CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Bentota ‘Killer’s’ Annual Party
In 1975, there were two competing medical doctors providing services to ten beach resort hotels in Bentota, Aluthgama and Beruwala areas. The hotels contacted one of them when any guest needed medical attention. Both these doctors were general practitioners and they liked servicing the hotels as it was more lucrative than looking after the locals. One of them was gentle and the other was a bit rough in terms of bedside manners. Therefore, he was nicknamed ‘Bentota Killer’ by one of the German Resident Tour Leaders.
Although the so-called ‘killer’ could be a little rough with guests, his Public Relations with the hotel executives and the front office staff, was excellent. He treated the European tour leaders, hotel managers, executives and staff free. As a result, the hotel receptionists always called him first when a guest needed a doctor. He made a lot of money looking after tourists and built a beautiful large house by the Bentota River. Once a year, during the off season, he threw a big party to thank all hotel executives for their referrals. This was the most popular party in the area, which usually began late but continued till the early hours of next morning. We looked forward to this party where all hoteliers were able to meet our growing hotel community in the area and have a good time.
Friends with Tour Leaders
In the mid-1970s, resort hotels in Sri Lanka depended heavily on back-to-back group business that came from the major tour operators in Europe. These companies used chartered flights and assigned some employees as resident managers, tour leaders and tour guides for the whole season in Sri Lanka. The hotels provided them complimentary board and lodging and treated them like royalty as any complaints from them meant lower prices for the following year’s room booking contracts.
I quickly realized that it made good sense to have a friendly relationship with tour leaders from the first day of their stay. Such PR was helpful in using any complaints about food from tourists in their groups to opportunities to provide meals suiting their tastes and ensure customer satisfaction. Most of these guests were on full-board and stayed for two weeks in one seaside resort before going on a one week round-trip to the ancient cities in the cultural triangle. To avoid repetition it was important to have a rotating menu with 28 different lunch and dinner menus to cover a two-week period. Variety was the key, and weekly buffets were usually popular with these groups.
The simple type of PR I learnt to interact with tour leaders during my time at Bentota Beach Hotel, helped me throughout my career. My PR style was to become friends with people who were important for business (tour leaders, local community and trade union leaders), before unforeseen challenges crop up. Due to my friendship with some of the tour leaders, I was at times invited to their parties and excursions. However, I wasn’t the only hotel executive with such PR. A few other hotel executives took these relationships to different levels by marrying foreign tour guides.
Brochure Photo Shoot
No hotel school or university/college can ever teach all ‘you should know’ aspects of hotel keeping. Although, I spent a couple of decades as a hospitality educator, I know in hospitality management, nothing is better than on the job learning. For an example, in 1975, I had zero understanding of the objectives and process of producing a hotel brochure. The Manager of Bentota Beach Hotel, Malin Hapugoda, asked me one day if I could organize the buffet and food display for a photo shoot. When he told me that this was for a new brochure, I was a bit nervous but excited to participate and learn.
Working with the photographers I learnt a few new things. Aspects such as special lighting, background props, colour combinations and even a little bit of choreography with tourists were all interesting. When the lead photographer asked me to model for the brochure I was thrilled!
Promoting Sri Lankan Food
After my brochure assignment, when the Executive Chef was away on business, the Hotel Manager gave me another assignment. I felt that Malin Hapugoda was testing me and I was determined to impress. At that time most fixed, à la carte and buffet menus at hotels here had a very limited choice of local dishes. In the recent past, Sri Lanka has emerged as a major culinary destination thanks to a wide range of spices and some great chefs. The mid 1970s were very different with regard to introducing Sri Lanka’s amazing food to tourists and Bentota Beach wanted to make a difference. I was asked to begin a weekly lunch buffet serving only Lankan dishes.
As the Executive Chef was away, I was given total freedom to make this happen. I enjoyed leading this assignment with help from the kitchen brigade. I had a hand in everything – planning the menu, purchasing buffet utensils, creating buffet decorations, and also making a slight change to the service staff uniforms. In providing local cuisine at hotels, it is essential to strike a balance between authentic dishes and taste buds of tourists. Therefore, I also consulted my foreign tour leader friends to get their feedback during a trial buffet. With their input, we adjusted the spiciness of certain dishes and eventually, included two offerings – traditionally spicy and moderately mild. That worked well and the new weekly buffet became popular.
This experience led me to improve my knowledge of Sri Lankan cuisine (which was not a subject I did well in at the Ceylon Hotel School). Eventually I became a master in the trade and in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Guest Executive Chef, I organized five major Sri Lankan food festivals in five countries. These large-scale food and culture events were held at Furama Intercontinental in Hong Kong, Goodwood Park Hotel in Singapore, Oman Sheraton, Forte Crest in Guyana and Le Meridien in Jamaica.
In later years, the first two books I wrote and translated titled: ‘Traditional Sri Lankan Food’ (published in 1992) were best-sellers and used as text books at a few hotel schools in Sri Lanka. My co-author, Chef T. Publis Silva continued publishing twenty more Sri Lankan cookery books. He is today the best-known and most-respected Master Chef for Sri Lankan food in the world. He is considered a national treasure bestowed with various honours including an honorary doctorate and a national honour. I am proud to say that he is my friend and was my Executive Chef when I managed the Mount Lavinia Hotel in the early 1990s as its General Manager.
By the middle of the 1974/1975 tourist season I had become quite popular with the long-stay guests, tour guides, kitchen brigade and the management team. I loved interacting with guests at the four weekly buffets with the added benefit of listening to the hotel bands, watching the action on the dance floor, enjoying entertainment acts such as fire limbo, and when the occasion permitted, flirting with pretty girls. On the other hand, my room-mate and immediate superior, Vijitha Nugegoda (Nuga), Assistant Executive Chef disliked going to the buffets. His preference was to remain in the kitchen and manage the flow of dishes to replenish the tables.
One day Padde Withana, the Executive Chef appearing annoyed, summoned Nuga and I and ordered, “With immediate effect, Nugegoda, you go to the buffets and Jayawardena stay in the kitchen!” After that my interactions with guests and tours leaders were limited to the beach during breaks between my split shifts and in the evenings.
A Boring Off Season
We were saddened when the last of the charter flights left Sri Lanka at the end of the season in early in April 1975. It was normal those days for the occupancy percentages of resort hotels on the south-west coast to drop to a single digit around the traditional new year in April. The sea gradually became rough, red flags appeared warning guests not to sea bathe due to currents, construction and maintenance projects commenced and I was bored. We hardly had any work for nearly six months.
All managers took their accumulated and annual leave during the off season. As a result, when on a few occasions I had to act as the Executive Chef, I was pleased. I enjoyed being in charge when both executive chef and his assistant were away and focused a lot on checking stocks in the stores. I did some creative menu planning to utilise over-stocked items requisitioned at reduced cost prices. This resulted in a win-win situation all round. The stores reduced their excess inventory and the kitchen brought the food cost far below the required 40% of the menu price. After that, the Stores Manager, Anton Tevarayan treated me like a hero.
When the monsoon commenced in June, we were confined to our quarters most of the time. Sri Lanka had no TV till 1978, and we had to keep ourselves entertained by playing cards, reading and chatting. The heavy rains and rough waves inspired me to go back to my childhood hobby – painting. One of the cooks found some clay from his village for me to re-commence sculpture. It was also a good time to experiment with new dishes, particularly using some herbs then not legalized, to marinate meat like wild boar not allowed in hotels!
Whenever the rain ceased for a short period, I used to go to the neighbouring Hotel Serendib down the beach. Owing to my pranks during my previous stay in Bentota, its manager was not very friendly and tried his best to avoid meeting me. But his two Assistants, Lionel and Hameed, were very friendly and hospitable. They had both fallen in love with two young ladies who worked at their hotel, a Sri Lankan Front Office Receptionist and a Swiss Tour Leader, whom they eventually married.
Other departmental managers and supervisors of Hotel Serendib were our friends with whom I hung out during a long and boring off season. On some days, we used to walk to other hotels, especially when some event was organized to entertain Sri Lankan guests who were taking advantage of extremely low off-season “local” rates. Occasionally, we compared our career dreams and aspirations. Both external inspirations and my own aspirations were aligned and I was aiming at becoming an executive chef soonest and then become a hotel manager when I was in my mid-twenties.
Impressive Indian scene…
Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.
Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.
Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.
Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.
Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”
However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.
“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”
Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.
She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.
“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”
Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.
“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.
“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”
Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.
And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”
Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.
Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community
On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).
Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.
The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.
Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.
By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.
We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.
The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.
Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.
This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.
Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.
Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.
Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!
Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.
The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.
All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.
To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.
I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.
The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.
I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.
More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?
It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.
The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality
A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.
It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.
However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.
Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.
The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.
Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.
India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.
The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.
But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.
Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.
Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.
Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.
Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.
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