Three Cups of Tea

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jul 11, 2012

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What I did
Visited UNESCO World Heritage site

Flag of Sri Lanka  , North Central,
Sunday, January 22, 2012

The morning we left Negombo, we took a three-wheeler, a.k.a. tri-shaw or tuk tuk, the whole 40 km to Colombo. We careened through traffic, occasionally overtaking on the left, the tri-shaw tipping left with one wheel on the gravel shoulder and the other on the road. Other times huge trucks passed us with, as Dan noted, just a coat of paint between us. We were looking for a friend of friends, Hans, in Colombo 3, but as he had said, drivers don't find his place easy to find. Our driver asked directions every few minutes from other tuk tuk drivers and people at the side of the road. Without exception, they seemed to take their local street knowledge as a badge of honour, gesturing widely to show when to turn left, when to go straight, and when to get out of the next roundabout. We finally found Hans’s apartment at Chelsea Garden, and enjoyed meeting him and having tea together.

Next stage was a train journey from Colombo to Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. We bought 2nd class tickets, as advised. Just before the train was due to arrive, people hopped down onto the tracks, ready to board from the other side. When it pulled in, people still on the platform thrust their bags through the open windows to secure their seats. For our part, we climbed in as fast as we could and got seats. More and more people got into our car, and as I was sitting in the aisle seat, I had bodies pressed against me and leaning over me, hanging on to the overhead bar. The air was close with human smells. As we got further from Colombo, the crowd thinned out, but there were people standing almost all the way. Vendors pushed their way up and down the aisles, singing out the names of their wares. We sampled spiced cashews, samosas, and rambutans. Other things we saw go by in baskets included fried prawns with onions and chilis, deep fried breaded balls, candies, oranges, something wrapped in leaves and newspaper, coffee, and soft drinks. Our samosas were in a paper bag made of a child’s used exercise book paper, covered in beautiful round Sinhala script in blue ink and graded with red check marks.

About four hours into the five-hour journey, I crossed the aisle so that I could sit facing forward. A woman and a man sitting across from me asked me the usual questions in good English: where was I from, how long would I be spending in Sri Lanka, where was I going. With the small talk dispensed, they got to the question that was really uppermost in their minds: Why was I sitting in third class? They pointed to the "3" on the stained carriage wall. Better informed now, we won’t make that mistake again, but I was glad for our encounter: Edward and Indira are university ESL teachers, and today was the first day of their M.A. in Linguistics program. They had travelled from Anuradhapura to Colombo and back again, a five-hour trip each way, for the first day of their program, and will be doing the same every weekend for the next two years (if they have the requisite stamina). This on top of working full-time. We shouted our conversation over the noise of the train. We determined that we are about the same age, although I far underestimated their ages when pressed to guess. Edward told me that he works seven days a week to make ends meet, but it seemed to me that teaching correct English is his passion. He asked me what methodology I use in the classroom and rattled off a number of methodologies such as grammar-translation and direct method; he asked what kind of equipment we have in our classrooms, and whether our students are willing. As I answered his questions, I was distracted by his head wobbling from side to side. I thought it was a personal mannerism, or perhaps the train’s movement, or even a neurological problem, until the next morning when I encountered the same head wobbling from our smiling hotel waiter. He was just showing that he was following what I was saying, a sideways nod.

At one point Indira asked me what I thought of Sri Lankan people. I said I didn’t really know anybody personally yet, but from looking at the people on the train today, I thought they were beautiful, especially the women and children with their round melting brown eyes, thick eyelashes, quick dazzling white smiles. “But we’re so . . .” and she indicated her dark chocolate arm. “What do you find beautiful?” I struggled to explain the unexplainable—beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. I felt some distress at her reaction, embedded in the culture through advertising for products such as cream to make one “Fair and Lovely.” But I might have said the same thing about my own skin—I don’t like its pale and freckly complexion and my commercial culture promotes tanning creams so that I can have the kind of skin I was not born with. After all, though, she had to agree that the children are beautiful and working with them and young adults keeps one young. At the end of the journey we exchanged email addresses and they gave us their phone numbers in case of need; then they made sure we were safely in a tuk tuk to a hotel.

The next morning we rented bicycles to explore the Anuradhapura ancient city ruins, some as old as 2300 years old, the site of the reign of 90 kings until about 1000 years ago when the royal capital was sacked by Indian invaders and moved to Polonnaruwa.

Reaching the ruins entailed cycling along a busy road and through four roundabouts—difficult enough when you’re on a bicycle on the familiar right side of the road, but worse when you’re still trying to remember to stay left and to look the opposite direction for oncoming traffic. In addition, there was road construction almost all the way. Edward had warned me about this—Sri Lanka’s February 4 Independence Day celebrations will be held this year in Anuradhapura, and they’re fixing up the infrastructure for the big day. It seems to me they’re going to have to pick up the pace. In any case, it allowed Dan to engage in some comparative analysis of construction practices.

I stopped to wait for him at one point and I heard his enthusiastic voice over the machinery and cars: “I do that work in Canada! We call that a jumping jack.” A jumping jack is a large one-man machine used to tamp down soil. What he didn’t say was that if he showed up to do that kind of work in flip flops, with no hard hat, gloves, eye protection, or visi-vest, he’d be fired faster than he could say, “but in Sri Lanka . . .” He observed that those items seemed to be worn only by the guys wearing the white hat—the supervisors. Perhaps this safety gear is considered more of a status symbol than practical wear.

We visited a couple of the sites and were getting hungry and thirsty, so we pulled over and bought some salted cucumber slices from a bicycle vendor. Then we sat down at a nearby food stall and ordered a couple of deep fried snacks. I also bought a mystery palm-sized item wrapped in a leaf and newspaper. “What is this?” I asked the proprietor. He couldn’t tell me. “Is it sweet?” I asked. “Oh, no, ” he said. He looked rueful, as if he wished he could explain.

After we’d eaten our fried things, I unwrapped the mystery item. Inside were some broken pieces of a nut that resembled a chestnut, some soggy brown leaves, and a small spot of pale pink paste squished between some used exercise book paper. I put one of the nut pieces in my mouth. Hard as a rock. I tried another piece. Likewise, my teeth could not make a dent. I picked up the brown leaf and put it on my tongue—tobacco? When I opened the little piece of paper, put my finger on the paste and raised it to my mouth to put it on my tongue, a lady nearby couldn’t stand it any longer. She was at our table in a flash, saying, “no eat, no eat!” Only when I assured her I wouldn’t eat it did she retreat. Moments later, another patron who spoke English explained that it was betel nut. I’m not yet sure how to chew it or that I even want to, but perhaps I’ll have the chance to find out down the road.

We finally got into the main area of the site, visited the museum, and tried to find some of the sites, asking frequently for directions as modeled by our tuk tuk driver the day before. We bicycled around on the red-earth winding trails, visiting ruin after ruin, dagobas, monasteries, temples. Around 3:00, we came to a junction and asked a man standing in front of his shop, a fruit-stand-like structure with a few drinks and bottles of water on offer, if we should turn off now to reach Abhayagiri? He affirmed this was the case, but after chatting for a couple of minutes and sizing up our heat fatigue, waved us toward his house and invited us for a cup of tea.

We followed him into a sandy, earthen-floored yard with two plastic chairs; he emerged from his house with another, as well as a plastic table. Soon after that, his daughter Ahinsa appeared with a shy smile and a tray with three cups and saucers, and in one more trip, delivered a pot of strong dark tea. Upali sent her back for sugar, and then again for Jacobs’ Cream Crackers. When she returned, he told us with pride that she was fifth in her class (Grade 7), a clever girl. Her mother came out to join us, and Upali regaled us with all the things we would miss—there is so much to see in Anuradhapura—if we didn’t spend longer here. In particular, he recommended seeing the crocodiles in the pond a short distance from his house. He also described his life: not one of desperate poverty, but of getting by without enough money. He had been a fisherman when he met a British man 25 years ago. This man had helped him out with a loan to start his shop. Upali said that he had repaid it in full, and that they were friends to this day. He told us this friend also helps with Ahinsa’s education costs. Although Sri Lanka is a socialist republic and education is free, there are always expenses for supplies and field trips. He grows some food—there was corn in the back. He also described how slow his business has been lately. While he talked, I was wary that he was angling for another loan. However, as we left and Dan bought a bottle of water with a 1000 rupee note (~$10) and asked him to keep the change, he looked shocked, not as if he were insulted, but rather shocked in the way you are when a friend gives you a generous gift that you don’t refuse. “Are you sure?” he asked. And as we pedalled down the red-earth road toward the last of the ruins we would see that day, I had around my neck a string of beads that Ahinsa had given me.
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Cindy on

Gosh.. You missed out on a real treat.. betel nut! THE Most bitter vial tasting thing on earth, and the taste lingers! It was an angel who graced your presence stopping you from eating it. Be thankful!

Anony-mouse on

In many cultures giving more money than something costs means that you consider people POOR, even when compared to others in the community they feel well off. Tipping isn't something normal, nor is paying more than something is worth, in most collectivistic, shame cultures.

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