Archive for the 'Sri Lanka Travel Log' Category

Sri Lanka – April 8th, 2010

Jon Ross on Apr 9th 2010

4-8-2010

Can’t remember when it started, but the Soodin kids now call me “Jon-uncle.” So sweet, really, as long as they don’t start calling me, “Jon-uncle Buck.”

you know you've been accepted when they start ignoring your constant presence

you know you’ve been accepted when they start ignoring your constant presence

Laid Up In The Lank

Just got over being really sick. Four days in bed with chills, fever, aches, pains, sore throat, cough, you name it. Ten days later and I am not completely well—I was weak and out of shape to begin with, but this episode sapped the last of my strength. At first I thought it was malaria, but it was not. I must say, that being really ill far from home with no reliable medical help nearby is not all that calming; I was pretty scared, but handled it with as much vipassana/equanimity as I could muster. There were a couple of moments of amusement, though. When a doctor did come to my room and was listening to my chest with her stethoscope, she asked if I had been spending time with the “village people,” because I might have “jungle fever.” I had to laugh as I explained that I don’t know Spike Lee, but I saw Alan Carr in Cherry Grove once. I gave her my best rendition of “Y.M.C.A” to prove it. That might have been the cure, actually, because my fever broke the next day.

wondering if the house or i will be done first

wondering if the house or i will be done first

Existential Angst

Waiting for the windows and doors for the Soodin house is taking it’s toll, too—I am not good at just sitting around, no matter how many hours a day I can meditate. Hambantota is a much smaller town than Batticaloa, hence there are no saw mills that fabricate doors and windows on demand. Our carpenters are making them all by hand. Also, we are far away from the forests where the wood comes from, AND there is no railroad servicing this area, therefore, the cost is much higher, too.

teak and mahogany are the "cheap" woods here

teak and mahogany are the “cheap” woods here

like anywhere, sometimes you got to grease the wheels to get things done

like anywhere, sometimes you got to grease the wheels to get things done

BUT they are almost done and installed. I might not be here for the final photograph, but Roy will forward the “ribbon cutting” image, as it were.

soodin-front-w-frames-cu

remember the old house?

remember the old house and kitchen?

02-soodin-house-kitchen

ready for the Viking stove and the Sub Zero fridge.  is that a pizza oven?

new kitchen ready for the Viking stove and the Sub Zero fridge. is that a pizza oven?

I feel pretty good about all that we accomplished in this trip: one house built from the ground up, two others completed, and two tsunami orphans sponsored. The schedules and budgets, as well as we could have projected, worked out almost perfectly. I have to say, though, that sometimes it felt like it was only by the force of my will that things happened—physically and metaphysically. So I guess anything is possible.

ATM Madness

Is it me, or do you think it’s strange to be able to go to a cash machine and, over the course of a few days, withdraw enough money to build a house? I don’t think this would get you very far back home—you might reach the daily limit be the time you bought a few items at Home Depot—but maybe I just haven’t checked the “quick cash” options in a while: $100 … $200 … $600,000?

Fun Facts About The Lank

Here are some things about Sri Lanka that I have not reported, because they are so familiar to me, but I realize they might be news to you:

They eat with their hands here … or more specifically, their right hand. They say it’s the only way to properly mix and enjoy all the flavors of the different curries. I don’t really buy it; it just seems like a good way to legitimize playing with your food. I’m into it, though, and never ask for a fork or spoon. I think I’ll try it at Spago when I return.

soodin-feast_1

By the way, the left hand is used for “unmentionables.” I don’t know what unmentionables they do with their left hand, I use my right for everything. They’d be horrified if they knew! Speaking of which, they don’t use toilet paper either—hence the unmentionables—just a water spritzer and the aforementioned left hand. There is a lot of hand washing here, though, which is nice.

try to guess which one's the shower

try to guess which one’s the shower

OK, don’t get me started: they haven’t invented shower curtains, either. The showerheads in the bathrooms just stick out of the walls in random places, thus the entire bathroom gets sprayed. One way or another the bathroom floor is constantly wet in some places. I don’t know about you, but I like a dry floor in the bathroom, especially if I am barefoot—which is always, indoors. Also, I haven’t been in a place with a hot-water shower since I arrived; and believe it or not, even in the tropics, a warm shower is often quite welcome. Anyway…

They drive on the left side here—that is when they’re not driving down the middle of the road or swerving into oncoming traffic.

this truck must be broken, because normally the only time you see it is when it's bearing down on you at 80 miles per hour honking its horn

this truck must be broken, because normally the only time you see it is when it’s bearing down on you at 80 miles per hour honking its horn

not that they need it, but some people super charge their tuk-tuk

not that they need it, but some people super charge their tuk-tuk

And they added a half hour to their time zone so they wouldn’t be like India; therefore Sri Lanka is 12.5 hours ahead of California—just for the record.

We’re All The Same

At first, things in a foreign land seem unusual, strange, or scary, but when you think about it, we’re all human and share the same planet, so the variations are only that: slight differences, really. Most cultures have some sort of fried dough with sugar on it: doughnuts, beignets, or churros; here they have rotty. Clothes are basically the same and serve a particular function–shirts, skirts, pants, hats, and sandals.

"rotty" is the general term for all snacks

“rotty” is the general term for all snacks

rotty-shop-cu

And even the animals: Here they have cobras, in the U.S we have rattlesnakes; here they have monitor lizards, in the U.S. we have alligators; here they have blood-sucking leeches, in the U.S. we have blood-sucking tics; here they have elephants… well, we don’t have elephants, that’s true, but you know what I mean.

Regards from Ceylon,

Jon

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Sri Lanka – March 10, 2010

Jon Ross on Mar 12th 2010

A quick note about traveling: the more you do it, the less different the world seems–slight variations in clothing, architecture, food–and the more similarities become obvious: most people just trying to make a living, feed their families, and get along.

the richest people you meet are often the poorest - soodin family

the richest people you meet are often the poorest - soodin family

In Batticaloa now, the Tamil town on the east coast, which was the LTTE rebel stronghold for many years. The people’s suffering here was compounded by the war before and after the tsunami. On the 6-hour journey from Hambantota, along snaking jungle roads, every few kilometers, abandoned, but some manned, sandbagged bunkers lined the road. I asked my driver if there had been a lot of fighting here during the civil war and he said, “Not fighting, just killing.” The LTTE was famous for having initiated the strategy of suicide bombing twenty years ago. Often, the rebels would force local men and boys into “military” service; if they were captured, the government would, in turn, imprison them. (Part of that fun included being tortured as traitors.) There are horror stories on both sides, and the political situation is hardly clear.

from a distance we're all the same - batticaloa, sri lanka

from a distance we're all the same - batticaloa, sri lanka

On the drive, though, the scenery was lush and tropical. I had asked that the driver to mention anything of interest, so he would occasionally point to the wall of greenery whizzing by and say things like, “tamarind” or “teak.” I guess he could tell the different plants and trees among the dense foliage, but pardon the pun, “it was all ‘teak’ to me.”

the tsunami washed away houses and left clean white sand

Here in Batti, MicroAid is providing windows and doors to two tsunami families who, after their homes were washed away, were just handed money to rebuild. Well, needless to say, most of these simple people did not know how to budget for construction and were targeted by unscrupulous “contractors,” so most were left with half-completed and inadequate homes. The international agencies that gave them the cash (and you would recognize the big names) never did any follow-up to see how the money was spent, or if the people were OK. Until I showed up last year, no one had checked in on them.

just handed money by big aid orgs - most of the simple people never were able to complete their homes

just handed money by big aid orgs - most of the simple people never were able to complete their homes - mrs nagakanni

Mrs. Thaya has three sons and tries to make ends meet by running a “boutique.” When I asked where it was, she pointed to the hut in the corner of the compound. I had missed it when I arrived. Even though the style is not Rodeo Dr. or Madison Ave. (actually, just watch some trendy designer use this as a model) the place does a brisk business with locals stopping by to pick up odd and ends. Mrs. Thaya also supports her husband who was disabled in an accident when he was working at a bakery. He lost an eye and was dismissed because he could no longer do his job. There is no workman’s comp here.

that's mrs. thaya's "boutique" in the corner of the compound

that's mrs. thaya's "boutique" in the corner of the compound

does that look like a back door to you?

does that back door look secure to you?

The other family has a similar story, with a twist. Mrs. Nagakanni’s husband, a fisherman, had been abducted by the LTTE and then imprisoned for seven years. He was away when the tsunami struck and destroyed their home. They have a son and four daughters. Their uncompleted house was designed with expensive, fancy arched openings for the front doors and window—a ridiculous design element given the circumstances and budget. There are no standard sizes here; each opening is a different dimension. Consequently, every frame, window, and door has to be custom made by a mill, then installed by a mason, then finished by another carpenter (in addition to grillwork done by a welder), making this the most expensive part of the house.

mrs. nagakanni & kids

mrs. nagakanni & kids

Both families are helping by providing their own labor, and meals for the workers. MicroAid will provide them with the dignity of a house with some security, privacy, light and ventilation. They will then have a home and not a dark depressing cave!

thaya house - this is the way its been since 2005

thaya house - this is the way its been since 2005

frames are custom made and set by a mason

frames are custom made and set by a mason

windows are custom made and installed by a carpenter

windows are custom made and installed by a carpenter

doors are hand carved

doors are hand carved

now that's curb appeal!

now that's curb appeal!

As it becomes known what we—my guide/interpreter/man-Friday/moral support, Pathmanandan, and I—are doing, many people are approaching us and asking us to help them. Some are tsunami victims, some are victims of the fighting, others are just poor. As Path said to me about our work, and the MicroAid mission, “We cannot wipe every tear from every eye but at least we can wipe some tears off some eyes!”

"do they think i'm made of money?"  "yes, you're an american."

"do they think i'm made of money?" "yes, you're an american."

As for me, I was sad to leave the Soodin family in Hambantota, but I will return in two weeks to help finish the house. I really grew fond of them, and they of me—a classic case where some stranger shows up out of the blue to help with something, everyone is apprehensive, but then the kids and adults start to become real personalities and bonds develop. Anyway, I will always have a special place in my heart for the first MicroAid project and the wonderful, deserving, and grateful people we were able to help.

soodin house - ready for the roof

soodin house - ready for the roof

Batticaloa is much grittier (the jungle actually gets very dry and dusty in between the monsoon seasons) and feels more edgy.

not all jungles are wet - urban jungle of batticaloa

not all jungles are wet - urban jungle of batticaloa

Luckily, I got a room at the only decent guesthouse in town, the Green Garden, which also happens to be a fifteen-minute walk to the work sites, and is my oasis at the end of the day. Also, the good news is there aren’t swarms of ants crawling over everything; the bad news is that Batti’s pest of choice is malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

More later from Ceylon…

Jon

PS:

Approved by the Board

the most serious co-op board

luxury living

You think New York City co-op boards are tough? We’ll they’re nothing compared to this snake-pit in Kallady, Sri Lanka—that’s because the tenants really are snakes! After the termites moved out of their mound, the cobras moved in. Now, to appease them, the neighborhood people place food and flowers on and around the building. Try that with the gang at 740 Park or 820 Fifth and see if it works!

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Sri Lanka – March 1, 2010

Jon Ross on Mar 1st 2010

24 Hours in a Day

In so many ways I am getting used to being here. I don’t feel bedraggled all the time, and a breeze in the shade, even at 90 degrees, feels a little cool. Not understanding what anyone is saying seems normal—maybe that’s because it’s true in America, too. I forgot that it is actually a relief not having to make small talk. Walking down a dark lane that initially felt exotic and scary is now my daily route to and from the work site. Ah, familiarity.

bucolic by day, boo land by night - bungalow road

bucolic by day, boo-colic by night - bungalow road

Construction days unfold as they do back home: we start at eight, at mid-morning the women bring out strong black tea with lots of sugar and ginger for all the men workers. Everyone else gets a small glass; as the honored guest, I get an actual teacup and saucer, albeit with “Finding Nemo” characters on the outside and at the bottom of the cup. When there is a big “concrete pour,” everyone pitches in, like an Amish barn raising. Kids, relatives, and friends show up to form a bucket brigade passing along concrete, which is mixed directly on the ground with a shovel, and ultimately handed to the mason. I wish I had a photo of the kids stoically struggling with the heavy buckets, but I was in the concrete conga line myself. No one is spared when there is cement setting up!

back breaking work - mixing concrete by hand

back breaking work - mixing concrete by hand

center wall going up - osha anyone?

center wall going up - osha anyone?

every single brick in this house was place by Kodi

every single brick in this house was place by Kodi

starting to look like something

starting to look like something

At around noon, young coconuts are felled by the boys and hacked open for thirst quenching and re-energizing. Lunch is usually called at about 1:30pm. I walk to the local restaurant, where I eat rice, spicy dhal, and spicy vegetables, while the family has their “rice & curry.” Back to work at around 3, some more tea at 4 or 5, and quitting time around 6:30pm. A long hot day of mixing concrete, hoisting bricks, etc, and it’s all I can do to get back to my room, take a shower, and read a bit before falling asleep. When I can, I motivate to cross the road to the “fancy” hotel and try my luck getting on their coconut-wireless internet.

peacock hotel "computer center" - my laptop makes it two

peacock hotel "computer center" - my laptop makes it two

Other than walking to and from the site, and the physicality of the work, I am not getting any real exercise, and I am definitely missing it, not sleeping that well, and feeling out of shape—but otherwise healthy. On the occasional day off, I have gone to the beach, early in the morning before the heat, and tried to jog a bit in the steeply sloping soft sand. There is usually a swell dumping head high waves directly onto the beach. Even though it is un-surfable, just being near the ocean’s energy is revitalizing. Sometimes I dive in and take a few strokes past the shore-break before I realize I’m swimming around alone in the powerful Indian Ocean and head back to terra firma.

the fisherman go out before dawn and come back just after sunrise

the fisherman go out before dawn and come back just after sunrise

Since the work days have become somewhat routine, existential questions arise: what else could I be doing with 24 hours. Then I get to the worksite and feel the gratitude of the family and the gusto with which they are helping build themselves a real house, and I have my answer: nothing. For a relatively small sum to us, and a short period of time, we are helping a family realize a dream—something I can only participate in back home, and not even achieve myself. This—MicroAid—is the real deal. Sri Lankans are not generally demonstrative people, but Mrs. Soodin has often, in private moments, cried while thanking me for what I’m doing. And all the relatives, who have come to meet me and see the house going up, have expressed various versions of “this is a miracle.” I have told them about all the people who contributed to make it happen and said it is a gift from our family to theirs. As a humanitarian project, the measure of this one will not be in how we helped “build capacity” or “affected productivity,” it will be in how many nights this family lives under a real roof, surrounded by solid walls, with a modicum of privacy, rather than living in a cramped, corrugated-tin shanty!

ready for roof timbers

ready for roof timbers

the girls and boys will have separate bedrooms

the girls and boys will have separate bedrooms

As this build is going so well, and I am confident in Roy to keep the work moving forward, I am off to Batticaloa, on the east coast, in a few days to initiate the projects there. This was definitely an ambitious workload given the schedule and the distances between sites. Good lessons for future MicroAid projects.

From Serendib,

Jon

the crowded sunday market is where everyone was killed in 2004

the crowded sunday market is where everyone was killed in 2004

Bonus tracks:

WTB? (“what the beep?”)

One thing you have to get used to here, especially if you do a lot of walking like I do, is that everyone honks their horn—which of course adds to the general cacophony, especially in Colombo. There are short honks and long, multiples and singles, but every one, and every combination, has a meaning. “Move over,” “speed up,” “slow down,” “passing,” “I see you,” “turning,” “coming through,” and “my wave” are all communicated with a toot on the blower. As one must learn, coming from our culture where the horn is seldom used, a beep from a passing car, three-wheel tuk-tuk, bus, or truck, as it’s bearing down on you or passing right beside you, requires no acknowledgement, and does not mean “howdy,” “check us out,” or “hubba hubba.” Actually, since 70% of Sri Lankan’s are Buddhists, the honking means, “Because of my faith, I am responsible for you, so now that I have beeped my horn I have fulfilled my obligation… Now get out of the way!”

tuk-tuks: half motorcycle, half pinball machine

tuk-tuks: half motorcycle, half pinball machine

Noisy Neighbors

What do you call a gang of monkeys? A gaggle, a pride, a herd, a barrel-full? Whatever it is there is a family of black-faced simians partying every night on the roof of my bungalow. I don’t know what they’re doing up there: practicing their floor routine for the gymnastic event, shooting craps, or just having a “disco Saturday night” every night, but something’s got to give—probably me. The other day the bunch of them slipped through the bars on the kitchen window over at the Progressive Youth Foundation (a local NGO) and ate all the fruits and vegetables. Of course, they didn’t stick around for clean-up, leaving banana peels and other detritus strewn about the counters and floor. Monkeys here are like squirrels elsewhere—they’re all over, and constantly scavenging. Only these squirrels have opposable thumbs and brains. That’s a potent combination in a squirrel! Sometimes they’ll just swoop down out of the trees and grab your backpack or cell phone just to taunt you. Luckily they have not learned the international area codes… yet.

anti-theft system

anti-theft system

Blood in the Streets

When I first got to Hambantota I was walking along the road and saw a small pool of blood and drops leading into the bushes. I thought, Poor little animal got hit by a careening tuk-tuk and limped off to die. A bit further along, I saw the same thing. Wow, I thought, so many hurt animals. Of course, the “blood” was just so much betel juice spit out by the myriad chewers. The mild narcotic/stimulant-chew is a ritual as much as an addiction—cheaper than cigarettes, but like rolling your own. Years of chewing stains the mouth a bright crimson, ruining teeth and gums, and often running down the chin—but at least it doesn’t cause lung cancer! Anyway, there’s reason to be sad for the animals, but at least they’re not actually being hit by cars.

the poor bunnies

the poor bunnies

the real monkey on your back

the real monkey on your back

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Sri Lanka February 18, 2010

Jon Ross on Feb 18th 2010

A Village in the Jungle

After a few days in hot, smoggy, congested Colombo, the capital city on the edge of the Indian Ocean, I headed south to the first MicroAid project site in Hambantota. (A quick aside: as I write this, in my small bungalow, with it’s lazily twirling ceiling fan, and rippling mosquito net, the smell of cooking fires in the air and the wall of the thick tropical jungle just outside, dozens of tiny ants—my friends, for lack of choice—are meandering on, and in, my keyboard. Apparently they are attracted to the electricity, but I also hope they might be cleaning out all the crumbs of past snacks I have consumed while writing over the years. I am trying not to kill too many of them as I write this blog.)

home office in hambantota

home office in hambantota

A series of productive meetings with helpful contacts and local NGOs in Colombo set up a network for the projects that were to come.

y-gro-jon-chandran

Jon and Y-GRO (local NGO) Chairman, Chandran Williams

On the drive south along the coast, reminders of the tsunami were everywhere, debris and destroyed houses, fishing and tropical tourist towns that have not recovered, but also new construction and successful recovery efforts. It reminds me that there will be a lot of work for MicroAid in Haiti, down the road, when the world’s attention has moved on.

king coconut seller mirissa

drive-through in mirissa

Here in Hambantota, a town which was as hard hit as anywhere—fifty thousand were killed, with hundreds of thousands displaced, and thousands of orphans created—last year on the fact-finding mission, I had met a family who was still in need of a house after theirs was destroyed by the wave. They were very poor to begin with.

Soodin house since the tsunami - 2008

Soodin house since the tsunami - 2009

Soodin house kitchen

Soodin house kitchen

soodin house girls' bedroom

soodin house girls' bedroom

Over the years, many an INGO had promised to help, but never came through. The man, M.R. Soodin, is an industrious brick maker, but is living hand-to-mouth as he supports his wife, three sons, and three daughters. All the kids are going to school, except for one of the sons who works at the salt “factory.” Salt is the biggest industry here, after fishing, and the salt-works makes salt by the age-old method: flooding huge pools with seawater and letting it evaporate. This set-up reveals the flat and low-lying nature of the area and explains why the tsunami so easily swept across the region and penetrated so far inland.

At the budget meeting with the head mason, the interpreter, and Mr. Soodin, and his family, they were surprised when I questioned many of the costs of the individual items–for things such as bricks. The quote: 8.5 rupees per brick. I had done research on construction material costs in the area and knew they were 5 rupees each.

soodin house budget meeting

soodin house budget meeting

And so it went, line by line: truck full of sand, steel rebar, truck load of gravel, bag of cement, 4” roof beams, a kilo of nails, etc. Every item to be procured at the lowest cost. During our meeting, a tropical deluge moved in quickly from the east.

storm a comin

storm a comin

Everyone pitched in to help cover the bricks that were waiting for the kiln—valuable inventory that took all precedence. Finally, an approved budget, and construction begins…

06-soodin-house-mason

head mason, Kodi

Roy, Soodin nephew/interpreter/worker

Roy, Soodin nephew/interpreter/worker

walls up

walls up. old house behind

clearing snack wrappers

clearing soft drink containers for recycling

now the hard part-scaffolding for the roof construction

now the hard part: scaffolding for the roof construction--stick and coir rope

jon and kodi consulting

jon and kodi consulting

still trying to direct

still trying to direct

jon and kodi

jon and kodi

sand delivery for concrete

sand delivery for concrete

concrete forms for roof support

concrete forms for roof support

Kodi, master mason extraordinaire -setting forms, setting sun

Kodi, master mason extraordinaire -setting forms, setting sun

A quick note about the wildlife in the area—Hambantota abuts one of the major Sri Lankan game parks and there doesn’t really seem to be an official boundary between them—at least not for the animals. (Think “Beverly Hills ‘adjacent.”’) I was invited to a special performance of a children’s singing group the other evening by another NGO that runs after-school programs. I usually try to walk everywhere I go, so when I told my hosts I would arrive on foot, that perplexed them, but they were polite and did not mention anything except that I should find a ride home from the event, which was in a hall in a remote marshy area, because at night the elephants might come onto the road and trample me. Yo, taxi! Another quick fun one: In other places you might turn on the light in the bathroom before you enter to check for cockroaches, or spiders, or geckos; here that is all true, but add to that list, cobras! You never know when one of these cute critters might have slithered in and taken up residence behind the toilet.

With such mundane day-to-day concerns, it’s hard to remember that there is also a huge political controversy surrounding the recent presidential election—the losing candidate has been imprisoned for “traitorous acts”: running in opposition to the incumbent. There is much discussion and debate in Hambantota, and more physical and violent response in other places. Here, we will continue to do our work…

Besides the house construction, MicroAid will be supporting the education of two tsunami orphans, for two years of primary school—otherwise it would have been a major struggle for them to attend. We will supply workbooks, transportation, lunch, additional tutoring, some doctoring (if needed), and shoes.

Piumi Indiwinna - 8 year old - 3rd grade

Piumi Indiwinna - 8 year old - 3rd grade

Gi GI Anukala Shashibani - 8 years old - 3rd grade

Gi Gi Anukala Shashibani - 10 years old - 5th grade

Gi Gi's house

Gi Gi's house

Each of these girls has a similar story: Both of their parents were killed at the Sunday market near the harbor, which was jammed packed the morning of the tsunami. Both girls were taken in by their grandparents, and now both want to be teachers when they grow up. They are in different villages, but that story is repeated throughout the coastal regions of this, and other countries. Through our local partner, The Woman’s Development Federation, which runs this smart scholarship program, we will keep track of our girls as they pursue an education and a brighter future. After two years, we can evaluate whether to support their academic efforts for another two.

So that’s it from Serendib, for now.

“Thank You” to everyone for contributing to this meaningful work. We are making a positive and direct impact in people’s lives—and that’s what MicroAid is all about.

I hope everyone is healthy, happy, and secure.

Regards,

Jon

kirinda-temple-cobras

kirinda-temple-cobras

Kinrinda stupa

Kirinda stupa

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Sri Lanka – February 6, 2010

Jon Ross on Feb 6th 2010

I am very happy to report that thanks to our donors and board of directors we have raised enough money to help a few of the remaining victims of the tsunami here in Sri Lanka.  As all eyes have been focused on Haiti in the last few weeks, it is easy to see how people get left behind as one disaster eclipses another. (Recently we had them in Myanmar, Tawain, and Samoa.)  And with the immense amount of media attention and humanitarian aid directed toward the latest crisis, it can seem as though all the previous situations have been resolved.  Of course, we know that is not the case.  Which is the reason I started MicroAid in the first place.

stupa and building fort colombo

stupa and building fort colombo

So here I am in Colombo, having a few meetings with other NGOs and potential partners, then off to Hambantota in the south and to Batticaloa in the east to begin the MicroAid projects–helping a few families rebuild their houses, replacing tools, and sponsoring tsunami orphans’ education.

Thanks again to everyone for their support and vision.

Sincerely,

Jon

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Sri Lanka Nov – Dec 2008

Jon Ross on Jan 4th 2009

SRI LANKA NOV-DEC 2008:

sri-lanka-train-view

11-29-08: Close Shave in Colombo

It’s always surprising how close a shave you get the first time you put razor to face in the tropics.  It must be the humidity, or the fact that you have not shaved for the last 35 hours, had two 11-hour flights and a 6-hour layover in Heathrow airport—those whiskers have a long time to grow, giving the blade something to grab.  The travel “day” went as smoothly as the shave: no major delays, a free row to stretch out in on the LA-London leg, and an innocuous seat-mate on the London-Colombo jaunt.   My arrival at the airport arranged by the guy who runs the place (thanks to Sharon for the connect!) I was greeted by his sari-clad assistant directors and whisked through customs, passport control (in the “government officials” line), and baggage in a matter of minutes—out a door that read “security personnel only” and I was in Sri Lanka.  After the cool air-con of the terminal, that hot, fecund air hits you like a wave.

Johanne, the airport director, takes me to his on-site residence for a cup of tea, where he loans me a cell phone for the duration of my stay and fills me in on the current situation while we wait for Harriet (Les’ friend, and MicroAid in-country “advance team”) to pick me up.  Driving to Mount Lavinia, a small coastal suburb of Colombo in the waning light, we stop to pick up some bananas and mangoes at a roadside stand.  I meet our host family, and even though it is really 6 am for me, I go to bed under the mosquito net and lazily spinning ceiling fan and fall right to sleep.

12-1-08: Fishing Around a Fishing Village

dehiwala-fishing-boats-among-the-rubble-from-tsunami

On Sunday, Deshi (Gehan’s cousin) picks me up at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, the colonial remnant of British rule and “bastion of civilization,” overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean (where Harriet and I are going to spend my “recuperation day” by the pool) and takes me on a tour of a fishing village down the coast that was wiped out by the tsunami.  Debris still litters the high water mark and houses lay in disrepair.  Five years after the event, not too much has been done.  The fisher-families have rebuilt their ramshackle huts and resumed their lives—not much worse off than they were before, but not better either.  Some lost irreplaceable possessions, other have not replaced even the basics.  There is an amazing community center that has filled in to support, though—raising funds to rebuild and retrain, and to feed the needy women and their children.  MicroAid could help here and provide building materials and tools.

dehiwala-woman-still-waiting-for-new-house1

12-3-08:  Tuk-Tuks from Hell

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Known as “three wheelers” here, Asia’s ubiquitous mode of transportation is really part motorcycle, part pinball machine.  Riding in one, especially in a busy, crowded, polluted capital city is like swerving around in a cart from Coney Island’s Cyclone in the Holland Tunnel.  Anyway, that’s how I get to a meeting on Tuesday morning at the bucolic oasis-like Hilton Hotel in downtown Colombo.  As always, the contrast between these gated compounds and the congested poverty outside is startling.  Meeting with the South Asian director for Operation USA to talk about the recovery efforts in a town in the east, and MicroAid’s potential involvement.  Just being here a few days brings up questions of fate, karma, and privilege that we take for granted living in the US.

12-3-08:  Caught in the Crossfire in Dehiwela

Every morning at 4:30 am the neighborhood mosque starts broadcasting over their loudspeakers.  Anyone who has been to the Muslim world is familiar with the plaintive wail of the call to prayer.  Even at this early hour it is romantically exotic.  Apparently, the monks at the Buddhist monastery next door do not agree.  A few minutes into the Muslim call, the monks start blaring their own chanting over their own P.A. system.  This cacophonous battle of the bands goes on until about 5:30 am.  Heard independently, either broadcast might be sonorous enough to allow some sleep, but together it’s like a Donny and Marie Little-Bit-Country-Little-Bit-Rock-and-Roll jihad–minus the bubble gum harmonies, of course.  The competition for NGO dollars and attention is equally intense.  Local groups and the government all want to control the flow of relief, recovery, and development dollars.  This makes it very critical for MicroAid, when deciding whom to partner with, to distinguish between the legitimate and the needy and scammers and the greedy.  Beneficiary selection is also a critical task, but one well worth the effort as there are so many people in dire straits—many tsunami victims, but also people affected by the ongoing civil war, or both.

dehiwala-train-tracks

It has been a fully urban experience so far, and as you know, in the third world, that is not so pleasant.  No big deal though… I had an amazing meeting with the CEO of Dialog Global (which would be equal to lunching with the CEO of Verizon Wireless) yesterday.  I asked her to be on our Advisory Board and she agreed.  She also agreed to help in any way she could, which could be a lot, considering her position.  It’s Wednesday and I just got out of the weekly lunch meeting of the Colombo Rotary Club (I was invited by a member who runs a travel company here) and heard a lecture, by their guest speaker, on the state of the Sri Lankan economy—apparently, it’s not pretty.  But I was also introduced to a number of prominent businessmen and one woman who is the head of the club’s community projects committee.  They have a number of post-disaster projects still in the works and some are just the right size for MicroAid to help complete.  The Club has done a lot of rebuilding of dwellings, but there are still unmet needs, including small water filtration systems and latrines, and a couple of capacity building programs (sewing machines and training, computers and training) for young adults in villages that were destroyed by the wave.  The good news about the Rotarians is that they are all-volunteer (business people) and have immaculate accountability and transparency in the flow of funds.  I am going to view a couple of their sites when Harriet and I head south on Sunday.  I am looking forward to getting out of the city, away form the barraging buzz of two-stroke “three wheelers,” and to breathing some exhaust-free air, and seeing the un-congested coastal beauty of Sri Lanka, the existence of which, at this point, is hard to believe.

12-3-08: Hob Nobbin’ with the NGO


kadugoda-rice-paddies

Still in Colombo.  Trip to east cancelled for security reasons, but probably over-blown–“The New York Times” front page today not withstanding–and I am going next week).  Attending the conference the last three days, but yesterday was an all day visit to a rural village, which was really how you might envision Sri Lanka: rice paddies, rubber plantations… jungle.  Met in the village by the council, Buddhist priest, Catholic priest, and so many friendly villagers–had tea, tour of the pre-school, fresh coconut milk by the side of the road, church, and temple, lunch in private home (the huge spread of fabulous food was like a veggie-curry-wedding fantasy).  You eat with your hands here, like in Ethiopia (even the same technique: scooping with you fingers–right hand only–wadding the food, and pushing it into your mouth with your thumb).

kadugoda-feast

Later that night, in abrupt contrast: drinks at the venerable colonial Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.  Out on the lawn, where you could envision gin and tonics being consumed after a cricket match in the 1800s the last rays of a blazing orange sunset silhouetted the rustling palms.  Talked about lives of world-travel and adventures, with a caravansary of ex-pats and NGO types, including the Sri Lanka head of CARE, and some USAid workers.  Tomorrow, heading to the south for some potential MicroAid site visits and to the east on Sunday.

12-5-08:  Leapin’ Leeches in Kadugoda South

 rubber-trees

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Did I mention that leeches freak me out a bit.   As we were looking at the rubber trees while touring Kadugoda South, our guide said we should stay on the path because if we walk near the trees we could get leeches. I was skeptical, but the minute you walked off the path a leech, or two, would jump onto your foot and attempt to affix itself.   You had to give ‘em a good flick before they could start sucking, otherwise you’d have to pour salt on them later to get them off.   I thought I was pretty careful—hadn’t gotten any on me—but I was sitting in a hut later and felt something bothering my ankle.  I thought it was a mosquito, but when I reached down to swat it away, it turned out to be a small leech wriggling around the strap of my sandal.  Flick!

12-8-08: Southern Hospitality

stick-fisherman

Some words from the drive south: winding jungle roads with glimpses of the sea, turquoise surf smoothed by offshore winds, Buddhist stuppas on emerald hillsides, stick fishermen…  Small towns with names like Kalutura, Wellingama, Unawatuna, and Mirrissa whiz by with stands selling woven baskets and mats, fruits, and fish interspersed with ex-pat European and Australian B&Bs catering to off-the-beaten-track tourists, surfers, and beachcombers.  Watched a group of fishermen hauling in their big net on the beach south of Hikkadua, after seeing the remaining devastated railcar from the “ghost train”—deluged on the tracks by the tsunami, killing 1,600. hikkadua-ghost-train

hikkadua-ghost-train-cu

Checked out a local community clinic in need of funding, and heard about a desire to build a community center and tsunami evacuation facility on some land owned by the generous businessman who funds the clinic.  (This could be a simple MicroAid project, where we could provide the building and they could use it for disaster mitigation training and other community activities on a daily basis, and as an evacuation retreat in case of a future catastrophe).

disaster-ctr-community-ctr-artists-rendering

–artist rendering of MicroAid disaster center

We are back on our way to Hanbantota, where Harriet has to work at the local Women’s Development Federation (micro finance and social programs) and I have projects sites to visit.  Janice, the head of Mercy Corp. in the region, and our traveling companion for the last couple of days (along with our driver, Tissa), invites me to look over their project portfolio, budgets, and meet their local specialists, as they, too, are getting ready to wind up their development (non-tsunami related) activities.  A lot of money has poured into the area since the destruction in 2004, and with the micro-finance trend, even more, so a lot of work and recovery has been accomplished.  She warns that the problem is not in finding MicroAid projects—there are always people left out, or inadequately served—but working with competent and honest local people who will help get the work done.  Happy to be out of the capital, breathing the oxygen-rich greenhouse air, and hearing the crashing waves out on the outer reef.

12-9-08: Humanitarian in Hanbantota

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Unfortunate Hanbanatota: most of the seaside structures—homes and businesses–were wiped out on the morning of December 26th, 2004.  It devastated life and infrastructure, but also the fabric of the community.  Forty-five hundred deaths, seventeen thousand displaced, two thousand five hundred tsunami widows, and fifteen hundred orphans.  Needless to say, no matter how much aid flowed into the area–and it was substantial, and it is apparent—after four years, there is still much to be done.  Toured the area with a Women’s Development Federation representative and saw many worthy development projects that could always use more funds: community banks and micro finance lenders, rainwater collection systems, and an elderly center under construction, but for MicroAid, there are a number of families still in need of houses, as well as a program to sponsor the educational needs of tsunami orphans.  (For about $300/year MicroAid could sponsor one child.  WDF limits the sponsorship to two years, while they help the surviving parent or guardian achieve a sustainable income—smart.)  I attended the monthly meeting where the guardians bring the kids to WDF to report on their progress.  So heartwarming and poignant.

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When I return, I will need to evaluate the portfolio of projects and come back to execute.  I have made contact with the number-two man in charge of building the new airport in Hanbantota—a connection through the number-one guy out of Colombo (already the friend of a friend who met me upon my arrival).  He has done a lot of service work, including constructing 3,000 homes for the poor, and offered to be our local project manager and consultant, gratis.  We had a beautiful talk about Buddhist philosophy (he is one) and he was impressed that I was a Vippassana meditator in the pure tradition.

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In the photos you will see a man and his family whose house was destroyed in 2004.  Various NGOs promised to build him a new one, but never came through.  He is a brick maker with four kids and a mother to support, so all his money goes to hand-to-mouth existence.  He is genuinely industrious, just in a bind, and has been vetted by WDF–they were able to build him a latrine and loan him money to buy a tractor to bring his bricks to market (now he pays interest on that), but they don’t do homes.  So for about $2,500 we could give this family a decent place to continue the struggles of life.  And there are about six situations like this!  Also, there are about a dozen other families who just moved off their land–when their homes were washed away–and in with relatives (instead of building shanties) who would like to return.  These people could use a decent home where they are not crowded together six to a room.

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12-10-08:  Tusked Trouble Makers

Tsunamis, floods, drought, fires, mudslides, cyclone, these are what we usually consider “natural disasters,” but wait, is an elephant rampage through a community center a natural disaster?  You bet!  There are two situations here in Hanbantota where pachyderm marauding has affected humans: one, the aforementioned community center, and another, a private home.  Did I mention this is elephant country! And they roam pretty freely in the dense foliage covered landscape.  Even the garbage landfill is surrounded by an electrified fence to keep the tusked trouble-makers from scavenging the refuse.

12-16-08:  Shot Down in Arugam Bay

arugam-oxen-on-beach

About an hour into the trip east, standing strap-hanging in a sardine tin of a bus, incessant Indian pop music blaring from a crackling speaker over my head, jammed in like the IRT at rush hour, I’m thinking: this wasn’t such a good idea.  How many more hours of this can I take?  It’s supposed to be a six-hour trip.  My forearms are aching from hanging on, and although I thought for a while my legs could use the workout, the equivalent of 1,000 bottom turns has made my quads hurt.  Beside, the sickening swerving and abrupt stops at jungle way stations is making me a little nauseous, and the fumes are getting to me, too—and I don’t mean the exhaust, it’s the people crushed in around me, also hanging from the overhead bar, reeking from their armpits.  Five more hours… Ugh!  I forgot that just because you can travel like the poorest local, doesn’t mean you have to—too late now, I guess.  As we proceed, more people get off than get on, and I score a seat after about three hours.  I stumble out at the Ampara turnoff at about five hours, and rather than cram into another overcrowded public bus for 61 rupees (50 cents), I splurge on a tuk-tuk for 1,200 rupees (11 dollars) for the one and a half hours to Pothuvil and Arugam Bay.

Be careful what you ask for.  My love/hate relationship with tuk-tuks continues as my driver must have trained in downtown Colombo (and had his license revoked) because he is hell-bent!  I’ve never seen a tuk-tuk go so fast.  It must be super-charged, or he bought the floor model, because as we fly along the rutted road, I am bounced around like a ping-pong ball in the Lotto hopper.  He even tears through some yellow caution tape at a construction zone where the road turns to dirt.  He dutifully stops at all the all the military checkpoints, though, where heavily armed police emerge from sandbagged bunkers to check his papers. (This is a country with a very active civil war.)  My driver must travel this route twenty times a day—everyone else seems to know him and waive and beep their horns—but the security guys scrutinize his papers like he is Osama Bin Laden just emerged from a cave in Tora Bora.  They are super nice to me, and as always, happy to meet an “Amaireecan” and practice their English.  We stop once more to help another tuk-tuk driver change a tire, then we’re off, bumping and swerving and splashing our way down to the sea, while on either side of the road lush vegetation and paddy fields stretch to distant fog-shrouded mountains.

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Was met by a guide and driver  from the Batticoloa district and driven northbound past destroyed and rebuilt and sacked villages, as I continued to develop the MicroAid recovery portfolio.  Much work to be done building houses, completing others, supporting tsunami orphans, and replacing tools of livelihood.

arugam-monkeys

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