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Ancient Cities, Part 2

Somehow, five years later, I’ve realized that I never uploaded pictures of Polonnaruwa, and my blog doesn’t really seem complete without them.  Here are some pictures of one of Sri Lanka’s other ancient, and very amazing city.

Forest monastery in the dry zone:

Our trusty friend and tuk tuk driver, Sangeeth at Polonnaruwa:

Meeting hall at Polonnaruwa:

Sinha, or lion:


Reclining Buddhas at Polonnaruwa:


Last Days in Lanka

I’ve been back in the US for one month, adjusting to a different, less hectic but more busy, pace of life, and now finally have the time to write about my last week in Sri Lanka.

After my trip with my dad and stepmother I had five days to pack up and say goodbye to my friends and the people who’d helped me with my research. Sunday afternoon I had lunch with my friends Abeera and Tharshiya, the two women who’d worked for me doing Tamil translation during my research. We had a fun lunch at the Royal Mall Restaurant, which was very busy. We talked about the tentative results of my research, work they were doing at the university, and more everyday stuff like our boyfriends and families.

Tuesday I went to say goodbye to my advisor at the University of Peradeniya, and to the staff at the Kadugannawa MOH who’d helped me so much. I wanted to bring a present to say thank you, and my friend/ driver Sangeeth suggested I bring a fruit basket from the Kandy Market. Well, what a basket. Each basket weighed about twenty pounds and was filled  to the brim with fruit.


Traveling down the road in a three wheeler with two large fruit baskets was a challenge; I had to keep my hand on both baskets to keep them from tipping and spilling, but my advisor and the MOH doctor were both impressed by the gigantic fruit basket, and it seemed like the perfect gift.

My last day in Kandy was one of the best of my whole  stay. I spent the morning packing, and in the afternoon went to Child Action Lanka, where I’d been volunteering a few hours a week teaching English to street kids. Debs, the director, and the children threw me a small party that included cake, and a present of a very nice necklace. Since it was my last afternoon, I decided to skip the English tutoring and play some of the kids’ favorite games, including hide and go seek, and red light, green light, which the children had renamed ‘red and green.’  I also took pictures of the kids, and they took some good ones of me.

Kids and me at Child Action Lanka

Kids and me at Child Action Lanka


Achini, Harshani, Dinushka, and Lasantha

That evening Sangeeth had me over for dinner with his family, and I got to meet his kids for the first time. His sons were three and seven, and were lively and funny. Sangeeth and his wife had prepared me a meal of rice and ten curries.

Rice and ten curries

Rice and ten curries

I did my best to be a good guest and eat as much as possible, but the amount of food was overwhelming. As a thank you present I gave Sangeeth a set of photos of places we’d visited with my family. His sons were very impressed with the pictures of him with elephants. They also liked my camera, and wanted to see every picture I took of them right after it was taken, including this one of them pretending to sleep.

Sangeeth's kids, pretending to sleep

Sangeeth's kids, pretending to sleep

After dinner, Sangeeth and his older son drove me home down his hill, and up mine, and I stayed up into the night to finish my packing.

In the morning I took a van to Colombo to visit my friends there before my flight Friday morning. I had lunch with Ramya, one of the staff from the Fulbright office, and then spent the afternoon doing some last minute bargain hunting at House of Fashions, basically a four story clearance for Sri Lankan made garments. My last night in Sri Lanka I went out to dinner at the Mango Tree, an excellent Indian Restaurant, with the other Fulbrighters who were still in the country.

Next morning I took a cab to the airport, went through a Sri Lankan military checkpoint one last time, and got on my flight home to America.

Ancient Cities, part 1

My Dad and stepmother, Sophie, came to visit during my second to last week in Sri Lanka. They spent a few days in Kandy before we went up to see the ancient cities in the dry zone. Our first day of traveling we managed to see three sites, the Hindu temple in Matale, the Dambulla Cave Temple, and Sigiriya Rock.

The Hindu temple in Matale is the largest in Sri Lanka. Most of the temple is fairly new, built in the last decade or so, but it is very very big. Our guide seemed to know everything about the temple and all the Hindu gods, though my dad and Sophie had some difficulty understanding what he was saying because they weren’t yet accustomed to Sri Lanka English. It was cool to hear that both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka visit the temple.


Next stop was Dambulla to see the famous cave temples. I figured that a cave would be under the ground, but instead it was on top of a steep hill up a long set of steps. The paintings are under a ledge on a rock face that has been walled in to create the tamples. The five caves are filled with thousands of paintings and hundreds of statues of the Buddha of all sizes.

Buddha's feet in Dambulla cave temple

Buddha's feet in Dambulla cave temple

On our walk down we stopped to watch a snake charmer with a king cobra. Sophie was scared and hid behind me while the snake was out of its basket. The charmer told us that the snake had no venom, but it was still a little frightening to see a real live cobra.

Snake charmer

Snake charmer

Next we visited Sigiriya Rock, where I’d been once before with my sister. On a second viewing, the ancient rock fortress was still amazing.  The design of the gardens seems so modern, and the site is so picturesque that it is easy to imagine what life was like there 1,500 years ago.

Top of Sigiriya Rock

Top of Sigiriya Rock

After all those stairs we headed to our hotel in Giritale, near Polonnaruwa. Around dusk the staff at the hotel showed us a herd of elephants on the other side of a man-made lake. The dry zone is dotted with these lakes, called tanks, or in Sinhala “wewa,” that were built during the first flowering of Sinhalese culture. They are part of a complex irrigation system that is still used today.

The next morning we woke up early to visit Anuradhapura, the first and longest capital of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was the capital from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE, which, according to our guide,  makes it the longest continuous capital in history. At its height the city supported a large population, and several Buddhist colleges for scholars from all over the ancient world. After the collapse of the ancient Sinhalese culture, the city was taken over by jungle and forgotten by most people. During the British colonial period the city was uncovered, and today it is once again a center for Buddhists pilgrims, and for tourists throughout the world.

We started our day at Anuradhapura with a visit to the Ruwanwelisaya, a gigantic stupa, 300 feet tall, and 950 ft around.



Most of the other tourists at Anuradhapura were Sri Lankan, some pilgrims, but mostly students. A group of young Muslim boys was walking in line up to the stupa, and when I said “hello” to them, half the students stopped in their tracks, jumbling together in line.

Next we went to see the Jetavanaramaya, the largest brick structures in the world, made with 93 million bricks. It is even bigger than the Ruwanwelisaya at 400 ft high, and after the pyramids in Egypt, it is the biggest structure in the ancient world.

Jetavana Dagoba

Jetavana Dagoba

From far away the dagoba looked almost perfectly shaped, but up close it was possible to see how the bricks had shifted and the shape had become uneven over the last 1,000 years.

We poked around a few more ruins at Anuradhapura before taking a break for lunch. After the heat of the dry zone at mid-day, the air-conditioned restaurant was a real treat. Our guide, Charith, was very knowledgeable about the history of Anuradhapura and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which was wonderful for my dad and Sophie who are both Mahayana Buddhists. At lunch he told us about Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, in Sri Lanka throughout the ages up until now. He also told me he was sure that someday I would become a Buddhist, though I said this was unlikely.

After lunch we decided to visit an forest monastery nearby to escape the heat of the Anuradhapura ruins. The forest monastery was set in an ancient park and was peaceful and quiet. We explored the ruins and then climbed to a viewpoint on top of a hill where we could see the Ruwanwelisaya and Jetavana dagobas in the distance.



So, most of my blog has focused on traveling around Sri Lanka and seeing elephants. But I really have been doing actual productive work and research. My topic is how women in rural areas of the Kandy District, Sri Lanka access maternal health care. I created a survey tool to interview pregnant mothers, mothers with children, and midwives about my topic. The questions focused on how women access care, and whether there are challenges because of geography or language. With the help of four wonderful translators I was able to complete interviews with 142 women at 13 clinics. Five of the clinics were on tea estates, and eight were off the estates.

The interviews were exhausting but very rewarding. My translator and I would travel to villages on the days they were holding maternal and child health clinics and go interview women in attendance. After the interviews the midwives at the clinics would usually stuff us with tea, cakes, and fruit, and wouldn’t even let me wash my cup.

Interviewing a midwife.

Interviewing a midwife.

The interviews took a little over a month to complete, and then another few weeks to enter the survey responses into SPSS (a stats program).

Now I’m trying to write up the results, sorting through survey responses to figure out what’s most important and most interesting. The maternal healthcare system here is great; it is free, and women receive 6-8 visits at their home during pregnancy, and have access to clinics and hospitals for check-ups. This is particularly impressive when you think about the US and our current debate about healthcare and healthcare costs. A pregnant woman in America can expect to spend thousands of dollars on prenatal care and delivery and no one visits her at home. From my research it looks like language and geography still present challenges for women in Kandy District, but given the landscape, huge hills and terrible roads, the district is doing very well.

The best part of my research experience was working with my translators. My advisor at the University of Peradeniya Medical Faculty helped me find four young women, one medical student, and three pre-interns, who were able to work as translators. The waiting list for internships in Sri Lanka is long, so students graduate from medical school and work as pre-interns in the Medical Faculty for a year.

All of my translators had some difficulty understanding what I was saying when we first met because of my thick American accent. Luckily they adapted quickly and were able to understand me well after a few hours. I really enjoyed the chance to talk to women my age about Sri Lanka and the US and the differences and similarities between the two countries. Two of my translators asked me about Black people and how they came to America. Another asked me what I thought about gay people, because she had no idea and hadn’t met any. I was able to ask sensitive cultural questions about Sri Lanka. I learned that one of the fairly minor differences between the Sinhalese and Tamils is that Sinhalese people eat rice at every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, whereas Tamils only have rice at lunch, and would probably eat hoppers, string hoppers, or pittu at other meals.

Now, after all that work, I’m packing up my house and getting ready to leave Sri Lanka.

Family travels, part 3




After leaving the Kandalama, my sister and I went to Sigiriya, a rock fortress built in the 5th century CE, by the King Kassapa, who killed his father, and stole the Sinhalese kingdom from his brother, Mogallana. Kassapa built the palaces and gardens at Sigiriya so he would protected when Mogallana came back from India to reclaim the kingdom. Eventually Mogallana did come back, defeated Kassapa, who died, either in battle, by poison, or by suicide, the history is somewhat unclear. After his death Sigiriya was used by monks, and later by the Kandyan kingdom. 

The gardens around Sigiriya are impressive, and include a water garden, and a boulder garden. The plumbing at these ancient gardens still functions.

View of gardens from the top of Sigiriya Rock

View of gardens from the top of Sigiriya Rock

The walk up the rock involves thousands of steps, but about halfway up, painted on the rockface is a series of beautiful women, now called the Sigiriya Damsels. There is some debate who they were, but even though the paintings are 1500 years old the images seem modern. What surprised me was that the women are topless and quite curvaceous. In modern day Sri Lanka the standards of modesty are rather strict.

Sigiriya Damsels

Sigiriya Damsels



After many stairs, Steph and I made it to the top of the rock and we were the only people there. We walked around the foundations of the palace and the royal buildings. It was very windy on top of the rock, but the views were amazing, and the breeze helped me recover from the climb.


We explored the rock for a while before heading back down all those stairs, and hopping in the car for the drive to Nilaveli, a fishing and beach town north of Trincomalee. The roads to Trinco from Sigiriya were in pretty good shape, but many of them were undergoing construction that slowed our drive. We passed through a few checkpoints as we got closer to the coast. The north and east have been isolated from the rest of the country because of the civil war, and security was more prevalent than anywhere else I’ve been in the country. 

As we drove on the landscape changed from hilly and somewhat green to flat and dry, with almost no vegetation. Once we passed through Trinco and started north to Nilaveli the road deteriorated quickly. Instead of asphalt there was red dirt, and very uneven. The road had been worked on first by a Chinese company, but now a Korean company had taken over. The last 15 km took over an hour. We saw a few UN vehicles speed by, but most local travelers were on bicycles or on foot.

We were happy to arrive at the Nilaveli Beach Hotel and to see the Indian Ocean.  Many Sri Lankans have told me that the east coast beaches are the most beautiful in the country, and after seeing Nilaveli, I agree. The sand was blazingly white, and the ocean aqua blue and clear to the bottom. The east coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami, and tourism in the north and east suffered because of the civil war. Our hotel was very quiet our first night there. The second night a large family, probably thirty people, arrived adding a lively atmosphere.

Bringing in the fishing net, Nilaveli

Bringing in the fishing net, Nilaveli

The hotel was nice, and we had a peaceful few days there, aside from a slight snorkeling misadventure that involved one malfunctioning mask and snorkel, and a long swim back to a boat against the wind and waves.

We left the Nilaveli Beach Hotel and went back down the treacherous road to Trincomalee, where we visited Fort Frederick and the Koneswaram Temple. The fort is on a peninsula, and was built by Portuguese and also used by the Dutch and the British. At the end of the peninsula, up on high cliffs, is the Hindu temple. Nowadays, the fort seems to be have been taken over by the Sri Lankan Army. There was a checkpoint at the entrance and we had to hand over our cellphones and cameras before entering. 

The buildings in the fort are classic British colonial, and were beautiful, but had not been well taken care of. The Koneswaram Temple is the first Hindu temple I’ve been inside, and it was very cool. Even better were the views from the cliffs looking out over Trincomalee and the ocean. The city looked small and peaceful.

Sisters in Trincomalee

Sisters in Trincomalee, just outside Fort Frederick

The drive back to Kandy was long, about six hours, and we were stopped at several checkpoints. At one the police officer opened the hood to try and find the engine number and compare it to the number on the chassis. He wasn’t able to find either, and he let us go after half an hour. I was glad to have a driver, especially one who spoke Sinhala and was able to talk to the police when we were stopped.

Once back in Kandy we went to the Temple of the Tooth for an evening visit. Apparently my skirt was just barely modest enough, and as we went through the security at the temple, the female guard gave it a good tug down so that it would more fully cover my knees. She also asked why I wasn’t wearing a slip. 

The next morning, Steph’s last day in Sri Lanka, we went to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Because it was a Sunday the gardens were busy with families and couples. We wandered around the gardens for an hour, had a rice and curry lunch and then Steph had to go to Colombo for her long trip back to America.

Family Travels, part 2

My sister arrived at the Colombo airport around 8:30 am, and my mom, Sangeeth our driver, and I drove from Kandy to Colombo to meet her. I waited for her in the arrivals area of the Colombo airport where I was the only white woman, and the only person waiting alone. This meant I got some serious stares. There is no taboo about staring, and Sri Lankans have no problem looking long and hard at someone who stands out, something I will probably never get used to. 

After Steph arrived we hopped in the car and started back up to Kandy, with a stop on the way at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. It was drizzling when we arrived so we weren’t able to see the elephants have their bath in the river. Because of the rain there weren’t many people there, and we got to see the new baby elephant, Dinuda, without too much of a crowd. Dinuda was born a week before our visit, on the morning after the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Her name means “New Dawn.” She is very cute.

Dinuda and her mom

Dinuda and her mom

The rain couldn’t keep all the tourists away and we saw one unfortunate man wearing fluorescent short shorts and jelly shoes. He was less cute. I’ve cropped out his face to protect him from further embarrassment.


After the visit to Pinnewala, we came back to my house so Steph could shower and relax after her long trip from the US and then from Colombo to Kandy. 

The next morning we hopped in the car and drove north to the Kandalama Hotel near Dambulla in the cultural triangle. Sri Lanka is a small island, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia, but is very different from one region to the next. Kandy is in the hilly part of the wet zone, but just north, over the Knuckles Range, is the dry zone, where it rains about two months out of the year. This is the area where the Sinhalese originally settled thousands of years ago and set up a complex irrigation system involving huge man-made lakes, referred to as tanks. The Kandalama is in the middle of a forest preserve, and sits on a hill next to one of these tanks. It was designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, to meld with the natural setting. Our trip there was one of the highlights of my stay so far in Sri Lanka.

Everything about the hotel was relaxing and beautiful. The shower had full pressure and nice hot water, and had a view out onto the tank. There were three pools, which the hotel book labeled the most admired pool, the most spacious pool, and the most romantic pool. I swam in two of these, the most spacious and most admired. During our family swim in the most spacious pool a troop of langur monkeys came to join us, sitting by the pool, and even drinking a little of the pool water. The langurs are much bigger than the red-faced macaques we have in Kandy, and are generally much better behaved and less ugly. Eventually the pool attendant had to shoo them away because the langurs were about ready to take over our lounge chairs.

The second day of our stay at the Kandalama we took a jeep safari to see the elephants gathering at the Minneriya Tank, about an hour away from the hotel. During June-September wild elephants come from around the country to find water. We saw a group of about forty elephants, including a few babies. What surprised me was how quiet the elephants were as they grazed. 

Elephants at the Minneriya Tank

Elephants at the Minneriya Tank



On our drive out of the park we saw many peacocks, kingfishers, and the Sri Lankan national bird, the jungle fowl, which looks exactly like a rooster. By this time it was too dark to take pictures, so you will have to use your creativity to imagine the jungle fowl in all its glory.

During our stay at the Kandalama my mother, sister, and I greatly enjoyed our meals. The restaurant in the hotel had delicious food, a mix of east and west, and very courteous but curious staff. The waiters and waitresses were impressed by my baby-talk version of Sinhala. I don’t think most of the foreign tourists can speak any Sinhala at all, so the staff at the restaurant treated me as a real object of interest, and showed me off to their other friends working at the hotel. 

The last day at the Kandalama we had a big breakfast, and then Steph and I said goodbye to our lovely mother who was heading to the Colombo airport, and back to the US later that day. Steph and I went in the opposite direction, to the east coast, first stopping at Sigiriya Rock, and then to Nilaveli, a beach town north of Trincomalee.

Family travels, part 1

The last few weeks have been busy. I finished my interviews just before my mom arrived in Colombo for a two week tour of Sri Lanka. We started her trip with a stay at the Galle Face Hotel, a colonial period hotel with all the modern amenities. It’s wedding season in Sri Lanka and during our two day stay at the Galle Face, we saw eight brides.

The hotel had an expansive high tea service, that included mini-quiche, samosas, tartlets, chocolate mousse, and all other imaginable finger foods. Also, plenty of tea. 

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

We spent our two days in Colombo visiting the National Museum and shopping. Colombo may be hot, dirty, and have crazy traffic, just like people in Kandy say, but there are some shops like Barefoot and Paradise Road that are better than anything else in the country. The National Museum was impressive, but not air-conditioned and after a few minutes I needed a breath of fresh air. From the patio outside the museum I saw kids swinging on the vines of a gigantic tree. They were going really high.

Kids swinging on vines

Kids swinging on vines

After Colombo we went down South to Galle, an Dutch Fort town. We stayed at the beautiful Lady Hill Hotel, on the highest point in Galle with panoramic views of the coast and the Galle Fort.


Our first night in the hotel we were lucky enough to catch the movie “Blades of Glory” starring Will Ferrell, Napoleon Dynamite (I don’t know the actor’s real name), Amy Poehler, and Will Arnett. It was in the original English but had been subtitled in English. The word sex, and other words relating to it, had been edited out of the subtitles, and an important seduction scene was cut, making the plot somewhat difficult to follow.

In the morning we explored the fort, originally built by the Portuguese, then taken over by the Dutch, and then the British. Now the fort is a chic and touristy part of the city. The last time I was there was during the Galle Literary Festival and things were much calmer this time around. Many fewer people, and much easier to walk the streets.

Street in Galle

Street in Galle

After a few days in Galle we drove up to Kandy to stay at my house. The drive up was long, about six hours, and on the way we saw a herd of water buffalo along the road, and a working elephant, his trunk carrying branches.

The first day in Kandy we visited the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, and then went to the Laksala Government Store so my mom could buy cheap and beautiful hand loom fabrics. That afternoon, we decided to spend a night higher up in the hill country, and went to the Tea Factory Hotel in Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya. The drive took three hours, two to get to Nuwara Eliya, and one to make the last 10 kilometers down a bumpy, twisty road to the hotel.

The hotel was amazing. Built inside an old tea factory, the interior was entirely modern even though it retained many of the machinery of the factory. The hotel included a miniature organic tea factory where the hotel’s tea was processed. We had a quick tour and learned about the many steps that turn plucked tea leaves into dried tea, ready to be bought and sold.

Tea Factory Hotel, Kandapola

Tea Factory Hotel, Kandapola

After we got back from the Tea Factory Hotel, we spent one day in Kandy, exploring the sites, including the Temple of the Tooth. My mom was very brave and visited the temple, despite the difficulties posed by going up big, old steps on crutches, and navigating groups of temple-goers. We were there during a puja ceremony and the drummers were playing loudly. 

Painting at Temple of the Tooth

Painting at Temple of the Tooth

 On the way out I had to shield my mom from a large group of children who were visiting the temple. They were very enthusiastic about their visit and were practically bouncing off the walls. Luckily there teachers were there to herd them into a group and restore some order.


Children at the temple

Children at the temple


The day before my sister came, my mom and I went to lunch at the Amaya Hills Hotel with my friends Kris and Tim, professors in Sri Lanka on Fulbright. It felt very normal sitting around with other Americans talking about the challenges and rewards of living and traveling in Sri Lanka.