Sri Lanka, March, 2003
sri lanka is hardly reality. there is a rhythm to the rain, the people are constantly and sincerely smiling, the countryside is filled with strange critters, and the sun has a large, warm hand that he lays on your shoulder when you walk down the beach. there seemed to be nothing wrong.
my first couple weeks were glorious waste. after getting drunk in sweden, i went back to paris, got rid of my postal address (only email now), and flew post-haste to get drunk in the piss-warm coastal waters of sri lanka, the "lucky island." i got drunk again. in fact i was drunk a lot more than i worked. i found myself doing inane things, as if i were sterlizing emotional wounds with booze. i was doing inane tourist.things like spending hours laying on my back on the beach, nigh-comatose. waves sometimes hitting my feet, usually not. laying there. burning sand. staring with dry eyes at the nuclear sun, my head a puddle of arrack and seltzer. drink in one hand, nestled in the sand, dried spit gone white on my cheek. sometimes i would roll over and do a drawing then pass out. it was messy, but necessary, in that way that cleaning a closet makes a big mess of the hallway before things get tidy again.
the reason Normal Vacations are boring is cause you're sliced off from The Local Action. we travel to see landscapes and places, yes, but its the people and the things they do that interest us. tourist-traps are sluices off of the main poop-shoot to trap some cash from the tourists that realize this the worst. for myself, as a permanent tourist, The Exotic no longer exists. its everywhere. so its fucking boring to slowly fry yourself on a beach digesting ethanol and chewing sand kernels while talking to yourself.
thus like moses. after 11 days in the drink the lord appeared to me and from the sands of glut my three rules of travel.arose:
- get lost
- talk to strangers.
- keep your shit together.
so i brushed off the sand, sobered up, and met some local friends.
that week my friends looked like this.
thanks to rule #2, the following week my friends looked like this
ahangama and the ides of march.
folks round here are friendly, strangely friendly, in fact, and i'm displeased with myself for being suspicious of that. i'm safe as a litl baby here with the sinhalese (despite the 1800 years of slaughter and civil strife they've entertained themselves with.. or rather, perhaps because of it). but they're still a pain in the ass. as that particularly american perspective of "people are people" goes its still true in this regard. maybe its just that as an american "people are people" makes sense only because of how flatly i see the rest of the world. 'all people are created equal,' i was ingraned. and now that devalues everyone. i'm the child of deToqueville's tyranny of the majority. i'm the tyranized majority. as all americans are because we all buy into it. but enough on america.
folks round here are friendly, and its still irritating.
prabath is insistent on telling me "Prabath is free!" which is how he happily, daily, points out that he's done with school and doesnt have to work. krishan is well dressed. he's quieter, like a cat, whereas prabath is like a dog; always watching me. since americans dont come 'round these parts too much i'm an oddity here. prabath saw an american three years ago.
and so we went. the legend of the island (yes, there is, really, a legend) is that hanuman, the monkey-god, stole some potent juju from kali. she chased him south along the coast from india. she chased him like clint eastwood. and he hid on this island and she couldnt find him. so he stashed his medicine there and its been there ever since. the other story is that a witch lived there for a while and then died and now haunts the place. the island, in sinhalese, is called "yakkinidua" which means "ghost island" or something close to that. i heard someone call it "medicine island" so suffice it to say that its not a simple lump of dirt. its also called "lace rock" for the occidental tourists
after the 500m swim out to the island, a scramble over some rocks, a view down a 200-foot chasm where an english imperialist killed himself in the 1920s, an ascent up some boulders into the sun, an elbow+knees military-style crawl through a thorn-tunnel (i have the little red designs down my back to prove it), a walk over some boulders, a climb up into some other trees, up another cliff, and then into a clearning, we finally stood on the forehead of the island. they showed me which tree to climb so i could get the 360. upsy daisy they helped me into the branches: opaline heaven hanging high above a paradise of coconut hands reaching in celebration out over an ocean that glittered like an infinite jewel. i laughed for long enough that they started laughing at me laughing. i saw mountains far off in the distance. there was a tiny bus with people getting on. i could smell tea and the salt from the ocean. the smoke of burning coconuts.
when i looked down from the tree i noticed gabriel was picking up berries. gabriel spoke the best english of the group and had self-appointed himself as my guide. gabriel is short, stocky, square-jawed, and is a lighter shade than most folks here. gabriel's father was, as i understand it, welligama's medicine man for several decades. so we picked small red berries from out of the dirt for 30 minutes while he relayed the above story about hanuman and kali.
they led me down into a dark cave. it was a long, creepy, dark cave. it seemed serious as a coma. i could hear the ocean thunder-bumping inside the rocks but couldnt see the light on the exit end. but my friends, the contingent of dark-skinned spider-agile cricket-players, began to crawl in and so (fuckit, i figured) i followed. and i was not comfortable about it. it was barely large enough to crawl through (sometimes my chest got stuck - i'm a good foot taller than most sri lankans) and it smelled like earth, womb, tomb. after about 15 spelunkingly unnerving minutes we stepped back out into the sun. we stood in a blow-hole cavern that the ocean had carved into the southern face of the island, at water-level.
this was like a tom sawyer cum johnny-quest exploit, exploring the haunted island with a cadre of sinhalese freaks. aside from bleeding feet, thorn clawmarks down my back, a sunburned hed, cut fingers and being covered in dirt i was clean for, perhaps, the first time in a couple of years. there was no question where i was. i looked at the smiling faces around me. they were proud of their island (as damn well they should be). these black faces, with sharp white teeth, thin indian features, and skinny, muscular bodies, were dusky angels proud of their crashing heaven with the ocean and sun and magic ghosts swirling around, singing curry in the warm windy airs of ceylon.
the next day i did some drawings for prabath and krishan, as a thankyou;
prabath retaliated with a cowrey shell that "God had written on." the bastard knew how to make an ex-parisian feel seriously outclassed. seriously.
there is a man with tits staying nearby. oddly, we are keeping careful tabs on each other but not talking. our suspicion is our comeraderie. he seems so dreadful that i'm interested in him; a burned crisp of a man with a tattoo on his chest of a devil, no upper teeth, decrepit arms, and those nasty man-breasts......
18 march. full moon.
here in this buddhist land a full moon calls the villagers to a party called "Full Moon Day" ("poya" in sinhalese). most folks get dressed up in their sunday best (as it were) and head off to temple to consider weighty topics like Karma. to think on what is Good and what is Wrong. Buddha. Body. Mind.
prabath and chamindra invited me along and since this is one of the side-benefits of travel.rule#2, it was a made decision. so i took a cab up to Galle and ordered up a nice sarong and a clean white shirt for the evening. custom-fit and sewn in 24 hours for about $6. now i havent worn this much white, ever. but i have to say i look pretty dap in the sri lankan national uniform (the cap comes off with your sandals when you enter temple). this is, in essence, the local version of a tux. fashion can kiss my ass, but i do know this getup is a helluva lot more comfortable than a tux.
it was to be a long and formal day. first was a visit to prabath's house lunch with chamindra, then temple, then dinner with prabath.
chamindra's wife had fixed some fine fried chicken for us and we snacked on breaded fish and coffee liqueurs. the home is simple, they're not rich, and lunch was generous (poor people that are generous, and rich people that are unhappy. for some mysterious reason this proportion is rarely inverted. its reasonable.).
then we went to temple to visit buddha. this is where buddha lives:
friday, 20 march.
taking pictures of the man-breast has been hard. he's elusive, secretive, stealthy. capturing proof of his existence has been dodgy and difficult, but i manage to succeed; these pictures are testimony of his existence here in sri lanka. speaking with him is undesirable. he has a wretched voice torn with a german accent. i'm convinced that either he is a CIA operative who is watching me, a nazi war criminal on the lam, or the buddha in disguise. that last theory seems most likely, i'm unhappy to report. last night at temple i saw a buddha that had breasts and was bald, just like the nazi war criminal. and buddha lays around a lot, too.
the man-breast is all of these and more. he's become an abomination of a curiosity for me. this hardened, distorted occidental.
being sober is confusing.
saturday, 22 march.
this morning chamindra, prabath, and i went fishing. chamindra's nephew and prabath's friends came along.
we caught three small devilfish that i didnt bother to photograph cause i was too busy digging a hole in the sand to throw them into.
i went home and didn't do anything for a while. i was proud of myself for not doing anything. after about an hour i got sick of that and went out for a walk. hubub. a woman died on the beach. naturally i ran over with my camera to get some more pictures of dead people. prabath and gabriel tell me she was sad about something and a little crazy. by the time i got back for the pix she had been moved into the house which was buzzing with moans and people outside. photographraphic ambitions collide with moral obligations. flashbacks of my training at the morgue last month leave me with a pause. gone. well, she's dead so let's go.
also that afternoon, i ate lunch, which i dont often do now:
that evening, around sunset, prabath and krishan and i walked along the beach, me on the right, prabath, in the middle, and skinny krishan on the left. the sun was setting and i decided to throw a curveball for some fun, but a real slow one, so i could be certain they understood;
me: "what ..."
me: "what do ..."
prabath: "Yes, Marx? 'What do..'?"
me: "what do you think..."
prabath: "'What do you think..'?"
me: "what do you think about Death?"
prabath: "Marx asks 'What does Prabath think about death??"
we kept walking while prabath and krishan reflected.
prabath: "Death is bad, Marx. Death is not good."
me: "yes, and...?"
prabath: "That is all. Not Good. Bad."
me: "krishan? what do you think about death?"
prabath: "Krishan think the same thing. The we villages all think same thing."
i heard krishan snortle.
sunday, 23 march
gabriel broke his elbow three days ago. "No good," prabath informs me. breaking elbows and dying are naturally of the same ontological category. when i saw Gabriel he seemed in pain. i agreed to go to yakkinidua to collect some red berries for him - the sames ones he'd picked up when we were there. so i swam my surfboard out to the island while it rained warm white bath from the sky, i climbed the easy road to the top, i collected a handful of the little red eyeballs of strange, i stuffed em in my shirt, and i surfed it all back to the beach.
prabath, of course, was waiting for me. i showed him the berries and his eyes got big and round as if i had just found a cure for cancer. "YAaaah! Yah!" okay. fine. next was delivery to gabriel.
prabath and i searched for about an hour. in the search we saw maybe 60 people. sometimes we'd stop and talk with a group of people, mostly men in their 40s and women in their 60s (its a hunch - they have a hard time guessing my age, and i theirs). prabath did the same presentation for each group. he would kindly say "Wait, Marx" to me, put one hand on my arm, grab the berries from me with his other hand, then turn to the people and announce "Marx (me) blavvideywlabblagaradawah yakinnidua (island) aradawahwlabblagblavvidey." occasionally waving the berries around.
it was local news in action.
in 1976 i lived in a small town in central colorado, named Divide, on the contintental divide. in 1979 i lived in nothern maine, in a small town named fort kent. that was on the canadian border. and here, in a small town named ahangama, on the edge of the indian subcontinent, things functioned EXACTLY the same way. things function the same in small towns across the world because they're a template for human society. and so i could almost anticipate the response from these townies. the response is going to be the same, whether its in sinhalese, french or colorado-american-english. it went something like:"...So he swam out to the island to get some berries for Gabriel."
"Shi... Whaz this crazy goddam 'merican crawlin around on the dirty island diggin up berry for? These ain't gonna do Gabriel no good. THAT boy needs a good doctor, is what he needs. An' anyway, don't matter none since Gabriel's up north in Galle for the day. Went up there with his sister for some errands."
yes, prabath relays the news, villagers look at berries, shake their heads,, point north. i act like i dont get any of it and smile and nod. we walk away. prabath translates and confirms it all for me.
only after three independant reports that Gabriel was in Galle with his sister did we give up the delivery and drop them off at his home with his mom. Prabath was doubtful now, too.
monday, 24 march i had gone surfing at 7 to kabalana. Gabriel left me a message; the answer was inconclusive and encouraging.
in the space of the last two weeks:
i've been nursing five cuts from coral i picked up surfing, i found a small.sad.bumpedaround.black.dog i made friends with, i drink cocount juice a lot, i look for crabs, i interpret international advertising, i take photographs at night, i watch krishan climb a tree, then i watch a monkey jump a tree, i eat rice and curry with my fingers, i have afternoon tea (the reason being because the coffee utterly sucks and the tea is, well, brilliant), i meet men who sell pineapple, and i hang my head out of tuk-tuks (three wheeled taxis). these are the things i spend heartbeats on now.
shortly after sunset i made a tentative approach towards the man-breast. it appears he's more vigorious in the twilight hours and i had no interest in surprising him sleeping. he is able to speak a halting english with, as i have said before, a guteral accent. though he understands it far less well he's clearly of near-human intelligence. with great interpretation i am of the opinion that he was a musician in berlin in the 1960s. he played for 23 years then got married, then stopped. now his wife is apparently in kenya, on some beach there and he is here. they will see each other again in 4 months. it seemed a strange mating ritual to me, but i have never seen the female member of the man-breast species, so i didn't investigate the issue further. i left him in peace, with his arm wrapped around his plate of food. he made no aggressive stances and his behavior seemed even. perhaps i will try again soon.
thursday, 27 march
i'm reading "An Historical Relation of Ceylon" by robert knox, which he wrote while imprisoned here for 20 years during the late 1600s. its a beautiful book that Robinson Crusoe seems to have been based on. and then we have the movie derivatives of robinson crusoe, of course. the original source materials are always better than the follow-on for the same reason traditional cultural practices are beautiful. orthodox religions and cultural institutions use the first idea, which is always a culture's best. because its more inspired than parroting.
anyway i think Knox wrote this book as a kind of vengeance against the king of ceylon and not at all for his reasons listed (for my family). i think he decided it would be a great way to get britain to invade the place and, looking at the sequence of events, that book might have done more damage to ceylon than any other single volume written.its a sharp little slice of colonial perspective and, since, in the big cut i'm from the same cloth, i thought it might be a convenient backwater introduction while i mingle with the locals on the beach. today i was reading about how knox noticed three dances and one was a "devil dance."THIS Booke was wrote by mee Robert Knox (the sonn of Robert Knox who died one the Iland of Zelone) when I was aboute 39 years of Age. I was taken prisoner when Zelone, 4th Aprill, 1660. I was borne one Tower hill in London, 8th February: 1641. My Age when taken was 19 years: 1 month & 27 dayes. Continewed prisoner thare 19 years, 6 month, 14 dayes. So that I was a prisoner thare 4 month & 17 days longer then I had lived in the world before, & one and the 18 October 1679 God set mee from that Captivity, being then with the Hollanders at Arepa fort to whome be all Glory & prayse. Robert Knox, 1696 in London.
there's no such thing as coincidence, just well-chosen roads. the night that i read about the devil-dances of ancient "zeylone" prabath and a few of the cricket team members dropped by for a visit. they invited me to see something near the railroad tracks and told me to bring my camera. i didn't know what it was and didn't think it would be a devil dance.
background: there was an old lady that died two years ago. her daughter, grand-daughter, and great grand-daughter (pictured below) have all been having dreams about her for the last several months or so. unsettled ghost dust floats in their bed so they called a high-octane neighbor who knows how to deal with these things over for a little dance, drink, and dinner. it wasn't solemn. it was a party, of sorts. i was glad to be invited over... i got a seat of honor, a chocolate cookie, and a cup of tea for the show. beats the pants off of popcorn at the cineplex. plus it was legally acceptable to take some pictures and record a little bit for you, dear reader. it was a nice time. and i think some good work was done by this man. everyone there was happy about it and "Good Night" seemed to be the ongoing comment. not as in good bye or hell oh but as in its a nice time now sort of confirmation.
the smoke does its whispering while the drum.man sings along in time.
here is part of what i saw (not shown: the rooster, the cows head, the white butterflies, the flowers, the gold teeth, and the diesel fuel):
and here is what i heard (its the man in the white sarong that's singin and his buddy in the back keeping beat):
after it all i started wondering why, for so long, so many cultures are so concerned with keeping the dead out of the world we all live in. i've seen ghosts my whole life (my mother had the first exorcism at our house when i was 3, and i remember it all well) and i've never been that upset by the idea. there's dead things all around us. we're all a bit dead. so if someone breaks on through to the other side (to quote mr morrison), what, really, is the problem?
i think it would not be fun to be a ghost, manage to come back with some messages in my windy little hand, and have some guy with a drum and a chicken tell me to get lost. i wonder... but perhaps its better to keep things clean when we can.
i went to bed that night.
thursday, 28 march
i woke up this morning to get ready. on the road here i came across a man that had been hit by a bus. his wife was screaming and a friend was crying. his wife was really SCREAMING. i took a photo then took off, not wanting to disturb folks nearby. and i wondered, again, about keeping the dead separate from the living.
i have to say that its strange to see someone die the day after seeing a devildance.
(the photo will be up next month, when i finish this page)
so much for march.
its 12:34 and i'm chugging the local 2-stroke internet connection for all its worth, uploading the site as i write since my train leaves in 1:25 minutes. i take the train to colombo, then a motorcycle for a trip north to interview tamil tigers, members of the JVP, and the sri lankan government. it will be a nice prelude to the trip to Kuwait.
s i hope to find out what is at the bottom of this "Terror" thing from some people that have been practicing it for almost 2,000 years.