Saturday, November 26, 2011

27. OUR ENGLISH TEACHER

The students in that Dehiattakandiya school, in Ampara District of the Eastern Sri Lanka, which I had mentioned in Teasing Tomato Dudes, were not very much motivated to learn. Absenteeism was common and those who showed up didn't show much enthusiasm to learn. 

I think this was a result of being an agricultural community. Before the harvesting time they had to guard the farmland and paddy fields from wild animals which meant sleepless nights. During the day time they had to chase birds from the paddy fields. So no wonder they were drowsy in the class. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

26. HOME SWEET HOME, HERE WE COME!! PART1

By the time you read this post, we 'll be on the final leg of the transit, on our way home to Sri Lanka. This passage consists of travel by land, sea and air. Though this is supposed to be an eagerly awaited  joyful event, the airline ticketing agencies or a bank or some other body makes sure to take the joy away and make it as stressful and traumatic as possible.
We've been so disappointed in these airline ticketing systems, I personally don't believe that we're going to make this flight, even when we board the aircraft, even when we taxi to the end of the runway and turn around, even when the big Rolls Royce Engines on the Airbus rev up sitting at the end of the runway, even when it hurtles down the runway faster than a F1 racing car, even when the we take off into the November skies. I only believe when we bank right and head east.

Every year they make some mess with the booking ans we are wait listed and I've lost count how many times we had to run through the airport terminals after FINAL CALL. It was only last year we had to spend the night at the airport waiting for the airport branch of the airline to verify my son's booking. Even though they make a very big fuss about overbooking, once you get into the plane there are so many vacant seats.

I don't like night flights, because I miss seeing Sri Lanka from the sky for the first time of the year. And when we go home in the midnight we become helpless in out own home. The strong point is you can get home without ben seen by the prying eyes.


37000 feet from the mean sea level. Outside temperature, minus thirty five or forty degrees Celsius. The engine note changes when you swallow. Why not have another Heineken?

The PA system crackles that we are going to land in Colombo in a few minutes, so return to your seat and buckle up. And no smoking goes without saying.
The most ecstatic  moment of the whole flight is touching down on the tarmac of our own airport. Even though the landing procedure is the same on the return journey, the feeling is entirely different.


The aircraft is losing height. The wind starts to howl against the open wing spoilers. If you pay close attention you feel rather than hear the hum of the powerful motors opening the wheel bay, the landing gear lowering and locks into place with a gentle thud. My on and I both remember the 'Microsoft Flight Simulator' we play at home. The wind howling against the open wing spoilers and  the powerful jet engines screaming in reverse thrust  raise into a crescendo.

We are on the glide path with the nose slightly raise to enable the huge rear landing gear to hit the tarmac first. Finally when the rubber meets the asphalt at high speed, leaving a new black rubber skid mark on the runway we feel the thud throughout the cabin .Then the nose wheel  settles down, with the hiss of hydraulics, the weight of the aircraft is transferred to the powerful suspension system. The wheel brakes, reverse thrust and wing spoilers all work in unison, and plane slows down.



I feel a lump in  my throat and my eyes moisten, momentarily forgetting the grease devils, undisciplined drivers, the crime rate. I get a bit carried away anyway, like some others.


The aircraft now taxis to the gate. Though we can't get off till the the jet bridges are connected to the doors, almost everybody stand up and spill into the aisles, blocking them. Only few wise dudes stay seated.  It's a good idea to check if you are leaving anything behind. Better peep into the overhead bin to check anything from your cabin luggage had spilled out, because the ride was so rough closer to Colombo, due to turbulence.



 We go through the jet bridge, take several turns and we are in the lobby, filling out the mandatory forms. It's amazing to see how many people travel from country to country without a pen. They bug you for your pen. Why the hell can't these dudes remember to bring a pen?
 The first queue in the motherland, the immigration and emigration. They stare into the computer screen, then at your passport photo, study your face and stamp your passport, that you have landed. On second thoughts, sometimes they give you a brief smile also. "Welcome back. Have a pleasant Stay!" These are only in Hollywood movies.

The Duty Free Shops on the Arrivals Lounge always remind me of  the cross streets of Pettah,  vendors trying to lure you in. Why do they always have home appliances? And why not laptops, computer accessories and digital cameras for a change?

Dudes cast stray glances at your Duty Free Wine. You can't spend too much time here as your luggage is now taking free rides on the baggage carousel. If you get fashionably late, the security dude who has an eye over them is a bit pissed off. If you get very late, and forgot you had to collect them, then your luggage could go missing, too. Who knows?


Sri Lanka customs let us through without much fuss, may be because they feel sorry for us. The ATMs in the airport refuse to spit out the cash with the kind of card you have,  no matter what.
It's safer to get a taxi from that reputed taxi service, housed in the airport. 


Some dudes fall over each other trying to help to load our luggage into the van expecting a tip in dollars. Dude we pushed them ourselves through the worst parts of the journey. They won't back down.


I replace the foreign SIMS sith local SIMS that I've prerved in my wallet for one whole year. Then reset the time on my wrist watch and the phone. I hear Sinhala around me giving a feeling of nostalgia and our people are everywhere.But oh, dudes the way they drive! And the first thing I notice is how much they honk! I had forgotten about these three wheel driver and private bus drivers.


We pass Minuwangoda and Gampaha. I start a small talk  with the van driver. "How much is petrol? How much is diesel? There were grease devils here, right? They are opening the new expressway on 27th, aren't they?" Mostly updates.


At the beginning mu dudes used to come to pick me up. The novelty wore off when we continued to go away for the last ten years. Now the drop us off on our way back.
At last here we are. HOME SWEET HOME! THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!!


PART TWO when we really get home. If you can't wait, you can read the rest in Sinhala by visiting my Sinhala Blog 
මට හිතෙන හැටි


Thursday, November 17, 2011

25. Narrow Escapes 7: The Day I Nearly Lost An Eye.

I've written 6 Narrow Escapes Stories. With this it becomes seven. Looking back I can't help but wonder that four out of seven of those incidents involved vehicles.  Saved by the shoestring, Faulty Starter Motor, Stuck In The Rail Crossing and The Erratic Driver all involved vehicles. One was actually a bomb blast and the other a train. Then I escaped drowning and from a wild elephant. This next story, which I plan to be the last in this season is non vehicular. This is a home accident where I nearly lost an eye, when I was just a kid of four.

Though I was just four, I used to climb small trees like any other boy my age. The shady neem tree (this one is actually a variety called mal kohomba in Sinhala) in the front yard of my father's ancestral home was one of my hideouts. I loved to sit on a branch of that leafy, evergreen tree, hiding in the cool, shady foliage. Maybe it was too shady, explaining  why my uncle had chopped off some limbs leaving just stubs with jagged edges.

While I was sitting in the shady tree enjoying the view from my favorite vantage point, I saw my father coming home. It was my childish habit to dip into his pockets for a sweet, when he returned from work. But now he was returning from the stream that flowed down through the village. He had had a swim and a bath like many people in the village enjoyed. And he usually had a handful of sweet purple berries which grew on the banks of the stream, as well as in the hedge that bordered the paddy fields. I was waiting for this sweet which made your mouth purple with its sweet stain. 

I was so excited I didn't waste time climbing down. I simply leaped from the tree which wasn't very tall. Something went wrong.  I crashed through the lower branches and a jagged edge of a chopped off branch pricked left eye. I landed on my feet but with serious injuries to my left  eye.  A jagged splinter which had pierced my eye was still sticking out of it. 

Father dropped everything and came screaming. Everybody gathered and I was rushed to the nearest doctor where he did what he could and made me rush to the emergency room of the eye hospital. Our village was closer to Colombo. They had removed pieces of leaves in addition to the splinter of wood several centimeters long. Luckily it had pierced the white of the eye missing the pupil by a few millimeters. Anyway I was sent home after a few days face swathed in bandages, but had to keep visiting the Eye Hospital for many more years to come.  My sister was also born when I was blindfolded. When we were returning home in a car with her couldn't see her. I simply touched her gentle skin and got to know her for the first time. I remember asking my mother if she was fair.

This accident left a brownish scar on the white of my eye, but now it's totally faded with time. Even now when I think about this, or when I describe this to someone which is not very often, it gives me goosebumps.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

24. Narrow Escapes 6: Erratic Driver on the Highway.

My wife and I were returning home along the Kandy Road in our Toyota Townace Van. Only two of us were there that day because our two kids had preferred to play with their cousins as they rarely get that chance. And we had left for Dambulla around 5.00 am and it was 155 km trip one way. So on our way back on that November afternoon I was driving just under the speed limit behind a metallic green Nissan Vanette. We were passing the famous Wewaldeniya (Actually Nelundeniya) where wickerwork products were on on sale on both sides of the highway.

As we were driving towards Colombo, the road was downhill on this mountainous Kandy Colombo Highway. An unbroken  stream of vehicles were coming on the opposite lane heading for Kandy. As this stretch of roads had a lot of bends I was checking my rear-view mirror at regular intervals and following the other safety procedures like having both hands on the wheel and eyes glued to the road. 

We were negotiating a slight smooth curve to the right when a huge concrete mixer  truck suddenly swung out of the oncoming opposite lane, on to our lane and started overtaking the whole row of vehicles.   What made him to do so beats me, even now.  Somehow he was totally and squarely on the wrong side of the white double lines and speeding towards us, honking at us to get out of the way. 

The driver of the green Vanette and I acted on the same impulse. Both of us swung left off the road, on  to the narrow front yards of some wickerwork shops, which also suddenly ended up into an abyss. Luckily the strip was empty of shoppers or parked vehicles.  Green Vanette braked to a halt sparing about one meter from the edge. and I managed the stunt by stopping about the same distance from his rear bumper. The cement truck roared by and and disappeared round the bend.

This is the same place on  another day but we are going on the opposite direction now. See how narrow the strip is.
People had come out of the shops to see the miraculous escape. I got out of the vehicle and walked over to the Vanette. The driver was as shocked as I was.  Both of us had escaped a very fatal head on collision and that had formed a sudden bond between us. We shared what we thought about the stupid truck driver.

That day and several times after that, I scanned the area and learned that the place we ran off the road was one of the very few places where such escape bays existed. A few meters before of after would have left us with no option other than driving into a shop or abyss that is if we preferred not to hit the truck head on. See in the picture where the bus is passing. There is no front yard. 

Every time we pass that areas after that day, we never failed to look out for the spot and remark, "This is that place where that moronic cement truck driver nearly killed us!"

Friday, November 4, 2011

23. Narrow Escapes 5: THE RAMPAGE

I was stunned to see the 'stranger' standing in the doorway.  Gamini, one of my best friends, standing right here in front of me at the bachelors' quarters of the school in Ampara where I was doing my first year of teaching, on the other side of Sri Lanka! This dude, now a Wildlife Ranger for the Department of Wildlife, has also been a fellow Nalandian who was a few years senior to me.

"What're you doing here dude?"' I asked, "How did you find me?"
"Well," Gamini explained in his usual calm voice,"We came to Ampara to get one of our jeeps repaired. We left it at the repair shop and then I remembered that  you're also here in Ampara." 

I knew Gamini as a cartoonist, a true lover and a cool dude with a gentle manner and a big sense of humor. Still his passion for the Wildlife was novel to me. 

"Dude,now that it's the weekend, why don't you come with me? We can have a good time." 

I had no idea that actually this was going to be the time of my life. He worked at the Kumana Bird Sanctuary or Yala East National Park as a Wildlife Ranger.

I didn't need any more persuasion. I 'd been homesick and  missing the Western Province where I belonged with all my friends and the family. So to be with one of my best friends was a windfall I hadn't bargained for.

I didn't bother to know how far this Kumana  National Park was from Ampara. Come to think of it, I actually didn't know where on the map it was. Remember, no 'Google Earth' Those days. I didn't ask how I was supposed to return to the school or when. I was ready to leave under 10 minutes.

"I can drop you back when we come to collect our vehicle in a few days." Gamini said not because I asked. I was all set except for the flip flops I had left at the doorway. It was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered the milkman dude  pulled such pranks on us every now and then. This was certainly the wrong time for any stupid practical joke!!
"Hey Wimal", I called one of the dudes who were sharing the quarters with me.

"It seems that asshole has hidden my flip flops. Can I borrow yours?

"Okay, you can. But make sure you return them as they are." This statement which he made jokingly had etched deep into my subconscious mind which I was to find out later, the hard way.

So finally we walked to the jeep that was parked on the back road, with several other people who worked in the Wildlife Department. So we got in. Introductions were made as the jeep started to move and  a journey to an unknown destination to me began.

The  driver was Norbert. Some were guides.
The rugged American built Jeep was powered by a Japanese ISUZU engine and had a British Air Condition System, all mounted on US made chassis and bodywork. So it was a real international product I thought amused. 

  We were cruising  southbound down the Eastern Coastal Highway of Sri Lanka. We passed Siyambalanduwa, Lahugala, the famous Arugambay known for the blue water and white sandy beaches, Panama, and then Okanda, the gateway to Kumana. It was an unforgettable journey for me. Anyways I enjoy the journey as much as or sometimes even more than the destination.

It was after the dusk we passed the barrier at Okanda  and arrived at the Wild life offices and quarters in Okanda.

I was so amused to meet the pet mongoose who comes running when the vehicle comes and scurries about the undercarriage inspecting the wheels gearbox, propeller shaft and finally has a nap on the differential. Norbert was very careful about this pet that every time he starts the vehicle he checks underneath for the mongoose.
Even the meals we had at the quarters were special. Served simple and plain. No multiple dishes. You don’t expect gastronomical miracles in the middle of the jungle. What you cook, you cook in bulk. That day it was rice, beef curry and some hot fresh chilies, called ‘kochchi’. And beef curry dominated the plate, not rice. This beef was what we had bought on our way here. Shopping for anything means a jeep ride to one of those faraway towns that we passed on our way there.

It sinks my heart to realize, that some of those staff members I had meal with that day were massacred later by the LTTE terrorists. According to Gamini, this National park was later closed for 18 years in those nightmare years.

Generally one isn’t allowed to get out of the vehicle in a National Park. But I had this rare and valuable opportunity to track in the dense jungle with team of trackers, for hours a day, for several days. I’m forever in debt to Gamini for that.

On our way we saw a ‘villu’ covered with Painted Storks. And I was amazed at the vast knowledge of the wild life  that even the members in the lowest ranks had. They swapped knowledge right on the job. One night when Gamini and I were returning to the bungalow after dinner, there was the largest herd of deer I had ever seen grazing peacefully. Gamini drove the jeep in a tight circle to show them to me in the powerful beam of the headlight.

One morning we were tracking through the jungle in single file. A guide was in front of me with a long bladed slashing knife to hack through the impenetrable thorny bushes.Suddenly he froze in his tracks and I'd have slammed into him, had Gamini who was right behind me not grabbed my shoulder and stopped me. Oh boy. when I looked up I saw the hugest wild tusker I had ever seen in my whole life standing a few feet ahead on the other side of the thorny bush. His tusks reached the ground. It was a menacing sight!!
 

We'd have rammed into his side if the walked a few more feet!
 

His vegetarian breakfast  consisting some bushes had been interrupted when he heard our arrival. He had paused and were waiting motionlessly for us, standing there like a dark wall. The leading tracker started to chant an elephant mantra rapidly, which didn't work this time. 

The elephant turned to us in slow motion, crunching more bushes in its progress. and launched at us like an armored tank. One thing that saved us was human's acceleration is much better than that of an elephant. By the time the elephant picks up that speed we can cover some ground, yet  it's difficult to outrun an elephant on a straight track.

Gamini grabbed my hand and started to run for our dear lives when this totally unexpected thing happened. One of my borrowed flip flops came off. God knows why I did what I did! I shook Gamini's hand off jumped back a few feet into the path of the onrushing elephant and picked up the flip flop. Maybe Wimal's remark had sunk so deep into my sub conscious mind.  Gamini grabbed me again and ran for it. He didn't run in a straight line. he ran zig zag a bit then crept under a bush nearby, out of sight. The tusker somehow missed the two of us. It bulldozed past us like a destroyer in full throttle, crashing through the jungle leaving a wide trail. He was chasing behind the others in our team.



This illustration on this incident is done by Gamini himself on my special request.

The elephant failed to catch any of us as we later found out. We called each others names and finally regrouped.
after a little while these dudes decided to track the elephant we just escaped, because this has been a very special encounter with a very special elephant. Now while we were tracking the wild elephant armed with high tech camera equipment and binoculars, I started to feel the full blow of the encounter as a delayed reaction. I felt the same way the day we were stuck on the rail crossing

My knees started to wobble because suddenly they felt so weak. My throat felt parched. I was drenched in cold sweat. I heard my heart beating in my skull. I suddenly realized how much life mattered to me. I was a bit pissed off at the group for being so crazy enough to track the elephant we just saved our lives from, by mere luck. The long tusks could have pierced my torso  and I could have been stomped to pulp.

We didn't find the elephant but we saw steaming elephant dung on a rock. We explored a cave inhabited by bears, which was empty at that time of course.

This elephant is a special one even to Yala, Gamini said. He has described this in his book "Lost Trails in Yala East" the translation of the original Sinhala version  "යාල නැගෙනහිර අහිම වනමං”.   
Gamini also gave me some valuable advice. When an elephant is chasing you, it's best to run zig zag and hide just close by. This is because it's difficult to outrun and elephant on the straight stretch. And his eye sight is weak. And his maneuverability in changing direction is poor due to his size.
We visited the Kumana village situated in the middle of the National Park. These people have to cross the jungle and the Okanda check point every time they go out of their village. Gamini showed a number of  bicycles that belonged to the villagers attacked and  wrecked by elephants while crossing the jungle.  This little village in the middle of nowhere, had its own post office and school. It's a crying shame that we are grumbling about our facilities. You gotta see them dudes. 

After a few days armed with a lot of memories that would last forever, I had to return. Gamini dropped me off at Ampara school quarters when he came to collect the jeep that was repaird, as promised. Wimale asked where his flip flops were as soon as he saw me.
 
I took them off and threw them at his feet and said,
 

"Here are your damned flip flops. I nearly killed myself to protect them!"
 

Wimal stared at me with a frown. When I explained to him, he listened with an amused expression on his face and said.
 

"You're one hell of a dude."

Today, Gamini is the author of the two blogs "Wildlife - Sri Lanka"  and  "ගාමිණීගෙ විජිතය"



Wednesday, November 2, 2011

22. DON'T DRINK AND D r I v E. THE SOUL TOUCHING POEM

DON'T DRINK AND D r I v E.     

Dudes, I interrupt my Narrow Escapes Series to make way to this important message which I received through email.  I think it deserves at least that much. I gave it a new heading. Author unknown.

I went to a party Mom,
I remembered what you said.
You told me not to drink, Mom,
So I drank soda instead.

I really felt proud inside, Mom,
The way you said I would.
I didn't drink and drive, Mom,
Even though the others said I should.

I know I did the right thing, Mom,
I know you are always right.
Now the party is finally ending, Mom,
As everyone is driving out of sight.

As I got into my car, Mom,
I knew I'd get home in one piece..
Because of the way you raised me,
So responsible and sweet.

I started to drive away, Mom,
But as I pulled out into the road,
The other car didn't see me, Mom,
And hit me like a load.

As I lay there on the pavement, Mom,
I hear the policeman say,
"The other guy is drunk," Mom,
And now I'm the one who will pay.

I'm lying here dying, Mom.....
I wish you'd get here soon.
How could this happen to me, Mom?
My life just burst like a balloon..

There is blood all around me, Mom,
And most of it is mine.
I hear the medic say, Mom,
I'll die in a short time.

I just wanted to tell you, Mom,
I swear I didn't drink.
It was the others, Mom.
The others didn't think.

He was probably at the same party as I..
The only difference is, he drank
And I will die.

Why do people drink, Mom?
It can ruin your whole life.
I'm feeling sharp pains now.
Pains just like a knife.

The guy who hit me is walking, Mom,
And I don't think it's fair.
I'm lying here dying
And all he can do is stare.

Tell my brother not to cry, Mom.
Tell Daddy to be brave.
And when I go to heaven, Mom,

Put "GOOD BOY " on my grave.

Someone should have told him, Mom,
Not to drink and drive.
If only they had told him, Mom,
I would still be alive.

My breath is getting shorter, Mom.
I'm becoming very scared.
Please don't cry for me, Mom.
When I needed you, you were always there.

I have one last question, Mom.
Before I say good bye.
I didn't drink and drive,
So why am I the one to die?


Someone took the effort to write this poem. So please, forward this
to as many people as you can. And see if we can get a chain going
around the world that will make people understand that don't mix drinking
and driving.


PLEASE DO THE FAVOR