Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Last week  I went to an auction, always an interesting experience when you cant speak the language. The  Holiday Inn here has been re branded as the Ramada and is under going refurbishment along with the rest of the country. They have to keep up with  their new neighbours. Just down the road they are building a brand new Hyatt and in the prime location directly opposite Galle Face Green, which was occupied by the Army Headquarters, they are building a Shangri la Hotel.

Study courtesy Hotel Ramada
So when I saw an advertisement that the Ramada were selling all the furniture in their guest rooms, we had to go and have a look.  Bright and early Saturday morning Lara and I turned up, I should have realised by now not to rush, Sri Lankans work to their own timetable, nothing here ever runs on time.

My bargain chairs
I learnt years ago if you are invited to a Sri Lankan home for dinner, you feed the children before you go because you know food wont be served until after 10.30. There's too much talking and drinking to be done before that, even when we go to a restaurant here, when we are paying the bill and walking out, our evening finished, the dinning room is only just starting to fill up, for everyone else the night is only just getting started.  Most shops don't open until 10 in the morning and they close around 7pm, so by the time you get home, have the obligatory snooze and then shower you wont get to a restaurant before 9.30 or 10.00

The auction was an experience, you paid your 500 rupees ($3.50) to be allowed in and we went from room to room on the eighth floor, at one stage there would have been 200 people crammed into a single Hotel room. Everything was for sale, right down to the taps, toilets and light fittings, if you bought these you had to disconnect them yourself, Lara thought it was so funny when people started bidding on the carpet.

My favourite purchase- no home should be
 without their own mini bar
The auctioneer stood on a step so he could be seen, you hardly had room to raise the number you were given. He would start off in Sinhala, switch to English then back again, by the time I caught up with what was going on, the item had been sold, so I figured just keep my arm in the air wave it about erratically and eventually I would get lucky.

I've dealt with this language problem for the nearly 30 years. When we go out with Sri Lankans they speak English so I can understand what's going on, problem is when they get a bit excited or when the alcohol has been flowing, they tend to switch between languages....we call it Singlish. I have a whole repertoire of jokes I've heard over the years, but with no punch lines. I'm listening, listening, the tension is building, the joke is in English, it switches to Sinhala, that's ok he's just switched back I'm still in, he's getting excited now, were all sitting on the edge of our chairs, the punch line is coming.....SWITCH....... a- a- a- and of course he brings it home in Sinhala, every one screams with laughter.........Me......I just look at David.

So back to the auction...There were fours floors up for bids, we left after one, the crowd was too much for us, but my random hand waving paid off and for less than $500 we walked out of the Ramada with three desks, 4 chairs, two coffee tables, 2 lamps and a cabinet with a mini bar fridge, that I only realised I'd purchased when the auctioneer slammed his gavel down with theatrical gusto and said, Sold to the lady in front. Now he talks in English !!  ....A Mini bar......We laughed all the way home.

The mini bar has now taken pride of place upstairs, because all 13 year old boys would rather die of thirst than have to walk down the stairs to get a drink. The funny thing is David and I met nearly 30 years ago at  Rockman's Regency Hotel in Exhibition Street, I was a breakfast waitress and he was in room service, one of his jobs was to re stock the mini bar, so it's only fitting at the end of our Hotel career our house is looking like an old Hotel, we have come a full circle.... so  once again it will now be his job to re stock the mini bar.

My latest observation here is to admire the grace and elegance of Sri Lankan Women, you see them, so petite, with long slender arms and delicate hands, draped in their Sari's.  I love to watch them, they literally glide around a room, it used to annoy me at how slow they walked, when I
walk ,the kids have to do a little trot to keep up with  me, but now I see the beauty in it. When I was working at the pub I was like a pinball machine banging into one table, bouncing off it and going to the next, I constantly had bruises at hip height from the corners of the tables, I was like a tornado wooshing around,  I had one gear ...flatout, even when I talk it's at a hundred miles an hour, David was constantly telling me to slow down and take a breath.  I'm just wired that way. Since I've been here I have had to make a conscious effort to slow down or they cant understand a word I say, so for two months I've sat and read and gone to the beach with the kids, the most I've done in the house is make the beds, there are people to do everything else. A luxury we could never afford at home

However you can only sit around for so long before you start going mad, especially me. I'm an all or nothing kind of girl...and for the past two months I've done nothing.

So when I got a call from a friend asking if I was interested in doing some volunteer work, I couldn't say no. He was coming to Colombo to open the final stage of their transit house, at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital.  CCC House was built with funds raised in Australia and Sri Lanka, it is a 188 bed transit home for patients undergoing Chemotherapy or Radiation treatment for cancer. Similar to Ronald McDonald House in Melbourne. These people only require day treatment, but because so many of them are from poor families, and they live in the out stations, up to a 14 hour round trip, they can't return home for weeks, so inevitably they live in the hospital corridors, sleeping on the floor, with Doctors stepping over them in the  mornings to do their rounds.

CCC House is a wonderful,  modern facility provided free of charge to these patients, a mother can stay here with  her sick child in a private room for the duration of the treatment. Then there are separate women's and men's wards for the adults. It gives these people a little dignity while they are fighting for their lives.

Children's Play Area
Imagine  a child, sick with cancer having to sleep on a mat on the floor in a Melbourne Hospital, Mum sitting over them with a piece of paper, fanning them, trying to keep them cool from the stifling heat, the odd stray dog wandering the corridors...we often complain about waiting times in Melbourne Hospitals, come here and see what the waiting game is, if you don't have money it usually  means waiting to die as there aren't enough beds, not enough doctors and definitely not enough medicines. Only last week, when the patients turned up for treatment at Maharagama they were told to go home because they had run out of medication. It's wonderful they are building new free ways and parks, but I think things need to be prioritised...maybe when someone at the top has a child suffering from cancer the system will change.

I've been blessed with 4 beautiful children and a wonderful husband, we live a good life, we've worked hard over the years, but it wasn't until we moved here I realised how blessed I've been......its that old saying...."There but for the grace of God go I". What if I had been born in Sri Lanka, not enough money to feed my family, living in a shanty in the hills, working for a few dollars a day plucking tea, now my child gets cancer, so I can no longer work because the only treatment means staying in Colombo for weeks. What about the other children, who will look after them. There is no such thing as unemployment or sickness benefits. A wretched life just became intolerable. The suicide rate in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world. I wouldn't begrudge these people risking their lives getting on a boat to try and make a better life for their families, unless we walk in their shoes we will never know how hard life is.

Women's Ward
So along comes CCC House, to try and ease the burden . I've been put in charge of cleaning duties, ironic really as I haven't cleaned a thing in over  two months its all been done for me. Now its time to give back. The House has contract cleaners but they needed to be shown how to do things to a higher standard and the room attendants needed to see that they don't just attend they can also contribute to the upkeep of the rooms.

I turned up at CCC House  armed with a bucket, cleaning cloths and steel wool. I went straight to the women's ward, walked into the bathroom, got on my hands and knees and started scrubbing, when I looked up I had a dozen ladies staring at me. Some with the palm of their hands against their foreheads, they were mortified. I could see on their faces, they were thinking,why the hell is the white lady on the floor scrubbing the toilets. Like it or not there is a real class system here and you just don't see white woman doing that sort of work.

I looked up, smiled and said Hari Rasni which means very hot, pulled down my shirt because my butt was showing, wiggled it and they shrieked with laughter. They then proceeded to watch me for the next 45 minutes.
Female Cancer Patients at CCC House

While I scrubbed I talked to the one patient who spoke English, she in turn translated everything to the others. There were lots of Oohs and Ahhs when they realised I lived in Sri Lanka and was married to a Sri Lankan, lots of nods and smiles when I told them about my four children. They were the most beautiful simple woman, I was going home in a few hours to my nice home and my healthy kids and leaving them to battle their disease alone, they had no one with them, they would only see their family once a week when they travelled for hours on a rickeckety old bus with no air conditioning, that would have definitely been deemed un-roadworthy in Australia and retired to the scrap heap years ago. Some would have no visitors at all.

 I looked at them in their worn out clothes and bare feet,some with nothing but a small amount of fuzz on their heads. For many this was their first time to Colombo, but they were all laughing and smiling, I was glad at least that I was some sort of entertainment. How cruel life can be, as if these women hadn't already endured enough hardship in their lives, then they get cancer thrown at them...sometimes life just sucks.

 CCC House
My exercise for the day was to change the mentality of the staff. In Sri Lanka it seems if you have a job, you stick to the job description and you don't deviate at all. If you are a nurse you wouldn't wipe up a spill, that's the cleaners job. If your a supervisor in a restaurant you wouldn't clear a table that's the waiters job, if your a food waiter you wouldn't clear dirty glasses that's the drink waiters job and so it goes on. Even at home our driver wont open the gate to drive the car out, that's the gardeners job, comes back to that old  class system again...The British have a lot to answer for. When we were looking for a driver I suggested we get someone who could do the garden as well because you only drive for a few hours a day, but I was told no driver would work in the garden , it would be beneath them.

David and I worked at Knox Tavern for 26 years, up until the day I left, I still scraped plates and polished cutlery. David would get to work every morning at 6.30am and  fill up the ice bins, stock the fridges and serve behind the bar. So for nearly an hour I scrubbed that bathroom till the sweat was pouring from me like a tap, I was soaked from head to foot. My point was, a job is a job,  and no job is beneath you, doesn't matter where you are in the pecking order.

CCC Cleaners
CCC House was now a home to these people, they have low immune systems so you need to keep on top of things. In Sri Lanka its so easy for things to become old and dirty quickly, the humidity just eats away at the paint, the plaster becomes moist and crumbles, the dust  settles on walls and if its not wiped away daily it turns things yellow and then there's the Geckos they just leave marks everywhere. They are meant to be natures gift to alleviate mosquitoes but truly they just crap everywhere.

So at the end of the day, I lined up the staff and showed what a clean bathroom should look like, everything was done with hand gestures and translators, the women in the ward clapped and the cleaners smiled.

I will go again in a few days and do it all again, this time in the men's ward,that should raise a few eyebrows. Things take time to change here, no one is in a rush, why should they, for these people life is hard they don't want extra time to cram more misery in their for once in my life I am moving slowly and thanking God I was born in the Lucky Country.

Since I'm now living here, I have made a conscious effort after all these years to finally learn how to speak Sri Lankan. This guy has been a great help !!


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  2. Great work on the auction. Good luck with hygiene. "Not my job" is a world-wide phenomenon - check out the web for funny examples. Funny video, but everyone slips in and out. I hear it at Seville with Ishy and Ranga and on the train. Cheers Ern

  3. HI Just today found your blog. I think your amazing to move here from australia. Hope your life here is enjoyable. Thanks for having an understanding attitude towards Sri Lankans. :)

    1. Thanks Suren, It's certainly been challenging, but I love it, it's also an amazing experience for the kids

  4. Great effort Cath. The whole job thing is the same in Singapore but at least the bathrooms are clean here.

  5. Hi Cathy, I together with my wife and two kids lived in OZ for 5 years out of that 2 years at Mount/Glen Waverly and moved back to Sri Lanka about two years back after getting our OZ citizenship. I had visited Knox Tavern with my friends many times.

    What it made me to write this comment was that I could remember someone like you (probability of that person being you is very high!) answering a mobile in Sinhala. This happened just yesterday at a place called Anim 8. Though that person did not noticed, all others in that room looked at.The way that person greeted the staff when leaving, reminded me of OZ way.

    When I saw the article appeared Knox Weekly on, I strongly felt that this person is none other than Cath.

    Anyway, I would like to wish you and your family good luck, and hope you'll decide to stay back in Sri Lanka beyond the first year, serving our community.

    1. Hi Chanaka, thanks for your that wasn't me at Anim 8. We are actually back in Melbourne for two weeks during the school holidays and return to SL on the 11th April.

      I wouldn't be surprised if we stay longer than 12 months, it's been amazing and challenging at the same time. Stay in touch

      Thanks Cathy

  6. Great blog - all the best to you and your family. I am in Melbourne and a frequent visitor to the Knox tavern. But it looks like we will also be moving back to SL with my 4 yr old son as my wife seems very keen on it (atleast for a few years). I am dreading dengue and finding schools.

    Keep up the great work - very inspiring :)

    1. Hi Saji, Mosquito coils and aerogard, we cant live without it. The kids never leave the house without insect repellant on.

      It's probably better to go back while your son is young as the transition will be easier. I wish your family all the best.

      Thanks for your kind words.