In Sri Lanka, many things are promised but not necessarily delivered. When we bought our fridge and stove yesterday, Fahim insisted that we receive delivery of them before noon, and the salesman agreed, but Fahim was not at all certain when they would actually arrive. Could be late into the afternoon, for all he knew. All we knew was that we had to be home, waiting, until they were delivered. Surprise surprise! They were delivered on time, as promised. We are now the proud owners of a fridge and stove.
We also need a gas cylinder for the stove. Here, gas isn't piped in – you have to buy gas cylinders. Most households have one they're using and a second in reserve for when the first runs out. The cylinders are bright blue and about two feet tall, ten inches in diameter, and that's what you hook up to the stove, much like a North American barbecue with propane tank, only this is inside your kitchen. Stoves here are not commonly electric, and when we were shopping for the fridge and stove, we also saw two and three burner propane stoves – the type used when camping – for sale. Apparently, some people use those in their kitchens. Also used are oil burning stoves, wood hearths, or charcoal clay pot type stoves, and kerosene stoves.
I, of course, am more than happy to have a gas stove. I can deal with changing a gas cylinder here every month or so.
So Fahim and I go shopping. We walk from our house to the main road. The side streets here are similar in size to many North American back alleys, but smaller and less maintained by comparison. We walk down these side streets to the main road where we hire a trishaw, also known as a tuk-tuk or a three wheeler. A trishaw has three wheels, one in front, two in back. The driver sits in the front, and the passengers in the back. They're covered on top and in the back, but the sides are open. They're small and highly manoeuvrable, which helps in traffic with very flexible driving rules.
Where there are two painted lanes for each direction, traffic will dictate that there are now three or four or five in each direction. Vehicles pass on the lanes belonging to oncoming traffic, provided there aren't too many oncoming vehicles. It's chaotic at best, entertaining, and sometimes a little nerve wracking. It's essentially a chaotic fluidic dance of vehicles breaking every known motoring law familiar in North America with pedestrians tossed in for good flavour, and no accidents result. This type of driving would never work in North America where so many people demand their right of way, even when giving it up for a millisecond would prevent an accident or a death. No one wants to deal with accidents, insurance, police, and the resulting paperwork here, so when a vehicle breaks into traffic, the other vehicles dance around it. When accidents do happen, most motorists prefer to deal with the situation on the spot, settle things immediately, and avoid dealing with the hassles of insurance and the rest.
Trishaws seem to be the most flexible form of transportation. There are also motorcycles, taxis, cars, trucks, whatever. Some are brand new and in spotless condition. Others are fifty years old, spewing black smelly smoke I can taste from fifty paces with wheels wobbling to and fro, and there's everything in between.
The trishaw driver takes us to the shop where we get the gas cylinder. Fahim goes in and takes care of it all while I wait in the trishaw. Fahim comes back with the bright blue cylinder and loads it into the trishaw on the floor between us. We then continue on our merry way with the rest of our errands.
We stopped off at a place called "Seven Plus" that had take away food. Okay, us North Americans call it take out. Lankans call it take away.
Something to keep in mind about Lankan English. Like its driving habits, English is regarded with a great deal of flexibility. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar as North Americans, Brits, Aussies, or anyone else who calls English the mother tongue, is greatly ignored. All that anyone cares about here is whether or not they got the point across. Pestry for pastry. Persenal for personal. You get my drift.
So we order two packets of take away curry – one fish, one chicken. Not two servings, not two orders. Here, it's packets. Whatever. In that shop, because by North American standards, it ain't a restaurant, there are no seats to sit down and eat a meal. There are no waitresses as such. No, you stand in line, order your food, and wait as they dish it out into a styrofoam container from large metal chafing dishes set on tables in the back of the small room. Fahim tells me that he regularly eats here. I trust him that it'll be good. The two food packets together cost LKR 140, or the equivalent of $1.40 US, or about $2.00 CDN.
We get back into our trishaw where we left our bright blue gas cylinder and we head to Food City, the grocery store just down the street from where we live. We don't pick up much – just some sugar, green gram cereal (I couldn't even begin to tell you what that is, except it's some kind of grain.), some powdered milk, and cat food. Cat food here is not, shall we say, common.
In Canada, I typically bought a 20 kg bag of cat food at a time. Oberon's a pig. Buying it any other way just doesn't make sense. Here, the biggest container of cat food for sale is a small box that probably holds around a kilogram or so. I could check the box and tell you exactly, but that would mean getting up. I don't feel like it, so you'll have to live with my approximation. Milk here is usually powdered. People don't buy it fresh because then they have to worry about it going bad. Just easier to buy powdered and make it as you use it.
Another tangerine. Grocery stores here. Food City is one of the main and few chains in Sri Lanka. It's about as big as, say, a large clothing store. Variety is not the watchword here, and many things that are familiar to me cannot be had. On the other hand, things like Fruit and Nut bars (oh yum, give me my chocolate fix) are available here, so all is not lost.
By this time, I'm starting to feel ill. Heat stroke. Sun stroke. Whatever. I'm hot, I'm seeing stars, I feel lightheaded, my head hurts, and I want to lie down and ignore the world. We head home on our trishaw with our purchases. We lug everything up our steps and Fahim starts unlocking the door. Oh no. It won't open. He tries, he tries some more, but no, it's jammed. He calls our landlord, Mr. Perera, and tells him that our lock is broken. I can only guess that Mr. Perera thinks that this must be the first time we've ever seen a lock as he tells Fahim to keep trying for fifteen minutes and to call him back if there's still a problem.
Fahim keeps trying while I sit on the steps hoping I don't feel as lousy as I do. Fahim calls Mr. Perera back, and the landlord sends us a handyman, who brought only a hammer, an awl, and a screwdriver. The handyman bangs away at the door, plays with the keys, bangs some more, and finally resigns himself to the fact that he needs more tools. Luckily, Mr. Perera's house is only a very short distance away, so the handyman goes. When he returns, Mr. Perera is with him. Armed with more tools, they still can't get the door open. Mr. Perera tells the handyman to break into the door in the back of the house up on the patio, so what does the handyman do? Does he try to break the glass on the patio doors?
He decides to break the glass in the windows beside the kitchen door, which would still result in some very interesting acrobatics.
Luckily, before glass shatters, the guys who are supposed to install fans arrive, jiggle the door, and voila! it opens. They'd had problems with it before and knew just what to do.
I'm so happy – considering how miserable I felt. I lay down in the bedroom and tried to sleep while our living room and kitchen fans were installed. The fan guys have also been given money by Mr. Perera to buy a new lock for the door.
Finally, everyone is gone, and Fahim and I can eat our lunch in peace. It's now something like four in the afternoon, and I'm starving, but I also feel too ill to eat that much at the same time, which is rather unfortunate as the food is so incredibly good. It's unbelievably nummy. At this point, I should probably mention that we still haven't bought any plates, mugs, utensils, or anything else, so I have no choice but to eat the Lankan way – with my fingers. This is something that Fahim has been doing all his life, and he gives me pointers. I, of course, in my finite wisdom, manage to spill everywhere anyway. No matter. Food was still excellent.
We are in need of basic household items – plates, bowls, mugs, utensils, stuff like that. You know, the kind of thing you can do without for months at a time. Right. So we do more shopping after our lunch – I'm feeling better again.
We take a trishaw, as we have been wont to do. Fahim talks to the driver in Sinhalese, explaining what we want to do – buy some pots and pans. Here, if you want something, it's common to tell the three-wheel driver what you want, and he'll take you somewhere. Sometimes, he gets a cut from the shop owner, sometimes he doesn't. Fahim told him we wanted pots and pans cheaper than what we could get at the department store, so the driver takes us to what could be loosely called a shop in North America.
This shop is about five or six feet wide, perhaps ten or twelve feet deep that I can see. On the floor and on the walls, every single surface is crammed with goods for sale. As we describe what we want, the shop owner or employees shift contents here and there as they drag out what we're looking for. I don't know relative costs. Yes, I can translate the costs from LKR (Sri Lankan Rupees) to US funds, and therefore into Canadian funds, and the prices seem very cheap compared to what they'd cost in Canada, but are they cheap for Sri Lanka? I have no idea. Fahim barely has more of an idea than I – he has never before set up a household in Sri Lanka. But I leave the decisions up to him, giving him input inasmuch as design, functionality, and things like that are concerned.
We know that we'll be shipping my things over, and I've got dishes, pots and pans, utensils, and things like that, but we still have to have enough to live with until they arrive. We're shopping only for the basics so we can actually cook and survive. We get two green bowls, two plates with a gold and red pattern, and two Mickey and Minnie Mouse mugs that have to be knockoffs. I can't imagine Disney approving the designs. We get other things, too – pots, a kettle, utensils, things like that.
We head to the department store after that. The department store has two levels and it has everything from furniture (but no stereos or other electronics) to linens, plastics, pots, pans, dishes, things like that on the upper floor, and the lower level is groceries, toiletries, cleaning supplies. All told, it's smaller than a Future Shop, smaller than a London Drugs, smaller than an Office Depot. Each floor is about the size of a McDonald's restaurant. Things are stacked on top of each other, crammed in – but not as bad as that tiny shop where we got our pots and pans.
We're here mainly for some more groceries. Eggs come in clear plastic flimsy containers, 10 to a container. Fruit and veggies, we bag, then we give to a produce clerk, although I doubt very strongly that that's his official job title, who then weighs it for checkout. Rice we can buy either white or red. Red? What the heck? Red is Lanka's version of brown rice – the hull not completely stripped off. When I cooked the rice later, it had reddish brown patches, but what's normally white was actually pink. Huh. When in Rome. . .