Friday, November 30, 2007

The week that was

A typical view of village Sri Lanka, my neighboring fields taken on Friday 30th November 2007

We are almost in December 2007. Time has really flown. I have had to hold the fort at Raja Ela as Sudath my man Friday there has had to go to his village to sort out a major personal problem as his wife who has just returned from the middle east after four years, does not want to be with him anymore.Her excuse is that he has taken another woman, and I know for a fact that in the past three years he has worked for me there has been no evidence whatsoever of that. So he has made police entries trying to forbid her from going back as the children are with his wife's family, and he at least wants custody of them as he is the only parent in the country, but the wife's family who are dependant on her for their well being want to pack her off at whatever cost so they can live off her and blame him for non existant indiscretions! and use the excuse of taking care of the kids as the reason for her going.Anyway so much for that I can do little to solve his problem excapt that I need him desperately as I have to transplant my paddy next week at the latest and have to prepare my fields. I spent a whole day myself weeding my bandakka beds as otherwise I may not be able to salvage that. So there is an awful lot of work to be done in the fields with not much time left.

I returned to Godagama yesterday with coconuts and rice. For those who know prices here, a coconut now retails for 40/- and the 5 varieties of rice I brought are as follows. My Rosa Kekulu samba that now retails for 60/-kg by Rathu Kekulu Samba which is also 60/- and my par boiled red samba that retails for 65/- a kg.I then brought Sudu Kekulu Samba that retails for 60/- and Sudu Cora Nadu which retails for 55/-. All this amounts to over 60% increase in the space of two months which is unbearable for the majority of this country who survive on three rice meals a day and is very much their staple. Bread of course has gone up more and with a coconut also a staple in the diet for both curries and sambol, I do not know how one lives.

My calorific intake is barely 1000 a day and with my bottle of fresh milk a day I am able to survive on what I grow.

All the fields in Sri Lanka are beautiful now fully planted with rice and I hope there will be a bumper harvest this season so the prices will become more affordable. I did allude somewhere as to one of the reasons for the price increase, and it is shameful how a few can take advantage and get away with such behaviour unpunished. Why not they are government ministers who no one dare criticise.

SK Subasinghe the JVP MP for Polonnaruwa has made the criticism in Parliament, but as they have no clue how business and oligopolies work, don't seem to attack the problem in a solvable way, as his criticism sounds more like sour grapes and jealousy rather than one which can clearly show conflict of interest, and therfore illegal as opposed to just profiteering from opportunism.

Must dash, King Coconut delivery in Colombo on Saturday and then more king coconut searches around Meegoda for Monday delivery. Then Saturday afternoon to Kitulgala, to Paradise Farm, to review operations and this time actually walk around the 90 acre estate to get a better understanding of what is grown and what more can be practically done soon to improve revenue; returning Sunday night.Back to the 7 day treadmill.

three long years and counting! will life get better?

Photo today, three years have made a difference! hasn't it?

Today November 30th 2007 marks the 3rd anniversary of my return to Sri Lanka to live permanently. Those who attended my farewell party at 70 Addison Road, Holland Park in Kensington on Nov 28th 2004 will more than appreciate the contrast in life style. I was living in the most expensive neighborhood in the world per sq ft. where hardly a house sells for less than 10mill pounds, with billionaires, royalty and rock stars for neighbors. I left my job as the country manager in the UK for Dilmah Tea and had given over 6 months notice to that fact, so it was not a sudden or hasty decision.

I had just returned from a road trip in my Jaguar XJ6, a day earlier via Euro tunnel to France, Switzerland and Spain as a final flourish to finish a generation of living in England and the USA since 1971.

The security situation in Sri Lanka with the ongoing civil war was never an issue with my decision to return. All the years away since 1971 Sri Lanka has been beset with war first with JVP then with the LTTE. I just wanted to live a life that was as far different to what I was used to so I could both appreciate how the majority of Sri Lankans live and if there was anything I could learn from that, I would only benefit. I have yet to achieve a balance and the work is not finished. What I have is a unique insight into life that few have the privilege of knowing and I expect to write something about this in my perspective. I have a level of knowledge of some ground realities that either politicians or people in better circumstances don’t appreciate.

Also remember that barely three weeks into my arrival the December 26th 2004 Tsunami, the worst natural disaster ever to hit Sri Lanka, occurred.

Today I just returned from a week at my now usual residence, Kumbuk Thuduwa in the village of Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda in the Polonnaruwa district. The property was bought for $6000 and the house both living quarters and kitchen built for less than $2000. I don’t have electricity or plumbing, but somehow manage to attain a level of satisfaction I have not found anywhere.

My current account balance is only Rs500 and my savings account balance is just Rs250,
with nothing in overseas accounts and no investments or deposits of any sort. However I have to work 7days a week, to grow food in two locations, buy food from neighbors, then transport them carefully and sell them both in my shop in Godagama, Meegoda and at homes and small fruit shops in Colombo. This enterprise cannot be carried out alone, and I have to pay wages to 12 people, which means that 35 mouths are fed as a result of what I do, sadly I cannot measure the quantity of moonshine consumed from this payroll due to the very high level of alcoholism here including my workforce.

I am down to a weight I wished to achieve of 11 stone, the lowest I have been in over 20 years. However this is probably more due to parsimonious eating habits and manual work, rather than being on a diet. I generally eat only what I produce, and hence hardly ever have any type of meat, sodas, or ice creams, cakes and junk foods, all of which I used to live on in my past life. This has not been easy at all, and I would be lying if I said I don’t long for that, and especially Japanese food, namely Sushi which I used to eat often. Arguably that is the most expensive food in Sri Lanka, and have been fortunate to be invited out for a few of such meals.

I have never worked harder in my life for so little, meaning, I have not had the luxury of earning anything for myself personally as yet. I know that human beings are adaptable and can make adjustments in lifestyle to suit circumstances. What I had not bargained for was the level of unpredictability of harvest and sales due to the weather factor. I feel I have had to face all the problems one could imagine. I have had cows die due to unusual illnesses, I have hundreds of banana trees fall due to excess rain, I have had my coconut and king coconut trees go into an annual hibernation period, I have had loads of vegetable beds constantly dying of disease, before any yield, other vegetables infested with worms, as I don’t usually put pesticides and weedicides. To add to the woes almost 5 months of continuous rains in Colombo affected the sales of King Coconuts, my main crop, not consumed by Sri Lankans in wet weather.

Most of all I had not countered on the fact that the workers on the farm in Godagama were so unproductive, partly as a result of years working for my father, who had not run the establishment as a viable venture. I have singularly failed to change their habits and only staff I have recruited since my return carrying the extra load. It is almost impossible to get rid of this staff, waiting instead till they melt away!!!

I have had to rely on my workhorse vehicle, my only means of transport, the Tata truck with a one ton capacity for all my daily activities. I have purchased it on a four year lease, and therefore there is a further year of payments, but the problems I have had with this vehicle have also lead to high repair costs, and bear in mind it has done over 90K kilometers in the past three years. It does not have air conditioning or even a radio let alone a CD player.

On a positive side, I have built a large water tank with over 100 cu ft and a unique shop in the farm in Godagama. I have built the basic infrastructure at my main home in Raja Ela, which is still a work in progress, with a bathroom planned for next year. I have also built a unique forest lodge on the borders of a National Park, is about 4 months and about $5,000 away from completion if I can raise the funds, which is an ideal place to base oneself if watching and studying elephants is one object or total relaxation in the middle of the jungle is another. See the web site www, for information on that property. All this therefore has kept me very busy. The construction costs in Sri Lanka are going up so fast that I am glad I have completed the bulk of my construction activity.

Especially considering the miniscule investment I began this venture with,, I have achieved a miracle. It has essentially been achieved, by my living on air and nothing else, working very hard with little time to relax has been quite a sacrifice and has been worth it.

On the down side, on a more personal level, by living a poor peasant’s life I was hopeful of meeting a soul mate to share my life, and have singularly failed in that regard. There have been a few near misses, which looking back have been blessings in disguise. I am of course ever hopeful of getting lucky at some point though I don’t know, when that will be!!!

I have not yet achieved break even status, and in order to fill the shortfall in my cash flow, I have had to do a supplementary job as an advisor on farming and financial matters, at an Organic farm in Kitulgala and find export markets for their unique organic green tea. I am also looking into the feasibility of establishing an export processing establishment for the export of fresh fruit pulp to customers in Europe.

In conclusion my initial goal of living only a peasants life in Polonnaruwa was not achieved, though I think I would have been happier at that, as I would probably have had a better quality of life with much less stress than now. The main stress I have is the management of people, a very Sri Lankan problem. However the fact that my efforts keep 35 mouths fed, with mine having the least to eat! Is still an achievement in itself. If I have laid the foundation for growth of the business, whereby I can run this operation on auto pilot and still achieve my desired goal, albeit a few years later than anticipated that would then be all worthwhile. I am in the unique position of having a ready market but my problem is the lack of supply, most entrepreneurs have the product but not the market.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kiri Amma Dana

When I arrived home at midnight after another hectic day on 20th November, frantic preparations were under way in the kitchen and the newly put up firewood kitchen outside the main house on my farm in Godagama.Firewood kitchen put up during the day will kept till it falls down! so I can continue to cook with firewood as the price of a shell gas cylinder has now jumped to Rs 1313. People who know about the gas cylinder cooking will be amazed when I say my last one lasted 5 months, when my sisters house hold uses more than two a month. Anyway it goes to show how rarely I cook or more correctly proof of how rarely I actually eat. I am now down to my target weight of 154lbs I was brought up on labs so I dont know how many kilos that is, but more to the point I am at my lowest weight in over 20 years.

I digress!! the preparations were for the Kiri Amma dana ( almsgiving ) Those cooking were Menika, Caroline, Anula, Seetha and Nadeesha.I was so tired, my room is opposite the kitchen, I fell asleep while the all night cooking was going on, and was woken up at 4.30am on Wednesday to partake in the proceedings.

This dana is given for all sorts of reasons like warding off evil spirits and driving out curses and runs of bad luck etc. My cattle herd has had numerous problems for a few years, and we had a dana last year too. This dana was held for blessing our cattle herd and wishing we will have a prosperous enterprise with a good milk yeild. In the last month we lost our oldest cow, the grand mother of my herd, one of my staff who broought it claims it was over 30 years of age and he went with my father to bring it from some place. Most of my herd are her grand kids and great grand kids. We artificially inseminate all the females with sperm provided by the government vet who always claims it is from the best stock from New Zealand, but I have my doubts bearing in mind the lousy milk production!

Anyway I lost a calf the other day, a day another new calf was born. To cut a long story short, we reserve two coconut trees for this event.We don't sell the coconuts from this tree and instead dry the coconuts and get oil from it to light the lamps for the dana and to make all the food preparations. I was told that after the dana we may sell the coconuts once again. What a relief as I am having a bad time with very few coconuts on the trees at this time of year and the coconut prices in Sri Lanka reflecting this shortage at a high of 35 to 40 rupees for our large ones.

All the food for the dana was made from my produce, except for the sugar and cashews used in some of the rasa kavili, the kiriya I think it was. The kiri bath or milk rice was my rosa kekulu samba grown by me in Polonnaruwa, the kavum was with my rice flour and my coconut oil.The ambul kehel was also mine.

Once all the food preparation is made all very fresh, they are ready to receive the kiri ammas. I dont know what it takes to be a kiri amma, but I will find out and let you know next time. I think you have to be a mother of a certain age and have your credits at the temple!! to make you worthy of conducting such a ceremony and partaking in it.

Amila went in the cab and picked them up at around 4.30 as all this ceremony is performed before sun up.It was all performed in my dining room, cleared of all the furniture.

The pictures above will show the stages. There were seven ladies all dressed in white cloth in a fashion of taking sill at the temple on poya days.First they are seated in a row along the wall on mats. Then a large banana leaf is placed in front of them and the various items of food are laid on the banana leaf by the ladies who cooked the meal.There was the kiri bath, then the kiriya, then the kavum and finally the kehel. All this can be seen in the photos.Then a parcel wrapped in a brown paper bag was put in it was a washing soap and a body soap. Also panduru (offering) of 2/- coin was also placed on the leaf. Then the coconut oil lamps are lit and all the staff of the farm and me included, kneel on a mat and the pirith chanting takes place for a while. All the pirith is chanted by memory and it seemed all of them knew their lines. This went on for at least half hour.

Then once that is over, they get up and are given a pahan thira dippd in coconut oil, which is then lit, which they hold and pray for all good things to remain and all bad things to be extiguished and then in a flash put the flame out into a bowl of water.

After that the head who performed the main ceremony, blesses us with coconut oil rubbed on to our foreheads and the proceedings conclude with all the food and items given wrapped into a bag and given them to take home, just as dawn breaks.

It was interesting that this was on Wednesday morning and on Thursday my father had arranged for a cow to be brought from up country namely Hatton, which was a 18 bottler that immediately doubled my milk yield.

Sadly as he always puts the cart before the horse, I have to find double the food to feed this animal at a time I am finding difficulty feeding the existing ones.My plan was to tackle my herd as the final of my development plan as the building needs to be extensively renovated, and my father oblivious to the practical side of taking care of animals is now demanding that all the unproductive ones are disposed of at any cost to make way for the productive one.This like bringing the airconditioner before the electricity is connected and then expecting it to cool the room immediately.

I still had not found an external market for all my existing milk, so finding the market for this extra will be an added issue to contend with, when my immediate problem is how to meet payroll on Sunday 25th November which is pay day and tomorrow Saturday, a poya day holiday. Saturday is a day I depend on for the best income for the week from the farm shop which under normal circumstances would have given enough to meet the current shortfall reqd. for the payroll.

So this is this week's excitement.Actually I spent the whole day Thursday, visiting a tea and rubber estate in the Ratnapura district that is making compost, to partially substitute high cost chemical fertizer in the tea plantations, and Friday was spent selling my King Coconuts, where demand was less than expected owing to tomorrow poya holiday when all the shops I sell to are closed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

finally a tractor

Loading the tractor on the back of my pick up for the maiden ride home! Actually it is a 12 horsepower Jinasena Tractor under the Agrimec brand name and is made in China. THe cost new with the discount was Rs154K or about $1350. It can plough quickly as one sits on it and drives it and the rear wheel spins controlled by the feet. Of course the ultimate would be to have a trailer to hook it to so I can haul the various from A to B but that is for another time. Of course this is all on borrowed money!! that has to be repaid!!

I drove to Polonnaruwa on my own on Thursday November 15th after delivering my weekly King Coconuts to the Golf Club in Colombo and the usual assortment of kades along the way.I dropped my report on the account of my visit to Paradise Farm in Kitulgala the previous day, to the owner of the 90 Acre farm on my way back to my farm. Getting off to an early start on Friday I went with three to the Jinasena office and with their manager went to Welikanda to pick up the tractor. We had it working shortly on arrival and the next day, started ploughing my paddy field ready for my paddy nursery sown later on that day. After the first ploughing of a few fields, as tradition would have it a crowd of boys took the tractor to the Minneriya Devale to get it blessed by the Minneriya deviyo on the bund of the massive Minneriya tank that supplies the water to my paddy field. I guess that is apt in that it is this water that feeds my soil.King Mahasen built this tank a long time ago and is the lifeline of the farmers in my area, I don't know how many acres are fed by this but I would hazaerd a guess and say at least 100,000.

Of course I am the only person who has this hood at the moment as I lucked out on seeing it at the dealer who had got the first ever trial sample which I bought and now the driver is screened from the sun. As a result a lot of heads turned at seeing this tractor with a sun shade!!!

I got back on Sunday with my weekly produce, and I also had to climb the mango tree to pluck the mangoes as my man had to go home urgently on Friday as his wife had come from a 4 year stint as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. That is another story about the outcome of that visit!!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Kitchen Party people photos

The older crowd!! with young Ranga

The lads who are always together supporting each other in work and play

Her parents are looking for a husband for her and she is very choosy!!

The two ladies who did most of the cooking

Corn on the cob

I have mentioned earlier the problems I have with my customers in selling corn on the cob. Well I decided this time to try another method, by selling locally to the local shop that boils this and serves it to people to eat on the way. So we are all after plucking the corn, cleaning it so any that are attacked by pests are separated and dried and sold as corn seed to be cooked or made into poultry food and the good ones sold to the shop for boiling and serving.

Jumbo Peanuts

One of my farmer friends a few doors away planted some jumbo peanuts and I got a few Kilos to eat and to keep to grow at the right time of year. He obtained 135 rupees a kilo for them after drying with the shell. We cooked them by frying in a pan with sand not oil, this ensures an even temperature without the shell burning. Once sufficiently heated we de shell it and voila the scrumptous peanuts no money can buy. See the plate I gobbled down a few days ago. I have never tasted better peanuts!!

This is my single largest source of income

Selling King Coconuts is my largest revenue source at the moment. I brought 700 King Coconuts today to Colombo and the Golf Club bought 300 the balance are sold like in the photo which shows Amila setting some bunches at the shop opposite the Colombo University Campus on Reid Avenue earlier today, Saturday the 10th.

Another angle of the kitchen lit with a generator


Hope this says it all a couple of photos of the dinner at the kitchen opening with those who helped build it many of them vlunteers!!!
one photo is from one end of the table and the other from the other end. The tall green plastic glass is mine with king coconut water, the real glasses are the others who were served beer! We worked it out we can seat 13 comfortably at the table including me at the head.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


My old kitchen

I go tomorrow to my place in Polonnaruwa after a whole day of selling in Colombo. We leave usually around 9pm arriving in Polonnaruwa about 2am if we have a rain free run. As you may know we have been cooking out in the open on wood fires for want of a kitchen. I have finally built a kitchen where we can actually cook without getting wet and where we even have a sink with running water. In fact I have gone from no kitchen to having the largest kitchen in the neighborhood, and with plumbing to boot. Of course the shramadana from the neighbours in pooling their resources helped maybe because they are expecting this to be the village kitchen!! not just mine! Yes I still don't have electricity but that is for the future!

It was built at lower cost than most kitchens in the neighborhood as it is built with a coconut cadjan roof and devoid of walls, open on all sides with the roof being held up by pillars made of plastic piping filled with concrete. I will post photos of the new facility when I get back, as I expect to be there till Friday night.

Hey you avid readers!!!! interact will you!!!!

From the various chats I have with people, I am beginning to discover that the circle of people reading my blog is widening and I am pleased with their reaction as many find some of the snippets interesting to read. However very few are willing to make the odd comment either for fear of offending me or worried that someone else reading their comments will think them an ace durrrrr!!!

Don't worry you lovely people all over the world give me some inspiration and if you are worried at being found out just leave them as anonymous comments. That is better than no comment.

While I seem to have an interesting life it is the hardest job I have ever had to endure like being on a treadmill working all the hours that God gives, not even to put food on my table, but to put food on every body else's table. Some encouragement will be nice.

Give the French a cheer

My friend Morgan, had her christening for her son Fragan a little while ago today at the St Lucia's cathedral officiated by a French priest Fr Dion a fairly elderly man. There were in attendence both Morgan's parents and her husband Amory's sister and family. Sri Lankans still accounted for at least 50% of the 40 or so gathered at the church. Tamzyn your absence was felt and I stood in for you!!!

It is interesting to note that she got her wish to live in Sri Lanka as her husband has developed a new business in buying and exporting organic foods to supermarkets and stores in France.

I have been invited later today to have dinner with them at the Galle Face Hotel, but I cannot drive my pick up(Tata Cab) as it is considered a lorry and a security threat, I have to find alternative means of transport leaving the pick up outside the zone. Who said even an evening out in Colombo for a farmer from the outskirts is easy to attend!!!