Monday, 5 November 2007

New blog - London

Here's the address for my new blog now that I've moved to London - for 6 months at the moment.

Friday, 27 July 2007

End of placement

So, it's over - HELP-O have a strategic plan which they seem to be happy with. I'm relatively happy with what we've ended up with although the test will be the extent to which it actually gets used as a way of directing their activities - we'll just have to wait and see on that one. But the managers seem to be committed to using it, and reviewing it, so...

I leave Galle tomorrow, although I'll be back for a few days in August when Kevin's here, so currently winding down/up towards start of holiday. I'll be really sad to leave here, as it's been such a good experience to be here and I feel very at home. 3 months is hardly any time and to be honest, it feels like I'm only just getting to know the place in any meaningful way - and there's a lot more to learn. But it's been a great taster and Sri Lanka will definitely have a place in my heart.

Won't attempt to summarise the highs and lows at this point but will look forward to catching up with everyone over the coming weeks and months, and will post an update or two from holidays!

Emma x

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Thoughts from a train journey

Some random thoughts that came to mind yesterday as I sat on a train from Bentota to Galle, gazing out of the window at the mish mash of houses and villages en route, mostly very poor. To set the scene...I'd just been to visit a centre for abused and orphaned children. On my way back the train passed a village called "KPMG Village", presumably christened that after post-tsunami rebuilding support.

There is a kind of 'secret shame' that goes on here when it comes to various things including child abuse, children who are abandoned because their families are too poor to look after them, street kids who go on to become prey for "sex tourists" (one of those phrases like "ethnic cleansing" that doesn't remotely do justice to its meaning), elderly people who are abandoned into filthy, squalid care homes, disabled people who are left to wither because they're seen as a burden, domestic violence, rampant alcoholism, and no doubt a lot more...

People don't talk about any of these things. There's little public acknowledgement of them and where there is it tends to be discussed in terms of blaming 'bad families' or 'village people and their ignorant ways'. Sri Lanka's entrenched system of caste, class and religious discriminiation and prejudice comes to the fore.

Do these problems exist because of lack of money - because Sri Lanka is a 'poor' country? I'm no expert and these things are, of course, complicated. But there seems to be plenty of money around to spend on military campaigns, national celebrations of the 'recapture' of the Eastern province, palatial homes and luxury cars for the 100+ ministries that exist here (for a population of 19 million), employing 8 people to do a job that one person could do...etc etc. Meanwhile well-meaning but not always very effective international aid and development agencies do what they can on the ground while getting slated by the government for 'funding the terrorists', while local campaigners and activists carry on as best they can in the face of public and government apathy to their causes.

More than lack of money, it seems there is a lack of will and desire to change the way things are - many people appear to be fatalistic about the status quo and/or feel powerless to change things, while those that can leave, do - there is a huge brain drain problem and massive competition among middle classes to send their children overseas to study/work.

All of this raises familiar questions about the role of international aid, how best to tackle global poverty, imbalances in economies and so on. It's ok that there aren't any easy or straightforward answers, but it would be better if people/organisations who are trying to find answers at least recognised the complexities and didn't make grand claims for things that aren't borne out in reality.

Ho hum.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

One week of work left...

Wow, how did that happen - only one week of my placement left! I leave Galle 1 week today for 4 weeks of holiday (hurrah).

A few people have asked me recently if I've enjoyed my time here and if I'd recommend volunteering to other people. Here's what I've said (it's all very cliched, I warn you now!)

I've had an amazing time and feel really privileged to have had the chance to spend time living and working in such a beautiful country, meeting some fabulous people and generally getting so much out of experiencing a different culture first-hand.

The work side of things has been more difficult than I expected, mainly in terms of not having enough work to fill a normal working week for me - that's been really frustrating and although some of it has been about our particular NGO, some of it is just the way things are here. Although I've managed to do other things to fill my time and have ended up adjusting quite a bit to the way/pace of life, it's been a big lesson for me as I think about whether I'd like to do similar work in the future.

Having said that, the very fact of working in a 'real' organisation is a great insight into life here that you would never get from other types of volunteering or travelling - and that I'm glad of. And I've definitely developed my skills by being here - maybe not the ones I expected to, but still!

The non-work side of things has been absolutely fantastic and it's been wonderful to get to know the country in a way that wouldn't be possible without being here for a while. I'm painfully aware of how lucky I am, in many ways, to be white, British and educated. The way in which people live their lives here is very humbling at points although there are definitely advantages to the UK that I hadn't appreciated fully before (like a free press!)

So, would I recommend doing this to someone else? Definitely. But I would caution against having unrealistic expectations and I would stress that you have to come with an open mind, be as flexible as you can be, and make the most of the opportunity to learn as much as you can about other people and yourself.

I told you it was cliche-ridden!!

Love to all

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

A blatant plug..

Regular readers (if there are any!) will notice a new link on this blog - to my guest house in Galle. This is a blatant plug for them - please take two minutes to click on the link as we're trying to get their website boosted in Google/Yahoo rankings etc and the more visitors from this and other sites, the better!

The lovely website design and content was done by yours truly in collaboration with Karen, my fellow volunteer and guest, and the family who run the guest house - was a bit of a saga to get it finished so the more use it gets, the better! (thanks in advance)

Monday, 16 July 2007

Happy campers & leopard spotting

Just had fantastic weekend of mini safari in Yala National Park. Met up with other volunteers in Tissa on Fri night and had a great house party in Will's house, which mostly involved dancing madly with lots of Sri Lankans to the sound of bongos and various bad dance music. Managed to lay off the arrack more than usual so didn't feel too bad on Saturday morning!

Went to Yala after lunch on Saturday and along the way, saw hundreds of pilgrims walking down towards Kataragama for annual Hindu and Buddhist festival. Most of them had been walking for days on end and were remarkably cheery considering! I wasn't quite as moved by this demonstration of humanity's ability to do mad things in the name of religion as some of my more spiritually-minded pals, but still it was an impressive site!

Safari then began and by the time the day was out we'd seen an impressive number of crocodiles, painted storks (which we promptly renamed pink-a**ed storks), mongoose (or is it mongeese), a cobra and, last but very much not least, a leopard cub - very cute!

We then made our way to our campsite and after much use of the 4x4 facilities on the jeep, eventually emerged at an idyllic little riverside spot where we pitched our tents on the beach and relaxed around the massive camp fire and barbecue prepared by our fabulous guides. An hour or two later we were very happy campers with a plate of rice, vegetables and melt-in-the-mouth fish - we all agreed it was the best meal we've had in Sri Lanka!

There was much arrack and beer consumption but not too much by me as wanted to be alert for 5am start the next day. Headed to bed about 1am and had a pretty broken sleep, including a few concerning rustles next to the tent and sounds of something big-sounding swimming in the river! Funny how you get quite sanguine about potentially being eaten by a crocodile when you're absolutely knackered! (don't worry mum, I'm sure there weren't crocs there really)

Next morning was amazing - because we'd camped we had park almost to ourselves and we were really lucky to come across a pair of leopards (male, female) at a watering hole just off the road. Magnificent doesn't come close to describing them, they were absolutely beautiful and so dignified - unlike us in our 2 jeeps frantically snapping away and jostling with each other like paparrazi!

We also saw a bull elephant wallowing in a lake full of lotus flowers and more crocs, a python and lots more birds. All in all a brilliant experience - and excellent value as the whole thing was about 35 quid.

The bus journey back to Galle was a bit of an epic with even more maniacal bus drivers than normal, but we eventually got back about 7.30pm Sunday, tired, weary, filthy but very, very happy!

This week I'm busy at work as my NGO has suddenly decided to make good use of me for my last few weeks and today will see my third strategic planning group meeting in the space of two days! I'm also doing bits and pieces with other NGOs so it's all good.

Love to all
Emma x

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Things that go bump in the night

A few of the sounds that occasionally wake me up during the night here:

1. A gang of feral cats mating loudly in the street below my open window – sounds hideously painful and even more disturbing is the occasional bark from a dog – hopefully just an observer!

2. The mullah from the local mosque calling people to prayer (there’s a high Muslim population where we live). This happens 4.30 on the dot, every morning – it goes on for about 10 minutes and is a kind of loud, repetitive chanting sing-song.

3. The high-pitched cackle of a gecko or two in my room – so loud for such a small creature

4. Huge wall-shaking claps of thunder as another storm rolls in from sea

5. A power-shower of rain battering down onto the street outside – makes Glasgow rain seem pathetic!

6. Tuk-tuks trundling up and down the lanes and peeping their horns at the little junctions

7. The local vegetable hawker roaming round the streets on a bike, pulling his cart behind him. Hard to describe the sound he makes – closest comparison is an Evening Times seller in Glasgow!

Took a few weeks but 99% of the time I sleep right through all of this now – wonder if I’ll find it too quiet to sleep at home!?

plans, plans, plans

Hi all,

Following a fairly frustrating week work-wise last week (more delays, running out of ways to fill the time etc etc), had a highly amusing weekend - more boogie boarding followed by more arrack-consumption. Sat night, we travelled about 50km up and down the South Coast by bus in search of a good night out and after trudging round our destination, Hikkaduwa, which seemed to be a ghost town, we were about to give up (flip flops rubbing badly and all desperate for a drink!) when we found, lurking behind an innocent-looking shop front, "Mambo" - and well worth the wait it was too! Beach party to beat all beach parties!

The night descended at the point where Paul and I decided that it would be better value for money to buy a bottle of arrack rather than 5 shots - hmmm. When a second bottle appeared on the table about an hour later, it really was all over as far as dignity or decorum were concerned. My next memory is of 4 of us (me, Karen, Nadine, Paul) wallowing in the waves just behind the bar in a scene as far from the famous one in "From Here to Eternity" as its possible to be. We were all kind of slumped on the beach like seals, still in our clothes (I hasten to add) but having a great time! Lots of lithesome, nubile young people were dancing in the bar, trying their best to look cool - but we were having more fun!

We then decided to dance the night away, dripping sand and salt water all over the place in the process. The night ended with a trip back to Galle in someone's truck and a shower back in the guest house to try to get some of the sand off my body!

All good clean fun...

Anyway, since then, this week has been (yes, you guessed it) another slightly frustrating time but on the bright side, I've now got some work lined up with a few other NGOs, in addition to the two I'm working with - this will fill the next few weeks quite well, and then, after much to-ing and fro-ing and humming and hawing about what to do, I've decided to come home at the end of August (after a few weeks holiday with Kevin).

Now that have made final decision and booked flight (I was thinking about extending for a bit) I feel really excited to be going home but also really determined to make most of rest of time here. Have also realised that I need to start thinking about earning some money again when I get back to UK - chances are I'll only be in Scotland for a couple of months (longer term plans still being finalised) but I'll need to keep the wolves from the door at least - so if anyone knows of any contract/freelance work going in my field, let me know!!!

Off camping in National Park this weekend - so watch this space for updates and hopefully tales of leopard spotting!!

Love to all and thanks to everyone who's been keeping in touch - it's great to hear from you all


Saturday, 30 June 2007

A day in the sea, a night in the pub

Spent yesterday in the sea and on the beach and it was glorious, probably best day I've had here - so, so good to be in the water. After 45 minutes squashed into a sweaty, noisy, smelly bus which careered along the roads in typical Sri Lankan style )feels like being at Alton Towers without a safety harness!), we got to Weligama, a sleepy town which is very undeveloped and off the tourist trail. Because there aren't any tourists here at the moment, when you go to the usual tourist spots, you get a fair bit of hassle because people are really desperate for income. So it was lovely to find a beautiful beach and clean ocean with a little resort where the owners were just friendly and hospitable and there weren't endless troops of handicraft hawkers/beach boys/drugged guys!

We hired surf boards and a boogie board and spent a few hours messing around in the ocean. We had thought about getting surfing lessons but decided against it as was fairly pricey. To be honest it was so good to be in the water, swimming and bodysurfing the waves that I was quite happy to just do that for hours! We had lunch and drinks and sunbathed and read and then headed to Unawatuna for sunset, dinner and beer. Unawatuna is the "party town" of the South Coast and it's pretty seedy, but we ended up having a good time. Got home close to 2am which is way past my usual Sri Lankan bed time!

Feeling a little bit fragile today but nothing that rehydrating won't fix. Had to be up fairly early for a cookery lesson from Mala, who runs the kitchen at the guest house. She showed us how to make dahl, coconut sambol and a couple of vegetable curries - I already really love Mala's cooking but now will appreciate it all the more, having seen the labour that goes into it!

Have also got cricket lesson this afternoon from guest house family kids, which will no doubt be highly entertaining for them as I've never held a cricket bat in my life!

Off up to Panadura tomorrow, which is about 2 hrs on bus from here - going to do initial bit of work with women who are tryng to get community facilities developed for housing scheme (see previous post). Am looking forward to it as feels like something I can get my teeth into a bit more than current NGO I'm working with.

Got news today of foiled suicide bomb attack in Scotland which combined with London bomb scares has made me feel sad and frustrated with world. Violence all so pointless.

Love to everyone x

Thursday, 28 June 2007

In no particular order, here are some photos of various things of interest. You can match the captions to the pictures yourself!

An ill-thought through housing scheme for 300 families displaced by the tsunami (spot the lack of community facilities)

Barge from some far away country which came loose from its anchor and washed ashore at Galle Fort – who knows if it will become a permanent attraction!

The view from Galle Fort ramparts in the evening – the lighthouse and the mosque

“Malinga the Flinger” in action against Bangladesh!

Fisherman’s mum sorting out nets on his boat (she is microfinance client)

Birthday celebrations

So, yesterday was my birthday and lovely it was too! Woke up and headed out of my room to go to the loo, to find a beautiful card sitting outside for me, from the family here. Then went down for breakfast and got big hug from Shiromi plus the amazing sight of a gorgeously-iced chocolate cake waiting for me. Got a bunch of wild flowers from our regular tuk-tuk driver and an elephant-embroidered tablecloth from his mum (who also does various bits of work for the family here). Lots of birthday greetings and kisses and more cake at work, and then home for birthday cake-cutting ceremony, popping of champagne and general merriment. We even had a quick game of “stick the tail on the elephant” which Karen and I had introduced a few weeks ago for Ramindu (10 year old son)’s birthday! All accompanied by the sounds of Happy Birthday and various other classics from the memory bank of the family keyboard!

Had more wine then went out for beers and arrack (strong Sri Lankan spirit which is great with ginger beer!), so had a bit of a sore head this morning but was worth it. Can’t think of a better way to see in my 30th year!

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

When housing schemes go bad...

Had a really good meeting today with a lady (Scottish!) who is trying to do some grassroots community work with a big housing scheme that's been created to house tsunami-displaced people. It was so bizarre seeing the scheme as it was just like walking through some crap Scottish scheme from the 60s - 4-storey houses, 10 to a block, no community facilities, nothing, no soul, no heart, just people sitting with nothing to do and houses starting to crumble and decay around them - after only 5 months of everyone being rehoused. With nearly 300 families there and high unemployment, it's a disaster waiting to happen, but the good thing is that this lady is working with a Sri Lankan community worker and they are really, really motivated to work with the community and try to get things turned round - employment training, possible community business, building facilities, children's clubs etc. There are going to be all kinds of challenges - how to engage community leaders and members, how to help get things going without 'imposing' solutions, how to get resources, how to develop sustainable income generation etc etc - but so much potential to make a real difference and prevent the whole place going down the swanny...

Anyway, they need a bit of support so I'm going to help them out with some strategic planning (what else!?) so that they can get a bit of a foundation to build on in terms of funding, business development, future volunteers and generally moving forward. I'll go up there 1 day a week for rest of time here, which will be a good change of scene for me and, while probably quite hard work, hopefully very stimulating.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Cricket in Colombo

Been in Colombo last day or two, which has been good. Went to hotel for drinks last night, played pool (badly), got laughed at by bar staff and 2 Icelandic blokes for lack of skill, met a mad tour guide woman who tried to get our home addresses, had a bite to eat, left the bar but then realised live music was about to start in hotel lobby. Had much laughter at the lobby band, who were a real 'lounge' band and refused to play any of our requests for power ballad-soft rock stuff - wouldn't even play Elvis!!! One guy had a mullet (never seen an Asian mullet before!), the drummer had leather trousers (pvc i suspect), the lead singer was shaven-headed Louis Armstrong impersonator who was most amusing! Amazing how desperate have become for entertainment!

Left after about 10 songs, haggled with tuk tuk driver, got back to hotel, found room infested with big ants, called manager, switched room to a palatial suite with no ants, had quite bad sleep cos of A/C and fear of cockroaches (no mossie net in hotel - I usually feel safe under that at guest house!!), listened to ipod, woke up when my mum texted at 3am (thanks mum!), got up 8ish, went out to try to get cash (my bank card has been playing up), got cash (hurrah!), bought juice, fruit and coffee for brekkie, went back to hotel, met Karen who had had brekkie there, got tuk tuk to cricket (Sri Lanka - Bangladesh test match), went to game, about 1.50 for ticket in grandstand, Karen left about 12 as she had a meeting, I stayed till tea break at 3.15 at which point Sri Lanka were about 70 for 2, so only 19 runs to beat B's total of 89 all out! will be short test match I think!

Cricket was nice to see, very relaxing although not much atmosphere. also quite hot and sweaty despite shade but was good. Good to see the Sri Lankan team in the flesh - got some good pics of Malinga the Flinger!

Friday, 22 June 2007

overdue update

Has been a busy couple of weeks, combined with power cuts and IT problems, so not had chance to update this for a while – but yes I’m still alive and kicking in case anyone is wondering! Getting savaged by mosquitoes at the moment for some reason – my ankles seem to be particularly delicious for them. Grrr. Rainy season is also upon us, so there are regular spectacular rainstorms which is fine when you’re inside! The air is very fresh as a result – positively cool at points, which is lovely.

On the work front, things have been mixed. Managed to get a bit of momentum going with meetings and discussions about objectives, priorities etc. But it slipped a bit this week and our regular planning group meeting was postponed on Thurs with zero notice so I ended up having a pretty boring day as I can’t get on with too much without other people’s input. It was rescheduled for Fri am…when it got to 45 mins after it was supposed to start and people still hadn’t turned up, I was not a happy bunny. While I totally accept that there’s a cultural difference in terms of meetings and time and things like that, I get really fed up when I feel like they’re not valuing my time (esp when I could be doing other things with it!), so I had a few ‘assertive’ words with the chairman, which seemed to make a difference. Meeting took place albeit delayed, everyone was very participative, we got through a lot and we have 2 meetings scheduled for next week. Watch this space…!

Have also been out and about quite a lot over last few weeks, visiting projects and meeting other NGOs (I may end up doing a bit of development work with some other NGOs as the work I’ve got to do here isn’t a full-time job). It’s been good to see some things in action, especially grassroots community-led stuff, which is really inspiring.

Unfortunately though, there is a lot of duplication of effort and not much ‘business savviness’ in the NGO community generally – lots of good intentions but not much in the way of sustainability. E.g. everyone we meet seems to think that coir (coconut husk hair) will be the saviour of Sri Lanka’s poor communities – there’s a bit of an “if we can make it, surely we can sell it” attitude – and you’d be amazed what you can make from the stuff (!!) At this rate, Sri Lanka will have a coir mountain to rival sugar and butter mountains elsewhere! Of course, donors throwing money at coir production factories don’t help. Likewise handicrafts, likewise clothing. But maybe bringing in some volunteer support to look at marketing, business development and co-ordinating effort across multiple NGOs could help…something that we’ve spoken about in terms of future volunteer placements being sent out here…

On the non-work front, it’s been a bit of a social whirl the last few weeks, what with visits from our placement provider, other folk from the guest house coming and going, trips out with the guest house family, and last night, the oh-so-salubrious experience of drinking gin and tonic at the Galle Cricket Club. Apparently Shane Warne drank there after he took his 500th test wicket at the very same ground, so who knows, maybe I sat in the same seat as him! The man of the house at the guest house is a member so he took a few of us there for a drink last night – v funny. The cricket ground was destroyed by the tsunami and is being re-surfaced at the moment – England are coming to play here in December so they need to get it ready for then. The stands are being taken down and moved, so the Cricket Club is not looking the best – as there was torrential rain last night, there was a) a power cut and b) the slightly alarming sight of sheets of corrugated iron flapping about in the gusts of wind about 10 feet from where we were sitting. All good fun.

I’m going up to Colombo on Sunday and hopefully catching some cricket on Monday – Bangladesh v Sri Lanka test match, first day. Even if we don’t see any (might be rained off!) it’ll be nice to get to Colombo for a bit as I’m starting to crave city life. On the way back down the coast, we’re meeting up with a Scottish ex-pat who runs an NGO on the coast – sounds like there might be some work to do there, which might be interesting. So I’ll be back in Galle Tues eve.

It’s weird to realize that I’m over halfway through time here – it’s flown by especially in the last 3 or 4 weeks. It’s strange, you don’t get the same sense of time passing here that you do in UK – mainly as there aren’t seasons in the way I’m used to – it gets light the same time every day and gets dark the same time every evening. It’s my birthday next week (hint hint!) and it doesn’t at all feel like the ‘right’ time of year for it. I have to keep reminding myself of the date! So in some ways it feels like it’s going to be ages before I finish up but when I actually look at a calendar I realize it’s not very long at all. There is a chance I’ll stay out here a bit longer (maybe till mid-Sep), but that really depends on if and what kind of work there is to do. Either way, I’ll be back in Scotland in time for Erin’s wedding (in case you’re wondering mum!!) and I’ll also be having a break in August – Kevin is coming out here and we’re going to have a few weeks split between Sri Lanka and the Maldives (very nice!)

Funny moment of the week - when is a photographer not a photographer…

Karen is writing an article about one of the projects here and she’d had a bit of trouble finding a photographer to take pictures of various people who’ve used micro-loans to develop their own businesses. Not that tricky you’d think but Galle is a bit of a backwater and the only people around seemed to be wedding photographers! Anyway she got one guy sorted out (for what was quite a hefty fee by Sri Lankan standards) but we soon realized that he wasn’t really up to the job when we had to explain the concepts of composition and perspective to him! The best moment was when we asked him to turn off the auto focus and use manual focus to get a bit of depth into the pictures – no chance!

We basically spent most of the day being “artistic directors” while said “photographer” reluctantly snapped away. We got a few okay shots but think Karen is regretting the day she decided to do this article!!

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Ella Rock (from last weekend)

Giant Buddha

Elephants washing

Foreign volunteers – local community (them and us?)

Keep coming across the phenomenon of foreign volunteers who came/come to Sri Lanka with worthy intentions but who end up being part of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture. Feels a bit like that sometimes for me and Karen and it’s difficult to know what to do about it. Although we’re working in a local NGO and therefore working alongside Sri Lankans, it’s proved harder than I expected to feel ‘part of the team’.

Partly there is a language barrier and we’ve been doing weekly English lessons for the staff in the office to try and break that down a bit, which seems to be appreciated – people seem to be more confident about talking to us now and it’s helped to break the ice a bit, which is good. But there is also a cultural gap – there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ‘social life’ here so it’s difficult to get to know people. It’s magnified by the fact that men and women seem to live very separate lives (unless they’re married) so the concept of going out as a group is alien. Speaking to a fellow volunteer based further inland was interesting – he’s regularly invited to drinking sessions with music and chat ‘with the lads’.

I also think our accommodation contributes to feeling like we’re not getting to know the real community – the guest house is lovely and it feels very much like home, but we’re definitely sheltered there and have a lot more in the way of home comforts (access to internet, satellite TV, hot water, personal space, varied meals etc) than we would if we were staying in a family home, or in self catering. Of course, it’s made settling in a whole lot easier than it might otherwise have been but it does feel a bit strange and not quite what I was expecting.

Avoiding illegal alien status

After a bit of a palaver getting an ‘entry visa’ before we came out here, we were meant to be converting this to a ‘residence visa’ (as advised by various sources). It turned out when we got here that we would need original birth certificates, degree certificates, maybe police reports and all sorts of other bits and pieces, and would have to get about 18 bits of paper signed by a multitude of government departments before we could get our visa. For a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into, the whole thing got left too late, at which point someone else advised us that we could simply get an extended visit visa, which would see us through the 3 months of our placements here. It all sounded like a much simpler process – and hurrah, that’s how it turned out.

An early start at the immigration department – we were there before 8am and managed to beat most of the crowds – meant we got our forms filled in, dodgy passport photos taken and forms signed, countersigned and approved – all within the space of 90 minutes. Apparently this is unheard of in the immigration department, where the typical experience seems to be of all day sessions of hanging around while officials go into impromptu meetings, forms disappear into a mysterious vacuum before being signed and churned back out, and people tell you to join queue A, queue A tells you to join queue B, queue B tells you to join queue C – etc etc, you get the picture!

Teaching English for real!

Has been great to start putting my TEFL learning to the test – doing real-life teaching in a completely different culture, with nobody telling you what level people are at or how to teach them, and very few resources to use is quite different from doing the training course! I won’t go into too much techy TEFL detail but I had a definite sense of achievement when I managed to teach some fairly tricky grammar points by successfully winging it!

Before I left Scotland, I’d applied for a job teaching Business English in Romania and ended up having the interview for that over Skype in an internet cafĂ© here one evening. Was good experience to have the interview and much to my surprise, I got offered the job (really wasn’t expecting that!). Flattering and tempting but have decided to turn it down as not really sure I want to commit to a year in Romania – plus Kevin and I are continuing to look at various other options so until we’re a bit clearer about all of that, I will just hang fire and wait to see what happens next. Nice to be wanted though!


Had an uncomfortable experience on recent trip up to Hill Country. As we were driving back down towards Colombo, a teenage boy appeared at the roadside, waving a bunch of flowers at our van – trying to tempt our interest and get a sale. None of us was in the market for flowers so we just smiled and carried on.

A few minutes later, he appeared at the roadside again – the road was winding down through the hills and he had a short cut down from one part to another, so was able to catch up with the van. Again, we smiled and carried on – as we hadn’t suddenly decided that the very thing we needed was a bunch of flowers.

He was persistent though and the same thing happened a few minutes later, and then again another few minutes later. This time, one of our group decided to give him some money for his efforts so the van slowed down and he rolled down the window and tried to hand over a few rupees while saying ‘I don’t want the flowers but here’s some money for you’.

The boy wouldn’t take the money – either he wanted a sale and was offended at being given a donation, or he wanted a donation but was offended at the amount being offered (I suspect the former). Our group member then kind of threw the money at him and our driver sped up and off we went. It was a pretty uncomfortable sight and the boy was even more offended after this (not surprisingly). As we continued down the road, he popped up another couple of times after running like the wind down his short cuts and threw the money back at the van, making his point quite effectively.

The joy of planning

Well, a month in, and things are looking up at my NGO – slowly but surely, some objectives for the future are beginning to crystallise and I can almost smell the strategic plan forming! It’s been a difficult first month as patience is not my strong point and I’ve felt, at points, as though I’m wasting my time, but now I’m feeling much more motivated.

Heavens above…

Most amazing thunder and lightening the other night – woke up about 5am with a HUGE crashing and rumbling and sheet lightening flashing through my window. It was really sticky and close the day before so we’d known that rain was due, but the sheer force of the storm was breathtaking. Went out onto balcony in the pre-dawn light to see the rain and it was like standing underneath a waterfall, watching it crash down in front of me. Incredible. Even more incredible to get up a few hours later and find the streets almost completely dry again!

Sunday, 3 June 2007

To the hills...

Currently in Colombo shopping mall as staying overnight here in order to finally try to sort visa issue out tomorrow (saga which I won't bore you with). Have just had long weekend away in the Hill Country, which is positively cool (temperature) compared to the rest of the country - even had a blanket on my bed one night! No mossie net needed either, which is pleasant change.

Last Thurs was monthly poya (full moon holiday) so we took opportunity to extend into 4 day break, hired a car & driver and headed off to the hills. Has been really good to see a bit more of the country and although it's all equally as quiet as the south, it's still a nice change from the sun, sea and beach (yes I know, it's such a hard life). Been interesting talking to a few people about the tourism situation - basically there are none as the current security situtation has killed off the fledgling revival of tourism post-tsunami etc. It's such a shame as the country is amazing and it has so much potential - especially for eco-tourism as so much of it is still under-developed and there is so much room to do things in a more responsible way than has been in other countries. But while the place continues to descend slowly back into civil war and the economy slowly becomes crippled along the way, I can't see there being much of a demand from tourists...

Anyway, highlights of the weekend -

Elephants! lots of them, at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. Some quite sad sights like elephants being chained up to be fed, but some lovely ones like baby elephants splashing gaily in the river. A bit like going to a zoo - big 'aw' factor combined with a bit of discomfort at the whole 'animals on display' approach.

Tea & scones in St Andrews (hotel, that is - in Numwara Eliya - a very strange place which feels like a replica of colonial UK, with lots of rose gardens, tea on the lawn and staff in white ankle socks (!)

Little Adam's Peak - not the big, famous one that takes all night to climb but a little version just outside a very pretty place called Ella - a gentle 2 hour walk up and down and great to get some fantastic views across the country.

Lots of other stuff too, but as usual, I can't really think clearly while trying to rapidly do this before internet place closes!

Photos will follow when technology allows (pre-empting nagging)

So, this week, will hopefully get things moving a bit quicker at work - it's been v slow so far and proving difficult to get clarity from NGO about what they want/expect/need from me, while also proving difficult to get them to engage with me in doing the work they really need to do themselves, to develop their future plans and ideas etc. Feels a bit like they expect me to produce a strategic plan like a rabbit out of a hat, but am taking the softly softly catchy monkey approach, so fingers crossed it will start to pay off this week. Have also got contacts with a couple of other NGOs now too, and have agreed with placement sponsors that I can broaden out workload to include working with them (as I'm currently spending quite a bit of time twiddling my thumbs, which is driving me insane and doesn't feel like good use of anyone's time or money!)

Anyway, hope all is well with everyone back home - thinking of you all!

Love & hugs xx

Monday, 28 May 2007

seven virgins, gold scissors and a cup of tea

visited local tea factory at weekend and learned all about "white tea", apparently the world's most expensive and recently re-introduced by said tea factory based on ancient Chinese practice of having seven virgins harvest the buds of tea leaves, using gold scissors and wearing white gloves - the tea is meant to be completely uncontaminated by any human oils before it reaches the teacup! They don't use virgins in the new factory, but everything else is (apparently) done as per Chinese tradition.

Anyway, it's very nice (light and refreshing) and of course, there was the obligatory end-of-tour gift shop hard sell, so I've now got a box of the stuff!

Also saw amazing feat of Scottish engineering - they still use the same machines to sift, dry and generally process the tea leaves that were imported by the British over 100 years ago - don't make 'em like they used to etc etc!

Tourism quandaries

Thanks to Karen, who is writer that I'm working with here, got a free stay in a v swanky hotel at weekend...

Not denying that I enjoyed the experience! it was amazing and a real luxury (we were v pampered as they were trying to impress Karen, who's reviewing the place). But it raised interesting issue in terms of tourism and its role in contributing to development. Creates jobs - a good thing - and brings inward investment into country - presumably also a good thing. Sri Lanka needs tourist dollars/pounds/euros and you can see how it's struggling at the moment because of travel advice warnings against coming here (apart from in UK!). But how fair is it that there are still people here without homes, while huge tracts of lands are given over to beach front hotels with huge amounts of space per guest? And how fair is it that the hotels generate massive profits on the back of an incredibly cheap workforce?

One local hotel owner told us that the Asian hotel business model basically works on the assumption that you can break even by filling just one room per night - the rate charged is so high and the labour costs so low that that's all it takes...

NGO stories

I'm making no comment about any of the following things i've been told and they may or may not be true/may be urban myths...but interesting nonetheless...

1. Some people have received 2 or 3 houses in the post-tsunami reconstruction effort, while some have none - basically people can go to different NGOs and get more than one house (no co-ordination)

2. There are still 30 families in a refugee camp near a popular beach, who have decided to stay there because they get so much in the form of tourist donations that they prefer not to move

3. A local resort was renowned as a party town during the relief effort - all the NGO workers chose to stay there and partied like it was 1999 every night...

4. There are several branches of some of the larger NGOs here, all trying to do the same thing and all competing with each other for funds/power/influence...

Bad jokes

1. An Australian tourist told his tour guide that he was going to die. The guide quickly phoned the emergency services. When they arrived, the tourist was very confused - "no, no, no, I said I was going TODAY".

2. Some soldiers found three hand grenades and were very happy as this would earn them a promotion. They walked along, juggling them in their hands. Another soldier stopped them and said "hey, what are you doing? what if one of them goes off?" The soldiers replied, "it's ok, we'll just say we only found 2".

(sorry!) just passing on some local humour...

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Ayurvedic magic

Felt rubbish all day yesterday as picked up some kind of horrible flu-type thing which started when I went to bed on Fri night - sore throat, aching limbs, fever followed by chills (first time I've felt cold here!) - and lasted all day yesterday. Blew all my plans for weekend out of water - typical to get ill at weekend!

But by dinner time yesterday, was starting to feel a bit more human and then after dinner, had some Samahan, which is Ayurvedic mixture of 14 herbs. Miracle cure! Slept like a baby and feel almost completely normal again today. Had some more after breakfast and need to take at lunchtime and dinner again today - hurrah for natural remedies!

White aunties

Had v bizarre experience while visiting local children's program - basically an after school club for children from poor villages, where they get English and IT classes.

First of all, we had to sit on stage in front of about 40 kids, who were there to subscribe to new term of English classes. Cue lots of staring and shy smiling. Then, once their subscription formalities were over, we were invited to teach them a song. Cue lots of hasty trying to remember old school songs. Settled on Old McDonald Had a Farm and spent about 15 mins singing that with them. Then they did various songs and plays for us, followed by a speech where one of the boys thanked "the white aunties" for coming and sharing a song with them.

All felt very bizarre...and we're going back next week for another hour of teaching!


The highlight of the week - social enterprise Sri Lanka-style!

Shadowed microfinance team on a visit to a local village on Thurs. They met around 45 women in the space of two hours, in the local temple. Each women ran her own microbusiness, or was there on behalf of her husband (mostly it was the former). They each got about 3 minutes with the microfinance staff to talk through their business, how much money they wanted to borrow and how they would repay it. Most of them were approved in principle so now they have to go and fill their forms in etc. They should have the money within 3 weeks.

So far, the project has loaned to 609 people with a default rate of almost zero. They lend between 5,000 and 25,000 rupees (about 20 - 100 quid), with repayments over 20 months at a lower-than-bank interest rate. Most of the women had monthly gross profit of between 2,000 and 10,000 rupees - 10,000 is a good salary here (about 50 quid).

We followed up the assessment bit with a visit to one of their existing clients, a women in her sixties who set up her own spice packet business three years ago. She's now branching out into soya products and now has 6 staff. She's used her loan to buy equipment and materials to help grow the business and was passionate about how it's helped her to develop a better business without being dependent on aid.

As one of the staff said, it's "business with a good heart" (best definition of social enterprise I've heard for a while)

A mixed week at work

Going to do several updates - it's Sunday just now - but will try to group in some kind of order!

First, work - it's been quite an up and down week. Monday started well and it seemed like our placement leader had been doing quite a lot of thinking about how to kick off the strategic planning process, so that was encouraging. Tuesday however, was a bad day - we were supposed to be going on a project visit, which was cancelled at the last minute, and then we basically had nothing to do all day - no computer as they're all broken, no access to meetings with staff as they hadn't been arranged. Very boring and demotivating - I'm not made for sitting around doing nothing, it drives me crazy.

But things picked up and we got out 'in the field' on Wed & Thurs, first to a children's program and then to see a microfinance program in action. More in later posts on that.

Friday was ok too and I've even done my first teaching English lesson with two of the office staff, which I really enjoyed and was great practice for me!

All in all, it's been a week of trying to keep busy and be productive while being sensitive to how host NGO works - tricky balancing act...

Sunday, 13 May 2007

First week & weekend

So it's Sunday afternoon now, and I feel like I've been here for weeks already! Is that good or bad, I don't know...

First week at work was definitely interesting...all the same challenges of NGO development work as the UK, with the added dimension of a different language, a different concept of time, and a work culture which feels very laidback and non-pressured compared to the UK (but may turn out not to be!) As most of you know, patience is not one of my strong points but I think it will have to become one if I'm going to make the most of this!

Anyway, trying to keep an open mind and looking forward to the challenge (I do like a challenge!)

Apart from that, main things of note so far are:

Early to bed: Galle is SO quiet and there is almost nothing to do at night - everyone is in bed by 9pm and although there are a few hotels with bars, they're all deserted so even having a drink is like being in a ghost town (not much fun). This will be v good for my liver!

No grey areas: All the conversations we've had so far with Sri Lankans about the security situation have been very "black & white" with strong belief in the government.

Rigid social structures: From religion to caste to class, social mobility doesn't really seem to exist as a concept.

Family life: Family life is the framework for everything and although I imagine that can be tricky, it's nice to be part of a big family in the guest house.

Life of luxury: Things that are completely beyond the reach of the average Sri Lankan are dirt cheap to us, which means we're able to live a life of luxury - e.g. using 5 star hotel gym facilities for less than 20 quid a month, having a beer for less than a pound. Don't exactly feel comfortable with this but then again, better to spend cash in local economy than not? Answers on a blog comment please...

Pace of life:
I am slowly adjusting to the pace of life here but it's taking a while - am so used to doing everything so quickly and that is just not what happens here. Things still happen just in a different way (I may come home a changed person!)

Climate: Also adjusting to climate slowly but surely - was v glad to see rain the other day as it cleared the air, and am managing to sleep through the night now without dissolving into a pool of sweat.

Hope everyone is keeping well and that life in Scotland is ticking along smoothly - I wonder who's making the decisions in the absence of politicians at the moment?!

Love to all

(PS - can't seem to upload pictures at the moment but will try another time)

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

settling in...

So it's Wed 9th May and after a fairly knackering journey, I managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep last night, have had three square meals at the guest house and am slowly getting used to the sauna-like heat. Have got rest day today before starting work at NGO tomorrow. Will be working Thurs & Fri then off for weekend, so quite a gentle start.

All is good so far. Flights were fine, journey from Colombo airport to Galle was long, hot, noisy, slightly hair-raising due to style of driving here - which seems to involve overtaking as dangerously as possible, peeping your horn at every given opportunity, no seat belts, braking sharply to avoid crossing cows and pedestrians and generally being quite different from the relative placidity of UK!!

Guest house is very clean and comfortable, with good food and very friendly family running the place, who have given us lots of info about do's and don'ts and seem determined to look after us as much as possible.

My room is nice with a desk and chair, double bed and wardrobe space. Bathroom is right next door with a good shower and flushing toilet. There is satellite TV with sports and news channels, internet access with a good connection and Skype available for internet-internet phone calls - so really, I'm spoiled!

Galle itself is very pretty - we're staying within the walls of the old Dutch Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is very picturesque. Walked round the walls this morning - gorgeous views out to sea and a refreshing cool breeze.

Weather generally is very hot and humid and think it will take a bit of time to get used to feeling constantly sticky. There has been a little bit of rain but the full rainy season doesn't kick in until July.

There are hardly any tourists around, which seems to be because of the security situation, but there are a few other Westerners staying at the guest house, all doing volunteer or paid work of one kind or another.

More later - have to go to sort out arrangements for work tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Home & office in Sri Lanka

This is where I'm going to be working while I'm in Galle...

and this is where I'm going to be living...


Hi, this is where I'll post up info and updates from my time in Sri Lanka - leaving in less than 3 weeks and currently trying to juggle visas, passports, vaccinations, TEFL-finishing and just , you know, the rest of my life...