January 2011

We arrived home from Sri Lanka two weeks ago and are finally beginning to feel that we are somewhat organized, at least briefly. Steve has his classes for the semester well underway and is finishing up the first unit on Poetry.

The new folks are settling in well and we organized a Karaoke night with a dual purpose. It was a fun night to break in the newbies with good food and great music, after all teachers tend to be a pretty gifted lot. Sadly though, it was also time to say farewell to John and Lindsay who are heading back to Canada to establish their careers and home there. They were a real asset to Taylor’s especially with the musical productions that they organized and will be missed by staff and students alike.

I managed to get in a few days in Cambodia to move plans forward for the next set of moral values training and to spend some time with the TWR team developing a plan for annual evaluation and reporting on the health program. Once home, I had one more major document to complete and send off before I began the final preparations for training.

With some repair work done in the apartment, lunch with Gary and Kveta to get caught up on their news and material purchased to have a dress made for the wedding, we are now, once again tripping over suitcases in preparation to hit the road, or skies once again. Please stay posted as we go our separate ways for a while and then meet up again in Phnom Penh.

If you look to the right on our homepage you will see a link to our son’s blog. He has been blogging for a lot longer than we have, and we owe our interest in blogging to his initiative. This latest post from our son’s blog is just too wonderful to not capture in our own record.

The other day, Ben and I were driving around on some errands, and he started into his ‘God’ line of questioning. The kids frequently ask questions about Jesus and God, and daddy’s grandpa — who died and is with Jesus. These are complex concepts to wrap around a 2 and 4-year old brain. “How are God and Jesus the same person? If God is bigger than our house, how does He live in our heart? Why did Jesus have to die? Why did daddy’s grandpa die too? Is Jesus taller than daddy? How old is Jesus? How fast can he run?”

All of these questions have been asked and answered numerous times, with the best most patient answers we can, doing our best to reduce answers to questions only God Himself really understands to something our kids can comprehend — without being blasphemous in the process!

This time though, some of the answers really seemed to be hitting home with Ben. In his thoughtful little way, he wanted to know if God lived in his heart. I told him that God will come and live in his heart as soon as he asks Him in. He wanted to know how, so I told him he’d have to pray. He wanted to know when he could pray — could it be when we got home, but after he had his cookie?

I’m not sure about his prioritization, but shortly thereafter he took my hand and we walked down stairs, and I helped him pray a simple believers prayer. When we were done, he pointed to his chest, and asked if God lived there now — and will he live there for always? I assured him that He would, and gave him a hug, and he trotted up stairs to tell mommy.

Of course his understanding is incomplete, and his faith is simple. But at 30 years of age, my understanding is still incomplete too. I was also saved when I was 4, and although there was a time when I was about 16 where I came to the realisation that I wouldn’t make it without my Saviour, I’ve never doubted my own simple believer’s prayer said 26 years ago.

And now my oldest son, my firstborn, isn’t just a part of our earthly family, he’s apart of our heavenly family too. There will be lots of hurdles and hard times. If he’s anything like his father, there’ll be rebellion and anger and stubborn independance too. But at the end of it all, he’s been bought with a price and saved by grace, and I couldn’t be more proud of my little man.

We are humbled by the Lord’s grace to our children and grandchildren, and rejoice with Jon and Nic at this news. May the Lord who has been so good to this family, find a home in your heart as well.

Cambodia is a moral vacuum. Ruthlessly colonized by the French, who drained the country of its resources and basically brought nothing to the country in return, bombed back to the dark ages by the Americans, who were seeking to cut off the supply route to South Vietnam during that bloody war, decimated by the Khmer Rouge who obliterated the intelligentsia, wiping out an entire generation, and dominated by the Vietnamese who now control the country through a puppet ruler; it is no wonder that they have little idea of how to function as families, as communities and as a society.

What Pam and her organization are seeking to do is to bring moral education, admittedly with a Christian focus, to the people of the villages of Cambodia through health care evangelism, using the existing organizations in the country in a focused and cooperative way. In a couple of weeks both of us will return to Phnom Penh during the Chinese New Year holiday to take part in further training of these health care workers. I am looking forward to providing some teaching first hand as opposed to my usual role of being part of the support network so that I can better understand the issues and the personalities involved in her ministry.

In my own workplace I see the importance of these moral values every day. Asian students, at least those who have not been devastated by generations of war and abuse, are invariably polite, civil and kind. Manners and social graces are important components of their culture, and I must say that my time spent teaching in Asia has benefitted from this aspect of their culture which my students bring to class. Civility breeds respect; incivility contempt. But civility does more than ensure that a respectful tone and atmosphere permeate my classes. It also facilitates inquiry and discussion as students become aware that their questions will be met with not with scorn, but with polite interest and a desire to further their understanding. Inquiry and discussion facilitate understanding and develop confidence in the learning process. Eventually this brings about maturity, as students begin to own the learning process for themselves and begin to develop their own strands of intellectual and social growth.

I wrote recently about the desire of some teachers and administrators to control the process of education through anger and intimidation. It has been my observation that this control is not only detrimental to personal relationships, it is detrimental to the learning process as well. Fear may work to impart facts and even skills, but it fails impart the understanding necessary for future growth, and undermines the self-confidence that is necessary to undergo present difficulties for future gains, which is an essential quality for those who are considering a university education. Kindness and civility do not in themselves lead to advances in education. But they do mold the character that makes this level of education possible. And they do affect a society that can look with hope toward a future when the education of the youth will become a valuable component of that nation’s fabric.

Civility and kindness; such simple virtues, it would seem; so unconnected to the success of a nation; and yet upon examination, how fundamental to that nation’s progress. It is also most pleasant, and most encouraging to my own attitude and teaching effectiveness to be treated with such civility and kindness by my students for the efforts I make on their behalf. To all my students in Malaysia who are reading this, my most appreciative thanks.

A long-time colleague of mine passed away recently; a man with whom I had worked for several years at a school back in Canada. Famous for his temper, he was both reviled and feared by students and colleagues alike. Yet, as is often the case when we examine such people, the Lord was able to teach me much about my own temper through this man. By his example I saw more clearly how odious my own bouts of intemperance were, and how destructive to the self-esteem of others.

My father had a nasty temper. He had been an officer in the war, rising to major before its end, and he was used to giving orders and being obeyed. He was not easily provoked, but once inflamed, he was not to be trifled with. My mother was strong-willed and selfish, and liked things to go her way. Between the two of them, our house was rarely peaceful. Understandably, my siblings and I grew up with anger management issues. Accepting Christ at 27 should have taken care of that issue for me. But as anyone who has come to Christ as an adult will tell you, there is a lot of baggage to attend to. Basically it takes you a lifetime.

My situation was complicated by the fact that in this profession, at least in North America, a little anger is a useful tool. Every student will tell you that a teacher’s stare is his or her best weapon. That stare has to contain more than a hint of menace to be effective. A hallway scolding is often necessary to rein in unruly students. Yard duty is not for wimps. In all of these ways, anger is reinforced as a useful part of a teacher’s personality. One of the things about teaching in Asia that I am most grateful for is the complete absence of any discipline issues. Students here are respectful and polite. There is no need for anger; in fact in this climate it would be almost unforgiveably rude.

I have always taught my children that anger is sometimes necessary to define boundaries and prevent others from treating you disrespectfully. But lately I have begun to question the wisdom of my own advice. More and more I see anger as an impediment to personal growth in my faith, and a barrier to effective and peaceable relationships with others. Yesterday I had a further reminder of that insight. Someone who I considered a friend thought it necessary to unload a barrage of his anger on me. To be honest I was too shocked to respond, and merely allowed him to exhaust himself, being as mild and inoffensive in my own manner as the situation allowed. He stomped away, muttering invectives under his breath, and I was moved to reflect upon his unexpected behaviour.

I will confess to being upset, and somewhat upbraided myself for not responding more forcefully. But then I noted that I seem to be losing my appetite for a response in kind. Rather, I felt sad for the man for not getting better control of his thoughts and his emotions. It seems to me that he has become smaller in my sight, and more immature, like an adolescent who is upset at not getting his own way. In whatever direction our relationship now goes, it will be coloured by his outburst, and I will be less trusting and open with him in the future. I now view him as unreliable and unbalanced.

This I see is the true cost of anger. A dear friend and former colleague has written elsewhere (http://corrinaaustin.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/on-being-nice) about the cost of kindness. Kindness is costly, it is true. But there are compensations for acts of kindness, and a resulting growth in character. The cost of anger seems to me higher, with fewer compensations, and a loss, rather than a growth in character.

I regret that it has taken me so long to recognize what others have understood at a much earlier age, and hope that my ignorance on this issue hasn’t doomed my children to misunderstanding on this aspect of their relationships with others. Nor do I think that I have yet learned all that I need to learn on this issue, at least I hope not. The Bible says that the wrath of man does not accomplish the will of God (James 1:20). In the end I think this is the greatest cost of all.

Well it is has been a lovely little trip, but now it is time to return to our regularly scheduled lives. We ended up taking a taxi to Negombo, our last stop in Sri Lanka,and we glad that we did for otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to stop and see the whale, beached on the southern coast. Negombo, was underwhelming to say the least. The Brits, of whom we encountered plenty on this trip, would say that the beach here was “scruffy.” They are being far too kind. We wouldn’t go anywhere near that filthy water, nor did we care to fight our way through the packs of dogs that roamed the debris- and garbage-encrusted stretch of beach between the hotel and the water. It is a shame, because the beaches along the southern coast are absolutely gorgeous.

Unfortunately the town of Negombo wasn’t much better, offering nothing in the way of beauty or interest, save oddly a number (seven at least) of large and offensively ornate Catholic churches. I say offensive, for such a gaudy show of wealth among such poverty, which demonstrated such callous indifference to the needs of the people the church pretended to serve, must be offensive to any Christian of good conscience, to say nothing of the Lord whose name is being so maligned. Oddly there seemed to be very few restaurants or food stalls in town either. There were a few bakeshops, with the occasional table, but sticky buns were not what we were looking for. Living in a country where every third shop cooks some kind of tasty cuisine, we were perplexed to say the least. We finally found a coffee shop that had a limited menu, and got something that called itself goulash that consisted of potatoes boiled to near mush and a semi-meat topping. Get me back to Malaysia!

Sri Lanka itself is gorgeous: beautiful beaches, stunning hills with their cascading waterfalls and slopes of emerald green tea, a wildlife park that is extensive and varied in both fauna and flora; there is a lot to like. And the people are lovely and considerate. But the place is sadly lacking in cleanliness even by Asian standards. To make matters worse its infrastructure – rail, roads, buildings, sewers, and so on – is either rotting or crumbling. And unlike Cambodia, which is undergoing reconstruction daily, nothing much seems to be happening to repair the damage. A ring road is badly needed around Colombo to get to the airport from the south without having to go through the heart of the city. We did that yesterday and it took pretty close to three hours. A road has been promised, and contracts have been paid for, yet nothing has been done for over twenty years and the money just seems to disappear.

The civil war against the north has taken much of the country’s wealth and poured it into the men and machinery of war. Everywhere you see evidence of the militarization of the country, and it is disturbing. The army is the tail that wags this particular dog, and it may well take a generation before the young men of this country are reabsorbed into more peaceful and productive pursuits. Now, with nothing more useful to do, they impede the progress of the nation toward normality. Army personnel are everywhere. Checkpoints are everywhere; most of them totally senseless.

When we arrived at the airport, for example, there was a baggage check at the front door. Fair enough. But the traffic congestion outside the front door was enormous. Once through that blockade there was a guard standing at the entrance to the departure hall and ticket counters. The crowd around him was dense and growing larger by the minute. There was no sign or other information regarding what he was doing, but I found out that he was only allowing one flight’s passengers through to the ticket counter at a time. Who would know that? Why would they do that? Once we got our bags checked the departure hall itself was lovely; spanking new and well serviced. But there was nobody there because they were all still back in the bottleneck at the entrance!

This country has a long way to go before it is back on track to becoming the prosperous jewel in the Indian Ocean that it once promised to be. It is at present ill-equipped to meet the natural changes in seismic activity, like the tsunami of 2004, or the floods that are presently taking place in the north of the country that have displaced a million people. War, greed and corruption. What a mess we humans make of things when we fail to acknowledge that we will one day be held to account for our behaviour. How poorly we treat a world that He has made so beautifully.

Because the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama was the first European to round the Cape of Africa and sail into the Indian Ocean, many of the first European settlements along the coast of India, Sri Lanka and even as far as Malacca in Malaysia were Portuguese colonies. His name is still remembered along this coast in places like Welligama. In Malacca the Portuguese displaced the Muslims, who had been there for less than a hundred years. In Galle, Sri Lanka, where we are at present, they were themselves displaced by the Dutch, whose East India Company was a powerful player in the 17th century. The Dutch built a fort on this southernmost tip of what was then called Serendip, and like all things Dutch, it was solidly built; so solid in fact that when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, the waves did not breach these walls. It was the only town along the southern coast so protected.

We got to Galle around noon yesterday, once again putting our lives into the maniacal hands of those who seek to terrorize their innocent passengers by driving through these narrow roads in a homicidal rage. There are no set times for bus routes in Sri Lanka. They leave when there are no more passengers to load, and then they race to get to the next stop to get the next set of passengers before the other buses. And the words ‘bus stop’ don’t convey quite the same meaning either. The conductor who sold you your ticket knows when you get off. Two kilometers before your stop he will usher you to the door, the bus will pause momentarily – it will not actually stop – and you will be ‘assisted’ off the bus in the most expeditious manner possible.

However, looking on the cheery side, it did get us here in good time, and here is a nice place to be. The owners of the Beach Haven Guest House, where we were booked, could not, in their gentle Asian way, convince their previous guests to vacate the room we had booked. We have lived in the East long enough to understand their reticence, and given the beauty of this spot, also understood their guests’ reluctance to leave. However, it did leave us in a bit of a pickle in that we had no place to stay. Once again Asian courtesy and civility meant that these kind people had booked another (and even nicer!) room for us at the end of the fort overlooking the sea. In order to hold this room they had promised to pay for it if we failed to show up.

Galle Fort is a warren of little houses and winding streets filled with craft and jewelry shops, guest houses and tea shops, churches, mosques and temples all peacefully co-existing beside each other with a magnificent view of the sea cascading in over the rocks and into these sturdy walls. All around the fort is a walkway where in the evening and early morning the residents stroll or stride, according to their tendency in the clean warm air that comes in over the ocean. We are sitting on our balcony eating a lovely Sri Lankan breakfast consisting of egg hoppers, an egg and thosai conconction that actually goes very nicely with the curried potatoes, and strong Ceylonese tea, watching the breakers and the walkers and wishing that we could stay here for a lot longer. But our next night’s accommodation is booked, and we must shortly catch a train to Colombo, a journey of 117 kilometers, which will take 3 ½ hours. After the terror of the buses the last few days, I am looking forward to the more leisurely pace!

My Village Guest House is a funky little place tucked away on the outskirts of Tissa overlooking the Bird Park. Its owner has designed something unique and very restful, and we had a nice breakfast on the patio outside our room and then I went out looking for a tuk. On the way I met a young Singhalese boy with who ran out from his yard and greeted me shyly hugging an English primer to his small chest. I asked him if he could read for me and traced the words with my fingers. It didn’t take me long to see that he was having trouble with his past tense endings. As any ESL teacher will tell you ‘ed’ only says ‘ed’ when it follows ‘d’ and ‘t’. For most other consonants it says ‘d’, except for ‘k’ and ‘p’ when it says ‘t’. A lot of English teachers over here don’t know that (and a host of other small hiccups) and improperly educate their students, who then end up in our program struggling with their English by the time they get to our program.

This young lad was a quick study and so had it right without much repeating. Of course his teacher will beat it out of him on Monday, but he will still remember the right way and use it someday. He gave me a wide happy grin for my efforts and I felt well paid. Those who do not teach and think that this profession has something to do with lording it over others must have met some nasty teachers on their way. Or maybe they were nasty students and never understood that others were trying to help them. There are some people who simply cannot humble themselves long enough to take something from someone else. It is much easier to paint all teachers black than admit their stubborn sense of god-given superiority has hindered their ability to learn. But for those of us who have been blessed with this gift, the learner’s gasp of delight in recognition of something they had struggled with and now understood, and their gift of a smile of appreciation is worth all the gold the rich man in his greed and ignorance strives to accumulate.

My next contact was with a tuk-tuk owner, or more specifically his wife. His tuk was parked outside his house, which also served as the local grocery store. I asked if the owner of the tuk could give us a ride to the bus depot and she said she would call him. Her daughter immediately protested – in voluble Singhalese! I don’t speak the language, but I did read the tone. She was dressed very nicely, obviously on her way out, and her father, who then showed up, had obviously promised her a ride. “Yes, yes, I will take you to the bus depot,” he said. “No, no, you will not,” I replied, “your daughter is waiting for you to take her to school, and that is more important.”

“It is not school she is going to, but church.” And then in case I didn’t understand he added Hallelujah! Correcting myself – it is hard to keep track of the days of the week when you are travelling – I replied, “Well that is even more reason for you to give her a ride, and I will not get in your tuk.” I shook his hand and waved a greeting at the woman and her daughter who were both giving me big smiles. A short walk down the road brought me to the dam where many tuks were being given their morning bath. I flagged one, caught a ride back to the guest house and loaded up the luggage. Then we were on our way to the bus depot.

The station was relatively clean and orderly, and there was a bus to Tangalla just loading. We got on, found an empty seat and settled in. The fare cost $1.50 for both of us and took just under three hours. The roads were pretty good for the most part, but there is a lot of road reconstruction going on in the country right now, so patches of it can be pretty rugged. We never felt hassled and we didn’t feel unsafe. The hardest thing we had to endure was three hours without a rest stop. At our age that is trial enough! We caught a tuk in Tangalla to the resort and got ourselves checked in and were on the beach by 1 pm.

Paradise Palms Cabanas is a nice little resort, with 15 to 20 little cabanas scattered over the property. Only one has an unimpeded view of the beach, but none are more than 100 paces away. As I am blogging this I can hear the sounds of the waves and the music of Bob Marley drifting in from the beach. We read and rode the waves all afternoon, ate some fresh lobster out of the sea – Pam’s first – and spent some part of the evening checking our email and uploading previous blogs.
Three of those emails are of special concern. Thomas Froese, a long time friend and missionary/journalist in Uganda has been ill with malaria. Although he is one the mend now, he would appreciate the prayers of those who know him. Joannie Wiley, wife of Terry, serving the Lord in Pakistan is also ill with malaria, but hers is cerebral and she has been delirious for many days now. With the ongoing relief work from the devastating floods that Terry has been spearheading in his area and the refusal to grant visa to much needed coworkers, Terry is feeling more than a little overwhelmed. He certainly could use your prayers at the moment, and Joannie too that there will not be any ongoing damage. Dave Wright is also facing some difficulty with the young church he has founded among the Mengen people in Papua New Guinea. There has been both illness and death among the believers who in their naïve faith thought that Christ would heal them of all those diseases. Dave is struggling to get Romans translated and ready for teaching, as his little flock are being attacked and need spiritual meat for their souls.

Pam and I are “wondering where the lions are.” We go on our merry little way, enjoying God’s rich blessing and others who like us are serving in foreign places seem to get nothing but challenge while we sit on the beach. Perhaps our challenge is ahead for us this year. If so, may the Lord find us ready to bear any burden, and do whatever it takes to see His love, truth and healing power bring comfort to those who have suffered for so long under war, poverty and disease in this part of the world. So then maybe you should pray for us as well, that we would be ready for the challenge when it comes. A holiday is nice, and even the Lord called His disciples aside to rest. But there is much work left to be done, and we want to stand with our friends who are putting much on the line to do their share of good while it is still day.

We are sitting here this morning in our jammies watching the sun come up, and praising God for the beauty of His creation. Sights such as the view out our window are part of the treasure of a lifetime of travel. This particular view is right up there with the Cape Breton coastline and the view from the balcony at Palau Redang. We feel fortunate to be here, even if we had to get up at 5:45 to see the sun rise on Adam’s Peak. That’s it over there on the right. You can’t see up to the top in this view, but if you listen closely perhaps you can hear the spectacular waterfall cascading down its slopes.

When the kitchen opened we ordered coffee, showered and warmed up in the window overlooking the valley. After a passable breakfast we hit the road, stopping as little as possible as we wanted to hit Tissa before noon. We overshot our mark and got there by 11, paid and tipped the driver and checked into to a very nice little guesthouse on the side of Tissa Lake. Not knowing quite how to set about exploring the town, we settled on the guest bicycles, and started down the dirt track that wound around the lake. Along the way we saw all kinds of waterfowl .

About half-way around the lake we were hailed by a friendly fellow who insisted we check out the view from his place. We acceded (sometimes it pays to be gracious, as you will shortly see) and allowed him to pick some papaya and blend it into a juice for us. While we sat sipping and watching the waterfowl, a Safari Jeep pulled into the compound to drop of a load of smiling tourists. Now we knew that Yala National Park was nearby, and had in fact chosen Tissa as a destination for that reason. We knew too that Yala was very highly rated, both for its diversity of wildlife and the management of its plants and animals. We also knew, because we had checked before we left Malaysia, that it was prohibitively expensive to do a safari there. But since the Jeep was right there, and the guy was right there, we had to ask. To our delight it was only going to be 5500 rupees, about $50 Canadian, for both of us and wouldn’t you know it the next five hour safari started in about twenty minutes! We were in!

We quickly scooted back to the guesthouse and loaded up on water and bug repellant, made arrangements for supper and packed our cameras and the binoculars. I always travel with binoculars, but today I would be wishing I had two pair, for it was hard to share when the sights were so engrossing. Right on time the driver showed up, and we drove through some very pleasant scenery for about an hour to get to the park entrance. The park wanted another $50 bucks and our passports, so if you are going – and if you come to Sri Lanka you should – then be prepared. We haven’t seen any room safes on this trip, so we have carried our passports in a waist pouch since we landed. Lucky for us, as no one had told us they would be needed. We also took on a ‘tracker’, who turned out to be worth his weight in gold.

Pam spotted our first sight within minutes, a large bull elephant grazing on some trees right beside the road. Our tracker figured him to be about 40; he had no tusks, unlike his African counterparts. His appearance seemed to set the tone for the next three hours; one sighting after another in rapid succession. The highlight was undoubtedly the large Sri Lankan leopard, a huge male with golden fur and white spots resplendent on his rock outcropping. After that we saw sambar, which are elk-sized deer, spotted deer, golden jackal, wild pig, all manner of water buffalo, three more elephants, a black-napped hare, black-faced hanuman languor with their grey fur blending perfectly into the grey bark of the tree, and a lone crocodile patiently tracking its prey through the water lilies.

With over two hundred species, the birds in the park were almost too numerous to catalogue. There were snipes and shrikes, egrets and spoonbills, stilts, stints, crakes and cranes. We saw jacanas and hoopoes, bee-eaters and flycatchers, both very lovely birds by the way, peacocks and pelicans, whistling teals and night herons. We saw an Indian roller, a beautiful bird with blue feathers a green back and an orange breast, and an Indian darter, much like a cormorant, but more colourful. We saw the national bird of Sri Lanka, the Ceylon spurfowl, a shy rooster-like bird and lots of white ibis, with their black curved bills. We saw a magnificent crested hawk-eagle, and the flamingo-like painted stork. My personal favourite was the totally inappropriately named common kingfisher. He was a gorgeous fellow with his electric blue back and wings and pumpkin orange breast. I don’t think I named them all, but you surely get the picture; it was a banquet for the eyes!

Our last view of the park was the massive back of the Sri Lankan leopard as we drove reluctantly away to make the 6 o’clock closure time. The guidebook will tell you that this is Asia’s premier wildlife preserve. What it won’t tell you is what kind of effect that has on you. After dropping and profusely thanking our trekker whose eagle eyes has spotted so much wildlife, we drove the hour back to the guesthouse in semi-stunned silence. We had another lovely meal and went to bed exhausted not from the effort, but from processing so much sensory information in such a short period of time. It was just fourteen hours from the dizzying heights of Adams Peak to the almost spiritual experience of Yala National Park. Our guest house neighbours summed it up by saying Sri Lanka is like a shrink-wrapped India. Everything you can find on the mainland is here, it is just condensed. It can be a little overwhelming.

Thursday morning we woke early in Kandy to get a start of what promised to be a long day’s drive. The room was cold, despite the extra blanket, and we both took a pass on the shower. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. We packed up and checked our mail in time to find Jon and Nic negotiating with a buyer for their house. It didn’t pan out, but they are clearly not going to be stampeded into giving their house away, and we applaud them for that. We said our goodbyes to Sirath, the very sweet guesthouse owner, and loaded our stuff into our driver’s car. Ominously it was a Proton Wira, a Malaysian product notorious for its poor quality.

The ride out of town was uneventful, and the traffic sparse. The talk about Sri Lanka’s poor and dangerous roads seemed hysterical and overwrought; a product of its proximity to the pampered West, rather than Asian realities. We wound our way ever higher into the hills, now dotted with tea plantations and cut by waterfalls. We stopped for pictures beside hills carpeted with manicured rows of emerald green tea, and did a brief tour of a tea factory, notable for its antique machines, still functioning rhythmically.

Our destination for lunch was Nuwara Elia, a British colonial town high in the hills. The road was now becoming quite steep, with multiple switchbacks and precipitous drops. It was as rugged or more so than Luzon, the northern island of the Philippines. Leveling off we came into town, some two kilometers above sea level and had the driver pull in at the Grand Hotel, a lovely old monument to the finer qualities of this country’s genteel British heritage. We bought some children’s books from a group of business students to give them an opportunity to practice their English, and then promptly gave them away to the first child we met. Despite its regal elegance, lunch would have been a mere 10 dollars for both of us, served on the finest china with heavy silver cutlery.

But I had promised the driver that he could chose us a place for lunch, knowing full well that by doing so he would get a kickback for bringing his clients. Sometimes this works, this time it did not. The place he took us to was shabby and deserted, the curry was mediocre, and we got hosed 20 bucks for a meal we had bought in town the previous night for $4. To add insult to injury the driver ignored my request to drive into town to have a look around and get some money out, and immediately got back on the road again, which was under construction for the next thirty miles, making it impossible to turn around. The fellow clearly had in mind to drop us at his earliest convenience; I was becoming more than a trifle miffed.

I insisted that he stop at the first possible opportunity, Bandarella, and got out to find an ATM. What we found was a nice German couple outside the ATM with whom we struck up a conversation. Finding they were also headed to Ella, we offered them a lift – there has to be some advantage of having a driver! – and ended up having a lovely conversation at a little café in Ella while the driver gave me sullen and angry looks at a nearby table. She was a researcher at an environmental institute in Berlin, studying the effects of global warming. He was waiting to hear if his application for doctoral thesis was going to be accepted. We exchanged travel tips and parted company.

The final leg to the hotel was not for the fainthearted. Skyview Hotel was in fact SkyGreen Hotel, and it took some finding. The fellow who booked it for us assured us that it had the best view in Ella, and he wasn’t kidding; but getting to the best view in town meant climbing a road fit for goats. We opted to walk the last 100 meters rather than trust our lives to our driver’s rickety Waja. But the climb was worth it as we arrived in our room and opened our window to a stunning view of the hills. Really, the pictures do not do it justice. We had a lovely supper with an unimaginative couple who had been going to the same resort for twenty years and thought this time they would try something new. They got awfully lucky with the second thing they tried!

We had originally planned to stay in Kandy for three nights and make it our base for exploring what in Sri Lanka is called the Golden Triangle, a roughly triangular area of cultural and historical sites that lie north of here. However the haul from Colombo to Kandy was enough to convince us that the one day we had allowed ourselves to travel the 300 kilometers to Tissa was not going to be enough. So our first priority in the morning was to check the train and bus routes south. It was worse than we feared. The buses made the transportation in Cambodia look advanced – no mean feat! – and the train would simply issue as many tickets as people showed up; and continue to do so for the fourteen stops it was going to make on the next six hours to Ella. Even then we would only be halfway to our destination. We loved the train ride from Colombo, but clearly it was not going to work on the next leg.

So we bit the bullet and hired a driver. The standard rate here is $70 bucks a day, which includes his gas and accommodation. We had to cover two days worth, as Ella is in the middle of nowhere, and we got accommodation for ourselves in the package at a place called Skyview Hotel. On a lot of this stuff you have to rely on your gut instinct regarding the guy who is selling you the package. Be friendly, try not to look or act too gullible, and always break it down one piece at a time. We try to book as much of this stuff online in advance, but sometimes you have to adapt on the fly. It always costs more to correct your mistakes, and we should have researched the roads more thoroughly.

That settled we set off to explore Kandy. We started in the Queen’s Hotel, the doughty old lady of a bygone era, with its gleaming wooden patina of floorboards and staircases. Then we moved on to the flower market beside the temple, awash in its vibrant lotus and lily colours and jasmine scents. We strolled the grounds of the temple dedicated to one of Buddha’s teeth – a highly venerated shrine in this predominantly Buddhist country, but opted not to part with the twenty bucks they wanted from us to explore inside. A short walk further down the lake brought us to the cultural centre where we bought tickets to the traditional dance show for the evening.

Seeing no advantage in going further around the lake, we caught a three-wheeler back into town to tour the local markets. It was pretty grungy stuff, but fascinating all the same. Handicrafts were a rarity, but fabrics were beautiful, abundant and cheap. As in Bangladesh you could get your clothing made from the fabric on the spot by a willing tailor on a foot-pedal Singer. Once again we encountered the welcoming smiles and approving nods at being some of the few white faces in these markets for quite some time. We stopped for a late lunch at a local curry house where we both ate our fill for five bucks. Then it was off to a tea shop to work on some documents for Pam’s workshop in Phnom Penh next month, and then took a leisurely stroll back to the cultural center.

The place was dark, and needed paint, some handrails on the staircase and decent chairs, but it was serviceable and our seats afforded an excellent view. The dance steps were complex and creative, but clearly this was an artform in recovery. The dancers were often unsure of their movements and rudimentary in skill compared to their counterparts in Laos, Malaysia or Bali. But the hall was packed and the audience receptive, and certainly with time stronger dancers and teachers will emerge to develop what has had to be set aside for almost an entire generation. The finale was a fire dance, culminating in walking on a bed of coals. I have seen this on travelogues as often as you have, but I had never witnessed it in person. These guys didn’t walk, they ambled, they strolled, they showed no evidence of pain or even discomfort. And these coals were not only hot; they were constantly fanned to flame!

Not yet ready to call it a night, and not willing to endure the crowds massing back at the Tooth Temple for the evening display, we caught a Tuk to the Swiss Hotel to sit in the lounge with a quiet drink. Seeing a single woman beginning to play solitaire at a nearby table, Pam invited her to join us. It turns out she wasn’t single, but waiting for her husband, Dave, who turned out to be a most interesting character. A graphic artist by training, he had led a t-shirt campaign to save a tract of virgin forest from being logged near Nelson, B.C. and had not only succeeded, but had managed to get it designated as provincial parkland. Although relatively small in size, the new park cut off the only access to logging for a huge tract of land further inland, which was then sold back to the province by the German consortium that owned it. The guy had ended up saving a massive amount of old growth forest in the heart of British Columbia.

Our little guest house was only a few steps from the hotel, but the roads were dark and wet, and without sidewalks we would be putting ourselves in unnecessary danger. The first three-wheeler stopped for us rather uncertainly – it was pitch dark after all – and he didn’t seem to have a clue about where we wanted to go. We were just going to give up and walk but he insisted on taking us if we showed him the way. We got in and I gave him some directions, mumbling under my breath about tuk-tuk drivers that didn’t know their way around town. Then Pam noticed, and commented, on the bags of goods he was carrying. “Yes, yes,” he explained, “I am a business man, a graduate of a local college and I am just returning home from work. I saw you walking in dangerous part of town and just wanted to help you out of trouble.” Chagrined and deeply humbled by my ungracious attitude in the face of such kindness, I offered him more than the ride was worth, but he wouldn’t accept it, taking only a dollar for his troubles, and giving me a beatific smile. Sometimes I am just such an ass I can’t stand it.

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