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Friday, December 25, 2015

A Story of Giving

Back in the early 1990s I lived in Sri Lanka as the General Manager for American President Lines. It was an adventurous time for me and there were many things learned. But one of the most memorable was the friendship which I built with an unassuming man who worked at the Horton Plains National Park named Kulasuriya.

The Horton Plains is a truly amazing place of unbelievable beauty. It is filled with unusual animals such as white monkeys, an endless variety of colorful birds, deer, snakes, and an occasional leech.

On one trip up to see the park we happened to come across a short man sitting on the side of the trail watching monkeys in the trees and drawing with a number 2 pencil on some old scrap paper. We stopped to watch him work and he really was pretty good. His hands were hard and caked with dirt and his tools were really poor. His pencil was sharpened with a knife and was whittled down to not much more than a stub. And his paper was stained and torn. It was clear he was using the discarded trash from the rangers to make his art.

We stopped and sat down next to him and started to talk. We learned that he lived in the rain forest and that he liked to draw when he was not working. But there was more to him.

The park is guarded, and trails maintained by rangers who live year round in a small cabin near the entrance to the park. Of course there is someone who has to clean and maintain the cabin for the rangers. This job has the title of Peon, and is the lowest caste of jobs in Sri Lanka, which has a similar, although less rigidly enforced, caste system like India. Kulisuriya was the Peon of the ranger station. He was the lowest of the low economically. 

Kulasuriya was born and raised in Moratuwa, south of the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, where I lived. His father has passed away some time ago, so Kulisuriya was responsible for caring for his mother and younger sister. His salary of about $30 a month was what kept the family alive.

On a good day with light traffic it was about 90 minutes by car to drive there from my house. On the bus, it might take 2.5 hours. From Colombo up to Horton Plains was another story. By car it could take 4 to 5 hours. But by bus it could take 8 or 9 hours. Kulasuriya would travel back and forth from Moratuwa to Horton Plains and back once a month so he could check in on his mother and sister, make repairs to their meager home, and enjoy two days off, his only non-working time.

Kulasuriya and I talked for about an hour and he told me about his aspirations to become a wildlife artist. However he needed to care for his family and buying proper drawing materials was well beyond his means.

On my next trip home to California, I stopped in at an art supply store and purchased some colored drawing pencils, a clipboard, and a few packages of drawing paper. It was a small gesture, but I thought that maybe Kulasuriya might be able to get started with some proper supplies and maybe sell some of his drawings to other tourists in order to start making a living. When I returned to Colombo I sent the supplies up to the rangers station so Kulasuriya could use them.

I forgot about him for a few weeks.

Then one day Kulasuriya showed up at my house in Colombo. He had traveled all the way up from Moratuwa to Colombo by bus in order to thank me and deliver to me a small gift. I was very surprised, but delighted to see him. However my housekeeper and driver both looked at me like I was crazy for letting this poor little man in the garage, let alone into my house. They were shocked that I would allow a lowly peon anywhere near my home. I looked past this and invited Kulasuriya in.

He gave me a small package, wrapped in newsprint. He told me it was something for me. I unwrapped it and was surprised to see a small ceramic bunny rabbit. It was not particularly beautiful. There was nothing especially unique about it. It could be purchased at any shop for maybe 30 rupees ( $1). But coming from Kulasuriya, it was amazing. Here was a man who had to feed three people on $30 a month. A man who traveled 8 hours on a bus so he could see his mother and sister once a month. A man who had nothing.

I could not let this go, so I offered to give him a ride back to Moratuwa in my car, rather than have him endure another 2.5 hour bus trip home after coming all the way up to see me. Believe me, taking a bus in Sri Lanka is nothing like the air conditioned, comfortable metro transit that we have in the USA.

My driver, Fernando, was furious that I was going to make him drive Kulasuriya, a peon, and I all of that way. He tried to make excuses. I said I would drive him myself. Fernando relented, realizing that my driving in Sri Lanka, at night, was really dangerous. This was the time of the LTTE, military roadblocks everywhere, and extortion of foreign nationals who got into traffic accidents was very common.

So we set off into the dark wet night to deliver Kulisuriya home.

Home for Kulisuriya was a small, one room corrugated metal shack with a dirt floor, a single wood chair, a small table, three bamboo reed mats to sleep on, a dresser, a small cabinet, and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. There was no radio, no tv,  no wall coverings, no curtains. Plastic sheets hung over the windows. Cooking was done over a fire in the corner of the shack, ringed with stones. Outside was a round well, with a rope and a bucket. I didn't ask where the toilet was. Hopefully it was not next to the well.

Kulisuriya invited me in and asked me to sit in the chair. He introduced me to his mother and sister, neither of whom could speak English, and my Sinhalese was pretty bad. But I could see how excited they were that an American business man was in their house, invited by their brother. I also noticed that the neighbors were all watching and whispering amongst themselves.

Kulisuriya then opened the cabinet and I could see a single cup on the shelf. I don't know how the family drank otherwise. But it was a clear glass tea cup. And next to it was a small tea pot. A sense of dread came over me, as I realized that he was going to make a cup of tea for me. He asked me if I would like some tea, and of course I had to accept. His mother went outside to the well and got a bucket of water. She brought it in and filled up a pot on the fire and we waited, idly chatting, while the water boiled. At least I hoped it was boiling.

After what seemed like an eternity, Kulisuriya poured the water into the teapot and added some loose leaf tea. We waited a few more minutes for the tea to steep, and then he poured it into the glass cup on the table in front of me. The water was brown and cloudy, and I tried to see if there was anything floating in it that did not look like tea leaves. I smiled a weak smile and politely took a small sip. He asked me how it was, and I said "delicious".

He then went back to the cabinet and returned with a package of cookies. Vanilla cookies is what the label said. My guess is that the cookies had been purchased some years ago for an honored guest that maybe did not arrive. The label was old and faded, and the price tag on the package was peeling off, as the glue dried up. That package of cookies must have cost them another 30 or 40 rupees, and I really did not want them to squander their treasure on me. But they insisted. Kulasuriya opened the package and placed two cookies on a plate, also extracted from the cabinet. He set them down in front of me and suggested that I eat.

I ate both of the cookies. The dry, stale, hard, crumbly cookies that had been sitting on that shelf for years. The treasure of a family who had nothing. They were offering it to me, in this moment. It was everything they had. Everything they valued. Everything that they could offer to a friend from a distant land whom they might not every meet again.

I was stunned in the moment. I was saddened that all I had done was buy them some pencils and paper. I became keenly aware of my own life of relative ease and abundance. It was almost like I was at communion in church. It awakened something in me about thankfulness, about gratitude. But also about pride and self sufficiency. Kulasuriya was not asking for anything from me. He never did. He explained with pride what he did to support his family. He offered these gifts to me, not with the expectation of repayment. He was giving me the most valuable thing he could. He showed me kindness and gratitude.

On the ride back home I had to stop and vomit several times and I was as sick as a dog for the next week or so. The price of my experience with my friend.

Kulasuriya mailed me some of his first color drawings done with his new pencils and paper. I bought him a more extensive drawing kit which included more pencils, pens, and acrylics.

Hostilities in Sri Lanka heated up. My daughter Zoe was conceived, and it was time to leave Colombo. I lost touch with Kulasuriya, but I still have the little ceramic bunny on the mantel over our fireplace. Whenever I see that little bunny I think about was giving really means, and how a little man with nothing touched my life.

When I get home I will update this blog with a photo of the bunny.

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