BB1: Bridges Being Built

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

It’s been a whole month since I was in V-town. The last time I was here, I received an email from a professor in the Department of Town and Country Planning at the University of Moratuwa, responding to a request I had sent him about research opportunities. He informed me that there was a new Master’s programme that I might be interested in, and after much deliberation, I decided I would enrol. The class structure is part-time, with lectures usually on Fridays and Saturdays, leaving me free to pursue drama workshop-related work the rest of the week. However, the university occasionally brings down guest lecturers to teach a few of the classes, which tend to be full-time. We started classes with two foreign lecturers and had classes 9am-4pm five days a week, so I decided to take a four-week break from the workshops. The month of intense classes is up now, and we’re back to part-time, so here I am in Vavuniya. I still have a 12-page paper to write for my theory class, though, and I’m hoping that I can write it in the space of two train rides and a day at home. I’m also hoping that Princeton’s preparation (40+ pages of final papers in a week, most semesters) will serve me well, and if I am to be honest, I do sometimes miss the frenetic caffeine-induced production of writing, drawings, and models.

So! I was more excited on the journey here than usual, partly because it’s been a while, and partly because this weekend is special. This weekend marks the beginning of the real Building Bridges workshops – undertaking the transportation of several exuberant children from one village to the other, and trying to give them a good time, as well as the opportunity to Meet New Friends.

I frantically took notes for my theory paper on the train ride to Vavuniya, while inwardly judging a fellow-passenger (male) who was immersed in Stephanie Meyer’s New Moon – I thought the Twilight series was incredibly trashy chick-lit that no self-respecting male would read! Of course, having never read them myself, I make a lot of assumptions about their appeal and target audience. I also unabashedly judge those who are charmed by them. Seated right behind me was (I later discovered) the owner of Thampa Hotel (apparently formerly a good guest house, but because of the beer garden, has become a bit of a Shady/Seedy Spot). I think of it as genteel Thai Hotel’s archrival (one of two, actually – the other one is multi-coloured Nelly Star Hotel, located centrally on 2nd Cross Street, a short walk away from my supplier of MyJuicee fruit juice, Cargills Vavuniya), so having Mr Owner-of-Thampa-Hotel behind me felt mildly like being in the enemy camp. You see what a loyal customer I am to Thai. He spoke incredibly loudly in Tamil on his cell phone at frequent intervals throughout the journey, and I amused myself by trying to decipher what he was saying. Since his conversation was peppered with English, and I could understand a few Tamil words, I gathered quite quickly that he was talking about getting three signatures for a form. Bit disappointing, really. But I heard him talking to another American opposite him about his plans to expand and build new hotels (apparently the American’s boss had stayed at Thampa and wasn’t impressed – I wanted to turn around and him to tell her to try Thai, but honestly the reason I have such a high opinion of Thai is that Mr Kanapathy was so awesome; Mr Kamal is just too apathetic and spaced-out to compare.)

I now have Mr Premadasa’s (aka Known Tuk Tuk) number, so I called him this time, from Medawachchiya, and it was really nice to see his face outside the Vavuniya station (kind of like seeing a nice uncle waiting for you at the airport). This week has been unusually exhausting (I’ve tried going on a few long walks in the morning to walk off some of the fat I’ve acquired over the years in America, and succeeded only in making myself more tired than usual!) and I went straight to bed. I woke up twice in the middle of the night; once because it was too cold, and once because I heard a sound most unfamiliar in Vavuniya – that of rain pattering on the roof! So the monsoon is on its way to the north-central province.

I woke up at 6am, but refused to get out of bed until 6.30am. The Thai Hotel staff have gotten used to my eccentricities (no morning tea – I think it’s probably a little indelicate to explain to them that no tea significantly improves my bladder control during my 6+ hours away from the hotel!) and provided me with 50 Milos and 50 buns for the children (never again will I take too few snacks). I got a pleasant surprise – Kamal was my driver for the day! Out of all the drivers I’ve gotten in V-town, Kamal is the least uncouth. Actually, that’s not fair, he’s actually very couth (ah, so couth is a word, is it?). He’s very nice, and I feel more comfortable travelling with him than any of the other drivers I’ve been supplied with thus far. Actually, Nanthar was nice too, but Kamal can also speak Sinhala, which is good for me being understood, but bad for my learning Tamil (although I have convinced Sushmitha to teach me Tamil – I will be starting soon and hope to be a pro…well, halfway decent at least, in time to start the workshops for the older kids).

After a few detours (at the bakery to buy breakfast and lunch for Kamal and myself, since we’d be coming back to V-town late, a the gas station to pump petrol, and at the train station to buy my ticket for Sunday), we were on our way, and this time we took the Jaffna Road, not the Mannar Road as usual! Next time we come, I’m going to bring a road map of Sri Lanka, or at the very least, a Google map of the area, so I can mark all the roads I’ve ever been on! We travelled past Omanthai before turning in to a side road flanked with billboards (“Danish Demining Group”, UN-HABITAT permanent resettlement schemes, etc) and continued to travel northeast until we came to the cross-roads to Nattankandal. For much of the way, I must say, the road was quite good, apart from the puddles and pot-holes, and areas that were still under construction, and I’m really glad to have seen Omanthai. The Omanthai area seems to be developing well, and it makes me really excited. There’s also something really beautiful about the dry zone after it’s rained; it still looks wild, but loses its tight-lipped harshness, and I really enjoyed the new route.

We got to Chiraddikulam a little past 9, and I was grateful to see that the army had assiduously complied with my requests to have the children ready to be taken – all 14 kids who were going to attend that day were ready and waiting. We set off, and the children seemed in high spirits at first. Halfway through the journey we also passed a small structure that Vinodh claimed was his anna’s (older brother) house. It seemed rather far from Chiraddikulam, and I’m curious to know what he’s doing there – it’s awfully close to another army unit. I also discovered, too late, that I had not prepared for three girls getting carsick – I felt terribly sorry for them, but could do nothing for them except give them some water. Next time, I’m taking cream crackers, water, and any other home remedies that might stave off the sickness. It was curious to think, though, that if they were city-dwellers I would’ve packed Buscopan without hesitation. The girls were incredibly good, and I felt sorry to hear them trying to be sick as quietly and unobtrusively as possible into small plastic bags. They were determined to make as little fuss about the incident as possible, and as soon as we got to Kakkaiyankulam, they quietly disposed of the bags and made a beeline for the nearest well to wash their faces. They joined in the workshop with as much gusto as everyone else, though, and I must say I really admire them for how they dealt with a difficult situation with a lot more dignity than your average ten-year-old.

The workshop was delightful, chaotic, and boisterous – I’m definitely going to try to bring more volunteers next week. There were 14 kids from Chiraddikulam and 19 from Kakkaiyankulam, all full of high spirits. They were all a little shy at first, but their initial quietness didn’t last long. I started out with introductions, and then divided them up into two teams, Red and Blue. We then played an awkward game of Name Toss (it IS always awkward when you don’t know people’s names, and I forbade them to pass the ball to someone from their village, but I think they started cottoning on quite soon). We then played the ball relay, and I really should have brought four balls instead of two. The kids are also not above cheating, and calling the other team out when they cheat, which means they don’t pay enough attention to the game! Fausan, especially, got shouty really quickly, but didn’t really do spectacularly well himself, because he wasn’t focused on the game but on the mistakes his team-mates made! The children are a lot quicker to argue and yell at each other than we would be, and I’m not sure how to deal with it except ignore it, really. I am not sure that lectures on team-work are going to work wonders, although I will talk to them next time about how concentrating on your team instead of the other team can really improve your game, but I’ve always marvelled at the magnetic quality of a team, and the way sports can just as quickly create enemies as friendships. While the children of both villages lost no time in telling off each other when they fumbled, children from the same village but on opposite teams were equally comfortable with yelling at each other, too. At the same time, rooting for one’s own team meant the children of both villages cheered on members of their own team regardless of which village they were from. I know I’m making it sound like it descended into a frenzy, which it didn’t, but these are small and unruly children and I’m realising how bad I am at predicting the outcome of my activities – everything is always a little more wild and disorganised than I expect. At the same time, while I can definitely expect girls and boys alike to get into a fistfight when my back is turned, I think I can trust them to respect me enough to break it up when I ask (shout at?) them to. Also, I think these hot-tempered little children are unlikely to hold a grudge, but we’ll see. I do need to be careful with games in general, I think.

After a water-break, we then played Fruit Bowl, or “Palangal”, as the Chiraddikulam children call it now. The Kakkaiyankulam children had never played it before, and given that it’s a game that ends up involving a lot of shoving, it was quite successful, and Sahir Khan (the little boy who can’t walk very well) always ended up with a seat and never ended up on the floor. However, in retrospect, I really should keep a better eye on him!

We then had a proper snack-break, with buns and Milo, after which I broke up the children into six teams to make shapes (a van, an elephant, a peacock, a bicycle, a house, and an aeroplane). Their shapes were not bad, but it was admittedly difficult keeping an eye on six different groups and giving them all individual suggestions – the end results were a lot more amorphous than I would have liked. Fathima, however, had some great suggestions for the bicycle – I really do think she has the potential to be a really good leader, in general. The children showed a decent amount of initiative, but they did need some help with getting their shapes to have definition. It wasn’t a bad attempt, though, and they certainly enjoyed themselves. Below is a tiny clip of the van, replete with sound:

Given that we had only ten minutes left, I should have called it a day, but I decided to let them play one game of Dog and the Bone before ending the workshop. By the time we ended the game, took photographs of the group, and filled the van with more petrol (the boys from boys villages helped Kamal) it was 1pm. The children of Kakkaiyankulam also hit upon the bright idea of giving us all unripe mangoes (the Chiraddikulam kids ate them straight away, but I think mangoes ripen off the tree and will take them home to test that theory), and I think they must have given us about twenty five. They gave me three and would have given me more had I accepted them. One of the Kakkaiyankulam boys also climbed up way up high into the mango tree – for a good ten seconds I couldn’t figure out who was hooting goodbyes at me from the skies! I forget how different their lives are – I wish I were as sure-footed or as not-prone-to-vertigo. I believe the sour mango would have helped ease car-sickness, but I bought two big bottles of water and a few plastic bags from a tiny shop nearby, just in case!

The ride back to Chiraddikulam was uneventful (although Thaveneswari, who runs the pre-school, did freak out midway and call Ameena asking where the children were – I wish there were better communication between the army and the villagers, because I did call the army to say we were getting a bit late!) Oh well. I got them back safe, and Thavaneswari saw them all arrive, so hopefully they will be more comfortable with my taking away the children for five hours, and won’t freak out as much next time. I also saved Thavaneswari’s number, and I’ll get someone to tell her in Tamil when the children are getting back, so she can relay the message to the villagers.

The ride back from Chiraddikulam to Vavuniya was a little painful, especially since I didn’t want to fall asleep to keep Kamal company, but I think taking the A9 was a stroke of genius on Kamal’s part. I did eventually take a short nap once we were on the A9, because the ride was so nice and smooth, and fortuitously woke up as we were getting into Vavuniya town, just before the HNB atm. I also stopped at Cargills, but failed to obtain 50 packs of juice for the children – I’m afraid they’re going to have to live with Milo tomorrow. I did, however, buy some peach iced tea for myself and mango juice for Kamal (which he didn’t want, so I drank that too) and about $15 worth of biscuit for the children.

I’ve never been so glad to return to the comforts of Thai (there was even wi-fi in my room for about 20 minutes before they turned on the TV (they have Dialog TV, and I suspect their internet and cable channels are run on the same connection). It was a good connection while it lasted, though, and gave me some quality procrastinating internetz-time. I’m such a child of the present age that I am ashamed, especially after spending my morning in the places I did. I keep musing on the lessons I feel I should be learning and that I’m not, but I confess I like the complicatedness of the technological age, and I suspect I would only Simplify My Life if I had no other option. I’m a reprehensible reptile, I know, but I’m more addicted than I like to admit.

I’ve been blogging ever since, with a dinner-break for Chicken Fried Rice – HOW is it that I can miss rice after less than a day of not eating it, and WHY is it that rice is really the only satisfying meal after a long day like this? I also stopped to charge my camera battery – turns out that my computer plugged in is about all my room can stand in power-wise, and trying to plug my camera charger in twice left me in the dark, with Kodis having to attend to the trip switch. Having ruined my original computer charger once owing to a power surge a few months ago, I’m a little petrified of the wiring in this establishment. My camera battery is now charging in the dining room, and I doubt anyone in the area has a Canon S95 (a nice little point-and-shoot for those who are interested in such purchases – much too good for a noob like me actually) so I think my battery is safe from people, if not from the power. If I end up frying my battery, I’m really sorry that it had to be my original Canon battery that came with the camera, but I have a spare, and it’s better than someone actually stealing my camera – which I think actually happened to one of the ReachOut Fellows…Katie Hsih, I think? I believe Jim Freund actually sent her another one, which is one of the reasons why I’m ridiculously grateful for people as nice as supportive and helpful as they are. I know I sound a bit like a paid advertisement, but I so often think about all the things I would be worrying about if not for their funding, their support, and their ever-willingness to listen to my problems. I tend to be a little private about things that are bothering me, but I know that when this year is up I will be wishing that I spent more time asking them for advice. However, one thing that keeps me going is their quiet confidence that I can do this, and it’s funny, looking back on the 13 (now 14!) workshops I’ve done so far, by myself, manoeuvring public transport, language barriers, accommodation, syllabi, many more children than I bargained for, and tons of other things, and I’m suddenly really very happy about this year that tries its best to define itself in my head by my varying states of unemployment.

Now to write my 12-page paper (groan).

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