Archive for January, 2009

My Next Birthday Idea

January 29, 2009

The spider came back. That bugger jumped right out at me as I was standing at the cabinet. I don’t know where it came from but it started scurrying around my feet instead of running away from me. Scared the crap out of me.

So, um, he is no longer with us. I’m sorry to all my nature-loving friends! And to the spider. But it had to be done.

In about half an hour I’m heading north to Anuradhapura district, which is about four hours away. Sewalanka’s founder is celebrating a birthday tomorrow. The Chairman, as he is reverentially called by everyone here, is holding a pirith ceremony to mark the occasion at Islander Center, Sewalanka’s bucolic training center and organic farm. Several staff have been invited to attend, including me. And you don’t say no to Chairman.

The pirith ceremony will start this evening and go all night I’m told. Now while I’d usually be all about the birthday all-nighter, this one has a slightly different tone than the one I try to cast for my birthdays. The pirith is one of the most significant religious activities in Sinhalese Buddhist culture and it is done to ward against all forms of evil, bad luck and disease. As far as I know, it consists of Buddhist monks chanting the entire time and not much else. Par-tay.

But seriously it should be interesting. At least for the first hour. 🙂 I’ll be sure to fill you in on every last detail. And maybe next December you can experience it yourself!

On My Guard

January 28, 2009

Yesterday morning, I was walking through the second bedroom, which is on my route to the bathroom and kitchen when I spotted a big old spider on the floor. It isn’t the biggest I’ve seen – Jesse’s place has the title for attracting those (better him than me) – but it was big enough. About the size of my palm. It was lying there, right in front of the door to the cabinet that holds my clothes and toiletries and suitcases.

It looked kind of dead, so I picked up my tweezers and threw them at it. My aim was off and the tweezers didn’t land as close to the spider as I was hoping but I think they were close enough to have started it if it was alive. So I leaned in. Even though I wasn’t that close, I felt comfortable enough that it was likely dead that I could go about my morning routine. I’d sweep him up after breakfast.

Much to my horror, 20 minutes later, after I’d made breakfast, the spider was gone. So now I’m all creeped out. You know how you get when a spider web touches you or you’re around a swarm of bug and you feel like things are crawling on you for the next hour? That’s how I feel in my house. I’m constantly on alert. When is the spider going to show up next? Was it eaten by a gecko? Is it behind the cabinet? Is it IN the cabinet and, heaven forbid, nestled in my pile of underwear?

I shudder.

And I realized that we don’t lose our irrational fear of things when exposed to them regularly; we just manage the fear better. I am sure that when I return to Toronto and don’t encounter spiders regularly, I’ll start screaming or running when I do have that first encounter with one. My arachniphobia is still in there.

So now I’m waiting for a spider to re-appear on my toilet seat or my pillow and I’m “managing” that by carrying the Mortein everywhere again (the roach killer—or, in my world, the all purpose insect killer. Don’t worry, Jessica, I almost never use it.)

Today, when I went home for lunch, I stepped into the backyard (which would more appropriately but less catchily be called the grassless-back-three-feet-before-a-wall) to take a couple of laundry items off the line. As I reached for my clothes, I noticed the line was kind of bouncing up and down. I glanced over and there, uncoiling itself from the line and climbing onto the cement wall a mere foot from my open kitchen window, was a 3-1/2 foot snake.

That’s a first.

Strangely, I wasn’t scared by the snake, even when it turned to look at me. Maybe I was calm because it was down at the end of the clothesline and I knew I could get into my house and slam the door before it could attack me (I was obviously forgetting about the OPEN WINDOW). Maybe because I’m already on high alert with the spider I can’t get any more tense. A snake is just another legless spider in my world. I’m on my guard.

The Writer

January 27, 2009

It’s been quiet here. Well, quiet in my life. But things in Sri Lanka are heating up. The government has all but taken over the north, which is the last bastion of the LTTE. One of the government ministers is predicting the north will be completely “liberated” by Independence Day, which I think is February 4th. As the government has made further and further inroads into LTTE territory, I’ve been getting more anxious. When will the retaliation come? But nothing has happened. I thought for sure there would be counter-attacks here in Colombo yet it’s been eerily quiet since New Year. Last night I heard a big explosion and thought “uh-boy, it’s happening” but it just turned out to be thunder (bringing some much-needed rain, I might add.) I have a hard time believing that military aggression will end this conflict but at the moment it seems like that might actually be the case.

So while I haven’t been writing my blog much because there’s nothing much to say, I have been doing some reading. When I returned from Vietnam, there was a letter from one of my fellow VSO volunteers who works in the mental health sector. It contained a story written by one of the patients at the hospital where she works. She asked me to look at it and provide comments. I did so and sent it back to her and she was surprised to receive it. You see, it turns out that I wasn’t the intended recipient of the letter. But, as serendipity would have it, the intended recipient (who eventually got a re-sent copy when she didn’t get the original one) only provided comments that were short and cursory while mine were detailed and apparently very useful (for once, being long-winded pays off!)

So now I have developed a bit of a pen-pal/editor relationship with this patient – a gentleman whose name I won’t reveal. The first story was a tale from his youth. The way he introduced some of the characters was confusing to me and I said so in my edits/suggestions. He wrote back to tell me that the story I read was just a segment of a 1,000 page autobiography in which most of the characters have already been introduced. Then he went on to tell me more about himself and to share how my taking the time to provide such detailed edits made him feel validated as a writer. Reading that made me beam. Since then, he has shared with me more of the book, and opened up to me about his personal feelings on other things too.

I now have pages and pages of his letters to me and more of his stories to read and I feel a real sense of honour about that. I am honoured to have been brought into the confidence of this man. My VSO colleague says that he’s truly intelligent and doesn’t belong in the hospital. Like several people in the system, he has to be released to his family who don’t want him. So he remains at the hospital with little hope of escape.

I’ve been to his hospital and I’ve seen the environment in which he lives. It is a functional but dire place, with a paucity of recreational activities to kee the residents stimulated and few comforts to give them a sense of self worth. I can’t help but be saddened and inspired by him: by the fact that he’s so prolific (he’s a musician as well as a writer) and so well-spoken (well, well-written, I guess; I’ve never spoken to him) in the face of the circumstances of his life. That he is able to create at all, that he can channel his passions day in and day out alone in an environment that could easily sap a person’s soul is a triumph of the human spirit.

It would be nice to meet him some day before I leave. I would love to take him out of that environment for a while and talk to this man whose private thoughts I have become privy to. Maybe some day.

The LBG

January 21, 2009

While the U.S. was experiencing a monumental event of racial equality yesterday, I experienced a little racial equality event of my own.

Yesterday after work, I was walking along the road when, lo and behold, I spotted a Legitimate Black Girl in Boralesgamuwa! Oh sure, occasionally you’ll see Black people in Colombo, but Boralegamuwa? Never. I’ve only ever seen two white faces the entire 10 months I’ve been here. This is not the realm of the tourist and, from my experience, it’s not really the realm of the expat either. So spotting a foreigner at all, and then another Black girl at that, was an Event with a capital E.

We were walking along the same side of the street toward each other. At about 100 feet out we both recognized that the other was a different kind of brown person from all the other brown people around us. As we got closer and closer and confirmation of mutual LBG-ness was made we both developed a smirk. I wanted to break into a run and hug her. “HEY! YOU’RE LIKE ME!! I’VE NEVER SEEN ONE OF YOU BEFORE!!”

But at 10 feet out, she played it all cool, just giving a slow nodd of her head as hello. Meanwhile, I was all beaming and puppy-like. “HI!!” I said.

I wanted her to stop and tell me who she was. What was she doing in Boralesgamuwa? Does she live here? I don’t know why the idea of another foreigner in the neighbourhood is so exciting to me. It’s not like we’d hang out or have anything in common (other than being stared at by everyone else in the neighbourhood) but it was exciting.

Yet with a nod it was over. She didn’t say hi back – the nod was enough – and we continued walking our separate ways.

I wonder when my next foreigner sighting will happen. At this rate, I figure it will be some time in April.

The Norm

January 20, 2009

Certain things have become part of my everyday life here and it occurred to me that you guys don’t really know the little stuff, so I thought I’d share some of it with you.

Bathrooms. Most of the bathrooms I encounter here (not the bathrooms of my expat friends) are a small room with a sink, a toilet and a shower nozzle on the wall. There are no bathtubs, no shower stalls. You just stand in the bathroom and shower, soaking everything in splashing distance, which can often be the whole bathroom. My bathroom is pretty large and the “shower area” is delineated by slightly sunken tiles, but the floor and toilet still get a healthy soaking when I shower as there’s no curtain or divider of any sort. I bought a squeegee wiper which I use to whisk the water from all over the floor back toward the shower area after every wash. It is one of those “what did I do without this?” purchases.

At the district office in Ampara, where we stayed during our trip, the plumbing for the sink was not connected to anything and the toilet didn’t flush. Whenever we used the toilet we’d filled up a bucket of water and poured it down it, which acted like a flush. The same principle is used with the hole-in-the-ground toilets that are very common here.

I suspected that the sink in the Ampara bathroom had a leak after I brushed my teeth and my feet got wet (since the bathroom floor was always wet rom showers anyway, this didn’t really bother me.) My suspicions were confirmed though – and more – when I went to pour out some tea that had gone cold and the tea went down the drain and directly out onto the floor. I spent the next five minutes using the bum sprayer to guide the tea down the hole-in-the-wall drain in the corner.

Which brings me to the bum sprayer. You’re not going to find toilet paper in about 90% of Sri Lankan bathrooms, so many of them are equipped with a sprayer, kind of like the first wave of sprayers that people in the ‘burbs had in their kitchens in the 80s/90s. According to a book I read, the sprayer is much more hygienic than toilet paper but I stick to my habits and try to always have some paper on me. Because most people don’t though, public toilet stalls are often very wet affairs, with water on the walls, the floors and the toilet itself. Needless to say, I try to be as quick as possible in there.

Shoes. Whenever you go into people’s house (and now my own) you take off your shoes and leave them outside. This is also done when you enter some offices and temple properties. I’m not sure of the reason – whether it’s a tracking-in-dirt thing or simply a show of respect. Feet do have some significance, as bending down to touch people’s feet is a sign of respect and reverence here. I should look into this more. Also, 99.9% of people wear sandals here – mostly thongs. I am one of them and I have to say that my feet have never looked better. The parts of my toes feet that traditionally rub against close-toed shoes are all smooth and happy now. I will have to add regular pedicures to my luxury lifestyle when I return home to keep these puppies happy.

Spiders. There are spiders on every wall and in every corner of my house. And with spiders of course come the requisite spider webs. I go back and forth between leaving them be to catch mosquitoes and taking a broom to them because they are unsightly and are slowly taking over my space. Because I often give in to the latter, I have destroyed two brooms. The webs stick to the bristles and then attract dirt and eventually the broom simply spreads dirt around rather than sweeping it up. I bought a “spider broom” — one that I would use only for web removal — and it was an unholy mess of webbing and useless bristles after just a few days. The battle continues.

Hoarking. No day in Sri Lanka – hell, no day at the office even – would be complete without the sound of someone hoarking up a wad of phlegm. It is as ubiquitous as bird calls. And that is too unpleasant to think about so I’m going to stop writing on this subject.

Plastic. Whenever you go to a restaurant – not a good restaurant, just a place that you might pick up your lunch at or have an inexpensive dinner (think foodcourt) – you get your order on a proper plate if you are eating in. But to save up on washing (I guess) the person dishing out your food covers the plate in a thin sheet of plastic—a cross between cling-wrap and wax paper. Plastic is ubiquitous here and there are dirty bags all over the streets and at the sides of road to show for it. In the restaurants, you also often get a bowl and a jug of water to wash your hands before eating with them and some cut up pieces of newspaper to dry them with. Most restaurants have a sink that you can use, which seems the smarter option to me, but I guess if you’re in a hurry (this is fast food after all) the jug and bowl will do.

It seems that Sri Lankans don’t drink with their meals. They often go to the sink and have some water when they are done. Restaurants usually have 3 or 4 glasses there for people to use, which everyone seems to share with no problem. Similarly, at my office, the filtered water tank in the reception area has a glass that people can use to drink from (instead of the cone-shaped paper cups you’d usually find in North America). This is probably more environmentally friendly than paper, although I still can’t shake the “ick” factor of sharing a glass with strangers without an immediate area to wash it in.

And in other news… VSO Sri Lanka has changed its transportation policy. The old policy subsidized travel for volunteers taking private vehicles (e.g. tri-shaws, taxis) for security reasons. The intent was to provide psychological support for volunteers more than actual risk reduction apparently. The office has decided that the policy may be losing its effectiveness in providing emotional and psychological support so it will no longer provide the subsidy. To sum this up in two words: That sucks. I have real reservations (as you know) about taking the buses and the psychological/emotional support the subsidy provides me is HUGE. True, there hasn’t been a bus bombing in a few months and there’s no guarantee that I won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time but I also don’t want to tempt fate. Transportation is by far my biggest expense here and even with the subsidy I am dipping liberally into my personal savings to afford this experience. So to reiterate: This sucks. But, there’s nothing I can do about it except see how it goes, go into debt and cross my fingers for my and my colleagues’ safety.

And finally… the big toenail on my left foot is coming off (really wrecking my whole “pretty feet” aesthetic). Playing soccer in my tennis shoes has been bad for the toe. The toe is unhappy. Even though it is swaddled in BandAids, I feel the mutiny of the nail as we speak. Part of it is hanging on but the majority of it has already thrown in the towel and bid adios. I’m afraid it’s going to hurt like hell when it does eventually fall off. Has anyone ever had that happen to them? Any advice?

Ampara Part Deux

January 16, 2009

Okay, I had the best of intentions to write every day of this trip but that just didn’t work out. Our days have been really jam-packed so chilling out is the most I can handle in the evenings. But here I am on the last day of our Ampara trip, so I figured I’d fill you in on what I’ve seen and include some pictures.

On our second full day here, we checked out some farming societies. Sewalanka has trained some groups of farmers in organic rice cultivation and we saw their first demonstration field. Now in its third harvest, the field might actually yield a profit this time. The land in this region is very sandy and largely infertile so farmers use a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to make the rice grow. The organic method uses homemade “tonics” of cow dung (fertilizer) and rotting fish (pesticide). The farmers planted the demonstration plot in the worst land they had and have been excited by the results. The plants are hardier and the ground fertility is increasing. With each season it gets better and they plant more of the property organically. Still, they haven’t converted their entire plots to organic just yet. There is no real market for organic rice here. People don’t really get the whole healthy/organic thing so there’s no demand for it. Raising awareness is the next step.

The farmers remove weeds from their organic rice plots
The farmers remove weeds from their organic rice plots

We then sat with a few farming groups to hear about their work. These sessions amused me a bit. Each meeting was so formal, like an old-fashioned classroom. Here we are, nobodies, just visiting to learn about what they do and in each location the head of the group would stand up, arms crossed behind his/her back to recite a welcome to us. I of course couldn’t understand what they were saying but I felt like a stern headmaster in front of a nervous nine-year-old. At the end, he/she would stand again and thank us for coming, and then we had to sign a guest book. Guest books seem to be popular here, no matter how out of place. (“Thanks for inspecting our fish factory. Before you go, please put a dedication in our guest book!” “We appreciate you visiting our secret home for abused children, please sign the guest book.”)

After visiting the fields we went to the rather loftily named Input Production Center, which is Sri Lankan speak for “place where we make the fertilizer and pesticides”. Once again, I expected a big factory. It was actually a small room with about six plastic barrels that had the various tonics in them. While I appreciated the farmer’s enthusiasm to show us each bucket of rotting cow dung/urine/water and discarded fish/rotting coconut/water, my nasal passages will never be the same. 🙂

The Input Production Center

The Input Production Center

Eau de Putrid - a heady blend with top notes of urine and a full bouquet of cow dung

Eau de Putrid - a heady blend with top notes of urine and a full bouquet of cow dung

On Day 3, we went back out to the coast. We checked out a village that had been destroyed by the tsunami and rebuilt with “balloon houses” as part of a Sewalanka project. The round houses have more chance of withstanding natural disasters and are really quite cool inside. There were 56 houses in all, each with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room (no bathroom). The round shape gives them nice cathedral ceilings inside and some even have matching rain water tanks.

One of the families invited us inside and served us pongal – a sweet dish made of rice, milk, sugar, raisins and nuts (from what I could taste). It was the best Sri Lankan dish I’ve had since I arrived here. I was humbled once again by this experience. This home had no furniture at all – the woman dished out our food on the floor of the bedroom. We sat on plastic patio chairs (which are universal in rural Sri Lankan homes) and they brought in a coffee table and some glasses from somewhere outside (maybe a neighbour). Yet the hospitality was so warm and generous.

The balloon houses, available in a wide range of colours... bathrooms are extra

The balloon houses, available in a wide range of colours... bathrooms are extra

Next we hit Arugam Bay, which is a world-renowned surfing destination. We didn’t actually do anything there, just walked along the beach for an hour and a half (and I get PAID for this! Oh wait, no I don’t…) It is a massive, popular beach but it was deserted because it’s off-season. The waves were rough and the beach was filthy. I was disappointed as I’d heard so much about this place. I couldn’t get over how many single shoes I saw (in addition to the other flotsam and jetsam.) I wondered if it was possible that these were remnants from the tsunami. It was a sobering thought until our guide said that once the high season rolls around the beach is pristine but as soon as it’s off-season, people go back to dumping stuff all over the place.

Me on the beach... again.

Me on the beach... again.

On our way back inland, we stopped for corn. We’d had corn on the cob from a roadside stall on our first day and I was not impressed. It was a deep orange and tasted like Canadian corn does when it’s really old. Like the corn I imagine that they feed to horses. But, we arrived at this small home in a rural village and they had prepared fresh corn from their field for us. It was much tastier than the first cob.

Then they showed me around their field. Not only do they grow corn, they also grow peanuts, which I’d never seen on the vine until yesterday. The whole family – wizened old grandmothers and young school children were sitting in the field pulling peanuts off their stalks. One of the men of the house explained the challenges they have in this area. The ground is very dry and they don’t have any way to irrigate it. They don’t have a well at all. I kicked at and touched the ground and it was like dried clay. He demonstrated that it is incredibly difficult to pull the plants out of the ground when it’s this hard and the peanuts get damaged in the process. Sewalanka is looking to build five wells, but they will be community wells shared between 200 homes. It is doubtful that this family will be able to water their crop effectively with that.

This is one of those times (which are frequent) that I was incredibly thankful for the dumb luck of having been born where I was and living where I do. I pondered a lot on happiness, pleasure and strife on the way back – never really coming to any conclusions. I thought about the day-to-day lives of this family, in a two-room house with no electricity in a place that gets dark at 6 p.m. How they work in the fields each day battling against their environment to make a meagre living. How the old women’s leathery hands have never had a massage and how those little girls will probably never leave this small village. While I get to travel the globe and enter their world, they will never know mine. And it’s not something that money can change, really. Money can’t buy water (a natural spring in their area, that is.) I wondered if they are happy or unhappy in their lives. I wondered if they would change things if the opportunity arose. I suspect –rightly or wrongly – that it is one of those situations where they just slog through life. This is what they’ve been given and they have no choice but to live with it – does longing come into the equation or is that simply a luxury of the western world? I wondered where they get their pleasure from and I thought a lot about the abundance of pleasure that I have in my life. Like I said, I didn’t really come to any conclusions; my mind just circled around these thoughts a lot. I think it will continue circling for days to come.

Harvesting the peanuts

Harvesting the peanuts

Harvesting the peanuts

Harvesting the peanuts

For Petra... the family had a puppy that was about the size of my hand.

For Petra... the family had a puppy that was about the size of my hand.

Peanuts in the sun

Peanuts in the sun

Later we checked out an ice factory, which again was smaller than I thought it would be… and apparently incredibly inefficient. It has a capacity to make is 60 blocks of ice every six hours. Right now they make six in three days. It’s a new facility so they are breaking in the equipment slowly apparently. Today we went to the Fish Production Center and watched one of the three employees take a big fish out of a freezer, cut of a slice and hand it to another staff person to put in a plastic bag and vacuum seal it. I’m not actually sure what the third person does, since this process only involved only two employees.

Afterward, we chatted with several women about how loans from Sewalanka have helped them with their businesses. These interviews are always half-frustrating half-amusing because of the language barrier. No matter how simply I ask a question, none of our Sewalanka interpreters understand me. I don’t know what it is. So I often get answers to a completely different question. “How long does it take to make the tonic?”

“Two and a half years.”

“Do you mean months or maybe days?”

“Oh, there’s seven people working here.”

“The tonic. I was wondering how long it takes for it to be ready.”

“Oh, papaya, banana peels, water and a bacteria.”

Sigh. Forget it.

And I don’t get full information either. When we were talking to the women, I’d ask a question like “what was wrong with the old boat that you needed to buy a new one?” and the Sewalanka staff person would translate the question. The woman would babble on providing a five-minute answer and the Sewalanka staffer would turn to me and say, “It was totally broken.”

“ Are you sure that’s all she said?” Yup. Okaaay.

“And is she happy with the performance of the new boat? Has it helped her and her family?”  Babble, babble, laughter, babble, elaborate hand-gestures, babble… translation: “Yes, she’s very happy.” Grrr.

And that was the end of our Ampara trip. Tomorrow we head back to Colombo at 6 a.m. so I should probably get to bed.

Ampara Trip Day 1

January 13, 2009

Greetings from Ampara on the east coast of Sri Lanka! I am in Ampara for a five-day business trip, getting a first-hand look at the various projects Sewalanka has going on here. This is the most organized trip I’ve taken with work. There’s a whole six-day itinerary planned, with different people in charge of different aspects. The ironic thing is everything was organized to impress my boss’ new assistant (and thus my boss), and she cancelled on the trip at the last minute. Jenni, the new communications person, and I were just going to tag along with her but now we’re the main attraction. It is great though because I’m getting to see projects I’ve been writing about for the last nine months and also getting information about projects that I’ve been begging in vain for details on.

Getting to Ampara, like so many places in Sri Lanka, isn’t easy. We left Colombo at dawn – 5:30 a.m. – and it took us almost nine hours to drive here, which is kind of crazy considering it’s about 300km away. The roads are terrible in some spots and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a severed spine at the end of this. It was impossible to sit upright in the van—I just bounced all over the place like a jumping bean. I started writing yesterday’s blog post from the van but that lasted all of one paragraph. I spent almost all of the nine hours lying down on the back row of seats. Occasionally I’d almost get thrown off by some hard braking but it was much better than trying to sit up.

The scenery on the way (when I raised myself up to look out the window) was really lovely, ranging from mountains to flat plains. I was expecting many security checkpoints but only noticed us stopping for two of them (I fell asleep during parts of the trip). I wasn’t asked for my ID either time, which may have been a result of Sewalanka’s well-known name here or something the driver said. When we arrived in Ampara town, I was struck by how much more liveable it is here. It’s a mid-size town and many people ride bicycles in the streets. The air is much fresher here and it’s the rainy season so it’s cool.

Ampara’s coast was hard hit by the tsunami and as we drove around visiting various Sewalanka projects, I noticed that every other sign at the side of the road indicates a development project funded by one or several donor organizations – post tsunami schools, fishing facilities, farming projects, etc. This region must have been inundated with support following the tsunami. There were a few Canadian flags in there.

After visiting Sewalanka’s district office and the regional office, we were taken to our first project in Ampara town: a fresh fruit juice store that opened up at the beginning of the month. Sewalanka is working with organic farmers and community-based organizations to purchase fruits and open a store to sell fresh juice. The store is run by community members and managed by Sewalanka. Once it is self-sufficient, it will be fully handed over to the community. It’s a nice place, with bright fruity coloured walls and two capable staff. Although it was totally empty when we arrived, we were told that it does decent business for a new enterprise.

And now presenting... my mango juice!

And now presenting... my mango juice!

Today, we drove out to the coast (Ampara town is inland). Sairaja, our guide, was an insane driver and I was sure we would either crash or I would rupture a disk. Unfortunately lying down wasn’t an option and I tried to stay as relaxed as possible as I repeatedly went airborne and met a hard landing. As we got to the coast, Sairaja pointed out a beach that used to house an entire community that was wiped out in 2004. The beach is dotted with tombstones, which was an unusual and haunting site.

Some tombstones in the sand. There were more but all the shots came out blurry.

Some tombstones in the sand. There were more but all the shots came out blurry.

Our destination was a lagoon where Sewalanka has been working on a mangrove restoration project with the community. We got into little boats that can hardly be called boats at all. They looked like pontoons that are on the bottom of water planes. You had to sit with your knees pushed together because that’s as wide as they got.

Me wedged into the boat... looking prissy.

Me wedged into the boat... looking prissy.

I don’t know if one of these narrow boats could float on its own without falling onto its side so two of them were tied together with big branches and string to balance them out. With two community members paddling, we were off into the lagoon. Malanakuma, the local expert on mangroves, explained the different types and how they plant them.

A mature mangrove plant in the lagoon. Home for fish and protection from storm erosion.

A mature mangrove plant in the lagoon. Home for fish and protection from storm erosion.

On one of the opposite shores of this massive lagoon, we got out to visit a Hindu temple that was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Other than two ornate structures at either end it was basically a dirt floor and three candle holders/lamps. I love that juxtaposition and the notion of bringing whatever you have, however humble, forward for worship.

The lagoon is apparently home to about 100 crocodiles and, as we got back into the boats, one of the steadying stick’s connections broke. As my boat tipped, my mind flashed on being devoured by a crocodile. We all lunged to rebalance the boat and then one of the paddlers retied the stick. Still, I didn’t feel comfortable again on that ride, even though all the crocodiles were apparently asleep.

Retying the frayed string that keeps the big stick in place which keeps the tipsy boat in balance. Yeah, I feel safe.

Retying the frayed string that keeps the big stick in place which keeps the tipsy boat in balance. Yeah, I feel safe.

As we glided through the lagoon we saw flying fish and kingfisher birds (the same beautiful chocolate brown and electric blue bird I saw in Mirissa.) We stopped on our way back to visit three dock-type structures that have been built on the water. It’s a fish farming project funded by another organization. The docks are tied with submerged nets that hold fish. One of the fisherman was fishing off the doc, outside the farm, and caught a little one while we were there.

The fisherman surveys the fish farm.

The fisherman surveys the fish farm.

Once we left, we went to a fishing cooperative society and talked to its members, then to the Sewalanka coastal office to see the projects near there. We visited a psychosocial centre that helps tsunami affected kids. The kids, mostly in grades 9 and 10 sang a song for us. During their song a blind guy dropped in and then he sang a song as well. His voice was fantastic and apparently the song, which was in Tamil about unity and acceptance, was good too. He’s a poet and wrote it himself.

As we left the coastal district, one of the centre’s staff joined us in the van. Sairaja explained that because of conflict the road is closed to buses and other personal vehicles after 4 p.m. for security reasons, so she was taking advantage of our vehicle to get to the bus depot. It was strange to be reminded that this can be a dangerous region. We passed several checkpoints today and none seemed at all vigilant (we didn’t have to stop once) so you kind of forget that they have any purpose at all. There are soldiers all around and VSO has me check in regularly, yet it’s all very abstract at times. I guess that is lucky—if you’re going to live in a war zone, it’s pretty fortunate to have the liberty to forget about it once in a while.

Mr. & Mrs.

January 12, 2009

I am writing this blog post in a van. It seems like I’ve spent a lot of time in vans lately, yet I never fully get used to the way buses and other vehicles big and small come hurtling at us in our lane from the other direction. Passing here is an art form—one I hope never to learn, but an art form nonetheless. It’s a daring dance of horns, quick judgment, muscling in and giving way. Somehow this seems to work and I’ve only ever seen one accident on the major roads.

It usually takes a few drinks for things to tilt at this angle.

It usually takes a few drinks for things to tilt at this angle.

 

Riding around the country as I have over the last three weeks and then landing in often breathtaking destinations has me really taking stock of this experience. Sure, I eat ants, live in fear of giant spiders, weep at my environmental footprint and grit my teeth at the stares and harassment, but there’s also a lot to appreciate. This weekend, as I sat next to the ocean, basking in the sun at an open air restaurant, munching on calamari and drinking mango juice after a morning of body surfing, I took a moment to think about how lucky I am and how special this is. I looked around. I gave thanks for the roaring yet gentle surf, for the palm trees as far as the eye could see, for the stunning brown and electric blue bird that flew into the tree around us and for the smell of the ocean and that feeling of being warmed to your core by the sun’s rays. I’m taking a moment again now as we careen through the lush green countryside. Jagged cliff faces, prime for rock climbing, the fresh country air, green green everywhere except for the cloudless blue sky.

It’s a good life.

For the second weekend in a row, I was down south. This time it was a beach town called Mirissa. It is about half an hour beyond Unawatuna and worth the extra trek. Mirissa is gorgeous and unspoilt. The beach is pristine, uncrowded, laid back and free of hawkers. The water is clear and you can walk out pretty far and still be able to stand with your head above the surf. It’s a much more frolic friendly bay and our new favourite spot.

We went to Mirissa for our friends A&A’s wedding.  Jesse’s friend Sam is visiting from the U.K. and A&A were kind enough to invite him to join in the fun.

Sam, Jesse and I in the tri-shaw on the way to the wedding.

Sam, Jesse and I in the tri-shaw on the way to the wedding.

 The wedding took place at a private house owned by the president of Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide advertising (I think that’s what the manager said anyway.) After a challenging tri-shaw ride through a pond, over the railway tracks and then up, up, up an unpaved mountainside, we arrived at the venue. It was a spectacular venue, perched atop the hill overlooking the ocean and the valleys for 360 degrees with wild peacocks in the bushes around the property. We enjoyed beverages as the two bridesmaids, both British, awaited a woman who was supposed to help them put on their saris. When she never showed, a couple of the guests were put into work and all was good to go.

 

The wedding took place on the lawn in a gazebo –type structure officiated by a Sri Lankan woman. Sri Lankan weddings, it turns out are not so much audience friendly fare. After the bride walked down the aisle, she and the groom and their witnesses sat with the officiant in the gazebo signing the certificate and other documentation in triplicate. The slightly tips crowd got restless. This is the first wedding I’ve attended with heckling. It was hilarious. And then that was that, they were married. No vows, no ring exchange that I noticed. They did kiss, but that seemed to be of their doing, not part of the ceremony.

The Wedding

The Wedding

 And then the party began. 

 

And oh how we partied. The food was magnificent – an outdoor buffet with grilled lobster, shrimp, calamari and tuna as well as pastas, baked potato (with sour cream! I was in heaven), Sri Lankan curries and other meats should the seafood not tickle your fancy. After dinner, the bride and groom ushered us back to the lawn where they had arranged an awesome fireworks display. And then the dancing began.

Y'all want this party started ri-iight?

Y'all want this party started ri-iight?

 

The various dance stylings from the evening

The various dance stylings from the evening

The bride and me before things got too out of hand

The bride and me before things got too out of hand

It was exactly the kind of vibe I would want at my wedding. At the beginning, I predicted a fun crazy night that would end with an impromptu soccer game on the beach. I was wrong. Instead, it ended with the groom topless, several guests falling down, one passing out in a tree, and one swimming in the pool fully dressed. For the record, I was none of these people, but needless to say it was a good night.

 

Two Different Worlds

January 7, 2009

After nine months here, you’d think I’d have overcome the communications barrier – at least with my coworkers – but each week brings a new misunderstanding.

I am trying to arrange transportation to our friends’ wedding this weekend. It’s taking place down south in a beach town called Mirissa. I’ve never been there but everyone says it’s spectacular. Most of the guests who are going are taking Friday off to enjoy an extra day at the beach. Having just come back from a week’s vacation between Christmas and New Year, I don’t feel right taking another full day off. But transportation is either expensive or risky here. With the capture of Kilinochchi, and the rebels desperate to assert their continued viability, the idea of taking public transport is even less enticing than before. I know that it’s unlikely that I’ll be caught up in a bombing incident but I’m still going to do anything I can to avoid one.

There is a woman in the office whose job it is to coordinate transportation for staff between the various district offices. Today I went to her to ask if she knows of any inexpensive transport companies because I want to go to Mirissa on the weekend. After initially offering me a Sewalanka vehicle as long as I paid for the gas (which I declined since it would be inappropriate), she asked me when and what time I wanted to leave and then said she’d coordinate it. I told her she didn’t have to coordinate it, I would do that, I just wanted the name of some companies. But she did the head wobble and said she’d take care of it so I decided to leave it to her since she’s the expert.

A few minutes later, I got a call from one of her staff asking where I wanted the van to go. I told her the pick-up spot near Jesse’s work. Then I headed out to lunch, stopping in at the grocery store on my way. On my way out of the store, a taxi driver ran after me. “You ordered a taxi?”

“No,” I said.

“No?” He said, clearly surprised.

“No. Sorry…” I said and I continued walking.

When I got back from lunch, my office mate said that the vehicle team had called to say that my taxi was here. Uh-boy. I had to go in and apologize for the confusion and explain that I was looking for transport for the weekend. So I still don’t have a ride and feel too sheepish to push for assistance again.

Since the first of the month, I’ve been at a loss organization-wise. I don’t have a daytimer anymore, and I live by that thing. I can’t help it. I’m a creature of habit and I’ve used the same daytimer for the last six years (and I have all of them still as a reminder of what I’ve done with my life). Being without one for the last few days has been a disorienting experience. Then this morning we received lovely new Sewalanka calendars and daytimers! I was excited. Even though it’s not my usual one (which is on order and will come some time next week) it will at least help me keep my life in order in the meantime. Or so I thought. I opened up the book and the first page spread goes from Monday to Thursday. The next from Friday to Tuesday and the next pages go from Wednesday to Sunday. I’ve never seen a daytimer like this. You can’t look at a week  at a glance, which is what I’m used to doing. Some days the weekend is in the middle of the page and sometimes it’s not there at all…  Oh well, it’s kind of like brain exercise every time I look through it. I have to do a little mental push up every time I use it, which has to be helping me be more adaptive somehow, right?

Finally, ants. Yes, ants. I’m not sure if I’ve written about them before or not. My apologies if I’m retreading on old territory. But I realized about a month ago that my life has taken an unwelcome turn when I look at ants and make mental comments like, “meh, you’re not big enough for me to care that you’re in my food…” and “hmph… I guess you guys were in bed with me all night.”  I have come to marvel at and hate ants. There are several species in my home. The bedroom is the domain of the big ones and the little ones rule my kitchen. But only in the morning for some reason. If I leave my washed wooden spoon in the utensil drainer, it is riddled with them within the hour. Yet, if I leave the wooden spoon on the table that has the gas burner, they don’t touch it. How do they know a dot of juice is on the floor or can sense an open jar of jam from their hiding place behind the cupboard but can’t make it onto the stove? It is beyond me. Somehow, they got into Jesse’s FRIDGE – the one zone of safety in a tropical country! – and went to town on half a package of Christmas shortbread. The bastards. I’ve stopped thinking about how many I’ve eaten and I choose instead to focus on their protein value.

Christmas, New Year and Everything In Between

January 3, 2009

Sorry for the long break between posts. It’s been the Christmas holidays, as you know, and I’ve been travelling around without internet access. But now I’m back.

Jesse’s friend Ben arrived on the 22nd and his mother and step-father arrived on the 24th. Christmas morning was quite bittersweet. I ached to be back home and the presence of Jesse’s family and friend heightened the absence of my own. But I got to chat with some friends and family and opened my gifts, which were so thoughtful and wonderful and hilarious that I felt all the love over the miles. After gorging on the cheese and shortbread that Jesse’s mom had brought us, the five of us went down to Mount Lavinia Hotel at the south end of the city. The streets were as busy as ever and many stores were open, just like any other Thursday. The hotel has a large beach and we spent the afternoon lying around. Every so often I had to remind myself that it was Christmas day.

In the evening, we gathered again for Christmas dinner at the Gallery Cafe, which is a fancy restaurant in Colombo. The meal was terrific and we exchanged gifts and generally had a lovely evening. In keeping with my family tradition of never having turkey (my mom doesn’t like it so I never grew up on it) I had Christmas Modha (a fish).

The next morning we were off on our trip around Sri Lanka – or at least part of the country. It started out rocky with a last-minute change in shuttle companies due to an extortionate price hike and then trying to understand why the Galle Face hotel wouldn’t let Jesse’s family pay for their room. Apparently, since the room had been booked through a travel agent, the travel agent had to receive the payment, not the hotel. Weird. In the end, we just said “okay” and the hotel let us leave with the promise that we’d pay the travel agent later.

Our first destination was the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage, which I’ve written about before. Everyone loved it, which was great because they initially weren’t excited about going. During this particular visit I was lucky enough to see a randy elephant try to mount another elephant. OH. MY. GOSH! An elephant penis is literally like a third leg!! I’m still stunned. It just kept extending and extending and my face kept contorting and contorting from bemusement to shock to utter disbelief. There may be rumours that I yelled out “mount her again!” but they are all lies.

Unfortunately, soon after his mom arrived, Jesse started feeling ill and by the time we arrived in Kandy, where we’d stay the next two nights, he was pretty much done for. We stayed at the Kandy Panorama hotel, which, true to its name, has spectacular views overlooking a vast valley and other mountains in the distance. The narrow cliff-side road to this spot at the top of the world, however, borders on harrowing. The Panorama staff and food were great but the hotel, which has been open for a year and a half still has a distinctly unfinished feel – there were TVs in our rooms but no reception. There was no hot water and half the dining hall was furnitureless. Much to our amusement, while Ben was standing on the balcony taking in the scenery one of the staff joined him and pointed to the east saying “yeah, over there is the really nice five star hotel…”

The next day we got two tri-shaws to take us to the Temple of the Tooth in the morning (while Jesse rested) and the Perediniya Botanical Garden in the afternoon. Ben’s tri-shaw driver let him get behind the wheel as we made our way down the treacherous hills! Much to my surprise, everyone lived.

Ben at the wheel. Howard hanging on for dear life in the back.

Ben at the wheel. Howard hanging on for dear life in the back.

When we got to our first destination, we asked for the drivers’ cell phone numbers because we didn’t know how long we’d be and we could call them to pick us up when we were done but they insisted on waiting for us. At the temple, we were pounced upon by a tour guide who ended up being pretty good, although wanted twice what we were willing to pay him.

After the temple Jesse joined us and we went to Peredeniya, where Jesse’s mom was a minor celebrity. A family insisted on all having their picture taken with her one by one, although we never figured out who they though she was. The botanical garden is massive – 150 acres – and quite beautiful. There were the largest bamboo stalks I’d ever seen. When I looked at them, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. And there was a thing called a Cannon Ball tree, which really did look like it was growing cannon balls. I have no idea what fruit it was.

When the tri-shaws dropped us off at our last destination there was a fair bit of haggling about the price. They insisted on a high price because they’d waited for us all day, I insisted that that had been their choice, not ours. Eventually, we settled somewhere in the middle and said goodbye. Next we took in a show of Sri Lankan dancing and then a firewalking display. The firewalking surprised me. I always thought that people were able to walk across fire because they were in some sort of meditative state of higher consciousness. These guys just seemed to be excited and in a hurry. Still it was cool.

There have to be better ways to get attention.

There have to be better ways to get attention.

Kandyan dancers - the girls

Kandyan dancers - the girls

The next morning we grabbed the train – yep, the train – to travel into the hill country. The train ride is SPECTACULAR. It’s simply gorgeous and a very pleasant way to make your way through the countryside. I wouldn’t want to take the high-traffic commuter trains into Colombo for fear of bombings but the hill country ride was magnificent. The train travels very slowly here – I would say it never went faster than 40 kph. It was a glorious sunny day and all of the windows were open, which makes for a very pleasant but very loud ride. Along the ride you see waterfalls and beautiful valleys and small homes and the occasional derailed and abandoned train car on its side just to keep it all real. Whenever the train passes through a tunnel, the children (and I’m pretty sure a good proportion of the adults – including Jesse) lean out the windows and make ghost sounds. Every single time. It’s funny, and never seems to get old for them.

One of the shots from the train

One of the shots from the train

We arrived in Nuwara Eliya (pronounce “new-rail-lia”) in the early afternoon. Nuwara Eliya is the highest city in Sri Lanka at 1900 feet above sea level. It is called Little England and there are many English style mansions there. The air is noticeably drier than down south and in the shade it’s quite chilly. Four of us stayed at a fancy private club called the Hill Club, of which a couple of our friends are members, and Ben stayed at a local hotel called the Grosvenor. The Hill Club is like walking back in time – a big old stone tudor building with an evening dress code, mounted deer on the walls and images of the royal family, fox hunts and old white men on every other wall. When we walked in and were apprised of the rules, there was just a hint of disdain when the maitre d’ advised us that there was a casual bar if we needed it.

The mansion was decked out for Christmas and playing proper carols. That, combined with the cold (once the sun set, you could see your breath!) and the general feeling you were in Scotland, we all had a taste of “traditional” Christmas after all. After dinner, we retired by the giant, much needed fire. I was so cold, having only open toed shoes and a more-cute-than-functional jacket with me. I have never been so happy as to discover that the Hill Club prepares the rooms by putting hot water bottles between your sheets at night.

The next day, we went to a couple of tea factories. Everywhere the hills were dotted with women bent over the tea bushes, plucking away at the best leaves and dropping them into bags that hang from their heads. Although we got a full and good tour, I’m still not 100% sure how tea is made or how it gets graded. I did have one of the nicest cups of tea I’ve ever had there though. We drove by numerous wooden fruit stands built over the edge of cliffs and passed by many people in toques and jackets. This weather was messing with my head and body. My throat had begun to get scratchy from the dry air and the hot-cold-hot-cold changes.

Some of the tea pickers that dot every mountainside

Some of the tea pickers that dot every mountainside

By the time we left for Colombo the next day, I was sick. I couldn’t get warm and just wanted to sleep as we wound our way along the bumpy, twisty roads through the hills. On our way back, the driver slammed on the brakes and we all watched as the biggest snake went winding by and into the bush. We stopped at the beautiful Plantation hotel in the middle of nowhere for lunch. It had a rather incongruous and unexplained Rolls Royce museum in it and didn’t seem to be anywhere near a plantation. But we had a fabulous lunch there overlooking the most serene river ever and I felt a bit better.

In the evening, back at the Galle Face hotel which won’t accept payments, we had our final drinks with Jesse’s mom and step-dad, caught a wedding, enjoyed a spectacular sunset and said goodbye.

Off to Unawatuna for New Year’s Eve the next day. I was still feeling poorly, still couldn’t get warm. We hitched a ride with some friends who have a vehicle and they made a stop at Bentota beach. Everyone went for a little frolic at the edge of the ocean, while I flopped down on the sand hoping the sun’s rays would penetrate this chilly corps of mine. In Una, Jesse, Ben and I were starving. Unfortunately, Una is probably the worst place to be when you’re starving because service is just so bad there. With the beach busier than I’d ever seen it before and every restaurant preparing for NYE dinners, pre-dinner food orders were not a priority. So we sat and we waited. And after an hour I couldn’t wait any more and had to lie down. By then I was running a fever. I slept for a few hours, took an aspirin and felt much better when I woke up at 9:30 p.m.

Like every new year celebration in my lifetime, this was more hype than substance. It had all the makings of a great night – lots of people, cool location, fireworks, friends – but it fell flat for me. We spent most of the night wandering the beach from bar to bar trying to find some place that wasn’t playing electronica (no luck). One of the neat things was that there was no countdown. One bar decided to start setting off its fireworks at two minutes to midnight by my clock and then the other bars started setting theirs off. Eventually, when all of our watches said it was after midnight we started wishing each other happy new year.

The concept of health and safety was completely absent that night. The fireworks were set off about a foot from the patrons. Somehow Jesse got a hold of one, but thankfully it didn’t light. The dogs LOVED the fireworks though! I thought they’d be scared of all the noise but they ran under the launchers to watch them go off and they jumped in the air with them and were having a grand old time.

A sparkler set off by our chairs

A sparkler set off by our chairs

A New Year Sparkler

A New Year Sparkler

And that was that. New Year in Sri Lanka. More wandering, dancing and drinking until 3 a.m. and then off to bed. The beach was strewn with fireworks remnants – bits of paper everywhere – and all was gone in the morning, no doubt pulled out by the sea.

Jesse and Ben call it a night... and a year

Jesse and Ben call it a night... and a year

We laid and played on the beach all new year’s day – not a bad way to start the year off.

Me and the boys think about the temperature back home

Me and the boys think about the temperature back home

In the evening we went to another restaurant that took forever to serve us. The owner would keep offering things they didn’t have or wouldn’t do. “Would you like one bill or separate bills?” “Oh! We’d like separate bills, please.” “No. We can’t do that – only one bill.” Jesse and I were the last to receive our meal and most everyone else had finished theirs by that time and their plates had been cleared. Our friend Michaela kept chastising the waiter who tried to clear her plate three times. Each time she said “No leave it until they are done eating. It’s rude.” Since that meal, I’ve had excruciating stomach pains that don’t seem to be going away.

Our friends who gave us the ride to the beach had to leave early so we were debating how to get back to Colombo. We talked about the train and even taking an air-conditioned bus (the regular ones are usually the ones that get blown up) but settled on a car since I was sick. On our ride back we learned that the government had captured Killinochchi, a town in the north that is the military and political hub of the LTTE. They’ve been after it for years and now that they have it, they are saying it means the inevitable extinction of the LTTE. People flowed out into the streets waving Sri Lankan flags and lighting firecrackers under cars (including ours) as if the war is over. It all seemed very premature to me, and sure enough, about an hour later a suicide bombing took place at the north end of the city. If we’d taken a bus or the train, we’d probably have been in the area at the time. We just got another text warning that an explosion was heard in town today as well. Things are going to get much more unsettled before they get better.

Happy New Year.

Lighting firecrackers in the street

Lighting firecrackers in the street

Driving through the haze and litter from the war celebrations

Driving through the haze and litter from the war celebrations