Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Peace Corps Assignment in Sri Lanka (Part I)

(In light of Sri Lanka's high profile these past few weeks, and the end of the 26-year-old war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, I submit this multi-part entry on my assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998).

When the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers out of Sri Lanka in 1998, I didn't want to go. That year marked the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence from England and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organized group of militants who'd fought for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country since 1983, had broadened its operations beyond the capital of Colombo to other parts of the country. The Tigers had long been known for their public relations and fundraising successes and 1998, an important symbolic year, provided the chance to grab national and international headlines once again.

As an English language instructor working with the majority Sinhalese in Kandy, I felt reasonably safe. The city had not been targeted in the past nor had the central, western and southern parts of the country, which usually were left in peace. Naturally, these were the areas where Peace Corps stationed its volunteers.

Then came February 1998. By February, I'd been in-country nine months, spoke the Sinhalese language well enough and could travel with relative ease. I was also due for a vacation. Most of the other volunteers were in distant parts of the country, so I couldn't effectively make plans with them (for lack of access to phones), and, anyway, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my time or where I wanted to go; consequently I made no effort to reach out, not even to my friend Kevin in Beliatta, to find out if anyone wanted to travel.

I ended up, unsurprisingly, in Unawatuna, a sadly unheralded beach resort of great splendor in southern Sri Lanka, not far from Galle, where I intended to do little more than read, eat, swim, wander the beach and practice my Sinhalese with the waiters for several days. Despite my rare visits here, the wait staff knew me. Any foreigner who can speak the local language is not easily forgotten. It was on my second or third morning in Unawatuna when I was sitting on the patio of the Happy Banana Restaurant and Hotel, near the Indian Ocean. A hazy heat dulled my senses--though I'd just woken up, I still felt groggy--and, gazing out at the waves, flickering fairies of bouncing sunlight seared my brain, urging me to turn away. I was slow with my eggs and coffee; my mind was a million miles away and when the waiter came by with a plate of sliced bananas, I had to ask him to repeat what he'd just said.

He said it again and this time when I asked him to repeat himself, it wasn't because I hadn't heard his words but because I wasn't sure I'd understood them correctly. With infinite patience, the waiter explained yet again that a suicide bomber had driven a truckload of explosives into the Dalada Maligawa, the world-famous Buddhist temple, in the heart of Kandy, less than two miles from my home. Nearly 20 people had been killed. I had visited the temple recently; the truck had exploded in an place I'd been less than two weeks before.

My first reaction, right there, should have been to call the Peace Corps office in Colombo, tell them I was not in Kandy and that I was all right. But a fairly emotional 25-year-old doesn't always think practically. In a somewhat confused state, I instead left Unawatuna for Galle and caught a bus back to Kandy. I had no real plan or any idea what I was doing or why I was going back. It truly was a rather stupid thing to do. Throughout the journey, I tried feeling out the locals around me--how many of them had heard the news? Did they seem quieter than usual? Did they seem shocked? It was hard to tell; the Sinhalese tend to be a stoical people by nature, and it wasn't until hours later, after I'd switched buses in Colombo and we arrived at the first sentry post on the way into the hill country that I had my first inclination that the impact of the bombing was already rippling through the country.

Sentry points are a daily reality in a war-torn nation such as Sri Lanka; I'd learned to take them in stride. In fact, my experiences only left me only with a sense of entitlement. As a foreigner who could speak Sinhalese, I was obviously not to be toyed with. The guards who had no problems jostling around the locals and irreverently probing through their belongings, treated me like royalty, offering me drinks of water, patting me good-naturedly on the back, and acting as though my comfort was a top priority for them. Well...not today, however. On the afternoon that the Kandy bomb exploded, the sentries who stopped our bus in the foothills of the hill country showed no trace of the good humor I'd become used to. They grabbed and rifled through my bag in the same perfunctory manner which with they investigated everyone else's baggage, made no effort at eye contact and showed no trace of a smile.

I made it through the checkpoint, as did everyone else. But as everyone boarded again and the bus churned up endless switchbacks into the deep green jungle, higher into the hill country and got closer to Kandy, I began to doubt, for the first time, the wisdom of my return. I had an indescribable sense of silence, of absence, of being among people whose lives were no longer there in the bus with me, or among conversation, or social interaction, or of looking through the windows or at the lone foreigner on the bus. Eyes were cast every which way; really, it made no difference. But the one consistency, I thought, was in my ability to sense deep, violent thinking on the part of my bus companions. It was obvious they knew what had happened; if they'd been simply shocked before the sentry point, the visible anger of the guards had, it seemed, given these Sinhalese citizens the permission they needed to tap into their own well of bitterness and fury at the Tamils who had attacked the most precious cultural relic in the country. It was one thing to attack banks and hotels in the capital, symbols of economic wealth, as the Tigers were wont to do. It was another thing to attack the soul of the Sinhalese identity.

During the first few hours of the trip, most people on the bus had sat quietly, unmoving, dwelling more than expressing. But I began to notice some odd twitches now, especially among the men, as though an emotional foundation for action was being laid. I didn't know what this meant. I didn't know if or how the Sinhalese had yet responded to the strike against the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. But it did seem as though I were entering a place where the breaking of a single, psychical string could potentially unleash some really dreadful events.

(Part II to come soon.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

4.4 million People Were Hired in January

Notwithstanding the Dow Jones nosedive today, the last few months have offered indications that the stock market is showing something slightly better than a flat line. The cover of this week's New Yorker even takes a somewhat Lord of the Rings-ish approach to offering glimpses of hope for future days. (Anyone who has seen that visual of a construction worker perched atop the steel-beam frame of a skyscraper and gazing thoughtfully at a fluttering butterfly nearby may recall Gandalf's visitation by an innocent-seeming moth as he's stranded at the top of Saruman's tower with nary a friend in sight.)

But unless you've been asleep for the past two years, you'll assumedly know by now that there is no one indicator of the health of the economy and while the Dow Jones may be up nearly 2,000 points since scraping rock bottom back in early March, several other "cheerful" reminders that we are no longer out of Mirkwood wax profusely. Today's disappointing retail sales report from April (indirect author of the Dow Jones plummet), escalating housing foreclosures and last week's Department of Labor report limning the more than 500,000 lost jobs in April alone vouch for our continued descent into an economic Dante's Inferno.

That's why I really appreciated a rich-media presentation by Forbes Magazine from several months ago called "How to Find a Job". It's been sitting in my e-mail inbox for some time (sent to me by I can't even remember who) but highlighting this very distinct fact: "4.4 million people were hired in January." That's according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wow. I mean, wow. Who'd've thunk it? Of course the report explains that this statistic is like the equivalent of a lone, uplifting jester prancing around a broader, gloomier and more harrowing Shakespearean tragedy of statistics riveting audiences with endless numbers of lost jobs and an increasing percentage of unemployment, leading to more competition, naturally, for every available position.

But the article does so to make a point, which is that finding a job these days requires a few key elements: 1) stop sending out massive amounts of resumes; 2) be creative; 3) network like crazy. I will not go so far as to call the 4.4 million statistic "green shoots"; aside from its trite, overused and frankly, dumb, phrasing, green shoots will not get at the heart of what unemployed folk such as myself must recognize in the coming months and, okay, I'll say it, possibly years.

In a BusinessWeek article from last week, "Jobs: What a Rebound Will Look Like", Moira Herbst suggests that temp hiring will lead the way. It makes sense. Coincidentally, a friend in New York who'd lost her job in early March just began a temp-to-hire position yesterday. That could be what the new job market will look like in the near-term future: a slow ride back up. The economy has been burned, like, really badly these past couple years and investments will crawl back only slowly. And yet, there were those 4.4 million jobs back in January, according to Forbes.

Everyone has a theory on how the employment market will shape up in the near-term. Why blog about it? Why add one more voice? Forbes and BusinessWeek are about as reputable as you can get. What I especially like about the Forbes article is its emphasis on doing more than what job seekers typically do, which is sending out resumes and which, thanks to a glowing economy over the past 20 years, has been usually sufficient to win the prize. Well, I'll tell you, this country is down on its luck right now, and if job-seekers have to step outside the box a little, stand a little taller, think a little more creatively and entrepreneurially to get back in the game, then so be it. I'd hate to think America is an outdated old spinster on its way out to pasture, and if it takes a little more octane and some extraordinary motivation on the part of employment seekers to snag one of those 4.4 million jobs then so be it. We've been lazy for far too long.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Going Green in Denver is a Dirty Business

Last weekend, I volunteered at the Green Festival in Denver, co-hosted by Green America and Global Exchange. My assignment was to oversee a recycling, composting and trash station on the trade show floor. Throughout my four-hour shift, exhibitors and attendees stopped by. In many cases, they knew where to put their waste. Other times, I had to help out. Most of the discarded products--plates, napkins and food waste--went right into the compost bin. What surprised some people was that the utensils went there, too; the food vendors were using products made of corn. Occasionally, when I was engaged in routing one person's waste to the correct bin, I didn't have time to get to someone else who ended up dropping such items in the trash bin. In those cases, my hands encased in latex gloves, I went foraging through the trash to dig it out. Not fun, but after a while, it became second nature to rummage through all the discarded items.

It wasn't always easy to figure out where discarded items belonged, though. Our volunteer leader, for example, said one particular kind of fork belonged in the trash. He snapped one in front of me, pointed out how the easy break revealed it as cheap plastic, and then threw it away. And yet, about a half hour later, he returned with a sheepish expression. He'd checked the box the forks had come in and admitted he'd made a mistake, that in fact, those forks could be composted too.

There is a lot involved in learning how to go green and, in some cases, it is a dirty job. Many items were recycled: Tetra Pak juice containers, e-waste such as batteries, and bottle caps. Aveda has a bottle-cap recycling program. After a few hours, someone came over with a giant, empty, plastic meal container. It had obviously come from outside the festival because it looked different from anything I'd seen that day. Sure enough, it had to go into the trash. After all the hours I'd spent routing different products to the recycling and composting bins, that plastic container seemed like the ugliest thing I had seen all day.

One of the most fascinating parts of the day, and which I suppose is the element of going green that people know (or care to know) the least about was when I emptied the bin bags, tied them and brought them through a side door of the well-adorned trade show floor. (The festival was in the Denver convention center). In a low-lit loading dock out back, other members of the green team were emptying waste content from the bin bags onto long, flat tables and sorting through it. The festival had partnerships with different recycling and composting vendors, and sorting through the waste materials was essential to making sure everything ended up going to the right place (in most cases, not to the local landfill). While I was on the trade floor, several people actually asked me who our partners were. I was wearing a staff t-shirt and the assumption they'd made was that I wasn't just the guy standing at the bin station but that I also knew a lot more about the business relationships in place. I wished I could have been more helpful.

Another fascinating part of the green festival was the number of devout and appreciative expressions I received, ones you would expect would be reserved for the likes of heads of state and rock stars. That greatly surprised me. I supposed I might be perceived as the grubby guy sorting through the trash, but this event had drawn loyal and very committed advocates of sustainable living. In hindsight, I suppose, the volunteers monitoring the stations were perceived as nothing less than front-line warriors of the green movement.

By the end of my shift, I had unloaded five composting bags and only one trash bag from the bins while my station partner, who was overseeing the recycling bin, had unloaded three bags. As Thomas Friedman and Auden Schendler have pointed out, the sustainability movement isn't an ethereal, magical party. It's a dirty job. Being on the front line is quite an experience.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Renewable Energy: Not Just for our Wise Elders

Last night, I attended the May meeting of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden. The topic was "Climate Change and the Role of Concentrating Solar Power" and the speaker was Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer and manager of the Thermal Systems Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and past chair of the American Solar Energy Society.

Dr. Kutscher spoke about solar energy technologies that can help us achieve sufficient base load generation for the nation's electricity needs while cutting our carbon emissions essentially to nil. His focus last night was concentrating solar power.

What struck me most about the meeting, however, was the average age of the attendee. I would say close to 100 people came to the presentation but no more than five or six were under 40. There is an incredible amount of data, statistics and insights available regarding the current course of global warming and climate change. Dr. Kutscher alluded several times to the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But successfully overcoming the challenges facing our planet will require a long-term effort and the generation of Americans that is only now entering the workforce will need to know as much as possible as soon as possible. So where were they last night?

Both Thomas Friedman in Hot, Flat and Crowded, and Auden Schendler in Getting Green Done address in no uncertain terms the variety of "feel-good" initiatiaves we have chosen to pursue as a society, while patting ourselves on the backs for doing it. Every magazine in the world, it seems, has a green issue out filled with tips and suggestions for how we can all make a personal difference in saving the planet. What bullshit! Friedman and Schendler suggest. And they are right. I wonder, though, if this low-hanging and ultimately unproductive fruit is what most of our younger professionals are drawn to.

It's no secret that engineers and technical specialists have been in short supply in this country for a long time. The work they do is decidedly unsexy, the value of entering these fields has not been sufficiently marketed, and younger generations have been increasingly drawn to other fields. Nevertheless, it is the technical professionals who will ultimately make the greatest contributions toward ending our reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.

Younger professionals who choose to pursue only feel-good efforts won't save the planet. This generation must begin working NOW to develop the technical talent and familiarity with renewable technologies needed to make a real difference, no matter how unsexy it seems.

And yet...there were virtually none of these people at Dr. Kutscher's presentation last night...and that frightens me almost as much as the stark realities of climate change and global warming.