A mini-history lesson: Sri Lanka was known by the ancient Arabs as ‘Serendip’ and by the British as ‘Ceylon.’ It became the Socialist republic of Sri Lanka on May 22nd, 1972. A few months ago, one of my aunts sent me some interesting information on the first noted use of the word “serendipity” in the English language (one of my favorite words and ideas) which is where I learned that it’s root was the old name for Sri Lanka! Horace Walpole (1717-1797) formed the word from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
My whole journey with the experiences linking me to Sri Lanka have been serendipitous. As many of you know, Sri Lanka was the country of focus for a civic engagement group I was involved with at Elon called Periclean Scholars. (“Involved with” is a woefully inadequate phrase – Periclean shaped much of my Elon career!) Our cohort began studying Sri Lanka as sophomores, and by the time we graduated, we had established numerous relationship with local partners in the small island country; helped to sponsor programs for two schools in the Sinharaja rainforest; and hosted an environmental summit with national leaders at the University of Colombo in January 2011, among many other things. Our class has lots to be proud of, and each one of us was impacted and changed by our experiences studying and traveling to Sri Lanka. It’s a country that’s hard not to fall in love with, and by the time graduation rolled around, some of us were ready for more.
Jesse and I were two of those people, and thanks to financial support from the Periclean Scholars program and from the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, we were able to return to Sri Lanka for most of last fall. Our main reason for returning was a ten-day international conference called “Training for Trusteeship,” hosted by a Sri Lankan organization named WICPER (Weeramantry International Center for Peace Education and Research) which was created and is run by a famous Sri Lankan judge named C. G. Weeramantry. Jesse and I learned about this conference – and more about WIPCER in general – when we were in Sri Lanka in January 2011 with our fellow Periclean Scholars. I remember that day so well – operating out of the Galadari Hotel in Colombo, members of our class were running around finishing last-minute tasks in preparation for the big environmental conference we were co-hosting in the coming days at the University of Colombo. Jesse and I were sent across town to pick up a DVD of Judge Weeramantry addressing the conference attendees (since he was not going to be able to speak in person). After many failed attempts to locate WICPER’s headquarters – despite our loyal tuk-tuk driver making many phone calls on our behalf as he whizzed us around the city – we finally got there, took the elevator to the fourth floor, picked up the DVD, got back in the elevator, looked at each other and said, “Wait. What was that office all about? What is WICPER, exactly?” We stepped back out and started asking questions to two young woman who worked there (and still do – Gayani and Damithri!) and eight months later, we were back in Sri Lanka as the only two Americans participating in TfT 2012.
It is instances like this that remind me that being curious and not being afraid to get back off the elevator is almost always a good thing to do.
All of this to say that if it were not for the opportunity to attend TfT and to spend all of last fall in Sri Lanka, I wouldn’t have applied for this Fulbright grant and likely would not be returning to Sri Lanka — TONIGHT! If it weren’t for that month in Sri Lanka with my fellow Pericleans and those three months traipsing around the island with Jesse, I wouldn’t have formed relationships with the individuals who now comprise my Sri Lankan family. Last fall, something clicked, and I became deeply invested in a country which – despite two trips halfway around the world and four months there – I know I have barely scratched the surface of. I applied for this Fulbright from Sri Lanka a year ago – edited my applications in an old colonial hotel in Nuwara Eliya, had my interview over Skype from Homagama, submitted everything moments before heading off for a ten-day silent meditation course in Kosgama – and now I’m going back. Part of it feels like I’ve come full circle, but I know I have an incredible year of squiggly paths ahead of me that will take me places I can’t fathom yet. But that’s what it’s all about – not necessarily knowing, but deciding to step out of the elevator anyway.
In the words of one of my favorite columnists, Daisann McLane:
“At the end of the boulevard, we may turn right or left. We may speak, or not speak, to that interesting-looking stranger. We can sit down at that little café or pass it by and try the next one around the block. Every small choice that we make on the road changes our travel melody, shapes it into a song that is ours, and ours alone. This all happens in a split second. Life, like music, doesn’t pause while you plan your solo.”
So, Serendip: I’m ready for another rendezvous if you are. Let’s dance.