This is what I tell myself daily or weekly, whenever I am doing something incredible or even mundane. I should be writing down what flowers that are in bloom, the sounds of the birds, how I feel, and what I am thinking.
I should be writing down what is happening in the world around me. Right now, the world is at a standstill because of coronavirus. And I should be writing about what it has been like here in Sri Lanka.
When I started writing this, Sri Lanka had 136 active cases out of a total of 180. Six people had died. (Now, a few days later, I’ve returned to this post with different numbers: 165, 233, 7.)
The kids have already been out of school and I have been teleworking for more than a month. Sri Lanka’s nationwide curfew began on 20 March and I have barely been out of the house since then. Today is April 15th.
I have been tracking the coronavirus situation in Italy obsessively since the end of February. So I felt okay, even relieved, when Sri Lanka began shutting down. Most cases were coming from people traveling here, either Sri Lankans returning home from Europe and the Middle East or Europeans trying to “outrun” the virus. After watching what was happening in Italy, I knew it was the right decision for this country to quarantine for a while.
Like everywhere else, it has been a challenge here. We are under a curfew so our lockdown situation is quite different than the ones I am reading about in the U.S. and Italy.
No one is allowed on the streets unless for essential reasons, like delivery of groceries, street cleanup, trash collection, etc. I can walk my dog down the street but I can’t go to the park or go hiking. We can’t go to the grocery store or order take-out food but we can order groceries and a few restaurant foods. Taco Bell, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut are delivering in some areas; Uber Eats and local delivery service PickMe are operating but not serving all areas.
Anyone who wants a curfew pass must present themselves at a police station and apply. We have been lucky because we are diplomats and have freedom of movement by virtue of our status. But we are complying with the ordinance, staying at home, and generously tipping delivery drivers and trash men.
We have also been fortunate to be a part of the embassy community, as everyone is coming together to discuss supplies — who delivers what, for example — and plan virtual activities like trivia nights and talent shows. Any time vegetable and egg trucks pass through neighborhoods, a buzz starts up on the WhatsApp group. It reminds me of years ago (2011?) when food trucks used Twitter to announce their whereabouts.
This curfew will overlap with the one-year anniversary of the Sri Lanka Easter bombings on 21 April. That’s another thing I should have written about when it was happening. But it was just so depressing and destabilizing. We were at church on that Sunday, albeit one that went untargeted. And we were ordered to evacuate a little over a week later. So there was little time for me to process what was happening and what to write while packing suitcases for an undetermined amount of time.
So, the curfew in Sri Lanka has been helpful in several ways. Sri Lanka has a population the size of the state of Florida but so far has seven deaths compared to Florida’s 571. Of course, there are many factors that differentiate these two spits of land. But I can’t help but think that Florida’s numbers would be lower if they had been able to enact a stricter stay-at-home order like the one we have here. I’m also thankful that the curfew will take place during the anniversary of the attacks so no one feels obligated to pack the churches in a fearless act of defiance.
I have grown weary of being at home and of waking up confused to what day it is. I doubt that I will come out of this having written the great coronavirus novel. But I am glad that I am finally taking the time to write this.
Now, I hope to start filling this blog full of travel photos — as was my original mission! And, if you have read this far, you can help me. What should I write about next?
About a month before we left for Sydney, we started hearing about the bush fires in Australia.
“Hopefully they will be gone before we get there,” we thought. But as Christmas approached, the bush fires only intensified. My weather app showed temperatures of 100+ degrees (F) for the first day of our trip then highs in the 70s for the rest of the time.
We looked at fire maps, which showed red, orange, and yellow flames dotted all around the country. The flames were particularly concentrated along the east and south coasts including in New South Wales, Sydney’s state. Would the whole city be on fire?
On Christmas Day, a day before our departure, Australia tourism released a new ad featuring Kylie Minogue and other famous Australians. The ad was directed towards Brexit-weary British visitors, telling them to “ignore the news” and “come and fix what ails ya in Australia.”
“Huh, I guess things are fine down there,” I thought.
Day 1: Arrival, December 27, 2019
We arrive early in the morning to our apartment in Woollahra. We unpack, freshen up, and take a walk in the neighborhood. The weather is breezy and mild, refreshing after having been in hot, humid Sri Lanka. We settle at a cafe, have flat whites and avo toast (as one does). Locals are reading the news and drinking coffee while their dogs sit patiently at their feet. All the dogs are recognizable breeds; there isn’t a mutt among them.
We notice a few Italian restaurants in our temporary neighborhood. They are closed for the holidays, at least until January 6. The vacation signs remind me of Rome during the summer.
Time for a walk. Edgecliff to Rushcutters Bay. There are sunbathers out on the grass near the boat landings. We climb some steep stairs up to Potts Point and walk those empty streets until finding a bookstore. I’m happy to linger here in the air conditioning for a while, despite the jet lag. But we limit our stay to about 10 minutes in order to avoid buying books that we will have to tote around for the rest of our walk.
More walking, downhill this time. We reach the docks where the military boats are parked. Further along the wharf is Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, a historic kiosk in Woolloomooloo known for its savory pies. A little sustenance to keep us going. Sydney is a lot bigger than we thought.
We followed a pedestrian overpass and reached a parched hill, grass the color of hay. Until now, there had been no obvious signs of the fires. Skies were blue, the sun was hot, and everyone seemed to be happy and on holiday. Then we saw a giant sculpture of two matches, one unused and one singed and black. Brett Whiteley’s “Almost Once” dual, 8-meter-tall matchsticks have stood outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1991 and are a popular landmark. An art blog says the work “prompts meditations on life and death, burning out, and the cost of living life to the full.” But I just think of it as an ominous foreshadowing.
We walk some more and reach the Sydney Opera House. There it is — the symbol of Sydney. We snap some family photos. Enough sightseeing for Day 1.
I wake up early because of jet lag. The air is cool enough that I need a sweater. I take a walk down to the news agent, buy some croissants, and return to the apartment.
I turn on the radio in the kitchen and it’s set to 2ser. While I read about the bravery of the “firies” fighting the bush fires, two radio voices discuss what’s trending on twitter. Everyone is upset with the Kylie ad. “Imagine if the UK tourism board made an ad to tell us to forget that our country is on fire,” a woman half-jokes.
Everyone sleeps in a little late today, so we decide to take an Uber to Taronga Zoo. Anthony talks to the driver about the economy, the dry weather, real estate, and where to go to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. “The chimpanzees at the zoo have the best view in the whole city.”
It’s weird going to a zoo to see the animals that are indigenous to the land surrounding it. On the other hand, they seem safe here. I haven’t yet seen any horrifying images of burned kangaroos or cattle out in the fire areas. But I know they could be in danger.
We get dropped off at the top of zoo and work our way down. Taronga is located on a steep hill that is terraced with animal exhibits the whole way down. Koalas, kangaroos — we want to see the Australian animals more than any of the others. The wombats and Tasmanian devils are fast asleep at the height of the day, typical for their species. The platypuses (not platypi) are in a very dark enclosure, we can barely make out their weird shape as they swim in tanks. Lizards and bush chickens roam the grounds freely, and cucuburras swoop around the cafe areas trying to steal people’s lunches. At the gift shop later, Leo picks out an echidna to add to his stuffed animal collection.
At the bottom of the zoo, we wait for the ferry to Circular Quay. People are out on their boats, blasting music, laughing, jumping onto wobbly rafts. It’s hot and I want to jump into the water with them. I wonder if all of these people on yachts are Sydneysiders or are tourists chartering cruises for the afternoon. Either way, I envy them.
The ferry has incredible views of the Opera House. After we arrive at Circular Quay, we take a walk to The Rocks, one of the oldest neighborhoods of colonial Sydney. It’s Saturday and there’s an arts and crafts market in the shadow of the Harbor Bridge. The docked cruise ship is taller than the restored dockside tenements and surely a lot of its passengers are the reason why the bars and cafes are so crowded.
Day 3: Bondi to Bronte
Arriving at Bondi Beach, you wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere else on the planet.
Surfers with their boards walked barefoot on the sidewalks. Health food cafes were full of the toned and tanned. The beaches were crowded with families and friends enjoying the holiday break.
The beach at Bondi is wide, framed by cliffs and grassy knolls. The sand is like talcum powder, maybe even softer than the famed white sand beaches in Florida.
But the sea was rough and cold — too cold for me, anyhow. Swimmers were relegated to a small section between the flags. But most of the people in the water were in wet suits, paddling around on their surfboards waiting for wave after wave.
The sky was milky and overcast, ideal weather for a walk between the beaches of Bondi and Bronte. The Bondi to Bronte walking path is part exercise path, part scenic walking route, following the curves of the overhanging cliffs. Along the way are stops fitted with exercise equipment (pull-up bars, incline benches) and beach coves. The Bondi Icebergs Club, a nearly century old pool club with two saltwater pools carved into the cliff’s edge, is a favorite photo stop along the walk, as is Tamarama Beach. Dogs and alcohol are prohibited at the beaches, but it didn’t seem like anyone paid attention to the signs.
The following morning, I posted a photo on Instagram: ” I took photos of so many beautiful beach scenes yesterday. But I didn’t realize until I got back that the day hadn’t been overcast but choked with haze from the bushfires. There are no visible fires where I am in Sydney. And, as a tourist, it’s hard to tell that anything is amiss until you catch a headline on the paper at the newsstand or look at the day’s photos and see the very visible smog. Surreal and sad. #nofilter#climatechangeisreal“
“Why did you write ‘choked?’ Anthony asked, as if he were now working on the Sydney Tourism PR team. “We weren’t choking.”
“But you can see the lines of smoke in the air. The air was choked. The sky was choked.”
I changed the word to “cloaked.” But I still maintain it was choked. The winds had shifted just enough on the day of our visit to Bondi to give us a sense that the fires were much closer than they seemed.
Day 4: Manly
Another day, another beach, another boardwalk. Another ferry ride past the beautiful structures in Sydney Harbor.
We ate authentic Neapolitan pizza in Manly at DeVita and walked the backstreets, ducking into bookstores and vintage shops.
Day 5: New Year’s Eve
Had we not been listening to the radio (2ser) or browsing the headlines at the newsstands or chatting with our Uber drivers, we probably would have been oblivious to the controversy over Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.
In the middle of the bush fire crisis, many had called for Sydney to cancel its annual fireworks display over Sydney Harbor. Municipal, state, and federal officials held emergency meetings to discuss the event with the fire chief.
Meanwhile, in the previous days, we had seen a lot of signage about the fireworks and where to see them. There were kiosks downtown, including outside of Circular Quay, where you could pick up maps of the best viewing points, what was available there (e.g., water, toilets, alcohol for sale). The “SYD NYE” festivities were very organized, and even offered info on late night transportation and routes.
We talked to a woman at one of the kiosks who told us that gates at the opera house would open at 7am and the area would be full by 11. After that, the gates would be closed and no one else could enter. There was no way I was waiting in the heat for 15 hours to see fireworks, even Sydney’s.
I had always wanted to see the fireworks in Sydney because they are the first big ones in the world. But I also felt ambivalent about the whole situation. What if a spark flies off of the bridge and into one of the neighborhoods? I’ve also always felt sorry for the animals, the birds and the dogs, when fireworks went off. If they canceled, I wouldn’t have to make a decision. But, if they canceled, what was the point of being in Sydney on New Year’s Eve?
In the end, the government announced that the show would go on. The money had already been paid. Everyone kept their fingers crossed and hoped for the best.
We stayed in our neighborhood that night. Around 11:15, Dante and I started walking towards Darling Point, following a handful of others headed in the same direction. By 11:30, we reached a clearing in a residential neighborhood where dozens of people were gathered to watch the show.
Midnight. We were so far away we couldn’t hear anything. But the fireworks were incredible. We were in bed by 1.
Days 6-9: Neighborhoods and Coastal Walks While the World Falls Apart
The rest of our time in Sydney was spent visiting more neighborhoods. Vaucluse, Nielsen Park, and the Hermitage Foreshore Walk; Sydney Fish Market and beautiful neighborhood of Balmain. We at dinner in Chinatown — twice. We checked out vintage shops, record stores, and a taco stand in Newtown. We took more ferries to and from Circular Quay, getting more glimpses of the Opera House, the bridge, the smog that had settled over the harbor, and the dry, very dry, lawns and parks.
The fires to the south grew more intense. I kept up with the news on Twitter and Instagram via IV drip. We visited pubs and bookshops while I browsed harrowing photos of fires and evacuations in Mallacoota and Malua Bay and read scathing reports about the Australian government’s response and global apathy with regard to this and other climate emergencies.
Meanwhile, half a world away, my own country announced the killing via drone strike of an Iranian general. #WW3 was trending on twitter.
I was thankful I was on vacation, that I was obliged to ignore the news and get on with my exploration of Sydney. At the same time, I felt a knot of dread and guilt. I still have to fly back home through all of this.
A tweet summed up this feeling: ” I don’t know what’s more disturbing: this guttural, primal instinct that everything is falling apart everywhere, that the world is literally on fire…or the fact that I woke up, got dressed, left for work and am now on a very normal train on a very normal day.”
This is Rosie. Rosie is a Sri Lankan street dog that my family adopted in Colombo in September 2018. Rosie is a fairly happy dog and she has good and bad moments — just like any other dog.
It has been a challenge bringing Rosie and her street doggedness into our home. So I thought it would be worth writing about her journey (or what we know of her journey), street dogs in general, and how Sri Lankans relate to dogs.
Street Dogs Everywhere
One time, as we were driving on rural roads to Udawalawe National Park, my sons and I decided to play a game. We would name the street dogs that we saw on the side of the road with the first name that popped into our head.
Sam. Sandy, That one looks like a Chuck. Boomer. Rowdy.
It was a fun but challenging distraction as so many dogs looked like a Rocco or a Ginger. Sri Lankan street dogs mostly look the same: medium-sized to scrawny; pointy snout; long tail; short hair; colored brown, black, white, or a combo.
On the way back from Udawalawe, I decided to count the number of street dogs instead of naming them. Within 10 minutes, I had counted 40 dogs. Most were lounging by the side of the road, unbothered by nearby traffic, while the others were trotting along the shoulder, in search of food or trouble or both.
A Problem That Isn’t Considered a Problem
Sri Lanka has a street dog problem. But here it isn’t considered a problem.
Locals have told me that this is because Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and Buddhists have a live-and-let-live philosophy towards its wildlife, including semi-domesticated street dogs. I appreciate this humane approach, but it is pretty disconcerting to see so many stray dogs in an urban environment.
In Colombo, street dogs hang around Colpetty Market, occasionally walk the sidewalks of Galle Road, and scavenge through the rubble near around the big dig projects near Fort. Some dogs hang out on medians or take up residence on side streets. It seems like every neighborhood has at least one street dog mascot, if not many more, guarding the territory.
But while street dogs are considered part of the ecosystem of Sri Lanka, they are also responsible for 90% of the rabies cases in this country. In 2015, there were approximately 2.5 million dogs in Sri Lanka. The human population in Sri Lanka in 2015 was 20.97 million, which means approximately one dog for every eight people. That can’t be healthy.
Embark: Sri Lanka’s Dog Adoption Organization
Since I adopted Rosie, I have learned about several dog adoption organizations in Sri Lanka. But the most high-profile one is Embark.
Colombo entrepreneur Otara Gunewardene, famous for having established Sri Lanka’s ODEL department store, founded Embark in 2007. Embark was first conceived as a clothing store, from which some proceeds would go towards canine care, including rabies vaccines, injured street dog TLC, and funding puppy adoptions. In 2014, Gunewardene sold her interests in ODEL to concentrate on Embark.
Today, there are Embark stores throughout Colombo, including at the airport, as well in other parts of the country. Embark, the store, has evolved into a place to buy t-shirts printed with dog-friendly phrases, dog beds, dog toys, and so many other dog-related things.
Meanwhile, Embark, the organization, continues to hold monthly (sometimes weekly) adoption events. If you adopt a dog from Embark, the vaccinations, sterilizations, and follow-up shots are free at the Embark clinic.
Embark is truly an impressive model of using consumerism to fund a worthwhile cause. And I feel like the concept could be replicated worldwide.
Our Embark Experience
We adopted Rosie at one of Embark’s puppy adoption events in September 2018. These events are held at various places around Colombo, such as Good Market (near Racecourse), Caramel Pumpkin, and at suburban malls.
Puppies — and nearly all the adoption event dogs are puppies — are corralled into several fenced-in areas so potential adopters can pick them up and pet them. Rosie was the second dog I picked up — “You can’t just settle on the first dog you pick!” — and she sat calmly in my arms long enough that I knew I couldn’t put her back down. I was completely manipulated by this seemingly calm, sweet dog.
After we decided to take Rosie home, we proceeded to a table where a vet checked Rosie for ticks and gave us a pamphlet with information on vaccination and worm medication schedules. Then volunteers took a family photo of us in front of an Embark sign for use in their social campaigns.
Over the following months, Rosie’s personality came out. She ran all over the place, chewed up things she wasn’t supposed to, and did typical puppy stuff. She still has hoarding issues and doesn’t like to be disturbed while she is sleeping, perhaps traits leftover from her street days. But in general she has been a good dog — loving (when she wants to be), playful (always), and mischievous (often).
Being a Dog Owner in Sri Lanka
It is weird being a dog owner in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is both pro-dog and anti-dog at the same time. It’s maddening.
On the one hand, people are used to dogs being everywhere. On the other hand, if you are out for a walk with your dog, people sometimes cross to the other side of the road to avoid coming in contact with you.
I think this has to do with the perception that people who own dogs must have them as protection. And, it seems like a valid way of thinking when you see other dogs out for a walk: alert German shepherds, strangely aloof Labrador Retrievers, agitated Boxers. Rosie is scared of some of them and curious about other ones.
Dog walking in Sri Lanka is not an act of community camaraderie. There are no dog parks for pooches to run around in (unless, of course, you are a stray dog and have the run of the parks). I live close to a long and well-paved walking path but there are signs all around that say “no pets allowed.”
It’s also not very easy to find variety in terms of dog food or other pet supplies. This is one reason Embark has been successful. They made the market and they perpetuate that market by converting more people into dog owners.
I have learned a lot about dogs, dog behavior, and Sri Lankan attitudes towards dogs since adopting Rosie. Dog ownership is rewarding but challenging and Rosie can be such a fun dog.
Would I recommend adopting a Sri Lankan street dog to others? Yes, but with hesitation.
Dogs like Rosie come from a long line of free-ranging dogs. Dogs from South Asia, sometimes known as Sinhala Hounds or Pariah Dogs, are likely related to dingoes and have their own wild temperament. While Rosie can be sweet, she can also be aggressive and territorial, making it difficult for my special needs kid to connect with her. We work on Rosie’s hindbrain tendencies with a trainer. But it’s not easy to change such inbred habits.
I often feel guilty that I didn’t try to find and adopt a Golden Retriever, the type of laid-back dog that my son would have preferred and still prefers. He loves Rosie but is frightened by her sudden movements, be they friendly or aggro. And he longingly talks about Coco, Rosie’s Golden Retriever friend that comes over for play dates. Everybody loves Goldens and it’s easy to see why. Golden Retrievers have been bred to be kind, whereas with street dogs you don’t know what you’re going to get.
Nevertheless, I would have felt guilty had I adopted a pure bred dog when there are so many Sri Lankan street dogs in need. Rosie has become my project and — I dare say — my third kid. Raising kids is challenging but you just don’t give up on them, do you?