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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

I  had an intense programme when I got back in Colombo at the end of October, for we were hastening to finalize several curricula, in the different areas in which Sector Skills Councils had been set up, Construction and Manufacturing and Computer Technology and Tourism. Then we were also trying to do more in the Service Sector, with health care and logistics being priorities. In addition, since I found that nothing had moved with regard to the Teacher Development programme Mahinda Samarasinghe had wanted expedited for those who had qualified in the Technological Stream at the Advanced Levels, I had to take charge of that too. And we had decided to have workshops to train teachers in the new curricula, which involved pushing things though I was happy that the new Industrial Liaison Division we had set up was able to handle these.

20161113_094441We had also decided on residential workshops for the English teachers, since it seemed essential to develop a high powered group who could take things forward in later years. By now I had a superb set of support staff at the TVEC, the daughter of one of my best GELT Coordinators of the nineties to look after the English programme, a former Coordinating Secretary from my days in Parliament to follow up on training since previously Ministry programmes had not been concerned with follow up, and then an Editor for all the new material we were producing, a bright youngster proposed and paid for by the World University of Canada, with whom we were working closely.

Interestingly enough Jeevan Thiagarajah, who has been a tower of strength in many areas I have worked in when these overlapped with his own humanitarian concerns, had recommended the young man earlier, as having been involved with the establishment of the Sector Councils. But early on in my time at the TVEC I had tried to avoid responsibility for the Councils, and it was only towards the middle of the year that I realized Mahinda Samarasinghe was right, and I had to take over if they were to achieve anything.

20161112_093719My team found a great hotel in Negombo, which turned out to be the old Sunflower, where I had put up Geraldine McEwan when she toured Sri Lanka for the British Council with a One-Woman show based on the works of Jane Austen. That had been the inspiration for the One-Man Dickens show I had later devised for Richard de Zoysa, and we had toured almost the same places. But I avoided Negombo for Dickens, because the audience at Geraldine’s performance at Maris Stella had made it clear that Negombo no longer had a an audience for English language performances (quite unlike Batticaloa where the small crowd had been marvelously appreciative).

The Sunflower had now been done up and proved an excellent venue, with great food. The bulk of the programme was conducted by Beatrice Johnson, the Australian volunteer who had been so energetic, both in Hambantota where she was stationed, and at workshops all over the country. By now we had two more on the ground, in Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee, and they too have proved most helpful.

I also managed during this period to attend my first meeting of the National Human Resources Development Council, another of the institutions set up by Chandrika in which she had then lost interest, so that it seems to have done nothing very much in the last twenty years. It is now chaired by one of Ranil’s favourites, but a comparatively intelligent one who is I think anxious to do something but is not quite sure how to move. The Council seemed interested in some of the suggestions I made as to how it could be more effective (including following up on the workshops it has conducted and the training it has provided, and looking at outcomes).But since the body has not met since then, I have no idea if that intervention has been of any use.

20161113_092450Meanwhile I had slightly more involvement in political issues, beginning with the launch of General Gerry de Silva’s book about War Heroes. He had wanted me to write an introduction to this, and then to speak at the launch, which I thought would be difficult given that he had fixed it for October 28th when I thought I would still be in England. But my tutor’s birthday had been early enough for me to get to Colombo on the morning of the launch, and despite exhaustion I made it and spoke.

The event was more high powered than I had expected, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa being the Chief Guest, and a range of the heroic figures who had overcome the Tigers being in attendance. I was sad to be told though that serving army officers had been forbidden to attend, which struck me as both mean and stupid. I was sorry that there had been controversy over General Kamal Guneratne’s book, but I could understand the current government being nervous about that, because Kamal calls a spade a spade and has made no secret of his contempt for current efforts to denigrate the forces.

But Gerry, who retired as Army Commander long ago, has been scrupulously apolitical. The only reason then for doing him down must have been his assertion that heroism should be remembered, since this cannot sit easy with a government that consists of those who were bitterly opposed to the war, and who kept mocking the achievements of the forces until even they had to admit that the blight that had affected the country for so many decades had been removed.

20161114_132857Perhaps as a result of my forceful assertion, quoting Anne Ranasinghe, that it was evil to forget, I was interviewed twice in the two weeks that followed on News First, a programme that has tried to keep the financial and other aberrations of this government in the public eye. I should note that it did the same with the abuses of the last government, having indeed, before the last election, recorded a strong critique of that government’s foreign policy for which Tamara Kunanayagam and Dayan Jayatilleka and I had been interviewed. It was not surprising then that President Rajapaksa, not nastily but forcefully, told Dayan and me at Gerry’s launch that we had helped to precipitate the present sad situation.

In the midst of all this I was determined however to continue travelling, spurred on by the fact that I was told my old passport would no longer be valid after November 20th. Since I had discovered that one could, with a multiple entry Schengen visa, visit the Balkans, I decided to go to Macedonia, the one part of the former Yugoslavia that I had not visited previously.

20161118_095052On November 10th then I set off for Italy, and had a lovely day in Rome, another of the places I always find magical. There is always something new to see, this time the Museum in the Diocletian Baths by the station, near which I stayed, having found a cheap hotel when I used to dash down to a different exciting city during the bleak weekends when were on duty in Geneva. And I went the next morning, before my flight to Skopje, to the Coliseum, though I could only see it from outside, given the massive queues now to get in, even in November.

It got dark early in Macedonia, and bitterly cold, so I spent several evenings writing up my travels for Facebook. I can do no better now than reproduce some of what I said then, which can also be accessed there along with a plethora of pictures –

Skopje

Many years ago I described Vientiane as a sort of toytown, the only capital city in the world with a fountain and piped music as its centerpiece. I have now come across another, in similar vein, though the fountains are surrounded by gargantuan statuary. And the phenomenon is duplicated across the old Ottoman Stone Bridge, in a second square, which features a fountain for mothers as well as a column with warriors.

20161116_085707All this is in Skopje, where beautiful classical music, Strauss waltzes leading the way, resounds along the river at night. To my surprise, the city boasts more mosques than churches, one dating back to before the Ottomans took Constantinople. They are so graceful, unlike large modern mosques, while intriguingly the Church of Helen and Constantine outdid the mosques in terms of domes. But the most beautiful sight was the exquisite 19th century iconostasis in the much older church of Sveti Spas.

There is a well laid out new museum, but I also enjoyed the city museum in the old railway station, its upper stories piled with undigested material lying higgledy piggledy on boxes and the floor, inclusive of early photographs of Tito’s communist regime, the equivalent of young pioneers singing and dancing. But downstairs there are some beautiful items including a Venus that I could not believe was not a copy.

Ohrid

Ohrid, which I went to next, was fabulous. It is by a lake, and I found a hotel which overlooked it. And one walked along the lakeside to the Church of Sveti Jovan, a gem on a bluff over the water, with the most exquisite frescoes. From there one walks through the woods to the restored Church of St Clement and Pantaleimon, with also the remains of old churches, one with beautiful mosaics, another with a cruciform baptistery.

20161116_104447Next morning I went to the Roman amphitheatre, and the castle high on the hill, with spectacular views, and enchantingly no one else there on a cold winter’s morning. Below the fortress was the large Upper Gate, and next to it an Icon Gallery, with even more impressive a church next door with mediaeval frescoes. And then down in the town, just next to my hotel, was the cathedral with an unusual façade and more and earlier frescoes.

The monasteries at Prilep

The next day, after a swift visit to the Roman remains at Heraclea, I went on to Prilep, a dusty little town with its main attractions being the monasteries some distance away. One is high on a hill, with spectacular views of the Pelagonian plain beneath. A monk met us as we entered, and in perfect English took me round the two churches set side by side, entered from a splendid portico with frescoes that could be photographed. The earlier one was from the 14th century and another was added next to it a few hundred years later. Afterwards he served us tea in the tranquil courtyard.

The other monastery, nearer the town but reached by a very steep road which had the car steaming, had caught fire and was being rebuilt. But the church and its wonderful frescoes had not been harmed. Under the 14th century structure, you can also see the remains of a cathedral built eight hundred years earlier.

20161119_090524-copyWe got back to Prilep well before noon and the taxi driver quoted a fair enough price to take me on to the Roman remains at Stobi, and another monastery, before dropping me off at Kavardici. Stobi was magnificient, and we had a delightful guide who explained just enough not to be tedious about the amphitheatre and the thrice built church with mosaics. There was also a beautiful baptistery, and a host of houses of rich merchants, one of which was supposed to have housed the Emperor Theodosius when he stayed there (and stopped gladiatorial contests, after adopting Christianity).

We found the other monastery after a strenuous effort and a steep climb up the wrong hill, but it was closed and the tranquil site, above the Black River, deserted. But it had been a day that needed no further frosting on a many layered cake.

Kosovo

And then there was Kosovo. I had not initially intended to go there, but I had seen the principal attractions of Macedonia in four days, and I was able to get from Kavardici to Pristina in less than a day.

20161114_124843In the one full day I had, I covered a lot with a delightful taxi driver, who took me first to Peja, which had been an Orthodox Patriarchate. The church premises, the preserve of nuns now, were guarded, given the animosities between Christians and the majority Muslims that had led to the creation of what the West now recognized as the country of Kosovo. Dardan, a Muslim, had not been there before, nor to the even more beautiful monastery at Decani, several kilometres to the south, and fully appreciated the chance to see another aspect of his country.

Both places had fabulous frescoes, the first being explained in detail on an audio-guide the nun in charge provided, covering the contents of the four connected churches that made up the complex. Decani had just one church, but its frescoes were original, and I was pointed out special features, including Christ carrying a sword. In between the two Christian sites, we went for a lovely drive into the Rugova mountains, through a deep gorge with a gushing river, in front of us snow covered peaks.

We had come so far by the time we had lunch in Decani that I suggested we go on to Prinzen instead of backtracking. This is Kosovo’s other historic town, which has a lovely Ottoman bridge, alongside an elegant mosque and a many domed hammam. And I had time next morning for a quick look round Pristina, before the bus to Skopje for my flights home.

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Ceylon Today 18 Feb 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=15470

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