Observations from Overseas: Sri Lanka


[I spent six months of a sabbatical in Sri Lanka, from October 2002 until

April 2003. While I was there, I wrote a series of short essays recording

my observations about Sri Lanka and the life that my family and I were

leading there. (Well, really, they weren't essays exactly; they were

email messages that I mailed to friends to let them know what I was up

to while I was overseas). Here are six of them.]



The Neighborhood Dogs

[Early December, 2002]


It's remarkable how quickly a person can adjust to the rhythms of life in a new

place. Quincy and I now pretty much take for granted those things that seemed

novel when we first got here: buffalo curd in the fridge (Jasper and I both

gobble it down), parasites in the tap water (we boil three big tubs of it per

day on the stove to make it drinkable), the smell of smoke in the air (that's

where the garbage goes). I'm reminded of it all over again as we watch Claudia-

who just arrived two weeks ago-adapt so quickly to Sri Lankan life. She's

hopping buses to rural villages. She's whacking coconuts in half with our big

rusty coconut knife. She's already made more acquaintances than Quincy and I

put together. Hell, she hadn't even been here two full days before Anil came

knocking at the door, looking for his new friend Claudia.


Anil is this tiny little guy who lives down the road with his great big wife.

He's a dapper dresser, and he knows everything and everybody in the

neighborhood. It's his job: He's a connector. He connects employers and

employee, he connects people with places to live, and he gets a commission.

It's through Anil that we found our house, and it's through Anil that we were

found by the woman who cooks for us twice a week-although in both cases, it was

only much later that we discovered that Anil was involved because we hadn't even

met him yet.


Anyway, it really doesn't take long to adapt to new circumstances.


I've even adapted to the ants. Maybe it's because of the constant presence of

all those happy monks with their ruby robes and black umbrellas. Or maybe it's

the soothing view from our rooftop, out over the morning mists rising from the

river and the flocks of parakeets that skim the canopy of coconut palms and

jackfruit trees. Or maybe it's just a sort of surrender. In any case, just as

I've come to reach a weird sort of serenity about the lengthy trials and random

tribulations of trying to get our visas extended, so too I've come to accept

ants as a normal and benign part of our household. The never-ending highways of

little critters that grace our baseboards and run in ragged lines up and down

the wall behind the sink used to sizzle my scheming thoughts whenever I was in

the kitchen (which, of course, is almost always; I love that buffalo curd) but

not anymore. Now I hardly even notice them. Sure, I'll brush them aside when

they get into the garbage, or when I need the cutting board on which they are so

keen to gather and swarm. But they don't bother me so much. They were here in

this house before us, and they'll be here after we leave, and we may succeed in

subtly re-routing them from time to time, but they're not going anywhere; so I

might as well welcome them into our lives with a shrugging sort of grace. And

so I have. I've decided that they're our pets.


And not just the ants. All the insect and arachnid life that creeps in through

the hundreds of slits and cracks and drainholes in this house: they're all our

pets. I mean, they're pretty benign. The ants don't seem to sting. The

spiders don't seem to bite. Even the wasps seem content just to buzz blindly

around the windowpanes without expressing any interest in the rest of us. Okay,

so they're maybe not the most affectionate of pets. They don't purr in our

arms, or drape adoring jowls across our thighs, or nuzzle our crotches with

relentless enchantment. But, hey, what they lack in companionable quality, they

more than make up for in quantity.


The neighborhood dogs, however, are another matter entirely. Oh there's plenty

of dogs in this town, plenty of strays. It was one of the first things I

noticed when we arrived: All these scrawny dusty-looking mongrels on the

streets. At first it alarmed me a bit, since we spend a lot of time walking on

those streets, and Jasper is such a curious wee thing-always eager to stretch

out her tiny hand to meet the muzzle of a drooling mutt. But then I realized

that the dogs around here don't have the energy for giving chase or hassling us

in any way as we go about our day. They spend their days lying languidly in the

dirt at the edge of the road, just barely outside the range of the grinding

wheels of trucks and buses, barely even looking up. But that's the daytime. As

soon as the sun sets, it seems, the dogs start roaming-and barking. All of

them, and all at once, and they don't stop until the roosters start crowing.

Our first few nights here I kept waking up to the grating chorus of yips and

yowls rising from the hillside below-sometimes far off but still penetrating,

and sometimes very close by. I got used to it though, and it stopped bugging

me. But then Claudia arrived and the shrill barking of the local strays has

become our new household obsession. Every morning we assess the damage to

Claudia's sleep cycle, and throughout the day we plot new methods trying to keep

those roving packs of boisterous mutts from climbing our hill and yapping into

our windows.


At first we tried explosives. We know that folks fling firecrackers at monkeys

to clear them off their roofs and out of their mango trees, so we figured it

might work for dogs as well. So Claudia bought a package of locally-

manufactured firecrackers. These aren't the skinny little red things that

highschool boys fling laughingly out of car windows on Halloween night. These

are some serious bombs. And crudely-made. Hell, they look like something I

might've assembled myself, if all I had on hand was string, newspaper,

gunpowder, and enough liquor to dull my better judgment. We tested one, one

afternoon, while we were all hanging out in the yard. Me and Claudia plotted

strategy on the driveway, while Quincy kept an eye on Jasper who was flapping

her hands in a garden tub where we grow water lilies and mosquito larvae. I lit

the fuse, tossed it toward the gate, and...


The explosion was deafening, echoing off the walls and across the valley to the

hills beyond.  (Jasper didn't seem to mind; while the rest of us were still

peeling our shell-shocked expressions off of our faces, she just glanced around

placidly and went back to her pet larvae.) And so, every night for the last

week or so, the chorus of barks that starts up after dark has been punctuated by

the sounds of mortar shells exploding in our yard.


But the dogs keep coming back, and so we keep plotting. An attempt to call the

city didn't go far. There seems to be some sort of animal control unit-we've

heard tales of municipal trucks working their way up and down the roads, with

men jumping off to jab at strays with sharp sticks dosed in strychnine, and

flinging the twitching poisoned bodies up into the truck for disposal-but

they're always out to tea. Inevitably, and especially at 2 in the morning, I've

considered various ways in which I myself might violently convince those dogs to

stop their yapping forever. But, while I've clubbed a couple of scorpions to

death (it turns out things with six-inch-long poisonous tails don't quite

qualify as household pets), I'm less keen to try taking such drastic measures

with a dog-especially if those measures involve me sleepily feeling my way half-

naked through wet brush bristling with broken bottles and long snakes and, well,



So we called Anil. We figured that if there's something to be done about the

dogs, Anil would know. Quincy told him about the problem, and then hesitated, a

little unsure of exactly what question we wanted to ask. But Anil cut right to

the chase: "You want someone to kill the dogs for you," he said. And before

Quincy could even respond, Anil once again filled the gap. "I will look into it

tomorrow," he said, "I will arrange a solution."


So what's going to happen now? We don't know. I have the slightly

uncomfortable feeling that, without directly intending to, we have just stepped

into some sort of shadowy canine-catching underworld populated by lean men with

darting eyes and steady hands, where words are whispered and rupees are passed

invisibly across tarnished tabletops, and the next thing you know there's two

guys with rusty coconut knives setting off at night after our local strays.

Yes, I worry that we might've just taken out a contract hit on a dog.


Meanwhile, we're taking language lessons from a private Sinhala tutor. We've

had two lessons so far, and they tend to be thematic. The first day we learned

pronouns. On the second day, we learned words and phrases to use when traveling

by bus and train. For the next lesson, I think I'll ask our tutor to teach us

how to talk about mutts and mobsters and misunderstandings. (I looked in our

Lonely Planet phrasebook and, although it provided perfectly phonetic Sinhalese

translations of such seemingly superfluous phrases as "No, I don't want it

extracted" and "What am I accused of," it fails entirely to tell me how to say

"No no, I don't actually require you to kill anything after all; but I'll be

happy to pay you and your squinting associate anyway, if that's what this

unexpected visit is all about.") It doesn't hurt to be prepared. Even though

most folks around here do speak a little English, they really appreciate it when

we try to adopt the local language.



Rajar and the "Love Me Tender" Van

[Early January, 2003]


I'm not actually wearing a skirt, it just looks like it. It's a sarong, and

it's very comfortable. I bought it from this shop by the railroad station in

the little beach town of Weligama. It's a beautiful green batik, and it only

cost about 3 bucks U.S., plus another 50 cents for the tailor to hem it while I

sat sweating next to his sewing machine, and I'm told I paid him way too much.

Anyway, that's what I'm wearing right now. It's a very common form of mensware

around here. And it's not a skirt.


Yes, the sarong is just an ordinary part of life around here. Like the ants on

our walls and banana blossoms in our curries. Now that we're deep in our third

month in Sri Lanka, it's great fun to be reminded of the many things that once

were remarkable, but now seem so ordinary as to barely merit notice. Like the

sounds that we hear. The way that the air is saturated with sounds of the life

in the trees: the whine of crickets and the sudden chirps of lizards, and the

constantly-changing mix of birdcalls from the parakeets and the crows, the mynas

and bulbuls and minivets and kingfishers. Of course, just as commonplace are

the inevitable midnight yowls from dozens of dogs, and window-rattling

explosions from the firecracker bombs that Claudia occasionally heaves off the

balcony to try to shut them up. Another common sound, which I still get a kick

out of, is the random musical sounds emitted by cars backing-up.  It's the

equivalent of the familiar beep-beep-beeping that kicks in on delivery trucks

when they shift into reverse. Except here, it's not just big trucks that are

outfitted with that warning signal; here, it seems, just about every other car

or van or three-wheeler has some sort of backing-up sound. And they aren't just

beep-beeps either; they tend to be more melodic-cavalry music and pop songs --

and very very loud. It's handy in more ways than one. For instance, when our

friend Sheila arrived from the airport last month at 3 a.m. with the driver we

sent to get her, I was conveniently jolted awake by the sound of "Love Me

Tender" blaring out of the rear of the van as it backed up in our driveway.


Sheila arrived in early December and was here through Christmas. Christmas

itself passed quietly enough. In keeping with family tradition, we didn't do

much. Chistmas is, in its own weird way, a pretty salient holiday to Sri

Lankans, even though very few of them are Christians. But Sri Lankans love

holidays in general -- there seem to be at least four or five of them per month,

covering all the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim bases -- and find ways

of celebrating all of them. The main way Sri Lankans celebrate Christmas, it

seems, is to stay up until midnight on Christmas eve, and then light off

hundreds and hundreds of firecrackers. Woke us all up; and Sheila -- seeking a

plausible explanation for all those explosions -- thought that Claudia had

finally cracked and was tossing every weapon from her bedside artillery in the

direction of the dogs.


Jasper is still too young to require any sort of extravagant Christmas. She

doesn't demand new toys. We've bought her a few, though. Quincy just bought

her a baby doll ("Enjoy Milk Bottle For Endless Fun Sucking Pacifier For Stop

Crying" says the label on the box) and she took to it immediately. But it's

hasn't quite yet dislodged the various pieces of trash -- an empty bottle, a

broken broomstick -- on the depth chart of favorite playthings. And as far as I

can tell, nothing makes Jasper happier than finding something that she can sit

on. She's been a very enthusiastic sitter ever since she learned how, and she

tries out this talent on anything lower than her butt -- boxes, balls,

stretched-out legs, sleeping dogs. Very cute. Although sometimes, of course,

it ends in tears. Balls roll away, dogs wake up.


We took advantage of Sheila's visit to explore the island a bit. We hired Rajar

and his "Love Me Tender" van to drive us around. There are lots of things to

notice on the Sri Lankan roadways. Like the tiny roadside shops -- the sort

that sell coconuts and crackers and have about as much floorspace as a yoga mat

-- with homemade hand-painted signs saying things like "K-Mart" and "IKEA." I

also get a kick out the random mix of English-language watchwords and slogans

plastered to the backs of vehicles. Things like "No Hand Signal," "No Fear,"

"Super Benz," and "Backstreet Boys." Spending hours amid the vehicular chaos of

the road also made me realize just how keenly skilled Sri Lankan drivers are at

sensing when there is just barely enough room to pass another vehicle. I mean,

there are lots of different sized things on the roads, going lots of different

speeds. But drivers seem instantly to sift everything into highly sophisticated

decision-rules that govern whether they jam on the accelerator or the brake.

Like, "It's a narrow one-lane bridge but I ought to be able to squeeze between

the overloaded motorcycle and the oncoming bus." Or "That three-wheeler is

nimble enough to avoid me, so surely there's enough room for me alongside the

truck, the tractor, and the ox-cart hauling sticks." Or "If that bus slows down

to let people off, I may not find space to pass those two adjacent vans without

hitting the family on the bicycle. But what's that behind the on-coming truck?

An elephant? I'd better go for it while I can."


We spent a day up in the high hills, in tea country. Cold rain and brisk wind;

the children of tea-pluckers playing cricket beside the Tamil temple in the late

afternoon light. We rented a tea estate "bungalow" for the night -- which is to

say we spent 50 bucks collectively to live briefly in the sort of grand style

that folks like Sir Thomas Lipton lived a hundred years ago, with a staff of

servants and a big dining room and a fire in the fireplace and a never-ending

view. This bungalow also came stocked, bizarrely enough, with bookcases full of

old issues of Readers' Digest. The dusty magazines came in handy when we were

trying to resuscitate the sputtering fire in the fireplace. No newspaper handy,

so I grabbed a 1975 issue of Readers' Digest, and tried to get that wet wood

going with "Humor in Uniform" and "Drama in Real Life: Attacked by Sharks!"


Spent a few days staying at a cheap guesthouse on the south coast. Right on the

Indian Ocean. It's where I converted to sarongs, Quincy stepped on a bee, and

Jasper befriended (and tried to sit on, of course) a couple of dogs that we

nicknamed "Trouble" and "Bulge-Eye." There's a heavy concentration of

foreigners at the guesthouse, like some sort of parody of White People on

Holiday. A French couple on a romantic get-away. Four old Germans who spent

their evenings playing "Yahtzee" in the restaurant. And a young New Zealander

with a zen-slacker haircut who did very slow yoga on the beach every sunrise.

We overheard him one night in the restaurant, leaning into a Czech couple who'd

just arrived, telling them excitedly about the virtues of hemp fiber and the

government conspiracy that keeps it from becoming commercially viable.


Although must of our time at the beach was devoted to laziness, we did go visit

a famous temple one day. The Weherahena temple, celebrated for its Buddha

statue the size of 7-story building, and for its comic-book art. Yes, whole

walls of the temple covered with step-by-step pictorial depictions of the

Buddha's life. Panel after numbered panel illustrating important scenes of

contemplation, enlightenment, and serenity. You know: (1) old man; (2) old man

with lotus blossom; (3) old man with lotus blossom meets fetching young woman;

and so on. To my ignorant eyes it looked like storyboards from some recent

Woody Allen effort, but apparently it's deeply spiritual stuff. There were even

more comic-book scenes in an underground chamber, but Quincy and I didn't see

all that. We were hanging out with Jasper by the sacred Bodhi tree where she'd

discovered a temple dog and a litter of temple puppies, and she wanted to sit on

each and every one.


We also visited some of the famous sites in Sri Lanka's "cultural triangle"

north of Kandy:


We saw the ruins of the extraordinary palatial fortress of Sigiriya, perched on

a massive rock jutting out of the plains. It was like climbing to the top of

the Houston Astrodome and finding the Playboy Mansion perched on top -- except,

you know, the dome is a single solid rock, and the mansion has fallen into

serious disrepair. No more bunnies, no more bathrobes, no more plumbing.


We saw the ruined city of Polonnoruwa, where we practically had to physically

subdue our over-generous driver Rajar, because we wanted to walk the site, while

he felt certain that he should drive us around. "But it's almost half a mile!"

he asserted, finding it inconceivable that we should want to use our legs when

we'd already paid him to provide us with wheels. We didn't exactly want to

mention that the cultural experience might be diluted by the sudden sound of

Elvis Presley songs bouncing around the crumbling temple walls and echoing

loudly off the big stone Buddhas.


We saw the famous cave temples of Dambulla, and their amazing profusion of

Buddha statues. Dozens of dozens of dozens of statues, indicating apparently

that these caves were a place of extraordinary monastic devotion. Or perhaps -

and this is just my goofball theory -- that the caves were something equivalent

to a warehouse or book depository or that bizarre classroom at the University of

Peradeniya that is jammed floor-to-ceiling with broken chairs and wooden desks:

Some sort of dumping grounds for unnecessary surplus Buddhas. Of course, most

folks prefer Theory #1.


One afternoon, while relaxing at rural guesthouse, Rajar drove us into a nearby

town to get something to eat. Along the way, Claudia looked for a particular

side-road that she'd been told about, that would take her to a nearby lake where

she could relax in the peace and quiet. We spotted the road: A thin mud track

through a paddy field. "It's probably not far," said Claudia, "I can walk from

here." Rajar stared at her. "We'll drive," he said. He turned the van onto

the narrow track, and slowly navigated that narrow strip of dry land between the

paddies.  I kept thinking: How are we going to get out of here? It's not even

wide enough to turn around! I imagined, with dismay, that eventually we'd be

forced to inch our way backwards toward the main road with "Love Me Tender"

blaring out the back of the van, resonating off the water beside us, and

carrying on and on across the paddyfields beyond, where the bent brown backs of

the rice-planters would straighten to stand up and stare in irritation and

wonder, and the egrets would spread their white wings to fly for cover. And

even after the planters eventually tired of their curiosity and returned to

work, and the egrets finally resumed their muddy vigil somewhere else, we would

continue to creep endlessly backwards in our piercing single-song jukebox of a

van. Anyway, after about a quarter of mile of very slow going, we were forced

to a stop; the narrow lane was washed out and impassable. Claudia hopped out

and started walking. "Where is she going?" asked Rajar. I told him that the

man in the guesthouse had said it was a nice walk to the lake. Rajar looked at

me. "He's a madman," he said, and shifted into reverse.



The Local News

[Early February, 2003]


Well, the war is still on hiatus. Representatives of the government and the

LTTE (those are the Tamil Tigers-the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam")

continue to trot off to Oslo and places like that to hammer out agreements,

while all sorts of others folks continue to raise objections to the nature of

the negotiations and worry about what the eventual outcomes might be.


I must admit, though, that stuff seems awfully abstract here in Kandyland.

Never was much war here. (Except for that bomb that exploded in the Temple of

the Tooth a few years back, the main consequence of which is that tourists now

have to walk past men with guns before proceeding inside to see the container

that holds the container that holds the container that allegedly holds one of

the Buddha's teeth). So, around here, the hopeful peace is evident mostly in

symbolic forms, like the schoolkid's drawing that adorns the cover of the new

phone books: blue skies, white doves, and a set of children holding tight to a

single rainbow-colored parachute.


But one would be wise not to trust my impressions. I'm still a rube, after all,

peering into Sri Lankan life through perceptual pores that are more likely to

spot Bart Simpson on some Muslim kid's T-shirt than to actually pick up an

accurate socio-political vibe. And I don't read the news regularly either. I

mean, yes, we have internet access-our balky little dial-up connection-and so,

in theory, we could be in touch with all the news in the world. In fact,

though, I find myself logging on mostly just to check out hockey scores from

time to time.


Of course, there's no shortage of daily newspapers to look at. Colombo has more

English-language dailies than Vancouver does-or Los Angeles or Chicago for that

matter-and I'll pick one up every once in a while.


I like the occasional enthusiastic headlines. "Rubber Corp on the Mat!"

"Women-only Buses to Keep Perverts at Bay!" Of course, most of the headlines

are a bit more sober:  "LTTE Assures Commitment to Peace Talks." "Govt, LTTE

Discuss Child Soldiers, Ceasefire Violations." Things like that.


Beyond those headlines, it's not so easy to figure out what the news is all

about. Compared to the spoon-fed stuff I'm used to in North American papers,

these stories tend to be a bit underwritten, and I always feel I'm lacking the

necessary background knowledge to decode the prose. (Even the sports pages are

indecipherable, given that they're devoted entirely to the results of

international cricket matches: "Hussain on seven survived a desperately close

stumping chance of MacGill, which went to the third umpire for adjudication two

overs from stumps...")


What's always interesting are the unsolicited, unfiltered, and apparently

unedited opinion pieces that show up all over the paper. I once read an alleged

news story that turned out to be a puff piece for the coconut industry. Except

it was an unreadably dense piece of puffery, going on and on in excruciating

detail on the biochemisty of coconut oil. More common are long pieces like the

one I read the other day, which explored the complex mosaic of Sri Lankan ethnic

politics within the framework of old-fashioned Marxism. It was fun, in a

nostalgic sort of way, to read prose peppered regularly with words like

"oligarchic," "proletariat," "Fourth Internationale," and "blind obeisance."


For a real glimpse into the life of ordinary Sri Lankans-a life that's mostly

hidden from temporary rubes like me-nothing beats paid advertising. Like the

Marriage Proposals:


  Govi Buddhist 39 trained English Teacher (pleasant young looking) owns

  a car, a house, a coconut plantation, a tea plantation, and etc.

  Retired parents seek a partner.


  G/B well connected parents (professionals) seek for their son 26 tall

  handsome teetotaler nonsmoker undergraduate in a foreign university

  suitable pretty decent girl for prior association till marriage 1-2

  years hence. Apply immediately with family details, Horoscope.


  Govi Buddhist parents seek partner for pleasant daughter, Executive in

  private sector 5'4", 32. Suwana Mars Saturn Eight House.


  A Christian Tamil family is looking for a fair beautiful bride. The groom

  is a Manager in a well-reputed BOI company in Kandy. He is 34 years old,

  graduate, educated at a leading school in Kandy, and a teetotaler.

  Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus also may reply. We don't treat any

  differences, but the bride must accompany him to the church where

  he attends after the marriage.


  D/B parents seek professional partner for daughter English teacher, fair

  5' 26 dowry 800000/=. Horoscope essential. Caste immaterial.


And then there's the death anniversary notices: Big ads with smart-looking

borders and smiling old photographs, fondly remembering a family member on the

anniversary of his or her death. And not just the first anniversary; there's

sometimes notices remembering someone who died three or nine or twentysomething

years ago.


Some of these ads are simple and straightforward:


  1st Death Anniversary

  In loving memory of Ernest Nanayakkara

  Born 18.05.1921 - Died 31.01.2002

  A year has passed / Since you are gone / A voice we heard is stilled /

  A place is vacant in your home / A place which cannot be filled


Others just seem simple and straightforward at first glance:


  7th Year Anniversary / 31.01.2003

  Miss K V S F De Soysa

  Chief Librarian / Central Bank of Sri Lanka

  In treasured and undying memory of our precious Srima

  Sadly missed by your father sister brother niece nephews

  brother-in-law sister-in-law


But deeper textures emerge in the context of other notices, more detailed and



  7th Year Remembrance / 31st January 2003

  Late Mrs Violet Ranasinghe

  A series of Pinkamas have been arranged for the 30th & 31st January, 2003

  including restoration of an abandoned tank in Tanamalwila, which will be

  handed over to the landless peasantry of the area to confer merit on you

  and 40 others who lost their lives in the bombing of the Central Bank

  on 31st January, 1996 and several others who have been disabled.

  May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana


  Seventh Year Death Anniversary

  To the treasured memory of my darling daughter

  Enoka Vinodini Gunaratna

  I only look at the traitors with sympathy when they shake hands with your

  murderers. The guiding light of my life was dimmed seven years ago.

  Time can never heal my sorrowing heart. May you be our daughter

  throughout Sansara.



Meanwhile, back in my little world, I recently gave a talk at Peradeniya

University, in a surprisingly fancy room that had microphones embedded in the

tables in front of every audience member. I felt like I was talking at the

United Nations or something. Afterwards, I got to chatting with a couple of

University folks, and I asked what their predictions were for a lasting peace.

They seemed encouraged. One of them is a Sinhalese political scientist who is

trying to promote ethnic harmony through the establishment of Buddhist

meditation centers, which seems wildly idealistic. But he's cynical as well.

He suggested that as long as George W. Bush pursues his crowd-pleasing anti-

terrorism agenda, then the LTTE leaders will play nice and give peace a chance.

"September 11," he said, "was a godsend."


Not everyone feels that way. I picked up the paper the other day and, in

addition to the usual kinds of local stories ("Rice Fraud in Jaffna," "India

Kept Informed on Progress of Peace Process"), the news was all about the

impending U.S. attack on Iraq. And the considerable local economic impact:  


  Record Tea Crop Sales Threatened By Gulf War


  Gathering war clouds in the Middle East is about to deal a body blow to Sri

  Lanka's tea economy with an all time record production of 310 million

  kilograms last year destined to go without buyers who have already ceased

  to actively participate at the Colombo tea auctions...


I can't help but to think about the "butterfly effect" that folks were always

yammering about in the 1980s when chaos theory was all the rage-you know, that

phenomenon in which some tiny little local event has big consequences far far

away. Like how a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in Brazil leads to a

massive hurricane that slams into Cuba. Or how a random bad decision in ballot

design in Palm Beach Country Florida can have a causal influence on a cascade of

events that, eventually, three years later, affects the lives and livelihoods of

Tamil tea pluckers in the high hills of Sri Lanka.



A Failure to Learn the Language

[Late February, 2003]


As a written language, Sinhala is really beautiful and - to my hopelessly

Eurocentric eyes - absolutely opaque. Now, bear in mind that I'm not totally

unfamiliar with unfamiliar lettering. I learned to recognize two or three

characters when I was in China many years ago. And when I took that silly stab

at Russian as an undergraduate, I mastered the Cyrillic alphabet within a week

(and muddled on to maintain a consistent B average in that class for 4 straight

semesters).  Okay, so that doesn't exactly earn me an Endowed Chair in

Semiotics (although it apparently does over-qualify me to be President of the

United States, at least in this post-Clinton era where, it seems, intellectual

achievement is presumed to be a symptom of sexual irresponsibility and moral

relativism), but I'm not a total lexicographic dunce.  Still, Sinhala defies

me. Half the characters look like some variation on the "@" symbol, as though

the language was invented one wet weekend by half-drunk internet nerds. All the

characters have a whimsical curly quality. There's one that looks like an

earlobe, another like an apple, another like a Mickey Mouse hat, and another

like a shapely pair of buttocks. The other day I spied a little tag on Jasper's

pants, and it looked like it was labeled in Sinhala - which was weird, because I

was sure we'd brought those pants with us from Vancouver. I looked closer and

saw that it wasn't Sinhala after all; it was a row of teddy bears.


Well, as these illiterate little remarks plainly reveal, I haven't learned to

read or write in the local lingo. I haven't even tried.


But Quincy and I have made a few stabs at learning the verbal version of the

language. For a while we were taking weekly tutorials from a woman named Anula.

Anula's teaching style was a curious mixture of authoritarian and digression.

She liked to tell us exactly how to take notes. "Draw a picture of the body,"

she'd say, "and label each part. The head, the neck...This is how you learn.

Have you drawn the body? Let me see." And then she'd tell us what brand of

rice we should buy. Every lesson was punctuated periodically by Anula's telling

and retelling of a favorite anecdote about a man on a bus. Seems there was a

man once, a foreigner, who was on a bus and wanted to get off. But instead of

telling the driver, "buhhinowah ("I get down"), he errantly said "nuhginowah"

("I climb up"). That's it. That's the whole anecdote. Seems a simple enough

story (and an uneventful one too because, after some prodding, Anula admitted

that the bus driver slowed and let him off anyway), but Anula treated it as some

sort of highly-nuanced pedagogic fable, some sort of instructional haiku layered

with subtle complex meanings. At least, that's what I assume, because she told

us over and over and over again about the man on the bus who wanted to get down.

No lesson was complete without at least one mention of the man on the bus. And

sometimes, she bring it up 2 or 3 times in an hour, as a sort of all-purpose

cautionary tale, illustrating for us what might happen if we didn't study, if we

didn't enunciate, if we didn't learn our tenses, if we didn't do exactly as she

instructed.  "You must learn in context," she'd say, "otherwise you'll be like

the man on the bus who wanted to get down." Or "That's a body? That's not a

body. Where are the elbows. You must re-draw the body. Otherwise you'll be

like the man on the bus. Have I told you about the man on the bus who wanted to

get down? Yes? You know the story? I'll tell you: There was a man..."


There are, of course, risks associated with knowing a tiny bit of any language.

I know enough to ask a few simple questions, but not enough to understand any

answers.  One or two over-rehearsed and poorly-pronounced words in Sinhala from

me can elicit a torrent of complicated Sinhala in return, and I don't understand

a word of it. This happens regularly with the plumber who comes around every

week or two, to help us with whatever our latest water-supply problem might be.

A toothless old guy with a big smile and wide feet, who scrambles around

shirtless and shoeless on the rooftop, or down hill in the bushes where the

flimsy water main meets our overworked rusty pump, wearing nothing but a plain

white sarong. His visits often end with water once again flowing temporarily

through our taps. And they always end with him standing in the kitchen rattling

on at me in elaborate detailed Sinhala. I nod along dumbly, watching his gums

move up and down, and his big-knuckled hands gesture here and there. But I

understand none of it, and I know that he knows that I understand none of it,

and I know that it doesn't really matter because he'll be coming again next week

or the week after that to once again work his magic on our balky pipes, and

surely he knows that too.


What often happens, especially with strangers - a three-wheeler driver, say, or

some random guy outside a bakery - is that whenever I utter a single word in

Sinhala, they are amazed and impressed, and they'll say "Oh, you speak Sinhala?"

And then I'll have to tell them that I don't, that I only speak a tiny bit.

"Tikahk" (little), I'll say, or sometimes "poonchi" (tiny). Of course, I'm not

even sure about this. I mean, I think they're saying "Oh, you speak Sinhala"

but I could be wrong. All I hear is "something something something Sinhala," or

sometimes "Sinhala something something." For all I really know, they might be

saying "Oh, where'd you learn to speak Sinhala?" (And I say "Little.") Or "How

much money would you pay me to teach you some real Sinhala?" ("Little.") Or "If

you speak Sinhala like that, your head must be really small." ("Tiny.")


Meanwhile, while Quincy and I struggle with Sinhala, Jasper keeps on acquiring

English. She doesn't speak it, of course. Hell, she oughta be a spy because,

no matter how much we prompt her and prod her and torture her with our hopeful

little parental urgings, she refuses to talk. Oh, she makes sounds, plenty of

them, and loudly too, and they reverberate throughout our echo-chamber house;

but not many of them are yet recognizable words. She makes a lot of animal

noises: Anytime you ask, she'll be happy to "boooooooo" like a cow and

"ssssssh" like a snake. She also does a lot of animal mime. No, not the kind

of mime with the whiteface makeup and stupid pants and merciless facial

gyrations; not that kind of mime. More like this: "Jasper, what's a buffalo

do?" And she'll hunch her shoulders up to her ears. "What's a giraffe do?"

And she bends her neck so far she practically tips herself over. And so on.

Last week, while she sat on the rooftop with me, eating her bananas and filling

her diapers and watching the parakeets and the crows, she learned to flap her

arms like a bird. (Well, actually, it looks more like some sort of slow-mo

swimming stroke.) But as far as reproducing actual words, she's thus far

mastered just one. Her first word: "buckle."


So, while Jasper's not spitting a whole lot of words out just yet, she sure

takes a lot of words in. She is more than happy to point, upon request, to a

bird or a tree or a belly button or a knee. And she is really keen to learn

more: Endlessly pointing to something and asking "What's that?" in her

idiosyncratic way, which is really not so much an enunciated question as it is

an insistent semi-melodic yammering - the sort of sound that, if she was older

and darker, and if she was dressed in some sort of colorfully-fringed frock and

hat with tassels and standing on stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, she

might be able to convince gullible liberals like me that she's producing some

authentic form of indigenous ethnic throat yodeling.


To help quench Jasper's thirst for silent vocabulary, we've bought her a few

picture books from local booksellers. We bought her a book of fruits. One

fruit per page. She gets not just boring old banana and pear and grapes, but

also guava, pomegranate, chickoo, papaya, fig, jackfruit, and custard apple. We

also bought her a picture dictionary that she really likes, part of some "My

First Book of..." series that a publishing house in Delhi puts out. (This one's

actually titled "My First Book of Picture Dictionary.") It's great stuff.

Aeroplane, ant, auto rickshaw. Boy, ball, bat (a cricket bat, that is; not an

Indian flying fox), bone, bus, bullock cart. And so on. It's got entries for

'kingfisher' and 'lotus'; it's got an 'umpire' standing behind a set of wickets;

it's got a 'radish' that looks like a carrot. What really kills me are the X's:

There's six entries total and three of them - xebee, xeme, and xiphias - I've

never heard of before in my life. Apparently, these Indian English-education

kids are expected to have a remarkably advanced vocabulary by the time they

cruise through the end of their first book of picture dictionary. Next time I'm

playing Scrabble, I want a Tamil toddler on my team.



Snorkelling With Monks

[Mid-March, 2003]


Around here, monks are a dime a dozen. Back in North America, it's a pretty

striking sight to see Buddhist bald guys walking around with orange robes draped

across their shoulders and flowing to their feet. At a purely visual level,

it's still a pretty nifty sight around here too. (Those robes do dazzle the

eye, and -- as anyone who watches NBA basketball can attest -- there's also

something aesthetically pleasing about a dark bald head.) But it's also very

common. Monks are everywhere. Walking down the street. Hopping on buses.

Taking classes at the university. Teaching classes at the university.



And they're big healthy guys too, many of them. From a culinary point of view,

monks are treated very well. Folks getting up early to bring them alms in the

form of breakfast, that sort of thing. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of monks

and I've yet to see one who looked unhealthy. And there are some malnourished

folk around. I regularly walk by a log-splitting operation staffed by half a

dozen wraith-like men -- guys with blunt axes and bare feet who look like they

last had a decent meal a decade ago. But monks eat well, I think, and

nutritiously (plenty of Pringles in the markets here, but none in the temple

kitchen I'll bet), and they take good care of their bodies too. Underneath

those robes, I'm thinking that most of them probably look like world-class

cricket players or Sri Lanka's equivalent of the Chippendale dancers.


In the last few weeks, I've been seeing a lot of the monks at a temple not too

far from our house. It's a nice destination for a walk. And because the temple

is undergoing some renovations, there's a big pile of gravel that Jasper likes

to play in. Sometimes, on windy days, the monks fly kites. A few weeks ago I

took my camera with me. No kite flying that day, but two of the novice monks -

each about 11 years old -- were outside taking a break from their studies. As

always, they looked terrific in their saffron robes, and I asked them if I could

take their picture. They bobbled their heads "yes." I took a photo and then

one of them stuck his tongue out at me while the other looked and giggled. I

took a picture of that too. A week or so later, I wandered over to give them

the photo (not the tongue-sticking-out one; I kept that for myself). They liked

it a lot and asked for more. So I came back the next day with my camera again,

and I shot up a whole roll of film. Different poses, different positions,

different props: In front of the dagoba, overlooking the river, cuddled around

a cow. There was even a costume-change: They suddenly all disappeared in a

flash of orange into the temple and re-emerged moments later in dark red robes

instead. It cracked me up. It was like a fashion photo-shoot or something.

Only without the bright lights and the cigarettes and me saying stuff like

"That's it baby! Yeah! Yeah! Work it, baby! Work it, work it!" Actually,

come to think of it, despite the many poses and the costume change, it really

was exactly unlike a fashion photo-shoot. These are monks after all; they eat

better than any anorexic model.


A couple of weeks ago we spent four days in the little beach town of Mirissa,

way down at the southern tip of the island. There was a temple somewhere in the

trees around the bay from where we were staying. One day around midday I saw a

bunch of monks emerge from those distant trees and carefully pick their way out

to the end of a long rocky spit that protects the bay from the big waves beyond.

After hanging out there in the sun for a while, they worked their way back and

disappeared once more into the trees. The next day I went walking down toward

that end of the beach myself. Not a lot of folks on that end of the beach -

just me and a couple of goofy English tourists (she with spiky short Laurie

Anderson hair and he with a shaved head that reminded me again that dark bald

heads look much more pleasing that stubbly pink bald heads). I hurried past the

Brits and then saw three Sri Lankan guys in the ocean waving to me, beckoning me

to join them. So I waded in and swam over. They were in their late teens,

probably. They asked the usual questions ("Where from?" "How long?" "Your

name?"), and then one of them produced a snorkel mask and shoved it at me.

"Fish. Very Beautiful." Actually, it turned out the fish was sort of dull.

What caught my eye, though, were the flashes of orange swirling around the legs

of the three Sri Lankan guys. Hey, these guys were monks! They still had the

lower half of their robes on under there. And they may be monks, but they're

also 19-year old guys, who do the sorts of things guys do: They have fun, they

horse around, they skin their knees; and when they get a break from their

studies at the temple, they grab their snorkel mask, strip to their waists, and

go for a larkish swim. I swam with them for a while, working our way up and

down both sides of the rocky spit, trading that snorkel mask back and forth.

They kept pointing out schools for fish for me to look at. I kept being

distracted by the sight of their robes catching the sunlight through the water,

swirling and folding in slow motion around their gently kicking legs.  


And I got such a kick out of the whole thing. I mean, you know how it is: One

minute you're on the beach trying to hustle past a couple of pasty tourists, and

the next minute you're in the Indian Ocean snorkeling with wet-robed Buddhist

monks.  It was like one of those random Sri Lanka moments that Claudia always

seemed to be stumbling into during the three months she was living with us. She

was always coming home telling us about some crazy thing that happened -- like

hitching a ride for miles on some stranger's brutally uncomfortable bicycle, or

hopping off a train in some town she wasn't even planning on being in and

spending the night at the house of the sister of some random three-wheeler

driver. Quincy and I never seemed to have those kinds of Claudia moments (we

have Jasper moments instead). Except suddenly I was. This was like some sort

of ultra-Claudia moment, and I was getting a big big kick out of it.


And naturally, I couldn't just get a kick out of the moment. Not being

particularly monkish myself, I'm not particularly practiced at being in the

moment. For me, it seems, everything is part of some sort of self-styled

narrative. So, just as I was swimming with the monks and getting a kick out of

it, I also sort of had to swim alongside myself, watching myself getting a kick

out of it, and getting such a kick out of that I kept thinking about how fun it

was going to be to tell Quincy about it. After a little while, I couldn't take

it any more; I was afraid I was going break out into socially inexplicable,

post-modern meta-experiential giggles. (Nothing like a little post-modern

thought to take the experiential oomph out of the moment.) I said goodbye to

the monks and clamored out of the ocean and onto the rocks and hustled on back

down the beach to our guesthouse, smirking and smiling to myself, already

rehearsing my loopy little self-satisfied narrative about snorkeling with monks.




[Late March, 2003]


After three days in Jaffna, the rest of Sri Lanka is a serious shock. Semi-

squalid Colombo suddenly seemed like Singapore or New York City. So many

people. So many things. Office buildings and appliance dealerships and

ceramics showrooms, furniture stores and fashion outlets, fast-food franchises

and billboards and cars. After Jaffna, it all made me want to cry.


Jaffna was so quiet. That's the first thing I noticed when we got there.


Actually no, it wasn't the first thing. The first thing I noticed was all the

soldiers and all the guns. Anti-aircraft at the airport. A half-dozen men with

AK-47s at the open-air shed near the runway where we waited while our bags were

searched. An armed escort on the airline bus that traveled the recently re-

opened road into Jaffna town, past concertina wire and military checkpoints,

past bombed-out temples and deserted roofless houses with crumbling walls. And

in Jaffna, soldiers in sandbagged bunkers on street corners, or riding in twos

or threes through the streets on bicycles with their guns across their



There are almost no cars at all in Jaffna. Some buses. A few transport trucks.

The occasional brand-new Mitsubishi pick-up truck roaring by with a don't-bomb-

me flag flying and the insignia of the UN or MSF or GTZ or some Danish de-mining

group. But almost no private cars at all. And when you do see a car,

unbelievably enough it's some old British model from the 1940s or 50s which has

somehow remained in running condition since the colonial days and has survived

the war. There are a lot of plain black bicycles. And collapsed buildings and

vacant lots and barbed wire. It's very very quiet.


And yet, it wasn't a depressing place to be. Not at all. Or rather, yes it was

- it was grim and sad -- but it was so much more. In some weird way, Jaffna was

also one of the most uplifting experiences I've ever had. It's hard to explain.

It's mostly because of the people there, I think, and the nature of our

interactions with them.


It's the only place I've been in Sri Lanka where I was never once treated like a

tourist. No hawkers hawking. No loud touts sidling up with gratuitous offers

to show me the sights. No kids thrusting out their hands and shouting

"Chocolate!? Bon-bon!? School pen!?"  Maybe I should give a little bit more

background on this. Throughout the rest of the island, you see, white folks

like us are always getting this same extraordinarily-specific request from Sri

Lankan kids. It gets a little old after a while, because I always feel like I'm

disappointing them by not coming through. And it's weird because I don't know

anyone who carries a stash of candy and pens on their person. I keep wondering

how this odd expectation arose in the first place. Is there some sort of

misinformed old-style Margaret-Meadish kind of cultural anthropology of White

People that indicates that along with our many other peculiar traits - our big

noses and thick shoes and curious custom of wiping our butts with wads of paper

- that we also have deep pockets bulging with sweets and school supplies? Or

was there some specific incident that set this myth into motion? Was there once

some sort of colonial-era self-styled Johnny Appleseed, who traveled the rural

island roads on a wacky mission to promote penmanship and tooth decay? I don't

know. In any case, the legend of the bon-bons and school pens doesn't penetrate

the Jaffna peninsula. Or, if it once did, it too seems to have been shelled into



Folks also seemed so open and matter-of-fact about their circumstances, so

persistent in the face of the devastation that has been part of their lives for

20 years, and continues to be part of their lives during the current ceasefire

and the slow uncertain progress of peace talks. People bear their scars and

carry on.


Like this guy Shankar who showed us a copy of his torture report. His torture

report. It came up in the most mundane and casual way: He just happened to be

driving us to the University, and someone else just happened to idly tell me

that Shankar had been in jail. And one thing led to another and soon enough,

I'm holding this Xeroxed portfolio in my hands, with Red Cross documents and

medical examination diagrams with terse notes like "Contusion 6 X 7 cm lower end

in the 10th inter costal space" and "Silencer burns 2 x 2 cm 1 Yr back." And an

extensive police report typed on a blurry typewriter with sticking keys: "... I

said that I do not know & all the things belongs to me. They kicked me on the

face & put a polythene bag over my face. I felt irritates around the back of

neck, felt a smell like turpentine or tinner ... I was taken to the room next to

it and was asked to put on the jeans. They wrote 3 foolscap sheet and asked to

sign, I signed..." It went on like this. " ... One person struck me with a

heavy wooden rod on the spine. I could not bear the pain & said I will come

with you... I was taken to another room and asked to remove the cloth and

assaulted telling that you have given everything now give me the parcel the size

of lemon box ... I don't know about this assaulted with hands, boots, pole, etc.

Burnt with [illegible] on left leg. I fainted..." And on and on. "...In the

evening he took me to a room by the side of temple & put into a dark room. He

assault me on the joints with wooden pole... Was taken back to K.K.S. was

assaulted by S.I.Navaratnarajah by tying around the [illegible] & assaulted with

wire & pole to all parts of body by two people ... On the 3rd of August, Nine

pages were produced in Sinhalese, & asked to sign. I refused and I was taken to

the same tree & assaulted with wire ... I aggreed to sign." I read this while

Shankar was serving us coffee at his house where he brought us to meet his wife

and daughter (his daughter's Jasper's age and was born while he was in jail).

And when I asked if I could have a copy of it all, he was happy to send his

brother by bicycle to the copy shop to make the copies, and refused to let me

pay for it.


In general, people in Jaffna seemed so guileless and generous and giving.

Especially when Jasper was in evidence. Smiles and waves from the soldiers

sitting bored in their bunkers. People running out of the shadows of their

homes and shops, wanting to touch Jasper's skin and hair, to pick her up and

carry her, and to give her stuff. A banana, an apple, a couple of chocolate

bars.  (Hey, if anything, I was the one who could've been scoring bon-bons and

school pens.)


For reasons I can't quite explain, my favorite encounter occurred one morning

while Quincy was giving a talk at a local hospital, and I was out exploring the

streets with Jasper in my arms. We came across a deserted bombed-out roofless

church, with weeds growing up through the cracks in the floor and, in a still-

standing vestibule, a crumbling statue of Christ flanked by jars of brand-new

orange plastic flowers. There are (there were) a lot of churches in Jaffna

town. Turns out it was a hotbed of missionary work back in colonial days. Some

are still going strong, and some aren't. Graveyards with bullet-ridden

tombstones.  Free-standing Anglican arches where walls and roofs used to be,

and people used to come. This one, I found out later, was destroyed in an air

attack in 1996. I walked toward the main entrance where once there must've

swung one of those big wooden arch-shaped doors, but now there was just empty

space and sunlight flooding out. And I suddenly saw a woman step out of the

shadows near where the pulpit would've been; and then a little boy and girl

beside her. For a second I had the terrible thrilling thought that they lived

in this desperate husk of a church, that its crumbling walls and archways

provided them their only thin shelter against the rain and the sun, like some

fantastic survivors in a "Mad Max" movie or something. Well, happily, they

didn't. They lived in a crude little house just behind it, with laundry strung

on a line above the dusty yard. Evidently, the vacant church with its broken

walls was now just part of their path to the street. The kids - who were maybe

six and seven years old - were spectacular. The boy with bright eyes and

flashing smile. The girl with beautiful thoughtful face and fancy flowered

dress and earrings and silver bracelets dangling from her bare ankles. I

prowled around the ruins, where old memorial plaques were still embedded in its

pitted wall. Plaques saying things like this: "In Loving Memory of Eliza

Gertrude Speldewinde / Born 20th September 1835 / Died 11th August 1913 / Peace

Perfect Peace" - weird names, weird words, to encounter in the tenuous imperfect

peace of Jaffna today. Meanwhile, the kids played with Jasper among the

crumbled concrete and discarded shoes and flowering vines.  A bony dog wandered

up and fell asleep in the shade beside them. A goat ambled over and rubbed its

horns against an arched doorway, and then lay down beside them too. It was all

very quiet. The kids picked pink flowers and handed them to Jasper, and Jasper

plucked the petals and dropped them to the ground.


That's it. I don't know why it seems so beautiful to me now, but it does. I

think of being there - and I look at the photos I took of those kids - and it

brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile.  It's hard to explain. The weight

of tragedy and terror for twenty years. The simple pleasures of children

playing. Desolation. Perseverance. It's complicated. And there was something

about that little Tamil girl, so pretty and self-possessed, sitting in her

spotless dress and short smart haircut and dirty feet on a chunk of fallen

church-wall, silently fiddling with the unsolicited pen I gave her with a

faraway look in her eyes. I can't imagine what she thinks about, what things

she's seen in her few years; and it's scary to think too hard about what the

next six or seven years might bring her way. I want to be hopeful, and even

with the ruined buildings and the automatic weapons all around, there are some

signs of hope. The ceasefire, such as it is, has held for more than a year.

Some roads are re-opened. There's a renovated water-system with public faucets

on practically every block. And there's that gleaming clean fresh flowered

dress she's wearing. The town's in tatters, but the kids look good.