Thursday, May 24, 2012


Transport in Sri Lanka is a bit of a nightmare whichever way you choose to do it, and there are only two choices; road or rail. If you go by road you have a choice of bus or taxi (or Tuk tuk of course, but not for long journeys). Taxi’s are expensive. Buses are cheap. Both are really slow, because the roads are small and full of holes. Train, on the other hand is slightly more fun.

One reason I quite like the trains is it feels a bit like stepping back in time; many of the train stations still look exactly the same as when they were built back in the late 1890’s/early 1900’s I think. There are rest rooms for gentlemen and ladies, as well as one for ‘clergy’.

Ella Train station
Galoya Junction, with waiting train for Trincomalee

The ticket office consists of a little wooden framed window, and a bloke with a big book.

Ticket office window

Inside the ticket office.

Train ticket. 

'Operations room'

Station Masters office

There is a rather grand looking station-masters office, as well as an office with a contraption called a tablet machine, which as far as I understand it tells the people at the station (via a system of bells, and an old telephone) when the next train is coming in. I asked how old one of these was, and was told that it was made in London and was over a hundred years old!

Tablet machine, over a hundred years old.

The trains are slightly more modern (they are big dirty diesel things) but I wouldn’t like to say how old.

Specially reserved seat for Clergy

The main reason I prefer the trains though is because they don’t close the doors, so you can, quite literally, hang out of the doorway and look at the view, take photo’s, wave at people, get fresh air etc. 

Open door of first class

The trains don’t go very fast, not much more than 20 or 30 mph I would guess, so if you do fall out you may actually survive the fall (as long as you’re not going over a bridge at the time). The main thing that appeals to me about this is not the risk element - it’s not particularly dangerous, but it’s just that you’d never be allowed to do this at home – there would be some sour faced jobsworth there to prevent you (even if you could open the doors during transit).

Hanging out the door, great views...

You can usually have a choice of 1st 2nd or 3rd class, which vary of course in comfort and price. The best place to get the train though is up in the hills, as there is just miles of jaw droppingly great scenery to look at, whilst hanging out of the door. And every time you go through an tunnel all the kids on the train scream at the top of their voice, just to hear the echo. You can even get a first class ‘observation coach’ up in the hills, which goes at the back of the train and has an extra big window on the rear of the carriage.

The other thing I love about railways here is not just being on the train, but that you can walk along the track to get from A-B. Strictly speaking it’s not legal; I did see a sign (in Sinhala, Tamil, and English) saying trespassers would be prosecuted, but it looked as though it may have been left over from the British period, and anyway no one was paying any attention.

Trespassers will be prosecuted, perhaps. 

Man with kitchen sink on his head.

This is made fairly clear by the fact that there are small cafĂ©’s where you can buy tea and biscuits set up all along the line, as well as people’s homes which are built (in some cases) just a few feet from the tracks. Again, this would never be allowed back home because the dreaded health and safety zealots would be on to it in no time.

In a way, I think the railways quite neatly sum up most of what I like about Sri Lanka; one the one hand there is a slightly English feel to it all (an echo of colonialism) combined with a complete disinterest in rules, regulations, health and safety, time keeping, and a general lack of urgency about anything at all. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Noah, wearing Sri Lankan cricket team shirt, in his favourite form of Transport; a Tuk Tuk

When Britta and I decided to come here we knew that the experience would be good for our son Noah, but were slightly worried about how he would cope. It’s all so different from home. It’s hot and humid, all the food has got chillies in, there’s tropical illnesses like dengue fever, blah blah blah.

We needn’t have worried. I think we’ve found it harder than he has. He’s 3 and a half now, and although I know he still remembers home (he knows we have a cat called Marvin and he talks to his grandparents on Skype etc) I’m not really sure how he thinks of it, or if he’s all that bothered about going back there. Four months in the life of a three year old must seem like a lifetime, and I suspect it will be a bit of a shock to his system to go back to normality. Or maybe not…I guess when you’re three everything is just a new experience, whether you’re in Leeds or Colombo.

When we left England he was a fairly shy little chap, and didn’t really like talking to new people. Four months later he is bold as brass, makes friends almost everywhere he goes (he attracts lots of attention everywhere he goes) and talks in a Sri Lankan accent when talking to anyone with dark skin. I won’t say it’s all been easy…there have been moments when we’ve all been hot and tired and we’ve just wished he had an off switch but that’s the same for any parent…just a bit worse when you’re on a hot crowded bus full of people staring at you and your son is screaming his head off.

On the whole though, I think this has been great for him, and I really hope he remembers some of it, in one form or another in his later life! I think I’d have to say his favourite things have been Tuk Tuks (three wheeled taxi’s) with which is obsessed, swimming in his rubber ring, egg hoppers (Sri Lankan pancake type of thing) and Lemon Puff biscuits, though there's probably loads more...

So this post is, I’m afraid, nothing much about Sri Lanka, but more about the fun Noah has had here, and is unashamedly for the Noah enthusiasts out there such as his Grandparents, cousins etc. 

Noah holding hands with his friend Rukshi

Noah driving a Tuk Tuk with Rukshi

Noah on Kandy lake...he'd been harassing us for a boat ride all day, so he looks pleased that it paid off. 

Learning to swim with rubber ring...a big step as he was terrified of both sea and pool when we arrived.

Turtle hatchery, with baby turtles!

Enjoying a fresh Pineapple juice in the garden at Upper Glencairn. 

His best mate Roshan, at Ulpotha.

The three wheel obsession continues.

Looks like he's just had an idea...

Being in Sri Lanka Noah has developed a taste for cricket. 
Standing on the platform waiting for the train for Colombo.

Walking down the train tracks at Ella...Noah loves trains so being abe to do this is great...couldn't do it at home of course.

Noah on the broken Hunslet Diesel engine in Victoria Park in Colombo. 

Another Tuk Tuk journey... to a Buddhist Temple (Stupa). Noah can now tell whether a temple is a Buddhist Stupa, a Hindu temple (Kovil),  a Mosque ("where they sing to Allah") or a church ("where they sing to Jesus"). 

He's also a good research assistant for Britta, and a photographers assistant for me...we both take him with us on work trips and people love him being there...he's the perfect ice breaker in those  culturally awkward moments. 

Sitting on the Tsunami train

After looking the Tsunami train picture of him I though it would have been better if  it had been a 3rd class carriage, as he's 3, so I had a go at re-shooting it. 

Me and Noah on our bike, outside our house in Negombo. He went everywhere with me, sitting on the handle bars, with his feet in the shopping basket. And has learnt left from right so that he could also be my indicators.

I think this is my favourite Noah picture, taken of him outside a Hindu Temple at the ancient city ruins of Polonnaruwa. He was very pleased with his red dot. 

Betel nut

Betel 'scissors'; for cutting the husk off the nut
When I was in India (way back in the 1990’s) one of the things I remember being a bit disturbed by was the habit of chewing Betel. It’s a nut, and is chewed, or placed next to the gums, along with some other bits and bobs… usually a Betel leaf, smeared with lime (stone) paste, and some tobacco leaf, and it gives you some sort of high (not particularly strong, probably a bit like chewing tobacco or something).

Always keen to try new things we (myself and travelling companions at the time) had a go at chewing some betel, and never even got to the stage where we got any noticeable buzz from it as it was bloody disgusting and we all spat it out after about half a minute.

But the worst thing about Betel (if there can be anything worse than the taste of the stuff) is what it does to your mouth. It turns your saliva bright red, and your lips, and your gums, and your teeth…and Betel chewers go around spitting great gob-fulls of red slobber everywhere. Nearly 20 years after being in India I have vivid memories of walking down narrow city streets that were spattered with red gob, and looking at people who looked like they’d just been lunching on raw flesh, with red slobber dribbling down their chins.

Here in Sri Lanka people also chew the stuff. Generally it’s the less well off people that seem to like it; a bag of Betel is about Rs 20. I expect there’s all kinds of statistics about the correlation of poverty with dental hygiene (like in certain parts of Leeds for instance) but no amount of tooth brushing (with Clogate, presumably) will get the red stuff off. So not a good habit if you care about the way you look.

Betel scissors in action, tied to the wall with a piece if string, outside the village shop.

A piece of Betel.

Ingredients; Betel, dried tobacco, bag of lime paste, all wrapped up in a Betel leaf. 

A dab of lime far as I understand this is paste made from lime stone. 

Smear the lime paste on the Betel leaf...

wrap it all up and stick it next to your gum...

and give it a good chew, lovely!

Lets face it, no habit forming substances are good for making you look pretty…smoking makes your skin go yellow and wrinkly, too much booze gives you a red nose and/or face, heroin turns you into a living skeleton etc etc…none of them are great for the cosmetic appearance (never mind the internal organs) but Betel, well, there’s just no need! Obviously I suppose I’m biased…I can afford to have other habits if I choose (and I do have one or two, no one’s perfect) but I’m really glad it’s not a big thing in England, because then I’d have to look at some of the horrors I see in Leeds, all shuffling about spitting red dribble everywhere. 

Not great for the teeth...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fishy business

Sri Lanka is an Island, and therefore surrounded by sea, and fish…so there’s always lots of fresh fish to eat. If you’re near the sea, there will be a fish market somewhere near you where you can go and buy all kinds of fresh fish (some of which I’ve never seen before) for not much money. The first time we bought some fish at the market we bought a kilo of tuna for about 4 quid.

Or you can walk down the beach and (if you happen to be in a touristy spot) you can choose the fish you want to eat outside the restaurant, and how you would like it cooked. When we were in Galle Britta had Jumbo prawns, which were the size of a small lobster (no exaggeration!)

Having rented a house for three months in Negombo, which is one of the countries largest fishing ports, we were surrounded by fishermen, their boats and their families. So it seemed logical for me to take some pictures about this fishy business. As I mentioned in a previous post (about tea) I needed to produce some work with a narrative, and also another piece of work which dealt with an issue, for my MA studies. As with tea, the fishing industry provided me with both these possibilities. Reasonably easy to do a narrative here, but what is the issue? Well, as with tea, it comes down to money again. Fishermen are mostly self-employed, and if they don’t catch anything, they don’t earn anything. Which means they go hungry of have to pawn something until the next catch.

A couple of days after we first arrived the government put the price of fuel up. The fishermen (up and down the country) were not happy about this and held a series of strikes and road blocks which, for a few days at least, caused a fair degree of mayhem. Especially if you wanted to eat fish. The fuel price more than doubled for diesel and Kerosene which meant that if the fishermen didn’t catch much fish (which happens fairly often) then they end up owing money rather than earning it.

Fishermen block the road with their boats and burning tyres.
Fishermen refusing to let any traffic through their road block.

Apart from the monetary issue, there is also an environmental one, which is a case of over fishing. About one third of the population lives in coastal regions, which means that around 65% of the nations animal protein comes from fish. Management of stocks is being introduced with deep see fishing of tuna, but other than this there is not a great deal of regulation. Opinion on this varies according to who you talk to…the fishermen, for instance, think there is no problem with fish stocks, just that there are too many fishermen…

Other than financial and ecological, there is also a political element involved. The government don’t seem to give the industry a great deal of support, and don’t like it when the industry makes a fuss about things. For example, the leader of one of the fishing unions, Mr Herman Kumara, was threatened (by government heavies) and publically blamed for the national orchestration of strikes and road blocks, to the extent that he had to leave the country. Also, other government led initiatives, such as the establishment of tourist resorts in the north like Kalpitya, have seen fishermen pushed off their traditional beach side home grounds, and out of their fishing waters.

Fisherman in Negombo lagoon harbour. Many of the fishermen wear scarves on their head to keep their hats from blowing off.

Fisherman at Trincomalee, fixing his net.

Bigger fish are caught with pole and line.

Pole and line fishermen out looking for big fish. 

Negombo Fish Market.
Negombo Fish Market.

Gutting and preparing fish to be dried.

Boxing up dried fish.

Filling up the bigger boats with diesel, these boats go out deep sea fishing for Tuna, shark etc.

'Trawler' captain. The bigger boats are called trawlers, but they don't trawl in the same way as European trawlers. 

Wheel house of trawler, this is also sleeping quarters for a crew of six for up to 5 weeks at a time. 

Unloading the cargo of Tuna.

Washing the cargo after it's been in the cargo for several weeks.

Fish market for deep sea fish.

Fisherman Nimal and family. Nimal is pleased his eldest son works at a posh hotel (Jetwing Sea) rather than become a fisherman. 

Fisherman Prasad and family.

Fisherman Nisanta and family.

I took lots of pictures of fishermen on the beach, in the harbour, and also at home, but the best fun I had was going our fishing with Nimal, and his mate Samath, at four in the morning. Heading off into the dark, a high speed on a motor boat, not knowing how far out we were going, not being able to ask, as language was limited, and not wearing any kind of life vest (don’t be such a poof) was really exciting.

I found it really hard to focus in the dark, or work out what setting to put my flash on, so the pictures from the first hour or so weren’t very interesting, but once the dawn began to break it was really beautiful. They drove to a seemingly random spot (it wasn’t random, they had an electronic gadget to say where the currents, or fish, I’m not sure which, were) dumped the net over the side, and then waited for an hour or so while the sun came up. Sampath munched on some betel nut (more on this later) and a few other boats came along side to say hello, and comment on the fact that they had seen my camera flashing for miles off.

Nimal, on our way to the fishing ground.

Nimal and Sampath put the net (about 200 ft long) in the water. 

Nimal and Sampath wait while the dawn breaks behind them. 

Getting up at 3.30 am suddenly seemed worth it for the sunrise.

When it came time to haul the net in there didn’t seem to be much in it…and there wasn’t. The kind of fish they were after were tiny little ones, they called them coral fish, I’d call them sprats. We headed back to the beach by about 7am, and spent the next hour or so emptying the net. There was a total of about 20 or 30 kilos of fish. Nimal’s wife, violet met us on the beach with a bottle of hot tea, and helped him vary the fish a couple of hundred meters down the beach to the market, where they weighed it all up and sold it in about 3 or 4 minutes.  The money he got didn’t even cover the diesel for the trip. I asked him how much it cost him in fuel and he said about Rs 2000 (about £10) so I paid that for him as a way of saying thank you for taking me out.

Pulling the net back in.

As the net comes in again we are followed by birds.

The coral fish are very small, and there doesn't seem to be many of them.

Other fishing boats come along side for a natter, and discuss whether it's been a good catch or not...they don't seem to have caught much either.

Emptying the coral fish out of the net. 

Sampath with his head scarf on.

Nimal and his wife Violet put all the fish into a basket and head for the market,  a couple of hundred yards up the beach. 

As with tea workers, the fishermen work long and hard hours, often for little financial reward (though this isn’t always the case…if the catch is good, the return is good) but have very little financial security; they are wholly dependent on what they catch.