In part to break the silence on this blog, in part to respond to friends who didn’t receive the update, I’m posting below the annual holiday letter I send out to folks between traditional New Years and Chinese New Year. I promise I will write a real update soon. I have no excuses now, not with all this free time 🙂
As the holiday season falls upon us and a new year awaits right around the corner, I find myself especially grateful to be writing you. It means a lot to have such wonderful friends and family in all corners of the world.
In March I finished up my last course at Johns Hopkins, where I’m now a happy graduate of the international health department. Around that time, I was given the opportunity to go to Liberia to improve the financing of the health sector. Our main task was to work with the government to develop a national health insurance system, so that all Liberians have access to quality essential health services. I won’t bore you with details, but I will say that this work is important because good aid is sustainable aid. I’m much more hopeful when countries can manage their own resources effectively instead of relying on unpredictable aid.
Many people think that aid work is glamorous and exciting, but the reality is far from it. My days consisted of long meetings, tedious analysis, and making presentations to policymakers who had a million other priorities. Nights and weekends, nights and weekends. I am grateful for a boss who entrusted me a lot of responsibility and gave me the freedom to run with my ideas.
But the most challenging part had nothing to do with the work. It was learning to carry the emotional weight of human suffering. It’s one thing to fly into developing country, stay in five star hotels within view of urban slums, and shuttle to and from government buildings all day discussing numbers and figures. It’s another thing to call somebody a friend, care for them like family, and continue to watch them struggle day after day, working harder than I know I ever will in my life, only for a fighting chance at a better future.
A Liberian friend once said to me, “A war is being fought in this country, only without the sound of gunfire.” The things we take for granted—public transportation, a high school degree, the opportunity to work, a meal to expect on the table at the end of the day—these are distant dreams for so many. And the more I immersed myself into that environment, the harder it became to reconcile the two starkly different realities.
Sometimes thinking about it made me mad. Sometimes it made me sad. But oftentimes it was inspiring. Living in Monrovia was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, not only professionally but on a profoundly personal level as well. There, more so than anywhere else, I saw the resilience and generosity of human beings, often from those who had the least. I felt the power of a word and a promise left unsaid. I was forced to question my assumptions about moral behavior and ethics. Once again, I feel as if I was the one who took away more from an experience than I was originally intending to give. Life is funny like that.
I would have liked to stay, but Ebola was too great a risk. The first case was reported from neighboring Guinea the same week I arrived in March. The alarm bells rang very early on, but I must admit that nobody on the ground, myself included, expected it to develop into the situation today, until at least June. We all need to stop pointing fingers.
There is still hope. As I write this, ministers of health and finance are meeting in Geneva with the WHO to devise a strategy for long- term health system strengthening. On a global level the renewed attention on the importance of health systems is encouraging. Far too often, people look for magic bullet solutions and quick fixes. It was time for a wake up call. I hope that the message won’t be overlooked again.
With a very heavy heart, I left Liberia at the end of July. A month later, I found myself in Lima, Peru where I switched hats and jumped into a journalism assignment covering an overlooked global issue: elder abuse and aging societies. The assignment was sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis reporting in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. I picked Peru partly because there was evidence of government and civil society activity on the rights of older persons, and partly because I wanted a refresher on my very rusty Spanish. I also thought it would be a nice break from aid work… if only I knew what I was getting myself into!
As the food capital of Latin America, Lima was a very exciting place to be based for a few months. But like many other places, the inequality was hard to ignore. From $1 soup kitchen lunches to lavish high-society parties in a single day, 80 year-old grandmothers and grandfathers collecting trash and destitute mothers selling candies at every street corner, there were constant reminders of the failures of social protection. Amidst this environment, I spent my days photographing and interviewing older adults, government officials, civil society actors, and ordinary people. Coupled with the depressing, relentless winter grayness (think London and Seattle), it became a little too much. I had to get out.
To take a breather from work, I spent the month of October traveling the three regions of Peru—from the hot and humid Amazonian jungle to the chilly Andean mountain range to the relaxed coastal towns off the Pacific Ocean. Peru is an incredibly diverse country with such wonderful, hospitable people. I loved Machu Picchu and the tourist magnets, but my favorite part was probably rowing into the Amazonian river under the moonlight, lying in a drifting wooden boat, enjoying the view of thousands of stars accompanied by a wildlife symphony. Away from civilization, the world was so incredibly still and beautiful.
In November, I wearily began my journey back to Taipei via a two- week visit to Paraguay and Brazil. My mom recently moved to Paraguay to be closer to her family, who has been running businesses there for the past 20-30 years. It was so nice to spend some time together, as I had not visited them in more than five years. I hope the next trip will be much sooner than 2019! 🙂
I’m now in Taipei, where I’m wrapping up my Peru reporting and then relaxing. I can’t wait to catch up on reading, do living room workouts with the aunties (Fitness Blender on Youtube is awesome J), and recover a little from a busy year of travel and work. Nothing is in store yet for 2015, but I hope to jump back into the aid world by springtime. Fingers crossed.
Please feel free to write me sometime! I’d love to hear from you. My e-mail remains the same: email@example.com.
I had the fortune today of spending a beautiful day celebrating Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) at Cementerio Nueva Esperanza, one of the largest cemeteries in Latin America. We weren’t lucky enough to witness this talented band below play live, but it was moving nonetheless to be surrounded by such personal moments of reflection and community coming together. It’s amazing how such distant cultures around the world share the same universal practices.
I was surprised by how young most of the deceased were at their time of death. Many of the buried were infants and children under five. As it turns out, Peru’s life expectancy has increased by an average of five years per decade over the past 50 years. (By contrast, the US has increased at 1/5 the pace.) In other words, in 1970, the average Peruvian only lived to be 53 years old. Compare that to 75 years old in 2014. What an achievement in less than two generations.
That said, like most of my experiences in Peru, even the celebration of the dead was characterized by the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots. Those with means were buried lower, had brightly-painted cemented tombs, fresh food and flowers, and live bands and/or pastors. The rest laid further uphill, surrounded by modest gray stones and shrubs. Some were in utter disrepair and covered entirely by dried branches.
That’s not even counting the oddness of the fact that shacks inhabited by the poor occupied the hills just beyond the graves. Given the same size and color, it was hard to tell where the dead ended and where life began.
At one point, I came across yet another tomb in utter disrepair. Branches were strewn all over and half of the cross was dangerously close to falling off. It was such a sad sight. Yet, as I came closer, I noticed a cheap plastic cup filled with tiny, half-wilted red flowers set against the head of the tomb.
Obviously, someone had come to visit, even though they had next to nothing.
It was a sign of love, no matter how little they could bring, no matter how little time they had outside of work and more work. At the end of the day, honoring memories of loved ones is not about demonstrating love through material decorations, but rather about keeping someone in your heart.
As the song goes, sé que siempre estarán a mi lado.
When I wrote my last and only post in Liberia, the plan had been to follow with a series of reflections. Yet, between the dry African heat when I arrived and the constant rain showers when I left, I seem to have missed documenting an entire six months.
The silence was not intentional. Many times I tried to put pen to paper, only to realize moments later that I couldn’t. Even now, I still struggle to express the tangle of emotions. The essence of the human experience, revealed so delicately in brief moments of clarity, does not lend itself well to words.
In sum, Liberia was a deep dive into humanity. It was there that I felt what it truly means to be human, to celebrate our aliveness through resilience and strength despite the most difficult circumstances and seemingly impossible odds. It’s where I was embraced by communities and friends who welcomed me with love and sincerity, regardless of the color of my skin or the briefness of our encounter. It’s where I learned more about the kind of person, development worker, and friend I wanted to be and the impact I needed to have on the world. It’s where I became sensitized, on a very visceral level, to what it means to be part of the have-nots and to the dynamics of power and privilege. I never knew it was possible to grow so much in only a few months’ time, nor will I ever be able to capture all the lessons illuminated.
Perhaps one of these days, we’ll unpack these insights over a cup of coffee, a beer, or a meal in some small corner of the world. We’ll discuss all the things that are problematic with development aid, the ubiquity of inequity and violations around the world, and ways to keep moving forward despite carrying such a heavy heart laden with emotion. We’ll make familiarity out of the unfamiliar by our shared company, as if no time had passed. Perhaps I’ll even write about it.
Sri Lankan food is absolutely delicious, heavily spiced, and quite varied from kitchen to kitchen. The coastal regions provide abundant fresh seafood, while the Northern and Eastern regions feature certain Tamil specialties. The variety of choices was one of the main reasons I decided to visit the country, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed!
Here’s a list of fun things to try on your next trip:
Hoppers are crepe-like pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter. They’re distinguishable by the unique shape, which resembles a small bowl. The edges are perfectly crunchy and light, while the center is fluffy and chewy from the thick batter sitting in the middle of the conical pan.
Hoppers are generally available in the late afternoon and evening, when they are eaten as a snack or for dinner. The standard hopper is served in a stack (see photo below), with a spicy red chili paste spread. Variations include: egg hoppers (cracked, cooked egg in the middle), panni hoppers (folded in half with sweet coconut cream filling – to die for!), and hoppers served with delicious curries (see #2)
These are hands down my favorite thing to eat in Sri Lanka… don’t miss them!
2. Curries, curries, and more curries
Like its Northern neighbor, Sri Lanka is known for a huge variety of curries. From the classics like chicken curry and dahl (lentil) curry to the more adventurous variations like garlic curry (40 cloves and nothing else!) and jackfruit curry — there’s something for every palate. Everyone will tell you that a homemade rice and curry is the best (and it’s true), but don’t let that stop you from eating out!
In general, curries are most often eaten for lunch as a standard rice and curry. You sit down in a restaurant (or “hotel” in local lingo), check out the curries available that day, and order 3-4 different dishes of either poultry, meat, lentils, or various vegetables. They can also be served for breakfast and dinner.
Since the curries often sit over a heater all day long, the meat can be dry and stringy. I’ve had much more luck sticking to the vegetarian options.
Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Yes, the rice will fall through… but that’s half the fun! Sri Lankans will claim it makes the food taste better, but I remain skeptical…
Be warned that some chicken curries are actually chicken parts, not chicken meat.
To provide a sense of the enormous selection of curries….
Typically served as a side dish to accompany curries, sambol is a mixture of shredded coconut, chili, onion, citrus juice, and sometimes dried fish. It can pack some heat, so be careful if you’re sensitive. That said, the spicy and citrus notes go very nicely with the creamy curries.
4. String Hoppers
Don’t be fooled by the name — although these are also made of rice flour, these are not the same as the hoppers above (#1). String hoppers are essentially vermicelli rice noodles that are made by pressing dough through a machine into little rounds.
String hoppers are a breakfast favorite, though they are sometimes eaten as a light dinner.
More breakfast appas for your viewing pleasure. Notice that these hoppers are made from red rice, which some claim is more nutritious than the white varietal.
A mouthwatering breakfast spread….
As one of the Tamil cuisine staples, pittu is served up in the Northern peninsula and the Eastern region as a carb staple, usually with assorted curries. It’s essentially rolled and mashed up rice that’s steamed in a bamboo mold and mixed with dried coconut flakes. The version pictured above is relatively mild in taste, but there’s a darker black rice version that’s much sweeter. Given the heavy coconut content, pittu tends to sit in your stomach for quite some time.
Another Tamil specialty, Upma is like Indian spices meets Middle Eastern couscous. Typically eaten as a breakfast dish, it can contain any of the following ingredients depending on the cook’s preferences: mustard seeds, cumin, ginger, chilis, onions, coconut, curry leaves, and even lemon juice.
Kotthu is a dish you’ll hear from a mile away, before you even see or smell anything. It’s made by banging chopping knives on the metal, wonderfully rhythmic but deafening if you happen to be nearby. The dish itself consists of chopped roti bread, stir-fried with onions, spices, some vegetables, and optional meat. A quick stir-fry, Sri Lankan style, that’s a fairly safe bet anywhere in the country. 6. Roti
Roti comes in many forms. Coconut roti is a flat piece of baked dough with coconut flakes – excellent with chili paste. Egg roti is pulled, oiled dough that’s cooked on the stove with an egg cracked in between the layers; heavenly dipped in some chicken gravy. (Try this at Siri Ramya in Kandy!) Vegetable and fish rotis are usually sealed in a triangular bread pastry on the side of the road. I was told that the best rotis are usually made in Muslim hotels (restaurants), which I found was a pretty good rule of thumb.
7. King coconut
Fresh coconut water…. filled with much needed electrolytes for rehydration! Be sure to ask for the ones with meat (if you like it). R30-40 was normal price as of September 2013.
8. Short Eats
In almost all hotels (restaurants), there is the option of having “short eats” – assorted fried and baked pastries on a platter. The staff brings you a plate like the one below. You eat whatever you want and pay for only those items at the end. Caution: Because the plates are passed around endlessly, the hygienic factor can be very questionable.
9. Wattalapam, Curd & Treacle, and Yogurt
Don’t ask, just eat. They are all delicious. Curd can be found in curd shops, while wattalapam and yogurt are available at nearly all dining establishments.
10. Milk rice
Rice cooked slowly in coconut milk, like a sweet and savory rice porridge. Wonderful comfort food for breakfast.
What should I Drink?
My go-to was coconut water. But if you’re in the mood for a buzz, the following are local options:
Arak (local liquor from coconut trees);
Toddy (fermented coconut or palm drink); and
Lion beer (very drinkable and available countrywide).
Other things to note:
Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Most hotels have a washing basin in the main dining room; otherwise they will have a washing dish on the table. After the meal, the staff will usually bring you another washing basin and some recycled paper for drying your hands.
Tea is served VERY SWEET. Ask for no sugar if you want to add it yourself.
Order ahead of time (at least 2-3 hours notice) if you are at a small guesthouse, so they have enough time to prepare.
Got any other favorites from Sri Lanka? Leave a note in the comments!
Belated greetings from Liberia, folks. It’s been six days since I touched down in Monrovia and there’s a lot to report on. This trip marks a lot of ‘firsts’ for me. Not only is it my first time in Liberia and West Africa in general, but it’s also my first time working on health financing issues. Over the past week, I’ve been shuttling back and forth from government ministries, plugging in 12 hours a day at the never-ending tasks at hand. Surprisingly, I couldn’t be happier. While a lot of it has to do with the novelty of beginning a new assignment in a new place—the beach and sunshine certainly help, too—the main reason has been the work itself. Health financing is an absolutely fascinating topic. In fact, I’m of the opinion that health financing one of the most important areas of international development today. I’ll get to that later.
As with most global health topics, health financing is ultimately about serving the people — ensuring that people have access to quality care without suffering serious financial burden. Ironically, however, one of the challenges of working in policy is that one becomes quickly removed from the day-to-day life of the very people you hope to serve. Between the hotel and the office, there’s been little time left to explore and engage with the communities. I decided that I would change that.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to go very far. A few blocks from my hotel, I came across a clearing that overlooked the narrow peninsula that captures most of Monrovia. Eager to start using my new camera, I laid out the frame and took the following shot:
All of a sudden, a voice sounded behind me.
“You take a photo of our community, you need to pay five dollars to give back.”
I turned around to look at the man. Dressed in faded blue shorts and dirty flip flops, the young man stared at me unapologetically, his piercing gaze becoming ever more uncomfortable with each passing millisecond.
Comments like this are not unusual, particularly in the developing country context. “But I’m showing the world the beauty of your country,” I replied. From my few days here, I had already learned that friendliness and joking went far in building relationships or, in this case, defusing a situation.
But the man was not amused. “There is no beauty in Liberia. Only poverty.”
“There is poverty, but beauty everywhere as long as you’re willing to look for it.”
“Sure. But will it pay for my surgery?”
He stared back at me in silence.
I wanted to tell him that I understood, that I empathized. After all, it’s why I’m here: because the system is broken. The health system in Liberia has offered limited social protection, nor does it deliver on the aim of ensuring access to quality care.
As the oldest republic in Africa, Liberia is still recovering from the civil conflict that lasted from 1989 to 2003, which resulted in one of the largest recorded economic collapses, destroyed all forms of infrastructure, and drove up the national debt to a staggering 800% of GDP.  An opportunity for change arose in 2006, when Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first woman elected head of state in Africa. Under the new government, a National Health Plan was developed in 2007, including the implementation of a Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) through a free-care model.
While the implementation of the BPHS has been successful in certain areas (e.g. the reduction in under-five morbidity and mortality), it has proved incomplete for the full needs of health care delivery. The BPHS does not cover treatment of common illnesses such as non-communicable (diabetes, cancers, hypertension, etc.) and neglected tropical diseases. Additionally, the rigid salary scales make it difficult to retain health workers in remote areas, and recent studies show that approximately 40% of the population still lives more than one hour walk from a health facility.  Most importantly, limited free care does not protect the population from unexpected health expenditures, which can be catastrophic for families, particularly the estimated 76% of the population that lives below the poverty line. As a result, there is still no safety net. If you get sick, tough luck.
Such was the case for the man standing before me. He was angry and, in my opinion, rightly so.
So when people ask me why I decided to abandon a life in Washington DC to come to Liberia, this is it. I’m here to work with the government and partners to reimagine what health care could be like in this country. I don’t have all the answers, nor is knowledge alone sufficient for change, but I’m going to give my full attention to this issue over the next few months.
Thanks for reading along.
[i] Country Situational Analysis Report, MOHSW, 2011
[ii] Jacob Hughes, Amanda Glassman, and Walter Gwenigale. Innovative Financing in Early Recovery: The Liberia Health Sector Pool Fund. Washington DC: The Center for Global Development, 2012.
 Essential Package of Health Services. (2011) Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Liberia.
I’ve always held the belief that the perception of time slows down when one travels, but the opposite seems to be true these days. In the past month, my journeys have taken me from Sri Lanka to Thailand to China and, home to Taiwan, and now Hong Kong. It all seems like a blur at this point, but there’s too much happening to slow down. In just a few days, my cousin will be getting married to a Cantonese man. They met when she was still a shy 16 year-old boarding school student. Nearly 10 years later, they are finally tying the knot in what will be the first wedding in the Ferng family in over 25 years—even more the reason to celebrate!
In the meantime, I’ll be playing catch-up on all the stories yet to be told from the long journey from Ethiopia to Taipei. Since we’re in full throttle wedding-prep mode right now, I’ll just share a quick highlight from Sri Lanka.
I spent three weeks backpacking alone in Sri Lanka from September 15 through October 8, 2013. Below is my review of the trip in the following order: top 5 lists; itinerary overview; city-specific reviews; and lastly, general advice.
TOP 5 LISTS
Top 5 most memorable experiences:
1. Exploring Jaffna and its sobering history by bike (see photos here if interested)
2. Seeing hundreds of elephants at The Gathering in Minneriya National Park
3. Sampling the full spectrum of Sri Lankan cuisine and taking cooking classes
4. Climbing Sigiriya rock
5. Enjoying the sunrise and sunset views of Ella Gap from Mountain Heavens
Top 5 favorite places:
2. Sigiriya (more the rock and Minneriya national park)
4. Nuwara Eliya
5. Trinco/Uppuveli/Nilaveli beach strip
Top 5 favorite foods:
1. Hoppers – a bowl-shaped crepe with crispy sides and spongey base, especially the panni hoppers that are filled with sweet coconut milk
2. Egg roti with chicken gravy
3. Rice and curry – homemade was best, of course!
4. Upma – thick semolina breakfast porridge in Tamil cuisine
5. Watalappam – coconut custard pudding
Top 5 recommended items to bring
1. Mosquito repellent
2. Power plug adapter
4. Smartphone and local 3G SIM (for mapping, internet, calling hotels and restaurants, etc.)
5. Ear plugs
I flew economy from Addis Ababa to Colombo via Jeddah on Saudia. Nice planes, friendly staff, no delays. We even received meal vouchers during the transit in Jeddah. I got a discounted ticket via Flightfox (see details here).
My flight arrived at 7am. At the airport, I bought a local SIM card from Dialog for R1300, which included 3G wifi and R800 of credit. In retrospect, R800 of talk and text was excessive for three weeks – I still had about R600 when I left. That said, the 3G was fast and R1300 was only USD10, so it wasn’t a terribly bad deal. I also exchanged USD$100 which was more than enough for the first couple of days.
I could have taken a bus to Colombo, but I had a large suitcase with me. The guys at Dialog called a cab for me, which was cheaper than taking the airport cabs. The ride from the airport to Colombo Fort cost approximately R1750. I went a little further South to the Kalubowila neighborhood and negotiated for R2250. It took about an hour to get into town.
Not as terrible as everyone said! I actually quite enjoyed the city, despite the congestion and somewhat chaotic pace of things.
Couchsurfing – it’s a great city for surfing and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.
Things to do in Colombo that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting the spice mills and getting freshly ground spices (free – except spice purchases)
2.) Attending an open street fair with food and music (free)
3.) Checking out the restaurants and cafes downtown – Commons Cafe was a particularly good coffee shop with wi-fi and great pastries.
4.) Visit the big Laksala (arts and crafts shop) and see the best of the country’s crafts. It was a good way to figure out what to look for outside of Colombo, often for much better prices. (free)
5.) Cheap, delicious lunch near the train station.
6.) Couchsurfed with some great people
Things to do in Colombo that I did not enjoy:
1.) Getting lost looking for the UNESCO ticketing office (see below)
2.) Going to the beach – it was covered in trash and nowhere nearly as nice as the beaches elsewhere
If you are a student, be sure to visit the UNESCO ticketing office 200m down from the UNDP office before you depart. It’s the only place you can purchase 50% off student tickets to the three main sites in the Golden Triangle: Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, and Polywannura.
Lovely city with a very unique fort area, albeit slightly overpriced and quite touristy. Mediocre dining options. Fun to wander about the alleys in the Fort. Would recommend including in the itinerary, seeing as the trip form Colombo is only 3-4 hours on an easy bus/train ride.
I stayed at Leijay Resort. I don’t know how much it was because I bunked with friends who were long-term guests, but it is rated #1 on Trip Advisor—a title that is fully deserved. The staff were amazingly friendly, helpful, and fun to hang out with. The food was delicious and I even got free cooking lessons from the chef.
Things to do in Galle that I enjoyed:
1.) Exploring the Fort and its restaurants, galleries, and museums. Also, meeting many friendly shopkeepers (free)
2.) Attending full moon ceremony (“poya”) with some hotel staff at a small temple (free)
3.) Taking a cooking class with Jayantha at Leijay Resorts (free)
4.) Delicious gelato in the Fort. Twice. (Il Gelato was the preferred of the two; approx. R200 per scoop).
5.) Relaxing by the pool in Leijay Resort.
6.) Going to Haburaduwa (half hour by bus) to see the turtles at the sanctuary. (R400 entrance)
Things to do in Galle that I did not enjoy:
1.) Eat at Mama’s in the Fort. It had been recommended by everyone, but I found it very overrated and overpriced. (R700 – R1000 per person)
I took the bus eastbound and then northbound from Galle to Ella, transferring in Matara and Weliwaya. The journey was long (8+ hours) but bearable. That said, the last leg from Weliwaya to Ella was the single most terrifying transportation experience during my trip. It was completely dark outside and the driver ripped through the winding mountain roads at 50mph—so fast that a fully-grown man was literally thrown out of his seat during a sharp turn. I didn’t dare look at the steep drop down the cliff. If taking this bus route, best to complete this before nightfall.
Relaxed backpacker central, great for nature and hiking enthusiasts. Better enjoyed as an unwinding destination after exhausting tours through the hill country and ancient triangle. As I was just starting my travels, I was quickly bored in Ella after just 1-2 days.
I did some freelance work in exchange for room and board at Mountain Heavens. Hands down the most beautiful view in Ella. The rooms are expensive (USD$120-140 a night), but they do deliver the value. Even if you don’t stay here, I highly recommend taking a tuk-tuk up the mountain (R150 at most) to enjoy the view from the location.
Things to do in Ella that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting Dowa Temple and Cave, enjoying some steamed corn outside and hanging out with the family that runs it. (free; donations accepted. Corn – R20)
2.) Enjoying a cold beer while gazing over Ella Gap from Mountain Heavens. (Not sure about the price of beer…maybe R250? )
3.) Dinner at the Jade Green Restaurant (book in advance; R450 pp for rice and curry)
4.) Watching the sunrise over Ella Gap
5.) Hitchhiking along the routes near Ella – motorbikes, trucks, and tuk-tuks alike.
Things to do in Ella that I did not enjoy:
1.) Going to Rawana Falls. It was just on the side of the road and overrun with families and tourists… hundreds of people.
I took the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya—a beautiful journey through the rolling hills and tea plantations. Second class seats were perfectly fine. Just be sure to snag a spot by the doors if you prefer that to the seat, as that area fills up pretty quickly. Note that the stop for Nuwara Eliya is actually Nanu Oya, almost 10 kilometers outside of the city proper. At of the time of my visit, the road was still under construction and drivers were charging extra to go to town. I paid R1500 for a taxi van, while a friend later paid R500 for a tuk-tuk.
Nuwara Eliya Impressions:
Old British colonial influences, small town vibe. Best for visiting tea plantations. Relaxed and romantic vibe. It was very cold when I visited (September)—I had to wear thick wool socks at night—so be sure to check the forecast and bundle up!
Nuwara Eliya Accommodations:
I stayed at a lovely homestay, Sincere Wilderness, located high on the mountains but only a short tuk-tuk ride away. This was the highlight of my trip. The family, Lal and Grace, were the most gracious, loving people I met during my entire trip. They made me feel completely at home, teaching me Sri Lankan home cooking and showing me around the rainforest. (Lal is a naturalist and incredibly knowledgeable about the nature and history of the place.) I would strongly recommend staying with them if you pass through Nuwara Eliya.
Things to do in Nuwara Eliya that I enjoyed:
1.) Visiting a tea plantation outside of town. I can’t remember the name, but it was just a few km past Labookelie, which is the one most people visit. (Free entrance; can give English guide an optional tip.)
2.) Taking the bus to the tea plantation. I found that the views of hill country rivaled those from the Ella-Nuwara Eliya train ride. Be sure to sit on the left side for the best photo opportunities. (Free)
3.) Cooking lessons with Grace at the homestay (Free; pay for dinner separately)
4.) Getting an introduction to saree (or sari) culture and production at a shop near the bus stop
Things to do in Nuwara Eliya that I did not enjoy:
1.) Paying an unexpected R1500 to go into town. There was some miscommunication and I thought the fare was covered. Be sure to negotiate clearly before hopping into the vehicle!
2.) Getting harassed by local children while wandering through the tea plantations. Handouts are unsustainable and no good.
Touristy city with some good food, beautiful lake, and decent attractions. The Temple of the Tooth and the botanical gardens were both somewhat overrated, so I wouldn’t prioritize those in an itinerary. Nice to see if you’re passing through.
Kandy Accommodation: Mango Tree Hotel
• Price Paid: R1500/night for a double fan room with private bathroom, wifi, hot water, no meals included.
• Comments: Recommended with some caveats. Pros: It was clean and reasonably priced. The outdoor deck was under renovations when I was there, but will be a wonderful place to relax once completed. Cons: The staff was often forgetful and the owner was of questionable character. I went two nights without a blanket because the staff continually forgot about my request.
Things to do in Kandy that I enjoyed:
1.) Eating hoppers from 3pm – 6pm at Siri Ramya near the Muslim Hotel. The egg roti with gravy at the other Siri Ramya location was the best we had in Sri Lanka (R100-200pp).
2.) Watching the sunset at Kandy Lake (free).
3.) Kandyan Dance (500rps/person).
4.) Visiting the botanical gardens and taking a nice afternoon nap in the shade (R800 student price, otherwise R1100 approx.)
5.) Temple of the Tooth – this was only worth it because of the puja ceremony at 9am; otherwise I think it would have been a mediocre experience (R1000).
Things to do in Kandy that I did not enjoy:
1.) The high tuk-tuk prices (R200 from city center to Mango Tree, which was barely 1-2 km).
Sigiriya Impressions: Smaller than I expected, dusty, hot, and not much happening in the town itself. Good as a base for the Minneriya National Park, the main Rock, and its surrounding sights.
Sigiriya Accommodations: Flower Inn (LP guide)
• Price Paid: R1500/night for a two-bed fan room with private bathroom, no wifi, no hot water, no meals included. Western breakfast was around $375 extra.
• Comments: The location is just off the entrance of Sigiriya Rock, which was hugely convenient. However, the staff was somewhat unenthusiastic about everything. Rooms were decently clean but poor value given the lack of wifi and hot water. Might stay there again if no better options are available.
Things to do in Sigiriya that I enjoyed:
1.) Climb Sigiriya rock first thing in the morning. The park opens at 7am and we went as early as we could. It was windy, but we were in the shade during the entire ascent. Also, the crowds didn’t start to arrive until we were descending, around 10 or 11am. Going early is highly recommended. (Normally priced at USD30; I paid half-price for the student ticket in Colombo.)
2.) Elephant safari at Minneriya national park. We departed at 2pm and hung out until sunset. As it was September, the famous “Gathering” of elephants was taking place daily. No disappointments there – we saw over 150 elephants drinking, eating, and bathing! Fabulous. ($R4500 for the jeep, split among four people. Entrance was approximately R2500 each. Total: R3625 per person.)
3.) Enjoying a king coconut and veggie roti in a hut by the road. (less than R100)
4.) Dinner at the popular restaurant just 25m down from Flower Inn. The food was westernized rice and curry, but delicious nonetheless. Just make sure they serve it hot! (R400 per person)
Things to do in Sigiriya that I did not enjoy:
1.) Waiting nearly two hours for the bus that supposedly comes every 30 minutes in the hot hot heat…
Anuradhapura Impressions: Impressive ancient history, enormous dagobas, and the Bodhi Tree. The main sights are somewhat exhausting and expensive, but worth a visit if one is interested in history and religion. I did a bicycle tour in one day (9a-4p) and highly recommend it. While there are plaques and LP guides, I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of the sights. Also, beware if you try to navigate yourself: the roads are poorly marked and people, in general, give poor directions. Try to schedule the Bodhi Tree around lunchtime, as there is a free canteen outside with decent rice and curry, as long as you don’t mind the wait.
Anuradhapura Accommodation: Shalini Guesthouse
• Price Paid: R1400/night for double fan room with private bathroom, wifi, hot water, no meals included.
• Comments: Not the cleanest hotel in Sri Lanka, but it had the basics and the staff was extremely helpful. They let me use their internet and computer for two hours without charge and even made perfect french fries for me at 11:30pm because I was hungry. Rameez was a great guide and took me to the pharmacy when I needed something. Bicycles were available for rent at R300(?) per day. Meals were expensive, but there were plenty of dining options nearby (walking not advised at night due to dark roads).
Things to do in Anuradhapura that I enjoyed:
1.) Bike tour through the main sites in Anuradhapura with Rameez from Shalini (Ticket was R3125, but I purchased the student ticket in advance for approx. R1600 in Colombo. The tour was name-your-own-price and I ended up giving him R1000 after.)
2.) Free lunch with the masses outside the Bodhi Tree Temple (free).
3.) Chilling with the coconut guy outside the first temple and trying betel nut for the first time (R50 for a king coconut)
4.) The French fries at Shalini Guesthouse. Seriously, they were good. (R300)
5.) Dinner and breakfast at Freedom Hotel, a local eatery with average prices and very good curries (R100-200pp).
Things to do in Anuradhapura that I did not enjoy:
1.) Meeting a driver while searching for a hotel and getting taken for a ride. He showed me a few places, despite my request to go directly to Shalini. When we arrived at Shalini finally, he lied and said that a German woman had been murdered there by drunken guests the previous month. I later verified that this was not the case. Shady!
Traveling from Anuradhapura to Jaffna took approximately six hours by bus. You transfer at Vavuniya (pronounced Vow-nya) and then hop on a second bus to Jaffna. There is a security checkpoint (kind of like immigration) somewhere along the highway. Be sure to carry your passport and preferably a photocopy as well.
Jaffna was my favorite location of the entire trip. Raw, recovering, bombed out, and melancholic… the city was not to be seen, but rather to be felt. I didn’t do much sightseeing while I was there. Instead, I rented a bike and went around talking to people, reading in the library, and getting a feel for the history of the war and its effects. The climate was moderate in September. I didn’t visit any of the islands as I was not entirely comfortable traveling as a solo female. Be sure to carry your passport with you as there are security checkpoints on the road from Vavuniya to Jaffna.
Jaffna Accommodation: Sarra’s Guest House 2 (The new one down the street from the old house)
Spanking new building with dozens of immaculate rooms and a pair of friendly staff. The kitchen was not operating, but the staff went out and bought anything requested—from beer to curry to toddy. Pick the rooms facing the back, as street noise can be a nuisance. Bikes available for half-day/full-day rental at a decent rate.
Things to do in Jaffna that I enjoyed:
1.) Jaffna public library (free). There is a little table behind the lobby that is dedicated to the famous Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar. The books have English translations and are well worth a read for insight into Tamil culture. Also, the library canteen in the back has good rice and curry.
2.) Bike around the city (free). The old bombed out train station is a great place for photographs.
3.) Visit a local clinic and talk to the doctor about the health system and their challenges (R200 for consultation and drugs).
4.) Attend Hindu ceremonies at 4:30pm at the main temple (free).
5.) Walk around the city market and look at all the stalls.
6.) Eat traditional Tamil food, such as uppuma and various types of pittu.
Things in Jaffna I didn’t enjoy:
1.) Dinner at Mango’s, a highly rated South Indian restaurant. The uttapam was bland and the chutneys mediocre.
2.) The fish market near the Fort. I was an uncomfortable magnet for the five minutes that I was there. Nobody spoke any English and I attracted too much attention to even photograph or wander around in peace.
TRINCOMALEE / UPPUVELI
Impressions: Trinco is a busy hub with a mix of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim influences, though most people I met were Tamil. Lots of deer wandering about the city – an odd sight. I didn’t stay for long before moving on to a guesthouse in Uppuveli beach nearby.
Uppuveli Accommodation: Shiva’s Guesthouse
R1600 for a double fan room with private bathroom, wi-fi, no hot water, no breakfast.
NOT RECOMMENDED *** I woke up at 3am in the morning and found a stranger underneath my bed. I screamed, he ran off. Utterly unbelievable. We suspect he was attempting sexual harassment. He stole some cash but left my other valuables untouched. Amazingly, there was not a single hotel staff on site to respond to this in the middle of the night. After the staff arrived in the morning, I recovered the missing wallet in an unlikely location, which prompted a series of aggressive accusations from the hotel that I was “f**king crazy” and “making up stories”. The only person who was sympathetic was the hotel manager, though I was beyond consolation at that point, especially after being cornered and yelled at by four other employees. Lesson: Be VERY careful in the Uppuveli area, especially if you are traveling alone!
Basically, that incident took up most of my night and day in Uppuveli. I went across the street to Coconut Beach Lodge, where I was welcomed warmly and invited to lounge on their premises for as long as I wanted to. It seemed like a lovely place and I wish I had stayed there instead.
I took the night train from Trinco back to Colombo from 7:30pm until 5:30am. First class (R1200; only AC trains on Sunday) was well sold out, so I took a reclining second class sleeper (R530). It was pretty terrible—even earplugs couldn’t mask the noise of the train. If I were to do it again, I would definitely take the overnight AC bus at 10:30pm for just over R800.
I visited during low season in September and opted to find accommodations upon arrival. This turned out to be a good strategy, as most hostels had available rooms and were more willing to negotiate in person. Always haggle – if not, chances are that you will pay more than local prices.
I averaged R1500 for a single private room with en-suite bathroom, fan only, no AC, usually wi-fi and sometimes a hot shower. Breakfast was often an additional R200-300. Bikes were sometimes available for rent for R300 a day. I found that mosquito nets were necessary throughout the entire country, with the exception of Colombo and Nuwara Eliya. Washing services were not common, so be prepared to do your own laundry by hand. (The guesthouse can provide a bucket.)
Hotels will usually provide either Western and/or Sri Lankan breakfasts and dinners. Always give advanced notice (at least 2-3 hours, night before for breakfast orders) otherwise the hotel may not be ready to serve. Local eateries are much more cost effective, as a rice and curry (typically 3-4 vegetarian dishes) is only about R100-150 per person. By contrast, hotels can charge anywhere from R350 for a rice and curry up to R1300 for a buffet.
Sri Lankan food is absolutely delicious, heavily spiced, and quite varied from kitchen to kitchen. Some fun things to try:
String hoppers and curry/sambol (a spicy shredded coconut mix) – kind of like rice vermicelli served with various curries (usually egg or lentil/dahl curry) and sambol for breakfast and dinner
Rice and curry – Generally eaten at lunchtime, a R&C comes with a plate of rice and 3-5 curries, usually daal curry (lentils), sambol (as above), some vegetable salad, pumpkin curry, green bean curry, jackfruit curry, egg curry, etc. Fish and chicken are common options, though they were usually less appetizing than the veggie options. Be warned that some chicken curries are actually chicken parts, not chicken meat.
Hoppers (the round kind, not string)– plain hoppers, egg hoppers (cracked egg in the middle), panni hoppers (sweet coconut cream filling) – generally available late afternoon and early evening
Tamil specialties up in the north: pittu (mashed rice cooked in bamboo mold; there’s a sweet black version and mild white/red version), uppuma (Sri Lankan cous cous)
Kotthu – chopped roti bread, stir-fried with onions, spices, some vegetables, and optional meat
Roti – This comes in many forms. Coconut roti is a flat piece of baked dough with coconut flakes – excellent with chili paste. Egg roti is pulled, oiled dough that’s cooked on the stove with an egg cracked in between the layers; heavenly dipped in some chicken gravy. (Try this at Siri Ramya in Kandy!) Vegetable and fish rotis are usually sealed in a triangular bread pastry on the side of the road.
King coconut – be sure to ask for the ones with meat (if you like it). R30-40 was normal price.
Dessert: either wattalapam and/or yogurt at most local eateries.
Drinks: Arak (local liquor from coconut trees); toddy (fermented coconut or palm drink), and lion beer (very drinkable and available countrywide).
• Rice and curry is eaten with your fingers. Most hotels have a washing basin in the main dining room; otherwise they will have a washing dish on the table. After the meal, the staff will usually bring you another washing basin and some recycled paper for drying.
• Occasionally they will bring a plate of “short eats” – assorted fried and baked pastries on a platter. You eat whatever you want and pay for those items at the end.
• Tea is served VERY SWEET. Ask for no sugar if you want to add it yourself.
For intra-city travel, I took public buses and second-class trains everywhere. It was incredibly cheap and entertaining (think: nonstop vendors, blasting music, and people from all walks of life). Even when I went on an 8-hour bus itinerary from Galle to Ella, the total bus fare amounted to less than R500. Note that the driving is erratic and at times quite dangerous. My main recommendations are to:
• Take the train through the hill country, particularly the part between Ella and Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya’s station name).
• Take an overnight AC bus from Trincomalee to Colombo rather than the noisy, uncomfortable overnight train.
• Get on at the beginning of the route, rather than halfway, unless you don’t mind standing the entire time.
• Keep your train ticket – you need it to exit stations.
Within cities, tuk-tuks, city buses, and rental bikes were the way to go. Many destinations were perfectly walkable. As always, exercise your haggling muscle with the tuktuks. It helps to price check with a local before getting on. Many people prefer to use the metered tuktuk in combination with a GPS, but I found that haggling with non-metered ones worked just as well.
Money, ATMs, and General Safety: Retrieving cash was not an issue. There were ATMs that accepted Visa debit cards everywhere, except maybe in Sigiriya… (I didn’t bother to check.) From both my experiences and my conversations with people, I felt that Sri Lanka was a lot safer than most other countries in terms of pickpockets, theft, and general crime. That said, read about my experiences in Trinco (see above) and always stay on your guard, no matter how safe you perceive a place to be.
Language and Communication: Few people spoke English, particularly outside of Colombo. Tuktuk drivers were often my best bet for getting directions and general advice. If you have any special dietary restrictions, accommodation needs, etc., best to look up and print out the translations in Sinhalese and Tamil before you depart.
Climate: Ranged from very warm to blazingly hot in most places I visited, with the sole exception of Nuwara Eliya, which was situated very high up in the mountains and VERY cold on a September night. While comfortable during the day, I wore a wool sweater and socks to sleep every night that I was there.
A note on scammers: Perhaps because I’m East Asian, I didn’t experience the level of harassment and trickery that has been reported on travel forums and such. Apart from the occasional mark-up, I found most Sri Lankans to be extremely warm, friendly, and curious. For every one bad person that I met, I found 10 wonderful people to make up for it. Even when I was most in need in Uppuveli, having found a stranger in my room the night before, I had so many people speak up for me and take me in. Despite the notorious rep that tuktuk drivers often get, one insisted on driving me (for free) to the ATM and later the train station. He even bought me fresh fruit along the way! I really enjoyed meeting locals everywhere I went… and would certainly advise everyone to give Sri Lanka a try.
I’ve been wanting to write about my trip to Jaffna for over a week now. Yet, as the days pass by, I find myself writing and rewriting draft after draft. That should come as no surprise. After all, 26 years of civil war is impossibly hard to describe, much less explain.
Jaffna was a city not to be seen, but rather to be felt. The human impact of the war can be found everywhere—from the unsettling emptiness that permeates the city to the ubiquitous physical destruction. Even in seemingly innocent conversations with people, one could read in between the lines and find vague references to the past.
It left me heavy with impressions, which I hope these photos can begin to convey.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about why people travel. Beyond the age-old argument of tourist vs. traveler, the fundamental question is really quite simple: What do you look for when you visit a new place? The options are endless: the sights and sounds of new landscapes, ancient civilizations and history, adventure and adrenaline, cultural insights and gastronomic exploration, and so on and so forth.
In Sri Lanka, one can find all of these things. Over the past two weeks, I’ve gone from sandy beaches to lush green mountain valleys to arid desert landscapes. I’ve visited thousand year-old temples; learned about tea cultivation in the heart of Ceylon; ridden among 150+ elephants feasting by a lake; and wined and dined my way around the island. These are only but a few examples of incredibly diverse experiences that this country has to offer, and testament to why Lonely Planet named Sri Lanka the number one destination to visit in 2013.
Yet, somehow, last week I found myself feeling a little unfulfilled. Even a bit guilty for my ungratefulness. Sitting under a mango tree to escape the mid-day heat in a sleepy town, I shared a fresh coconut and reflected on my time in Sri Lanka with another weary traveler from Australia. It was then that I began to understand the source of the emptiness.
More so than food, adventure, culture, or nature, I was unconsciously looking for the raw human experience—the evidence that we as human beings are all connected through our shared experience of joy, pain, suffering, wonder, and hope. And Sri Lanka was a little too picture perfect for comfort.
From my very first moments on the road from the airport, I was impressed by the extensive telecoms infrastructure, the clean and well-paved roads, and the lack of pollution. Even the taxi driver couldn’t stop gushing about the free universal education and health care. Over the course of two weeks, I would be barraged with incredible friendliness and hospitality. While welcoming and happy on the outside, it also meant that the people were more difficult to penetrate.
Where was the reality? I knew that behind the apparent peace and quiet happiness was another story untold. Rocked by a 28-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority that claimed more than 100,000 lives, the country only recently started to pick itself back up. Yet, as much as I tried, I could count on one hand the number of times the war came up in conversation. It’s as if the country just collectively decided to forget. …or did they?
There was only one way to find out: Go to Jaffna.
Situated in the Northern peninsula capping the island, the city of Jaffna is the former base of the dissident Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, as they are commonly known. The region is where most of the bitter conflict and violence unfolded over three decades. Until 2009, the road between Jaffna and the rest of the country was completely closed. Today, it is still very much considered “off the beaten path”; despite the short 5-hour bus journey, few people venture up. If there was any place where I could find living evidence of this country’s history, Jaffna was it.
And so, in my final week in Sri Lanka, I decided to take a long detour up to the North. I would not be disappointed.
Stifling heat. Human bodies. Stale air. Constant shifting, swaying, strenuous balancing. You nearly nod off, but a sudden jolt almost throws you headfirst into the metal pole. Your only respite is the fresh breeze and picturesque views from the open windows, and occasionally some local tunes on the radio. Welcome to the ubiquitous public bus system in Sri Lanka.
While cheap and frequent, bus travel in this small island country can be either a relaxing scenic voyage or a taxing exercise, depending one’s luck. I had been warned early in my trip: Always try to get on at the starting stop where the bus is empty, or risk standing for hours. Even when sitting, one has to be wary of the reckless driving. One time I even saw an 180-lb man get, quite literally, thrown out of his seat during a particularly sharp turn along the steep mountain roads. Imagine.
In any case, last week I made my way from the Southern coast of beaches, old Dutch forts, and coastal flair to the central Hill Country of tea plantations, nature hikes, and misty mountains. Knowing that I had 10 hours of travel via four buses in one day, I set out with a fighting spirit. Either sit or perish, I told myself.
A few hours into the third leg, something interesting happened. The man who had been sitting next to me got up suddenly, but asked to keep his seat. Ten minutes passed by. I was beginning to wonder what had happened, when, all of a sudden, an old man emerged from the crowd. Then it all made sense: The man had been saving a seat for his father the entire time! I wondered if he had ridden from the origin stop for this sole purpose. If so, it would have been touching, but not entirely surprising given the country’s heavy Buddhist presence and Confucian influences.
Thinking about that possibility, it suddenly dawned upon me that the public bus was essentially a microcosm of power dynamics in the wider society. We all paid the same fare, but some had it much easier than others. Sitting in my comfortable window seat, I could easily turn to the window and admire the scenery, enjoy the cool breeze against my cheek. But how often do I choose to turn around to check if a childbearing woman or an elderly person is among the crowd, eager for a moment of rest? With the continuous onboarding and deboarding, the task of protecting vulnerable populations required nearly constant vigilance. I had easy excuses at my disposal: I was tired, I got on first, I needed the window for photography, et cetera.
In health and development we often talk about protecting the rights of vulnerable populations. We argue for equity over equality because it takes into account the differing starting points. We use fancy terms like Access Frontier Analysis to highlight the systemic nature of the problem.
The scary thing is that sometimes we forget–or at least I find myself forgetting–that we as individuals are part of this system, in each and every moment of our existence. The flip side of working for a social cause is that it gives one a false sense of security: that we are doing our best, that we are doing enough. In reality, there is always more we can do.
Meanwhile, a young girl boarded the bus and maneuvered over to the old man. Almost immediately, she slipped off her schoolbag and slid it into the old man’s lap. He took it in without batting an eyelash. I remember being surprised by the societal norms that this simple act revealed. Though he was three generations her senior and a total stranger to her, it was a given that the burden was collective and that access to resources (in this case, the seat) was to be shared, regardless of gender, race, or any other qualifier. I wondered if that bag would have been accepted so easily anywhere else in the Western world.
At the end of the day, we are all on the same bus headed for the same destination. Some may get on or off earlier than others, but our paths undeniably crossed for some time. If we each remain aware and observant, we would have a much better chance of spotting injustice. We’d be better at practicing what we preach, not just in meeting rooms and classrooms, but outside as well.
When was the last time you turned around from the window to look at the crowd?