Reporting

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Reading the news about the war in Sri Lanka can be frustrating. The local papers are unreliable and sensationalistic. Some of them are about as truthful as Us Weekly. This is understandable, given the threats to journalists in the country.

The international news is better, but not always. Because there are no journalists in the war zone they have to rely on the Sri Lankan government, or the Tamil Tigers for information. The BBC acknowledges this in their articles, and seems to do a decent job of staying neutral. The Economist articles have explained the situation in depth, including the history behind the conflict.

The New York Times coverage of the war is very disappointing. 

Their articles use broad generalizations and minimize the diversity of culture and opinions within the country. Yesterday’s article, “Sri Lanka’s Tamils Voice Misgivings, “http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/world/asia/21lanka.html?ref=world, (obviously I don’t know how to properly insert a link), was guilty of this. 

Here were some of the errors and generalizations I found:

The Tamils are closer to 18%, not 12%, of the population in Sri Lanka. About 12% of the overall population is Sri Lankan or Jaffna Tamils, and 6% are Indian Tamils who came over during the British colonial period, many of them to work on tea estates. However, a full census hasn’t been completed since the 1980’s because of the war, so numbers may be inexact, and may not include the northern and eastern parts of the country where many Tamils live.. This could be one reason that many papers are reporting that the Tamils are 12% of the population.

The article says that the Sinhalese are Buddhists and the Tamils are Hindus. In fact, many Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians. The article also neglects to mention that the country has a sizeable, 8%,and important Muslim population living throughout the island.

The reporter refers to Jaffna as a town in the North. Jaffna is the cultural center for many of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, and before the war the city was considered to be the most educated in the country. 

Writing about what may seem like small errors in the news, I feel a little like an old lady yelling at the TV. But I think it’s important to point out the ways that the New York Times has essentialized Sri Lanka’s rich and complex culture(s). It makes me question the quality of their reporting on other topics. I should also point out, that most of the Times articles were reported from Delhi, thousands of miles away from Sri Lanka. 

The net effect of this kind of reporting is to make the war sound like it is between two homogeneous ethnic group, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, rather than showing the situation as complex and nuanced. Sri Lanka may be small, but it is not simple.

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News

Today Sri Lankans are celebrating because the military reported that they had killed LTTE leader Villupillai Prabhakaran. Tomorrow the government will announce that the war is over and present their post-war plan.

I heard that Prabhakaran had been killed today when I was riding back from a government clinic on a tea estate. I was in a van with two government midwives, my translator, and the driver. We heard over the radio. Then one of the midwives, and then the driver, both got phone calls reporting the big news.

When I arrived back in Kandy there were caravans of three-wheelers driving down the street flying Sri Lankan flags. 

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Now, this evening, there is singing and crackers (firecrackers to us Americans). It’s a strange time to be in Sri Lanka. I’m waiting to see how the situation here will unfold and hoping the country can actually find peace.

Vesak trip to Ella

Of all the many, many holidays I’ve experienced in Sri Lanka, Vesak Poya Day is my favorite so far. It celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. Sri Lankans celebrate Vesak by decorating the streets with streamers and lanterns, and giving out free food. For my holiday weekend I travelled to Ella, a small town far up in the hills where I was able to escape the heatwave that has been hanging over South Asia the last few weeks. I went to Ella with a few other the Fulbrighters, and some Sri Lankan friends and their kids. We went to Ella by van from Colombo, about a six hour ride. Along the way we passed through small towns where people were having Vesak celebration and passed us yucca on banana leaves through the window of the van. When we arrived in Ella the air was fresh and cool, unlike the suffocating heat of Colombo. The view from our hotel was stunning.  

Ella Gap

Ella Gap

After settling into the hotel we had a lunch of rice and curry, and went to visit one of the two waterfalls near the town. Because it was a holiday weekend many people were visiting the waterfall to swim and relax. Next to the waterfall vendors were selling sliced mango served with pepper and salt, as well as smoked corn on the cob.

 

Waterfall in Ella

Waterfall in Ella

 

That night, after dinner, we played a lively game of Scattegories. The responses were quite international, and included a few Sinhala words mixed in with English.

The next morning we took a trip to Sita’s Cave. According to the Ramayana, the Hindu text, the Lankan king Ravana kidnapped the Indian king Rama’s wife, Sita. Ravana held Sita captive in a cave in the Sri Lankan hill country for many years. Ravana asked Sita to marry him, but she refused. Hanuman, the monkey god, and an ally of Rama, jumped across from India to Lanka, found Sita there, and told Rama where she was being held captive. After a battle between Rama and Ravana, Sita was rescued, but had to walk through fire to prove her purity.

Anyway, the cave we visited is one of two places in Sri Lanka that claim to be the cave where Sita was kept and it was really cool. The climb up to the cave was steep, but a concrete staircase had been built in the last few years, so the walk was not so bad. We were assisted by skilled Sri Lankan guides, ages 13, 10, and 8.   

Sri Lankan guides in Sita's cave

Sri Lankan guides in Sita's cave

The last part of the climb was very slippery, and our guides did an excellent job pointing out handholds to make it up into the cave. As far as caves go, this one was pretty straightforward, a big hole in the side of a hill, but still not a very nice place to be held captive by an evil king.

After our walk up to the cave, we were all very sweaty, or at least I was sweaty, and as a group we decided to go for a swim in a waterfall on the way back to the hotel. I dressed in my Sri Lankan swimwear, a sarong wrapped modestly around me. The cool moving water was refreshing and after a half hour of swimming I was ready for lunch.

As part of the Vesak celebrations Buddhists give out free food at a place called a dansala (sp?). The dansala in Ella was in a big tent in the center of town and was packed with people. I had red rice, very spicy jakfruit curry, potato curry, bean curry, and a curry made from a grain similar to corn. It was all very good, and very free.   

Inside the dansala

Inside the dansala

We were not the only non-Buddhists there, I saw some local Hindus coming in too. It was great to see that everyone was welcome to participate in the Vesak celebrations.  

The next morning after breakfast I hopped on the train from Ella and made the 7 hour trip back to Kandy. Because it was a holiday weekend the train was very crowded and I was lucky to find a seat. I napped for about an hour, and woke up to realize a man was sitting on my armrest, leaning heavily against me, with his back on my shoulder. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for over six months now, but I still have an American sense of personal space. I did my best to stretch out so he would ease some of his weight off my body, which worked. He sat more upright, and I had a few inches of my own personal space bubble. At least until I tried to get off the train.

 

Train station in Ella

Train station in Ella

 

In person, Sri Lankans are usually fairly polite, although they love asking personal questions. However, there is a lack of agreed upon social etiquette regarding public space. Getting off the train was almost impossible because as people tried to get off, the people on the platform were trying just as hard to get on. This caused a serous logjam and I had to push as hard as I could, with my bags on top of my head and my elbows out, just to make it off the train before it pulled out of the station.

And so I arrived back in Kandy after a lovely holiday weekend.

Temple visits

Sri Lanka is full of beautiful Buddhist temples, some of them hundreds of years old. This weekend I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit three very old and very beautiful temples in the countryside outside of Kandy. The last few weeks I’ve been working with a translator doing interviews with women in rural clinics. Upeksha, my translator, invited me to tag along with her and her boyfriend, Darminda (I think I spelled this right), to visit Gadaladeniya Temple, Lankathilake Temple, and the Embekke Devale. 

I met Upeksha and Darminda around ten on a Sunday morning and we rode off in Darminda’s car to see the first temple. Riding in an air-conditioned car felt luxurious after months of riding in three-wheelers, or worse, riding a crowded bus where my head almost touched the ceiling. Our first stop was the Gadaladeniya Temple, which sits on top of a rock, and had some excellent paintings.

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Gadaladeniya Temple

The second temple, Lankathilake, is on a hilltop with amazing views of the Hantana range and was built in the 14th century. Darminda told me that Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka are located in the highest point in the area, which certainly makes for a beautiful setting. When we arrived local men and women were washing the dagoba in preparation for the Vesak Poya Day, May 9. We were able to see inside the temple, but only for a moment because the morning puja was beginning.

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Lankathilake Temple

My favorite was the third temple, Embekke,  built 400-500 years ago, and covered in detailed carvings. Similar to Lankathilake, the temple was being spiffed up for the coming holiday. The puja was ending while we were there, and the drumming was loud and beautiful.

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The best part of the temple is the wood carvings. A local man showed us around the temple, explaining some of the different carvings and telling us about the significance of the temple. It was built for the deity Kataragama, who is important for Hindus and Buddhists. Kataragama’s animal is the peacock, so part of the roof was designed to mimic the peacock’s tail. Twenty-six beams meet and are joined by a single wooden nail.

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One of the carvings represented a Portuguese man on a horse, and was amazing for its detail and beautiful design.

 

Portuguese man on a horse

Portuguese man on a horse

After the visit to the three temples we went to Upeksha’s house for a delicious lunch of rice and curry. My favorite was the garlic curry, made with whole cloves of cooked garlic. Next best was the mango curry, which manages to be sweet, a little hot, and sour all at once. The lunch was especially tasty after our temple visits.

Where I buy fruit

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The streamers are decoration for Vesak Poya Day which celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. There are at least six kinds of bananas in Sri Lanka, and I like five of them. 

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I love avocados and mangoes, but  I do not like mangosteens even though Sri Lankans absolutely adore them.

Where I buy my vegetables

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Vegetable stand, Kandy Central Market

Sea Bath

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The English spoken by many Sri Lankans is very different than American English. The vocabulary and pronunciation are British not American, and sometimes it feels like a game trying to guess the correct word so that people will understand me. I have to remember to ask for washroom, not restroom or bathroom, and to enunciate my t’s, which feels very unnatural, but it is the only way people understand me.

The British English spoken by some Sri Lankans, those who haven’t traveled much outside the country or had much experience with native English speakers, is somewhat out of date. A few weeks ago I was in Matara at the beach when a student from nearby Ruhuna University came up to talk to me. She was very friendly and asked me “Shall we have a sea bath?” I politely told her, “No, we shall not have a sea bath.”

The local papers also use English phrases I don’t understand, including the headline “King Croc Comes a Cropper in Hendala.” The story was about a gigantic crocodile caught by local villagers in Hendala, on the West Coast. I still haven’t figured out what “comes a cropper” means.Needless to say that communicating, even in English, can be challenging.

The Sinhala I’ve been learning has helped me a little, especially the numbers, though I still can’t tell the difference between 60 and 70 which sound the same except for a different “t.” The words I’ve learned mostly refer to animals and small things. I can say elephant, baby elephant, dog, puppy, cat, kitten, cow, water buffalo, monkey, and three different words for small (chooty, podi, and punchi). In day to day life, the two phrases I use the most are “pissu hadenuwa” and “Deyyo dani, api no dani,” which mean “making me crazy” and “God knows, we don’t know.”  Usually I’m talking about the traffic. I’ve also learned that close friends can be called “amba yaluwa” which means “mango friends, or they can be said to be like “kiripaeni,” which means “curd and treacle” a popular Sri Lankan dessert.

Even though I’ve learned how to communicate better here, it is always a relief to talk to people who are fluent English speakers so I can talk as fast as I want with my American accent and be easily understood.