I am at Moratuwa University for the third year in a row. Last October, when I participated in the second annual student workshop connected to the International Conference of People, Places, and Cities, I had the sad feeling that it would be my last visit to Sri Lanka. Two proposals in two years had been rejected by the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies (AISLS) and my first stab at the Fulbright had also received a thumbs down. I had another application to the Fulbright in the hopper but my hopes were not high.
So here I am in the courtyard of the School of Architecture in the moments before the student workshop is set to begin. The familiar setting, the humid, muddy courtyard, the eager and dutiful students piling in to the conference room where only last night I participated in crits with the advanced masters students. The moments of calm before the flurry of activity, presentations, and discussions that will characterize the day's progression.
What a great feeling to be here. I was picked up two hours early by my posse, the third year masters students who I spent the weekend with in Galle. The excitement, the activity, the unmistakeable feeling of "arrival" in a setting I had hoped for, I don't really know why, since my first visit here in 2013.
Cultural landscape ecology, the interdisciplinary, somewhat intangible focus of my work here, is real. And every day I find out more about it in ever-unexpected dimensions. The soil scientist, a tried and true researcher who banks on the empirical, who tells me frankly that the ancient irrigation tanks were built by giants inspired by sutras. The journalist and urban planner who reports on cosmic forces that influence human behavior. The agronomist who swears that using different building materials changes the energy and fate of a space. These are real. As real as any "scientific" study of my topic. Real because they embody, or at least provide examples of the "culture" in "cultural landscape ecology."
So where am I in this process? Where am I heading? How to make sense of these and a million other interactions that spring from a collective human heart I have not read before?
To say that I'm pleased with how things have gone is a gross underestimate of my feelings. My frustration with no language skills is natural and I think positive, indicating to me the wish to reach out and understand more. Trying to put this all in a pedagogical or research context I can understand is hard. As hard as it is for Janet to wrap her head around the gross misuse of western medicines in a poor country with supposedly well-trained physicians and an Ayurvedic heritage all its own.
So buildings stand and traffic roars and the ocean pounds the shore and money changes hands. But all these "realities" come to nothing in the broader vision of a place and its people who remain as mysteries to me one month in.