Sunday, October 11, 2015

Country lanes, village buses, an extended society

So many long walks on country roads getting lost and enjoying every curve on the lane. Living fences everywhere lined with oil drums hammered out or corrugated metal or woven palm fronds. Goats, cows, motorcycles. Thankful for a cloud when it comes along to shade us because even though we have been ending up walking during the "hottest" time of the day pretty much every hour has its intensity. On the way back from today's fish market at 7:30 am we nearly swooned with the heat given off by the early morning sun-straight out of the east. Meanwhile, school kids swerved and swarmed around us on bicycles just before the beginning of the school day. Partly we retraced our steps from the other day taking another look at the three step tanks we found right here in Point Pedro. What an awesome find and how authentic a tie to a much much earlier historical time. 

The drive to find more water features had me in a quandary this morning, or I should say, in the wee hours of the night when thunder crashed so extensively and sharply I had to turn around and give Janet a giant hug in all the heat. But with tomorrow our check out day in Point Pedro I found myself thinking about not two but three alternatives for the next few days. A sure way to catch insomnia. 

One. We could stay here a few more days and explore the extensive countryside in this part of the Jaffna Peninsula. Plusses, very cheap rent and a great place to chill on the porch. Negatives, the grandma where we're staying, who's also the cook, is tired and a bit ill with a respiratory discomfort. Maybe give her a break from having to serve us every breakfast and dinner. 

Two. Back to Jaffna for a few days before catching the express train all the way to Mount Lavinia. Plusses, a well-loved landlord who has arranged stupendous breakfasts for us. Negatives, our host Mr. Gregory (Lenin Gregory to be exact) is super tied up with his son's academic pursuits right now. He and his wife had expressed that they wanted us to visit them personally last week but nothing took shape. He also promised to call me and visit us in Point Pedro. Didn't happen. So how much do I want to depend on him to help me organize a bicycle or find a well-versed tuktuk driver who can take me to the kind of sites I want to explore in Jaffna? Maybe better to wait for a more opportune moment. 

Three. Take a morning bus to unknown Vavuniya, the kind of borderland between the Sinhala south and this amazing Northland. Check out a new example of urban form there (so much new stuff came to light here in Point Pedro!), maybe get to see peri urban expansion along the tanks that are right in the city, something that has really interested me, and discover a new place. Negatives: the unknown. But wait! Those are the positives!

So we decided on Vavuniya for tomorrow but first I suggested to Janet that we might take a random bus from here into the countryside. OK she surprised me by answering. So we found ourselves in the central market/bus stand at the top of the hill at about 10:30. The market was hopping, tailors sewing and cutting, vendors hawing and handling money, and on the unknown second storey under the exotic blue dome, an array of fruit and vegetable sellers we were wondering about these past few days but hadn't located. Janet got some great pictures and we had fun fantasizing about vegetables, which have been kind of scarce at Amma's place. 

After a leisurely sweep around the indoor market we found ourselves in the glare of late morning. Not much caring where we were headed I half decided on nearby Karaveddi, one of the towns (accurately or inaccurately it turns out) in the copy of Rough a Guide I keep in my phone. From the looks of it at least Karaveddi might be on a water feature (lagoon) and I figured it might have some decent step tank action. Worst case scenario we could grab a tuktuk back.

The conductor (have I told you how much these guys play the role of social chairman on the bus?--seating people, arranging for bicycles to ride on top of the bus and unloading them when the destination is reached!--making change, chattering with the riders, announcing stops and itinerary etc.) gave me a lesson in pronunciation. Not Karaveddi with stress on the third syllable. Karaveddi with stress on the last syllable. 

Finally we were on our way. Janet and I had gotten seats early on...single seats next to the window..and the bus got totally thoroughly packed with mostly ladies. Had they been shopping in Point Pedro and now on their way back to their villages? Your guess. 

Several stops and a bit of a slow crawl and an older lady got on the bus hesitantly but the conductor pointed at me and indicated she could have my seat forthwith and on she came but couldn't squeeze all the way to my seat and I couldn't squeeze out if it or so I thought. At the next stop his indicating became more pronounced and (from off the bus) he gesticulated to me that I should get up. Next stop was really ours (or what he had decided would be ours) and he managed to yell "get off! Get off!"

We lumbered off the bus, she managed herself into my seat, and we found ourselves on the main road across from a kovil complex with a magnificent old step tank. This one, Janet declared, reminded her of a cenote in the Yucatan, a good comparison since the Jaffna Peninsula is a raised limestone bed. Similar geology, same landscape with no rivers, same orientation toward springs and worshipping them. 

A good ten or fifteen minutes of discovery and we walked a few meters on the main road to what looked like an inviting lane. We took the bait and walked down it, Janet photographing a well-made woven fence for our friend Dina in Israel, and we were apparently overheard by the person whose house was inside. Long story short his son is in his final year at Moratuwa University where I'm officially commissioned for the Fulbright. Along cycled his same-age pal who also has a son finishing up at Moratuwa and we were treated to a rundown of the prestigious intellectual angle of this part of the Jaffna Peninsula. No news to us but fun to hear about. This strangely rural-village region, densely populated and long tortured by the civil war and it's antecedents is an important center of intellectual achievement. More Cambridge Massachusetts than a laid back village. 

We were half-heartedly invited to tea, maybe the same treatment you'd get in our hyper intellectual part of the world --or maybe their wives were out this time of day--but we declined, all smiles, and went on our way. 

The sun seeming as hot as could be and shadows resisting revealing themselves we found a small place where I bought us two cokes with 500 Rs. I thought the cokes would come to Rs 200 at least--probably more--but somehow they were cheaper and it took the time we spent drinking our drinks before change could be made. The young girl being the counter, with a mouth full of braces, along with several new bank branches along our route, and the proud fathers of Moratuwa boys give a hint of the prosperity and promise of this place. 

We continued our walk until an incredibly broad expanse of windswept landscape and in the distance, perhaps at low tide, the luminous green of the lagoon. A few cows grazed, the wind was crazy strong and refreshing but quite warm, and my iPhone compass, bless it with the awful Rough Guide maps we've been using, told me we were headed due south. Karaveddi I suppose should have been right snack here, according to our map. And the driver had dropped us off in front of a sign that said Karaveddi. But the village had no center we could find, and may have just been the collection of lanes we'd just meandered through. A marker stone gave us no indication of the spot and a couple of inquiries led us nowhere in particular so we decided to backtrack rather than walk to unknown destinations (not even on our Rough Guide map!) six or seven km away. 

A gentle ride home for  Rs 20 apiece got us back into Point Pedro for a relaxing afternoon on the veranda thinking over this and other days here in Sri Lanka 's farthest north. 

Most interesting to me (for today at least) was thinking about connections in this extended village. The man delivering fish on his bicycle in Karaveddi recognized Janet from our morning at the fish market. His stunned, then hyper-excited reporting this to the lady he was selling fish to told it all. He may have also reported to her the boy who was bitten by a dog just in front of us on our way to the market. The conductors today knew each passenger and talked to them, assured them, conducted them in their short seven km journey. The gents connected with Moratuwa told us that this laid away place, mostly hidden from the eyes of the world, is an intellectual power house. The joking, the clowning, the joviality we've seen, the long conversations if this human ballet, all suggest many many connections, well established, some quite deep, that run through this "rural" population. As far as "rural" goes you have to wonder. What's missing? A cinema? A shopping mall? Maybe most important, high level medical care. But then Jaffna is only a hour away. 

Society here seems to exist, and I noticed this in Mihintale earlier this year, in a kind of extended network fed by many agents, the driver, the seller, the conductor, the merchant, the lady doing her shopping, the schoolchild on a bike. There's a gesture or a word or a handshake for everyone. We are not quite connected but every head boggle seems to say "welcome. You are free to pass through." 

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