Thursday, May 31, 2007

Are You Chicken?

We had a roast chicken supper yesterday evening. Our second in 15 months in Sri Lanka.

It is certainly a heavy, wintry meal to have in 34' heat, (particularly if you are in the kitchen cooking it) but the main reason I don't cook it, is the chickens you buy here are so scrawny, with very little meat on them. Certainly not well endowed in the breast department either (which let's face it is quite crucial for a roast chicken)

It turns what should be a 'Sunday lunch' extravaganza, of the kind that Nigella Lawson waxes lyrical about, into a rather sad, deflated affair.

Still I was determined to give it another whirl. The meal did not begin auspiciously. I put the skinny chicken on the table with as much pazazz as I could manage, whereupon our 3 yr old took one look at it and said "mummy, is it a froggie or a chicken?"

I explained that despite its spreadeagled crouch and overall 'smallness' it was indeed a chicken, and that we didn't eat frogs. She would not believe me however, and said, "I don't want any".

M began to carve it, or rather ferreted around, increasingly frustrated, trying to locate the white meat, muttering pointedly "thin birds don't have breasts".

However things began to look up when our daughter, on spotting the familiar looking meat emerging as dad carved it, said "Oh sorry Mummy, it's a rabbit. Can I have some?"

Obviously a cold-hearted carnivore. The emotional impact of Charlotte's Web, or Peter Rabbit would clearly be lost on her....

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Go Geckos!

Our son's school sports teams are known as The Geckos. The logo, on all t shirts, and other school merchandise is a splay toed gecko. You see the logo everywhere. Their slogan is "Go Geckos!" A sentiment I echo, if with slightly different emphasis on the "go".

I used to think them really rather sweet, and harmless. until that is, we moved to Sri Lanka. We see them everywhere too, of course. The real ones. In our house. that's fine and to be expected. What I don't like is their disconcerting habit of plopping spongily onto you whenever you are drawing curtains, opening cupboards etc. Or dropping out of my guest's trousers when she went to put them on in the morning...

However their little gecko poos are beginning to grate. They leave them everywhere. Judging from their prolific, if tiny, bowel movements, I am inadvertently providing them with too much to eat.

But what I really object to is them climbing into my kettle and drowning. Our househelp recently found a dead, and pretty decomposed, gecko in our kettle. It had climbed in between the mesh over the spout and a tiny 0.5 cm gap above the strainer part of the lip. And then couldn't get out. I am sorry about that part of the story. We have never looked in the kettle but filled it from the spout. We look now, obsessively, however.

Maheswary, who has killed rats with her 'bare' broom, (in our house), and is fearless, where insects and rodents are concerned, and also not averse to a little slack hygiene, was so repulsed by this discovery that she is still boiling her water for her morning tea in a saucepan a month later...

She also clearly doesn't trust her own cleaning prowess, as she had scrubbed the kettle out, (with Vim I discovered later, probably poisoning us more than the gecko was) but still won't drink boiled water from it.

My husband was characteristically unphased by all this and informed me, matter of factly, that I would have been drinking a 1 millionth part decomposed gecko in my tea so it was really nothing to worry about, despite Maheswary's firm belief that they are highly poisonous, bad, bad creatures.

Whereas I felt like Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" saying "I have drunk and seen the spider" I am with him on this one. If I hadn't seen it or known about it, I would have been fine......

After all, restaurants function on that axiom all the time don't they??

Driving Me Crazy. Crazy Me Driving...

A bomb went off in a suburb on the outskirts of Colombo last night. So the police in their wisdom, (much like the stable door of bolting horses fame), decided to do 100% checking this morning. So Colombo once more ground to a halt.

It took me 1 hr 20 mins to get to a friend's house, a journey that, even at midday with schools traffic, normally takes me 15 mins. Every rd into town has a police check point (nothing unusual there for Colombo) but on these particular 100% days, they check everyone. Really everyone. It does rather slow things down.

The other problem was my fuel guage was on empty. So we had the a/c on the lowest setting, and somehow we made it to this friend's house (for what was to be my 1st ever baby shower) adding to the stress of sitting in Colombo traffic for nearly 1 1/2 hrs with an empty petrol tank. There was no petrol station between our suburb and my friend's house, despite being two of the main rds.

There was a reason I had no petrol. I had driven into a petrol station to fill up on the way, and in the process nearly killed a man. Then I nearly got killed in a lynching because of having nearly killed this man.....

I had driven in, spotted a pump with only one tuktuk at it, so went into reverse to get the tank on the right side. Suddenly there was loads of yelling and shouting at me, so I stopped immediately. Don't know how I hadn't seen it on the way in, but whilst reversing I wasn't able to see that there was a manhole cover open, WITH a man in it, creating an open hole right in the middle of the petrol forecourt, with no tape, no warning. Sweet diddly. This is normal here (and why in the recent floods people disappeared down open manholes hidden under flood waters) but I need to mention this fact in my defence. I had not spotted it and was busy reversing over him. He was chest deep in the hole, so not seeable thru the back windscreen or wing mirror.

Anyway SUDDENLY from nowhere, there were about 15 men all round the car and round the man. They were glaring at me, head shaking, shouting. I got out apologised again and again, said could I do anything, but they just carried on glaring and shouting and pointing at the man's shoulder, upper back and arm which had dust marks on. I didn't know what to do, or what I was expected to do, to appease the mob. I hasten to add he was fine physically, though no doubt as shaken by the experience as I was, at my having nearly maimed him.

Anyway eventually a man came up who was probably the manager of the petrol station and said it's fine, don't worry etc etc. I was quite shaken both by having nearly run someone over and also by this baying mob, and I just drove out without petrol..... And again why suddenly were 15 people this guy's best mate, fighting his battles for him I don't know. It was almost as if they really believed I was deliberately trying to bump this man off. Or maybe they just wanted a bit of drama and some blood shed (mine) to liven their day.

I can't get over (like the guy who stepped out in front of me on Hill St a few months ago), how people here do utterly mad things and then turn on you when they get 'hurt' or something happens as if it's your fault. On that occasion I was turning right at a green light. He popped out from the queue of cars at a red light in the next lane. He didnt even look once in the direction of the oncoming traffic. He just stepped out. I got similar abuse then for driving through a green light.

I know bus drivers are literally lynched by passengers if they cause an accident, even though no one on the bus seems to complain about their very dangerous driving. Buses are the worst culprits of anyone in Sri Lanka. They are absolutely terrifying at times.

Last week, on my way to meet my husband I had to swerve THREE times OFF the rd because a van, a small lorry and then a car all decided to overtake up a hill on the main street in my suburb and just drove straight towards me. But that's normal. Here.

My husband has got out of a tuktuk and refused to pay or continue because the tuktuk was driving the wrong way up a (busy) one way street. Knowingly.

Well I'm safely back home now. And I'm staying put....

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Elephant Ride

An elephant being transported on the back of a lorry is quite a common sight in Sri Lanka. No doubt being taken from A to B for one of the festivals. So much so that M would often say "guess what I saw on the way home from work yesterday?"

The children would shout "an elephant on the back of a lorry, dad" And invariably they were right...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Wesak, wet weather and wedding anniversaries

Well the monsoon has arrived. Right on cue after Wesak (Buddha's enlightenment) Rained non stop for two days. torrential rain. I can't get used to the quantity, or the loudness of the thunder and lightning. Our house, with mossie netting above windows, means it's very loud. Lightning and thunder goes on ALL day quite often! Very wearing.

M took 2 1/2 hrs to get to work on Thurs (12 km) because of flooding, fallen trees etc etc. We had a jack fruit tree fall on our house. one of our electricity phases fused. Floods everywhere, as every yr. But usual crisis management. nothing done to pre-empt it. I guess because that wd cost money, and the govt is bankrupt...

The govt, of course, have gone straight to the NGOs (whom they villify constantly in the papers) asking for money and aid to help, as this constitutes an emergency evidently, even though we all know it happens every yr. Many roads under a foot of water. Most deeper than any ford Ive ever been through. I went in a very big pothole hidden by floods on Fri, in the car. Fortunately the wheel survived intact. A girl stepped into an open manhole covered by water and disappeared. Doesn't bear thinking about. Someone else stepped off a bus and did the same thing. The total tally of missing people was 9, I think, in Colombo.

I went to collect my son on Fri , walked 2 mins into school carrying a golfing umbrella. By the time I was at the school steps, it looked like I had swum to school up the river, I was sodden. I always wear flipflops on such days, and understand why they are the national footwear of choice.

A's theory is that "so many Sri Lankans wear flip flops, so that they don't get struck by lightning when out and about' I daresay a good precautionary measure...

A 15 ft hole appeared in the Galle rd. The main rd in Colombo. It broke from underneath. Evidently caused by the volume of water bursting a pipe, then eroding sandstone under the road, and with nothing to support it, the tarmac collapses! Amazing a car wasn't in it.........! Life's never dull here. The newspapers were saying it was an earth quake. Anything to save face. The water engineers know better....

Hoping for dry weather on Tues, (A's bday) as we have 14 v excited children plus a bouncy castle and neither the children or the bouncy castle will fit easily in the house..... Computer was back for one day from the repairers (having been hit by lightning 5 wks ago) before M discovered they had loaded an illegal copy of windows, (quite normal here, but we actually have the licenced version!)so he cdnt get the Microsoft updates, so back to the shop.

Our car's a/c broke, the driver's door lock stopped working in the rain. The tree is still lying across our roof, the elctricity at least is back on, tho our househelp won't iron in the lightning......As they say, it never rains but it pours. Certainly true in Sri Lanka.

Had a great time away for 3 days in the hills. Not that cool. M got sunburnt again (after living here a year..). We all got leeches on us after a lovely walk. Me, despite wearing leech socks which came up to my thighs. I felt a bit silly in them initially but soon was smiling smugly. The one I got on me was in the hotel room, transferred from my daughter! Our son's was on his tummy, he was amazingly calm. Our 3 yr old lost it, but that was the sight of blood gushing down her leg, not the leech itself! A's bled all day. Yuk.

M won the prize for most leeches. He got 3 which had managed to burrow in and start sucking, and about 7 on his socks trying to wriggle through. Salt worked wonders though. They pulled out immediately and you could then flick them off.

On our trip to the south coast there were lots of little frogs in one place we stayed, which kept sneaking under the door into our room. Everyone ele seemed to manage to avoid them but my bare flat size 7s squelched one every time I got up from a chair, a bed, anywhere. I seem to attract squishy animals it seems....However I am always grateful for any encounter that is not a snake. Yesterday I encountered a chameleon on the inside of the window in the study/. Don't know how it got there but it immediately turned a bright green as I approached it. Perhaps the chameleon equivalent of blushing. Don't know why it's always me who has these encounters...

We were away for our daughter's third birthday. She had a lovely birthday tea, once back, sporting her fairy wings and wand which a little girl had given her. We gave her a teepee, so she and her little friends (and our almost 7 yr old) diasappeared into that for most of the time, so it was actually quite civilised, and, being a poya day, mums and dads were there. Well 3 couples anyway, we know through work. I refuse to do parties for children under 4. Just as well when I saw the way they are done here, middle class Sri Lankan style (which is what most of her nursery friends seem to be, even though it's very cheap to go there). Face painter, merry go round, balloon sculptor, bouncy castle, food for adults, magician, pony rides. And themed matching balloons, decor etc. A major exercise in one upmanship, showing off, or establishing your status credentials. Not sure what they wd have made of my home made cake, bunting and random balloons, and I certainly wasn't about to find out....

We had a pink cake as requested, and it was a suitably frothy pink occcasion, (yes I managed to find the odd pink balloon), though in our daughter's usual eclectic fashion, interspersed with playing trains, shooting guns and burping. She has now started asking her brother if she can come to his party, though isn't convinced, as he says 'only if you wear a dress'. She is weighing up whether her aversion to dresses or desire to go the big children's party will win the day (added incentive of the party is seeing Jo Hyung again, A's korean friend who she dotes on, and flirts outrageously with, as astonishingly, 3 yr olds seem very adept at.)

Next celebration is our wedding anniversary. 16th actually. Can it really be that many? One of my bridesmaids is getting married this year. 1st time. My other bridesmaid is still unmarried, though well on the way it seems (to me anyway...) Somehow the two things don't harmonise. Funny thing chronology.

I was invited to a family friend's joint 80th birthday and 40th wedding anniversary, which took place on Saturday. Couldn't go of course, stuck out here. Desperate as I am for social contact, London is a long way to go for a party. They are one of the most 'young at heart' couples I have ever met. I was extremely sad to miss it as I regard them almost as surrogate parents (not that there's anything wrong with mine, but always nice to have extras to fall back on, I feel)

However I was very grateful for the invitation, as it made me feel quite spring chicken-ish in weight of years. Sixteenth suddenly didn't seem so huge.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Jaffna Cakes, Jabs and Gym Drama

Well we are well into the New year, M's parents have arrived, causing untold excitement. Our daughter wdn't let them out of her sight, and can't work out why they should want to go off and see Sri Lanka on their own whilst the main attraction (ie HER) is left in Colombo awaiting their return. We had a lovely 4 days in the hill country again with them, before work and school beckoned. Even for me as I had another day's supply on Mon.

Last week a friend and NGO colleague texted me from Jaffna, in the Tamil north (conflict zone) and said he had a challenge for me. He wanted cake recipes for colleagues up there who are cut off, and food is rationed and in short supply. They were desperate for something nice to eat! There is one UN plane a week in and out, and one commercial flight, for which there is currently a waiting list of 20, 000 people wanting to get out.

They could get flour, sugar and eggs but no butter. So I sent them a fat and flour free chocolate cake recipe, a carrot cake which uses oil , and a tea bread. An interesting challenge. And it was nice this guy thought to ask me for ideas. Such is my life, that little things like this count for a lot to me, and it was great to be able to offer small encouragement to the tenacious colleagues who are still working up there in the midst of the fighting.

Similarly I would be pleased when we get asked to a children's party or a school event because it means social contact. Going out somewhere. I could relate to 'Thewifeinthenorth' in her blog asking her London guests if they wanted to go to the village fete with her. They looked incredulous and aghast all at once... One definitely has lowered expectations in this environment. Being in a new place, new culture, knowing few people. You do what you have to do. Initially you can't afford to be choosy. Time was when I loathed children's parties....

I have two embarrassing confessions. The 1st is I have discovered we have been calling our house help by the wrong name for the last 6 1/2 months. She wrote her name on a piece of paper when we 1st employed her, as Mahes (space) Swary. So I called her Mahes. She never objected........Turns out her name is Maheswary Suppiah.

Felt like the archetypal colonialist who finds the 'servant's' name too difficult so renames them something simple and English, like Jane. I feel excruciatingly embarrassed. It cropped up because I was signing a form for her. So now I have put the children on an intensive crash REtraining course on Mahes'es new 'real' name. Think it's worked. our son adapted without so much as a flicker. Our daughter learned it too, but then she likes using long words.............Maheswary commented how 'beautifully' she said her name. Phew........

Wish potty training was this simple. Seems the nursery have 'trained' her, (so they delight in telling me) but she reverts to type when she comes home and wees all over the floor, at regular intervals, with a cheerful 'oh dear, never mind. Get me clean pants mummy.'

Second embarrassing confession:....
I fell off the treadmill today in the gym........... ( I have to say I have NEVER done that before in 16 yrs of going to gyms!) Not sure how exactly, but think I was craning my neck slightly to watch the news on the TV which is so close to the treadmills but to the left, that it must have thrown me off balance! M very kindly asked if it was sheer exhaustion, or simply a 'dizzy' blonde moment............

Anyway it created quite a frisson of excitement for the Sri Lankan gym members as it was rather noisy and spectacular. I have discovered that once 'down', there is no way of regaining oneself as the belt just kept going, buffeted me to the end, despite my frantic scrabbling, and launched me off the end, where I landed at the feet of the rather surprised gym trainer (who wanted to know what I had done exactly. I'm surprised I didnt have to fill in a form actually. I'm so glad Sir Lankans don't know blonde jokes...).

Still, apart from a few nasty friction burns, a bump on the head and a complete loss of dignity, I survived intact. I fear, however, I did nothing to dispel the notion amongst sri lankan gym users that treadmills are nasty, dangerous pieces of equipment which should be tackled at no more than a leisurely walk. I guess they thought the crazy honkie who insists on running on it, has finally had her comeuppance. After kindly checking I was ok, offering plasters etc, the 3 women carried on their sedate walk and the man resumed his conversation on his mobile as he treaded the 'mill'. Perhaps it's just that even in the gym, Asians tackle everything at a leisurely pace. (everything that is except driving.)

M is still working 14 hr days. It is a huge job, with not enough staff. He takes our 6 yr old to school at 7a.m and reappears some time after 9 p.m. So I am trying to cultivate an interest in my own company. Even people at work (apart from his bosses, of course...) tell him to go home and see his family evidently. (I'm just hoping it' s not always going to be like this in development. I'm not overly optimistic though. I am trying to view it as a short term situation, and be a supportive wife, but have to say I am struggling with it.

However on the positive side, his 2 bosses here really like him (and his work...) He has also met some key people in the organisation, as M's boss told them they ought to meet him. So that's at least a big relief. I don't think it will ever be as hard to get a job again in development as it has been these last 4 yrs. I feel like we have finally made a break through.

One of the many things he is currently working on, is devising the process for getting rid of his NGO's assets when the Tsunami team leaves. I thought it was simple, the government just claims everything...... But hopefully that can be avoided. The gov't HAVE said with his NGO's 12 land cruisers that either they pay 100% import tax or, as a way of avoiding this, donate them to the govt (which just happens to be bankrupt and is devising ways, left, right and centre, of squeezing any revenue it can out of it foreign workers, companies and NGOs.)

I took the children for Rabies, Hep B boosters last week. Total tally of jabs since 2005 for our 2 yr old 27, our 6 yr old 19. I am trying to buy into the theory that actually immunisations act as a workout for the immune system keeping it limbered up and fit, rather than the more pessimistic view that one's immune system is compromised and assaulted by having so many vaccinations.....

Don't know what logic to use when breathing in the noxious fumes from our next door neighbours' gardener burning plastics every night or the pollution we breathe in on a daily basis. Or what wearing 50% deet insect repellent every day does to your skin. or what catching chikungunya does to your body. Such are a few of the non-western anxieties of a trailing spouse/mother in a developing country. And yes, I have plenty more...........

A couple of weeks ago M's NGO had two of their staff abducted in full day light in the East, from a logo-ed vehicle. They were carrying their NGO ID too.
Previously NGOs have always been protected and allowed freedom of mvt to work etc here. These were two women. Fortunately M's boss was 'on the ground' in Mullativu and could negotiate and they were released after the w/e. but the LTTE is also saying they no longer respect the neutrality of the NGOs so each Tamil NGO worker has to send one of his family to help the war effort. Everyone who's a Tamil has to do this. Previously NGO workers & their families were exempt. So NGOs attacked from both sides/camps now. Government and LTTE.

In fact both M's NGO and another Dutch NGO, both of whom have been specifically targetted in the press, have had drivers and local workers dragged out of their cars and roughed up by govt soldiers and been accused of supporting the LTTE, in fairly nasty incidents. We have also heard first hand from a colleague visiting Jaffna that a headteacher told him she lost 1 or 2 girls a week, to Govt soldiers who come and take them away, rape them, slit their throats and throw them down wells.

It's becoming a very dirty war. Increasingly civilians caught up in it and even targetted. govt guilty of human rights abuses. Somewhere between 400 and 1000 Tamils just 'disappeared' last yr in COLOMBO (acc to AI). The LTTE are abducting children to fight etc. The govt is waging a war agst NGOs too, slandering what they have achieved, accusing them of supporting the LTTE etc. Recently M's NGO amongst other NGOs, appeared on a Govt National Security website blacklist as supporters of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers). And have been named in the papers as supporting the LTTE. It's complete nonsense of course but that doesn't matter, Joe Public believes the papers.

The day to day stresses of living in a frustrating, developing country don't help either. And one which is at war, so security is paramount making for ridiculous traffic situs. You can't park anywhere, rd blocks everywhere, suddenly introduced one way systems, (which don't work) you get stopped all the time to be checked by the army or police. I got quite shaken a few weeks ago because a convoy, probably with a politician in, was coming through Colombo and I didn't realise what was going on so got caught in the middle of a junction. Before I knew it all these landrovers were shooting past, horns blaring at me because I was in the way. All the soldiers were leaning out yelling at me with their guns trained on me. They were so aggressive and they are obviously very tense. But they don't think to close the rd or clear it ahead of time.

The good private hospital here is one of an Indian 'chain' of hospitals. Before Christmas it was sold to a Sri Lankan business man. And all the Indian consultants are leaving. In ours, and many people's experience here, we have found the Indian doctors to be excellent. So far we have heard of a friend's oncologist, another's gynaecologist and our very own Dr Kumar, paediatric cardiologist, who diagnosed our daughter, have all left and gone back to India. So another blessing is the timing of that. Dr Kumar, who Great Ormond Street were so impressed by, that he had managed to diagnose her condition, left in November.

Enjoying cooler weather and sunshine. For once happy not to be in UK at this time of yr. Blue skies and sunny days very welcome. And I am much more settled now. So it's true it does take a year.......I'm getting tougher and hardly cry at all now. I don't even go to my son's parties very often anymore.....