Archive | 2006-2007 RSS feed for this section

Inaugurating the Benedictine Calendar

18 Jul

I have been back in the United States for 10 days and out of Sri Lanka for 23 days.

I remember talking with Sophie and asking her how she felt when she left after three months in Matara.

“I’d drive myself crazy. I’d keep thinking, ‘At this time, if I was back in Sri Lanka, I’d be teaching English right now. At this time, I’d be eating lunch. And so on…'”

Oddly, I don’t find myself thinking this way (although I tried). It’s a feeling of complete, utter disconnectedness from my nine-month experience.

It is as if Pope Benedict XVI has suddenly abrogated the current Gregorian Calendar and established the new Benedictine Calendar, correcting a 290-day discrepancy and making the day after 21 September 2006 not the 22nd, but instead the 8th of July, 2007.

Upon my return, I slipped into clothes and shoes that I had forgotten I owned and looked around to find everything very much the same. There are differences, of course. There’s a new dining room table; a new TV in that other room. The dog acts older than before; an framed Aboriginal Australian painting hangs in place of where the Chagall used to be. Construction people are working on a new auxiliary lane on I-5 just north of here. A few stores are gone; new ones have opened. Friends’ hairstyles have changed.

But by far, things have remained the same, so remarkably the same that I wonder how the Benedictine Calendar, with its 290-day leap into the future, could have been adopted so widely and so resolutely given our fiercely individualistic, contentious society. I drive east on Del Mar Heights Road and it is just like how I drove on it last September–actually, two weeks ago by the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s reckoning.

Which leads me to wonder with a pained heart, “Did Sri Lanka even happen?” There is so little right here, right now that answers, “Yes.”

Now and Then, Here and There

5 Jul

It’s the strangest thing: to be there one day and gone the next.

And I often think back to those final days, each one of them stretched out as if they had been swollen with tears. Those faces–not just the school children but half of Matara, it felt like.

When I picked up my last batch of photographs from Nine Hearts, the woman–who knew just a little sign language because of her deaf friend–looked offended that I was leaving. “No, you’re not leaving,” she said firmly. Beneath that was a more subtle message: “How could you even think of leaving?”

But I left anyway. It doesn’t feel fair that I can go and come (and travel across Asia while at it!) and almost everybody else can’t. I’m reminded of another blogger, Samantha, from Sri Lanka who interned at a PR agency in Colombo last summer.

The thing is, I don’t believe it’s right that I have options [to leave] and they do not. But … my not taking those options does not magically empower Sri Lankans. I wish it did, and if this was so, I would have stayed…But it wasn’t so.

Still, this feeling remains with me and troubles my last waking moments of each day–the children’s faces, their eyes and smiles. And there were so many I didn’t say good-bye to; so many I didn’t grab one last vision of. A nasty virus hit the school during my last week–there were just twenty or so students remaining in the hostel by Saturday. Everyone else had gone home, most without saying good-bye to me. Sandya, Janidha, Sanjeewa, Shirantha, Dilhani, Anuradha, Supuni, Nimasha, Ishara.

Good-byes rarely play out the way you want them to, but that’s not what troubles me today. It’s the sentiments from that Nine Hearts woman–how could I even think of leaving them? Of being there, alive, breathing one day and gone, vanished, erased the next day?

Which is why I keep repeating to myself what I’m about to tell you: I’m lucky to have worked with such a great group of people at Rohana.

But more so, I know I’m lucky to work with children who trusted me so completely from the first day. Lucky to work with children who fully understand why I had to leave them one day. And luckiest of all to work with children who trust me enough to know I will come back some day.

That F.O.B. Feeling

22 Jun

About a month ago, I was invited via text messaging to Manjula’s son’s first birthday. Manjula is someone who’s tried to be friends with me since last September, but I kept avoiding him, mainly because everyone else told me he was bad news. But as the months went by, I slowly came to see that he really wasn’t such a bad person.

And besides, in Sri Lanka, everyone is someone else’s bad news, honestly!

And so, when he asked me to come to his home on 18 June in the evening, I said sure. Per Sri Lankan custom whenever you are visiting someone’s home, you are required to bring either cake, biscuits, milk and sugar, or a combination of those three. And because it was a birthday party, I picked out three lovely little plastic wind-up ducks with faux feathers. It’s crap that I would have never bought back in America, but with either hot-rod cars or little ducks to choose from in the tiny toy store down the road from the school, I opted for the ducks. Boys don’t play with cars until they’re at least two or three years old, right?

And this is Sri Lanka, so they’ll probably lock up those plastic toys in a glass cabinet along with other plastic toys, stuffed dolls and glass teacups, never to be touched or played with for time immemorial. So I put them in the customary brown bag–gifts are not wrapped in colorful paper but instead presented in either the shopping bag from the store it was purchased at, or in a brown paper bag with the open end stapled together.

When I pulled up to Manjula’s home–it’s actually his wife’s parents’ home, above the general store they own–Munsif and Pradeep were sitting out on the balcony overlooking Hakmana Road, and they waved me into the building. I walked into the main living room and right away, I got this vibe. Something was different.

Maybe it was the metallic foil streamers, taped to the walls, with multicolor “Happy Birthday” printed on them. Maybe it was the Olympus 35mm SLR camera the father (or was he the uncle? Or the father-in-law?) was using to snap shots of the birthday boy? Or was it the Sony camcorder one of the younger men was toying with? Or the souvenir artwork depicting famous San Francisco landmarks?

Then I met Manjula’s wife, Eradhi. Something was off about her. She looked as animated as any Sri Lankan woman, but in a different way. Her shirt didn’t look local, and her flowery skirt reached above her knees. Manjula told her, “This is my friend from America, the one I was telling you about.”

Eradhi signed back to me, “America! I have an older brother and two sisters who live in California, and I grew up in England for a few years myself!”

I looked down at the paper plates and cups that had just been handed out, with one slice of yellow cake on each. The plates and cups were wildly colored with balloons and “Happy Birthday”–you know, standard Western fare.

Munsif gaped at the plates, “I’ve never seen such beautiful plates. And I’ve never seen paper plates before.” He turned to me and asked, “You think I could take one home?”

Eradhi explained to me then that those plates and cups, along with the metallic streamers and the balloons with “WWF” printed on them, were all from America. Her relatives brought them over to Sri Lanka during their last visit.

“So why are you living in Sri Lanka,” I asked Eradhi.

“Because I like and love Sri Lanka more than England or America. Now go try my homemade cake.”

I ate it, and it tasted almost just like a Western cake, not the artificial-tasting cakes with funky icing so common here (although I’ve started to like them–it’s an acquired taste).

“Hey, this is a really good cake!” I told Eradhi.

“Yes, my older sister, that one in America, she taught me the recipe.”

Munsif, who has a good eye for shirts from his job as foreman and shirt designer in the Vogue Garments shirt factory down on Kumaratunga Mawatha, pointed at Eradhi’s shirt and asked, “That’s not from Sri Lanka, is it?”

“Nope, got it from my family in America.”

I asked her if I could look at the label to make sure. She said sure, so I checked. Wet Seal. “Yep, it’s a genuine American brand,” I told Munsif.

“How much do you think it was?” he asked.

“Probably 2,000 rupees.”

“Ooooh.” This is a country where women’s shirts at the high-end stores in Matara cost less than 500 rupees.

The rest of the party proceeded smoothly except for that part where I got a little sick from eating my first beef–as in cow beef–in months, and where I momentarily expressed shock at the sight of men and women shakin’ their stuff together to four large speakers blasting music–American, presumably.

However, as I watched people after people hand Manjula and Eradhi large gift boxes wrapped with colorful gift paper, I slowly grew uneasy. Surely they expected a lot more from their esteemed American visitor than three plastic ducks in a brown paper bag? And surely the owner of a general store doesn’t need more milk and sugar?

I was feeling very much like the tables were turned here–that I was the Sri Lankan and they were the Westerners. They barely wagged their heads, even!

I confided in Munsif my gift-envy anxiety and he told me not to worry–how was I supposed to know? I’m still learning, he said.

There is a phrase–often pejorative–used in South Asian circles to describe recent immigrants who haven’t yet acclimatized to Western culture. “Fresh Off the Boat,” or “FOB” for short. Examples of a FOB would be someone who still eats with her fingers, wags his head, or stares at white people–you get the idea.

And I’m starting to wonder if I’ll have my FOB phase for a while.

Last Sunday, a few of us visited the Kudawella Blowhole over near Dickwella. It’s a popular place for foreigners to make a quick stop on their way during their tours around Hambantota District. The churning sea pushes water up a narrow channel and every once in a while it’ll blow through a hole on the top.

While we were sitting on the rocks, admiring the views and awaiting the next water feature, I looked over and saw a white couple sitting across from the crevice, eating their box lunches with both hands. I repeat, both hands. The sight of it was so strange that I had to watch them for a while, turning away oh so occasionally so they wouldn’t suspect something.

I really had forgot that one could eat with both hands, something I’d do every day back home.

And then, of course, I couldn’t resist but poke Amila sitting next to me and say, “Look! They’re eating with both hands!”

“Yes, foreigners, they know nothing,” he scoffed.

I laughed, agreeing wholeheartedly.

Threads in a Tapestry

15 Jun

Matara Welegoda Colombo Walgama Paramulla Isadeen Town Dondra Dickwella Devinuwara Kamburugamuwa Madiha Polhena Mirissa Akuressa Ahangama Weligama Koggala Habaraduwa Unawatuna Galle Kataragama Hambantota Tissamaharama Embilipitiya Rathgama Hikkaduwa Panadura Mount Lavinia Kollupitiya Batapitiya Elpitiya Batapola Ambalangoda Aluthgama Bentota Beruwela Negombo Ja-Ela Dehiwala Moratuwa Rathmalana Kalutara Katunayaka Dodanduwa Boossa Kosgoda Wadduwa Bambalapitiya Cinnamon Gardens Homagama Kurunegala Baddegama Imaduwa Morawaka Nelluwa Pelawatta Pitigala Deniyaya Tangalle Ambalantota Yala Monaragalla Ratnapura Kandy Pinnawela Peradeniya Ruhunu Hatton Polonnaruwa Sigiriya Dambulla Gampola Matale Ella Badulla Batticaloa Vavuniya Vakarai Pottuvil Ampara Aragam Bay Chilaw Jaffna Trincomalee Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Anuradhapura Mannar Elephant Pass Yapahuwa Hakmana Kamburupitiya Midigama Weherahena Dalhousie Nuwara Eliya Kiribathgoda Ragama Maradankadawela Puttalam

Beach Road Godakanda Road Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha Galle Road Senayakaya Road Uswatta Road Old Galle Road Tangalle Road Old Tangalle Road Colombo Road Akuressa Road Hakmana Road Kamburupitiya Road St. Thomas Road Kumaratunga Mawatha Main Street R. De Mel Mawatha Dharmapala Mawatha Telegraph Road A2 Southern Expressway Yehiya Road Sri Sadhithissama Mawatha Polhena Road Rahula Road

Dinesh Dimuthu Rukshan Charith Dilshan Dhanushka Namal Darshana Harsha Udaya Sanjeewa Shans Ahamed Prasad Pasindu Ruwan Sudath Pasan Dimuthu Lakmal Sameera Ajith Dharaska Jeewantha Madhuranga Hasintha Tharindu Pradeep Ashan Sampath Milan Ruchira Chaminda Chamil Nishan Rajitha Piyumika Shirantha Priyankara Kumara Ishara Supun Thisara Prasanna Gayan Nazier Mahesh Asanka Naushan Munsif Sishan Mohammed Manjula Akalanka Kasun Thalanka Nihal Siri Shiromi Thilini Gamage Gamini Ajit Nikeshala Hasinthi Chamoda Chani Shashini Bandaranaike Yeshanthi Pubodha Yasoda Kavindi Samanmalee Roshani Iresha Pesrila Sudarshani Sanjeewani Gayasha Sisitha Sisira Champika Renuka Nimasha Irangika Anushika Supuni Edirisinghe Navoda Diluni Dilhani Dilani Anuradha Nayanthara Damayanthi Nadeesha Anojani Disna Kalani Janidha Ranil Radeesha Chamali Chintha Sandya Abeygunawardana Ranatunge Peiris Samarathna Wickramasinghe Nanayakkara Kalum Janaka Madura Niwanthi Udari Anupama Nilmini Upamali Weerasinghe Abeysinghe Lila Chandrika Indika Gunasekera Amila Anoja Rajpakse Chamara Chammi Darshani Thushara Nishantha Philip Suresh Fows Fuward Gihan Shaluka Mana Rana Inoka Nevil Sajee Samantha Sujeewa Lakshiri Upul Wijeratne Surath Rantha Madhurangi Thusharra Siree Nimmi