Full Moon Blessings

Full moon is a monthly celebration in Sri Lanka, a holiday. This month families have a three day weekend to travel to places of spiritual importance to perform puja or worship. Here in Kataragama, a small village with a hybrid of spiritual traditions, I am witness. This sleepy town with shady tree-bordered streets comes to life at Full Moon and during the July/August arrival of thousands of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim pilgrims who walked and camped in the jungles for up to 45 days. They may have walked from as far away as Jaffna in the north.

This weekend vans full of Sri Lankans arrive—-group tours from temples in Colombo, extended families from far and near. They fill every bed in town and in the larger nearby city Tissamaharama. Under the roadside trees, families spread picnics or sit near makeshift kitchens set in palm roofed cabanas to enjoy their meals.

I am fortunate to stay at a small, family-oriented guest home where being in sync with nature is the key philosophy. Food is organic, much raised on family land, prepared on wood fires, in earthenware pots. Guests are served under a palm-roofed cabana at tables topped with natural stone slabs to enjoy Sri Lankan fare. I chat with hosts Carla and Muna……(Munasingha is the family name). Their style is relaxed and informal. I soon feel part of the family enjoying the play of Janit, the nearly two year old first son. I’m invited to observe puja with them, to borrow a bike for early bird watching experience or take a dip in the river that borders their land. It’s safe where the water bubbles over the rocks, but not in quiet waters where crocodiles wait.

But my first day’s focus is the Full Moon celebration. I arrive at the temple area at 5:30 to prepare for the 6:30 ritual. The moon will soon rise above the expansive leafy park where many Hindu and Buddhist shrines and an impressive mosque stand ready. Stands selling colorful fruit and flower arrangements line the lanes at the entrance. Other vendors sell cheap toys and souvenirs and offer cases of sweets. There is a carnival like vibe, without the raucousness.

Sri Lankans crowd around the fruit stands to select elaborate arrangements. Some are buying lotus and other flowers. Many are dressed in white. As I join the crowd surging across the bridge, I watch many washing themselves in the river below, an act of purification, while children frolic noisily in the water. I walk the smooth sandy paths, passing shrines lit with sparkly strings of lights or neon. Bright colored posters of gods and Buddhas can be seen inside, some boasting twinkly lights. Men and women surge past carrying upon their heads enormous platters of fruit.

Drums and trumpets draw me forward as a small band of girls and young men strut rhythmically along in shiny outfits worthy of Mardi Gras. Many costumes are decorated with peacock tails. They are followed by some adults carrying feathers and trying to keep up with the energetic gyrations ahead. The little parade disappears along the path.

Ahead is the gate to the Sivam Kovil. The shrine area’s walls are topped with peacock images; rows of elephant heads form the base. Here we leave our shoes behind to enter sacred space. Thousands of fruit laden worshipers are forming long lines to present their offerings, receive blessing and give a portion to the temple. Others are setting coconuts ablaze and then smashing them against a stone, an act of sacrifice. The major Hindu shrines in this compound are dedicated to Muragan, the protector of Sri Lanka and to the elephant headed god, Ganesha, who removes obstacles and encourages intellectual pursuits.

Figure 1the crowd enters the shrine

The lines grow to extend around the fence line. Amazingly quiet and orderly, people wait and wait to move into the shrines to offer their gifts. The line never shrinks as more and more people arrive throughout the evening. Inside the shrine, assistants take the fruit, divide it so that a portion is for the temple. The rest is returned to the donor. Exiting each donor receives a blessing symbolized by a touch of ash upon the forehead and water poured into the palm from a brass pitcher. Outside people begin to eat the blessed fruit and offer it to others. I am given bananas, coconut, and other goodies throughout the evening. I am told that both Buddhists and Hindu are participating in this ritual.

The huge Bodhi tree attracts me next, its ancient branches framing the full moon. A shiny brass fence protects the twisted trunk. The fence is nearly covered with strings of prayer flags. Buddhists place their flower offerings here and walk prayerfully around the tree led by monks. I think of the Buddha’s determination as he sat beneath such a tree. Enlightenment—reality—the way things are and a way we can each attain freedom was his accomplishment. Could I sit with such dedicated compassion?

People continue to approach sharing fruit, asking where I am from. On the following evening I visit the shining white dagoba located beyond this noisy compound. I join in the puja in placing flowers, oil and incense at the four cardinal points where Buddha images are placed.

Figure 2 lotus offerings

Tonight has been a hopeful experience that traditions can mix, that religious beliefs need not divide us.

I walk slowly away, essence of cut fruit, incense, smoke from burning coconuts sweetening the air. The huge brass bell that hangs inside the compound sounds again and again. The drummers reappear with young men jiving along with them.

The temple elephant, chains dragging and pitiful in its captivity, is led forth to enjoy the contributions of blessed fruit as streams of departing people share with him.

Elephant, may blessings come to you too.

Figure 4Full moon over dagoba

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Lessons in rice and curry

Loving to cook as I do, I am thrilled to be invited into the rustic kitchen at Gem River Edge by the two cooks. These elders are nicknamed “uncle” and “auntie”. Uncle is a skin and bones guy, his wide smile punctuated by missing teeth, his movements quick and efficient. Cooking is only one job. His real profession is electrician. He wears sarong and peers at me through thick glasses clouded with smoke and spatter.

His assistant, auntie, boasts a graying braid and a stocky figure. She walks with a slight arthritic hesitation. She smiles broadly, hugs me and declares that we are sisters. I feel welcomed, am offered a stool and tea, but choose to stand and watch.

Figure 1 Auntie at the chopping board

The main meal today is rice and curry. A vat sized pot holds plump red rice, already prepared. Along the counters are piles of vegetables, each the basis of a curry. Red onions have already been sliced and sit aside with some pods of garlic. A green vegetable that is new to me is sliced in 1/8 inch pieces. They look like a rectangular figure eights. Will I find these at Portland’s Asian markets? About eight cups of these slices are placed in a soot-blackened kettle along with approximately 1.5 cups of onion slices. Now a teaspoon of turmeric, a heaping teaspoon of curry powder, an inch of cinnamon stick, a generous sprinkling of salt and a half handful of fresh curry leaves are stirred in. Then about 3 cups of coconut milk, squeezed from freshly grated coconut mixed with water. I am surprised that no oil was used in this recipe.

Figure 2 spice cupboard

Uncle squats at the small fire heated stove, adding sticks and blowing through a tube to bring up the flames. He covers the kettle and turns to the next vegetable.

 

“Fifteen minutes”, he says. He explains that in this kitchen, very little chili is used. Guests can’t handle it and the owners of this restaurant believe that too much chili hides the taste of the food. Staff, who love chili, must supplement with pickles, sweet and spicy.

Auntie washes a huge bunch of small delicate leaves attached to tender stems. I will try to identify it, but experienced the same dish made with coriander leaves. She sets them to drain and begins to clean a stack of green onion stems. The small bulbs are removed and skinned, then the toughest outer leaves. Then the greens are chopped into 1 inch slices. These are treated as the figure eight vegetable above. Same seasonings, except that several green chilis are added, same process. These are set aside to wait their turn on the fire.

Uncle adds more coconut milk to the simmering pot, stirring vigorously. “Five minutes” he declares. Now he tackles a stack of small eggplants, halving them and slicing them into quarters. He slices some tomatoes and cuts more onion.

After the onion tops are cooked, a large kettle with about ¾ cup oil is placed on the fire. As it heats curry, turmeric, cinnamon are added to the eggplant slices along with salt and a teaspoon of crushed red chili. A teaspoon of black mustard seed is thrown into the hot oil popping loudly. The eggplant, tomatoes and onions are stirred in. Then a little water. Lid in place, the fire brings the kettle to a boil……Uncle stirs occasionally and drips sauce from the kettle into his palm for frequent taste tests.

Auntie has put a hand crank coconut grater in place. She holds half of a brown coconut to the blades and cranks vigorously. The resulting white heap will soon be added to the finely chopped leaves that she’d washed earlier along with onions, a hint of chili powder, a tad of turmeric and salt. She mixes these together with her hand, pops everything into a pot with a small amount of water to steam.

Another pot boils with slices of green mango. Uncle is toasting the spices he will add which included a heaping half cup of red curry powder, cardamom seed and cloves in addition to the spices mentioned before. He added sugar and juice from the boiling to the spices and poured all over the parboiled fruit for continued cooking.

For another dish, he threw a handful of turmeric into slices of eggplant and mixed well before deep fat frying until they were practically crisp. These were ingredients for a salad with additions of raw onions, tomato and lime/olive oil dressing.

What amazed me were his rustic tools. A coconut hull, drilled will a zillion holes and attached to a handle was the deep fry scoop. Newspaper served for draining, and newspaper rolls were his hot mitts. This kitchen is preparing three meals a day for up to 15 staff and guests with rudimentary equipment.

Carla, Portuguese wife of Muna, the founder of Gem River Edge, joins us in the kitchen to prepare dal and green beans for her one year old. I wondered if some better utensils might help. “He won’t use them. We’ve tried.” she shrugs.

She suggests that we eat together later. She explains that in the home Sri Lankans do not usually sit together for meals. They eat when and where they want. Some will fill their plates and squat in the kitchen, others may sit in a chair outside. No one expects the food to be hot.

However, when I join Carla for lunch we sit at a beautifully set table, our food presented in simple aqua tinted porcelain. We spread our hand woven napkins, serve our rice and curries and dive in. We could choose to eat with our fingers, going native. But this time, we fall back upon our own traditions. Forks, conversation and sweetened curd for dessert!NOTE OF INTEREST: Rice and curry buffets often offer an amazing number of different “curries” and several types of rice. Preparing each distinct curry takes a huge amount of time. Common additions include banana blossoms, jackfruit, long beans, pumpkin, potatoes, caramelized onions with chili, cauliflower, cabbage, fish, beef, chicken as well as several coconut based condiments. The amount of spice and coconut milk added to each curry is determined by custom and taste. There is a certain freedom in that!

Last days in Sri Lanka

What could be more glorious than a curving coast, picture perfect with massive boulders, stretches of golden sand and palm trees leaning seductively toward clear aqua water? Throw in a few graceful surfers skimming along, a comfortable chair, and a great seafood meal served beachside.

Figure 1 Weary feet: The end of the Sri Lanka trail

No wonder tourists from the colder climes are coming here in droves and a proliferation of cabanas, resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars are crowding onto this beautiful scene so tightly that only a few stretches of open coast are visible from the coast road. Having spent a sweaty, humid day touring inside the walls of Galle Fort, I was ready to enjoy that mojito, the breeze and the feel of just right water. So I hung out on this lovely beach with tourists from all over for a few hours.’

Galle Fort, which retains its formidable stone walls and bastions and most of its Dutch period colonial buildings has it charms. I watched a non-event sunset from the fort walls, ate a scrumptous and expensive meal at charmingly renovated Galle Fort Hotel, a snack at another luxury hotel, visited the two museums, and the old Dutch Reform Church and cemetery. I shopped for trinkets and visited a few better shops too. But heat and fatigue drove me to my THANK GOODNESS air conditioned room for the early afternoon.

Figure 2 Walking along the fort walls

The Portuguese, Dutch and English used this port along their trading routes…..spices and wood from Ceylon and a way point between China and India. They made money, but those who came here paid a price. The cemetery is filled with remains of those who died early of infections, malaria, drowning, and battles. The great homes of the colonial period now house luxury hotels and a historical museum.

Figure 3 Dutch Reform Church cemetery

The old warehouses are now a modern, well-organized maritime museum with a strong focus on marine archeology. Imagine how discouraged an archeologist would be if all that had been hauled from the deep, sorted, classified was washed away in a storm. That is what happened here during the 2004 tsunami. But the exhibits are great and the research and dives on the multiple offshore wrecks continue.

Figure 4: Dutch Reform Church

I found a real person’s market outside the fort walls to buy a load of curry powders and teas. As always my best souvenirs appear in cooking when I am at home.

The last leg of this journey now begins: Colombo, Italy and home.

This has been a satisfying renewal of my connections with Asia. Sri Lankans always ask. “Your first time Sri Lanka? You like?” I think the expected response is “yes and yes”. I have enjoyed the gentle people here and hope that as they achieve their goals for increased tourism their distinctive hospitality and friendliness will not be lost. Thailand had that once, now reports indicate that the early spirit so attractive to us tourists has faded.

So I leave imagining that this will be my only visit here. One to remember and cherish. Others will come repeatedly, for Sri Lanka offers diverse experiences, beautiful scenery, and a gentle and varied culture, but my “bucket list” is long and my life grows shorter!

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!

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.