Friday, September 21, 2012

Notes from Sri Lanka, #1 - #21

Notes from Sri Lanka

September 2012

1. Visitors

The Polish man is in town because the machine that sews Bibles is broken.  The trouble, he explains, is with the paper.  Regular paper is OK, but that flimsy Bible paper, it always makes a problem, here in the humid land of the Buddha.  He’ll get drunk every night, then fly home and in three months he’ll be back because the machine that sews Bibles is forever being broken.

The other drunk is from West Virginia – but he’s been married and living in Pattaya for five years.  And he is still in shock at how much his wedding cost.  Because you don’t just pay for the bargirl, you pay for her whole family.  And most grooms, he’s quick to add, are even fatter and older than he is.  He wishes to make clear that, at 57, and two hundred forty pounds, he can still just squeeze into the category ‘Love’.

For a number of years I lived in a file cabinet.  Now I’ve landed in a picaresque tale.


Whenever I decide that it is all right to be awkward and nervous and shy – I am so relieved that I forget to be afraid..

3. Knowledge

The small main street of Negombo possesses, collectively, something near omniscience.  After I’ve been in town a day, everyone on the street knows everything about me.  They know where I’m from, what I’m doing, what side my bread is buttered on.  They know that yesterday I spoke to a man on a bicycle, who dismounted, and walked alongside of me.  I’m not sure if they know what happened after that -- my guess is Yes.

My doe-eyed waiter would like to discuss the economy.  When I say that I live in Japan, he mentions that there are currently 78.52 yen to the dollar.  This is the same man who gazes at me beatifically as I eat my dry eggs and kerosene toast.  Are you an economist? I ask.  Knowledge makes happy, sir, he says.


Two or three times a night I wake up with a clenched chest – and then I remember that I have given up attempting to fix anything.


Last night at the Lakshmi Guesthouse in Kandy, I woke to the pleasant sound of rain on the roof.  Then the last pleasant plink of drops striking the mattress.  I moved over to give the rain its spot on the bed but – like a restless lover – the rain kept moving over.  Finally I got up and moved the bed.  And still I wound up sleeping on the very edge of a bed full of puddles.


In Kandy, at the temple of the Buddha’s holy relic.  I love it that the guidebook finds it necessary to warn: you will not be able to see the tooth itself.

7. Visitors / 2

Sri Lanka is not a place one visits first.  The tourists here have been everywhere else.  They are anxious to see how Sri Lanka ‘stacks up’ against Tanzania or Angkor Wat or Bali.  The talkative Swede explains that he did Uganda last vacation and Malawi is next and so he thought he’d take it easy this time.  He’s certainly had a lot of adventures.  He hitchhiked Australia in 250 rides.  He photographed and blogged each one of them.  He hitchhiked Sweden too.  Also 250 rides.  It’s a smaller country obviously but then, people aren’t driving so far.

“I’m sorry,” I say.  “I have to ask, How often were you hit on?”

“Women under 40 almost never pick you up.  Only two in all of Australia.”  Then he realizes what I’m talking about.  And seems nervous that we are sharing a bathroom.

8. Visitors / 3

One bubbly lady is still astonished by what happened to her at the market.  Choosing a necklace, she decided to barter for it.  “I’ll give you 1500 rupees,” she began.  The shopkeeper shook his head.  “Not possible, Madame.  I’ll sell it to you for 1250.  To make more profit than that would be immoral.”


What the people who disapprove of me all have in common is that they have all already made up their minds.  Years ago, most of them.  Some even before I was born.


Certainly there are benefits to traveling other than being made to feel uncertain, uncomfortable, and insecure.

I do not know, however, if there are greater benefits.


It’s deplorable really, that I am unable to enter a botanical garden with a spotlessly pure motivation.  And I really am interested by the herbal garden.  I marvel at the giant fig, dotted with ominous crows.  My enthusiasm for the bamboo collection, however, is highly suspicious.  And the pandanus would serve even better.

I was ruined by a puppyhood in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park, where it was impossible to walk five steps without some gentleman demonstrating that he was considerably above average.


The Park appears nearly deserted until it suddenly starts to pour -- then a man and woman are found beside each broad tree trunk.  Each couple has been wise enough to bring only one small umbrella, beneath which they huddle close together, as if the rain were downright dangerous.  It is possible that this is the moment they for which they waited all afternoon, keeping up the conversation, watching impatiently as the storm clouds gather overhead.

13. Visitors / 4

The Finnish couple counts every rupee; the Lithuanian couple focuses on time.  They have a system, they explain.  Each evening they get as close as possible to the site they wish to see the following day.  They get up early, and, as there is no time for a hotel breakfast, they buy fruit from a vendor.  At the opening time of the historic or religious site, they are the first to enter.  By noon they have finished sightseeing and are on to the next city.  They have been in Sri Lanka six days.  They have seen six cities.

That’s wonderful, I said.  What did you think of what you’ve seen so far? 

All good, said the Lithuanian couple. 

14. Difficulties

Every night I have nightmares.  Every morning I wake as if without my skin, like a hermit crab who went sleepwalking and left his shell behind.  I have lost weight and strength.  I’ve never had courage.  Nor time.  My body aches from where the surgery was done years ago on the crippled boy.  It will not be long now before I will need a cane to walk.  Traveling at this speed does not suit me.  Above all, I am someone who is afraid of everything.

If someone arrived now to take charge of me, arrived with a sensible plan and a ticket to another place – I would scratch and bite.  Anyone would be shocked to find me like this, like a madman, animal or demon.

I do not want any place but this one.  For example, I do not want Thailand, with its miserable pleasures.  Or Japan, like a marble down a plastic shute.  Or America, where everyone is so horrendously important.

It seems to me that I have found exactly the right difficulties.  These are exactly the difficulties I require.


Surprised to see, in my otherwise spotless guesthouse, a small turd on the bathroom floor.  With one toe I kicked it toward the drain – it took off hopping.

Despite this bad start, which resulted in both of us leaping into the air, we now shower peaceably together, though the frog does not like soap.


In Sri Lanka, the gods work for the Buddha.  Near the Temple of the Tooth are the devales, the shrines to Vishnu and to Murugan.  At sunset there are oil lamps and colored electric lights and women sing devotions.  Here too, the bo tree is worshipped.  Climbing the steep steps I do my best to not teeter off the edge.  A woman in white with a thick black braid puts white flowers in my hands and shows me how to offer then to the Buddha.  Her smile has enough sustenance to last three days.  “God bless you,” she says.

17. Example

Let my life stand as an example of what is possible – if only you will renounce virtue, good sense, security, and accomplishment.

18. Are you married, sir?

I must exercise more care with the conversation that begins, “Are you married, sir?”  Innocuous as it may seem, it can swiftly get out of hand.  I do not have a wife.  I do not have a girlfriend.  I do not want a massage from a lady.  Monkhood and pedophilia are the next inquiries, both scratched from the list, until finally my mountain guide asked, “Do you like me?”

A very sweet thing to say, I thought, until I glanced over and realized that, although he said me – he actually meant a very specific part of himself.

Which was indeed impressive, as well as exceedingly vigorous.  (He was a small and delicate man, in other respects.)

“Wow,” I said, as I quickly looked around for hikers.. “But. . . aren’t there a lot of people around?” 

He didn’t care about hikers.  He only wanted to be liked.

I am always surprised at how, in cultures that may seem very conservative, guys are not shy in the least about hauling their junk out.  In certain parts of India it is impossible to read a book on a park bench without someone coming along with a stupendous erection and a forlorn expression, like, Is now any time to be reading?

19. Visitors / 5

When I marveled at how fast the two of them were traveling, the woman said, “We have both just completed a marathon.”  She was an American mechanical engineer in France.  He was her French boyfriend.  He was not much fun.  “It is not difficult if you have been in training” was his sentence for the evening.

Sri Lanka was their obstacle course.  They could do three cities in a day.  They were confident they could “do” the whole country in two weeks and still have time for a beach vacation at the end.  I did not doubt that they could do a beach vacation in 22 minutes or less.

The American woman explained, “If you want to be his girlfriend, you have to be able to swim a mile in the morning, bicycle all day, and climb a mountain at sunset.  If I fall behind, that’s it for me!”

I understood.  I did not want to be his girlfriend.


How unfortunate, it seems to me, that I only pass through the places where I could live, spending only a day or two, before returning to the place where I cannot live, where I stay years and years.

21. Luxury

This room costs seven dollars.  It is the sort of place that guidebooks refer to a dire.  The walls are stained with sweat and betel nut, there’s no ceiling at all, just a bare bulb hanging on a wire between the corrugated tin roof and the bed.

Is this roughing it? I wonder.  Am I an ascetic yet?

No.  I am still just playing.  The room even has its own bath.  I count the other luxuries: a bed, a fan, a light, a door that locks.

Then I decide the order in which I’d give up the luxuries.  An attached toilet isn’t necessary at all.  After that I would give up the light, next the bed, then the fan.  Last of all I would give up the lock.

With all five items present, I continue to live in luxury.


sdrucker said...

You are superb. xoxo

sdrucker said...

You are superb. xo

sdrucker said...

You are superb. xo