Back home at the Grand Hyatt Singapore I’m lying on the couch, there’s a glass of red wine sitting on the table alongside and I’ve just finished dinner. The lamp is on, light spills across my notebook as the city skyline reminds me I’m not really at home at all, I’m 6570 kilometres away.
There’s not a sound to be heard aside from my fingers moving across the keyboard. I don’t notice silence so much usually, until I don’t have it. Thoughts swim constantly in my mind making the notion of a deafening silence something I’m yet to experience.
I’ve just begun writing about my last day in Sri Lanka, a day that will remain one of the most memorable of my life but let’s go back to the day before.
The tour had officially finished and check-out wasn’t until 11am but I’d woken to a 5am alarm. I had somewhere to be. At 5.30am I was standing in the lobby waiting for a driver who would take me across the city to a prearranged meeting in a location 20 minutes away. Travelling at speed through the city was an experience in itself. I’d been on a bus for the best part of two weeks so to be at the same level as other vehicles made the “organised chaos” I’d referenced from my lofty window seat feel more like just chaos. And yes - even at that hour.
I’d arrived. I walked up the steps of the entranceway unsure of what was to come. Once inside I was lead to an open air room off to the side of the main area to wait. Moments later I was greeted by a priest. He sat down beside me and introduced himself, told me that the family we had spoken of were waiting to meet me. Though, at this stage they remained unaware of why on this morning, at this hour, they were meeting with a 36 year old Australian woman. As I’m sure at this point in time, so are you.
Before I continue, some background;
I’ve thought hard on how to approach this post. Sponsoring a child can be topical at the best of times and as I have no interest in debating the subject with anyone I am somewhat reluctant to tell the story. However, given I don’t believe for a moment I am alone in wanting to help, nor wanting to help directly rather than through a representative organisation - I'm writing about it. Maybe there will be something in this that will answer a question for someone else - to enable them to choose to make the lives of another family a little bit easier.
It was Christmas break just over three months before I would leave for Sri Lanka and I was at Mum’s place sitting out on the deck reading, with my phone not far from reach. I knew I wanted to sponsor a child when I went to Sri Lanka but I also knew I wouldn’t go about it in the usual way. Distracted I put my book down, got my phone and clicked on the LinkedIn app.
Earlier that month I had drafted a message, one that told who I was, why I was reaching out and what my plans were. I copied the text from the Notes app and proceeded to search “Sri Lanka” as a people location in the LinkedIn app. From there I refined the results to those whose field of work held similarities to my own. There were five. To them I sent the same message aside from the first paragraph which I personalised accordingly. I am still in regular contact with these five wonderful people, two of whom I met, one of whom was able to assist directly with this quest.
It was much easier to tell a complete stranger why I wanted to sponsor a child but I have reduced my three reasons to cold-hearted dot points to protect a heart that isn’t:
a personal connection to the country - which will become known as you read on
not knowing if I will have children of my own
the desire to have a positive impact on the lives of people who aren’t my own family, friends or respected colleagues
Over the three months that followed we emailed often. In any case it was comforting for me to be getting to know people who lived in a country I would be travelling to alone. This was of particular reassurance around the time of some civil unrest which gained international media attention, though was not entirely accurate. I’d been reading about it in the newspaper in a cafe on the coast and promptly shot off two messages to ask for the perspective of those on the ground. They replied almost immediately and having read their responses I popped the newspaper on the table next to me and went back to enjoying my breakfast.
Returning to Sri Lanka;
Walking toward us was a young Mother and her two sons, aged twelve and seven. I was told to ask them questions, specifically to the eldest boy whose English was okay. It was in this moment that I realised my questions were to allow me to determine whether I would sponsor him, fortunately he didn’t know this but still, I was a stranger asking him about his life. Of course I was going to sponsor him.
One of the reasons for seeking out an avenue to meet directly with a family in this manner was because through others I already knew that they were genuinely in need and good people. Having this pre-assurance helped me to keep our conversation as informal as I could. We spoke for half an hour or so and suffice to say he, and is little brother are remarkable. I told him I would assist with his education and see them all again as soon as I could come back.
I had another family to visit the next day.
Returning across town at lightning speed I was back at the hotel with plenty of time until check out and while going back to sleep appealed I headed next door to a cafe for breakfast and coffee. I spent hours there, typing, talking and totally lost in thought staring out the window. Those thoughts mostly comprised of how much I was enjoying time alone in a foreign city, just watching - being inspired.
I had a cab booked for 11am so with just ten minutes to cram my gear in my bag I tied my boots to the outside to save the effort to make them fit and then took up residence on the couch in the lobby to wait for my lift.
People came and went, all drivers leaving their vehicles to ask waiting passengers their names and find their ride. For some time there was a man standing by a white sedan looking around expectantly. A porter asked me if I was waiting for a lift, I said yes and I asked him to check if that man was my lift. It turned out he was and he spoke no English at all.
It was a quiet drive. I sat silently hoping he was taking me where I had asked as we headed down roads that looked more like pathways.
Seemingly out of nowhere a large hotel appeared, mine thankfully! Once checked in I headed down to The Fishery, the hotel’s seafood restaurant for lunch and to write. As it does whenever I open my laptop and am free to get lost in thought hours pass and I was soon due to meet Rashenka of Infinity Vacations who had kindly arranged my first night in the country and my final two. We had spoken often in the months leading up to my trip and his help had been invaluable.
The hotel lobby is a big space so we could see each other long before there was any point saying hello. I instantly but quite unexpectedly felt as if I was meeting someone I already knew.
Together we walked out to the same restaurant to talk. Infinity Vacations aim to surpass expectations, they believe traveling should be without limits, the options endless. That our travel experiences should be handcrafted and designed to create impressions that will enrich lives and broaden horizons - there is no denying their passion is palpable. For the next couple of hours we were to discuss our businesses aligning to promote Sri Lanka as a preferred destination, and sample the cuttlefish!
Rashenka was also going to return the next day at 4.30am with Eranda who would drive us to the Kanetta (Borella) Cemetery for the ANZAC Day Dawn Service.
“With the fall of Singapore only three months earlier, and news out of Pearl Harbour still fresh, Gunner Athol Mahony and soldiers from the 2/2 Field Regiment knew what was coming. Ceylon was now a front-line British base and a ripe target. Defence preparations had been lax and anti-British sentiment within the indigenous population was at an all-time high - they wanted the Japanese to liberate them. The soldiers were rightly nervous. A large sea turtle was mistaken as a Japanese amphibious landing vehicle.
Everyone fearfully looked toward the sea and sky.
My Grandfather was there to defend Ceylon when the Japanese attack finally did arrive at 7:30am on April 5th 1942 (Easter Sunday) - fronted by the same officer that led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.
Ceylon was the meat in the sandwich, caught between the Germans marauding across Africa and the Japanese galloping across the Indian Ocean. Ceylon was the last link in the chain.
My Grandfather and his mates drew a line in the sand and fought and not everyone made it home. The British lost three battleships that day and over a thousand lives were lost on and near this beautiful island.
I wanted to be there at dawn in Colombo to witness a different rising sun, lest I forget.”
At 4am the next morning my phone rang, “I’m here!” said Rashenka.
He knew I was worried about being on time, and also, we weren’t entirely certain where in the cemetery the small service was to be held.
We were travelling in style, the cool leather seats coupled with the air-conditioning meant that having put absolutely NO thought into what I might wear to the Dawn Service I was not yet overheating. This would come. I was wearing the black tights I’d worn over on the plane, heels and an oversized tee that did not support the heavy medals.
The issue for me was that if I was going to wear Pop’s medals it should be done so respectfully and I was annoyed with myself. I’d spent so much time arranging my attendance that I hadn’t given any thought to something appropriate to wear. Pop was immaculate, always, even in his 96th year.
He was also and still remains, the strongest person I have known. He is also the person to give me the greatest compliment I have and will probably ever receive. He was a extraordinary man and to be in Colombo with the medals he earned was a privilege. I was so grateful to Rashenka that I wasn’t travelling alone to the service in a tuk tuk.
Pulling into the Borella Cemetery was like something out of a movie. It was dark and the headstones towered above us as we tried to find the location of the service. We were early but still surprised that there was no one else around.
Established in 1866, the cemetery was hauntingly beautiful and they are words I never thought I would say about a cemetery. It stretches across 48 acres and I have to say, I’m pleased I only became aware of the numerous reports of paranormal activity well after having returned home. Still, I can only go on how I felt the time; calm and filled with an immense sense of honour to be attending a service on the same land in which the medals I wore were earned.
We eventually found the memorial site thanks to Rashenka’s conversation with another driver. Not so because of his conversation with the security guard who had no such knowledge of any service, looked rather sleepy and completely disinterested.
I had no preconceived idea of what this service would be like, no expectations, which is ultimately how I like to travel outside of my own planning. Eranda let us out and Rashenka and I made our way to the group gathering by the memorial site. A friendly Australian voice asked us if we wanted an order of service booklet and handed us each a candle.
At this time my phone rang; it was Dimitri, a contact I had made prior to leaving Australia. He had woken his Father at an ungodly hour for him to drive them to the service from Galle, some two hours away. Rest assured the weight of this gesture was not lost on me. Lawrence, Dimitri’s Father waited in the car as Dimitri tried to find us in the dark among the gathering crowd. I recognised him immediately and gave him a big hug.
I knew just how fortunate I was to have these two wonderful individuals willing to be there for me on this day:
Dimitri’s commitment to being there was admirable, particularly as the next day he was to attend his cousin’s wedding. Weddings anywhere are a big deal but here in Sri Lanka it’s a big, big deal and his family from far and wide were in the country for the occasion. The night before had been a celebration of momentous proportions for him - reunited with many cousins. He was clearly struggling, yet still he gave me all he had and I was grateful for his time and his ability to be in the moment, in spite of other rightful family priorities and let’s be honest, NO SLEEP!
We discovered after the service that Dimitri went to school with Rashenka’s Manager George. Sri Lanka and Tasmania certainly do have their similarities.
To Rashenka I was also grateful. He never made me feel like I was taking valuable time, that there was anywhere else he should have been. He embraced the experience with the honour and respect the occasion called for. There’s a well known saying about how what you say and what you do won’t be remembered so much as how you made someone feel and in his case it’s true. You’re wise beyond your years RP.
So there we were, three standing among around eighty, maybe one hundred to honour the ANZACs. Let’s return now, in this serious moment to addressing my attire. I was ROASTING, in part also to having been given candles, an addition that would be welcomed on a Tasmanian ANZAC Day because I’m usually freezing. Not so now, I was melting and trying to juggle my camera, the candle with its wax sliding down onto my hand and the booklet. Dimitri took the camera from me and got some great shots which freed me up to listen properly.
At the conclusion of the service we were approached by Bryce Hutchesson, Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. He asked of our connection and after discussion and a photo we were invited to his residence for a traditional Gunfire Breakfast. It was barely 6.30am and I’d already spent two hours in an impractical state of speechlessness due to the magnitude of the occasion but I managed to find the words to appropriately respond to his offer, yes being one of them.
Bryce Hutchesson has his eyes shut in the photo. I can't say I blame him.
Dimitri’s Dad, Lawrence drove him to the breakfast, Eranda drove Rashenka and I. Lawrence and Eranda waited while we attended. I’m still not sure where they waited given the tightened security in the suburb.
Breakfast was laid on; “Would you like your coffee with a shot of Australian Bundaburg Rum?” Yes probably but “no - thank you.”
It was around this time I unfastened Pop’s medals and carried them in my hand. It was better than the horizontal, haphazard look I had going on. Particularly amongst the calibre of people we had inadvertently found ourselves in the midst of.
All the women were well dressed and appropriately for the climate, but were not, might I add - attempting to wear medals.
As I’d become accustomed I had a mixed western/traditional breakfast and the three of us found a table where we met some fascinating people, all of whom have our cards but I cannot recall any of their titles. Being in awe does little for networking.
The conversation was something I wanted to prolong but we had a schedule to keep to and with Lawrence waiting we needed to make a move. I retrieved my bag from Eranda’s car and said goodbye to Rashneka. Oddly no goodbye in Sri Lanka ever felt like goodbye, more a, see you again soon.
Lawrence’s blue van pulled up to the gates of the residence, I slid the door open, jumped in, said hello and we were off! Dimitri looked like he was ready for a well earned nap.
We had a one, near two hour drive ahead of us. At the one hour mark we pulled in for water, also for Lawrence get some food. I wasn’t hungry but I was overheating so I grabbed a pair of shorts, my thongs and a tee and raced to the toilets to change. Ahhh - don’t even bother taking tights to a humid country. Back in the van I felt like a new woman.
Dimitri asked if I would mind if he shut his eyes. Not at all! I am not someone who needs to talk for the sake of it and Mr. Samarakoon needed sleep! Not Larry. His son. His son had the travel nods.
In no time we had arrived at another church. Two churches in two days, Pop would be pleased. I was brought up Catholic but I couldn’t tell you the last time I went to church. Personally I respect all religions. Outside of any extremism, religions instil good values and give people hope. Through travel I've learned to appreciate people’s different beliefs and take from those what resonates.
It was here at St Anthonys that I met Brian, known for his work on the series Good Karma Hospital airing on the ABC and as one of the creative minds Dimirti’s Production House engages. Brian had formed a friendship with a wonderful local family and he was going to show us the way to their home. He jumped in alongside me in the van and we took off to meet another child I hoped to be able to help.
On the way there Brian told me a little of what he knew. I’m reluctant to share some of these stories given the personal nature but what I will say is that Brian, during that short ride to the family home said something that framed my view of this family minutes before arriving. What he said centres upon the fact that it's often those who give the most that have the least to give. I don't well up that easily but this got me.
Moments later after travelling along some beautiful narrow roads lined by trees and paddy fields we pulled off onto the grass in front of a modest home a-fronted by five cautious but welcoming faces. Grandmother, Mother, Father and two sons. Larry waited in the van again. I am so glad someone went to get him at lunchtime as it really didn’t feel right that he wasn’t part of it!
This family home was extended by the local church, and rightly so; the Father’s support of his family and his neighbours is incomprehensible. My Pop - when something was incomprehensible would simply shake his head and no further conversation was to be entered into. In later years I realised this was to prevent any further display of emotion, like my eyes welling up on the ride here. As he got older you could see it.
I was welcomed into their home and seated on the couch alongside their eldest son. Across from me on the other couch sat Brian and Dimitri and behind them stood the boys seven year old bother, his Grandmother, Father and Mother. This had my values on high alert but at the same time I was conscious of the need to respect their culture even though I wanted to make them all feel more included, language barrier aside.
Much the same as with the last family I met, conversation will remain between us but Brian and Dimitri made it easier thanks to their constant translation. I conveyed to them my reasons for being there, why I wanted to help and they shared this with the parents. It seemed to take double the time to explain and at one stage I asked Brian why the Father was shaking his head so much. I’m glad I asked, it wasn’t “no” - it was just acknowledgement.
We raced the turtles the boys had found the day before and shared lunch together. If you ever do this yourself don’t ever go in suspecting that the family won’t view you as important, as much as you don’t want to be seen in this way - or I didn't. It may seem ignorant but I never expected this. For the family to go to the trouble of preparing lunch for us was humbling, any attachment to my own version of reality fell away, this was the REAL world and these people had a solid grip on my heart.
I walked into their dining room (one of four rooms, a family of five co-existing in a space comprising a small dining room, a lounge room, a small kitchen and one bedroom) and sat down to milk rice, chilli sambol and banana. I was warned in English that the chilli sambol may be too hot for me.
I’ve always been okay with a bit of heat so I was prepared to give it a go and to be honest no matter what, for anyone who’d gone to the trouble of belting that much chilli to a pulp - of course I would give it a go. It was great, raw pulverised chilli and milk rice. I think I’m basically a local now. I even had seconds.
Leaving broke my heart especially as the elder son seemed to be gaining confidence, speaking more the longer we were there. As we headed for the van he and his Grandmother stood watching us silently, their faces! It was as if they fully understood the magnitude of the day for us all, I think we all wanted more time.
Not a day has gone by since that he hasn’t been in touch and I love hearing from him each day, hearing about school and his family. Being in touch so often also means I know how to help, what matters and what’s needed.
I drove away with Dimitri and Larry. “Have your tried the fresh roadside fruits?” Larry asked? Before I could answer Dimitri was out out the van and returned with two huge bags full of fresh pineapple and mango that he passed over to me in the back, all of it.
I ate pineapple while using what was left of my daily WiFi allocation to determine what I should give Larry for fuel. Larry of course expected nothing but he had given his entire day to me and I couldn’t have done all I did without him!
I had left the hotel at 4am, it was now 2pm. I had enough time to shower, pack for my flight the next morning, make some calls and then head back downstairs to be collected - it would be an hour or so cab ride for dinner with new friends.
Tip: ANZAC DAY: Heels, dressy LOOSE pants, top and take a jacket on which to don the medals. Lest I forget.
Also, don’t lick stamps (14) when travelling by cab on an hours’ journey in the dark unless nausea is your aim. Actually, don't lick stamps at all. And avoid travelling by cab in the dark.