Monday, May 23, 2011

Bureaucracy Can Kill

I needed to hand in a document to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka today. The same one that got ferociously bombed and attacked 15 or so years ago, maiming and killing many civilians in what used to be the heart of the business district.

Having been through the silly security rigmarole previously for a meeting there, I thought I'd go straight to the off-site car park (sitting on prime real estate in the heart of the Fort), walk over and hand over the document.

The guard at the car park would have none of it. I first needed to go to the Central Bank's main gate (put in place after the terrorists drove right up 15 years ago), announce my intentions, and then be directed back to the car park I was currently sitting outside.

So I drove up to the terrorist-proof main entrance, nonchalantly left open. I stopped my Hilux, which could've been packed with about 300Kg of high explosives, at the gate (when any petty politician or terrorist could've just charged through), right by the guard room, and explained myself. I needed to go to the Mail Room, I was told. Where to park? Oh, just leave the vehicle right there at the gate, just move it so I wouldn't obstruct the entrance.

So I walked in, handed over the document, walked back out and went off home. I tooted my horn in farewell at the guard at the offsite car park, but he seemed to be busy with his newspaper in the depths of his little guard hut.

What was the point of that off-site car park again? And wait, we don't have terrorists in Sri Lanka anymore either, right?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't fall for trumped-up credit card "phone bill" surcharge

I wrote to my bank manager yesterday about something that happened while I was on the road. The episode is what prompted my earlier post about pigtailed Chinamen. Don't get cowed into accepting additional charges. Even if you have to pay, insist on a detailed accounting - this opens them up for liability under whatever consumer protection and merchant agreements that may govern them, so they'll never do it.

"Just want to alert you to something going on at N.P.G. Appusinhgho & Sons Lanka Filling Station, Ratnapura.

I stopped there earlier today to pump diesel, and when I checked whether they accept credit cards the attendant told me they have a flat surcharge of Rs. 10/- per card transaction, which he said was to cover the "phone bill." He said I would have to agree to that before he would pump diesel. I said it would be ok as long as I was given a bill mentioning the cost of the diesel pumped (I wanted Rs. 2,000/- worth) and the additional charge separately.

Once the diesel was pumped I was brought the credit card slip for Rs. 2010/-. I did not sign the slip and asked for an additional bill as I had asked, giving the breakdown. The station supervisor got involved at this point and I repeated my request. The supervisor told me he would give me a bill for Rs. 2010/- and I repeated that I would like the breakdown to be shown on the bill. The supervisor brought me a bill for a single figure of Rs. 2010/-. When I repeated my insistence on a breakdown, a person who appeared to be the owner, who had been watching from the office nearby, appeared to instruct the attendant and supervisor to settle the issue. The supervisor made a show of telling the attendant that he should have made sure I agreed to the additional charge. Another attendant then came along and gave me back cash for Rs. 10/- to repay the surcharge."

අපි කොන්ඩේ බැඳපු චීන්නු නෙමෙය්! (Api kondey bendapu Cheenun nemey!)

The best English phrase that comes close to this is, "I wasn't born yesterday." The Sri Lankan version is much richer in history and imagery (of course). I'm not the expert on such things, but the phrase has to do with the fact that in ancient times, South East Asian sailors, apparently long-haired, visiting Sri Lanka for trade, may have been considered easy targets for confidence tricks.

The direct translation is, "we're not pigtailed Chinamen!"

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Two 21 year olds

I started this post some months back when we had an intern with us from the U.S. He'd just graduated from Stanford, with an International Relations major if I remember right. We did several visits around the country as part of the work we wanted him to do for us. Accompanying us was my loyal "Golaya" in Sinhala, which can mean Man Friday, disciple, side-kick. Officially, Aide to Managing Director.

They were both 21 years old. One, whose parents were from Nigeria, had been born in the U.S., gone to Stanford, and was now laying the ground for Ph.D. work. The other, born in a very rural part of Sri Lanka, had studied well enough to win a scholarship at 11 years to my Alma Mater, Royal College. He has lived with his aunt in Colombo longer than he has lived with his own parents, so he could come to school. He is the eldest of three children, but as with most young men that age, in many ways he was still a child himself.

How did I find him? The old network, of course - luckily for him at age 11 he plugged in to one of the best networks you could find in Sri Lanka, no hubris and no exaggeration there. I needed a good, able dogsbody able to take some of the killer workload par for the course with social entrepreneurship. My old Scout Master knew just the man, a Prefect who was very into agriculture, perfect as I'm working in agriculture myself.

So much into agriculture in fact, that he'd cheerfully crashed his Advanced Levels (entrance exam for state universities) the first time, then started what was supposed to be part-time job at a leading agribusiness conglomerate that worked him so hard he crashed his second shy, and was just finishing his third and last shot at possibly his only way to get a higher education, given his economic condition. Get the marks, get a shot at university. In any year only 8.5% of those who pass the exams, get a score high enough to actually gain a seat at a state university.

Eight and a half percent. That leaves around 185,000 young men and women who passed the university exam, unable to go to university. Every year.

So with me in my old Toyota (itself just a year younger than my two passengers) were two young men, one already in possession of a degree from arguably one of the best universities in the world, the other yet to find out whether he would even get a shot at working toward a degree. One had already lived by himself, met people from around the world, done a semester at Oxford, worked in Africa. The other had never left his home country, hadn't even been to most parts of his own country except on the clock for someone else - he'd been to historic Polonnaruwa twice but never got the chance to see the ruins - which are right by the road for cryin' out loud! (I made sure he didn't make it a hat-trick with our own visit).

Why does Sri Lanka do this to her young people? Fine we're a conservative society, we have different expectations of how children relate to their parents, etc etc. But seeing the different vectors in life experience thus far and opportunity going forward in young men of the same age brought many issues right up in front of me.

Why am I writing this now? My golaya is soon leaving for university, to pursue his dream of a degree in Agriculture. He has a standing offer to come back to us whenever he wants. I have not met many who work harder or are more loyal, despite the many rough edges smoothed down and the much learning he has managed while he was with me.

Higher education is just about the only way people like him can blow the hinges off the gates. Sri Lanka needs more seats at universities, better universities, and overall more opportunities for more young people. Now. Private universities? Fine. Make them accessible, hold them accountable to the highest of standards, and make the old, inefficient and mostly inefficient state universities get off their backsides and give them a good fight. Please don't just let in the people with the fattest unmarked envelopes and the biggest promises. Look at Qatar. Look at Malaysia. Look at Singapore. Education is life-changing, and not too indirectly, country-changing. Be picky. These may be the the most important decisions we ever make.

If we fritter away the chances for the current generation, we will look back and see that we missed the last chance to turn this ship around.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

...and since I didn't explain the "pine" part well enough...

I read earlier on the web, and I guess you could be fooled for a second if you didn't know much about them, that people thought screw-pine species' fruits looked like pine cones. Hence the "pine" part (apparently).

Monday, May 9, 2011

And that's why it's called the Screw Pine

We call it "rampe" (rum-pay) in Sinhala. Apparently it's called Pandan in South East Asian cultures. A researcher at the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand (working under one of Rural Returns' advisors, Dr. Sarath Ilangaltileke) isolated the component that makes Jasmine rice aromatic, et voila, it turned out to be the exact compound found in rampe leaves. Sri Lankans have added a length of rampe to our rice for centuries. Now we know why exactly we did it - to enhance the aroma, particularly of the varieties that were less aromatic than our wonderful heirloom varieties. Don't believe me? Look up Chandrasekaran, B. et al, "A Textbook of Rice Science," 2007, Scientific Publishers India, p.293, section 13.3.5.

After much searching I finally found the missing link that led me to the English name, screw-pine. Didn't think much of it, didn't think it had anything to do with pines, nor did anything screwy about it come to mind immediately.

Thank goodness for the Kandyan Home Garden, and that people including my parents still preserve some vestiges even in crowded Colombo. Well, I gave the punchline away at the start, but there it is. And yes, the lower leaves have been cut away for cooking.

Gosh I love Sri Lanka :-)

Oh, and I need to some day scan in the sequence of photos I shot of polos (tender jak fruit) being cooked on the tree (can't get fresher - or slower - than that) in my great aunt's mother of all home gardens in Aluvihare. Now that's two whole different stories right there.