Ivan on vacation From communism to coconuts
Colombo and Moscow
Communism -- and coconuts? Marx -- and mangoes? No, no, it doesn't work. You can't fool Westerners who live in Moscow. We know that communism's natural habitat is ice and snow. Don't bother us with facts about Cuba and Ethiopia and Angola and Mozambique. We haven't been there and we really don't care.
All we know is that Moscow is cold most of the year and recent summers have been wet and, although it might be hot in Soviet central Asia, we go there once a year if we are fortunate and so it really doesn't count.
So when my wife Margaret, our three children and two suitcases and seven pices of hand luggage and great expectations and I stumbled out of our Moscow apartment at 5 a.m. in the darkness of a mid-February morning and climbed into the car for the 45-minute drive to Moscow International Airport to catch an Aeroflot flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka, we felt as though we were putting communism and Russians and our daily lives aside for a while.
It was going to be hot, relly hot. We were going to see palm trees and elephants. We were going to gorge on the fruit we so rarely see in Moscow. And indeed, we did all that, enjoying it more than Londoners or New Yorkers because we saw it all through eyes long accustomed to the drabness and shortages of Soviet life.
But we didn't really leave communism and Russians behind, at least not for all of the trip.
First there was the Aeroflot plane itself. Now, we usually don't choose to fly Aeroflot when we go abroad: we have to fly it inside the Soviet Union. the food is poor and the service unsmiling, a mixture of rubber chicken and "nyet." But Aeroflot is not a member of the International Air Travel Association and thus sets its own prices. the non-stop flight to Colombo on Tuesday mornings costs less money than a flight to Frankfut, West germany.
So we drove through the early Moscow morning (blocked briefly by thirty lumbering snowplows, nose to tail -- Moscow "elephants"), wearing light shoes instead of our usual winter boots, and sweaters instead of winter coats, and boarded the plane and took off at 7:30 a.m.
It was a long-range Ilyushin-62 plane, with plenty of leg room. It was less than half full -- but 25 of the passengers turned out to be Russians. At once Phil Brown of the US embassy and I (our two familes were travelling together) tried to find out who they were. A Sri Lankan passenger thought they were tea-buyers. Later, it turned out they were workers, whose records and party reliability were so good that they had been awarded a brief trip to Colombo -- just a few days.
Mostly middle-aged, they sat solidly, three abreast, for most of the flight, eating their way through two meals which proved utterly uneatable to the Browns and to us -- cold frankfurters, mangled chicken, thick stale brown bread, etc.
But they jumped from their seats en masse as we flew over the Persian Gulf at 11:45 a.m. Moscow time, 4-1/4 hours after take-off. A stewardess had told them, as she had told Phil Brown when he asked her, that if they looked below, they would be able to see "American warships" on patrol.
We had flown over Tehran at 10:30 a.m. And the Russians had talked about that. Soviet newspapers, radio, and TV thunder every day about the so-called "American threat" to Iran and the buildup of American ships near the Gulf. Our fellow-passengers were workers who almost certainly did not tune into shortwave broadcasts on the Voice of America as many others do. they simply did not know that as we flew, the Russians themselves had 11 more ships in the Indian Ocean than Americans had (31 to 20) and that US public opinion had been aroused by the spectacle of American hostages subjected to prolonged isolation and humiliation in Tehran.
When the Persian Gulf appeared below, they all stood up and craned their necks through the windows along the right hand side of the plane. Sure enough, there was a tiny speck on the blue -- a ship. What else could it be but an "American warship"? Pravda was coming true, right before their very eyes. They were excited, animated.
Briefly we thought about telling them that the speck could equally well have been a Russian ship, or a Liberian tanker, and that "warships" usually travelled in groups, not alone. But we didn't. The stewardess had spoken, and the Russian passengers would take her word over ours.
Two travel agency cars met us at the airport.The Willises piled into one, the Browns into another, and we drove for an hour and a half through the welcome, blessed heat to our hotel on the other side of Colombo.
Streets were crowded but cheerful. People flashed strong white teeth in constant smiles. Bunches of plaintains (we called them bananas until our driver corrected us) hung temptingly in open shop-fronts, red, yellow and green. Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists and Christians, carried loads on their heads, crowded around market stalls, gossiped, ate, sat, played. British influence was everywhere: red London- type mailboxes, double-decker buses, ancient Morris and Austin cars, British brand names in the stores and on advertising signs.
What would the Russian tourists make of it all, we wondered. To them, the shop fronts would seem poor, the palm trees exotic, the people on subsistence wages. their own beliefs would probably remain intact and untouched.
Once at the Ceylon Inns Hotel on Galle Road, south of the city center, our children (three Willis, two Brown) plunged straight into the swimming pool while we ordered dinner in the open-air. Never had fruit tasted so good.
Next morning, who should be eating breakfast at a separate long table but 25 Russian tourists. We were curious: studying the Soviet system and people becomes an addiction after a while and the fact that we were half a world away from our usual home in Moscow mattered not at all.
Eventually we chatted with one couple in Russian, and discovered that the husband was an oil worker from the port city of Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, in the Soviet republic of Russia. He was broad and smiling, in an open-necked shirt and sandals. She was buxom in a print dress.
He whipped out a notebook to read off the details of their vacation: they had flown from Moscow to New Delhi, seen the Taj Mahal, and gone on to Madras and Colombo and would fly home the next day. He had spent five hundred roubles ($ 780) for his ticket, and his trade union had put up two-thousand rubles ($3, 127 ). Clearly he was a top-grade worker. To qualify for such a trip (and very few Russians do) he needed to be cleared by his trade union and his local Communist Party Committee, and may have been checked by the KGB as well.
He and his wife said they had enjoyed the sights and the heat (Astrakhan is also immensely hot) but were looking forward to returning to Moscow, because there they could shop for food and clothes to take back to friends and family in Astrakhan. they knew what we knew: that Moscow has the best consumer goods in the entire Soviet Union. If Moscow shops seem poor to you next time you visit, spare a thought for what life is like in the rest of the gigantic superpower whose ruthless concentration on military spending leaves almost all its population of 264 million way behind even eastern Europe in comfort and nutrition.
We also knew that Russians abroad are alloted very little local currency of any kind. Moscow needs its hard currency to buy grain and computers and other necessities abroad. So our friends wouldn't be able to do any real shopping until they could use their own rubles back in Moscow.
This perennial shortage of local currency has given Russian tourists a mixed reputation in Shangri-La, as we found out the next day.
We were back in our air-conditioned black Peugeot, driven by our ever-cheerful driver Ari (his full name is so long, like most Sri Lankan names, that he commonly uses only the first three letters). We had left Colombo behind and taken the main road to the ancient capital of Kandy, where kings ruled in centuries past, and where the holiest relic of the Sri Lankan Buddhist faith, a molar said to have belonged to Buddha himself, is kept in a gilded box in the sacred Temple of the Tooth.
The sum beat down from a china-blue sky. The road wound through coconut plantations -- each tall palm is said to produce 60 to 70 coconuts every two months. Bullocks in single or double harness pulled primitive wooden carts piled high with leaves and coconuts and roofing material and other goods.
(Gasoline prices are now so high on the island that the bullock carts are more and more popular in the villages for hauling freight: a judge in the fishing town of Negombo north of Colombo fined two men 375 rupees each -- about illicit liquor. The headline in a local paper told it all satisfactorily: "Hooch In Bullock Cart -- Big Fines For Two").
We stopped at the side of the road to buy a couple of so-called king coconuts , their outsides a bright orange, and to drink the liquid inside. The romance of the occasion was lost on our children, who promptly spat it all out. (I didn't much care for it myself.)
At length we pulled up at a sign which announed the presence of a pineapple plantation -- nothing less than the Kahatagahalanda estate, at Nittambuwa about half way between Colombo and Kandy.
From the car we could see a broad table sheltered by a canopy, on which were laid out bright red and yellow and orange and white wooden masks, sea shells, shell necklaces, painted wooden elephants and other souvenirs. Beside it was another stall, draped with local batiks for sale. Behind was a grove of palm trees and, off to the left, the pineapple plants. The children exploded from the car and were delighted to find a small, 15-month-old monkey called Manju racing around at the end of a long chain which anchored him to a tall metal pole.
At one point Manju leapt onto daughter Sarah's shoulder and at once began examining her hair for insects. the sight sent her sister and brother into helpless laughter, into which Sarah joined later when Manju repeated the performance with Alexandra.
While the children explored, Margaret and I feel into conversation with the owner. Mr. Nihal Gunasena who poured out a flood of comments about -- who else? -- the Russian tourists who stopped at his plantation regularly in their chartered buses. (The Russians who stay only in Sri Lanka can spend four days in Colombo, or five days including a quick trip to Kandy and back -- a car journey of three hours or so one way.)
Mr. Gunasena, small and dark and speaking energetic, idiomatic English, did not care for his Russian customers.
"Well, you see," he said, "They come about 30 of them at a time. They don't have any money, but they carry with them plastic bags of Russian pencils, and cartons of cigarettes and sometimes wine and those small wooden dolls that fit inside each other, you know the ones." we nodded as he paused for breath.
"Yes, well, some of them come up to the souvenirs and offer me pencils for them. I don't like to be rude, you know, and sometimes I take some pencils but I don't really want them. We have pencils here, too, in Sri Lanka. But I don't let them have all the souvenirs they want. . . .
"Then another group will go into the batik shop and start asking questions there and I run over there and I look back and the first group is opening its bags and scooping masks and shells and necklaces into them and I run back and say, "No, no, no" and the other group is left alone with the batiks and I don't like that so I go back there and it's all a mess.
"Then they go around the property, my goodness me, and they take coconuts from the ground and put them in their bags and they really should pay me for those, it's not much but they should pay, then they look at the pineapples and they take those too. . . .
"That's not all. I built a special toilet for my customers, and the Russians used it and when they had gone I found they had stolen my toilet paper. . . . Why would they do that?"
We tried to explain that the paper was in short supply all over the Soviet Union, and that any word of paper in the shops brought large crowds running to stand in line all night if necessary.
Mr. Gunasena considered this.
Clearly he found it hard to believe. Was not this the same country which had just invaded Afhanistan -- a step of which he himself strongly disapproved? Was the Soviet Union not a superpower? If it had tanks, why not toilet paper? I tried to explain it -- after all, Mr. Gunasena is not alone. Other parts of the world tend to believe Soviet propaganda, too, and consider it must be a wealthy country because it has so many tanks and bombs and rockets. the idea that Russians live poorly just because the Kremlin speands so much on arms is still not widely known in the third world, it seems, to say nothing of parts of the western world.
Suddenly Mr. Gunasena brightened. "But wait until they read and label and find out where the paper comes from," he said.
"It comes from China -- Plum Blossom brand." He laughed.
He frowned again as he recalled the scene at his souvenir stall. "They keep on saying 'Doroga, doroga,' he said, and sometimes they give us those little badges. . . ."
We explained that "doroga" meant "expensive" and that the lapel badges were a Soviet tradition. We also found ourselves explaining that the Soviet people, as distinct from their government, were not rich.
"Well, we are not rich, either," he shot back. He shook his head. He said he liked the Russians who wore the flat caps -- Azerbaijanis -- because they "didn't steal anything." He also described one Sri Lankan plant Russians particularly liked. Called polpalla, it comes in long green stringy strands. Russians boil it and make a kind of tea with it and claim it has curative properties.
This helped explain why some of the children who rush up to all foreign tourists in Colombo and Kandy and on the road in between shout not only "Allo, allo, allo," and ask for "bon bons," but also ask for "karandash" as well. that's the Russian word for pencil. When we first heard it we thought it must be some kind of local word.
Meanwhile, our children had looked at the pineapples. Manju, the monkey, had jumped down from Alexandra's shoulder. We had made a number of purchases, and it was time to get back into the car.
"Karandash?" asked a small girl at the gate.
It wasn't until several days later we came across our next Russian reminder. We had visited the Temple of the Tooth and driven the winding road up to 6000 feet above sea level, through the tea plantations of the Hill Country, still bright green despite a severe water shortage all over the island (less than 10 percent of the usual rain had fallen this year in Colombo). We has stayed in the Hill Club, that bastion of British colonial rule in the cool, clear air of Nuwara Eliya which still offers fast service, overstuffed arm chairs, bound copies of "Country Life," genuine fireplaces stacked with genuine logs, a baronial, candle-lit dining room and a billiard room, all set in Tudor style amid rolling lawns overlooking a handsome 18-hole golf course.
We had driven down the other side of the mountains to the government rest house at Ella, perched on the edge of a breathtaking view down to the plains beyond; on a clear day the blue of the Indian Ocean shimmers on the far horizon. We had clambered around the rocks at the bottom of the famous waterfall there, and I had stood under it, braced against a rock, while the water beat down and tried to push the forward.
We had driven down the mountain and on to the coast at Yala and into the Yala Wild Animal Park. The fact that we saw big iguanas, painted storks, water buffalo, wild boars, a lone elephant, peacocks and peahens. and crocodiles, was a triumph of nature over noise; I do not really recommend taking five children and four adults in one large truck as the ideal way to preserve the peace needed to attract wild animals -- especially with two binoculars for all hands. the noise of eleven people all demanding binoculars at the sighting of every bird and beast was enough to frighten away a mammoth.
Another Moscow couple (from the British embassy), traveling in style and without children, spent nine hours in the same park just before we did. Later they gleefully described how they saw leopards and were charged by an elephant. We gnashed our teeth in envy and smiled sweetly.
We had driven from there westward along the south coast, stopping at glorious stretches of pale-gold sand, splashing in the warm ocean which stretched out to the horizon and all the way down to the South Pole, unimaginable miles away from where we stood.
Eventually we ended up at the Horizon Hotel at Koggala on the main road from Matara just 82 miles south of Colombo.
A paradise: air-conditioned rooms, an attentive staff, a y-shaped swimming pool ideal for children, 30 tall palm trees lending grace and presence to the lawn between hotel and beach, a coral reef out in front of the hotel, a reef-sheltered stretch of ocean for swimming and snorkeling, interesting surf a hundred yards down the beach to the right, spectacular sunsets turning the western sky pink and red across the sea, and only 50 rooms with no feeling of being crowded of cramped.
Our soon Alastair discovered a water-polo ball and goal nets at the pool and began throwing the ball around. Margaret spoke to him in russian; we tried to use our Russian to each other at least once a day to keep in practice. A young man near her in the pool looked up and smiled and answered her in Russian. Soon they were talking. Later, in the dining room, he told us his story -- a reminder of communism with a vengeance, among the palms and the batiks and the tropical skies.
There he sat, in a violently-colored pair of Bermuda shorts and yellow thong sandals and a small black beard, telling us in Russian the story of how he had escaped from Bulgaria two years before, after planning it all for six years. As he talked, we were eating pineapple and papaya.
He had been a viola student at the conservatory in Sofia. Gradually he realized he could live no longer under the communist system. Finally he made his move: he obtained permission to visit East germany. From there he made his way to Yugoslavia, entering illegally. Using means he did not describe in detail, he bought a faked Yugoslavian passport and exit papers for 200 West German marks, and simply took a passenger train to Munich.
At last he was free. But other troubles were only beginning. He had no money, no West German papers, no job. He walked up to a policemen, said he was a political refugee, and asked for asylum.
At first he found refuge with Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief agency, then with the Tolstoy Foundation. Eventually he was able to register as unemployed and draw small state payments. He applied for permission to stay. At first he was refused. He applied again. He found a room in a pension and started to study German. And two months ago permission to stay was granted.Overjoyed, he had come to Sri Lanka on a package tour by way of a celebration.
How could he afford it? "Ya zhil ochim skromno," he replied with a smile -- "I lived very frugally in Munich" (and save a lot). Again, we suddenly saw Shangri-La through the eyes of one brought up under communism, but this time a man able at last to pursue his own way in the West. He was less relaxed than his German tour colleagues -- except when the hotel guitar band walked around at dinner, serenading guests. He would jump up and take a guitar and lead them for a while in song. At other times he swam quietly, or read, or hunched over a chess board with a German friend.
He had a charming smile and a serious disposition. He had enrolled in Munich University, studying German. He would have to wait seven years to become a German citizen: "Or five if I marry a German girl." Would he like to? He smiled.
I think of him still, in his magnificently discordant Bermuda shorts, walking slowly across the lawn toward the sea, looking around him carefully, sometimes behind a pair of thick sunglasses, hardly believing the tropical beauty, and the peace, content just to savor the very idea of being on a holiday in such surroundings. But he also told us that he often thought of two Bulgarian friends, a young couple, who had a baby, then made their own escape to the West, leaving the baby with a grandmother.
Now, he said, they were overtaken with remorse at leaving the child behind. They were writing him letters asking for advice and he was telling them they were still young and could have more children. They hoped desperately their child could join them one day.
Russian reminders. Another image of the Soviet Union, this time a favorable one, appeared a few days later.
I wanted to buy an ebony elephant -- not one made of ordinary nary wood and cunningly painted black, and not one which had a lead weight inserted into it to make it feel as heavy as genuine ebony. Our driver just happened to know the owner of a workshop which carved and polished elephants, tigers, and other animals for sale in Colombo. He offered to take me, and I accepted at once. We left the car at his own house (the driver happened to live near Koggala) and after some hidden negotiations, a taxi drew up -- a taxi Sri Lankan style.
It brought memories flooding back to me of my late teenage years in Sydney, Australia, for it was almost exactly the model of 1952 black Morris Minor car I had first owned. This one had wings and other designs stencilled onto doors and dashboard. It ground in first gear, chugged in the others. Plastic red bobbles danced in a fringe across the divided windscreen. The large, round speedometer was ringed with a necklace of bright red stones, calling attention to the fact that it didn't work -- nor did any of the other gauges.
The driver, also called Ari, was jet black with gleaming teeth, in sarong and shirt, driving with bare feet on bare metal pedals. The rear seat was torn. The shock absorbers were virtually nonexistent, but it was a taxi nonetheless, worth 15,000 rupees on the second hand market (roughly $1,000).
As Ari drove my driver and me and a hanger-on who had materialized from no where, and seemed to be known to all except me, it turned out that he was not a happy man. We bumped along a series of ever-narrowing roads, heading inland through paddy fields waiting for the March monsoon to revive them and he complained that the present United Nation Party (U.N.P.) Government was "hopeless."
Why? Look at the price of petrol (gasoline), he replied. Under the (left wing) government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (defeated in 1977) petrol had been cheaper. I tried to explain rising world oil prices, but he insisted the current government was to blame. Earlier, he had pulled into a gasoline station , where gas sold for 35 rupees ($2.33) a gallon.
He had purchased exactly 8/10ths of a gallon, for 30 rupees. Half a gallon went into the gas tank. The rest was stored in a plastic bottle in the trunk. He had put up his rates to eight rupees a mile (more than air-conditioned hire cars in Colombo) to try to break even. He drove five days a week, staying on call 24 hours a day. He didn't own the Morris; he worked for the man who did.
On and on inland we went, leaving the metalled road, driving on red soil and then on ordinary dirt. A large lime-green house loomed up in a stand of trees. The owner was summoned from sleep (though I suggested I could look round on my own) and I walked through the outdoor workshop, watching a man chisel a black lump of ebony into the form of elephant with the skill of years of work. Eventually I bought a handsome model and we set off back to the coast.
"And look at the price of bread and flour," said the driver resentfully. A few days before the government had become the first since Sri Lanka's independence to remove subsidies from bread, flour, and rice.
Consumer prices had shot up overnight from 1 rupee and 35 cents per pound for bread to 2 rupees and 5 cents. Imported flour, much of it from the US, had gone from 1 rupee and 30 cents to 2 rupees and 30 cents, according to the staff at the hotel.
Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene made speech after speech explaining his case: that rising world inflation was hitting Sri Lanka hard, and the government had decided on a three-pronged strategy.
One was to end food subsidies. The second was to use the money thus freed to develop the Sri Lankan economy and development, and the third was to lower unemployment. In addition, the government was encouraging farmers to grow more paddy (rice), tea, rubber, coconuts, onions, chilies and other foods, to cut down on imports. Every farmer who purchased 100 pounds of fertilizers is now paid a bonus of 300 rupees. Every farmer who cuts down a dead palm tree receives a bonus of 20 rupees.
All this, the president said, was being made more difficult by higher fuel costs, and lower prices for Sri Lankan exports.
Ministers warned the opposition parties not to try to make political capital out of higher prices.
All that logic bounced off Ari the taxi driver. To him, it was simple: under Mrs. Bandaranaike, bread had been 1 rupee and 30 cents a pound. Now it was 2 rupees and 5 cents. Petrol was outrageous. Someone was to blame, and that someone had to be in Sri Lanka, in the government.
"I want to leave," he said emphatically, as we sped along the coast road, the ocean on the left, Sri Lanka's largest inland lake to the right, green and inviting.
Where to? "To Dubai, was the answer, "or maybe to Russia."
Did he know what life was like in Russia? How cold it was? The shortages? He didn't answer directly, but repeated he would like to live there. He said he voted for the Communist party in Sri Lanka. Yes, he knew the party had failed to win a single seat in parliement in the most recent elections, and that few Sri Lankans took it seriously. "But one day," he said, "one day. . . ."
Meanwhile, the children, both Willises and Browns, were having a wonderful time at the hotel. they spent hours in the pool, some time in the sea. They ate fruit at every meal, drank soda-pop, and particularly favored an outdoor stand at one end of the pool, at which they could sit and sip their drinks on ceramic-tiled seats just covered by the water. They hunted for shells and collected hermit crabs and gave them all names and built miniature gardens for them. They looked for fish in rock pools. Early one morning the Brown family discovered 150 turtle eggs just hatching in the sand and helped almost all of the tiny turtles down to the water.
Horizon Hotel manager Frigidian Fernando and his staff organized birthday celebrations for Alastair (who turned nine) and Sarah (who turned 12). The band gathered around our table at dinner and sang "Happy Birthday." And the kitchen produced larged iced cakes with candles.
Some of the Browns and some the Willises rode a native catamaran through one magical twilight into the lagoon to Bird Island, and watched thousands of ibis and mynab birds flow across the lake to settle on the island for the night, pulsating lines droning low across the water, wave after wave after wave.
In the back of my mind I kept thinking about the Soviets, vacation or no vacation. Out there, below the horizon, Soviet ships were shadowing American ones.they called at Colombo harbor after American ships departed. The large Soviet embassy in Colombo was paying court to Sri Lanka, which has played a leading role in the non-aligned movement founded by Yugoslavia and India and Egypt years ago. Sri Lanka, in fact, is the immediate past leader of the entire non-aligned movement, only recently handing over the leadership to Cuba (amid considerable controversy).
Also, the brother of Sri Lankan President Jayewardene was on the United Nations Commission examining the Shah's record in Tehran.
Soviet trade with Sri Lanka is not large, but imports exceed exports, a situation Moscow is never happy with. The Soviets bought and sold less in 1978 than in 1977 -- 5.8 million rubles worth of heavy machinery and plywood exports (about $9 million) and almost 10 million rubles ($15.6 million) worth of rubber, coir (a coconut husk fiber used in ropemaking), and tea imports.
But enough of all that, this was Shangri-La, after all. There was a sunset to watch and a hotel barbecue to attend and a dip in the pool or the sea to contemplate.
I wanted to leaf through the Colombo papers again for the advertisements (we don't have them in Moscow): "The Chinese air compressor that performs many a task," announced one (the Chinese sell more than paper products, it seems). "Crystal clear drama. . . . in your very home," blared another, as it touted a Grundig television set. TV is new to Sri Lanka. It starts at 6 p.m. and runs until about 10:30: "WE don't need it," argued Mr. Gunasena on his pineapple plantation. "We are a poor country and we need other things first." Others agree. But the Japanese have moved in a big way, flooding the market with TV sets that only a few as yet can afford, and offering to build relay stations in the mountains. So far programs include such dubious cultural imports from the West as "The Flintstones" and "McHale's Navy" (as well as "Sesame Street" and old Laurence Olivier films.
Among my favorite advertisements: marriage proposals and brides: "Roman Catholic Govi [the name of a caste] Sinhalese mother seeks for pretty accomplished Montessori qualified, non-working daughter aged 20, with substantial dowry, a suitable partner with means and a stable job. Should be of same nationality and a teetotaller. Christians considered." And so on.
But I kept thinking about the Russians just the same and what they were doing just over the blue horizon where Shangri-La ended and the debris from a shattered detente began.