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.