Didn't it rain, Children? November 26, 2005


Ah, those tropical depressions in the Bay of Bengal!


We were picked up by the BPS van at 430 AM for the ride to Colombo. Our first stop, however, was the Subodharama Bhikkhu Training Center in Perideniya, which is actually sponsoring us for residence visas. There we were joined by the monk who was accompanying us on this official venture. He has the auspicious name of Ven. Mangala (Blessings!) so that boded well!


At that early hour there was no traffic whatsoever, so we made remarkable time down the mountains, with just a light rain falling. As the sun rose, however, the rain picked up until it was a torrential deluge by the time we neared Colombo (about three hours).


Although we had books to deliver, the roads in that part of the city were under too much water, so we headed to Station Street off Galle Road where the Immigration Office is located. The office was almost empty when we went upstairs. A kindly officer showed us the staff restrooms and then we proceeded to the screening desk where the official went over our papers and said that all looked to be OK. He then went with Ven. Mangala, papers in hand, to see theDeputy Controller, who happened to be in despite the rain. At every step along the way, at every desk and counter, every jot and tittle on our papers was scrutinized. We could hardly believe that we could get those visas stamped in the passports in one day (especially when there was nobody at a desk inside the main office, and one office we passed was being mopped up from a seriously leaky roof.


The cheerful official at the screening desk informed us that everything would be finished by noon! We took that news with a dose of salt, but decided to go to the Colombo Plaza to offer Ven. Mangala lunch. We don’t know many restaurants around Colombo, fewer that open at 11, in time for a monk to eat before noon, and even fewer than that with vegetarian fare. Colombo Plaza has a “Food Court” with about 10 different “stalls” offering various “ethnic” cuisines. We had offered lunch to two monks several years ago, so we suggested it to the driver, and off we went.


Although we had hoped to find a quiet table for the monk’s lunch, there were TV monitors strategically located so as to be inescapable. Part of the time they showed a cricket match in Dubai. (We have no clue as to the rules of that game yet, but have been assured by Sinhalese friends that it is a wonderful sport! The Brits taught it to the colonies, and the former colonies now delight in beating the @#$%! out of them, which makes it a wonderful sport?!). The rest of the time music videos were on, but without sound, so they didn’t make any sense. In the background were some oldies, but not so goodies, playing. One song, which we had just heard a trio perform at a birthday party (about which we must write later), had a constantly recurring line that goes something like “It’s only words, and words are all I have!”


The lunch was Indian because that kiosk opened earliest, but Ken also ran around and got hot tea, fruit juice for us all, a plate of mixed vegetables from the Korean shop, and an eclair from the bakery. For lunch itself, we all had south Indian thalis, except Visakha, who opted for a masala dosa (delicious ... with cashews no less!)


Ken and Ven. Mangala got dropped off at the office (Ken had the official chits for our passports so he could reclaim them when finished, signed, and properly stamped). The driver took Visakha in the van around the block to a dry stretch of road where they waited. Since both of us have cell phones, Ken was going to call when he was ready to be picked up. More waiting. Ken called to say that he was waiting patiently (Patience leads to Nibbana!) and that Ven. Mangala was “prodding,” rather than just waiting to be called. (In all the time waiting there, we had NEVER seen or heard ANYONE called.)


The rain just kept coming down in buckets while Visakha and the driver waited in the car. We couldn’t help but wonder where all that water was going to go. Later we’d find out. (In many parts of the island, there were landslides and heavy flooding with low-lying areas under water, people forced out of their homes, and newly planted rice fields washed away. In the north and east (Tamil Tiger country) there were fears of land mines being dislodged and made even more dangerous because they were in unexpected places. We’re writing this two days later, and the torrential rains have started up again here in Kandy. Today, we read in the paper’s weather forecast maximum humidity 95%, minimum humidity 85%. That pretty much explains it, doesn’t it?)


Ven. Mangala returned and told Ken to wait. He (the monk) was going off for some work. Ken continued to wait. Ven. Mangala called Visakha and asked her to tell the driver (Jayasena) to pick him up at the entrance, which she did, and he did. They headed off to various parts of Colombo to deliver books, leaving Ken to his fate. Ken continued to wait

.

To make a long story short, about two-thirty, he inquired as to why it was taking so long, and was told to wait a few more minutes. About that long later, a clerk emerged and asked about photos. Ken said they had been submitted with the applications. The woman looked surprised but headed off in the direction of the Deputy Controller. Ken searched through his bags to see if, indeed, the photos were there. He didn’t find them, but the second time through, he did. Oops! He hurried to find the clerk. She was in the office of the Assistant Controller (He’s the one that Ken had dealt with the first time.) She was ready to hand him the passports. He squeezed through the people lined up in the door and handed her the photos. He watched through the glass while the passports were unceremoniously signed (one might at least expect pipers piping?) Together they returned to the office. The clerk noted something in a ledger, handed him the two passports, and said, “October 27, 2006.” Which means congratulations!


Back on the street, Ken walked south along Galle Road. He knew that the van would be coming north to pick him up. He called and let them know where to find him. And waited in front of a bank. This stretch along Galle Road has changed more since 1979, when we first walked along it, than perhaps any other place we personally know. When we were here the first time, there were just one-storey shops, some no more than shacks, all along the road. Many of these places were called hotels, but that meant, and still often means, food stall. The sea then was still visible from the road. On the other side, there were many open spaces. Now the street on both sides is lined with multi-storey buildings and offices. You certainly cannot see the sea, and to get to it, you have to go down side streets that are also lined with buildings. We have seen rice fields disappear and a lot of construction take its place, but nothing so dramatic as this. Anicca!


While Ken was wandering around, Ven. Mangala, Visakha, and the driver were gallivanting all over the suburbs, delivering books. They (We) passed by many low lying areas that were underwater, with people trying to belatedly build dykes to keep more water from flooding in.


The van finally wended its way back to Galle Rd to pick up Ken. It had already been a very full day, and we had a long haul back to Kandy, made slower by landslips and flooded roads which forced us, and other traffic, to a crawl. The BPS driver is very cool, and we appreciated his skill when private buses were threatening to come in the back door of the van at breakneck speed. He’d been driving for 16 or 17, hours but it didn’t show. We were glad to get back home, passports triumphantly stamped. We hadn’t really believed it could all be done in a day!


Now about that party! Our landlady invited us to her husband’s 60th birthday party. He had invited his high school classmates and other friends. (He’d grown up here in Kandy but went to university in Colombo--to study architecture.) This was our first Sinhalese party, and it was a gala affair indeed. They had it in their country house which had sufficient room. They had it catered, and there was even a live band, a trio--two guitarists and a traditional drummer--which alternated between Sinhalese and English standards.

The first plan had been to have the party outside, and awnings were in place, but the weather refused to cooperate, with rain off and on until almost the end of the party. Nevertheless, the men seemed to drift outside, perhaps to enjoy each other’s company (man-talk), or perhaps because there was alcohol out there. Most of the women, young and not so young, stayed inside, talking and singing along with the music. The trio stood in a corner of the main room and crooned in the beginning, but, after a break, they stood under the awning outside. They were still going strong when the rain stopped, and everyone came out to listen.


We met a Chinese woman whose parents had moved from China to Kandy before she was born. She and her older siblings spoke Chinese and Sinhala, while the younger brothers and sisters only knew Sinhala. She was very cheerful, and we were pleased to ask her questions about Kandy. She clued us in on where to get tofu, right downtown. The next day we went and laid in a big supply of blocks of firm tofu, now in water in the fridge. Cooked in coconut gravy it’s absolutely delicious, like “opor tahu,” an Indonesian favorite.


Another woman we talked with knew the de Silvas from Glenanore Estates--where we stayed a million years ago as Servas travekers, Actually it was only 1979, during our first trip to Sri Lanka. We well remember their hospitality, the cold temperatures, the roses in the garden, and learning all about how tea was processed. We were sorry to learn that Hemasiri, the husband, who was the estate manager, had had a heart attack about six years ago while driving on the mountain road. He went off the cliff and died instantly. She promised to give us the telephone number for Mrs. De Silva, Maya, so we can call. We wonder if she will remember us?


The food at the birthday party was delicious! Hotel style chafing dishes of rice, fried noodles, curries, chicken, and vegetables. We found the desserts especially delectable. They had all been done by Savithri’s and Manel’s son, who is pastry chef at the Topaz Hotel, one of the grander hotels in Kandy. He’d also done the birthday cake--a grand chocolate sheet cake beautifully decorated and, this is almost unheard of, as moist and wonderful as it looked!

(r to l) Manel, Savithri, and Deepal (2nd son, who has since a become new father)
Manel cutting his Birthday Cake

We met a lot of people, enjoyed the music and the food, and really appreciated being included in this 60th birthday party. Ken was sort of official photographer, and he got some fine shots of family and friends enjoying themselves in Sinhalese style.


Now that we have our visas, we are hard at work on editing and proofreading, several manuscripts at once. Our approach is to take turns going over the material, since we have different perspectives. We also find that we find lots of little things that might have been missed the first time around. “The more proofreading the better!” is our motto.


We’ve also asked the abbot of Subodarama about classes and expect to be teaching two classes a week each, beginning as soon as the monks and novices finish their exams. That’s next week! So, we need to get a placement test ready!. We wish we could say that our shipment has arrived and that we have all our reference materials in reassembled bookshelves, but it isn’t so. We’ve written the company we contracted with for shipping and the agent has replied, “No, the ship didn’t sink!” but, beyond that, we know nothing.


At Subodarama the other afternoon, we had a chance to meet Ven. Sathi, whom we knew from the Great Lakes Buddhist Vihara a few years back. He’s now the abbot of a new Buddhist temple in Minnesota (www.triplegem.org) His English is, as we remembered, outstanding, and he exudes loving-kindness and gentle humor. Maybe that’s why he’s the perfect choice to appear on .... Sesame Street! Yes, Ven. Sathi went to New York for negotiations. (There were objections [Buddhism doesn’t exactly suit the conservatives who are now running PBS], but Ven. Sathi was very firm that his message was about sharing and kindness, not religion!) The programs have been filmed, and the first one should air in February. He is now being referred to as “Sesame Monk”! Don’t miss it!

Ven. Sathi, from www.triplegem.org


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