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Close Shave in Colombo

11-29-08: Close Shave in Colombo

It’s always surprising how close a shave you get the first time you put razor to face in the tropics. It must be the humidity, or the fact that you have not shaved for the last 35 hours, had two 11-hour flights and a 6-hour layover in Heathrow airport—those whiskers have a long time to grow, giving the blade something to grab. The travel “day” went as smoothly as the shave: no major delays, a free row to stretch out in on the LA-London leg, and an innocuous seat-mate on the London-Colombo jaunt. My arrival at the airport arranged by the guy who runs the place (thanks to Sharon for the connect!) I was greeted by his sari-clad assistant directors and whisked through customs, passport control (in the “government officials” line), and baggage in a matter of minutes—out a door that read “security personnel only” and I was in Sri Lanka. After the cool air-con of the terminal, that hot, fecund air hits you like a wave.

Johanne, the airport director, takes me to his on-site residence for a cup of tea, where he loans me a cell phone for the duration of my stay and fills me in on the current situation while we wait for Harriet (Les’ friend, and MicroAid in-country “advance team”) to pick me up. Driving to Mount Lavinia, a small coastal suburb of Colombo in the waning light, we stop to pick up some bananas and mangoes at a roadside stand. I meet our host family, and even though it is really 6 am for me, I go to bed under the mosquito net and lazily spinning ceiling fan and fall right to sleep.

12-1-08: Fishing Around a Fishing Village

On Sunday, Deshi (Gehan’s cousin) picks me up at the Mt. Lavinia Hotel, the colonial remnant of British rule and “bastion of civilization,” overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean (where Harriet and I are going to spend my “recuperation day” by the pool) and takes me on a tour of a fishing village down the coast that was wiped out by the tsunami. Debris still litters the high water mark and houses lay in disrepair. Five years after the event, not too much has been done. The fisher-families have rebuilt their ramshackle huts and resumed their lives—not much worse off than they were before, but not better either. Some lost irreplaceable possessions, other have not replaced even the basics. There is an amazing community center that has filled in to support, though—raising funds to rebuild and retrain, and to feed the needy women and their children. MicroAid could help here and provide building materials and tools.

12-3-08: Tuk-Tuks from Hell

Known as “three wheelers” here, Asia’s ubiquitous mode of transportation is really part motorcycle, part pinball machine. Riding in one, especially in a busy, crowded, polluted capital city is like swerving around in a cart from Coney Island’s Cyclone in the Holland Tunnel. Anyway, that’s how I get to a meeting on Tuesday morning at the bucolic oasis-like Hilton Hotel in downtown Colombo. As always, the contrast between these gated compounds and the congested poverty outside is startling. Meeting with the South Asian director for Operation USA to talk about the recovery efforts in a town in the east, and MicroAid’s potential involvement. Just being here a few days brings up questions of fate, karma, and privilege that we take for granted living in the US.

12-3-08: Caught in the Crossfire in Dehiwela

Every morning at 4:30 am the neighborhood mosque starts broadcasting over their loudspeakers. Anyone who has been to the Muslim world is familiar with the plaintive wail of the call to prayer. Even at this early hour it is romantically exotic. Apparently, the monks at the Buddhist monastery next door do not agree. A few minutes into the Muslim call, the monks start blaring their own chanting over their own P.A. system. This cacophonous battle of the bands goes on until about 5:30 am. Heard independently, either broadcast might be sonorous enough to allow some sleep, but together it’s like a Donny and Marie Little-Bit-Country-Little-Bit-Rock-and-Roll jihad–minus the bubble gum harmonies, of course. The competition for NGO dollars and attention is equally intense. Local groups and the government all want to control the flow of relief, recovery, and development dollars. This makes it very critical for MicroAid, when deciding whom to partner with, to distinguish between the legitimate and the needy and scammers and the greedy. Beneficiary selection is also a critical task, but one well worth the effort as there are so many people in dire straits—many tsunami victims, but also people affected by the ongoing civil war, or both.

It has been a fully urban experience so far, and as you know, in the third world, that is not so pleasant. No big deal though… I had an amazing meeting with the CEO of Dialog Global (which would be equal to lunching with the CEO of Verizon Wireless) yesterday. I asked her to be on our Advisory Board and she agreed. She also agreed to help in any way she could, which could be a lot, considering her position. It’s Wednesday and I just got out of the weekly lunch meeting of the Colombo Rotary Club (I was invited by a member who runs a travel company here) and heard a lecture, by their guest speaker, on the state of the Sri Lankan economy—apparently, it’s not pretty. But I was also introduced to a number of prominent businessmen and one woman who is the head of the club’s community projects committee. They have a number of post-disaster projects still in the works and some are just the right size for MicroAid to help complete. The Club has done a lot of rebuilding of dwellings, but there are still unmet needs, including small water filtration systems and latrines, and a couple of capacity building programs (sewing machines and training, computers and training) for young adults in villages that were destroyed by the wave. The good news about the Rotarians is that they are all-volunteer (business people) and have immaculate accountability and transparency in the flow of funds. I am going to view a couple of their sites when Harriet and I head south on Sunday. I am looking forward to getting out of the city, away form the barraging buzz of two-stroke “three wheelers,” and to breathing some exhaust-free air, and seeing the un-congested coastal beauty of Sri Lanka, the existence of which, at this point, is hard to believe.

12-3-08: Hob Nobbin’ with the NGO

Still in Colombo. Trip to east cancelled for security reasons, but probably over-blown–“The New York Times” front page today not withstanding–and I am going next week). Attending the conference the last three days, but yesterday was an all day visit to a rural village, which was really how you might envision Sri Lanka: rice paddies, rubber plantations… jungle. Met in the village by the council, Buddhist priest, Catholic priest, and so many friendly villagers–had tea, tour of the pre-school, fresh coconut milk by the side of the road, church, and temple, lunch in private home (the huge spread of fabulous food was like a veggie-curry-wedding fantasy). You eat with your hands here, like in Ethiopia (even the same technique: scooping with you fingers–right hand only–wadding the food, and pushing it into your mouth with your thumb).

Later that night, in abrupt contrast: drinks at the venerable colonial Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. Out on the lawn, where you could envision gin and tonics being consumed after a cricket match in the 1800s the last rays of a blazing orange sunset silhouetted the rustling palms. Talked about lives of world-travel and adventures, with a caravansary of ex-pats and NGO types, including the Sri Lanka head of CARE, and some USAid workers. Tomorrow, heading to the south for some potential MicroAid site visits and to the east on Sunday.

12-5-08: Leapin’ Leeches in Kadugoda South

Did I mention that leeches freak me out a bit. As we were looking at the rubber trees while touring Kadugoda South, our guide said we should stay on the path because if we walk near the trees we could get leeches. I was skeptical, but the minute you walked off the path a leech, or two, would jump onto your foot and attempt to affix itself. You had to give ‘em a good flick before they could start sucking, otherwise you’d have to pour salt on them later to get them off. I thought I was pretty careful—hadn’t gotten any on me—but I was sitting in a hut later and felt something bothering my ankle. I thought it was a mosquito, but when I reached down to swat it away, it turned out to be a small leech wriggling around the strap of my sandal. Flick!

12-8-08: Southern Hospitality

Some words from the drive south: winding jungle roads with glimpses of the sea, turquoise surf smoothed by offshore winds, Buddhist stuppas on emerald hillsides, stick fishermen… Small towns with names like Kalutura, Wellingama, Unawatuna, and Mirrissa whiz by with stands selling woven baskets and mats, fruits, and fish interspersed with ex-pat European and Australian B&Bs catering to off-the-beaten-track tourists, surfers, and beachcombers. Watched a group of fishermen hauling in their big net on the beach south of Hikkadua, after seeing the remaining devastated railcar from the “ghost train”—deluged on the tracks by the tsunami, killing 1,600.

Checked out a local community clinic in need of funding, and heard about a desire to build a community center and tsunami evacuation facility on some land owned by the generous businessman who funds the clinic. (This could be a simple MicroAid project, where we could provide the building and they could use it for disaster mitigation training and other community activities on a daily basis, and as an evacuation retreat in case of a future catastrophe).

–artist rendering of MicroAid disaster center

We are back on our way to Hanbantota, where Harriet has to work at the local Women’s Development Federation (micro finance and social programs) and I have projects sites to visit. Janice, the head of Mercy Corp. in the region, and our traveling companion for the last couple of days (along with our driver, Tissa), invites me to look over their project portfolio, budgets, and meet their local specialists, as they, too, are getting ready to wind up their development (non-tsunami related) activities. A lot of money has poured into the area since the destruction in 2004, and with the micro-finance trend, even more, so a lot of work and recovery has been accomplished. She warns that the problem is not in finding MicroAid projects—there are always people left out, or inadequately served—but working with competent and honest local people who will help get the work done. Happy to be out of the capital, breathing the oxygen-rich greenhouse air, and hearing the crashing waves out on the outer reef.

12-9-08: Humanitarian in Hanbantota

Unfortunate Hanbanatota: most of the seaside structures—homes and businesses–were wiped out on the morning of December 26th, 2004. It devastated life and infrastructure, but also the fabric of the community. Forty-five hundred deaths, seventeen thousand displaced, two thousand five hundred tsunami widows, and fifteen hundred orphans. Needless to say, no matter how much aid flowed into the area–and it was substantial, and it is apparent—after four years, there is still much to be done. Toured the area with a Women’s Development Federation representative and saw many worthy development projects that could always use more funds: community banks and micro finance lenders, rainwater collection systems, and an elderly center under construction, but for MicroAid, there are a number of families still in need of houses, as well as a program to sponsor the educational needs of tsunami orphans. (For about $300/year MicroAid could sponsor one child. WDF limits the sponsorship to two years, while they help the surviving parent or guardian achieve a sustainable income—smart.) I attended the monthly meeting where the guardians bring the kids to WDF to report on their progress. So heartwarming and poignant.

When I return, I will need to evaluate the portfolio of projects and come back to execute. I have made contact with the number-two man in charge of building the new airport in Hanbantota—a connection through the number-one guy out of Colombo (already the friend of a friend who met me upon my arrival). He has done a lot of service work, including constructing 3,000 homes for the poor, and offered to be our local project manager and consultant, gratis. We had a beautiful talk about Buddhist philosophy (he is one) and he was impressed that I was a Vippassana meditator in the pure tradition.

In the photos you will see a man and his family whose house was destroyed in 2004. Various NGOs promised to build him a new one, but never came through. He is a brick maker with four kids and a mother to support, so all his money goes to hand-to-mouth existence. He is genuinely industrious, just in a bind, and has been vetted by WDF–they were able to build him a latrine and loan him money to buy a tractor to bring his bricks to market (now he pays interest on that), but they don’t do homes. So for about $2,500 we could give this family a decent place to continue the struggles of life. And there are about six situations like this! Also, there are about a dozen other families who just moved off their land–when their homes were washed away–and in with relatives (instead of building shanties) who would like to return. These people could use a decent home where they are not crowded together six to a room.

12-10-08: Tusked Trouble Makers

Tsunamis, floods, drought, fires, mudslides, cyclone, these are what we usually consider “natural disasters,” but wait, is an elephant rampage through a community center a natural disaster? You bet! There are two situations here in Hanbantota where pachyderm marauding has affected humans: one, the aforementioned community center, and another, a private home. Did I mention this is elephant country! And they roam pretty freely in the dense foliage covered landscape. Even the garbage landfill is surrounded by an electrified fence to keep the tusked trouble-makers from scavenging the refuse.

12-16-08: Shot Down in Arugam Bay

About an hour into the trip east, standing strap-hanging in a sardine tin of a bus, incessant Indian pop music blaring from a crackling speaker over my head, jammed in like the IRT at rush hour, I’m thinking: this wasn’t such a good idea. How many more hours of this can I take? It’s supposed to be a six-hour trip. My forearms are aching from hanging on, and although I thought for a while my legs could use the workout, the equivalent of 1,000 bottom turns has made my quads hurt. Beside, the sickening swerving and abrupt stops at jungle way stations is making me a little nauseous, and the fumes are getting to me, too—and I don’t mean the exhaust, it’s the people crushed in around me, also hanging from the overhead bar, reeking from their armpits. Five more hours… Ugh! I forgot that just because you can travel like the poorest local, doesn’t mean you have to—too late now, I guess. As we proceed, more people get off than get on, and I score a seat after about three hours. I stumble out at the Ampara turnoff at about five hours, and rather than cram into another overcrowded public bus for 61 rupees (50 cents), I splurge on a tuk-tuk for 1,200 rupees (11 dollars) for the one and a half hours to Pothuvil and Arugam Bay.

Be careful what you ask for. My love/hate relationship with tuk-tuks continues as my driver must have trained in downtown Colombo (and had his license revoked) because he is hell-bent! I’ve never seen a tuk-tuk go so fast. It must be super-charged, or he bought the floor model, because as we fly along the rutted road, I am bounced around like a ping-pong ball in the Lotto hopper. He even tears through some yellow caution tape at a construction zone where the road turns to dirt. He dutifully stops at all the all the military checkpoints, though, where heavily armed police emerge from sandbagged bunkers to check his papers. (This is a country with a very active civil war.) My driver must travel this route twenty times a day—everyone else seems to know him and waive and beep their horns—but the security guys scrutinize his papers like he is Osama Bin Laden just emerged from a cave in Tora Bora. They are super nice to me, and as always, happy to meet an “Amaireecan” and practice their English. We stop once more to help another tuk-tuk driver change a tire, then we’re off, bumping and swerving and splashing our way down to the sea, while on either side of the road lush vegetation and paddy fields stretch to distant fog-shrouded mountains.

Was met by a guide and driver from the Batticoloa district and driven northbound past destroyed and rebuilt and sacked villages, as I continued to develop the MicroAid recovery portfolio. Much work to be done building houses, completing others, supporting tsunami orphans, and replacing tools of livelihood.


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