Ah, the exuberance of nature! December 2, 2005

Sitting in the living room with our laptops, glancing out the windows now and then to ease the eyes, how many kinds of leaves can we see? The fronds on the top of a coconut palm growing down the hill, banana leaves in various stages of fresh green (suitable for using as plates for food, which we may have to do soon, if our shipment does not arrive. That is another story!), splitting, disintegrating, and finally brown decaying. That is only the beginning. There is a acacia tree with a betal nut vine going up it, a yellow/green bush, a string of red and yellow flowers that look mightily like a string of fireworks exploding. There are some huge trees visible in the background of the next hill over. We just learned that one rather ordinary looking tree at the front of the house is a durian (our landlady and her family all love durian too--hope the owner of the tree stays in England so we can have the fruit when it falls, ripe, to the ground--last year this tree produced thousands!) Then there are the vines, creepers, and the dramatic aerial roots of the banyans. Easy to overlook, the lush mosses and the myriads of ferns, unimposing but beautiful, they turn even the most ordinary wall or roadside into a beautiful spot.

And the various flowers everywhere, of all colors and the most startling arrangements! We’d never thought seriously about black pepper--just ground it on our pasta! Well, it is first ... bright red flowers, tightly growing, and, when they mature, you pick the green berries, dry them, and, like magic, they are black pepper!

There are a number of delicate flowers, yellow, green, white, purple, pink. Then there are the flowering trees--yellow blossoms standing up like chestnuts along the Champs-Elysees in Paris, red flame trees (Evidently, the Portuguese took these everywhere--including the Philippines!) There’s nothing delicate about anthuriums, which flourish here. But our descriptive powers fail in the face of so much beauty.

Butterflies, both ordinary and spectacularly large, of every imaginable color, flutter by our window on their way--somewhere. We’ve only seen one serious caterpillar, but there must be plenty about to have so many butterflies and moths.

Last night, after we had turned out all of the lights, Ken had to retrieve something from the living room. As he was passing the fishpond (which he could not distinguish in the dark), he noticed something glowing. “Wait a minute!” he shouted to himself. “I know we have a fish which seemed a little fluorescent, but it could not be THAT bright.” He turned on the hall light and discovered that it was a little firefly crawling up the wall outside the fishpond. This house is shared with many others, not to mention the variety of SPIDERS in the bathroom and the cupboards under the sink in the kitchen.

In the heart of the city, we watched a huge butterfly that flew into the cloth store (where Visakha loves to encourage the clerks to talk about economics, war and peace, politics, imperialism, etc. etc. etc.) He fluttered along the florescent lights, avoided the slow moving ceiling fan, brushed all the colored silks and shiny bolts of cloth, pausing on the brightest that might have been favorites, then calmly flew out again.

Our cell phones have a number of useful features. They don’t take pictures (That’s a plus in our minds.), but they can be used as calculators, and there is a little flashlight in the end which comes in handy when unlocking the gate. They also have an alarm clock, which we use to wake up in the morning. Ken set his to sound like a cricket (the least obnoxiously musical of all the choices, he thought.) Unfortunately, we also have a little squirrel-type animal in the tree outside that sounds exactly like Ken’s cell phone! The other morning, the phone and he began chirping at exactly the same time, or perhaps he was answering the phone, which he thought was calling him. In any case, it was most alarming, trying frantically, but unsuccessfully to find the buttons to turn off the racket!

Playing one of our Chieftains’s CDs seems to have inspired a passing bird to stop, roost outside the window, and sing his little heart out!

We have mourning doves and a plethora of other bird songs. Lots of warblers, but also some definitely jungle sounding cries. At least we suppose they are birds?!

One aspect of living in the tropics is the insects in the house. We have ants in…actually it is easier to say where they aren’t! Breakfast cereal has to be kept in an empty cookie tin. The sugar bowl is sealed tight. Drop a crumb, and, seconds later, there they are. We had an infestation, after a particularly heavy rain, of winged insects, who expired by the hundreds all over the floor, in the sink, on the table, in our hair, etc. It was remarkable to see the ant cleanup squad at work hauling off the bodies. (They didn’t seem to see any value in the wings).

The lurking spiders are also everywhere. Big hairy ones, the usual familiar-to-Michigan daddy-long-legs types, and little jumpy guys. One hairy fellow inhabits the shower stall. When we go in to take a shower he retreats behind the cold water tap. Obviously, he’s getting enough to eat. Maybe he eats the ants?

Our shower is wonderful. We have a geyser (pronounced geezer by the locals) which we plug in only when we need it. It takes about 15 minutes to heat enough water for the first shower. Leave it on during the first shower, and there will still be enough for the second. Leave it on longer, and you will have hot water the next time, as well, but that is a BIG waste of electricity.

Speaking of water, we have to boil every drop we drink--and after it has cooled, it gets put into a large filtering container. After it has passed through the different filters, it is safe and ready.

Our fish pond had to be cleaned. Lily followed everyone’s advice, but she’d never done such a job before. It must have been very traumatic for the fish--they were frantically trying to avoid being netted and put in the basic with their friends. Everyone tried to be very gentle, but some of them were really elusive. Authorities told us that we had to let the new water settle for 24 hours so the chlorine could evaporate. We left at the crack of dawn for Colombo, and that happened to be Lily’s day off. No problem, we thought. The fish pond will be ready for them on our return. Ah, but we were wrong. Some died in the basin, perhaps from being bruised, and the survivors had to stay with their dead comrades for the duration. When we returned to find the sad sight, we placed the living back in their pond and disposed of the not so lucky. Even two weeks later our fish are so traumatized they flee under their big rock refuge when anybody passes by. In happier, days they would crowd around begging for food. Now they are not tempted in the slightest. If fish, which are thought to have little intelligence, can be so scarred by such an unfortunate event, however unintentional, what can we imagine of those wretched humans who suffer intentional, cunning, diabolical torture at the hands of others of their kind. Our fish have no real idea of what happened or why. Man and women who endure torture for confessions know exactly what is in the mind of their tormentors who try to kill their victims without killing their bodies.

We’ve had the odd centipede come trundling through the house on a mission to somewhere. On the clothesline outside, there are always two steady lines of huge red ants marching--over blouses, undershirts, pillow cases, etc. They hesitate when they meet a colleague going the other way (exchanging information perhaps? But about what?) We wonder--why the same number going both ways? Do they have specialized tasks at their destination?

Just down the hill is the Riverdale Hotel. We have gone down twice with our swimsuits and robes on for a very pleasant swim, but the water was a little scuzzy the second time. Ken checked, and they change it every fortnight. (People around here use those sorts of terms--it is quite a challenge!) One night when Lily was off, we ordered dinner at the Riverdale. They didn’t have many guests that night (tourism is down, they say, because of the elections), so the buffet was closed. The chef outdid himself--a cashew curry with peas, a sambol, a kirihode with potatoes, a dahl curry, and a carrot with pineapple salad. Wow! A feast for only $2.75 each!

Although Lily buys our rice, vegetables and fruit, we like to go shopping ourselves for a few things. Nihals is down the hill, and through the tunnel. It isn’t a bad walk at all, but we order a three-wheeler to take us back, because we’re always loaded down with goodies. They have a million kinds of breakfast cereal, chocolates galore, and plenty of choices in teas, naturally. They also have cheese from Australia and that perennial Aussie favorite, Vegemite. We got pasta and a good spaghetti sauce (vegetarian), but there was no grated Paramesan. We mentioned it to the manager, and, lo, on our next trip, there was Australian Kraft Paramesan!. There is a dog who stays outside the grocery store, usually dozing on the steps. He never barks, with one big exception. Whenever a man in a sarong goes by, he sneaks up behind that man and barks fiercely, scaring the bejeebers out of him! He never bothers ladies in sarongs, or men in shorts. If a man holds his sarong up high enough, the dog is fooled!

We have seen plenty of earthslips (landslides) after the heavy rains. Like everywhere there is a housing boom, and people are building without much thought to drainage. It’s easy to see the connection between greed and floods, since rice land and wetlands absorb water like sponges, when they are filled in the water has to go somewhere. Just the other side of the tunnel, there is a house sitting on top of the hill. The hillside is washing away every day. The inhabitants above have put plastic sheets at the top of the hillside, seemingly to stop the erosion, but it appears futile to us. From what we can see the edge of the hill is not about four inches from the foundation of the house. We expect that in the next heavy rain, the whole house will slide down the hill, which will wreak havoc with our tunnel, which we have just learned is ancient. One of the last kings escaped through it as he was fleeing from the British. Sometime after that, it collapsed, but was reopened about fifty years ago. It has speed breakers about every twenty feet through it, and there are iron beams at both end to prevent tall trucks from using it. Best to carry an umbrella because water is constantly leaking from the ceiling in the middle.

Bill Clinton’s visit made the headlines here--he pointed to progress, but he also warned that any resumption of war could undo that progress. True enough. Actually, Oxfam has just complained that Sri Lanka and Indonesia have not done nearly enough to provide land to those displaced by the tsunami. The rebuilding is painfully slow, and, of course, it isn’t particularly fair either. Where is there fairness in this world? Many of those prevented from rebuilding where they used to live are fisherfolk. There is supposed to be a buffer now (for villagers, not for resorts!), and rebuilding is not supposed to be too close to the seashore, which is vulnerable to future tsunamis. But how can fishermen get their boats to the sea if they are forced to live away from the beach? Who are we protecting here?

The election was full of charges of ethnic chauvinism. The same old questionwhy can’t poor working people see that they have everything in common? Of course, it suits the elite to keep them apart, to play the race, religion, and chauvinism cards, so that they don’t stand together united. Separately, they are so much more easily exploited!

Who are the Tamil Tigers, you may ask. They were the first terrorists and suicide bombers. When the Sinhalese (the majority in Sri Lanka) got a chance, after the British, they pushed their language and their culture and made it dominant. Even if they had been kept down by the Brits--Dumb move! The Tamils had reason to resent that, no doubt. There were lots of other things going on at the same time--Marxism, Socialism, capitalism, and all the other isms that followed imperialism. What to do? Why, begin a liberation movement, of course! How to do it? First, lots of ethnic cleansing, so that your liberation movement can claim exclusive right to a hunk of the country. Drive all the Sinhalese, Christian Tamils, and Muslims out. Then fight dirty. Execute any moderate Tamils who stand in your way. Blow up an airplane or two. Assassinate as many heads of state as possible. Spread terror, big time. Extort money from expatriates, and put out propaganda to discredit anyone who points out what you’re doing. It was very successful in every way except gaining independence. The rest of the world accepted their claim about discrimination. No one paid much attention to them until one of their women “trained” to be a suicide bomber killed Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi. The Tigers weren’t called terrorists or strictly censured until after 9/11. Then it became obvious that Sri Lanka had been experiencing this kind of terrorism for 20 years. At last, Britain, the rest of the EU, the US, Australia, and Canada have begun to put a damper on their activities and their fund-raising. But the civil war in Sri Lanka keeps threatening to continue.

Each newspaper supports a particular party, and every bit of reporting is colored by that. At first, we bought a different newspaper each day, trying to figure out which was best, but last Sunday, we bought all four big ones. It gave us four days of reading material, and each seemed to have excellent commentary, when taken together, so perhaps that will be our modus operandi from now on. Heck with the dailies. They are all available online, anyway, and we have created “favorites” for them already.                                                                 

Our place is about midway between the BPS and the Monks Training Center in Peredeniya. Wednesday night is meditation on the top floor of the new hall. Meditation at Subodharama includes all the novices, as well as a number of lay people. The youngest novice is only 8 years old! We all gather and take our places on mats over the carpet, with cushions for sitting. Visakha rates a chair. The first time we went, the number of lay folks was down because a group had just gone to India on pilgrimage. First we take precepts, and praise the Triple Gem. Ven. Dhammawasa instructs the novices in anapana meditation. We sit for an hour. Afterwards, there is a Dhamma class, with the reading of a sutta in Pali, a Dhamma talk in Sinhalese about it, questions from some of the lay folk, then the spreading of metta, and finally the sharing of merit. The last time we went, Ven. Dhammawasa asked one of the laymen to translate everything for us foreigners (the two of us and Barbara, an Australian here doing tsunami relief work) the translation was much appreciated--the discussions were really interesting.

This week the monks and novices are having their exams, but next week, we’ll begin classes, starting with a placement test, of course, so we can group them according to ability. We’ll be teaching English twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We’re really looking forward to it.

Wherever we go, we’re finding people who want to work for us. If we were all on our own, it would be difficult to sort out how to manage. Fortunately for us, Savithri (accent on the first syllable) and her family are taking care of a lot of that. They recommend someone, a carpenter, for example, and suggest how to hire him to build an altar--by the job, rather than by the hour. We follow their advice and are, thereby, saved a great deal of hassle. Not that everything is hassle free, but they know the people around about and also how to work with them too. The carpenter is, at this moment, working on the altar. He is, under Ken’s direction, doing a very good job. At first, he could not imagine what he was doing, even though Ken had prepared very careful and accurate drawing, thanks to the mechanical drawing instruction he had in junior high (which he had never used until now!). But, at last, he has understood, and has thrown himself into the task, fine tuning every aspect. When it’s finished, in about two more days, it will be beautiful! Unfortunately our shipment, which includes altar fittings and Buddha images, is not here. But that’s another story.

Back to Table of Contents

Buddhist Relief Mission