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!
- 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.
Can’t think of any dont’s right now.. oh actually yes I have one:
- Don’t stop reading my blog.. 😉