Luc meets Buddha

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
Trip End Nov 18, 2002

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Wednesday, March 13, 2002

-- Buddha says "life is suffering"

2500 or so years ago, the great and enlightened Buddha left his Himilayan home, strolled over to Sri Lanka and kicked up his feet to spread the good word of eternal mindfulness. In his karmic wake he left behind millions of devoted Buddhists. Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka. Meditation retreats, peaceful monastaries and Buddhist rest houses dot the Island and having a few days to spare, I thought I'd stay in one to learn more about this refreshingly unreligious religion.

"What's the minimum amount of time that I can stay here? " I asked the head monk of the meditation retreat.

"10 days" he muttered.

"I only have 2 days"

He seemed annoyed and said to me in a calm yet "unmonk-like" patronizing tone "You need at least 10 days to learn the Buddha's teachings". He sighed and looked away dismissing me with a wave of his hand.

10 days of meditation, chanting, group prayer and idle thought seemed like way too much for my racing western mind, even if the meditation center was nestled in a beautiful quiet forest setting.

No thanks. "Maybe there's a 'Learn Buddhism in 5 days' book I can pick up on the Internet" I thought as we shuffled our way out of the retreat.

Back into the van, we puttered our was back to the Lodge in Galle, where Uma had it all figured out already. She knew that I wouldn't be able to hold out for a full 10 day session and had asked her friends for information on a monastery near the town that would be willing to take a curious foreigner in for a day or two for instruction. She'd called ahead and arranged everything with the head monk of the local temple for my visit.

Early morning, I mounted our friendly neighbourhood tuk tuk and after stopping at the gas station to fill his 3 wheeler with petrol from an old coke bottle, we were on our way. 20 minutes from Galle, the quiet monastery tucked into a small corner of a forest surrounded by calm waters awaited.

Once I arrived, the head monk greeted me and then guided me to an english speaking monk who had been spending a few nights in the monastery as a pitstop on his journey trudging through Sri Lanka by foot.

Neannalukela, brought me to a dimly lit corner of the complex and sat me down.

He tried to explain Buddhism, meditation and his own experiences to me. "You must wish all goodness to all creatures" his eyes drifted over my shoulder into the distance, "to all people, to all religions, to all insects, to all monks, to all laymen, to all nationalities..." he went on like this, looking blankly over my shoulder and swaying his head side to side, for a few minutes.

"Alright, so when can we meditate?" I burst into his trance.

He drew his eyes back to mine "Were we not just meditating just then?"

"You see Luc, life's sufferings can only be eliminated by dulling the senses and understanding Buddha's preachings. First you must learn to fully understand the impermanence of life."

I was getting antsy and was fighting off the urge of asking "Alright buddy, what's the secret, break it down for me, I need charts! Proof! Spreadsheets! Time is money, common man... Get to the point!" I took a big gulp, and swallowed back my completly 'out-of-place' conditioned instinct to get to 'point B' as quickly as possible.

He continued, "Experiences which you had in the passed, are they not gone? When you learn to focus your energy on this moment, with razor sharp concentration then you will have a deeper appreciation of life" he said in an calm sedated voice. He stood up and walked me to the door.

Stopping to pause at the door on the way out, he said softly, "That experience, sitting and talking, where is it? It is gone no? " he took 2 steps toward the courtyard "... and that one, just now, is it not gone as well?"

Suddenly he stopped walking and asked urgently "Luc, what time is it?"

The monk explained to me that he lived off the coast on an Island with his teacher and another monk. Everyday, they would take their alms bowls and travel to town to get some food. As monks, they weren't allowed to touch money, so to eat they walked down the street with their alms bowls in-hand awaiting offerings from other Buddhists. It was time for his "alms run".

He led me to the group prayer room where dozens of Buddhists sat in deep silent meditation and was off. The meditators were all sitting facing a monk draped in bright orange cloth. As I joined the assembly and tried to meditate, my mind was racing. "Hmm,I wonder how long I have to sit here.", "Should my legs be crossed like this?", "Hmmm, I wonder what my friends are doing back home", " I sure could use a pint right about now..." "Nono, Luc, focus, breath in, out... razor sharp concentration, right." ... My mind wasn't ready for the onslaught of complete silence and mindfulness. Thankfully, lunch time rolled around. They guided me by hand to the lunch room where they had made rice and curry, the staple food for any self respecting Sri Lankanite. Once the monks were done eating, us Laymen were allowed to eat. We squatted and ate with our hands.

I spent the rest of the afternoon with an elderly man who spoke good english. He was kind enough to show me the ropes. When nap time rolled around, I rolled out my mat and passed out.

Sleep helped pass the bulk of the afternoon and left me with enough time to explore the compound, meet some monks eager to practice their english and snap a few pictures. I wouldn't have thought that monks liked being photographed but as I was about to leave the monastary, the monks asked if I could take a group picture. An opportunity I was more than happy to pounce on.

"Ok everyone, say 'Cheese' !" CLICK!

The digital camera was a big hit with the monks.

I even got a saucy private photo-shoot session with the head monk! Now that's more like it.

Not feeling any more enlightened but perhaps a little more rested I hopped back into my intrepid tuk tuk. "Home James"

-- Searching for Sunsets

Alright, perhaps Buddhism wasn't my calling so I needed a clear mission, a purpose to this 9 month absence from reality that I stubbornly thrusted myself into. I was looking for something more than just reckless adventure from this trip but I didn't know what it was looking for, in the meantime this would have to do. I've always had a secret obsessive compulsive fetish for photographing sunsets and, when Jetlag had the nasty habit of waking me up at ungodly hours of the night, sunrises as well. So overwhelming was this private addiction that I'd been known to stop my car on the side of the freeway to enjoy the soothing orange glow of a satisfying sunset from time to time, and now I'd make it my mission to get the "perfect sunset" and the "perfect sunrise" on film. It would be hard to beat the sunrise from atop Sri Pada but damn it, I'd try.

First I'd need to set a criteria, some form of measurement to know when the perfect sunrise has been captured. What makes the perfect sunset? Hmmm... Let's see...

... Color, it would have to be the ever elusive red sunset. None of this, far too common, orange glow crud.

... Size, it would have to be big, so large that looking directly into it, even as it faded, would leave sun spots on my retina,

... Height, it would need to be perfectly situated in the sky, not too low yet not too high,

... Shape, round, without obstructions, the perfect fireball,

.. and finally, the piesse-de-resistance would be the perfect silouhette. Perhaps the dark outline of a stilt fisherman, a temple, pyramid or castle. This would be the hard part.

"The Taj Mahal in India? Sri Lanka's Sri Pada? Turkey's Capadocia? Egypt's Pyramids? Tibet's Himalayas? Where would this elusive, blissful, crystal clear sunset be?" I pondered. I'd have to trudge my hefty cameras half away across the globe to find out... The search was on.

-- His story checked out

Shopping for a little reading material to keep my mind from idling, I stopped into a book shop in Colombo. Thumbing my way through mounds of crusty, dog eared, old books, I stumbled onto a familiar name "... TIM PAGE". There was Tim, holding his knees pressed against his chest sitting up in a sort of contorted position on a train looking out onto central Vietnam. Tim's books filled the shelves and were bursting with heart wrenching, tragic photos from Vietnam. Seeing the images second hand was emotional enough, I could only imagine how life altering his experiences must have been at the tender age of 20.

Earlier that week, I'd pulled out my digital camera to show Tim some of my meager still shots. "What do you think about *this* shot?" I asked, holding up my camera like a trump card about to be slammed down onto a poker table.

He sat up and squinted at the little screen "Where is this line going? It draws the viewer right off the picture! And what the fuck is this bush doing there?" He howled bluntly. I committed his straight forward, unfiltered remarks and advice to memory after seeing his
fabulously authentic photographs. Tim was one of the few talented photographers who crossed the boundary between simple postcard pics to, in your face, shocking, thought provoking shots. Photos that actually said something.

-- Man down

I'd never seen a dead body before but there he was, thrown to the center of the busy street, another victim from the battlezone of traffic that plagued Sri Lanka. The elderly man laying still on the hard gravel, curled into the fetal position almost seemed to be asleep. Blood flowing from his opened lower torso, saturating the road with red liquid, dispelled that illusion instantly. Boys where swirling around him, almost as if in slow motion, waving their hands in the air, faces streaked with tears. As we passed the freshly expired corpse, driving respectfully slow, swirving left to avoid the mob, Affan held his head in his hands and uttered one word, "Shit". Adrenaline flushed from our frozen faces anb for the rest of the ride to the sandy beaches of Hikkaduwa, piercing, uninterrupted silence permeated the van. Before Affan drove off, I shook his hand and looked dead in his eyes to say with utmost sincerity "Please drive safely..."

-- Malaria day

Going to bed, I could just feel that a nightmare was on the verge of creeping in, even before I shut my eyes. Checking the toilet for goblins, I kept the bathroom light on as a preemptive strike.

"Nono, maybe Paris, then Stockholm. Italy, yes, yes, yes! I certainly have to go back to Italy!" it took a full minute before I opened my eyes and identified the bright pink mosquito net engulfing me. My mind, swimming in blissfully warm sleepy thoughts, adjusted slowly as I realized that I was already beyond the "planning phase" of my trip. No, I wasn't back home in my cushy downtown apartment, drooling over an atlas, quaffing a Guinness by the fire. I was in Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, I was quite disappointed at first to make this realization. I had been dreaming of travelling through out Europe again. Subconsiously, I was yearning for easy travel. Travel of familiar food, comfortable wheather and copious gratuitous drinking. My Malaria meds were bringing my homesickness, buried deep in my thought processes, out into the light. Hardly a nightmare, I awoke feeling quite safe, secure, mushy and cozy. Finally I was getting adjusted to the meds! Hoorah!

-- Home, sweet home...

I had called ahead and worked out all the details with Wajira, the kind Sri Lankan man I'd sat next to on the plane 2 weeks before. I would have Affan pick me up at the beach to finally drop me off at Wajira's home, in Colombo, were I would stay with him for a few days.

"Luc, you should come back for the night. You will be my guest, no cost" Uma said. She had phoned me at my hotel on the beach from Galle to invite me back to her lodge for one last night.

I had a quick mental debate over spending another night on the beach versus going back to Uma's for some delicious food and comfortable sleep. Within a half hour I was on a tuk tuk racing back through the very same streets where we had seen the laying corpse just one day passed.

After whipping up a quick web page for her guest house, we gorged ourselves with some of Uma's delicious Chinese food in the darkness of the daily power cut.

Uma held her fork half way to her mouth, about to take a sumptuous bite, "You know Luc, to be a Buddhist you just need to do good things, you don't need to go to the temple and stuff. I think you may be a Buddhist already, you just don't know it"

I stopped eating, thought deeply looking off into the darkness for a second, "Nahh, still feel Athiest I think" I said. We both laughed and kept eating.

-- Colombo

Affan dropped me off at Wajira's brother's, 2 story, open concept condo in a prestegious Colombo District.

Wajira and his friend had been waiting for me in the living room where I staggered in lugging my backpack and threw it to the ground. I spent the next hour breifing them of my eventuous travels through their country. Sri Pada, the Safari, the beaches, the ancient cities, Galle, the dead body from the day before and of course, my journey up north. It was a much needed condiut for me to oncork some of the pressure on the vaste quantities of unshared adventures I'd built up throughout my hair raising, cross-country banaza.

"Tssss, Tssss" they hissed and listened carefully as I went over the trials of the previous week swaying their heads side to side, as most Sri Lankans do to show a multitude of emotions.

Staring at this battered and wary trraveller, they hummed and cringed with every climax I gladly over-dramatized.

"Ahhhhh... that's better" I sunk back into Wajira's lounge chair content with having unleashed my payload of adventures onto them.

Later that night, over dinner at a member's only sports club in downtown Colombo, Wajira's friend stuck his hand out to the waiter, paused, glanced over at me and asked a question. A question I knew was coming even before the food had arrived. "Knife and fork?". I was getting used to this. "Nono, I'll eat with my hands".

Wajira's chuckled and looked at his friend, "Luc's been to Vavunya! He'll eat with his hands like us." Having been to Vavunya set me apart from the typical package tourist. Most Sri Lankans themselves having never been there, this one word would instantly label me as more than just another beach bound tourist. With every Sinhalese exchange that began an introduction to one of Wajira's friends, that one recognizable word, "Vavunya", would trickle in. Vavunya was my medal of honor, and I wore it proudly.

Wajira and his friends spent the night jamming on their guitars to old 70's tunes while we polished off a bottle of Arrack, a yummy, local, potent fermented, coconut liquor.

The next day, slightly hung over, we hit the town. Most of the clothes we westerners gladly part our dollars and pounds for, are made in Sri Lanka. A certain percentage of the gross of exported goodies are sold in town, in a mega-shopping center for a fraction of the cost. It was hard to surpress my trigger like shopping instinct when faced with Colombia, Gap and Nike goods at 10% of what we'd pay back home but not having enough room to fit even another pair of clean socks into my backpack, I left the store with only a tiny sample bottle of cologne. I had been able to do laundry as often as I would have liked to and this was something which was desperately needed.

"Right, shall we go to the estate?" Wajira asked. "That'd be great." I pleaded.

Wajira's coconut estate was 2 hours from town. One nail-bitting, car dodging, rain soaked ride later we arrived. The estate was enormous, Coconut's strewed on the ground and coconut trees shooting from the soil all around us. Luckily, the sheets of pouring rain broke just in time as we arrived. After snapping my "Luc holding Cononut" picture, we headed back to Colombo, arriving back home late in the evening.

-- Don't scratch!

When I awoke the next morning, my now fading rash that had plagued my right arm since Vavunya was in full swing. My entire chest, scalp, back and arms were now a heap of burning, itching flesh peppered with red dots. "Arrrgggg! Poison Ivy? Alergic reaction to last night's spicy Roti? Bed bugs, nonono can't be that" My self diagnosis skills weren't getting any better and Wajira could tell. As I painted Calamine lotion all over my body, Wajira insisted on taking me to a doctor but with only 1 hour before I had to be at the airport, a pharmacist would do.

Since I'd arrived in Sri Lanka I'd had an eye infection, a bad case of flaming bowel movements, atomic diareah, a slew of Lariam induced nightmares and this nasty rash. The constantly itchy rash was the worse afliction by far.

"You must take this 2 times per day." the pharmacist gave me some Claritine to add to my building arsenal of anti-rash meds. If the Calamine lotion, cortizone cream and claritine pills didn't do it, nothing would.

-- India, here I come.

"To Canada, by Sea please" I told the man sitting behind a crusty desk in what seemed to be an old ship yard. I had packed up some books, photos and miscelanous junk into an old box and sent it off on it's adventurous journey over the Indian Ocean, the Arabian sea, the Atlantic Ocean and finally the great lakes of Canada to, hopefully, arrive back at home, safe and mostly intact, I hoped.

Wajira had been the perfect host. Not letting me pay for anything, no matter how hard I pleaded with him to let me buy at least one meal and driving me around Colombo.

It was time for my 3 hour flights to India for my next adventure. Leaving the whole of Sri Lanka, satisfyingly explored behind me, I flew off to Delhi.
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