Saturday, 31 May 2008

The final chapter or the first?

I’ve been promising for weeks to finish the blog, do the happy ever after bit and I’ve not managed it. But it’s time to move on. I’m standing as a candidate for the European Parliament (for the SNP obviously) and it’s time for a new phase in my life. It seems these days that my love of writing means each new phase brings a new blog but it would not be right to begin a new one before this, my favourite so far, is completed. So here goes …

I’ve now been away from Sri Lanka for more than a month, more than enough time to assess the impact the whole experience has had on me. Or so you’d think. In the posts below, I’ve talked about some of the changes – both trivial and meaningful - and here, in my final "Indygal in Sri Lanka" post, I’m going to try and sum up what I see as the most significant of the changes.

My feeling now, however, is that I won't know the extent of the impact for quite some time. One day I'll look back and it'll all be clearer. In the short term, however, I think Sri Lanka will seep into my subconscious (or has already) but it will be so deeply embedded in my psyche that I may never become fully aware of who was the ‘before’ and who was the ‘after’ me. Life itself is like that of course but this three month period brought me an intensified and accelerated learning experience and I think it will be a long time before I can fully comprehend what, how and when I became who I have become - because of Sri Lanka.

I think the best way to sum it all up is to tell you about my two journeys between Colombo and Galle on the first and last day in Sri Lanka.

If you read any of my very early blog postings, you’ll know I was suffering from culture shock when I arrived in Sri Lanka. I never realised until then that culture shock was real but it certainly is. I tried throughout the life of this blog to track the transition that I made during my stay in Sri Lanka – from my terrifying first day when I was so much in shock I can only compare it to how I have felt when someone close has died (it should go without saying that the long term difference is huge but the initial shock felt very much like that) to days when I began to believe I could cope and then the period where I went from liking it to loving it to never wanting to leave.

And my final journey from Galle to Colombo really brought home to me how far I had come. When I first made that journey (in reverse, from Colombo Airport to Galle) I was horrified. It took four hours, I sat in the front of a van with no seatbelt and was convinced I’d end up with serious injuries if, indeed, I survived at all because the driving was chaotic and terrifying. I was hot, dirty, there were open drains everywhere, strange looking people, goats, cows and scabby flea ridden dogs staggering onto the road, chasing the rubbish that was strewn across the streets, hoping to find something they could eat. It was that awful journey that convinced me I’d made a huge mistake and started me plotting my immediate return.

The journey back, three months later, at the end of April was the same journey but so very different. I sat, relaxed and happy, still with no seatbelt, chatting easily to a journalist pal I’d met the day before and offered a lift to (Sri Lanka does that to you!). As we made our way through the coastal towns and villages, I smiled at the goats racing each other to the local rubbish area for breakfast; I was aware of the seatbelt danger but entrusted my survival to the Gods (or whoever it is that’s really in charge) and forgot about it; I closed my eyes and soaked up the sun, knowing there wouldn’t be much of it where I was headed.

I wished I could stay for longer and I marvelled at how much Sri Lanka had changed in the 3 months I’d been here. I remembered how frenetic the traffic had been on that first journey and wondered what had changed it. I looked for the dirt and dust that had so disgusted me early in 2008 but could find none. I peered out the car window searching for the strange looking people who’d frightened me simply because they were different – but they had all disappeared. And gradually, as we wound our way toward Colombo, it dawned on me – nothing had changed, nothing …. except me. That was a fairly profound moment for me – realising that the animals, the people, the drains, the dust, the heat and the traffic were no different to how they’d always been. All that was different was that I had stopped noticing it, it had all ceased to matter to me – Sri Lanka hadn’t changed, I had. And in ways that, until that moment, I hadn’t even noticed.

I felt that day, like I’d got to the end of a particularly exciting novel and I’d got my finale, my happy ever after ending – one that kept you reading right until the last word and made you warm all over because all the ‘I’s had been dotted and all the ‘t’s had been crossed, everything had come full circle and been wrapped up beautifully.

But to say it has been wrapped up is to suggest that this is "The End". I don’t believe it is, I believe it was just chapter one. I’ve always said that life is a big adventure but until this year most of the adventure has been lived out in my daydreams. And now? Who knows what the future holds but I think the best way to finish this blog is by sharing with you the final paragraph in my personal journal which I kept throughout my three month stay:

“It’s an unusual feeling as I sit here not knowing if I’ll return this summer or never again – I just don’t know if I’m saying goodbye to Sri Lanka forever. The one thing I do know is I don’t want this to be “it”. I don’t want this adventure to have been a one off. What that will mean exactly, I don’t yet know. More volunteering? More living overseas? Other developing countries? Or simply more holidays?

"All I know is that my horizons have been well and truly broadened and now, now I want to see just how much wider I can push them … "

PS Thanks to everyone who's read this blog over the last few months. Thanks for all your comments and emails. This is the final post on this blog and my new blog "Indygal in Europe" starts on Sunday 1st June. The link will be up when the first post is written. Thanks also to all the fantastic friends I made in Sri Lanka - some (but not all) of whom are pictured here in one of my favourite, happy pics!

"He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still"

They say that travel increases your self confidence. I assumed that was because you spend a lot of time travelling on your own in foreign lands with the accompanying language barriers and being able to do that makes you feel more capable etc etc. And it does of course but I think it’s more than that.

When you’re living away from home, thousands of miles from your normal support networks, you have no choice but to develop a relationship with yourself. You may have other people around and I certainly made some very good friends out there, but no matter how wonderful they might be, they’re new friends and at the end of the day, you have no-one from your past, no-one who knows you, who can predict and pre-empt how you’re feeling and you are very much on your own. That’s different to feeling lonely but you are effectively alone and that’s when you start to develop a relationship with yourself that most people go through life neglecting.

In developing that relationship, you think more about who you are, who you want to be, who you DON’T want to be - and hopefully you make changes that are right for you. Being in command of who you are is, I believe, what increases self confidence more than anything.

I suppose one of the big changes for me is that I AM now much more in command of myself and, as a result, a good bit more confident. I don’t feel the need to be like other people in order to gain their approval, I’m happy to say ‘vive la difference’ and I expect them to do likewise.

I’ll give you an example. I am often told I’m “too soft” and I need to “toughen up” and whilst I agree in some respects AND those of you who say it will be pleased to hear that in many ways I HAVE toughened up, I have come to the conclusion (here’s the profound bit) that if I want to be soft, I’ll be soft, okay?

You see, to my mind, for “soft” you can read respectful, or nice, or courteous or sometimes, the word “soft” can even be used to describe someone who goes as far as being friendly!

Putting the record straight about tuk tuk drivers

I left Scotland having read all about how you had to be careful of hawkers and traders and tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka. And I thought this would be my greatest challenge – to learn to say no without feeling guilty. It was tough at times I admit because occasionally someone DID try to con me. The advice someone gave me at that time was to assume everyone was ‘on the make’. If I had taken that advice it would have soured my whole experience. You can’t go through life not trusting people. Besides, I can honestly say that the majority of the aforementioned treated me with nothing but kindness and respect.

The tuk tuk drivers are often accused of trying to rip people off because they’re white. It’s not quite like that. The truth is that they usually try to charge more if you’re white because they assume you’re a tourist and can afford to pay more than the average Sri Lankan and guess what – it’s true. If I were a tourist on a two week trip to Sri Lanka and I was charged the equivalent of £3 for a ride that would have cost me £10 at home but subsequently discovered that a local resident might only pay £1 for it, would I feel ripped off? Of course I wouldn’t, I’d feel that I’d got a bargain and I’d reckon the driver must be struggling to survive if he normally only charges £1. Obviously I wasn’t a tourist, I was living there for 3 months and had very little money so I expected local prices and in the main, that’s what I got. Maybe one time in ten, I’d have to haggle for it but you can’t blame them for trying can you?

Beach traders

The others who get a bad name and who I was often advised to ignore (“don’t even look in their direction” someone advised me as he dismissed one with a flick of his hand) were the beach traders. “They’ll only try to sell you something.” Well of course they want to sell you something, that’s their livelihood – a livelihood that for most of them was wiped away (for many, along with their families) in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. I wonder how my friend (we’ll call him “the flicker”) would have picked himself up from that one.

I never really could understand this attitude. After all, the reason we were out there was to work on livelihood development for, amongst others, people who had lost theirs in the tsunami. So you’d expect a certain amount of empathy to exist wouldn’t you? Of course it didn’t mean I had to buy something from every one of them but I can’t apologise for being courteous about it. Why should I? And the advantage to me was that I actually struck up some nice friendships with some very interesting and lovely people I’d been advised to ignore. The guy who's pictured here sells "medicine man" who is hand made and apparently, does away with the need for a doctor!

At times before I was “fully in command” of me, I felt almost apologetic for being “soft” and I even heard myself promising on one occasion to “ignore” them in future. But as I watched “the flicker” guy flick his hand dismissively at a very friendly, dignified beach trader who was, after all, only offering to sell postcards at VERY good prices, I realised that I had nothing to apologise for. Except, perhaps, for allowing someone I barely knew to influence my behaviour – and someone whose behaviour I had no time for at that!

Cool to be kind

Of course I can't always live up to it but I want to share with you a quote I have always liked. It's from the Lebanese born American poet Kahlil Gibran:

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution."

Getting there in the end!

So, I realise 42 years to learn that it’s actually okay to be yourself makes me a slow starter but hey, I got there in the end. I think as I said at the start, being away from my normal life and my friends and family gave me the distance and the time to stop and think about all of this and to develop a relationship with myself. And despite not being a fan of navel gazing, it doesn’t do you any harm from time to time. I don’t imagine I’ll always do the right thing in future and I’m not claiming to be perfect but I think I have finally got the confidence to trust my own judgement and be in full command of being me!

The quote in the post title is from the Chinese taoist philosopher Lao Tzu

No longer a Material Girl

I’ve been home 4 weeks and so far, so good. I’ve yet to return to my old materialistic ways. Now before I go bashing myself too much, I was never the archetypal “material girl” and I could always see that there were far more important things in life. However, I DID like to buy and I certainly valued money a lot more than I do now. It sickens me now when I think of the money we waste in the Western world. I was reading a “problem page” dedicated to interior d├ęcor “problems” last week and someone was asking where they could get a nice affordable clothes stand. Below, accompanying the response was a photo which to me looked exactly like the clothes stands Sri Lankans tend to use instead of wardrobes. Julia, my housemate had one. I think over in Sri Lanka they retail at around a tenner. This one (which, admittedly, had a drawer under it) was £279!!! If I could find the people who are willing to waste that kind of money, I’d get them one sent over from Sri Lanka and I’d give the change to one of the many families struggling so hard to get by. The change would represent about 6 weeks wages for many Sri Lankans.

Handbag confession

Before I left for Sri Lanka, I emptied my flat of everything I felt was superfluous to requirements. It was a lot of stuff – if I recall, something like 28 body creams, 32 handbags. I felt annoyed at myself then but I didn’t realise that my mind was, despite my better efforts, still stuck in “materialistic mode” – I know this because I would walk into a shop, see something I liked and believe that I needed it. Just because I wasn’t buying it, didn’t stop me feeling I should have it. Now, the whole buying culture and my old ways, feel almost obscene to me. Nobody needs 32 handbags!

There's "need" and then there's "need"

Of course I’m aware that me having fewer handbags (even if I DID donate the money I’d normally spend on them to a developing country) is not really going to solve the problems of world poverty. Nor do I intend to take a vow of poverty myself. I just know that the desire to purchase has gone and even when it returns briefly, I’m thinking more about whether or not I really NEED what I’m buying. The result is (and of course it’s helped along by having an income of zero just now) that I’m buying very little. I have a new list of essentials and desirables now – the former has got shorter and the latter doesn’t really matter. In fact, all I’ve bought since returning to Scotland is petrol (at shockingly high prices) and the ingredients for a Sri Lankan Curry!

Do your plates match?

I HOPE the changes are lasting, I was always uncomfortable with my spending and wasting. I know it’s natural to go through a process of change like this when you live for a time in a developing country but I believe this is one of the things that will always stay with me. Little things like walking through a shop recently and seeing some really nice domestic things like matching plates and cups, a funky watering can, luxurious looking cushions – one time I’d have bought them believing them to be absolute essential prerequisites for my peace of mind. After all, if your plates don’t match, what will people think of you? Now, I really couldn’t care less. What you’ll get if you come to my house (once I get one!) is a warm welcome and maybe a Sri Lankan curry – I doubt I’ll even notice what plate I’m giving you as long as it’s clean!
Peer pressure

Another example and this one is a big relief to me. Some of my friends have very well paid jobs and as a result, fairly big, expensive houses. I stayed with two of my friends in such a place a couple of Saturday nights ago. Anytime I’ve been in their house before I’ve spent time wondering when I’ll be able to afford something similar. I’ve honestly felt that if I can’t keep up with my friends materially, I will have failed. No more. (I should say that the friends in question don’t think like that, just me!) I enjoyed staying on Saturday, I loved seeing my friends for the first time in ages, I admired their lovely house (which they’ve worked extremely hard for) and felt very comfortable there but not once did I feel any desire to have a comparable house. As I say, big relief seeing as it’s not likely to happen.
Friends are safe

I should say here that I’m not planning to convert any of my friends individually, to my new way of thinking. I hope it will happen naturally to most of us in the Western world and I’ll use what political influence I have to bring that about but I know there’s nothing more annoying than someone changing their ways and expecting everyone else to follow suit with similar enthusiasm, no matter how well meaning they are – take note all newly converted vegetarians, teetotallers, religious converts!

Better ethics

If you’d asked me “pre-Sri” whether or not I thought the experience would make me less materialistic I’d probably have said no because I honestly didn’t know just how materialistic I was. And apart from feeling in a better ethical position now, I truly believe I’ll be a happier and more satisfied person because of it – instead of concerning myself with fulfilling my financial/material potential simply because I felt the need to keep up with my friends, I can concentrate on what really matters in life – I hope that doesn't make me sound pious but that particular angst is, of course, a whole new blog posting!

Back to Auld Claes and Porridge

Well, the one good thing (and it’s outweighed by the million bad things) about not living in the sweltering heat of Sri Lanka, is that I don’t have to wash my clothes every single day. You simply can NOT wear anything more than once in Sri Lanka – mainly because of the perspiration (!) and partly because of the dust. So, to celebrate the fact that clothes stay clean and dry here, I spent the whole of the first week in THIS pair of jeans that I wore every single day! The fact that they were a whole size smaller than the ones I was wearing before I went out there had absolutely nothing to do with it!

If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive

Now this is a big and very welcome change in my life. The bug situation. “Pre-Sri” I couldn’t bear to see them and I fastidiously checked towels, clothing and bedding before using them … just in case. Now, whilst I wouldn’t call myself a friend of the beasties, I have learned to tolerate them. They irritate me more than terrify me – I don’t really understand why they have to exist or what purpose they serve (nor can I remember what nonsense I made up about them when I was doing lessons on “mini beasts” for primary 5s in Drumchapel two years ago) but I have resigned myself to the fact of their existence and I can live with them.

Relaxing with the cockroaches!

I’ll share two stories with you that illustrate just how far down the desensitisation line I’ve come. Two weeks before I left, I was at a friend’s leaving night and we sat in a beachside bar which had a wall covered in coconut shell halves. We were about 6 feet from this wall and I suddenly spotted a cockroach about the size of this paragraph tiptoeing carefully across the shells! I mentioned it and of course I pulled a face but I felt no urgency to leave. Seconds later Mr Cockroach was followed by another late night visitor – a rat! He too was playing a balancing act on the coconut cases as I pointed out to my companions. One of them offered to move to another table or another bar but I said no, reasoning that the creatures were unlikely to have any interest in coming near us so there was no urgency to leave! It wasn’t until the next morning that I thought “did I really say that?” But I had – said it that is – and what’s more, I felt perfectly relaxed about it.

Keeping my cool with creepy crawlies

Sometimes you cope with things when you’re away from home but when you get back to your old life you find your tolerance levels coming back to normal. So I was very pleased to discover a couple of nights ago, that I’m still coping with them! I was sitting waiting to go in to an SNP meeting in Ochil where I was making a speech. I was noting down a few things I wanted to say when I noticed a creepy crawlie making its way up my (far too high) boots. Now “pre-Sri” I’d have leapt up in the air squealing but on Thursday night all I felt was irritation. I tried to remove it but it persisted and in the end I just couldn’t be bothered and let it crawl on up my legs! I know, I know! This is not me. As I said, pre-Sri I would check my clothes compulsively before putting them on – just in case there was a beast on them. Now, I can’t be bothered and I figure if I do get unlucky and end up with a teeny little beastie on me, it’s not the end of the world is it?

NB The post title is an old Quaker saying - don't ask me how I know this!

Near freezing to death indeed!

There is just NO getting away from it – Scotland is a ****** cold country. And I’m sorry for swearing but Scotland is so ****** cold all the time that you HAVE TO use expletives. A friend in Sri Lanka who’s done a fair bit of world travel and living abroad told me that when I went home I’d “near freeze to death”. What he forgot to tell me was that it would last for … a month so far and counting. I thought I’d get used to it but I haven’t.
Ice Box

It’s just cold all the time but despite it being cold outside, sometimes that’s where I go to heat up – I’m not sure if my mum likes to live in an ice box or if she genuinely doesn’t feel it but this house is bitter. My sister lives across the path and sometimes I go to hers for a heat – ha, some chance! She’s as bad.


Or is it me? Could it be that in three short months my body became so acclimatised to the heat that it’s having trouble re-adjusting. Sri Lanka was too hot, like living in a sauna and although I rarely complained, given that most of my friends had snow and bitter winds to put up with, I did once tell someone the thing I was most looking forward to was feeling cold again. You can’t even get cool in Sri Lanka (as I said in a previous post I have been known to get so close to a fan that it’s nearly taken the face off me!) but I now know which I’d choose if I could and it’s not Scottish weather that’s for sure.

Loving the light nights

I like having the different seasons here (there are only two in SL – the hot season and the monsoon season) and I absolutely LOVE the light nights but these temperatures are not funny.

Come ahead if you think you're hard enough

Now Scotland has a reputation for being friendly, particularly the West of Scotland but I remember standing in Glasgow Airport on my return and wondering how on earth we got that reputation. To me, everyone looked aggressive, arms were folded defensively, most of the men had a “come ahead if you think you’re hard enough” look on their faces and there were few, if any, cheery smiles. I compared it to the friendly relaxed smiling faces in Sri Lanka and decided we didn’t know the meaning of the word friendly.

Standing up to the elements

It didn’t take me long to realise that the arm folding, the grimacing and the hard nut looks are nothing to do with being friendly or otherwise – it’s all about the flamin’ cold. Crossing your arms over your body makes you feel like you’ve a chance of keeping the wind away and maybe the “come ahead” look is directed at the elements. In both Scotland and Sri Lanka, people ARE extremely friendly – it’s just it’s much easier to smile in warm sunshine and I will miss that sunshine and those sunny smiling faces for forever! The pic of the smiling girls are courtesy and copyright of this guy.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Will Sri Lanka ever find peace?

I have just heard the awful news about the bomb blast in Colombo earlier today. And of course, I'm more than a little nervous for the many friends I now have who live there. It's hard to say that because some of them read this blog and I don't want to worry them, but it's not like they won't be worried anyway. This bomb today has so far killed 23 people and injured 50. It was a blast on a bus taking people home during rush hour. The other day apparently 80 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in fierce fighting in the Jaffna Peninsula and no doubt the other side will have sustained similar losses.

It's the thing I've never understood about those who use violence to make their point - and I'm talking about ALL sides in these kind of disputes. Don't they get it that for every person who dies, there's a whole family and community of friends whose lives are also devastated? For those 23 people who died today in somebody else's war, there must be at least 230 others (assuming most people have at least ten close family and friends) who won't sleep tonight and many who will be tormented by this for far longer.

I will blog more about this later but it's a very sad note to be leaving Sri Lanka on.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

For the off!

Well, that's most of the goodbyes out of the way. I've left my job, left the house, left the gym, left Julia and Thea (very sad) and the fish (even sadder - just kidding) and all my new friends. Felt a bit like the leading lady in Muriel's Wedding as I said goodbye to the town and everything that's become so familiar to me over the - I all but called out "Goodbye Porpoise Spit" but you'd really have to have watched MW a couple of times to know why!

Anyway I think I'm really left with the feeling now that I won't really know how I feel until I'm away from Sri Lanka. I think it will take time to assess the impact the trip has had on me. Or perhaps that's me just talking from tiredness seeing as I lay awake all last night. I lay there trying to take it all in - the sound of the fan, the brush of the net against my foot, the constant gibbering of the monkeys, the green of the trees against the dark night sky that I could just about make out through the crack in my curtains. And this morning, the gradual transition of black sky to pink sky to blue as a new day dawned. I didn't want to forget any of it.

Today of course, the rose tinted specs seem to have been mislaid - amazing how your capacity for romance can disappear when you get no sleep!

I try not to get too emotional about these things as anyone who knows me will testify. Indeed, one of my housemates who's known me for only a few weeks predicted I'd be upset when I left "but hiding it expertly" and she was right! Well done Thea! I did have a bit of a wobble yesterday as I was on my way in a tuk tuk for one last trip to the Lighthouse Hotel for a swim. I got worried I'd forget the smell of the warm air and the ocean (as Rob, a journalist I met out here said to me, it's something the internet hasn't yet been able to do is convey smells - but one day!).

So I started breathing it in, taking deeper and deeper breaths, desperate never to forget. On the last intake, one so deep I nearly forgot how to exhale, I suddenly felt quite emotional. I put it down to a physiological reaction myself but I got a bit of a lump in my throat and nearly (key word 'nearly') cried! That'll teach me to breathe won't it!

Anyway as I said, I'll do a full impact assessment on my return but right now, I don't know if I'm sad to leave, excited to be going home, nervous about Singapore (seeing as my cousin appears to have changed his number and I can't get hold of him - the things some folk will do to avoid me!) or just plain tired so, in short, for the moment, I can't see the wood for the trees.

I've one final night out tonight with The Colombo Set which I'm really looking forward to. Then, 6.30am I'm leaving in a taxi for the airport and heading for Singapore which I'm told will be very very different to Sri Lanka. Vive la difference, I can't wait!!

Monday, 21 April 2008

My last day in the office

So, I'm here, my last day in the job and I'm not sure how I feel. Mainly because I don't have much time to think about it. Rush rush rush as per! Blogs may be few over next week or so because I'll be all over the place. Let me see, I leave Galle at 8am tomorrow, have a meeting in Bentota and arrive in Colombo early afternoon where my lovely friend Louise (who says journalists are all bad?!) is putting me up for the night. I'll be meeting up with the cool city based volunteers that night for a celebration - yes, they see it as cause for celebration!!

On Thursday morning I fly to Singapore where I'm really hoping my cousin Niall remembers to meet me. I mean, I'd cope if he didn't meet me but I hope he remembers I'm staying! My head's spinning a bit to be honest - don't want to leave, don't want to say goodbye to my friends here, can't wait to see everyone at home, think Singapore might be too clean now I'm used to Sri Lanka, the usual kind of things one thinks about. And then of course, I've a 20 hour journey back to Glasgow a week today! Am very excited about coming home. A friend told me that on the first day everything will seem to be in glorious technicolour and then? I'll apparently near freeze to death!

Anyway I will definitely blog before I leave Sri Lanka, definitely be online in Singapore and I'll finish off my blog once I'm home and that will be that! Over and done with. Onto the next chapter. Can't wait!

Cultural Extravaganza of a Weekend

It's been a very culturally different weekend for me, this last weekend in Sri Lanka. On Saturday myself and Thea went along to a wedding. Muna, our lovely friend in the office at work, had invited us. It was her sister's wedding, my first in Sri Lanka and my first attendance at a Muslim wedding. The photo shows Muna, her son Aatif and her sister. It was quite an experience. For a start it was held at the home of Muna's aunt who lives next door. I have to say one of the best wedding receptions I ever went to was in the tiny front room of the couple's flat in Torrisdale Street in Glasgow so I'm all for home weddings.

We were shown into a room where the bride sat upon a chair on a raised stage, and we all sat in theatre style looking at her. I wondered how it must feel to be stared at like that until I looked around and saw that everyone was looking at me and Thea, not the bride. Wonder no more. Had forgotten what novelties we were. Everyone was absolutely lovely though, very friendly and as I've said before, we manage to communicate whatever the languages we're all speaking. At some point all the women (for it's only women who do this) got up to go and eat but we stayed and kept the bride company and paid lots of attention to her to make up for stealing some of it when we entered the room initially.

We asked lots of questions about Muslim weddings and arranged marriages and it was very interesting. We learned a lot and I tried to leave my mark by suggesting a change to one of the customs. Apparently the bride sits atop this "throne" not speaking until the groom arrives and speaks first. I suggested the other way round might be nice - no-one agreed. They did however think it a good idea to find me a nice Muslim husband, me having reached this advanced stage without even considering marriage! Pity, horror, confusion and bemusement - that pretty much sums up the reaction to my single status lol. I'll let you know if they find me someone before I leave on Thursday!

So, the cultural extravaganza continued on Saturday night when, via the gym and pool at the Lighthouse Hotel, we attended, in our own home, courtesy of our housemate Julia ...

... a Jewish Passover Seder Dinner

I've never been to one before. I've never done or experienced anything Jewish in fact so it was a real treat for me! There were the 3 of us (myself, Julia and Thea) and our friends Louise, Sally, Narelle and Karen joined us from far and wide to mark the passover of the Israelites from slavery? I hope I've got that right. It was fascinating to listen to the readings, sing the songs, drink the wine and eat all the food associated with the rituals involved in passover. Everyone was asked to say something (poem, reading or just talk) about freedom and we had a really interesting discussion about personal freedom. I knew I'd be expected to talk about Scottish freedom but whilst I am happy to sing songs using that word, I don't see Scotland as being unfree so I didn't. We've always been free to become Independent if we so wish, our destiny is in our own hands. Anyway, suffice to say it was an interesting evening with lots of good chat, great food (Julia really can cook!) and gin and wine aplenty. It was also poya day here so thankfully none of us are Buddhists or we'd have been banned from drinking said gin and wine!

Aatif in his wedding outfit

Shiny Happy Girls

I like this photo. I like the contrast between the griminess of the walls and the super clean, shiny faces of the girls dressed in their best outfits for the wedding.

Men doing what they do best at weddings

Shy boy ....

... comes out of his shell

Sunday, 20 April 2008

One of the things I WILL miss ...

... is arrak and ginger beer. A very nice drink. We initially couldn't agree if it was rum or whisky and now we know, it's neither. It's made, apparently, from coconut trees. Anyway it's very nice and the ginger beer complements it beautifully. I won't have to miss it at first as I'm bringing some bottles home with me. I just hope it's not one of those drinks that only tastes good when you're in a sunny country far from home. I once brought home an assortment of brightly coloured syrupy alcoholic drinks from Spain. Of course even the sight of them in Glasgow made me feel queasy. Don't think the same will be true of arrak - it's a quality libation and one I'll be very happy to share with my family and friends on my return!

Friday, 18 April 2008

And another thing ...

... I won't miss is ants. I'm not scared of them like I am cockroaches, and I confess to finding the way in which they organise themselves truly fascinating. However I'm not out here to study ants and I won't be sorry to be deprived of that experience. I just went into the kitchen at work there and picked up a teatowel to discover it was teaming with them. Someone must have wiped something sweet onto it and that is like a magnet to them. A couple of weeks ago there was a large mass of them on the tiled kitchen floor in the house and the mass kept moving. I looked closer to discover it was a dead ghekko covered in ants. They were 'wagging' it's tail and waving its arm. It's undeniably clever but not very nice to mock the dead is it? Yuk.

I should say here that although I say I am scared of cockroaches I have improved a great deal. A week or two ago I was sitting in a bar on the beach in Unawatuna at yet another emotional farewell night when I spotted a humungous cockroach stepping in and out of the coconut shells adorning the wall just 6 feet away. I was just deciding how to react to that when a rat appeared and started doing the same!! However, much as I was horrified, when one of the guys asked if I wanted to move to another table I said no, I was fine. Can't guarantee to do that next time and I'd had a few arraks and ginger beer.

Anyway as I said, I'm not scared of ants but neither am I emotionally attached to them and therefore, I won't miss them one tiny bit.

In denial as Oprah would say ....

I think I must be in denial because yesterday and today, all I can find are things I won't miss about Sri Lanka. I think my subconscious is trying to kid me on that I want to leave. Yesterday was headbands, and today, it's fans. I mean the kind that blow in your face, not the kind that ask for your autograph! Don't get me wrong, when I am nearly fainting with heat exhaustion, I am very glad of a fan and have been known to get so close to one that it's nearly taken my face off. But you have to have them on all the time and at work, it's a tad difficult to keep your paperwork in order when it's flying all over the office! And the overhead one is on all night. I am quite certain I will not have any use whatsoever for a fan of any description whilst in Glasgow and I can honestly say I will not miss them one bit.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Another thing I won't miss about Sri Lanka

Headbands. Hate having to constantly wear them and never seeing my fringe. As someone once told me, I have a very high forehead and ought to keep it covered up (see illustration)!! However in this weather when us girls are constantly 'glowing' it just ain't possible. So, there you go, I will not miss headbands.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Suba aluth arudack veva!

We often talk about “Sri Lanka Time” over here. Many in the SNP will relate – we have “SNP Time” too. It’s not like other time. I recently invited someone to an interview at my office here in Galle and she said “OK I will be there about 11.30”. I firmly pointed out that she’d be here AT 11.30 or else …. very fiercesome of me!

But it can drive you mad and New Year is a perfect example. I blogged on Sunday saying Thea and I had celebrated New Year at 12.05pm and we had, because that’s what we were told to do. There we were (as you can see from the pic) on the beach, beers in hand wishing each other a Suba aluth arudack veva! I then texted all my friends out here and one replied saying new year wasn’t till 6.24pm!! So the beer was for nothing!

It seems that 12.05pm was the end of the old year, the next few hours were a neutral period and at 6.24pm the New Year would begin. It’s all to do with astrology, you see. This is a country that places a lot of emphasis on astrology. Weddings, the building of houses, moving house – all of these things are done on auspicious days which must mean that the planets are correctly aligned.

Yesterday at 6.24pm on the dot it was most definitely New Year because that’s when it all kicked off. We were in the house with some guests when there was an explosion of sound. We got out on the balcony and watched as our neighbours let off bangers and firecrackers and we could see them going off all around Galle – all at exactly the same time. It was lovely actually. From our elevated position we watched the little girls across the road as they excitedly came outside in their new pink dresses and squealed with delight as daddy set off some spinning sparklers. We shouted Happy New Year to them and they eagerly returned the greeting. When they held their own sparklers I heard the youngest child tell her mother “mata ba hei” and I was delighted because I understood – well, seeing as it means “I’m scared” I kept my delight to myself! (Is it a surprise to anyone that I know how to say I’m scared?)

So, after all the confusion about when New Year actually was, you’d think that finally we’d worked it out when the place exploded with fireworks except … a fellow volunteer texted me at 6.12 from Kandy to say there were so many bangers going off he felt like he was in a war zone! Kandy is not that far away so how come their new year started 12 minutes earlier? See what I mean? Sri Lanka Time. Anyway never mind, I was just thrilled to be having a second but very different New Year. Looking forward to the January sales now!

Monday, 14 April 2008

What I will miss about Sri Lanka - the racket!

I awoke yesterday morning to an unusual sound – it was birdsong. Lots of it. In fact it sounded like all the birds in Sri Lanka were outside my bedroom windows waiting to serenade me and welcome me to the new morning. The noise was incredible and beautiful and I knew then that my next post would have to be about the noise in Sri Lanka.

I live at the top of an unpaved road set back from the main street. For miles all you can see are lush green trees interspersed with rust red rooftops and the occasional place of worship peeking through the tops of the foliage. It’s beautiful and peaceful looking. It’s rural but it’s not quiet. Not in any way. Not ever. From dawn to dusk and beyond, the cacophony of sound is, as I’ve said before, like an assault on your senses.

Perhaps the birdsong surprised me because my wake up call normally comes minutes before 5am. (Sunday, of course, being the Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s Day, I guess a lie in on Monday could be expected.) I found an entry in my paper journal once – it said this:

4.52am – the mosque is calling all muslims to prayer very loudly over a PA system.
4.53am – the local dogs have joined in, doing their best to harmonise.
4.54am – every dog in Galle has cottoned on and they are now howling at the moon and drowning out the mosque. Let me sleep!!

It was an off day (which wasn’t supposed to have started yet) – I love that collection of noises normally. I am a sound but intermittent sleeper. I wake up at least half a dozen times a night but generally get back to sleep right away so to be woken by something that makes me laugh out loud and then drift back to sleep is fine by me. It happens again in the evening and many’s the time myself and my housemate Julia have laughed out loud at the dogs – at the cheek of them, at their awful caterwauling and at their absolute predictability.

I once mentioned it to our landlord, Saman who lives behind us. At that time I thought it was the Buddhist temple making all the racket but “no, no” insisted Saman, “the dogs not bark at Buddhist, they bark at muslims”! Perhaps that’s because the temple is far more tuneful and perhaps it’s because they start at a more civilised hour.

We get back to sleep shortly after 5am and I think we’re safe then until the temple starts at around 7am. I say safe but what I mean is we only have the animal noises to contend with. They are non stop but I remember the first time I was lying in bed and I heard monkeys nearby, I nearly cried I was so happy. I also remember the first time a family of them ran across the roof in the middle of the night – I thought we were all about to be kidnapped by some dissident group employing James Bond style methods which involved swinging from the roof and in through the holes in the chicken wire above the bedroom doors. (Amazing the detail you can imagine in approximately 3 seconds isn’t it?) I had never noticed until then how noisy our roof is but that was possibly because prior to that night I tended to have my ceiling fan on full blast – now, I can cope with the heat a little better, the fan is quieter and I’m aware that our roof is a very busy and noisy thoroughfare of a night time!

There are many screeching noises that I haven’t yet identified and as I write I am listening to one now. It may be a mongoose, who knows? Oh, and live from the roof of 33/8 Wijayanande Mawatha, a deep and persistent scratching has just started. I’m probably best not to investigate! I was surprised to make a new discovery last week as I walked to work. We have dozens of palm squirrels here and I got a bit confused as I watched one of them ‘mimic’ the local birds. I stopped to watch. A nearby (but invisible to me) bird was emitting a high pitched tweet over and over and each time he did, the palm squirrel in the tree above opened his mouth and mimed. I was quite impressed but, as I say, confused by this until I realised that there was no cheeky impersonation going on and this is, in fact, the noise the little rascals make all day long.

So we have the birdsong squirrels, we have a woodpecker heralding in the new year, we have real birds (not just bird impersonators), we have the screeching of goodness knows what, the howling of the many dogs, the jibbering of the monkeys and in the centre of town the greatest animal noise of all comes in one particular tree just before you turn onto Main St. I have never walked past that tree without being absolutely convinced that there are at least a thousand birds hidden in its branches. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s absolutely deafening and lovely as it is, I often cover my ears because it’s just TOO loud.

Catch an air conditioned bus in Sri Lanka and they’re generally playing music. You can sit back and close your eyes and take in the lovely Sri Lankan music and then suddenly the Sinhala version of “Going to the Chapel” comes on! That finishes and it’s back to Sri Lankan music until you find yourself listening to the Sinhala version of “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden”! All very odd!

All of that combined with the regular firecrackers (which I initially thought was gunshot) set off to frighten the monkeys away from wrecking people’s gardens, the regular thunder and lightning storms, the constant beeping of horns which I’ve talked about before and the non stop “hello, where you going?” from everyone you pass in the street, makes this a very noisy place to live. So, much as I love it you need something soothing to counteract the “assault” and that’s where the Buddhist temple comes in.

Around 7am each day, 8 or 9pm each evening and, on occasion, throughout the entire day, the temple takes to the airwaves. This is very different to the 5am alarm call where the lead vocalist at our mosque really cannot sing! This is a soothing gentle little tune – albeit always the same one - again played over a PA system throughout the area. Often the dulcit tones of a young child can be heard. The main voice we hear from the temple however, is a woman’s voice and she sounds like Doris Day to me, in fact she sounds like she’s singing Que Sera Sera and often, you can close your eyes (there’s a pattern developing here!) and tell yourself you’re back in Glasgow and it’s just some eejit having an extremely loud karaoke party!

That’s the thing, if it was Scotland, they’d all have an ASBO (anti social behaviour order) slapped on them. But it’s not Scotland. I’m a guest in another country so I have had to adjust to their way of doing things and in adjusting, I’ve found that I really love it. I remember the 3 young guys I met who each had a hearing impairment and I reckon I’m very fortunate to be able to hear at all. Perhaps it’s also a lesson in tolerance for me – maybe we can adjust to anything if we’re willing to try.

Don’t get me wrong, it will be nice to go back home to the busy city of Glasgow for some quiet but I can honestly say I will miss the dawn to dusk and overnight bombardment of noise that I’ve grown so used to in this lovely town that has been my home for 3 short but wonderful months.

Nor Lanka - best hotel in Unawatuna

I don’t normally do this on my blog but I have to give credit where credit is due. If ever you should find yourself in Unawatuna, do yourself a favour and book into the Nor Lanka Hotel. From around the equivalent of ten pounds a night you can stay at this peaceful, pretty hotel. The furniture is great quality, food’s lovely, the rooms are spotless, light, bright and airy and the ensuite bathroom is clean as! They have wireless broadband and it’s free. If you don’t have a laptop you can use their computer. They have satellite TV in the main outdoor sitting area.

But more importantly, they are amongst the friendliest, most accommodating people I’ve met out here – and that’s saying something. Helge is a very laid back Norwegian with a dry sense of humour and nothing seems to phase him. Anoma remembers everyone and calls them by their first name. She too has a sense of humour – I’ve stayed at Nor Lanka three times now and on my second visit, she told me she’d put a cockroach in the room especially for me. On Saturday she said shed added a scorpion in for good measure. I said she’d a sense of humour, didn’t say it was a good one! I guess I do seem a tad neurotic when I turn up at a guest house, cockroach spray in hand, asking how many they normally get and what condition the mosquito nets are in!!!

Anyway here I am pictured with the Kallman family – if you go, just mention me and I’m sure they’ll charge you double!

Can’t get a coffee for love nor money

Mmmmm, coffee. First decent one we’ve found out here. Do we look contented or what?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Happy New Year!

How lucky am I? I get two new years within the space of four months lol. Today is the Sinhala and Tamil New Year and I'm spending it very differently to how I spent the first one. That was in a top floor tenement flat in Dennistoun in the East End of Glasgow where my friend Aileen and I had yet another party. Last night I watched fireworks on the beach at Unawatuna and today I read half of A Thousand Splendid Suns sitting on the same beach. It's been lovely but time to go - only the Muslims are working today (not their new year obviously) and the tuk tuk driver we booked yesterday has arrived. Without him we're stranded! Anyway yet again, Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Talking of beautiful babies ...

... here's one of my angels, my beautiful niece Christie who is sixteen years old today. It's a rare one of her smiling when she was 13, she preferred (and still prefers) to scowl but sometimes, we just MAKE her smile. She hates that. Anyway for the first six weeks I was in Sri Lanka, I would phone Christie and her brother Daniel every Sunday and each time the first thing they'd say was "when are you coming home?". I wasn't sure I could manage 3 months without seeing them. I remember they went to the States for 10 weeks and I really didn't enjoy that.

Christie is my only niece and we're very close. I was there when she was born. OK I was outside the room because it was one birthing partner at a time in that particular hospital. I stayed long enough to have my hands ripped off by her mother's talons and when I popped out to wipe off the blood, out she popped. She is the first of her generation in our family and that made her very precious to us.

I have many good stories about Christie but the day when I knew she was going to be a cool kid was when her primary 5 teacher announced a Hallowe'en party. They were all to dress up and my sister was very excited and came up with lots of ideas. Christie however (being an Aries) had ideas of her own and her idea was not to dress up at all. "You can't do that" gasped my sister. "Who can't?" snarled my angel. And she didn't. She refused on the basis that just because everyone else was doing it, didn't mean she had to follow them. I love that. Her mother got her own back by dressing up as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and turning up at the classroom with wee Dan, the straw man to prove to the class that some McLaughlins do know how to party! I can still see Christie's face now as she recalled the trauma.

Anyway, that's her sixteen now. I won't say it seems like only yesterday she was born because it doesn't. It seems like sixteen fantastic years have passed by and my angel is growing into an intelligent, switched on, beautiful young girl. I said 'woman' there but that scared me so we'll stick to girl. Happy Birthday gorgeous and see you in two weeks!!!

What I WON'T miss about Sri Lanka

Funnily enough, I won’t miss the rainstorms here. I came over here thinking I was a hardy Scot, I know about rain, I’m from Greenock for goodness’ sake, I’m practically half rain myself.

Little did I know. You see, it rains in Greenock, it rains a lot and it rains nearly as much in Glasgow but it’s not the frequency that gets to me here, it’s the volume. It’s unbelievable. Gargantuan sized drops of rain, millions of them, all pouring down on you like someone up there’s got a giant sky sized hose and a twisted sense of humour.

We’re all thinking the monsoon season has started early because it’s been every day for a week now. And the rain can’t just come on its own, no it has to come mob handed with the thunder and lightning the big chicken that it is!!

And chicken is one word to describe me when they all arrive at my door. I guess I can be forgiven for being a baby after my computer was struck by lightning a few weeks ago but you know, I’m thinking that maybe I need to toughen up. Or go home! I was in the house alone at teatime one day this week when it all kicked off. The rain started pouring in the open air bit above the ponds – it was pouring with such force I thought the fish were going to drown. Yes I do know what’s wrong with that statement, I just panicked a bit, okay?

I was coping though – even managed to remain calm when the power went off seven times. As I say, I was coping until the thunder shook the foundations of Sri Lanka and the lightning came cracking in through the open ceiling!! At that point, I stopped coping and started cowering in a corner with my hands over my ears whimpering “please go away, I promise I’ll be good”. (I do hope it goes without saying that I am exaggerating bits of this – eg I NEVER promised to be good, it’s not in my nature, it just fitted in with the cowering picture.)

A very kind friend took pity on me and distracted me from the storm by texting till it was over which was much appreciated but since then I’ve learned that it’s dangerous to use your phone in a storm. You can’t win! Thea and I met someone last night and she gave us a lift home. On the way she stopped to introduce us to her brother who lives in the next street to us. As we got out the car the heavens opened and it all kicked off again – this poor family barely got a chance to open the door as we threw ourselves in uninvited! The woman of the house squealed when I got a text and told me her friend’s brother was killed yesterday because lightning struck his phone!

Several hours later as the car swam the 500 yards to our house (no, we could not have walked in that) I knew what my first “things I won’t miss” blog posting would be about …
PS Photo copyright J Early

This one's not scared anymore

This beautiful baby resides upstairs from my office. She no longer screams in terror when she sees me. I think the whole experience of me has been character building for the child!

I WILL miss .... being a celebrity!

As promised on this blog the other day, I’m listing the 6 things I will and won’t miss about Sri Lanka as my countdown to departure begins. And the first thing I’ll miss is the attention. There’s no point in pretending that I hate it because I don’t! I thought I would, I took time adjusting and now? I’m slightly embarrassed to say, I love it! Sri Lanka is not exactly cosmopolitan and although Colombo, the capital city, will have a diverse mix of people, a little place like Galle has very few white people – so you tend to stand out a bit! Everyone stares at you, lots of people wave, most say hello and some even jump up and down with excitement (I never said it was justified).

At first I found it very disconcerting because I don’t (contrary to popular belief) like being the centre of attention. Who remembers this guy Ewan MacLeod from his days presenting Chartbite? I remember being in a taxi with him at the height of his popularity (he was helping my charity) and I wanted to sit on the floor of the taxi because everyone was staring in and waving! I was willing the traffic lights to move to green and my daydreaming about being famous stopped that day!

Over the years I’ve noticed the change in public attitude to my good friend Nicola. She went from being a high profile political activist to leader of the opposition in the Scottish Parliament and now she’s Deputy First Minister of Scotland and never off the telly. In the good old days we’d get people trying to figure out who she was (they knew they knew her but from where they did not know) – guesses included Posh Spice! Now, everyone knows exactly who she is and it’s like being out with a celebrity. People seem very excited to see her which is a very odd thing for me so goodness knows how it feels to her. Recently I was sitting in a coffee shop with her (very civilised and very in keeping with her new status, but not mine!). Anyhow, a very fit looking guy kept eyeing me up and I was feeling quite pleased with myself and gave him a little smile until I suddenly realised that he wasn’t eyeing me up. He wasn’t eyeing anyone up, he had simply recognised Nicola and couldn’t help but stare.

This is the thing with well known people – folk cannot keep their eyes off them. We seem to be mesmerised by fame, like moths to a flame we are powerless to resist. I’ve seen very confident, self assured, otherwise intelligent people go to pieces in the presence of someone they’ve seen on telly. I’ve watched the same type, desperately try to pretend that the fact that this person is famous is having no effect on them whatsoever. I am deeply ashamed to admit that I’m a bit like that myself. Obviously it’s different if you’ve known someone before their “fame” but despite my attempts to be cool and regardless of my disregard for “celebrity” I was once rendered speechless when I met The Proclaimers! I AM a big fan of their music but so what? I was about 22 when I met them and I just stood, open mouthed trying but failing to manage dignified never mind cool. Eventually I managed to squeak: “I love you … cough, splutter, clear throat, much deeper (almost manly) voice this time …. Your music. It. I love. Not you … squeak returns … bye”! Did I mention the scarlet face? No? Actually it was crimson.

Anyway I digress. This is not supposed to be an indepth examination of our attitude to fame (although if anyone wants to offer me a phd for all that work, and a phd for everyone who’s reading to the end, I’d be happy to accept).

This is supposed to be about what I’m going to miss in Sri Lanka when I leave in less than two weeks time – sob sob.

And despite my finding it a tad uncomfortable being caught up in the attention received by famous people in the past, I love being treated like a celebrity here! I admit it. I don’t particularly enjoy some of the attention from teenage boys – there is no need to be fluent in Sinhala when they thoughtfully provide actions to go with the words – and some of the men are a bit minging. My friends have experienced crudeness more than me – I can honestly say it’s only twice that I have noticed a Sri Lankan man lick his lips in my direction or, worse, touch himself whilst muttering something to me in a deeply unsexy (but trying his best) voice. Anyone who knows me might say that’s because I spend all my time with my head in the clouds but actually, I don’t do that over here (partly because of the open drains). I interact with human beings all the time – so I would definitely notice it.

I’ve been very lucky because the attention I’ve received has been generally very positive and warm. And perhaps that’s why I’ve surprised myself by not wanting to hide away. Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing negative in it. At first I thought I was getting some idea of how black people back home felt in areas where there were few of them. But I wasn't, I really wasn't and I’m sorry the thought crossed my mind. It’s not racism to recognise that someone is a different race to you and here, they celebrate the difference, they welcome it. It’s rare you pass anyone, man or woman, in the street without them at least smiling warmly at you, most saying hello, many stopping and talking – it’s something I think I never have time to do at home but I’m going to make a bigger effort in future because it’s good for the soul.

Children in Sri Lanka, aside from being absolutely beautiful, are very funny. If they can walk, they love me. If they can’t ie if they’re babies, they’re terrified of me. I’ve met one baby who liked me – a beautiful little girl in a Hindu Temple in Kandy who was almost as fascinated with me as I was with her. But every other baby out here (and I do mean EVERY baby) has burst into tears on sight of me and clung anxiously to their parents’ necks, not sure whether to turn away from the scary sight or keep an eye on me just in case … As I said, babies are the exception to the rule and from toddlers upwards, they treat me like I’m a star! Little kids in shops tug at their mothers’ skirts, desperately trying to get their attention before it’s too late and I’ve walked on – they can’t wait to show them the white person. They are so excited to have seen one. When I say hello their mothers get equally excited and urge their kids to take the opportunity to practise their English.

I’m not daft, I know it’s nothing to do with who I am, it’s simply to do with me being different. Just as the attention famous people get is often not about them but about their fame. But regardless of the reason for it, I have to say I’ve really enjoyed being a “celebrity” for a while, it's really very nice when people are pleased to see you but I know it's all coming to an end. I am spending a few days in Singapore on my way home and will use my time trying to come back down to earth lest I should find myself, on my return to Glasgow, sauntering along Sauchiehall Street waving to everyone like I’m the Queen of Sheba! There’s nothing quite like a Glaswegian put down to rain on your parade!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

For breathtaking photographs of Sri Lanka ...

... look no further than here. This is James’ blog (another volunteer out here) and we all reckon his photographs are quality.

I was looking for some to recommend so that I could link to them but there are so many stunning photographs that I just couldn't choose. The photo of the little boy, however, is pretty special. I think adoption agencies should use his photo - who could resist the look in his innocent big eyes?

Do take the time to look through properly and you’ll get some idea of what we’ve all experienced in Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the Anais Nin quote on his blog:

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Very true!

Parliamentary Pandemonium!

I love words! And pandemonium is one of my favourites. As volunteers out here we have to keep our phones on and subscribe to the News Alert service so that we know what’s happening security wise. In amongst the serious stuff you get lots of cricket scores and general news. Today’s latest is:

“Pandemonium in Parliament with UNP opposing the appointment of new Secretary General. Proceedings suspended for 10 minutes.”

The use of the pandemonium word has me picturing fisticuffs, papers scattered and desks flying through the air – it’s probably just a few MPs tut tutting and shaking their heads. How very disappointing!

Bank of Scotland saga continued ...

So, where were we? Ah yes, I'd had approximately 4 groundhog day conversations with my bank about them cancelling my card. Each time they'd say "you should've told us you were in Sri Lanka". Each time I'd reply "I think you'll find I did tell you, several times"! I think we'd got up to the day, a Wednesday, when they'd promised it would be working again. And it was, I got money out. But only enough to pay back the various folk I'd borrowed from. No matter, went back the next day and took out - zero because they'd cancelled it again.

So, that was a Thursday and I just could not face speaking to them again. Apart from anything else, I saw no point! Instead I reverted to borrowing money from friends (who, bear in mind, have only known me a matter of weeks) and transferring the money online.

Anyway being an independent type (why my name is even Indygal) and liking to have control over my own finances (take note Scotland), I decided to make a further attempt at the weekend. Apparently all cards have a ban on international use, it's an automatic thing. To get it lifted you have to inform the bank where you're going and for how long. Did that - as you know! Several times! However, the man I spoke to took pity on me and he lifted the ban altogether. "Now" he tells me "if you want the ban reinstated, you'll have to tell us. Otherwise, it can be used indefinitely right across the world"!

Well I don't remember telling them to reinstate the ban but 3 different banks out here seem to think the ban's still there.

On the phone again. "No" says the person who answers the phone "the ban's been lifted, you can use it". "Goodo" says I and off I skip to the bank, full of hope. Talk about naive! There is no bank in Galle (and there are several to choose from) that can give me money - not even 2000 rupees (a tenner). They can all tell me that I am in credit but they can't let me have any of MY MONEY!!!

I would never let something like this cast a shadow on my time out here but the Bank of Scotland has caused me a fair bit of stress and the worst thing is that it seems to be a systemic problem rather than one individual getting it wrong. Anyway I think that's enough on the Bank of Scotland for now, or ever. Just assume that for the next 2 weeks they'll cancel and uncancel my card - but I won't know because I'm not even attempting to go to the bank.

The Countdown Begins

Well, I'm nearly at the end of my Sri Lankan experience. I will stop off in Singapore for 4 days but I leave Sri Lanka on 24th April which is 16 days from now. In 15 days time I will head to Colombo, meet up with some of the other volunteers for dinner and stay the night before flying out the next morning. The Countdown has started and I've only 6 full days of work left to do. This is because in addition to weekends, we've got the Sinhala new year coming up - more on that later.

So, I've decided to copy my predecessor at this company and do a "things I'll miss about Sri Lanka, things I won't" - each of my working days I'll post one of each so there will be 6 in total. It sounds like not a lot but I'm going to try not to repeat anything I've already talked about on the blog so it'll all be new stuff. That means that just because Sri Lankan driving, mad dogs and beasties are not mentioned in my top 6 of things I'll not miss, does not mean I WILL miss them cos I certainly won't.

I don't plan to continue this blog for much longer than that. I will probably do one posting when I return home because I will obviously have a very different perspective by then but I reckon I'll wrap up at the start of May. I've enjoyed doing it though and it's great to have, along with my handwritten journal and all the emails to friends, a lasting record of what I got up to and how it's affected me. That way when I reach old age (not too long now - hah! said it before anyone else did) and I've forgotten it all, I can remind myself!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Aversion therapy has worked!

Yep I definitely still have an aversion to those things I was talking about in the last post so it's clearly working. However I just can't leave the blog over the weekend with that as the main picture so here, instead, is a photo of Mirissa which is where I am going after work and where I'm spending Saturday. Now that's much nicer isn't it?

How could I forget the creepy crawlies?

Yesterday I talked about the dangers over here and I completely forgot to mention the insects. My housemates claim I am obsessed with mosquitoes and will be stuck for conversation without them when I get home - like I'm EVER stuck! Anyway they're extremely dangerous if they're carrying malaria or dengue fever. Almost worse are the black things - cockroaches and other horrible creepy slithery things. Now they are very very dangerous to my mental health and unlike all the things I talked about yesterday, somehow my subconscious never did choose to accept THEM. Nor will it. Which is perhaps why I forgot to mention them, maybe I've just blocked them out.

They are so inherently evil however that they decided to teach me a lesson for forgetting them and one has just paid me a visit. Not to my room - oh no, nothing like giving me the chance to run away. This one visited my person. My hair is currently standing on end as I relate this tale to you. Uncle upstairs (we just call him that) brought me a present wrapped in newspaper - it was a huge bunch of bananas. Very kind. Or so I thought ... I was dishing them out to the visiting field officers when I spotted something similar to, but much fatter and longer than, an earwig!

I did my usual girlie thing (can't help it) of leaping in the air, throwing the bananas at the field officer and squealing that he had to get rid of it. Being a flaming Buddhist of course, he won't just kill it and instead gently brushes it aside, thus giving it time to make its final move. Except nobody saw where it went. "What does it matter?" says the field officer, "it's gone"! "Yes but where?" I replied, "it can't just have GONE"! I searched everywhere and made them search too (they love having me here) - well he searched, Muna just laughed at me and said something in Sinhala to him about cockroaches (can't believe she told him that one!). My paranoia about these things always ends with me shaking my hair just in case it's in there.

And what do you know? It fell from my hair onto the front of my Tshirt!!!!

I am, at this moment, trying very hard to stay sane. Deep breathing. (Maybe I'll start smoking.) Positive thinking. (Or alcohol could numb things pretty quickly. Might even kill the beast off.) It would help if I wasn't feeling it crawling all over me right now. The Field Officer said it was lovely. The THING knew I was afraid, so he found me and came to say hello. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous??

Sorry, positive thinking - yes, it was very sweet of him to stroke my hair so affectionately, he was only trying to be friendly and at least I know in future that I'm not paranoid - after 25 years of dreading, it finally happened. So I was right to be worried.

In an attempt to find something positive in all of this (apart from the aforementioned) I have put a photo of him or one of his family up and if I look at it enough maybe I'll get to like him - it's called aversion therapy. And at least I know when you find them, they're really quite easy to get rid of - unless you're with a Buddhist that is!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Taking your life in your hands

I was writing in my journal the night before last. My journal I keep for more personal thoughts about how I’m changing over here and how the whole journey has affected me. Anyway I was writing about how all the things I found difficult to deal with when I first arrived in Sri Lanka are coming back and slowly being difficult again. I think it’s a very natural, if unexpected, process whereby your subconscious tells you to cope because you have no choice and then, when you’re getting close to dry land again, allows you to relax and feel how you really feel.

Anyway that’s not what this post is about. As I was writing I gave an example of a “returning difficulty” and that was plugs and sockets and the safety thereof. I was scared to use them at first because to get a two pin plug into a 3 pin socket, you first have to stick something into the top pin of the socket. Now, from a very young age, we are told that it is extremely dangerous to stick anything into a socket that isn’t a plug! So when I first got here and was told to do that, I instinctively baulked at the idea because my mum and dad said it was a bad thing to do! I noticed however that everyone just does it here so I very quickly accepted that I’d no choice, got used to it and got on with it. Now that I’m on the final strait, I wouldn’t say it worries me but I AM becoming aware of the safety implications again.

There are lots of other examples of “returning difficulties” and although I think it’s quite interesting to track your own emotional pattern when doing something like this 3 month trip, I’ve done that in my journal and what I really want to talk about today is this whole issue of health and safety.

It’s one of the first things that really strikes you when you arrive in Sri Lanka and I think it was the potential for danger that really freaked me out when I got here. Having been brought up to be ultra cautious just tying my shoelaces, you can imagine the adjustment was a challenge. And if you can’t imagine, let me tell you why …

Danger 1 - Driving

I arrived in Sri Lanka and was picked up at the airport by a very nice man and a minibus. I said to the driver “there’s no seatbelt”. “Yes” he said in broken English “yes, seatbelt there”. “But it is broken” I replied. “Yes” he said again “seatbelt broken”. Simple as that. I have not worn a seatbelt since I got here but that first time, I was completely unnerved by it.

Seatbelts are the single most effective way to save your life in a car crash. They reduce deaths by up to 50%. It’s not an imagined danger, it’s a very real one. But you have a choice in Sri Lanka. You can worry yourself sick about it and change nothing. Or you can decide to kick back and enjoy the situation - and change nothing. As both those options end with no change to the situation, I decided to relax and enjoy myself.

Danger 1 – Driving continued …

It’s not just the lack of seatbelts that makes the roads in Sri Lanka danger zones, it’s … well, everything really. Where do I start? They drive on the same side of the road as us. And they also drive on the other side of the road. I’ve always hated having to turn right onto a main road and for the first year of driving, I used to turn left and wait till I found a roundabout to come back on. But I should’ve known there was an easier way. All you do is turn right onto the right hand lane, and trundle along there dodging the oncoming traffic until you can nip over to the left lane. Simple really – if you don’t mind risking life and limb! At first my eyes were nearly popping outta my head when they did that. After a while I learned to close my eyes and hope for the best and now? Well now it just seems natural to me.

Overtaking and tail gating …

… are both normal practice in Sri Lanka. Now I know we overtake and it’s perfectly acceptable but in SL they won’t wait a second for you to speed up. If you’re the slightest bit slower than them, they just bump you out the way and move on. OK they don’t exactly bump you but they drive right up to you beeping away and overtake regardless of what’s coming toward them. Yesterday I was too late to walk to work and got a tuk tuk. At one point coming along the busy Wackwella Road, we were faced with a tuk being overtaken by a bus being overtaken by another bus – they were all driving like nutters and they took up the whole of the two lanes. We nearly ended up in one of the many open drains they have here! Even the tuk driver gasped. On that occasion I did think the closing my eyes routine was a useful one.

Roundabouts …

… you can go roundabout whichever way you choose. My dad was driving people home from a wedding in Perth once and as he got onto the final roundabout before you enter Port Glasgow, he starts saying “look at that idiot driving the wrong way round a roundabout – ‘oi, eejit, you’re endangering my wife’” or words to that effect. Said wife very gently pointed out to him that whilst she was not a driver she was quite sure it was he who was going the wrong way. And it was. Well he’d fit in well here because they just go the quickest way they can find.

Honestly nobody obeys any of the highway code out here, in fact I'm not sure there even is one! I had to laugh when I saw a learner driver out with an instructor the other night. I mean … why?!

The beeping of horns …

… is constant, it never ends. On my first road journey on the day I arrived, I was quite unnerved by it. My driver who seemed (and is) so patient and mild mannered, was continually doing it too. It took some time to figure out that it’s not an aggressive thing here, it’s a communication tool. Well, no it’s not. They beep to say speed up, they beep to say move over, they beep to say I’m overtaking, they beep to say thanks. But there’s no difference between the beeps so how they think they’re communicating anything at all is beyond me. All they’re doing is creating a cacophony of noise and on that day, giving me a migraine not to mention a nervous breakdown!

I should say that the photo is courtesy of this guy who tells the tale of SL roads much more succinctly than me!

Danger 2 – Buses

You are getting the picture that the roads here don’t feel safe I guess. The buses here are completely crazy. OK the bus DRIVERS are crazy. I’d love to say not all of them but I can’t. Because it is ALL of them. They drive like men (not seen any women yet) possessed. Apparently in Colombo they race each other. Take last week, for instance, Thea and I (housemate and colleague) were ordered to get the bus or a tuk tuk home because there were cricket fans getting carried away further up the road. There were dozens of them dressed up (some as VERY convincing women), banging pots, beeping horns (of course) and dancing in the street ahead of Richmond College’s match against Mahinda College. Anyway we were not allowed to walk so we got a bus.

We got on the bus and the driver was furious at being held up by these cricket guys so when we got moving he went absolutely mental - driving like a lunatic, overtaking everything and he just kept his hand on the horn the whole time. No beep beeping for him, it was just one long beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! We were laughing hysterically because we didn’t know what else to do. Eventually we bolted it off the bus when it stopped. I thanked the driver for a very pleasant journey (the nutter) and once again vowed never to go on a public bus. It was another one of those moments (and we both agree, there are many) when you have no choice but to trust that fate doesn't want you to die!! Seriously, it's not a safe country – I will continue with the roads although I accept it’s sounding like an obsession!

Danger 3 – Being a Pedestrian

When I first got here I did wonder how on earth anyone ever crosses a road. I thought perhaps people just live their lives on one side of the road or the other. Their house, their work, the shops they buy from are all on one side and they don’t actually need to cross the road. It’s perhaps an idea for the future in Sri Lanka because going from one side to the other is a truly hair raising experience at times. There are no traffic lights in Galle, there appear to be no rules about zebra crossings either because being on one doesn’t seem to affect the speed of the traffic. I used to stand waiting for the traffic to die down but it doesn’t. Ever. So now, I more or less just wander into the road and keep my fingers crossed that I can successfully dodge the traffic! There is no point in looking left, right and then left again because by the time you’ve looked left again some lunatic is coming up behind you, having driven along the railway track at 80mph and with the windscreen blacked out so they can’t see what they’re knocking over. OK slight exaggeration but only slight. To be honest, I don’t even feel nervous crossing over anymore although the fact that I’m mentioning it at all is an indication that, as I said at the start, being on the final strait allows your mind to start noticing again.

Danger 4 - Homeless Dogs

Actually it’s a very sad sight to see so many cats and dogs starving and eaten away by fleas. Many of them have lost limbs (no doubt trying to cross the bloody road) and their wounds are infected. I started off with a fear of dogs. Not a huge fear, but some nervousness. I’m much more of a cat person. But here there are dogs all over the place and you just cannot live here if you can’t overcome the nervousness. I should say that I’ve only once had a dog be aggressive toward me here. Most are probably too hungry to bother. I was told that many are afraid of human beings so won’t come near you. I pass half a dozen or so just on the path outside my house. The thing is even if you overcome your fear, it’s not a good idea to touch them because many are infected with rabies and rabies kills. Again, you put that out of your mind and just don’t take any risks. One of my housemates can’t resist however. She loves dogs and so she feeds them and tries to treat their fleas. The best thing about the dogs is every morning and every night when the mosque starts broadcasting its chants, the dogs join in so it’s one long howling session. It’s very funny, very entertaining.

Danger 5 - Water

Clean safe drinking water was one of the most immediate concerns in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and they really did reach crisis point. I read a great story recently about the Lion brewery in Colombo. (We are all fans of Lion Beer out here.) After the tsunami, they stopped brewing beer and started bottling water – it was much needed. Anyway obviously things are different now and bottled drinking water is freely available. But we’re warned about some of the tap water. You can’t drink it without filtering it first and I’m lucky enough to have a filter at work and home but you still need to be careful. I’ve been in people’s houses where they’ve been extremely hospitable to me and then given me a glass of water. I can’t ask if it’s been filtered because there’s a language barrier and I don’t want to cause offence. Normally I just say thank you but I’m not thirsty whether I am or not. The chances are it would be okay but all of the UK departments of health are quite clear that if you take the risk you could end up with serious health problems. This is the reason why in the 69 days I’ve been here, I’ve used bottled water even to brush my teeth. It’s not easy to remember after a night out on the town I can tell you.

The final danger no 6 – electricity

This one makes me laugh it’s so bad. And I do believe my friend Patrick had the same thing in Malawi. This is one that no-one can pretend is about being over cautious but there is nothing we can do about it. Can you believe that our shower is plugged into a socket IN THE SHOWER?! Yep, you step into the shower, plug it into the socket and switch it on.

Safety guaranteed

There is nothing anyone can do to guarantee their safety wherever you are. The other day 60 soldiers died over here in a freak lightning strike. And anyone who reads this blog will remember my own brush with something similar. There are no guarantees about anything so life is part careful planning, part chance. If I lived my life here according to our safety standards in the Western world it’d be simple – I’d just never shower, drink no water and avoid roads, traffic and dogs – in other words stay indoors smelly and thirsty. It’s a strange feeling that my subconscious is now letting me take a peek back at how I felt when I arrived and I wonder how long it will take me to readjust when I go back. Hopefully I won’t be taking my straighteners into the shower and skipping blindly but hopefully across Sauchiehall Street. If you see me doing any of these things, please stop me!

Stamp of disapproval

It was my mother’s birthday and I was all organised ready to post the present for it to get there on time. This was something of a miracle for me – I can’t even manage that when I’m at home!

So, Thea and I go along to the local post office at lunchtime only to be told we’ll have to go to the main post office in town. So, running out of time (it was a 15 min walk to start with) we hail a tuk tuk and 5 minutes later we’re standing in the queue. I say “queue” but it’s quite a different system over there. Nobody queues, they just barge in ahead of you. If you’re not fast, you’re most definitely last in Sri Lanka.

So elbows at the ready, I eventually find myself at the front and hand over the parcel.

“This is the stamp counter, not the weighing counter” they tell me before directing me to “queue” number 2!

“Q” no 2 is worse, and I’m duked (Scots word for overtaken in an unsporting manner) several times before I finally hand parcel over to “weigher” who duly weighs it and tells me I need 600 rupees in stamps. “Fine” I say as I hand over my money. The fact that it’s dirt cheap does not in any way make up for what happens next.

“This is the weighing counter, not the stamp counter” he tells me “you must go back to the stamp queue for your stamps” before moving onto the next 12 people now at the front of the “queue”!

Thea decides to sit down at this point and who can blame her. As I stand in the stamp “queue” (aka “Q” no 3) I think how much nicer it would be if some of the fans were turned on occasionally in this sweltering heat. And I agree with myself that it might help to quell my fury at people shoving their way in in front of me. I also observe my changing attitude – I used to smile politely at this – now, my glare appears to be frightening grown men!! Ah well, whatever works!

Anyway so there I am, I buy my stamps (eventually) and head back to “Q” no 4 to hand over weighed parcel and stamps. Tuk tuk driver who’s been waiting for us all this time (about 30 mins so far) decides to come in and help me make sense of it all and informs me that I can duke this queue because my parcel’s been weighed. Marvellous, but it’s still not in my nature. Ah, b***er it, you can fight nature.

You can fight nature but can you fight red tape? No, it seems.

“You’ve wrapped your parcel” the guy tells me (like I didn’t know that) on this, our second meeting. If it was important I’m sure he’d have mentioned it when I got to the front of “queue” no 2, rather than wait till I got to “queue” no 4. “Yes” I smile smugly “and I’m posting it on time, my mother will be very pleased with my efficiency so I hope your’s isn’t going to let her down”!!

I was hoping in vain. It WAS important. It’s quite important, apparently, that you DON’T wrap parcels before posting them.

“What if you’ve got a bomb in there?” he asks me.

“Why would I send my mother a bomb for her birthday?” I almost cry out loud, suddenly realising why people frequently add “for crying out loud” to sentences.

Perhaps if they had bothered to turn the fans on and if I wasn’t about to expire in the heat, I might have listened to their reasoning but I didn’t. I just followed orders and unwrapped it to show them there was no bomb. Now my wrapping is not exactly artistic, more thorough. Therefore when you unwrap a parcel of mine, you’re not going to be able to keep the paper unless it’s for a paper mache project!

So my parcel’s approved, it’s been weighed, I’ve got the stamps, I just can’t post it because the paper’s ruined!!! Aaaargh.

“I’ve had enough” I’m almost yelling. “I will walk home to Scotland and deliver it myself” I proclaim. No, I’m not kidding, I know it’s not like me but I was hot, I’d been in there nearly an hour, Thea was lying under the counter by this point, the tuk tuk driver’s smiling broadly at how much he’s gonna charge me for the waiting time and I’m very very late for work – AND the fans were off. So, I had a bit of a tantrum and that’s when they decided to help. But only if I came away from the public bit into a side room where they could calm me down.

I was anything but calm but after checking the side room for strait jackets, I followed them in and a very nice man carefully (and slowly) rewrapped the parcel for me. Seeing as he was trying to help I gritted my teeth and resigned myself to waiting yet another ten excruciatingly long minutes and didn’t complain. After all, my ordeal was nearly at an end.

Or so I thought!

Talk about groundhog day. I got to the front of the “weighing” “queue” whereupon they weighed the parcel again and proceeded to tell me that due to the weight of the additional paper, I would need to get myself into the (expletive) stamp “queue” again and buy more stamps!!!

Can you believe that?

“Don’t worry” says the tuk tuk driver “once you’ve done that you can go back to the other queue and they will post your parcel – simple!”


One hour and twenty minutes we spent in that post office being pushed from pillar to post. My mother’s present didn’t even arrive on time, it got there the next day. And my niece whose birthday was a few days later – well she just had to make do with a card until I got home because there was NO WAY I was doing all that again!

I am posting the photograph of me despite the face being make up free and the hair being all over the place because I think it sums up the exasperation of the day!