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