Monday, December 04, 2006

When our services are not required by the Sri Lankan Government, we often meet up for dinner with a diverse group of other expats (working at High Commissions or Embassies, at the UN, Red Cross, and other local and international NGO’s and teachers from International Schools)… There are also a few regular events to keep us sane, including monthly drinks at the Australian High Commission and a weekly Friday night drinks at various locations called “Colombo Charlie” (after the guy who sends out the emails).

The local indoor cricket centre has a 25 metre open air pool, so we often head down for a few laps and attempt to unwind and cool down from the Colombo heat. Swimming pools and lightning don’t mix, so we are sometimes a bit limited, but other evenings have amazing sunsets while we are swimming so it makes up for it. They were running heats for ‘Sri Lankan Idol’ in one of the indoor cricket nets the first few times we went down there… didn’t seem that normal to us but everyone else thought it was fine so no problem.

…other nights involve home cooking or some local take-away. Our favourite evening meal here is Kotthu Roti, which is a whole bunch of fresh veggies, egg, chicken and roti chopped up on a hot plate. Kotthu is the Tamil word for ‘cut’, and the sound of these razor sharp metal blades slamming into the hot plate, chopping up all the ingredients, echoes all round the streets of Colombo and Sri Lanka after dark.

Like a book end to my day, the 10:30pm “Call to prayer” from the mosque signals its time to re-enter my mosquito net cocoon and contemplate another ‘normal’ Colombo day… I’ve been trying to keep a diary but I don’t think anyone would believe it! The relative normality of Sydney town is going to be kind of hard to settle back into after this…

The monsoon…
The challenging factor in trying to achieve any evening activities, and even just getting home, is the monsoon. Between 5pm and 7pm on most days the heavens open and the rain really comes down, with associated thunder and lightning. Umbrella’s become entirely useless, footpaths turn to mud, and people find shelter in whatever alcove, shop or transport they can. In Australia, when thunder claps close by there are often jokes that it sounds like a bomb going off… none of those jokes are made here! As the roads turn to rivers, and the water backs up in the drains, formerly effective forms of transport such as cars, 3-wheelers and scooters become entirely useless (the water can get up to 2 foot within minutes), with only the jacked up public buses continuing to move around unfazed. I have never before experienced the feeling of water sloshing up against the floor of a vehicle while driving down a mid-city street, and it’s not a sensation I’m entirely comfortable with either. Soon after it starts the rain is gone, and we are left with a cooler, cleansed, and fresh smelling Colombo in which to enjoy our evening.

Roads to rivers... and the eerie light before a storm

The inter-monsoon...
Weather wise we are currently in the ‘inter-monsoonal period’, which as far as I can tell is the rainy bit between the two rainy bits. Sri Lanka has a south-west and north-eastern monsoon, the first is from June to September and involves lots of rain, and the second is from December to March and similarly involves quite a lot of rain. The inter-monsoon fills the gap while the weather patterns change, and I have never seen this much rain. Many beers have been dedicated to hare-brained discussions about how we can get some of this water to Australia’s parched east coast, but we haven’t solved it yet. Back to the beers…

Are we doing any work...

Work wise (its not all about food), we have been developing a National Spatial Plan for Sri Lanka, which incorporates a National Physical Planning Policy and National Physical Plan. Wendy’s experiences developing the South-East Queensland Regional Plan, and my dabbling with the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy, have certainly held us in good stead… Having not prepared a plan of this scale before, the local team is pretty keen to get the most out of us while we are here (despite only ever talking about Melbourne 2030!). Preparing a national plan is a rare opportunity, certainly from an Australian perspective anyway, and one that we are very excited to be involved in. Writing sections like ‘Sri Lanka in the global economic context” have been very challenging to say the least, but having influence on national economic, social and environmental policy, and obviously the future of Sri Lanka, is a responsibility we have been taking very seriously!

Having received the go ahead from the Technical Advisory Committee and Inter-Ministerial Co-ordinating Committee (2 out of the 3 steps in getting the plan approved) we recently have spent a week locked in consultation with most of the Sri Lankan Government Ministries and Provincial Councils, working through the details and implications of the draft National Spatial Plan. 4 hour workshops every day for a week has certainly taken it out of us… but the response has been really positive and we are hoping to get present the Plan to the National Planning Council (headed by the President) before we finish up in a few weeks time.

Desert too...

Desert at lunch is also a normal occurrence, and we have been known to dabble in the buffalo curd, a particularly Sri Lankan delicacy, that is similar to natural yoghurt in taste and consistency. A palm sugar treacle is served with the curd to sweeten it, and top up declining blood sugar levels from morning tea.

Mmmm... curd

Lunch... (part 2)

Anyway, the curries are amazing, and on any given day we are treated to eggplant, mango, artichoke, sweet potato, carrot, beetroot, bean, cabbage, chicken and fish curries, which are then mixed together by hand on the plate with the dahl and rice to make this traditional Sri Lankan meal. Often the Sri Lankans will bring lunch from home (how it can be cheaper to do that I have no idea), which they have cooked that morning. Also, to save washing up, all the plates have a layer of cling wrap across the top so that when you finish the plastic goes in the bin and the plate is ready to go again – very efficient if not too sustainable. Also if you need take-away, the same meal is twisted up in the cling wrap, wrapped in newspaper and you are sent on your way.

Not the most helpful menu...


Lunch is becoming a slightly less intense, and altogether more normal experience for us 3 months down the track. A food court and lunch room on the ground floor of our building provides lunch for the 3000 staff, and includes 4 rice and curry outlets and two desert stops for fruit salad and ice cream or curd and treacle. The décor is very 1960’s café, with deteriorating chairs and tables, fading coca-cola signs and newly installed pictures of the President on the wall. Walking through to our favourite outlet, the constant chatter of Sinhalese and Tamil, and the smell of different curries bombards our senses every time. After walking through the milling crowds (we are not stared at quite so much now) we line up for rice and curry (not to be confused with curry and rice, which is an entirely different meal) with the other staff. For 40 rupees (about 50 cents), and after much pointing and confused looks, a plate with about half a kilo of rice, an assortment of dahl, vegetable and chicken or fish curries, and poppadums turns up with a smile (with the only choice being whether to have chicken, fish or vegetable we don’t really need to order any more as they know us well enough, and you can only get what they have cooked that day anyway). Spoons were offered to us in the beginning, but we are seasoned ‘hand eaters’ now so we politely decline and saunter off to find a clear table, so that as few Sri Lankans as possible get to witness us agriculturally shovel tear-enticing curries into our mouths with our right hands. A note for the uninitiated at this point… lunch at 12pm equals hot food, lunch at 1pm equals luke warm food. Hot food is more enjoyable, but much harder to eat with your hands… we learned from experience and now generally lean towards the 1pm end of the scale with everyone else.

Security (part 2)…

Often our morning or afternoon will be disturbed by a chorus of text message beeps. This usually suggests that a security update has come through from our Australian Volunteers International (AVI) coordinator. While we are only exposed to a small part of the civil conflict in Colombo, the recent bomb blasts and assassinations in the city, combined with the intensification of the full scale war in the north and east of Sri Lanka, means that we are constantly on the alert. The travel advisory for Sri Lanka was recently increased from level 4 to level 5 (the highest level) for about 2 weeks during the peace talks, so we were all advised to have an emergency bag ready, and be prepared to leave at short notice – hence the quickening of the pulse when a series of text messages come through. Which areas to avoid, locations of demonstrations and political marches, and recent terrorist activities are provided in sms format, which also serves as our communication tree to confirm that everyone is okay after an “event” (a bomb went off outside one of our favourite restaurants last week). Working in one of the major Government buildings, and using the Parliament Road to get to work, is not idea from a personal security perspective… but thousands of Sri Lankans do the same everyday so we feel a bit precious sometimes being so concerned!

Mid-morning munchies... Sri Lankan style

After a few weeks at the National Physical Planning Department, Wendy (one of the other volunteers) and myself began to be accepted by the team, and were welcomed into their more local morning tea traditions. Aside from the assorted ‘short eats’ that are randomly provided - ranging from potato and curry triangles, mystery deep fried balls of fish, and other curry puff type things - there has been some culinary feasts cooked up at home and brought in for the team. Jack fruit is a large (like 50cm large) pear shaped fruit, that is cut up boiled with some salt and served with coconut sambol (shredded coconut and chilli). I can’t say that my body is ready for chilli at 10:30am, but it’s better than at breakfast! Another treat has been manioc (a root vegetable) which is served with shredded coconut also and really very tasty, while Kirri bath (milk rice which comes sweet or savoury) has been served up a few times as well.

From the top… Kiribath, Jack fruit , and morning tea with the team. In the photo on the right – Laksman (Director General NPPD, Wendy, me, Sumar (Director, Regional Planning, and Tillak (Deputy Director-General.

Shall we take a tea...

I guess growing up in an Australia, I never entirely understood the pervasiveness of the British tradition of morning and afternoon tea. Sri Lanka, being the home of tea, and it being only 50 years since the Brits left, is strongly wedded to this tradition. Tea is served religiously at 10:30am and 3pm. Each ‘Peon’ (rough translation is ‘Tea Man’) is responsible for making tea for all the staff in his section, including ensuring that the tea is strong enough to significantly quicken the pulse, enough palm sugar for it to be classed as confectionary, and copious amounts of condensed milk for good measure. Needless to say, the day our Peon arrived with two empty tea cups, weak tea in the pot, sugar still in its container, and no condensed milk in sight, was a huge moment for us and certainly made the daily routine more manageable…

Nimal... and our tea

The National Anthem...

The other part of the Sri Lankan morning experience is the national anthem. 8:30am every morning, no matter where you are in the building or what you are doing, you stop, stand patiently and listen to the 10 minutes of national anthem through the speakers dotted all through the building and its grounds. On a few occasions I have been running late for work, and have been stranded between the security gates and the building, some 100 metres away. Picture this… long lines of Sri Lankan men (in shirt sleave shirts, ties, and slacks) and women (generally in brightly coloured saris) standing motionless on the pathway like a bizarre roman column frozen in time. I have only just resisted the urge to whip out my camera and start clicking away like the tourist I am, except that this is a Government building, a potential terrorist target, and wielding a camera with intent is likely to see me spending time in a cell for 24 hours or more (just ask one of the Australian Youth Ambassadors who inadvertently filmed a Ministers house).

No photos... for obviuos reasons

Security (part 1)…

Now that we have security passes, getting past the two sets of guards, bag checks and metal detectors at our office is not quite as arduous as before. It’s nice to know security is being taken seriously, given that we are working in the same building as 15 Ministers who are possible targets. Admittedly though, there are some days when we just waltz through security without a second look – I prefer to think they remember the freakishly tall white man with the big smile and perceive that just like yesterday I have no intention to bomb the building…

The building we are working in is called ‘Sethsiripaya’, which has its own post office, food court, bus interchange, volleyball and netball court, and supermarket. It houses about 15 Ministries (out of 65), and all their respective Ministers, Secretariats, and Departments equating to about 3000 people.


To Tuk-tuk, or not to Tuk-tuk...

I have to admit that there is a bus that goes from pretty much the end of our street to my building, and it costs 15 cents rather than the $1 I fork out at the moment for the 3-wheeler (or tuk-tuk), but I’ve decided that the personal chauffeur ride that I get is a ‘luxury’ I can afford. I’m not convinced that it is safer to be in the buses that are driven manically around Colombo and Sri Lanka, rather than the little 3-wheelers that can easily be bumped off the road, but the 3-wheelers can manoeuvre better around errant cows so for now I’m taking my chances…

Travelling to work...

Having braved the 6 lanes of cars, trucks, and buses without military assistance - not to mention the motorbikes and 3-wheelers that have made the footpath and median strips their own - its time to hail my own transport (3-wheeler) to the office. My lack of local language ability notwithstanding (i can say "hello", "how are you", "excellent", "go left", "go right", "go straight", "stop", and "thankyou" in Sinhala - enough to get me around Colombo in a taxi but thats about it), we generally make it the 5 minutes down the road to the office, having only 2 -3 near death experiences with impatient buses.

My morning conversation largely consists of…

“Where from sir?”
“Aaah Australia… very good country at cricket. Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, very good.”
“That’s right”
“Sri Lanka also very good at cricket. Sri Lanka win cricket World Cup in 1991. England home of cricket, never win world cup, ha ha.”

You just can’t get sick of a conversation like that and it’s a great way to start the day. The history of Sri Lanka cricket, recent results, and upcoming tours and matches generally follows. I’m lucky that the trip only last 5 minutes, but I’ve learnt to keep reading the local paper so I know what’s going on in with the Sri Lankan cricket team, and can make relevant comments at opportune moments. To not know cricket would, in Sri Lanka be considered distinctly unaustralian, so I do my best to keep up with of the 3-wheeler (or tuk-tuk) drivers of Colombo.

Cricket anywhere they can… dried out wetland or on the beach

The local hood...

I wander down our dirt lane to the main road, avoiding puddles from last night’s monsoon, and past the cows that are grazing on the edge of the lane. If Parliament is sitting (our apartment is on the main road between the Presidents house and the Parliament) the lane is comfortingly guarded by a couple of khaki clad gentleman from the Sri Lankan army, holding rather large machine guns. They generally look very solemn before breaking into a big smile and saying good morning, all the while keeping their eyes on the passing traffic and the lane behind them. One of the soldiers has been known to step out in front of 3 lanes of Colombo peak hour traffic to allow some school children and their mother to cross to the school on the other side of the road – a softer side to the Sri Lankan military not often reported!

My lane, with personal soldier standing guard… and Parliament in the background


Breakfast, unimaginatively, consists of fresh fruit, yoghurt. Not only is the fruit here so good, but I am yet to see the benefits of getting up at 4:45am to cook curry for breakfast like the Sri Lankan’s do. Curry twice a day is quite enough for me thank you very much!

So its fruit...

...or curry for breakfast...

A day in the life... of an Australian Planner in Colombo

The ‘Call to Prayer’ from the local mosque at 5:30am wakes me up, but I manage to snooze until about 6 when the fish man goes by screaming “Maaaa-looooo… Maaaa-looooo…” at the top of his lungs, the bread van trundles past playing a scratchy rendition of ‘greensleeves’, and the dogs next door begin their “who can bark the loudest competition”…yep, it’s just the start of another normal day in Colombo. Its already 28 degrees, humidity is around 90%, the sun is out and there is a beautiful blue sky. I roll out of my mosquito net and into the cold shower (no need for hot water I promise), wondering what crazy life and planning experience awaits me today.

The local mosque and fish (maloo) man

Saturday, October 07, 2006


One of the challenges of the project has definitely been language… and not only our lack of Sinhala or Tamil speaking ability. Most of the Sri Lankans we have worked with speak great english, but it is the different use of terminology that has caused some problems both between Australian and Sri Lankan’s, but also between planners from different Australian states. We have found that Australian’s use planning words differently and in different contexts - think masterplan, structure plan, urban design guidelines, precinct plan, etc... Establishing an understanding of how each state uses planning terminology was an unexpected but challenging hurdle, particularly when trying to define what tasks are expected from the project.

In our spare time...

we are trying to scope projects and tasks for the team arriving in January 2006, write a plain english description of the planning system and how it works, and develop a ‘How to’ guide for the next teams so that the learning curve for them is not so steep and we can pass on all the things we have discovered to date.

Seems like a lot of work for four people, but we have another team member arriving next week and we are getting as many Sri Lankan planners as we can find assigned to the project so that we are building skills and learning from each other. Its still feeling fairly daunting, but compared to the first few weeks we are definitely feeling like we can make a contribution and provide another perspective to some planning projects... and maybe sample the local beers while we're at it.

How can Australian planners help?

Okay so we are starting to get a picture of why we are here… the question now is how can Australian planners assist? One of the first lessons we learnt here was that (a) the Sri Lankan’s are excellent planners and (b) we can learn a lot form them in terms of envisaging radical future scenarios and developing plans accordingly. Following that we have had to adjust to the developing country mindset of ‘facilitating development’ in contrast to the developed country mindset (in urban areas anyway) of controlling or directing development. This is more difficult than first expected, but explains the definite marketing tone that some planning documents tend to have!

So we are working on two major projects at the moment, one at the local level and one at the national level.

Regional Planning

With our experience in regional planning (Wendy on SEQ Regional Plan and myself on the Sydney Metro Strategy), we have been coopted into the task of reviewing the draft National Physical Planning Policy and draft National Spatial Structure Plan for Sri Lanka. Being the size of Tasmania, and with the population of Australia, Sri Lanka is probably a once in a lifetime to work on a national structure plan. Last week was pretty hectic as we are sitting on a technical advisory committee with the Director General of the National Physical Planning Department, the Deputy-Director General, the Director of Research and Policy, and the Director of Regional Planning.

There are 3 main areas of the policy and plan, which we are focussing on… Sri Lanka’s international/ regional economic linkages, the central ‘environmentally fragile area’, and producing a summary document which can be presented to cabinet and the other Departments. We have been focussing on the proposed transport infrastructure across the country, which are designed to link the four proposed metropolitan areas in the west (Colombo), south (Hambantota), east (Ampara/ Batticaloa) and north (a regional metropolis comprising the cities of Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Trincomalee and Anaradhpura). Jaffna is the fifth metropolitan area, which is located in the far north. The plans and policies are largely focused around decreasing the disparity of incomes which currently largely favour Colombo, facilitate economic development through infrastructure and urbanisation, and also reduce development pressure in the environmentally fragile area in the centre of Sri Lanka.

Detailed planning

At the other end of the scale, are the detailed plans for the town of Hambantota. Hambantota is a small fishing village (10,000 people) on the south coast of Sri Lanka that was one on the worst affected areas in Tsunami and has therefore been the recipient of huge donor investment in everything from schools and parks, to housing and a new fisheries harbour.

The local markets were previously located on the beach front and, as Tsunami hit on a public holiday when the markets were in full swing, this led to major loss of life in Hambantota. While there is not much at Hambantota at present, this is the president of Sri Lanka’s town and as such it has been commanding some serious attention. Hambantota is also one of the most religiously diverse towns, being made up of Tamils (muslim) Malay muslims, Singhalese (Buddhists) and some Christians. There is no religious tension, however, and the town is alive with calls to prayer, people going to church and mosques and everyone celebrating each others religious festivals.

With almost 4000 tsunami houses built about 3 kilometres north of the town, Hambantota is an example of restructuring the existing coastal town away from vulnerable areas… not an easy task. The proposal to build a new international port and airport in Hambantota (think Kiama and you’re getting close) has also challenged all of us to ‘dream’ Sri Lankan style, but the EIA is currently being considered by Government and the donor funding is in place – plan it and they will come!

So in short we are:

  • developing urban design guidelines in character precincts, which include the beach front, terrace housing areas, and historical areas
  • reviewing the broader structure planning for the town and sub-region
  • linking major transport infrastructure proposals to settlement patterns and trying to introduce staging related to the timing of the infrastructure
  • integrating proposals for a major port and airport into the future development of the town, and workshopping related various issues with the local and Colombo based team
  • working with the planners in Hambantota to share skills and explore different ways to approach planning issues.

Options for responding to the Tsunami... (3)

Planning – the first step by the Sri Lanka Government was to propose a ‘no building line’ which ranged from 100m to 300m from the coast. This was both a response to the Tsunami devastation on the coast, and an attempt to reclaim the coastal areas for public space and environmental reasons. The tourism and fishing sectors have unsurprisingly not responded well to these restrictions, as well as the local people who have lived right on the coast for generations. So taking the longer term view, the Government is proposing to progressively shift economic and social infrastructure (roads, rail, schools, hospitals etc) away from vulnerable areas, and further restructure towns along the coast to concentrate both population density and activity centres (commercial and retail) away form vulnerable zones. This is no mean feat when a significant proportion of the population not only lives on the coast, but also relies on the sea for income (mainly fishing).

Further the existing roads and rail generally follow the coast, and have done for centuries. Working in the government’s favour is that the permanent housing built by donors to house tsunami affected people has been located away from vulnerable areas, and therefore a large number or people have been transferred inland. With the promise of a new serviced house on 250m2 of land, or a new apartment, the shifting of housing away from the coast has commenced. What remains is the task of relocating all the supporting economic and social infrastructure, and commercial centres, to ensure that in the event of a future tsunami the loss of lives and ability to function effectively is minimised.

Options for responding to the Tsunami… (2)

Early warning systems and evacuation procedures – The use of sirens and well established evacuation routes to higher ground have been successfully introduced in a number of countries as a way of addressing tidal wave threats (E.g Hawaii). However as was demonstrated in during the 2004 Tsunami, Sri Lanka is located particularly close to probable earthquake epicentres, and is therefore likely to be only 30 minutes from impact. Given the time it takes to recognise a quake and it presenting a coastal threat, and that threat being communicated to danger areas, the time for evacuation is almost negligible. As we know from flood risk areas (and car alarms for that matter), the decision to evacuate needs to be an educated one, as too many false alarms reduces effective evacuation and people’s response time. While these systems are being implemented across Sri Lanka, they were not considered sufficient to mitigate the threat.

Options for responding to the Tsunami… (1)

In responding to the Tsunami, Sri Lanka considered 3 approaches to decreasing vulnerability to a future ocean based threat:

The first approach considered was an engineering solution – there was little or no damage in areas where either sea walls had been built, or large sand dunes had remained as these structures absorbed the power of the wave.

One response was therefore to build a Sri Lankan version of Hadrian’s wall around the coast to protect the country from future events.

Apart from not being particularly aesthetically pleasing and costing a lot of money, this was not considered a particularly long term solution to the problem (apologies to all those engineers hoping to get involved in a project that could be seen from space…).

What are we doing here?

So what are a bunch of volunteer Australian planners doing in Sri Lanka nearly 18 months after the 2004 Tsunami? With a diverse range of skills, experience, motivations and expectation our first few weeks have been spent asking exactly that question. As the first batch of a 5 year program, we are certainly feeling some pressure to ensure that we are effective in our 4 months and demonstrate some results to establish a good basis for the future of the project. Having visited the devastated areas, met with the heads of various Department’s responsible for planning and development in Sri Lanka, researched the planning system and development proposals, and asked way more questions than is probably culturally appropriate the answer to that first question is quietly being revealed…

Friday, October 06, 2006

The need for big, fat, unsustainable roads...

Travel in Sri Lanka is slow and bumpy, whether you travel by car, train or bus. The 150 odd kilometre trip to Galle can take either 4 hours by car or 2 ½ - 3 hours by train.

Traffic crawls down the single-lane each way route, which is the major north-south road. One accident, or herd of cows having a meeting in the middle of the road and the whole thing comes to a complete standstill.

Despite all the literature in western countries to the contrary, focussing on the rise of automobile dependence and the need to move people away from cars to public transport and that building roads only creates traffic, Sri Lanka needs big roads and now! From a sustainable transport perspective, this is not a conclusion we come to easily, but without a good national highway network the internal movement of people and goods around the country is unlikely to improve (which works against provision of social infrastructure, and improving skills, as much as it does against economic development).

Let us never speak of this again...


Tea is another special Sri Lankan experience which has its high’s and lows. The British are responsible for establishing tea in Sri Lanka in the mid 1800’s and Sri Lanka has earned a large proportion of its export revenues from tea ever since (think Dilmah, Twinnings and Lipton and you are on the right track). The ‘up country’ which forms the central-southern elevated area of Sri Lanka, is where most of the tea is grown, centered around towns such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella. Traditionally it is the ‘high grown tea’ which has been the highest quality and therefore the most expensive, however recently the ‘low-grown tea’ has been fetching higher prices – very controversial. We have come across more than 50 types of tea, and sampled where possible. This photo shows just the Dilmah collection...

Following the influence of the British, Sri Lankan’s tend to drink their as part of a daily ritual. Tea is taken in the morning (morning tea) and afternoon (afternoon tea… its all making sense now) and is made by a ‘Peon’. A ‘Peon’ is a man employed solely to make tea, and can be found in the Sri Lankan public service as readily as the private sector. Often Executives and Directors will have their own Peon, while lower down the hierarchy a Peon can be responsible for making tea for 50. I don’t want to get all Steve Irwin here, but you could certainly make an interesting documentary on the life and times of the Peon. Sri Lankan tea, as made by the Peon is always strong (think 2-3 teabags per person), more than likely has about 5 spoonfuls of sugar, and is generally so milky that the tea can’t actually be tasted. Sometimes this is a good thing.

A tea shop...

Tea by the sea...

Travelling around Sri Lanka...

Travelling around Sri Lanka is a hugely rewarding experience. The people are extremely friendly, always willing to help you out, and smile a lot. As long as you are prepared to answer “Where you from?” and “Where you going?” from just about everyone you meet, you will be fine. Finding out which bus goes where is a total mystery (for non Tamil/Sinhalese speakers anyway) but ask enough people and work on the majority answer (everyone wants to help but not everyone knows the answer).

If you are prepared to brave the public transport, it is always cheap but often for a very good reason… the last bus driver we had charged us 250 rupees (about $3 Aussie) for a 6 hour bus trip (Hambantota to Colombo), which I’m sure took into account the likelihood of us actually surviving the trip (he should have paid us I think). The driver then proceeded to demonstrate his F1 racing ambitions along pot-holed roads, overtaking on blind-corners and definitely hitting every bump possible (I don’t think there is a word for suspension in Sinhalese or Tamil).

The train is another bumpy adventure, and moves slowly enough that you can enjoy the view and take leisurely photos as it meanders its way down the coast or up into the mountains. We haven’t worked out the difference between the express (which doesn’t travel above 50 km/h and stops at every station, and the standard train (which does the same) but we’re working on it. The concept of buses or trains being “full” is not a concept that the Sri Lankans have been introduced to. More people are carried in one carriage here than in a whole train back home, and the buses are no different. Travelling on the footboards of both trains and buses is common, accepted, and definitely cooler than being sardined inside. I saw one man hand his bag to a seated passenger as he ran along the station so that he could jump onto the footboard and had two hands to hold on. The other passenger patiently held his gear until he could wedge himself into the carriage and reclaim it…

“A high incidence of human-elephant conflict..."

Not a sentence Australians, or most people are around the world, are used to reading and particularly not as a significant issue in an environmental impact statement. Sri Lanka reveres its elephants, and they were treated like royalty until the British arrived in the early 1800’s and started shooting them. A national holiday was called recently when one particularly famous elephant passed away - this elephant was responsible for carrying (what is supposedly) part of Buddha’s tooth during the appropriately named ‘Festival of the Tooth’ (in Kandy). So what is the relevance to planning… when elephants migrate in search or water etc they are not particularly concerned about what is in their way. Some of the Tsunami housing built in 2005 was damaged by elephants as it was built in an elephant migration corridor.

Residents were also a bit freaked out to find elephants running down the main street of their new village. Down in Hambantota, a few elephants have taken to the nutrients available at the local rubbish tip, and tend to hang out there most days. Elephant migration corridors up to 30 kilometres wide are being proposed so that the elephants can move freely from water hole to refuge, and proposing major infrastructure or human settlements anywhere near there areas is not considered best practice planning.

Cows are people too… no really.

Buddhist theology holds that death leads to reincarnation (forgive my skipping over some important bits here) and therefore each cow is a reincarnated person continuing on their journey towards ‘paradise’. This explains why some Buddhists refuse to eat meat (but lets leave that one there too). With the eastern expansion of Colombo into the former rural areas, land owners often chose to sell their cows to butchers rather than keep then in an urban environment (sounds pretty logical so far). The twist come when local Buddhists intervene to save the cows, and then set them free. This gives rise to a unique situation where cows and buffalo roam the streets, hang out on corners and generally make a nuisance of themselves in traffic.

In a city as hectic as Colombo I was expecting cows to be knocked over right, left and centre but the drivers calmly negotiate the obstacles (sometimes herds of them) and continue on their way. Cows often come wandering down our street too… just different I suppose.

Monday, September 18, 2006

PIA – ITPSL Collaboration

There has been a long and ongoing relationship between the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) and the Institute of Town Planners (Sri Lanka) through the Commonwealth Association of Planners. Following Tsunami, PIA approached the ITPSL to see what assistance could be offered. With donor money flooding in and organisations of levels of repute approaching the ITPSL, the established relationship enabled a program to be developed which would lead to long term development of Sri Lankan planning capabilities through both Australian planners assisting “In-Country” and Sri Lankan planners studying and working in Australia.