I recently became aware of the term personal watermelon. This is a smaller melon than your picnic-for-ten variety, weighing in at 5 lbs or less. Briefly, I entertained the false notion that the term meant the sweet, quenching fruit was mine mine mine and no one’s but. “Personal Watermelons. Get them here.” I’ve been reading about the seedless orbs a lot lately. They seem to be in season; it’s their time. Much like terrorism and terrorist were – and continue to be – ripe terms following September 11, 2001. On that date, artist, software designer, and global hitchhiker Mark Stephen Meadows found himself stranded in Paris, unable to fly home to California as planned on September 12.
In the week following, the words terrorism and terrorists were in peak season, on the front page, headlines, splash screens, television banners, and everyone’s lips. And it didn’t let up in the months and even years that followed September 2001: Terrorists were responsible for everything bad.” Pulling on his gonzo journalist pants, Meadows contended that believing is seeing, and that he needed to “see” the ethos of terrorism for himself: “I was interested in the psychology of the people who undertook the act … I wanted to find something like a Galapagos, a place where the evolution was contained enough to be unique, so that it might offer general information applicable elsewhere.” Thus began the author’s exploration of the country formerly known as Ceylon.
The book opens with a bang – a series of explosions that rocked Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, in 1994. From there we travel with Meadows on his present-day journey through an island whose Sinhalese and Tamil cultures – and culture clashes – have not changed for eighteen hundred years: “Water is pulled from the wells, coconuts are knocked from the trees, fish are dragged from the sea, and the big, tropical sun swings overhead, tying the days into each other in a steaming, sweaty rhythm of ancient customs.” Our route through this country includes interviews – and indeed, tea – with military leaders, heroin dealers, and terrorists, including an early leader of one of the Tamil militant groups notorious for civilian massacres, child conscriptions, drug smuggling, weapons stockpiling, and high-profile assassinations. Meadows notes that the Tamil Tigers devised the suicide belt, invented suicide bombing, and pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks. “And they had their dark side, too.” The group was also the first to weave terrorists and financiers into international networks of militant rebellion.
Between interviews – and ruminations on the rip-stop fabric of globalization, the media, and modern terrorism – the author weaves rope from coconut husks, discovers what it’s like to be guest ghost at the village exorcism, and tastes the real deal, Ceylon tea:
I have never had tea smile at me. I push my nose into the steam and inhale an entire spice market in one breath. Cardamom and cinnamon and berries roll out with a sugary flavor that, despite being smelled, hits the sides of my tongue, making it water, and the smell also has a silver lining of something almost like a delicate soapy scent.
In addition, he shares with us readers how to train an elephant, reminding us how crucial is negotiation: “You should bring along some good strong rope, about a hundred candies, and a few boxes of crackers.” And a little later, “Remember, talking is very important; any mahout will tell you that it is key to his relationship with his elephant.”
Meadows’s step-by-step recipe becomes an extended metaphor for Sri Lankan politics in general: “The power of Ganesh is based on the esteem that Hindus have for elephants. The elephant is kingliness, kindness, power, wisdom, health, authority, and the remover of obstacles. The elephant is governance itself.”
Elephants, like bombs, repeat as symbols throughout the book, as do tea and ghosts. In fact, the ghosts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness deftly haunt the entire narrative. Early on, Meadows invokes the character Kurtz; then later describes the road north into the Tamil homeland as resembling an immense snake “uncoiled, like a red river I am following into a heart of darkness.”
Transporting us deep into the sometimes dark, other times glaring, heart of an island – both luscious and wracked within the same 25,000 square miles – Meadows’s narrative achieves viscerally arresting moments. But the book’s greatest epiphanies occur when the author sits still, transporting us no farther than his own head. The man even manages to eke gold out of a crap hole. “Perhaps civilizations should be measured by their toilets,” he posits. “Maybe what makes a civilization such is not the things we buy but how we treat one another – how we, if you will, avoid getting ourselves and others dirty.”
The vehicle promised in the subtitle, A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, doesn’t show up until page 154, but the journey by then has mesmerized us with such tantalizing prose that we might excuse the rented trail bike’s late entrance:
During the monsoon season ... the island becomes ancient again, and silent ... The ocean whispers some dreadful secret again and again, the winds argue a more complicated rebuttal, and the fronds listen to both sides, one, then the other, then back.
In the end, the author blows up perceptions like a mine buried in tropical soil, asking us to look again at what we think we see. He gives us everything: action, adventure, humor, food, and food for thought – fodder for our personal melons. He gives us discourse and makes connections. He takes us somewhere at once exotic and ordinary, vivid and bleak, ending with a resolution neither implausible nor ridiculous. The book ends, in fact, in a moment of clarity between rain showers, not with a hokey rainbow, but with a most practical umbrella.