Tuesday, December 16, 2008

mango season is in full swing

I am typing this in the dark, but for a safety kerosene lamp. There is a small fire burning in front of me with margosa leaves (kohomba)to prevent mosquitoes in the verandah that is my living, dining, study and bedroom. For those who know it is open on three sides so the trees around can be seen along with the bird and animal life that inhabits the space outside. This morning a male paradise flycatcher flew across through the interior of the verandah, while I was watching it and its mate flittering around, as they don’t stay in one place for more than a few seconds. These events cannot be choreographed and can only be enjoyed when it happens. It reminds me then that all I have left behind amounts to a hill of beans when compared to this. I digress from what I was about to say, of the latest serendipitous event.

My customers ask me for mangos, as the ones from this area are particularly sweet. This harvest may be less sweet due to the recent rains, which may compromise taste. I asked a boy over the phone if he knew where I could get some mangos in the neighborhood, and his father had overheard the conversation, and told him that his cousin two doors from him had a tree full of Villard that was mature for plucking. It was a tree he used to climb as a boy so it is at least 40 years old. He said he would speak to the cousin about my taking all the mangos and I took my two guys from Raja Ela to Ratmale.

Today is a Poya day and my guys were reluctant to spray the preemergent herbicide on the young paddy plants on a Poya in case insects would be killed, so they were free to come. We took the special gadget we use to pluck the mango and a whole lot of plastic crates to put them in.

When we saw the tree at Tilekeratne’s back yard in Ratmale, not too far from my Kumbuk Pokuna Lodge, it was obvious some invisible hand brought us there today. We got there in the morning, and bar lunch, which was provided by the man who found the mango tree for us, spent the whole day plucking. If one just looks at a tree, it is difficult to gauge how many there are and they were all mature. We filled all our crates with mango and the mango that fell on the ground were not included, and latter amounting to 250 were given to the owner of the tree for himself. The reason is when some of them ripen they are spoilt on one side from the fall. The bruising that occurs cannot be seen when the fruit is only mature. I did not want to risk mixing them and Tilekeratne was pleased with the added bonus for him.

One other point to note is that other people who come looking for mango to pluck, usually are not as selective as us and they just shake the branches so the mango falls, and they then collect them so that when they spray it with carbide to hasten the ripening, the bruising is hidden, but the fruit is not as tasty and spoils after sale. I will sell as is or wait till they ripen in a few days. I have to additionally prevent an insect from spoiling the fruit, by covering the mango, as this pest pierces the fruit and lays its eggs that become worms in the ripe mango. This post harvest preservation is also important to get the maximum quality fruit to ones customers.

I got 1750 mango from this tree (the most I have ever had plucked from one tree at one time in my experience) which with the owner’s bounty yielded 2000 today and there were at least another 200 left on the tree which we could not pluck as our wooden plucking net was not long enough to reach. I would also like to note that climbing a mango tree to pick the mango is pretty dangerous work, and I am lucky to have a person who can do that, as most mangos are not as carefully plucked, but just shaken to the ground. These old trees that are not the budded varieties of today, and are very large and difficult to climb as some branches are dead and will break on a person stepping on it.

I was wondering what I could give my faithful customers as a Christmas gift, and now I have the perfect thing, namely, a seriously generous amount of mango as I cant keep them for long and even though I know I can sell them all for a good profit, I will be happy to give half and sell the other half as I will still make a good profit out of this transaction which will then go to meet the wage bill that falls due on Christmas day. It is something I have been worrying myself as to how I would meet as my other products like milk are in short supply, resulting in a serious shortfall in revenue. I somehow don’t feel that generous towards some of my staff, who contributed to making this year worse than I could have imagined.

Now for the curious who want to know how much I paid for the mango, it was Rs3 each and another rupee for the cost of the labor for a days plucking, not counting my effort in individual washing and transporting to Godagama farm for sale in the shop at an average price of Rs15. One also must bear in mind wastage from spoilage prior to sale of about 20%

At the end of a tiring day, I had my bath from the water tank, and decided to skip dinner and instead write about the ‘serendipitous event’.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four years since my arrival in Sri Lanka on Nov 29. 2004

My enterprise, now directly feeds 35 people when one includes, spouses and dependents, and in this period there have been a natural increase of 6 due to marriages and births. That is all I can claim as my contribution as well as the fact that I produce food that contributes something to the nation’s hunger and thirst. Personally, except for the pride in the job, there has been absolutely no financial benefit, despite an incredible amount of sacrifice on my part to this venture. I never for a moment thought it would be this bad.

I will leave to a separate section, all the observations I have made during this period as well as the lessons I have learned about human behavior and the illogical thought processes that lead to such actions, all adding to low productivity and high costs of production.

This past year has been the toughest of the four as like Murphy’s law, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. The whole year has been one of surviving day to day, living and running the whole enterprise on a meager cash flow. While the year began on an optimistic note as seen in an earlier blog entry at the new year it just went from bad to worse, with the weather being the largest contributory factor, but others such as loss of crop to animals and pests of all sorts, deaths of good milking cows, and unexpected repairs and expenses, with the final straw being a ridiculous demand for backdated social security claim for non deduction of payroll taxes in prior years.

I wish I can say there is a silver lining, but at the moment I cannot foresee one with things expected to get worse before it gets better and the hope for better weather conditions, being my only hope, where a extremely wet year can be followed by a very dry one. Having given up any hope of being able to get more out of the employees I have, I have a very limited hand of cards to play with, and the trick will be to play poker and bluff my way through to get the better of them without them knowing it.

I am struggling four years on with the same original problem, namely with a lack of supply, when I still have the demand. My only option to plug this gap is to outsource supply, and try and find funds to provide working capital to finance this, while cutting down on the staff subtly to reduce the heavy cost of employment. Piece-work may be an avenue to follow and contract out the work. Finally I will have to supplement my income to stay alive.

Another curse in 2008 how much more is still awaiting?

You may have noticed that long before the international financial crisis took hold of the world, I have suffered from my own business crisis since the beginning of the year, firstly arising out of the weather, but latterly a myriad of other human resource and animal destruction related losses. Added to all this I had to meet with an official in the Labor Department in Colombo, today, to discuss how best I can resolve a demand for back dated social security deductions and penalties for two employees, one a house maid.

While the law should apply equally to everyone, wealthy Colombo households do not have to make payments on behalf of their many employees, but in a small, struggling and uneconomical agricultural farm, I have to make these payments for my few employees, irrespective of what they do. I know of some garment factories that recently shut, with no notice not even paying the wages of staff, let alone paying over the deductions for years, from their employees for EPF ETF. (social security)

No relief was given to me in this regard, with the assumption that the laws that apply to the large plantations, where the home help of the manager is also included in the liability for payroll taxes, also applies to my small farm.

I cant afford to fire my staff, as I have obligations to pay on dismissal, neither can I afford to employ them, and now I am even further burdened by the state regulations imposing the same level of taxes that a large establishment has to pay for its employees. I have been paying, these taxes all along, but the back-dating and harsh penalty for prior arrears, is something that cannot be paid without resort to borrowing funds. I may have to just tell my staff to work only half days to temporarily resolve this problem. I cannot see a practical way of carrying the burden of unproductive employees, who despite all the incentives, and encouragement have failed to be more productive. Sri Lankan labor laws are just too draconian.

The passive aggressive behavior of people who have been treated too well in the past, not willing to improve productivity, and who just do not follow instructions is a classic way of agricultural employees showing their dissent. It is something that has led most people in my situation to give up and sell their properties for development land and thus reduce further the land available for cultivation and add to the woes of the agricultural sector. I don’t see a solution to this intractable problem if the state goes after us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An update - now preparing fields for sowing the paddy/rice

Up to my knees in mud trying to assist the professionals in their task of preparing the paddy fields for the new season, I am worried about surviving the day without cuts and bruises on my feet. Interestingly this is not something that seems to bother the local people as they almost always walk barefoot, except when they go out dressed up to town or temple. Therefore their feet are tough and can withstand all sorts of hidden obstacles. Wearing boots in a paddy field is just not possible, as one can barely walk due to the mud the boots get stuck in and the feet just come out as no amount of effort will get it out. Other sorts of shoes cannot bear the wear and tear either, and I have always wondered how primitive our farming techniques still are.

The type of fields does not lend themselves to the large tractors that are driven or even with the two-wheeled tractor I have that one can sit on, we have had to remove the seat and instead walk with it to handle the peculiar conditions of our fields. In Sri Lanka water is used to till the soil and suffocate the weeds and as I have noted earlier in numerous places, the non use of large tractors does not allow deep ploughing to really turn over the soil to bring up some of the hidden nutrients up to the surface, as even some of the chemical fertilizers seep down below the root line of the paddy plant never to be of use to any other crop if deep ploughing is not undertaken.

I have tried this season to deep plough as much of my fields, I am the only one doing this. Only time will tell if that has paid off. The costs also are higher as it is an additional round of ploughing than is done normally.

I picked up my subsidized fertilizer from the government stores yesterday at less than 8% of the market price, which I have noted earlier, is not an incentive to conserve and carefully apply. It is only given for a maximum of 5 acres per farmer. I have also pointed out earlier that it is more profitable for me to sell the fertilizer than go thorough the whole planting process and make a profit as I am using paid labor and not working the land just by myself. One must also note that the world market price of this fertilizer that has come all the way from the UAE and CIS countries, have halved since the state purchased this stock a few months back.

A few days are required for all the weeds to rot in the water. This will also kill as many weed seeds as possible. We then flatten the soil (poru gahanawa) before sowing the seed without a nursery and transplanting

A new property adjacent to mine in Hingurakgoda

My sister purchased a property almost adjacent to mine, recently, upon my recommendation. It is well worth what was paid, and the sellers are already regretting the sale as they can now see what little they can purchase with the sale proceeds they received. Like mine it was partially abandoned by the owner, as his wife did not want to live there. I will help farm the property and try and ensure there is no added expense on her part for ownership.

Along with mine, I am preparing the land for the imminent sowing of paddy, and in contrast to mine where there is such a shortage of water as I am the last in my canal to receive water, hers is nearer the front of her canal and so there is no shortage, and due to the lay of her land and soil, her allocation is much more than she needs. This therefore is a fundamental flaw in the water allocation system, as there needs to be a needs assessment, based on the way the land is farmed to determine the water allocation based on the size of the property and some allowance given for available moisture and type of soil if that is possible.

I have had to put life and limb at stake to get water to save my paddy, and if this example is one to go by there must be numerous occasions where the allocation of water is not fair. So it is not a question of inadequate water for all who want to farm, but a more sensible and frequent analysis of water needs should be done. Many properties that have been converted to homesteads from farms still receive the same water allocation previously given, and that too should be adjusted down.

This property consists of about 2 acres of paddy fields and 2 acres of coconut, interspersed with various fruit trees. There are a number of teak trees along the property line and like mine has a river running alongside one of its boundaries giving rise to a further acre of reservation land.

Her property has a small house with electricity whereas I had neither, when I purchased mine and still have no electricity. The even more surprising fact is that there is a well, where the water is almost at the surface of the ground. It is surely a spring as it apparently is like that even in the driest of years. There is a lot of potential for the property which can be developed as a holiday place for the family, and a great way for the kids to learn and see what it is really like in a far off village as they are currently very isolated from this life, living in Colombo.

Boulder Garden Hotel in Kalawana

A cousin who works in Cambodia came for a week’s vacation last week. I went with him and his brother on a short trip over three days. He wanted to come to Polonnaruwa, but the distance and the shortness of the visit, I felt was not productive, especially as the intermittent rains were also a factor.

We went instead to Kalawana booking at the Boulder Garden. We were told the place was full bar a room. In fact it was more likely that of the 8 rooms, 6 were undergoing renovation, and so only one room was taken. Such is the truthometer of Sri Lankan hotel parlance. It was Poya day, and so there did not appear to be a manager whom we could chat with and get a grasp of activities, and we had to rely on the staff to help us out with the needful.

Just to get an idea of the location, we wanted to go on a walking tour up the hill, and being warned of leeches, the Cambodian decided to quit then and there and the other cousin clad in leech proof socks decided to come with me. His sneakers had a better grip than my rubber slippers, without socks, and the climb on and into cave-like boulders was quite tricky. The one incontrovertible truth at that point was it was truly a Boulder Garden.

There was one point we climbed up on top of a boulder to see the view and was pointed to smoke rising from a tea factory Cecilian which produced some of the best low grown teas in the country, and which continued to pay it suppliers a good price for tea in this climate where other factories have closed due to lack of sales of their teas at the auction. We were glad to hear and reported this to a relative who is one of the owners of the enterprise.

On our return, the descent being more dangerous than the ascent, I had over ten leeches on my feet ready to climb higher while even the cousin with the socks had a similar amount stuck on the outside of the socks that were removed, He was unscathed with his first encounter with them and I was unscathed with my umpteenth encounter, preferring to think about its blood thinning properties, and got my natural dose of Heparin to last me a while!

We then bathed in the pool that filled up from fresh water from the hills and was constantly refreshed and the when one looked up there were overhanging trees all around with monkeys and birds. The draw-back was the leaves that fell into the water, but the pool vacuum was absent, and an infrequent extraction of leaves seem to the order of the day.
What beat the pool and surroundings was the adjacent dining room completely covered by a boulder, which was the effective roof and ceiling. Without these two features the place would amount to a hill of beans! The water-scapes around the dining room need a complete overhaul to make it attractive as they just looked more like mosquito breeding grounds. Good uplighting would have made the night scene much more stunning framing the room with the tall trees. The seven course meal was excellent, including a mid course sorbet before the main course of fish in batter or gammon steak with vegetables. The menu cards were printed with the guest name, an unusual touch, but the paper it was typed on looked expensive and imported. A native alternative elephant dung paper would have been more appropriate.

I was very disappointed first with the interior walls of the rooms. In keeping with the surroundings, the rock walls were left unplastered, it made the rooms very dark and also very moist. This meant that a noisy extractor fan had to be used to extract the moist air, which together with a constantly active dehumidifier kept the place from the smells associated with moisture and damp, to say nothing of what it would do health. If the walls were waterproofed and then plastered would this problem occur? It is not necessary to keep the exterior and interior looking alike as far as walls are concerned even in such a location. The result was that the rooms are dark and dingy and the available light not powerful enough and certainly not eco friendly in the sense lights have to be kept on all the time. The TV had just two channels while the neighboring house had Dialog TV! It would have been better not to have a TV.

I believe all the black rock used to build the rooms are too oppressive and forbidding. The flat ceiling and roof, is a recipe for moisture and leakage as there were bugs attached to the ceiling because of its moistness. I believe it would be a maintenance nightmare to keep the property in a condition warranting the charges for the place. When a property has one overriding point of difference the secret is to enhance that while providing the other facilities to complement and not match as seems to have been the case.

How does one market a property while saying leeches are everywhere? Those who find leeches repulsive will not enjoy even a few hours in such a place. One other mistake we made was make the journey by car to Rakwana to get to the main road. Though the distance was a mere 25km it took us the best part of 3 hours as the road was so bad. We did not make it to Sinharaja as the leech idea was a non-starter to enter the rainforest!

Coral Gardens and Hikkaduwa a day out

The journey from Rakwana first to Deniyaya on the famous Hayes Lauderdale road with hairpins was memorable owing to the scenery. However the journeymen tired from the earlier leg could not enjoy it. This road though an A road is little more than an estate road, which it was in times gone by. Most of the estates on this road are part of Matugama Plantations. We had rice and curry lunch in the still old fashioned Deniyaya Rest House, a relic from the past with the one person, Rest House keeper satisfying all our needs. The fresh tea was great to wash off lunch.

It was dark once we made the trek first to Galle and then on to Hikkaduwa and checked in at the almost empty save a wedding banquet old Coral Gardens Hotel. I remember the place even before the hotel was built, but the location is worth the stay even though the hotel is pretty dated, without a Del Coranado type design worthy of restoring. Anyone can purchase this place with over 100 rooms for an offer between $2.5 and $3M, but the cost of tearing it down and rebuilding may not even entice one at that price.

We had dinner at the pricey Refresh Restaurant further along the beach, and the following day were charged Rs800 for a half hour trip on the glass bottomed boat to see the fish corals and the sea turtles almost at the shore. One felt ill in the tilting boat and got off, while the other put on a pair of goggles and surveyed the underwater life, along with the humongous turtle quite unperturbed by the activity around him.

Lunch at the Dolphin Restaurant painted in mauves. blues and pinks, was on the sand itself. They had built a structure with tall wooden pillars, 8 in all supporting a roof of coconut rafters so the wind blew right through, and no fans were required and no flies were able to withstand the breeze. It was a very pleasant place to have a simple meal. We left for Colombo soon after making the traffic filled journey back in time for a family birthday dinner.

I note here the cost of the lunch and the menu for those curious about what is available. No credit cards accepted, so all the Sri Lanka cash we had was needed, in addition to US$10 to complete the payment for the meal for 3. A pot of Cinnamon Tea 190/-; A tall glass of Iced Coffee 140/-; Crab Soup 250/-;Fish Soup240/-;Fresh Seer Steak Grilled with Chips and Salad 480/-;Seer as before with Mash and Salad 550/-; Grilled Calamari Chips and Salad 500/-; 2 cokes for 160/- and a 10% service charge on the total.

A surprising and irregular diet

What I am about to write about may surprise my regular readers and shock those who read this for the first time. Though I am in a rural farming set-up, I personally have a very poor diet and a spartan and irregular one at that. For many Sri Lankans living overseas who salivate at the thought of the delicacies available here, I am not one so fortunate living in rural SL!

It is nearly 4 years since I returned after a lifetime overseas, primarily in the US and UK. I am 35lbs lighter than on my return. I feel generally healthy and have only had a couple of flus since and not the mosquito borne diseases of chickengunya and dengue which most people I know here have contracted.

I did not grow up on rice and curry and I did not live in a SL household, The British boarding school food of baked beans on toast, or oily fried egg and fried bread was what I knew and mash made from smash! Therefore a good soup and bread is a delicacy, and bland food with a sauce is a preferred choice.

My dinner under kerosene safety lamp light last night in Hingurakgoda was, a plain salad of cucumber, tomato, garlic and large onions, and kurakkan flour noodles(red) a poor substitute for fettuccine or penne pasta that I like, garnished with a tasty home made ketchup, from the unsellable tomato, and a salad dressing made from Virgin Olive oil and salt and pepper. The Olive oil was courtesy of a maid who now works in Cyprus, who sent me a can to last me a while. This was washed down with fresh King Coconut.

I never got used to eating curry as I always thought the vegetables are overcooked. Even the regular chopped mallun is avoided, because I don’t like the fresh coconut mixed with it. I prefer the lightly chopped raw leaves of passion fruit or gus nivithi or gotukola from the garden, which no one eats here in this form. I also don’t eat much in the way of fruit except in fruit salad form when left overs from the shop are used due to some flaw in the fruit which customers avoid. Some of this fruit is also used for fresh juice.

After making my own basmati rice my way with butter and crust in the bottom of the pan in Iranian style, something that is not available here (Shamshiri rice in Westwood, CA) the parboiled rice is not my scene. Here in the village I eat what my staff eat and so rice is just to avoid hunger.
One should bear in mind that subsistence farmers, usually reserve the best produce for his customers and only consumes what he cannot sell so that holds true for me also. I don’t feel deprived, trust me, a sale is money!

I don’t have home help, so I intermittently get the odd dish cooked for me in a manner of my preference, the most recent being, fresh sprats, the cheapest fish in the shop that day, battered with bread-crumbs and flour, which was simply delightful. This was done as there was another person for dinner and I wanted to give him something tasty. That days price was Rs 120/- for 500g. My lifestyle is one on the go so meals are grabbed in different locations in a day if I am lucky. Trust me I am working towards regularity.

In a strange way I cannot remember when I had a regular 3 meal day and that may have been decades ago at boarding school. This is in complete contrast to all my staff who must have their regular 3 meals as otherwise they cannot function. It is no myth I know as I have to make allowances always for their meal times even if I am skipping a meal in the interests of my livelihood.

I drink plenty of Fresh Ceylon Tea with excellent water and fresh milk from my cows. Even 6 star hotels in Sri Lanka do not offer that, something I will cover in another one of my tirades about the SL hospitality sector. I also drink the best Organic Green Tea in the world from the tea factory that produces the smallest quantity of tea, More about that story another time.

I am not complaining here about my lot, just giving a reader the basic facts of my diet and he can make whatever conclusion he wants. I am however fortunate from time to time to be invited out to eat at a fancy restaurant or a party, like last Friday, for my Aunt’s birthday, where the food at her home was delightful and I ate much not knowing from whence my next meal would come.

It is true to say that I never think of food though I really enjoy eating food I like, though moments later I can never remember what it is I ate! I love a fresh spaghetti bolognaise or a good selection of sushi. A tasty bread pudding or caramel for dessert is certainly something to savor.

In conclusion the reason for my loss of weight is not due to exercise, healthy eating or careful diet. It is simply out of not knowing when my next meal will be, what it will comprise, who will prepare or provide it. That’s life!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Village innuendo Sinhala style

When I embarked on this venture to go into two villages in the Polonnaruwa district to build a life for myself, I was very naive as to the social fabric of a village having never lived in one. I have been confronted by many surprises that appear normal for those living there.

One village Raja Ela in Hingurakgoda, where my agricultural land is, was a thick forest a hundred years ago, inhabited by elephants. It was subsequently cleared and colonists from all over the country were settled, whose grand children now live in plots of land as small as 20 perches to a maximum of 5 acres. Excluding the paddy land that is primarily intact, all the other land given for agricultural use is barely cultivated, except for some coconut areas.

The second village Ratmale, in Minneriya, is a Purana Gama, that existed prior to colonization schemes, where 80% of inhabitants claim kinship. I intend to live there once my small one roomed home is finished, which I hope to share with visitors to the area curious to see a fast disappearing way of life. This village, which is only 4km from the Kaudulla National Park entrance, consists of farmers who are increasingly looking for other income.

Due to my necessity to work 7 days a week to earn a living to develop these properties, I have had to resort to employing people to take care of and farm and develop the properties. The first lesson I learnt is not to use local people to take care of the land, as they are most unreliable, working their own properties, while drawing a wage from me, and walking away with produce from my land taking advantage of my inability to oversea their work. Worse, the daily wage expected is Rs600/-, which is the standard wage in the area for casual labor. This is high where an agricultural return is difficult to earn from such wages.

I have had to get staff from outside the area and place them on the property and provide them with accommodation and food where I pay them Rs400/- which they can bank at the end of the month if they don’t go back to their villages for various family functions which invariably involve spending it.

The issue is that the neighbors are not familiar with a paid laborer occupying the land, as the people are owner-occupiers who don’t develop their properties owing to the high cost of labor and live a subsistence life. So when they know what my staff are being paid, are constantly trying to get them to leave saying they should get at least the daily 600/- In actual fact, they don’t like to see people as paid labor living a better lifestyle than them, as few earn that kind of money, except for a day or two here and there, but due to the fact they own some property are not strapped with the urban dwellers costs. The locals are trying to get me to put them in charge, while encouraging my staff to leave by various sorts of innuendo, making them feel uncomfortable in some way.

I have to be firm and clear by my stance of not caving in to a higher wage, or of employing the locals, as both would surely lead to my not being able to carry out this project. I am already a hostage to a lazy workforce in the farm who I am saddled with, and have told to leave, but their living conditions to them seem too good even though their pay is not high, and alternatives are not as attractive.

All this explanation leads to one conclusion, namely that to make paid labor viable, be they with homes and food provided or just casual day labor coming from outside, we cannot operate a small enterprise with minimal supervision. It has to be a larger organization with field officers in the time-honored practice used by the larger plantation companies. There is no discipline and integrity in these people to be left to their own devices because as experience has shown me, no amount of targets, incentive plans, work schedules can motivate and obtain productivity from unskilled labor if they are unsupervised.

On the other hand self-employed small farmers can be productive if they are motivated. Here money is definitely a motivator. The introduction of efficient and productive farming practices is accepted. When it comes to them needing paid labor other than their family members to help out, they shy away from it in most part due to their conviction that it is just not cost effective, and accordingly do not expand their farms because of this limitation. This automatically leads to the inevitable conclusion, that to expand, mechanization on a grand scale is required to give the productive farmers the ability to cultivate larger extents without having to rely on paid labor, who are generally very unproductive in the agricultural sector.

This leads to the conclusion of the initial subject, where people do not like to upset the status quo and are frightened of change even if it is to the good, as they are concerned about their place in the new order of things, especially if the outsider outdoes them in making a hitherto unprofitable place profitable.

My position in the village

Following on from my views on how the village view my employees and their effort at trying to get a local to be my man on the spot, my place in the scheme of things is still a little unnerving to them, as I have still not permanently settled there. They always see me arrive in the dead of night and then leaving with a full load of produce days later, implying I am taking it to Colombo, and so take me for a person from there.

They therefore automatically assume that I am a man of means, reinforced by my having employees. I am therefore fair game when it comes to borrowing requests, and I often get a line of people wanting to borrow from me, at very high interest rates. They don’t believe me when I say I don’t have any to lend them, and in some instances get quite annoyed especially when they get wind that I have lent to some kith or kin of theirs.

I walk a tightrope in trying not to upset my neighbors, when I refuse some and grant others. They all are related to one another by blood or marriage, so people know what everyone is about even though there are disputes amongst them, namely of relatives falling out over property issues. The fact that they live next to each other does not help.

Each one comes to tell tales to me about the other, some true and others false and tying to work out who is trustworthy is very difficult. It is not easy to be one of them, as much as I would like, but when I come across their very bad habits, I sometimes prefer to keep to myself concentrating just on the work on hand, and minimizing my interaction to that which is necessary. There is one point that stands out, namely jealousy if they perceive I am particularly friendly with one, they try to break that friendship.

I simply want honest and dependable persons and those who can give me advice about the area and farming techniques. I would like to get to know my neighbors in an unthreatening and neighborly way. I find it is very difficult to do this. There always appears to be a hidden agenda.

The full extent of the welcome, will not be apparent for a while, but I see them treating me in ways that would benefit them. That is human nature but making assumptions about me that are untrue which I cannot refute because they do not believe is the one area that distances me from being able to be more sociable with them.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One of rural life’s real challenges

The urban dwellers be they in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, look at my life with starry lenses wishing they could enjoy these experiences. In rural farming I have problems with bats, squirrels, peacocks, monkeys and flocks of parrots and other birds. Reality is not as romantic as it seems, especially in the homes and their perimeter. My home is invaded by polecats who run around the ceiling causing a lot of noise and damage. They find a way in no matter what I do. Swallows come into the house at night and always place their calling card at the same spot. Cats that come in through the windows to steal anything they can get their paws on. The ever-present rats that roam the fields find the most unlikely places; to make a safe home inside a sofa.

Just this week, even the dog that is not a pet but lives around, got into the house and killed a hen that was in a box helping to hatch some eggs so I can increase my number of ‘gam kukulu’ or village fowl. Outside even the free-range fowl have to be protected from all sorts of predators, such as dogs even during the day, though they are brought into their coop for the night.

Houses are constructed with open orifices meant to circulate fresh air but which bring in primarily rats, mice, swallows and bats into the homes. I am surprised that meshes like those used in other countries are not used to prevent all sorts or insects and animals to get into the homes. I have had my clothes eaten by rats, as well as electrical wiring, and even phone chargers. I actually like the geckos that eat the insects and are not too much of a nuisance. Interestingly I rarely see spiders in the house, though the ones I occasionally come across are very big.

Of all the creatures rats are the most harmful, and in a rural setting, there is no possibility of getting rid of them. All one can do is prevent them getting into the home. Rats gnaw at coconuts on the trees, and king coconuts even when left overnight for sale. Killing rats is no solution as they are always replaced, and nothing seems to be a permanent deterrent, even a cat, which I resorted to. I have had to deal with it daily, when I discover a new surprise that I have lost. They come down from the trees onto the roof and into the house and have surprising entry and exit points. Only steel is something they cannot gnaw, and I don’t have steel cabinets to put everything into.

This is something I had no idea would be a major source of irritation when I embarked on this journey, so others be warned it is serious stuff.

Hotels, Service and common sense

I was recently invited for both lunch and dinner to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, a historic hotel that celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. Both meals were had on the terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

I ordered a fresh Mango Juice, as Mango is now in season, the price Rs400 before the service and taxes totaling Rs500(US$5). I was extremely disappointed with it. It was very watery and tasteless. The only positive was that no sugar was added, but there is no point if that is done to add so much water so the concentration of Mango is not even one to one. The chef must use good tasty mangos for the juice, and all the battered parts of the mango can be cut out so it is not essential to use a perfect mango for juicing either.

In Sri Lanka there is no point in returning the juice to the kitchen as being tasteless as all the chef would do is add sugar and send it back. It is the concentrate that should be served and if they do not have it they should politely say so, rather than add water to increase the servings.

With this lesson learned not to order fresh juices from a Luxury Hotel, I ordered during evening drinks a Ginger Beer (EGB as it is colloquially known) as one could not go wrong with it. It was served un-iced or barely iced. If one knows about Ginger Beer it needs to be served extremely chilled to enjoy this drink to the fullest. So when I ordered the next bottle, I said please do not serve if the bottle is not well chilled, as it was not the last drink I had. Hey presto it was brought in the same state as before, but with a glass full of ice cubes right up to the top. Immediately on impact with the Ginger Beer, the ice cubes melted, leaving a tasteless watered down drink.

I don’t know who is at fault, but it should lie squarely with the hotel management for not training the staff on the nuances of their drinks, and the dos and don’ts of serving refreshments. Sri Lanka that always prides itself on service, always falls down on its service which surprisingly or not is the weakest area of the hospitality industry. One has to anticipate the problems and cater to them. It is possible that all the good staff leave for better jobs in the Middle East and one is left with the not so good. It is still no excuse when 6star prices are charged to give one star service.

I did not bother complaining. A simple matter like this is not understood, despite it being serious, as the standard they seem to apply is very low.

Red Rice and White Rice

I realized that I had not written about this observation about my Rice sales to Colombo homes. I deliver the rice I grow to homes in Colombo, and the reader would find it interesting to note that, while the family of the home eat red rice, the staff cook and eat white rice. I believe the red rice is more nutritious, So why do the staff prefer to eat white rice, when we would normally have thought they would prefer to eat red.

This was the surprising thing even in Polonnaruwa, where all my neighbors only eat white rice, usually parboiled as it is more filling too. They seem pretty insistent on eating only the white parboiled rice, where as I am more flexible, eating whatever rice that is put in front of me. The standard answer to the question is “apita kanna baha” or we cant eat it as we are not used to it. Only when the doctor orders in the case of parboiled red nadu for diabetics do they make a special effort at eating the more nutritious variety.

There is an organization that is marketing our old traditional varieties of rice. They maintain the rice is grown without the use of Pesticides or chemical fertilizers, This rice is milled only to remove the paddy husk, This rice is rich in vitamins, and different varieties are recommended for people with different medical conditions. However this organization which is assisting by marketing these types of rice grown by small farmers, is finding it extremely difficult to sell their produce. If this effort has proved futile with substantial NGO funds, what hope would I have to do the same.

Like in all things relating to food items, it is an acquired taste, and from talking to people it appears that the direction in Sri Lanka is to eat less and less nutritious rice, and possibly other foods, but the subject here is rice. Even the red rice I sell, I have to polish it to a degree, to reduce the redness so I sell as Rosa Kekulu Samba and not Rathu Kekulu Samba. Here again it is that the dark red is too heavy. Of course the rice polish, which is the best part of the rice seed is discarded further the lighter one wants it. This rice polish is known and rice bran (vee kudu) which I purchase to feed my cattle and in the larger scale is used as primary input in manufacturing chicken feed. So animals get a better diet in this sense than we humans.

It is important that better education on the health benefits of varieties of rice are taught to school children who can then make informed choices, along with parents, about the type of rice they should eat and get used to eating.

Friday, October 3, 2008

the dream re-visited

It is useful from time to time to take stock of where one has come from and where one is headed. In that vein I will summarize below in five blog entries a brief review of what I have done and what my future expectations are.

It is almost four years now since I started this new lifestyle, with a minimum of capital all of which has long been spent, and now I have to generate my own cash flow within the business if I am to grow to the next level.

My ultimate goal in the not too distant future is to live permanently in the Polonnaruwa District and run an agri business cum ecologically neutral tourist enterprise. I believe within my scale I have to do both in tandem for each to survive as a viable business. I would like to manage my produce delivery business in Colombo and my shop in the farm, which means I need a reliable workforce capable of following instructions remotely.

While I was aware that there would be immense risks, there were two risks, the gravity of which has taken me completely by surprise. The first and most important being the unreliability of the workforce no matter what time of incentive scheme you set up for them, where often the instructions carried out are the exact opposite of what was very lucidly explained. The other surprising area is the damage done to my agricultural produce by birds and animal, while pests I can accept, the former I cannot. From peacocks, to rock squirrels, monkeys to rats , pole cats to cattle all have contributed to a considerable loss in agricultural production.

The main benefit has been the unexpected life style full of learning about new methods people adopt to cope with various of life’s difficulties and the resolution to carry on in the face of great adversity when sometimes only hopelessness is all one sees ahead of one. The climate has been kind in that living much of the time without electricity, has not meant sleepless nights for lack of fans, but on the contrary nights of more sound sleep out in the open in Polonnaruwa much to my amazement.

The blog has been my outlet and mouthpiece in the face of a lot of isolation from the outside world due to the lifestyle I currently lead, which allows me little access to what is happening in the world or with those who I know in Colombo and overseas. I am very appreciative of the encouragement from blog readers to help me through this period of exploration.

the farm in Godagama, Meegoda

This ten-acre property 28km from Colombo is where I originally came to when I returned to the country. It was clear from the outset, that it was in a negative cash flow situation with the dairy contributing the significant portion to the loss, primarily because we spent too much time and energy feeding the animals for very little milk revenue.

I had to make the existing house habitable and livable, by cosmetic changes, of upgrading the electrical system, painting the place and upgrading some of the homes on the property along with some infrastructure. The workforce that I inherited sadly is probably the worst this country can provide, with productivity that would not even pay the wages.

I was in a terrible dilemma, as I could not bankroll a permanent loss, and had to take calculated steps to increase revenue. The first was to rapidly try and find markets for King Coconuts all over Colombo and fill shortages by buying the nuts from neighboring properties. This was very successful but in 2008 adverse weather conditions and severe problems with the reliability of the tree climber who doubled his charges resulted in losing money on this previously profitable business. I hope I can return to a state of profitability next year, but a lot sadly depends on the tree climber’s performance.

The other products, Coconuts and bananas are hardly holding their own, with bananas badly affected by a family of monkeys that has taken residence on the farm ruining everything. We are still struggling to get enough papaya trees to cope with the demand, and have been singularly unsuccessful in this regard. Actually the unreliability of the workforce to carry out orders has been the main contributor to the lack of produce in these three departments.

I have no marketing problem for anything that is grown on this property, it is just the production of good quality produce that has been sorely missing. I have attempted to start a line of fresh leaves which I feel has a great demand but this too is labor intensive, as the weeding has to be done by hand as not pesticides are used and we just don’t have hardworking and reliable workforce for that. The sky is leterally the limit on what I can sell, like the market for flowers like anthuriams and orchids is unsatisfied along with houseplants, all of which grows well in this property, but until I personally poison their moonshine and say good bye to all those who have tested me I am not going to get into a state of near break even in this property.

the kade

The shop, “Kirimetta Handiya” which I constructed and opened at the entrance to the farm in Godagama, on April 1st 2006 is the best use I had made of a small inheritance left me by my mother. I am able to sell everything I produce, both in Polonnaruwa and Godagama as well as produce I am able to purchase from my neighbors, and sell at retail prices. This has stemmed the losses from the farm, by bank rolling the expenses of the farm. While it takes management time to purchase produce etc. I am now toying with the idea of renting it out so I can ensure a market for my produce, but also not worry about the running costs, and pilfering from the shop, as well as the unexpectedly large rodent spoilage losses.

The design is eye catching and my initial plans were big, but here again cash flow and unreliability of staff played its part, and no one worked on the shop with as much diligence as I did when I was running it single handed when the revenue was at its highest. So the extrapolations made there from were not achieved. I still would like to open it in the evening as a café, but that idea will only come into fruition when I can find someone to run that side of the operation as the location and the setting is ideal for a very novel place.

The kade has wood panels, doors and windows, made from the very rare margosa or khomba wood, as are the 4 tables and 8 benches, which can be used to seat over 24 people at a sitting. So some of the infrastructure is in place for the restaurant. The location under the Bo tree with no house or building view anywhere near the place lends itself to an idyllic setting.

My original intention to stock it with products of Sri Lanka owned companies was stifled firstly, by the heads of those companies not subscribing to my theory and giving me a break on prices for their produce in return for exclusivity, which is a common idea in the west. They have a lot to learn about competitive business practices as they are still being trounced by the multinationals, and no wonder with that attitude! Secondly, the superb marketing undertaken by the multinationals due to their greater resource base, has enable them to loss lead and capture market share, and sometime transfer price across countries that are detrimental to local businesses in being able to compete in a level playing field.

This long- term and worthwhile investment will cost twice as much if constructed today, and I am therefore happy with it on all fronts.

Kumbuk Thuduwa the agricultural property

I purchased this property within a month of seeing it in July 2006, spending US$6.500 to buy, and US$3.500 to build my cabin, well and water tank. so that it is a complete property, where one need never leave, as it has everything one would want in one place. With 3 acres of paddy land, and 2 acres of coconut and mango trees, I have completely transformed it in two years from an abandoned shrub, where the old trees were uncared for and the vegetation overgrown.

I have had a sufficient return on investment so that I could cover the cost of my travel to Polonnaruwa, which has doubled since I purchased it. I have had four paddy harvests so far, selling every grain of rice I have produced and more. I have plans, which can take its time to develop, as this is where I expect to run an agribusiness from in the future. I am blessed with a water source, namely the Minneriya Oya that runs alongside the property providing unlimited water, except that I have to pump it up.

Many of the stories in my blog arise from my living here in the middle of a village, and following the lives of my neighbors and commenting on the various social interactions arising from my intrusion into their space.

I have spent the past two years developing the poor soil conditions, fertilizing the coconut trees, planting fruit trees, coconut plants and a banana plantation. The 500+ papaya plants all contracted a virus and had to be destroyed with my demand for papaya still remaining unfulfilled.

I have brought three of my cattle here and hope to bring a further three animals to build up a small dairy herd to produce and sell milk in the neighborhood. I have also planted a third rice crop for the first time this month as an experiment to look at the pros and cons of this project.

Sudath the man I placed on this property from the farm has remained there and has got married and his wife is now expecting a child any moment. I still have not got electricity to the property, primarily due to the cost of getting the wires into the property.

I am happy to report that the value of the property has more than doubled in the past two years and I have never been more satisfied with a purchase than I have with this property, as I really love it. I welcome anyone to visit me.

Kumbuk Pokuna Lodge, Ratmale, Minneriya

See www.ratmale.blogspot.com. It is a building I broke ground on August 4th 2006, which for want of funds I have not finished. It has cost me US$12,000 to date, part of which is from borrowed funds. This is in addition to the property, an acre, which I purchased from a friend years earlier.

I intend it to be both my personal home, and when I get bookings, to rent it out on short lets, to then live in the Hingurakgoda, Kumbuk Thuduwa, which is a mere 15km or a Rs25 bus ride away on a direct bus route.

Much of the structure is now complete with the finishing touches and landscaping to be completed, it will be lit by generator for the time being until I am able to afford the power lines into the property.

It has been designed on the lines of the old National Park lodges of yesteryear and will appeal both to nostalgia and those seeking an alternative experience in the wild. Herds of wild elephants come for an evening dip at the opposite side of the tank that adjoins the property and it borders the Kaudulla National Park, the entrance of which is 5km from my property.

It sleeps 8 in 4 large double beds, and is rustic and basic, but with a charm of its own surrounded by waterholes that attract a fascinating array of bird and animal life, that one can just enjoy, like a natural history program, while relaxing in the verandah section.

I have put in a lot of effort in the past two years to get to where I have at such a low cost bearing in mind what I had to do, including the construction of a well with 25 tractor loads of rock covering a depth of nearly 30ft so the well will never run dry, even during the worst of droughts.

This property is an integral part of my plan, and whose occupants can be fed from fresh produce grown on the other property, which will also form part of the visiting environment to the area to contrast the agricultural and wildlife experience of the area.

I also currently purchase fruit and vegetables from my neighbors in the area, and also get an incredibly good bees honey, when the hives are harvested from the forest once a year in July. I expect to complete this project within 6 months and begin the landscaping as soon as the rains come.

my one and only vehicle, Tata diesel cab

I have had this vehicle, leased as new from the time I returned. It has served me during these years and just as I reach my 4th anniversary back in Sri Lanka, the last lease payment is coterminous with that. Nearing 125,000 km it is a shadow of its former self, creaking and noisy beyond imagination, requiring a major overhaul, including minor body repairs but also a good paint job to prevent corrosion.

It has hauled almost anything you can think of and I do not believe there is another vehicle like this in the country that has had this much use for such a versatile series of tasks. Just to name a few, the regular transporting of grass or hay for the cattle, regular deliveries of King Coconuts to customers in Colombo, transport of rice and food stuffs from Polonnaruwa, hauling timber, frames, and even roof tiles from my fathers home to Polonnaruwa, where the 90 year old tiles from India were taken once he decided to put a sheet roof replacing the leaking clay tiles.

I could not have carried on my business without this vehicle, and despite the high cost of maintenance and running, I believe it has been the best option available to me. I wish I had a vehicle to deliver foodstuffs that is both covered and refrigerated, for the future growth of my delivery business, but that will just have to wait for better times, when I can be assured of reliable employees to carry out this task as I already have an unsatisfied market.

The fifth estate of my business and a crucial one at that, allowing me to survive to tell the tale so far, has been my Monday home delivery business of about 40 different items. It is primarily my produce from both Godagama and Polonnaruwa, but also what I purchase from my neighbors and from other sources.

This makes Mondays the hardest day of my already busy schedule. At 5 am the produce has to be collected, picked and packed in weights for delivery. It is usually past 10am when I leave fully loaded to the gunnels. An extremely tiring day of delivery to friends and family ends around 7.30pm and it takes another 90 minutes during rush hour to return to the farm. I then have to unload any unsold items, and then repack for my trip to Polonnaruwa, with crates, water and items such as banana plants. I then leave after 10pm; the journey of 215km takes me four and half hours to get to Hingurakgoda. This late night journey is often alone, thanks to this workhorse Tata.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dogs or Motor Bikes what is more dangerous?

Today is Friday the 19th of September. I returned from the Polonnaruwa hospital. Sudath who works for me on my land, the 5 acres in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda, was returning at 9pm last night with his 7month pregnant wife, on his motorbike, from a clinic near the hospital. A dog had suddenly crossed the road and both had fallen off the bike. They had superficial wounds to hands and legs and were taken by a trishaw to the hospital where they were admitted for observation and x-ray the following day.

What I wish to note is that soon after Sudath was admitted there were four other people who were brought into the ward with injuries some serious resulting from dogs running across the road.

If one is familiar with Sri Lanka one will realize as a motorist one sees many dogs on the road in groups or singly and a motor vehicle is usually safe from their menace. However motorbikes are in harms way as they are constantly running across the road with no care or concern for the traffic.

With our free medical care, no one seems to make an issue out of the high cost of health care arising out of dogs causing traffic accidents on the road. I did mention in an earlier piece where our drivers tend to brake suddenly endangering civilians, when dogs cross the road as they try to avoid harming the animal and harm the humans instead. This motorbike accident brought home to me, the frequency of this occurrence with the attendant costs to the economy, which outweigh the benefits of having so many dogs around.

I invite the reader’s comments on this issue, as the increasing number of motorbikes on the road with the resulting accidents are putting a serious strain on the free healthcare system of this country. Will bike riders be more careful if they have to pay for a share of the cost of accidents? Even if it is not their fault, but only because they are in vehicles prone to accidents.

The hospital was full and this has over 500 beds. In this ward there were two to a bed and the next bed was a soldier(MP) who was stabbed last night by an army deserter who had been identified and faced imminent arrest.

This hospital has a reputation for expertise in treating poisons either resulting from snakebites or from ingesting pesticides as is commonly done due to the slightest provocation, mostly in the form of attempted suicides.

a short journey to Cochin

I had to rush to India for three days recently as my sister fell ill while on a retreat and had to be hospitalized and I stayed with her till she got better to travel and accompanied her back. The normal 5day wait for an Indian visa was short circuited to the same day through connections and the urgent nature of the visit.

I was extremely pleased with the level of care she received at a private hospital and value for money of the institution as well as the approachability of the doctors at the hospital. The total cost of 3days care in a private air-conditioned room without food but with all medicines, doctors fees as well as drugs for a further two weeks upon discharge was Rs5000/- Indian or about US$100. I was so taken aback with how little was charged I gave the doctor US$40 to help with indigent patients, while thanking him for his dedication seeing the patients coming to his clinic every day.

I had not been to India for a long while, and I had planned a trip in the future to Kerala as a state most like Sri Lanka. It had been marketed well internationally as I had been aware of their promotions in the various World Travel Marts I had attended in London in Novembers of the past years prior to my return to Sri Lanka.

My first impressions were extremely poor, with the wait at the airport at immigration being almost twice as long as the flight to get to Cochin, which was 50 minutes. The arrivals area was so crowded with people teeming to greet relatives the whole experience was uncomfortable. More people and more tourists arrive into Cochin alone than to Sri Lanka in a year so one can appreciate the needs of a small provincial airport in a state with three other international airports!

My visit confirmed a few ideas I already had about Sri Lanka. We are a far superior tourist destination, with a greater potential of tourist satisfaction if only we know how to market the country despite the war. We need to offer a few conveniences like a tourist bus service into town, that costs less than the exorbitant Rs2400/- oneway trip into Colombo in an air-conditioned taxi. We also should reduce the cost of the cultural triangle pass, which only a tourist can tell you how unreasonable it is. Our tourism officials act like they have never been tourists in a foreign land. Hence they just don’t know what a tourist really wants, and how to satisfy one.

The country is about to spend US$4billion on a up market destination in Kalpitiya, a total waste of money that any person with common sense will state in a moment. We can get a better bang for our buck with less than 10% of that spent but directed in a different route not to over exploit any part of the country but to have very small exclusive resorts that will require less infrastructure and bring better quality jobs that will not disappear overseas.

Trust me when I say that half the jobs in the Kalpitiya zone will result in the trainees going overseas for employment, and the standard of the former falling, by having to add trainees all the time for the export market. There are plenty of jobs available in a country that does not have unemployment, just one of aspirations not meeting availability.

Small exclusive resorts of not more than 5 rooms is the answer to Sri Lanka, and this can then be shared by many people in the land who will own them, rather than a few international hoteliers who will be the real beneficiaries of a Kalpitiya zone. Large exclusive resorts never benefit the host country only small resorts do. However kudos, commissions and corruption is less likely in the small resort and therefore less chance for the powers that make the decisions to benefit personally at the expense of the country. The tourist bureaucracy only appeals to those wanting to receive some international recognition. Actually profit is more important and the small hotelier who does not make it to the World Travel Mart as it is not cost effective is the person really benefiting Sri Lanka as he or she has a small place offering a unique experience that even a hotelier cannot even dream of inventing.

Coming back to the case of India, where everyone requires a visa which is certainly not cheap if you are a European or American, I cannot find one reason for them to choose India over Sri Lanka, It is a country with 60 times our population and about 4 times to offer in tourist delights! Sri Lanka is a country one could never tire of as there is so much packed in such a small area. The idiocy of the industry not to recognize this and act accordingly baffles me.

I am not trying to denigrate India, but compared to Sri Lanka it is a non starter. The benefits there of lower costs of food and such like are not areas that reflect on tourism, so the many great things of the country have little relation to tourism which I am highlighting here. If India can attract people with all these drawbacks, I see no reason why Sri Lanka cannot be proactive.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

an unexpected visitor from the US

the gentleman in the photo said she would go back home and tell her friends she met this veddah!!

A friend of mine in California had recommended to a friend of his who was backpacking in Sri Lanka to contact me. Melinda 24 from Santa Monica contacted me on Monday evening when I was doing my deliveries in Colombo, and I picked her up and took her to my place in Minneriya.

I guess she was brave to go with a stranger she only knew by recommendation, and we arrived at my place at 3am. I showed her the Polonnaruwa historic city the following day, but was aghast that the tourist rate now had risen to Rs2,700. In fact I was embarrassed as it was a rainy day and we had to duck the rain to see the ruins and we could only go to a limited selection. To add insult to injury officious guards at sites, requested us to put the umbrellas away when entering historic monuments, so we could only go in the pouring rain. Lord Buddha would immediately put them in their place had he been around to see this nonsensical request.

What Melinda enjoyed most was going to the homes of my various neighbors who had never entertained a foreigner in their lives and she was quite taken aback with our hospitality as she was treated at short notice as an honored guest and in one place she was even given a gift of a picture to hang on a wall. Two days later she was put on a bus to get back to Colombo and a local bus to Nugegoda from Pettah, which she gamely did much to the amazement of the locals who would not venture into the unknown.

mango saga

Earlier in the blog you can see various references to the mangos in my property and how we pluck and sell them etc. This season we were lucky just to get about 200 mangos, when last year we had in excess of 2,000. This is another drop resulting from the unusual weather pattern that has seen an almost non-existent crop of rambutan. Needless to say word was out that I had brought some mangos, and within seconds people clamored for the few I had and I had to fight to keep some for my reliable customers in Colombo.

One particularly large tree that yielded at least Rs30,000 in mangos last year did not give me even 20 mangos and I decided for once to indulge my self with this largess! The photo is of the few rata amba I brought today for sale at Rs30 ea and I know the fruit kade I sell King Coconuts to in Pelawatte sells the same for Rs70.

On serious note it is quite difficult until one actually cuts the mango to determine if it is spoilt and inevitably this is a complaint that I hear despite all the steps to reduce this happening. That is why I say only 10% of the actual crop that spawns from the flower actually gets eaten by a human with animals taking a greater share

Monday, September 1, 2008

rain and the vagaries of the weather pattern in 2008

Those of who have read the earlier piece, which due to my lack of access of the net was also posted at the same time, though over 3 weeks in writing, would find this ironic. I was then complaining of the lack of water, and my need to irrigate by pumping water to keep my rice paddies alive.

Now just at the point of harvesting I have had 6 days of rain, always starting between noon and 2 pm each day (ironically for those aware it was the day after the elections where the government received an overwhelming plebiscite of approval. While I am no doubt ruing my luck, one really has to appreciate the thousands of peasant farmers who habit these parts staring disaster in the face. For them two rice crops comprise a large part of their livelihood and this is the second time this year that the rains came while harvesting. (Earlier segments of the blog detail what happened)

I have been here in Minneriya this past week and all conversation is only about what we can do to salvage our crop. While I have not been in touch with news, I can only surmise that there has been very little said about it and so we have to battle the issue alone and suffer the consequences.

For those who are unaware of the real problems here are some of them. When it is time for harvesting and the rains come, it is prudent not to harvest till the rains cease. However when one finally harvests, the rice paddies are overripe and the price falls, as only the large mill owners benefit from buying overripe paddy which they can salvage along with wet paddy by parboiling and then milling parboiled rice. They offer a low price saying it is overripe or wet but suffer no price loss on sale as they have salvaged it in their mills where they have all the machinery for boiling in tons and drying in similar quantities.

Those who are in the midst of cutting, lose some of the harvest and have to dry the balance before being able to sell it, as the moisture content has to be below a certain percentage. It is hard to dry with the wet weather. Others like me have a lot of paddy that has fallen on to the ground due to the rain, and we have to salvage it once the rains cease by hand cutting as most cutting machines cannot work on fallen paddy. The large combine harvesters are capable of raising fallen paddy, but they can only be used in large fields unlike most of the farmers in this area. (for a related intellectual discussion on paddy farming see www.villagerinsrilanka.blogspot.com

a while since my update due to a period of difficulty

While I have not updated my blogs for a while, I have been extremely busy these past two months on trouble shooting matters that seem to occur incessantly on a daily basis, making me wonder what is in store for me today. The issues have been many fold and cannot be isolated as to reason or type or even an unforeseen event. Even for my personality, which is of an optimistic disposition it has been hard to take given the already traumatic events of 2008.

They have included a vehicle repair arising out of the gear or stick shift coming into my hand, and that meant I was not able to make sales on schedule, resulting in loss of revenue, and a shortage of funds, to say nothing of the added expense of the repair.

A whole family of monkeys have taken up residence at the back of the farm house in Godagama and have already done considerable damage to the banana trees and my one and only avocado tree along with drinking coconut and king coconuts, which they do with their sharp teeth. We are forbidden to kill them even though they are now vermin and in substantial numbers as to be pests more harmful than rats. In these times we are not able to get gun permits to try and deter them. Lighting of fire-crackers is of absolutely no use in this regard as they have become used to this ruse.

One of the permanent staff has just failed to turn up to work and looks unlikely he will return. I need to find a replacement quickly. Two of the female staff contracted the dreaded “chickengunya” fever and have been out of work for over a week, resulting in a considerable loss to productive output of the farm as the females in Sri Lanka are more productive than to males, whatever the chauvinistic males say. To make matters worse the cattle keeper is out with the flu, and it is hard to keep the herd of cattle of about 15 washed and cleaned as well as milked.

Another of the men Gamini, a father of four who is an alcoholic, knocked a borrowed trishaw on the morning after his daughter’s wedding, and has broken his knee-cap etc. and is out of action for months. He had borrowed money for his daughter’s wedding on the promise of payback soon after by way of payroll deduction. When will I ever see the color of that! It is a double whammy disaster of an essential coconut tree climber and tractor operator being out for perhaps four months.
This when added to the nuisance value of a non working man with no funds and family to support, however still funding his drink and bothering others and utilizing free accommodation and produce is more than I can take. There is only so long one can live on charity which is what he is doing. The other day my father took dry rations to his home to help out. What he does not then realize is that the money he receives by way of charity will further enrich his needs which ironically are supplied by his wife as he has no way of getting the stuff.

The bride groom also works for me and so with his wedding to Gamini’s daughter, his attendance is also suspect, and he is the only one who is capable of using the petrol grass cutting machine, and my cows too have had much less to eat, resulting in a drop of milk for sale, arising from all of the above.

The usual man who comes to cut the king coconuts (has been for the past 25 years) has been very erratic in his arrivals lately as he wants even more per nut to cut and tree to climb, and so my king coconut sales have suffered even more than I had calculated due to the wet weather.

With 50% less staff working for the past two weeks my place is in a state of shambles, not putting it too bluntly.

My alternative refuge in Polonnaruwa is full of election talk, preventing the finish of my kitchen in Ratmale, and water shortage for my paddy at this critical juncture, which I have had to resolve by pumping water at great expense to ensure I don’t lose my rice crop which is due for harvest in less than a month.

This tale of woe is kind of the worst it has got so far, with no obvious resolution and I only hope I can relate some better news next time, but I am hanging in there by the skin of my teeth and only just. I have been able to weather this due to my capacity to live on air and not much else.

I have the greatest admiration for businessmen who have started with little and have achieved a lot as it is with a lot of sacrifice and patience, and hope that things will improve that they have been able to finally get to where they are now. Those reading my blog can offer one-word solutions like fire the lot, or sell the property and retire to the jungle, but all these words of advice are easier said than done.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

a visit to koralampoththa

I visited a village in the Nattandiya area north of Negombo, and met Gamini who used to work for me. The photo above is him in front of his current home with his son and wife who is pregnant with her second child.

He took me on a tour of the small village which included the paddy fields, the school and the temple as well as various homes. His wife's family home is about a stone's throw from his and I also visited his grandmother who is in her 90s but whose hair not dyed is still black. I am told it is to do with applying coconut oil on the scalp after the daily well bath.

As is typical in Sri Lanka, his wife's father had 2 acres of land which has now been divided equally amongst his 5 children with Gamini's wife getting her share which is 50 purches. He has now built the foundation of his home on this property, and will build the house in stages over a few years as when he can find money on this 50 purches. This is the story of village Sri Lanka where people who have small bits of land live in this sort of size ranchettes, reducing the land available for agriculture, where they grow fruit trees and timber trees in their home garden. When Gaminis children grow up I presume this property will be further subdivided.

The photos below are of goraka, the fresh fruit and then the dried ones from the tree on his property. Actually the inside of the goraka fruit is edible, though a little sour, and the sides are peeled and dried for the food additive common in Sri Lankan cooking.

a wedding on the farm

On august 7th Asanka a boy who works on the farm, married Udeni, the daughter of Gamini who also works on the farm. The above is a family photo including the bride and groom. Gamini the brides father crashed a borrowed trishaw the following day and broke his knee cap and will be out of work for at least 3 months, causing severe constraints to me as well as to himself as he has to feed 3 other children and a wife, and are currently living on the farm on charity.

He is about 20 and she about 18 and it was her ticket to get out of an abusive household with an alcoholic father. An all too familiar story in these parts.

Friday, August 1, 2008

in search of dried fish - muhudu karawala

Yesterday, I drove up the western coast of the Island north of Negombo in search of Karawala for my kade, this time just to test what will sell, so I did not buy too much.

The Photos show the fish being dried on the beach

a visit to the chilaw fish market when the boats came in

I went to the Chilaw fish market by the lagoon as the boats were unloading their catch last morning and here are some of the photos.

Friday, July 25, 2008

some colors of the east coast waters

the small bay on pigeon island opposite the Nilaveli Beach

the road to Kinniya and beyond to Mutur and Batticaloa

One afternoon we decided to drive towards Kinniya which is just a short distance from the Sea Anglers Club and we came upon the construction of a bridge across the channel. It is expected to open early next year which will make it much easier for people to get across. We took the free ferry to get to the other side and continued on to the next ferry and up to third ferry which if we had crossed we could have got to Mutur. All these ferries are free services that are provided for the people to travel to get about their daily activities.

Eventually once the series of bridges are constructed the journey to Batticaloa will be short and more economic benefits could accrue to the people living along the eastern coast, so affected by war and difficulty of transport.

One of three places the Mahaweli falls into the Trinco bay. Supposedly teeming with Barrimundi in amongst the dense mangroves in the distance where this delicate ecosystem must be preserved

trolling in the east coast of Sri Lanka in July

Two of the friends I went with to Trincomalee, went trolling in Sea early one morning and by 8.30 am had caught the fish you see on the photo. Graeme is holding his 8kg Kobia and Romeish is holding the 14kg Seer

By the way due to the security situation, a maximum of 15hp outboard motor is allowed and catamarans with no motors, so the area in the east coast is grossly underfished and plenty of fish within a km from the coast waiting to be caught!!!

Sea Anglers Club, China Bay, Trincomalee

A group of us spent a wonderful long weekend July 17th to 20th at the Sea Angler's club in Trincomalee. It was also a welcome break for me from the trying conditions I have been encountering lately.

I Took the Rs 40 bus ride from my place in Raja Ela to Habarana Junction where I was picked up by these friends. At the end of the trip I was dropped at Habarana Junction and returned to my farm in Polonnaruwa, by bus. The security checks on the way back are very thorough so one has to add an hour to the journey time. In fact once there is peace in this area I can get to the Sea Anglers from my place in Ratmale in about 75 minutes at most. Thats how close I am to Trinco with no check points delay the journey.

The Club is both old and looks old, but has character and there are plans to upgrade all the facilities. The wing where the main rooms are have been done up and are clean and quite comfortable. The windy conditions meant no mosquitos and no requirement even for a fan to get a good nights sleep Compared to my basic facilities in Polonnaruwa this was positively luxurious. The club is known for attracting Sea Anglers and also known for its killer crab curry. We had that for two lunches. Due to the security situation, there are rooms always available, though there are no threats at this point and everyone around seems to be going about their daily activities.

The bay at dusk on Esala Poya evening.

The row of rooms overlooking Clapemburg Bay where the Sea Anglers Club is located

Nilaveli Beach a day out

A group of us who were holidaying in Trinco decided to go to Nilaveli for the day. The hotel that had been devastated by the Tsunami had now been pretty much restored with plans to add to the 30 or so rooms now available.

We hired a boat and went to Pigeon Island to snorkel and scuba dive, and are happy to report that the coral is regenerating and the multi colored fish in the coral are in abundance and increasing and only waist deep from the little cove in the island.

We had lunch at the Nilaveli Beach hotel, and returned in the evening. The road is much improved and the distance of 16km north from the Trinco town can be done in about 25 minutes including stopping time for one security check point where vehicle details are noted.

There is a lot of redevelopment along the way with new schools and houses consequent to the Tsunami.

The seemless beach at Nilaveli on a hot July morning, the colors are emerald and deep blue

Friday, July 11, 2008

a night of prawn fishing in front of my verandah

I have shown earlier examples of the prawns I eat caught at my Hingurakgoda property but have hitherto not explained how easy they are to catch.

Initially we caught prawns in a net while fishing for other food to eat, and once we realized we actually have prawns on the Oya in front of my cabin, we looked at the best way to catch them.

They emerge after dark to eat while hiding under rocks and holes along the waterway during the day. The villagers therefore did not really know they existed and certainly not those from Ratmale who never heard of prawns in Polonnarwa.

On the same day as my cane expedition, I arranged for an evening of prawn collecting. We set up a series of rods right along the river bank and dangling on a string was a small piece of coconut just below the surface of the water, specially tethered. Come dusk and through to midnight we just go from one to the other flashing a light, and if the eyes of the prawn twinkle in the light, we take a specially prepared net on a rod to scoop up the prawn into the net. Sometimes the prawns make a mighty leap from their hold on the coconut to escape the net but more often we were able to collect it into the net. It was interesting to note that as the night wore on the prawns we caught got bigger and the largest prawns were right in front of my cabin not more than 10ft from where I usually sit! The Ratmale guys who came with me had a story and a half to relate to their families who looked in disbelief at the catch we brought back after midnight, from barely 15km or 10miles from where they lived.

Of course we have to keep this secret lest the whole village descends on the river and then prawn the place out of existence and then there will be none for anyone. This experience for local and tourist alike is a fascinating one.

weaving with cane

I spent the whole week at Ratmale in Polonnaruwa on my own as I have let go my driver due to straightened financial circumstances. Each day was an event in itself with unplanned events.

I had asked that a long chair a kavichchiya be woven in cane instead of cushioning it which is the preferred option in these parts, though weaving is the more appropriate course for this climate. I did not realize what a procedure that this simple task would become.

There is fake cane(plastic), called ‘Chintha’ which is about a quarter of the price of cane that people use, but which wont last very long, and then there is the real thing. For the particular piece of furniture the finest of the cane strips is required if the job is to be done to perfection. I require 3kg at a price of Rs1300/- a kg at the source.

Cutting cane is illegal, unless one has a permit. The plants are protected as endangered, as they grow along waterways and are seen less and less. I went with the weaver, who lives in the next village, the proud villages of Purana Ratmale(one of 7 original villages of Polonnaruwa) who call themselves high class Govigama, look down on these people as being transplanted recently as Rodiya. So they have to resort to skills other than farming.

It was a fair distance, to Manampitiya at the edge of the Polonnaruwa district crossing the mighty Mahaweli over the Japan Peace Bridge! There is cane right along the river banks and people here have permits to harvest and make the various sizes for the various woven products. I was given a lesson on the various qualities of cane by the owner of the shop, who also sells caneware and he told me that the Moratuwa furniture shops are his largest customers for cane for weaving in their workshops.

On the way back I stopped by my Hingurakgoda agricultural tract and this man spots the cane right along the river of my property, and tells me I have all the cane I want for any caneware and as long as I only use it for personal use it would not be a problem as I would encourage the growth of the plants by pruning mature cane and he would make anything I wanted on site. So this was an added bonus of the journey and meeting the weaver who explained how to preserve and why the shops in Wewaldeniya along the Kandy road sell nice looking cane ware which lasts only a short while because they are polished and ruin the longevity of the cane. He learnt his craft in Wewaldeniya, where the shops look enticing with prices less so.

Digressing a little I also purchased a reed mat, a super example of Thunhiriya reed, which he had made as a sample for a hotel, which wanted to use reed mats as the ceiling material. That hotel ordered 750 of these 6ft long mats for their entire ceiling.

Ironically, Ratmale used to be a center for the weaving of reed mats by the women primarily for home use but also as an additional income source. I have both Gallaha the superior version and Thunhiriya reed on my forest property. I am also in the process of preserving a Gallaha reed marsh on the property with the intention of having a weaver on site to make mats etc with this reed to maintain a fast dying craft in these areas.

It was therefore a pleasant if unexpected finding that I actually have the raw material for these crafts in my two Polonnaruwa properties both along wetlands and also know of local craftsman who can turn out items from them.