Thursday, July 19, 2018

Social Privilege

Not all of us are born to the same circumstances. There will always be differences in social status, which is determined by factors such as income, education level, occupation, race, gender, caste, lineage or even the social groups one's family belongs to.

Some think that it is also in the best interests of those who are privileged to keep it among themselves, lest they lose it for all who are in their "bracket". For example, males in patriarchal societies benefit personally from favouring the continued oppression of women.

Privilege comes in many forms as illustrated by this great image (Image Source:

Privilege differentiates most people in what they eventually become. It can even affect one's levels of confidence and self belief. There are a few exceptions where an under-privileged person may break out of that social bracket due to sheer luck or massive determination and reach greater heights. However, for most, social construct remains a limiting factor in being successful.

Perhaps differences like these make the world revolve and the underlying driver is related to an evolutionary mechanism. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism that have evolved in all living beings to maintain a superior set of genes in the gene pool, such as in the case of some have more dominant genes than give them a genetic advantage? The very concept of "privilege" exists because of the existence of two extremes. Like electricity requires two differing potentials to flow, maybe society needs differences to make efficient use of limited resources and opportunities?  If these extremes became less equal, the concept of privilege might vanish, for everyone involved. For example, if everyone escaped poverty, perhaps there won't be enough people to do less desirable jobs like farming or trash collecting. 

My job has also given me an interesting vantage point to observe how the concept of privilege works and it is probably this which led me to this post. I would think that I come from a middle-class family (not entirely unfortunate, but had some struggles moving out of a lower social strata). My work in the capital city of Colombo has led me to associate with people who are mostly of a higher class society (established in this social class for several generations). My work in various projects involving community livelihood development has also led me to see people in lower social classes having greater struggles than the people of middle or higher social classes.

Taking myself as an example, and comparing myself to others, I am privileged in some aspects and under-privileged in others. On one hand, I've been fortunate to have a good education but on the other hand, I may fare worse than someone else with the same level of education but with a family network of established professionals in the same industry. It helps to have mentors who's walked the path and social networks that will help with opportunities. If I had no mentors or networks, though qualified and even capable, I may not have access to good opportunities.

Some have to try harder to reach the same goal (Image source:

Just the other day, I was having a chat with Drummer Boy's mother and the lady who helps us with housekeeping. Drummer Boy has an elder brother who's worked his way up to a good job through his sheer determination despite losing his father at a very young age. This has made it possible for him to support his family well, including his little brother's ambitions to become a fully fledged Kandyan Dancer (it is an honorable title, awarded to those who have completed many years of traditional dance under a respected teacher, and it is an expensive affair). Kumudu, our housekeeper, also has a grandson who's shown promising talent in traditional dance and he's even won 2nd place in a national-level competition once. However, this boy's father is a drug addict, alcoholic and the little boy is a constant witness to family fights and his mother and grandmother being beaten by their husbands. A few weeks ago, while coming home drunk at night in his three-wheeler, his father had driven off a ledge, onto the roof of a house. Though the man was unharmed (by a miracle), he has set himself backwards financially and without a means of earning his daily wage for awhile. So this little boy's ambitions, which are similar to Drummer Boy's, may sadly never materialise.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The world of superstition and black magic

Every man is his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner
- Sir Thomas Brown

Of late, I have stepped into a weird parallel universe of superstition and black magic. Here, Science and rational thinking are dead.

(Image source: ILoveFunnyCats)

Black magic is surprisingly common, from voodoo magic in Africa or Gu in China, to what's practiced here. Although the people of these cultures have never met each other or are related in any way, they have developed similar theories and belief systems. It's sort of like convergent evolution, where organisms not closely related evolve independently to have similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments. So maybe it all stems from a certain common trait in the human mind. 

I'm not a believer, but I think the success in black magic lies in its ability to plant tiny seeds of suspicion, fear and hate in the minds of people and have them slowly grow into a garden of mental paranoia.

For example, the nun, I am told, is responsible for the fine white sand we see at our workstations each morning. I'm made to believe that she chants and curses fistfuls of sea sand and leaves these cursed grains in places where the person of interest (i.e. the target of the curse) tramples it. In this case, a colleague of mine. In the early days when this phenomenon started, we were able to laugh it off as a ridiculous act. However, over the course of two weeks, I have been observing my colleague's attitudes slowly changing from one of apathy to mild irritation to hatred. So, black magic works?

I have little faith in curses and prayers. If they worked, we would be having world peace right now and no child would ever have experienced rape.

The business of black magic runs on the assumption that many bad people out there want to make your life miserable through certain black magic techniques and that it is possible to shield yourself through other black magic techniques. So the cause of harm and the antidote are from the same source, like snake venom? Hmm... interesting. Most horror stories about the power of black magic are spread by believers, who indirectly help the practitioners stay rich. Hardly any of these stories appear factual, verifiable or proven by empirical means.

Like holy water for vampires, the shielding effects of black magic are supposedly rendered completely useless by simply sprinkling oil made of pigs. Yes, who knew pigs were the kryptonite to evil spirits!

Another time, when I was living in a rented apartment alone, the house owner who is also a staunch believer of black magic, hired a man to perform some rituals. Some time before that, he got into a fight with his half sibling over property issues. In the scuffle involving knives, he was stabbed on his hand. Since the incident, his dependency on black magic has only intensified. The rituals included sacrificing a live chicken and requesting to enter the apartment at 2:00 am, with another man, to cut lime fruit to ward of evil spirits and bury small bottles of blessed oil in the corners of the house for extra protection. Of course, I didn't stay the night in that apartment and since he informed me a few hours earlier, I bolted home (152 kilometers away) almost immediately. A few weeks after the incident, we handed our notice of termination. Now if he paid the man a large sum of money to make us end the contract sooner, so he can have the house back, then I'd say it was money well spent on black magic.

This house owner spends his days under the delusion that people around him (like his half sibling) are out to kill him and take away his property. So he too, chants at night, spends on people who claim that they can help him and regularly performs superstitious rituals. Recently when we came home from a break, we found oil sprinkled on the floor, for which we couldn't find a better explanation. However, it appears even he has a bit of doubt in his mind about black magic, because he still relies on CCTV cameras. 

Humans dislike the feeling of not being in control. Believers of black magic are common in less educated societies and countries with harsher living conditions. Even better educated people become believers due to their upbringing or inexplicable or helpless circumstances in life. They turn to supernatural explanations to try to make sense of negative occurrences. They are gullible to being convinced by people who promote black magic. They may be compelled to go to any lengths to try to get ahead and get what they want. An instruction like "sprinkle this (unidentified) powder in the food of your enemy" would be religiously executed. For all we know, this powder could be a concoction of heavy metals or diluted poison that can make someone sick over time. Or maybe free lance evil spirits who like to negotiate really exist and they take up small jobs in return for chicken blood, for example? 

Salt is an item of superstition in some households. Emptying the bottle of salt in a home is akin to a curse, according to my mother, her mother and many others I know. Salt that is accidentally spilled must be thrown over one's right shoulder. Funny incident though, one time, I emptied the salt container in the house (to refill later in the evening) and went on about my usual business. That evening, unlike most other days, I had an incident where I was left quite shaken. Coincidence, or not? Should I repeat this experiment to see if I get a similar result? * laughs nervously *

People in Sri Lanka are commonly seen feeding bread to crows (or children made to feed crows by their parents) during bad times predicted by astrologers. Some give specially prepared milk rice to crows in an almost religious-like ceremony. When I was younger, I was also once made a participant of this ritual. This particular superstition takes me to my next story.

Recently, I moved houses temporarily. On the day I checked out, I packed all my belongings to a tuk tuk and left to office. On my way, about 2 kilometers from my office, I noticed a crow fluttering about on the concrete road divider. There was heavy vehicle flow on both rides of the road. My conscience starting torturing me for the next two kilometers. How could you have left an injured animal to die on the road? Would you have liked to be left behind helplessly on the road to die like that? Can you imagine the fear that animal is feeling right now?

About 500 metres from the office, I asked the tuk tuk driver to turn back. It is probably too late already and the bird would have been run over by now. We had to hover the area twice to locate the bird. The driver stopped the tuk tuk next to the road divider, and amidst many honking vehicles and impatient drivers, we tried to grab the bird with my wet towel, that moments ago I had used to dry my hair. The bird wasn't ready to cooperate. It fluttered around, unable to fly. It went under the tuk tuk and we feared it was only a matter of time before it was run over by incoming traffic. Then to our horror, it fluttered helplessly to the middle of the road! We stopped the traffic and shooed it to the opposite edge of the road, where the tuk tuk driver grabbed it by a wing. I then threw the towel over it and grabbed the bird. Another driver stopped his lorry to hurl profanities at the tuk tuk driver. He left when I apologised and told him there was an injured animal.

After a dramatic rescue, the crow came with me to the office. I forgot to ask for the tuk tuk driver's name or thank him for being a great asset on our morning mission. The crow looked like it had a broken spine. My superstitious animal-loving colleague and I managed to feed it a bit of water. She said it was an act of great merit (i.e. good karma) to rescue an animal. On the contrary, I thought it is a responsibility any decent human should undertake if they are in a position to take action. 

Breathing hard in pain, yet, it never pecked us. They say crows are some of the most intelligent birds around.

With a badly broken back. The two tail feathers were perpendicular to the bird's body. 

After getting in touch with someone who works closely with the wildlife rescue center in Colombo, my colleague and I dropped off the bird at his place. A few days later he told me the crow was eating well, but it may never fly again. Unfortunately, that was the best outcome of the rescue mission. Part of me wondered if being run over swiftly by a vehicle would have been better for the bird than a lifetime of handicap in captivity and human care. 

Anyhow, with this act of saving a crow's life, my mother is convinced that I am now insured for life against evil influences.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Living on a dime

A Buddhist teaching speaks of the Eight Vicissitudes of life, also dubbed "The Eight Worldly Winds". These - joy and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, and fame and disrepute - come and go like the winds. The trick is to remain mentally unshaken by these ever-changing winds, being equally reactive for the positive experiences and the negative experiences in life. Because only then, the negative experiences won't break you and the positive experiences won't lull you into a fall sense of permanency.

I'm currently passing my second wave of "poverty" since year one (semester one) of my undergraduate studies. Growing up, our family didn't have money to splurge on but we were fortunate to have enough to live a modest life. My father was not able to afford a good education for us with his job in Sri Lanka, so he spent most of my childhood working overseas. My mother had boarded students from time to time and she tried out a myriad of small scale businesses to contribute to our home expenses. Of all the mini-businesses she tried (which included catering, cookery classes, making envelopes, cultivating mushrooms, cultivating ginger, sewing clothes, buying and selling clothes, pasting vesak buckets, making incense sticks, and a few more which I can't even recall now!), only the production and sale of soy tofu still continues. When I was a lot younger, I occasionally felt embarrassed to let people know this is how we got by because my peers were often from better socioeconomic standing. It was only later I realised what incredible resolve my parents had (and the things they compromised) to give me a good education and a fighting chance to survive in this world. 

I started to become financially independent around the time of my O/Ls (aged 14-15) through English tuition classes for about 10 children in the village. My charges back then were Rs 100 (USD 0.63) for a 1 hour (sometimes 2 hour) class. With the money earned, I was able to contribute a little for the house expenses and buy small things that fancied me as a teenager. Just after I left school, our principal employed us as teaching assistants in primary school (for about Rs 3500 or USD 22 a month, if I recall correctly) till it was time to leave to university. With this and the money earned from tuition, I was able to contribute to my share of rent and food. While studying in university, I worked all my permissible work hours (I think it was 14 hours a week back then) as a Student Assistant in various university administration offices earning between SGD 6.50 - 8 (USD 4.85 - 6) per hour, which gave me enough money for my general expenses, air tickets for the holidays and a bit extra cash every month to send home for the parents. In Dubai, I managed to drive 3-4 other people to work and back (I was also making up for the environmental sin of using a 3.7 liter fuel-drinking monster engine with a bit of car pooling!), which helped me cover my Jeep's fuel costs with ease. After I returned to Singapore, I didn't need to do an extra job and that fortunately gave me more time to volunteer at the Singapore Zoo

My story isn't unique and I know many who went through similar (or worse) times of hardship at some point in their lives. Also, there are many others who are in much more dire straits, not having the opportunities or the ability to crawl out of their current conditions. The point of reminiscing in this post was to probably to remind myself that I have the coping mechanisms to be resilient. Taking more than a 90% pay cut to return to Sri Lanka was a rather risky move (the struggle is real now), but if we played safe all the time, we may never recognise our hidden potential or even get close to achieving those near-impossible things we dream of! Life really is like being at a casino. 

My latest favourite comic strip by Stephan Pastis! (Source:

The following are some of the ways I've tried and mastered in keeping my costs down:

1. Walking, taking public transport and hired tuk tuks, instead of hired cars or owning a car (on lease). Trains with a reserved seat, as I have discovered, are the most comfortable transport means for long distances. For shorter distances, public buses are good too. Although everyone seems to be in a rush, I usually wait till I see a bus with free seats or adjust my time to beat the peak hours. Tuk tuks are also cheap here, and sometimes the amount of time they can save is far more valuable than the few hundred rupees I would save by taking a bus. 

2. We don't need as many clothes or shoes as we think we do. Over the last 2 years, I have bought less than 10 items of clothing and no shoes. They were all bought out of necessity rather than desire. Also, the clothes I spent on when I was faring better, mostly from good quality brands, have proven their value and durability. As an added incentive, I no longer feel compelled to keep up with the latest beauty or fashion trends or worry about the reality than I am aging. Unlike my younger years, I also don't feel embarrassed to live within my means or be open about it. Having said that, I did receive clothes, shoes, bags and such as gifts (more than I need) from friends and family in the past two years, which have kept my own expenses down. 

3. Food is something you have to be careful about. You can't eat less or poorly without risking bad health issues later. For my mornings, I mostly eat oatmeal or a local nutritious cereal (called Samaposha), both of which are very cheap and keeps me fit. My lunches are usually home-cooked and this has helped me to save cash, minimise the generation of waste packaging and eat healthier. I do spend a little extra on buying organic vegetables and multivitamins, which I hope will be a good health investment. As for the rest, my own home garden is like a mini-market so when I return from the weekend, I bring fruits, greens and some vegetables to last me the work week. Plus, my mother sends me with a lot of frozen food which saves my cooking time and costs. Occasional food treats are no longer a method of rewarding myself!

4. Monthly trips to the salons are also completely out now, except when I have to go to a wedding (see point 5). Earlier, I used to make a monthly trip to the salon to get services like eyebrow threading, waxing, pedicures and haircuts done. Now, I have resorted to doing what I can at home and my hair has grown rather long (and wavy) from a lack of haircuts.

5. I'm not very social and I am very content with my current list of friends so I don't feel the urge to socialise in order to make new friends (I am aware this also reduces my chances of meeting a potential mate, but this is not a deal breaker). I save a lot by just simply not taking part in social events because they entail transport costs, dressing up, bills for food and drinks, gifts, etc. I only participate in the social events that matter and those that aren't too costly. 

No, thank you!...but urgh, fine if I really must (Image source:

6. Sanitary pads can be a significant expense on a girl's budget. I shipped a stock of them with my cargo when I returned to Sri Lanka and besides that, I got a supply from a friend and several loads from my sister after she had to get a hysterectomy. I am covered with sanitary pads for some time.

7. Gym memberships are really a thing of the past. Owning to my lack of discipline for exercise, in the past, I resorted to paid gym memberships. Knowing that I've paid a big amount was the only motivation that made me go for regular yoga and Zumba classes. Now though, without that luxury, fitness and stamina are really lacking in my life. 

8. I can no longer spend on entertainment like new books, movies at the cinema, renting movies online, buying gifts for friends (I've asked some friends not to send me any gifts since I can't reciprocate), buying new gadgets and even travelling (the biggest deal breaker so far but it helps that my work involves some travelling). However, having a good internet connection is enough to satisfy one's basic entertainment needs. 

Fat and lazy sounds perfect to me too (Source:

These times of adversity have forced me to value the joys of simple pleasures and be grateful for what I have (which is everything I need plus a lot of love). I've found it has made me a little more grounded and conscious to the needs of others. It has also made me waste less resources. 

When I had a fat wallet, I knew it wasn't going to be forever that way. Likewise, this too shall pass. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The nun from hell

I shuttle between two offices during the week. Lately, I’ve been spending more time at my new office than the one at the UN compound.

This office is an old-fashioned, large, single-floor house that has been converted to a multi-purpose office. I learnt that this place has a lot of history. Even now, the building has remnants of various publications stacked up in shelves, novels written by a famous local author (deceased) and lots of artwork on the walls that depict womanhood through the eyes of various artists (they tell me there used to be many art workshops then). The place is owned by three NGOs that work on women’s rights. Things have quietened down now for women’s rights activists. Most of those young activists who started out many decades ago are old now, some have passed away and some have moved to other sectors like the environment (and that’s how I got to know some of them). Parts of the office have now been leased to other NGOs like ours.

Work of an unknown artist which is hung right opposite my desk. Pretty depressing sight, if you ask me. Shows a bride looking at a reflection of herself with two kids in tow, bent over a large pot of food while also doing other house chores. I'm going to request for a change of scenery! 

One lady remembers those glory days of theirs when they marched in the streets for women’s rights. She tells me that young people these days don’t like to do that. That’s true, I prefer to voice out from behind a laptop screen than shout out in the streets (even for environmental causes). My generation has it a little easier, I suppose. Back then, times were worse for women; there was more oppression, less opportunities in education and work, early marriages, female child labour, basically many things to fight for. Now there are little or no barriers in education for women in Sri Lanka. Career-wise, the gender ratios are healthier. Under-aged children working as "servants" (that's what they call them in Sri Lanka) are rare because laws are tough on people who try to exploit children. Under-aged marriages have reduced with better literacy rates. What remains are mostly the age-old issues like rape, domestic violence, power imbalance in marriages with a dominating male partner, unfair division of labour in marriages and objectification of women. These are the ongoing struggles of most women in vulnerable communities and some women in not-so-vulnerable communities.

This lady, who I assume is in her sixties tells me she worked hard and mostly voluntarily (to the dismay of her family sometimes) with NGOs when she was young to push for equal opportunities for women and bring about social reform. She’s quite the remarkable character and what strikes me the most is her skill in dealing with people from all social strata with ease; all the way from the top (politicians, high profile people, academics) to colleagues and down to the level of people who work for her (like her helpers and drivers) and people from low income backgrounds. Although she’s moved to the environment sector now, I could tell her passion lies in fighting injustice for women in marginalised and oppressed communities. She’s great (and hilarious) when it comes to conversations on open-minded topics, marriage, women’s reproductive rights, male chauvinists, religious leaders who take a keen interest on women’s genitals, injustice to the environment, etc. On field visits, she’s the best travel buddy anyone could wish for because she’s so curious to explore new areas, try new food from roadside places specially the home-cooked types, buy fruits and vegetables from small roadside vendors (and distribute to her friends later) and strike conversations with random people to learn about interesting facts. She still has so much fire and a thirst for adventure for her age that when I am with her, I feel it’s contagious. But this post was not meant to be about her!

This post is about another lady who used to work in one of the NGOs, again on women’s rights. I’ve been told she was quite the fire cracker back then. Now she’s become ordained as a Buddhist nun, lives forcibly in this office and emotionally blackmails anyone who tries to evict her, saying that they would go to hell. Normally, monks and nuns take up a life of simplicity, living on charity after having given up their material possessions, in order to focus on selfless service to the community and the pursuit of spiritual goals. On the other hand, this nun has become very possessive and has forcibly acquired furniture, appliances and even a scythe-like tool for cutting grass, claiming it’s hers now. There’s a box with a padlock in the kitchen, which I am told contains her kitchen utensils. She’s paranoid when vehicles comes to the office and goes, and she relies on a few neighbours to spy on “suspicious” activities in the office while she's not around. As I’ve also been told, she’s too curious and goes through our office belongings after we leave, so we have to lock up everything and leave nothing open on the tables. She acquires things like soap that has been put in the toilet for common use. She rarely speaks good of anyone, too, I hear. She’s basically impossible to communicate with, irrational, hasn’t developed the skills to respectfully co-exist with other people (which is why she can’t survive in a nunnery with other nuns) and uses the excuse of religion to establish some kind of authority over others through fear. Well, those fear tactics could work for someone who believes they can go to hell for offending anyone claiming to be a holy person or is wearing a uniform of a holy person.

Now everything I’ve heard so far are one-sided (yet similar) accounts from about three people. Being here only a few days, I am yet to meet this personality who sounds like a character from a tele-drama plot! On the other hand, it’s good to be informed. Given my hopeless level of assertiveness (as a close friend recently pointed out, I apparently have the assertiveness of a water flea), I fear I might be caught in the cross fire of these estrogen-powered politics and be expected to take sides. At times like these, I remember the ease with which I worked in an all-male team in my previous job. If there is no threat of harassment from male colleagues, things are much simpler and straightforward with men.

I'm no psychologist and my predictions of people have failed many a time. From what I’ve gathered about her behaviour, she appears mentally imbalanced and suffers from a variety of mental complexes like paranoia. She's most probably deeply unhappy, frightened and is probably a lonely soul inside. Also the relationship my colleagues have with her might be one full of misunderstandings and unaddressed emotions build over a long course of history working together, and therefore biased. 

Feeling compassionate for people exhibiting unnatural behaviour and trying to be nice to them or help them have almost always back fired on me, so I’m going to remain super cautious on this one. Also, this situation made me realise how much (good) relationships matter in life. You have to be ready to give as much as you are willing to take from the people around you.

On a positive note, I suppose we have to feel thankful to the women (and feminist men) before us, who fought for equal opportunities and created waves of change in society. The battles are not over, but it is because of their courage, defiance to conform, their struggles and their vision that we have the level of comfort we have today. So is it also not our duty to speak up for injustice (of any kind) when we see it around us?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

E.T. settles in

Two years ago, after I made the somewhat unsettling decision to move to Sri Lanka, I felt like I was an alien that had unknowingly arrived at the correct planet. Many years prior to that, I felt that my interests in wildlife conservation were a little strange and highly idealised, even. Having spent a good part of my early life stuck in the obsession of being a veterinarian and eventually having to concede that it was not practically possible, I thought it was too late in life to ever find satisfaction in a closely related job and that I'd die with regrets. It was my stint at the Singapore Zoo that gave me a renewed sense of hope. I still work with more people (i.e. lesser animals) than I would like to, but I feel strangely at home in these circumstances I have fallen into. For the first time, I've found many more people like me (or better even), so much so that I am no longer an outlier in contrast. For once, I feel that talking about saving animals and having those conversations at work is not something that would raise eyebrows or sound silly enough for others to make jokes about it.

Yesterday at work, we completed a 2-day workshop for 18 NGOs (consisting of about 60 individuals) who will be working with the UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme for the next two years. Sure, there were small hiccups here and there, but our efforts in organising the event mostly paid off. Even though I was on the event management side of things, I learnt quite a lot of things on formulating projects according to the Logical Framework Approach (LFA) method, applications of Geographic Information System (GIS) tools in projects and the importance of using good communications.

On Day 1 of the workshop, I was put on the spot with a request to be the compère. Despite the great lengths I go to avoid standing behind a podium, I get cornered sometimes. And being an adult and realising I was one, I had to play it cool. First, I was given the simple task to welcome the participants, do a quick run through of the agenda and introduce the first speaker. Being me, I messed up, of course. I accidentally introduced the second speaker first. After that blunder, I fared better. Thankfully, I realise that with age, I am getting more humiliation-proof. Those small things that used to embarrass me and make me very anxious are becoming fewer in number. Even the really embarrassing things that happen, I realise, are but a moment that will be soon forgotten, or would end up a good lesson or become fodder for a good laugh in future. And these are all equally good outcomes.

On the morning of Day 2, just as I woke up, in a state of semi-sleep, I mentally drafted the best opening lines for the workshop. I come up with the best imaginary speeches at that time of the day and some of those speeches really blow me away. As usual, I remembered none of that when I stood behind the microphone. The segments where I had to use the microphone for bossing people around to remind them to hurry up, submit forms, etc, were easy. Someone I knew from my childhood once pointed out (to my surprise at the time, I admit), that I am bossy. This small talent of mine for pushing people around, especially if they are lazy, incompetent, uncooperative or ridiculous and reverses the "forward-flowing" energy of life can be good sometimes. It's no wonder that I took a liking to the quality assurance and regulatory compliance (i.e. policing) aspects of my previous profession, which involved setting things "right" (to accepted standards), despite the unpopularity. This is making so much sense now. But Shuri, you are lazy too!! Shhh, this isn't about me. 

The workshop left a profound impression on me. The participants were people from different walks of life who bid and won grants (through a tough selection process) for environment-based projects involving communities to improve things in Sri Lanka. To see the vision and ideas of how different people proposed to do things, including the introduction of innovative solutions, were very interesting. They spoke with passion. Sure, these were only at a conceptual level for now, sounding great on paper, and implementation on the ground would be a challenge. Still, it was nice to play with the thought that if done right and all these projects achieve a high success rate, it would be a great accomplishment. Given the little experience I have gained from this job, I know that there will be plenty of obstacles, for example, failures, mismanagement of funds, disputes, unforeseen circumstances, show-stoppers or even grantees losing interest, after the project kicks off.

The projects to be implemented touched on various areas like eco-tourism, agriculture, community livelihood development, increasing biodiversity and environment conservation. I have already taken a special liking to a few projects that focus more on wildlife.

One of the participants was a young lady (possibly under 30 years of age) who's made herself a name in the wildlife conservation circles here for being a passionate and driven individual. She's made it her life's mission to protect the Fishing Cat population living in the highly urbanised city of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. During the applications process, she wooed the panel with her charisma and youthful optimism in wanting to fight the odds to carry out her mission. Fishing Cats are nocturnal, so many city-dwelling people don't know about their existence or the decline of populations, unless they become roadkill or are caught and killed by people for attacking poultry. In her project, she's used the Fishing Cat as an indicator species to assess the health of Colombo's urban (inland) wetlands, which are its natural habitat range. This is a project I am looking forward to since it is going to involve the building of an animal rescue and rehabilitation center (* gets distracted thinking of Fishing Cat kittens * SHURI, focus on finishing this post with a serious tone!)

The Fishing Cat is found in various parts of Asia, including Sri Lanka (Image Source:

One project is going to increase nesting areas and habitats for the wildlife in urban Colombo, such as for the endangered Purple-face Leaf Langur, insectivorous bats, wetland birds and the Fishing Cat. With an increasing human population in the cities, animals are rapidly losing their homes. While we can't do anything about an increasing human population, there's hope in trying to help humans and wildlife co-exist. The project will also carry out various activities to remove invasive plants that are wiping out indigenous species of plants and slowly destroying the balance of wetland ecosystems. The person leading this project is also a passionate zoologist who volunteers his weekends to educate members of the Young Zoologists Association. He has experience in working with the National zoo and he led a project which was instrumental in establishing the only official wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre in Colombo through a previous grant.

Another noteworthy project will be implemented by a university in the north of Sri Lanka. The project is led by a young gentleman (also under 30 years) who is a passionate zoologist and a probationary lecturer. He also wooed the panel with his subject knowledge, humility and his determination to improve the lives of the people in the area who were for decades affected by Sri Lanka's 30-year old civil war. Their project will involve the establishment of an outdoor laboratory for university students in the midst of a coastal wetland and will include boardwalks, etc. The site will also be promoted as an eco-tourism destination for activities like guided nature tours, boating and bird-watching for generation of income to the impoverished and isolated communities living in the area.

Another one of the projects is led by a leading herpetologist/ photographer. In November last year, he was part of a team that discovered the newest species of snake in Sri Lanka. In addition to that, his research findings have led to discoveries of over 20 (and counting) other new species which include snakes, amphibians, geckos and skinks in Sri Lanka. He didn't have a pompous air about him, despite his impressive career background. With my liking for reptiles, it was hard not to want to strike reptile-related conversations with him (nothing even remotely intelligent-sounding came to my mind, to be honest) or make him talk about his subject to satisfy my inner fan. I just stuck to small verbal exchanges relating to the workshop. I am happy and shameless to say I was able to manipulate the course of events and get a (group) photo with him in it. Seriously, Shuri!

It takes the coordinated effort of many individuals in various capacities to make a project a success. The grant that we (the organisation I work for) received was to oversee the knowledge management and capacity building aspect of several of these individual community projects located in the Colombo urban wetlands landscape. We are one of the mid-way links between the ground level and the funding agency. It will be our job to monitor progress, to facilitate project activities, to intervene when things are not going well, to link the ground level project persons with higher level authorities, to help communities to link their enterprises to larger market chains and finally, to use communication tools to showcase and document what the projects are up to and have ultimately achieved. Because ultimately, grant-based development work is part of a cycle where good work (as showcased by good publicity) will attract more sponsors and grants, which will in turn bring more opportunities to people and community level organisations to carry out good development work (mostly for the environment, in our case). That's the theory, at least.

On the downside, working with NGOs entails some effort to be optimistic and trust that people will maintain their good intentions and not become too corrupt in the face of extra money, and if they do, to be as vigilant as possible to close any loopholes that would allow it, without letting emotions run you over and make you form a too negative outlook in life. On the upside, there are several capable and driven people working in these projects, including young people who give the conservation field much hope, and there will certainly be a few successful projects that will leave a lasting impact. I don't know where life would take me in the next two years, but the end results of this phase of projects are something I'd really like to see.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The essence of new year traditions

Earlier in April, we celebrated our traditional New Year in Sri Lanka. This day is signified astrologically by the Sun's transition from the House of Pisces to the House of Aries. On this special event, the people who celebrate get into a frenzy of shopping for gifts, cleaning their homes, making/ buying sweets, following the traditions prescribed at auspicious times and preparing to visit and receive relatives and friends. All this excitement makes people generally happier and nicer to associate with.

Of course, what it really is (or is becoming), is a series of symbolic rituals because our livelihoods have changed much from what it was in the ancient times and the actions carry much lesser meanings. Maybe our grandparents actually believed in superstitions and meanings behind the new year customs they carried out. Their respect for these rituals stemmed more from a fear of consequences of not following it. Maybe even our parents believe those to a lesser extent. My parents' respect for these rituals stems more from a sense of responsibility to impart the knowledge and belief systems to their children. But down the line of generations, it's becoming more of a cultural/ fashionable thing to uphold as a member of a particular race. Like, I don't believe that not boiling a pot of milk at the auspicious time will not bring prosperity; I don't particularly believe that prosperity is linked to a simple action like that. Similarly, many other things like exchanging cash for the new year with some people will result in better or less fortunes. Or facing east, when we are asked to face north when lighting the hearth would make a difference.

This year, we boiled the milk over a hearth too. I was thrilled to see the milk boil over.

The excuse of the new year and the traditions that surround it, bring people together. Relatives we haven't met in a long while gather and enjoy meals and chats together, like they never lost any time or had any disagreements. Their children and children of their children meet each other and learn to play together. The customs dictate that you go house to house and deliver trays of sweets. Lunch and dinner invitations are exchanged. Gifts are exchanged among family members. The customs also require elders performing certain rituals for the younger ones like applying herbal oils on the head. There's usually new year games which are organised in villages and prizes to be won. In this way, social bonds are strengthened through the new year traditions. For this reason alone, I feel the need to participate and keep at least some of the traditions alive.

After all, what would happen if no one followed it or participated? Our lives will be duller and a lot more isolated from our familial roots.

Our table of new year delights! Lots of sweetness and fatty food - like with any other festival

This was the second new year I celebrated with my parents after a long gap of 11 years of being overseas. I feel blessed to be able to enjoy moments like these with my parents, knowing that these are numbered. 

Due to the abundance of food in this season, food is usually passed on (oops, was I not supposed to say this?!). What we receive from one house like biscuit packs and cake boxes, flow to another house during the visiting rounds. Gifts, too, are usually generic (like towels, sarongs, cloth material, cosmetics, soap, etc) and pass around while doing visiting rounds. In the end, although we are left with little material gains, we have generated a lot of satisfaction, having practiced generosity and good will!

This gift I received from the little drummer boy for our pond was not something I could pass on

New year is a horrifying time for pets and other wildlife in the area. There is a constant exploding sound of festive firecrackers, much like a war zone. Our dogs spent most of the new year day moody, frightened and under the beds and without appetite. This year, my brother had stocked up on firecrackers early. Next year, I told him we should do without firecrackers. 

With that festive event behind us, we are back to our normal lives, snacking on leftover sweets for tea.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Lessons learnt from the B&B: 2 years on

Our family just completed 2 years of running a Bed & Breakfast/ home stay. Looking back, we realise that we stepped into this venture quite blindly, which is not advisable at all when starting a new business. Due to lack of experience, we did no prior market research or risk assessment. However, we've learnt a thing or two along the way.

We are still a no-profit business with 7 more years to go on our loan repayments. Essentially, still in the danger zone. Amid challenges and ongoing improvements, we've come to enjoy certain aspects of this little family business. Meeting open-minded people from various cultural backgrounds in various parts of the world have been interesting and rewarding. Hosting and being hospitable gives a warm feeling of satisfaction. A few guest-host relationships have progressed into good friendships.

I've even found my parents' thinking and perceptions changing and expanding slowly.

Shuri: Mom, this guest has an interesting profile. He does a lot of social work in health with vulnerable communities and seems to have an impressive educational background.
Mom: Then he's ideal for you.
Shuri: I think he might be gay.
Mom: No, I meant ideal for the type of projects you do for work.
Shuri: (Embarrassed for walking into that trap, impressed by her wittiness AND her indifference to sexual orientation). Oh. *mind blows*.

Mom: Don't you want to find a partner like the type of backpacker couples that come here?
Shuri: What type is that?
Mom: They seem genuinely happy, are loving towards each other and enjoy traveling without the extra baggage of kids and being overly attached to their jobs and maintaining houses.
Shuri: Yeah, that would be nice.

Of course, not all guest experiences are rosy.

Once, a guest left at the end of his stay without payment. Some are difficult to please and expect 5-star facilities and services for a low budget, some guests leave negative reviews despite our best efforts to keep them comfortable and we've had to bear small damages to property sometimes (because we noticed it after the guests left).

Like a cascade effect, several people and businesses around us have stood to benefit from our business. For example, Kumudu, our helper with housekeeping has a better paying job now for less tiring work (compared to her previous job). Another lady who earns a living by running a grocery store and making string hoppers receives orders from us. The bakery in our neighbourhood has increased sales for sliced bread. Many other grocery stores benefit from our purchases for the B&B supplies. Another family nearby provides accommodation to drivers who bring some of our guests. Take-out restaurants in the area benefit from the increased number of orders from tourists. Many tuk tuk drivers in the area benefit from offering transport and tours to our guests.

Our operations team has also evolved over time to take up various fitting roles, depending on each one's interests, abilities and availability:

Mom - Guest Relations, Chef, Local Buyer, Head of Housekeeping
Dad - Finance, Tours and Transport, Repairs and Maintenance, Garden and Garden Harvests
Bro - Transport, Repairs and Maintenance
Sister - Overseas Buyer
Nicky, our dog - Assistant Guest Relations Officer
Shuri - Hotel Reservations, Human Resources, Records Administrator, Consultant, Naturalist, Quality Control, Marketing, Innovation, Sustainability

Shu's titles boils down to these actually:

Hotel Reservations (making sure the booking calendar doesn't clash with accidental double bookings and responding to inquiries from guests and potential guests), Human Resources (managing people when they become difficult including family, keeping them happy and motivated, and resolving disputes), Records Administrator (meticulously filing, collecting data in spreadsheets and carrying out analyses), Consultant (having to provide information for family friends and others who want advice with starting their own home stays), Naturalist (attempting to generate interest in the environment and wildlife), Quality Control (nitpicking and throwing fits when standards fall - the family hates having me around for weekends for this reason), Marketing (showing off our property listing online and trying to "seduce" guests into booking with us), Innovation (trying out new and wacky ideas, because no one's there to stop it), Sustainability (trying to be environmentally friendly and ethical to the best extent possible).

Sri Lanka is an increasingly popular destination for international travelers and expatriates who return home to visit friends and relatives. In 2013, Lonely Planet nominated Sri Lanka as the #1 destination in the world to visit. In 2015, Forbes Magazine ranked the island among the “Top Ten Coolest Countries” to visit. Condé Nast Traveler, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, and the New York Times identified Sri Lanka as a top location to visit in 2016. In 2017, guests from 39 countries stayed at our B&B (up from 26 in 2016).

Travel trends in Sri Lanka are seasonal. Six months of the year are considered the high season according to the national statistics; January, February, March, July, August and December.
National Statistics

According to the Annual Statistical Report 2016 of the Sri Lanka Tourism Tourism Development Board, the average occupancy is 74.76% while the hill country (which we belong to) records 75.24%. However, we still have a long way to go in matching the national statistics. And theoretically, it's difficult to match since we can't employ full-time permanent staff yet and we close operations when the family needs time off.

Statistics from our B&B for 2016 and 2017

Here are some of our lessons learnt, two years on:

1. Don't let the competition intimidate you

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board (SLTDA) actively promotes locals to open their homes to tourists. They use annual visitor statistics to back this. The result is an unregulated bloom of tourist guesthouses, home stays and apartments in all the major cities of Sri Lanka. We don't have an accurate count of such establishments in our city (not all are registered with SLTDA), but we estimate there are close to 500 in our city alone. While competition can give tourists attractive rates and a range of options to choose from, the competition hurts many businesses, especially those who have made big initial investments. In comparison, banks, which readily provide high interest loans to homeowners for tourism services, and the tourist board itself, which collects a registration fee and an annual license from registered tourist establishments, stand at an advantage.

Despite all this, using constructive criticism to one's advantage, being confident in your own unique brand (despite what your competitors do), experimenting with new ideas without fear, seeking advice from experts, and continuously thinking of creative ways to enhance guest experiences are some of the things that will help the business stay in the game.

2. It is a lot of hard work. Having a good team helps a lot. 

It's round-the-clock work, especially during tourist peak season - which is about 4 months in the year for us. We now have extra help with housekeeping. Still, managing calendars, responding to guest inquiries, arranging transport and tours, doing the breakfast service, shopping, paying bills, maintenance of facilities and managing accounts requires time.

Given the level of coordination required, a good team and good communication is a must. They must be trustworthy and capable. Managing the team involves identifying each other's strengths, quirks and the little things that drive them.

It's my parents, mostly my mom, who run the show at our B&B. It helps that she's the only pure extrovert in the family. As an unintended impact, we seem to have grown closer as a family and improved in our communication while running the operations of this B&B.

3. Reviews can make you or break you 

Everyone these days checks online reviews for travel recommendations, hotel reservations and tour operators. True enough, that's the most reliable feedback out there. Bygone are the days when tourism operators and establishments can hoodwink tourists with a lack of transparency in dealings. Modern tourists are well informed through various travel aides and experienced with travel. And as a responsible traveler, it has become one's obligation to leave honest feedback online for the benefit of others. This has made the world smaller and traveling a bit safer, which is good.

A guest review is final and permanent as far as hotel listings go. At times, maintaining ratings is like having to maintain an outstanding report card in school. Slacking will affect ratings and therefore sales.

What it means for service providers is that they will be held strictly accountable for their attitude, quality of service and facilities. This is where things like genuineness, empathy and attention to details scores the brownie points. Most important of all, we have to understand that our guests are people who, just like us, expect honesty and clear communication.

~ ~ ~ 

We don't know what the future holds for our B&B, but we'll try to make it a good one.


Sri Lanka Tourism Strategic Plan 2017-2020. Downloaded on 6th January 2018 from 

Annual Statistical Report 2016. Downloaded on 6th January 2018 from

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