Podcast recommendations for monolingual Americans in Sri Lanka (plus quick updates)

Another week has passed here at Rajarata University, and while I’ve made progress, I haven’t yet been into the field to see elephants. For the first week since I’ve been in Sri Lanka, there haven’t been any national holidays to delay progress either. It’s driving me crazy being on a small island practically full of elephants and not having seen one yet, but some of my more tangible milestones so far include:

  • My residence visa was approved and issued, meaning that my research permit for Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation is complete.

  • I gave a lecture about musth and why it’s important to one of Rajnish’s undergraduate wildlife management classes.

  • I got my own internet router that actually works! I had been bumming off the University’s WiFi on campus, and Rajnish lent me one of his old routers, but the internet speed wasn’t what I’m used to (#firstworldproblems). The one I got is much better, and I’ll be able to take it with me to my field sites for internet access, but I’m still limited on data since it runs off of 4G.

  • I can now navigate to all the good places in Mihintale for food (n = 2) on my own. And when I feel like cooking, I can still make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.

  • I’m no longer startled when I hear loud banging on my roof (FYI: the group of monkeys living near the house are super active right at sunrise when you’re still fast asleep).

  • Thanks to help from Rajnish, my water pressure works, allowing me to take actual showers again. This means I don’t have to depend on a knee-level spigot in my bathroom anymore, and I don’t look like a cat grooming itself sprawled out on the bathroom floor when I start to smell bad.

Rajnish and I should make it out to one of the national parks later next week, where I’ll see the place I’ll be living and get a lay of the land. Then, I should have more interesting posts to share with you all. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some podcast recommendations. It may seem random, but I’ve come to depend on the podcasts below to help keep my sanity. I passed on Fulbright’s offer of a month of Sinhala lessons so that I could get to work faster, but that means it can be difficult to communicate with many Sri Lankans, especially in rural areas. All of my colleagues speak English perfectly fine, and for a quiet person like me, I didn’t think it would be an issue with everyone else. But everyone here in Mihintale speaks Sinhala almost exclusively, and almost none of the signs are in English (this minor inconvenience is compounded by the fact that Sinhala characters don’t remotely resemble any Latin characters; for some quick background information, click here).

All of this means that I instintively tune out any of the conversations or signs around me, and the thoughts in my head don’t have much verbage to bounce off of. After a few days, I figured out that my growing catalogue of podcasts has helped solve this issue—even if I’m not engaged in the conversation (and I’ll admit it, that’s usually true even back in the US, as I’m a listener by nature), it’s comforting to hear people chatting in English. My taste in podcasts may be eclectic, but I’m a discerning subscriber. I thought some of you might appreciate knowing what’s keeping me going here in Sri Lanka, and hey, maybe you’ll pick up a new favorite podcast of your own:

Podcasts about news and current events:

  • Ask Me Another: In college, I got steadfastly watched Jeopardy! almost everyday with the classmates in my dorm (I wasn’t a popular kid, okay?), and this podcast seems like the cool version of that, if you can be cool and listen to NPR at the same time. The trivia is also much more accessible than usual answers on Jeopardy!…more like Teen Jeopardy! I guess.

  • Fresh Air: I love Terry Gross (and if you haven’t already, you’ll fall in love too, just watch her latest appearence on Jimmy Fallon’s show). The Fresh Air podcast by NPR is probably the most serious one I listen to, but it covers topics that I think are important

  • More Perfect: Yeah, yeah, another NPR podcast. But don’t worry, it’s compelling and interesting: this one tracks important cases from the Supreme Court of the United States. No really, it’s SUPER interesting. There are a few seasons of More Perfect available now, and the latest deals with the 27 amendments to the US Constitution, with the show recruiting musical artists to write songs about each one (Dolly Parton even wrote and performed a catchy tune). The studio that produces this one, Radiolab, also has a podcast of their own that’s very interesting and more often covers science topics.

  • Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!: Another NPR gameshow podcast, but this one is based around the events of the preceding week. It’s also very accessible like Ask Me Another, but I think a tad funnier (it’s where I first learned of Paula Poundstone…see my recommendation for Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone below).

True crime podcasts:

  • Dr. Death: Drop everything and go listen to this one now. My mom, a newcomer to the world of podcasts, told me about this one, a documentary series about an evil neurosurgeon from Dallas (go Texas!) who is now serving a life sentence in prison for seriously injuring or killing many of his patients. There are less than 10 episodes, but new ones pop up periodically because this is still a developing story. That’s right, this isn’t some old-fashioned, “we now know better” sort of crime…Dr. Christopher was just convicted in 2017, and his lawyers are appealing the decision! I’ve also heard that Dirty John, a podcast by the same studio, is very good.

  • My Favorite Murder: This one is probably my favorite. I first listened to this from a tent in South Africa a few years ago as a way to pass the time (there was a drought in the area, and so there weren’t many elephants around), and I’ve been a self-proclaimed murderino ever since. If you’re the sort of person who likes watching Dateline, 20/20, and Making a Murderer, you’re a murderino too. MFM regularly tops the list of comedy podcasts. Yes, it’s funny, but not disrespectful. I’ve gotten my whole family hooked on this one (I was also happy to learn that many of my grad school friends independently discovered the show), and it’s standard listening on the long drives to/from Texas, Florida, and Virginia. The hosts go on tour with the show around the US (and even around the world), but I’m never in the right city it seems. Maybe they’ll visit Sri Lanka?

  • Serial: This is usually everyone’s gateway podcast, and for good reason. Serial is now on season three, but I recommend starting with the first season, even though the seasons are discrete stories that don’t relate to each other. You’ll have to begin with the first episode because the show is, well, serial. I didn’t care much for season two to be honest (a sentiment I’ve heard from others too), but the third season redeems the series.

  • Up and Vanished: My sister Parker just introduced me to this one, and even though I’ve only listened to a few episodes, I’m hooked. This story about Tara Grinstead, a missing woman, is still developing, as the case was unsolved when the podcast started. If you get hooked on this one like I am, NO SPOILERS!

Science and technology podcasts:

  • Inquiring Minds: I think of this podcast as easy listening for scientists, but it’s appealing to a general audience. Each week, one of the hosts sits down to talk with a leading scientist, usually someone who’s recently published a popular science book. I’ll admit that sometimes I skip episodes that seem uninteresting (that’s my loss), but this week is the second week of a series on dinosaurs! The eight-year-old in me is excited.

  • Ologies: This is a relatively new podcast, whose non-scientist host Alie Ward, seeks to “ask dumb questions to smart people.” I’ve been pleasantly surprised at a lot of the episodes (who would’ve thought that Deltiology, Egyptology, Ferroequinology, or Rhinology would be so interesting?!…and I bet only one of those things is the study of what you think it is). If you’re a non-science person who wants to ease into the science realm, this is the way to do it.

  • Stuff You Should Know: This podcast isn’t exclusively science-based, it’s more of a compendium of, well, stuff you should know. There are thousands of SYSK episodes by now (the show has been running successfully for years), so I usually just scroll through the list and randomly pick one. There are episodes about PEZ dispensers, giraffes, drag queens, ax murders, air traffic control, and more. Okay, maybe you don’t need to know about all this stuff, but you should.

Comedy podcasts:

  • Judge John Hodgman: This is one I just picked up this week, but I’m already hooked. I’ve always enjoyed the work of John Hodgman, and this podcast is like listening to stand-up combined with an episode of Judge Judy. Each week, Hodgman hosts an everyday plaintiff and defendant who wish to resolve some sort of casual dispute. In the last episode I listened to, a married couple argued about whether to get rid of grapevines near their house that were attracting raccoons. Really though, it’s funny. Try it out.

  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: I think Paula’s voice and perspective are hilarious, so when this weekly podcast started earlier this year, I instantly subscribed. Each week, Paula and her sidekick Adam invite two specialists on the show to talk about their professions, from plumbers to beekeepers to orthodontists to high stakes gamblers. I listened to this week’s episode last night while making a grilled cheese sandwich and found myself laughing out loud. I’ve tried sharing this with other friends with mixed results, so buyer beware; it might be best to start with the first episode to let your appreciation for Paula’s humor appropriately mature.

Pop culture podcasts:

  • Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project: I grew up watching Mythbusters (and I even saw Adam and Jamie live when they came to Bowling Green a few years ago on tour), so listening to the projects that Adam’s got going on post-MB are enjoyable. Warning: some of the discussions go deep into science-fiction territory that I don’t usually traverse (Star Wars, Star Trek, superheroes, etc.), so not all episodes will be appealing to everyone. This one’s also cool because they film each episode, which you can watch for free on YouTube or by following the link I gave.

  • The Cracked Podcast: I find that I’m initially interested in about half of these episodes before I listen to them, but I’m always interested in the topics after listening. The podcast takes the form of an informal discussion among friends who work at Cracked.com, covering topics like movies, TV shows, and general interest. Take a listen to a few of the episodes that pop out at you

  • The West Wing Weekly: When I started grad school just outside Washington, DC, I decided to watch the entire series of The West Wing on Netflix to feel more like a political insider. It didn’t help in that regard, but I fell in love with the show. After watching the whole series, I found this podcast, whose hosts (including Joshua Malina, who starred on the show) and special guests discuss an episode each week, in order. Even if you haven’t watched the show before, I recommend watching each episode before listening to the podcast.

  • Will You Accept This Rose: I admit that the worst part of me as a human being is my newfound obsession with the ABC franchise that includes The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise. Last year, I put the show on one late night when I couldn’t fall asleep, thinking the mindless conversation would help me pass out, but boy was I wrong. This podcast, which takes a comedic look at each episode as they air, only fuels that obsession. The new season of The Bachelor starts in January…I’ll have to find a way to watch it here in Sri Lanka so I can listen to one of my favorite podcasts!

That list was longer than I anticipated, but I feel like the hosts on each of these shows are my travelling companions in Sri Lanka now. For those not initiated into the world of podcasts, I highly recommend them. They help pass the time on long commutes, during mindless work, and best of all, they’re free! iPhone users: I recommend just using the podcast app that’s automatically installed on your phone. There are other options in the Apple App store, and I’m sure there are equivalents in the Android world. Most of these shows also stream episodes from their websites, or at least they provide directions as to how to listen.

If you’ve got favorite podcasts that aren’t on this list, comment on this post to let me know what I should check out (to comment on this blog post or any of my others, I think you have to click on the title and scroll down to the bottom of the page). I’ve also picked up a lot more reading during my trip…I’ll save book recommendations for another day. Otherwise, happy listening!