The bus rides are so fast and furious and full of noise and commotion. And so few miles are covered over a given time. A signpost of 44.5 km, just over 20 miles, is a sentence of more than an hour. The toddler comes onto the bus in her mother's arms and I make as much room as I can for the lady's purse and bag. "Bada, bada," I hear the baby whimper. "My stomach." An hour later she cries to her mom and it's unmistakeable in any language, "I'm gonna throw up!" The mother positions a small blue paper bag and the child fills it. I write a short note to my friend Karu Gamage, who's sitting one seat back. "Do you have a small plastic bag?" When I offer it the mother declines.
Earlier in the day we had set out for Hambantota. Karu's obliging great-nephew Suraj was driving us to the Hikkawadua bus stand. We were about an hour late after many farewells and blessings and exhortations, given by Karu, the elder of the family, one at a time to each member. First though we stopped at what seemed to be a random spot on the Galle road. Suraj waved to a friend who was waiting there for us and we walked 50 meters or so to a house with a gate. When we opened the gate I could see it was half a house, the other half washed away exactly eleven years ago in the tsunami. His family survived the first wave on their balcony and the second wave almost reached them on the roof. Only the grandparents were lost. This was our tsunami remembrance.
Karu wanted to show me a guesthouse where other Fulbrighters could stay during a proposed visit to the cinnamon cultivators up in Batapola. Situated right on the beach, just kissing the highway, I thought it was nice but kind of exposed. Especially during the afternoon when the sun is streaming in. No matter. I didn't say anything. Because why? I'll tell my fellow Fulbrighters about the cinnamon oil factory but I wonder. Why would they care?
We were going slow, maybe that's needless to say. Chatting with the guesthouse manager, drinking a king coconut. Taking pictures of nothing. Enjoying views of the sea. We weren't getting any closer to the bus stand and Hambantota seemed pretty far away. But I've never heard anyone here say "time to get going" or "I think I'd better be leaving soon." It's just not done. Even when there is a real time crunch. Because time crunches aren't real. I suppose.
An orange orb on the beach far to the north gets closer. It's an apparition against the blue water and Karu suggests to Suraj, "there's your prize winning photo for today." The orange-clad monk gets closer and I suggest, "could be Japanese." Karu is activated and starts up a conversation with his Eminence, who's the director of a Japan-Korea foundation. Karu rightly prides himself in Japanese and an hour later we're sipping coffee in the guesthouse restaurant and soon we're headed back to Batapola with the monk.
We stop at Karu's family temple where the Korean monk who speaks Japanese is introduced to the head monk I met the other night. We see the brass lamp Karu dedicated a few nights before. We see the image room filled with foods and flowers. The visiting monk chants. We bow. We help him down the stairs, holding an umbrella over him for the sun. We are back in the van headed for the cinnamon oil factory.
In the spanking new air conditioned showroom with its vaporizer gently filling the air with the relaxing scents of essential oils the monk meets the family and drinks an ice water. He takes a long time to use the bathroom. Enough time to worry people, especially his handler, who works for the Korean embassy and speaks some Japanese but looks like a beach boy.
The monk comes back and he reads palms. First Kumari's. She gets a verdict. "Money will keep pouring into your pockets." "Thank you," she manages in English, "I like money." "Smile," the monk commands. And keep smiling. It will make your troubles go away. You will forget them."
Then he reads Karu's palm. "You never keep money. Whatever you have goes out of your hands." Karu is well pleased. It means he keeps on doing his charity work. The conversation, in Japanese, a tiny bit of English, and a fountain of Sinhala, is animated and funny. I wish Janet were there so we could look each other in the eye and wonder "when will we get on the road?" But it's not about getting on the road. It's about being here right now.
Kumari's husband'a palm is read. The monk mimes "You are a big man. You run the show. But you must treat your wife with lovingkindness. You must tell her she's beautiful and that you love her. You must take her in your arms and hug her. You must do this three times a day!"
Karu is overjoyed. The monk has found the key to this family's problems. This is the Reason we've come back to Batapola. There's no reason to be anywhere else.
Karu mentions to me he's hungry. I'm not. Too much food and too much between meal food. Too much sweet stuff that I keep fending off but which keeps falling to me like treacle on curd. Even a banana seems too much.
I sit with the monk while Karu's gone. Family members keep telling me to come to the kitchen to eat. It's one in the afternoon. We had planned to leave at 8:30. The ride to Hambantota is four to five hours if you're lucky.
The monk asks me for my birthdate and Janet's. He tells me to send the dates to him along with photos. He will have us at his house in Korea and we'll eat at his table. Meanwhile I am all but forced to the table by Kumari. Now I must eat. I drink the purest water from their well. I have a bit of rice and gedera kessel (house banana) curry. My plate is taken instead of the usual ritual, where you carry your plate to the sink and rinse and stack it. I am nearly hurried out of the house.
Outside the whole group is waiting for me. Their body language reads, "Time to get on the road!" But I don't know anymore what I'm reading. We get to Hambantota after eight.