Recapping the year, three months later

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!

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A Day for the Dead in Lima

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. Continue reading “A Day for the Dead in Lima”

Leaving Liberia

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.

But, for now, I just need to breathe and be.

Sri Lanka: The Food Edition

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:

Continue reading “Sri Lanka: The Food Edition”

Back to Africa

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.

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Inspiration on Sigiriya Rock

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.

Continue reading “Inspiration on Sigiriya Rock”

3 Weeks in Sri Lanka: A Comprehensive Trip Report

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:
1. Jaffna
2. Sigiriya (more the rock and Minneriya national park)
3. Galle
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
3. Sunscreen
4. Smartphone and local 3G SIM (for mapping, internet, calling hotels and restaurants, etc.)
5. Ear plugs

Continue reading “3 Weeks in Sri Lanka: A Comprehensive Trip Report”

Photos: A War-Torn City

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.

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Searching for Truth in Sri Lanka

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.

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