Shopping in Galle

As we progressed deeper into Galle the traffic became increasingly maddening. The driver coped fairly well; he added his bit to the chaos taking chances and cutting up other traffic. Our first call was on the Bank of Ceylon where I could cash traveller cheques. Situated within the walls of the old Dutch fort it was calm and peaceful. Even the crowd milling around the entrance steps was respectful. Perhaps age had something to do with the ease they parted to stand back and let me pass. I am sure it had nothing to do with any imperious manner Robert, at odd times cares to remind me I am apt to use. In fact, he had, on this occasion to propel me forward with the rejoinder that I would wait all day unless I pushed to the counter and spoke up.

On reaching the counter a young girl clad in tatty faded blue denims (I remarked to myself she must have felt extremely hot) was changing a ten dollar bill. The teller a very dark skinned bad tempered fellow peevishly threw the rupees across the counter at the girl. I was astonished. What a way to treat a tourist. No matter what he may have thought of her manner of dress and suspected of her morals he had to reason to display bad manners. When my turn came I suppose I was a wee bit haughty, well really, I didn’t have much time for the somewhat hippy style girl, but damn it, it was too much to see her treated like that. I wanted only to cash one cheque for fifty pounds. I gave him my passport. He perused each page, (for what purpose?). I waited until I thought I had his attention and signed the cheque in front of him. But he had decided to do something else, turning round to speak to a colleague. He took the cheque and inspected my signature; he then held the cheque to the light and gave it a thorough going over. He seem to have decided it was a “bad ‘un”. He asked me to sign it on the back, I obliged and he then gave it more inspection. When he asked me for another signature, I looked him hard and long in the eye.

“OK, says I with vigour, have it your way.”

By this time, a few of the clerks had pricked up their ears and some were looking on. The devil in me took over, to assuage the feelings of the girl I suppose. I covered the back of the cheque with signatures, and handed it with a flourish to the now slightly subdued teller who meekly handed me the requisite rupees, passport and note of exchange. My action seemed to have pleased the other clerks who were tittering amongst themselves. This made me feel uncomfortable and I turned to my companion to apologise for being rude to one of his countrymen. But he was by this time apologising to me.

“Shitty little man,” he said, “he doesn’t know how to behave to foreigners, but what can you expect from a Tamil anyway”. I was a little disturbed by the event for I had so far found the Singhalese most gracious and charming. When I vented this point with Robert, he said:

“He is not Singhalese, he’s a Tamil – a Sri Lankan, maybe, we have to suffer them, but he’s a Tamil and that’s the way they behave.”

This was soon forgotten as we walked to the New Oriental Hotel a few hundred steps from the bank to sit in the shade of a wide veranda drinking ice cold Lion Lagers.

We have plenty of shopping to do, R’s priority was to buy some tools for the work on the house. He was patient whilst I waited in line to post three airmail letters, advising me to:

“Be more pushing, push to the front, they will let you stay there all day; believe me, they respect you more if you act with authority.”

“Why should I, I’m here as a visitor, I don’t want to throw my weight around, I finished doing that years ago after the Raj years faded out in the Persian Gulf.”

“O.K. have it your way, you’ll find a bit of a push helps. These may be my people but they will only act quickly if you give them a prod. I’ve seen you do it in England you sometimes have to do it here, and particularly in Government offices.”

We went into the main shopping streets passing several ironmongers until we fetched up at a dull looking building which turned out to be the government official store for tools and building items. One sensed it was a government department as soon as one walked in.

I spotted the tools we wanted displayed on a large board on the back wall of the shop part of the open office. I walked round the old fashioned wooden counter and pointed them out to Mahipala. He stayed on the other side of the counter which made me realise I had stepped from the public sector into strictly unauthorised babu territory. Nothing daunted I invited Mahipala to select the wrench, a screwdriver, trowel and other old tools we needed. Being the eccentric Englishman, perhaps the first who had been in their establishment for years I got away with it. The tools where of reasonably sound quality and cheap, our purpose of using the government price controlled store, but the act of buying them was painful. The salesman handed each item to a pretty young lady clerk who entered each one on a bill of sale, copying laboriously from a large unwieldy price list. That accomplished it was sent to another clerk sitting in the depths of the long dark office to be entered in a large ledger. The ledger with the bill of sale jutting out from the leaves of the enormously heavy book was carried by an office peon to the cashier’s office, a partitioned sanctum sanctorum. He ruled supreme in his box of an office. Languidly drinking tea he made many passes and entries in other ledgers using rubber stamps at random. He then made out another docket and eventually, with an imperious snap of his fingers took the money.

Good, thought I, only five minutes, not too bad. But I had to wait until he had another swig of tea before he handed over the change. Even so, the performance was not complete. The docket and bill started on its return journey via the intermediate control ledger being franked and stamped with zest. It then ended up with the salesman taking the bill of sale to the desk of a uniformed official who seemed to oversee the whole counter Maybe he was entitled “The Counter Control Officer”. He thumped a rubber stamp vigorously on an inkpad, held it poised in the air, stabbed it down with gusto on the much abused bill of sale, squiggled his initials, to my fascination using an old fashion “j” nib inked from a porcelain inkpot. Not to be outdone the salesman grabbed his inked stamp and searching for a vacant spot on the bill applied it with great care, initialling his handy work with a ‘biro’. So it was over. We were handed the tools wrapped in rough brown paper bound with yards of thin cotton string. I had not experienced anything so quaint since Dacca in Bengal in forty-five. Shopping in Algarve in Pera and Almancil in the sixties and early seventies had been dolefully slow but buying a few hand tools in the government store in Galle had been quite an unforgettable experience.

We took lunch at the Harbour Inn, a Government controlled Guest Hotel overlooking the bay and the old town. It was cheap and excellent value. Even so, when we paid the bill a watered down version of the experience in the government store repeated itself. The paper work with ledgers and guest book for me to sign took about five minutes.

We returned to Unanwitiya stopping in Baddegama, which was disappointing, having imagined it much bigger being it is a “postal district” town.

Immediately below just in my line of vision is the dilapidated roof of a small dwelling built on a narrow and tiny strip on the edge of the paddy field. This section of land is now fallow being intermittently flooded at the mercy of the elements, all because, I am told, about seven years ago the State ran out of money to complete the bund to harness the flooding from the Gin Ginga river. Above the paddy land rises another hillside, once high with cinnamon bushes. Part of the land has been cleared by Capila’s father who is planting tea bushes, partly subsidised by the Government. He intends to be a fifty-fifty man, half cinnamon and half tea and play the swings and roundabout of fortune in the moving markets.

Across the valley to the left, a sandy track, centred with a deep green sweep of tufted grass snakes in a curve along which the fish-man approaches on his Honda motorcycle noisily yelling his wares. The pip-pip of his motorcycle horn rising above the phut-phut of his busy engine. A youth with a young child on the crossbar wobble down the track on a man-sized bicycle. A few seconds later with a clatter and rattle from metal containers resembling small milk-churns fastened to the carrier of a rickety bicycle an elderly toothless old man rides gingerly down the track. I now know what he carries in the cans. I saw the same chap a few days ago and asked Mahipala if it was milk he was carrying. “Sort of”, was the reply, “rubber milk, you call it latex, I think, he is taking it to his shed to treat it and turn it into basic rubber.”

The sun shines, the crows swoop overhead, cheeky in their constant prying, and they sense the dog is not awake. Lancu, a handsome hound has been grooming the hair of his coat, now worn out he is lazily asleep in the shadow of the cool slab of the top step of the porch.

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