Sunday, November 8, 2015

Peering out from behind a mirror: The real Sri Lanka by bicycle

The Fulbright experience I've been having is like the geckos that sneak out from behind every mirror and picture frame. Secrets, intangible as they are beautiful, are revealed at random moments and from unexpected places. Like the graceful gecko they come and go quickly. They cling to walks and ceilings instead of doing logical things like walking on the floor or sitting in an easy chair. And just as the gecko eats unwanted mosquitoes these secrets, even partially revealed, devour doubts and uncertainty. And doubts do tend to pop up. After all, what does it mean to have a project focusing on "cultural landscape ecology?"

Yesterday's bike ride took us to unknown and unexpected territory rife with potential for landscape work. Instead of heading north on Kallady Island, a beautiful ride that takes you to the mouth of the lagoon, revealing broad beaches and and endless ocean, we headed south. A look at the topo map and even a few stabs at google maps suggested we'd have to discover on our own. Detail on the government 1:20,000 map is just too poor. Detail is good on the google map but once you find street names (even if they were labelled on the ground) you lose context. Why waste a good screen shot on that, especially with your battery running low?

We set off down the main road of Kallady village and turned onto the first spur we encountered. As always during this bike tour roundabouts on this busy road presented a bit of a challenge. I've found that the best thing to do is keep a clear head. Stay calm. Claim your space. When in doubt, walk the bike. 

Speaking of keeping calm, I've written before about the seeming cacophony of horns on the road. I'm convinced now of their logic. And contrary to our world, where a blaring horn means "get the f* outta my way," the toots, beeps, and blares here are meant to register a driver's presence. A friendly reminder with so many subtle cadences, tonalities, volumes and tempos it speaks a language of its own. 

A language of its own...I digress but before launching into the sublime I'll take you to the dread. About halfway through our ride we turned left off the main road and headed toward the coast. We had swimsuits and a towel with us, less as a goal than a sort of talisman. At the entrance to the side road we encountered a government sign in Tamil showing plots of land and how they were to be meted out. Almost immediately we caught up behind and then rode past an older woman with unkempt hair and an uncharacteristically tattered dress who was shouting in a language I didn't recognize. Deeper into the road, an isolated kovil surrounded by shallow water on all sides. We followed the concrete road as far as it went, the houses becoming fewer, fences less well-kept, children squatting in the stagnant water, and the chatter of a language decidedly not Tamil. 

Suddenly appeared two boys on a bicycle who asked me something in that language. They pointed to the plastic bag in my basket, the beach towel showing, and mimed a swimming motion. The older boy pointed to some dunes that led to the beach. No. Not with two brand new rented bikes. I smiled. He didn't. He kept on in the language I didn't know and pointed back to Janet, some 200 meters behind. I started to get uncomfortable and really wished she had kept up with my leisurely pace. His motions became more rapid as did his speech and I decided the best thing was to get back to the main road. But Janet was too far behind to see which way I turned. All I could do was slow my pace until he rode ahead and I could be sure she saw which way I turned. 

As I turned in the opposite direction of him she followed. But her pace stayed super slow and I had to slow down too. Sure enough he looped around and rejoined me. It may have been my imagination but he looked more menacing than before. Now he pointed to my pocket and mimed eating. Would I give him money. Janet please catch up with me here. I had to slow further still and told her finally, "let's get back to the main road." About 50 meters from the road he stopped, the edge of his territory reached, and we were back in Tamil and traffic. Had he kept going to the main road in sure he would have met with an angry word at least from the shopkeepers there.  Maybe worse. 

What was that place? Who lived there? Yesterday we met Alice Kern, a doctoral student from the University of Zurich studying "indigenous" Veddas of Sri Lanka. Her focus is rural. Were these transplants to the peri-urban landscape? Is it Vedda That I heard? What was the social landscape here? How did this community come to be? How did it fit in (or not fit in I suppose) with the fabric of communities around it? 

Landscape fabric is a dimension I've come to appreciate in Sri Lanka, and turning back to the sublime let us return to the spur in the road that much earlier in the ride took us to the old Kalmunai Road. Immediately upon entering the old road its dimensions, scale, and intimacy contrasted with the main road. Narrower, more curving, fences and trees to the edge of the roadway, we encountered an enchanting past, perhaps centuries old, as we followed the byway. This world exists on no map. 

Our first discovery was a small kovil attached to its own tiny tank. The tank, covered in the floating fern salvinia, was poorly defined and partly filled with litter. But like every body of water here, however degraded, it posed nicely for a photograph. 

Further down the road, barely more than a lane, another kovil. I stopped to photograph the carved figure of a cobra emerging from a termite mound, something I'd heard of in the field back in Rajarata ("don't put your hand there!") but something I had never seen depicted. I could call it bizarre were it not perfectly normal for the time and place...and followed by iconography and architecture ever more evocative the farther we rode on this journey. 

How to describe and ancient road and how to describe the feelings one has on it? Scale is the first thing that comes to mind. A human scale, a path meant to be traversed by humans, a pre-vehicular roadway that once carried oxcarts and still hosted cows, goats, chickens, bicycles, scooters, and the rare car. It was heaven to ride on. We both agreed. 

We butted up against a construction zone. Asphalt being spread on the road. Machinery and smoke, steam, and clatter. The dreamscape was past. We had to turn left and follow the last lane to the main road.

Kattankudy is a Muslim town, characteristic of Sri Lanka's East Coast. On a Friday it was also intensely crowded, loud, and full of school kids in every sort of traditional Muslim garb. Did I mention hundreds of speeding vehicles? We tried to ignore the "Hizbollah" this and the "Hizbollah" that, or pretend the signs referred to a different hizbollah, not the Iran-backed terrorist organization. Instead I focused on the ornately enameled domed structure in the center of town where you'd normally see a clock tower. Pretty incredible place. And as I said, intense. There are so many moments when I feel I'm not in "Sri Lanka" but in Batticaloa, Kattankudy, or wherever the specific place is. This may point to the great many diverse aspects of this country that somehow meet up into a whole. It continues to amaze. 

After intense Kattankudy we turned left toward the ocean, but I've described that bit with the boys on a bike. Let us continue along the main road which, as soon as we could, we followed another spur to the right. 

The particular side road we followed was surrounded by water. Later, as Janet showed me on the map, all of the water was impounded as a sort of tank. This part of the country is so unpredictable, with landscape patterns different from other parts of the island. I've mentioned to Janet so many times, and I've heard this from a few other people too-I often think I don't feel like I'm in Sri Lanka. As stereotypes about this place fall away it becomes clearer that I'm in "Batticaloa" or "Jaffna," part of this amalgam of course, but also distinct human spaces. 

As for the almost continuous "tank" landscape I've heard that Batticaloa, though dry, doesn't have the kinds of water problems Jaffna experiences. Maybe it's in part because of all this standing freshwater. As it seeps into the ground, freshwater forms a kind of lens-shaped "bubble" on top of saltwater that typically underlies it here this close to the sea. The two types of water, fresh- and salt- don't mix. The more freshwater that's available, the thicker the lens, the more water that's available for local wells.

Along this swampy-looking road were several kovils, the strangest with severe looking black monster sculptures. In back of this place, overlooking the kovil tank was the most graceful Hanuman, draped in ceremonial garb and in some sort of dance position, for all I could tell. 

On our return we witnessed a bunch of devotees, maybe 20 or so, holding a small procession from the open gates of the "monster" sculpture back into the grounds of the kovil. A reminder that what appears weird to us is very much a normal part of life in this part of the world.

We rode to a point along Manmunai Road with an impressive, two-part bridge, a piece of infrastructure that looked brand new. Also impressive was the dark gray squall line that had been developing over the past hour. It was threateningly close and I suggested we take shelter in one of the three or four covered spaces that were close by on the landing. Our bikes safely inside we stayed cozy and dry through the short but strong driving rain. A light rain followed that we were happy to have shelter from and after all wasn't it wonderful to have all the time in the world to sit it out. 

Our return ride was amazing as we finally "found" the Sacred City I had seen briefly on the google map. Here it was on the Old Kalmunai Road, just a km south of the construction zone where we had turned onto the main road. 

The dimensions and curves of the road gave a glimpse of a much older infrastructure. Curves and bumps where we didn't expect them. Old uneven paving, a line of kovils only a hundred meters or so apart, each with its own canned music pouring out. Up ahead in Kattankudy we saw the characteristic huge houses apparently built for multigenerational families in the Muslim Quarter. And up ahead, on a road with a large gutter down the center (now covered by concrete paving blocks) several small mosques, one of which dated to the 1850s. Its pink minarets looked magical in the distance, an Emerald City-like appearance adding to the magic. 

And it was the magic that stuck with us the whole day and into this writing, two days later. A magic you barely see from a bus, a magic you can't reach on foot. With a bicycle you can see so much, as we found out the next day, peeping and peering on every side of the road like a gecko peering out from behind the frame of a mirror. 

1 comment:

  1. I would love to visit Sri Lanka, or India. I like stepping away from the typical western culture. The beautiful colors of Sari silk must have been incredible as the women hurried about their daily activities. It sounded like an amazing adventure because you were looking for the landscape of the past, now infused with the more modern landscapes taking shape. Me? I take out a map and look for the nearest tourist site, but you have an eye for another layer of history that I haven’t had the knowledge to look for until now. The characteristics of a town, or a garden that were so important long ago, but now they are replaced by modern conveniences and designs. I don’t think I will ever travel the same way again.