So first we arrived in “Little England”, and then went to a big temple…. Step three of our journey was to see the real Sri Lanka. As I have mentioned, we have a Sri Lankan Maid-slash-nanny-slash-cook-slash-counselor working with our family. When she invited us to see her home town, we jumped at the prospect.

Mary is Tamil Sri Lankan, was born in the Badulla area, where her ancestors were brought from Tamil Nadu in India about two centuries ago to work the tea plantations. She is not a Tamil from the Jaffna province, who have been on the north-western tip in a majority for thousands of years, and from where the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) sprang. Her ancestors were willing to do the work that the local Sinhalese population refused to do, and to this day, still refuse. The Sinhalese will manage the tea plantations, wait the tables, drive the taxis, tend the sick, but they will never, never pick the tea.


When she was seven, Mary was sent out into service to work as a helper to a nanny for a Colombo family, and she grew up in that house. When she was in her early twenties, she took a post in Dubai. She married soon after, to another Tamil based in Dubai, and went back to Sri Lanka to have her daughter at around 30. She stayed with her for three months, then returned to Dubai to continue work. Her mother raised her daughter in the very rustic village of Spring Valley, for which you might find signposts, but you will never see marked on a map. Mary cannot drive a car, read or write, and has never learned any form of mathematics past addition or subtraction. She does not have a bank account. She has worked 6 or 7 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, most of her life. She has had good Madams and bad ones. Apparently I am one of the good ones.

Mary is fairly well paid as a house-maid, and earns around $600 a month. Her husband earns less as an assistant manager at a maintenance firm. When she had been with us for two years, she returned to Sri Lanka to buy a house for her mother to live in. It cost 22 Lakh – about $20,000, and a loan was taken out. I can only imagine the interest she is paying, and hope to God she is not being too severely ripped off, and knowing her relationship with God (she is a devout christian), I suppose it is possible she might be safe.

Mary and her husband must be paying at least $120 a month off on the loan. They probably lose 5% of their income in exchange rates and transfer fees. They support Mary’s Mother, Mary’s husband’s sister, Marys epileptic brother, Marys daughter, Mary’s brother’s widow and to some degree, her son, his wife and his baby, They also send money bi-monthly to Marys widowed sister in India. So doing some math, I end up with everyone living on about $4 a day. (including Mary and her husband. He gets accommodation provided but no meals etc. Mary gets accommodation and all her daily needs covered, but still has to pay for her phone, clothes and outings)

So I looked on a map, and it said we had to drive 58km to find out what you get for $4 a day. Do I need to tell you it took longer than expected to get there? There had been very heavy rain (despite it being the dry season) and as the area is almost entirely made up of soft red-soiled hills, they have collapsed in piles over the roads and peoples’ dwellings. The road is pocked like a dinosaur-egg-carton, and I threw my shoulder out twice just by trying to remain upright. It looks like there’s been a war. We had to divert through Bandarawela, and finally made it in just over three hours.

Standing by the side of the road when we arrived at the meeting point, were 9 Sri Lankans in their Sunday dress, and smiles painted on their faces as large as I can imagine they ever get. They joined the 5 of us in a 9-person minivan, and we bumped our way through Badulla to Mary’s house, which lies towards the edge of the town, halfway up a hill in a dirt-road area overlooking plains of vegetables and rice.

The thing that got me was that Mary is not poor. In Sri Lanka, she is particularly middle-class, especially for a Tamil. Her house is much nicer than I expected, and apart from the sparse excuses for kitchen and bathroom, I could have easily lived there – in fact, when I was 20, I’m sure the state of the house I was living in was very much worse (especially after a drunken flatmate burned down the front bedroom).

In my terrible ignorance, I had expected her to own a bedraggled and moist three-room lean-to in between a rice paddy and a railway line. I had wanted my spoiled and technology bound children to see other children who played with sticks. I wanted them to hurt, dammit. I wanted them to feel sympathy, stop demanding material items, treat Mary with respect.

Of course, I don’t really feel like that – not 100% anyway. I’m glad that Mary is doing well, and that her family is benefiting. But the lesson I was trying to give my children was lost. While they sat on the chairs that are usually covered in plastic and happily ate packet chicken noodle soup out of Mary’s best chipped porcelain, over a table covered in a cloth gifted to Mary from friends of ours last year in France, while my husband and I ate the wonderful food Mary had prepared with 9 on-lookers who refused to eat, I was the one that got the lesson.

In Sri Lanka, officially, 22% of the people live under the poverty line. But the poverty line is $2 a day. Mary and her husband have pulled several people over that line, but what do you get for an extra $2 a day? You get to live. You get to eat. You get to send one of your children to school. You get running water. You get a concrete floor instead of dirt, and you might even get a mat to put on it. You get to live in hope that your children will end up better than you do.

And so, that is why, at the end of our visit, Mary’s 85 year old mother bent down and held my dusty feet in blessing. But was she blessing me because we increased Mary’s wage and don’t beat her (more blogging on maids in Dubai to come, I think), or was she blessing me for my future, hoping that I would one day step out from under my cloak of capitalistic greed and become as strong as her? I suspect it was the former, but if she had ever been given the chance to go to school, it may have been more propitious to offer the latter.

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The Road from Nuwara Eliya to Badulla is being re-laid, and is expected to be completed by mid-2012, but I doubt this is going to happen. There is an incredible temple to Sita nestled in the jungle just out of Nuwara Eliya that is well worth a stop – if for the recounting of the tale alone, and for some monkey spotting. This is followed by the botanical gardens, which I have heard are overpriced, but I must say, plenty of the information I found about Sri Lanka I have also found to be incorrect – I think things are improving exponentially, and much of what is on the internet is old news. There is a marked difference in the countriside on this side of Nuwara Eliya, it is less lush, not as prolifically cultivated, has a higher population density, and is poorer.

Bandarawela is a sweet little town with a gorgeous 2* inn that even for me (a 5* traveller) looked appealing. There is also a Geoffrey Bawa designed chapel in the town. Badulla itself is not a jewel of the area, but is worth a visit for those on a Buddhism trail for the ancient Muthiyangana temple. There is also a stunning bridge, and nature lovers would enjoy treking to the Namunukula Mountains, and around Dunhinda Falls. If you like quaint townships, pop down to Haputele, where you are also on the edge of Haputele Gap, and speaking of gaps, Ella’s Gap is supposed to be beautiful too.

9 thoughts on “Mother Mary”

  1. Oh Sarah…. what a tribute to the Mary-s all around us! It is really humbling and admirable what some of these ladies do while serving others. Another great tale that you weave with such incite, compassion and beautiful words 🙂

  2. This brought a tear to my eye! You are such a great writer! It is so refreshing to hear someone have positive things to say about their maid! We don't have a maid, but if we did, I wish we had a Mary!

  3. I love reading your blog, dear friend! Makes me truly wish I was back in the desert! You are a very talented and creative writer (or should I say blogger?). You are one of my very cool, artsy friends….

  4. Your writing really paints a much clearer picture of Mary and her background. Everything is so positive despite the obvious poverty of the family (by our standards) and low status. Mary comes across as a strong woman and one to be admired. Do you think your children saw Mary any differently after the visit?

  5. it all comes down to perspective…in art photography, bloggererering and life…i wish that the lesson was easier to teach, but it is not.having lost many of my worldly posessions in a buisness debacle and aftermath, i was still more wealthy that 80% of the rest of the world.in my perspective, i was rich!you always give us a great read, my well travelled friend…

  6. Thanks all, I've been meaning to talk about Mary for a while. But there's parts of me that still feel like we exploit her, and I didn't want to come across as high-and-mighty or hypocritical. After all, I feel for Mary, but continue her employment at a low wage because it benefits me. Ohhhh, the soul searching that needs to be done!And Margaret (mum, who has met Mary, and spent time every day of a 3-week visit giving her reading lessons), no, the kids still feel very much the same way about Mary, and in my opinion could treat her better. Mind you, they are just as rude to me!

  7. What a lovely post – it's always good to see a capitalist trying to piece together other worlds. I'd have never thought in $4 terms but it was very, very good to see the perspective going past it. Sorry, if this sounds a bit condescending. Not meant to be.

  8. Beautiful and emotionally charged up post. I have read a few posts written by you and I was already convinced that you will be a good 'Madam' even though Mary didn't point that out.Just one question – I love reading your blog but always find it difficult to track back a post that I have liked. How do you categorise them? For example under 'Srilanka' under 'Travel reviews' this post neither the post I hopped onto – '"The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart." can be found. Is there a category tree that I'm missing out on?

Some other suggestions or opinion to add? Please comment