I left Sri Lanka a little over three months ago. There are mornings I wake up wondering where my mosquito net is and why I’m not already sweating. There are days when I’d gladly trade my smoked salmon and goat cheese sandwich for a simple lunch of rice and curry. There are evenings where the residential streets around me are so quiet they’re unnerving, and I instantly miss the cacophony that is Colombo. And there are times when I forget the Sinhala word for ‘family’ or ‘mango’ and I have to stop walking or mixing or shampooing or whatever it is I’m doing to concentrate, to close my eyes until I can see the word and brush off the forgetting, postponing the loss of pieces on their way out.
It’s impossible to predict what big transitions will bring. I still don’t feel like all of me is back yet or in one place, and I’m not sure what to make of that except to sit here typing about heat, noise, a foreign language—pieces of what too quickly feels like a past life, parts of an island that grounded me in ways no other place or person ever has.
This is the point where I would normally tell you how I feel about that, how I define and deal with feeling scattered, how I’m already attempting to fit pieces of this messy transition into some nice emotional box. But messes are messy for a reason (if you take anything away from this post, it should probably be that flash of brilliance) and I’m trying this new thing where I’m just going with it. Anyone who knows me knows I’m always quick to analyze and categorize, to dissect and explain away; but this time, for this new chapter, in light of this mystifying, unveiling, transition…I’m just going with it.
“The best travel happens when you open yourself to all human experience and activity, not just the beautiful,” one of my favorite travel columnists wrote recently. In a similar vein, my transition back is showing me that the most rewarding parts of life can happen when you open yourself to things beside just the feel-good and beautiful. Ugly and painful can be influential teachers, too.
I got a glimpse of this in the weeks just after I left Sri Lanka, when I began to realize the ways in which I’d changed over the previous nine months. As I was reunited with family and friends in Europe and the U.S., I saw myself in the screenshots they had of me, the person I was when they had last seen me six months ago, ten months ago, two years ago. I gently reminded myself that time and circumstances had changed me; that one of the points of my Fulbright experience was to, in fact, be changed, for better or for worse. And I was. For better: I am more observant, more appreciative, more calm. For worse: I am less trusting of strangers, of strange men in particular; I am less comfortable with the unknown. These shifts (and there are many more that I’m still discovering) may or may not be permanent, but they are true for me right now. They are the manifestations of a deeply formative experience, one that shimmers with many beautiful things that happened, and some ugly things, too.
The idea of pain as a teacher reminds me of experiencing acupuncture for the first time earlier this year in Colombo. One of my housemates (Luka: half-German, half-Sri Lankan, and one of the best photographers I’ve ever met) went for “treatment,” as she called it, nearly every day, and one day I asked if I could join her. I didn’t know much about acupuncture but had always been curious. I also had been learning more about ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine (hard not to when you’re living in Asia) and wanted to see how acupuncture fit in.
The place was tucked out of sight off of Galle Road, Colombo’s busiest street. We were greeted with green tea, and when the acupuncture room was free, Luka and I laid down on separate beds. A small woman came in to start Luka’s treatment right away, while I waited for the doctor. He said a soft hello when he entered and began talking to me about breathing techniques and what the acupuncture process was going to be like. As he placed small needles on different points of my body, silently poking and prodding, I thought about baking a pie. You know, those small punctures you sometimes make on the top of a hot pie when it comes out of the oven, to help let steam and heat out so it cools down faster. (If that’s not a thing, I clearly have much to learn about baking.) So if I was the pie, what, exactly, were these needles helping to release?
When the doctor gently put a needle in my ear, I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. But then, using a strange buzzing instrument that measured some sort of frequencies as it hovered over my ear, he spent ten minutes listening to what my ear needle was telling him.
There was a high-pitched tone. “Have you recently started running again after a period of not exercising regularly?” he asked. “Yes, I joined a gym last week and have been using the treadmill… how can you tell?” I dubiously replied.
A series of low tones, then a loud buzzing. “Have you ever had abdominal surgery?” he asked. “A few times…why?” A moment later, another high-pitched tone. “Have you been consuming higher amounts of sugar than normal?” “Umm…” (In my head: Uh, yeah, because living in Sri Lanka means being unable to avoid drinking copious amounts of milk tea that, without fail, contain ridiculous amounts of sugar.) “Wait, these needles are telling you all these things?” I asked, incredulous.
Turns out the needles around my knees, pancreas, and lower abdomen were sending out what he called something very technical and I’ll just call distress signals. “We’re unleashing your inner physician,” the doctor said to me as he turned off the lights and left the room, leaving me alone with twenty or so disturbingly perceptive needles sticking out all over my body. I thought about his statement while I laid still and breathed deeply for the next thirty minutes. It stung when the doctor placed the needles on the surface of my skin, but now, I could barely feel them. What, exactly, were they unleashing? What things, good or bad, were being let go of? Lying there, questions rolling in my mind, I had no idea what I was supposed to be feeling—but it began to dawn on me that that was probably the whole point.