You tomorrow leaving? January 17, 2006

There were many indelible memories from our Cultural Triangle pilgrimage. Meditating under the Bodhi tree at Aukana with the monkeys in the tree apparently joining us. How else to explain their silence; as soon as we finished, they started leaping about again. Waiting for daylight and breakfast at the hotel in Polonnaruva, watching a wave of bats, weaving along the porch, into the dark dining room, and back out again, catching their last meal on the wing before dawn.


The monks had one last day in Kandy, and the next day we left our house in two tuk-tuks before dawn and boarded the Intercity Express train which left promptly at 625. Visakha must have been tired after all our traveling. She may have tried to meditate, but her seat reclined too far back, and she slept the entire way, getting a crick in her neck for the trouble.

Nothing makes us appreciate Kandy more than spending some time in Colombo. Having adjusted to the cool breezes of the hilly country, Colombo, right on the ocean, seems remarkably hot. When we look off across the ocean, we’re looking in the direction of Somalia, we guess.

The capital is certainly not large, as Asian capitals go, but it is chockablock full of wards, which everybody understands immediately. Say “Colombo 7" and everybody thinks University and offices! Kotahena is industrial; Slave Island is raw and gang-ridden; Galle Face is commercial. The Fort has old mercantile establishments like Cargills, an especially fine hotel, the Grand Oriental, and the harbor. Because of the civil war, threatening to re-erupt at anytime, Colombo is full of troops, who invariably give a friendly smile when they are smiled at. There have been some bloody attacks recently, in the north and east, with many soldiers and sailors killed in Tiger suicide bombings, but we didn’t sense any great fear. Although Colombo has a heavy military presence, it seemed reassuring, unlike Burma. The old, carefree days, if they ever existed, are certainly gone now.

Colombo is supposed to be a rough, tough city, so we are not inclined to accept offers from touts, but when the grizzled old man asked us upon coming out of Fort Railway Station, Ken asked, “How much to Grand Oriental Station?” He asked for 200 rupees, which was less than it would have cost for two tuk-tuks. Of course, we accepted. As we were climbing into the taxi, Ken asked how much per day if he took us around Colombo. He thought for a few seconds and replied, “2500 rupees ($25),” considerably less than we had paid for the Cultural Triangle trip. After we were all inside, the van seemed comfortable enough, so we decided we would indeed keep him. From the back, Ken shouted, “Let’s go to Sugatadasa Sports Hotel.” The only reason we had wanted to go to the Grand Oriental was to arrange for a van, so there was no need anymore for that. He didn’t understand the change in plans, and headed for the GOH. There was a bit of confusion, but at last he understood and headed toward the Sports Hotel in Kotahena. He had said that he knew the hotel, but when we got near, he had not a clue where it was. Fortunately, he did not hesitate to ask some tuk-tuk drivers where it was, and we arrived with no problem.

Our old driver was very earnest and careful. We hesitate to call anyone simple, especially when we don’t speak his language, but this old man seemed genuinely the opposite of shrewd. We asked him to join us for a meal or tea, but he always refused. He drove barefoot and wore a faded, but clean, sarong. Whenever we stopped, he climbed down from behind the wheel, opened the door for the monks, and closed it behind them. What more could we ask for this rough tough city?!

The monks stayed at the Burmese temple in Maradana, in a thoroughly Muslim neighborhood, which felt a lot like Pakistan or Afghanistan. Muslims in Sri Lanka don’t seem to smile as much as other people, but this is a big city, after all. The Muslims here speak Tamil, but they have suffered a great deal from the Tamil Tigers, and many have come as refugees from the north and the east. We’ve been told that the Tigers tax Muslim traders very heavily and no matter what, they have no use for a Tamil homeland, since they are not Tamils at all. We’re still confused by all the intricacies of race, ethnicity, religion, and language here, but we’re learning.

The Sports Hotel is government run, built for the South Asian Games. (Our friends Dushy and Arjuna were surprised that we were even able to stay there!) Very basic, but the staff tried hard. We served the monks breakfast each morning, but the food seemed to have been brought from outside. They probably thought we were very odd, asking for string hoppers instead of eggs and cold toast, (Yes, here in Colombo, they are “string,” not “steam.”) but that’s nothing new.

There was a TV in the lobby and we had a couple of chances to catch a bit of CNN. (There was extensive coverage of the spina bifeda patient, little “Baby Noor.” Of course, we hoped with everyone else that the surgeries would be successful, but that wouldn’t make the US a great benefactor to the Iraqis. The US daily bombs civilians, killing and maiming many including little children who don’t have this child’s chance. Shrub’s war has obliterated hospitals and destroyed water systems. One little baby can get high tech surgery, but whole towns have been blasted to smithereens, leaving those who survive with no medical care, no safe water, no work, no hope. Doesn’t seem like much of a trade-off to us.) Kudos to the opposition to the war. We’re proud of Michigan Citizens for Peace--still demonstrating after three years and three months, with numbers growing!

The novelty of English “news” didn’t last very long. There was nothing, naturally, about Sri Lanka, and we passed on the Larry King Show--Howard Stern’s daughter’s career just didn’t particularly appeal to us. Wish they had had BBC!

A Professor, friend of Ven. Pannasila and Ven. BuddhaPrakash, met us at the hotel
Lunch at Shanmugas Vegetarian Indian Restaurant With Ven. Vimalajoti at Buddhist Cultural Centre, standing beside the new and just finished BCC Edition of the Sinhala Tipitaka

Communications with hotel staff and our driver were diverting. At least the driver knew the city, so when we told him where we wanted to go, we had a fair chance of getting there. He had no shyness about asking for directions. We enjoyed the National Museum enormously. If you know where to get a permit, photography is allowed, and we saw some really splendid pieces brought from the ancient cities we’d just visited. Ken was in seventh heaven the whole time, taking pictures with wild abandon. The neatest trick was how we eliminated the distracting background from images in glass cases. Ven. Prajnasheel willingly offered to hold his outer robe against the glass. Perfect! Ken spent each evening in the hotel selecting the best of the more than 2000 photos, dividing them into identifying folders, playing with panoramas, and burning three very full CDs of great pics for each traveler! We’re in the process of selecting a few to resize and share.

Colombo National Museum
Click the image to see more photos from the National Museum

Sri Lanka’s second most important perahera (procession of a relic, complete with elephants, dwarfs, drummers, torches, and more,) is in Kelaniya (just outside Colombo) It was scheduled for the day after Ven. Pannasila’s return to India. We had originally thought he would be here at that time, and that we would be able to witness the spectacle. Nevertheless, we had to visit the temple. Tradition has it that Buddha visited Kelaniya from India, and the RajaMahaVihara has a lovely cedi and a magnificent Bodhi tree. The vihara itself is beautifully adorned with stucco carvings on every outside wall, including elegant nagas (snake gods), a myriad of dwarfs in amusing postures. Inside there are two main images--an impressive reclining Buddha and the main image, a meditating Buddha, which we’d never before been able to see without a curtain (scrim) hanging in front of it. The walls are completely covered with almost life-sise frescos of Sri Lankan history as recorded in the Mahavamsa. The entire time we were inside, monks and laymen were dusting, vacuuming, and moving various barricades from place to place. We noticed that there were no other visitors, but no one tried to hurry us. When we prepared to leave, a caretaker opened a locked door for us. How lucky we were. We were even able to take a close -up photo of the relic casket that would be carried by elephant in the procession. It seems that the festival started with a ceremony inside the vihara that night. There would be a procession on each of the following two nights.

Click the image to see more photos from Kelaniya

The Bodhi Tree is also very impressive--and worshipers in white were already circumambulating with jugs of water to pour on the tree. One father tried to keep his toddler focused, but the little boy kept going off on tangents toward other interesting things--a crow, a fallen leaf, other people, a scrawny dog--any and everything served to distract him.

We knew we would be leaving early, and from experience at the Burapa we knew that the evening staff is often much more competent than the night crew, so we paid our bill before retiring. We explained that our car would be arriving at 5 AM and that we needed no breakfast the last morning. The telephone woke us from a very sound sleep. “You tomorrow going?” asked a frantic voice. Ken was not fully awake and wondered what this meant. “Yes, we are checking out tomorrow, or today; what time is it?” (It was 2:45 AM!) “This is Hotel Security. You tomorrow going?” he repeated. Finally awake and rather annoyed, Ken answered, “Yes, we are checking out at five o’clock.” “Thank you.” Click! So much for a good night’s sleep. Again the telephone rang at four o’clock. This time for an unrequested wake-up call.

After returning from Kelaniya, we had told the driver that he should pick up the monks at the temple at 430, be at the hotel at 5, and at take us all to the airport by 6. He looked a bit non-plussed and asked, “Morning?” Nevertheless, he was right on time. Strangely, even after the 245 interchange, the gate into the complex was locked and the security guard was nowhere to be found. Ven. Buddha Prakash somehow managed to get in (climbed? squeezed?) to inform us of the problem, and it took us another 15 minutes to find someone with a key!

It’s a long, long ride to the airport. We were surprised to see people biking in the dark, without light or even reflectors. Somehow they just kept going, steadily, despite the vans, cars, buses, and trucks approaching from behind and whizzing past. We saw crowd of men and women waiting at bus stops and wondered whether they started work early or had long commutes. We have also wondered why Sri Lanka bothers with white lines when no vehicle stays in its proper lane! The preferred position seems to be straddling the middle lane, constantly trying to pass--not only dangerous, but heart-stopping when vehicles in both directions do this at the same time, driving nonchalantly in a four-lane pattern, even in the early morning darkness.

Our driver didn’t loose his head when a large whitish dog appeared from nowhere but immediately slammed on the brakes. Despite his braking, however, we felt, rather than heard, a horrible thump. Ken looked back and shouted “He’s OK!” after he saw the dog roll over, jump up, and run away, apparently quite unharmed. Whew! That was close.

As always, we try to use our credit cards as much as possible. One reward here is a free stay at the Colombo Hilton, which requires only 10,000 points, (in contrast, some Hampton Inns in Ohio were as much as 30,000! Naturally, we didn’t waste points on them!) At the Hilton, everyone seemed to remember us from last time. Several staff asked how we were enjoying Kandy and mentioned that Bill Clinton had recently been a guest there too. Clinton is very popular, apparently; the elder Bush respected, and the younger Bush not thought well of at all. (Those were the results from an informal, unbiased poll that we took of Hilton employees and taxi drivers.)

We love the pool at the Hilton, now that we know a shortcut there through the huge banquet hall (Security let us through in our Julie kimonos, despite an extravagantly expensive wedding reception in progress! The normal route is from the basement, up a long flight of stairs to the garden level {That’s where the fountains, fish, and birds are.}, through the garden to a few more steps leading to the bridge over the highway, and down four flights of stairs to the sports complex.) The pool is the largest and cleanest of any hotel pool we have found and usually quite empty. The other pleasure is the cable TV. We watched a bit of Al Jazeera, which was too cool! They had extensive video coverage of Guantanamo (how did they get that?) and seemed very professional. We were impressed by the women announcers and the fact that there was twice as much coverage of Iran as CNN had, including long quotes from French and German government leaders and long interviews with Iranian politicians. Obviously, unlike CNN, Al Jazeera delivers serious news. On the French channel, TV5, we enjoyed a very fine movie with subtitles in English about modern slavery. Reception of TV5 is much clearer here than at the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok where we first got to know the channel. Mainly, it seemed very good just to stop moving for a couple of days and to relax!

We were happy to have a chance to visit our Sinhalese friends Dushy and Arjuna. Dushy is a professor of English at University of Colombo, and Arjuna, web designer extraordinaire, is now working with the Green Movement on tsunami relief projects. We listened with rapt attention to his comments about the rural monks offering practical support for the people. After the tsunami hit, vast numbers of people were homeless, of course, and the politicians were nowhere to be found. The village monks opened up the temple compounds and offered refuge to those who needed space. They alone had the authority to organize the people, to keep the girls and single women safe in the temple under lock and key. They alone could get the people cooking communally, sharing whatever they had immediately after the catastrophe. Of course, the Buddhist understanding that the tsunami was a natural disaster and not an inexplicable punishment from god helped to console the victims. This attitude also helped the people to deal with their grief, because the monks offered them chances to make merit for their lost family members, to console their dead, and to ease their passing. According to Arjuna, the psychological help people derived from their Buddhist background, even if they weren’t particularly religious before, meant that the grief/trauma counselors who had arrived in hordes from the West were not necessary. Most shipped out within a few days.

Arjuna told us of one village in particular where the abbot of a temple had taken in and assisted many villagers after the tsunami, even though his own living quarters had been heavily damaged. Ironically, the people have been mostly resettled in new, if basic, homes, but the abbot was given virtually no assistance. His temple, it seems, did not fall under the mandate of the relief efforts. The abbot never asked for any help, but Arjuna felt that he really needed a new monastery building. Arjuna estimated that it would take about $7000, of which he had already gotten pledges for a little more than $1000. He wondered whether we could help. We promised to do what we could. Of course, Buddhist Relief Mission will make a donation, and we will try to find others donors. He promised to give us more details and photos after he revisited the village again. It’s more than a year after the tsunami, but there is much left to do. We may wish that the disaster had reconciled the Tigers with the government, as seems to have happened in Aceh, but the Tiger leaders are on record saying that they had been preparing to resume hostilities when they were hit hard by the tsunami. Evidently, they have recovered their strength enough to reject the cease fire and to provoke the civil war again. Deep sigh. Of course if the whole world runs on greed, hatred, and delusion, what else can we expect!

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