Friday, June 12, 2015

Hyper local

Sometimes I wonder if I'm looking at landscapes in too much detail. Am I going to far into hyper local patterns? Will any of this make sense in a larger context? Where is the logic in the local?

We were tooling through the countryside in Rajarata after a busy morning of tank research. We had just visited the spectacular Mahakandawara Tank, with its own magnificent Naga, a superb British-built spillway (based on the ancient Sri Lankan design), and a short, wet hike to the oldest causeway in the country, built about 2500 years ago. Grand visions, but what about the local?

On the road home, ready for siesta, we were pulled aside by men in uniform. We hadn't been speeding, and we weren't conspicuous in any particular way, but they demanded Mr. Amara's papers anyway. A glance into the back of the tuktuk revealed a foreigner, me, a witness to the scene. Folding up his papers they returned them to him and we drove off toward Mihintale. If it hadn't been for the foreigner in the back seat, Amara reported, he would have had to pay a bribe. Local justice.

Another day I stopped at the ATM for some cash. The machine spit out a bunch of Rs.5000 notes. How would I ever break those in the countryside? Amara told me that in the afternoon we could stop at the gas station, when they had lots of cash, and break the big bills that way. A handy thought cheerfully considered.

We had made our way to the tiniest tank of all. It looked deep but narrow and appeared not to be in the best condition. Jungle all around, jungle invading the dike – pathway, we had reached this intimate spot by climbing up through village gardens from the roadway. Once we found ourselves on the huge granite rocks behind the ethnic Malay village it occurred to me that we had traversed some pretty personal territory. Once we were on the overgrown dike Amara explained that this particular tank was privately owned. As a matter of fact it was owned by the family who also owned the village gas station. The tank was private, its waters controlled by one family, and rights to those waters came at a cost to cultivators. Amara repeated the well-known saw, "The poor always pay. " Here in this hyper local landscape that was certainly the case. 

Another day, another tank. The rocky remains of an ancient sluice lay next to the tubular concrete sluice gate now in place. That's the way contemporary sluice gates were built. Materials from the ancient, rundown sluices were just cast to the side of the tank. This reminded Amara to tell me something about tank construction. The base of a dike, he told me, what is reinforced by rocky rubble called rip rap. In modern-day Sri Lanka local councils hire contractors to maintain the dikes and replace degraded rip rap. Very often, he explained to me, The contractors would take the riprap or just throw it aside. It makes a lot of sense especially at the hyper local level. Toss away the rip rap, keep the tank in rundown condition, and you're guaranteed another contract for repairs a couple of years down the road. 

The countryside. Beautiful. Majestic. Ancient. Harmonious. A look at the hyper local landscape gives us another set of impressions. 

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