Monday, December 31, 2007

Romancing 2008

Awww... it was wunnerful. Totally womantic.

What am I gushing about? The dawn of 2008 on my end of the stick.

Since end of year usually means we're completely broke thanks to heavy bouts of christmas shopping and the mismanaged economy of the country, 31st night partaing was gonna be an unwelcome expense for the BF and I. Thus we decided to change the routine this year and celebrate in a low-key fashion. However, nothing about this 31st night was boring for me by any means. Noisy and crowded it was not... but a fabulous time I did have. Er.. why do I sound like Yoda? Never mind. Onwards...

So I'm seated at my dressing table dolling myself up for the night when I get this sms from him, inviting me to a particular location for dinner (undisclosed, to preserve the special-ness of the night). I drive myself there, and he is waiting for me. Within the next few minutes, I am silently led to a table set for two, dressed with floating candles. It is the only table around. Next to it, a pretty and painstakingly decorated christmas tree sparkles, giving the whole thing a very magical touch. As you can guess, I'm already feeling gooey and girly, and can't stop grinning my ass off.

I was seated at my chair by a polite BF, who was also doubling as the waiter and chef for the night. Yup... he cooked for me! (don't we gurls just love a guy who does that?) I asked him what was on the menu, but he refused to tell me. Mind you, I've been begging him to do it for two years, so I was one happy puppy when I saw how much effort he'd put into the whole thing last night.

But I digress. Let me share the rest of the night with you.

My waiter first brought me sparkling wine (the non-alcoholic kind, coz I stopped drinking some time ago) and we toasted to the new year and it's possibilities. Then he brought out a mushroom soup that I thoroughly enjoyed, followed by a fabulous 100%-authentic-BF-made mixed grill! Yummyyyyy. The food was impressively flawless, and I know for a fact that he did not cheat. During dinner I found out he'd been cooking since 5.30 that evening, the poor darling. Gush gush. I stuffed myself to the brim with the meats, egg, mountain of mashed potato and vegs. Next came the simple yet ideal dessert of peaches and ice-cream, which again, I whacked.
Dinner was, in a word, delicious, and I couldn't stop telling him that.

We spent the rest of the night curled up watching a hilarious movie that made us laugh till we cried, and then went crazy and danced like idiots to some funky tunes all by ourselves. At midnight we became kids again, and lit sparklers and spinning wheels and watched them sizzle in the dark of the night. We revelled into the night till exhaustion caught up and I fell fast asleep against him, not even realizing it when he gently covered me up with a convenient quilt to keep me warm. The next thing I knew I was being nudged awake at 4 am, because it was time to go home. Neither of us really wanted to end the night and part, but we had to, because mothers (especially mine) don't understand and jump to unnecessary conclusions.

And so ended 2007. It was by far one of the best new year's eves I've ever had... and it didn't cost a cent. :)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Kingdom Memories

I can't remember the last time I got to do nothing and enjoy it as much as I did last weekend.

A recent client event in Kandy gave me the perfect opportunity to turn business into pleasure and make a holiday out of work. Not having any annual leave liike the rest of my office, since I've just started working here this was my chance to seize a bit of official R & R. Plus my mum was out of town, which meant I could avoid a good dose of nagging, interrogation and opposition to claiming some freedom and independant travel. And so, I figured that I'd book myself into a hotel in the area for three days, giving me time to work on the event as well as taking a break in between.

But all was not as easy as I expected. To start with, I never realized that that many people were interested in Kandy, cos every single hotel of repute and some safety standard that I called was completely booked up. At one point, I'd almost given up hope, when desperation led me to calling up Hotel Thilanka as a last resort. There was a bittersweet moment when they confirmed that they did have a room for me. For lack of options, I made the tentative reservation, but didn't exactly whoop for joy at the prospect of staying there.

Yes, admittedly, I sound snobbish, but dude... the name itself doesn't sound very grand or assuring, does it? I'm sure I'm not the only one who's assumed that a hotel named 'Thilanka' is probably a foster-sister of the ill-famed 'Janaki' or likewise. It conjured up visions of a sleazy run-down two-star motel in my head - one swarming with German pornographers and horny couples looking for a night of action. To give myself encouragement, I checked every review I could find online on the place. Quite surprisignly, all of them were positive, and written by families and 'respectable' people. And so, with less reservation but still a little seed of doubt, I packed my bags and drove myself to a three-day stint in the kingdom of Kandy.

Let me start out by saying that Hotel Thilanka was completely unexpected. It's a wonderful jewel of a place, beautifully situated atop a hill and extremely well maintained by a very professional and courteous staff. Except for it's name, the place far outshone alot of three star places I've been to in the past. The rooms were comfortable and quite posh, the view from my balcony breathtaking, the gardens gorgeously landscaped, the pool a real treat and the service exceptional. They also had a lovely ayurvedic spa set-up that was fashion in a village/rustic style, that promised alot of good things. And yours truly is one heck of a lover of massages, so this was an added bonus to my delight.

Over the next three days I managed to let go of every ounce of stress I've been whining about in the past year. For the first time in ages, I got to think of absolutely nothing... I slept and slept, enjoyed some quite reading time on my balcony whilst seated on the fabulously comfortable and sleep-inducing padded deck-chair that the rooms provided, guzzled down the food which was, in two words, unexpectedly delicious, happily abused the superb hot water shower and rested like I haven't rested for a long, long time. Not having alot of occupants, the hotel offered set menus for meals, especially lunch. Normally, I'd have been disappointed to have missed out on the choice afforded at a buffet, but Thilanka's chef is a wizard. The food was divine, rich and beautifully presented in courses, that it almost felt like 5-star gourmet. Needless to say, I gobbled and gained twice my weight in three days.
It's also been some time since I took a dip in a pool, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself in their's. The water was chilly from the climate, but oh-so refreshing, and I jumped in more than once.

Similar to Kandalama, the hotel also features a bevvy of wild and extremely cheeky monkeys, who'd take any given opprtunity to sneak into my room and steal things, if I had accidently left the balcony window open. Luckily, I only lost a hotel box of matches to the fellows, and enjoyed watching them piss other guests and the hotel staff off with their antics.

I need to spend a few minutes telling you about my massage. Maaaaaaan.... it was goooooooooooood. I almost fell asleep while getting a 30-minute foot massage that left the toes tingling for more. It didn't stop at the foot - they even massaged my calves to the point where my legs absolutely refused to get off the table and walk after they were done. To top it off, local occupants get a 25% discount on the already reasonable prices and that made me very very happy indeedy.

Amongst everything, I even managed to find time to do some sightseeing in Kandy, and went to the botanical gardens and the Temple of the Tooth for some culture and sightseeing. I've been to both these places before, but it seemed like a whole new experience nevertheless, and there was so much more that I learned and appreciated this time around. Perhaps it was because I went of my own accord and not someone else's... or perhaps it was because I'm able to understand more than I did the last time I went, which was in the dim distant past of my schooling years. I revelled in my visions of what ancient Kandy must have been like, from what I saw at the Maligawa museum... all that gold, gemwork, grandeur... how beautiful a sight to behold it must have been. Very often, we fail to think about the cultural past of this country, and appreciate the majesty of what was. Sifting through the history and the stories told at the museum and the temple made me wish I'd been born back then, to see the kings, courtiers and bejewelled women, and to live in the simple and uncomplicated beauty of the past. Sigh. Why can't we live by the same rules and principles, I wonder... you have to be a completely retarded madman to think we're better off now, judging by the disasterous results of our so-called development.

Peradeniya was treat too. I couldn't remember the flower garden section from my previous visits, and was totally taken aback with how fantastic it all was. The landscaping took my breath away, and it was almost magical... for a moment I completely forgot it was Sri Lanka. Once more, there was enjoyment to be had, courtesy of the screeching bats and a group of hyperactive monkeys.

Now here I am, back at work on a Monday morning, disgruntled and stressed to the core at having had to leave my brief period of utopia behind. Perhaps it's a good thing, in a way, that the holiday was short-lived, else complacency may have set in and I wouldn't have enjoyed it so much, neyda. (Yeah... that's me trying to fake a good reason for coming back to Colombo.)

Ah well, I can only look forward to more gems of opportunities to sneak my way into some other haven in the future. One thing's for sure - these trips are God's way of reminding me that life can certainly be worth living, if you just give yourself a break once in a while.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

CHRISTMAS INC-orrigible? INC-apable?

A.k.a. "MY viewpoint of FBT's seasonal musical."

It wasn't even two weeks since I'd fagged myself out with 'Blood Brothers' when I staggered with the BF into the Johnpillai residence at Surein's invitation to be a part of Christmas Inc. At first glance we'd made up our minds that this was not what we expected. Rows and rows of little people... at least ten years our junior, seated around a be-spectacled guy thumping out notes on a piano, who by the way also seemed a good decade younger than I. In the course of the evening I found out that Mr. Specs was actually the musical director of the play, and the kids gaping at him were the cast. I also found out that he was leaving the country that night, and would be returning five days before opening night.

Uh oh.

Honestly speaking, my first insinct was to turn around and head home, but Surein is a long-time friend and theatrical comrade, and I owed him more than a "no way". BF and I were in the middle of giving each other worried looks, when all of a sudden Mr. Specs (hereinafter to be known as DAN the MAN) started playing the keyboard again.

And then the heavens parted.

I mean it quite literally... it felt like a who new realm just took over the place, right before my eyes. The motley crew before me opened their mouths and began to sing, and my mouth opened along with them... in shock and awe. These kids could sing, dammit! They sounded like a friggin' junior philharmonic choir! I could see BF's eyes open up too. Perhaps we were wrong to have judged so quickly, because this lot were sounding better than all the choirs and theatre groups I've worked with in my entire life, and they were all younger than 18. Suddenly, a show seemed quite possible. Even Surein was looking a bit astounded. One hour into the rehearsal, I decided this cast didn't need any outside intervention from us so-called 'actors'. Hell, they could certainly sing way better than I could, anyway. I asked Surein if I might help out backstage instead, simply out of fear of looking really, really bad in front of these kids, had I tried to display my theatrical experience to them and ended up sounding like a throttled chicken in comparison. That and the fact that I'd never had the chance to actually watch a play I'd been involved in
- my entire theatre experience being ON stage and never off. This would be a definite first for me. BF on the other hand, was conscripted to become part of the comic relief in the show. And so, Christmas Inc began.

The Process

I have to admit, the going was tougher than I'd thought. We had a completely new and inexperienced cast who could only commit to weekend rehearsing, a production budget of a tiny bit more than Rs. 0.00 thanks to a no-sponsorship philosophy, a production crew who'd never been a production crew before, a helluva funny (and yet helluva confusing script) with no particular plot and plenty of unfinished areas, a missing writer and music director, the pressure of obligation to three chosen charities that this play should benefit, and less than two months to make it happen. Not to mention a first-time 'choreographer' in the form of yours truly, who had no idea what she was doing half the time.


I wasn't the only one writhing in skepticism and alarm. Enter Ruveen Dias, who walked in one afternoon in a sleepy daze, having agreed the previous night to take on the role of Herod in the show. He took a look around at what we had to offer, and raised one eyebrow, and then the next. He spent the next few days begging for reminders as to WHY he'd said yes to the part.

Over the next 6 weeks, havoc reigned supreme at the Johnpillai residence and a few other cost-effective (free) joints that doubled for rehearsal space. I learnt that when you work with people who've not done theatre before, you tend to be somewhat cool in their eyes because you have. I must say it was quite a welcome change to the bitching and insults I've dealt with at other rehearsals. These kids actually WANTED me to give them dance steps and advice, and what's more amazing is that they actually ACCEPTED it. Wow. What was more amazing was that Ruveen a.k.a Herod, who'd previously wanted to bang his head against a wall for getting involved, was actually starting to enjoy himself thoroughly. He even agreed to letting me teach HIM a few dance steps and furthermore, practiced them!

Surein gave me a free hand to do as I pleased with the choreography and anything else I wanted to get my hands dirty with, and I had the time of my life. True, the cast was no group of ballerinas, but they tried their best, and it was fun churning out silly bollywood and broadway numbers, and not getting slapped or slandered for it. The singing talent kept taking my breath away, as did the sheer determination of these kids to do their best, regardless of their shortcomings in experience.

I enjoyed watching BF having a ball of a time with his role as one of the three kings (and/or wise men), alongside the ever-hilarious Ashan Dias and extraordinary Gehan Cooray. Between the three of them, they kept the cast, Surein and I in stitches all throughout the Christmas Inc experience. Then came the puppets. If you didn't see the show, you missed a real treat by way of a puppet show featuring a cow in a bowler hat, a retarded sheep and two sick-looking goats, all manipulated by the show's wise men (and/or kings), who went to town with it. Handling his sheep puppet was like a wet dream to BF, who's always had this peculiar fascination for making his hands talk. His eyes would light up like a three year old on Christmas day whenever he took the puppet into his hand, and very soon, he and the sheep became one (in a COMPLETELY non-sexual way).

Closer to show date saw alot of stress coming out, and well as a whole new lesson in the power of prayer and work ethic for me. The set designs were entirely handled by one tiny and pretty Korean friend of the JPs, who worked harder than an ant on steroids. She cut, chopped, painted and pasted her way to putting up quite a decent looking stage set, which I thought was a fantastic achievement for someone who did it for the first time, and for free, out of the sheer goodness of her heart and an effort to help friends. Dan the Man returned five days before opening night and put together a superb orchestra that gave such life to the music. Surein's wife Anushka masterfully dedicated herself to raising funds for the production by selling CDs of the show that the JP siblings had tirelessly put together. Dominic JP ('Domkey') single-handedly did just about everything else, from helping with CD sales, recording tracks, assisting with musical direction, playing in the orchestra, and even taking on a stage role at the eleventh hour. Not having money for producing new costumes, we dug into the costume cupboard at the Wendt and put together somewhat decent lot of clothes together, with some help from a lady who sewed the rest, and the cast bringing in their own stuff. Three days to shownight, the Workshop Players trooped in and took their places as the backstage crew. They handled everything from lights to props to make-up, and gave a by-now-much-frazzled Surein a reason to relax a bit.

The Product

I watched it all happen, with an occasional poking of the nose into make-up and costuming. Slowly but surely, the play came to life on stage. It was wild, it was whacky, it was reeking of accidents and inexperience... but it was brilliant.

There's no doubt that my initial fears and hesitations had ben replaced with much excitement and pride at seeing Chirstmas Inc finally happen in front of audiences. The three nights of shows brought us mixed responses. A few people sadly missed out on the fact that this show was not meant to be a commericalized professional production, but rather a heartfelt effort to help people in need, and a community project to convey a very relevant message. There were the audience members who felt they'd been cheated out of their ticket money, because they didn't get the show quality they thought they deserved. How I wish we'd been able to please them all, but then again, this wasn't a professional theatre group... there's no way we could have lived up to the standards set by the more experienced entities out there. That's ok though... because to me, this show was far from disasterous, and because many others did get it, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Whilst it's not fair to blame or fight a person for not having liked the show (to each his own prerogative, I say), there was much more to this production than the glamour and entertainment expected of it. Had the critics opened their eyes to more than what they saw on stage, then they would have understood what I understood in the process of working on this show. Here was a set of young people with more heart, more determination, and more promise than I've ever seen in any other group, coming together for what I personally think was a wonderful and worthy cause. It was not perfect by any means, but it was magical in it's own quirky way. Nearly three weeks since the show ended, I'm seated here still singing those goddamn tunes in my head.

After starting out as a full-on critic, I ended up being humbled and proud to have been a part of this production.

And the best part is... I got to watch the show.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Eyes Wide Open

It's been an interesting couple of days, to say the least. In the last week I've gotten a bigger glimpse of the world outside my bubble than I've ever seen before, and I do honestly believe I'm waking up to smell the coffee now, in the realisation that I am one very lucky person.

Let's start with my first revelation. Last Wednesday, I attended a research study on behalf of one of my clients. The research called for a team of us to go outside Colombo and visit families belonging to the SEC 'E' market (households that earn less than Rs.5,000/- per month) and find out about their lifestyles. To begin with, the mere thought of an entire family living on less than 5k a month - the same amount I'd probably spend on one night out or a pair of shoes - was an eye opener. We all know they're out there... we've seen them on documentaries and news features... but trust me, you will never EVER really understand or sympathize until you've been in their homes, and seen it for yourself. What truly humbles you is the realisation that it could very well have been you in their shoes... because there isn't a single thing different between you and them as human beings.

These were familes that defied every rose-coloured notion I had of what poverty is all about. I was never really affected to the core by someone's else's squalour until I went on that research, and sat with five of these families. The houses (if they could be called 'houses') were barely standing wooden/mud pens, with plastic roofs, that did not and could not stand against rains or wind. It broke my heart to see them so eagerly welcome me as their honoured guest, by offering me the one unbroken plastic chair they had. There was no furniture to speak of, save the odd make-shift wooden rack or table that singularly served as a 'closet', ornament cabinet, kitchen utensil cupboard, food storage facility and dining table, all in one. Looking around made me realise the triviality of us Colombo-ites making a dance about painting our houses for Christmas, when these people didn't seem to have the money to build themselves sustainable walls to begin with.

As I sat and talked with the five women whose homes these were, I found myself wanting to cry on several occassions. The level of education on basic things like family planning was appalling. Each respondent was no more than 25 years old, but had a minimum of four children to feed. Our research task was to investigate what comrpomises these people had had to make in their household shopping and family's nutrition as a result of recent inflation in the country. What a redundant exercise that was! These people had no idea about nutrition to begin with, and shopping was considered an indulgent luxury. Their understand of health was making sure their kids weren't hungry all the time, and if that meant feeding them rocks to fill them up, so be it. It broke my heart. To the clusters of children surrounding me in every household, I was something of a god, in my clean clothes and make-up. I could barely control the tears when one mother begged me to take her 12 year old daughter back to Colombo with me, and let her work in my house in exchange for food and a bed.

What struck me more was how resilient you become when you know nothing more than abject poverty. All these women, inaddition to being mums of four to five kids, were also the sole breadwinners of their families, having had the misfortune of being married to lethargic and drunken baboons for husbands, whose sole purpose in life is to throw the little money the family makes into drinking their fill until they're ready to stagger home and beat the shit out of their wives and kids. Not one of the husbands I was introduced to did so much as lift a finger to go out and find themselves work. Instead, their long-suffering wives wake up at 3 am to boil grams, make stringhoppers or porrige to hopefully sell on the roadside, in order to feed and clothe their children. It's a pathetic, but very real life that almost 20% of Sri Lanka's women lead. And yet, with all this, they smile. I may have sat there on those plastic chairs, gasping in horror at what I deemed was a 'plight', but to these women it was life as it had always been. There was such an air of dignity and acceptance in the manner they spoke with me, that it was truly humbling. Their children may have been dressed in tatters, but they wore brighter smiles than toothpaste commercials. And what's more, I also found that the poorer you are, the bigger your heart is, for all these impoverished families had opened their homes to dogs and cats, who seemed to be lovingly looked after.

The research experience left me frustrated at the system, aching to help, and infinitely grateful to the Lord for blessing me with so much that I take for granted way too often.

My second revelation came in a different format, which was a larger number of young people of my age. 64 to be precise. A few friends and I took up a offer from the Jaffna Centre for Performing Arts, to travel to Wennappuwa on Saturday and conduct a four-hour drama workshop with students from the north and south. At first, my mind was boggled with hesitation and fear of what we'd have to deal with, considering the political sensitivities that would certainly arise from mixing up ethnic groups from such far corners of the island. We were forewarned that most of these participants came from the centre of war-torn areas, and had a humongous load of personal baggage that we should be considerate enough to avoid. None of them would be fluent in English, and so the workshop would have to be conducted triligually too. With much trepidation and nervous jokes about losing our lives in the course of the day, we headed off to the venue.

The workshop was incredible. It was the one event I wish the bastards in government and the LTTE had witnessed, for here were 64 adults born in racist environments, who'd been brainwashed to hate each other because of race, getting along like long-lost friends. Although they didn't speak each others' language, there was never a moment of confusion or resentment at the lack of communication. They came together in the love for theatre, and I watched them work with each other in a way that even we dont as a drama group. And the talent was awe-inspiring. There was such truth in everything they did, and they were superb without knowing it... absolute raw talent. To think that 95% of these people would never have the opportunities that I'd had to take their art onto the main stage was truly saddening.

Once more, I was struck by how priviledged my life was, through the various drama exercises we did with them. We asked them to do group work and dramatize personal stories, and there was the predominant theme of war and militarization coming out. When they improvised home living, they'd squat on the imaginary toilet 'hole', and wash clothes in a river on a stone. Whilst one of our team members mimed 'bathing' by turning on a shower, the participants drew water from the well instead. Our differences were also quite obvious to the eye - whilst my team was so much healthier and happier looking, these students had rough living written all over their thin faces. It was a hard slap in the face, and a real kick off my pedestal. Amazingly, none of my previous concerns about working with these students even made an appearance through the entire programme, and I truly enjoyed marvelling at the font of talent I saw that day.

This Chirstmas has been one helluva eye-opening experience for me... I've been given two opportunities to understand the many blessings showered on me, and how incredibly lucky I am to lead the life that I do. I can't believe just a week ago, I was bitching about being broke and how absurdly stressful life was. I must've been mad, coz my life's a walk in a very lush park, in comparison to those I witnessed in the last four days.

So perhaps I should share a bit, eh?