Archive for June, 2011

Clothes Shopping

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Clothes shopping is not something that I am known for. It’s not something I enjoy. At all. Though I do get quite excited about developments in mosquito repellent clothing. Craghoppers do a great pair of trousers with drawstrings at the ankles that are just the best thing ever. But that’s about as far as I get with clothes shopping. And I even whinge about the Craghoppers stuff because there isn’t enough of it (i.e. any) that is black. Ah well. Given the stuff stops me getting bitten, or at least reduces substantially the number of bites I get, my whinge about colour can be fairly safely ignored.

Some of you may have been reading this for a while. And you may remember that when I started teaching in Sri Lanka in 2009 that I wore a sari. You may even remember some (or all) of the posts I wrote then about how much I dislike saris as a component of my wardrobe.

I probably also wrote about the actual process of buying the things.

Anyway, I’ve come a long way since then. In lots of areas. My dislike of saris has remained unchanged though. In fact, it has strengthened.

But, I’m in India. And at the start of a new project. Elaine will be here for 10 weeks. I’ll be around for 2 and a half. So I thought we should probably go during week one to get some suitable things to wear for teaching. Elaine didn’t seem keen on the sari idea. We both decided that churidor would be the answer. These are the shirt/trouser things that Indian women wear. The trousers are bunched at the ankle but are usually quite billowy around the legs themselves. The tops are short or long sleeved and the top comes down to mid thigh, or lower. There are slits in the side from about hip level down. This is usually worn with a scarf. The two ends flow backwards over the shoulders (where it is sometimes pinned). The front bit of the scarf hangs down covering most of the chest. Not so different from the shirt and trousers I usually wear so I thought, why not, give it a go.

So we arranged with Josy (Johnson’s sister) that we would go shopping with her on Thursday afternoon. Jo, Josy’s husband, asked why we didn’t ask him. I said it was because he was a boy. But he did offer to drive us, which was very nice of him. πŸ™‚

We met up at the house on Thursday at the correct time. We got into the car. We headed off. Jo announced that Josy had a hospital appointment and so we would drop her off and Jo would take us shopping. Now, I’m usually not a big fan of gender discrimination, but the reason why we wanted Josy to come with us was because we don’t know anything about churidor and she’s a woman who wears churidor, she will know. But, if it’s Jo, then it’s Jo. He said it would be no problem, he could help. I was sceptical. He was confident. I asked if he’d ever worn churidor before. He was uncharacteristically silent. Well, we’ll see what happens.

What happened is probably best not talked about in too much detail. Suffice it to say the next hour saw me spend more time in the stationery shop than the clothes shop (I had to keep escaping next door to comfort-buy pens and pencils each time it all got too much for me).

One shop invovled Elaine and I having several heated discussions with Jo and the three male sales assistants about what we wanted/needed and what was available.

  • White is not a good idea, have you been in an Indian school? They are dirty, dusty places.
  • Sleeves that short are definitely not ok, this is for teaching.
  • Have we mentioned that we need these to wear for teaching. They are not a tourist souvenir.
  • Are there any trousers smaller than that? Do you mean to say that every Indian woman is wearing trousers that baggy? You could fit every Indian woman into one pair of trousers that big!
  • She needs sleeves that cover her shoulders.
  • Not white.
  • Not so fancy.
  • Do you have anything plainer?
  • No, that won’t fit her, that’s a 30A, she’s a 32D!
  • Showing us extra material that you can sew into this to make it fit her isn’t useful. Can we just get something in the right size please?

Elaine finally demanded that we call Josy and meet her after her appointment.

Which we did. We then went to the shop she usually goes to. This was better already. Elaine managed to get 4 tops. Since she already has some black trousers, she decided there was no need to buy trousers. And she had no intention of wearing a scarf. So she was fine.

My turn. I do not want anything fancy. Plain black please. They didn’t have any. Jo assured me that only Moslems wear plain black. Which I’m sure isn’t true. But anyway, this shop didn’t have any plain black. Ok, how about plain dark brown, dark blue, dark purple, dark red even? I knew this was getting tough. I was prepared to compromise. Nope. It seems the plainest thing that you can get is either black completely covered in sequins. Or black with a two inch peacock blue and gold trim on the hem and sleeves and covering the whole chest. Hmm, not quite my idea of plain.

By this stage, I’d pretty much decided that the whole afternoon had been far too difficult and fraught that I just wouldn’t bother. My trousers and shirts would do me just fine for the remaining week and a bit.

But it was to get worse. I said that it was enough. Jo said it was no problem, he didn’t mind going into more shops. I said yes, but I mind. If I go in to any more shops I will start punching people. I even mimed punching him in the face just to get my point across. Finally I conceded we could try one more shop only.

We tried 4. The last one had something that was reasonably plain. But by this stage there was nothing on earth I was going to be able to look at, try on, like and buy. I tried this one on. Felt like a complete freak. Yelped something about being a human being not a clothes horse. Managed to avoid use of expletives. Took it swiftly off again and walked out.

We went for fruit salad. The world became a happier place. πŸ™‚

The Egg

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

I am staying in a convent. With 6 nuns. All of whom are very lovely, caring people. They are also non-vegetarians. They know that I am a vegetarian. And that I’m a vegetarian who eats eggs. They are worried about me. So once a day (usually at lunch) I get an egg. Every day. Sometimes it is whole boiled egg that appears in the breakfast curry. But usually it is an omelette that I get a lunchtime. Sometimes there’s an egg at two meals.

Now, I do eat eggs. They’re not my favourite thing. Especially when I think about what they are. But I do like eggs. And a good omelette is a nice thing (especially if it has lots of mushrooms and strong cheddar – which these ones don’t have). But a plain omelette is good. And the nuns here do make a cracking omelette (pun intended).

But I must say that I think 7 eggs a week is a little excessive. I’ve spoken to them about this and we’ll see if it stops. πŸ™‚

Seeing Sr Pauline walk to the cupboard in the dining room the other day with a basket of about two dozen eggs caused Elaine and I to burst into fits of barely stifled giggles. It was hilarious! πŸ™‚

The Eggs

But, it is nice to be looked after so well.

Postscript: after having two conversations with them, I am now pleased to report that the flood of eggs has abated. Though I still giggle whenever I see one. πŸ™‚

Food in the convent

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

We’re eating three meals a day in the convent. And the food is good.

Breakfast is dosa (rice flour pancakes), iddly (steamed rice flour cake things), puthu (steamed rice or tapioca mixed with coconut), chappati or puri (a bit like chappati but cooked in oil) with curry. We get tea or coffee at breakfast. And it’s great. There’s a flask of hot water and some tea bags and a jar of Nescafe. There is also a flask of hot milk. Usually people here make tea with hot milk. But I’m making tea with hot water and adding a splash or two of hot milk afterwards. And that means I get tea that isn’t so milky. Which suits my taste. Elaine usually has coffee. And there is sugar on the table. So I’m getting tea with no sugar which is also a great relief. πŸ™‚

Lunch is rice and curry. There is a fish/meat curry. Sometimes there is a fish curry and pieces of fried fish too. Elaine is loving the fish. I’m not eating it. But that’s ok. And there are leftovers from breakfast. Oh, and I get an egg.

Dinner is rice and curry. Usually all veg, but sometimes there is fish as well. This often includes leftovers from lunch. Sometimes dinner includes chappati too.

Breakfast is about 7:45. Lunch is about 1:15. Dinner is about 7:45. Sometimes one or two of the nuns are busy doing other things so come a bit later. Sometimes we’re a bit later and they have already started. The time keeping for meals isn’t that strict.

The food is all laid out on the serving table.

We stand behind our chairs before the meal and the most senior nun present prays.

Then we go to the serving table with our plates and serve ourselves. Which is really, really nice. It means we’re not being overfed. Which is a relief.

We then sit and eat. There is cutlery and some of the nuns eat with cutlery, some eat with their hands, sometimes it depends on the food. I eat chappati with my hands but eat everything else with knife and fork, or fork and spoon.

After we’ve finished eating, we all stand behind our chairs and the most senior nun says another prayer.

Then we wish each other a good morning / afternoon / evening / night and we go our separate ways.

Rubbish Disposal

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

The most striking aspect of the beach in Puthiyathura (and in Poothura too) is the rubbish. It’s a very dirty place. Or, as my friend Johny says “the beach is full of dirty”. And he’s absolutely right. This is not a misuse of English, this is a glorious use of English to describe a very inglorious situation. The beach is indeed full of dirty. πŸ™‚

There are no needles (like you might be worried about finding on some beaches in the UK or Australia) but general rubbish. Plastic bottles. Wrappers. Glass. Old clothing. Shoes. Food scraps. Rubbish.

The nun who was with us was explaining that the church has tried to teach the people the importance of cleanliness but that it makes no difference.

I suspect that a large part of the problem is lack of infra-structure. There are no rubbish collections. There is no local landfill site (well, no official landfill site). So the choice is, dump the rubbish on the beach, dump the rubbish by the side of the road, dump the rubbish on an unused plot of land, burn the rubbish. If you live cheek by jowl in small huts just by the edge of the beach, then dumping your rubbish on the beach does seem like the best option.

While we were standing there chatting a woman came up with a bucket on her head. In it was general household rubbish. She walked straight past us and up to the water’s edge. She threw the rubbish into the sea. Two or three crows who had been following her then started picking at the rubbish. She turned around and walked back. The waves pulled some of the waste out to sea a short distance before the incoming waves crashed it straight back up onto the sand.

Elaine and I stood watching in exasperation. How can they do this to their beach? But, given their choices, what else can they do? Telling people not to throw rubbish on the beach is all well and good. But they need to have an alternative.

On another trip to the beach I was also saddened, though not shocked, to see people using the beach as a toilet. Men and boys crouching by the water’s edge and letting the waves wash the waste away (or straight back up on to the beach). Again, lots of people in this area don’t have an option. They don’t have a toilet in or near their homes.


Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

One of the nuns took us for a walk around Puthiyathura (the village we’re staying in).

We went down the street to the main road, crossed it and walked down to the beach. The beach is a working beach. There were lots of fishing boats and nets. And men who had been fishing in the morning sitting around playing cards, or chatting, or fixing their nets ready for tomorrow. There were some men asleep on the beach beside their boats. Some people were drying fish on the sand under nets (to keep the birds away).

The beach was very dirty. But more about that in a separate post.

We continued our walk.

We walked up from the beach back through the huts towards the main road. The nun stopped us outside one house to say that a person had died there. She asked if we were frightened to see dead people. I said not frightened, but there was no need to see.

So we got left standing in an alleyway by the house being scrutinised by the people who were there. The nun we were with went to talk to lots of the people there. I think she also called the convent to pass a message to the priest so that all the arrangements could be made for the burial.

We caught an inadvertent glimpse of the body laid out on a bed in the front room. But at least we weren’t invited in to take part in the procedure. I find it very strange. I felt like a stranger imposing (or being imposed) upon something that we had no right to be spectators at. I don’t know if the family would feel shunned that we didn’t take part or pleased that we hadn’t imposed. Though I suspect they had far more important things to worry about.

It later turned out that the woman in question was the grandmother of a friend of the family I had stayed with in Poonthura. So I had met the grandson.

We kept walking. We met up with several other people in the village. The nun stopped to speak to lots of them. We chatted to a few. They were shocked and surprised and pleased and confused to see us. We got a lot of pointing and staring and laughing. Some of it friendly, some not so much. Well, most of it friendly actually. πŸ™‚

We made it back to the convent. It had been an interesting afternoon. Puthiyathura is not a tourist destination. It isn’t the most beautiful place on earth. But for the people who live here it is their home. And they were surprised to see two very strange faces (one white, one black) in their territory. But they were welcoming and interested and curious. Elaine said she feels comfortable here. And since she’ll be living here for the next couple of months, that is very important. πŸ™‚

The Indian Project

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Elaine and I are working at St Nicholas’ primary school in Puthiyathura. Puthiyathura is about 25kms south of Trivandrum and about 20kms south of Poonthura (where I was last time I was in India).

The school is a primary school that does classes from 1st Standard (grade 1) to 4th Standard (grade 4). We are teaching Standard 3 and 4. The kids are mostly 7 and 8 though we have a couple who are 9 or 10.

The school is in a poor fishing village. The school is an aided school. Which means that the government pays the salaries of the teachers but the school is managed by the church. The students all get a free lunchtime meal (rice and curry, a glass of milk once a week, an egg twice a week). Material for the uniforms is provided by the church. The uniforms are stitched by the nuns and the children (or rather, their parents) pay only for the stitching. The government provides text books up to 8th Standard free of charge for everyone. From 9th Standard the boys have to pay but the girls get their books for free. It’s a part of Kerala’s attempts to empower women. Kerala is probably the most advanced Indian state in terms of empowering women, but that’s another blog post.

Elaine and I are teaching three classes a day (of about 55 mins each). There are two divisions at 3rd and 4th Standard. The two 4th Standard classes have about 36 students in each. So we teach them separately. But the two 3rd Standard classes combined are about 40 so we teach them together.

The teachers are wonderful and they stay in the classes to help us out (and videotape us sometimes). And that is really nice. They are learning from us. It’s not that we are better teachers than they are. Far from it. But we do teach in a different way from the way they are used to teaching. So they are learning new techniques. As well as being exposed to our pronunciation.

It is taking a while for the kids to get used to us and our pronunciation. But they are picking it up well. And we can see the improvement from one day to the next.

It is very good fun!!

A Week In Sri Lanka

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I spent about a week in Sri Lanka.

I was staying with Heather and Cyril and had a very lovely time with them.

I didn’t suffer too much from jetlag but did get over what I did suffer quite quickly.

There are some volunteers coming out in July to spend 4 weeks teaching and I’m going to help them out a bit when they get here. So, in anticipation of that, I had a few meetings with some of the Sri Lankans who will be running things this end. It all seems under control. Well, except the visas.

I wasn’t directly involved with the visa process. It was being managed by the Sri Lankans themselves. But it did prove to be a fairly stressful few days. VESL had given them a deadline for getting the visa paperwork organised. If the documentation didn’t get through in time, the Sri Lankan project would have been pulled and the volunteers sent to India instead.

Fortunately, through the hard work of several of the people VESL works with, the visa letter was sent through to the UK. Only a day after the second deadline. πŸ™‚

The difficulty is that it involved several different ministries, each of whom has different hoops that they want the others to jump through. And since status is very important here, junior officers can’t really hassle senior officers and senior officers can change their mind at any time about what they want junior officers to do. So the goal posts kept moving. People kept asking for different information, or the same information from different people.

So that was interesting.

But that wasn’t all I did. I also met up with some teachers who will be working with the volunteers and we chatted about what we’d do with them.

Plus, rather surprisingly, I ended up at a school that was running an after-school programme. So I got to teach some grade 10 and 11s. That was great fun. And some grade 9s. Who were really enthusiastic.


So a week of catching up, relaxing, teaching, meetings, eating tasty food.

Now on to India then back to Sri Lanka in a few weeks. πŸ™‚

Sri Lankan Buses

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I have mentioned Sri Lankan buses before. And I shall probably mention them again. They are quite special.

And having been away from them for a few months, the novelty has worn back on again. πŸ™‚

My bag weighs 9.3kgs and is only 35 litres. Which means it is small enough to comfortably fit behind the seat that’s in front of the back door. So I can clamber in the back door, kick the bag behind the seat, grab as many things as I can, plant my feet as wide as possible, bend my knees and settle in.

At some point the conductor will come round asking for money. My Sinhala pronunciation isn’t great but is usually good enough for him to work out where I’m going. Plus several nearby passengers often help.

One of my Cambridge friends was trying to teach me about the principles of rock climbing and about how you should have three points of contact at all times. Well, a similar principle applies to Sri Lankan buses. Sitting is good, but you need both feet in contact with the floor too. Or one foot and one hand holding something. It’s usually a good idea to have both feet and both hands and both buttocks and your back. But it is a Sri Lankan bus and this level of luxury and security is unlikely.

Standing up is ok, if you can hold on to two different things (the backs of two seats, one seat back and one overhead rack), or if you can push your hip against a seat or pole and then hold on with the other hand. Frequently both feet firmly planted doesn’t work so one secure foot, one toe, one hip and one or two hands is probably ok.

It also depends a bit on how twisted your spine is and how much falling over room there is. If the crush of bodies is sufficient then hanging on makes no difference anyway. But you can very easily end up in a position where your centre of mass is not between your feet.

Now, don’t you all wish you could come to Sri Lanka to visit me? I’ll take you on a bus ride!! πŸ™‚

Back in Sri Lanka

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

While writing this,Β I have a mosquito bite, dirty feet and bruises from a bus ride. I made a friend on a bus and at one point today was in reasonably intimate physical contact with 6 different people simultaneously. Today I had kottu for lunch.

This means only one thing – I’m back in Sri Lanka!!! And I’m loving it!!!! πŸ™‚

Flight from London to Colombo

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I boarded my flight and settled down to sleep, and watch a movie (‘Three days’), and eat, and read some of my book (‘The year of naked swim parties’).

I woke up in time for Delhi. I thought I had a 12 hour stopover, but it turns out it was only 4. Which was nice. So I had some tea (ridiculously strong and stewed, with warm powdered milk, but with no sugar). Welcome to India. πŸ™‚

I got some work done. Laptops are very handy. Powerpoints all through the departure lounge at the airport are great. Especially the ones that actually worked (I tried about 12 of them, I only found 2 that worked).

Went for a wet-wipe wash down and a change of clothes. I didn’t think that theΒ clothes that I’d been wearing from Essex to Manchester to London to Delhi would really cope with Delhi to Katunayake to Colombo to Horana. πŸ™‚

Next flight. The next leg was only 3.5 hours. Barely enough time to fall asleep before you have to wake up again. πŸ™‚

It was good to be back in Sri Lanka. And landing with only carry-on luggage does make the whole process much quicker. The heat and humidity really hit me when I walked out of the airport. It’s quite oppressive at first, but I know from experience that it won’t take long to get used to it again.

Got some cash out and found the shuttle bus which took me to the bus station at Katunayake (the town that the airport is in). I let Heather and Cyril know that I was on the way, and let some UK people know that I had arrived.

Got a normal bus (not AC) to Colombo. It was great watching Sri Lanka go past the bus windows. Shops that sell every type of plastic thing you could imagine (chairs, buckets, jugs, cups, spoons, bowls, boxes, etc). Boutiques selling bananas, king coconuts, jak fruit. Communication shops plastered with advertising posters for Dialog, Etisalat, Mobitel, etc. Enough shoe shops to make us devotees of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a little nervous. Men buying and chewing betel (and spitting it out). People on bicycles with no lights. Three wheelers. Crazy buses. Women in beautiful saris. Women in skirts and blouses. Men in suits. Men in sarongs.

We passed Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Islamic mosques, Christian churches. There were a lot of people coming out of one church. A couple of hundred of them I think. All wearing white. Several got on our bus (which was already full, of course).

The guy sitting next to me started talking to me and kept the conversation going for almost the whole trip (2hrs) to Colombo. Name, family, job, age, marital status, hobbies, interests, attitude to smoking, religion, favourite films, sport, nice Sri Lakan places to vist, etc.

It was dark when I got to Colombo. So I hurried off to find a bus to Horana. I had instructions about where I was going to get off and I asked the conductor. I then fell asleep. I woke up after a while, hoping I hadn’t missed my stop. But I hadn’t. The conductor enlisted the help of several other passengers and the driver to try to figure out which stop mine was and where it was.

Which was successful in that the bus duly deposited me in exactly the right place. The car picked me up to drive me to Heather and Cyril’s house and I got there about 9:30. Which was pretty good since I’d landed at 5:45. πŸ™‚

I had a lovely welcome from them. Had a quick shower and a light dinner. I always forget how amazingly good the bananas in Sri Lanka taste!!

We chatted about what needed to be done in my Monday meeting. And I went to collapse into bed.