Sunday, November 8, 2015

Discovering by bicycle: Unnichchai Tank, a wonderful spot in Sri Lanka.

We expected to take a short ride through the countryside on our rented bicycles. The goal was to head inland from Batticaloa to explore some of the mainland.

Our relatively early start put some pep in our ride as we quickly found ourselves on the causeway leaving West from Batticaloa. The view from there was stunning. A low forest, perhaps mangroves, covered in white storks lay across the lagoon. 

On the next island, two villages, each decked out in its Saturday morning cheerfulness. Blue streamers hung from telephone wires in each of the villages, sort of marking the territory, or at least the central point of each of the two settlements. 

The ups and downs of the small hills we encountered were neither serious nor demanding. We made time nicely and cleanly. So it seemed like almost no effort to make our way to the mainland. It seems to me that the mainland is where we started picking up some amazing scenery. 

The first thing that comes to mind is a flat road with rice fields on either side. The road was banked at either side by palmyra trees. An allee with a purely Sri Lankan feel!

Some ways past the palmyra allee we came to turn in the road leading to a hillock with a few buildings on it. I was tempted to make the turn and explore what could have been ancient community and its approach road, but something drove both of us forward on the main road. With the main road in good condition, super uncrowded, and ever so scenic, it didn't seem to make sense to get off it. Here is an allee of kumbuk trees , called Madura here in Tamil. 

Since it was mid morning there were several teahouses with people sitting outside. At more than one of them we were beckoned to come over and have a chat. Our feeling of motion, at least at that time in the morning, drove us forward. 

Things slowed down a bit when I reached a large, modern plant at the top of the hill. It was a rice mill, recently built, and its gleaming, almost ostentatious prosperity seemed a bit of a shock in the middle of a modest countryside. From negative standpoint it was selling Agro chemicals, many of which we had seen being applied with abandon on the nearby fields. I hope President Sirisena's ban on glyphosphates will bring about positive public health change here in Sri Lanka. He's up against greed, avarice, and ignorance in his move. This awful introduction from the West has done more harm than good here in this country, where resultant kidney disease is only one of the many downsides to rampant use of agrochemicals. 

What is it about human nature that allows us to handle toxins at such close range, put them into our water, apply them to our crops, and ingest them? Janet is incubating ideas about public health here and one of her ideas focuses broadly on this question. We'll see where she goes with it. 

More scenery, more shining, gleaming waterways, more narrow bridges, more uncrowded pathways, occasional cows or goats, and barely any kind of traffic made this road kind of dreamscape that is rarely found and almost never traversed. Again a question about human nature. How is it possible to have anything but good feelings when you encounter a road and an experience like this?

But that is human nature. I think we each have a quotient for good not so good and feelings of peacefulness and feelings of tension and anxiety. I haven't found a way around it. One way to deal with it is to let the feelings come as they will. If they're on beautiful flat road with balmy temperatures and wonderful sights all around, all the better. 

Our gentle climb brought little bit of perspiration to the equation as the morning wore on. And someone came up to me on his scooter and asked the quintessential Sri Lankan question, where are you going? Of course I wasn't going anywhere and I told him, "just visiting!" People here love when we get engaged with their landscape. It's something they're really proud of in a way I haven't seen Americans take pride of their immediate surroundings. But. When you can tell people exactly where you are headed they seem a lot happier.

He slowed done to tell me, "you must visit the Unnichchai Tank! Go to the roundabout just ahead and it's a few kilometers after that. Five or six kilometers total!"

Unnichchai Tank is a major tank inland from here. With my keen interest in village tanks, built over hundreds of years and deeply imbued with local history and ecology, I had wanted to do some tank exploring but not necessarily make the trip to Unnichchai. Anyway it's touted as a tourist destination so my interest wasn't high. Still. As he road off on his scooter, my interest was piqued. 

Not long after that encounter, and having waited at many junctures for Janet to catch up with me (she was usually so far behind that she was invisible), I ascended the low hill with the roundabout. One sign pointed to Unnichchai and the other, in the opposite direction. Distances were not given. 

There was a bit of a hullabaloo at the shops just below the roundabout when Janet made her way up the hill. I had been hanging around for five or 10 minutes, not engaging with anyone, and drawing the usual half interested stares. Now my presence made sense and now there was more of a reason for all of us to communicate. 

"Sit down, sit down," pronounced one of the men who introduced himself as the chief of police and gave me the usual sharp shake of the hand I've experienced here in Batticaloa. "How do you want your tea? Milk? Sugar? Sugar on the side? What would you like to eat?" he asked, pointing to the glass case in front of the shop. I chose triangular vegetable roti for Janet and sat down as our delicious milk teas, in hot glass glasses, were brought. 

He smoked. We drank. Janet enjoyed her snack and tea...(spoiler--she was beginning to be overtired and quite hot--should we go on?). 

Eighty-five rupees and a few photos later we were told that Unnichchai tank was just five km up the road, not a terrible distance by any reckoning and one that did promise a big "bang" for the distance traveled (another spoiler-it did). 

So up the road we went to changing scenery, denser forest, scattered, poorer houses, eroded waysides, and occasional vistas of simple rural beauty without pretense. The times I waited for Janet were closer together and for farther lengths of time. The kilometers ticked off--easily for me at least, the roadsides became steeper, the hillocks more frequent, and once when she caught up she just said, "Go on ahead. I want you to see the tank. Either I'll meet you there or on your way back." Not the nicest moment but one we had to face. 

I made fast time those last uncountable kilometers, not knowing how far I was going and unable to get a "feel" for the destination at the end (how had this turned into a ride with a destination? Destination = desire = recipe for failure). Very not Sri Lankan. But there it was. 

I passed a shop on my left and someone called out, "stop here!" It was very heat of the day and Janet was who knows where, so I figured, why not? We ended I having a pleasant talk, he offered me chair, he and a friend gave a boy Rs.50 to run up to the next hillock and bring them something to eat, and I waited for Janet. Along she came, not that much later than I had arrived, which was a surprise. She was a bit worse for the wear. Not a surprise. Hot and sweaty, she said she felt like throwing up. I could see right away she needed a chair and a Coca-Cola. I asked my friend to take me up to the hillock stand and we bought a few pieces of manioc with lime and chili pepper, exactly what he was sharing with his friend. 

When I proffered a Rs.100 bill he told me it was only Rs.30. Lucky that I had that in my top pocket. Again, if I'd known we were riding into the deep countryside I would have brought smaller change with me. We sat, we took sips of Coke and water, and we nibbled on the manioc. There was lots of come and go, just like when I sit in front of the village barber shop. As a male this is a special prerogative, which exposes one to a lot of what's going on, at least at the surface. Maybe female ethnographers  go deeper by experiencing the more hidden world of women. 

A pretty fat guy on a scooter came along with his friend. Gregarious, we shared phone numbers and a few laughs. My name is Sam. His name is Samim, which he told me, means "good person" in Arabic. Amazing. Absolutely amazing to experience the cultural and ethnic diversity of this tiny little countryside. We think about cosmopolitan cities as a hotbed of diversity. But back country to dwellers in back country Sri Lanka experience diversity on daily level with their closest neighbors. This warrants study. Glad I'm not the one who will be undertaking it.

Refreshed, photographs taken, manioc eaten, I asked two different people how far it was to the tank. One said exactly 1000 meters. Another thought it might be 3 to 5 km. I decided to split the difference and take a chance, especially because it looked like a downhill glide. And 1000 meters it was. 

Unnichchai Tank is a masterpiece. A large tank that waters most of the valley we rode up to on the way from Batticaloa. Its hardscape is something unlike anything I've seen in Sri Lanka. Best I think to show it in photos. The catchment for this tank is huge. And the hardscape that harnesses water as it leaves the tank is prodigious and complex. Before I write another word let me say now that the concrete structures we see now that serve to harness the waters of Unnichchai replicate the stone work of the ancients who planned and built this mammoth enterprise. It might be best to leave you with some photos for your imagination. And also to let you know that Janet came back to Batticaloa on the bus!

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