Out in Sri Lanka there is an interesting group of people, the ex-pats. These people have decided to make their lives on the tropical island for a number of reasons. None of them is quite sure where home is, here, there, or somewhere else. Perhaps home is a different concept for them, home is where they happen to be today. Here are the stories of some of them.
Tea Planter’s Child
It was the 59th birthday of a large and jolly lady held in a new cafeteria in Kandy. She told us how she was brought up on a tea plantation near Kandy as a girl. What a wonderful childhood it was with freedom to roam and play. She told how she would take latex from rubber trees and roll it into a ball. She said they were the bounciest rubber balls she had ever had.
Her three brothers were sent to England to school but she, a girl, was told that is was enough to learn how to make flower arrangements, to do embroidery and to become skilled in the art of making conversation. These attributes would make her desirable for a young planter. There was talk of her going to finishing school in Switzerland but the money ran out.
She spent most of her adult life in England working for a local authority in the North. Someone found her flower arranging and conversation skills attractive enough to marry her. As soon as practicable, she persuaded her husband to emigrate back to Sri Lanka. Now they run a small eco-hotel hear her original plantation high in the Hanthana Hills overlooking Kandy and the Knuckles range of mountains.
Guests can stay there for nothing much if they agree to work on the estate building fences, caring for the stream, tending the gardens, maintaining the outbuildings etc.
The Planter and his Wife
Another ex-pat, a tall lean elderly gentleman of the old school, has been a planter all his life in Sri Lanka and Africa. He was born in North India but sent to school in England. He saw his father only 4 times before father died when the boy was 12. He became a planter in Africa and then in Sri Lanka. He has never returned to England since his schooldays but his devotion to the English cricket team is undimmed.
He was in Sri Lanka soon after independence in 1948 and witnessed the peaceful transfer of power. He was here at the time of the Bandaranaike government and could not find a good word to say about what the Bandaranaike family had done to the country.
He is happily retired now in a bungalow overlooking the Mahaweli river near Kandy. His TV is tuned to the cricket channel. Even on this terrible day, when Trump became president of America, Joe Root and Moeen Ali were batting so serenely for England against India that all seemed well in his world.
His British wife was born in China. When 3 years old her family had to flee the communists. She recalled how, at the time, her mother was in hospital with her newly born younger sister. The Communists had stormed in to claim that everything belonged to the state now. That is our baby give it to us, they demanded. She managed to keep the baby because the soldiers would not have known what to do with her.
She remembers fleeing in the new family car with as many possessions as they could load. At each of the many road-blocks they lost something in bribes or by theft. She recalled how their toothpaste tubes were squeezed empty in case they contained something helpful to the enemy. Eventually the car was lost and they walked for a few days to Hong Kong, crossing the border with just their clothes.
The American Marine
Another couple from USA was living in Kandy. I think that they had had a financial disaster of some sort in the US. Living cheaply in Sri Lanka for a few years was their way of getting their finances back in order. He was and ex-marine and very knowledgeable about American Politics but his talks needed lubrication with beer. Each glass provoked more explanation which in turn needed more beer.
Just after the Sri Lankan civil war (2009), meat was in short supply and a succulent turkey for Thanksgiving was not possible. Until, that is, the ex-pat Americans in Colombo, with the aid of their embassy, arranged for a container of frozen turkeys to be shipped in. We were invited to celebrate Thanksgiving with our American friends and, because I have a degree in surgery, and because Roger had consumed an amount of Jack Daniels, I was invited to carve.
That was the sweetest of turkeys and Jack Daniels is America’s greatest contribution to the civilised world.
The Welsh Engineer
On our second visit, we found our neighbour was a Welshman. We had just moved in and there was a crisis because we had no bottle opener, corkscrew or tin opener. Rather than spend a thirsty and hungry evening I went round with a bottle and introduced myself.
David was a site engineer on civil engineering projects. As a young man with a sense of adventure he signed up to work on the Victoria Dam built across the Mahaweli river in 1980. An attractive young girl was employed in the site office and David married this Sri Lankan beauty. I have to say she is a most attractive woman. They are still in Sri Lanka living in a house overlooking the Mahaweli river. Kume, his wife, speaks perfect English but with a Welsh accent. David spends a lot of his time rebuilding Land Rovers.
They accept the dual life as normal, six months Sri Lanka and six months in the Welsh valleys. Both sites have Land Rovers needing restoration.
The Sales Manager
Another friend had a successful career selling pharmaceuticals around the world. He and his wife decided that, of all the places they had lived, Sri Lanka was easily the best. When he retired he settled near Kandy. He has built a large house which takes guests and there are cabanas around his small estate for holidaymakers.
When he was fencing his estate, he commented on how many snakes there were. I knew of a colleague who was setting up a snake farm to collect snake venom for the production of an anti-venom. We invited the snake farmers out to collect some of the vipers and cobras that were being disturbed. They caught a good selection to take back to the new snake farm. Word got around to the locals. The next day a boy turned up with a sack containing a cobra. Cobras had been scarce so my friend took it and gave the boy 50 rupees (25p). The next day about 20 boys turned up with snakes in sacks, most of them non-venomous and not useful for the project.
Sri Lankan Doctor
A Sri Lankan doctor who qualified and worked in Sri Lanka joined the ‘brain drain’ as did many professionals when Bandaranaike began her socialist experiments in the 1970s. Most of his working life was spent in London. He has his home in Sri Lanka where he grew up and where his mother still lived. He is now retired and loved being back in Kandy wearing a sarong again and walking to the local market, bartering with the traders in Sinhala and buying all the delicacies known only to Sri Lankans. He loved his glass of Arrack as much as he loved Johnny Walker Black Label when back in London.
Even in Kandy, thanks to the internet, he could indulge in his hobby of having a flutter on the horses.
“So, you are you here, back at home?” I said when I met him in Kandy.
“There is the problem, Mike. Where is home? My wife (also a Sri Lankan) and children want me to be in London, I do not know where home is anymore.”
The Last Days
A couple, Janet and Jeff had been in Sri Lanka for a few years. Jeff became ill and the diagnosis was certain and fatal, cancer of the stomach. ‘Captain of the Men of Death’ was the name given to that diagnosis by old surgeons. Facing up to the prognosis, they discussed whether to stay put or return ‘home’ to England. Jeff was concerned that Janet might not manage in Sri Lanka without him. Janet wanted Jeff to enjoy his last days as he wished, she could always go back ‘home’ afterwards. Their choice was to spend their time strolling among the trees and flowers in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya in the sunshine.
Their daily walk around the garden was their way of enjoying the last days. Together they realised that this was their home, not the little semi in England. The gardeners noticed that their walks got shorter and slower. They noticed how Jeff lost his hair due to chemo and how he must be recovering when it began to grow back again. They were happy to pass the time of day with them until one week they understood the walkers had not visited and would not return.
Janet was content with their decision to stay in their new home. Even after her loss she never felt any yearning for England. She treasures the memories of their walks in the world’s finest garden, the Heart of Paradise, it was called by an early traveller. She is a valued member of the ex-pat community and has two or three especially close friends on whom she can rely.
The British ex-pats in Sri Lanka express the same problem. When they go ‘home’ to Britain it is the comfortable, familiar place where they grew up. They, themselves, however have changed and are no longer the comfortable familiar people to their friends and acquaintances. People are not interested in your stories of elephants damaging the garden or of monkeys stealing your fruit or of how you always had tiffin at 4 o’clock on the veranda. You are slightly odd and England does not accept you on the same terms as of old.
Some return to the same job they had before leaving. This provokes resentment among those who have been there all the time. Ex-pats find themselves seeking out the company of other ex-pats who have the same feelings, that they have come ‘home’ but ‘home’ does not accept them.
What particularly irks people in the UK is the mention of servants. Many households in Sri Lanka have servants, cooks, gardeners, cleaners, night watchmen etc. In the UK there are no servants. We just call them something else, cleaning ladies, gardeners, baby sitters, odd job men but we do not call them servants.
Re-settling back home is not easy. It is as it is and you must accept it. New friends back home will accept you without the feeling that you are odd because you went away.