Jun 23, 2012

Co-operatives - Cradle-to-Grave Sustainable Development

My international world has always been divided into two streams: aid and development. Aid looks like emergency shelters and bags of rice and bottled water, the stuff of helping people immediately after a disaster. Development is what follows, the longer-term hand-back-up to livelihood and stability. I first fell in love with Oxfam because of their ability to do both – to be there before the disaster, mobilize those networks immediately after, then stick around for the long haul.

Now suddenly I’m facing a delightful third way, that of multi-sector co-operatives. Here in Sri Lanka I’m working with SANASA, the biggest co-operative organization in the country. They are engaged in micro-credit and savings, insurance, housing, training… they even have a travel agency for short get-aways, and a funeral co-op for that final destination. If they have a birthing co-op, which wouldn’t surprise me, they’re literally a cradle-to-grave organization.

The goal of international development, I’d always understood, is to work yourself out of a job. To extend that hand-up of solidarity only until the partner is back on their feet again and able to do it for themselves. Every good development project should have a built-in exit strategy that represents success.

With SANASA, I’m with a member-owned, member-operated co-op that has no intention of going away. Their goal is to provide a lifetime of services for/with their members. I’m now faced with the challenge of building in strategies to increase involvement, not end it.

For example, the program I’m with is helping post-tsunami victims start up new businesses. In traditional development, our goal would be to provide training, credit and support until the family has a stable and sufficient income to carry on by themselves. With the co-op, the goal is to continue to support the new entrepreneur to grow their business, start employing other members, and have a bigger impact on the local and national economy. That member will also hopefully be a repeat user of the co-op’s loan program, take out co-op insurance, grow their savings in the co-op’s credit union, build a house with the co-op’s construction company, and eventually be embalmed on the co-op’s cold hard slab table with a drainage hole leading down to a trench in the cement floor leading to a hole going somewhere I don’t want to know (but that’s a different story). All of this increased business strengthens not only the individual, but also the co-op. Everyone wins.

SANASA may have received some valuable Canadian funding and technical assistance (including me, hopefully valuable), but it is 100% owned and operated by its members –the very people benefitting from all the projects and work. That, my friends, is sustainable development.

Jun 21, 2012

Apologies to Cricket

Inspired by Jason (George from Seignfeld) Alexander’s eloquent and deep apology to the world about his gay cricket jokes, I would also like to offer my heartfelt apologies to the world of Cricket. It not only is a real sport, it’s a rather manly one, and surprisingly interesting.

Like the Salvation Army in Major Barbara or trying bbq turkey tails in Ghana, it started out as a lark. I’m here in this former British colony where one of the best legacies has been one of the best cricket teams in the world. So one night at the hotel I sit with Somasiri and let him enthusiastically explain the game, pretending to care more than in a cultural-museum kind of way. But by the end of 4 wickets I’m not only getting it, but am genuinely cheering for the boys in blue (and yellow, looking much more Swedish than British).

Just like the mighty last-second alley-oop in an NCAA championship that taught me to appreciate basketball, it took just one amazing fielding play to win me over. The 130km ball was smashed even faster from the canoe-paddle of the Pakistani batsman, far out into left field. Our outfielder read it perfectly, sprinted halfway across the world and dove full out to catch it inches from the ground. The nation rose as one and roared in unison.

Can I add that he caught it bare-handed? How padded are baseball gloves? How much padding does our macho North American hockey or football player hide behind?

Throughout the month we’ve caught more of this two-month visit by Pakistan, watching multiple-matches by carefully choosing restaurants and roadside snack bars with the game on TV. I’ve seen way more diving, close plays, quick reactions and drama than in any baseball game. And action happens at every pitch (“bowl”). The bowler is changed out every 6 or 12 bowls, so there’s plenty of variety. And the bewildering (at first) talk about the number of wickets and overs and strike rates would make any TV announcer deliriously happy (isn’t that the main reason soccer isn’t popular on American TV – the lack of stats?)

The culmination was going to the big stadium for one of the international matches. We bought the cheap zone tickets from a scalper, putting us in festival seating on cement benches packed with men (mostly) singing, dancing, raising flags, fighting, cheering – nothing unusual there except the dancing. After the first two hours we were treated to 70 minutes of watching the tarps quickly pulled out to protect the turf from the rains, then pulled off again while a cricket zamboni (a steam roller with giant sponges) did its rounds. I was ready to leave, but over the next 2 hours watched as the rhythm changed, two batters got into a groove, different tactics employed by each team at various phases of the match. By watching all of Sri Lanka’s 3,000 pitches (60 overs) I came to a much deeper understanding of the nature of the sport. Then back on the hotel I watched much of Pakistan’s turn and their historic collapse. True drama.

Of the many lessons and wonders I’ve experienced in Sri Lanka, perhaps the most surprising is an appreciation of cricket as a real sport – and a really interesting one at that.

Jun 15, 2012

Sri Lanka's Slow and Rich Roads

Why did a 115 km trip from Kandy to Colombo take 8 hours?

First stop was the Temple of the Tooth Relic - a sacred place where Buddha's tooth is kept safe. The tooth miraculously survived the burning of his body, escaped destruction by one King's hammer by turning into light and becoming a star for a while, and was smuggled into Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a young woman. In not-too-long-ago times it was a symbol of power - whoever held the tooth was ruler of the country. The tooth has been moved to various new temples built in its honour and to protect it from invaders who recognize its power.

For lunch we randomly chose one of the hundreds of buffets lining the entire route. In addition to the usual rice (red and white), curry dahl, chicken curry, "ladyfinger" veggies and papadum, this place also sported pumpkin, chinese fried rice, and chinese veggies. All you can eat with your fingers for $2.

Next stop was a co-op store that our country director Somasiri helped start during his last job with Oxfam. Various small-scale producers have come together to open this roadside store to collectively market their goods - one of many ideas we are considering with my current project. I was able to support them and hopefully please my wife by purchasing $8 worth of: caraway seed, black pepper, cumin seed, mustard seed, heritage red rice, dried jackfruit, palm syrup (for the boys' pancakes.)

By now we'd run out of money, due to having to pay cash for our fancy hotel last night. Instead of the $156/night, we were given the local $50 rate as long as Somasiri officially paid as our "travel agent." Which meant cash. So we stopped in a bigger town for the first of several unsuccessful attempts to use my international debit card. Somasiri also couldn't access his account, so our super-driver Nishantha managed to withdraw enough to bankroll us the final 80 km, which included:

The Cashew Capital of Sri Lanka - a place where about 50 small stands and shops line both sides of the road selling roasted cashews - plain, salted and spicy. Ironicaly, this isn't even a cashew-growing region - they're brought in from the north - but since Somasiri was a boy they've even learned in school that this is the place to buy cashews. Yes Sarah, at $15/kg, there are some coming home.

Another 10 km brought us to the pineapple-growing and selling region, with prices ranging from 10 cents for a fist-sized pineapple to $1.20 for a feed-the-family variety. Across the street we bought three humungous avocado for 75 cents. I'll take these stands over a McDonald's drive-through for any road trip.

I finally found single razor blades at a little shop, but caused confusion by trying to buy a whole package. They only sell them individually - most people buy just enough razors, soap, salt, etc to get them through the next shave or meal or wash. Buying in bulk is either a luxury they can't afford or just a consumption pattern they haven't adopted. So we had to open the little box and count them out (5, if you're curious), then multiply the unit price. Nearby, Nishantha also found a place for me to buy a "Rice-Hopper" press so I can make my own little rice-pasta pucks like I've been enjoying each breakfast time.

The final - or perhaps first - reason for the long trip is the road. Not the condition - Sri Lankan roads are incredibly well-maintained, smooth, painted. But this second-busiest highway in the country is still 2-lane with a 2-foot shoulder on each side. Shared by (in reverse pecking order) sleeping dogs, pedestrians, 3-wheeled rickshaws, local busses, trucks, express busses, cars, and fancy SUV's like ours. A good average speed for a skilled SUV driver is 40 km/hour. There's never an open road to hit the 70/km speed limit; instead, an endless parade of slower vehicles to successively pass. Passing is accomplished when the traffic coming the other way is single-or double-file only, and not any big fat busses. Then we pull out into right over the centre-line, the vehicle we're passing pulls over a bit, the oncoming traffic all squeezes over, and we go straight down the middle, usually cutting back in just before an oncoming vehicle also pulls in from his own passing. Just like I observed in Chennai, everybody does their part, acknowledges their place in the pecking order and exactly what they have to do to allow this system of continual near-accidents to flow smoothly.

Not to be outdone by the rural highway's adventures and attractions, Colombo showed its true big-city colours by throwing Rush Hour in our path. The first afternoon rush hour starts at 1:00, when every child in the city (it seems) is picked up by his/her parent who wait in their cars 3-abreast, blocking as much of the streets as possible. Just as this eases up, the usual end-of-work rush hour kicks in. So our pain-staking 40 km/hour now seems like a luxury as we sit and crawl our way to a few more unyielding bank machines then finally back to the welcome arms of our beautiful guest house.

So, that's the report on traffic, shopping, history, religion and much more that one can learn about Sri Lanka on a simple 115 km drive from the Buddhist capital in the hills to the modern capital metropolis by the sea.

Jun 7, 2012

Working Weekend

A weekend in the coastal town of Galle, Sri Lanka, is a tourist paradise. Throughout the backpackers circuit in Africa and Europe, this place is legendary for beautiful topless Swedes enjoying low-priced alcohol and beautiful beaches. Endless variety of guest houses and restaurants catering to the evidently huge international crowd who come to enjoy this gem of coastline and culture. How to enjoy a weekend with no official work duties?

Work, of course. First of all, it's Bloody Hot season, meaning that Swedes are few and far between. If I really need to see topless Swedes I've got internet; work offers the chance to see more of the real Sri Lanka that could never be captured online. Last weekend, "real" took several forms.

First, a 40-minute drive down the coast with our amazing (and SAFE) driver Nishanka, national director Somasiri and local trainer Radeeka pointing out sites and history - free guided tour in an air-conditioned SUV. Every bit as stunning and varied as the California coast. Buildings new and restored after the tsunami, other ominous vacant lots and ruins a reminder of the devastation.

Stopped for breakfast at a beachside set of grass-thatched huts, but they were out of food. Next door was a very fancy hotel-type place completely empty except for a Sri Lankan breakfast buffet that looked suspiciously like the dinner buffet - white rice, red rice, dahl, curried chicken, potatoes in a white curry sauce. Luckily I'm loving the food here and, with one exception where I could only finish 1/4 of a plate, not finding it too spicy. I sometimes break a sweat or turn red and get tingly lips like everyone else, but that's just part of the dining experience.

Arrived at the home of Nelka, a 36-year-old mother of 5 (youngest daughter pictured here) who started a sewing business through the program I'm here to evaluate. We had the honour of sitting for 3 hours with this woman and her whole family learning intimate details about their finances, local business environment, the fishing industry (her husband drives a fishing boat and is gone for a month at a time - luckily was home today), upcoming wedding of her daughter, power balance between husband and wife, how much of her jewelry is currently in hawk at the pawn shop, and many more details of her life that usually take years of relationship-building to learn of our Canadian friends, if ever. Think about it - even though I'm pretty darn open about most things verbally and through my blog, how many of you know how much I earn, what my debt load is, how Sarah and I resolve conflict, or how my father died?

On the way back we detoured to a lighthouse that turned out to be the tallest in the country. The lighthouse keeper came out of his residence and talked for 20 minutes about his history as a lighthouse keeper (since 1981), what his retirement would be like, his previous postings (including one lighthouse at sea where he'd be there for 45 days at a time), how often he sees his family a few hours up the coast. Yet another deep glimpse into the real life of a real person, courtesy of the Canadian journalist travelling with us.

David is one of those special souls who is so genuinely interested in and respectful of people's stories that they naturally want to share. He gets away with deeply personal questions that most of us shy away from asking, not wanting to intrude. But with this journalist, everyone has a story worth sharing, and every detail is worth knowing. "How many lightbulbs, and what wattage?" "How many stairs to the top (243) and how often do you go up?" What a true gift, and sadly a rare one. I have many friends with truly open souls who make you feel safe to share - I'm married to one - but this unabashed forwardness that turns every random encounter into a connection is rare. He takes 10 minutes longer to leave any place than the rest of us - leaving the lighthouse he ended up befriending two of the very muscular workers renovating the outside of the lighthouse, then a woman selling boiled chickpeas, then...

Next stop - Sweat Shops. A tax-free Free Trade Zone - a high-security fenced compound that houses many different buildings where all our cheap clothing and products are made. Somasiri managed to talk them into letting us drive through, with one of their trucks "escorting" us. They even let me stop and take a few photos, then their guard got into our car so he could give us an animated guided tour, explaining what was made in each building, from airplane parts to undergarments. He showed us the bus stop where dozens of busses waited for the shift to end, the daycare for working parents, the cafeteria, the beautiful tropical tree-lined streets, the music blasting out of the garment factory. Every building had numerous fans and ventilation systems, looked very clean, no more crowded than a cubicle-filled Canadian office, lots of emergency doors. From the outside, it verified what my Sri Lankan friends and the guide had told me, that working conditions have improved greatly.

We stopped at a makeshift shelter outside one factory, where workers were handing out free juice and cookies for Poson Poya. This gave us a chance to talk to some factory workers, who all looked genuinely happy, obviously healthy (and no, I don't believe they were hand-picked to be good PR faces, especially since tours are not part of what happens here) and adults. They laughed when I told them that I'd understood sweat shops to be dangerous, miserable, human-rights-abusing pits of despair (not sure how that got translated). They're still not paid a living wage (7am-5pm plus a mandatory Saturday "overtime day" for 18,000 Rupees - $150 - a month) and I still think it's immoral for these international companies to not pay taxes to help support the country they're in, but overall it seems to be much better than the Mexican maquilladores where activists are (or atleast were) beaten and child labourers are virtual slaves making our Levis jeans.

Quick drive through the backpackers/surfers paradise of Unawatuna Beach, then on to the historic Dutch Galle-Fort, an entire fortified city declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site. We walked the cobblestone streets lined tight with old houses, churches, shops and offices, and strolled the ramparts of walls built to repel British and Portugese colonialists from the sea and Sri Lankans from the land. What a microcosmic world they chose to live in, surrounded by fear and hate on all sides, just for the privilege of pillaging this rich beautiful land and people.

Back to the sprawling elegant and hauntingly empty (we are the only guests, outnumbered by the staff) beachfront hotel for a quick swim, then out to the opening night of a new Indian restaurant. Just-cool-enough breeze off the water, powerful music blasted by the DJ in the hut outside, kids enjoying the indoor playground of this family-friendly restaurant, and the best dahl and mango lassi of the trip. Nishanka drove us back to the hotel tired, well-fed, and one full day fuller of beautiful, real Sri Lanka.

Jun 5, 2012

Poson Poya

You gotta love a country where every full moon is a national holiday. On this "Poya Day", no meat or alcohol can be sold, everyone (every Buddhist, that is, which is about 70% of the population) goes to the temples to worship, the streets are empty and all shops are closed (except the gem store by my hotel which stayed open for the tourists.)

Better yet, June is "Poson Poya", a special day commemorating the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka a couple thousand years ago. All over the country, people set up temporary lean-to's ("Dansala" - literally "a place to give alms") and give away free food and drink to anyone passing by. As we drove under the bright moon toward the temple, we slowed down at every dansala and people reached into to give us pineapple juice, cookies, ice cream cones, tea and iced coffee. We could have stood in longer lines to get a full rice and curry dinner. There was a genuine Joy of giving at each dansala, people just excited by the chance for unadulterated Sharing and connecting. We often had 2 cones thrust upon us, and big cheers from all around as we accepted them. Like Halloween back when we all trusted each other and just played silly together, except this is for adults and with a spiritual strength behind it.

We felt free and welcomed at the huge temple our friend brought us to. Like all temples it had three main areas of worship: the round white pagoda (in some of which are ashes or remains of the Buddha or others), the Bodhi tree (under which Buddha was enlightened), and the inside temple. Incense and oil lamps burned everywhere, flowers were laid on any altar or statue people could reach, and people meditated, prayed, bowed, wandered, talked, sat, whatever moved them to worship or experience in a way meaningful to them. There is much more worshipful devotion to symbols and the Buddha than I'm used to as a Quaker, but I also witnessed and had explained to me that each person finds their own way to experience and express their faith - bowing to the statue and lighting incense are just some of the more visible (and beautiful to watch) ways. Buddhism is a philosophy, my friend explained, not a religion (a point much debated when you google that question).

To complete the sacred carnival melange, we crossed the street to join a long line-up in a field, paying 40 cents to enter a large round barn structure not knowing what mystery it held. Turns out it was a huge carousel-like moving diarama of merchants moving around a circle with their oxcarts, while a man told the historical tale over the microphone. It was tacky and huge and beautiful and mesmorizing, made me feel like Almanzo or Obidiah at the old-fashioned country fair. The picture below doesn't even begin to capture how absurdly perfect an ending it was to a perfect holy day. Happy Poya, friends.

Jun 3, 2012

Business Class

Spoiled white boy, i'm becomin'. After a week of real backpacking in India - local trains, street food, $10 rooms - it's businessman Sri Lanka all the way. $100 AC rooms with a pool and very stiff white sheets and very polite staff holding doors open. Per diem higher than the highest restaurant. Dress shoes and black socks. "The driver will pick you up at 8."

I almost couldn't sleep my first night in the Global Towers hotel. I told myself it was just so Not Me. I can carry my own bag, thank you, and probably even figure out how to open the curtains. I don't need a 14-dollar 28-dish Indian buffet in a huge plush dining room. This place is for rich travelling businessmen and spoiled tourists and Sri Lankans sneaking out on their families for a forbidden weekend. Not me. I want the "Real Sri Lanka."

But then I look in the mirror and see a middle-aged businessman. Worse - a Consultant. He's sporting a greying beard and slightly wrinkled dress slacks, and he's lamenting repeatedly about the wi-fi not working in his room overlooking the Indian Ocean. It'll take him some laps around the pool and maybe a 90-minute Ayurvedic massage to shake off that indignation, by which time that buffet sounds alot better than wandering the streets for an hour looking for authentic street food. And he's just tired enough from a day that started at 5am on an Indian train that a queen-sized bed in an air-conditioned room might be justified after all.

So I relax and enjoy this privileged and lovely luxury. But after wiping the corners of my mouth with white linen, I still hit the streets in my Keen sandals. 4 hours of finding myself in this new place, snacking, browzing, learning how to cross traffic and how much eye contact to make in the streets. Dipping into a cool cinema for a bad movie (Avengers) with a hot dog and Fanta is a welcome break, but the day is still me and Sri Lanka full on. The cinema's full of Sri Lankans, the hotel is primarily Sri Lankans, just because they're wearing polished shoes doesn't make them inauthentic. And just because I'm wearing shoes doesn't mean my feet aren't on the street.

Hippy backpacker Rick would say I'm rationalizing and selling out. 45-year-old development consultant Rick is cutting himself some slack, enjoying the best of, well, not of both worlds, just of this slice of this world. This fabulous, exotic, welcoming Sri Lanka that offers comfort and adventure, hot clammy afternoons and cool evening dips, unnameable street lunch and unbeatable dinner buffets. It's all part of the experience, all part of this nation, and it's all part of me.

Going back to that list of typical tourist things I've done, I was going to open today's post by listing a few more that I did expect to be called on:

5. Talking about India like it's one place. I used to alternately be annoyed or laugh when people talk about "Africa", like Mandela's the president of the whole continent and they all speak one language. The I arrive in a huge and hugely populated subcontinent with hundreds of languages, cultures, climates, etc, and I'm so ignorant that I just assumed it was Hindi I was hearing spoken around me - turns out it was mostly Tamil. So even if anything I've observed is anywhere close to a truth, it's likely limited to the 300km slice of the South Tamil-Nadu province I chanced to visit, or just to Chennai, or just to the street I happened to stroll down after breakfast.

6. Confusing rural and urban. A reader wisely pointed out that, when lauding the relaxed reaction I experienced from Indians, I was comparing urban India with rural Zaire. "The urban experience (though with differences as you've observed) is a common one now, around the world, and those of us who live (or have lived) in cities can connect fairly easily - as I guess people with similar lifestyles have always been able to do."

7. Making sweeping generalizations. I'm glad y'all understand that I'm sharing first impressions, trying to make some sense of the foreignness of this all, not pretending to have anything more than a superficial snapshot of the true depth of a nation. I spent 7 years in Africa, and each year thought "Now I get it!" Then the next year would pass and I'd look back and think, "What was I thinking?!" I really shouldn't say anything after one week, but if we waited until we knew everything we'd never say anything - the best we can share is what we have at any moment, and a willingness to embrace a different understanding later (reason number 824 that I'd make an unsuccessful politician).