Sri Lanka: What I did with a stranger in the jungle

In Polonnaruwa I met Chaminda. A Sri Lankan who was selling ebony figures. And probably I wouldn’t treat him in any special way if not a coincidence. But it proved that it is worth to trust a stranger sometimes. 🙂

sri lanka souvenirs

I was visiting the Citadel, when one Sri Lankan guy accosted me. He was carring pretty, but incredibly expensive ebony figures with him. I liked the fisherman mostly, but 8000 Rs (about $ 60) was the amount that I did not want to spend on just any souvenir. Even if it is made ​​of ebony. From word to word, I managed to bargain for price of Rs 3000, which was optimal for me. But Sri Lankan after the trade didn’t leave me alone. No, he was not trying to sell me any more souvenirs, he just started a conversation. He introduced himself as Chaminda. And what’s your name, where you’re from, what you do in Sri Lanka, how do you like it, that’s typical chat, which is repeated almost daily with any local I met. At one point he excused and ran with his figures to a group of tourists, and I got back to explore the Citadel.

Another Sri Lankan man accosted me, asked whether I speak English and whether I could talk to some of his schoolgirls, because he teaches them English and it would be great practice for them. Ok, why not, I agreed, although it was more my monologue, and the girls just listened. The teacher asked me few questions about me, what do I do in Poland, what is my job about and so on. Then said goodbye.

I didn’t notice that Chaminda was listening to the entire conversation.
‘Doesn’t it bother you that people want to talk to you?’ asked he.
‘No’ I laughed, though I admit that sometimes it was exhausting (but usually I knew how to refuse to my potential interlocutor). ‘Quite the opposite, I can learn from it about the people and Sri Lanka. I could use it.’
‘But you haven’t told me that you’re tour leader!’
‘You didn’t ask!’ I said truthfully.
‘Hanna, you should have told me! I work with tourists! Actually, I am like a tour guide and I cooperate with tour offices in Europe. Even I know one Polish tour leader!
Ok, somewhere deep in my mind flashed a thought that this was one of those conversations in the style of either he’s telling the truth or lying, and you have to run away. Left or right, nothing between. I haven’t said anything, and Chaminda continued:
‘This tour leder name is Eva. She works for Rainbow Tours, and I was their guide.’
Okay, maybe those facts were too general, but would any random guy really learned the names of travel agencies from all countries around the world? Especially in Sri Lanka, where there’s not so many Polish tourists, and even if they are, local take us for Russians or Dutch? No, I do not think so. I used to trust my intuition, and this time it told me that it was worth to talk to Chaminda a little bit longer. This may lead me to something interesting. I promised him that after sightseeing I’ll come back and we’ll finish our conversation.

Few hours later Chaminda was waiting for me where we met and suggested straightaway:
‘Leave the bike here. We’ll take my bike and I’ll show you where we make those figures.’
Oh, I didn’t plan that. I wondered if it’s good to trust him SO MUCH. I mean, how? I go somewhere with a stranger, no one even knows exactly where, nobody knows me here, at home everyone knows that I am in Sri Lanka, but I didn’t give them any details… Now, when I look at it from the perspective of time I admit that I acted a little rashly. But on the other hand, if I examine all of our travels, behaviors, approaches like “you only live once”, I can say that I’m quite lucky. I just had many chances to become convinced that people are inherently good and worth their trust. Those with bad intentions are obvious and if I have even a shadow of doubt, if for once my intuition tells me to run away, I ALWAYS listen to it. It’s my best friend on the go, my sixth sense.

So I left my bike and … I went with Chaminda by his motorbike to the jungle. 😀

Now I know that it was one of the best things I did in Sri Lanka. 🙂 It turned out that Chaminda leads “the ebony business” in the area. He does not look completely at a businessman, wearing an old T-shirt and shorts, but there he was a “boss”. He transacts the wood (to emphasize – legally) for figures, leads the factory, which is visited by tourists, gives the work for craftsmen and sellers. And he wanted to show me how it all works. 🙂

At the beginning we visited his factory. Entrence fee is Rs 2000, I say hesitantly that I have no money. Chaminda only smiles:
‘Hanna, I told you. Here everything is mine. You are my guest and you do not pay. I don’t care about the money from you.’
I can only hope that he’s telling the truth and that at the end of the tours he’ll not ask for a tip.

Before we entered the main hall, in which are collected all the crafts, I could watch the craftsmen cutting big sculptures. They were not cut out of ebony, but still made ​​an impression with their size and details. I wonder if it is done for show or if they really were to be sold, but I’m more inclined to believe the first option.

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

The factory turned out to be just a big warehouse than a manufacturing plant, but it was just mentioned by Chaminda – all statues are made at private homes. This place is only for tourists so they have plenty to choose from and leave some (a lot) money.

The choice is really huge. This is not just a collection of ebony statues. We have almost every type of tropical trees here.

sri lanka souvenirs

Ebony is the most valuable. Trees that are channeled to sculpture, grow very slowly, even 200 years and reach a height of 15-20 meters. You can cut them earlier of course, because the wood is ready to use in 70-year-old specimen, but in the still takes two human generations! It doesn’t surprise that the figures reach such prices. And nothing goes to waste. From every small piece of wood, something can be can whittled, for example a tiny elephant.

sri lanka souvenirs

Other wood used in the factory is rosewood, mahogany, sandalwood, coconut wood and teak. Figures made out of them are painted in different colors, huge, big, small and tiny, modestly and richly decorated, items of everyday use like cutlery and plates, chess, as well as furniture that cost several thousand euros…

sri lanka souvenirs

Hand carved items are not cheap. The largest is a rarity, which only the richest can afford. For example, two decent armchairs in colonial style costs up to 30 000 euro. Secondly, you still need to send them home, but the cost of shipping and insurance to the end of the world, even if it is several thousand euros, is nothing significant for the buyer of original colonial furniture. It’s a pittance.

sri lanka souvenirs

But these are not pennies for Sri Lankan who work with Chaminda. I wonder how many people is maintained by the wood industry. The highest figures are sold here in the factory (remember that there is also entrance fee), smaller in the touristy places (seller equip themselves with a whole bag of goods). How many people benefit from it? The whole city? The whole province?

I do not know, but Chaminda gave me some numbers which helped me realize that the people working in this business are really succesful (from the perspective of Sri Lankan standards of living).

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

Statistics (available on this website) report that most number of tourists come from October to March, when the south of the island takes the dry season, and in July and August, the months optimal for tour of the north. Each year the numbers are growing, because Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly in the eyes of the whole world as a holiday destination. Polonnaruwa is lucky to lie in the center of the island and is available throughout the year.

sri lanka souvenirs

Chaminda said that at the peak of the tourist season the DAILY income from the sale of figures is $ 400. I was visiting Polonnaruwa at the end of March, but there were still many groups of tourists. And not only school trips from the whole island, this business flourishes not because of them, but WHITE tourists, tourists from the West, tourists who earn in euros, dollars and pounds (most tourists come from the UK, Germany, France, Australia, USA, as well as Russia, China and India). I can believe of such income, if I count that Chaminda for fisherman wanted from me 8000 Rs, which is about $ 60. I bargain over the price, because for our Polish wages it’s a large amount, but some British or Germans would say that it is ridiculously low and pay.

How much of it goes to employees? I do not know how much sellers get, but Sri Lankans who sculpt figures in their private homes receive $ 100 per month. And in Sri Lanka it is already a quite decent income.

sri lanka souvenirs

A worker in a tea estate or rice plantation earns about 380 Rs per day (less than $ 3, at least according to official datas) + extras for productivity, which vary depending on the company. The minimum monthly salary of an unskilled worker, whether physical or in the service sector is circa 6 000-7 000 Rs ($ 50). Qualifications raise wages, but usually it’s not mre than 10 000 Rs per month (approx. $ 75). [I emphasize that usually outside the city women do not work, or work in the tea plantations, so really the maintain of the family depends on the man.] [This data is valid for the year 2013 and comes from the wageindicator.org.]

So sculptors from Polonnaruwa are very fortunate. You can even venture to say that they live quite prosperous!

After leaving the warehouse-factory for tourists, Chaminda took me to a few private houses, so I could see how these figures are made. I was very lucky because these are places not available for tourists in air-conditioned coaches.

Of course, the work itself was very interesting to me, but even more intriguing were people who perform this work and their approach to life.

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

I did not want to enter their houses without invitation, but every time they asked me to come, I used the opportunity to surreptitiously look around. We with our European approach would say that ‘home’ is too big word. Rather shed or garage … Just four walls and a roof, one, maybe two rooms, no windows. And in the middle? Bed, table, TV … plaster on the wall or carpet is a not necessery. Kitchen is usually in a separate building behind the house, full of flies. Sri Lankans do their job on the court, under the roof, which protects from the sun and rain.

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

I looked at it incredulously, because they earn so much! On the other hand, I was delighted. In Europe we are used to a consumer lifestyle, we spend the money on momentary pleasures, whims and fancies, and then we wonder where is our salary. And there? A roof over your head and the food is enough. There is no fashion show, the rat race, impressing your neighbors, because everywhere around is only the jungle.

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

Chaminda offered me to try myself in sculptural profession and gave me a gouge. I hit twice the head of the Buddha placed in a vise, but the ebony wood is hard, not easily fissile. I’ve never been good at handicrafts, so I preferred to watch, because the definiteness of sculptor’s movements was really impressive. As a souvenir I took a small piece of raw ebony. Warm and rough.

sri lanka souvenirs

I saw how exactly the work looks at different stages. Sculpting, polishing … Chaminda explained to me that some raw parts of ebony, which are beige, are rubbed with special leaves that give the wood a reddish-blue colour (this can be betel – called bulath in Sri Lanka – a stimulant for chewing, but I’m not sure).

sri lanka souvenirs

sri lanka souvenirs

Late in the afternoon we returned to Polonnaruwa. My bike was where I left it, but before leaving Chaminda offered me a watermelon. We sat on the stone wall and ate sweet fruit. Sri Lankan gave me his phone number, and if I come back to Sri Lanka have to call him. I will for sure! For goodbye he even handed to me two small elephants. I had a slight resistance, because I did not want to abuse his hospitality.
‘Hanna, I told you. I have enough money. It’s a gift from me!’
So elephants landed in the bottom of my backpack, just next to the fisherman wrapped in paper. However, Chaminda said that is not enough, and added to them a larger elephant. Well, I thanked but I really didn’t want to take more! But when I turned back, Chaminda threw to my backpack fourth, the largest elephant. The head of the family. We said goodbye, it’s time to get back to Dambulla before dark.

Fisherman and elephants are in a visible place in my apartment. Every time I look at them, I smile, think of Chaminda, of sculptors in the jungle, the scent of sawdust in their houses. If I had not listened to the voice of my intuition that day, I would not have such memories and could not tell you this story. 🙂

Sometimes it’s worth trusting a stranger. 🙂

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And did you ever had any experiance with strangers? Share it with us! 🙂

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