It’s now just over a week since we have been here & so I would suggest you make a cup of tea before you read my first blog!! It has been easy & cheap to organise phone & a dongle for Amy’s laptop (why is it so expensive in Oz??) but there has not been a lot of free time! Hope you enjoy reading my impressions of our time here so far. It would be great to hear from you if you have the time to send us a quick message!
Our travel to Sri Lanka was uneventful & we arrived at Colombo airport just before midnight on Monday night. The taxi driver my friend Charlotte had organised to pick us up was a very welcome sight & as we made the 30 minute drive to Colombo we began absorbing some of the new sights & sounds like Buddhas with neon lights around their heads like a halo & wayward drivers taking up 2 lanes & tooting each other constantly – the driver joked that some Sri Lankan drivers think the car won’t drive unless they use the horn!
The next day Charlotte showed us around Colombo including visits to the beach, the markets, her favourite cafes & shops. I had my first Sri Lankan curry for lunch – this was rice with 3 kinds of veg curry for 250 rupees (or A$2) and I was really pleased that it wasn’t too hot – phew I’m not doomed to a diet of plain rice for 2 mths!! The afternoon heat was rather oppressive & most places are not air conditioned. It was a Poya Day which is a Buddhist public holiday every month at the full moon and is observed by going to the temple & spending the day in meditation & abstinence so no alcohol is served. We passed a long procession of dancers & drummers including a small elephant. In the evening we went out for dinner with Charlotte & her husband Farrukh to a renovated building from colonial times – although 3 times the cost for a meal it wasn’t as good as the simple food at lunchtime but the setting was amazing & very evocative of past times.
On Wednesday Charlotte drove us to Kandy which is only 120km away but takes over 3 hours to travel because of the traffic! It gave us an opportunity for a long natter as Charlotte skilfully dodged cars, trucks & 3 wheeler tuk tuks coming at us in all directions and we passed by stalls selling all kinds of exotic fruit and - plastic inflatable toys – a strange mix! We stopped at a roadside café to have a cup of tea – the Sri Lankans like sweet tea so if one orders tea with milk & sugar it is likely to have several heaped teaspoons of sugar in it so for most westerners milk tea which is made with carnation milk will be sweet enough. I have been enjoying plain tea & plan to work my way through the many types of tea that are available from the many regions of Sri Lanka!
When we arrived at Kandy our introduction to the Child Action Lanka centres was brief which was probably a good thing as it was a little overwhelming! The main building houses the CAL office, centre 4 for babies, centre 2 for 7-12 year olds & a room where church is held on Sunday with each centre on a different floor accessed by flights of stairs. Centre 1, the pre-school, is a short walk away in the basement of the Baptist church; and centre 3 for 13-18 yr olds is in the hall of another church also a short walk away.
At the end of the day we moved into the Annexe which is self-contained accommodation for volunteers at the rear of the home of Aunty Manel & Uncle David who are the parents of Dilshan, the pastor of the church and one of the 3 directors, with his wife Deb & Charlotte, of Child Action Lanka. Our adventures weren’t over yet though! We decided to go food shopping & Charlotte dropped us at the local Food City supermarket & we took our first tuk tuk ride back to the annexe – except that we hadn’t taken notice of the way, it was dark & the driver drove us up & down many winding unfamiliar roads. We rang Deb & Dilshan who spoke to the driver and finally after half an hour we arrived! It was definitely time for a long G&T!!
We walked into Kandy on Thursday morning with Sylvia one of the other volunteers. It’s a 45 minute hilly walk & we were all glowing by the time we reach the office! Although Kandy feels packed with people & vehicles to the newcomer in reality it consists of a grid of about 6 main streets! Pedestrians take their chances against road traffic & soon you get the hang of timing the crossing of roads with the mass of people waiting with you on the curb. If you’re lucky there’s a policeman directing people as well as vehicle traffic!
We had our orientation meeting with Deb who oversees the day to day running of the centres and as we talked Deb identified 3 projects to be involved with while we are here. The first will be to travel to the far north to Kilinochchi & for Amy to run a basic health clinic to include wound management, eye, ear & mouth care & so on. I’ll go with her to offer support & to provide some basic health information to parents. It’s pretty remote & people from the region have had a rough time during the war. I just hope I don’t melt as it’s the hottest part of Sri Lanka! Thankfully Kandy is much more moderate in temperature than Colombo! Apparently there are wonderful beaches on the east coast so we may well stop for a couple of days for some R&R afterwards.
Deb is also planning a training trip to Batticaloa on the east coast in August. They are opening new centres there & she has invited us to contribute to the training of new staff. This is an area that was also heavily affected by the war & CAL has been invited by the authorities to set up centres there. The other project is sharing my experience from Salvo days with Deb, Charlotte & Dilshan about managing a growing number of dispersed centres & staff, especially resourcing centre managers to deal with the many demands they face. We’re delighted that our skills & experience can be used!
Most of the days since then we have spent at the baby centre & the pre-school. Mrs Rosyro runs the baby centre, she is in her late 50s, and she has 2 staff - Rani who is also in her 50s and Kumali who used to be on the street & now works for CAL. Mrs R has her hands full at the moment with 3 babies who need 2 hourly feeds & an average of 8 toddlers to whom they provide breakfast, lunch, morning & afternoon snacks as well as wash their clothes and tend to any minor ailments they may have! For example one of the boys has lots of flea bites on his legs & Kamali rubs them with antiseptic cream so they don’t get infected. She has also found ticks on his back & arms which she skilfully removes with tweezers.
Mrs R has a list of activities to do with the toddlers but some activities are a lot of extra work & to be honest she tends to ask the volunteers to run them. Subsequently I have run the sand play & water play activities on different days on the landing outside the room & I use the full range of my Sinhala words – oh (yes), ne (no), appah (don’t), athie (enough), hari (ok), istootea (thank you), sharing (baydaganda), take turns (oyata pasey), slowly (hemming), don’t fight (randu venda appah) – over & over again. I try to add a few more words every day & my accent & clumsy attempts have caused some amusement! The children’s attention span is about 20-30 minutes before they start getting rough & rowdy however Amy & I were very encouraged yesterday as we helped with circle time, singing, using a tunnel, reading books, naming parts of our body & puzzles. There are blocks, toys & cycles that the children can play with as well as a soft area with lots of pillows where they sleep after lunch. Mrs R wanted a feeding chart to keep track of the baby’s feeds so I went up to the office to type up a feeding chart, laminated it & bought a whiteboard pen so they can wipe it clean every day. Mrs R was delighted with our efforts & gave us cheek kisses as we left for the day!!
At the pre-school the children are more socialised in undertaking the activities & structure for the day. They are given a shower & change into CAL uniforms when they arrive and also receive meals & snacks during the day. The centre manager Daphne is a switched on lady and she has 2 staff Ru & Aisha with an average of 15 children each day. The preschool is located in a basement & so twice a week they take the children to have free play in the enclosed yard of a nearby church. Amy & I accompanied Ru & Aisha there on Friday afternoon, they walk them over in a line of children holding hands in pairs but it was quite terrifying dodging people, stalls & traffic!
One of the volunteers who is training as a pre-school teacher in the UK organised to paint the pre-school on Friday & Saturday so Amy & I helped. It was a big job! Late on Friday afternoon a group of about 20 senior high school students from the rugby team came down to help. It was hilarious listening to them paying each other out in Sinhala just as 18 year olds would back home! They were messy but with their help we completed the first coat of paint on all the walls. Tired & a bit high from the oil paint that had loads of thinner added to it we went with the other volunteers to the Royal for a beer then to an Indian restaurant for dinner! We went back on Saturday to put the second coat on & finish the colourful murals on the ceilings.
On Sunday we went to church at the CAL centre, there were about 50 people there. Deb who runs the centre during the week was the worship leader using Sinhala & English words, we even knew a couple of the songs! There was a visiting British pastor & he gave a good message about the Father’s love & Dilshan skilfully interpreted it for the congregation. We went back to the annexe & had a lazy afternoon doing washing & ringing people back home; & we both had an afternoon nap!
We had been expecting monsoonal weather but aside from the odd light shower it has been dry. On Monday however it rained heavily all day – of course we had hung out several loads of washing on Sunday!! Our host Manel made us hoppers for dinner – this is made using a batter of rice flour & coconut milk. A special small wok is used for cooking & an egg hopper has an egg cooked sunny side up in it! She had made a paste of onion, chilli & lime juice which was delicious on the hoppers with fresh tomato & coriander! As she left the annexe she spotted a porcupine & went into the house to get her husband so he could shoot it!! We asked her why she would shoot it & she said it had been digging up her yams! We also got the impression from David that they would slaughter it & eat it! We felt sorry for the porcupine & felt quite pleased when they didn’t have batteries for their torch so David couldn’t see to take a shot! It scurried away into the drain & made its getaway during the night!