Decisions around elderly care

It’s been a tough week, where my siblings and I had to face the inevitability of old age and what it entails for the elderly.


Up until August 2021, no matter what the situation of my mother’s health was, she continued being the decision-maker in the family, the glue that held our dysfunctional family together and continued making our house a home for all of us.


With her collapse, both physically and mentally, our stability was uprooted. The fact that I was able to fully focus on work previously was because I did not really get involved in any household decisions or responsibilities. My mother looked after them all, from basic chores, bills, food supplies to house maintenance etc.


Following her treatment for COVID and diabetes, she was discharged on September 3rd with the movement in her legs and arms regained as well as her speech restored, though she was not able to speak much and it was with great effort that she did so. When we left the hospital, she was still not able to lift her head up since her vertigo had increased with her recent illness. Her legs were also too weak to hold her up. So, she was mostly confined to her bed though she managed to get up to use the bathroom a couple of times each day, with my support. A week into my full time home care of her, she started declining again. I was worried that it was due to her limited fluid intake. I had been trying to increase her fluid intake with great difficulty and had managed to get it up to 1000 ml per day (inclusive of all semi-solid meal intake). The fact that she took only about 25ml at a time increased the difficulty and I had to continuously make little doses of different nutritious fluids and give them on an hourly basis to make up the daily 1000ml target. Back home, she started complaining about the tastelessness of those nutritious drinks such as ensure, diabetasol, vitagen and I had to continuously try different mixes or insert these powders into a few spoons of soup. It was particularly difficult in the nights as that was when she seemed to struggle the most from her limited fluid intake and initially, I had to continue giving the fluids every hour in the night as well or else her face would start getting numb, especially her mouth, and then her hands and legs. It was at such times that I guess my patience as a carer was tested a lot. Especially since I was also tired after the stay at the hospital and had not really had a proper rest or time to recover. I remember once that a nutritionist had adviced me to give stuff she liked, no matter the nutrition content – things like pudding or jelly, that would encourage her to take in more food. I had told her one night that some friends had sent boxes of jelly that evening and I would make some for her the next day. It had somehow reached her mind and at midnight, when she woke up and asked for a snack, she specifically asked for jelly. I replied that I had to make it and would do so in the morning and in the meantime, to drink something else. Since she looked very disappointed, I mixed the jelly powder with water and put it in the fridge to set. Half an hour later, she woke up again and asked for jelly. I replied that I had put the jelly in the fridge to set and it was still a liquid. She said that it was ok to give her the jelly water. I gave her a little to taste. She wanted more. Since I was quite exhausted and not in a mood to argue further, I gave the whole jar to her, thinking it was at least some form of fluid intake. She drank it all. At moments like these, you realize that your responsible parent is more of a child in her elderly years. During the day, no matter what I tried to tempt her with, she wouldn’t take in much but at nights, her requests used to be difficult to meet ones and especially ones, that she would not be able to intake any way due to her swallowing and chewing issues. I had a request for rice and curry one midnight and pol roti another midnight, despite the fact that she has not had either for years. Since her meals have mostly been soups and porridges, I had stocked up on those and my brother and I mostly subsisted on instant noodles and other stuff ordered through ubereats. So rice and curry was not available. Anyway, the next morning, I cooked rice and made a vegetarian curry with a couple of vegetables that was there in the fridge. She refused to eat it during the day and after much coaxing, tasted a couple of spoons and said it was horrid. I felt like all the times I might have given my mother trouble as a toddler, being a picky eater, was coming back to me now, when our roles were reversed.


However, I had managed to get her intake to around 1000ml per day, when she started reducing her intake on September 13th. By evening, she completely stopped intake of fluids and would shake her head when I offered anything. She was no longer talking to me as well. By morning, I was so frustrated that I told her that I had had enough and was not going to take care of her anymore but to just drink what I offered then and I would call my eldest sister to deal with her thereafter. Still she did not respond.


My eldest sister, who used to be basically the second in command, when it came to family decisions and was instrumental in supporting my mother with my recovery, when I met with a road traffic accident back in 2005, was herself a patient this year. She had neglected a wound and the fact that she had diabetes contributed to the situation escalating to the point that she had been taken to the hospital in an unconscious state back in April 2021. The doctors at the hospital had declared that if we were to save her life, her leg needed to be amputated followed by a strict control of her diabetes. My brother in law and we had consented to the amputation as we felt that my sister’s life was more important than a loss of her limb. She was just beginning to come to terms with her limited mobility and was being fitted with a prosthetic leg and undergoing physiotherapy to get her used to that leg, when my parents became ill. As initially, there was a COVID situation involved with my parents, we had requested that my sister or her husband should not come visit as she was in a fragile health as well and we were keeping her in a bubble till she regained her health. However, with my mother not responding to me at all, I spoke to her and she decided to come and see my mother. On September 14th, she came with my brother in law in her wheel chair, but my mother was not responding to her beyond nodding her head or a brief yes, whenever my sister called ‘Amma’.


I then called our family doctor and he asked us to bring in my mother immediately to the hospital. So I brought her back to the hospital. The rapid antigen test for both my mother and I was negative. However, as she had a high fever and her pulse oximeter reading was 88 , when it was taken at the OPD, they wanted a PCR also done. So temporarily, Amma was admitted to the isolation room at the entrance of the COVID ward. They immediately put her on a drip, upon learning that she had not had any fluid intake for the past 24 hours. Her blood sugar this time was 400, a huge increase when compared to the critically low amount when she was previously admitted. They did a number of tests and said that she had an infection, which they were trying to find the source of. The PCR test result came out negative and she was moved to the regular ward room. The nurse who was helping to clean up my mother and change her clothes, before the ward move, asked me about a wound on my mother’s left toe. I said I had not noticed it but that she had kept saying that she had sharp shooting pains in her left leg followed by numbness over the past few days. The doctor asked the surgeon to have a look at it as they thought that it might be the source of her infection. They also put her on an antibiotic course.


She was by now back in her senses, and somewhat aware of her surroundings, and able to recognize me again. She also was able to speak a little with a lot of effort, but I was the only one able to understand her as her words were muffled and running into each other.


At this point, the doctor was saying they were ready to discharge my father as they had done all they could to bring down the keratin levels and he was able to talk and sit up a little, but not get up or walk. We were told that we had to strictly maintain his diet and other factors to ensure that it didn’t increase and require another round of dialysis.
Given that I was at the hospital with my mother, and my brother had already been stretched trying to manage his work on reduced hours, daily visits to the hospital to take care of my father’s medical bills, laundry and other needs, we felt that we were not able to give the attention and care my father needed at this time especially as his condition needed close monitoring, which my mother had previously done. So we explored a few nursing homes and explained to him that it was a temporary move and that we would shift him back home once things were set up. My father agreed to it but on the day, he was discharged from the hospital and transferred to the nursing home, he asked me not to leave him at the nursing home and to visit him frequently.


It was a difficult moment because taking the decision to move him to a nursing home was in the first place a difficult decision that my siblings and I took as a family. We didn’t initially want to do that but we recognized our limitations and realized that my brother and I could not provide him the critical care he needed at the moment. It was not a simple matter of getting a male attendant to be with him and ordering out meals. There was so much more involved, the right diet and meal plan according to his dietary restrictions, medications and injections to be given at the right time in the right doses, constant attention to his needs. My father is also quite a difficult and demanding patient to manage, and my mother’s neurological issues had worsened because of the stress and lack of self-care that resulted from her hands on care of him during the past few years. My brother and I needed to return to full time work, after some time off in the past few weeks. Both our workplaces had been supportive and even though it was a critical time at work for me, where I was responsible for a few key initiatives, my line manager and team helped to take forward some of the work. However, there was some key work that I had to work on myself during the coming couple of weeks and it was the same for my brother. So we could not provide that hands on attention that my father needed. We also needed time to sort out how his different requirements could be addressed from a home care setting and organize them.


The staff at the hospital we were at, were very critical and offended though. One nurse came to give my mother her regular antibiotic injection and started demanding me in a hostile manner why I was sending my father to a nursing home and why I could not look after him. She then repeatedly asked if I was working and whether there was no one else at home. I understand that in the Sri Lankan culture, it is not a practice that people accept. Care of elderly parents are the responsibility of the children. However, I think each family situation is different and the different complexities that go into making difficult decisions is something only that family will be able to understand. The nursing home we selected for my father’s temporary stay is attached to a private hospital and has 24 hour doctor support, nursing staff and attendants to look after my father. He has his private room, with air-conditioning, and a large TV. Relatives have taken turns to visit him each day and when he spoke to my mother and I over the phone yesterday, he sounded happy and also in much better health and clarity of mind than he was during the one month stay in hospital and previously at home.


I have been with my mother in hospital this week, during her second stint this month, and trying to get the doctors to examine and address underlying issues than simply addressing blood sugar fluctuations and pressure fluctuations. Yesterday, I requested the family doctor that he bring in Amma’s neurologist, who treated her when she originally had a pontine infarction back in 2006. I also requested a diabetic nutritionist so that I could consult her on a suitable meal plan that addresses her nutritional necessities, while considering her eating style and restrictions and health issues. Finally, I requested that a specialist have a look at a couple of wounds, that I am cautious of after my eldest sister’s experience. From loss of consciousness to slow understanding of environment, my mother has now improved to the stage where she is able to talk coherently to me. She has also started taking an interest again in what my siblings and I are doing and asks us about our work and has started encouraging me to work from the hospital. I actually started working part time from the hospital today. Over the past few weeks, when her condition was critical, she was not in any state to think beyond her immediate pain and discomfort. However, what we are trying to address this week before we return home is to ensure that she is able to sit up and move about a little, despite her vertigo.


There will be a period of adjustment to our new normal – with both parents requiring close attention and care. Hopefully we will be able to ride through this storm as well and emerge at the other end.

Reflections during a stressful time

The world collectively has been facing the pandemic since 2020 and many have gone through and continue to go through some stressful times because of the virus.

All these months, I thought I was taking as much precaution as I could to keep my elderly parents relatively safe even though I continued to go into work for most of this time. I was focused on business continuity at work, humanitarian response and working on the strategic plan for the next three years and trying to facilitate staff wellbeing initiatives.

August 2021 changed this perspective.

First, my 77 year old father had another return of his cellulitis, which has been a recurring visitor for the past two years and each time before we admitted him to the hospital, they would do the rapid antigen test and only admit him after the result turned out negative. This time, on August 18, our neighbourhood hospital was full so his doctor asked us to bring him to another private hospital that he visited. It was with great difficulty that my brother managed to find an ambulance to take my father to that hospital and there, they immediately did the rapid antigen test. This time though, the result was positive. The hospital immediately turned out my father and brother out of their premises. My father was completely immobile by this time, was confused and unable to speak and this hospital turned him out onto the road. For the next couple of hours, my mother and I tried calling all the private hospitals to check for space to admit an elderly COVID patient with health complications. Every one of them stated that they do not admit COVID patients. They only had interim COVID centers, in partnership with star hotels, that allowed for isolation of the patient in a hotel room. Medical treatment was not provided at these hotels/ interim COVID centers and the patient was expected to be able to fend for themselves. Further, they did not accept elderly patients or any other patients, who needed medical treatment. The ambulance that had dropped my father at the hospital had left and it was another two hours, before we were able to get that ambulance back. It was night time, and curfew time was approaching, and we had no choice but to bring him back home. After a sleepless night, where my mother tried her best to get my father to have something to eat and drink, we decided that it was best to move him to the government hospital that his doctor had suggested, as he was in urgent need of medical attention. So the next morning, my brother took him to the nearest government hospital, admitted him to the COVID ward and returned home. What he found in his subsequent visits to the hospital was that my father was not being treated for cellulitis and continued to remain unresponsive. So we pleaded with his doctor to get him a space at the private hospital in my neighbourhood, that we always go to, and we managed to get him transferred to this private hospital in a few days.

Then, my 71 year old mother started having a low fever. My brother and I were fully vaccinated but not my parents. We had registered for the home vaccine service for the elderly, who had mobility issues but though my father used to get up each day and await his vaccination, they didn’t come until after he was admitted to the hospital. Learning that my father was infected, they said that it would be better not to vaccinate my mother at this time as she might also be infected.

Since it was a low fever, and the state that the hospitals were in, we decided that Amma should stay at home in isolation and rest. I bought a pulse oximeter and monitored her oxygen levels regularly and it was normal. Then, suddenly, on saturday, Aug 28th, morning, Amma had difficulty getting up. It took her two hours to activate her hands and feet and mouth, but she slowly got up. At times when she struggled to move her hand or feet during those two hours, I would suggest she not try so hard and to rest a bit. She would insist she needed to get up to make me a cup of tea. When she did finally get up, she asked me to help her go to the kitchen, where she made me a cup of tea. I wanted to take her to the hospital that day but she refused. For anyone who knows my mother, s/he will be well aware of her stubbornness and determination once she makes up her mind. I therefore called for the home PCR test service and had her do the test, so that in the event we needed to take her to a hospital, at least delays related to COVID testing would not be there. The whole day, she was able to walk around the house and do her usual stuff so I decided I would closely monitor her and decide the next day, on whether to admit her to the hospital. That was a mistake. On Aug 29th, I woke up later than usual around 6am and checked on my mother and apart from her breathing, she was not moving at all. I tried calling her and tried moving her hands, there was no response. Her eyes were wide open but she did not see me nor was she present. That was the scariest moment of my life. My brother asked me to make her some sugar solution but she was not drinking it. The PCR test result was emailed to me around that time and the result was positive.

Then began the next round of nightmare. Since the private hospital that my father had been transferred to was full, and no other private hospital admitted COVID patients, we decided to take her first to the same government hospital that we had taken my father first to. As I was in shock, as well as the fact that it was usually my mother who packed things for anyone’s hospital stay, I just pushed some stuff of my mother’s into a bag and took it with me in the ambulance. I thought I would be able to come back home, after admitting my mother at the ICU, and prepare better what needed to be taken both for her and me. My brother-in-law called the government ambulance service set up to take COVID patients to hospitals and they came in promptly. We faced some difficulty in getting her down to the waiting ambulance, as the trolley wouldn’t fit in the lift, and my mother’s hands and legs were totally stiff so we could not make her sit in the wheel chair initially. Eventually, we managed to transfer her to the wheel chair, after I coaxed her into bending her knee. At the hospital, after the check-in processes, I was told to take my mother to ward 15A, the point where the COVID admissions were done. There, the doctor who checked my mother’s blood sugar exclaimed it was critically low at 47 and immediately administered a glucose syringe and put her on a saline drip. By this time, she had gained consciousness and even though she was able to say a few words, she was not able to move. The first word that she said was ‘hungry’ and asked me for some food. I did not have any with me and I did not want to leave her in that public, overcrowded area unattended to go in search of the canteen. I asked the staff there for something and they were kind enough to give a juice box. Eventually, we were allowed to go to the COVID ward for women and she was given a bed. The ward had four sections. One large space with around 12-15 beds packed together, a small enclosed space with 3 beds, and a medium space with a couple of beds and the rest of the patients on the floor. Amma’s bed 19 was in the small enclosed space next to the washrooms. On bed 20, there was a woman who was connected to an oxygen cylinder. A little while later, another elderly woman was brought in for bed 18 by her son and an attendant, who promptly left after depositing the totally unresponsive elderly woman on her bed. In the meantime, I was trying to request the few staff there for a pamper because I had not come prepared and my mother was asking me to help her to the bathroom and she could not move. The response given was that they were in the middle of shifting to a brand new ward so all supplies had been moved to the new ward and they did not have any here. It was hours later before the attendant taking care of an adjacent patient, gave me a pamper for my mother and helped me to change her clothes and sheet. No one really came to check on the patients, though nurses seemed to take the pulse oximeter reading at least twice a day and blood checks. The family members caring for the patients were the ones distributing food parcels, water, fitting in the oxygen cylinders for their ill family member etc. The food that was given all three times was rice with curry and it was not considering dietary restrictions or issues that the patients might have. For example, my mother has been on a semi-solid diet for a decade or so as she has difficulty chewing and swallowing and she was not able to get up at this point due to her paralysis. I had kept the straw from her earlier juice box and used it to give her sips of water or tea from time to time. The patients on the beds adjacent to her were either totally unconscious or semi-conscious and not in any position to feed themselves but no one minded that, and simply left the food by the bedside table. It went untouched and thrown later, when new food packs replaced the old ones. I kept mentioning to the rare nursing staff that passed by that the unresponsive woman would need a drip, as she was not in any position to take in food or drink but there was no action taken until the next afternoon. The elderly woman was not even blinking her eye, even though they were wide open and there was no indication that she could hear. So, until and unless a family member or a paid private attendant was with a patient, especially one who was elderly and was not in a position to take care of themselves, their condition declined and some to critical levels.

I also realized how important it is for a close family member to be with the elderly patient. Throughout that day and night, I constantly interacted with my mother which gradually brought her out of her state of confusion, brought back some movement to her hands and feet.

There was no day bed for the carer, given that it was already an overcrowded ward with patients on the floor. I managed to get hold of a plastic chair and wedged it between my mother’s bed and the unresponsive neighbour’s and that was where I spent an uncomfortable night, sitting up. Yet, at that point, I was more worried about my mother’s paralysis and the fact that no doctor was addressing it beyond sending her for a CT scan. The bright lights were all on throughout the night and the hospital staff were very loud, using mikes to address the patients from their so-called safe cubicle. They had this habit of calling patient names, expecting the patient or the carer to go and pick up medicine packets for the patient. So, if the patient was not mobile or did not have a carer, she would not receive her medicines. Around 9.30pm that night, a new patient was brought in a trolley and since they could not take the trolley around to the large space, where there were some free beds, the ward doctor on duty told the attendant to ask my mother to move to the other space. They had no idea that my mother was paralysed and the attendant was insisting that my mother get up and walk around the corridor to the other space. I put on my fighting mode and told them that she was not moving anywhere. Finally, they brought a wheel chair and asked the patient on the trolley to move to the wheel chair and she was wheeled to the other area. The staff on duty was annoyed with my stance though and told the attendant to move my mother to the floor at the entrance of the ward. Again, I stood my ground and said that she was not moving anywhere that night and that as medical staff, they should be sensitive to a patient with neurological issues and who had come in paralysed and suspected to have had a stroke. They finally left us alone.

Anyway, I knew that I was not going to let my mother stay in that ward another night. I sent a text message to our family doctor, explaining what had happened, and to help transfer my mother as well to my father’s hospital. The next morning, he informed me that he had made arrangements and to collect the transfer letter from the hospital and bring my mother over. My brother collected the letter and handed it to me. The ward doctor that morning was a young and friendly one but for some reason, she was hesitant to approve the transfer and kept saying she was waiting for approval from her higher-ups. As the clock ticked by and it became afternoon, I stepped up my queries and tried to identify the bottlenecks for the approval process. I understood that the transfer of a patient from a COVID ward of one hospital to another required the approval of Ministry of Health and that our ward doctor was waiting for this approval, as they had not been able to get in touch with the focal point at the health ministry. Knowing that waiting for them to get the approval was not going to work, I reached out to colleagues who had contacts at the Ministry of Health and finally got the contact number of the focal point. I sent him a text message, as I was told that he was usually too busy to answer phone calls. A colleague suggested that I insist to the ward doctor that as my mother’s guardian, that I was making the call to transfer her to a private hospital and that we are waiving off any of their responsibility. I argued with the ward doctor and a colleague of hers for some time, before they finally agreed to approve the transfer. They said they would only give the discharge card and nothing else. I said, ‘fine’ but I wanted the discharge process to happen without any further delay as I was calling for the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I received a response from the Ministry of Health focal point stating ‘approved’ for the hospital transfer. I showed that response to the ward doctors but they were already angry with me that they said they did not care what approvals I got as they only accepted approvals that came from the official process. Finally, around 8pm, we reached the private hospital on the same road, where we lived.

From the point that we reached the private hospital, utmost care was taken of my mother by the medical staff and within a few days, she had recovered. The doctor said that he could discharge her on friday, September 3rd, as her paralysis and COVID situation was addressed and the balance of her recovery from severe dizziness and under-nutrition was something that required long term recovery and attention at home.

So over the weekend, I transformed my room to better fit in my mother and threw out all the other furniture and any of my miscellaneous collections. Until she is completely recovered and able to walk about on her own, I am going to continue closely monitoring her condition and coaxing her to take in normal levels of fluids and semi-solid food. From 300ml daily intake on friday, I have managed to increase her intake to 750ml today. While this is still not acceptable levels, considering this is what comprises of her total nutrition intake, at least this is progress for someone who is averse to food and drink.

It is almost like taking care of a child, because every hour or so, I have to coax her to drink 50ml of some nutritional drink (as she doesn’t drink more than that at a time). She has started walking from the room to the bathroom with my support, in the mornings, when she feels a little better.

On my part, it’s been more than a week since I have slept properly or eaten normally. Since her sugar levels seem to be dropping very low during nights and she becomes numb, I need to continue giving her a little drink (Ensure or Vitagen) every hour or so. When I dose off at times, I suddenly wake up at the slightest sound, afraid to face what I did last saturday – an unresponsive, paralysed mother.

I am not who I was a week ago.

Why I decided to write this experience down is not only to get this off my chest, but also to share this with friends and colleagues who keep asking me how I am doing. I am not someone, who talks about my intense personal experiences. I write about them.

Also, I felt it might be useful to share some of my learning with others out there, who have elderly parents with health complications, as well as the rest of those who are observers of people going through similar difficulties:

(1) If your parents are not vaccinated, and your doctor has not adviced them not to get the vaccine, then do push your local vaccine services to vaccinate them at the earliest. This might reduce the severity of COVID effects on them, should they get infected.

(2) Do keep a bag ready at all times, not just for your elderly parents, but also others in the family. In the event of an emergency and you need to rush into the hospital, what are the items that you will need at hand. During the emergency, you have no time to think as you will most likely be in somewhat of a shock.

(3) Do be with your parent, should they be admitted to a COVID ward in a non-responsive state. Without your attention and care, they might not make it back.

(4) For those friends and colleagues, who want to help, please don’t call the person who is going through this until and unless you can offer concrete support. For example, some of the helpful calls I received from colleagues was related to talking to my family doctor, re-emphasizing the need to transfer my parents to the private hospital, another was regarding bringing my mother’s pressure medicines as the government hospital asked me to give the medicine to my mother, but did not provide me with them and I was not allowed outside of the COVID ward since stepping in with my mother. Other helpful messages that was appreciated was text messages with a warm thought or a specific question regarding how I was managing my meals etc, that I either responded to when I had a minute or not, but still the thought was appreciated. The least helpful and annoying calls and messages from well-meaning friends was calls in the middle of when I was experiencing nightmarish situations such as arriving at the government hospital, being in an overcrowded ward, trying to get some help for my mother and a friend called and asked me, ‘are you ok now?’. This same question was repeated over a number of times before I asked a colleague to inform all colleagues not to call me at the hospital as I was not in the headspace to respond to them. This is a particularly long section of advice but important. Please try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to be called by someone and asked, ‘are you ok/ now?’ when you are busy dealing with a nightmare?

I was not ok and I am still not ok.

I know I will pull through this, and will do what I can to support my mother’s recovery. My father is still at the hospital undergoing dialysis and on oxygen support, as he contracted pneumonia. He didn’t recognize me when I went to say ‘bye’ before leaving the hospital with my mother.

I will be returning to work tomorrow, and working from home for the rest of the month. I sincerely don’t wish to talk about what I am going through personally at work or with friends outside work. So, I have taken the time to write this down to share what I am going through now.

Hope my friends will understand and respect my wishes. I know all of you mean well but I am conserving my energy for what matters the most to me – my mother’s recovery.

More stories from Yongning…

During my week in a remote village in Yongning, Ana, our host, took my friend, Yuan and I, to meet her elderly neighbours. We asked to hear about their childhood and younger years in the village, and the lifestyle they experienced as part of the Mosuo community. On one of the days, Ana took us to meet one of her relatives, a 76 year old woman.

Photo credit: Yuan Li

“I was the youngest in my own big family. My happiest period was my childhood. As my elder sisters and brothers did all the work, I did not do much at home. I used to often ride the horse to the market at the cross road in Yongning, shop with my friends, have a bath in the hot spring and participate in wrestling matches. In that time, women could even wrestle with men.


I came to live here with my partner’s family, during the period that the government encouraged one wife and husband. My small family separated from the big family around 1974. My husband’s family gave some farmlands and we built a house, with the help of two families. This was the hardest period of my life as I had to raise my children on my own. During that period, the country lacked food so it was difficult years. My husband was not good at farm work but he could do some small business. He passed away twenty years ago.


I have six children – three sons and three daughters. My eldest daughter passed away. Her son is now 28 years old and lives in the city. He may not come back to the village. My second daughter, who lives with me, also has a son. Her partner has a small store in the village. My youngest daughter works in a hostel near Lugu lake. Of my three sons, two live with me and one with his girlfriend’s family. My middle son is a carpenter. My youngest son works at home. He has a son but based on Mosuo tradition, lives with his mother. Since we have no one working in the government departments, we have to find other ways to earn money.


I used to manage all the money for my family before. Now, each child keeps the money they make. If there is a need in the family, they will contribute. For example, my youngest son sold the family’s farmland near Lugu lake and saved the money in his bank account. When the family was in need, he withdrew the money and gave it to the family. It is transparent and honest. The brothers and sisters have a good relationship so there is no problem. The best way of living is the big family life. It is much easier, living with siblings. Everybody in the family can help raise the children especially when they are little.

Life is hard for women here but we are much better psychologically, compared to women of other ethnic groups. We have more power and can make decisions within the family. Regarding public affairs, the leader of the village calls for a meeting. Each family will send one person to attend the meeting, depending on who is available to attend it. There is no strict rule on who attends. My youngest son usually attends these meetings because he can express himself well.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude and love to Nancy, aka Yanan, for translating the interviews from Yuan and my visit to Yongning in September 2013. Thanks to Yuan and Ana, for arranging the trip and hosting, as well as carrying out the interviews.

Stories from Yongning continued…

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. What made me want to go to this remote part of China was the presentation on the Mosuo community, that my anthropologist friend, Yuan, had made. Yuan presented the Mosuo, as having a matrilineal society where children stayed with their mothers and there was no word for father or husband in their language. I wanted to understand better this community, which was fast losing its identity in the homogeneity promoted through the patriarchal structure of the rest of the country. I convinced Yuan to undertake a collaborative project, where I would write the human interest stories and she would interview people as well as take some of her renowned photography. So in September 2013, Yuan and I visited this remote village, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, and stayed with Ana and her family. Ana took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

On our first morning in the village, Ana suggested we visit an elderly 91 year old neighbour. The sky was overcast with clouds as we made our way to their compound. After the introductions were made, and the little stove was lighted up to heat the water for tea, Ana spoke to the 91 year old in Mosuo language.

“I was born in the year of the mouse. I have three sons and two daughters. My first partner was a horseman, who worked for the rich Chief’s family in the village. Usually, one man from each family had to live in the Chief’s house and work there and one woman had to go help when they needed. I lived in my own house but had to go to the Chief’s family home to help when there was a big celebration. My family was very poor then and almost had nothing but we still had to pay taxes to the rich Chief’s family. Now, it is the happiest time as there are no taxes any more and there are several subsidies to help us raise pigs and other livestock.

My first partner had to travel a lot outside of the village for work so he was hardly there to help me. He passed away young, 5-6 years into our marriage. My eldest son and daughter were born in my first marriage. My three other children were born later.

I raised my family alone, without any help from extended family members. It was very hard to raise the five children alone, especially during the period when there was lack of food due to the country experiencing natural disasters.

I inherited the house from my mother. It was a simple house. My second partner helped to rebuild the house. I helped my partner build the house, carrying one child on my back. We did not have enough timber then to build the roof. We could see the starry sky, when sleeping inside the house. When the new government brought about a one husband-one wife policy and encouraged the husband to help the wife, my second partner came to live with me. This was after our children had grown up. Previously, the man had to help his own family, which was his mother and sisters. My second partner lived with me for 5 years, when I was around 50 years old, before he became sick and passed away.

I am proud that all of my five children have a good education, which is not common in the village. My eldest son was a chief policeman before he retired. My son and his family live in Lijiang.

My second son also had an important role in the local army. He lives with his family in a small town nearby. My eldest daughter was the village doctor. She passed away young. She had three children, who I raised. Two of my grandchildren graduated from university and work outside the village. My granddaughter lives with me. I have three great-grandchildren.

My youngest daughter graduated from middle school and she has a small business in another town nearby. She also has three children, all of whom completed university and all three work in good jobs.

My youngest son refused to go to middle school and is a farmer. He lives with me in the village. He is the only child who is in a traditional Mosuo marriage. A Mosuo marriage is simpler than the normal marriage. Only one big family with the same blood ties live together and raise children together. Every family member supports each other. The normal marriage is more complicated as two different families join to become one. The relationship with mother in law or other in laws is so complicated. One thing is better now than before. A man is allowed to help his partner in many ways, for example, raising a child, building a house etc. Before if a man did that, the man’s family might not allow him or other villagers might laugh at him. I am a little worried that the third generation may not have Mosuo marriages any more, since they have partners from the Han ethnic group. It is very difficult to find a partner from Mosuo ethnic group if they work outside the village.

I sent my children outside the village because there are more opportunities and a better life outside. It is too hard to live in the village. All my children, who live outside, have a good family and life. I do not need to worry about them. I could go and live with my children but the family name will be ended, if no one lives in the village.  Only my son and granddaughter, who are staying in the village, have a hard life compared to children living outside.

My youngest son and granddaughter take care of the farmland and animals. We grow rice, some corns and other plants and have 2 horses, 2 buffalos and 18 pigs. I manage all the income that we generate in the village. My children living outside the village manage their own income.

Usually men are not as diligent and thrifty as women, so women manage family income. If there is a wedding or funeral, it is usually women who decide how much money or what kind of gifts will be sent to the related family. The men will go to that family to help with the wedding or funeral arrangements. If the village needs to build a road or a ditch, the villagers will have a public meeting first to decide which family can help which part. The men engage in the public affairs, especially in village renovations and development. Also, men usually decide how many buffalos to buy or sell and manage them.

In my spare time, I like to go to every family in the village and visit them. Now I cannot walk to visit them. Soon, I will pass the control of the income and household management to my granddaughter in the near future, rather than my youngest son. I think women are usually good at managing finance at home and not men.”

Note: It was a bit of a difficult process initially, as Ana had to translate what was said in Mosuo language into Mandarin for Yuan and Yuan had to translate it into English for me. We soon realized that this was not going to work, especially if we did not want to waste the elders’ time so we agreed that the English translation would have to wait till we were back at Ana’s home. However, for different reasons, that translation never did happen during my stay in Yongning. I recently was going through the photos I took during the visit and felt it was a pity that the stories of the elders we spoke to would go undocumented. I reached out to Nancy aka Yanan and asked if she could help me by translating the recordings for me. Nancy, a very generous and kind friend, has been translating the interviews for me this month. I have tried to piece together the interviews in a story format.

Stories from Yongning

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. With me, was an anthropologist friend, Yuan, who specialized in minority ethnic groups. Our purpose for this visit was to better understand the Mosuo culture as the community was said to be following matrilineal practices and was at times, referred to as China’s last matriarchal society. We wanted to talk to some elders in Mosuo villages, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, to understand how family life was structured when the elders were children so that it would shed some light for us as to what matrilineal practices were still continued. We were hosted by a Mosuo family and our host, Ana, took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

During one of these walks, we visited NA*, an 87 year old Lama. When we entered through the doorway, we saw N* seated in the courtyard de-seeding the family’s pumpkin harvest. I noticed that dried pumpkin seeds was usually what was offered with tea in the homes we visited. After Ana introduced Yuan and I, she explained that we were interested in hearing his life story.

N* agreed to talk to us and asked us to be seated indoors, while he cleaned up and joined us. Once we were seated by the hearth, N* narrated his life story.

“I started training to be a Lama since I turned 11 years old. In my younger days, it was a usual practice for each family to have 1 or 2 children study to become Lamas. My elder brother also studied it. Becoming a Lama would reduce one’s time of service with the rich Chief of the village’s family and Lamas are respected more than the normal villagers.

Initially, I went to the temple in the next village and trained with a Senior Lama for a year. I lived in the Senior’s home and helped served the Buddhas through cleaning, preparing food and sacrifice. Other trainees usually had to do some housework for the Senior Lama. I returned to my own village after that as the village belonged to a high level temple so that I could continue my learning. I studied under the Chief of the village and temple and helped raise pigs for his family for 3-4 years. It was a duty of my family to have one or two family members serve the Chief’s family. The Chief’s family approved my learning to become a Lama. Since a Lama of high position in Sichuan province asked the Chief for a person to serve him, I was sent as a gift to the Tulku (someone similar to the Dalai Lama, but without the high ranking) to serve the Tulku for four years. After serving the Tulku, I asked to continue my studying in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tulku approved it. My village Chief’s family asked me to serve another Tulku in Lhasa, who was one of the sons of their family and my same age, who had gone to Lhasa earlier. I was not keen to continue my life of serving someone but I had no choice but to accept it. I was 20 years old when I walked to Lhasa, studied there for 9 years, and I walked back home. I served the Buddhas in Lhasa by cleaning the temple, preparing sacrifices etc. The Tulku and I had a different learning path. My study was much simpler than that of the Tulku.

After returning home from Lhasa, I was able to live with my own family, though all Lamas lived in the temple in Lhasa. In my family, there was my grandmother and her six children. My grandmother’s brothers had passed away. After my return from Lhasa, my mother asked to be separated from the large family and she and two of her sisters left to start another household. I moved with them. Two of my mother’s sisters and her brother stayed on with my grandmother.  In my family, the members ask for my opinion first. Also, when having meals, I am given food first.

I did some religious work for the villagers and went to the temple, if there was a religious event. I received some income or food for the religious work that I did for the villagers. I usually kept the income. If my family needed help, I would give some money to support them.

While serving the villagers, I could not refuse anyone requesting help. While I did not have to do any heavy farm work, I helped to take care of young children at home or do some housework at home. I also helped villagers when they were sick, or they had a wedding or funeral, or when a baby was born. I help to give names to the babies.

Once I chose this way of life, there was only one way for me to go. Whether I like it or not, I have to keep continuing on this path.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude to Yanan Yang for translating the interview recordings of our visit from Mandarin to English, that helped me piece together NA*’s story. A big thank you to Yuan for organizing the visit and carrying out the interviews. And, a lot of gratitude and thanks to Ana, for hosting us and linking us with the elders in the village and translating from Mosuo to Mandarin what they spoke.

Jakarta – revisiting my childhood places

Indonesia was the first country I visited, outside of Sri Lanka, and it was at the age of four. So, with all the new sights and tastes that my four year old self absorbed with delight, and continued to absorb for the next four years that we were there, I have such nostalgic memories of Jakarta.

It was where I started kindergarten.

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It was where I moved on proudly to Grade I, delighted that I was joining my siblings at the school proper.

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It was also the time that I discovered that I loved to dance and enjoyed music. While I didn’t pursue either beyond my childhood, it meant a lot to me then.10I remember this particular dance that I participated in, not only because I have a photo to remind me of the instance, but because it was something that I pleaded so much to be a part of, and I don’t think I have ever pleaded for anything that much ever since. It was some international children’s cultural event, hosted by Indonesian authorities, and the embassies had been invited to participate with a cultural performance from their countries. I remember that the embassy had requested a Kandyan dance troupe, visiting Indonesia at that time, to train a group of Sri Lankan children (ages 10 – 15 years) for a traditional dance performance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t within the selected age group but I wanted to be so much a part of it, that I kept making my requests so much so that my mother and the other mothers, who were organizing the dance and costumes gave in (probably because I was being too much of a pain) and created a special and independent role for me in the group dance, that would allow me to dance while not disturbing the group dance dynamics of the older children.

2This photo was at the opening ceremony of the event, where all the children from all the countries were on stage and then we had to give the flowers to the people seated in the front rows. As much as I loved being a part of the dance group, this basically was my first and last major public dance performance.

When I finally left Jakarta after completing Grade III, I promised myself that I would one day return to the country of my childhood.

9However, decades passed and I was not able to make the trip back. Until last weekend. It was an impromptu visit, prompted by three factors – a friend who had been inviting me to go on a trip with her, the direct flights introduced by Sri Lankan Airlines to Jakarta and the convenience of free entry visa on arrival.

While my main interest was in revisiting places of my childhood to see if there still remained some semblance to the past, I also wanted to spend some time with my friends. So, I chose to do the visits to childhood haunts on my own.

Hiring the reliable Blue Bird taxi on two separate occasions, I had a lovely drive and fortunately, on both these occasions, I escaped the traffic that Jakarta is now so famous for.

Jalan Cik Ditiro, the road where we lived, still existed though it seemed more tree lined than it was before. Also, the houses all seemed to have put up high walls and security systems, as opposed to the low walls of the 80s. I did locate the number of our house and did ring the bell, hoping that it was the same owners. Lia, the daughter of our former landlady, was a friend of mine and I remember my first pet was actually Lia’s pet – Derry, a cute puppy, which she was generous enough to share with me. No-one answered the bell and I decided to go on to my next place.

Cik Ditiro 1I next went to my first school, Gandhi Memorial International School. I learnt that the main school had shifted to a new location but that the primary school was still at its old location at Pasar Baru. After asking for permission, I was allowed to visit the auditorium and different floors, but not the classrooms as there was an examination going on.

The auditorium looked the same, except that the writings on the wall had been removed as had the fans. It was also nice to see my Grade III classroom.

Corridor Grade 3.jpgOne of my memories of my primary school are the special days that the school celebrated: Gandhi Jayanthi (October 2), Children’s Day (November 14) and Teacher’s Day. Especially teacher’s day used to be interesting with the senior students taking over teacher’s roles and coming to our classes to take lessons.

After the visit to GMIS, I went over to the Sri Lankan embassy. There too, despite the embassy being at the same premises, the immediate change observed was the high walls and the huge security gates.

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The interior looked similar, with the little grass lawn with the flag, where the independence day ceremonies used to be held. The main hall, where the gatherings used to be held, had been decorated differently but the same oil lamp still took center stage in the hall.

In the evening, I went for a drive around the city, and especially asked to drive by Monas, the national monument which had a park, where we used to go in the evenings during weekends.

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As it was raining, I decided not to go into the park area without an umbrella. Since several people, including the taxi driver, suggested I should visit the old part of the city – Kota Tua, and I did not remember ever having visited it in my childhood, I decided to go there as well. On the evening I visited, there had been some concert or public gathering that had just finished in the old square, so there was still quite a crowd. I didn’t linger there but I could imagine it being a lovely square to explore in the morning, without the crowds.

Kota Tua 2.JPGBesides these few places that made up a large part of my childhood memories, Jakarta in 2017 has changed a lot from the 80s. Now, a bustling city with highways packed with private vehicles, high rise buildings and shopping malls crowding out the city, it is no more the city that I remember and recognize but it was still lovely to revisit and see the changes that have been wrought there. And, remembering my childhood and the child I was back then.

 

 

 

Special Six: East West Center Experiences

I had been meaning to write this post for the last few years, especially as I have been asked a lot about my time in Hawai’i with the G12 cohort of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program of East West Center. I finally got around to completing this post this weekend, sharing some of the experiences that made my time at the East West Center special and hope that it encourages some of you, who are interested in emerging priorities in the Asia Pacific region and are currently at a turning point in their careers to consider applying for the APLP or any of the other exciting programs offered by EWC.

The East West Center, an independent, public, non-profit organization was established in 1960, by the U.S. Congress, to facilitate cooperative study, research and dialogue between the United States and Asia and the Pacific.

(1) Sharing of diverse experiences

The 29 participants of G12 came from diverse backgrounds and experiences and it was exciting to hear about work they were engaged in, in their respective corners of the world.

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G12 and APLP staff, and a few alumni

One of the presentations by Yuan, a fellow cohort member, who is an anthropologist and development professional and who was doing her post doctoral studies on minority ethnic groups in China,  made a huge impression on me. Yuan and I decided to explore the possibility of a collaborative study, after the completion of our fellowship by spending some time with the Mosuo community she had spoken of.

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Yuan making a presentation about one of the minority ethnic groups

A lot of the conversations we had between cohort members was out of the classroom and mostly at Hale Manoa, a lovely residence hall, which was cleverly designed to nudge residents to converse with each other at their huge open plan kitchen and dining spaces throughout the building. Cooking, sharing food and conversations over meals, that took up most of the evenings, was a way of resident living there.

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One of the many potluck meals

(2) Inspiring classroom sessions

The classroom session focus topics had been determined by the collective responses of priorities of the cohort and each week focused on a particular theme, bringing in experts in that particular field for talks and discussions. I guess I found the week on environment, facilitated by UNEP staff Colleen Corrigan, an APLP alumna the most fascinating because it opened up my mind to marine conservation and the world beneath the oceans.

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In parallel to the themes for the week, we had several sessions focusing on leadership development. I enjoyed most the personal action plan development activities, which ran across the whole term on a weekly basis. The activities were designed to be reflective and self-exploratory and intended to question our assumptions about ourselves. It ended with us creating a personal action plan portfolio for the next ten years.

Some of the leadership sessions used sailing and navigation as a metaphor. For one of the field visits, we were taken to the Polynesian Voyaging Society office, where Nainoa Thompson, the President of the society spoke to us about navigation, leadership and the story of Hokule’a. We visited the Hokule’a, while it was being prepared for its next round the world voyage.

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It was also a privilege to go on a sailing trip with Nainoa Thompson who had been one of the crew in the second voyage of Hokule’a in 1978, when Eddie Aikau, Hawai’ian surfing legend, was lost at sea.

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Nischal, at the wheel, with Nainoa Thompson guiding him

(3) Solitude and reflection in the Japanese garden

The Japanese garden at the East West Centre was designed by landscape artist, Kenzo Ogata, and was the contribution of twenty two business firms in Japan. In 1964, Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko blessed the garden during a visit, and returned 30 years later to see the garden they had blessed.

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The garden is one of the special places at East West Centre and is adjacent to the Imin Centre – Jefferson hall.

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In addition to time spent on reflections, we usually ended up taking classroom group activities into the garden, if we were at the Imin centre.

(4) Learning Labs

One of the interesting experiments of the program was to bring together smaller groups of the cohort under themes interesting to the group members and work on a small project. My learning lab group theme was social enterprise and we worked with a small organization which supported migrant farmers integrate within the Hawai’ian society and have a sustainable livelihood. It was a very interesting exercise as the group members were from different academic and country backgrounds and we had different perspectives on the project. After some hurdles, we managed to work together by sub-dividing the group into smaller specific themes such as community empowerment, marketing etc. which allowed the different expertise in the group to come out. Our assessment report and recommendations were subsequently used by the organization, so it was a good outcome of the small joint project.

It was fun to present the findings at the event organized at Doris Duke’s Shangri La, where we were also given a guided private tour of the beautiful place.

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Photo courtesy of Matt Berry

(5) Interesting group trips and events: 

The first group trip was during the labour weekend, where the program staff arranged for us to go to Kailua beach and try out canoeing before enjoying a picnic lunch, courtesy of one of the staff.

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One of the last events of the program was held at the gallery on the ground floor of the John A. Burns hall, which is not only a venue for art exhibitions and performances, it houses a collection of objects from around the Asia Pacific region and is open for group tours to schools and community groups.

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Rangi and Sam

We had the last group ceremony for the programme, at this lovely East West Centre gallery.

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(6) Peer support:

We were asked to form voluntary peer support groups and naturally, the groups were formed around people we were most comfortable with. Initially, the group was more for ensuring that all the group members finished assignments on time, especially during the spring semester when we worked independently in our respective home countries or was traveling on an independent study trip. However, my group and I continued our periodic skype updates and chats and though infrequent now, we have kept in touch and visited each other in our respective countries.

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Reunion with Yuan and Duan, Kunming, 2013

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Reunion with Nancy and Aiying, Kandy, 2016

My time in Hawai’i was an especially healing one, something that I needed at that point in my life. The double rainbows, that was quite a frequent occurrence in Honolulu, helped me remember that despite the clouds, the sun does manage to shine through and  there is a special rainbow in sight.

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Looking back, my time in Hawai’i with the APLP cohort was a very special and meaningful one and I would recommend the experience to anyone willing to invest nine months of their life to step back and reflect on the path they have taken and where they wish to head towards, while engaging in interesting mini-projects and interactions with a diverse group of people.

 

 

Sunshine Blogger Award

I was delighted to be nominated for the Sunshine blogger award by Brooke of Anywhere with Brooke. Check out her blog for coffee spots in Louisville or her suggestions for things to do in Bordeaux.

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Quoting Brooke, “The Sunshine Blogger Award is an award given to bloggers by bloggers. It is given to bloggers who are positive and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere”.

So, thank you, Brooke, for the lovely nomination and responding to your questions:

  • When did you start your first blog and if it is not the current one, about what was it?

I started my first blog back in 2004. It was called ‘View from my desk’, where I shared random musings when I felt like it. I removed it after a decade because I just wanted to focus on my two current blogs – this one and my food blog.

  • Dream travel destination?

Currently, it is New Zealand.

  • Name one book/movie that has inspired you

Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.

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  • What countries have you traveled to?

I have traveled to over 25 countries, the most recent one being UK.

  • Tell something funny that has happened to you in a plane

I remember a funny conversation on my first time on a budget airline that had started operating in Sri Lanka. I had been delighted that I had got a return air ticket quite cheaply, until my neighbours on my flight chatted about the affordability of the airfare. I learnt that they had paid one-third of what I had paid for my flight. That was my intro to the big sales and seasonal discounts offered by budget airlines and I found it really funny that contentment can be quite relative.

  • What is your own favorite post from your blog?

My favourite post from my blog, Arctic Lessons, is on my travel to Kiruna, Sweden, in search of the northern lights. I also wrote it a long time ago, during my pre-blogging years, and I enjoyed writing it without having any audience in mind.

  • What are your three must listen road trip songs?

I don’t have specific must listen road trip songs but go with my mood. This means that when I listen to the same song back home, I am taken back to that particular road trip.

  • Do you believe in destiny?

I do believe that we meet certain people or experience certain things in life that we are meant/ destined to, but that we are free to make choices on how we wish to deal with these experiences.

  • Share your secret blogging advice with everyone

Blog link ups. It is not a secret but blog link ups are a great way to come across other bloggers, who blog on similar themes as you do. Since I participated in my first travel blog link up back in May, I have come across over 100 travel blogs which I enjoy reading.

  • Train, car, ship or plane travel? Which one do you prefer?

Trains. I prefer to travel by trains over land.

  • Introduce your blog in three words

A traveler’s tales.

Passing on the blog award, I am delighted to name my 11 nominations for the Sunshine blogger award.

  1. Mandy @Emm in London
  2. Carolann @Finding Ithaka
  3. Lauren @Lauren on Location
  4. Michelle @Michwanderlust
  5. Cathy @Mummy Travels
  6. Van @Snow in Tromso
  7. Clare @Suitcases and Sandcastles
  8. Isabel @The sunny side of this
  9. Katy @Untold Morsels
  10. Elizabeth @Wander Mum
  11. Marcella @What a wonderful world

If you choose to pass on the blog award, please display the sunshine blogger award logo in your post as well as answer my five questions for you.

  1. Why do you travel?
  2. Do share a travel experience that moved you deeply.
  3. Which is your current dream destination?
  4. What blogging advice would you give for other travel bloggers?
  5. Do share a motivational quote or short verse that has often inspired you.

Have a wonderful day!

A Guest Post for Eid: Wattalapam or Steamed coconut pudding

Indu at Indu’s International Kitchen is a lovely food blogger whom I have known since I started my food blog, A Taste of Sri Lankan Cuisine in 2013. While her blog had a similar initial focus to mine of documenting my mother’s recipes, she soon diversified her blog focus to recipes from around the world as well as her original and fusion creations. Do visit her delightful blog and check out some of her Kerala and other recipes.

When Indu was on her Sri Lankan culinary journey last December, she invited me to do a guest post on her blog. The timing was not great for me then but this month, as I am at home in-between work, I have had a lot of time to focus on my two blogs. So, I wrote back to her saying that I would be delighted to share my mother’s recipe for Wattalapam – a very popular Sri Lankan dessert stemming from the Malay cuisine of the country. Indu kindly agreed to post it on Eid, which is today. I am re-blogging her post here.

So, I would like to wish all Eid Mubarak!

Indu's International Kitchen

Wattalapam(Coconut Custard Pudding)Happy Eid to all those who celebrate! Today marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.  I sincerely hope that the new year will usher in peace and happiness for everyone and reduce the suffering that we have been recently witnessing across the globe. Life is simple and let’s keep it simple. Live and let live.

Anyways, today’s post is a guest post from a co-blogger and a good friend Ahila.  Ahila blogs at ‘ A taste of SriLankan cuisine‘ where she blogs authentic Sri Lankan recipes of her mom. When I had done my virtual tour of Sri Lanka earlier this year, I had asked Ahila if she could do a guest post. But she had been very busy with work and other engagements and so she was unable to do one at that time. But now she reached out to me when she finally had…

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Success essential for sense of accomplishment?

It seems ironic that a sense of accomplishment is dependent on success or extrinsic validation. Should it not be more of an intrinsic validation, that you have done the best that you can within the environment available to you? This is something that I have been increasingly reflecting upon.

Eleven years ago on this day, I met with a road traffic accident which led to a lengthy recovery process, including a six month period in which I was hardly able to move. During that recovery period, nudged by my mother, I started typing random thoughts on my laptop from the moment I was able to move my right hand fingers even when I could not move the rest of my hand or body for that matter. It eventually resulted in my first book – The first step, something that I should feel a sense of accomplishment about. For having been both a cathartic process and something positive that I was able to focus on other than the frustrations and pains of recovery, the completion of that book should in itself have elicited a sense of accomplishment. Yet, I began feeling that only when my family and then my friends and acquaintances started reading it and giving me positive feedback. While during the writing of my book, I had simply focused on the pleasure of writing and not on who would be reading it or how it would be received, it seems surprising that once the book was completed and published, I seemed to expect external validation for my sense of accomplishment. The book is available on Amazon and given the limited sales of the book, I seem to feel the sense of accomplishment even less. I hesitate to call myself a writer, even though writing has always been a passion of mine since I was eight, simply because the two books that are out there have not received either sales success or critical acclaim. The question I ask myself is why should it matter whether people read the book or if they like it or not, all it should matter for my sense of accomplishment is that I transformed a traumatic experience into a positive one through my writing.

What baffles me further is that even when I have received recognition or external validation in my professional work or academic efforts and I did feel a sense of hubristic pride at those times, it was fleeting and not a real sense of accomplishment. Is it because I felt luck had a far greater role than my efforts in the recognition that I received?

Ever since I read J.D.Salinger‘s novella, Seymour – an introduction, this excerpt from the novella has been floating around at the back of my head.

“Could you try not aiming so much?” he asked me, still standing there. “If you hit him when you aim, it’ll just be luck.” He was speaking, communicating, and yet not breaking the spell. I then broke it. Quite deliberately, “How can it be luck if I aim?” I said back to him, not loud (despite the italics) but with rather more irritation in my voice that I was actually feeling. He didn’t say anything for a moment but simply stood balanced on the curb, looking at me, I knew imperfectly, with love. “Because it will be,” he said. “You’ll be glad if you hit his marble – Ira’s marble – won’t you? Won’t you be glad? And if you’re glad when you hit somebody’s marble, then you sort of secretly didn’t expect too much to do it. So there’d have to be some luck in it, there’d have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it.”

While luck has a hand in the external validation of efforts as it involves others and their own goals/ motivations and you are aiming for success or validation by them when you expect them to provide it, it does not have much of a role in your own part of the work. It is not luck that I wrote during my recovery nor is it luck that I put in a great deal of effort when working on causes I believe in and it is certainly not luck that I have travelled extensively in the past decade. It was more a prioritization of which of my passions I wished to invest my time and energy and then putting in a lot of hard work to achieving them. I certainly should be feeling a sense of accomplishment for having achieved several of my goals I set out for myself. I don’t though. Perhaps because my goals are constantly evolving.

Why is authentic pride or the sense of accomplishment so much more difficult to feel than hubristic pride that relies on external validation such as success and recognition? Dr. Raj Raghunathan, or Dr. HappySmarts of the Coursera course A life of Happiness and Fulfillment, would say that our happiness depended on nurturing authentic pride and reducing/ eliminating hubristic pride and that by changing our thoughts consciously, we can achieve it. It is a difficult process as we live in a global society that values success, power and money, all of which are extrinsic and have no bearing on our happiness or sense of accomplishment. Except for the few lucky ones, most of us have been raised from our childhood at home, at school and subsequently at work and among peers, to expect external validation as an indicator of our accomplishment.

I have finally reached a point in my life where I have realized that success is not mandatory for a sense of accomplishment. My current goal is to nurture authentic pride rather than hubristic pride.