We Try to Live

Desperate times call for desperate measures—American proverb

A proverb is a lesson which is handed down generation to generation in hopes that some of life’s pain and suffering may be spared for those who have heard it well. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” I recall this old saying as having a political overtone and maybe it did, coming from my father who had served in the US Navy, WWII, as a gunner in the South Pacific.  Or maybe it was his firsthand experience with “desperate times” which carried over into the problems of daily life, those curve balls out of left field that hit you smack dab between the eyes, telling you to stand up and fight for what you believe to be right.  Today’s we may as well live in the North Pole.  Life demands a new set of rules, survival tactics and inspirational books written by people who have risen above their challenges and grief.    We are literally out of control—governments bankrupt, tornadoes in never before places, unaffordable education and over the top scams and fraud. I remember what Michael Daly, Empty Bowl Press, once said to me when contemplating the state of worldly affairs, “ I look around and see the desperate people, and I am just as desperate as they are.”  

Sri Lanka—Arthur C. Clark, tea plantations, processional elephants and not standing under coconuts—I was prepared for this Ceylon but Colombo proved to be a different beast, too busy and too modern for my tastes in island living.  My afternoon sightseeing was kept to a minimum–Pettah, the old part of the city, a drive past Sri Lanka’s Parliament Complex, the highly gossiped about Cinnamon Gardens and the inside of a tea café for string hoppers or what I’ll call “dinner” for lack of a better word.   So I left, took the first morning bus out to the first white sand beach town, Ambalagoda, only 45 minutes from Colombo but a different world.  Pristine beaches, ambitious fishermen, tan Buddhist monks in tangerine colored robes and voluptuous fruit and vegetable markets. 

I sip the finest black tea from a pink rose patterned china cup.  A fine silver teapot with creamer and sugar bowl sits before me.  I feel like royalty, drinking this elixir and watching white capped waves turn to foam only a few yards away from  my bare feet.  I never thought of heaven to be near the sea, it always seemed to be found in the heights of snow laden mountain peaks.  But Wasa’s was the closest place to serenity I had visited in a long time.

I immediately liked Wasa.  I had just departed the bus station and was headed into central town when I saw a string bean brown man with black curly chin length hair carrying one of the ugliest and biggest fish I’d ever seen walking parallel to me.  He beamed with pride at his daily catch.   We exchanged hellos and then he asked me if he could help me find the place that I was going?  Truth was I had a name from the hotel desk man to stay at Anusha’s, clean, friendly with “good bites for eating”.  Before I could say Anusha, Wasa was shouting and waving at a smiling old woman who was waddling towards him, laughing and pointing at the big fish.  “My mother, Sanhitha,” Wasa explained, “and you?”  “Teri,” I said.  

Sanhitha lived up to her name which meant good-hearted. She mistook me for an old friend of Wasa’s and arm attached steered me toward the wooden house on the world’s most beautiful beach!   She gave me the grand tour, the long hallway of pictures like the stations of the cross Buddhist style, birth, old age, sickness and death.  The last picture was of a skeleton. She spoke wildly in Sinhalese telling the story as Wasa translated the message of impermanence. This was obviously Sanhitha’s favorite!  She liked to add that death should be everyone’s reminder to do good deeds and live life fully.   No was not a word Sanhitha knew nor cared about.  She directed Wasa to place my bag in the extra beach room and began to make tea. 

I’ve been here two weeks now and need to tell Wasa and Sanhitha this afternoon that I must leave in the morning and head into the hill country for research on a story I have been contracted to do on Sri Pada.  I will leave a fair amount of rupees when I go to help out although money for my stay was never discussed beforehand.  Although Sanhitha wanted female company, I knew their hardships.  Life was not easy nowadays, there were still bills to pay and the money Wasa brought in by selling his daily catch just was not enough to always pay for water and electricity.  Marriage was not happening yet, as Wasa had just got out of a long stint in the military, even traveled abroad to Germany where he learned English from US troops stationed there, too.  Parting would be tearful but I will promise to return and visit.

Sanhitha took my leaving better than Wasa, she lived her Buddhist beliefs well, nonattachment and change.  Wasa had grown used to having someone his own age to discuss books, art and music with.  Since Germany he had a different slant on life than his fellow village men.  A glittery diamond moon filled the sky and lit the beach.  Wasa and I sit on the porch toasting glasses of warm Lion Beer, “to life and old times” or to the last two weeks.    Wasa leaves and returns with a tape player, bootleg cassettes and a glass bottle of homemade coconut arack.  I put on the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense as Wasa pours distilled spirits into small cups.

 “I became the man of the house at 12, when my father was killed in the military fighting in Trincomalee.  When I became a man, I left, too, to finish my father’s work but was sent abroad to Germany.  My sister from the hills came with her tiny babies to stay with my mother while her husband worked in the office, coming only to visit on holidays and special occasions.  Times were tough and do not seem to have gotten better, here in Sri Lanka. In Germany life was grand but I am not German, I am Sinhalese.  I make sure that we have a roof over our head, good food to eat, fresh water and electricity.  We always give alms to monks.  I do not know how the rest of life will go for Sri Lanka but I do know one thing.   Everyone anywhere has the same curse, to survive.  I’ve only seen two countries in my life–Sri Lanka and Germany—but from what I have witnessed I know we try to live.”

Sixteen years later I try to recall how many times I have quoted Wasa’s “we try to live” but I cannot because this phrase is such a frequent saying of mine.  Those four words stand strong in today’s world where misfortune is often gauged as not getting what we want instead of the true facts of life’s challenges such as losing your health, a spouse, a child or a good friend.  Experiences and perception are relative.  I never made it back to visit Sanhitha and Wasa although I always planned that I would. We try to live.  Today, nothing remains of Ambalagoda, its people and town swept away by killer waves slamming their coast.  Santitha’s picture of impermanence predicted it all.