Sabbatical Diaries*

* The author thanks herself for this fine specimen of human intellect...and two anonymous referees.

Disclaimer: The following posts are not funded. The views expressed do not reflect those of any of the organizations the author is affiliated with. Some posts are prone to laughs, tears, or both. Serious readers would be better served by shifting their eyeballs to the author's equally serious work.


The inter-link between cognitive development and writing has been well established. Since writing is a multi-faceted endeavor, experimenting with non-peer reviewed outlets is often under-estimated, understudied, or some combination therein. The current experiment is an attempt to fill this gap. I aim to write aimlessly and observe how that affects more 'aimful' and peer-reviewed endeavors, or at least my vocabulary. What ensues below is an amalgamation of creativity, boredom, and need to get back to my roots. During my formative years, I used to write profusely. As a student of humanities and languages, creative writing was highly encouraged and required. At the time, economics - my true passion - had been on the sidelines. Upon majoring in econ and higher educational pursuits thereafter, the creative writing was inevitably relegated to the back burner; the one that doesn't work. Naturally, being a good writer helped getting my more serious work published. Despite the tangible success, I have become aware of the paucity of inspiration and articulation that often stems from possessing an unparalleled command of the language. Thinking like an economist is a life-long endeavor. The scarcity of economists who are both articulate and creative is exacerbated by the ever increasing length between idea generation and publication. Hence, the following posts shall be my outlet to document observations, inclinations, and serendipitous moments as I spend my year of sabbatical roaming the planet. Better understanding the frame of mind behind the mid-career crisis (I mean self-reflection) would help create policy geared toward more fruitful and restful sabbaticals for the future generations. Or not.

Image credit: Dhanu Thamarapani

[1] October 25, 2022 [Burnsville, Minnesota, USA] - Toothpaste

I'm told that there are three reasons to be an academic: June, July, August. In my opinion, there's just one: sabbatical. The magical time to begin new ideas, track down important people, breathe, publish the current revise & resubmits, get a haircut, self-invite to give talks at places of important people so that they'd take notice, or not, breathe, have a baby, write a grant, serve in an important selection committee, breathe, travel, meditate, collect data, do experiments, seek therapy - I mean self-reflect - and such. I had plans too. And I wrote them down beautifully... in the sabbatical proposal: I will travel to Sri Lanka, convince authorities to give me data on a silver platter, clean and analyze the aforementioned data, write a draft, present at conferences, submit to a journal with important people who are too busy to notice the mustard stains on their clothes. Well, I wrote it better (better enough to be granted sabbatical on first try) but that's the gist of it.

Then May 9th happened.

People of Sri Lanka managed a coup overthrowing the government as a result of deepening economic inequality, insecurity, and hopelessness the country had been facing for quite some time. People persevered until the culprits of corruption fled the country, swam in the president's pool, and while at it, they conveniently managed to throw water on my perfectly curated sabbatical plans. Revolutions should really take notice of other people's (those who don't even stay in the country) well-crafted sabbatical plans. We'd all be living in a much better world had revolutions been less inconvenient.

In any case, just like my people, I persevered. I changed lanes, plans, planes, and landed in Minnesota on a one-way flight. The first three months of my sabbatical were punctuated by writing serious stuff, driving to impromptu destinations, crying, holding meetings with great people to do more serious stuff, spending time with friends closer than family, cooking, and consulting to the World Bank (not necessarily in that order). Finally I found an opening to go to Sri Lanka, in one piece. As preparations for the trip, I shopped to pack bags so that I would be self-sufficient upon landing in Colombo. Laptop - check, monitor - check, keyboard and mouse - check, notebooks - check, clothes and shoes - check, you get the idea. Due to the country's bankruptcy, Sri Lanka has stopped imports and even the slightest consumer need has become a logistical nightmare. Of all the times I have traveled 'home', including the one after mother's stage IV cancer diagnosis in 2017, this time was the hardest. I had to think long and hard about anything and everything that I might need, that will save a trip (if Petrol is available) to the store. Band-aid - check, nail polish remover - check, body lotion - check, lip balm - check, toothpaste - check...toothpaste!?

Then it dawned on me. The home I'm going to is not the country I know or remember. The nostalgia of days past - when the likes of toothpaste didn't make the packing list - hit me hard. I stared at the half-packed bag which felt like an abyss. No amount of packing will prepare me for the reality that inevitably awaits at the end of the tarmac. My home is gone. It's not coming back anytime soon.

[2] October 27, 2022 [Chicago, USA] - 7 minutes

I've loaded my bags and ready to go home! Cost me $300 extra for all the luggage, but hey who's counting...The excitement lasted exactly 1 hour and 29 minutes; the length of time between Minneapolis and Chicago, my first flight out of three. Transfer in Chicago was extremely stressful. Mind you, I have a Sri Lankan passport and a US green card. To go to Sri Lanka, I'm basically traveling royalty as far as I'm concerned. Gone are the days of coughing up money for every little transit I spend in a 'foreign' land. The convenience fee people like me are asked to pay for breathing the same air as their fellow worthy citizens. A friend of mine tells me that the visas were invented by Nazis to keep track of the traveling Jews. Is it true? Well, whatever it is, the modern standards of traveling has preserved the complete dehumanizing experience intended upon the less fortunate (or the less prestigious passport holders). Can you imagine how pumped I was to travel this time without any metaphorical hiccups!

Who am I kidding??? First, I'm not allowed to check-in online. The error message tells me that an airline staff member at the airport need to verify my details in person. Verify that I exist? Or that my Sri Lankan passport which I'm using to go to Sri Lanka is real? Or that the Green Card has a hologram? Well, take your pick. I should say though, the staff member(s) at the airport have typically served me well. They seem decent people. If it were up to me though, I would like to completely circumvent the need to meet these decent people. Considering that I don't particularly intend to hijack their wonderful plane(s) or blow up the place to pieces. Oh well, I guess I should be lucky that I still get to travel. I have met colleagues who don't even bother get their American passports. I can't imagine what goes through those people's minds. What's a life that hasn't spent time trying to convert the price of coffee in a foreign land? Or haven't used Google translate on the phone to read which one is the women's bathroom? Anyway, I digress.

Where was I? Oh right, Chicago. A nightmare. No offense. You know what, take offense. Shame on you for not getting your act together! One of the largest airports in this fine country, and yet couldn't be bothered make navigation between terminals commonsensical (ya it's a real word, you're welcome). I had to beg, plead, and cajole my way to the gate thanks to ridiculously long waiting lines at the security check-in (though I had already gone through security at Minneapolis). You know what will make me hijack a plane? These damn security lines. As I inch forward ever so slightly contemplating my life choices that inevitably land myself in some queue with equally miserable fellas inching through life, thought of a plane hijack seems quite lucrative. NSA if you are reading I'm just kidding.

Nevermind. Ok Chicago. Yes, a nightmare. Even though I had two full hours before my next flight (to Doha, Qatar) I set foot, literally, on my plane with 7 minutes to take off. 7 minutes!!!! The blaring sirens of the plane door closing (presumably to motivate folks contemplating suicide to seek other avenues) helped spike my heartbeat so much that a flight steward had to tell me "calm down you made it". Easy for him to say. After they still made me check in right at the gate with sirens blaring. I paid for one flight, so far two security check-ins and two boarding check-ins.

Oh I forgot to tell you, I had paid extra to reserve a seat next to my father. Yes, he was on the same flight. We are both going to Sri Lanka. For reasons too long and irrelevant to mention here, my father has spent six weeks in East Coast, USA and was going back to Sri Lanka. So I decided to join him to keep him company, attend to his needs and such.. You know the things a dutiful daughter would do to collect points in heaven. Though I have no desire to go to heaven, in fact I'm pretty sure I'm going to hell. Believe me, I'm looking forward to it...

Where was I? Hell? No, not yet. Well, pretty close, Chicago. After heart-pumping sprint to the Qatar Airways flight QR726 and locating my seat 27C, I realized that my wonderful padre is not in 27A - his seat. Or so I thought. I almost broke down. It's a humongous flight. Even after putting on so much weight since coming to this fine country, I'm still tiny in comparison and completely indistinguishable. How on earth am I supposed to find my hard-of-hearing, silver-haired father - a brown man, in a flight full of hyperventilating browns, beiges, khakis, and caramels? Then I realized, this isn't even the seat I paid for!!! I speak 4 languages, none of them equipped me to vent what went through my mind at that point!!! I paid for 19C because my father was supposed to be in 19A. I pleaded my way to the front of the plane to check his seat. A fully black ball of hair was seated in 19A. Unless biology had undergone an anti-aging miracle while I was checking in, for the second time, I was pretty sure that brown bearded man couldn't be my father. Helplessly, I came back to my seat. The one that was assigned to me, without my consent. If this story so far hasn't enlightened you on what it's like to be a non-majority, woman, without privilege (or a privileged-passport), you should get your brains scanned.

I resigned to my seat. My neighboring seat was empty. Soon, a woman floated, presumably to the empty seat. Being the good neighbor, I stood up to let her pass. As I stepped away from my seat, whom do I bump into? My father- with all his silver hair in tact!!! He was running up and down the aisle looking for me just like I had done moments ago. He, who was supposed to be in 19A, was sent to 42D! He doesn't have the awareness or language skills to defend his seat. Me, equipped with both of them still couldn't get the seat I paid for. Had I been at 19C we would have found each other much sooner because that's where we both instinctively thought to look first. Still I was elated that the search was over. In a 17-hour flight where I was supposed to attend to my aging father's needs, I compromised to visit his seat whenever I could. At least I know where to look. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade they say. And boy did I make some...

By the way, do you know the difference between visa and passport? It's quite alright if you don't. Most people don't. Just let me know though... so that I can make a mental note... to use rat poison next time I host you. Annnd you thought I'm bluffing about going to hell. Huh!

[3] October 28?, 2022 [Doha, Qatar; Colombo, Sri Lanka] - 6 minutes

Coming soon.

Image credit: Dhanu Thamarapani

[4] November 17, 2022 [Kandy, Sri Lanka] - Fortune

It's been three weeks since I landed in Colombo. Kandy has resumed to the bustling, vibrant city it was pre-pandemic. To be continued...