For most British merchant ships plying the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Malay peninsular and South China Seas, there were places where these ships had to take on heavy oil bunkers to run their Diesel engines.
One of these stops was Colombo, Ceylon, where Burma Shell barges would pump oil aboard. Over time we made friends with the engineers on board these barges, and they would invite us over to their homes to meet their families and friends.
On one these occasions we arrived in Colombo with some cargo that had to be unloaded. But on arrival in Colombo there was a port strike and we had to stay till the strike was over.
We were invited by a barge engineer named Fonseka who had a small estate 7 some miles out of Colombo. It was a warm summer's day and Fonseka then laid out some Coconut frond mats (made from the leaves of a coconut tree) for us to lie upon and relax. He would have someone cut some Golden Coconuts from his trees, this is something that only grows in Ceylon, and the juice of the Golden Coconut is exquisite. But then he would go out and buy some local beer and arrack (liquor made from the sap of the coconut tree). In the meantime his wife would cook some curry. Fonseka would then shoot some wood pigeons and buy a piglet to kill and roast. It was a lot like being in Paradise, because all we did was lie on the mats in the afternoon sun, drink beer or Arrack and eat all these enjoyable and delicious foods to our hearts content. Of course Fonseka's wife also made a mean Omelette with the smallest green peppers you could ever find called Cochi. One Cochi could burn your mouth like acid, and if you ate it, you would regret it the next morning.
One day we took a Scots engineer named Bobby Craig from Craghie Loan in Scotland over for a picnic. Fonseka's wife made one of her favourite Omelettes with some Cochi in it. Now Bobby had never eaten anything from the east, so he started on the Cochi omelette. At first he said it was too hot, by after a few drinks of Arrack he had lost touch with his sense of taste and asked for more. But a few days later he remarked, how am I going to get this Cochi in Scotland? He had acquired a taste for Cochi and he said that he did not mind the morning after pain. Now there's a glutton for punishment.
It was nearing the Christmas of 1961, and for a lark I was invited to go to Radio Ceylon for an audition. I went to the audition and passed. They wanted me to sing "White Christmas" and I did a little bit a practice with the Radio Station pianist and left. On Christmas Eve Radio Ceylon sent a Taxi to pick me up and bring me to the station. I got through the Christmas show with flying colours and even my ships skipper was proud of having someone from the ship singing at Radio Ceylon. A few days later I was invited to attend a dance at the Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo and introduced to Miss Ceylon.
We foreign seafarers had the luck of being invited to spend that Christmas Day with a Burgher barge engineer named Harry Hall and his family at their home on 91 Pickering's Road, Kotahena, Colombo. His sister Babs gave us a wonderful dinner that Christmas and everyone enjoyed the fare. We an all enjoyed the hot Ceylonese curries and the spiced chicken. But the Fruit Cake was something to be desired. While these may be memories, they are of a kinder gentler time in the history of that country, which changed so rapidly and become chaotic with the racial and linguistic war that took place afterwards in which thousands died of innocent, men, women and children died for no good reason at all.
On Christmas Eve 1962, while in Colombo, I got an unexpected invitation to the home of a Burgher family living just outside Colombo to spend Christmas Eve with them. We ran out of booze just after midnight, so I took a walk and managed to get my hands on a bottle of Arrack, and returned. The Vendt family consisted of a father, a mother, two sons and a daughter, and we all had a nice time listening to the radio that was playing Christmas Carols.
When morning came, I told Mr. Vendt that was heading back to my ship, at which time he asked me to stay on a bit longer, which I did. I just could not figure out why he had requested this of me. But, it became all too clear a little while later. When, Mr. Vendt called me aside and told me the whole story about the family being forced to leave the very next day for Ratmalana Airport, Colombo, Ceylon for Sydney, Australia, with just a small suitcase with just a few clothes and necessary items in it. This was a Tea Estate which been in the Vendt family for generations and which had now been confiscated by the government without any form of compensation. When I began to wish the Vendt family goodbye, Mr. Vendt called me aside and gave me a package of two Kilos of High Grown Ceylon Tea. I asked him why he was giving it to me. to which he replied that he could not take it out of the country, as it was unblended Tea, and it was illegal to have it in his possession, and he might get into trouble at the airport if they found it with him. I then bade them Bon Voyage and left with a heavy heart all they way back to my ship. Because I had seen and heard the tragedy that this Burgher family had borne since Ceylon obtained Independence from Great Britain in February 1948.
Thus! I dedicate this story to those who went through those rough times in a country know in ancient times as Serendeep or Paradise Island.
Kenneth T. Tellis