Sri Lanka Days 7 – Putin, Charity & A Serial Killer

This is the leopard we saw a few days back. Helen kindly circulated her image and I must share it.

So let’s talk about the British legacy. We departed in 1948 and Ceylon became independent. Prabash, our guide, would have it that Hitler enabled their escape from the colonial yoke. He opines that Britain granted independence to much of its Empire due to its financial predicament after the war. We were skint. He sees little good about our colonial heritage and I can imagine him throwing an energetic V sign to our departing backs (had he been around at the time). There you have it! I think that has elements of truth but not all of it.

Today the Sri Lankans have our language. This is an asset and as regards its structure and organisation there appears something a little British in the way they do things including roundabouts! In Kandy there are many links with British higher education establishments; so our education must be coveted. However, it seems since independence that Britain has slipped away as being important as a trading partner or influence. We were preoccupied by our own post war domestic priorities and certainly not interested in faraway parts of the Commonwealth. There are hints at Sri Lanka being a once useful export market with odd sightings of Morris Minors, a Ford Anglia, old Jaguars and the still ubiquitous Leyland logo.

On this latter point then Leyland ceased to have anything to do with this Indian truck manufacturer after 1985 but the name lives on (unlike Leyland in the UK where the plant makes DAF trucks). I can understand that with our failing car industry we had other priorities on our mind. Let’s face it the dealers in Leamington Spa, Southend and Lincoln probably bought the same volume as Ceylon at the time. Today Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and Mitsubishi’s are the cars of choice today.

A colonial power cannot be defended but when you look at post-war India and Ceylon there was and is still poverty and corruption. The level of death on the sub Continent through religious conflict was enormous (but before we get too smug then let’s not forget Northern Ireland’s sectarian turmoil).

So how do they ‘earn a living’ today? The major earner is repatriated income from Sri Lankan’s either living or working abroad, second is the manufacture of garments (check that tag for ‘Sri Lanka’). Third would be tourism and fourth precious gems – out of the 264 gem types in the world they mine and sell 203. Lastly there is the export of cinnamon and tea. I mentioned corruption above. This extends into cricket. I asked why I’d only seen one set of men playing cricket and I was told that the problem lay with the Sri Lankan cricket board! The cost of equipment is prohibitive for schools apparently. Corruption has stopped the money reaching those who need or want it.

We get these facts and commentaries from Pabash as we drive along. (It is beyond doubt that his thought for the programme and care for each member of the party is immense). Today we were off to Kandy and it was our usual brisk morning start. The first stop was wood carving. We had the local species of wood explained to us and their uses. I asked if any of these wood species were protected by environmental legislation? I was told that they replant to compensate for the depletion. However, how long does it take to grow an ebony tree? I’m not convinced there is serious protection of these scarce resources. This solution seems ineffective if even true. All the wood working and painting was top class.

I would have bought something and I admired the vast selection of elephants, masks, flowers and icons. The prices were bizarre. A hovering salesman said the prices were ‘negotiable’. Who can be bothered to go through all that palaver?

Back on the bus we next stopped at a small shed/lock up garage and saw the many uses of coconut and its tree. These included – food, alcohol, oil for lights, vinegar, roofing, rope, mats and cooking utensils from the shells. Quite amazing. This host family of man and wife, child and mother put on a slick show demonstrating how they used the flesh, leaves, shell and liquids to make all these things. We were enthralled.

Getting back on board it was a short ride to learn about the medicinal uses of the various plants and trees that grew in Sri Lanka. The list included nutmeg, turmeric, cloves, pineapple, arnica, vanilla, ginger, aloe vera etc. In fact I stopped writing them down. Treatments, prevention, control of and cures extended to cancer, diabetes, cholesterol, hair lustre, arthritis, thrombosis and many others. Sadly I noted none for baldness…

This wasn’t ‘witchcraft’ as many of the above are sold at Holland & Barrett and at other British outlets nowadays. So back on the bus we drove and briefly saw a Hindu Temple before a hectic lunch break then into the centre of Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth.

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka with a population the size of York but a road system for the size of Wetherby. It is very ramshackle and grid locked with traffic. This is due to it being in the mountains and finding space for wider or more roads is impossible. The Temple was another off with the shoes, cover your shoulders and knees ‘event’. I’ve worn my long shorts on all these religious visits yet the other men tend to don long pants. It’s too hot for me to contemplate (even if I’m not allowed in!) The Temple was heaving and the tooth is one of Buddha’s. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka from India when the Mongol hoards invaded and controlled the mainland in the 5th Century. It was rescued from Buddha’s funeral pyre. It is enormously important for the Sinhalese majority.

The tooth is under lock and key and we didn’t see it. It is always held by the highest in the land, whether that is the king or now the President. We Brits held it (appropriated) after our occupation yet ‘kindly’ gave it back in 1857. This return is shown in a picture in the Temple. More recently the Temple was bombed in the late 90s by the Tamil Tigers killing 16, including the bombers. This is not the first bombing. The damage has been repaired.

We were all now jaded after the heat but there was traditional dancing to endure. This was in a theatre full of tourists and just dragged on with little charm. The four drummers beat the ‘ess haitch one tee’ out of their weapons and occasionally a man would appear to make a noise, like a cat in a meat grinder, on a flute. The girls and blokes leapt around a bit but ‘The King & I’ or Bollywood it wasn’t. One of our party abandoned this din for the relative calm of a bustling street outside.

The hotel was just fabulous by comparison and we all celebrated with Western food and beer!

A day in Kandy was planned and so into the bus and by the time the driver had found third gear he was braking. We stopped at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. During WW2 over 2,000 soldiers lost their life in the conflict operating from Ceylon. The island was a vital staging post between Asia and Europe and strategically important. The Japanese attempted to neutralise it with attacks to damage the ports and ships. As always the ages of the dead is sobering. A sacrifice we cannot forget not least of the Ceylonese troops who died in a war that probably visited them due to a British presence. As always these cemeteries are immaculately maintained.

Next was a gem showroom. If you’ve read an earlier blog we weren’t happy at the last detour to one in Colombo. This was a different story in that this was a higher class establishment and it was more educational. They explained the mining process and had better wares. The ring that Princess Diana wore as her engagement ring that Prince William gave to Kate is much talked about with no little pride.

This large sapphire is Sri Lankan in origin. So we did the history, did the manufacturing process and then were plonked in the showroom with 10 sales people. Much to my amazement some of our sober and money savvy travellers were buyers! Craig, the easy rolling Aussie software guy, bought his mum some earrings (or that’s what he says), Anastasiia (correctly spelt) our lofty Russian millennial model was always likely to buy and bought a ring and so did the Canadian couple. As regards this latter couple I’m glad I hadn’t been asked to bet on the likelihood of their buying as I wouldn’t have risked a rupee. It goes to show that you never can tell. Helena and Allan bought a star sapphire ring. So how much? Well all I can say is that they secured a 56% discount on the asking price!

….and Tony was Anna interested? No not at all. “I have enough jewellery” was the repeated mantra and our old friend American Express remained in its holster.

Next stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was calm and idyllic with lots of exotic trees and flowers. Carl, ever the practical policeman did advise against lurking under trees with bats in them.

He pointed at various black spots on the path. This was bat vomit. He tells me they gorge on fruit but when hanging upside down they spew it up. (Don’t tell me you’re not learning with this blog).

Note the orchids.

I chatted with Anastasiia about Russia. She’s from Siberia near Lake Baikel. I asked about Putin and life for ordinary Russians. The story is as per China. Within 50 years most people have come from poverty to relative prosperity even if it still seems quite a hard life. With such progress who really cares about democracy, freedom of speech and openness? They know their leaders are corrupt but they personally have progress, stability and improving economic prospects. With their nation’s progress comes the logical reassertion of global reputation and power. They see their leaders as strong.

After lunch we were ferried to a shop/cafe that the tour operator (G Adventures) contributes toward the upkeep. This shop raises funds and awareness for under privileged and abused women and children with special needs. This is not a well funded activity in Sri Lanka and women are very much a ‘second class’ group of people.

We received a talk and then shopped for some goods made by some of the women they help. Anna and I bought some items and also added a donation. In Sri Lankan terms we were quite generous but by UK standards it wouldn’t have kept your local charity shop in business.

As we’re on the subject of a big heart and charity let’s talk about Joe. Quite a character. A bachelor with a gift of the gab and an independent spirit. I’ve told you he works all hours for UPS and takes immense exotic holidays. He wanders around the monuments we visit on his mobile. He’s not just taking photos but messaging. On his UPS ‘beat’ he has regular customers. Many of them are his friends. I asked him at one stop what the message was? He said it was from a customer – some elderly lady who’s made spaghetti for her husband but made too much. Was he hungry and what time would he be in her block? I can see how they’d love him: he has a ready, warm personality and is completely upbeat.

At breakfast he told us a little about his Italian heritage and a grandmother, born in Italy of a poor family, who lived with them in New York. They kept animals such as rabbits, ducks etc. The children viewed them all as pets but they kept going missing. “Joe, they’ve jumped over the fence and gone”. The reality was that his grandmother killed this livestock regularly for the evening stew! She was used to killing her meat on the day. Joe, with that Brooklyn drawl concluded… “all those years and I was livin’ with a serial killer”.

But I digress, back at Sthree. Joe decides to let four of the staff buy a certain value of items for themselves, he’s no use for ceramics, sarees, fridge magnets, throws, kitchen utensils, purses etc. The staff are really delighted and pick stock off the shelves and Joe pays. He probably also makes a separate donation. It’s a lot lot more than Anna and I spent or donated. We’re piecing this together because he’s not advertising this generosity.

Sometimes you can be in the presence of humbling kindness.

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