Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The home stretch cometh

Exhaustion creeps in, makes itself at home beneath my sun-strewn skin.

There is too much to tell, and not time enough with which to do it.

My mouth moves in symphony to these marvelous new letters, the incredible strangeness of an entirely new alphabet. My ears have adjusted to the rhythm and cadence of the Sinhalese language...Sinabasa.

Mosquitoes lullaby my body into disjointed, heat-stroked sleep. Clothing has acquired its own form of accursedness, stiffening in the wake of the naked ministrations of my hands under an infinitude of cold shower streams. Nothing I own has been laundered by anything but my own hands in months. The freshness of these cold, purposeful showers wilts the moment I step out of my towel into the suffocating, chewy humidity.

The heat is dizzying and oppressive, setting itself upon the undoing of effort. It is senseless to move quickly in such a climate, so one resigns oneself to the slowness that marks this gorgeous island nation. Adaptation reigns supreme.

The constant stares and "hello, where are you going? country?" have become as natural as the flocks of house crows that "caw, caw, caw" throughout the day, endemic as pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

My eyes are trained to the dark skins of my countrymen and women, no longer feeling isolated and strange in my whiteness. No, instead, I feel at ease, toting my umbrella everywhere like a proper Sinhalese woman, accompanied by her own personal cloud, blotting out this tiny spot of sun.

Translating for hours and hours today with our wonderful and generous beyond compare friend Pradeep, under his gentle encouragement I began to realize that I was reading Sinhala. Not well, not quickly. But reading it, nonetheless.

Do not misunderstand. This is not an easy country. Nothing is even slightly simple here. It is endlessly complicated, all of it. It is a nation that has been spared the savagery of Western Capitalism because of a long, bloody civil war. The irony is not lost on the World Bank and the IMF, both with their fingerprints all over the aid packages that swept in after the tsunami, determined (with the blessings of the Sri Lanka government) to convert this impoverished coastal paradise into another Maldives resort island, at the expense of the poor fisherfolk.

Confusion reigns supreme, as the reality of each player in this enormous mess of opportunism and dispossession has surfaced. It is ugly, and unfair, but then so are so many of the things in life that we have already accepted as "just life."

Each one of us, with our American passports and our white skin, represents a world of opportunity to these people. We are each considered a one-on-one aid organization, and it is precious and rare to meet anyone who does not ask at some point for some sort of assistance. Not something as tangible as money. That would be too easy. People want jobs, and they want a ticket out of this place.

And they are willing to work harder than anyone to make life easier for those who stay behind.

You can never know what opportunity is, until you see entire nations that suffer a complete lack of it. Until you learn to love people who can never see what you've seen and done what you've done, by the simple virtue of unlucky geographic circumstances.

I am beginning to think that the only real sin in life is to do nothing with the opportunity that you have been given by the grace of birth in a prosperous nation.

Then again, the land of opportunity has driven me into the arms of every developing nation I can get to. So what does that say about me? I am either very foolish or very crazy, and quite likely both.

I can live with that. I guess I have to.


amycue said...

I am so glad you are there and not me - you are able to make your surroundings come to life and I feel honored to share them from far-away. Thanks for sharing!

Kathy Hernandez said...

Shortly after our conversation the package you mentioned arrived. It was pretty battered, looked like it had gone through quite a few adventures. Thank you so much for thinking of us as you travel.