OK, so I’m still crap at blogging, here’s an update of the events of August. Hope you’re still reading…

Just to give you some context of where I am composing this blog entry (off line, of course). I’m in a community hall in Puttalam, north of Colombo on the coast, surrounded by mossies and trying to survive without A/C – I’m very spoilt in the BasicNeeds office! I’ve been doing an evaluation of a project for another VSO partner organisation – nothing to do with BasicNeeds. So, I’ve been interviewing the staff and management team of the project, and yesterday and today I’m interviewing the beneficiaries. It’s a peace project, which has aimed to change the attitudes of beneficiaries, to avoid falling into the violence cycle and conflict where problems occur in their lives, communities and schools. It’s working with Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people in an area where there are internally displaced people (IPDs) who have relocated into the existing community. It’s really interesting to come out to the field, although today is Saturday and technically I could have returned to Colombo yesterday, but I’ve had to stay because the other person I travelled up here with is still working with the beneficiaries today, so the NGO wanted to save the van costs and I’ve had to wait to return to Colombo later today. Weekends aren’t always 2 days here, which fair tires me out. Anyway, I’m going to do a few more interviews today, as I’m here and the beneficiaries are too. In between, I hope to catch you up with what’s happened since early August.

So, you’ll have seen the photos of the perahera in Kandy, which was amazing. Perahera means procession, so there are many small peraheras which happen around the island depending on customs, but the Kandy perahera is a big one. We got the train there and were majorly frisked as we left the station in Kandy – the police almost took our booze. The perahera was on a poya day, which are dry days – we knew this, which is why we brought the stash! Then we were ushered into a curtained cubicle to be intimately frisked by a female police officer. Now, I’m all for security, and you can’t be too careful when there are big gatherings of people in Sri Lanka, but the manner of the police could have been a little more polite.

We walked into Kandy town centre on the morning of the perahera as things were starting to get set up for the evening’s activities. Through our guesthouse, we bought tickets for a seated area to watch the procession, which goes on for a good few hours. These seats are at tourist prices, so too much for many locals. Instead people find a place on the pavement and camp out for the day, waiting for the perahera to start at 7 or 8pm – that’s a long time to be sitting on the street. Of course, the perahera is a religious procession, with meaning in the Buddhist calendar and not just a great tourist attraction, so people are more than happy to forgo home comforts in order to be part of it. Whole families were camped out on the street, making it feel like a carnival atmosphere at 11am.

If I had a business hiring out plastic picnic chairs in SL, I think I’d be permanently busy – I haven’t seen as many plastic chairs as I have here. Now, our seats for the evening were plastic, of course, and it seemed that anyone with any kind of property on the route of the perahera had (if you’re lucky) erected some kind of platform and placed plastic chairs in rows without thinking about leg room, then sold the chance to sit on the chairs and have a good (if you’re lucky) view of the perahera. So as we walked the streets that morning the plastic chair hire companies were doing a roaring trade!

Getting to the perahera was rather like a military operation. We were waiting for a friend to arrive into Kandy before we departed, but the guesthouse team were most insistent we leave on time – I think this was the first time in SL I’ve seen people anxious because things weren’t happening on time, and there was a real sense of rush, it was quite odd. So we got hurried into the van to drop us in town, to be chaperoned by one person, then another, then somehow skipping the queue to face another intimate body and bag frisking before we got into the area of the perahera and shown to our plastic seats (by the way, I’m sitting in a plastic seat now, of course). Making use of a captive audience, the local pizza hut had waiters scouring the rows of tourists on plastic seats to sell their wares – I must admit that pizza tasted rather good! So, we watched the procession, which was televised for the first time. It was great to see all the traditional costume, dancing and chanting – with fire or without. I think that each area did part of the procession, with their religious leader taking the head of their section of the procession, dressed in full regalia. And I think each temple had their elephants dressed up and walking in amongst the crowd and the noise of the drumming and chanting. This is what I felt uncomfortable about. The elephants have their legs chained and a keeper with a long pointy stick walking alongside to keep them in line. I think the elephants show the importance of the temple – taming such a large animal shows this importance. I keep saying “I think” because I don’t know for sure and should really do my research – meantime you’ll have to make do with the bits and bobs I’ve picked up. Anyway, suffice to say I don’t think using elephants in this way is a vegetarian activity.

While walking home a random going-over-on-your-ankle led to one of my fellow vols ending up with a broken bone in her foot – same bone as Rooney and Beckham apparently. It happened on the Saturday night, and on Sunday she went to an ayurvedic healer in Kandy to see if he could help – at this point the foot was swollen & painful, but we didn’t know it was broken. He didn’t ask any questions, but massaged the foot with a hot stone, slapped on some brown muck and trussed the foot up. It wasn’t until a hospital visit and x-ray on the Monday that the break became clear. What concerned me about the healer was the lack of diagnosis, although the trussing up was the right thing to do. An SL friend said he would not go to a western doctor or even take paracetamol. Instead he rubbed a bark concoction on a sprained knee. I like the idea of not relying on all our western chemical potions, but only if I’ve had a diagnosis and the ayurvedic lotions have some research to back up their effectiveness. That makes me sound really western. Perhaps I should be more open to methods that have been used successfully for centuries but without any thorough empirical research.

Views of illness here are different to my UK perspective. Generally I think the pain threshold here is lower than mine. If you’re feeling slightly peaky medications are recommended plus a visit to the doctor, whereas my view is just to sit it out and wait to see which way it goes – drinking lots of water of course, recommended by my nurse volunteer pal who recommends drinking water for all ailments, which, in this heat, I’m sure is a good idea. Pain itself is a term which I don’t use often but “paining” is the Sri Lankan-English word used to describe an ache or hurt – like if you’ve got a headache, your head will be paining. So the way we use the English word pain has a different significance, contributing to my theory that the pain threshold is different here to the UK. However, a friend’s landlady had a mastectomy and was lying on the sofa chatting when she got home from the hospital, and instead of moaning or talking about her discomfort, she just said “what to do?” which is often a rhetorical question used here to make a statement about something which you don’t have control over – “He doesn’t like me, what to do”? When folk have been off work with what I would consider a cold, it’s called a fever. I think if you had a fever you wouldn’t be back to work within a day or two, but maybe that’s just me. So, some examples of illness in SL.

At the end of the month we had a send off for a Sri Lankan VSO member of staff who has gone to the UK to study for a masters at the University of Worcester. This made me think about how adapting to the cultural differences must work the other way – coming from SL to UK. We gave some sagely advice – don’t eat with your hands, don’t burp in public, get rid of the bum bag and no, getting a motorbike really isn’t a good idea. Obviously eating with your hands is the default way to eat here. Only if we’re in a place used to foreigners will we be offered a fork, usually with a spoon. I’ve got used to eating with my hand now, although I don’t like the smell of my food lingering on my fingers. I can’t imagine what it would be like if you stated eating with your hand in the UK. Mind you, UK food is going to be harder to eat with your hand than rice and curry… Folk burp loudly willy nilly here, and don’t say pardon – even as you’re having a conversation, or on the phone. I have to hold in my laugh sometimes, because in my culture that would be so rude. Folk who know me will know I do tend to burp (only occasionally, of course), but I haven’t had the guts to do one loudly as I sit at my desk – would it be as acceptable for me as it is for others? I don’t know. And as for motorbike riding, there is no way riding a bike here is going to prepare you for riding a bike in the UK. Here, more or less anything goes – overtaking, undertaking, up on the curb, constant beeping, helmet or no helmet, 2 adults & 2 kids on a bike, possibly with no helmets or transferring the bulk of the contents of your house strapped to the bike (only that last example was an exaggeration, and only a slight exaggeration at that) – so all the rules and regulations of riding a bike in the UK would be really difficult to deal with. Or you’d rather quickly end up with getting banned from riding a bike altogether. Thinking of him coping with living in the UK made me realise how some of the differences of living here have now become the norm, and thinking of some things in the UK just seem odd!

The rest of August involved more work and another consumer action forum trip/day at the beach in Tangalle – it makes the 4am alarm call more bearable.

Perhaps I’ll catch up on September, October and November soon, but I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep…


Right, I’m really not very good at keeping this up to date, am I?  I think I might just post some random observations, and try and get you up to date on my comings and goings properly some time soon.  My laptop is at the laptop hospital at the moment, with a faulty motherboard, so that’s this week’s excuse for not writing more…


So, I’m having 1:1 meeting with the staff at BasicNeeds to get their ideas on some of the areas I’ve decided we could improve at BN – if no one agrees with me I may need to go back to the drawing board or come up with an even bigger marketing strategy to get some support, otherwise the feeling of head against brick wall will only continue…  I had my first meeting yesterday with a male colleague, sitting at a round table.  When we came to the table the chairs were opposite each other, so once we’d sat down I moved my chair round a little to be nearer him, to make it feel less like an interview situation, you know, just trying to generate an informal feel so he felt more like telling me his inner most thoughts.  However, I soon as I moved round, he moved round so we continued to be opposite each other.  So, here’s an example of the cultural differences I’m still trying to learn – male-female proximity is still quite formal. 


And following on the male-female theme I think I may have caused a small road traffic accident the other morning while I was walking to work…  Don’t worry, there were no fatalities.  In the Raj (as I like to call my living and working area, otherwise known as Rajagiriya) there don’t seem to be any other Westerners, especially not white western women who walk along the side of the road (due to the lack of a proper pavement, rather than a death wish), so I get stared at by everyone and particularly by men.  So on the fateful morning I was walking my usual route which involves crossing over a busy road (well, all roads are busy here) which I cross to the middle section, then finally cross another bit which actually crosses two roads which merge together – imagine the Tollcross junction, only bigger and without traffic lights.  So I’m doing as I was taught in the Tufty Club, and looking both ways before I stepped out, in the second I looked from right to left I heard a crunch, and when I looked right again two motorcycles had collided.  Now, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I have noticed how male vehicle drivers (be it bikes, trishaws, cars or lorries) do stare at me, not because I’m gorgeous or anything, just because I’m odd and a woman and they like to stare.  I do wonder whether one of the motorbike drivers was staring at the odd white bird standing on the middle bit of the road, with a couple of bags and a brolly, rather than checking if anything was coming from the road that they were merging into.  Anyway, suffice to say I did that really crap British thing of not quite knowing whether to speak to the riders, so I lingered (while all the other traffic honked and maneuvered past) and checked that they got up OK and carried on walking…


I’ve had a good but frustrating week at work this week – the annual planning process is upon us for 2009 (yes, they’re that organised!) so I get to be all anal and ask trick questions about why, when, who, how much and really?!  I’m working on Saturday, but in Tangalle, so I get to stay and enjoy the beach afterwards, which is just as well, I’m getting picked up at 4.30am…


We went to the Kandy Perahera a couple of weekends ago, here are the photos http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=52678&l=82ca6&id=676344121, I’ll try and post some words soon.


So, that’s enough for now.  I have to go and pick up my laundry – a weekly luxury to get my towels and sheets cleaner than I could manage.


Take care!

We had the annual VSO staff and volunteer conference in Kandy. I’d been on the organising committee for the 2 day conference, and we’d come up with some quite interesting sessions getting folk to think about where their placements fit in relation to our beneficiaries, the organisations we work with and the goals VSO is trying to achieve. It all went swimmingly which was good, with folk getting into it and not minding a good bit of role play and speed dating! Although it felt like all I did for 3 days was eat. There was a buffet and it had Western food, so I tucked into cauliflower cheese, macaroni cheese, bread and butter pudding and scrambled eggs & beans like I was never going to eat again – more yoga required me thinks! When the conference was over, for various reasons which then changed (I really do need to learn not to forward plan too much) I hitched a lift with a VSO van down to Tangalle on the Saturday. We had a meeting there on the Tuesday, so I’d negotiated with my boss to work from Tangalle on the Monday. I was trying to split up the travel, but I hadn’t appreciated it would be a 10 hour trip from Kandy to Tangalle via Colombo. Travel makes me so tired which is odd as you’re just sitting there, but I managed to sleep 12 hours after that trip! Working by the beach was great, although I did find myself staring at the waves on more than one occasion, rather than reading my work documents.

So that just about brings us up to date. This weekend I’ve actually been at home, which has been good – although means I’ve spent the entire day today sweeping, mopping and washing. I share my house with a number of gekkos which are quite cute little things who eat insects, so I should welcome them. But the little swines poo everywhere – they can stick their poo to the wall, which I’m quite impressed with, but it just adds to the pesky cleaning.

So, life’s going well. I’m settling into my house, which I’m still feeling very lucky to have. Work’s difficult – I feel a little out of my depth, and I’m finding it hard to get involved with staff. I’m going to have to get tough I think – my softly, softly approach has got me so far, but I need to be a bit more firm I think. It’s all going in the right direction though.

There’s loads of stuff I’d like to pontificate about, but no time now – my ironing awaits. I’m really enjoying my life here, although sometimes the routine of coming home from work, making something to eat and lunch for the next day, then washing up and it being bed-time reminds me of life in the UK. But it’s warm and I can go to the beach at the weekend if I want, which makes it more bearable somehow!

Hope you’re all well? I’m sad I’m missing the Edinburgh Festival, first time in 15 odd years I think. Go and see a show for me!

26th-27th July


Another trip to Tangalle to the Consumer Action Forum meeting, but this time I stayed over and broke up the trip, plus had a great time staying at the beach!

We got the train to Nuwara Eliya, which was amazing, if not rather long – 8 hours. We were in the observation class carriage which is at the end of the train and has a full length window at the end of the carriage and bigger windows so you can watch the countryside go past. The train slowly winds up and up into the hill country, passing through amazing countryside where palm trees eventually give way to conifers and you find yourself in hills and valleys quite similar to Scotland. Unfortunately the weather was quite like Scotland too, with a constant veil of low cloud and plenty of rain. Apparently Nuwara Eliya is at the base of the highest mountain in SL, but I couldn’t see it! I was cold for the first time since I’ve been here, which was a real novelty and something I’m afraid to say I enjoyed! It was good to be wearing layers of clothes (I had to buy another layer!) and not to be sweating constantly. I slept under 2 blankets, wearing socks and my fleece and was still cold! It’s amazing to think that there are these extremes on one small island.

The hill country was beautiful, with the tea estates cultivating many of the hillsides. It did feel rather colonial – especially the train trip. The train crept up some amazing hillsides and is an amazing feat of engineering, but I kept thinking about the local people who would have been the ones doing the back breaking work to build the trains, so the colonialists could sit in first class and drink tea. Talking of tea, after we refused to get out of the van at Horton Plains (where there is a walk and amazing views at World’s End, but the weather was so bad there was no way we were going to see a thing) we went for a tour around a tea factory – little did I know so much work goes into making my tea bag!

We had a meeting in Polonnaruwa which is on the way to Trinco, but not that far East. I hadn’t been to this area of the island so it was good to see the changing terrains and the wild elephants and monkeys. The heat was different too, not as sweaty as Colombo. We had the all day meeting with the partners, then went to have de-brief meeting sitting in some ancient monuments, which was good!

I was slightly ill this week, but in quite an odd way. I just slept for 24 hours, didn’t eat for 48 hours, but with none of the expected toilet type activities you would anticipate with the heat and curries. I think my body was telling me to look after it properly, so I’m avoiding quite so much rice and chilli as I’d been eating, and I’ve started doing my yogalates regularly. I’ve put on an inch around my waist since I’ve been here, so I think this was my body giving me a wake up call. I did feel rather sorry for myself, and wanted my Mum to stroke my back. But another volunteer popped in on me, and I could have got help from my landlady so I’ve got the support structures here. I think I was running a temperature but it’s hard to tell when you’re sweating all the time anyway!