Three Cups of Tea
Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
59Trip End Jul 11, 2012
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Next stage was a train journey from Colombo to Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities
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)
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
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 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
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