It sounds like a stampede fleeting through the front room where I sleep. The early morning train steaming past as it does every day, the dog chasing and barking it down each time it passes, still limping and angry from the collision it had only last month, seamlessly unaware of his fortune to still be alive to try to avenge the tale. The train like clockwork tells us its 4 a.m. and mother has already woken. Today is the 18th; the day allocated to our family every month for arms giving to the local temple, with an offering of home cooked food given to the monks both old and young by a different household each day. The ritual offering of a sweet cup of tea to each waking family member the only distraction from mothers task in hand with time limited to produce the food that will make up the only two meals the monks are to eat before midday. A long stretch then awaits the next meal for these disciplined young students, their way of life chosen by their parents seeking a path of utmost honour and respect for them. With this relinquished task complete for another month it is time to complete mothers daily duty of filling the stomachs of her own; a job that is carried out with a huge sense of importance and pride. Meanwhile the sound of water splashing outside can be heard by the well as the youngest and only brother left living in the house washes. His sarong used so effortlessly around him for cover while dropping the bucket back down to pull up another load. The precision needed to wash the whole body so meticulously with only two buckets full a task has now been perfected through the years.
The lifting of the plastic guard, rested on the table for protection from the ever-present flies, always brings with it an air of excitement to reveal what has been prepared. The display on the table an immediate indicator of the amount of money currently on offer to spend, no savings to dip into should the month have its struggles. No fish in sight tells us funds are low for the day, a boiled egg the cheaper replacement for protein and the onion sambal still good from the night before making for a worthy partner to the desiccated coconut and green lentils; enough to awaken the taste buds and fill the stomachs for the day ahead. Should more money be accessible from a few days of fortune it is commendably enjoyed. With the emphasis so often put on the power of the now rather than becoming too lost in preparing for tomorrow; a principle endorsed by the Buddha in many of his teachings and one which creates an atmosphere enriched with daily happiness, care and love for one another in any circumstance that may evolve. Perhaps a pineapple can be bought to be mixed with a home-grown papaya and a scoop of ice cream on top to make for an infrequent desert ensuring enough is kept to one side to be given to the children of the second brother residing only five minutes away, his house built on a small plot of land given by fathers life long wealthy employer. For no money can be made from this land situated in the depth of the local village and now no complaints can be warranted for the negligible salary father receives. With only one bedroom to house this family of four, efforts are being made into gradually building a second storey, for the children will soon necessitate their own beds now approaching the age of four and eight.
Brother and I now eat with mother not satisfied until a third helping is attempted when she can then take for herself back in the kitchen, content with the sight of empty plates, reflecting the fruits of her labour. The left overs are kept on the table back under cover, ready to play their part at lunch or act as a ready offering for any visitors that may pass; a frequent and pleasing occurrence without warning and often intent. Ladies from the village divert straight round to the back door leading into the kitchen where news is shared with mother while taking satisfaction in collaborating their culinary skills. Should Poya Day (Full Moon) be upon us; extra special effort is put into desiccating the fifteen coconuts needed to produce a hefty tray of traditional cake. Sweet milk squeezed out from the collected meat by hand and then cooked with rice flour, ginger, milk and sugar; a two day process in total with ample satisfaction taken from the traditional Sri Lankan side to side woggle of the head indicating the official seal of approval.
Father has already started his labour for the day, his hands hard and his body still strong at the age of sixty. The main provider for his house taking 10,000 rupees each month (under £70) to care for a renovated bungalow and its surrounding land. A plot which each year the owner from Colombo continues to speak of possible plans for but is yet to make action of his words rendering father to tasks of maintenance. No day is completed without his trusty knife in hand, no longer than his forearm it has served him since adolescence and is the best tool available to cut through the thick grass that covers the land, not an easy task with over three acres to work through but a heart warming smile always on show. The land also brings with it coconut trees and there are a possible 1500 coconuts to be collected and taken to the land owner for sale in the capital where they sell for an extra 10 rupees each. The recent bonus of an extra 2000 rupees each month given for 30 years of loyal service, a gratefully accepted addition to the pot but not enough to break even each month with the youngest of the brothers’ education to pay for in addition to the household bills. Work is hard and completed with maximum effort and attention to the finest detail in preparation for inspection from the owner every few months but is undertaken like many at work across the country in a manner with no immediate overpowering pressures of time and routine. Health comes first alongside family and friends with sufficient time put aside to check back at home and replenish the body with the second and by no means last cup of tea for the day, perhaps with the addition of ginger this time to keep the immune system high. Should there be any ailments to the body work will not take place today giving the body the time it needs to be fully rested for return, for it is clear but of course that work would never take precedence over wellbeing. If all is well however, any extra time is used to contribute to the wealth of the pot. The search for scrap metal for example brings 45 rupees per kilo and when times are particularly hard; mother and brother are also taken to work on the land with their extra help bringing 600 rupees each for their 8 hours hard labour.
The second of the brothers meanwhile sets off for his day of hopeful business, pulling down at a palm leaf to strip down the stem, making for an efficient tooth pick used to discard the remnants of the string hoppers, coconut sambal and fish curry that made nicely for the first meal of his day. The children to be dropped at nursery and school first, both balanced on the front of the seat of his old scooter and dressed so admirably in their bright white shorts and shirts; a daring choice for uniform with their green and yellow neck ties providing the only other colour on display other than the imminent brown stains that will materialise from the rich dust off the road. His journey appears straight forward next to the other bikes he passes carrying the weight off up to five passengers and their belongings while meandering the traffic filled streets. Horns being used more as a greeting rather than a warning and rules and regulations of the road certainly not adhered to from any reliable highway code. Thirteen years of tuk tuk driving experience at the age of thirty to be used once more to make what he can, always a wavering amount making budgeting tough. His hand tried at fishing only a few months ago, a job certainly not for the faint hearted but if three month long trips successfully completed to the standards set by the captain; a possible 70,000 rupees can then be expected to be taken home following each voyage with a couple of weeks then given to rest the body and soul, both destroyed by the continual dangers encountered over the thirty long days and nights. Decide the life’s not for you however and your first attempts will be rewarded only with what fish you can carry, not an easy trial period to sign up to with only a 6 metre squared area as your only place of any solace and shared with your other three brave crew. Two three hour slots permitted to attempt any slumber should you be able to find any peace of mind from the recurrent speculation as to whether it will be strength of this wave or perhaps the next that might tip the boat and its navigators to the unforgiving rough water.
The sea appears bottomless at 1500 kilometres out from shore, a vast distance to be travelling with your planned return entrusted in one old bus engine that required on the spot repair no less than five times on its last excursion with only one ore to maintain course and avoid any fatal collisions with any tankers, Goliath being certain to win such an encounter. The depth of the sea brings with it creatures of all shapes and sizes, brothers first witnessing of his first whale pressing up against the side of the boat or his first shark caught up in the net making for stories that will never lose their yearning to tell. With the net spanning out an impressive10km area it must be drawn in by hand, a process taking a minimum of ten hours should spirits be high at the prospect of fish. This task makes for backbreaking labour with only three cups full of water given to wash the body clean of its efforts and the edge of the boat with the recurrent crashing of the waves the only place to carry out natures necessities. On his long awaited return, his beard thick and his skin charred from the relentless sun, his announcement not to return back to sea was taken with great delight from those that he loves, each family member having endured a month of incessant worry and lonely hearts. This decision turning out to be the best brother ever made with his boat returning on its next trip one crew member short, his old class mate still now not found, for one storm proved too strong this time round.
The life in a tuk tuk may not pose quite the same dangers at sea, although sharing a road with the public buses may seem a more than equal threat to many, with each driver desperately trying to over take the next in order to recruit as many passengers possible. Every ticket bought, but of course, brings with it extra commission for the conductor at the end of his shift. For those offering transport for a living the cuts that are received for bringing a tourist to their desired attraction or salesman brings more capital than the salary received at the end of each month. A ticket to visit the local snake doctor perhaps, a man who has suffered thirty-two bites from these venomous creatures in his attempts to learn how to cure their lethal injection with his home-grown natural remedies. No business sought out during brothers last visit here, only the delivery of a toxic tarantella posing high risk to those inhabited in the area, found in the bathroom of his friends house on the border of the country’s famous Yala National Park. The daily battles between drivers to capture this tourism trade, a population that only exists in short seasons and is vastly imbalanced against the number of tuk tuks parked outside each guesthouse and hotel, is fierce and eyes turn a dark shade of green should a pick up be made on what is considered to be someone else’s turf. The winning lottery ticket that everyone dreams of comes in the form of a trip to the local, well known family-run jewellery shop bringing with it an enviable 30% cut of the sale to the deliverer of any consumers. One but cant help to admire the chancers in town that devote all their time to finding such gem loving holiday makers rather than having to endure the unprosperous and irregular short journeys throughout the day each beginning with a haggle on price. Something of a tradition some might say but also often a ridicule when the quibble be over 20 rupees; a worthy amount for the local taking into account the 300 rupees he has to pay each day to rent the machine in addition to the extra gasoline needed to fuel its engine but no more than a game for the owner of the wallet that comes thick. A gambling man be advised to back the visitor to win these battles however, with defeat signalled through the local man’s laugh, for life is too short to waste energy on such matters.
Tourists are not the only ones on the road looking after their riches for the police set a variable speed limit dependent on how much cash in hand they wish to take home that day or night. 1000 rupees requested to throw the speeding ticket issued into the dirt, but 500 normally accepted to avoid a court appearance and a hefty fine for the helpless driver. Justice not being a common word used at the national police academy where the symbol of power is issued with each badge and the chance to take advantage of others for your own personal gain, something that the third and oldest brother knows only too well. Recently forced to move to Colombo away from the local officer refusing to back down on his lust for brothers’ wife and even deeming it necessary to lock father up in jail for one night when refusing to speak of the whereabouts of his son. A complaint in process but unlikely to materialise into any value. Better to back down, forget and avoid further hassles that can easily be made by the officer and his other corrupt colleagues.
The youngest of the brothers, mollycoddled since a baby by mother and father must now live up to his responsibilities at the age of nineteen. Being the youngest he will take ownership of the family home and be the one accountable for the care of his parents as they reach the age when it is then themselves that become dependent, with contributions made monthly from his two siblings. If a decent job is not obtained the family house will be sold to provide savings available for daily expenses in a smaller and cheaper residence further inland. Therefore with A-level exams looming in August studies must now be taken very seriously, with public school to attend five days a week and additional private classes taken over four evenings at an extra cost of 4000 rupees a month. No temple school at least brings a day of rest on a Sunday, discontinued at the age of sixteen but the temple still a place visited frequently to meet with friends or simply to come talk with the monk. For the progression through youth can be a very difficult period, with Buddhist teachings and values to follow while new generations bring with them new temptations and ways of living in this modern world that we now live in. Spending time with a member of the opposite sex for example not accepted by many families as appropriate behaviour and with generations spreading across the motherland in colossal numbers it makes deception a very risky game to play. Such acts must be re-enforced with an immediate plan of commitment and the natural lust that builds up in the teenage body often leads to young marriages without a career already established to provide for the imminent family or conversely regular secret meetings will be planned with the persistent jeopardy of being caught. A bus trip to the next town for example, reported to mother to be for the completion of a school project, used as a means for young hearts to simply be given the chance to talk. Those more daring will choose to merely use the shade of an umbrella while sat at a bench like many along the coastline to be able to share their intimacies. The mobile phone now providing an easy means for these youths to express their sentiments with parents unable to navigate around these tools should they desire to, the advancements in technology something that is left to the forthcoming generation.
With everybody’s day drawing to its end and the children already picked up from school at one, the sun worshipping tourists soon become the minority once more with local families enjoying the energy of the sea all along the shoreline, a scene that many wouldn’t have believed with the destruction of 2004’s tsunami still evident in the hearts of many affected by so much loss. Women respectfully enter fully clothed while the men don their sarongs with such genuine warm smiles and laughs generating groups of foreigners on the sand wholly entertained by the witnessing of such simple compassion and joy. The young present like celebrities among families with all eyes and attention focused on them. Tears outnumbered by smiles and usually only shed by these minors for a reason deemed worthy, for their circumstance to many may seem distressing with possessions scarce but their surrounding love quite easily tips the balance. Men meet on the street to discuss the fortune of their day, cigarettes casually exchanged between hands so ritually without forewarning or acknowledgement. Two fish dropped to the floor between one exchange, four being too much for one lucky man and any good fortune often shared between friends. Time is then spent together at home with family and friends, making for plentiful entertainment enjoyed in the ever-present beautiful nature of the country, for what more could be needed? The calling of prayer heard from radios throughout the village providing a fitting background to relax, no worries to be had on the conclusion of this day, for this time has now passed and attention to the ever present brings with it a realisation of all that is great and beautiful which can be enjoyed entirely with those around you. Tomorrow will bring tomorrow and any ideas of what this will bring are deemed irrelevant. For these will only ever be ideas, so why bother guessing…a waste of both time and energy surely? Simply enjoy the moment and those that share it with you.