– By Lauren Snyder
For the past month I have been visiting rural villages around Uda Walawe National Park conducting a survey on home gardens, farming habits and elephant crop raiding events. The survey team consists of Sameera, Tharanga, myself and occasionally Kumari, Ashoka’s sister. Ideally, Sameera and Kumari administer the questionnaire to the heads of household and Tharanga and I scout out the property, taking GPS points of property boundaries and gardens, and pictures of important things such as tap lines and toilets. Tharanga and I also compile a list of the crops that are cultivated on the properties. At first my identification skills were quite limited: coconut, mango, papaya, spinach, rice, and banana. Thanks to Sameera and Tharanga, I am now familiar with manioc, sweet potato, jack fruit, pomegranate, lime, orange, tamarind, drumstick, jasmine, anoda (custard apple), wood apple, ugurassa , and bread fruit.
At first, I was nervous that the households would be suspicious of my snooping around their property, but most are very welcoming and some even invite us to share some tea and fruit. In fact, I have found that some families are quite fanatical about feeding us. The other morning, one family gave us a bunch of bananas, the next house gave us watermelon, and at the final house we were served tea, mung bean cakes, and bananas. This last family also tried to send us home with two bunches of bananas (to which I am terribly allergic), but thankfully Sameera was successful in talking them down to one. That same evening, we were offered cream crackers and more bananas, which I ended up smuggling home in my backpack out of politeness to our kind hosts as usual.
But I don’t want you to get the impression that I am just standing around stuffing myself all day! I have also managed to give Sameera and Tharanga a number of tiny heart attacks during our forays. Although I do my best to maintain constant vigilance, my attention often gets fixated on a plant I don’t recognize or a particularly interesting out-house set up and I miss the finer details, such as the ant nest or bee hive I am about to crash into. For example, the other day I was scouting out the back garden of a house and Tharanga was walking in front of me. I noticed a water meter and stopped to make a note of it. What appeared to be huge, red ants were crawling all over it and I shouted over to Tharanga to come take a look. As I stuck my face closer to get a better view, I noticed these ants had wings and were in fact not ants, but wasps. Tharanga crept over with a look of horror on his face, and motioned for me to move away quickly and quietly. “Very dangerous! Move away, be quiet!” He hissed. Oops.
The next day Tharanga and I were walking around the yard when I looked up to see a panicked look on Tharanga’s face, “Careful, careful!” He was pointing to the tree trunk that I had been about to rest my hand on. I had been on the verge of dipping my hand into a honey beehive pot attached to the trunk. As we walked on to another house, I brushed against a bush and a small thorn embedded itself in my finger. “Ah! Oh no, very poisonous, very poisonous!” Sameera cried. Fortunately, there appears to have been no harm done – I still have all of my fingers. On our walk home I was enjoying the sunset and happened to recognize a beautiful flower on the side of the road. It was the ‘wara’ blossom that Tharanga had pointed out to me on the beach at Yala Park. “Ooh!” I exclaimed and rushed over to smell it, glad to have finally identified something harmless to admire. I had just initiated a big sniff when Sameera rushed over yelling, “No, no! Very poisonous!” Apparently the pollen was nasty. Yeesh, you can’t even smell the flowers without putting your life at risk.
As you can probably tell by now, the survey can be a bit stressful and I look forward very much to my jogs, which give me the chance to unwind. For a while, I was running consistently every other day around 5 pm. As it turned out, my movement had been well-noted and several households in fact welcomed me warmly as that ‘running girl’. The neighborhood children quickly caught on to my schedule and were often waiting to greet me…at a safe distance of course. For a while, they couldn’t quite decide what to make of me. After several encounters, one group of children gathered the courage to tail me. I could hear their feet scuffling on the ground behind me, so I spun around to face them, grinning. They screeched to a halt, but didn’t retreat. They watched me warily, giggling nervously. Smiling, I slowly approached them. By the time I reached them, they were blushing and looking nervously from one another to me. With a big grin on my face I exclaimed, “Ecka…decka…tuna!” (1…2…3!) And flung my hand forward. We took off, racing each other down the street. The kids were shrieking with laughter and I was smiling through the sweat dripping down my face. We reached their house, panting and smiling. After I caught my breath, I waved farewell and turned for home feeling good about having made some new friends, even young ones, in a foreign country.