Monday, September 24, 2007

Tropical Fatigue

It's been a tiring sort of day. One the Tropics are all too good at. I must remember to choose my battles. Though actually I think I would choose these two again.

I took 18 beer bottles back to the shop today. These have been building up for months I hasten to add. You get money back for returned bottles. You also get money off your next carton of beers. However, I confused the issue by bringing back 18 bottles but only purchasing 12 more. I asked the cashier to give me the extra as money off the bill. This created consternation. A lady in a sari was summoned. This indicated she was more important than the girl on the till who wore a uniform of trousers. Then a man in a tie was called over. A few bag packers came over just to join in the fun.

I kept explaining that the money back was for the empty bottles, and wasn't dependent on me buying more beer. The newly bought beer in my trolley was counted and recounted, my till receipt was studied and passed round. One more person came over and was consulted. Eventually it was grudgingly agreed that indeed I was owed cash back for 6 bottles. Oh victory was sweet. I have never succeeded at this before. I have always backed down and just bought more beer! And it only took 4 people to make that decision....

In general In Sri Lanka, a few shops seem to have cottoned on to the idea that vouchers are a good marketing device, but you feel like a petty criminal actually producing one of these and claiming the discount. they are minutely examined (for forgeries I assume??)It always involves summoning several other shop assistants and invariably the manager to ok it. When I did this with a voucher for 50% off a hair cut, they came back, and raised the original quote by 2oo Rupees before knocking half off!

It is also well nigh impossible to get an exchange and certainly you don't get a refund anywhere for anything in Sri Lanka. Unheard of, even if, as happened to us, a book was faulty and had pages missing. It was our own silly fault I imagine for not checking every page in the book before purchasing.

I also had a run in with our next door neighbour, our landlord's father-in-law. He is possibly the most objectionable man I have ever met. He treats anyone who works for him as sub-human. he is rude to everyone, shouts at everyone, is mean spirited, even shout s at OUR househelp, Maheswary, and scolds her for things that are nothing to do with him. She is very good though and just says "I feel sorry for him, there is something wrong in his head"

His 'live-in' gardener does our garden for us, but he docks what we pay the gardener out of his monthly salary. Even though the gardener does it in his own time. In the 18mths we have been here, he has got through 5 gardeners, and the current one says he wants to leave. It is irresistible not to draw Oscar Wilde's conclusion (in paraphrase): to lose one gardener is unfortunate, but to lose 5 is certainly careless. And that's just it he couldn't care less. About anyone.

He came round once when I was out (it's always when I am out, to intimidate Maheswary) and announced to her that as he had fertilised and watered our rambutan tree, (ie the gardener had when doing our garden) he was entitled to the fruit. He then ordered her to pick him 30. This was my househelper, on my time, in my garden! The problem is he gave the house to his daughter as her dowry. But he has never really let go of it. He wanders into our garden to check things sometimes. He accused me of complaining when I enquired of our landlord where our curry bush had gone. It had been uprooted when we were away. He told me it was dead. Maheswary had picked curry leaves the morning before it was pulled up....

When we go away he phones Maheswary every day asking her where we are, what she is doing. He tells her to leave the gate open so he can get into the garden etc. He tells her off for opening the gate too fast, for arriving too late to put the rubbish out. etc . She is a feisty Tamil. She stands up to him. His response is "These people, think they are all superior because they are working for ex-pats" he describes any of his gardeners or staff as 'these people'. Nice.

On this occasion he asked her why we always kept the gate closed, and complained the gardener couldn't get in. He wanted the gardener to come in and fertilise a tree. I have always said he could knock on the gate. and he does. He said to Maheswary, "it's not as if they have any gold or jewellery to steal is it?" So I wrote him a very polite note back explaining that we kept it closed to keep out unwanted vistors... explaining we have all our french windows open, I am not alway sin, adn Maheswary may be upstairs. We have also had a lot of people begging or selling things, or sussing out the house, then running away. He of course was livid that Maheswary had told us what he had said. She always does, it's very enlightening.

He phoned me up, told me to be quiet and listen, to let him finish . I did, then I put my case clearly. He accused me of behaving in a way unfitting to Sri Lanka. Well it's true I used no form of bribery, exercised my freedom of speech, I didn't lie, I didn't threaten and I certainly didn't use personal abuse as a weapon of attack. So no place for me in the government then. Many of these are common in everyday life here too. You only have to read the Sri Lankan independent paper. They bewail it too, so I'm not being xenophobic.

I was reading in a book about Asia about a condition called 'tropical fatigue', in long term ex-pats in the Tropics, caused by lack of mental rest, the climate, the demands of daily life in a different culture, and excessive alcohol intake. All I need to do is drink a bit more and there, I have a diagnosis.

Peace and Love, Man

School seems to be consuming a lot of my time at the moment. I have been teaching several days each week. Added to which I am a 'support parent' again for my son's class. It's a straight forward 'intermediary' role between parent and teacher. Not too demanding. Also a friendly face for newcomers. However the two parents for the other Grade 2 class are 'girly swots' in the keenness stakes, and churn out emails, and action plans with a frenzy worthy of a domestic goddess producing cakes for the school fete. I feel exhausted just reading them. I think the list will frighten off potential volunteer parents, who are needed to 1.) hear children read 2.) paint wolves faces on the children for the musical 3.) accompany children to a local temple 4.) complete a form detailing all their skills and interests and areas of expertise in order to be able to give a talk to the children on a topic of interest. I prefer to work on the 'drip feed' need to know basis, rather than panicking them from the outset with too many requests.....

Last Friday was Founders day. Lots of Kandyan dancers as usual. These are essentially more exotic, flamboyant versions of Morris Dancers. equally bizarre, with as many tassels and bells as the latter. A few more flic flacs though. The Principal stood up to give his address and said "good morning everyone" This to the whole school. 3-18 yrs. A lone voice chimed back "Good MORRRRRNING Mister McClellan. The whole school laughed. I thought fleetingly 'how sweet, one of the pre-schooler is doing what they do every morning to their teacher'. At break time I discovered the truth. It had evidently been my SEVEN yr old replying. His teacher told him he was very polite to answer. I trust both my son, and his teacher were being sincere.

This week is "Show your Spirit" week, which always occurs in the run up to some sporting activity at the school. it's the South Asia Swimming Meet this w/e at school. So each day the children have to dress up in fancy dress. As directed. this causes the ex-pat household not a little stress as one simply doesn't have a dressing up box full of clothes to suit each occasion.

Tonight saw me making a CND medallion, a headband, sewing flowers on a waistcoat and tie dyeing an old P.E shirt. For Hippie Day, in case it wasn't clear....I'm dreading Gangster day. Don't even know if it's Gangster day or Gangsta day. There's a difference I believe, mainly musical.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dancing, With Wolves

Well it's been quite a heavy couple of blogs, but I can always rely on my childen to provide some light relief.

I had to take our 3 yr old for a hospital appoinmtent last week. It was a long old wait. She had decided to go dressed for the occasion in one of her many fairy dresses (most of which I am ashamed to admit have been donated to her by anxious friends we have visited, to try and quell my daughter's noisy devastation at not only leaving their house, but also leaving the fairy dress behind, I now realise it was all a ploy and mourning was probably exclusively for the dresses and not the friends, being the shaollow toddler she is) Anyway this particular little number was white with a very frothy layered skirt. She chose to wear this over her shorts and t-shirt. Personally in this humidity and heat I find one layer too much, the thought of having another, POLYESTER layer over the top is enough to turn me naturist. Doesn't seem to bother her though.

Anyway she decided during our 2 hr wait that she would dance. The chairs were arranged round the room in a square. The waiting room was full of Sri Lankans. Little did they know what they were in for. My daughter chose to take up position in the centre of the room whereupon she embarked upon a series of cossack style leg kicks complete with claps under the leg, and a flamenco swishing of the skirts. To top off her "fusion footwork", she added a few traditional arabesques and pirouettes. In between 'sets' she would stop and scratch her bottom vigorously. I made a mental note to buy more worm tablets.... She would also add rather coyly, "I don't like people watching me dance". I suggested, in that case, she find a slightly less public place than a waiting room full of bored patients with no posters even on the walls to read. I think she secretly realised the advatnages of a captive audience.

My husband meanwhile has been visiting the hospital on a fairly regular basis to have his ears 'cleaned'. He has a fungal infection in them. Fungal infections are the bane of our life here. So easy to get, not so easy to get rid of, particularly in the ears evidently. Anyway his consultant is Indian and takes a metal probe, wraps it in cotton wool and cleans his, presumably, eardrum with a liquid. M says it is sheer unadulterated agony. He said it also made him realise how he would be useless under torture and would buckle immediately. My husband is very 'no nonsense' and never makes a fuss about anything. He has a high pain threshold too..... which made me realise it must have been quite an ordeal. And it's not even working. I had read in Lonely Planet India that India is I think the only country in the world where 'professional ear cleaners' work on the street. You can rock up and have your ears cleaned for you. Not exactly sure why this is such a booming industry on th estreets of India. Maybe they all have fungal infections too. Well if the worst comes to the worst we can always try one of them when we go to India in October (not really). So that's where M' s consultant got the idea from. In the UK I had always been taught the maxim "never put anything smaller than your grandma's elbow in your ear" But M seems quite happy that because this guy is a consultant, he must know what he's doing. Personally I think the ear probe has unbalanced him......

Menawhile our son has been auditioning for the part of Mowgli in the school's production of The Jungle Book musical. He didn't get the part but he was told by both his teacher and the music teacher that he came 'this close', indicating a tiny space between thumb and forefinger, to getting the part. Personally I wonder if that is the 'primary school version' of "Don't call us, we'll call you".

I had tried to prepare him for tha fact that positive discrimination might have to be at play here. That a Caucasian boy with blonde, curly hair is unlikely to get the part of a 'man cub' from an Indian village in the middle of a jungle, especially as there are plenty of asians in the school. The other clincher for me was that he can't sing in tune. Very well. It's also quite a relief as it's a big part for a 7 yr old. He had learned 4 lines for the audition and a song . When I explained that Mowgli would be in every scene pretty much and with a lot of lines, he said he had thought the bit he learned was the whole part.....

Still he was as philosophical as ever, and said he actually was rather pleased to be a wolf instead, and get to wear a (fake) fur wolf's costume. What is it with my children and synthetic fabrics??

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tsunami Warning

Sri Lanka has just breathed a collective sigh of relief last night. Despite official, very high tsunami warnings, the Indian Ocean earthquake last night, which registered 7.9 or 8.4 on the Richter scale, (depending which website you read), did not cause a tsunami. It was the most severe since The 'quake' causing the devastating Tsunami of 2004. We were told to wait 2 hrs, then if nothing materialised the danger would be over. I was getting text messages from NGO wives, passing on info from spouses, and stupidly feeling glad I had passed up the opportunity for a birthday drink at the Galle Face, a hotel overlooking the sea! Such is the irrationality engendered by the word Tsunami. Colombo got flooded right on the beach by about 6 ft in places, but it wasn't a 'life or death' situation here, it was too far round to the south west of the quake zone.

At least there's an early warning system now, but it doesn't bear thinking about, even without loss of life, the devastation that could so easily be wreaked again, at any time, on all the reconstruction and rebuilding of lives, livelihoods and schools etc that my husband, amongst many others, has been involved with these last few yrs. Life does just carry on as normal again, but this warning, I think the 1st since the 2004 Tsunami, is a reminder that it might not.

Still you can't live like that. And I should know, I win medals for my worrying...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Across the Cultural Sea

On Sunday we went to Pakistani refugee family for lunch. My husband had got to know them over the summer whilst we were in England and had been helping them out a bit. There's a mother, father, uncle and 4 children. They were fleeing persecution in Pakistan. they are Christians and were being harassed by some Imams after helping organise a conference for a travelling evangelist. They even moved hundreds of miles to the capital, but were pursued and found there, so they fled the country.

I admit they were the lucky ones who were able to leave, but when you see how they live here in Sri Lanka and what they have sacrificed, you would not call them lucky. It's a bit like that idea of getting a criminal to meet his victims, to add the personal touch, to see the face and story behind the crime. When you meet an immigrant family and hear their story, it makes for a wholly different impression than the media or man in the street view. I would have to feel pretty desperate and at the end of my tether, to flee my home country, with 4 children, no possessions, leave a well paid job, decent house, and family, all that is familiar in fact, to start a new life in a strange country, with no guarantees that you will be accepted.

I have been reading George Alagaiah's (BBC correspondent) book "Home from Home" about his experience of being an immigrant from Sri Lanka in the UK, and how he adapted. It also discusses the UK's failed policy of multiculturalism and the realities and positive statistics behind immigration. A great read.

The children cannot speak Singhala so can't go to a government school, the international schools are too expensive, so the kids stay at home all day, with nothing to do. Someone in their church has lent them a small house, but they have to move again this wk/end. The house is next to a scummy patch of water, so lot of mosquitoes, and next to a rubbish tip. The father is a carpenter and has made some rudimentary furniture from cast off bits of wood. They are all very resourceful.

Sri Lanka is a holding bay for asylum seekers and refugees, they won't accept any (they have enough problems of their own) so temporary immigrants have no official status, they can't work. The father and uncle are ashamed that they are reduced to begging. The uncle is a mechanic back in Pakistan where he earned good money. Thank goodness for the church community though. In that too, they are 'lucky'. Whilst having lunch with them, a family from the Punjab, whom they had only met the day before, at a prayer meeting, knocked on the door and gave them several bags of groceries.

They came to our house for lunch a few weeks ago. I was glad we had lugged our trampoline all the way here in a container, the children loved it. They played very nicely with all our children's toys, but I think our son, in particular, was a bit overwhelmed by having his toys and territory so completely taken over. He hid in a tent most of the time, and didn't join in at all.

However this time at their house, we had taken them some toys, and our 7 yr old gradually warmed up and showed them how to play skittles, Jenga and ended up speaking the universal language of sport, cricket in this case, with the 3 boys, whilst our daughter had thawed out and was even allowing the Pakistani daughter to kiss her, which she did frequently, and played with her 2 dolls. She even deigned to have her finger and toe nails painted by the mother.

It was amazing how much English the children had learned even in the 2 wk since we had last seen them. Little sponges. They rattled through the flash cards I had brought like Shakespeare reading a "Janet and John" book.

The food was delicious. Chicken, biryani, rice, a cauli dish, chickpeas, and chapattis and parathas. this was followed by a cardamon scented rice pudding. Comfort food, Pakistani style. They insisted we drink fizzy drinks not the water which they said wdn't be good for us. But they drank straight from the tap. It's true we don't, and wouldn't!

When I saw the kitchen with one ring, no table, and one tap, I made my second resolution of the week and decided not to complain about my kitchen here lacking its western conveniences and ambience. As well a plying us with more and more food, they also insisted that we take a doggy bag of spare food home with us. They explained this is cultural and that you always press your guests to eat more, even putting food on their plate and insisting on taking food home. I realised how insecure I am about my culture, years of multiculturalism and fearing I couldn't 'celebrate' anything of my own culture probably. When they came to us, I cooked Indian food, as I assumed they wdnt want to eat bland western food, and didn't have the courage of my convictions to present it anyway. They had made milder versions for us, but I noticed the uncle surreptitiously wrapped a whole chilli in a paratha and ate mouthfuls of that with his chicken.

A Day in the Life of....

It's been a strange week. On Tuesday last week, a 17 yr old German boy from our son's school was found dead on the ground at an apartment block, used mainly by ex-pats, in the early hours of the morning. The police were treating it as a murder investigation. He didn't live there, but was found in what he slept in. Everyone at the school was very shaken. School was very quiet and subdued last week. He was a very popular boy, athletic, president of the student council, involved in several community projects, an avid football player, a keen break dancer and above all, a joker and entertainer. Everyone seemed to know him and like him. I had taught him several times when doing supply at the school. I was in school teaching last week. We had a session for the children from primary upwards, to talk about it and ask questions.

Rumours were flying around of course. It made it much harder for his class mates because no one really knew for about a week what had happened. People want that sorted in their mind before they can start to process it. The picture was further confused by the fact that there had been a murder 2 yrs ago of a Swedish woman at the same apartment block, and locals know the area as a 'bad' area. It now seems he committed suicide (he sent a text to his sister saying "forgive me") rather than having been pushed from a 4th or 5th floor window, having walked about 6km from the suburb where he lived. (That's a lot of thinking time.....) Forensics can tell this, in particular, from the way a person lands.

It's hard to comprehend a suicide; his friends remembered a lively, entertaining, popular and kind teenager. It's even harder for his parents. I can't begin to imagine. Not just the unadulterated grief, but the soul searching, asking oneself why and what one hadn't noticed, living with those unanswered questions.

Having been a teacher for 15 yrs in large British compreshensives, I had begun to wonder whether one death in 1300 was statistically normal. I was in my last school for 9 yrs and in that time 4 students and one teacher died. About one every 2 yrs. Here the school is only 400 strong. A much smaller, much closer community. Everyone knows everyone.

There was a celebration memorial for his life yesterday afternoon. Amazingly, his parents were at the door to greet everyone. The place was full. The video montage and students' memories were wonderful. Lots of teachers were crying. I was fine, not having been so closely involved, until right at the end the boy's father, a dignified, soft spoken man in his 50s, stood up to thank everyone for the overwhelming support of the community, the school, his son's friends who went to see them etc. He asked us to remember his son and his principles, his kindnesses, his sense of fun. Hearing him unable to do more than whisper these words, as he struggled monumentally to hold it together, and failed, just undid me.

Of course there are millions of tragic stories and griefs like this every moment the world over, but it is the personal ones which stray across your path, which draw you in and remind you of our common humanity. And it reminds me certainly, to relish life, my family and to grasp the mettle. A salutary reminder in a country where day to day I can get so frustrated and stressed by things that don't work, the traffic, the heat, the miscomprehension, the cultural gap, and it's tempting just to complain, withdraw and write the day off.