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Mike and Sarah

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Sri Lanka Farewell

A soon to be ex-expat – or, I guess, a repat, or maybe just a pat, spills the beans on what it really feels like to be leaving Sri Lanka.

Be warned – it’s long – maybe read it in more than one sitting! On the other hand, just look at the pictures – it was good to write as a debriefing exercise in any case.

So, we are to leave the place where Luke lived from 3 weeks old, and the country that Joe knows as home. The land on which they both learned to walk.

Luke started walking and climbing properly a week after his first birthday

We’ll have romantic memories of humidity, heat, sultry warm evenings, pools, cherished and interesting local and expat friends, eventful monsoon storms, exquisite garden flowers, bamboo squirrels in the garden by the dozen, stray dogs and cats, snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, mosquitoes, monkeys, 5 star restaurants at greasy caf prices, our much loved house helper and an amazing first school for Joe and loving teachers.

Joe 'helping' us with washing and drying everything before we pack, including his car seat-cum-boat

It feels sort of premature to leave now. Sure (notice I am picking up universal Americanisms), the office is closing and Mike’s work’s nearly done, but we have only been in Colombo 1 year and in many ways we are still settling in, making new friends and finding out the benefits of living in Sri Lanka.

Bentota beach

Mike has been so busy trying to wrap things up. He says he could do with another couple of months, but we have kept the next organisation waiting long enough. He has just been up to Jaffna to the openings of the schools and other buildings completed there. The work there was some of the best in the country, despite being carried out in certainly the most difficult conditions. The Tamil locals took such pride in completing their schools with decorative plaster work and flooring.

Our househelper in the shirts she gave as a leaving present to the boys

We have discovered many unpalatable things about being an expat abroad, and also an expat in this particular country which is experiencing civil war. Personally scraping the surface of the level of hatred that can turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing in huge parts of it’s country, leaves us with an unpleasant and unsettled taste in our mouths about Sri Lanka. We see it amongst the Sinhalese people, with whom we mostly interact, when seemingly quite, peaceful people suddenly switch into bitter rage at small events. It is not uncommon to be verbally and aggressively threatened. Even in a work setting people can often be blatant in their manipulation and backstabbing.

A door to door knife sharpener

The warmth we have experienced from one or two Sinhalese families is what we will remember most. Our old neighbours in Galle, for instance, were so generous with showing us around their country and being Auntie and Uncle to Joe and Luke (Sinhalese use lovely kinship terms for each other – Luke is Mallie – little brother and Joe is Ayya – big brother). But it is not the norm. The kind of hospitality we have experienced in parts of North Africa, Africa and Asia has certainly not been provided here on a general level. People will not give you their last sheep at a feast, as the saying goes something like. In fact, it is hard to get an invite to their homes, and it is common for them to refuse our invites.

Tamils certainly, from Mike’s experience in Jaffna and the East, are different in that respect. They welcome you and dine you. I guess Tamils don’t have the fear that mainstream Sinhalese have of being taken over by the underdogs, and they have less face to keep – they are less xenophobic.

No fear - climbing and falling all the time - I have to watch him so much more than I did Joe, although, of course, Joe sometimes is the cause of his tumbles. Looking forward to carpets.

The Tamil Tigers undoubtedly have entrenched hatred towards the Sinhalese, and it is hard to see an end and a healing to this mutual hatred. The Tiger’s legacy, after this sad conflict is ended, will be the invention of suicide bombing. This seems particularly harrowing here because of the deaths of many women as the suicide bombers, and since we have been here this notoriously included a pregnant girl who exploded herself and her unborn baby in a tuk tuk in Colombo.

Our leaving do, in an English pub with children's play area! It was mad, kids completely hyper. Great fun and a happy memory.

What’s it like to live in a country where there is so much poverty? I have never lived so close to such wealth. Our street looks like something from Beverley Hills, just more condensely packed and with piles of putrid rubbish outside amongst the pot holes in the road. The locals who send their kids to school with Joe are absolutely loaded – several cars, servants, grand houses, lots of shopping trips to Singapore and Bangkok. Children’s parties that put UK weddings to shame – which Joe and I have come to very much enjoy.

Sri Lanka is not so low on the poverty index, education levels are quite high, it has rich natural resources and could be a number 1 tourist destination (maybe it already is – we just see what more it could be). The political and religious conflict is stunting the economy. As soon as a bomb goes off flights are cancelled, hotels and tourist shops and transport companies etc etc lose out, and our old neighbours’ in Galle’s jewellery shop has no custom.

Joe made his debut at play fighting at the leaving do

The political tension affects the teaching staff and there are so many strikes that it can take numerous extra years for students to complete their education. The poor are substantially poorer than in the UK though, that’s for certain. Our househelper has a matchbox wood house with no doors and windows and no water supply on her property. Despite our employment, her life, like many, is one of survival. There are many emaciated and disabled beggars near shopping areas in Colombo. There are many shanty towns.

We have broader knowledge of The Tsunami and the after effects. The stories of death and loss, of grief and pain, will remain with us. Our hearts certainly go out to the victims and their families. It was worse than what it looked like on TV.

So helpful - another boat

Are we glad we came? From a selfish point of view? Yes, it has been an enriching experience. We have had the opportunity to follow our call, to help others, to live a different lifestyle and to travel.

Mike says he’d rather have done this before he was married or had children. He would have been happy up in Jaffna on an unaccompanied post. I would like to have come without kids so I could work too, and so that all the sad things about grandparents etc missing the boys wouldn’t have been an issue. We could also have travelled more in Sri Lanka and also India, the Maldives and other parts of Asia – two incomes would have aided this! We are glad we had our kids when we did, just part of us wishes we had come sooner.

The people that seem most effective here are here as single people, or those who have left their wives and children at home (a bit strange if you ask us). They work 15 hour days and get the most done in the most extreme locations. OK, they experience burn out after a few months and go home, and their marriages can breakdown, erm, but they do get a lot done, and they are flexible to go anywhere.

Girl's night out leaving do - my lifeline, these women

One downside to life in the tropics that I had not anticipated, is a lack of activities to do, especially at the weekends. Maybe it’s being a Mum of 2, but sometimes, despite REALLY trying to do things, I have been really bored. It’s so hot and humid, the parks are dry, the playground equipment dangerous, the countryside has leeches and other more dangerous wildlife, and the roads take so long to travel (you average 30mph on main roads outside Colombo if you are lucky). The only thing to do is have friends over (essential) or go to the pool (even that can get unattractive if it is the only thing to do). I think this is the same in other developing countries for expats. In fact, Sri Lanka may be better than others because there are really really nice beach hotels outside of Colombo.

There are things that have been great for us living here that I am sure would be repeated at another posting. We have a higher standard living because the pound goes further. Joe and Luke are learning Sinhala – Joe now sings Sinhala songs when he thinks no-one is listening. We are pleased that our kids love people from different cultures and if they grew up here they would have friends who are very different from themselves from all over the globe. One of Joe’s new best friends at school is called Q-Q and is from Japan. Joe is learning about poverty and learning that Mike’s working to help that. We are meeting interesting expats who get to know each other quickly and are a good support network.

Joe's goodbye at school

Quotes from our 3 year old expat:

Joe seeing lots of soldiers with guns: ‘are they going to shoot me?’

Joe seeing men begging with only one leg: ‘if I fall off a table my leg will fall off’

Joe hearing about kids with no shoes in Jaffna: ‘when you have finished building their classroom you can give them shoes Daddy’

Joe hearing about a big wave knocking down people’s houses and schools: ‘push the bricks into the sea and then the wave will not be able to knock down the new houses Daddy has built’

And, ‘I know; you can build the new school next to my school then it will be safe’

Joe re. the storm damage to roads (he saw the sinkhole . . . see a previous blog) ‘if I fell in the manhole someone would come in and pull me out’.

Quotes from our 1 year old expat (not to be outdone):
Carw Carw = Sinhala for Crow
Wajira = Househelper’s name
Pan = ceiling fan

Luke loves Wajira and runs and puts his arms round her legs like he does mine. Sad though . . . It feels heartless to take her out of his life, and indeed him out of hers. Though of course I would rather he has this attachment to family and friends back home.
Will we do it again? - If the posting is right. We feel convinced that the financial cost to Mike’s employer of us all being here has been worth it twice over in terms of how useful Mike and his skills have been to the Tsunami relief effort. He’s had some major achievements. It seems hard to admit, but a western education is a really valuable thing

School friends waving goodbye - gulp - Mummy

We feel the transient nature of life here has been hard to handle in terms of friendships for ourselves, but particularly for Joe. It does not feel like real life. The other day a Sri Lankan school friend’s Mum asked me for a lift. That felt like real life and is the first time it has happened.

I guess any overseas posting has lots of people coming and going. This posting may be harder than others as it is a major relief effort, so lots of people were flown in for 6 months, 1 year, maybe 2 year postings. Development work may have longer postings, although most organisations offer only 1 or 2 year contracts to start with.

The thing I am most concerned about when returning to the UK is being sucked into middleclassdom. I don’t want all I care about to be finding a bigger house or a better school (not that we don’t enjoy those things if we have them). That has been a good thing amongst the harder things of being here. We see poverty more – we can’t forget it exists, we experience inconveniences cos of poor bureaucracy all the time, and things happen, like bombs or floods, that are scary and upsetting. All this keeps us living on the edge more and makes the days more unique and helps fuel an appreciation of life being more important than where we live. In this way life seems more real than in the UK bubble of material security.

Multicultural day at school - what's our national dress and national dish? Liverpool football strip and bread and butter pudding??

A friend of ours here is going to look after an 8 week baby girl for a single mother who can’t return to her village with an illegitimate baby. That’s so kind – that’s what motivates us to think we may come back overseas one day. We can do something to help.

We intend to embrace all the good things about living in the UK. The good friends and family, the lack of a transient community, good schools, amazingly yummy food (I can smell the Cumberland sausages frying as I write), the safe roads, the better medical care. I hope we are more chilled out now when things don’t go according to plan – we have had so much practice here – and I hope we stay that way.

See you in England, things

Mike is looking forward to his new job. It has an important purpose, and is working for a development world focused charity, and we are glad for this. It is a diversion from direct civil engineering so it will take some time to get used to not managing people and budgets and continually delivering engineering projects to demanding deadlines. The organisation has a good reputation as an employer and seems very committed and sincere in its focus to effect change for the better on environmental issues. We hope it is worth it. We think it will be. We will let you know.

The blog will probably be updated (even) less frequently than usual in the UK, as, frankly, we think people will be less interested if they see us all the time.

Bye Bye Sri Lanka! What is the capital of Sri Lanka Joe? ‘England’. Erm, No…. once maybe. We’re going to live in London, the capital of England. ‘When I go to London and get a new house, I don’t want it to be small, but I will see Grandad/ Grandma etc. Then I will come back and see my school friends.’ Err, that’s a no too, but we hope some of them will come and see us, One Day soon.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Luke's 1!

Can't believe it - 1 year has passed

Lukey opening his presents

Luke had a small party

SOME of Luke's favourite girlfriends (and Mummies)

He doesn't have any male baby friends out here - can't find any anywhere.

The monsoon rains graced Luke's party and the two Joes got as wet and muddy as they could - great fun

Can he fix it?

Some special friends with a cake, that, actually, Mummy ate. Don't tell Daddy.

On his birthday we went to the baby signing class. Here's a friend with the teacher. Luke is learning signs. He really is. It is really amazing. He does 'food', 'milk', 'signing', 'Mummy', and more... I think it has improved his speech too. His favourite current words are More, Car, Go, Doe-Doe. Oh, that makes a sentence. He's a marvel.

Luke loves to go outside and CRIES to do so, and CRIES when I bring him back in. If you wonder what I've done to his hair - it's the mossie repellant. We've got a gel one now. The only 1 year old with gelled hair?

An older girlfriend, and a best pal of Joe's

They honestly won't leave Luke alone (especially this one).

Another girl. Spot the difference (see below).

Another girl. No, OK, this one features in party shots.

Friends and their driver: a rather stressful experience that won't be repeated: the Joes take to the streets on their vehicles.

Seriously, it's a problem finding things to do at weekends. Tried going to the Art Gallery last weekend. It had no art. Tried the National Museum. It was shut. We are visiting parks more these days, as Luke gets more active, and sometimes the afternoons are cooler (still kilo-losing sweat-bucketing hot though).

I don't think she's paying homage, just looks like it.

Run him ragged.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Photos for the last blog

Hope it works this time


Lukey! He's taken a few steps but is incredibly mobile pushing his sit on car around.

Joe and his friends at his 3rd party. We have a racetrack in our house that goes down the corridor, through the kitchen and in one door of the living room and out another. It's great and has brought hours of fun, particularly at 4pm when the boys can be losing it a bit and need to have a run around, but the mossies are outside so we can't go out.

In Joe's school the other children made him a birthday crown and I brought a cake in. The children and teachers all sang Happy Birthday and a few more verses I didn't know. Then they put all their LOVE into the cake. American I guess? (It's the American Pre-School.) Anyway, Joe seemed happy!

Joe-Joe and Lukey posing in Daddy's wardrobe.

Spiderman and Batgirl. We have one of Joe's school friends over a lot and they are SO cute.

Joe's birthday cake at his party in our house. Number 3!

Joe's party

Joe's party

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Colombo to London

Many of you know our big news that we’re moving to London in October. Mike has a job with a UK international development organisation working as Environmental Sustainability Advisor. We are excited about it and think it is a great opportunity.

Joe seems to understand, and has started to say things like ‘Grandma is coming over tomorrow’ .. to which we say ‘We will be able to say that soon - hooray’. Tomorrow, of course, to Joe means any time in the future, in the same way that yesterday could be something that happened a year ago.

Since writing the last paragraph, I found Joe talking to some toy fish that we just picked up from a street vendor when we were out. He was saying … ‘Time to go to another home, you have lots of homes’ … it’s obviously sinking in. Joe’s just turned 3 and he’s had 3 homes. Will probably be in his 5th by the time he’s 4 (we’re planning on renting while we look to buy our shoebox house in London).

Joe's party was great, an English children's party with a few games and lots of fun
We are looking forward, at the moment, to:
- Family and friends being on the same strip of land
- Museums, libraries and wider selection of food
- Lack of mosquitoes, mosquito repellent and threat of mosquito borne diseases
- Play parks, and the boys digging in soil without worrying about weird worms, stray animals and snakes (Joe and Sarah saw our first rat snake at a playground last weekend – harmless to humans but not to rats)
- The slow, civilised, orderly, uncongested roads (yes, even the M25 seems like heaven compared to the dicey roads here … though we might not be saying that in a few months!)
- Double decker buses (Joe)
- Lake district and countryside and parks where you can walk and push a push chair without being excessively hot and covered in leeches
- Darker mornings as we hope (we hope not in vain) that the boys will not wake up at 5.45, when the sun comes up (this wasn’t the case when we moved here with Joe in 2006 – just after this a new President was elected and changed time back half an hour, just because he could – before that the sun came up and kids woke at 6.15 – which somehow makes all the difference!).

Joe had his third birthday which was great!

Joe and a friend, Spiderman and Batgirl

Our house has this great race track through our living room and hallway/kitchen - Joe's friends brought their cars to his party
We will miss:
- Our friends here
- Cross cultural experiences and adventures: life being never dull
- Joe’s school and friends, including Sarah’s Mummy friends at the school gate
- Avoiding UK winters and short dark days
- Our househelper (though not as much as you may think – it really is easier in UK to keep a house clean, do your shopping etc)
- Having a living room and bedrooms each the size of small playgrounds.

Joe received a crown made by his friends at school, and they sang Happy Birthday, and put lots of love into his cake!? (which Mummy brought in)
Things might feel claustrophobic for a while. A small 3 bedroom terrace in the area where Mike’s office will be in London costs on average £670,000. Don’t invite us out to a restaurant for at least a year or two. Better a dry crust in a house of peace and quiet, than a rich house full of strife. Better a picnic with a flask in Richmond Park, than food we can’t afford in a pricey restaurant. Not that we’ll have our live in house helper to babysit anymore.

Mike’s work continues to go well. The office is shutting not long after we leave and his projects are completed or nearing completion. He’s working with other NGOs and Government Ministries to ensure his work is sustainable, continuing after we leave.
More friends at Joe's party

Welcome Bea

A BIG welcome to our latest niece / cousin, Mike's brother's daughter.
Beatrice Pearl, sister to Tilly - born on Mike's birthday, 16th July.
Another beauty!!! We can't wait to see you soon.