6 November 2008

Letter 4.14

We're getting a sprinkle of rain just now -- 7:30 PM -- which happens to be full moon. This is the first rain we've had since February, though it has yet to build into anything deserving to be called that, and of course no single rain could be adequate, for the fields are parched and cracked, and the rice shoots have been slowly dying back. But if the drought -- which is nationwide -- can be broken at least a part of the crop can be saved (due for harvesting in about a month), and of course without adequate rain no new crop could be planted. Neither do the cows have pasturage. Needless to say, it's been very hot. The town's reservoir ran dry about a week ago -- up till then the taps can only an hour or so per day, gradually diminishing -- and now everyone takes their laundry to any of several wells that are to be found in the forest, and carries water back for cooking.

In this respect I'm very fortunate, for although the small reservoir from which I get my water (it is not the town's reservoir, which is up the hill, but feeds a single paddy field in front of me) -- although it is running low, it is nevertheless running, and my pond remains full (there are beautiful blue and gold water lilies in it now), except when I water my garden, which takes about 1/3 of it. My pond used to contain a frog I called Friendly Freddie, because he got so used to my dippings that he accepted me, and even allowed me to stroke his back as he floated (though not to pick him up); but he disappeared about a week ago and a few days later I noticed that the pond had a new watersnake in it. He hides in a little grotto, but he seems less fearful of me gradually; he likes to bask with his head on a rock and his body in the water. I saw him dart from his grotto once and snap up a grasshopper who was having a swim (doing a sort of crawl, not quite dog-paddle), and I assume that any snake that eats grasshoppers can't be poisonous, though the theory has not been tested. But as you know I've had many close encounters with snakes (of the 2nd kind, and something 2½th kind), so he doesn't worry me, though I admit Freddie was the preferable neighbor.

The snake, however, is preferable to some: there's been a spate of petty thievery, which has now (I hope) ended. A trap was laid and three kids – teenagers -- were caught. They live near the RR tracks (which side I can only surmise), where there are about a dozen families squatting on government land. The police gave the kids a warning (I had already given some general warnings myself), and in Sri Lanka, unlike Thailand, they treat petty theft quite seriously -- if it had gone to court they could have gotten 6 month sentences -- so now it has stopped. I really didn't mind the stealing so much -- it was petty enough: fruit, soap, and little things that could be easily replaced -- as the vandalism that was accompanying it (tearing down the fence I'd built to discourage the cows from helping themselves to the garden); and if they'd been content with just taking what they did I would have done nothing.

My garden hasn't been invaded by cows but by termites, who eat the manure that has been mixed into the soil, and thereby kill the plants the manure was supposed to fertilize. Termites, in Sri Lanka, are called 'white ants', so you might say I've got ants in my plants.

My neighbor, Mr. Henry, who owns the Sutherland estate, spoke of the film 'Gandhi' the other day (have you seen it?) -- he had seen some poobah or other on TV (since the start of this year TV is broadcast island-wide, as it has been in Colombo for 4 years past, with programs from 6-10 PM alternating between English, Sinhala, and Tamil -- one channel) holding forth about it and seemed enthusiastic to see it. However, Mr. H is not very successful at managing his estate and will probably lose it before 'Gandhi' ever gets to Colombo, in which case he would probably migrate to Australia (not only to see the film). He keeps getting his workers angry with him, and production is down. His is the only privately-owned estate left in the area, aside from a few small holdings (he has 140 acres), so that also puts him in a difficult position, for the government-owned estates (taken over during Mrs. Bandaranaike's reign) are doing things for the workers -- new housing, bonuses, etc. -- that he can no longer afford to do, compounding his problem. Too bad; his great grandfather pioneered the estate when this country was still thick jungle.

Some people, it seems, like to get things arranged the way they want them and are then content to leave them there, or to try to do so (things don't always stay put) while others prefer to keep things in more or less continual motion, a sort of juggling act, and are content when things don't stay put (but this is both exhausting and endless). You might think that I am of this sort, but actually not. I would be quite content to arrange things the way I want them -- that's the hard part -- and then stay put ('Things', of course, doesn't mean just physical things.) That's what I've been trying to do since 5 years ago. I would have been content to stay in Thailand, but the visa hassle got to be too much, and now I will be even more content to stay in Sri Lanka (a country much more to my liking than Thailand ever was), and in Ella (which is a nice place, offering hospitable people, suitable climate, enough elbow room, and a stable situation; people say t e place hasn't changed much in the last 25 years and, aside from an increase in the number of tourist guest houses -- there are 6 now -- will not likely change much in the future), and even in this cottage. Unfortunately, for this last point, the landlord is now making moves that will make me make moves, Nothing has been said directly, but the unmistakable message is that he would like his land (and his house) back. I am not being pushed out precipitously, but need to look around. So in the next few weeks I will look around -- first in the vicinity -- for another place to put myself. On the other hand, before selecting I might as well see more of the selection, so my look farther afield. In any case, I intend to make long-term arrangements at my next stop.

Two weeks ago was the annual Sinhalese New Years celebration, but the last couple days, judging from the crackers, shooting, and goings-on, sounded like a repeat performance.

Today I have learned that it is the custom to celebrate a girl's first menstruation -- 'coming of age', it's called -- and that's why my Tamil neighbors are having the two-day shindig, loudspeakers blaring music that sounds to me like Bob Dylan must sound to you. But this is the only disturbance they've made in the year that I've been here (363 days today) and even if speaking about it would do any good (which it wouldn't) I wouldn't do so, for they've been good neighbors. Asian people in general are more polite-spoken than Westerners, but Tamils seem to carry this to an extreme. It is common for them, when speaking to Westerners to use terms of extreme respect -- 'Master', being a common one -- but recently one Tamil visitor (he wanted me to help him prepare for an exam in management, which he was studying in English mediu ) went perhaps as far as one can go in this direction by persisting in calling me 'god'. 'Please don't call me god,' I asker! him. 'Yes, god' he replied. Maybe he was hoping for more help than I could give him.

On books, as it were, I'm looking for a gardening book. One for someone who knows nothing, has no equipment, and grows on poor soil in tropical highlands. No doubt no such book exists -- like all the necessary ones. Available locally are minly travel guides-cum-pop philosophy, In the Footsteps of the Buddha, and other such titles, which aren't for growing a thing. After interminable niggling and hemming and hawing, by the way, the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy has agreed to publish a long essay of mine The Buddha and Catch-22, more or less as I wrote it. It will be out sometime next year. Not a guide to grow anything either.

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