The Man in the Tree

Here, where all is sand or gray coconut bark or the tan husks of braided palm fronds, there is no point in painting something beige. So the boats are neon blue and the chairs are turquoise and the buses a patchwork of primary color. Things which in the US, have been taught to blend in? Here they have a voice.

“I am Sri Lanka!” they shout. “I am alive!”

Listening to the voices of Sri Lanka, I recline in a chair on coarse sand. Wind tears at the red flag on the beach, warns of a retreating tide and rough seas eager to devour this Pennsylvania boy. I stare beyond the foaming anger of persistent waves and marvel that somewhere out there is the southern tip of India. Floating west, and missing that, I would linger along the constellation of the Maldives. Still further, the east coast of Africa: Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

* * * * *

Earlier, a man stood on a tightrope at the top of a coconut tree, thirty feet up. He hacked at a branch with a curved knife, drew it back, wrestled with the branch, then cut again. He fastened a pot to the sweetly severed stump, his feet gripping the rope like extra hands.

Those same ropes connect most of the palms on this beach, high wires this man walks from tree to tree, gathering what they have given up. He is a spider, the ropes his web. Some of the pots have been lowered to the ground, filled with a foamy liquid: the sap of the coconut tree.

It is a normal life so unlike my own.

It is quiet here. Even the road is rarely used. Occasionally a scooter or an old van will rumble past, loaded down with people, and I wonder where they are going or how they spend their days or if they like their life here. I’m eager to talk to people. I’m greedy for their stories.

No matter. Life here moves at a pace that cannot be forced. The wind through the palms is the raspy voice of an old man, and it mingles with the salty smell of the ocean, the laughter of Sinhalese children, the gritty feel of invisible sand.

9000 miles away the Amish farmers harvest corn and tobacco from the fields around my parents’ house. The grass there is soft and green. Autumn is not far off – already the mornings have cooled. But here the workers water thick-bladed grass and the hotel manager walks through the heat in a stiff collar and a crisp tie and I can’t imagine that summer will ever end.

I wonder if they can comprehend how far away I live from here, because I can’t.

4 Replies to “The Man in the Tree”

  1. I had to look up where Sri Lanka is. I guess I was looking the other direction when it ceased being Ceylon.

    When I was in school, they said Ceylon was the only place where cinnamon grows natively, but a couple of years ago, I learned that grocery-store cinnamon, yjr stuff that the American Diabetes Association says that diabetics should get 1-5 grams of daily, is really cassia. I don’t know whether Ceylon has cinnamon or cassia!

    Your kids are certainly getting an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime. You surely are a rich man!

  2. Beautiful, Shawn. I’m there, on the sand with you, smiling at the neon colors around about. Thanks for this taste.

  3. I love how you are painting the picture there for us to see..I can see it, feel it and taste it! I anxiously await more of your story!

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