02 March 2020

Distance is a product of the will

More than forty years ago the Reader’s Digest published an article about Antarctic exploration, in particular the journeys of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. I remember the description of the man’s determination, how he passed the grave of another polar explorer, Xavier Mertz, who perished in an ill-fated journey Douglas Mawson and Edward Ninnis (who fell into a crevice along with a sledge carrying most of the food stocks).  

Such men and women go where others have not and wouldn’t dream of going. Of course the North Pole, the South Pole, Mount Everest or the deepest point in the Mariana Trench are not destinations that excite many. Different people, different life-goals. And yet we celebrate people who test their resolve, physical and mental strength against the harshest conditions. The triumph of the human spirit warms many. 

This is not about the Hillarys and Edmundsens. It’s about distance, which of course can be taken literally or metaphorically.  This is literal.

A few miles beyond Manampitiya on the road to Welikanda is a signpost. ‘Aselapura.’ It’s at a turn off to the left. The destination was not South Pole. There were no hidden crevices to be wary of. Considering such dangers, this was a heavenly road. 

A question from the ‘explorers’: kaudagalata kochchara durada?’ They were going to an ancient monastery and wanted to know how far they had to go. It wasn’t hundreds and hundreds of miles, this they knew, but it was late evening, they knew of the threat of elephants and wanted to know if they could reach their destination before dark. 

They were informed that it was 21 kilometers away. That’s long. That’s a lot of time on such roads. They decided to go ahead.

A few miles down the road, they came upon a canal. They met a man after they crossed the bridge who said ’11 kilometers’ and indicated the route they should take. Another kilometer, the same question and a different answer, ‘around three and a half kilometers.’ 

It wasn’t dark yet. There was a hill to climb. Distance to go and time it would take can be misleading, but again the consensus was, ‘let’s go as far as we can.’ It was a judgment call on the time to head back. 

So they climbed a rock, stopping along the way to take in ruins and caves and of course a breather. They didn’t make it all the way to the top, but were close enough to get a fantastic view of the surrounding terrain. Paddy fields, jungle, some houses that probably made up a village or two, and other rocky outcrops which probably had at some point been resident to meditative bikkhus. All green in different shades. Late evening sky. A nice breeze. A moment to remember. 

They got back before dark and there was still enough light to enjoy the view from the tank bund of Kaudagala Wewa. Enough time for a bath.  

Not the most arduous of journeys. None of these people were anything like Admundsen, Ninnis, Mawson or Mertz. There’s a way, however, in which a number (if it’s large) or a time (if it is late) can make people hesitate or stop altogether. Then there are occasions when such things don’t count. 

Sure, there’s destination, but then between ‘here’ and ‘there’ there are innumerable places endowed with enough memorable-wealth. Sometimes destinations are 21 kilometers away, sometimes even further than that. Hundreds of miles. Sometimes just around the corner. There are innumerable reasons to stop and turn back. Then there’s something that spurs you on to places not marked on map and forgotten by history. They call out to us. And then weariness abandons, time of day becomes irrelevant and we don’t notice the crevices along the way.  

Will. Hard to measure. It consumes distances by miles or kilometers, stops time. It did this for Admundsen. It can do it for those less driven, less equipped physically. 

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':
[published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]