Thursday, May 28, 2009

I finished sowing my rice fields, but yet again the farmer is tethered like an animal

Four days after sowing a light green of the young shoots is visible

It is always an exciting event and a relief when one completes the sowing of the paddy fields, as there is an extraordinary amount of manual work that goes into this process. This is a luxury we can ill afford in the future, with the spiraling cost of labor in agriculture and so I believe it is something that will shortly disappear to be replaced by more mechanical and automated equipment. I am relived at finishing my planting today, but I am most displeased with the interference from the busybodies of our agricultural society who have restricted me to plant sixty five percent of my fields, as the water allocation has been reduced accordingly due to the lower rainfall, and the less water available this year. It does not matter to them that I had already decided to pump the water at my expense, accepting that I may not receive a drop of water.

This is yet another example and I have quoted many in the various writings in my blog, where it seems to be the order of the day to keep farmers impoverished. It is the farmers themselves to blame for it as they do not appear to like any other farmer using different means to improve his productivity. People are free to do what they like in other careers but farmers are tied by a set of nonsensical rules to impose equality. No wonder farming at the basic level is an utter failure, as none of the really productive farmers in the island are helped along to maximize their potential, as jealousy and envy reign.

I will leave the philosophical discussion on the rights and wrongs of the methodology of agriculture to my farming related blog,

The end of the war led to the rejoicing, a level not seen in these parts ever, with more crackers being lit than anyone old can even recall and every home preparing kiri bath as an act of thanksgiving. We now come to the reality of what it has meant and the real sacrifices, as the boys are now coming home from the battle-field with the tales, and heroics.

One of my neighbors Kumara, came home from the thick of the battle unscathed, he had rejoined his unit, after recovering from wounds from a previous battle on the Muhamalai front, but this time he had to carry one of his mates in the village in a different unit, who had been hit, where the shrapnel is still lodged in the stomach, and he is undergoing a series of operations in Colombo. This boy’s father borrowed some money from me, and is late in repaying, but under these conditions where his son is fighting for his life in hospital, I have to defer any thought of recovery.

This is the reality in the village, something no one writes about. I have mentioned a few times already on the blogs about deaths and wounded here in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda, and Ratmale, so multiplying that into the number of villages extrapolates into a staggering cost of lives lost and permanent disability. When we are only reading about the IDP camps, and the HR violations, spare a thought for the real people on both sides who are affected. War is bad, which ever way one looks at it, and all our efforts should be to prevent another violent uprising even if we are confident of crushing it.

Just after sowing watering to wet the surface from excessive burn

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Diaspora return - a reflection of a few years of adjusting to new surroundings

I write this with specific reference to a reader’s request on my experiences back in Sri Lanka after a life in the West. One must always understand that each one has different needs and expectations, and it is not ideal to use one person’s impressions to form an opinion, however experiences of different people help in getting a sense of what to expect and how to cope under those conditions. I count myself very fortunate in one sense as it was just me. I don’t have a family, so I did not have to think about any other person’s opinion in making this choice. I must confess if I had a wife and kids, I may not have made this leap as it was a leap of pretty far reaching proportions.

If you have kids, and the request was from a family in California, the adjustment would be huge, as there are two generations. I know, as I lived in California for 13 years, working in Santa Barbara, as VP Finance for a publishing company. I grew a fabulous Rose garden with over 64 different varieties of roses, and from 1995 drove a gleaming white Jaguar XJ6 with personalized number plates, bought new, in complete contrast to my Tata cab I now drive that feels like it is just about to disintegrate any moment.

I returned with little funds, US$20K to be exact, less than what many who go to the Middle East bring after a couple of years. I was therefore prepared to live on almost nothing to start. I have also completely cut any ties with the West in that I do not have any assets overseas or even a foreign bank account, and it is only some pension funds that may kick in my sixties that I should benefit from but that is only speculative at this stage.

One other point is I left Colombo, where my family and extended family live, at young age to go to boarding school in Cambridge, England where I sat my O and A levels. I returned to a village and in the case of Minneriya, a rural community with no friends or family, and for that matter no connections at all, a new settler, to speak only in Sinhala.

I was fortunate in having a place, a farm of 10 acres in Godagama, Meegoda, that already had a small house, but was not giving a return, and still is not. I soon realized that if I tried to change the mentality of those who live and work on the farm, I would go grey in a day, I decided that to keep my sanity I would buy a plot of land in Minneriya and try to make a go of it there, where the total capital investment of property, cabin and equipment was US$12K.

The blog details the real issues I face in Meegoda and Minneriya in life and farming, and is straight from the gut, warts and all. Later I decided to concentrate on writing purely farming related experiences in the sister blog, which I called “Perceptions, the musings of a renaissance farmer.”

Its been over four and a half years, and I am still struggling to make ends. I have paid off the 4year lease on the pick up truck, but now the truck is badly in need of a complete overhaul, with over 135K km on the odometer. I have to try and make up the shortfall by supplementing my income, with consultancies, as my knowledge and experience is of value to organizations in Sri Lanka, and I am able to find work if I want.

It is difficult to summarize what I have written in the blog, so I will leave it to you to read the stories and incidents I have encountered. I will therefore only try and summarize my expectations, reflections, hopes and disappointments as well as some observations.

First one has to put aside, the discipline and order that one is used to. Nothing happens to time, or expectation. Often people are so reluctant to say cant or wont or no, for fear of disappointing or upsetting the person, that “can, will and yes” actually mean the opposite!!! That is something I still find hard to understand. Never does no mean yes!!

The secret to success in SL living is to have a good man Friday to take care of little, essential, annoying and sometimes time consuming tasks. Sadly I have yet to find such a reliable and honest person to fill this role. I am still looking, as that is a prerequisite to stress reduction and comfortable living. I have staff, but they to me are more like kids depending on me for everything and live a life of carefree luxury at my expense!

I have dealt extensively in the blog, about the shock at finding the level of alcohol consumption in SL being off the charts. For someone who rarely imbibes, I am still in shock. This to me is in my face daily, as people who come by my place in the evening for a chat are already legless.

I find that the people, who are generally highly intelligent, have little commonsense and rationality in what they do, they are easily led and quite gullible and impressionable. I therefore give vent to this lack of contemplation on what people do and why, in my blog It is I believe the fault of the education system that needs a complete overhaul, so that there is a sense of purpose in action and inaction.

Despite all the heartache and disappointments, it is still my country, I am proud to be part of it. I have traveled extensively around the world, and there is no country of this size that is as diverse and colorful, yet geographically, culturally, historically, climatically so varied as to keep me looking forward to seeing more of it each time I can grab that chance. Thankfully now the war has ended, I am so eagerly looking forward to visiting areas I have hitherto not been permitted to enter. This country is truly “paradise” and I sincerely hope that we are at a juncture to put nationhood to the fore, over petty differences arising out of gender, race, religious and caste differences. If we can take jealousy and envy out of our weaknesses, we can overcome all these differences.

I can make a difference to people’s lives in Sri Lanka, I feel I am a more useful and fulfilled member of the human race living in Sri Lanka. There is an inner sense of commonality and friendship amongst neighbors, especially during festivals and occasions. We always seek a party, a fun loving, what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours kind of behavior I have never encountered anywhere. People are irritating and interfering but at the same time concerned and helpful. Its great to get hospitalized !! the whole village comes visiting with bananas and biscuits! I live alone, but I am never alone. This land of contrasts is incomparable. Serendipitous events abound, even daily, You can never be depressed, you just don’t have time to be, I have never been busier !!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An overwhelming response to my last blog entry as an Orange

I was pleasantly surprised at the incredible response to my last blog entry where I tried to highlight the life of the oranges that grow in the villages of the Polonnaruwa district, left to rot on the ground due to no demand. I have had so many calls for these oranges, that thanks to my highlighting this issue, I will probably be able to sell every orange that village produces in the next season. Thanks to you all. Something I forgot to mention is that you can keep the orange fresh in the fridge for about 2 weeks and longer if you have it squeezed and the juice kept in the freezer section, thus prolonging the enjoyment.

I should guarantee to buy the whole crop and pay an extra rupee to the homeowners so they would value their trees more and either water it to get a greater yield and also compost at the foot, to ensure a richer and more bountiful harvest. One thing I will continue with, is all the plucking and not leave that task to the homeowner, as the level of spoilage due to falling on the ground would exceed 50% if not plucked by hand.

In my Hingurakgoda property, there were 10 trees that had not been taken care of when I moved in, so once I put a good dose of compost and also gave it a soaking, I was able to get a reasonable harvest of fruit, where earlier there was none. The next step is to learn how to get a regular crop, as I need to experiment with methods to get the trees to flower. A heavy pruning now will do the trick, as we are in for a dry spell for the next 6 months.

One thing that is impossible to control is the fruit’s level of sweetness, as even growing plants from the seeds of the sweetest fruit does not guarantee fruit of the same level of sweetness. That is up to chance, and tissue culture would be something I should investigate though I confess I know nothing about that method.

That gives me an idea, that if we are able to replicate the best trees by tissue culture, then these trees, and their widespread propagation, can be encouraged once a more permanent demand is established, and we get a new product that reaches the mass market that is superior in everyway to the imported varieties. As an aside to this, those living outside SL would be shocked at the level of imported fruit we now have here, partly due to the high cost of local fruit which makes the imported apples and oranges from the USA cheaper, (yes USA including Apples from the state of Washington) than fruit here. Mangoes are regularly over Rs50/- whereas apples are around Rs30/- I know we are comparing different fruit, but I wanted to make the point nevertheless.

Going on a tangent, after destroying all my papaya trees, as they were infected with that Mealy Bug(pitti makuna) that had been brought from overseas, that has also killed the Araliya trees, we have now imported a beetle form the USA to eat the mealy bug. I hope this works and does not in turn become a pest for other crops. This is currently being tested in the Polonnaruwa area before being released to other areas. The new papaya plants I have grown since will take a few more months to come into bearing, and so despite constant requests I will not be able to satisfy my customers for a while. How can I talk about oranges today when the war is finally over, but the new era that is just dawning has not hit us yet, as I have been so exhausted, being inconvenienced because of it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

“I am an Orange, Kala Dodang, also called Gus Narang. My value is unappreciated.

Finally after decades of living and dying, refertilizing my mother tree with my remains, I am now being exploited, and brought to the world’s attention.”

So goes the story as narrated by an Orange that was picked from a tree in the Ranchettes of the homes in the far off villages of Rotawewa and Ratmale(purana gammana) bordering the Kaudulla National Park near Minneriya in the Polonnaruwa District.

“ My mother tree was planted by my master 8 years ago, from a seedling that had grown under an older tree, my grandmother tree, that is now too old to bear many Oranges, but has still not been cut down as there are a few more years of fruit to be produced here and there. My brother Oranges and I have been born in these villages for a very long time. They are from trees that have been planted from seedlings neighbors gave each other from other trees, and are usually planted with lime trees in the vicinity. I don’t know the origin of where my species came, but would surely like to know my history.

Over the years, until Rajaratarala appeared on the scene, we have grown, matured, ripened and fell dead just where we were born, with few people taking any notice of us. Our masters rarely plucked, ate, squeezed or sold us. There was no market for us, as people don’t like the little bumps we have that look ugly on the outside and therefore look like some apparition. Oranges are supposed to be perfectly smooth, like the Bibile Oranges, which are Green and sell for Rs25each. Now even they face stiff competition from the Orange color Valencias that are imported from Pakistan in thousands and sold even in way side stalls in our area for Rs30ea. Our juice is lime colored theirs orange!

My true value is now being explained as my worth, and my history is being narrated to the world by Rajaratarala, a person who has come from afar as if sent by some force to amongst other things bring to light our plight and try and build a notoriety as the best, healthiest, and greatest treat whether eaten whole or squeezed into a glass to satisfy thirst.

We grow with no added fertilizer. The elephants who used to come to my yard before the Elephant fence encircled the village always avoided us, so we were unharmed by them and even the ever present Monkeys don’t come anywhere near us or our cousin limes, because we have thorns that prick them. We are truly the safest crop to be grown in the midst of the whole range of animals that inhabit our area. So it is ironic that we who no one harms are also unwanted. We who no one cares to even put any nutrients provide a bumper crop, only to be left to ripen and rot on the ground.

There is nothing more organic than us. All the market Oranges are grown in conditions of exploitation, so fertilizer, pesticides and tissue culture are all used to have trees that produce thousands of fruit each season. Our mother tree decides when to flower, if the water or rains come suddenly. So we are not regulars like clockwork. Some trees decide to have a rest and miss a season of flowering. Actually the level of drought and intensity of the resultant rains determine how many flowers and therefore fruit my mother tree decides to put out in a season, along with how many dead leaves have rotted under the tree, as well as fruit to provide it with the nutrients necessary to produce more flowers.

Each of our mother trees have different intensities of sweetness, and sometimes two fruit from the same tree taste slightly differently. So we are not consistent and predictable. Even our sizes are different. Some of us grow very big, others smaller. If we are too mature when we are plucked, and we fall to the ground with a thump, we bruise badly. That bruise comes out in a patch of brown in 24hours and so even Rajaratarala cant sell us to anyone. So what he does is remove our skins and have us squeezed into fresh juice and refrigerated for him to drink as his favorite drink. In season he drinks about 6 glasses of Orange juice a day, and I can assure you all he is the only person on the face of the planet who gets a completely organic, forest grown juice that is priceless as his favorite tipple. Unfortunately for him our season runs for about 4 months and unless he juices us and puts us in a freezer, the period he can drink us is limited to that time.

Due to the seasonality of our birth it takes people a while to get used to drinking us and once they are hooked, we are no longer available. This is a problem Rajaratarala faces every year in finding a market for us. Rajaratarala buys us from our masters for between Rs 2and 3 each depending on size, after plucking us carefully, trying his best not to drop us to the ground, a difficult task, as we are inside in very thorny trees. He and his mates find it hard to reach us and pluck us safely. If our masters pluck us we all fall to the ground, and become unsellable, so Rajaratarala insists on him coming to pluck us.

He then has to pack and transport us trying to make sure we don’t get the sun on our heads as we get sunstroke and people think we are spoilt! He takes us in his pickup hundreds of kilometers to his customers in Colombo, who treat us with curious eyes, and pick and choose the bigger ones leaving the stragglers to be made into juice in Godagama when ripe. So after the post harvest loss of off about 25% as explained above, in bruising and spoilage, he sells the balance for between Rs5 and 7 each. He has to pluck all the oranges in a home garden, so sometimes he has to buy more than he can sell, so occasionally we get thrown away uneaten, though he tries to keep them for himself.

To think we are consumed by posh houses in Colombo, which if they don’t add sugar, cost them about Rs15 a tall glass, is the best value for money they can buy anywhere for a wholesome drink, full of vitamins and minerals and transported from afar. If only they know our humble beginnings, they would be more respectful of our personality and even save the rind to make marmalade, instead of throwing it away.

Rajaratarala is building his home in the village where we live, and he hopes to be able to entertain his friends and customers, so all of you who like us please come and see us one day, and maybe take the best of us and develop us into a native species of fruit to be propagated nationwide, being more adaptable to local conditions than the harder to grow Bibile, and the impossible to grow Valencia and also value us more by increasing our demand and paying a higher price for his efforts. One day, Rajaratarala has promised to grow many of us in his Ratmale property so he can make fresh Orange juice, chilled and deliver to his customers once he has been able to build a loyal clientele for our taste. I can assure you that we have a good life, unlike all the other crops that are grown and so take an interest in our welfare and usefulness in telling your friends our story.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Another surprise on Vesak no one talks about

I blog experiences I encounter and are not tailored to be politically correct, as no one pays to read what I write and I am not beholden to anyone or under obligation. So after my blog entry below I wrote earlier today, my laptop needed recharging and on my way home, I encountered some neighbors, all women and children, dressed up, and wished them as they were walking to the Giritale Janapadaya temple, the closest here. I then encountered a group of men, all waiting for their afternoon shot of moonshine and I half jokingly was sarcastic to one who yesterday asked me for Rs200 for you know what. He proudly said he just purchased a bottle of “ seal arakku” earlier for 1200/- from ‘minni akka’ who he said would sell at least 500 bottles today in the Hingurakgoda town.

I analyzed this, as all bars are closed on Poya, a day of most demand for any brew. So this lady sells the normal retail sanstha gal, which normally retails for Rs 565, at Rs 1200. She would buy it wholesale and make a clear profit of about 700 a bottle. Anyone who does the math will realize if she sells only half what that man said she does, she makes a clear profit of 175K today. If she tells croocked law enforcement that she sells only 50 and will share profits equally with them, then 35K is given with the balance for her.

I am sorry to say that even the staff who work for me look forward to this, and I dread to extrapolate how much goes for the stuff and how much one has to pay both in fines and also to those in law enforcement to either look the other way, or reduce the purported illegal brew they confiscate, so as to minimize the fine. Despite Mathata Thitha, policy of the government, the reality is different as the greed and the money involved is too great to enforce the the law. So those who forced abstinence by not serving liquor even in hotels in Sri Lanka, don’t realize they are just punishing people who bring in legitimate money to the government in liquor tax, while promoting a lot of lawlessness, when bans and prohibitions, encourage the underworld with connivance of the police rotten apples.

For those of you who are unaware, alcohol sales rise enormously, on the eve of Poya, as that is a day when alcohol is consumed in quantity and all outlets including clubs and restaurants as well as all hotels in the Island are banned from serving alcohol. There is a small exception in hotels where I believe they can serve liquor in the hotel room, and at more expensive hotels the mini bar is stocked to partake in ones needs.

I admit I am using a small example of my locality to extrapolate, and in that regard admit that it is unfair to say that nothing has changed since the new Mathata Thitha rules. Any intelligent person would say that such laws only make the underworld wealthier and creates need when previously there were none. The excitement of doing something that is against the law, seems to be a need of the men. The camp that says to legalize cannabis, or ganja as it may result in a lower demand, as it just will not be lucrative as it is now seems to have merit. I believe that unless those given the task of enforcing the law, in fact profit from it being broken, then there is something wrong with the law or those enforcing it. You can suggest what you think should be done and comment on the blog. It is a point to note that the state coffers from Tobacco and Alcohol taxes, and fines from illicit sales of them amount to a lot more than the sum of corporate and income taxes.

Vesak here in Raja Ela, Hingurakgoda –Near Minneriya in Polonnaruwa District

Today is Vesak Poya, and in terms of activity, is no different from another day. We tie up the cattle in a different place, and after an hour down pour yesterday, they seem quite happy with the potential of some tender morsels sprouting up. After all it was the first rain for a month and it preceded a very hot humid spell.

People here having been waiting for this rain, called the rain that turns the winds, and are not sure whether this is it, as the winds have not turned. Over here that rain portends the beginning of a new growing season, and this rain has to pass before the onion seeds are put into the nursery. If this is done before these rains, when they come the nursery will drown as the wet clay filled soil will suffocate the growing plant. Though I slept soundly last night despite having my whole verandah where I sleep soaked after the shower, the ‘hulang kala’ or the windy season has not commenced yet. It may rain tonight!

Unlike in the Western Province, (accounts for 60% of the GNP of Sri Lanka) where there are shops selling a lot of Vesak decorations and lights, especially the temporary ones just for the season, there are no shops like that, and nor have I seen any homes with even on Vesak lantern.

When I passed the row of Army campls in Minneriya yesterday, they had only just begun setting up their individual display locations, I presume the actual decoration is being prepared in a different place to be brought here.

The only plan we appear to have is that some neighbors want to go in the two-wheel tractor to Medirigiriya, thinking there would be more decorations there, for which they borrowed my tractor and borrow a trailer from someone else as I do not have one. Some may, and MAY is the operative word this May 8th, go to the local Temple as they do on each Poya day, and others may go to the nearby stretch of Army camps, to see their more elaborate decorations, as the Army always has a competition for “Best Vesak Lantern”.

No doubt the older ladies take sill (upasaka amma),and as is usual the Gal Vihare is a destination every Poya where the Army provides the midday meal for those pilgrims. See my blog entry of June 2008 for some of the visuals of last year’s Poson, which is the bigger occasion in these parts, and not Vesak as it is in the Western Province.

The shops are closed till Monday, so I have to plan ahead to ensure that we have got the inputs necessary for our work schedule for these few days to prepare the land for sowing.

In the Kauddulla vicinity there is a pinkama in progress, praying for rain, for the farmers who depend on paddy cultivation using the waters of the mighty Kaudulla Tank. There is no surplus water to be given to Kaudulla from Minneriya, nor any excess to be sent further on to the Kantale Tank. The rains in the Up country have not been sufficient to fill the Victoria and lower Reservoirs of the Mahaweli scheme, so little has come our way to Minneriya through an elaborate series of tunnels and canals that fill Giritale and Minneriya Tanks and also affects the Parakrama Samudra inflow through another route.

Monday, May 4, 2009

martin wickramasinghe museum, koggala

The childhood home

During my stay in the area, I visited the museum and childhood home of the famous author of many novels and books of learning, the late Mr Martin Wickramasinghe. Details can be found on

The Martin Wickramasinghe Trust runs this establishment for the benefit of the people, where we only have to pay a nominal entrance fee of Rs20/-

School children are encouraged to come as a class, as many of the works of Mr Wickramasinghe are part of the literature that is studied. One should ideally spend about 2 to 3 hours wandering around the grounds.

Of course with my need to learn mode, I was most interested in the names of the trees in the park that have both the sinhala name, the english name and the latin name.

The folk museum is not too large as to make it boring, and so little interesting snippets can be learned like knives used to cut herbs for ayurvedic medicine which caught my eye. There is something of interest for everyone. The more interest the public shows in this place I am sure the interest the trust would take to enhance the enjoyment factor of the visitor and provide an even greater experience, with no burden on the state.

Exhibit of carts of yesteryear

Sunday, May 3, 2009

the fortress resort in koggala

I spent a few days at the fortress hotel in koggala, It was very relaxing, as usual bathing in the sea is the most pleasurable pastime for me. The hotel is almost on the water, being on a 4 acre thin strip of land between the main Galle Matara road and the beach, and was built on the land previously occupied by Hotel Horizon, which I used to visit when I was small.

The main feature, is the simple fortress like design on the outside, based on old Dutch buildings in the Island, however there are no other Sri Lankan touches other than the staff in sari or sarong. One could be in any hotel room anywhere in the world as the interior while finished to a very high standard has no traditional motifs or furniture. There was no desk in the room and the closets for clothes was minimal, which for a super luxury hotel is one that needs addressing.

The bathrooms are almost the size of the rooms with white marble on the floor and up to ceilings, with modern fittings, bath showers and double wash basins and modern fittings. All rooms have flat screen tvs and ipod, with good sound stereo, which also implies the iphone can be charged on the same docking station. The free wifi did not work as well as hoped.

The choice of food was good, but not excellent,however the staff were exceedingly helpful and polite, but still lack the attention at a US restaurant where the water tumblers are always filled with iced water, without having to be asked.