Gail Howard's Gem Trade Adventures in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1965 and 1966
Finally, I just pulled her into the next room and gave the camera to Fiaz to snap our photo. She looked frightened until after the picture was taken. Then she grabbed onto my hand and arm and wouldn't let go of me. She was so grateful for the attention I had given her, she begged to go to Colombo with me. I felt sorry for Siah. Her lovely spirit had been warped by her family, by the love of her conservative grandmother and by the indifference of her sister.
Fiaz insisted that I tour the radio station. They were proud of their radio station which was built by the British. Fiaz had been a bit of a singing star himself while in his teens. He cut a few best selling records, but his family did not approve of his doing that anymore.
We visited the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya. It was a feast for the eyes, with all sorts of tropical plants, beautifully shaped umbrella trees and the tallest palm trees I have ever seen. Little boys displayed huge fruit bats they had caught. I rode an elephant bareback but he was so huge, my legs were almost doing the splits. I preferred riding on the elephant's trunk.
Next on Fiaz' entertainment agenda was to take me to the movie studios and introduce me to the movie stars of Ceylon. Fiaz had been a good host, but I begged out of that one because I had stayed longer in Ceylon than I had intended and it was time to be moving on.
Leon and I had come to Ceylon at a bad time: The squeeze was on. Customs had recently confiscated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gems. Also, the tax department was causing trouble, going into stores and private homes to confiscate goods not officially listed for tax purposes.
If gems could be bought only through legal channels, the taxes would price Ceylonese gems out of world markets. No buyers would come. Even the most respectable international gem dealers routinely and gladly paid the ten percent smuggling fee. I don't know who all the regular smuggler-types were, but airline stewardesses and pilots were often used for that purpose.
When Idroos Noordeen knew I was leaving Ceylon, he made an appointment with me to talk about customs officials and to introduce me to some influential people. As we drove, Idroos revealed that I had been reported to customs by that always-smiling waiter at the Galle Face Hotel.
If I were caught with gems going through customs, the informer would collect 12-1/2 percent of the value of my confiscated goods. Each morning at breakfast, the always-smiling waiter asked me when I was leaving. He couldn't wait until I was caught so he could get his cut.
When we arrived at the Blue Leopard restaurant, the daughter of the Deputy Minister and her fiancee were waiting for us. She was a sophisticated 19 year-old beauty who had attended finishing school in Switzerland. The luminous sari she wore was made of fabric she had bought in Paris. When traveling abroad, she wore only haute couture from Dior.
Neither were Muslim, so she was free to choose whom she would marry and was even dating him. Her fiancee, the only heart surgeon in Ceylon, was handsome and debonair. Idroos was his good friend and it was though him that Idroos received government favors from the girl. So young, yet she had the ear of every major political figure in Ceylon.
Idroos thought it was a good idea for me to meet her. Evidently she approved of me because the next evening I met with the customs officer who was on duty most days of the week. He arranged for me to take a flight to Singapore the following Friday when certain colleagues of his would be on duty and he could pass me through without inspecting my currency or my luggage.
With that assurance, I paid cash for a heavy parcel of commercial quality gemstones and decided to take them with me. But I gave instructions to hold onto the money until an hour after my flight took off - just in case.
While I was waiting for the flight, Idroos Noordeen called me at the airport to warn me that the waiter had reported that I was leaving today with a big load of gems. A special female customs officer had been assigned to search my person, inside and out.
I saw the greedy waiter in the customs office, eagerly waiting to point me out. So, I returned to town, checked into another hotel and booked a flight for the following day. I was tagged and everyone knew it.