An Epiphanic Excursion

Irfadha wanted us to be at the bus stand by 8pm for the 8.30pm bus, and I figured that while it was more my style to rock up at 8.20, it was probably better to be comfortably early than just a fraction too late. So I left home at 6.55pm, after having spent the day frantically writing overdue papers. As I sat in the taxi, though, I could feel my tiredness rippling so wide across my body that I was tempted to give up and go home. Instead, I decided to be a good Trail ambassador and reach out on Facebook to Sri Lankan friends and acquaintances in Boston who might be interested in helping out with a fundraiser.

(This is an overwhelming year, to be quite honest.)

I felt a bit better after reflectively nomming on some Fab patiss, though, and by the time I got to the Kotahena stop for the Jaffna bus (fyi friends, it’s just after the gloriously dazzling red façade of a clothing store called Zuzi on George R. de Silva Mw) I was mostly just excited for upcoming weekend adventures. Irfadha, B and I all managed to meet up with no hiccups by about 8.10, and chatted about all kinds of things until the bus finally showed up…past 9pm.

As I boarded the bus, I steeled myself for a long, long ride. After all, it was supposed to pull into Vavuniya at around 3.30am, and now it would probably be more than an hour later than that, especially since no one on the bus seemed in any particular hurry. I managed to snatch a moment of delirious humour amidst my ridiculous tiredness, though: after boarding the bus, I found it almost impossible to creep into my seat because the seats in front of us were reclined back at an absurd angle and the space between the seats was ludicrously small. Irfadha kept politely asking them to temporarily pull their seats up so we could slink in, and they kept not understanding, and Irf’s own seat was, it seemed, in permanent recline mode, squashing B who was sitting behind us. My too-giant backpack complicated things further, because it didn’t fit on the tiny luggage rack above us or in the tiny space under my seat, and I ended up chucking it in the aisle, for everyone to step (or trip) over.  It was such patently bad design that it was suddenly the funniest thing I’d ever seen, and I chortled madly for a good five minutes before I could get it out of my system.

Irf’s mother had packed delicious home-made burgers for us all, though (thanks, Aunty!!!) and I couldn’t really complain. After Irf and I did some munching-planning for the next day, I decided that the seats were made for sleeping, not catching up on work, so I settled down for what I thought would be an all-night nap, made somewhat challenging by a highly involved film blasting on the bus TV, followed by incredibly rousing music. I twisted and turned, but I slept, if not entirely soundly…until I felt Irf shaking me awake, eyes frantic.

“Nush! I think we’ve passed Vavuniya!”

I was too sleepy to be horrified, or even take any action at all.

“NUSH! I think we’ve passed it!”

I was sure she was delirious, and checked my watch. Only 2.30am. Couldn’t be. I politely/sleepily asked the man across the aisle if he thought we’d passed Vavuniya. Why yes, he said, we had indeed.

“Nush! Can you ask the driver to stop?”

I somehow felt incapable of doing anything whatsoever. I felt so hazy that I think I would have quite happily slept all the way to Jaffna.

“Um, Irf, could you?”

We both stumbled to the driver’s seat, and she asked our question again: had we passed Vavuniya? Yes, yes, we had.

“But we need to get down in Vavuniya!”

Once he fully understood our squawkings, the driver started slowing down, and I tried not to think about being stranded in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere at 2.30am. He came to a stop, and I noticed two magical things. Firstly, there was a tuk! At 2.30am! A mad miracle, at the very least. Secondly, I recognised where we were. For those of you who know my poor spatial recognition skills, you’ll know that this was a fairly major miracle as well.

“Where are we?” I asked the driver.

“Thandikulam.”

Wait, what? Of course I knew Thandikulam; we turned off from here to get to the villages. That meant that Vavuniya was actually fairly close by. So we woke up B, grabbed our things, didn’t forget the rolls of paper we’d stuffed in the overhead shelf or our suitcase of art supplies from the luggage compartment, and bundled ourselves into the tuk. In the middle of it all, I was convinced I’d left my phone in the bus (but I hadn’t).

We got off in front of Indran’s, which had a helpful piece of paper with contact info taped to the gate, and paid the tuk driver. He had a bit of trouble starting up again, and somehow the spluttering sound of the tuk revving up in the still night, coupled with my general relief at having arrived safely and deepening tiredness, made me dissolve into another fit of hysterics. Unfortunately, I’d just dialled the Indran’s number, and I couldn’t get the words out over my silent but rib-splitting laughter. Irf had to take charge again. I’m really not sure how I get anything done alone. We managed to get to our rooms, and to our beds, without further drama (although we learned the next morning that B had had a brief visit from a mouse, and that his squeaky rotating fan did little to help the situation). I had trouble sleeping again, though, and hammered away at the paper on the bathroom floor for half an hour before I managed to fall asleep.

While waking up the next morning was slightly painful, we managed to get out the door by 7.15am, and Kamal arrived by 7.30 (I’m now fairly comfortable with always being half an hour late for all things related to BB). It was a lovely morning; we stopped briefly at Sinbon for breakfast and lunch items and then we were on our way to Chiraddikulam. Taking the Omanthai road was pleasant, except for the dug up bits of the road again (and I had a brief vision of Mr Movie Star Motorcyclist from Tuesday). We saw a couple of peacocks in the fields, some monkeys, and a green-black snake slithering across the road.

And then, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, we pulled up at Nattankandal.

The children were already there, and I was simultaneously feeling really rusty, a bit shy about seeing my old Chiraddikulam crew and meeting the new lot of kids, and generally excited about being there for the first time after ages. I recognised Nirmala, Yalini, Loheswari, Thibadharshini, and Pavithra, and one of them (I really wish I remembered who, but I think it was Nirmala) immediately asked, “Are the Kakkaiyankulam children coming too?” I couldn’t have asked for a better sign that for these kids, it didn’t matter that it had taken a bumpy hour-long car-sickness-inducing ride there and back each week to even start a workshop, or that it had been two years since they’d seen each other (or me). In that moment, I decided that I really ought to keep those connections going, even if workshops will never be as regular as they once were. With these kids, it doesn’t seem to matter. But on reflection, why should it? I still treasure my own trip to Jaffna when I was 16, even though I’ve never seen the Chundikulli Girls’ School prefects since. During our Friday morning chat, my QYL mentor Peter Danby observed the same thing about BB, that it didn’t matter how far between the interactions were for them to be valuable, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that I really had had this impact on the kids’ lives. Now, I finally feel like I can.

We decided to keep the workshop simple: a game at the beginning and at the end, with two art activities in the middle (mirror portraits and the paper wall mural). We taught them Fruit Bowl, and Kamal and B oversaw the game while Irf and I prepared for the mirror portrait activity (it reminded me why I didn’t have another job while I did Building Bridges; Alison Coward is absolutely right in her observation that it takes way longer to plan a workshop than it does to run it!).

We divided the kids into five groups of eight, and told them to ask someone opposite them five questions, and draw a portrait based on that. Something got lost in translation though, and the kids were just so pleased to see the paint that they started drawing what they wanted to, and (as always) everyone started drawing the same thing. Some groups gravitated towards landscapes, some followed one girl who had understood the exercise and happened to all draw students sitting at a school desk, and a bunch of boys in one group all drew brightly coloured flowers. Making our challenging directives clear is always a test, as is encouraging original thinking. Perhaps it would have helped if we’d given out the interview instructions first and asked them to paint a picture of it after they’d completed it, and forced the kids to split up into pairs rather than groups. They still enjoyed themselves, and while we tried to clarify a bit, we decided it was most important to have fun.

After a break of milk and buns, we moved into the second half of the workshop. We’d meant to do a kind of round robin drawing activity, but decided it was probably more fun to do a paper wall mural. When trying to set up, we realised we didn’t have any tape, until I fished out some blue and yellow chevron Daiso washi tape that I always take around with me because I’m weird and can’t bear to be parted from my stationery. The paper held up fine, so we set up the paints and water outside and asked them to paint/draw a picture of their village. It was interesting to watch how they constrained themselves to the borders of each A1 sheet, even though everything was taped together so as to be continuous. It was a lot of fun, even though (again) it was easier to copy than to be original, and my drawing of a bicycle spawned two others just like it in close proximity.

We decided that the mural had constituted a sort of natural end in itself, so we decided not to play a final game of Dog and the Bone, but to wrap up the workshop with some feedback. To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me to get instant feedback before. I’d always thought I’d ask for feedback at the end of the whole workshop series, and it never happened. I’m indebted to a QYL advisory mentor meeting with Susan Dolan and a group QYL Skype session on design thinking with Hazel White on Wednesday, though. In our session, Susan literally demanded that I interview the children and ask them directly how the programme changed their lives, while Hazel ended her own session with a suggestion to ask for feedback after workshops using a variation of “I like, I wish, I wonder” – hers was “I like, I dislike, I suggest”. I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask the kids how BB “changed their lives” (it felt too presumptuous – sorry I’m so bad at self-promo, Susan!), but I did ask them about that morning’s workshop using the “I like, I dislike, I suggest” framework.

The kids really struggled with the idea of providing critical feedback – I’m not sure they’ve ever had anyone ask them to be so forthright. In a sense, it goes against the cultural grain (I’m reminded of a story my mother told about a dear aunt who would serve awfully bitter tea, but they all liked the aunt so much that they never once told her how they felt about it, and gulped down their tea all smiles). Indeed, I myself often wonder when to be vocal about things that bother me and when to let them simply wash past me. In this case, though, I figured the workshops can only be better if the children tell us what resonates with them, even though I can still see lots of flaws in that argument – namely that this kind of programme is so foreign to them that they don’t have much of a framework for making suggestions, and that it’s easier to be lazy and gravitate towards the games than towards the exercises that you have to really grapple with and think about. But, you know, experimentation!

As expected, it was a bit like pulling teeth. We tried to help by doing our own set of “I like, I dislike, I suggest” for them to follow on. We got a lot of kids saying fairly generically that they liked Fruit Bowl, or the painting, or everything, and a lot of silence for what they didn’t like, until they hit upon the fact of not liking the rubbish (even though they themselves had thrown away their milk cartons on the ground outside) and then we had about ten people saying the same thing. There were also requests for drama, dance, and singing in the following workshop. We’ve taken a video of the feedback, and there’ll be an edited transcript here shortly. Also, I’m going to buy a few brooms from Vavuniya town and take them with me, the next time I’m there, and I’m sorely tempted to take along some people who can help them with a rubbish disposal programme in January. (Help, anyone?)

We also chatted to the original workshop kids from Chiraddikulam really briefly, and they surprised me with their memories, including Nirmala’s recollection of constructing and painting the playground way back in 2010 (in fact, my post on that isn’t even on this blog!). They’d enjoyed the arts and crafts sessions we’d had, the drama exercises, and all the games. It was so lovely and so heartening, and I left feeling more joyful and invigorated about Building Bridges than I have in a while. Feedback, y’all. It really helps.

Also, a note: my Chiraddikulam girls are all in Grade 11 now, but they came anyway. Plus, they’re prefects. I’m not so sure I can claim to have had any hand in that, but Irf quite excitedly pointed out that even if there were no causation or correlation involved, it was at least a delightful coincidence and definitely a proud moment. We also got their numbers, whoo! Time to keep in touch.

And then it was off to Kakkaiyankulam, munching lunch as we went. We got there earlier than expected (I’m getting really good at budgeting plenty of breathing space into workshops now!) and had some time to really chat about the workshop. I realised how nice a check-in is, even if you think you know what you’re doing and the games or activities feel fairly familiar. We had 13 students for this second workshop (a bit more manageable than the 40 in the morning!) of which one was a new face, Nasmin. He and Fausan appeared to be great cronies. We started off with a game of Fruit Bowl, but it felt a bit strange – the kids were so much older, the girls were more restrained, and it didn’t have the newness that it had in Nattankandal. Even if it’s awkward, though, it’s a good way to get moving, although it was much shorter than it was in the previous workshop.

We decided to change things up a bit based on what we observed from our first workshop. Irfadha had an exercise that prompted participants to draw a picture of how they saw themselves, and how they felt other people saw them. We decided to simplify it a bit, and ask the children to draw where they thought they would be in five years. We were treated to an array of vocations: teachers, gardeners, policemen, photographers, and one who simply wanted to be a VIP who took selfies in Trincomalee (Nasmin). I couldn’t help but cackle at that one. Then it was break time, and we had milk and buns again, before launching into a brief and riotous game of Dog and the Bone (what is it about that game that never makes it old?).

For the second exercise, Irf drew some beautiful desert islands and gave them to the two groups, asking them to imagine they were stranded on one and to think about what two things they would take with them. We only told them the second part of the prompt after they were done – to combine their items to get off the island. One group fared fairly well (Aasir is quite the innovative thinker – how does that happen, really?) while the other group floundered a bit and finally told us firmly that they were happy to just stick on their island. We laughed and stopped giving them a hard time.

We settled down to a final feedback session, which took a bit of a detour when Fausan and Nasmin requested that we have break-dancing and techno music in future (whereupon Nasmin showed us some of his dancing skills) and then turned into this wonderful crowding-round-the-table cacophony of ideas. I’ll include a transcript of the full feedback session, but here’s the gist of it: They missed the writing! And the role play! They missed rehearsals! They still remembered the names of all the characters in our ill-fated little play and wanted more. I was so surprised that I actually demanded in English, “Wait, you enjoyed that?” Aasir asked if they could combine all the activities: write stories that they could turn into plays and act. I also suggested that perhaps they could make the sets for the play as well, and they readily assented.

Basically, they miss Building Bridges, and it doesn’t matter that it’s taken me two and a half years to come back. I don’t understand why they still haven’t learned their lesson re: my showing up skills, but as always, they asked me when I’d be back next. I was honest, and told them I’m in grad school in the US, and that I can only realistically come back in December or January. They didn’t seem to mind, only beamed in anticipation. In some ways, I don’t understand their eternal hope at all. I think that perhaps I’m too privileged to really comprehend that kind of acceptance. I’m grateful, albeit slightly guilty, that the kids would like to see me again soon, but I’m also learning that they are more than willing to pick up where we left off, in a way that’s so generous and uncomplicated that I can’t quite believe it’s true. O children, how much you teach me.

And then it really was time to head back, munching biscuits (Maliban Real Temptation, no less) on the way. We reached Vavuniya without incident, and headed to our rooms to shower. And then we encountered some drama. Just as I’d finished showering, I heard some anguished squeaks from outside, and on asking what was the matter, I was told that there was a mouse in our room. Possibly yesterday’s mouse, or its brother. It didn’t really matter. All I could see, standing under the shower, was that there seemed to be a large-ish gap under the door under which a mouse of even ample proportions could easily wriggle through. I hastily dressed and stepped out, by which point the mouse seemed to have disappeared. Irf went in to shower, and after some cautious scanning of the room I settled down to blog. Within the space of ten minutes, though, I saw it again! It seemed somewhat lacking in the tail department, but I didn’t have too much time to inspect its figure as I was doing a little squeak-dance of my own.

I called B and one of the hotel guys for help, but the mouse appeared to have disappeared into its special hiding place again. Hotel guy tried to placate me, saying, “Don’t worry miss! It doesn’t do any harm,” and I nearly went into conniptions.  No, friend. I do not wish to share my room with a mouse, especially when I’ve brought snacks. I told him firmly that I would like to be shifted to another room, and called Mr Kanapathy to see if there were rooms in another guest house. In retrospect, I think it was largely my tiredness-hysteria talking. Indran’s has degenerated a great deal since my last visit in 2014. It’s poorly maintained, the sheets and towels always look a bit suspicious, door handles and locks are rusting, the bathrooms are awful, and it all just looks fairly scruffy. I just wanted to be able to go to sleep at the end of the day without worrying about whether my pillowcase had been recently laundered. (Btw, I learned that Nelly Star has singles for Rs. 3000 and doubles for Rs. 4200, which is slightly steep, but hey, it’s my money.) We decided to stay on at Indran’s for the night, and B and Irf got to meet Mr K! Mouse notwithstanding, I had to admit that everything was fairly super.

We sauntered out to White Stone for dinner, and had delicious garlic rice, devilled prawns, and paneer. Nothing beats that saiver kade I ate at (with Munch and Reza, I believe?) way back when – although apparently it’s no longer in business – but White Stone is pretty consistently damn good. I deliberately ate too much, and by the time we rolled back to Indran’s I was exhausted. I had just a smidge of energy left to pay the bill, and then it was to bed in new, hopefully-mouseless room.

The trip back was much the same as always – I love second class, and managed to get Tuesday’s blog post written on the journey. My phone went bust in the middle though (its power button had been acting up and now it seemed to have permanently gone on strike), so of course my phone refused to turn on right after I managed to call my Uber, and he was pretty cross with me when he found he couldn’t contact me, ha. He kept telling me that one minute later he would have cancelled the ride, and I kept agreeing with him loudly (uh, I would have just called another cab? your threat is somewhat empty, mister) so eventually he became fairly friendly, although he – like many people – did not seem to know that it’s no more than a five-hour trip by train to Vavuniya. Thinking on it more and more, I have to admit that Building Bridges is an entirely odd undertaking from conception to execution, and I’m so lucky to be able to consider Vavuniya my second home in Sri Lanka, rather than some mystical and potentially threatening destination far far away.

This post has been a long time in the making, but now it’s going up! There are MANY photos from this workshop (mine, Irf’s and B’s), and I’m trying to figure out how to collate and display them all. Bear with me and this terrible words-sans-images post as I figure it out.

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