Frank O'Hara & Marion Raycheba in Sri Lanka
May 17 - June 24, 2004

Frank & hosts

Frank with hosts Sampath & Lakmini Liyanage and their daughter Ashwini

in front of Independence Hall commemorating Sri Lanka's independence from Britain on February 3, 1948

Some things that surprised us:

Many people go barefoot; many men wear a skirt (sarong) otherwise they wear Western clothes; almost all women wear long skirts and many wear saris; eating with one's fingers is the norm, so food is served as a sort of 'mush'; there is no word in Sinhala for "please"; Sri Lankans shake their heads left to right, as if they are disagreeing with you, when they are actually indicating their agreement. To us Sinhalese and Tamils are indistinguishable in appearance; with very few sidewalks and crowds of pedestrians we never saw a person hit by traffic; bus drivers own the road; bribery, graft, and corruption are the norm; Buddhists seem to pay more attention to their rituals than to their principles; people on the street frequently give a wide welcoming smile to Europeans; in a world-wide contest Sri Lankan food might well be judged the spiciest (hottest).

Our work

Sampath and his wife, Lakmini, run a small advertising agency, Sansu Advertising Service, established by Sampath's father in 1982. I was the official volunteer from CESO. Marion came along as my spouse. However, Marion was as busy as I was and as important to the success of the assignment. I worked on such things as planning several databases to help keep track of jobs, do sales follow-ups, and determine which jobs made a profit. I also helped develop a website for the company as well as one for a client and participated in meetings with some clients and prospective employees (hiring one). In general, my responsibility was to help management shift the business out of the doldrums and into a successful and profitable enterprise. Marion also took on various jobs, for example, preparing a template for making written campaign (new business) proposals. Marion and I used this template to prepare an actual proposal for a live prospect, and I prepared a PowerPoint presentation and other sales props. Then, we worked as a team to coach Sampath and Lakmini on how to actually present the proposal. Marion, being a true professional words-smith, worked with the clients on a good many advertisements, brochures, leaflets, sales letters, etc., to incorporate what "perfect" English copy looks like. (Interestingly, although Sinhala is the main language (72% of the population) and Tamil is common (about 12%) English is used extensively in business and government and thus in corporate advertising.)

Our accommodation

Sansu Advertising Service is on the first floor of a 7 storey hotel that the principals also own. The day we arrived, Sansu was just moving into its new offices, so new that many windows still didn't have glass and the office lacked a front door. We had a one-bedroom apartment on the hotel's second floor, which was very convenient. Things were understandably chaotic for a few days. Installing telephone lines, for example, is not a simple exercise in developing countries. Plumbing and electrical work is done by unlicensed people; so, standards are "different" from our expectations and problems can be expected. However, in general, things worked out quite well.

SanjuThe top floor of the hotel is open to the air. One half is designed for use as a restaurant. (This space was being glassed in and air conditioned while we were there, but the work was still in progress when we left.) This is a picture of Sanju, the cook, at work. You will notice that everything is close at hand. At first we took all our meals from Sanju. We learned that curry comes in many flavours: hot, hotter, breath-taking, and sweat-producing (even for Sri Lankans). Marion handles hot spices with the best of them. Once, to everyone's astonishment, she ate calmly and with enjoyment something so hot even our clients were sweating. I, on the other hand, have a mouth that burns at the first hint of hot spices. Even when I requested absolutely no spices in the food, I could just barely manage it. Also, there is little difference between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After a couple of weeks, and finding a grocery store about 1/2 kms away, we prepared our own breakfast and lunch in our apartment.

We got so wrapped up in our assignment that we worked very long and strange hours, including as early as 5:30 in the morning and on Saturdays and Sundays. Of course, a 10-hour time difference from Toronto meant that it took us a while to sort day from night. Our apartment had an air-conditioner in both the living room and bedroom. This made it very convenient and comfortable to work at any hour. Typical temperatures are in the mid- to high 30s Celsius every day, with very high humidity. Because it was monsoon season, there were also frequent, fierce sweeps of rain. I suppose a person who is used to the Canadian climate would acclimatize in time. We found it enervating.


For the first three weeks, we did not leave the city of Colombo, although Sampath and Lakmini took us shopping and to see some local sights.

HamidAt the end of our fourth week, we took Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off to visit Galle at the south end of the island. We rented a car with a driver/guide to show us around. That's Hamid with our hotel, The Lady Hill, in the background. It wasn't very busy, being off-season, but even so we could see the tourist business is suffering as a result of the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils. There were no problems while we were in the country, but shortly after our return there was a bombing incident in Colombo.

Hamid, our guide, is a member of the Muslim minority. He is of Malaysian ancestry and speaks Sinhala, Tamil, Arabic, Urdu, Malay, and English. He worked for 20 years in Dubai and saved the money to buy this car and a house when he came back to Sri Lanka. The chance for the average person to make and save significant sums in Sri Lanka is remote.

monkThe island is extremely verdant and has countless pristine beaches. Well off the main road, we visited a jungle-surrounded ancient Buddhist temple. A 22 year old monk was the sole attendant. With Hamid's help, we learned that the monk entered a monastery when he was only seven years of age. He made a point of saying that he volunteered, unlike many children who are volunteered by their parents. If you look closely you will see a Canada flag pin on the edge of his robe. He was as delighted as a small unspoiled child and insisted on giving me a gift in return ("Manual of Buddhism" in English). I also gave him a ballpoint pen (with my company name on it). I was pleased to meet this ingenuous and pleasant fellow and to get to know him, however briefly.

4 of usAt the end of our fifth and last week in Sri Lanka, we took another three-day week-end to visit the Cultural Triangle with Sampath and Lakmini. This is in the middle of the country where the ancient civilizations were located - going back as far as 300 BCE. (The Sinhalese immigrated from northern India to escape persecution because of their brand of Buddhism. They regard themselves as guardians of the legitimate and original form of Buddhism, although there are several varieties in the country.)

The island is just about all jungle, complete with wild elephants and many other animals, interspersed with paddy fields, small towns, and resorts. Some of the ancient ruins are spectacular. There are three principal sites, each covering a good many square kilometers. About 300 AD one of the king's sons killed his father and fled to Sigiriya. It took nine years (and plenty of help) to build his palace on top of the rock and the fortress walls with a moat around the base. Inside the fortress, he built offices, homes, and facilities for his key advisors and the nobility. This area, which is still being excavated, included pools, fountains, baths, and gardens. I climbed to the top - 1042 steps and lots of them very steep. Any phlegm I might have had in my lungs was certainly dissipated by the effort. There is a great view from the top - once you wipe the perspiration from your eyes.

In many places throughout the Cultural Triangle there are what looks like small lakes. Actually, they are giant water reservoirs, called tanks, built by the ancient kings. The central area gets more than enough rain during monsoon season but little otherwise. So, the kings, with great foresight, constructed the reservoirs to collect the water for irrigating the paddies during the dry season. The tanks are still used for irrigation some 2000 years' later!

A bit of history

The Tamils came to Sri Lanka about 300 CE. The first traders to visit Sri Lanka were Arabs, around the 7th century. They gave it the name "Serendip," hence the English serendipity (fortunate circumstance). This was and still is a true spice island, with everything from cinnamon to camomile. The Arabs established mosques and there are still many of them. The Portuguese (and their Roman Catholic churches) were next (1505), followed by the Dutch (Reformed Churches) around 1600 and then the English (Anglican churches). Of course, in the Sinhalese areas (about 2/3rds of the country), there are Buddhist temples in profusion. Early colonists settled only on the coasts. The English managed to colonize the whole island in the 1800s. It was they who coined the name Ceylon as a corruption of a couple of previous names. The English also introduced tea plantations to the island (brought from China). Ceylon tea is so well known that the name was kept when the country's name was changed to Sri Lanka at independence. Sri Lanka means "wonderful or beautiful land" and it is. I hope that one of these days the people of Sri Lanka will resolve their ethnic and religious differences and end their conflicts. Then Sri Lanka would truly deserve the name "wonderful country". Some "serendipity" would help. Coming from Canada we appreciate the value of a secular and relatively racist-free society and hope that the charming people of Sri Lanka may eventually move along the same path.