Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Later.

Ten years.  In some ways it feels like a lifetime.  In others it feels like just yesterday.  I feel lucky that the events of September 11, 2001 did not take a loved one from me.  But, like all Americans, my world changed profoundly that day.  I grieve alongside those who did lose loved ones, that horrible day and in the ten years of war since then.  I thank and respect those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who put their lives on the line every day for the country that I love.  My decision to join the Foreign Service was not necessarily informed by the events of that day, but its legacy looms large over my profession.  I have no profound words to say; I can only relate my recollection of that day. 

Ten years.  I was a college sophomore in Washington, DC, sleeping in on a Tuesday early in the semester, my first class not until 11.  I woke shortly after 9am to the phone ringing.  It was my roommate's father calling to tell us that there had been a couple of plane crashes.  He was safe in an airport in middle America, having just landed himself.  He didn't sound terribly concerned, but the second plane had just crashed into the South Tower, and the realization was only just becoming clear.  I heard the call waiting beep and hung up with him.  My mother was calling, screaming at me to get out of the city and to stay safe.  She had been in a senior staff meeting at the hospital where she worked in NH, and she'd watched as one by one administrators were beeped out.  The Emergency Department Director.  The helicopter squad director.  The director of security.  The nursing director.  The infection disease director.  And so on and so forth.  Finally someone told them what was going on.  She ran back to her office and called me.  Hearing her panicked voice scared me more than anything.  I assured her I was fine and would stay in place until I knew what was going on.  I called my dad at work; he'd only just heard, and they were trying to figure what, if anything, to tell the students at school. 

And then the third plane crashed.  Only a few miles from where I was standing.  By then I was in my suitemates' room, watching the towers burn on CNN.  So many questions.  So much uncertainty. 

So I went to work.  The Office of International Programs.  They were in full crisis mode, even if the full extent of the crisis wasn't quite clear yet.  Nobody had any answers or concrete advice.  We didn't know if there were more planes.

And then the fourth plane crashed, thankfully falling short of its as-yet-unnamed target. 

I walked over to my classroom.  Some others were milling about, unsure what to do.  Classes had not yet been canceled.  But it was clear we weren't operating as normal. 

I walked back to my dorm.  Watched a little more CNN.  Hugged my roommate, who had come back from her early class.

We walked together over to an apartment building where, from the roof, we could watch the smoke from the Pentagon.  It still seemed unreal.  A friend, a NYC native, almost lost it when we got word that the Towers had come down.  For him, that was the moment it became real.  I don't know what my moment was.  It still seems surreal.

We gravitated towards an apartment where several friends lived.  All day we watched the news and called loved ones and friends and grieved whenever we heard about another link to a passenger on one of the planes or an employee in the Towers or the Pentagon.  And there were many.  I remember we eventually ordered Chinese food.  That was the first restaurant that agreed to deliver.  None of us wanted to go to the cafeteria, where grief counselors were already in place. 

I spoke finally with all of my relatives in the DC area.  We realized we didn't have a contingency emergency plan.  But we were all safe, and that mattered at that moment.

As I walked home later that night, I saw that chalk memorials and tributes had been drawn all over the campus.  Many of them already calling for tolerance and interfaith community support and proclaiming God Bless America. 

The next day, there was class.  But only in the form of support and discussion and trying to make sense out of what had happened.  But of course, that sense is still not here ten years later. 

There were tanks on the streets of Georgetown.  The National Guard was all over the place.  Which was both reassuring and incredibly frightening. 

I spent that weekend with my extended family.  We discussed contingency plans and grieved for our nation and hugged each other tight. 

That was ten years ago.  But the entire week is burned into my memory, for better or worse.  It became the new normal.  The defining moment of the new history of the world. 

I certainly never imagined I'd be commemorating ten years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  I'm not going to dwell on this; every news outlet in the world has been doing plenty of that this week. 

For me, one of the most poignant commemorations has been playing out in the Washington Post over the last two weeks.  Each day they've published vignettes of real people affected by 9/11/01 and what their lives are like ten years later.  The heartbreak inherent in each story is what makes the anniversary real for me.  Because the concept of 9/11 is so incredibly pervasive that it almost loses meaning in the larger context.  I hear it every day, many times, and have heard it many times each day for ten years.  But beyond the implications for foreign policy and globalization and security and counterterrorism, it's about the stories.  Of not just the 2,977 innocents who died that day but the thousands of others who have sacrificed their lives since then.  And the millions of Americans and others whose lives changed that day.  They all have stories.  And mine is an incredibly lucky and relatively mundane one among millions.  But it's part of the collective memory.  And tomorrow we'll all collectively remember, though none of us has forgotten for a moment for the past ten years.  It feels like a lifetime ago.  But it also feels like just yesterday.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 3-4

Day 3 included an easy, ambling drive along the south coast to Tangalle.  We passed some of the worst examples of tsunami destruction, with entire villages wiped out and still not rebuilt.  Too many people died in some of them to even justify rebuilding.  Other towns showed fewer signs of damage.  There were memorials and graves all along the drive, and it was a very humbling sight.  Especially given my own extremely minor battles with rough surf the day before.  I can’t imagine the horror of having an otherwise beautiful day destroyed by the entirely unexpected wall of water, destroying everything in its path, people and buildings alike.

One of the sights along the way was seeing stilt fishermen - men perched on stilts placed in the ocean with fishing rods.  We didn’t stop to take pictures because it’s become a tourist trap - many of the ‘fishermen’ no longer fish and instead sit there waiting for tourists to come along and take their photo - for a fee of course.

We arrived at today’s stop, Palm Paradise Cabanas, in the early afternoon.  It was off the main road and quite secluded, which was nice.  The cabanas were well-spaced in a garden setting, with lots of swaying palm trees and tropical plants spaced around.  The secluded beach was again only steps away.  I checked out the beach first but didn’t even attempt to swim today - similarly rough seas.  Plus, it was high tide, and there was little beach space left for relaxing.  I had a yummy lunch of vegetable noodles and then indulged in a pleasant afternoon nap.  The cabana was rustic but pristine, with a large mosquito net over the bed and a small fan providing much-needed relief from the heat and humidity.  I kept all the windows open to take advantage of the sea breeze, but this ‘natural air-conditioning’ left a bit to be desired on a hot August day.

I woke up in the early evening to raindrops on the roof.  A quick, hard rain was followed by a bit of drizzling for a while, but none of it bothered me.  After a nice dinner of curries and noodles, I headed out for another turtle adventure.

Rekawa Beach, located a few kilometers from Tangalle, is one of the best places to see turtles laying their eggs in Sri Lanka.  During the high season, an average of 17 turtles come to the beach.  The Turtle Conservation Project welcomes visitors to come learn about their operations.  After a windy drive down a steep dirt track, we arrived at the main parking area and proceeded down to the beach, another steep dirt track.  About 100 meters before we reached the beach we extinguished all flashlights - no artificial light is allowed on the beach lest it disturb the turtles.  We arrived about 8:30, and by then all the volunteers were in place.  Every night these dedicated volunteers spread themselves out along several kilometers of beach to safely escort turtles who come to lay eggs.  They have successfully educated locals on turtle nesting habits and dissuaded potential poachers.  The evening’s team leader told me he’s headed to Costa Rica next year to present on Sri Lankan turtle preservation work.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Costa Rica is not actually in the United States, as he proudly claimed.

We sat down in the HQ - a thatched hut - and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Apparently rough seas were keeping the turtles from coming ashore.  Finally, about 10:30, the signal went out.  A turtle was making her way ashore.  Problem was, she was 2km away.  Which meant hiking through the woods in the dark for 2km to get to the adjoining beach, and then hiking the 2km back to the original beach.  And with my still-tender knee, I just couldn’t fathom it.  So we bid the team goodbye and waited some more.  But no more turtles came ashore.  We waited until midnight and then headed back to the cabanas.  I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see one, but I also know I would have been miserable and foolish to try and hike in the dark with a bum knee.

It was a relatively sleepless night, with mosquitoes continually penetrating my mosquito net fortress and cautionary layer of insect repellent and keeping me awake and itchy.  And, again, the ‘natural A/C’ just wasn’t cutting it.

We set out after breakfast and headed a bit inland, towards Yala National Park.  After about two hours of driving we reached Tissamaharama, a small town that is the main gateway to Yala.  Tissa is also close to Kataragama, site of a very important temple complex for Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike.  It’s an extremely popular pilgrimage destination for millions.

I stayed at a small but charming guesthouse, Elephant Camp, which is a beautiful little place with very generous and hospitable owners.  The room was large, comfortable, pristine, and complete with A/C - what more could you ask for?

After lunch I headed over to Kataragama for a walk through the temple complex.  It was very busy, even during the mid afternoon, so I just did a quick walk through.

The owner of the guesthouse took a few of us out on a birdwatching tour in the early evening.  We first passed by Tissa Wewa, a large man-made lake in the middle of town, which was very active with dozens of pilgrims bathing themselves before heading off to Kataragama.  Vendors were selling fish and fruit and cool drinks on the side of the road, and there was a lively and excited vibe.

We continued on a small track near the lake and came across an agricultural area filled with rice paddies ready for harvest.  Farmers were heading home for the day, along with their cows and buffaloes.  I don’t know what it is about it, but I absolutely love driving down roads with livestock.  It just seems exciting to me, and I’ve always been intrigued by this.

The first major sighting was a large tree with hundreds, if not thousands, of sleeping fruit bats.  So incredibly cool!  These large bats looked like oddly-shaped leaves at first until you could focus on what they actually were.  Some were waking up and flying, and they looked exactly like the typical ‘vampire bat’ silhouettes you see at Halloween.  So, so, so neat!

We continued on and watched weaver birds popping in and out of their distinctive nests, kingfishers and bee-eaters flitting about, green parrots roosting at the tops of trees, egrets and cormorants hanging out with the livestock in the rice paddies, various types of crows annoying the general population, and the Sri Lankan national bird - the jungle fowl - darting across the road.

We didn’t see any crocodiles, sadly, though not for lack of trying.  All-in-all, a perfectly lovely tour and a great benefit to staying at a small guesthouse with eager owners!  Dinner and an early bedtime - safari in the morning!!

(As much as I try to put photos in order, the Blogger interface prevents me from doing so.  Apologies for the following lack of organization.)

Rice Paddies

Green Parrot

Buffaloes in the road!!

Beach at Tangalle

Palm trees - my absolute favorite

Home sweet cabana

Banana trees!

View from the cabana's porch

Mosquito fortress

Weaver bird and nests

Kingfisher (l) and Bee-Eater (R)

Fruit bats!!

So, so cool!

Pilgrims bathing in Tissa Wewa

Time for a boat ride!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sri Lanka - Days 1-2

All right.  Queen Elizabeth’s favorite potatoes dauphinoise are in the oven (thanks for the awesome cookbook L!), so I have some time to sit and begin the process of relating all the wonderful adventures from last week in Sri Lanka.

The trip got off to a great start.  The plane was on time out of Jeddah, and for once there was seat-back entertainment.  I was sad that the plane filled up in Riyadh, but I managed to fall asleep and wake up with only about 45 minutes left.  No problem going through immigration, though my bag was one of the last ones onto the belt.  My driver was waiting, and off we went!

The first day was scheduled to be a slow day, allowing time for me to get some sleep and get over jet lag.  We did a driving tour of Colombo, which I greatly enjoyed.  Sadly, I didn’t take a single picture; my camera was in the trunk (stupid planning), and I was pretty out of it.  Colombo is a nice, quiet city (despite the traffic), and I would definitely bid there in the future.  We saw the U.S. Embassy - located right on the beach for all you eager bidders!  I asked to stop and do some craft shopping, so we went to one of the large government-sanctioned centers that showcase tons of handicrafts at set prices.  The prices are fairly reasonable, the quality is pretty good, and they do a great job getting everything documented and wrapped up.  I didn’t go terribly craft-crazy, having bought tons of gifts for family and friends the last time I was in SL.  I supplemented my collection of housewares and got a few small gift items.

I really enjoyed driving through the bustling market areas of Pettah in Colombo, but I just wasn’t up for being a part of the crowd or haggling or anything like that.  I get reaaaallly tired when I fly all night...

Afterward, we headed to the hotel.  I stayed at the very nice Hotel Renuka, which was clean, had a comfortable bed, A/C, and an attached restaurant - exactly what I needed!  I took a shower and a nap, had an awesome dinner of curries, sambols, hoppers, and wattalapan (my new favorite sweet).  After that, I read for entirely too long and eventually fell asleep.

The next morning, I had a spicy but filling breakfast before reconnecting with my driver and heading south!

We drove down the Galle Road towards Galle, passing lots of neat beach towns along the way.  There was some evidence of tsunami destruction in places, which, almost seven years on, is still very apparent.  We stopped in Kosgoda at one of the turtle hatcheries, one of my top priorities for the trip.

Five species of sea turtle lay eggs on the beaches in Sri Lanka, all of them threatened and/or endangered - green, hawksbill, olive ridley, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles.  The females come ashore at night and dig a nest in the sand for her eggs - up to 150 at a time.  After 61-62 days, the hatchlings emerge at night and make their perilous way to the water; the females will return to the same beach years later to lay their own eggs.  Unfortunately, this very natural process has lots of risks.  Poachers and animals dig up the eggs for food; the hatchlings are preyed upon by birds as they make their way to the  ocean; and sharks and large fish eat the tiny hatchlings once they make it into the water.  The turtle hatcheries try to eliminate the poaching by collecting eggs as soon as they are layed, depending on volunteers and fisherman who sell the eggs to the hatchery for more than they could get on the black market (about 10 rupees per egg, or approximately $0.10).  The hatcheries rebury the eggs in an enclosed sand pit and let them incubate.  The hatchlings are collected and kept for three days before they are released, giving them a bit of an extra bit of strength and swimming experience.  They are released on the evening of the third day, under cover of darkness, and they only have to crawl a short distance on the beach to the water - both allowing them to imprint the beach for future laying purposes and minimizing the potential of being picked off by seabirds.  Even with all this extra care, 80% of all hatchlings still don’t make it.

The hatchery also functions as a de facto turtle rehab center, taking in sick and injured animals brought to them by well-informed fisherman.  There are amputees from shark attacks, albino turtles, and all other manner of problems.  Most will be released upon healing, but the albino turtles stay - they’re just too threatened in open water.

I got to tour the very simple but well-run hatchery, holding the tiny hatchlings, observing the enclosed sand pit, and seeing the older turtle patients.  I was there during the day, which precluded releasing the three-day olds, but it was still a fun experience.  It’s one of several such operations in the Kosgoda area, and they seem to do very good work.

We continued on down the coast, stopping in Ambalangoda to visit a mask museum and workshop.  This town is the locus of ancient devil dancing and devil mask production.  Sons of one of the most famous mask-carvers run modern-day workshops and museums, and we stopped at one of them.  I bought a couple of very modern interpretations of the masks and am kicking myself for not buying more - they’re just so cool!  I really enjoyed seeing the craftsmen at work as well and wish I’d taken some pictures.

The next stop was Galle, a pleasant city with a European feel and storied history.  The main attraction there is Galle Fort, which was originally built by the Portuguese in 1588.  The Dutch made extensive fortifications to it from the seventeenth century, and much of it remains intact today.  Galle was hit very hard by the tsunami, but the Fort’s walls protected much of the old city.

I walked along parts of the walls, observed dozens of local families having picnics on a beautiful end-of-summer-vacation day, and ate a yummy lunch at a hotel overlooking the ocean.

We continued on to Unawatuna and an overnight stay at Unawatuna Beach Resort.  The Resort was very nice; I really enjoyed my stay there.  The rooms were comfortable and clean and sported A/C.  First order of the day was to visit the spa.  It was well placed - steps away from the beach, with fans augmenting the ocean breezes and beautiful aquariums built into the pebbled walls.  I opted for a foot massage and an Indian head massage.  They both started out extremely well, but each therapist was extremely overzealous in their use of deep-tissue techniques.  I was a bit bruised by the time I walked out.

I changed into beach clothes and headed for the beach.  The surf was quite rough, and the beach had a steep slope to the water, but there were people standing in the water, so I thought it couldn’t be too bad.  I headed down and was immediately knocked down by the first wave.  I got back up, and the second one did a number on my knee - my already fragile, oft-operated-on precious knee.  I spent a few more fruitless minutes trying to enjoy the water and float in the waves, but I soon gave up when I realized there was a strong undercurrent and limped back up the beach.  I stayed out and read for a while before heading inside to assess my injuries.  My knee was pretty sore, and going up and down stairs normally was out of the question.  It didn’t feel like anything was structurally wrong, but it was hard to tell.  I took a long shower to try and de-sand myself and then read until dinner.

Dinner was a nice international buffet in the thatched-palm restaurant overlooking the beach.  It would have been perfect had the neighboring hotel not built a bonfire on the beach.  The winds were not in our favor, and the acrid smoke blew directly into the restaurant.  Nobody could see well, people were coughing and wrapping scarves over their noses and mouths, and the whole thing was a bit painful.  Still, the food was delicious and varied, and I got to try some great new Sri Lankan dishes.

Another quiet night’s sleep, another slightly painful foot and chair massage, a nice breakfast on the beach, and I was off!

Day old hatchlings

Two-day old hatchlings

Two-day olds up close

Albino turtle

Amputee turtle

Galle Fort

Buddhist Dagoba from Galle Fort

Sri Lankan families enjoying an afternoon picnic at Galle Fort

Unawatuna Beach

Unawatuna Beach

View from the spa, Unawatuna

Turtle eggs in enclosed sand pit

Each next is labeled with the type of turtle and date of laying

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I'm Back!

And I'm back!  Well, I've been back for several days, but exhaustion from the return trip (long story), a touch of jet lag, and a bout of tummy issues (from KSA, not Sri Lanka) have conspired against me posting until now.

And I'm not really posting now.  I'm just posting to say I'll be posting stories and photos from my Sri Lanka trip soon. 

Turtles, leopards, and bears, oh my! coming soon to a blog near you...