Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sri Lanka Diary #3. Early morning sights in Matara, uniformed schoolchildren, crows, dogs, and cattle.

Sri Lanka Diary #3. Early morning sights in Matara, uniformed schoolchildren, crows, dogs, and cattle.

As I wrote in a blog last April, Matara is now my favorite Sri Lankan destination. It is four and a half hours drive from Colombo and about five hours - or a bit more - by train. I particularly wanted to make a longer visit here because of the Buddhist temple located on an island about 100 meters from the shoreline, near Matara’s main market. The temple is unprepossessing. There are just a few small buildings surrounding a worship and assembly hall, fronted by a large Buddha statue. The statue is framed by white curtains which, however, leave it visible to worshippers. When I first saw this hall in April, it seemed as if it would be a tranquil place to meditate, with little more than the sound of the ocean, plus an occasional crow cackle horn bleat from the nearby bus station in the background. This visit has confirmed my intuition.

I have been walking to the temple for an hour or more of meditation about 6:20 each morning. A few yards away from my very modest room at the “Brown’s Beach Rest” are miles of unsullied ocean beachfront. Browns Beach Rest has only seven rooms; only two (mine and another) have ocean views. Four are interior rooms with no view at all. There are only two other accommodations for visitors, of about the same size, on the beachfront. Matara is definitely not a major tourist destination.

At 6:30 in the morning, the beachfront’s principal occupants are flocks of crows and dogs, some alone and others in small packs. Crows are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, though less prevalent in Colombo than was once the case. They are self confident scavengers, sharing the terrain with humans and other living beings fearlessly. The dogs are of a small to medium sized variety, common in Sri Lanka. I call the breed “entropy,” something like what you would get if all dogs in the world bred with all other dogs an infinite number of times. Some are running and playing with one another in small packs. Others are alone. Mostly, their disposition is cheerful and they mostly seem healthy and well fed. I have not yet figured out whether they have owners. There are also a few middle aged walkers, almost all male. Some pump their arms vigorously. They are getting their daily exercise. Greeting strangers is not the custom in Sri Lanka, unless the stranger is obviously a tourist and the greeter wants something from him or her.

As I walk towards the temple, busloads of schoolchildren arrive to populate the four schools on the beachfront, two Christian (one for boys, one for girls) one Muslim and one Buddhist. Most wear the traditional uniform of white trousers and shorts for boys and white dresses for girls. One group wear blue trousers or skirts and white shirts. All wear ties. With very few exceptions, they are quiet and orderly. Some stare at me with smiling curiosity as I walk by. I smile back. I have seen only three other non Sri Lankans in Matara. There are none walking along the beachfront at 6:30 in the morning.

Under a copse of trees on the beachfront near the marketplace, a small number of apparently homeless men and women congregate. One is a mother with a small child. Some have set up housekeeping with spreads on the ground, possessions in plastic bags and articles of clothing hanging on a nearby fence to dry. Clearly they are not picnickers. It occurs to me that if homelessness was my karma, Matara might not be a bad place to live out that life.

Walking back from the temple, 90 minutes later, the scene has changed. Arriving busses are now packed with commuters and, perhaps, shoppers. Schoolchildren have disappeared into their walled compounds. The walkers have completed their rituals and turned to other tasks. Few dogs remain. Where have the others gone? But now, the grassy strip, about twenty meters wide, between the road and the beach, is occupied by a number of grazing cattle. Others, along with crows, are sampling the refuse heap adjoining the market place. They seem placid and reasonably well cared for. Later in the day, as I write this posting, I can see about twenty taking their rest from the open door of my second floor balcony, adjoining the beach front. The appear not to care about an ocean view; most are looking toward the road. At nightfall they they will be gone. I have no idea where? When I have long sojourn in Matara, as I intend to, there will be time to learn more about these things.

Among all these creatures the crows seem most robust and resilient. When there are no longer dogs, cattle, schoolchildren, homeless people or other human beings living on planet earth, my sense is that crows may well continue to thrive and prosper.



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