Friday, February 29, 2008

February 26th: Sri Lanka, lover

Tragically, I am in a HUGE hurry right now. Currently in Kandy, the city famous for housing the Buddha tooth relic and withstanding the forces of the Portuguese and Dutch colonies for centuries.

It is breathtaking. Breathtaking. I am in love with this country in ways that I cannot put into words.

Wild peacocks, tropical birds of every hue known to man, monkeys in the trees, and the most beautiful, smiling people I have ever seen.

I am now officially reading Sinhaha. It is incredibly beautiful...the letters sensuous, round, with fat bottoms, and arching backs. Reading them makes me tingle.

February 21st: slumping towards the future

Slowly coming back from a pesky cold...chills and a dry, hacking cough keeping me up with the dull roar of the ocean swallowing everything outside.

We missed the lunar eclipse, my colleagues and I, on account of being on the wrong side of the world.

Comprehension dawns on me slowly as people in the village have become more accustomed to our presence here. Nothing is as it seems, and as much as I hate to say it: being pragmatic has been incredibly useful to me as a researcher. I don't believe anyone is ever telling 100% of the truth, as I happen to think that truth is more arbitrary a science than exact.

In short: people lie. Particularly when you are the Other, the White Other in a brown world.

Particularly when you represent hope and power. Power has so many meanings. We can do and undo things with the power we wield, us educated, us active.

My camera LCD is broken as of yesterday, so I am shooting blind, out of a digital machine rendered analog. I dub my camera "digalog" (as it's now officially a digital camera with an analog feel) and soldier on.

Today the rain fell with a fury, staining the sky black and pockmarking the ocean into a roiling, alien landscape.

The only other woman in our group, Anuja, broke down tonight, upon hearing that her 2-year-old is in the hospital, convulsing with seizures from an intensely high fever. She is in the village with us, preparing for the town meeting we've organized for tomorrow. I held her hand and stroked her hair as she wept, feeling the deepest sympathy for her, simultaneously realizing yet again why I will never have children. I could never stand to love anyone that much. The fear of losing that part of a self is actually too much for me to imagine.

The wife of the guest house owner where we stay in told me the story of the tsunami this morning, and how their 1.5 year old son was swept away into the ocean. The same ocean that roars, 25 meters beyond the front door of her home now, day and night. How can she stand it? I could not.

One of my colleagues honored me with the telling of her own story the other night...It cleaved me in two, her story of love and adventure sandwiched in between 2 unspeakable tragedies. It made me marvel at how positive and upbeat a being she is, how marvelous and brave.

These people all make me feel small and cowardly in my small triumphs and battles.

I want to speak Sinhalese in a way I have rarely wanted anything. I bought my first book to begin to learn to read in it today.

I have begun to research NGOs in the country. I want to live here within a year, for a long time.

I want to go native, lose myself to this delicious lobe of SE Asia forever.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Phuket Impressions

Tonight, I am twitchy with restlessness. My timing just seems to be off. I'm suffering a slight bout of world-weariness, finding it irritating how smitten my colleagues are with Thailand.

I love it, too, but I've got months of Thailand under my belt, and I can't help but see her for what she is. A tourist mecca along the Andaman coast that promises smiles and elephant paraphernalia galore, as well as underage girls for sale in shady show bars where they stand (looking all of 12 years old) in tall boots and sexy dresses, lip synching while looking as though they are trying not to cry.

It is enough to make even the hardest, most cavalier man break down. We wandered in the other night, mistakenly thinking that we had found a Karaoke bar. The beer was cheap, so we took a seat, and slowly realized what was going on. We were all uniformly horrified, and left quickly.

Tonight I felt stretched thin, still fighting a nagging tickle in my throat, still feeling a bit off kilter.

I wandered away from the bright lights and markets, wandered onto one thin, winding street after another until I was thoroughly convinced that I was lost deep in the bowels of this place. Slowly, I backtracked my way to familiarity, like a thread winding its way out of an enormous knot, dipping and diving, sleepwalking my way past open doors revealing old ladies in sagging dresses, Buddhist shrines, steaming noodle alcoves.

Every sense is razor sharp when I am lost, so that each detail stands out like a bloodstain on a white sheet: distinct and indistinct, a Rorschach test designed to reveal what I am really feeling beneath the stress of group travel and the pangs of senseless desire to disappear.

A mother watches a tiny little girl squatting in the grass beside a restaurant, peeing. A beautiful young man sits astride his motorbike holding a steel-gray cat with half a tail in his lap, petting it adoringly. Two homely, stocky lady boys riding a motorbike cruise by me, both smiling and staring. What in the hell is this white gal doing in our alley? their glittering eyes seem to say.

A woman at a noodle shop tells me that the soup is too spicy for me. This is all done with sign language, the unofficial, international variety practiced everywhere by non-native visitors and endured by their patient (and sometimes impatient) hosts. I assure her that spicy is "Dee Maak," or "very good." I sit to a bowl that looks as though it is full of tripe, and my heart sinks. Screw it. I'm hungry, and I need to not get sick. I recall my father once saying that menudo (Mexican tripe stew) is good for you when you are sick.

My first bite proves my bravura foolish. It is a chicken foot. A chicken foot for crying out loud! I don't eat chicken at all, and I happen to rather like the little buggers, having had 2 as pets for the last few years. I gag it down, and then proceed to eat the blood cake floating in the mind-numbingly spicy broth. At least my mouth is on fire, obscuring the taste of congealed blood for the time being.

I eat almost everything by transporting myself to a better moment, smiling wanly as I recall our perfect lunch this afternoon, and the Thai students we are working with when they told me, "Francesca, we like to watch when you eat, when you talk, it is like you are always dancing." I recalled myself presenting today, realizing that years of dancing must have left an imprint on my mannerisms. My hands are like eager little birds, painting pictures in the sky to illustrate my points. I watch my fingers lace when I say the word "unification" and I see them flutter apart when I say "the community was broken".

My hands chase one another as I describe tsunamis wrecking the coast, and I make my fists into houses to illustrate proximities and spatial relationships. Public speaking is a performance for me, it seems.

I watch myself in my mind's eye as I eat this impossibly spicy, revolting meal: I speak slowly and with great clarity, choosing my words for conciseness. I never say "um." The foreigners appreciate my presentations, because I pan around the room with my eyes, and on the lookout for comprehension and confusion.

I wonder what the future holds for a lady like me. A dancing, dreaming, public speaking pixie who never knows when to give up, who does not know how to admit defeat...

I wander through the spiderweb of streets, mournful Karaoke songs accompanying my every step, a lone star glistening beyond the concrete roof lines. Eventually I see, out of the corner of my eye, a familiar building at the intersection.

I walk toward the light, drenched in my own sweat, the swarming of manufactured sounds turning the heavy, hot air alive. I have found myself again, by losing myself to the night.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Miracle Morning

I wish I had more time for eloquence, because this morning deserves much more than I can possibly give it here and now.

We are conducting our research here in Tangalle, the sounthernmost state in Sri Lanka. Our village, Yayawatte, is several kilometers away, but our guest house is 25 meters from the Indian Ocean, and is a truly remarkable sort of paradise.

It is Saturday here, and I awoke shortly after 7 a.m. with a heart full of resolve to go for a jog along the crescent-shaped cove of beach we live on. My colleagues were already in the ocean when I arrived beachside. I slathered on SPF and began my jog.

Perhaps I should describe the waves here. In a word: terrifying. In another word: murderous. And one last word: thrilling. They roar like thunder, and lap at my legs intermittently as I make my way along the way. The stray dogs along the way greet me, in a way that is at least partially friendly.

I pass the fishermen, returning to land, pulling up nets, and their smiles and waves meet mine, illuminating as ever the incredible welcome of the Sri Lankan culture. After a kilometer or so, I arrive at a lagoon, where I spontaneously decided to do something I have not done in years. Yoga and meditation.

I situate myself beneath a small tree on the lagoon's edge, and do a series of sun salutations. Then I sit. The coarse sand coating my feet coupled with my tender, white thighs has the effect of sand paper. I cannot manage a lotus position. And so I sit, crosslegged, and close my eyes. After several deep breaths, for whatever reason, I open my eyes, and gaze at the lagoon.

There are these enormous, Komodo Dragon-type lizards all over the place here. I see one, roiling in the water. I think it is clinging to a log, but as I observe it, I realize there are two, locked in an embrace...mating?
I am transfixed! I stand, feeling incredibly fortunate to be witnessing this. A toothless fisherman points excitedly, leading me to believe this is a rare and strange thing to see. I watch the coital lizards as they are rolled along in the lazy current toward the inlet, where the lagoon is joined by the sea. They swim to safety moments before the violence of the waves swallows them.

I return to my seat, and meditate briefly, slowly being dissolved into the cacophony of birdsongs, the monkeys ululating, and the waves roaring. I hear a distinct voice in my head say, "I wish I could always be in meditation."

I wonder at this as I stand, and begin a slow, long jog back to the guest house. I know that meditation means a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, it is profoundly simple: The cessation of static filling your head. The ability to exist, for a moment, in the moment. It really is that simple. And that difficult.

I jog past a fisherman, who gestures to me, pointing to his elbow, "You like?"

I do like elbows, I think...but not particularly. I bobble my head side to side (the Sri Lankan version of nodding, 'yes'). Sure, I like elbows. Wait, maybe he means, 'swimming'. I bobble. I like that, too.

He gestures, "come". So I do. He lifts a beautiful lobster from the boat, "You like?"

Hell, yes, I do! "Keyaduh?" (how much) I ask?

He lifts 3 more out. Okay. "Keyaduh?"

He runs off, and grabs 2 more from a neighbor's boat. "$1,400 rupias" he says, grinning over the 6 lobsters. That's 14 dollars for about 3 pounds of still-living lobster!

I say, "Oh!" (which means 'yes').

His friend offers to bring them to the guest house, as I have no money on me.

I continue to jog. As I approach another group of fishermen pulling in their net, the lead man gestures to me,"You help!" he says. I join the group of 6 men, heaving at an impossibly heavy length of jute, strung with wooden floats, presumably attached to a net somewhere out in those murderous waves.

I grab on, and as they chant a strange, rhythmic call, I pull alongside them. This is an entirely different sort of meditation. As the waves roll in, you pull, and as they roll out, you plant yourself in the sand, straining against the more powerful party in this game of tug-of-war.

Within minutes, I am sweating profusely, marveling at these stringy men in their sarongs, pulling at what seems like an impossible length of net. I continue to strain my muscles alongside them, as pale as the flesh of the fish that struggle within that net. Another man joins us, and I take my leave, their wide smiles trailing behind me.

As I jog back, a behemoth wave is piggybacked by another 10-footer, and they magnify each other. In spite of my distance from the ocean, their wash takes my feet out from under me as efficiently as a lion takes down a gazelle. The ocean rakes my body across the sharp, granular sand, scraping my right side. I struggle to my feet, and run inland.

When I look at this ocean, I feel fear and awe. When I muster the courage to swim in her, I feel the same.

Still, I am in love with this morning, as I am in love with every morning here.

And I wanted to share it with you.

Monday, February 4, 2008

We Escaped with our Lives...

Today, while the rest of the students accompanied our professor to look at some famous Sri Lankan architect’s work, three of us took the train a short way to Colombo. We had been emphatically warned against going, on account of the fact that there is currently a civil war of sorts going on in this country between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is very complicated. And tomorrow is Sri Lankan independence day, where there will be huge parades in the capital city celebrating 60 years of sovereignty from the British. Violence is expected, in the form of Tamil Tiger bombings.

I lead the charge of rebels, in spite of a Sri Lankan friend warning me yesterday not to go to the ‘Fort’ in Columbo. He was certain that it would be fine elsewhere, but that this particular place was unsafe. I don't even know where the "Fort" is. Oh, how we laugh when the ticket master at the railway station hands over our tickets, which clearly read: Columbo Fort. Like moths to a flame, we have gravitated straight to the epicenter of danger.

As we wander by foot, we are approached by a seemingly endless number of Sri Lankan men, armed with a smattering of barely-intelligible English, all eager to ‘help’ us out in some way, the generic, “My friend, let me show you a good place for to shopping” routine. My companions are a still a little wet behind the ears, and unfamiliar with the hustle that naturally accompanies the white visitor to a brown country. I take a step back, and allow us to be led by a particularly ‘helpful’ guy to a sari shop, where I must admit~we get some pretty good deals on a couple of gorgeous saris.

We finally shake our helpful guide, who seems disappointed with the generous tip that we gave him, after much bellyaching about how much help he provided us. We gave him $5 dollars, in a country where a meal too large to eat in one sitting costs 50 cents.

Free at last to wander, we buy fruit from a dense vegetable market, the ripe, oily smell of dried and spoilt fish hanging heavy in the stagnant air. A soccer stadium provides myself and lady friend Ashley a respite from the sweltering heat and sun. I slice chunks off a fat, salmon-fleshed papaya, and we eat them, drenched in lime juice, right off the knife’s blade--while watching our companion, Josh, playing a friendly game of soccer with the locals.

As we seek out an ATM, broke from our sari shopping and visit to the tailor to fit us with choris (the sari blouses), a thunderous -BOOM- split the nearby air. I feel it in my feet, through my shoes. “Josh. That was a bomb, it had to be. Nothing else would do that.” I am vaguely concerned, but choose to focus instead on extracting funds from the ATM, which proves uncooperative. When I emerge from the bank booth, Josh is wild-eyed, and a tone of panic underlays his normally cavalier tone, “Francesca, everyone is running, people keep telling me we need to leave.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine. They just don’t want us to be freaked out, since we’re foreigners.”

He seems unconvinced, as we trace a funny, winding path through the streets, in search of another bank machine. Shopkeepers are pulling their roll-doors shut, street vendors are packing up their wares, and the streets are suddenly swarming with military personnel.

Ashley turns ashen, her fists clenched tightly, knuckles bone-white. “Everyone is closing, everyone is leaving. What do we do? What do we do?!”

My calm is still intact. “I’m sure they’re just closing for midday. It’s hot, shop keepers always close up midday in this sort of climate.”

We take our money from a bank machine and head back to the tailor. We are two hours ahead of schedule, but my companions are desperately ready to head back. We note, at one point, that we are walking in the opposite direction of everyone else, three glowing, white pearls trickling against the steady flow of mahogany bodies.

A tall, studious-looking young man walks up to us and says, “There has been a bomb, at the station, you should leave Columbo, it is very dangerous.”

The tailor asks us to return in an hour and a half. My companions are actually beginning to look very afraid. We grab a tuk-tuk (awesomely noisy, 3-wheeled taxi ubiquitous to SE Asia) and I ask for him to take us somewhere where we can get a beer. As we navigate the streets, it is impossible not to notice that the same city streets that had previously been a colorful, mad melee are now magically transformed into a tense, sparse ghost town. Military barricades have been erected hither and thither, and all of the streets that were 2-way thoroughfares have been converted to one-way escape routes.

Our little corner of Colombo is no longer a vibrant, functional body. It is vomiting everything, everyone, out of the vicinity of the violence.

We are delivered to a hotel where a Japanese man and a hotel clerk sit glued to a TV screen. We sit beside them, and watch the *Breaking News* footage of the bomb blast. We had assumed that the blast was at the market, near the bus stand, or at the bus station, as much of the rebel violence is centered around the busses. Nope. The Colombo Fort train station, where we had landed only hours earlier, had suffered a serious bombing. A shaky hand-camera relays footage of the the floor and pillars of the station, splattered with the blood of innocent civilians, their broken sandals and bags of vegetables strewn about~ a tragic end to many a benign trip to the market. People died, just now, right there. I felt the shock of it in my feet. We were that close.

For the first time, I feel uneasy, and a little sick to my stomach.

I brought these people here, my friends, on the brash assumption that our professor (who is a native of Colombo) was simply being paranoid when we forbade us to go into town this weekend. They trusted my authority as a seasoned traveler who refuses to worry about anything.

We sit, sipping our beers, ordering another, and another, until they go to work on the frayed nerves and disbelief, lulling everyone into a softly alcoholic sense of reassurance. The main problem now is that the trains are not running, and we have to find an alternate form of transport to Moratuwa, the township where we are staying.

We take a harrowing tuk-tuk ride back to the tailor, where we catch them just as they are closing up shop. The streets are now entirely empty, save for men and women in military dress, many with their enormous guns slung over their shoulders. On the long, and comparatively expensive (15 dollars as opposed to 30 cents by train) tuk-tuk ride back to Moratuwa, we vow to not tell our professor, or anyone in our group, where we had gone. This is the sort of lie that protects everyone from a truth none of us want to consider:

Like bad soldiers, we disobeyed orders, and were rewarded with the realization that sometimes orders make sense. We were wrong, and the authority figure of this trip was right. We risked our lives to sight-see and go shopping.

In spite of it all, I must report that I was strangely unafraid throughout the entire ordeal, leading me to believe that I am at least part-robot. Maybe I should be a war-correspondent, as my temperament seems to be rather well-geared for it.

Nevertheless, I won’t be playing around in the war zone so carelessly again. Some wake-up calls are louder than others, and this one is still reverberating beneath my skin.

I count my blessings, once more, as always.

Even paradise is haunted by the promise of violence, the lions & tigers & bears of jungles and forests. Here, it just happens to be Tigers, with a capital T.