Sri Lanka 1990 – A war? How could I miss that fact?

On an elephant on the beach in Hurgada

I felt discombobulated by the strangeness I sometimes initially experience when I get to a third world country.

I was sitting on the mini bus on the way from the airport into Colombo. It was as though I was in a glass bubble looking out at the world, the ramshacked suburbs seems to never end, my tiredness from the flight and the sultry heat was having a surreal effect upon my senses.

 My small backpack was at my feet it contained the most essential items for travel survival. A set of warm clothes in the form of a black track-suit. This costume doubled as pyjamas.

OK, please understand that this was just post 80’s where my whole wardrobe consisted of upmarket expensive lycra and track suit exercise gear masquerading as street clothing!

I had a sarong that was also my towel, sheet, dressing gown as well as a skirt or even a dress at a push. A change of underclothes, bathers, toothbrush, comb and this time I had two brightly coloured silk dresses that dried in a few hours and took little room in my pack and weighed practically nothing.

All was ready for my experiment in my consciousness. I was going to Sri Lanka, when I got there I found out that there was a war going on in most of the country. I have not always been very good at researching local politics! I have always figured that if people live somewhere then… I could survive there.

I was going to spend the time “not doing”.  I had made up my own loose translation from Carlos Castaneda’s works, I interpreted , “not doing” as a state where we do anything that we would not normally do.

I had decided that for me, “not doing” was to stop speaking. OK it is practically impossible to travel without speaking, so I would only speak when I wanted food and accommodation etc. The rest of the time I would just see what my mind “did”.

The air was humid, and the vista typically Asian, tropical yet some how a mix of middle class European morals and Asian relaxation. On the drive from the airport I noticed many Montessori school signs. It appears that the Montessori method is popular in Sri Lanka, the structured “play” that “educates” method that has to be studied at great length with special tools and procedures. Interestingly enough I have observed that children will naturally play and learn if left alone. In Australia Montessori is on the fringe but in Sri Lanka it appeared to be the mainstream approach. This juxtaposition of educated choices along with poverty was my impression of Sri Lanka for the whole of my stay. There were carefully repaired buildings but the wear and tear of tropical weather on the painted concrete and timber reminded me of many countries where spirit is willing but the physical money is lacking.

The mini bus took me in to downtown Colombo and along the beachfront road. I quickly looked up the trusty “Lonely Planet on Sri Lanka” guide and found that to the south was the area where there where cheap travellers stays and I got off at what I imagined was the correct stop.

The streets were quiet, dusty and deserted, I guess wars do that sort of thing to the streets. My map in the book told me that there were many home stays in the area. I wandered down the streets towards the beach looking for home stay signs and therefore a place for the night.

I had travelled from Perth to Singapore, after a lengthy stopover I had taken another plane to Colombo. I had been travelling for about a day without rest so was tired and the humidity was still new. I welcomed the heightened sense of smell that the humidity allowed and the feeling that the atmosphere that weighed my body down just a tad… The air felt heavier to breathe with its entry to my airways a little resisted by the moisture. This made me feel as though each breathe that I took required that much more energy than I was used too…

I could feel the Asian lethargy taking over, it was like coming home to the real world where time was fluid and the very air that I was breathing allowed it to be so.

I walked the streets with my book and found that the first three home stays were closed, maybe due to the war. After wandering up and down the streets for about two hours and finding many more closed, I began to imagine that my Lonely Planet guide was going to make me really, really lonely. I was getting worried that I wouldn’t find anywhere to stay for the night. Walking down deserted streets, with a pack and looking for a place for the night after not sleeping for a day was not just wearing me down, it was making me imagine all sorts of things, my monkey mind was engaged and ramping up for a great old whinge. I came to a home-stay that still had a sign up and went inside.

Who knows what the Asian people think about single women travelling? I was 35 years old at the time. By choice I was unmarried, with no children. It appeared to me that the Asians saw women in my state and position as sad characters. After all, I was “on the shelf” with little chance of making a real life for myself, by their values.

After the normal signing in and having to explain my sad circumstances regarding marriage and babies I was left alone in a large room in a silent house and I laid back on the bed and reminded myself to not “make friends” with the people of the home-stay I was to be polite yet allow myself the pleasure of “not doing”.

This proved to be effortless. The people of the home-stay left me alone and only spoke to me when I spoke to them. I found it most amusing that they considered that I required company when I ate. When I was eating they would station the cook at the table with me and she would just watch me eat.

Colombo Beach

I want you to close your eyes and imagine what it is like to have someone watch your every mouth full as you eat dinner. Every cut, balance the peas on the fork, lift it to your mouth, with a few peas dropping by the way as you do so, place the fork in your mouth, Oh, a bit of gravy on my lip, wipe away…. etc. I instructed my mind to just observe, “not do” feel my feelings and be present I guess. Difficult and challenging at the time.

I didn’t explore this cultural difference and just assumed that it was the way they did things in Sri Lanka. I stayed two days, quietly in my room or walking along the wide, yellow, sandy beach. I sat on the bed and meditated. I didn’t know what meditation really was. I guessed that it was a state where I quietened my mind and saw what happened. I found that when I tried to have a quiet mind, that my mind was not at all quiet, it was like many radio stations of constant differing programs that seemed to intersect and take off in different directions only to come back to the beginning and run through the programs again… The programs were boring in their content; fears, worries, imagined problems, jokes, fun, stuff… nothing of real import, just psycho-babble.

I decided to just allow this to be and when I had a thought that was particularly stupid I would re-write it by allowing my mind to visualise the different way that it could be, just to calm the constant terror and bodily sensations that came with the fears. It was a start at what I thought mediation was.

I was reading a book by Sanaya Roman and I had it with me, through out the book were wise sayings in italics, when the mind was particularly annoying I would grasp the book and open a page to get some comfort. For example, I read the phrase:

 What you accept as true will become your reality.

 This would give me another perspective and allow me a few hours of respite before the fear would grip again and my internal “Pandora’s box” would give me another feeling or thought. That book was all I had; yet it was enough.

At other times I would be overwhelmed by bliss, the feeling that all that is simply “IS” and I was all of it.

Bliss can’t be written about as it simply is and that is all I can say about it.

After two days I found that I needed to move on, bliss was as frightening as “monkey mind” it was all so new and different.

I needed the distraction of travel.

I travelled south to the beach side resort of Hurgada. This was a Mecca for drugs, tourists, sun, sand and sex during the not-so-war times. It was now a deserted place where there were large empty hotels and restaurants with very few patrons. I found a four star hotel that had about 100 rooms “new Asian style” with concrete walls that were not quite as straight and true as the concrete is in the west, it had a large swimming pool and was right on the water front. It cost a trifle due to the war and I was the only guest.

Again, I remained polite yet distant, I allowed myself the pleasure and pain of seeing what my mind would do when I stopped talking. I stayed by the poolside, reading and re-reading my book and then putting it down to see that my mind would do without reading or speaking.

After about two days I found that I could see the lights around the coconut palm trees. I was looking at the fronds above me when I could see that there was a light that haloed around them and that each type of plant had a different type of light and energy around them. What? Lights around plants, this was during the height of the day! Yet, there was definitely an additional light around the plants that was their light. Coconut trees have a particularly sharp, directed energy, much as their leaves, they don’t take any nonsense and are direct and plain in their communication. They spoke to me and I was awed to be able to hear them or take what they were saying as real – whatever real was…

Speaking to trees, this was different, my 5 year university education was really having a problem with this!

However, it was better than listening to my mind so the trees won out and I spoke to them. I was then able to hear and see the turtles, fish, water, sand and others around me who wanted a chat. I was happily learning about how they saw reality, which was with a dispassionate love full of power, straight and to the point. They saw what “is” and didn’t seem to judge, They had a very clear idea of what created more love/happiness/balance and what didn’t. They were aware that human beliefs were not very useful for happiness. They let me know about my unhappy beliefs without judgment or fear of my reactions.

At the turtle farm in Hurgada
Hurgada turtle farm

On the third day there were other guests at the hotel, a family. They were an Australian couple about my age and they had two children. I wasn’t too interested in getting to know them. By now I was in my experiment and wanting to “talk to the trees”. I was polite and answered the wife who asked me where I was from. I asked her two questions to be socially correct, the names of her children and why they were in Sri Lanka. They were on their way home after working over seas. I acknowledged her husband with a nod and went back to my “not doing”.

Later that day I was in my room, and there was a knock at the door. As I had been the only guest in this hotel so far, the only knocks I had were the staff giving me a fresh towel or to ask me what I wanted for my breakfast.  Naively, I opened the door. The “Australian Husband” barged in to my room, he was over 6 foot and very broad, he made to grab me and missed, he then made it clear that he was going to have sex with me. I countered with my prodigious verbal skills, terror overwhelmed me and I became focused at getting to the door that was behind him… he lunged towards me I jumped backwards and sideways slowly making my way to the door. My body was in hyper-drive, immediately oily and smelling that particular smell that comes with fear, I could feel the sweat ooze out of me and the pungent smell that came with it.

The door was open and I was yelling and screaming at him. Luckily a hotel staff member appeared at the door, wide-eyed and completely open-faced. I demanded that he make the “Australian Husband” leave. This diminutive Asian man was caught up in the reality of the situation and quietly agreed with me that the Australian man should leave. We both watched as he left, yet, he didn’t look defeated and I felt really unsafe.

I marched down to the reception; the two men at the reception kept asking me why I had allowed him in to my room. What had I done to invite him in? They told me that he would not have come to my room without my invitation.  I demanded to see the manager and again had the same questions. When I said that I would call the police if he didn’t sort the Australian out, he settled down and told me that he would take care of the matter.

I didn’t see the Australian Family again; they disappeared from whence they came…

Back to the mind and what it creates!

What you accept as true will become your reality.

Deep down I had this dichotomy going on, I knew that most men were wonderful kind beings yet occasionally I came across a man who wasn’t. I would allow them to put me in danger. Luckily for me I always won the joust that occurred as I had with this “Australian Husband”  but this just cemented my silly belief that “you can’t trust (all) men”.

Women on the other hand if they were out of line I would just stop the stupidity immediately. Men somehow got more leeway – less direct honesty from me.

It took me many years to learn this yet; here I was at the start of this learning, all those wonderful men in my life that I didn’t really know if I could trust them or not, poor guys having to put up with me. I have always really enjoyed male company the directness and the lack of airy-fairy emotional stuff. Great company, at the same time I hadn’t yet learnt to work out the difference between men who I could trust and the ones I couldn’t!

I stayed for a couple of weeks, the ocean was rough, with a very strong rip so although I was a powerful swimmer I knew that it wasn’t safe for me to swim out into the deep, so I stayed at the poolside talking to the palm trees and doing laps in the pool.

My mind kept me wanting to escape –  so I browsed a second-hand shop and found a book by a man who had swam the San Francisco bridge race and won, (somebody) Scott. He stated that whatever our minds decide to do our bodies could do, so I decided to experiment and see how long I could swim for. I put my bathers on grabbed my goggles and went to the pool and did laps. I swam and swam. After all, I had nothing else to do but listen to my mind so I decided that listening to my mind while swimming was easier than listening when I was still. I swam for hours, two maybe three, perhaps four… I started in the mid afternoon and when I stopped it was very dark. I lost time and time lost me. I stopped because a very worried looking hotel staff member touched me. The physical contact abruptly halting my rhythm I was shocked that it was now dark, I felt at ease, relaxed and as though I had only swum for a couple of laps, Mr Scott was right.

 Sri Lanka is a heavily populated land, yet the people have been very wise in their management of the wild life. Turtles bob up and down in the strong surf at the beach. Snakes slink along in the trees around the water and tame Elephants walk along the streets, with their owners, I even saw a herd of wild elephants when I was visiting a place where there was an enormous volcanic plug.

Sigiriya the Volcanic plug city above the elephant filled planes

In the distant past a thousand or so years ago a whole city had perched safely on top of it. It even had a large “swimming pool” carved out of the rock although more logically I thought that it was probably the water reservoir however, I was wrong it was a swimming pool and the slaves just had to cart all of that water!

Steps up to the city on top of the volcanic plug

In those days there would have been no pumps so all of the water would have been carried on someone’s back up this mountain, up really steep steps. The climb was simply too vertical for animal transport.

I found it easy to tune in to the wealth as well as the toil of the slave class in creating this city way above the Elephant filled planes all around.

It was time for me to travel on and after a trip down south where I saw remnants of the war, I decided to go to Kandy the Lake city where there the Kandy dancers fire-eaters and firewalkers give shows of their skills. Kandy is the fabulous lake nestling in the folds of the surrounding mountains. Beauty is the reason for this city. The mountains and the lake created the city, no one could pass by this lake without wanting to stay for a while, soaking up the natural loveliness.

Kandy Fire eating display
Fire walking
Fire walking

Kandy was a magical place with magical powers people would eat fire, lovers gathered at the edge of the lake and there were animals in the traffic, by the lake and above in the sky.

Lovers at the edge of Kandy Lake

I had been travelling the hard way for many years now and knew that it was a time for change. I no longer felt challenged by arriving in a town and not knowing where I would stay next, I no longer found it unusual that a house had a hole in the ground as a toilet or even that the toilet was above the pig pen with the pigs fighting for my excrement. It was not a surprise when people asked me the inevitable questions about my marital status or the fact I didn’t have children (at my advanced age!!!), or even when men asked me to marry them when they only knew me for a few moments. All of this had become usual. It is that way it is for people in much of the world. Westerners take flushing toilets, the freedoms of expression, cleanliness, personal safety and physical comfort as a right, yet, for much of the world these things are for a select few.

It was now time in my particular existence to travel in another way; yet, my old self resisted the change. It felt “why stay in a fabulous hotel that costs half of the cost of an average hotel in Australia when I could stay in a home stay for less than the cost of a coffee?” The old self won and I found myself in a home stay in the out skirts of Kandy. I unpacked my bag and waited to hear what my mind would say next. I laid on the bed and then felt a severe pang of pain in my solar plexus; suddenly I felt nauseas. I jumped up and ran to the “concrete hole in the side of the bathroom”. I didn’t know what to do next; my body jack knifed and I vomited and at the same time felt that I would be stricken with diarrhoea. I was right and spent the next hour emptying one end or the other. I now understand the expression wracked by pain as my internal spasms made my body contract as they gripped and relaxed.  Sweating the cold sweat of severe pain I looked in the tiny mirror above the basin as I rinsed my mouth, I was grey and the sweat gave my skin a death like pallor. Staggering to the bed I laid down. I was alone again, I had placed myself in the situation where there was no one I knew well enough to trust, no-one who mattered to me knew where I was, or what I was doing. I just told my friends and family Sri Lanka – see you in six weeks. Bye…..

I was again in my counter reality of aloneness, pain and fear. I immediately recognised my life pattern that had been following me or I had been seeking since childhood. Either I was alone and in pain or I was in bliss with lots of kind loving people. I rarely created an in between world where I had love and independence in balance, or if I did I pushed it away subconsciously seeking the extremes.

I use to stay at cheap dives that were not that safe at times.

I rested feeling the pain racking through my digestive system, wondering if I should go back to the bathroom or not. Without warning my body spasmed severely and I saw a ghost like self rise from my body, strangely it had a suitcase in its hand, it floated to the ceiling. It looked at me and said, “It is time for you to change, if you don’t change I won’t return” It then disappeared thorough the ceiling and my body relaxed.

I lay there not judging what had just happened, I just instinctively knew that this apparition-what-ever it was-was right. I shakily got up packed and took one last visit to the hole in the floor.

There was no phone at the home-stay therefore I couldn’t call a taxi. I put my pack on my back and walked into Kandy.  I was worried that I would vomit or even worse soil my clothes on the way, plus I was weak and shaky following the fluid loss, yet I knew that to stay in a cheap home stay was not an option.

I took this photo as I walked around the Kandy Lake to Hotel Suisse.

I made my way down the hill and watched a baby Elephant with a chain around it’s ankle walk with it’s mother down the road, a normal part of the traffic, I kept going until I found myself at the lake and stopped at the base of a tree to rest and drink some water. At the tree was a tree snake curled among the roots, it was very still and it started to tell me that resistance to change was what caused pain for humans. Understanding flooded through me so shakily I rose to my feet and walked around the lake to Hotel Suisse, booked in and went to the swimming pool to rest.

Elephants in the streets and by the sides of the roads.
Elephants in the streets and by the sides of the roads.

Late in the afternoon I was lying by the pool, my stomach was still knotted from the illness. I saw a light high in the clear blue sky, it was way above the pale green leaves of the trees, and I focused on this ball of light that was shooting towards me. As it came closer I saw that it was “myself with the suitcase” it was coming back. It hit my solar plexus with a pleasant sensation, and from that time on I was well.

Sri Lankan hotel room

I moved on to Nuwara Golf club in the hills and was served by waiters who were elderly and had not lost their jobs since colonial times, their uniforms were starchy and very white with the collars and cuffs frayed as the uniforms too have survived since colonial days. I played golf in green fluorescent shorts and dressed for dinner drank sherry before dinner and played billiards in the billiards room after dinner.

Playing golf with my caddy
Playing golf with my personal caddy

I no longer travel on a shoestring staying at cheap dives and seeing the seedy side of life, of course if the circumstances require that I do – so be it, The difference is, is that I don’t seek dirt, cheapness and squalor when I travel. I have found that this has changed my danger levels to almost negligent. I am no longer verging on suicidal tendencies when I travel, I now allow myself the good things in life and enjoy the safety and security.

Temple monkey

Sri Lanka is the land of religion and temples, gems, Sapphires, Rubies, Spinels, Amethyst, Quartz, Alexandrite, Chrysoberyl, Rhodonite, and Tourmaline etc. OK you get the picture this place is saturated in precious stones. Garnets, Zircon, Citrine, Beryl, Topaz, Moonstone, so many types and qualities. It seemed to me that creator in her munificence has given this tiny island more precious stones than any other place on the planet.

Sri Lankan Gems

When I was having a bit of difficulty with the “not doing” part of the trip I would wander in to the deserted Gem shops and browse. I had some knowledge of stones or at least the difference between genuine stones and glass, and at times would purchase a particularly special stone for a few dollars, for really I was not interested it buying them, I was just distracting myself from myself and buying stones was the distraction.

I knew a jeweller in Nedlands in Western Australia called Geoffrey Allen. He was a quaint character, very small, almost tiny and about 75 years old. He looked like a wizened dwarf. His hands were deformed by Rheumatoid arthritis, and his fingers angled off to the sides due to his chalky joints. When I was a young child at boarding school I would stay weekends with my Nanna in Nedlands. Down the road from her house was his shop and in the window would be one or two of his commissioned pieces waiting to be picked up by the wealthy people who lived in this suburb. I would walk by to the supermarket and wonder at the quality of his work and think “Will I ever be wealthy enough to have such beauty in my life?”.

Later in my life I wanted to give a special friend of mine a ring and went back to his shop. This was over 20 years later and the jeweller was very old then. I commissioned a ring that was so incredible it became a heart felt symbol of how I loved and lost and yet still loved. As a customer I asked him to train me in the buying of stones as opposed to glass and he was most willing to show me how this is done.

I used this knowledge in Sri Lanka and the Gem people were appreciative that I had knowledge and would bring out their best stones and sell them to me at very reasonable prices. I didn’t know this at the time for I only had the bare rudiments of gem selection!

When I came home from Sri Lanka I took a half teaspoon of huge stones to the Geoffrey only to find that I had purchased a bunch of very expensive stones for a pittance.

At the time I wasn’t into jewellery in a big way but decided to get him to set some of them. I gave him my bits and pieces of gold that I had collected over time and because they were hallmarked he was able to melt them down and use the gold. Somehow me accepting that I deserved to have more in my travels, to have more comfort, beauty, convenience and safety also meant that I could have more in other ways. I ended up with not only more jewellery but also the most exquisite jewellery artwork.

Many years later I was to visit the art centre in Melbourne and found my jewellers work on display — and he wasn’t even dead yet!

What you accept as true will become your reality.

Sometimes I look like a Christmas tree when ever I set foot from my home with broaches filled with precious stones plus heavily jewelled ear rings and rings to match.

I figure that things in life are transient and they need to be loved and used when you have them, so I do.

The blue silk dress and me at a temple
The blue silk dress and me at a temple

At Hotel Suisse I spent hours just in my room, quietly listening and watching what happened when I was “not doing”. Of course some of the time I “did” such a bad habit, and then for hours I would enter the world of “not doing” and find that I could travel back to Australia in the twinkle of an eye. I went to visit my loved one, Digger the dog. I played in the garden with him and saw that he was well.

Digger the Dog

On another occasion I decided to visit a friend of mine. I was suddenly in his flat and it was dark, I admonished myself for not remembering the time difference! Without thinking I went directly to his room only to find him sleeping soundly next to his girl friend! Shit! This was not what I wanted to do. To be a voyeur; I left and from then on only visited Digger and my work during both work hours and at night.

These experiences became the normal part of my days in Sri Lanka and I was so attuned to them that I found that my pull towards people, getting to know them, distracting myself with them and all of the other things that talking does was no longer so much of a need — it became a choice.

My time ended in Sri Lanka an airline ticket and the call of my business allowed me to move on to the airport, Singapore and home.

The experience of “not doing” has remained with me and I build on it when I need a break from the humdrum of ordinary life.

Sometimes I completely forget about talking to trees and rocks and other sundry things.

Yet, at times my computer, a plastic bag, my hammer or other things that I take for granted call me and speak and my mind is again recalling that all things that I touch, see, smell and hear are All That Is or what ever I want to call the universal intelligence, and I smile at the magic of life and the exacting order of this universe.