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.