A group of teenage boys hitting punching bags in a small, dusty compound next to a paddy field at dusk; from the train compartment I am passing by in, I take in their bandaged knuckles, their glistening arms, the looks of extreme concentration on their dark faces. Getting McDonald’s fries just that one time, after that guitar festival, before being stuffed in the back of a tuk with five Sri Lankan guy friends headed to the bar. Handing out the books provided by my “Adventures in Books” initiative, seeing the tremendous smiles on my students’ faces thanks to the generosity of my family and friends. My head of department kindly asking me, “Is everyone treating you alright?” after my first week of teaching. Receiving letters and packages from Scotland, the Netherlands, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ghana, New York, and Virginia.The tuk driver who had provided security for American soldiers in Iraq and who gave me a free ride upon hearing that my mother is a retired colonel. Spending $15 to ride across the country in a private van. Editing a children’s book where the game of tag is called “run and catch.” When your colleague says, “Things were better when the war was on. At least then we knew what we were dealing with.” Waking up already sweating from the day’s heat. The sound of the monsoons on the roof. Waking up cold. Walking on train tracks, hearing a train coming, jumping aside just in time. Learning how to make pol sambol and string hoppers in a traditional Sri Lankan kitchen. Jumping off a canyon into a deep pool of water, my boyfriend below and grinning. Watching a student who had been too shy to reply to “How are you?” give a ten-minute presentation on The Catcher in the Rye. A typical bus ride: crowded, hot, music blasting, woman to my left lathering oil behind her ears, man to my right “napping” and trying to touch me. Fresh pineapple on my way home from work every day. $3 fresh crab curry, a Jaffna staple. Sunday morning dawn, bustling fish market, colorful boats, glistening fishermen. Girl talk on a ten-hour bus ride north through two-thirds of a country. Malinda thinking in English. The taste of pancakes. The misshapen, yellow toenails of the bus fare collector; he wears falling-apart flip-flops and handles the bright pink, green, purple, and blue bills in his hand so well you’d think he’s been doing this his whole life. He probably has.
The tears in Amma’s eyes when we hugged goodbye. The text message I received from Roshan moments before I left, calling me a child of the island that will always have a home there. Smiling when a group of airline attendants asked me why I had been visiting Sri Lanka and I responded, “Mama teacher-kenek,” making them laugh and nod their heads approvingly. Asking for milk tea on the flight out of Colombo, being told it’s not available. Sighing, I turn to the window and whisper goodbye.
You know that feeling you get when you leave the house for a big trip, and you’re packed and ready to go, but on the tuk ride or bus ride or car ride to the airport or train station or wherever, you can’t help but feel that you forgot something? Something really important? From my late-night taxi ride to the airport up until the moment my plane started to climb into the sky, that feeling gripped me. I had it when I was checking in (though maybe at that point the feeling was just anxiety caused by the – gulp – 170 pounds of luggage I showed up with at the counter), when I was on the phone before boarding my flight, when I was settling into my seat. What did I forget? I racked my brain. I mentally went through my now empty room. What could it possibly be?
And it’s only now, while I sit sprawled out on the cold marble floor of London Heathrow’s terminal five, watching so, so many different kinds of shoes pass through my line of vision, that I realize what I left behind was me. Not all of me – my fuzzy, jet-lagged brain and calloused feet are present and accounted for – but some significant parts of me are definitely missing. I feel fulfilled but a little empty, complete yet unnervingly fragmented. The hundreds of people rushing past me have me closing my eyes, needing to slow down, needing to figure out where all my pieces are.
Instead, my mind turns to another place where pieces of me were left behind. I remember clearly the moment I left Ghana in May of 2010: it was late, a dark and uncharacteristically rainy night, and when the plane lifted off of the African ground I had called home for four months, I felt less than whole. I think that when we put everything we’ve got into an experience, when we let it mold us and change us and unveil us, it’s inevitable that we leave layers behind. When we truly love something, we give parts of ourselves to it. Anthony Bourdain put it like this: “The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on memory, consciousness, heart, and body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
In return, Sri Lanka gave me so much. It became home somewhere between seeing dawn break over the mountains from the top of Adam’s Peak and learning to be truly honest with myself. In Sri Lanka, I found pieces of myself I didn’t know existed. Simultaneously, I became so attached to so much that it’s proved impossible to extricate myself completely from the island, despite physically being on another continent right now, despite having been in four different countries since I started writing this post.
People have already started asking me what I miss the most. How to respond? I miss the sea air. I miss pol sambol. I miss tuk-tuks and head bobbling and humid Colombo nights and being lovingly called ‘nangi.’ More than anything, though, it’s the relationships with a handful of truly special Sri Lankan souls that I’ll miss the most. I’m looking forward to staying connected in the many ways one can these days, but it won’t be the same as sharing meals of rice and curry and long conversations over cups of milk tea with the people I’ve left pieces of myself with. You know who you are, my island brothers and sisters. Thank you for always opening up your homes so graciously to me.
The best part of this Fulbright experience was – as cliché as it sounds – helping to bridge communities. I’ve always enjoyed helping bring people and groups together, but over the past many months, I’ve learned that it’s something I’m really passionate about. This took form in my classes, where I helped my students understand American literature in their Sri Lankan context. It took form in hosting visitors and traveling with them around the country, sharing meals with my American friends and family in the homes of my Sri Lankan ones. It took the form of my Adventures in Books initiative that allowed me to give my students novels thanks to the incredible generosity of my family and friends back home. And it really took form in the many individuals and groups who came together to hold English Camp – recalling that powerful experience still brings such a smile to my face.
If I were to draw a picture of my nine months in Sri Lanka, it would look like a double helix of DNA. There’s the me strand I started with, expecting and excited and a bit anxious, and the me strand that formed as the months went by, shaped by highs and lows and relationships and experiences. There’s not quite a clear beginning – Sri Lanka already felt like an old friend when I arrived last fall – and no clear end yet. The messy, colorful helix that all my experiences in Sri Lanka have formed will lead to new beginnings and new chapters, and I’m excited for what comes next. For now, though, I’ll gracefully accept this murky transition period. I’ll continue starting every other sentence with “In Sri Lanka…” while I make the most of my post-Fulbright travels in new places with my best friends. I’ll soak up the relationships and fresh vegetables I’ve so missed. And tonight, in Berlin with my sister, I’ll take my beer and cheers to summer, to adventures, and to an island that I’ll never forget.