Generosity: The heart of Sri Lanka

My throat tightened with tears as twenty young boys aged five to twelve lined up and one by one fell to their knees, touching their heads and hands to my feet. I wanted to pull each one into my arms, but instead reached down to pat heads and shoulders. This demonstration of gratitude and respect was repeated before my host, Muna, his little son, his parents, sisters, brothers, and several guest house staff members who bring the noon meal each month during Full Moon poya. It is an act of compassion and worship rooted in their Buddhist practice.

The small orphanage receiving these gifts from the family sits far along a dirt track, close to the simple temple we visited the evening before. In fact the very land upon which the temple sits was donated by this family, a family far from wealthy.

I had contributed nothing, but was encouraged to serve a plate of food to at least one child and then to deliver a cup of ice cream to another. Even the act of generosity was shared. I led one singing game and the boys sang for us in return. I photographed as many children as I could, each boy looking into the camera with amazing eyes and a bright smile. One fellow insisted that I take a picture of his t-shirt design. It must be very important to him.

Figure 1 One of 20 fabulous boys!

The boys sat in plastic chairs inside a basic shelter of concrete blocks. They washed their hands before and after the meal at a spigot near the door. They waited until all were served, said a brief prayer and ate enthusiastically. One boy said, “I love ice cream” in perfect English. As each boy carefully licked up every drop, I knew he had lots of company in that.

Figure 2 More sweethearts

Figure 3 Waiting to sing

Afterward, they knew the routine. Eat, wash your plate and cup and return it to the table for the next meal.

Before lunch they showed off their drawings. The subjects were cattle, trees, crocodiles, houses, elephants, Buddhas, dagobas, fruit……and oddly several beach scenes showing tourists under beach umbrellas with dolphin swimming past. A few included helicopters, but oddly there were no tuk tuks, buses, or tractors, the transportation most might have experienced. I tried to identify each artist and point to something special in their art. They loved the attention.

White shirts and blue shorts flapped on the clothes line. These are the government supplied school uniforms. A staff member, crisp in her sari was there to assist with homework and supervise their days. I spied their toothbrush rack and an outdoor shower.

Figure 4 tooth brush rack

There were no playing fields, no toys, games, puzzles, sports equipment. No video games, no television. In fact, these children have next to nothing that children in my world expect.

I thought of boys in schools where I’ve taught, or those who play with my grandson-noisy, action oriented, and with relatively short attention spans. What a contrast to these children who seemed peaceful, steady, and attentive. These children do not experience much variety in diet, activity, or exposure to the world. They own a change of clothing, some shower shoes, some school supplies. They probably have never seen the beach they drew, or attended a movie or a sports event. Life is simple indeed! Even a packet of balloons brings great delight!

The Munasingha family has roots going back two centuries in this area. They feel a deep responsibility to the community and dedication to Buddhism, contributing to temple and other community needs.

Figure 5 Family and Staff at Gem River Edge

But they are not alone. I am told that acts of generosity are common. Even those with few resources are quick to do what they can for others. There is a lesson here for me.

When the beggar approaches, I look for the smallest bill in my purse. When I am asked to contribute I compute what I can afford and cut to the quick on that. I am not Scrooge, to be sure. But I look to the Sri Lankan way to become more open hearted and handed.

Have I found the heartbeat of Sri Lanka for which I searched? I think so!

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E is for Elephant

An elephant hunt? Ridiculous. When had seeing elephants in the wild become such a priority for me? But sadly, as my trip progressed, I had given up. According to guidebooks and Sri Lankans themselves, I should see them frequently. Last week driving along the monsoon soggy edges of Minnereya National Park, the place I was sure to spot them, the driver slowed hopefully. “No, too wet. Elephants not come now,” Saman stated.

Maybe I should tour the park he suggested. “No thanks, I’ve tried twice in India and the only elephants I sort of saw were on the roadside in the dark. The parks are too noisy. No wild animal wants to be near those busy safari roads. “And besides” I thought, “I’ve spent too much on fees and guides and jeeps already. ENOUGH!” I can see elephants in zoos.”

But after days of travel fatigue recovery at Hideaway, in Arugum Bay, I reconsidered, gulping at the price of hiring a four wheel drive vehicle to visit nearby Kumana National Park (or Yala East). Sharon, the Hideaway owner, gently encouraged me and went the extra mile to find two more tourists to share the expense.

By 1:30 pm three of us are rumbling, rocking and rolling along a clay road pitted and washed out from recent monsoon rains. Our driver maneuvers expertly past washed out bridges and through lake sized puddles. It’s a long ride from Aragum Bay to the park. The road cuts through rice paddies that extend as far as one can see interrupted by lagoons, wetlands, and even views of the distant beaches of the Indian Ocean. The rice is in harvest and fragile fences are in place to protect the crop from elephants. Sentries spend the night in the fields to drive them away….But I disregard this. I am not going to see an elephant. I will concentrate on birds.

I pack my camera away and pull out my binoculars.

We enter the reserve having paid our fees at the gate. A young guide jumps aboard. And we bounce off on even rougher roads. My ribs hurt, and my stomach muscles begin to feel as if I’ve done three dozen sit ups.

But lucky us, this is the only vehicle on the road and it moves quietly along the sandy stretch. Birds migratory and endemic are everywhere. Ibis, Painted Storks, Lesser Egrets, White Pelicans, Whistling Teals, Spoon Bills, Ceylon Jungle Fowl, Indian Peacocks, Grey Heron, Malabar Pied Horned Bills. Eagles, Green and Blue Tailed bee eaters and more and more whose names I barely understand

Then there are herds of wild water buffalo, massive black creatures with threatening horns. They graze and wallow in mud with their calves while keeping wary eyes on the dog like jackals that hunt on the fringes of the herd. Spotted deer peacefully graze, the males sporting huge racks. We spy a massive sambhur deer with a competing rack, who stares back and does not retreat. Six hulking wild boar parade across the road and into the bushes.

Crocodiles sun themselves jaws agape. Enthusiastically I joke with the guide, “This is great… But where are the elephants?

Kumana has 100 elephants, but it also spreads across 357 square kilometers. I sighed. Needles in the haystack. What are the chances of one elephant coming near us?

How nice to be WRONG. First we spotted a huge bull standing in the shallows of a pond, quite distant from us. And then the count began….over the next two hours we encountered solo males shyly retreating into the bush, standing knee deep in water to pluck tender grasses, or scuffing up their choice morsels with graceful kicks of their front feet in the roadside dust. The young German couple began to joke. “We have seen so many now, perhaps we can see all 100. Let’s see only 81 to go. “

On a distant beach we see a TUSKER…. his huge ivories easy to see with binoculars. He is honored and sacred here in Sri Lanka. We are lucky again!

“You are a great guide,” I laughed. “But now to prove yourself, find a leopard.”

We reached the western boundary of the park, paid our respects at the small shrines there, and headed back in the dusk to exit the park by 6:30.

And then, across the road ambled six baby and three female elephants. We slowed. Mommy elephants are very protective. They hustled the brood into the bushes, trumpeted in warning and formed a barrier to their offspring.

Wow!…..can’t top that. My elephant priorities were more than satisfied.

I looked ahead on the darkening road. What was that? A LEOPARD. Oh my goodness. He nonchalantly crossed into the thicket. What luck. But although we flashed lights and backed up to see more….that was that.

We drove on……and then—-ANOTHER LEOPARD. This one sauntered across the road intent on getting his supper from the deer grazing nearby. Our truck spoiled his plans. The deer leapt away and the leopard slowly crept past. He would have to content himself with rabbits this evening.

Our driver and our guide were as excited as we. They began to mimic my words: Beautiful, Lucky. As tired and sore as we were, we were all energized. The truck jerked and jumped its way through the darkness.

I had finally enjoyed not only elephants but a varied and delightful wildlife safari. Our guide more than earned his tip! At 8:30 that evening, as we rolled up to Hideaway, I ordered a bottle of chilled white wine to celebrate!

Earth to Humans: Sacred Ground

The alarm calls at 5 a.m. My body, stiff from the jouncing ride of the past night resists. The call to prayer from the nearby mosque cuts through the darkness. I pull aside the mosquito nets and get out of bed. This is going to be a special morning. I dress quickly and join my guest house hostess, Sharon. We walk to the three-wheeler she has reserved and begin to ride the very same road I had bumped across yesterday through the flat expanse of rice paddies and wetlands.

Sharon pointed to a huge mountain of rocks in the distance….one of which had an odd knob on top. “That’s where we are going, You will have to climb.” I assure her that I can do it, despite my wrinkles and grey hair.

We pull up to the sign for the Kudimbigala Forest Hermitage. It began in 210 BC. Impressive. Hidden among boulders and dense jungle are 200 shrines and sheltered overhangs that also host a few meditating Buddhist monks. We begin to walk along the sandy paths, showing the strokes of the broom that has swept them clean. Ours are the first footprints of the day.

Sharon, a Sri Lankan raised as an Anglican, has visited this place since childhood. It is precious to her and I am privileged to have her as a guide. She walks confidently along in sarong and shower shoes; I am keeping up best I can in my sturdy sandals with non slip tread. At the base of a rough outcropping of boulders, we decide not to carry along a brick as we climb. Dagoba building and repairs are ahead and every brick would help.

Soon I am climbing holding to a steel cable embedded near the stone steps chiseled along one rock face after another. How could I have managed a brick?

We are suddenly on top of the world. Bird calls float up. In the distance, the sea is shining from the rising sun, and as we turn 360 degrees I see barely visible the outlines of the high country where I spent my first week in this country. We remove shoes and hoist ourselves to the platform where the ancient brick dagoba rises. I made it to the “odd knob” that we’d seen earlier.

We sit, sharing stories of our lives, our spiritual journeys, feeling the great peace of the place. Must we leave? I breathe in the peace resolved to carry it with me today. Down we walk soon rejoining the sandy paths that rise through the forest, past an old shrine where Buddha sits. I recite the Refuge Prayer. “Until the summit of enlightenment is reached I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Supreme Assembly of the Sangha.”

On we step through narrow passages between smooth rock walls. We approach a massive gong suspended from a tree. It is a hollow log about 5 feet long and slit along one side. When invited to ring it will call all nearby to prayer or meditation. I would love to hear it and feel its vibrations. We look back seeing that the forms of the boulders we have recently climbed stretch out as a natural sculpture, the Reclining Buddha.

At last we reach the main area of the hermitage to be greeted by a smooth white Buddha statue looking completely out of place among nature’s beauty. We are approached by a saffron robed monk carrying a huge plastic package of instant noodles. Sharon is saddened. “He should be eating red rice, prepared foods are not appropriate’. Recalling her childhood explorations she is unhappy that our path through the hermitage is now constrained by signs. ” Do not go farther. Do not disturb. ”

Change is coming here……as it has though the ages.

We move forward drawn toward a circle centered by a smooth stone slab….a meditation seat. We would like to sit there, but instead close our eyes, memorizing this place. We can return mentally whenever we want, hearing the birds and sensing what humans have always known.

Earth sends us messages. Some places are sacred. That is why age to age, humans are drawn to them. Beneath Chartres Cathedral and many other religious sites archeologists find the clues, old altars where prayers to other gods were offered and sacrifices performed.

How we honor the sacred may change, but it will always be. The Earth will not allow us to forget. And this forest hermitage will change as well, but the sacred message of this site will not be lost.

 

E is for Elephant

An elephant hunt? Ridiculous. When had seeing elephants in the wild become such a priority for me? But sadly, as my trip progressed, I had given up. According to guidebooks and Sri Lankans themselves, I should see them frequently. Last week driving along the monsoon sogged edges of Minnereya National Park, the place I was sure to spot them, the driver slowed hopefully. “No, too wet. Elephants not come now,” Saman stated.

Maybe I should tour the park he suggested. “No thanks, I’ve tried twice in India and the only elephants I sort of saw were on the roadside in the dark. The parks are too noisy. No wild animal wants to be near those safari roads. “And besides” I thought, “I’ve spent too much on fees and guides and jeeps already. ENOUGH!” I can see elephants in zoos.”

But after days of travel fatigue recovery at Hideaway, in Arugum Bay, I reconsidered, gulping at the price of hiring a four wheel drive vehicle to visit nearby Kumana National Park (or Yala East). Sharon, the owner of the place, gently encouraged me and went the extra mile to find two more tourists to share the expense. By 1:30 pm three of us are rumbling, rocking and rolling along a clay road pitted and washed out from recent monsoon rains. Our driver maneuvers expertly past washed out bridges and through lake sized puddles. It’s a long ride from Aragum Bay to the park. The road cuts through rice paddies that extend as far as one can see interrupted by lagoons, wetlands, and even the distant waves of the Indian Ocean. The rice is in harvest and fragile fences are in place to protect the crop from elephants. Sentries spend the night in the fields to drive them away….But I disregard this. I am not going to see an elephant. I will concentrate on birds.

I pack my camera away and pull out my binoculars.

We enter the reserve having paid our fees at the gate. A young guide jumps aboard. And we bounce off on even rougher roads. My ribs hurt, and my stomach muscles begin to feel as if I’d done three dozen sit ups.

But lucky us, this is the only vehicle and it moves quietly along the sandy roads. Birds migratory and endemic are everywhere. Ibis, Painted Storks, Lesser Egrets, White Pelicans, Whistling Teals, Spoon Bills, Ceylon Jungle Fowl, Indian Peacocks, Grey Heron, Malarbar Pied Horned Bills. Eagles, Green and Blue Tailed bee eaters and more and more whose names I barely understand

Then there are herds of wild bison, massive black creatures with threatening horns. They graze and wallow in mud with their calves keeping wary eyes on the dog like jackals that roam nearby. Spotted deer peacefully graze, the males sporting huge racks. We spy a massive sambal deer with a competing rack, who stares back and does not retreat. Six hulking wild boar parade across the road and into the bushes.

Crocodiles sun themselves jaws agape. Enthusiastically I joke with the guide, “This is great… But where are the elephants?

Kumana has 100 elephants, but it also has 357 square kilometers. I sighed. Needles in the haystack. What are the chances of one coming near us?

How nice to be WRONG. First we spotted a huge bull standing in the shallows of a pond, quite distant from us. And then the count began….over the next two hours we encountered solo males shyly retreating into the bush, standing knee deep in water to pluck tender grasses, or scuffing up their choice morsels with graceful kicks of their front feet in the roadside dust. The young German couple began to joke. “We have seen so many now, perhaps we can see all 100. Let’s see only 81 to go. ”

On a distant beach we see a TUSKER…. his huge ivories easy to see with binoculars. He is honored and sacred here in Sri Lanka. We are lucky again!

“You are a great guide,” I laughed. “But now to prove yourself, find a leopard.”

We reached the western boundary of the park, paid our respects at the small shrines there, and headed back in the dusk to exit the park by 6:30.

And then, across the road ambled six baby and three female elephants. We slowed. Mommy elephants are very protective. They hustled the brood into the bushes, trumpeted in warning and faced us forming a barrier to their offspring.

Wow!…..can’t top that. My elephant priorities were more than satisfied.

I looked ahead on the darkening road. What was that? A LEOPARD. Oh my goodness. He nonchalantly crossed into the thicket. What luck. But although we flashed lights and backed up to see more….that was that.

We drove on……and then—-ANOTHER LEOPARD. This one sauntered across the road intent on getting his supper from the deer grazing nearby. Our truck spoiled his plans. The deep leapt away and the leopard slowly crept past. He would have to content himself with rabbits this evening.

Our driver and our guide were as excited as we. They began to mimic my words: Beautiful, Lucky. As tired and sore as we were, we were all energized. The truck jerked and jumped its way through the darkness. In the paddies, sentry lanterns glowed as we passed.

I had finally enjoyed not only elephants but a varied and delightful wildlife safari. Our guide more than earned his tip! At 8:30 that evening, as we rolled up to Hideaway, I ordered a bottle of chilled white wine to celebrate!

E is for Elephant

An elephant hunt? Ridiculous. When had seeing elephants in the wild become such a priority for me? But sadly, as my trip progressed, I had given up. According to guidebooks and Sri Lankans themselves, I should see them frequently. Last week driving along the monsoon sogged edges of Minnereya National Park, the place I was sure to spot them, the driver slowed hopefully. “No, too wet. Elephants not come now,” Saman stated.

Maybe I should tour the park he suggested. “No thanks, I’ve tried twice in India and the only elephants I sort of saw were on the roadside in the dark. The parks are too noisy. No wild animal wants to be near those safari roads. “And besides” I thought, “I’ve spent too much on fees and guides and jeeps already. ENOUGH!” I can see elephants in zoos.”

But after days of travel fatigue recovery at Hideaway, in Arugum Bay, I reconsidered, gulping at the price of hiring a four wheel drive vehicle to visit nearby Kumana National Park (or Yala East). Sharon, the owner of the place, gently encouraged me and went the extra mile to find two more tourists to share the expense. By 1:30 pm three of us are rumbling, rocking and rolling along a clay road pitted and washed out from recent monsoon rains. Our driver maneuvers expertly past washed out bridges and through lake sized puddles. It’s a long ride from Aragum Bay to the park. The road cuts through rice paddies that extend as far as one can see interrupted by lagoons, wetlands, and even the distant waves of the Indian Ocean. The rice is in harvest and fragile fences are in place to protect the crop from elephants. Sentries spend the night in the fields to drive them away….But I disregard this. I am not going to see an elephant. I will concentrate on birds.

I pack my camera away and pull out my binoculars.

We enter the reserve having paid our fees at the gate. A young guide jumps aboard. And we bounce off on even rougher roads. My ribs hurt, and my stomach muscles begin to feel as if I’d done three dozen sit ups.

But lucky us, this is the only vehicle and it moves quietly along the sandy roads. Birds migratory and endemic are everywhere. Ibis, Painted Storks, Lesser Egrets, White Pelicans, Whistling Teals, Spoon Bills, Ceylon Jungle Fowl, Indian Peacocks, Grey Heron, Malarbar Pied Horned Bills. Eagles, Green and Blue Tailed bee eaters and more and more whose names I barely understand

Then there are herds of wild bison, massive black creatures with threatening horns. They graze and wallow in mud with their calves keeping wary eyes on the dog like jackals that roam nearby. Spotted deer peacefully graze, the males sporting huge racks. We spy a massive sambal deer with a competing rack, who stares back and does not retreat. Six hulking wild boar parade across the road and into the bushes.

Crocodiles sun themselves jaws agape. Enthusiastically I joke with the guide, “This is great… But where are the elephants?

Kumana has 100 elephants, but it also has 357 square kilometers. I sighed. Needles in the haystack. What are the chances of one coming near us?

How nice to be WRONG. First we spotted a huge bull standing in the shallows of a pond, quite distant from us. And then the count began….over the next two hours we encountered solo males shyly retreating into the bush, standing knee deep in water to pluck tender grasses, or scuffing up their choice morsels with graceful kicks of their front feet in the roadside dust. The young German couple began to joke. “We have seen so many now, perhaps we can see all 100. Let’s see only 81 to go. “

On a distant beach we see a TUSKER…. his huge ivories easy to see with binoculars. He is honored and sacred here in Sri Lanka. We are lucky again!

“You are a great guide,” I laughed. “But now to prove yourself, find a leopard.”

We reached the western boundary of the park, paid our respects at the small shrines there, and headed back in the dusk to exit the park by 6:30.

And then, across the road ambled six baby and three female elephants. We slowed. Mommy elephants are very protective. They hustled the brood into the bushes, trumpeted in warning and faced us forming a barrier to their offspring.

Wow!…..can’t top that. My elephant priorities were more than satisfied.

I looked ahead on the darkening road. What was that? A LEOPARD. Oh my goodness. He nonchalantly crossed into the thicket. What luck. But although we flashed lights and backed up to see more….that was that.

We drove on……and then—-ANOTHER LEOPARD. This one sauntered across the road intent on getting his supper from the deer grazing nearby. Our truck spoiled his plans. The deep leapt away and the leopard slowly crept past. He would have to content himself with rabbits this evening.

Our driver and our guide were as excited as we. They began to mimic my words: Beautiful, Lucky. As tired and sore as we were, we were all energized. The truck jerked and jumped its way through the darkness. In the paddies, sentry lanterns glowed as we passed.

I had finally enjoyed not only elephants but a varied and delightful wildlife safari. Our guide more than earned his tip! At 8:30 that evening, as we rolled up to Hideaway, I ordered a bottle of chilled white wine to celebrate!

Where is the Heartbeat?

I’ve thought of myself as a traveler, not a tourist. But on this trip, I have been pulled into the stream of what tourists do. Why? I’ve allowed the guide book to tell me where to go, what to see, what to avoid, how to stay safe. Sometimes I find the advice on track. Sometimes not. But I also find that I am just a part of the herd of fellow tourists, some here to avoid the winters of their home countries, others to see the sights.

I try to learn to read between the lines of the guidebook. What is this sentence really telling me about the experience to come? It seems that if there is a way to twist a sentence toward to positive, to eliminate the opinion of the writer, the guide book editors strive to do so. It’s as if I am on a moving track, something like the ones in airports that take you along faster than you can walk. I am checking off the “to be seens” but somehow not fully grasping the heartbeat of this place. It eludes me.

Usually because I travel solo, I meet a lot of people….real people, of the place I visit. I have not found this easy here. Would staying in one place longer, as I did in Chiapas provide more opportunity? Is language the only issue? Certainly it has been a larger one in Sri Lanka than in India. The people I’ve met are for the most part industry people…drivers, waiters, clerks. Their never-fail smiles and friendly behavior is charming. Are they friendly because they are paid to be, or because being personal with you may encourage you to give them business? I choose to believe that the spirit of these people is sincere and kind.

I observe a country recovering and healing. There is a growing educated and moneyed class, but the majority struggle for each rupee. From the bus I travel on, I see a caravan of 10 bicycles, each loaded with a stack of firewood. Men are pushing and pedaling these heavy loads for miles. Along the route are small houses amid groves of banana trees. Nearby girls pump water into urns to carry home, women stand at reservoirs slapping the family wash against stones. Men with deformed feet hobble onto the buses and people hand them a few rupees for their troubles. Men carry huge sacks of product onto the buses and off again. The buses are at least 40 years old—tough, noisy and seemingly eternal pieces of scrap metal that rattle across yet to be repaired roads. Men and women work in the paddies, hard and backbreaking labor. Roadsides are littered with tiny shacks, each selling something—a snack, some fruit, water, eggs—–pin money for some family.

Labor is cheap and the way to complete a task not so efficient. At my hotel, two slight young men worked from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. shoveling sand, mixing and pouring concrete one wheelbarrow at a time into trenches. Two older women arrive every morning to rake leaves from the sand beneath the trees and carry them away on a blanket. (I can’t say I miss the roar of a leaf blower!) A fisherman casts a net off the beach for a few small fish to add to his morning curry. Life is not yet easy for most.

In contrast, I talked at length with two well-educated young women who with their husbands are on holiday from their architecture-design jobs in Colombo and briefly with a navy officer and his family who are solid middle class. Some Sengalese are staying at this spendy hotel too. Everyone is certainly not struggling!

What does it take to get ahead? Many young people leave, with their family’s encouragement for Australia or Italy to take whatever jobs they can find, for these will pay more than they can earn here. If their families can afford to send them to school out of Sri Lanka, they will be assured big salaries when they return. Those abroad send money home to help families complete unfinished homes, to help educate a younger sibling. But will these expatriates return themselves?

And what about those facing retirement? My driver’s wife is a teacher with 24 years of experience in the government schools. Her salary is low, but she works on because she will receive a pension, he will not. I shared tea with the Vicar of the 160-year- old Holy Trinity Anglican church of Nuwara Eliya who voiced his concerns over the financial health of his parish and his own as he nears retirement. Money —for survival and for financial security is on everyone’s mind.

The President of the Sri Lanka is visible everywhere….on huge billboards. His power seems unlimited and while some suspect that he and many ministers are using their power to build personal wealth, there is little will to challenge him. In general the Sengalese honor him for ending the war. They are relieved to have peace. Prosperity is on its way and they scramble to get their piece of it. No one wants to rock the boat.

As I move into the last days in Sri Lanka, I will be a beach bum, hanging out, reading material from home, listening to my I-pod, grateful that the weather is sunny, the beach is gorgeous, the breeze steady. I am privileged with a vacation in the tropics, something most Oregonians dream about through our chilly, drippy winters. But frankly, I could enjoy the same in Florida, Hawaii, Mexico……why travel so far to sit on a beach?

I travel to feel the heartbeats of other cultures, to understand and appreciate what makes people in other places like me and different too, to see the world through their eyes. I travel to experience their artistic heritage and to admire innovations and solutions that might be great at home. When I return, my perspective on my own issues and the world I inhabit will be broader than before.

In a few days I will witness a full moon worship occasion (poya) in a place famous for its multi religious culture, Kataragama.

Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus will each be worshipping on this special evening. There will be a mixing of images and ways of honoring the traditions and gods of each.

Optistically I believe this will expose further the heart of Sri Lanka, the one that certainly beats just below the surface.

Floating in the great blue—–

“Floating in the great blue 1 km offshore Pigeon Island, with its powdery white sands and glittering coral gardens, tantalizes with possibilities.” Lonely Planet’s effusive description really “set me up” for disappointment. I was tantalized all right.

The possibilities failed to materialize.

Pigeon Island is a small green island marked by outcroppings of boulders and low trees. The rock pigeons that breed there are enjoying the rocks. I appreciated the shade from the trees. The coral is not so fortunate. The water is clear and blue, thanks to a blue sky and calm sea. The sand may be powdery, but there is so much dead coral washed up that one cannot walk without water shoes. The water is indeed shallow (a Lonely Planet selling point), so shallow that it is difficult to float above the coral and not become scratched, so shallow that many snorkelers are kicking into and standing upon the rocks and coral, inflicting further damage. Perhaps the great 2004 tsunami did most of the damage, but boatloads of tourists including those of Sri Lanka aren’t giving this place time to heal.

If the Sri Lankan government really is sincere in its protective efforts it could declare the whole area off limits for some years, for in places one can see that all is not lost. Some fragile finger coral is growing as well as are small patches of XXXXX. But the color and grandeur of mature coral reefs is certainly not to be seen off the beaches of Pigeon Island.

Tropical fish feed on coral and each other. So without much live coral, the fish population cannot be expected to be huge. Although there are a few hardy representatives feeding here and there, larger schools of various types are nowhere to be seen.

It is unfair of me to complain, for I compare this experience with some of the best snorkeling possible: The Tortugas off the coast of Key West Florida, just about any cay in the Caribbean especially in the British and American Virgin Islands, and of course the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

But Sri Lanka is not alone. The smell of money from tourists breeds abuse around the world. I also remember equal disappointment off the coast of Vietnam more than 10 years back as huge party boats created untold damage off shore.

I can only pray that the damage I see at Pigeon Island is not repeated at all of Sri Lankas undersea gardens. Hopefully those who deep sea dive are finding better reefs. The Sri Lankan government has declared this place a protected National Park. I paid a comparatively large fee to visit….money that I wish was actually PROTECTING this and other reefs off the coast. I also wish with all my heart that whatever we humans are doing to damage our precious ocean resources can be better controlled.

Give Me Your Tired (your rich) !

I Mi AT

Lodgings during this trip have been what I’d call “middle class”. Not the least expensive possible, for a backpacker was averaging 700 rupees a night. I spent an average of 4500 SLR for bed and breakfast, but the resting places varied widely in quality.

But today I am in the lap of luxury and happily paying every rupee required. Perfection has its price. Every switch actually turns on something, there are light fixtures that shade the bulbs, there is a desk, a mini fridge and an electric water pot with coffee or tea for my first thing in the morning habit. There are comfortable wooden chairs that face a shady forest and position me for a view of the Indian Ocean. The mattress and the pillows are just right, a real treat. There are no mosquitoes inside and the air conditioner is quiet.

 

The pool sparkles as an attendant plays games with the monkeys. As they knock leaves from the trees, he scoops them out. There is a closet, where the doors actually open providing HANGERS. The light switch is located by the bedside, not across the room. The current is dependable. Best of all the hot water is HOT and the bathroom doesn’t smell of sewage in the pipes. This list is what one expects almost anywhere in the United States, but this level of detail is rare to find in Sri Lanka, except at the “luxury” level.

And for foodie me, there is a cabana restaurant open all day and ready to serve a la carte. To top perfection off, the phone rang at 9 pm and a concerned staff member reminded me that the dining room closed in half an hour. I woke myself up from a four hour nap and enjoyed a four course meal—appetizer, soup, grilled fish and veggies, and dessert…..and best of all breads and rolls like those at home. Then I came back to the room and slept another eight hours. Of course I was tired. Think of that day’s experience.

Four hours of the bumpiest, most miserable road I have traveled. As I climbed down from the bus, my teeth were clinched from the effort of not biting my tongue and I was hungry. I hopped a three wheeler for the short ride from Trincomalee to Nilaveli, where I’d made reservations online at the Pigeon Island View Rest House. From the moment I arrived, the vibes weren’t right. But I’d paid In advance for three nights…….sooooooooo. I was shown a simple room, with only a slight bathroom odor. I opened windows in spite of mosquito danger and looked about for a restaurant. The guide book says that food is provided. But no sign. I motioned that I wanted to eat. Someone brought me a Coke. I saw that I was the only guest. From the balcony I spied the Indian Ocean and the small cabana where a Dive Shop operates. Some men sat there drinking beer.

The owner, an older, tall Tamil man arrived to greet me. His English was more than competent. He explained how his original buildings were destroyed and he nearly died during the 2004 tsunami along with more than 30,000 of his countrymen. He provided four bananas. I asked when I could have lunch. What do I want to eat? “Something simple…..maybe a piece of fish and definitely not rice and curry—something quick, I’ve not had breakfast”. He said his women helpers would make food and bring it up. I waited—experience here shows that food is always slow to appear. As I waited I surveyed the scene–only plastic chairs, no sign of any way to sit and relax, no hammocks, no nothing. My stomach reminded me again that it needed some nourishment.

Because my bus left early I’d asked my previous guest house for a take away breakfast. It provided two boiled eggs and a tangerine. But halfway through the trip, I cracked an egg to discover that it was soft boiled and not something to manage on a bumpy bus. Oh well, I could do without food for four or five hours hours…..no problem!

That bus trip. What an experience!

After saying goodbye to my driver, Saman, I’d climbed into the seat behind the driver so that I could wrap my legs around my suitcase. There was a bit more space for it, but it took up the space for legs and feet. These buses are not made for passengers with luggage and others who had more than mimimal stuff were piling it on the floor near the front door—all the better to trip those entering and leaving the bus during its frequent moving pauses. During my ride my seat companions changed six times…..the last a charming little girl with perfect teeth and a mischievous smile.

The bus traveled over a stretch of road that is under construction….a one lane, crater ridden blacktop that alternated with pot holed red clay surface. The bus driver geared up and down, weaving at times off the eight-inch drop to the shoulder to allow other traffic to pass. His assistant rang a bell when someone needed to get out…..the driver barely paused and the passenger jumped off and away as the bus continued to roll.

I looked up from my musing. Now I realized I’ve waited close to two hours for that lunch.

I begin to look for the kitchen. I find it. A counter filled with bowls of raw chopped veggies (this is going to be a rice and curry meal—exactly what I do not want and one that takes a long time to prepare.) No people in sight, but a zillion flies swarmed the open bowls. Two women arrived. This will not do. They could not understand a thing I said as I offered to scramble myself an egg, but they knew I was not happy.

I went up to my room, put my belongings together, telephoned the “best hotel” in the area, and called for a three wheeler.

The host arrived. We are not used to fixing lunch for guests”, he explained. You are the only guest so we had no food on hand. I’ve bought supplies. You cannot leave now.” S

“Yes, I am. I am not going to be comfortable here. You have been paid in advance. You are not to feel guilty. Serve the food to your staff.” He begged me to eat before I left. Visions of flies appeared. I said goodbye.

So cultures clashed. Of course most of these small operations only cook breakfast and one other meal—usually served as a buffet with rice and various curried side dishes. Twice these buffets have caused diarrhea—probably because the food sat in its steamer trays too long or was prepared in kitchens such as the one I visited. Who knows?

So now I sit in the lap of luxury, enjoying every convenience. Soon I will go snorkeling and explore Pigeon Island National Park, The Sri Lankan government will charge me nearly $30 for the experience and the boatman another $15. But I am here only once….and it’s been a dozen years since I experienced the magical world of the reefs.

I may not be rich, but I can afford this. Nilaveli Beach Hotel is charging me $125 a day with breakfast and dinner included. Not bad by US standards. And while this place is not the Statue of Liberty, I feel “liberated”—grateful that it is here to receive me, “the tired”, if not quite “poor”. I am sighing with relief!

An Ancient Visits the Ancient

Okay. I am not as ancient as the Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka. But as I toured these well-marketed tourist sites, I felt old and jaded. Unfortunate me! I’ve visited too many ancient cities, stumbled over their ruins, looked at what remains of splendiferous palaces, impenetrable fortresses, scarred sculptures and bas relief. Frankly, the Ancient Cities and associated Buddhist and Hindu sites disappointed me in spite of their magnificent settings in verdant tropical green. Like a religious, I followed the travelers’ bible, Lonely Planet, to direct me and my Sri Lankan driver to all the must sees.

Come along, follow me: along the clay roads through park like forests coverin acres of yet to be dug ruins. This is an archeoloigist’s playground. Is it yours? Out of the car, past the hawkers of post cards and trinkets. Ignore the stands selling drinks and snacks. Up the stairs, along the paths, past the endless foundations of former buildings- some with remaining standing columns, to the signpost where the IMPORTANT place is to be viewed. Wipe the perspiration off your brow. Take off your shoes and hat. Walk tenderly along the pebbly paths of the sacred areas.

But wait. Ah Ha! There it is. Page 195, Lonely Planet. And in too many cases IT is a single piece of rather ragged stone carving, a few bas relief figures holding up a set of stairs, a deeply faded (use your imagination) fresco.

Yet I do not want to paint these experiences with an entirely negative brush. Here in Anuradhapura this humid morning, or under the dripping skies at Mihintale yesterday, or three days ago at the truly lovely water garden approach to the great Sigiriya there are moments to remember.

Huge and I do mean huge dagobas——mounded brick structures topped with spires that reach incredibly high. Caves where monks meditated, the ruins of great monasteries where thousands of Buddhist monks practiced, zillions of stone stairsteps chiseled into rock outcroppings, several on-site museums where archeological findings of beads, iron hinges and nails, tiny bronze and gold Buddhas, pottery, and a few rescued statues are displayed, vast tanks or pools for bathing some shaped like lotus blossoms.

These are evidences of an advanced civilization and one deeply devoted to Buddhism. While most of these did not speak to me, several did:

In Anurdhapura, Samadhi Buddha is found within the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery sitting, as he has sat since the 4th century, in deep meditation beneath an open shelter. There is a special aura of deep respect here. My driver (who struggles to speak English) was able to tell me that during a well-attended worship time in the late 1980’s, over 180 people mostly women, died in a terrorist attack and this peaceful image was badly damaged. A young visitor sat for a very long time on the sandy path before the image in deep prayer. I imagined that he and many others come here not only as Buddhists, but in respect and in memory of those who have died through these senseless acts. As he prayed others came to touch the flower table or to lay their offerings of lotus blossoms there.

Nearby in Mihintale, I climbed thousands of chiseled stone stairs to the top of the mountain where natural caves and ledges were the meditation homes of nearly 70 monks at a time. Nearby, stood ruins of halls for prayers, for preaching, and residences for thousands more. Enormous stone troughs waited for rice to be donated by the faithful….dana—a freewill offering. I could only guess at the effort it took to grow, harvest, prepare this rice and then lug it up those stone stairs.

In Polonaruwa, I felt that I’d entered a cathedral of sorts……the one remaining temple with a roof, a huge standing Buddha dominating the space, the walls still showing evidence of color frescos. Passing through a side door, I followed a narrow corridor leading behind the Buddha. In semi darkness, I imagined the chants, the incense, and walked with the ghosts of centuries past in meditation.

Sigiriya is the Ultimate. 370 meters high—the hardened magma core of an extinct volcano—is the focal point of early garden design. Visitors are led across the lily filled moat, along straight paths past pools of the water garden, up stone steps to the boulder garden and then ever upward to the dizzying heights at the pinnacle. There one sees forever….the now tiny gardens below, the distant fields and hills. Whatever its purposes and inspiration of the past, one cannot fail to be inspired here.

And I will not forget the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy—-not for its architectural beauty, or the gold encrusted casket holding the Sacred Tooth, or the colorful ritual of the three poya sessions. I will remember the thousands of faithful families carrying their young ones to be blessed, bringing their best gifts to the Temple. This is a tourist Must Do. Yet, for Sri Lankans it is far more. It is here that I experienced the depth of Sri Lankas Buddhist roots.

Perhaps I am travel fatigued. Perhaps I bought in to the hype of tourist propaganda. Too good to be true?

Yet I do see and understand the importance of the Ancient Cities, the pride and ownership Sri Lankans feel toward these places. After years as a colony of Dutch and British, a divisive civil war, they are reestablishing their nationhood. They deserve to be proud of their heritage. What can be more reassuring than to look back at verifiable accomplishments. The government in playing up this heritage by improving highways to these sites and by encouraging the burgeoning tourist industry. In doing so it builds the economy and national pride.

Sri Lankans are inspired by their ancient roots. These give hope and enthusiasm for the future as they recognize that this core energy, intelligence, and spirit continues in their gene pool as they rebuild and re-emerge.

An Ancient Visits the Ancient

Okay. I am not as ancient as the Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka. But as I toured these well-marketed tourist sites, I felt old and jaded. Unfortunate me! I’ve visited too many ancient cities, stumbled over their ruins, looked at what remains of splendiferous palaces, impenetrable fortresses, scarred sculptures and bas relief. Frankly, the Ancient Cities and associated Buddhist and Hindu sites disappointed me in spite of their magnificent settings in verdant tropical green. Like a religious, I followed the travelers’ bible, Lonely Planet, to direct me and my Sri Lankan driver to all the must sees.

Come along, follow me: along the clay roads through park like forests, out of the car, past the hawkers of post cards and trinkets. Ignore the stands selling drinks and snacks. Up the stairs, along the paths, past the endless foundations of former buildings- some with remaining standing columns, to the signpost where the IMPORTANT place is to be viewed. Wipe the perspiration off your brow. Take off your shoes and hat. Walk tenderly along the pebbly paths of the sacred areas. Do this repeatedly for days. There are acres of these sites…..spread along roads, puddled with rain. This is an archeologist’s playground, but is it yours?

But wait. Ah Ha! There it is. Page 195, Lonely Planet. And in too many cases IT is a single piece of rather ragged stone carving, a few bas relief figures holding up a set of stairs, a deeply faded (use your imagination) fresco.

Yet I do not want to paint these experiences with an entirely negative brush. Here in Anuradhapura this humid morning, or under the dripping skies at Mihintale yesterday, or three days ago at the truly lovely water garden approach to the great Sigiriya there are moments and great works to remember.

Huge and I do mean huge dagobas——mounded brick structures topped with spires that reach incredibly high. Caves where monks meditated, the ruins of great monasteries where thousands of Buddhist monks practiced, zillions of stone stairsteps chiseled into rock outcroppings, several on-site museums where archeological findings of beads, iron hinges and nails, tiny bronze and gold Buddhas, pottery, and a few rescued statues are displayed, vast tanks or pools for bathing some shaped like lotus blossoms.

These are evidences of an advanced civilization and one deeply devoted to Buddhism. While most of these did not speak to me, several did:

In Anurdhapura, Samadhi Buddha is found within the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery sitting, as he has sat since the 4th century, in deep meditation beneath an open shelter. There is a special aura of deep respect here. My driver (who struggles to speak English) was able to tell me that during a well-attended worship time in the late 1980’s, over 180 people mostly women, died in a terrorist attack and this peaceful image was badly damaged. A young visitor sat for a very long time on the sandy path before the image in deep prayer. I imagined that he and many others come here not only as Buddhists, but in respect and in memory of those who have died through these senseless acts. As he prayed others came to touch the flower table or to lay their offerings of lotus blossoms there.

Nearby in Mihintale, I climbed thousands of chiseled stone stairs to the top of the mountain where natural caves and ledges were the meditation homes of nearly 70 monks at a time. Nearby, stood ruins of halls for prayers, for preaching, and residences for thousands more. Enormous stone troughs waited for rice to be donated by the faithful….dana—a freewill offering. I could only guess at the effort it took to grow, harvest, prepare this rice and then lug it up those stone stairs.

In Polonaruwa, I felt that I’d entered a cathedral of sorts……the one remaining temple with a roof, a huge standing Buddha dominating the space, the walls still showing evidence of color frescos. Passing through a side door, I followed a narrow corridor leading behind the Buddha. In semi darkness, I imagined the chants, the incense, and walked with the ghosts of centuries past in meditation.

Sigiriya is the Ultimate. 370 meters high—the hardened magma core of an extinct volcano—is the focal point of early garden design. Visitors are led across the lily filled moat, along straight paths past pools of the water garden, up stone steps to the boulder garden and then ever upward to the dizzying heights at the pinnacle. There one sees forever….the now tiny gardens below, the distant fields and hills. Whatever its purposes and inspiration of the past, one cannot fail to be inspired here.

And I will not forget the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy—-not for its architectural beauty, or the gold encrusted casket holding the Sacred Tooth, or the colorful ritual of the three poya sessions. I will remember the thousands of faithful families carrying their young ones to be blessed, bringing their best gifts to the Temple. This is a tourist Must Do. Yet, for Sri Lankans it is far more. It is here that I experienced the depth of Sri Lankas Buddhist roots.

Perhaps I am travel fatigued. Perhaps I bought in to the hype of tourist propaganda. Too good to be true?

Yet I do see and understand the importance of the Ancient Cities, the pride and ownership Sri Lankans feel toward these places. After years as a colony of Dutch and British, a divisive civil war, they are reestablishing their nationhood. They deserve to be proud of their heritage. What can be more reassuring than to look back at verifiable accomplishments. The government in playing up this heritage by improving highways to these sites and by encouraging the burgeoning tourist industry. In doing so it builds the economy and national pride.

Sri Lankans are inspired by their ancient roots. These give hope and enthusiasm for the future as they recognize that this core energy, intelligence, and spirit continues in their gene pool as they rebuild and re-emerge.