Fulbright Exchange: Liz Doles on Cultural Insights from Sri Lanka

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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Traveling to Sri Lanka as a Fulbright Fellow

I barely knew of Sri Lanka before I applied to come here as a Fulbright Fellow. I had a lot to learn.

The Fulbright Program of the US State Department is an international exchange program, first established in 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. A year earlier, the freshman senator from Arkansas, J.William Fulbright introduced a bill for “the promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.”  Today the program works with partner nations from around the globe in mutual exchange and understanding.

With the support of the Fulbright program, I lived in Sri Lanka for a year and traveled across the island photographing the buildings and monuments of historic and spiritual significance using a pinhole camera I had fashioned from a laundry detergent box. My method of shooting, crouching, peeking, gazing and finally setting up a little box camera with a piece of black tape as a shutter, intrigued people and Sri Lankans seemed to love having their picture taken which led to me taking about 600 portraits of people, many of whom became friends.

Had I been a "regular" tourist” I would never have had time or inclination to stroll down an alley in an outlying part of Colombo, taken an overnight train to Kalpitiya, or tasted the food offered by vendors on the train. Through my Fulbright Exchange, I learned to live as a Sri Lankan lives and I came to love the rain forest, the torrential downpours of the rainy season, the mad rides in tuk-tuks through the mountains. I would not have been privileged to hear the stories of the people who opened their homes and lives to me simply because I was so happy to be amongst them.

My Experiences as a Fulbright Fellow in Sri Lanka - Through a Pin Hole Camera

Photo: Liz Doles

Sri Lanka is the brilliant pearl earring that dangles from the earlobe of India. Even here in the gritty clamor of Colombo, schoolgirls and schoolboys emerge from buses and vans emitting black fumes in white uniforms shining fresh for the moment in the morning sun. The whitewashed walls of bungalows and stupa domes shimmer. As they attend to the demands of the guests of the Galle Face Hotel in searing noon sunlight, the hotel personnel perspire in starched white uniforms that hark back to days of British colonial domination. Glittering crystalline wavelets lap the shores of the Indian Ocean and the bleached sand bakes in the afternoon’s white heat. It’s easy to imagine a gaunt Ceylonese, barefoot and bare chested, loins draped in a brilliant white sarong, striding silently on hardened dirt through the tunnel of green foliage that was called Green Path but is now the paved artery Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. Three in the afternoon and Colombo swims in a soup of dust, searing heat, neo colonial malaise, and numbing torpor. Just as ginger beer washes down the dust and a constant breeze wicks away the sweat, the jungle’s verdure makes the moisture-laden air iridescent. This island sparkles white in the liquid light of day.

Photo: Liz Doles

Artificial lighting illuminates the lawn and the party tents at Sapumal. Underbellies of the bats that usually careen unseen in the inky jungle night flash white as they glide over the heads of the partygoers. Sapumal, a small estate in Cinnamon Garden, a haven amidst the chaos and cacophony of the groaning urban sprawl that is Colombo is hosting a cocktail party/book launching this evening. A half century ago, these bungalows were the home of Harry Pieris, founding member of The 43. They now house the art collection he bequeathed. The 43, members of Colombo’s elite class, joined together to bring modernism to this little nation afloat all by itself in the Indian Ocean. There is a lovely building, art deco-ish, with the thick white walls and simplicity that is a hallmark of the best Sri Lankan aesthetic. Downstairs is a vanity gallery below and a guest house above, where I stay.

Once a month, when the full moon gleams round and white, the Buddhist temples are filled with the faithful, who circumambulate the shrines in bare feet and white cotton. Believers pray, read, recreate, sleep and meditate all day and light candles at night. These are poya days. Each poya day celebrates another aspect the Buddha’s life and his presence in Ceylon. White is the color of purity.

Travelling Solo in Sri Lanka as a Woman

Photo: Liz Doles

In Sri Lanka, where flesh is brown, white means other things, too. It is generally synonymous with “foreigner.” And foreigner is synonymous with privilege, wealth, freedom and power. That is the unspoken justification for the "white tax," that is, if you are white, you pay more for anything where price is negotiable. You pay more to enter the national shrines. You pay more to visit the national parks. You pay twenty times more than a Sri Lanka to stroll through the National Museum. An endless stream of men, arrogantly assuming you are stupid enough to believe their scams for money, sex, or sponsorship in a Western industrialized nation appear by your side as you negotiate the crowded, crumbling streets. Without turning around you can hear the trishaw drivers slow down their vehicles and sidle along the curb. Without even waiting for the “taxi, madam” you’ve heard so often you start to think that’s your name, you simply shoo them away. If you are young, female and foreign you are fair game for the sly-eyed lechery of the males that loiter everywhere, including those armed men in uniform, the ones who should be there to protect you but since you are foreign, their protections do not extend to you.

Read More: Are Authentic Cultural Experiences Why You Travel?

But no matter how infuriating or exhausting the pleas, barters and pitches are, no matter how heavy the “white man’s burden” bears down on your shoulders, no matter how disinclined you may be to shoulder all this history, just as all men benefit from rape, you are always the beneficiary of white privilege. In exchange for this “white tax,” you are ushered to the head of the line, offered whatever seat may be available while the elderly, the infirm and those about to deliver stand. You are deferred to even if you wish to be exempt from favor. To live here is to participate in a culture that has thoroughly internalized the values of its colonizers and slapped that on top of its own convoluted caste system. You cannot decline. You are white.

Photos: Liz Doles

Liz Doles does pinhole and street photography when she is not drawing or painting. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts most of the time.

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