Food for Thought on Laundry Day

Sam’s Laundry Service

Everyday life has taken over in Colombo. The initial excitement has given way to established daily routines, and having spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, I have personally reached my point where the thrilling work & travel feeling can no longer hide the stretch assignment.

Trying out a new place to eat every evening, or in general, having to go out for food, is nothing that I look forward to anymore. And as much as I appreciate my fellows and enjoy the time that we spend together and the conversations we have, I start realizing how important it is for me to have time to myself. Time in which I’m not hanging around in Whatsapp to continue discussions or figure out the next meeting point. Time to take a short break from this country and the peculiarities of its people. Time to allow myself spending a whole Sunday hiding behind the retaining walls of my hotel room.

Not having to go outside and be approached by yet another tuk tuk driver every 5 of the 500 meters to the next supermarket. Not having to watch every step in order to not fall into a hole in the “sideway”. Not having to waste time and energy on unforeseen difficulties that turn ordinary transactions into the personal nightmare of every dutiful and orderly German citizen. Not having to imagine how someone obviously prints every package of my network traffic in order to send it out into the world on a cargo ship — or maybe rather with a messenger pigeon — ok this is probably the only thing that I can’t avoid by locking myself in ;-)

In fact, also some recent experiences added to my need for retreat in a certain way. It was in particular our encounter with Sam, the old laundry man, that really gave me food for thought:

We gave our laundry to Sam who runs a small laundry service that is located in a tiny hut, probably not even 500 meters away from our hotel. Sam counts the laundry items right away, so as I went there with some of my colleagues, my biggest fear was that I might not have a reasonable number of worn underpants in my laundry bag (spoiler: I had more panties than days spent in Sri Lanka so far — phew!). So far, so good. Sam told us to come back and pick up the laundry two days later, and so we did. The only issue was that the little hut was closed. Another day later, on our fourth try, we met the neighbors who also didn’t know what was going on. However, they were very friendly and ready to help, and so they also tried to call Sam, as we were unable to reach him with the number we had. After some unsuccessful tries, they introduced us to an elderly guy who had been standing outside on the street for a while. He happened to have the mobile number of Sam’s wife, and we could figure out that the guy was actually Sam’s landlord who was waiting for Sam to pay his rent. Half an hour turned into two hours, and finally we left — still without the laundry — but at least with a promise that someone would call us once Sam arrives. And this actually happened, not within the specified time of another half hour, but still we could take our laundry home on the same day.

This experience was a true eye-opener for me. Suddenly, I could clearly see one of the reasons why this country’s markets are still emerging. People act very short-sightedly. If they have other commitments and can’t open their shop, they just don’t open it. They don’t think about customer retention or about informing anyone, or about putting a sign up. They just do what they have to do in this very moment, without keeping in mind any possible consequences. They live for the present without taking care of the future. However, as we have already learned, the basics of business are news to most of the people here in Sri Lanka. And this is exactly what we are here for. Make the world run better and improve people’s lives. It might be too late for Sam, but we can do our bit to support the education of the next generation so that they don’t have to share his fate.

And this is only one example how this country and its people are their own worst enemy.

Just imagine, you are a driver and have a well-paid trip scheduled for the next day. Something happens, and suddenly you’re unable to provide the service. But you probably have plenty of friends who could do the trip for you. Why wouldn’t you move heaven and hell to make this trip possible for your customers, even if you maybe only get a small share because someone else drove them? I have no idea.

Or imagine, you’re the visa authority of a small country with emerging markets. Why would you only offer 30 day visas although business travelers already know for sure they’re going to stay for a longer period of time, supporting your economical growth? Why would you force them into taking the effort to apply for a visa enhancement if they already knew how long they would stay before they even set foot on your ground? I have no idea.

It might be easy to form an opinion about all of this if you have obtained an education of the quality that I had the pleasure to get. For me, business acumen has always been an intuitional thing, and I still can’t believe how little one person can have — especially since the well-kept skill of taking advantage seems to be part of their DNA, as outlined in an earlier post. Maybe I need to change my mind.

But now let’s stop lamenting and end this post with something nice. We have bathed an elephant! Check out the Millennium Elephant Foundation! What a great institution!

Scrubbing an Elephant! Sorry for the bad resolution. The camera person was obviously not as experienced as they pretended to be ;-)
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