Updated: Mar 17, 2019
So you know you are in a third world country when jumping on a bike and going to the grocery store is an adventure! It starts out with a right at the Buddha with the megaphones and then dodging holes on what I affectionately dubbed pothole road, left and a quick right at the leather stand, past the school with the cheery yellow wall, left at the unfinished block building with the rusty rebar, past the 30’ tall white Buddha overlooking the river... and then... the main road! There all of your senses are heightened and you become aware of tuk tuks merging in front of you, pedestrians stepping out of shadows, slow moving bikes, buses honking on your right as they pass... At one time I counted seven different objects - all of us in the same section of the two lane road! I was intuitively reminded that trust is a major part of the equation as this morass of movement works, but you gotta’ be part of it and not hesitate, as that puts a kink the flow!
One morning I went on a 2 hour riverboat excursion down the Bentota River to explore the local wildlife. The guide noticed my small tattoo and introduced himself by pulling up his shirt and showing me his that ran down his lean right side; it read “Rashon.” Rashon knew his stuff; he was 21. He was continuously checking in to make sure I was “happy”, asked permission to move on after a brief stop to look at an animal, instructed me to sit at the back of the boat then let go of the throttle and directed me to drive the ole’ outboard!
As we cruised the shoreline, I watched his eyes peer into the shadows. When he found something of interest, he would wheel the boat around and maneuver it in close enough so he could point out a baby crocodile, a chameleon, a water monitor or a delicate small bird. He was disappointed he couldn’t locate a green snake, and I deciphered from his broken English, they were somewhat allusive....
We motored towards the 500 year old mangrove island, and he cut the engine and we glided into an opening that took us to a watery path inside a magical floating world.The large fruit bats chattered overhead and occasionally took flight giving it a prehistoric feel. He talked about the anaconda that keeps its home in the mangrove island, and used his hands to give me the impression that the snake was as round as a large grapefruit. I felt like I was in a Spielberg movie set, and then I wondered why it felt like a movie when I knew it was real...?
I guess that’s what I find amazing about being in nature. It often feels so surreal, because it is...
Mid cruise we pulled into a home on the river and docked. Rashon came back carrying a 3 month old crocodile and instructed me to sit down as I must have had a panicked look on my face. He then sat next to me with the baby croc on his lap and asked if I wanted to pet it. My heart was beating faster than it should have been given that I knew it had to be safe - right? I watched him gently nudge the crocs mouth open (it stayed open) which made some for some pretty good pics. And then he told me to be still - and he put it on my shoulder.
That‘s when I started quietly muttering, “Oh my god he just put that crocodile on my shoulder. Oh my god why am I so scared? Oh my god it just moved....” And on it went. The little guy started to get agitated and it was quickly over. I must admit I had a Cheshire Cat grin on my face when we glided away. I asked if it would be released and he looked askance and said of course.
He then asked if I wanted to get a foot massage. I was bit puzzled as that seemed to be an odd thing to add to a boat cruise, but I had just examined my feet the day before and noticed how beat up they were so I said a quick yes. We disembarked on a long covered dock, and I was instructed to remove my shoes and enter the caged area that held 6 square tanks. I looked in and found each tank was full of what looked like koi, and each tank held fish that were a grade larger than the last. I looked at him a bit confused as he put his feet in the water and motioned for me to follow suit.
The nibbling brought peals of giggles from both of us (he seemed to be quite ticklish) as the little fish foraged between each toe, on each callous and on anything else that was a little rough. He then got up and moved to the tank with the large fish and he asked if I was ready! It was funny how quickly I got used to the sensations and the bigger fish mouths simply felt like little suction cups. I watched them take a grip and actually shake their little fish heads - LOL! I admit to being a little bummed when it was time to leave, and when I pulled my feet out - they were markedly smoother! Who knew....!
Chameleons, 3” bird with an 18” tail, water monitors, bats, baby crocodiles....
I jumped on the bike virtually every morning for an early ocean swim and some yoga on a secluded cove (I know, lucky me) and as the light was breaking one morning, I heard LOUD scratchy chanting being amplified. As I got closer to my right hand turn at the Buddha it quickly became apparent that it was coming from the megaphones! The recordings start at 5am and 5pm and the blessing go on for an hour. I was told the Islamic chants start at 5:15am, but only last for 10 minutes. You gotta’ love this country!
It is a cultural delight to be on the roads at 7am when the kids head to school! Mothers escorting wee ones, grandparents on bikes with a kid on the back and maybe the front, kids being delivered by tuk tuk driving dads, others on the backs of motorcycles, groups of kids walking in their starched white and blue school uniforms and more on their own bikes. Virtually every person I met sent a greeting of hello delivered with a large smile. And I learned it is compulsory (now) for the children to learn three languages: Sinhala/Sri Lankan, Tamil/anguage of the Hindus and Islams, and English. The 30 year civil war ended in 2008 and it feels like order and tolerance has been restored.
I spent a day with a local tuk tuk driver and we explored his country. He showed me the coconut trees that his friend uses to make coconut liquor (strong and SWEET...) and the overhead rope system that they use to zip line from tree to tree. We stopped at trees being tapped for rubber, patches of trees that are harvested for tea, stopped at a small family farm where I was shown how they make cinnamon sticks, and we walked through a rice field where the workers were out harvesting. The owner called the workers in for a break, and we shared tea and smiles for the camera. I learned that the people in the field were neighbors that helped when needed during harvesting season as it is becoming harder and harder to find people that are willing to do manual labor. Each neighbor get 5 kilos of rice for their efforts.
And then I was invited to a traditional Buddhist wedding - what a treat! The wedding was on a Thursday, the 7th (guests get off work - no questions) at 10am, and I learned that every Buddhist wedding date and time is determined astrologically by consulting with their local monk. Srinanda and Uthpala (my host family) had hired a driver and we set off. We stopped and picked up Uthpala’s brother and family which was a minor detour up some windy small paths outside of Althgama. I quickly learned why we had a driver as the traffic, low speeds and lack of road signs were a bit stressful! I burst out laughing in disbelief a couple of times as near collisions were within inches. We left a little before 7am and arrived in just enough time for the 10am wedding - 65 miles is what google maps showed!
The dancers, dressed in traditional garb moved by a drum beat, led the groom and his men up the steps and under an arched doorway covered in flowers. The wedding party was dressed as the ancient king and his men with hats and shoes and fancy adornment. We moved into what could have been any large banquet room prepped for a wedding for 200 found in the US, but obviously what made this so different were the traditions - acrobatics, smoke, cutting a coconut. I was the only Caucasian in the room and felt honored to have been included. As I noticed the flow of the ceremony, it became apparent that it was not unlike any other wedding in the US as the symbolism represented the same common values we all share - love, virtue, kindness... It ended with loud music by a pyrotechnic DJ! Hoots and hollers mean the same thing in any language!
I leave early tomorrow to catch a bus to Kandy and always feel a bit saddened at the thought of goodbyes. I remember one of my last conversations with Srinanda as I asked him why other families come on his property and use their garbage can. He said he started the program a few years ago to encourage people to start to separate their trash as people were getting lazy (wait, am I in a different country?), so he worked with the kids and asked that they bring their family’s food waste to him. He uses it for pig food and if too spoiled, it goes into his bio gas unit. There is a volleyball net in the backyard which gathers a game of locals when it’s not too hot. What an amazing family I had the serendipitous good fortune of dropping into.
I will miss the sounds of chipmunks scurrying across the metal roof and the game of hide and seek with the chameleons in the bathroom. The journey continues...