For the lotus to grow there must be a desolation.
In 2004 the South-Western Province of Sri Lanka was devastated by a tsunami that tore roots from the earth. Today we remember the fallen, yet as we are born anew each day too is the soil, too is the wind, too is the sea; as it wont to be.
The first thing I see as I disembark at Galle Railway Station is another white man. It’s a small feat that reminds me that I’m not the lone traveller I felt I was in Colombo. I grab a tuk-tuk with a bald man who sang to himself the entire way to my hotel in Unawatuna (offering me weed in the space between songs).
Unawatuna’s a small strip isolated by a turn from the main road that houses narrow forestry, a hoard of squirrels and, seemingly, half the Russian population. The tourist industry isn’t booming in April, which makes the lust for a sale all the more warranted by the striving locals. The sand on the beaches is a thick, yellow grain that sprinkles all the way up to the cracked pavement. The occasional palm sprouts from the remains of devoured coconuts and promises shade.
I’m told that the water is usually the fanatic blue that it is when I arrive. A small paradise. From cape to point there’s reef that usually doesn’t break, yet when it does it’s rarely over a metre. I’m lucky and get a few small rides in with my ACSOD twin underneath a Buddhist temple with a golden statue at least fifteen metres high, coated in flawless jungle as it blesses each line that rolls in over the life of the reef.
I’m alone on the beach as I try not to neck my second tallie too quickly, the wifi’s scarce so a book’s beside me, and in the eyes of the locals I’m easy prey. There are only men on the beach, selling what they can. Massages, coconuts, peanuts, postcards or a boat ride. It’s hard to remain subtle after five days, but the beach-selling locals remember a face who pays, or worse, converses back. I spent hours talking with these people. Learned a few names along the way, a few stories, a few tragedies.
I spoke, I shared cigarettes, I bought over priced mangoes and I learned. I made friends with victims of the Tamil Tigers, I made friends with the survivors of the tsunami, I made friends with those who were just lucky to be there and with those who would not be there much longer.
There was an evening, however, where I paid Jakharth five hundred rupees to cart me across the hill to Jungle Beach. An evening where I learned why a talkative tourist is a lonely man’s best friend.
I was keen for a beer fuelled sunset followed by a coupla breathing exercises to channel a tad of much needed zen. Shame, the sunset was clouded and a bit depressing. I chatted with a Sri Lankan dude with a hell beard and an Italian lady who was returning home from her trip to Australia. We spoke about Sri Lanka and Australian marsupials until the sun disappeared behind the fog of the evening.
Much to my reluctance, Jakharth had waited up the cliffside by his tuk-tuk to cart me home, probably losing himself business, or perhaps gaining some by waiting. We began the slow roll through the hills above the secluded beach before he offered to show me a Japanese temple before the sunset; with no obligations, I accepted. It was a large white dome on the top of a cliff that overlooked the garbage that was Galle. Gold plated plaques lined the walkway. It’s there I learned the significance of the lotus to the Japanese Buddhists.
Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese Warrior Prince and sage, found Enlightenment and founded the teachings of Buddhism, also discovering the Middle Way. What any of this means or whether it’s true I have no idea, but it was written on a big, shiny plaque so it’s surely built on truth (right?). Gautama was said to, along with many miracles, trail lotus flowers in the footsteps he left behind.
I’m unsure how to interpret this, perhaps I look to deeply into the miracles of Gautama Buddha, but a lotus flower can only grow in chaotic conditions; mud, swamp, muck, shit. Truly, after a desolation of the earth can the true lotus bloom.
I left the temple behind and the dusk was spreading over the sky, I jumped into the back of Jakhath’s red tuk-tuk thinking of the lotus’ symbolism (purity, awakening, enlightenment… rebirth). With a stroke of fate we made it a hundred metres from the temple driveway when we were stuck with traffic. Luckily I had no obligations because even I noticed the impatient moped riders turn around and speed back the way they came. For all I knew there was but one way down the mountain though the Sri Lankans have taught me two things; if it ain’t completely broke it’s good to use, and if option A’s exhausted there’s always an option B.
We hang a U-bolt. “We go through village.” Jakharth says. The tuk-tuk lights come on.
Village? We’re literally in the jungle. “No worries, mate.”
Off the main road, which isn’t much of a road, we trek a dirt track and speed past a few shacks – the brick, breezeblock kind with a shabby, coloured render. A couple have a small yard, and maybe a half standing wall that the occasional dog pops it’s head through. The kittens, squirrels and little monkeys poke their heads out of the canopy as the roar of the tuk-tuk bumbles by. We begin our descent and my heart eases as I spot the coast and the flicker of lights through a pocket in the foliage. Jakharth points in a similar direction and my gaze shifts.
“That’s my house,” Jakharth says. “Still fixing.” We slow down to mind a ditch and he adds, “You want to see?”
Half curious and half not wanting to offend, “Sure,” I say.
Jakharth pulls over the tuk-tuk and removes the keys. The lights of the thing go out and I’m reminded of the approaching darkness. He walks through the shrubbery, batting at the prickling bushes that climb his pant legs. “Come,” he says as he pulls the correct key free from the ring in his hands.
I crest from the right of a thick tree and see his home for the first, uninterrupted time. Imagine breezeblocks concreted into a five-by-five square with as much elegance as a five year old lego enthusiast. The space for the door is centred and looks premeditated, though the piece of ply crooked on the hinges doesn’t; nor does the window, which is five slatted two-by-fours boarded an inch apart over a hole head high from the ground that looked as though was put there by a sledgehammer. The front door’s unlocked, it had one of the locks you’d find on a tin shed back home, and the door swings outward of it’s own accord. Surprisingly, Jakharth reaches around and flicks lights on in the joint.
As we step inside my heart does something it hasn’t done before, perhaps it broke or perhaps something far worse. There’s a bit of a drop from the outside and I lose my footing on the loose dirt. There’s no flooring or evidence of there ever being one. To our right there’s a pile of dirt, hip high, with a shovel in it’s peak with some sentimental accomplishment in it’s aura.
“Foyer,” Jakharth says and moves to the next room. The walls are stained with dark tears, a sort of liquid moss, and more and more of the stuff is revealed to me as he turns the subsequent rooms’ lights on. “Utility,” a hole in the dirt ground with a cracked toilet seat laid atop. “Living,” more of a storage room with two plastic outdoor chairs leveraging spare planks of wood and more piles of dirt. “Bedroom,” he says at last. It takes a while for me to see with the lighting. It’s the cleanest of the four rooms yet clean by no worldy standards. Still without flooring, the bedroom has a poster on the far wall by the window and a stone Buddha in the corner. Jakhath’s mattress was in the middle of the floor pressed to the wall by the door. It was sheetless and sprouting the dark tears that danced down the walls from a pool of muk in the middle. I don’t recall seeing a pillow.
I was, to say the least, speechless as we exited and he re-locked his home as if he had possession’s worth savouring. Before returning to the tuk-tuk he took me around the side of his square lot to see a brittle set of stairs that lead to the roof of the joint. We ascended and I found I could see the final remains of the sun diving below the water from the vantage. Jakharth went to stand on the edge of his lot and said, “When tsunami came” he swept a swift arm between us, “knock top storey off and bury bottom.” He pointed to what waited below our feet. For a moment we both, silently, watch the remaining light die. “All of Unawatuna,” another wave of his hand, “Gone. Now grow back.” Jakharth smiled and faced forward.
I said something as pathetic as, “At least there’s the view,” which went unaided. I wondered what he was thinking as we embraced the silence. Maybe of his lost wife and daughter, maybe of his life before or maybe, I hope, nothing at all.
After dusk we were diving back down the village toward my hotel, which I was suddenly grateful for. I thought of the lotus again, and not just of it’s symbol of rebirth but of the means in which to grow. Unawatuna’s slate was wiped clean and lotus was blooming anew.
Though Jakharth’s home was no lotus flower, and the aftermath of ’04 was haunting, Unawatuna was littered with the footsteps of Siddhartha Gautama; some of those footsteps sell massages, others coconuts. But there’s one small comfort that I know one for sure. He drives a tuk-tuk and slowly rebuilds his home.
I never saw Jakharth again. I hope he’s well.