeps people in line socially. It’s sort of like embarrassment to the nth degree—encompassing shyness, and respect for social norms, and fear of being singled out or noticed for one’s behaviour.
Actually the election made me the opposite of lajja-baya; it put me over the edge a bit, in terms of proper comportment. I had zero patience for the usual bullshit like guys catcalling on the street. Instead of ignoring them (a constant thing) I went around Colombo swearing at men. I realized that this was going in a bad direction when I told two on-duty, uniformed policemen to go fuck themselves. The police are wildly unprofessional here—as in, they were leering at me instead of directing traffic—so you don’t want to mess with them, and they’re no help in a crisis. I reined it in after that.

Sometimes I think that’s why they’ve had so much damn civil unrest here, from the LTTE war to the socialist-youth uprisings of the 50s, 70s, 80s… the culture doesn’t allow forceful individuality, and isn’t peacefully communalist like, say, America. (No, I really believe that!) So instead of people expressing themselves and joining together to work out problems, they are really nice and restrained all the time, and privately harbor all kinds of hateful prejudices, even the ‘liberals.’ Women in particular have little daily outlet for the anger that comes with being subtly socially oppressed, as with this harassment thing.

It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t lived here. Sri Lankan public life is essentially different from American/Western public life in this huge, paradoxically unobvious way: here there is comparatively little ‘public space’ in terms of parks, cafes, museums, restaurants, etc. I mean, all those things exist; they just don’t get the kind of use that we think of. Imagine Copley Plaza: people hang around casually, they get coffees at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, they sit on benches, meet their friends, and so forth. In Sri Lanka the public facilities (like parks) are not in good repair and the food outlets are places to eat, not social places. (Most people don’t talk while eating, it’s not a social occasion.) You would never just stop by the park or at a shop on your way home from work—the social world is structured around being at home or visiting friends at their homes or maybe among elites making shopping/eating plans together. I’m exaggerating here, but not hugely. Society is just that much more formal.

How this relates to the female-harassment thing is as follows. Since there is so little public life, it follows that anyone out on the roads in public must have a reason to be there: you’re enroute someplace, you’ve got a meeting or an errand. A woman’s place is in the home or taking care of children or working at certain types of jobs. If you’re not demonstrably doing one of those things (ie you’re walking, not with kids, not wearing a sari or business clothes, young, reasonably attractive, alone…) you’re outside propriety and respect. Especially foreigners are liable to get whistled at or spoken to, because of money—why are you walking? Why aren’t you in a car with a driver? Being in a car, besides giving you an actual spatial boundary, also indicates that you know your place in society classwise.
Blah blah blah.

So, right: I’ve just returned from dinner at Jill’s house with one of the Phantom Phulbrighters, people who are on the email lists but no one has met. He seems like a cool guy—ISLE ’99, doing a PhD in Buddhism at UVA, speaks Tamil as well as Sinhala, doesn’t cook. We made rice and curry (big shock there) and it was good. This after a day of neighborhood activities: working on photo uploading (look, look! at the links list!) and visiting my tailor friend twice (running out of Sinhala both times) and boiling water for later consumption (and spilling a full kettle of it on my kitchen floor). Two steps forward, one step back. My host family seems to have flown the coop. Usually when they go out of town they have someone come stay at the house to babysit it, but no one was there all day. (I can see into their front yard from my verandah.)

I tired. More about the beach and the fiasco later.
Oh, those pictures—take a look.
The ones of me are trying to convey my current haircut. Did I blog about that? No? Well, it took an hour and a half in a very posh Colombo salon and was incredibly masterful and precise and delicate. After all that I barely do anything to it vis-à-vis styling.
The ones of the apartment are from when I first moved in; I have more junk now but it’s still pretty spare. I can’t figure out how to photograph the place well, but believe me, it’s lovely. I didn’t upload the photo of the square toilet, you’ll have to just imagine it.
The peeps are as follows: the two girls are Jill (in black) and Malka (in pink), my best girlies here; the sunset is us drinking cocktails on the patio at the fancy schmancy Galle Face Hotel the night before the election (the sun represents the falling/failing light of democracy), and the group is, from left, Samir Lori Malka Jeremy Jill Tod. They are the other Juniors—Lisa is missing, as is Gavin. That was post-tasty-Thai in the lead-up to the apocalypse. I took only a few post-apocalypse and I’ll spare you the good times. There were drinks in hands, let it be known.

Someone write me an email please… now that I have internet at home I am starting to check it, like, three times a day. It’s like college!


The Ramen is Better Here Too
Small package, red rice noodles, curry flavour… best consumed for tea with Maliban cheese-bits (like Cheez-its; less orange) and Munchee Lemon Puffs. I never eat this much junk food in the States.


It's 2:17 pm in Colombo on November 3rd...
I will try to write later (once I get back to Kandy ie) about the Embassy election party and my preceding trip to the beach (niiiice) but right now all I can think of is the utter shame and fear that are accompanying the election returns for me.
After a tense six hours I don't know what to think. The popular vote alone is enough to turn my stomach--how can people believe in him? Vote for him? Agree with what he's been doing and promises to do? Is this the death knell of the Democratic Party? Is this America?