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Clove hitches

The worst deal in history involving cloves was undoubtedly when the Dutch exchanged a small settlement called New Amsterdam on the eastern seaboard of America for the British-owned island of Surinam, in order to access its spices, especially cloves. But we may have just experienced the second worst.

 

The weigh-in
The weigh-in

Picker in treeSpot the picker

 

We have four large clove trees. They last produced three years ago, they’re a bit temperamental like that, but decided to have another go this year. For those who don’t know, cloves are dried flower buds and you don’t need a degree in horticulture to know that this means there’s a short window of opportunity for picking them. Climbing trees is beyond us and our staff so it was a matter of finding some local lads, and quickly. The first candidates insisted on an hourly rate, irrespective of the amount of cloves picked. I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t born yesterday. Payment by weight or nothing. They decided on the second option and went away. Next day we found three more likely lads who were willing to be paid by the kilo. After some negotiation on price we agreed terms and up the trees they went, all the while watched by Martin sitting comfortably in a nearby chair. Keeping an eye on other people working is one of Martin’s two favourite jobs, the other being driving us to and from Kandy at breakneck speeds, with much jumping on the brakes. He was making sure that they weren’t sneakily throwing large parts of our crop over the boundary fence to their waiting pals. What he wasn’t doing, as he sat listening to his radio, was looking into the sacks to see they were actually full of cloves and not lumps of tree. The three lads duly turned up at our front door with heavy sacks and Martin in tow, armed with a weighing hook borrowed from the chicken farmer next door. The sacks weighed in at some impressive figure and I drew a sharp breath as we shelled out more than twice what I’d expected to pay, and off they went.

We still hadn’t checked the bags, and when we did we found that most of the weight consisted not of cloves but of leaves and twigs. Then I helped carry the sacks out to the back verandah for the cleaning process to begin, and it occurred to me that either I’d grown a lot stronger in the past few hours or the sacks didn’t weigh as much as we’d paid for. So out came the bathroom scales, whose main use hitherto has been checking the extent to which we’ve exceeded our hold baggage allowance on planes. Since you can’t read the scale with a sack of cloves (or a suitcase) on it, the method is to weigh (a) you holding said sack or suitcase (b) you on your own. Then subtract (b) from (a). Simples! And at this point we discovered that the chicken farmer’s scales were inaccurate, and not just by a bit but were registering nearly twice the actual weight. Double whammy. And we would advise the general public against purchases from our neighbour – needless to say, Trading Standards is a concept unknown in Sri Lanka.

cleaning on the veranda - Sally, Rani and Jake
Clean-up campaign  

The initial cleaning process took four of us two days. After the twigs and leaves have been removed the individual cloves have to be separated (they come in bunches). Only at this point can the drying begin. Our one stroke of luck was unbroken sunshine for the four more days it took to dry them out on the lawn. And of course the drying process shrinks the weight even further. Here are some cloves drying next to a clothes drier For goodness’ sake, please give over with these bloody puns!Cloves drying and clothes drier

Martin, ever the optimist like all Sri Lankans, says that if we hang on to the crop until June rather than selling it now, we’ll get over a thousand rupees a kilo. Which, according to my reckoning, will come to a little less than we paid the charlatans who picked it, not to mention the immense amount of time taken by us and our staff to get the goods into saleable condition. Or maybe I should just invest in clove futures. No, I wasn’t born yesterday, but probably the day before.

Postscript: Coronavirus-related panic buying in Sri Lanka. Panic buying is a cross-cultural phenomenon, stupid idiots not being associated with any one culture. But it can take different forms. In Sri Lanka the items of choice include turmeric and coriander seeds, both of which the locals seem convinced can cure COVID-19. Saves a lot on developing expensive vaccines. doesn’t it? And it occurs to me that if I can convince enough people that cloves also cure the dreaded disease we could turn our misfortune into a goldmine. Sadly, I do retain some principles of decency, though.

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Fascinating Ada

For some reason there is no English language TV channel in Sri Lanka despite English being commonly spoken and indeed the first language of some Sri Lankans. English language newspapers and magazines aplenty but nothing on TV. The best they can manage is a half hour English language news bulletin on the Sinhala news channel Ada Derana – where many of the adverts, incidentally, are in English. It’s on at 9pm and we tuned in the other night to catch a bit more detail and a Sri Lankan as opposed to BBC etc. perspective on what’s happening in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday atrocities.

The bulletin is proudly sponsored by the manufacturers of a toilet cleaner which might have given us sufficient pause for thought. But there was no time for contemplation as a young female newsreader launched into a breathless, staccato account of what the police and military had been up to all day. By the end of this ten minute tour de force we were also left panting. So much going on, so little time to tell it. Her producer must have had her injected with something which metaphorically turned the key to breaking point and set her off in her valiant attempt to keep up with an autocue set in triple time. Like one of those drumming rabbits that advertise a certain brand of battery.

The military and police had certainly been busy uncovering all kinds of things around the island. “Meanwhile, in Wattegama…”   yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Batticaloa… “ yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Kurunagela…” yakyakyak “Meanwhile in Matara…” yakyakyak  … and so on. Many exciting finds were reported and a few of them may even have related to terrorism. Rather more seemed to be crudely improvised petrol bombs and caches of knives probably put together by idiots seeking revenge on local Muslim communities but not terrorism as such. Some were buried and from the fleeting glimpses one had of them could well have been leftovers from the civil war that ended a decade ago. There were 12-bore rifles and ammo possibly belonging to farmers and hunters who didn’t have gun licences. My favourite was a bunch of spent cartridges dug out of a drain, presented with breathless excitement as yet another example of our security forces confounding terrorism. There were also finds of “clothing resembling army uniforms” i.e. the kind of faux fatigues easily available in many shops. But the impression one was left with was that army bases had been looted, or maybe that there were army insiders working with the terrorists.

Now I’m treading a careful line here. I am not belittling the possible importance of some of these finds, nor am I criticising for a moment the work of the security forces. My target is the ridiculous public presentation of their work, not the work itself. Ada Derana’s English news, wittingly or otherwise, contributes to a climate of fear and panic – as I imagine do its Sinhalese and Tamil counterparts – and studiously avoids any attempt to analyse or even contextualise its content. The remainder of the programme, although conducted at a more normal pace, consisted of statements by politicians, senior military and police commanders and the like. Sometimes informative but they were not questioned, just left to say their piece to camera before moving on to the next guy (all guys, needless to say). These statements were very crudely edited with obvious flashes and inserted words to create a short but followable narrative from what must have been much longer statements. The editing might have simply removed guff and verbiage; or it might have removed points that the channel or the authorities didn’t want to see made; or (for serious conspiracy theorists this one) could even have twisted the meaning of the statement to the opposite of what was meant. One simply cannot tell, but the technicals would probably not have passed muster in an average first year undergraduate film school class.

Ada Derana did not say that all or most of these findings were in mosques, but nor did it say that they weren’t. Result – an intelligent Sri Lankan we know concluded that the whole lot must have belonged to Muslims. I have no idea whether that is likely to be true since no-one tells us (my instinct is that it isn’t) but “news” presented like this, devoid of context, analysis or interrogation, actually serves to stir up rather than reduce inter-communal hatreds. On the ground, it feels very different. In Kandy – the only city I can talk about from first-hand knowledge – there is a high and very visible level of security, but all conducted with a commendable lightness of touch. It feels really safe, just as it always did in the war. But you would not reach that conclusion from either the Sri Lankan or world news media reportage.

The male presenter had disconcerting eyes and his left hand was on the desk performing a continuous squeezing motion. He might have been softening up some blu-tack for later use but I suspect he had a rubber bulb connected to a tube running below the desk through which he kept his female colleague pumped with a cocktail of amphetamines so she could keep up her Mach-2 delivery.

Anyone feel like starting up a proper English language TV station in Sri Lanka? There’s a huge market opportunity.

Totally dental

Our friend Kenny, a Sri Lankan whose first language is English and who therefore totally gets this blog, occasionally sends us snippets which have made their way into his phone. One example: a photo of a clothing rail in a store containing women’s dresses, with a placard against it proclaiming FROGS 250/-. The other day he sent us a piece from Newswire reporting on yet another ministerial visit to Kandy (there are so many ministers they have to be found something to do, though Kandy remains a cultural and environmental desert for all that ministerial attention). “While in Kandy, the Minister went to pay his respects at the Temple of the Toothpaste” the article noted. A clear case of virtue SIGNALling, in my opinion. As a minister he would have entered and left not by the public entrance but by the entrance reserved for VIPs, known as the Colgate (Oh do shut up! – Ed.). I will now cease to call Kandy’s holiest place the ‘Temple of the Tooth Fairy’ as ‘Temple of the Toothpaste’ is so much better.

My own teeth, meanwhile, could not by any stretch of the imagination be said to be a temple, unless of the ruined kind to be found in Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. The occasional remaining tooth still stands, Ozymandias-like, in mocking remembrance of past glories. I’ve worn dentures for several years. While trapped in the UK in 2020 by the pandemic travel restrictions a couple more of my standing stones toppled and I had new dentures made. I brought back to Sri Lanka a large quantity of fixative since the only stuff you can get here is an almost useless powder. Why this should be so I don’t know. You can buy Marmite, Colman’s mustard, Lea and Perrins and a whole range of Heinz products easily. Powerful sedatives are supplied over the pharmacist’s counter, no questions asked. But nowhere can you get Fixodent – well, nowhere in Kandy. Even so, I recently ran out of my supplies of the tubed stuff and had to resort to the dreaded powder. And, in an example of irony only surpassed by catching Covid at the vaccination centre (see Jablog), I was fitting my dentures in one morning when the powder caused me to cough and said dentures flew across the room and cannoned into the unforgiving tiled floor, snapping in two.

Off to the dentist’s, then, for an emergency temporary repair and getting new ones made, again. Sri Lankan dentists, in my experience, are technically every bit as good as their British counterparts but haven’t learnt how to smarm their patients – an essential attribute of British dental practice which probably accounts for around half the curriculum at dental school. The Sri Lankan dentists I have come across have all been matter of fact to the point of brusqueness. But they get the job done. And at a tiny fraction of the price in the UK. When I had the dentures made in Kent the process took two months and cost me a bit north of £1,500. The new ones I’ve just had made here in Kandy took three weeks (same number of appointments, they just get on with the job more quickly) and cost me a little under Rs20,000/- – around £70. Yes, that’s correct. £70. How they achieve this is beyond me, but now we’ve decided to rent in England from next year and come out to Jungle Tide annually to escape the worst of the English winters I shall get all non-emergency work done while I’m here. In fact I’ve calculated that a solo traveller wanting some dental work done would actually save themselves money by paying the return air fare to Sri Lanka and getting it done here. Not good for the planet, I admit, but something has to be wrong when British dentistry can come out at more than twenty times the cost of the same work in Sri Lanka, don’t you agree?

So I shall continue living between two worlds for the foreseeable future, if only for dental reasons. Oh, and Sally, resourceful as ever, found me a tube of Fixodent available from Colombo by mail order. Cost almost as much as a major dental procedure and as usual it took the courier three days to find us, but it will keep me going until I get back to England next month.

A weekend of culture and sport

Kandy is pretty much a cultural desert, beyond the traditional Buddhist cultural stuff aimed largely at the foreign tourist trade, of which currently there is very little. There is no regular English language cinema or theatre, no music venue, no proper art gallery and the bookshops are heavily biased towards educational texts rather than literature. One small beacon of light in the darkness is the Atelier Hotel, located well out of town up a side street opposite the Arpico supermarket. Rukshan, who runs it, maintains a programme of both permanent and temporary visual arts and sculpture and an occasional series of events from film nights to poetry readings. I’ve been several times – indeed, pre-pandemic we’ve run a quiz night and a Christmas singalong there, just to lower the tone a bit.

We were there again last Saturday night for a book reading. At least two of the four writers were introduced, or introduced themselves, by saying proudly they were born in Kandy. Ths is something I’ve got used to over the years at similar events. Educated, cultured people come from Kandy, but sooner or later – usually sooner – they all gravitate to Colombo which is where the action is. Fully half the island’s population lives in the Colombo travel to work area and nothing much of cultural significance happens anywhere else except in the oasis of Galle Fort down the coast. It would be wonderful indeed to have a few of the island’s greatest bards, thespians or musicians actually living in Kandy rather than just being proud to be from here. One can but dream.

The Atelier interior

Kandy is better served for sports than it is for the arts, however, and the rest of the weekend had more of a sporting theme. Having had almost no paying guests for ages, we were hosting a New Zealand family and a Sri Lankan one. The Sri Lankans were a very athletic young man and his parents. Dad was no slouch, either, and accompanied his son on a strenuous climb to the top of the mountains, a route which is more famous among the hiking community than we had realised. The young man participates in several sports including, bafflingly, downhill skiing. The first, and no doubt the last, Sri Lankan skier I shall ever encounter.

The Kiwi family had stayed with us at the beginning of the month. Brett, the Dad, is the physio for the Sri Lankan cricket team (these chaps are hired guns, they don’t need to be Sri Lankans). Mum and the two very adorable kids had come back for a further stay while Dad was with the team, in a Covid bubble, for the ODI against Zimbabwe at the Pallekelle international stadium near Kandy. I’ve meant to go to a match there ever since we’ve been living here but never got round to it, and suddenly one was dropped into my lap, a sitter even I couldn’t miss. Brett had organised tickets in the box reserved for players’ families for his own family plus Sally and me (posing, if needs be, as long-lost aunt and uncle).

“Just go to Gate 5, the tickets will be waiting for you at the gate” was the instruction. Our van entered the car park where security ordered the driver to drop us off and he duly left. Two separate signs for Gate 5 pointed in two different directions. We asked a security guard where we should go and were directed to the back of the queue for body and bag checking. At the front of the queue we were asked for our tickets. “They’re waiting for us at gate 5” we explained. “Sorry, you cannot pass through here without a ticket”. After a while we managed to speak to someone prepared to take a decision, who told us to walk about half a kilometre around the ground to the opposite side where we would find a VIP gate that would let us through. By the time we got there we’d missed the first couple of overs and, in typically Sri Lankan fashion, we were told to wait, but not told whether anyone was doing anything. Then we were told to walk on to another gate “not far away”. We headed off but could find no other gate and by now were in a wilderness some way from the ground, so we returned, hot and pretty angry. Long story short, we were eventually admitted. We never did see Gate 5 or our tickets, and neither our bodies nor our bags were searched. Security, Sri Lanka style. But it was bliss to reach the air conditioned comfort of the players’ families box, with free snacks and coffee and a great view of the ground. Treated as scum and as VIPs in the same afternoon, that’s Sri Lanka for you. We couldn’t stay to the end, it was a day/night game, but saw most of the first (Zimbabwe) innings.

Sri Lanka won by five wickets.

Pallekelle International Stadium

A religious experience

Sally’s grandfather and great grandfather are buried in different parts of the Hill Country. Every so often we do a trip to check they’re still in place and have not been resurrected by the yakkas (see the ‘Superstition’ post for more on these). We’ve just done such a trip. Both are lodged in C of E churchyards. Both died young. Grandfather was heading to Colombo when he became ill. His driver urged him to seek attention at Kandy hospital but he stubbornly insisted on continuing to Colombo where the medical facilities were better. He died en route of a burst appendix. He was in his early fifties and had survived two world wars. Great grandfather died even younger, at thirty seven, being thrown from his horse and trap. There are two rival accounts. The one Sally prefers says that he was engaged on charitable visits to the local poor. The one I prefer says he was drunk.

Sally at grandfather’s grave

Grandfather lies in the neat churchyard of St Mark’s in the large town of Badulla. His grave, like all the others, is well maintained and even had flowers growing on it, though ’twas not ever thus. When we first discovered it in 1998 we and various blokes associated with the church had to hack our way through vegetation and collapsed headstones to find it.

Respects paid, we headed after an overnight stop to Maskeliya, one of our favourite places on the island and scarcely touched by tourism. Delayed by a puncture we arrived too late to visit the grave that day, and sadly too late to see and photograph a spectacular sunset over Maskeliya lake with Sri Pada mountain in the background (we could see it from the car but it was pitch dark when we arrived via slow mountain roads). The little place we’d booked into (Butterfly Mountain Lake Side – highly recommended) was converted from the original colonial era post office. Odd to think we were sleeping in the building where great grandfather posted his letters.

The next day dawned rainy. We also realised it was Sunday, perhaps not the best day to go and impose ourselves unexpectedly at a church. All Saints, on the Queensland Estate near Maskeliya, looks from a distance as if it could be in a Devon coombe. Here’s how it looked when it was first built:

All Saints Church, circa 1876

People were milling around outside and inside the church but as we neared the building the strains of ‘Happy birthday to you’ could be heard. Quickly checking that it was not yet Christmas we concluded that we weren’t interrupting a service. Invited in by the pastor we found ourselves amid a collection of party balloons festooning the altar, font, pulpit and all the walls. Even worse, we’d stumbled into some child’s birthday party. Consumed with guilt, we started making our excuses but the pastor explained that the party had ended and that it was not a birthday but a girl’s coming of age party. Oddly enough the Sri Lankans, a people who are deeply modest about sex, clothing and suchlike, make a big public deal of it when a girl has her first period. I suppose it’s a bit like the tradition of churching women after giving birth. We attended a similar, Buddhist, ceremony a few years back for Noni’s daughter. Funny time to have a party, early on a Sunday morning, but there you go.

Pulpit and balloons

Off outside to brave the rain and leeches and find great grandfather’s grave. Unlike St Mark’s, the churchyard at All Saints is overrun with vegetation and the grave took a bit of finding even though we knew roughly where to look from previous visits. But the vegetation was not all weeds. Many of the graves were sprouting crops of beans, cabbages and other vegetables. Being used, in short, as raised beds. Sacrilegious? Enterprising? Take your pick but I prefer the latter. Kenny, our driver, commented that he was glad his wife hadn’t come; if she’d seen this, he told me, she would never eat vegetables again.

Grave goods

We went back inside to sign the visitors’ book and to make a donation to church funds, which we were assured would be used for weeding. The woman who’d been playing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the keyboard asked Sally if we played. Sally foolishly admitted that I did, so I was dragged to the altar, as it were, and sat on a footstool in front of the keyboard and told to ‘play something, Sir’. I bashed out ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at breakneck speed with many bum notes, desperate to get it over with. They all applauded and, as we left the church the organist launched into a rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.

I wish I were.

Jablog

I think I may have had Covid. And passed it on to Sally. But this is Sri Lanka and you can’t just grab a free Rapid Antigen Test. Anyway, I’m not especially bothered either way – it was mild (though Sally is worse). The irony is that whatever I caught, I got it at the vaccination centre a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been under curfew for a month, with at least another fortnight of misery to endure, and I haven’t been anywhere else in that time.

This country is obsessed with pandemic peripherals – wearing masks outdoors, repetitive hand-washing whenever one enters any kind of building, banning the sale of alcohol – but completely ignores the one thing that makes a difference to how viruses spread, which is social distancing. The vaccinatiion centre was mobbed. The army was hanging around in numbers, doing absolutely zilch. We oldies are all supposed to get jabbed at home but I was by no means the oldest person there, and certainly not the most frail-looking. Some folk looked like they wouldn’t make it home afterwards. But Sally and I were thankful for small mercies. Getting vaccinated at all had proved to be quite a saga.

I managed a first shot of Astra-Zeneca back in England in early February before returning to Sri Lanka at the end of that month. And as luck would have it AZ was what we got here in the end. Second dose due mid-October. Developing coutries grab whatever supplies they can lay their hands on and we know people who’ve had Sputnik, Sinopharm and Pfizer (which everyone here calls ‘fizzer’) so we were duly chuffed. A couple of English GP friends had both told me I should just start again with whatever was on offer anyway.

Sri Lanka had promised to vaccinate all residents including us expats. Unfortunately the message hasn’t always percolated down to the local officials – called Grama Sevakas – responsible for getting the people to the needles. Many of them believe that vaccinations are reserved only for Sri Lankan citizens. So while our staff all got their jabs, no call-up papers arrived for us and we waited to see what would happen. And in due course our staff reported that if we signed some forms in Sinhala for our Grama Sevaka he would arrange for us to be vaccinated at Peradeniya University Hospital. Armed with the forms we hired an expensive car (one can only travel with registered companies and lots of paperwork in lockdown, and they don’t come cheap) and presented ourselves for jabbing. After being directed from one hospital building to another a few times, we discovered that this hospital was only engaged in vaccinating health staff, not the general public, and besides, no-one was being vaccinated that day as the relevant staff were on strike. Back home to await further devekopments.

A friend advised us to contact the British Honorary Consul in Kandy for help. We hadn’t previously been aware of the existence of such a person who is actually a Sri Lankan by birth, travelling on an Australian passport – a fact which apparently has put a few British expat noses out of joint. Personally I cared not if he came from Mars provided he did the job.

Amal, the Honorary Consul, fixed it through his local Grama Sevaka down in Kandy whose palm we had to cross with money and whose forms we had to fill in with a fake address in Kandy – in fact Amal’s address. Then off to find the vaccination centre which we’d been told was in a college “backside Tooth Temple” – which in Singlish means “behind the Temple of the Tooth” and, sadly, does not refer to the worship of a beast with gnashers in its bum. Another expensive hire car trip but the driver said he knew where we were going. As we approached Kandy Lake we fell in behind a vehicle with the words ‘Army Mobile Vaccination Unit’ prominently displayed on the side. “Follow that truck” I thought, but our driver had other ideas and took us way up into the hills, asking every passer-by where we should be going until he finally found someone who knew. We turned around, headed back down to the lake and sure enough there was the army mobile unit parked just where we were supposed to be.

I wish I could spin a scary yarn about the actual vaccination but, truth to tell, it was utterly routine.

Loco

Mexico comes to Kandy (sort of)

In a world gone mad, Sri Lanka is a good place to be. Few countries do daft quite as well. Having been stranded in the UK for almost a year (reasons too tedious to trouble you with) we finally made it back home last month, via two weeks in a quarantine hotel. Back to the social whirl of expat life, featuring lunch with friends in Kandy’s newest gastronomic experiment, a faux-Mexican restaurant run by a couple of Sri Lankans who’ve lived for a while in southern California. Predictably they’ve named it Los Amigos Locos – a case of Sri Lankans racially stereotyping Mexicans. And what are we whiteys to make of that, I wonder?

I’m sure most of my legion of readers will not share my views on the pandemic, or rather the world’s reaction to it, and I won’t dwell on it since I don’t have so many friends I can afford to lose them. But even the most lockdown-enthusiastic among you might find the reception at a Sri Lankan quarantine hotel a little excessive. Like being on the set of Doctor Who, it was.

Cybermanic welcome to Sri Lanka

For a full account of our strange journey from Heathrow to a fortnight’s hotel quarantine take a look at the piece I had published in Lockdown Journal last month: http://lockdownjournal.com/2021/03/28-february-1-march-2021-kent-uk-to-kalutara-sri-lanka/

I may have noted in earlier posts that in Sri Lanka almost all legislation is ’emergency’ and announcements of change are usually ‘with immediate effect’ allowing neither time to plan the implementation nor to undertake due diligence i.e. to check whether this new regulation is consistent with all the other regulations already in force. A member of one of the Facebook groups Sally is on reported a few months back that the Sri Lankan government has banned single-use plastic. Another member commented: “Yes, for the fifth time. Notice any change yet?” Indeed. So we now read that palm oil imports are to be banned and all existing local palm oil plantations must be uprooted forthwith. Squeals of protest, and likely nothing much will happen as a result.

So it is with the ever-changing rules regarding foreign visitors. A tweak here, an (inconsistent) amendment there, endless questions on a bewildering range of online forums from from would-be tourists trying to ascertain whether it’s worth booking their flights yet. Here’s what I understand to be the present position (it will be different tomorrow so please don’t regard this as any kind of guidance). If you have been fully vaccinated at least two weeks before you arrive, and carry the documentation to prove it, you have to spend a night in a quarantine hotel near the airport and in the morning they will check your papers and release you to wherever you’ve chosen to stay. No need for a PCR test – though the day before yesterday you would have needed to have one. Quite why they can’t do this at the airport is not explained. But if you have kids aged under 12 and over 2 with you, they do need to take PCR tests so you can’t leave the quarantine hotel until their tests come back negative. Which could be another day or so, meaning you can’t make definite plans. If your kids are aged 12 and above they are counted as adults, so irrespective of whether you have been vaccinated, if they have not you all have to spend 14 days in one of the so-called ‘safe and secure’ hotels listed by the Tourism Development Authority before you can go to a place you actually want to stay in. As of course you would if you ourselves have not yet been fully vaccinated. Small wonder that so far only a trickle of people have responded to the attempt to welcome tourism back to Sri Lanka. Incidentally we did not go for ‘safe and secure’ status since the requirements include such pieces of complete daftness as (a) having a ‘Management Team’ and a ‘Rapid Response Team’ (response to what?) – we have a total staff of three, not easy to jump through that hoop – and (b) all staff required to wear uniforms at all times – it being, of course, established scientific fact that the wearing of casual clothes contributes to the risk of catching the virus.

The only respect in which being back here is worse than being in the UK is the odd local requirement to wear masks outdoors as well as indoors (penalty – an on the spot fine of Rs5,000/- if the police spot you; a bit under £20). It’s definitely the 18th century miasma approach to infection which the local public health authorities subscribe to. And even if you disagree with my scepticism, you’d surely accept that a country where small children ride on motorbikes sandwiched between mum and dad, fully masked but without a crash helmet; where guys do arc-welding, masked and without goggles; climb trees with chainsaws slung over their shoulders, masked but without harness; or operate road drills masked but without ear defenders – that a country such as that is one which has its public health and safety priorities seriously out of kilter. Welcome to Sri Lanka, then.

At least I’m not a politician. This week’s Sri Lankan Sunday Times included a report that a prominent MP and former Prime Minister was “literally roasted” by his party colleagues at a meeting. The report does not say whether they then ate him or fed him to the dogs. Or whether the chosen method was spit- or oven-based. Sloppy journalism, I say.

Mystery shopping

“O tidings of comfort and joy!” a friend texted shortly before Christmas. “Cottage Ham has reappeared in Keells supermarket”. ‘Cottage Ham’ is what Keells call their sliced ham, a pale imitation of what one can buy in any UK supermarket but manna to us expats. So off we all trotted to buy out the stocks and cause a further shortage. Cooked ham is but one example of a range of goods that mysteriously appear and disappear from the shelves of Sri Lanka’s three main supermarket chains: Arpico. Keells and Cargills/Food City, and the expat community regards it as a sacred duty to monitor their comings and goings, and to buy in bulk whenever these treasures put in an appearance.

Now I don’t know whether the ham is imported (which might explain the periodic shortages) but I do know that many of the other things that regularly do disappearing acts are locally produced. Since there is no discernible seasonal pattern to their presence and absence I am at a complete loss to explain why it is only sometimes possible to buy rhubarb (grown up in the mountains of Nuwara Eliya and thin gruel compared to its Yorkshire cousins but still very welcome); button mushrooms (grown in nearby Kurunegula and hardly seasonal); and most bizarrely of all, supermarkets frequently run out of coconuts for which Sri Lanka is justly famous and produces in biblical quantities. On one occasion following a prolonged button mushroom drought, we encountered a friend in Keells with a trolley loaded with button mushrooms. “Whoopee! They’re back!” we exclaimed but she, shamefacedly, admitted to having bought up the entire shelf, before passing two packs on to us to assuage her guilt. Local butter, produced in the hills of Kotmale and Ambewela, is sometimes available and equally often vanishes from the shelves for weeks at a time. Why? Does something happen to the cows? The imported New Zealand alternatives cost fully twice as much. Why are orange and mango cordials always available but our favourite, passion fruit, from the same range, only occasionally pops up? We shall probably never know.

But the deepest mystery of all concerns cling film. Sri Lanka is plastic-obsessed. The supermarkets all display signs asking customers to refrain from single-use plastic bags while their staff put everything into single-use plastic bags, staring in slack-jawed amazement if you ask that they desist. “But sir, the bags are free”. ”Yes, that’s precisely the problem”. Arpico is especially the home of all things plastic. It wouldn’t surprise me if their buildings are constructed from some form of plastic. There are shelves of plastic bags of all kinds, as well as aluminium foil, and an inevitably empty section labelled “cling film”. Meanwhile the staff in the fruit and veg area are busy in pairs wrestling with industrial sized cling film dispensers to wrap around anything larger than a peanut. But can you buy a domestic sized roll of the stuff? Only very rarely. And will they sell you the industrial sized rolls? Nope. We’ve taken to asking UK guests to bring out Tesco’s finest in their suitcases so we have some way of keeping leftovers fresh in the fridge.

In Jungle Tide we bake our own bread, so maintaining a supply of dried yeast is crucial. We usually have plenty in stock but in November a national yeast shortage struck and this went on until we’d completely run out by mid-December. Sally does not take such things lying down. She asked a staff member in Keells why there was no yeast. “All finish, Madam” was the predictable and uninformative reply, accompanied by the usual Sri Lankan grin and wobble of the head. “When is more coming?” “I do not know, Madam” (grin, wobble). “Then can I ask the manager?” “Sorry, manager not here” (grin, wobble). “Then who is the next senior person I can talk to?” “Ah, Madam, that is me”. “So can you tell me why there is no yeast?” “Yes, Madam, it is management decision.” (grin, wobble). “Why?” “I cannot tell.” So we left two full trolleys near the checkouts and stormed out in high dudgeon (expats tend to do these pointless things despite knowing better). The yeast returned after Christmas, and rumour had it that there was some kind of temporary national ban imposed to prevent the locals from brewing up too much festive hooch. But one never knows which rumours to believe in Sri Lanka. We managed to get some UK guests to bring out an emergency supply.

The mysteries continue to pile up. UK guests often offer to bring out Marmite, assuming we can’t get it here. But the shops are full of the stuff. However, Bovril is unknown. You can get Lea and Perrins easily, if expensively, but not English mustard (they have some horrific creamy concoction masquerading as it). Squeezy bottles of lime juice are easily available, but not lemon juice. Some common proprietary medicines are easy to find, others don’t exist. Thank goodness we run a guest house with plenty of European people passing through our doors, bringing us good cheer. I’m off for a ham and mustard sandwich. Happy New Year.

 

Did you mean Brixham?

This year’s UK peregrinations have so far brought us to Brixham, staying in a house swap which lacks a potato peeler, ironing board, bathroom bin and, most surprising of all, wi-fi but these deficiencies are more than compensated for by the ever-changing view over the busy harbour. Before reaching here, as one does, we were researching stuff to do, and being reminded en route of the vagaries of a certain well-known search engine. Because Brixham includes the letters B,R,I and X we’d expected the usual confusion with Brixton but no – our internet searching habits caused a different message to pop up:

Did you mean Brexit?

Just goes to show what political anoraks we must be. This gave me cause for reflection on Brixham and Brexit. Now I do not know how the good citizens of Brixham voted in the referendum, though I have dark suspicions, but however they did there is no doubt that Brixham and Brexit have a lot of connections. Brixham is the port from which our gallant prawn fishermen head out to annoy the French. It is the port where William of Orange landed in 1688, an event which initially might be seen as cementing the relationship of these islands with mainland Europe but which led, if one traces a tortuous historical route, to the DUP. Incidentally, according to a harbourside pub, King Billy was offered a pint of bitter when he landed – not, as one might have expected, orange juice. Or better still, gin and orange. The most prominent building on the quayside is a restaurant called Rockfish, which I surmise is named after Rockfish Rogan, erstwhile hero of boys’ comics and scourge of the Hun. In the harbour lies a full scale replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship Golden Hind, dwarfed by several of the trawlers, to my surprise, but still a potent reminder of what we can do to the Spaniards when they get uppity. And where did the BBC’s Panorama visit recently to illustrate the issues around a no-deal Brexit? That’s right. We went on a mackerel fishing trip the other day and caught nowt. The skipper didn’t blame the mainland Europeans for our failure, however, but a megapod of bottle-nosed dolphin who have hoovered up all the fish in Torbay for the time being. Still, once we’re out of the EU we will have the right to ban bottle-nosed dolphin from our inshore waters. Won’t we?

Brixham has thrown up a few more surprises. They really seem to like marching bands here. Oompahs rise from unseen quayside locations every evening. And we seem to have landed in the middle of some kind of Beard Festival.

Did you mean Beer Festival?

No, you heard it right. The number and variety of ridiculous forms of facial hair all gathered in one small town can’t just be normal daily life, can it? And to my regret we arrived just too late to witness the annual trawler race, which must be quite a spectacle.

Farewell to Brixham tomorrow. Farewell to Brexit might take a while longer but at least our travels are taking us in the right direction, up eventually to remain-voting Scotland. And while the cavortings and lies of our two would-be prime ministers and the boorish behaviour of Brexit Party MEPs is just par for the course, I did feel vindicated at my decision – based on little more than a toss of a coin – to vote Green rather than Lib Dem in the EU elections when the Lib Dem contingent turned up at the European Parliament wearing the infantile slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” on their yellow T-shirts.

Did you mean pollacks to Brixham?

 

The Frightening Claptrap Office…

… should be what FCO stands for. By ‘eck I’m proper vexed by what they and their equally spineless counterparts in the US, Canada and Australia are setting out by way of advice to travellers following the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. If you want to advance the cause of global terrorism under the guise of protecting your own citizens, what they are doing is a great way to go about it. People choosing to abort their Sri Lankan holidays in favour of another destination are exchanging a very small risk for a slightly larger (but still very small) one as the next terrorist target could be anywhere – but will probably not be a repeat performance in Sri Lanka. But governments are not particularly bright and we can only hope their citizens have and are prepared to use their mental and critical faculties when assessing FCO and other government “travel advice”.

Rather than go on about the advice specifically related to terrorist atrocities I thought I’d take a look at what else the dear old FCO has to say by way of advice to potential travellers to Sri Lanka. Advice which I assume has been on their site for quite a while and certainly predates the Easter Sunday bombings. So here are a few selected verbatim quotes from the FCO Sri Lanka travel advice, with my own comments added in italics.

  • “Organised and armed gangs … responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence … have been known to operate in tourist areas.”

Presumably there have been instances of such gangs operating in areas where tourists also visit (which is most of the island). But a Google search found no examples of any tourist having been attacked, kidnapped etc. by any “armed gang” in Sri Lanka. Ever. Context is everything. What on earth is the justification for putting out this piece of scaremongering without at least prefacing it by stating the truth that while there is a tiny possibility of this happening, so far it hasn’t happened to any foreign tourist?

  • “Operations to clear mines continue, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass.”

I assume this is factually correct but a Google search for “danger to tourists from landmines in Sri Lanka” brought up no results other than the above FCO advice. Once again, what justifies this decontextualized scaremongering?

  • “Feral dogs are common and sometimes carry rabies.”

The most recent report I found under a search for “confirmed cases of rabies in Sri Lanka” [NewsFirst.lk dated 21/9/18] reported that indeed 23 people had died from rabies in the previous year and 13 to date in 2018. None were foreign tourists. It also reported that there are over two million dogs in Sri Lanka. That suggests a probability that you’d need to suffer tens of thousands of dog bites to reach an odds-on chance of dying from rabies here. How does that figure compare with, say, UK road death statistics? I don’t know but it would provide useful context, wouldn’t it?

  • “Medical facilities are not always of a standard expected in the UK, particularly outside Colombo. Treatment in private hospitals can be expensive.”

OK let’s deconstruct this piece of advice. I can speak here from direct and indirect experience, presumably unlike the FCO official who wrote it. Sure, the facilities (i.e. the clinical environment) usually fall short of UK standards. However the FCO might have mentioned that the standards of medical care, treatment and surgery are at least as good as those you will find in the NHS. Expensive? Compared to what exactly? A guest of ours was unfortunate enough to contract a rare disease while on holiday in Sri Lanka a few years ago. Not only was he treated and cured in Sri Lanka, his GP back in Britain was astounded that the Sri Lankan doctor had been able to diagnose his condition correctly. We asked his wife whether their travel insurance had paid the costs. “We didn’t bother to claim”, she said. “The total amount was only a bit above our excess.”

  • “All regions of Sri Lanka experience outbreaks of the mosquito-borne dengue fever”.

As do all tropical regions. This is not a Sri Lanka problem and this ought to be made clear in the advice. The advice might also more helpfully add that the risks are higher in Colombo and on the coast and greatly reduced if you holiday in the hills. And that the dengue mosquito flies by day, so if you are bitten at night it might not be fun but you won’t contract dengue.

  • “There are ATMs in major towns and cities but not all of them accept international cards.”

Indeed – and there are ATMs in almost all small towns as well. You can have a great holiday in Sri Lanka avoiding major cities and still easily access your cash but few would conclude that from the above “advice”. And besides, it would be helpful to list the banks whose ATMs do accept foreign cards, wouldn’t it? [Commercial, Hatton, Sampath, HSBC for starters]. Or is the entire purpose of FCO “advice” to discourage rather than encourage foreign travel? Does that explain the depressing and relentless negativity of it all?

 

In solidarity with all the people of Sri Lanka, who depend on tourism. Please keep coming!