We’re stripping assets

Tilia wood floor
Parquet floor part removed with bitumen underneath. These blocks have been stained.

The builders start in earnest in two days’ time so we’re preparing the house. Obviously, we have to remove the small items that have made it comfortable during our many visits: folding chairs and a table, mugs, coffee pot, kettle and cutlery. But we’re also removing some surprising assets from the house itself.

Our obsession with the floor (to dig or not to dig) has resulted in removing carpet from the lounge and digging holes. And, O marvel, under the carpet is the same herringbone parquet we had already admired in the hall! Lifting a few blocks shows that it is stuck down with bitumen, a black, tarry substance that catches at our sinuses as it is released by the wooden blocks.

Cue another decision: we’ll lift the parquet floor, have the blocks cleaned, and re-lay it when the floor is ready. We have spent several days with crowbars, cold chisels and hammers lifting blocks of tongue and groove parquet coated on one side with black stuff. This work left behind a black sea of crunching bitumen in the hall and lounge.

Rectory wood floor
Parquet at the rectory, Biddenden (yellowed by artificial light)

The parquet blocks, which eventually filled eight cardboard boxes, are of a typical size and material for the period (see photo of our parquet in Biddenden) – solid, and almost certainly made of mahogany. Mahogany is now quite rightly shunned because of the damage done in the past to rainforests by harvesting trees for this very purpose. This is makes us all the more determined to save these blocks, though they would be an odd assortment if we left them untreated. Some have a coat of rich, dark varnish, others have lost colour from exposure to the sun, some have nails driven into them from the carpet gripper rods, some have some surface damage from the underlay.

Our stripping efforts did not stop there. The doors, which are hollow and of a nondescript laminated type, have handles made of Bakelite. Even the door to the airing cupboard has Bakelite handles. I have gone round the house removing them, tying them together with string and placing the screws in a small plastic pouch. Then the door locks had to be removed in case the workers shut themselves inside a room with no handle to get out. The locks have been saved with their own screws and keys.

Anything that can be reused has been unscrewed and saved: mahogany shelving, pine batons, even solid oak thresholds. Metal shelving brackets are stored safely in boxes for reuse.

The problem now is deciding out where to store all these materials when we eventually move out of the rectory, which will yield up its own set of retrievable fixings. Tilia’s boxes of parquet blocks are now in an unused wood shed in Biddenden, much of the shelving is stacked in the crumbling Wendy house at the bottom of Tilia’s garden (another project…) and the shelf brackets, door locks and handles are loose in a box at home.

By keeping them, we are looking ahead to the time when we can put at least some of them back, on the other side of the big build that starts on Monday.

Keerthi becomes Bishop of Kurunegala

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.

Unexpected return to Sri Lanka

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.

Postscript: Sri Lanka Evening, 30th June

Elephant graphic for Sri Lanka BlogWe 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.

We’re home

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.

Return journey, with curry leaves

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.