The weather outside is frightful
May 18, 2009, 1:37 pm
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Palm trees make me feel crazy.  Well, they at least make me want to get away.  The heat and these stupid coconut-bearing, umbrella-shaped trees make me absolutely useless.  There is something about tropical landscapes that makes me feel so out of sorts, so far away from the familiar that I can’t think straight.  I can’t listen to you or your interesting conversation any better than a 2 1/2 year old would.

I need pine trees.  Tall, pointing, sticky with sap, orange needles everywhere pine trees.  I need cold.  I need sweaters.  I need frozen fingers and a red nose.  I want hot chocolate because it’s cold.  I want to be stuck in the house because it snowed.  I want to see kids in sleds and snowballs and snowmen and snow angels.  I want to stay in bed because it’s too cold to get out.  I want to want a hot shower.  I want to see trees lit up with Christmas lights and and the angel halo pin on my grandmother’s Christmas Eve blouse.

I’m just about done with this heat.  I cannot wait for crisp Maryland mornings that sneak up on you in late September.  Maybe then I’ll get my memory back, along with the ability to listen to your conversation in more than 35 second increments.


April 28, 2009, 11:13 am
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I got a call yesterday from one of my contacts up in Puttalam who is helping me with my research.  I’d messaged him earlier to let him know that my health wasn’t great but I’d be back on the job soon.  So when I saw his number I picked up the phone wondering why he was calling, expecting that he’s want to know when I’d be able to come back up to work again.

“Hi Irshad.  How are you?” I said.
“You are not well?  What is wrong with you?  I pray for you.  I pray to Allah.”  His English is good but his vocabulary is limited.  The concern in his voice, however, comes across perfectly clearly.
“Oh, thank you.  I’m okay,” I say reassuringly.  I struggle to think of how to explain in non-medical terms what’s wrong with me and decide on saying, “I just have health problems from before I arrived in Sri Lanka, and they are not doing so good here.  But I’m okay now.  I just have a cold.  That’s why my voice sounds funny.”
Irshad says something about me needing to rest.
I go on to explain that I was going to be calling soon to see when I could come up, see timing-wise what would work for him.  I told him I found a translator.  He doesn’t seem to hear any of this.  He just keeps talking about my health, telling me to rest.
“I pray to Allah for good health for you.  My wife is praying too.  She prays to Allah for your health.”  The concern still lingers in his voice.
“Thank you,” I say, not sure how to thank him for thinking of me.  “I’m feeling much better so I thank you for your prayers. “

I’m touched by his sincerity, by his family’s kindness.  Last time I was up there they wanted me to stay with them because they knew I’d be staying alone in a hotel.  The entire family (Irshad, his wife, and the teenage daughter and little boy) stayed with me in my hotel room until my dinner had been brought to my room and they were sure I had everything I needed.  The wife invited me to stay an extra night to go to a local sports tournament with them.  And now two months later, they are praying for me, this white girl that they’ve met only once.  I don’t really pray for people.  I don’t pray for myself.  But this Muslim family, they’re praying that I get better.

Everything hits at once
April 21, 2009, 9:01 pm
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I’m into month six here in Sri Lanka and now, just now, am I beginning to understand.  There will be a story that emerges from this experience.  What it will be, where it will come from, I still don’t know.  And it’s not out of laziness that I don’t know, that I haven’t figured it out.  But instead, it’s out of confusion.  Yes, in the simplest terms, confusion has kept me down.  I’ve spent countless hours in the sort of low-level function state that your brain slips into when you watch television.  It’s just buzzing snow up there in my head.  But tonight, as I stare at my screen, my eyes glazed over from too much internal processing, I realize that my time here is going to end more quickly than I’d like. I realize it’s time to get to work.  I know what you’re thinking.  “Now?  Just now you’re realizing this?  What have you been doing all this time?  It’s been six months!”  Well, I sympathize with you because I say the same thing to myself.  And if I’m honest, the six months have involved quite a bit of floundering, but also a bit of successful soul searching, some research, and too much Indian food.  Wait, can you eat too much Indian food?  I suppose not – so scratch that last one.  There have been other things – a brief trip to Puttalam to see the Kaffir people I’m trying to learn about, a week in Kolkata, India (lovely city despite the rumors), a swing around the island with my family, Singhala classes (yet I still don’t speak the language), and, of course, I’ve made time to make friends.

Sometimes it feels wasted, my time here.  But of course it’s not.  And will not be, especially in these last few months.  Everyone should spend nine months somewhere that knocks them flat on their ass.  Well, knocks them down as it teaches them bit after bit about the world – this great and horrible planet Earth we trounce around in.  (I think there would be more of the ‘great’ and less of the ‘horrible’ if everyone could have this opportunity.)  But back to my point: in all the floundering one does in a foreign place – and I mean ‘foreign’ in the fullest sense of the word – there are endless lessons learned that go nearly unnoticed.  And there I think might just be where so much of the value of my time here lies – in the mildly subconscious, in the trampled details, in the layer just below the surface.  And well, I’ve finally stopped to recognize their existence.

I guess what I’m saying is there is a lot that’s happened in the past 6 months – so much internally and externally that I felt frozen, a deer caught in headlights.  And now, with a blink, I realize I need to run, because I’ve got plans for the next 3 months.  So I’m off now, running into the dark, much the same as when I first got here.  The world never ceases to be unknown – fortunately.


The ants come marching in
January 22, 2009, 10:24 am
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You know it’s dry in Colombo when the ants stop going for you food crumbs, but instead head for your glass of water.  I wake up at night unsure of whether or not I want to risk quenching my thirst because I may also get a mouthful of tiny ants. 

I first noticed them was I was in bed one night, nearly asleep.  Before I turned out the light, I reached for my glass.  I stopped short of picking it up though because there was a trail of little ants that were marching right past my cookie crumbs towards my glass of water.  And then I saw them all – lines of them making their way up and down the side of my glass.  They’re drinking my water, I thought.  My water, mind you, that I’ve had to boil and send through a filter so that it’s bacteria free (and so that it doesn’t taste like pennies).  So when I see that these little ants are stealing my water, I’m a little upset.  Dudes, I say out loud.  Come on.  That’s my water.  They don’t acknowledge me.  If I’m being honest, I should go ahead and admit that I cursed at them.  Don’t judge.  You’d have done the same thing. 

But then, well, I remember how incredibly tired I am from the heat, how parched I am from being out in the sun earlier.  And as I think about this, I suddenly feel an odd sense of comradery with these guys.  Yeah, we do need some water. 

After watching them march around enthusiastically as if they’re in some sort of holiday parade, I pick up my glass of water.  I stare down into it, watch them scurry along the inside glass, some of them I see are floating in the water.  I pretend the floating ants are on inner tubes in one of those lazy river rides, basking in the glory of more water than they know what to do with. 

I set the glass back down on my bedside table.  Well, I guess it’s their turn.  Don’t worry, I say, reassuring them.  I understand.  Sri Lanka’s a tough place.  I turn off my light and fall asleep thinking of the ants getting drunk in the pool of water. 

In the morning they’re gone, of course.  Probably sleeping off the night.  So I take my turn.  Drink down every bit of the water that’s left.  I head downstairs.  Gotta boil more water for me and the ants.



Hokey Pokey at the Check Point
November 10, 2008, 7:29 pm
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It’s easy to forget how quickly you become acclimated in a new city, a new country.  When I first walked this island’s city streets my eyes wouldn’t stop bugging out of their little sockets.  It seemed like every three feet there was a military person dressed in camouflage with an automatic rifle strapped around his soldier.  Look ahead.  Look at the ground.  Look at your friend.  These are the things I thought. 

The first time I saw them was on the way out of the airport.  Sleep deprived and overwhelmed by the heat, I couldn’t help thinking my, my – this is a rather heavily guarded airport.  But I pretty quickly noticed that no matter how far away from the airport we drove, those guys were still there.  With their boots and burettes and their uncomfortably big guns.  Then it hit me.  Ooooh right.  There’s a civil war going on here. 

It was a few weeks later when I realized how comfortable I’d gotten with them, the soldiers.  I was on my way to the election party that the American Embassy threw.  So just before 6 a.m., with our eyes still swollen from lack of sleep, four of us file into a taxi and head over to watch the 44th American president be decided. 

I’d never seen the streets so quiet.  It was beautiful.  The sky was gray and pink, the buildings a little shadowy with pre-dawn light.  A man eating his breakfast crossed the street and a dog sniffed about, probably scrounging for his breakfast.  But now our taxi was chatty with delirious passengers.  The chatter was a jumble of what kind of food we thought they’d be serving us and everyone’s befuddlement as to how on earth all of these mosquitoes found their way into the cab.  Seriously, did they just hatch or had we sat in a nest?  So we babbled about breakfast and slapped our legs and arms and elbowed each other in the process.  The taxi driver?  Well, I watched him trying not to laugh. 

Then we hit a check point.  This is normal, especially near important government buildings.  You show your ID, answer questions if they’re asked, and skedaddle (seeing as it isn’t the most comfortable of situations). 

So at this check point, a soldier, toting his gun of course, walks up and asked for the driver’s identification.  Then the soldier’s head pops into the front window to survey the passengers.  The car sits quietly.  And me, what do I do?  Well, I did the only thing I could think to do when someone pokes their head in your car.  I flash a toothy grin and wave vigorously. 

His head popped out of that window quicker than it had popped in.  He waved us away and the taxi driver hit the gas.  The window rolled back up and the back seat busted into laughter.  Our friend in the front seat hadn’t seen what had happened.  And so as we explained what I’d done: smiled and waved at the soldier like a 14 year old girl who just saw met her favorite boy band member.  At this point, the driver couldn’t help but laugh – probably at my stupidity.  Who the hell waves at a guy flashing a gun and asking you where you’re going? 

That’s when I realized that I’m not so scared of the soldiers anymore.  Not that I ever should have been.  But hey, I’m from America where cops are the only people you see on the streets with a gun.  And those are cute little guns that sit on the cop’s hip like a baby slung on a mother’s hip.  Nothing to worry about.  And now I have the same ambivalent reaction when I see the soldiers here: nothing to worry about



it’s all in the details
November 3, 2008, 6:30 pm
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When I was about nine years old my dad and I drove down the country roads near my grandparents’ house.  The road rolled with steady trees tunneling over top of us, only breaking when farm fields appear.  I bounced in my seat with the bumps in the road.  Then we hit another tunnel; hit the shade where I watched the sun dance through the swaying trees.  When the light was just right, and it streamed across the road like ribbons, I thought to myself, “I bet this is like heaven.”

 I don’t think there was a destination in mind for us.  We just seemed to be driving along in his blue pick-up truck with the windows rolled down and my hair making little tornados in the wind.  Whether it was Spring or Summer, I couldn’t tell you.  But what I do remember about this ride, well, the reason I remember this ride is because my dad asked my why I though the trees curled over the road.  “Why don’t they stand straight up the way they do in the middle of the forest,” he wanted to know.  I leaned forward and scrunched my nose to look up out of the front window. 

He pointed out the blooming Dogwood trees I’d been noticing on the drive.  Their creamy white petals appeared to be floating in the air like lights on a Christmas tree.  I saw their slim trunks leaning out from the forest.  The way they arched made me think they were ready to dive into the road.

“I don’t know,” I finally said after thinking about his question.  I wanted to know.  I wanted to have the answer so that I could say it, so that he could be impressed with me, and be proud of how smart of a daughter he had.  But I couldn’t come up with the right answer.  I only guessed.  And they were all wrong answers. 

“Think about it,” he said.  “What would make them bend like that?”
My mouth must have twisted to one side then the same way it does now when I’m stumped. 

“The trees are looking for sunlight,” he explained. “That’s what they need to live.  They grow towards the road because the road leaves room for the sun to come through.”
“Ohhhh,” I said still looking up at the trees.  “That makes sense.”  And it did make sense to me.  It was the kind of perfectly simple explanation that fathers have a way of delivering.  “There’s design in everything,” he added.

I was watching the tall trees above me all stretching towards the sunlight.  I looked out ahead of me, counting the number of Dogwood trees I saw.  They’re beautiful, I thought as I lost count.  In the green tunnel we drove through, the Dogwood flowers stood out like diamonds fastened to the forest wall.  Seemed like they’d been placed there just to for our ride.

I laid my head against the frame of the door so that it peaked out the window a bit.  The forest broke and sun beamed down on me so that I had to close my eyes.

.    .    . 

So much of my life feels like I’m reliving those few moments.  Noticing details seems to run through my veins.  I don’t really think I learned it from my dad, but he regularly said things that made me understand that I’m destined to be a slave to details. 

And I can feel that part of me here in Sri Lanka.  I see bit after tiny bit of Colombo.  From the wide working feet of men on the street, to the tiny green bananas on the tree outside of my house, to a couple of little boys playing outside in their underwear on a hot Saturday afternoon.  I’m piecing it together, and with each additional detail I gather, this place feels a little more like home.  Not so unlike the back roads of rural Maryland.


Hot hot heat
October 31, 2008, 5:28 am
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It hit me before I opened my eyes this morning, before I could untangle myself from the starchy sheet.  It hangs in the air, thick so that I feel the need to swim through it.  I walk down the street feeling like my body is made of bricks.  The heat.  It’s everywhere on days like today.  Stuck in my room.  Draped from the high ceiling in the museum we walked through. Even in the tuk-tuk I can feel a fuzzy heat emanating from the driver and from the little motor scooting me around town.  I feel like hanging my tongue out of my mouth like the street dogs.  Hey, it seems to work for them. 

But it’s not the heat itself that really gets to me.  It’s the side effects.  My muscles and brain function at a very low level.  (Like dial-up internet.  You know the file will eventually download, but when?)  And my patience, it wears thin quickly.  After a 20 minute walk to the National Museum, I wandered through rooms of Buddhist sculptures and royal swords for about an hour.  What I want to do next is go find a grocery store and lay down in the frozen isle.  But what I have to do is get keys made so my roommates and I can all have a way to get in our new house.  So I begrudgingly tuk-tuk it over to the mall.  At least this time I have the exact store that I’m looking for.  Fortunately, keys don’t take long to make.  And with the new sets in hand, I head out the door.  Back into the sun. 

Get home.  Go home are the only things my brain can conjure up. 
A tuk-tuk driver walks up to me.  “You need taxi?”  And motions me towards his tuk-tuk.
I don’t manage a smile.  I just follow him saying, “Horton Place.”
He furrows his brow and I think he says, “Horton Place, yes.”
“Hor-Ton Place,” I annunciate it slower making sure he heard me. “You know?”
“Yes,” he says with a bit of hesitation.  In his strong Sri Lankan accent, I think I hear him repeat it.  “Horton Place.” 

I get in after arguing about the price. 
“How much?” I’d asked.
“Two hundred fifty,” and he rolls his ‘r.’
“Nay, nay!” I shake my head and give him a look that says I’m not an idiot.
“One-way street, have to go allll the way around,” he explains, motioning his arm in a circle. “250.”
“200,” I say sternly.
He mumbles something and says, “come,” motioning me towards his ride.

He’s over charging me.  By about 75 rupees.  And I know it.  On another day I’d have walked off to find another ride.  But I’m too irritated and exhausted to argue anymore.  So I slide into his backseat, which for some reason is decorated with Hello Kitty.  We take off into the beginnings of after-school traffic. I close my eyes and let the wind brush my face.  I’m not paying attention to the tuk-tuk driver and I’m ignoring the honking traffic. 

Along the way, he says, “Ward Place?” 
A few expletives, along with WHAT is he talking about?!?!, are what flash through my head.  I can’t decide what he said but it damn well better have been “Horton Place.” 
“HOR-TON, with an ‘h,’” I say loudly so that I can be heard over the rumbling motor.  “HORTON.”  I cleared that up, now didn’t I. 

Soon we come to a street and he wants to know which way to turn. 
“Left,” I say and then immediately realize that we’re on Ward Place and he thinks this is where I want to be.  A few more expletives come popping into my head. 
“NO,” I say.  I can hear the heat talking.  “I said Horton Place!  Not Ward!  I said Hor-ton.”
He shakes his head at me.  “I ask you.  I ask you Ward Place,” he says to me.
“I said Horton, with an ‘h.’  I said ‘h’!”  I’m almost yelling.
“Your accent very hard,” he tells me.  You’re tellin’ me, I think.

Our mutual vocabulary is limited so we just keep repeating what we’ve already said like we’re a couple of 3-year-olds making absolutely no communicative progress.  He makes a U-turn.  At least he’s headed for Horton with an ‘h’ Place.  But the rupees that I got taken off have now been tacked back onto the price.  I know this.  Tuk-tuk drivers can be temperamental and my own irritation is not likely helping.   

Then, haha… then, I realize I don’t have change.  I have to give him either 200 or 300 rupees.  More expletives.  They’re like fireworks going off in my head.  The ride should have been 150.  But I’m burning, my head is spinning, and I know if I say one more thing to this man, it’s going to be rude and snippety.  I pull out three 100 rupee bills. 

“Left turn,” I say and motion with my hand to the left so that he’ll turn down my alleyway.  I march out of the tuk-tuk, flash the 300 rupees in front of him, and watch as a grin of triumph appears on his face. 

“Thank you,” he says still grinning.

I turn and head off with the sun pounding down on me, making me smaller and smaller as I near my gate.  By the time I get to it, I feel I’m the size of one of our kitchen cockroaches.  “Defeated” is the word I think I’m looking for. 

I shut the gate behind me and pray for rain to come battle this blasted heat.