Monday, June 30, 2014


Four months ago 239 people were going home, going on holidays, going to work. I walked passed them, sat next to them, looked at the same departure boards as them and didn't notice them.....Now they're gone and the world is left wondering.

On a Friday in March, I was returning to Colombo after a quick visit home, I kissed my two older daughters goodbye at the airport in Melbourne, scratched the dog under his neck, stood there and waved goodbye as the car pulled away from the curb. I would have a three hour stop over in Kuala Lumpa before continuing my Malaysian Airlines flight to Colombo.

I often wonder if the people tracking my flight that night were the same ones tracking  MH 370 heading in the other direction. As I hurtled through the air on my way home, I didn't give a second thought to whether I would arrive safely. This was Malaysian Airlines, I have flown with them dozens of times. I have sent the children home as unaccompanied minors with them, I could board, disembark and wander the concourse in K.L. with my eyes shut. So just like Gwenyth Paltrow in "Sliding Doors" I went one way as 239 people went the other. I boarded one Malaysian Airlines flight and  45 minutes later they boarded another. As I walked into the arms of my waiting husband, I didn't think of all the other people waiting for a flight that would never arrive.

Together we wandered out into the steamy Colombo night. As usual the  pick up area was heaving with the sounds of humanity and blaring car horns. The smell of exhaust fumes and impending rain was in the air, the sweat already starting to trickle down my back. At home I looked in on  my two youngest children tucked up in bed, too tired to wait up for mum. That's OK I'm back now.

The news the next morning hit me hard, I was oblivious to the events that had taken place only hours before. My children in Melbourne had been frantic, they had seen headlines on the internet screaming MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT MISSING!!!! The 30 seconds or so for the full story to upload had been the longest 30 seconds of their lives.......for some, that 30 seconds is still ticking by.

I had always wanted to climb Adam's Peak or Sri Pada in Sri Lanka. In 28 years I had just never gotten around to it. It is one of the most revered Religious places in the country. The top of the peak is said to contain a footprint embedded in the rock. The  Buddhists believe that Buddha himself left it behind when he visited Sri Lanka. The Hindus believe it is the footprint of Shiva and the Muslims and Christians believe it was where Adam first stepped after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. Every year from December until April thousands of people every night, struggle  in the darkness to arrive at the peak for sunrise. There they chant, pray to their particular God or just sit, and soak up the surroundings that are so serene and so pure, even if you don't believe in anyone at all you can still feel it is a special place.  Every pilgrim has their own reasons for the journey, I was just given mine.

I don't know why I felt the need to go now, was it to say "Thank you God for not picking me", was it because I felt guilty, maybe just the pure helplessness of the whole situation, the sadness I felt for all the families left waiting. I'd spent days combing through every news report I could find. BBC, CNN, Al Jazeerah were on constant rotation on the T.V., I incessantly flicked through my phone searching for the latest updates. The lack of debris, the lack of answers was just bewildering.

I drove to The Fort Railway Station and purchased my ticket to Hatton  for the next day. A four hour train trip which would actually be five and a half, I didn't factor in, it running to Sri Lanka time. Rs1000 ($9.00) saw me leave with a ticket for The Observation car.

Sri Lanka has a rather antiquated rail system, but slowly the 21st century is wrapping its tendrils around a bygone era and shaking away the residue of a simpler time. When the last of the old British carriages rolls off the rails for the last time the beauty of train travel in Sri Lanka will be lost forever. It will turn into just another means of transport. Shiny blue air conditioned trains from China, with their molded plastic seats are beginning to replace the hand built wooden works of art that have trundled into the high country for the past 150 years.

As the  new silent machines pump icy air into sterile carriages, there are still a few of the old trains remaining. These are the ones you need to travel on. With leather cushioned seats, shiny and slightly cracked from the years of wear. Wooden luggage racks overhead. Fans bolted to the ceiling, that turn lazily as you hang one arm out the open window feeling the wind rush by. Passengers can sit in open doorways, dangling their legs over the  side as they watch the city fade away, being replaced by smaller towns, then little villages. As the paddy fields start to appear you see the men wrapped in nothing but a sarong folded in half and tied at their waist, walking behind bullocks, up to their knees in mud planting crops. The "tattata tattata tattata " sound as we pass over rickety bridges, rivers flowing  underneath, woman bathing while others smash their twisted shirts against the rocks, soon ready to dry in the midday sun. You see the smoke curling up from the cooking fires of  small houses, simple dwellings with neatly swept gardens, other times nothing more than  four  walls and a roof made from palm fronds woven together so intricately not a drop of rain will get through.

The smells in the air waft through the open windows as we pull into each station. A mix of roasted nuts and sewerage. Vendors walk up down the platform selling their wares. The sound of "WADE, WADE, WADE" being yelled in a rather melodious voice. I hand over my Rs 50 and in exchange, lunch comes through the window and lands in my lap, never having to leave the comfort of my seat. Deep fried lentils molded into a round cake called wades and something else that looked like a spicy donut. Two hours into the trip and it hits the right spot.

The coconut palms have dwindled away to be replaced by towering Eucalyptus trees as we head into a cooler climate. The air is losing its humidity and  you can feel a freshness as we climb into the hills. Eucalyptus  were introduced to Sri Lanka and India in the latter part of the 18th century, by planters who had links with Australia. The timber was initially used to produce fuel for households and the tea industry,  however they soon realized it was perfect for railway sleepers and building. A pang of loneliness struck me as I looked at the trees so familiar to home. My eye ran across the treetops almost expecting to see a Koala, a baby clinging to its back tucked into the fork of the branches. I knew I would be more likely to see a monkey swinging around up there, proving just how far I had come.

90 minutes after our scheduled arrival time we pulled into Hatton. The train had had an unusual tendency of slowing dramatically for no particular reason, sometimes coming to a stop all together. There were no stations in sight, but there we would sit for 5 or 10 minutes before the journey resumed. Tourists would look out the window, puzzled looks on their faces, having not yet come to realize Sri Lanka marches to the beat of its own drum, no one is in a hurry and everyone will get to where they are going... eventually.

Hatton Station ticket office, trapped in a bygone era
Hatton is a small unremarkable town. It is  the gateway for Pilgrims climbing Adams Peak and is surrounded by lush Tea Plantations. One of the largest banks in Sri Lanka, Hatton Bank was founded here back in the 1800's to service the wealthy British Plantation owners. A sea of three wheelers were waiting outside the station, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting tourists as they walked out. After driving a hard bargain I climbed in one. A 30 minute dice with death followed, as we rounded bends on the wrong side of the road, overtaking buses on blind corners and the entire journey taking place at full throttle. My driver had a smile on his face and spent more time looking over his shoulder asking the obligatory "which country are you from Madam ?" and assuring me he knew a much better and cheaper guest house to stay in than the one I had booked.

 Phone used to call the next station down the line.
The old phone still used at Hatton station in the office.
Delhousie was my next stop. A tiny village situated at the base of Adam's Peak. It's main source of income is derived from  tourists and pilgrims. I rather liked the name... "Delhousie".... sounded very British. All the colonial names are slowly being replaced by traditional Sinhalese ones. All over Colombo taxi drivers are being confused as names like Anderson Place are changed overnight to Dr. C.W.W. Kanangara Mawatha or Gregory's Road, which is now R. G. Senanayake Mawatha. Barnes Place, Horton Place are all on the chopping block and Flower Road disappeared years ago.

We pulled into a little guesthouse, true to his word we had a change of venue, before I could protest a young girl, no older than 10 or 11 came running out to give me the big sell. She was good at her job and before I knew it I was handing over my money.

There were a large number of tourists meandering along the winding roads. I sat on the balcony with my rice and watched them as I ate. "Lonely Planet" has rated Adam's Peak as a must do whilst in Sri Lanka and they had all obviously taken the advice. I looked up at the mountain in front of me, dusk was falling and you could see the twinkle of lights winding their way all the way to the top, the peak now obscured by a puff of cloud.

After sleeping for a few hours, I hoisted my bag filled with snacks, water and warm clothing onto my back. The night air was cold and I knew at the top it would be freezing. I had read various comments on the internet of the estimated time it would take. The range fluctuated wildly, from 2 hours to 8. The timing had to be right, leave too early and you would be left waiting on top of a peak, clothes wet from exertion now chilling you to your bones. Leave too late and you would miss seeing the sun rise bursting over the ridge and spreading onto the surrounding mountain range. Taking the suggestion of the guesthouse owner I walked out the door at 2.00am, I felt it was too early but I didn't want to be cocky so took his advice...later to regret!

There was no need for signposts, I just followed the stream of people all walking in the same direction. The air was clear and cool, a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of Colombo. It was very quiet, just the odd dog barking in the distance.  I walked past two German tourists, I commented "Nice night for a stroll" They looked a little bemused. Mmm, get it, nice night for a know......walking up thousands of uneven rocky the dark...should be sleeping ........Uh never mind.I think the humor got lost in translation

The first hour wasn't too bad, lulling me into a false sense of security. The dirt path slowly winding it's way up and up. I was making good progress and passing people on my left. There were little shops lining each side of the path, these would continue all the way to the summit. I had been warned the higher you went, the more expensive items became... fair enough, if some poor guy had to carry a crate of Coca Cola to the top he deserved to be paid a premium.

People do this entire climb barefoot

After an hour I stopped to admire the view and wipe the sweat from my brow. Below me  Delhousie and the surrounding villages glowed in the  night. I have found over the years I do everything too quickly. I was  always in such a hurry to get to my destination, I never truly enjoyed the journey. I have come to  the realization I don't want to arrive on my death bed and think "What was the rush, why didn't I look up a little more. Smell the proverbial roses. Why didn't I enjoy all those moments that have now passed me by".

With the cold starting to creep in and images locked away I moved on. The path was quickly becoming steeper by the minute. The stairs had started and I was now catching up to people who had left hours before. I have trekked through New Guinea, climbed Kilimanjaro and walked across the Sahara desert, but tonight I would witness dedication and strength like no other. I was humbled by the people before me who put so much trust and faith in reaching the top.

Sri Lankans believe, everyone should climb Adam's Peak at least once in their life. Tonight I saw Grandmothers draped in sari's being helped by their families. Backs bent from age. Frail tiny steps. Gnarly, twisted fingers, clutching for support as they slowly lifted their feet up onto the next step. Old men, a person on each side, half supporting , half carrying them, urging them to keep going, sick children who should be tucked up in bed being carried by parents who believe a cure is at the top. All dressed in white and all believing they walked a divine path.

Every bend I turned, I hoped it would be the last. I could hear the distant peel of the bell on the summit. Pilgrims would grab the giant rope and ring it to signify the end of their journey. I passed a monk draped in saffron robes, chanting a slow melodious tune as he took each step, in turn the people following him would chant a reply. It was soothing and rhythmic and I stayed with them for a while, soaking up the harmony and peacefulness that surrounded them.

At a certain point first timers tie a  piece of twine and try to run it as far as it will go. In the darkness it was quite eerie as I rounded a corner to see what looked like millions of spider webs weaving their way up the hill.On the way back down , now in the light of day you could see from the twine just how many people had passed that way over the Pilgrim season.

I slowly moved ahead. At some times there was no one around me, at others the crowd became so dense you could not pass as  the steps narrowed. After two hours and forty five minutes I rounded the last bend and saw the glow of lights at the top.
My knees were screaming and my hands freezing from holding onto the cold steel rail. As I finally mounted the last step a soldier pointed for me to take my shoes off. Oooh this is going to  get really chilly now!! I looked at the hundreds of pairs already strewn around and opted to put mine in my bag. I didn't want to take the chance of someone upgrading their footwear for my sneakers and me being left with a pair of flip flops for the return journey.

I tiptoed gingerly around, my feet rapidly becoming numb. I was standing on sacred ground but I could no longer feel it. Now was the time I came to regret leaving too early. I had an hour to wait in the cold and the only thing keeping me warm was the body heat of the crowd as we were slowly pushed closer and closer together as each new person made it to the top. Adams Peak is literally that. A Peak. I was surprised how little room there was up there. It was basically a lookout area with rails all around, a covered area for people to sleep while they waited, this had been filled hours ago. Then another small building that had been built around the footprint. I lined up to pay homage like everyone else, I watched as each person before me fell to their knees,  lent  forward and kissed  the gold brocaded tapestry covering the sacred footprint they had all traveled so far to see.

Me, well I wasn't quite sure what to do. Even though I'm a Catholic and we had a steak in this as well, it seemed more of a Buddhist Shrine. You could feel it was a Holy place, a Buddhist place,the pure reverence and humility they were displaying was palpable. I felt a little like a fraud, just a rubber necker being there. I was slightly disappointed for a start that I couldn't see this amazing phenomenon. I was tempted to have a quick peek underneath, but a sideways glance at the two burly policemen holding military rifles put a stop to that. So as  always, when I'm not sure what to do in a Religious circumstance, I bowed my head and made the Sign of the Cross before moving on.

As the cold crept into the  very core of my bones I waited. I wanted
to take off my wet, sweat covered shirt and replace it with the dry one in my bag but there was literally nowhere that I could, without putting on a show. So I waited, cold, wet and numb. Staring out over the mountain range and waiting for the orange glow to signify the sun was rising and together we would start another day. I thought about MH 370, I thought about all the families still waiting, and then I thought about just how fragile life is. You can make all the plans you want, calculate things down to the minutest detail but in the end, it's not up to us.A twist of fate, bad luck, Divine intervention. Call it what you want. At the end of the day, the decision is not really ours to make. What will be will be. My  fingers curled around a small bag of money buried deep in my pocket. The boys at work  had taken up a collection, even our housekeeper and driver  had added to the bag of small notes and coins I carried. There was a little booth at the top where they issued you with a receipt for your donation.Everyone had wanted to make an offering, if they couldn't come themselves they would send their donation and prayers with me.

I struck up a conversation with the people on either side. One a Belgium police Officer backpacking around Asia. The other, a tiny elderly lady who had taken 12 hours to reach the summit. I just stared in awe.
As a distant glow radiated into the sky, a hush fell over the crowd. Everyone stood and faced East, waiting and watching. Only the occasional sound of a whimpering child, as their mother adjusted them to her other shoulder.
Dawn was beginning to break, and you could actually feel a tenseness in the air, I looked around, my eyes falling on one person, then the next and then the next. It was almost as if people were holding their breath. I felt something was going to happen but not sure what. Then simultaneously, just as the sun finally burst over the ridge, filling the sky with an explosion of fire, the crowd started chanting in unison. Their voices rising with the sun. The sounds floating into the air. I sheepishly wiped the tears from my eyes. I don't know why I was crying, why I was so overcome. Maybe it was the pain of MH370, maybe the feeling of hope from the people around me.....Maybe it was just hypothermia setting in.

When dawn had come and gone, and we were well on the way into our new day the crowds started to disperse. Several thousand people started moving towards the two single staircases that led us off the mountain, depending on which route  you had taken. Bottleneck was an understatement. Slowly we moved down, every now and then the stairs widened creating an overtaking lane where you could jump forward a dozen places. When I thought I couldn't see anymore commitment than I had witnessed in the past few hours, I heard singing again. I looked up to see a monk leading the way, behind him were 4 men. Two in front two behind. They were carrying a man tied in a hammock strung from the poles hoisted onto their shoulders. You could see they were struggling with the weight, trying to maneuver him around tight bends. They had missed sunrise but they were pushing on, committed to getting this man to the top. How significant a role does this shrine play in peoples lives that they would endure so much hardship to reach their destination....and what about the men, giving every ounce of strength they have, to carry him through the night so he can complete his pilgrim. As they disappeared out of site, I wondered if I could be that selfless.

I continued my journey down, my legs now feeling a little rubbery. I felt they were going to buckle under me if I jumped too hard down the next step. I turned around and took a last glance at the man in the hammock as he disappeared around the bend. I couldn't help but think there were some amazing people in this world.

4 Months later, I go about my daily routine. MH 370 has been long forgotten. No one talks about it anymore. We have satellites floating around in space. I can talk to my children in Australia as I ride around in a three wheeler in Colombo and  simultaneously send emails to a friend in the U.K. Technology is all around us, but how much is it worth when a jet plane can disappear from the sky and all we can do is scratch our heads.

I climbed a mountain taking photos on my phone and posting them to Face Book as the man next to me climbed a mountain in bare feet and nothing but the clothes on his back. I climbed Adams Peak because I thought life was so fragile. With four Gods on one mountain I was covering all my bases, but that night I saw not how fragile life was, but just how strong the human spirit was....I had a lot to be thankful for.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


12 months have come and gone and so the adventure continues. Instead of returning home as originally planned, we have opened a restaurant, moved house and continued our Sporting Tours. I have officially started Sinhala classes with 12 other foreigners. We are all  hopeless and laugh at how ridiculous we sound, but  finally all those curly circles are starting to unravel and I can now find the letters amongst them.

For some unknown reason I have struggled emotionally more, in the last month than in the entire previous year. A quick visit home for Christmas only made the distance between my two older children stretch out even further. Getting back on the plane two weeks later had tears flowing all around. When I am in Sri Lanka there are days I feel I could live here for ever, but the void of having two children half a world away is too strong and I know that is what will pull me back home.

The restaurant has been open for 8 weeks "Upali's by Nawaloka"  is doing very nicely. We have had some great reviews, and as the  case is with any new establishment, some not so great ones.....diners are fickle, we have been in this industry long enough to know there are always teething problems, you deal with them, fix them and move on.

In a country where you cant speak the language you can always get by when you are in holiday mode and not in a hurry, but when you are at work dealing with staff in a fast paced environment it can become incredibly frustrating. Not just for me but for everyone around me.

At our pub in Melbourne, I could walk into the kitchen, look at the 20 dockets waiting to be filled, run my eye over the tables in the dining room and in 2 minutes be up to speed. Now I walk into the kitchen and I'm flying blind. Most of the boys don't speak English and the ones that do cannot understand my Australian accent. They had confided to one of our Managers "We don't know what language Madam speaks, but it's not English. "
I no longer answer the phone because the customers would rather hang up than talk to a foreigner, so I am the official seater and greeter. A western woman opening the door in a traditional Sri Lankan Restaurant is not what people are expecting. 

I can be a great source of amusement to the staff. When I walked over to one table and asked the customer if he would like a drink, I saw the blank look that came over his face. I could almost hear the cogs turning in his head, weighing up his options,.....thinking "Mmm you're probably a little older than I was hoping for...b.u.u.t...".  Putting him out of his misery, I smiled and said "It's OK I actually work here".  I now wear a name tag with the Upali logo embossed in big letters.

The Shrine built at the site by the laborers to say their prayers
 It had been an incredible push to be ready for the auspicious time of opening. These times are given by the Monks, based on the alignment of stars and planets. With some exceptions a great deal of tolerance is shown to all 4 major Religions in Sri Lanka. Each Friday you will find a large number of stores that are operated by Muslims closed between the hours of 11.30 and 1.30 so they can attend the Mosque. The refreshing thing is everyone celebrates each others special days. Unlike us in Australia who are now so politically correct we are scared to sing Christmas Carols at school for fear of offending some one.

Once a month there is a public holiday on the fall of the full moon called Poya. The whole country has the day off regardless of who you worship.  Long weekend every month...I think its a great idea. The one detraction is you cannot serve or sell alcohol on Poya, much to the distress of the unsuspecting tourist. Bad luck Valentines Day fell on Poya this year. The hospitality industry lost a fortune not being able to serve Champagne dinners.

I walked into the site one morning to find a Shrine that had been built by the workers so they could conduct their morning prayers. All over the city you see statues of Buddah in every shape and size. Morning commuters stop as they pass by, hold  smoking joss sticks in their palms and touch their foreheads. They rock back and forward several times chanting their prayer. No one laughs at them. No one makes fun of them, its the most natural thing in the world to conduct your Religious Worship in public.

Another important tradition is "Kiri Utundra".......We had to perform this ritual before  preparing food for the first time in the new kitchen. The milk must boil and overflow. Signifying an abundance of good luck. We had performed this tradition in our own home in Australia, even though David's family is Catholic. I think it is more a cultural thing rather than a Religious one.
Boiling milk for the first time to signify the opening of the restaurant. After the milk is boiled, it is then sprinkled around the building
With the days flying by and  hurdles at every turn we just kept jumping. When the finish line was  in sight we  sent  the children as unaccompanied minors back to Australia and clocked up16 hour days.

I woke up on our last morning before the opening, voices in my head screaming"ONE MORE DAY PEOPLE!!!!!!' Our Partner Upali nonchalantly wandered into the sight around 8.00am, with his assistants carrying the breakfast he cooked for us each day. Cooking was his passion and his dream of having his own restaurant was about to be realized. He looked as if he didn't have a care in the world. The Dharmadasa family is synonymous amongst the Sri Lankan community.  I had seen the raised eyebrows when people  found out the Restaurant was owned by Upali Dharmadasa of the Nawaloka Empire. Coming from Australia it had meant nothing to me and I was constantly amazed at how far his influence stretched.  When we threw our hands up in frustration because goods and services had not turned up again! One phone call from Upali and all was fixed.

There were people everywhere, the place looked like one of those renovation rescue shows. We were opening in less than 24 hours. Everything was meant to have been completed two weeks ago giving us enough lead in time to train the staff and have all our systems in place. David and I have always been strong critics of slow service and in Sri Lanka it can be really slow. They are not rude, they just don't see the necessity in moving fast, everything happens at its own pace. Service in restaurants is slow. Trying to get your bill takes forever and there is no such thing as ducking into the supermarket to grab a few items. They have introduced electronic scanners, but invariably every third item needs to be keyed in manually.

To have a 12 week turn around period, from conception to opening is an amazing feat in any ones language. No need to have permits for the countless walls we had knocked down or the numerous windows that have been installed. No detailed visit from the health department to" Sign Off " on ventilation, exhaust systems or  correct refrigeration before being allowed to operate a food venue. When we were told in Australia that our staff could not climb a ladder to change a light bulb without doing a special course we knew the world had gone mad.

Over the past  3 months in Sri Lanka I have watched laborers walking around a building site in bare feet, electrical wires sticky taped together and men straddling beams three stories high while they used electric grinders. Occupational health and safety officers in Australia would be clutching their chests and falling to the ground if they saw a building site here...lucky for us. We were on a tight schedule the President was opening the Restaurant. The auspicious time of 11.30 am Thursday 19th December had been chosen by the Monks and so it had to be ready.

The big day ticked over. It had came down to the wire. As guests started to arrive we had to shoo away the painter who was still applying the finishing touches.

As we drove to the restaurant that morning the street was lined with Navaloka flags...someone had been busy during the night. I walked up to the balcony, taking a few minutes before the guests started to arrive. I looked at the park across the road. I had been watching the same people sitting on the park benches  for the past 12 weeks. They were the street sweepers.
Last minute touch ups..Staff Briefing..Restoring what nature created and man changed
Every morning you see them all over Colombo pushing their
Bag of tea time
Who needs a cup
orange barrows. Each one has a designated street. Wearing their shabby clothes and faded orange shirts with the Aban's logo. Some with the luxury of thongs on their feet but most barefoot. They sweep the entire city with brooms made from thin sticks tied together.

When I first started coming to Sri Lanka nearly 30 years ago there were piles of rotting garbage everywhere. The war had just started and there was no such thing as garbage trucks. Now the streets are immaculate. They may be old but they are clean. Each area is assigned to a particular person. They fill up their barrows, the truck comes and takes it all away then they sit in the park for the rest of the day. Chatting on the benches or sleeping under a tree only to go back in the afternoon and do it all again. In the street where we now live they push their barrows, hollering as they pass, letting the housekeepers  know to bring out the days garbage. I like the daily collection here much better than the weekly one we had in Butturumulla. Keeps the rats at bay.

The morning traffic was starting to pick up. The buses trundled down the road, black smoke spewing from their exhausts. Standing room only again. Three wheelers were weaving in and out. Everyone was looking at the restaurant. The scaffolding had been removed yesterday and in its place was a bright red carpet leading to the door.

Standing room only again
I tried not to look too closely at some of the finishes they were a bit rough around the edges....but ah....maybe it was only David and I that would notice.  I took a breath, smiled and walked downstairs, adjusting a chair to cover a cracked tile  and kicking a lone wire behind a couch as I passed. Everything was perfect. Sri Lanka Perfect.

The place was buzzing.The Presidents security team had been on the premises for the past two days taking the names and identity card numbers of all the staff. Last night they actually slept  in the private dining room he was having lunch in today. As  we arranged his table we were not allowed to  set his place, that would be done after he arrived. When I bought the flowers for the table, the security took them from me gently probing the arrangement for anything suspicious. When I walked in with the pepper grinder, it was "Yeah I know, here you go " and handed it over so they could look inside for unidentified pepper grains. This was the man who had ended the 30 year conflict in the North, maybe he still had a few enemies out there.

Nawaloka flags flying -The red carpet - Colombo's Mayor lighting the Lamp with Upali
Guests began to arrive, ducking under the ribbon the President was going to cut. Upali then received a call for us to start, our Guest of Honor was running late. As with every function in Sri Lanka the oil lamp is lit by the dignitaries at the start of a Ceremony. So with the opening bat not present, the Mayor of Colombo stepped up to the crease. In the midst of the lamp lighting the clatter of feet bounding down the stairs broke the silence. The Presidents security walked past, opened the front door without saying a word and left. I looked at them, looked back towards the stairs and looked back again, only to see their jeep now pulling onto the road and disappearing around the corner. W-What just happened ?? These guys haven't left the building for two days.....Ah huh... looks like someone was going to be a no show.

David doing the morning vegetable run for the Restaurant
Looking through my gate watching the world go by.
The move into Colombo has made an incredible difference. We now reside at Barnes Place. A 10 minute walk to work although I only did that once, arriving a dripping mess. Sweaty armpits and hair plastered to your scalp is not a refreshing look when dealing with food. When lunch service is completed we now have the luxury of being home in 5 minutes. Nanna nap on the couch, time with the kids after school, watch some trash TV and still have an hour before we return for dinner service. We have traded the swimming pool for convenience, the monkeys in the trees for the sound of honking traffic, the garden for a courtyard but it was still  a good trade. I defy anyone to sit in Colombo traffic day after day wasting endless hours and not go slowly mad.

I like our new street, it is a moving supermarket. After the children leave for school I have my morning tea sitting on the front terrace.  As the driver pulls out, I prefer to leave the front gate open watching Colombo start its day. All the houses are hidden behind huge brick walls. They all employ someone whose only job in life is to open and close the gate. I watched as across the road their gate slowly rumbled open and the occupant drove out. The gate keeper standing in his sarrong and singlet looks up and down the street. Takes a big breath and sucks in the morning air. He will get to go home once a month if he has a family. If he doesn't he will go nowhere. He will live in a small room somewhere at the rear of the house if he is lucky, otherwise he just sleeps on a mat on the floor, his worldly goods in  a small chest of drawers or a tiny cupboard. He wont go out in the evenings to a movie and has probably never stepped into a restaurant in his life. His meal will be supplied. He turns and spots me watching him. He looks for a second and then gives a slight nod. I raise my mug a few inches and nod back. Then he is gone, disappearing behind the closing gate, where he will wait for the honk of the car horn that will send him scrambling back into action once again.

A bell is jingling. I wait to see who is coming. Ahh it's the mango man pushing his rickety cart filled with ripe mangoes. Without moving from my chair, I ask Kia Da? How much ??. The price of mangoes suddenly shoots up when he realizes its a foreigner.  David steps out, a few more words in Sinhala that are too fast for me to catch and a new price is negotiated. Fresh Mango's.

It's not long before I can hear the next vendor announcing his impending arrival. As he gets closer I hear the words "Malu, Malu,"This time it's the fish monger. Not long after that, its King Coconut or Thambili's. If you buy one they will cut a hole in the top and pop in a straw. Instant vitamin drink to start the day. Berocca in a shell. There was even a toothy grinned man pushing a bike so ladened with brooms, mops and every conceivable cleaning device I'm worried if he drops it he will be buried so deep I wont be able to get him out. Crushed beneath a ton of mops and coconut fiber brooms. The carnival meanders along all day. A kaleidoscope of color and free enterprise.

I heard a quote a few weeks ago that said "Its not the destination in life that is important, it's the passengers you travel with" So as I sit with my morning cup and watch the passing parade. I think about the passengers I am currently sharing my ride with. The people at Upali's. They work hard to provide for their families. They work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. At the end of their shift those who don't stay in the dormitory provided sit on a bus for another hour sometimes two all for the grand sum of $200 per month. Everyone of them has their own story which is so different to mine.

No journey ever goes to  plan, sometimes a road block forces you to make a detour that you didn't expect. Things take a little longer than you thought. I know my sadness the past few weeks is a mother missing her children, but I'm certainly not missing out on life, something new happens every day. I stare at the gate across the road and think about the life being lived there..........Draining the last of my tea. I pull myself up, I need to start getting ready for work. So, to no one in particular I say...... "Once more around the block Driver", then it's home to pick up a couple of very important passengers I left behind.

Monday, November 18, 2013


I have always felt the best way to see a country is on foot, you actually get right amongst the people, hear the sounds, breathe in the smells, soak up the atmosphere, instead of catching glimpses as your tour bus hurtles past, racing to meet the deadline for the next five minute photo stop. I have just spent the past 8 days seeing Sri Lanka at its best, walking 250km with Sir Ian Botham and his crew, raising funds for The Foundation of Goodness and Laureus for Sports Foundation.

That 250 doesn't include all the rest of the kilometers I put into training, walking practically every street of Colombo in the preceding months. When we drive somewhere on the weekend my husband would question as to how I knew my way around so well, my answer would invariably be " Oh I've walked this way " .

Each day on my training walks I would always see something that would bring a smile to my face, or something that I would stop and think "Well that's different".

There's the man who sets up his personal Starbucks coffee shop on the side of the road each day, instead of selling coffee, its warm gruel that is ladled into the tin mugs and handed over to the morning commuters. There are always a dozen or more people standing around drinking their morning tonic,
enjoying the cool start before the sun begins its relentless march into the sky. They chat or just watch the world go by taking a few minutes before cramming themselves into the over crowded buses to start their day, just as we in the western world clutch  paper cups filled with our caffeine hit. They pull up on motorbikes or stop on their morning walk.

I've watched the man at the little corner store, which is really nothing more than a wooden shack wave his long handled pan filled with burning coals. The smoke fills his store  warding away evil spirits before he commences business for the day. There are no shiny shelves or soft lighting to showcase his wares, just upturned wooden crates to hold his merchandise,  and a single bulb to light his store. Still, he has what his customers are looking for and he always touches his left wrist with his right hand as he passes me my change from the bottle of water I buy from him each day. It took me a little while to pick up on this gesture. I first noticed it when our driver would give me the change after buying the morning newspapers. I asked David why he always held  his arm that way, then I noticed it again when the young girl at the local supermarket made the same gesture. Apparently this is a sign of respect to the customer, it can be as subtle as the tip of their  right finger  brushing their left forearm, as the change is held out in their left hand, right down to grasping their entire left wrist. I now look for the gesture each time and am slightly disappointed if I don't see it. I tell my husband I cant wait until the restaurant is open, so when I am returning change to our customers I can do the same. I suppose it is no coincidence that I have yet to see the staff at KFC or McDonald's use this traditional custom. It probably disappeared years ago in their pursuit of westernization.

Each day I see  the family of cows on Thalakottowa Road that  take their place in the bus stop, either sheltering from the sun or the rain, then casually stroll down the center of the road at 5.30pm, oblivious to the evening traffic having to weave  around them as they make their way home. I've watched the man on his bike with a board attached to the front filled with lottery tickets, selling the chance to live a dream for 5 rupees. He should have retired years ago but when a country has no pension scheme you need to keep working to put food on the table.

I would stop and talk to Nimal, the man who spends his life feeding the stray dogs that wander the streets. Each day I see him parked on the side of the road in his battered pick up truck, filling dozens of bowls from a huge pot filled with  25 kilos of red rice and cooked meat scraps. It took me a few weeks before I finally stopped and asked him his story.  I watched one day as he drove up, dozens of dogs running beside him knowing they were about to be fed. He was a softly spoken man and I liked him immediately, he has no job, no family and probably little for himself but it makes him happy to care for these strays. He relies on donations to buy the food and because he didn't ask me for money, something a lot of people here are not shy to do, I gave him what I had in my pocket. I wonder what he must think about the newspaper reports that the council are rounding up all the strays before CHOGM commences. It is said the dogs are being "re-housed", but in a country that has trouble housing it's own citizens, its one of those phrases that makes you go.. Mmmm

I've walked for hours down Lake Drive near our home looking for the elusive "lake", which is still to be found. The roads meander along weaving in and out of the jungle making no grid pattern at all. Most times they eventually lead back to a main road where with the aid of modern technology I Google map my way home, but sometimes rather frustratingly they suddenly stop and you have to retrace your steps and try a different lane, of course this generally happens when you're tired and just want to get home. I once came across an old red telephone box. A relic from the  British days. I haven't seen one of these since I was a kid. It was resting a little lopsided, the glass so weathered with time you can barely see through. The telephone inside long gone. Vines were weaving their way  inside slowly climbing up the side before they will eventually cover Her Majesty's Royal Crest. It is often said that if everyone were to leave Colombo and come back in a month, the jungle will have reclaimed everything that was taken. So fertile is the land, the sticks that are used to make front fences to peoples properties resprout and continue to grow making a living fence.

So after 4 months and countless kilometers it was time to head North to start " Beefy's Big Sri Lanka Walk". David was accompanying me, as the start of the walk  coincided with The Murali Cup.  An annual schoolboy cricket tournament run by the Foundation of Goodness to bring students from the North and South together.

It's an 8 hour train ride from Colombo to Killinochchi on newly laid tracks, one that luckily we didn't have to take. I had struck up a friendship with Sarah Botham, Sir Ian's eldest daughter when I had offered to help with preparations for the walk, by involving the local schools. She had taken me up on my offer and before I knew it was driving her around Colombo helping to map out the route for day 5 of the walk. It was a challenge to get the course to run past all the major landmarks, out past the new parliament and back into the finish at Premadassa Stadium...the home of cricket in Colombo......but 29km later we managed it, even got the course to run past the site of our restaurant so David could give me a wave.

She offered us a spot on the air force plane that had been specially chartered to fly Sir Ian and his crew North. It was rather surreal sitting amongst such elite company. How did a girl from Shepparton end up on an air force jet in Sri Lanka with Sir Ian and Lady Botham, Sri Lankan cricket legend Mahela Jayawardnene, and member's of the British Press. David was reliving his youth, having grown up with a father in the Royal air force he was quite used to hitching rides on military planes, we were both like kids again.
Arriving in Killiochchi at the Air force base to a traditional Sri Lankan welcome

30mins later we landed at the Iranamadu air force base in Killinochchci to a traditional welcome complete with Kandyan Dancers. The atmosphere was one of excitement and expectation from the military personnel all eager to catch a glimpse of Sir Ian and of course their own Mahela Jayawardene. We were now smack bang in the middle of former terrorist country. This base was once fully controlled by the LTTE  (Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam) terrorist group. I found my eyes wandering across the airstrip to the tree line, searching, looking for a glimpse of movement, imagining them still out there, ...waiting.

We boarded the buses and were transported to our accommodation for the evening. Even though the North is undergoing a rapid re building programme, hotel accommodation is not high on the priority list, so with over 30 people needing a bed for the night it was off to the Army barracks at Mankulam for us.

Bumping along the narrow dirt tracks winding our way through the jungle. I stared out the window, you couldn't help but wonder how many lives had been cut short out here, these barracks had been captured and then fallen several times by both sides in the 30 year conflict. Soldiers were stationed at strategic points along the way directing the bus. There were dozens of tracks criss crossing each other and if you took the wrong one you could be there for weeks trying to find your way out. The huts were screened from above by the thick canopy of trees, only a sliver of light managing to filter through. The whole camp just melted into the surroundings, even in peace time it was well camouflaged.

We were shown to our assigned hut. Two letters waiting. One apologizing for the simpleness of the accommodation, reminding us this was actually a working training camp for the military. The other, an invitation to join Major General Udaya Perera for a "Jungle Dinner."  There was nothing simple about the meal. The army had pulled out all the stops and provided a banquet to feed .......well, to feed an army. With everyone  intent on carb loading to the max, we all ran around eating the traditional Hoppers, Kottu Rotti and Meat Bites. When I was finally done, I heard the announcement  "Please move to the tents for our three course banquet". Mmmm didn't see that coming. Might have gone out too fast and too hard, but Ehh! I'm about to walk 250km, whose counting calories now!.

Next morning we were up at the crack of dawn, acrobats performing somersaults in my stomach as I thought about the next 8 days. I slowly laced up my shoes making sure there were no creases in my socks, checked straps were flat, shorts weren't twisted, the slightest bump or scrunch in clothing now could lead to massive blisters or chafing once the sweat started flowing. I could already feel it trickling down my back, today was going to be a scorcher.

An hour later we were at the start line of 250km and 8 days of walking. The temperature for today would hit 40 and then hover around the mid thirties for the rest of the week with the humidity peaking at over 90%.  I ditched my sunglasses after one day when I looked in the mirror that evening and became slightly alarmed at the raccoon effect they had created on my face.

The guard of honor at the opening of The Murali Cup and then the beginning of the walk
Our first day was 29km, I had no problem with the distance, it was the relentless pace that I had been told Sir Ian would set. After the initial formalities had finished we lined up behind the marching band to start our first day. Various ministers and dignitaries were in the front row all clamoring to get the prized spot beside Sir Ian, his wife Kathy and Mahela. Then there were members of his crew, next were the walkers who had flown over from England and Myself and behind us were 3000 members of the military. The cheer went up, the band began to play and we were off. Starting with a casual stroll, smiling and waving at the crowd and the assembled media. I was waiting for the signal I knew was coming. After a few minutes I heard Sarah Botham yell out "OK we need to loose the band and start walking" Several people looked up, confusion on their faces, isn't that what we're doing?  With this, Sir Ian put his head down, squared his shoulders and cranked it up several notches, I knew it was coming and was ready, but the startled look on the local member's in the front row was priceless. They quickly fell into a trot, suddenly realizing their choice of long pants, business shirts and shiny leather shoes was not really appropriate for the day ahead. It wasn't long before they had been left far behind, probably already telling the story to anyone who would listen, how they had walked beside Ian Botham, England's greatest cricketer.

I chatted with Mahela for 6 or 7 kilometers before he too fell behind. The last I saw he was posing for yet another photo with members of the walking public. He sought me out at the finish line having been whisked away at one point to toss the coin at another of the Murali cup cricket matches. He had come to shake my hand and reclaim his phone that he ditched earlier in my hydration bag.

Arriving at the elephant orphanage (note the spelling on the sign), Children lining the streets and one of the walker's feet

Sri Lankan's love their cricket and if they can get up close and personal to a cricketer they will. It wasn't long before a protective barrier was set up around Botham. He had a minder on each side to shoo away anyone who tried to get too close and break his stride, from the moment he started in the morning until  he passed the finish line each day he stopped for no one. This included local Mayors left standing at the side of the road still holding the garland they had planned to place around his neck as he walked by. A look of disappointment on their face realizing they had just missed their big photo opportunity.

By day three I had earn't my place in the second row protecting Ian's personal foot space, one by one the walkers and crew were succumbing to the heat and were beginning to drop off, spending more time in the bus traveling at the rear picking up those lagging behind. If you didn't keep up with the main group it became too dangerous. Even though there were meant to be rolling road closures, that didn't stop the odd bus or truck from lumbering past so close you could feel the heat from their exhaust. This is Sri Lanka, land of organized chaos, the promised electrolytes only eventuated on the first day after that you had to supply your own. Easily remedied in Melbourne slightly more difficult  in the former war ravaged North.
Meeting the locals at Sigiriya, Botham relaxing after the heat..look at the size of those calf muscles and children receiving filtered re usable water bottles

We had our own ute traveling in the front handing out water, but  by the fourth day which was 40km I was beginning to feel the lack of salts and minerals taking their toll. The sweat just pours off you, I counted Ian drinking 23 bottles (600ml ) on that day, I drank 12....and you still didnt need to go to the bathroom, you just sweated it all out.  When the tarmac began to rise up and swim before me at 32km, I knew I had to admit defeat before it was too late and bang on the side of the dreaded bus. The door opened, a blast of cool air hit me. One of the boys who had already pulled the pin dropped a tablet from his private stash into a cold bottle of water instantly turning it orange and held it out for me.

I have taken part in a number of endurance events over the years and the thing I love most is the camaraderie that develops  amongst the competitors. Everyone feels the same pain, we all know what is hurting, how much effort we put in before we came. Its a time to prove to ourselves that we are not just "ordinary". We unite as one to push each other over the finish line at the end of each day. We compare blisters in the evening, exchange pain killers for anti biotics, trade sticking plasters for sunscreen. We always laugh at why we put ourselves though events like these, swearing we are getting too old and this is the last time, only to find ourselves trawling the internet a few months later looking for the next challenge.

So draining the last of my drink, throwing off the wet towel, 10 minutes later I jump off the bus. The boys move aside and let me back into my row, giving me a slap on the back and a smile.
Kumar Sangakkara and Ian Botham, that's me behind them on the right

So the pattern developed for all 8 days. The heat was daunting, the humidity oppressive and the crowds were debilitating. We passed through countless villages, the further South we walked the larger the crowds. The larger the crowds, the harder to walk. They all wanted to be at the front, you found them swarming in from the sides, walking so close you were constantly being tripped up, trucks would pull up and 50 people would jump out at a time and join the walk. You couldn't begrudge their excitement, the Botham juggernaut was rolling through town and they wanted to be a part of it. Each day there was a celebrity guest, usually current and former cricketers the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Steve Waugh, Alan Border, Saurav Ganguly, Sunil Gavaskar, South African Rugby great Mornay du Plessis even Murali on the last day. In fact Murali, Alan Border and Mornay  were the only celebrities to complete an entire day's walk.
Mornay du Plessis, Alan Border, Kushil Gunasekera, Ian Botham ,and Murali.
Sir Ian being interviewed by British Sky while soaking in the beach.
Sourav Ganguly , Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Botham

On the day through Colombo my son and his school joined us at the start. I quickly filled the teachers in on what to expect. This was no gentle stroll. The "Elizabeth Moir School" had been generous fundraisers for The Foundation of Goodness in the past so Sir Ian took a minute to pose for photographs before we commenced. I laughed when I saw the pictures on the coveted back page of the sports section the next day.  I rang my son. "Mum walks flat out for 5 days in the melting sun and nothing!!! You rock up for 5 minutes and you're on the back page of the paper...How does that work ?" He just laughed.
My son and his school, and Taking a dip after a long day's walk

I had spent most of the Colombo morning slowly jogging alongside the lead police vehicle through the city center. They had directions, but  seemed intent on  taking their own route. Finally I positioned myself right at the front directing the convoy which way to go. Next day all the kids at my sons school had said wow "Your mum was wining the race" When I asked if he had corrected them, it wasn't a race I was put in front to show the way, he just grinned, "Nah they think you're cool"...that's a first. When he originally found out the school was walking with us, he had asked me if I could dress "a little bit nice." 14 year old  boys ????

On our last day we walked from Galle to Seenigama. This is where the Foundation all began. Kushil Gunasekera had given up his job, his life and his family estate, to turn it into a thriving community workshop, intent on helping those less fortunate. After the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami, Sporting, Entertainment and Political greats had all given their money to Kushil knowing the funds would go directly to where they were meant to. Seenigama village now boasts the best self funded sporting, educational and training programmes in Sri Lanka. Tsunami orphans have gone on to lead  productive lives, guided by Kushil instead of their parents. Some are now representing their country at elite levels because of the sponsorship and training they have received at the Foundation. Parents were given the opportunity to pick up their lives after losing children, being re housed through funds raised by the Foundation.
Alan Border

Ian Botham
So as I pulled on my sneakers for the last day of walking. My shins were screaming from 7 days on the hard roads.The several toenails that had threatened to abandon me, had given up and decided to stay, attached only from the swelling holding them in

The doctor came through for me and gave me what can only be described as magic pills. The atmosphere today was electric, everyone knew we were almost done. Even the water truck that for the past 7 days had been wailing Sinhala music from the loud speakers was playing Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. We danced all the way to the finish line.

Murali thanking Ian and Sarah Botham along with Kushil
The last kilometer was down a narrow lane where we would finish at the Seenigama Cricket Ground, built with funds donated by the MCC in England. It was lined with literally hundreds and hundreds of school children waving their Union Jacks high in the air in honor of Sir Ian Botham. They were cheering and clapping, willing us the last few hundred meters. The pace quickened, we started to trot, rounded the last bend, through the gates and then we were spilling onto the cricket was over.
Raising the Union Jack, my team mates and Murali giving his thanks

I stood their searching for my family, they were proud of what I had been a part of and wanted to share the last day. I hugged my husband and buried my face in my children's hair. I had finished at last. Now it was time to soak up the glory, listen to the thank you speeches, pose for last pictures and go back to being ordinary.......not such a bad thing. I needed some time now to be a mum and a wife. I had been gone too long, walked too many miles, ..............maybe its time stay on the bus for a little while.
Finished up with a nice tan......not sure about the feet