beware of hidden coconut trees

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To add to this little series of things that happen to me in Colombo: As I was waiting outside of my office back in December, I heard a loud crash, dismissed it as a large animal in the trees only to hear the loud smack of a king coconut hitting the pavement a meter away from me!

getting out of the bubble: batticaloa

IMG_0307.jpgA pink sunset and the smell of the ocean greet me on my ride home from work. There are cargo ships on the horizon patiently waiting to port. Buildings along Marine Drive play host to the daily bustle – another day, another wedding. The streets are all lit up at this time but there is something obscuring the view. The picture isn’t coming in clear. Sri Lanka, where you at? Colombo life got me trippin. It was time to get out and I did.

Four weeks ago.

The city tumbles out of view in favour of forest and farm. I’m on my way out east towards Batticaloa and the journey itself is a destination. My eyes feast themselves on distant mountains and colourful streetside kadeys as they whiz by. Dense green foliage part and give way to glimpses of the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa. The ruins call out to lives lived long ago. This reverie is briefly interrupted by conspicuous military monuments shining in the face of everyone who drives by. Young men in training. For what? I ask myself. 

I’m brought back to the present moment by the sight of hindu temples and shrines that begin to take over the landscape. Tamil script shifts subtlety to the tops of signs and a familiarity washes over me. A great Pillayar sits atop a temple looking out over the road – no obstacles here. It’s a straight shot to Batti. We arrive safely.

Over the next five days I feel like I’ve been transported. There is a duality in every moment. A tug of war between where I am physically and where my mind takes me. 

At night we take a break from work and walk about town. The lagoons follow me around every bend and curve of the road, a constant reminder of how these calm waters once brought sheer terror and great loss to people here.

At the top of the old fortifications we watch the sun set. Tamil songs from the 80s float across the water from a nearby boat and I’m hit with a pang of nostalgia. Again as we walk along the boardwalk, the same music is on loudspeaker for everyone to enjoy. In these moments I am carried to my childhood family car, a grey Ford Tempo, where the only music that was played came from a set of two cassette tapes of my father’s favourite cinema songs. At the time, my sister and I groaned. Now, while standing in Sri Lanka I think back on that time in Canada fondly.

Sari hunting the next day requires a trip to Maruthamunai. A coworker knows a place. We enter a small living room and proceed through the ritual of pulling out vibrant handloom saris from carefully laid out piles, judging the material, the colour, the weight, the intricacy of design – What would Amma think of this? – searching for the one. This could easily be any one of the basements in Scarborough where I have done the same. 

Here in the east, my terrible rudimentary spoken Tamil is instantly recognized as from Jaffna. A place, up until this point, I have never been to and a language I never learned here. 

The mundane becomes exciting as the differences and similarities between here and Toronto become magnified. Where is home? What is home? I’m not sure, but I think it’s somewhere between a physical place and a mental state. Definition pending.

Heading back to Colombo I can’t wait to leave again. The Colombo bubble has a way of keeping you satiated and stagnant. When I leave I am invigorated by the people I meet. A clearer picture is formed of this country and myself with every step I take outside of the city and my comfort zone. Where to next?

q&a

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I tell the driver where I’m headed and step into his red tuk. Inside, pasted on to the interior to the left of me is a picture of a kitten, to the right is a photo of a cherubic white child with the words “cute baby” written above it. What? Before I’m given a moment to figure out what compelled this 30ish year old man to decorate his vehicle in such a way, the game of Sri Lankan 20 questions begins:

Do you speak Sinhala?
Where are you from?
Wait, you must be Indian, right?
You’re from Canada but you’re Sri Lankan?
So your parents are from Sri Lanka?
Are they here?
When did they leave?
30 years ago! Have they come back to visit?
Is this your first time here?
Where in Sri Lanka are they from?
Ah, Jaffna – you’re Tamil?

Reading between the pauses of this typical interaction, I can sense them connecting the dots as they attempt to place me in Sri Lanka’s history, calculating when my family left and realizing why. A brief interlude. So, you’re working in Sri Lanka? Shifting away from personal details, we swiftly move on to the weather and when the best time to visit Kandy is.

In many of my interactions with people here, when the topic of the war comes up, I become guarded and delicate with what I say. Sometimes I don’t speak at all. There is a nagging feeling that I will be judged for having an opinion because I am not from here. So I stay quiet. We need to move on, declared the young woman. People in Jaffna need to change their thinking, explained the 40-year-old Tamil man. These stories are overdone, she said. 

My self-imposed silence in these moments is unbearable. I have my own experiences I cannot ignore. My father’s decision to leave in 1983 and mother soon after in 1986 changed their lives forever and resulted in mine. I am tied to this country in another way, a different way, and it is jarring to suddenly feel less than.

There is so much unsaid. Let’s just move on. With the 33rd anniversary of Black July having just passed, I can’t help but think about how far Sri Lanka still needs to go to fix what ails her. This refusal to treat the wound directly is a symptom of Sri Lankan people as a whole and is evident as the country continues to fumble with it’s reconciliation efforts. 

My aunt in Colombo is quite old but her memory is sharp. She recounts her youth in astonishing detail. Between the hellish moments of the riots there was joy. ’56, ’58, ’77, ’83. She places these dates in her stories like punctuation so that she does not forget what happened and so that I won’t either. These and the many other terrible events experienced by all people in this country need to be recognized, acknowledged and discussed openly to give people the chance to truly heal.

riding in cars with sri lankans

thumb_P1010979_1024I’m sitting in an air-conditioned minivan looking out the window watching lush green paddy fields whip by while Psy’s Gangnam Style booms out over the radio. Everyone is singing along and I can’t help but grin. Oppa Gangnam Style!

I think back to life in Canada and how some of the best moments I’ve had with friends have happened during a drive. Whether we are scream-singing along to Beyonce, giving each other relationship advice or laughing at the hysterical bad luck of a best friend, these moments have always been special to me.

The past week has been full of little interactions like this with colleagues all while driving in and around Colombo. With each ride I learned a bit more about the people I work with and by extent my fellow Sri Lankans. Despite language barriers, I connected with people through kind smiles, a love of music and chat over movies.

Picture this: A car packed to the brim, four in the back seat (a typical sight) where everyone is feverishly discussing the new Rajinikanth movie: Kabali! It comes out this Friday. Do you have tickets? He’s going to actually play his age for once! The action scenes are going to be out of this world. Where are you watching it? KABALI-da! I haven’t seen a Bollywood film in years, but I enjoyed watching how Rajinikanth’s name still brings people, young and old, out in droves, uniting them over the love of an over-the-top action movie. For those who have no idea, the teaser for Kabali will give you an idea of what I mean by over-the-top:

All the while there is usually a soundtrack to these interactions. Music is a strong part of life here. I hear my coworkers humming songs constantly. There is nothing more revealing than the music you choose to listen to while driving.

A 5-minute drive to Nashville: I am getting dropped off by one of my senior colleagues after a long day at work. As we pull out of the driveway he flicks on the radio and a crooning Jim Reeves singing ‘I Love You Because’ floats out over the airwaves. I had to stifle a giggle. It was so unexpected to hear that distinct voice and sound here, a genre of music I never associated with this place. I chalked it up to a unique taste in music. I quickly came to find out that Jim Reeves is actually extremely popular in Sri Lanka! Imagine my surprise.

Although I spend most of my time at work with colleagues that are well into their 50s, I had a chance to work with a troupe of Sinhala-speaking 20-somethings on field visits just outside of Colombo for three days. Spending about two hours stuck in traffic together will connect people despite any language barriers and especially over music.

Journeying to paddy lands: Day 1 in the minivan consisted of polite smiles and good morning‘s. It wasn’t until the radio was tuned into 92.7 Y FM that I began to understand the cast of characters I was travelling with. Full of boisterous singalongs and laughter overs stories I couldn’t understand, I could tell this was a light-hearted bunch. By Day 2 I became familar with the top hits on the radio, one of which was completely stuck in my head. I had tried to google the song but my attempts proved fruitless. I finally asked and was excitedly told it’s a song from a new band called Civil Voice. By Day 3 every time the song came on they would point at me – it’s your song! By the end of my small trip with this team we became one voice exclaiming Bappage Akkage Duwa!

A week spent driving around gave me a glimpse into life here. With many more car and bus rides to go, I’m excited at the prospect of discovering more. Now excuse me while I try to get that Civil Voice song out of my head.

colombo, can I put you on hold?

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It’s been two weeks. The city is intoxicating with it’s mix of heat, sweet fruit and cool ocean breeze. But I’m on twitter and I can’t stop refreshing. I hear the sounds of waves crashing against the quay wall. Honking horns and trains blast by below. Next stop: Wellawatte Station. I can see the sun setting, tamil songs float into my apartment and the city is just starting to come alive. But I’m on twitter. I can’t stop refreshing.

Brexit.
Anti-immigrant sentiment.
Anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric.
Innocent Muslim lives taken.
Anton Sterling.
Philando Castile.
5 officers shot dead.

I can’t stop refreshing.

A lot of what has happened has happened before and will happen again but this feels different. I read in horror as I watch people I know and respect disguise their anti-Black Lives Matter thoughts in backwards thinking that lacks any notion of intersectionality. I feel angry. I feel upset. 

A friend here pointed out to me, Do you think that’s how our parents felt? This helplessness of watching your home start to fray at the edges; it’s hidden turmoil bubbling to the surface. Our parents lived a world away while they watched Sri Lanka descend into chaos. I can remember Amma and Appa glued to the TV, waiting for every bit of news, every update. That same yearning to feel connected, to try and make sense of it, I feel it now. I came here to be productive and help build a stronger country, but I feel pulled in two directions.

It’s morning now and I’m rushing out the door for work. The tuk driver is trying to rip me off. Turn right here! Walking briskly beneath ancient trees, I hear unseen birds coo loudly overhead. I sit down at my desk. Colleagues giggling over morning tea. I’m trying to focus but I’m on twitter and I can’t stop refreshing. 

goodbye canada, hello sri lanka

After over a year of thinking and not doing, I finally worked up the courage to apply to work in Sri Lanka and I am headed there, for the first time, tonight. I am inexplicably calm. I feel at ease. I’m about to uproot my life for seven months and nothing has felt more natural.

My family was overjoyed and supportive when I told them about this opportunity to travel and work earlier this year. My eldest uncle was elated and immediately started to regale me with stories of ‘back home’ living in Colombo with my aunt in his 20s, moving to the UK to work in London (picture my aunt working a car part assembly line in a sari!) and then moving to Canada to settle a life there.  Overcoming our giggles over these stories he stopped and asked me: Why did you pick Sri Lanka to go work? I was completely taken aback at first. In my mind it was clear – I am doing this, moving my life, because it’s Sri Lanka.

After that initial shock and some reflection, I realized that those of my parent’s generation who came to Canada is one that left their home for a better life for their future children. The 26-year civil war has left an indelible mark on countless lives including my parents’. Leaving their country, friends and family was dually the most difficult and easiest decision to make. 

Enter me. Born and raised in the western world with all of it’s privileges. A life with access and a defined road map. You’re here. You’ve arrived! Make the best of this place, it’s better than the rest! Why would you ever leave? I can see where my uncle was coming from. You can go anywhere, do anything – why go to Sri Lanka? I can only say that despite the life my parents have given me in Canada, there has always been something left wanting. This feeling that something was missing.

It took me a while to define it but it became apparent to me late in high school that Sri Lanka, steeped in history and reverence, did not feel like my own. Growing up I would sit in the kitchen quietly while Sri Lanka was painted colourfully for me by the stories of my family as they spoke fondly of childhood memories. I didn’t want to interrupt or ask too many questions for fear that the topic would change and I would miss my chance to hear more. I have lived most of my life knowing a Sri Lanka rife with war. These stories were a glimpse into a time before bloodshed. 

However despite hearing these stories, I felt that as a born-and-raised Canadian, I could never really fully comprehend what that life was like, how Sri Lanka was and is. I will always be looked at as Canadian by older generations where there is a mutual understanding that I will never know Sri Lanka the way they know it. I can laugh at the stories of my father getting in trouble at school. I can tremble at the thought of my mother finding a snake coiled on her toilet when she was young. I can imagine the wind in my grandmother’s hair as she rode on a motorcycle to the market. But these are not my stories. 

I wear my Tamil Sri Lankan Canadian badge proudly. But what do I really know?

My connections to Sri Lanka have always been through other people, through books and blogs, movies and the news. I decided that I needed to move there. I needed to work there and contribute to the country’s positive development but more importantly I needed to live there and create my own memories.

The next several months will be full of crises of identity and how I fit in. I am fully aware that as soon as I step off that plane I will be put into a Canadian basket with all of it’s preconceived notions and stereotypes. Sri Lanka’s bustle, extreme heat and complete assault on all of the senses will be overwhelming, I’m sure. But I am also aware that I can’t wait to dip my toes into the Indian ocean, drink plain tea with my 82-year old aunt in Colombo and visit my parent’s village for the first time. I can’t explain how much this means to me but I hope to write about it and tell a few of my own stories along the way.