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Thursday, December 26, 2013

teacher's thoughts on a student

" focus his considerable energies on his work rather than on horseplay; to battle more vigorously the demons of complacency."

My favourite comment made by a teacher about a student....ever.

No Show Snow for Christmas in Yorkshire

I’ve experienced Christmas in many different places and circumstances. In fact it was at Christmas five years ago that I packed my bags and left England to work as a teacher in Indonesia. So coming back to the Uk, with my wife Yohana, has been truly exceptional. It wouldn’t matter where we were really, the family aspect to it is what makes it. But Yorkshire also has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Obviously the key reason for our second trip to the UK inside a year, was to spend time with my Dad whose cancer has seemingly managed to get the upper hand at the moment. He wasn’t expecting us back until the 14th January and had been telling everyone how much he was looking forward to it. Mum slipped Dad a mickey by telling him she was going shopping when in fact she was collecting us from Darlington railway station. I only wish I could show you the look on my Dad’s face as Uchiel walked into the living room. He did a double take and as he looked at her for the second time, his facial expression was the dictionary definition of ‘gobsmacked’. What I can tell you is that everyone, including my father, will remember it forever.

As for the weather, well Uchiel was cold enough when we came back in May but this time she’s been positively frozen. We had no need to buy winter clothes, not that we’d have known where to find them in Jakarta, as we have basically just been wearing hand me downs. But we have made it outside into the fresh air a couple of times, in fact today the car was frozen solid so that was another experience. But still no snow (technically, there was a light dusting of snow through the night into Boxing Day, but it could have equally been mistaken for a particularly hard frost).

Christmas Day was a class affair. We roasted a goose, had vegetables and yorkshire puddings too and some quite stunning desserts. There were artisan chocolates, loads of wine and some pretty good port and Mum’s Christmas cake, decorated with pigs, ladybirds and pandas due to the unavailability of more traditional Christmas cake decorations. Presents were opened, tv was watched and all in all it was just a truly great day.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Teardrop Paradise

Sri Lanka is a mysterious, exotic country. Famed as much for its cricketers as its Ceylon tea, many people equally associate the country with the rebellious Tamil Tigers and The Maldives. I was fortunate enough transit aircrafts there on this recent trip back to the UK.

It wasn’t the best of starts to a trip in many ways. Unable to check-in online, we boarded the plane for the five hour trip to Colombo expecting to find our pre-booked, extra legroom seats and staff waiting with a cold Lion Beer. Instead we were met by the 3+3 seating arrangement common on low-cost airlines, no tv monitors onthe seats or hanging from the cabin, and a pricelist for alcoholic beverages. On top of that our seats weren’t located near to an emergency exit so had no extra room. Anyone familiar with low cost travel will immediately recognise the conditions in which we would spend the trip.

Actually we had already been made aware that this leg of the journey would be conducted by Sri Lanka Airway’s ‘sister’ airline, MINLanka. We just expected that whilst the conditions would be a tad cramped, they’d have pulled out the stops with everything else. As I said, we could have had a better start.

Turning the clock back for a moment, Yohana and I had found out a couple of weeks prior to our journey that we would be accompanied by one of our friends from Jakarta. Stewart used to teach at EF Gading Serpong but is currently employed by the Jakarta International Montesori School and was heading home for Christmas on the same flight as us. With the 3+3 seating it was very easy to arrange for Stewart to move from his booked one into the one next to us.

Another thing that we were painfully aware of was the transit in Colombo. All nine hours of it! What to do with that time had been the source of much discussion. Stewart had talked about leaving the airport for a few hours, but on checking into it it seemed that Uciel would need another visa. For the sake of a few hours this didn’t really seem to be worthwhiile so Yohana and I had resigned ourselves to getting some sleep on an uncomfortable airport bench and trying to sneak complimentary shots from the duty free sellers.

As it transpired, in conversation between the three of us, we decided that it would at least be worth checking into the transit visa thing so, on arrival in Colombo, we headed for the customer services desk. They directed us to a short queue where we waited to speak to a chubby Sri Lankan guy. On reaching his desk and explaining that we had 9 hours to kill and wanted to leave the airport, and him having looked through our boarding passes, he finally suggested we speak to his colleague sat next to him. This meant going to the back of a slightly longer queue. As our turn to be seen approached, the guy we’d originally spoken to moved from his original seat, sat on the opposite side of his colleague and called us forward. My initial suggestion that we had just spoken to his brother produced not a titter. Maybe I need to work on my timing.

Explaining our dilemma, he kindly pointed out that we would be given a free meal due to the length of our stay and then started talking to his colleague about hotels. Quickly stopping him I explained again that we had only a few short hours and didn’t really want the expense of a hotel and that we’d rather do our own thing if he could just see his way towards letting us out of the airport.
His answer was that if that was what we wished to do, we should go and explain our situation to the head of immigration, who would issue us with a pass. Coming from the rampant corruption of Indonesia, I jumped swiftly to the conclusion that to arrange this money would have to change hands and, at the same moment, a thought dawned on me.
“Er..., that hotel thing. Is it free?” I enquired, tentatively. I was thinking that he’d been happily looking into hotels and maybe it wasn’t an address that we needed as part of the short stay visa thing, but maybe we could wangle this another way or, that even between the three of us, the cost would be minimal.
“It depends on the type and cost of your ticket” said the portly chap. “Let me see those boarding passes again”.

Next thing we know, we’ve had our free meal vouchers taken away from us and replaced with a white docket entitling us to a single and a double hotel room and a meal each at vaguely cricket-sounding The Sunhill Hotel, and this would come with complimentary transport to and from said hotel. Winner!
Now at the risk of seeming ungrateful, a few things should be pointed out. From receiving this voucher, it then took another hour to get to the hotel due to the Sri Lankans seemingly endless fascination with making visitors join pointless queues. This, plus the wait for the complimentary taxi. On arriving at the hotel, we were shown to our more than adequate rooms (evidently a single room is a smaller room that contains a double bed and our double room had a double bed plus an extra bed) but on requesting the location of the restaurant were were given the perplexing reply that there wasn’t one. On asking for the bar we were again informed of a lack in this area too. But the guy on duty just took us outside, over the road and into a nearby Indian restaurant   where we were told that a few beers and some red wine for Uciel was very possible and that we could pay by card (on account of not having any Sri Lankan Rupees).
The final thing we were left with was the confusing; “Please be back at 9pm for food”.

We ordered the drinks and sat chatting and watching Liverpool condemn Cardiff to another Premiership defeat and decided that food must be a take away affair. It’s a shame as, on reflection, we’d have gladly stayed in the place we were and whose prices were very reasonable.

We weren’t the only people in the restaurant, two other tables had groups of guys seemingly preparing for Christmas. Sri Lanka is predomninantly Buddhist but never let that get in the way of a celebration. They seem to be  a lot like the Thais in this respect. It turned out that one group was having a birthday party for one of their number but the other group, sat on the table nearest to us were celebrating after a positive stock take result at work. They did this by sharing a bottle of gin and some food and then banging on their table to a beat that went well with “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. This was produced in pretty good English and was obviously for our benefit as when they finished they all stood up and came over to our table. Hands were shaken, cheeks were kissed, high fives were handed out, photos were taken and emails were swapped. The genuine emotion these guys displayed as they talked about their hopes for our appreciation of their country was mirrored when the next table of guys did exactly the same thing. Nearly too awesome for words.

Back at the hotel we had time for a shower and to eat the fried rice and spicy chicken that was delivered to the room before the taxi arrived to take us back to the airport where the plane that would take us the UK, the decidedly bigger and better equipped plane, was waiting.

Those few hours have really given me some encouragement to revisit the teardrop island.