“Embrace the Absurdity” Signhalese Part 2

4.  My favorite language takeaway from Sri Lanka has to be the absurdly translated Singhalese phrases that Chrisy taught me during my year in the country.  This image provides a domesticated sampling, but here is an additional list of my personal favorites straight from the field.

Gihin ennang. 

In Sinhalese, there is no word for “Goodbye.”  Such a dramatic sentiment carries far too much finality.  Instead, one wishes farewell with “Gihin ennang” meaning “I will go now and come back later.”

Jeewithe mal, Amma inna kal. 

This optimistic phrase means literally, “My life is flowers as long as my mother is alive.”  Apparently, no alternative phrase exists for use after your mother’s funeral.

IMG_2371Coheeda yanni?  Mali pol!

“Where are you going?  A backpack full of coconuts!”  At face value, such a statement makes little sense.  This is exactly the point.  As a disclaimer of non-sequitors, this phrase is typically used to call someone out for saying something that utterly fails to follow the conversational flow. Backpack full of coconuts indeed!

Awwai, Wassai, nariyage magulai.

This phrase translates directly to English as “It’s sunny?  It’s raining?  It’s a fox’s wedding!” Proclaimed during partly cloudy weather that produces intermittent sunshine amidst a rainstorm, it implies a sense of befuddlement as in “I hardly know what to make of this situation.”  Forget the weather; if we can’t even figure out what the fox says how are we ever supposed to know what to wear to her wedding?

Surangani, Surangani, Surangani-teh malu genavah.  Malu, malu, malu, Me den genavah malu.  Surangani-teh malu genavah.

A popular song in Sri Lanka; the words mean “Surangani (the name of a woman,) Surangani, Surangani, I bring you fish.  Fish, fish, fish. The fish I bring you is freshly caught.  Surangani, I bring you fish.”  Apparently this is a declaration of love.  I’ve long since stopped asking questions.

Machang.  Ella kiri. Paul roti.

Street-side rice and curry stalls represented the part of Colombo where I was most likely to encounter English resembling Humpty-Dumpty-post-the-great-fall if you know what I’m saying.  Nevertheless, by frequenting a few, I was able to establish modest relationships with many cooks, managers, and servers by means of my own Humpty-Dumptied Sinhalese.  The following phrases were generally the most likely to elicit a smile, a laugh, and a sudden wave of affectionate friendship.

Machang: “mate”  Although generally reserved for men, playing the dumb foreigner and calling a lady “machang” is apparently riotous laughter inducing.

Ella kiri: Literally: “Cow’s milk” Figuratively: “A-O.K.”  Apparently dairy milk is to Sri Lankans as macaroni is to Yankee Doodle.

When introducing myself, I would often say, “My name is Paul.  Paul roti.”  This is a play on words stemming from the auditory similarity between my “good” (first) name and the Sri Lankan word for coconut: “pol”.  (Pol roti is a Sri Lankan coconut flatbread.)  Oh, the amusement.

5.  As for the last set of signs, they essentially constitute cheating.  None are actually from Sri Lanka, although I took them both over the course of my year-long Sri Lankan internship.  I found the first in Dhaka, Bangladesh when I visited over the Christmas holiday.  The second and third I took a mere month ago while frogging around Hyderabad, India.  I provide them for your enjoyment.

I will go and come back.  Here’s hoping your life is still flowers.

Somebody needs a crash course in marketing if you know what I'm saying.

Somebody needs a crash course in marketing if you know what I’m saying.  I guess in a country where bread isn’t really a thing, decent pastries are about as good as it’s going to get.

I have to love a culture that values its trees.

A syrupy oversimplification, perhaps, but I have to love a culture that values its trees.



“Embrace the Absurdity” Signhalese Part 1

As I discovered in Singapore, one can learn a lot about a culture through apparent methods of communication (and advertisement).  Sri Lanka is no exception. 



English (or, should I say, “Singlish” as both Sri Lankans and Singaporeans like to call their chimeric interpretation of the English language) was the dominant tongue of my international workplace and could generally be used to get around Colombo effectively. Nevertheless, two other languages can be considered dominant in the Sri Lankan context.  While I did not learn any Tamil during my stay in Sri Lanka, I was able to skim the surface of the other local language of the island (Singhalese) largely thanks to my good friend and desk buddy/“yaluwa” Chrisy.

Please enjoy the following comical, slightly less than seamless attempts at language crossover that I encountered over the course of the last year.

1. It may seem unduly unbecoming to nitpick South Asian grammar especially considering the less than perfect(ive) tense and contraction usage within Western countries themselves.  Nevertheless, I have to get my kicks where I can after constant beratement regarding American English from my Sri Lankan friends. (Here’s looking at you, Rads.)

While I certainly recognise that British, not American, culture tallied forth to exert influence on Ceylon, I am by no means willing to humor the idea that biscuits come in plastic packaging rather than out of the oven.

Cheers, mate. No manoeuvring on that one. Pass the crisps.

In a humbling moment, some American friends and I corrected Chrisy on her usage of the word IMG_1937“homely” to describe a mutual acquaintance. We quickly informed her that doing so was rather insulting seeing as homely is a synonym for “plain” or “unaffecting.”  Come to find out, in the UK, homely has an alternative meaning of “warm” or “comforting” (as in, “the hotel was homey”).

Looks like we Yankees doodled that one.  (Although, may I point out, we were, in fact, both correct in different contexts.)

Perhaps due to such linguistic buffoonery, my Sri Lankan “friends” simply used my American identity as an easy explanation for any lapse in grammar or failure of communication (and as an excuse to mock me with their best Valley Girl impersonation).

It is for their sake and for the sake of the associated Sri Lankan establishment that I now provide the following clarification: “it’s” is correctly used in the case of a contraction, not for the possessive case.

Engineering at it's best. English grammar at its worst.

Engineering at it’s best. English grammar at its worst.

2. Inadvertently inappropriate language cross-over never fails to please.  A friend in Singapore obtained endless enjoyment from abbreviating the popular California-based coffee shop chain Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.  (Apparently, CB & TL is also an abbreviation for, ahem, certain aspects of human anatomy in Bahasa Melayu.)

The following Sri Lankan signs have a similarly striking and suggestive relationship with the English language.  Don’t believe me?  Try to pronounce them out loud.


The less than limpid cursive calligraphy aids the inappropriate implication.


While the association is pure happenstance, this sign alludes to the hidden in plain sight aspect of Sri Lankan romantic culture.  In Sri Lanka, many if not most young adults live at home with their parents until they are married.  This leaves youths with little private space in which to appease certain physical inclinations.  As a result, tree trunks in Colombo’s public parks become popular couple cuddling and kissing stations and the right hotel will rent out rooms by the hour.

For the less lucky in love, the romantic personal ads in local newspapers (often taken out by eager parents) can provide a quick fix (up).  Popular search items (or, non-euphamistically, elimination criteria) include college education, Buddhist (or Christian), English speaking, good job, fair complexion, compatible horoscope, and car with English license plate.  Perhaps it’s best to avert your gaze from what your parents have to say about you to potential suitors, however.  In the end, they’ll probably just set you up with their third cousin’s son or daughter anyway.

Of course, many lonesome polecats fall through the cracks of this decidedly uncomprehensive love connection infrastructure.  Perhaps that explains the prevalence of street-side cat calls and suggestive posturing by sexually frustrated Sri Lankan men toward foreign women.


“I’m a proud graduate of the SLIITiest school in the country!”

3. Along the same vein, this poster for the unfortunately acronymed Sri Lankan Institute of Information Technology requires a double-take when viewed from a distance.

Not to mention the following provocative acronym which I passed every time I traveled into town from my house.  I don’t know the full name of this organization, but even if it is “Friends of All Gender [Identities]” I will gladly put down money that it is not based in America.


Yet, this sign proves provocative in more than the obvious way.  The fact that such a sign (and company) is not subjected to censorship and/or social outrage indicates that such a term does not carry the same negative connotations in Sri Lanka as it does in America. 

Such a realization begs the question: should there be censorship or social outrage over it?  The naivety of the offense seems to elicit a chuckle more than a tirade.  (I, personally, am reminded of the laughably mislabeled “Backdoor” bar in the ultra-Catholic, conservative town of Sault Ste. Marie, MI where my parents currently live.)  Do innocent intentions and a lack of “enlightenment” or awareness exempt a culture from restrictions a la political correctness?  Should one culture be able to impose its own anti-offense restrictions on another which may or may not share the same values or sense of propriety?  Let the debate commence.

“Spotlight On” Bicycling in Colombo (and 3 Reasons It Doesn’t Terrify Me)

Spotlight On

Spotlight On

When I told my coworkers in Sri Lanka that I was planning on using a bicycle to go to and from work every day, instantaneous incredulity generally gave way to serious concern. “You can’t ride your bike in these streets.” “Have you seen the way the tuk-tuks and motorbikes weave through traffic!  It’s suicide.” “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Photo provided courtesy of

Photo provided courtesy of

Ok.  So maybe there wasn’t a lot of concern about my eye.  There was serious concern about my teeth, however.  Apparently, one of our colleagues had started biking to work only to have a tuk-tuk pull out right in front of him one day.  After his subsequent face plant, he only had two things he wanted for Christmas.

Photo provided courtesy of

Photo provided courtesy of

Ouch.  I feel for you, man. Still, his story didn’t so much scare me away from biking as scare me into proceeding with due caution.  As such, I bought a helmet and a nice 24-gear bike and commenced riding – defensively – to work.

Sometimes buses sidle by fairly quickly, and there are certainly the occasional bad drivers.  Nevertheless, I have learned that if I hug the curb like it is The Rock, I am pretty much left alone. To this date, I have not had a serious traffic mishap. Knock on wood. As a general rule, I have been pleasantly surprised by my biking experiences over the last year – which brings me to the belated thesis of this blog post: I maintain that it is just as safe – if not safer – to bike through Colombo traffic than it is to bike around most urban (and even some rural) streets in America. While I believe there are several reasons for this, they all boil down to one main argument: drivers in Sri Lanka typically pay more attention to the road.

Reason 1: There is a lot more going on on any given mawatha (Sri Lankan for

Photo provided courtesy of

Photo provided courtesy of

“lane”) than on a typical American avenue.  Drivers in Sri Lanka must contend with tuk-tuks, motorbikes, the occasional cow, road debris clean-up carts, the man who just decided to park his truck in the middle of a lane for no reason, traffic cops milling about, pedestrians darting across the road, non-pedestrians who are just standing around conversing but have leaked into the road. It can be a lot to handle.  As such, getting yourself to your destination in one piece requires keen awareness of what’s happening at all times.  In other words, Sri Lankan drivers tend to treat driving as the full time job that it actually is.

Reason 2: Sri Lankans, generally, have more to lose.  While getting in an accident is never a laughable experience, it carries extra weight for many Sri Lankans.  For the motorbikers, a serious accident can mean serious injury or even death.  For tuk-tuk drivers,  their vehicle may be the main sustaining factor for their family’s livelihood.  I’m not sure how car insurance works in Sri Lanka, but I have heard horror stories of tempermental automobile drivers berating and persecuting anyone who happens to bump or scratch their car on the road.  And in a game of he said/she said, many cops are likely to side with the person who has more money and/or credibility (generally not the tuk-tuk driver). Thus, most Sri Lankans are extra cautious amidst the chaos of the street.

Reason 3: The chaos of the street keeps things slow.  Because there is so much

Photo provided courtesy of

Traffic is bad in Kandy, Colombo’s second largest city, as well. Photo provided courtesy of

congestion, progress tends to be relatively lethargic compared to traffic flow in the United States. Sporadic road conditions, sporadic speed bumps, frequently stalling tuk-tuks and winding roadways all help to keep drag racing to a minimum as well – not to mention the student drivers teetering along at 20 km/hr (~12.5 mi/hr). I’ve passed one on my bike before.

Compare all this to America.  The land of ample car insurance. Of speeding. Of drunk driving. Of texting and makeup applying.  Of marginally capable drivers. Of long stretches of empty roadway ready to lull you into distraction and/or sleep at the wheel. Certainly, I exaggerate.  The majority of American drivers are fully competent and aware most if not all of the time (even though I know many who would dispute this assertion). As long as you are aware and careful, American roadways are not extraordinarily hazardous. The question is, are roadways any less safe in Sri Lanka? This biker maintains they are not.


Of course, some may argue that biking is too dangerous regardless of location or circumstance.


“Embrace the Absurdity” Bungling Bangladesh in 3 Easy Steps Part 2

(Note: Featured image provided courtesy of

Fiasco #2: The Train

My next excursion was to the east side of Bangladesh, namely a mountainous region bordering Myanmar called the Banderbans.  I had been warned previously of the treacherous bus rides complete with Evil Kenivel bus drivers, mind-numbing traffic, terrible road conditions, and time-sucking riverboat ferries in places without bridges.  So, the train then, yes?

At the train station, I ended up waiting in line for a forty-five minutes at one of 10 seemingly identical windows only to have the teller inform me that I needed to go to another counter.  In frustration, I ended up buying a scalped ticket off of a random man at the terminal.


Welcome to Chittagong Market!

When I arrived at my destination – a town called Chittagong, I decided to reserve my return over-night train ticket in advance.  Yet, after another half-hour wait in line, I discovered that demand for train tickets in Bangladesh is so high that you need to book tickets at least four or five days in advance.  (Even though you can also only book train tickets at the station from which you hope to depart.  Problematic much?)

My first thought was about how lucky it was that I had found a man from whom to buy a scalped day-of ticket at the Dhaka train station earlier that day.  My second, slightly more panicked thought was of my need to be back in Dhaka in three and a half days for my flight back to Sri Lanka.


The young man who helped me at the train station. I can’t remember his name. But I love him.

A young man at the station told me that the station manager often has tickets reserved for foreign visitors. (This seems pretty unfair to locals, but I was in no position to bring this up.)  I went to talk to the manager but his friend/personal assistant/a random man standing near his office told me that he was out.  Apparently, he would be back in half an hour.  Forty-five later the story changed to “Oh, he won’t be back today.”  Wish I could get away with that at my job.

I returned to the ticket line where I luckily managed to procure the last ticket on a train that would eat up an entire day of my travels but would at least get me back in time for my flight.

Although it was a headache, I definitely learned a lot about how to manipulate the Bangladeshi train system during this process.  After returning from the Banderbans, I arrived at the train station early and discovered that the station master was available.  I went to talk to him, and he was able to find a spot for me on my preferred overnight train.  I even got a partial refund on my day-train ticket.

Though I may bumble about, at least I’m a quick study.



Selected images of Chittagong


Fiasco #3: The Banderbans

Unbeknownst to me, you need to obtain a foreign travel permit to visit the Banderbans region from the nearby city of Chittagong.  Also unbeknownst to me, Bangladesh has a slightly shifted weekend meaning all government offices are closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

Of course, I arrived permitless in Chittagong on a Thursday. Christmas Day to be precise.  Now, because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, most governmental offices were still open on Christmas Day – just not at 7pm which is when I rolled into town.

And certainly not on Friday because that’s the first day of the weekend.


One friendly man at the train station (who could speak English, PRAISE THE LORD WHO IS BORN ON THIS DAY) took pity on me and accompanied me in a Bangaldeshi tuk-tuk to a nearby police station to see what could be done.  That police station directed us to another one which directed us to the Commissioner’s Office.

According to a man near the street leading up to the Commissioner’s Office, it had closed ten minutes before our arrival.

I was ready to give up in a despair encroaching upon nihilistic apathy.  My companion, however, stopped a man with a briefcase walking away from the building. They conversed in Bengali for a while.  They conversed in Bengali for a long while.  The man with the briefcase wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to my friend.   Then he took out his phone and placed a call.

At this point, my friend informed me that briefcase man worked at the Commissioner’s Office and was checking to see if anyone was still in the office who could help me out.  After about 15 minutes of call-making, briefcase man informed me that he had arranged for someone to come in to the office tomorrow morning at 9 am to issue me a permit as long as I provided a copy of my passport.

Needless to say, I was rather effusive with my gratitude.


Men exercising in front of the Commissioner’s Office on Friday morning. Because it was the weekend.

The next morning I showed up at the Commissioner’s Office.  I was  a little worried that I was at the wrong building or that I would not be able to find the permit-providing man.  I was also worried about my inability to obtain a copy of my passport because the two photocopy stores I went to were closed that morning.

(Because it was a Friday – duh.)

In the end, everything worked out fine, even though my permit provider did express annoyance at coming in specifically for me on a Friday (Didn’t I know it was the weekend?)  I thanked him profusely and offered him an apple I had purchased that morning from a fruit stall that is apparently open on the weekend.  He did not take it.

I was feeling pretty good about all of this until I arrived in the Banderbans only to find every hotel completely booked.  Apparently, many Muslims still take Christmastime off to vacation in the hill country.  After checking more than eight different hotels, I finally found a spot at the Hotel Plaza Bandarban with six other spill-over guests in a conference room equipped with floor mattresses.

Still, I tried to look on the bright side: it’s certainly a step up from a manger.


Selected photos from the Banderbans except for the last one.  It is from Rangamati, but I like it.  So there it is.

DSC06955 DSC07122 DSC07150 DSC07376


“Embrace the Absurdity” Bungling Bangladesh in 3 Easy Steps Part 1

Portrait tuk tuk driver Colombo Sri Lanka

City Hall? Sorry, never heard of it. (Photo courtesy of

(Note: Featured image provided courtesy of

While in Sri Lanka, I have aggressively waxed nostalgic for the online ticket purchasing capabilities of America – train, bus, movie, concert, etc.  I have also been known to grumble from time to time about tuk tuk drivers who don’t know the way out of their own neighborhood despite having lived in Colombo for their entire lives.

But then Bangladesh happened.

Nearly every minor inconvenience and difficulty inherent in my Sri Lankan lifestyle was enhanced three-fold during my romp through India’s eastern neighbor.  Not to say that I abhorred my time there or that it isn’t a remarkable and beautiful country.  Neither is true.

It was just difficult.

So much so that I have decided to devote this blogpost to the 3 most noteworthy fiascos of my trip.  As a disclaimer, I DID have a great trip; the misadventures along the way make travelling more exciting and memorable (at least, in hindsight).  Also, I met some amazing people who helped ensure I got where I needed to go and otherwise saved my skin.  Some of these people are highlighted below, the rainbows to my storm clouds.


The Rocket Boat

Fiasco #1: The Rocket Boat

The first few days in Bangladesh actually went fairly smoothly. I left Dhaka right away, taking a 20-hour rocket boat steamer all the way to the Sundarbans mangrove forest by way of an extensive delta waterway.  Sure disorientation in Dhaka combined with an inability to communicate with anyone on the street kept me from finding the ticket office for an hour (despite having a Lonely Planet map).  And sure, traffic got so bad during rush hour that I had to abandon my rickshaw and run (with my luggage) about a mile to step onto the boat literally as it was disembarking from the dock.

But hey, life in South Asia, baby.


My rickshaw operator was very pleasant.


Traffic congestion not so much

The rocket boat ride quickly became a highlight of the trip – perhaps because there was nothing that could really go wrong on the voyage short of the boat sinking. Meals and lodging were provided on the boat, and I spent a lot of my time sleeping and reading (Beloved by Toni Morrison). After a couple days of exploration in the Sundarabans region and the nearby town of Mongla (which were both beautiful), I was pretty excited for the return journey.

DSC06788 DSC06762 DSC06782 DSC06741 DSC06800 Rocket boats left only once every day at 9:30 in the morning. My mangrove guide, Mr. Sobhan – who had adopted me for two days after finding me at Mongla’s bus station looking confused – recommended a rental van which would take me to the Morelganj ferry terminal in about an hour.  The cost was prohibitive for one person, however, and a cheaper motorbike ride along the same route would be “impossible” with my backpack and gym bag luggage.  The only other option was to take the longer bus route transferring from one bus to another in a nearby village.  The whole process should take two hours max.

Cue ominous music.

Due to complications with my hotel, I decided to stay an extra night and wake up early in the morning to catch a bus the next day.

Increase volume of ominous music.


View of Mongla at night from the third floor of the Hotel Bangkok.

I awoke at 5:30am and was out the door at 6.  I was at the bus station at 6:20, and my bus left at 6:45. At 7:15am, I asked one of the few passengers who spoke (broken) English how long it would take to get to the village where I had to transfer buses.

“You are going Morelganj?  Not possible. Must go Bagherat first. Then Morelganj.”

From the ensuing panicked conversation, I extracted two things of crucial import.

  1. It would take me two bus transfers (not one) to make it to Morelganj.
  2. This process would take about three hours.

After some rapid mental calculations, I realized that 3 hours + 7:15am = a Paul-less Rocket boat.  Acting fast, I disembarked the bus, hailed a Bangladeshi counterpart to the Sri Lankan tuk tuk and ambled my way back to Mongla.  Arriving around 7:50am (about an hour and a half before boat disappearance for those of you who are keeping track at home), I quickly hired a motorbike to take me to Morelganj.

No objections were raised regarding my luggage.  (You know what else is impossible, Mr. Sobhan?  My ass.)

That’s not very nice, I suppose.  Mr. Sobhan was actually an excellent and friendly tour guide who showed me river dolphins, introduced me to his local friends and even invited me to his house for not one but two meals.  I wrote as much in his “Recommends” book.  Still, his transportation misdirection(s) certainly reduced my inclination to suggest his services to future travelers.

Mr. Sobhan of the Jungle

Mr. Sobhan of the Jungle


Mr. Sobhan’s house


Mr. Sobhan’s local friends

At least that was one of many thoughts going through my mind as my motorbike ride stretched to 9 am, then 9:10.  Then 9:15.  The “hour-long” route was astoundingly picturesque – quaint villages, expansive lakes, swaying palm trees, lush rice paddies that stretched for kilometers. Mental images of what I would do to Mr. Sobhan should I see him again were not quite as pretty.

In the end, I didn’t even see the outskirts of the city until 9:20am.  I arrived at the ticket booth at about 9:30 and stepped on the boat with a few minutes to spare before the boat left port at approximately 9:40am.

You live to guide another day, Mr. Sobhan my friend.


Singapore v. Colombo

It strikes me as striking that I have been living in Asia for the last two and a half years.   That constitutes half the time I spent in college. Now I am gearing myself up for another higher education experience come August: law school.   Perhaps if I brace myself now, I’ll suffer no more than a bruised brain when I crash land on my first legal casebook. Prior to impact, I still have about 6 months to navigate in Sri Lanka.  At this halfway point in my year-long internship, I have long since achieved a sense of adjustment; now, I suppose, preliminary reflection is the logical next step. I am often asked which country I prefer: Sri Lanka or Singapore.  This is a complex question that deserves thoughtful consideration.  So, here’s a look back on my life in two Asian home countries over the last two and a half years.  Most notable, of course, are the differences (but keep an eye out for the more subtly embedded similarities).

  1. City Transportation

Transportation in Singapore is exhausting.


Still, not so bad when you have Sharon “Share-bear” Ong as a pillow.

In Singapore, all three transport options carried their own unique frustrations.  Buses, while clean and comfortable, often take convoluted routes and stop in the most inconvenient places assumedly for the sake of safety(?) – certainly not for customer satisfaction.  (Singaporean policy makers function under the assumption that annoyance and security are directly correlated.) Taxicabs are fast if you luck out in getting one to stop for you (beware dead locations, i.e. everywhere but Orchard Road).  The MRT (mass rapid transit – Singapore’s subway) would have been the convenient option if it didn’t take half an hour to get to the nearest station from my apartment.


Tuk tuks are like three-wheeled motorcycle carriages. (photo courtesy of

Colombo’s transportation woes are wholly different.  Buses travel more efficient routes but may stop inexplicably for 10 minutes so that the bus driver can take some time to contemplate his day.  Tuk-tuks/three wheelers are convenient and abundant, but don’t believe your driver when he says he knows where Barefoot Café is.  He is just trying to be agreeable and will stop three times on the way there – once for cigarettes, once for gas, every time for directions. Yet Colombo, wins this round hands down due to my third transpoDSC07759rtation method: bicycle.  Although caution is a must amid such liberally interpreted traffic laws, nothing beats the freedom to so completely control the whens and wheres of my “getting there”s.  Plus, you can’t beat the economies of scale on each subsequent bike ride after the initial fixed investment.

Round 1: Colombo

  1. Free time
Marina Bay Sands houses a skating rink, a mall, a casino, a rooftop bar, and an auditorium.

Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands Hotel houses a skating rink, a mall, a casino, a rooftop bar, and an auditorium.

Singapore is certainly on the urban side of the spectrum – my first big city living experience.  I set out goals for myself on the weekends and some work nights (try a new café, go to a new park, explore an undiscovered neighborhood) crossing off bucket list items as I went.  There was always so much (sometimes too much) to do.  In addition, I was living in an apartment block with 7 of my closest friends in the country, so nights in playing Settlers of Catan were often just as enticing as excursions into the city.

Colombo is markedly less large and less vibrant.  Aside from a healthy selection of restaurants and bars, there is a severe lack of entertainment options. Even Western movies are lacking in abundance.  Apparently Christopher Nolan can transport Anne Hathaway across the galaxy, but the footage can’t even make it across Africa to the Indian Ocean.  Interstellar?  Yes.  Transcontinental?  Houston we have a problem.


Gangaramaya Temple is one of the few worthwhile tourist sites in Colombo.

DSC04824DSC04813 To caveat my whining: boredom is not a thing I do. (Because it’s a noun, not a verb?  Perhaps.)  I have a lot more

Movie rentals in the staff lounge!

Movie rentals in the staff lounge!

personal time in Colombo to read, write, etc.  The media library at my workplace has an impressive selection of movies available for free rental. I have even been taking some online courses on  Yet my craving for hot buttered popcorn persists.

Round 2: Singapore

  1. Travel

To be honest, traveling has been remarkably similar in both places.  I try to get out of the city an average of every other weekend in Colombo just as I did in Singapore. (Yes, I do realize how lucky I am.)  The major distinction lies primarily in distance to destination.  In Singapore, I was able to afford flights to nearby countries in the surrounding region (I really am lucky) whereas my salary in Sri Lanka restricts me to travelling domestic via train, bus, and car (save my recent trip to Bangladesh).  This is by no means a

Trains offer another alternative mode of transportation in Sri Lanka. Although rather slow, they often offer scenic views and comfortable seats. The smiling faces of Keshriya, Rachel, and Christina attest to train enjoyability.

Although rather slow, Sri Lankan trains often offer scenic views and comfortable seats (but only when you can find them or book them in advance both of which present a whole new category of hassle). Nonetheless, the smiling faces of Keshriya, Rachel, and Christina attest to train enjoyability.

downside.  Sri Lanka is, arguably, a much more exciting country to explore than Singapore due to its diversity of culture, ecosystems, and landforms.  Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian culture can be found in beaches, mountains, plains, and forests.  Singapore has a merlion. (And, in all fairness, ~$100 round trip tickets to Thailand and Malaysia.) To be honest, this contest is close to a draw.  The scales are tipped by a comparison of travel convenience.  Because of infrastructure challenges, hilly terrain, and traffic/scheduling delays, train, car, and bus trips around Sri Lanka can be exhausting and lengthy.  Flights from Singapore to Thailand take less times than many land-based trips I’ve taken into Sri Lanka’s hill country (and the flights were much more comfortable.)  In the end, the edge goes to the place that offers more convenient and comfortable access to greater Asia.

Round 3: Singapore

  1. Food

Hokkien mee (noodle) (photo compliments of

Compliments of

Singaporean laksa (photo compliments of

Nasi (rice) padang (mixed) (photo compliments of forums.hardwarezone.

Junhiao! on

Xiaolongbao (soupy dumpling)  (photo compliments of Junhiao! on commons.

Laksa v. string hoppers?  Hokkien mee v. kothu roti? Xiao long bao v. pol sambol?  Nasi padang v. malu curry?  What Singapore achieves in variety, Colombo matches with spice and sheer consistency.  To dispute their merits is borderline blasphemous.

Malu (fish) curry (photo compliments of


Pol (coconut) sambol (photo compliments of


String hoppers (photo compliments of


Kothu roti (photo compliments of

     Round 4: Draw

  1. Work place

The Greenhub in Clementi Woods Park

DSC02982 DSC02983At Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, I was given a lot of responsibility to plan and conduct my own modules with minimal supervision.  On Fridays, I even got to leave campus and teach at a special classroom in Clementi Woods Park.  These duties were both exciting and daunting; I enjoyed rising to the challenge and learning by doing.  The headache-inducing work of planning

Now picture each of these lecturers pacing up and down the rows of desks for two hours to prevent cheating and to provide an escort in case someone needs to use the bathroom. The atmosphere was more intense than when I took the LSAT, and these are just end of semester exams.

Now picture each of these lecturers pacing up and down the rows of desks for two hours to prevent cheating and to provide an escort in case someone needs to use the bathroom. The atmosphere was more intense than when I took the LSAT, and these are just end of semester exams.

Invigilation: Imagine a student assigned to each desk with nothing but pens, a calculator, and an ID card for company.

Invigilation: Imagine a student assigned to each desk with nothing but pens, a calculator, and an ID card for company.

open house events, attending marginally pertinent meetings, and pacing through invigilation season was not quite as exhilarating .  The work load, though fascinating and mostly enjoyable, could sometimes be overwhelming (especially when marking at the end of the semester).


The IWMI foyer is particularly serene.

The laid-back, 8:30ish-4:30 atmosphere of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo provides a stark contrast to Ngee Ann’s you’re-leaving-right-at-6pm-today? aesthetic.  While I am kept busy with various projects, I never feel overworked

Complete with koi pond.

Complete with koi pond.

and rarely work beyond 5:30pm.  Sometimes, when there is a lull in the work for my main projects (on Jaffna groundwater remediation and research uptake toolkit development), I ask my supervisor if she has any additional work she wants me to do.  She usually sends me a template to modify or a document to summarize/analyze. First, she tells me about the chain-mail shirt that her daughter found at a street market in Ghana and wore to a recent Renaissance festival.

Round 5: Colombo

After 5 rounds, the result?  A tie.  This brings me to the response I usually provide when asked about my locality preference: I like them both for different reasons.  In Singapore, I was challenged and engaged, and I had the opportunity to travel all over Southeast Asia.  In Colombo, I am relatively stress-free and still get to travel all over Sri Lanka. There you have it. At the heart of all this analysis is my realization that it really doesn’t matter where I am living – the people make the place.  My happiness in Sri Lanka and in Singapore and in general is fundamentally shaped by the people with whom I get to work, travel, talk, dance, paint, swim, hike, lounge, eat.  Much as I love Asia, that is the fundamental reason I am excited to go back to the United States: to reconnect with some of those people who have been far-distant for far too long.


friends from Sri Lanka


friends from Singapore


friends from Gaylord, Michigan

Col-home-bo, Sri Lanka

 Moving to a new location requires a certain period of adjustment.  For me, exploration is key;

The streets in my new neighborhood

The streets in my new neighborhood.

Investigation is required to obtain directional knowledge of the interlocking streets within my neighborhood.  Once I am more intimately acquainted with my home base, I can branch out taking note of interesting restaurants and potential bucket list items in my expansion.  I never consider myself truly settled until a few crucial elements are firmly established. A nearby bank branch. A good, affordable bookstore.  A café with large windows and wifi.  A trustworthy mechanic. 

In Sri Lanka, the adjustment process has not been the smoothest.  I couldn’t even create a bank account for a month and a half because my passport was undergoing the tortuous process of international worker visa approval.   The bookstores I first encountered were a bit expensive with limited selection, and I don’t own a car (although I did invest in a bike as a more economical substitute).

Even the critical process of basic neighborhood investigation was complicated by the transient nature of my first two months in Colombo.  Upon arrival, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI – my employer) provided me with a temporary residence: the home of a British man (Peter), his Sri Lankan wife (Hedy), and their two boys (Tarik and David). Peter owns his own bike touring company and Hedy runs her own swimming lesson business. (She used to be a member of Sri Lanka’s national swimming team.)

Peter and I helped facilitate an obstacle course for the kids from the end of the pool through the slip and slide and back.

For David’s birthday party, Peter and I helped facilitate an obstacle course for the kids from the end of the pool through the slip and slide and back.

My view of the Bluck's yard from my guestroom.

My view of the yard from my guestroom.

Tarik, complete with Gangnam Style t-shirt

Tarik, complete with Gangnam Style t-shirt.

The Bluck's cook would bring breakfast to my room every morning.  Quite the lifestyle.

The household cook would bring breakfast to my room every morning. Quite the lifestyle.
















Quite fun and interesting people, really, but I only stayed with them for a week before shipping off to the home of my boss, Elizabeth.  She had asked me to house sit for a month while she and her family vacationed in America.  In the spirit of true reciprocity, I provided Elizabeth with someone to watch her house and feed her dogs while she provided me with a month of free rent. 

Elizabeth's house; the dangling contraption in the forefront of the picture is a fabric swing for performing acrobatics Cirque du Soleil style.

Elizabeth’s house – the dangling contraption in the forefront of the picture is a fabric swing for performing acrobatics Cirque du Soleil style.

During my time at Elizabeth’s house, I got to know her neighborhood quite well.  I liked to run to the paddy fields near the military barracks just down the road or even past Parliament – a little farther in the other direction.  It worked out quite nicely because Elizabeth’s neighborhood is also the neighborhood where I go to work every day.  She lives about 1.5 km away from IWMI, so the commute to work was fairly negligible.  Oftentimes, I would walk or bike home in the evening and pick up some tropical fruit from a street vendor on the way.  Not to rub it in your face or anything.


Neighborhood road – good for running


Paddy field near Elizabeth’s house









In mid-August, Elizabeth returned, and I was finally able to move into my more permanent residence where my roommate, Sohrob, had already been living there for a couple of weeks.  Our place is conveniently located in Rajagiriya which is halfway between Colombo proper and the suburb where IWMI is located (Battaramula).  Not only did this provide me with a whole new neighborhood to explore, but it also gave me easy access to life in the city.


Our stairwell.


Our dining room.


Our indoor garden (dining room view).


Our indoor garden (living room view).


Our kitchen.

Our living room.

Our living room.























It turns out there is no need to regret a loss of scenic beauty in my new location closer to the city.  Here are some pictures along my route to work.












Finally, I think I can finally claim myself settled into Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Note: technically I live and work in Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, the region just outside Colombo’s city limits which is  the actual national capital.)  After all, I finally have a bank account at HNB (Hatton National Bank) which has an office right within my workplace for transactional convenience.  I found a used book salesman at the Water’s Edge Good Market with classics for only 200-300 rupees (approximately 2 USD).  The Galle Face Hotel provides an amazing open air café right on the shoreline of the Indian Ocean. Sagit, the mechanic at Peter’s bike shop has already fixed the gear cable and installed a kickstand and splash guard on my bike.

The Good Market at Water's Edge

The Good Market at Water’s Edge (photo courtesy of


The view from Galle Face Hotel Cafe.








Check, check, check, and check. It’s good to be home.


“Brief News” Post-World Cup Brazil Reverts to Catholicism

Brief News

Brief News

After years of flirting with FIFAnism, Brazil will not be converting its national religion Dedra Goetz, spokeswoman for the Brazilian government, announced yesterday.

“The Israelites had a golden calf; we had a golden cup,” admitted Goetz with downcast eyes.

Brazil first became aware of modern FIFAnism back in 2003 when it was announced that the 2014 World Cup would take place in South America.  Initial public reaction was tepid at best, but favor for this new religion steadily rose once Brazil was named the official host-to-be.

Pope Francis: the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere

Yet FIFAnism wasn’t seen as a potential rival to Catholicism in Brazil until Pope Francis commenced his papacy on 13 March 2013.  FIFAnism skyrocketed in public opinion once Brazilians realized that the first Catholic pope from South America was from Argentina, a nation many in Brazil see as a modern day Samaria.

“If God wants to talk to the Pope in Spanish, let Him,”  declared a Brazilian accountant named Jose Rodriguez,  “but I can’t understand that language.  I’ll remain a proud FIFAnist until God starts speaking Portuguese again. “

Several characteristics of FIFAnism make it an intriguing alternative to Catholicism for Brazilians.  Recent surveys indicate that 61% of Brazilians prefer the increased transparency of the religious hierarchy within the FIFA institution.

“Sure you have Silva as team captain, but you cheer just as hard for the other players on the field.  They all work together right before your eyes to make things happen.  The Pope just ends up being the poster boy for the Catholic Church – he’s a glorified ball hog.  Name me one single Cardinal. I dare you,” Rodriguez asserted.


While Catholicism and FIFAnism involve similarly uncomfortable pews, FIFAnists generally stand throughout religious ceremonies anyway. As such, kneelers are not a standard feature of a typical FIFA cathedral.

Even more Brazilians – 87% of the population – admitted a preference for the airy and spacious FIFA cathedrals.  Ceremonies have widely been described as more modern and exhilarating than their Catholic counterparts evoking new levels of participation from the congregation.

“I’ve said for years, that all you need to get me to go to Catholic mass is some face paint, a healthy breeze, and a bottle of beer.  Make that three bottles of beer,” claimed Ricardo Mantez, a chain restaurant owner in Brasilia.  “Let me take off my shirt and wave a foam finger around, and I’ll even sit in the front pew.”

Ultimately, however, the same features that made FIFAnism initially attractive to many Brazilians led to its ultimate loss of popularity.

It’s not really a religious ceremony until children are involved.

“I remember back in the good old Catholic days how serene and formulaic masses were,” Maria Thaldone, a retiree, recalled.  “These FIFA ceremonies are too loud and unpredictable for my taste. I never have any idea what is going on what with the cheers, and ‘the wave,’ and yellow cards, and the extra time.  What the he** does offsides mean anyway?  And why do children always escort the players onto the field? Are they supposed to be altar servers?”

left, Thiago Silva; right, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior

Other Brazilians have expressed trepidation at the demonstrated unreliability of FIFAnism’s church leaders.  The temporary suspension of Silva and injury of his left-hand man, Neymar, quickly dismantled the institution’s seemingly flawless operation.  Many have begun to see Catholicism as a much more stable alternative.  “Say what you will about the Avignon papacy and indecent priests, the Catholic Church is established.  It has real staying power,” Thaldone said.

Goetz claimed that the ultimate decision to embrace Catholicism as a nation came directly from the people of Brazil.

“We received countless negative letters regarding FIFAnism.  The recurring theme seemed to run along the lines of tradition and conservatism.  People couldn’t seem to disregard conventionally held Catholic values in favor of FIFAnism’s more liberal moral code.

San Sebastian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro

There was one lady in particular – I’ll never forget her letter – who coveted Argentina’s and Germany’s medals, an act which is completely permissible under the ethical guidelines of FIFAnism but goes against Catholicism’s 10 Commandments.  She felt so guilty that she didn’t leave the Cathedral of Saint Sebastian for six straight days.”

Many Brazilians resisted the progressively inclusive nature of FIFAnism as well.

“Those FIFAnists want us to embrace people and players regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethinicity, national origin, wealth, political opinion, blah, blah, blah,” Immanuel Dominguez, a small business owner, complained.  “What are they saying?  They want Argentines on our team?  Women and gays too? Why not Cecile Richards or insurgent terrorists? What comes next?  We’ll have a goat, a duck, and a dolphin as the Brazilian team forwards?  Hey, turtle! You want to be the Brazilian football captain?”

Despite Goetz’s official statement that the readoption of Catholicism represents an attempt to return to the country’s religious roots, some speculate that the decision was financially motivated.  Developing FIFAnism in Brazil from the ground up was a massively expensive undertaking, and Brazil has yet to see any returns on that investment as excitement over the new fad religion continues to wane.  According to an unofficial source, the government expected to melt down the gold medals obtained during the recent FIFA feast days to pay back loans taken out for FIFA cathedral construction. Now, with no medals and a struggling economy, Brazil will turn to God, and Rome, for support and guidance.  In addition, the Brazilian government has not eliminated the possibility of making some fast cash by auctioning off members of the humiliated national team to the highest bidder.

-Paul Rink, Senior Correspondent for Brief News

For more information, please consult the onion.




“Embrace the Absurdity” Signapore Part 2

5. While Singapore as a country reveals a lot of its personality in public signboards, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, my former place of employment, fashions its banners and signs even more expressively. Not unlike a little girl playing dress up, Ngee Ann spends a lot of energy adorning campus with affected splendor.  After all, the “Centre for Biomanufacturing” just doesn’t carry the right sense of grandeur, does it?


It must be a really strong program; “excellence” is in its very title.


Does HS give new students free smartphones? Are smartphones an integral part of the department’s educational philosophy? Did HS just want to display a propagandized image of a nursing student happily surfing? Why is the “t” in “technology” capitalized?  Too many mysteries for one banner.

6. Self-proclaimed excellence aside, Ngee Ann often advertises itself in ways that are flagrantly extraneous.  Often you’ll see schools, and particularly colleges, proclaiming their departmental rankings, scholarship offers, and job placement statistics.  Only at Ngee Ann (and particularly “HS” – the Health Sciences or nursing department) will you see a student surfing on an iPhone.  Of course, I am not trying to denounce Ngee Ann here; much – if not most – advertising exaggerates with non sequiturs in this way.  I simply found the following examples striking because of how audaciously and ubiquitously unrelated to education they are.  Apparently, a snappy line or a catchy image matter much more than mere relevance. Health Sciences is not the only guilty department either.  My own course changed its name from “Horticulture and Landscape Management” to “Landscape Design and Horticulture” three years ago simply in order to sound more attractive to potential students.


Broad enough to apply to any department, HS capitalizes on the optic nature of the phrase. Catchy. Now, what does it actually say about the department?


I don’t know if I would agree with this statement (unless, of course, a student is able to land an internship at Seattle Grace Hospital). I suppose it’s a matter of opinion.


What does this tagline even mean? It sounds as if the LSCT department is promoting irresponsible genetic experimentation.

Whatever something extra Ngee Ann has, it apparently isn’t spell check. Creative spelling seems to be all the rage with Asian youngsters these days. Why else would one of my soil science lab groups name themselves “So!yl”? Photo credit: lynnnnnnnnnnnn

While this marketing strategy tends to work wonders on the impressionable 15-16 year old consumer demographic, it runs the risk of incurring later dissatisfaction.  From the Aerospace Engineering student who plans to become an astronaut to the student who didn’t realize the inherent drawing component within Landscape Design and Horticulture, students are often borderline delusional regarding what to expect from their polytechnic course. You can’t solely blame the advertising, however; many students never perform the requisite research before enrolling in a department.   In any case, if they don’t have a high enough O level score (like the SATs), they won’t get a chance to join the course they want anyway.  Many end up jumping into whatever course will take them.

7. A recurring theme in the previous set of pictures is a wanton disregard for consistency in formatting and grammar.  (Let’s throw a capital here, italicize there!  How about a hyphen for good measure?  Better yet, an ellipsis!)  One cannot judge too harshly, though.  After all, Singapore still manoeuvres through the antiquated annals of British English. I can imagine the desire to declare linguistic independence  must be overwhelming at times. Still, asserting “The Arts” as singular might be taking things a step too far.  Or is it?  I am loath to play the “it just doesn’t sound right” card, but it just doesn’t sound right.


Subject-verb agreement are a part of my life too.


Apparently Kim Possible tastes like chicken. And fingernail fish.

8. All of the previous examples pale in comparison to attempts at English  translation in non-English speaking Asian countries.  Enjoy the following signs from China courtesy of  All in good fun.

This restaurant waits until desert to reveal to its patrons that they are dining in electric chairs.  Sneaky.

This restaurant waits until dessert to reveal to its patrons that they are dining in electric chairs. Sneaky.

9. Despite the humor inherent in many of the preceding examples, please don’t mistake my intentions.  My goal is not to poke fun or mock, but to celebrate the idiosyncrasies of Singaporean (and Chinese) culture.  Humans are conditioned to notice differences, and Asia is very different from America, at least in many respects. A hotel at which I stayed in Vietnam proclaims itself to be a glaring exception: 338 American Standards are overrated anyway.


“Embrace the Absurdity” Signapore Part 1

Singapore is an incredibly interesting place.  Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the signage one sees every day on the street, in a mall, at an MRT (mass rapid transit) station.  A selection of noteworthy advertisements, public service announcements, etc. follows.


Because in Asia, a child does not reach his own potential, his parents reach it for him.

1.  This pithy ad for an educational head start program provides a window into Asian (and particularly Chinese) child-rearing mentality. Imagine how a similar sign might read in the USA: “Help your child reach their full potential.”

Clearly I generalize here, but typical Chinese parents will often see their child’s achievement as fundamentally their responsibility.  In America, a common parenting response to a child’s frustration after she encounters repeated failure is encouragement to do the best she can with her natural talents.  In many Asian households, on the other hand, if your daughter is struggling with her math homework or her arpeggios, you sit with her and drill until she gains competence (and, as a result, confidence).  The child then repays you for achieving her success by taking care of you when you are old and feeble. (Assisted living homes are all but unheard of in Singapore.)

For further reading on the debate between “tiger mom” and “gentle encouragement” styles of parenting, consider Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.


I certainly hope the construction workers are a bigger part of the “making it happen” process than I was while in Singapore. We may be working “together,” but if they put the same amount of effort into building the new MRT station that I did, it will NOT be completed by 2015.

2. Michiganders may complain about highway construction during the summer, but in Singapore it is summer all year long.   “Old” buildings are frequently razed to make way for increasingly modern establishments.  Incredibly stringent safety requirements – among other things – often lead to lengthy construction periods.  The pictured poster was located in my former neighborhood where a new MRT station was under construction throughout my entire 1.5 years in Singapore.  Add another year to that before the project will be fully completed if everything goes according to plan.  As many as three more lines are still in planning stages with the furthest estimated completion date stretching to 2031.  Good thing “temporary” is such a relative term, otherwise I’d be calling Mr. Blue Sign out.


Apparently unraised zebras cross further down the block.

3. After failing to find the Latin name for the raised zebra species on the internet, I soon realized that this was just a term in Singapore for a combination crosswalk/speed bump.  Perhaps the walking man in the picture should have clarified the situation immediately.  I suppose I’m just not used to equating the horizontal lines of a crosswalk with a zebra’s stripes.  Chalk it up as another Singaporean attempt to cutinize everything.  Another example from the Jia Jia and Kai Kai exhibit at the Singapore Zoo follows.  China has leased these two pandas to Singapore for a period of ten years starting the same month I first set foot in the country (September 2012).


Who can resist a crying panda? Big eyes + small mouth = recipe for heart fondue.


Ask not what your country can swat for you. Ask what you can swat for your country.

4. Speaking of cutinization: “mozzies?”  The picture may be menacing, but the name sounds like what you would call your pet block of mozzarella cheese.  Yet, terminology aside, there are more interesting things to delve into here.  The embedded patriotic slant to this PSA seems to be unrelentingly stoic. Singapore has not been involved in a war – civil or foreign – throughout its 51 years of sovereign existence.  Nevertheless, each male Singaporean citizen and permanent resident must spend the two years after his eighteenth birthday in “national service” (full-time formal military and public service training.) It never hurts to be prepared, I suppose.  Despite such seemingly patriotic sentiments, however, many people I spoke to in Singapore felt a stronger connection to the country of their heritage (eg. India, Malaysia, Philippines) than to the nation of Singapore.  Perhaps this is simply due to Singapore’s relatively young age.  Perhaps, like America, once Singapore has a few more generations of Singapore-born citizens under its belt, patriotic fervor will become more commonplace.  Perhaps that is why MentosSingapore sought to address the aging population problem. (Why aren’t Singaporeans having more babies?  See #1.  Raising kids the tiger mom way is expensive and exhausting!) The proposed solution? Take a glance at the following video which encourages procreation specifically on Singapore’s Fourth of July. Nothing instills a sense of nationalism like being conceived on Independence Day, right?  Did somebody wildly misinterpret Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July?