Welcome to our big adventure
The non-travellers are travelling: flight-averse couple Alex Bienfait and Stephanie Boucher are taking themselves off to Sri Lanka. And not just for a week, no! We'll be there for two months. Find out more about why we're going, about Sri Lanka, and follow our adventures.
25th April 2018
8th January 2018
How can I begin to describe the extravaganza of Keerthi's enthronement? Suffice it to say that with three separate processions, with singing priests, dancing children, foot washing, deaf-blind performances and translations between three languages, the service took over four hours. The cathedral building could seat only 600 of the 2500 guests, so most of them watched the action on screens under marquees set up for them outside.
Alex sat with other robed clergy from all over the island, some of whom we knew. I joined Keerthi and his close family on a procession into the cathedral between a double row of Kandyan drummers in full ceremonial dress. As we squeezed into the pews reserved for family and friends, I found myself seated three rows from the front with an excellent view of the proceedings.
Bishops came from diverse parts of the Anglican Communion, including Paul Slater from Leeds, Sri Lanka's partner diocese in the UK. Bishop Ian Ernest came from Mauritius to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Keerthi has built up a vast network of friends and contacts, and all the parishes with which he has been associated send busloads of parishioners.
There were pews set aside for government ministers who appeared dressed in formal white. In front even of them, on low settles decorated with ceremonial white sheets, sat four orange-clad Buddhist monks: Kurunegala Diocese includes the town of Kandy, seat of the country's most important and influential Buddhist monasteries. The press were there in force.
The town of Kurunegala, 150m above sea level and on the edge of the dry zone, is less humid than Colombo. It nestles at the foot of a sheer rock face called Elephant Rock, topped with a vast modern Buddhist shrine. This rock is reputed to retain the heat and give the town an airless feel during the hot season, though it is comfortable in early January.
The cathedral complex is right at the foot of this rock, behind a low wall decorated with elephants after the fashion of many Buddhist temples. The Bishop's house, which will be Keerthi and Arlene's new home, is at the back of the complex, wedged between the cathedral and the rock. The house is not ready for them and they won't be moving down from Bandarawela for a few weeks. Keerthi's new duties start straight away.
31st December 2017
We are about to add a happy postscript to our Sri Lankan adventure: our friend and host Keerthi Fernando, currently the archdeacon of Nuwara Eliya, has been chosen to be the next Bishop of Kurunagala. His consecration and enthronement ceremony will take place on 6th January, the Feast of Epiphany, and we have decided (after much discussion) to travel to Sri Lanka to attend. We leave on 4th January and will stay in SL about ten days.
We had not expected to return so soon! We have booked our tickets and our initial accommodation in Kurunagala, and now we are getting our heads around the change of climate and culture that awaits us. This time we have a much better idea about what to take - those of you who have heard us speak about SL will not be surprised to learn that we will pack umbrellas rather than hats. Most of all, we are looking forward to the unexpected pleasure of seeing our friends again after less than a year.
Once more we are indebted to our friends and neighbours who will be looking after our dog and chickens, to Alex’s colleague Catherine who will take care of the churches, and to friends and well-wishers who are cheering us on our way.
There will probably be more to write after the ceremony: Sri Lankans like to celebrate in style and I am sure this will be a big occasion.
23rd June 2017
We haven't forgotten Sri Lanka: Alex and I have been writing and thinking about our time there since we got back.
I tried to publish an article about the Tea Estate Tamils in the Church Times: they rejected it because, by chance, they had just commissioned someone else to write about precisely that subject and my article overlapped too much. They were sorry not to be able to use mine and I could see why: the one they eventually published was cobbled together from press releases, whereas mine was based on our own research and interviews conducted on the ground.
Alex is writing a couple of reports for his diocese, who supported and funded his part of the sabbatical.
But we're also going to give a talk with slides to our local villages, expanding on a few of the topics we wrote about on our blogs. Our Sri Lankan Evening will take place at 7pm on Fiday 30th June at All Saints Biddenden. We will be providing some home-made "short eats" or Sri Lankan snacks - so we need to know who's coming, for numbers.
We are asking for minimum donations of £5 (gift aid welcome) of which the proceeds will go to Karuna Nilayam, the church-run orphanage centre where we stayed in Kilinochchi, and the Church of Ceylon's Board of Social Responsibility, which funds the projects that support the Tea Estate Tamils and gives grants to help rebuild homes and businesses that were destroyed in the war (we have seen some of this work).
It would be great to see a few of you there! If you would like to come but can't make that evening, let us know because there is a tentative plan to repeat the evening at another date, still to be decided.
21st April 2017
We slept in our own bed last night, for the first time in over two months. The journey back went like clockwork, thanks to the help of friends and the services of Jet Airways, but it was long. We calculated that by the time we went to bed, we had been up for over 24 hours.
The house feels unfamiliar. For one thing it's quiet, there is no noise from outside apart from traffic - no music, no chanting, no loud crowing or whooping of exotic birds. It's also curiously light for such an overcast day: we have big windows compared to Sri Lankan homes, with no complicated draperies over them. We design to maximise light whereas Sri Lankan houses need to limit the sun and maximise the airflow.
And it's so much cooler! We've come from Colombo during its warmest season, when even the locals complain of the heat and humidity, and here I am wrapped in my dressing gown with the heating on, having just lit the woodburner. Outside the apple trees are in blossom but we've missed the plums. If we're quick, we'll catch the bluebells in the woods. We are told the weather has been cool but very dry lately.
We're about to have our first cup of tea (unsweetened!) and Alex will have his favourite redbush, which we couldn't get in Sri Lanka. As we slowly unpack we will reflect further on our travels - how many people have entered our lives and given us their friendship, and how much richer we are for it!
I leave you with some images of Sri Lanka that will always stay with me:
Standing on the beach dripping wet from the sea, sipping hot kola kande (the most delicious thin porridge drink) and nibbling on a piece of jaggery;
A cow ambling down the road traling her frayed tether, looking pleased with herself;
Another cow strolling though Jaffna market at the end of the day, appearing to know exactly where she is going;
The whoop-whoop of small birds in a sunlit garden;
Long talks with old friends, reminding us why they matter so much;
Finding good food in the most unlikely places, as well as in Arlene's bountiful kitchen;
Can I even bring myself to love the dreadful renditions of Für Elise by every bread van in the land?
The long hoot of trains warning people to get off the tracks;
The perfectly balanced indoor-outdoor designs of architect Geoffrey Bawa, making the most of the tropical light;
Swimming as often as possible: on a sandy beach, under the ramparts of Galle Fort, in a pool by a waterfall.
A small ginger cat making herself at home with us
A long train journey spent eating Janitha's sandwiches while enjoying spectacular views.
Eating bananas from Bala's garden
The sheer variety of bananas, especially the "sour" ones which are so sweet!
Where else can you find wood apples, never mind make an English-style crumble with them?
Watching the "performance", that is to say, the sunset from the garden at Bandarawela.
Dozing on a crowded bus as it hurtles through the countryside, dance music blaring.
The strangeness of being dependent on people for translation from Tamil or Sinhala, when I'm used to being the linguist who translates for others.
The buses that stop at the Hindu temples to allow the driver and conductor a quick prayer and blessing before driving on.
Buying fresh wadei (fritters made with yellow split peas), still hot, on the train or bus.
Long, intense conversations with stangers and friends about all aspects of life in Sri Lanka.
A big thank you to all of you have made these things possible: by looking after hour home, church, cars and animals in England, by hosting and looking after us in Sri Lanka, by introducing us to people, by cooking for us, by driving us around, by befriending and praying for us. We will never forget Sri Lankan hospitality, and hope to learn something from the kindness and fortitude of this wonderful people.
19th April 2017
We leave before dawn tomorrow. Right now we are in a small guesthouse near the international airport from where we will depart at 2.30am. Our flight is not until half past five but we have been asked to check in three hours early.
We have had our last Sri Lankan rice and curry lunch, which brings me to think about the food culture here. The country is getting back to work after a break for the New Year celebrations during which Colombo empties out, shops close and everyone goes home to their extended families.
Even in Bandarawela, a long way from Colombo, Keerthi had trouble buying bread. "All the bakers come from the south and they go home for the holidays," he said. Sure enough, for about a week, we did not hear the irritating electronic tunes which the three-wheeler bread vans play to attract customers, either in Bandarawela or in Colombo - the bakers had indeed gone home!
Coconuts are an important crop, both in the kitchen and in the export market. The tall coconut palms are harvested every two months by specially trained workers who climb the trees, and they are a good source of income for their owners. But the current crop is small because of the failure of last December's monsoon. The price of the coconuts, small as they are, has risen to 70 rupees: this will affect the poorest households who depend on them as a staple. The link between weather and poverty is thus starkly demonstrated. One long-term worry for Sri Lanka is that the country is gradually getting dryer because of climate change.
We were driven to our current guesthouse by our lovely hostess and friend Janitha, who looked after us so well at Cottage Garden Bungalows. Janitha was very keen that we should take home some tamarind and, most importantly for that special Sri Lankan flavour, some curry leaves. But we went from shop to shop and there were no curry leaves to be had. With the holidays just ending, the shops hadn't been able to arrange any deliveries and had just run out. Janitha beginning to despair when the very last stall we visited thankfully produced some.
We have decided that the leaves can't go in the hold because of the risk of damage. So we will pack them in our hand luggage, which will mean spreading around the plane that special smell of a Sri Lankan curry in mid-preparation. We hope the other passengers won't mind.
14th April 2017
Today, 14th April, Sri Lanka's New Year is celebrated by both Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Schools and colleges have broken up, and as I write, I can hear frequent explosions as crackers and fireworks are let off in broad daylight.
It may seem odd to celebrate New Year in April but its dawning is determined astrologically, by the transitioning of the sun from Pisces to Aries. It is also the hottest period, during which the great and the good of Colombo traditionally decamp to Nuwara Eliya to cool off.
The 13th is also a public holiday so there has been excitement in the air for some days. We returned to Bandarawela from Kandy on the 11th, on buses packed with workers returning to their families for the festivities. When we went shopping the the following day the town was heaving: there were twice as may stalls in the market as normal and, it seemed, twice as many eager shoppers. The result was frequent bottlenecks on the pavements and traffic police out in force directing vehicles and pedestrians.
By the 13th the traffic had calmed right down, most shops were closed and the crackers had started. But like much in the Sri Lanka, even they are strictly governed by ritual. The alignment of the planets determines the timing of special activities such as looking at the moon, bathing, lighting the hearth and sharing traditional meals. To make life easier, the Department of Cultural Affairs publishes a calendar of auspicious and non-auspicious times for each ritual.
The public being warned that a non-auspicious time would begin at 7.40pm on the 13th, the fireworks, then in full swing, came to an abrupt stop. The actual dawning of the new year was predicted for 2.04am this morning. Needless to say, we were all woken up at precisely 2.05am as the fireworks took off again even more joyfully. As silence fell again I dropped into an uneasy sleep, punctuated by dreams of war zones and terrorists. There were several more big bursts of noise before sunrise.
In our Christian household, the New Year is complicated by its coincidence with Good Friday, a day of fasting, which takes precedence. Any festive dishes will have to wait until tomorrow!
On Monday we will leave Bandarawela for the last time as we travel to Colombo and begin our journey home. It will be hard leaving Keerthi and Arlene, Sethlath and Sethsara, not knowing when we will see them again.
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