Weddings and sarees

A colleague of mine was getting married-the invitation read that the wedding would take place from approximately 8:47-11:42 on a Sunday morning.  Apparently Sri Lankans visit some type of religous fortune tellers to learn when to please the Gods and special events can sometimes take place at the oddest of hours.  My favorite story was of the head of an NGO having to give an argument as to why an opening ceremony of a school was best not to take place at 2am, but rather during the day.  Her staff was not pleased by her not following religous orders.

I was unable to attend the wedding event, but was able to attend the reception that took place the following Sunday.  I was told I should go and I must wear saree-sometimes written sari.

The saree is the 3 meter piece of fabric that you always see Indian women wrapped up in.  The experience taught me there is much involved with the saree wrapping process.  First, you have to find out what the occassion is for-in my case the main question was whether it was for a Hindu or Christian wedding or reception?

Then you go to a fabric store, choose the fabric you want.  Then you spend at least a half hour haggling over the price-even more if you're a foreigner. 

After this, you take the fabric to a tailor-usually located on the second floor of where you bought the fabric or, in my case, across the street.  You wait amongst strewn pieces of fabric and men working on sewing machines while the boss negotiates styles and cuts with women having saree tops and shelvar kamis custom made for them.  There's no fan or air conditioning and everyone is covered in sweat...there's an actual truth behind the name 'sweat shop'. 

Finally the tailor comes up to you and rapidly takes multiple measurements of your body...writes it all down in a torn and  massive book that somehow is able to distinguish between the customers.  He tells you to come back tomorrow at 4pm.

You return at 4pm and are told to wait.  'My brother is bringing it from his shop-15 minutes only, have a seat.'  And so you wait 15 minutes.  Then another 15  After about an hour you ask the boss man where the top is.  'It's coming, only 10 minutes.'  At this point you get irritated and want to punch someone or kick the sewing machines.  Finally a bag shows up with my saree top and they still have to sew on some pieces.  By 6pm I am able to leave.

Then comes the day I had to wear it all.  My female coworkers came to my home to help me.  After putting on the little saree top that is more like a bra than a shirt, I have put on the underskirt that has a strong string to hold the 3 meters of fabric for the saree.  My coworkers had me stand while wrapping and pinning me to create the designs of the sarees I've seen so many other women wearing.  At first I felt like it would become unraveled or fall off of me at any given moment-but eventually I got used to it.  More than likely will never wear it again, but was happy for this experience.

Arrival of the bride and groom

The wedding itself involved driving to the home of my colleagues parents.  At least 100 of us gathered for the occassion, which was a lunch celebrating the welcoming of the newly wed couple.  We sat in plastic chairs under tarps with the massive UNHCR logo on them.  Upon arrival the sister of the colleague put a white and red marking on my forehead--same went for everyone.  I know it was for some type of blessing, but not entirely sure which one.

We sat and were then fed lunch...lots of rice and curries.  No forks or spoons.  You eat with your hands here.  I must admit I absolutely hate doing it.  I turn into a mess everytime as I don't have the skill at balling up the rice and popping it into my mouth like the locals do.  People are usually clearing their plates and I'm still playing with my rice wishing I had a spoon...I've gotten used to it now and am slowly but surely mastering it.  It just feels odd, but I suppose that goes with learning any new culture. 

After finishing everyone had an opportunity to have a professional photograph taken with the bride and groom.  You were taken into a room and you lined up and had several photos taken together.  This one is my favorite just in the fact that the little girl has a hysterical smile on her face.

Jellyfish attack in Arugam Bay

I've been wanting to go to Arugam Bay since arriving in Sri Lanka and reading about it my my Rough Guide travel guide.  According to Rough Guide it takes 5 hours to travel from Batticaloa.  This apparently holds true unless you have someone who offers to drive you-then it takes 2, depending on how fast you go.

One of the German expats here rented a van for eight of us, including my friend from Beirut.  We were told 8am we would leave.  I've grown accustomed to being culturally sensitive to concepts of time and have become extremely lax with meeting up with people due to my past in Latin America and the Middle East.  In these places 8am means more like 8:45-or 9 depending if you also want breakfast. Then it could be around 10.   Not so for the Germans.  At 8:06 I received a phone call asking why I was not at the meetup spot.  When I said we were waiting on a tuk tuk, he got a bit short and said he would come to us-better than waiting.  When the van arrived there was silence inside and I was introduced to the concept of German time. 

The drive down was gorgeous.  Lime green rice paddy fields stretched on for miles on either side of the road.  They use cow skulls for scarecrows here and there were several spread out in the fields.  In one town there were these odd looking bubble houses that are best described as Hobbit houses depicted in Lord of the Rings, but of course much larger.  It was explained to me that these homes are engineered to withstand great amounts of water pressure should another tsunami or flood strike the region. 

Whether it be the German's culture or just the fact that he really wanted a cheeseburger I'm not sure, but the mood lightened upon reaching our destination.  Arugam Bay is a sleepy surfer town on Sri Lanka's east coast.  Cheap accommodation is abundant and there are loads of strung out surfer types walking around with long boards-or just strung out. Tamils own most of the businesses right on the beach.  In post-tsunami Sri Lanka a rule has been established that all housing must lie 100 meters in from the coast and all of these places are currently in violation.  On the other side of the main road-opposite the beach side accommodation-a string of businesses are popping up owned by Sinhalese.  Yet again another reminder of the ethnic divisions that exist.  Many places have cushions you can lie on and read--or as we did play lots of UNO games and drink Lion Beer. 

There's a reason why surfers flock there in that the waves are amazingly big and strong.  I was confused by the culture on the beach in that the locals all seemed to cover up, but there were still tourists with bikinis...reminded me of the Middle East in some ways.  The waves were fun to bob around in and I really did want to try my hand at a surf lesson, but alas I suppose I'm still apprehensive due to my wave accident back in 2009 that involved my being swept up in a monster wave and thrown down on a sand bar leaving me with a Class 5 separated shoulder.  It occurred on remote Socotra Island-part of Yemen, but closer to Somalia.  I was in pain and without proper medical treatment for approximately a week's time.  Two surgeries later my left shoulder is nearly as good as it was before, though I'm left with a gnarly scar.  I'm still tossing around the idea of getting a tattoo to cover it-perhaps a wave of some sort symbolizing the incident.This accident was also the reason my shoulder is weakened and I was not able to climb the gate I describe in my 'hopping gates in Colombo' post.

I did manage to swim in the waters and encountered the one downside of the place...jelly fish.  Lots of them.  In Batticaloa we have jellyfish, but they're white and slimy and don't sting.  In Arugam Bay they're purple and sting like what I imagine the fires of Hell to be.  I should have known as luck would have it that I would get stung by one...what I did not anticipate is that I would get stung in four different places all simultaneous of each other.  I must have swam right into a school of them and I could actually feel the tentacle wrap around my wrists and ankles like a whips.  My reaction was to run like a Kenyan marathoner to the restaurant we were staying and ask for vinegar.  When you get stung you're supposed to put anything acidic on it to neutralize the venom and I wanted it pronto.

So there I was, hopping and down in pain covered in sand and my hair looking reminiscent of Medusa.  Apparently the surfers get stung a lot there because they all didn't seem too concerned with my pain.  I was told to go rinse off at this little shack next to the restaurant before getting doused with vinegar.   I quickly hopped over to the shack and a Sri Lankan surfer who had been watching the whole incident closely from the sidelines walked over to me and told me calmly that the best thing to do was to pee on my stings.  I've heard of this and people always joke about it, so I laughed-until I realized that this was actually an offer of help.  He stood there, eyebrows raised waiting for what my decision would if I were going to hold out my wrists and say, oh yes please-fire away.  I politely thanked him for his generous offer, but said I much preferred the vinegar.  He just shrugged his shoulders as if to tell my, 'you're loss' and sauntered way.

Back at the restaurant the waiter I screamed at for vinegar was waiting with a bottle of red vinegar and lemons to rinse off the stings.  I told him a beer would also be needed ASAP.  As I sat pouring vingegar and lime juice all over my legs and arms the same surfer who had offered to pee on me returned.  He looked disapprovingly at my beer telling me I should be smoking a joint instead.  Again I declined his offer and this time he shook his head in disapproval and left-I did not see him again after that.

45 minutes and a liter of beer later the pain was subdued and was again able to enjoy the chilled out atmosphere that Arugam Bay has to offer.  I met up later with the Batti crowd for relaxed conversation and dinner.  It was a great crowd to spend the weekend with-two Germans, two Brits, a person from France and Holland along with my Canadian friend visiting from Beirut.  I believe it will be these memories and not the pain of the jellyfish that I'll remember most.

A visitor from Beirut

For Hala, my friend connecting everyone from Burma.
Last summer I lived in Beirut while working for the UN Relief and Works Agency.  A friend of mine named Hala, who I refer to as the tumbleweed due to her permanent status as an intrepid world traveler, introduced me to her friend Ramona living in Hamra in Beirut. I've known Hala since living in Cairo and she was the one visitor who came to Yemen to see me while I lived there.  For the past year she has been living in Burma studying Buddhism and meditation.  When she's not silent, she updates her Facebook and it was during one of these times that she put me in contact with Ramona.

Roommates at Barometre in Beirut
 I was looking for advice for places to live and Ramona brought up the idea of my staying in her guestroom...which I gladly accepted.  Later that summer Ramona traveled home to Canada and another friend of Hala's came to stay with me in her absence...Jess, a Kiwi and expatriate living in Cappadocia, Turkey.  She was and is a travel guide author and was updating the Footprints guide for Lebanon...just learned that she's been offered to be an author for Lonely Planet's updated Egypt guide. We always joked about the fact that Hala brought us all together, yet we knew her from her time in different parts of the world...hence the name the tumbleweed.  Jess owns a cavehouse in Cappadocia and we are hoping that a reunion will take place there in a few year's time.
 One of the many things I love about expats is their ability to pick up and move without much planning...especially if their friends are working or living in a place they've been wanting to visit.  A perfect example of this is my recent trip to the Maldives, where my friend from my time working in Afghanistan is working. 

This was the case with my taking a contract in Sri Lanka...Ramona was finishing up her two year contract teaching in Beirut and was planning to travel to India.  She's been to Sri Lanka before and decided to come once more.  I was beyond excited in that I remember when leaving Beirut I had told Ramona I looked forward to repaying the hospitality that she had shown me in during my time in Lebanon.  She told me I'd have to leave the Middle East for that to happen because her days were numbered there.  Therefore, my short contract in South Asia was perfect for her.

Last week Ramona arrived at 4am in Batticaloa after a 12 hour train ride from Colombo.  Coming with her were gifts of figs, olives, Younis espresso and bottles of Lebanese wine.  Cafe Younis is a coffee shop in Beirut's Hamra neighborhood and I used to frequent it...the coffee is delicious.  They also pride themselves in that they remained open for the full duration of Lebanon's Civil War.  I think I may have had overkill as I drank three shots of it after having detoxed on crappy Nescafe, but it was so worth it.