Monday, January 17, 2005

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

We went to yet another coordination meeting this morning, this one for non-food item household kits at the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) office. This one was better than the last one, because people were talking about how they are already doing things, and what they were going to do this week. Most organizations had done assessments to find out what items were needed, and apparently the local government is gathering the names and information on all the beneficiaries. That is a bit of a different set up than what we had in the Congo. In the Congo, you would never have been able to rely on the local leadership to give you an accurate list of beneficiaries, because there are all kinds of personal relationships that come into play. They would leave off the list their political adversaries and people they didn’t like, and make up fake people so that people they do like could get multiple kits. Here, the government for the most part is working well with the relief effort, which is great.

One of the best things about working here is that it is safe, so you can move around freely. I found a great place for taking walks that starts right in front of the hotel. It takes you up by the estuary, next to a pretty neighborhood (that wasn’t affected), across a causeway, down one of the main roads of town, and then back across the bridge to the hotel. There are fishermen out in the estuary in the traditional style of boat that is like a canoe with a rectangular piece of wood on one side (not sure why, but I think it has something to do with hanging the nets). They look so peaceful out there. Supposedly, singing fish live in the estuary, and they are loudest from April to September. They say that the fishermen know they are there because when it is quiet, you can hear the humming. I haven’t heard the humming, since it isn’t very quiet along the road, but I like to believe that they are in there singing. In the air along the road, there is the pleasant salty-windy smell of the sea. It is nice, even when there is traffic.

So, as I said, it is safe here. Crime is a rare occurrence. That’s why we were all surprised when a freelance photojournalist told us that all her gear, except the cameras she had with her at the time, was stolen from her hotel room, most likely by someone who works there. She lost her laptop, external hard drive, and camera chargers, as well as all the photos she had taken here and in Indonesia for two assignments. None of it was insured, and the police were no help at all. It is easy to say, “well, the person who stole it is probably poor and desperate, and while this is a set back for her, it isn’t the end of her life.” However, anyone who has a job at a hotel, especially here and now, is not hurting, and meanwhile they may have ruined her reputation with the two magazines, because they aren’t going to get the best quality photos from her. We were all shocked. Thankfully, it wasn’t at the hotel I’m staying at, but you never know I guess.

One of the random responsibilities that has just been assigned to me is “staff care”. Not sure yet how serious this is, but I think that I’d like to do that kind of thing. Today I went out and bought stuff for the house, and I will be spending the rest of the week shopping! Not so bad, really, but admittedly I’m a bit annoyed. I didn’t get a master’s degree to go shopping.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Three days have gone by, and, needless to say, much has changed. The Jesuits and I have finally finished their proposal for their project that we are funding, which was hard won. They do exciting work, and are very good at it, but it was hard to wring this proposal out of them because they are very fluid, and kept changing their ideas. Finally we banged it out, but not after a short moment of tension, when it looked like they were about to start some activities that would have short-circuited the coordination that was going on in the shelter group.

I’ll be headed back to Colombo this weekend, which I’m glad about. I’m very homesick, and could use more frequent access to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, Batticaloa is a nice town and the people are great. It is just that I’m tired of the work, and am ready to go home. I’m not really needed here that badly (as one can tell by my recent shopping assignment). Colombo isn’t bad, so I’ll enjoy some time there, maybe take a day trip to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth, and then I’m out of here on the 8th of February, or earlier if I can make that happen. The boss told me that I’d be doing some writing and orienting two new staff members (frankly, I’m not sure why the need any more staff here), but I can’t imagine that taking up too much of my time, certainly not two whole weeks. Besides, he is likely to change his mind yet again.

The little daughters of my fiancĂ©’s boss gave me three of their dolls to give to children here. It was so sweet that they were so concerned about other kids so far away. Those dolls were with me in my backpack for days. I had the hardest time figuring out what to do with them. If I went over to the camp across the street and picked three children out at random, I would have been the pied piper, with kids following me forever asking for dolls. I didn’t find an opportunity to give them to kids who were on their own anywhere, since that is rare here. Nevertheless, I really wanted to give the dolls away, to help the girls make the connection they wanted to make. Yesterday, I gave them to the Jesuit in charge of the relief programs here, so he could take them to the orphanage and give them to the kids there. Then the dolls were in his bag. We went together to a coordination meeting for the education sector, and the whole time I was hard pressed not to laugh, since all three of the dolls had their heads poking out of his bag next to the table, as if they, too, were attending the meeting.

I just finished some shopping. I know I complained about being assigned so low a task, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it. I love talking to the shopkeepers, and seeing all the interesting things they have. Here, the relationship between the storeowner and the client is very friendly, even when they are trying to make you pay more than the normal price! Instead of being able to browse through everything, you just tell them what you want, and the employees run around showing you everything that they have that might suit you. In some places, you can even sit down and have tea while this happens! I wish that I could shop, or be shopped for, like this in the US.

In addition to the things I got for the Caritas house here, such as towels and sheets and pillows, I also bought some beautiful ribbon and a sarong. The 1.5” wide silk sari border ribbon with embroidery all along it that I bought cost me only $2.00 for 10 meters. A roll of ½” satin ribbon was only 50 cents! Traditional Sri Lankan men, especially outside of Colombo and the cities, wear sarongs. These are pieces of fabric sewn into a tube and hemmed that they gather and tuck around their waists. A lot of men in Batticaloa wear them. I guess it must be more comfortable for them, and cooler. Most are in relatively understated patterns, like simple solids, stripes, and plaids in blue, white, dark green, and black. Some of the fancier ones have border ribbon sewn onto the bottom. I bought a plain green one in a nice fabric for my fiancĂ© – I figured he could wear it around the house, since a man in a skirt would look a bit funny in the States.

The stores sell all kinds of things. The fabric store, for example, sells not only fabric, but also some clothing, pillows, sheets, towels, beading, ribbon, etc. The place where I got the knives and silverware sells yarn, ribbon, toys, Hindu idols, Buddha statuettes, knickknacks galore, pots and pans, and big brass stands that you put candles and flowers on for the prayer room in your house. It can be a little confusing at first, but when you realize that you don’t have to look through it all to find what you want because someone else will do that for you, it becomes a surprisingly pleasant experience. Unlike most shopping experiences, the price is also a pleasure, because things are so cheap here.

I’m wondering if any of you who read this are disappointed because I’m not talking more about the disaster and the people. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more about that, but it just isn’t what I’m seeing. I think that is one of the parts of humanitarian work that many people don’t understand. As outsiders, we don’t really get all the way out to the beneficiaries that often. Usually, the local organizations we support do that end of the work. Sometimes we get to go to see building sites for the shelter, oversee emergency distributions, or talk to the local leaders, but those visits are shallow and short. This is especially true in a country like Sri Lanka, which has a lot of local capacity to carry out projects. Plus, my time here is short and focused on administrative issues. Those who are here longer get a better picture of things, and also have more time to work in the beneficiary communities. So, I apologize if all this isn’t terribly interesting, but it is what it is.

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