Perspectives of Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka.  No doubt a beautiful country.  The lowlands are surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean rhythmically rolling onto white sandy beaches of the island.

The central highlands, a jungle of green where a cool temperate climate offers a perfect environment for Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar-a-year tea industry. Lush tea plantations scattered throughout the picturesque scenery.

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Nestled within the highlands is the city of Nuwara Eliya, one of the premium tea growing areas of the world. High above the clamor of the lowlands, the verdant landscape feels as if time has stood still.

In many ways it has, as for centuries the tea plantations have counted on the quiet exploitation of the Tamil minority group, members of the lowest caste system in Sri Lanka, to pick tea leaves. Isolated in the remote mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, it is the Tamil women who make up the work force that keep this industry flowing.

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The life of a tea picker is hard, long days combined with squalor living conditions make it clear why Tamil Indian laborers were imported into the country so long ago to fill such jobs. Jobs locals refused to take.

Upon a wall of a dilapidated shack in a plantation housing project, eight simple words summarizes generations of thought for tea pickers here in Nuwara Eliya: “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.”

A place with little hope, yet the little hope of today is more than they imagined a decade ago.

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She looks down at her calloused hands.  Her day picking tea leaves having just ended, she winces at the pain as she lifts her bag of leaves and gives them to the field manager.  

Ahead is a hard hour hike home over the hill where she will busy herself with chores, fetch water, cook dinner for her family and then spend what little time remains with her reason for living: her beautiful baby daughter.  

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Tears well up in her eyes as she honestly wonders if this is as good as it gets. 

Every day is the same bad dream, the same hell. Day in. Day out.  She wakes up prior to dawn and sets out to the tea fields, plucking tea until dusk and then takes the long hike home. Praying for no harassment, praying for a peaceful night. She understands this is the fate of a Tamil woman on a tea plantation: a woman with little power, a woman with little control of her life.

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Sadness hits when she realizes if her young daughter is lucky enough, she may have at best a similar fate. “If she is lucky…” Quickly she erases any such negative thought from her mind.

As a member of the Tamil minority group working in a male dominated culture, there simply are few options available for her, her daughter or their future.  

This thought breaks her heart. 

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She looks out her doorway at a group of Save the Children workers and dreams the impossible dream for her daughter.  

Could the promise of a safe environment for children; a school for her daughter to attend and learn the wonders of the world become a reality?

She allows herself to smile inwardly at such hope, but understands Sri Lanka and the history and culture of her people all to well to put such faith into the future.  

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Standing in the doorway, she ponders the stories and rumors of Save the Children, the hope this organization has brought to neighboring tea plantations. It is a glint of a possibility, the chance of future happiness for her daughter.

She steps closer to listen to the voices of the workers as supplies are dropped off, and before she is noticed she quickly slips back into her tiny shack.

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As she begins to prepare dinner she senses a tingling of awareness, the freedom the human soul needs to dream and pursue experiences.

Tonight she is happy. She reflects back on the stories of suffering and repression told by her grandmother and mother, as well as the horrible experiences she’s had herself, but instead of defeat she sees hope. The hope the vicious cycle of oppression will end.

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Generations upon generation of young women are born into servitude in the tea industry, forever working the tea fields of Sri Lankan tea plantations.

The high country of Nuwara Eliya, far removed from the large cities and their economic successes, has remained stuck in the dark ages. Business corruption and ancient ideas thousands of years old keep the Tamil people of this area stuck in purgatory.

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The Tamils give their life and blood to the tea industry, making up 2% of the country’s GDP, a commitment spanning centuries. It is a hard life, and while the industry is trying to find a way to give back, there are conflicts of interest.

Business is business, and tea plantation owners are currently undergoing a deteriorating market for Ceylon Tea. In addition to the fear of further decreases in sales and higher costs of providing benefits to the field workers, plantation owners are also terrified of losing a cheap workforce by allowing freedoms and opportunities to the Tamil women and children.

Economics of the modern-day meets the politics of the dark ages.

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Save the Children as well as other relief organizations have been working to break this relentless and cruel cycle robbing the potential of these children. It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth.

Change is not easy, especially given the tension between gender and class struggle seeped in cultural beliefs spanning millenniums. The Tamil women and children face daily battles in this quagmire of repression.

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A Sri Lankan worker at Save the Children discussed the value the organization brings to the people of Nuwara Eliya, mentioning a quote from Swami Vivekananda, “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life.

This piece of Hindu philosophy, an important part of their culture, rings hollow to them. It is difficult for them to grasp the idea of freedom not to mention the courage to act on such thoughts.

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The people of Sri Lanka are the ones stepping up to make a difference. Sri Lankans with the wisdom to understand the value women and children have to their country and their efforts within the Save the Children system brings real change via the following programs:

  • Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD)
  • Education
  • Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

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Such programs provide the base to empower the women of Nuwara Eliya and of Sri Lanka. When hope is instilled in a group, confidence soon follows giving strength to tackle issues. Real change begins to take place.

The Tea Association of Sri Lanka is working with Save the Children on an updated branding model for Fair Trade Tea, a platform of reform for all large tea estates to provide specific and permanent benefits for women and children within their plantation.

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In the past, salaries of women from the tea estates were transferred directly to the “man of the house” with the result of wages often wasted on alcohol or gambling.

No longer is this the case. Women now receive salaries directly so the money can be used to buy food and necessary items for childcare. This is empowerment. Step-by-step, change is happening. The dreams of children are beginning to form.

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She again stands in the doorway, this time watching her grown daughter go off to work. Her daughter, as with past generations of her family continues the tradition of working on the tea estates…but here is a twist to the tale. Instead of picking leaves in a field far away, she is wearing a white blouse and has entered a nurse-in-training program at the local clinic.

Her daughter looks back and gives a quick smile before disappearing into the plantation’s maternity clinic.

Her eyes well up with tears once again as they had every evening in the past when she worked in the fields. This time, however, the tears of sadness are absent instead flowing down her cheeks are tears of pure happiness…  

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Save the Children and other aid groups such as World Vision are working in Sri Lanka to break the cycle of repression.  To provide hope for children and their mothers, an opportunity to achieve what once was unimaginable: an education and a dream of advancement.

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If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on a site listed below:

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256 Comments on “Perspectives of Sri Lanka

  1. Hello my dear. You know what I think about this post already – it has no sense to add another voice saying “what a wonderful post”… It is so obvious. You are such an example to follow!
    Save the children? we should “save” them by helping their mothers become independent. Nobody thinks at micro credit down there? could they possibly cultivate and sell their precious tea leaves?

    Have a great! looong weekend.

    • Thank you Luana ~ it is great that you bring up microcredit as it is available, and the Tamil minorities are making good use of it setting up small stores and services, but still quite difficult in terms of their situation with the tea estates. There are smaller tea farms, focused on organic growing and the workers there are part of a team…and these farms are successful. Part of me believes the easiest solution (in terms of creating the best opportunity for the people and producing quality tea) would be to break apart these conglomerate tea estates and turn them into smaller managed farms 🙂 Wish you a great coming week, take care ~

  2. Wonderful post with beautiful images, Randall. My salute to the INGO staff of Save the Children and many more NGOs local and international ones that have been committed to improve the living condition of the Sri Lankans after the civil war. Wishing their humanitarian works succeed 🙂

    • Thank you Indah ~ a great place to shoot. I too salute those in the field, very impressive work.

  3. It is a sad reality where we hardly engage in daily life. Very meaning for us to appreciate what we now own as being a city girl, with freedom and hope. Thanks for sharing n hope for the future.

    • Thanks Leeyan, going to Sri Lanka and seeing this situation hit me how different they have it than we do in bigger, modern cities. And as you say, how much they engage in daily life (out of necessity). Wish you a great week.

      • I should be in Seattle in November, but u might have left. Right? Haha

      • Ha, yes in November I’ll be back in Hong Kong 🙂 But the weather hopefully will still be nice here for you!

  4. Things are not always as they seem. What we see as an idyllic tropical paradise is, in reality, a very harsh life. Especially so for single moms and their children. Well done.

    • The beauty of the country is something to see, and its economy has been doing very well the past decade, so as you say it is a bit sad to see part of their population at such a disadvantage…but great in seeing action being taken. Thank you Ron.

  5. I have been to Sri Lanka twice, and each time I remember Sri Lanka, it is always their smiles. Your photos remind me of that. 🙂

    • You are lucky to have visited there twice, I want to go again – beautiful place and as you say their smiles (and the food) is worth a return trip.

  6. Pictures, second to none. Love the flow of your narrative and the way you managed to insert Save the Children so many times without it having a negative exposure. Such a shame that such beauty (the tea plantations) can bring about such suffering. Kudos! Shared to all socials.

    • Thank you very much Kev, didn’t really think about the heavy Save the Children mention but it was pushing the envelope so to speak ~ glad it didn’t take away from the post. It is a bit of a dichotomy, these incredible tea plantations are beautiful, well maintained and look very profitable…and then behind the curtains. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Another great collection of portraits ! Every picture is really moving and interesting, your work is just amazing ! I also like the special selfie at the end. thanks for sharing the link towards the NGO website, they are doing an amazing job over there, and thanks again for highlighting it 🙂

    • Thank you, it was one of those environments where it getting involved with the people and scene was very natural and made for a great shooting environment. Agree, the good people at the NGO are making strides to improve the situation and I do admire them.

  8. Randall such a great post, it is great to see change, even if it is small. We sponsor two children through world vision. I wish we could do more. Your amazing photos may help get the message out. Thank you for sharing.

    • World Vision is fantastic, they have done some work in Myanmar that is impressive and they make real change. Thank you Kat for the kind words and it was great to see the smiles.

    • Thank you Lignum ~ and yes, I’ve had a few critiques of the last photo 🙂 Cheers to a great week ahead!

  9. Hey, how awesome of you to get the word out – on the oppression and crisis of this people (the women esp) as well as the opportunity to help make a difference. “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.” This is the tragic axiom of many, many cultures the world over and the untold story of numberless women.

    • Hey there Diana, thank you much and hope you are doing well. When I saw those words on the wall, I too had the similar thought of this being a cry by many oppressed people all around the world. Hope can be a great thing, and some times the only thing.

  10. What an interesting trip. When did you go? It’s amazing how billion dollar a year businesses have people working on them so humbly…
    I have to admit that I don’t know much about Sri Lanka. I do remember that I had a friend from there when I lived in Brunei ages ago. I remember she told me how there was a war and some people broke into their house and shot down, killed her brother in front of her eyes.

    • Hi Sofia, I went there at the end of May right before my travels began…it was a perfect trip to get away from the business world and back into the real world 🙂 Sri Lanka was really a beautiful place, both the coast and especially the high country where the tea plantations were, definitely worth a trip. The end of the civil war has resulted in stability and an incredibly swift jump in their economy, really shows how senseless and horrible war is for any population. It is a great destination today. If you decide to go, let me know and we can meet up for tea ~ I know a few nice tea places to go 🙂

  11. Another great post with beautiful pics. Very moving. Really like the part about the girl studying to be a nurse. Makes me feel there’s hope for future generations.

    • Thank you very much. Where there is hope, there is happiness and from there sprout dreams to feed a lifetime of hope. We all need hope.

  12. Randall, you have a way about you. Unlike so many, you sir, could change the world. One post at a time. Brilliant, once again. An ideal path to send the message out, take us through with your eyes and show us what has happened and what is possible. Thank you for reminding us of how big the world is, my friend.

    • Auddie, loved this comment. Humbles me, yet contradictorily makes me a bit proud to hear such words said towards my photography and writing. A strange thing, but I think it is the idea and hope of what is possible that takes this huge world we live in and shrinks it down to a size where we can see we all are quite the same. Thank you and wishing you the very best my friend ~

  13. Sri Lanka is, indeed, a wonderful country and I had no idea. I have to thank you for sharing this with us! I was impressed how hard can be the life of a tea picker and this phrase – “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.” – is sadly true for many people in this world…Where we can give a helping hand, we should do it. I looked in the eyes of those children you captured in your photos and there can be noticed for each one a profound story. Thank you again because you make us to be more sensitive and more aware of what’s around us!

    • It is such an incredible country, natural and cultural beauty. This trip did make me think about the number of people in the world who endure, and in a sense we all do at some point in time but we are fortunate to have those around us who can help us see the great opportunities life can bring. This is what these women and children on the tea estates need. Thank you very much Camelia.

  14. I love those faces! It seems impossible to find such intense beauty among so much suffering… but here, you have.
    “It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth…” Gorgeous.
    …ahem…. is that a….CANNON I see?

    • Those faces could not be more perfect I believe, their eyes and smiles of hope and happiness. A beautiful area that slowly is changing for the better.
      Such sights and scenes in Sri Lanka ensuring I will be making a return trip. And to capture it all again like only a Canon can 🙂

      • They remind me of something someone once said to me, “no flower ever bloomed cautiously…” Your images capture the most contagious smiles that erupt recklessly, throwing caution to the wind, BLOOMING… in spite of a thunderstorm. Perfectly captured ~ like only you can 🙂 …….of course my Nikon and I weren’t there sooo…. I’m just teasing, your post is sublime~always.

      • I like that thought – smiles and hope blooming in spite of all the difficulties around them. Brilliant (even from a Nikon user 🙂 ) Cheers ~

  15. Great work, and I know this took a lot of time to put together. The photos are perfect, as always – so many beaming faces. I appreciate your not glossing over all the obstacles and complications – if the price of Ceylon tea drops, how can you expect the managers and owners to step up and add protection for their workers? It’s complex, but it can be done. All over the world, steps are being taken on behalf of workers. I know the coffee industry has made some progress. At least I think so! I’ll click a link. I like ending with the self portrait – well done!

    • This post was one that I enjoyed putting together, to relive those moments and see the faces that brought many smiles to my face just a couple months ago. The business end of the tea industry, like all, is complex and in a sense will inhibit some changes that would be immediately beneficial (not a big fan of conglomerate tea production, but instead like China and some of their famous tea areas, farmers who really have a vested interest in land & labor). The final portrait was pretty fun ~ it was strange seeing a mirror there, it really caught my eye.

  16. Randall, every time I come to see you I have tears in my eyes. The complete innocence and beauty in these children make me weep. How cruel this world is and how overjoyed I am that programs such as Save the Children are making a difference. How difficult it must be to bring change into parts of the world where tradition holds, bar none. And these changes affecting women and children is the most incredible of all. These children how I wanted to scoop them up and just bring them to my breast. I am so happy that these babies have a chance now to better themselves. I am so happy!!! Love, Amy ❤

    • Thank you Amy, the work being done in Sri Lanka is going a long ways to bring these children and women out from under the oppression of their culture and overall economic situation. It is heartwarming, and while there is still a long ways to go there is something great to be said for hope and belief. Wish you a great week.

      • Thank goodness for people like you who bring to our attention these people and places we would not even know about. Thank you, Randall, for all that you do. ❤

  17. A strong, touching and important post. Unfortunately this is often how it goes when greed meets need. The story of most developing countries… But your story also brings hope for the future, showing it’s possible to empower women and those who are exploited. As always you photos of the Tamil women and children are captivating and striking.

    • Greed meets need, the story of “human development.” Sometimes I think our next evolutionary step will be the changing of our chemistry, where automatically we step back and care for Earth rather than this drive to get ahead at all costs putting both our environment and those less fortunate at risk. One day, in the far future, it is statistically a given that we will become one race, and in essence one family…perhaps then. Until that happens, yes it is hope and the slow changes that will make the difference. Thanks Otto for the great comment.

      • Wouldn’t that be great – an evolutionary step that makes us more human and more connected to our living planet. 🙂

  18. The story reminded me of Black history that the people were enslaved to do work in a plantation. STC provides excellent humanitarian work focus on the children for they are the future. Change does happen but it moves similar to a thick molasses. Thank you for promoting STC, Randall. Blessings, Perpetua.

    • Your thinking was similar to mine, as when I wrote this I thought of the many migrant workers from Mexico that the US brings in to work the fields and to take jobs most Americans would never consider yet Americans are more than happy to be critical and oppress such workers. A story that can find a place in almost every country, under-developed or developed. For those groups who take up the cause to create such change, it is something worth witnessing and STC does it well. Thank you very much Perpetua.

  19. Thank you for sharing the stories of the people of this amazing country! The photos are stunning, too!

    • Sri Lanka and its people are amazing, and while struggling in this area the change is very positive.

  20. Magical really, hauntingly beautiful countryside and beautiful people!! You really caught the exotic nature of the place!

    • Thank you Judy ~ one of those places that will be seared into my mind forever. Simply beautiful.

  21. Discouraging and inspiring in the same breath, to see how easy it is to dismiss the significance of a human life, and to witness those that have the courage and determination to make amends for those treated unjustly. If the traditional image is worth a thousand words, yours provide that number tenfold. There is such emotion and depth in the facial expressions, the smiles, and even the landscapes. You have a gift for capturing that momentary glimpse into the lives of these people that is uncommon. Very well done, and for a extremely worthy cause. Thank you for sharing and best wishes for an inspired day!

    • The expressions of the kids in Sri Lanka (and everywhere) contain such purity, makes any photo of their smiles so special. Thank you Dave, with all the struggles they face daily, their joy for life trumps it all and that is inspirational. Wish you a great day as well ~

  22. Randall, your photography by way of philosophy is incredible. I’ve featured one of your sunsets this week 8/24/2015 on my Welcome Page. Many months ago I asked to borrow this sunset to put in the Welcome Page Gallery. Now I’m featuring a new sunset every week, and yours is this week. I’ve also added a paragraph about you with a photo of you and your parents. I couldn’t find a portrait photo. Hope you like it. This link brings you to the Welcome Page. Chryssa (aka Christine) Before Sundown blog.

    • Thank you Christine ~ very much appreciate this and like the photo with my and my parents. Wishing you a great week of adventures ahead 🙂

      • Randall, I did add the portrait photo of you to the featured header photo. The background color looks striking with the sunset. Also it’s on the other page Featured Sunsets on the menu bar. Happy you liked a few posts. Thank you. That’s where I got your portrait photo. Chryssa

      • Yes, the colors are what drew me to that photo too ~ the feeling of sunsets (and sunrises as well). Wish you well Chryssa!

  23. Hey, this is my first visit here through your comment left on Camelia’s blog. Sri Lanka… what a wonderful country and how hard can be the life of a tea picker, sadly are many people like them in this world.
    Meanwhile not all have the strength to smile, you caught this contrast very well in the photos.They still have hope, children have the most sincere smile. Thank you for this post, I will definitely share it!

    • Such a wonderful comment Mihaela, thank you and yes it is such a tough life for these people, but their ability to smile and enjoy what they have is very inspiring. I agree, children hold a purity with their smiles that is unmatched. Wishing you you the best.

  24. Thank you, Randall, for pointing out the plight of the exploited. All of us who are addicted to tea, coffee and tobacco should feel some responsibility to their situation. Their countries were robbed of their natural vegetation, degraded to tea, coffee and tobacco plantations with little benefits to anyone, except the pockets of few.

    • Thank you Mary ~ yes, it seems business and politics have mastered the art of the few lining their pockets while others at the heart of the work/life receive little.

  25. The photography is wonderful, as ever. The smiles on the faces of the children are so natural and unforced. It’s terrible to think of all that potential and hope being being mercilessly trodden on. I hope the work of Save the Children and organizations like them can give the children back their future.

    • It is always the smile of children that captures the hearts of people ~ giving a child hope and dreams is the one thing I think we all agree upon. Thanks for the kind words and wish you a great final month of the summer.

  26. Hi, Randall – that is again great post and excellent tip for interesting destination! I like your style – human ideas and wonderful text and photos 🙂 ! I looking forward to read new one post. Bye and have anise rest of summer. Kamila

    • You would like Sri Lanka quite a bit, and wish you safe travels and a wonderful final month of the summer too! Thank you Kamila.

  27. Pingback: Freshly Seen at Jill’s Scene during August | Jill's Scene

    • What an experience it must have been to have lived there as a young child ~ as you mention, it is a magical place with some of the best smiles in the world. Thank you much.

  28. A stunning story and images. Hope that these beautiful faces will live in a better world when they grow up.

    • I hope so too… It will be a difficult road, but I think with the awareness things will get better.

  29. What interesting narrative. You touched my heart with the plight of the tea workers. What beautiful country… thank you for sharing your gift of photography and for getting to the heart of a matter.

    • I use to travel to India for work (textiles), and loved it. After my first trip, I told the owner of the company that we should open an office there just so I could be there 🙂

  30. These photos are filled with a luminosity that only hope can conjure. May it never grow dim.

  31. This was heart-rending and glimmering with hope. The pictures are stunning with all those smiling faces. I have difficulty understanding a world (and I mean everywhere, not just Sri Lanka) that doesn’t cherish, protect, and uplift its young.

    • The hope they have can be heartbreaking, but their spirit and happiness is contagious as well. If all countries focused on raising its young, many problems we helplessly fight today would never take place… Thank you ~

  32. This was special for me since I live in Tamilnadu and spent a considerable part of my life on a tea plantation in South India. Workers are slightly better off here with stronger labour unions, but only just. When one of the largest plantation companies in india made its employees co-owners a few years ago, I assumed rapid changes would ensue. Appears not:

    • What an experience you must have had, a beautiful environment, but such difficult conditions. My thought had been that co-ownership and break-up of larger plantations could improve conditions but this article shows how difficult it can be (especially in the current market of low prices). Wish you well Madhu and thank you.

  33. Very vivid images with a well written article. Thank you for sharing this piece with us. I enjoyed reading it tremendously.

  34. thanks for great photos with lovely article.. thumbs up! i am staying in Sri Lanka for work and thinking to make a calendar for my people here… I just tried to find nice photos of Sri Lanka thru google then found yours… please let me know how i can get permission to use your photos.. i am trying to make 300 copies of calendar and want to use 1 or 2 photos of yours. if you said no, i will not use it. if you want me to pay for your photos, we can discuss for the amount. this calendar is not for sales but just for our worker’s home use.

    • SK, thank you for your email and comment. It would be nice to include my photos in your calendar so please go ahead. Next time in Sri Lanka you can buy me dinner 🙂 Cheers and wish you a great evening!

      • thanks for your approval and really appreciated it. i will save our calendar for your next visit and plz let me know when you come to here next time for dinners! Mr. Will Lynch & his colleagues from Save the Children visited our factory few months back to see if we can help each other… it would be good to meet together when you come next time! once again, thanks for your approval!

      • Can you give me your factory name? It would be great to get together…Also, is it possible to email me a copy of the calendar?

      • Kusang Lanka is our factory name.. i will send you a copy of calendar once we made. please let me know when you come to here in future by e-mail. thanks!

    • Thank you Eddie, Sri Lanka had some of the best smiles I’ve ever seen – a beautiful place.

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