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24 Hours in a Day

In so many ways I am getting used to being here. I don’t feel bedraggled all the time, and a breeze in the shade, even at 90 degrees, feels a little cool.Not understanding what anyone is saying seems normal—maybe that’s because it’s true in America, too. I forgot that it is actually a relief not having to make small talk. Walking down a dark lane that initially felt exotic and scary is now my daily route to and from the work site. Ah, familiarity.

bucolic by day, boo-colic by night - bungalow road

Construction days unfold as they do back home: we start at eight, at mid-morning the women bring out strong black tea with lots of sugar and ginger for all the men workers. Everyone else gets a small glass; as the honored guest, I get an actual teacup and saucer, albeit with “Finding Nemo” characters on the outside and at the bottom of the cup. When there is a big “concrete pour,” everyone pitches in, like an Amish barn raising. Kids, relatives, and friends show up to form a bucket brigade passing along concrete, which is mixed directly on the ground with a shovel, and ultimately handed to the mason. I wish I had a photo of the kids stoically struggling with the heavy buckets, but I was in the concrete conga line myself.No one is spared when there is cement setting up!

back breaking work - mixing concrete by hand

center wall going up - osha anyone?

every single brick in this house was place by Kodi

starting to look like something

At around noon, young coconuts are felled by the boys and hacked open for thirst quenching and re-energizing.Lunch is usually called at about 1:30pm.I walk to the local restaurant, where I eat rice, spicy dhal, and spicy vegetables, while the family has their “rice & curry.” Back to work at around 3, some more tea at 4 or 5, and quitting time around 6:30pm. A long hot day of mixing concrete, hoisting bricks, etc, and it’s all I can do to get back to my room, take a shower, and read a bit before falling asleep. When I can, I motivate to cross the road to the “fancy” hotel and try my luck getting on their coconut-wireless internet.

peacock hotel "computer center" - my laptop makes it two

Other than walking to and from the site, and the physicality of the work, I am not getting any real exercise, and I am definitely missing it, not sleeping that well, and feeling out of shape—but otherwise healthy. On the occasional day off, I have gone to the beach, early in the morning before the heat, and tried to jog a bit in the steeply sloping soft sand. There is usually a swell dumping head high waves directly onto the beach.Even though it is un-surfable, just being near the ocean’s energy is revitalizing.Sometimes I dive in and take a few strokes past the shore-break before I realize I’m swimming around alone in the powerful Indian Ocean and head back to terra firma.

the fisherman go out before dawn and come back just after sunrise

Since the work days have become somewhat routine, existential questions arise: what else could I be doing with 24 hours. Then I get to the worksite and feel the gratitude of the family and the gusto with which they are helping build themselves a real house, and I have my answer: nothing. For a relatively small sum to us, and a short period of time, we are helping a family realize a dream—something I can only participate in back home, and not even achieve myself. This—MicroAid—is the real deal.Sri Lankans are not generally demonstrative people, but Mrs. Soodin has often, in private moments, cried while thanking me for what I’m doing.And all the relatives, who have come to meet me and see the house going up, have expressed various versions of “this is a miracle.” I have told them about all the people who contributed to make it happen and said it is a gift from our family to theirs. As a humanitarian project, the measure of this one will not be in how we helped “build capacity” or “affected productivity,” it will be in how many nights this family lives under a real roof, surrounded by solid walls, with a modicum of privacy, rather than living in a cramped, corrugated-tin shanty!

ready for roof timbers

the girls and boys will have separate bedrooms

As this build is going so well, and I am confident in Roy to keep the work moving forward, I am off to Batticaloa, on the east coast, in a few days to initiate the projects there. This was definitely an ambitious workload given the schedule and the distances between sites. Good lessons for future MicroAid projects.

From Serendib,


the crowded sunday market is where everyone was killed in 2004

Bonus tracks:

WTB? (“what the beep?”)

One thing you have to get used to here, especially if you do a lot of walking like I do, is that everyone honks their horn—which of course adds to the general cacophony, especially in Colombo. There are short honks and long, multiples and singles, but every one, and every combination, has a meaning. “Move over,” “speed up,” “slow down,” “passing,” “I see you,” “turning,” “coming through,” and “my wave” are all communicated with a toot on the blower.As one must learn, coming from our culture where the horn is seldom used, a beep from a passing car, three-wheel tuk-tuk, bus, or truck, as it’s bearing down on you or passing right beside you, requires no acknowledgement, and does not mean “howdy,” “check us out,” or “hubba hubba.” Actually, since 70% of Sri Lankan’s are Buddhists, the honking means, “Because of my faith, I am responsible for you, so now that I have beeped my horn I have fulfilled my obligation… Now get out of the way!”

tuk-tuks: half motorcycle, half pinball machine

Noisy Neighbors

What do you call a gang of monkeys? A gaggle, a pride, a herd, a barrel-full?Whatever it is there is a family of black-faced simians partying every night on the roof of my bungalow. I don’t know what they’re doing up there: practicing their floor routine for the gymnastic event, shooting craps, or just having a “disco Saturday night” every night, but something’s got to give—probably me.The other day the bunch of them slipped through the bars on the kitchen window over at the Progressive Youth Foundation (a local NGO) and ate all the fruits and vegetables. Of course, they didn’t stick around for clean-up, leaving banana peels and other detritus strewn about the counters and floor. Monkeys here are like squirrels elsewhere—they’re all over, and constantly scavenging. Only these squirrels have opposable thumbs and brains. That’s a potent combination in a squirrel!Sometimes they’ll just swoop down out of the trees and grab your backpack or cell phone just to taunt you. Luckily they have not learned the international area codes… yet.

anti-theft system

Blood in the Streets

When I first got to Hambantota I was walking along the road and saw a small pool of blood and drops leading into the bushes. I thought, Poor little animal got hit by a careening tuk-tuk and limped off to die. A bit further along, I saw the same thing. Wow, I thought, so many hurt animals. Of course, the “blood” was just so much betel juice spit out by the myriad chewers. The mild narcotic/stimulant-chew is a ritual as much as an addiction—cheaper than cigarettes, but like rolling your own.Years of chewing stains the mouth a bright crimson, ruining teeth and gums, and often running down the chin—but at least it doesn’t cause lung cancer!Anyway, there’s reason to be sad for the animals, but at least they’re not actually being hit by cars.

the poor bunnies

the real monkey on your back

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