Back and forth between Sri Lanka and the United States I want to be able to say something about the patterns of our landscapes. They are so are different. But how? At once the differences seem so grand but so insignificant. At their quotidian heart they intangible. How to trace these intangibles? How to document and analyze them? It's challenging enough to describe to people that I'm doing a Fulbright in Sri Lanka, "Oh, is that in India?" "Wait I remember, it's part of South America!" How do you explain that you're doing research on intangibles in the landscape? What does that even mean?
I caught a glimpse of these intangibles during a trip to Slave Island, one of Colombo's oldest neighborhoods, with my colleagues Gihan Karunaratne and Asiri Dissanayale. Both of my friends are part of a team from the University of Moratuwa, documenting this ancient but endangered neighborhood. The vibrancy and diversity of Slave Island is hard to describe, especially on your first evening in Colombo as night is falling.
But I had a couple of visual cues there that I hope to follow up on. Doubtless more visits will lead to more of the same as my learning grows.
As I've written before, I feel an affinity with the way Sri Lankans relate to shoes, kind of a necessary evil to be shed whenever possible. And sometimes taking off the shoes is mandatory. I saw two examples in Slave Island. I'm sure there are more.
The first was outside the entrance to a house. Inside were many more children than could have belonged to one family. Gihan thought it must be a "tutorial," the ubiquitous lessons that are given evenings and weekends, often in English, science, or math, to bolster inadequate treatment of content in school. Not unlike our own insidious "college prep" lessons that pump students for standardized tests. Smiling, Gihan asked the owner of the house who was standing outside. "Yes," he reported. "English tutorial."
What amazed me was the pile of students' shoes outside the door.
They seemed to characterize the rush, the crush, and the careful entry into the house. They give you a snapshot of how many students there were, a rough idea of girls vs. boys, and an idea of who came first and who came later, who in a hurry and who with time to spare. What starts as a random assortment of shoes ends up providing the careful observer with information. Not to mention that the pile of shoes artfully captures a moment in time. A choreographed moment of human endeavor.
The second pile of shoes was outside the local mosque, itself a distinctive landscape within the precincts of Slave Island. Here again, a seemingly random pile of shoes but perhaps a pile that could yield patterns. Ages (sizes at least), gender (all male), and probably more. I'll have to visit again.
Dark had fallen. It was hard now to see. Gihan spied a metal box just outside the mosque, something that interested him as an artist from a materials standpoint as well as its dimensions and the mechanisms. Gihan is working on an amazing project that he loosely calls a "cupboard," a large wood "box" made with intricate, traditional Sri Lankan carving. Also we are loosely collaborating, as we struggle to stay out of the conceptual "box," on thinking about boxes and how people interact with them. What can we learn from a box? How do we interact with it? This box was unique, as the caretaker explained to him. Space is at a premium in Slave Island, and this box, instead of being stored inside, was right outside the building. What was it, and how did it work, Gihan asked the caretaker. This box, a landscape unto itself, is used to transport to burial the shrouded bodies of the dead. Another chapter, another Sri Lankan gem, as we delve into the rich world of her human landscapes.