Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Things On The Floor

In the afternoon, my business at the U.S. Consulate concluded, for then at least, I met Talia back at the hotel and we headed for Unawatuna, a beach on the southwestern coast. After three and a half hours on the train, we settled into a large room on the second floor of an old house with a generous, semi-circular balcony overhanging a porch and overlooking a yard, a small road, the sand, and then a calm and regular ocean. As you remember from the news coverage several years back, that very same ocean suddenly reared up and took around 25,000 people, as well as homes, trees, and trains as it receded. There was a piece of paper taped to the wall below the window of the room where we slept, about level with my knees. It marked the height to which the water had risen and listed the names of those guests and residents who'd survived along with the name of a 19 year old Sri Lankan who hadn't.

elephant in the yard

A local man told me that the water did not come in a wave at Unawatuna: the ocean swelled and the level rose; it rose four meters. He recalled it coming up and in, and then receding about a kilometer from the shoreline, out past a distant set of rocks, strewing the ocean floor with people and things before advancing and receding one more time. In the other room opening onto our balcony was a queer, old Dutch lady named Elizabeth. Her peculiar roundness coupled with a stiffness of limb combined to make her look as if she were holding her breath, a confusing impression because she chattered almost constantly. Elizabeth had been a guest on another beach, further south, the one I'm writing from now, when the ocean produced a wave seven meters high. She was going back to Holland the next day, so she was paying her bill in the office of her guest house, which was on a hill. She said that when the water rose to her ankles she thought, "oh, these sandals are ruined," but was shortly clinging to a column in the center of the room, holding her money belt, her only possession which survived, over her head.

Fascinated by the idea of the ocean floor exposed, I put on my mask and snorkel and got in the water, hoping to get a better idea of the terrain and what the scene would have looked like. The beach at Unawatuna is C-shaped with a gently sloping floor, and I entered in the center of the curve, aiming southwest, toward the rocks. I figured I could swim the kilometer if I took it at leisure, so I inevitably got sidetracked. Near the beach, waves roll slowly in, turning and cleaning sand and dead coral, but past that the floor and the things resting on it are furred with a dull colored sediment. There are some familiar objects; a pillar standing up on its wide base, the plaster of the upper half gone, exposing re-bar pointing jauntily skyward, a shoe, 50 Rupees, a pitcher on its side with a fish living in it, and a stainless steel sink. I followed the meanderings of a few bright fish, but after a while bent my energies toward the rocks.

Not long after the the mucky middle depths; the floor receded, the light turned from green to blue, and I was soon submerged in an apprehension as dark as the water that buoyed me. I swam faster towards the still distant rocks, and asked myself why water should be a more frightening medium than air. I can't see what's coming towards me past a certain distance when I'm walking on land, and who knows what waits around corners, so why should a shortened sight line scare me? I wondered if I was more afraid of creatures lurking unseen in the water than thugs in an alleyway because water is more tangible than air, and that somehow linked me more directly with anticipated monsters. None of these diversionary tactics were effective, because I quickly came up with some good reasons why large volumes of water really are more dangerous than large volumes of air, particularly for human beings. None of those reasons explain my panic, seeing as I was in no immediate danger, but I turned around and swam as fast as I could towards the beach.

Soon, I was hovering over visible ground again; I was at the west end of the beach, and there was a reef, a barrier of rocks which all kinds of creatures call home. That's usually what a snorkeler is looking for, but at that moment, it only seemed dangerous. The waves were breaking just above it, which was still a good distance from shore, and I imagined being picked up and scraped against the hard corals growing on the rocks. To make matters worse, I'd been in the water so long that the area between my lip and nostrils was numb from the pressure of my mask; so I was afraid of being skinned alive on the reef, and I had a strong urge to rip my mask off my face. I made it over the reef unscratched, but as soon as I did I gave in to the idea of giving my face a break. I righted myself in the water, and put my foot down on something sharp. I didn't know what it was, but I left my mask on until I was finally spit out upon the shore, right in front of a diving shop.

From the two circles of purple-black dots on the bottom of my right foot, I guessed that I'd stepped on one of the spiny orbs I'd seen on the reef, a sea urchin. I decided to see if ignoring the injury would make it disappear, so I walked tenderly up to the dive shop to look at the fish identification chart on the outside wall. One of the locals lazing outside the shop, who turned out to be the dive-master, began a conversation that eventually led to the topic of my foot. He informed me that if I didn't do anything or tried to remove the spines as if they were slivers, they would work their way further in, like the quills of a porcupine, and if I went to a doctor, he would cut my foot open and dig them out. He recommended the local remedy, and dispatched a boy into the jungle. 30 minutes later, the boy returned with a thick, waxy, branching plant, a candle, and matches. The dive-master told me to sit on the top of a set of four steps, knelt down, broke off a branch of the jungle plant, applied the milk that issued to the black circles, and then held the candle flame to them until I cursed and jerked my foot away. He did this several times, and then told me to repeat the process in the evening, and then twice a day for the next two days. I thanked him, limped away, followed his instructions, and eventually noted the disappearance of the ominous black points.

Despite my disastrous first attempt, I spent a lot of time in that water, and it turned out to have all the advantages of repeated walks along the same route. On one visit a darting fish caused me to look more closely at the grey-green furred floor, and I noticed neon-green brain corals glowing beneath the silty layer. The relative lack of activity in that area caused me to observe the few fish that were there more carefully; to my surprise, there is a type of fish that flaps its fins on a vertical line, like a bird. Even on a windy, rough watered day, I couldn't resist. I went for the exercise, not because I thought I would see anything; the bottom layer would be churned up and impede visibility. That was the case, but as a result the fish were out in force. Instead of hiding under rocks, flitting up to nip at passing food, they were in the open, navigating with fins and tails in their particular ways, fighting the current to stand still or moving with it, feeding on the suspended particles. The limited visibility caused a fascinating ghost-fish phenomenon involving a particular type spotted with iridescent blue around their edges; as they swam away everything but their spots disappeared, until they were only outlines of blue light, and then after-images, and then gone. I let the waves bring me in, mesmerized by their rocking. Near the beach, where they broke, suspended among them, thrown forward and pulled back, watching coral skeletons picked up and ground down ceaselessly, I noticed the sound of it all, like rain, but harder, more minute and complex, a constant, gentle clattering of broken branch upon broken branch, clean, and somehow dry, maybe like a steady falling of gems through fingers.

Dutch Reform Church

There are other things to do in the area. The Matara road, which runs from Colombo along the whole southwestern coast of the island, was 10 minutes from our guest house. One day, walking along it to find a computer, I saw buses, rickety, old bicycles, a huge monitor lizard, motorcycles, a covered wagon pulled by oxen, and a racing cyclist, all in the space of 20 minutes. A bit further down that road, in Galle, a 17th century Dutch colonial fort, looms a Dutch Reformed Church, its floor paved with the gravestones of settlers, and an Anglican Church that was once a courthouse features an altar in place of the old gallows. Despite the terrestrial world's interesting features, I had become attached to my small patch of sea, so before we left Unawatuna I went for an early morning swim. At 6 am I was engrossed with some small thing on the floor when a change in light startled me. I looked up and the shape first impressed me as another person; but it was a magnificent sea turtle, about my size. I followed the hovering, gliding thing, spotted with barnacles and trailing moss, until it sped away into the brightening water, and then I swam slowly in, put my feet on solid ground, picked up my bag, and went to catch the train, regretting my dependence on oxygen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A sea turtle! Lucky you!
Post a picture of you and Talia in your blog. I'm missing your beautiful face.
<3 Carmen

6:47 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Desiree said...

Yeah, really lucky, huh. I guess it pays to pay attention. I'd love to post a picture featuring Talia, but she won't allow it. And as for my beautiful face, you'll be seeing it soon!

11:57 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Leora said...

Well said.

10:10 PM GMT-5  

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