"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 11: 


This is my last journal entry for this visit.  I’m packing my bags, conducting the last trainings, writing the last memos, and otherwise winding up my affairs for my return to the States.

This journal entry is from last week’s trip to the south of the island, conducting trainings for Divisional Coordinators at Sarvodaya’s educational complex at Tanamalwila.

Tanamalwila:  The Place of Wild Flowers

I am in the guest wing of Sarvodaya’s sprawling educational complex at Tanamalwila, what is to be the heart of Sarvodaya University.  The room I’m sharing with Executive Director Vinya Ariyaratne mirrors the complex as a whole: fallen on hard times, yet holding the promise of a better tomorrow.

We are here for the gathering of Sarvodaya’s Divisional Coordinators.  These 160 people from all over the island are the front-line workers and are the organization’s links to the 15,000 Sarvodaya villages.  We are here for their semi-annual training and networking.  Some of them have been traveling for over a day to reach this place.

I feel like shit.  The Sarvodaya drivers like to play a game on the road; it’s called “Let’s Make Sharif Throw Up”.  No one has won the game yet, but this one came close.  Imagine a rollercoaster ride that goes on for five hours.  That’s not quite accurate, since rollercoasters don’t jam on the brakes every 30 seconds, dodging one head-on collision after another.  The first 20 minutes is entertaining; the first hour is bearable.  I did the last two hours collapsed on the back seat.  Another half-hour and he would have taken home the trophy.

Getting across the main bridge that is the entrance for the 500 acre campus is a real adventure.  Earlier that day the bridge was under water.  If the river remained that high, we would get out and carry our belongings over a swinging foot bridge.  I was really looking forward to carrying my computer across a swinging bridge in the dark while nauseous.  When we get to the bridge, parts of the stone structure are peering up out of the turbulent water; no problem getting across.

First Day:
It’s hard to stay sick while at a place as wildly beautiful as Tanamalwila -- but I manage.  It’s morning, and I’ve traded my nausea for a head cold.  I’m up before dawn, participating in a “shramadana camp”.  Shramadana means “shared labor”, and all 160 of us are lined up and waiting to do physical work to benefit the 30 or so buildings and grounds of the complex.

We do a shoulder-to-shoulder standing meditation, then hear an inspirational talk by the organizer of our work camp, the Elder Statesman of Shramadana, Mr. Abeynaika.  As dawn approaches, he hands out the work assignments and the garden tools.  I pick up a hoe that weighs about a ton, and follow my crew the back of the kitchen to beat back the jungle that threatens to engulf the entire complex.

After about 10 minutes with this hoe, I realize that I’m embarrassing myself.  The other hoe-workers are using the blade to scrape the vegetation off the ground; I’m gouging deep furrows into the soft, moist earth and doing almost nothing to the plants.  The women on the team have baskets to haul away the vegetation to compost areas; they stop coming over to me, because all I’ve got is a mound of dirt with a few leaves mixed in.

Twenty minutes:  When they were making my hoe, I’m sure one of the makers said, “This one is too light; go back and add another 20 pounds or so!”  These things aren’t garden instruments; they’re free weights with blades on the end.  I just have to pretend that I’m a weightlifter.

 Thirty minutes:  I give up, trading in the the hoe from hell for a rusty metal basket and carry loads for the hoe-people.  A pretty young woman in her 20’s picks up my discarded hoe and makes short work of the patch I was working on.

The Cry of Wild Peacocks
The word “Tanamalwila” means “place of wild flowers”.  The flowers here really are very beautiful, and are unlike any that I’ve seen before.  (I will try to get some pictures up on the Commonway website).

Early in the morning I awaken to the cry of wild peacocks.  They have a very distinctive call:


Peacocks are... peacocks.  They are simply not like any other bird (or animal for that matter).  They are gorgeous and they know it.  They are huge birds, and when they display (put up the tail) it truly is breathtaking.  They are also pretty fearless and are regularly seen in and around the complex.  When they feel threatened, they just fly away.  It’s hard to believe that they can get themselves and that big tail up in the air, but they do so without problem.

There is plenty of other natural life around me.  As I write this section, there is a four foot long iguana approaching my sitting area on one of the walkways, where I’m trying to catch a breeze before the start of the next session.  He’s heading right for me.  I’ve been really still, but I think this is absurdly close.  Maybe this is the rare Blind Iguana, known to walk right over humans.  Or, maybe this is the extremely rare Man-Eating Iguana, who will start munching on my toes any minute.  (Seriously, I once saw a man eating iguana.  He offered me some, but I don’t eat reptile.)

Lots of signs of wild elephants, but I don’t spot any during this visit.  One of the Sarvodaya managers said that the wild elephants came into the complex just the day before our arrival.  You can see the path of the elephants through the Sarvodaya lands: a swath of downed trees and broken fences.  It’s not safe to walk too far from the complex at night.

I get through a full day of training while soaking wet from fever and heat.  It’s about 100 degrees inside the main gathering hall, an open-sided shed-like building that someone felt didn’t need ceiling fans.  The roof is made of corrugated asbestos panels, which does an excellent job of acting like a convection oven.  My shirt is soaked, my sarong is soaked, I’m drinking liters of water, and sweating it all right out.  When we divide into small groups for work, I go back to my room and lie down between sessions.

We are plagued by a million little gnats flying all around our faces, attracted by the sweat.  They are the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and particularly enjoy trying to land on our eyes.  They are easy to fan away, so there are 160 people fanning themselves.  I toy with the idea of trying to get us to fan in unison, or do a “wave”.  I decide I must be getting delirious.

Cultural Expectations:
That night, we have a brief cultural interlude, then gather to watch the movie “Baraka” in the main hall.  We enjoy a very pretty dance by the local village children, and a song by the children who are living in the 25 Sarvodaya houses that dot the 500 acre complex.

After the song and dance, one of the organizers stands and speaks.  Usually, I don’t have these addresses translated -- it usually is a long and descriptive “thank you”.  However, in the midst of the sinhalese, I hear my name mentioned.  Twice.  Everyone in the room is looking at me.

I look around quickly and spot someone who knows reasonable English.  “What am I supposed to be doing?” I ask in a whisper.  He replies, “You are honored to them for thanks with gifts.”  Because this is late in my tour, I know exactly what he means:  the children are to receive gifts, and I am supposed to hand them out.  Because Dr. Vinya has returned to Headquarters, I am the closest thing to a “dignitary” they can find to hand out gifts.  Poor kids.

I NEVER like to go first in times like this, because I want to see how it is done properly.  It is so easy to offend someone by omission or comission.  However, I find myself in front of the group, a wrapped present in my hands, and a line of young girls (I guess 10-14 years of age) in front of me.  The first one walks up, makes a small bow, takes the gift, then...  straightens up and looks at me.  It’s obvious from her look that I was supposed to do something and I blew it.  She looks over to my helper, who gestures for her to exit.

The next one walks up and bows.  Another present is shoved into my hands.  I retreat back into the behavior that I teach in all of my cultural workshops:  when in doubt, SMILE.  I make eye contact with her and give her a big smile.  She lights up and so does everyone else waiting in line.  I hand out the rest of the gifts to the dancers.

The organizer takes over as gift-giver for the 20 or so singers.  I then see the cultural expectation:  the organizer hands the gift with both hands BEFORE the child walks up.  The child bows, takes the gift in both of her hands.  While bowing, the organizer takes his right hand and touches, rubs or strokes the head of the child as a blessing.  The child straightens up and, without looking at the giver, turns and goes.

I would have never figured this out on my own, since in many cultures it is forbidden to touch the head of any person, especially a child.  In Bali, if you touch the head of a child, they cart the child off to the local high priest to have your energy scraped off.

Watching the movie “Baraka” was interesting: the night had cooled to a pleasant warmth, the bugs flew through the open-sided building, followed by the bats snatching them mid-air.  I wanted them to watch “Baraka” because it tells a beautiful story without using any words.

The Rains Come:
The next day, I’m too sick to join the shramadana work crews.  I’m seriously contemplating alternatives if I can’t get up to work.  However, by lecture time (after labor, breakfast and bathing down at the still raging river), I pull myself out of the bed and into the gathering hall.

By afternoon, my fever breaks and so does the heat.  Thick black clouds roll in, then drop buckets of rain straight down.  I mean BUCKETS.  I can’t see ten feet in front of me.  Most of the walkways at Tanamalwila are covered and the roofs are sound, so we don’t get too wet.  The temperature drops at least 25 degrees, to a comfortable 75.  Everyone’s spirits lift.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:
On Language:  One of the reasons people feel uncomfortable around those who speak different languages is that our insecurity makes us believe that the Other is talking about us.  In my workshops on inclusivity, I suggest that people act like the Other is not talking about them, or is saying something favorable about them.

A few weeks ago, I was in the “guests” line for dinner in the Sarvodaya canteen, waiting with about 20 Tamil visitors who were attending a human rights workshop at Headquarters.  They were engaged in an animated and lively conversation.  As I made my way up the line, I made eye contact and smiled; they smiled back.

A voice behind me said, “They are all talking about you.  They are laughing at the way you eat your food.”  I turned to see one of the men I had spoken to the day before.  He smiled and continued, “They are wondering how did you get so fat and eat so little rice?”

This is one of the times I wished I could climb under the table.  One of the great advantages to being black is that I don’t blush easily, but I was sure trying hard to turn red right then.

Toward a Common Religion:
When we leave Tanamalwila, we make a short detour and visit the nearby spiritual complex of Kataragama.  We offer blessings at a few of the many different temples, mosques, and churches in the area.   Every religious group on the island has a place at Kataragama.  It is common for people to go from one religious shrine to another, making prayers and offerings.  It makes me wonder: why can’t people get along like this all the time?  Why is our inclusivity limited to a certain place, a certain time, or certain conditions?  Why isn’t the entire island, or our entire world, our Kataragama?


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