13 July 2008

Letter 2.36

Nuwara Hliya is perched atop a 6200 feet peak which seems to be made mostly of tea bushes, waterfalls, and dark boulders, with a few towns and villages on the way 30 miles from Gampola, where it begins its climb from 1600 feet. Tea estates look like green quiltwork with thin black borders around each patch -- almost the same dark green as coconut trees -- with widely spaced tall silvery trees (to hold the soil?) on hills which are usually at least 45°. Past Gampola (which is 12 miles south of Kandy) there are no other kinds of crops growing. About Nuwara Eliya are wide lawns, bright pastel buildings, and a few buildings with gingerbread including a charming post-office with a clock-tower. It's the summer resort of Ceylon, but January is no month to be there, for at night it is freezing cold -- into the 50's, (Actually it feels much colder than that because of a moist wind.) Even a heavy blanket and all my robes were not enough to keep me warm at night. The thin air warms up in the daytime and in the sunlight, which sends wisps of steam up from the ground, it can be quite pleasant. Some people wear long winter overcoats, others walk around in short sleeves and trousers.

On the way up, approaching one village, I came upon a big procession of children carrying papayas on sticks, the fruit decorated with various devices, and a couple elephants with a small boy atop each. The villagers told me that the two boys on the elephants -- each about 10 years old and dressed in matador-style clothing with tin-foil-and-sequined crowns -- were to be 'given to the Sangha by their parents' the next day -- i.e. they would be ordained as novice monks at their parents' wishes, not their own -- and that the parents had arranged the celebration of the event. The boys were solemn, wide-eyed, and frightened (whether of the elephant, the ordination, or both, I can't say), though everyone else was enjoying themselves (except perhaps the elephants for whom it was just another day's work). By the way, I found out that elephants can be rented by the day for between 50 and 100 rupees/day (depending, presumably, on whether it is an old elephant or a late model one), which at the tourist rate is $5-$10, or about what it costs to rent a car. Of course with an elephant there is no mileage charge or gas to pay (unless in another sense) and while it may not be as fast as a car, an elephant is certainly more versatile. The drummers in the procession were doing a peculiar sort of dance reminiscent of the Soupy Shuffle.

After coming down from Anuradhapura -- an eventless trip -- I spent a while with two Americans at their house before going on to Nuwara Eliya. They want to be Buddhist missionaries to the States -- although one of them is seriously reconsidering now whether it might not be better for him to find out first what the Buddha's Teaching is all about before giving it to the world. Also at the house was an Englishman, who had been ordained in Burma and after 8 years as a monk disrobed, since now he has a situation in England (to which he is returning) where he will be supported by some interested people and can continue his meditations under conditions which may be better for him than what he can find in the East -- i.e. a familiar culture, etc. -- but for which life as a monk would be difficult. It could be an advantage, but it could also be a disadvantage, particularly if the interest of his supporters flags. While I've met few people with whom I could discuss the Buddha's Teaching more freely, he tends toward the mystical view that (because everything is always changing, nothing really exists, whereas I do not accept the presumption that things are always changing -- they change sometimes and sometimes they remain the same for a while, and they certainly do exist), so I think we both only clarified our ideas for our own benefit.

You ask about the cyclist to Calcutta -- there is a ferry boat crossing the narrow Falk Straits which separate Ceylon from India (about 10 or 15 miles, I think and the fare cannot be very much for that journey. There are some Hindus who begin from someplace in India -- perhaps Benares or Rishikesh -- and roll to Katuragari in SB Ceylon, where there is a Hindu goddess living (so I'm told), and where there is a big ceremony every year, with fire-walking and all the other things (firewalkers, of course, are well-authenticated -- I've met many people who have seen it and a few who have participated. I've also met a fellow who, in a frenzy of religious (Hindu) fervor, puts nails through his arms, legs, and tongues, and neither bleeds nor feels pain) -- anyway there are people who roll to Kataragama (whether sideways or head-over-heels I've not learned), and while on the ferry boat they roll up and down the deck. So cycling isn't such a feat as all that.

Did I mention that Anuradhapura is the only city in Asia where I've seen corn-on-the-cob? To shuck Cornbelt Buddhists? In any case, it's extremely popular -- sold cooked (sans butter or salt) on the street.

I meant to say, by the way, that the bo-leaf was a symbol of my work, not worth.

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