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Felicitations For Ginette’s Mum

12 Jun

Dear Ginette’s Mum,

Naushan got bit by a dog!* Adam got locked in the bathroom at Unawatuna!**

Really, Ginette told me that I simply had to say those two things in my next blog, so I’ve obliged.

In Sri Lankan culture, the most important person after the monk is the mother. One of the more common questions children ask me here is, “Mother have?” I respond very positively: “Yes! Mother have!” and your daughter does the same.

Last Friday, the school felicitated Ginette by holding a brief ceremony after school where she was presented with a plaque and gifts from the children and school administration. A few of the older children also gave short speeches.

As an example of the high esteem in which mothers are held (as they should be, anywhere in the world), every one of those older children made sure to mention their great appreciation that Ginette’s mother bravely allowed her to come to Sri Lanka.

And I’d like to do the same here. Ginette’s mum, thank you for letting Ginette come to this country. For a New Zealander, whose country is second in the rankings of “Most Peaceful Country,” and whose foreign ministry deems Sri Lanka as a place of “high” and “extreme risk” and advises “against tourist and non-essential travel”, it must not have been easy on you to have your daughter gallivating (by bus, no less!) around a country that ranks near the bottom of those same rankings. (USA ranks just a few places higher than Sri Lanka, so I’m not really slummin’ all that much).

If I didn’t describe it clearly enough in my last several blog posts, Ginette made an enormous impact on the school–and it even has its own ripple effects spreading out across the Matara district, the deaf association, the Matara business community, and my own volunteer experience.

In fact, it’s easy to split my volunteer stint into two sections–B.G. and A.G. Before Ginette and After Ginette. This isn’t meant to be a self-criticism of my own efficiacy as a solo volunteer, but when I compare September and January, things generally looked pretty much the same. However, if you visited in February and then again right now, you’d see a very different school environment. And no, it’s not all due to Ginette–plenty of other people were involved as well, but she has done most of the hard work, endured most of the frustrations, lost the most sleep, and given up the most time which could have been spent teaching children so she could sit in her almost-daily morning meetings with the principal.

Whiteboards in every single classroom. 5,000 postcards distributed across Sri Lanka and internationally. Gorgeous, visually-simulating learning environments. New display boards in high-traffic areas. New uniforms for the school’s cricket, netball, and volleyball teams. Sign language classes for matrons twice a week. A Sinhala-English dictionary for every pupil. Teachers who are now no longer so afraid to ask for supplies. A completely repainted staircase with visual aids for blind and low-vision pupils and teachers. Regular meetings between school and hostel staff. A calendar with the Sinhala fingerspelt alphabet and 18 common signs hung in a hundred Rohana pupils’ homes. And all of those little things–cards, words of encouragement, lending an ear or eye. Most of all, it’s clear she has truly earned the deepest respect from Mr. Abeygunawardana, the principal.

That is why I am delighted she came–because she made a difference. I have learned a lot about hard work from your daughter. How things that can be done today really should be done today, not tomorrow. How making a simple list of things to do can be a most effective organization tool. How to know when there are some things that can’t really be discussed any further, and things that can still be changed, still be tweaked. How not to say no to a good idea at first just because it seems a little too hard. How to be resourceful with what you have. How to work like tomorrow’s your last day, and make the biggest impact today. It’s ironic that, in this unpaid volunteer experience, I’ve learned from Ginette how to be a much better paid employee back in the West.

She has helped me make a better, more complete and satisfactory contribution to the school. Because she came, I can now leave Sri Lanka knowing that I accomplished a lot.

You’ve raised a delightful, strong, and confident woman–someone that you and Ginette’s dad have much to be very, very proud of. This is a woman who doesn’t mind my bathroom humor, doesn’t mind hours-long bus rides through sweeping hillsides, doesn’t mind taking a day off if it means re-energizing yourself, doesn’t mind interpreting for me a thousand times every day, doesn’t mind talking in five languages simultaneously (that’s Sinhala, English, Sri Lankan Sign Language, British Sign Language, and New Zealand Sign Language), doesn’t mind poking fun at my father’s accent, doesn’t mind telling a deaf person exactly how to make the music for the school video sound just right, doesn’t mind playing hide-and-seek with a stuffed monkey in a posh hotel in Colombo at two in the morning.

I have truly enjoyed my last four months as your daughter’s friend, partner, co-worker, and housemate. We haven’t been apart for more than three hours since last February (aside from a solo trip to Galle I took one morning last month; and even then we were constantly in touch via text messaging). I’m thrilled she’s finally going back home–this is a place she speaks of so often I’ve had dreams of roaming the Taranaki hillsides dotted with dairy cows.

But it’s also very strange that she’s not here anymore. I feel as if my engine’s suddenly disappeared–but I’m not worried, because I made sure to learn from her example while she was here. I have my own mega to-do list, and I know that if there’s anything I can do right now, I should do it, and definitely not wait until tomorrow.

Because of Ginette, I now tell everyone who is considering becoming a volunteer in a foreign country: “if you can avoid it, don’t volunteer alone.” It’s hard enough being in a country all by yourself without a clue how things work here and there. Having a buddy there helps, big time.

But I’d also like to say that every volunteer should be so lucky as to have a partner like Ginette.

Ginette’s mum, you have my deepest gratitude. Thank you. I’m really going to miss that girl (pictured below in front of the airport not less than 12 hours ago).

* We learned only recently that Muslims in Sri Lanka don’t keep dogs as pets. In fact, they try to avoid them as much as possible. We’d protest, saying dogs were harmless. But Munsif said he was bit by a dog when he was 18. Fluke accident, we thought. Except that after Ginette’s farewell dinner last Friday night, Naushan, another Muslim friend, was stumbling in the dark across the street with three Sinhalese Buddhist men, looking for their bicycles. He, out of four men, happened to be the one to step onto a dog and get bitten by him. Poor him!!

** In our hotel room in Unawatuna last Saturday night, I closed the door to do my business, but afterwards, it wouldn’t open. I was stuck in there for about five minutes before I was freed. No big deal, except Ginette automatically started yelling through the door that help was on the way, forgetting that I couldn’t really hear anything, much less through a wooden door.

Grabbing It

2 Jun

I leave Sri Lanka on 24 June.

It’s hard to describe the feelings I have about this–but the children are quite upfront about it. “Sad,” they sign. I keep responding the same way: “Not now. Forget about 24 June. Don’t think about that just yet.” It doesn’t quite validate their feelings, but it keeps the lump in my throat from growing larger.

And instead of dwelling on when we leave–Sophie left last Tuesday; Anne leaves today; Ginette in about one week and I in about three weeks–we try to work even harder. Second chances can happen in Sri Lanka–just ask Sophie, who just had hers, or Fiona, our newest volunteer who’s staying in the country for the sixth time. But they come at a price–not just the price of a long-haul return flight–but the price of knowing that any future visit is probably going to be much shorter than your first visit, and much more like a holiday than a gap year.

With people like Sophie and Anne here, along with Ginette’s heroic efforts to slowly transform the school, I’m busier than ever. Both a sign language dictionary and a website need to be finished in the next three weeks, along with smaller assorted projects. This week has been the blooming of our efforts to introduce whiteboards–the entire school is now using 24 brand-new whiteboards (which can flip over to be blackboards) on wheeled stands. Coinciding with Anne’s second training–“Active Teaching, Active Learning,” and a renaissance in visual learning environment design (in other words, educational posters everywhere!), the school has never looked better or the teaching more creative and effective.

Things are changing, and I feel it. It’s exhilarating. Matrons are taking sign language classes; teachers now regularly ask for help (although it usually involves one of us paying for something–like laminating a chart–which we try not to do) or access to the library; the principal and manager agree to leadership changes or new, regularly scheduled important meetings.

And it all has to happen at the very end of Ginette’s and my volunteer terms. I suppose it could be constructed as “ending on a high note,” but it’s not that easy because, just when things feel like they’re happening, I have to leave. Will our new processes and ideas that we’ve introduced continue to bloom in our absence?

We’ve tried to make sure our projects are sustainable and gradual; for example, the activity board or care plan ideas were scrapped when we realized the matrons weren’t yet ready to take on responsibility for scheduling after-school programs or closely tracking their charges’ well-being yet. Performances review forms, which we had almost completed designing, were put on hold when it was suggested the administration needed more time to understand their own roles before critiquing their staff performance.

But will the students remember to wash their new whiteboards daily with those water-filled spray bottles we provided? Will the principal still meet with the matrons at 9:30am every Thursday? Will Sophie’s new library book-borrowing system still function when managed just by the librarian and head prefects? Will the Rohana postcards still be given to every visitor?

Obviously, there are no answers to these questions, at least not yet, and instead, as my stay in Sri Lanka draws to an end, I want to experience as much as possible on this island–Anuradhapura! Arugam Bay! Ahangama!–but also to spend equally as many quiet afternoons chatting with school children or teaching them how to express themselves in English.

Which is why it is mystifying when I meet people in Sri Lanka who don’t appear very interested in Sri Lanka. There was this USAID couple from New Jersey who, after going with Ginette and me on a scuba dive, had lunch with us at the Beach Inns. Ginette and I had ordered bread and fish curry, and the woman pointed at the bowl of fish curry, asking, “is that fish curry?”

They had been living in Sri Lanka for 18 months. Eighteen months and they still don’t know what fish curry looks like. Fish curry is as recognizable in Sri Lanka as french fries are in America. Even more stupefying was her next question, “is that spicy?” Um, duh, yes.

Then there was this Belgian man who was munching on devilled fish in the Blue Corals’ front eating area as Sophie, Ginette, and I descended upon it with packets of chicken kotthu, food brought off the street after a long day’s work. As we dug with our hands into the hot mixture of chopped rotti and vegetable, we learned that the Belgian had been living in Matara for two months and hadn’t eaten with his right hand yet.

How do you live in Sri Lanka for 18 months and not know what fish curry is, or for two months and haven’t eaten with your hands yet? It almost seems like a conscious act on their part to avoid these parts of Sri Lankan culture and instead cling to their Western customs.

I’m certainly in no position to judge them–certainly, they must have their reasons–but it’s a damn shame.

Because with every meal you eat with your hand, with every Sinhala word you learn, with every home you visit, with every poya day and temple visit, your heart swells to accommodate the spectrum of feelings–the joy of unconditional familial love; the pain of want and poverty–that is uniquely Sinhalese, Sri Lankan, and South Asian.

To be in Sri Lanka and not experience this–well, why come? But I catch myself just as I say this–because the USAID couple, for example, has helped build schools and other super stuff. It’s better that they’re here and making a difference and not in some government office back in Washington.

But still, if you’re here–grab it, for god’s sake! I’m so happy I have, and so sorry I can’t grab enough to quench my thirst for one more taste, one more visit, one more conversation, one more village, or one more swim. Or one more difference made.

These Are Auspicious Times, Parts 2-115

18 May

Building on the proverb that a picture is a thousand words–a belief which Sri Lankans take to heart–I have concluded that to type out blogs about the rest of April and May would consume, well, all my available time from now through June. So instead, here are 115 more photographs spanning four weeks. I’ve put them all behind a break–but nonetheless, it’ll be a bit long to download all the pictures, so for those of you on slow connections, let the page load for a few minutes first.


These Are Auspicious Times, Part 1

7 May

Just as David said, April (and the first week of May) was like the New Year, Christmas, and Easter mashed up into a long string of celebrations incorporating ancient Sinhalese traditions, sacred Buddhist theology, and East Asian and Western influences. Looking back, I’d include Halloween and the Chinese New Year into David’s smorgasbord as well.

Two major occasions mark the Sri Lankan holiday season–Avurudhu, the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, and Wesak Poya, the most important full-moon holiday of the year. Avurudhu is fixed on 14 April, while Wesak can happen anywhere from the end of April to the beginning of June depending on the lunar reckoning.

Avurudhu and Wesak are so deeply ingrained in the national tradition that even in Sinhalese sign language, the sign for April is the same as Avurudhu, and May the same as Wesak. The holiday season also marks the beginning of the southwest monsoons and the harvest, two cyclical occurrences that manifest themselves as incredible electrical storms releasing watery torrents beating down lush, green trees ludicrously bursting forth with teeming cornucopias of fruits.

Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan cricket team was climbing the brackets in the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, putting no end to the one-day international cricket frenzy gripping the nation (Sinhalese and Tamil and Christian and Muslim alike) and, fortunately for me, my education about this mysterious, 9-hours-a-game sport.

School ended on 4 April; to mark it, Ginette and I invited four hostel matrons over for a barbecue dinner at our Beach Inns.

From left to right, Chaminda, Anojani, Ginette, myself, Damayanthi, and Anupama. BBQ, a cooking method confined to hotels frequented by foreigners, usually requires that you eat the completed meal with forks and knives. The Sri Lankans were not deterred by this requirement and took to the utensils with a curious, but proud trepidation as they gripped knives and forks with fists and used them in all the wrong ways possible.

However, Ginette and I were having trouble as well navigating through fish bones using steak knives; the tools felt alien in our hands. Two months of rice and curry consumption had accustomed us to the flavor of many different ingredients mashed up into unrecognizable lumps of bath. How do you squeeze and mix rice, dhaal, and potato curry with a fork?

Within a few minutes, we were all without eating tools, attacking the food with hands and gusto and then we went upstairs to watch the Sri Lanka-England game (we won by a nail-biting two runs, with Fernando shutting down the English batters by delivering a wicket on the very last bowl).

The week following the conclusion of Rohana Special School’s first term was mainly spent at the Beach Inns working through head coughs and colds, reading books, and watching pirated DVDs that we had purchased in Colombo a week earlier (I have yet to see a legitimate DVD for sale in this country).

As the holiday season approached, I decided I needed a haircut, so Ginette and I visited the deaf barber on the other side of the river which bisects downtown Matara.

Salons in Sri Lanka are threadbare affairs; the chairs are straight-backed with arms and legs of wood; on the table are maybe two pairs of scissors, one electrical clippers, a barber’s shaving razor, and a few bottles of assorted perfumes and oils. If the barber wants to reach the top of your head, you are asked to slouch farther down into the chair. No fancy levers here! Wall decorations are either large calendars featuring light-skinned women in saris, or Indian and Thai contact sheets of photographs of different hairstyles, all vaguely resembling 80s’ style mullets.

I opted for a cut, shave, and head massage. Ginette saw how agreeable my head massage was, and asked for one as well. The barber led her to a different chair near the end of the salon, swept a hospital-style curtain around us, and said that women have their hair cut privately behind drapes to deter leering men sitting nearby. He poured jasmine-scented cologne all over her head, inserted his short but powerful fingers into Ginette’s blonde locks, and began massaging.

With a slight buzz from our massages, we paid the salon manager 150 rupees ($1.50) and palmed the deaf barber a 100-rupee bill and proceeded to visit a men’s shirt factory that we had been promising to see for several weeks.

The address on the business card said No. 246 Kumaratunga Mawatha but we could only find Nos. 244 and 248 (which was a private home that we, in our confusion, wandered into). Finally, a wood carver standing on his doorstep pointed us down an alley to No. 246, the Romans Shirts factory.

Upul and always-exuberant Munsif, delighted by our arrival and perfect hairstyles, showed us around the factory which was closing that day for the rest of the holiday season. They had worked overtime for weeks getting shipments out for the Avurudhu buying season (for many Sri Lankans, Avurudhu is the only time of the month they receive new clothes).

They showed us the tools they used to cut through several layers of fabric, the templates they used for different sizes of shirts, the many patterns they used. Munsif offered to make me a custom shirt using leftover material and Ginette a shalwar kameez with textile hand-dyped and patterened by his older sister.

Munsif, a hearing worker (that’s a shalwar kameez she’s wearing) who uses sign language fluently to talk with the four deaf workers at the factor, and Ginette. For a hour there, all we could talk about were shirt-making.

Upul, myself, and Munsif while Shishan, another deaf worker, successfully snaps a shot with my camera. The fourth deaf worker, a woman, was not here that day, and we promised we’d visit again in May when everyone returned to work, so we could see some actual shirt-making instead of house-cleaning.

Ginette and I didn’t know it at that time but April would find us making friends with many, many new deaf people through various visits such as this to the shirt factory or deaf events. The holidays still hadn’t begun although special Avurudhu sales were popping up throughout Matara and we heard more forecasts of how everything, indeed the capitalist society–even buses and internet cafes–would cease business on the 13th and 14th of April. We couldn’t wait.

Next: Batapola, auspicious times, and firecrackers.