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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 13: 
Unawatuna Beach  
The Beauty of Rice   
The Global Idiot Box  
 

Unawatuna Beach
If it gets any better than this, don't tell me.  I'd like to suffer under the illusion that this is as good as it gets.

I'm sitting on the second floor balcony at a guest house at Unawatuna Beach, described in one travel magazine as one of the top ten undiscovered beaches in the world.  It's a high sunshine, low humidity day, very pleasant sleeping weather, sunning weather, wading weather... Anything weather.  The sun glints off the milky white waves of the Indian Ocean crashing out on the barrier reef, matched in pristine whiteness by the round top of the Buddhist dagoba that stands guard at the eastern  point of the bay.

I've just finished breakfast on the balcony (included in the ten dollar a day room rate).  Now, I'm waiting for it to warm up a bit so that I can venture out and do some serious beach walking.

Although a travel magazine cited Unawatuna Bay as one of the ten best undiscovered beaches in the world, from the handful of pale tourists on the beach, it's still pretty undiscovered.  Nothing for tourists to do here.  Which is why I love it.  [Note: this was written before the Tigers airport attack.]

Looking directly over my balcony railing, I see the barrier reef which guards the bay and tames the surf, then... nothing.  I mean really, really nothing.  Not just the flat expanse of horizon that one sees when looking out over any ocean.  Beyond the ten miles of my line of sight, there is a COGNITIVE nothing, I'm looking from the last inhabited village in the Eastern Hemisphere.

If I got on one of the fishing boats bobbing in the bay and headed due south, I'd cross the Equator in about twenty miles or so.  (It looks like a line on the globe, but, believe me, there's no line in the water.)

If we kept going, we'd have to go a long time before we ran into a land mass with life on it.  Straight down to the Antartic, in fact.  Actually, past the Antarctic, since that big ice cube is home to no permanent life forms.  The penguins and the researchers are all visitors.

Think of it: from where I am sitting, right now, going south, the next inhabited village is Tierra Del Fuego in South America.  ___________ miles away.  I hope the fishing boat has plenty of canned goods and a few warm blankets.

Turning north, finding signs of life is a lot easier.  In fact, NOT finding life would be hard.  Sri Lanka is mostly a tropical rain forest (what used to be called a "jungle" before the days of political correctness).  Last night, the chattering of monkeys outside my balcony kept me awake for hours (the original party animals).  In the evening, I can watch the flying foxes coming in for their nightly fruit feasts.  (A flying fox is a bat the size of a small dog.  Just imagine the Taco Bell chihuahua with a five foot wingspan.  Thank God they eat fruit.  They believe in going for dessert first, last and always.  As big as they are, they don't have to be either quiet or subtle.  A few visits ago, I was sitting on the balcony at sunset, watching the aerial dog show, when one of them landed in the coconut tree less than 20 feet from me, making a noise like -- well, like a flying dog hitting a tree.  I jumped.  From my second floor balcony, we were eye to eye.   He looked at me with clear contempt -- we both knew who was boss.  I don't mess with tame dogs that walk; Iím not going to confront a wild dog that flies.)

There is another kind of life on this island -- human.  And a whole lot of them.    Sri Lanka is supposed to be the second densest spot on Earth (Hong Kong coming in first).  Sri Lanka's distinction is unique, since there are virtually no high rise residences on the island (unlike Hong Kong, which has a 50 story apartment building swaying in the wind every few feet).

The sheer weight of humanity presses on me after awhile.  Buses about to tip over from the people clinging to the doors, windows, even bumpers.  Being encased, mummy-like, in human beings on the train -- someone pressed against every part of my body except my head.  Riding from one side of the island to the other, and never seeing a view without humans.  Every few weeks, I sign into a tourist hotel, just to reduce the numbers of people I encounter.  (On the tourist beaches, there are private guards who keep the hordes at bay.  I know it sounds tacky, but you haven't had the pleasure of being a human sardine -- without the benefit of olive oil.)
 

The Beauty of Rice:

I don't know what it is about a field of rice.  I think it's the most beautiful, evocative crop in the world.  I can't pass a rice field without thinking about its beauty.

I thought I was alone in this thought, until I noticed the number of tourists in tropical countries taking pictures of rice fields.  It's not just the quaint people going about their daily labors in the field -- there is something about the rice itself.  Perhaps its translucent green color that seems to light up everything around it.  Perhaps the fact that it is growing in water in its early days, so that a young rice field looks like a briliant green lake.

I don't see people having this same reaction to a wheat field or to watching potatoes grow.

Perhaps rice acts like a time warp, making us move slower, more in rhythm with the planet than with our watches.  Except for the actual planting, there is nothing in a rice harvest that moves methodically.

When we look at the same sight all the time, we get eye strain.  Perhaps we get something like time strain when we suffer under the same mechanical rhythms all the time.  We may NEED time in a rice paddy to slow us down to the earth's speed.  (Perhaps it is no coincidence that most of the hotels in central Bali promise rooms with views of rice fields.)
 

A Tale of Two Electric Bills

I pay two electric bills; one in Portland, Oregon and one in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka.  In Moratuwa, I pay for 22 1/2 hours of power a day; there are automatic, institutionalized power blackouts every day.  Every country wants big dam projects; the mark of a "developed" country.  Now, blackouts are the price being paid for "prestige".

The Sri Lanka blackouts are island-wide, and targeted between 7-12 pm, television prime time.  (Apparently, television is the largest consumer of electricity on the island.  Scary.)  Between those times, everyone will experience 1 1/2 hours of being without television.  (Everyone except wealthy Sri Lankans, who can afford generators and whose homes gleam with pride into the otherwise pitch black night.)

The times of the blackout rotates weekly.  The worse time for me is between 10- 11:30.  Without a fan, under the mosquito netting, the air simply doesn't move.  I take my cold shower by candelight, but it's so hot I'm sweating before I finish drying off.  I lay in a pool of sweat, practicing Buddhist-style detachment from sensory experience and pretending that the air I'm breathing actually contains oxygen.

The only place the blackout doesn't rotate is the Tiger-held northern part of the island: there the blackout is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Except for the aid organizations, who bring in their own generators, and a few well-off Tamils who buy electricity -- from the Tigers.)

The Global Idiot Box:
People not able to watch television on a regular basis -- I wonder what this is going to do to Sri Lanka's presently low birthrate?

The blackout has made me think about the ubitquitous nature of television in the world.  Television is the one single invention that has done more harm -- and more good -- to human cultures than any other.

The Good: with television, we can experience cultures that our parents could only dream of.  Without being wealthy (or, in my case, very fortunate), we can travel around the world, visit the entire human family, without leaving our living rooms.

The Bad: the world doesn't use television to experience other cultures -- they use television to experience American culture.  "Baywatch" is the most popular television program in the world.  If that doesn't scare you, nothing will.  I've seen people watching "Baywatch" in Cuba, "Jerry Springer" in Brazil, and the equivalent of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" in Indonesia (since it only takes $120 dollars to be a millionaire in Jakarta, they name the program something else).

The Ugly:  Sitting in Sri Lanka, watching brown people watching the stuffed swimsuits on "Baywatch", their envy machines in high gear.  Beautiful brown girls wishing they were silicon injected blondes.  Beautiful brown guys wishing they were blue-eyed, hard-bodied studs, so they could get the blonde babes.  Everybody comparing their bodies to what they see on the screen, and coming up short.  Everybody looking at that one standard of beauty and deciding they must be ugly.

It's not just the main programs; the local commercials continue the message of the Americanized ideal.  The local models are all tall, light-skinned and round-eyed.

It was just this tendency that the "black consciousness" movement tried to combat among African-Americans back in the Sixties.  Remember "black is beautiful"?  From the number of black peroxide blondes out on the streets now, we weren't exactly successful.

The problem isn't just that global mega-corporations are busy turning people into consumers and markets.  It's that most of those people WANT to become consumers.  They want a life of value, and the only ones defining value today are Wall Street types.  Everyone wants "success", and the main ones defining success are the folks who write tv commercials.

We have not yet created a compelling, sustainable, viable alternative to the present measures of success, "the American Dream Gone Global".  Until we do, we can expect the world to stay glued to the Breaker tube.

Peace,

Sharif
 
 
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