Grabbing It

2 Jun

I leave Sri Lanka on 24 June.

It’s hard to describe the feelings I have about this–but the children are quite upfront about it. “Sad,” they sign. I keep responding the same way: “Not now. Forget about 24 June. Don’t think about that just yet.” It doesn’t quite validate their feelings, but it keeps the lump in my throat from growing larger.

And instead of dwelling on when we leave–Sophie left last Tuesday; Anne leaves today; Ginette in about one week and I in about three weeks–we try to work even harder. Second chances can happen in Sri Lanka–just ask Sophie, who just had hers, or Fiona, our newest volunteer who’s staying in the country for the sixth time. But they come at a price–not just the price of a long-haul return flight–but the price of knowing that any future visit is probably going to be much shorter than your first visit, and much more like a holiday than a gap year.

With people like Sophie and Anne here, along with Ginette’s heroic efforts to slowly transform the school, I’m busier than ever. Both a sign language dictionary and a website need to be finished in the next three weeks, along with smaller assorted projects. This week has been the blooming of our efforts to introduce whiteboards–the entire school is now using 24 brand-new whiteboards (which can flip over to be blackboards) on wheeled stands. Coinciding with Anne’s second training–“Active Teaching, Active Learning,” and a renaissance in visual learning environment design (in other words, educational posters everywhere!), the school has never looked better or the teaching more creative and effective.

Things are changing, and I feel it. It’s exhilarating. Matrons are taking sign language classes; teachers now regularly ask for help (although it usually involves one of us paying for something–like laminating a chart–which we try not to do) or access to the library; the principal and manager agree to leadership changes or new, regularly scheduled important meetings.

And it all has to happen at the very end of Ginette’s and my volunteer terms. I suppose it could be constructed as “ending on a high note,” but it’s not that easy because, just when things feel like they’re happening, I have to leave. Will our new processes and ideas that we’ve introduced continue to bloom in our absence?

We’ve tried to make sure our projects are sustainable and gradual; for example, the activity board or care plan ideas were scrapped when we realized the matrons weren’t yet ready to take on responsibility for scheduling after-school programs or closely tracking their charges’ well-being yet. Performances review forms, which we had almost completed designing, were put on hold when it was suggested the administration needed more time to understand their own roles before critiquing their staff performance.

But will the students remember to wash their new whiteboards daily with those water-filled spray bottles we provided? Will the principal still meet with the matrons at 9:30am every Thursday? Will Sophie’s new library book-borrowing system still function when managed just by the librarian and head prefects? Will the Rohana postcards still be given to every visitor?

Obviously, there are no answers to these questions, at least not yet, and instead, as my stay in Sri Lanka draws to an end, I want to experience as much as possible on this island–Anuradhapura! Arugam Bay! Ahangama!–but also to spend equally as many quiet afternoons chatting with school children or teaching them how to express themselves in English.

Which is why it is mystifying when I meet people in Sri Lanka who don’t appear very interested in Sri Lanka. There was this USAID couple from New Jersey who, after going with Ginette and me on a scuba dive, had lunch with us at the Beach Inns. Ginette and I had ordered bread and fish curry, and the woman pointed at the bowl of fish curry, asking, “is that fish curry?”

They had been living in Sri Lanka for 18 months. Eighteen months and they still don’t know what fish curry looks like. Fish curry is as recognizable in Sri Lanka as french fries are in America. Even more stupefying was her next question, “is that spicy?” Um, duh, yes.

Then there was this Belgian man who was munching on devilled fish in the Blue Corals’ front eating area as Sophie, Ginette, and I descended upon it with packets of chicken kotthu, food brought off the street after a long day’s work. As we dug with our hands into the hot mixture of chopped rotti and vegetable, we learned that the Belgian had been living in Matara for two months and hadn’t eaten with his right hand yet.

How do you live in Sri Lanka for 18 months and not know what fish curry is, or for two months and haven’t eaten with your hands yet? It almost seems like a conscious act on their part to avoid these parts of Sri Lankan culture and instead cling to their Western customs.

I’m certainly in no position to judge them–certainly, they must have their reasons–but it’s a damn shame.

Because with every meal you eat with your hand, with every Sinhala word you learn, with every home you visit, with every poya day and temple visit, your heart swells to accommodate the spectrum of feelings–the joy of unconditional familial love; the pain of want and poverty–that is uniquely Sinhalese, Sri Lankan, and South Asian.

To be in Sri Lanka and not experience this–well, why come? But I catch myself just as I say this–because the USAID couple, for example, has helped build schools and other super stuff. It’s better that they’re here and making a difference and not in some government office back in Washington.

But still, if you’re here–grab it, for god’s sake! I’m so happy I have, and so sorry I can’t grab enough to quench my thirst for one more taste, one more visit, one more conversation, one more village, or one more swim. Or one more difference made.

10 Responses to “Grabbing It”

  1. Debbie 02. Jun, 2007 at 4:05 am #

    I am “wowed” by your experiences, your expresion of them, your thoughtfulness about them. As I was reading, I was thinking about the students I have worked with in therapy, asking some of the very same questions. Will these changes stick; will their lives be different; will they be empowered and take responsibilty. In the end, I have to remind myself that it is up to them.
    I spoke with Michele yesterday who has graduated from Boulder and is finishing a few classes before moving on to Portland. She talked about the same things you did; saying goodbye is not an easy thing to do. I believe it is a process. I began “saying goodbye” to Michele when she was a junior in high school. That was my process. I still have pangs of loss when I realize that both my girls are gone from home, never to come back in the way they were before. I know that is a good thing, but I still get sad at times. And, life goes on.
    I hope that you will find a way to share your writings with the larger public. I have enjoyed traveling with you, being privy to some of your inner thoughts and feelings. What’s next?

  2. sophie 02. Jun, 2007 at 4:12 am #

    Sad Sad Sad!!!
    Feels like i’ve only been away from the uk a day- sri lanka feels like distant dream!
    Tell everyone i say hello!
    And man i miss the food (the mention of kottu rotti made my mouth water)
    Loads of love to you and Ginette

    x x x x x x x x x x x

  3. AdamzSis 02. Jun, 2007 at 4:59 am #

    Hey Adam—this better not be your last entry before you return. We ain’t done traveling with you!

    Goodbyes aren’t going to be easy. And there’s no right way to do it. My last day in Israel ended with a huge dinner feast. Lots of photos. Little gifts. And plenty of hugging and tears. But, as soon as I boarded that plane heading back home, I was excited to see what the future had in store for me. 9 years later, I’m doing pretty good.

    So, with you, you’ll do the same. Sri Lanka is a gift that you’ll keep unwrapping, even years later. You might get lucky to fly back for a visit or two (or even three!). But this first visit is going to stick for the rest of your life.

    Make the most of the next few weeks—eat one more chicken kotthu, check out one more village, learn another word, and don’t forget to celebrate. This has been a remarkable journey and we are so fortunate to be able to live vicariously through you. Most important, we now know and understand Sri Lanka better. That’s a gift we can enjoy from you from afar.

    Love ya!


  4. grandma 02. Jun, 2007 at 5:20 am #

    Loved the new journal entry. AND loved Liz”s reply WE second that sentiment. Especially the thought about unwrapping the gift over again!
    Lap it all upand savor the next wonder life serves up.
    Much admirationand love,
    G’ma & G’pa

  5. Tayler 02. Jun, 2007 at 6:07 am #

    Hey! THANK you for the postcard!

  6. jeanette (your old hairdresser) 02. Jun, 2007 at 6:52 am #

    Hey, Adam,

    I have enjoyed your letters so much, can’t tell you, it feels like I’ve visited Sri Lanka without being there. You know how lucky you are and the students are for having you in there life. thankyou for the wonderful stories, it’s like reading a story and can’t wait to get back to the book. your mom always tells me how you are doing , so I can keep up. hope I get to see you after you return.

    Best regards

    Jeanette Tashjian

  7. Debbie, Gins mum 05. Jun, 2007 at 10:41 pm #

    My phylosophy in life is, “Everything one does in life has an impact on their future and others who have come in contact with you.”

    The work and social side of your stay in Sri Lanka will have eternal impact through word of mouth, sign, actions, memories, they all are ripple relay effects on people.

    Maybe that all sounds to scew wiff, but, I’m thrilled at the impact you and Ginette and others have had in supporting , students, parents, staff and yourselves.



    All the best for your departure and future

  8. Thushara 06. Jun, 2007 at 9:02 am #


    Adam, I am very sorry to learn that you will be leaving Sri Lanka very soon — This note is to let you know that I enjoy reading your journal entries about your tremendous efforts in blending yourself among Sri Lanka, and contributing your hard efforts to the Rohana Deaf School. Many Thanks for sharing your beautiful experiences on your visit in Sri Lanka. Though I hail from Sri Lanka, I learned lot from your journal and am profoundly humble to learn more about Sri Lanka. It is wonderful way to remind me of our childhood days with our parents who took us around in Sri Lanka during our childhood – My fondest memories were that my parents who would stretch the miles to stop by at some interesting places and taught me to pronounce the words and learn the cultures especially on how the people in different provinces do and their way of living. Their ethnicity and religion are very interesting to learn. I am very happy that you have had an inspiring visit in Sri Lanka — The children, and teachers of Rohana Deaf School will miss you, and your winning smile. You will be greatly missed by them. I hope you will meet my friend Fatema before you bid farewell to Sri Lanka — Say hi to Anne for me. Hope we will meet soon when you visit Washington DC/Maryland in the near future.

    May Triple Gem bless you with abundant joys and peace,

  9. anne 08. Jun, 2007 at 12:10 am #

    Dear Adam, my heart gives a bump every time I think of you leaving Sri Lanka, cos I know how that country, those people (that food!) have become part of your very being. But that’s it – it WILL always be part of you, who you are from now on – so rejoice and celebrate the new you! I left Ceylon in April 1969 after 20 months volunteer work in Peradeniya and thought my heart would break…but see how the rich threads of Lanka have woven themselves into my life ever since. Lanka is part of your tapestry too and I look forward to watching the pattern develop.

    love and hugs

  10. Caroline Guerin 08. Jun, 2007 at 10:07 pm #

    Hi guys

    I have just found you on google.

    I am very interested in your comments about a sign dictionary and website you have just completed.

    What is your work here? I am a VSO volunteer just arrived and am working with the Central Federation of the Deaf here in Sri Lanka.

    Please could you give me any information on work you have done here etc…

    It would be greatly appreciated

    Looking forward to hearing from you soon