Saleem, Train Information Man, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

I always find it a discombobulating experience to arrive to a new destination after darkness has fallen. It was especially so arriving after midnight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Flying through foreign, empty streets in a taxi, then having to awaken the groggy-eyed, mumbling night clerk at our hotel was surreal and somehow unsettling. The only fitting response was to roll directly into bed, though I could not help noting vaguely as I drifted off that – yet again – the bed lacked a top sheet and the question of whether the blanket had been washed between users loomed large and suspicious. Nonetheless I was exhausted enough to sleep fitfully for a few hours.

It was our intention coming to Sri Lanka to find a beach paradise to plant ourselves at for a few weeks, as our six months on the road in Asia had left us somewhat dusty and road weary. With this goal in mind we packed up and headed to the Colombo train station where we would ride (standing room only) a creaking, swaying and bumping train south to Hikkaduwa, a beach village which had fared well in trip advisor reviews (Note to self: a review is just another person’s opinion). Two days later – after finding prices high for substandard hotel conditions and restaurant fare, murderous traffic on the sidewalk-less highway that threads narrowly along just a hair away from the beaches, raging surfer waves (we are snorkelers) and a monumental lack of that ‘paradise feeling’ – we found ourselves again heading to the train station.

Since it had proved impossibly complex to find a train schedule or even a person that seemed to know anything about schedules in Hikkaduwa, and online purchasing did not work that day, we jumped into a tuk tuk to get to the station, hoping to find a train leaving soon. After buying our tickets to Matara on the south coast – all of a couple of bucks each for the two hour train ride – we stood in the hot sun with our ridiculous amount of baggage, anticipating a baking hot one hour wait. It was then I noticed a stout Sri Lankan man leaning on a cane, hovering nearby. His smile was welcoming as he asked where we were going. We told him and, straightening visibly, he said that he is the train station’s information man and was there to help train customers. Sweat pouring down our flushed faces, he guessed our need and eagerly led us to the coolest place to wait for a train, a shaded bench beyond the buildings with a lovely cross breeze to cut the heat. He was spot on with this recommendation, and we settled ourselves with relief to wait for our train. We were surprised when our new friend joined us, introducing himself as Saleem. Colourful in loose cotton pants, he raised his injured leg onto the bench for support. With little encouragement, Saleem, Hikkaduwa train station’s information man, revealed his own intriguing story.

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Saleem, Information, Man Hikkaduwa Train Station
“It was 2004, December 26,” he began. “I hear a sound ‘Whoooooooo’, so big noise, and I look out at sea.” Saleem lived with his wife and children in their home on the beach just 32 metres from the ocean. He told me that during December a two metre wave was a possible sight, “but this I see this day not normal, not like this.” He looked to the sky and described the enormous wave that was the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia, as the entire world was to know of through news stories and live footage in the following weeks. Saleem did not know what he was seeing; he had never heard of a tsunami. In terror, and thankful that his family was away inland at the historic town of Kandy, he ran to his back yard and clutched to a tree. When the wave hit, this tree was plucked from the ground like a tiny weed pulled from a garden. Saleem was tumbled violently about underwater before the wave receded again and he was set down on the beach with a crushed and bleeding leg. All around him lay the stillness of death. “I am only one alive,” he pondered, “why, why I am only alive?” While he was being tossed by the wave, “Some big stones come break my leg,” and he was unable to move even after the wave was gone. Saleem pulled up his pant leg then to show me scars from the injury given him by the tsunami, and I thought that it was truly amazing that he could walk at all, even with a cane.

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Saleem’s scar from tsunami injury of December 2004

Raising his finger for stress, Saleem went on, “Tsunami come at 9:20 morning. Till 8:30 night I am on the beach alone, no one care for me. At 8:30 I see torch, big light, and I wave with my two hands.” Monks from a local monastery were searching for survivors. They came to him and used a piece of robe to tie a tourniquet on his leg to stop the bleeding. The monks carried him to the temple one kilometre away and cared for him there for two days. His family was finally able to return from Kandy and, relieved to find him alive, took him to Galle where they expected medical care at the hospital. Again Saleem used a raised finger for emphasis, “Hospital all full bodies, no doctors – six days I stay there with no medicine! My leg so big infection, hurt very much.” A pained frown darkens his face briefly but instantly transformed, he beams, “But anyway I am very very rich man. I have my wife, my children, right now three grandchildren.” A warm smile shines from his face as he speaks of his family.

Eventually he was taken to Colombo to hospital where he stayed for weeks and had an operation on his leg, but he would never walk without a cane again. His family home was rebuilt in the same spot and together they follow a new path, taking the huge fork that appeared in their road.

“Many people die here Hikkaduwa!” Saleem described the train that was cast into the jungle just north of his village, saying that every person on the train that day died, 1000 people, and that train remains in the jungle where the tsunami dropped it. Saleem’s own house was nowhere to be seen when the wave receded. I try to imagine all the many businesses and guesthouses along the beach, picked up like Lego toys, smashed to matchsticks and littered back along the sea’s edge. Unfathomable.

“Normally I am post man with bicycle. I lose my job, can’t walk, ride bike for work. I can’t get my pension because I was not postman for 25-30 years, I work only 7 years. I am 56 and right now I am information man at train station. Sometime they pay me 3 – 400 Rupee per day ($3 – $4 Canadian); I living with that. I can buy the medicine for my wife, she sick and need pills. One pill cost 160 Rupee, she need three each day.” Saleem pats his pocket and takes out a small bag with pills, saying, “First I go buy, THIS in my pocket, after that everything. THIS in my pocket!” He smiles broadly as he tells me this, proud to be taking care of his wife despite their misfortune.

“I giving my karma, living good. I talk the people, tell my life, my story. They know about my life so they understand, not complain. Information man is good job, good for me. Otherwise thinking, thinking all the time, not good for my heart. Telling stories, different stories. I’m happy, they are happy. I am making people happy with my stories.” Saleem spoke of his Buddhist practice, saying he goes to temple sometimes but more important is the altar in the home. “Every home have altar to Buddha, we pray at home everyday.”

“Right now I’m getting old. I make this pain because I have plastic pin inside my leg, hurting. I’m not going to ask anybody, I am not begging but I try in myself, what I can do, I try my best. I work my best, people say, ‘Saleem doing good to us, okay, thank you.'”

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“Still my house in the same place, I stay 32 metres from the sea. I worry about they built my house on the same spot now I have a big good family, hope no more tsunami come, that’s a big feeling sometimes.” Saleem places his hand over his heart and again his face darkens but changes as swiftly to a smile as he exclaims, “I throw it away, that feeling, like a smiling man! I know I am very very rich man!”

My time with Saleem left me feeling optimistic about life and humanity. If a man who has experienced such major misfortune, pain and difficulty can remain positive, smiling, optimistic and not beaten down by life, then he truly is a very rich man. Warm, smiling, open-hearted, he is willing and eager to share his life experiences with others. He asked that I publish his email address: saleemsl50@hotmail.com with this story and let people know that he welcomes email correspondence.

When our train arrived, Saleem directed us to the correct car and on we trundled with our cumbersome bags. Somehow the whole gritty travel experience we’d been having – difficulty finding a suitable resting spot in Sri Lanka, cramming ourselves onto overloaded trains and buses, night travel, blistering heat, hair-raising near misses with tuk tuk drivers – all paled in comparison to the experiences of our new friend, Saleem, the Information Man at Hikkaduwa train station. We are very very rich people.

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Pa Nantyo, Bangkok, Thailand

                                                                          

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Pa Nantyo
This morning I was savouring a rich Italian espresso with some delightfully western style treats in the Segafredo Zanetti Espresso Bar on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, Thailand when a monk in saffron robes entered the cafe, an enigmatic yet beatific semi-smile shaping his features. How many times in these five months of travel in Asia (usually due to language and cultural barriers) have I been left with a nagging curiosity, perplexed by my experiences and encounters in these foreign lands? Many times, every single day. I watched discreetly as the monk silently performed a pre-meal chant ritual. This guy looked like he just might not only speak my language, but have even lived on my side of the world at some point. Perhaps his story and perspective would provide an illuminating glimpse into the mystery that is Asia.

It was with this thought and intention circling around in my mind that I introduced myself to Pa Nantyo, or Pa Glen in more western terms, and asked if he would be my first interviewee for my rapidly materializing Encounters in Asia project. He generously accepted and we sat down to talk for forty-five minutes.

Pa Nantyo has been practising Zen Buddhism for 40 years, has lived in Thailand for twelve years and has been a monk for one year. When asked how he came to be a monk in Bangkok, Thailand, he shared simply that he had decided about a year ago that he would like to die a monk. He had been living like a monk for a long time; it was time to formalize this commitment.

With this in his mind and heart, Pa Nantyo gave away all his money and possessions and was accepted into a temple north of Rayong, Thailand. He commenced monastery life, rising at 3:30 a.m. to begin his day with two hours of sitting meditation. At about 5:30 a.m. came his favourite part of the day, the alms procession. Pa Nantyo described this as an ‘orgy of Buddhist activity’. The alms procession is the tradition among Eastern monks, of walking into the community in single file, carrying wicker baskets to collect the cooked rice which provides their daily sustenance. Since his monastery was rural, he and his mentor monk (who speaks fairly good ‘Tenglish’, a Thai/English blend, according to Pa Nantyo) would head into the countryside where the rubber farmers lived. It was a long walk, about 1 1/2 kilometres to the first home, and the natural practice to follow was walking meditation. After receiving the offering of the householders, the monks would practice Metta or Loving Kindness meditation with gratitude for the giving of food. The farmers receive this as a sort of blessing for their generosity. Pa Nantyo found this morning ritual to be most pleasant and satisfying. When the monks returned to the monastery it would be breakfast time, and a modest repast would be consumed. After breakfast Pa Nantyo and his fellow monks would perform various household duties, inside and on the grounds. His job was typically the sweeping away of leaves. In Asia this is a constant requirement since most trees are in the various stages of leafing out and dropping leaves all at the same time, daily, year round. The monk’s day would then proceed with more sitting meditation, lunch as the last meal of the day, then more meditation interspersed with personal time until bedtime. Each day would be repeated thus, with this routine broken only when lay guests came to the monastery and certain rituals would be observed in their honour.

imageAlms Procession, Luang Probang, Laos November 2015

I couldn’t help but notice, while listening to Pa Nantyo, that he had a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. Asked about it, he was happy to display it for a photo and explain its significance. The image is called a Dakini and it is believed that just seeing it can lighten the viewer’s load of bad karma by thousands of years, perhaps even one hundred thousand years. I hungrily glued my eyes to the image as Pa Nantyo chuckled that he got the tattoo as a ‘public service to help people to have happier lives’. This female Buddhist symbol is said to remove obstacles, thousands of years of bad karma being a pretty serious obstacle in my estimation! Is it really possible to have accrued, without being Pol Pot or Hitler, such a hefty debt?

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During his months of monastic life, Pa Nantyo worked to ignore some irritating physical symptoms until they became so bothersome that it was no longer possible to do so. After assessment at the small rural hospitals near his home it was ascertained that he needed treatment for multiple aneurysms at a more sophisticated Bangkok hospital, and off he was shipped. Surgery was required and, though he was reassured that it would be very inexpensive, he was eventually presented with a large bill. A Thai monk receives free medical care but his non Thai status apparently precluded this privilege for him. Still needing further surgery, and having given all his money away, he finds himself in a tough spot and plans to return to Boston as soon as possible, hoping to be chosen for clinical trials to receive the needed treatment. Although his immediate future is unclear, he muses about joining a monastery in the U.S. after receiving the needed medical care, and continuing his monk’s life in the west.

Asked how his meditation practice impacted his approach to these serious health issues, Pa Nantyo said that it gave him an opportunity to meditate on the imminence of death, that “being ill changed everything. I could meditate on pain, that was helpful. I had to learn how to be a monk lying in bed.” He wasn’t allowed to move for long periods of time and meditation was all he could do.

Offered the opportunity to add a few more words, Pa Nantyo gave advice for anyone who might be considering joining the monastic life in Thailand. “Keep your stuff! Don’t give away your money and things. Monks here don’t do that, they keep their things – some even keep their wives and girlfriends!” he laughed. “If you give all your money away, you could end up like me, unable to pay for my own health care.” When queried further about monks keeping their wives, he qualified his statement by saying that they remain celibate as monks but might not divorce, and that their time as a monk may be months, years or a lifetime; it is unknown. He further advised that one not come to the decision about joining a monastery ‘starry-eyed’. “I used to have an idealistic conception of monks, thought that all monks were spiritual all the time. It’s not really like that. The vast majority of them are on a career path. There are many, many ranks in the hierarchy and you work your way up it just like in business. Being a monk is a job.” He went on to explain that the higher monks, especially those above the abbot, have a lot of money, large houses and expensive cars with personal drivers. “It’s all about the cash,” he said. The money is donated by Thai people wishing to gain (karmic) merit by their donations. He said that he watched his abbot receive the baht equivalent of $30,000 at one event. In a country where the average monthly wage is 8754 Thai Baht (trading economics.com) or roughly $340 Canadian, this is a large sum of money (over 7 years in average wages in one pop).

After pausing to reflect upon this man’s experience and perspective – I can’t help but note that, during his time as a Thai monk, although Pa Nantyo spoke of impressions which ranged from enjoyment to disillusionment, with even a mild tinge of bitterness, still he comes away with a continued commitment to his meditation practice. Whether in Thailand or America, in robes or not, this commitment endures.

And me, what do I bring away from my time with Pa Nantyo? Is the mystery that is Asia cracked? Perhaps somewhat, perhaps not so much. More importantly this: I find myself with a renewed confirmation of the perfect imperfection of humanity; the knowledge that we are all on a path that is uniquely our own while still being an inseparable part of that greater whole that is all. Having witnessed Pa Nantyo’s story also gives me immense delight and gratitude that, because I chose to approach a stranger with open heart and listening ears, I was allowed access to an intimate piece of his life experience. What more can I possibly ask of this life?