TWO YEARS AGO – Joy Barrow

I know we all wonder where time goes to, but today I shake my head in total disbelief. In July 2016 I said cheerio to Australia and to Fifty Five Plus. Now almost 2 years later I am back at my desk and looking once again for your stories to continue the magazine. So please get in touch with me and share any important parts of your life. Send your stories and photographs so we can all benefit and enjoy your experiences.

Sri Lanka
View from our apartment in Rajagiriya Colombo

My journey took me to Sri Lanka and the plan was to spend one year working in Colombo and several months travelling. Alas even the grandest of plans may come unstuck but let me start at the beginning. My husband and I travelled to work with Australian Volunteers for International Development. We were well equipped for this role having worked globally for decades making documentaries and later with Australian Aid Abroad for 5 years in Solomon Islands

This was the first time we had volunteered but we were keen to give back, to share our skills and at the same time enjoy a new country, meet people, travel and generally use our retirement to the full. Sri Lanka for me was an incredible potpourri of people, customs, beliefs, poverty, pollution, food, religion, friendships, traffic jams beyond anything previously experienced and OMG moments daily if not more so.

Sri Lanka is working to overcome the horror and hardships of their bloody civil war which touched people in all walks of life. Life is still hard for many although education and health are high on the governments agenda and young people are enjoying a much-improved lifestyle. This of course washed off on us and sometimes we were embarrassed to be enjoying privileges above the level of people we worked with and our domestic staff. However, I must confess that even the upper levels of society are still hard. A pool and gym at the end of a very hot, humid and polluted day ranked as a necessity for me.

Sri Lankan Flag
Sri Lankan Flag

Part of our contract with the Australian Government was that we were forbidden to drive. Consequently, we travelled around in motorized three-wheeler rickshaws known as tuk-tuks. This form of transport is not for the faint hearted. The drivers whizz in and out of traffic, roads designed as two lanes become six and the pollution is shocking. After several near-death adventures into town we got our own regular driver. A middle-aged family man with the same staying alive attitude to life as ours. No seat belts, no side panels on the tuk-tuk, usually no windscreen wipers and a driver hell bent on getting as many fares as he could possibly cram into one day. A short drive from our apartment block to the center of town could take an hour. Whereas a trip in Australia of this length would take around fifteen minutes. Expats joke about tuk-tuks calling them dodgems on steroids, pretty apt actually!

elephants 3
Elephant in Regalia for Poya Day

Then there were health issues. There hasn’t been a sewerage system since the 1950’s and consequently rivers, lagoons and canals are putrid. Sri Lankan curries are very hot and most things are curried. Even the Italian restaurant has curried pastas and the lasagna is exceptionally hot; completely beyond my ability to eat them. However, given time we found dishes that were very good and not too hot. Cooking at home was a challenge because fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to find, and they are very expensive.

My husband, David and I established a Saturday routine. Ananda our tuk-tuk driver would pick us up at 0900. We would travel to exotic and costly shops which are spread throughout the city. First stop the Organic Fresh Markets, then The Japanese Shop, The Artisan Bread Shop, The Italian Deli and finally a sort of supermarket for dried goods. The shopping was loaded into an esky and bags filled with frozen bricks. Ananda enjoyed the day out and we paid him generously for 5 hours which then allowed him to go home and take his son to cricket. Everyone is crazy about cricket and on learning any Australian connection the conversation begins in earnest. I was a disappointment except for one draw card our landlord was non-other than Kumar Sangakkara, a former captain of the Sri Lankan team and a highly talented and respected gentleman in all walks of life.

But of course, there is an upside to life in Colombo. I think of Dickens and ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ with the famous line, ‘ít was the best of times it was the worst of times’ and that sums up the two years of my life.

Buddhist Temple
Buddhist Temple

Almost every day is a special one with parades, carnivals and processions in the temples and in the streets. Elephants parade in the most majestic costumes and the accompanying noise is deafening. Sometimes musical but sometimes just sheer agony. 70% of the Sri Lankan population is Buddhist and the calendar is full of religious events. There are 29 public holidays each year and on these days alcohol and meat products may not be on display, sold or consumed. Because of this there are some extraordinary cover ups with tarps thrown over and around counters to keep the public from seeing these taboo items. The Buddhist holidays are known as Poya Days.

Our apartment was situated on the edge of a lake. The bird life was magnificent, and it was easy to forget the noise and pollution when gazing at the beauty of pelicans landing and taking off, eagles soared above and around our apartment block and equally amazing was the huge colony of bats that darkened the sky every night. My husband tried to count them, but it was impossible.Sri Lanka Map

Getting the daily everyday things in life together was a huge challenge. A passport was required for bottled water to be delivered. Funny no passport needed to buy alcohol. WIFI couldn’t be connected to foreigners so we had to go through an incredibly difficult process of having a local establish the service for us and then to pay via a convoluted path. The same applied to cable television but somehow my husband found a loophole and we enjoyed watching programs from Australia. Workmen were a law onto themselves. Coming early meant after lunch. Arriving in the afternoon meant the day after and many jobs were started and left hanging for weeks.

One tradesman excelled himself and I will never forget his skills nor his offsider! The duo arrived, one very tall with alternate teeth and the other very small and retiring. The tall one spoke English and conducted the business. The little man did the work and never spoke but smiled from time to time to show me he was happy with the job which was to cut spare keys. He sat cross legged on the lift lobby floor with his tools on an old rag beside him and proceeded to copy our front door key which looked intricate. Some hours later using his eye and basic tools we had a second set of keys. During this time the tall friend stood watching lovingly over him as one would a child. A security guard kept watch on both men which seemed ridiculous.

Traditional Dancers Colombo
Traditional Dancers Colombo

In our street was an excellent seamstress and she did many repairs and alterations for me. She charged so little I begged her to take more but she never would. Shortening a dress or trousers was less than $1 and I recommended the woman to every expat I possibly could.  The traditional and dance costumes she made were exotic.  At the end of our stay we bundled linen, towels, pots and pans and delivered them to her tiny shop. She cried in gratitude.

I met many interesting expats through embassy parties, playing bridge, visiting the yacht club and travelling into the country side. Except for staff at the apartment block, our cleaner Vincent, our tuk-tuk driver Ananda, I found it difficult to meet locals except for those in high places. Many of the old colonial buildings were magnificent and it was a treat to be invited to musicals or parties if only to wonder over the architecture and furnishings. The Colombo Bridge Club was in the city on the waters edge it is a single story colonnaded building and it attracted a large number of incredibly talented players. There was a lineup of chauffeur driven cars in the grounds and these men were often called upon to play dummy, so their boss could take a break from the table and move outside to smoke or drink. This may be unique to Sri Lanka as I haven’t seen it in other country I have played in.

Just as I was finding my feet, making friends, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of life I became very ill. I was so sick with a soaring temperature, soaked in sweat and in agonizing pain. A blood test revealed Typhoid Fever. I had been vaccinated in Australia and I can only assume without this it would have been a disaster. With a couple of exceptions, antibiotics can no longer control this disease and the doctor explained if I took them and they didn’t work it would be worse and last much longer. However, if I could hang in, take tablets for the fever and keep up liquids, bed rest and try to eat it would be the best remedy. At the time I was unaware that it takes the body 2 years to recover from this horrible illness.

The decision was made to cut short our stay in Colombo, to cancel our holiday to France, Greece and Cyprus and return to our home in Australia. It was a tough call, but I was only too aware that I would be unable to function normally and could in fact become even sicker from the reduced ability to fight off viruses.

I am home, I am regaining strength and energy, but I am not yet ready for travel. I have many funny stories and I will share these with you in the coming months. Starting again with Fifty Five Plus has given me a wonderful feeling of contentment and I look forward to reading new stories and being inspired by your writing.