Archive for July, 2011

Sari Shopping

Monday, July 25th, 2011

I’d recommended to the volunteers that they wear saris for teaching. In Sri Lanka all the female teachers have to wear saris. Poor things.

And even though I hate the things, I think wearing them is the right thing to do.

But, if I’m going to ask the volunteers to wear them, I really should wear one too. Dammit.

So I decided I should buy one. I went on my own. I have learnt that going shopping with other people does not promote contentment in Kath.

I had trouble finding a cheap, plain, black sari. No real surprise there.

People in Sri Lanka may be lovely in general but some of them do try hard to screw me over because I’m white. I suffer less than I could but more than I should. This makes sari shopping even less fun that it could be.
“1,000 is too much. I paid 350 in 2009.”
“Ah, but everything is more expensive. What you used to get for 1,000 now costs 5,000.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“1,000 is the cheapest I can do. It’s a good price.”
“No thank you.”
Ah well. I’ll just go somewhere else then and keep looking.

Anyway, I eventually found a dark purple sari that only cost twice what I wanted to pay. It’s a small victory.

I then had to go shopping with the volunteers to help them get their saris. The proverbial blind leading the blind.

The people in the first shop were so bloody irritating that one of the volunteers nearly stormed out. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.

Despite the fact that I’d been in the shop last week and been told they had no black saris and that the cheapest they had was over 1,000, it seemed on this day they had a black one for 600. Ah well. Guess that means I can now get rid of the purple thing.

The next shop was better in that the staff actually left us alone (mostly). Oh, and they were playing Bryan Adams which made the whole thing almost bearable.

It was a reasonably successful trip in that we all left the shop in possession of saris, underskirts and blouses.

But we did all desperately need fruit salad afterwards.


Bryan Adams makes it better, but even he cannot make sari shopping enjoyable.

The New Volunteers

Monday, July 25th, 2011

The reason why I’m back in Sri Lanka is to help three new volunteers who are here to do 4 week teaching projects.

I met them at the airport. Took them to the hotel in Negombo. Tried to get them settled in to Sri Lanka. Took them to Colombo to meet the new country manager for an induction session. Went with them to their projects. Got them settled in to their host families. Got them settled in at their schools. Resolved a few problems. Helped them resolve some of their own problems. Was an ear for when they needed to observe (it’s not a complaint, it’s just an observation).

I’ve been checking up on them during the week. Not that any of them have needed it. All three have done a wonderful job of working with the teachers (sometimes much harder than you’d think it should be) and working with the students (always surprising, no matter how much or little experience you have).

It sounds like I’ve been doing a lot. I haven’t really. The locals who have been getting this organised have done most of the work. The volunteers themselves have been awesome. I’ve just kept a bit of an eye on things and done bits of translating occasionally (even though I don’t speak Sinhala).

On the weekends I’ve been travelling with them. Showing them some of this amazingly beautiful country. So it’s definitely not all hard work. 🙂

They’ve had the same sorts of problems that lots of other volunteers have had. It’s very hard being a guest in a Sri Lankan family. And some Sri Lankan mothers can be overbearing to the point of oppressive. Sometimes the food is too hot for us weak westerners. And sometimes the Sri Lankans think that the right thing to do when your mouth is on fire, you can’t breathe, you’re sweating and your face is red, is to point and laugh. Needless to say, this can be a little disconcerting. Sometimes the lack of planning/organisation can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes the politicking that goes on in a school can be wearing. Sometimes miscommunications can be painful. And sometimes it’s nice to be able to talk to someone who understands. It’s nice to be able to escape and eat as much or as little of whatever you like. It’s nice not to be laughed at or treated like a performing seal. It’s nice to swear and use words of three syllables and idioms and make obscure references to the Simpsons and to talk quickly.

I’m really loving working with all three of them. I’m so glad to see them embracing every challenge that is being thrown their way. And I’m loving spending my weekends with them.

And despite the minor difficulties they’ve had, I think all three of them are enjoying being here. And even when they’re not actually enjoying it, they do feel that it is a worthwhile and amazing experience. At least I hope they do. And I hope they continue to do so.

Sri Lankan Coffee Shops

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Yes, you did read the title of this post correctly. It does say Sri Lankan Coffee Shops. There are some. Not many. But some.

I spent a few days in Dehiwala which is a suburb of Colombo.

It’s 10 rupees (about 7 pence) on the bus from Dehiwala to Majestic City.

Majestic City is a shopping centre. It has shops, a food court, a KFC, ATMs, everything you’d expect from a shopping centre. Across the road from Majestic City is a Pizza Hut. Next to the Pizza Hut is a Barista coffee shop.

Mmmmmm. Coffee shop.

The sort of place that has clean tables and chairs. It has power sockets on the wall so I can plug in my laptop. They serve coffee and tea and iced coffee and mango smoothies and other variants. They serve some snacks. There’s a toilet upstairs (through the Pizza Hut) that is clean and functional.

The place isn’t really that busy so I don’t feel too bad about sitting there for several hours. And I do make multiple orders to justify hanging around.

It’s expensive by Sri Lankan standards 180 (1.03 GBP) for a pot (2 cups) of tea. I could get two cups of standard Sri Lankan milk tea for about 60 if I went somewhere cheap and nasty. The iced mocha is 350 (2.00 GBP) or 450 (2.57 GBP) if you want extra cream.

So when I’m hanging around in Colombo I tend to spend quite a bit of time in Barista. I can plug my laptop in. I can surf the net. I can get work done. I can drink tea with separate milk and no sugar. I can just hang around in a coffee shop.

A very nice western oasis in an otherwise very nice eastern country.

Back In Sri Lanka

Monday, July 25th, 2011

After three lovely weeks in India, I had to say a very tearful goodbye to the people I’d lived and worked with. One of the problems with my current lifestyle is that I spend a lot of time saying goodbye to people. I usually try to concentrate on the fact that I’m about to say hello to someone else but sometimes saying goodbye is just a hard thing to do.

On the upside, my crying intermittently on the plane did score me two bonus cartons of mango juice from the air hostess. 🙂

After landing I managed to navigate my way to Negombo. It was only three buses. Well, four if you count the one I sat on for ten minutes because someone told me it was the right one, only to discover it wasn’t the right one at all.

And then the new phase of my trip began.

I’ll be in Sri Lanka for 6 weeks. I’ve got one week to plan for the arrival of the three new volunteers. I’ve then got 4 weeks of working with them on their projects. I then have one week to try to visit as many of my friends around the country as I can.

So, a quiet, relaxing, tropical holiday then? Right? Hmmmm.

Ah well. It is nice to be back in SL. 🙂

Strange Photos On A Laptop

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Now this was a very strange experience.

I went out for dinner with some friends. One brought his laptop with him. Not sure why. But he did.

And while we were sitting in the restaurant waiting for our food, he was showing various people various things on his laptop. Photos from the last time I was there. Amusing Pixar animations. That sort of thing.

Anyway, I was standing behind him looking at some photos of my last visit (he’d called me over to look at them).

He then changed folders and looked at another folder of photos. This time, photos taken by his brother. And a sub-folder from when his brother had been working in Iraq (for the American military). And then a sub-folder called ‘Bodies’.

I should have walked away as soon as I saw the title. I guess I just didn’t believe that the it was possible that he was about to show me photos of dead bodies that his brother had taken in Iraq.

Anyway, after the first photo nearly made me throw up the dinner I hadn’t eaten yet. I ran back round to the other side of the table to sit down and take deep breaths and try to get the image out of my head.

It was horrid.

Horrid for many reasons.

  • Horrid because it was a photo of someone who had been killed in a very violent manner and my belief in the preciousness of human life does not allow me to look lightly on images of dead bodies.
  • Horrid because despite my knowledge that these things happen, I still find it difficult to believe that human beings can be so terrible to each other.
  • Horrid because I could not work out why this photo had been taken. I can understand a journalist who is reporting on a situation taking photos to show the world what is happening. But a tourist (well, effectively a tourist) taking photos of bodies? I can understand that some people may want trophy photos. I think it is a disgusting, inhuman, horrific thing to want to do, but I can understand that there are some people who are disgusting, inhuman and horrific. But I can’t understand why someone who is a nice, lovely, non-combatant would take these photos. But I haven’t spoken to him about it so I don’t know if he did have a good reason for taking and keeping the photos.
  • Horrid because I could not understand why my friend would possibly want to look at these photos and share them with other people, at my farewell dinner, at a restaurant, mere minutes before our food was due out. His brother may have had legitimate reasons for taking the photos in the first place but my imagination completely fails me in trying to work out any reason (legitimate or otherwise) for why anyone would think that showing these photos to me was an appropriate thing to do in such circumstances.

This might be a cultural difference. This might be my oversensitivity to violence (I have lived a very sheltered life and I have not become desensitised to the inhumanity in the world). Or this might be that he and I have just misjudged each other. I don’t know.

I was also quite surprised at how surprised he was at my reaction. I guess he wasn’t expecting me to react at all in the way I did. I don’t know what he was expecting. His brother seemed quite concerned for me. His wife turned her face away from the screen in disgust.

He then tried to show me amusing photos and optical illusions to make me feel better. It didn’t work.

Strange Photos On Indian Mobile Phones

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Elaine and I were fortunate enough to be shown some of the photos that one of Johny’s friends had on his mobile phone.

Johny’s friend is an Indian male in his early 20s. So you’d expect photos of some famous people (actors (or heroes as they are called), cricketers, etc). Probably some pictures of some girls: actresses, singers etc.

Well, you’d be nearly right.

There were indeed photos of his favourite heroes (from Malayalam, English, Tamil and Hindi movies). And in some of the photos, they were fully clothed. But not most. Most of the photos were of topless men. Some were photos of men from the shoulder to the hip. I kid you not. He had a collection of photos of six packs.

Elaine and I were a little surprised. But this guy had, for a time, aspired to have a six pack of his own. (It seems he didn’t do quite enough gym work to make it pan out.) So I guess the photos could have been research and/or aspiration/motivation.

But the interesting thing wasn’t that he had the photos as much as the fact that neither he nor Johny could understand why we were surprised. It seems a perfectly natural thing for them. They didn’t try to defend the photos.

I can’t work out if that’s because Indian men are more at ease with their own sexuality and therefore do not feel threatened by other people knowing that they have pictures of half-naked men on their phones. Or if homosexuality is so non-existent (or rather, so hidden) that it is inconceivable to them that anything that they do or say could hint at homosexuality.

Whatever the rationale, it was certainly interesting.

St Thomas Revisited

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

When I was in India the first time I was at St Thomas school with Stan. And had a great time with grades 4, 5 and 6.

So since I was back in the area, I thought it only fair that I go back to St Thomas to say hi to all my former students. Well, Stan’s former students really. 🙂

And after a few aborted attempts at organising this. I did finally call the school and get Asok to speak to them to tell them I was coming. It seems there is a new principal there and that several staff have been transferred. So not sure who will remember me, but I was hoping that at least some of the students would. 🙂

I showed up at the requisite time. After being almost taken to the wrong school by the auto driver. I really wish they would stop ripping me off.

I got shown to the new shiny office. Tiled floor. Glass panels in front of the two desks in the anteroom. They said CLERK and PEON on them. I kid you not. Peon. The principal had a room to herself that was almost twice the size of the previous office and about the same size as the classrooms. Though she didn’t have to share it with 40 students. And her office had clean walls. And a tiled floor. And a fan. And lights that worked. Not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything.

A new teacher who spoke English (he’d lived in England for a few years) came to collect me to take me to visit the students.

It’s a new school year 4A are now grade 5. 5A are in grade 6 and 6A are in grade 7. Fortunately the classes haven’t been mixed up so it was the same class, just a few inches taller and in a different room. And they remembered me. And Stan of course. And Guru (who was only with them for a couple of days.) And they were all asking about Stan. They were really excited. I talked to them for a bit and got some crappy video on my phone of them all waving. They sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat (the crocodile version) and wanted to play Bingo. It was great seeing that they’ve kept up their English. They were still able to understand me and to communicate with me.

So Stan, you should be very happy and very proud indeed. 🙂

I saw several of the staff members that I’d met when I was there last time and it was nice to chat to them again and to sit in the staffroom with them drinking liquid sugar (or tea as it’s called in these parts).

A very, very lovely day! 🙂

The Cinema

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

While I was in India with Elaine we went to the cinema.

We went with Asok and Johny. And Johny brought one of his friends along too.

Asok, Elaine and I were in Trivandrum doing some shopping and we got to the cinema at the agreed time. (You might know where this next bit is going.) Johny was late. (Surprised? I thought not. 🙂 ) I do love Johny, and he’s reliable, in an Indian kind of way. He did show up, and in time for us to be able to only miss a few ads and none of the movie. It’s just he was half an hour later than the time he’d said he’d be there. Ah well. No great loss.

Other than the fact that it left Elaine and I sitting on the steps of the cinema on our own (Asok had wandered off somewhere) for about half an hour.

This may not seem like much of a big deal. But it was. There were about 300 people milling around the front of the cinema. Two of them were foreign (or rather, looked foreign): Elaine (black) and me (white). 5 of them were women: Elaine, me, and three other women that we saw, clinging very tightly to their husbands/boyfriends.

Being stared at is something you get used to when you travel. But being stared at by about 300 Indian men is not entirely pleasant. Both Elaine and I were beginning to regret deciding to do this.

We were also a bit concerned that the cinema itself would be full. And if the five of us weren’t all sitting together, there was no way we were going in.

As it turned out, these fears were unfounded. Most of the people there were there to see the Tamil film that was on at the same time. There were only about 20 people watching X-Men First Class in English.

The movie itself was exactly what we expected (and was a much needed cultural break). The intermission half way through did make us laugh. The fact that Asok scolded the men behind us three times for talking (to each other and on their phones) was slightly funny.

The toilets that we used during the intermission were interesting. At least it explains why more India women don’t go to the cinema. Though, Johny assured me that they do go. It’s just they don’t go to English films and they only go to Malayalam films that are love stories.

The Wolverine moment is quite possibly the funniest thing that I have ever witnessed. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) came on screen for about 2 seconds. During that time we were deafened by whistling, cheering, cat calls, clapping etc. There was one other woman in the cinema and I think she was silent. The only noise Elaine and I were making was laughter. It was 20 odd (and I do mean odd) Indian men screaming for Wolverine. Now, I’m somewhat partial to Hugh Jackman, (anyone who has seen him live on stage as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast has no real choice but to appreciate his talents), but even I draw the line at wolf whistling at a cinema screen. And I’m a girl (well, mostly).

After the cinema we all went out for dinner. It was a very lovely, civilised evening. And because Elaine and I were staying in Kovalam (rather than in the convent) we didn’t have a curfew. It’s almost like being at home. Sort of. Acutally, not at all. 🙂

Great fun though! 🙂

Living in a Convent

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

So you all know that I’d been living in a convent in India. Some of you have even commented on the fact that I’ve been rather quiet about the whole thing so far.

So, here’s my report.

First, some background to help you understand where I’m coming from. I was brought up a Catholic. I was in fact forced to go to church every Sunday till I was 21. While I was a young teenager, this was not an imposition, in fact, I went through a phase of wanting to be a nun. But in later years I did skip as many Sundays as I could. Particularly towards the end when the only time I ever felt violent was when I was inside a church. I still cringe any time I go into a church. And other religious buildings are almost as bad. This is not the place for me to talk about my experience at the Vatican. Suffice it to say it was entirely unpleasant and it took several weeks for me to recover from it.

I am not a fan of the Catholic church. At all. By any means. I think many of the people associated with it are lovely, but very, very many use the religion to justify doing some very unchristian things to their fellow human beings. I hate the wealth of an organisation that teaches charity. I hate the prejudice and discrimination (homophobia, misogynism) of an organisation that teaches tolerance. I hate the dogma. I hate the inflexibility. I hate the bloodshed that the church has instigated and condoned. I hate its stance on contraception that is partially responsible for the dual problems of over-population and the spread of HIV/AIDS. I hate the repression of women. I hate the fact that it does not allow divorce/remarriage even in cases of domestic violence. I hate the fact that it teaches that sex is a dirty, evil thing. I hate that it teaches that the duty of every good christian is to get married and produce more christians. I hate the fact that it teaches people to blame/thank someone/something else and therefore avoid personal responsibility for their own situation.

Oh dear. This has turned into a full-on rant, hasn’t it. Sorry. Anyway, back to the point.

While I was in India working with Elaine, we stayed in a convent. We were teaching in the church-run school (funded by the government but managed by the church). I stayed for three weeks.

We lived with 6 nuns. The nuns themselves were lovely. Nice people. Chatty, friendly, caring, funny. Very pleasant. Slightly quirky. But what group of 6 different people doesn’t have some quirks? All in all, they were really lovely people. And they looked after us very well.

This is not to say that I found the experience to be wholly pleasant. I didn’t.

I didn’t appreciate the fact that they let the dogs out just after dinner so we had to be back and in our rooms by about 8. If we had told them we’d be a bit late that would be ok, but the general principle meant that we couldn’t stay out in the evening unless we were sleeping somewhere else. But those were the rules so that’s what we had to do. And this isn’t specific to the convent. I’ve stayed with other families who have tried to impose curfews on me.

I didn’t like the fact that before and after every meal we all stood while the most senior nun said a prayer (I especially didn’t like it since one of the prayers had a grammatical error in it – well, I think it did, they didn’t really pray as if they meant it, it was mumbled all as one single word (as most prayers tend to be) so it was a little difficult to decipher).

I didn’t like the fact that one night when we were going to dinner (dinner was 7:45, we went at about 7:50), three of the nuns were sitting on the porch in the middle of a rosary. They kindly (?) motioned for us to sit with them while they finished. It has been a very long time since I was last in a rosary. And for very good reason. I have such a strong visceral reaction to them that my stomach ties itself in knots, my fists clench, my teeth clench, I get very, very angry. I hate them. Fortunately (?), we only had to sit through 2 sorrowful mysteries and all the prayers at the end. The next night, we stuck our head out the door to listen for praying. They were in the middle of their rosary, so we went back to our room to wait there for a few minutes before going to dinner. That worked. We never stumbled into the middle of a rosary again.

I gritted my teeth through most of this. We were staying in a convent. We couldn’t expect them to put their religion on hold just because we were there. And if I really objected, I should have stayed somewhere else. And believe me, I will in future.

I learnt several lessons during these three weeks. There is no way anyone will ever convert me to Catholicism. Living in a convent will not help me to find god (which is something they suggested on the first day). I should never stay in a religious establishment ever again. I do not have enough patience and tolerance for religions. I have been too scarred by my own experiences to be able to distance myself from them enough to view them objectively.

So while I could pretend that I wasn’t in a convent (which, to be fair, was most of the time) I had a lovely time staying with Elaine. I enjoyed much of the company of the nuns (the bits that didn’t involve stories about angels, finding god, praying, etc). The food was good. The facilities were fine. And to their credit, they didn’t force their religion on us as much as they might have done.

But every time I became consciously aware of being in a convent things got more difficult. Ah well, it was a learning experience for all of us.

Kanyakumari 2nd Visit

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of India. It’s where three seas (the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal) meet. It is one of the few places where you can see the sun rise from the ocean and set into the ocean.

I went to Kanyakumari last time I was in India.

And decided I wanted to go again. One reason is that Johny couldn’t come last time because he was studying for his exams. And I promised I’d take him next time I came back. Plus I thought it would be a nice adventure to go on a day trip with Elaine. And introduce her to Indian buses. 🙂

So Elaine and I were joined by Johny and his friend John (seriously, there are other letters in the alphabet you know). John doesn’t speak much English. But he understands everything that’s going on. And he’s very funny.

We weren’t going to be able to make it to Kanyakumari for sunrise nor would we be able to stay for sunset, but that was ok. It’s a nice enough place anyway.

I stayed in Poonthura with Johny’s family the night before. Mainly so I could make sure he actually got out of bed and left the house. We were due to leave at 7:30. I woke him up just after 7. I was ready to go. He got up, eventually. Then had a wash. Then a shave. Then got dressed. I texted Elaine to tell her that we were up and moving but we might be a bit late (no surprise there). We did leave the house at about 8:30. Mind you, Johny did look gorgeous. So it seems all the early morning preening was worthwhile. 😉

John had been waiting outside for us since 7:30. Well done John for being on time! And also looking gorgeous. 🙂

We got the bus out to Puthiyathura where Elaine was staying. I dumped some stuff there and collected Elaine (who always looks gorgeous). The boys got the 3rd degree from one of the nuns. Note: boys, don’t loiter guiltily at the front gate of a convent, it only makes you look suspicious. 🙂

Johny managed to get us on the right bus and we took him further south than he’s ever been. Changed buses. Changed states. We’re now in Tamil Nadu. And about 3 hours after collecting Elaine we got to Kanyakumari.

There’s a small island with a temple and a boat goes out to it. And a wind farm along the coast in the distance. And shops selling all sorts of crap made out of sea shells. I mean really? Who wants a mirror with a frame in the shape of two kissing doves made out of sea shells? Seriously? Or a sea shell chandelier? Or those strings of sea shells that you hang from doorways just to annoy people walking through them (never really understood those, fly screens I understand, doors I understand, curtains or strings of beads/shells I don’t understand). But it’s not just your name painted on a sea shell. You can also buy monkeys carved out of coconuts (obligatory tourist tat), dancing flower pots, plastic children’s tea sets, clothes, buddha statues, elephant statues, etc.

We managed to restrain ourselves and not buy any crap whatsoever. Well done us. 🙂

We didn’t go to the museum that would have charged 10 rupees each for the boys and 100 rupees each for the girls. (That would be because we’re foreign rather than because we have ovaries.)

We found a hotel for lunch. Johny was a bit freaked by the fancy place I’d suggested (even though I’d told him I was buying lunch) so we settled for the place across the road. Elaine was happy enough with it. Well, till the food came out. Not that she (or any of the rest of us were unhappy). Just that that was not the best Indian meal we’ve ever had.

We went across the road to the fancy hotel since I was in need of a cold coffee and the place we were in for lunch didn’t do them. Nice.

Then off to find a boat and an island with a temple (or two).

Elaine noticed something that she mentioned to me later. It’s amazing how in India there are temples with such amazingly clean floors you could eat off them. And then there are restaurants with such amazingly dirty tables that the thought of eating off them is enough to drive anyone to fast.

People in India can clean. And sometimes they do. It’s just that sometimes they don’t.

We realised we were running a bit late so headed off to find the bus station and a bus to get us back home again. Well, the first of two buses that would get us back home.

There was a guy on the bus who was sitting across the aisle from Elaine and me and one row in front of us. Now, I don’t know if he visits a chiropractor, but he should have done after that hour on the bus. But if he does, I think Elaine and I deserve a commission. He spent the entire bus trip with his head twisted round so he could stare at us. I ignored him. Elaine stared back for a bit. Johny and John (who were in full blown bodyguard mode at this point) were staring at him too. I asked Johny if staring is considered rude in India. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe we were just being over-sensitive westerners. Nope. It’s rude in India too. But bless his little cotton socks, Johny did ask whether this happened in Kerala too (or just Tamil Nadu). He was a little crestfallen to discover that people from his own state do it to us too. In fact, people from his own village do it to us too.

But, it was only staring. The guy got off the bus at his stop. He never said a word to us. He didn’t try to convince us to go to a hotel with him (that has happened to me on buses before). He didn’t ask for our phone numbers. He didn’t propose marriage. He didn’t try to touch us. So actually, one of the better bus experiences I’ve had. 🙂

We had to wait for ages (and in three different places at the one bus station) to change buses. But we did eventually find the right one going the right way (thanks Johny and John). We got to Poovar by bus and then the boys found an auto (three wheeler) for us to take us back to the convent. They waited to make sure we got safely inside and then then headed off to get the bus back home.

It was a long day, about 7 hours of buses. But a very, very nice day indeed.

Big thanks to Johny and John for being such superb tour guides, translators, bus ticket buyers, water buyers (Johny nearly missed one bus because he’d gone in search of water for me), bodyguards and all round good company.