Sri Lanka is great. Why? Life is all about the people, fundamentally, wherever we go, right? And I've met some wonderful people... Ravi Kandage, URI Global Council Assistant Treasurer, who showed me around; a Buddhist monk who is clear on the power of his beliefs; a joyful Hindu woman who is committed to doing service work like collecting and delivering relief to landslide survivors; a Muslim man who welcomed us into his home for refreshment and conversation; and an older couple who seemed to want nothing more than to share time and hospitality with me.
Plus, there are religious shrines to look at all over the place; big, small, garish, simple; you name it. Fascinating. And the ocean is right there, next to the city. In the cool of the evening, a park area alongside the beach in Colombo fills with hundreds of people, mostly kids, who come out to fly kites of all shapes and sizes -- some even with lights on them. It recently was a grassy park, but now for some reason it's just dirt. There is lots of construction in Colombo. There were some big, fancy office buildings and apartments. There are lots of colorful (I noted lots of pink) one- or two-story buildings.
A 30-year war here ended just five years ago. I asked my friend, who lives in Colombo, what it was like when the war was happening. He said bombs would occasionally go off in different places around the city, but it didn't keep people (including himself) from going out. He just hoped to avoid the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm pretty there was more to his experience of the war than that. Another friend from Sri Lanka has told me about friends of his dying in the war.
Back to my visit. You should see how the tuc-tucs drive. If there is a half a nanosecond of opening between two other vehicles, regardless of how big they are, a tuc-tuc driver will nose in there, creating his (always male drivers) own space, confident the oncoming line of vehicles will slow down to avoid him. Tuc-tucs thread their way around both sides of other vehicles, including going into oncoming traffic lanes, making motorcycles in traffic on California freeways look like minor annoyances. And there is lots of honking of horns -- but even more in India, it seems, where basically every car beeps at each vehicle or bicycle it passes.
Ravi picked me up at 7 a.m. and drove me to Galle, which was maybe 90 minutes away. Outside the city there was lots of greenery, which was restful after the chaos of the city. We had a meeting with about eight members of a URI Cooperation Circle there. We were seated around a big, rectangular table in an air-conditioned room of a Catholic facility. The group consisted of a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim man, a Hindu man, and a couple of women, I'm not sure of what religion. The priest translated others' comments as they went around the table and spoke a bit about their work with the Cooperation Circle. It seemed to me that everyone spoke with conviction. There was good energy in the room. We were served tea and (multi-colored!) cake.
Here are some notes & quotes from the CC members' sharing:
"We're not perfect. Humans never are."
Sometimes "...even the police couldn't help, but we could solve problems in the community."
"Unless we accept and respect, we can not live together."
"Just as there are many roads to get from here to Colombo, we are different but we all respect each other."
They held many trainings at first. Now they do many programs with a focus of building bridges, not walls.
When something happens to someone of one religion, the others respond with support. "In this way, we live in peace, not in pieces."
The government is taking note; URI is leading the way in some areas. "We become enriched by sharing. It increases our awareness."
When the Hindu man spoke, the Catholic priest who was translating said, "We do not agree with him, but we respect him." Opinions differ even within the group. "We have to respect that."
The government fully supports their reconciliation efforts. They provide the main, and oldest, forum for conflict transformation in Galle. "When we are together there is big strength there."
An example of their work is that on public buses the front seats are reserved for clergy leaders. Muslim and Hindi leaders are difficult for others to recognize. So the Cooperation Circle made and distributed pamphlets explaining that, which helped them have their rightful places on the buses. Also, Cooperation Circle members have planted trees near different places of worship and schools and municipal buildings.
After that visit, one of the women in the group joined us and we went to visit a Buddhist monk at his temple, where we had lunch made by local women, who supply all the food for the monk. Next we went to the home of a Muslim, where we were offered cake and drinks. We had nice, brief conversations in both places. Ravi translated everything.
I realize that when a person translates for me, it gives me an opening for a heart connection with them. They feel like an ally. I trust them more and sooner than I normally would. They are my link to nearly all discussion content with the people I am there to see. So it becomes easier to connect about all kinds of things, to laugh, etc. It's nice to have that experience.
I might add that yesterday I was privileged to hear a young Muslim woman tell me her story of life in her village, which has had terrible anti-Muslim violence in recent years. She spoke of destructive and protective government actions, of police violence, of Muslim stores being marked and the proprietors attacked. It reminded me of Nazi Germany. The perpetrators in this case are Buddhists. She has friends of all faiths. She spoke of her personal struggles as a devout Muslim to balance toeing the line behaviorally so her family isn't ostracized, yet also to move independently and unaccompanied (which women oughtn't do) in the community as a peace activist. She talked about the impact of taking her mother and going to the funeral home when a Buddhist died, and the forgiveness/reconciliation involved. She is a great leader.
She said to me: "Every girl is strong inside. But they are closed. If we help them to open, then they can fly."
I was so inspired by her!!