Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sri Lankan journey on foot

The more you walk the better off you are. Getting around in Sri Lanka on your own steam is a bit of a challenge, but so is public transportation, a tuk tuk, even a private driver. So there's real meaning to the traditional adage "Avidepaya deha swati, which translates roughly as "walking legs are a thousand values."

Walking provides the fine-grained perspective I need for landscape studies, the focus of my Fulbright work here in Sri Lanka. Walking imbues you with the sights, smells, and sounds of unexpected places. Turns you make, sights you uncover by accident, the dual challenges of being lost and finding your way. Walking is hard work and it's lightness itself. Whatever you do here you sweat, no matter how still and quiet you stay. So you might as well sweat by wandering through unknown country. It reminds me of when we had small twins. Could we really take them camping all over northern California? It was just as hard to stay home, so why not?

It's about time I got back into the field and did some walking. We came back to Colombo for the Fulbright orientation. Three days of presentations by Sri Lanka's educated, activist elite, at least those chosen by the Fulbright as fit for our consumption, were followed by twenty hours of Sinhala lessons spread over several weeks. A couple of Saturdays at Moratuwa University, where I'm officially commissioned, rounded out our time here. There seemed to be something to do so we stayed. There was much to do and there was nothing to do. If frustration is a gift, as I feel it is, then I plucked and developed enough frustration to propel me through the next few months. What I'm after may not be answerable. Clues and cues may end up unfound and uncovered. But I must try. 

I made several visits to the library and archives at the National Museum, some more fruitful than others. Today for example, the first two books I requested were unavailable. A third book was proffered, but a mistake in the call number (theirs not mine) had the librarian querying, "Sinhala pulawande?" (Can you speak Sinhala?) as she handed me a bound book of pamphlets in Sinhala. The fourth book I asked for might have been available but I never got it. Instead the smiling librarian started bringing me bound volumes of the "Ceylon Literary Gazette" from the 1880s. Their crumbling pages were incised with the ramblings of bookworms that had eaten through hundreds of pages in an identical pattern. Worse, the print was so light--there was so little contrast between the fading light brown letters and the darkening yellow of the pages, that I had to use my phone's flashlight to make out what was written. A few articles on tanks called to me through pages effaced by rot. Literally they'd been rubbed clean by time. There was only a blur of embedded dust where living words once were. I left with my eyes stinging and faded. Nothing but time and towering clouds to restore my sight. 

If the library has posed a conundrum how much more talking with colleagues and friends. I've written before about people's dozen truths about tanks. Everyone is eager to talk. What I'm looking for is the truths beneath the truths. I think I can only find them in the field where there's less talk. 

A few days ago I told the driver who took me to the spectacular Kelaniya Vihara that we had spent days and weeks walking, walking through Vavuniya, Jaffna, and Batticaloa. Making his way through the smoky noisy screeching Colombo streets he smiled quietly and offered a quote from his grandfather, "Avidepaya deha swati." Walking legs are a thousand values.  

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