When I last came to Sri Lanka 20 years ago, it was like a country caught in a wrinkle of time. In 2011, it’s like a country caught in a wrinkle of time but with hand phones. Except for some colourful new signage, you’d be hard put to guess what decade you were in. It still gives the impression of being slow and a bit sleepy, its low-rise buildings gently decomposing in the humid air, elderly overcrowded buses careening along with a slight starboard list. Armed police and soldiers punctuate the roads, the only visible sign of the country’s recently ended, decades-long civil war. Ladies in saris, jeans, jilbabs or long swinging skirts walk gracefully to market.
Sri Lanka is just beginning to be caught up in the consumer vortex. Many of the billboards still feature 1960s-era artwork and products. There’s not much for a foreigner to buy except gems. Streets are litter-free and the rivers pristine – there’s hardly a piece of garbage to be seen anywhere. Perhaps this is because pre-packaged snacks are not common; people grab their ‘short eats’ in little cafes or purchase spicy munchies from vendors who dole out individual servings from big sacks.
In rural Sri Lanka, I’m lucky to be staying with a local family. This is because I’m travelling with my old friend Juliette, who has had a small business producing jigsaw puzzles here for the past seven years. We are met at the airport and welcomed like members of the family. After a daunting drive to this little country town, we pull up in front of a new two-storey house with marble floors and a simple upstairs apartment for foreign guests – the house that jigsaw puzzles built. We’re surrounded by rice fields and low, jungled hills. The coconut trees are abundant with squirrels and birds. In the next field is a young brown bull who grazes peaceably with a picket of alert white egrets as his constant companions.
Behind the house sprawls a series of low buildings where production takes place. Although thousands of export-quality wooden jigzaw puzzles are made here every year, there is no sense of urgency or stress in the compound. Employees dribble in casually, no one is in a hurry. Shy smiles and sleek heads that bobble no when they mean yes.
This is a great example of a sustainable small business where everyone benefits. The family had been producing puzzles since 1996 for export to Europe with a handful of employees. Juliette and her partner started making puzzles here in 2003 when the family was still living in a very modest house and had no vehicle. Her first order was for 400 puzzles, a small fraction of what she now exports. Over the years, over 50 designs have been created for her business. Today, the little home-based production centre has 10 full-time employees and sub-contracts work out to 45 women nearby. This brings steady income to a total of 55 families – representing nearly 500 people – in an area where jobs are few. The beauty of sub-contracting piecework to home-based women is that they can control the amount of money they make and maintain their family responsibilities in this conservative culture while making a significant financial contribution. Wages range from $160 through $1,000 a month.
The puzzles themselves are works of art. They are very labour intensive. Once a new design has been drawn, a sample is cut to make sure that it ‘locks’ well, that all the pieces hang together when the puzzle is moved. Then it is cut in a double layer of wood with a sheet of aluminium between which becomes the stencil. Each piece is cut from this pattern, then hand-drawn onto a piece of wood. The puzzle is cut from the pattern on the wood with an electric jig saw (hence the name), and each piece is carefully sanded. Two coats of primer are applied, then each piece is sanded twice again before being painted. (Both the primer and the paint have been certified lead-free in the European Union and in Sri Lanka.) Finally, the fine details of the puzzle are painted on with a tiny brush, the finished piece is checked by quality control and shrink- wrapped before being crated for shipping in boxes built on the spot from certified wood. Each puzzle takes about one full day to finish and passes through at least eight different pairs of hands. “If these puzzles were made is Australia, the production costs alone would increase the price by at least 400%,” Juliette explained. The top-quality educational puzzles are sold only through the Fremantle market in West Australia.
Business over, we stroll around the town. Tourists are as rare as albino elephants here, yet no one stares. Although January is usually warm, people are wearing jackets. Climate change has not spared Sri Lanka. Floods rage in the east this week, displacing a million people. Elsewhere, temperatures are at a record low. In the island’s highest town, Nuwara Eliya, the mercury took a dive to 8 degrees Celsius last night. Our town is near sea level, but it is still jolly cold. We huddle in shawls and sip hot, fragrant tea.
The food is excellent – Sri Lankan home cooking at its pinnacle. The lady of the house produces at least ten different dishes twice a day. Yes, there is brown rice… soaked overnight in coconut milk and cooked to a pudding, fermented with coconut to make hoppers or ground to flour and extruded as a paste to make string hoppers, delicate nests of steamed red rice noodles. All these are eaten with a wide range of savoury curries – chicken, seer fish, dahl, vegetables, cashews, all spiked with plenty of chilies. The only food that is not prepared from scratch is a plate of sliced white bread which has been bought just for us and appears at each meal. We ignore it and go for second servings of red rice or string hoppers, and by the third day the bread appears no more.
The family rises late by Balinese standards; mama only hits the kitchen about 8 and breakfast appears after 9. Lunch, a big spread of many dishes, is served about 3 in the afternoon, and dinner after 8 pm. Only the father eats with us; the rest of the family sits around the table urging us to eat more, but won’t sit down to dine until we have finished. Then the family hangs out noisily with neighbours until about midnight, laughing and chatting and watching TV. English is only spoken by the children of the family and minor misunderstandings are frequent.
The nights are crisp and I open my eyes to blue skies, birdsong and the aroma of onions crisping in fresh coconut oil in the kitchen below my room. It’s quite wonderful to be at such a distance from daily responsibilities, with nothing much to do but watch the rice grow and try to guess what will be served for lunch. Every few days we are taken on excursions to Colombo or the south coast. Yesterday found us at the seashore, and Juliette points out where the tsunami has devoured whole beaches. We walk a bit, then stop at a little café she remembers for lunch. After an excellent meal of fresh fish, I see that a large, well cared-for dog has parked himself politely beside my chair. He indicates that he would accept a modest snack. I offer a chip, which he takes very carefully in his mouth and immediately drops on the floor with poorly disguised disappointment. Wasn’t there any fish left? I feed him bits of fish skin, which he daintily consumes. The dogs here seem to be well looked after; neglected street dogs are very rare.
On the way back we stop at a private turtle hatchery. Like Indonesia, Sri Lanka has strict laws protecting turtles. Unlike Indonesia, however, the laws here are energetically enforced, with the possession of even a single turtle egg attracting a large fine. The hatchery offers a small bounty for each egg the fishermen bring in, so when female turtles heave themselves up on the beach to lay, fishermen are standing by to collect every egg they can find for sale to the hatchery. There the eggs are buried in nests in the sand, each labeled with the species and date. Months later the eggs hatch during the night, and the baby turtles are attracted to a lit box at the side of the hatchery where they are collected in the morning. Big seawater tanks hold the babies for three days until they can swim strongly, then they are released into the sea. “Our hatch rate is about 90%, and we estimate that 50% of the babies we release survive,” the biologist told me. “In the wild, up to 80% of newly hatched turtles are consumed by predators within a few days.” The facility hatches and releases hundreds of thousands of Green, Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Ridley and the very large Leatherback turtles every year, many of which return to lay eggs on the same beach. Fishermen are also encouraged to bring in turtles wounded by boat engines, and the hatchery has become a sanctuary for mature turtles without arms or legs which would not be able to survive in the wild.
Tomorrow we leave this hospitable family and the lowlands for Kandy, where landslides and torrential rain await. I’ve bought a blue umbrella patterned with fanciful white elephants, and it looks like I’ll be getting some use out of it.
Dragons in the Bath, a collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, it is available at Ganesha Books in Ubud and at Biku in Seminyak, and at Periplus bookstores in Bali. It can be ordered nationally and internationally through www.dragonsinthebath.com.
Copyright © 2011 Greenspeak
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