Travel Stories »

The Road to Contemplation

Dwarfed by the wheels of the van, a puppy impresses delicate prints into the moistened sand, surveying an intruder new to his humid universe within the compound of the house. It is not yet midday; the air hangs thick and the swooning palms lean, concealing an unknown bird which calls laboriously into the heat, tolling a departure. Puppy twitches at a fly, disrupting a meditative contemplation of the unfolding scene as dim figures appear from doors around the building.

From the left, two Sri Lankans, a man of thirty dressed casually with a wide bright smile, in the corner of which a cigarette hangs limply sending timid drifts of white into languid folds of air. A woman, cool in a long turquoise skirt steps around the lolling little being that benefits instantly from the cooling sweeping swish of her colourful drapery. As the pleasant sweep fades and the stagnant heat again overwhelms, a Westerner appears beneath a backpack. Dressed in white the wraith- like pale image strains beneath his load and becomes the sticky victim of ghoulish humidity, which immediately spots him and rushes to seize his body and dull his mind.

Perceptive of my instability under the weight of many kilos of unwashed clothes, a veritable pharmacy of anti-malarial drugs, shoes covered in the miasmic residues of paddy field football games and other such redolent reminders of time spent in rural Sri Lanka, a little puppy scampers from my feet as I step into the compound. A predictable scene: birds in tree same as yesterday, whir of electric fans, innumerable flies, slightly acrid smell of Western backpackers, much as usual. But, before me and approaching rapidly with heavy step and flailing arms, a man with eyes of the darkest demonic wide wildness lunges towards my hunched frame and presses his face against mine, I cower in white as he emits a trembling hysterical wail, losing his fag during facial contortions consistent with maniacal urgency:

‘Mark! Quick we have to go quick I have to be at the airport ten minutes takes fifteen to get …retreat… and that’s in the wrong…. why did they do this how would they damn that’s not my… just isn’t I cant believe they…’.

I’m alarmed, and pushed, towards the van as the lady in blue steps calmly into the passenger side, my thirty kilo backpack tossed with ease beside me and we’re already troubling the compound gate with our eager bumper, beads race down the temples of our driver and his hand tensely grips the gear lever. His face pressed against the windscreen, the retrieved cigarette bobs with the convulsions of his mouth. Boys scurry, the gate is raised, and we’re careering down the lane. Tuk- tuks abound in Ja-Ela’s backstreets and groups of men are whiling away their day beside them, hopeful of tired legs and swelled wallets, holding hands in an honest and wonderfully non-macho expression of affection. But alas the lucidity of the images before us is dissolved by the culminating rapidity of the van thundering through stagnant puddles and potholes; all are sprayed with the glutinous reminders of yesterday’s monsoonal downpour until, with indignant gazes aimed squarely at our fading image, a few less than four of our wheels direct the van across three lines of traffic, narrowly avoiding an aghast tuk- tuk driver, whose sees before him in an inspired moment of mystic prophecy horrible carnage and doom, and the back end of a military convoy which, thankfully, does not make of the scene an imminent Tamil Tiger attack

I can’t help but wonder whether this is quite the best preparation for two weeks spent in silent meditation and contemplation in a Buddhist retreat, but worryingly I’m wrong. Chandeima, who is weaving between columns of what I would consider rather dense traffic, somehow warps the very top of his body in a fashion which has the effect of pointing both his head and neck straight at me whilst his arms continue to erratically jerk the steering wheel at the largest and most potentially deadly obstacles in the road.

‘You see Mark, meditation, well, the Buddha could sit right beneath the err…, what is it? The err… bodhi tree, and he could go like anywhere in the universe, Kandy, Galle you know anywhere, well I mean he didn’t actually go but, you know, but you know what I mean right, he would like…he went.’

During this somewhat less than enlightened introduction, Malkanthi beside him nods knowingly as if they were the purveyors of some perilous secret, to be disclosed on pain of death. Several unlucky birds had however, already succumbed to this fate by the time Chandeima returned his eyes to the road, for, in narrowly avoiding clattering through a coconut stall, Chandeima’s hands had inadvertently directed the van into the path of some black winged creatures who seemed to pass from the left of the van only to fail to emerge from the right. Our destination closing in on us at a steady yet ridiculous pace, Chandeima’s conscious lunacy reaches its apex as, transcending a bridge at eighty miles an hour on the incorrect side of this rather slim strip of concrete parallel to a heavily laden and heavily populated motorbike, he leans back with a cavernous grin and hysterical glinting eyes to say in celebratory tones that the speed limit over such crossings is, in fact, twenty.

Even amid the usual and expected prescribed insanity of Sri Lanka’s roads, our van stands out for the next fifteen minutes as the reckless pinnacle of demented driving, an accolade which must have been supported in the ribald complaints of the shopkeepers diving over their stalls for safety, motor bikers veering into soggy ditches in desperate escape, buses simply stopping in unutterable terror and countless dogs and cows making, respectfully, yelps and moos in the general direction of Chandeima in vague and animalistic attempts to understand why such intelligent beings as humans could descend to such primeval lunacy when behind the wheel.

Begrimed with the stains of mortality, the van proceeded to transpose this terrified backpacker over the threshold and amongst the unfamiliar sensory stimuli of a surreal fortnight in the retreat. A fortnight which would have me meeting an ex-Australian heavyweight champion boxer, have me listening to the former President of Sri Lanka’s family translating a class for me, have me drinking tea with Czech monks, bumping into a five- foot long land monitor and spending my eighteenth birthday studying the Satipatthana Sutta within the soothing silence of a temple speckled with sunlight. And, a fortnight which would end with my melancholy acquiescence to the need, at least for the present, to return to the real world, fraught as it is with stress, blind hurry and unthinking pace.

Mark Byers