Basically all of the pictures in this blog post are taken by my sister, Grace, unless they’re cows or selftakes. #neverselfie
Highlights of the week include: eating mutton only to realize halfway through that it smelled exactly like stagnating drainage water, eating a sweet only to realize that its taste reminded me of the lemur exhibit at the Denver Zoo, attempting to gracefully eat prawn curry out of a bag with my hands while I sat in my hotel room and wrote a conference paper, and trying to subtly avoid drinking ants when I was given juice made more of insect than lemon. If I never have to drink a salty, buggy lemon juice again, I’ll die happy.
Watching cows and goats graze on the freshest trash heaps has become a norm, but both my intern and I were surprised when we witnessed a cow chew and swallow an entire thick notebook whole. Some child really can use the excuse that “my cow ate my homework.”
The heat in India allows me to daily experiences temperatures and sweat volumes that I never knew existed on planet Earth. We try to take lunch breaks at the hottest part of the day, but sometimes unplanned conversations and prolonged interviews leave us trudging across a black asphalt surface in the worst heat. Whenever I take my shoes off to go inside someone’s house, they laugh and comment on the Chaco tans I’ve acquired over the past two and a half months and marvel at the pale, sickly color my skin used to be (which isn’t much better than them mocking the beet red that my face usually is now). I recently got an email from the U.S. government’s International SOS, which sends alerts and updates on regional risks for where you’re traveling. The email warned of heat related health risks from extreme temperatures in India (which are life-threatening in northern India, but comparatively mild down south) and gives suggestions for how to avoid heat stroke. Unfortunately, I’ve broken all the rules as the email advises me to stay inside from 10 am – 4 pm and not to consume soda or sugary drinks (which would alienate all my interviewees who pump us full of sugary juices and medicine flavored sodas). Every once in a while, a truck full of watermelon weaves through the small community roads with a blaring speaking advertising the steal of 10 rupees per kg. The advertisement, or the heat, prove tempting, and one afternoon we succumbed to a snack of warm watermelon. Did anyone else know that non-genetically modified watermelons are full of seeds?
For the past few weeks, our research has settled into a routine. We begin the data collection for each project with an attempt to meet with the district’s Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board (TWAD), as TWAD has funded, supported, or directly implemented many of the projects we’re studying. Since most of the systems were implemented at least ten years ago, the officials responsible for implementation have retired, been promoted, or been transferred, so information is difficult to come by. We usually spend an hour chatting with whomever currently holds the title of Executive Engineer or Assistant Executive Engineer, always a man with a mustache, drink a cursory cup of hot tea or coffee served in a metal cup with no handle, and learn a limited amount about our projects, but an immense amount about the organization and institutions within TWAD that influence sanitation and progress in general. Next, we arrange a meeting with the executive officer in charge of the town panchayat (local unit of government that is responsible for infrastructure and other community services). The executive officers rarely know helpful information about the sanitation systems, but meeting them is a formality that cannot be skipped as bureaucratic processes are sacred in India. Usually, a younger man will be whispering the answers to our questions in the EO’s ear, and we discover who truly is knowledgeable about the sanitation systems and try to arrange a later meeting with him. In the eleven local government offices I’ve visited so far, only one executive officer was female, and the only other female employees I saw were sweeping the floor or bringing us tea.
About once a week, we stumble upon someone who knows one of the original TWAD officials. We take the phone number and my intern conducts a series of polite conversations where we try to convince said ex-official to let us invite ourselves into his home for an interview. Invariably, these interviews take place spontaneously and at least 100 kilometers from where we’re staying. This week, we’d set up a meeting only an hour away from our home base. But, on Friday morning as we were walking to the bus stand to catch a bus south for a day of interviews in the community, the official called us and asked that we come immediately to his office as he would be unable to host us the following day for our scheduled meeting. The official we met with this week has a side project in Thanjavur, so we took a bus four hours each way for an interview with him. I enjoy these interviews the most, since the retired men who agree to meet with us reminisce fondly about the projects and their tenure, and usually are willing to forgo some of the formalities and norms for sharing documentation. We usually end the meetings with hour-long slide shows of construction pictures and, strangely, piles of selftakes taken by the TWAD officials themselves.
One of these retired officials commended my parents’ and my bravery for allowing me to travel alone in India, saying he wished his country’s culture was different, but he would never let his own daughter (also doing her PhD in nanotechnology in Chennai) travel alone and always sends a collection of friends or uncles to escort her travels. I can’t imagine if my parents had sent ten of my uncles and their friends to escort me around India. Omg. The same breath he used to lament India’s cultural traditions he also used to change my lunch order and bring me something he felt was a more suitable lunch selection.
When we stay in the same place for one or two weeks at a time, we become friends with the hotel owners who learn a little about our research, most of whom have no clue about sanitation systems and that this could even be a possible subject for study. We also befriend the owners of the restaurants we frequent each morning for a quick dosa breakfast before getting on the bus. After five days of having dosa at the same hotel each morning, the owner greeted us with a “see you tomorrow”, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him we wouldn’t be returning because we were going in search of a hotel where we didn’t have to watch him give himself shots in the stomach (insulin?) every morning in the middle of the hotel. The fieldwork must go on.
This rest of this post deviates from my previous posts and will have almost no mention of sanitation. I took a much-needed break at the beginning of April to spend a week with my parents and sister in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was conveniently chosen based almost exclusively on the fact that my sister spent the past three months in Panama and had no way to securely send her passport away for a visa to India. Sri Lanka in contrast allows one to purchase a tourist visa online, and doesn’t require printed proof of that purchase upon arrival. Much easier to arrange from a small, inhospitable jungle island in the Panama Canal (aka door to hell). The remainder of this post is a complete lie; Sri Lanka is a horrible country and should never be visited.
Our first stop was a quick night in Negombo, a smaller town just north of the capital of Colombo. We wedged ourselves and our luggage into a small five seat car without a trunk or any spare breathing room. I had a small wave of culture shock, or rather, shock to my senses as the stimulation overload I’ve been used to from honking buses and cars, spluttering autos and motorbikes, mooing cows, barking dogs, and constant streams of people suddenly had disappeared. Although we were driving through the heart of Sri Lanka’s largest city, the place had an immediate laid-back feel and the absence of paralyzing traffic and massive crowds was obvious. We stayed the night at a small B&B run by a family who lived onsite and graciously arranged our transportation for the following day. As per Davis family tradition (addiction?), we scouted out several restaurant options, settled on the cheapest, and immediately ordered a giant platter of seafood that was promptly devoured.
The next couple of days were spent in Hikkaduwa, a small town on Sri Lanka’s west coast that apparently attracts almost exclusively Russian tourists. I finally found a group of people who disagree with the sun more than I do, as every single tourist was cancerously sunburned, yet seemingly unaware as the reddest individuals continued to spend the whole day laying in the sun. In a small lagoon off of one of the points of the main beach lies Hikkaduwa’s best attraction (although, my primatologist sister would probably argue that the purple-faced langurs in the trees of our hotel are better): a family of sea turtles. According to the locals, the sea turtles are almost constantly there, which means that small crowds are also flocking to observe the turtles, and the turtles gorge themselves on clumps of seaweed dangled above their heads all day. Our excitement over the sea turtles peaked one evening, when a surfer casually walked past us and said “turtles!” We turned around to find hundreds of baby sea turtles scrambling across the sand at sunset towards the ocean.
One afternoon, we meandered down the beach in search of one of the men who frequently hawked his catamaran for snorkeling. In true Davis form, we argued over mere dollars and walked away huffily from the ones who changed their prices on us, finally settling with a one-eyed man who led us over to his boat for an hour of snorkeling. “Boat” is quite a generous term here. Barely larger than the size of an actual banana, the boat was so narrow that each of us could only fit on leg inside. The man wedged tiny planks of wood inside the boat as makeshift seats for us to perch precariously on, and we set off into the choppy waves to the coral reef. Getting back into the boat was an adventure in itself that required hoisting of several of the family members.
We drove down the coast and around the southern point of the pear-shaped island, up to Tissamaharama, the small town a few kilometers outside of the entrance of Yala National Park. Yala is known as the best location to spot leopards in the world, due to its high leopard population density. Yala is not known for elephants, as those are commonly difficult to see. Minutes after we enter the park for the start of our evening safari, we stopped at the sight of rustling trees and the loud sound of crashing branches. Slowly, a small elephant family emerged and crossed the road behind us. Our driver kept pulling closer and closer, causing us to nearly panic, until we realized that Asian elephants don’t mind the proximity—it’s African elephants that become aggressive. We returned to the lodge at nightfall, and were fed a typical Sri Lanka dinner of curries, dhal, rice, potatoes, and coconut chutney. The family-run establishment gave us utensils but wouldn’t hear of us attempting to use them. Four family members hovered around our table, nodding in approval and laughing in mockery at us, depending on which person they were watching attempt to shovel food into our mouths by hand. Our plates were refilled more times that we could healthily or comfortably eat.
We began the next morning at 4:30 am, where we waited in a long line of unlimited safari vehicles clamoring to enter the park at sunrise. The moment the gates open, the jeeps speed across the dusty roads competing to get to the top leopard spotting sites first. We drove for two hours, circling rock outcrops, dense underbrush, and empty land scanning for elusive leopards, only to be disappointed. After the two hours, our guide allowed us to resume our previous habit of demanding he stop for every tiny bird, turtle, and bug our vehicle passed.
From Yala, our guide drove us directly to Udawalawe National Park, another protected area that is famous for its numerous elephant herds. While the elephants are indeed plentiful, there remains a significant amount of human-animal conflict in this area, where local herders break down park fences to let their cows graze on park lands and elephants escape to raid fruit stalls and tease vans of tourists who buy bananas to feed them. The elephants in Udawalawe are also noticeably thinner, with spines, ribs, and tailbones visible beneath their rough, grey skin. Udawalawe lacks the foliage of Yala, so elephants struggle to find sufficient food to fill their massive stomachs. We again went on evening and early morning safaris, arranged for us by “Mr. Happy”, the manager of our hotel before heading back up the coast to our final stop at Bentota beach.
On our first evening explore of Bentota, we ducked into a small restaurant on a barge anchored to a bank on the side of the river to inspect the menu. The minute we stepped inside, rain started to pour down. Soon, we were caught in the middle of a massive deluge, complete with thunder and lightning a bit too close for comfort. We ended up having dinner at the restaurant and spent three hours hoping the rain would pass, before we finally risked our escape in a small break in the lightning to get back to the hotel. The rest of our meals were taken at our guesthouse because all restaurants in the town closed to observe the Sri Lankan new year. We again stayed at a tiny family-owned B&B, and were made home-cooked meals until we left.
While souvenir shopping in Bentota, my mom, sister, and I noticed a group of men not so subtly following us from store to store, clearly serving as a signal to each shopkeeper for which souvenirs we wanted to buy. The prices kept rising, until one man quoted to us a price for a small box at 10000 Sri Lankan rupees ($67)—the final price we got at a store very far removed from this ring of men was closer to $2.50. Later, my sister and I were on the same street and were followed by a man who kept trying to talk to us. I introduced myself as Lisa, and I believe this can be recorded as the birth of Mona and Lisa, our two traveling sister alter-egos.
A post on Sri Lanka is incomplete without a discussion of the past and ongoing atrocities, namely, human rights violations, corruption, and fighting between government factions and people groups. One of my previous posts mentioned briefly a protest we witnessed on the ECR where Tamil fishermen were calling upon the Indian government to respond and protect them from killings that continue to happen at the hands of the Sri Lankan Coast Guard. I didn’t have the time to really look into why this is happening, and the civil war in Sri Lanka wasn’t something that I’ve paid close attention to. Like many other countries in Asia, Sri Lanka was a victim of imperialism, colonized by the British, Dutch, and Portuguese until as recently as the 1950s. Sri Lanka had a slightly higher semblance of autonomy, as its own government was formed early on and laid a stronger foundation for when the colony finally gained full independence. While the country has a multi-party system (parties mostly divided based on ethnic group), the largest party, representing the Sinhalese—Sri Lanka’s majority people group—has retained control for over five decades. The Sinhalese-led government has passed pro-Sinhalese and notably anti-Tamil (Sri Lankan Tamil) legislation, crystalizing already present tensions between the people groups. Most recently, the northern portion of the country has been plagued with a brutal civil war, stemming from escalating protests and violence from Sri Lankan Tamil groups and the government’s harsh, militarized response. The civil war ended in 2009, after the government basically bombed the rebel groups in the north incessantly. To a tourist, the blemishes of civil war, ongoing conflict, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation can be easy to overlook, but they’re still there. Sri Lanka is a country, like so many others, that is trying to harness explosive growth and become recognized and competitive on the world stage, but will always be impeded so long as elephants starve, precious rainforests are sacrificed for lumber and tea farms, and politicians exploit divisions between ethnic groups. On the whole, the country is still beautiful. The people are perhaps even more kind and hospitable than the extremely hospitable people I know in India. Campaigns for environmental protection are slow, but they’re there. We all concurry, get to Sri Lanka in a hurry.
My father was recently given an iPhone as a reward for him stepping down from a stressful job he’d held for 15 years. We thought the obsessive email-checking would end with the job. Unfortunately, now email is accessible to him even on safari in Sri Lanka.