Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Pressures and Pleasures of Projects

The Pressures and Pleasures of Projects

A very tiring overnight flight brought me back to KL again. My trip to Colombo has been pretty fruitful one; I managed to bring the project to the finishing lap. But there are still a few critical hurdles to cross and I need to ensure that my week in KL now is spent very productively.

One day of rest and no more! I need to resume work while the facts are still fresh in my head. It is always a challenge to juggle two projects at the same time because once you leave one behind to concentrate on another, you tend to lose track of the first one. It becomes extremely difficult task to pick it up again later.

That's what happened to me with the Colombo project. The year-end holiday season, the tsunami disaster and my trips to Indonesia derailed me slightly. But I'm glad that I'm back on track again. It's such a difficult project too because the client's expectations are high.

Sometimes I wonder why I choose to do what I do because it is such a difficult job. I have to handle so many different disciplines of knowledge at the same time, understand the people and politics in the customer's environment within a short timeframe and conjure up some kind of solution that is palatable to everyone--often out of nothing, all on my own.

I jokingly told my Sri Lankan partner, Duhan the other day that the work I do is not possible if I'm a married man. He agreed with me because he has seen how mentally consuming the task is, not to mention the sheer amount of time that I have to spend on it.

But I try not to look at my work as some kind of pressure. I've always treated work-related pressure positively and work itself is nothing but a workout that helps me to hone my skills. A project is a journey of learning and self-discovery--one enters into a lot of unknown and uncertainty but whatever the outcome is, one definitely learns something from it. The principle is: do not be too emotionally attached to the outcome. Give it your best, complete it and move on. Pass and move.

Again, we have to remind ourselves that work is not a matter of life and death. The people behind them are more important. To me, the real reward of project work is actually the people that you get to know along the way. You are able to experience a slice of their world, and enrich your own in the process. Well, I suppose people read blogs for the same reason too...

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Pace of the Pen

The Pace of the Pen

I've been sleeping and waking up very early here in Colombo. Maybe it's because I'm still sticking to Malaysian time which is two hours early. I'm enjoying the solitude here; from my room I could hear the waves crashing on the shore below and the sound lulls me to sleep every night.

I hitched a ride on a three-wheeler back to the hotel from office yesterday. The journey from Mawam Mawatha to Galle Road cost me 100 rupees (around 1USD)--probably about the same amount that I would pay for a bajaj ride of similar distance in Jakarta. A taxi from the hotel would have cost me 400 rupees.

My exploration of Colombo Fort has been quite frustrating because many areas near the harbour are cordoned off by armed soldiers, leaving me wandering among streets filled with money-changers and gemstone dealers. I had dinner at the Taj Restaurant on Chatham Road--Sri Lankan fried rice with beef. The food was okay but the restaurant was a bit too dark for me to linger and read.

Instead, I adjourned to the World Trade Center where I had a cup of latte at the Barista Cafe. There I read a little and spent some time writing in my journal. It's been a while since I wrote longhand, and maybe I have even forgotten the pleasure of doing so. When you write by hand, thoughts have to be slowed down to the pace of your pen. When thoughts are slowed down, you get better clarity in your thinking. You notice the nooks and nuances better.

More importantly, you realize that all that hurrying doesn't really get you anywhere faster. Like driving in a congested city, you are just darting from one bottleneck to another. You merely end up queueing up at the tollgate with the car which you overtook moments ago on the highway.

The languid pace of life in Colombo--the slow setting of the crimson sun over the western ocean, the lazy breaking of waves on the shore, the sputtering of three-wheelers in every street--has kind of tappered down the speed of my thoughts. But I have no complains: it's very peaceful living life at the pace of the pen.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Alone in Colombo

Alone in Colombo

I rarely take the buffet because I'm a small eater. But last night, I decided to become a glutton and tried the seafood buffet at my hotel. The spread was sumptuous: massala crab, prawn and calamari curry and a host of other culinary delights. I helped myself to a few large servings and washed them all down with two glasses of red wine. After that I crashed to bed early.

Before dinner, I had a chance to take a walk up Marine Drive, watching the evening sunset. There's a nice lighthouse perched majestically at the end of the road. Unfortunately the romantic setting was spoiled by the sight of many barbed wire checkpoints along the way, manned by armed soldiers. Sri Lankans have been accustomed to living under the shadow of terror due the decades of civil war between the Sinhalese government and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) separatist movement.

The World Trade Center opposite my hotel and the Bandaranaike international airport at Katunayake have become terrorist targets before. So it is not unusual to see armed soldiers manning critical sites in the city. They don't even allow you to take pictures of some of the places--like the old parliament building along Galle Road, a beautifully grand building with a distinctive Greco-Roman architecture. But I feigned ignorance during my last visit here and managed to snap a couple of pictures before the guards stopped me.

The touts have been harassing me again with their offers of becoming my tour guide ("you're lucky sir, there's an elephant festival downtown and today is the last day"). Fortunately they don't venture up Marine Drive because I think the guards would not allow them.

The area where my hotel is located is also known as Colombo Fort, which used to be an old Portuguese garrison. It's surrounded on three sides by sea with a moat on the remaining side. It's the oldest part of Colombo with a lot of old colonial shophouses. It's kind of like a more lively version of Sunda Kelapa and Taman Fatahillah in Jakarta. Sunda Kelapa today unfortunately looks like a garbage dump.

Unlike my previous trip when I had a couple of Singaporean friends with me, I am completely alone in Colombo this time. Usually I get to know a city better when I'm exploring it myself. Reclusive people like me likes isolation and are perfectly happy being alone in a strange city.

Unfortunately work occupies my entire day and I only have one or two hours of daylight everyday to explore the area near my hotel. But I'm slowly getting to know the city better. At the moment, my feelings are still neutral but who knows, someday I'll be in love with this city too--like how I fell in love with Jakarta. And to be able to fall in love, one needs to be alone first.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Evening Thoughts in Colombo

Evening Thoughts in Colombo

For some reason I'm still feeling quite tired since arriving in Colombo on Sunday evening. There's a two-hour time difference between Colombo and KL but I don't think jet-lag is the cause of my lethargy.

MAS has a code-sharing arrangement with SriLankan Airlines, and I ended up taking a SriLankan flight because all MAS and SIA flights to the Indian sub-continent usually depart at around midnight. Arriving in a foreign country late at night makes you feel extremely disoriented. The SriLankan Airlines flight arrived at 5.30pm local time, which was perfect. Unfortunately it's a slightly longer trip because from KL they stop by in Singapore for an hour to drop and pick up passengers.

It's the hot season here too, so the weather is dry and humid. But at 31 degrees Celcius it is nothing compared to the 38.3 degrees that we have been experiencing in Malaysia recently. Business class hotels in Colombo unfortunately leaves much to be desired--most of them are old, crumbling 70s-style hotel which do not deserve the 80-90 USD a night price tag--the type with pigeon-holes behind the check-in counter, and an array of wall clocks showing the time for London, Paris, New York and Tokyo ("we're international").

The only saving grace is that most of them have a view of the Indian Ocean, where you can lounge by the pool and watch the sun set in the evenings while sipping a vodka martini. Perhaps one can even consider it "romantic"--it has that 60s luxury that's redolent of Sean Connery's James Bond movies. But the sight of Red Cross workers staying at the hotel jolts one back to the reality of the recent tragedy which had struck this country.

Food in Sri Lanka is good--it's similar to South Indian fare, with excellent rice and curries, very suitable to my taste. I usually don't have problems with food, wherever I go to. As long as there's a long cool beer to wash down what I stuff into my mouth, I'm fine. People who are on a low carbo diet will probably cringe because they usually serve you huge mountains of rice, which I can never finish. But I see my Sri Lankan friends devouring them up with routine ease. ("That's why we have big bellies", they told me).

Many of the hotels are clustered around Galle Road, which runs along the sea on the western side of the city. Along the beach, families and couples take evening strolls and the "bajajs" or three-wheelers as they call it here, would buzz their way up and down the road, trying to pick up passengers.

There's a pleasant small-town feel to Colombo. Life unfolds at an unhurried pace and going everywhere feels like taking a leisurely stroll. And I remember the small-town of my youth--families gathering at the padang in the evenings, the crimson twilight gathering behind the rubber trees, the colonial houses perched on the hillside and the bustle of birds swirling above my heard...

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Off to Serendip

Off to Serendip

I'm quite glad to be flying again because the weather in KL has become quite intolerable. Even though rain brought a bit of relief last night, I believe by midweek we'll be enveloped in the depressing heat and haze again.

The last time I went to Sri Lanka, a couple of months back, the weather there was very pleasant with blue skies and bright sunshine everyday. I'm looking forward to more of that in the coming week when I arrive there later this evening.

I didn't get to see much of Sri Lanka on my previous trip due to my tight schedule and the difficulty in fending off tourist touts who pestered me everytime I walked out from the hotel with offers of sightseeing tours and young women. I must find ways to be more elusive this time.

I don't expect a tight schedule on this trip. This is just a continuation of the work that I had started on my previous visit and this second trip of mind has actually been postponed many times due to various reasons. (Of course the tsunami disaster also disrupted business a bit in Sri Lanka).

But I'm told that things are back to normal now. So I'm eager to regain my "match fitness" and finish off my remaining work there. My problem is, I find it so difficult to work whenever I'm back in KL sometimes. I'd rather be travelling more often from now onwards to keep up my work momentum.

With the insufferable weather that's going to plague us for at least another month, there's no incentive for me to spend time in KL. So I'm off to Serendip!.