Tough Break

Wondering where I disappeared to after my last missive from Colombo? As it turned out, I fell and broke my wrist my first evening in Anuradapura. After a rather traumatic misadventure, I'm on the mend and have quite a tale to tell. Stay tuned for a long-form article on my experience.

In the mean time, if you're in the Chicago area, please stop by the Museum of Contemporary Photography where some OLTW prints are part of the "Our Origins" exhibition, up through October 16th.

Are we there yet?


My first visit to Dubai came and went in a 12-hour blur.

A sign reading "Mr. Sussman" greeted me at the gate, and I left the glistening airport for the near-empty roadways and a nearby hotel. The night air was desert-hot, but I wasn't outside the deep chill of air conditioning long enough for it to actually sink into my skin. I found myself instinctively searching for context, and came up with Miami meets Las Vegas. To be fair, I hardly saw the city itself. Though when faced with a new environment, we always look for familiar markers to give context to experience, an inner voice that says: I understand; I know what to do here. The Arabic road signs were like math equations I did't understand. There's an inherent order, but an abject foreignness. And then we whizzed past the requisite Chili's and TGI Fridays.

This trip is distinctively different from most of my other OLTW travels: it has far more of a cultural navigation than an environmental one. Instead of researching things like GPS coordinates and radio carbon dating, I've wondered "should I be wearing a head scarf?" As I contemplated what it is like to be a woman in this culture, and whether or not I should dare swim in the hotel pool in just my skivvies (a resounding no), a ridiculously phallic "fruit basket" arrived -- two bananas jaunting upward out of an undulating crystal bowl, and apple and an orange nestled at their base. I laughed out loud and set my alarm for 4:45am.


The storm over the Indian Ocean was fierce but brief. The sky is still a heavy gray, and it's just as sultry as before the downpour. The waves reach up to the rocky sea wall, and I'm drinking coffee amidst the other guests at this partially restored colonial hotel. Yesterday I sat with an Indian man on holiday here (his wife wanted to go to Europe, and had opted to simply stay home), who told me that both JFK and Marilyn Monroe had stayed here when it was at its prime. He was quick to add that they hadn't stayed here together, as if I might somehow be scandalized.

The past day or so went by in a haze. I thought about leaving the hotel for a walk yesterday, but was met with so many warnings about getting scammed, not to mention the mid-day heat, that I scarcely got half way down the Galle Face Green (more like a fallow soccer field than a "green" per se), that I turned around and came back. I haven't felt particularly comfortable thus far, and it dawned on me why: I feel more like an interloper than a guest. There is a cultural language as much as a spoken one that I'm not privy to. Thus far I feel like a tourist, not a traveler.

But later today I'll dip my toes in the water and start meeting people: first, Suranjan, a university contact via the Thilo Hoffman, preeminent conservationist and uncle of the incomparable Tina Roth Eisenberg, and the later, I'll visit the home of friends of my cousin Laura and her husband Wijitha.

And tomorrow I head out to Anuradapura. I'll let you know when I get there.

What do an environmental grant, a photo equipment company and my first cousin have in common?

They all play an intrusmental part in my forthcoming journey to Sri Lanka. As I prepare, it occurs to me just how auspicious it is to have so much support from so many disparate sources.

First, a resounding thank you to David de Rothschild and his non-profit foundation, Sculpt the Future, who generously awarded me their Creativity for Change grant. The grant is supporting the entirety of this trip and some much-needed equipment back in the studio. How amazing is that? David, whom you might know from his incredible voyage on the Plastiki, also founded, a forward-thinking website bringing together people and fostering ideas about protecting our planet. I'm proud to be working with the talented folks at MYOO, starting with this in-depth interview on OLTW.

My next thank you goes out to Ron Egatz at the Mac Group, who very kindly brokered the loan of a lightweight yet heavy-duty Benro tripod for me to take on the road. Ron wrote up my project on the Mamiya blog last year, and has gone out of his way to see me properly outfitted. I've been lugging around a brick of a tripod, and heavy equipment can really take its toll physically (though I'm sure my years as an acrobat didn't help matters any either.) So on behalf of myself and my osteopath, I'd like to thank them for lightening my load.

And sometimes support comes in the form of sharing your knowledge and connections. It just so happens that my first cousin Laura's husband, Wijitha, is from none other than Sri Lanka. Though they now live in Virginia, Laura and Wijitha have been instrumental in helping me plan my trip. From giving me recommendations on where to stay and helping me find a driver, to discussing local customs and reaching out to their own contacts, I know my travels will be all the richer for their kind and thoughtful support. They also helped put my mind at ease in terms of safety as a foreign woman traveling alone. While the civil war is over, I'm first to admit I know woefully little about the intricacies and brutalities of the war or its lingering effects. (I recommend the New Yorker article from Jan 12th of this year for a thoughtful primer.) Thank you, Laura and Wijitha, and I look forward to swapping stories.

Ok, back to packing. Technology permitting, stay tuned for reports and pictures from the field over the coming two weeks... x

From the B62 to the Anuradhapura Bo tree

The pharmacist told me to take the Typhoid directly home. It was in the 90’s in New York yesterday, and I had just picked up my traveler prescriptions, including anti-malarials and some just-in-case antibiotics. The tiny box labeled “Live Typhoid” needed to stay refrigerated, so I hopped on the bus to spare it a hot walk down Bedford Avenue. Though harmless in its four blister-packed capsules, it was a heightened moment on New York City transit, a la La Jette or 12 Monkeys.

This is part of my travel prep for Sri Lanka, my next OLTW journey, which will be underway in a few weeks. Film? Check. Culturally appropriate clothing? Check. Immunizations? Check. I leave on August 1st, and arrive in Colombo, the capital, on August 3rd after what I’m sure will be a delirious 12 hours in Dubai, sandwiched by nearly 12-hour and 5-hour flights, respectively. (Sri Lanka, to save you the Google search, is the tear-shaped island off the southeast coast of India.)

And what is it I’m after, you ask? A 2,239-year-old banyan fig tree that lays claim to several distinctions:

  • It’s the oldest historically cultivated tree on record
  • It grew from a transplanted branch of the tree under which Siddhārtha Gautama attained enlightenment. As the story goes, the branch was brought to Sri Lanka under the specific instruction of the historical Buddha, planted in 228 BCE
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest angiosperms. (That’s flowering plants, kids. Look that one up.)  The oldest angiosperm? Probably not. You might remember the ancient Olive and Chestnut I photographed in the fall that also meet that distinction. The Baobabs, too. Ooh, and the Llareta. You get the picture.

As I was calculating the exact age (um, yes: 2011 + 228) of the Anuradhapura Bo tree (which also happens to be a UNESCO site and one of the longest historically inhabited cites in the world), I was reminded of the “year 0” dilemma.  A number of numerical systems skip from - 1 to +1, as it were, without counting the zero. Sort of like buildings that eschew a 13th floor. The Buddhist calendar does include a year zero, though it begins somewhere between 554 and 483 BCE. Which means that our 2,239-year-old tree just might be 2,240. But who’s counting?