Monday, January 25, 2016

The engineered landscape of Nagaswewa

walked to a tank south of town in a precinct called Nagaswewa. There were some twists and turns walking through Dehiattkandia, crossing the main road, going across a bridge that traversed a large canal where I saw a crocodile a few feet from people washing their clothes, then intuiting the curves according to google map. 

I used an observation we'd made a few weeks ago. When you get to some very narrow roads that fork or turn and google maps only shows one, follow the road built from concrete pavers. These indicate  some level of government project and you know these roads (sometimes barely wider than a sidewalk) "go" somewhere. 

The tank was visible from about a km uphill, just at the clearing after a rambling cluster of homes. Pristine looking in its valley among fields of paddy and bananas, mountains on either side, you become aware that this place was carved out of jungle. 

In fact, after some research I discovered it was carved in the mid 1980s. Dehiattkandia itself was built in 1986. The people brought here or induced to move here, according to my guesthouse host, were dirt poor. They were given small plots of land that the government soon discovered was not enough and the holdings were doubled. How people have kept the jungle from encroaching speaks to their will and stamina. 

An old man, probably my age, stops alongside me on his bicycle. We exchange a few words and he invited me to hop on back. I tell him "yannava tikak ballanava," ("I'm walking and just looking a little") and he smiles a big grin, points to the fields, says ("padi")--stress on the second syllable, not "paddy" the way we pronounce it, and rides off. 

There's a lot of traffic, scooters and tuktuks and bicycles. Of course no one's on foot but of course I'm a foreigner, foreign and strange, so it's OK for me to walk. Near the tank two men are negotiating how to get 20 or so king coconuts onto a scooter. Later I see them being sold in town. I ask them the name of the tank as they eye me curiously. "Nagaswewa," they intone. "Naga's tank." Another invented name invoking ancient mythology but very much a contemporary tank of the late 20th century. 

No sluice is visible. Only a spillway on distal end. An allee of kumbuk trees tells us how much they grow over 50 years. 

This is the first time I've thought about the idea of landscape engineering vs landscape design. This is an engineered landscape, in some ways like our Western cities. But our cities didn't grow from a government initiative. Even where they are strictly designed, like the grid pattern of streets in Manhattan, the city grew enmeshed in the design but also beyond the design. Here the contrivances seem so obvious. Animal watches in the fields are built sturdily with tile roofs. They are part of the engineered scheme for this landscape, with an infrastructure built to address, if not completely serve, the needs of it's inhabitants. Even the sounds of deep water flow in water management junctures along the road provide the sound of sluices and bisotewuka in ancient tanks. 

A tractor lumbers by, taking up most of the road. I retreat slightly into the tall grass where I get bug bites and pieces of seed on me. The husband drives and his wife rides in back. More scooters. I come to the far end of the bund road to an engineered dpi which turns out to be the spillway and sole outlet of water for this tank. It's deep and my feet are sore so I turn around, back along the hot road but a much shorter-seeming return. 

Across the canal onto one of the main roads leading into and out of town I come to a shortcut to my hotel, "Nature Lanka." I pass the ponsala built in the late 80s and an alms room in front just finished in 2014. When I get to the hotel my toes are bloody from scraped skin but they don't hurt. My host is horrified by the way I look and maybe terrified by the blood, which is really only superficial. I don't think I reassure him enough. 

After a six-curry dinner later that night, much much more than we can eat, I am called to the outside table where the owner is drinking whisky with his younger brother and two friends. We have the requisite adoption ceremony where they hug and tell me how honored they are. That we are the first Americans ever to stay in this place, and a professor to boot. One of the friends has two children at Moratuwa. He is overjoyed. They are mostly tipsy and promise to take us to see elephants tomorrow. We are wedged between two national parks. 

I feel at home and at ease in this new landscape and among these new people, who call me a "simple" man and praise my teeth. Two are false it tell them and they praise my truthfulness. I have the tiniest sip of whisky and turn down the opportunity to eat a second supper with them. It's been a complete day. 

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