A May 2006 trip
to Sri Lanka by beebopbeedoobi
Quote: These are three totally useless pieces of writing for travelers to Sri Lanka.
A bit about customs of the Singhalese, a bit about the difference in travelers, and a bit about observations of being here. I have been living in Sri lanka since 1999 and recently writing my thoughts.
As I have already stated; the new court complex is home of a growth industry.
Tourists travel on luxary buses and stop to view ‘sites’ explained by a guide. That is what we are lead to believe and it doesn’t really sound like my ‘cup of tea’. They are normally our parents and after years of David Attenborough, they can see it all in a not too distant way. I think it's fair enough. They are usually nice people and if they did any harm in their lives, it is in the past. They won’t change anything, but things change anyway.
Of the people that stay in Sri Lanka, I have to admit I am one. All that I wanted to do is have an interesting environment, where I can be left alone to paint and make films. I have enough experiences to make films for one lifetime, so I could stay in one room. But being a person I am bound to interfere and be opinionated.
After 17 years of seeing Sri Lanka and another lifetime in several other places I just need to get on with it. I do want to ‘get out’ a bit to paint more though. I know I will never ‘fit in’ to Sri Lanka but, equally I think what I do is more beneficial than if I were back working in a factory. I’m doing no harm.
I know in the south there are lots of foreigners. I can’t really comment on them. Perhaps they help each other. Here in Kandy I know of a few, but they tend to be isolated. Several cranks that mainly get ripped off go mad, or stubbornly survive.
Every one is different.
More and more ‘travelers’ are visiting Sri Lanka. I remember my daughter and me walking through town and she suddenly said, "They don’t understand do they?"
That about sums it up. I ‘visited’ 15 times before staying here, and it’s not the same. It has always been easy to talk to Sri Lankan people, even years ago I had Sri Lankan ‘post graduate’ friends in Wales. On both side, as visitor and Sri Lankan, attitudes are comfortable. There are kinds of precaution and freedom for conversation and friendship.
Anyway for travelers. I would think that life is more complicated here than in the west (for Sri Lankan people). Even the Vedha, must concentrate on each and every aspect of life. I find it very disturbing that there is an opposition to making life simpler, before learning. Many of the older people would say that is what Buddhism is about, but I think some of the fundamentals are abused.
I think travelers are in search of either justification or an understanding of simplicity. I wish them all the best of luck. I think children are the nearest we will get but they should at least study art. The standard of art education is really terrible, and I see an understanding of creation, humility, feeling, intuition and sensitivity as being the only true way forward. If you don’t like painting try filmmaking, music (any sort) poetry, good fiction or take a ‘serious’ look around. Take it all easy though, no need to become ‘knowledgeable’, ‘authoritive’, or any kind of ‘advisor’. There are plenty here already and to remark from a western perspective is pointless, (as I prove). If you think what I have written to be in any way untrue, then you are right. But, I think 1% of the population would be more than enough to change standards and start a conscious effort towards thinking in your home countries. Remember we are all different, each and every one of us. Read the Metta sutra and travel your own way.
Even these days a dowry is called for from the girls side in a marriage. This can result in furniture being carried over heads to the wedding house, (which will also be the parents place).
Marriages are arranged by marriage brokers, who make a good financial gain and are based mostly on horoscope suitability. Also, adverts can be places in news papers such as; ‘Family seek a partner for their eldest daughter 35 years 5’1" Bank employee, dowry 2 lakhs. Engineer preferred.’
The wife of a house is required to worship her in-laws and treat them with respect. This of course makes many problems, especially between her and mother in –law.
When a member of the family dies, the body is usually embalmed and kept, (with head facing east) until the auspicious time for burial or cremation. The custom for mother in –laws in cremation is that the son in-law should light the fire.
Normally villages derive their names from their environment, after a mountain, characteristic or perhaps an historical event or story. For example Hikkaduwa (wood of Hik) Peradeniya (land of Pera trees), They are situated to best suit their purpose ie rice paddy land , coconut or other cultivation.
Most village houses have a well for drinking water and bathing. Although if a river is near by this will also be used for bathing and washing clothes.
The maintenance of village roads is by local authorities but, paths are cleared by villages and communal clean-ups.
The houses are usually simple; mud walls are common and also cow dung floors. Simple furniture and mostly a mat to sleep. Most village households keep a dog, which is usually free to run around and many keep cows or buffalo. The buffalo used to work the paddy fields.
Village life is mostly dominated by the crops. The main festivity being the New Year celebration in April or coming of age of a girl.
In the past the village ‘leader’ was a hereditary title. Nowadays it is a political position held by whoever is seen as the most influential go-getter. It is his job to know what is going on in the village. For instance, if someone is arrested he needs to know about it; also any documentation or even travel arrangements need his consultation. He also needs to know who is living where, in which house, with whom, the make up of the house i.e. does it have a tiled floor and who is head of the household.
Astrology forms an important part of daily life for the Singhalese. Everything from marriage to job interview calls for a good look at the horoscope. Building a house requires auspicious times for almost every action. All the doors need to be pointing in the ‘right’ direction. There has to be no ‘crossed’ beams for fear of bad luck and for the first door frame and foundation, a ceremony has to be performed.
Sinhalese children of both sexes wear a gold chain with a small container, (for protection).
All women bath in a cloth worn from the breast line downwards, up to the knees.
Generally women wear a nightgown to sleep. They tend to leave it until mid day before getting properly dressed and then put the nightdress on again in the evening.
Singhalese take three substantial meals a day. These being in the morning, noon and night. In some homes the morning meal consists of pittu, hoppers, rotti or rice.
Boiled rice and a curry or yams can also form the morning meal.
The mid day meal is invariably boiled rice, fish or meat curry and vegetables, maybe with a sambol or dry fish. The night meal is also rice with a few curries.
Education has always been important to the Sinhalese. At the time of the British colonization, wages and rates of pay were secured for teachers but, schools had been attended, in one form or another since ancient times.
There are many practitioners of magic. I know of a monk who performs ‘black’ magic, that is to say magic to do harm, (bit of a contradiction don’t you think?) but then, there is regular protests by monks against the peace talks and monk politicians.
The practice of spell making is done in secret and may involve finding human bones or making animal sacrifices. Because of the personal belongings that can be used in black magic especially children are advised not to throw one’s hair, lost teeth, or pieces of nail where they might be found.
Dreams are interpreted according to a system of beliefs. The general rule being that the opposite of what was dreamt may materialize. It may be good to dream of one’s own death but bad to dream of the death of another.
Married women avoid bathing on Tuesdays and Fridays because they believe it is bad for their children, on these two days evil spirits are on the move.
The dead are never faces towards the west and many people insist that there beds are also facing the right way. When an owl hoots it is ominous. Also when a gecko makes a noise as someone is about to leave this is bad and when a crow crows, it means a visitor is on his way. At the start of a journey one must not return, or see a funeral procession.
As well as demons, ghost etc the Sinhalese believe in a wide variety of gods. Mostly these come from Hindu beliefs and so are not strictly Sinhalese. The Sinhalese gods include Kataragama (for business men) and Vishnu, ( the Vishnu temple being in my home town of Kandy).
Building regulations, as everywhere, are very tight in Sri Lanka. When we stared to build our house we needed all sort of permission from councils, road development, chairmen, non chairmen, seat men, stool men etc. Some of them weren’t really interested in seeing the plans or site and really didn’t think of that as part of their job. Needless to say, it’s not so much corrupt as ridiculous. The regulations include that doors must be at least 7 feet high (the average height of a Sri Lankan being under 5 feet) Ceilings 10 feet. There are no regulations as to quality or the strength, weight or method of construction. Or height; it is possible to build a huge wall, or tower in order to stop someone else’s view. But there must be 4 feet between house and boundary. Many houses are surrounded by high walls because boundary disputes re the most common legal cases. Almost everyone has some sort of legal case and boundary fences are moved every night.
Our land is situated right next to a well known rouges area. But saying that, wherever we go my wife calls a rogues area. She also tells me about the previous president’s husband, who was a famous movie star and that if he is on the TV. she will point him out. Now that we have a TV, I realize that there are lots of retrospectives on Sri Lanka TV. and he appears at least once, one channel every night. This doesn’t stop her pointing him out when he appears though.
Anyway, our house is on the top of a hill. For a few years we were conned by a local rogue, who said he was the ‘watcher’. Whenever anyone came to the area he would somehow get money from them. We were paying him a monthly ‘salary’, for doing nothing and later to his son also, who spent most of his time stealing our materials. Eventually I took matters into my own hands, and a large sledge hammer, and knocked down the ‘watchers’ and ‘materials’ hut.
To give an idea of how bad they are. In the past there used to be an American lady who had a house nearby. She used to arrive in a helicopter, (I know sounds extravagant) anyway he used to charge her for landing on her own land. A few years ago they managed to convince a foreign girl that they were a deserving case and she financed the setting up of a farm on their land (which they obtained by force). Every time she visited Sri Lanka they had to ‘borrow’ cows, hens etc to replace the ones they had sold for meat. It went on for about three years; I suppose her money ran out in the end.
We learnt in the end. I know I have always tried to promote humility towards all people we may meet but, you also have to have some common sense. The family I am writing about are rascals but, if you know that, then there’s no problem. I think there are probably worse people living in the West also.
Before we started to build foundations had to be dug. Because we were on a hill, we had to build three large ‘retaining’ walls. The ditches (retaining foundation) had to be about 4 feet deep by 4 feet wide, all about 40feet long. The ground was very hard, a kind of crystal rock.
I was always digging, with mamety, pick (long metal stick) and shovel. Either with two Tamils, a Tamil boy, my wife, or on my own. At one time, my wife and I dug at one end of a ditch and the two Tamils dug at the other. I used to be dropped off at the land early in the morning with two bottles of ice (wrapped in newspaper). Usually, I had drunk both by the time the sun was high and naturally I changed colour. I became a very strange colour actually. My daughter used to look at me in a strange way and say things like, ‘you’re not natural’. I looked a bit like I had been using one of those fake tans.
Even in the early days we had stray dogs on the land. Sydney was originally owned by the American Lady. He lost his home when the Lady died and a watcher tricked his way into the house and deeds. He threw poor old Sydney out. So Sydney moved onto our land. In those days he had a wife ‘Pittu’ (female dog) and there son was Parsley. Along the way; Parsley died in a boar trap and Pittu fell into a lime pit. At that time we also had ‘Cotton wool’ who was my favorite dog. She was taken, we believe for the foreign girl, who was helping rogues.
Cotton wool looked Chinese and was always alert. She took things very much to heart and one time ran away from home because the other dogs started to give her a hard time. Actually she walked but kept looking back, as if to say, ‘I’m not coming back, you know’.
The first slab was laid by about 35 men. They were all local and so. To this day, I always wave to anyone I pass, who was involved on that day. There is a long haired man living in the first of a stretch of plantation type houses that run up to our land. I think that was the only work he has ever done, (because he is always sitting outside his house),. But he worked that day. We used 155 bags of cement, far too much, but it’s our first slab so we will be safe.
I should explain. The way buildings are constructed here is by concrete pillars and beams and then flat concrete slabs. All reinforced by steel rods 16ft ,10, 12, 16 and 25 mm. In the slab they are spaced at 6in intervals, crossing. Also in the slabs; conduit is positioned ready for wiring.
Apart from that, there is no though as to planning the future. We once asked for a wall to be plastered and the plasterer knocked down a brick kitchen sink to get at the wall. Then he plastered a wall which had already been plastered, so he could be paid twice. Another time we were charged three times for he same beams. The cost is normally per cubic foot and the beams are 1ft by 1ft. This would mean that for every foot in length we would pay the going rate. The builder though better about this and decided that must by 3ft i.e.; 1ft by 1ft and then 1ft in length. He was adamant until we got an architect to explain that the reasoning was original only to him. A logic alien to man and unknown in the history of the world.
Of course we had all the other ‘mistakes’ like waste pipes that run upwards, curved window and door frames and my wife’s father fell though the floor twice. It got so bad I tried not to stand too close to him.
Our two Tamil helpers were brilliant. All the builders we had said that ‘they’ would never last but they were with us longer than anyone.
Building a house by hand is a very difficult stressful, tiring thing. I know I have aged.
We got through five gangs of builders, so far. They all start off fine but, once they get to know the local rogues, they seem to self destruct. For the past two years I have been building on my own. That’s not strictly true. Ranjid helps and Walter has too. We are going to ask Pryantha to plaster the ceiling downstairs because that’s really difficult. 18rs per sq foot, if anyone’s interested.
So far we have completed four bedrooms, with three bathrooms, large living room, kitchen and a couple of rooms under the slab.
Now I must really try to get out more.
Best wishes to you all.
Once a few more houses started to be built around ours, we were faced with neighbours and people in the same hill side. We all formed a water society, which in fact allowed provision for a hierarchy to be formed, (status being everything). My immediate neighbour stayed well out of it, already being a famous author, both in Sri Lanka and in America. I could have said that my films are shown regularly around the world (but not in Sri Lanka), but like most people they think my work just nonsense. So soon we had chairmen, vice chairmen, secretaries etc and the rest of us didn’t count i.e.; me and the dogs. They didn’t talk or understand about the water but held regular meetings. Then they started to build onto the roads, complained that the roads were getting too small and so (sneaky way) dug into each others land (with earth movers) to widen their road. The roads seem to be moving, if this goes on the house bellow us might one day be sharing our kitchen.
All Sri Lankan people have an amazing respect for their own appearance.
Even building laborers, when they finish work, are likely to wear a white shirt, dark trousers and carry an umbrella with a jaunty walk. One time I had been working on our van, changing the oil, and was filthy, we ah to stop at a garage for something and when I got out found myself facing an equally oil covered mechanic. He looked at me like I was a creature from the black lagoon, even though, in truth, he looked just the same.
In comparison, travelers really stand out for their lack of dress sense and general appearance. There are always travelers in Kandy town and no matter what advice they are given as to ‘dress code’, they always look like they have bought their most ‘unsuitable clothes’ and left their best stuff at home.
When I go to town, (I normally walk), I wear an ironed shirt and long trousers. Its no big deal, I’m not a snappy dresser or anything. Sometimes I wear a hat (I have several but, would be very pleased if anyone would send me another). Travelers on the other hand seem to go to extreme measures to stand out. There seems to be a lot of older people, especially men, who are trying to prove that they are young or ‘hip’ and wear baggy shorts and flowered shirts, open to the waist. Women, who in their own country, surely must dress differently, wear tiny shorts and loose t-shirts exposing a size, unknown in Asian countries.
Perhaps I’m being ‘hard’ but I think there has to be a question of ‘purpose’. In the end I am hoping to instigate a dialogue which will help to put an end to our obsession with ‘entertainment’. Until then, well: I was ‘wilder’ than anyone, when I was young, ask anyone who remembers. But mostly it was because I was working hard.
It may be difficult to accept but, they almost totally remember that time as a ‘golden’ era: they had the variety of food and goods available from the west. There was organization, real jobs, human rights and little corruption. Human dignity being as it is, it had to, invariably, end, to be replaces by, over government, corruption, disorganization and sub standard imports.
I have failed miserably in trying to dispel a myth about ‘prosperity’ and ‘success’ being equal to Nibbana. But this is what worries me.
There are hundreds of ‘English’ media schools in Sri Lanka. Most bear little resemblance to anything English. But, work towards English O and A-Level qualifications. English ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels are useless in Sri Lanka itself. So why are these ‘Private’ schools so popular?
The fees are incredibly expensive for even the wealthiest Sri Lankan family and then, if successfully admitted to an English University (after the school; which must surely be the aim) the student would have to pay tuition fees then; which may well be up to 18 thousand pounds per year.
The answer is that another class is being created in Sri Lanka (and for all I know throughout Asia) where one member of the household works abroad and so supports all the ambitions of the family.
It has always been the case that one person is the bread winner in a Sri Lankan household. The only difference now is that; Sri Lankan wages are not enough to support a family, whereas ; the difference in cost of living/ living standards between east and west are such as to make a bread winner in the west incredibly wealthy in the east.
This means that a family with a son, daughter, husband or wife working in a good position in Europe or America can have an even better lifestyle and property than those in the West. It’s another industrial revolution.
I wonder why no one in our own administration has considered this, or are government’s just supermen in suits (that’s one of my films, now showing in Moscow and Rome, hee hee).
Colloquialism, subterfuge, gibberish, and gossip.
Throughout Sri Lanka there are many local dialects. The result being that words and meanings can be completely different from one place to another.
That’s enough of colloquialism.
Another way is to raise one or two octaves, the last vowel of each sentence. This is common amongst one or two of the news readers, who have their audiences rocking in rhythm and attention. Some of the news casters are also able to talk at an incredible speed.
My wife ‘sings’ her words when she really wants to be heard, anything of importance that you really should have known. She also does make up songs of things that are of recent importance.
Brother. "Small sister."" etc,
This might have lost something in translation but the general ‘rhythm’ is there. Conversation of this nature, take a long while. I changed ‘ahimi-nimi’ for ‘hear me for I am wise’. I also say "ahimi-nimi" which makes them a bit angry; I suppose I’m not very important.
You would think that a traditional way of speaking would translate quiet literally. In that I mean, would be of equal amplitude in any language. This isn’t the case at all. When a Sri Lankan speaks English they do so in a quiet, reserved manner. Far more dignified, in fact than those who use as their first language. It’s a kind of Dicksonian English, full of, P.G Woodhouse, Gilbert and Sullivan small talk and antiquated sayings. Sometimes it’s possible to have a conversation with no actual ‘content’ at all.
I had this idea that language, superstition, and realization (or rather lack of it) are all related, maybe even in all countries. After all; karma tells it like it is and this is a Buddhist country. I have also been wavering towards the idea that we are all different, totally unrelated apart from in, as the result of, education. So I’m still thinking and will have to get back to you on that one.
There are so many interesting places to see in Sri Lanka. More really than have been developed. The ancient cities, relics, Buddha statues, temples and nature reserves are numerous but there are many more places, hidden from the beaten track. Relic, statues, and other ‘hidden’ treasures.
You have to think that although the statistics state that 90% of the population is on unemployment. It is really something like 9% in regular jobs. Everyone says that they are a businessman, and then much of the population has land, and everyone makes use of whatever can be grown.
One that I only heard about was an unofficial ‘show’ somewhere on a beach near Negombo.
What I heard was;
As there were lots of tourists around, a group of local boys decided to put on a show, obviously with the aim of making money.
They made tickets and sold them on the beach and did quite well. Now if they had been complete ‘rouges’ they would have absconded with the takings, but, they had a place to put on a show and fully intended to give the audience value for money.
The only problem was that they hadn’t really thought that far ahead and didn’t have a lot of time. So they did the best they could; collecting instruments, bright materials, sister’s make-up and that sort of thing.
From what they say the show was a great success.
I think it must have been a cultural revelation.
Perhaps some people will remember it. The world’s tamest zoo.
We went, because, with such a title we were curious. It was truly amazing. I have included a photo of my wife and I stroking a leopard. We also had monkey’s climbing on our shoulders; patted a huge brown bear and freely walked into all the cages.
Later, what I heard was; all the animals were heavily drugged. The zoo was closed for good.
Also on that coast there are performing sharks. I know fishermen in that area don’t consider sharks (tiger, hammer head and white) to be dangerous so, although there are dolphins off the coast, it makes sense to train shark. A great many fishermen are lost at sea.
Colombo zoo is also worth a visit. When you are in Sri Lanka you may think as I did, on the lines of why go to a zoo when I’m here, the home of so much wild life? That’s very true but, it isn’t really like most zoos. The animals are mostly inhabitants of Sri Lanka. There are snakes, donated by people from their gardens, crocodiles, bears, leopards and panthers, all found in Sri Lanka.
What makes it different is; the cages are designed to keep the animals in, not the people out. So, it is possible to touch most of the animals. Sri Lankan people are used to living close to wild life and so it’s nothing new to them. They might even say, if you get bitten, its bad karma.
Other less publicized sights can be found with local knowledge. Temples and statues are used in daily life and so unless someone states an interest, often impressive temples are missed. The best way to see things is to talk to people and that way be shown some of the most interesting and unspoiled relics.
There are many more rain forests than those of the nature reserves and probably more than one temple for every mile in distance.
Everyone I know who has visited Sri Lanka says they really like the children. So, why not attend school events, they can be very entertaining. Market places are also everywhere and specialist shops to buy anything much cheaper than in the western world. What you really need is someone who knows places, but not a guide.
The way I first saw Sri Lanka is by befriending a family. To see the country properly, it isn’t really the famous sights, although they are impressive, but, the way of life. If you stay with a family you can be a part of the real life of Sri Lanka. I have heard of families who put themselves up as possible hosts. (A bit like an informal guest house). I’m not sure about this; don’t know anyone who has tried it and it’s a bit of a risk. Almost every Sri Lankan I know would jump at the chance of ‘befriending’ a westerner, for obvious financial opportunities. So maybe the best way to get to know people is in the traditional way, which also has its pitfalls.
My advice really is to talk to people but be careful. Stay in control of what you want to do and don’t commit your self. You really need to keep a level head.
Kandy, Sri Lanka