Making a start

Although it’s only the afternoon, I feel I’ve already had a busy day.

I woke, after an excellent night’s sleep, at 6am and managed to get some breakfast from a lad who works here. I was rescued from trying to explain “toast” by the male cook who provided a pale imitation of the afore-mentioned and coffee. By 7:10 I was beginning to despair of my 7:00am taxi (tuk-tuk) when it suddenly appeared and we set off on a hair-raising journey to school.

Road safety hasn’t improved in the 8 years since I previously visited the island. Think of any instruction on the subject of overtaking in our Highway Code: the absolute opposite is the rule here. Want to overtake? Wait for a steep incline on a blind corner, add two or three cyclists and a motorbike or two according to taste, blow your horn a couple of times and go for it! You may be rattling along – I use that term in its literal sense – with a lorry coming towards you well over the middle of the road as it’s passing a cyclist: suddenly from behind the lorry appears a straining tuk-tuk and starts to pass the lorry. Time drops into slow motion, the oncoming tuk-tuk moves torpedo-style from the dreadnought lorry, both vehicles sending out wakes of black smoke; your oncoming death appears assured and imminent. But somehow, by some sleight of hand, a deus ex machina waves a loftily-beneficent hand, a gap opens up and the oncoming tuk-tuk disappears as quickly as it came. Repeat as required.

The taxi-driver dropped me off at a school, a non-English speaking porter directed me to a couple of teachers and it soon became clear I was outside the wrong establishment. When I showed them an email from Mrs Saraswattie, they told me I should be at the International School, which I doubted. However, another tuk-tuk, another porter and there I was – in the right place.

It’s not what I expected: I had somehow got it into my head that it’d be a concrete block hut, complete with tin roof and barred un-glazed windows. I’d imagined masses of earnest, under-nourished little faces squeezed into the stifling heat and semi-darkness, desperate to learn. In fact, the International School is fee-paying and puts kids through Edexel exams. The faces of the primary 3 class I saw were acceptably earnest, but well-nourished and set atop smartly-uniformed healthy bodies. The classroom is what you might describe as open-plan: there is a corridor / verandah outside the first-floor room, with the dividing wall only waist height. Anything going on in the room is clearly audible and visible to all who pass. The room is pretty bare, but sound.

A word of explanation about Mrs Sarswatty. Her full surname is Mrs Saraswathy-Dahanayake, but she unaccountably just uses her maiden name professionally. (Spellings of names seem to be surprisingly flexible, but then Shakespeare used to vary his as well.) In school, in the role of head-teacher, she is just addressed by staff and pupils as “Madam”, much handier than her full moniker, though a bit servile. I also met her head of primary – Ruhan – and Janaka, the admin guy. We all stood outside the P3 class and watched as the poor lady taught in a heavily-accented English that I couldn’t make a lot of sense of until a child was robbed of its textbook so I could follow along. I think Madam is short of a teacher and this lady is filling in: she must have felt nervous. It was initially being planned that I’d be in with this class: I’d do the teaching, the lady would mark books and “learn from the master”. (Those are my words and intended ironically!) After I pointed out that whilst I’d happily give it a go I had no expertise at all with wee ones, things were jiggled around a bit. I’m getting P3a, then P3b for “Story-telling” on Mondays, then the depute head has subpoenaed me to join her (age-unspecified) class for Writing. Tuesdays will be Grammar with these classes. Wednesday will be Grammar and Reading. There may also be something called 6e. I have negotiated to have Thursdays and Fridays off! So I don’t actually start hewing at the chalkface until Monday, and I have a long weekend ahead of me. Not yet sure what I’ll do, if anything.

It is already clear that the sullabus here is very strictly defined. I have a horrid feeling that the materials I have brought with me – Elmer the Elephant etc. – will be redundant despite their obvious merits. At one point Madam checked up on my intended departure date, did some mental arithmetic and decreed that I should be at close reading passage 22 by then.

I was dismissed from Madam’s presence about 9:00am and decided to try walking into town. I was doing pretty well and still had a good idea of where to go in the steadily rising heat, when my chauffeur from earlier in the morning came whizzing by and offered me a lift – in exchange for rupees of course. This was handy as I was able to try telling him I wouldn’t need him tomorrow, but I would on Monday. This took a lot of explanation and I’m still not sure he got it, but at least I tried. A few more narrow escapes from the maw of Death and I got Emerson to drop me off outside “The Fort”.

Only the most diligent of you will have been doing your homework, so I’ll give a brief history of Galle courtesy of “The Rough Guide”. Galle is probably the Biblical Tarshish: of Solomon, peacocks, ivory and spices fame. The Portuguese established a fort here in 1589. The Dutch captured it in 1640 and expanded the Portuguese fortifications with huge stone walls, producing the enclosed area now known as The Fort. In 1796, the British took Galle as a result of Dutch defeat in the Napoleonic Wars: at least that’s what the book says. There are a surprising number of Dutch and Portuguese surnames in Sri Lanka: Da Silva, Gomez etc. on people who have no obvious European blood at all.

So The Fort has become a tourist attraction, with its mix of Dutch, British and Sri Lankan architecture: I think most of the Portuguese stuff is long gone. The streets are cobbled, the main entrance is through the arch in the bastion and the city walls are more or less complete, affording tourists like me the chance to wander round, as well as through, this fascinating quarter. I had a coffee and watched (metaphorical) crocodiles of cricket-kit-besuited boys heading down to the green for sports. If I feel in need of some shabby-chic Mediterranean-style scenery, I know where to go.

house in fort

A house in The Fort

I think the Free Church of Scotland has missed a marketing opportunity: Galle in general, and the Fort in particular, houses establishments catering for Muslims, Dutch Reformed, Carmelite Nuns, The House of God, Buddhists, Hindus etc. Come on guys: you need to up your game! Seriously, though, it’s good to see such a range of beliefs apparently co-existing peacefully.

tuktuk coconuts

Tuk-tuks and coconuts.

I also took the opportunity to try out my Nationwide card and managed to switch the ATM from Sinhalese to English before a successful withdrawal of 50000 rupees. (Note to Sonia: about £250, I hope!)

cricket ground

Galle Cricket Ground (one for Ben!)

Next, the tourist information place to ask about places to rent. To cut a long story – and longer wait – short, a helpful chap gave me two contacts: one for a place I would have to assess by visiting, at about £10 a day. The air-conditioning wasn’t working but could be fixed if I took the place on… The other was an attractive-looking home-stay with a retired bank manager and his family, near the beach, but some 10km out of town… I was given phone numbers and said I’d get in touch with both places. Progress of sorts, it seemed.

Next, I headed off to the Dialog (one SL’s mobile operators) office and bought a SIM card, plus credit. Yet more signs of progress.

After a bit more aimless strolling, I decided to start walking back to the hotel: a distance of about 4km, I think. With a mixture of superb navigation skills and sheer good luck, I found a bit of road I spotted yesterday beside a railway line and knew I was on the right track – no pun intended.

The clue to the next anecdote is in the name of the Hotel Hillside. I was finding it hot and dangerous work walking up the steepish road dodging the lorries, cars, motorbikes and maniacal tuk-tuk drivers, so reckoned to join them, flagged one down with aplomb, presented the hotel’s business card to show the address, negotiated a price and off we went. As the hill got steeper, the tuk-tuk engine got louder and smokier and we slowed to such an extent that cyclists were overtaking us, probably to avoid our oily smokestream. As we groaned along, my driver shouted at another parked tuk-tuk and it fell in behind us. At a convenient point on the hill, not far from a blind corner, we stopped; my driver and I got into the new tuk-tuk and its driver took us on up at a good lick. “My tuk old!” my original driver grinned by way of explanation. Once at the hotel, I tested the driver by asking him how much we’d agreed on. “I don’t care about money:” he replied, “give me what you think it’s worth”. “Oh that’s simple. Nothing!” I joked and we all laughed: him a little uneasily. However, honour was done and the good tuk-tuk headed back down the hill.

I was pleased that Chaminda – the hotel owner – was around when I got back. We chatted for a while about Sylvia’s imminent arrival: she’s to be here for about two months, according to Chaminda. I told him about looking for somewhere else to stay and he offered me a friend’s three bedroom house in an ideal location, furnished to European standard but at a price that was out of my league. After a bit more chatter, he has offered me to continue using my 3-bed room, he will provide a bit more furniture, a micro-wave and hot plate and I can stay at the £10 a day rate, doing my own cooking but with access to their kitchen if I need it. He also reckoned that 500/- (that seems how to write five hundred rupees) was too much for a tuk-tuk into town and made an offer of “their” tuk-tuk for 300/- a journey. I don’t quite know what that means, but it sounds OK.

I admit that I was in two minds: it’s a good offer, but it’s a bit off the beaten track and going anywhere really does call for transport. It would have been nice to have a place of my own, but eventually I thanked Chaminda for his kind offer and it looks as though Hotel Hillside is my permanent base. I think Chaminda also hopes I’ll be someone for Sylvia to talk to: he did comment about how she likes to talk and he isn’t always around. He seems to be very fond of her and is going to the airport tomorrow to collect her.

Oh, I meant to mention that my phone isn’t “seeing” the new SIM card, so that’s a problem to be solved somehow.

If you’ve got this far, I’ve made you read much more than I have any right to expect: I seem to have a dose of logorrhoea.

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One response to “Making a start

  1. Great post dad, glad to see you’re getting your bearings a bit! We had that problem with our sim cards too, you might just have to bite the bullet and buy a cheapy nokia/samsung phone as we did when we went there. They’re only about a tenner. The school description sounds pretty accurate to what I remember when we were teaching in Kalutara, although probably a bit more upmarket. The low walls between classrooms is very familiar and there were lots of not so subtle earwigging teachers on their breaks passing us for the first few weeks!!

    Glad you’ve got some accommodation sorted for now although you might wish to change things around a bit soon…!! Enjoy your long weekend and prep before Monday.

    Galle fort is nice, very strange to be in somewhere so un Sri lankan but yet it is very. Ben’s been to watch some amateur cricket at that ground, he’ll recognise that pic I’m sure. I look forward to more updates soon 🙂 Jo xx

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