Sri Lankan Sampler

We barrel down the road in Sri Lanka and swerve to avoid a three-wheeler but also the man walking his heifer down the road. A couple teenagers ride precariously beside us on a bicycle. A family of monkeys scurry across the road as our driver honks the horn. It’s slow going crossing the island where a seven-hour drive is considered a short day trip.

I spend a lot of time behind the window in the passenger seat enviously watching the rich mismash of life I cannot access. Sinhalese signs flood the towns advertising their function. People perform rituals at temples dressed in white. Street vendors sell local delectables that my stomach eyes suspiciously. I proceed too cautiously not wanting to be exploited or bed-ridden.

It takes a a local to let us in the cultural door. My father-in-law rolls down the window and negotiates some fried shrimp for us to eat on the way and then runs down to the stand to buy a Coke. Brands do matter when everything else is unfamiliar.

With his guidance, we learn why the buses are driven by mad chariot racers; they are paid by commission. We find out our rough looking safari tour guide doesn’t get lunch, so we offer him ours. On the road, we get a botanical lesson on king coconuts, tea bushes, and cassavas.

What is amazing here is the bazaar of productive activity that takes place on a single block from fine rest houses to little shacks selling plantains and SD cards for digital cameras. Unlike the shopping malls from back home where we see only the clean, artificial facade, I get a sense that owners here make their own products in the backroom (or repurpose them from American factories). With half the population in farming, it’s clear to me that although they are cash poor, they are more resourceful and resilient than Canadians.

The pace of development is stunning. Everywhere you see construction. Word is that the government will be rapidly developing Jaffna, a harbour city previously controlled by the rebel group LTTE. The newspaper proclaims that Sri Lanka is open for tourists. And I don’t doubt it. Hotels are being built. Roads built out to remote beaches. Restaurants are figuring out what tourists want. With the civil war ended brutally by the government, many Sinhalese families have returned. Visitors from Europe also inject much needed cash into the economy. In a few more years I’m sure I won’t recognize the country.

Who will really benefit from this boon? It’s no secret that the government is pocketing a little extra (or a lot depending on who you talk to). President Rajapaksa appoints his family to run the government even as he positions his son for political office. He is a war president that has the political capital to spend. Yet one can’t help but smile ruefully at the portraits of him everywhere and his imprisonment of the war general who dared to oppose him in the election.

This is a country that still loves their kings I think. Without journalists being allowed much visibility into the country it is hard to confirm or deny the activities of the government.

Although large economic and political forces are positioning themselves over Sri Lanka, on the ground this is a culture that is still heavily guided by social networks (the older, non-tech kind) and religious customs. Large extended families live together and collaborate in daily activities, in business and in life vastly different from the segregated sub-urban families in Canada.

Buddhism is the most prevalent religion although you will also see hindu temples, mosques, and churches. I am often asked what religion I follow and after a few stumbling attempts I decide that I am mostly Confucian. They nod not entirely understanding but comforted by a professed religion.

It’s not that Canadians don’t have these kind of social relationships. It’s that we depend more on our institutions than each other. In Sri Lanka, there is no food bank. People offer beggars whatever change is in their pockets or fruit grown on their tree. The blind and the catatonic aren’t housed in old folks homes. They live with the families. The temple is the closest thing to an agency. They not only provide spiritual guidance, but also hand out school supplies to needy kids and scholarships to promising students.

Well, my month of traveling in Sri Lanka comes to an end. I’ve sampled the culture as best as I could. I’ve tasted the food, lived with a family, partook in religious traditions, had conversations. I have video snippets and gaps in the storyline. I have pictures and my memories. It’s just a sampling but enough of one that has me thirsting for more.

But perhaps your curiosity can help me make more of my memories. What details are you interested in? About Sri Lanka or my experiences in it?

Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Three Wheeler Economics

Most mornings in Sri Lanka begin with an adventure derby on a three wheeler taxi. The adrenaline rush is better than coffee sitting in the back with no seat belts weaving between trucks and into oncoming vehicles. If it were an amusement park ride, the price of admission for tourists would be more than justified.

Over the weeks, I think I’ve evolved from a completely naive tourist to a slightly more aware tourist (after narrowly avoiding getting killed by a three wheeler rushing across the street). From the hotel into the city Colombo a three wheeler costs 1000 Rps (Rupees). Go back to the hotel the same distance and you can get a ride for 800 Rps without negotiating. With the help of a local on the other hand, you can get home for 500 Rps. Half of what we normally pay as tourists. Why the price variation?

I’ve mostly gotten over the feelings of being ripped off and accepted what is (as a Buddhist might say). Ultimately paying a little over $9 to get both of us to most places we need to go is a great price for us and a bonus for the drivers.

I am however curious at the economics of it. Drivers waiting near hotels will charge tourist prices because tourists don’t know any better and drivers can always find some other tourist who doesn’t know or care to know. If you walk up the street away from the hotels, you still get tourist rates but you can catch a ride for a couple hundred rupees less. Head out into the less tourist-populated areas and you’re more likely to negotiate a near local price.

It’s a system that relies on clueless tourists. As you get to know the environment, you know how far places really are and you have a sense of the average tourist price so that you can avoid the most flagrant abuses (as much as four times the going rate for a short walk away!). The drivers work together to avoid undercutting each other making it easier to hide the actual price particularly if you don’t speak Sinhalese. Call it a tax on ignorance.

None of us can know everything of course. The driver knows the roads and can navigate the traffic. I value it so I willingly pay for it. At what point, however, does taking advantage of someone’s ignorance become unjust exploitation?

A fortuitous question as I just finished reading Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America. A great read which exposes the exploitation of ignorance on a massive scale by Goldman Sachs and other players. Every citizen should get familiar with the bigger story because it’s important not to confuse the three wheeling market and the pyramid scam played the high-rollers.

Imagine a supposed free market economy where the winners get to make the rules, be the referee, and hide that fact from the spectators. We’d call it fraud, and that’s what has led us from one financial crisis to another.

I has become clearer how Goldman Sachs with the help of Alan Greenspan and others have pushed for the removal of financial protections that makes the free market fair. Glass-Steagall was suppose to prevent the concentration of capital in megacompanies to avoid conflicts of interest. It was killed. The Commodity Futures Modernization Act blocked regulation of financial instruments which hid the toxic mortgage waste. All of which allowed a few select companies to gamble away pension funds and people’s savings. Best of all, should anything go wrong, the public tax dollar would bail them out.

This is way more complicated than I can discuss using my vacation brain. What’s interesting is that these facts are not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether elite companies have the right to pursue profit using any means possible. Ethical standards be damned. They made tonnes of money so they must be right in using government as their lapdog and using it to pay their bonuses when they lost everyone’s money. Heck why not get into the arms trade or human trafficking?

Ethical standards have a functional purpose. They prevent an unfair game from being played. What makes a fair and free market compelling is that it allows everyone to compete and push each other to higher levels of achievement. It’s a game that get’s to be played over and over again. It stops being a game however when people start breaking legs or bribing the officials. Pretty soon, no one will want to play the game and you can say goodbye to social stability let alone innovation and creativity.

Ultimately economics is suppose to help us play a much bigger game. Maybe developing a higher quality of life, enhancing our environment for future generations, growing in our understanding of ourselves. Creating a more fragile financial system through bigger mega-institutions, disenfranchising millions of their savings, and taking value rather than creating it is a short-term game that cannot last.

Here, in Sri Lanka, at least there isn’t one three wheeler isn’t sabotaging every other three wheeler, taking tourist money dropping them off in the middle of the desert then shooting them in the foot and leaving them somewhere to die. The three wheelers are creating value which is more than can be said about the vampire squid.

(Don’t know what a vampire squid is? Read this Rolling Stone article for an update.)

Rebirth in Bangkok

Through the miracle of human flight, I am transported inside a day from the deep freeze of Calgary to the hot, humid, and smoggy world of Bangkok. Like a baby seeing, smelling, hearing for the first time, I felt as if I was being born into a new city.

My first awareness is of the insane traffic where motorbikes drive head-on towards you then cut sideways at the last minute and truck drivers maneuver like Formula One race cars.

Then my nose wakes up to intensely flavourful food cooked everywhere on the street: freshly barbecued satay, simmering beef pan-nang curry, and my local favourite: fresh ripe mango and sticky rice drizzled with sweet coconut milk.

Everywhere people treat me like an honoured tourist. The respect is often genuine, but sometimes it is desperate, and other times I am sure it hides despise.

Unlike a newborn however, I come clashing with my identity. Here in Bangkok, I become cognizant of my high economic status as a tourist. Whereas back home in Canada, I am immersed in my social strata; I run in my circle of friends often unaware that there are others who live differently. In Bangkok I cannot hide.

In the city, I find massive shopping malls complete with Christmas Trees and Frank Sinatra caroling for North Americans to browse presents marked with North American prices. But just down the street I can eat with locals and seasoned expats who eat feasts for five Canadian dollars. Then there are the construction workers piled into dump trucks who work for less than $5 a day. It reveals the inequality between “us” and “them”. It’s only in Canada I can pretend that we are all equal.

A culture is powerful though. It can subvert your thinking as surely as a patch to a computer system. The advertisements tell me who I should be as a tourist, where I should go, what I should see, and how I should buy. I play the role because sometimes it is just easier. I don’t speak the language. I don’t know who or what to trust. I want the adventure without the inconvenience.

The Starbucks and Seven Elven is meant to comfort me. The domesticated elephant show with British colonial music is suppose to activate my culture and identity. The floating market is a getaway tourist trap.

Only faintly in the background do I hear from locals about the failing health of a much loved King with a son perhaps unfit for the job, and bribery as a way of doing business because much of the economy is “informal”. I discover gems too. I learn with surprise about the world renown medical services provided in Thailand from an American couple visiting to access its healthcare. What more could I find if I just spend the time?

As a foreigner I am both blind and keenly aware. Blind to the subtle currents of life visible only to those socialized to live here. Yet keenly aware of the strangeness and contradictions of the customs here invisible to the locals.

Calling me a foreigner is misleading though. Not just because I am human and relate in that way. What surprises me most is how powerfully my Asian culture has been activated. I am comforted by the squid tentacles, beef tripe and prawn heads. The Thai conventions and occasional Chinese words resonate with me. Ironically I feel more Chinese in Bangkok than I do in Canada where I am clearly Canadian. In a place where I know little, I amplify the little I do know for reference.

As I leave my brief encounter with Bangkok behind for Sri Lanka, I am left wondering just how much of me was altered by my collision with another way of life. At the least, I’m hoping I can come back to my native culture and be just as curious and aware of it as I am on my travels.

My First “Documentary” Trailer

I’m headed to Sri Lanka for a month with high ambitions of finding a worthy story to tell. Will I succeed or won’t I? Here’s a five minute video log where I lay bare my plans on this vacation/volunteer/family trip. If you have tips, comments, suggestions, now is the time to send them to me!