Leaving the city

I spent the weekend being a lazy bum in Colombo. In my defense, I had a long week at orientation, and I knew that this weekend in the hotel might be my last touch with Western comforts for a while. To further justify my laziness, I caught up on a bunch of emails from back home that I had been ignoring all week. I spent a bit of time with a few of the other Fulbrighters hanging out (I even learned to play cribbage, which I’ll be honest, I thought was some sort of yard game and not a game played with cards). We also found “the best Italian food in Colombo” on Sunday night, and on my last night in Colombo on Monday, we had homemade chili (which as a Texan, I know really wasn’t chili, because “real chili ain’t got no beans”).

The 2018-19 cohort of Fulbrighters, along with most of the US-SLFC staff, at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Colombo.

The 2018-19 cohort of Fulbrighters, along with most of the US-SLFC staff, at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Colombo.

I left Colombo on Tuesday morning. Sri Lanka is among countries with the most national holidays (29, according to this list), and Tuesday was Muhammad’s birthday (Milad-un-Nabi). Even though only about 10% of Sri Lankans are Muslim, the holiday shut down most of the country. This was fine with me, because it meant almost no traffic leaving Colombo. I left my hotel early with Buddhika, the go-to guy from the US-SLFC. We had a 4.5-hour drive to Rajarata University of Sri Lanka (RUSL), my host affiliation for the duration of my Fulbright grant. For those that don’t know, Colombo is located on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka where there are no longer any elephants closeby. My research will be taking place in three different national parks that are relatively close to RUSL, but more on that in future posts. True to form, I slept for most of the trip (sorry, Buddhika!), waking up only for breakfast and to snap a quick photo of an elephant crossing sign. I knew then that I was headed in the right direction.

A photo of an elephant crossing sign taken from the ride from Colombo to Mihintale. Elephants pose a serious risk to many human communities surrounding national parks, and many elephants are killed due to train or vehicle collisions. For more elephant photos like this one, find the link to my Instagram on my   Contact   page.

A photo of an elephant crossing sign taken from the ride from Colombo to Mihintale. Elephants pose a serious risk to many human communities surrounding national parks, and many elephants are killed due to train or vehicle collisions. For more elephant photos like this one, find the link to my Instagram on my Contact page.

We arrived just before noon at RUSL. The university is in the small town of Mihintale, directly adjacent to the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura. As such, there are a lot of ancient ruins around that I’m sure I’ll explore soon. Buddhika and I met with Dr. Rajnish Vandercone, my Sri Lankan advisor and a member of my PhD committee (just a quick side note to fill you in: it is typical for a US PhD student to have a ‘committee’ of professors oversee their dissertation research; my committee is comprised of my two major advisors, my Sri Lankan advisor [Dr. Vandercone], and two other professors from George Mason University). I first met Rajnish on my quick visit to Sri Lanka last summer, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. Lucky for me, the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation (based in the US) established the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant at RUSL about a decade ago. The Center facilitates collaboration between US and Sri Lankan researchers and conservationists, ultimately benefiting Asian elephants as a species. That also means there’s free housing for me to take advantage of while I’m staying at RUSL. As soon as my stuff was unpacked, Rajnisha and I bid a gracious farewell to Buddhika as he drove back to Colombo.

My “bungalow” at the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant at RUSL.

My “bungalow” at the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant at RUSL.

The kitchen at the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant at Rajarata University. As if I needed another sign, I’m in the right place.

The kitchen at the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant at Rajarata University. As if I needed another sign, I’m in the right place.

For the rest of the day, Rajnish showed me RUSL’s campus, took me grocery shopping, and showed me restaurants that would be good to order food from (I took that Sri Lankan cooking class last week, but let’s get real, it was going to be a long nine months if I was responsible for cooking my own meals). The Center is on the other side of campus from the Faculty of Applied Sciences, where I’ll be conducting most of my work. Luckily, it’s a beautiful walk (or short tuk ride). On my first day with Rajnish, we were lucky to spot a family of purple-faced langurs in a tree close to the Center. Rajnish told me that a few families of these monkeys live around RUSL’s campus, and that’s a good thing, because purple-faced langurs are endemic to Sri Lanka and regularly make the list of the world’s 25 most endangered primates. In fact, Rajnish is a trained primatologist and still conducts research on these langurs with international collaborators. I hope to follow his team in the field soon to learn more about them. I’ve heard the monkeys close to my bungalow at the center, and on my walks to and from campus, I’ve already seen a few peacocks and a herd of water buffalo.

The friendly herd of water buffalo I regularly pass on my way from the Center to the Faculty of Applied Sciences at RUSL.

The friendly herd of water buffalo I regularly pass on my way from the Center to the Faculty of Applied Sciences at RUSL.

On Wednesday, I met more of the faculty members at RUSL (remember, it was a holiday on Tuesday, so campus was almost empty). It’s quite a process to get affiliated with a university through Fulbright, so Im grateful to have been welcomed so warmly by everyone I’ve met so far. Rajnish and I raided a few of the biology labs to figure out what supplies and equipment I’ll need to order to carry out my work. I don’t really consider myself a true-to-form laboratory-based scientist, but the hormone analyses I’ll be conducting require some basic lab skills (and a lot of elephant poop). But, more on that for a future post.

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the US, and there was yet another national holiday here in Sri Lanka (called Ill Full Moon Poya, but I still haven’t figured out what that means…). Rajnish’s family lives in the city of Kandy a few hours away, so he headed home and will be back this weekend. I didn’t have turkey to eat, so I made grilled cheese sandwiches instead (essentially the same thing, right?). I caught up with family and friends back home and spent the rest of the day taking it easy by watching a few movies and working on easy things.

I still haven’t seen an elephant in person on this trip to Sri Lanka. It’s not that they’re not out there, it’s just that I haven’t been in the right place to see them yet. My residence visa is still in processing, which means I can’t carry out any official work in the national parks. Things move slower and take longer here than I’m used to. This isn’t unexpected, just part of the experience. Hopefully I’ll have my visa next week, and that means Rajnish and I can visit my first field site (Wasgamuwa National Park, several hours away from RUSL) to scope things out. I’m sure even more exciting things are coming soon!