MICHA.ELMUELLER

 

Backpacking Sri Lanka

 

For the largest part of February I was backpacking in Sri Lanka together with Valerie. Before going there I didn’t know much about the country and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect — always a very good prerequisite for travelling, I think. Sri Lanka is a small Island just below South India and has a lot of similarities to India; in my opinion the term India Light is surprisingly fitting. Everything is similar, but just less of everything: less hectic, less people, less over the top. The food is very similar to Indian cuisine as well and there is especially a lot of influence from South India (there are a lot of South Indian restaurants too). As in India the food was outstanding, very rich in flavor, spicy and hearty, yet still light. A lot of curries, vegetables and fruits; very easy to come by as a vegetarian.

It feels as if tourism is catching a lot more traction in Sri Lanka in recent years, this is mostly because a civil war occupied the country until nine years ago and the tsunami catastrophe in 2004 put a recession to tourism. This “non-touristic” thing was the main theme of our journey and we mostly stayed in small, local guesthouses or homestays. The most touristic places are mostly on the south coast and we tried to avoid them. We only went to Tangalle, which is probably one the most non-touristic places on the south coast, and that was already too much for me — long beach promenades with exclusively western food, english music, etc.. But a lot of other places in the country are not touristic at all, especially during the off season.

Especially in the east it often felt like experiencing the beginnings of tourism (especially in Nilaveli). The few improvised restaurants there were essentially people who put a few tables in their backyard and call it a restaurant. I have experienced the people as very ambitious and in many places you can really feel how much they are willing to get out of poverty. That was really great, to see these beginnings. I’m sure that in ten years time the country will be much more touristic. Even now we often read blog posts by people who visited a certain village a year before us and wrote stuff like “very secluded, only one guesthouse”; when we arrived there were already some guesthouses, restaurants, etc.. Still, in a lot of places we very often were the only tourists in the bus or the area. You can feel quite alien being the only foreigner far and wide, but it’s interesting to experience this from time to time. We also had the case of waiters in restaurants making a scene when we enter, taking photos, bringing us all kinds of food to try.

Funnily, I often had the impression that the country is still shocked by the increase in tourism and has not yet adapted. We often had the case that we negotiated for a price and actually got the local, native people price. Or we arrived at a place, got out of the bus and were packing things into the backpacks with tuk-tuk drives already surrounding us, but not yet interrupting us and waiting patiently until we were finished with packing before making offers to take us somewhere. This experience is totally different in e.g. India or South America.

I would even say that I have never met a culture this friendly in any other country which I visited so far. People were immensely friendly to us and it happened a lot of times that children would wave at us, that people would approach us and talk to us, or that we were e.g. offered food on a long bus ride. All of this has happened in other countries too, just not as often as in Sri Lanka.

 
 

Our means of travelling were mostly local buses. This is very easy in Sri Lanka and enormously cheap, buses drive all the time everywhere. It was a nice experience to see the country this way; it’s always a bumpy, loud, and raving ride, but a very authentic possibility to experience the local culture, see small villages which you would otherwise not pass through and observe the way how locals interact with each other. We often observed the friendly way how natives who didn’t know each other before the ride interacted during a couple hours of common bus ride — sharing food, chatting, making music, etc.. In many many local bus rides we encountered other tourists only very seldom; only on two occasions there were other tourists in the same bus for a short time, on most rides it was approximately sixty locals and we two :-).

The local buses are enormously slow compared to e.g. taxis, the main reason for this is that everybody can stop a bus anywhere. So besides the usual bus stops, buses get stopped at arbitrary places all the time. For example, a bus might stop at a bus stop, then 500 meters later somebody will wave the bus to stop, then another 500 meters later some other person does the same again :-).

The question we were most often asked by locals was about our jobs in Germany ‒ for me it’s always easy because most people have some rough idea what a software developer does, but for Valerie (a psychologist) it’s next to impossible to explain an occupation which is practically non-existent in Sri Lanka to a native.

 
 

One thing that I found very calming: Sri Lanka is very small and wherever you are you can always, very easily, pay someone to drive you to some other part of the island in a couple of hours. Nothing is ever far away. If your train would be cancelled you could still e.g. pay a tuk-tuk or a taxi to drive you to the airport for a very affordable price. To me it was just a reassuring feeling to know that if I’m ever stuck in a place that I dislike it’s very easy to just carry-on.

There are basically no foreigners working in Sri Lanka, working visas are practically unheard of. One consequence is that you won’t find emigrated people who e.g. run foreign restaurants. So the western dropout hippie cafes which are very common in India/Mexico/etc. are nowhere to be found, only locals operate restaurants/shops/cafes.

For me, a highlight of our trip was the train ride from Ella to Kandy. Most tourists do the route the other way around (Kandy to Ella), which is why the train is always very packed in that direction. A good tip is to do it the other way around, our train was much less crowded and it’s the same track.
The British built the railway in Sri Lanka to transport tea leaves from the plantations to the coast. Today this makes for a very idyllic train ride, as the train winds its way through the hills. Often there are tea plantations along the way and the hot air and the strong sun result in a nice scent of the plants when driving through a plantation. The train is very slow and bumpy, so the journey is always quite long (7 hours compared to ~2 hours via car), but it’s a beautiful landscape and there are a lot of things to see. Since the railway is quite old there’s also a unique system of physical tokens — whenever a part of the track can only be passed by one train at a time a large physical ring is carried by the train which passes the track. This token then gets passed to the next train which ensures that there is only ever one train on this particular track.

 
 

I have highlighted a lot of positive aspects of our journey in this post so far, but shortly want to describe one negative aspect as well. Let me prefix this by saying that experiences like the following are important to me when travelling as it broadens ones view on the world. The topic is of sexism — discrimination based on gender, typically against women.

I already wrote about this topic and the way we as a couple were treated in South America here, but the experience in Sri Lanka was much more intense. Women are often treated as people of a lower class compared to males there and this has become sadly apparent to me in the way how Valerie was often treated. I have talked to some other travelers and my impression is that this mostly comes to light when travelling as a couple of male/female (compared to e.g. two femals travelling together).

Some examples: We eat breakfast, I get asked ten times overly politely if everything is truly absolutely fine, she gets asked (or even looked at) zero times. She asks for the bill, I get it. She pays, I get the change. She asks for an info, I get handed a paper with the info. People talk about her in the third person, even though she stands right besides me (“she can wait here”). We talk to somebody and the person has solely me as a reference person, with the body completely oriented towards me. When we are approached, people always only talk to me. When we enter e.g. a store for textiles and it’s completely obvious that she is searching for something and that I’m just passively waiting around, it’s still me who gets asked what we search for.
This is immensely frustrating, not only for the female. We usually try to counteract this kind of behavior in such countries — Valerie always orders bills, pays for stuff, asks for info, etc.. This didn’t help much this time though.

I want to highlight that this negative insertion should not be put too much in the foreground of our overall journey and similar things can be expected in South America or India. Not everyone acted this way, there were also a lot of people who treated us both the same way. We still perceived the people there as enormously friendly, eager to help, and welcoming. I just hope that this changes in the next years and hope that tourism by western female travelers encourages women there to demand more rights.

 
 

Some things that I quickly want to mention last:

  • As always, buying a local SIM card was one of the best decisions of our trip. This is just immensely useful for maps.
  • A funny thing that I know from Mexico: in a restaurant we order two ginger beer (because they are on the menu). The waiter takes the order, goes to his motorcycle, drives away for twenty minutes and comes back with…guess it…one ginger beer! 😀
  • Coconut Sambol: the Sri Lankan food is very good and eating vegetarian is very easy. Coconut Sambol is the specialty that I liked most and have also prepared at home now several times. Basically it’s freshly grated coconut with shallots, tomatoes, salt, chilli, and lime. This recipe is quite good and contains some more details (and pictures).
  • I often fall for this: showing locals or tuk-tuk drivers a map when asking for something and after a couple minutes of pointless discussion I finally get it: they can’t read neither text nor maps, but don’t want to admit it and instead talk around it. Whenever this happens I’m once again reminded of how many elementary things we take for granted in Europe.
  • We asked a local (who was 25 years old) to take a photo of us. Since we only had analog cameras with us, I handed him a small one. He took a photo and asked us to check if it’s fine. I told him that there’s no way, because it’s an analog camera. He didn’t understand what I meant and asked where the display was :-). That’s really interesting: he didn’t know at all about analog photography and probably never saw one of the old cameras or photo prints. I’m pretty sure that for him the age of photography starts with digital cameras and smartphones.

In total our three-week journey cost us pretty much exactly 520 Euro each with an additional cost of ~600 Euro each for the flight. We could probably have gotten the flight cheaper, but unfortunately Air Berlin filed for insolvency at the time when we booked, so many flights got a lot more expensive for some time.

 
 
 
 
 

Looking back on 2017

Like in the last years here comes my yearly recap. Older flashbacks can be found for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

When looking back on 2017 I realized that one of the main themes was that I finally had time to dive into some things. This was not a conscious decision, but rather something which just happened. In the previous years there was always too much work for university etc. to really get into some topics. But now I have e.g. mastered coffee, which is a huge enrichment for my quality of life. For the past year I got very much into brewed coffee, read a lot about it, visited barista courses, tried a lot of different coffee beans and ways to prepare the coffee. This happened basically each morning for the entire year and even whilst travelling I carried the Aeropress and a ceramic mill. At some point we ended up with the Chemex and a coffee bean from a little roastery in Porto which we discovered when travelling in Portugal and some other equipment (such as a very good coffee grinder). I’d say that I now have the best fitting coffee for my taste. It’s really nice to finally have time to put a lot of energy and passion into mastering something.

Cooking is another ongoing (probably life-long) project. For the last couple of months I have cooked for usually five evenings of the week. This has resulted in a constant optimization of some dishes and I am very happy with some things that I cook now. One of the side dishes that I usually do is a green salad in order to balance the main dish and I am very happy with the tweaks and ingredients I have established now. I can reproducibly prepare a salad that I am very happy with. The same goes for some other dishes and baking bread, which was also one project of “mastering” something.

In terms of technology, I think 2017 was a great year and I’m very excited about 2018 technology-wise. Just look at the myriads of use cases for machine learning which appeared in 2017. That’s crazy, at one point I had the feeling that there was something new and incredible each week (this youtube channel contains a lot of interesting works). The developments surrounding reusable rockets and SpaceX and some of the blockchain startups (I like Colony) are also very exciting. Of course a lot of stuff is overhyped, but it’s still exciting to be immersed in this scene.

Travel-wise I had a nice time in Israel, Portugal, Amsterdam and some nice parts of Germany/Austria. City-wise I have the feeling that I got a bit more comfortable with Berlin in our second year here. Some things which I really enjoy are the vast amount of different restaurants, fine-dining options, interesting people, international crowd (half of my colleagues are non-German), concerts of distinguished and non-major artists, theaters, courses, electronic music clubs (I can’t emphasize this enough), and conferences (I attended the TechCrunch Discrupt in December).

Good ideas
Placing a “Use soon” basket visibly in the kitchen and put stuff in it which should be consumed soon. For me this basket also serves well as a reminder to use up certain things which I always forget.

Developments
I finally became a vegetarian. This was a natural development and in the last years I ate less and less meat. A while ago I stopped cooking with it altogether. When travelling I was always eating vegetarian since a long time. My main reason for going vegetarian is of ethical nature. In the last months I even ate vegan most of the time, I stopped buying milk, butter, or eggs altogether some months ago.

Quotes which stuck

Some worry that an artificial consciousnesses could turn against humans. I am not concerned about this. […] It seems that intelligence and abundance comes hand-in-hand with empathy. Humans, more and more, are peaceful creatures. An increasing number are so empathetic that they avoid eating animals entirely. If a super intelligence could outsmart me, then it would also understand all that I’ve outlined above about how fragile and rare life is. A super intelligence would, I think, be super empathetic.
    —Ryan Dahl, Optimistic Nihilism

Interface is a metaphor for information.
    —(from an OP-1 presentation by one of the founders)

Intimacy is the process of […] inviting others in to have a look around.
    —Charles Foster, Being a beast

Statt uns ein Gefuehl von Sicherheit zu geben, koennen uns Gegenstaende belasten und hemmen.
    —Pia Mester, Flow from July

I continue to believe that we can be the generation that ends disease, ends poverty, and stops climate change.
    —Mark Zuckerberg

Minimalism isn’t about having less. It’s about having only the things that add value to your life.
    —reddit

In Wahrheit ist jeder Wunsch, dem wir nachjagen, eine Belastung.
    —Pia Mester

Ask yourself: What would it be simply ridiculous to not have in 30 years time? Then go make that.
    —Alan Kay on startups and ideas

In a world run by blockchains, decentralisation could be pushed even further, to include objects. Once they have their own identity and can be controlled via a blockchain, it is possible to imagine them becoming, in a way, self-determining. A few years back, Mike Hearn, a former bitcoin developer who now works for R3, a blockchain consortium, suggested the idea of self-driving cars which are also financially autonomous. Guided by smart contracts, they would stash away some of the digital money they make by ferrying people around, so as to pay for repairs or to replace themselves when repairs are no longer worthwhile. They would put themselves in long-term parking if not enough rides are to be had—or emigrate to another city. They could issue tokens to raise funds and to allow owners to get part of their profits.”
    —The Economist, Disrupting the trust business

Interesting articles
Ryan Dahl, Optimistic Nihilism

Oh My Gosh, It’s Covered in Rule 30s!

This section in the Wiki article on Survivorship Bias was an eye opener.

I really like packaging lists, such as this one.

Music
Oskar introduced me to Simpsonwaves — mashups of old simpson series enhanced with old VHS effects and underlied with Vaporwave music. Perfectly fits my taste of music & style :-). Here is one great example.

Spotify says that Nocow and Lorn are two very popular electronic music artists of mine in 2017.

Good Videos
Stephan recommended the Brothers Green cooking videos and I took quite some inspiration from them. I especially cooked the (vegan) stir fry described in this video a lot.

Movie which rang the bell most/Movie which reached me most
Weit. I got this movie recommended on festivals and from friends. The movie is emotionally capturing and really nice, it’s a documentation and all of it has happened that way. The story is that of a young German couple (from Freiburg) who decide to travel east for as long as they need to make it around the world. They hitchhike, hike, take the boat, etc. (but never the plane). They recorded a lot of this journey on camera and cut it into this movie. The movie is quite professional though and was a surprise hit in German arthouse cinemas. It’s definitely worth watching and will give you wanderlust :-).

Blade Runner. I re-watched the original and it’s impressive how well the movie still holds up.

Hell or High Water. Great movie with a great pace.

Best photos that I took
I’m happy with most of the photos that I put on this blog, these are some which I were very happy with in 2017:

 
 
 

I’m also very much satisfied with portraits I made of some other people close to me, but I don’t want to post them all here.

Last years new years resolutions
My new year resolutions last year were:

  1. Buy maximum 5 clothing items. ✗
    Oh oh, the first resolution and I have to admit that I failed miserably :(. Unfortunately I couldn’t resist and bought way more new clothing items. This was mainly due to discovering some nice stuff when travelling, but also due to the discovery of a very nice custom tailor here in Berlin and the techwear brand Outlier. They both hooked me!
  2. Cook a new meal each week. ✓
    I (and Valerie) did it! Quite often it was even more than one meal. My top new dishes were: homemade granola, vegan bacon (following this recipe), marinated champignons, hummus + baked eggplant + pomegranate, and marinated brussels sprouts.
  3. Learn more Spanish and don’t lose all the stuff learned in South America.
  4. Finish up some old, half-finished projects. ✓
    I mainly had the video interview with Elf Pavlik in mind and I finally finished and published it.
  5. Phone more with friends. ✓
  6. Donate more. ✓
  7. Make one publication. ✓
    I did, but this work dates back to my time at university and it just took a long time for it to get published. So hmm…I originally had in mind to create a new publication when I put this resolution up.
  8. Get rid of more stuff, keep striving for minimalism. ~
    Hmm. Sold a lot of stuff, gave away a lot of stuff, threw a lot of stuff away. But also bought some new stuff. Ahh this is difficult. I really would like to be there: only own the stuff that contributes value to my life. I read so much about this and I admire the people who live out of one bag so much. It’s a journey and I’m making a constant effort to downsize. Still I own too much stuff and the worst thing this year was that I went nuts with clothing items.

New year resolutions for 2018

  • Spend less money.
    I went a bit nuts in 2017, in 2018 I want to spend less and save more. That’s my number one new year resolution. As a first starting point I want to gather a detailed overview over all my expenses and want to meticulously document every cent that I spend in January.
  • Consider meditation again.
  • One additional, regular fitness exercise.
  • Bring photography skills to a level that I am satisfied with (i.e. a more serious level). Specifically by thinking more about composition and getting better at it.
  • Contribute more to open source projects.
    In 2017 I contributed a bit to two smaller projects on GitHub by fixing some issues and doing a bit of enhancements, it would be nice to contribute to more projects.
  • Start a technically challenging new project.
  • Develop my own clothing style further.
    I like it a lot to analyze clothing and think about the way others (or I) dress. Here in Berlin I very often see people which have found their unique style, it seems to me that some of those people really wear their look. They have found an idea which they want to convey and they just nail that. Especially in Neukoelln (where I work) I see a lot of people who fit this description. I also strive to achieve a level where I feel that every clothing item which I wear fits very well into the complete picture. I am not entirely happy with the status quo though, since I am currently very much interested in two different styles of clothing: the techwear direction with materials such as Dynemma and companies like Outlier and the — kind of opposite — direction of classical clothes which remind of the suits/skirts from the 60s/70s with e.g. pleats on the pants or rougher materials like wool or linen.
  • Decide fast, don’t overthink.

Analog Multiple Exposure Photography

I have been experimenting with exposing film multiple times. The idea is that instead of winding the film forward after having taken a photo you take another photo (or multiple ones) in the same place — making the photos overlap. These are some of my results.

 
 
 
 
 

Short Trip to Portugal

 

Went there with Valerie for just a bit over a week in May. We stayed in Lisbon for some days, which I perceived as quite a nice city with a unique vibe and architecture. I liked that people were so calm and relaxed. We met up with Marina in Lisbon and spent a nice time with her.

I was surprised that Portuguese is actually a very different language from Spanish. I found it remarkable that words are different when a woman says them opposed to when a man uses them. For example, the version of “thank you” which females use is “obrigada”, opposed to the male version “obrigado”. The expression “thank you” is of course so ubiquitous that it is used in all kinds of contexts: advertisements, door signs, websites, etc.. But I only ever saw the male version “obrigado” in these contexts, which makes me implicitly mentally read and associate this with a masculine voice. It’s crazy how deep gender segregation runs here – it is even deeply manifested and reflected in the language. I think this will make it very hard for the culture to detach from gender stereotypes and to adapt e.g. trans-/crossgender ideas.

After Lisbon we spent some days in Porto. I didn’t get that enthusiastic with the city, a bit too many tourists, too much stress and too much noise. Lisbon on the other hand was more chilled out. Still, it was a nice time and I perceived the Portuguese as very friendly. We had a nice time trying the different fabulous vegetarian restaurants there. The prices usually are a bit cheaper than in Germany, so for 14-16 Euro per meal you get an extraordinary restaurant where you will be served with white gloves and stuff, comparable to a high-class, top-notch German restaurant.

For one day we went to a smaller city called Aveiro and visited Marina there. Quite a nice city, nice conversations, nice time.

Even though it was just a bit more than a week, it was still nice to travel for a bit. Especially since I haven’t been to Portugal before. There is always stuff to discover and we had a lot of fun trying various famous Portuguese pastries. One evening we were in a Cafe late in the evening reading some books. They had some cake left, which they didn’t want to spare till the next day. So they surprised us with it :-). Stuff like this is nice and somehow tends to happen more often to me when travelling. And I always enjoy the feeling of coming home, getting a hot shower and putting on some completely fresh clothes (and not the ones which have been in the backpack for days). I think that’s probably in my Top 3 things about travelling: Coming home again :-).

 
 
 
 

About Me

I am a 30 year old techno-creative enthusiast who lives and works in Berlin. In a previous life I studied computer science (more specifically Media Informatics) at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.

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