I was standing in the kitchen of our other Sydney office yesterday, when in came a woman with Downs Syndrome pushing a vacuum cleaner. My boss, who was showing me the facilities, introduced her as Claire and told me that she was the real boss of the site. While we chatted with her, Claire opened the dishwasher to a gush of steam (she had obviously arrived knowing that it would have just finished the cycle) and began stacking away the cups, cutlery and plates. The local staff all greeted her warmly as they came in for a cup of coffee. I recognised Claire as having Downs because my sister is the same. These days she lives a good life in her own flat in a country town, with carers who come to take her out each day, but she misses doing valued work in the city. Before she moved to join my parents, she was the most efficient clothes hanger in a department store and a much-loved waitress at Vaucluse House Tearooms. This is all in great contrast to the life of people afflicted with Downs in Sri Lanka. In my whole time there, I only saw one such person. He was a happy young boy whose mother ran the restaurant we were eating at. When I expressed my surprise, she told me that most Sri Lankans were embarrassed by having such children and kept them out of the public eye. She was trying to change that. She wanted the government to provide special schools and facilities for children like hers. Unfortunately, most parents lacked the time or inclination to help her fight - or perhaps they were just too embarrassed. When I looked for
Sri Lanka is the first Asian country I've been to where people seem happier to eat alone. In Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore people prefer to make a big event of eating together even daily lunch with colleagues. The only exception in my experience has been that Bhutanese families will eat in the kitchen while guests eat with the father of the house in the living room. During my time living in Sri Lanka, I was only joined for a meal on four occasions. My meals were all laid out on the dining table and cleared away once I was finished, but my hosts ate in the kitchen or in front of the television. Every other volunteer had the same experience and all were as baffled as I was. This isn't to say that Sri Lankans never eat together. Over the New Year period, most families host a dinner for their relatives, neighbours and friends. I was invited to five or six of these, all with a similar pattern. Social groups formed cliques - family groups not mingling with friends and they all shunned the neighbours. The exception seemed to be the men of drinking age who sat around a small table laden with arak, whiskey and some nibbles. I'm still confused as to why Sri Lankan people don't give food the same social emphasis that other Asians do. Indrani, the lady of the house, sat with me while I ate on a couple of occasions. When I asked why the family didn't eat together, she explained that she and Charley did eat together in the early days, but that her doctor had recommended she change her eating patterns after some gastronomic difficulties. That doesn't
While volunteering in Sri Lanka, I heard stories of other volunteers who acted as if they knew better than their supervisors. Naturally, they did not have as good an experience as they could have and were considered to be intrusions by the organisations they were meant to be helping. I'm not suggesting that they were bad people - you have to be the right kind of person to give up your time and money for the volunteer experience - but good intentions only go so far. I've led many camps preparing exchange students for their time living in another culture with a new family and I believe that the same traits are essential in a good volunteer. With all my experience, I still struggle when my expectations aren't met, as anyone who's read Dragon Bones would know, so I was very impressed by one young volunteer on this trip who who was as close as I've found to the perfect volunteer. Within days of arriving on Sri Lanka he was eating with his fingers. He never complained about the food, as others who became homesick did. He respected his supervisors and colleagues at the hospital and in return they respected him, making extra effort to teach him what they were doing and eventually letting him take part in surgical operations that he was unqualified to join in his own country. Without having any lessons, he knew a range of useful Sinhala phrases that allowed him to perform simple exchanges with locals in their own language. And he took his role seriously. When out at a rave party one night, a local came up to him and said 'I know you. You operated on me last
In 2009 I set myself 4 goals as steps towards a future of providing assistance on locally driven aid projects in developing countries. In their original form, those goals were: Publish a book on Bhutanese culture Complete a Masters in anthropology Buy a studio flat in Australia Invest the rest of my savings to create a modest passive income I imagined a life as I'd had in Bhutan, where I kept myself entertained with a mix of my own projects and helping develop local talent. In this future, I would collect stories of living and working with locals to tell as part of my mission of building cultural tolerance. As often happens in life, both the goals and vision changed along the way. Studio flats were more expensive than I had expected and my savings didn't stretch as far as I had planned, so I ended up buying a one bedroom flat to rent out on a weekly basis. I could then reserve it myself for the times that I returned home. All my CDs and precious items would be accessable from local storage. But the most important feature of my goals was the flexibility they gave me. I could combine IT, anthropology and writing as appropriate to help local projects. I could focus on writing or on personal involvement in tolerance building activities. Or I could simply enjoy travelling. Sri Lanka was recognition of my achievement of these goals and a chance to reflect on my priorities. Now I've finished my 6 weeks of teaching IT to children from poor families, I know that I want to share my time with someone. So, I'm exercising that flexibility by heading back to Australia to build
My first spontaneous interaction with my Sri Lankan neighbours came on my second day in the country. I walked up the road to the East, past the IT Centre and Indrani's shop and into the jungle. When I turned around, a group of locals called me over to the side of the road where they were decorating a large wooden cylindrical structure. The group grew quickly as the men called for a daughter who spoke English well. 'It's a game for New Year called
I've always possessed an enthusiastic nature and that includes my walking pace. It's commonly noted among hikers that there are two types of people: the sprinters, who rush ahead for a few minutes then stop to rest, and the plodders, who continue at a slower pace but rarely need to rest. I was always the annoying third kind, who rushed along at a brisk pace, but rarely needed (or bothered) to rest. My style doesn't work well in the tropics. In walking around Colombo at 9am on my first day, I found myself dripping with sweat and had to remind myself to match pace with the locals. As in Bali and Borneo, Sri Lankan people maintain a relaxed style of walking, keeping to the shadows, in order to conserve energy. I recall the lazy strokes of hotel staff in Bali as they swept the courtyard and my failure to understand, initially, that their pace allowed them to work all day without fatigue. Learning to match that pace had to be one of my first tasks if I was to enjoy my time in Sri Lanka. For a while now, I've wanted to return to the simple life, breaking the addiction of sensory overload from computer, television and work, and relearning the enjoyment talking to people and watching the scenery. I started on that process on my first Sunday, spending the day sitting with another volunteer and his host, watching the monsoon-like rain fall on the pawpaw tree outside their house. I've tried to keep that feeling with me through the trip, but even standing in the shade is exhausting for me. Bring on the rain!
I've been told that Sri Lanka was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most holidays of any country. I can't find the record, but with the number of days off I've enjoyed since my arrival, it wouldn't surprise me. Then again, I did arrive just in time for New Year. Eventually, though, the IT Centre opened up and I began my volunteer work teaching basic computer skills to children from poor families. Today is my ninth day of 'teaching' so it's time I described what I do. The centre is on the floor above Indrani's shop and she and Charley own the building. The permanent teacher, Kaushalya, arrives at about 9am each day to open up and plug in every device while the keener students sweep the floor. Lessons officially start at 10am, but since school runs from 7am until 1pm, only older kids attend the morning sessions. Each student works through the course syllabus at their own pace and is allowed to surf the net, catch up on facebook and play games once they have completed their lesson. The syllabus was designed by previous volunteers and covers the components of a computer, how to explore the internet and the basics of Microsoft Office. There are 10 PCs available to the students, 5 of which are less than a year old and 5 of which have probably been here since the centre opened 10 years ago. The afternoon class, which runs from 2:30pm to 4:30pm is predominantly younger children and so the syllabus has more focus on the basics of using the keyboard and the mouse through activities such as drawing patterns in MS Paint. Some of the kids are extraordinarily
Apparently out of a desire to obtain a good rating for his hotel on my first morning in Sri Lanka, one of the staff pointed out the traditional dress in a wall painting, then brought a bed sheet to show me how to tie a sarong so that I could do it myself when I bought one. He seemed to think that I was very likely to do so, and I thought wearing the local costume to work would be a cheap, comfortable and respectful alternative to wearing stuffy trousers every day. Unfortunately, the size of the sheet caused problems, requiring more folding, tucking and adjusting than usual and he got a bit personal a few times much to our mutual embarrassment. A sarong is definitely an item of clothing to don without assistance. With a few hours to kill before Charley came to collect me, I decided to go off in search of a sarong along the main street as directed by the kindly waiter (who told me not to pay more than 300 Rupee - about A$2.50), but found mostly electronic shops. The closest I came to any store selling sarongs were a couple of boutiques displaying sari-like dresses. Looking at the other pedestrians, I decided that I was probably better off without the sarong anyway. In over an hour of walking, I only saw one man wearing a sarong and he was probably the oldest person I saw. All the younger men wore western style trousers and collared shirts with either leather shoes or thongs. When Charley picked me up, he explained that a sarong was perfect for New Year and generally relaxing at home, but not appropriate for wearing to work.
I heard a story about a medical volunteer who wanted to work in particular department of the hospital she was in. The director of that department was happy to have her there, but began asking questions about why she was there, with which organisation, how much she paid etc. Eventually he began asking where the funds she paid went and why he wasn't seeing any of them when it was costing him to have her there. Whether or not the story is true, I take a few points from it. Firstly, that the money we bring is (perceived to be) of more use than our time or skills and may be more use in the short term. Since most volunteers only come for a few months, most of us lack the training required to be productive and we are actually a drain on our supervisors. In my case, I have many years of IT experience and understand computers better than the paid teacher, but my inability to explain concepts in Sinhala hinders my ability to help the students. Most of the medical volunteers are students who don't have the experience or qualifications to assist directly in their work and basically attend to accrue hours for their course. I would prefer to provide aid through my time and skills than my money, but I have to recognise my limitations and choose ways beyond the existing courses. The students at my IT Centre are exclusively taught Windows and MS Office so I can contribute by creating a lesson or two on Ubuntu for the more technically inclined students. The second point I take from the story is that funding needs to be communicated clearly. My induction package
Charley had me up at 5:30 on the 14th of April to attend the festival at Kalutara - the one we'd seen on TV the day before. The first event of the day was a marathon and some fifty local runners were lining up to register for the race. Before they could be given approval to participate, each runner underwent a blood pressure and stethoscope test conducted by a local doctor using equipment provided by Projects Abroad. I took some photos of the professionals at work, then wandered around the area checking out the greasy pole and balancing pole games I had seen on TV yesterday. My excitement was less than it would have been with competitors, but I could admire the skill of anyone who managed to complete either task. As soon as the marathon was underway, the doctors shared their breakfast of string hoppers and dhal with us and began preparation for the main work of the day - providing a free diabetes clinic for the public. About 20% of Sri Lankans have diabetes and anyone found with the condition was passed to a nurse who explained the problem and how to deal with it. The nurse regularly pointed to a large selection of fruit on the table as an example of a healthy diet. I asked Charley if he'd been tested. 'No, no,' he said with a belly laugh. 'I don't want to know.' Charley does have a decent girth, but he eats as well as I do, mostly partaking of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in his own garden, so I can't imagine he'd have a problem. While distracted with the medical camp, I missed the finish of the marathon and