Marcel Proubst once said that the only true voyage of discovery is not to visit other lands but to “possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.”
The best part of volunteering with Mali the elephant is not the volunteer work, but living with Amarasiri and his family and our time in Kegalle and the surrounding smaller villages. This is not a tourist area and we have been given the gift, if not of beholding the universe through the eyes of another, of peeking through a window into the universe of another, of a hundred others, and beholding the hundred universes that each of them beholds. How fortunate we are.
Each day, we are an intimate part of Amarasiri’s and Dilhani’s universes, and they of ours. Their hospitality has further privileged us to enjoy glimpses of still other universes, not all as intimate, but glimpses that now shape our own own universes.
Gentle Dilhani, chef extraordinaire. Her delicately spiced curries and rices enjoyed by her family, neighbors, and Lucy and Tommy, cookie colored stray dogs, twin-like in appearance apart from the five inch scar above Tommy’s eye, the result of an unfortunate pursuit of a tuk-tuk. Each morning and each evening she asks “Are you like some milk tea or black tea?” The first day, Amarasiri demonstrated the use of an ancient electrical heating element – plug in the cord and put it directly into the cup of water, it’s magic! – and each morning as they bustle to get the children out the door to school, I make my own tea. Dilhani, perpetually surprised by this, but grateful to return to combing hair, stuffing containers of water and rice and curries wrapped in paper into backpacks, and walking Neranjan, Kavishka, and Bhagya to the road to catch their separate buses. Always smiling. In the afternoon, if Amarasiri returns to Kegalle to pick up Kavishka instead of riding the bus home with us, Dilhani waits by the side of the road in her bright orange dress, waving down the ancient bus so we know where to jump off. Smiling as we jump off. Later, waiting by the side of the road for each of the children. I do not understand much Sinhalese, but I imagine the questions and answers as they walk in the home. How was your day? How was the math test? Did you eat your lunch? Some excited answers, others single words.
Each morning she sweeps their front and back yards with a stiff broom, clearing the hard dirt of fallen coconut and avocado leaves swept to the ground by the prior evening’s tumultuous storm. Cooking, laundry, and cleaning. The war against ants, flies, and other insects never ending. Multiple battles fought each day as she sweeps, replaces newspaper on the counter next to the sink, and removes any uneaten scraps of food from the house. She does not seem to sit except for the evenings, when we play cards with the children, help identify “Things That Sink” and “Things That Float (That Don’t Sink)” in a 1950’s English workbook, and watch Amarasiri’s magic tricks. She laughs delightedly when volunteers are amazed by his tricks, tricks that she must have seen too many times to count. Eyes full of warmth and love for all, but especially for her Amarasiri. Their marriage, a love marriage. Dilhani came to Kegalle for school and they met while studying. I imagine a younger Dilhani, slimmer, body unmarred by the birth of three children, face unmarred by the worries of caring for those three children and the hassles of everyday life, long hair in the style of younger Sri Lankan women, a single long, dark braid falling below her back. Meeting a younger Amarasiri, just returned from a six year work stint in Saudi Arabia. Making shy eye contact, flirting, smiling. Courting, Sri Lankan style. Eventually, marriage, children, and now the elephants.
Amarasiri, lover of all animals, large, medium, and small. Healer of elephants, caretaker of stray dogs and cats, and rescuer of giant beetles. Bhagya runs screaming from a giant beetle our first evening in the house, and as Dilhani prepares to swat it, Amarasiri catches it in a cup and gently releases it outside. Lacking screens or even glass in the windows and open to the outside between the eaves and walls, Amarasiri’s house will invite the giant beetle back inside to repeat the same dance nightly during its short life. His teeth stained red by the betel nut he chews, Amarasiri smiles often, like Dilhani. He wears blue sweat pants and a black golf shirt with a tea plantation logo on the chest to gather food for Mali each day, but changes to a sarong and no shirt as soon as we return home. He eats no meat, fish, or eggs, in keeping with the Buddhist precept to avoid harming any living creature. Consideration for others comes naturally. During the afternoon storms, he waits for Bhagya at the side of the road with an umbrella, keeping Bilhani dry inside and Bhagya dry during the 10 foot walk from bus to door. Crossing roads with volunteers, he looks carefully and raises his arm against the rush of oncoming traffic, keeping us safe. Concern for Kavishka at meal-time, never eating. “That one is very difficult to feed,” he tells me, shaking his head. “Bilhani sometimes shouting at her, but she will not eat.” I see him slip her a sweet Sri Lankan breakfast treat from the shop up the street on her way out the door one morning, see Kavishka smiling gratefully.
Buying lunch for Samndha each day, he explains “Keeping mahout happy is keeping Mali happy. If mahout not happy, maybe he will hit Mali.” Like all Sri Lankans, accepting of culture and the way things are. Mali, along with each of the other 200 remaining domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka, must attend religious festivals in April and August each year. From family to family, he explains, this tradition has been passed down. The generational pull is strong and we must send the elephant there. “It is very hard for the elephants. The people are shooting guns and fireworks, there are fires and big noises. The elephants don’t like it. But I must send Mali. If I do not, the people are all looking at me and asking why I don’t send Mali.” This, he cannot change. This is what it is. But one day, we visit the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. Close to the orphanage, we pass an elephant, ribs and shoulder blades showing, chained by all four legs to a post. A sign in front proclaiming “Millennial Elephant Foundation.” Amarasiri, angry, sputters “This not a real foundation. This only for tourists back-riding the elephant. Elephant cannot eat enough if elephant is giving back-rides all day and waiting in chains.” This, he can change, will try to change. This is his life purpose.
Glimpses and peeks of other worlds, other universes, as we sit with front row tickets to Amarasiri’s and Dilhani’s. The glimpses and peeks sometimes elicit more questions than answers. One afternoon, late coming home, we end up on the bus during rush hour. Amarasiri walked us to the very first bus stop so that we could find a seat. Within two stops, human beings are crammed into every available space on the bus. Seats have two, three and four people in them. Bodies spill over from the aisle into the already crowded seats. Sitting at the window, I am fortunate to have an unmoving wall that cannot invade my space on one side of me. We pull up to another stop. Two people make their way off the bus, but twenty wait to take their places. Most step backwards to wait for the next bus, but at least five rush towards each bus door, climbing aboard the bus steps, holding onto the open doors. All hanging onto the outside of the bus, none of them actually on it. The bus starts to move, and a teen-age boy, just barely old enough to be out of his white school uniform, hesitates, starts towards the back steps, then turns, runs to the front steps, and finds one empty spot for a foot to clutch onto as the driver pulls away. What prompts this choice to not wait? A date with a girl? Late to dinner? Knowledge that the next bus will be the same? How old is this boy? Is he in fact still a teen-ager? What is his name?
Another day, Mali, despite Samndha’s loud yells, yanks a bunch of bananas from a passing tree. While we wait for her to eat this stolen treat, a tall gentleman passes us on the dusty road. I have seen him before in the village. With his coiffed silver hair, formal countenance, and upright posture, he would be perfectly at home on the streets of Colombo with a briefcase. Dressed in a long sarong and oxford shirt, he carries a small plastic bag. Later, deeper in the jungle, we pass by his home. Some Polambegoda homes are as modest as one would expect for the Sri Lankan jungle, with mud walls and corrugated metal for roofs. Others, painted bright yellow, blue, pink, and even purple, have intricate wood shutters, glass windows, and tiled front porches. His, while on the small side, is a bright yellow and blue with an orderly front porch. He stands out front, smiling, waiting with a cut young coconut for each of us from one of his trees. We drink the young coconut juice. What about his universe? Is it filled with a wife, children, grandchildren? Who climbed the 50 feet to the top of his coconut tree to harvest these coconuts? Who will climb the jackfruit tree? Did he live in Colombo, walk to work each day with a briefcase?
Tiny Samndha. His universe, inextricably tied to giant Mali’s universe. If Mali dies, almost all is lost for him. His entire livelihood and identity is as Mali’s mahout. He knows she likes to eat ripe yellow bananas better than green bananas, ketel tree leaves, and jackfruit. Catches her long trunk almost every time she tries to snatch something that is not hers for the snatching. He, and he alone, by verbal command, can tell her not just to go, stop, and drink water, but also to turn over (a laborious process for giantess) in the river so that we can scrub her other side, step by step. He knows when she likes to eat. Knows how to reprimand her without hurting her. Scrubs her with all his might with coconut shells to remove the fungus growing on her skin. But Mali’s universe is not Samndha’s only universe. He is married, and has two children. We have waved to his wife on our way past his humble home. His son is grown, training to be Mali’s mahout after Samndha dies. Being a mahout is a family tradition, the knowledge passed down from father to son. His daughter is in school and still at home. He can climb a 60 foot coconut tree using nothing more than his hands, bare feet, and a rope made from jungle vines. He wants to go to a wedding in the village next to Polambegoda next weekend, but his son is also going and cannot watch Mali. Mali cannot be left alone for that much time, so Amarasiri will babysit. Elephant-sit.
Cell reception at Amarasiri’s home is poor, and I have not spoken to J.P. this week. Ironically improved reception in the jungle means my phone rings with a call from him on our way to the river to bathe Mali one afternoon. We talk, and I marvel at the striking difference in our current universes. He, home in Colorado, where it is cold, dry, and windy. He and Alex are working in our dining room, our giant great dane Juno sleeping at their feet. Catching up on email for the day, doing homework, getting reading for the next day. Nicholas and I, outside the small village of Polambegoda, sweating dripping down our faces, our arms, even out the pores of our legs. A giant of a different breed in front of us, contently crushing banana leaves stolen from trees as we walk down the path.
Unique to our own circumstances, each of our universes is shaped by our loved ones, our jobs, our passions, the circumstances we grew up in, what we have experienced, the people whose lives we have touched and the people who have touched our lives, what we see, hear, and smell each day, and by the inner workings of our own minds. A Sri Lankan man, living in a simple home on the side of a busy road, healer and caretaker of a menagerie of elephants, dogs, cats, birds and the occasional giant beetle, building good karma for his next life. His universe is not my universe, but I have touched and been touched by it, and he by mine.
Who can say how this will shape my universe… I do not know. But Thursday evening, Nicholas and I climb into our tiny bed, tuck the mosquito net under our mattress, and turn the light out. I hear a loud buzzing and something thwacks into our net. I know that sound. I sit back up, turn on my iPhone flashlight, and spot the giant beetle, seemingly the length of my thumb. For the first time in my life, my stomach does not turn over in revolt at this creature.
I capture the giant beetle on top of a book, unlock the front door, and release him to dance with Bhagya, Dilhani, and Amarasiri again tomorrow night.