Sunday, February 16, 2014


12 months have come and gone and so the adventure continues. Instead of returning home as originally planned, we have opened a restaurant, moved house and continued our Sporting Tours. I have officially started Sinhala classes with 12 other foreigners. We are all  hopeless and laugh at how ridiculous we sound, but  finally all those curly circles are starting to unravel and I can now find the letters amongst them.

For some unknown reason I have struggled emotionally more, in the last month than in the entire previous year. A quick visit home for Christmas only made the distance between my two older children stretch out even further. Getting back on the plane two weeks later had tears flowing all around. When I am in Sri Lanka there are days I feel I could live here for ever, but the void of having two children half a world away is too strong and I know that is what will pull me back home.

The restaurant has been open for 8 weeks "Upali's by Nawaloka"  is doing very nicely. We have had some great reviews, and as the  case is with any new establishment, some not so great ones.....diners are fickle, we have been in this industry long enough to know there are always teething problems, you deal with them, fix them and move on.

In a country where you cant speak the language you can always get by when you are in holiday mode and not in a hurry, but when you are at work dealing with staff in a fast paced environment it can become incredibly frustrating. Not just for me but for everyone around me.

At our pub in Melbourne, I could walk into the kitchen, look at the 20 dockets waiting to be filled, run my eye over the tables in the dining room and in 2 minutes be up to speed. Now I walk into the kitchen and I'm flying blind. Most of the boys don't speak English and the ones that do cannot understand my Australian accent. They had confided to one of our Managers "We don't know what language Madam speaks, but it's not English. "
I no longer answer the phone because the customers would rather hang up than talk to a foreigner, so I am the official seater and greeter. A western woman opening the door in a traditional Sri Lankan Restaurant is not what people are expecting. 

I can be a great source of amusement to the staff. When I walked over to one table and asked the customer if he would like a drink, I saw the blank look that came over his face. I could almost hear the cogs turning in his head, weighing up his options,.....thinking "Mmm you're probably a little older than I was hoping for...b.u.u.t...".  Putting him out of his misery, I smiled and said "It's OK I actually work here".  I now wear a name tag with the Upali logo embossed in big letters.

The Shrine built at the site by the laborers to say their prayers
 It had been an incredible push to be ready for the auspicious time of opening. These times are given by the Monks, based on the alignment of stars and planets. With some exceptions a great deal of tolerance is shown to all 4 major Religions in Sri Lanka. Each Friday you will find a large number of stores that are operated by Muslims closed between the hours of 11.30 and 1.30 so they can attend the Mosque. The refreshing thing is everyone celebrates each others special days. Unlike us in Australia who are now so politically correct we are scared to sing Christmas Carols at school for fear of offending some one.

Once a month there is a public holiday on the fall of the full moon called Poya. The whole country has the day off regardless of who you worship.  Long weekend every month...I think its a great idea. The one detraction is you cannot serve or sell alcohol on Poya, much to the distress of the unsuspecting tourist. Bad luck Valentines Day fell on Poya this year. The hospitality industry lost a fortune not being able to serve Champagne dinners.

I walked into the site one morning to find a Shrine that had been built by the workers so they could conduct their morning prayers. All over the city you see statues of Buddah in every shape and size. Morning commuters stop as they pass by, hold  smoking joss sticks in their palms and touch their foreheads. They rock back and forward several times chanting their prayer. No one laughs at them. No one makes fun of them, its the most natural thing in the world to conduct your Religious Worship in public.

Another important tradition is "Kiri Utundra".......We had to perform this ritual before  preparing food for the first time in the new kitchen. The milk must boil and overflow. Signifying an abundance of good luck. We had performed this tradition in our own home in Australia, even though David's family is Catholic. I think it is more a cultural thing rather than a Religious one.
Boiling milk for the first time to signify the opening of the restaurant. After the milk is boiled, it is then sprinkled around the building
With the days flying by and  hurdles at every turn we just kept jumping. When the finish line was  in sight we  sent  the children as unaccompanied minors back to Australia and clocked up16 hour days.

I woke up on our last morning before the opening, voices in my head screaming"ONE MORE DAY PEOPLE!!!!!!' Our Partner Upali nonchalantly wandered into the sight around 8.00am, with his assistants carrying the breakfast he cooked for us each day. Cooking was his passion and his dream of having his own restaurant was about to be realized. He looked as if he didn't have a care in the world. The Dharmadasa family is synonymous amongst the Sri Lankan community.  I had seen the raised eyebrows when people  found out the Restaurant was owned by Upali Dharmadasa of the Nawaloka Empire. Coming from Australia it had meant nothing to me and I was constantly amazed at how far his influence stretched.  When we threw our hands up in frustration because goods and services had not turned up again! One phone call from Upali and all was fixed.

There were people everywhere, the place looked like one of those renovation rescue shows. We were opening in less than 24 hours. Everything was meant to have been completed two weeks ago giving us enough lead in time to train the staff and have all our systems in place. David and I have always been strong critics of slow service and in Sri Lanka it can be really slow. They are not rude, they just don't see the necessity in moving fast, everything happens at its own pace. Service in restaurants is slow. Trying to get your bill takes forever and there is no such thing as ducking into the supermarket to grab a few items. They have introduced electronic scanners, but invariably every third item needs to be keyed in manually.

To have a 12 week turn around period, from conception to opening is an amazing feat in any ones language. No need to have permits for the countless walls we had knocked down or the numerous windows that have been installed. No detailed visit from the health department to" Sign Off " on ventilation, exhaust systems or  correct refrigeration before being allowed to operate a food venue. When we were told in Australia that our staff could not climb a ladder to change a light bulb without doing a special course we knew the world had gone mad.

Over the past  3 months in Sri Lanka I have watched laborers walking around a building site in bare feet, electrical wires sticky taped together and men straddling beams three stories high while they used electric grinders. Occupational health and safety officers in Australia would be clutching their chests and falling to the ground if they saw a building site here...lucky for us. We were on a tight schedule the President was opening the Restaurant. The auspicious time of 11.30 am Thursday 19th December had been chosen by the Monks and so it had to be ready.

The big day ticked over. It had came down to the wire. As guests started to arrive we had to shoo away the painter who was still applying the finishing touches.

As we drove to the restaurant that morning the street was lined with Navaloka flags...someone had been busy during the night. I walked up to the balcony, taking a few minutes before the guests started to arrive. I looked at the park across the road. I had been watching the same people sitting on the park benches  for the past 12 weeks. They were the street sweepers.
Last minute touch ups..Staff Briefing..Restoring what nature created and man changed
Every morning you see them all over Colombo pushing their
Bag of tea time
Who needs a cup
orange barrows. Each one has a designated street. Wearing their shabby clothes and faded orange shirts with the Aban's logo. Some with the luxury of thongs on their feet but most barefoot. They sweep the entire city with brooms made from thin sticks tied together.

When I first started coming to Sri Lanka nearly 30 years ago there were piles of rotting garbage everywhere. The war had just started and there was no such thing as garbage trucks. Now the streets are immaculate. They may be old but they are clean. Each area is assigned to a particular person. They fill up their barrows, the truck comes and takes it all away then they sit in the park for the rest of the day. Chatting on the benches or sleeping under a tree only to go back in the afternoon and do it all again. In the street where we now live they push their barrows, hollering as they pass, letting the housekeepers  know to bring out the days garbage. I like the daily collection here much better than the weekly one we had in Butturumulla. Keeps the rats at bay.

The morning traffic was starting to pick up. The buses trundled down the road, black smoke spewing from their exhausts. Standing room only again. Three wheelers were weaving in and out. Everyone was looking at the restaurant. The scaffolding had been removed yesterday and in its place was a bright red carpet leading to the door.

Standing room only again
I tried not to look too closely at some of the finishes they were a bit rough around the edges....but ah....maybe it was only David and I that would notice.  I took a breath, smiled and walked downstairs, adjusting a chair to cover a cracked tile  and kicking a lone wire behind a couch as I passed. Everything was perfect. Sri Lanka Perfect.

The place was buzzing.The Presidents security team had been on the premises for the past two days taking the names and identity card numbers of all the staff. Last night they actually slept  in the private dining room he was having lunch in today. As  we arranged his table we were not allowed to  set his place, that would be done after he arrived. When I bought the flowers for the table, the security took them from me gently probing the arrangement for anything suspicious. When I walked in with the pepper grinder, it was "Yeah I know, here you go " and handed it over so they could look inside for unidentified pepper grains. This was the man who had ended the 30 year conflict in the North, maybe he still had a few enemies out there.

Nawaloka flags flying -The red carpet - Colombo's Mayor lighting the Lamp with Upali
Guests began to arrive, ducking under the ribbon the President was going to cut. Upali then received a call for us to start, our Guest of Honor was running late. As with every function in Sri Lanka the oil lamp is lit by the dignitaries at the start of a Ceremony. So with the opening bat not present, the Mayor of Colombo stepped up to the crease. In the midst of the lamp lighting the clatter of feet bounding down the stairs broke the silence. The Presidents security walked past, opened the front door without saying a word and left. I looked at them, looked back towards the stairs and looked back again, only to see their jeep now pulling onto the road and disappearing around the corner. W-What just happened ?? These guys haven't left the building for two days.....Ah huh... looks like someone was going to be a no show.

David doing the morning vegetable run for the Restaurant
Looking through my gate watching the world go by.
The move into Colombo has made an incredible difference. We now reside at Barnes Place. A 10 minute walk to work although I only did that once, arriving a dripping mess. Sweaty armpits and hair plastered to your scalp is not a refreshing look when dealing with food. When lunch service is completed we now have the luxury of being home in 5 minutes. Nanna nap on the couch, time with the kids after school, watch some trash TV and still have an hour before we return for dinner service. We have traded the swimming pool for convenience, the monkeys in the trees for the sound of honking traffic, the garden for a courtyard but it was still  a good trade. I defy anyone to sit in Colombo traffic day after day wasting endless hours and not go slowly mad.

I like our new street, it is a moving supermarket. After the children leave for school I have my morning tea sitting on the front terrace.  As the driver pulls out, I prefer to leave the front gate open watching Colombo start its day. All the houses are hidden behind huge brick walls. They all employ someone whose only job in life is to open and close the gate. I watched as across the road their gate slowly rumbled open and the occupant drove out. The gate keeper standing in his sarrong and singlet looks up and down the street. Takes a big breath and sucks in the morning air. He will get to go home once a month if he has a family. If he doesn't he will go nowhere. He will live in a small room somewhere at the rear of the house if he is lucky, otherwise he just sleeps on a mat on the floor, his worldly goods in  a small chest of drawers or a tiny cupboard. He wont go out in the evenings to a movie and has probably never stepped into a restaurant in his life. His meal will be supplied. He turns and spots me watching him. He looks for a second and then gives a slight nod. I raise my mug a few inches and nod back. Then he is gone, disappearing behind the closing gate, where he will wait for the honk of the car horn that will send him scrambling back into action once again.

A bell is jingling. I wait to see who is coming. Ahh it's the mango man pushing his rickety cart filled with ripe mangoes. Without moving from my chair, I ask Kia Da? How much ??. The price of mangoes suddenly shoots up when he realizes its a foreigner.  David steps out, a few more words in Sinhala that are too fast for me to catch and a new price is negotiated. Fresh Mango's.

It's not long before I can hear the next vendor announcing his impending arrival. As he gets closer I hear the words "Malu, Malu,"This time it's the fish monger. Not long after that, its King Coconut or Thambili's. If you buy one they will cut a hole in the top and pop in a straw. Instant vitamin drink to start the day. Berocca in a shell. There was even a toothy grinned man pushing a bike so ladened with brooms, mops and every conceivable cleaning device I'm worried if he drops it he will be buried so deep I wont be able to get him out. Crushed beneath a ton of mops and coconut fiber brooms. The carnival meanders along all day. A kaleidoscope of color and free enterprise.

I heard a quote a few weeks ago that said "Its not the destination in life that is important, it's the passengers you travel with" So as I sit with my morning cup and watch the passing parade. I think about the passengers I am currently sharing my ride with. The people at Upali's. They work hard to provide for their families. They work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. At the end of their shift those who don't stay in the dormitory provided sit on a bus for another hour sometimes two all for the grand sum of $200 per month. Everyone of them has their own story which is so different to mine.

No journey ever goes to  plan, sometimes a road block forces you to make a detour that you didn't expect. Things take a little longer than you thought. I know my sadness the past few weeks is a mother missing her children, but I'm certainly not missing out on life, something new happens every day. I stare at the gate across the road and think about the life being lived there..........Draining the last of my tea. I pull myself up, I need to start getting ready for work. So, to no one in particular I say...... "Once more around the block Driver", then it's home to pick up a couple of very important passengers I left behind.


  1. Fab Cath. And again I feel for you with the kids. Been there done that and still doing it. Di

  2. Nice to become engrossed by your great story-telling skills again, Cathy. A touch of sadness at the beginning and the end, but packed with a wide range of positive and interesting observations in between - plus your frenetic lifestyle! Good wishes for your new restaurant and your family. Bill.

    1. Thanks Bill. A tinge of homesickness but back on track now :))

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  8. I was born in Sri Lanka, but do not have any family there and my husband is English but we both love SL. We have been travelling there for the past 10 years and have seen it grow, change sometime for the better and other times not so good.
    I came to Upalis last week, with some other friends staying with us and loved everything and will come to your new restaurant soon.
    We met David as he was returning to Australia soon, as was I also returning. When my husband returns from SL we will visit your Upalis in Glen Waverly.
    Good luck and having children away at school is very hard we did it for 10 years but they have survived to our pride very well.

  9. Great stuff
    Awesome perspective
    Absolutely loved reading it all

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