Nuts in May

The last couple of weeks has been a slalom of social activity in the expat world around Kandy. It’s been a decent final fling as I take leave of life in my sixties and head into the uncharted waters of an eighth decade. “Life is sort, enjo is soon” as yet another gnomic Kandy tuk-tuk informed me the other day. I think that means enjoy it while you can, though as ever it’s hard to discern the true meaning of tuk-tuk philosophy.

The BBC informed us that over two billion people watched the nuptials of Harry and Meghan and I was among them, though I find the figure inconceivably high and a terrible indictment of how little people have to do with their time. Even allowing for the fact that the hairy one married a yank which probably quadrupled his worldwide audience. Back in Yorkshire I would probably have either spent the day in my allotment or attended some republican anti-party. Radical Hebden Bridge probably had dozens of such events to choose from. But for some unaccountable reason I trekked two hours to a riverside hotel in Pinnawela thence to our friends George and Yvonne’s house where two TV screens had been set up for the assembled masses – actually about ten of us. But as our extended visit to the sceptred isle approaches the occasion did cause some reflection. Sitting by a river swollen by pre-monsoon rains, glass in hand, watching elephants bathe in the distance and thinking this an absolutely normal scene made me realise how lucky I am. Then the TV footage of Windsor on a sunny spring day reminded me of the price paid for living abroad. Finally, the whole lot came together in a perfect Sri Langlican collage – British greenery, pomp and ceremony with a background of trees dripping with mangoes and tropical birdsong – and then a power outage.

A couple of days later, a farewell do for some friends returning to the UK after a stint at Peradeniya University. This took place in a rundown restaurant splendidly located by the Mahaweli Ganga, at a point where the river runs nearly half a mile wide and is usually shallow enough to wade across. But at the moment it’s a churning mass of brown and white water separating midstream islands strewn with water-borne debris of all kinds. I had planned to celebrate my 70th with a trip to Kitulgala to try out the white water rafting, figuring that the water would be suitably exciting in the monsoon. Until I visited their website to be informed that the best time to go is in the dry season. In the wet the risk assessment ranges from whiplash (best case) to death (worst case) so the rapids were rapidly abandoned.

Instead it was off for a pre-birthday jaunt north of Kandy. First stop was Gammaduwa Bungalow. A mutual friend in Hebden Bridge had put us in touch with Dave and Seng-Li who are renovating a planter’s bungalow there. She thought – rightly – that we would get on. The pin on the map suggested it was close to the main Kandy-Jaffna road just north of Matale and nicely en route to our other friends, Simon and Pauline, who’d invited us to stay with them in their hotel near Dambulla. The pin on the map was wrong. The trip took nearly four hours and Dave confirmed our suspicion that even though a tiny road was shown on the map connecting their place and Simon’s it would not be driveable. So we only had time for a quick coffee and a tour of their mini tea factory in the garage. Real miniature versions of the machinery you see in the tea factory tours, utterly cute and producing a range of artisanal teas. Disappointing that there were no miniature people working there. And they’re doing a fantastic job with the bungalow which, like so many Sri Lankan investment projects, has been a bit of a bottomless money pit. But it’s getting close to completion and any folk intrepid enough to make the journey out to their very remote and scenic location will enjoy a very special holiday. We look forward to getting to know Dave and Seng-Li better and maybe doing some collaborative work with them.

The Flamboyant Hotel, Simon and Pauline’s place, is maybe ten kilometres from Gammaduwa as the crow flies but five times that as the car drives, initially on folksy roads requiring confrontations with village buses before joining the main highway in Matale. Named after the flamboyant trees which dot their extensive gardens it’s a bit further up-market than Jungle Tide and it was a treat to stay in one of their enormous and well-appointed chalets for the night. Before that we were literally gathering nuts in May. They have fifty cashew trees all busily dropping their produce. If you wonder why cashews are expensive here’s the reason. Each nut grows singly as an appendage to the “fruit” (really a swollen stem and not pleasant to eat unless you’re a monkey) and needs to be separated and dried before being shelled. Strange fruit indeed and the first time I’d set eyes on them growing.

The gardens at Flamboyant are even more full of birds than ours, being situated on the join between the wet and dry zones and at medium altitude so pretty much every species you get in Sri Lanka lives or visits there, aside from seabirds and those that live up in the high mountains. And full of trees – Simon and Pauline are tree experts, compared to me at least, and have filled their gardens with a staggering variety of native and non-native species. After nut-gathering and putting the world to rights, and a good night’s sleep, they took us to two places which are off the tourist trail but so much more rewarding to visit than most of the popular (read crowded, expensive and tacky) destinations. The first was Menikdena, a glorious ruined monastery complex dating from around the 10th century. The stone pillars were coated in the most astoundingly coloured lichens I’ve ever seen. Menikdena is set in woodland by a lake with water birds and mugger crocs. There is no admission charge and not even a donations box. A guy working there who spoke no English was the only other human on the site. I would have loved to have made a donation but handing cash to a local employee would not have worked – to be fair, he wasn’t asking for any.

Donations and fundraising raised their head again at our next port of call, the Sam Popham Arboretum. Sam Popham was a British planter – still alive, in his nineties, living in the UK – who developed an interest in preserving the native tree species which were being cleared for plantations. He founded the arboretum and lived in a small house, little more than a hut, on the site. The hut is no more and has been replaced by what was intended to be a replica but as Simon pointed out the only reflection of the original building is its tiny windows. It is currently unused. But there are three other buildings on site – a small and basic chalet which is available for rent, and the main reception building and office, a boat-shaped construction designed by the great Geoffrey Bawa who took an interest in the arboretum. The third building is Popham’s beer tower with a rickety internal staircase leading to a platform on which Sam enjoyed his beers. History does not record why he thought beer is better at high altitude. The tower is now home to a colony of false vampire bats. At the reception building we were met by the guy who more or less single-handedly and for next to no pay runs the place, a delightful chap called Jayantha Amerasinghe who showed us around. To say the place is run on a shoestring would cheapen the value of shoestrings. But the office politics of the various organisations with a stake in the arboretum has prevented any serious fundraising let alone business planning which the place sorely needs. That’s Sri Lanka for you, unfortunately. Simon and Pauline have formed the Friends of the Popham Arboretum as an independent body which can raise funds and spend them properly. We’re going to try and do our bit at Jungle Tide to support them.

The arboretum supports a population of slender lorises and we’ll be back on another occasion to do a night walk and hopefully see some. A magazine article on the arboretum I read at Flamboyant invited readers to “go on a night safari to see the lorries”. But we had another final appointment on my pre-birthday treat – a stay at one of Geoffrey Bawa’s grander designs, the Kandalama. This immense hotel was built in the eighties as a demonstration of how even a very large building could blend into its environment – in this case rocks, trees and a tank (ancient man-made lake). Much imitated since but a landmark building of tropical architecture. Three swimming pools including an infinity pool facing the tank proved enough to satisfy even Sally. I was more interested in the architecture and just roamed around inside and out while she communed with nature all alone in the pool (it’s the off season and the place was pretty empty). Expensive and way out of our normal budget but this was a special occasion.

This final fling of my sixties ended in some ways as it began, with a fluttering of union flags. The rooftop bar of the Ozo in Kandy was decked out for an evening of gin-tasting and the promotion of a humorous travel book by Paul Topping, self-styled “Whinging Pome”. We swapped signed copies of our books and I felt the fleeting buzz of living in a literary world. The gins were a revelation. Supplied by the Colombo Gin Club if you please. We have nothing remotely like that in Kandy, we make our own entertainment up here. Jungle Tide gets complimentary copies of the monthly “Time Out Sri Lanka” which is really just a listing of upcoming things in Colombo, not a lot of use to us. There’s plenty of theatre, dance, cinema and music to choose from and some sporting events but Sri Lankans are increasingly football-obsessed and no-one plays it so the entry for soccer is just a list of EPL fixtures including the tempting prospect of one shown as “Tottenham v Hotspur”.

As hinted in the opening, we’re off to the UK at the end of June for a six month stay. I thought that would mean an enforced end to the blog, or at least a long pause, until I realised that it’s not just Sri Lanka which is unnerving and ridiculous, so is Britain. Watch this space.

Not the Royal Wedding

dav
dav

We didn’t get an invite to Harry and Meghan’s bash but we did get to our first Sri Lankan wedding last Saturday. Our housekeeper Rani’s sister, Gowri, was getting hitched and Rani was very keen that we attend. So on with the best tropical suit, only to discover that in the years since it was last used (a) my waistline had grown so the trousers were very squeezy (b) a mysterious stain had appeared on one sleeve of the jacket, requiring the attention of the dry cleaners. Undaunted, holding jacket over arm and doing breathing exercises, I headed off.

We’d been invited to both the church service and the reception (the family are all Tamil Christians) but our suspicions that the service would be conducted in Tamil proved correct so we told Rani and her husband Martin there was little point in going to the church. “No”, insisted Martin, “If you are there the pastor will do the service in English”. “But then almost no-one else will understand it” we replied. “Ah, there will be a person to translate into Tamil.” Not wanting to be put in the position of making life difficult for the vast majority of non-English speakers who would be there we politely but firmly declined the church bit of it. Though a bit of me would have liked to have gone, just to see what a Tamil Christian service was like. I’ve recently traced a distant relative who was a Methodist missionary in Ceylon from 1936 to 1970 and read something she published which unwittingly explained how the missionary movement simply took on local customs and traditions and convinced the people that these were in fact Christian religious practices. As of course the early European church did with pagan rites such as the winter solstice.

Being British we arrived at the hotel – a gloomy and cavernous pile temporarily transformed with drapes, lighting and flowers but where as always the toilets indicated the underlying reality of the building – ten minutes early for the reception. We assumed we’d wait somewhere until the party arrived from the church up the road but we were ushered into the reception room as if we were the focus of attention. We spent a short while observing various technicians doing their stuff with music and lights before the newlyweds entered via the staircase with a vast retinue and the reception began.

In a standard UK wedding reception there is alcohol followed by interminable speechifying followed by food then more alcohol and dancing. A Sri Lankan wedding reception, based on this sample of one, dispenses with all but the third element in that list. No booze. No speeches. No dancing. But there was plenty of food. Eating aside, the reception consisted of putting the happy couple through an ordeal by camera. Official and unofficial photographers armed to the teeth with anything from simple mobile phones to kickass lenses forced the couple to pose for what seemed like hours, sweating and grinning under the lights, as every conceivable combination of guests took their moment in the spotlight with them. Given that a week or so beforehand they had had to undergo the “pre-wedding shoot” in some local beauty spot to provide mementos to hand out to the wedding guests and that a couple of days later they would be subjected to more photographic oppression when they had their “homecoming” one really understood the level of commitment it must take to get married in this country. At least in between they would have a couple of days’ honeymoon, but I seriously would not be surprised if there was a photographer on hand in the bridal bed to record the first night of bliss.

 

 

Three wheels good

Time for more tuk-tuk wisdom. All the following have been added to my collection since the start of the year, mostly in Kandy. Is there no end to their inventiveness? And does anyone out there have any idea what they might mean? My favoured explanation is that many three-wheeler drivers are members of a secret society bent on world domination and use their vehicles to pass coded messages to one another.

ONLY DO WHAT GOUR HEAUT TELLS YOU. Gour Heaut is presumably the Supreme Leader of the cult.

DON’T PLAY WITH ME. YOUR DEATH WILL CONFIRM.

YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON YOUR HAND. Not your heart or your brain, then? However…

A BIRD IN THE HEAD IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH. One might ponder the various alternative meanings of ‘bird’, ‘head’ and ‘bush’ here.

DON’T BE A TWAT ALL YOUR LIFE (driven by a white woman)

SHOW YOU MY ANGLE. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. But who has the right angle?

THE WORLD HAS NOT CHANGED. THERE IS JUST LESS IN IT. In other words, it has changed.

GOD RIGHT HIM THAT KEEPS SILENCE. A handy one to use when under interrogation following capture.

LOVE IS NOT SURE. BOOT IS FULL SURE. Could you run that one past me again, please?

As ever, thank you for your kind attention.

Jerry

 

 

 

Superstition

The central character in Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons leads a difficult dual life between England/the west and his ancestral Kandyan home. The former dominated by rationalist materialism, the latter by superstition. I can’t claim to be quite so conflicted but I do empathise to some extent. I sometimes wonder what drove me to call home a land where rational thinking takes a poor second place to belief in the supernatural. Where planning is always trumped by fatalism. Sally tells me I’m not an atheist but an agnostic, since I cannot prove there is no god, and she has a point. But in seven decades on this planet I have yet to see a shred of evidence that there is a supernatural being (or beings) which gives a flying fart about either me in particular or humankind in general. Plenty of things I’m unable to explain, for sure – and many of them science remains unable to explain. But even if science never makes it that far, there is no reason to worship something just because it’s awesome and unexplained. There is no such thing as divine intervention or a divine agenda, of that I am certain.

All of which places strict limitations on how close I can get to almost all Sri Lankans (and, of course, a whole lot of religious folk from my own culture, however much I may like and admire them). As readers of Broke’n’English may recall, when we started building Jungle Tide we were mystified to get a rare e-mail from our architect, a British-educated, western-dressed middle-aged man, informing us that he had made an overnight journey from Colombo to the house site to lay our foundation stone at something like 4am as this had been determined to be the auspicious time. Given the subsequent problems we’ve had with the place, I hate to think what might have happened had the stone been laid at an inauspicious time, but let that pass.

Determining the right time for things to happen is an obsession here, and at no time is this a greater obsession than at Tamil and Sinhala New Year which is now upon us. (The Tamils and the Sinhalese do not agree on much but at least they agree when New Year is, which I suppose is comforting). Two years ago we and some friends were staying at a hotel near Anuradhapura at New Year and were invited to participate in the festivities, involving much lighting of lamps and consumption of festive foods. In the background a TV was showing the usual countdown to the crucial moment, familiar to us on 31st December, except here three or four countdowns were going on simultaneously. Countdowns to the auspicious moments to light candles, to serve kiribath (milk rice), and a couple of other activities I never managed to fathom. I found myself musing on who has the right to determine these auspicious moments. The Buddhist high priesthood? But Tamils are mainly Hindu and operate to the same timetables as far as I could tell. And in any case, if the history of any world religion is anything to go by, deep schisms would surely erupt as rival factions interpreted the relevant signs to suit their own purposes and came up with different auspicious times. The government? Maybe elections are fought over whether the UNP or the SLFP is best at telling the time.

Horoscopes are consulted not just to tell the time but to check whether a person is the right one to marry. And unlike any horoscope I’ve ever read in the British popular press, or indeed unlike any tarot reading I’ve come across, the findings always seem to be clear and indisputable. The daughter of a guy who used to be one of our drivers was in a relationship with an Australian who the family regarded as quite a catch – but on checking out the horoscopes he was reluctantly but firmly rejected as being unsuitable.

Yakas (demons) are everywhere in this land, and measures need to be taken to protect against them. They particularly go for half-built houses and, given the local propensity to build places as high as the available money will stretch, then stop until more is raised, the yakas have a lot to go at. The solution – to hang dummies from poles atop the half-completed buildings so that travelling around Sri Lanka is a bit like being in an endless version of those village scarecrow festivals which have lately become so popular in England. Some of the dummies are crude and simple but others are dressed in jacket and tie, perhaps an indication that western culture is more effective at curtailing the activities of demons.

Before reading Ashok Ferrey’s book I’d been unaware of the mobility of yakas. They don’t just hang around and haunt a particular place as our more staid British ghosts do but travel relentlessly about the countryside, making them much harder to counteract. In a (literally) lightbulb moment I realised that this probably explains why Sri Lankan drivers keep their right indicator lights permanently on. It keeps the yakas of the road at bay.

Superstition is strongest in the villages and among older people, but it’s far from dying out. My friend Jim told me recently of a village funeral attended by one of his staff. Prior to the funeral the local priest had undertaken a search of the grounds of the deceased to seek clues as to the cause of death (yes, they do also have doctors and death certificates out here, but belt and braces applies to matters of such moment). Some rusted metal items were dug out and declared proof that someone had intended evil to befall the deceased. Moreover, continued the priest, the findings were also proof that vengeance would be wreaked on the evil-doer within nineteen days. Two weeks later Jim’s man’s grandfather died and he took this as the priest’s prediction coming true. Quite why anyone would come to this conclusion among all the many other possible (and more probable) reasons for granddad’s death is utterly beyond my comprehension.

Among the hosts of yakas a few top the Mount Olympus of yakadom, as it were. The Devil Bird (Ulama) brings doom to all who hear its terrible wailing deep in the forest (it’s probably just an eagle owl but let’s not spoil a good myth). A Kinduri is a kind of radical feminist yaka in the form of a pregnant woman who deals death to randomly selected men. The Riri Yaka is a four-armed, monkey-faced little chap who rides a pig and carries with him, among other things, a rooster and a parrot. Probably a Norwegian Blue. He certainly seems to belong more to the leftfield humour of Monty Python than to any religious belief system.

Yakas with at least some claim to authenticity, though, are the Nittaewo. There is some anecdotal historical evidence of the existence of a tribe of small human-like creatures in Sri Lanka until comparatively recent times – maybe survivors of either Homo Erectus or Australopithecus. The Veddha – the aboriginal human inhabitants of Sri Lanka – claim to have wiped out the Nittaewo in the 18th century. But rumours persist of more recent sightings, including a gruesome tale of a Government official being attacked and dismembered by one in a tea estate not far from here. On the other hand, all kinds of humans have good reason to dismember Government officials…

Which bring me to the other more authentic yakas – the Grease Yakas. I first came across these characters in a bewildering press report a year or so ago. The headline: “Grease Yaka resurfaces in Bataramulla following Cabinet re-shuffle” has got to rank as one of the best non-sequiturs of all time. Grease yakas are naked men who grease themselves up and roam the streets at night, sometimes assaulting women. Why they do this I have yet to see explained. And I have absolutely no idea why a Cabinet re-shuffle should engender this response. In a just world they would all be wiped out by Kinduris.

And so, finally, to matters medical rather than fatal. I don’t have a strong take on ayurvedic versus western medicine – my guess is that both are effective in different ways and sensible folk should make use of both rather than arguing for the dominance of one over the other. But I part company with those locals who believe that illnesses are caused by a band of eighteen demons responsible for everything from deafness to insanity by way of flatulence. The other side of the coin is the twaddle dealt out to tourists by the proprietors of the rash of “Spice Gardens” who insist that their herbal remedies can cure everything from baldness to diabetes. If this were true then Sri Lankans would enjoy wondrously long life expectancy, which they manifestly do not. But that, I guess, is because of all those malevolent demons. Against superstition and religion we rationalists just can’t win. Better get this posted, Friday 13th is coming up!

(Thanks to Jim Aitken for suggesting the topic and providing some of the material. Sorry if I’ve misconstrued any of it!)

As luck would have it

By Sir N Dipity

We’ve just had a little tour with our friend Charlie, visiting from England. Travels with Charlie – Steinbeck got there first of course but his was spelled differently and was a dog. (I could go on – Charlie and the Tea Factory, for example – but I’ll spare you). As ever in Serendip various fortuitous things happened, some of which I shall now relate.

In the ersatz-English hill town of Nuwara Eliya, while Sally and I slept off our lunchtime Lion Lagers (or G&T in her case), Charlie took himself off for a stroll around town, ending up at the splendidly decrepit racecourse at the end of town just as a thunderstorm broke. Soaked to and possibly beyond the skin a local guy took pity on him and invited him into the creaking grandstand where he was treated to an unofficial backroom tour of the whole place, reeking of past colonial splendours. Warming to his task the guy then offered inside information on upcoming races in return for placing a bet, and a ride on a racehorse. Charlie sensibly declined both offers.

A few days later we reached the furthest extremity of the Kalpitiya peninsula where our primary aim was dolphin-watching. Sally and I had tried this once before only to be turned back by a maritime picket-line stood a couple of hundred metres out to sea. This was to do with a fishermen’s strike over police brutality; ironically the pickets threatened something similar to our boatman and his brother should they attempt to cross. Being good trade unionists as well as feeling some responsibility towards our hosts we agreed to return to shore.

This time there were no pickets, but a fleet of tourist boats. Sri Lanka has changed quite a bit since our previous foray five or six years ago. The boats are simple open launches with powerful outboard motors. They need pushing to get out to sea over the sandbanks but once properly afloat they go like rockets. Our boatman turned to face the shore and crossed himself before turning the motor to full power, which was only slightly disconcerting. All seafarers in Sri Lanka are Christians for some reason I’ve yet to fathom, so to speak. A brisk northerly was blowing as usual down the Palk Strait fuelling the numerous kite-surfers hurtling along the coastline and breaking the ocean up into large, choppy waves over which we bounced in a vertebra-crushing, bum-hammering fashion for over an hour before finding some dolphins. Some? Actually in quantities only previously known on Blue Planet. Surfing, leaping and spinning all around us.

In the afternoon our driver took us into Kalpitiya town, which the Rough Guide  accurately describes as having “a watery, end-of-the-world feel”. The town has one of Sri Lanka’s many Dutch forts but this one is still in military use as a naval base and permission has to be obtained to have a look around, accompanied by a cheerful but armed guard. Some buildings have been given tin roofs and brought back into use as store sheds or even accommodation. Sailors’ laundry hangs out to dry among the ruins and the skeletons of two blue whales have been erected on the battlements for some unaccountable reason.

On the way back to our hotel we asked the driver if he knew where the road led beyond the hotel. “To the beach, I think. Do you want to go?” We did, and since the road was named Beach Road this seemed plausible enough. But after meandering through a village the road petered out on a stretch of grassland by a lagoon. We were about to turn back when a portly woman emerged from a house painted in an unlikely combination of lilac and lime green and said: “Oyster farm?” We soon realised that these were her only two words of English but with our driver’s help we discovered that this was indeed an oyster farm, a family-run business aided – or so a sign in Sinhala seemed to suggest – by funding from a Danish NGO. Did we want to buy some oysters? Only thirty rupees each (less than 15p). We decided to go for it and see if the friendly hotel staff would deal with them for us. But there was no shed with a refrigerator and oysters on ice; this was a matter of catching them first. They don’t move very fast, granted, but they are good at disguising themselves as stones in the muddy lagoon bottom. So out came the family, some to gawp at us but the two older girls and two women to seek out our starters using their bare feet in the mud. Stone, stone, oyster, stone, oyster… Eventually we had amassed the dozen we’d ordered which were cleaned and paid for,and we headed back to the hotel where the chef was more than happy to prepare and present them to us in advance of our dinner. So let’s give the hotel a namecheck – the Blue Whale – highly recommended if you ever find yourselves at the further end of Kalpitiya.

That was the highlight, but in what remained of the trip we took two safaris in Wilpattu national park and saw a leopard on each occasion – I’ve visited Wilpattu seven times previously without seeing any. And on our way home detoured to Ritigala Forest Monastery by means of satnav which took us via dirt tracks rather than the regular tarmac road. And gave me my first encounter with a Tikpolonga a.k.a. Russell’s Viper, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. Fortunately this one was roadkill. As for Ritigala, well its stupendous beauty defies my powers of description. Go see it for yourself.

Independence Day

Sri Lanka has just celebrated seventy years of independence from us Brits. You might expect such a notable anniversary to be accompanied by massive celebrations across the island but most of this kind of thing happens in Colombo and consists of the usual military showing-off. The day before National Day (Independence Day) on 4th February I asked a tuk-tuk driver whether there were any celebrations planned in Kandy. “Maybe one meeting, sir” he replied. “That’s disappointing on such an important day” “Not for me sir. I think everything better if the British come back.” Not the first time I’d heard this sentiment but usually it comes from older people not young tuk-tuk drivers. I made a bland comment about the British having done some good things and some bad things which elicited no response.

On the day itself I went for a walk in the hills with our friend Charlie who is over here at the moment. On the road back down to Jungle Tide we were passed by a succession of tuk-tuks adorned with large national flags, just driving around and shouting cheerfully at everyone they passed. “Good morning, sir!” they exclaimed and waved as they went on their merry way. Charlie mordantly commented that it was a little surprising to hear Sri Lankans addressing white men as “sir” on their Independence Day.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex did come over for the events. They even managed a side trip to Kandy and went around Peradeniya Gardens in a golf buggy but their busy schedule prevented them coming for afternoon tea at Jungle Tide. An official communique from the Ministry of Information described the Guest of Honour as “HRH Prince Edward, the Duck of Edinburgh”.

Of more significance has been the local elections, held on 10th February. As a former local government employee and a local democracy junkie I have mixed feelings about the Sri Lanka local elections. A mixture of envy and fear, to be precise. Envy that local government is taken seriously; fear that elections can be used as an encouragement to inter-communal strife. Some weeks ago we were shopping in Kandy where the traffic was even worse than usual. The city was log-jammed on a midweek morning. We asked our driver what was happening. “Ah, sir, this is elections.” “But the elections aren’t until February!” “Yes, this Nomination Day”. In the UK nomination to stand in a local election consists of scraping together a few signatures and taking a form into the council’s offices where it is no doubt briefly scrutinised and filed. Not in Sri Lanka. Each candidate turns up with busloads of supporters and a fleet of tuk-tuks crammed with yet more in order to present their forms to the officials. The assumption being that the officials are likely to be in the pay of a rival party and may rule the nomination forms invalid unless there is a show of force to suggest what might be the consequence of such a decision.

But the elections seem to have passed off peacefully. And I don’t intend to comment on the results…

My Favourite Football Joke Ever

Mention of S T Coleridge reminded me of my Favourite Football Joke Ever. Two fans of struggling clubs from the lower divisions are comparing the deficiencies of the teams they support.

“We call our goalkeeper ‘The Ancient Mariner'”, says one. “What, he used to be a sailor?” “No, not as far as I know.” “Why, then?” “Because he stoppeth one of three.”

Do not disturb

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge had lived in Sri Lanka he would not have even started Kubla Khan. I doubt he would even have had time to get a decent fug going on his opium pipe. Life here is a procession of Persons from Porlock and getting anything done without interruption is nigh impossible. I only managed to write Broke’n’English by retreating with the laptop each morning to sit in the pavilion by the swimming pool. The sixty five steps down from the house were usually sufficient to deter all but a few genuinely important interruptions. There I would resolutely remain until I had achieved what I set out to do for the day. After all, that’s what Proper Writers are supposed to do, is it not? Think of Roald Dahl’s garden shed, Dylan Thomas’s boathouse. Though J K Rowling, being a woman and therefore not entitled to a shed, had to make do with the public environment of a Morningside cafe, which makes her all the more admirable in my opinion.

Sadly, now the book is finished such indulgences are no longer permitted by management and I have to focus on the day job of running a guest house. Having sorted out three sets of people’s transport for the day, settled up with the ones who are leaving, updated the accounts and cleared away the breakfast dishes, maybe a chance to write something?

Martin, our housekeeper, scurries in: “Sir. CEB bill now coming”, and hands me the outcome of the latest electricity meter reading. Five minutes later he’s back. “Sir, now coming one man, he needs to talk.” “Who is this man, Martin, What does he want?” “Sir I do not know.” Turns out he owns another property in the area and wants to know if we are selling Jungle Tide. The fact is he’s no more interested in buying than we are in selling, but Sri Lankans have endless curiosity and it is only polite to show him around. Another half hour wasted.

Just got back to the blog and the phone rings, located in neutral territory on the dining table (Sally is in the kitchen, I’m on the veranda). “Darling, can you get that? I’m up to my elbows in bread dough”. It’s a guy speaking in Sinhala who I pass on to Rani, Martin’s wife and our other housekeeper. As suspected he’s a driver for some guests arriving tomorrow and wants to know how to get here. The guests have already passed on the directions I sent them but the driver needs it from the horse’s mouth, or at least Rani’s mouth.

Half an hour passes uneventfully. Half an hour of writer’s block (or, if you prefer, bloggers block). Martin is back in: “Sir, Grama Server”. The Grama Server (properly titled Grama Sevaka) is the equivalent of an English Parish Council Clerk but vested with real local significance. His signature is needed on countless official documents and it pays to be in with him. We have had three of them to date, all really friendly and as far as I’m aware not corrupt, but it is still best to offer them tea and biscuits and a chat when they call in unannounced. Another half hour gone.

The phone goes again. Sally answered the last one so it’s my turn, I guess. “Hallo, Jungle Tide?” “Yes, this is Jungle Tide. How may I help you?” “Jungle Tide?” “Yes, how may I help?” “You have guest house?” “Yes, we are a guest house”. “You have rooms?” Tempting though it is to say that we are a guest house which does not have rooms I bite my lip: “Yes, we have rooms. How many you want? What date?” “You have rooms tomorrow night?” “Yes, we have two rooms tomorrow night.” “What is price?” … and so on through a questionnaire about the size and depth of the pool, what food we offer, how many staff we employ and whether we give reduced prices to Sri Lankan people (answer – when Sri Lanka stops charging foreigners exorbitant rates to visit the Temple of the Tooth, Peradeniya Gardens or Sigiriya Rock we might consider it). Turns out it’s an extended family of sixteen people. Had they mentioned that when I told them we had two rooms it would have saved us both a lot of wasted time.

And the day trundles on interrupted by sales teams who turn up in fours, usually dressed as Jehovah’s Witnesses, trying on spec to sell anything from mobile phone networks to hotel supplies to laundry services. Martin runs in excitedly: “Sir, important letter now coming. Please pay two hundred fifty rupees.” The ‘important letter’ is a couriered certificate from the Tourist Board for which we have to pay the courier, despite having paid the Tourist Board the fee for the certificate in the first place.

How do you blog in the face of a stream of interruptions. You make the interruptions the material for the blog, that’s how.

Christmas rituals

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

The chapel at Trinity College is rammed – and it’s really a large church. For a 6.30pm start it’s advisable to turn up at 5.30 for a good seat. We brought a van-load of guests with us and settled down for the long wait. Trinity College Chapel – where Sally was confirmed many years ago (though confirmed as what is not stated) – is an architectural gem; a surprisingly successful fusion of the English ecclesiastical and Sri Lankan temple traditions.

At first all you see is a river of slowly moving candles descending the slope from the hillside above the church, which is eventually revealed as the choir processing into the building singing Once in Royal David’s City as beautifully as any English cathedral choir. After they have taken their places in the choir stalls the rest of us get to join in. Lustily in my case – although a committed atheist I do love a good sing and the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes, certainly at Christmas. There were carols in Sinhala, in Tamil, in French and in German as well as the usual English standards.

The brief silences between lessons and carols are broken by the sounds of a tropical night, to wit frogs and monks. The frogs on the whole are more tuneful. The monks from the Temple of the Tooth maintain a continuous whinge aimed at reminding everyone just whose religion is boss hereabouts. Another reason why I sing as loudly as I can, having no time for the kind of official Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka. Happy to be a Christian for an evening. Support the underdog, I say.

The Festival of Commerce

But as everyone knows, Christmas is really a celebration of commerce,which is why Sri Lankans, who of course are mainly Buddhist, have embraced it so keenly. Everyone loves an excuse to shop (except me). Homesick? Come to the Kandy City Centre shopping mall any time after the first of December and you’ll hear enough piped Slade, Cliff Richard, Boney M and John Lennon to make you wish you’d been born anywhere but the UK.

The checkout girls in the supermarkets all wear Santa hats. Cargills, which has the strongest colonial roots of them all, stocks ersatz Christmas supplies such as candied peel made from pumpkins. Its more upstart rival, Arpico, offered a Christmas raffle in which the prize was ‘A Tropical Christmas’. Funny, I could have sworn we were in the tropics already. A trip to Lapland might have been more enticing. Though one of the prize destinations was the chance to sample the volcanic delights of Bali. First prize: a week in Bali. Second prize: two weeks in Bali.

The turkey

Our Christmas meat of choice has always been ribs of beef but Sri Lankan beef is tough and Sri Lankan butchery is no respecter of the basic anatomy of the ox. So it was turkey for us, plus a ham. In very good time Sally went to order it from Keells supermarket. The guy on the meat counter was knowledgeable and his English excellent. He produced an order book and faithfully recorded the details of our order. It was the only entry in a very large book, but no matter – we had got in early. We checked a few days before we planned to pick it up and were assured the order would be all ready for us. “No problem” – those Sri Lankan words of doom which invariably mean “There is a problem but we’d rather not mention it”. Came the appointed collection day and our original contact of course wasn’t on shift. His colleagues professed total unawareness of anyone ever having ordered anything from their store. Instead they proudly announced: “Ham have, Madam. Turkey also” and indicated a tray of sliced ham and (only in Sri Lanka) a frozen cooked turkey. After a while a manager was summoned along with the elusive order book in which Sally’s remained the only name. But somehow the manager did manage to produce a fresh turkey and a smoked ham from the depths of his private store.

The ham was boiled up, spiked with cloves and roasted for Christmas Eve and was fairly tasty. No complaints. But oven cooking a large bird is a risky business when the mains supply is as unreliable as it is in our fairly remote bit of Sri Lanka. We did eventually manage to get it done, if not to perfection then at least to an acceptable and non-threatening standard, despite the Ceylon Electricity Board and with the help of our trusty (and rusty) generator, and we and our guests sat down to Christmas lunch only half an hour after we’d promised. All the trimmings, too – stuffing, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry sauce. All home made. You can even buy frozen sprouts here, we discovered, but unless you’re seriously rich and absolutely love sprouts it’s probably best not to.

Deck the halls

Half of the container we shipped out from England in 2015 consisted of boxes of Christmas decorations – or so it seemed to me. Well, this is a big house, they were all needed. Especially the garden lights. Unfortunately the humid climate buggers up anything electrical in short order and our once impressive Yorkshire supply of garden lighting has dwindled this year to a handful of serviceable examples. We’ve made a mental note to hit the shops before Wesak (the Buddhist Festival of Light, held in May) when they are full of all the things we’ll need for future Christmases. If we’re really clever we’ll put it in our Google calendar.

The saga of obtaining a live Christmas tree in 2015 is related in Broke’n’English. Though we did eventually succeed after a fashion,the cost, stress and paucity of the end result decided us, reluctantly, in favour of an artificial tree last year, which was removed again from its cardboard coffin, spruced up (sorry!) and hung with a selection of baubles from our vast collection. But we did deck the veranda, if not the halls, with real fir branches from one of the two remaining fir trees in our garden (our former Project Manager, having initially planted us a sweet-smelling patch of fir trees, decided for reasons best known to himself to fell the lot shortly before we moved here, but two survived).

‘Tis the season…

… or is it? Christmas was a Christian appropriation of midwinter solstice festivities and has clear seasonal implications in the north. Even in (most of) Australia and New Zealand it marks midsummer. In Sri Lanka it doesn’t mark anything seasonal except, vaguely, the end of the north east monsoon and the start of the dry season that lasts through to some time in April. Usually. But climate change has made all that into a lottery as well.

Not having seasons, other than wet and dry, explains a lot of cultural differences between tropical Asia and, say, Europe. If you have a winter where nothing grows you need to plan in order to stay alive, and planning ability eventually becomes genetically selected, I would imagine. In the wet tropics there is always wild food to be had and there is no great need for planning in order to survive. There is still the need to plan for other things – building roads, developing businesses and so forth – but Sri Lankans along with other tropical Asian people tend to be less good at that than us Europeans. Or so I think.

Happy New Year!

English as she is broke

This is the post excerpt.

Ruwan, one of the tuk-tuk drivers we regularly use, whose spoken English is very good (for a tuk-tuk driver) proudly showed us the other day a book he was studying. “Now I am learning written English” he announced and pointed at a list of alleged English colloquial words and phrases including such handy gems as “Gadzooks!” and “Capital idea, Sir!” Our one-time Project Manager when we lived full time in the UK had a superb grasp of English grammar and spelling – at least as good as mine and I’m a bit of a stickler – but his vocabulary was firmly locked in the colonial era. “The ladies are yet resting after their strenuous visit to Sigiriya Rock” he once told us when we asked on the phone after some guests who were staying at Jungle Tide, our guest house near Kandy. We imagined them loosening their stays and being gently fanned by a punkah-wallah. Sinhalese English – or Singlish – is partly based on a grammar and vocabulary that was already fading in post-war England.

But another ingredient of the alphabet soup that passes for English out here is Americanisms. It took us ages to learn to call mobile phones cellphones and we had a minor epiphany at the end of a frustrating month-long search for clothes pegs to hear they are called ‘clothes pins‘. Armed with this knowledge we were able to acquire some. A third component is a Sinhalese form of grammar which, at least in its spoken form, dispenses with little irritants such as tenses, prepositions and pronouns. Finally, Sri Lankans rarely use politenesses such as “excuse me”, or “please”. Pleasure and gratitude, or their opposites, are conveyed by facial expressions and body language. Which is fine except when using the phone, which is one reason I hate making and receiving phone calls.

Arguably, language is even more important in Sri Lanka than in most other parts of the world. Only here has a twenty seven year bloody civil war been fought over what boils down to a dispute over the dominance of a language native to nowhere else in the world as opposed to a language spoken by a minority in Sri Lanka and the population of a bit of southern India. “Why don’t they just agree to compromise and speak English?” complains Sally, my wife. “Then they might have some decent job prospects as well as not slaughtering one another.” Which is true and would be the solution in a rationally organised world but English is the language of the colonial oppressor and hated equally by militants on both sides. Language is heavily freighted and squashes common sense in its path.

This blog is not going to be exclusively about language, but the way that English is transformed, mangled, creatively developed (take your pick) will be a thread woven throughout, from creative literature to linguistic car-crashes. As well as shamelessly promoting my book Broke’n’English: Learning to live in Sri Lanka (available from Amazon ISBN 1974150208 and from Barefoot bookshops in Colombo and Galle price £7.95, Rs2,000/- and, if you must, $US10.50) the blog will continue the story of the cultural blunders, petty frustrations and minor victories of an Englishman abroad.

I’ll leave this where I started, in a tuk-tuk. Someone should compile a photo-book of tuk-tuk wisdom. I scribble down examples of the writings on the back of Sri Lankan tuk-tuks, many of them used in Broke’n’English. Other than simple advertisements they can be classified as follows (I do love to classify things, it puts me in a position of control, or so I imagine):

From the lectern: A lot of tuk-tuk drivers feel it incumbent upon them to proclaim the superiority of their religion over all others. Masha Allah. I am Buddhist, I proud of that (sic). Jesus loves you. Interestingly the Hindus don’t seem to go in  for this kind of proselytising. And some, mindful of the multi-cultural nature of tourism, neatly hedge their bets with a selection of plastic figurines in the front – a cheery crucifixion scene, a chubby Buddha and a small Ganesh perched side by side. A secular equivalent praises Sri Lanka: Pearl of Asia. Well, possibly. Then there are the ones which sound like they are making political points, though quite what the points are is usually beyond me. Save the people, believe the country and you are one-man army. Wasting every second: symbol of future. Fighting on arrival; Fighting for survival.

Victim complex: Paranoia would seem to be rife in the tuk-tuk fraternity. My life is not your life (did I suggest it was? If so I apologise unreservedly. Stupid thing to have said.) Don’t play games with my heart (really sorry, I was just being friendly, I honestly have no desire to make you my sex slave, good sir). Take me as I am or watch me as I go (actually I’d rather just go with you to my destination and then pay you, I’d prefer not to get further involved if that’s OK with you).

Banal: Best exemplified by a common one: You cannot predict exact time of death (and your point is what, exactly?).

Jokes (or Jorkes): Back in the early days of tuk-tuk literature the jokes were about the three wheelers themselves. Off-road express. Colombo super-freighter. Kandy luxury travel.  More recent attempts at humour have verged on the surreal: Sorry girls, memory full. Do jorke for love but don’t love for jorke.

The frankly incomprehensible:  Jolly jib, dangerous life. Pain is the only thing that is telling me. Power of One. Minhaz: What have we done to the world?  and Money go, money come; Man go, never come (maybe there should not be a space between ‘man’ and ‘go’ and the driver is lamenting the fact that it is not currently mango season).

Latino: For reasons I have yet to grasp a section of tuk-tuk drivers are obsessed by the politics and popular culture of Latin America and the Caribbean, and in particular by the film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ which is acclaimed in various ways including Caribbean of the Pirates. Irates of the Caribbean. Pirates of the Car bean. Images of Johnny Depp vie with those of Che Guevara and Bob Marley. My absolute favourite tuk-tuk slogan, which features on the back cover of Broke’n’English, is Cheguvra want you ribel which is only translatable as ‘Che Guevara wants you to rebel’ by the image, posted on many a sixties student bedroom wall including my own, of the man himself in his bandana. Bob Marley runs him fairly close with Bob Marley, natural mystic. 

There are, of course, plenty of straightforward ads, but even these can occasionally be intriguing. I got quite excited seeing an ad for a forthcoming arts festival before reading the small print and realising that it was to be held in Luxembourg. More intriguing still was an advertisement proclaiming One man three piece band for any occasion.

Ruwan’s own tuk-tuk, a smart black number with a decrepit toy monkey hanging in the windscreen, boasts: Any time good time, busy time sorry. And with that I’ll sign off as there are more important things to do in the run-up to Christmas than writing blogs.