The sun is deepening into an orange ball, dim enough to briefly eyeball directly, and dropping more quickly than I ever recall seeing before towards the Indian Ocean. Paradoxically, as the light dims and the air becomes heavily incensed with a burn-pile of palm leaves somewhere, my mind is clearing and brightening a bit, pulling out of the warm floating semi-coma it’s been in all day, allowing me to think through some of the events and insights of the week.
Those events and insights are both personal and professional, a fortuitous combination that too-rarely accompanies a business trip. I’ve been in Sri Lanka for five days now, arriving after a 48 hour (minus the time change) trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles to Taipei to Kuala Lumpur, backtracking briefly eastward to Singapore, and finally Colombo. All that air conditioning left my sinuses a bit clogged and it took a few days for that to clear out too, but by yesterday I was feeling fully time-shifted and physically fit, yet mentally reeling from the firehose of information that accompanies my first trip to the home office as an employee.
I lodged initially at the Havelock Place Bungalow, a small (6-room?) inn mixing old-colonial charm (four-poster beds with mosquito nets) with contemporary styling (the office is approached by a bridge over the swimming pool), and avoids thoroughly the feeling of being the millionth customer in a multinational hotel chain clone. Co-founder Paul Fremantle had arrived earlier in the day from the UK, and he, Sanjiva, and Asankha, one of the local project leads, joined me at the hotel for a quiet meal.
The next two days were productively spent at the office. Dims arrived from Boston late Monday and James from Bangkok on Tuesday night, uniting the company in one place for the first time since I joined. On Tuesday after a tasty Sri Lankan buffet lunch we came back to the office and it seemed eerily quiet – only a couple of people working in the normally crowded and bustling office. And the stragglers were acting quite surreptitious. Sanjiva came back from a short errand and somebody asked him to look something over in the secondary office down the hall where half the employees work. He did and was shown into a streamered conference room with cake and 40 candles for his birthday! Since the average employee age is well under 30, many joked about the number of candles (which, as I’ve got a couple of years on him made me feel my age in a new and uncomfortable way), sang a rousing but poly-chromatic Happy Birthday, and called for a speech to which Sanjiva smilingly threatened “what goes around comes around!” and directly cut the first slice of cake. The affection and respect that he’s given by all as a CEO, a mentor, a role model, and friend is palpable. The community he’s created is one of the most valuable assets of the company, as well as simply being quite moving on a personal level.
On Wednesday afternoon about 15 of us piled onto a tour bus, which seems drastically outscale on the Sri Lankan roads, and drove south for a couple of hours to the Bentota Taj Exotica hotel and resort, sprawling terraces of rooms built above and around a rocky outcrop on a wide miles-long honey-colored beach lined with coconut palms and pandamas.
Between Wednesday night and Friday afternoon we planned out the 2007 product and release lineup and estimated resource constraints, with breaks to nibble on a constant oversupply of tasty snacks and meals, served al fresco poolside, in lounges with panoramic views and live entertainment, on torchlit patios with a surf-crashing soundtrack. An arranged local cultural dance performance fell square on the WSDL conference calls and as we’re rushing to end that prolonged madness I felt, not compelled, but not eager either, to heed the Outlook calendar-chimes of duty.
Late Friday afternoon the bus returned and all but I piled on for the return trip to Colombo, and for Dims, Paul, and James, far beyond Colombo. I stayed on for the weekend to relax and explore more of the southern coast of this island gem. After a swim in the palm-shaded pool and a bit of time with a book, I returned to my room and essentially crashed - sleeping deeply for an hour and waking up dazed and empty. A couple of trips through the buffet (hate to see how much I’ll gain on this trip) was insufficient to overcome my stupor, and I realized I’ve been processing far too much information about the world and my place in it physically, mentally, culturally, artistically, temporally over the last week to quickly snap out of.
Part of this overload is a deeper level of culture shock than I’ve ever expected, driven by a new-found awareness of the depths of my Western (partially in the European sense, but dominantly in the American sense) roots, the possibly irreconcilable difference between pioneer self-reliance and the colonially service-oriented culture here - where there are servants (hate the word even) to free one from the simplest of tasks. For instance, why would one walk a few blocks when a 50 cent tuk tuk ride is at hand? Why would one drive on these crazy roads when one gets a driver along with the car for not dramatically more than a rental car elsewhere? Paradoxically, I’m aware of how much I rely on Deanna to pull me out of solitary-reliance mode.
The difference in space itself here is also palpable to me. I feel increasingly that I’m shuffling or more accurately being shuffled from luxurious cocoon to luxurious cocoon, transiting safely and again luxuriously through a crowded, ungroomed, lively, jumbled, confusing corridor. Contrast that to the Western spaciousness where much of the wilderness beauty lies between the so-called civilized parts. Just as with Stegner, landscape is ingrained in my soul. I even realized recently that artistic endeavors lie in my future, they are undoubtedly landscapes in the broadest sense. Here, I don’t feel the landscape yet and am wondering if I ever really can - is there really a landscape in the sense I’m accustomed to? I’ve been unable to even make photographs other than a desultory snapshot or two. The difference in the feeling of "rightness" between being in the High Sierra wilderness surrounded by not a single creature comforts, and being in this place, surrounded by them, shocks me.
Saturday thus turned from a planned day of exploration to a day of recuperation. A long stint by and in the pool after breakfast, followed by a long walk to the farthest end of the beach, the remaining bulk of a Wallace Stegner essay collection, the development of an uneven yet luxurious sunburn and stinging foot-soles from the sandy hike and broiling rocks around the beach-end tidepools, practicing occasional but varied styles of hawker defense, the lazy contemplation of middle-aged potato-shaped cellulite-bulging Russians with horrifyingly scanty swimming attire, and thankfully of a few nubile ones that can actually pull it off, and another dip in the pool restored me to my rightful mind and put me in the mood to write/think and prepare for more active pursuit tomorrow. I’ve arranged for (with the intermediary assistance of the concierge of course) a car and driver for the day and plan to visit Galle, probably the Brief Gardens, and anywhere else the winds of interest take me before returning to the Havelock Bungalow for another work-focused week.
Clearly this is turning into an unforgettable trip. I’d apologize for the long post but most of you will certainly have abandoned the narrative already and thus miss the apology ;-).
By now the orange sun is long replaced by a thin crescent of moon in deep black, fading and darkening again as the heavy tropical atmosphere thickens imperceptibly into full cloud cover. I’ve relocated from my nook overlooking the beach to a poolside lounger, from which I can smell the tandoori charcoal and the imminent buffet in the warm air. Soon it’s pull will be irresistible.