Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Disclaimer: This, folks, is a long one. And more of a keepsake, rather than excellent writing. But for reading purposes I’ve divided it up into countries: Iceland, France, Switzerland, England and Denmark. Read as you please!

“Once upon a time Kelly took a very random trip around Europe…..”

But wait a minute! What a minute!  For those of you who know, that’s not how this story originally began. It began something more like this:

“Once upon a time Kelly decided to buy a one way ticket to France to study meditation for 3 months….” But, alas, that story, like many, had to be revised. Rather than winter camping at Plum Village like I had anticipated when I bought a ticket to Europe a few months back, I found myself on a very different journey, a journey of reunion and a quest to look at graduate school programs for this upcoming fall. I am pretty confident that the universe has had a plan for me to find roots and reconnect to old friends this past year, having recently spent the past 5 months across a hill from where my dad used to live on the Pine River in Bayfield, Colorado with two of my best friends and now, quite synchronistically, to a handful of places on this planet where some of my dearest friends reside. 

And, retrospectively, even though the trip had a contrary effect and convinced me that I do not want to go to school in Europe, it was meditation after all. One of the most striking features of traveling alone I’ve realized is that most of it is like a prayer. You are alone in your own head and knocking on the door of fate to get you where you had to go. It is a way to remember how mindfulness can change everything. So many times, more than I could write down here, I have been lost, cold and confused in search of a place with a foreign map in hand, totally at a loss for what to do next, when I just stop. Stop and breathe. Only to find that the one person who can help me magically pops out of the woodworks, or I am standing on the street I had been in search of all along. Traveling is one of my favorite meditations on life. As Confucius once said (to bring in the old dead men validation trick): “If you cannot meditate, travel.”

Iceland- “Land of Fire and Ice” (and oh yeah WIND)

I arrived in Iceland at 6 a.m. under a full moon and the northern lights. Considering that this time of the year Iceland only gets about 4-5 hours of sunlight a day, that meant there was a good 4 hours before I could see anything but pure blackness. As I took a shuttle bus from the airport to the main city Reykjavik (population 120,000—yes that is its MAIN and MOST populous city) all I could make out was the silvery outlines of volcano fields in the moon and the sound of wind rattling the bus from side to side.

Not being able to check into my hostel until 2:00, I dragged my wheely suitcase (which had already had acquired a broken handle on the trip over) to the ocean edge to watch the sun rise over the North Atlantic.  It was exquisite. Before me emerged a large mountain across the bay and white capped water twisting in the wind.

Iceland, as an Icelander appropriately pointed out to me as I struggled to open the hostel door, should really be called “Windland.” Together we were able to push it open. I told him I wasn’t sure which was worse—ice or wind the temperature of ice, considering the latter seeks you out. Either way, Ice-wind-land was one of the most beautiful places I have seen— when the sun finally did come out, that is. It was the farthest north I have traveled and one of the most idiosyncratic of the lot. Not only does 73 percent of its population believe in elves, serves cured shark at any possible occasion, contain the high density of hipsters per capita (my statistic), uses more green energy than any other country in the world, is  covered in volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, inlets, and geysers, but is also Europe’s largest producer of bananas. Yes folks, bananas. For a country that is considered part of the Arctic Circle (with its northernmost island jumping the line) this came as quite a surprise, with entire towns made up of greenhouses filled to the brim with tropical fruit powered by geothermal energy.

I spent my first day in Reykjavik on a mission to bathe in one of their world famous geothermal pools, massive hot springs sputtering up water from the bowls of the temperamental earth below where Icelanders warm their frost bitten toes. Having walked for nearly 3 hours in search of the alleged pool, I too was grateful for its warmth. And having only slept 0 hours on the plane ride over, I found myself alongside an old couple falling asleep on the side of the pool. Perfect jet lag cure? I think yes.  

That night the hostel I was staying in, KEX International, turned out to be a rather famous music hot spot, with celebrities from Europe and the US playing shows in the bar (mind you, the bar that shared a wall with my room). Not being able to sleep that night, I watched a Spanish jazz band play, where I met a group of Germans who convinced me that the next day I should wake up at 5 in the morning and take a bus tour around the island with them known as the Golden Circle. Why not? was the only possible answer to that question. So I woke up at an ungodly hour layered with every sweater, scarf and sock I had packed to take a tour around the island.

The tour took nearly 9 hours, taking us from massive waterfalls, to geysers, to glaciers, to where the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates meet, to Thingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament Althingi was founded in the year 930 AD.  At the end of the trip it began to snow, and then blizzard, and then a complete white-out. Stopping to wait for the weather to cool down (pun) we sat and drank hot chocolate and ate cookies at a small overlook point. When we finally arrived, in complete darkness, back to the hostel it was time for me to yet again pack my bags and make my way to France in the morning.

France-  Halloween on the Seine and Notre Dame in Lace

Because I am poor and France is expensive I stayed in the red light district known as Montmart, Moulin Rouge ring a bell? After lugging my suitcase up a series of stairs above a falafel restaurant, I arrived in my hostel, roof crumbling in and all. But I didn’t care. I had two hours to eat (some falafel obviously), shower and untangle the web of that is the Parisian underground to meet my friend Sarah in front of Notre Dame to celebrate Halloween. It had been 3 years since Sarah and I had celebrated Halloween in Brighton, England, where we met when we were both exchange students. Arriving, shockingly, with 45 minutes to spare, I treated myself to an Irish coffee in a small café overlooking Notre Dame. Dressed in lace and alone in Paris, it was one of those moments in life. Deliciously cliché and all too satisfying. Afterwards I met Sarah and we went to a beautiful restaurant for dinner. I have been to France only once with my good friend Sam LeGrys and met up with several friends from Goucher who were on exchange there. Out of all the cafes Sarah and I went to in Paris it was the same exact one I had met my friends at when I was there before. I walked in and said “Oh my gosh! I have been here before!” This café was literally the only one I could have said that about in all of France. Fantastic.

Afterwards Sarah and I took a train to the suburbs to her friend’s house in order to get dressed for the big night. When we walked into the apartment there was a full on Halloween party underway, complete with tacky decorations, candy, and scary movies. Sarah and I went into the back room to change and when I came out, dressed head to toe as “Cat in the Hat” from Dr. Seuss…. not one single person knew who I was.  Darn. Maybe picking an English story book character was not the best idea, especially considering my language skills where not good enough to explain why it was I was toting a ridiculous red and white hat and had painted my face in whiskers. Classic. The rest of the night was spent on a boat in the Seine (a BOAT in the SEINE!...sorry just had to say that one again) that had a massive club downstairs adorned with disco lights, free drinks and loud, loud music. After the clock hit 5 we decided maybe it was time to make our way home. Considering all of the metros were closed, we began to walk and attempt the impossible feat of finding a taxi in Paris. Long story short, we did not, and walked for an hour or so in the direction of our friend’s suburb. Which just so happened to bring us past the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. I must admit it was strange to look up (dressed like Cat in the Hat mind you!) and see such sights.

Ahhh, best Halloween ever.

The next day I decided to go to my favorite place in Paris, Sacre Coeur and happened to catch mass while I was there. The already incredible church filed to the brim with chorus and prayer was a memory I cannot detail in words, aside from perhaps: absolutely exquisite. 

Geneva- “Explosion of sunny blondeness”

Three hours of delayed planes with no idea what anyone was saying in French, I finally got to Geneva, only to be met with one of my very best, best friends in the entire world, the beautiful Silvana. Silvana and I had been neighbors in England, been partners in procrastination, and someone who I would consider a soul friend, so to see her again was most certainly exciting. Being equally sleep deprived we continued to miss our stop on multiple buses for the house we were staying in for the evening. In Europe there is a thing called Air B and B, where people lease their houses, rooms or beds to poor traveling students like ourselves. The woman we (Silvana, myself and her friend David) stayed with made us a pasta dinner as her kitten ripped apart the apartment and we all went out for a drink at (a typically overpriced) Swiss bar where we met yet another soul friend: Elsa. Elsa and I met while I was in Ghana and is currently working as an au pair (which I will get to in a minute) and it was so wonderful to see her again. Afterwards Silvana, David and I decided to continue the night by buying an under the counter bottle of rum (selling alcohol is prohibited in Geneva after 10:30) and hung out in, of all places, the train station. Let’s just say the night ended with us dancing on old Swiss fountains to salsa music blaring on David’s phone.

The next day Silvana and I spent most of it at a small café, catching up on life and drinking overpriced coke to soothe over our previous night. Then we made our way to a CouchSurfer’s house, who Elsa had met a few weeks before. Cedric was an incredibly nice host and his roommate was from the US working for the IMF. We all made dinner, enjoyed some wine and waited for Elsa to take the train from Lausanne and meet us for a night of dancing. As we were getting ready to go out I could not believe that two of my very best friends in the entire world were in the same room, it was, as Elsa put it “and explosion of sunny blondeness.” That night we three went out, marching around the Geneva streets with Silvana’s iphone and high heels to one of the most upscale clubs in Geneva. Deciding that the 21 dollars for a mixed drink and 15 dollars for a Heineken was… a bit steep, we decided to buy a bottle of cheap champagne and drink it in a windowsill outside the club. Yep, this was another one of those moments in life. Sitting there we met three nice French guys who we talked and laughed with for some time and then all decided to make our way to the line leading into the club. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this club was one of the hardest clubs to get into and required all patrons must be at least 25. Being not really the demographic who attends such places and none of us over 25, I was pretty sure we would not get in. But alas, when we came to the front of the line we were met with a swift shuffle into the club. Our French friends and Cedric’s roommate who came later, however, did not have the same luck.

The next day we woke up rather late. And sat around for several hours talking before we realized the sun had already gone down and we were still in our pajamas. So we decided that what else would be more wonderful than going to a sauna on the Geneva lake? So all of us got up and went to pier on the lake, where we got a cheese plate and vegetable soup. The sauna turned out to be a Turkish bath, meaning it was coed and…um…naked. Charming the guy behind the desk we were able to get in even though we did not have enough money for the two towels per person and black soap that was required of us. I had never been to a Turkish bath and really had no idea what it would entail. We walked in and had our own changing closet, then followed a shower, a sauna, a steam room, and a public path area from a fountain where we covered ourselves in the black soap. The best part, however, was that we got to JUMP NAKED IN THE LAKE. Yes, it is true. Lake Geneva is the largest lake in Western Europe, and as you can imagine, incredibly cold this time of year. Let’s just say that the hot sauna was put to good use after an icy plunge in its water. Afterwards Silvana and I went to Chinatown (again in the red light district) and had some miso soup and seaweed salad.

The following day I went to Elsa’s village in the Swiss countryside. It.was.amazing. Seriously. Beautiful vineyards, rolling green hills and little villages dotting the countryside made of brick and red roofs.  Elsa’s village was the most adorable of them all and her family lived in a renovated barn house made of old wood.  Within a few moments of being there I was already eating caviar with a shell spoon and the evening followed with cheese plates, bedtime stories and red wine. The next day Elsa and I took a train to Lausanne and toured the adorable city, with yet another view of the lake we had bathed in the nude the night before and the Alps fringing the distance edge. We waked up to an old church on a hill and drank from fountains as any good Swiss should.

By the end of my time in Switzerland I could not be happier. And most certainly not any more grateful. Seeing these two friends, not to mention having them in the same room, was something I will never forget.

London- Rain and Pretension and Friends

After saying goodbye to Elsa and the beautiful Swiss countryside, I boarded a plane back to familiar turf. Part of my mission in this trip was to look at graduate schools and talk with professors. Oxford and Cambridge were two of these possibilities. After a night in a massive mansion converted into a youth hostel on the 7th floor and 28th bed crammed into an attic, I made my way to Oxford...

Oxford is a beautiful city, with some magnificent and very, very old building around every corner. It was, unfortunately, also (as one might anticipate) rather closed off. Even trying to get to the department I was supposed to go to you needed 3 keys at three different places. It was incredible. After a few hours of browsing the city I decided, although beautiful, not the place for me. So I bought a book my Tolsoy and read in a park for the remainder of my time.

The next day I went to Cambridge, which was almost exactly the same as my Oxford experience, with the exception that it had a meditation sitting group I went to in the evening and a fantastic department of Anthropology. Although not smitten, I liked the department and professors.

The next day I made my way back to London, took a long run in Hyde park and read some Virginia Woolf on a bench overlooking a lake. Afterwards I met my friend Anne at the National Gallery for some artwork browsing and then on to an old British pub. Anne was nice enough to invite me to her house for dinner for Mexican food,  a little reminder of home. Anne and her lovely roommate Andy made fajitas and salsa and I made some homemade tortillas. It was so nice after my educational pursuits the previous few days, to see some friendly faces and was proceeded to drink, be merry and dance to dubstep into the evening.  A good night indeed!

For my last day in London I met a very nice girl from China and went to the National Portrait Gallery, which turned out to be one of my favorite museums of all time! It was incredible! We spent most of our time in the exhibit of Queen Elizabeth and her tumultuous social relations all depicted in pictures. It was fun to decode the paintings as “Oh! That was King Henry’s first wife!” and “She is the one who killed her!” It was a great time. Afterwards I went to Westminister Abbey and took a stroll past Buckingham Palace just in time for the changing of the guards.

That evening was an evening I was looking forward to the entire trip: a reunion with three of my best friends from Brighton— Matteo from Italy, Henrique from Portugal and Naiara from Spain. Being the genius I am, however, I told everyone to meet at the Pret A Manger coffee shop I had been at the day before at Victoria Station. Little did I know there was not just one Pret A Manger around Victoria Station…but FIVE. After a little bit of fate and good fortune (not to mention a terrorist scare at the railway station) all of us were able to meet up. It was wonderful to see everyone and see how we have all changed since 3 years ago. Reunion is a blessing.

Copenhagen- Operas, Ballets and Plays OH MY!

Copenhagen was the only place on this trip aside from my stopover in Iceland that I didn’t know anyone or had never been before. So I truly had no idea what to expect. Luckily, not only is Copenhagen beautiful, I fell in love with Danish culture! One of the best parts of Denmark is the concept of “Hygge,” which doesn’t have a direct translation into English but is closest to the word “coziness.” The Danes love cozy things, little tea shops, comfy chairs, warm fireplaces. YES! I spent a lot of my time with an espresso in one hand and a book in another in places that resembled a great grandmother’s living room.

When I arrived in Copenhagen and was buying a metro pass to my hostel a guy approached me asking “Um, excuse me, are you going to the city?” Yes, I replied somewhat defensively (as any seasoned lady lone traveler learns). But it turned out that he was on his way to the airport and had bought a one month metro, bus and water taxi pass for all of Copenhagen and it had one week left on it and he wanted to give it to me. I couldn’t be more grateful, considering travel, eating, breathing and basically existing in Denmark is an incredibly expensive feat. So the rest of my time I was able to travel to sights I otherwise had not been able to afford, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with a self-portrait exhibition of Frida Kahlo and an ocean side sculpture garden, as well as the castle Hamlet was written about and forests that were the source of many a fairy tale.  Rather than drinking or eating (I had downsized my diet to cheese, bread and gummy vitamins to save money) in the evenings I found out that the Danish Royal Theaters had very cheap tickets for people who were willing to stand. The first night I went to the Opera Madam Butterfly, the next to the ballet, and then to a Danish drama the final night—in buildings around the city that looked nothing short of layered birthday cakes.

My last few days in Copenhagen were spent at the many Christmas markets drinking mulled wine and admiring the waterways and pastel colored buildings. The morning before I left I decided to go for a run and turned the corner from my hostel to, alas, a giant castle in the middle of a city with a moat! Which I proceeded to run around. Yes, life is good.


And now I am home.
Happily back in the beauty of the Southwest. Although Europe is great and the friends I saw and memories we had were priceless, I cannot express how happy I am to be back where pine trees grow freely and the mountains are always nearby. I think that this trip was really important for me in this upcoming decision of where I will spend the next 5 years or so of study. Although the name of Oxford or Cambridge would be helpful, happiness is more important (waaaaay more important). After so much time spent trying to find happiness in far away homes, I’ve now come to the realization that home is truly where the heart is, and my heart is without a doubt in the natural landscape of the West.

I cannot say I am never going to travel again, but let’s just say that I have no upcoming plans to leave the US anytime soon. Truly. In January I will be going to Oregon to start that “3-month retreat” after all at a Zen monastery outside of Portalnd. And although Oregon is still a new place for me, it is within a culture and geographic area that I am familiar with. Rather than exotic locations and adventure, I am increasingly interested in community, relationship, and a sense of place. In some ways I feel like this is the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
It is no longer a matter of finding a place to call home, just a matter of building it.   

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In-Sight Project

Hello hello all!
I write this in haste as I am busily packing up my bags and all earthly things to head to the hills for a month of meditation. After that, I will be given several lectures here and there for 4 days and THEN I COME HOME! Overjoyed and incredibly sad are both major themes in my life at the moment. I'll have to write a longer blog later to update you about the craziness that has been the last month. But the purpose of this blog is to introduce to you The in-Sight Project, a contemplative photography project I've been working on to balance out the equation of all that is too scientific. The website will eventually have another page where the hand painted glass pieces will be displayed (which are all currently occupying the floor space of my entire living room in varying stages of completion). Once those are finished I will be sure to post them as well. But for the time being, here is a little blurb about the project's intent, history, and background, and most beautifully of all, the photographs 15 wonderful Buddhist monks, nuns and meditators took over their week long contemplation over the question "How do you see compassion?" I have never designed a website before, let alone am even remotely technologically savvy, so I am pretty proud that this thing even exists. PLEASE send me feedback and also, joint he interactive part of the site under SHARE.
Love to all, and chances are the next time I will write will be from American soil....


Click on the link below to see the site:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

p.s. A Dream

In light of my last post I'd like to share a dream a friend of mine, a long time meditator and Buddhist

scholar, had about my research project and science's current approach towards meditation. She was

kind enough to let me share it with you all here:

“On a beautifully set table sits a lovely, creamy cheese pie with fresh spinach and leeks in a flaky crust. The pie was made with wholesome available ingredients and baked with great care. It is as yet uncut. Some crumbs are scattered on the floor under the table. Some hungry ants have found the crumbs and are taking great pains to carry them back to their ant community. A kid with a magnifying glass sees the ants and studies them. He scoops up some ants with their crumbs and puts them in an ant farm. From what he observes, he draws a number of conclusions which he reports on at school. He describes the crumbs; he never gets to see, let alone believe in, the pie on the table. The captive ants know nothing about his research. The kid gets his degree with honors, writes some books, and makes popular talks.“

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Admit That the Waters Around You Have Grown

It has been a long time since the last post and it feels even longer with how much has been sandwiched in between (including but not limited to 2,000 old temples with my Dad and June, blue whale watching on the equator, my passport getting eaten by a feral dog, being visited by two lovely Belgium friends, joining a class on Yogachara Buddhism and Phenomenology taught by a Korean Buddshist, as well as deciding to change everything about my project, passion, and future goals. Sigh—the last one is a biggie).

I am writing after having just returned from the South Central Asia Fulbright Conference in Cochin India. It is always nice to plant feet back in the subcontinent, to see how it’s changed, remained the same, and experience its unique cacophony of smells, sounds and faces so akin with India’s “one in the world” personality. Fulbright, being the government funded program that it is, put all of us up in one of India’s finest hostels called “Le Meridian,” where we had two room bedrooms, all you can eat 5 star buffets, a three tier swimming pool, and a good dose of pomp and wine to act out the conference for the 3 days we where there. This, being my first conference of such nature, was a learning experience in it of itself about how these kinds of things work—the networking, the presenting, the conversations and friendships that can be established. I see why academics alike pay exorbitant amounts of money to join such endeavors. So that was all good a merry. But the real treat was being able to see my host sister, Aadithaya, who after 7 years flew all the way from Chennai for the one day she had off from the most prestigious Indian academic institution, IIT, to see silly old me. I felt very blessed to have had that time with her, catching up, reliving old memories, and realizing how much both of us have grown. Wow. Time is a tricky little beast.

At the conference I also presented my research, which was a very exciting opportunity (and one that I was quite vocally “frightened of doing”). In the face of some of the most worldly and brilliant people I was worried that I may not be able to keep up, being a novice undergraduate with a penchant for getting myself in over my head. I am not saying that didn’t happen, BUT I am very happy that I did present and once I got over the shyness, the many conversations that ensued were of immeasurable value to me.

Almost everyone at the conference was a scientist and an artist, a researcher and writer. Honestly, it was nice to be around such an eclectic bunch because it made me feel a little more sane (something that I have been questioning recently as the things I am reading and experiencing are frequently debunking the most basic truths that I’ve come to know). My talk was called “The Influence of Metta Bhavana on Interpersonal Perception: A Cognitive Analysis” by title, but was something rather different in practice. Being in Sri Lanka has been the first real opportunity for me to conduct a scientific study on what I have for so long been interested in doing. Interestingly, through this practice I’ve realized that although intellectually satisfying in many ways…it may not actually be what I want to do (gotta love the irony). There are so many reasons for this, all of which have been germinating for a long time now and are still quite fragile, so I’d rather not detail them all here in defense of this decision considering they might still change, revert, or solidify. But for now, I honestly am not sure anymore if science is the right track or method for me to examine what it is I am curious about: the mind. Science provides one lens (quite literally at times) to examine phenomena on a certain level in a certain magnitude. I am not sure if my interests can be contained in such a myopic way.

For those of you who don’t know alongside my original cognitive neuroscience work, I’ve been toiling with a contemplative photography project to get at experience and transformation of view from a different angle. Over one week I’ve been asking Buddhist monks, nuns and mediators to photograph what they see as being compassion with a disposable camera as a reflection of their lived, direct experience with this idea. Afterwards their top five favorite will be mounted on glass alongside a portrait of the photographer, definitions of the photographs, and displayed with a hand painted version of Ramon y Cajal’s original pyramidal neuron drawings using a traditional Theravadan ink technique. All of this will be displayed here and back home as a traveling collaborative art exhibit about perceptions of compassion in an attempt to blur 1st and 3rd person experience and challenge our current methods for measuring and communicating subjectivity. Part of fostering compassion is walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or in this case, seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.

It is this kind of work I foresee myself doing in the future, not hooking monks up to EEGs and chugging their response time data through statistical analyses and spreadsheets. Perhaps it is the climate of Sri Lanka that has gotten me thinking like this, but all of that feel far too stifling.

AND alas, the whole world changes. My mind has wandered to the ideas of taking some more time off of school and learning more experientially about meditation in a Korean nunnery and how cultivated introspection may be a better way to approach all of this. I’ve also played with the idea about changing my career path entirely and taking off the white coat to play with paint and words by joining an MFA program where I could talk about contemplative science through a more vivid medium. I am not sure where the winds will blow. All she knows is the next few months will be of great interest and even greater impact. A time of true transit and transition. But I can tell you one thing: I’ve not felt this alive for a long, long time.

And for that I am thankful.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


This blog entry is not going to be all that hunky dory of a topic, but it is something that has been germinating in my mind for a long time now and I think is an important one. Plus, what is life without a bit of balance right?

I’d like to start out by saying (disclaimer tone) that Sri Lanka is an incredible country, there is no doubts about that. Its scenic overload, fresh coconut curries, and, for the most part, incredibly welcoming people are unparalleled by most other places I’ve been to. This little teardrop island packs a lot of punch in the regard of awesomeness. It is also generally a safe place (Mom, this point if for you). It is a communal society where people are invested in the lives of their neighbors, friends and families and once you are included in one of those groups, people will break their backs to make sure you are fed, clean and happy. Often I find myself overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of people I just met.

At this point one might wonder “well then, Kelly dear, if Sri Lanka is so darn dandy and all, would you ever consider living there?” The answer to that question is yes, EXCEPT (and the emphasis is huge here) for the way men have been taught it is appropriate to treat women. Usually I would go on to make another disclaimer that “well, not all men, that kind of blanket statement is unfair” but to be honest, it is far more of a culturally ingrained mentality than that, so deeply part of the way things function in Sri Lankan society that it even seems to transcend the most decent and ethical of chap. To put it pointedly: sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is unreal. Absolutely unreal. And yes, yes, out of all of my travels to and fro across this globe, I do understand that countries have different gender roles and the relationship between men and women are not going to be the same as what I am used to. But honestly, out of every country that I’ve been to, Sri Lanka is hands down the worst when it comes to rampant sexual harassment of women, both local and (perhaps especially) foreign. I’d even go as far to say that it is worse than India and Ghana (the two other places that this has been a problem) COMBINED. Yeah…for those of you who know or have experienced what it is like there, that is not a small number.

Let me begin by some specifics (and blame it on the science, but I relish these kind of data collection opportunities). The past two days I’ve keep track of the number of cat calls, sexually suggestive comments, hand gestures, and exposure to gentlemanly private parts (yes, oh yes) that I get between my house and the local super market 30 minutes away. I feel like it is important to note that the road that I take is a back road in a residential and generally well to do neighborhood. I have grouped the comments to their most relevant category.

Very forward “Hi”/ “Hello”: 11

“Nice”/ “Nice______”: 6

“Hey, Sexy”/ “Sexy!”: 5

“Come!” “Come here!”: 5

Baby, where you going”/ “Hey baby”: 3

“Sweetheart”: 2

Male genitals: 1

This is one hour of walking over a two-day span of time in a relatively secluded area. This does not include figures from riding buses (groper’s paradise), going on trishaws (a constant battle to defend why I do not want to marry you), and walking to the university (where I have been flashed countless times). A week or so back my friend was stuffed into a public bus and where the bus conductor proceeded to run his boner along their bodies as he collected the bus fare from passengers. Although I am incredibly fortunate to not have been touched by anyone (which would result in their imminent death), the point I am trying to make is that this is not an uncommon thing. The verbal abuse especially.

I think that there are several reasons for this. The first is historical. Sri Lanka in many ways is a very modernized society, but it is also a state in transition, especially after the civil war. One residual aspect of a more traditional worldview is an emphasis on male dominance. That combined with having one of the world’s highest rates of alcohol abuse explains why Sri Lanka also has one of the highest numbers of domestic abuse cases in the world. Being a foreigner only adds to this problem for two reasons: 1. I am fleeting. Most assume that I have no family connections here and their actions will not be reprimanded by the collectivist society. Sri Lanka is a small island, everyone knows everyone, which is why being an outsider to this system makes the think they can get away with a lot more, and 2. Pornography. This point came as an “Oh my God! Why did I not think about that” moment when a fellow Sri Lankan male friend of mine and I were talking about this issue. Despite pornography being a federal offence, most men’s only interaction with a white woman is through the porn’s sites on the internet. Alongside the exported American media they see, which, let’s be honest folks, is basically pornography , their primary interpretation of white women is that we are ready, willing and non-discriminating with our sexual desires. This has very real repercussions. For a long time I did not understand why they were so obsessed with us foreign ladies, but it is because more often than not me walking down the street to go to the supermarket is not just me going to the supermarket, it is me caked in their fantasy and expectations of who white women are that results in the transmutation of me into not just Kelly-on-a-stroll, but a Sex-Goddess-From-Outer-Space-Here-To-Please-You. Strong words? yes. Slightly exaggerated? sadly only slightly.

So what does one do about it?

I’ve oscillated from getting violently upset and yelling back at them, to looking at my feet and passively walking by (like most Sri Lankan women do), to learning Sinhala phrases to rudely snap back, to not going outside at all. But what I’ve learned (aside from the fact I am really bad at sitting still or being passive) is that any kind of attention only feeds it. So, after a lot of thinking about the issue, I’ve been working with what I set out to Sri Lanka to accomplish: a study on compassion. In Buddhism there is a phrase “May you be well, may you be happy.” It is a part of a meditation called metta, loving kindness. And although there are some things that are intolerable and would warrant other action (when verbal harassment turns physical for example), this method has had beautiful resultsRather than getting upset or walking shamefully by, I look them in the eye and say (either to myself or out loud) “May you be well, and may you be happy.” I've started to look at these guys as husbands, grandfathers, brothers and Dads, not just ugly, awful human beings. And what I have seen as a product of this is incredible! . I’ve realized that these guys have actually been the best teachers of compassion and loving kindness I’ve encountered in Sri Lanka. My walk to the store, my bus rides, my trishaw conversations have become a practice, an embodiment and opportunity for compassion. And that means, in turn, each time they call out at me they give me a gift, and for that I am grateful to them. It is circular. The more they enable me to practice, the more I am grateful to them, the more loving kindness I have to give. Interconnectivity at its best. The other benefit of this method is the changes I have seen in the way this physically manifests. When I see a large group of preteen boys ahead, as I walk towards them I send them kindness and keep telling myself may they be well and happy, and by the time I reach their group the anticipated chorus of rude remarks that I have grown so accustomed to there is only a mild trickle of one gutsy boy in the back, the rest just stare blankly as I walked by. Its not full proof by any means. But the point is I have seen a difference. I don’t know if it is because I am viewing things differently or I am giving off some kind of funky pheromones. Regardless, I’ve learned that although I cannot change a culture, I can change the way that I interact with it. There is a lot of power in that.

I suppose the other moral of the story is that you find what you are looking for in the most unexpected places. I came to Sri Lanka to find compassion in Theravada Buddhist monks and have found it in the cat calling men on the streets. How beautifully ironic is that?

So much to be learned from the mundane.

May you be well and happy :)



Monday, January 2, 2012

Another Year Has Come and Gone

Watching the sunset on the 2nd day of the New Year. ‘Tis the season for reflection falalalalala. Looking back on 2011 I can be nothing but grateful. I have graduated college, worked incredibly hard on the GRE, applying to graduate school and research, made new friendships, fostered the old ones, won a Fulbright, traveled to Japan, India and Sri Lanka, had the blessing of participating in my mom’s lovely wedding, and, most of all, encountered so much, both difficult and beautiful, that has deepened my understanding what it means to be a good human being. My resolution for this next year: take that learning and implement it. There are others (15 to be exact) saved in a Word document of trivial things I want to accomplish this coming 365 days, but to be honest, if I can accomplish this goal in even the slightest form I am a happy lady. Putting what I believe in into practice. Enough philosophy for this lass, give me some sweet, sweet praxis!

In terms of an update: the few weeks have been a hodge podge of running around, Christmas parties, Buddhist monks, and travel. We just returned from Colombo where I rang in the New Year with my toes in the Indian ocean surrounded by a group of individuals who have been nothing short of inspiration since coming to Sri Lanka. Last year I spent New Years Eve alone, fasting, and meditating. This year I spent it surrounded by people who I have grown so much appreciation for. I think if anything is indicative of a shift in worldview over this past year this might be it. As nice as introspection and retreating might be, I’ve learned, at least from my tiny perspective, the meaning of life is connectivity with others. Therefore, I happily thank the circumstances that have allowed me to be where I am.

For Christmas a few of the other Fulbrighters, two of our Sri Lankan friends and Mike, a fellow American now residing in Kandy proper, all came together for what we called “An Ugly Moo Moo Party.” Similar to the uniquely American obsession with “Ugly Sweater Parties,” we decided to host a Sri Lankan flavored get together by encouraging the proud display of ugly housedress attire. My poor fashion sense, potentially shamefully so, was the source of inspiration for this idea, ever since my purchase of a certain orange moo moo the first week in Sri Lanka. Decorated with square snowflakes (because we forgot how to cut them), fake tinsel, and a branch (yes, just a branch, i.e. fragment) of a pine tree our landlords elusively found for us and left on our doorstep, and two dirty ankle socks we colored red with our names on it for stockings—the party was a hit. I made mulled wine and sweet potatoes and Bryanna made her infamous pumpkin pie.

Before Christmas we (Mike, Bryanna, Malia, Kelly and myself) partook on the revered climb to the top of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). Sri Pada is a cone shaped mountain in central Sri Lanka, famous for being the location of religious relics for Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. To complete the hike before sunrise we set off around 1:00 in the morning, following a lit path of over 5,200 stairs, dotted with temples and avid devotees along the way. Despite the rain and frigid winds we saw everything from flocks of bare footed monks, grandmothers being carried up by their sons, a man with a catheter, and Buddhist with white strings they tied at the bottom of the mountain and strung all the way to the top of the 7,000 foot peak. When we arrived to the top we waited for the sun to rise, the winds to pick up and listened to the chanting from a puja inside the temple where Lord Buddha’s left footprint is said to reside (the right footprint is somewhere in Thailand. Yes, the physics of this is baffling to me as well). Not only was the journey epic in it of itself, but I was so very nourished by being surrounded by mountains. Roasting marshmallows in the fireplace of the hotel to make Sri Lanka style smores was also a crowning moment of the trip (shockingly, it was THAT cold).

Today I went to a Dana, direct meaning: generosity, at my friend’s Ken and Vishaka’s house for several monks passing through. Since monks are not supposed to deal with money a Dana is equally a giving of kindness to them through the donation of food, as well as a social occasion for swapping the dhamma. I was able to meet an American monk, now living near Colombo at a temple, who was very interested in my project and a former counselor and social worker himself. He told me about a meditation center in Colombo geared towards lay meditators that might be a good place for my research. One of the major roadblocks I am facing here is actually finding people who meditate! You’d be surprised how incredibly rare intent practice is being a Buddhist country. I keep joking that I came to Sri Lanka to find out that I would have an easier time finding participants in the USA. I am meeting with him and one of our mutual friends for lunch tomorrow to discuss this prospect. Regardless, mere exposure to so many interesting concepts and people is such an opportunity. I feel like my understanding of Buddhism, as both a religion and a method, has developed so much since being here. And although not much has transpired in terms of quantitative data collection, I am positive my ability to be a sensitive researcher in this field in the future is going to benefit greatly form all of these experiences. Learning, learning, learning.

This next month I plan on tuning my research design and finding proper places for testing, as well as welcoming my Dad and his wife June to Sri Lankan soil for two weeks (YAY!). There is so much to look forward to. And although this next year has so many scary unknowns in front of me ( i.e. not even knowing in what part of the continental US I will be living in) I am excited to see what happens. Sometimes there is great grace in letting go and seeing what presents itself. So with that I let off a big sigh and smile at the coming days.

I hope this year brings happiness to you all.

Great love from Sri Lanka.