K2: i bring a friend

This week, Esh decided to join me in trekking to Vavuniya (for the non-Sri Lankan readers, Eshara is a very good friend from school, who acted with me in many school performances – possibly the best collaborator I could ask for in an endeavour like this!). We took the 6.50am train from Fort on Sunday, so that we could spend some time seeing Vavuniya town in the evening. This time, I did book a cab the day before. We both boarded without incident, and rattled along till we stopped at Polgahawela. Last week, I hadn’t any of the usual food vendors (except for the halape lady, “Hala-halapaayyyy!”, in Pothuhera), but Esh had just assumed there would be food (generally a 110% valid assumption) so in her hungriness she nipped out of the train to buy a vadai. However, she nipped back on to the train just as a storm of sellers also began to stream through the aisles, and regretted it almost immediately. Vadai, mini-vadai, corn on the cob, halape, apples, popcorn, and bubble gum sellers hawked their way through the cramped train; we gave in and Esh bought some more vadai, while I (having already eaten a more sedate breakfast of rolls) bought two rather soft apples and some gum, which I demolished later while wading through Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (“A brilliant exegesis on nationalism”). We read, and napped, and stared out the window. I still have no pictures from the train ride, though. Next week, I promise!

We were met at the Vavuniya station by the “Known Three-Wheeler” who took me to the station last Tuesday morning, and to my great surprise my orange hand-luggage bag fitted at the back. These bug-like vehicles look deceptively cramped. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was to show Esh the symphony of colour that is Thai Hotel, with incongruously austere Mr Kanapathy at its helm. I was given my usual room (pre-air-conditioned, as usual). Eshara discovered the menu, and I present some its more interesting pages here. I am an awful person, I know, but Engrish all over the world amuses me greatly (I think it’s harder to make spelling mistakes in Sinhala and Tamil, simply because they are such sensibly phonetic languages!), but one day I may offer to help fix the menu.

One thing I really do need to mention about Thai Hotel. Its food is indescribably good. Nothing fancy, often just rice and curry, but always incredibly well-prepared and well-presented. Esh and I whacked the devilled chicken at lunch – so good! We were feeling very much in happy-python mode afterwards, and thought we should go out and see the town before we slept the evening away.

We were carted around in the “Known Three-Wheeler”, the driver of which is a Mr Premadasa, who has lived in V-town all his life. Vavuniya is interesting, in that it doesn’t really have any “places of interest”. The one film hall is now a gloriously gaudy-looking wedding reception hall. The archaeological museum looks as though it might have a few interesting pieces, but it was closed, being the day after Vesak. Vavuniya is also pretty dead on Sunday, although usually Bazaar Street (aka Bazzar St) is quite lively, with its lit-up mint green mosque, Muslim kade’s, little fabric/shalwar shops, and vegetable market. There are also tons of banks everywhere (for the NGO-types, I guess?) and the Cargills is remarkably good (again, the presence of muesli and other cereals indicates the European NGO-heavy population). Mr Premadasa also showed us the state-run farm (which I think does agricultural research) and Gamini Maha Vidyalaya, the biggest Sinhala school in the area, where he himself went to school as a boy (he’s retired now) but has lost a lot of students during the war. I’m assuming they all migrated further south, towards Anuradhapura, and this is a pity, not only because it seems like quite a nice school. I’m sorry that the war has shuffled the population around like this, making mostly-Sinhala towns more Sinhala, and mostly-Tamil areas more Tamil. We stopped at Food City for Milo, biscuits, and balloons and stickers for the kids, and at the bank because I miscalculate how much money I’d need this trip (there is no HSBC in Vavuniya, yet, but there is an HNB, for future reference).

We returned to our marshmallow-pudding abode, and napped. The train ride is  tiring, despite its speed. We woke up in time for evening tea and dinner (chapatti, potato and chicken) and I think Mr Kanapathy is rather disapproving of our need to eat meat with every meal (I went so far as to ask for fish curry with our breakfast string-hoppers!), but I think, in future, I will be more respectful of their frugality with meat, and be vegetarian for at least one meal.

We slept well that night (more notes: the Thai Hotel wi-fi is not the best, and the pillows are strangely ginormous! But I say these things as merely notes to self, not as criticism, because I really couldn’t have asked for a better – and safer – base). So my attempts to pull the Asia Cup video of YouTube failed. In the morning, after our meaty/hearty breakfast, we set off again to Kakkaiyankulam. I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, how the 61st Army division was the only place to have extravagant Vesak decor, and made a mental note to ask Kamal to give me some of his collection of Tamil music, which played all the way to Kakkaiyankulam. Each one was as be-frilled musically as Thai Hotel is architecturally, and I believe they have great potential as musical chairs-music, or dance music, or something. Either way, I want to own some of it. Mr Farhan gave me a bit of an unpleasant surprise when he said he wouldn’t be in to translate, but I figured that if worst came to worst and we couldn’t communicate at all, we could just have a session of outdoor and indoor games for the kids. My second surprise was when we got to the village and I found half my kids in a classroom; my first reaction was, “Oh no they have school and he didn’t tell me!” It turned out that it was a prep class for the Grad 5 scholarship exam, however, and would be over by 10.

Things are always slow to get started; it took a while for someone to find the key to the classroom and for the translator to arrive. (He actually left after the first ten minutes, leaving Kamal, our van driver valiantly using his limited Sinhala to get our complex ideas across to the kids). Meanwhile, some of the kids had come and then left when we didn’t begin at 10. Things eventually started up at 10.30am, though, and the kids who left were called back. I think I will see what happens next week, and then tell Mr Farhan firmly that Things Need To Start On Time. Esh also suggested I tell him I would pay him for acting as translator per session, and hopefully that will act as a good incentive. Either that, or telling him that if he doesn’t turn up, or we don’t have a suitable translator, we’re going to have to pay our van driver to translate. Sometimes, I think, money is the most useful tool to get things done, but I’m sorry that’s the case.

But anyway, once the workshop got underway, it was great as usual. I think success is in part due to the fact that the children have no expectations, so they’re never disappointed, but always open and eager and thrilled by each new development, even if said development is a flop. We did the name game, and the Keep The Balloon In The Air game (which turned into a wild free-for-all), and gave Aasir a prize of five Pooh stickers for his snake story (Faasil, author of the epic bear-story, wasn’t in today). I also gave Lecture On Plagiarism (i:e: “I can’t give you stickers if you copy each other!). The exercise for today was to create a character, and while it first got lost in translation and they started writing about themselves, we put them on the right track (I think! Proof of the translated pudding will appear at the end of the week) and they wrote reams, in comparison with last week. Three-dimensional stickers are a good incentive, it would seem.

One particularly successful game was a sort of charades we played where someone had to act an emotion with their faces and the others had to guess. We had a few who didn’t know what to do, and while I thought I shouldn’t help them out because they would just mindlessly imitate me, Esh thought it would help to give them something as a jumping-off point. In retrospect, I think she’s right, and that small nudges in the right direction are likely to be more helpful than harmful. We’re going to do the same thing next week, except with simple actions. We ended the workshop with asking them to draw a picture of their created characters.

Some lessons learned are that I need to provide examples – things they can take from when they create their own. I’m always afraid that examples might inspire copies, but I’m learning that this gives something for the children to latch on to. I also need to script my workshops, event though that’s time-consuming, and have a list of pertinent keywords, phrases and sentences in Tamil to really express what I want to say. I really am my own worst enemy, in terms of my tendency to procrastinate and the fact that my progress in learning Tamil is frightfully slow. But like Esh said, there is nothing so awful as looking into the expectant face of a friendly-looking child and wanting to communicate, only to be frustrated by the fact that you can’t. Especially when they rattle off chattily in conversational Tamil, and have them look at you a little disappointedly when you shrug helplessly and say, “Theriyam illai!”

After lunch, we set off with Kamal again to the station (he calmly walked ticket-less into the train with our bags), and rattled home. Mostly uneventful, except for this obstreperous child who kept bouncing around and poking people and throwing rubbish out of the windows – I wanted to wallop him, and berate his mother, but did neither. I listened to Fleetwood Mac and ELO instead. But I really do wonder why parents allow their children to grow up into such unpleasant beings – it harms the child most.

Fort was packed with people returning to Colombo after Vesak (although most of the people on the train got off at Maradana, interestingly enough). I returned home in time for dinner, showered off all my train-grime, and promptly fell asleep.

I apologise for my extensive use of parentheses.

PS. This time I tried to insert photos into the post, as I went along, but it proved impossible with 40+ photos. So I’m sticking with a slideshow at the end, but making sure to add captions this time.

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

K2: I bring a friend

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