Sunday, December 27, 2015

Some impressions of Hambantota

Things are not as simple as they appear. It's a clear fact that we learn over and over again, usually the hard way. Yesterday was humid and overcast and exactly as I suspected would happen, my friend Karu Gamage, who invited me out here with colorful promises about everything we'd do and see, didn't feel like doing much of anything or going anyplace in particular. As the day passed it got more humid and light rain turned to an occasional heavy shower. The sounds of insects and birds kept up all day and the aroma of a thousand flowers hidden in the thorn scrub wafted up to my room. It was an exotic beautiful relaxing thing to experience in the dry zone, a sere place I had come to think might be the worst corner of Sri Lanka. I can't complain. 

Like every experience here the events of the day were unexpected, a lassitude that would be astounding if I hadn't already seen and experienced it in the village and elsewhere. The TV wailing with popular Hindi music all morning in the large main room where sound reverberates and is amplified. But no one is quiet anyway and there's not much quiet around. People make noise and shout and play the TV loud. The bread trucks scream their stanza of Beethoven (Für Elyse?) The lottery stands blast Sinhala music. Buses never quieten. No way to fight it. Go with it. Experiencing Sri Lanka with Sri Lankans is what I'm here for. 

Halfway through the day in the late morning things started to coalesce, Karu got out of his sarama (sarong), and it started to be time to go to town. When Karu's son Kasum had been here a few days ago there was a lot of coming and going. Kasum had brought guests and he had a car and so did they so it seemed people were taking short trips everywhere. Karu doesn't drive and neither does his younger brother by 12 years, who stays around the place, does some general maintenance, and prepares simple but complex, exquisitely balanced curries for our too-frequent meals, who will take over the foundation. But we are high and dry here without a vehicle. 

A tuk tuk into town and back is Rs 350, 300 if you're only going one way and Rs 400 if you have errands to run like we did. Trivial for a tourist maybe but a chunk of change if you're running a foundation on your retirement income. 

Karu started Janoda Foundation built on a piece of land granted to him by former president Rajapaksa. There was a bit of money from foreign donors too. It was 2008 and Hambantota, which had lost thousands of people in an instant, was still reeling from the tsunami. Karu was just 60 or so, recently retired and deeply imbued with community spirit, the will, the skills, and the tools to implement change. 

Community action was more than imperative. It was the moral thing to do and he did it. Hambantota is a tough place. He has lots of friends but he's not from here. The world changed. Sri Lanka shifted. A different world of needs and motivations evolved here and a model preschool for the community, conceptualized by Karu as a way out of destitution and communal strife, became a reality that was harder to sustain. Especially by an aging director with significant health problems who lives six hours away (on a good day) in Nugegoda. 

I was called here to address that. Another strange fate for a Fulbrighter studying intangibles in the human landscape. Way out of my comfort zone too, especially when we get down to work about 8 PM, just about my bedtime, with dinner still ahead of us and drinks nowhere in sight. 

But I wanted to write about some of the great things I've seen in Hambantota. Aside from the nighttime walk near the turtle hatchery on the scariest wildest beach I've ever seen in my life. A beach like you'd dream of in a nightmare. A beach where the waves are ten feet high and the drop to the sea a vertiginous 20 feet. 

Aside from the way people's voices are so loud here when they get up in the morning and I'm writing. The way they seem to yell at each other. Playful like they're tumbling together through the mud. 

Hambantota has an amazing well-preserved colonial section of town. A steep trip along a curved cobbled shaded roadway. The round prison-garrison-fortress that tops the hill, built in 1797, is just one highlight. 

Below is the weekend market, a kind of open air pettah that Karu brought me to to do his shopping. I was back with Bu, back with Mr. Thavurajah, as Karu made his way from stall to stall buying coconuts, tiny dried prawns, dry cambodge fruit, a large knife, twenty pounds of rice. 

We saw the fish market where he bought cubed pieces of tuna in the rain. 

We went to the old city where he stopped in the bank. 

We tried the newspaper stand to buy the weekend Mirror for his brother but it was closed. 

Hambantota has come back to life. It was brought to life for me in the gentle rain. Wish I could help breathe some life into the foundation. But a new morning is here. It's 6:15. Karu and his brother have been up since 5, like me, yell-talking in the main room. The TV will come on soon. The Korean monks are meant to come to town today and that will be a diversion. There are 24 hours left here before I have to get to Colombo. We'll see how it goes. 

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