Wednesday, September 18, 2013

It's all about Balance

After living on this planet for 50 years, I've finally realized life is truly all about balance. Ironic that this finally struck me at what I would hope is the mid way point of my existence. Maybe it's the fact I'm living in a Buddhist country and their philosophies of harmony and balance are starting to take effect, or maybe I'm just turning into that episode of Seinfeld where everything that happened to Jerry just evened things out. My life is Even Stevens.

Two weeks ago, my husband opened the bedroom door at 6 am  to start his day. Our housekeeper, Dayar was standing there with her bag packed and promptly burst into tears when she saw him. I came out to see what all  the commotion was, he stood there silently, she was talking and crying, crying and talking, wringing her hands together, shoulders hunched, picking up the hem of her dress and wiping her tears. I had no idea what she was saying, David looked at me and said " Her brother has died". During the night she had received a phone call saying he had passed away from a heart attack. The poor woman stood outside our room for two hours not wanting to wake us.
We told our driver, who coincidentally had driven his podi lorry or little truck, back from his village the night before to take her home in that, while we took the children to school in the car.

The following day we drove to her village to pay our respects. David had explained how funerals work here, but it was still a little confronting and dare I say interesting to say the least.
We rounded the corner to find the narrow lane jammed with people and cars and this was only 24 hours after the death. A young boy was holding a sign directing traffic to a vacant lot, there were banners tied to the fence expressing condolences from the staff at the local bank, white flags were strung along the street to signify a death, not quite as morbid as our traditional black. Everyone was dressed in white, including me.

We removed our shoes and walked into the house, when the lady behind me almost bowled me over because I had stopped so suddenly. Laid out before me, on what looked like a double bed draped in satin, wearing a new tuxedo, white gloves and shiny shiny shoes was the dearly departed late brother. I knew he would be there because they always bring the body home for people to come and pay their last respects, for several days before the funeral. The windows and doors are kept open all night,  the men sit around playing cards and reminiscing,  the woman talking...a wake before the funeral, with the guest of honor present. David told me when they were teenagers they would go in search at night for a house with a body because you were guaranteed a good feed and a few free drinks.

I wasn't quite sure what to do, I felt everyone was watching me because I was the only white person. He just looked like he was sleeping, he even had the tiniest little smile on his face, like he was playing with us, I almost expected him to sling his feet over the side of the bed he was lying on, yawn, stretch and say Hi !. I felt as if I should shake his Hand and introduce myself he looked so natural. I settled for a sign of the cross, even though they were all Buddhists and sat  down on one of the chairs scattered around the room. For the next hour a procession of people wandered in and out to say goodbye. Outside the village men had come together and were erecting a covered pagola for the funeral feast that would happen in a few days. While people chatted to us, I found my eyes wandering sideways, slowly looking to make sure he hadn't moved, stupid I know, but I expected him to look, ....well..... look more......, not to look quite so alive. I sat there and pondered the thought at least he looked happy, and it would be a nice way to be remembered. It wasn't a sad atmosphere there was too much going on, but I thought it was very touching how the whole village was there supporting the family through their loss. In Australia we tend to isolate ourselves in our homes, we might know the neighbors on each side of us, maybe across the road but that's about it. As our housekeepers employer, it was our duty to give some money towards the funeral costs, something that I don't think will catch on at home. We silently passed her some money on the way out, she of course refused, we of course insisted, and so the money disappeared deep inside a pocket

We left Dayar to grieve the loss of her brother, only to arrive home and find our gardener Sarmi grinning from ear to ear. His daughter had just given birth to his first grandchild, we promptly told him to pack his bag and go home to his family. One life ends as another begins.

Two days later we were taking the children to school, again I was contemplating the meaning of balance. We had had a new project presented to us. G'Day Lanka Travel was ticking over slowly, we have several sporting tours booked, but not until next year, then Upali a friend of ours, decides he wants to turn his former family home, situated on prime real estate in the middle of Colombo into a restaurant. Although a fabulous businessman, he knows nothing about the hospitality industry and wanted David to be his partner.

Were we ready to go back to working nights and weekends, did we want to work every public holiday again, which in Sri Lanka with three Religions to contend with were every other weekend, didn't we come here for a slower life. I stared out the window watching the rain come down, we still have 6 weeks of the monsoon season left and the rain for the past few days has been relentless. People were walking to work with their umbrella's, stepping around puddles, women with their saris hitched up, were passing us on the backs of motorbikes, then we went past a bus stand, where the cows were in the shelter and the people were standing in the rain. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. We laughed all the way to school.

It seems when your over 50, society wants youth over experience, we had been lamenting this fact only a few days before. Then out of the blue, Upali's offer had landed in our laps.Even though we thought we left that life behind, you eventually are always drawn back to what you know. So as I looked at the cows in the shelter and the people in the rain, everyone quite happy with their lot, I figured what will be will be.

At the auspicious time of 9.34am  on a Wednesday, we gathered with the builders and architects, turned to the East and took turns lighting the ceremonial lantern.  Each person then gave a gentle tap with a miniature hammer to the brickwork......signifying the start of the demolition.... but even after that, work could not begin until we all ate milk rice and katta sambol.
Lighting the lamp and breaking the first bricks

The scheduled date for opening is the 14th December....that's this year, that's only 12 weeks. In Australia people would laugh at such an ambitious start date. It would take that long just to obtain the necessary permits, which probably wouldn't be granted anyway. You could never open a 200 seat restaurant and bar in a semi residential area with practically no parking, but in Sri Lanka you can do anything.

What will eventually be tables on the balcony and private dining rooms

Heads of Government from every Commonwealth country are converging on Colombo on the 10th November and the place is being given a complete overhaul. CHOGM is taking place in 50 days, seems everyone is on a tight schedule. The council have ripped up practically every sidewalk in Colombo and are re laying paving stones instead.  As usual there seems to be no order to their work, they don't finish one area before  moving on to the next, its just full steam ahead.  Just when you think they can't dig up anymore, they do. The Restaurant will overlook one of the main parks in Colombo. Nelum Pokuna, which is the lotus shaped Opera House and venue for the opening ceremony of Chogm is to the left and the Town Hall is to the right. For the past 7 months they have been working on beautifying this area and it's going to come down to the wire. David assures me, that like me, they perform best under pressure and if they're laying that last brick, and planting that last tree just as the 55 new Mercedes that have been ordered to ferry the dignitaries around pass by, so be it. No such thing as tools down at 6 o'clock they are working through the night.

Opera House and Town Hall
A few days later we pull up to our site, step over the mud and rubble that was yesterday a pavement and walk into a completely gutted house. Seems Upali's construction company work a little more quickly than the Colombo Council. The architect has redrawn the plans for the third time, apart from room for the customers and quarters for staff who live too far away to go home, this time there is a room that our children can stay in upstairs while we are working. This time around I wont  be running out the door yelling directions how to microwave their dinner before I rush off to work. This time, it will be more of an overseeing role, than a physically working role.
Labour is cheaper here than back home, so this time we can employ additional staff rather than having to do everything ourselves. This time our working life will balance with our family life.

So as David sits with his flow charts working out costings and menus, my sister who has been visiting for the past 5 days goes to the airport to return home. As her plane takes off, another one will arrive tomorrow with David's sister. We have house guests with us until the end of November.

So just like Jerry, everything for us is "Evens Stevens". I always knew things would have a way of working themselves out while we were here.....No need to panic!!  Even in my darkest moments when nothing seemed to go right, deep down I knew things would eventually be OK. We finish with one restaurant in Australia and start another here, one sister leaves, another arrives, one life ends as another is beginning and so it seems as night follows day the world needs to be balanced for everything to work. Sometimes in a country that has such varying degrees in wealth distribution as Sri Lanka, you wonder if things are slightly off kilter, but the Buddhists believe in Karma and "What goes around comes Around". So it seems it is up to us, to set the balance right.


  1. Cathy, I have been following your blog with great pleasure. It is a great read and splendidly written. We are an older couple from FTG and used to speak to you from time to time at the pub - when you were "busily" rushing about. Best wishes with your new restaurant adventure, and please keep up your blog - we are learning a lot about Sri Lanka and look forward to your wonderful colourful essays. Bill Murray.

    1. Thank you so much Bill, I'm glad you are enjoying them. Life now is certainly different from the Knox Tavern.Even though we sold the Pub our second daughter Caitlin is still working there, please say Hi to her. Regards

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  3. You are really cool. Grate post. Thanks! I was here too:Шри-Ланка