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.