The quirks of getting from A to B

I’ve had a bit of travel lately, journeying to the far north and east of the country, working with the few Grantees that have been assigned to me.  By Grantee I mean the small to medium-sized companies (more often than not family run) that need another person’s viewpoint on what the business needs, and then help them implement whatever that is.

My Grantees range from a small garment factory in a rural setting about 45 mins east of Jaffna.  They make mens’ clothing for the domestic market (it’s actually more local market as they currently do not distribute outside their province).  The owner is a young tailor in his 30s who primarily hires women from the local village who would not otherwise have an opportunity to earn an income for themselves without this factory.  Financial independence is a good thing!

I’ve already told you about the heirloom rice guys looking to do big and exciting things for the benefit of the farmers in the north-east trying to get back on their feet after the civil war.  Vavuniya (pronunced Vow-nia) was very hard hit by the war and continues to struggle to get back on it’s feet.

The third Grantee I am working with are also a family run business making woven polybags for the dry bulk industry – like those 10kg bags of rice, flour etc that you see for sale in Costco.  They are also entering a new market – megabags – primarily used to load dry bulk into shipping containers.  They already cover the excess orders of an Indian company run by a friend of the owner and are looking for a small number of their own distinct clients.  They too hire primarily women – both young and older who are primarily war widows or their kids have left the home.  It’s a rather innovative factory using the latest technology, a staff canteen (one of the few!) and there are plans for a daycare centre for staff.  Besides being socially aware, these guys are good business people and don’t need me much to do things, but rather help them brainstorm on ideas to build this new market.

All very interesting and new to me, it’s keeping me on my toes but in a good way.  The journey north is somewhat different to the norm and has me constantly taken aback with what is considered business as usual on the flight.

The flight to Jaffna is with a civilian operator, but is based on an airforce base on condition they provide free flights to airforce members and their families.  I’m not sure they thought this through very carefully as each flight I have been on, it’s been at least 70% full of airforce staff and their families on day trips!  Now I see why it can be difficult to get a seat on these flights.

I’ve been to many towns and rural locations in the north and north-east by now, and it seems to me the military have the prime property in every community – the most fertile land, the closest to the ocean etc.  The grounds are immaculately maintained and it’s not hard to see why.  The military are overstaffed post conflict but the government are not keen to release them from their service as yet.  For instance in Jaffna last week there were two young men killed by the police which resulted in much unrest and then a day-long boycott within the town where everything ground to a halt.  I waited to hear until Monday to assess if things had settled down over the weekend before confirming my Wednesday flight.  Because of this unrest, the military has kept it’s forces active but keeps them busy with property maintenance, running quasi tourist attractions close to the beach as well as growing heirloom rice.  Believe it or not the military are one of my Grantee’s competitors – they have an unfair advantage as they do not charge for the cost of labour, undercutting the price of this heirloom rice by about 50%.  Sheesh!

The security at the base is a little different to a regular airport.  In Colombo, a taxi can drive up to the front entrance but in Jaffna, that’s not allowed  Instead, there’s a bus that ferries passengers to and from Jaffna.  Sometimes a private car can get through but it sounds to me like it depends who is guarding the gate at the time.

I was madly finishing off water in my water bottle before going through security, but that did not bother them.  All the airforce security are looking for is weapons.  Aerosols, liquids over 100mls etc are all allowed on board as carry on.  Once through security, you are handed off to the civilians where everyone is weighed with their bags (the weight display is turned away from the public thankfully), your seat is allocated and the boarding card is handwritten.  The plane seats about 40 people.

We wait in an air-conditioned room with a whole bunch of excited kids racing around (airforce kids), the odd high-ranking military guy or government minister with his entourage and a handful of westerners who are either vacationing or working like me. Rain, monsoon or shine, you walk out to the airplane on the tarmac while military helicopters buzz and other military looking planes take off and land around you.  Up the back stairs of the plane and into your seat.

The first flight I took, no one told me the flight to Jaffna first stops in Trinco so you can imagine my panic when after 35 mins flight time, the pilot confidently announces we will be landing in Trinco shortly.  I thought I had walked out to the wrong plane!  It’s a further 35 mins  flight to Jaffna, but with all the take off and landing procedures, all in, it takes about 2 hours.  It seems the snack is only served between Trino and Colombo, and the hot drinks are only served between Trinco and Jaffna.  That is unless there’s a lineup to visit the cockpit.

Yes  you read right!  I thought visits to the cockpit were done away with after 9/11!  Not here it seems.  If there is no VIP on board, then every child of an airforce member is taken up to the cockpit to meet the pilot and have a look around.  I got to sit in row 1 on Friday only to realise the door to the cockpit is unlocked and I could probably walk right in for a tour myself.  I didn’t … only because there was  a Government Minister who boarded in Trinco and his security detail were fully armed.  For some reason the number of weapons on board did not make me feel any safer.

On arrival you walk off the plane with your hand luggage.  You can check in a few bags but this type of plane has no cargo belly so instead, the checked-in bags are loaded up at that unlocked door by the cockpit.  Most people don’t check in a bag as a result, it’s definitely discouraged to do so.

In and around Jaffna, the main mode of transport is bicycles, High Nellies to be precise. If you don’t know what I am talking about, then click the link and you’ll get the picture.  Women have little baskets in the front, all riders have an umbrella at the ready so when it rains you’ll see a sea of colours meandering along the streets.  If it’s a monsoon deluge, they head for the nearest tree for shelter and continue on their journey when the rain eases.

Once school is out, the roads are jammed with schoolkids on high nellies, all dressed in white making their way home.  Sometimes there are 3 to 4 on one bike.  No helmets of course.  The narrow two-lane roads are swarming with these kids between 2pm – 3pm and there is nothing for it but to pull in and let them go by.  A few weeks ago as Rukman and I were returning to Colombo from Polonnaruwa, we skipped lunch so we would make it through a particularly congested town before school was out.  It’s that bad.

Colombo is quite the cosmopolitan city, it’s got everything any big city usually has and is more western than I had anticipated.  So western I had to buy some western office clothes while I work in the city here.  My shalwar khameez are great for any place outside of Colombo so I’m covered up adequately for every eventuality.  It helps too keeping the mosquitoes at bay.

Although malaria free, Colombo in particular has a high instance of dengue fever – these mosquitoes come out by day, whilst the other kind come out at dawn ad dusk.  Either way, they are a little different to what I am used to.  They do not whine like those in Canada or Europe so you have no idea they are buzzing around until they pierce you unmercifully and you feel a sharp pain for maybe 40 seconds before it decreases to  dull ache.  There are so many of them, they find their way into your sleeves and down the collars of loose shirts … and oh the ankles get eaten alive!  So now I spray my whole body rather than just the exposed areas and this seems to work.  I may well be growing a 3rd ear by the time I return to Canada with all these chemicals.  We re told anything citron which works well in other places, does not work well here.  At least in Colombo there are not too many mosquitoes in buildings and such, but I’m afraid the same cannot be said elsewhere.  And most hotels do not have little hooks for me to hang my own mosquito net, so I end up spraying myself fully and sleeping with head covered under the sheets.  Even with this approach, I still manage to get bitten.  Sigh.  Maybe soon they will just get sick of me and leave me alone??

Up north, the available foods is “rice and curry” … for all three meals a day.  Rice and curry is a collective description for a huge serving of rice and about 3 or 4 spicy curries (vegetarian, chicken, shellfish (prawn or crab) or fish). Prices for rice and curry are half what they are in Colombo, and the servings are greater.  Even the smaller Colombo serving size is still big enough for Maheshie and I to share.  The Jaffna version can easily feed three people.  All very delicious flavours but I am always happy to get home so I can have curd & fruit for breakfast plus a relatively decent coffee.   Jaffna is famed for it’s crab curry and despite the messiness with cracking claws and sucking shells, it’s worth it for it’s very delicious flavours.  I haven’t yet tried to cook a crab curry …. maybe one day soon.

I’ll be back to the north again week after next, and will be heading east also in the next two weeks – it’s a long way by car to combine the trips and flight or train is not possible between these two destinations …… so we shall see.  I’m liking the travel these days, it’s still a bit of a novelty.  And seeing the promotional shots using staff for HeliTours adverts and then meeting those same staff in person as I check in, gives me a bit of a thrill.  The airforce passengers are all keen to chat and practice their English with me.  Some are recently back from overseas assignments in the South Sudan, others tell stories of life on the bases, waiting for something to happen in Sri Lanka, and one wife whispered a question to me – if Canada’s new good-looking prime minister would be relaxing the immigration rules anytime soon. Young Mr Trudeau has indeed captured the imaginations of many a Sri Lankan!

It’s probably the same world wide, but Sri Lankans are as anxious to see the outcome of next Tuesday’s US election (Wednesday morning for us) and worry if it’s going to be Trump.  Aren’t we all!!

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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7 Responses to The quirks of getting from A to B

  1. Mick Canning says:

    We’re all worrying about that.
    I usually overcome the lack of hooks for nets when travelling by carrying a good length or two of string. It’s amazing what you can tie nets to – windows, light fittings…

    • Kate Coffey says:

      Good idea Mick. It;s a camping net so has some string at the top, but this hotel room was huge and even the head board had nothing I could attach the strings to. My thought was to bring my duct tape next time and tape the strings to the ceiling and wall. Better than naught!

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