For Sri Lankans, travelling from Colombo down south to Galle or Matara was once a real expedition. With congestion caused by a long-weekend exodus out of the city, it could take up to four hours to make the trip of less than a hundred miles. It was customary to take an extended rest stop at one of the many eateries that bordered the Galle Road. A hot cup of milky (Ceylon) tea was a must, as well as some “short-eats” – small Sri Lankan pastries and buns with sweet and spicy fillings. Catching sight of seasonal fruits being sold from roadside stands, you might give in to clamours from the back seat for rambutan or mangosteens. Frequent glimpses of the azure ocean, parallel to the road and within walking distance, would add to the anticipation of a beach holiday. With the new E01 expressway built approximately 10 miles inland, getting to Galle takes a little over an hour. When the extension is opened on the 15th of March, Matara won’t be much further away. A trip down south is no longer a journey, but a jaunt.
The E01 engenders not only the poetic loss of a meandering means of travel, but also the more pragmatic cost to the many small Galle Road businesses whose former customers now whiz to their destinations with barely a hunger pang. Of these, the New Monis Bakery and Restaurant appears to have suffered the least, having opened a small outlet at Canowin Arcade, the E01 rest stop. Yet even this convenience comes at a steep price, and seems to be emblematic of the struggle to survive than a sign of success.
New Monis Bakery and Restaurant, Maggona
The Monis story is a fascinating one. The original Monis Bakery first opened its doors in 1896, and soon became famous for its biscuits. Their ginger fingers, semolina cookies, wine biscuits, and rusks are all well-loved by southern Sri Lankans, the recipes of which are closely guarded. As a family-run establishment on the brink of being passed down to the fourth generation, Monis has had the inevitable run of disagreements on how to operate. Today, Monis Bakery and New Monis Bakery stand side by side on the Galle Road, although the relative success of New Monis is perhaps evidenced in its presence on the E01. (Another point in New Monis’ favour is that the “happiest man on earth” – as seen on Youtube – is their security guard, but that is another story.)
The construction of the E01 was a severe blow to the bakery, which lost approximately 50% of its business despite the fact that it is a landmark institution in itself. To mitigate this loss, New Monis opened a branch on the expressway, which is open at all hours. Keeping afloat is still a significant challenge, however. Supplies from the main bakery must be transported along a ramshackle back road – the better road they used before was closed off after some travellers attempted to use it as a means to get off the expressway without paying the toll fee. This makes it necessary to constantly replace tires and repair vehicles.
Indrani Abeyratne, one of the directors, was also concerned about the prohibitive rent for both outlets on either side of the E01. “We have to be there 24 hours, so we pay a big rent, [as well as] electricity and water bill. We have to pay a lot. But we still sell for the same rates as here [even though there is less of a profit now].” Another issue is that there was an earlier agreement that New Monis would be the only bakery at Canowin Arcade to sell biscuits and short-eats. Some of the smaller establishments, however, have started selling similar items to cover the cost of the exorbitant rent.
New Monis Bakery and Restaurant at Canowin Arcade
Ms Abeyratne also mused on the injustice of the fact that the businesses that can afford a space on the E01 – including a grocery store, handicrafts shop, and juice bar – are well-established regional or national chains whose overall business is unlikely to have been as hard-hit by the E01. She felt that in some ways, New Monis had been particularly fortunate. “A lot of the new outlets on the highway actually closed because they can’t afford the rent. There was a tea shop [that had to pay a rent of] 329,000 rupees (2500 USD) without the water or electricity bill!” And the rent is increasing over time. “We need to put aside 10 lakhs (7600 USD) for rent each month.” This is no small fee, but as they pointed out, “We’re stuck; we can’t not do it there.” Still, they believe that having an outlet on the E01 is a means to keep going, although she ruefully pointed out that “a smaller company couldn’t have done it.” She said that while would be easy for people to think that an establishment like New Monis would be immune to the pressures of the highway, the reality was that they were just keeping afloat. The bakery has been managing thus far by selling some land, or pawning select pieces of jewellery.
New Monis is fighting hard not only from a will to survive, but also from a sense of sentimentality. It is too painful to think about closing down after having been around for almost 120 years, and Ms Abeyratne is bravely optimistic. “In a way, we got a chance to continue our business along the highway, otherwise the name will get lost. We don’t have as much of a profit there, but we do it to keep the Monis name.”
Sinharaja Bakery and Restaurant, Aluthgama
Sinharaja Bakery and Restaurant, another well-known eatery grandly named after Sri Lanka’s rainforest reserve, is not quite lucky enough to have a booth on the E01. Its food selection is unusual, ranging from samosas to schnitzel, as the proprietor’s husband is a German accountant with the unexpectedly fruitful hobby of baking and cooking. Her brother Channa explained that most Sinharaja customers were those who travel by car and van. The vehicles prohibited from using the highway – lorries, regular buses, three-wheel taxis and motorbikes – rarely stop at a place like Sinharaja to eat. “People are afraid to come. They think this is a high-class place, that a normal tea will be expensive. But when you look, that is a lie. Our crowd didn’t go to Food City [a local grocery chain] thinking it is expensive, but you can get things there cheaper than in the market. In the same way, only if a customer comes here will they see it is cheap. If someone comes in a three-wheeler, he is from the village.” While they predicted that they would lose business to the E01, “we didn’t think it would be this bad. Today is a holiday so you don’t realise it as much. On a normal day come and see the situation here. There is no one at the tables.”
Before the advent of the expressway, Sinharaja was known for its open buffet for breakfast and lunch. There were so many customers that “even if you ate ten pieces of chicken, it was the same price. Now we can’t do that. There are only a few customers. So now we have to serve portions. We closed the top floor and leased it out to [a textile company].” Like New Monis, Sinaharaja is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Making wedding cakes and structures for nearby hotels is its largest source of income at present (the bakery has an extensive cake catalogue, catering to all kinds of special occasions).
Sinharaja Bakery Cake Catalogue
Channa admitted that the highway was a very important piece of infrastructure, but his main grievance was that there was no one to turn to for assistance or to document their loss. His German brother-in-law,who is considering selling the entire enterprise, said bluntly, “I will only say the facts. The turnover is 60%. In former times, in a year I paid about 12-15 lakhs (9,000-11,000 USD) in taxes, now I’m paying only about half a lakh a year. In former times I had about 85 people as staff here; now I have only 22. The highway kills me. After one week of the new highway (the E03 to the Katunayake International Airport) the business owners in Negombo are crying, “No business, no business!” After one week. [For me] it is now two and a quarter years. The 27th of November 2011 is branded with an iron in my brain.”
He is not alone. In Sinhala, one of the languages spoken in Sri Lanka, podi miniha is a colloquial term that refers generally those of low income, and literally translates as “small man”. Many of the people who operated road-side businesses are “small” – people who get by on what they earn each day selling items like fruit, jaadi (smoked fish), or lottery tickets. Many of these items are often bought on impulse; seeing someone on the roadside drinking thambili (king coconut water) is possibly the best advertisement for pulling up and buying some yourself. Now there is no one to advertise and no one to be swayed into buying. One thambili seller despaired over the lack of business. She used to sell more than 80 coconuts a day, but now she is lucky if she can sell 20. “I’ve been ill with arthritis, but I can’t pay to go to hospital. My husband also doesn’t earn that much, he drives a three-wheeler. It all started after the highway was built.” As cars and vans disappear from the Galle Road, so also do the once-familiar sellers of jaadi and thambili. They cannot shift to the highway, so where do they go?
‘Thambili’ (King Coconut) Shop
Along with the disappearing jaadi and thambili sellers is the loss of employment in the bigger establishments like New Monis and Sinharaja. New Monis continues to employ 120 people from the area in their bakery and highway outlets, while Sinharaja has tried to deal with the issue of downsizing in the most ethical way possible. Channa explained, “Even our staff, we didn’t let them go. Most of our staff are girls, so when they left and got married we didn’t take on new staff to replace them. That’s how we managed.”
There are countless more examples. There is Lassana Gedara (“Beautiful House”) a small restaurant that has closed down within two years of opening (despite a ten-year lease) because business was so bad. There is the famous Buddhist temple in Kalutara, where people would stop to pray and make an offering. Travelling on the E01, they no longer request protection against disorderly drivers. Curiously enough, it was the fact that the staff at New Monis gets small change from the temple that signalled the decline. “We usually took 50,000 rupees in small change from the Kalutara Bodiya usually every week, now we can take only 8,000 to 10,000. Those days we could take as much as we want.” There is also the marked absence of roadside vendors.
Mama’s Restaurant, Payagala
For this post, I travelled with a journalist friend down south on the Galle Road; presented here are only a few stories that are emblematic of a much larger issue. Although formal research has been conducted on the families displaced and livelihoods impacted by the construction of the E01, there is no comparable analysis of the economic effects that the expressway is having on small businesses operating on the roads no longer used. This is a pity, and a lost opportunity, because as Sri Lanka’s expressway network continues to expand at a breakneck pace, these same effects will be replicated along other main roads.
While telling us of their hardships, many of these small-business owners also treated us to their signature Sri Lankan hospitality. As stories poured out of them as if from a dam that had burst, they offered us fresh milk and biscuits and pastries and rolls. I was touched by how they generously welcomed us into their spaces, and the detail with which they related their answers. It seemed as though our questions were not just timely, but urgently imperative. Perhaps their collective instinctive reaction is best expressed in the response of Zainul Abdeen Mohomed Rafeek, a kitchen-hand at Mama’s Restaurant. When we tremulously asked him if he was free to talk about the effects of the highway on his business, he immediately put down the bundle of vegetables he was carrying.
“I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me that question.”
This post is part of a series on Sri Lanka’s first expressway.
Text and photos by Nushelle de Silva