Friday, February 27, 2015

2015 February 27-28: $5.47

The average income of a tuktuk driver after expenses here in Sri Lanka is just 700 rupees per day.

$5.47 a day.

$164 a month.

$1969 a year.

This is what I learned yesterday from our tuktuk driver in Puttalam.

Not possible, I thought. That means that to outfit our house for the five months that we are here and buy a week's worth of groceries, I spent almost two times his monthly salary. Even buying the cheapest of everything I could find - old habits die hard - I still spent 39 000 rupees...$304. This man has five children. Four of them are school age. He makes $164 a month.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Well, I thought. Perhaps this is just the life of a tuktuk driver. So, I looked up the Sri Lankan Department of Statistics.

Average monthly household income: 46 207 ($361 US)

Median monthly household income: 30 400 ($237.50)

Average monthly per capita income: 11 932 ($93.22)

Average household size: 3.9 persons

Makes you think, doesn't it?

What about these facts?

Average monthly basic food expenditure per household:
Rice, flour, bread, dhal, coconut, onions, sugar: 4592 ($36)

Average monthly non-food expenditure per household: 25 529 ($200)
Housing : 4533
Fuel and Light: 1724
Personal Care and Health: 2228
Transportation: 3607
Communication: 891
Education: 1430
Entertainment: 546
Household non-durable goods: 552
Clothing: 1342
Household durable goods: 1099
Other expenses: 6837
Liquor, drugs, tobacco: 738

Nine dollars per person for basic food staples. Fifty dollars per person for everything else.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

As a foreigner, you often hear about the so-called 'skin tax', the extra charges added to prices for everything from food to transportation to attractions for people not from Sri Lanka. You hear tourists complaining about it as you walk down the street. You read about it in just about all the tourist guide books. You are warned about this scam and that scam and where to shop so you don't get taken advantage of.

I ignore it. I pay what they ask, unless it's truly outrageous. The extra 50 rupees that they charge means nothing to me, a paltry 39 cents more for my tuktuk, but it means an extra pound of vegetables for his family.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

When we went to Muthrujawela Marsh the other day, it cost us 3000 rupees for the tuktuk - $23. We were gone for almost five hours. The driver took us the 22 km (14 miles) there, waited over two hours for our tour to be done, waited again while we ate lunch afterwards, and then brought us back to our hotel. Where have you gone recently where the taxi driver charged you less than $5 per hour? The last time I took a taxi, it cost me $4 before I even went anywhere!

On our return, the other drivers on the street were teasing him - "Oh! You finally decided to come back!" We told him they were just jealous. "I know," was his response with a slight smile. I didn't realize until today just how true that was - our trip to the marsh was more than four days pay for him.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

2015 February 24-25: Sarana and Beetroot Curry

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say. I thought I would try my hand at cooking some authentic Sri Lankan food. It turned out pretty good!

The local tuktuk driver has taken quite a liking to Steve. He thinks he is a 'good man, very very good man' because he speaks Sinhalese so well. So, when I went shopping yesterday he came into the store to help. I picked up an assortment of staples and vegetables, and when he saw me buying Sri Lankan fruit and vegetables instead of Western ones and Sri Lankan fresh herbs, he pointed to a bunch of green leaves and said, "Very good, yes, very good. You will like." So, I bought it. 

It was sarana, otherwise known as water cress, and is eaten as a green here, as I discovered on a quick google search. A favourite way to eat it is to make it into a sauce for fish. I don't eat fish, but I made the sauce anyway and served it as a side dish. Technically it should have Maldive fish paste in it, but, as in many Sri Lankan recipes that call for fish paste, I substituted soy sauce instead to make it vegetarian. Elanor cleaned the leaves and chopped the garlic.

Creamy Sarana Sauce
1 Bunch of sarana leaves, washed
50ml thick coconut milk
Pinch of turmeric powder
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tbsp chopped red onions
1 tbsp chopped garlic
10ml oil
Salt to taste
(Serves 4)

Clean the sarana and set aside. Fry the onions in oil until translucent, then add garlic, turmeric, and soy sauce. Add the sarana, cover, and cook over medium heat until the sarana starts to wilt. Add the coconut milk and stir gently until milk is boiling and leaves are cooked thoroughly. Add salt to taste.

Beets are a wondrous vegetable. You either love 'em or hate 'em. I happen to love 'em. And I LOVE the beetroot curry that is served everywhere here as a side dish. Most Sri Lankans believe that the stem and leaves are poisonous and exclude them from this dish, but others just chop 'em up and add them, too. Always a fan of beet greens, I have gone the semi-non-traditional route here.

Beetroot Curry

3 large beets peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes, with stems and leaves washed and cut into small pieces
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 sprig curry leaves, leaves picked
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp sugar
200 ml coconut milk 

Cook the onion in the oil until translucent. Add curry leaves and garlic and cook until curry leaves release their fragrance. Add remaining ingredients and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes until beets are tender.

I also reheated some leftover yellow rice I had made (just add turmeric, a few chili flakes, and some salt to your basmati rice as it cooks), by frying some green onions in oil, adding the rice, and then adding enough coconut milk to make it creamy.

And I 'fixed' my dal that I made a few days ago. It tasted okay then, just being lentils boiled until tender with red chili flakes and curry powder, but it tasted even better with the addition of coriander, mustard seeds, turmeric, curry leaves, salt and coconut milk.

And there you have it - a Sri Lankan feast! Made by my own two hands, with just a little help from Elanor.

2015 Feb 19-25: The Weekly Wednesday Wildlife Report Vol 2

We have kids who follow our blog. Once a week we will be posting the wildlife that we have seen, just for them!
A coucal

A grey heron flying by

 The neighbour's dog

And a dog catching a ride! 

A myna

A rock pigeon 

 A big yellow crab

A cat in the leaves

A heron

An egret

A boa constrictor! (and a cobra!)

A pet monkey named Michael

A tern

This crow really liked me - I could have reached out and touched him!

A baby crocodile

Several cows

A water monitor

A ghost crab

One dead fish - this is the fish mentioned in my post about crows.

We also had one of these guys try to move in to our house - I chased him out of the spare bedroom where I found him busily making a nest out of the curtains. Boy, was he mad to have his new home taken from him!

A black winged butterfly spent several hours in our house, but I didn't get a picture of it.

Two dead cockroaches - thank goodness!

Tonight we discovered that we have a new house guest - a gecko! This is good news - it means there won't be any bugs in our home!

Finally, at the beach this afternoon, we were surrounded by thousands of tiny little fish, all scurrying to get away from the dozens of beautiful white and teal jellyfish.

My birds this week:

Lesser Whistling-Duck 

Asian Openbill
Indian Cormorant 
Little Cormorant 
Oriental Darter
Yellow Bittern
Gray Heron 
Purple Heron
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Indian Pond-Heron
Striated Heron 
Eurasian Spoonbill
Brahminy Kite 
White-bellied Sea-Eagle 
White-breasted Waterhen 
Purple Swamphen 
Eurasian Moorhen
Red-wattled Lapwing 
Whiskered Tern 

Rock Pigeon
Spotted Dove 
Asian Koel
Greater Coucal 
Indian Swiftlet

Stork-billed Kingfisher 
White-throated Kingfisher 
Blue-tailed Bee-eater 
Indian Roller 
Brown-headed Barbet
Crimson-backed Flameback
Rose-ringed Parakeet
White-bellied Drongo
House Crow 
Large-billed Crow
Barn Swallow

Red-vented Bulbul
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Indian Robin 
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Common Myna 
Pale-billed Flowerpecker
Purple-rumped Sunbird
Long-billed Sunbird
Forest Wagtail

Steve and I are currently #10 on for Sri Lanka 2015, and am #76 Sri Lanka All Time with a total of 53 species.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

20015 February 21: A Murder of Crows

For as long as I can remember, I have loved crows. Ravens, too. Most people find these birds annoying, with their unmelodic and unnerving caw caw caw and their propensity for wreaking havoc with garbage. Birders and birdwatchers - yes, there is a difference, I am told - consider them 'trash birds', not worth noting in any detail on bird lists. But me? I have always been enthralled with this species' seeming enjoyment in their interactions with humans. And, like many Native American groups including the three whom I have lived among, I am fascinated by their intelligence.

Crows and ravens belong to the Corvidae family. In many cultures they bring fear and loathing to the hearts and minds of people, seen as pests by farmers and homeowners alike, a harbinger of death to be avoided and eradicated.

In 1992, there was some consternation in Kentville, Nova Scotia, near where we lived and where my daughter was born during the summer of that year, due to the desire of some residents to cut down a dead tree near the hospital. By night, this tree was a sight to behold, with its many branches weighed down by the hundreds of crows that roosted there. In the end, the tree was saved and the crows continued about their business for the time being.

By 1994, the situation changed. The crows had multiplied, and others had moved in from more rural parts of town, and by some counts, they numbered forty thousand or more. Having outgrown the tree, they took over the downtown. A novelty at first, the townspeople were soon overwhelmed by the noise and the mess and the garbage created by this huge roost, and non-lethal measures were taken to encourage the crows to go elsewhere. These worked for a time, but in the end, a few dozen crows were shot, and this, combined with the continued non-lethal methods, succeeded in ridding the town of its crows.

In 1998 I moved to Pond Inlet, an Inuit community of about one thousand two hundred people on northern Baffin Island, Nunavut. We loved watching the ravens as they hopped about, able to subsist in even the coldest weather by devising ingenious methods of finding food and shelter. Forget to tie shut the hatch on the back of your skidoo seat? Don't be surprised to find a raven or two in there in the morning, hunkered down for the night. One evening we watched as one wily creature untied the knot and climbed in anyway!

But attitudes are changing in the north as well, as human populations grow and with them, raven populations, as food sources become more abundant:

Birds' prevalence causes problems for residents

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 18, 2013

The Baltimore Ravens may have won the Superbowl, but many Mittimatalingmiut are not raven fans.
The common raven is a frequent site in Nunavut communities, but recently the birds have become too much to bear.
Concerns surfaced on the hamlet's Facebook public announcement board over local ravens preying on small birds such as ptarmigans, and the ravens' prodigious populations growing out of control thanks in part to its scavenging, omnivorous diet of food waste.
"There's more ravens here than usual that's for sure. It's causing trouble and people are not happy about them because they go through so much garbage," said Jeannie Maktar, a clerk in the hamlet office.
"Every day there are more. We see a whole bunch coming in. I don't know where they come from. They're bigger, much bigger than before. They're very active even up around -40 like it is today."
While the common raven has coexisted with humans for thousands of years, many Mittimatalingmiut now see them as pests.
The birds can live up to 21 years in the wild and are still loathed more than revered by many in Pond Inlet.
"We really need to reduce the numbers of ravens," reads the public announcement Facebook post.
"Do whatever you can to protect your garbage. That way the ravens will starve and naturally reduce their numbers."
Aside from simply securing trash, another poster suggested hanging a dead raven to ward off others. Maktar said one elderly person in the hamlet does keep a dead raven near his garbage area.
"I think it works for the other ravens not to come around. They read that as, 'Well our friend is gone now and this might happen to us,'" she said, adding that the hamlet's dogs and ravens work together to break into garbage.
"That's one thing we're noticing, that the ravens and dogs help out together, saying 'There's garbage here, open it and we'll eat it,' I suppose."
Ravens are now ahead of dogs as the most numerous animal in Pond Inlet, said Maktar, who couldn't say whether there were now more ravens than people in the hamlet of about 1,500.
While the hamlet is outside of a park, Garry Enns with Parks Canada, speaking about ravens, said Parks Canada's primary mandate is to preserve and protect nature.
"Ravens are part of that," he said.

In 2002 I went to Beijing, China, for the summer. When I wasn't teaching, I spent my time wandering around the streets of the city, sometimes walking fourteen kilometres or more as I meandered through parts of the city that most tourists rarely venture, taking in the sights and stopping at every little attraction that I came across. At one little house museum for a famous Chinese author, I was told that in fifty years, I was the first non-Chinese to take an interest in their establishment.

Many times I walked the famous side streets of Wangfujing, an area known for its alley markets, modern shopping centres, and street vendors. Come dusk, the poplar trees were home to many crows, watching over Chang' An Street, as this photo from January 2006 shows:

In 2007 I moved to Fort Resolution, a Dene and Metis community in the Northwest Territories in Canada's western Arctic.

Again, ravens abounded. I was greeted by them every morning as I walked across my street, past the neighbours' dogs, through the patch of trees and into the school yard. I don't know how many raven pictures I took that year, but there were many. I loved sitting on my back steps, watching them interact with each other, share food, talk. I loved watching them fly, swooping past, wing feathers rustling with the slightest whispers. (Should I admit that sometimes I talked back?)

The raven in this picture of the Catholic church was calling me. I ignored him. He kept calling. I ignored him. He kept calling. So I took his picture. Then he was quiet. (Some people I know refused to look at this picture after they had seen it for the first time - there are three ghosts clearly visible in the window when the picture is enlarged.)

Ravens in the Northwest Territories are often still given much respect and are said to hold much power. In 2013 they - or the Raven Spirit - were blamed for the malfunctioning that occurred at the grand opening of the Bluefish Dam Recommission!

In 2012 I found myself on my way to a teaching position in Moose Lake, Manitoba, a Swampy Cree community so far off the beaten track that it is difficult to find a map of where it is! 

(Moose Lake can be found in near the middle of the left hand side of the map.)

That year, magpies - another member of the crow family - took my attention. I clearly remember the first time I saw one. I had just crossed the Ontario - Manitoba border in my old white Jimmy, crammed full of my belongings, when a sudden blur of black and white crossed my windshield. I pulled over and watched the bird land in a tree, the two of us staring at each other for an eternity before I moved on.

And now, I find myself in Negombo, Sri Lanka. House crows, with their grey-black bodies and inky wings are everywhere. Every morning I watch small flocks head east and north, fanning out over the city. And every night I watch thousands of them fly past, heading back south for the night. Last Saturday, using survey methods I recently learned about in a statistics class I took at Penn State University, I counted over nine thousand crows fly past us on Rainbow Beach in ninety minutes. With an average of one hundred or more crows flying past each minute for more than two hours every night, I estimate that there are between twelve and fifteen thousand crows that migrate due north each morning from their roost somewhere south of Negombo, not counting the thousands that fan out all over the city!
This is the sky over Negombo for two hours or more every evening. 

While I was watching them fly past, one suddenly wheeled in the sky, and returned to land nearby. A whole small fish was on the beach, discarded by fishermen. Instead of gulping down the treat as I expected it to in order to not have it snatched away by the myriad other crows flying overhead, the crow quickly examined the fish, then sat back and began calling. It turned, and called again. It did this in every direction until finally, after several minutes, two other crows came. They greeted each other, with wing tips touching and beaks knocking together, then all three began eating the fish.

No matter where I come across this family of birds, they never fail to amaze me. Despite the many hours I have spent watching them, despite the hundreds of pictures that I have taken over the years, I still find myself being surprised by their behaviour. While I have long known that they are very social birds, and suspected that they are very caring creatures, I am often surprised by the evidence of this, as seen above and by the touching tableau which we witnessed as we ate breakfast the other morning, which can be found here.