"A," "F," "P," and GOH, July 30, 2006

People who don't know and love durian can't understand our excitement when we spotted a huge pile of the spiny, stinky fruit in the back of a truck on our way to class in Peradeniya. Our tuk tuk driver was not terribly thrilled at the prospect of having our durian in his vehicle, but the customer is always right!

At home Ken opened it up and found it was a good one, small seeds surrounded by creamy fruit. Durian doesn't keep and anyway, we were happy to share with Lily and Savithri.

The durian tree just across the wall from our house had only two fruits. One morning, Lily glanced up and noticed that there was only left. Without further ado, she swiftly crossed into the neighboring field and was back in a flash, holding the fallen durian gingerly by its stem. In the short time it had been on the ground, ants had gotten into one section, but the rest was very good even if the seeds were rather large. Two durians in just a week! Just a few days later Ven. Dhammavasa, the abbot from Subodharama, visited and brought us two more! Yum!

If durian is the king of fruit, mangosteen is the queen! Everybody complains that the price is still high, and if you compare them to bananas or papayas, that may seem true. The story has it that Queen Victoria offered a million pounds for a fresh mangosteen, but in the age before airships, it wasn't possible in England at any price. We think 10 or 20 cents each is a real bargain. Even so, you have to be careful in buying them. The only way to tell whether or not the fruit is good is to press the shell with your thumb. If you can indent the shell, it's OK; if the shell is hard, at least that section is rotten.

Mangosteens are rather disappointing on the outside, a dull purple cover hiding the beauty inside. Cut around the equator and lift off the northern hemisphere, and there you see pure white segments inside a moist maroon shell. Stunning and delicious! The white segments are pulled out with the teeth, without touching the bitter shell. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangosteen>

Click here to read the entry form Wikipedia.

Four of our novice students from Vajiraramaya went to Colombo for their higher ordination as monks. To welcome them back there was a lovely local perahera, sans elephants, but with Kandyan drummers and dancers, monks, novices, lay men and women in white, and lots of flags. (Photos in previous report at: <http://www.brelief.org/reports/v-pera.htm>

To mark the beginning of the rainy season retreat and to celebrate Ven. Dhammavasa's 50th birthday, there were many wonderful events at Subodharama, including the serving of lunch to three hundred monks and the offering of ten thousand lotuses to the great Buddha image.

Click an image to see more photos of that ceremony.

Our friend Dushy informed us that there is to be an international conference of Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association (SLELTA) in Colombo. Although we're officially retired, we are teaching every week and working on a textbook, so it makes sense to be professionally connected, and, given the roster of speakers and presenters, we're bound to learn something, as well.

Cousin Cam, himself now retired, and outrageously idle, has expressed interest in joining us in Kolkta to teach the monks next year. We think it would be very interesting, since he is a thoroughgoing agnostic, with lots of Mormon exposure. For the monks to talk with him in English would certainly not be preaching to the choir.

Our Swiss friend, Margot, has also discussed joining the staff. With her background of volunteerism in Buddhist activities, she would be a valuable addition. We hope that happens. In any event it promises to be an exciting program! Margot, Dushy, and Cam!

Hurray for SKYPE! We've had wonderful conversations with Vicki, Josh, Shawna, Cam, Namoch, and Jackie from Australia. Ironically, we have not been able to contact Paul and Trish, who first told us about the program. The line is open--give us a ring!

Lily went with her whole family to Colombo for a wedding, which was interrupted by a funeral. They had just gotten down there when they were informed that her husband's sister had died, so they gave their presents, turned around, and came back to Kandy. No sleep for several nights, having to greet relatives and friends, to serve tea and biscuits, and, generally, to be hostess.

Jatakas progress. Our modus operandi for these stories is to work individually and to pass them back and forth. It may not be the best way, but it has been quite successful. It is difficult sometimes not having our library here and depending on references on-line. Sometimes we get stuck with something that seems terribly mistranslated or odd, then we send off an e-mail to our friendly Pali scholar friend in Laos and watch for a clarifying reply.

Fuel prices here are going through the roof, naturally. Where aren't they? We have been reading about a new petrol specifically designed for three-wheelers, which is supposed to be cheaper (and, we hope, cleaner too!), but it isn't available in Kandy yet.

We appreciated friends' reactions to what we wrote earlier about Israel's activities in Gaza, but all discussion seems to be overshadowed by the most recent events in Lebanon. A Flint friend from MIPeace sent a photo of a demonstration in Dearborn, including some Hassidic Jews holding a big banner: "Judaism does not equal Zionism."

Who knew that there are 80,000 Sri Lankans working in Lebanon? Several hundred have been evacuated, but Sri Lanka is poor, with tens of thousands of families sustained by the money sent by maids and other overseas workers. One report described some maids being outright abandoned in apartments vacated by their employers who had escaped to safety. The Sri Lankan Embassy announced that they could not help citizens get to Beirut, but offered protection to any who did. Some Indian ships took on Sri Lankan evacuees, as well. All embassies advised their citizens not to travel in trucks, as these were being targeted in the attacks. Of course, all travel was made more hazardous because so many roads and bridges had been destroyed. It's all the more disheartening because Lebanon had so laboriously rebuilt the infrastructure destroyed in the last war and was optimistically enjoying a surge in tourism and economic development.

Was the attack on Lebanon a ploy to shift attention from the atrocities in Gaza? Is Bush diverting attention from the mess in Iraq and under cover of this smoke screen preparing for his next war, an attack on Iran? Heaven help us all! Is this WWIII, or WWIV, as one TV news commentator asked?

We have just seen three powerful movies by Deepa Mehta, Fire, Earth, and Water, and strongly recommend them. Earth is set in Lahore just as India is poised for freedom from the British and as Pakistan is to be created. If Condoleeza Rice knew anything about anything, especially history (or having a baby!), she wouldn't blithely refer to birth pangs!

With Lebanon in flames many people are castigating warfare from above and the ease of killing from 20,000 feet. Ah, but Earth showed us how easy it was to kill, face to face, even former neighbors, friends, and customers. Hadn't Hotel Rwanda offered the same lesson? Someone once said that in Ceylon everything pleases and only man is vile. Doesn't that accurately describe this earth of ours? When will people understand that the real enemies are the greed, hatred, and delusion that lead to the notion of "us and them," that provoke us to kill, to maim, to torture, to steal, to cheat, and to abuse. Beware Bush's talk about "root causes!" He and his ilk, in their ignorance and shortsightedness, are guilty of promoting, stirring up, and creating wanton violence!

We were (are?) members of Flint's Interfaith Council (which includes Muslims), but we were surprised that this message, addressed to "Interfaith Colleagues," came into our mailbox.

Statement on the Root Cause of the Conflict in the Middle East Rabbi David Rosen,
International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee

"You shall not stand idly by when your brother's blood is spilt" (Leviticus 19 v.16)

"When you draw near to a city, to fight against it, you shall call unto it for Peace" (Deuteronomy 20 v.10)

Judaism's emphasis on the sanctity of all human life - all created in the Divine Image (Genesis 5 v.1) is challenged when facing mortal attack. Judaism understands the Biblical injunction from Leviticus mentioned above, to require one to defend one's family and community when attacked, even by means of violence when unavoidable.

In this spirit Israel responded to the hostilities initiated by Hizbullah a week and a half ago. This latest conflict continues to rage at a heavy price in human life and infrastructure and must evoke the concern of all people of good faith.

For six years Israel has withstood provocation by Hizbullah without retaliation. However to have failed to respond to the latest attacks would have been to fail the aforementioned Biblical injunction and would have placed Israeli society in mortal peril.

Most evilly and tragically in terms of the cost of human life, Hizbullah has deliberately located its launching pads, arsenals and logistic centers in civilian areas. Israel has warned people living in urban areas in advance of its reprisals (at great cost to its tactical and strategic interest) to vacate such locations that will be under attack, so that the lives of innocents may not be lost in such self-defensive action.

All who hold our Torah dear must grieve at the loss of any one life, not only those Israelis killed and wounded by Hizbullah attacks, but also the hundreds of lives lost in Lebanon, and the suffering and the trauma of all involved.

Accordingly all people of good will and good faith must urge that a speedy end to this war be achieved in a manner that will not simply serve as a "band aid," but really secure an end to hostilities - an end to destruction and death.

The root cause of the conflict and suffering in the region is the continuing refusal of certain Arab nations and Muslim terrorist organizations to accept the Jewish State's presence in her ancestral homeland. It is THIS mind-set and aspiration that is behind the attacks of Hizbullah and Hamas and indeed both organizations declare openly that the destruction of the very existence of Israel is their goal.

Those who truly care to bring about an end to violence in the Holy Land have the obligation to seek a reconciliation of the spirit that will enable different faith communities and nations to accept the existence of the other, to resolve disputes without bloodshed and to exit from a zero-sum mentality to advance the welfare of all. Thereby the words of the Psalmist may be fulfilled in us all:

"The Lord will give His People strength: The Lord will bless His people with peace' (Psalm 29 v.11)

That certainly contained enough material to keep us occupied for a week, but we'e going to let it all go. As Buddhists we need to try to understand (and work to eradicate) the real root causes--greed, hatred, and delusion!

Assassination as a national policy, retaliation in spades, punishing families, neighborhoods, religious groups, destroying homes, building walls, humiliating the weak, impoverishing already poor people, and arming to the teeth all these and more have created havoc. From havoc, you reap whirlwinds. If you violate international law and Geneva conventions, torture, and use cluster bombs, don't expect to be seen as the victim. To commentators who have been paying attention to developments in the Middle East during the last few months, there has been no great surprise. In 1982, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to destroy the PLO. That was the beginning of Hezbollah. Doesn't history repeat itself, with slight variations on the same old themes?

Our hearts go out to the ordinary people, the ones who always suffer from politics. Neither friendship nor distant history should be used to drum up sympathy for or excuse violence. American deaths in the World Trade Center were manipulated to destroy Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Let there be no violence in our name! "An eye for an eye, and the whole world will be blind" has never been truer. Let's spare a little sympathy for the house maids from poor war-torn Sri Lanka.

While in Colombo we spent a good bit of time watching the different coverages of Lebanon

CNN quoted IDF exclusively, and contradicted the people who said they saw ambulances attacked. They also ran the same segment about a woman with mental problems, over and over again until Visakha developed a headache. We will give CNN credit, however, for airing a brief interview with a Lebanese-American who clearly explained that Hezbollah was much more than a military organization. It was, he emphasized, providing many social and medical services which the Lebanese Government was not able to provide, and with the destruction raining down, would not be able to provide in the future. Thus, Israel, he declared, was strengthening the hand it was trying to amputate. Unfortunately, the CNN interviewer/commentator did not seem interested in this point of view, and the segment, unlike so many others, seemed to be televised only once.

TV5Monde "Le Journal' had a black African commentator and incredible footage, with dirt, dust, smoke, blood, destroyed emergency vehicles, hysterical, enraged, and traumatized Lebanese. We saw live shots of trucks burning and injured and dead being carried away from Israeli attacks which were going on in the immediate background. Those French reporters seemed quite fearless and at no time made themselves the center of the story. (Sorry, one more comment about CNN: Anderson Cooper blessed us with his 'Reporter's Photo Album," and he appeared prominently in almost every photo!)

We, of course, could not understand the Arabic, but Al Jazeera, in contrast, was quite restrained with poised and capable women commentators. One stood in front of a battle map which was just like a weather map in more normal times.

We did wonder why the Americans were the only ones who never saw any blood?

The saga of the shipment of our household goods continues. Perhaps by the time this report is sent out, it will all be over (Then again . . .) . . . The agent in Colombo ("A") whom we had been instructed, by the agent in Kansas City ("P"), to contact kept talking about another agent in Colombo ("F") who was doing the actual clearing and who had been assigned to do so by "P."

"A," it seemed, would be handling only the delivery to Kandy. Finally, we got a call on Thursday from "F." It seemed that it was necessary for us to appear in Colombo to convince customs that the shipment was really household goods, and not commercial. We agreed to be there Monday morning.

All seats, both classes, were sold out for the Monday morning train, so we opted to leave Sunday morning. Unfortunately, Hilton has raised the level of the Hilton Colombo, from 10,000 to 20,000 points for a night's stay, so we could afford only one free night. We hoped that we would finish in time to catch the train back on Monday. We spent a glorious Sunday at the pool, over a Japanese lunch (vegetarian sushi and tempura) at Ginza Hohsen, and in our luxurious room. Monday morning, we enjoyed a swim at 5:30 with underwater lights, followed by an ample buffet breakfast. About ten, a young man showed up for our nine o'clock appointment, on foot. He led us, on foot, to the office, which was at the end of a lane, which was blocked by police, army, and security guards. The first thing the young man had done at the hotel was to give us our passports. We soon understood why he had brought them with him. We could not have gotten through all the security without them.

In the office of "F," we were sat in front of the desk of Sampath, who had called us on Thursday. He immediately asked for our passports, so that he could prepare for "passes" for us to get into the port. While papers and signatures flew around the office, Sampath explained a little of what was and had been going on. It seems that "A" was completely out of the picture. (We could not understand why they ever were in it!) Sampath said something about being 'sub-contracted" by "A," but that did not ring true, either. He showed us a company desk calendar with international addresses and suggested that for any future shipments, we could arrange everything through "F," without going through "P." We filed that information. He explained again that we would have to "convince" the customs officials that the shipment was not commercial, as they were insisting. That was the hold-up for the month that the crates had been sitting in Colombo. He had suggested we bring as many documents as possible to present our case. We had printed copies of letters from BPS to Immigration (for religious visas) and the Finance Ministry and the original e-mail messages from us inquiring about volunteer service. We also printed the original list of contents in table form, stipulating, for example, 500 as the "Value in $" for a laptop computer, not the "quantity." We had left our luggage at the hotel, but we kept the computers (heavy!) with us, figuring that, if necessary, we could show photos of our altar in Flint with all the Buddha images and of the bookcases in the living room with all the books, two prominent items on the list.

Shortly before noon, we finally left the office. Sampath had told us that the Office of Ports Authority was about 1 ½ kilos away and had asked if we could walk. We declined, and he agreed that his "man" would get a tuk-tuk. It was considerably further than that. His man, whose name we never heard, left us in a cubby-hole near the entrance to the port, in front of a machine gun next to uniformed young men who were using mirrors to search the underside of entering vehicles for bombs. Actually, some cars were allowed to drive onto a ramp and enter without the mirror search. Perhaps these vehicles already had the proper registration to enter? It was all very mysterious. We spent more than an hour waiting in the heat, watching a little kitten crying for food, milk, water, or love. No one, except us, seemed to pay any attention to the poor creature. And unfortunately we had nothing to give it. Fortunately, there was never a need for anyone to use, or even touch, the machine gun while we were there. One of the guards had immediately offered Visakha a chair, and, eventually, another appeared for Ken after he squatted on his haunches beside the gun. At one point, the "man" appeared briefly from an upstairs office, told us to wait, and disappeared again, this time through the main gate. When he finally reappeared, he informed us that he had not been able to obtain passes for us to enter the port.

We caught another tuk-tuk and went through town to the other side of the tip of the peninsula that is "Fort" to a different entrance to Ports Authority (probably not too far, as the crow flies, from where we had been waiting). To enter this ultra-high-security area, which includes the residence of the President, we had to transfer to an "authorized" tuk-tuk. We climbed one flight of stairs and waited outside an office door labeled "Director of Tariffs." Finally, it was our turn to enter. The man at the desk looked over the papers and said, "This is not a commercial shipment. This has nothing to do with me. I'm sorry but I can do nothing to help you." He and our escort exchanged remarks in Sinhala, and he repeated that there was really nothing he could do. We would have to talk with the officials at the other side of the port. We left and returned to the entrance with the machine gun and the kitten, where we were again left to wait and wait and wait. When our escort returned, he explained that the man we needed to see, the only man we could see, was not in. We would have to try again the next day.

After a brief stop at the "F" office, we returned to the lobby of the Hilton, where, using the wireless connection, we were able to make a reservation at the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH, by far the best hotel in Colombo, except that it lacks a pool), via an agent in UK, for considerably less than is possible from the front desk. Our room was splendid: a four-poster with lace netting, a spotless tile floor, three easy chairs around a glass coffee table, a very spacious walk-in shower, and breakfast in the Harbour Room included (very close to our shipment, we assumed. So near and yet so far!) When we checked our email at the Hilton, we found a message from "P," who had heard from "A" that the shipment had been released. We quickly replied, explaining that congratulations were premature.

When two clerks from "F" arrived about ten in the morning, we thought we would be leaving for the port, but, instead, they only wanted our passports to obtain the passes we had not been able to get the day before. We returned to the room to finish watching a fascinating documentary on the sand dunes of the Namibian desert. Did you know there were 500 "desert elephants" living there? They have enormous feet, designed for walking in the sand!

It seems that the object of Monday's adventure had been to learn how to get passes and whom to see, for when the agent returned, minus our former escort, he had the passes, and he led us on foot to a third entrance to Ports Authority, only five minutes from GOH. With our passes, we breezed through, and our escort went off to fetch a vehicle, which took us a mile or more inside the port to the "Ferry Terminal," which looked like it had not been used for several years. We wandered into the "Immigration" area where there were the familiar cubicles in which officials sit to check passports. There was only one man there, and he did not look very official. He explained that that was not where we wanted to be. Our escort, who, we learned, had the same name, Rajapakse, as the President, led us back to the reception hall, where we found two comfortable chairs behind an impressive curved information counter. We waited while he searched for the man we needed to see.

Beside the counter was a window marked, "Buddhist Mission to Seamen and Travelers," which, to our great surprise, opened. Ken asked the elderly gentleman inside if he had any books in English, and he did. We bought several interesting and valuable books, and the clerk presented us with several more very worn volumes printed in the sixties, which would only be found in a rare-book shop. While we were looking over these treasures, Mr. Rajapakse returned and told us the man we needed to see was not in. He expected him to return sometime that day but had no idea when. We would wait. Seeing our books, he asked if we were Buddhist. We had assumed that everyone connected with retrieving our shipment would have known that from our visas, the shipment contents, and the process we had been going through. He was very interested to learn that we were and mentioned that he knew several monks in the U.S. Small world: two of those monks are Ven. Mudita in Detroit and Ven. Dhammasiri in Washington, D.C., whom we have known for more than ten years and whom we visited just before coming to Sri Lanka. Being from Kandy, Mr. Rajapakse is also familiar with Vajiraramaya. This seemed to inspire him with a greater energy and will to help us. He struck up a conversation with another man loitering about and was directed to an office just inside a hallway to the left of the counter. He stepped inside the office and, popping out a moment later, and motioned energetically for us to enter, too. After waiting only a few minutes, we were ushered in to meet a very official-looking man behind a large wooden desk. He looked over our papers and said, "This is all in order. This is obviously personal and not commercial. You really didn't need to come here." Our unspoken reply was, "Oh, but we did. How else would these papers have found the right office?"

In any case, we spent about ten minutes with him. He was interested to see our "List of Contents," in table form and added that to the portfolio. There were several letters from "A" in the portfolio, and he asked why that company was involved. Neither we nor Mr. Rajapakse could answer. When he learned that we have no intention of returning to live in the U.S., he beamed, "Welcome to Sri Lanka!". He concluded by declaring that as soon as Mr. Rajapakse brought him a letter from "F" on proper letterhead, he would release the shipment. Sampath had assured us that once the shipment was released, it would be transferred, as were all non-commercial shipments, to "Paliyagoda," from which, three hours later, it would arrive in Kandy. Confident that we would have everything, at the latest, by the end of the week, we bought tickets on the afternoon train to Kandy, enjoyed tea at GOH, and headed home. (We had carried with us, all day, two small cups of yoghurt, with the intention that, if we went back to the same entrance, we would feed the kitten. We didn't, so we gave them to the tuk-tuk driver as a tip.)

That was Tuesday. There have been several conversations since then with Sampath. It is now Sunday. The latest was that it was supposed to be released Friday evening. MAYBE, it could be put on a truck to Kandy Monday evening. (So much for three hours!) We pointed out that delivery by moonlight was not advisable. He didn't understand that, but finally suggested, "Then shall we make it Tuesday morning?" and we agreed. We shall see what we shall see.

Shortly after we returned from Colombo, Ken came down with the sore throat and achiness that our Aussie house guest Barbara was just recovering from when she came. On Friday morning, Barbara was leaving for Kalutara where she has done a lot of tsunami relief work. Ken had decided not to impose his fever and cough on the monks and novices at Vajiraramaya. He emerged briefly at 5:30, just to wish Barbara a pleasant journey. (He had conked out the night before without even saying, "Good night.") Everything was fine. Visakha woke up with the alarm at 6, and went out to see whether Barbara had left. She had, but when Visakha saw the fish pond, she exclaimed, "My gosh! Look at the water!" Admittedly, it had rained heavily during the night, but the water had never been so high. Then she called, "I think the water is still rising!" Ken jumped out of bed to see. Indeed, the water was almost to the brim. Another ten minutes, and it would have overflowed. Yes, the water was pouring from the spigot used to fill the pond. Ken hurried to the guest bathroom and closed the valve. Disaster averted! It was obvious what had happened. There is, on the wall, close to the floor, an unmarked valve. Barbara had opened it, thinking she was closing the toilet valve to keep the toilet from running, as it is sometimes wont to do. Then she left. Before the next guest stays, we will mark the valve. Actually, the fish were delighted with the deep water, even "Big Fish," who usually comes out only at night, was enjoying himself, but they don't know how close they came to being washed away!

Visakha had a very successful class reading the Jataka we had prepared for the week before when class had been cancelled. As of this writing, Ken is feeling a little better, and Barbara is still in Kalutara, terribly apologetic for the mistake. No problem. All's well that ends well.

All over Kandy, we see ox carts plying the streets, as they have done for centuries. Each cart has a regular route for delivering wood. Many people still cook with wood in outdoor kitchens. When the wood is gone, the driver leads his patient ox to collect freshly cut grass which has been left along the roadsides. How much wood would a wood chuck chuck? We don't know, but there are two men who are constantly working beside the local supermarket. Many hours a day they are as busy as beavers with their axes.

If our shipment ever arrives, Lily has been promised the crates. If the wood is suitable, she'll use it to improve her kitchen from the depredations of monkeys. Otherwise she can use it for fire wood.

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