top of page

There is the BBC of course. CNN. Reuters ...

There is the BBC of course. CNN. Reuters. The New York Times. All News, if you will.

And then there is real news.

Recently, I have taken to walking the dogs up Singing Civet Hill, down the Coconut Gove, through the jungle path and out onto the newly planted Chocolate Walk that links back to the Spice Garden and the estate entrance.

I do not apologise for the unmeasurable unimportance of this information. That it should appear inconsequential is all about the expectations of the listener. Not the subject.

As subjects go, dog walking routes are way up there - with global warming, or the Oscars, choices of totemic influence, able to steer the whole day this way or that. And where the day goes, the week, the year, the millennia follows.

Bertie is still gated so cries in the office or has a private garden-only walk with Ranjan. I take the other four into great, occasionally tamed, wilderness. There are wild boar prints to smell, the track of a mouse deer, porcupine a plenty, wild dogs, and of course, monkeys. For Archie, Bianca, Coco and Nestor, the stroll is akin to entering naked into a cream cake shop and letting rip.

A golden sun filters through jungle trees. Dry leaves shift underfoot. A vast blue sky implies itself from above. Apart from the excited sniffs and scratches of the dogs in their virtual cream cake shop, it is silent. Meditation silent. Soul silent. The sort of silence impossible to image within a yard of asphalt.

Even so, there are traces of human activities. In this case, young Mr Goonetilleke’s attempt to keep wild animals off his plants.

Thin strips of steel wire had been stretched on boundaries and anchored to electrical forces so strong as to give me a nasty jolt when I walked in to one. It certainly deterred me. But not the animals, who hopped across, or simply waited for a coconut leaf to fall on the wire and short it.

Occasionally Mr Goonetilleke attempted to revise his technical masterpiece, but in the end, he refocused his ubiquitous expertise into solving other problems, leaving him, and us, a little wiser than before about the uses of electricity.

Experts, like love bombs, are everywhere on this island. It is one of its principal human features; one of Sri Lanka’s many little bits of lovely. Not for these shores, the remote and gifted expert, given to Deus ex Machina pronouncements, rare as Burmese rubies, on what should be done in this instance, or that case.

No. In Sri Lanka, the expert is there right next to you, just like Mr Goonetilleke, ready to intervene. On the train, in the street, at the doctor’s waiting room, his expertise in whatever the matter in hand, worn since birth, and so much a part of his physiology that you might as well try to sever an arm or ear, as to sever this part too.

The journey to this remarkable state of national know-how has been long and meandering, journeying past centuries of want, and decades of central bureaucratic incompetence, enlivened with parrots like flashes of glittering arrogance. From banking, electricity, and tea, to fish, drugs, cement, and chickens, state owned industries remain wedded to The Frank Sinatra Dictum:– “I've lived a life that's full / I've travelled each and every highway / And more, much more / I did it, I did it my way.”

Whisper if you will that they are largely technically insolvent or as dated as dinosaur in a poodle parlour – it is to no avail. Their expert song sounds on. And on. The elites rule. Their way, or no way.

Sometimes – not often – it all breaks down. The Civil War, JVP Uprisings, Hartal, Aragalaya. People get fed up with experts. And all hell breaks loose.

But Sri Lankan society is nothing if not civil, and in between these moments of madness a kind of gorgeous mannered existence runs along paddy tracks from village to village. The Emperor has no clothes? Of course he hasn’t. He’s so naked you can count the mosquito bites on his buttocks. But such a lovely hat. And the scarf he is imaging he is wearing. That too is beautiful, offsetting the make-believe sarong, just so.

As the experts busy themselves choosing their special clothes for the day and getting ready to advise those few people they have time to see, the rest of society just get on with it. Everyone is an expert in almost everything. They have to be, or life would simply stop in its tracks like a perfumer with a pegged nose. Expertise is not something you can outsource. To make the right choice you have to know so much as to leave you cleaving to the wings of a rocket as it does it 360 orbit of any problem or issue.

“Generator blown,” observed Kasum, the chef. “I’ll fix it.” I begged him not to. But he did it anyway. And it sort of worked.

Its mildly terrifying, marginally irritating and wholly discombobulating when suddenly you need to be the expert. And nowhere is this more true than in matters of health.

Soft westerner as I am, I’m accustomed to seeing a general practitioner for anything from a head bump to a throat sniffle. With celestial expertise, the GP will point me the right way – this specialist or that; this test or that; this hospital or that. But not here. Not in the jungle country of Galagedera. Or even on the temple lined roads of Kandy. Nor even on the boulevards of Colombo.

No. If you’re sick, you must work out why.

Nose problem? ENT perhaps? Unless is it from a fever. Or an intolerance of sapu pollen. Stiff leg? Muscle probably. Or it is bone? Or perhaps it’s the blood. God knows. But you too also need to know – and with sufficient certainty to enter confidently into the fun fair that is the health system (s).

Across the island four health sectors entertain their customers like octopi at an orgy. There is the traditional state medicine sector, all hospitals, qualifications, doctors, nurses, ministries, pill, and potion factories. And the private traditional medical sector, dominated by who so ever occupies the space.

Set against both is the western medical state sector – no less populated by its own hospitals, practices, qualifications, experts, and medicines. Facing this is the private sector - a handful of plush hospitals, expert doctors, reception desks with beautiful flowers dying in large vases, waiting rooms of Nordic furniture rearranged ever so slightly cocktail style.

For anyone to get anywhere in the western medical sector you need to play in both sectors. Despite the brain drain, COVID and the Aragalaya, the island has a notable universal free health care system but there are long waiting lists for specialized procedures. Private care is a necessity most people try to budget for.

Unlike my hounds, my own ability to sniff, smell and interact with full olfactory fervour, had over the months, diminished to a barely useable half a nostril.

Like Simon of Cyrene I carried my little adenoidal cross until oxygen deprivation set in. Anything to avoid the experts. But eventually, the unflusterable Machan drove me to Asiri Hospital, a place of such reassuring modernity as to make you welcome illness.

Yet I make it sound simple. To get even this far I had first had to enter into the rum liturgy of DOC990, an online doctor booking service. To book the right doctor you must first self-diagnose, just like an expert. ENT? Why not. But of the scores of ENT doctors – the same names appearing on multiple hospital site appointment boards - which was the best? Google is coy on the matter. So, I picked the one with the most scholarly articles to his name.

The learned doctor was late. One hour passed. Two hours trembled on the edge. This is the thing about experts. To be late is to expert. To be very late is to be a doyen of professional authority. For each 30 minutes of his appointment diary, he had prebooked in 4 patients. And there we sat, pathetically forbearing, eager for news of the great man.

But of news, there was none.

Even the greatest gods need some proof of existence; a little something to make you hope they exist, and will eventually turn up, wave wands, make pronouncements, order the occasional miracle.

Mindful of the teachings of the Lord Buddha (“Doubt everything. Find your own light.”), I turned back in reckless Monto Carlo style to DOC990 on my phone. Within thirty minutes I was sitting opposite an entirely new expert doctor at Suwasevana Hospital, an institution with as many sites along Peradeniya road as an elderly badger has burrows. He inspected my nose, told me of his oncoming transfer to a hospital in Norfolk, England, and reassured me that the growth was a tumour and had to be cut out. Tests would take place on its nature. Radiotherapy and probably chemotherapy would then follow. And more tests. It would all take some time.

I was quite glad to get back to the estate. Comprehensive though he had been, his prognosis risked an element of oversharing – forever a weakness for real experts. In the following week I patronised three different hospitals to get multiple tests, X-rays, scans, breathing logs, blood, blood, and more blood tests. I bought a folder for the results and tried to file them, a bespoke vanity case that was merely missing the given undertaker.

Amazingly, the doctor managed to book the operation in the state Kandy hospital for the weekend. He recommended 10 hours to obtain a view from the anaesthetic on what sort of dosage to administer, but as things would have it that particular appointment, like the operation itself, got cancelled by an impulsive doctors strike.

But I was lucky. My Norfolk-faring doctor knew just the right private surgeon in Colombo. By 11 pm I was 135 kilometres away and out cold. My nose and its lodgers was being given a full spring clean with the sharpest tools in the box. No need for chemo or radiotherapy, the doctor reassured me. All benign.

Costing about the same as three Victorian Tuppenny Blues, no one could call this medical intervention cheap. But it was cheaper than buying it in London, Paris, or New York. Definitely faster. And just as good, once out cold. The route from blocked nose to post operative care had been a sometime mendacious maze needing every inch of presence and patience from the nascent surgeon within me to surmount and navigate the uncertain path ahead. Of course, when the time comes, the whole experience leaves me hoping for a random coconut fall rather than the medic’s equivalent of a Daedalian saga because it is a bothersome and time consuming task becoming an expert in someone else’s bailiwick.


bottom of page