The phase of getting comfortable and homey while adjusting to the thought of leaving soon – Rollercoaster ahoi!

Here we go, another update on whats going on in Kerala!

It has been more than a month that I am here. Now, I really feel like I settled. Things that would have annoyed or irritated me in the first few weeks, have now become a normal thing. I adapted to the somewhat slower pace of life and work. I got used to the “no planning policy”, the different structure of the days, the way people interact with each other etc. So basically I arrived, I settled, I am ok and happy with the overall situation. (As usual..Just a few days before I have to leave again, … but more to this later)

What definitely helped to settle is that the people in the office developed from strangers   to good friends. Furthermore, I also started to meet new people, friends of my “Office buddies” which is interesting, refreshing and entertaining. I enjoy endless discussions on the way of life in India with the differences in so many aspects to my live in Switzerland. Be it family, job, relationships, religion – over a coffee, tea, beer or a glass of wine, a “lets quickly go and have a drink” a few times now turned into a whole evening filled with great conversations.

One of the highlights of the last days probably was a weekend escape to Kochi and Kayamkulam further South from Calicut. Friday afternoon, we boarded the train and travelled about 4 hours south to the city of Kochi. There, the Kerala Blasters, the local soccer team, was playing a game in the national league against a team from Pune. I am not exactly known to be a big soccer fan. However, to me, sports events are a great opportunity to see a different side of foreign countries and I was really excited to see how soccer in India is being celebrated. And what should I say? Well the happenings on the field are not really comparable to other European National Leagues in terms of the quality of the soccer play. But the atmosphere!! 51’000 Indians in one stadium. Everyone going crazy, having fun, cheering the Kerala Blaster to a 2 to 1 victory, celebrating together. Only a group of about 40 fans from the opposing team found their way into the stadium and could freely move and cheer for their team. Some skirmishing here and harmless teasing there but no violence, no useless fireworks or throwing things around. A peaceful sports party, a great experience!  (Learn European Soccer fans, learn!) After the match, we met some friends and ended up on a beautiful, hidden roof-top bar where we enjoyed beers, snacks and interesting conversations. It was the first time that I had the chance to talk to a solo-travelling woman from Finland and it was interesting to hear why she came to India, to learn about views and experiences on Kerala and to exchange one or the other story from along the way.

The next day, it was time for me to board a train again and head further south. I wanted to go to a village in the backwaters and I was looking forward to spend some time in the village community. In this beautiful and quite place, 7 women have started an eco-cottage directly at the water. It is one of the most beautiful cottages I have ever seen and definitely worth a visit. The ladies are incredible hosts and offer a wide variety of activities in the region. So if you ever plan to go to South India, make sure you spend some time there, you will love it! Snehatheeram – The only community owned and managed Travel Experience in Kerala, India

I myself did not stay in the cottage but in one of the ladies’ house. I met her whole family, went all around the village with her and the kids and was invited to go and have a quick chat in uncountable houses along the way. Sunday morning, I also had the chance to take a nice country boat ride through the backwaters before the family took me to a huge temple festival nearby. The whole thing had quite some similarities with soemthing like a fair. Stally, rollercoasters, food everywhere – and sooo many people. (starring level off scale!) But I liked it and the ladies made sure I would never get lost in the masses. Soon it was time for me to say goodbye to all the lovely people I met and hop on the train which brought be back “home” to Calicut.

After a week of work, more birthday parties, bike rides through the city, good food etc. it was weekend time again and therefore I was off to another trip again!

We decided to go to Wayanad again because I wanted to get out into the nature. The plan was it to go by motorbike (a so called Bullet) but unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and it started to rain just as we wanted to leave. Perfect timing! Anyhow, we decided to go by car instead and again I enjoyed the ride trough villages, forests and coconut groves until we reached our destination in Wayanad with its refreshing cool climate.

The next morning, we got ready to explore the region. The highlight was a trek to the Edakkal Caves. With something between hiking and climbing, we reached the caves in a bit less than an hour and admired not only the great view but also explored the caves in which, according to history, people were living some (many) years back. I loved being out there, surrounded by nature, great people, having fun, getting some exercise. Good times in India! Ones we were back down, it was time for a late lunch, typical Indian Paratha and Curry (not surprising, I know!) and then we drove back down the curvy streets to Calicut.

It was a great escape and the thought of only having one weekend left here to spend time with my new friends and to explore the region does not exactly overwhelm me with joy…In 10 days it will be time to say goodbye here in India. Again. And as usual, my feelings about leaving are mixed. A part of me wants to stay, wants to get more involved with this place, the people, work. I wish I had more time to travel, to explore, to learn. However, another part of me is looking forward to go home. Back to those people I have known the longest, I love and trust most. Back to the place where I know my way around, the faces in the streets and where I am not the exotic foreigner anymore. Simultaneously, I will be going back to a country inmidst pre-christmas craziness with all its completely exaggerated consumption, the stess about gifts, the urge for everything to be perfect.. no I do not feel like going home and face the whole Christmas stuff. But than again.. there are Christmas cookies, cheese, skiing, nightlife… this in turn is music in my ears! You see, I am confused. Half of me wants to stay, half wants to go. Its not the first and for sure not the last time I felt and gonna feel this way so lets just face it, board that plane on December 15th and see whats next!

Do’s

  • Escape the Indian cities and explore the nearby natural treasures – so worth it (and some clean and fresh air too) !

Dont’s

  • Don’t take a car to move through the city – Motorbikes are so much more fun! And kind of more practical too, especially in peak times.
  • Do not stress about Christmas.. its coming back next year. And the year after.. promise!

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“When your first impression is just a little wrong” – and some other insights into my life in India

I am here in Calicut, Kerala for a few days now and I think I have to start off with taking back a statement I made in the last blog. Just after I arrived I said people here in Kerala are starring less, are paying less attention to a foreigner and are less pushy. Well no, they are not.  After these first few days, I changed my mind.  I am in this city for nearly half a month, roughly 430 000 people live here and I have seen westerners only ones. In a roof top restaurant, beachfront hotel. (Of course, where else would they be?) So considering this, you can imagine the looks you get as a white women roaming around the city, especially when I am alone… I don’t think I will ever get used to the starring, the constant attention and at least one part of me is looking forward to get back to Switzerland and be able to hide in the mass again.  I am not scared or anything, no one is doing any harm. (And also, no requests for selfies from strangers on the streets. So that’s one difference compared to Sri Lanka.) It is just tiring to be under constant observation and also being “reduced” to the skin color can have something quite depressing.  I think most people are just interested in talking, going out or whatever just because I am white. It has nothing to do with personality, with who you are, your values, your character. It is just simply because you look different. (I am lucky in the sense that being a westerner here attracts a kind of positive attention, maybe curiosity. In Europe however, many people belonging to different ethnicities, religions etc. face the same “being reduced to the looks” however in their case it is unfortunately mostly associated with negative feelings from the side of the locals. Now if I am getting annoyed by being reduced to my skin color, how do people in Europe feel who experience discrimination, hatred and inequality on a daily basis just because of how they look or what they believe? I can’t say I know exactly how they feel but I can imagine how difficult, depressing and discouraging this has to be. We are all humans with the same desire to be valued, loved and respected and this does not change no matter your skin color, your religious belief or your ethnic belonging. This is something everyone has to understand or else monsters like Trump will take over…)

Anyway, I have got to stop here, even though I could go on talking (well no, writing) for ages about such topics. But despite this “attention issue”, living here is easy and comfortable. There is everything you need, and more. Calicut is so much different than the narrative people might have in mind when thinking about India. It’s a relatively rich city, buzzing, shops everywhere, restaurants and bakeries en-mass. I guess poverty is here, as everywhere, but I have seen very few home-less people, beggars etc. compared to many big European cities. Food is plenty, education is good. (This is Kerala tough, the richest of the Indian regions, further north, the picture would definitely be a different one)

So Calicut offers everything you need for a decent life (maybe with the exception of goooood cheese) and so I settled into something like a daily routine. Early morning walk (6.15!) to the gym, work out, walk back, have breakfast and get ready for work which starts at 9.30.  I like these mornings. Observing how the city wakes up, get some exercise and buy fresh fruits and veggies on the way home is the perfect start into a day, at least for me.  A few hours of office work later, with two coffee breaks and a lunch break in-between (rice and curry, served on banana leafs, what else?), often the whole team moves over to our apartment where we cook together and have dinner. Sometimes we also go out to eat in a restaurant and have a drink or two. (The live here is, from a Swiss perspective, ridiculously cheap. I guess you know you are in India when a group of 10 people can have dinner in one of the most popular restaurants in the city and the whole thing costs something like 20 CHF… crazy no?)

Besides these “business as usual – days” we also get out of the office from time to time for either a weekend escape or some “field research” during the week. One day, we went to a lagoon just outside Calicut. Kabani (the company I work with) is planning to set up a new package there and so we made a trip to check out the area and meet the guy who initially had the idea to introduce tourism there. And what should I say. It was one of these perfect afternoons. Gliding through the lagoon, watching birds and learning about history, nature and people of the area was amazing. When we came across another boat, we were even given food. Curry, Oysters etc. Home-made, on the boat, among the mangroves. Perfect, I think this is the kind of “work” I could get used to! The past weekend, we went to Wayanad, the district on the northern border of Clicut. There, Kabani is running some of its community based tourism initiatives and so I was dropped in one of the home-stays that they had developed in a small village amongst forests and hills – stunning! I enjoyed the stay with the family in their beautiful home and great food. In the early morning on Sunday, we climbed a hill and got awarded with a nice view even though it was quite hazy. Later, on a stroll through the village, we were invited for tea at nearly every second house (intake around noon: 2 coffees, 3 teas = overdose haha ) and the host explained me everything about fruits, veggies and spiced which grow in the area. Later, I also got the chance to see pot making, live and in color, and was impressed by the speedy of Mr. Potter.

What else? Well there has been more in these first few days. Birthday celebrations, a temple festival, dinner on the roof-top, power cuts, clothes hand-washing sessions, countless interesting conversations about politics, ways of live, differences and similarities, a lot of rice and curry and chilli and onion, and also a lot of fajita-like breads which all have different names and looks but to me they are all somehow the same and I still don’t know which one is which. There have been challenges to. For example, often my colleagues are talking in Malayalam. So I never really know what’s going on, plans are made and changed and nothing is really fix ever. Also, I often do not understand their jokes and participating in discussions is difficult. So I am basically just tagging along, often not knowing where or what exactly we are going to do. So for someone like me who is used to take initiative, plan and organize things (yes I have been called to be something like a little control freak by some so) this is quite a challenge. But probably it is also a good training for me to learn handling such situations, be spontaneous and just take it easy, day by day (or hour by hour..)

So and now I think that’s enough for the moment right?

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next blog!

DO’s

  • Bring a light scarf to cover yourself up a bit –I think it is just a sign of respect towards the locals not to walk around in a too revealing manner and it might help to reduce the attention at least a little
  • Try all the local restaurants –  I have never had any bad experience with food here. It’s always delicious and fresh!

DON’T’s

  • Plates grow in the garden here! What I mean is: Don’t be surprised when you are served food on a banana leaf. That’s just how it’s done here. They are fresh, clean and I think it’s pretty genius, too. No cleaning plates – just let them composting

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Letter from South India – Safe, sound and settled

Getting here to Calicut was easier than I tough. I have to admit, I was feeling a little bit insecure about arriving in India on my own, in a country I have never been before. The journey ahead of me was long – a short flight after which I had to catch a local bus and then a train for another 4h to get to my destination. Especially since I would be arriving late in the evening which meant travelling in the dark left me a little bit anxious. But thankfully, it all went perfectly and was easier than I thought! But lets take it step by step.

So ones I heavy heartedly said goodbye to the people I always stay with when I am in Negombo, Sri Lanka (they are simlply amazing – it feels like being home when I am there and they couldn’t be more caring.  And the food is great! They even prepared extra lunch for me at 11 o’clock because I had to leave around noon and they tough letting me go without lunch would be inacceptable) I made my way to the airport and hopped on the 50min flight to Cochin in Kerala. With a little delay we arrived, I grabbed my backpack, changed some money and went looking for anything on more than one wheel (and a roof since it was raining) which would bring me to the railway station from where I should catch the train to Calicut.

It didn’t take long to find the right bus – with the help of a Canadian who is living in India for many years and also just came back from a trip to Sri Lanka- and so I sat in the bus and enjoyed some great conversation with Mr. Canada who already gave me some useful tips and tricks for India-beginnners. I was happy about this company in my first hour in India and after he got off the bus, it also took only a few minutes more to get to the place where I had to get off (the very friendly ticket guy in the bus thankfully told me when and where I needed to get off because announcements or station names somehow do not exist here I think).  So I arrived at the train station, a loooooong trainstation and ones I found out on which platform my train was leaving, I had to find the one spot where the coach would stop in which I could find my reserved seat. So I asked several people and everyone was friendly and   directed me to the right place, just like people in Sri Lanka where always ready to help. In contrast however, I felt the locals here where less “pushy” than in Sri Lanka. Of course everyone was looking since there was no other foreigner anywhere (with a huge backpack which usually does not really help to “hide” in the mass anyways), but no one would approach me and start a conversation (or ask for a selfie) like it always happened in Sri Lanka.

So after I while I found the right place and from this moment on, the major issue I had to face was an army of aggressive mosquitos. Really, who needs those annoying bastards? Anyway, ones the train finally arrive (with nearly an hour delay, so enough time to collect maaaany bites) I easily found my seat and made friends with the guy who sat beside me. So thanks to some interesting conversation with Shareef, an Indian-muslim law student, the ride passed relatively quickly and around 11pm, a tired and sweaty but happy Martina and her backpack arrived in Calicut where I was picked up by Sumesh, who basically is my boss for the time I am here. Hurray – I made it!

In the first few days I did the typical things which need to be done to “settle” in a city. First shopping trip to a close by bazar where you can find everything you need (despite a moskito net, but I found that later too because this thing is really needed to survive), got an Indian SIM card, experienced the first days in the office and tried to get an overview about who is who in the team – oh and I also signed up in a gym – finally! After 7 weeks of not moving at all in Sri Lanka I can’t wait to get some of my Siwss-routine back and get some exercise– yipiiyeey!

The evenings here are the complete opposite to my Sri Lankan life. While I was mostly on my own in Nilaveli, there is a lot of socializing going on here. The people of the company I work with (“Kabani – Community Tourism and Services”, check it out – they have great travel offers!) are like a family and are spending a lot of time with each other. The place I live at has several rooms, so Sumesh (my boss) stays here as well. And since it is in the same building than the office, it is something like the team-gathering apartment in which we would cook and eat together nearly every night. Pretty nice!

So my first two days here are over and I am ready for the weekend! I will be taking a city tour with a lady who is working in Calicut and has been trained by Kabani to be a guide. I am excited to see and learn about the city which will be my home for the next 6 weeks. For the day after, a kayaking tour is on the program – hurray again! Ans even tough I am missing Sri Lanka and the people I met there, I am feeling very happy here as well and I already think that the 6 weeks I am planning to spend here are way to little! That’s it! More about whats going on here in Kerala coming soon!

(P.S. Since I just arrived I might skip the DOs and DONTs part for this time because it is too early to “judge” on things or give tips)

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The last chapter of my Sri Lanka experience – but only for this time

It has been a while since the last Blog-post so it’s time for another update! As I am writing, I am spending my last days here in Sri Lanka. In less than 48h I will be in India… Crazy how time is flying!

The last weeks have been busy. I met nearly all of my business-partners again to finalize our agreements and so my cooperative tourism package is all lined up and ready to be tested. In April next year, I will come back and conduct the first tour – exciting! (Also, I am looking for “Versuchskaninchen-Travellers” who are keen on exploring Sri Lanka and would have time and money to participate in the tour. If you are, contact me and I will be happy to provide you with more information about the content, price etc. of the package)

Besides working on the package, I also spent some time with Yves, who was my external advisor for the Thesis, and some activists of a local NGO. Together, they organized workshops in local communities who are negatively affected by the aggressive mass-tourism development – and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along with them and learn about the issues of the locals are facing. The workshops were extremely interesting. Even though I could not contribute too much content wise, it was just very informative and it was a great chance to meet many hard-working, committed and inspiring individuals.

Travelling to all these meetings required some adventurous bus rides. I wouldn’t say the local buses are extraordinarily comfortable but I still enjoy using them. (Maybe because I have always been lucky so for and was able to grab a free seat) However, the mix of no AC, double the amount of people than seats and the somewhat adventurous driving style makes it a quite touchy, sweaty and sometimes scary ride. Oh and also, no need for music and headphones because no matter how rattly the bus is, the music boxes work, perfectly. And they are on. Always. And loud.

Traveling the local way however also provides the opportunity to meet people. No matter if you are squeezed in between a group of ladies on a family trip who keep offering you food (but also keep taking selfies – smiiiileee) or if you get off the bus and be invited for a cup of tea while waiting to be picked up  – it is always an adventure and especially when travelling solo, people are really open and interested in talking to you.

So after all the workshops were over and the package was finalized, it was time to say  goodbye to the guys at the guesthouse (which was not easy but I know I will be back in a few months so it’s not a long goodbye). I decided to once again take one of these legendary bus rides since I wanted to spend the last few days in and around Jaffna which is the northern most part of the Island and has been badly affected by the war. Compared to other regions, only a handful tourists find their way to this area and tourism infrastructure is only slowly starting to be constructed. There are also not many options for booking trips, however I found a company called Sri Lanka Click with offered really interesting tours and so I signed up for a bicycle tour through Jaffna Town for the first afternoon. Our local guide Mohan possessed incredible knowledge about the history of the place. Luckily also, Belinda, an Australian lady joined the tour and she also showed great interest in the history because of her professional background and education. So the afternoon was interesting and full of great discussion – oh and some delicious IceCream (the first I ever tried here in Sri Lanka). After the tour, Belinda and I went to Mangos, one of the few restaurants which is well known among locals and tourists, and we soon found out why. We tried a typical “Dosa” and some “Cheese Kottu” and both was very yummi. We also decided to go for a full day tour the next day which would bring us to all over the northern region to historically significant places. 300 km were waiting on us and our scooters so we started at 6 in the morning in order to be back in the evening in time so that Belinda would be able to catch the night train to Colombo. So during nearly 12 hours, Mohan showed us different places and I learned a lot on the tour. For the next day, I had arranged to meet a priest who used to work in Germany for a while and is now back in Sri Lanka. He spontaneously agreed to spend the whole Saturday with me and showed me different projects he is working on. One was a fishing net factory where 70 war-widows are employed which is a great chance for these ladies who otherwise to not get any support to feed their families. After a delicious lunch at his house, we visited a second project he is running which is a housing scheme for resettelment. He raises funds and then builds homes for 500 fishermen families who are land- and/or homeless. After showing me around the community, I was again invited to eat with him. His commitment for the people, his generosity and openness were really impressive and I hope to go back to Jaffna soon to spend more time there.

After these eventful days in Jaffna, I “enjoyed” an 8-hour bus ride, incl. one flat tire, back to Negombo where I will be spending the last days.

And now, as I am preparing to leave curry-country (well I will go to another curry-country so this is at least something I will not have to miss), I am looking back on 7 weeks of great encounters, good food, hooooot days, swims in the sea, many aha- moments but of course also some lonely hours, some creeps crossing my way oh and mosquitos (if there is anything in the world which really truly is loyal, it’s the mosquitos).

But overall, Sri Lanka has been good to me and taught me much.  I did not see many places or participated in the typical tourist activities. And still, or maybe exactly because of this, I feel like I got to know the country pretty well. So for me, it is all about the people I met along the way. Most of them were friendly, helpful and caring. Especially those, I was lucky to work with. Not one person refused to meet me but rather took a whole day to talk to me, show me around, invite me for lunch or dinner. Moreover, no matter where I went, the people I met would always call me up later to make sure I got home safely and was feeling good. And this, to me, are small signs that make me feel at home, make me feel safe and appreciated and it makes me happy to know that I will be back soon and see my new Sri Lankan friends again.

That’s it from the island for this time – the next Blog will be about my first days in India!

DO’s

  • Check https://busseat.lk/ for long distance travel. These Buses with AC are super comfortable and reliable and you can book your seat online
  • People stopping me on the streets or in a shop to take a selfie happened nearly daily – so get used to that!

DONT`s

  • If you go to the North, be careful with political statements and do not force people to talk about politics, war etc. on the streets. Many Tamil people are scared to share their views as Government critical statements might still get them in trouble…!

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It’s all about exploring, meeting people, learning, working…and try new food :)

I have been here in Nilaveli for a while now and I think it is time for a little update. I got quite some stuff done but I also have to admit that the heat is taking a toll on me and I am (happily) adapting to the somewhat slower pace of living here.

Nevertheless, the days here start early because the morning hours are fresh and somehow magic. I like to cycle down to the beach around 7 o’clock to take a swim and then get some fresh fruit or whatever I fancy on my way back to the guesthouse. I love these quiet moments at the beach as around this time, hardly anyone is there. Only some boat drivers are either getting ready for their tours or are already coming back from the very early morning dolphin- and whale watching tours. Other than that, it’s only sea, sand and Martina.

After this morning routine, I get back to the cottage, ready to start the day. Some days, I just stay at the cottage, writing, reading, working for the project and talking to the guys (however the communication with the employees is still rather limited, remember the language barrier? Also, I do not prove to be extremely talented with the Tamil language..). So during these cottage days, I spend most of the time on the veranda in the shadow together with my laptop. However, from time to time I follow the guys around and try to help with their work or go and control what they are doing (on their request!). While in the morning, they are usually busy (or relatively busy) cleaning around the guesthouses, they then spend the afternoon working in the back parts of the property with mainly doing gardening work (which basically consist of gathering and burning everything that shouldn’t be there).  Since I do not just want to stand there and watch them work, I started some attempts to join them in their work. The first time I did this, the guys instantly stopped working and started filming me. So judging on their reaction and their surprised faces, doing this kind of work as a woman (a white one even crazier) is not a normality here and after they had processed their first “shock”, they would, not surprisingly, tell me to stop and “sit down, Madame”. Ah here we go – I knew they would not let me work for long. So back to my “office” then!

Oh and besides my attempts to work, there is one other major reason for confused faces on the side of the Niyas, Safer and Co. My eating habits. To them, a meal without fish, meat or rice simply cannot be counted as food. So If I am just having a salad or a fruit smoothie or similar for dinner as I am used to from at home, they feel like I am not eating enough. It happened more than once now, that they brought me food from at home even though I keep explaining that I am perfectly fine and I am not eating salad because I cannot cook or something like this but I am rather just not very hungry from only sitting around all day. Whatever they offer me to taste however, is incredibly delicious and refusing to eat it would probably come across rude.

The evenings of these cottage days,  I partly spend in the garden in front of the TV with the guys and partly reading or watching movies on my own since the choices of the guys mainly consists of quite badly made Tamil movies featuring either an absurd love story or just violent conflicts among people and security forces. Since such storylines are not really my cup of tea (and also I do not understand much) Netflix has become a good friend of mine since I am here.

So beside these cottage days, I also met some of the cooperation partners as for example Priyanthe who is operating a boating company and took me out to find some nice snorkeling spots which could be included in the package. I also did two tours with TukTuk driver Kumara who I met in March and will also be a cooperation partner for the package. His knowledge about Buddhism and Hinduism is incredible and he also know the region very well. So he showed me some beautiful and very interesting spots which I will also be including in the tour.

One of the highlights of the last days was the invitation to attend the monthly meeting of the fishermen from Trincomalee which really was just one big lucky coincidence. I met Kamal, the treasurer of the society, already in March and contacted him now for a further meeting to discuss how he and his fishermen friends could get involved in tourism. So I went to Trincomalee to see him and we sat there for quite a while and talked about his life and his family (his daughter lives in Switzerland) the fishermen community, the business, everything. By the end of the meeting he told me that they had their monthly gathering the next day and that he would like to introduce me to the rest of the “gang” and that I should present my ideas.

So the next day I went there again. And what should I say? The whole thing was quite an experience. Image 13 men sitting on one side of the room, 7 women on the other and the president, the treasurer and the secretary in front. As I entered the room I was looking for a chair to sit in a corner on the back where I could overlook the happenings. But no – my chair was already there, in front of everyone… jeeez! People who know me are probably aware of how much I love giving presentations in front of a crowd… not exactly my favorite, especially since I did barely know anyone! So anyway, I sat there, in front, saw all these expectant faces on the men side and the rather skeptical ones on the women’s side of the room and the meeting started.  Ones it was my turn to speak, everyone listened attentively and Kamal translated what I was saying. We gathered some ideas for activities with their involvement and agreed on a day where I was gonna join them for a day to see how they are working. My personal highlight of the meeting was it when I asked the women’s side for their input since they did not participate in the discussion so far. They did not respond really; however, I could see their faces brightening up just for having been asked about their own opinion specifically.

So, I could go on forever with little episodes about my life here in Nilaveli including flat bus tires, guys climbing huge trees like monkeys, bird rescues and crocodile watching, skype sessions, dinner invitations, english-tamil discussions with the employees, etc.  but I think it is enough now. I have to get ready to catch that night bus which brings me to Negombo where I will be participating in a workshop with a focus on the tourism development and related issues in Sri Lanka. I am super excited since I will be meeting some familiar faces including Yves, who was the Co-Advisor of my Bachelor Thesis and also Sumesh, managing director of the company I will be working for in India in November and December. Furthermore, I will meet some partner I talked to back in March and most of all I will have the chance to meet many new people who are active tourism professionals, campaigners, activists etc. So these days ahead will for sure hold some inspiring discussions, knowledge exchange (where I as a complete newbie will mostly just be learning from those who look back on many years of experience and involvement with Sri Lanka specific issues), and hopefully new friendships! Adios amigos and thanks for reading!

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Do’s

  • Get up early to enjoy the cool mornings (and take a nap around noon when the heat is on its max)
  • Be spontaneous! The meetings mostly worked out best when I just called the people up and met them a few hours later. Works much better here than planning ahead – Mostl, when I tried to arrange things some days before, they were cancelled and did not happen.

Dont’s

  • Don’t refuse food you are being offered – it has always been delicious so far!

Nilaveli calling – feels like coming home!

WARNING: Long Blog ahead! So grab yourself a tea or coffee (Alright, beer or wine is fine as well) and find a comfy spot. Let’s go!

It’s about a four-hour drive from Kandy towards the East coast to Nilaveli which is a spread out village close to the city of Trincomalee. The area is home to mostly Tamil people and hosts some of the most beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka. To me, Nilaveli is something like my “Sri Lankan Basecamp”. During our last stay in March, Eric and I spent most of the time here as this is the area where the Cooperative Tourism Package shall be implemented. Already then, we stayed in the lovely Brindhavan Cottage where I am currently living as well. (You can find some impressions below). The guesthouse with 8 rooms is owned and operated by Pramilla Nandakumar who really is a remarkable woman. Many years ago, she escaped the civil war which was raging in the country during nearly 30 and went to Germany as a refugee.However, as her kids turned into adults, finished their university degrees and stood on their own feet, she decided to come back to her home land and to establish her own little guesthouse. Her main motivation to do so was to generate some much needed job opportunities for local Tamil people. Pramilla is one of the most generous, friendly, smart and empathic individual I ever met and the way she is running the place and how she is treating her staff members is one of a kind and leaves me deeply impressed. Pramilla and her Brindhavan Cottage family are the best to make the visitors feeling at home and also Pramilla is a marvelous chef and keeps spoiling their guests with the best food you could imagine. (and of course the much loved fresh fruits can also be found everywhere – food paradise I tell you! Oh and the tea here, which is more sugar than tea is quite addictive and makes my “I am going to live healthy here” kind of forgotten…) Now the last time we were here and she heard that I might come back in September/October after my graduation to keep working on the cooperative tourism project, she offered me to stay at the guesthouse for free and in return take over her role as she will be going back to Germany for a while. This means, I am now in charge of the guesthouse including taking care of international guests, some office issues and also to make sure the employees keep on doing their job despite her absence. This great opportunity made the decision to come back much easier as I knew that I could stay in a great and familiar place (also my bank account, which had just survived 3 years of studentslife, is happy about the free accommodation) and here I am again!

The first days here in Nilaveli were quite eventful and interesting. I got to know the people who currently work for Pramilla which means the ones I am going to be spending most of the time with for the next few weeks. Unfortunately, they barely speak English but I am sure we will be fine and will find a way to communicate with each other. I am trying to at least learn some sentences in Tamil (yes exactly this language which has nothing, but really completely nothing to do with any of the languages I know) and I also teach some English to the guys.

In this first 3 days after my arrival in Nilaveli, Pramilla was still here to introduce me to my tasks in the Cottage and she could also translate between the team and myseld whenever needed. Together with her and Niyas, who is the driver of the cottage and will also be “managing” the place (even though he keeps saying that I am the boss, he really is the one who will keep the whole thing running since he knows it much better than I do) when Pramilla is away, I already could get some stuff for my Cooperative Tourism Project done which actually is the main reason why I came back right to Sri Lanka right? We visited the Rural Women’s Development Society, which employs 6 women who all lost their husband in either the war or the tsunami and are now solely responsible to keep their families a float.  The society is producing handloom products and so what they can offer to tourists is explaining and showing the visitors how the cloths are made and of course the participants will have the chance to buy some hand made products. After that, we also visited a woman who lives close by and is an amazing dressmaker. So those who wish to get tailor-made clothing from the fabrics they bought from the society, have the chance to do so by bringing it to her. All the women were very cooperative and interested in collaborating. So to me, this was a pretty good start for the work on my project.

Besides the project-work (and writing this blogs – I am actually surprised myself that I am still doing this) Pramilla and Niyas also took me on a shopping-trip “Sri Lanka style”, meaning you drive from house to house, get some fish there, some fruit here and some vegetables again at a different place and in-between you visit some friends or relatives along the way and also being offered a drink (or a coconut!) each time. Now this is how I love shopping! Getting fresh and local stuff accompanied by some nice talks and socializing… awesome!  I am impressed how the people here in this area really mainly buy and eat what can be cultivated here (which is much more than only rice and curry as many may think.)  “Buy local” is not any slogan or new trend here, it is rather just normalcy. I wish this would happen more often in Europe too! We also made a trip to Trincomalee where we visited the local market who has a huge array of different fruits and veggies. I love it and the atmosphere is just great.

So as I am writing this blog, I am looking back on these first few days here in Nilaveli with quite some emotional up and downs. In the first three days with Pramilla being here, everything seemed to be fine and easy and in place. However, as soon as she left, I somehow felt sad and melancholic and also kind of insecure. I was wondering what the next weeks would bring and how and if I am gonna manage to communicate with the team and also how I would fill and structure my days. Don’t get me wrong. I am feeling safe here in the cottage and the staff people are so friendly, funny and helpful, really! The challenge is that they barely speak English and even though they really try to involve me, I want be able to have major discussions with them nor do I understand their conversations. So I am preparing myself for some rather “lonely” weeks here. Fortunately, the Brindhavan Cottage is also home to three baby-cats, two dogs and some chicks and from time to time it happens that a monkey comes by to say hello so I have some cuddle-buddies in case I feel too lonely (not the monkey tough). Anyway, loads of greenery and animals around here -sounds like the perfect place for Martina the “Landei” right?

But there is one issue I am facing, which really makes me (nearly) crazy! People who know me probably also know that I am not the kind of person to sit and watch other people to do work. I would rather do the things myself or at least help. But here in the Cottage they tell me I am the boss, meaning the sentence I hear most is “Madame, sit down!” Madame?? Sit down? Just call me Martina, please! And I am sitting – the whole day! Let me please please help and do something! But really no chance there for me. Picking up things from the ground? No way, not a job for me. Opening the gate when I car wants to enter? For god sake no – big big NO! (I did that ones and Niyas told me he is gonna kick me out of the Cottage if I did this again, Bosses don’t do this!) So you see, all I am allowed to do here is sitting, working on my laptop and controlling if  the others do their work properly. This whole situation makes me feel like I ended up back in colonialization times! Also if there is something I have to criticiseit is incredibly hard to kind of bring that across in a polite manner and explain the reason for my critic. Because… language barrier!

One of the “highlights” of the first days was the arrival and check-in of “my” first guests. This might sound like a good thing but actually was quite a nightmare. Imagine the following: All the staff is away the whole day (and half of the night)  to bring Pramilla to the airport (5 to 6 hours’ drive away from Nilaveli). The only people left at the cottage are the son of one of the employees (my bodyguard for that night so to say) and myself. (So two greenhorns concerning the cottage business). It is 8 in the evening, dark. We are peacefully sitting at the fire and Suthan (Mr. Bodyguard) patiently teaches me Tamil as a Van enters the cottage area. A group of 10 people, men, women and kids. They are looking for a place to stay and we luckily have 4 free rooms. The men approached me in a manner which could not have been more canting, arrogant and unfriendly. They wanted to book 5 rooms, we only had 4 available with total 9 beds. The men kept saying they needed 5, and I told them we only have 4 so they could either stay and book the 4 or find a different place. Its either one or the other, simple right? But no. I really don’t know how often I had to tell them that we really only had the 4 left. As I was becoming more and more pissed-off with their behaviour and startet to become impatient (which in my case sometimes happens quite quick),. my voice was gradually getting louder and more angry until I finally nearly shouted:“ Sorry, I can’t  just build another house.” (Literally, I said, exactly this hoping this ***** would finally get it) After a never-ending discussion they finally booked the room (not before arguing about the price, demanding to use the kitchen and also again mentioning another 20 times they need 5 rooms (I knooooooooow, for gods sake!) Anyway, ones they settled into their rooms, they started an outdoor party incl. extensive littering (I mean why should they put their waste into the provided bins? Much more fun when the wind spreads it over the whole area!) I could go on for ages about their impossible behavior but I think I have got to stop here. All in all let’s say the men in the group (I did not get to talk to the rest) where “one-of-a-kind-dushbags” and without having Suthan here who helped me handle the situation, the whole story would have been much much worse.

However, also many positive things happened in the first few days. Niyas gave me some TukTuk – Driving lessons! So much fun – for me and, apparently also for those watching and cheering. A white woman driving TukTuk? Not very often seen here.

Furthermore, we Skyped Pramilla who in the meanwhile arrived in Germany. What a Tamil conference, I tell you! Safir, our youngest team member, a little scallywag, but a very funny and lovable one, quickly took my laptop and started walking around the garden with the whole team following and screaming into the computer to make sure, Pramilla hears them.  My role in the whole conversation basically was it to follow the group, smiling, nodding and hoping, the guys do not complain about their “new boss”.

And last but not least, my attempts to learn Tamil also generate some quite delightful moments. The gentle chuckle of Kalail, (the only woman in the team besides me and responsible for the kitchen mainly) when I am again and again keep saying words in Tamil and repeat whatever they say (In the probably most un-tamil accent they ever heard)

And now as I am sitting here, finishing this blog post, the sun is starting to go down and the air is becoming fresher. These hours of the day are my favorites here in the cottage. The atmosphere is peaceful as the guys are finishing their work days and watering the garden. After that, they will very likely join me on the veranda with their English learning booklets and we will spend some time teaching and studying English and Tamil.

Slowly but surely I am feeling good here and I am seeing the time ahead much more positive than I did just after Pramilla left. I still think there might be moments of loneliness but most of the days, I am convinced, will be happy and full of new experiences, insights, laughers and I will have the chance to meet more and more locals and learn about their life-stories. I am thankful for the chance to be here, spend so much time with the them and live the Sri Lankan everyday life rather than just travel trough. Therefore I consider myself to be a very very lucky cookie!

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DO`s

  • Drink coconut water! The most refreshing (and healthy) thing and available anytime, everywhere!
  • Try to learn Tamil, even if it is only a few words! Seeing the positively surprised faces of the locals and their joy about having (very basic) conversation with a foreigner in their mother tongue really is worth the effort.

DONT`s

Can’t think of any dont’s right now.. oh actually yes I have one:

  • Don’t stop reading my blog.. 😉

TukTuk- Safari in and around Kandy!

The day started with a delicious breakfast and again some interesting discussions, this time with the daughter of the host family. Soon however it was time to go and the TukTuk Driver already waited to pick me up. (We were supposed to meet at 8.30, 8.31 he already tried to call… relax, I am coming!)

So off we went on a journey to explore Kandy and its surroundings.  I told him I would love to visit some Temples outside the city, the rest was up to him. (Remember the “trust your driver, he knows what he is doing?) So we first went to see two rather small Buddhist temples off the tourist crowds. In one of them, I discovered a tethered, sad looking elephant. Not cool at all!

Following this first stops, we cruised through forests, along rice fields and I enjoyed the scenery. Mr. TukTuk started to play music (love songs mainly, hurray) and all a sudden he randomly stopped at a house along the way where he discovered some nice flowers in the garden and therefore asked the owner to unearth a few bulbs for him to plant in his own garden. I was astonished by this uncomplicated way of “neighborly help” and I have experienced this phenomenon already twice since I am here. So this really is just what people here do instead of buying expensive seeds. Smart move!

A few minutes later we again hit the road and went to visit a spice garden where I was lucky enough to meet a local “medicine-man” who was talking German quite well and especially knew the names of all kinds of plants as well as sicknesses in German. I was deeply impressed! So the tour was interesting and I got to see many herbs, flowers and also spices which I didn’t even knew how exactly they were growing. I got to try fresh Ginger tea with I don’t know how many herbs inside and was also given a facial and head massage. Pretty nice! Since I was impressed by the mans knowledge and passion for his job, we exchanged phone numbers. My idea behind that of course was it to have the chance to call him if I wanted to come back with visitors one day, which I also explained to him. He however seemed to have gotten the message wrong (as most of the men here seem to do unfortunately) and started calling me in the evening. I didn’t answer the phone – however this really made me wonder how I was gonna be able to establish a decent business relationship or friendship with these people if they always have other ideas or perceptions of what they want from me, or just in general from white women? It is gonna be a challenge for sure!

Anyway, the spice garden tour was great and we moved on to visit a silk factory, where the dressed me in a Sari (and yes – photo proof exists, and no, I am not gonna share them, it is better for all of us believe me haha) Following that, I also visited a tea factory (Sri Lanka is one of the biggest tea producers worldwide) and then we drove back to Kandy. Along the way, Mr. TukTuk organized some lunch and while we were waiting for it, I could observe a Sri Lankan wedding and was offered sweets from the kids. So cute! Ones the take-away lunch was ready, we drove up on a hill where a friend of the driver had a hotel and so we could eat our lunch there in the restaurant area as it had started to rain in the meantime. Very much to the amusement of the driver, I tried to eat like a local – by hand! It worked surprisingly well and also it tasted delicious! As soon as we finished eating, Mr. TukTuk seemed to have fallen back into his flirty mood and wanted to take I don’t know how many selfies (standing as close as possible, of course!) and also mentioned several times that the hotel rooms were very close… thanks, but no! I also denied his incredibly friendly offer to go to his place and see his shower which apparently seemed to be different than others (Like really?? Did this strategy ever work??) All this attempts and also the calls of him and the medicine-men really are annoying and give you the feeling of not being able to really trust the people. However, I also clearly want to state that I never felt physically intimidated or threatened at any time. Also they stopped calling after two or three times if they realise that the phone is not being answered.

In the meantime, the rain stopped and we drove down to the city where our tour finished. We said goodbye and with a little lie to be already invited for dinner, I could also escape Mr. TukTuks offer to have dinner and drinks with him in the evening.  I then spent the rest of the day at the Temple of Tooth which is a major tourist attraction in Kandy. The temple used to be the palace of the last king and was turned into a Temple after the Sacred Tooth, an important relict in the Buddhist religion has been brought here.The temple is nice to see but pretty crowded and also the world Buddhism Museum which can be found inside is very informative but kind of overwhelming – it is huge!!

Before it started to get dark, I went home, tired but happy with all the many things I saw during the day. I felt the urge to write down all the experiences I made so far and to  somehow process it all. (This is by the way the evening where the Blog-Idea was born!) So writing is what I have been occupied with for the rest of the night until the first blog was published and I went to bed. This night, fortunately, also my upstairs neigbour (remember the noisy little gnawer?) seemed to have his work finished early and so I could soon fall asleep.

DO’s

  • Let your TukTuk  driver chose where to go – he knows the best spots!

DONT’s

  • No matter how nice or friendy someone is – never follow them to their homes alone if you don’t know them very well! (This should be clear tough I think.. I hope!)

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