Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Here is a map of SL which has the places I mentioned on it. It didn't have the elephant orphanage so I thought I'd better draw that in. Unfortunately the elephant representation is a bit too large to be accurate about where it is but then I don't think you're really bothered about the longitude and latitude, but more interested in seeing a picture I drew of an elephant. To this end I have also included the original paint version of the elephant which, in shrunken form, appears on the map.

The Hills Are Alive

Well, gang, I'm just back from the hill country, which is ace. I went to Kandy (where I stayed with the really kind hearted Tess, who I didn't really know, so props to Tess, thanks very much, your place is lovely, sorry about eating all your brownies) and then I went off on a thrilling whistlestop jaunt around the cultural triangle, and I just can't be bothered to tell you in detail about them all because I don't think guide books are that much fun to read or write, so just google the following if you're interested - it's worth it for the pictures alone:


I mean they're all just completely amazing, and made me glad to have invested in a big camera memory card, and a little embarrassed at becoming one of those people who can't move six inches somewhere interesting without taking another photo. In the end though it did me a great deal of good even in this respect since I think I've finally been cured of my disdain for tourists. Like, in Madrid last summer I was a bit sniffy about going on an open top bus ride, but guess why they're popular? because they're a fucking brilliant way to see everything at the beginning and getting your bearings without getting too sweaty, that's why! So props to tourists, too! I like saying props. I don't totally know what it means.

The only tips I will pass on are: 1 hire a bike at polonnaruwa, although you hardly need that one because every guide book tells you the same thing; 2 take every guide book's invocation to bring socks if you mind baking your feet saeriously, because i didn't, and you have to take your flip flops off at every holy site at polnnaruwa, of which there are many, and you have a choice between skipping about like a namby pamby as you try to peer at stuff, strategically deciding which things to look at closely with reference to tiny spots of shade cast by convenient granite slabs/members of the public, and accepting that before very long your flesh is going to start to melt into the brickwork, and you will be a permanent and idiosyncratic feature of a UNESCO world heritage site.

Now I have the sort of partial burns where it hurts to scratch, but that's OK. next on the agenda after this bried refuel in colombo is leopards and stuff. Oh yeah the other thing I did on the way back from Kandy was the elephant orphanage. I am not especialyl keen to talk about this since between you and me 32 baby elephants being fed milk from bottles and wallowing in a river may have made me into a bit of a sap in the short term. So we'll leave it at that for now.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Thursday was my last day at Modarawila tsunami camp, and this afternoon I'll say goodbye to the monks at Molligoda. They're the one aspect of life here I've really barely touched on, I know, which is ridiculous, because they're where I've spent the substance of my days. They're harder to write about than other things, is why, and also because I thought if I held off a bit I might write a more completely informed account of both projects, although now I rather wish I'd recorded the way my feelings changed about them as I went along. Anyway, this post aims to correct this significant omission.

Modarawila is a place about which my feelings have been widely various over the last couple of months, and I have found it difficult to say exactly how I feel about it. The good days are really satisfying and the only time really out here that I get an inkling of being of the sort of use which might, cumulatively, if enough people come here for long enough, make any sort of difference to anyone. I mean, I like the monks a lot, and I have a great time there and will miss them, but they're going to be fine whatever, really, so although it's emphatically worth doing, it's really more worth doing for my own sake than for theirs. On the other hand, I've had plenty of days when I've simply not wanted to go to Modarawila, wanted nothing less, in fact, than to take the long hot dusty walk to camp after lunch for no greater purpose than to adjudicate hyperviolent wrestling bouts between obnoxious eleven year olds, and have even on a number of occasions felt a genuine and frightening urge to give small children a smack around the chops. I’ve had lots of really excellent days too, but the balance has not been so strongly in the second column as I had imagined before coming out here. So although I'm extremely glad to have done it, and knew this unambiguously before the last few days, I also viewed the approaching end of my placement with at least a tinge of relief. It has always been fun, insofar as even when it’s exasperating simply the concept of being somewhere like this doing something like this is sufficiently exotic and different to make it exciting if you stop to think about it; but when you don't stop to think about it, it can be a real slog.

So because of all this, and also in part because one of my fellow volunteers is just relentless in her look-at-their-little-faces-they're-so-sweet-I-could-just-eat-them-upery and this makes me feel a bloody-minded commitment to being gruff about it, I was pretty granite-faced on arrival at camp at the beginning of the week. They'd been particularly unholy for most of the previous seven days. The usual fisticuffs had reached a new low, when one of the kids ground another's head along the concrete floor and left him with a massive welt and bloody scabs on his forehead, and the second kid's mother had marched into the middle of our attempt at a lesson and smacked the perpetator pretty hard around the face and on the wrist, and the Tuesday afternoon had disintegrated. The thing I have found most consistently shocking about the children in camp is how violent they are towards each other, and how quickly any minor row becomes a scuffle and then a frightening punch up. For one reason or another, on my second day at Modarawila I was the only volunteer there, and I remember acutely that horrid panic you get when you simply don't know what to do to make something better: I found myself trying to patrol five or six different fights, and it was hopeless. The only way to keep them apart was to interpose my own body and hold them apart, but they wouldn't give up and flounce off - they'd simply wait til another of the battles reached fever pitch and I had to go and do something about that one, and then be at it again. I really knew I was in trouble when that usually reliable I’m-shocked-and-disappointed-that-you-did-what-you-just-did-and-if-you’re-going-to-insist-on-behaving-like-that-I’ve-no-choice-but-to-ignore-you-and-play-with-someone-else face simply doesn’t cut any mustard. They just laugh and do it again. I found it genuinely frightening - at the back of my mind all day was that someone was going to have their head cracked open. The children are small, but the floor, and I can't emphasise this enough, is hard.

They survived, as did I, and no day since has been as intense, but still I am constantly stunned at the speed with which the red mist descends. They’re incredibly affectionate and they mostly seem to be friends with each other – but they can kick off over anything and it’s usually too far gone for you to diffuse the situation calmly by the time you’re close enough to pull them apart. The great frustration is that on days when you feel like you’re getting somewhere and they’re working peacefully and listening – although the work is pretty gentle, and we’ve never got past flashcards and copying sentences on the English front – all it needs is one small spark for total chaos to take over. If they see anyone else not working, they’re instantly not interested themselves, and trying to get them back to it is pointless. A typical day for most of my time here has been to arrive at 3, to start work immediately so that we’re underway as they roll up one by one – setting the tone seems to make a massive difference, and we pretty quickly figured out that letting them climb up you when the session begins makes it impossible to do anything more sedentary thereafter - and to have actual English lessons broken up by 3.30 at the latest. At this point some of them will still be interested enough to colour or to draw, and one or two might want you to write something for them to copy – but before very much longer everyone’s running about. It’s worth a shot at an organized game like what’s the time mr wolf, or stuck in the mud, but more often than not the spirit of anarchy is too seductive, and the group part of the afternoon is finished, to be replaced by a fairly tiring mixture of playing cricket or Frisbee or skipping or whatever with the kids who are interested, and carrying the little ones about, which they simply never tire of, and yanking the more bloodthirsty ones apart. (Another peculiarity: there is almost no distinction between male and female behaviour in this regard. I’ve always thought little girls to be much less likely to thump each other than little boys, but that’s absolutely not the case at Modarawila.)

The rows are almost always in one way or another to do with sharing: whenever we bring out anything like stickers or colouring pencils or photocopies or well, anything, really, it’s simply impossible to persuade the children to stay seated while we hand them out – they can’t believe that there will be enough, it feels like, and they seem to think that if they don’t assert themselves they won’t get a go. The thing that has always struck me about small children in general is their curiously warped conception of fairness, where they’re scrupulous in its application in their own cases but brazen in their contempt for the principle when it comes to letting someone else have a turn – but by and large they are persuadable that there are larger reasons that it’s worth their while to abide by these frustrating adult regulations, and over time they see often enough that their life and everyone else’s life is simpler if they try to be at least a bit considerate of other people’s needs or at least to disguise rampant selfishness, and this is how one becomes a grown-up. Here this kind of socialization is preempted by a sense that if they don’t assert themselves, they might not get what it is that they want; that they simply can’t trust that anything is reliable or replicable on a regular basis, that just because yesterday we said there were enough gold stars for everyone to get one doesn’t mean the same will be true today. And it isn’t hard, in a camp populated by families who lost everything overnight, and no rhyme or reason anywhere attached to the process, to see what the root of such an instinct might be.

It’s worth emphasizing that at no point has there been a sense of hopelessness about all this. They are not children damaged beyond repair: the fighting is more a product of being hit by adults than it is of deeply ingrained psychological damage, and although it’s not going to be socially viable in the long-term, they will collectively figure that out in the end, and I don’t think they’re all going to grow up to be hoodlums. The greatest evidence for this is the extraordinary well of affection they have for anyone who is kind to them, or, at least, with less rose-tinted spectacles, anyone foreign and exotic who gives them stuff on a regular basis. I have never been so overwhelmed with unearned warmth, and it’s hard to know what to do with it, except try to return it as generously as possible. Which isn’t hard to do: individually, there isn’t one of them I wouldn’t want to have riding on my shoulders. (except roshini, maybe, who is heavy-set.) And even when they do fight, the trouble is often a lack of a sense that heads are breakable rather than that they are naturally cruel: sometimes the strangest thing is seeing intense punch ups conducted by two best friends who are grinning throughout as they lay into each other. And when you can get their attention, they engage in the work, too, and they’re by and large pretty quick on the uptake. There are no lost causes. But there is a palpable sense that something is at stake here. I don’t mean that the influence of a piffling two hour daily runaround with foreigners will define their lives, but there are definitely a good number for whom things could go either way over the next few years.

So anyway, last Thursday was exhausting, and I came away spitting blood about the insistence with which they demanded I sharpen their pencil next, the consistency with which they tried to steal the supplies we brought, their obvious understanding of the concept of a queue and the general sly refusal to admit that they got it, the wrestling, the creepiness of the man who came in and asked for Fiona’s necklace and then took hold of it around her throat for a scary moment. (Also embarrassing for its revelation that we are all slightly scared of the adults who live at camp, I suppose in part because of our sense of our own foreignness and wealth and their poverty, and in part because we try to imagine how they feel, what they’ve seen, and we simply can’t.) I frankly didn’t much want to see the place again, and the next afternoon, when there were a couple of additional volunteers who aren’t normally on tsunami camp duty, I skipped it.

I rather wish I hadn’t, because this was the day when, excitement of excitements, the volunteers arrived to find a door had been put on the building, with a latch for a padlock. The reason this matters is that it meant TPA would finally let us put tables and benches in the completely bare space: there was literally nothing there before except a roof and walls. Now, half of it is a primitive sort of a classroom. There isn’t a blackboard, which is a huge pain in the arse, but there’s something for them to lean on apart from the floor; there’s something for them to sit on besides their bottoms; more than anything else, there’s a natural atmosphere of something like purposefulness about the place. They have, this week, been weird angel-children. We even took the risk we haven’t quite dared to before of bringing in a bunch of crafts type materials everyone had brought out but not found a use for, because of how often distribution of fun stuff turns into open warfare, and because crafts stuff requires that you give out and keep track of at least half a dozen different resources. They were amazingly calm, and stuck feathers and buttons and felt stars on with aplomb and decorated with glitter paint and felt tips, and now there are pictures up around the place, and it feels a little bit less like a disused warehouse.

And yesterday was probably the last time I will ever go there, and it was very sad, in fact. We gave them these pictures someone had brought from the UK, which are like scratchcards so you can rub them with a coin and details emerge; and we hesitantly gave out coins, and didn’t expect to see too many of them back again – and they were almost all given back. I don’t mean to overegg the significance of this, but at the time it was deeply gratifying. They worked hard and they were kind to each other and there were no fights, and they cheated rampantly at what’s the time mr wolf, and went nuts when I got my camera out, but these things are only to be expected. I’m not rearranging the timing of any of this for the sake of a more elegantly completed arc; it really did happen this way. Nor am I for a second implying that the reason for this change was my own personal magnificence or Miss Jean Brodie type qualities; it was mainly the addition of a couple of tables. That such a small circumstantial change can have such a pronounced effect on a group of children’s behaviour is thrilling and heart-warming and also terrifying, because when you think of what they have had taken away from them already, this simplicity of solution is transposed into a stark kind of hopelessness for the victims of disaster.

When they understood that Chris, the other volunteer whose last day it was, and I were leaving, they started to queue up to kneel down and touch their foreheads to the ground at our feet. We said Buddha serenai, is roughly how it sounds, and felt vaguely like vice-chancellors or college masters handing out degrees. But, I mean, I don’t know how to accommodate something like that. It makes my throat thicken and my heart lurch even to think about it now.

I have to leave Modarawila about fifteen minutes early most days, because my second stint at Molligoda begins immediately afterwards, and it’s a bus ride away. So as I leave the group has not yet started to dissolve, and they are still shrieking and running around and determinedly getting each other out of the way to be in a photo and crying in the corner and riding on shoulders and hurling tennis balls against the wall which sound like gunshots, and on Thursday, just as I’m leaving, this older kid picks up a six year old who won’t give him back his ball, and slams her against the wall until he shakes it loose, and she runs past me and back to her mother. As I'm leaving I think how strange it is that I won't see this place again or these people, probably, and have this strange hyper-consciousness of exactly where I am choosing to look and when will I stop glancing over my shoulder and waving. A couple of the children have wandered outside and wave back. Then they get bored, and go back in.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Slogans You'd Rather Not See On Your Tuk Tuk Driver's T-Shirt Include:

Ass, Gas, Or Grass: Nobody rides for free

Monday, May 22, 2006

All right already

I'm just a no-goodnik (etc)

Very touching to be asked why I haven't blogged for a bit, even if the queries I've received have consistently included the disclaimer that their authors are fucking bored at work/by finals/etc and have nothing better to do. The reason is, you know how it is when you don't get round to doing something and it starts to feel like homework. Still here I am.

So last weekend was Vesak, which is roughly analagous to the festival christianity would celebrate if it rolled christmas and easter into one and then added a bit, because it marks Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death all in one go. It's pretty ignorant to define it sheerly in reference to christianity, huh, like calling a mosque an islamic church. Anyway, wikipedia asserts that this is a sacred day and not a festive occasion, but so far as I could see most people here haven't read Wikipedia, because there's loads going on. Everyone put up these amazing paper lanterns outside their front doors on Friday evening, and it was amusing to see the same semi-competitive spirit in the Peiris family which you get in plenty of English households in the run-up to christmas. I can confirm that their white arrangement, which was a sort of mobile and consisted of four smaller lights orbiting a larger central piece with tassles dangling all over the shop, whilst not the largest on Sri Maha Vihara Mawatha, was certainly the classiest looking.

I was invited to Molligoda temple (where I teach in the mornings) for friday evening. Walking down from the bus stop I got offered just the most amazing range of sweets and savoury bits and my favourite thing a sort of hot gingery drink which knocks mullled wine into the middle of next week, frankly. The atmosphere reminded me a lot of bonfire night, funnily enough: it felt like a much more publically sociable happening than christmas ever is. There were loudspeakers rigged up all through the village broadcasting the head monk's speech so you could listen to it as you approached. There were lights, I can't emphasise this enough, everywhere. And, by the way, only lights. There are no flashing reindeer or Hilarious santa legs sticking out of chimneys or front-lawn elves. I mean it would be pretty weird if there were since none of these things have anything to do with buddhism (not that they have overmuch to do with christianity, I might add, utter mutter pompous splutter), but you see what I mean.

I had expected, when I got to the temple, to find a fairly formal ceremony underway; in fact, people and animals wandered in and out of the courtyard (it all takes place outdoors) throughout, and held perfectly open conversations between themselves as the head monk spoke. I thought this was pretty surprising since he was obviously a massive cheese and leant over to ask Upul, who's a very friendly maths teacher with decent English and who I'd met a few times in Molligoda,what he was talking about. By this point he'd been going fifteen minutes. The four noble truths would be a part of it, I assumed; or maybe he was focusing instead on the eight precepts. After all he'd been going on a bit. No no, Upul said: he was thanking all the people who had helped in the construction of the fandol.

Oh right. He went on for another fifteen minutes. I mean, fuck, at least at the oscars they cut you off with an orchestra. Still, the fandol was pretty impressive looking, I can't deny: it had taken weeks of work (quite a few of my class skipped lessons to help, and one, Indawimala, who had been barely present for a fortnight, was sitting alongside the head monk as he made his speech and three of the other senior figures at the temple, presumably in recognition of his efforts.)

What a fandol is, exactly, is a kind of crude two dimensional (I mean, not literally two dimensional, but only the front is decorated) pyramid structure about twenty or so feet high, which has an image of the buddha at the top surrounded by multi-coloured light bulbs and then a series of pictures below representing a significant story from his life. The thing I was really there for was the ceremonial switching on of the lights. Blue weren't in attendance, sadly, nor charlotte church - one significant advantage oxford street holds over Molligoda when it comes to celebrations - but still it was pretty special when they went on. It really looked lovely. I have a video of it. When I get home I'll see if I can post it.

What was really nice was that unlike larger, more ostentatious fandols in bigger temples I visited at Wadduwa and Kalutara, this one had old school light bulbs rather than flashy LCD numbers, which made the posher ones immeasurably tackier and more reminiscent of picadilly circus.

What else was good? I'll tell you what, the sense, for the first time, of being welcome not merely for being amusingly foreign. I spend one afternoon a week teaching at a voluntary afterschool thing in molligoda instead of at tsunami camp (the smaller of the two camps we work in has been suspended, which is a pisser, because this old drunk man who's always been a bit lairy chased a couple of volunteers away with a bottle in what was by all accounts a very mildly unnerving fashion and now TPA won't let anyone go until the families there assert that they want us to come back and 'reach an understanding' with the old coot), I work at this place once a week, and so that was another sort of readymade community present at the temple, and there are a few waifs and strays I've come across one way or another there, and for once people looked more than sheerly amused at my presence - they seemed to think it was perfectly natural. It was nice.

Lots more at vesak but I have to go. I only have one more week working here and then a couple travelling. It's weird. Although not that weird. Christ I'm tiring of these FUCKING PEOPLE banging ON and ON about how fast it's gone and how BIZARRE it is that X or Y is leaving and the thing is X or Y leaves every fucking week it's like a rolling schedule there's new people all the time so you can't STILL be surprised about it and frankly all the god it only feels like yesterday we got here can you believe it I found the first week went really slowly then the second week went SOO fast then the third week seemed to take about a week but then the fourth and fifth were LIGHTNING then May 4th was a pretty slow day but since then it's just been RIPSNORTING is getting A BIT FUCKING OLD.

That was all quite pleasant until then, as well. Still I needed to say it. Hey my dad has a blog which is a pretty amusing prospect in my view. There's an excellent photo of him wearing a wreath looking like a hawaiian flower girl, a bit. The RSC's doing every Shakespeare play in a year and he's going to all of them and asking for sponsorship. All right so it's not exactly a bath in baked beans or a marathon but it's an epic undertaking nevertheless. So far it mainly consists of Shakespeare related business, cuttings from reviews, and dad's personal star ratings, but I'm confident there'll be bowel movement descriptions and vigorous swearing and all that good stuff before you know it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Walcott Walcott With Hope In Your Heart

See what I did there?

Amazing selection in my view: Sven's finest hour. Let's face it: Jermaine Defoe isn't going to win us the world cup. Neither is Walcott, but he and Lennon and Downing are, crucially, seriously quick, and they might do something in the last ten minutes of a big game; and, and I think this is important, their selection is a signal that Eriksson and England aren't interested in getting to the quarters or the semis and losing to the eventual winners: they're interested in winning it. This is crappy pundit speak, isn't it. What I mean is that their selection is the sort of risk which most teams which are successful at major tournaments have to take. Imagine seeing Theo come on against a knackered Argentinian defence with ten minutes left of extra time!

What it also suggests is that if Owen isn't fit, Eriksson intends to play Crouch up front on his own, since you can't see Walcott playing 90 minutes. In fact this is what Thomas Eccleshare pointed out the other day, and he is of course bang on:

let owen (or if pushed, crouch) cope on his own. This will work because we'll stick cole and beckham WIDE on the flanks and then make carrick sit. This way Gerrard and Lampard can AT LAST do what they do best: get forward and score goals (both more than any english striker this season).

Prescient eh. Looks like it might be what he intends. I don't think it would be a wise move with owen, who has never been the same threat alone up front as he is with a partner, but if we lose him it makes sense:


gerrard Lampard

cole carrick beckham

And maybe if we're losing carrick comes off for Walcott and lampard sits. Ooh it gives me chills just to think about it. So out of character for eriksson, too - can you think of a single other risk he's taken in a major tournament? Perhaps now his contract's up he's not so bothered about failing: a necessary condition, I think. Slightly extraordinary that he's never seen Walcott play a competitive game. Still I have and I think he's going to set Germany ALIGHT. Jumpers for goalposts!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Past Hope

The train back from Hikadua this evening stopped for about twenty minutes near a place called Ambualangoda, close to what must have been a settlement before the tsunami. You could see ghosts of houses and the palm trees were planted in the interstices between plots of land, but there was nothing else growing, which is a rare thing here; even along the Galle Road in Panadura, which is as inhospitable an environment as you get in this part of Sri Lanka, plants just seem to expand to fill any available space, like polyfilla. There were also new houses under construction on some of the plots of land. Most were incipient and the only parts in place were the foundations and the ground floor. They look like blueprints, I kept thinking: a tentative shot at a way to carry on, but always contingent, always liable to change.

How do they do it? How do people continue after something like that? I forget about it all the time because there is no way to tell who was lucky and who lost everything. It is alien to me that these communities can get on with living so vigorously. Why doesn't everything stop? At Ambulangoda, near the building work, there were three small rectangles of fresher-looking earth side by side. They were about four feet long and they had rough-hewn stones as markers at one end, and I thought they were going to be outhouse toilets, in fact; it was only as our train drew away that I could see that the stones had sinhala carving on them, and of course that these were in fact the graves of children. Siblings maybe, since they were buried together. How is it possible that those who have lost the fabrics of their lives aren't marked in any visible way? How can this not scar you in a way that everyone can see when they walk past you in the street?

The only thing I can come up with is that to stop is a less available option here than at home. Time is inexorable everywhere and drags you with it but here I guess ordinary people have fewer ways to offset this effect, here the state's capacity to at least slow things down a little is significantly less, here if you do not start again very quickly there is a chance that you will not in fact be able to start again at all, because you won't have enough food. Communities are strong here and perhaps (though I'm reluctant to say it because it's such a cliched version of the difference between the west and countries like Sri Lanka) stronger than at home and people will help you if they can, but there is only so much help available when everyone has lost something, and if you can't begin again you may lose whatever you have left. I don't think that this implies a moral superiority but simply a distinction of templates: ceasing to function is maybe more possible when your functions do not, by and large, interfere with your means of continuing to exist if not to live. I think maybe a lot of Sri Lankans did not actively choose to find ways to carry on but simply did so.

It reminds me a bit of the end of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which is about AIDS. The world only spins forward, Prior says:

"Death usually has to take life away. I don't know if that's just the animal. I don't know if it's not braver to die. But I recognize the habit. The addiction to being alive. We live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that's it, that's the best I can do. It's so much not enough, so inadequate, but... bless me anyway. I want more life."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


OK so we have to adjuts to a rooneyless world. Here are the options:

Owen Crouch

Cole Gerrard Lampard Beckham



DOwning? Gerrard Lampard Beckham


Gerrard/Cole King?/Carrick? Lampard Beckham

I actually quite like the look of option 3, probably with Cole wide and Gerrard off Owen. There's no denying though that you lose so much when you lose Rooney. ABove all the way he oeprates in that area between centre circle and 18 yard box which defenders simply don't know how to deal with - the amount of play he creates rampaging forward having picked the ball up round there simply can't be reproduced by anyone else. Gerrard can maybe do the same thing but then you lose his influence in the centre of the park which is where he's best, spraying it forwards, and the other downer is that he's not as good as rooney with his back to goal. I fear out genuinely exciting chance of winning the world cup may have slipped through our fingers. And man u were already 3 down when he got hurt: what a fucking waste. Still maybe he'll be back for the quarters or even the last group game... some hope, or at least, he probably will, but he won't be the same player.


Other option which just occurred to me


Cole Beckham Lampard Who? Um No shit this won't work cos since wright-phillips went off the boil we haven't really got a decent right midfield option. Nuts. OK back to the drawing board

(anyone got any better ideas? http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/world_cup_2006/england_selector/3914143.stm)