Archives For Colombo
I know you are probably sick to death of me ranting about bus rides — but this one was special. The A32 from Jaffna to Mannar. What a road. 140 kilometres took the bus more than 6 hours. A causeway over the Jaffna lagoon where the water was mere inches from the road. Half the road was actually underwater, so much so that I had to take my bag off the floor because the bus was flooding. And, again, no seat. I was lucky though, the bus driver took a liking to me and cleared the place above the gear-box for me to sit cross-legged on. Yippee!
A couple of hours of deal legs and bruised everything later, and after we had to jump out of the bus so it could ford an especially treacherous looking river (where soldiers waded into the water to bodily mark the edge of the “road”).
But when I got to Mannar, there was a surprise waiting for me that made the schleppe of a journey worth it — the Rice Mill had started construction!
Straight away, I was off, in a trishaw, to the field – to Nedunkandal Village. When I arrived, I was greeted by the local OfERR staff, and by a surveyor, who was working with the RDS (that supplied the volunteers which helped out that day) members to mark the edges of where the foundation was to be poured.
Countless measurements. Constant adjustment. Staking the ground and connecting the dots with green strings, precisely the border of our rice-mill to be. Construction Day 1!
The rain did stop the foundation from actually being dug, but that didn’t dampen (excuse the pun) my joy at the rice mill being built! From here, it is (weather permitting) easy street!
After checking out the building progress and working with my old mates from the RDS on marking the outlines, we were back off to Mannar town, to rest up for the busy day ahead — the progress update on our Mannar Region projects!
Yesterday’s work was quite draining, and I got back to the hotel room exhausted. Before I could even have dinner, I collapsed onto my bed and was asleep within minutes. It was only about seven in the evening. I woke up the next morning at about eight: I guess it turned out that I really needed that sleep. As soon as I woke, I ordered a milk tea (or, as it should more appropriately be called, a glass of sugar with a spot of tea and milk in it) which is more effective than Red Bull at keeping my eyes open. Then I started to write all the stories from the day before, and all the progress reports that were to be written.
About four thousand words later, I hear a knock on my door. I am still in my pyjamas. It was my friend from Colombo here to pick me up. It was eleven in the morning. Time flies when writing!
A quick, maybe 5 minute motorbike ride and I am at the office. I eat my usual Mannar breakfast: slightly stale bread and coconut sambal, and then its back to work. More writing. Lots of photo editing (I had to get from about 1300 photos down to less than a hundred, and edit those 100 photos), a touch of video editing. In a blink, everyone had left the office for lunch. Having just eaten breakfast, I kept editing and writing.
When the crew came back from their lunch, I had a few meetings planned, so I had to tear myself away from the keyboard and monitor and get questioning.
My first meeting was with OfERR (Ceylon)’s Mannar Office general council, the absolutely lovely Ms S. Sivalingam. She sat opposite my desk in her pink sari and her long, platted black hair that was frizzy at its ends (made me think it had never been cut) and asked what I wanted. I asked her to try to explain to me the land title system (woohoo, Real Property!) of Sri Lanka and its implications for our Mannar projects.
The Bore Well and Toilets were on the private land of the beneficiary (who had their interests registered [thank you Ms Dorsett]); their interest was protected. The Rice mill was a little more complex: it was on the commons, but had been granted to the local Women’s Rural Development Service (WRDS) by the local Assistant Government Agent (AGA) and Environmental Agency. They had title over the land, and, thus, as beneficiaries of our Mill, our project was safe.
Afterwards, Ms Sivalingam and I chatted about Sri Lanka’s Legal system – it turns out she is an active barrister! She invited me to see one of her cases (which, thankfully, are mostly in English) when I next come to Mannar. How exciting!
I had my lunch at about three in the afternoon (plastic bag of rice and curry, two plastic bags accompanying, “gravy” and “soup”) and began to type again.
The rest of my afternoon was spent planning the rest of my Sri Lanka trip (prospective itinerary goes something like Mannar to Kilinochchi to Mannar to Jaffna to Mannar to Vavunia to Trincomalee back to Colombo). It seemed that I needed to travel all over the country a bit, but that was fine, because even the horrible bus rides are exciting!
I also planned to meet with a few other Australian volunteers from different organisations (Diaspora Lanka, Empower, and more) and I am excited to meet Jeremy, Shanil and Shyamika over the course of my trip!
By this time, it was ridiculously late (almost midnight), and the videos I was trying to upload were still uploading, so I left my laptop in the office, hopped on the motorbike and got back home to my lovely hotel room.
Since today was almost solely an office day, and, thus, there weren’t any photos, here are a few of my photos from the last couple of days that didn’t fit into the stories I was telling, but I still loved.
Today was my last day in Colombo (tomorrow, I’m heading to “the field”). I was meant to be gone yesterday, but there was that whole kerfuffle with the Indian embassy. Fiona, and any other BUiLDers/micro THINKers reading, I am happy to tell you that today’s visa application was much more successful, the smartly dressed, shoeless man behind the counter said my application was “perfect, 100% OK.”
So, that done, on to last minute pre “the field” shopping. I head to Majestic City (one of the dingy western-style shopping centers in town, with low ceilings and small, illegitimate looking shops) looking for the Canon camera store. You see, I want some spare batteries to take with me, so that I would be prepared for the likely situation that one would die right as I was about to take a killer photo.
The Canon “Authorized Retailer” looked dodgy, and sold Canon branded batteries that looked nothing like the one I already had. I decided to go to a shop called Micro Centre, which sold legitimately illegitimate batteries which had gotten decent reviews online. They gave me a good price, and they were happy to deliver the batteries to work (Dehiwala), so I thought, “sweet,” and I bought 3 of them, and boy was I excited to get them delivered. More on that soon.
The day was young, and most of the work I had to do in preparation for Mannar was done (reading all the agreements and correspondences to try make sense of the structure of the project before I headed into the place and made a fool of myself), so I headed in the general direction of Dehiwala on a serene stroll, almost getting run over a couple of times, but I was used to it already, so it was time to just enjoy the sun and walk. I strolled past the Colombo Design School and saw the coolest poster ever, “trailblazing trishaws” – I was totally going to buy it but it turned out to be an exhibit. I am hoping the artist writes me back so I can convince her to part ways from her awesome poster (red, a back-to-the-future-esque set of blazing tire tracks, a swerving trishaw: awesome).
Into the office: the last few moments of preparation. I meet the person who I thought was going to take me to the bus station, but turned out to be coming to Mannar with me, and who happens to be my room-mate now, in the bed next door in the dodgy guest house I am staying in. I help the kids of the family downstairs practice their English a little and try to prepare my list of questions for the Mannar office and the beneficiaries. These pre-made lists never really end up being used, but they are helpful in that they help me gauge what gaps in our information need to be plugged on my short stay in Mannar (3-5 days, depending on how much work needs to get done).
By this time, I am eager to head home to see the family before I head off. But when Micro City said they would get the package to my workplace in the early afternoon, no later than 3, they must have been on a different clock to me. It is 5:15 pm, I am exhausted after many frantic phone calls, thinking I had been duped, the owner of the place trying to reassure me, for 2 hours, that the driver was “5 minutes away”. I walk to the corner, get the package, pay in the most cold manner I can muster and walk upstairs to tweet angrily about the experience, the first annoying thing to happen to me in Sri Lanka. As an aside, BOYCOT MICRO CITY.
It is getting late, so I head home for the last dinner before I go. Tangatchi is praying, and her voice fills the home: a melody in a city that is otherwise almost all cacophony. Thampi (Janahan) is home from a day of study: he is busy trying to achieve his management diploma. Auntie is cooking and Uncle is having a physio session with someone who seems to be a family friend.
I want to just collapse on the bed and call it a night, but my bus leaves at 10:00 pm and I have to stay awake. I pack my bags, leaving all my Danish winter clothes at the family’s home, and sit down for dinner. In my honor, there is pasta for dinner. Not curry. Pasta. Amazing. It is delicious and I scoop down plates full, topping off the meal, as usual, with a thin-skinned squat but absolutely sweet banana.
But it is only now 7:30, and I will miss this family, so I plop down on the couch to watch the Tamil version of home and away with the family. Melodramatic, colorful, village based. Blows the Australian version out of the water. Janahan shows me a funny faux English, famous Tamil song. Not sure of the name, but totally keen to download it. He then shows me clips of what I can only assume is the Tamil “American Pie” – the Three Idiots. Hilarious. Electrocuting bullies, dating the dean’s daughter, getting drunk in class, can’t wait to watch the full two and a half hours of it (still way short for a Bollywood movie, which often don’t even fit on to one DVD).
It is time to go, and I am hardly able to keep my eyes open. I get dropped off at the bus stop, and, to my surprise, my buddy jumps onto the “AC Bus” (fancy bus with midnight Bollywood music and alternately boiling then freezing temperature due to a dodgy air con unit – I almost prefer the dodgy intercity government buses) with me.
As soon as I sit down, before the sweaty, large man comes to take the seat next to me I am fast asleep. A ten hour bus ride and I will be in Mannar – Rice Mill country in the wet season!
[photo's to come as internet improves]
When I woke up this morning, at breakfast, I showed the family I am staying with the photos I took of them. No one was happy with them! I guess, in this country, staged photos are a lot more common than the candid photos I usually take. The matron of the house wasn’t happy with what she was wearing in the photos, so, when she saw the photos, she said she would dress up nicely for another. After breakfast, she appeared in a marvelous bluish sari, arranged perfectly, and stood demurely at the entrance to her home for a new set of photos, that she was happy with. Whilst I like candid photos a lot (I think they reveal more about the soul of the subject) this photo did, indeed turn out nice!
But this was Monday, and there were tasks to be done and meetings to be had, so off I went (at 7:00 in the morning), starting a long, long day. First thing, off to the Etisalat office to get my internet fixed. After trying to explain that tethering wasn’t working to half a dozen people, the put me on to the boss, who had an iPhone herself. With three letters, “ebb” placed in the APN slot in carrier settings/cellular data, it was all fixed. It was before 8:30, and I had one of my to do’s done! It looked like the start of a roll.
But then, India’s outsourced visa service – the VFS. As anyone who has applied for an Indian visa knows, this place can be a horrible bureaucratic mess (am I right, Douglas?). Two hours of queuing later and I was just as no-where as when I started – I needed new passport photos (they use their own, square format, different from everywhere else in the world) and I had confused the secretary in charge with my passports so much that I think his head was about to explode. Lucky I only showed him two, the third will be our little secret.
The one positive thing about the visa experience was that I met an awesome English fellow, who’s name was literally Mr. McGee. He had told me that he had just been to Trincomalee, so I was intrigued. He then told me he had bike-rode there, I was even more intrigued. He then told me that he had bike-rode there from England, via Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and all these other amazingly exciting countries. I was smitten, I had a man-crush (sorry Ian). An epic bike-ride is now definitely on my bucket list, and I hope to do it soon! Mr. McGee, you are an inspiration.
But then I also met a Ukrainian girl at the embassy. I asked her about her experiences in Sri Lanka, and she was the first person I have asked that didn’t respond positively. I think it may have been because many of the travelers I have met have been guys, but none of them seemed to have reported the harassment that she seems to have been victim to. I really feel bad for her, I think it would definitely be hard to be a blonde girl traveling alone in this country.
So, all of this and I am still in line, it is finally my go: “number 153”, the bureaucrat at the front calls. Excitedly, I step forward. Five minutes later, dejectedly, I step back. Apparently I need two copies of every single form because I have two passports. Meh.
Tomorrow, I will have to be back at the embassy. Yay.
But the day was to get better! Today is Monday, and, thus, the first day where all of my old colleagues were in the office, Ms. Navomahona (the boss of the Colombo head office) too! So there was a lot of work to be done: the translating from Tamil to English (not by me, by Ms. Nav!) of a report from the Mannar field office on the progress of Palmera Projects funded activities there; the organization of a new weekly communication system to keep us up to date on this crucial part of the project; the organization of my travel to Mannar, my accommodation and my meetings there (with the technical officers, government agencies and beneficiaries).
And, I had to re-do all of my Indian visa applications. So the day was winding down, the night was creeping up on me and there were still mountains of things to do. But, the day was done, and there was tomorrow to work too, so off home, back to Kotehena, a relaxing place where there is nothing that needs to be done but writing, listening to Bollywood music, editing photos, reading books and eating delicious delicious dinner (fish curry, coconut chilli sambal and a rice-flour baked bread thingy).
When I get there, the family is already at the dinner table, and there is an area cleared for me, I feel at home. The food is delicious and the conversation riveting (the disabled girl who lives here has started to warm to me, calling me “anna” – big brother; I guess that means that she would be my “tangatchi”). What an amazing way to end a day. It will be sad to leave this family tomorrow evening (heading off to Mannar at 10:00pm on the night bus), but at least I know I am coming back at the end of the month!
Tomorrow’s a busy day!
[Random Sri Lankan travel tip] To estimate the proper Trishaw fare, multiply the amount of kilometers you are traveling (<3 my iPhone) by 30 and plus 50 at the end, this is how much you should pay, any more and you are getting the foreigner price.
Today may have been the perfect Sunday – a day off in the “emerald of the Indian Ocean.” I must admit, I felt a little bit guilty taking a day off so early in my trip, but today was a sunday, there was nothing I could do about it, nothing was open!
A morning of waking up slow, uploading my photos to Flickr, writing a little and reading a lot. Eating jam and toast with the family with my favourite Sri Lankan milk-tea, with Tamil music from Bollywood softly accompanying, including my two new favourite songs “Ennamo Yeadho” and “Nenjil Nenjil” (which I totally downloaded from iTunes, although buying CD’s from here would have probably cost a tenth of the price … but which ones are legit?).
Being Sunday in Colombo, there is only one place to be, Galle Face beach: a quick hop in a trishaw and I was there, only to be greeted by literally hundreds of tractors, cranes, bulldozers and more, all on parade. I swear, there must have been at least a few hundred million dollars worth of heavy machinery there, all on parade, covered in Chinese and Sri Lankan flags, a “gift” from the Chinese government, but more on that later.
A stroll down the beautiful, Bondi Beach-esque causeway, past young Sri Lankan couples sneaking kisses under umbrellas, past teenage boys pushing each other into the waves in jeans and a T-shirt (no one seems to have swimmers here, the like the water, but their clothes seem fine), past ice cream vendors selling 10c cones, fruit vendors selling chilli guava, salted mango and other slightly familiar slightly different snacks, and past beach toy stalls selling wind toys and kites, flying dozens of them on display. Of course, being a youngish male tourist, I got stopped by police a few times, not for questioning, not because of suspicion, not even to ask for some bakshish, but just to chat, to practice their English. I was invited to drinks with a local police officer named Rajiv, but I chose to decline, he seemed just a bit too seedy (no offence Rajiv, I am just not brave enough!).
And, of course, I participated in a game of beach promenade cricket – the Sri Lankans seem to be a lot more skilful, or hydrophobic than Australians, since not one ball went into the ocean.
Then I got to the Galle Face Hotel, an English colonial gem, more than 150 years old, and, apparently “the oldest hotel west of the Suez”. A costumed bell-boy (actually, he was about 70 years old, so is bell-boy the correct term? Bell Sir? Bell Person?) greeted me at the entrance with a striped blue towel, asking for a room number as security for the towel, or proof or something that I stayed there. I balked a little, since I was a guest of the Sirida family in Kotehena, and not a guest of the $140+ a night hotel.
“Room 115″ I bluffed, seeing a room 118 on the list and thinking it would be safe: if there was an 18, there must have been a 15.
I got my towel without so much as a sideways look from the Bell Sir, I think my bluff worked!
4 hours on the pool balcony passed, facing the Indian Ocean and absorbing the rays whilst chewing through “Building a Social Business” by Mohommed Yunus (review/summary to come), interspersed with reading articles from “Foreign Affairs” and “The New York Review of Books” for variety. The sun was baking me, and not a single word was said to anyone. Just the ocean, the sun and I, tied into the world of the book I was reading, ideas running through my mind (how could I best build my own social business? Would it be feasible in Sri Lanka? In Australia? Could I bring IT and Photography into it? How did it relate to the “Human Computing” article I read in “The Economist”?).
But then, my heart sank, a waiter walked up to me and asked:
“Sir, did you say you were in Room 119?” My horrible handwriting again.
“No, thats 115″ I said, hoping he wasn’t on to me.
He walked back to his post, but I could see a glint of suspicion in his eyes, so I made sure that he saw that I paid in cash for the papaya and banana juice I had ordered – that he didn’t think I was defrauding the GFH. I think I got away with it, or, at least, I think he stopped caring.
Then, the magic hour, 4:00pm came: $6 for 3 coronas; at least 3 weddings on at any one time; and the sun’s magic and colourful descent begins. I chose a prime seat, ocean side, an unobstructed view, and close enough to the bar that the bartender wouldn’t forget me. Then I saw a bride resplendent in here wedding gear, right by the ocean, and I had to take a picture. I got up from my seat and snapped away, much to the surprise of the wedding photographers with their super-zoom cameras who thought I was trying to upstage them.
When I got back to my seat, however, I found it occupied by a German-Colombian couple and a German-Carribean (also Spanish-speaking) couple. But they let me sit with them, and keep taking my sunset photos for my planned animated GIF (to come! as soon as I learn how to make it!). Talking with them, I learned that they both worked in Sri Lanka, one as a radio engineer at Deutsche Welle Radio’s Trincomalee short-wave radio transmitting station, and the other with the German version of AusAid. We talked and talked about the politics of this country, and of all the little obstacles put up that make it difficult to work in this country. We talked about Sri Lanka’s increasing debt burden it gets by accepting these “gifts” from China – which it would have to pay for in years to come. We talked, and shared beers and stories, and now I have four new friends, who I hope to see again when I get back to Colombo, or when I get to Trincomalee.
The sun had set, the beers were where they were meant to be (we had drunk them) and now I was famished – so off to my favourite Appam restaurant at the end of Wellawata beach. An open air thing that is always full, and always filled with the sound of chattering soldiers, sodas popping open and metal scrapers on metal cook-tops – the sound of Kottu being made. Egg hoppers and plain hoppers with this ridiculously spicy salsa and mutton curry, which had more bone than mutton, and I was ready to go.
I exhausted hailed a trishaw and schlepped my way back to Kotehena and collapsed onto the bed, still in my clothes, feeling each spring in the bed, but not caring at all.
Good night, and what a busy day I have ahead of me (Mondays…).
Today was my first real day of “ernstes Geschäft” (serious business) in Sri Lanka. However, being a Saturday, no business is that serious – the OfERR head office has a thankfully later-than-usual 9:30 am start on Saturdays.
So, having ridiculous jet lag (waking up at 4:00 am), I had quite a lot of time to kill in the morning. I must admit, it is a little bit my fault that I have jet lag like this – an amazing dinner of potato curry and coconut sambal with a rice-flour pita-bread type thing (a roti or not? I’m not sure), the heat and humidity of the place and the lullaby of hindu prayers from the devout of the neighbourhood sent me to sleep at something like 7 at night. 4 in the morning is a bit of an ungodly hour, and I was scared that leaving the room would scare the hell out of the people I was staying with (thanks so much Abarna, by the way, for organising me such an awesome place to stay). So reading and tweeting ’till normal-person breakfast time it is!
And the breakfast was amazing too! Ceylon milk tea (bitter, but with enough sugar to cut through it), toast with home-made jam (it takes me a while to get used to curry for breakfast) and these amazing “cereal and milk, all in a ball” thingy, so sweet that I am sure it is made with condensed milk.
The Temple in the morning
After breakfast, with it being only 7:30, I had two hours to kill. In Sri Lanka, though, there is always something to do. I jumped into a trishaw and headed to visit my old friend Ganga, the baby elephant at the temple in central Colombo. I had also made friends with his handler Dahrmaseelan, a buddhist monk who is my age (22 years old) and I was excited to see them both again!
When I got to the temple, I was surprised to see that there was a festival on, and the president of Lion’s Club International was there to open a Sri Lankan “Disaster Relief Fund”. Although this was cool, and there were Kandyan dancers and young buddhist disciples in traditional clothes, I was a little worried that I would not be able to see Ganga and Dahrmaseelan. When Dahrmaseelan spotted me waiting outside the temple in a queue, he must have recognised me, because he instantly, in his saffron yellow robes, barged through the assembled Lionesses who were covered in garlands and ushered me in to the main hall of the temple. Before he said a word to me, covered my head in this gold pyramid thing and blessed me, cutting off the bracelet he had blessed me with in July, and tying another dozen white strands around my wrist.
He told me about his new student (his first student) and how excited he was to be a teacher, and that he was very happy that I returned to see him and Ganga (who had grown at least a hundred kilos heavier since I was last there). He gave me blessings for my mum, my dad and my sister (they are in my bag, I promise!) and a talisman for me to put on my bag. I went to greet Ganga, and had to get past the groups there for the Lion’s festival who were there to see him. I swear he recognised me, since he looked straight at me with his giant eyes and touched my head with his trunk. It was awesome to see him again!
Heading off to serious business, away from the cutest clumsy toddler elephant in the world is a bit difficult, but there were things to be done, people to greet and questions to ask. It is always a fun being able to direct a local taxi driver to where you have to go (“turn left on Hill Street at Dehiwala junction, continue straight up the hill until the creepy toy store, then left again”). Walking into the office felt like coming home, after how much time I had spent there in July. Seeing the kids again (and them taking my iPhone out of my pocket to play Fruit Ninja and Plants v Zombies), seeing my old colleagues, and sitting at my old desk, it was awesome.
Since it was Saturday, and the Colombo boss, Ms. Navamahona wasn’t in, today’s work was limited to burrowing through the rice mill project’s files and budgets, drafting questions for Monday’s meetings, organising the trip to the field and catching up with the Colombo crew. Fun, but not as productive as I had hoped, but, again, it was a Saturday, so I guess the progress was OK.
The only bad thing was that it left me a lot of things to do on Monday, which is shaping up to be a busy day indeed (Indian embassy, OfERR, bus to Mannar …).
After an amazing lunch of (you guessed it) curry and rice, and pappadams too, I was off for an afternoon of errands and fun – printing business cards (the printing guy corrected my Tamil), walking what seemed like a million miles to the centre of the city and just randomly exploring. And when I was so tired that I couldn’t walk anymore, a trishaw home, collapsing on the bed and sleeping something like 10 hours.
I am loving this place.
It is always sad leaving home, especially when it is for the 8 months I have planned to leave for. This time, leaving was even more difficult than usual. And, this time, I have a whole lot more planned.
But a massive sleep and a couple of articles in the Colombia Journalism Review (on the Kindle – an awesome machine) and I landed in Kuala Lumpur. But, instead of trekking to the Petronas Towers to watch the sun rise, as was the plan, I was stuck in the airport thanks to an overly frightened immigration official, who said I could never have made it back on time.
So, 3am at a Deli France, aka a worse (yes, there is worse) version of Starbucks, drinking an English breakfast tea. Reading the kindle in an attempt to whittle down the hours until the next flight. Thank god for random cafe friends though!
An older man, who I later found out was from New Dehli, was a factory owner and had a son who studied in Sheffield, wanted a cappuccino, but didn’t have any Malaysian money (the EFTPOS system was broken too). So, out of respect for the traveller’s code, and out of the hope for a airport cafe friend, I bought him his caffein fix.
Hours of conversation with Vinod later, the flight was boarding (although it would prove to be delayed). A transit, a decent airport, a good book and a new friend. Couldn’t hope for more than that.
A bargained for tuktuk ride (an hour and a half affair, where the driver dropped his mate off to the office and where we were witness to a car on motorcycle accident, no injuries, thankfully) and the familiar smell of the developing world returns to me – two stroke engine smoke, the electric smell of welding from all of the construction and the slight tinge of yesterday’s food on the air – I feel at home.
A beautiful home in Kotehena, where I have a room, a cold shower and a fan (all you need in this boiling place). I walked around the area, finding it to be some exciting industrial steel manufacturing area – how fun! And colourful!
I did some shopping (etisalat sims and power adapters) and ate a lunch packet a bit too late, and i’ve crashed back in my room – 7pm and jetlag has me down for the count. The beautiful sounds of Hindu prayer filter through my window like a lullaby.
This is an amazing country!
Tomorrow, I will be touching base with OfERR (Ceylon), Palmera’s local partner for the rice mill project.
[aside to my nerdiest readers] etisalat’s data plan doesn’t seem to want to let me tether – anyone know a way to get around this? It is difficult to type on the iPhone, and my pictures are locked away! Please email me or client away to help out!
P.S. remember to follow my tweets (@oatsandsugar) for more frequent updates!
In my university break (July 2011) I went to Sri Lanka. With the help of Palmera Projects I was able to volunteer my time with a local charitable organisation called OfERR (Ceylon). During my stay in Sri Lanka, I volunteered in the head office in Colombo, where I applied wrote a report on how the charity might use social media to increase exposure and interact more with interested persons. Then, my sister came to visit from Germany, and we toured around the country, visiting Trincomalee, Jaffna, Sigiriya and Kandy, taking in as much of the country as possible. After my sister left, I went to the Trincomalee field office to get as much information about the projects there as possible, focusing on the rice mill, which Palmera is currently seeking to replicate in Mannar. Finally, I made it to Mannar to see the site of the proposed rice mill, and met the people from the village (including the priest, the government officer and the potential beneficiaries of the project).
Meeting Mr. Chandrahasan, working on OfERR’s web-presence in their Sri Lanka Head-Office
Before my trip, I had read “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss to get a little bit of context about the country I was coming to. To say that the book was eye-opening, as well as horrific, is an understatement. I came to Sri Lanka expecting desolation and hopelessness. What I found was something else entirely.
Hours after I arrived in Colombo, definitely before I checked in to the hotel, I was able to meet with Mr. Chandrahasan, the son of a major Tamil politician, the founder of OfERR and quite possible one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. Within minutes, he had interviewed me and ascertained my skills (photography, economics, general nerdiness) and had told me what I can do to help. He reminded me that the reality in The Cage was real, but what the displaced persons were doing now was searching for hope, not pity, and that it was our job to empower them and to allow them to grow, to recover. This was to be a recurring theme in my trip, a hopefulness beyond anything I had ever seen.
I spent the rest of the week working with the head-office trying to work out how the charity worked (it seemed more like a family than any other type of organisation), figuring out how the Trincomalee rice mill was going, and how progress is going on the Mannar rice mill. Further, I wrote a little report about how OfERR could use the web to their advantage (I am pleased to say that my recommendations are being implemented, with OfERR already having a Twitter and a Flickr account to help show the world what they do).
My sister’s visit
Travelling around Sri Lanka: to Trincomalee, Jaffna, Sigiriya and Kandy
Although my trip was mostly a volunteering trip, I did traipse around the country as a tourist with my sister: snorkelling in Trincomalee, climbing Sigiriya rock, exploring markets and temples in Kandy and playing with baby elephants in a cute temple we found in Colombo.
We did go one place where tourists don’t usually go: Jaffna. After a 10 hour bus ride (not a coach, a dodgy, doors/windows open crowded bus) and a 20 something minute interview with the Ministry of Defense (I think the captain was just practicing his English, he was chatting to me about the fruit he grew in his garden whilst the bus was waiting) we made it to Jaffna. Awesome food! There is this stuff called “cool” which is this delicious and spicy seafood concoction which I definitely recommend. We went to the giant, magnificent and colourful temple. But the most special thing we did, in my opinion, was visit Mr Chandrahasan’s father’s home. After thirty years, his land was returned to his family, and now the land was being rebuilt. It was very inspiring.
Trincomalee with OfERR (Ceylon)
After my sister left, I went back to Trincomalee to more closely look at the projects that OfERR was involved with. I saw livelihood projects like the Batik Dyeing Centre which employed young girls who would otherwise have no jobs. I saw a weaving vocational training program. I saw so many projects that everywhere I looked I saw smiles, and hope. I saw schools that were filled with smiling children, I saw OfERR’s documentation program get documents to displaced persons, to allow them to work legally and to get their children educated.
Sadly, I also saw some IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, specifically, four camps in the area south of Trincomalee. This camps were filled with people struggling to find employment, and reliant on WFP food handouts. There were people my age, there, there were people younger.
One of the most inspirational things I saw on my trip, however, was the rice mill in Trincomalee and the attached savings clubs. With OfERR’s help (in Trincomalee, and with Palmera’s help in Mannar) a rice mill was established, and was run by women — mostly widows. The mill reduced costs for those who made money through paddy cultivation, saved time for people in the community (who would otherwise have to carry rice to a town almost 10 km away, and spend the day milling their rice) and provide a source of income for the women in the community (both for charging for milling, and from selling the husk and bran by-products of the milling process).
In the first year, the mill broke even, by the second year, because of decreasing repair costs they made a profit. This profit was enough for them to purchase a rice flour grinder, a chilli grinder and packaging equipment: all of which add value and revenue to the milling facility, and all of which are a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of the women who run the mill.
The women all had home gardens. Within two years of moving back into the land they had been displaced from, each family had a lush garden which provided them with enough food for the year. Each family had cows, chickens and goats, where two years ago there were only 8 cows in the whole village (of more than 40 families). The savings clubs (where each woman saves 20-100 rupees a month) allowed the families to take out loans to buy paddy seed, to rent paddy land, to buy sewing machines and to supplement their livelihood through entrauprenership: the empowerment that Mr. Chandrahasan spoke of was evident: this was definitely a model to be emulated.
Meeting the villagers and prospective benificiaries of the Palmera rice-mill project
A massive bus journey over bumpy non-roads, and a couple of checkpoints later, I was in Mannar. The villages surrounding this city were only recently resettled, and the conditions were much worse than in Trincomalee. Young people complained of only being able to work 4-6 days a month, there was no electricity or running water, this area was in need.
Again, Sri Lanka managed to surprise me: where I expected these conditions to bear down on the spirit of the affected persons, and where I expected these conditions to compromise the quality of life of the people, especially the children, I was wrong. The people there were optimistic. The children were schooled (there was even pre schooling facilities). When I spoke to the villagers about the rice mill, they showed the same entrepreneurial spark: they spoke of ideas for the future: grinding herbs, storing paddy and chilling milk. It was absolutely inspiring to be sitting on the floor in front of the church with people with such hope. For the first time in years, they had there land back, and they were all so hopeful for the future.
I would like to thank Palmera Projects and OfERR (Ceylon) for the most wonderful opportunity. I hope to be back in Sri Lanka as soon as possible to continue my work (December!). For more photos, check out my two Flickr sets from my trip: Part 1 and Part 2.