Three More Things

1. I cut my right thumbpad while opening the cannelini beans. I was raised to "be careful" about sharp can-openered edges, and had always heeded that warning: until tonight. Listen to your parents, kids, those suckers are sharp. (I'm fine, really. No tetanus yet.)

2. Am experiencing significant ongoing problems with knowing where I am when I wake up. True, as Malka patiently pointed out, I haven't been in the same place for more than four nights for several weeks. Pretty strange though: I've quite seriously taken time to think where in the whole world I am. And who.

3. I am developing a theory about the mental links between planning and memories. I think that when I mentally plan a schedule, it's like a kind of architecture: empty rooms, spaces, expectations of where I'll be and who with and what doing. I pre-vision myself carrying out the plans and sort of troubleshoot ahead of time. I do this without thinking consciously of it (usually) and when I fail to 'build' such an infrastructure, for a given period of time, I find it harder to process what's happening during that time or to remember it later. More interestingly, when things go totally awry (I get sick and miss a meeting, tsunamis wreck Lanka's coasts) the empty, waiting schedules don't just disappear. I have this part of my mind that goes on thinking that things went as expected: it's still waiting for the actual fulfilment of the proposed plan. That part of my mind messes with the actual-memories files as if there are parallel memories extant. I would like to try to explain or develop this idea better: the (my) mind builds durable structures of expectation, which are draped in memory if expectations are mostly fulfilled. However these structures can continue to exist even without actually being 'true' in the actual play-out of time.

Why this is interesting: it explains two things I do all the time, procrastinate and remember things that didn't happen. It could also explain how people, especially old people, can lose their grasp on simple aspects of lived experience. Thoughts?
Headed for the Hills
Bad Luck and Many Happy Returns

Finally, home in Kandy where I belong. Home, where my thoughts were escaping, where my music is (finally!) playing. Brought the wrong iPod cable on my twavels and oh, the pain of a 4-hour jerky bumpy exhausty acceleratey slam-on-the-brakesy bus ride. Every time I ride the bus between Kandy and Colombo I get about twenty minutes into the trip before beginning to seriously regret not availing myself of some handy over-the-counter Valium.

Colombo holds certain charms--several nice swimming pools, ritzy shopping, good foreign food--but when you're stressed and schedule-less and you have to get around by bus and carry all your stuff everywhere and worry constantly about your health (read on) it just becomes this big, congested, dirty, traffic-y mass, filled right now with aid workers in silly vests. (The kind with about twelve million pockets!) I feel so much better than I have in days, just being in a peaceful place and having taken a nice long shopping-walk through the hills around sunset. I went to the 'Royal Mall' where they have a nice supermarket (smaller than an American convenience store) and stopped at several produce/general shops on the way back to amass a stash of veggies exceeding my wildest expectations--lettuce! red pepper! lemongrass!

There was a several-day spate of bad luck amongst my friends this week. Malka was in a bad car accident and luckily emerged with only bruises and whiplash. She's sore and has a Gorbachevlike forehead birthbruise but has been a real brick about the whole thing. She has several funny stories of the progression of hospital visits. First she went to a local "base" hospital, where they refused to give her a blanket while she was in shock because "this is a poor country." Also apparently really wanted to give her painkiller suppositories and could not understand why, conceivably, she might not want this. Then she was taken by a coworker to Apollo, one of the big'n'shiny private hospitals in Colombo, where they kept calling her room to ask what kind of dinner she wanted: eastern/western, vegetarian/non; there's a Masters' thesis in there someplace I'm sure.

Tod's brush with disaster was Wednesday night, when several of us were out to dinner. He had come straight from work at the WTC and put his computerbag on a ledge across from his seat. Somehow this random lady picked it up, thinking a friend/co-diner had forgotten it, and managed to walk off without Tod noticing... result was that he Freaked Out in the restaurant, being as he had a huge meeting the next day for which all his info was on that computer. HE stayed in the place until they closed, vowing to, oh, kill the bandit who done took his comp.

I ended up retrieving the computer the next day, as there was little useful I could do in the office. The lady, who turned out to be extremely apologetic and kind and pretty, a Francophone Swiss attached to their embassy, was staying next door to the WTC at one of the posh hotels. While waiting for her in the lobby I was pleasantly rewarded for my patience with the sight of lots of (strong, handsome) US Marines commanders hobnobbing and lookin' spiffy. I swear I have never been happier to see military personnel. What a little fascist I am inside!

Computer redelivered, I went off on another runaround mission: get VSL t-shirts made, quick-like, so the team doing our first big project can wear something matching. I was instructed to get 20 shirts, ten decent quality and ten cheapo, and schlep them out to Nugegoda, a nonscenic very crowded suburb. For the nice ones, I went to Odel, which is like the Bloomingdales' of Sri Lanka. My trishaw driver was really offended that I was going to buy something in bulk there, and painedly told me in Sinhala, "don't buy anything! Just look and then we'll go to Pettah [outdoor insane bazaar area of city, opposite direction] and you will get local price, good stuff!" I decided to buy the ten "good" ones while there and throw him a bone with the other ten.

And what do you think? The Pettah ones were both more expensive and better quality. Like, almost twice as expensive, even with local price and bulk. The stall-owners all cooperated to get me the right number and balance of sizes but of course the shirts have some minor design and fabric differences. Not like anyone would notice; we're talking free stuff for techies. The Pettah shirts were definitely much better quality than the Odel ones. Also more fun to buy... not fun, however, was the rush-hour ride to and from Nugegoda, even though the driver turned out to be a super nice guy and even bought me a tambili (king-coconut) to drink.

He also told me all about how he keeps house for his two younger sisters who are still in school because their parents are dead. To cap it all off he asked me if I 'drink' (in Sinhala, means both drink and smoke, literally) and then when I said I drink a little, asked me if I drink grass, and did I want to pull over and have some, because by the way he's got some right now, and doesn't it smell great? It smells fine, I said, now put it away because we're in the middle of traffic and there are cops around! This guy was definitely not hitting on me; clearly too old and also had started calling me 'little sister' around Pettah. Therefore, I conclude, he was just a friendly guy who wanted to share his weed with the world. But still.

Right, so that's the bad luck before the Illin' which is that for the last few nights I've had intensely painful stomach knottiness and dizziness starting around 8pm and lasting until bedtime. Almost definitely stress based, as suggested by my last few weeks' grief/mania emotional swings. Further proof that I really needed to get out of Colombo. Haven't had it tonight despite cooking and eating a somewhat odd dinner: pasta with white beans in a garlic/mustard/cilantro sauce, but it was weirder than that somehow. Cooking was soothing.

Also soothing is not wearing the same bloody clothes I've been wearing for two weeks. Not 'bloody' like blood-encrusted, for those of you who fear the worst. I washed clothes in a 'semiautomatic' washing machine at Jeremy's house on Tuesday and I think the clothes were thanking him for allowing them to escape yet another vigorous soapwielding mauling by yours truly. A semiautomatic washing machine is an interesting thing: you have to physically place it near a sink, fill it via a hose, direct another hose to a drainage area, again manually fill it for the 'rinse cycle,' and eventually wring out the clothes and hang them to dry. It doesn't even spin them dry, just drain. Jeremy's has a 'dryer' which is about the size of a #10 can and just spins fast, attached to the side of the machine. Really the only thing automatic about the machine is that it agitates the clothes for you. You don't even have to put a lid on the thing while it's agitating, though, so it's not what I'd call 'agitation' but rather 'mild swishing.' The clothes do seem to get clean, so maybe my criticism of the machine comes from the fact that I am a vicious laundress...

Yes yes. Somewhere in my mind there is something useful and not simply rambling.


La La La, I'm a Filmmaker

Without going into it, the film project was frustrating and silly. It was super good to see the folks in the South, horribly sad and painful to see all the destruction there. It also made me furious and twitchy to see all the stupid mismanagement of camps, organizations, aid supplies, work, and generall y everything.

I became positively manic with a week's worth of talking to displaced and frustrated and depressed people--will write more about it soon but now I'm off for an afternoon of extremely crucial logistical work around Colombo: buying t-shirts and arranging for on-the-fly logosplashing for the maiden voyage of Volunteer Sri Lanka's field team. They're out to help assess some telecenter projects going into IDP camps. Go them!

It's been a rollercoaster. Keep them emails coming. More later. Love to all.


What Malka Actually Said
(see way, way below for botched quote)

"And even though it seems that there is so much to do it can't possibly get done no matter how many people help, at the same time it seems that it is difficult to find a way to be helpful. It's a large and ungainly weight that we're all trying to lift, and you can't seem to find a handhold that will let you bear enough of the burden... we all want to help, and no matter what we do, none of us will ever feel like we've done enough."
Thanks, Guys

[REBECCA, feverishly content-editing-for-humanity on her one off day between VSL and documentary filmmaking, sits at her messy desk. Bernadette Peters is belting ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.’ SHE didn’t so much get dressed or leave the house today… was expecting call from Australian Microsoft bigwig, wanting an afternoon tour of Kandy but hopefully this won’t come, as SHE’s not inclined today towards proper clothing, or even, conversation]
[phone rings: suddenly-annoying digitized Bach]

VOICE, possibly Australian : mumble mumble static static
VOICE now clearly Sri Lankan: Hello, may I speak to… ReBAYcca Ennen?
WARY REBECCA: Yes, this is Rebecca Ennen—
VOICE: This is Suntel.
SUNTEL, talking fast: This is a courtesy call from Suntel WOW, your internet service provider, we want to know if your service is working well, the connection speed fast and all? We want to make sure it’s working well for you.
INCREDULOUS REBECCA: Um, yeah, it’s fast enough.
SUNTEL, smarmily: Suntel WOW is glad to be your—
SHOCK DOES NOT PRECLUDE ENTERPRISE: Actually, when I dial up it often takes four or five tries to connect with the remote computer, maybe you could get more bandwidth or server space or whatever? Maybe it’s that there’s not enough capacity for all the users?
SUNTEL, squirming: If you are having a problem with your connection you can call our hotline at blah blah blah… Thank you for using Suntel WOW! Bye!

[REBECCA hangs up, shakes head, decides to put some buckshot in someone’s trousers over this issue. Maybe not; too much trouble.]

What the hell is the point of calling me to ask how the connection is, if I still have to call someone else to complain if it’s got a problem? I mean, did they call just to tell me the hotline number? However: my first-ever junk phone call in Sri Lanka! Now that’s what I call going native! I bet it cost me like Rs 3 to answer the mobile phone. I should deduct it from my Suntel WOW bill.

NB, folks—I’m leaving my apartment tomorrow morning for Colombo, and on Tuesday, the south. Unawatuna, the beach that was like a parent to us all. The point: I am reachable by mobile phone, not landline, for the next week. Do call; I’d be so happy to hear from you.


This set of questions was sent to me by a writer for the Phoenix, Swarthmore’s paper. They are writing something about me/the tsunami. (Phenomena of equal importance in the world, clearly.) Anyway he sent the questions and asked me to answer them via email. No doubt the resulting article will be far shorter than the answers I wrote, but actually it’s nice to set it all down. This sheer amount of content needs to be published (lightly edited, but that’s my job) in order that I don’t feel I wasted 45 minutes writing it. Those of you who will read the Phoenix, enjoy the preview! Let’s hope the article doesn’t make me sound like an idiot.

1) Why did you apply for a Fulbright Scholarship?
I had studied abroad here for five months in 2002 with the ISLE program, an exchance program. Last year I applied for a Fulbright in order to continue some social-history research I started then, and because I desperately wanted to come back to this wonderful place.

2) What study or research were you performing in Sri Lanka before the tsunami struck?
I was researching the social history of Sri Lankan marriage, where the different traditions come from, how they are now changing, how people choose their spouses, how family relationships change when children get married, what role marriage plays in the lifecycle here, etc. I was also studying Sinhala, the majority language here.

3) Where were you when the tsunami struck? What measures did you take to ensure your safety? Did you suffer any injuries?
I was at home in Kandy, in the central mountains of the island. I wasn’t anywhere near the coast and thus not in danger. Reports of the tsunamis sort of trickled in all day, with me first hearing about it from a friend via SMS (warning me not to go to the beach, which I had planned to do for New Year’s Eve) and later from a trishaw driver, who I almost didn’t believe; I thought I was misunderstanding him when he told me how many people had died and how much of the coast had been affected. Actually I had a really nice day, that day, aside from trying to find out what had happened, including lunch at the botanical gardens, a visit to the big Buddhist temple in Kandy, etc.

4) How would you describe the tsunami?
In what way? I mean, I wasn’t there. On the coasts, it was absolutely devastating; many places I knew well were reduced to rubble. At the same time, the wave action was influenced a lot by shoreline shape and land height, so there are whole places that got flooded but not trashed.

5) What is the state of the relief effort in Sri Lanka? Are the resources from relief organizations and agencies sufficient? Are some necessities more valued and needed than others?
Because the trauma was so much located along the coasts, and doesn’t extend THAT far inland, we have largely been able to supply relief materials (food, medical stuff, even building materials) from local stocks. That's important for people out in the world to know; also it's better for the economy if goods are purchased here rather than expensively shipped from abroad. There are plenty of Sri Lankan doctors and contractors and whatnot to see to the relief and reconstruction. The problem is that there isn’t a coordinated plan or way of organizing all the response work that needs to be done: the government didn’t have a disaster-relief ministry or department. Some camps are heavily staffed and very well-run, and some are barely reachable by roads (due to tsunami damage and the usual rainy-season washouts). The necessity is for people here to get organized quickly but that’s difficult when there’s no infrastructure. The humanitarian and NGO sector wasn’t prepared to deploy supplies or to train volunteers. A ton of early relief was simply small groups or organizations from the inland/unaffected areas, buying and collecting supplies and trucking them directly to the coasts. Now things have calmed down some and there’s more central organizing, more tracking of the supply convoys, etc. All this stuff is very political here—for example the JVP, a Marxist-nationalist movement and political party, are flying their flags and wearing their insignia in the camps where they have a presence, even though the central government claims that the relief effort won’t be politicized.

6) Is the humanitarian response to the tsunami from relief organizations and agencies like the United Nations and American Red Cross noticeable and active?
Noticeable and active, yes, but to my mind the local organizations are doing a better job, because they have more local contacts and actual knowledge of the peoples’ needs. There’s a major gap between international organizations (INGOs) and local NGOs, in terms of funding and practical experience, etc. The big groups are rich in terms of funding and trucks and whatnot, but the small groups can marshal themselves much faster and deal with local troubles like bad roads, cultural issues, etc. Their feedback loops are shorter, basically. Also the big groups are pretty sluggish in terms of meeting arising needs—local people are helping hugely. People inland who have nothing, are very poor, are still contributing what little they can: I heard a story from a friend about his convoy in the Northeast going through dirt-poor villages and people running out of their tiny houses to donate a kilo of rice, an extra pot, literally the shirts off their backs. The difference between local groups and big humanitarian agencies is that it’s a job for the INGO people; for locals (poor or not) this is a tragedy for their people and their country. The emotional difference is apparent.

7) What is the state of sanitation in Sri Lanka? Are relief organizations and agencies still concerned about the spread of disease due to the lack of sanitation caused by the tsunami?
There is a major initiative in somewhat-inhabitable areas to clean wells. No disease outbreaks have happened. Also, the camp populations are decreasing, as folks move out to stay with relatives. As far as I know, it’s an ongoing risk, but is being attended to.

8) Why did you decide to assist in the relief effort in Sri Lanka as opposed to return home to the "comfort" of the United States?
Well, there was no way I was leaving—the choice was to work on relief or go back to my research. I am trying, now, to figure out how to sort of bookmark the grant research and spend a few months on relief. I could easily just stay in Kandy (where my apartment and my Fulbright-affiliated institution are) and be just fine.

9) How are you assisting in the relief effort? With what projects and activities are you involved?
I have done website content editing for two organizations—Sarvodaya, a somewhat famous, longstanding (50 years) Gandhian community-development movement with offices and initiatives all over the island (www.sarvodaya.org) and Volunteer Sri Lanka, a new organization that is helping organize the huge inflow of volunteers both now and for the future (www.volunteersrilanka.org) and I strongly encourage everyone to look at these websites and consider helping fund Sarvodaya or volunteering in the future. I am still involved in both of these groups and in addition am heading out tomorrow for a two-week documentary filmmaking project with two directors; I am doing logistics and tech stuff for them. We are hoping to portray the strength, hope, and resilience of the tsunami survivors, in the first stage of rebuilding, in order to secure ongoing support and attention from the international community.

10) How has the relief effort progressed in the four weeks since the tsunami? How has your mindset and the mindset of others changed throughout that time period?
Well, as my good friend (and fellow Fulbrighter) wrote, it’s as if we are all trying to lift an immensely heavy burden together, and no one feels as if they can find a good handhold. At first it was really maddening to hear about organizational mishaps like the camps that got all food or all medicine, etc. Now that sort of story isn’t happening too often. A big part of my experience is that my mother and aunt were visiting me at the time of the tsunami and I had to divide myself, emotionally and timewise, between hosting/guiding them and working on relief. That was extremely difficult and I remember being inexplicably moody, having no patience, no appetite, etc. Once I realized that caring for them was exhausting me and making it hard to cope, things got better. I left them alone in Kandy for a few days and worked at Sarvodaya. After that I felt somewhat better, even just to have been a bit involved. Relief work and emotional healing are really related for me, which is partially why I can’t quite go back to the research yet. It’s very useful to be involved in work, otherwise one just feels unimaginably helpless and sad. It’s been great to work hard on these things, and also to be on the receiving end of so much international support (from strangers especially) and to get emails from people all over the world sharing their sadness, their hopes, their skills, and their offers of help.

11) When were you able to contact your friends and family to assure them of your safety? Were they in favor of your decision to remain in Sri Lanka to assist in the relief effort?
The phone lines were busy but operational in Kandy so I was able to be on my dialup internet and the phone to email and call folks at home. I was fortunate that my mother was here, because if she was back home, she would have probably been a lot more freaked out… she could see for herself that the country, in Colombo and inland is totally functioning. People have been deeply supportive-family, friends, former professors, everyone. People have also reminded me to take care of myself (physically and emotionally) very often.

12) Did any of the people you met in Sri Lanka lose their lives to the tsunami?
Very luckily (for me), none of my friends died. I know a lot of people, both Lankans and expats, in one beach village which was badly hit, but they all made it out with minor injuries. One friend’s mother died but I had never met her. It was really difficult, waiting to hear from people, though—you couldn’t get mobile phone calls out, because the networks were so busy, and the land lines were destroyed in the affected areas. I didn’t hear from some people until five or six days later.

13) What can students, staff and faculty at Swarthmore (and other people out in the world!—ed.) do collectively to help the tsunami survivors?
Fundraising is going to be really important in the long run, and simply staying in touch with the situation. I hope that some students can come here (maybe in the summer) and volunteer in rebuilding or education—as I said we have enough people here to DO it, but international attention will immensely help Sri Lanka in the long run. It’s a very misunderstood country especially in America; there is almost no American tourism or even contact here, and I would like for this wonderful place to be ‘on the map’ for more than just civil war and tsunami casualties. Anyway people can be involved in fundraising if they are capable, and also, sending letters of well-wishing and hope, perhaps eventually having pen pals or long-distance friends here, will be very encouraging for the survivors.

14) Do you have any information about the relief effort on the east coast of Africa?
No, nor elsewhere than here! I can barely keep up with local news.

15) What are your plans after your year of study and research in Sri Lanka is complete? Will you remain in Sri Lanka to continue to assist in the relief effort?
I really don’t know. There have been moments when I felt extremely homesick after the tsunami and wanted to leave NOW. I can’t though. This country, in some part, is my country too. A lot depends on what work I’m able to do now and how the state of affairs is in a few months.


Content Editing To Save Humanity

This is the kind of job I thought I would never have. Actually it's a job I don't have for real, but it still feels like it... Have been working for Tod's awesome volunteer coordination and organization-matching initiative. I've spent two days in the new VolunteerSriLanka 'war room' on the 31st floor of the west tower of the Colombo World Trade Center. Yes, it has two towers, just like another WTC we know. Tod is totally in his element which is good to see because he had been so frustrated earlier with his sponsoring agency's bureaucracy. He's created an empire unto himself and totally runs around attending meetings and being generally super-competent. Anyway we're in the WTC because we got office space, ie two boardrooms and a bunch of plug points, donated from Microsoft. I am going to have to stop badmouthing them now. Their internet hookup sure is fast!

Yesterday I would have posted but I was for a while working on a Belgian laptop which has a wack keyset/key-mapping. I was editing the text on our website (www.volunteersrilanka.org, go see! it rocks!) with this strange keyboard--bad for fast typing. Okay for editing, where you're actually paying attention to what keys you hit. I never realized I was such a good touch typer until I tried typing some emails. Some of you were the lucky recipients of my hilarious Q- and ;-laden missives.

All this content editing (recall that's what I did at Sarvodaya) is making me feel SO useful. Man, this place would just fall apart if I weren't here! I totally understand that the learning/usefulness curve is steep on these kinds of startup dealios (sp?) but still, still. I yearn, fruitlessly, for someone to hand me a perfect job on a platter: dramatic, humanitarian, field-based, fame-generating. Personality-based powerlust does not disappear in a crisis, it seems.

Now I'm hogging poor Jason's computer. He's another Tulane-foreign-studies-masters guy, ie like Tod. The office atmosphere is a little weird--the Belgian-keyboard guy, Juan Borrigues, is a (Belgian) Microsoft corporate charity wonk with a lovely French accent and a bizarre sense of humor. He's pretty young. He headed back to Belgium today on a military flight (which no one knows the reason for!) leaving a motley, vaguely piratical ass-kicking geek-mongering crew of mostly guys. There's Microsoft people (an east Asian Australian guy who loves beer and dislikes spicy food) and badass IT-world rogues (founders and master brains Tod and Mark, a former Sri Lankan British headhunter) and underqualified/uninformed losers (some random Polish collegey people who didn't do any work, me...) anyway it's a zoo. Plus today we don't have air conditioning in the office as it's a public holiday so we're baking, I tell you baking, in this terrarium-cum-office-tower.

BUT it's good, it's good. Mother arrived home safely to the chatty and gift-inquisitive bosom of Julia and Alyssa; sounds like a good flight experience and good to be home on her end. Tomorrow I return to Kandy for a wedding, for which occasion I am being dressed by my good friends the tailors. "Dressed" means they will carefully drape my sari and arrange my (rather short/unarrangeable) hair and probably spackle me with makeup and cover me in jewelry and flowers. Life could be worse...

Then Sunday I'll schlep back to Colombo for meetings on Monday with two NGOs that are helping me coordinate for a small, small documentary film crew coming in Monday afternoon. Tuesday I will head out for ten days of filming in the South with them. It's an exciting project and a good way to a) get out in the field and b) meet folks I might want to work with when this project gets finished.

It's really hot in here. I think we here at VolunteerSriLanka are providing a major revenue increase for the Barista (think Starbucks) downstairs here--every hour, it seems, someone succumbs to the creeping desire for a Brrista Blast. I had several clever things to say here but have forgotten them. Last night I was the youngest (by at least 18 years) guest at a fantastic, weird dinner party at which I started out drinking lovely ice-cold vodka straight up and ended up explaining post-Marxist anarcho-syndicalism to the bemused (and in some cases, embarrassed) assemblage. Good little Swattie!


Even Harder Than the Worst Pies in London

We depart for Anuradhapura this morning, to visit old ruined palaces, temples, monasteries, monkeys, &c. Rereading Lonely Planet last night I was reminded that some of the loveliest stonecarvings that survive are from monks' urinals and squat-toilets; they represent aversion-to-worldliness, hence, peeing on art. Matthew Barney and co., take note!

Cognitive dissonance rages on. Got stood up (again, disgruntled grumble) by the host-fam for dinner last night. We then cobbled together a fantastic soup and fruit salad repast, capped off by sharing a "Big Hunk" candy bar from Mom's recent trip to LA. (Analyze that!) Mina's 5th birthday party, Sunday, was a trip. Similarly so with going-to-meet-the-tailor-family; everyone in this country thinks I look just like Mom, or that she looks like my big sister. Can't tell if she's loving that.

Mom departs Thursday. After that, the Rest of My Life looms large. Back to the books? On to the Front? Wait and see.


In the "More Bad News" Column

As my ever-insightful father pointed out, it's amazing how all the worst-hit areas were sites of various insurgencies, separatist movements, terrorist encampments, etc., which doesn't help with relief and rebuilding. One would hope that the disaster would bring people together in common needs, but apparently not. The NY Times also comments on the issues in this article. It must be said, though, that people here are talking about the LTTE and the Army cooperating better than they ever have.

My insta-analysis is that the people at the top of the organizations are trying to use the publicity to forward their causes--Government wants to look like they are fully in charge and managing things well, LTTE wants to look like they are being oppressed but somehow scraping together what they need in the face of neglect. Meanwhile the people on the ground, running the camps, getting the trucks out--they're helping each other, and doing a fantastic job.

The most immediate Bad News was, however, yesterday. We arrived back in Kandy to find that the fridge was off while we were away. Hence: fridge-full of moldy grossness, including all the surfaces covered with slime. Mom has done a heroic cleanup/rehabilitation job far beyond what she owes me. (It was MY STUPID FAULT that the fridge was off.) Relief was slower to come, had to wait until we bought some replacement groceries. I don't know when the situation will return to normal in the affected areas, though, as we're going off on another trip Monday and the current supplies are adequate though minimal.

It ain't that bad--we had candy bars and cookies and tea for dinner, after the discovery of my host-fam's inexplicable and mildly alarming absence (below). Mm, wholesome!

So Tired

I keep feeling just exhausted, and wondering why. It's been a bizarre few weeks, bodily speaking--I stopped doing yoga, and don't get my hour-plus of regular walks, and eat strange things at strange times. As mentioned below, cognitive dissonance is ongoing.

We have had a rather pleasant few days, including a stay at the lovely and charming Galle Face Hotel (could have played croquet on the floor of our huge room), a scenic though hot train ride up to Kandy, an afternoon of shopping in Kandy (bargains! yay) and so forth. Tomorrow is Mina's fifth birthday party, on which my mother, Grandmaster of Birthday Parties, was called in to consult (games? activities? oh yes). We were supposed to dine with my host family, but they are bizarrely and typically unpredictable. Yesterday I was hollering across the street about the plans for dinner with host-Pa, today I couldn't get host-Sis on the phone, and tonight I was informed by host-maid Chandra, after finally going TO the house to talk, that "they have gone." She knew it was to the hospital but not why or for how long. I am worried about folks' health but also annoyed. They are always like this...

At the same time emails continue to pour in from around the world, offering to adopt, to volunteer, to work with traumatized children, to build, to distribute water. Ha! Water distribution, that's the cool frontlines job I want. Still trying to figure out where to go, what to do, once my mother leaves--one idea is to keep with the international volunteer planning. Another is to get in even tighter with the Feds than I already am. Am going to call USAID on Monday.

My father wants to come here and work for them (or whoever, he says) on the coastal redevelopment. Good on him. He also claims that we should work together as a team; that idea is a little odd to me. What would I do? Sinhala not good enough to be a translator; it's bad to have your highpowered-team-lackey be your daughter, I think. I've met the AID director before (at the depressing election debacle) and we chatted and bonded over exchanging yoga-class information. I hear that a) she's not heading reconstruction bizniz and b) USAID is totally going through Lankan organizations and contractors. We'll see.

The idea of bringing in international consultants is definitely controversial. It's not that they hate foreigners, but that there are people here supposedly capable of doing the work that needs to be done. International NGOs have a reputation for spending their money on expensive foreigners (like ma pere) rather than supporting grassroots/local knowledge and people. God knows there are enough unemployed engineers and architects here. Still, I want more foreigners to have real investment in Lankan communities. I have to see myself in this picture, remember!

Am voraciously tearing through The System of the World and Against Love: A Polemic. It's good to have books, even if they're hardcover and unschleppable. As Lori the novelist-Fulbrighter once said, "I could live with books."


Why I Love People

The emails and phone calls keep on coming. Things are agonizing but encouraging. I hate to keep going with the lists, but--

Over 10 people have emailed me (via Sarvodaya) wanting to adopt orphans from the tsunami. It's heartbreaking to have to tell them that Sri Lanka doesn't allow international adoptions (that's a whole other ball of wax--don't get me started) but absolutely amazing to think how much love these people have in their hearts, to up and offer to take a traumatized child from halfway around the world. Love you back.

I've received two out-of-the-blue phone calls from wonderful, wonderful people with whom I haven't spoken since leaving the states. It was good to talk about here-things and home-things, to realize that the world IS going on out there. (NB; the world is going on here as well... I am in a mall and just got a haircut. Divine Pedestria!) But to those who called, thank you, it is so good to simply chat.

Malka came late last night, in from Galle and on her way to Trinco (today), bearing news of our dear friend Ravi, Unawatuna hotel manager and consummate good guy. He's okay (which we knew) and is working on plans for a community rebuilding/education center, and his dog Milkshake is okay too! It felt awful to worry about a dog when so many people have died, but only natural, I guess. Anyway it was so good to see Malka, talk, cry a bit, hug, encourage each other, make jokes, and so on. She is amazing. I want to be her when I grow up. She told me about someone she was talking with who reminded her to 'pray.' Neither of us is the praying type, we agreed, but this is a good time to start--if only for personal reasons.

There was good pizza for dinner last night! Happy happy joy joy.
Plus, Microsoft is going to support our Volunteer Sri Lanka idea. Tod (another FBer) and some IT peeps of his are setting it up. I start work next week. (I hope.) This is going to matter.

Thank you, everyone--especially those who took the time to write considered, thoughtful, kind, loving emails. I hold you in my heart.


We Sail With a Corpse in the Cargo*
or, Compartmentalization

1. shopping at Odel, posh Colombo department store, with Mom and Steph; meanwhile my friends work 20-hour days to make shit happen
2. headlines on Yahoo!News: "tsunami disaster death toll mounting"/"is George Clooney still hot?"
3. my mother is here for a week more vs. I just got offered the in-charge job of managing the unaffiliated foreign volunteers who flew in to help
4. I get more angsty and depressed when reading my email than when walking around the city

I have this feeling like I must, must, must dedicate my life to disaster relief, now and forever--this tragedy makes me see how much time I (we?) spend living comfortably apart from the pain and suffering of others in the world. This is sort of the biggest Case-In-Point/wake-up call of my life. I also feel like I can never leave Sri Lanka again; like no one will understand how this feels and I will spend the rest of my life telling these stories until they are rote and worn thin and I hate myself for cheapening experience via retelling.

Am thinking to write a play, or something, because that would speak for itself and perhaps I could stop speaking about it.

... This is really, really difficult. I could use a phone call.



Here is the text of a letter I initially wrote to a visitor on our site. I think it says it all, right now, especially given that it's 2:30am and I have to be someplace at 7.

We really, really appreciate that people are giving so much care to our efforts. Right now there is a huge problem getting stuff through the airport and customs and sorting; we are using our funds to purchase goods not donated or received. Most of these things are available in adequate supply here in Sri Lanka. Additionally, when we buy aid supplies with donated money, we don't have to spend time cataloguing and processing shipments. We are glad to get them, of course, but the time- and personnel- and infrastructure delays are dramatic.

The best thing you can do is donate money to our effort via our main website, www.sarvodaya.org, and encourage your friends, family, and any contacts you have to do the same. If you have any way to spread the word via websites, blogs, etc. we can use lots of publicity.

It's natural to want to do something direct (like collecting and shipping supplies) but actually more useful to help get the word out about fundraising. I personally understand this tension: I am an American resident of Sri Lanka who's frustrated to be sitting in an office working on a computer when I could be riding in a truck handing out bottles of water and food supplies. However my minimal computer and web-developing skills make me maximally useful in the office. Perhaps later I can go on a convoy to the field, but for now, the photos and descriptions I am working with are nearly as far from me as they are from you.

Again, thank you so much for your support and please help get the word out! We have many months of work ahead of us and your help will make it all possible.

Best Wishes,
Sarvodaya Web Team

abandoned belongings

abandoned belongings
Originally uploaded by sarvodaya.org.
This is the photo that has affected me the most thus far. Maybe it's the pink; maybe it's that it was taken in an area where everything was destroyed, where people had nothing to begin with. That may be an oxymoron, but you know what I mean. The notion of packing your old, old suitcase with your few grabbable garments, and running, and having to leave the suitcase--or it being swept away from you, or you from it--I can barely imagine. It makes me scared to be in the field.
Does anyone have advice about how to kick ass and take names on the organizational front? I am basically trying to a) create a forum for volunteer sign-ups, ideally so that they can organize among themselves to do brute-manpower type stuff like trash cleanup, also so that Sarvodaya and other relief-orgs can reasonably manage their volunteer offers; b) figure out what the hell the higher-ups here are doing.

I realize that it is Grand Hubris to march around getting the relief coordinators to tell me what they are doing, as if I have any power or authority. However as Indi says, there is no structure, no one has any authority. Or to put it more nicely, the organization is not set up to handle information flows and planning efforts on this scale; no one is looking at the big picture. For example, there is enough NEED out in the field that trucks should be leaving Colombo every ten seconds and yet this place feels half-deserted.

Stuff is happening but it could be happening faster.

People are getting angry at the politicians, which makes sense--the Health Minister actually had the temerity to turn down offers of foreign doctors coming in. They are desperately trying to make it seem like stuff is happening smoothly. I can't get a sense of how untrue that is; Dr. Ari's recent open letter (read here) to the government and people here is devastating in its description of the non-action in the affected areas. Supplies not distributed, bodies not removed.

As we say here: what to do?


Back at Sarvodaya HQ and things are getting both more busy/organized and more diffuse. I definitely recommend that folks look at the TsunamiHelp blog for info on what's going on. We here are trying to get stuff up on the web for so many sources--possible donors, other aid agencies, people in the field, those who want to volunteer--that it's like herding cats to even figure out what to do next. People come in and out of the office with things they want us to do; half the time we've done it already and half the time we absolutely can't because some crucial bit of info is missing.

The level of organization here is laudable given the general disarray of affairs in the country. Driving around in Colombo there is surprisingly little 'buzz' going on. I would feel better if there were lots of trucks being loaded everywhere. I am trying to stay in contact with various individuals and contacts of mine; to get them help on a small scale and to see if there is any info we have that they need. The big problem of course is that information flows are all off; there's no central place to give feedback from the field. We don't have a way of finding out who needs food or medicine or which convoy went where. The different aid groups are running more or less separately and people aren't being efficient about who is in charge of what.

There are containers, airplane-loads of stuff, in warehouses out at Katunayake, that haven't been sorted or moved through customs. One friend is organizing teams of people to go catalog the supplies. Another is coordinating a GIS mapping project for the destroyed infrastructure. It has been really great to hear from folks back in the states, and I apologize because I haven't had time to reply to emails yet. (mostly--have written to the people contacting me as 'content editor' for the Sarvodaya blog!)

Dad and Kathleen, here is your big chance to work in developing world engineering and city planning. There are a lot of roads and bus stations awaiting your attention!

Plus, here is the blog of Indi Samarajiva, the Canadian-American-Sri Lankan guy who's basically running 'net things here. Interesting guy. We are getting excited about things like formatting. Will try to write about what's actually going on later...
Hey! I found a place to work and something to do. It's oddly indirect and appropriately nerdy.

Am running blog content editing for Sarvodaya on this site. I have to get everything approved and there's lots of folks doing obviously helpful but eminently geeky things. It feels good. Please, folks, link to that site orhere.

There's not a lot for you-all to do but send money, which we-all appreciate like hell, but we're doing our best. Please keep thinking of this part of the world after the initial buzz dies down...

Happy New Year as well.
Happy Birthday, Dave! I love you!