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Sri Lanka March 2010

A quick note about traveling: the more you do it, the less different the world seems–slight variations in clothing, architecture, food–and the more similarities become obvious: most people just trying to make a living, feed their families, and get along.

the richest people you meet are often the poorest - soodin family

In Batticaloa now, the Tamil town on the east coast, which was the LTTE rebel stronghold for many years. The people’s suffering here was compounded by the war before and after the tsunami. On the 6-hour journey from Hambantota, along snaking jungle roads, every few kilometers, abandoned, but some manned, sandbagged bunkers lined the road. I asked my driver if there had been a lot of fighting here during the civil war and he said, “Not fighting, just killing.” The LTTE was famous for having initiated the strategy of suicide bombing twenty years ago. Often, the rebels would force local men and boys into “military” service; if they were captured, the government would, in turn, imprison them. (Part of that fun included being tortured as traitors.) There are horror stories on both sides, and the political situation is hardly clear.

from a distance we're all the same - batticaloa, sri lanka

On the drive, though, the scenery was lush and tropical. I had asked that the driver to mention anything of interest, so he would occasionally point to the wall of greenery whizzing by and say things like, “tamarind” or “teak.” I guess he could tell the different plants and trees among the dense foliage, but pardon the pun, “it was all ‘teak’ to me.”

Here in Batti, MicroAid is providing windows and doors to two tsunami families who, after their homes were washed away, were just handed money to rebuild. Well, needless to say, most of these simple people did not know how to budget for construction and were targeted by unscrupulous “contractors,” so most were left with half-completed and inadequate homes. The international agencies that gave them the cash (and you would recognize the big names) never did any follow-up to see how the money was spent, or if the people were OK. Until I showed up last year, no one had checked in on them.

just handed money by big aid orgs - most of the simple people never were able to complete their homes - mrs nagakanni

Mrs. Thaya has three sons and tries to make ends meet by running a “boutique.” When I asked where it was, she pointed to the hut in the corner of the compound. I had missed it when I arrived. Even though the style is not Rodeo Dr. or Madison Ave. (actually, just watch some trendy designer use this as a model) the place does a brisk business with locals stopping by to pick up odd and ends. Mrs. Thaya also supports her husband who was disabled in an accident when he was working at a bakery. He lost an eye and was dismissed because he could no longer do his job. There is no workman’s comp here.

that's mrs. thaya's "boutique" in the corner of the compound

does that back door look secure to you?

The other family has a similar story, with a twist. Mrs. Nagakanni’s husband, a fisherman, had been abducted by the LTTE and then imprisoned for seven years. He was away when the tsunami struck and destroyed their home. They have a son and four daughters. Their uncompleted house was designed with expensive, fancy arched openings for the front doors and window—a ridiculous design element given the circumstances and budget. There are no standard sizes here; each opening is a different dimension. Consequently, every frame, window, and door has to be custom made by a mill, then installed by a mason, then finished by another carpenter (in addition to grillwork done by a welder), making this the most expensive part of the house.

mrs. nagakanni & kids

Both families are helping by providing their own labor, and meals for the workers. MicroAid will provide them with the dignity of a house with some security, privacy, light and ventilation.They will then have a home and not a dark depressing cave!

thaya house - this is the way its been since 2005

frames are custom made and set by a mason

windows are custom made and installed by a carpenter

doors are hand carved

now that's curb appeal!

As it becomes known what we—my guide/interpreter/man-Friday/moral support, Pathmanandan, and I—are doing, many people are approaching us and asking us to help them. Some are tsunami victims, some are victims of the fighting, others are just poor. As Path said to me about our work, and the MicroAid mission, “We cannot wipe every tear from every eye but at least we can wipe some tears off some eyes!”

"do they think i'm made of money?" "yes, you're an american."

As for me, I was sad to leave the Soodin family in Hambantota, but I will return in two weeks to help finish the house. I really grew fond of them, and they of me—a classic case where some stranger shows up out of the blue to help with something, everyone is apprehensive, but then the kids and adults start to become real personalities and bonds develop. Anyway, I will always have a special place in my heart for the first MicroAid project and the wonderful, deserving, and grateful people we were able to help.

soodin house - ready for the roof

Batticaloa is much grittier (the jungle actually gets very dry and dusty in between the monsoon seasons) and feels more edgy.

not all jungles are wet - urban jungle of batticaloa

Luckily, I got a room at the only decent guesthouse in town, the Green Garden, which also happens to be a fifteen-minute walk to the work sites, and is my oasis at the end of the day. Also, the good news is there aren’t swarms of ants crawling over everything; the bad news is that Batti’s pest of choice is malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

More later from Ceylon…



Approved by the Board

luxury living

You think New York City co-op boards are tough? We’ll they’re nothing compared to this snake-pit in Kallady, Sri Lanka—that’s because the tenants really are snakes! After the termites moved out of their mound, the cobras moved in. Now, to appease them, the neighborhood people place food and flowers on and around the building. Try that with the gang at 740 Park or 820 Fifth and see if it works!

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