26 October 2008

Letter 4.3

Sri Lanka -- BEAD

The flight to Sri Lanka was comfortable, a DC-10 half empty so plenty of room, with good Thai Airlines food and service. My first flight on a DC-10, which doesn't compare with a 747 in terms of impressiveness, although -- in as much as it got me here -- quite adequate. Adequate, too, is the word for Colombo's airport. Not only not air-conditioned, but not even ceiling fans. But Sri Lanka has always been a country that scraped by on frugal standards. Thailand, of course, is given to a sybaritic luxuriousness, and can afford to do so -- atleast the Bangkok people can, because they ruthlessly plunder the labor and fruit of the countryside. But in Sri Lanka things seem more equitable. There are beggars, as in Bangkok, and poor people who live in hovels (these are, mostly, Tamils, Sri Lanka's oppressed minority); but not teeming hordes of them as in the squalid Bangkok slums and hungry countryfolk. Therefore Sri Lanka doesn't have the wealth (and perhaps not even the inclination) to indulge in the sensual crossness of Bangkok-style living.

Not that there haven't been changes. Many more cars (though Mercedes', etc., are still rare, not commonplace as in Bangkok, and many well-maintained old cars still ply the roads). Streets widened. TV arrived about 2 years ago, and the well-off all have color sets now. Such changes are found; but underlying it all is a sameness that is surprising: like a dowager aunt who has always had two biscuits at teatime, she is not going to change her habits in old age, nor even consider refurbishing all the somewhat tatty or shabby remnants of her old life just for the sake of appearances (as Bangkok has just done for its bicentennial). And, of course, the place is green. Unlike the brown of Thailand here there are palm trees in profusion, pleasant -- perceptible even from the plane (which, by the way, took 15 minutes to fly over the entire island – distances that 12 years ago took me 15 days padding barefoot).

In company with the owner of a rubber estate, I took a trip about 36 miles south of Colombo to his place, and remarked on the stability of the country-side. He repeated the fact that other parts of the country had been much developed while this corner remained ignored -- sounded promising -- and ominous. I've also visited old acquaintances in Kandy and have taken the first steps towards finding a suitable place to stay in the upcountry. Kandy, having been a pleasant small town, with some sense of itself in style and history, showed more signs of 'development' than Colombo: construction despoils nearly every hillside, save the tall mountain to the Southwest. I went to the clearing where my old kuti used to stand, but the clearing had been replanted in pine and was so overgrown with dense stands of elephant grass that I couldn't even force my way to the old site to see if, perhaps, a wall might not yet stand... So much (or so little) swept away by time, the earth overgrowing our traces. A breath of relief, somehow...

As for mother... what can I say that I haven't said (and thought) so many times before? It grieves me that she should be in such a state; I'm only relieved that she has you to look after her, for no one else -- let alone hospital staff -- could do so with such love and care and attentiveness to what is needed.

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