Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka, I like you...

In the second to last week of school before the winter holidays, all of the ETAs in Central and South Asia packed up and flew to Sri Lanka for a Fulbright ETA Regional Conference.  The week was surreal in many ways; we were staying in a five star hotel with all of the luxuries we could ever ask for (or not ask for, for that matter).  We ate at the hotel’s fancy all you can eat buffet for every meal, and were given tea and refreshments between sessions.  There was a gym that was even better than the Taj’s, and a beautiful swimming pool.  The weather was gorgeous, as was the scenery, prompting some of my friends to occasionally spontaneously sing the line: "Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka, I like you..." to a tune vaguely reminiscent of Annie's "Tomorrow."

We're so official!
India's Fulbright ETAs, 2011-2012!

Even outside of creature comforts, the Sri Lankan Fulbright commission took great care of us, making sure that we got to experience some of their beautiful country outside of the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel.  Firstly, they made sure to organize one of the conference workshops in Galle, a town on the Southern Coast.  Galle is most famous for its fort, built by the Portuguese, then taken away by the Dutch, who later lost it to the British.  After our workshop finished, we were given a brief tour of the fort then set free to wander its ramparts.  The architecture was the most interesting mix of various European and South Asian styles, and I enjoyed looking at it.  My favorite part, however, was just wandering around, passing under coconut trees, strolling along the ramparts and staring out to sea.  It was beautiful to see nature again, after having spent such a long time in very urban Delhi. 

British coat-of-arms

Scene from the interior of a Dutch Church

Dutch Church


View from the ramparts, looking into the fort


The reason we were not allowed to swim

Buddhist Temple inside the fort

On the last day, the commission organized a menu of afternoon tours we could choose from.  I chose to visit the famous Kelaniya Buddhist Temple, a site that Buddha himself is said to have visited in the 5th Century BCE.  As shoes are strictly prohibited within the temple, we took off our shoes in the bus, and limped our way over to some stalls selling lotus flowers.  The flowers were used as offerings, our guide explained, as their fragile blossoms symbolized the impermanence of life and earthly "beauty"--a key Buddhist teaching.  The temple itself was beautiful, and very different from other Buddhist temples I had seen before (Buddhism is an extremely diverse religion, and Sinhalese Buddhism is markedly different from other traditions).  The frescos on the walls inside showed scenes from the Buddha’s life, and were incredibly intricate and beautiful.  The carvings outside were equally impressive.  The temple was bustling with worshippers that day, yet still somehow incredible peaceful.  All people were very friendly to us, and happy to let us participate in what was going on.  I ended up receiving a blessing from a priest, and several people in our group collected water in pots and offered it to the Buddha.  Most of the worshippers we saw were Buddhist.  Interestingly though, this temple is also significant to Hindus, as important events from the Ramayana are believed to have taken place there, namely the crowning of King Vibeeshana, brother of Ravan.  Though Ravan, King of Lanka and kidnapper of Ram’s wife Sita, is the villain of the epic, Vibeeshana is seen as a good and just  King, as he saw the wrongdoings of his brother, and supported Ram in his cause.  We visited the shrine to Vibeeshana, which contained beautiful murals.

Lotus flower

Temple complex entrance

Naga carving


Dancing Bodhisattva

Ceiling painting

Oil lamp offerings

Taking water to offer to the Buddha

Hindu shrine

As for the whole reason we were in Sri Lanka, the conference itself?  I found it incredibly useful in terms of some of the teaching strategies that were talked about (giving your kids routines to settle them down, not relying on technology, encouraging critical thinking, taking each day at a time, celebrating small victories, etc.).  It was also both enjoyable and informative to meet the ETAs from other countries.  We laughed at each others’ stories, commiserated over the seemingly rampant laissez faire attitudes towards cheating, and most importantly, shared strategies for improving our teaching.  Meeting the other ETAs made me realize that we India ETAs are dealing with many difficulties, but there are difficulties everywhere.  We have problems with classroom management and a crippling bureaucracy, but our schools at least have desks and chairs.  The monsoon season was certainly tiresome, but at least we don’t have to shiver through a bitterly cold winter—sans heat and electricity—in Northern Tajikistan. 

Most importantly for me, the conference came at a very good time.  I am about halfway through my time as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in India, and I still sometimes wonder what my role here is, and if I’m really making any kind of positive difference.  Though certainly not burned out, I had been growing tired.  The conference re-energized and inspired me, and reminded me why I had applied for this grant in the first place.  Though I know no magic occurred, and there will continue to be hard times ahead, I am excited and ready to go back into the classroom after winter break.  But first: my Christmas celebrations, including my travels to South India.  More on that soon…

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