Archive for March, 2010

Sri Lanka – March 22, 2010

Jon Ross on Mar 23rd 2010

It’s funny how once you fix one thing in your house it can spur a host of other home-improvement projects. When we started to install the doors and windows in the Nagakanni home—the second project in Batticaloa—the family tidied up the inside of the house; mended and straightened the fence surrounding the property, and used one of the old corrugated metal doors as a new gate; cleaned the rubble from the yard; and put potted plants around the perimeter. Pride of home ownership, I guess.

Nagakanni house incomplete since 2005

Nagakanni house incomplete since 2005

MicroAid had to work with expensive arched openings

MicroAid had to work with expensive arched openings

nagakanni-door-going-in

nagakanni-front-complete-a

At both project sites it was nice to see neighbors stopping by to see the work, but also just to hang out in a complete, sunny household.

securing your home often means no light or air

securing your home often means no light or air

nagakanni-int-corner

here's the MicroAid solution

here's the MicroAid solution

nagakanni-int-corner-complete-a

One note about the fence-mending at the Nagakanni’s: he was using barbed wire purloined from the big empty lot next door leading to the beach. He made it clear that during the war, before and after the tsunami, the area was a fortified military zone. Batticaloa was the Tamil Tiger base and gateway to rebel-held territory to the north. “New York Times” articles saying how beautiful the beaches are out here on the east coast and “National Geographic” ranking Sri Lanka as the second most desirable travel destination in the world not withstanding, some people may avoid visiting an area where the paths leading to those spectacular beaches are lined with barbed wire and there are signs warning of the danger of being blown up by land mines if you stray off them. Another thing that just might deter the average tourist from visiting right at this moment is the fact that the government just imprisoned a presidential candidate—because he ran against to the incumbent—and is now charging him with treason, and may eventually put him to death. Not that there is a sense of danger in general, but there is an inkling of instability and portent under the surface.

that may look like a doughnut, but it is dahl and dough and hot peppers.  will ignite a blaze in your mouth.  add some of that sauce and call it a three alarm blaze

that may look like an innocent doughnut, but it' an incendiary bomb made from dal and dough and hot peppers. it will ignite a fire in your mouth. dip it in that sauce and it becomes a three-alarm blaze

I’m back in Hambantota now, where we are fabricating the windows and doors for the Soodin house. On the drive back through the jungle the other evening—which for some reason took twice as long as the drive in the opposite direction—we saw so many elephants grazing by the side of the road, I had to tell the driver to stop pulling over to position the headlights to illuminate them. At some point, I was so tired of being in the car that I just wanted to get back to my room in Hambantota, and no number of baby elephants chewing on leaves, or tusked bulls shredding branches from trees twenty feet from the vehicle, could divert my attention.

before i left we put on the roof timbers, which had to be done on a specific time and day

before i left we put on the roof timbers, which had to be done on a specific day and time

first-roof-timber-tie-down

weather proof now

weather proof

Now that I am back in this town, I realize I haven’t seen another westerner since I left Colombo seven weeks ago—anywhere. A couple of Japanese tourists, the odd Chinese worker from the ports project nearby, but that’s it. No wonder I’m such an oddity to the locals—they don’t see many of us. And certainly not walking around in the heat, up and down the alleys, wearing a broad brimmed hat—always with a smile and a “Hello,” “I am fine,” “I’m from the US.A.” and “This way” in response to people staring at me and saying, “Hello,” “How ah you?” “Whar you from?” and “Whar you going?” You know people are taking a special interest when, the other day, I was walking along the main drag and some guy come out of the shadow of his shop and says, “You shave.” Dude’s been monitoring the length of my stubble!

this is a "chinese" restaurant.  when i asked what they serve, they said, "rice and curry."

this is a "chinese" restaurant. when i asked what they serve, they said, "rice and curry"

with a dozen vendors at the banana market, you'd think you get a price break because of the competition.  no such luck, i think it's some sort of price fixing scheme!

with a dozen vendors at the banana market, you'd think you'd get a price break because of the competition. no such luck, i think it's some sort of price fixing scheme! 60 rupees per kilo is still not bad

banana-market-hambantota-2

The last MicroAid project here: The other day I had a meeting at the Women’s Development Federation to fund the scholarships for the two tsunami orphans.  It was really heartfelt as the girls’ guardians brought them to express gratitude and sign the forms, and everyone applauded as I handed them their passbooks.  This fantastic program sets up a bank account for the girls on which their guardians can draw—for specific educational needs only—and it is closely monitored. You can get details in the new “Completed Projects & Update” section by clicking on that tab in the banner above. In the future, we will have a hot-button from the main MicroAid website to access this area.

anukala is a great dancer and wants to be a teacher

anukala is a great dancer and wants to be a teacher

So we are nearly there, almost all MicroAid project accomplished: two house completions in Batti, two tsunami orphans education funded, and a new house for the Soodins. That should just about do it for this trip, and our budget.  But it’s not over yet—I had to extend for two more weeks ‘til April 12—to oversee the house construction—so stay tuned.

Regards from Sri Lanka,

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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