Friday, February 18, 2011

A Pound of Cure

So now to Sri Lanka, a place I mostly had known as the second home of my friend Wolfang (see Tokyo entry), home of some Buddhist relics, scene of yet more tragic fighting, locale for this year's World Cricket Tournament and a land and culture with notable similarities to Kerala. Wolfgang met us at the airport, greeting us with flowered leis and a big smile. Off to a beautiful and spacious apartment he arranged and my first impression driving from the airport was that it indeed felt very similar to Kerala, but the streets were cleaner, less trafficked and with less people. It also felt a bit hotter and more humid and we were now to sleep under the first mosquito nets (Kerala felt unusually mosquito-free). The mosquitoes here are the buzz-less kind, which along with seedless watermelon, I consider an evolutionary advance.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, has the typical history of cross-cultural invasion and settling. Aryans from the north bringing Buddhism around 200 B.C.E., Muslim traders, Hindu Tamils, Portuguese, Dutch and of course, English, who put the largest stamp of colonialism on the island until independence in 1948. Then came the conflicts between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, a thirty-year war and the horror of terrorism. All this on an island rich with fertile land, rivers and lagoons, hills and mountains, curving gentle beaches (until the Tsunami wreaked havoc several years back), the archetypal tropical paradise. A rich fabric of art, dance and music of which I’ve seen just a slice. Read in the guidebook about masked dance used as exorcism and a kind of bargaining with demons to leave people’s bodies for the price of a chicken and a dance. Indeed, this is the oldest kind of healing the world knows, sickness (both physical and mental) as a kind of demon possession, caused by failing to offer the spirits their due and needing some ceremonial intervention to mediate the conversation between the worlds. To modern Western people, this is mere mumbo-jumbo, but seems to be as effective as years of Freudian therapy or psychiatric drugs. Just pick your paradigm.

The time here has mostly been settling in, two sumptuous meals at Wolfgang’s house, a short boat ride on a lagoon and a walk on the beach. While sitting looking out at the sea, Wolfgang showed photos from the work he’s doing with soldiers here who had lost limbs in the war. How beautiful they looked, how happy they seemed getting to dance in any way possible supported by each other and their able-bodied teachers, a modern kind of healing, the slow, laborious process to exorcise the demons of war. That same energy that military commanders turn into killing machines now turned toward art and beauty and wouldn’t it make sense to do that first, before they have to be sacrificed to the greed and power of the old ones? Might that ounce of prevention spare us all that pound of cure?

Today a field trip into Colombo for an annual festival with drumming, dancing and elephants.

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