By Richard Weerasooriya
From my younger days, I always had the idea of wanting to travel abroad. England was always my first choice. Before I left Ceylon, from my school days, I was always an ardent English Cricket supporter. Actually, I was the only member of my family who supported England whenever they played against Australia.
How I finally achieved my ambition of visiting England came about like this –
Where jobs were concerned, I did not have any particular ambitions. Whatever ideas I had about possible employment in Ceylon did not meet with my father’s approval.
However, one of our relatives (the late Mr. Julian de Silva) recommended to my father that I take up an apprenticeship in a firm of Architects with a view of proceeding to England after a while to get qualified as an Architect.
I simply had no clue as to what sort of work and study was needed to get qualified as an Architect. My belief was then an architect designed houses. Anyway since there was a good possibility of my being able to go to England after a few years of apprenticeship, I decided to take the plunge and join M/s. Billimoria & De Silva, Peiris & :Panditharatne (Architects) as an apprentice. Until I joined the above firm I hadn’t seen any of the instruments etc. that were used to do drawings. I was so ignorant that one day I used a scale rule to draw lines thinking it was a ruler! I should have been using a set square. This actually amused some of the chaps who were seated close to my drawing board.
From Augusut 1960 till early March 1964, I worked for this firm of Architects. I did not get any pay for the first six months. Then I was paid rs.50/- per month for about an year and during the final few months in their employ, I was paid a salary of Rs.187/- per month.
I must admit that by this time I had become a fairly accomplished draughtsman having worked on numerous projects including the construction of the Maliban Biscuit factory in Ratmalana.
By this time my intended trip to England was also getting nearer. Once the decision was made I had to apply for an employment voucher to the British Government. I had to do this through the British High Commission. I had to satisfy certain conditions to obtain a Priority Voucher that was issued to technically qualified persons.
The employment voucher was issued to me within 3 months of application. Soon afterwards, I had to start making preparations to leave the island quickly as I had to get to England within 6 months of receiving the Employment voucher. So the next step was to get a passport and all other necessary documents as soon as possible. I had also to get clearance from the Income Tax Dept. The cost of a passport at that time was a mere Rs.15/- during the time I was attending to the above mentioned matters. I also dropped in at a shipping Agents office (namely, M/s. Harrison & Crossfield) and inquired about possible sailings to the UK in the month of March 1964. I was told of a sailing to the UK on ss’LAOS’ – French ship owned by M/s. Messageries Maritimes which would said from Ceylon on the 11th of March 1964. The fare quoted was Rs.1025/- (Stg.75/- according to the then exchange rate). I booked a passage in the Economy class on that day and agreed to pay the required monies by a certain date which escapes my mind at the time of writing. I had already saved the fare for the passage out of the pay packet. I was receiving each month from my employer. So I didn’t have to worry my father about this. However, I did have to ask my father for a further Stg.75/- in foreign exchange which was the only amount of foreign exchange granted at that time to travelers. Stg.35/- was given to my hand and the rest had to be collected from a bank after arrival in the UK.
By this time I had also handed in my resignation to my employers. So for a few days before I left the country it was farewell party time. At first it was a case of going for drinks and meals with various groups of friends. During this period, I also received a few gifts from my friends. A few days before leaving the country there was a farewell party in our own home. This was attended mainly by my relatives plus 2 English Engineers who were engaged in the construction of the Maliban Biscuit factory at Ratmalana. My first ever speech was made at this party. Only a few words though!!
The date of sailing was on the 11th March, 1964. It was a very busy day with having to hand over the luggage which was going in the ‘Hold’ of the ship that morning at the Colombo Harbour. After a special lunch attended by mainly close relatives and also after having taken some photos, we left for the Colombo Harbour in the late afternoon. Apart from our family members, there were a number of other relatives and friends who came to see me off. At the Harbour everyone got into launches and went to board the ship.
Once on the ship, I had to see the Purser first. He provided the information about what cabin I was to occupy etc. We took more pictures etc., while onboard. Finally an announcement was made for all visitors to leave the ship. This was a very sad and emotional moment. It was indeed very sad to say goodbye to everyone who came to see me off. We were not sure if we will ever meet again. After all visitors had left, I went to see my accommodation etc., which was a cabin with two double bunks. I shared the cabin with three other Ceylonese gentlemen. The cabin was actually below water level. At about 5.00 p.m. the ship started to move slowly away from the harbor towards the high seas. Some of us stood on the deck and watched until the lights of Colombo disappeared out of our view. This was a very sad moment for everyone who was leaving Ceylon that day. A little later there was an announcement for everyone to come to the dining room to have their dinner.
The facilities for the passengers in the Economy class were very simple and basic. Most cabins had two double bunks. The toilets and other washing facilities were in a separate area. So in the mornings, one had to go a fair distance to have a shower and other early morning ablutions. The dining area could be compared to a canteen. Even the service was not much different to what happens in a canteen.
One good thing was that we were served plenty of wine during meal times which of course was a novelty to chaps like me who up to that time had tasted only milk wine and that was also only during Christmas time. The food on board was also rather simple but plentiful. So I had no complaints about it.
After leaving Colombo Harbour, we were at sea for 3 whole days, without seeing any land until we reached the Port of Bombay (now known as Mumbai). During this period a lot of time was spent on the deck getting to know some of the other passengers. From Ceylon, there were two families with kids, one couple without kids, and there were four of us single men and also one lady who was travelling alone. There were some Japanese students and also a few people from Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Australia and some Englishmen who were returning to the UK after a spell of travel. We were in Bombay for nearly 3 days. On the first day I couldn’t leave the ship till about 3 pm., as I had drunk too much wine and had to sleep off a bit of a hangover! While in Bombay, we used to go out during the day and return to the ship in the evening. I noticed that in India they sold imitations of every well known English cigarettes. Being an occasional smoker, I purchased a few packets of these cigarettes.
I also had to pay a visit to one of my bosses’ daughter who was an Architectural student in Bombay. I was to collect a parcel from her to be given to her brother who was a student in London at that time. I visited her with two other shipmates. She welcomed us and treated us to some Bombay sweets etc., which was much appreciated by all three of us. We also did some sightseeing and took some photos. In Bombay some passengers joined the ship. Amongst them were a group of soldiers from Pondichery (a French colony at that time) who were been taken to France for military training.
The ship finally left Bombay and headed towards our next port of call which was to be Djibouti which was in French Somali land. During this time we were sailing in the Arabian Sea. I was fascinated by some strange looking Arabic boats that were sailing in these waters. We also saw a whole lot of flying fish.
In Djibouti, the ship stayed for about 1 ½ days. Enough time to see a bit of the town etc. which was about a mile away from the port. As we came down the gangplank to the quay there were people selling mainly cigarettes on the jetty. I managed to palm off a Rs.5/- note for a tin of 50 John Player Navy Cut cigarettes. Ceylon money was not worth very much at that time too. I was surprised that he actually accepted my money. When I got back to the ship and told the others of my achievements, some of them also went and got some cigarettes for themselves.
After leaving Djibouti, we sailed in the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. We had to wait at the mouth of the Suez Canal which is at Port Said for about a day until clearance was granted as only one ship was allowed in each direction at one time. At this point excursions were organized for trips to see the pyramids and to rejoin the ship at the other end of Suez Canal in Port Said. I did not join this trip due to lack of funds. But there were several who took advantage of this offer. When they rejoined the ship in Port Said they told all about the trip with much excitement. While we waited for clearance at the entrance to Suez Canal, the ship was surrounded by several boats owned by local traders. They got their merchandise up to the deck and displayed them. Most people including myself purchased some souvenirs from them. When it was time for us to begin our journey through the Suez Canal all the traders left the ship, except one of them who actually got his boat on the deck. He was taking a ride on the deck up to Port Said where he disembarked. This man even trying to sell pornographic photos to us!
The journey through the Suez Canal to Port Said took a fair amount of time. It was quite a pleasant one with people waving to us from both sides of the canal.
Early next morning we left Port Said and headed for Barcelona which was the next port of call. This was to be the first part in Europe where we set foot. Barcelona was in Spain and it took us quite some time to arrive here from Port Said. During this journey we sailed on the Mediterranean Sea passing the island of Cyprus and various Greek islands including Crete. As we were approaching the port of Barcelona we spotted the ship in which Christopher Columbus sailed when he went on his journey of ‘Discovery of the New World.’
Barcelona was rich in Architecture. Fine buildings etc. A few of us were in a park taking photos etc. when a man approached us and asked us to pose for photos. We posed for a few photos, thanked him and went on our way. Suddenly, we found about twenty people following us. They were insisting that we pay the man for the photos that were taken. We told them that we did not ask to be photographed and that it was the man with the camera who asked us to pose. We finally managed to shake them off and hurried back to the ship. We also managed to get some souvenirs before we set sail.
The last port of call for this ship was to be Marseilles in the South of France. A concert was organized for the final night. Each country had to be represented. A program of the items were also printed and distributed. That night we had a grand time with good food and wine etc. A few Ceylonese including myself did some singing and baila dancing.
We arrived in Marseilles next morning. We were sad to leave the ship that day. We said goodbye to some of the passengers who were not continuing the journey to London. We had made so many friends during our voyage.
The next part of the journey was to be by train. The first of the journey was to Paris where we had to change to a train which was to take us to Calais. We had to keep our luggage with us all the time during the train journey. When the train stopped at one station close to Paris, we noticed a man pick up one of our bags and leave the train. About five of us jumped out and chased this man along with platform. Suddenly he dropped the bag and ran off. This was the only awkward incident we experienced during the train journey.
At Calais, we had the usual immigration formalities and left Dover on the English Coast in a ferry. This journey took about 1 ½ hours.
After more immigration formalities at Dover, I boarded a train with my companions and left for London Victoria terminal which was the final stop. I was getting a little anxious when I was left almost alone on the platform after most of the other passengers were met by either their friends or relatives and departed. Finally, I was very relieved when one of my friends turned up to meet me. Nearly twenty days after leaving the Port of Colombo, my journey to England had just ended. After all the fun I had during the journey, the time had come for me to face reality!!