Oh, that tourist vortex was a strange thing, a kind of thick-walled tube you could see out of only blearily. It took some work to get out of. It's a strange thing that while we were traveling in Sri Lanka, as much as people smiled at us and we smiled back, there were few times when we really understood what was going on around us. Those time were the rare moments when we shared a belly laugh with our hosts about how weird we seemed, large, strangely dressed, sweaty and fairly clumsy creatures. Or when we asked for red rice instead of what tourists supposedly want with their curry (always vegetarian thank you). Or when I started to talk to people in English whether they understood or not, "Stay still, I'll take a picture of your whole family," "Wait, one more!" or when they just let go in Sinhalese or Tamil without any pretense of mutual communication.
Colombo, where we stayed at first, was not exactly western, but it didn't have any of the strangeness we expected. And the experience was repeated in Kandy, where we spent six nights. There we were assaulted by tourists, touts, and traffic and it was hard to draw the goodness that is certainly there out from all the hassle. The crowds were so intense at the Temple of the Tooth Relic there, it was difficult to tell what was a performance (any of it?) as compared to the real thing. The real thing I think, was watching people gather and crowd into spaces to receive blessings, sometimes with tiny babies in tow. No one was putting on a show. It reminded me most of the half day we spent in the Immigration and Emigration Bureau, trying to extend my visa. Crowds, milling about, a kind of sublimated, patient presence. Something like waiting on line for a driver's license here in Massachusetts.
Even during our forays out of town it was hard to tell what was "real." For example, at the Cave Temple of Dambulla and the attached Golden Temple this is what we saw:
Mostly strange depictions of depictions, not very "real" all the way down to the fake caves. Was this what Sri Lanka would be like for us?
I have to admit I loved the buses, riding and jolting with the regular people, whether I was sitting and holding someone's bag on my lap or acting as their pillow, or being reached across ever so gingerly while someone deposited his betel chew out the window (nice of you to not spit across me!), but Janet not so much. Fair enough.
But back to Dambulla. I was also fretting there whether I would ever get up close and personal to a wewa, an irrigation tank. From high atop Dambulla I could look out to one or two but they were sunk in the smoky haze and heat of mid afternoon and so was I, I guess. So it was in one of the caves at Dambulla where I had a moment of pure delight, seeing a tank (or a set of tanks) depicted on one of the walls.
There they were, lotuses and all, fed by canals and surrounded by native species of plants and animals, a living iconography that showed me, even if the murals themselves weren't ancient (I think they are 18th century), people were thinking about and valuing these ancient things.
This was a kind of turning point for me after which I went into full gear observing and coming to some kind of understanding about everything that was around. And as it became easier to decode the surroundings it became easier to decode the people, what they were about and maybe what they wanted from me as a fellow human being.
As a scientist I saw some of the depth of the culture around me, sensing its roots in the natural world, sensing some of its origins, connections, and contemporary stresses. As an artist I saw the grace, beauty, and gentleness, yes, even the occasional harshness of a visual environment totally new to me.