I’m on a train from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya with Katrina, and it’s loud, a little smelly, and easily the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken. The air hitting us from the big open windows is cool and fresh, and as we wind our way past deep valleys and pine trees, more and more hills of tea bushes come into view. Welcome to tea country, I say to my younger sister with a smile.
I really enjoy living in Colombo, but it’s so nice being out of it for a long weekend. As I wrote in my latest Pink Pangea post, in Sri Lanka’s capital, you want for nothing – almost all of the conveniences of the Western world are available for all to indulge in if they so choose (including a festive New Years Eve dinner/party — see below!) But, like with any major city, it’s easy to get so accustomed to the hustle and bustle that you forget how refreshing it feels to leave it behind. The roads leading out of Colombo, the suburban spokes leading away from the island’s insular hub, are what deliver you to the parts of the country that make this island what it is.
I love traveling with Katrina; on bumpy rides like this one, she lets me drape myself over her while we stick our noses out the window and breathe in the surfeit of trees and hills rushing past. After humid Colombo and our trip down south to the beach, we’re more than ready for this long weekend in lush, chilly Nuwara Eliya.
One reason I love traveling to Nuwara Eliya so much is because I always stay with my friend Chamindha, a long-time friend of Elon’s Periclean Scholars program. He has a lovely house near beautiful Gregory Lake, and whenever I come, he always insists I stay with him and his family :) I’ve stayed there with Jesse, Mom’s had dinner at his house before, and now Katrina’s a guest as well. His mother and sisters generously cooked us wonderful, homemade Sri Lankan meals during our visit, and during dinner one night, Katrina and I had a really interesting conversation with one of Chaminda’s friends, Saman.
The conversation had turned to discussing the 2004 tsunami that ravaged two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastal line. I studied the tsunami before first traveling to Sri Lanka in 2011, but much of what I know about the tsunami I learned from books and news articles. Katrina, I think, knew even less about it. Saman’s hometown is Galle (a major city on the southwest coast) and he was near there on December 26, 2004, the day the tsunami hit. I was on a bus in Tangalle, Saman told us, and all of a sudden, black water started pouring down the street. It seemed like it was coming from all directions. People on the bus started panicking and crawling over each other trying to get out. But when we made it out of the bus, we didn’t know where to go.
Listening to Saman’s story, I tried to picture what the massive tsunami wave must have looked like to all the people who saw it towering above the sea, a vertical sheet of water hurtling towards them; how unbelievably tall it was, how after it crashed and receded, it came again. I thought about the huge amounts of coast that vanished in seconds, engulfed in water and darkness, and how people didn’t eat fish for months after it hit because they believed the fish were dead ones that the tsunami washed up. I thought about loss and survival. And I thought about all the little ways that the tsunami has shaped so many Sri Lankans, including my students: while discussing the book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers the other week in class, my students continued to refer to Hurricane Katrina as “The Katrina.” It only took me a moment to realize that they are so used to referring to “The Tsunami” that will forever be a part of their lives that many of them think that any storm, no matter the actual name or severity, goes by such a title.
Conversations like the one over dinner with Saman and my sister always make me pause and reflect on what I’m doing here and what I’m learning. There is much more to my experience as a Fulbrighter in Sri Lanka than just my teaching job, and I’m humbled by the people I continue to meet and talk with who share with me so many more parts of Sri Lanka than I could ever discover on my own. Slowly but surely, this country is getting under my skin and settling into me, its stories and pieces of history percolating and making it hard for me to imagine being anywhere but here.