Meta Sutta

Last day of volunteering. The monks have exams today and we will spend our day renovating the temple, not teaching. Painting the walls surrounding the bodhi tree and pagoda in preparation for the Vesak festival in May, a breeze gently drops bodhi leaves on my head and the walls, sticky with wet paint, in time to the practiced chanting of the monks. Today’s exam is Buddhism, and they must be prepared to recite portions of the Buddha’s teachings. Concentration while we are painting seems elusive. The little ones cannot resist saying hello, observing my progress, and asking “Nick no? Dani no?” Nicholas and Dani are volunteering at the preschool this morning, and will be here at lunch, but conveying that to the little monks is impossible. I wonder if any of what they are reciting is a portion of the meta sutta, the Buddhist hymn of loving kindness:

…So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will…

I can only shake my head at the relevance of this to today’s divisive world. If only.

Five teen-age boys, not monks, chatter excitedly around the other side of the bodhi tree. Talking about what teen-age boys in Sri Lanka talk about. They are sitting for the same exams as the monks this afternoon. Red ants venture into the wet paint, to be forever enshrined at the Pirivena. I have given up trying to keep them out. Shasheen calls out to me and I look up from my work. The five boys, smartly dressed in uniforms of long white pants, long-sleeve white shirts, and white sweater vests, stand in a semi-circle, looking at me expectantly. “They want to talk to you. To practice their English.”

I spend the next 90 minutes talking to the boys, not painting. Well, to one of the boys, the only one brave enough to actually talk. The others listen, chiming in with questions in Sinhala about my age, my husband, my sons, do I have a car? do I have a house? what does it look like? The brave boy talks and talks, using up every English vocabulary word he knows. I use up every last Sinhala word I know within two sentences. I discover he is 19. He hopes for good enough marks on his exams to be admitted to university. He wants to be a school teacher in a monastery, teaching Buddhist culture. His father is 54 and his mother is 46. Like me, I smile. He doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. He had a brother but he died when he was two, maybe of a heart attack. He repeats questions, I repeat answers. He thinks hard, searching for words. The smile on my face grows as the conversation lengthens. His future students will be lucky to learn from a teacher like him.

Nicholas, Dani, and Eelke arrive from the preschool. We have one last project, to clean mold, dirt, and bodhi leaves from the top of the stupa so painting can begin next week. Because the bodhi tree is sacred, this will bring good karma to anyone who does it, ridding them of any skin conditions or disease. Good skin karma, a pleasing thought for a wrinkling painter. I am glad I can help. The big monks arrive, Buddhism books in hand. Grateful I introduced the word “gift” in conjunction with the verb “give” earlier this week, I tell Dhammissara Thero that we have gifts to give them. My monks and the little monks quickly gather. Monks do not (and cannot) have toys, and we have brought only educational materials: colored pencils, multicolored post-its, and dice with pictures instead of numbers, intended to encourage practicing their English. Especially delighted with the post-its — magic! — they label us with pink, yellow, and green notes and messages. Dani! Dani! Nik. Thank you Mrs. Krish. Giggling, a little monk labels another little monk BOOK. Some post-its secretly placed on our backs.

A bell rings, hand-rung by the head monk. Smiles disappear. 1:00 pm, time for the Buddhism exam. Suba gaman! Good luck and good-bye! Nicholas gathers his post-its, carefully places them in his front pocket, bends down to pick up one last green note from the ground, fallen from one of our backs. He straightens up, smiling, and hands me the note. “We are love Everyone.”

On our way out of the temple, one of the older monks stops us and hands us a bag. A gift for us. Full of bananas, a papaya, pears, an apple, guava. Welli thalapa, aluwa, jaggery. I cannot hold back my smile. This bag is full of much more than fruit and sweets. My second day teaching, Sumedanda Thero gave me a weralu, a Sri Lankan fruit about the size of an olive. The next day, a larger fruit – guava. My last day of teaching, an apple, a guava, and a mango, which they knew was my favorite. Today, a full bag.

We run back to the volunteer house, meet our driver, Danu. Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northern most city and a civil war zone until 2009 due to conflict with ethnic Tamils, is our adventure this weekend. Wearing a long purple sarong, slicked back long curly hair, earrings, and Ray Bans, he loads our bags into the beat up Toyota van and promptly snaps a selfie with us as we say goodbye to Eelke, Laura, Suramya and Shasheen. Our Sri Lankan family. Leaving the village, he blasts Shakira as we drive past school girls walking home in white skirts, short sleeve white shirts, and ties, long braids down their back, waving at us. School boys in their uniforms. Women walking under umbrellas, men driving tuk-tuks. Brave children yelling “Hello” and “Good-bye,” not always in the right order. The bakery. The photocopy shop where I copied my hand-written worksheets for my monks each morning.

My heart is full. Full of fruit and sweets graciously given. Full of laughter, smiles, and giggles from my student monks, orange robes swirling. Full of lunches in the Alms Hall, milk tea at tea-time, and one day, fresh guava juice. Full of writing on a chalkboard with a tiny speck of chalk. Full of welli thalapa, too many servings to count. Scrambled eggs made by Sura especially for Nicholas. Dani from Texas, Laura from Wales, and Eelke from the Netherlands. Shasheen, encouraging shy schoolboys to practice their English, himself hoping to go to Singapore to study. Curious villagers in Hanguranketa, staring, smiling, offering. All we have met along the way.

Full of Meta Sutta, loving kindness.

I am, You are, He is

In addition to renovating temples, we teach English to student monks at a different monastery. Our first day of teaching, I understand the true meaning of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” After being introduced to the Principal Reve. Okandagala Chandaloka Thero (the head monk), we are led into a room with wooden chairs and desks, chalkboards, and expectant boys. The walls painted a sedate yellow, with a strip of dark red at the bottom. Four 11 and 12 year old monks in one corner, four 13 and 14 year old monks in another, and eight monks ages 15 to 18 in the center. I end up with the eight older boys. I have no experience teaching other than my online Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. Teaching teen-age boys in America would make my forehead crinkle with worry. My forehead uncontrollably crinkles.

I know I am in trouble when I ask their names. Sudhamma Thero, Samitha Thero, Sumedanda Thero, Dammissara Thero; Pangarama Thero, Sumanghala Thero, Jinananda Thero; Samitha Baddra Thero; Dammadasi Thero, Sumedananda Thero. Some have a third name, immediately lost to me. And one boy from the village, not a monk, sitting in the last row in his white uniform. Ruchira, a blissfully short name. The monks dissolve into fits of giggles and laughter as I repeat their names, mispronouncing each and every one. Comments about my mis-pronunciation fly across the room in Sinhala. Second and third attempts produce more laughter. Their laughter is infectious and good-natured, and I laugh too.

They show me their English notebooks. Hoping to assess what they know and where I should begin, I flip through the pages. Not a single page has writing on it.

A lightbulb lights up in my head that night. I introduced myself as Kris, but I, too have a long name. And if I add my mother’s maiden name, it becomes even longer. The next morning, I write on the chalkboard:

Kristin Mary Elizabeth Sweetser Koval

Under my long name, I write:

Kris

I point to the board. That is my full name. I point to Kris. Keti nama. Short name. I hand them each a piece of paper. Keti nama, I say. Pleased with my stroke of genius, I wait.

No short names. They each remove Thero, but that is all. My unruly monks will remain unruly because I cannot learn their names. I learn to laugh at myself as much as they do. I provide them with a warm-up worksheet each morning. Practicing conjugations of “to be,” they write “My name is _______” at the top of each worksheet. I walk around the room as they complete the worksheet, checking answers and helping. And surreptitiously creating a name map. The second morning, nine monks and three village schoolboys. My name map needs to change each day. I eventually learn all the names, but not the pronunciation.   To them, I am Mrs. Krish. Pronunciation is difficult for all of us.

Sinhala and English are not even remotely related on the world language tree, and their differences produce confusion on a daily basis. There is no equivalent of the verb ‘to be’ in Sinhala. Speakers simply use the noun or subject pronoun followed by the adjective or noun. ‘The car is blue’ becomes ‘Kaahr e-kah nil paah-tai.’ Literally, ‘Car blue one color.’ One syllable words in English (‘talk’) become six syllable monsters in Sinhala (‘kah-thaah ha-rah-nah-vaah’). Even when I have the word written in English letters instead of Sinhala script in front of me, I butcher the word. Working with the elephant Mali and her mahout Samndha, his most frequent command to her was ‘Dha!’ A combination of ‘forward’ and ‘move.’ Mispronounce ‘Dha!’ as ‘daha’ and a mahout will order the elephant ‘ten’ instead of ‘Move!’ When Sri Lankans speak English, they start most of their sentences with an apologetic ‘Actually, …’ as though they are correcting a mistake of mine. Actually, I think they use it because they all learn it in school. And the funniest mistake comes from a hotel menu. We can order “Tasty Tit Bits” or “Sweet Pleasures.”

Many of the monks have iPhones or Androids, but language can sometimes make it difficult to access or even set-up email and social media accounts. Logan, Linous, and Nicholas spend long afternoons clearing a jungle hill-side and digging a trench for water. When the head monk cannot access his email from his new iPhone 7, Nicholas breaks from swinging his pack-axe to help him.

One day, an English-speaking monk approaches us as we paint, curious and eager to practice his English. He spent three years teaching in a monastery in San Francisco. My Buddhism learning previously restricted to books and school, I pepper my new friend with questions, grateful to have a real monk’s answers and to hear his interpretation. The next day I return to him with Nicholas. Ven. Gnanawimala Thero patiently talks to us, answers more questions. Offers to meet with us if we go to Nuwara Eliya, near his home temple. We end up in Nuwara Eliya the next weekend, and from the colonial era St. Andrews hotel, I screw up my courage and call Wimala Thero to see if he is free. He is. We spend Sunday riding in a speedboat on Victoria Lake and driving to waterfalls in a purple car, accompanied always by Wimala Thero and his 15 year old student in their orange robes. Even better, visits to four temples. One where he studied, one where he was ordained, one where is staying, and finally, Kothmale, which has the second largest Sri Lankan pagoda. Head monks greet us warmly at all. Some with no English, others with some. All four provide us with tea so sweet it is a dessert by itself, bananas, cake, and welli thalapa. Lunch at one, deep in the jungle. A gift of jaggery while we sit surrounded by tea plants at another. Our day ends as we walk slowly around the inside of the Kothmale pagoda, Wimala’s gentle voice echoing in circles around us. A day to remember.

Arriving back at the volunteer house Sunday after our day with Wimala Thero, we chatter about what we have seen, learned and experienced. I record the day as I sit under the jasmine tree in the late afternoon. Delicate tan spiders drop onto my head, the table, and my chair like soft rain. Fearful of damaging their thin legs if I push them away, I let them scurry away on their own. The bread man drives by in his tuk-tuk, blaring “It’s a Small World” with a tinny, high-pitched xylophone. Nicholas hoped it was an ice-cream truck the first time he heard it, mistakenly waved down the tuk-tuk driver, and blushed with embarrassment when he had to tell the driver No Thanks.

We only have one week left of renovating temples and teaching English to the young monks. On our walk home from the Viddya Keerithi Maha Pirivena each day, we pass a rainbow of houses. I will miss this when we are done. Sri Lankans love color, and homeowners who can afford it paint their houses. Creamsicle orange with white icing trim, peach fuzz with tan trim, sedate yellow with green trim. Pink and purple, pink and red, pink and white. Purple and white, purple and purple. Magenta, violet, lavender. Fuchsia and maroon. Coral. Aquamarine, everywhere. In this country of ever-present green, even green houses. Lime green, forest green, dark green. Green on green on green. Paint comes as a thick paste, the final color dependent on the amount of water used to mix the paint and the whims of the paint-mixer. And all homes decorated, if possible, with ceylon-tea colored wood shutters and intricate latticework.

Flower pots and gardens line the periphery of each of these homes. Those with no funds for pots use canvas bags or old rain gutters to grow tomatoes, chilies, pumpkin; mint, cardamom, and curry. The fecund jungle provides bananas, coconuts, mangos, mangosteen, and rambutan. Giant jackfruit, breadfruit, and durian, bigger and heavier than our largest watermelons. Jackfruit curry appears at mealtime every day. In season, so plentiful that villagers cannot sell it at the market.

The rainbow of houses, gardens and flowers can’t hide us from the traffic and diesel fumes which coat our skin and the inside of our noses and eyes depending on where we have been each day. We are now accustomed to the narrow roads and roaring traffic and we walk on roads without flinching when trucks and buses honk “I’m coming” behind or next to us. Mornings, I stop at a tiny shop to make 5 rupee photocopies of hand-written worksheets for my class. One morning, I sit on the curb to prepare one last worksheet and barely notice when a small delivery truck parks two feet from my face. Perhaps too accustomed. I will not miss the traffic and diesel fumes.

Monday morning of our last teaching week arrives. My students are understanding more and more written and verbal English. I realize how much I will miss the teaching and laughing, the giggling, all of our multiple attempts to pronounce Sinhala or English. The notes I sometimes find at the end of the day: I like you. You are nice. Thank you. The progress means we can now joke in English: I am afraid of spiders. You are not afraid of birds. He is afraid of snakes. I talk, you talk, he talks. I stop, you stop, he stops. I stop talking when the teacher talks. My pronunciation of their names still produces giggles, but I do know all their names, all their smiles, all their kindness. Who is brave enough to complete a worksheet without copying. Who helps make our morning tea when the head monk goes to Colombo, who gives me new fruits to try each day. I am, you are, he is. We are.

When I first met Wimala Thero, he explained the meaning of his full name, Gnanawimala. Pure Wisdom. Then, quickly explained “But I am always learning. I am still learning.” That has been the wonder of this trip. The monks are learning. I am learning. We are learning. From everyone and everything around us. From our student monks, from Wimala Thero. From colors and flavors. From laughter. From risks taken, mistakes made, and unexpected successes. From spiders falling from jasmine.

Rhythms of Life

We have been in Hanguranketha for two weeks. A new volunteer project – teaching English to monks in the morning, renovating temples in the afternoon. New accommodations, new village, new foods, people, and sounds, new rhythms.

Temples dot every corner of every village, some small, some large, some in the middle of the village, some high atop the hills. Buddhas in small shrines, decorated with strands of blinking red, blue, orange and green lights, light up the roadside as we pass by on buses in the early morning or late evening. Each one lovingly decorated with flowers, donated food and a daily donation from the jungle, ants.

Instead of waking to honking buses, trucks, and tuk-tuks, I wake to contemplative chants. Confused the first morning, I sit up in bed, tangled in my mosquito net. This sounds almost like the call to prayer, but I know it is not. Loud drums and a horn join in. It is barely dawn. The other volunteers, lying prone under their nets, sleep through this Sri Lankan version of Taps. Suramya, our local volunteer coordinator, laughs at breakfast. We will see this offering in person today, and each day while we are here.

This volunteer house feels luxurious, with tile on the bathroom floor and a jasmine tree outside our loft, but ants insist on greeting me each time I walk into the bathroom. A product of the jungle’s fecundity, any war fought to keep the endless black and red armies out of a Sri Lankan home is immediately lost. Rinsing my face one morning, I splash one last handful of water and open my eyes. A bright green grasshopper, antennae twitching, stares at me from the sink basin. I imagine him as a friend, see his eyes blink, and blink back. He is far better company than the frogs living in the bathroom of the Kandy volunteer house, the scorpion found by hapless volunteers the week before we arrived, and the spider the size of my hand that German Clara insisted on saving instead of swatting.

The first week, we ride the bus up the steep mountain road to Madanwala Maha Pirivena, the largest local monastery, for temple renovations. Approximately 150 monks live here, most young monks studying Buddhism, meditation, Pali and Sanskrit alongside math, Sinhala, English, science, and health. Orange robes of various shade swirl around the Pirivena, some covering studying, chanting, walking, or meditative monks, others, recently washed, drying atop bushes or walls. Monks, highly respected in Sri Lankan society, usually choose their calling as a pre-teen or teen-ager, but we meet seven year old Kassapa Thero, dropped off by his father after his mother ran away. His tiny legs, matchsticks under his bright orange robe, skip through the temple in violation of the monks’ rule against running. Joyful. The head monk will forgive this transgression.

Older men and women gather outside the Alms Hall as we prepare to paint. Fascinated, we stop and watch the twice-daily offering of food to Buddha. Three men, two pounding on beraya drums, biceps bulging, and one playing the high-pitched horanaawa, lead the procession of food-bearing men and women. Swaying and chanting under white and golden yellow umbrellas, they make their way to the shrine room to offer food to Buddha before offering it to the monks. They, too, joyful.

The monks eat after Buddha, and we eat after the monks. Our lunch an hour away, we begin scraping moss off the elephant relief we will later paint yellow. Later, those same men and women will stand in a circle as we eat in the Alms Hall, watching our every move. Devout villagers prepare pumpkin curry, green bean curry, banana flower curry, spicy dhal, rice, papadam, fried chilis, fried eggplant, manioc leaves, jackfruit, and the occasional fish curry. Dessert is always curd and local “honey” – a sweet syrup made from ketel trees, not by a swarm of bees. We sit at low tables and on even lower benches and eat with our right hands in a cavernous room. Large servings of rice, cooked over a wood fire in black pots the size of a laundry basket, fill the plates we washed with water but no soap in the communal sink just before eating. The tables line the walls and we sit with our backs to the wall, facing the center of the room and the large table laden with the curries, not each other. While everything we see at the temple is foreign to us, something new to absorb, we are also something new for the villagers to absorb. Our first day, we look up from our plates and feel like we are on the inside of a display in the zoo. One woman whispers to another and looks at Nicholas. My ambidextrous child is eating with his left hand, a strict no-no. I nudge him. Horrified (because he knows what his left hand is for here), he switches hands. The woman smiles at me. Hospitality and friendliness always accompany the curiosity, though, and if a plate looks empty, they smile and gesture towards the table, take our plates and refill them, or bring over the huge communal bowls for us to re-fill our own plates.

On our way home, we frequent the village bakery in search of bread rather than rice. This bakery sells white bread, white bread with sugar on top, white bread with sugar on top and jelly in the middle, white bread stuffed with vegetables, orange colored fried dough rolled in the shape of a carrot and stuffed with green colored fried dough in the shape of stems, cookies rolled in sugar. And just plain sugar, in the form of jaggery. But best of all, cold mango juice and cold bottles of Pepsi. Hanguranketha mornings are cool, but when we finish painting in the afternoon, sweat is pouring out of any pores not yet blocked by paint splatters. We stop here every day.

A woman we call call “Auntie” has adopted Nicholas. She stuffs him with extra rice, papadam, bananas, and curry at lunch, long after he is full. Extra desserts at tea time. Too polite to refuse, he eats until she is happy. At dinner, he pushes cooked vegetable curries and yet more rice around on his plate. But Nicholas, the youngest volunteer here, has acquired many mothers, aunts, and big sisters in Sri Lanka. Auntie might be absent, but Sura ensures he finishes dinner each night. And mornings, while the rest of us eat small but tasty omelettes, Nicholas enjoys a huge plate of scrambled eggs. He is acquiring love, not just pounds and tighter pants, during his stay in Sri Lanka.

Evenings are full of card games, books, and writing. One evening, I step outside to sit and write. Hundreds of dragon-fly like insects swarm around the porch light. Startled, I step back inside. Now zooming around the inside rooms, they dive bomb any light source they can find. Dhammike, the head of the volunteer organization we are working for, is visiting this evening with his young daughter. Apati, apati, she calls out, pointing at the bugs. Father, father. Are they coming inside, he smiles at her, more a calm statement than a question.

These are merowa, Sura tells me. “I don’t know the English name, only the Sinhala name. When they are coming, it will rain in a few days. Maybe two or three,” she says. This is the first I have seen of the merowa, and it will be the last. Within hours, their night-time acrobatics complete, we find their long wings in great piles everywhere we walk, crunch on them as we walk back to our rooms. Sura shrugs. They shed their wings, crawl into a corner, and die. But it is good, she says. Now it will rain. She pulls out a broom and matter-of-factly sweeps up the wings.

This rhythm, peculiar to Hill Country in Hanguranketha, a sad one of sorts. But I suppose the planet earth moves slowly for these small creatures. Lives lived to their own peculiar rhythm. The monks, broadcasting meditations at dawn and dusk each day, to theirs.

And while we are here, Nicholas and I, joining in, eating, learning, and living to this rhythm. Joyful.

The Forest of Connections

We finished our elephant volunteer project Friday and returned to Kandy. The volunteer house in Kandy, packed with new volunteers, didn’t have space for us and we checked in to a hotel for the weekend. Truthfully, hot water showers, a fitness center, a pool, and a real mattress would have appealed even if the volunteer house would have had enough space for us. And this hotel is truly beautiful. Red, orange and purple flowers. Green grass under a green canopy, green lily pads covering a pond reflecting green light. Monkeys scampering from the adjoining botanical garden. Grounds meticulously swept by an old Sri Lankan man wearing a sarong and a “Mahaweli Reach Resort” shirt.

Saturday morning, I wake early, determined to enjoy every second of this day. Eating breakfast, we notice a Sri Lankan couple striding across the lawn, photographer and assistant in tow. The young woman is dressed in a bright red sari embroidered with crystals and gold, an elaborate headdress, and gold shoes. Her groom, wearing a Sri Lankan military officer’s uniform, trails a half-step behind. This is her show, not his. The hotel grounds are a perfect location for wedding photos, and this will not be the only time we watch this scene play out. I want to take a picture of this beautiful and exotic couple, but I do not want to intrude on their moment. Now a Middle Eastern couple appears to the side of our breakfast table. The wife, wearing a hijab, the husband wearing Western clothing.  They are exotic and foreign to us. The husband pulls out his cell phone and begins snapping pictures of the Sri Lankan couple. He strides over and mimes taking a selfie of himself with them. Both couples, to us, are foreign and exotic. Different than us. But the Sri Lankan couple is also foreign and exotic to the Middle Eastern couple, and they to the Sri Lankan couple.

We ourselves stand out wildly here at our volunteer placements. The whiteness of our skin almost embarrassing. Our bodies, taller. For once in my life, I feel like a giant. Our bags, larger. Our shoes, heavier. Our clothes, unsuited to the climate. Sri Lankans stare at us and we stare at ourselves. One day, waiting at a bus stop to catch a connecting bus, a white elbow rests lethargically outside the window of an arriving red bus. Our heads whip around to see who this might be, traveling in this out-of-the-way place. Two Slovenian men, with backpacks at their feet. The seats next to them on the bus, conspicuously empty. I take an empty seat next to one of them, grateful to sit and curious about these white people. We speak briefly about where they have been and where they are going before they hop off to catch a connecting bus to the Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage.

In a pharmacy, buying vitamin C and cold medicine, an old Sri Lankan woman approaches Samantha and me, tapping us on the arms. Four and a half feet tall, in a delicate pink and ivory sari, silver hair in a bun on the back of her head. Smiling, she gestures to us and to her, then touches our arms again. This happens more than once in Polambegoda. Unused to seeing white faces and Western clothing, and unable to speak any English, it is simply a way to say hello, to find a connection with us.

Connections. I wonder about connections. We so often focus on our differences – and they are certainly highlighted for us here – but what about our similarities, the things that connect us, tie us together?

In the fitness center Saturday afternoon, a local sports channel displays cricket matches and field hockey games as Nicholas and I sweat on the treadmill and stationary bike. Cricket players, sports stars in all of South Asia, command a huge audience. In the field hockey match, a man from the Indian team plays wearing a turban. Cheerleaders in one of the matches cheer in yellow and orange saris. But at the end of the day: sports stars, athletic matches, and cheerleaders.

At Amarasiri’s house, Dilhani dressed the children in their white uniforms, worn by each and every child attending school in Sri Lanka, and packed curry and rice in their lunches. The children study Buddhism, Sinhalese, and Tamil in addition to mathematics, history and science. But each morning looked eerily similar to mornings in my house. Children trying to leave without combing hair. An older son running out the door each morning, late to his bus, one shoe on and one shoe off. A mother packing lunches. Backpacks. School buses.

Talking to middle schoolers, they tell of different hobbies than typical teen-age American teens – badminton, cricket, watching cartoons. But they also want to know what music we listen to, what movies we watch, what games we play. What version iPhone do I have? How updated is its software? What does my home look like, what does my husband look like, what does my son look like? They watch Harry Potter, Frozen, and Tangled. Some sit awkwardly, as middle schoolers do.

On the buses each morning and each afternoon, people hanging out the doors of the ancient red buses, spilling over into aisles. The buses, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles talk to each other constantly. At home, cars honk in a fit of road rage or to ward off an accident. In Sri Lanka, a honk can be “Hello” or “I’m coming” or “Thanks for moving” or “Watch out.” And sometimes, it seems, Just Because. But those same talking buses, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles are filled with workers trying to get home, reading a magazine, or trying to sleep in a seat on the bus at the end of a long day.

In the jungle with Mali, her mahout Samndha spent much of our last day taking as many selfies, photos and videos of us we took of him and Mali. We want pictures of the monks we teach and they want pictures of us. In the villages, we sometimes pass villagers who look grumpy. Perhaps we look grumpy to them. I sometimes feel uncomfortable, worried I don’t belong, worried that I stand out, worried I look different and can’t speak Sinhalese. But a simple “Ayubowan” and a smile, and the grumpy face lights up with its own smile. All of us a little afraid of each other, unused to our differences. But all of us able to share a smile.

In the swimming pool this afternoon, the Middle Eastern woman sits in long pants and a long sleeve shirt, her head covered by her hijab, feet dangling in the pool, her husband standing in the water in front of her. Both glued to their cell phones. Nicholas swims past them, and the husband motions to Nicholas and mimes a selfie with Nicholas. He wants a photo of a Westerner just as much as we want a photo of a Middle Eastern couple and a Sri Lankan wedding couple.  Nicholas agrees to the photo.  I myself would like a photo of the Middle Eastern man taking a selfie with my son, of this snapshot in time.

That evening at the Mahaweli Reach Resort, a buffet dinner. Lavishly decorated tables, some with Sri Lankan food, some with Western food, others with sushi, pasta, soup. A table with at least 25 different desserts. I am in heaven. Russian desserts, English desserts, Sri Lankan desserts, Indian desserts. A world banquet of sugar, honey, and syrup, chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom, creme, fruit. Members of a Sri Lankan wedding party, a Russian tour group, the Middle Eastern couple, a group of older Indian women, an American mother and her son. Everyone in awe of the choices in front of us, we all overeat. Nicholas and I roll back to our rooms. We all roll back to our rooms.

We all. All of us. We. Human beings, separated by time zones, geography, religion, ethnicity, age, generation, tradition, culture. We have been privileged to learn about these differences on this adventure, to celebrate these differences. But we have been even more privileged to learn about our similarities, our connections, our ties.

As human beings, we are united by a desire to care for loved ones, make friends, raise children and keep them safe, obtain an education and find a good job, play sports, take pictures, read, watch movies and listen to music, travel to weddings and travel on vacation, share experiences, eat new food and eat familiar food, learn about travelers from foreign lands. We are united by our desire for life and our hope to make the most of this precious gift we have all been given.

And Nicholas and I, given the opportunity to see the forest of connections through the trees of difference.

Last Day in Randeniya, Short and Bittersweet (Like This Post)

Last morning waking in Randeniya. In just five days the roar of the honking trucks, buses, and tuk-tuks dulled to normal. We slept well, even in the stifling heat. We took turns with the one fan between the two volunteer bedrooms, and last night was not our turn. Nicholas and I, sad to be leaving, load our backpacks. We will leave mid-afternoon, after one last morning with Mali.

A surprise at breakfast. Along-side our cold fried eggs, noodle hoppers stuffed with coconut and sugar, a local breakfast treat. “And you, Puta, are you like some black tea or milk tea?” Dilhani asks Nicholas, addressing him as Son. Nicholas smiles proudly at the nickname. Later, he tells me she has been calling him Puta for a couple of days.

We hop on the bus. One of the few times during the day our phones reliably connect to the Mobitel cell network, we are all glued to our screens, trying to download email and upload pictures and messages. I look up for a moment and recognize nothing. Instead of women in yellow, pink and orange saris walking on the streets, I see women wearing hijab and black burqas. I turn around, but this bus is packed, and I cannot see Amarasiri to ask where we are. We eventually pull into the main bus station in one of the local villages. Amarasiri, laughing. At a junction, two ancient buses argued. Our bus decided to go right instead of left to end the argument. A different route today, burqas instead of saris, and a window into Sri Lanka’s multi-faceted society.

America is not the only melting to in the world. Sri Lanka is full of ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese who only recently stopped fighting a brutal civil war. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Buses, decorated with Buddhas and Hindu deities such as Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi. The Buddhas are often surrounded by blinking blue, orange, yellow and lime green lights. Dilhani occasionally prays to Buddha in the evening, though Amarasiri eventually corrects me. She is meditating and chanting, not praying. But, he adds, we do pray to gods. Which ones? I ask. Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi. Religion and ethnicity have divided Sril Lanka in the past, but the reality is that Sri Lanka’s many religions mix openly. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians visit many of the same pilgrimage sites, not just co-existing but often sharing each other’s traditions. We drive past temples, mosques and churches on a daily basis. I originally assumed the baby girls with large black dots in the center of their foreheads were Hindu, following some tradition unknown to me. Now, seeing the melding of the religions in real life, I realize I may have been wrong. I ask Amarasiri. He laughs. “We do that too, for Kavishka and Bhagya. I don’t know why. Every family does it.” Maybe Dilhani will know? “No, no. She does not know. Just part of our tradition.”

We make our way to the village, bus fight notwithstanding, and say our goodbyes to Mali. The first few days, we ate lunch in a small village restaurant. Today, Amarasiri takes us home for a special lunch. At the village restaurant, each day’s food looked the same. Rice, cooked vegetables, and something with very hot chilies. Dhammike, one of the volunteer coordinators in Kandy, told us Sri Lankans eat so many chilies “because chilies help kill germs.” Certain we were ingesting food with flora our intestinal tracts are unaccustomed to, each day I ate as many hot chilies in the village restaurant as I could stand. Each day, the chilies exploded in my mouth and throat and burned away the unaccustomed flora, along with the lining in my stomach. Nicholas eventually asked sweetly, “Do you think you were a little too big for your britches, Mom? Maybe you can’t eat food just as hot as the Sri Lankans…” Eating Dilhani’s lunch instead of the village lunch is a welcome treat. Nicholas, Dilhani’s favorite, praised her fried rice two nights ago, and we arrive home to find it on our menu one last time.

After lunch, Amarasiri packs us into a van to return to Kandy. As we are leaving, thunder and lightning pierce through the dark clouds above and the skies open up. An aticuba’s sweet call, somewhere between an owl’s hoot and a dove’s coo, fills the air between the jungle behind their home and the lull in the roar of the traffic in front of their house. We all hug, and I take a last picture of Dilhani and Nicholas. “I will miss you, Ama,” he says quietly. She begins to cry.

Dilhani, Ama. Mother in this universe.

Beholding Other Universes

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.

A Vacation From Working For Elephants and People Alike, a/k/a Why All Work and No Play Makes Mali a Dull (Big) Girl

We have taken a slight detour from our initial volunteer placement of teaching English to monks and renovating temples. The opportunity to work with elephants for a week presented itself to us and it was hard to say no! These are domesticated elephants, not wild elephants, here to to eat more than usual and regain some weight if they have lost it, play in the water, and be washed by us. Conjure up a picture of vacationing elephants in your mind and you will be pretty close. Amarasini, short, jovial, and kind, runs this program and hopes to eventually have enough funds to provide a “heaven” for the elephants. He pays the owners half of what the elephants would otherwise “earn” working and nurses them back to health while they are here. Once healthy again, they go back to work. He worked in the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage for several years but elephants there still have to “back carry” the tourists (something known to be bad for them) and he wanted to do more for the elephants. And, he admitted to me yesterday, he wanted to “get some good karma” for his next life.

So, vacationing volunteers and vacationing elephants.

We are staying at Amarasini’s home in Kegalle and arrived here after 3 hours in the hottest vehicle on Earth. Even with all the windows wide open (a decision not to be taken lightly when driving through the fumes of the choking Sri Lankan traffic), the temperature inside the ancient van rose to at least 20 degrees more than the 95 degree temperature outside. Sitting just above the diesel engine, the heat was so intense that we could not rest our feet on the floorboards of the van for more than a few minutes before our shoes began to smoke. Nicholas even reheated our leftover french fries from lunch (if English is a lingua franca all over the world, French fries are the comida franca… and yes, that’s a made-up word – not a true vocabulary term from Nicholas’s human geography class) by placing the cardboard box on the floor. And for a reason unknown to us, our driver used only two gears of the manual transmission, 5 and 3 (and occasionally neutral), even when others were desperately needed, so the struggling engine heated up even more than it needed to.

Amarasini, as he will tell you, lives simply, but he and his gracious and sweet family have welcomed 5 volunteers into their home this week. It is a chance to practice some Sinhalese and enjoy a window into a different world.  His wife, Dilhani, cooks meals far better than the meals at the other volunteer house (though breakfast is still a cold fried egg, a piece of white bread with marmalade, and a banana or piece of watermelon). Neranjan, 12, flies out the door each morning at 6:45 am as his school bus honks at the front door, pulling his backpack onto the shoulders of his white uniform. We barely see Kavishka, 9, the shy one. Amarasiri accompanies her to school each morning. Bhagya, the youngest at 6, home sick the past two days, with cropped short hair, smiles every time we walk into a room and diligently completes lessons in her school workbook while home. The children laugh and smile constantly and we have fun playing silly games with them during the evenings.

His home is set back from the road by 12 feet at most. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles, most with diesel engines and none, it seems, with mufflers, create a constant din that slows to a dull roar between 10 pm and 5 am. The walls do not connect to the top of the roof so each room connects to the other by light and noise. The green leaves of an avocado tree, a papaya tree, a jackfruit tree, and a mango tree blend with the jungle rising from the dirt patch behind his home. The children play on a rubber tire swing. We never hear them fight.

Mornings, I rise with the waking traffic as it picks up around 5:00. The other four volunteers, all younger and better sleepers, manage to sleep until 7:00. After breakfast, Amarasiri waves down a faded red bus, built sometime in the 1940s but repaired and recycled into continued usefulness by the resourceful Sri Lankans.  It matches the faded government bus passes we see many passengers using.  Relics of a bygone era to many, part of the present here.  We hop on and the bus careens around corners, knocking us from our feet and into sari-clad women, children dressed in white uniforms, and men in sarongs. More experienced than us, they were already holding on for dear life as the driver flew down the hillside. Anyone who wants to get off must pull a bell. We change buses, ride to a smaller town, and climb aboard an even older bus for the final leg of the ride to the village of Polambegoda. The elephant we are working with, Mali, lives here with her mahout Samandha, a wiry man about the size of a horse-racing jockey.

Mali and her mahout are an unlikely pair, the 3 1/2 ton Mali lumbering through the village as tiny Samandha, at most 95 pounds, shouts commands to move right, move left, stop, drink water, spray herself with water, and occasionally, spray us with water. Mali has one chain around her foot, and carries a long “necklace” of jangling chains on (but not around) her neck. Samandha attaches the chains to her foot only at night, to keep her from wandering away while he sleeps. One day, to keep her from wandering as we cut down a ketel tree for her evening meal, he attaches the chain to a 5 foot stake he has carved with an axe while we watch. No pole to tie your elephant to? Carve a stake with an axe from a fallen jungle branch. Practical and efficient. A five foot wooden stake does not seem like much of a deterrent for a 3 1/2 ton giant, but it works for Mali. She doesn’t wander away.

Each morning when we arrive in the village, we feed Mali a handful of cookies. She expects them immediately and grumpily searches for them with her trunk if we dally. The first day, we try to place the cookies in her trunk so she can feed herself, but she wants us to place the cookies directly in her mouth. The enormous fleshy and pink cavern looks like a giant vagina, and we each quietly confess our impression, giggling and snorting, as we later walk through the village.  One day, I am caught up in taking pictures of the cookie feeding with my fancy new camera and forget about the cookies Amarasiri has stuffed in my pocket for Mali. Elephants never forget, and Mali is no exception. Her searching trunk finds its way to my pocket and slaps at it. I will not forget again.

Elephants’ status in Sri Lanka is a confounding one. They are revered, almost worshiped by Sri Lankans. As we walk through the village each morning, old women, young children, and monks in orange robes rush to bring her a banana or a pineapple, then watch with genuine pleasure as she swallows the fruit in one piece. At the same time, wild elephants plague farmers around the entire country as they crash through fences and destroy crops in search of food. Other volunteers we know are working on a wild elephant project, trying to teach villagers how to keep elephants away from crops using honeybees and other alternatives to simply killing them.

We spend our mornings gathering food for Mali. Banana tree leaves, like salad. Banana tree trunks, thick and solid, which she will crush with her feet and then tear apart with her trunk. Coconut tree leaves, more salad, which her mahout braids together. Ketel tree leaves. Her mahout climbs a tall ketel tree, and we watch, amazed. Ketel trees have no branches, much like a coconut tree, and he shimmies up the tree using only his arms, his feet, and a scarf to brace his feet. We gather the leaves, more like palms, and drag them several hundred yards to where she will sleep (and eat) that night. The next day we will return and cut the entire tree down. The inside of the ketel tree, soft and porous like the inside of a banana tree, provides valuable nutrients for her.

Afternoons, we accompany Mali to the river, where she checks into the local spa for some pampering. The first day Mali and Samandha arrived at the river before us, and we can barely tell Mali, laying on her side and relaxing in the river, from the large grey rocks next to her. She naps peacefully, and barely notices when we start massaging and scrubbing her skin with coconut shells. Harder, urges Amarasiri. She cannot feel it if you do not scrub hard. You must scrub harder. We scrub harder, mimicking Samandha, scrubbing away with all his might, but mindful that he is her lifelong boss and we are merely visitors in her world. We do not want to be rebuked by this giantess if we scrub too hard.

One afternoon, I notice a coca in the distance, flapping his wings on a vine hanging above the river. He stretches his long white wings again and again, trying without success to rise from the vine. Caught in something – plastic maybe? – he will die if we don’t help him. The mahout wades through the river and pulls the vine down. The coca hisses at him, almost like a goose, then lunges with his long yellow beak, pecking at Samandha’s arms. Undeterred, Samandha holds the coca’s body tightly and disentangles him from the vine, kissing the bird’s head once he succeeds. The coca, lulled by the kiss of the mahout and the whispering promise of help, rests quietly. A web of string strangles both of his feet, rendering one unusable and the other crippled. Clara, the German girl, has a Swiss army knife with a small pair of scissors and we begin to carefully cut one string after another. Eventually we switch to the mahout’s knife, and Samanda cuts the last few strings with the precision of a surgeon. We set the coca on the sandy banks of the river and Samandha kisses his head once more. The coca stands, unmoving for a few moments. Mali flaps her ears and tail in the water and snorts through her trunk in the background – where have her masseurs gone? We glance at her and the coca begins to carefully hop away. We smile at each other.

Riding the buses back to Amarasiri’s home, we are often caught in torrential downpours. The cooler air accompanying the rains is a relief. One night we arrive home to wet bedrooms and candlelight. The rain has blown through the eves of the roof – open to the outside all around the home – and leaked into our rooms. All of Kegalle is without electricity due to the storm, and Amarasiri’s home is no exception. We enjoy Dilhani’s potato curry, chicken curry, cucumber and onion salad, dhal, and Sri Lankan fried rice. Praising Dilhani and Amarasiri for the wonderful food, we hint that we would love the fried rice for breakfast. Amarasiri hems and haws and eventually admits that we cannot, for he feeds the neighborhood stray dogs with each evening’s leftovers. For more good karma, he smiles sheepishly. Karma, indeed.

We all need more karma.

A Brief History of a Journey Through Sri Lankan Bureaucracy, a/k/a a Day Trip to Colombo to Extend Our Visa

Where to start on a blog? I’ve never done this before and don’t quite know what to do! Nicholas and I are volunteering in Sri Lanka for 4 weeks, teaching English to monks and renovating temples. At the end of the 4 weeks, JP and Alex will partake in their wildest spring break ever, flying as far from Denver as they can – 3 days of total travel – for just 7 days on the ground in Sri Lanka. Their time zones will be upside-down (by 12 1/2 hours, since Sri Lanka has its very own time zone) for only a short while, but it will be worth it to be able to share this country with them at the end of our journey.

Rather than “journal” the happenings of each specific day, I think I may instead share my thoughts on different aspects of our adventure… Nicholas may join in with his thoughts from time to time, as well.

Our primary reason for coming to Sri Lanka is to volunteer, but the opportunity to learn more about a different culture is undoubtedly appealing and the reason we chose to volunteer abroad rather than in the U.S. Some of the time we are learning about the more exotic aspects of Sri Lanka – Buddhism, Hinduism, life in a tropical culture, the experience of new foods, how to speak Sinhalese, etc. – but this past Friday was a learning experience of a different nature.

A Brief History of a Journey Through Sri Lankan Bureaucracy,
a/k/a a Day Trip to Colombo to Extend Our Visa

We need to extend our visas because we will be here longer than the typical 30 day electronic visa that is granted online prior to arrival. While we could wait until the end of the 30 days, we want to get this done in advance so we can focus on our volunteer projects, and we have decided to head to Colombo at the end of our first week. We wake at 4:20am, pack our bags in the dark to avoid waking the other volunteers in our separate dorm rooms, and leave the volunteer house outside Kandy for a drive to Colombo. We have hired a car and driver, thinking it might be faster and more direct than the train. At the volunteer house, rumors had swirled of nightmarish waits at the Department of Immigration and Louie, a British volunteer, had warned us of a strict 1:00 pm cut-off for some part of the process (exactly which part, no one was sure). Since the lateness of trains here is measured by a quarter-day (trains can run a quarter-day, a half-day, or a three-quarter day late) prudence dictated a private car so we could line up at the Department of Immigration prior to opening time and avoid the 1:00 pm cut-off.

Our 18 year old driver, Samandha, drives to the wrong office, even though Dumi, AJ, and Dhammike (various coordinators at the “Green Lion,” the Sri Lankan agency running these programs) had repeatedly assured me our driver would know exactly where to go. After he asks several tuk-tuk drivers idling in traffic how to get there, I pull out my iPhone and find a route. It is a little disconcerting to drive through some of the admittedly random neighborhoods and short-cuts Siri finds to avoid the choking Colombo traffic, but we eventually arrive, just 30 minutes after opening time. Time for the real fun to begin.

The mass of humanity entering and exiting the Department of Immigration and Emigration is strangely orderly for the Asian subcontinent and almost surreal when compared with the chaotic traffic we just left behind. It seems vaguely dystopic, almost Orwellian. We enter the first room, a cavernous hall with at least 75 rows of chairs, each row with seating for 25-30 people. At the front of the room, counters for “Passports,” “Citizenship”, “Residents,” and “Non-Residents,” all with orderly lines of people in front of them. Women in saris, burqas, hijabs, and other long dresses, men in western clothes and sarongs. Crying children, happy children. Even a food court with a “Burger Bar” (for all intents and purposes, a fake Burger King…) for all the hapless applicants (including us) who will spend their entire day in this building. Ceiling fans circle lazily above, creating little to no breeze. Louie told us that if we missed hearing our number called, we would have to obtain a new number and re-start the entire process — by now worried, we look at each other and wonder how we would ever hear our number called in this gigantic room…

A security guard notices us (there is no “blending in” in Sri Lanka – we stick out like sore thumbs) and motions us towards the neighboring building. “Fourth floor,” he says in a heavy South Asian accent. On the fourth floor, a wave of cool air greets us. Air conditioning! Signs point to Areas A, B, C, D, and E. We make our way to C – “Visa Applications.” More rows, but fewer than the first cavern we walked through. A line to enter and obtain an application for a visa extension, a line to have a passport photo taken, a line for the glue to affix the picture to the application, and a line to obtain a token number allowing us to submit the application. Application firmly in hand, we eventually proceed to Area A. (Or maybe E? At any rate, a different area than Area C.) Within this new Area are three sub-areas, areas A, B, and C. Three women behind what looks like a reception desk, huddled around what looks like a workbook from grade school. They incline their heads towards rows of metal seats. More waiting and more lines. This room is filled with people holding visa extension applications and passports. I see passports from France, Germany, England and Kazakstan around us. Several groups of monks filter in, and soon we are surrounded by a sea of orange, crimson, and eggplant colored robes holding Burmese passports.

Our token number is NR 5025. A man at the front is calling out numbers frantically, though he only calls one at a time and sometimes 15 minutes elapse between one number and the next. There doesn’t seem to be a need for the frantic calling. We sit waiting, afraid to pull out a book to pass the time – distracting ourselves might result in potentially losing our spot in the process. English is the lingua franca here, so we are not listening for our number in Sinhalese, but each time he calls a number we wonder – did he call NR or AV? Something in the 5000s or 1000s? Eventually he calls NR 5020. We sit at attention. NR 5020 does not immediately jump up and we know this spells doom for NR 5020. NR 5020’s turn is lost. He moves on the NR 5021, giving NR 5021 even less time to show up before moving on to NR 5022. Confusion reigns and he quickly moves on to NR 5023, then NR 5023 and NR 5024. Are they all losing their spot? We ready ourselves and jump up when we hear NR 5025. Then he restarts and calls all the numbers, up through NR 5030, and inclines his head towards the corner. “Go there,” he orders. His lips are turned up in an almost, but not quite, imperceptible smirk.

We are eventually ushered behind closed doors where another immigration officer sits at a large wooden desk. There is a computer monitor, turned off, and nothing else other than the application of the French man who sat next to us muttering profanities next to us all morning. We prepare ourselves for questioning, but the officer merely writes our token number on our applications, takes our passports, and tells us to go wait back in Area C. I politely ask how long it will be and whether there will be enough time to use the bathroom. I receive a smile and an “Of course.”

Back to Area C – the first Area C, in the waiting area for the “Visa Issuing Counter.” There is a big sign stating that applicants should be advised the waiting time for the issuance of a visa is approximately four hours. “Four” is crossed out in various colors of pen. Previous frustrated applicants have scribbled “7” and “13” and “8” to replace the “four.” Nicholas nudges me and points to a large sign on the wall lists the “Visa Application Fees.” The fees for US citizens is $100.00. Steep. The fees are variable and I assume that they are somehow related to the wealth of each nation – after all, fees for Haitians are $1.50 and for citizens of the UAE $163 – but the fees are variable seemingly without reason. Germany: $26.00. Uzbekistan: $80. Syria: $8.00. And the most expensive of all – Tanzania, at $200.00. If your country is not listed, you’ve hit the jackpot. $6.00.

Some time passes. We’ve had chocolate wafers and water for breakfast and an order of french fries from the Burger Bar for lunch. Behind the Visa Issuing Counter, another immigration officer starts yelling out numbers. NR 5024. Really? Nicholas and I jump up. NR 5018. What? NR 5002. NR 5004. This part, clearly not orderly. We sit back down. NR 5025 is not called.

The woman from Kazakstan continues to stand at the counter. About 60, with a bright orange t-shirt, capri jeans and peds, numerous bracelets on her wrist and even more earrings in each ear. Bright orange plastic sunglasses perched on top of bleached and spiky hair, also an orange hue. She taps her fingers on the desk impatiently. The monks have joined us now, along with a nun. The nun, who also has a shaved head, wears a grey robe. She is listening to music using her Apple earbuds and clutching a backpack. One of the monks is reading a Buddhist script; the other, something in English called “Problems and Responsibilities.”

Nicholas nudges me. “All of the older Indian women in here look mad.” He’s right, but I think everyone in here is beginning to look a little mad. I’m actually having fun watching everyone and observing this process, so hopefully I don’t look mad.  “Also, that monk is texting on an iPhone. Is he allowed to do that?” Monks and nuns are clearly not cloistered inside four walls here. It seems we have some learning to do. Perceptions and realities will adjust for both of us during the next few weeks.

NR 5025 is finally called, though I realize it feels a bit like waiting for luggage to arrive on the carousel and baggage claim in the airport. We never know whose suitcase will show up next, or why, or when. Or even how. And just like at the baggage carousel, when our number is not called, we wonder if it has somehow been lost. We move to the next line, where we pay $200, give up our passports again, and are motioned back to the first area. We must wait one last time for NR 5025 to be called. When it finally is called, it seems almost anti-climatic. There are no other stamps to get, fees to pay, or lines to wait in. We can leave. We walk out, still waiting to be stopped and told we have to do something else. When we make it to the sidewalk, visas in hand, we smile. All part of the adventure.

Now it’s on to another adventure – trying to find an ATM that will work. A story for a different day…