Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recent Travels to Singapore and Sri Lanka

Among the many amazing applications on my Mac Laptop and iPhone is a calendaring feature. It allows one to change time-zones effortlessly and to specify the time zone of events when making entries. I found this particularly useful during December when I was making plans for the new semester and planning short, intense visits to Singapore and Sri Lanka. Entries for DC, Sri Lanka and Singapore were often being scheduled on the same day.

The Singapore trip’s purpose was to push forward with System Dynamics computer modeling initiatives, to catch up with friends and to begin discussions about a possible additional stay or two, beginning in January 2011. In Sri Lanka, I helped “Launch” the second set of Paradise Poisoned translations into Sinhala and Tamil, entitled Lessons from the War II – Path to the Crisis and firmed up plans for the third set, to be launched at the Colombo Book Fair at the end of September.

The pace of this trip gave me an opportunity to appreciate in a small way, the demanding schedule that is routine for my son, an international businessperson who travels extensively in Asia. I left Washington on a Monday morning and arrived in Singapore early Wednesday morning – absorbing a 13 hour time change. Meetings began Wednesday afternoon and continued through the week. After the meetings, there were follow up communications and further discussions. Over the weekend I was completing the syllabus, and a “remote” first lecture for my AU spring course and preparing a guest lecture to be delivered to systems analysis graduate students at the Lee Kuan Yew School. There were two long meetings about a future System Dynamics modeling project, to be conducted under the auspices of the National University of Singapore’s Global Asia Institute where I am a fellow and there was correspondence to be completed related to the upcoming launch. The process continued virtually up to my departure from Singapore on Thursday mid afternoon.

The pace of life in Singapore is swift. Each day is full and opportunities to make a difference seem to abound. But it is relatively easy to meet the demands of a tight schedule. With few exceptions, people are on time for appointments. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. People with whom one meets are not offended if one sticks to a meeting agenda, addresses several topics in a short period and ends at a scheduled time, even abruptly.

Sri Lanka is different, though, with the conclusion of the war, some government leaders are striving to bring more Singapore-like efficiencies to the “Island of the Dhamma” (the Island of Enlightenment.) It is not clear to me that this goal will be attained or even that it should be. What I have always cherished about Sri Lanka is the slower pace of life and the attention given to human relationships. This does not mean, of course, that it is, perpetually, the “Paradise” of perpetually smiling faces, now being extolled in post-ward tourist publicity. But it does mean that meetings and discussions rarely “get right down to business” without first attending to the human relationship side of things. This is especially true when one has been away from the Island for a period of time, as I had been. The logistics of day-to-day professional activities can also be challenging, especially when one is on a very tight time schedule. On this trip, I lodged on the “Executive Floor” of a downtown Colombo five-star hotel. I thought this was the best way to optimize my use of time – and it was, to some degree. But not everything worked smoothly or as advertised. For an experienced Sri Lanka hand, as I am, sorting through the “small problems” (a common Sri Lankan expression) that arose only required patience, time and good humor. But on a visit spanning only three full days, time was a scarce commodity. I kept repeating the mantra I chose for my stay “Remember that time is your friend, not your enemy.”

Fortunately, I do not have to choose between the two islands – they are only an inexpensive plane ride apart. Sustaining my ability to function in both cultures will probably help to sustain mental and physical health. In fact I intend to spend much of my projected Sri Lankan sojourns in a relatively remote Southern town, best reached by a seven hour train ride with the last two hours on a 30 KPH maximum single tracked line dotted with frequent, often picturesque, colonial era local stations. There are no Executive Club accommodations in Matara, but there is a small Buddhist temple, located on an island and accessible only by a narrow footbridge. There, the sound of ocean waves on the rocks and nearby beach can be heard as one meditates. This is not a place to be “fitted in” on a three-day visit, however.

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