Monthly Archives: July 2009

Travels to the south

Participants of the BasicNeeds programme

Where to begin, there is so much to tell. I spent the weekend in the South, in a place called Hambantote, which is on the southern tip of the island and extremely different to Colombo and the Western Provence.

The heat was something else, even the Sri Lankan’s I was travelling with where complaining of the heat. The humidity was 90 per cent, which is unbelievably high and even the breeze was hot.

I travelled with a bunch of other journalists from various other Sri Lankan papers and radio and television stations.

It was a media field trip with an NGO called Basic Needs, an organization which was founded by a British man Chris Underhill and brought to Sri Lanka in 2000. The aim of the organization is to help mentally ill people and their families to combat the illness and reintegrate themselves back into the community.

For years there has been a social stigma attached to all mental illnesses. These people were not accepted in the community and were ostracised. Many families hid these people away which only added to the stigma surrounding them.

With the help of Basic Needs this negative view of the mentally ill is being reduced and the people are getting help.

A number of years ago Sri Lanka had the highest rate of suicide in the world. This was due to a number of factors such as poverty, economic disadvantages and unemployment. Now with the help of programs like Basic Needs, all this is changing. Sri Lanka still ranks quite high, number nine, on the worlds suicide scale, but at least it is no longer the highest.

Can't remember the name of this beautiful flower

Life in the south is very different from the rest of the country. A doctor at a clinic we visited told me that many women become depressed because of the lives they lead. They are always at home cooking, cleaning, looking after their husbands and children and they have no personal lives. This lack of contact often leads to depression and the women come to the clinics to talk.

What I found particularly difficult over the weekend was the constant references to people being mentally retarded. In English it is not at all politically correct to use these terms. But people here are not concerned about that. I will have to get used to it, as I can’t constantly keep getting offended and worked up about how they put things.

I spoke to one lady during the weekend, through an interpreter, who told me her experience of the tsunami. She lived near to the coastal hotel where we were staying, with her family and she described the disaster which she remembered in so much detail and accuracy. She explained how the 40 foot wave swept over her and her children who were in a car, while she clung onto the car from the outside. Her children survived unharmed but her niece who was staying with them at the time was never found. Her own daughter, who was 18 at the time was severely traumatized and refused to go near the sea for a long time after.

Two very charming little boys at one of the temples

We visited numerous Buddhist temples over the weekend; they are the hub of many communities and a place where people feel safe and free to go to.

Everything was conducted in Sinhalese, so I constantly had to have someone interpreting for me, which was very tiring, but also a very good experience as a journalist.

Hardly any of the people we met could speak English and being white I was the cause off much interest. In particular the children were very curious. Initially they peeked shyly from behind their mothers however, they quickly got over their shyness and were following me around tugging at my cardigan.

After tea and an interesting dessert wrapped in a leaf I had to go to the bathroom. We were in a very rural and poor area and the bathroom, which I was shown to by three lovely women and a little girl (none of whom could speak a word of English) was a shack behind the temple with a hole in the ground. I proceeded to go the toilet, nearly wishing I hadn’t asked, but the women were so friendly I felt obliged to go. The entire time I was in the shack the three women and the little girl waited patiently outside the door for me to finish, after which they threw a bucket of water onto the earth floor. Next time, despite the charming company, I shall refrain from using the bathroom in very rural areas!

The bus journey through the countryside was extremely pleasant and as I mentioned before very different from the Western Province. Most of the landscape was very barren and dry with salt marshes peppering the coast.
Inland was a bit greener with sporadic stretches of fertile fields. We drove along one small river, rather dirty in my opinion, where numerous people were bathing in the river, washing themselves. Women were washing clothes, and children were paddling in the water. It was a hub of activity.

It was a fascinating trip, ammunition for a lot of writing.


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Ah, what one does for love, or an exotic dancer!

I was at the launch of Mount Lavinia’s new web site on Thursday evening. Mount Lavinia is a 5 star hotel in Colombo and visually it is amazing. It is the oldest building in Colombo and was initially built as a residence for the Governor in the early 1800’s. According to stories the governor fell in love with an exotic dancer called Lavinia. Their love was forbidden so the Governor had a tunnel built from the cellars of his residence to the top of a nearby hill through which they could meet for their secret trysts. The building is named after her.

A serious of Governors lived in the mansion before it was turned into a hotel in the mid 90s. As I have already said it is an extremely beautiful building, right at the sea, with a private beach, pool and a serious of very impressive and grand rooms. After the press conference one of the hotels managers offered to show me around the hotel, so I got an extensive guided tour, even seeing two ocean view bedrooms. People here are very eager to please and it is not uncommon at all for them to take time to show you around somewhere.
It was, I hope, the first of many visits to the hotel.

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Today was a rather hectic day in the office. I have a good few articles to write at the moment; they just keep piling up. Everyone is asking me to go to interviews, press conferences and to write numerous articles on various different topics, which I don’t really mind as it keeps me busy and I get to try a bit of everything. So far I have done book reviews, interviews, covered press conferences and launches and I have been asked to do a big feature on an art school next week. Dilanthi and Aisha have asked me if I would like to do more for the youth section, a supplement that comes out every Friday, which is something I am more than happy to do as it could be quite interesting.

I really do like the Sri Lankan people; they very kind and giving people. What I find particularly endearing about them is their head wobbling; it gets me every time! It’s just so … I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s so characteristic of the Sri Lankans and very charming. If you watch them in conversation the heads of both people are constantly wobbling from side to side. Sometimes when I’m talking to someone and I ask them a question and they start to wobble their head as an affirmative, I have to remind myself that it means ‘yes’, rather than ‘no’. It is very hard to say no to a head wobble!

Buddhist worshippers

The children here are just beautiful, they really are gorgeous and smiley, already at a young age. On the way home on the bus last night a young Buddhist monk, about 12 or so was sitting a few rows in front of me. He was a beautiful kid and it made me very curious about their religion and mentality. I would have loved to sit down and chat to him, but they are solitary people who don’t like being disturbed, or so I’ve been told anyway.

Boy contemplating

It would be very interesting to visit a Buddhist monastery and to talk to the monks, in particular the young ones. Some of the young Buddhist monks are orphans who have been brought up and educated by the monks. Others have been sent by their parents at a very young age in order to get a good education. They are obliged to stay there until they are 18, after which they can chose if they want to stay on, dedicating their life to Buddhism or they can leave. For the families it is a good way of ensuring their children get a good education especially if the family is poor.

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Work ethic

School girls on a day trip

The work ethic in Sri Lanka is quite different from at home, as are most things here!
The children seem to do a lot of work, they start school at 7.30am and it goes on all day. The uniform in public schools are white, a pretty bad colour choice when you think about their climate and the amount of dust and dirt everywhere.

Rameshi my host family’s daughter has extra classes in the afternoons, a private tutor most evenings and school on Saturday and Sunday mornings, a bit much if you ask me. Her parents want her to be a lawyer or a doctor, so they are pumping all their funds into her.
As I said the children seem to work more than the adults.
The adults here live a pretty relaxed life, no one ever seems particularly busy, except for the people driving maybe, but that’s a totally different story. They do get up early, but after that, well it all seems pretty lax, they do everything in their own time and never seem hurried. At the office, people wander in whenever they please, before starting anything productive they proceed to read the newspaper and chat to friends and colleagues, something that goes on all day. It is not uncommon to see people asleep at their desk in the afternoon, even the editors particularly after lunch. Sometimes I think I’m one of the only people actually working, however, the paper is published daily so it obviously works somehow.
As I said before, everything is very relaxed here, life is about two or three gears slower than anywhere in the West where people spend their days running around like headless chickens; it is just the Sri Lankan mentality!

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I just came back from a delightfully pleasant weekend in Hikkaduwa, a small coastal town south of Colombo. It is actually one of the places that was badly hit by the tsunami in 2004, but the place has been built up in the mean time.

The coast here is a paradise; long stretches of golden beaches, the warm water of the Indian Ocean, coconut laden palm trees lining the beaches, giant turtles swimming in the water and delightful beach shacks lining the shore. It is truly amazing.

The town itself is quite small, with the busy Galle Road running through it, but the beaches and the sea are stunning. At the moment it is very quite as it is not yet high season, which was really quite nice. High season is from November to February. Now it is still monsoon season, although it does not rain much, and if it does rain it is usually during the night.

We had an amazing seafood dinner; fresh squid, octopus, shrimps, and shark steak. It was mouthwateringly delicious, and accompanied by a chilled bottle of Lion beer and the cool evening sea breeze it was perfection itself.

But now we are back in Colombo; busy, hectic, fume filled Colombo.

Despite only being here a few days it was really pleasant getting away somewhere quiet and peaceful for the weekend.

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Public transport

Tuk tuk

Today was my first proper full day in Colombo. I was picked up by Gishan, one of the employees of Projects Abroad and brought to the office where I met Shyamale the director.
She took me to ‘The Island’ (the newspaper’s) office to meet the editor and staff there. The office looks a bit primitive in comparison with newspaper offices at home, and the atmosphere seemed very relaxed, with no hectic running around and shouting.
The editor’s office is jam packed with papers and books. Tomorrow I begin my first day at work. I will be thrown in the deep end and hopefully I will manage to swim to the surface and do a good job here. According to Prudence and Richard, two volunteers who also live with the same host family and do the same placement, I will be covering everything and anything.

I’m intrigued as to what my first day will throw at me and how I will cope. Time management here is very lax. Apparently Sri Lankan’s are always late, which means I will fit in just fine, although I believe they are nominally later than the Irish, is that possible? On asking what time I should be at the office in the mornings, I was told, ‘oh whenever you want’. More specifically I was told by my fellow volunteer’s that after 10.00am is when people usually begin to wander in, so I shall follow suit.

The bus journey was another interesting and new experience. In order to get to work either an hour long bus journey or a 45 minute tuk tuk journey is necessary. Today with my two fellow volunteers we opted for the longer but cheaper route.
The buses are something that you see out of an old movie, big, old fashioned Indian Tata buses. The doors on both sides remain open throughout the journey along with the windows for ventilation.
There are no real obvious bus stops. Sometimes the bus stops at blue bus signs but usually you are better off joining a group of people who are all looking expectantly in the same direction.
You never has to wait more than a few minutes for a bus to come roaring down the street. You hop on as the bus slowly moves away and hope that there is a free window seat in the stiflingly hot, non air conditioned and overcrowded bus. As the buses are big, they rule the road so you feel pretty safe on the hectic Colombo roads. After an hour’s ride, by that time being hot, grimy and sweaty, you hop off and walk the last few minutes to the office.

The buses in Colombo, as I have found out are mainly privately owned, and the driver and the conductor work together. As there are numerous buses driving the same route daily, the drivers compete with each other to get the most passengers.
Occasionally the bus is stationary at a stop for five or 10 minutes as the conductor shouts out of the bus and walks up and down outside heckling passengers onto the bus.
But it is safe to say that you always get to your destination in the end!

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First day in the beautiful but hectic Sri Lanka

Rambutan stall

My first full day in Sri Lanka is almost over and what a day I’ve had! It wasn’t that spectacularly busy or hectic, it was more the amount of things I had to absorb, simply looking can be exhausting!

Experiencing a new culture and way of life can initially be quite draining; in a good way of course. It all began yesterday when I arrived tired and hot from my long haul flight from Dublin. But as the plane made its slow descent towards Colombo I began to wake up. The first sight I got of Sri Lanka was the amazing lagoon surrounded by white beaches and lush green palm trees beyond, extending as far as they eye could see. It looked amazing.

My trip from the airport to the hotel in Colombo was something else. I don’t believe I have ever experienced anything quite like it. I’m convinced I was given Colombo’s craziest taxi driver. I thought the Italians were bad, but they are nothing in comparison with this guy.

Before I came to Sri Lanka my father, who is coming with my mother to visit in December, was talking about how every guide book he had read had mentioned the necessity of hiring a driver if one wanted to travel, and I now see why this is recommended. I would never be induced to drive a car in Colombo and I shall be encouraging my father to follow suite.

Basic rules of the road do not seem to apply or even exist here. Although lanes and pedestrian crossing are marked and traffic lights do exist. Rules seem to be interpreted liberally or simply ignored. Drivers drive haphazardly across lanes. Overtaking is not restricted to the right; being an ex British Colony, Sri Lankan’s drive on the left like at home. And then there are the horns. The sound they omit is usually a gentle ‘just so you know I’m here’ beep, rather than an aggressive, ‘get out of my way beep.’ For example if one car wishes to overtake another he moves out, gently beeps so as the other driver knows he is there and then passes him out. A pretty handy system really if you think about it, but totally bizarre to us of course, but it seems to work.

The entire journey from the airport was accompanied by blaring Sinhalese music and an ear splitting cacophony of car horns. As for pedestrian crossing, I wouldn’t cross one if I was paid to. In my opinion they are mere yellow decoration on the road. And finally the speed! My taxi driver was something else when it came to speed. However, after realizing that my life was not at any immediate danger I managed to settle down and enjoy the journey as there was an awful lot to see and take in.

It is my first trip to Asia and to be honest I did not quite know what to expect on arrival, but that is something that usually works to my advantage; I find that having few or no expectations ensures that one is rarely disappointed.

My friend Dilanthi

The amount of thing to see was just unbelievable; from the women wearing amazingly coloured sari’s and sporting umbrellas against the blazing sun, to the stalls upon stalls of exotic fruit lining the roadside, many of which I had never seen before, never mind know the name of. Now and again we would pass a cow lazily meandering down the road, cows are sacred and are given as it were a free pass. It is quite normal to see them standing on roadsides or wandering down the streets, or a calf galloping madly down the road with an unknown purpose. The vibrancy, colour and newness of everything was intoxicating, and after a while I got exhausted from looking.

To further my good impression the people I have met so far have been lovely. Sri Lankan people are very friendly, laid back, smiley and polite. I always thought that the Irish were particularly friendly but after meeting a few Sri Lankan’s I’m afraid I’m going to have to move the Irish down a notch or two on the scale.

But can you imagine living on a tropical island with permanent summer, endless supplies of exotic fruit, amazing tea, never-ending stretches of beautiful coastline, beaches, palm trees and so much more, wouldn’t you be happy and smiley too?

I know that was my first jet lagged impression, living here I’m sure will be very different, but I’m intrigued.

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