Thursday, November 5, 2015

The more I do the less I do

It seems the more I do here in Sri Lanka the less I do. And to my surprise and delight the less I do the more I seem to do. How to explain this strange conundrum? 

Maybe this is what a baby experiences. And after all, we're babies here. We can't speak at all and we don't understand much. We can't feed ourselves properly unless someone else does the shopping and preparation. And even physically we don't get around that well. We're. Well. Clumsy. 

So when a baby learns to sit up or crawl or walk, and when a baby learns her first words and communicates by speaking, these first steps are a big deal. Baby uses a spoon? Baby drinks with a cup? Amazing. Until a week later. Everyone, or nearly everyone sits on their own, uses language, and drinks from a cup. These great accomplishments fade as new challenges and new achievements roll along. 

Our first weeks here were a cavalcade of incredible experiences. Getting together with colleagues and students at Rajarata University, doing field work in dry tank beds. Visiting the Dry Zone tank landscape with the famous scholar Madduma Bandara. Being introduced to exquisite foods by our hosts in Anuradhapura. Swimming in a pool where a frog was hanging out. Riding our bikes to Wessa Giriya. These were incomparable experiences. Memorable, poignant, electrifying. Something like a baby's first steps. 

The adventures continued in Jaffna on city and country walks that revealed beautiful ancient landscapes. Point Pedro with its spectacular fish markets. Vaunia with its unexpected architecture, gorgeous vistas, and blaring music from the nearby kovil. 

Now we're in Batticaloa and the same canned music is blaring from the kovil around the corner. It's still amazing, jazzy, energetic. But not a surprise. 

My Fulbright project here focuses on cultural landscape ecology, a broad interdisciplinary topic that includes geography, cultural anthropology, botany, and many other disciplines. In these first weeks here every day, practically every hour has felt like a new "aha" moment in my informal inquiry. So much new to find out from the movement of a hand, the shake of a head, every train ticket purchased and every mile traversed.

Every village tank is different too. Each tank reveals its own curvature, aromas, flow and reflection. I think it's impossible to say "if you've seen one tank you've seen them all." Disrespectful too. Every tank holds its own secrets, was built by its own combination of humans and beasts, and every tank has its own ecology. Plants and animals, wild and domesticated, are also part of the tank landscape. Each tank has its own admixture. 

But there's only so much you can "learn" from every tank encounter. Another spillway, another sluice. Each different, each with its own peculiarities but each part of the same pattern of tank anatomy and morphology. Each tank leaving me with the same questions. How well does this tank work for its community? How is local history reflected in this tank? Can we discern the evolution of this tank and reckon its future?

All of these are conjectures, guesswork by someone without language, without the slightest knowledge of engineering, a botanist who can't recognize the native plants, let alone name them. The more I delve into these conjectures, the more I explore tank landscapes, the less I seem to "accomplish" on a given visit. More questions, more guesses, more suppositions which may or may not provide a relevant basis for sustained research, are the best I can do. 

And likewise with every day that passes. I've learned how to say "Kolupitiya" or "Kotubedda" in a way that bus conductors in Colombo  understand. This allows them to give me my little piece of paper with the price of 15 or 20 rupees. There is so much more to learn but each new destination is incremental, not boldly insightful. So the more I do the less I do. Does that make sense?

Finally there's the question of patience. So much more and so much less than a virtue. Yesterday I stopped at the local "saloon" for a haircut and shave. The wait was more than an hour. I had the opportunity to exchange a lot of smiles, observe village life as it passed by or stopped for a chat, and swat a lot of flies. When it was my turn I had my treatment. Impatience just would not have worked in this situation. Impatience doesn't work wherever you are here. If you ask for something you may get it. But you may not get it quickly. If you're curious about something or about a place usually all you have to do is stand there and someone will come up and explain it to you. You should take your time buying things--I found this out the other day when my Sri Lankan colleagues registered some kind of remorse when I handed over money too quickly on a purchase they had haggled for on my behalf.  Things happen very much at their own pace. You may cast your net and then, hope for the best. Or stop "hoping," which is a variant of "expecting."

As for doing less. The other day we were hanging out in the magnificent pool here at our guesthouse in Batticaloa. Children were there with their grandmother and they were chattering away in English, which appeared to be their first language. Naturally I commented. Native spoken English is a rarity here among Sri Lankans we've met, even people with impeccable English. 

One thing led to another--the lady's close connections with the Fulbright Commission in Colombo, the revelation that she and her husband  were students of Madduma Bandara back in Perediniya, and possibly most shocking of all, that she was trained as a botanist. Nor was my interest in tank ecology lost on her or  her husband, a hydraulic engineer. The evening that ensued, attended by another old friend, also a botanist, was overflowing with convivial conversation and laughter. Sure bet we will see them again in Colombo. And a good bet that this will lead to many more conversations, ideas, and new friends. Where was the sweat in this wonderful contact? So it seems the less I do the more I do. 

It will be super interesting to see how this plays out as the Fulbright continues. There are so many ways to go, so many directions for one's efforts. So many chances to pick up on a line or a sound and run with it. Part of the beauty of this endeavor is that there is no concrete "deliverable" for the Fulbright. My job here is to perform academic and cultural exchange. Something a lot like cultural landscape ecology. 

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