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June 5 2006 Kandy, Sri Lanka
Still in Kandy,
Been hanging out with my deaf boys again. Really enjoying it.
Nigel also rocked into town yesterday so we had some good banter last night.
June 1 2006 Kandy, Sri Lanka
The home of the famous tooth relic belonging to the Lord Buddha. Surrounded by a buddhist temple and lots of militarisation. Road blocks. Heavily armed police. There has definitely been an escalation since I was last here 6 weeks ago... During the intervening time a suicide bomber alleged to be from the Tamil Tigers blew up the Army Commander and both sides have been going a bit crazy ever since.
I've been to the temple before though. My reasons for coming to Kandy were two fold. First, a priest from the Scottish Episcopal Church lives here and its his birthday on Saturday to celebrate he's holding a traditional Scottish ceilidh. Apparently he's invited the Scottish Link volunteers and the project trust volunteers, so I thought I'd crash it too. I don't have a kilt with me, so I thought I'd turn up in my Sarong.
Second reason was to visit some of my old deaf kiddies. Four and a half years ago, while Kai and I were teaching english in Anuradhapura, we used to go and visit a school and home for deaf children. We obviously didn't teach them english. But since they had very little adult attention and no positive male role models I used to go and play with them. When I re-visited the school in Anuradhapura I discovered that some of the kids had got older and were no longer there. They'd been moved to a vocational training centre in Kandy.... resourceful Dave obtained the address, written in Sinhalese script, showed it to a bus driver, and hey presto, found the vocational training centre.
As I (a scruffy white guy) walked into the compound I attracted a small amount of attention. The administrator guy came over to find out what I was there for. I explained... but he thought it was silly. If I couldn't speak Sinhalese, he said, how could I communicate with my deaf kids (who can't hear Sinhalese). I tried explaining that I was a master of banter and that the boys were experts at communicating without sound and that I was confident that we could muddle through.
He didn't seem convinced but let me through. I had brought out my photos from 4 years ago to prove that I was genuine and also help identify the boys. After a mass huddle and a bit of a rammy, a couple of the boys went off to find my old pals. Two minutes later, Big-nose and Eyebrow and Big-tooth (the only way I can describe their names in sign) came running down the hill. It was wonderful to see my wee boys again, who have all grown up (19 yrs and 21 yrs old). We remembered eachother instantly and I could feel that special bond, that we used to share, return. Administrator was not wrong. Banter was a little slow at first until they'd reminded my some sign language. But they showed me their carpentry workshop. Their dormitory. We went for lunch. It was lovely.
I'm going back to visit on Saturday.
May 28 2006 Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
back in Sri Lanka now.
Spent a few relaxing days with Nigel down in Hikkadua, chatting, catching up, eating etc.
Then trained/bussed up to Kurenegala on Friday arriving tired at about 8:30 pm. I had had to change from the Kandy train onto a bus at Polgahawella but there were about 150 people all trying to get busses to Kurenegala that evening and all the buses were full and my rucksack certainly didn't help matters. I had to beg a bus driver to let me on... Not meaning to be white supremist or anything, but its at times like that that I'm glad I'm white.
Then, as I wondered around Kurenegala looking for a hotel I began to curse Pete and Scott. After all it was to visit their old placement I was there and all the cheap hotels in my Footprint guidebook seemed to have closed down. After about an hour and a half I eventually found somewhere beside the wewa (lake) which was adequate.
So the next morning I wondered a long the road to the Christodia boys home where Pete and Scott used to teach. This is a home for orphans or children from families that are too poor to look after them, often with a single parent. Half the boys were away for exam time but quite a lot were still there. I told the wee mites that I was friends with Pete and Scott and showed them some photos. They all commented in typical lankan bluntness that Pete had big hair and was less strong than he used to be and that Scott looked good because he was fatter.
I was ushered through to meet Tata and Ama. Tata sat down, arranged himself, and asked who I was. Ama, who still looks like Yoda, was hunched up near by and cackled like the wicked witch of the west every time I spoke in Sinhala.
They were delighted when I said that I was friends with Pete and Scott and said they were the two boys who cried. They cried when they left and they cried all the way to the bus stand and made all the local people stop and point. He said that you and he and the boys all had a very warm connection. He demanded I stayed for lunch. After then describing all the different volunteers who had worked there (who I don't know) and describing every single financial donation that any of them had ever given he wanted to talk about why volunteers didn't come any more. As if I could be some adjudicator for Link Overseas Exchange and bring them back (I made it clear that i wasn't and couldn't). I was the first person he could tell his story to since the volunteers had been withdrawn.
He explained that cultural differences between Scotland and Sri Lanka were big and punishment was punishment and that sometimes he had to cane the boys. He said that once he'd had two very bad tamil boys who didn't respond to him. He had warned them three times. He had taken them to the anglican priest and the catholic priest for a blessing to make them good but they still hadn't responded. They were still bad, so he had caned them... but he said he never hit boys. Hitting was different. He said that one volunteer couldn't cope with the fact. And then the volunteers had been withdrawn and now they'd muddied his name around sri lanka and with the bishop. But the bishop believed him.
I tried to listen politely without condoning his abuse of children. I knew from Link and the other volunteers that he had beat the children frequently and severly... once so hard that the cane had broken and that the incident that led to the volunteers being withdrawn had been one where a boy was punished for going to an english class with a volunteer instead of doing another chore. The volunteer had apparently stepped in and held Tata's cane to stop the beating. Then when Vicky visited to discuss the situation Tata was very rude to Vicky and that was it.
It is difficult to know how to respond in these situations. I could have asserted what I understood to be the truth and insulted Tata and been sent away without getting to chat to the boys or have lunch or maintain a relationship for future visits. I could have sat quietly and let this man reinforce his delusion that he didn't do anything wrong. I also did not know the real truth but I had been told a very different version of this story. I tried to find a middle ground and said that we in scotland thought that beating children was not good practise and left it at that. Perhaps I'm a wimp.
Afterwards I was allowed to play with the kids before lunch. They were hard at work harvesting and moving coconuts. Got some good banter down. The boys were great fun. And really honest and gentle seeming. They all wanted to look at my laminated photos of Pete and Scott and my family and stuff but were very careful about returning them to me every couple of minutes. Then I met an older boy with good english, Rookshan, now 21ish. He told me that after studying commerce he had been working for Kandy Plastics. But had recently started his own company with three friends spray painting houses. It had gone well, with the first contract being worth 300,000 Rp (US$3000). However, one of his friends had run off with the money and their equipment (worth 40,000 Rp or US$400). Now they were unable to do their 2nd contract because they had no equipment. He had come back to the home for a couple of weeks to work out what to do next. The police were looking for the thief but with that amount of money he may have fled the country. Poor lad.
Then Rookshan took me swimming in the big well. Apparently Pete used to swim there with him but Scott had been too scared. Several boys watched... but they had to make sure I wouldn't tell Tata because he would get angry.
Had a fun lunch. When I told Tata that I had enjoyed the grace they sang he made all the boys sing it again and then gave a long speech about it... I felt bad for the boys who just wanted to eat their lunch. Ama (Yoda lady) had specially fried up some Tata snacks. I recognised the texture as being like the deep fried sheep brains hans had made eat me in India. They let me eat a few pieces before telling me they were bulls brains... I couldn't help thinking about BSE mad cow disease.
It began to rain as I left and two brothers (namal and chandara) took me to the bus stand as they were going home to Kekiwara which was the same bus as for my destination, Anuradhapura. Half way down the street Meneka (18ish) and Ajit (15 ish) ran after me into the rain to make sure that I would remember to send their love to Pete and Scott.
I annulled my curses directed at Pete and Scott from the night before and felt very happy.
May 18 2006 New Delhi, India
Got back to Delhi this morning and oh my - its hot. 45 degrees C.
The last few days were spent in the beautiful Parvati Valley... needless to say it was amazing and bathing in open air hot spring pools with stunning views was done in between lovely walks. SPent a couple of days walking 4 hours past the end of the road further up the valley to get to an even more beautiful place. Thought that this is the kind of place that my mum would love to walk in. Even hours from civilisation or roads you still get chai (or tea) shops every mile or so.
I'll just share two experiences with you.
First. I got my first ever bus that was stereotypically overflowing so much that people were sitting on the roof. The local guys all heaved me and my bags up and we bumbled along the 'road' through the valley. It was great. SInging, clapping, beautiful sunset... rumble of thunder... darkness then branches of trees smacking me in the face.
Second experience was a little bit of a shock.
One day I was wondering along the road through the valley and a car stopped and 3 police officers got out. Two wielding very big sticks in a rather threatening manner.
They were angry that I didn't have my passport with me and then one searched me really very intrusively and aggressively while the other continued to wave his big stick around. They were of course looking for drugs. But it seemed crazy to me that they would give harmless me any travel on a gentle walk through the hill when half of the cafes reek of maruana. THey didn't want to stop the drug habit... that would chase toursists away. They just wanted to fine drugs on me and then take a hefty bribe for not putting me away. I was actually kind of scared that they'd plant something in my wallet. They seemed pretty pissed off when they discovered i was clean, but then wanted to give me a lift back into town. I tried to refuse but they wouldn't let me and bundled me into the police van. Still slightly nervous I was able to make sure I sat near a door so I could make a quick getaway if necessary.
May 14 2006 Manikaran HP, India
So now I'm in Manikaran in the Parvati valley about 50 km south of Manali. The scenery could not be more different from that at the Rothang Pass. Unlike the wide massive Kullu valley of Manali, the Parvati Valley is your model V-shaped river vally (remember standard grade geography) with steep steep green slopes coming sharply down to the fast running white river in interlocking spurs.
Shiva and Parvati apparently mediatated here for 11,000 years and I can understand why - its so peacefull and tranquil. And what makes it super special is that Parvati (Shiva's wife I think) lost an ear ring and Shiva got angry so the earth demon spat it out of the bottoms of the earth... resulting in some hot springs. Now surrounded by temples pilgrims and tourists come to bathe here. Its great to have a hot bath after such a long time.
May 13 2006 Manali, India
I'm still having a wonderful time. Went up to the Rotung pass yesterday, which at 4000m is the only road to Lei and Ladack in Kashmir. Pretty amazing, moving up through the hymalaya mountains in a jeep and seeing it all chaning so fast from beautiful green valleys with mixed, but not thick, woodland, massive cliffs with waterfalls everywhere.. and only snow peaked caps visible in the distance. Then getting up into the dry barren snowy desert of the pass. Hundreds of Jeeps with thousands of Indian tourists all stopped a couple of miles short of the pass and they all enjoyed playing in the snow and queening about in fur jackets they'd hired for the day. A finnish guy and I panted our way upwards (due to the thin air) to get to the actual proper top of the pass and oh my goodness, it was beautiful. Again totally different mountains on the other side. Pyramidal peaks and snow everywhere. Its amazing that a road was built through it at all.
Off to Manikaran today.. but might stop on the way for some white water rafting.
On the buddhism topic, I've had a couple of surprised responses. My mother wrote a more full response.. see below
Is it really to cultivate fear? I think you may have got that wrong. I
do not know very much about it by I understand it this way.....
Buddhism grew out of a culture where pain and suffering were observed
to be the reality of people's lives. The teaching is about accepting
that reality and learning the best way to find happiness in spite of
it. The philosophy of reincarnation and nirvana are a way of trying to
make sense, or meaning, of this. It is not about generating fear, but
about how to live without fear in a world where there is much to be
Perhaps with a western audience who are used to living with constant
music, noise, quick fixes, self indulgence, and denial of much of that
reality he has found it necessary to dwell on the fearful .... or the
reality of life and death, pain and sickness, hunger and suffering,
bereavement and loss, and the consequences of cruelty and greed.
May 11 2006 Manali, India
I was asked how the duck is.
The duck is fine... except a couple of days ago while walking up the mountain to triune I took it out for a photo at a chai shop/buddhist temple place. The owner wanted me to put the duck in the little pool beside his temple and told me sadly about how he'd tried putting real ducks in once but the leopards ate them.... then i walked off up the hill without ducky.
I was mortified when I found out... luckily ducky was still there when i got back several hours later, although partly submerged due to having been filled up with water.
Arrived in Manali this morning at 5:30 am tired and grotty.
Had a wonderful day. Walked to a beautiful waterfall and feel great.
May 10 2006 Dharamsala Gaggal, India
Tired and stiff this morning.
Went for a walk up to Triune (3000m) yesterday. 4 hours walk directly up from Dharamsala, where i'd been staying. Absolutely stunning green saddle/pass. Standing there with flat india on one side and snow peaked ridges along the other. Add a few goatherds, a chai shop and perfect temperatures and you're just about there. I, and some guys, just sat there and supped in the view for about 3 or 4 hours before coming back down... but those 3 or 4 hours could have been an eternity because it was so beautiful.
Think I'll head off on the overnight bus to Manali or Kullu or Manikaran tonight. Only about 50 miles (as the crow flies) but many hours of journey time.
May 8 2006 Dharamsala Gaggal, India
Things so often turn out well.
I was just sitting in my room this morning (much better after my recent bought of the runs) and feeling a little bit lonely. Traveling on my own is great. I can be so completely open to where the wind takes me, but it isn't without its lonesome moments. Some things are just better when shared.
Now that my strength was returning I decided to potter down the hill to the Tibetan Library (and got chatting to a Tibetan exile from a Nomad family on the way... I've never met a Yak hearder before). It turned out they were about to start a lecture on Buddhist philosphy, and Debey (a 24 year old Tibetan exile) invited me to join in. They do loads of month long courses at the library with lots of really dedicated long haired westerners.
It was funny to observe. We all sat cross legged on cushions and waited for the monk teacher to arrive (the more devoted obviously in the lotus position quietly meditating to themselves). Eventually the senior monk walked in and everybody did a complex three fold bow thing as he sat down on his elevated cushion. Folowing 15 minutes of chanting (again the devoted westerners singing the loudest) the lecture was to being.... none of the tibetans present felt the need to be as exhibitionist about their devotion as some of the westerners. The senior monk smiled and, through his translator, said how well everybody had sung the mantras and how happy that made him. This elederly man was a delight to watch. Always smiling and joyful as he talked, you could tell that the many wrinkles on his face were a result of all the smiling he'd done in his life.
I was also surprised by the content of his lecture... surprised and somewhat disappointed (although I fully accept that only attending one lecture out of a course is not enough to understand anything and I was probably taking it all out of context). Bit of inaccurate David Background first..One basic tennent of Buddhism is that life is suffering. By right action/mind/karma etc we can cultivate happiness and eventually escape the circle of re-birth and reach nirvana. So the lecture was basically one which focussed on cultivating fear. Apparently only after we really get in touch with how terrible is life, particularly for lower incarnations, can we cultivate a deep deep fear of this. Then only when we are truly afraid will we be sufficiently motivated to be super kind and get enough good karma to achieve enlightenment and escape life.
Now, forgive me, but this seems awfully like certain brands of christianity, for which I have no time whatsoever. The type which thinks that a good healthy fear of 'hell' is the right way to go on to commit to God/christ, become a 'nice christian' and go to 'heaven'. A difference was that the monk was not trying to shove it down peoples throats. He was talking to those who wanted to learn.
So after the lecture i spent a wonderful couple of hours chatting to Debey, the tibetan, about life and his experiences in tibet and how he escaped by walking for 30 days over the himalaya mountains during winter.
Feeling less lonely.
Then in the evening I got caught in an enormous thunderstorm. Just phenominal. Hailstones the size of marbles coming pelting down and a light show that was breathtaking. I sheltered with three other tourists and we all got talking and had the best evening. One was a former banker turned bearded writer and was writing books in India... very interesting guy. Next was a lady who was teaching Tibetans English and planned to go Pune and (after talking to me) wanted to volunteer at Deep Griha. Third was a british guy, my age, who was going on a trek the next day and invited me to join them.
The crazy thing is that if I hadn't been alone I'd have never met any of these people.
Wonderful day, wonderful evening and no longer lonely.
India is a crazy place... i've never had anybody come up to me before with a stick and a piece of cotton wool and offer to clean my ears. He even had photos of him sticking the stick into the ears of tourists to prove he was qualified.
Call me conservative, but I didn't jump at the chance.
While talking to the lady who's headed for Pune, she asked me how I coped with the suffering. And yes there's suffering. But there's also care, love and inspiration... This is life at its margins. At its edges. Where its really lived. You cannot deny life when in that presence. My friend, Peter, described my experiences as "an eye to suffering" which can in turn mobilise myself and others to do something they wouldn't normally. I liked that.
But then, I had a conversation with a middle class Indian... who said that he'd heard that some westerners come to India
"to see poverty"
He declared that he found that sick. Sick that people would treat the beggars and lepars and AIDS victims as a peep show on the poor.
Its worth thinking about. At the time agreed that if that was truly why people came to India then it was a little disturbed, but I didn't think people came for that reason. But ... have I? With my "eye to suffering" etc.
and if I have, is it sick? Or not?
May 6 2006 Dharamsala Gaggal, India
Well, it had to happen sometime... spent last night spewing and shitting water up here in Dharamsala. Feeling really really crap today. Ugg
HOwever, despite all that, I have to say that if I have to be sick , Dharamsala is perhaps one of the nicest places to do it. I got off the bus from Delhi yesterday morning after a grueling 14 hour journey. I cannot say what a relief it was to get out of busy, aggresive, 40 deg C Delhi and arrive in quiet, chilled out, peaceful, beautiful Dharamsala in the Himalayas. Picture this, from my bedroom I have a view of a flat plain 600 m below and steep snow clad mountains above. The little sleepy down is perched on tree-clad steep slopes at 1700 m.
As the home of the Dalai Llama and countless Tibetan monks the town is pretty cool and peaceful and has a different atmosphere and food.
Just a shame about the shits.
May 3 2006 New Delhi, India
Now that I've left Pune you can read easily. I won't be telling any more harrowing stories.
So, I got on the train on wednesday evening and experienced the luxury of 2 tier a/c sleeper. Vetrans of India travel may sniff loudly and say I'm a total wimp for not roughing it in 3 tier non-a/c sleeper class and they may be right but I think it was good to see the different culture in the higher class. However, despite all that, I do have a good excuse. Its holiday time in India at the moment. As such, there were no seats nor even a chance of getting on the waiting list for the lower classes. And also, its bl dy hot in India right now. SOmewhere around 40 degrees and the thought of 30 hours with a/c seemed like a really nice special treat for myself.
So, a nice thing about travelling posh (apart from all the cushions and blankets they brought round) was that everybody spoke good english so I could actually chat with all the Indians instead of just doing pigeon english sign language and banter. You may not be surprised to hear that I made friends with about 1/3 of my carriage during the 30 hour journey and got home made food from about half of them. Pretty good I think. We chatted about LIfe, the universe, HIV/AIDS... you know. And I made friends with all the kiddies. Also got some good guitar playing and singing going with "I'm leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again".
Now in hot hot hot delhi. Going to meet Sanhita's man tonight before heading off to the Himalayas on my own.
May 1 2006 Pune, India
Happy May Day.
Today I'm leaving Pune and heading to Delhi... got a grueling 25 hour train journey ahead of me. While I feel sad to leave behind the wonderful people I met at the HIV/AIDS centre, I'm excited about my forthcoming adventures into the Himalayas.
Some disconnected thoughts that have been going through my head the last few days.
I told you about my little friend Kumar, well his best mate (also 13) is an absolute sweetheart called Ammand. They're both gentle lovable lads, both very happy and both HIV . Although they are 13, they look about 10 and do not seem to be any where near puberty, except that Kumar likes to put on sunglasses and dance for the girls.
When I asked whether it was the HIV or the poverty of the slums that was delaying their growth I was told kids are totally different. Apparently, while nutrition helps, since they contracted HIV at or before birth they have had no time to develop any immunity. The staff I've spoken to said that they've never seen a kid last beyond 15 without AntiRetroViral medication. Little Imrans CD4 white blood cell count has apparently plummeted recently and the future is bleak.
I'm feeling quite gutted about it.
Visited the Sahara care home again with all the 18 year old Link volunteers.
One of the patients that we stroked 3 days before had died that morning and was wrapped up in white sheets and lying on a table. His family had refused to collect him or even acknowledge his death. Errol, the manager, hadn't eaten that day because his food budget had been spent on buying water in since the water purifier is broken... again.
Have been very touched by a couple of responses to my last posts from friends who are sitting bored at their computers back home and have asked if they can do a sponsored cycle ride to raise money for the Sahara Care Home. This was also very important for the guys who run it. They felt pretty moved that people in Scotland are thinking about them.
But its not all doom and gloom.
Had a party at Hans' place with some of the guys who work at Sahara. It was good to see them eat, drink and smoke... RELAX. Raucus singing. Jokes. Laughs. Good times. Then later on the drunken conversation turned into a brain storming session about how these guys are going to change Pune. They're positive that with the education and awareness of Deep Griha and The care and dedication of Sahara they can really make a difference. They're in it together. Not alone. There is real hope in the air.
April 26 2006 Pune, India
Forgot to mention,
I was reading through the HIV/AIDS project quaterly report and accidentally commented to Hans that his presentation and analysis of the data available to him could be better.... that led to me spending the last couple of days making spreadsheets, graphs and entereing data like the old PhD monkey I used to be.
So I went to the Care home yesterday afternoon.
Not quite sure of what my response is to it all yet... still processing. There was an option of feeling harrowed and depressed and despondant at the sick and dy-ing people who were resident there, and the circumstances which brought them there. One woman being dropped off by a pimp only after her entire uterus had fallen out and she was too sick to provide Oral sex any more. She died 3 days after being left. The place was dark and the walls were dirty and bare.
However, the dedication, devotion and skill of the staff who worked (for peanuts) there was something that gives hope and restores faith in the goodness of people. An evangelical pastor who visited with us had clearly been very challenged by this and commented that he was amazed how despite the fact that the staff smoked and drank alchol they were reflecting the love of christ more clearly than most respectable people who follow his interpretation of the one true faith.
Hans is also a genius. He loves challenging conservative christians with the idea of an HIV positive christ... "when I was sick hungry and naked (or HIV ) and you helped me". (Apparently the church in Kerala has banned HIV people from being buried in their graveyards - largely from an incorrect fear that the virus is still infectious in a dead body).
Yup, anyway, Hans is doing wanders and has applied for Canadian funding for the care home to not only pay the staff and provide some medicines, but also buy paint, plants, pictures, maybe a music system etc to try to brighten up the place.
April 25 2006 Pune, India
Hello from India.
Came straight from Sri Lanka to Pune (a city about 4 hours away from Mumbai/Bombay). My old friend, Hans Billimoria, runs an HIV/AIDS programme (funded by the church of Scotland for two years) in the slums of Pune through the Deep Griha centre. As I got off an overnight bus from Hyderabaad and turned up at the centre on Sunday morning Hans was just heading off to give a talk on HIV/AIDS to an elite student group from the local univeristy. I decided to postpone my shower and sleep in a real bed and follow Hans to hear about HIV/AIDS in India.
He talked passionately and brilliantly about the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and how the biggest issue in India are stigma and ignorance. People are too afraid to come forward and admit to being potentially HIV because they may be cast out of their communities and assumed to be promiscuous drug users. As such too many are only identified late during their infection when not much can be done. Amazingly, if somebody is caught early they can survive and live productive and healthy lives simply by being put on a high vitamin, high protein diet. The ignorance surrounding HIV issues means that people are afraid to touch, comfort or eat with postive members of their community. Victims therefore suffer loneliness from being treated as lepers.
It has been a priviledge to learn about Hans' project over the last few days which has a threefold strategy.
First, trying to educate people, not just in the slums, but also in the city at large about the truths surrounding HIV. Thereby reducing stigma and allowing people to feel able to come forwards.
Second, trying to provide high protein healthy meals and vitamins for their HIV positive clients at their drop in centre which also gives a space in which the clients and their children can come and chat, receive counciling and hope.
Third, providing care and help to those clients in the final stages of AIDS.
I have met and played with several adults and kids in the early stages of HIV. A little boy, Kumara is pulling on my arm now. Yesterday when I was holding is hand he took pains to point out an open sore on his arm that he didn't want me to touch. Such responsibilty and love from an innocent little one. They are such wonderful people and angry tears come to my eyes when I think about those "christians" who claim that HIV is an infection sent as a curse from GOD on those with evil ways.
This afternoon Hans is taking me to the Sahara Care Home. I feel that this will be a much more difficult experience as it cares for those in the final stages of AIDS...
April 21 2006 Colombo Ratmalana, Sri Lanka
Off to India tomorrow.
Just read an amazing blog entry by a friend Stuart who's spent the last year and a half travelling the world and has just returned to UK. If you've never travelled and want to know what this feels like, or if you have travelled and want to see it written down perfectly then I suggest you check out the link