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A Scot in Sri Lanka

Jamie Snedden is on a one year teaching placement in Sri Lanka arranged with Project Trust.  He arrived in September 2012 and this blog describes how he's faring at the halfway stage.

February began with my first visit from family. Having failed twice to reach Sri Lanka- once due to the devastating 2004 tsunami, and once due to their dog feeling sick - at the start of February, my Aunt and Uncle finally made it to our little island.

Jamie is visited by his aunt and uncle half way through his year in Sri Lanka with Project TrustThey travelled and explored, and, obviously, were both force-fed Agnes' compulsory dubious yellow pancakes. The highlight of their week with us was undoubtedly the morning where - at the principles request - they presented each one of the 270 pupils at the school with a new book and pen. In Sri Lanka, £50 really does go a long way. Unless, that is, you're buying imported Nutella, in which case it barely gets you started.

For an island that is of sizes with Ireland, Sri Lanka boasts extraordinary diversity and offers far more to see than would be expected from what really is a very small country. A three week family holiday here, for example, would be great, with enough to keep even the dullest of 12 year olds occupied.

However, we have now been here for over half a year. Now, unless you're one of those parents who enjoy ripping your child out of their primary school for seemingly never ending 10 day term-time package holidays to some crappy beach in Majorca, and so consequently spend your entire life on holiday, then you'll understand that this really is quite a long time to be in a foreign land. With this in mind, despite the hefty quantity of places to see, Tom and I have now reached a tipping point where almost all the obvious places have been visited; all the well trodden paths have been, by and large, trodden. It is as a result of this that we now increasingly find ourselves visiting places that have absolutely no outstanding or notable feature in any way, many with a path so non-trodden that even Bear Grylls would struggle.

A shining example of this new found recreation came at the beginning of the month, when we were in Colombo, with the purpose of our trip being to book train tickets for that weekend. However, sadly, this is Asia, so therefore this was impossible. Caught off guard, we were now stuck in the city surrounded by lots of already seen sights and already walked trails, and so we were determined to venture somewhere new. Guidebook thus rendered useless, we headed in the only direction that was as yet uncharted: due North. Dun dun dun..

‘Due North' - as it turned out - led us to be washed up in a town named Chillaw. Surprisingly, this cataclysmically boring settlement actually offered us two memorable moments. One was our exchange with quite possibly the oddest, most bonkers man I've ever met, and the other came in Even 'non-places' cna provide memorable imagesthe form of a swamp, which had nice birds. Lunatic avoided and winged creatures spotted, we had a nice day, took a picture, and went home.

Such towns we have now dubbed ‘non-places.' Now, as much as we do laugh at these ridiculously bland conurbations, it's actually places like these that have led to some of the most fun and most surprising trips we've done. Occasionally, muddled in with the flora, fauna and crazies, we've found a real gem, and one which - due to its failure to earn even a measly paragraph in the Lonely Planet - is almost usually deserted.

Another such non-place outing landed us in the extraordinarily un-bustling metropolis that makes up the small fishing town of Puttalam. Bustling as it was, it had literally nothing in it of which was any interest to anyone. However, it did have a nice bench. So we sat on it, took a photo, and once again, went home. Alas, it would seem that Puttalam was not one of our gems.

Due to illness still running riot amongst the troops, it wasn't until the middle of the magnificent month of February before we all finally went on Sydney's surprise birthday trip. Admittedly, this was a fairly poor effort considering that her birth date is in early January. However, late as we were, we were all treated to a day on a boat, trying to catch sight of whales.

Things started badly.

It took about 10 minutes of standing outside on the boat, staring into the sun, before I realised just how burnt I was going to get as the day went on, and just how idiotically Scottish it was of me to forget the sun cream. Stupid, pasty highlander. However, it only took Haley about 10 seconds of being on the boat before she realised that she was destined to spend the entire morning doubled over with sea sickness. Once again, I was to blame for forgetting the pills.

As soon as I had been forgiven, with my burning nicely underway, and Haley safely deposited inside amongst the vomiting toddlers, the first of the whales made its appearance.

A pod of 600 dolphins is truly spectacularNow, I formed my opinion early on in that day that whale watching is fundamentally flawed. Let me explain. Whales come to the surface roughly once every 30 minutes to breathe, before disappearing back down to the murky depths. This split second of breathing time is, of course, the only time when the whale is visible. So when the man with the binoculars spots a whale, reaches for the loudspeaker and yells, ‘Whale on the left,' and all the tourists run from the right to the left, frantically pushing to the front, the whale has by that time taken its breath and vanished, leaving the Japanese and their cameras staring expectantly at the spot where the whale was, waiting for it to resurface, which of course it's not going to do because it only breaths once a year, which is irrelevant anyway because already it's miles away from the boat, chuckling aquatically to itself at the idiotic species it's busy running rings around.

Opinion formed, I decided that instead of legging it back and forth from one side of the boat to the other, catching sight of nothing more than the spot where the whale used to be, I would sit on one edge of the boat and chance my luck, reckoning that I had just as much chance of seeing a whale as anyone else. It worked, to a fashion, and we saw 4 whales, one of which was seemingly of the Blue variety. Big one, that.

The single outstanding highlight of the day came later, when

the sea around the boat went from being visibly empty, to suddenly be teaming with dozens upon dozens of dolphins, all of which were jumping and twirling, and completely surrounding our boat. I have never seen anything like it. We were later told that that particular school consisted of no less than 600 dolphins. What's more, it was the single largest school the navy crew on board had ever seen. Amazing, it really was.

February was the month where our Sri Lankan four expanded to five, and then again further, to The Project Trust group of volunteers in Sri Lanka expands from four to sevenseven. First off the plane was Josie, who is the only eight month Project Trust volunteer to have made it out here. Visa problems after visa problems led to her three partners jumping ship and going to Malaysia, leaving her to tackle Lanka solo. To add insult to injury, Josie has also been based hours away from us, in a town so completely devoid of any purpose that it really defines all that a non-place can be. It's like Dunfermline, but hot. We met up with her and Desk Officer Jonny in Colombo to take her mind of things, and had a fantastic German meal full of stories and strudel.

Barely a day later and our little outfit had expanded again, this time to include Ben and Freddy, two Senahasa volunteers here to teach sports at our schools in the south. They are already invaluable in making up for mine and Tom's general lack of interest and complete lack of ability in almost every sport.

February was also the month where a train on which we were travelling beheaded a man on the track, but we won't talk about that.

Meanwhile, at work -

Three of the children who keep Jamie occupied on his placement in Sri Lanka with Project TrustAs the children in the schools continue to grow in their familiarity with us strange humans, their confidence too grows simultaneously. There are wee boys who, as soon as we've been sighted in the morning, charge at us and latch on to a leg or an arm, or any available and unprotected part of your person. Once fastened on, they make every effort to remain clinging for the entirety of the day, leaving us resembling walking Christmas trees covered in wriggling, child shaped baubles.

There's also one infinitesimally small girl who, after spotting me on my phone a couple of weeks ago, now daily barely lets me in the gate before planting herself in front of me, and - standing as tall as she possibly can - bellows, ‘PHONE PLEASE MISTER JIMMY.' Honestly, she bares a real similarity to some kind of industrial, school uniformed fire alarm; such a small thing shouldn't be that piercing. Of course I obligingly, hastily, hand over my Nokia, and so she finds the nearest chair and promptly settles down to another demanding day of Snake.

 

The sun sets on the first half of Jamie's time in Sri LankaFebruary was a short month of strange places, familiar faces, and laughing at fat German people. But more significantly, February saw us cross the halfway point of our year.

I now consider myself to be as fully settled here as I will ever be, with life flowing in a familiar, rhythmical way. I don't pretend to be the best English teacher in the world, but thankfully I also posses no desire to try to be. I assuredly believe that if, in school, I achieve no more than to make the children slightly less scared of white people, whilst making them laugh a bit along the way, then that is enough. It is with this mentality, coupled with an ever growing feeling of ease within my surroundings that I go forth into the second half of my year, comfortable, expectant, and burning every step of the way.

Jamie Snedden's placement in Sri Lanka was arranged with Project Trust

 

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