Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Free Ride

My mother walked in abruptly. She had a bad habit of not knocking. She caught me at mid-pace. ‘So, you really want to go?’  Her curious eyes looked me up and down. I stared back at her.  ‘If Jesus and Buddha could do it why can’t I?’

Then my dad walked in abruptly. He also had a bad habit of not knocking as well. “If you leave, I’ll throw out all of your stuff.”  He announced furiously. “You can’t come back here.” He gave me a menacing look,  exited my room and went to bed. My mother and I went back to pondering whether I could be as fearless as Jesus and Buddha.

By the end, my mother was scared and thoroughly confused by my argumentation.  But, she recognized this was important to me and agreed that I should go and that’s all that mattered.

The next morning, donning 7 layers of pants, my highlighter red parka and my overwhelmingly large backpack, I was ready to leave. My parents put me in their unnecessarily large SUV and drove me to pick up the others at a local subway station.

Thirty Minutes later we’d divided into groups of two and walked to the nearest highway ramp. 

My travel companion (Beacon) and I stood by the large green HWY 400 street sign holding a piece of card-board that indicated we were going north.

Five minutes passed and not a car stopped. I was already starting to feel like an idiot. It was unnerving standing on a busy street with so many cars just passing by without even a glance. In this day and age, had I really thought this could work?

But then another five minutes passed and when I was about to call it a day; a mini-van stopped in front of us. I was baffled with Joy. Had someone just really stopped after only ten minutes of waiting? 

“Thank you, and thank you.” I greeted the driver. 

And like that I was offered my first free ride from a complete stranger.

He was a ginger with a wide smile. His name was Christian. He offered to drive us till Barrie. And when I found two Canadian flags on the floor of his minivan, he offered them to me without a hesitation. I waved the flag back and forth and smiled and ranted about being thankful and feeling blessed. He told us how he used to hitch-hike all the time and he was just returning the favour.

He dropped us off at a ramp in Barrie that was heading for the Trans-Canada Highway. We thanked him once more and pulled our large bags out of his trunk. 

As I struggled to put the bag on my back another Minivan drove up. Two girls in their early twenties popped out, ‘Need a ride?’

I couldn’t believe it. Had we just been offered our second ride? It hadn’t been more than a minute since our last ride? Was this really that easy?

Soon our stuff was in their Van. Shauna (the Driver) starred at me through her rear view mirror as she drove and curiously got to know me. She was clearly Jewish.Her wild dark-brown curly hair was tied in a messy bun to the top of her head. And really, that was enough to give it away.

She was so beautifully down to earth and I loved her almost instantly. She wore mismatched ski gear from the 80’s and she spoke in a soothing empathetic voice.

She was on her way to a ski resort (Horseshoe Valley). She suggested we join and that after she was done skiing she’d drive us further along. We took her up on her generous offer.

As they skied, we spent the afternoon talking up the manager in the cafeteria. We told her how we were heading north and then west and trying to get as far as we could without spending a dime. She found our story endearing. She gave us free pizza.

While eating our free pizza, the girls finally returned from the Mountains. It was dark and time for them to drive further down the highway and drop us off wherever. We’d come prepared to camp out in the forests along the highway. But the girls were feeling more generous. After whispering privately between themselves they offered for us to stay with them for the night.

“My parents own a cottage in Perry Sound. We’re staying there tonight. You should join.”

The girls took us to a beautiful newly built cottage by the lake in Perry Sound. Shauna’s Bubby had paid for it to be made.

That night I settled into my sleeping bag, on the sofa in the middle of her cottage's spacious living room. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I couldn't believe my luck.

When I’d decided to go on this journey, I had been quite scared. Many had discouraged it. “It will be dangerous.” I was told, “You’ll get robbed.” But, I refused to give precedence to fear. I wanted to prove the absolute was possible.

I had left home with literally nothing but the bag on my back, a tent for shelter and a bit of cash. And, on my first night on the road, I hadn’t needed any of the stuff I’d brought. I received all my essential needs for Free. Free rides, free food and free shelter. 

I thought to myself. This must be what Gautama Buddha experienced, when he left home and wealth to pursue the life of a wandering Monk. There are stories of the immense charity he experienced. How people consistently took him into their homes and fed him.

That day I ended up seeing that the power of Compassion still reigned on Earth. It was uplifting to be reminded that the world isn’t as shady as we’re often led to believe. But rather, there are still many people out there ready to provide a helping hand and be compassionate to complete strangers.

As the New Year nears, I hope to hold this experience dear to my heart. All I’ve ever wanted was to be happy. And if I’ve learned anything this year, to give and receive Compassion or Unconditional Love is the greatest Joy one can experience. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Few that have Risen above

It's been more than a month since I've left Sri Lanka ( The Motherland) behind to now reside in India. But, here are a few words I wrote two days before I left...

    In the spirit of matrimony local woman beat the drum. Photo Taken by I in 2009 

Written September 15th 2012.

If you ask me where the essence of the Island lies, I will tell you it does not exist amidst the Colombo Elites.

It does not exist behind the gated walls of Colombo 7.

It does not exist in the hands of an extraordinary bowler that can hit a wicket with more precision than the English men who taught him the game.

 It does not exist amidst the large world trade towers that decorate the Colombo skyline.

It does not exist with the aunties who hold 'High Tea' at the Mount.

It does not exist with the consumer at the local ODEL who reverts to English with the store clerk rather than speak the native tongue they share.

It does not exist amongst the one who does the best impersonation of a white man. The one who's body, soul and mind continues to be colonized.

Rather, the essence of that Island is amidst the few who have not forgotten. The few that have risen above the tide of Anglophilia that consumes the world.

Throughout the Island you'll find them bare-feet down unpaved or paved roads.

They wear their sarongs or cropped blouses with a retha. 
They still work the fields for sustenance.
They live in simple homes with simple means and simple hearts.
They beat their drums on special occasions.
And when they feast as a village, they proudly place their meal on a large leaf which can be easily discarded back to the nature it came from.

They live as their fore-fathers and mothers did. They hold on proudly to the ancient wisdom they've inherited. They have not forgotten. And in their eyes and lives resides remnants of the Island's essence.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Simple Joy

Ban Luk Kaw Lam (Hill Tribe), Thailand - Doing what I love to do in Sri Lanka, while in Thailand. On my way to bathe outdoors...
I picked up the pail and flipped it over my head. The cold water rushed down my face. Nearby a cat scrolled along the tall walls that surrounded the Maha Gedera. A crow flew by while the mango tree’s long arms stretched out above me.

It was a sunny day on the outskirts of Colombo. One of those beautiful days that made all your worries subside. It was one of those days that made me want to bathe outdoors, donning a sarong around my body.

Once more, I ran the pail through a larger bucket of water. I raised the small bucket above my head and flipped it over letting the water fall over my head and down my face. Next door I could hear the neighbor’s running water and the splash of cloth against a flat surface. Someone was doing their laundry.

My mind ran off to stories of my mother’s childhood in this neighbourhood. When she had grown up here there’d been no running water. Rather, they’d have to venture off to the nearest river to bathe or wash their clothes. On odd days, government trucks arrived with tanks of water to distribute to the houses. People would rush to the trucks with their large buckets.

My mother and father have simple beginnings. Both were raised in large families of nine siblings by parents with a limited income. When they lived on the Island, river or outdoor baths by a well were a common occurrence.

When I visit, I relish these little things that they once did and do no more because wealth has gifted them with other facilities. 

They’d gone West in search of material pleasures unfulfilled on their tropical Island. And, in many ways, they succeeded in appeasing their thirst and the journey was well worth it. Yet, sometimes, I find myself judging otherwise, especially on those days I bathe outdoors with the sun against my back. 

There are literally some things that money cannot buy. And what’s most astonishing is that often those moments are far more fulfilling than all the material luxury the West has blessed us with…

The West has given them many comforts this Island couldn’t provide. But, the simple warmth this Island provides is surely irreplaceable.  As I spend my summers here and when I discover a simple pleasure of no monetary value, I always think – they must miss this. Because somewhere deep down inside of me I hear an ancestral cry - I missed this.

Maha Gedera – the home of your grand parents, parent and their siblings 

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Mystery of our Origin.

The photo was captured near Jaffna College.

It was my last night at Jaffna College. I had been staying at Bunker Hall, on the outskirts of the College.  It was the point where the College met the endless fields and sparse palm trees.

I stood on a street, which was perfectly placed between nature and nurtured reality.
It was quite a night. A full moon lit the area with natural light and my eyes wandered up to the stars.

 I wondered whether my ancestors had been here before centuries ago. Was this where it all began? In the beginning, when our ancestors first discovered the Island.

Did they arrive, take this in and fall immediately in love with its very essence?

I know I had fallen in love.
On that dark street in Vaddukoddai Jaffna, I felt I had come home after so long.

Where my ancestry began and where it will end, it is an endless mystery. But, as I stood there feeling so small amidst the ancient history of this Island. I could not help but think – I must have been here before.

And standing there amidst the ancient vibrations, I could not help but think...
What does it mean to be ‘Sinhalese’? Is not my identity an endless mystery like the very history of this Island? Is not the energy within me so complex that it is undeniably deeply entrenched with the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers of the North?

Though I could not speak the ancient tongue of the North – perhaps fate had made me forget? For I felt when my eyes crossed with the elderly locals our hearts touched and I had felt at home.  Home on our mother land.

But, when I returned to Colombo the possibility of transcending ethnic barriers seemed far off.

184 Sinhala Pilgrims, while trying to visit a local temple, had been allegedly mobbed by "Tamil Rights Activists" in South India near Trichy. It was all over the news and my extended family was talking about it. The story went that Sinhalese pilgrims weren't welcome in South India if they continued to mistreat Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Upon returning to my aunt's home she shared that the  Sri Lankan Government was also advising against all travel to Tamil Nadu. That it wasn't safe for those of Sinhala ancestry out there.

I felt defeated. I had been planning to visit Pondicherry in a weeks time. This would ruin everything. My family had already been worried that I was thinking of going there. This would only add fuel to their worries. I was so disappointed with the activists. What had they achieved by attacking innocent Sinhala pilgrims? Would attacking pilgrims really address injustices in Sri Lanka?

In the midst of my contemplation, my aunt furiously continued, "Tamils are like animals".

My heart dropped. My disappointment was replaced with  anger.

How could she make such a ridiculous statement? Wasn't such generalisations about ethnic groups the reason innocent Sinhala Pilgrims had been attacked in South India?

'Don't blame a whole jathi for the faults of a few' I rebuked.

But, to no avail. She continued, 'they've killed so many of our innocent people'.

Generalisation after generalisation. In broken Sinhala I tried to explain why her words upset me. My mind kept going back to the faces I'd seen in Jaffna. Her words were an offence to their smiles, their warmth.

I was talking to a wall. My Sinhalese wasn't enough to reason with her. I brought up a friend of hers that was Tamil. She brushed it off as if that person was only an exception to the rotten bunch.
"You're being racist" I finally burst out in English. And unable to take her presence anymore I retreated.

The animosity of people towards another because of their ethnicity is troubling. I have personally found that every individual is so unique. We have such complex identities and heritage. Ethnic groups are diversified by gender, class or birth place. These factors all have substantial affects on how one engages with the world, society. Yet, time after time, I find people easily generalising about people on the basis of their ethnic affiliations. And, I find there is something so very untruthful about it all. Is not every individual so much more than their ethnic labels?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

A Glimpse of Paradise

A whole new world - May 2011

It had all started with a picture of a fascinating human being. I watched her sit on the sidewalk reading her magazine, while her dogs slept nearby.

‘Can I take your picture’ I had asked. She had nodded. And, I had gotten down on one knee brought my SLR to my eye and snap. She was captured.

My curiosity bubbled within, ‘Why are you here?’ I heard myself question. And, her answer was as novel as her ambience.  ‘I followed the universe here’ she responded.

Following the Universe - May 20th 2011 

Then there was Michael standing grandly before the Mediterranean Café that the young lady sat before. ‘Aren’t you going to take my picture?’ he smiled.  SLR to my eye and snap.  

Michael Dowdy - May 20th 2011 

Then he gestured to the Café.We sat at a table and Michael began to read Tarot. I was in.

I had noticed Michael and his friends from the first day I’d arrived at Berkeley. They sat along Telegraph in front of the Mediterranean Café in large groups. They read or talked or held instruments. They dressed in random apparel and were unique, to say the least. I had wanted to speak to them from the very beginning. Something within me drew me to them. Even when I’d been advised against it by the friend I was visiting in Berkeley. They could be dangerous, I’d been told.

Yet, Four days later, there I was. I was in.

Michael laid out the Tarot on the table, as he slowly explained his story as my curious eyes watched. It turned out; he had renounced his family and home and moved to Berkeley. He was on a spiritual journey.

Later that day, I was back in the Café. Sitting with Michael as some friends he'd made from the university sang Top 40’s in a way that had much more depth than I’d ever heard. Every word was said leaving a piercing presence in my mind. Techno beats replaced with a guitar melody. Oh the sorrow of the Modern age woman, I had thought.  Singing about her sexy body – when really all she wanted was innocent simple Love.

I had wanted to join. That’s just how I am. I’m a participant – a doer. I am rarely a watcher. So I had hummed because I had not known the words. And slowly, as my comfort level grew, I was singing something with no words. Ancient sounds rouse up from within me. I had tears in my eyes. Something emerged as I sang. It was sadness; I guess. Something from the depth of my soul soared out. And, I had thought - ‘that’s it, that’s how I feel’. Language had never explained it as best as the foreign sound that escaped through my lips.

And, I would come back; the day after that and the day after that. I immersed myself in the life that Michael and his friends led. And, I found bliss.

The next morning I met Michael before the Café. The sun was out and I was in high spirits. He introduced me to a friend and we settled onto the sidewalk.

His name was Nature. He was a struggling artist. He had busked for awhile to survive on the East Coast. He had faced a lot of opposition from Police officers against his occupation of sidewalks. He’d heard Berkeley was a haven for homeless musicians. So, he’d moved.

Nature - May 20th 2011 

‘Let’s see how many join us’ Michael had interjected before heading into the Café to do a Tarot reading. I waited by the sidewalk with Nature. Two Young men passed us starring curiously. I might have looked out of place. So, I just smiled. Then they stopped. And, soon they were sitting with us.

Then another and another joined us. Soon there was many. And, we all just sat there. Watching people pass us by. I guess, we all decided to just stop for the day. Where were any of us trying to get anyways? That day I felt like everything I was looking for was right where I sat emanating Joy.

Family in seconds - May 20th 2011 

By late afternoon I headed to People’s Park, which was near the Café, with my new brothers. Free food was being served there. We found ourselves a plot of grass. Nearby a young man was erratically setting up his piano, guitar and set of books. I joined him. And, spent the day singing and reading some of the books he laid about in the grass.

People's Park - May 20th 2011 

As I write about this day, what stands out the most is how easily I fell into love. I found it so easily. I had been all alone. I hadn’t known any of the people I met for more than a day. Yet, I had felt more comfortable and loved than I had felt in very long.  

Also, I had felt so free. Presumptions and fear set aside I had met so many wonderful people. Among those who did not judge easily. But, rather accepted and encouraged you to be yourself. I had discovered my interest in singing. 

The simplicity of those few days will be forever engrained in the depth of my soul. There was no pursuit and no phathonable future benefit from spending my time lying in that park mingling or singing with these various souls.

I discovered, it was the little pleasures that gave the greatest joy. There was nothing tangible gained from the day.  Yet, something intangible had etched a smile across my face, soul and memory. A smile that had been absent for far too long. 

Friday, 30 March 2012

I fell in love the moment I got off the plane. I wrapped my soul around it and tied a knot...

I remember I was four getting off the plane and having the warm air brush against my face. Young men that looked like me called out to each other in the foreign language my mother spoke as well. A foreign language I had heard too sparsely in the land I was born – Oh, Canada.

 I fell in love the moment I got off the plane. I wrapped my soul around it and tied a knot. I was bounded and I would love it forever.  It was perfect in so many ways - A home away from home. 

I stayed with my mother’s family. A smile always on a person’s face, when my little eyes had met there’s. They would offer me food, hug me, sit me on their lap and feed me. So, so much Love.  I would run outside through the gates into our neighbor’s home and run back. I began to speak the foreign language my mother spoke. Sinhala she called it. And, I would talk and talk.

A few of my very large family from the maternal side
It was a place of constant life. In the morning the Fisherman stood at the gate, “malu, malu” he would bellow. The stray dogs guarded the streets roaming in packs or alone. In the Afternoon a stray herd of cows settled in slumber by the gates of our home. And, Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins would endlessly stream in and out. And, when I ventured out small red stones rubbed against my small feet as the warm loving air hugged and kissed my little body.

Outside by the gates of my grandparents home where the cows rest 
We are Sinhala, I learned. My large extended family would visit Buddhist temples together. All dressed in white. We would ceremoniously provide offerings to the Shrine of the Buddha. I would get down on my little knees and bow to the Monks that strolled through the open aired temple.  

My family in Sri Lanka attending Buddhist Temples and on occasion Hindu Temples as well. 

And, I would cry every time the months passed and it was time to part my family, my home. I’d hug my uncles and aunts tears streaming down my face my body tense. I hated goodbyes. I always hated the end.

The visits to the Island persisted over the years. As I grew older, I began to understand there was War. And, as I grew wiser I began to understand why it was so.  My heart had been drawn to it from the very start. And, I had been drawn to the plight of the Tamil people.

This is because though I had loved that Island so much, there are moments I hadn’t been loved in return. There were moments I had felt unloved.

A child may not speak or intellectualize what they experience. But, we watch and we sense. And, I remember the injustices I experienced.

I was dark skinned and I remember watching my fair skin cousins with envy – knowing I wasn’t as beautiful because I’d been cursed with more melanin. Where this had come from, I do not recall. Maybe from the taunts of my older cousins, who in good humor would laugh about how dark I was.

“You look Tamil” they would laugh sometimes as well. And, I would wonder; why should I be ashamed of looking Tamil?

With my little sister and cousin. 

In Sri Lanka there is racism, racial and ethnic discrimination. These are some Injustices I have experienced.  And, the longer we deny that these are things that need to be improved in Sri Lanka – the longer that these injustices will persist in Sri Lanka and be carried in the bodies and minds of those who go abroad.

I love that Island. But, I cannot rest until I know that we have changed the spirit of the people. No child should grow up feeling less loved on an Island because of their skin tone or ethnicity.  

Prashan De Visser’s and Christin Raja’s Social Movement Sri Lanka Unites explores the Inherent inequalities that push us apart.  And, they believe these inherited prejudices can be trumped by inclusive education. They know that Reconciliation is a process – we need to purge inequities.

Please join us as we meet and understand a Social Movement that can change our country for the better.