Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Absence, Aeroplanes and Alternative Careers

The children seem to have taken M being away for a week in their stride. It's not that different from a normal week I guess. Last time M was away for a week, just after his return, at bed-time I asked our 3 yr old if she would like to pray for Daddy in her prayers that night. She stopped, looked at me quizzically and said "Is Daddy coming to my house tonight?"

So far with this trip she has said everyday since Sunday "daddy's on the plane isn't he?" I reply "No he's in Albania" It was a long trip and 3 flights but it didn't take 3 days. By supper this evening she seemed to have it sorted "Daddy's not here, he's gone on a plane" she said triumphantly. That's right I encourage.
"He's in India" She adds. I guess it is confusing for a three year old. Her father spends a week away in Europe, we all fly to India on holiday on Saturday (only 3 hrs away) . He meets us in Delhi. Such is the life of an ex-pat child. She talks about going to Diggerland 'on Sunday' (in Devon), seeing her grandparents next week, (random adverbial time phrases), in the same breath as going to India. A plane is no more than a bus to a 3 yr old.

Our son is remaining rather more local. He is off on a field trip tomorrow to a Buddhist temple and a Dairy factory, (interesting combo I mused) They are doing a unit of work called "Here, There and Everywhere". Maybe they figure these two locations just about cover it. Milk and meditation.

At supper he said "Maybe dad could work in a dairy factory then he could come home at 5 o' clock, or better still 4.30p.m and we would get to see him and play."

I explained there weren't many jobs that would allow him to finish this early. Then he said what about being a teacher? (being a teacher myself, I resisted the urge to whip out my soap box and clamber on, at the erroneous connection he was making)
But he continued "Then I could go to the same school as him and see him during the day. I love seeing my family at school." (I teach at his school doing supply sometimes)

Poor boy, I hope he is not so deprived of his father's company that he is still saying this as a teenager. Well it would be nice, just a bit unusual........

I echo the sentiment, I would quite like to have my husband back too.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cricket Bats and Rugby Balls

That was a great weekend. A real sportfest. Just what my husband needed after a particularly manic week of work. Part of the reason I enjoyed it was because it reminded me of several positives of being out here. (Ironic how one notices these just when one is about to leave....) One was being able to pay R1500 (£7.50) to go and watch England play Sri Lanka in the 5th One Day International. Despite winning the series, England lost this match, and I have to say they did so very convincingly. I got to see a typical England 'collapse' in the flesh. It wasn't the most exciting of matches. The trumpet and drum playing of the Sri Lankan supporters was a spectacle in itself. Whole bands of impromptu musicians. The fans were conscientiously tireless in their support: music making, flag waving and whistling. I felt a bit lacklustre, not to say British, with my polite applause. Perhaps I should have waved a can of lager. But I didn't have one on me. The cricket ground is an alcohol free zone.

I had got there only for the last 3 hrs, (quite enough I felt) which meant arriving alone, in the dusk, in a not very salubrious area, safe but hassly, and consequently having about 4 men and 3 policemen telling me where I could and couldn't park, and guiding me into parking places, (and out of them) so that the former could then demand money for their unsolicited parking assistance. One guy said I owed him R200 for parking on the side of a bit of dirt/unmade up rd. I laughed and carried on. He kept pace with me, prodding me and saying I owed him money. It was a real pain, I received more hassle that evening than I had in the past 18 mths here put together. People mostly leave you alone. Sri Lanka is, I have found, very unusual in this. Even hawkers on beaches usually just walk past holding up stuff, or waft a few sarongs apologetically at you from a safe distance away. I feel almost bad for them thinking they will never get a sale if they don't hassle a bit more. Still I guess it was good preparation fro our trip to India next week, Sri Lanka being what I consider a very 'diluted' version of India.

The second reason was that M & I got to have a meal together at one of the 5* restaurants in Colombo, at 'greasy spoon prices' as a friend of mine puts it. I realise I have been living in Sri Lanka too long when I felt completely overwhelmed by the choice in this new restaurant, something I have become totally unused to here.

The final thing was watching our England Rugby team in the semi final of the World Cup playing France, in the company of our England Cricket team. A trifle surreal. I mean they were in the bar, having got back from the cricket (perhaps the 'collapse' was deliberately engineered so as not to miss the rugby.......) the bar was in the hotel where they were staying. I still hadn't thought of a witty comment, since our last encounter, but it didn't matter, they were well oiled by the time we got there and pretty soon were making more noise than the rest of the room put together, singing Swing Low, the National Anthem, pogo-ing and air punching.

I have to say it was the best atmosphere for a rugby match I have ever been in, full of this eclectic mix of British, Sri Lankan, Australian, French you name it, the British High Commissioner, the England cricket team. Quite a festive occasion. I couldn't imagine this happening in the UK. Despite being majority British, or perhaps because of that, no one took any notice of the cricketers at all. Just let them get on it. And perhaps, because we are so far from home, we felt a heightened surge of patriotism, and pride in our rugby team gaining a place once more in the Final. It felt quite nice, I'm not used to feeling patriotic, despite my homesickness.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Green Fingers and Lemon Grass.

It's official we have no gardener! I know, I know. Colonial outpost. Yes, gardeners are the stuff of ex-pat life. Job creation. In developing countries where lablour is cheap there is someone to do everything for you. This, in a supermarket includes, someone to unpack your trolley onto the belt, someone to pack the bags the other end, someone else again, to push the trolley to the car, and load i tintoyour car. And there's me, interfering, unpacking all the bags to reduce the number of plastic bags that are being used so wantonly, pushing my own trolley, loading the car, generally 'unjobbing' everyone.

In a clothes shops it can mean someone handing you a basket, someone else removing the hanger from the item you have picked up, then there will be about 3 people round the till to help too. And at least one assistant close on your heels (very different perameter of personal space here) as you browse. I find myself, increasingly irritated, playing childish games, like stopping suddenly, or changing direction. trying to outwit them. I know job creation is good, but I also don't want to get used to having someone do everything for me....

Housekeepers are the norm, many Sri Lankans and ex pats also have drivers, a security guard, a gardener, a cook or nanny. It's unbelievable. But affordable for many with each one's salary about US$100-130, a 'good' wage here. A garment factory worker here would earn US$80 a month, and could live on that.

Anyway Our Next Door Neighbour (ONDN) has refused to let us use his gardener anymore after my polite note (see post 'Tropical Fatigue'). Furthermore he has broken off all diplomatic relations with us. He has banned his gardener and 'cook' and cleaner, from talking to Maheswary, our househelp, or to us (even though they only speak Singhalese. so presumably hand gestures are banned too.......). He has also complained that he has to receive all our post at his house. It is not a conspiracy with the post office, they just choose to deliver our mail to him. (our house is at the bottom of his garden. He built it there) The gardener now comes to deliver our bank statement under cover of darkness, in case he should incense his boss at this flagrant breach of the rules of engagement.

Our landlord, Our Next Door Neighbour's son-in-law, who is utterly charming, gave us the number of a gardener. Turned out to be a gardening business by tuktuk. Lawn mower, brushes, spades, shears, you name it, all stuffed in the back of the little trishaw. This guy charged us 2 1/2 times what we used to pay, even Maheswary couldn't beat him down, but the grass was reaching snake-habitable height. It had to be cut, we have no mower, we have no gardening implements at all. As they say here (a lot) "What to do?"

I miss the 5 previous gardeners. (live-in gardeners of ONDN, who 'allowed' us to use him so he could then dock our payment to the gardener out of his monthly wages) The longest serving one came to say goodbye and shake our hand, the day before he slipped off in the middle of the night to go and till his own patch of soil back in Kurenagula. He exerted tremendous effort in his bid to communicate with us. We had the longest conversation we had ever had with him. He thanked us and said we were a 'good man, good lady'. Not really gratfiying, more sad really, when all we had ever done to gain this accolade was thank him for his work, pay him the going rate with a bonus at Christmas and Singhala New Year, as is traditional, and a glass of cold water while he worked.

Then there was the one who had run away from the army. Strictly Winston didn't drive him away, the army caught up with him and took him back. He didn't seem to think this such a hardship though strangely after a few months in ONDN's boot camp.

One of my favourites was the perpetually smiling guy who I found bent double pushing the lawn mower along on his knees under our trampoline because he didn't know it could move. He had evidently asked our househelp what it was. Must have thought us very strange to have this enormous circualr launch pad in our garden. M offered him a go on it. He wasn't at all keen.

All of these gardeners used to bring me lemon grass from ONDN's garden. I guess technically this was receiving stolen goods, as it came from ONDN's garden, next door just didnt use it. I didn't realise it was a clandestine gift until Maheswary told me. Still ONDN solved that dilemma for me. No gardener, no lemon grass.

Leave Taking

We said farewell to some good friends on Tuesday. They're heading back to the UK for a job in London. Such is the nature of the NGO life/ex-pat life. People come and go. Everyone's first question is 'how long are you here for?' Everyone is weighing up whether it's worth getting to know you. I hate that. I have, unfortunately, found myself doing the same thing. If you meet someone and they're leaving in 6 mths time, you do wonder a bit if it's worth the investment of time and energy. I try really hard not to get into that mindset. I don't want to regard people in that way.

But with friends leaving, and thoughts of the UK, it has made me think about the things here which I have whinged about. Rats, geckos, cockroaches, ants, traffic, humidity, large spiders, mad drivers, things breaking, things not working, power cuts, pollution, nasty diseases, poor quality workmanship, endless bureaucracy etc. I realise that they're not that big a deal. Or maybe I have just learned to cope with things better. A lot of frustrations and stresses but I can laugh about them more now, and don't let things get to me quite so much. Maybe I have finally acculturised.........??

There are huge benefits to the children (particularly at this young age) of living in another culture, learning tolerance, an outward looking perspective, having friends from so many different countries, seeing new, different places, 'celebrating diversity' as our son's school puts it.
I also realise I am quite enjoying this as an experience now. I even agree with the Director of A's school who, a year ago, told me he quite liked the chaos and madness in this country. I looked at him in astonishment. But I do too, in many ways, now. Rules are flexible, you are left to your own devices, it's certainly not a nanny state, it feels much more free, bizarrely than the UK. Of course that's partly what causes the mayhem. Everyone does their own thing. I know, of course, that for the Tamils, and anyone getting on the wrong side of the State, life is not so good. And of course the country is rotten to the core, high up on the World Corruption Index, soaring inflation, high cost of living, a full blown civil war, 3 meglomaniacal brothers running the country, or rather ruining the country.

I don't even miss the seasons as much as I used to. I don't like the humidity, but summer clothes make life very easy and nice, and blue skies and sunshine do wonders for one's mental health.

I guess being here has taught me not to take anything for granted (health, clean environment, the Highway code, choice of food, friends, safety etc) And as a jaded old Westerner, I have learned to appreciate everything so much more, particularly simple pleasures. Treats, a nice cup of coffee, having good quality food in a restaurant, sleeping on a sprung mattress when staying in a hotel (ours is a foam slab), a week with no cockroaches (or big spiders).... I am much, much better at focussing on the positives I think. And that can't be a bad thing. I do, though, still blog and email madly, a sign of someone still needing solace and catharsis, not to mention companionship. It makes me feel a bit pathetic, whilst all my busy, fulfilled, sociable friends/harrassed parents in the West, have little time for such cyber activity.

Of course all this positivity may be because the end of the contract is in sight. We leave at the end of the year. Ironically M is more ready to leave than I am though. He's exhausted and in danger of burning out. Whilst I have just begun to get used to things.......

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

True Love's Kiss

The 'Prince Charming and Princesses' theme continues in our home. Our daughter asked me recently "But which handsome prince will marry me?" Knowing her delightful, but nevertheless, determined and diva-like qualities at times, my immediate thought was a "A very brave one......" I didn't tell her this.

Yesterday she was singing her song about Sleeping Beauty. She loves acting it out. She is always Sleeping Beauty. Of course. She knows most of it off by heart. It goes "The princess slept for a hundred years, a hundred years, a hundred years " etc. Then "A handsome prince came riding by, riding by, riding by " etc. She then adds what she thinks is the next verse "He woke her up for 20 minutes, 20 minutes, 20 minutes". My daughter is a realist. She has obviously modelled her prince on an accurate appraisal of herself, accepting that any handsome prince could only cope with her for that cluster of minutes, before breathing a sigh of relief, as she slipped into another centennial slumber.

My son, meanwhile told me he is playing the Prince in his 'group's' version of Cindarella in Performing Arts at school.

"Wow!" I said "Great!"

He said "it's funny whenever we have a prince in stories, I usually have to play him. I don't know why."

I, of course, being his mother, know this is because he is impossibly handsome and extraordinarily charming. I don't tell him this.

He then confides in me at bath time, "It's a bit embarrassing actually."

"Why?" I ask, "Do you have to kiss Cindarella?"

"No", he says "but I nearly have to. We do a near kiss."

Ah. 'A miss is as good as a mile' to a seven year old.

He says he wishes I could come and watch it. He wants me there, even though the near miss-kiss is a trifle embarrassing.

He's made my day.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Dengue Drama

We had a dengue scare this week. A nasty mosquito borne virus. We got back from our wk/end away with our daughter suffering from a fever, a headache and an 'eye headache' as she called it. Dengue has a few classic symptoms such as headache, sore or headachey eyes and a rash appearing on about day 3, all with a high fever. Our daughter had a headache for 2 days and a very high fever. We waited anxiously for a day 3 rash to appear. Her next symptom was a stiff neck. Oh no. Now another horrible virus to worry about, though at least with this one I know about folding the child up to get them to touch their chin on their chest. And I know you don't dance and sing with Meningitis..... No rash was forthcoming and by the morning of the third day her fever had gone down. She bounced into our room in the morning. full of beans, accompanied by more singing, and new dance moves. And I marvelled again enviously, but with relief, at how incredibly quickly children bounce back from illness.

You have to have a blood test to confirm dengue. You also have to be hospitalised to keep a careful watch on your platelets as dengue, for some reason, causes a drastic drop in your platelet levels. A friend was in hospital with Dengue a week ago. Her platelets went down to 50, 000 (normally around 250-400, 000) If it gets really bad they transfuse you. They also put you on a drip and test your blood twice a day. The scenario made me feel weak, as I contemplated battling my daughter in hospital, yet again (with paediatrically unsympathetic nurses), until her platelets went up again, and as they tried to extract blood from her, and inflicting yet another week in hospital on her three year old life.

This friend, who was in hospital with dengue, had got it for the second time. It suddenly brings it to the fore again. You get blase about it, as months go by and you evade it. Suddenly we were all putting insect repellent on everyday again. Not that it works. My daughter comes home from nursery covered in bites every day and I apply repellent to her religiously every morning.

Anyway this friend was told rather unhelpfully by another 'friend' on hearing her news, "You can't get dengue twice, you die!" This would have reduced me to a neurotic wreck, and in fact we have heard of several locals who have died from it. But my friend, a survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and an amazing and joyful woman, said matter of factly, "Well, I'm still walking around and so is my husband, 4 yrs after having it twice". And then calmly explained that there are about 7 strains of dengue. It's dangerous when you get the SAME strain twice. Don't know why. Still sounds a bit of a lottery. And then there's Dengue Haemorraghic Fever, much rarer (in the lottery stakes) but 50% fatal. Ho hum.

Pesky Critters

The spiders are back. 3 in this last week. Not the huge stripey legged ones we had 3 of in our bedroom a while ago (complete with egg sack and baby spiders running everywhere. See blog "Life's Wild in Colombo" March 20th) but these new ones have a bulbous body about 3 cm long, 1.5cm thick, legs 7 cm. They are dove grey and almost downy. You can even see their little fangs and eyes at the front. A bit like Charlotte in Charlotte's Web, but markedly less cute than even that uncuddly creature. We had one outside our bedroom on the wall, one on the trampoline cushions which our son had unwittingly carried outside. When they saw it later on the wall, they both screamed and had to be 'airlifted' off the trampoline and carried inside for 'safety'. So much for life in a tropical country hardening our children to such things. The third spider was another type again. Even longer thicker legs, black with a black and white marking on its body.

I must say though, the children take the 'rat exploits' with amazing nonchalance. We had the pest control here again today, as the rat poison we have in little trays in every room, doesn't seem to work. Tell tale chewed tea towels, plastic containers with teeth marks, scufflings etc suggested they were back. I just don't know how they are getting in, that's what bothers me. The gullies are all weighted down now.

Anyway I told the children. Not a flicker of concern, or even interest. They were interested in why I had put peanut butter in the mousetrap however......The pest guys pour some noxious, and no doubt highly toxic, substance down all our loos, all the 'gullies' in the bathroom floors (drains with hinged covers in the corner of each bathroom, which the rats use to pop in of an evening, or quiet moment, if you don't put a heavy weight on them) It smells awful. I dread to think what all the chemical waste is doing to the waterways here. They spray in all the drains and holes outside too. I imagine it just deters the rats, it can't kill them surely? I have refused to have the house fumigated to deter ants, geckos and cockroaches (even though lots of people do this) because I don't want poisonous fumes being inhaled by my children. It is supposed to last up to 6 months. If it kills all those things and lasts that long, what is it doing to us? I prefer to fight those battles in single combat.

A teacher at our son's school asked to see the list of chemicals the maintenance guys were spraying the school with everyday. He looked them up on the Internet and found at least 2 of them had been banned in the States for 20 yrs. So you can't be too careful. In fact it is pretty impossible to BE careful in this country. So many hazards. I try. One of the guys dug out a hole he found near our outside tap. He said he saw a huge black rat in there.

I prefer the low tech method of pest elimination. But then there's low tech and low tech........ For example the glue method (Our house-help highly recommends this method. The pest guys agree. Sounds a bit messy. You literally put glue stuff down, and the rat sticks to it. Alive. Then all you have to do is kill it. Sounds even more messy.....

Antd then there's another gecko story. Not content with falling into our kettle, drowning, and decomposing undetected in there, a fellow curious gecko crawled into the tiny steamhole in our rice cooker the other day. (A 1cm max hole) It was one night when M was home alone and cooking for himself. He swore it was empty when he filled the rice cooker with water, poured the rice in, and turned it on. However, when he came to turn it off, lifted the lid, and the steam cleared, there lying in a bed of fluffy basmati was a boiled gecko.

Monday, October 1, 2007

It's an Ex-Pat Life for me........

It's been a bit of an 'ex-pat lifestyle' week this week. On Wed it was M's birthday and also a Poya day, so we decided to go to our favourite hotel for a swim. It's the old Governor's residence from the days when the British 'ruled' Ceylon. It certainly looks the colonial part, white pillars, doorman in pith helmets (no, really), afternoon tea, complete with tiered cake stand etc. And as members of the Association of British Residents we swim for free, and get 10% off food. (Who said the Empire was dead?) That was a joke by the way. I like it because it's where I had my 1st 'happy day' in Sri Lanka. I thought, if we can come somewhere like this to 'escape' then I can survive. How wimpy is that?

Our son said to me "Is daddy really 41?" Yes really, I replied. He sighed and said
"I wish you were both 30 again" (YOU wish, I thought....) I asked why and he replied
"I just don't like you growing up so fast"
A man after my own heart.

On Fri, M's NGO hosted a Farewell and Thank You Celebration for the completion of the Tsunami work. In the speech by the Regional Director, he thanked us spouses for our support in 'allowing our spouses to work at the start 7 days a week' (that wasn't us thankfully, as we arrived a year later) and for being so gracious and understanding about 'our spouses working 14 hrs days'. This whingy old bag felt very ungracious, thinking, when did I or the children ever agree to that? It is a sad truth that in the time we have been here, we have seen people succumb to stress, burn out, quit, marriages break up and children seeing very little of their working parent. It doesn't feel a very family friendly career. But that is Emergency Response more than Development. She said optimistically, with an ever so slightly hysterical laugh.

At this do they had party games. I had not been to a very Sri Lankan party before. The Sri Lankans were SO into the party games. One of which I remember from my childhood; making an outfit from newspaper. They were superb at it. They made a Kandyan dancer, a Sri Lankan traditional bride, a soldier, incredibly intricate designs. It left us Westerners in the shade. Also the Sri Lankans loved dancing. But the cultural difference was the band struck up a song, and all the........MEN.... raced to the dance floor and were, let's say, uninhibited in their grooving and jiving compared to the soft shoe shuffle of the Western men.

One of the night's unexpected highlights. Despite being the NON-Hello reader that I am, nevertheless I always enjoy spotting a celebrity and thinking 'wow they seem quite normal. No second head'. Our party was at the same hotel as the England cricket team were staying in, and as we came out of the door of our function room, who should be peering in to get a piece of the action, but Kevin Pieterson, and Ryan Sidebottom. Strangely Pieterson was much taller than he appears on tv. I thought the reverse was true of TV. It was one of those situations where you want to say something (preferably cool and witty) but of course can think of nothing to say. At the time. My husband also refused to ask for an autograph for our son (who loves cricket), because he didn't want them to think it was for him! Being 41 he now considers himself far too grown up to collect autographs. So our son was right. If he'd been 30 perhaps he'd have done it.

Finally this weekend we spent in the nicest hotel we've stayed in, in Sri Lanka. I had won a prize to stay there in a raffle in June. I have to say this is what I will miss most about Sri Lanka when we leave; being able to stay in lovely places cheaply, by palm fringed tropical beaches. The trips we have done with the childen all over Sri Lanka have been a wonderful experience, and one I hope they will remember a bit of.

This week wasn't all gins slings and lunch on the verandah though. I spent 5 and a half hours in hospital with my daughter on Tues having a scan of her kidneys to check her repeated urine infections hadn't scarred her kidneys. I received very Sri Lankan intsructions. As if perfectly simple and straight forward. "Wake your 'baby' at 5,30 so she will be sleepy because she must sleep during the scan". I said she doesn't sleep during the day. They said "She must. We will give her 'syrup'". Last time they did this, they said it took 20 mins to work. She fell asleep immediately. They came to fetch her 20 mins later despite me telling them she was already asleep. She woke up the minute they started to scan her. So I wasn't brimming with confidence. Neverthelss I was taken to a darkened room, told to remove my shoes, turn my phone off and 'make your baby go to sleep'. Right then, no problem. We lay on the bed, she danced, she bounced on the bed, she fidgeted, I pleaded, she giggled. No sign of said syrup inducing drowsiness. After 47 minutes she suddenly fell asleep. She woke up 15 minutes into the scan but seemed curiously unfazed by the velcro-ed blanket binding her to the bed under a giant 'camera' which rotated. The dr then told me the scan was 'no good' because she had been moving. ever so slightly. I nearly wept. It is amazing how often my daughter can reduce me to tears of frustration and defeat. So he did 10 mins more and seemed satisfied. Hari hari. O.K, O.K. Head wobble. Head wobbled back. Must remember to lose this habit once departed from Asia.

On Thurs my husband came home in despair, having opted out of a work do that night and told me how he had been on the verge of tears all day with so much to do, and so many demands on him, many un-solveable. I was utterly amazed and not a little worried. I have been married 16 yrs and NEVER once seen my husband cry, or even admit to needing to or being close to it. (whether this is normal or not, is material for another day) He just doesn't. Not even when our children were born. I'm not sure he actually knows how to. Probably just as well, I do enough for both of us. He is so stressed and under pressure, that I wonder if he is on the edge of a breakdown. He is very different in himself too. I remember a very conscientious colleague of mine at my old school who had a nervous breakdown, and a term off. One of his symptoms, apart from feeling utterly unable to cope, was crying 'for no reason' and not being able to stop, so he told me. The Director didn't mention anything about this in his Thank You speech. Thank you for being willing to subject yourself to a nervous breakdown. Your contribution was very gratefully received. Your family can have you back now. Maybe they will provide the sticking plaster and glue............

Two sides of the ex-pat coin.