I was wrong and I apologise

To my amazement the Sri Lanka Police arrested (or as they say cutely in these parts ‘nabbed’) the miscreants who stole our goods from Mulberry Cottage as related in the previous post, and retrieved everything. Being Sri Lanka, the process from then on was anything but straightforward but I must start with heartfelt thanks to our local police and a public apology for doubting them.

Martin came in one morning, a few days after the last post here: “Good news, sir. Police catch the people who steal.” He went on to narrate, with evident delight, the story he’d been told of a police raid on the village where sound beatings were administered to the four guys arrested. These, he explained gleefully, were exemplary beatings reserved for people who steal from foreigners. One of the other two houses they robbed belonged to an elderly Swiss lady we have met, though it’s her second home and she doesn’t visit often. Martin’s devout Christianity doesn’t extend to questioning police brutality; I just about managed to resist the temptation to ask “What would Jesus have said, Martin?”

Later that day three police officers including the Laughing Policeman turned up at the house to claim bragging rights and see if we had any goodies to offer them. We didn’t, but were suitably grateful and offered a free lunch to them if they let Rani know a day in advance. Then Martin and I had to make another visit to Talatuoya Police Station to identify the retrieved goods, show them proofs of purchase and make and sign another interminable statement. I’m not usually good at keeping receipts for stuff I buy, but running a business one has to do that for the auditors so, other than the TV which was an old model we shipped from England in 2015, I had the relevant documents. I even had the manual for the TV. All of which impressed the police, as well as the Swiss lady whose losses appeared to be mainly crockery. We were taken to inspect the fridge/freezer, the TV, the gas hob, and the kettle and I pronounced myself very satisfied with the police work, though our language difficulties meant that I could only convey that through grins, body language and saying “Sri Lanka Police One, England Police Nil” which caused loud laughter. Martin explained to them that I had told him that in the UK one would be lucky to get a crime number, let alone four arrests and your goods back.

I’d been told that I would need to appear in court. What I hadn’t been told was that the four stolen items would also have to appear in court. Visions of m’learned friends trying to cross-examine a fridge/freezer came unbidden into my mind. This process is apparently called ‘Production’, making it sound like one of the stages of alchemy. So early on the morning of the court proceedings Martin hired the lorry from the chicken farm next door, with driver, and we set off to Talatuoya by an even shorter shortcut only passable by serious 4x4s and trucks. Once we reached the proper roads down the mountain we even had time for some sightseeing, the driver pointing out a rather lovely waterfall I hadn’t seen before, and his rice paddy, banana and coconut grove.

After another long wait at the police station, during which I was offered breakfast which I politely declined, the goods were loaded onto our little truck along with the things belonging to the other two properties and a police motorcycle with a broken headlamp. The Laughing Policeman had to accompany us to the court in case we did a runner with our own belongings, it seemed, and needed the bike to get himself back again. He and I rode in the cab with the driver; Martin rode on the back of the truck with all the strapped-down goods.

The courts complex is almost in Peradeniya, some ten km from Talatuoya via the centre of Kandy. When we arrived, the goods were loaded onto a display stand with the fridge/freezer proudly standing guard at one end. A procession of suits tramped past on their way into court but paid no attention. All the signage was in Sinhala save for one notice on the door opposite which read ‘Happy New Year 2012’. Martin said “Wait here, sir” and as is his wont disappeared. I waited. And waited, until the Laughing Policeman rushed up: “We are late! Come! Come!” Up three flights of stairs I puffed and into the capacious courtroom, entering just before the judge – to enter after the judge is, quite possibly, a capital offence. The judge was seated on a dais, as judges tend to be. In front of him was the person I presume was the Clerk of the Court, a young woman in a fetching lilac sari. In front of her a table full of black-suited legal types, almost half of whom, I was pleased to note, were women. Off to one side about twenty policemen were gathered around another table, all busily shuffling immense ledgers and reams of paper. At the back were the public, who seemed to include both criminals and victims and perhaps just curious onlookers. I originally joined the throng but, being white, was soon motioned to a vacated chair. Bad form to refuse. Opposite was the dock, and at the back of the courtroom a barred and locked cell door.

Proceedings were rapid. The Clerk called out a name or names and usually someone appeared. Sometimes they went into the dock, sometimes not. The clerk spoke briefly (the judge seemed to be largely superfluous) and some of them then simply left. Others left with a piece of paper, others were taken into the cell. One group was led out by the fire escape door and not seen again – perhaps to a yard reserved for especially naughty prisoners who needed a second beating. Everything was in Sinhala but eventually I caught the word ‘Talatuoya’ and knew we were getting close. Then I heard ‘Jungle Tide’ and my name was called. “In English?” asked the judge, in one of his rare interventions. “Yes please”. The Gang of Four was now occupying the dock. The judge asked if I had identified my possessions. Affirmative. And did I realise I could take them home but would not be allowed to sell them? Now I cannot for the life of me see why I am not allowed to sell stuff I own, but it’s best not to argue with judges so I said “Understood”. The Gang of Four were led into the cells and I assumed I was free to go and so, following the procedure I’d been observing, I bowed to the judge and walked backwards into a cast-iron pillar. Then was motioned by the Laughing Policeman to return. Then someone else said “Go”. So I went.

Outside the courtroom I met the third victim, a Colombo travel agent who also had a Hanthana holiday home near to us and had been meaning to visit Jungle Tide. Potentially useful contact, then. Back to the display stands where I naively assumed we could load our stuff back on the lorry and head home. No, said Martin: “Wait, sir” and, as is his wont, disappeared for another hour, returning with printouts of photos he’d taken on his phone of the stolen and retrieved goods. All of which had to be lodged and recorded on long forms with the jobsworths who inhabit the back end of the courts complex where it’s still New Year 2012. I managed to get into trouble twice. First, for laughing at the travel agent’s comment: “England rules. Sri Lanka people. Bad mix.” I was quickly shushed (I admit I do have an embarrassingly loud laugh, but we were several corridors and three flights of stairs away from where any legal proceedings were taking place). Second, for wandering off into the adjacent yard to gaze at their collection of ruined vehicles. I was called back. “You cannot go, sir. This is courtyard”. Yes, I could see it was a courtyard, then it dawned on me that they meant a Court Yard – a yard that only people employed in the court could enter. The Swiss lady and her Singhalese husband invited me to join them in the ‘cafeteria’ which served only chai tea. No coffee, no cold drinks of any kind. No food save for stale sweets. So I came back out.

We were eventually allowed to load the lorry, unload the motorbike and go home. When we got back to Jungle Tide Martin’s final observation on the matter was: “One minute working, five minutes talking. One person working, five people watching. This Sri Lanka.” Exactly.

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.

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.