Archive for October, 2009

Big Girl Party

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

I went to a Big Girl Party.

A Big Girl Party is the celebration of the coming of age of a girl. That is, a celebration of the time she starts menstruating.

The party was much the same as any party you might find in the UK or in Australia. Lots of people. Lots of fancy clothes (and shoes). Presents. Good food. Lots of photos. One difference was that there wasn’t very much alcohol and in fact there weren’t many drinks at all. I’m used to seeing every single person at a party with a drink in front of them (alcoholic or not) but here most people didn’t have a drink. There was a drink handed out to each person at the start of the evening and there were water glasses near the food table that people tended to drink quickly while standing at that table just after they’d eaten. But apart from that people sat at tables talking or eating nibbly things without a drink. I thought that was interesting.

Since I’d been up since early in the morning and had spent three hours on a bus and 22km on a bike I was quite tired so I’m afraid I went and slept in the van in the carpark just after dinner. But the photos showed me that much dancing and singing happened after I’d gone to lie down. All in all, a normal party.

However, it was a Big Girl Party. And this is a concept that I find difficult to deal with. It’s one of the few things here that I find very hard to assimilate.

And now I will stop talking about this particular Big Girl Party and start talking about the concept generally and my personal reactions to it.

One part of my reaction comes of course from my culture. I’ve been brought up in a culture where women do not talk about such things. They certainly don’t have a party to celebrate them. So this is strange to me. Though I think that talking about these things is good and more of it should be done in the west. Though having said that the general levels of sex and health education here seem to be much, much lower than in the UK or in England and that’s to do with cultural differences too. So maybe a part of me finds it strange that in a culture where women are told not to have a shower when they are menstruating (because it makes the blood go back into the body) and where many women don’t know about tampons or menstrual cups or the pill or other methods of contraception, they do tell everyone about when a girl starts menstruating.

Now all of this is me and my opinions. This is not intended as a criticism of Sri Lankan culture at all, it is merely my reactions to a part of Sri Lankan culture that I find difficult.

I also find it strange because in my opinion starting to menstruate is not something to be celebrated and congratulated. I want to commiserate with the girls in question. They now have a couple of decades of regular discomfort, pain, mood swings, irritation, annoyance and spending lots of money on sanitary products. Bleeding for a few days every month is not a pleasant thing to have to go through – even if you you have a fairly normal cycle and don’t suffer major pain or mood-swings.

But the main aspect I found most difficult to deal with is that this defines women as agents of reproduction. You become a woman when you become fertile. If you are not fertile, you are not a woman. And this is something I strongly disagree with. I am a human being. I happen to be female but I am not a womb on legs. The fact that I choose not to have children should not invalidate my existence. Now for the vast majority of women, having children is something they choose to do. And some of them are very good at being mothers. However, not all women have children. Not all women can have children. Not all women want to have children.

A very large number of Sri Lankan women want to get married and have children, in fact there is a slight stigma here for women who are unmarried and for married women who do not have children. Most of these women have children because they want them. I imagine for many of these women it has never even occurred to them that they have a choice. They have children because that’s what women do.

So the notion of celebrating a woman’s fertility as a coming of age is something I find hard to deal with. But this I suspect has far more to do with my notions of self-identity and less to do with Sri Lankan culture.

Sri Lankan Firsts

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

I’ve created a page (see the links on the right) of my Sri Lankan Firsts.

I will keep updating them as more exciting things happen to me for the first time. There might be other firsts I’ve missed. I’ll add them too if I remember them.


My Plans for When I Finish Here

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Lots of people have been asking me what my plans are for when I finish here.

I’m not entirely sure. Here’s my best guess at the moment.

I will go back to the UK on the 4th of January (assuming my flight is sorted out by then, I’m currently on a waiting list due to a schedule change).

I will stay with some friends in Cambridge when I get back.

I will find a job and a place to stay.

I will save money.

I will help VESL with whatever I can help them with. 🙂

I will go to a few weddings.

In May or June or something, I hope to come back to Sri Lanka and spend another year volunteering.

But I’m not sure about any of these yet. I’ll wait till I get back to the UK before I make any decisions. It might depend on how I react to being back in a country with hot showers, carpet, coffee shops, decent tea, sandwiches, washing machines and very few people who spit in public.

But we’ll see. 🙂

Viral Infection

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

A few weeks ago I got a viral infection. I started feeling a bit unwell at lunchtime so went to lie down. I did a bit of work in the afternoon then went back to bed. At about 6pm I called the college president’s wife to ask her to take me to a doctor. I felt awful. I had a temperature. I was really weak. Sweating. Shaking. Terrible.

The doctor said it was low blood pressure so gave me a powder to mix with water (I think it was primarily salt and sugar) and some medicine.

They have a complete obsession with medicine here. Any time you are sick you have to go to the doctor to get medicine. The doctor never tells you what the medicine is. It turns out that I was on paracetamol, vitamin C and an anti-histamine. And the anti-histamine was probably what was causing my mouth to be tender (meaning I couldn’t eat chili or black pepper – I’m in Sri Lanka – this makes eating very difficult indeed) and was probably what gave me the rash.

A few days later, I was still feeling terrible so went to see another doctor. This one did a blood test (a new needle). It wasn’t Dengue (which was really nice – there is an epidemic of Dengue here at the moment). But it was a viral infection. Which meant rest and fluids.

The viral infection was terrible. Though, it was only a viral infection. So I felt rotten for two weeks. I couldn’t eat much, I lost loads of weight. I was sleeping lots. I was walking really slowly (Sri Lankan women were overtaking me) and I was having to hold on to things and sit down a lot. I had a fever, some aches and joint pain, but nothing too major. So it wasn’t a painful illness. But all I needed was rest. The second doctor knew that. Lots of other people wanted to send me to hospital (which I really didn’t like the sounds of). It was very nice for all of them to be so concerned for me. But I was very well looked after in the college and to any of you reading this blog thank you, thank you, thank you!! Some of the female students from the Cadet Corps course came to visit me (and some stayed away to let me rest). Thank you to both sets. Some of the male Cadet Corps students had wanted to visit me but weren’t allowed, since they’re boys and I’m a girl and I was in the girls’ dorm and they’re not allowed into the girls’ dorm. But thank you for your support anyway. Some of the CCPSD course women washed some of my clothes for me. Some of the lecturers brought me food and drink and generally made sure I was ok. Ranjith came to visit me to make sure I was ok (I’d been in regular text communication with him throughout too). 🙂

So thanks to everyone who was concerned and helped me. It was really appreciated!

I am now back on my feet. Fit, healthy, walking at normal speed. Feeling wonderful!!


Cycling Adventure – Avissawella to Panadeniya

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

My bicycle (pushbike) was in Avissawella. It had been in Nivithigala, but thanks to the wonders of people who know people who know people it managed to materialise in Avissawella. Thank you Ranjith – you are truly wonderful!

I got the bus on Monday the 19th of October from Kandy (6:50am) to Avissawella (9:30am). I then collected my bike, put suncream on, bought a new battery for my cycle computer and headed off. I am so proud of myself. I had to leave the bus station in Avissawella (which is on a very main road) and then turn right into another very main road. Now, I’m not good with right turns on a bike even in England. In Sri Lanka the thought is downright terrifying. But it turned out to be easier here. I just veered into the middle of the road (I had looked behind me first – most Sri Lankans don’t bother). Then instead of turning onto the left side of the road I just nipped onto the right side so that the traffic coming along that road turning right could so without worrying about me. So I cycled the wrong way up the road for a few meters until it was all clear, then I veered onto the correct side of the road (avoiding the three wheeler coming towards me who was in the process of a similar maneuver).

I did 22kms that day. I went to just past Yatiyantota. It was pretty flat the whole way which was nice. But it was very hot. I stopped every 5kms to buy an icy pole/ice lolly/ice packet or some water or a king coconut to drink. Very nice. Gorgeous country. Wonderful ride.

Ranjith met me and took me to his brother-in-law’s place where I stayed the night. There’s a lot more to that story which might be covered in other posts. But it was really, really wonderful to see the family again. Though I’m sure Rashmi has got much taller since the last time I saw her. And next time when I pick her up and turn her upside down we may have a problem of her head being a little too close to the floor. 🙂

On Tuesday we put my bike (and me) on a bus to go up the hill. We went to Watawala (get to Ginigathena then turn right towards Hatton). This was the most amazing, fantastic, wonderful idea that any human being who has ever walked this earth has had. Well maybe not quite that good, but pretty damn good. The road climbed about 600m. And I sat comfortably (well, as comfortably as one can sit on a Sri Lankan bus taking hairpin bends on a very narrow road at ridiculous speeds – even going uphill) with my bike on the roof while the engine of the bus did all the hard work.

And the views were incredible. I’m fairly sure I saw Sri Pada in the distance too which was nice since I haven’t actually seen it except when I was on it.

I stayed the night in Watawala (at a guest house) and left at 6:45 on Wednesday morning to cycle home. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get on that day. It turns out I got the whole way home. But that’s preempting a little bit.

The road was beautiful. There are some photos on my flickr page. And it was downhill. So even though I covered 38kms that day I think I only cycled about 8 of them, the rest were coasting! I stopped at Nawalapitiya for breakfast (two plain hoppers and a bottle of Sprite). Then further on for second breakfast (crisps – onion flavoured extruded snack, yoghurt, cream soda). I then stopped at Gampola for lunch.

On the way in to Gampola I saw Ambuluwawa. The mountain that I visited with the school on the Grade 8 field trip). That was pretty cool too. 🙂

I had lunch (egg kottu) in Gampola and was all excited about cycling the last 15kms back to college. But my bike had a flat front tyre. So I took it to a shop and the guy fixed it (for 50Rs which is about 30pence). But two km further down the road it was flat again. I figured one flat I could deal with, two is a sign from the god(s). So I found a three wheeler and put me and the bicycle into it and it took us both back to college.

The result: I did two days of cycling (22km & 38km). I had a fantastic time. I got browner and lots more freckles but my constant reapplication of suncream (especially on the backs of my hands) warded off the sunburn. I saw some incredible scenery. And finally, my bike is now with me in Kandy – even if it needs repairing.


Oh, and I’ve decided that the best way to cycle Sri Lanka is to get a bus up the hills and cycle down them. 😉


Friday, October 23rd, 2009

I’ve put some more photos on my flickr page. Just to make you all jealous of how much fun I’m having.



Friday, October 23rd, 2009

For the first time in my life, I went on a motorbike.

Yes, that’s right, Kath on a motorbike.

My new insurance does cover me on a motorbike which is essential. I was terrified of the prospect of getting on the bike, but not so terrified whilst actually on the bike.

One of my students (Wathsala – she’s 23 years old) was going from her home into town to go to the shop. It was a couple of kilometers. I went with her. It was a very small bike – I don’t know enough about bikes to tell you much more than that. It was about the size of a scooter though it wasn’t a scooter.

Anyway, it was far more stable than I thought it would be and far, far less scary.

So I can now say that I have been on a motorbike. I will probably go on others here now that I’ve got my feet wet (so to speak). And motorbike travel is quite practical here. This is a country where cars cost about the same as they do in England and given that salaries in England are 5-10 times higher than here, that makes cars very expensive. And bikes are good for nipping through traffic and for going along those narrow lanes here that are really just paths. Too small for a car but wide enough for a bike.

Plus, you can fit at least a family of four on an average motorbike here. Not that I am or indeed have a family of four but it does argue in favour of the usefulness of the machines. 🙂

Plastic Buckets

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

I’m getting closer to being a real Sri Lankan. I now have plastic buckets. This is important. If/when you all come to Sri Lanka you’ll notice just how many shops sell plastic buckets. This is a sign that they are important. And once you’ve spent any time in a Sri Lankan home you’ll find out just how important.

I have a basin thing. It is about 10cm deep and about 40cm in diameter. I use it for washing clothes and for heating water so I can wash myself and not freeze.

I also have a plastic jug. It holds about 600ml. I use it to boil water to make tea (yay) and to help me when I’m washing myself with a bucket of near-boiling water and a tap of quite cold water. The jug is useful for mixing and pouring.

I also have a plastic mug from which I drink the tea that I use the jug to help me make. (There’s a plastic tea strainer as well – for tea purposes.)

And finally, though not a plastic receptacle, I have a water heater. It’s electric. And like the element of a kettle but without the kettle.

Ownership of the water heater, tea strainer, leaf tea and powdered milk also help me feel more Sri Lankan. (Though making strong tea with only a little bit of milk and no sugar puts me right back in the Wacky White Westerner camp.)