Random Thoughts from Sri Lanka: Heading Home

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Yes, all good things must come to an end, and I’m trying to get in one final blog post before departing this beautiful and interesting part of the world.  Here are some random thoughts:

*  My wife and I had lunch today with Pavi Kulatunga, a junior journalism major at UMass, and her Dad — a succesful businessman who runs a tea business in the Southern part of the country.  We covered a lot of ground during our discussion, as a mini-rainstorm hit our hotel (I took video to capture the sound.)  As with many Sri Lankans we spoke with, Pavi and her Dad feel positive about the future of their country.

*  Elvis is alive.  And, so apparently is Karen Carpenter.  We heard both in our car rides to and from Colombo.  No Springsteen, though.

*  The British influence remains strong here and there are many formal rules to follow, much of it involving dress — we were not allowed to wear flip-flops or shorts around the hotel lobby area or restaurants after 7 p.m.  Seems silly.

*  Our string of getting sick on foreign trips continued when my wife got sick in the last day-and-a-half.  And, I couldn’t find the immodium.  Felt bad on that one.

*  On our looong drive to Colombo and then the airport today, we stopped off at one of the Buddhist temples, just to kind of absorb things, and get some photos.  We’ve become used to being magnets for people looking to “help” us and separate us from our money during this trip and for the most part we just politely said  “no.”  But when a few locals began trying to work us at the temple, we got a bit annoyed.  There’s got to be a line you don’t cross, no?

More to come….I’m headed to Germany then Washington then Boston, where the latest winter storm to end all winter storms has descended on Europe.  Hopefully the snow misers allow my connection to happen in Germany.  Wish me luck….


Thoughts from Sri Lanka: Talking about the Tsunami

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The beach at Unawatuna.

I’m an ocean lover.

There are those who love the water and those who love the mountains.  I live in the mountains (well, hills I guess) so I love to spend time at the ocean as much as possible.

We’ve spent the past several days of our Sri Lanka adventure in Unawatuna, enjoying a mini-vacation on the beach.  It’s a beautiful area filled with palm trees, cocnuts and panoramic views of the horizon.   We’re about 70 kilometers south of Colombo, the bustling city where I spent the first week of my trip.

The tone and pace of this area is much different from Colombo.  But, we weren’t sure when we first arrived.   Our first night here there was a huge disco/dance party on the beach a few hotels down for many of the divers that seem to gather in this area.  The sound levels have since lowered considerably 🙂

It’s a place dominated by 20-somethings from Europe, Australia and the U.S.,

looking for cheap ways to get to Thailand, Singapore and other exotic locales where they can surf and dive.  At points I’ve felt like I’m a ‘dude’ in a Keanu Reeves movie.

The water here is startling in its beauty.  I’ve been in the Atlantic, Pacific and the Caribbean but the ocean here is so salty that it allows you to float at ease.  There was also a fairly strong rip tide when we were here.  I would enter the ocean in one area and easily be carried down the beach within minutes.

As I swam and enjoyed the water, it was hard not to think about what nature unleashed on this part of the world six years ago.  It’s kind of a surreal feeling to be swimming where so many died.

While I was initially hesitant, I’ve spoken to a number of the locals here and in Colombo about the tsunami.  I recognize that the scope and scale is hard to describe — one person told me that nearly everyone she knows had someone who died.

Yet, many have described the scope of the tragedy in ways that transcends language barriers.

I’ve asked several people here about the level of devastation and they just put up their hand in flat manner and circle it all around, implying that everything was leveled.   Many of the locals walk the beach, selling their wares.  We bought some dresses shirts and tablecloths from Candy, who now lives in government housing, a little inland from the beach.

All that she made and sold was lost in the tsunami.

“It is hard,” she said about life after the tsunami.

But, like many Sri Lankans, the end of the war and the return of tourists are providing a sense of hope for the future.

A Question from Sri Lanka: ‘What is New Media?’

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Monks from the Buddhist and Pali University in Sri Lanka take part in a conversation on new media.

As my series of lectures progressed last week, I quickly decided to move away from all of my ‘established’ game plans.  I prepared five powerpoints for the trip but I soon realized that many people just wanted to talk.  Plus, the idea that I could show some multimedia presentations quickly evaporated in a country with slow Internet connections.  Rather than sit and wait for a slideshow to upload, I went old school and talked….


By Friday I completely abandoned the powerpoints and just asked those present to ask me questions that were on their mind.  I met with a mix of people during the week — students, professors, intellectual, activists and journalists.  But perhaps the most interesting group came on Friday when about 50 monks filled the small lecture hall at the American Center in Colombo.

As we started the session, the chief priest asked a simple question through an interpreter:  “What is new media?”

Those of us who have been involved in new media for the past 15 years have seen the ‘digital divide’ argument come and go but I’ve seen that divide a little differently on this trip.  Parts of this country are wired, but much of it isn’t.  And while students, journalists and some intellectuals are making use of the Web as a research and communication tool, the full potential of the Web remains unrealized.

So, I tried to get to the heart of the Web with my answers — with concepts and philosophies that are important to remember as many of us in the West remain overly focused on how to make money with Web products.  I mainly spoke about the ability of people of many cultures and traditions to communicate across the Web.  I tried to enforce the concept that the Web allows forces for change to take hold at the grassroots level (I talked a lot about Obama and his campaign.)

But, mostly I spoke about the power of ideas and how they can be shared across the world thanks to the power of technology.

But, perhaps the most surreal moment came as I spoke to the monks about Facebook and how to prevent bad folks from hacking in and hijacking your profile.  It’s very much the same conversation I have with my 12-year-old soon — although, clearly the fears of operating and communicating in this society are a little more complex and serious.

More to come….

Random Thoughts from Sri Lanka: Power Up!


Just had a very cool moment….met with Pavi Kulatunga, a Sri Lankan who is also a student in the UMass journalism program.   Her parents live just south of the beach hotel  near Galle that my wife and I are headed to on Saturday.  She has offered to take us around and show us the area.  Looking forward to it.

She was here catching up with friends, one of which will be supplying me with a power cord for my Mac tommorow — I woke up early today and sat down to do some work on my laptop, an effort that was pre-empted when the cord shorted out…..ah, the best laid plans. 

The past several days have been great.  I had a wide-ranging discussion with some academics at the Open University today, talking about Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the press and how to best operate under regimes that seek to control the flow of information.  And, since Internet connections are slow here (I’ve grown spoiled!) I’ve abandoned much of my powerpoint presentations and opted instead for chatting and discussing:  It’s been fun.

Some random observations:

*  Many, many stray dogs on the streets.

*  Not many traffic lights, but lots of traffic in Colombo.

*  One second you’re in traffic, the next you’re on a road running alongiside the Indian Ocean.

* Freedom of Expression is a valued commodity.

More to come…..(including photos.)

Wikileaks, water buffaloes & student protests

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The scene outside the gates at the University of Sri Jayawardanepura in Sri Lanka.

It was a busy first day of lecturing today — a day that began with talking to a small group of working Sri Lankan journalists about interviewing.   But, what everyone really wanted to talk about was Wikileaks and the impact of Julian Assange’s efforts on the future of journalism.

There has been much written in the local media here about Wikileaks and the stories produced in the aftermath of the huge document dump.  Much of the analysis has been fairly critical of the policies of the U.S. government.

One journalist asked about the changing lines between public and private.  We talked a little bit about the tension between governments looking to keep secrets and journalists looking to pull back the veil of secrecy.   I also spoke about the ethical considerations of journalists and the balancing act between the desire to provide a free flow of information and the quest to not do harm — a concern that is very real in this part of the world.

An interesting conversation all-around.

In the afternoon I spoke to a group of students the University of Sri Jayawardanepura about the future of citizen journalism — as students and monks protested outside the university gates.  My advice was simple, shoot photos and video and upload to the web.  And, do it now!

The drive to the university was an adventure — water buffalo wandered some streets but we were able to succesfully avoid them.

More to come….

Day 1: The Sri Lanka Chronicles


The mall at Dubai International Airport offered everything and more...

After weeks of preparation and anticipation, I’m here!  And, yes, it’s hot and humid.

So, a few updates:

As I sat down next to my first-class traveling companion to get ready for the flight from Dulles to Dubai, she said:  “I guess we’re safe, the president is on the plane.”

I, of course asked what she meant and she said I just missed Bill Clinton making the rounds in first class, shaking hands.  My response was to go find him.

I wandered over, extended my hand and said “people say I look like you…”  True story.  I’ve had many nicknames over the years, including a group of middle school students who called me “Clinton” back when I was a substitute teacher in Tucson, Arizona in the mid-1990s.

Then I did what I almost never do:  I asked for an autograph – for my wife, of course. He obliged (and now I have to make sure I don’t lose it…)

I figured getting a picture at that point would be pushing it, especially since an aide appeared out of nowhere and stood at my shoulder as we talked about the tsunami and resilience of Sri Lankans.

The former president looked good and appeared pretty relaxed, saying he was headed to Dubai “for three days.”

As I find often when traveling abroad, people move at a different pace than Americans.  It took about an hour to get my luggage, but I was serenaded by Christmas music in the airport, including several variations of “Silent Night.”

The drive from the airport to the hotel was interesting.  Turn signals are definitely optional but every time one car passes another (which is often) a gentle beep is issued.  And passing as another car or motorcycle comes at you is shrugged off.

Also present on the drive were many signs for ‘unity.’  This was a country at war not long ago and the signs and the military presence on the streets act as a rather stark reminder…

The Sri Lanka Chronicles…continued


I’ve been lucky over the past month to meet people who have either visited or live in Sri Lanka.  I’ve met and chatted with John Stifler, an economics professor at UMass.  John was in Sri Lanka for more than a year as a Fulbright Scholar and has been a fountain of information — briefing me on everything from hotels and restaurants to stay at to the state of the media there.  Through John, I met Tissa Jayatilaka, the executive director of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, during his visit to Amherst in late October.

Who would have known that I would find so many connections to the other side of the world in Amherst?  It’s one of many reasons why I love this area — there is a unique, eclectic group of people here and you don’t have to look far to find connections.

Which brings me to this week.  I was sitting in my office Wednesday  when a Journalism student approached me and introduced herself.  Turns out the Journalism program also has a connection to Sri Lanka.  Pavi Kulatunga is a junior journalism major who is heading home on Sunday and will be in the country when I’m there lecturing.  Pretty cool.

I’ve spent the past two days chatting with Pavi about Colombo and the surrounding areas.  She says Sri Lanka has the best Chinese food.  I’m looking forward to checking that out, as well as some of the other dishes she described that are unique to the area.  Turns out her parents’ home is about a half-hour drive from the beach resort my wife and I will be staying at once my lecturing duties are completed.  Pavi offered to act as our own personal tour guide — a generous offer which we’re looking forward to.

Pavi and I also spoke a bit about the 2004 Tsunami.  She was not in Sri Lanka when the tsunami occurred and told me how lucky she felt when all the members of her extended family survived the disaster.  She told me a harrowing story of a friend who lost her Dad after he thought his daughters had died.  She spoke about her work as a trauma counselor and talking to a 7-year-old girl who had lost her entire family.

Pavi also spoke about how those in the country have bounced back since the tragedy, rebuilding roads, businesses, infrastructure.

Her words:  “Please, come visit!”

Looking forward to it…..

Here’s my schedule for the week:

Steve’s Schedule:

Monday 13 December
9:00-12:00 noon
American Centre workshop, Topic: Investigative Journalism How to deal with hostile and/ or hesitant sources.

2:00-4:00 p.m. Lecture at the University of Sri Jayawardanepura Topic: Citizen Journalism

Tuesday 14 December
9:00 a.m.- 12:00 noon
Lecture at the University of Kelaniya, Topic: Investigative Journalism

Wednesday 15 December
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon
Workshop for the Army, Navy and air Force Media Units
Topic : How to create a Blog and how to maintain a Blog

2:00-4:00 p.m. Lecture at Lake House, Topic: What is Blog, How to create a Blog and how to maintain a Blog

Thursday 16 December
9:00-12:30 p.m.
University of Colombo lecture/workshop:
Topic – Citizen Journalism

4:00-06:00 p.m.
American Centre Workshop
Topic: Be a blogger

Friday 17 December
9:00- 11:00 a.m.
American Centre
Seminar for A/L students, Topic: “Publish Me”: Royal College

2:00-4:00 p.m.
American Centre
Workshop for Religious Groups.
Topic : General Introduction to new Media; Students from Buddhist and Pali University



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