February 13, 2013
More rain. Today Aruna will drive us to Ella, so we don’t mind what the weather does. This was the best place we have stayed in since coming to Sri Lanka, so we feel sad about leaving. The staff, which is large as The Lake is an on-the-job-training-center for the hospitality business, is friendly and after we spend three nights here, it feels like we’re leaving a new- found home. Three young Chinese women scream and yell at the manager whose job it is to listen pleasantly without retaliating or escalating the conflict. On witnessing this, we remember having heard that Chinese guests are not well liked in many countries due to their general lack of manners.
Aruna comes earlier than planned because he wants to load the bicycles up and have everything ready by the appointed time. His boss wants him to conserve diesel, so we use the small back roads which are rough and broken but are the shortest route between Polonnaruwa and Ella.
Aruna acts as a guide, showing us interesting things along the way, stopping on the wrong side of the road in the middle of a bridge so that Christof can take a photo of a crocodile he spots resting on the bank of the river below. When I look up, I see two buses in front of our van, patiently waiting for a chance to pass; they don’t honk or show any annoyance or aggravation about the fact that we causing a traffic jam.
He points out an iguana, which runs off in the grass when we stop to photograph it, and a termite hill which he explains is used by both cobras and iguanas, telling the story of a man who, seeing an iguana slide into its dwelling, and wanting something special for dinner, slipped his hand into what turned out to be the cobra’s side of the house. Their residences are like luxurious duplexes sporting separate entrances for each tenant.
Of all the creatures in the jungle, the viper is the most dangerous. Cobras rise up hissing, alerting intruders to their presence; in contrast, air carries the bad smell of elephants announcing their impending arrival, but it’s not until you accidentally touch or step on these silent snakes that you are alerted to their existence. The viper’s bite is so poisonous that an immediate visit to hospital for a shot is imperative to prevent a fatality.
Aruna, a rice farmer, grows his bi-yearly crops without using either fertilizers or pesticides because he wants to preserve his family’s health. He grows about 1,300 kilos of rice per acre, getting about 25 Rs. per kilo for long-grained, and 35 Rs. per kilo for short-grained rice from the government. He cooks only in clay pots, believing them to be healthier than aluminum which he is convinced is responsible for the high cancer rates on the island. He tested an aluminum pot once by putting sugar in it and observed how in only three days it had eaten a hole through the bottom, conclusive evidence and proof that aluminum reacts to foodstuffs. Clay pots, used since ancient times, have the small disadvantage of needing occasional replacement, an inconvenience more than offset by their superior health benefits.
Aruna grew up as the youngest of ten children in a mud-and-wattle house with a palm leaf roof that had a pleasant indoor climate similar to air conditioning. He now lives with his wife and two daughters in a cinder block tin-roofed house. When I ask him why people no longer live in indigenous style huts, he says they demand too much work and upkeep. A palm roof attracts insects, and invariably leaks during rainy season, needing constant attention and rebuilding.
As the tenth child in the family he spent a care-free childhood playing and never once thinking ahead or planning for the future. During English, when the teachers told the students that if they weren’t interested in learning they could go outside, he always left the classroom, taking a soccer ball with him. His dream was to become a soccer star. It wasn’t until he was married and had two children that he realized what his parents and teachers had been trying to tell him about the value of education. He is extremely proud of the fact that both his daughters are doing well in school and that the eldest is studying at a government university in Colombo. It is important to him that they are well educated, and he aspires to a life for them that will be easier than the one he shares with his wife. All the kids he grew up with came from large families of eight, nine, or ten children; today most people in Sri Lanka have only one or two children. Aruna is a Buddhist and openly shares his views on life with us,
– You can eat cow if you want, no problem. But I thinking I like life I want live a long time. Cow have life too, why I take life from cow? If I not eat, cow live.
He prepares his fields by hand with the help of an ox that he uses only a few days a year; the rest of the time he turns it loose to roam the countryside.
We observe that cows, oxen, dogs and old people all look painfully thin, as though they don’t have enough to eat. This, he answers. is the result of illness, not of malnutrition. In Polonnaruwa, for instance, there is only one vet, and once an animal has taken ill, there is little chance of it ever recovering.
– Everything grows here, he tells us gesturing towards the luxuriant, thick jungle and refuting the idea that Sri Lankans don’t have enough to eat.
– Vegetables, rice, coconut, these are the three things for Sri Lankan life.
People eat rice and curry three times a day, and in addition Sri Lanka is blessed with a great variety of fruit, bananas, mangoes, papayas and pineapples.
Because the rain washed away the road Aruna was planing on using, we have to take a 45 kilometer detour. He swerves back and forth in the van as though he were dancing instead of driving on roads that are potholed and bumpy, taking care not to damage the Toyota van that already has 500,000 kilometers on it. The Sri Lankan way of driving is like an intricate dance, the steps and movements of which are clear to the locals but unknown and quite strange to foreigners. The drivers swerve wildly across both lanes passing obstructions and returning to their side of the road only at the last possible moment, leaving just a hair’s breath of space between their cars and oncoming vehicles.
The roads are under construction and we pass heavy equipment and road crews, often waiting in a long line for the man regulating one lane of traffic to wave us through.
– Sri Lankan pump, Aruna jokes as we pass young men in rain coats as thin as plastic bags, shoveling water out of potholes by hand. In the mountains the rain has caused landslides, and men in flip-flops are working with shovels, pick axes and press hammers up to their knees in mud while the Chinese overseers watch from the roadside wearing helmets, high visibility vests and work boots. Chinese companies have the contract to rebuild the roads using Sri Lankan equipment and manpower.
We pass old men balanced precariously on rusty bicycles, ladies in saris picking their way delicately amongst the puddles, schoolchildren returning home with red mud- stained uniforms, people waiting for buses, a young man wheeling a 50 kilo bag of rice draped over the crossbars of his bicycle, and people walking home from work.
Aruna asks about our occupations and when he hears that Christof is a lawyer, almost screams with delight,
– Lawyers in Sri Lanka so rich, they have five cars and two women!
It would have been horrible to ride through this construction zone on a bicycle, and because there are virtually no tourist facilities back here, we wouldn’t have felt comfortable or safe. The trip from Polonnaruwa to Ella, which takes seven hours by car, would have taken us three days by bicycle.
When we pay Aruna on arrival in Ella, thanking him for his services, he begs Christof to let him stay with us. He is willing to wait and whenever we are ready to go, wants to drive us down to the south coast. Today’s ride is for boss, he says, but if we travel with him tomorrow or the next day, the money he earns then will be for his family, and again begs us to think of his children’s education and have a heart for a poor man.
We are dying to ride our bikes again, but understand the necessity that forces him to beg us for another day of work. We go to bed conflicted and unsure of how to proceed.