Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Flicks and Fluff

We went for a family haircut yesterday. A local place which is very good and cost s the children R100 each (50p) and me R400 (£2) I like it because, as with all sri lankans, they love children, and let my two play with the rollers, stick clips in each other's hair, spray the mister at one another and sweep the cuttings off the floor, and generally treat the place like the "Imaginative Play" corner of a nursery. The only thing missing was a plastic cash register......

I don't like the condensed milk nescafe they serve up as 'coffee' (but this is 'normal' coffee in Sri Lanka) and I'm not entirely sure about the way they dry my hair. But this, it seems, is normal for me.

I have now been to three different hairdressers. The 1st asked if I would like my hair dried "straight or 'flicky'" Uncertain of what 'flicky' might entail and knowing how in the UK hairdressers always insisted on drying my hair straight , I second guessed and said 'straight'. she replied (quite assertively, in this very non-confrontational culture) "I think I'll dry it 'flicky'." So away we went.

And flicky it certainly was. I came out looking like one of Charlie's Angels, with a flick Farrah Fawcett Majors, or even Lady Di, would have been proud of.

Unfortunately I was meeting the family at the zoo, so I had to 'go public' with the 'do'. Needless to say I provided my family with a welcome diversion from watching unfortunate elephants head swaying and caged tigers pacing. I guess going to a zoo in a devloping country is asking for trouble. And this one isn't bad, compared to say Eastern europe, but still... I was pleased my hair provided some light relief.

On another occasion, and at another hairdressers, the lady dried my hair and just kept going, creating more and more fluffiness, until I looked like rather unappetising blonde candy floss. She finally finished and stood back beaming at me in the mirror admiring her work, and said "There, just like Barbie."

Who was I to point out that Barbie may be an aspirational icon of pale Western beauty, and perfection in Asia, in the West she is a pariah of female oppression and male fantasy....... Amongst us women born in the 60s and 70s anyway.

I just smiled sweetly, in what I hoped was a suitably Barbie-ish way, wobbled my head and said "hari, hari" ('ok, fine'.)

Fortunately I wasn't due at the zoo that day, or even the monkeys would have been laughing...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Anxieties and Airports.

I was at a meeting at school a few weeks ago, and a few of us mums ended up having an interesting conversation. Several were talking about how protected our kids are here. Strangely, I've never seen it like this.... But they were saying how, ironically, (as in a lot of developing countries, which may not be that 'safe' ) they are driven everywhere, you always know where they are, who they are with, they have people to clean, cook for them, drive them places even. Peer pressure is much less, because they are used to being so many different cultures all in one class, that there is much less of a norm of behaviour, dress, language, what's cool etc. 43 nationalities in our school of 400 kids.

Two of the mums, from Brazil and Costa Rica, were saying how they wished their kids (young teenagers) were more street wise and less naive. The Brazilian said she was going to rent a place in Copacabana when she returns to Brazil with her 3 boys for the summer. A much rougher area, so they will have to pass prostitutes, drug dealers etc on the streets to get to their apartment. Not exactly sure how this will help them........ She also complained that her boys go to the beach in Brazil, having lived in Asia all their lives, and are shocked, saying "mum, these people are practically naked!"

I did point out to this mum that the silicone enhanced, thong wearing beach population of Brazil is hardly the 'reality' of the rest of the world, (certainly not on the average British beach...) and their reaction was not necessarily just because they'd been living in Asia....

Still there are things to appreciate I suppose. My children are exposed to poverty, military checkpoints, soldiers everywhere, tropical diseases, pollution, dangerous traffic etc but in other (less physical) ways are protected. e.g. peer pressure, consumerism, materialism, the endless carousel of after school activities, keeping up with the Joneses etc, I guess they don't have. Not sure which is better really..... I do just wish we could go for walks and bike rides though.

I wonder how we will find England on this visit? We haven't been there for a year. In fact it was a year ago yesterday that our daughter had her heart surgery at Great Ormond Street. What a difference a year makes! She is thriving. Going back for a check up and bronchoscopy but that is a routine matter. It's so nice to be able to look forward to our visit with unqualified emotions. Last year we were only returning for her surgery. We had only been in Sri Lanka 4 months.

I expect we will find the UK very clean, blissfully cold, (our night time a/c is set to 27' because anything else feels freezing and we wake up). Even grey days and drizzle would be quite refreshing. And I am sure I will enjoy driving there, something I never used to, until I discovered what traffic and bad driving are really like.

My only worries are about whether I will fit back in, whether anyone will be interested in hearing about Sri Lanka (Probably not. I'm told commonly, people never want to hear), whether friends' daily lives and routines, which were once so familiar to me, will have changed. People always tell you that when you go home things have changed, people's lives have changed, people have moved on etc. I want everything to be cosily familiar and how I remember it, of course. Though equally I guess if people were still doing exactly the same things, that would be a bit depressing too!

Then there are the passing trivial concerns like, will I even be in fashion anymore? What are people wearing? Then I remember I was never exactly cutting edge when it came to fashion anyway. So I can shelve that concern...

More pressing concerns are the LTTE and the fact that our international airport is shared by a military airbase......... A month or so ago the LTTE stunned everyone by carrying out a little bombing raid in Colombo, on this military airbase, which is part of the International airport. Flying in, AND OUT, having dropped their bombs, with no Gov't military aircraft being scrambled after them..........

We met the (British) head of security that week at the British High Commission, and he said the SL army's defence systems are fairly inadequate, even though it's been known for quite a while that the LTTE probably had air capability. Well, tiny Heath Robinson AIRFIX kits (planes which had been smuggled into the country, in parts, and then re-assembled) The security guy said they probably had an airstrip in the jungle up in Jaffna somewhere, and would have taken the planes apart again and buried the evidence. I find it slightly disconcerting though because civilian aircraft have been caught up in it before. In fact CathayPacific and one or two other airlines have stopped flying in and out of Colombo because they feel that cannot 'guarantee passenger safety'.

Oh great. Still it is unlikely. Internationals don't get targetted here. So far. And now of course the government have decided to bankrupt themselves even further and buy 5 Mig 29s for billions of Rupees to counteract the threat from the LTTE's 2 airfix planes.....

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Coriander, Curry and Confidence

As we are about to leave for a trip to the UK, I decided it was high time I invited some people for a meal. That was the start of my problems. Being a control freak and also enjoying cooking meant I wanted to plan what I would cook. However, this is dependent on stuff keeping if you buy it too far ahead (everythign has to be kept in the fridge. Even flour, sugar etc) or more likely having to keep changing what you will cook according to what is, or is not, in the shops the day before. So I did what I vowed I would never do, that is call someone on a mobile from a supermarket about choices of food. You know what I mean, you see someone by the cheese counter on the phone saying "shall I buy wensleydale or gorgonzola?" Doesn't happen in Sri Lanka because there aren't any choices really.

Actually I wasn't exactly doing that, I was calling a friend to ask her keep her eye out for coriander when she was at the market and to buy it and come armed with the herb the following evening. either that or change again what I was going to cook. It's probably good for me not to be able to plan, and make me more flexible........ but doubly irritable.

My daughter also, unwittingly, does not exactly help my culinary confidence, a confidence I had in my former life, but which has been severely knocked since moving to this land of strange vegetables, and elusive ingredients. Having accused me a few wks ago of serving up roast 'froggie', on Sunday I felt in need of a good old victoria sponge complete with jam and (....well, butter icing), cream not always being readily available here, and dusted the top with icing sugar. My daughter took one look at it and said "Mummy why have you put talc on our cake?" However she didn't refuse to eat it. But then she is partial to the odd lick of ant killer.... (see below) It makes me wonder what she will come out with as a teenager. She's pretty good already at pulling the rug from under me and making me feel incompetent........

I have also discovered that she has been tucking into our house help's rice and curry most days, despite her constant excuse as to why she doesn't like something I present her with, as being because it's "too spicy" This includes medicine, cereal, fruit, cake, potatoes......

Maheswary told me this week that my daughter goes up to her every day and says "have you eaten your lunch yet?" and then asks Maheswary to tell her when she is going to eat it. She then goes and gets her small chair, plonks herself in front of Maheswary and is fed rice and curry by hand (as all food is eaten here) Of course, our househelp is only too pleased to oblige, as she thinks my daughter is 'very thin' and I am not feeding her properly. No wonder she doesn't eat her supper if she's been tucking into curry every afternoon......

She is, when not eating rice and curry, up to her usual toddler stuff. As well as cutting a huge wodge from her hair a while ago, (and from her brother's) so she now has a tufty bit sticking up in the middle of her head, , .......... I also caught her trying to cut thru M's speaker cable, and cut a hole in the mattress, all with her v blunt (fortunately) children's scissors (now under lock and key, I keep forgetting she can climb...) Other tricks include felt-penning on the walls, emptying her wardrobe of all its contents (regularly), licking the nozzle of the ant killer liquid, trying to remove a door lock with a screw driver, and pushing small beads up her nose.

Honestly why is it always the same things? Makes you wonder if there's a manual for toddlers on "Making Mischief". Chapter headings including; Wreaking Havoc, Cutting Hair and Other Banned Materials, Drawing on Things, Consuming Poisons, Ruining Mum's Make Up, Sticking Small Objects up the Nose etc etc. I just hope there isn't a Volume Two........

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Faking it?

Last week I was driving my son home from school when I noticed a small van at the side of the road selling orchids. I screeched to a halt, knowing that orchids grow in the tropics, so I thought these might be quite affordable.

They were quite stunning. They were in little log containers and I could see their roots. However, they looked almost plasticky, but then orchids are sort of, waxy. Then I thought, they are plastic! But what about those roots? Then the guy came over with a spray can and misted them with water. I was confused. In the end I had to ask.

The following conversation ensued.
Me: Are they plastic?
Man (looking surprised) Of course they're plastic!
Me: Oh, I thought they were real?
Man: Real?????
Me. Yes, I was looking for a real orchid (feeling more foolish by the minute)
Man: Why do you want a real orchid, these last 10, 15, 100 yrs. Real ones last only a week. (actually that's not true, they last a lot longer, but this was his sales pitch)
Me: (apologising now, almost) I'm sorry, but I really wanted a real one.

I beat a hasty retreat back to the car and drove off. When I explained to my 7 yr old he said, rather redundantly, "Wow, they looked just as real as real ones" But then this is Asia, continent of the master 'fake'. Yes, but the trouble is they're NOT REAL, and I would know. Besides they don't smell,and well, they're just, NOT REAL. Maybe that's the argument people who wear fur use..........

The guy reminded me of the different attitudes to things (some of) my parents' generation have. e.g. the wonderful innovation of plastic, wall-to-wall carpets after lino and bare boards etc. Never mind aesthetics, this is advancement! I guess to this man, plastic flowers are an amazing, cost effective, technological advance to replace the waste and ephemerality of real flowers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pop Goes the Weasel, Monkey, Gecko......

Life continues much as ever in the wildlife departemnt. The monkeys are back, complete with babies clinging onto underbellies for dear life as their mums steal our rambutan from the tree. That reminds me, I must buy firecrackers to scare them off.

Yesterday I was making toast and the fuse box tripped. I flicked it back on, put the toast in again, and it happened again. It did this three times. On the third occasion as I returned to the toaster, a rather dazed looking gecko popped its head over the top of the toaster and crawled out from inside it. It then stayed motionless on the side of the toaster, despite me tapping near it to try to get it to move. It had obviously had an electric shock. Or three in fact. Maybe being such rubbery cretaures it was partially insulated. It stayed there, despite me then toasting the bread, with its feet getting very warm, clinging as they were to the side of the toaster. Eventually it seemed to recover and moved, slowly, off. I hope that has taught it to move home.....

On another day, having left home in a hurry, and not returning till 3.30pm, I drew the curtains, which hadn't been done earlier before we left. As I did so something rodenty shot out from beneath the curtain, past my (bare) feet and started frantically trying to climb up the French window. After my initial coronary arrest, I noticed a bushy tail and realised with relief it was a cane squirrel, not a rat. They are quite rat like though. How they keep getting in, we have no idea. It's the element of surprise which always gets me though.

Speaking of which, the following morning I drew the curtains downstairs (again) and felt that, now familiar, spongy plop, as something rubbery landed on the back of my hand. A gecko. They always seem to lose their grip when I'm about...

And as for the cockroach, well I had suspected this for a time, but last night confirmed that indeed our toothbrushes probably are the only source of food in our bathroom, with a nice minty aroma on them. A cockroach was crawling over all 4 of our brushes (brush end) So yet another sealed plastic container needed to keep them in. I wish someone hadn't told me cockroaches like to spend time in the sewers.........

And then there's the weather. It' s not just the English who discuss the weather ad nauseam. This is a favourite topic as it gets hotter, and hotter.........and more and more humid. One's tone becomes more desperate and disbelieving. Surely it can't get any hotter?? Frayed tempers are getting ever more ragged round the edges. Mine in particular. Someone said it's also the barometric pressure, which makes one aggressive (now there;'s a good excuse....). I don't know about that, but maybe that's why my head hurts sometimes.......

M comes home and says "Boy, it's hot in this house" He usually lasts about half an hour while he has his supper, then disappears off to the bedroom to read with the A/C on. And he doesn't get home till 9 p.m! I can never resist pointing out, in martyr-ish fashion, that indeed it IS hot in our house, and I am in it all day EVERY day!! Unlike his office, where the air con is set so low that one (English) guy brings a sweater with him. Even M wears long sleeves. I dream of that kind of cold...

I am more acclimatised. I still sweat with the best of them, and find it very humid, but am certainly more used to it, whereas M doesn't get a chance to get used to it because he is in air conditioning all day. Poor thing.........

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Crazy Lanka

I have had a Crazy Lanka week this week. It started with a pig causing me to swerve as it ambled down the middle of one of the main routes into town. A man was half heartedly following it carrying a coconut. I am not sure if he was the owner or a curious onlooker. Even in Sri Lanka pigs in the street in Colombo is not normal. Nor do I know if pigs are 'lured' by coconuts. Not sure how they would eat them.

I regularly meet a herd of 15 or so water buffalo taking up the whole road, on the way home from collecting my son from school. Cows are, of course, frequent road users here, as are stray dogs, but I have never encountered a pig before.

This was followed on Mon by someone knocking off my wing mirror yet again, and two tuktuks overtaking me by driving up the pavement as I sat in stationary traffic.

On Tuesday a car was driving towards me on my inside because he couldn't get across the road. (And clearly didn't want to waste time waiting) I was also simultaneously over- and undertaken by vehicles using me much like a slalom post it seemed. I am not a dawdler, I hasten to add, I was on a two way street in a built up area in traffic. This fact, however, did not deter the slalom racers.

I also had to swerve off the rd twice this week to avoid oncoming buses way over on my side of the road (not even overtaking. Just playing their "I'm big and you're little" game.) Again this is quite normal. In fact on 'dual carriage ways' ALL buses, most tuktuks and a few cars always drive with their wheels straddling the white line just so they can choose whichever lane at a moment's notice, and also making it very hard for you to get past. However it's when they do it on single track roads coming towards you, that the adrenalin really kicks in.

I sometimes think the anarchy and ensuing chaos of the driving here, reflects the madness of the currrent government, which similarly seems to have no thought of the consequences of its actions, no long term perspective, scant regard for human life, and flagrant disregard for rules or laws. And a collective death wish, because let's face it, no one's going to last long with those kind of practices. As on the roads, so in the rulers...

Six people a day are killed on the roads in Sri Lanka. Goodness knows what the death toll is from the war in the north and east. It is thousands though since the peace talks broke down.

Then on Thursday 300 Tamils were forcibly evicted from their lodges in Colombo breaking; the Sri Lankan constitution, which allows citizens freedom of choice of where to reside and freedom of movement, as well as article 147 of the Geneva convention. Thank goodness there's enough of a democratic process here for the Supreme court to rule it was an illegal move, prompting the President to blame the chief of police for undertaking this without consultation or consent. Hmm. I don't think so.

On Friday I got a flat tyre. The one good thing about it being it only cost me R80 to get it fixed (40p) Considering the number of crater sized potholes I have careered through, including ones under flood water, that's not bad going in a year.

Then on my way to see my daughter's end of term nursery presentation, also on Friday, I went to drop our rubbish bag off at the place on the main rd. This was where we used to dump it, as instructed by our landlord, before house to house garbage collections were made. They now collect from houses, but because we had had another poya day (bank holiday) we hadn't had a collection for 11 days. So we have been taking the rubbish to the place at the edge of the rd where everyone dumps their rubbish. And it used to be collected from there. You have these spots all over Colombo. Looks a dreadful mess, but that was the system.....

Anyway this time a policeman came up and started shouting about not dumping rubbish there. There is a sign evidently... I was now late for my duaghter's nursery performance. He was keen to drag it out and make it as humiliating as possible. Anyway as with the garage incident (see 'Driving Me Crazy' post) a rent-a-mob of about 15 men suddenly appeared who did as before shaking heads tutting at me, glaring at this unwitting, heinous crime. This in a country where there are no puiblic bins, everyone drops litter, throws it out of car windows etc. Hypocrites! I was putting it where I had been told it was ok to put it. And I can't read Singhalese. In the end I just got so exasperated I jumped in the car with my bin bag and drove off. I knew he was angling for a bribe, and I wasn't interested. It hadn't escaped my attention that this policenman wasn't actually armed. Unusually. Not that he would have shot me, for a 'tip and run' but always reassuring nevertheless as you zoom off. It's the crowds that gather and join in, that really wind me up.

I asked my next door neighbour, who seems to run the neighbourhood, what I was supposed to do. He said "Wait till dark, then go and put it on the dump"....... However now I know the sign says no dumping, I don't know what to do.... I won't put my rubbish there. I have noticed that all the rubbish dumps by the sides of roads have this same sign above them. I wonder which came 1st. The sign or the dump....

I hope the rubbish lorry comes on Monday.

At the w/e whilst queueing at a red light, a beggar with a withered leg hobbled up to the car in front asking for money. I could see they had wound the window down and were trying to find their wallet. Then the light turned green and the car just pulled off (In true Sri Lankan fashion. You get beeped if you haven't moved when the light is still on red & amber) The beggar did a half hopping lollop to try and catch up with the car to get his money.

I couldn't believe the attitude of someone who could be about to give some money to a beggar , and then just becasue the light had chanegd, they couldn't wait and just pulled off, abandoning the intention. Does Buddha then reward the thought and intention, never mind the action??
I am pleased to say I held up the entire queue of cars behind me for all of about 30 seconds in order to give this guy some money. And you know what, Chicken Licken was wrong, the sky didn't fall down, and I even got through the green light. Not that I would have cared if I didn't.

The culmination of this week of colliding realities was the 50th anniversary ball of our son's school. A lavish charitable affair raising money for an extremely worthy cause of a rehabilitation centre for communciation impaired children. However the sums of money flying around during the live auction for hot air balloon rides, trips to the Maldives, art work, jewellery, phones, make overs etc, made me wonder if this was what one of those celebrity fund raising dinners was like. Only rather than bidding for a dinner party with Sharon Stone, it was a murder mystery with the secondary principal (went for US$450)

My son had seen the list of wonderful donated 'prizes' but decided one outstripped the rest:
"Be Primary Principal for the day in your school"
"Please bid on that mum" he pleaded. The primary principal had confidently told me no one would want that and that I'd probably get it for R500. I just about got in my bid of US$50 (the start price) whereupon it raced up into the stratosphere and went for US$500, in the space of about 4 minutes. Needless to say, that wasn't me....

But for only the second time in my life I won a prize, no actually TWO prizes in the raffle. A w/e for 2 in a lovely beach hotel. And a HUGE vase, which my husband nearly dropped on collection in true Mt Bean fashion.. So all's well that ends well?

It's very weird being in so many different 'worlds', the NGO world, the Ex-pat and International School world amongst corporate and embassy parents, the restricted and repressed world of my Tamil house help, and the daily encounters and experiences 'on the street' going about my business.

It makes my brain ache trying to process it all..........

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Birthday, beer cake and bow ties

It was my birthday yesterday. I had to supervise my own card making by the children, such is a mother's lot when it comes to birthdays. Supervise, spell, not to mention draw my own picture & write my own good wishes (if my daughter had had her way) whilst at the same time NOT looking at the drawings and feigning surprise on my birthday. My son decided all this needed to be done about 5 minutes before bath time the night before my birthday. I think there was a hidden agenda there.

He asked what number to write on his card to me. When I told him he said "Wow that IS old" Not a good start. I said "It sounds old, but it's not really that old is it?" He thought for a minute, then said "Actually it is really". I said "old means having grey hair and wrinkles". He said "what are wrinkles?" I explained. He said "Oh yes you have some of those, and your hair makes you look old" Right then, obviously long and blond (natural) is out, am I really the age where I have to get a sensible middle-aged bob?

I much prefer the exchange I had with a girl from Essex, I think, at someone else's birthday on Sunday. We had the dreaded "So how old are you?" conversation. Everyone admitted they were 32, 33 or 34. Then she asked me. When I reluctantly told her, she said, with disconcerting directness; "Cor blimey, I am so shocked. You've got no wrinkles' (I have, it was a candlelit meal. And besides, my son tells me I have) Then she said "So what cream do you use?" which I considered a real coup. No one has ever asked me that before. But then she made me feel ancient again by looking at me as if I was a still living survivor of the Titanic and said to me "Wow, so you were born in the sixties!!"

I could have said, yes but I don't remember them, but then isn't that what everyone from the sixties says??

I went to a mums' group on the morning of my birthday, which I go to every Thursday, and got kissed exactly 15 times. This is because there were five Dutch there. The Dutch really know how to kiss. They do it a lot, and always on your birthday. They also always kiss on both cheeks. And then once more on the 1st cheek. It took quite a long time as you can imagine. Being British I rather envied them their cultural confidence. They seem to know exactly when to kiss, who to kiss, which cheek to start with and how many to give. It must be written in a book somewhere.

I, however, never know who, when, where to kiss. Those moments always leave me slightly anxious. Weighing up how well you know soemone, how long since you last saw them, whether it will be misconstrued etc. I wish someone could enlighten me. But then a Dutch friend said to me that in church people she barely knew would come up and greet her with 3 kisses. Always non-Dutch. I think it was because people assumed that because she was Dutch it was the cultural norm to kiss her like that. It's not. The 2nd possibility is that she has a "come kiss me"air about her. Who knows? So I guess it has its advantages being British and reserved. Unless you like random strangers kissing you.

An English friend arrived bearing red, white and blue balloons. Unfortunately this being Sri Lanka, and an average of 34' all the time, the balloons expanded (already fully blown up) & burst one by one over the course of the morning, nearly sending one of the mums, 33 weeks pregnant, into premature labour.

My friend also brought along a chocolate beer cake. Not Nigella's, though a familiar concept for us Brits. The Dutch and Americans amonsgt us seemed strangely disconcerted. It was yummy, even if it wasn't stout, but whatever Sri Lanka ha sto hand. Usuallyonly lager. I must ask her what she used. We ate half the cake, and my family polished off the other half by 5 o clock that evening.

M treated me to a massage at "The Sanctuary" in Colombo for my birthday. Sadly not "The Sanctuary" of Covent Garden fame, but nevertheless, about as good as it gets in Sri Lanka. ie proper massage beds, trained staff, lotus flowers floating in granite bowels of water, air con, warm towels, soothing music. Green tea in a coconut bowl to drink afterwards. I was happy! The best service I have had anywhere in Sri Lanka.

To mix the metaphors further, I had a Swedish massage. This refers to the strength and style of the massage, rather than the nationality of the masseuse. Mine certainly wasn't tall and blonde... Shame.

It was blisfully relaxing and not at all painful, unlike a Thai massage when I have been walked on, elbowed, had all my joints yanked to 'click' them etc. This one I had to struggle to stay awake. I didn't want to fall asleep and miss it.....

I needed to unwind. It has been a stressful week.

On Mon someone knocked my wing mirror off YET again, whilst I was parked. The last time , I had been about to turn right into another rd. I was right up against the white line in the middle of the road, with my indicator on. I was certainly giving out plenty of clues. Or so I thought. I also, in a very un-Sri Lankan way waited for a gap in the traffic. Anyway as I turned across the traffci into the side rd, a motorcyclist rammed into the side of me, wrenching off my wing mirror. He had been bombing down the middle of the rd behind me, and obviously the fact that I was pulled over into the centre, stationary and indicating RIGHT were not clear enough signals for him. He overtook me , on my right side as I was turning right. I tend to concentrate on oncoming traffic when I turn right. I completely omitted to check for kamikaze Kawasaki riders behind me....

On Tues I trudged round 3 different service centres trying to find someone to mend the iron. It was always the wrong make, no parts etc. I said 'surely an iron is an iron and the parts are much the same?' (I admit I was going out on a limb here and had no idea) and it was broken anyway so DO YOUR WORST, I pleaded, but nothing doing. I know in the UK we are used now, unfortunately, to just binning our toaster, iron, blender whatever, when it breaks but this is ASIA, and a developing country. EVERYTHING gets mended, recycled, re-used. The reality seemed somewhat different. No one wanted the responsibility of my broken iron.

I had the same experience with tailors. You are told any design can be copied, anything can be made. I wanted to get a dress made (because my sewing machine had broken) I took the dress in to copy. I was told it was the wrong design of dress to use silk. I needed stretchy material . Ok I'll buy stretchy mataerial. But no, if I bought stretchy material it would be the wrong material for their machines so it couldn't be made. "What to do?" as they say in this country.

I tried to get my husband a bow tie made. Simple. I went to 3 tailors before giving up. One recommended I go to a Ladies tailor (?), one shook his head, tutted and frowned. The third was admittedly my fault. I climbed up a spiral metal staircase above the street following the "Majestic Tailor" sign. Sounded promising.

I went in, pulled out the silk material, then showed him the black bow tie I wanted him to copy. I demonstrated how you wore it round your neck. I even made an atempt at tying it. He looked quite interested, listened politely but said nothing. Finally he shook his head, and said 'Next door' in perfect English, before pointing to the tailor's shop I should have been, in next door....

In the end I went home, got out my sewing machine, and managed to mend the foot pedal with some parcel tape to stop it accelerating on its own. Then I made the bow tie myself. Well, I am certainly learning to be resourceful, if not relaxed, here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Lost in Translation

Some cultural differences just make you think 'oh that's interesting;' or 'that's a nice wayof doing things'. It's when it's something that seems reallly abnormal or different to you in a jarring way that the cultural clash comes or the misunderstandings.

It wasn't weird that Maheswary wanted to sleep on the floor, that's because she can't afford a bed so is used to it. The cultural jolt came when she thought it was perfectly normal to sleep on the floor between our two children (there's about a 3 ft wide gap) She isn't even their 'nanny' just does housework. ie doesn't have that much to do with them. It is, however normal to sleep with your kids in Sri Lanka, as it is in many countries.

Our landlord and land lady are a professional, working, well-to-do couple, one of whom lived in the UK for 10 yrs, yet they sleep with their children (not babies, 5 & 7 yrs!) They have 2 double beds side by side in their room, despite living in a 4 bedroom house. Status/class/wealth is very significant here. So never mind that 3 bedrooms are unused.....

My househelper and I really do clash when it comes to child rearing. She is of the typically Sri Lanakn 'indulge your child and her every whim' school of childrearing. We must seem like uncaring Dickensian despots with our 'time out', 'naughty step', 'being sent to your room', occasional smacks, taking away privileges. However we do use bribes frequently, which is very Sri Lankan. Amonsgt the governing and military authorities, if not the parental ones.....

One thing I find very difficult is the 'proprietorial' interest Joe Blogasinghe Sri Lankan takes in one's children. I have been told my child has a bad cough (oh really?), that my child needs to see a doctor, asked if they are taking any medicines for whatever ailment they have just diagnosed in my child on the street, that my child is crying (oh really? That is a hard one to spot)

Maheswary tells me that our daughter is getting "VERY thin", that it's not good that she doesn't eat, sleep, drink etc. (she does, of course, just not enough to satisfy Maheswary) She asks me most days if my 3 yr old has 'taken lunch', if she has had 'ANYTHING to eat today'. She opens her nursery snack box, shakes her head, tut tutting, shows me the contents and says 'oh dear no eating again today'. I hasten to add when my daughter is at home she never has a snack between 9 and 12. Just drinks. You lose your appetite in the heat.

She also says things like "is A. not having a sleep today?" when I have decided not to do battle on that partic day because I am just too hot, sweaty and lacking in the energy commensurate with the task of tackling a 3 yr old. Anyway she is in the process of giving up afternoon sleeps so doesn't always feel very sleepy (I write defensively). Of course when I am teaching and Maheswary puts her to bed, she goes sweetly, obediently and without a whimper.......

It's a bit like having the stereotypical domineering mother-in-law or mother at your side giving her opinion on every thing you do. I hasten to add neither my mother nor mother-in-law are anything like this, but at least now I get to see what it would be like..... It used to really, really wind me up, but now I try not to let it, because I know she doesn't mean it how I take it. I used to explain myself too. I don't now I just 'proceed'.

The other thing that gets lost in translation sometimes is politeness, the way I am presented with statements rather than requests.

We have a rambutan tree in our garden. I am ashamed to say I don't like them much, tho they are highly sought after by sri lankans, and expensive. My househelp aske di f we ate them I said no, so she waited, so I then said 'please help yourself'. The next day she went outside with a bag saying 'today I am taking your Rambutans'.

Oh, ok then...

My 7 yr old has recently started violin lessons, and his teacher is the same in his conversational manner. He is also very accident prone. It usually involves tea. He announced on his first visit that he was dreadfuly thirsty, was a tea addict and then 'what I would really like is a large glass of cold water and then a cup of tea'

Oh, ok then....

He then usually spills it, but always and rather cleverly uses the passive voice to tell me that 'some tea has spilt on the sofa.' or 'there has been a spillage', before further instructing me 'You need to bring a cloth and clean it immediately or it will stain' then he proceeds to tell me I am cleaning it up all wrong and will make it worse.

On another occasion he arrived and said 'today I will take tea at the start of the lesson'.

Oh, ok then...

On yet another occasion he said 'next time I take tea, I will have two tea bags in the pot, one is not strong enough' It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him to take it up with the tea plantation estate managers, as his country grows the stuff....

However I know he doesn't mean it, though by the end of a Monday when I have had him and my househelp instructing me, I feel suitably chastened and bossed about. Something is definitely lost in translation I think.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Babysitting Blues

Our househelp babysits for us on occasion. Recently we have been out for a few things what with birthdays, anniversary and a teacher's party on Sat. We thought coming to Sri Lanka where everyone has a househelp, and domestic help is so cheap and readily available, that babysitting would be a cinch here.

Unfortunately because our hosuehelp is a Tamil, and even though it costs us only £1.50 for her to take a tuktuk home, she is afraid 1.) as a Tamil and 2.) as a woman, to go home that way at night. She gets harassed, is afraid she will be driven off down some dark lane. There is a shady underworld involvement of some tuktuk drivers and she doesn't trust them. And there are stories to corroborate this mistrust. So we take her home. At the end of our night out we drive the 12 km back to our suburb, pick her up and then I drive 12 km back into Colombo to take her home, then drive back again to my home.

It's hardly ideal. She keeps asking if I know anyone who would like a babysitter or could give her evening work. However this constraint means, as I explain to her, that few people would want to have to do this. I admit it is a real hassle but we know she appreciates the extra money and it helps her out. Seems a small price to pay.

W e have asked her to stay the night to solve this problem. However under this new Rajapakse government, she is subjected in her Tamil residential area to police raids at night or in the early hours, checking ID cards, searching houses at random, and without warning, but on a very regular basis. They check that who is listed as living there IS there and no one else and so on. So if she wants to stay the night with us, (which she does if I can give her enough warning), she has to go to the police station fill in a form and get permission. Reminds me of when I lived in Apartheid South Africa in 1988 under the State of emergency. Exactly the same racism, and restrictions on one ethnic group. Or perhaps here, it would be called 'profiling'.....

I get on very well with our hosuehelp. She's intelligent, interesting and very much her own person, not cowed or subservient despite the prejudices she suffers. However we differ as many Westerners here do with sri Lankans, on child rearing. Here you never leave a child to cry, the minute they so much as whimper, you pick them up. Even aged 3, when let's face it they know exactly what they are doing, you still let the child rule the roost. If they cry you pick them up adn give them whatever it is they want. She tells me she feels 'so sorry for A when she cries'

After our 'run' of nights out a pattern began to emerge. every single time we have come back, our 3 yr old has been up watching tv with Maheswary... even at midnight. She wa sfast asleep when we left... Maheswary has told us it's because A 'knows' we're going out, is unsettled and wakes ehrself up, or hears the gate opened. So we have gone out once she is alseep, we have left the car outside the gate. Nothing makes any difference.

It sounds terrible, but I have even begun to wonder if Maheswary wakes her up, as she does adore her, or goes in and checks her and talks to her, or something, because she never, never, never wakes when we are at home. A friend of mine here says that that is exactly what she used to do when she babysat as a teenager because she wanted always wanted to cuddle the babies.

Our daughter loves playing with her, but also knows exactly how to manipulate Maheswary. So last night I tried asking my daughter what happens each night. She said 'I wanted to get up and play' and 'I like watching tv with Maheswary'

She was in that half-asleep, yet conversationally lucid state and was one of those moments when you think you are having a lovely, sometimes amusing, cosy chat when your child is delightfully dozy, co-operative, quiet and generally adorable (in a way they just don't seem to be during the day...). But my daughter, being my daughter, landed me a reality check in the solar plexus when suddenly said 'Please go away Mummy, I need to sleep'. And there was me thinking at least I show her whose boss, and don't let her run rings round me like Maheswary does. I obediently crept out of the room. She had a point after all......

Maheswary also insists on staying up till we get back (in the same way that she insists on changing into her 'work' dress even when only babysitting) but her solution suggested yesterday completely threw me. She asked if she could sleep on the floor between the children's beds. So then she wd hear them cry or if there was a problem. I said 'you can't possibly sleep on the floor' not only because it was, well, the floor, but also mindful of the black rat she herself had beaten to death with a broom when we were away, in that very room, and the large cockroach I had squished only that morning. She said 'but I always sleep on the floor at home' .....

But I said we weren't happy with that idea (never mind what the children wd have thought) I said she had to sleep in the guest room with its double bed, a/c, mosquito net and private bathroom......... Weird thing cultural differences.