Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Looking below the surface

Looking below the surface is something I urge my students to do all the time. As a scientist I understand well the need to look beyond what appears at the surface in order to understand how things work. From a philosophical and critical thinking standpoint this makes sense too. Seeing beyond appearances makes us understand the world better. 

So it occurred to me as I was studying small irrigation tanks deep in the Sri Lankan countryside: if we want to understand how these complex systems work we have to look beneath the surface. During the wet season the tanks are shimmering lakes of beautiful, abundant, and mysterious water. Full of nature and promise, they sort of hypnotize us into thinking we understand them just by looking. 

But the thousands of tank ecosystems that cover a considerable portion of Sri Lanka with fresh water pose any number of problems. First, how did people form them and how have they lasted so long? Even though many of them fell into disrepair over the centuries cultivators in their wisdom managed to bring the tanks back into operation. So, what is it about tank design that allowed tanks either to persist or lend themselves to vital repairs? What makes them sustainable?

The second question goes a little deeper. We know that tanks have several more or less distinct regions that collect silt, salt, and alkaline water. We know as well that tanks have a complicated chemistry, hydrology, and ecology. As large bodies of water, we know that tanks experience varying pressure at various depths, that water flows through and out of them, and that certain aspects of their infrastructure need greater or lesser reinforcement depending on the position and purpose of a given part of the tank. 

Yet if we only look at the watery surface we have barely a clue as to the dynamics behind these phenomena. Having spent a couple of weeks studying tanks in a fair amount of detail, my objective now is to study the dry interior of some tanks, to walk or work along their dry bottoms, to detect curves, colors, and contours. Subtle distinctions in these features may lead us to a better understanding of the evolution, function, and longevity of these amazing man-made ecosystems. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Hyper local

Sometimes I wonder if I'm looking at landscapes in too much detail. Am I going to far into hyper local patterns? Will any of this make sense in a larger context? Where is the logic in the local?

We were tooling through the countryside in Rajarata after a busy morning of tank research. We had just visited the spectacular Mahakandawara Tank, with its own magnificent Naga, a superb British-built spillway (based on the ancient Sri Lankan design), and a short, wet hike to the oldest causeway in the country, built about 2500 years ago. Grand visions, but what about the local?

On the road home, ready for siesta, we were pulled aside by men in uniform. We hadn't been speeding, and we weren't conspicuous in any particular way, but they demanded Mr. Amara's papers anyway. A glance into the back of the tuktuk revealed a foreigner, me, a witness to the scene. Folding up his papers they returned them to him and we drove off toward Mihintale. If it hadn't been for the foreigner in the back seat, Amara reported, he would have had to pay a bribe. Local justice.

Another day I stopped at the ATM for some cash. The machine spit out a bunch of Rs.5000 notes. How would I ever break those in the countryside? Amara told me that in the afternoon we could stop at the gas station, when they had lots of cash, and break the big bills that way. A handy thought cheerfully considered.

We had made our way to the tiniest tank of all. It looked deep but narrow and appeared not to be in the best condition. Jungle all around, jungle invading the dike – pathway, we had reached this intimate spot by climbing up through village gardens from the roadway. Once we found ourselves on the huge granite rocks behind the ethnic Malay village it occurred to me that we had traversed some pretty personal territory. Once we were on the overgrown dike Amara explained that this particular tank was privately owned. As a matter of fact it was owned by the family who also owned the village gas station. The tank was private, its waters controlled by one family, and rights to those waters came at a cost to cultivators. Amara repeated the well-known saw, "The poor always pay. " Here in this hyper local landscape that was certainly the case. 

Another day, another tank. The rocky remains of an ancient sluice lay next to the tubular concrete sluice gate now in place. That's the way contemporary sluice gates were built. Materials from the ancient, rundown sluices were just cast to the side of the tank. This reminded Amara to tell me something about tank construction. The base of a dike, he told me, what is reinforced by rocky rubble called rip rap. In modern-day Sri Lanka local councils hire contractors to maintain the dikes and replace degraded rip rap. Very often, he explained to me, The contractors would take the riprap or just throw it aside. It makes a lot of sense especially at the hyper local level. Toss away the rip rap, keep the tank in rundown condition, and you're guaranteed another contract for repairs a couple of years down the road. 

The countryside. Beautiful. Majestic. Ancient. Harmonious. A look at the hyper local landscape gives us another set of impressions. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Public and private landscapes: Fluid concepts?

My friend and colleague Gihan Karunaratne send me a manuscript he's working on that describes the tightly congested urban landscape of Slave Island, one of the oldest precincts in Colombo. In his essay he touches upon issues of shared space and the flexibility practiced by people in the Slave Island neighborhood when it comes to private versus public. It's a complicated question, more than I can delve into in a short post, but something that's especially appropriate in the Sri Lankan context. 

I'm researching small tank landscapes in the Dry Zone of North Central Province. This trip, I was lucky to have an expert driver and guide who is based in Mihintale. Amara knows the immediate vicinity like the back of his hand. Having grown up in Mihintale he knows practically everyone and everyone knows him. How generous he was to take me to so many intimate spots that would normally be inaccessible, and indeed invisible to a foreigner like me. Amara was completely comfortable in these places within approximately a 5 km radius of his home. He made more than eye contact with the people we encountered, in some cases carrying on lengthy conversations. Afterwards he reported as he saw fit, who was who, what they were doing there, and a little bit about their conversation. In terms of landscape analysis this told me a lot about how people use and relate to their immediate environment. A kind of byproduct was that it illustrated something about public and private spaces. 

If you are preparing a muddy rice field for planting, and you are deeply engaged on reinforcing the dikelets in your field, you are unlikely to welcome anyone but your closest acquaintances for a look. This in spite of the fact that you share the field with 10 or 20 other cultivators. Is this private space? Not exactly. It is worked by several families collaboratively. Is it "public" space? Certainly not the way the thoroughfare of a city would be considered public. 

What about the irrigation tanks and their dike – pathways? Nominally it's understood-one village, one tank. People use the tanks primarily for rice irrigation but they are beneficial for a number of other purposes--bathing, laundering, harvesting fish, lotuses, and assorted edible plants, and also for indirect things like improving the water table. Irrigation tanks are an island-wide phenomenon but they are also personal, intimate spaces, in which nature, people's bodies, and the local gods interact. 

Bringing a foreigner to these spaces was a kind of double edged sword. It brought Amara prestige to be guiding a foreigner but also friction. Some kids on bikes told him "take a tooth from (rip off) the foreigner!" At least that's what he reported. It was a while before Amara translated their comments to me, and I sensed they were commenting on the presence of two men together in this quiet spot. Later at the tuktuk Amara found that his glasses had been ripped off as well as the jack for his spare tire. Intimate with the landscape he tracked the kids down but ultimately, no one admitted to the deed. Parents and neighbors were enlisted in the search for "justice" but Amara never got his eyeglasses back. In the end I think, my presence as a foreigner proved a liability to Amara. 

It happened again at another spot as a bicycle brigade of lotus pickers traversed the dam. Amara noticed the insignia on their pants that indicated they were volunteers, taking lotuses to a nearby temple complex. Again a few looks, some harsh words, and when we got back to the tuktuk later our water bottles were missing. Not a huge deal but something that speaks to interfering in private precincts. At least that's how I interpret it. 

So what's public and what's private? How do we define the terms? Are they dependent on a definition?

At once we could be speaking with someone in his yard about tank infrastructure, or asking a granny for instructions to a tank, or passing through gardens (as instructed by the roadside mechanic) and passage through these spaces was acceptable and comfortable. Elsewhere we ran across families bathing in the tank, dressed but wet and vulnerable, and we were greeted by smiles. But tank dikes and more so, the rice fields that lay beneath them, seemed sacrosanct. 

Last year when Chameera guided me through a tank landscape I remember asking for "more." As a privileged city boy and graduate of an architecture program he was more comfortable guiding me through the monuments of Polonnuwura than taking a simple walk in the country. I remember now how he told me that his educated city Sinhala was different from the country folks'. And I reckon his comfort level "out there" was less than in a dozen other situations we had shared in other settings. He was used to giving orders, not fitting in with the countryside. 

So what does all this say about private and public landscapes? I think it goes back to Gihan's discovery. They are fluid. But certain "laws" apply. A landscape may be open. But in ways it may be profoundly closed. More to develop as we explore these intangibles of possession, privacy, and other landscape parameters. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sound and Landscape

Sound is so much a part of the landscape. I've written about it before, but it's a theme that keeps informing the way I experience my environment. So why not keep exploring?

The streets and roads of Sri Lanka were so noisy! City or countryside it didn't matter. There was a constant sound of motors and horns. The temptation is to call it a "cacophony." But that's not a fair assessment of what you hear. Deep in rural Sri Lanka my driver and guide, Mr. Amara, honked at nearly every passing vehicle and every vehicle he passed. His merry toot toot was a signal for other drivers. "I'm here," "I know you," "Hey there," and "Look out, I'm passing," were some of the messages he conveyed to other drivers.

I was wondering around Jaffna a couple of years ago, and I met some kids from Europe, about the same age as my children, who were annoyed and stressed by all the honking. One thing is for sure. They were dressed funny. But they took the sound each vehicle made as a personal affront. A day or two in Jaffna town or any other Sri Lankan city informs you that the sounds are not aimed at you. They are part of a matrix of noise that is created on the spot and which communicates any number of messages. 

Getting back to Mr. Amara, you can imagine that if the roads in Mihintale  were noisy Colombo was a real concert. There is so much noise at any given time that it feels kind of shocking to a pedestrian. Same thing if you're on a city bus. The bus pulls to a stop. The conductor sings out a lineup of destinations, all part of the urban auditory code. There's not much room for a quiet thought and maybe this is why people gravitate toward Barefoot, where you can be outside in the courtyard in peace and quiet for a few minutes. 

It can feel kind of personal if you let it. The noise can get to you. But it seems that all this noise is part and parcel of the way people navigate their landscape. And it's a landscape of sound as much as any other quality such as visuals, movement, or aromas.

Fast forward to the United States, where we like our landscape to be subdued. At least in terms of noise, we would like our immediate surroundings to be peaceful, calm, "gentle." A warm afternoon in Cambridge, near Boston, reminds me that we are used to controlling our immediate environment. But often it's at the expense of other people's environment. My dear neighbors think nothing of running their air conditioner, which keeps their house cool while polluting my garden with noise. People sit in their cool, quiet cars while those of us outside hear the motors running overtime. Others enjoy their dog's yapping, a sign of cheery good character. None of these "waste" noises are aimed personally at anyone but they do seem more personal than in Sri Lanka. Over there, everyone is bathed in noise. Here we quieten down our own environment while dumping the noise on someone else. 

Small observations, large landscape questions, and consequences in a cultural framework that deserve more inquiry. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The sidewalk as a landscape of movement

I'm fascinated by the way we engage in our landscape through movement. One thing in particular--the way people negotiate space collaboratively has always held special appeal. 

I have always found sidewalk manners something of a challenge. Experiencing how this works in Sri Lanka helped me get a handle on the question. 

But first the question: why have I always found sidewalk negotiating to be do awkward? Before my recent trip to Sri Lanka I was in Israel, where I noted patterns in sidewalk sharing that took me back almost fifty years. My first trip to Israel was when I was 17, on the cusp of young adulthood. I had walked plenty on the streets of my native Chicago, not a very crowded place, wide sidewalks, Midwestern place-ways. But it was at 17, when I spent several weeks walking around Israeli cities, that sidewalk manners were first inculcated. In fact I noticed it on this recent visit. If you are directly parallel to an oncoming pedestrian you align yourself slightly to your right. This way you will pass one another on your left. 

For years I tried this move, unaware that I had picked it up in a "foreign" county, and that it didn't make sense in America, where we pass on any old side of each other unless, or, as we frequently do (at least in Boston) we cross to the other side of the street to avoid contact. 

Strange, isn't it? But we live in a very cold place.

So it was dead interesting to me when I was in Colombo a few weeks ago, walking my 2km of the Galle Road, to observe pedestrian patterns. Do you know how it's done in Sri Lanka?

I noticed that as a person approached me on the narrow, slightly chaotic sidewalks of the Galle Road they aligned themselves slightly to their left. This way, we passed each other on the right. More of a habit than a "rule" I noticed this pattern within certain parameters. For example, older people conformed to this pattern more than younger people. Generally it seemed men did it more than women (was this because I'm a man? Would a woman purposefully change her gait in relationship to another woman rather than communicating any presence to a man?). And there were particularities like puddles, car parks, and potholes that interfered with the pattern. 

A significant finding? You be the judge. How do we use our streets? How do we shape our landscapes? How do we relate to one another vis a vis our human landscape? Personally I think these questions are worth a lot more study. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Intangible landscapes

Back and forth between Sri Lanka and the United States I want to be able to say something about the patterns of our landscapes. They are so are different. But how? At once the differences seem so grand but so insignificant. At their quotidian heart they intangible. How to trace these intangibles? How to document and analyze them? It's challenging enough to describe to people that I'm doing a Fulbright in Sri Lanka, "Oh, is that in India?" "Wait I remember, it's part of South America!" How do you explain that you're doing research on intangibles in the landscape? What does that even mean?

caught a glimpse of these intangibles during a trip to Slave Island, one of Colombo's oldest neighborhoods, with my colleagues Gihan Karunaratne and Asiri Dissanayale. Both of my friends are part of a team from the University of Moratuwa, documenting this ancient but endangered neighborhood. The vibrancy and diversity of Slave Island is hard to describe, especially on your first evening in Colombo as night is falling. 

But I had a couple of visual cues there that I hope to follow up on. Doubtless more visits will lead to more of the same as my learning grows. 

As I've written before, I feel an affinity with the way Sri Lankans relate to shoes, kind of a necessary evil to be shed whenever possible. And sometimes taking off the shoes is mandatory. I saw two examples in Slave Island. I'm sure there are more. 

The first was outside the entrance to a house. Inside were many more children than could have belonged to one family. Gihan thought it must be a "tutorial," the ubiquitous lessons that are given evenings and weekends, often in English, science, or math, to bolster inadequate treatment of content in school. Not unlike our own insidious "college prep" lessons that pump students for standardized tests. Smiling, Gihan asked the owner of the house who was standing outside. "Yes," he reported. "English tutorial."
What amazed me was the pile of students' shoes outside the door. 

They seemed to characterize the rush, the crush, and the careful entry into the house. They give you a snapshot of how many students there were, a rough idea of girls vs. boys, and an idea of who came first and who came later, who in a hurry and who with time to spare. What starts as a random assortment of shoes ends up providing the careful observer with information. Not to mention that the pile of shoes artfully captures a moment in time. A choreographed moment of human endeavor. 

The second pile of shoes was outside the local mosque, itself a distinctive landscape within the precincts of Slave Island. Here again, a seemingly random pile of shoes but perhaps a pile that could yield patterns. Ages (sizes at least), gender (all male), and probably more. I'll have to visit again. 

Dark had fallen. It was hard now to see. Gihan spied a metal box just outside the mosque, something that interested him as an artist from a materials standpoint as well as its dimensions and the mechanisms. Gihan is working on an amazing project that he loosely calls a "cupboard," a large wood "box" made with intricate, traditional Sri Lankan carving. Also we are loosely collaborating, as we struggle to stay out of the conceptual "box," on thinking about boxes and how people interact with them. What can we learn from a box? How do we interact with it? This box was unique, as the caretaker explained to him. Space is at a premium in Slave Island, and this box, instead of being stored inside, was right outside the building. What was it, and how did it work, Gihan asked the caretaker. This box, a landscape unto itself, is used to transport to burial the shrouded bodies of the dead. Another chapter, another Sri Lankan gem, as we delve into the rich world of her human landscapes. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The first head massage

Well, it wasn't the first. The very first head massage came with a haircut, a magical experience in Jaffna in 2013. The second, a few months later off the Galle Road in Mount Lavinia, was almost as good as my first experience. How do barbers in Sri Lanka know these things? But my vintage, village head massage in Mihintale set a new precedent. A couple of days earlier I had asked my driver – guide, Mr. Amara, where I could get a head massage. He took me right to the place, a hole in the wall barber shop next to the village tea room. It's name was something like "Sexiest sexy." Do you sense my skepticism? Anyway, it was closed. "That's the best place in town" Amara told me. But each time we passed the place, its shutters were down. Anyway we were very busy with our research on small tank landscapes. We were barely in Mihintale and when we were, we were dead tired. 

Amara took me to what he considered the second best place in town, across from the university entrance. They were busy and it looked like they scowled at him so we took a rain check. This was my last day in Mihintale and it did look like rain, so we decided to part ways until evening. I took a slow walk to back to "Sexy" and voila, it was open. 

A couple of customers were already in the shop so I just stood outside the door, conspicuous as the only foreigner in Mihintale. "Come in, Sir," I was told so I took up the invitation. 

The first customer that morning was a very young girl maybe two years old. Her father held her in his arms while her mother stood close. Mr. Assanta shaved a horizontal line around her head just above her ears. Then he shaved everything under it and trimmed the hair above. Never a peep out of the little girl and her parents were calm and present with her. Both parents were smiling and beamed with pride and warmth of family. It seemed like a kind of celebration or rite of passage but how could I know? I don't have a word of Sinhala, something I hope to remedy soon. 

The family paid and arranged themselves on a scooters outside.  They held the baby in between. Both parents wore helmets but not the child. 

Next customer was a surly looking teenager. Just a few words between him and Mr. Assanta and a quick trim. Then the teenager sort of dissolved into the back of the shop. You are with people but alone in these places. So many unknown relationships and interactions and movements. It's hard enough to decipher the people we know and with whom we share a common tongue. What about the social constructs in a place where you're the alien?

These differences melt away though, during certain interactions. And this was one. 

Mr. Assanta invited me onto the barber chair, a rickety affair but steady enough for what was to come. In front of me his glass work shelf was arranged with orange marigolds and deep yellow cosmos flowers. He told me, "No English," and I grinned back as I pointed to my mouth , "No Sinhala." Both of us smiled and contact had been made. 

The only words that came were his as he cut and sheared his way through my thinning locks. Pointing to his plastic electric shearer, frowning, he said "American, no Chinese. American." Checkmark. Onto my list of things to bring next time. Pack barber equipment. But I'll have to find antique shearers. Won't everything we have be from China? 

He kept pointing and telling and I'm pretty sure I got the message. But where was the massage? "Medium short, Sir?," he asked as he went to work on my unruly mustache. Nice job but no massage. 

I thought the encounter was over when the oil started flowing and my shirt was unbuttoned. More oil, many fingers on top of my head and suddenly it was quite a different story. In a minute my head felt like it was spurting oil from the top and the more he worked it the more a mysterious cold emanated from the very crown of my head. 

Soon my head was reduced to a small stone being thrown around a rushing stream as Assanta's hands worked back and forth, around, and seemingly through my skull. Another kind of oil and more work through my shoulders, along my arms, and between and through each finger, ending with a snap of closure. What was this? Not the pallid head massages of yore! His hands seemed to grow as they worked vigorously, aggressively down my chest, grabbing, kneading, squeezing, releasing. Back up to the head, a whisper, "Please relax" and a neck crack. Where was I? What was this? And all silence. The stream at rest, gentle waters lapping against the oiled rock, my head. But in a new incarnation. 

I opened my eyes and saw a changed Assanta (his name means "uncountable"). Larger by a few inches, he had a look in his eye that explained something to me. 

I first heard in Ritigala that the monumental public works projects in ancient Sri Lanka were accomplished by people in an altered state of consciousness. Somehow they achieved superhuman strength and understanding in a trance. I realized this might apply to what I just experienced. Even as a stranger to his culture I could see that Mr. Assanta was acting way outside the boundaries of the persona he used for his previous customers. The fact that he treated me with respect was beyond doubt, even when his hands and fingers were working overtime in unexpected parts of my body. He was doing professional work and his profession took him to places hidden, places of power, and places of efficacy. I think he did the work in some kind of trance. 

Later Amara told me Assanta was from a village and caste whose people specialize in head massage. Whatever he gave me for the Rs. 400 (about $3) he asked for so meekly was something old, something handed down and well polished (like that rock in a stream), and something I will try to repay in kind to the people I know. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Water at every scale

The ancient Sri Lankans worked with water at every scale from the tiniest trickle to the deluge off a spillway. They were stewards of water. They managed water, persuaded water to do what it does naturally, rather than simply impounding it and releasing it. Their descendants do the same. 

Contemporary agricultural practices  reflect many changes, especially in the use of machinery, hybrid strains of rice, and chemical interventions like fertilizer and pesticides. But in terms of water, many of the old ways remain. 

saw rivulets of water running through fields, channels of water dug and maintained by hoe, valves and slots and slabs and dikelets all maintained by hand. This kind of labor-intensive engagement with water is part of a profound knowledge of the substance and how it works. 

was drawn to the shapes through which water was managed. These ranged from straight lines and surprising 90° angles to the gentlest curves. A compendium of water channels of Sri Lanka would be an encyclopedia of curvature. 

This brings me to thoughts on the tanks, 30,000 mysterious, gorgeous bodies of water built by humans since antiquity and still at work irrigating and improving the land. No master plan existed for their development but a master intelligence, a mastery of water and its ways, was the basis for their phenomenal success. 

We see the tanks today as bodies of water. We understand many aspects of their dynamic nature--their complex ecology, their pulsating chemistry, their functionality as agents of environmental betterment. But do we understand their inner dynamics? The flows, the pressures, and the movements inside the tanks? Do we understand the structural basis of these processes?

started this project as an exploration of small tank landscape. Part of landscape is contemporary human use and utility. We see it in broad daylight, in the movement of people and their artifacts. Part of landscape is hidden and historical. We must infer it through careful observation and guesswork. How the tanks were formed, how common hydrology practices were used to construct monuments of water, and how these designs persisted for millennia, almost self-perpetuating, are the questions that flood my mind. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Finding Mannar

I've always been curious about what lies in Mannar, an ancient community at the foot of an island on Sri Lanka's west coast. In May I got to stay there as part of a visit to my friend and colleague Dominic Essler, who's working on an ethnography of the nearby village of Adampan. 

Mannar meant farewell to the North Central Province and my friend Mr. Amara. A few days before he had said he wanted to see Mannar and he would come there with me for a day or two. But as we were driving north from Mihintale he told me he had "forgotten" his overnight things. He could drive me to Mannar though. It dawned on me that he wasn't keen on the Mannar trip and for me, a bus would be much more pleasant than sitting in the back of a tuktuk. It wasn't a matter of money for either of us. He was paid handsomely for the work we had done together. 

So we said our fond goodbyes in Medawachchiya after a quick cup of tea (half a cup for me--I didn't want to have to pee during the interminable bus ride) and he dropped me across the street at the surprisingly modern bus stand, where I started a nearly hour-long wait for the Mannar bus. 

A great thing about Sri Lanka is that once people see you waiting for a bus they start to look out for you. It's a mutual thing I guess but super helpful when there's a minimum of signage--or in many cases none at all. This way you'll get on the right bus with people going the same way as you. 

The trip to Mannar took more than three hours. I slept part of the way thanks to getting up at about five AM for our supposed road trip. It poured down rain a lot of the time, which never really makes your trip into the unknown that happy. But I had the name of my guesthouse and a screenshot of the google map. I was prepared at least with the knowledge that reality on the streets of a Sri Lankan town is never as neat as the tidy lines of the map. I would be lucky if there was any street signage so I knew I'd have to feel my way. Lucky I had packed light, with most of my weight in presents I was bringing people. My heaviest item was the tube of sunscreen I was bringing to Dominic. 

Arriving in Mannar, quite a small place, was less disorienting than most places I've been in Sri Lanka. The main road that brings you into town after a long causeway continues NNW up the island and right through the center of town. There are few turns as you enter and, at least on a Sunday morning less congestion, so leaving the bus stand is a fairly straightforward affair. 

The rain had stopped but my way to the guesthouse was interrupted by massive block-long pools of water. These pools came to characterize my impression of Mannar. The cross lanes had turned to lakes and the going wasn't easy. But I found the guesthouse and its affable host, Mr. Jerome, who was sweeping just inside the metal gate, with no trouble. He quickly made me comfortable while he shouted orders at his houseboy to get my room ready. 

No need to describe my room which was very basic. But it had all the working parts and clean sheets. So I felt at home. Matter of fact, I love Sri Lanka but the place I feel most at home is in the north. This happened to me last time I visited, falling head over heals for Jaffna. Same feeling in Mannar. I had to get out and explore. 

I took two walks that day. My first walk took me through town and out to the edges of Mannar. It was dominated by unpaved flooded streets and a couple of dilapidated tanks. Ancient no doubt but in serious disuse. I knew this to be a problem in Mannar from my talks with Jeremy Liyanage and his Australian crew, who I met in Colombo two years ago. They come out to Mannar every year to do community-based infrastructure projects and Jeremy actually stays in the Baobab Guesthouse, where I was sleeping. Even hearing about their work I was surprised by the state of things on the ground. The number of tanks and their state of disrepair was disheartening. 

My second walk took me into the active parts of town including what looked to be a scene of watery devastation? Tsunami? Rising ocean levels? It turned out, Jerome later explained, that over time people had neglected the inner-city tanks, built along their periphery and ultimately inside them, and that seawater had encroached. A lot of Mannar, as I could see myself, lay below sea level. 

A stunning impression of town, which I saw close-up among my fellow inmates at the guesthouse, is just how much NGO activity there is in town. I stayed with a small crew from Japan who were working with nearby farmers and just about wherever you looked there were signs indicating an NGO presence. Mannar has so many problems from infrastructure to reconciliation. It was a real eye-opener of the slow process of rebuilding that this part of Sri Lanka faces.