Sri Lanka

Steamed Chicken

On Tuesday I experienced what it must be like to be a steamed and roasted chicken covered in oil.  I am having some Ayurvedic sessions hoping to improve my health.  They  begin with an Indian head massage.

Sitting in companionable silence alongside a petite German lady, who had her Ethiopian holiday changed a week before she travelled, (considered too dangerous), we were both commencing our treatments with said head massage.  Starkers except for knickers and a huge orange bath towel, which just wrapped around me but the German lady could have wrapped it around herself twice!   We both sat in comfortable chairs in the open air, facing the ocean and watched the waves rise and froth and gently roll into the golden sandy shore.  There were only a couple of security guards around all week but a couple of dozen French holidaymakers arrived yesterday and they took to the waves this morning.

One of the security guards works for the Maalu Maalu Hotel and Spa and the other one works for the hotel next door.   I would stay here longer if I could.  It is just amazing and the food is brilliant too.

I got more than my German friend, as my masseuse chants softly each time she starts the head massage.   Off to one of the treatment rooms along the corridor of gaily painted doors and on to the high table to have my body pummelled and pulled and oiled.  When I am turned face down I find myself staring at lotus blossom floating in a bowl below the massage table.  There are yellow trumpet flower heads and dark green glossy leaves scattered here there and everywhere, even in the toilet which is at the end of the corridor.

All is open to the elements with a thatched vaulted roof above to protect you from the sun.  Coconut palms and bushes sway in the breeze alongside the Ayurvedic suite of rooms.  Coloured canvas blinds can be pulled down as protection from the sun and there is a huge piece of blue silk with an embroidered gold border along each side of the length of the piece of silk.  There are dots of gold all over the material which may have been a sari in an earlier life.  It is stretched on bamboo in line with the table and about five feet above.

You would almost dose off but for the request, ‘madam turn over, madam sit up, etc.’  Eventually madam is guided to a steam contraption in another room. The only way I can describe it is like a wooden clinker built version of the iron lungs we used to see polio victims in when I was a child.  It was like a huge clam shell open and waiting for me to climb in so it could snap shut!

I hoisted my oiled body up and lay on a thick towel above the slatted base.  The slip of a girl, always quiet, always serious, indicated I should move over a tad to my right otherwise my left arm would be caught in the door as it came down. I duly moved over and within seconds found myself encased in the wooden steamer with only my head protruding.

I didn’t see any dials so maybe the heat temperature was operated automatically.  I lay there growing hotter and hotter.  My girl went out of the room and I wondered what I would do if it got too hot. I thought of the large stainless steel domed barbecue my cousin in Penticton has out on his deck where he does most of the cooking, even in the winter.  I thought I knew just how these oil-basted lumps of chicken felt as he closes the domed cover so the meat can cook through.

But just before I was on the point of yelling for help she came back in and asked if I was okay – which I was and then she went off again!   Not wanting to appear a wimp or anything but I didn’t like being left on my own and with my overactive imagination I fancied scenarios of the whole thing blowing up and me being thrown like a large white oiled whale up into the air and landing somewhere out in the ocean.

Before I could lose my mind completely and I was really quite hot by this time, the gaoler came in and released me and I returned ensconced in yet another large orange bath towel to what has become ‘my treatment room.’

Unexpectedly one of the stretches of nerve pain I have had from the shingles, for eighteen months, has gone.  The doctor here believes it is because of an oil the masseuse used and left on me like a poultice.   The oil is one that the Ayurvedic doctors use to treat the chicken pox virus and of course shingles are related to the same virus.

They have since used the same oil in the same way on the two other stretches of shingle nerve pain I have had without success but are having another attempt today.  It would be worth this whole trip to be pain-free.   So here’s hoping.

I got two months, Part 3

Our visit to the passport office proved to be the first time I have felt cold since I arrived in Sri Lanka.  The air conditioning in the room must have been less than 25 degrees as that’s the temperature I usually keep my bedroom at.  It’s cool but comfortable but the temperature in the visa room was so low I felt cold even in a fairly thick cotton top and trousers.

Although everything I was wearing was cotton I kept slipping down in the stainless steel chairs.  You know that feeling that one moment you are sitting upright and before you know it you are almost horizontal and you have to hoist yourself upright again.

Eventually and it was eventually the uniformed official came through with bundles of paperwork and passports in his hands and called out the numbers.  It was like a free for all at the January sales in Oxford Street, London, as he was crowded, everyone jockeying for position.   I just sat back and the son joined the scrum and at long last I had a passport stamped with permission to stay here until 17 December.

One of the UK visa applicants we spoke to during our morning sojourn in the visa room, explained he had enquired before travelling how long he could stay.  He had been told six months and duly booked his expensive return ticket within the six month period.  He had been told, like myself on arrival at the visa office, he could only have another two months and was upset and annoyed that he might have to book a ticket out of the country and then apply to come back.

He enquired during the morning of various people and officials but was given a different story each time.  Someone told him he could stay 150 days confirming what I had been told at Heathrow, another that he was only allowed this current two month extension to his visa and has to leave the country, and yet another said he could come back and apply for another two months’ visa extension.

He wants to buy a property here but is not allowed.  Only Sri Lankan nationals can buy properties except in specific circumstances.  There are high rise flats being built all over the place and non-nationals may buy one of these flats, supposing they have the funds to do so but they must buy one say, over the eleventh floor.   There is 100% tax on a non-national owning a property here – or so one of our fellow visa applicants told us.

There are distinct economic advantages to Sri Lankans only being allowed to own property here.  There would be no overseas property investors, no holiday homes pushing the price of property out of the reach of locals and there is going to be no property boom and bust.

I loved the idea when we went to the Elephant Orphanage of one queue for non-nationals where we as visitors paid a higher entry charge and the locals paid a discounted entry fee.

That most basic of necessities, a toilet, is an adventure in most foreign countries.  I couldn’t understand when we visited Malaysia in 1999 why the toilet at a museum we were visiting was awash with water.

When I first came to this country every toilet I used seemed to be awash with water.   There is a hose fixed on the wall beside the toilet and what you are supposed to do is wash the toilet down after each use.   And that’s the reason every toilet looks as if there has been a flood.    Most don’t have toilet rolls, soap or a means of drying your hands.  And so it was in the public  toilets in the beautiful new passport building as I waded with my open toe sandals through water hoping that it was all clean water.

By the time we had secured the passport it was almost lunch time and as we exited the lift on the ground floor, there were so many people in this building I wondered if there was a concert or a special event.  There were literally hundreds of people everywhere and I tried to crane my head over one crowd as I thought that they were watching something but the huge semi-circle of people were all focused on a group of officials behind some office desks.

I wish I knew why they were all there.













The last few days at Ja Ela

I did say yesterday that moving in day might be Monday but at this stage won’t be holding my breath.  Gate Late the builder has gone through the list of work for each room to be completed and Monday it is.   No odds taken on this happening though at this stage, although a suitcase of my clothes and sandals have gone down there today amongst a carload of curtains and packed holdalls from this house.  Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel after all – or perhaps we are just living in hope.

I managed to be quick enough out the gate this morning to take a photograph of the bread van which whizzes around the red sandy lanes hourly or so it seems.  It’s definitely not the same van each time as yesterday’s was more cream in colour, but highly painted too.  They all seem to play the same melodic tune.

the bread van.JPG

The ferocious watch dog, (Scene-a is the phonetic sound) is Sumitra’s constant companion.  Sceena is about 9 years old and is selective as to whom or what she will allow in the gates to the property.   Passing people and dogs are either barked at or totally ignored.   She is completely spoiled and some buns from the bread van are purchased for her, not every day, but most days.   She also knows when my son’s father-in-law (FIL) is not here because then she sneaks into the house and makes a beeline for the kitchen as soon as he has gone.   As soon as FIL is on the horizon she trots out of the house and lays under the large shady veranda.   She will not move if she is laying flat out in your way. This is her territory.   I wonder how she will take to the move.the-dog

I hope you can make out the two small palm squirrels in the photographs above.  They are about six inches long  and have stripes on their back.  I have seen these squirrels before but can’t remember in which country.    They make a piercing squeaking sound which I first thought was a bird.


These are the two enormous catfish in the indoor ponds.  There are several Shubunkin goldfish, and lots of little baby fish so conditions in the ponds must be right.  The roof is open to the elements with six inch planks of wood lined up on their sides, providing a bit of shade.  The larger of the two catfish aggressively attacks Sumitra if she steps in the pond to do anything.   He whacks her legs with his tail whist she is in his domain, but she is made of stronger stuff.

The other pond laying alongside and cutting further into the sitting room has a very large  Shubunkin goldfish which too has its own personality, that is if fish can have a personality.   It will allow nothing else to invade its territory save the smallest of baby fish.

The neighbours will come in and feed the fish when we move.  This house will be painted and put on the market.  Hopefully whoever buys it will be into wildlife because there is enough of it around.

Furniture and paintings

The third part of Monday took us to Colombo city in search of a new bed and mattress for the son’s in-laws for the Pelawatta house.   Driving there was pleasant and the roads were not too busy.  I had heard about the ‘art road’.

Much like Hatton Gardens in London, which is a street lined with jewellers’ shops, all the shops and galleries along ‘art road’ are connected with the arts in some form or other.  There are theatres and performance space, municipal and government offices and departments too -most of which have a uniformed guard at the entrance.

We slowed down to a crawl as we came across paintings for sale hanging in the street along a wall and displayed on the pavement.   Viewed from the slow-moving car the variety of work was extensive and with varying degrees of size, expertise and content.

One painting in particular drew the attention of the five of us.  Set on a black background this painting was of a monk, sitting on the floor, shaved head bowed, shadowed so you could not make out the expression of his face, but the orange/red robes from which his thin muscular limbs protruded, presented a sad figure in contemplation.

Martin Stone, the painter living in Skibbereen, paints pretty much in the same genre.  He manages like the Sri Lankan painter, without painting features or an expression on a face, to convey what the subject is thinking with a haunch of a shoulder or a curve of a limb.  It is a real talent and skill which fascinates me.

When everyone has agreed that we would love the painting in the new house in Pelawatta, Jaia starts negotiations with the painter.   He starts at the equivalent of £45 but as the painting is brought to the kerbside for closer examination we discover a flaw in the canvas which being painted black would be highly visible under a light.  There are also blobs of orangey/red paint splattered in neat little rounds where they shouldn’t be.

Jaia points these out and the price drops to £35 but we explain we would pay the full price for a painting without faults.    The salesman immediately runs off to a spot near the wall that bounds the pavement and from a stack of canvases produces a similar painting, black background with a monk, sitting on the floor, shaved head bowed, shadowed so you could not make out the expression of his face.

I laugh and say there is probably another dozen stacked up waiting to dry.  However the salesman does not bring out any more.   The second painting is so similar to the first but the painter has not managed to paint the crossed legs properly and they appear like bony sticks out of kilter with the rest of the work.

The salesman agrees to remedy the faults of the first painting and we will collect later in the day.

We head further on to Don Carolis & Sons, furniture manufacturers, near the railway station and a river.  It’s one way traffic, and we turn in a loop over a bridge over the river then alongside the river to the shop.   The road is one of the worst roads I have travelled over here but there is a large construction site to the left of us where a notice explains this is a social housing project.  There are masses of buildings under construction and many workers and never a safety helmet in sight.

Despite the rough road to the entrance of the furniture shop, there is a uniformed parking man, and another uniformed man to open the door for us.  A young male sales assistant politely enquires what we are looking for and takes us to the area where the bedroom furniture and beds are displayed.  Most have a tag saying the furniture is sold, but the sales assistant assures us that anything can be made very quickly if they don’t have it available in stock.   We are learning that very quickly means a different timeframe here to that expected in the West.

All the furniture here is either solid mahogany or solid teak.   The substantial wardrobes have locks on the outside and on one third of the inside area there are shelves and another lockable drawer.   The hanging space is divided with a rail inches from the top and then half way down so you wouldn’t, for instance be able to hang a full length dress.   It is possible to remove the bottom rail and a sliding drawer which sits above the bottom rail.

The headboards are solid wood too as is the frame and footboard of the beds.   Light switches, air conditioning controls etc have been set approximately three feet from the floor in the bedrooms in the Pelawatta house.  The reason being you can control everything you need from the bed.

The headboards made by Don Carolis are mostly over three feet tall so a quick phone call has to be made to the builder at the Pelawatta house to double check what space there is for bedside cabinets, again of solid wood, and what is the maximum height the headboard can be.

Don Carolis is the best but the most expensive furniture shop in the country.   Eventually the son’s in-laws are persuaded this is a good investment being made for them.  Jaia is asked if he would like to lay on the mattress on the bed to see if it is comfortable.  ‘It will be because laying on the floor is comfortable too!’ is his reply.

Paying for your purchases takes some time and there is always a delay for one reason or another.   Madam is asked about delivery because if they want the furniture delivered immediately that day there would be a charge, but it could be delivered on Wednesday free of charge, which is the option chosen.

We hit the worst traffic ever on the way back to the Pelawatta house as we pass colonial style buildings.  These are in very poor repair, but the architecture is stunning and speaks volumes of another era.   The area is known as slave island.

The traffic continues to build up and our progress is so slow we miss the curtain shop too.   When there are huge volumes of traffic during rush hour here the police switch off the traffic lights and control the traffic from a centre point in the road.

It’s difficult working out what the policeman’s hand signals actually mean.  It’s a case of following what the vehicle in front does and hoping that the hand stopping your lane does not wave you to a halt so you are the first vehicle in the line and can’t understand what the hand signals are directing you what to do.

Then we have a call from Gate Late the builder.  Have we bought a bed because there is a van at the Pelwatta house trying to deliver a bed!





The Land of Milk and Honey – Part One

Monday 26th September started very early in the Ja Ela house.  4.20 am to be exact as the son’s in-laws rose to prepare for the lorry which was to transport what it could of the yellow post-it note labelled furniture and boxes to the Pelawatta house.

The Most Auspicious time to enter the house was 10.20 am and to move furniture or ourselves in before the prescribed time is considered unlucky.  We were running the gauntlet of the Monk’s advice anyway as Gate Late the builder – whilst bringing about 15 workmen into the house over the past few days, was still not going to have the house ready for us to move into yesterday.  Jaia, the son’s father-in-law, was nominated to stay there last night but much was to happen before we deserted him to his lonely vigil.  (He has just phoned this morning to say he didn’t sleep a wink last night!)


Firstly think West Cork Time and double it.  Jaia and Sumitra woke me at 4.20 am but I was able to get back to sleep until around 6 am by which time they believed the lorry had abandoned us.   In any event the lorry driver and lad arrived at 6.30 am.   And so began the task of cramming what they could into this vehicle.

Meanwhile Sumitra was busily preparing for the blessing of the house and the Buddhist traditions which must take place to ensure harmony, peace and success in the couple’s new home.    Food was cooked, white rice and coconut, some small bottles put aside, oil, leaves gathered from one of the coconut palms in the garden.  The leaves were dry and brittle and shredded and folded into smaller strips.  Some fresh white flower heads which cascade over a wall on the lane, were neatly snipped off and dropped into a small plastic bag.  Sumitra swung the plastic bag over so it ballooned with air and neatly twisted and tied the top to keep the flowers as fresh as possible.  We did not have the brand new clay bowl needed for the ceremony so a call was made to Sumitra’s other daughter who lives near the Pelawatta house to have one delivered to the house for our arrival.

The first drama was before we got to the main Ja Ela road.  We have to cross a railway line which has no safety barriers.  There was a queue of traffic in front of us all trying to cut across on to the main road.   The bell was ringing warning of the impending arrival of the train and it was a case of do we go or don’t we go, in case the train arrives first?   We did go and the train didn’t arrive first.

The next drama was when we were on the motorway.  Locals mainly don’t use the motorway as it has toll stations on it but it saves us a great bit of our journey and the traffic is light compared to the main drag.

Suddenly the son, driving, called, ‘Will you look at the size of that – it’s huge – it’s enormous!’   I twisted and turned from my back seat vantage point looking all around me for a huge truck, lorry or car.    Well that’s what you would expect on a motorway in any other country.

The enormous beast was a very large lizard, looking like he came from a prehistoric age, was at least six foot in length with a large swinging tail and he was crossing the six lanes of the motorway, (three in each direction) without fear or favour.  He was on his own territory and with his head erect, and ignoring the line up of cars, which had been commanded by a policeman to halt, the lizard continued looking neither right nor left, but headed in a completely straight line to the muddy river which bounded the other side of the motorway.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get my camera phone out quick enough to snap this.

The lorry had arrived at the Pelawatta house by the time we got through the traffic.  The traffic is crazy but this is an island approximately the same size as Ireland but with a population in excess of 22 million and I think each and every one has at least one car or tuk tuk or scooter.  Everyone is going somewhere.

I remember being told not to ride the clutch when I learned to drive.  If you learned to drive here – and I pity anyone who has to – you need to be taught how to honk your horn.  There are ‘let me through there please honks’, angry ‘get out of my way now honks’, and continuous honks which mean ‘I am coming through no matter what and you have been warned’.   Drivers just press the car horns for any little thing and it becomes a language which accompanies any journey here.   And I think my son is the only one who knows what indicators are for in this country.


We arrive at the Pelawatta House in good time for the ceremony.  Sumitra’s other daughter has sent a driver around with a brand new pristine clay pot.    We are almost ready to begin the blessing which will be detailed in the next blog.









The Scabbard Knife

I grew in stature here yesterday as I was allowed to use the scabbard knife, long handled and as sharp as any blade or operating theatre instrument. Its dark wooden handle is perfectly round and as I mentioned earlier doubles as a garlic crush with one swift sharp swoop.  I am warned to be careful using it.

I am confused when I am handed the two chicken breasts purchased the day before in the supermarket.   The two chicken breasts I thought the daughter-in-law purchased for me in said supermarket have been transformed overnight into a chicken breast bone with thick pink meat attached.    But this is no chicken.  I would estimate it is an aged hen.

Sumitra looks at me askance.   I say, ‘Okay! Okay!’ and smile, so she returns to her sewing.  She is making an outfit for a customer for a Buddhist ceremony.   The material is exquisite, like broderie anglais, but not as a trim, the whole fabric is of a lace effect and there is pristine white cotton with which to line it.  Sumitra says, ‘Very expensive material!  At least €3.00 a metre!’

I meanwhile wonder what to do with the hen.   I have been asked to make soup as well as a chicken dish and there is nothing for it but to boil the half chicken carcase and use it as stock for soup.

Meanwhile the scabbard knife lies waiting in anticipation.  I cannot slice the carrot, leeks or potatoes as thinly as Sumitra – she has after all years of practise as she deftly makes short work of anything before her.   Perfectly thin slices appear as if by magic under her closed knuckles.

I peel and slice the potatoes, carrots and leeks and leave them in a covered dish.  Flies appear as the sun rises, but the large fan over the even larger kitchen table dispenses with them as they escape the wind from the fan through the open kitchen door and windows.

Eventually the hen is cooked and within another hour soup is ready to eat.  Sumitra is Buddhist and eats no meat so will not sample the soup because of the chicken stock.

I leave the cooked meat to cool, again under a cover and when completely cool find space in the overflowing refrigerator.    I intend to do a sauce with leeks and potato but my intent is lost in translation.  I am called in the evening to eat my dinner, a spaghetti dish with neat cubes of the cooked hen, flavoured with peppers, tomatoes and Swiss cheese.   The others will have a hen curry.

Only when the son and daughter-in-law and her father return from a very long and frustrating day securing air con units, fans, a promise of delivery of the container for Tuesday, and the discovery the beautiful mosaic tiling laid in my new bathroom has been messed up by one of the plumbers, and that the electrician has forgotten to put electricity in the new attic room, so the walls will have to be scored to lay the cables – well the mystery of the disappearing chicken breasts is nothing compared with what they have faced.   Also they have learned they should not shop on a Friday if needing to buy from a Muslim as they go to prayers on Friday.

When everyone has eaten I ask about the disappearing chicken breasts but they are there still in the fridge intact.   Sumitra’s reasoning was to give me the chicken/hen carcase because it had been bought the day before the chicken breasts from one of the open stalls up the road on the way to the cricket ground.   There are cricket grounds everywhere in this country.  So I have to do the chicken breasts today.

Will Monday’s move happen?  It depends how many workers arrive today and tomorrow to the Pelawatta house.   A lorry is booked to remove some of the furniture from this house early Monday morning so the process of yellow post-it notes on everything to be taken to the Pelawatta house is ongoing.  Sit still long enough and you will have a post-it note applied.

What will happen on Monday is a Buddhist blessing of the new house.   It must take place at a specific time and I am told Sumitra will conduct the ceremony which involves blessing the four corners of the house.

Usually these ceremonies involve burning oil and presenting flower heads to the Buddha.  The oil will burn dry, the flower heads will die by morning – a reminder that nothing is forever.  We are here but for a short time and should do good whilst we are here.





Sri Lankan Blog First Full Day

I learned three words in the local language on Monday 19th September. The first two were quite important, ‘wamma’ is left and ‘dakauna’ is right. It was a bit daunting even as a back seat passenger in the car as we sped at snail’s pace through the mid-day Colombo traffic to hear my ‘dakauna’ companion say ‘wamma’ to the driver and the person in the front passenger seat direct him ‘dakauna’.

In the event we did a quick ‘dakauna’ running the gauntlet of the oncoming traffic and ploughed our way across the three lanes coming towards us. The cars, tuk tuks, bicycles, lorries and limos vie for space scattering themselves across the traffic lanes, each sneaking into the narrowest of spaces, gaining inches then yards ahead of the vehicle in the neighbouring lane.

This is accompanied by horns tooting, some loud and fulsome, others light and tinny but all add to the cacophony of sound which is a busy day in this bustling city.

There are five of us in the vehicle, the married couple, one complete set of parents and myself on the wing. We are shopping for a cooker, a fridge/freezer, dishwasher, a drinks cooler fridge and maybe the odd tv and aircon units.

There are deals to be had everywhere but one suspects the bottom price, or the especially discounted price was the price all along and we are just entertained by the flashing fingers which dance across the percentages on the calculators to triumphantly produce a figure in keeping with that “which madam had in mind?”

There’s no such thing as parking the car and walking across the street or the sidewalk to any of the stores. We drive in to the parking lot and a uniformed employee directs us to an appointed parking space.  A different uniform clads the man who opens the shop door for us. Smartly dressed assistants, all male in the electrical shops, enquire if they can help and we are escorted to view the appropriate appliances.

The Singer shop has all Beko appliances, although you can pop next door to the Sony shop which may just have the smart tv I need for my room. Another company we visit has several different brands of goods, similar to visiting Thornhill Electrical in Skibbereen. But they don’t carry the range that Thornhills would. We three women each have different opinions as to what would be suitable for the new house. In the second multi-goods shop the two mothers are offered a seat on a leather sofa. Was this a kind gesture because we looked tired and worn out from shopping or was it to remove us from the debate?

No final decision has been made by the bride but I suspect the Beko shop with their courteous manner and copious discounts may well be the winner.

I can’t eat chilli or curries so feeding me is a problem. My experience in my previous visits here has been that restaurants and cafes really really don’t know how to do something to eat that does not have a chilli secreted in the food somewhere. (But I was proved wrong late last night). Yesterday’s lunch, of a beetroot and carrot sandwich – don’t ask – almost had me fooled until the last bite and there was I trying not to wheeze as the chilli caught my breath. It might just have been the chilli flavoured knife used to cut the bread or cut the sandwich but the chilli was there.

The fruit of course is magnificent and mangoes and watermelons are so different when they are just picked and eaten. The hand of four inch long fat bananas today was as flavoursome as you could wish. I think someone told me here are over 20 different varieties of bananas here.      It’s very dry here at the moment and the coconut trees outside this house have not produced fruit. They cost all of 25 cents to buy!   But it is hard to spend even that small amount when you are used to them for free off your trees.

Visiting family, doing homework with the daughter in law’s nieces, introduced me to my third local word of the day ‘latseni’ which means beautiful. The three girls are beautiful, each in their own way, and the middle girl has a reading age I would assess as age 13 and she is five months short of age 8. Study is so important here.

We were late driving home and stopped at Chapter One restaurant. There is a menu for drinks, a separate one for starters and a separate one for main courses. I studied each one carefully but there seemed to be nothing without a chilli or a local fire-driven curry. In the end we did the sensible thing and asked the manager. He said of course they would leave the chillies out. And they did! I had the most enjoyable dinner of spaghetti with mushrooms, thinly sliced chicken breasts and parmesan and a tomato sauce. It was delicious and the five of us ate for £45 – which my Sri Lankan companions said was expensive. I was just glad I finally could eat something chilli-free.

Next time I will tell you about the Pentathlon and Rotti.