2010-02-17

In Retrospect...

So I am stepping in to my fifth year of blogging in a few days. Not a milestone, but just a moment to make a pause, take a look, and admire the journey so far.

Sometimes it helps to find a moment to appreciate the simple things in life.

I am blessed to be here. It feels like a friendship-circle, except, I haven’t met any of my fellow bloggers in real life. They sound like a bunch of really nice people, I’m sure they are. And yes, that includes you too.

Sabby wrote a pensive post on leaving the island and I commented saying that she would find some comfort right here, in the Lankanosphere. I know that, because I do. Without realising, everyone of you who write from home, or about home, keep us so close to home. A random picture, a little story, stuff on tuk-tuks or rice and curry, or even a post on a silly dog, keeps my memories of home alive. And for that, I thank you.

Life overseas wasn’t like that before kottu was born. Nineties were lonely here.

Having lived only three of the last twenty years in paradise, I know I have missed out a lot. I’ve missed out on the kind of stuff that Sach cleverly puts in to words in one of his recent posts.

I miss Sri Lanka. I miss the chaos, I miss the madness.

Most of all, I miss the “islander attitude” towards life and its wonderful people.

Sometimes we get caught in the rat-race, keep climbing the corporate ladder trying to beat our own shadow. We forget the simple joys in life: like drinking a kurumba by the roadside.

At 23, I held 24% shares of one of the most successful SMB’s in the island. I was lucky. But I walked out of that business empty handed, after signing a set of documents handing over everything for free.

I was relieved. I was happy that I had nothing to lose.

That afternoon, the mug of beer at the Echelon Pub tasted the best. With that beer, I landed my next job.

Ten years later, I was the head of creative in an international agency in Dubai. We ran regional brands for the Middle East and North Africa region.

When I was contemplating of leaving, my CEO offered me a blank piece of paper with his signature to list-down whatever I wished for, if I were to stay with them till my retirement. He was ready to offer me anything, even if I wanted a house in the south of France.

I gently pushed back the Mont Blanc and the paper to the other side of the big mahogany table. As he lit his next fine cigar, I told him that I wanted only three things in my life the day I would turn 55. A roof above my head, food on the table, and my grand-kids running around the house. I also told him that the first two wouldn’t be a problem, and the third would be just a matter of time.

A couple of months after that conversation, fate had me left with two kids – and no woman by my side. Life ahead of me was very clear at that moment: there’s absolutely nothing else that I would cherish more than my two kids. They were just three and five, but their entire life was in my hands.

So I walked out of the corporate world, moved back to Sri Lanka, and raised my kids as a single dad in Colombo. The change drove me crazy. It irritated me to know that I couldn’t do my grocery shopping at 1 O’clock in the morning.

But, that was the best period of my life. Life in Sri Lanka was magical, and beautiful.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the island again. C’est la vie.

Today, I work to live, not live to work. I’m happy. I have a wonderful woman by my side, and I’m in love.

I help people. Because I will never forget how horrible it is to feel helpless.

I travel. And I have realised that discovering the cultural wheel is far better than climbing the corporate ladder.

Come to think of it, the three years I spent in Sri Lanka has made me realise how wonderful, and magical, every little thing in life is. Hearing a bird chirp, or walking in the rain, sipping a beer while watching the Buba sunset, waking up to a good cup of tea in the hill country... or a simple rice and curry meal. Yes, you lot take all those for granted, but there are some of us who miss all those everyday joys in life.

You have absolutely no idea what you are missing, until you leave home that we call Sri Lanka.

2010-02-13

The Lung Ching Episode

Inspired by a good pot of Pu Erh tea a few weeks ago and followed by Sigma Delta’s suggestion, I embarked on a journey to discover the teas of the world at teayana – the tea lounge in Jeddah. I have tried a few teas on the menu since, including a rare variety: the Lung Ching or the Dragon Well teas.

As the story goes, a Chinese village was facing a severe drought in 250 AD and a Tao monk advised the villagers to pray to the dragon living in a nearby well to end the dry spell. The villagers obliged, the rains followed – and the village of “Lung Ching” or “Dragon Well” entered the history of tea. A monastery bearing that name stills stands next to the well to this day.

During the Qing dynasty, Emperor Qian Long had the opportunity to taste Lung Ching tea at the Wugong Temple and he was so impressed that he had eighteen of the tea trees at the temple designated as Imperial Tea, reserved for the Emperor himself.

Lung Ching is amongst the rare, connoisseur green teas on offer at teayana. Other exotic teas in the menu include the Japanese Gyokuro, Chinese Hunan Oolong, Zheijang Yin Luo No, Tai Mu along, Formosa Jade Oolong from Taiwan and teayana’s own Jasmine Pearl tea.

“This is China’s most famous tea and simply the best of the Lung Ching variety. It has more than a thousand years of recorded history and was mentioned in the first ever tea book (Cha Ching) by Lu Yu during the Tang Dynasty.

The exquisite, fat but narrow emerald green tea leaves have a shiny appearance after being carefully hand fried in a large wok. The tea leaves easily sink to the bottom of the cup during infusion and a pleasant aroma arises which is refreshingly light with a hint of fruit and nut combined. The aftertaste is almost instantaneous, filling your mouth with a sweetness reminiscent of grape fruit. It may be enjoyed plain from morning to late afternoon and is best without milk.”

reads The Book of Tea at teayana.

Overwhelmed by the stories, recommendations and an undeniable charm of the stories, I order a pot of Lung Ching.

The tea arrives with a mini-hourglass that would indicate the perfect brewing time. I watch the fine grains of coloured sand seep through like a tiny waterfall, as the hot water in the pot slowly begins to turn to the colour of the morning sun.

After three minutes, I am ready to taste the exotic, light golden colour tea brewed from “fried” tea leaves. Never in my wildest dreams that I imagined tea would be brewed from ‘fried’ leaves!

The last few grains of sand seep through the narrow neck in the hour-glass as I eagerly wait to taste the tea. I resist myself from snatching a sachet of sugar on impulse, sometimes it’s hard to let go of the nasty habits of drinking tea Sri Lankan style.

I hold the cup with both hands and enjoy the warmth for a moment. As I take a deep breath, the Lung Ching fragrance titillates my senses. The aroma is gentle and inviting. I take the first sip and let it penetrate my taste buds. I love the first sip, and struggle to find words to describe the taste.

Grass.

Yes, Lung Ching tastes like green tea with a hint of grass. But, in a very good way.


Camellia sinensis or the tea plant grows taller than 10 meters (33ft) typically, if left untrimmed. The No 1 “King Tree” found in the mountainous region of Pu Erh, China, is 2,700 years old, 25.6 metres (85 ft) tall, with a root diameter of 1.2 m (4 ft). These ancient tea trees are protected and the leaves are not allowed to be picked. Sri Lanka’s tallest tea tree can be found in Dambetenna Estate, Haputale and it is around 18 metres (60 ft) in height.

2010-02-11

360° View: Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia

Amaya Lake. Sometime in 2007. End of the break, time to leave.


Watching the Sunrise, somewhere in the Lebanese mountains. 2009. My good pal Fadi caught in the frame.


Saudi Arabia, 2008. Watching the sunset from a mountain top.


2006. Kaudulla, Sri Lanka. Elephant watching has just begun. Mahesh and Ranga with Arham – the amateur film crew. ;) I have combined the frames to create a huge image – almost 16 meters in length @ 72dpi.


270° View from a mountain top, somewhere in Buttala jungle, Sri Lanka. 2006.


Combining frames to create a single image kinda takes away the WOW factor, me thinks. And yes, these were shot without a tripod, hence the zig-zag look.

2010-02-09

Sri Lanka Parliament: The revolution will not be televised.

Right or wrong, it is important to have an opinion. That’s one of the reasons why I admire people like Castro, Gaddafi and Putin – or even Obama to some extent. But not the lot that sound like Blairs and Browns.

One’s opinions and beliefs may not necessarily agree with someone else’s, but having an opinion and sticking to one’s beliefs are of paramount importance. This sets apart a leader, and a follower.

I was thinking. Yes, sometimes I do that. Why does the entire Sri Lankan populace seem to harp the same tune in unison – most often than not? Today, it would be the arrest of Fonseka, for example.

The biggest mantra in the last few elections has been “abolishing the Executive Presidency” and everyone seems to get so gung-ho about it. But, hang on a second, is that the biggest problem in our parliamentary system today?

Nope.

In my humble opinion, the biggest problem we have with our “elected representatives of the people” is the A-C-C-O-U-N-T-A-B-I-L-I-T-Y.

Or, the lack of it, rather.

We appoint the MP’s and give them responsibilities. But no one seems to monitor or evaluate their performance. True, the whole country – even the private sector – is not used to setting annual objectives and conducting evaluations on progress or performance, but then why is that everyone ganging-up on the President to criticise everything he does – be it right or wrong for the country? Who is holding the opposition responsible for their failure to keep the government in it’s rightful place? Why does media give us their opinion, not the facts (we know which is on whose side, don’t we?) so that you and I can make-up our own minds and form our own opinion?

Leave that aside.

Who is holding the hundreds of MP’s responsible or accountable for what they do, or don’t?

Accountability is what we need. That is what would clean-up the country, not a retired military man with a big mouth.

One solution would be to dissolve the Provincial Councils and revert to the electorate system where there is one solitary MP for each constituency.

An MP for every electorate, who will be responsible and accountable for the development of his area. If he doesn’t deliver his promises, voters have the ability and the power to throw him out, like we used to do in the 70’s.

The good old way would bring back a lean and mean Parliament, backed by a Civil Service that runs the administration of the country. The grama seveka’s, DRO’s, AGA’s, GA’s... they were part of an effective mechanism, which was much better than the current – politically appointed – provincial council system.

That would also bring back one responsible minister for education, not a handful. It would take the many different ministries responsible for healthcare under one roof, to make up one ministry.

And it would pave the way to downsize or minimize the Cabinet and let the MP’s do the work, instead of the talk.

I’d say, go back to the system of one constituency for every MP. Either dissolve, negate or relegate the Provincial Councils. The powers conferred upon the Executive President doesn’t mean much if the power of the parliament is back in the hands of the people.

What say you?

*The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron.

2010-02-06

Toyota and the Sticky Pedal: Should We be Scared?

Toyota, the biggest Japanese and the 5th largest global brand of 2009, is full of bad news. Due to safety reasons, they are recalling 2.3 million cars in the US alone. Sales of eight of its top selling name-plates have been frozen, and a sticky-accelerator problem is making a huge dent in Toyota’s income. The problem was initially suspected to be limited to the cars assembled in North America, but Peugeot and Citro├źn announced that they would be recalling certain models built in the Czech Republic in a plant jointly operated with Toyota. This, was making everyone around the globe a bit more worried.

Toyota Prius in the meantime is also facing a recall. The World’s leading hybrid is reported to have a problem with its brakes. The Japanese Government confirmed this week five new accidents related to Prius’ brake problems. According to Tokyo Shimbun and Fuji Television network unconfirmed reports indicate that the Transport Ministry has received around 80 complaints while Toyota has received over 100 complaints separately since the crisis began. Toyota has not announced a recall on Prius yet, but they launched investigations into possible brake problems in two other hybrids, including the luxury Lexus.

So, what is the real issue?

According to Toyota:

The first recall, “Floor Mat Entrapment,” regards the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide-open position.

The second recall, “Pedal,” is being conducted because there is a possibility that certain accelerator pedal mechanisms may mechanically stick in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position.

What are the models that are likely face this issue?

Currently, Toyota is recalling these models in the US due to the sticky pedal issue:
• Certain 2009-2010 RAV4
• Certain 2009-2010 Corolla
• 2009-2010 Matrix
• 2005-2010 Avalon
• Certain 2007-2010 Camry
• Certain 2010 Highlander
• 2007-2010 Tundra
• 2008-2010 Sequoia

However, Camry, RAV4, Corolla and Highlander vehicles with Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) that begin with “J” are not affected by the accelerator pedal recall.

What is Toyota doing to address the situation?

They are sending letters to the current owners to schedule an appointment with their dealer.
The dealerships have extended their hours – some working 24x7 – to fix this issue as quickly as possible.
Toyota has halted production of the listed models this week until the cars on the road are fixed.
They have mobilised their entire workforce of 172,000 employees in North America in their effort to maximise quality.
As part of the recall campaign, new car sales of vehicles subject to the pedal recall have been temporarily suspended until the problem is remedied.

How dangerous is this problem?

Should we be very, very, scared? Nope, I don’t think so. There are reports of people losing lives due to runaway Toyota’s, which, is a serious issue. But however, one of the main reasons for the sticky pedal has been identified as wear and tear – so most new car owners have the chance to replace the part at the nearest dealership before anything could ever happen.

How does it affect Toyota owners in Sri Lanka?

Well, so far, the faulty accelerator unit is only found in the Toyota’s assembled in North America, even though there is a chance that some European plants may have received the same parts in their assembly lines.

The cars that come from Asia are said to be safe, but, however, there are unconfirmed reports of certain Asian models having issues in the UK. Toyota Prius is having issues in Japan, but then, we don’t have any hybrids in Sri Lanka either.

Since most of the models identified are not available in Sri Lanka, and since the Corolla’s and RAV4’s come here are of Asian origin, there is very little chance that Toyota’s in Sri Lanka are affected by this issue.

In case, if my Toyota decides to run away, what should I do?

Follow the Toyota way, found here. Some US dealerships are advising Toyota owners to practice this procedure in empty parking lots, just in case.


UPDATE: 8th Feb

Saudi Arabia’s Consumer Protection Association (CPA) on Sunday (yesterday) urged authorities to force Japanese carmaker Toyota’s local agent Abdul Latif Jameel Co (ALJ) to recall and check for defaults in cars it sold locally.

An official at ALJ said the company would invite within two weeks owners of Toyota Sequoia and Avalon models – both of which are produced in the United States – to get their cars checked.

CPA’s call, made in a statement sent to media, is the first by a consumer protection group in the Gulf Arab region – where Saudi Arabia is the biggest auto market – after Toyota recalled some 8 million cars worldwide on safety glitches.

However, Toyota's distributor in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Futtaim Motors, said the two models would be recalled in the Gulf country in a service campaign similar to the one in the United States.

2010-02-05

The State of Education

And they run a school. And there are parents who spend their life-long savings to send their kids to this joint. The sad part is, none of the private schools or educational institutes in the country are monitored or governed by the Ministry of Education, they operate under a general business licence.

Would you choose, or trust, this “Institute of Higher Education” to prepare you for an overseas university? You wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t. But unfortunately, there are many ignorant Sri Lankans who do.


2010-02-04

In Dependence

Well, Sri Lanka, congratulations on your 62nd Year of Independence..!

Today, we celebrate our freedom. Freedom that prevents our little island from progress. Senseless freedom that gives an individual the right to pursue legal action to prevent a highway from being built to benefit an entire region, if not the whole country, but takes away the right to park one’s car in front of the country’s main railway station to pick-up a travelling passenger.

Today, we celebrate the victory of democracy. The kind of victory that bestows power upon parliamentarians like WJM Lokubandara who has deprived the people of Haputale of any development since 1977. The kind of people’s power that makes kings out of fools such as the well-learned doctor Mervin. Today, in the name of independence, we celebrate the kind of stupidity that sends clergymen to the parliament, and not to the village temple.

Today we celebrate the unity. The kind of unity that separates the Tamil, the Sinhala, the Muslim and the Anglo-asian by distinctly differentiating them in the very poster that’s supposed to unify them under one flag. The kind of unity that is evident everywhere – starting from the racially and religiously biased school system where a six-year-old is deprived of education of his choice, just because he doesn’t belong to a certain race or a religion. Hindu College for the Hindu’s, Zahira for the Muslims, St. Thomas’ for the Christians and Ananda for the Buddhists., and the list goes on. For our good luck, these are supposed to be amongst the greatest schools in the country that breed the leaders of the next generation...

Today, we celebrate sovereignty of the land. We celebrate the victory over our own brotherhood, we celebrate the death of our own men, women and children. We celebrate the fact the we are independent of our own evil, but wasn’t this island sovereign all along until we decided to divide it into pieces?

Today, we celebrate the freedom of expression. The freedom to wash our dirty linen in public, the freedom that strips our nation naked in front of an international audience. The freedom where Al Jazeera and BBC could report from the front-line claiming that “no media is allowed to witness the war” while closing their ears to the deafening sounds of gunfire. Today we celebrate the kind of freedom that makes us look so f*cked-up, that the corrupt parliaments of the US or the UK begin to look very honourable.

Today we celebrate the development. And the progress. We celebrate the fact that we have built three flyovers and dug a single tunnel in the last half-a-century of infrastructure development. We celebrate the fact the we still live in the dark ages, when we could’ve been an example to the West, just like Lee Kuan Yew once predicted.

Today we celebrate the defeat of terrorism, when the half of the terrorists who burnt down bus depots and destroyed public property are sitting at the parliament in their gel-combed-heads, having never surrendered the stolen wealth or the weapons they accumulated by terrorising an entire nation.

Today we celebrate the economic freedom and the ability to live in a free-market. The ability to eat Australian apples and Pakistani mangoes on the roadside in Ramboda and the ability to serve bottled water imported from the United Arab Emirates at the Colombo International Airport. We celebrate the fact that Nawala is no longer synonymous with pineapples, Kalutara with Mangosteens or Bibile with oranges.

Today we celebrate our pride. We celebrate the fact the we are the country of house-maids, we are the nation that murders their minority and we are the country where asylum seekers and illegal immigrants come from. With much pomp and pageantry, we celebrate the fact that we are no longer known for our blue sapphires, exotic beaches or world-class tea.

A little more than half a century down the line, we have managed to totally screw up this beautiful country, right royally.

Well... here’s to that, and here’s to whatever we are celebrating.

Cheers!