Orientation continued on Wednesday with a full day of activities. All the Fulbrighters started the morning with a visit to the bank to cash our first paychecks from the US-SLFC. It felt weird holding that much cash at once (1 US dollar equals more than 175 Sri Lankan rupees), but we won’t have a bank account for direct deposits until we all get our residence visas. After the bank, we took a quick drive around Colombo on a sort of historical tour, visiting major landmarks and government buildings. And with money burning holes in our pockets from the morning’s visit to the bank, we stopped at the Pettah Market in the heart of Colombo’s commercial district. Pettah is essentially a maze of open-air shops that line the streets, and the barrage of mesmerizing sights, smells, and sounds is at once overwhelming and energizing. Our first stop was a popular sari shop. Saris are traditional female garments, and many of the Fulbrighters wanted to pick a few up for their teaching placements. Ironically, this was the first time I realized I was the only male Fulbrighter; all of the other Fulbright grantees in Sri Lanka this year are women. Not to worry: years of being dragged to shopping malls prepared me to quickly locate the only chair in the store to wait while the ladies methodically tried on clothes. My patience was rewarded, as we had lunch at a delicious South Indian restaurant, the Sri Suryas Hotel. I tried my first dosa at the recommendation of our Fulbright director. It was really very good, but I’m still building my tolerance for South Asian spices.
We returned to the US-SLFC after lunch for a quick afternoon of lectures. Mr. Rukshan Jayawardene, a Sri Lankan archaeologist, conservationist, and photographer, provided us with an overview of Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes, emphasizing how these landscapes have shaped the country’s history and culture. Rukshan’s photos are truly mesmerizing; you can check some of them out here. We also got a quick Sinhala and Tamil lesson from Michael Meyler, a British expat who will be giving more intensive lessons to the five Fulbright English teaching assistants over the next month or so. Sinhala and Tamil are the two languages most widely spoken by local Sri Lankans, although Sinhala is more common over most of the country. Indeed, Sri Lanka has three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English (thankfully for me…).
Our day still wasn’t over, despite all of our activities. I quickly walked back to my hotel to get ready for dinner, as each Fulbrighter was being treated by their own “host family.” My host was Dr. Nilwala Kottegoda, a chemistry professor at the local Sri Jayewardenepura University (I’m pretty sure the US-SLFC expertly matched each Fulbrighter with a host who had similar interests). I took an Uber to Nilwala’s family’s apartment (yes, Sri Lanka has a host of ridesharing apps, and you can usually even pay cash at the end of your ride), which took about an hour in rush-hour traffic. Nilwala’s husband and son were still on their way back from work and school, so we chatted while we waited. I learned that she was also a Fulbright scholar, having received a scholarship from the US-SLFC to spend six months at Rice University in Houston (in my years of travel, I’ve found that Texas connections are everywhere, even on small islands in the Indian Ocean). We talked about how to adjust to life in Sri Lanka and the differences in university life between Sri Lanka and the US. After a short while, Nilwala’s husband, Sanjeewa, and 13-year-old son joined us, and I had fun talking about his love for animals while Nilwala and Sanjeewa put the finishing touches on dinner. Dinner was excellent too; we had an impressive home-cooked Sri Lankan meal (complete with dessert) that Nilwala prepared herself. The family’s home was very close to the coastline, so the four of us walked on the beach after dinner. I couldn’t have felt more welcomed (I was given a snazzy elephant mug as a gift), and the family even invited me to their Sinhalese New Year celebration in April. These sorts of experience help transition to life on an isolated island where you know almost no one, and I feel even more at ease now that Sanjeewa introduced me to one of his colleagues that lives near Rajarata University, where I’ll be staying most of the time. Rush hour had long since passed, so Nilwala and Sanjeewa were nice enough to give me a ride back to my hotel. Without traffic, it only took ten minutes.
The next day, we spent most of our time at the US-SLFC listening to more lectures about life in Sri Lanka. We learned about food and nutrition around the country from Dr. Jaanaki Gooneratne, including the rich diversity of foods that abound on the island. We participated in a group activity conducted by Ms. Betsy Vegso of the Peace Corps to teach us about intercultural differences we might observe and challenges we may encounter during our time here. Like I’ve said before, my nine months will be a lesson in “Sri Lanka time” and learning to go with the flow. We got an on-the-ground perspective from Fulbright alumni about how to safely conduct ourselves in daily life here. We also listened to Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike—a retired economist, statistician, and former Asst. Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka—discuss the longitudinal trends of human development in Sri Lanka. It’s true what the US-SLFC staff told us on the first day: Sri Lanka at first appears to be a simple country, but upon further inspection, it is a complex, burgeoning nation that holds much promise despite some of its troubling history.
Just before dinnertime, all the Fulbrighters were brought to Dunee’s Kitchen, a facility owned and operated by Ms. Duneeshya Bogoda that gives traditional Sri Lankan cooking classes. We were in for a real treat: over three hours (that really turned to four or five hours), we learned how make 11 traditional Sri Lankan dishes. Many people asked me before I left what Sri Lankan food was like, and being me, I gave the short answer of “it’s a lot like Indian food.” While that’s somewhat true, I’ve quickly learned that Sri Lankan cuisine is unique and has its own style. Spices and curries are common, and there is a lot of coconut in many dishes. I’ve also learned that Sri Lankan food takes painstaking dedication to prepare (this experience gave me an even deeper appreciation for Nilwala’s dinner the night before). We all got hit with jetlag about halfway through cooking, but we pulled through in response to the tantalizing smells and had an amazing feast afterwards. I thought I was going to lose some weight during my time here, but the opposite may happen if I keep eating like this!
We all reconvened at the US-SLFC the next morning, still in a food coma and exhausted from the week before. It was a good thing our first lecturer, Prof. Neluka Silva, was engaging as she introduced us to some of the mainstays of Sri Lankan art and literature. We also got another visit from Rukshan to discuss the biodiversity of Sri Lanka (my favorite topic!). Even though Rukshan is a trained archaeologist, he has developed a strong passion for leopards, Sri Lanka’s apex predator. He’s spent decades tracking these cats, able to recognize some adults from when they were cubs. Rukshan’s photos and stories makes me even more eager to get into the field to see the elephants. We heard about various community service opportunities from local NGOs (most of the English teaching assistants will have more time to engage in community activities outside of their teaching responsibilities). We also learned of some health issues we may run into here in Sri Lanka from Dr. Godwin Constantine; dengue fever is the biggest worry, but I’ll be careful and I’ve brought a lot of insect repellent laced with DEET from the US. We closed our lecture series with talks about the Sri Lankan media (from Mr. Arun Dias Bandaranaike) and women and the law (from Ms. Shyamala Gomez). A few of us stopped for drinks before dinner (don’t get excited parents, I’m still on my water-only regimen), and then we were spoiled with an all-you-can-eat buffet at the very fancy Kingsbury Hotel. The dinner signified the end of our orientation, and this would be the last time (at least for a while) all of us Fulbrighters will be together. The English teaching assistants will be together in Colombo until late December as they receive language courses, but the three researchers (including me) will be departing for our research assignments soon. I’ve got a few days to spend in Colombo to catch up on work before I leave for Rajarata University on Tuesday.
Orientation provided great insight into the complexity that I’m sure to discover over the next nine months, and the week went by much quicker than I anticipated. But that wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen to me this week. On Thursday night, I found out that I received an Early Career Grant from the National Geographic Society to partially fund my work here in Sri Lanka. As my family and friends know, I’ve always enjoyed NatGeo’s magazines, television programs, and other content, so I’m super excited to be an official National Geographic Explorer. Part of being a grad student in the sciences is learning how to find and acquire funding for your research, and my academic advisors can attest to the seemingly countless proposals we’ve submitted over the past year or so. When I applied for NatGeo funding, I thought it was a long-shot; the funding is fairly prestigious, NatGeo almost only supports compelling projects that can have a strong storytelling component, and I even had to film myself giving a short explanation of why my research is important (I’ll even admit I’m awkward to talk to in person, and even more so in front of a camera). I’ve been enjoying my time here in Sri Lanka, but this news helped re-affirm why I’m supposed to be here. I thought the title of “Fulbright Scholar” was cool, but I like the ring of “National Geographic Explorer” even better.