Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Being comfortable wherever you are

Part of the Fulbright challenge is getting out of your comfort zone. For me this means finding a way to build new modalities of "comfort" wherever you are. This is doubly the case because of my research here in cultural landscape ecology. It forces me (well, it lures me) into the field, into strange and seemingly isolated (they turn out to be densely peopled) places, places that seem outlandish and a bit uncomfortable at first or even second glance. 

And by "comfortable" I don't mean hot showers or spic 'n span hotel rooms. I mean places that make you feel you've stepped off the bus into a Martian landscape. 

Fast forward to Dehiattkandia, where we decided to spend a few days exploring the engineered landscape of the Mahaveli Project, a giant nation-building exercise of 20th century Sri Lanka. 

In what was once a jungle the government built Dehiattkandia in what turns out to be an ongoing social experiment. The experiment seems to have gone alright in some ways and horribly afoul in others, especially when it comes to ethnic tensions it created or at least exacerbated. 

But this aside I wanted to walk through some of the streets of town and get a feel for the layout and fabric of the place. As a foreigner I'm sure there's so much that passes me by. But just the same. 

Yesterday I wrote about the broad thoroughfares and spacious traffic circles of town, nearly deserted by vehicular traffic. Why do I feel like I'm somewhere in deepest Bulgaria?

The airy, deliberately designed bus stand seems busy but mired in huge puddles after last night's rains, the "boutiques" across from it with their assorted, colorful, useless wares. 

The same-age market buildings, decentralized and flanked by greenery, with sensible awnings that extend across the sidewalk to shelter from sun and rain.

The public open spaces, shady and green. A planner's delight, unused by the barefoot public, sarong-wearing and betel-spitting, or zipping by on scooters or congregating in front of "cool spots" or phone repair stores. 

Evidence all around of the massive influence of the Mahaveli Project, down to the street signs denoting precincts with engineered names like "Nagaswewa."

An engineered urban landscape designed to serve the engineered rural landscapes that surround it. A secret look into a relict of the 20th century stuck like a raisin into the scone of the Sri Lankan countryside. 

Why waste time here feeling uncomfortable, as outlandish as I must seem to others, as strange as I look walking and not riding, as inscrutable as I appear, a pale outsider who doesn't know where he's going. 

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