Monday, January 11, 2016

The Many Faces of Sri Lanka

This weekend was a tropical whirlwind – the rushing, calming, exhilarating meander of Sri Lanka. We become caught current with no destination, and around every corner is a surprise. There are so many worlds contained in this small island. It becomes a universe in and of itself.

We went to Matara, a southern beach town, to visit two Fulbrighters teaching at a secondary school there. We become tourists as soon as we step off the bus – sudden marks for touts and tuktuk drivers. Friendly, but with that hint of aggression you always find in a place over-saturated with badly behaved foreigners. We play on the beach, exultant in sun and waves and hidden coves that look almost prehistoric. Perfect, until you get close enough to see the human refuse scattering the shore with plastic bottles and glass. And yet, it is something of a earthly paradise still. I scramble through rocks and tidepools, fascinated by the dance of life among the waves as crabs scuttle and hop between rocks and tiny fish dart. We find a fish who must have come to land millions of years ago and decided it had enough of evolution. It clung to vertical rocks with no visible limbs or appendages and hopped from crevice to crevice by thrashing its tail. It is a place which seems almost resistant to time.
Matara beach 

The strange and mysterious land fish 

One of many wonderful crabs 

We also visit a temple on a tiny island perched at the edge of the shore. The temple climbs the island like a vine, shrines connected by thin curving stairs up and up until you reach the sun-drenched top, echoing in the crash of waves. A kind of sacred silence there, even through the mummer of groups of friends, or couples hold hands and lotus blossoms, or the families holding their babies up to see the Buddha. We sit and listen to the crash of waves and the sound becomes almost sanctified,  a mantra or a prayer.

Colombo, then seems like a different world when we returned yesterday. The creaking rush of streets overfilled, clamor of smells and words and the crackling blast of prayers from many loudspeakers from many faiths, all blended together with the chorus of car horns. I took to Jonathan to Pettah, the city's largest market. A maze of wants an knockoffs – need a fake Gucci man's wallet? There's a whole street line in them. Same for shoes, luggage, sari decals, party tinsel and 50 pound bags of garlic. We found the vegetable market, lush with produce far more beautiful than you could hope to find in one of the upscale grocery stores here and at half the price. We also sought out some clothes for Jonathan, a hilarious exercise in rejection. Most shop keepers gave up at the sight of us and shooed us away with a “not have big enough!”

We wandered until we came to the red mosque, an oasis in the chaos of Pettah. I sat in the courtyard and listened to the sacred quiet, a reflection of the Island Temple of Matara. The splash of men washing before prayer in the fountain. The play of light against the brilliant patterns of red and white. Something eternal in these spaces – a truth my agnostic soul delights in the struggle to reach.

Then in the evening we found yet another world of Sri Lanka. Down three increasingly dark side streets, past two groups of drunkenly helpful tuktuk drivers, up three flights of stairs and past a travel agency and firefighter supply store we stumbled into an electronic music concert. It was a celebration for a new music school, and spanned everything from ambient sounds which left the audience confused for a good ten seconds before they figured out to clap, and jazz so exciting we started dancing in our plastic seats. It was a crucible of local and international talent – an Austrian pianist who played as if every note were a piece of his soul he pulled out of his chest, a Sri Lankan drummer who brought every beat to life. Felt like a moment out of Paris or New York, but this, too is Sri Lanka. The worlds of Sri Lanka collide and I am dizzy with the joy of it.  

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