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.