Tuesday, January 26, 2016

We are here now, not passing through

A few days in a strange humid muddy corner of Sri Lanka just outside the town Dehiattkandia. The place was built in 1986 as part of the Mahweli irrigation and hydroelectric scheme. And maybe it was built as part of a demographic bulwark against the Tamil east of this country. Signs here are all in Sinhalese with just a bit of English. 

When you go into villages or some parts of the road you get the feeling of jungle. Not just the large shady trees. Not just the killer humidity. There's a wildness, maybe from the mountains that are always in view. This is a frontier that was carved out of the jungle and peopled. Or re-peopled. 

We are on crummy bicycles. Janet's back tire is flabbing out and flattening again. I stop in the shade and wait for her. Six gents step out of a shady workshop and inflate her tire. Round a few bends I am waiting for her again in the shade. A younger man in sarama comes up his driveway and we talk. He tells the neighbor lady next door we are from Washington, D.C. What's the difference? "Gama Boston" is inconceivable to him. It must mean Washington. He asks where we're going. His delight is palpable as I tell him "Dehiattkandia." At least that's a real place! He points straight ahead, "Main road," then he points left, "Dehiattkandia." He points right and says, "Polonowurra."

It occurs to me. We are on our way to Dehiattkandia. We are staying in Dehiattkandia. We are not trying to get somewhere else. We are savoring this place, this landscape, this human setting. We are here now, not aiming for another here and another now. This is strange and privileged. We ran into a couple of Europeans yesterday in their stretch pants on fancy bikes. They were headed south, had probably started their day in Polonowurra, passed Dehiattkandia where we met them, and looked forward to another 50 or 100 km of riding until they got to their "destination." We were a few km out of town on crummy bikes and we were part of the landscape. Not just passing through. The privilege of this is that you are living. 

We went far north of our mark today because the road through Dolakanda bends that way. Our first left, which my screen shot of google maps indicated, turned into a mud road from recent rains. Why follow it when there was pavement available over the flat and gently curving terrain?

When shadows were coming consistently from our right instead of in back of us I knew we had been heading north for long enough to make it a potential challenge for Janet on her nearly flat tire bike to get home. So we turned left which led us west and west-southwest. On our ride we passed a monitor on the road and what Janet described as a "giant peacock." A tractor passed me and in Sinhalese the name "Kumar" painted on the back of its wooden cart. 

Flat lands, gently undulating lands, cloudscapes, valleys, fields, and waterways opened in front of us. "This is what people want to do, isn't it?," I asked Janet. "Some," she answered, probably recalling one or two of her patients over the years of her travel medicine practice who were actually seeing the landscape from a bicycle seat. 

But today the feeling of floating was incredible. The real magic of a place with real birds and real grasses and real waterways. We floated south and then west to the bund road of a small tank, the vistas nearby to another tank heartbreaking, dreamlike. Was the catchment of this tank, so nearby, a remnant of the first forest here, or has all that jungle been chopped and the land regrown? Did it matter? The tank in front of us and to our left were our "aim" today. We had overshot them by a good 5-10 km and landed back right where we belonged. 

Next we floated along an unpaved canal road that merged with the main road and led back into town. 

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