Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sri Lanka Re-visted: Back to Where it All Began

After more than 5 months on the road we fly back to Sri Lanka to spend the rest of the year including Christmas with my mum.  I left my island home in 1986 and in these latter years since my dad passed away and my mum is less mobile, I have been fortunate enough to come home almost every year. 

We have timed our visit well as all the dignitaries from CHOGM have just left Sri Lanka the day before.  Since the end of the war Sri Lanka has been changing fast.  Hosting the CHOGM delegates has also resulted in a brand new facelift.  There is no hint of the rubbish that used to be dumped on the side of highways about 5 years ago.  Walls are being broken to create a sense of space in a very crowded city.  New bus stops have been built and old building whitewashed.  The canals and waterways look clean.  

Yet, there are always the allegations of waste and questions whether all the money spent to clean up for CHOGM could have been better spent. 

(photo courtesy of Nelum Pokuna FB page)

Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) a brand new conference centre that would rival the Sydney Opera House has been the centre for CHOGM gatherings.  I read that the theatre is equipped with ultra modern facilities such as an auditorium with 1,288 seats, a library, and training facilities. The building features two permanent theatres—the main auditorium and an open-air theatre—and the ability to convert the front steps into an additional open-air theatre.  Chinese aid has made this possible. 

We use the new airport express and whiz through on a high-speed freeway.  On either side of us there are coconut plantations and waterways and it is a very pleasant drive.  However, as I ask questions I find out there was much filling done to build this road with little thought given to what that might mean to wildlife corridors or the floodplain. 

The new 25.6 km (16 mile) airport highway was built with a loan of $248.2 million from China.  In fact, I read that the government has awarded more than $4 billion worth of infrastructure projects to China, mainly with Chinese loans. While a good infrastructure system is definitely needed in Sri Lanka, I hope this will not come at a cost to our wildlife corridors and diminish room for our rivers and our floodplains.  If proper environmental impact assessments are not done at the start of projects, we will pay the price down the road. 

While travel on the expressway is fast, it eventually spills out to congested city streets that slow down travel times.  We still reach my mum’s place in record time.  She has prepared snacks and tea and we sit in her kitchen and talk for hours. 

Christmas time is a busy time in Sri Lanka.  There are many activities planned with friends and family making the trip back to Sri Lanka from homes now spread across the globe.  Carol services and Christmas parties add to the festivities that seem to be the perfect blend of spirituality and celebration.  I have never experienced this feeling anywhere else I have lived. 

The day after we arrive my mum gives us tickets to a piano recital titled, “Musical Colours on Two Pianos”.  The concert is performed by the teacher & student duo of Ramya and Soundarie.  They are known for dedication their shows to various causes and this year it is in collaboration with the Zonta Club of Colombo.  Their latest project is to provide sustainable self-employment opportunities for the women living in post war Weli Oya.  These women are taught skills such as sewing, gardening and beauty therapy so they are able to be economically sustainable and support their families.  It is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment and we bump into a number of my friends at the event, a usual occurrence in Colombo. 

We spend our first week catching up with friends and family.  A few of my school friends drop in for lunch and I meet up with most of my aunts and cousins.  My mum has organised for me to do a presentation to her ‘Young at Heart’ (YAH) group at church.  They are very appreciative of my presentation and are full of questions for me.  We spend time chatting to the people gathered there.  The group is quite diverse and includes people from other faiths.  They group now also includes a few blind people who really enjoy the interaction. 

After a week in Colombo, we leave on a 3-day trip to Kottagala, with my school friend Mihiri.  She has organised this getaway at an estate bungalow owned by the company she works for.  Many companies in Sri Lanka provide a vacation bungalow that their employees can book for weekends away with friends and family and it is a perk that is highly valued here. 

The bungalow is set in a beautiful location and we enjoy the time spent up there.  Early morning walks, card games, drives in the hills and lots of great food are part and parcel of these holidays.  The bungalows come equipped with staff but you provide the food and the menu for the weekend away. 

Steve and I enjoy walking in the hills and chatting to the women who pluck the tea.  Barefoot and agile they are much faster than the few men who have now taken to plucking tea as well.  We hear they are paid a daily wage for a certain minimum amount of leaves and then paid by the kilo for anything over and above that.  They seem happy as they go about their work only a stone’s throw from their communal housing arrangements, provided in the same estate they work at.  Their lot in life has improved greatly since the inception of this industry and I hope the stunning scenery and the joy of being outdoors compensates them for the monotony of the work. 

We come back from the hills and join my mum at a carol service at St Thomas’s College, one of the leading boys schools in Colombo.  The service of nine lessons and carols is inspiring.  My cousin Sushi is down from London so we also stop by my aunties house for lunch.  Coming back at Christmas will be a made rush of lunches, dinners and activities but it is loads of fun and hopefully we will have enough time at home for us to sort through our photos and get some writing done! 

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