Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Big Dose of Mardi Gras: When your Attitude Needs Adjusting

Let's get this party started: from 8:30 am until the parade starts at 4:30 pm and beyond

We leave our ever-growing work machinations related to the LSU budget cuts and our recent issues with our youngest son behind and venture out onto I-10, where we are graciously allowed into Mardi Gras traffic. We are tired, but happy because we are leaving home and traveling just 80 minutes to the east to a magical land--the Land of Mardi Gras, joie de vive, don't have the follow the rules, and not a care in the world.

Float art: Clown mask

Before we leave we lay down the law with the 18 year old son -- no having parties, no going to parties, no parties without booze, no parties with just a 'few friends,' no parties, period, no leaving the house, no going to N.O. and no heading off to Red River, NM skiing; and by the way "have fun." We kiss Grammy goodbye and head out the door. I thank God that Grammy is in good health so that we can leave home for a couple of days.

We are broke, but hurray, we double check: We have our credit cards.

Endymion Parade Theme: Tales of Sleep and Dreams

Just before we get out the door, one of Daniel's future family members calls and wants to have dinner with us when we get into Metairie. I'm caught off guard. I manage not to answer -- as the last thing we want to do is talk to anyone tonight. I tell him we'll call him when we are on the road. I try to think of a reasonable reason to beg off, but really haven't come up with something "polite" to say before I nod off to sleep.

Then my phone rings just minutes after we get on the Interstate, and he wants to make plans. Now I'm starting to feel a little edgy. I tell him we are going to spend the evening and the next morning ALONE. I am tired. I do not tell him about the big fat drama week at work and at home, or that we need a break. I heave a bigger sigh than intended. I'm sure he hears it. He hangs up. I think I've probably been rude but am just too tired to reverse course.

I mention to Rich how glad I am that Deb didn't spend the money to come to our crazy house in the midst of so much craziness to watch such an obviously crazy parade in a crazy city, in a crazy state.

Float art: Clown

We arrive at the 1896 O'Malley House -- and let out another sigh, this time of relief. Rich parks his truck and we look out at a crowd of people already cordoning off their spaces on the island in the middle of Canal Street, where the Endymion parade will pass, which is exactly 1 1/2 blocks from where we are staying. It is 5:00 p.m. and the parade starts tomorrow at 4:15 p.m. We comment that it looks like a giant tailgate party, with food, drinks and a weird conglomeration of ladders and scaffolding being erected so as to view the parade better. I wonder, 'better than what?' as these folks will be on the front line of the parade route.

The ladder & scaffolding industry

We meet Larry, the owner of the B&B, who shows us to our very nice cedar walled room with antique-ish furniture on the 3rd floor. He gives us our keys and reminds us to lock the front door every time we come in so that the folks outside "don't come in and pee pee on the floor." We go back down to our car, take out our suitcases, lock the door, and schlep our stuff up to the room.

Baby doll on a stick

Rich thinks he pulled his back out. He takes some pain meds, and admits to me that he is not sleeping well lately because our 18 year old son is leaving home for college soon. I wonder why he wouldn't be thrilled in anticipation of this send-off, but murmur something that sounds like I'm in agreement.

Captain on horse back

Eldest son, Daniel calls twice on the road, where he is in a traffic jam due to a multiple car wreck with fatalities, trying to make it to his future in-law's house in Metairie, near N.O. He tells us that future father-in-law is already staking out their spot on the parade route with various other family members "spelling" him out so that he can go home and sleep. We wonder why anyone would go to so much trouble just to watch a parade.

We hope we don't have to "spell out" anyone. We are dead-tired and may not wake up for the parade, let alone in the middle of the night for a walk to the beginning of the parade route to "spell out" people who feel that a parade is worth losing sleep over.

Besides, we are afraid of N.O. in the middle of the night.

Spectators participate: Swashbuckler

We need to eat, so we walk four blocks and the first restaurant we see is Mandinas -- a little hole in the wall Italian restaurant on every restaurant guide in in the city, with a police patrol outside. There is a sign on the door that says,

"No checks, No credit cards. Cash only. ATM on the premises."

I do not think I have seen this before, except maybe in a lesser developed country. I make a comment to Rich about how rife with fraud N.O. must be for them to enforce a rule like this at a place of business where they actually want customers. I start feeling uncomfortable about walking the streets at night. We open the door, and I see a tacky sign at the back of the restaurant that says, "ATM," so I walk back and up a few steps near where people are eating, and try not to bump into them while retrieving several hundred dollars from our checking account. I hand it to Rich.

It occurs to me why the police patrol is outside -- to keep the bad guys away from the front of the restaurant.

To hell with you patrons as you head down the block or around the corner.
We want your cash.

The last time I saw a police presence like this was in another country. Wait a minute: I have seen this in Baton Rouge, outside the Honey Baked Ham store at Christmas. At least there, we can park our car directly in front of the store and near the police.

Kid Rock on his float

REO Speedwagon

We walk back to the waiting area, where a young Italian man with an earring shows us to our table, which is near the door and unfortunately behind a post, even though there are much better-placed tables that are free. I look at my clothes, and think to myself, "you're not dressed like a bum." I ask Rich if he thinks the young Italian man is a "Mandina" and he says, "No, he's not family." What criterion he's using to make that determination, I don't know. I'm feeling very unimportant but the waiter smiles at us, and I pretend he's a Mandina, just so that I don't feel like a second class citizen.

Float art: The Joker or a Jester

The restaurant is a classic. It has a huge cedar, glass backed bar, cedar wainscoting and sturdy Italianate furniture that looks like something grandma would have, where a view of the clientele and the owners are enough for the price of the meal.

We order their Friday special:

Eggplant, ham, shrimp and brown gravy with spaghetti meal

Almost immediately after receiving it I feel terrible eating all of these calories, so I selectively eat bites out of the gravy plate and most of the spaghetti, which seemed like the lesser of the two evils.

It is all delicious.

Float art: Man/Goat/Winged Creature

Parade paraphenalia hawker
Boobs of all colors are hot items

I look around. I'm pretty sure that most of the waitstaff and customers have been there since 1932, the year of their opening: two towering gentlemen in white waiter's gear and ties, probably at least 300 lbs, and in their 70s, distinguishable because one has a goiter and the other does not; a woman in the corner that looks like an obese 80 year old Marilyn Monroe; some handsome couples in jogging gear with their beautiful children in front of the bar; some young Italian men; quite a few established New Yorkish looking families; and a burn victim and his wife. For some reason the restaurant looks like it is filled with characters from a movie. I keep telling Rich to "look" at various people behind him; he is facing the door as usual. Each time he says, "no," I point loudly to one of the cheap paintings on the rear wall so he'll have a reason to turn around and stare.

I order Cabernet. They say they have Merlot. I say, OK. It tastes like Sherry, and although I hate Sherry it fits the mood of the place.

NOPD on horseback: Keeping the peace

I text James twice telling him that although he's 'in trouble' I love him. I'm beginning to miss him and feel sad that he is leaving the house for college in 6 months. I look at my watch: That change of heart took approximately 3 hours.

Spectator: This one's a Pirate

The next morning I roust Rich and we head on down to breakfast. I am craving coffee and drink maybe 5 cups, and of course eat breakfast, which I never do, because "it's there" and I'm "on vacation" and "it's Mardi Gras." The breakfast consists of fruit (good for me), yogurt (good) coffee (okay) with cream (not good) and an Italian Quiche made with filo dough (not good) and sausage (definitely not good).

It is all delicious.

I refuse the homemade biscuits, which makes me feel somewhat disciplined.

Larry tells us that Mandinas was a purported mafia hangout for years, and it dawns on me that the cash-only policy has more to do with money laundering than it does with fraud, which makes me feel a lot more comfortable about walking the streets with money and a credit card jammed in my front pockets.

No bare faces on floats: It is against the law to take off your mask and the mesh face-cover underneath

The future grandfather-in-law calls and wants to know where we are because the future-grandmother is going to drop off a Mardi Gras bag she made, complete with beads to get me started. He wants us to check out tomorrow morning at 8:30 to follow him to a parking lot close to the bleachers were they've paid for our tickets to watch 4 parades from 12:00 p.m. tomorrow to 12:00 a.m. tomorrow night.

I panic. I cannot sit still for 12 hours and watch 4 parades. I beg Rich to ask them where the bleachers are -- we'll try to catch a cab or the trolley across town and just leave from our B&B at a more civilized hour. They say it's "miles and miles" away and "the street cars don't operate when there are parades."

This guy scared the hell out of Rich

They then suggest that we not watch the parade today with Daniel's future in-laws (their son and daughter-in-law). They say, "just go outside your door and watch from your Bed and Breakfast;" "You'll never find Tommy and the family, there are thousands of people out there;" the location is "miles" from you; and finally, "Tommy is cranky." All the while, we hear Larry, the B&B proprietor yelling in the background, "You're maybe a mile at the most from them. I walk the dog there every day." Daniel calls twice, he gives Rich the parade location. We GPS it, and it's 8 blocks from here. I calm down. We can do that.

He calls again and tells Rich that Tommy and Alfie haven't rented a port-a-potty this year, but they have rigged up a "bathroom like structure" on the back of his truck (now I remember Brandi telling me that they have used it in the past for #1 but not #2). Okay. The port-a-potty concept was probably the only reason I agreed to be on the parade route and not watch these parades on television (are they on television?).

I take a shower and get ready for the big extravaganza. When I get back to our room, I notice that the future grandmother has dropped off my Mardi Gras bag. She has indeed decorated it with sparkly paint, it has big beads in it, and several moon pies. It is adorable. I vow to myself that I will not eat the moon pies.

Enough is enough. I struggle to put on my pants. Didn't they fit just yesterday?

Daniel calls twice more. He wants us there now. Rich is asleep. I wake him up and tell him that we really need to get started walking to our spot on the parade route, it's after noon and our tribe has been there since yesterday morning at 5:30 a.m. He wakes up, gets dressed and off we go, but not before he tells me he's disappointed in me for spending time on the computer this morning instead of spending time with him. "Oh Shoot," I think. "He's right. I'm an idiot. I was just trying to recharge my batteries, which didn't include recharging him." Bad wife. I run along after him apologizing. He says it's okay, but it's not.

Spectators participate: "Nurse" dispensing liquor shots

We finally arrive at the spot Daniel's future family members have staked out, which is just a block from the bandstand where Kid Rock, the Grand Marshall and REO Speedwagon will perform. I am genuinely happy to see the whole family. Familiar faces amongst thousands. Hugs and kisses all around. We're let into the gated area. I'm offered food from the feast they have prepared, and a beer, but I trade it in for an "Ice Pick." We are offered a place on the ladder, front-row seats and places to stand. More hospitality than we deserve, after all we haven't done anything to contribute.

Flambeaux carrier

Minutes turn into hours and I find that I'm smiling again. Rich says, "This has significantly exceeded my expectations."

We relax and celebrate for the next 8 hours. Thirty floats, probably 15 bands, maybe 8 sets of gas flambeaux carriers (traditionally African American men that originally carried paper-lit-lanterns in the early 17th century when there were no lights to illuminate the evening parades), a king, a queen and various princesses, all on custom designed floats, and probably 30 pounds of beads, all make the parade memorable.

What makes it exceptional is that thousands of people, young and old, large and small can be jammed into a fixed space, in an alcohol-fueled environment and get along so well. We feel like there is a possibility of a brother and sisterhood of men and women. We are happy, content and smiling. Maybe it's the Ice Picks, maybe the exhaustion, or maybe it's simply that we were welcomed and given a place to rest. For the moment, we love Louisiana. We have 'family here.'

Now, I wish Deb had spent her money to come to New Orleans to experience it with us.

Queen of Endymion

For the record, the make-shift port-a-potty is genius. It's inside a Ford Van with plastic hefty bags taped to the windows. It's clean and was made by Daniel's future in-laws' grandfather when the girls (future mother-in-law and her sister) were little. Someone has to stand guard outside the van while someone is doing their business. Even the place where we put our little tushies has a historical familial connection. I like that.

Float art

After the parade ends, we pick our way through screaming crowds of people to make it back to our Bed and Breakfast, which happens to be along the parade route. This means that we are backtracking along Carrollton, and catch-up to the parade that we had just finished seeing as it careens to the Convention Center. We walk with the floats all the way back to Canal Street. I feel like we are "in" the parade. Rich and I take hundreds of pictures of the absolute insanity. By that time the barricades have been torn down, people are pressed up against the floats in a frenzy of bead throwing and catching. We are trying to walk the very narrow space in between the floats and the clamoring crowds.

A very tall black woman raises up her baby to kiss a masked man in a purple, fuzzy hat. The baby kicks me in the head. She is aghast and very apologetic. I keep telling her it is okay; that it did not hurt. He's just a baby, with baby feet. But, she puts her large arms around me and gives me a big hug, then kisses the top of my little pin head. I grin. This will be forever the metaphor for me that is Mardi Gras.

The art of face painting

The next day before we leave, we have breakfast with a number of other Mardi Gras visitors, and Larry who owns the B&B. Most of the visitors have a strong connection to Louisiana, either having lived here or visited here for years. We learn that each of the floats are made up of people that pay to be on them (from $400 to $2000). These fees apparently take care of the money for the police escorts, the marching bands, and the floats. They also pay for all of their own beads, their costumes, and the food they eat at their respective Balls. Now I am even more thankful for the beads that these men, mostly, have thrown to me, because they have paid for them out of their own pockets. Larry calls it the least expensive, best entertainment in the world, and I think he is right.

The last mental picture I have is of Larry dressed in his big black afro, riding his vespa from party to party through Mardi Gras crowds on parade nights, with Cody, his Golden Retriever chasing after him.

We come back home to Baton Rouge to our real lives. We "lost" James last night (we couldn't locate him) which is why we came home early and did not go to an additional day of parades. My mother has two new physical symptoms that need a doctor's attention. Our house is a mess. And, just as we were pulling into the driveway, Grammy was trying to back out and ran into my car, which now needs body-work.

I pick-up our ailing cat "Gray" from the vets. I make dinner. I wash clothes, and hang up my jeans to dry (no dryer) so that I can fit in them for the next few weeks, or until I lose weight.

I'm feeling tired but remarkably rejuvenated.

We decide to do this all again next year. We will go 24 hours earlier so that we can help claim a great spot on the parade route, and "spell" out those family members that need it. We will help cook and mix drinks. We will buy a ladder or two for our grandchildren. We will go to 4 parades the next day with the grandparents-in-law. It will be a wonderful time. We can't wait!

My grandson is worn out!

Monday, February 16, 2009

5 Months Post-Tsunami In Search of a Village to Build a Preschool

This is a repost of an article we wrote for Sarvodaya after the Tsunami of 2005. We are considering a return to Sri Lanka next fall, which prompted me to dig out this piece. We miss Sarvodaya and our friends there and hope the civil war stabilizes so that we feel comfortable making the trip.

Someone asked me today why I write this stuff. I feel compelled.

Our Mission

We were making our first trip to Sri Lanka in 3 and 6 years, respectively, to see our friends at Sarvodaya and to find a tsunami impacted village that needed a preschool—the heart of the Sarvodaya village development process. The International Student Association at the Louisiana State University (where Rich is a professor and I am an adjunct) under the student leadership of Francisco Aguilar a former volunteer for Sarvodaya, with the support of Virginia Grenier at the LSU International Hospitality Foundation had raised over $5,800 through a series of concerts to build a preschool; these monies were generously matched by our friend Rick Brooks at SHARE in Madison, Wisconsin for an additional $3,500. Thus, we had enough money, we were told, for possibly two preschools, depending on whether we had to construct them outright or whether they simply needed repair and reconstruction.

Before we embarked on our trip, Sarvodaya Headquarters had determined that the Matara District was the tsunami-impacted area that needed our help. We learned that what would have been a relatively simple task before the tsunami—determining which village in which to build a preschool—was a multifaceted and complex task in post-tsunami Sri Lanka.

Traveling on Galle Road

We left for Matara under the care of Vinya’s driver, “Mutu” to see where the preschool was to be built, or if a village had not been identified, to choose the most appropriate village in which to build. Traveling on the coastal road (Galle Road) the devastation was still apparent, the majority of which appeared to be around the City of Galle itself. Houses and other structures were totally ripped from their foundations, with partial cement walls standing to mark the place where the structures had been. In other instances, nothing was left except rubble or garbage strewn on the ground.

‘Temporary housing’ in the form of tent cities were scattered amidst the broken cement, each of a different color and with various emblems depending on the donor. They looked hot. Sometimes mixed in with the tents were ‘semi-temporary housing’ units about half the size of a small U.S. bedroom, of rough, crooked lumber without window coverings, running water or plumbing. They looked like my children constructed them and didn’t look like they could house a family for any length of time. From time to time, Mutu would say “tsunami” and sweep his hand dramatically over the terrain to indicate where a particularly bad stretch of devastation had occurred.

Brightly colored boats were strewn in various broken states on the sand and land, with remnants of nets draping what was left of the boat or bunched in a pile on the sand. The boats looked strangely beautiful even though they were in pieces. The devastation was oddly uneven.We would drive past rubble the size of pebbles and shortly thereafter we would see a stretch housing along the beach that appeared untouched. Individuals were busy mending walls of structures along the road with whatever materials they could find. Toward the District of Matara, however, the tsunami devastation appeared to be less severe, and that there was a greater organized repair effort underway. Mr. Senerath told and retold stories of Buddha statues, shrines and stupas that were untouched by the tsunami, some right next to great piles of wreckage, and about dogs that alerted their owners and retreated inland before the tsunami struck.

We stopped abruptly beside a USAID tent city, where Subasena from Sarvodaya Headquarters was standing waiting for us. He informed us that our hotel, located high on a hill was spared (the Matara District Center does not have housing available and many hotels along the beach were destroyed) and that “H.M. Nelson,” the District Coordinator was waiting for us at the District Center.

The Matara District Center

We came to the Matara District Center and Nelson and Ninsanke (from the legal aid unit, who assists with the effort to reproduce lost documentation such as birth certificates, other identification and land deeds) awaited us with welcoming smiles. In the middle of the property were stakes laid out to mark the place where the new district center would be located (partially funded by Sarvodaya USA). On each side of the construction site were buildings that were being rehabilitated from tsunami damage. In the rear were debris and a tent filled with salvaged preschool supplies. Nelson took us into an office in the building behind the preschool (which had a newly painted mural of children on the side), where we sat down to a tropical fruit drink to look at pictures of the post-tsunami district center. The room where we sat was filled with water to the ceiling and all computers and supplies had been destroyed. In limited English, Nelson tried to explain to us how he’d been swept away by the wave but managed to survive by hanging onto the roof and door frame, how the preschool children were not inside the preschool that morning at 8:00 because it was a holiday, that 5 districts were affected, and that 27 of the impacted villages were within the Matara District. He then escorted us to the Pearl Cliff Hotel, where we were staying, in what has to be the highest piece of land in the area, and which undoubtedly is tsunami-proof.

Village Reconnaissance

The next morning we met with Nelson and our translator, Mr. Senerath, a retired government official, who led us through villages along the shoreline in the Matara District that had been severely damaged by the tsunami. We visited with the Shramadana Society Members in each village, who recounted the number of dead, wounded and the impacted structures and businesses in their village. Intermittently during our visits, Nelson relayed to us the dry rations, tents, medicines and books that Sarvodaya had distributed, and future plans to construct latrines and houses, and to provide counseling for women and children.

Kottagoda Village

The first person that we met was Samadhi Maheshica, the Society President of Kottagoda. She told us that out of 400 families in the village, 34 people had died (3 or 4 children, and the rest elderly) and 255 families had been affected. Sixty-two houses were fully and 192 houses were partially damaged. Most of the fisherfolk (the word they used to describe the fishing community) lost their boats and fishing supplies. The government granted the affected families 5,000 Rupees a month (or approximately $50) for two months, and a one-time allocation of 2,500 Rupees (or approximately $25) for kitchen utensils. Rations of 375 Rupees (or $3.75) a week per person were apparently still being distributed by a foreign agency, with about a third consisting of food stuffs (cheese, milk) and the remainder being distributed in currency.

Samadhi said that most of the people now had semi-permanent structures, yet, they were uncertain about when or whether they would get permanent houses because their destroyed homes were within the 100 meter zone from the coast that the government had declared could not be used for dwellings. Thus, they were in limbo, stuck in either temporary structures or living with relatives, waiting for other lands to be located by the government on which they could build, if they only had the money to do so….

We were told that many villagers escaped with only “what was on their backs.” They did not have medical supplies or physicians. People from several outside villages located in-land came to help with the clean-up in Shramadana or Sarvodaya work-camp efforts. The society president suddenly pointed out a young man that had appeared in front of us, who, he recounted, had lost a 2 month old child to “the wave.” He stood with his other child, of maybe two years, that they found stuck in the “V” of a tree root. Instinctively, I looked to see if the child appeared traumatized. Unfortunately he wouldn’t come near me, (all Sri Lankan children are traumatized by me—without exception they cry) so I couldn’t tell.

The town’s preschool had been damaged, and was outside the 100 meter zone. The preschool teacher, Gnaanawathie, said that she continued to teach even without a preschool although many of the children had left to go to schools in other areas. We wondered how they knew who would continue to be located in the village, what would be the structure of their Society (as a number of officers appeared to have lost their houses) and what children would come back to the preschool with the land situation as it stood.

Our translator said that the government had appointed a special officer for the disbursement of lands, and had changed the onerous land laws so that property transfers could be facilitated more quickly, but he added, “That takes time.” We encountered a “strike” against the government that closed Galle Road, which indicated to us that displaced people thought that time had run out.

Sudawella Village

In the village of Sudawella we were taken to meet the Secretary of the Shramadana Society, Vimla Abesuria. She recounted how Holcim Cement Company had donated cement, and in partnership with Sarvodaya, was constructing houses, which lowered the cost of building due to cement shortages (construction costs have gone up at least 2 times and of course there are stories of gouging). Society members and Nelson took us to a hilltop “neighborhood” where Sarvodaya was building houses for those who had the funds to purchase land there, which was a part of a larger project to build 42 houses in Matara (for which the Matara District has funding for 24). Notice that I said that the people who were building these donated buildings were people who had the money to buy property. Many villagers do not have such funds and are therefore left waiting for the government to act and allot land. So, the neediest suffer most.

The people that were “given” these houses were chosen by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Society in the village, based on criteria such as character, need, ability to purchase land and willingness to contribute to the construction process. Additional features such as red brick or more square footage had to be subsidized by the recipient. Apparently, there had been a lot of controversy and clucking about the people that were chosen. Therefore, the decision of the Society was carefully made, and was reviewed and approved by the District Coordinator. The houses that dotted the hillside—each at different stages of development—were designed by an architect for Sarvodaya. They were 500 square feet in size, were generally made out of cement blocks, had wood window trim and clay tile roofs, and seemed to fit organically within the area’s geography. Each home varied just enough in design, some with multiple roof lines or varied window frames. They appeared to be built so that there would be running water, several bedrooms, and a room with a place for a cooking fire.

We went back to the Society president’s house, which had been partially destroyed along with 20 other homes (30 totally destroyed). A cadre of family and friends gathered around us to tell us that most of the villagers (280 out of 390) lived within the 100 meter zone, and were therefore unsure about where to go or how to proceed. The Society president made it clear that she no longer wanted to live close to the water, a sentiment she said was shared by nearly all of the people in her village. You would never have known that these people lost so much, as we laughed and they recounted their stories. “What to do?” she asked (fortunately, a rhetorical question in Sri Lanka).

Five boats were partially damaged and had been repaired, and another 7 large boats were fully damaged. Rather than focus on the boat situation, people were dismayed about the fishing net situation! Most of their fishing nets had been washed away. They therefore couldn’t fish for income (instead they were living on the WHO ration of 375 Rupees a month) nor could they provide their families with food—fish was a main staple of their diet. Each boat employed 6 people, thus not only were they unable to provide for themselves, they were unable to provide for their 6 additional families. We quickly ascertained that there were 30 boats in that village, and that each boat needed at a minimum 10 nets a boat (roughly ½ the usual number), 5 or so small nets at 6,000 Rupees each, and 5 or so large nets for 7,000 Rupees each. Thus, outfitting each boat in that town with the minimum of nets would be 65,000 Rupees (or about $650), which times 30 boats equaled close to $20,000 US.

Gandara Village

In the village of Gandara we met Gunawaite, the Sarvodaya Village Bank Manager, who proudly showed us her wall chart of their bank’s progress since it opened in 1999. They currently had 1071 members, 11,000,000 Rupees in savings, offered loans of 1 Lak maximum (100,000 Rupees), offered 15% interest on savings, and charged 20% interest on loans. So far so good I thought, until we were told that during the month of December Gunawaite had given 3, 1 Lak business loans to people who lost their homes and fishing boats in the tsunami. Obviously, they can’t make payments. She said that these people come to the bank from time to time and say, “some day we will pay you back.” The benefit of a village bank is that people are given loans at least partially based on their character, so she knows that they are good people, but good people in an impossible situation. A grace period of three months was granted, but now, people had to pay the interest on their loans monthly. She said that she would still give them business loans so that they could rebuild their businesses, but I wondered how many people would be willing to take on a loan when they couldn’t pay back the somewhat large one they already had. We sweated profusely as we all laughed, while we tried to jump start their ceiling fan, ate dohdol (a sweet desert of coconut oil, treacle and wheat flower) and sweet, fat, short bananas, tasted their sambol of Maldives Fish (that I mispronounced “moldy fish”—which garnered more laughter) and drank hot tea with milk.

Kiralavella Village

In the village of Kiralavella we were met by the bank manager, Djap Nandaweithie and the Society President, Nanda Sudasinghe. The mood in the village was grim. As we stood just inside the village bank, one by one, villagers appeared and surrounded us. Several fishermen looked vacantly in our direction. None smiled. Their Society had been relatively developed: they had conducted Shramadana camps, nutrition programs, health clinics, Lamaze courses, children’s programs, and had a bank that had been in operation since 1990 with 629 members. The tsunami virtually wiped out their village. All but 3 families lived within the 100 meter zone. One hundred and ninety families (190) were affected by the tsunami, all of them fisher folk. Five houses had been fully and 42 houses had been partially damaged; twenty five people had lost all of their household goods. All told, 35 large and small boats had been destroyed. Engines were smashed—they had repaired 14, and dismantled another 5 for repair. Again, no one had nets and therefore there was no way for families to earn a living. Coir pits (a secondary income source from which mostly women make brooms and rope to sell) dug close to the shoreline were covered with rocks and soil and were therefore unusable. Divers lost their gems. Pit toilets destroyed by sea water, were dirty and unusable.

Kapparatota North and South, Divisions of Weligama District

The Society members in the villages of Kapparatota North and South recounted that a full 58 houses had been partially or fully destroyed, 15 within the 100 meter zone, out of 997 families directly or indirectly affected. Although the story in this village seemed so much better than in others, dissension amongst villagers was slowing the structural and emotional recovery process. Some people within the 100 meter zone wanted to stay and rebuild, and some wanted to leave. “What would the government do to those who wanted to stay?” someone asked. “How could the government take people from their land?” someone else retorted. “I don’t think they will do it,” another person commented. The preschool had been fully damaged but another organization was reconstructing it.

Talalla South—A Village Ready for a Preschool

We arrived at Talalla South and were greeted by the Society Secretary, S.D. Punyawaithe, the Treasurer, Adjanta Edinsinghe and the Bank Manager, M.D. Paduma. In the background we could hear Buddhist chanting. This was a very large village of 1,056 families, and a total population of 5,820. Seventy three families were affected by the tsunami, 284 had lost their jobs, 55 homes were fully and partially damaged, and 11 people died. Forty boats needed nets, 50 toilets needed constructing (families were sharing toilets), water was contaminated and wells needed to be built. The majority of men were fisherfolk, and women were coir workers. A considerable number had homes inside the 100 meter zone (350) and all agreed that they wanted to relocate inland, that they wanted to remain together as a village, and they had a plan to do so. Collectively, the displaced landowners had asked the government for apartments rather than houses: Less land would be required on which to place the construction, and well-built apartments were high off the ground and therefore out of reach of the water if such an event were to happen again, away from the beach anyway.

It was at that moment that we looked at each other and realized we had finally found a village “ready” for a preschool, if indeed they needed one.

They did not have a Sarvodaya preschool, although a Buddhist Monk had given them a piece of land that would house the 50 or so children that would attend. We immediately headed over to the monk’s compound, met him (Rathmalkekitiye Sirinanda) and saw where the preschool would be constructed (over where an existing well stood) and where the playground would be located (surrounding a Bodhi tree). It was the perfect match. We were poised to give money and support for building a preschool, and in Talalla South we had a village that we knew would stay together, that needed a preschool and that already had the foundation practically laid for one. We were exhausted, hot and sweaty and ready to rest.

Lessons Learned

We learned some important lessons on this trip: A “permanent
building” such as a preschool may have to be followed by or built along with meeting other needs. If we had not been sent by our donors to specifically build a preschool, there were other items that screamed to us to be addressed also, particularly in the villages that were the most severely impacted. Counseling programs for tsunami-impacted villages, families and children need to be, and in fact are being initiated by Sarvodaya, alongside bricks and mortar projects. Toilets, wells and coir pits that were contaminated by sea water and debris, need to be reconstructed, built or cleaned. Land, private or governmental, requires locating or purchasing. Houses need constructing. Boats demand to be repaired and nets to be purchased.

‘Integrated development’ is the gold standard, and we saw first-hand why the Sarvodaya model works so well to realize it. ‘Development’ is best engineered by the villages and villagers who have the most intimate knowledge of their situation. ‘Outsiders’, even well-meaning ones (like us), just don’t know enough.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Cilly Letter "C"

c is for crazy cat

c is for caged crania

c is for comb

I was assigned the letter “c” by Willow more than a week ago. As I was contemplating this letter, I realized that I don’t like it much because I don’t associate many good things with it. Most of the “c” words that I use are hard sounding like “cackle,” “click” and “cold”. Even the “ch” words, except for “Christmas” are harsh, such as “challenge,” “chaos,” “choke” and “Chlamydia”.

It turns out that I’m not the only one with a disaffection for this tough little letter. In fact, Jakob Neilson, a web pioneer ( declared the letter “unusable.” It turns out that 83% of the words that we look-up start with the letter “c,” mostly because of the “i before e rule.” And of course there’s that annoying little issue of it mimicking two other letters in our alphabet, namely “k” and “s”. I mean look at the word “mimicking” – what good is the “c” in that word anyway?

Why not get rid of “c” if there are other letters that can substitute for it and that make more sense? For example, “.com” would just become “.kom.” The letter “c” originated with the Etruscans, and actually stood for the sound of “g” before there was a “g,” and I don’t see them needing it anymore.

This elimination idea seemed simple enough until Neilson proposed using “x” for the “ch” sound, such as “xh,” which would require us eliminating the “z” sound for the “x” and..

Well, from there on his treatise lost me. I’ll leave the rest to the linguists and the language pioneers on the web and elsewhere. But I just want to say-- I’m open to change if it will make things simpler (and my spelling better, which is wrong, coincidentally, about 83% of the time).

Inspired by my OS writer friend, Gwen Cooper*, I wrote some Haikus for your enjoyment that are composed mostly of “c” words, plus a few other helpful letters:

come comfort and communion
my close connection

camping in the cold
all covered in cloaks of clothes
a crackling fire comforts me

cigarettes as clubs
clonking clueless children
closing their chances

conifers cycle
C02 and clean the air
clear compensation

one challenge conquered
click click click comes another

those cursed credit cards
cleverly choke your choices
closing in on you

consensus can be coerced
caution censorship

a clever cheater
charisma cloaks clarity
cleaves closely to compliments

chaos confusion
confrontational cretins
cognitive dissonance clangs

cackle: the urban echo
of grievances and complaints
challenge civility most

chickadee coulter
a conservative cynic
cackles in conjoint clamor

clearly charming colonel
a candidate for congress
character charade

a cantilever
catapults the chaise cockeyed
crazy conundrum

complex chimera
coyly collective creatures
creating chaos

cold clammy crazy
what was comfort before now
chaos for cocaine addicts

callous cad Charlie
Chlamydia came courting
clueless now childless Claire

consider your cat
collectively conniving
cat considers you

* Go HERE for some vivid haikus by Gwen Cooper

Friday, February 6, 2009

Lessons Learned by a Suburban Housewife on the Power of Unity: The Auroville and Sarvodaya Shramadana Experience

This is a re-post of something I wrote 9 years ago that never found a home. I dug it out after reading the NY Times yesterday about the partisan squabbling over the bailout bill. The behavior of our elected officials depresses me, particularly now in this time of crisis.

I think we need some unity at this juncture of our history in the United States. But, frankly, who is here to teach us? And more importantly, who would follow? I was hoping that Obama could work his magic on the lot of them, but it doesn't appear that that is going to be the case. At least not yet.....

The lotus flower: A Symbol of Wisdom

I confess. I am a suburban housewife.

Me drinking from a coconut on the road to enlightenment

This is an embarrassing admission to make to the group of people that I traveled with to Southern India and Sri Lanka. Many of them do poverty work and fight for social justice. Some of them live on intentional, sustainable communities. Many of them have given up money to work for a cause close to their hearts. They certainly do not live like I do, driving a mini-van and raising kids in a neighborhood of upper-middle-class homes, with green lawns, on cul-de-sacs, near and next to people much like us, down the main road from a large University which is my husband’s employer.

I live in a neighborhood like many others in this country. But is it a community? Considering the lack of time I spend in connection with my neighbors, I think not. And if it isn’t a community, what does it take to create one? Do community members have to spend a certain minimum amount of time together? Do communities have to be made up of people who are all alike? Do they need to be composed of people who are motivated to cooperate, grow and change? Do the inhabitants have to possess a certain minimum amount of resources? Or are resources an impediment to social cohesion and solidarity? And where does the idea of sustainability fit in? Is there a prescription that can be followed as to how “community” can be created? And if so, can I apply it to my white-bread neighborhood, where many of us do not even know each other’s names?

These are some of the questions I sought to answer as I participated in a Kellogg Foundation grant to study “community, spirituality, and sustainability” at the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a development organization in Sri Lanka, and in Auroville, an intentional, international community in India.

Upon close inspection, Sarvodaya and Auroville appear radically different. Sarvodaya is an organization and a movement; Auroville is a group of settlements. Sarvodaya develops community with participants that have little choice as to where they live; Auroville creates communities with people who can choose to move to a land far away. Auroville has created a community where many of its inhabitants have accumulated a measure of wealth; Sarvodaya advocates a society without affluence. Sarvodaya is based in tradition; Auroville prides itself on creating a new culture. Sarvodaya is based in a traditional religion; Auroville flourishes in the midst of a new brand of religious (SPIRITUAL?) anarchy.

But for all their differences, both Sarvodaya and Auroville start from the same transcendent vision. Either through Gandhian philosophy and Buddhism or through the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, they seek to realize the dream of human unity for all. Think about this for a minute. Both groups either attract or actually develop people who come to understand that we are all “one.” This has deep and permanent consequences. Simply put, people change from being "I" centered to "other" centered. This revolutionary germ of a concept spreads miraculously among those who are introduced to it, transforming them into advocates for harmony within the human, animal and natural environment in which we all live. Through this one simple but powerful idea, I have seen equality; empowerment and awakening take root. The result is an attempt to create a world that is heaven on earth, based in community, spirituality and sustainability.

Did I learn this in church as I was growing up through the teachings of Jesus? I surely could have, but I didn’t.

It took this trip for me to actually see the power of what I can only call “oneness.” When this concept takes root, you can no longer ignore an ailing neighbor, nor can you walk by a person on the street who doesn’t have food or shelter. And you can no longer harm the environment for temporary gains that will destroy the land’s ability to support your children and grandchildren. You become a servant for the human community. Some folks might even become saints or revolutionaries.

Now, does this mean that Auroville or the Sarvodayan villages are perfect manifestations of this ideal of oneness? I can unequivocally say “no” to that. In fact, in many ways, the problems of all of these communities mirror those of the society that we come from. The difference is, they are trying to strive for human unity. I don't see much of that where I come from, and I find that good and inspiring for my soul to see.

If I truly want to live a life in pursuit of community, sustainability and spirituality, what does this mean for my life in suburbia? Is it hopeless for me to look for like-minded people in my neighborhood? Do I have to move to Sri Lanka or to Auroville to find people striving for the good of someone other themselves? Does that mean that a Dr. Ariyaratne, a Mahatma Gandhi or a Sri Aurobindo need settle in my neighborhood so that it can be transformed as I’ve seen communities transformed in India and Sri Lanka?

After a lot of thinking about these questions, I can unequivocally say, “no.” What I think is essential is the simple power of the concept of unity. The concept is so powerful, so transcendent, and has transformed these spiritual teachers so completely that they don’t need to be physically present to teach us the good news. I think that any of us can light the spark that starts the revolution toward a community of unity or oneness in our neighborhoods. Even a suburban housewife. The spark will spread.

We only need begin.

I posted this on my blog at Open Salon, a place that has been very nurturing to me of late in my writing efforts. Thanks to one member (Critical Mess) and the People that Read Open Salon articles for making this one of the People's Picks (No Pans) 2/7/09. Even at OS, which I think of as a very legitimate platform for thinking writers, it is an effort to get noticed if you aren't writing about the popular culture or about something that can be sensationalized. I think that the focus on disharmony and/or controversy is one of the things that keeps energy from flowing to the right and righteous, and maybe has something to do with the mess in which we find ourselves.
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