Critters and Green Porridge, January 27, 2006

Luckily we don’t have monkeys (yet!) In fact, we don’t have many fruit trees around here (except the durian, which monkeys just can’t get into to eat). Wild monkeys can’t move around coconut palms, so maybe we’re OK in our neighborhood. Lily’s house, which is just on the other side of the tunnel from us has a hundred or more simians living around there, causing trouble and stealing whatever isn’t nailed down. Monkeys regularly raid her kitchen, which is outdoors under a roof. Lily’s family run a potato chip business, so they have set up for frying outside. In the kitchen area there is an open shelf with toiletries for the workers. The monkeys consider all of this theirs! (The potato {technically, taro} chips are, by the way, delicious. We consume about one kilo a week.) Whenever the monkeys get a chance, they grab the potatoes, nick the curry powder, and abscond with the coconut oil. In short they steal anything that isn’t safely locked up. They also love to take clothes off the line, dismantle the electric wires, and eat the telephone wires. How do they taste? Must be delicious because Lily’ phone is temporarily out of service--monkeys just ate the line again.

We have an ant problem. If we spill juice on the counter, drop crumbs on the table, or leave a teacup with a bit of sugar in the bottom, there are soon millions of the tiny critters all over the place. As much as possible, we seal things they like (Oddly, they are not the least bit interested in powdered milk.) in tins. We’re amassing a fine collection of cookie, tea, and biscuit tins. One day, we discovered that they had managed to eat through the sealed packs inside two brand-new boxes of cereal. A few days later, we saw Lily putting a pack of unprotected sugar in the cupboard below the counter. When we pointed out that the sugar has to be sealed, she informed us that there was no problem with putting the sugar and cereal in the cupboard on the right because the ants were only in the cupboard on the left. Sure! Maybe that works for the ants on the other side of the tunnel, but we are sure that ours are ambidextrous! We’ve heard horror stories about ants invading a laptop computer, for no apparent reason, setting up housekeeping and devouring all the important bits inside. Don’t want that to happen! We may be under warranty, but we’re not pressing our luck. No sweets in the office!


Evidently the concept of composting is not generally understood hereabouts. We’ve had a time getting our compost started. When we first suggested the idea to Lily, she indicated that she knew about it and seemed genuinely excited that we were interested. We had complained about the folks living down the way who seem to see (smell?!) nothing bad about burning plastic, and she agreed. We found a suitable place on the edge of the hill, marked the area with stones, and showed it to Lily. She was pleased. The next day, we discovered that she was burning the trash there and that there were bits of plastic included. We tried to clarify that. We also explained again that we had established separate waste baskets, one in each room for paper, and another for plastic and other non-burnables. The next day there were again pieces of plastic and paper in the compost. We hope we have straightened it up now, but one can never be sure. We do seem to be making progress. Lily just pointed out to us that she has two bags outsideone for paper and one for the rest, which goes into the trash to be collected by the garbage truck, itself recycled from Japan, sadly, without the music, which we always found a charming feature.

We continue to be amazed and fascinated by the abundant life around us. We’ve seen enormous fruit bats (necessary for pollinating durian, and everybody knows how important that is!) fly across the valley at dusk and dawn. Actually, we’ve had a smaller bat cruising around the bedroom, dodging the netting, and dining on mosquitoes before our bedtime. A friend indeed!

If you want butterflies, you’ve got to feed the caterpillars. Visakha noticed that the elegant yellow hanging flowers, called Cinderella’s slippers here, were rapidly disappearing, with only the stems sticking down, sans blossoms. Looking closer, she discovered great fat black and yellow caterpillars, plenty of them, all bristling with long an array of black feathery feelers along their backs. Formidable looking critters indeed. We suppose that birds will avoid them because they look so prickly. What kind of butterflies will they turn into? We’re keeping watch hoping we can catch them in the act of spinning cocoons, but, at the moment, they are still busily eating everything within reach.

Aren’t we getting sensitive! A change of one or two degrees makes all the difference in the world. These clear nights are, we exaggerate not, COLD, with temperatures dipping down as low as 55 degrees Fahrenheit toward morning. Compared to Michigan, that’s not very cold, you may be thinking, but, without heat, it feels chilly indeed.

Because we’re expecting company, we decided we needed to get some proper blankets. (We are using our ALL of our Nepalese blankets ourselves!) After class the other day we asked our driver where to buy blankets. He was puzzled. It wasn’t a language problem, but people in Kandy don’t use blankets. They just double up the number of cotton sheets when it’s cold. Cotton sheets don’t do the job, in our opinion, so we persevered. First, we went to Ashoka, our favorite textile shop, but all they had were cotton sheets. One very nice one from India was heavy, but it also cost fifteen dollars, last price. What we really wanted was wool. Directed from shop to shop, with most clerks not having a clue what we wanted, Ken wasn’t ready to give up. Finally, while Visakha sat in the three-wheeler with Krishanta, our favorite driver, another tuk-tuks driver asked what we were after. “That’s easy,” he replied. “Try Vijitha, there across the street.” That would be the tenth shop, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Visakha called Ken on his cell-phone and directed him there. A few minutes later, he called back with a lilt in his voice! Sweet success! Vijitha buys brown plaid wool from China by the bolt, cuts it, hems it, and produces beautiful light-weight blankets. The manager apologized that he has only one design. Cheap too! Each blanket, 60x90 inches, was only $3.90! We are ready for visitors and whatever cold weather Kandy might have in store. If it doesn’t get cold again, perhaps we will turn them into a three-piece suit or an overcoat!

After she made up the guestroom bed, we gave Lily one of the new Chinese blankets. She may be from Kandy where they only use cotton sheets, but she was more than a little happy. She took it without any urging, smiled broadly, and said, “Thank you!”. Bet she sleeps better tonight!

Your room is ready for you!

Sri Lanka seems to be one of the quietest places in the third world! People don’t raise their voices, don’t shout to each other, don’t talk loudly, and don’t play loud music. It’s very unlike the Philippines, where anybody with a radio or tape player turns up the volume to share with the rest of the barrio; or India, where people raise their voices all the time, whether they are arguing or just pontificating. Sometimes we feel a little reticent to listen to our own music, for fear of disturbing others, but we’re always grateful to be able to hear all the birdsongs.

Speaking of birdsongs, what bird, insect, or beast is it that sounds exactly like Ken’s cell phone? How many calls have we missed because we thought it was that creature instead. And we’ve been awakened early too, thinking it was his phone alarm going off. He really should change the ring, but that is the ONLY non-musical tone available, and the electronic versions of the “March of the Toreadors” from Carmen and “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Nutcracker are so awful, not to mention “Jingle Bells” and one of Bach’s Fugues!

The other morning Lily served us green rice porridge for breakfast! Cooked with leeks and serious garlic! How many of you are horrified? It was wonderful!

The excuse is that we need airtight tins (ants, remember?), but we really love Julie’s Love Letters from Malaysia. These are rolled cookies, rather like cigarillos, perhaps, with a chocolate design. Very much like something we used to get from one of the famous patisseries in Japan. Delicious with tea. Local cakes are quite another matter. When we saw them at the store, they looked like wedges of real chocolate cake with real chocolate frosting, but they turned out to be more like waxy cardboard than anything edible. This is how we live and learn.

We stopped at a very tempting bakery on our way back from class the other day, but most of the pastries were filled with meat or fish, sometimes both! We picked out a couple of items, but were pretty disappointed. We may try once more, but expect we’ll be disappointed again. Life is definitely full of disappointments, especially when it comes to local sweets. The most disappointing, however, is the Sri Lankan version of Indian sweets. On the other side of the Palk Strait, even the cheapest sweet is heavenly, but here, perhaps because of milk they use, they too taste like cardboard.

New students, new English problems. Everybody in our class says “How do you espell that?” How many levels can you have in one class? Several of the smallest novices have NEVER encountered a language other than Sinhala. Others can understand and speak English, but can neither read nor write it. We see them listening intently and repeating as we model the dialogues, without ever looking at their papers, to which they cannot relate. Of course, the majority have some ability in all skills, but are basically beginners. If we can generalize, we find the Sinhalese to be very shy and quiet, while the Chakma and Bangladeshi students are more outgoing and enjoy our humor.

The classroom is a bit of a jumble, with a whiteboard set on a makeshift easel, rude wooden tables, and rough chairs. The teachers’ chairs are different. They are large wooden arm chairs with woven wicker bottoms and backs. After we presented a simple dialogue, set on a bus, we asked two of the best students to come to the front, use our chairs, and reenact the dialogue with their own information. They would not sit in the teachers’ chairs, but insisted on bringing up two student chairs for the dialogue. It must be a matter of etiquette or perhaps principle? We feel that we should respect them because they are members of the sangha, but they must feel diffident towards us because we are “teachers.”

We printed up sets of our game, Go Fish, using Buddhist themes and it was a great success. They were soon playing intently, asking, “Do you have any pagodas?” “Do you have any Bodhi leaves?” and answering, “Yes, I do. Here you are,” or “No, I don’t. Go Fish!” Cheerfully unaware that they were practicing good English, they played game after game. It certainly was a good ice breaker, and some of the littlest ones did very well indeed. After class, the smallest, shyest novices approached Visakha and asked if they could have the cards  they wanted to play with them on their own! Of course, we couldn’t refuse. Within a few seconds, ALL seven sets had been given away!

We are constantly impressed by the dignity of our students--although they are very young, they have a poise and discipline far beyond their years because of the robes they wear. The Bhikkhu Training Center is a remarkably quiet, well-run, and orderly place.

Since Go Fish was such a success, we decided we should return to numbers, and what better way than to play Bingo. It provides good hearing practice, and, when we check, each student has to produce as well. In Japan, we always used international stamps for prizes, but here we don’t get any snail mail, so we don’t have any stamps at all. Visakha lamented that we don’t have any bookmarks. (There is an envelope of about 500 bookmarks, collected over the past twenty-five years, in our [unmentionable] shipment.) Ken suggested we make bookmarks as prizes, and so, we did! It was quick and easy, choosing Buddhist photographs (many from “Strive On With Diligence”) and quotations from the Dhammapada and positioning them on “labels” in the computer. They turned out beautifully--our new HP printer is terrific. The students were very pleased. Everyone got at least one Bingo (we made sure of that!), and the overall winner got seven bookmarks. Like a true monk, however, he showed not the least bit of pride!

The other day, while Ken was running from shop to shop in Kandy, which is more of a “town” than a “city,” to find photo paper, Visakha had an opportunity to watch something of life on the street from the secluded vantage point inside a parked tuk-tuks. People walked past in a pretty steady stream--most women in saris, men in shirts and slacks. Some men wore sarongs, and some were barefoot, but everyone, nonetheless, was neatly dressed. On the sidewalk, next to the wall of a store, sat a Tamil man. Visakha could tell he was Tamil because he had a red kunguma (or tikka) on his forehead. The direct sun must have been very hot, but he had no shade, just a handkerchief on his head. He wore a clean undershirt and a faded sarong. Sitting cross legged, he was repairing a woman’s slipper, replacing the worn out heel. Visakha noticed that his left hand was terribly deformed from some old accident--acid, fire, or perhaps gunshot wound--with scar tissue welding his middle and ring fingers together. Still, he managed to trim the old slipper and to smooth the repairs, showing no sign of pain as he worked with that hand.

Next to him sat a Tamil woman, probably his wife, under a rickety umbrella rigged to give her shade. She, too, sat cross-legged, surrounded by the materials of their craft, some small nails, a pot of rubber cement, and a pile of odd shoes, slippers, and sandals apparently retrieved from the rubbish bin. Her hair was thick and streaked with gray. She was wearing a long skirt with a torn hem and an old, previously patterned, blouse fastened with only two big safety pins.

The man finished the slipper he’d been working on, stood up with a grimace, stretched, and rubbed his leg. Evidently, he was not immune to cramps from sitting so long. Saying a few words to the woman, he disappeared from view.

Just at that moment, a young man rounded the corner, stopped in front of the woman, bent over, took off his leather sandals, put on the rubber slippers the woman handed him, and hurried back the way he’d come. She examined one of his sandals--the thong was completely torn. She methodically considered different shoes and slippers in the pile beside her and finally selected one with a good two inch strip of leather. With a sharp blade, taken from the clutter beside her, she cut off a usable section, extracted small sharp scissors from their plastic envelope and trimmed the piece. She used an awl to put a hole in it, drew a heavy thread through a stubby needle, and secured the piece to the severed thong.

Ken returned before the job was completed, but watching this couple do their work was impressive. Evidently, they make enough of a living to keep body and soul together. If we ever need any leather repairs done, we’ll know where in Kandy to go. Also, if we ever have shoes we regard as beyond repair, we’ll know where to take them.

The news is full of peace talks and the beating of the drums of war. Every day, we read about the CFA, the SIMM, the SLUMS, and TA, not to mention the J.P. and JAU. The Norwegians are here to talk with GOAL and LATE, and we’ve just learned that the venue for further talks will be in Geneva, not Norway as the Tigers had demanded. Interestingly enough, one member from the Tigers will be from the Karuna faction in the east. Recently, there has been plenty of violence in the north and the east--troops killed by Claymore mines and murders and assassinations by “unknown gunmen” in Jaffna and Batticloa, as well as explosions in Colombo itself. We’ve heard that some havoc has been wrought by “people’s militias,” but that has a strange ring here. Who might they be? Anyway, we are trying to make sense out of it all and following the news as best we can. There is good material available on the web, especially the Asian Tribune, which allows readers’ comments, which are often intriguing. The Tigers want to take a big chunk of India’s Tamil Nadu for their very own homeland, combined, of course, with what they can carve out of Sri Lanka. There are elections coming up soon in volatile Tamil Nadu State, so, obviously, India has a big stake in what happens here, too. We regularly check the Indian papers along with BBC.*

We really enjoy watching online excerpts from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Gotta keep informed about the US too! The buffering could drive you crazy, but believe us when we say the humor works even this far away. Tears to the eyes when we listened, via “,” to Harry Belafonte keep the faith during an interview with that bearded idiot, Wolf the Blitzer. Need we add that it is always painful to see video clips of Bush the Lyin’ King, too?

Tomorrow a Chinese monk we met last week will be coming for the weekend. He doesn’t want to celebrate Chinese New Year in Colombo with Chinese devotees, so he’ll be with us to get away from it all. Happy Year of the Dog (Ken’s year!) to all! He talked about the improvements in religious freedom in China. He also emphasized that the Chinese government really listens to the US bout things like human rights. He said that Beijing is really afraid of the US and that this is good. We couldn’t help but agree that when the US actually uses its influence to promote human rights this is a very good thing.

We just read a very telling joke about Burma. It seems a Burmese traveled overseas to go to the dentist. The dentist asked, “Don’t you have any dentists in Burma?” “Of course we do,” the Burmese replied, “but nobody can open his mouth.”

* Sometimes, it is hard to find what these mean in the newspapers, but we will explain. They are, respectively, Cease-fire Agreement, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Sri Lankan Army, Tamil National Alliance, [the next two are two parties which have joined a the ruling coalition, whose actual names are NEVER used], Government of Sri Lanka, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and British Broadcasting Corporation (not Burma Border Consortium!).

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