I was recently invited for afternoon tea by a lady called Ramakka. She lives a few streets down from us, on the other side of the train tracks by the beach. Ramakka does not speak English and I have the Tamil linguistic skills of an infant so we were in for a fun filled afternoon of mimes and charades.
Being a good guest I brought her a packet of ‘Muralitharan’s Lemon Puffs’, as any gift endorsed by the Ceylon-Chucker Muttiah Muralitharan must be a gift of the highest calibre. With Lemon Puffs in hand, I walked down the beach in what I thought was the general direction of Ramakka’s house when a young boy stopped me and said “that lady is yelling at you”. As I turned around I could see Ramakka frantically waving to me from in front of her house.
Historically there was a low value placed on beach-side property so the main train line from Colombo to Galle runs right along the coast. Small fishing communities make their homes on the sand between the train line and the water. It is in this area that Ramakka lives with her husband in a two room shack built of wooden boards and corrugated iron. Her husband is a part time security guard/ part time fisherman who has agreed to take me out fishing when the weather improves – however 80 fishermen where lost at sea in a recent storm so I may rescind my original request. The house looks straight out onto the Indian Ocean, is immaculately clean and the sea breeze keeps the house cool and well ventilated. About five metres behind Ramakka’s house is the train line to Colombo along which the first train thunders past every morning at 4:30am shaking the house and everything in it. Each night, electricity is kindly provided by the cabana bar next door via an extension cord through the roof and the water comes from a communal tap on the beach.
Ramakka explained through gestures that her house was totally destroyed in the tsunami and she was carried up the street by the wave. Everything she owned was gone, but thankfully both her and her husband were not seriously injured. As we sat enjoying the breeze passers-by stuck their heads in to see what was happening, including her grandson who was still nursing the wounds of a traffic accident with a bus a few weeks ago. We talked about our families the best we could and laughed as we hopelessly tried to communicate (the train’s deafening roar every 10 minutes didn’t help proceedings). After I finished my tea I thanked Ramakka for her hospitality and made my way back home along the beach. As I walked, I thought to myself how generous Ramakka was for inviting me into her home and how no matter where in the world you are a cup of tea between neighbours is a universal act of friendship.