Thursday, April 26, 2007

Five Hops, Four Skips, And A Jump

I arrived in Delhi around 10am after a three-hour flight from Chennai and proceeded from the airport to Paharganj, the backpacker area near the central train station. With only 30 hours left in my least favorite city ever, it didn’t seem so bad. I spent a few hours resting in a tiny, windowless room at the top of three flights of dark, vertiginously steep stairs. There was just enough room beside the bed for my bag and a tiny TV stand with peeling lacquer. After my 3am departure from Auroville and all the hours that came between it and the hotel room, TV seemed about the right speed. When I attempted to turn it on, all I got was static, so I took a nap instead.

In the late-afternoon, I ventured out for some last minute shopping, and stopped at a restaurant where I had eaten on my last visit to Delhi. It’s long and narrow, barely accommodating a row of tiny, two-tops. The cashier is at the front, which opens directly into Paharganj Main Bazaar, and the kitchen is on top of a tiny set of improvised stairs at the back. At the stairs, the hall branches right to accommodate two more small tables, claustrophobically closed off from the street and below the opening in the floor above the stairs. That’s where I found myself, seated next to a handsome, young Basque named Paulo. It turned out that he was leaving for Europe the next morning after several months, so we were in the same situation, living out our final hours India. Paulo asked me what I thought of the place. Not content with my answer, which didn’t include anything metaphysical, he asked if I thought it was true, what so many people seem to think, that India is an especially spiritual land.

My initial answer was no, I don’t think spirituality is place-contingent, but as I kept talking, it came out that I did think there was something unique going on. Of all the places I have been, India challenges your boundaries most. If you’re afraid of dirt, unimaginably disgusting events will ensue. If you have personal space requirements, they will be constantly violated. If you’re stingy, people will try their best to part you and your money, and if you hate noise, you’ll be drowned in the cacophony. I know, sounds extremely un-magical, but I learned a lot by having to constantly readjust my own requirements, and on the positive side, when you really need something, a friend, a laugh, a plan, India delivers. It’s probably not magic; rather it’s the fact that there are so many people and so few enforced rules that anything can, and does, happen.

When I returned to the hotel, I mentioned that my TV had no reception, and the manager said he’d send a boy up to check on it. Thirty minutes later, he jiggled the cable cord barely connected to the wall by one wire, and pointed and clicked the remote to confirm that no channels were coming in. Satisfied that it really did not work, he informed me that the problem was my 350 Rupee room. The rooms for 400 had working TVs, while the others, apparently, featured broken ones. Without a TV or a book, and having had enough of the street for one day, I went through my bag, discarding all the things that were too tattered and dirty for America.

I spent the next day hanging around: I didn’t have to leave for the airport until 7pm, I didn’t have any shopping to do, and I didn’t feel like making any last minute excursions, so I sat at a street-side table and marveled at the goings on. Bloated cows and mangy dogs scavenged the narrow street amidst multi-direction, laneless traffic, tourists, locals, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, cars and carts, all managing, eventually, to make progress in their chosen direction. Across the street from me a vagrant boy sat down in a gap between a motorcycle and a makeshift stall on the edge of traffic, spent 15 minutes constructing an ingenious house out of trash, and then went around trying to sell it. It was election season, so local campaigners in rickshaws plastered with oily smiles and slogans drove slowly up and down the street, playing music and shouting from bullhorns at volumes that obscured their messages in feedback.

Three stories up, atop a sign suspended from a window by a rusted cable, two pigeons pecked at each other and retreated to opposite ends of their narrow platform. One flew at the other and landed atop its back then hopped back into its own corner, where the other returned the attack. There wasn’t any food up there to fight over, so I was curious about their point of contention. Watching this go on for several minutes, these two birds with open air on either side into which they could easily fly away rather than continue their pointless pecking, it struck me that this was India’s gift to me: I now understood that if something bothers you, it's absurd to stand there and fight it, because pecking at something is just a waste of time when the possibilities are endless.

Eventually, the pigeons figured it out too, and I went to my room to shower in preparation for the big journey: after liftoff from Delhi, I would be 42 hours in transit. An hour later, bag in tow, I went back to the same café, where I had arranged for a taxi to the airport. While I waited, a skinny man emerged from an alley carrying a political banner about one storey tall and three quarters the width of the street. He held onto the canvas sign by the cross-supports on the back as he made his way, amazingly, across the street to a bicycle rickshaw. Once he and the sign mounted into the passenger seat, the driver began to pedal slowly, and they somehow made progress: apparently, anything is possible. I was late to the airport due to my tardy taxi, and there was a line 30 minutes long just to enter, but eventually I was seated in a jet, full of anticipation. I took five different airplanes, meeting an old friend during my Seoul layover and having dinner with an uncle and aunt at LAX. Two days after I left the ground in Delhi, I was greeted in Virgina by a little brother, a gentle mother, and an adorable dog.


The City Of Dawn

Although Talia and I had planned to meet up in India, she notified me of her conclusions about the place shortly after she arrived in Chennai, the capital city of India's most impoverished state, Tamil Nadu, via email: “I fucking hate India!” was how she put it, and off she flew to Nepal. I arrived there around 10pm a week later, and as I scanned the city map next to the baggage claim, I had to admit that I wished I carried a Lonely Planet: I didn't have the energy reserves to put everything together myself, and I couldn’t decide what to do with the last few weeks of my trip. The Theosophical Society has a branch in Chennai that I was vaguely interested in seeing, there is a place two hours south that I had heard was worth a visit, there is a place four hours south called Auroville, and there is a bird sanctuary a few hours inland. I was torn between two routes: I could spend ten days in the south, making a triangle ending up back in Chennai to catch a plane to Delhi for my departure, or spend a few days in Chennai, then take the two day train ride to Calcutta, stop there for a few days, and then travel two more days by train to Delhi. Not having crucial information like seat availability on northward trains, I decided to get a room near the train station and go there the morning.

I was watching the baggage emerge onto the conveyor belt when a tall, intent man with a thick French accent struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was familiar with Chennai from previous visits: the hotels near the train station were usually full, and he recommended another neighborhood, so we agreed to share a cab into the city. I was reflecting on the strange way that things and people come along when you really need them as we walked out of the grimy, glass doors and into the loose-limbed entanglement of people waiting for relatives, friends, customers, or victims. As we drove into the hot, many-colored-night, I was happy to be back: I realized then that I loved stinking, chaotic, incomprehensible, miraculous India.

Jean was a student of Buddhism on a break from his studies near Kandy. After taking rooms in his usual hotel, we went out in search of food. Once we found it, we discussed Auroville, where he had recently spent three months. He told me exactly how to get there and recommended a place to stay. Auroville had been lodged in my mind for eight years, ever since an Indian exchange student in college told me about her stay with a community of potters there; and from my Jean's description, it sounded like an ideal place to hunker down and reflect before launching into the next episode of my life. So there it was, my plan in a tidy, self-evident package, almost as if it hadn’t been my decision at all. The next morning, we went to buy plane tickets, I from Chennai to Delhi on April 1st, and he for Sri Lanka around the same time. Then, we shared a rickshaw to the bus station. Jean pointed out my stop, shook my hand, and disappeared into the crowd.

Four hours later, I stepped down onto a tar road glossy with heat, spotted an arrow shaped sign reading “Auroville 8km,” and was immediately approached by a rickshaw driver asking what I assumed was ten times the fair price. I told him "maybe," and asked a western woman passing by if she was an Aurovillian. She turned out to be a long-term guest, and she confirmed my suspicions, so I offered the rickshaw driver 50 Rupees instead of 500. He replied, “you walk,” and to his surprise, I followed his advice. Not more than three minutes after I’d started down the road, a delicate, tanned man wearing a red bandanna and red, silk shirt open to reveal the hollow beneath his sternum, slowed his black motorcycle beside me and asked where I was going. I answered “Auroville. Do you want to give me a ride?” He agreed, and I hopped on.

As we drove along I told him the general outlines of my situation; I didn’t know anything about the layout of Auroville, but I had a recommendation for a place to stay, although I didn’t know where it was, and I couldn’t remember the name, which was written on a piece of paper buried in my bag. I strained to hear the Frenchman, as we drove along, his accent often competing with the wind in obscuring his meaning. I asked him to repeat his name at least three times, and I finally made it out to be Rajananda, obviously an adopted Indian name. He decided to take me to the visitor center, and on our way there he pointed out places of utility and told me about himself. He had come to Auroville ten years ago, married a local Tamil woman, and now had three children and a home in a community just outside the official borders of the township.

The visitor center is a grouping of clean, modern buildings that house a café, several boutiques featuring Aurovillian handicrafts, two rooms providing an introduction to the Matrimandir (a golden globe that is “the soul of Auroville”), an information desk, and an exhibition on the township’s past and present. Rajananda and I went to the information desk where a well-spoken, friendly Tamil Nadu native recommended the same guesthouse as Jean had. We browsed photos of Aurovillians working, playing and meditating arrayed on the glossy, white walls, and then we followed a brick walkway across to the café where I bought apple juice for Rajananda and coffee myself.

Refreshed, Rajananda offered to take me to the guesthouse recommended at the visitor center, and 5 minutes later we dismounted in front of a long, three-story brick building surrounded by a dusty clearing demarcated with bicycle racks. The available beds were about 85 Rupees a night and included two meals a day, but they were in a large, concrete room with mattresses lined up on the floor. I told my new friend that I didn’t mind sharing a bathroom, but I needed some private space; he thought for a minute, and then we drove off. Several haphazardly connected roads later, we made a left at a small, wooden sign reading, "Pony Farm," continued along a rutted lane bordered with trees and then parked. On the right horses and ponies snorted and shuffled in a paddock, and on the left squatted an open stone structure with bridles and combs lining the walls and a blackboard listing work to be done. Three dogs barking around our knees, we entered an open stone courtyard through a narrow gap in a low, plank fence. To the left of a black, iron table sat a one-story building with a thatched roof, and on the right was a decrepit, two-story wooden building with a crowded, covered porch.

The Matrimandir

Nobody appeared, so Rajananda called out the name Lea several times. Eventually, a skinny teenager with purple crescents beneath her eyes wandered out of the door hidden at the back of the covered porch. The Frenchman asked her if any rooms were empty and she motioned toward the peaked, thatch roof above the building across from her. She mumbled that her mother, Lea, was sick, so she couldn’t ask her, but she thought the rate was 250 or 300 Rupees. I followed her up concrete stairs spiraling around a water tank to a triangular rooftop space crowded with a bed in the center, a shelf on the right, and a chair on the left. She showed me the bathroom next to the base of the water tank and told me that I could use the kitchen beneath my room. The room had thatched doors that swung open towards the interior where they could be tied up for a view into the bramble-choked woods behind. The place had its charm, so despite the uncomfortable introduction (it was if I’d jarred Pony Farm from a long, enchanted sleep) I unloaded my bag and Rajananda showed me the nearby bakery and store. We had some chai and when I thanked him for all his help he explained that he’d just been looking for something to do with his day when he happened across me. I promised to pay him a visit at the café next to the sleek Town Hall, where he works a few days a week from noon until two, and he sped off.

Seconds after finishing the parotta I’d ordered when he’d left, Rajananda returned. It was about 5pm. He’d just been to the Matrimandir, and “the feeling was so amazing,” that he had returned to get me. What I really wanted was to shower and recover from riding a motorcycle over bumpy roads with 28 lbs strapped to my back, but he was so intent and excited that I agreed to go. The Matrimandir is a golden sphere with golden disks attached to the exterior. Around its base are twelve skate-ramp shaped brick structures called petals, each housing a different colored room: the petals and the golden ball together are meant to symbolize both the lotus flower and the Universal Mother. The structure was envisioned by Auroville's founder, The Mother, a French woman who was a "spiritual collaborator" with Sri Aurobindo, the father of Integral Yoga, who founded an ashram in nearby Pondicherry. Pictures of her, an old woman with a large, solemn face, hang on walls all over Auroville: she died in 1973, and she is thought to have been an embodiment of the Divine Mother. Next to the Matrimandir lives a huge, old banyan tree, which is the geographical center of Auroville. The story goes that The Mother, who conceived Auroville as an articulation of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, was at his ashram when she was asked where the township should be built. She closed her eyes and put her finger on the spot where the banyan tree stands. A ways off from the ball and the tree lies a large, red stone amphitheatre, steps on the inside spiraling down to the center. There, a white urn, its form derived from the lotus bud, holds handfuls of soil from each of the Indian states as well as 121 countries, placed inside by their representatives at Auroville’s founding ceremony in 1968.

A Tamil guard swung the iron gate open for Rajananda without question, and when we got nearer to the lawn surrounding the Matrimandir, he told two women standing beneath a tree that I was a visitor who hadn’t had time to get a pass yet, asking their permission to bring me in. They agreed, and we proceeded to the banyan tree where a sign requested silence beneath its limbs. It’s a venerable tree, and banyans are a symbol of immortality in the east, but even becalmed by the hush beneath its shelter, I couldn’t refrain from inward eye rolling when several women wrapped their arms around the trunk, solemnly resting their faces against the bark for several minutes at a stretch. After a while disconnected tones floated from the speakers of the amphitheatre, and Rajananda signaled me to follow him to the steps. We sat there for a while and then turned to go. As we walked toward the exit, I saw a group of four people, probably in their late 60’s, scrutinizing the grounds. The man they gathered around poked and pointed fiercely with his cane, and as we approached, my friend informed me excitedly that they were VIPs. He introduced me to the man with the cane, the architect of the Matrimandir, and the others in the party. They were polite but not friendly: the architect generated an air of irritation, and the group took up their argument as soon as we walked away. The finishing touches will be put on the Matrimandir this year, and the grounds, which will one day be surrounded by a lake and sectioned into gardens, are still mostly grass and dust. These people being leaders in the community, I was struck by the conflict between their agitation and the stated aim that Auroville be a place where “men and women from all counties will be able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.” Oh well, I’d be irritated too if a project I’d designed 40 years ago was still incomplete.

Back at Pony Farm, there is no symbolic architecture, only charmingly mismatched structures in various states of disrepair. On my first night, I sat at the table in the courtyard filling out the required visitor form with Mahi, a 27 year old Brazilian-Aurovillian who teaches riding at the farm and arts and crafts at the primary school. Her parents moved to Auroville when she was a young child, and she lived there until she went to The American University in Washington D.C. Somewhere during that time, her parents split up and left Auroville, but she returned. Rita, a petite Finnish guest, the lower half of her bob black and the upper half grown out grey during the time she’d been traveling, joined us at the table. It was Tuesday, the night Mimi, the teenager who’d shown me around, made pizza, so the voices of Friends issued from her portable DVD player as she worked in the kitchen. The next morning, delighted to have a place to make the organic, Aurovillian coffee I’d bought, I was trying to stay out of the way of the Tamil cleaning woman while I waited for my water to boil when a heavy, grey-blond woman entered the kitchen. I assumed she was another guest until she remarked pointedly, “Oh, someone in my kitchen! I haven’t had that for a long time.” I introduced myself as a new guest and asked if she was the woman who’d been sick yesterday. She softened, introduced herself as Lea, and informed me that she had allowed guests to use her kitchen in the past, but they were often couples that cooked all the time and left a large mess, so she couldn’t use the place herself.

She reconciled herself to my presence, and over the next few days, our interactions became comfortable, even amicable as she tried to apologize indirectly for her initial crabbiness. She’s been an Aurovillian for 13 years, and she has two sons in her native country, fathered by her first husband, also a Belgian. Her oldest daughter, who was 8 months pregnant and stopped by Pony Farm with her husband for several hours each evening, has a father in Switzerland, and her youngest, Mimi, has a Punjabi father who’s been in and out of rehab and jail for heroin use and trafficking. Children from the township, eager to talk to any adult with the inclination to listen, flitted around Pony Farm all day long, and I gathered from them that Aurovillian parents are often single mothers with very complicated personal lives. One dark eyed ten-year-old girl with an American mother and a Tamil father, neither of whom I ever saw, said resolutely that she wasn’t speaking to her father because he was leaving to start a resort in Kerala somewhere. As soon as she made this declaration her two friends started up a giggling fit about the compost toilet in her house and her mother’s “weird, old” boyfriend. One of the giggling girls had a German mother, Ambalika, who had moved to Auroville a few years back after her communal house in Berlin burned to the ground. The little girls laughed hysterically as she recounted all her mother’s cash being incinerated. One Sunday Ambalika came for a visit. After a long discussion about her entanglement with a man whose wife had just spent three weeks in Italy with a married man, Lea remarked that Auroville is like a soap opera, as if I hadn’t noticed yet.

Auroville was established on a desiccated plateau, but settlers have planted over three million trees, maintaining them through soil and water conservation technologies. The city was envisaged to hold 50,000 inhabitants within four zones radiating from the Matrimandir, or the Peace Area. Those four zones would be the Residential Zone, the Cultural Zone, the Industrial Zone, and the International Zone, and they would be surrounded by a green belt for food production and biodiversity. The International Zone would be something like a permanent World Fair, housing pavilions for each nation grouped by continent. Now, there is an Indian pavilion that isn’t finished yet, an American pavilion that was just completed, a Tibetan pavilion, and a few others underway. There are about 1,500 people drawn from 30 countries who are officially Aurovillians and 10,000 local people interspersed throughout the area. So, the soap opera unfolds in small communities with names like Fertility, Aspiration, Existence, and Invocation scattered throughout the woods and connected by sun-baked, narrow roads.

Innovation Unlimited

and their product

Despite its stated objective “to realize Human Unity,” Auroville is not a particularly friendly place. Communities are placed far from each other, and even relatively near neighbors are separated by a dense screen of brambles and foliage. Because the area is large, most people get around by motorbike, and there is no central gathering place. Lea claimed that her first year in Auroville, with two young girls in tow, was the loneliest of her whole life. I wasn’t lonely, but I didn’t meet many people besides the denizens of Pony Farm. Rita left at the beginning of my second week there, so I took over her cottage, which was away from the central courtyard and had its own kitchen. I was happy with this arrangement: I had plenty to think about, and an Asian Paradise Flycatcher, some Drongos and a cacophony of Brain fever Birds in the woods kept me entertained. The only thing I really wanted to do was see the inside of the Matrimandir. Although the place had roused my sarcasm with its awkward, dated attempt at symbolism and the aimless music piped out over the lawn, I was intrigued by it, too. After all, how many visions ever become reality. But visiting the Matrimandir again, or even its grounds, turned out to be difficult. Guests who want to visit the grounds are required to watch a 10-minute introductory video at the visitor center before being issued a guest pass. The woman who issued my pass told me to go that evening after 4:30, but when I turned up at 5:30, the guard told me I was too late. Frustrated, I didn’t make another attempt until the day before I left. I watched the video again, obtained another pass, and showed up at 4:31. Once I was in, I found out that I could sign up to enter the Matrimandir, after another introduction, the next day at 5:30. I wasn't leaving until 3am the next night, so I put down my name.

I arrived on time the next day, and a radiant Indian woman with close-cropped grey hair and loose linen garments greeted a group of about 15 visitors from around the world. After a brief introductory speech about the concept of the Universal Mother and the founding of Auroville, she asked us to wait beneath the banyan tree. We all walked over and sat silently. A few people stopped by to caress the tree, and then our guide came and led us down the ramp to the entrance at the bottom of the sphere, where we surrendered our bags, lining them up in a long, forlorn row. There is a meditation chamber at the top of the sphere, supported by four pillars which face the cardinal directions, and the main interior of the Matrimandir is gleaming white and salmon pink with a smooth ramp winding up to the sanctum. The glass of the railings and some of the shiny white surfaces were covered with newspaper, but other than those details, the structure was finished. I was the last in line, so by the time I was on the bottom of the ramp, the first of the group were halfway up. As I saw this solemn line of people rising up the sci-fi interior, a kind of joyful laughter spread through me. Any noise would have been irreverent, but I couldn’t suppress a broad smile: what a thing to see, this odd vision in physical form.

We had been asked to leave our shoes at the entrance, and before entering the meditation chamber we were given white socks. The chamber is entirely white marble, supported by twelve pillars guarding a central crystal that captures a solid, cylindrical beam of light electronically guided toward it through an oculus at the top of the Matrimandir. We ranged ourselves out on the white cushions around the room and were left to meditate for about 10 minutes. Concentration came naturally there, and I didn't want to move when a light was turned off and on as a signal to leave, but I deposited my socks in a bin and filed back down the ramp. My bag waited outside to return me to the clutter and complexity of life.

This is Auroville's charter:
1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

Auroville has so many problems, just like the rest of the world, that it's tempting to scoff at these lofty aims. It was conceived as a cash free, self-sufficient society, but at this date, most revenue is generated through tourism and outside donation. Aside from some impressive central buildings, much of the rest looks ramshackle and half-assed, and there are "innovations" scattered around that look like ridiculous hippie attempts abandoned at a crucial stage in favor of a new impulse. Personal relations also appear confused and bereft of commitment, and the fulfillment of human unity is really questionable. Locals perform the lowest of the manual labor, in the kitchens and on the farms, while the western transplants pursue their interests. But as our guide said at the beginning of the Matrimandir tour, "Auroville is a vision. Obviously we are far from it. Auroville is an attempt." In the end, no matter how absurd attempts may sometimes seem, I'm glad folks are still trying.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Enough At Last

Ella is between Colombo and Mirissa, the beach we planned to visit next, so Talia went on in the obvious direction while I backtracked to pick up my new passport and submit my visa application at the Indian High Commission. I hoped to get everything done and be on a train headed south by 5pm, and I was worried about what to do with my bag. We had left our things in the baggage room of Fort Railway Station, Colombo’s main interchange, during our last visit, but it had ended badly; when we claimed our bags five hours after we’d left them, the storage fee had quadrupled from the one posted on the wall. The attendant insisted that it had gone up at the beginning of 2007, but I was in a foul mood. We had been required to fill out a form with our names, passport numbers, and port of embarkation when we deposited our bags. There was also a space on the form for the amount paid, so I demanded one of the three carbon copies of the form as a receipt. I didn’t really want a copy, I just thought this might induce the guy to give us the fair price. He refused, and I insisted; apparently, the triplicates get filed somewhere important, because the attendant finally sent someone out the door and into the city to make a photocopy. Our train was waiting, so we left without the receipt, and the attendant never yielded on the price. But after we’d squeezed ourselves into second class, the baggage room attendant stormed on, pushed through the crowd, thrust the receipt at Talia, who was closer to the door than I, and told her to tell me to “fuck off.” She did, with pleasure.

Obviously, I didn’t want to leave my bag in the care of someone with a grudge, so that meant I might be carrying it around all day as I traipsed around Colombo. I had spent my whole trip trying to make my bag lighter, so when I went through it again before I left Ella, it was hard to find anything I considered non-essential, but I finally parted with two things, my copy of Light On Yoga, and my set of 15 colored pens. As far as the yoga book went, I hadn’t felt like practicing for several months, and I figured if I was so moved one day, I’d just do the postures that I felt like doing, which wouldn’t be the ones I had to look up in a book.

Despite the mangled beggars bringing their hands to their mouths in supplication and the begrimed children singing out for “onepen,” or “schoolpen,” I had never given a rupee or a pen to anyone during the entire time I’d spent in this part of the world; such a small amount seemed an insult to the magnitude of the problem, like throwing a pinch of talcum powder on a burning baby, and besides, it was easier to ignore the need than try to choose where to bestow charity in such an on overwhelming sea of poverty. But I had been carrying my set of colored markers for months, and I had used them twice, at most. They were in my day-pack during my last walk in Ella, and when a pair of children waved at me from a field beside the tracks, I beckoned to them. When they arrived, I opened my pencil box, took out all 15 colors, and placed them in their open hands. The kids ran towards their hut, beaming; their parents smiled gratefully as I passed. What remained, three graphite pencils of varying hardness, a gummed eraser and a hard one, and one pen, rattled inside their plastic pencil box as I walked on.

It was a pleasure to give what must have been a windfall to those children, and my load was a little bit lighter when I shouldered it for my return to Colombo. The sleeper ticket I bought for the journey turned out to be a seat in a hard, slightly reclining chair in a car with a fluorescent light that never went off, so I was surprised when someone woke me up at 5am because the train had arrived at Fort Railway Station. I sat on a bench beside the track for a while, staring bleary-eyed ahead and considering how to go about my day, and then I went to the baggage room. Luckily, a different attendant manned the desk, so I went to Galle Face unburdened. Nothing, not even the Barista, opened until 9am, which was when the U.S. Consulate was scheduled to open, so I wandered around looking for a pleasant place to sit. I never found one, but I did get my new passport, finally. Then I walked down to the Indian High Commission and stood in line for four hours to submit my visa application. That done, I went back to the railway station, picked up my bag (paying the same quadrupled price as the last time) and boarded the five o’clock train.

The beach at Mirissa is a long, straight, unsheltered stretch of pounding waves and pristine sand with a jungle covered headland rising on the west end and a cluster of enormous rocks marking the east. Although there are a fair number of resorts and restaurant just above the high-tide line, none of them were full, and the beach was too long and wild to feel busy or crowded. Clumps of people playing in the waves sometimes dotted the water, and a few people emerged for a stroll around sunrise and sunset, but the surf was so loud that you couldn't hear anyone until they were very near. For the first five days Talia and I shared a front row bungalow with a view straight on to the water, but Talia was restless, and on the sixth day, she flew back to India, where we planned to meet up in about a week.

remains of a restaurant

Time is different by the sea; I wondered why the passing seconds, rolling up on the beach in audible increments, didn't resound as an exhortation to hurry up and accomplish something, why they did the opposite, lulling me with their eternal retreat and return. My days alone passed uneventfully, marked only by breakfast and dinner coupled with a morning and evening stroll between the ends of the beach. I took a few hikes, and caught the bus to a nearby town once or twice. It also dawned on me, finally, that I didn’t actually need a computer to write, so I spent a lot of time at the table on my porch, staring alternately at a piece of paper and the waves. Now that I had abandoned the book, I began practicing yoga again, and I made some drawings, using my pencils more than I had during my entire trip. It's funny how we'd rather do things when we're not expected to, by ourselves or anyone else.

A few days before my departure, during my usual early morning stroll, I walked down to the rocky end of the beach to search the high-tide line for sea-glass before turning toward the west end. Glancing to my right, I saw a Sri Lankan male doing something with his pants. Assuming he was going to pee against the tumble-down wall he was standing in front of, which is common, I looked toward the ocean. When I turned my head again, the man was looking straight at me, and had an organ large enough to be visible at that distance in his hand; he wasn’t using it to urinate, either. I looked quickly away and kept walking, flushing first with embarrassment, then with anger. Then I stopped, turned around, and shouted, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” The man just smiled wider and waved, with his other hand, of course. He obviously had no shame to be appealed to, so I kept on walking, willing myself not to hurry. At that moment, I wished I had a sheet to wrap myself in despite being modestly dressed already; when the incident sunk in a little further, I wished I had had a stick to poke out that guy’s eyes.

It took me several hours to cool down, but by late afternoon, I had put it aside. The rocks at the east end of the beach harbor several connected tidal pools, and as Mirissa’s waves are violent, that was the only place I felt safe snorkeling. So, I walked down there, put on my mask, and floated face down in a pool, holding onto a rock for stability as the water was drawn out and replenished in time with the waves breaking on the other side of the rocks. The pools were no more, and sometimes less, than a meter deep, and I felt like the god of a goldfish bowl; my body cast a swaying, continent-sized shadow on the sandy terrain beneath me as small, bright fish flitted through the dark patch in search of sustenance, unaware of my enormous, hovering presence. After a while, I brought my head up and knelt in the water to clear my mask, which has a small leak. It also has prescription lenses, so I could make out clearly the two Sri Lankan men standing on the top of a nearby rock watching me. Used to being stared at by this point, I stretched back into floating position and made my way through a gap to another small pool. Soon enough, I had water in my mask again, so up came my head. Glancing where the men had been standing, I saw there was now only one, and although he was slightly more furtive about it than the man from the morning, he looking down at me, masturbating. This time, my reaction was different; I resolved to continue what I was doing, undisturbed. The thought that went through my mind was, “you can masturbate all you want; I’m snorkeling.” The next time I came up to clear my mask, the man on the rock had put his equipment away; his friend had returned and was calling him. Although I couldn’t understand their Sinhalese, from their tones it sounded something like, “hey, what’s taking you so long?”
“Just watching this girl.”
“Well, hurry up, you jackass.”

Maybe it would have been more appropriate to get out of the water, hide under my sarong, and walk away, but that would have been a defeat. Why should I have to hide indoors because of another person’s behavioral problems? Both those men were at least four meters away from me; since the threat wasn’t physical, wasn’t the only power they really had over me the power I gave them? That was all I had, choosing how, or if, I'd react; if I didn’t let their behavior affect me, then they didn’t exist, right?

Wrong. Although I really did enjoy the rest of my afternoon snorkel, and I climbed up the very same rock to watch the sunset, those two incidents brought a mood that had been growing for a while to fullness. Sure, I’d managed to remain detached, but there comes a limit; there are situations you just don’t feel you should have to be faced with. All at once, I knew I was bone-tired of the difficulties of being a white woman in South Asia (where 99% of their pornography features busty, b-movie blonds), I was tired of being a walking dollar sign, and I was tired of the million little things that are so much harder to accomplish in a foreign land. I was tired of it all, and I was ready, finally, to go home.

But it was March 17th, and I still had 16 days until my flight departed from Delhi. I figured that it would be more trouble than it was worth to change my ticket again, and I had already applied for my new Indian visa, so I enjoyed my last days in Mirissa as best I could, picked up my visa in Colombo, and landed in Chennai, India, with two weeks to go.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wolfgang And The Four Macaques

Suneth had informed me that my new passport would arrive at the consulate in five to seven working days, so early in the morning on the eighth working day Talia and I left Unawatuna for Colombo. She went in search of a new backpack, and I went back to Galle Face. I presented myself at the U.S. Consulate security desk at 9 am, and the same staunch receptionists gave me the same discouraging looks. I explained what I wanted, and one of them called back to Citizen Services where somebody told her they'd look around for my passport and call back. There being no chairs, I sat down on the concrete floor to wait for the call. 20 minutes later, Suneth, in his cheerful, efficient manner, told me to come back next week. I was annoyed. I wanted to take my new, Indian visa-eligible passport to Kandy, the second largest city in the country, the location of the other, reputedly more efficient, less crowded Indian High Commission, and our next stop; but no, I'd have to come back to Colombo, again.

procession, Kandy

I had a few hours until my rendezvous with Talia, so I went to Barista for several cups of the best Americano in town, where I happened across a shocking article in the Daily News, Sri Lanka's national paper. Apparently, Australia is leading an energy conservation trend by aiming to eradicate the use of incandescent light bulbs by 2010. I associate their cold output not with the charming Victorian houses around Bondi Beach, but with 24-hour convenience stores and developing countries; in the former, I try to get in and out as quickly as possible, and in the latter I try to ignore it. Unfortunately, Wal Mart plans to increase its sales of compact fluorescent bulbs from 40 million, the number for 2005, to 100 million by 2008, and Phillips will stop producing incandescent bulbs by 2016. Compact fluorescent bulbs use 20% less energy to produce the same amount of light as incandescents, and they last five to ten times longer, but zombie light is zombie light, no matter how efficient it is. The photo that went along with the article, an Australian woman installing fluorescent bulbs in a chandelier hanging from an ornate, pressed-tin ceiling illustrated the aesthetic disaster of it all.

That sea turtle I saw in Unawatuna impressed me, and after our encounter, I read a little bit about its kind. They have a lifespan exceeding a hundred years; females lay their eggs in the same place they themselves hatched, navigating huge distances (the Atlantic for example) using the Earth's magnetic field to locate their natal beaches; and each of the seven existing species are endangered. It's difficult to draw direct lines between specific human behaviors and their environmental consequences, which makes it hard to create clear solutions with measurable results that everybody can contribute to; and I felt the futility of individual conservation efforts when I considered my own relationship to the disappearing marine turtles. I can try to create less trash, walk more often, and use things that are made locally, but even if I go live in a cave, species will continue to decline around me as the world whizzes on past. I keep doing what I'm doing, trying to remember to switch off the light when I leave a room, going without air-con, getting out the quilts in the winter, knowing all the while that none of it is enough. I could trot out the fact that I can't even remember what a hot shower or a soft, tumble-dried t-shirt feels like, but then I have been on a whole lot of planes lately, and everybody has those things that they don’t want to live without. I'd gladly support a program to eradicate the use of private cars to save sea turtles, but lighting is where I dig in my heels.

Talia and I finally ended up in Kandy around 10 pm on the same day we’d left Unawatuna. It’s a relatively calm city and it has quite a few sights, even a temple that houses a tooth alleged to have belonged to the Buddha, but the difficult thing about following your attractions around is that they change, so you have to be alert. Somewhere along the line I became over-saturated with architecture. I should have noticed what was going on when I bought that bird book back in Ooty, but I kept looking in the wrong direction for a while, until I spent all that time underwater in Unawatuna, and it dawned on me just how much nature (and here I'm talking about the green stuff) offers to the watchful. Perhaps I ignored the shift because it’s so difficult to write about. I’m intimidated by it; supplying scale or context for a thing that is basic, saying anything specific about a thing so primary, is beyond my abilities. Anyhow, by the time I reached Kandy my new leanings couldn't be ignored, and the only things I really wanted to do were take advantage of city-speed internet connections, and visit the Peridiniya Botanical Gardens.

Kandy lake

That's exactly what I did, and on our third and last day in town, underestimating the distance and walk time from the town center, I arrived later in the afternoon than I'd planned, but I still had over four hours to spend in the 150 acre park. At first I treated it as a visit to the library, browsing a living field guide, acquiring names for trees and plants I'd been seeing in the wild. But after a while I left the greenhouses and structured gardens behind for a walk through a shady, enchanted area inhabited by a variety of grand, twisted, old, trees. I found a massive trunk among whose gnarled roots to nestle, and opened Gulliver's Travels, but soon it began to sprinkle. The slant of my tree offered adequate shelter, so I sat and enjoyed the fragrant, cooling air, but when the volume increased, I stood up and flattened myself against the trunk, which was enough until the deluge began, at which point I resigned myself to being soaked through and formed a lean-to with my back against the trunk in order to shelter the electronics in my backpack.

Soon, I had a wet t-shirt, so you can guess what happened next. Two respectable looking young men had sought refuge against the trunk of a nearby tree, and now, as the rain came so fast it was hard to hear, one of them ran over to me and shouted, "do you have an umbrella?" I really didn't think such an idiotic question merited an answer, so I just turned the other way. He kept shouting things, trying to get a conversation going, or maybe just trying to get me to turn around, and I eyed a far off pavilion sheltering a crowd. There came a point of decision, and I pushed off from the trunk. As I sprinted away, the man shouted, "Why don't you talk? We are not the aliens, Madame."

scorpion in the grass

Once under the pavilion, the occupants, clumped together to avoid leaks in the roof, stared at me as I stared at the rain. When it stopped, some minutes later, I stood for a while watching droves of fruit bats reestablishing their perches on limbs silhouetted against the clearing sky. The pavilion emptied, and only a few boys remained, chattering about something on the ground. I joined them to observe a blue-green scorpion moving slowly through the grass. One of them held it up on the end of a stick and asked me to take a photograph. After that, I walked around until sunset, taking a break on a long, low limb of a 100 year old Giant Java Willow, its canopy sprawled wide on the support of secondary trunks dropped from its branches, and by the time I left the gardens, I was mostly dry.

Giant Java Willow

Kandy is a picturesque, blue-toned town with pleasant weather. There is even a small lake at its center hosting Cormorants, Egrets, and Kingfishers, but there are still rickshaws and hassling to be contended with. What it came down to was that neither Talia nor I wanted anything to do with cities at the moment, and so, not so many days after we got off the train from Colombo, we got on another one to Ella. This time, we bought first-class tickets for a glassed viewing car. It was the most beautiful train ride I've ever taken, and that's coming from someone who has difficulty with superlatives. We rose up through the range of greens, from the yellow tinged, tropical lowlands to the blue and violet heights, over tightly curved tracks. The first class car is at the end of the train, and we were at the back of the car, the very last passengers; we entered fairy-tale tunnels with egg-shaped mouths and birds often followed, silhouetted against the receding spoon of light until they were swallowed in the darkness of a curve. Occasionally, one kept speed with us all the way through, bursting out of the brick mouth and into the light of our wake, like a diver coming up for air.

Ella itself is as lovely as the route there, and due to my preference for solitary walks, I had no intention of looking up a man I’d met on the previous train ride, from Colombo to Kandy. Talia and I had taken second-class tickets on a train so crowded that I stood for the first hour, sat on the floor for the second, and finally took as conventional seat for the third and fourth. That seat was next to Wolfgang, a deeply creased German expat. I'm guessing he was east German, based on the heaviness of his accent (east Germans of his age would have studied Russian, not English as their second language), and the heaviness of his disposition, but I sensed that questions about his origins would not be appreciated. He had been living abroad for at least 20 years, from what I could put together, and didn't seem to identify himself with Germany, Europe, or even mankind really. He mentioned that he was going to Ella to take care of his babies, and there was something about him and the way he said, "my babies" that made me ask what species they were; it turned out they are monkeys, macaques to be exact. Before Talia and I disembarked in Colombo, Wolfgang gave me his phone number and invited me to look up him and the monkeys when we arrived in Ella.

On my first morning there, I set out for a walk down the only road through town. The village dissolved into a pine forest within minutes, and after a while I turned off the road and wound up through hillside tea plantations. Later, resting on a rock at the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, watching the blue hills level out to in the distance, and closer, the waterfall I planned to walk to the next day, something hummingbird-sized wobbled across my peripheral vision and landed in a nearby patch of tall grass. I tiptoed over to find an insect so colorful it seemed to be a parody of itself, a child’s Halloween costume of a bug: black and yellow-spotted wings, black and yellow-striped head, and black and red-striped torso clinging to a swaying green stalk. When it flew, it went short distances with a laborious whirring. Shortly after it had disappeared in a series of clumsy flights, I ambled down through the tea plantations, skirting a dense forest with a stream running through it in an uncultivated bowl between hills, searching for a sunny patch to nap.

The Great State mascot

When I finally got back to Ella’s main street it was nearly dark and I was hungry. I stopped at a little place near the train station and ordered a full course, traditional Sri Lankan meal, so I was feasting on an assortment of curries, shredded coconut, chutney, and rice when two Australian ladies came along, fresh off the evening train. They stepped onto the porch where I was eating and asked me if the food was good. I said, “it’s delicious.” Then they asked me if the service was good, and I said “yes.” Then they asked if there were mosquitoes. Again I responded in the affirmative, but added that there are mosquitoes everywhere. The owner had been standing there the whole time, and I saw his expression fluctuate during my last answer to the ladies; he gave me a grateful smile as they took a table.

They ordered whiskey, which wasn’t on the menu, and the proprietor disappeared. He came back about 10 minutes later, red-faced and panting, with a bottle. After he served their drinks, took their dinner order, and went back to the kitchen to whip up a feast, the ladies laughed, and one of them said, “Oh, that cute little man must have run to get a bottle!” There was something repulsive about the pair, the way they laughed too loud, with an edge of cruelty, talked too much, dragged too hard on their cigarettes. They were at that age where women sometimes get discarded, and I imagined they were recent divorcees, on a bitter vacation, creating enough noise to smother their betrayal. Soon, I finished my meal and as I was turning off the paved road and down the dirt one running to my lodgings, Wolfgang waved at me from the platform of a restaurant. He invited me to join him and the monkeys for an outing to Rawana Ella Falls (the ones I had seen from afar earlier) the next day. I was reluctant; I wanted to walk there, not ride on the back of a motorcycle, but Wolfgang said it was a long walk and the purpose of the trip was to expose his monkeys to wild ones; I thought this could be an interesting meeting, so I agreed.

Around noon, I went to Wolfgang’s home at The Highest Inn, a guesthouse run by an Australian couple who are collaborating with Wolfgang on Eco Project Sri Lanka, an effort to use eco-tourism to fund the protection of untouched habitats in Sri Lanka. Charlie, Bimbo, Coco, and Baby, Wolfgang’s macaques, are the first wards of one aspect of the project, an orphanage for wildlife left parentless through human encroachment. Two of the four macaques clambered around a large cage at the end of the porch while the other two, on long chains looped attached to a harness around their waists, sat on branches of a nearby shrub. We had some tea, and then, because Wolfgang hopes to repatriate them into the wild some day, we set off for Rawana Ella Falls. Rather, we began the process of setting off for the falls, because those monkeys are, well, a barrel full of monkeys. After getting them together, we mounted the motorcycle; I wrapped the chains around my left hand while one of the macaques wrapped its arms around Wolfgang’s waist from the front, the second clung to his left arm, the third sat on his right shoulder, and the fourth grabbed bunches of his shirt in her dark, wrinkled fists, seating herself between him and I.

macaques at the falls

As we wound our way along the road, the curious macaques shifted positions effortlessly, vying for a better view, and when Wolfgang unfastened their chains at the base of the falls they shot into the trees, flinging themselves along, tumbling through air and limbs until something stable appeared. Strangely, we didn’t encounter any wild macaques while we took in the sunshine near a bowl of pooling water on a shelf halfway up or as we hiked back down, but at the base, near the road, we crossed a band of five. They were all about the same size as Bimbo, Coco, Baby, and Charlie, so Wolfgang held their chains as they tentatively approached the wild bunch. Everything went fine and the wild ones made room for the newcomers among themselves until all the chattering attracted more monkeys, among them a big, fierce male. This hissing, crouched creature was not at all cute; frankly, I was scared of the thing. The tame macaques retreated, clinging to Wolfgang, and we left.

Wolfgang and his babies

When we got back to The Highest Inn Wolfgang had some trouble getting all the macaques untangled and back into the cage. They were running helter-skelter all over the porch when one of the cackling Australian women from dinner the night before showed up. Apparently, she was a guest, and Bimbo promptly climbed up her, clung to her arm, and peed. “It just piddled on my arm,” she said, bristling with indignation. “Zat happen to me tousand time every day,” Wolfgang, his back to her, replied. I stood off to the side, trying not to laugh while she held her arm in front of her like some repulsive foreign object.
“What do I do,” she demanded.
“Wash it.”
“Any water source,” Wolfgang said as we exchanged a smirking glance. She stood there helplessly for a few more seconds and then protested that she didn’t want to take her dirty arm in the kitchen. Nobody responded, and she finally stomped in to find a faucet. Over the course of the day, while running over me as if I were a rock formation or picking through my hair and my pockets, the macaques had done their share of piddling on me too, so I went back to my room to shower off their stink.

I decided to catch a 9 pm train back to Colombo on the evening of my third day in Ella, so that morning I packed my bag, stored it at the reception of my guest house, and went for a walk along the railroad tracks in search of a small waterfall. I don’t know if the tracks attract a lot of birds because of the nutshells, fruit peels, and sugar coated paper cups flung from windows of passing trains or if whole forests are so densely populated and the tracks just offered me a clear swath into the busy bird world. Eagles and Kites turned and turned overhead; dark, glossy Drongos, with long, cleft tail-feathers hanging in the air like musical notes, sharp-beaked, electric-blue Kingfishers, and modest, buff-toned creatures perched along the power lines; and tiny, quick birds of the underbrush shot from the tracks to the tangled shrubs and grasses in bright blurs where they twittered and rustled unseen.

At a slow, graceful bend in the tracks a tiny creature hopped into the tangled vines covering a slick, mossy rock wall on my left. I stood still, hoping it would reemerge, but after a minute of silence I gave up and lifted my foot to walk on. At that moment, a round, rollicking call issued from the vines, so I stopped and waited again. Still nothing. After this happened several times, standing there riveted by a rock wall, I realized there must be a group of birds in the nearby bushes, amused by their power over such a big animal; the trouble with the damn things is that they’re tricksters; they can fly and they can throw their voices. This was when the backwardness of my approach occurred to me; a pair of binoculars would have been a lot more useful than a bird identification book.

As I walked on, I wondered how the birding community came to agree on a Romanization system for birdsong. When I lived in Japan and Korea, the first thing I did was learn their alphabets. So, although I never made it past the basics, I knew enough to recognize the absurd results of transcribing foreign words into English characters. Birdsong is as diverse as human language, and it contains the same difficulties for me; first of all, it’s hard to remember something if you don’t have an alphabet, or at least some kind of suitable marker, and second of all, I even if I managed to remember it, I’d never be able to match what I’d heard with a string of vowels punctuated by consonants.

In the Ramayana, a seminal Indian epic, Sita was whisked away against her will to the isle of Lanka by the demon lord Ravana. While wars were waged over her, Sita remained faithfull to her husband Rama, but it must have been difficult; Sri Lanka, in its fertility, is seductive, and it’s hard to imagine staying commited to any idea while being courted in this perpetually blossoming land. I like to think Ravana took Sita to the hill country, to a place like Ella. I can only imagine the parade of luxuriant creatures and luscious fruits marshaled in the temptation of a goddess; as a mere tourist, I was wooed; I found myself thinking that maybe I should bear children, just because I can.

Returning from the tracks just after sunset, fireflies decked the foliage surrounding the unlit lane to my guesthouse. I recovered my bag with enough time left to have a quick meal and use the restroom at the restaurant to wash-up and change clothes in preparation for the night on the train. That done, I walked down the paved road toward the train station. Once I left the town center, the way before me was pitch-black; briefly, a dark moth was illuminated in headlight beams, each of its soft wings the size of a woman’s hand, lilting along the embankment ahead.