Chari de Silva leaves Caltex and begins a long career at Aitken Spence – The Island
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder and Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
End of the hotel union
The manager of the Coral Gardens hotel, Major Siri Samarakoon was convinced that the results of the 1977 general elections signaled the end of socialist trade unions in Sri Lanka. The left-wing parties that controlled these unions had lost all their seats in parliament. He was determined to reduce the number of members of the hotel union to zero by the end of July 1977. Sabinus Fernando, a member of the management team with the longest experience in managing difficult unions, given specific tasks to achieve Major’s goal. .
Sabinus successfully choreographed mass resignations of full-time employees from the union. The union’s loss of political power along with fear of Major’s “bull in a china shop” attitude, actions, and reputation, coupled with attractive inducements from Sabinus, contributed to increased union resignations. After a week, only a handful of employees were still union members. During his rounds, Major kept asking the employees he met if they had quit the union. Most employees avoided meeting Major and kept their distance from him. During this hostile period, as deputy director, I kept a low profile.
In early August 1977, while Major was checking the monthly accounts, he became angry to find that an employee was still paying union dues. He asked the secretary, “Ganeshalingam, check with the accounts department and get me the name of the only employee who is still paying dues to the fucking union!” He was informed that it was Van Dort, the cloakroom manager, with whom Major had had a confrontation on his first day at the hotel five months earlier.
Major got angrier and shouted. “Summon Van Dort, now!” When a nervous-looking Van Dort came to our office, Major asked, “How come you didn’t quit the union?” “Sir, I can’t read or write,” Van Dort confessed sheepishly in a very low voice. The major immediately dictated a letter of resignation from the union and told Van Dort, “Here, sign on that dotted line, uneducated idiot!” This was the end of the union of the Coral Gardens hotel.
End of village problems
Soon after, Major focused on the village’s problems, including the beach boys, touts, and vendors who appeared in large numbers each tourist season. Fishermen leaving their boats on the beach directly in front of the hotel, despite security guards telling them not to, was a year-long problem. Hearing about this problem, the Major said, “Chandana get ready quickly, we are going to Boossa Army Camp to meet the Commander, a good friend of mine.” Along the way, the Major explained to me that this military camp is where the headquarters of the 61st Infantry Division was established in 1971, during the uprising.
During our visit to the camp, the major said to the commander: “Colonel Wickremanayake, Chandana will be a good candidate to become a volunteer second lieutenant. He held the rank of corporal in the National Cadet Corps when he was at Ananda College. Chandana is a sportsman and was also one of four house captains for athletics when he was in 12th grade at Ananda,” Major boasted. The Colonel was impressed and said, “Of course I will recommend you to the Sri Lankan Army Volunteer Force Commander.” He then introduced me to his son, Roshan, who had also studied at the same school.
After socializing at the military camp with its senior brass, we returned to the hotel with two tough-looking sergeant majors in their military uniforms. They barely spoke during the short drive. Major and I took them to the beach and showed where the defiant fishermen kept their boats, obstructing the entrance to the hotel beach. “Sir, leave that in our hands. We will find the culprits and fix the problem immediately,” a sergeant major told Major, and saluted while standing to attention.
We returned to the office while two of them drove into town to ask for the names of the owners of these boats. An hour later, the two sergeant majors returned to our office and delivered the good news. They found and notified the responsible fisherman and the boats were immediately moved elsewhere further from the hotel. After this incident, the village’s problems were greatly reduced.
The only continuous occasional problem was a loud noise made in the hotel premises by a powerful local thug, whenever he was under the influence of alcohol. The security agents were afraid of this individual who was armed. Shortly after Major heard about this challenge, he came out of his apartment with a gun and shot one of this thug’s earlobes point-blank. Shortly after, the Major called the Hikkaduwa Police Inspector and filed a formal complaint that the thug had threatened to kill him. The Major’s action was justified in self-defense. This was the last issue the hotel faced from locals. Major started bragging to everyone he met. He described in detail how, during his first five months at the Coral Gardens Hotel, he single-handedly solved the two main challenges that the hotel’s management had faced over a ten-year period – the problems of the union and the village.
Major enjoyed hearing various rumors spread about his unusual behavior, including raising a baby leopard as a pet in his apartment. As a result, the maids who cleaned our apartments were petrified when they came to Major’s apartment. Some of these rumors weren’t true, but he didn’t mind as long as people feared him. The major gave me the impression that he had received a license for violence from the head office!
A few years later, when I watched the classic Francis Ford Coppola movie – ‘Apocalypse Now’, I couldn’t help but think of Major Siri Samarakoon. Marlon Brando’s brilliant portrayal of Colonel Kurtz, once a promising military officer transformed into something else, was simply mesmerizing and shocking at the same time.
More than a correspondent
All quickly became calm at the Coral Gardens Hotel. Low occupancy, no union, no village issues and Major being away from the hotel often all contributed to a quiet summer. One day I received a long letter from Sweden. It was from Miss Marie Blom (Blondie), a friend I met for two days in Negombo in 1974, just after graduating from Ceylon Hotel School. She was then 19 years old and a year younger than me.
After this brief romance, Blondie and I became pen pals. Shortly after her vacation in Sri Lanka, she joined the crew of a Scandinavian cruise liner. About twice a month I received a postcard from Blondie from a different port in Europe. I quickly replied to him with my news in brief on the aerograms. I was surprised to receive a long letter from her for the first time.
Blondie explained in her letter that she wanted to get to know me better. Now 22, she had decided to go to Sri Lanka again after three years. His intention was to spend three weeks with me. She wanted to take a round trip to Sri Lanka and asked me to make a nice travel itinerary. I was happy to learn that she was planning to arrive in Sri Lanka from the second week of August. I was able to take my annual leave during this period because it was a period of low occupancy. I called some of my good friends who worked as hotel executives in different cities and towns and made discount hotel reservations for Blondie and myself. My friends were eager to meet my long distance girlfriend.
Blondie landed in Colombo after an overnight flight from Malmö. It was a happy meeting after three long years of waiting. On our way to Colombo, we chatted a lot trying to catch up. We talked about Blondie’s travels and my eventful first three years as an executive. We laughed at our casual encounter at the Blue Oceanic Hotel in Negombo, when I was visiting two of my friends who ran the hotel in 1974. Blondie remembered every detail of our memorable, carefree walk, barefoot on the beach, while counting the fishing boats. and the stars, on a beautiful moonlit night.
Blondie was happy with the arrangements I had made for our round trip. After traveling around Sri Lanka, we ended up in Hikkaduwa. In order not to mix my leisure with work, Blondie and I stayed in a small hostel near the Coral Gardens hotel. She also met some of my friends and made everyone laugh with her jokes.
One day, I took her for a walk at my place of work. “Who is this interesting man?” Blondie asked when she saw my pet monkey, Dudumskie. She found it simply hilarious and entertaining. After her regular sea baths, Blondie loved going to the Coral Gardens to tease Dudumskie.
Towards the end of Blondie’s holiday in Sri Lanka, we had some serious discussions about our future. She loved Sri Lanka, but when she told me she couldn’t settle on the island, I was a bit disappointed. “Why don’t you come to Sweden to live with me?” she asked. “What kind of job can I get in Sweden? I was curious to know. When Blondie told me I could start as a cook, I wasn’t interested. I was very career conscious and Blondie was a free spirit. Unlike Sri Lanka, as a well-developed nation, in Sweden few people cared about the level of position one had.
Upon her departure from Colombo airport, we had an emotional parting. We agreed to stay in touch and consider options to see each other again. Blondie was my first “serious” girlfriend. We continued our pen pal relationship for a while, but sadly we never saw each other again.