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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

20160423_100515In the near four weeks I was away, in India and Lesotho and Zambia and Pakistan, I had in fact done some work on the textbooks we were preparing for the Career Skills modules we planned to make compulsory on all National Vocational Qualification courses. Mahinda Samarasinghe was adamant about this, and had found support amongst the members of the Sector Skills Councils that had been set up to ensure that courses catered to the needs of employers.

The excellent Consultants we had selected after advertising produced good drafts, but it fell to me to put them together. Back in Colombo I worked on these intensively, the quiet of the New Year period facilitating swift progress. I was alone at home this year, with just the one Christian on my domestic staff, but I also had frequent visitors, most of them bearing food. Writing this now, with the house divided, I think fondly of those hours of tranquility when I had what now seems the vast space of Lakmahal to myself. I loved working in the front lounge with views of trees and sky on three sides, I spent afternoons in my parents’ room, the bed I read and snoozed on facing the wall with the family photographs my father had put up over the years, I walked on the treadmill I had set up in my sister’s old room with a view over the round balcony where as children we had slept on hot nights, before my parents persuaded my grandmother to allow fans to be installed.

Shortly after the New Year, I attended my first meeting of one of the Sector Skills Councils. I had tried to avoid involvement in these previously, though Mahinda Samarasinghe, having noted that initially there had been no role for the Commission in that regard, had insisted that we play a major part. He had studied the Acts, which I suspect the Ministers before him had not done, since I was told that one of his predecessors had ignored the advice of officials that the TVEC should be involved. Mahinda saw that policy was entirely in our hands and, if the Councils were to play a major role in both policy and its implementation, we obviously had to set the pace.

It was while at that meeting that I put forward the idea that I think has served more than anything else to mark the transformation that we have enacted. In studying descriptions of both the NVQ framework and also the Sri Lanka Qualifications framework, to which it was matched, I noticed that NVQ 3 was supposed to be the equivalent of SLQF 1, which the Ordinary Level examination was baldly stated to be. I have noted previously that there were no learning outcomes attached to this, something I have tried to remedy through the National Education Commission. But what also struck me at that time was that, while the Ordinary Level was deemed a requirement for some jobs in government, the equivalent NVQ 3 certificate was not also accepted.I suggested to the Skills Council that government should recognize this, and they received the idea with enthusiasm. I called Mahinda from the car on the way back, and with his usual perspicuity he picked up the idea immediately. He got a Cabinet Paper drafted by his Secretary, who did an excellent job and was indeed commended for this by I believe the Cabinet Secretary, who said it was the best drafted Cabinet Paper he had seen.

The Cabinet approved the paper, but it then took a long time for the Ministry of Public Administration to issue the required circular. They asked Mr Ranepura to draft it, and then took time to finalize the matter, but finally it was officially declared before the end of the year that the NVQ 3 certificate could be regarded as equivalent to the Ordinary Level certificate for relevant technical occupations in the public sector.

I realized in April that I had to make the running, at least initially, as far as the Sector Councils were concerned, since they had not been given any sense of direction. Interestingly enough, a study of the Councils the ADB had commissioned recommended this, and I was able to tell the Consultant that what he wanted had been done even before the report was delivered. I must admit I felt justified that my instincts about what was required had proved correct, since the pact at which I work has given rise to a tendency, expressed openly by one of the unthinking bureaucrats at the Prime Minister’s office, to view the structural reforms I have tried to initiate as being simply a matter of Rajiva extending his empire. The fact that the incompetent cannot think in terms of the merits of systems I suggest, but instead criticize in terms of personalities, is symptomatic of the incapacity to conceptualize that has overtaken those now in authority.

20160426_133649-copyBut before I buckled down to work without remission, refraining from international travel for more than three months, the longest period for years that I had stayed continuously in Sri Lanka, I had one more trip to make. The efficient staff at our High Commission in Delhi had got visas for Armenia for Kithsiri and me, and I spent the last ten days in April travelling in that fascinating country.

We were nearly denied entrance, for my passport had been slightly damaged when it got drenched at Victoria Falls, and the immigration officials also noticed that we had been to Azerbaijan, which they mightily disapproved of. But in the end the visas were honoured, and we found the little hotel in Yerevan that I had booked, which was on a square that  offered a magnificient view of the snow covered peak of Mount Ararat. The place itself was shambolic, and the young lady at the desk spoke no English, but in the end the owner turned up and made us feel at home, so much so that we stayed there again and again in between the various trips to other places that we made.

20160426_164143-copyWe had time for a walk to the imposing centre of the city that evening, and also found the opera house which had a range of attractive programmes. The next evening we saw Khachaturian’s delightful ballet, ‘Gayane’, though the production turned the original values on their head, and highlighted the peasantry rather than patriotic fervor. Later in the week we had opera, in the form of ‘Carmen’, and on our last night ballet again, the ‘Carmen Suite’ and ‘Lorkiana’, a double bill that seems to be a Yerevan specialty. All this turned Kithsiri into a fan of classical music, which is just as well since previously the opera that I live with at my cottage by the river had bemused him. And it pleases me that, forty years after I introduced the future Governor of Anguilla to opera, I found someone else on whom it also made a powerful positive impression.

There was of course much more to Armenia than Yerevan and the opera theatre. On our first morning we went to Echmiadzin, the site of the patriarchate, but since the museums were not open, after a look at some of the churches we went back to the magnificient ruins of Zwartnots Cathedral, classical elegance against the backdrop of Mount Ararat. Back to Echmiadzin for the splendours of Armenian Orthodox Christianity, and then a drive through the mountains to fantastically sited churches and monasteries.

We did this by taxi, the cab that we picked up early in the morning offering what seemed a very good rate for the day tour. The next morning the same thing happened, because Edo, instead of dropping us at the station to get a bus to Lake Sevan, offered to take us there himself. He offered to take in a lakeside monastery on the way, and though this turned out to be a misunderstanding, he did take us there too for not much more.

20160501_100614We were given a spacious suite in a hotel just by the lake, which allowed for a boozy lunch on the sunlit terrace after the morning’s sightseeing. Then we walked up to the beautiful church on the promontory above the village, before polishing off the rest of the wine by the lake as the sun set and it grew bitterly cold. Kithsiri managed to commandeer another heater for his room, and we kept both heaters on all night, which facilitated me getting up early to watch the sun rise over the promontory, gilding the spires of the church.

We found another enterprising taxi driver next morning to take us up to a range of superbly sited monasteries and churches, some with the most delectable frescoes. We resisted the rather functional hotel the driver suggested, and instead stayed in a boutique hotel that gave us good rates. It had a balcony looking over the western hills, and was so nice that the next day we splashed out on an even more exotic branch of the same chain, this one set above a gurgling river, with a terrace where we had an excellent dinner, bundled up against the cold. This was well deserved since the day’s sightseeing had involved a steep climb to an exquisite deserted church.

On the next day we got a bus back to Yerevan, and saw the rich collections of its History Museum, as well as some beautiful bits of European art in the National Gallery, before ‘Carmen’ at the Opera House. Next morning, having called up Edo, we went with him down to the Khor Virap Monastery on the Turkish border, and then to another distant monastery which involved a wonderful drive through a narrow gorge, with lunch in a café set into the rock. That night was at Yeghegnadzar, where the guesthouse the guidebook recommended had a balcony overlooking the hills for drinks at sunset, and excellent homely food.

Edo went back, promising to return to pick us up the following day, so on the next day we found another helpful taxi driver to take us further south to the highest monastery of all. He was happy enough to take us en route to an extraordinary 7th century tomb with a tower, plus a pleasant waterfall, and also the prehistoric basalt stones set in what may have been Stonehenge style circles.

Edo was back the next morning to take us back on a circuitous route that involved an old Jewish cemetery in addition to more monasteries, all of them fascinatingly different from each other. We also visited a winery, and bought several plastic bottles, which miraculously survived the airplane journey back.

On our last day Edo sent his brother instead, and we were able to visit Geghards monastery near Yerevan, and the classical remains at Garni, before catching the flight back. We were traveling on FlyDubai, so we made sure we stocked up beforehand, with a kebab feast before we travelled, such large helpings that we packed up what remained and enjoyed another meal at the ghastly FlyDubai terminal.

It had been a fantastic trip, and I realized again how lucky I was in being able to visit so many countries of the former Soviet Union, each with its own distinctive culture, and with wonderful welcoming people.

Ceylon Today 28 Jan 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=13981