Lost in translation

Working through translators are par for the course in this job. Even our here in Angola where my Portuguese is slowly slowly improving, if it’s a particularly important matter where we really can’t have any confusion I will use a translator (the extent of my vocabulary is somewhat limited!)

Even so, occasionally what we are saying, no matter how clear we try to be, something’s get ‘lost in translation’.

I was having a good belly laugh with one of my colleagues yesterday about our experiences…

She was speaking with a supervisor about the amount of work he was doing. She thought he had taken on more than he could cope with and so told him he had ‘bitten off more than he could chew’. He said ok but looked quite dejected.

She returned a week later around lunchtime and found him not eating. Now in Cambodia when food is up for grabs, it generally disappears fairly quickly but no matter how much she offered he continue to refuse the food.

When she eventually managed to extract the reason why, she established that the week before her translator had translated ‘bitten off more than you chew’ to be “she thinks you eat too much” and so ever since the poor bloke had been starving himself!

.     You have to wonder how red painted sticks can cause SUCH confusion!

In Mozambique my colleague was on a money saving campaign and was trying to find ways to cut costs. We mark our minefields with red painted sticks and he recognised that a lot of paint was being used painting the entire stick when really painting the top would suffice.

Through his translator, he instructed his supervisors to just paint the top half of the stick from now on….or so he thought!

He returned to the minefields the following week to see several deminers NOT demining and instead they were methodically scrapping all the paint off the bottom half of marking sticks. When he asked why the supervisor replied that the previous week he had given the strict instruction that from now on “all minefields are only allowed to have half painted sticks”!

Occasionally if we are clearing minefields on a site which had been the scene of heavy fighting during the war we find bones of a soldier who succumbed to his death on the battlefield. A colleague had been on such a minefield one day and given that these bones have been there for such a long time and any family long since gone, it is impossible to locate any relatives to remove the bones.

So she instructed her supervisor to inform the local police before conducting a small ceremony and burying the bones.

Returning a few weeks later she asked, through her translator, whether the supervisor had conducted the ceremony for the ‘skeleton’. The supervisor looked confused so she asked; did you tell the police about the ‘skeleton’? He again looked confused but said yes, he had spoken to the police about the site.

She persisted and asked ‘well did you buy some rice and coca cola to give as an offering to the skeleton before it was buried?’ He looked even more confused so she went to the site of the bones, they were gone so she assumed her instruction had been followed.

It wasn’t until later in the day when her translator asked if she could show him a skeleton because he hadn’t seen one before! Now it was she who looked confused. She asked him to clarify and established that her translator thought a ‘skeleton’ was a type of landmine and so had actually been asking the supervisor ‘did he do a ceremony with rice for a landmine?’ and ‘did he inform the police before he buried the landmine?’ Etc…

No wonder the poor supervisor looked thoroughly confused!

I must remember to not use colloquial sayings when I speak through translators…I dread to think how ‘never judge a book by its cover’ and ‘if life deals you lemons make lemonade’ might end up being translated!

Family fortunes

Every Christmas (post present opening, Christmas dinner and afternoon nap) we have a tradition to meet up with another family. We have all grown up together and each year, alternating between our 2 houses, the routine remains the same – more presents, lots of chocolate then GAMES!

One of the ‘kids’ (we are now all grown ups but still refer to ourselves as the adults and the kids) is a big fan of playing games…you know who you are Soph!

As the designated ‘game selector’ she has come up with some legendary options in past years – the humming game probably remaining king of them all in the hilarity stakes.

This year we played Family Fortunes, a version of the 1980’s TV show.

Why am I telling you this…? It’s because today’s blog comes in the form of Family Fortunes!

So “if I asked 100 people to name something to do to keep yourself entertained with no electricity and on a rainy day in a  very remote town in northern Sri Lanka?”….our survey said…..

1.       Read a book – definitely the number 1 answer!

2.       Cook some food (only if you have a gas cooker)

3.       Write your blog (offline of course because no power = no internet)

4.       Sleep

5.       Listen to music (until laptop / speaker / ipod batteries run out)

Answers for which you would most certainly NOT get points for…

1.       Surf the internet

2.       Watch TV

3.       Go for a walk (when it rains it RAINS here)

4.       Bake a cake (I might have a gas cooker but the oven part is electric!)

If you’ve got any bright ideas, answers on a postcard please!

Hungry, grumpy or thirsty? Define ‘Resolution’

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This is my new paperweight – a souvenir from my top new years mini-break in Devon. All I can say is you will never appreciate the value of a paperweight until you live in a hot country and your office fan creates perpetual wind tunnel.
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On returning to Sri Lanka I discovered it is obligatory to shake hands and wish everyone you meet ‘a Happy New Year’.
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During one of these handshaking moment I was chatting with one of my staff and asked them what their New Year’s resolution was. They replied ‘what’s resolution’  and it got me thinking.
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According to dictionary.com it means “a resolve or determination: to make a firm resolution to do something”.

So why then do we spend the first few days, weeks, months (or mere hours in the case of some…you know who you are!) existing on lettuce leaves, being grumpy from nicotine withdrawal, craving a barrel load of Merlot or dragging ourselves to the gym on wet and windy winter nights?
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All in the name of ‘New Years Resolutions’.
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So this year I decided instead of GIVING something up that I would ‘resolve’ to TAKE something up! After all you can never have too many party tricks up your sleeve…
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Step 1; decide on something I want to take up
Step 2; figure out which of these things is realistic living in the wilds of  Sri Lanka!
Step 3; thank the Lord for the internet.
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Last year I decided I was watching far much crap on the TV, 1000 channels and not a single good programme – other than Lie to Me which I really got quite hooked on – so I starting teaching myself the mouth organ (ref back to step 3 above). I can now perform a passable rendition of Billie Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ . This year I resolve to get better.
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Becoming a better cook is a toughie with no decent supermarket in town and I would like to learn to ride a motorbike with more confidence than my currently wobbly attempts but the rainy season is not really allowing for that right now.
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However fear not, the list goes on (from the realistic to the down right dreaming)…
Learn to touch type / play guitar/ ride a horse / snowboard / salsa dance
Improve my general knowledge.
Learn (and be able to recall on demand) a couple of decent jokes!
(Re-) learn how to do a backwards crab down a wall.
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OK so this year my new years resolutions are not the norm (although it obviously helps that I don’t smoke, I actually rather enjoy exercising and I was reliably informed by a doctor friend that red wine is good for you!) so I guess you could call it my bucket list instead!
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What are your resolutions for 2011?
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p.s I think the actual reason they are called new year’s resolutions might be because sticking to them takes a heap of ‘resolve’….?

Weird and wacky English laws

Today’s blog is a bit of a random one….

Having recently had a conversation about British traditions and the dying breed of the eccentric English gentleman I was trying to recall an old English law – something about shooting a Welshman in Chester but only on certain days of the year??

Apparently this ye olde law is one of many and every few years the Law Commission dig through the Statute book to add the archaic ones to the Repeal Bill. These are some of the slightly more obscure and wacky continue to elude the Commission’s digging…

– In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to be topless in public unless they are a clerk in a tropical fish store.

– Since 1313 Member’s of Parliament must not enter the House of Commons wearing a full coat of armour.

– It is unlawful to impersonate an Chelsea pensioner.

– The head of any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the King, and the tail of the Queen – should she need bones for her corset.

– It is illegal for taxi cab drivers to carry rabid dogs or corpses and by law they must ask all passengers if they have small pox or the plague.

– Any person found breaking a boiled egg at the sharp end will be sentenced to 24 hours in the village stocks.

– It could be regarded an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British king or queen’s image upside-down

– With the exception of carrots, most goods may not be sold on Sunday.

And two English laws which wouldn’t stand a chance in Jaffna…

1. It is illegal to be a drunk in possession of a cow.

2. No cows may be driven down the roadway between 10 AM and 7 PM unless there is prior approval from the Commissioner of Police.

And just for the record…

The old English law is “In Chester you can only shoot a Welsh person with a bow and arrow inside the city walls and after midnight”….

and…the eccentric English gentlemen DOES still exist in my part of the world in the shape of my frightfully smart speaking, cigar smoking, moustache wearing, absolute legend of a colleague;

The real victims of war

S was 18 when he was made homeless by the civil war.

His story is a sad but common one on the far most northern tip of this island. The war has ended now but the end to the fighting is just the beginning for the innocent civilians caught up in the last 25 years of conflict.

I work with S, he is one of my field officers – and a darn good one at that!

His family have lived on the northern coast of Jaffna for generations, with their small family home surrounded by palm trees and fertile land on which they grew onions, chillis and potatoes. His father had a good job working as a security guard.

In October 1990 life changed dramatically for the family. The war had been underway for more than 5 years but with little direct effect on S and his neighbours. The Indian army had briefly evacuated his neighbourhood in 1983 but after 3 months they were allowed to return home and their house was fairly unscathed. Life continued as normal.

It was not until October of 1990 when leaflets were dropped by military helicopter and a message was put out on local radio stating that some specified areas were to be immediately evacuated by all civilians, that it became clear that the war had just arrived on their doorstep.

Some left immediately, others decided to wait it out and see if the claims that the fighting was edging closer were true.

S and his family waited.

At 4.30am a final warning to leave was issued and a final drop of orders by helicopter. At 6am the army arrived.

They had captured the area and from now on this was a civilian no-go area. Then the firing started as the enemy approached in attack. S, his mother, father, brother and sister fled for their lives – with no time to collect their belongings they left behind all their belongings. With just the clothes on their backs they took refuge at a relatives house several miles away.

Little did they realise for some of the family that would be the last time they would ever see their home.

For the next 20 years, S and his family were forced to rent a house to live in, all their belongings had been left behind and when their neighbourhood became a military zone his father had not even been allowed to enter for his job.

S managed to get a job as a security guard in the main town but because he was earning 6000 rupees a month (about $50) he was above the Government threshold for war compensation. Slowly slowly they bought new furniture and clothes. They literally had to start their lives from scratch.

It was 20 years after this October fleeing when I met S and he told me his story. We were about to be the first demining agency allowed into the area where S’s house was. S was coming with us. It would be the first time in 20 years he had seen his childhood home.

What he found was heartbreaking. The roof was gone, the walls peppered with bullet holes. He told me the house had probably been ransacked for anything of value soon after they left. His sister’s gold jewellery would have been one of the first things to go.

The well was damaged beyond repair and there a tree  growing through his bedroom floor.

I asked S if once the area was eventually handed back to civilians whether he would return to the family home and he said yes probably but first the Government needs to make sure there are schools, businesses and land for agriculture.

Those who have already returned claim to have a miserable existence with the current complete lack of infrastructure.

I asked what about his parents, sister and brother. He told me his siblings have lives elsewhere now and wouldn’t want to return.

And his parents? They died in 1997, seven years after they were forcibly removed from their home. They never got the chance to return.

The former bathroom…only the toilet (far right in picture) left in tact

Guest blogging

“Guest blogging can be a really nerve-wracking experience, but one you shouldn’t shy away from” was the first line I read!

Never one to refuse the challenge Misshelen is now officially a guest blogger!

ytravel invites other writers and travellers to guest blog on their website.

So time a take a tea break and have a look at my contribution…

Mozambique festival

Freaky frogs

A few perverted frogs have taken up residence in my bathroom and sit croaking away as I have my evening shower…it’s a little unnerving wondering whether one of these slimy blighters is going to make a leap for my head mid scrub! I even found one having a soak in the bottom of my toilet last night.

See if you can spot 2 of my freaky frogs…

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The joys of living in the jungle of the tropics!!

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At least they are toilet trained…

Doing it for the girls

A few links of Misshelen in print, doing it for the girls…

Clearing Landmines – an interview with “Women on the Road”

Landmines & Life – on the website Women’s Adventure Magazine

(Actually also on this website is the story of a very interesting lady Moving Mountains)

It’s a real honour being both interviewed and having a story published on sites which lets face it are back to back with true adventurers and explorers. Make a cup of tea, sit back and have a browse…

And while we’re on the subject of Misshelen in print…HALO has just launched its new website which includes some of my case studies from Sri Lanka and Mozambique…brings back some happy African memories reading the Mozambique ones!

The curious incident of the vanishing padlock

Sorting through the sheer volume of keys with no apparent home that were dotted about my office has been on the ‘to do’ list of doom since I arrived here.

After years and years of various expatriates traipsing through this programme, each of them losing keys and changing locks, I kid you not about 101  million keys were gathering dust on my arrival. I found them everywhere, every time I opened a drawer – oh, another set of unlabelled keys, open a cupboard…keys!

My incredibly meticulous administrator (poor sod) got lumped with the mammoth task of quite literally going from door to door, padlock to padlock, landrover to landrover working out which key worked where, or in fact if it worked anywhere at all.

The guy deserves a medal.

He finished today after several days of trying and testing plus a couple of locked doors to which we thought we had the key then realised we actually didn’t (the carpenter has now been dispatched to pick said locks!!).

I now have a sack full of unloved and completely useless keys, plus 3 keys which appear to open about 10 different padlocks plus spare keys for my office (more useful than you realise bearing in mind the number of times the expat office door has had to be kicked open)

…plus I now know that to get into and start some of my 35 year old landrover ambulances all you need is a hairclip and some elbow grease. Good to know!

So the vanishing padlock…

During the big search and find of keys and corresponding locks, one storage container was approached. It had 2 padlocks, we had 1 key. We put it down to poor admin and wrote off the 2nd padlock. Today we found a key (a stray one found under a plant pot or such like) and it looked suspiciously like it would fit the 2nd padlock.

The container was approached to test it’s fit – a bit like Cinderella’s glass slipper – and the oddest thing had happened…

Overnight the 2nd padlock had been mysteriously removed (so obviously someone had a key for it) and a new padlock had been applied in its place. A padlock to which I obviously had no spare!

I gathered the troops and hot debate then ensued as to where the original padlock had mysteriously disappeared to and where on earth the new padlock had appeared from.

Needless to say the entire motley crew denied all knowledge.

“Someone must have put it there” I wailed.

But no, apparently the magic padlock fairies came in the night, sneaked past the guards, replaced the padlock and flew away!

How very odd.

I concluded that there was obviously something very important or very valuable being hidden in there. It started to feel decidedly exciting…

So I smashed the padlock off (that’s the kind of thing you get to do when you are the boss!) and opened the door eagerly anticipating masses of gold, diamonds and other shiny marvels…instead we found a rather musty smelling container with various bits of old, broken and rusting spare parts off one of our big diggers!

Absolutely confident I would never EVER get to the bottom of the curious vanishing padlock, I left the motley crew to a heated debate as to where the padlock had come from, who put it there, where was the original padlock…etc etc…it’s now after dark but they love a good debate so much it wouldn’t surprise me if they were all still there!

Save the world…write a blog


Starting my blog has opened my eyes to just how many bloggers there are in the big wide world…quite alot it would seem…and many putting my little contribution to the blogging world to shame!

I keep an eye on a few of the humanitarian blog sites…some professionals, others amateurs like myself posting their news and photos for family back home…

Tales from the hood … is quite an amusing blog from a slightly cynical (sometimes quite justifiable so) humanitarian aid worker. His site also has a multitude of links to other good blogs.

A Humourless Lot …another aid worker who writes about aid logistics. The title of his blog is a quote ascribed to Alexander the Great “My logisticians are a humourless lot…”

There are MANY incredible humanitarian photographers who sites I eye with ‘talent-envy’… my friend Chris is one supreme example.

During my brief stint of London living I did an evening philosophy course and since then dip in and out of Philosophy Bites.

And just to keep my wanderlust topped up… The Adventure Blog!

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