Falling Green Leaves… | An Elon University Academic Blog

Jan 29 2011

Adventures in research

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Hey all! You may know that some of us Pericleans are still in Sri Lanka – me for research and Elizabeth D because the flu made her arrive late and she wants to still see the country. Elizabeth has spent the last few days in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya with Chamindha’s family (see the post below!) while I have been in Colombo with Crista’s family doing research.

My thesis research, without going into all the details, is essentially about international humanitarian law and the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war. It’s a touchy subject, and a lot of my sources have asked me not to use their names. But my meetings have been very interesting and enlightening; I have met with journalists both foreign and domestic, with NGO and UN workers, even with a member of Parliament. I feel so lucky for the opportunity to speak with all these interesting people and grateful for the guidance they provided – it has definitely taken my research in a new direction!

On to more exciting stuff though – one of my first contacts, Ruki told me that he was going north to speak with some IDPs this weekend and asked if I wanted to go along. I excitedly agreed, and planned out the journey – I would join him and his colleague (another woman) late on Friday in Mannar, a peninsula on the west coast of Sri Lanka and a former war zone; conduct some interviews Saturday morning; and come back to Colombo in time for my flight early Sunday morning.

I set off as planned on the train on Friday afternoon, and after 5 bumpy, noisy hours arrived in the town of Medawichiya around 9:30pm. The vehicle Ruki had said would be waiting for me wasn’t there and I couldn’t reach him on his cell number – oh boy. I called Crista’s mother-in-law though (a big thank you to Lal the driver for letting me borrow his wife’s cell phone), and after some back-and-forth on the phone with the station master, translating English to Sinhala, we decided that I would stay overnight in Medawichiya and take the early early train back to Colombo. We russled up a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the rest house (full of men smoking and drinking but mostly clean…ish). I spent an uneventful night there, made it to the station, and rode another 5 bumpy, noisy hours in reverse.

Of course as soon as I arrived in Colombo, I got a call from Ruki saying that he hadn’t had cell service last night and apologizing profusely. I wasn’t really too upset because I think the episode could have gone much worse. It was more of a letdown than anything else, a colossal womp womp, and I wish I had a better adventure to share, but being safely back in Colombo is enough for me now!

In any case, it was enough adventure for me, and I’ll be heading home tonight. Elizabeth is the last Periclean here, until tomorrow night when she gets to depart at about the same ungodly hour as the other Pericleans did four days ago and as I am about to do. I have a lot of good memories and great conversations behind me, but the next one I’m looking forward to starts with, “Hi mom!”

Happy trails,

Jan 22 2011


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Hey all!

As Shelly said, we are back in Colombo now from what feels like a whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka. After a crazy day yesterday – meetings and site visits and waiting and LOTS of folder stuffing, the day for the Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum (LEAF) finally arrived.

We arrived at the University of Colombo around 7:15am, most of us running on little to no sleep. We put up artwork from the Graham and Panangala schools, as well as some of Chaminda’s photos, set up the registration table, and made sure that all was ready for the opening ceremony at 9am. At 9, the class and speakers processed in behind a dance troupe, lit candles on a special ceremonial oil lamp, and heard speeches from the vice chancellor of the University, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Crista, and Dr. Tom Arcaro. This is island time however, and two of our soakers were unable to make it at the last minute. We finished opening ceremonies about an hour early, which left plenty of time for socializing! A large group of high school-age students, as well as several people that Chas, Shelly, Julia and I met at the Weeramantry Institute were in attendance.

After that, we held our first breakout session. Nalaka Gunawardene’s talk on the media and the environment seems to have been the most well-received of that batch, though I personally also enjoyed Sarath Abeysinghe’s discussion of sustainable practices in tea cultivation.

A quick break for lunch and we returned to hear Sarath Kotagama’s keynote speech. Soon after, we socialized with some of the attendees – an elderly gentleman named Elmo who carries a Kenyan Masai walking stick and talks a lot about his grandchildren is a favorite. We attended our final breakout session – Neshan Gunasekara’s talk on Training for Trusteeship was popular, and then, as tired as this iPad which is about to run out of battery, we returned home to eat, relax, and SLEEP.

Night y’all,
Boniki (Chaminda’s name for me; it means “doll”)

Jan 21 2011

actions speak louder than words

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Yo, it’s Shelly again.

I’m still blown away by how fearless the school children were on our trek through the Sinharaja rain forest (which means KING lion by the way). Hence, the several Disney songs we sang together on the way up and down and across slippery rocks and uncarved paths through the jungle. Kids were passing me with ease – I felt not only old and lame but American as well. Especially after hearing Merrill’s experiences with the hospitals and in some recent discussions about waste management, water quality, and food preparation, not to mention the cultural norm of eating with your hands, it becomes more and more apparent that though I as well as everyone on this trip are well traveled young students, I can’t help but be reminded of how we aren’t nearly as in tune with our surroundings as the people I have encountered are. The trouble I see is that post tsunami and post war – which have brought a big recent boost in investment and economic conditions – the push and pull between environmental advocacy and development may become more a push than a pull. We are all very proud, excited, and are anticipating the findings that three of our four boys are documenting on and off the group’s schedule.

After Adam’s Peak, I’m surprised we even made it to lunch at Chaminda’s house, which was a whole ten feet from our guest house atop a hill in Nuwara Eliya. It was the second time we had been invited into the home of the Sri Lankans we have befriended. Riza took us into his home in Colombo back in the beginning of our trip, where we were served biryani – rice and curry with meat – and other dishes of mostly spicy concoctions (which I personally love). I’ve been nicknamed “Red Chili” from our dear and extremely environmentally-savvy guide, Chaminda. Other nicknames for our group members include Slender Loris, after the rare nocturnal marsupial we went seeking and saw in the Kennelyia Rainforest during a really exciting night hike. Anyway, it’s easy to conclude that Sri Lankans are both generously welcoming, and have great senses of humor!

I’ve also observed that here, actions speak much louder than words. Chaminda and Riza have both told us that it is not necessary to say “thank you” here, that it is a formality brought by the British and that appreciation is usually just expected and acknowledged through one’s time spent with the giver/host and through physical gestures of thanks. We have been giving thank you cards and small tokens of our appreciation, though (Elon water bottles, umbrellas, etc), helping to share our university, country, and Periclean identity. Nothing, however, compares with the large strides that have come from our partners on the ground who are grateful for our initiatives and projects here.

Three instances pop out in my mind. We quickly got used to the bowing for thanks, receiving, and giving with both hands of any object since the moment we set foot on this lovely island nation, but I doubt anyone except for Dr. Crista was prepared for the processions and series of prepared cultural dances, flower giving, and organized cermonies the grade school children preformed for us on our first day at the junior school. The photos below are fabulous, and we have more coming, but I don’t think any rendition can do it justice. The children, in their little white uniforms with red ties, and the teachers lined the stone stairway that led to the two room school nestled in a comfy little nook in the middle of the rainforest. It seemed like most of village was there, with family members crowding around as well. Our single file line through the children signing and handing us flowers concluded with with one girl wearing long braided pigtails handing Dr. Crista the key to the library extension that our Periclean Scholar class had funded. A plaque noting our donation from Elon University was posted above the door, and an array of flashes went off as this single key, tied with a ribbon, opened up new possibilities for this small rural school.

Number two would be a similar welcoming, maybe minus the cute little outfits and dances, given by the environmental club at the Mahabodhi school two days later. Refreshments were given once again – they’re meant to be consumed alone by us guests, but we always insist on sharing and eating with those we visit. It is in these instances we feel okay to cross cultural boundaries of the places we visit. We are here for the kids. It feels uncomfortable sometimes being regarded as “higher” than we actually are, since we are here for the partnerships! The children still gave us plaques, or little trophies really, to thank us for our donation of a computer and for our helping bring the ranger program into their school (which Miss Katie Dirks shall expound upon soon!)

Last but not least, and something Natalie mentioned, are the fireworks. We were eating at a long table lined with a red tablecloth and candles (kind of romantic, I know!), chairs and toes sinking into the sand. A little man walked up and set up some fireworks by the water, which happened to be a whole five feet from us. Next thing we know, we are finishing our dessert of grilled pineapples and Riza stands up to make a speech thanking Dr. Crista for her hard work. “Now, Crista, you can light the rockets,” he says. Yes, rockets. A series of five different kinds of likely illegal fireworks were set off within a very close distance to our faces, and all of us burst out into laughter, in that unexpected happy wow kind of way.

We have just returned to Colombo to begin the long preparation for our LEAF summit. Elizabeth Dobbins (a fellow Periclean), Zach’s father, and our wonderful director Dr. Tom Arcaro have arrived and joined the group! A lot has happened in the past few days while in Nuwara Eliya and Kandy, including tea factory and estate visits – where we were welcomed into the beautiful home of a class of 2013 Periclean Scholar’s grandparents (thank you so much, Tatiyana!) We were lucky enough to visit the very holy Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy on a poya, or fullmoon day, as well. More on all of that later!

So, back in Colombo and preparing for LEAF, which after so long, becomes a reality tomorrow. Julia said to me earlier, “It’s funny… it feels nice to be ‘home.'”

Periclean love,

Jan 16 2011

Peaking at Adam

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It’s 2:30 a.m. Eight of us have been on a bumpy bus ride for two hours, traveling from our hotel in Nuwara Eliya to the base of Adam’s Peak — Sri Pada in Sinhala — one of Sri Lanka’s tallest mountains and most celebrated places of pilgrimage. We have come with high spirits and many warm layers to ascend the 5,500 steps of this mountain and make it to the top by sunrise; we’ll be climbing with hundreds of Sri Lankans who have come to make the same traditional nighttime pilgrimage. As we approach the base in our van, we ooh and ahh at the windy lit path that stretches for what seems like forever out of the window and above our heads. Are we actually going to climb to the top of that? Are we crazy, are we sleepy, are we curious and excited and ready for this adventure? Absolutely.

Adam’s Peak is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous sites. At its summit is a sacred footprint that is significant to the world’s most popular religions: Buddhists claim that the footprint is of Buddha himself, Muslims believe it belongs to Adam, Hindus say it was created by the Shiva, and Christians claim it belongs to St. Thomas. Despite all these rival claims, however, it quickly became clear to us that Adam’s Peak is predominately a Buddhist place of worship and pilgrimages up the mountain have been taking place for thousands of years. All of this history, religious and cultural significance, and yes, even the thought of attempting to climb five thousand steps in the middle of the night intrigued a few of us enough to try hard to get this climb integrated into our class itinerary at the last minute. It worked, and here eight of us are, cold and energized and so ready to take this mountain on 🙂

Our guidebook informed us that the long trek “can reduce even fit and seasoned hill walkers to quivering wrecks.” Well. We made it the whole way up in half the time Lonely Planet said it would likely take us (two hours instead of four), and I think I speak for all of us when I say it was one of the most challenging and rewarding physical activities we’ve ever done. Our illuminated path was peppered with tea houses and sleeping hikers, and I don’t think I have ever been as grateful for handrails as I was on this journey. During our short pauses to drink water and shed layers as we got warmer and warmer, we took in the incredible starry sky overhead, and before we knew it (okay, our thighs definitely knew it), we were at the top.

After removing our shoes and hats out of respect, we made our way through the many other hikers and found a corner to huddle in away from the wind. We paid our respects to the Buddha statue in a concrete pavilion, and while we were a little disappointed to see that the small footprint was heavily sheltered, we were so glad to be up at the top. When the sun began rising, we joined the ranks of gazers and picture-takers and were quieted by the amazing view and prayers being said all around. A man near us offered Jack and I some sort of nuts and rice patties, and Jack gave him a granola bar in exchange (I don’t think he knew what to do with it, but that’s beside the point). Chas got some great video footage, Katie made many new friends with strangers per usual, Liz took photo after photo after photo, Zach taught us that the potassium in bananas we bought on the way down would ease the quivering in our legs, Shelly became best friends with one of our great guides, and I’m pretty sure Jesse didn’t use a handrail once. In my opinion, the descent was harder than the trek up, but every single second of the whole journey was worth it. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 1 p.m., but we managed to stay awake to enjoy an afternoon out with the rest of the class.

This was a true adventure, and one of the best yet we’ve had here. The physical exertion felt so good, as did being so immersed in nature, at a sacred religious site, and experiencing some of the best and most important things we have learned Sri Lanka has to offer (in the middle of the night, no less!) Adam’s Peak is a must for anyone traveling to Lanka… though I may take that back when the eight of us wake up in the morning and cannot make the walk to breakfast.

In the name of jelly legs and incredibly satisfying journeys,

P.S. I promise, pictures of the hike to come!

Jan 15 2011


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Chaminda and Zach

Slender Loris with her baby
Chas teaches the rangers a song
Natalie with her new friends
The children waiting for us

Mural complete with many helping hands

Liz with a baby turtle

Jan 15 2011

What adventures

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Well all of the kids are telling you such adventures and I am pleased to say that they all seem to be still in really good spirits. We came tonight to Nuwara Eliya after a 13 hour van ride (a bit longer than expected but that is the Sri Lanka way). They all took the ride in stride and never once complainned and tonight about half of them will be off to trek up Adam’s Peek, a pilgrimage site for people of all religions, and will see the sun rise on top at 6:10 am. I am staying back with a few but we will also have some exciting adventures in Nuwara Eliya.

Jan 15 2011

Dr. Piya and the waterfall

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This is Jack, not Liz. That’s what you get for joining the class late, I guess.

So from the documentary side of things on this trip, things have been a little different from what everybody else has been doing. Jesse, Chas and I have been all over the placer, leaving for a day or two at a time, trying to get all the footage, research and interviews we need to truly make an effective documentary. We started out in Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa, as Chas wrote about, and went off with some Rainforest Rescue International guys for a while to film disappearinrg mangroves and hear about wildlife issues.

But yesterday was probably the biggest trip we’ve been on away from the group — besides with Chatura, that is. We headed off about two and a half hours from Kanneliya Forest to an organic tea plantation owned by a Texas A&M professor who is from Sri Lanka. It was beautiful country up there, filled with tea plants lining every mountainside and palm trees and lush valleys. Needless to say, we got some good footage. Even joked about getting a helicopter to fly us over all of it, and looked up huge prices, so who knows if we’ll actually get to do it.

Anyway, we toured all through the facility, learning about what it means to be truly organic, and ended up making a few contacts while we were there. It was good, because there were a few professors who focus mainly on environmental issues and should be able to help us a lot.

And the way we ended the day was pretty cool: conducting as business meeting while swimming in our boxers at a waterfall deep in the rainforest bend the plantation. It was up at the top of a decent hike above the plantation, deeper into the woods, past the bungalow where students from A&M were staying. We hung out and had tea with Dr. Piya and his students, and eventually headed on our way. It was a productive and fun day — the best of both worlds.

Jan 15 2011

“You get cell phone reception in the jungle?”

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Hi all, sorry that our posts have been so sporadic. I’ll pick up where we left off before: in Panangala. We went back to the Junior School for a second day to mural and play with the kids. Hopefully we will figure out how to post or link to photos soon, so you can see how well the mural turned out. Personally, I had doubts that we could carry out the beautiful drawing that Anna made, but you guys – it looks great.

We also got to play with the kids a lot, something which I had been looking forward to. The language barrier can be tough to deal with (I usually resort to counting in Singhalese, they seem to like that), but anyone understands running back and forth in a schoolyard, flapping your arms like a butterfly, and funny faces. We painted their hands and pressed them on the wall below our mural and took a huge group photo under the meticulous guidance of Chaminda, one of our guides. It was a good day.

Then we moved to the Kanneliya Forest, where we were set up in a long dormitory, all 14 of us under princess-pink, jellyfish-like mosquito net. The dorm was in the forest, in the mountains and it was beautiful, with a natural (and freezing) pool.

We headed back to Panangala to visit the Mahabodhi School, which teaches 1200 6th through 10th grade students. We spent the morning coloring, singing “Lean on Me” (apparently, it’s our go-to English song) and a Singhalese song, and chatting with the environmental club. In the afternoon, we tried our hands at cricket, which was an – interesting – endeavor. It is not as complicated as I had thought; once you get the hang of it, it makes sense. The games CAN go on for 4 or 5 days, though, which I count as a point against it. Unsurprisingly, the other team won.

The other “highlight” of the game was Merrill’s epic foot injury. She had twisted it earlier, and in chasing the ball down during the cricket game, twisted it further. She and Crista spent the next day experimenting with Sri Lanka’s health care system, in both its public and private forms. Their experiences were wildly different, and they both came back full of funny stories. The verdict on her ankle, by the way: probably fractured and not broken, though she has an appointment set up for when she gets home.

The next day (Friday) we took a trek through the Sinharaja Rainforest (Sri Lanka’s most well-known) with the Panangala environmental club. The kids were pros, and the rest of us marveled not only at their agility, hopping across streams, along ridges, and down steep hills; but also at the fact that a trip like this was even doable for kids their age. It was a tough hike, bit no one was hurt (besides the leeches we sprayed with a special cinnamon-menthol mixture).

Lunch tasted pretty great after that hike. We dropped the kids off on our way back to the school and headed back to our dormitory for some much-needed swimming and showers. The rest of the evening was lazy and pleasant.

We woke up this morning at 4:45 and were on the road around 5:30, heading for Nuwara Eliya. As I write this, I’m bouncing around the back seat of our bus, balancing Riza’s iPod on my knees and stealing glances at the palm trees and small villages we pass through. On the docket for the evening is Adam’s Peak, a pilgrimage point for every religion in Sri Lanka which one climbs between midnight and 10 A.M. There is a footprint at it’s peak (5200 stairs up) said to come alternately from Adam, St. Thomas, Buddha, and Shiva. As today is both a Hindu holiday (Thai Pongal) and very rainy, the mountain will either be very crowded or the roads will be impassable. Maybe both. We are on island time; we will take things as they come.


Jan 12 2011

this is what it feels like.

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As one of the three people in charge of blogs and photos during this incredible trip – Liz, Shelly, and I are officially called “the reporters” – and also as someone who maintains a blog in “real life,” I have to admit that in wish we could provide our readers with an organized and consistent blog. I am typing this on a borrowed IPad (never used one before this trip) with the Indian Ocean about three feet from my… feet.  To my left are about five of my fellow Pericleans, sitting around a dinner table and in plastic beach chairs sinking into the sand. We had a beach BBQ tonight to celebrate our last night at the now infamous Happy Banana as well as two beyond rewarding days at the G. Panangala school. Tonight’s festivity included fireworks and grilled pineapple, but as enjoyable as this beach resort is, I am pretty sure I speak for all of us when I say that the past few days in the jungle, traveling for four hours each day up and down the windy roads to get to the school and the kids we have become so invested in, means more than any beach day or nighttime fiesta.

Most of us are well-travelled; we’ve all been out of the U.S. multiple times, and we’ve all spent winter terms abroad – almost all of us have spent whole semesters abroad, as a matter of fact. Sri Lanka is giving us some of the most dynamic experiences we’ve ever had, and while for the most part we feel prepared for the last minute jungle hikes and full day bus rides we’ve experienced, we have been incredibly humbled by the people we have met. We’ve had our share of sprained ankles, stomach episodes, and leech bites, but each morning we have woken up happy, healthy, and ready to go. And it’s only day six.

With all that said, I want to say we are working working working on getting photos up, and we know you all are waiting for them! Our days are full, busy, and packed with everything we came here to do. We each write reflections every day, responding to prompts Dr. Crista gives us. Every day, someone presents on their “topic” for the trip, and our prompts are usually related. Liz and Shelly talked to us about the political situation in the country before and after the war, Angie shared much about the current education systems and how Sri Lankan primary schools are progressing, and tonight Julia discussed the country’s waste management system (which, unfortunately, is bleak.) I really enjoy the intense ways of learning we are experiencing here – morning bus ride “information sessions” over the intercom, afternoons exploring and interacting with a myriad of Sri Lankans, evening academic presentations and heated discussions. It’s all work and all play and ten minutes ago I jumped in the ocean when everyone else did and now I’m trying to encapsulate some general parts of the last week into a small computer screen in the sand and, well, the next few hours will bring laughter, waves, and a few hours of sleep before heading to the Panangala Mahabodhi school.

Jan 11 2011

A Venture into the Cultural Triangle

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A Venture into the Cultural Triangle

The first three days in Sri Lanka were a little different to say the least for Jesse, Jack, and I (Chas). The three of us got a grant from the Park Foundation to film a documentary on the emerging conflict between development and the environment in the post-tsunami period here in Sri Lanka. We came into the project with some preconceived notions about what we believed the problems were and how we would go about filming. These preconceptions were pushed aside quickly as the three of us met Chatura, Crista’s cousin in law. Crista arranged for him to take us on a special trip for three days up to Anuradhapura to filming some of the ancient water tanks (reservoirs) and systems for which Sri Lanka is famous. Chatura was the absolute perfect person to take us into these areas as he used to work as a tour guide in the area for nearly ten years. Chatura had so many incredible connections in the area and needless to say he brought us to areas we never would have found without him. In the three days we talked to farmers you thoughtlessly sprayed pesticides without any masks or form of protection, we talked to fisherman whose livelihoods rested on the fish populations in Minnerya Tank, we interviewed villagers whose lands had been trampled and destroyed by elephants who were in increasing searches for food and land as their habitats we being increasingly encroached upon by villagers and illegal squatters near Minnerya National Park. We saw the wonders of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura and Pollunaruwa, and examined the role of Buddhism in Sri Lankan life and its relation to views on the environment. We watched elephants eating plastic out of waste dumps and looked in disgust as billboards dotted an otherwise pristine landscape.

We covered an incredible amount of ground and just had an absolutely amazing time doing it. Chatura was one of those people that you just want to be around. He is funny, a little crazy, and was willing to help us in any way that he could. Chatura basically started ecotourism in Minnerya Tank in 1996 taking tourists on Safaris into the tank. He got the government to officially protect the area. However, once he became successful and government officials saw how much money he was making, the government decided to change the rules and made Minnerya a national park so they could charge entrance fees. However, they did not regulate ecotourism in the area and as a result anyone with a jeep began taking people into the park and this created all sorts of issues. Chatura got so fed up with the politics of it all he left and this was the first time he had been back to Minnerya since he left over ten years ago. He was so passionate about elephants and saving them, we could not help but be inspired.