Direct from the field: Sri Lanka Rebuilding – Part II

Scuba POP, is a group of Bay Area PADI scuba instructors who are donating their professional expertise to help the Tsunami-devastated village of Madiha, in the district of Polhena, located in the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka.

November 1st 2005 – Some New Arrivals

Today at 6:30 in the morning Christopher Chin and Brandon Bond arrived in the village. Jet-lagged and weary, they dutifully followed me along as I began to tour them through the village, the training dive site and the school. Kirk and Jason had picked up our two new volunteers from colombo and drove them here, down south, on the perilous and circuitous route that is the journey to Madiha.

Just this past Friday, Brandon (an assistant instructor) had literally jumped from one plane (returning from his segment of recovery work in new orleans as a disaster preparedness manager for Kaiser P.) to another plane to join us in our training mission. I think he is still overwhelmed from the extreme sensory overload of NOLA, and now we are giving him even more to digest. Poor guy. Like me, he too was greeted in sri lanka by the curious occurrence of missing baggage. But we have our fingers crossed that all of his clothing and personal belongings will arrive sometime soon.

Christopher Chin is a fellow CDC instructor who will be taking over for me in the role as lead trainer to see our students through as much PADI training as possible.

I cannot believe that my three weeks are nearly up. It has gone by so quickly, and is a bit surreal. I have developed a deep connection with these people, one that is very palpable and real. It will be bittersweet to leave. But I know that Christopher and Brandon will definitely try to carry on our metaphorical baton.

Today we will be continuing our open water session with the young divers at our makeshift dive site. Vlad and I will be showing Christopher and Brandon the ropes so they can ‘dive in’ tomorrow.

The training dive site is located about 50 meters out from shore (compass reading of 270 degrees), in front of one of two local hotels called the Sabine, which is owned by a super friendly guy named Anhoura (sp?). It is not a very deep site and it is very surgey, but it is serving our purposes for the time being. We have fashioned a few rocks, as our anchor/sand screws, a yellow nylon cord as our descent line, and two blue plastic fuel bottles are acting as our float. Ingenuity and creativity abound! We have to take advantage of high tide at 2:00 in the afternoon so we get the most out of our depth – a variance of  3-4 meters maximum.

We have named the site Paramuwala, which means ‘mullet fish well’ in Sinhalese. This is how the locals refer to this particular area, although CDC instructor Tom Yang and I discovered a whole family of huge spotted rays when we were first exploring the site while skin diving.

The morning students are the younger students in our class – Ravindra, Thushara, Buddhika, Chathuranga, Osman, Jayantha da, and Inidka G. The names and the pronunciation of these names are now all very familiar but were definitely a challenge when I first arrived.

Tomorrow we will begin the open water training of the older fisherman; many have some dive experience, but they all need to be retrained as their current diving methods are risky at best. The good news is that they are very eager to learn and are extremely comfortable in the water.

And since both Kirk and Jason are here in town we are having a big party with the students tonight. What this essentially means is that lots of Arrack will be poured and consumed. Arrack is the local tequila of choice – liquor made of coconut and sugar – trust me when I say it is an acquired taste and that all of our students are connoisseurs of the Arrack. Their favorite kind is the ‘extra special’ bottle. What the exact difference is I don’t know, but I do know that they absolutely love it.

Since our rental house is now full with the guys, I am giving up my little room and moving over to the Beach Inn, which is where we take all of our meetings and store our perishable goods. I will miss the beautiful and timid King Fisher bird who visits my window every morning.

The Beach Inn is a great little hotel that is owned by Indika G.’s family. Indika G. is a 22-year-old guy who is always smiling and has been a godsend for the project as both an organizer and a translator – he speaks fairly good English. If and when Bill Oakes, the Course Director from CDC, decides to come back next October to conduct an IDC we will certainly put him up at the Beach Inn, since he is a creature of comforts Direct from the field: Sri Lanka Rebuilding   Part II scuba diving  tsunami

There is much to do before I leave to be able to transition all of the pertinent information over to the new volunteers. And tomorrow I will be presenting our program efforts to a local school for deaf and blind children. A British woman named Nerissa Pope has asked us to present. Nerissa has been instrumental in our program’s success because she kindly donated the use of her beautiful pool, so we’d be able to conduct the confined water portion of our training in a calm setting. Nerissa and her husband David live about 2 kilometers north from the center of Madiha in an idyllic house, nestled atop of a beautiful mountain. Nerissa generously volunteers for many local schools.

I will write more as time allows, and perhaps on the plane I will decompress and fill in the details of our daily routines.

Time marches on….

November 4th 2005 – A little bit of luck and a carrot

Being at the right place at the right time has proven to be everything here on this trip.

As our good luck would have it, Jason Firmin and Kirk Jobz (the CEO of mailman) and I were invited to Nerissa Pope’s house for tea on the same afternoon that the Programme Director from SOS Malta was invited, as well as some reporters from the BBC. SOS Malta is a non-profit that is focused on helping poor people in commonwealth countries get back on their own feet, and most specifically, in rural areas that are underserved. So when Nerissa introduced us to Claudia and then asked us to share our project’s news we gladly regaled her with the objectives, successes and challenges of our mission to date.

Within a matter of 5 hours ( no we weren’t blabbing for that long) Claudia was on board to provide us with 3 brand new boats and 3 brand new engines for our needy fishermen/divers. What a coup!

We were ecstatic! As Kirk put it "Malta ROCKS!" Indeed the boats would not only come in handy for current reconnaissance diving trips, fishing for the villagers, but also in the future to be used by researchers, students and tourists alike. So we decided it would make the most sense to put the 3 boats into the villagers use as a cooperative. Teams would be assigned to specific boats for care and maintenance, young divers with experienced fishermen,so people could take turns both teaching and learning new skills from one another. We want the villagers to be accountable and responsible for these boats, and eventually their own livelihood. We hope to not only make the system sustainable but to also cut out the middle men. Currently Thusita, the head ‘diver’ of the village not only risks his life to collect ornamental fish for a pittance, but then has to pay the evil fish company a leasing fee for the decrepit boat they have him using. So not only is he not getting paid a fair wage, but to add insult to injury they are gauging his miniscule wages. For this reason alone we are thrilled to have new boats so the fisherman can start to take home more money.

Of course, as a good teacher I have created an incentive program for this as well. There is a big test coming up on Saturday – so I have been teasing my students that they will only get the new outboard engines for their new fiberglass boats when they pass this final academic test! A little carrot never hurt anyone Direct from the field: Sri Lanka Rebuilding   Part II scuba diving  tsunami

We had two more media interviews today in colombo — a follow up with the reporter from the Sunday Times ( Marissa De Silva) and a first time interview with John Atwell, who is the editor of Machang Magazine and a writer for Reuters. The more press we can get the more awareness and funding we hope we can raise.

Being away from the water training sessions today has made me antsy! I am dying to know what progress my students have made. Yes, I am turning into a bit of a mother hen but I can’t help it, those smiling faces have all snuck their way into my heart.

November 5th 2005 – High Scores and big smiles!

Hooray! I just got the best news ever – all of our lovely students in Madiha have passed their final exam! They studied and worked extremely hard and they succeeded. I could not be happier. The whole team could not be happier – big thanks to Brandon, Phil and Christopher who executed the test this morning. And of course, tremendous thanks to Champike Yatagama who has been our fearless and dedicated expert translator. He has been so amazing and so helpful – none of this would have been possible without him. The students all scored better than 80% on their final PADI exam, which is not only a huge accomplishment in and of itself, but even more astounding considering the language barrier we have all had to overcome.

This is simply a testament to how smart and capable our friends in Madiha are.

Just for posterity the scores out of 50 questions are as follows:

– Indika G. got 46 right out of 50

– Chamin, Jayanthadas, Vajira, Janaka, and Prins got 44 right out of 50

– Buddhika, Thushara, Damit, Indika Muna Singhe and Mahesh got 43 right out of 50

– Amila, Indika Pradeep, Roshan, Ravindra and Srinath got 42 right out of 50

– Gamini and Chathuranga got 41 right out 50

– Wedage and Oksman got 40 right out of 50

We are all smiling really big, inside and out Direct from the field: Sri Lanka Rebuilding   Part II scuba diving  tsunami

Today is an exceptionally great day. Now we can deliver those new engines….

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