Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sri Lankan Journey: The road to Maha Oya

Maha Oya is the reason we came East in the first place. An acquaintance at our Colombo guesthouse spent days regaling me about his boyhood adventures out here. Batticaloa seemed a good base, if a bit far. But it has been good. Our first week was spent exploring Batticaloa. Yesterday we tried but failed to even get on a bus bound for Maha Oya. 

We left the guesthouse early for a second stab at reaching Maha Oya. It's only about 60km inland but connections can be sketchy and the road is rough. We were smart and instead of walking all the way to the bus stand we stopped at a bus stop on Trinco Road, the route any bus to Maha Oya would have to take. There was a guy with a pad checking in the buses as they stopped. "Maha Oya," I told him and instead of saying no he sort of moved his head laconically like, "something will come up." 

Several buses later he put us on a bus bound for Trinco but told the driver to let us off in Chelkady Junction. So we got to experience movement, which is the inexorable, complete reason for the buses here in Sri Lanka. Keep people moving from one point to another. No matter how long your bus ride takes there is an also inexorable truth that you will reach your destination. Patience is too weak a word to describe the state of mind and body you must adopt. Suspended animation comes to mind. 

Not a single private car in over an hour at the Badulla Road Junctuon at Chelkady. Also Janet noticed no obesity. 

But on the Trinco road on the way up to Chelkady we stopped at a brand new service station (manufactured in China!). What will be the trajectory in 20 years? Less? Is this the moment before this becomes a car society?

With an hour to wait at Chelkady Junction we bought Janet a "gents" hankie in the Saba Emporium. Had to take our shoes off like all who entered but we walked out with a nice new hankie for her 15 minutes later. I learned my lesson in Eravur, just down the road from Chelkady, that you are expected to spend real time on a purchase. Even a 75 rupee hankie. 

At 10:15 the 11:00 bus to Maha Oya is announced. We find a seat because now, even though we're stuck on the bus for 45 minutes, we have a seat. Everyone else has done the same thing and there are a lot of mothers with young children. One nurses her baby. Janet notices different gold bangles and jewel rue different people are wearing. Every "jewelry shop" on the road and in town is also a pawn center. 

The hour or so to Maha Oya slips by in a fug of diesel exhaust and the sultry rhythms of a tropical music at once pulsing and hesitating. From base and vocals balanced by a high flute or wind instrument. 

People are filling up their time talking. The sound system is playing what sounds like '40s Tamil movie music. Sounds like ghazals. The bus halts every 20 meters for someone to get on or off. But mostly off as the bus slowly empties. Do people listen to this same recorded music every time they take this bus? Do people do this ride every week and expect this music? Do they recognize each other as we do on a regular city bus? Do people take this bus regularly or is it a rarity for them?

The bus careens along empty roads. The music blares. The road is rough and the bus makes slow and rocky progress. The breaks are engaged frequently. Not screeching. Laboriously engaging. The road is a single lane road with no shoulders. Upland we see corn growing. New schools. Old schools. Empty schools. Large anonymous tanks. The landscape becomes more dramatic as we continue uphill. Down country were huge rice fields. 

Maha Oya is bustling in a hot noon sun. The bus stand is a small shed with a man in a cage. The wide street is shaded with large trees and there is market activity on both sides of the street. At the junction of Polonnuwura Road the market continues north for 100 meters or so and then ends. Like yesterday when we reached Ampara we are back in Singhala "territory." But this transition was gentle and the scene here is softer and distinctly rural. No large buildings, people on foot, a market full of simple things. 

The feeling is cheerful but we are tired and a bit disoriented. Hot too. We walk on the Polonnuwura Road for 20 meters to a bus stop. That's the way to the hot springs and to Henaanigala Vihara, an ancient restored stupa under a huge rock, which Janet wants to visit. 

Someone comes out and tells us a bus will come at 1:30. We see a stream of people walking down the hot road so it makes sense that no bus is coming for awhile. We walk back into town to check on a sign I had seen coming in that indicated another archeological site. Don't want to end up walking the wrong way. Janet is hot and thirsty and I am too so we stop in a large "hotel" with a bustling front counter and lots of people eating lunch. We cool off under the fans and take a minute to wash our hands. We drink half our cokes and set out again down the hot Polonnuwura Road. 

We spend a little time on a bund road of a beautiful nearby tank. The tank is nearly empty. Ironic that there has been little rain because in the near distance we see black monsoon clouds and hear the first rumbles of thunder. Janet doesn't say it but I can tell she's restless to get moving. The vihara is just 10km from town but there are very few vehicles on the road so getting there may end up to be a problem. 

The hot water springs are clearly marked, a kind of first for Sri Lanka I think! Admission is supposed to be 20 rupees but we are charged 200. Janet gets piqued and refuses to enter. I go in with my Rs 200 ticket. 

The springs are not for bathing though there is a changing room and a bucket. A couple of families and a monk sit under the shade. I remove my shoes and walk from one tank to the next dipping in my hand and later my gents hankie. Water is boiling up and the ground is very hot. Near a particularly hot tank the water on the ground is hot too and my feet burn. 

Not much to do and Janet's outside the fence. It's hot and we want to get to the vihara. The spot is perfectly nice if you want to hang out for a few hours. Too bad we are "destination oriented" and have to move along. I think it is the great conundrum of travel in this amazing country. It seems to me the best way to take it in is to spend time--a relatively long time--letting go of the need to see yet another place. But for us on this day in this place it's not the best choice. Overall I think we've done a great "job" of savoring Sri Lanka. Maybe could have arranged to stay overnight in Maha Oya?

Leaving on the hot springs road there is a bus emptying its passengers for what looks like a tea break. They are lined up at the ticket counter buying their Rs 20 tickets. This explains the lineup of tea shops opposite the hot springs. This is a real stop! Believe it or not the bus is headed all the way to Negombo on the west coast. I talk to the driver for a moment "then you can take us up the road to Henaanigala Vihara," I try. He shakes his head no. Tea break may be an hour. He wants to join his passengers. 

What is "relaxing" in this relaxed country? How is "getting places" perceived? This is not the intercity bus stop of the United States where the motor idles for 25 minutes while people line up to get their McDonalds. It's the same. A rest stop. But different. Another dimension it seems. 

We get back to Polonowurra Road and I go to ask a truck driver the way. There's some confusion and a man in a sarong, an old guy about my age on a bicycle stops. He struggles to tell us "eight kilometers! Three miles!," pointing the way we think we want to go. A small clot of people and vehicles forms. Janet approaches a tuk tuk driver who already has a passenger. "I'll take you!" He is cheerful. Almost too cheerful I think, to have a couple of foreigners in his vehicle on the way to nowhere with no way out. We haven't bargained with him. We are there in his vehicle for him to do as he pleases. As one person told me yesterday at dinner at the guesthouse we have "very low cultural capital."

Maybe she was wrong. Maybe just wanting to get to these rare spots in this rare landscape is all the "cultural capital" we need. People here are so happy to share their country with us, so pleased when we say "just looking" or "coming to visit."

But this is all good in retrospect. The driver and his passenger confer, look at the picture of Henaanigala Vihara I've finally conjured from the screen shot I took this morning. Question whether this is the right way. The road curves and the giant rock disappears. There are elephant warnings all along the side of the road. Where is this experience taking us? 

We find out soon enough as the driver pulls over in front of the sign for Henaanigala Vihara and the requisite warning from the Department of Archeology. Smiling he nods his head and drives off. Payment is not an issue and may never have been. The foreigners were moved from one space to another and they have been delivered where they said they wanted to go. The monk asks us later how much we paid. I don't want to tell him we got a ride for free. I tell him Rs 200 and he says, it's 10 km and they even charge me Rs 500! I explain it was from the hot water springs, not all the way from town. He's disappointed and says, "still."

It looks like a well-marked trail to the rock that we can follow. Not far. A couple of plastic Buddhas in sight, a team of workers just up the hill. But a truck stops with a person who looks like he's in uniform. Well not quite uniform but maybe the office outfit of a person from Archeology. "Come with me," he gestures. "I'll take you around to the other side." 

We wonder what this means, why there should be another side, and why this person would take us away from the clearly marked trail. I think I was behaving poorly as a traveler. I left my trust somewhere maybe in protectiveness of Janet--not wanting to get her in a bad space. In retrospect it seems possible that this person wanted to take us to the cave paintings that are supposed to be at Henaanigala Vihara, a deeply historical site. 

So many reasons to trust people here and so many crossed wires. So much reward in relaxing and going with the flow but somehow so many obstacles to doing it. If I were traveling by myself I might have encountered these moments in a more "Sri Lankan" way but if I was traveling myself I might not have persisted in ferreting out a place like this. 

The man in the truck drives off and we climb. The guys with shovels show us which way to go. We find the ancient stupa, restored, nearly a duplicate of the brick stupa at Kudimbigala. We step up, keeping the stupa to our right. The monk appears. 

"So sorry, but please take off your shoes," another missed signal. I had seen sole tracks in the sand here and figured we didn't have to remove our shoes. He lives here alone. Strongly wanted to engage us in conversation. About my age, he had been here since 2010 from what I could understand. So many people just past retirement age here engaged in alternative occupations. Mr. Thavarajah, our host, deeply involved in community work as he oversees his guesthouse, MUA Tennakkoon, a retired banker now running an NGO, this monk whose conversation with us suggested to me this was not his lifelong vocation, just his post-retirement work, maybe to improve his karmic status. Forgive me if I conjecture inappropriately. I've already demonstrated how out of touch I became yesterday. 

He was from Colombo. Happy to hear about my work at Moratuwa University. Happy to think about the Arthur C. Clarke Center there, Kotubedda Junction, the bus numbers, distances along and from Galle Road. Was this monk's radar as "off" yesterday as mine was as a traveler? Haha something to ponder. 

He became worried about how we'd get back. Incredulous that we'd come from Batticaloa. Concerned about the sparse traffic. How would we find a ride? Frightened about elephants, "they come out this time of day. You must be careful!" Upset that we'd miss the last bus to the coast. That we'd never find a connection to Batticaloa. 

These worries interspersed with his narrative about Henaanigala Vihara, its ruin under the LTTE terrorists, the monk they'd killed here, his recent project of hanging a digital sign in town announcing an upcoming event. 

Short story long (and I apologize for going on and on here) I kind of dragged Janet off the rock and down to the main road. I had thought to just stand out in front of the vihara and wait for a ride. At least being there would provide some kind of context to a driver as to what we were doing on the nearly deserted road. Janet had another plan. "Relax!" she told me with intent. And she started to walk down the road. Of course her plan made sense. Ten km after the heat of the day made perfect walking sense, even with my sandal that was starting to disintegrate. Someone would pass us. Unless we encountered an elephant first. On foot it was all too apparent how much elephant activity there was here. Dung all over the road as we walked. And clearly delineated places that were used as elephant crossings from one side of the bush to the other. The best plan seemed to be to keep moving and stay on the road. It was just exactly 3PM so even if we had to walk all the way into Maha Oya we'd get there before dark. As luck would have it a small truck passed, he was happy to let us on board. Janet sat up front where she and the driver spotted a peacock. And I had a ride in the back with some of his equipment. We got a surprise bus to Batticaloa and after a crowded ride arrived back at our guesthouse safe and sound at six, just as darkness fell. 

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