Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Get real

A week has seven days! Each day has a different schedule but other the schedule can be a little different week to week.

Monday is usually the day I pack the cab with my produce and take it to Colombo to the 25 or more homes I deliver. Then after a hard days work I get back to the farm in Godagama, Homagama about 7.30 pm. Once the plastic containers are emptied and the cab repacked with the emptly containers, I leave around 9pm for Polonnaruwa. Amila has his dinner along the way, normally at the pit stop at Ambepussa. We get to Hingurakgoda around 2am and as Gamini and Sudath are sleeping we creep quietly into our beds on the verandah.

Tuesday and Wednesday are days that can have a combination of the following:

a) Taking a few bags of paddy to the mill and getting the rice milled

b) Taking a few bags of paddy to 89 Baas to parboil and pick up the following week

c) Going to Ratmale and giving 4 plastic crates to Papaya farmer along with old newspaper for pick up on the Thursday

d) Checking the state of construction of the Forest Lodge in Ratmale.

e) Going to the Hardware store to buy whatever the Baas wanted to me get for the Ratmale house, like cement, iron rods, roof tiles or door hinges.

f) Going to Boss Mama field to meet him and discuss what he has to sell me to take on Thursday, or go with him to get some fertilizer at discount prices.

g) Go to the timber merchant to see if they have rafters in the size I want for the roof and buy the rafters if he has them and take them to Ratmale.

h) Go to the Minneriya town to get lunch for the boys.

i) Request the rice bran be collected so I have some to take on Thursday. If Gunesekera does not have it I would have to go to Anura in Rotawewa to get it.

j) Get Diesel and Kerosene and Petrol for the water pumping taking the cans to the shed.

k) Go to the brick kiln and pick up 200 bricks needed for construction work at thuduwa to finish of the well.

l) Get the cab greased and washed at Dawasa Baas garage.

m) Go to Hingurakgoda and buy the provisions for the week for the boys at the shops or if on a Sunday, go to the Pola to buy the weekly provisions.

n) Investigate and search for paddy type to mill and take to kade in Godagama.

So when it comes to Thursday it becomes a rush to get the coconuts plucked and then transported and husked and packed to take. That takes quite a while especially if there are 200 nuts. Then I have to collect all the produce that I have already ordered, Pick up the rice bran and then the Papaya or aubergine or what ever else the folks at Ratmale or Rotawewa have.

Then the whole process of packing the cab and covering it with the plastic sheeting and tying it down.

Then it is bathing in the river, or well or tank and then having a meal and a brief nap before leaving for Godagama. Sometimes it is 7pm when we leave meaning after Amila eats his dinner in Ambepussa we get back to the farm at about mid night.

So this is the reality of the three days a week at the Polonnaruwa end. It is very tiring as I have not mentioned the work done on the land, like watering , weeding, fertilizing, and anyother agricultural activity.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Vesak dansala

Vesak poya day 2007 was the First of May. It is highly unusual for Vesak to be this early and Poson poya also falls in May on the 31st. For those who don't know, Vesak is the most significant day in the Buddhist calender.

A dansala is a form of giving free some food or drink to passers by, to commemorate this occasion but more so in history, where pilgrims on their way to and from places of worship were fed without charge, so they could concentrate solely on their spiritual renewal, and not have to be concerned about their physical well being. One can do this personally or collectively and do it over a period of days or just a few hours, depending on the ability of the hosts.

Since arriving in Sri Lanka on December 1st 2004 to live, a few weeks prior to the December 26th Tsunami, I gave two previous dansalas in Godagama for 2005 vesak and 2006 vesak. In keeping with this tradition I had established, I decided this year to have the dansala in Raja Ela at Kumbuk Thuduwa, as it was two days after my birthday and I was spending the whole week there, having notified my customers of the break in delivery during this period.

This area never had a dansala in its history and accordingly, the people did not know what to expect and were even quite skeptical that it would happen. I had asked them about what food they would like, as I wanted to give them something of their choice. I had suggested string hoppers as it is a traditional food, however to my utter amazement they wanted 'rata kama' (foreign food) and specifically noodles so I obliged with their request.

My first dansala in 2005 consisted of local delicasies, like Kavum, kokis, munkavum, kiri toffee, and others I can't remember, served on hand woven watti in a bed of Araliya flowers along with bananas and king coconuts from my land. My second dansala consisted of string hoppers and kiri bath with fresh pol sambol and kiri hodi as well as kattta sambol served on banana leaves from my trees. Fresh high grown tea and quality Hansa coffee was provided with fresh cows milk from my cows. As my spring water in Godagama is considered some of the country's purest, I gave a quality of tea and coffee no six star hotel could match, and all for free.

As in the previous occasions, I was equally insistent it not being just a dansala, but one that is complete with the solemnity of the occasion and day that was being remembered. Accordingly a lot of thought had to be given to all areas prior to this date. Sadly due to my not owning a digital camera or for that matter matter any camera, as my only camera had stopped working, I was unable to record the occasion to show here, so I will attempt to describe events in detail.

In this case the hosts were Amila, my man Friday without whom I would find it hard to function, Sudath who is responsible for taking care of the daily operation in Raja Ela and his nephew Gamini an essential and able assistant to him. I also had a silent host who most generously supported me financially in this event. Due to a family emergency where Sudath had been prevented by his wife's family from seeing his children, he took off to resolve this issue. His place was taken at the last minute by Tilak my neighbor who lives on the other side of the river from me. We all had matching sarongs and shirts for the occasion, I so wished I could have had a photo of us to post.

On the morning of Vesak, the bush telegraph went out noting that four guys were preparing to give the villages first dansala. Only Menika, my maid, who had come with her daughter from Godagama, was there to help. Within hours we had over 15 ladies from the neighborhood ready to help, without whom we could never have done this. The large cooking pots were lent to us by one household, and other people brought what they felt we were lacking. As we do not have a kitchen, we just cook our food with firewood out-doors, four sets of fires were lit outdside, with bricks to support the pots. Each one organized a specific task and amazing collective participation that took place. The automatic division of responsibilities and the level of fun they had in this task reminded me of the true spirit of the occasion.

It is a 'pina' for someone to do what they can within their power. A service performed for free is an act of receiving a level of good karma and it is with this sense of satisfaction that this voluntary work was performed.

I had decided in the interest of both being eco-friendly and also of beauty to serve the food on lotus leaves. (nelum kola) With this in mind I went in the morning to Ratmale and together with three boys from the village went to a nearby lake to cut the nelum kola and put them into the vegetable trays I have to transport them. We collected a thousand of these to take and the boys returned with me to help with washing the leaves and preparing them for serving as well as other activities for the event.

Wije my neighbor across the river had over the past week made the 22 vesak lanterns that were temporarily hung in the verandah on the Vesak morning. He had toiled to do the atapattam design (hexagon). I had provided all the paper and bamboo. The 20 that were to be hung in a straight line along the driveway to the verandah were all in white and the Chakravarti in orange. The other two, one over the entrance gate and one inside the serving verandah were much larger and in orange. Poles were planted along the drive and the lanterns hung.

Though I did not have electricity I was going to use a generator and so the wires with holders were laid out so all the lanterns were lit for the occasion. One set of men took over this task and did it beautifully alternating the lgihting between CFL bulbs and regular bulbs which gave different hues to the straight line row of lantern lights at night.

I had sown a field for transplanting on April 27th so the little rice plants had just popped up about an inch from the water. I had therefore decided to put 300 coconut oil lamps aound the paddy field because the reflection of the light in the water at night( looked like a square lake in the dark) would be a beautiful scene for the people coming in to the verandah for the food. So this had to be readied for lighting at dusk.

Then on the other side of the driveway, Amila had cut the bamboo and made a series of platforms to put a further 150 lamps along it to be lit and then more of this near the verandah as a totally lit path to the verandah. Nissanka decided to do a design of the bo-leaf with the lamps and in the ground near the river he arranged that design. This could be seen from the verandah vantage. All in total about 700 coconut oil lamps were lit for the occasion.

The piece de resistance was the 16 fires which were lit in the flowing water of the river. Stakes were set on the river. I had brought some large King Coconuts from Godagama.So those large shells were filled with coconut oil and a rag was rolled around a stick as a wick and this shell was placed on the water held by the stake. The sight of 16 fires on the water reflecting the flowing river right outside the verandah was breathtaking. These fires were still glowing at 5 in the morning when I woke up the next day.

The seting was as good or better than the fare offered. People streamaed in by foot, on push bicycles, on motor bikes, in hand tractor trailers as is common in these parts of the world, as well as cars and vans. An area had been set aside for vehicle parking. Anyone who wanted to take food home for a sick relative was also allowed to do so.

Right along my verandah mats were laid out so people could sit on the floor and then the lotus leaf put in front and the food served. There were the noodles mixed with carrots and leaks and onions, then dhal curry was served as well as pol sambol for those who could not do without it. The general comment from all was that the food served this way was even more delicious and they would never forget the event as something permanently etched in their memory.

We must have served nearly 1000 meals and this with very little publicity. It goes to show how quickly people come to a place where free food is offered even in a fairly remote part of the village.

That night as the verandah had been cleared of all furniture, I slept on a mat on the floor of the verandah satisfied with the events of the day. I could hardly have hoped for this sort of clock work without much organization on how it would be executed.

In a time when we could get a suddent rain shower the weather gods were kind and held off for a day. It had also rained for a short while the previous day.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

My first rice paddy harvest

In Sri Lanka one does not qualify to being a farmer until one has grown rice oneself. My new property consisted of 3 acres of abandoned rice fields. It was overgrown with some very destructive weeds. At first glance I could not even imagine growing rice as the task seemed out of my present ability to tackle.

Neverthelss with the encouragement of my neighbors and my staff, I decided I was not just going to give it to a farmer to cultivate and just let me have the usual 60 bushels of paddy as payment for the use of the land, I was going to do it myself. A boy in the neighborhood was asked if he would use his trctor to plough the fields for payment. I learnt my first hard lesson in dealing with the locals. I spent over Rs 10,000 to repair his tractor. He began ploughing a few fields, and there were about 25 fields in all.One day he had taken the tractor and pawned it for money saying his father was ill and needed treatment and just did not come back.

I had to find another farmer with a tractor I could hire and he finished the job. In essence I had to pay all over again. Due to the nature of the fallow and neglected land, I had to prepare all the fields again so that each field could retain water at an even level. This was a big task in levellling the land.There was quite a lot of work that was required. We even had to make a canal to take the water along the side to the furtherst fields as the gravity flow would not ensure water got to them had we not done so.

The seed paddy that I had bought in Godagama turned out to be tainted with white rice and the farmers told me not to use it. So I had to send one of my boys to the Kaduruwela Farm by bus to get a new supply of government certified seed paddy. I then just milled the other seed paddy and sold it in my shop barely recovering my cost.

I obtained the services of the most experienced man in the area to sow the paddy. He had been doing this job for 50 years. It turned out that he had used all the seed paddy on two thirds of the land and I had to hurriedly sow the balance fields with paddy I had bought to mill of a different variety. It turned out that I had sufficient seed paddy but he had sown far too much. This sowing resultied in plants growing too close to each other, which did not allow maximum yield from the plants for lack of space and also plants that were more susceptible to fall with the wind.

Another lesson learned. The expert can do more damage to the crop than the novice. The people in the area were perplexed that I planted a variety of red rice (red samba) not grown in these parts. The people in the area only eat white rice so they only grow white rice as they keep some of their crop for home consumption. I knew I had a market for red rice and I could sell it for more than 50% of the white. I could also buy all the white rice I wanted from my neighbors while I could not get the red. So for me it was a no brainer.

Due to a lot of pitfalls and delays due to labor doing their before coming to mine, I was one of the last to sow. I sowed on the 15th of December 2006 and harvested by cutting the paddy on April 2nd 2007.

The view ten days after sowing was wonderful something that I could never have imagined. A light green spread all round this expanse of fields up to the border of my land lined with trees.Water flowing from one field to the next and generally adequate for growing. A pre-emergent herbicide was used 10 days from sowing to prevent seeds of weeds to grow from the plants that had been ploughed and then drowned with water. It was an unrecognizable set of fields from the weed infested ground.

I did not use any pesticides and my plants did not appear to have been affected by the known pests to any great extent. I mistakenly again on the advice of the local farmers, spread nitrogen in the form of Urea fertilizer on the land. In hindsight I did not need it as the land had been lying fallow and had the required nitrogen in the soil. With the additional use of Urea the Paddy grew taller than they normally should and due to the height tended to fall with the wind, once the stalks were heavy with the grain.

I must count myself extremely lucky in cutting the paddy to be threshed. I had about 10 people working over two days for whom I had to pay Rs10,000 to do this. I got 4 from Ratmale and the rest from Raja Ela and was able to have it all done. Then, when the threshing machine known locally as the Tsunami came we were able to bag about 100 sacks of paddy giving me about 5000 kilos of it. I took 10 bags to Godagama on the first day to have it milled there as the mill I normally used was closed on Poya day for Bak Full Moon. The first rice I had milled was not perfect as it had not sufficiently dried so the rice grains were broken in places. However the the aroma of fresh rice more than compensated. This rice was better for Kiri bath than for normal Kekulu bath.

The reason I say I was fortunate is that once all the paddy had been bagged and in some cases carried on the back of my staff to the open verandah, the rains came with a vengeance. Rains a few hours earlier would have caused untold problems for me in having to dry it or have a significant portion lost due to other weather related issues. Now I realize luck and timing are essential in this exercise. Some farmers who were not able to cut their paddy had so many problems in cutting wet paddy and threshing it which took longer and also for drying it. The threshing cost was a further Rs10,000 with these machines costing Rs50 per minute for their use.

Due to my paddy having fallen I had to cut the straw from the bottom as the plants had to be scooped up from the scythe. This implied that more straw had to be fed into the threshing machine and it took longer. This was an added cost of the bad sowing of the seed paddy earlier. I resolved that I would further refine my planting technique in future by transplanting my paddy instead of sowing, something people in this area do not do due to the labor cost of transplanting. Technically one should transplant to get maximum yield and almost no one in Sri Lanka does that. It is shameful that our farmers take this route when every farmer in Japan transplants his small little field and I believe they use transplanting machines which we should also use here. I sincerely believe this could lead to a much higher yield per acre something we should aim at.

Once the rains had ceased I took the paddy to the mill to dry it on the cement floors outside. Yet again the weather gods were kind. We had just dried and repacked the paddy into the sacks and brought them back to the property when the rain came down in buckets. Those other people who were also drying there paddy were not so lucky. Theirs got completely wet as they were still on the cement drying floors.

Now my paddy is in the room that I built and some sacks still remain at the mill. I then either take it to be parboiled and milled or just milled to take to the shop in Godagama as and when required for sale. I sell both these varieties of rice in my shop for Rs45 a kilo.

I did not make a big profit on this exercise but I covered my costs and am able to supply my own rice to my customers in Colombo and the farm as well as to my family, something our family has never been able to do. The other benefit was that I was forced to clear the land, and if I had to clear it in any other way the costs would not have been even recovered. Future planting of rice or vegetables or even fruit will not require a heavy cost to clear. A by-product is the hay that I have to cover all my banana and papaya trees to prevent weeds from growing as a result of the irrigation.

Appa nangi

Being single, one of my hopes in making the change was that I would find a suitable person to share mylife with from someone in the Polonnaruwa district.

It would be easier for me to adapt to living in Polonnaruwa if she was also from the area, not necessarily in the same village. The natural question would be asked as to whether anyone from this area would be compatible bearing in mind my background and past life.

I do not have an answer to that except to say, that, in the population one would expect me to find a suitably compatible person, I have not come close to even meeting anyone with similar ideas, who I had any physical attraction to. I do not know what the future has in store for me and whether I would be so fortunate as to meet a soulmate who has a similar outlook and one whom I can be happy with.

To that end the people in the villages I have contact with have made every effort to intorduce me to people they thought would foot the bill. I have met many ladies along the way in the formal and informal settings and none of those put forward have I wanted to consider meeting again.

One damsel, who I was asked to see by going to have a hopper or two one morning at her house, however made me think otherwise. This was before I set my eyes on this Raja Ela property that I now have. Approaches were made first in contact through the uncle who is a local provincial councillor for the area and his wife. Then it was discovered that her paternal grandparents are friends of my host in Ratmale, Rupe, and sit side by side at the Sunday market in Higurakgoda selling vegetabels. That was a conicidence which cannot even be invented in a movie but it was true. So an approach was made through Rupe to the grandparents. All the elders had no objections her father having left her mother and who had moved away not being in the frame, but the final say was given to the girl to consider the offer.

In the society of the village, I was not able to directly approach her as it would not be done and would be considered a violation of her dignity if I cornered her somewhere. I was however unable to feign a meeting or happen to be standing next to her to start a conversation, so the choice was left to her with very little prior warning and little to no background of who or what I was about. It was hardly surprising therefore that she rejected out of hand even entertaining the possibility of a marriage. In this society in this kind of request the getting to know part prior to marriage is only once the formalities are settled and not as part of the decision making process.

When this refusal was transmitted I was told just to leave it alone and not try to change her mind as once she made her intentions clear there was no point in going further. I respected that. The more incredible thing however was that I had after this rejection chosen this property and bought it within a baseball home run of her house. The closeness was uncanny. She was living in the next street. Even more incredible is that she comes almost next door to me each day to deliver hoppers for sale at the shop nearest to my property.

I have therefore inevitably crossed her path regularly through the year, usually when she is on foot with a parasol and me in my cab spewing out dust in its trail on the dirt road. She therefore now knows where I live what I do and any gossip she may care to hear from the neighbors about me, which would not be earth shattering or in the least bit scandalous.

I have not had the courage to get down from my vehicle and talk to her on the grounds that such an event would be very public, in sight of one or more. This would be an embarrasment to her. Her brother is also aware of the circumstances. He farms his and others land and is known to my staff who have met and spoken with him referring to this incident.

Now that over a year has passed since that event and she is more aware of where I live and what I do, I must try and make equiries if she would still entertain a request to meet and talk in a third party location under the scrutiny of someone of her choice.

In the past year there have been no others that I have been drawn to and I should attempt to make contact again as she also appears not to be otherwise hitched or paired with.

This is the story of appa nangi (hopper sister) and I dont think we have heard the last of her at this stage.

The essential difference

The transformation I have made to fit in with this environment is not one of me becoming just one of the locals or my neighbors. It is quite possible for me to do that or at least make a stab at it, but I believe it would be counterproductive. It is just not me to completely isolate myself and try to live like them.

To live in an area everyday of the year and try to farm the land like my neighbors would be foolish. I don't have the level of energy and strength for manual work that those of my age have been used to here. I don't have family and local friends to call upon to help. Neither do I have the years ahead to begin at a rudimentary level and work my way up to where I want to go.

In any case in this day and age there is no norm either. Every person has his or her unique set of circumstances. Luck, marriage, family circumstance as well as lifestyle behaviour all contribute to how one lives one's life in any place. One must also remember that my neighbors are decendants of people who were granted land in the 1930s as part of the original DS Senanayake colonization schemes in Minneriya. The people therefore came from all parts of the country and settled here like a mass migration hoping for a beter life. Some people still have ties to their home villages to which they return. They have relatives and sometimes even send their children to schools there. In that sense I am no different. I am also a transplant like most of them be it one now rather than a few generations ago.

I therefore believe it is more practical to benefit as much as I can from maximising the use of this land. I should organize this enterprise so that I and the land around me produce an optimum balance; a way of life and a means to live off the land in a way that enhances the productivity of the land and retain its ecological balance while aiming to create a beautiful place that can be enjoyed by all. A place of relaxation. A place of meditation. A place of activity. A place of inspiration. A place of work. A place of education and a place of innovation.

Therefore it fits into my overall plan. It iss omewhere I can grow fruit, vegetable and herbs that I can sell at retail prices to give me an income that is adequate. A place where the people working for pay are treated fairly. A place where some innovative ideas of agriculture can be taught and copied by others. An example of energy saving by way of the use of a windmill will be a plus in this regard too, if I am able to carry out my plan as intended.

I will definitely like to spend more time here as I get older and am more able to organize my affairs better so I don't have to work so hard 7 days of the week attending to every aspect of the business. I am at the moment working harder than I have in my previous life.

This chosen path will inevitably have its ups and downs and changes to suit circumstances that occur in the future. We can never perfectly plan our lives as we are not in complete control of it. We must therfore have a plan and work towards the plan, but make the detours as necessary when the need arises.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Nature is free

Sitting on my planter's chair in the extended verandah, I marvel at the movie that is being played in front of me and to the two sides. It is a different show everyday and the show has no beginning or end. The planter's chair has folding arms so I can stretch my legs on it to be more comfortable, too comfortable for comfort!!

I dont know where to start. Is it the incredibly elusive otter trying to steal the fish caught in the net, or the water monitor, one as big as a crocodile searching for anything to eat on the banks while swimming in the river. How about the land monitor climbing the tree when the two resident puppies chase him. The mongoose who dives into the thicket when spotted or the squirrel darting along the wood beams on the ceiling into the paddy stores behind to eat the rice grain and leave the husk on the ground.

The most beautiful sights are those of the birds flying nonchalantly across from twig to twig playing with their mates. The species too numerous to mention. One day, the mango tree to my left, which towers over the coconut tree, and the tree which gave me1000 fruit this year, was host to all of the following. A flock of parrot, a pair of orioles which are bright yellow, the seven sisters, the black mynah with the yellow streak on the face. Then there were the birds of paradise, the male with the long white tail and the three varieties of kingfisher. The black drongo and black robin along with the more common robin, (polkichcha) flying around.

The little egret and the intermediate egret on the branches waiting for an opening to eat the worms in a newly ploughed field. The sound of the peacocks on top of a large tree. Did you know that they fly to the top of the trees to safety so they can have a commanding view of the area. A peacock in flight with its 6ft long tail is a sight to see and marvel at. The fish owl perched at the top of the dead tree waiting for a mouse to scurry along so it could swoop and pick it up or the brahmini kite enjoying the thermal air currents. At night the bats come out to eat the mangos and make a big noise. The changeable hawk eagle looking majestic on its perch on a coconut tree.

The sound of the pair of woodpeckers pecking in unison with the bark of the tree trunk to search for the spot to carve a hollow; pair of the incredibly beautiful snowy rock squirrles with beautiful white tails jumping from tree to tree chasing each other and onto the roof. The bright green of the barbet also making a foray to eat a ripe mango.

All this to see, so how can one do anything else but marvel at ones good fortune; to see all this just sitting in one place. The river reservation is thick with trees giving protection to these creatures and also prevents the river banks from eroding. This is all part of the ecosystem, more a micro climate in this otherwise heavily farmed area. Thanks to the river there is a large swathe of land that is still unspoilt and forested enabling these species to survive.

Who said you need money to enjoy all this. All this is free. However as a farmer having all these creatures and birds around that can harm ones crops I have to be careful what I say as already the monkeys, the rilawa and the wandura have done considerable damage to my papaya crop.

Heaven on earth

I got into the habit on my initial exploratory visits to the Polonnaruwa area to take local village lads( lasses are not allowed to join as is village custom) who had time on their hands to visit obscure village tanks. They as neighbors did not know of the existenec of many of these tanks as they had no recourse to go there. Life in a village is all about doing only what was required. So if they had no reason to go to the next village they just did not.

I was lucky, I had a vehicle and time and desire to see as much of the district and its tanks as I could. So my quest was to always stop at a wayside cafe and ask if there is a nearby tank for me to just see and observe.

Many of my friends and relatives in Colombo began pestering me, when they knew of my periodic visits to this area, to look for land for them to buy and build a holiday home. None of them in my opinion would really enjoy living here if their purpose is only to come once or twice a year with their friends. The whole purpose of living and enjoying what is real about the place would be lost. One has to live in heaven not just pop in for a drink.

With this task, I asked one of the people I visited frquently if he knew of any property for sale. He then took me to this neglected property in July of 2006 which was overgrown and which had a reputation locally of a place where moonshine was brewed, where locals streamed in the evening to buy their requirements. In that respect the land had a bad reputation and had lost its lustre with potential buyers. There were also local superstitions about the property as the last owner's wife had taken poison in the form of a weedicide or pesticide and killed herself, due to her husband's womanizing habits. Just to digress, suicide by way of drinking poison is a problem for people living in these parts. The suicide rate is unacceptably high.

It did not take me five minutes once I walked in the property and saw the extent of land, as well as over 1000 ft of river frontage, to decide I wanted it for myself. It just seemed perfect, a gem and too good to be true. It looked such an inspirational place. Walking on a peninsula(thuduwa) by the river reminded me of the Backs of Oxford and Cambridge imagining a punt coming my way, while I lay on the grass, picknicking on smoked salmon sandwiches and quails' eggs with a glass of champagne in my hand. It could not look more English if that is so improbable. I would say that it would be more humid in England than this place that day I saw this land. A hot but dry day.

It sounds incredible when I look back, but I also pin-pointed the place I would build my cabin overlooking the river. That is where it is today. I had sewn up the ownership of the property within 3 weeks of seeing the land and the first thing I did was to fence the whole place with barbed wire to take control of the land and have a set of gates and gate posts built so I could lock it up and prevent intrusion. The lawyer told me I must take physical ownership of the land (bukthi vindinawa) and that was nine tenths of ownership. The moonshine activity stopped immediately.

The tree that overhung the spot I wanted to build the room was cut to provide the timber required for the roof of the cabin, an incredible event in itself as I always look at the timber and marvel how good it looks, supporting the roof.

I bought the land for Rs 650,000 which in US dollars is $6,000 , yes thats right, six thousand. On the title it is just under 5 acres. However with the river reservation added, which is effectively under my control, it adds another two and a half acres to the extent. At the moment it is an incredible optimum size land for all that I intend doing with it. For someone who returned to Sri Lanka just short of being penniless, this was sweet justice as properly marketed it could be worth over ten times that.

I did not delay a moment after I took control. The first order of the day was to build a place so I could live on the property. I therefore designed a small room and engaged a man to lay the concrete foundation and build the house. The reason for the concrete foundation was that it could both be done quickly without having to transport rocks. A house built on a concrete foundation is more stable if there is a shift in the ground due to the adjoining river rising. A normal foundation may result in cracks of the brick walls.

It took all of 6 days to build this house, a record, anywhere in the world for one built of a concrete foundation, and brick walls and sheet roof. Admittedly the one set of doors and one set of windows was added later. I had a roof over my head in 6 days. I moved in on September 1st 2006. I stayed that night by myself for the first time, not knowing the neighbors and with openings as there were no doors or windows. I was also warned about the ghosts that roam the land, none of which turned out to be true, the usual village superstitions taking a tumble.

I subsequently made additions to the cabin by extending a front verandah in two levels for over 20 ft and an additional back room for my staff. From the side the place looks enormous due to the design, but it leaves no further room for expansion on any side as the boundary is on one and the Jack tree is on the other with the steep inclines on the two sides for rainwater runoff.

The land is blessed with over 3 acres of paddy fields, with an acre of coconut trees much of which needs to be carefully tendered and fertilized to get coconuts from. There are many mango trees and a lot of other fruit trees. Along the river reservation are more than 15 Kumbuk Trees some of which can be carefully pruned to harvest some wood without cutting the main tree. There is other timber that can be cut for use in building additional huts when necessary.

The land is not flat, it is relatively easy to get canal water to the highest spot from where it can be gravity fed to irrigate the whole property. This is clearly a great advantage when a series of irrigation drains are cut and water directed to agriculture as necessary.

The river called Minneriya Oya that forms one of he boundaries, has water every day of the year. Remember the irrigation canals only have water on designated days of the month and months of the year to enable Rice paddy cultivation only. Heavy rains can increase the water level 10ft on the river bringing it almost up to the verandah of the cabin. This occurs at most twice a year and is an event that is nice to see. Water can be pumped up from thei river at anytime to irrigate, and therefore there is not the same water issues that neighboring farmers have without the access to water.

It is now less than one year since I bought the property, but I have already harvested two varieties of rice paddies and have currently planted the next rice crop for harvesting at the end of July 2007. Considering the state of the property last July, the progress has been astounding with over 400 papaya trees that have been planted along with over 200 banana trees by the end of May 2007.

A well has been dug and attractively finished, a water tank has been set up and we have water on tap as well as to irrigate from there. I have plans to build a toilet complex, which when built will also be unique with an enclosed walled garden, so that one can lie in the bath watching the incredibly bright stars at night. With no artificial lighting around, the stars are very bright.

There are future plans for a specially high water tank that is large enough to support a gravity pressured drip irrigation system. This will be possible if the water can be lifted from the river using a windmill, which will not incurr energy costs. All these require funds and I am in the process of arranging a bank loan to do it.

I can catch fish on the river including incredibly tasty freshwater prawns. In truth I can live off the land without ever having to leave it. To that extent it is a little island where one can be self sufficient in a world and community that is increasingly become very dependant.

I have named the land Kumbuk Thuduwa.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The land of the thousand lakes

In the 5 or more years prior to my permanent migration, I visited this area at every chance I got, when I was in Sri Lanka. There were instances, when I even resorted to catching a public bus within hours of my arrival to the Island to go with my knapsack to this area. This is the Rajarata. It literally translates as "The king's land" and for those who are less knowledgable, geographically it is specifically the Polonnaruwa District of Sri Lanka as it now is. People loosely refer to a larger area covering Dambulla and Anuradhapura also as Rajarata, but I believe it was initially specifically restricted to the lands of the Polonnaruwa period of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Since the end of that period, the cause of which is still under some debate, in 1850, the land area of this District was 95% thick virgin forest sparsely populated by about 6 remote villages with a combined population not exceeding 5000 inhabitants, including those who tended to live in the forest proper away from designated areas of human habitation. There were more wild elephants, more than 10,000 at that time.

As referred to above, it must be noted that at the first millenium AD this was a thriving area with a large population. In this part of the world it was known as the granery of the east. There were large extents of land cultivated with rice paddies, and rice was exported to areas all around in exchange for other goods required by the large population estimated at about 300,000. It is possible that invasions and sackings as well as malaria decimated this population in the centuries that followed.

In Roman Britain a milennium earlier, the population did not exceed 300,000 for the whole island of Britain. In North America there were scattered Native Tribes numbering no more than 2,000,000 on the whole continent. Needless to say, it was a highly sophisticated and desciplined society that was primarily engaged in agriculture with Rice production being the main crop. This crop was used to trade for other goods from India and China along with parts of what is now Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia.

The hereditary rule of kings was the normal order of the day, as in most societies at that time. There were troublesome provinces, invasions from other parts, especially from South India and therefore as in most societies of the time the king's rule was autocratic. There were armies trained to protect the state and buildings as monuments to the king of the day as well as homage to the religion of the day which was Buddhism.

There were numerous temples, monastries, dagobas, schools and seminaries and monastaries, where the sangha or the Buddhist Clergy held its sway over the population and the king who was compelled to work with them for the benefit of the kingdom. It is quite clear from the acheological discoveries and the restorations of today, that the society of the time was an ordered, desciplined and advanced society in its rules and processes in order to ensure a civilized and fair existence for all. A far cry from todays lack of adherence to the rule of law in the area. There did not appear to be any degree of alcohol abuse in that period.

Due to the lack of more documented evidence, as all writing was in Ola leaves that deteriorated with age and humidity, more details of life cannot be gleaned. There is however some stone tablets which are carved with writing that has been translated to corroborate most of what I have noted above.

One obvious relict of the past that is being discovered continously, are the highly sophisticated irrigation methods that were used, whereby rainwater was stored for cultivation throughout the year. There is a period in the year, namely from April to October when it does not rain at all. However cultivation continued because the water was stored in Tanks which are akin to large lakes and which fed the arable lands via a very sophisticated form of sluice gates and gravity fed irrigation. Most of these 1000 lakes are man made and they were designed to hold water, some of which were collected after paddy fields were watered and the run off re-directed for further use on a the normal gravity flow principle. It is therefore said that water was used three times or more before it was allowed to flow into the Mahaweli River prior to flowing into the sea near Trincomalee.

Over the past 100 years these ancient tanks have been discovered and restored to their former glory and when the irrigation engineers attempt to build the sluice gates they find the original gates at the same places they are clearing for the new ones. The engineers of the day were quite sophisticated in their techniques to ensure the maximum benefit of available water for agricultural use.

Due to the requirement of feeding a much greater population today, and the need to increase the land under cultivation, the major construction projects of the 20th century, namely the Mahaweli project, have further created a diversion of water direct from the highlands via underground tunnels from Kandy. They feed the large tanks of the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura districts. It is therefore fascinating to see the canals and rivers that bring diverted water to the Parakrama Samudra, Minneriya Tank and Giritale Tank. Any excess water or overflow is passed on to Kaudulla and Kantale Tanks through a series of canals. This ensures there is enough water year round for the additional hundreds of thousands of acres that have now been added, primarily at the expense of cutting virgin forests. It has effectively reduced the wildlife of the area drastically. This is all in the name of development and if this pace is kept, the remaining forest reserves will find it hard pressed to save some species from extinction and others from depletion.

It is worthy to note that there were in excess of 10,000 elephants in the wild in this area alone in 1850 and now the best guess is that there are about 750.

It is still almost a secret when I say there are a thousand lakes in the area. In some instances people living in the adjoining village are unaware there is a small tank over the forested hill separating their village from the next. There are very few people in the country who know much about these lakes and there is little if any documentation in this regard. Many of the small tanks are rain fed and support the local village to plant enough acerage with Rice Paddies to feed the village only, leaving little excess to be sold. Additionally the changing weather patterns have drastically altered the reliability of rains, which in the past had allowed cultivation. This has now resulted in many areas being barren for lack of water. These acts (global warming) have therefore impoverished villages which in the past have been able to be self sustaining. I can present a case where this has worsened their quality of life. This in an era where we are supposed to be raising the standard.

It is therefore unfortunate to note that many have abandoned their villages and migrated to the cities in search of more economically feasible methods of support. The main point to note here is that they have migrated not because they are attracted to the cities and the opportunities per se, but because they have been driven out of their homes by circumstances beyond their control. In that respect they are quasi refugees who can no longer survive the harsh conditons that have taken over their previously tranquil lives.

One must also remember that others have also migrated for better conditions, as in economic migrants the world over, who see an opportunity and grab it. The distinction has to be made about those who are forced to leave and those who leave to improve their lives aka economic migrants who sometimes cross borders permanently or temporarily in search of better opportunities.

In light of this I have decided to take the plunge and go into this environment to determine for myself whether I can by example show a way to revive the destruction of the traditional village. I dont know if I can achieve this objective, but I will be better able to understand the pressures facing these people, many of whose grandparents were settled here by the handover of agricultural land.

Students and researches do these exercises as part of their education, but to me it is a complete life, not supported by grants or trustfunds or other means of livelihood. I have to earn every penny from this venture and make it work so I can live a full life, and not one that is incomplete.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A change in lifestyle

It is very hard to adjust when change is forced on us unexpectedly, be it in the form of a sudden serious illness, a divorce, a death of a loved one or a major change in one's financial circumstances.

We are generally happy to be in our comfort zone, especially because we are fearful of change and what that may mean to our current predictable lives. We are less likely to want change when we are content and at best very happy. However if we do not feel we are progressing in our life goals then if we have the courage, we should try and make that change. Otherwise it is just a matter of living, in a resigned state, one which many people choose, hoping life would get better without making a conscious effort to change the status quo. It is more difficult to make the change when one has a family, a good job and a mortgage to pay and commitments to fulfil.

I was extremely fortunate, which people constantly remind me, that I did not have these commitments, so I was more free to take the plunge. I did not know and still do not know what to expect in the future, but on balance life has been good to me to date considering my starting point and what I have achived to date. I still face the unexpected more than the expected. I still have not settled into a comfort zone in my new life so the journey has only begun, and in reality it has been two and a half years at the end of May 2007.

A journey through space

When one is free of everything, material and mental with no encumberences, one is ready to leave this world in the same spiritual state one entered.

Instead of leaving this world, not that I had any plans to go in that direction, I decided to enter a new world. Hence the title a journey through space, a sense of going out of earth as we know it and entering a state that is very different. I had left the past as much as is practically possible without being a burden on others, and with some apprehension created a new beginning.

The apprehension referred to above was very real as I did not know what it was leading towards as nothing was planned. I had no support at all in the decision I was taking and so it was one taken alone with everything to gain or loose all at my lap and no one to thank or blame.

This is a story,(hope it is not too boring) one that is true and ongoing as it is a life in progress. It records the events as they occur with time delay of days or months as I do not have access to the internet. Here I am neither blessed or cursed with electricity or internet. I have to interact with the modern world so from time to time I can communicate with those who know me and earn a livelihood to meet my expenses.

I have not completely abandoned the past, except that I decided to live a life quite different to what I have hitherto been used to. I approaching this with optimism and enthusiasm. I am aware of the pitfalls ahead and the considerable dangers ahead of me, but a risk like this is more worthy to me than spending money to go skydiving if that is a form of thrill I am willing to pay money for if life does not give rise to greater thrills to explore!