It was the Sinhala and Tamil New Year last week. This is the biggest festival of the year in Sri Lanka, in a similar way Christmas is in the UK. And similar to Christmas, there is a lot of shopping for presents, eating and borrowing money to fund it all. One of the other volunteers landlady works in a bank and said she approved over 250 loans in one day. This years New Year, which was on Tuesday 14th April was a particularly big affair as it coincided with Good Friday and a Poya Day on the 9th, so most people were on holiday from the 9th to the 15th and the schools and public services were off until Monday this week, including the refuse collection - pong! Poya Days incidentally are religious days celebrating the full moon and are a public holiday so people can worship. And some do and some don't.
Work had organised a New Year Festival on the Poya Day and the families of the clients and staff all came along to play traditional games. These were very reminiscent of school sports days, sack races, three-legged races, a variation of egg and spoon and a variation of pin the tail on the donkey, which was mark the eye of the elephant! I have discovered Sri Lankans seem to love slapstick humour, so anyone making a fool of themselves causes huge hilarity. Of course, being the only westerner there was really no escaping the obligatory public humiliation. I am proud to say I stepped up to the plate.
One of the most amazing games to watch was a competition to weave a coconut leaf. I was impressed by how many people, including clients were accomplished in this, but it was the mothers and grandmothers who triumphed. The staff also cajoled a reluctant client to have a go. I was bit uncomfortable to watch him being persuaded as he clearly wasn't keen but everyone patiently waited for him to finish and applauded him in a genuine way when he did. Then as he walked away he gave a little jump and punched the air with the sheer delight of his achievement. Of course that set me off.
I was asked to give out some of the prizes at the end of the day to the winners and then things wrapperd up pretty quickly after that. I was exhausted when I got home, slightly sunburnt and very dehydrated having been outside in 30 degrees plus heat for seven hours, but it had been a lovely family day with lots of laughter.
The next day I caught a bus to Colombo and met Eve and Caroline and the three of us giddy with excitement caught another bus to Hikkaduwa and eight hours later sat drinking cold beer overlooking the Indian Ocean. I now know how John Mills felt in the film Ice Cold in Alex! On the Saturday, we caught another bus to Galle and met Julie and Bev and spent the day looking round Galle Fort. This was built during the Dutch occupation and has been made a world heritage site. It is like a secret city within a city and has a very serene atmosphere and somewhere I would like to go back and explore some more. The Fort walls saved many lives and buildings during the Tsunami as many of the south coast towns were very badly hit. When we were in Hikkaduwa the previous time we talked to some people about the Tsunami who told us that the sea initially receded, so much so that people came down on to the beach to see what was happening, so more people were on the beach than usual and then the wave came.
After our trip to Galle we came back to Hikkaduwa to spend the rest of the holiday and to see in the New Year. New year is a very auspicious occassion and the actual start of new year is determined by astrological calculations. This year it was about 5.50am and we woken to the sound of fireworks. There are lots of traditions too, such as lighting a fire to cook kiribath (milkrice) and making the first transaction. Most of the shops were closed on New Years Day but all the banks were open as it is very lucky to carry out business at a bank on New Year!
The tourist season on the west coast pretty much shuts down after New Year in readiness for the monsoon and moves over to the east coast until October. Unfortunately, we are not permitted to go anywhere in the east because of the security situation, unless we can wangle a reason for work, (I'm working on it). So we virtually had the beach to ourselves on the last day except for a man carrying a dirty great big python and the beach dogs. Talking of which I have already failed in my vow not to get involved with any of the animals. One of the dogs was injured, we think she must have been hit by traffic. Fortunately, nothing broken just badly bruised I think, but as I wrapped her up in my sarong and carried her off to shelter, (which I think she rather liked), the locals looked at me as though I was completely barmy. We did try to get her seen by a vet but as it was new Years Day he wasn't available. Anyway we did manage to get one of the local bar guys to provide a safe place for her to recover and she did seem to be brighter the next day. Needless to say I didn't sleep much worrying about her!
It has also been a very strange time with the new year celebrations on one hand and the heightened crisis in the north on the other. There isn't really any evidence of the war going on here in Kurunegala apart from the news broadcasts. It doesn't seem to be discussed much at work, well not while I'm around. A huge convoy of UN food lorrys passed by as I was waiting at the bus stop near work the other day. I presume they were heading north to Vavuniya to the refugge camps. And Caroline and I were stopped at the security check point on the way to the bus station in Colombo on our way home from New Year and asked to see our passports, which neither of us had with us but we had our ID cards issued through VSO, which we have been advised to carry with us at all times. Anyway they didn't keep us long when they realised we were NGO.
I have uploaded two photo albums this week.