I am very good at ignoring the not-so-good parts about things that I love. Eating copious amounts of cheese isn’t that bad for my body; Elon is more diverse than people think, really; and my sister will someday get better at sharing, I just know it. I realize it’s easy to ignore the not-so-great parts about places we come to love, too. I’ve been enamored by Sri Lanka from the start, even though when I started learning about the country during my sophomore year of college, I was inundated with much of the bad along with the good – the country was on the brink of the end of a bloody civil war, after all. But when we finally traveled there last January, I saw beauty. I saw a kind of hospitality I had never known before. I saw a rich, cultural history. I saw The Environment. And it was love at first tuk-tuk ride.
But that was the honeymoon; that was the lovely blissful stage where everything was just about perfect. The real relationship began with Trip #2, which began in August and just ended a few days ago. This was me living in Sri Lanka, traveling to some of its nether-most regions, digging deeper into parts of it I had only peeked into before. And what did I see? I saw some very beautiful and not-so-beautiful parts of Sri Lanka. And this is where it got interesting.
Hospitality. I have been so fortunate to have so many family members, friends, and seemingly strangers share their homes with me and people I am traveling with. I have been privy to the best stories, memorable adventures, cups of tea and fulfilling meals. When it comes to Sri Lanka, I can’t begin thanking everyone who opened up their doors for Jesse and me. This exchange between Chamindha and me when we stayed with him while teaching at Seetha Eliya back in October says it all:
Me: Chamindha, maybe while we’re in town, Jesse and I can buy some food to help cook with dinner with, or some dessert or somethi–
Chamindha: This is Sri Lanka. [stern face]
Me: [laughs] I know, but we want to help, you and your family have been so kind cooking–
Chamindha: This is Sri LANKA!
Well. That settled that.
But Sri Lanka – as with anywhere else – is not a country of pure grace and beauty. It’s a country where things – though not all things – are more transparent, more on the surface. Like the enormous dump site minutes away from one of the country’s prettiest university campuses, the one where I stood in my Chacos on years and miles of trash thinking, We did this. That was pretty ugly, but it was the important the kind of ugly, the kind of ugly that gets under your skin and seeps into your pores and makes its way into places where you can’t ignore it. And that helps a little, since ignorance is the most ugly thing of all.
But, a few days later, I’m roaming Horton Plains National Park, one of the most gorgeous places I have ever been. A beautiful hike with my mother and my boyfriend among lush hills and species of flowers I’ve never seen before; World’s End; flora and fauna galore. I breathe in this air the way I didn’t dare at the dump site. I feel refreshed, full of spirit and love for the land. This is one of the country’s most revered places, and certainly my favorite thus far.
And then we’re back on the road back down south and I see the dogs, and I’m reminded of another ugly thing about this country (and of many others, for that matter). Sri Lanka’s stray dogs are, for the most part, awful looking, and it almost hurts to briefly gaze at them and then have to avert your eyes. They all look similar, making me think they all mate with each other and make their way up and down and across the country in search of food. Growing up in the U.S. and Germany, I am used to seeing dogs sometimes receiving better medical care than children. I am used to the well-trained and well-groomed, and these are the kinds of dogs I fell in love with. I have two of my own, after all, whom I adore. So being reminded on Day One back in Sri Lanka not to ever, ever pet the street dogs doesn’t feel so good. I get used to it after a while, but I still sometimes sneak a pat on the head and a kind word. Especially to the ones who rest in the shade of my beach chair next to the ocean. But then four of them start fighting, and they’re vicious and animalistic and I’m thinking about how dogs are supposed to live and be treated and how different that is in countries around the world.
And then somehow, it’s our last week, and Jesse and I are surfing our way up the southeast coast and meeting wonderful people and just having so much gosh darn fun. And the evenings are beautiful and the surf is perfect for a beginner (me) and enjoyable for an intermediate (Jess) and all of a sudden we’re headed back to Colombo and my wallet is stolen on a bus, in plain sight, my bag opened up and everything. And the man jumps off the bus and causes a scene and it sucks, in some ways, because nothing like that had ever happened to me in all my travels and so, why here? Why in this place that I revere? Answer: Because it can happen anywhere, Natalie. And I get over it, thanks to the the fact that Jesse and I weren’t hurt and I didn’t lose that much and meditation helped and so did the whole universal idea of forgiveness and non-attachment to things like money. Ugly? Yes. The worst thing in the world? Far from it. And then all of a sudden it’s our last night out with friends and Jesse and I have just given a great presentation at the U.S. Embassy and we’re on the Galle Face Green eating greasy, delicious Sri Lankan fast food with our friends. The wind is whipping in our hair and the air and the kottu is spicy and already missed. I have two cans of coconut sambol from the supermarket packed away in my bag to take back with me and,
are we at the end already?