K1: an exciting start!

Some globetrotters seem to feel at home wherever they go. I have the dubious gift of appearing to be a foreigner both abroad and at home. The number of times fellow Sri Lankans have asked me where I am from is appalling. I like to believe it’s less my curious way of communicating in Sinhala, and more my curious outlook on life.  Sri Lanka is Home, but despite living here since I was seven, I still find it endlessly exotic. Even a quotidian task or trip promises to be filled with adventure, and I think my face betrays the kind of fascination usually associated with tourists. I think this might be a valid reason for people’s mistakes, especially since I’m often singled out before even opening my mouth. If that is the case, I don’t mind as much. Too many Sri Lankans take this splendiferously magical island for granted, and I think that is a horrible waste when you’ve been gifted with such an interesting place for a home.
I’m taking advantage of the free-wi-fi service in the ExpoRail carriage to record the events of the past few days. I’ve just completed the first of what I hope will be a very long string of theatre workshops, in the village of Kakkaiyankulam, with the nicest bunch of 9-11 year olds I could ask for.

I started planning last week, informing Mr Farhan (the principal of the school) and Mr Kanapathy (the manager at Thai Hotel, the guest house where I stayed) that I was planning to do this workshop (I just didn’t tell the ReachOut people, because there have been too many spanners in the works and I didn’t want to disappoint them again!). I also went shopping on Sunday and bought stationery for the kids (pencils, erasers, paper, a large plastic ball, and a highly inadequate English-Tamil dictionary, containing words like Lugubrious and Loquacious, but not Life), and snacks (36 packs of Milo and assorted biscuits for the kids, and chocolate/mints for my train ride).

I did, however, make the mistake of leaving off calling the cab for the morning, hoping to use the cheaper meter taxis (which only let you call half an hour before your ride, and then you have to hope a cab is free) instead of a regular cab service. My parents had to rush me to the Fort Railway Station at 6am (thanks, ammi and thaththi!) and while I think they were relieved at getting the opportunity of seeing me off on my maiden (ha!) voyage on the train to Vavuniya, I don’t want to put them through that again. I won’t trust the meter taxis when they say, “Call tomorrow morning, we’re almost certain to have a cab!” and instead I’ll fork out the extra 300 rupees for a regular one.

I would also like to note that regular second class, Colombo to Vavuniya, is both highly comfortable and highly adequate provided that you do not want to spend the whole journey blogging. I loved people-watching (the little girl with incongruous parents, the shaved-headed Tamil gentleman who made friends with the diffident Sinhala man going to Vavuniya on work, the boy who took photos of him himself posing in the carriage doorway) and that is one thing I don’t get to do in the much-more-expensive-and-exclusive ExproRail carriage. Sometimes I’d see the carcasses of discarded trains lying in the bushes, tufts of grass growing about their ears. It seemed emotionally fitting that trains should be allowed to die and decompose in the bushes alongside stations, even though it doesn’t seem a particularly environmentally sound policy.

Mr Kanapathy met me at the Vavuniya station, as promised. I am really very glad to have discovered Thai Hotel, because without this fine establishment I would have been one uncomfortable female in Vavuniya. When I got to the guesthouse, I sat in my room and made lists of Tamil words I should have made in Colombo, then after a very nice rice-and-curry lunch my brother would have approved of,  I set off in the van for Kakkaiyankulam. I first made a stop at Cargills, however, to make arrangements for 40 Milos (or some other nice cold drink) to be picked up for the children, each week – the snacks made my luggage rather heavy this time round! The Cargills staff agreed to pack a box for me each week, so that was another little thing neatly sorted out.

It took an hour to get to Kakkaiyankulam from the town, and I was on pins the whole way. Having driven right past Kakkaiyankulam during our January visit, I was petrified I would do it again, and had visions of little children waiting forlornly (or boredly) for me to arrive. I quite probably made Kamal, the nice driver who spoke little Sinhala or English, rather nervous with my constant demands of “Let’s ask this old auntie/shop owner/little boy whether we’re close to Kakkaiyankulam yet!” I got there without incident at 3.10, only ten minutes late (I think my mother must’ve been praying awfully hard – this is the first trip I’ve been on sans hiccups, come to think of it), and Mr Farhan came out to meet me.

I stood around a little awkwardly at their school; some of the kids had arrived and others had yet to come (note to self: these children need more time to go home after school to eat lunch and get back. Future afternoon workshops will start at 3.30!) and Mr Farhan disappeared to eat lunch. I panicked momentarily, faced with a sea of children who didn’t understand anything but Tamil, and promptly forgot the ten words of Tamil I know. Then I started asking for names, “Ungal peyar enna?” and we made a game of it, the children cheering me on when I got their names right. I’m horrible at both names and faces, but the children were magnanimously forgiving when I affixed appellations erroneously.

I realized that they thought I’d come to teach a dance workshop, and while I thought “How did the principal manage to get the boys to sign up for a dance class?!?!” I cheerfully said no, I didn’t know how to dance, but I would teach them drama if they taught me dance. Somehow this got lost in translation, and they thought I asked them to perform for me. Which they did. I was treated to a lovely little show, and I took pictures and recorded videos like the most godawful foreigner you ever saw. As these shenanigans were winding down, Mr Farhan returned and we got started.

Since I’d already asked them their names I tried name games like name toss (shouting someone’s name and throwing the ball to them) which worked well, except it was a little slow. Perhaps they don’t all know each other very well? I’ll use that again next week. Name Pose didn’t work so well, given that they aren’t used to doing things alone, and the poses they chose were shamelessly filched from their dances. But that’s okay; the first day makes everyone a little stiff, but in general they seemed to go along quite readily with my outlandish suggestions.

The real (supposed) highlight – some footage from the Asia Cup final between Pakistan and Bangladesh (cannily chosen because as Muslims they have a tendency to identify more with the Pakistani cricketers than the Sri Lankans) completely backfired, because the software used to convert the Youtube video did something funny, and stopped a quarter of the way through. And there were some really good (if heart-wrenching) moments when Bangladesh, poised to win their first Asia Cup ever, lost a wicket in the penultimate ball, securing Pakistan’s victory. However, the children took my technological blunders in their stride, and it is only now, in retrospect, that I realise just how outlandishly good these kids are. No cries of disappointment, or even queries of “Aiyo what happened?” I promised I’d show it to them next week, and they good-naturedly accepted that.

So I just said, “Well, I was going to show you the looks on people’s faces, but we’ll just have to do it ourselves. So I got them to shout out different emotions to me, which I tried to write in Tamil (they kindly and candidly pointed out my spelling mistakes) and then we started being happy and sad and angry and frightened and crazy. When I got all twenty-two kids to be emotional rollercoasters together, they shed their embarrassment and went crazy. A good experience to squirrel away – I need to go slow on the singling-kids-out and break the ice more with group time.

We broke for Milo and biscuits, and I decided that next workshop, I am definitely bringing iced drinks. The lukewarm milk was less than refreshing. There’s no electricity in Kakkaiyankulam, so I’ll lug a cooler of stuff from Cargills next time. Perhaps even popsicles, if they last that long in a cooler box.

In terms of working as a group vs working alone, I still went too fast during the workshop – I tried to divide them into groups of three, to say simple sentences in varying emotions, but they just gave each other sidelong glances before shouting their sentences and dissolving into giggles. More group-work next time!

Our last activity was writing – I wanted them to start thinking about stories from their lives, so exercise one was to write about a time they felt happy/sad/angry/afraid etc etc. I told them my famous racism story – about how I lived in Australia and the kids wouldn’t play with me in pre-school because I was brown so they thought I was dirty. I made it funny, telling them about how I scrubbed at my skin each night in the vain hope I would turn white (although I knew, even at age four, that skin is skin, and scrubbing doesn’t change it at all). They children giggled, but in sympathy for the little brown girl with no friends. The reason I told that story was that I hoped that they would be inspired to start thinking about their own stories (probably much more poignant than mine), but something funny happened. The principal, when translating, asked them, “Has something like this ever happened to you?” to which they all answered in cheerful chorus, “NO!” in a aren’t-we-lucky tone of voice. And these are children who were displaced, evicted from their homes by the LTTE (although I suspect this particular lot was born after the ethnic cleansing). Still, it was a hilariously interesting moment to have them feel sorry for (former) me. Needless to say, these children blow me away.

So they sat and wrote (more notes to self – make sure that pencils provided have a very sharp point! Provide more sharpeners! Take off the polythene wrappers on new erasers before bringing them for workshops! Learn the Tamil words for Please Be Quiet And Sit Down!) and half an hour produced about five lines of writing apiece. Some had as much as ten. I think it’s a good sign, even if some essays were a few lines long. They stayed relatively quiet during that time, which was remarkable, especially for the boys. But again, I’ll provide much more boisterous group time during the next session.

Then it was time to go, so I packed up my things and trundled them back to the van. And then – I wish so much I could have had something more than just a memory of this – but as we pulled out I started waving goodbye, and with whoops and shouts they tore after the van, waving goodbye as though I was their collective best friend. I simultaneously felt like the whitest foreigner on the planet, and the happiest person in the world to have such lovely children decide that I was a friend worth whooping after.
I returned to Thai Hotel sans adventure, showered, watched IPL with my naan/mutton dinner, and slept early. And most of this got written on the ExpoRail ride back.

PS. I’m including my budget, since I think it could be useful for something. I’m putting it in rupees, since the dollar appreciates daily and it would just get thoroughly confusing. So, the ReachOut people gave me the first installment of $5600, which came to Rs. 660,400 in February. Keeping that in mind, below were my expenses for the trip:

Stationery/Ball: Rs.950
Snacks: Rs. 2240
Dictionary: Rs. 350
Tuk Tuk fare: Rs. 350
Return Train tickets: Rs. 2050
Lunch/Dinner: Rs. 900
Room: Rs. 2200
Van to K: Rs. 5500
Tuk to station: Rs. 200
Taxi from station home: Rs. 930
Translation for essays*: Rs. 1000
TOTAL: Rs. 16,670

*I figure since I’m being paid to do this, there’s no reason why other people shouldn’t be paid too!

Next installment next week!

If you would like to view just the workshop report, click here.

K1: An exciting start

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