I grew up on a farm. Farmers are thrifty beings – attuned to nature, for sure, hard working and innovative. My father could turn his hand to virtually anything, and virtually anything could be useful for some job around the farm. There weren’t piles of junk, but the shed was a treasure trove of useful things stowed away carefully for when they might be put to work again.
Late one dark stormy night somewhere between the border and Zaragoza, on a meandering ribbon of black just discernable between the dark and the darker, the car stopped. My right foot was flat to the boards, but we were going nowhere. I scrabbled to understand what had happened, pulling on the handbrake, hoping it would hold. My new friend Eily, a mathematics whizz, made a strange sound as she turned to me, incomprehending.
“A snapped accelerator cable?”. Who’d ever heard of such a thing? The farmer’s daughter certainly hadn’t. Head gaskets, interminable adjustments to a dodgy carburettor, blow-outs – these were the extent of my lessons from an ever patient Papa.
Outside, staring sightlessly into the mysteries of a VW engine, it was cold; damp, windy, and cold. Once again I sent up a silent “thank you” to Papa for insisting on buying me this ridiculous kangaroo skin coat.
“Where exactly are we?” ”How far to the nearest town, do you think?” ”Which way will be closest?’ Indecision adding to our frustration, we momentarily cursed our blithe disregard for the need of a map, while trying to visualise the last time we’d seen lights from a farmstead, or passed a car on the road.
We weren’t panicky. We had light, from the headlights – Eily trying to calculate for how long, but stymied at every turn – ’x's and ‘y’s and even ‘a’s and ‘b’s all unknown quantities for a city woman who didn’t even drive. ”Perhaps we should turn the brights down and just leave the parking lights on?” ”One of us should stay, in case.” Eily spoke more French than I – but we were in Spain now. We couldn’t quite believe that neither of us had thought to augment our stripped-down-to-the-essentials backpacks with anything resembling the paraphenalia our fathers carried in the boot, especially on a journey across a continent.
We weren’t hysterical, but the dark and the cold, and our foolishness were conspiring to turn our predicament into a cause for sporadic bursts of hilarity.
And it was then, under cover of our self-mocking cackling that the two men, on their lightless rotary hoe, seemed to materialise behind us. Farmers! They’d seen our lights pass, and wondered why they were still there, up on the road. They’d come together, expecting trouble from strangers.
A quick examination of the problem, a quick examination of the supplies to hand, and in no time, it seemed, they’d rigged an external cable from a length of wire, attached it to the engine end of the broken part, passed it up from the engine through the rear window of our little VW station wagon and up over my shoulder, terminating in a crude loop so I could maintain a steady grip as I pulled the cable down to depress the accelerator. A steady grip was important, they insisted – concerned the wire might detach from the ring they’d made to attach my shoulder operated accelerator to the engine.
I’d loved my time in Spain over the summer, but that cold winter night just after Christmas 1972 I fell in love with its people. Innovative. Practical. Kind. Inquisitive. Fearless. Turning what’s at hand to practical use. Recyclers, just like my father.
And that’s a characteristic I’ve always loved about Sri Lankans too. It used to be more noticeable than it is now, with plastic bottles and plastic bags, plastic rope, and plastic toys from China seeming to have replaced all the attractive natural alternatives of glass and wood and coconut, and the recycling man a being from a mythical past.
But poverty has meant the necessity to reuse and recycle hasn’t quite died yet. When I was in Pettah on Christmas Day I spied two neat piles of old exam papers and business ledgers that were destined to be turned into paper bags. Screws, hinges, bananas or freshly fried manioca chips, it matters not – almost everything can be contained in a recycled paper bag.
But it was the arrival of a parcel from my friend Shobi the other day that filled me with excitement, and gives me reason for optimism. Here’s a young woman who’s using recyclables in the most stylish way – both for product, and for packaging, and it appeares she’s not alone but is sourcing items from other recyclers.
I’ve always admired her style – she’s an exotically beautiful young woman who can wear all the things I never could – so I’ve enjoyed patronising her online jewellery and homewares store, but even if I didn’t love to wear jewel encrusted hair sticks, I’d be hooked on recycled note paper and packaging that makes me happy just to look at it.
Take a look at this! (Click on the first image to activate the gallery – I’ve captioned each image so you can see the little gems up close.)
New from Old – inspired by Ailsa’s Weekly Travel Theme New and dedicated to 1948Shop and Salvage, making recycling chic and stylish here in Paradise.