Sumi Moonesinghe linked to Savithri Rodrigo
When I first started making it onto my post-retirement travel list, one of my most memorable trips was the European vacation I had with some girls in 2000. Aushi had just graduated and Anarkali decided to take her annual leave. We chose the small fishing village of Portofino in Italy, but given the touristy nature of the village, hotels within were incredibly expensive. After some research, we settled on a hotel in the nearby bay area which was much more affordable and within walking distance of Portofino.
We flew from London to Florence, hired a car and drove to Portofino via Pisa. As Portofino is located on the coastline of the Italian Riviera, the village has started to attract well-to-do tourists, which is very evident in the large number of super-yachts lined up in the harbour. There were plenty of seafood restaurants to feed our penchant for seafood, and walking around the 16th century fortress was very relaxing.
The girls slept in until 11 a.m. each day, while I took my usual walk along the beach, popped into an art exhibit or two, and window-shopped. I only peeked into the high end shops, not daring to enter as they were overpriced. But I gave in to a temptation. I saw a store selling Frette linen, the crème de la crème of bedding in the world. I walked in and bought a set for my bed.
While in Portofino, I joined the Cinque Terre tour, the five-century-old seaside village, which was utterly picturesque with its colorful houses, vineyards, trattorias and ports. I will never forget walking along these cobbled streets and being mesmerized by the absolutely stunning buildings overlooking the sea.
After a week of this bliss, we drove to Milan airport and dropped Anarkali off for her flight to London. Aushi and I went to Monaco to meet a friend at Café de Paris in Monte Carlo, the outdoor restaurant in Place du Casino, which is one of my favorite places. We had lunch, drove to the airport, dropped off our car and flew to Paris, staying at the Hotel de Crillon. Aushi and I explored Paris for the next few days.
We would be window shopping all morning and stop for a late lunch of salad and afternoon tea at a cafe on Saint Honoré. During our walks, I was very upset to discover a Buddha Bar behind our hotel and called my brother-in-law, Mangala Moonesinghe, who was our High Commissioner in London at the time, to protest this indignity . However, my daughter looked at me and said, “Buddha is a philosopher, not a god. If it was a Da Vinci statue, would you object? She was right.
When I came home from that trip with my precious set of Frette sheets, I asked Daya, who had been the girls’ nanny but stayed with us long after they stole the nest, to pick it up. wash it and put it on the bed the same night. I liked those sheets so much that I didn’t want her to put any more sheets on the bed. So every time she changed the linen, poor Daya had to wash, iron and make my bed with the sheets, all in one day.
In the weeks and months that followed, she kept asking me to get her another set of Frette linens, so she wouldn’t have to run that laundry marathon regularly. I didn’t dare tell him that the reason we only had one set was because it was so expensive and I wasn’t going to buy another one.
Even though I worked during the girls’ growing years, Susil and I always made sure to take them on vacation somewhere overseas. In fact, from the time Anarkali was born and we had to travel even for business, Susil always took her with us, no matter how difficult it was to have a baby and then a toddler who we followed everywhere we went. He wouldn’t hear of leaving her in Colombo without us, even though my sister Roni, my mother and the nannies were doing just fine.
So from an early age, they were accustomed to travel and quickly got into the heart of the matter. From California to Florida – with Disneyworld and Disneyland of course – to Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and France, they’ve been around. We sometimes traveled home via Hong Kong and Singapore, to our friends Primus and Helen, who were like adoptive parents to the girls when I had to move them to Singapore during the JVP insurgency.
Since my childhood, I have always been fascinated by driving. As soon as I turned 18, I wanted to get my license. When I told my parents about it, they said, “We don’t even have a car. Why do you want to get a driver’s license? When I moved to Colombo, that determination to get my license grew stronger. I signed up for driving lessons at Lionel Learners, learned to drive, passed my test and got my license.
Once Susil and I started dating, I told him about my passion for driving. He took me to the Katukurunda race track. This is where I first tasted speed on a track. I was in heaven. He often took me on the track, accompanied by his brother Nimal and his wife Sita because “four is a crowd”. This was when our relationship was still secret and Susil and I weren’t meant to be seen together as a couple. Therefore, whenever we traveled, driving was what I indulged in. I walked hundreds of miles, never feeling tired but always absolutely elated.
My thrill of speed was fueled by watching all the Grand Prix races, sitting glued to the TV until I saw the final checkered flag and the medal ceremony too. When Lewis Hamilton arrived on the track, I became quite obsessed. I watched every race and also bought his book and read it cover to cover.
So when my friends Christina and Ong Beng Seng, who knew my Grand Prix obsession all too well, got the franchise for the Singapore Grand Prix, they asked me if I wanted to come to Singapore. I was delighted. I asked them to reserve a box for Friday, Saturday and the grand finale on Sunday.
We visited Tara in Australia before heading to Singapore for the Grand Prix. I had invited my friends Bri and Ramani Ponnambalam, who were both avid runners and racing enthusiasts, and Duke and his family from England. Anarkali and Aushi also invited their friends. All that excitement was for Lewis Hamilton, who we only got a glimpse of because we were close to his pit stop – but it was a great three days on the track.
I have always spent holidays with Susil, or the girls or one or a few of my girlfriends. But there came a time when I decided to travel alone. The girls didn’t encourage this sudden streak of independence, but I was fixated on a solo trip instead. The idea came to me when I visited former Nestlé country manager Andreas Schlapfer, who later became global president of Nestlé.
Andreas was married to Sandra who was American and they had a daughter. I often visited them in Switzerland, staying in their charming house which overlooked the Nestlé headquarters. Some may find it strange that I cultivated such a strong friendship with the chef of my main rival in the powdered milk business, but it was actually through this competition that we became such good friends. He always called me “Sumi Dearest”.
Andreas was stationed in Colombo with a No. 1 status firmly established for Nespray, when in 1984 I entered the milk powder market with Anchor, promising to push Nespray from that pedestal. I often met him when he was in Colombo and he joked that Anchor was no competitor for the power of Nespray. As the big battle between Nespray and Anchor escalated, Andreas moved to Nestlé in Thailand.
Andreas had already left Sri Lanka when, just two years after Anchor entered the market, Anchor triumphed in the Great Battle of Milks. The twin forces of having Rosy Senanayake as the face of Anchor where the whole country knew her as the ‘Mother Anchor’ and a hyped slogan ‘Fresh pastures from New Zealand’, pushed Anchor into the No. 1 slot in 1986 For years later, Andreas would jokingly say, “Sumi Dearest, ‘if I was in Colombo, you would never have beaten Nestlé.”
And in hindsight, I know he would never have allowed the business I founded to be sold to the New Zealand Dairy Board either – not after I had captured 70% market share. It was therefore while staying with them in 2018 that I decided to make this solo trip, reliving a memorable trip that we, as a family, had made in 1988.
Anarkali and Aushi should not be moved by their decision that I could not and would not travel alone. I was 73 and they kept trying to talk me out of it, talking about illness that could happen to me and all the travel horror stories they could tell. But I shouldn’t be shaken. It was my first trip alone and I wanted to feel that sense of independence and freedom. The girls finally gave in because I assured them that I would be texting four times a day and also had insurance against all eventualities. They were appeased.
Then I informed Andreas and Sandra of my plans – I wanted to travel to Zermatt, take the Glacier Express from St. Moritz and cut through Lucerne, Interlaken and Geneva, then arrive in London for my return trip to Colombo. Andreas patiently listened to my itinerary and said, “No Sumi Dearest, you’re not doing the trip that way. Let me organize it for you.
Andreas got to work. Its route included the highly efficient Swiss rail system which ran through the Gotthard tunnel, the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world connecting northern and southern Europe. It had just been opened and he wanted me to experience traveling through this tunnel. He also made sure that I would not be encumbered with my luggage; it would be delivered directly to the hotel.
I started my journey, really excited and full of joy that I was doing this journey totally by myself. After crossing the bowels of the earth in the Gotthard tunnel, I took the boat on Lake Lucerne and then went to Interlaken by train, which descends in switchbacks and takes multiple tight turns.
When I arrived in Interlaken, I visited Jungfrau – the highest station in the world located at around 2,500 meters above sea level with its majestic backdrop of ice, snow and rock. I stayed at the Beau Rivage hotel where we had stayed before and which gave me many memories. When I revisited each of the places we had been, I took photos and sent them to the girls, hoping they would also relive this vicarious journey through me.