Archive for December, 2012

Uda Walewe

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

We visited a national park called Uda Walewe. We stayed in a nice little hotel not too far from the park. The guy at the hotel arranged a jeep safari for us.

We got picked up at 6am. In the morning. 6. In the morning. Before breakfast (actually, that was good, I really didn’t want to have to get up early enough to be able to have breakfast in the morning before leaving at 6).

There were four of us. The jeep was pretty funky. We drove to the park. There were some very nice views on the way to the park of the sun over the hills and the mist beginning to rise off the trees. Beautiful!

We got to the park and got our tickets and our guide.

Off we went. I was standing on the seats (as was the guide) in order to be able to get a good view. Plus I could hold on to the bars on the roof (the canvass had been rolled back). It was a bit like being on a Sri Lankan bus. 🙂

We didn’t get far into the park before we started to see interesting things.

We saw peacocks in trees. They fly you know. Not far, only about a 100 meters. But they don’t like the rain (their feathers get wet and heavy) so just before the rain comes they fly up into a tree (not entirely sure how that helps them, to be honest, but I applaud them for having a plan – it might be that when wet they can’t get into the tree – (but they can get out) so maybe getting into the tree first just opens up their options).

We saw land monitors.
We saw hawks of varying types.
We saw spotted deer.
We saw a golden jackal.
We saw a wild dog (more about the dog shortly).
We saw painted storks.
We saw pelicans.
We saw parakeets.
We saw black robins.
We saw a couple of different types of bee eaters.
And we saw elephants!!!!!

Lots of elephants. Baby elephants (one that was probably only a week or two old). Some young males and females. Some bulls. Some older females. We saw some bulls on their own (and in pairs). We saw the herd of adult females and babies.

We also saw other tourists and a BBC camera crew.

But they were less interesting than the elephants. 🙂

There was also a dog. As many of you know, I’m not a big fan of dogs. It turns out elephants aren’t either. It seems that dogs hunt the baby elephants (“do di do do do do do do do do, do do”). The adults are (understandably) a bit miffed by this and seem to respond by chasing dogs when they see them (or smell or hear them – their hearing and sense of smell are much better than their eyesight). If the elephants catch the dog, they will kill it.

There were two elephants from the herd who had noticed the dog so they were chasing it. At one stage the dog was on the right hand side of the road and the elephants were on the left. We were on the road coming up to this point. Fortunately, our guide signalled for the driver to stop. None of us fancied being in between a charging elephant and the object of its dissatisfaction.

The elephants didn’t catch the dog on this occasion.

It turns out elephants are quite nimble things! They can run quite fast. They are agile. Watching them use trunk, teeth and feet to strip bark off tree branches is fascinating!

After watching lots of the birds and animals in search of food, we went back to the hotel for an awesome breakfast for us (pol roti, pol sambol, seeni sambol, butter, jam)!

The Oath

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

At the beginning of the Sri Lankan school day the students have various religious observances to carry out. In some schools there is an assembly every day. In some schools the school song or national anthem are sung (every day or once a week). I think in all schools the students say the oath. In the school we’ve been in, they say the oath in English.

It is my least favourite part of the day.

“My dear principal and teachers, I honour you, I respect you, I obey you and I worship you forever. Thank you.”

Every day I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands.

Every day I cringe.

Every day I want to ask what the teachers do to deserve this.

Every day I want to ask where the oath from the teachers to the students is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with respecting teachers. I think more people (students, parents, the general public) should show more respect for teachers. But the teachers should deserve it. They should be cognisant of their responsibilities. And they certainly should respect the students.

I don’t think promising to obey anyone is ever a good idea. I do think learning to do what you’re told even when you don’t want to do it is, in some circumstances, a good thing. I don’t think we should foment disobedience. But I don’t think mindless obedience is a good idea either.

I do think teaching is an honourable profession. And I do think that many teachers carry out their duties honourably. And so, to that extent, I think honouring teachers is a good idea. But not a blanket promise to honour every teacher every day.

I’m still not entirely sure what worship means in Sri Lanka. There is a specific meaning of it which is when someone gets down on their knees in front of someone and bows to the floor. Children do this to parents. Students do this to teachers. Younger people do this to older people. It doesn’t happen all the time but it is common. Anyway, that’s not what is meant in this context. So I’m not sure exactly what it means.

Personally, I am a fervent believer that the most important people in a school are the students. The teachers come second. The support staff are third. Parents and families are fourth. Senior management is fifth. The principal is sixth. But regardless of how you would rank the stakeholders, I believe every one of them should show respect for all the others, and each one should behave in a way that makes them deserving of that respect.

The oath makes respect a one-way street. And I really don’t like that.

Daytrip to Colombo – Part 5 – Getting Home

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Home time. We got the bus to Kaduwella. Quite crowded but not nearly as bad as in the morning. We waited in Kaduwella for ages for a bus home. Standing at bus stops after dark in Sri Lanka is much more fun when there are three of you. We were at a fairly busy bus stop outside a fairly busy shop so there were lots of people around.

We decided against a Badulla bus that was very full (probably a bad idea). There just didn’t seem to be any Ratnapura buses. We ended up deciding that we’d get the next Avissawella bus and change there. Which wasn’t ideal, but at least from there we could get a three wheeler if all else failed.


We got to Avissawella and walked from the bus stand to the roadside stop for the buses going through Eheliyagoda. We didn’t have to wait as a Badulla bus (not the same one) arrived just as we got there. We did get seats on this one which was nice. It was rather late (about 9pm) and it was nice to be on the home stretch.

We got off at Eheliyagoda. I’m glad we had Isuri, I hate that bit when you’re looking out for the right stop and it’s dark and the bus is crowded and you’re in an aisle seat and you have almost no view out the window. Anyway, Isuri (unsurprisingly) had no problem finding the place. 🙂

And, serendipity was on our side once again. The bus stop is outside Food City. Also outside Food City was a local English teacher, his wife was inside shopping and he was waiting and chatting to some friends. We explained that we were going to get a three wheeler home and he said that he’d give us a lift. So he dashed inside to tell his wife what he was doing and then drove us home. Wonderful.

So we had a very long day. A very full day. A very relaxing day. A very enjoyable day.

Thank you very much to Jean and Isuri for such a great trip!

Daytrip to Colombo – Part 4 – The New Park

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

The bus we had to get was the same bus we’d got from parliament in the morning. It went from just across the road from Coffee Bean. After a small (but very friendly) argument between Isuri and me about whether the bus was going the right way or not, we arrived. Isuri is used to driving through Colombo so knows how to get to and from places by car. Buses go different routes. Likewise, I know how to get around by foot and on bus and get very confused (and often equally suspicious) when in a different mode of transport that goes a different route. This happens to me a lot in Cambridge. I can walk through Cambridge. I can cycle through Cambridge. I have absolutely no idea how to get from one end to the other in a car, there are so many restricted and blocked off roads. Taxis often go in completely the wrong direction when following their optimal route. So I completely understand her scepticism.

Anyway, we got to the park and wandered round. It’s a really nice place. A good use of space. Very pleasant. Lots of places to sit.

It was evening and dusk doesn’t last very long in Sri Lanka. We enjoyed watching the lights come on as the sky darkened.

Daytrip to Colombo – Part 3 – Colombo

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

We got a bus from parliament into Colombo proper. We went to Majestic City for lunch and to do some shopping. Majestic City is a shopping centre.

Isuri hadn’t been to Majestic City (or MC as the cool kids call it) before. We wandered around looking at some of the shops. Jean bought some souvenirs. We went to the food court for lunch.

We then headed off to the planetarium. It’s an interesting building architecturally and Isuri had been really keen to go. Which suited me. I love planetariums. 🙂

We looked for a meter three wheeler to take us there. The first couple gave us fixed prices. They’ve got this interesting thing they say which is to say “Meter price is 200”. Which of course makes people think that the price is 200 and they’re using the meter. Which is not necessarily true. So I said “No. Meter.” and then walked off to find another one. Isuri was a bit confused until I explained to her that the price may not be 200. The last time someone told me the meter price was 200, I got a three wheeler with a meter and the price was 90. As it turns out, the price on the meter this time was 196 so the first guy hadn’t been trying to rip us off, but I’m still happy we went with the second one. I want to use meter taxis as much as possible and not use the ones without a meter to try to encourage them to use the meter.

Anyway, we got to the planetarium. The website said there was a show at 2. We were there about quarter to. There were three other people there. It turns out that the timing isn’t particularly fixed, they will run the show when there are 30 people. If there aren’t 30 people then they won’t run it. Hmmm. So we decided to wait for a while at least to see what happened. This was a good decision. About 5 minutes later a bus load of school children showed up! Yay! So we had to wait for a bit while they had their lunch, but then we all trooped in. And the price was the same for the locals as for the foreigners. I love the planetarium.

The show as all in Sinhala. But that’s ok. I learnt a new word: ‘sooriya’ which means sun. And they showed the Southern Cross at one point so that was pretty cool. I was struggling to stay awake, not because I was bored, I wasn’t, just because I was tired and sitting in a darkened room gazing up at the stars not understanding the commentary was rather soporific. But I managed to stay awake for most (if not all) of it.

Isuri said afterwards that she thought it was boring. Because of the school group (primary) it was all very simple stuff. Jean and I explained that that was good for us, because it meant we had a better chance of working out what was going on. 🙂

Next stop: Coffee Bean. This is a western style coffee shop. I love it because I love coffee shops. And I love it because it’s clean and the tea comes with separate milk and they do iced frappes and coffee shop style snacky things. Much as I love Sri Lanka and everything about it, it is nice to escape to something a little more western occasionally.

I had a map, it wasn’t far, so we walked.

Isuri was doubtful. Jean was happy. I was confident.

Even when Jean recognised the road we were on and knew that Coffee Bean was a few hundred metres up on the left, Isuri was still highly doubtful. In fact, when we actually saw the place, she stopped in amazement that we’d made it. I’m not the best at map reading and navigation. I do get lost sometimes (all part of the fun), but I am pretty good at finding my way around, especially when I have a map and my destination is a place I’ve been to before (even if I haven’t been along that particular route).

Coffee Bean was awesome. The do a Pure Double Chocolate Ice Blended Drink. It’s amazing. Particularly with the additional whipped cream. I love it. Isuri loved it too. I think we’ve now got her hooked on Coffee Bean. 🙂

We sat around chatting and drinking and enjoying ourselves before it was time to head off to our next destination. A new park near Rajagiriya, another suburb of Colombo and quite near to the parliament.

Daytrip to Colombo – Part 2 – Parliament

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

I’ve been to the Sri Lankan parliament before. And last time there was a similar level of security. We had to leave wallets, purses, bags, phones, cameras etc at the front gate. We were given 3 pat down searches between the front gate and the gallery. And yet again, none of them noticed I was wearing a money belt.

While waiting to go in, I bumped into a friend of mine who works at the NIE (National Institute of Education). There seemed to be lots of other education related people going in as well – minivans from various educational institutes and educational ministries.

There was a rather heated discussion going on in the chamber. And part of it was in English. To do with the recent budget.

Some veiled, and some not so veiled accusations about corruption and nepotism seemed to be flying about, with an awful lot of shouting.

The primary teacher in me wanted to shout out 3-2-1 and see I could get them all sitting listening at 0. Then I’d let them speak one at a time. If it works for grade 5 students, then I’m sure it’ll work in Parliament. (Since I am still at liberty it’s probably rather obvious that I did not stand up and shout anything while in the parliamentary gallery.)

It’s nice (or rather it’s sad) to see that politicians in different countries seem to be much the same. Spoilt little 5 year old boys having an argument in the playground over who gets to play with the shiny toy. The same is certainly true in Australia and in the UK. While I’m sure many of them do a lot more than impersonate small children I can’t say I’ve ever been terribly impressed when I’ve seen parliamentary democracy in action.

The parliament building itself is built on a man-made island in the middle of a man-made lake in reclaimed swamp land. The building is quite nice, the ceremonial entrance drive and the pond at the front are also very nice. Na trees (the national tree of Sri Lanka) border the drive and the pond is full of blue water lillies (the national flower).

So big thanks go to the friend of our host family who got us the passes to get in, and to his colleague for showing us around.

Daytrip to Colombo – Part 1 – The Bus

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Jean is another volunteer I’ve been working and staying with. We decided to take Isuri (the 20 year old who lives with us) in to Colombo for a day trip. Or she decided to take us. It depends on which way you look at it. Either way, we three went.

We started off with a bus from Eheliyagoda. We were going to go to the Sri Lankan parliament and we knew this would require two buses and some walking or a three wheeler. We knew which bus we wanted to get. So we stood at the bus halt waiting for the right sort of Colombo bus. It was early on a Saturday morning. The buses were busy. Very busy. Very, very busy.

We found the right bus and squeezed on. Isuri went on first, Jean next and then me. As the bus started moving I had one foot on the bottom step and was holding on with both hands. There were still three other people behind me. A few meters down the road and Jean was on the top step, I was firmly on the bottom step. I told Jean to pass her bag to Isuri and to then take mine. I felt much better not having a rucksack (even a small one) hanging off my back and out the open door of the moving bus.

The other people on the bus thought this was all very funny and were very kind in that they rearranged themselves enough so that both Jean and I were in the bus proper and not standing on the steps. This made us both feel much better. Isuri was somewhere further inside the bus. At least, we hoped she was, we couldn’t see her. Not that there was anywhere else she could have been. 🙂

I spent some time being squashed against the bar that goes around the gearbox. This is actually quite a good place to be. I could hold on to the bar. I could see out the front window. It would have been better if my feet had not been next to each other and if my centre of mass had been over my feet. It also would have been better if the people getting off at Avissawella hadn’t decided to move to the front door before we got there (granted, this is the only way they could get off the bus). But them pushing to the front just pushed me against the metal bar. I had a bruise across my thighs for several days afterwards.

A bit later in the journey, Jean and I were ushered into the aisle of the bus. This was ok for Jean since she’s a bit taller than me. We also found Isuri which was nice. I was standing in front of the front seat so my only options for holding on were to the bars that run along the ceiling. I can reach them, but I can’t hold them comfortably. And not without standing on tip toes. So there is Kath, standing on tip toes, only just managing to hold on to the bars. Sliding every time the bus accelerated or decelerated (since it was hot and my hands were sweaty). My arms were sore for a few days.

Note to self: develop upper body strength.

Anyway, we made it off that bus and on to the next one, on which we got seats. We then did some walking and got a three wheeler and made it to parliament.

So, a successful and interesting bus journey. 🙂

Teaching Primary

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

I’m a secondary teacher by nature. My favourite age group to teach are probably 14-18 year olds. I love GCSE/O Level. I also love teaching adults. I’m not that keen on teaching for exams (but GCSE maths is an exception).

The reason why I like the older students is because I can get to know them a bit better. Plus, I can do activities that are more cognitively difficult. I love teenagers because they’re old enough to have some amazing ideas and views of the world but they’re young enough that they are still developing their identities and finding their feet in the world. For the most part they haven’t become jaded yet.

I’m not so enamoured with primary. To be honest, I don’t actually like children very much (particularly young children). That’s not to say I dislike them, I don’t. I just don’t like them very much. And I particularly don’t like interacting with them in an non-classroom environment. I think it’s because I just don’t understand them. I haven’t had much experience with them. Plus, I tend to stress out that they’re going to injure themselves horribly when they fall off the enormous stack of cushions that they’ve put on the sofa. Let’s be honest, they scare me.

I seem to be much better with them in a classroom environment. Perhaps that’s because I understand classrooms and the teacher/student roles much better than I understand the adult/child roles. And I’d much prefer 30 six year olds in a classroom to 1 six year old in a one-to-one situation outside of a classroom. (This is mostly applicable to children who don’t speak my language, I find English speakers to be a bit easier to deal with.)

Teaching English to primary children can be challenging. I find grade 1 (5 years old) to be especially difficult. One lesson is ok. I can do enough different things in one lesson and I can keep up my energy levels through one lesson. But teaching them again is where I find it hard.

There’s not much you can do with kids that young. In the first instance their language level is quite low so I can’t do complex English language activities. To be honest, this isn’t much of a problem though the fact that they can’t read and write very well is somewhat limiting. Teaching even a very simple song is very difficult if the students can’t read the words.

The bigger problems are cognitive ability, explanations and attention span.

The cognitive level of the students is low. Of course it is, they’re five years old. Which means that many of my favourite activities are ones that they won’t be able to cope with. That just means I need to find more activities that are appropriate for a lower cognitive level.

Explanations can be difficult. So even if the activity itself is well within the cognitive and linguistic abilities of the students, sometimes the explanation can be very difficult if I’m only using the target language. This is a problem, but again, it’s not much of a problem. Some manhandling of students (gently of course) and lots of encouragement (verbal and non-verbal) helps. As does having a lot of patience and realising that the first time I run the activity it will be a disaster, but the next time will (hopefully) be much better. Body language and demonstrating and prompting students all helps. But it is difficult.

The biggest problem that I find is the attention span of the students. They can really only concentrate on one thing for about 5 minutes (which may not be long enough to get through the explanation nevermind the activity itself). The one exception to this rule is pencil boxes. Grade 1 students can open and close a pencil box with intense concentration for 30 minutes at a time. Well, I say that, actually they don’t focus solely on opening and closing the pencil box. Occasionally they break off from that so that they can hit the person next to them with said pencil box, or just punch them. Then they wail.

Now, I don’t really blame them. Having a strange woman come and babble at them in a language they don’t understand and asking them to do bizarre things they just don’t comprehend must be quite annoying. Especially when there’s a pencil box within reach. And it doesn’t really matter how bouncy and interactive and engaging I am. It doesn’t really matter how often I change activity and do something new and different. Frankly, I’m just never going to be as interesting as a pencil box and punching people and wailing. 🙂

I also think that 30 minute sessions for kids that young is too long. Particularly when there is no local teacher in the room (this isn’t always the case but does happen more often than not) to help with explanations and discipline.

But having said all that. I have had some success with grade 1. I think I’ve managed to teach them things. I think that for the most part they’ve enjoyed the classes. I just need to work harder on different activities that I can do with them. I suspect I also need to change my expectations about what is practical to achieve with them.

I look forward to getting better at teaching them and increasing my comfort zone so that it includes repeated lessons with grade 1. I may even end up more comfortable with young kids too. Which will be an added bonus! 🙂

Sri Lankan Visas

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Getting Sri Lankan visas for the volunteers turned out to be somewhat tricky. It really shouldn’t have been. But it’s Sri Lanka. So it was.

Fortunately, I had the time and the inclination and the patience to go and see if I could help.

Two of the volunteers had had their visas extended already. Unfortunately, they had been tourist visas, not residence visas and the extensions expired a few days short of their stay in Sri Lanka. And they cost money.

There were two more volunteers, one of whom was staying for several months and staying on a tourist visa that VESL would have to pay for was not an ideal outcome. Particularly when all four were entitled to residence visas.

But, I have faith that things in Sri Lanka will work out in the end. So I took the paperwork that I had and I headed into Colombo to go and visit the Ministry of Immigration and Emigration. I’ve been there several times. I know it well.

I went early. I took a good book. I expected to be there all day.

I didn’t try to meet any friends of friends who could help me get what I want. (Two of the times that people have told me to meet up with their contacts at the visa office, I have been either told things that weren’t true or been kept waiting for several hours longer than I would have done had I just queued up with the normal people.) So I just lined up with everyone else and met one of the Deputy Controllers of Immigration. He looked at the paperwork. He told me that I was missing a letter from the relevant line ministry. I showed him one of the copies of a fax that I had. But he said, no, that was only copied to Immigration and not addressed to Immigration. I need the same letter but addressed to the Controller General of Immigration.

So I smiled and thanked him and headed off.

I called various people in Sri Lanka and the UK to see if any of them knew if the letter existed and had a copy of it. No luck.

So I jumped into a three wheeler and went to the office of ERD (the External Resources Department of the Ministry of Finance). I had the copy of the fax that they’d sent to External Affairs and copied to Immigration. I asked around to see if I could find the person who had prepared that fax to see if they had a copy addressed to Immigration. I couldn’t find the person who’d prepared the letter but I did find the person who signed it (or rather the person who works for the person who signed it). Anyway, after a few meetings and much discussion (and much smiling) it was decided that the relevant letter could be prepared.


I kept calling back to see how things were going and that’s when I heard that the letter from the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils to ERD didn’t have the finishing dates of the projects. ERD needed confirmation from Local Government about this. That’s ok, ERD will contact Local Government and get the right paperwork from them. I managed to get a copy of the fax (which took a day to prepare and send) so I knew who it had been addressed to. And I then contacted him to see how things were going. Fine. He just needed to get confirmation from the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council about the dates. I did push to see if I could help or to see who he was talking to at Sabaragamuwa so that I could chase them as well. No luck. Ah well. I kept pressing the guy from Local Government.

He did manage to get the fax with the right information from Sabaragamuwa. He then sent the right fax to ERD. ERD were happy and then they sent the fax to Immigration. I got copies of all of these faxes. It only took a week.

I went back to Immigration with the new paperwork in hand. It seems getting residence visas usually takes 4 days but since I’d been in to Immigration before and was coming from Eheliyagoda, they took pity on me and said they’d do it in a day. Awesome!

So I went back in the afternoon to collect four passports with four residence visas in them.

And they asked me to pay the fee. What fee? These visas are gratis. It says so on all the letters. The overstay penalty. But no one has overstayed. Yes, the entry visas for these two expired a few weeks ago. Ah, but they have tourist visa extensions, they haven’t overstayed. But we do the calculation from the visit visa. But they haven’t overstayed, they have valid visas. Hmmm, I’ll check. Thank you. Ok, no problem. No fee? No fee. Here are the passports.


Up and Down But Mostly Up

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

I’ve been having a great time while I’ve been travelling. But there have been some not so great times.

One of my very loveliest friends (and the list of very lovely friends is very long indeed) sent me an email after my last tranche of blog posts asking if I was ok. He thought I sounded rather frustrated in them. And yes, I think I did. And at the time of writing most of them I was going through a bit of a frustrated phase. Which I’m out of now.

So I thought it appropriate to write a little something about the ups and downs.

My blog is written mostly for me to keep track of my thoughts and impressions as I wander round having fun, but it is also written to keep my friends updated with what I’m up to. It also allows me a forum to engage in interesting discussions about some of the topics I write about. (It may also end up as part of the inspiration, groundwork and first draft of a book.) I engage in a certain level of self-censorship (which I think is a good thing) for several reasons. But I do want it to be representative of the truth. Most of it (I think) is quite happy and bouncy. But this is because I find my life to be generally happy and bouncy. Sometimes my posts are a little less bouncy. I don’t want people to think that things are horrible. Nor do I want people to think that everything is a bed of roses.

Sometimes travel is hard. When I’m ill (fever, vomiting, no energy) then things become harder. When my energy levels are a little lower than normal then it is harder to keep smiling in the face of everything. Sometimes the cultural differences and communication barriers are fun. Sometimes they’re the straw that makes the camel’s chiropractor rub his hands together in anticipation of a large fee.

And I’ve found that things for me go in phases. Generally, the longer I’ve been somewhere the more I get under the skin of the culture I’m in and the more the difficulties become obvious. Plus, dealing with difficulties is easier when I’m still on the high of everything being a novelty. When you’ve been facing the same situation week in and week out for a few months, the novelty can wear off. But then something happens or changes and things become rosy again. My energy levels return and everything is a glorious adventure and a wonderful challenge again.

But, the difficulties are part of what makes this adventure so wonderful. I wouldn’t trade them in for anything. I love the good times. I love the difficult times too. I learn from them. I hope that next time I face a difficulty I will be slightly better at dealing with it (or at least not worse). Plus, a few difficulties and frustrations are very much worth all the wonderfulness that surrounds them. They also remind me that this isn’t a dream. 🙂

So yes, sometimes I find it hard. And sometimes the email/text/Facebook message that asks if I’m ok is the most amazingly wonderful thing ever (since hugs are more difficult to come by out here than they are back home)!! But even when I’m at my lowest (2am and I’m curled up on the edge of my bed in a cold sweat and aching and trying not to move so that the nausea won’t hit again, then flinging myself up and out of my mosquito net so that I can vomit into a bucket, all the while hoping that the next hour will go much faster than the last one did – note: I went to the doctor the next morning, got a cocktail of pills and a week’s bedrest and felt much better 🙂 ) I don’t wish to be anywhere else. I don’t want the adventure to end.

I love the ups. I love the downs. I love the ups more! And there are a lot more ups than downs. 🙂