August – better late than never?


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…


2 Responses to “August – better late than never?”

  1. 1 claire k

    hi there!!!

    How weird – i have to admit i haven’t looked at your page for quite a while (think you will excuse me!) but looked today and here you have just posted…strange!

    Love hearing about specific details of another culture and actually can’t imaging eating curry and rice with my hands sarah (cheese sarnies are far easier if you ask me!)

    Will send you an email with our latest news

  2. 2 barry k

    Aye well. It’s nearly February and I haven’t read about September, October and November as almost (but not) promised by you. Not that interested in consumer action forums. Have you anything a bit more racy or does your mum read this?
    Looked at the photo’s of the perahera and you asked us to imagine it with flutes and drums. Was it an orange walk with elephants?

    Look forward to to last 5 months and the future

    Take care


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