I have a little under three months left in Sri Lanka. I had planned to write a post at the halfway point, but that day came and went and I was too busy having fun to even really notice! So now it’s the 2/3 mark of my time here (determined by the length of my Fulbright grant, nine months), and I find myself sitting on a couch in a house in Trincomalee, roughly 180 miles from my home in Colombo, typing quietly because there are three Fulbrighters taking naps around me (I just woke up from mine). The heavy air promises a warm evening, and the whir of the overhead fan and sounds of the birds out in the yard echo home, or something like it. We’re making pumpkin curry for dinner.
Maybe it was the nap, maybe it was taking in the sight of a golden Hindu statue against a backdrop of the aqua-colored Indian Ocean earlier today, or maybe it’s just a result of being on the other side of this island I call home for the weekend – whatever it is, at this 2/3 point I’m feeling refreshed and clear-headed, grateful for my adventures so far and ready to make the most of this final stretch.
It’s funny how just a day, just a weekend away can change one’s perspective so much. When Jesse was here, he told me about how he likes doing something really intensely for a little while and then shaking things up and doing something that takes him out of his comfort zone and challenges him in a whole new way. In my last post, I wrote about routine and everyday life, but this weekend, life in Sri Lanka was delightfully shaken up. And I realized I love that. I enjoy small daily constants – waking up to a familiar face, a morning commute, reading before bed – but shaking things up really makes me appreciate those routine things even more.
The Trinco town adventure started with an overnight train ride – my first! – from Colombo to Trincomalee.
I felt like a little kid going to Grandma’s for the first time. If you know me, you know I love public transportation – especially trains. I was so ready for this ride; I had packed snacks, magazines, plenty of water, a blanket, my headlamp (and here I am wondering why my backpack is always the biggest when we leave the house). My friends and I shared two sleeper cars, each of which had a set of bunk beds, a small sink, and shared a bathroom. The train left at 9 p.m. and the four of us stayed up talking and hanging out until past midnight. The train was rickety, the compartment was smelly, and there was no sleep to be had amidst the shrill train horns, but there’s nothing quite like crossing an entire country in the middle of the night. I lay on my side in the bottom bunk, hands tucked underneath my head as I stared out the open window that my feet almost touched, the night air swirling around me. At its fastest, the train was going about 60 mph, but when we slowed down to pull into stops along the way, eerie silence enveloped the compartment and I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Hogwarts Express and about to be overtaken by dementors. At 5 a.m., we pulled into the Trincomalee train station, stumbled out into the warm morning, and got in a tuk-tuk to head to (fellow Fulbright ETA) Sean’s house, where I promptly crawled into a bed and fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later to seven of my friends under one roof! We had all come from different parts of the island to meet in Trinco for a couple of days (some of us stayed longer and some took scooters up north to Jaffna). Our group is a very proactive one, not prone to sit around doing nothing for long… so, by 10 a.m., we were out the door en route to Pigeon Island.
To get there, we hopped on a bus from Trinco to Nilaveli, got off after about forty minutes, walked down a sandy lane, and paid a man to drive us in his speedboat to the island. (It felt kind of cool to leave one relatively big island for another much smaller one!) Pigeon Island National Park is home to coral gardens, rock pools, and a tree swing to die for. Its shallow reef, we quickly learned, makes for incredible snorkeling, and the underwater landscape was like nothing I’d seen before.
Well, except for when watching Planet Earth.
How do I explain this? Snorkeling that afternoon, I saw every single fish from Finding Nemo (actually gurgled “Gill! Gill!” at one point). I saw fish longer than my calf; I saw fish that were literally every color of the rainbow. I swam with schools of neon-colored creatures that weren’t at all bothered by a huge human paddling among them. I floated on the surface for what felt like hours, just watching and taking in all that was occurring below me. Coral reef, starfish, entire ecosystems doing their thing while I just watched life happen. I know it was just snorkeling, but it felt bigger, it felt like life on a grander scale. Every once in a while, I think we all get a glimpse of that, that feeling of being so insignificant yet so interconnected that you can’t help but smile through your snorkel at it all.
And then it was a tuk-tuk ride back to Trinco and an evening of home-cooked food with friends. Pasta with REAL FETA CHEESE and sundried tomatoes; talks with Annelise & Jake about the best restaurants in Asheville that we’re hitting as soon as we’re home; discussing Sri Lankan politics and the Monsanto Protection Act. All in all – a pretty great day.
Oh, another highlight — I learned how to drive a scooter! (Thanks, Jake!)
The rest of the weekend was spent exploring Trinco, a place that was heavily affected by the recent civil war, but is starting to thrive again. Trinco sits along one of the world’s deepest natural harbors, is full of history, and is charming in its own way. I love that two of our Fulbrighters live there, because it’s a town that sees few tourists (most just pass through to head up north a bit for the nice beaches), and we’ve all lived in Sri Lanka long enough to be tired of feeling like a tourist when we travel around the country.
We walked through streets lined with colorful old houses, enjoyed a rice and curry lunch, stopped by the train station, and just felt out the town for a bit. In the afternoon, we meandered through Fort Frederick and saw the Buddha statue at the Gokana Temple, as well as the famous Koneswaram Kovil, one of Sri Lanka’s most spiritually important Hindu sites. My favorite was walking up to Swami Rock, a scenic 130 meter-high cliff that offered beautiful panoramic views of the aqua-blue Indian Ocean.
(Note: It’s considered culturally insensitive to be photographed with one’s back to Buddha, something I’ve remembered when visiting lots of other Buddha relics but unfortunately forgot on this hot day in Trinco. I still wanted to share it, though, and I do so with an apology to Lord Buddha for any unintentional disrespect!)
So, it was a fantastic weekend exploring a part of Sri Lanka I hadn’t yet adventured in. On the long bus ride back to Colombo, as we chased the sunset across the island, I had to laugh when I saw something that you’ll only find in this part of the world, when West meets East sometimes a little too abruptly: a run-of-the-mill Pizza Hut next to a grand, pristine, towering Buddha. I didn’t get a photo of it, but maybe that’s a good thing.