Disclaimer: The views, information, and creative musings presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program, the Department of State, or anything else other than this young woman’s attempt to share stories.
October 9th // half the fun is always in getting there.
My hips and shoulders are aching – carrying sixty pounds on your back halfway around the world will do that to you – but I have arrived in Sri Lanka in one piece (though I’m down a pair of nail scissors and a pair of tweezers). My last 24 hours in D.C. were emotional and strange and hectic and just, many things. Seven months of knowing I was definitely leaving, seven months to prepare, seven months of buying every last thing I could think of that I would need, and then it’s Departure Day and I am frantically packing and weighing and repacking and reweighing. Typical. What struck me most, though, was how monumental that day felt (feels like forever ago but it’s only been a week) — I felt (feel) so ready to live and work in Sri Lanka, but it had not truly hit me until that day that a huge dream of mine was coming true. Since my freshman year of college, it was my goal to return abroad after graduation to do something meaningful for a long period of time. That dream took a number of forms over the years, from working in Europe to joining the Peace Corps to WOOFing my way through various farms, but it became a true vision the day I was granted the Fulbright teaching grant in March, and it became a reality on a rainy, chilly day in October a week ago. A very definite beginning of a new chapter and an adventure I’m so ready for, all wrapped up in a number of hard goodbyes but an amazing chorus of support and excitement from my family and friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better send-off (though I will never again make the *amateur* mistake of waiting until the last day to finish packing — at least not when I’m going to be gone for a year!)
No matter how much I travel, I am so often surprised by the smallest things, like how nice the TSA guys at Dulles can be or how interesting (for lack of a better word) one’s airplane seatmates can be. On my flight from D.C. to Dubai, I had the most fascinating conversations with two male flight attendants, and I enjoyed making up stories in my head for the rest of them. (I secretly think international flight attendants lead the most interesting lives, and I never cease to wonder how they stay sane traversing multiple time zones all the time — and while I’m sure I could Google this or just ask the next flight attendant I encounter, I like to keep myself wondering.)
I had a long layover in Dubai where I met up with friends Rachel and Simon, whom Jesse and I met while surfing in the south of Sri Lanka last fall. (Jes and I were having a drink one night behind a hotel next to a lovely strip of beach and a man walked past us to, ahem, relieve himself in the ocean. Afterward, he stopped to introduce himself and — the jolly fellow that he is — Simon quickly invited Jesse and I to join his group for drinks, and we ended up hanging out and surfing with all of them for the next few days!) Rachel, from Chicago, and Simon, from somewhere south of Dublin, got married in Bali last year, and they are easily one of the most adventurous couples I’ve ever met – I think they travel more than they actually reside in Dubai! They were lovely hosts during my long layover, and in the few hours I was there, I had a great driving tour of the city, met their parrot (“Jack Daniels”), showered (next to a cold shower after a weekend of traveling around hot hot Ghana, a shower to break up flights taking you halfway around the world is by far the most refreshing kind), saw the world’s tallest building, and enjoyed a delicious pizza dinner. By 10 p.m. I was back at the airport, grateful to my hosts and ready for the final leg of my journey!
Hours later: On the ride from Colombo’s airport to the bungalow I am staying in with some fellow Fulbrighters for the next month, my mind is on fire. I need to start thinking in kilometers. Is that a cow walking across the road? These palm trees, all this green.. Sri Lanka is as lush as ever. I have NOT missed this crazy driving and these unmarked roads. Is that a metered tuk-tuk? Since when are tuk-tuks metered? I’m already in a jet-lagged fog, but then I notice the blazing sunrise lighting up the sky to my left, and I begin the familiar process of taking it all in: a light rain is falling, Colombo is waking up, and I feel home.
October 10th – 12th // back in the land of tea & tuk tuk’s
I spent the next 24 hours sleeping and nesting in the bungalow that is home for the next month. I was the last to arrive of the five Fulbright ETA’s, but it was great to see them, and I’m really glad we’re all living together for a little while. Our bungalow, tucked away in a town just on the outskirts of bustling Colombo, is a mini-oasis of flowers, birds, and trees laden with papayas, mangos, and avocados. We’ve seen a few monkeys in the coconut trees, too, and it’s taking a lot of self-discipline for me to resist buying a tent (which I’m guessing is harder than I think it might be) and camping out every night.
Living in this bungalow reminds me of how famous Sri Lanka is for diversity of all kinds – geographical diversity, biodiversity, cultural diversity (can you see why I love this country?) There are 22 varieties of rice, purple yams, and you can go from the sea to mountains to historic ruins to savannah-like national parks all in a day. (Okay, maybe two or three.) All this packed into an island no bigger than West Virginia! Mind continuously blown.
On the 10th, the ETAs joined our other fellow Fulbrighters (researchers and scholars) in Colombo for the start of a three-day orientation program. It’s been great meeting the rest of the Fulbrighters, who hail from all over the States: Iowa, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, North Carolina (Asheville! okay, Brevard!), New Jersey, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. Most of us are based in Colombo for this first month, but in November many will move to cities in the east, north, and south.
Orientation was full of interesting speakers, ranging from the heads of departments at universities to lawyers to a nutritionist to a wildlife specialist to the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. We received a fascinating political overview briefing from Tissa, the director of the US-SL Fulbright Commission, who reminded us that “this country and culture is, at times, a beguiling one.” I’ll add here that the disclaimer that began this post is one that the Fulbright program requires we post to our blogs, and writing it reminded me that I’m not just here as a tourist or your average traveler — which will probably be both a blessing and a curse at points in the coming months! I remembered something Tissa said back at our orientation in Austin in the summer, and it reminds me why I love our group of leaders at the US-SL Fulbright commission, who are all Sri Lankan but know the U.S. extremely well: “We know exactly where our cultures connect and exactly where they don’t.” I’m excited to learn more about these cultural intersections, too, over the next nine months.
Orientation was extremely informative. Would you believe that both the Minister and the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs here are men? And that leopards have their own personalities, are extremely intelligent, and – in my opinion at least – could easily take over the world? A woman named Ruvanthi shared her inspiring life story with us, which included all the elements of a multi-cultural Hollywood film. The gist: she is ½ Sinhalese and ½ Tamil, born in 1963 to parents who met at eighteen and had a secret relationship for twelve years because of their different ethnic backgrounds. She grew up with a foot in each Sri Lankan ethnic pond, speaking Sinahala, Tamil, and English, and was used to having two very distinct set of relatives who did pretty much everything differently from one another, right down to the ways her two grandmothers cooked curry. Ruvanthi offered a human perspective to the civil war that racked this country for years, sharing stories of growing up and going (and at times attempting to go) to university in times of violence and oppression. Most significantly, she reminded me that the past fifty years have touched almost every Sri Lankan alive today, and that remembering this will be huge to my experience with Sri Lankans here, especially my to-be students and their families.
Whew! By Friday night, most of us were oriented-out, and we enjoyed a delicious traditional dinner in town with our folks from the Fulbright commission. A great wrap-up to a fun first few days of being in country!
Bungalow living & “mansion” leasing
When it comes to cooking and the Fulbrighters I’m living with, I am learning tons. Sarah, who spent seven months living in Sri Lanka with a host family last year, has pretty much all the Sri Lankan curry recipes any foreigner here could ever want (and the skills to make them all). Sean, the son of restaurant owners, knows what he’s doing in a kitchen. Dan has great common sense and knows what tastes Sri Lankan and what doesn’t. And Annelise and Jake know what they like – fresh pineapple smoothies for breakfast have become a staple – and are loving learning about Sri Lankan foods from the bungalow’s caretaker, Siva. I, on the other hand, am a little bit (in Sinhala, “chuta”) of all these things but – sigh – did not magically become a Master Chef upon arriving back on the island. I did, however, make traditional dahl tonight, which is basically red lentils with lots of curry spices, coconut milk, chilies, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. It came out a little soupy, but throw it on some rice and you’ve got a Sri Lankan dish.
It’s fun having roommates again! Makes me miss college and evenings of cooking (or heating up leftovers) in the kitchen with my Elon girls. I’m gonna miss my fellow ETAs when we go our separate ways in a month.
Speaking of that – so, I’m here in this bungalow south of Colombo for a month because we ETAs are all learning Sinhala together. We have lessons every morning (our teacher comes here) and are learning quickly! More on that in my next post. But in a month we’ll be relocating, but I won’t be going far, since the university I’ll be teaching English literature at is just outside the city. I’m going to be living in Colombo with two Fulbright researchers, Lisa and Jeff, and on Monday, we signed a lease on a house! We woke up early Sunday, grabbed newspapers, checked out the ads, and started making calls. I’ve never physically looked for an apartment/house in a foreign country before, so this process was especially fun and interesting! After spending the day zipping around the different districts of Colombo and checking out potential dwellings, we decided to go with a four-bedroom house located right near Town Hall in a safe and central district. It’s gorgeous (and furnished!) and has a backyard garden, indoor courtyard, and rooftop terrace. It’s honestly a lot bigger than we need/were expecting to find, but the price is so right and we just love it. I’ll wait to post pictures and write more about it until I’m moved in a month from now, but let me say officially that visitors, you are welcome, and you can have your own room and bathroom in a beautiful Sri Lankan house when you are here!
The process of finding that house reminded me of how much things seem to “just work out” here, how – as cheesy as this sounds – the serendipity is almost palpable. I certainly already feel adjusted and I definitely feel so comfortable being back in Sri Lanka – it’s hard not to feel at home when you see the perfect juxtaposition of two worlds you know and love on the street like this…
Hahaha, had to save that picture for last! :) So, a month of Sinahala training and settling in and then I start work! I’ll report to my university on the 12th. I’m told I’ll have about 120 students, broken into five or six classes that I’ll be teaching solo. All of this will be solidified in meetings over the next couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have a start date! In the meantime, I’m compiling a list of things to experience here when I’m not teaching – Sinhalese theater, a train ride through Ella, a surf trip to Arugam Bay, cooking lessons from locals, maybe find a reading or writing group to join (I am told a group of creative writers gather every month on the beach to workshop each other’s work…!) I definitely plan on traveling most weekends, and I can’t wait to get to the north and east, two areas I did not get to explore on my past two trips here. In fact, a group of us are heading down south to the beaches on Friday to enjoy a weekend away from busy Colombo. If I can’t be watching the leaves change color in Asheville, I think I can settle on sipping out of a coconut on a sunny beach in Galle.