Bo Tree at Bellanwila Temple
Sri Lanka hits you like a tropical blanket – the air is a wash of water and car horns and bird song. It is both lush and green and dirty and concrete; bursting with color from the people and buildings and plants. I have stumbled into this chaotic paradise courtesy of Fulbright, for whom I will serve as an English teacher at the University of Colombo for 8 months. I have this next month to work through Sinhala lessons while I luxuriate in the delicious dizziness of culture shock – not quite knowing where I am or what to do at any moment. This stage is one of my favorite things about traveling – for a few weeks you are a child again. You are unsure of how to get from place to place, what to eat, how to speak. That feeling, and the slow satisfaction as you learn to cross the street without looking like a fool, order food, find the right bus. Now I am living with four other English teachers in a house so large we feel like pinballs bouncing through it – a house surrounded by brilliant green and awash in the calls of birds. One night I was kept awake by the scampering of monkeys on the roof, and the next day I encountered them in the garden – we were each as startled and curious as the other.
The monkey encounter.
In my first day or two I think this cow was more adept at crossing the street than I.
Some context for my new home.
Sri Lanka is a country of transitions right now. I count myself incredibly fortunate to be here for a fraction of their history as they move forward. Sri Lanka is recently out of war. The Fulbright director described it as “post war but not post conflict” - the fighting is done but for the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority conflict is still fresh in memory and continued discrimination and misunderstanding. We stand at this moment on the brink of possibility – a new president miraculously swept out the tyrannical reign of the former president Rajapaksa whose ruthlessness ended the war, but at terrible cost of life and human dignity. All the Sri Lankans who have spoken to us hail President Sirisena as the beginning of a new chapter for their country, but there is much work to be done and many decades of pain to be healed. Conflict between the Hindu minority in the North and the Buddhist majority of the south reached a head in 1983 when government enflamed tension erupted into riots through Colombo, and death to any Tamil who the riots found. The Northern response to this was to create one of the most effective guerrilla resistance groups the world has seen, the infamous Tamil Tigers. The two sides traded atrocities until 2009, when the Sri Lankan government bombed the North to ashes. When they were done, there was no one left to fight. Peace comes slowly, and perhaps has its first real chance under the new government who has changed inflammatory rhetoric about the war and sought to minimize the disparity between resources in the North and South. Whether this will be enough, whether stated intentions will fully materialize, remains to be seen.
Sri Lanka is an island about the size of West Vriginia off the Southern tip of India. I am living in Colombo, while the war and most of the damage remaining from it occurred in the North around Jaffna.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of economic transition as well. My past two homes – Cambodia and Rwanda were squarely in the “third world” while Sri Lanka seems well on its journey on the imaginary line towards “developed country” . I find myself in shock at simple things like bus tickets, cross walks, functioning (and obeyed!) traffic lights, western style grocery stores – things I rarely would have encountered in my past travels. We went to a fancy hotel for a final dinner after orientation – an ostentatious kind of place with butlers in uniform to open the door for you, sparkling marble floors, and chandeliers complete with bland modern art. I normally hate going to this kind of place because i someplace like Cambodia or Rwanda the patrons would have been solely white, but here the majority of the patrons sipping coffee or cocktails in overstuffed chairs were Sri Lankan. It will take me some time to learn that this is Sri Lanka too – not just the open air markets and clogged streets full of Tuktuks. It is a well educated country with a growing middle class, and an upper class with connections all over the world. Colonial heritage lingers in the excellent English of the upper class which seeps into every part of the country – even the menu at the little takeaway restaurant near our home advertises its curries and rotis in English. But here, more than a reminder of Colonialism, English serves as a bridge between the languages Tamil and Sinhala which have divided the country for so long. I hope my time here will be a tiny fraction of that bridge.
(If you are interested in learning more about the history of my new home I suggest reading “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss who gives a riveting account of the end of the civil war. But please keep in mind that Sri Lanka is more than its tragedies.)
Photos of the incredible beauty and diversity of this country: Ballanwila Temple, the Red Mosque, and Pettah shopping street.