Prelude to a Return

“I haven’t had the time to plan returning to the scene because I haven’t left it.”-Mick Jagger

Time is a funny thing; it never really seems to work in your favor—you can feel one day that you have all the time in the world, and the next feel like you have an impossibly small amount of it left. Granted, some things, some deadlines or future plans often compete with each other for that “Top Priority” spot in your mind, and in this whole sorting out process you just can’t find any residual space for other important things coming your way, say…returning to Ghana.

I feel like there’s a part of me that’s in denial about this whole thing. It’s likely I won’t really believe I’m going back until I land in Accra, until I pass through that “Akwaaba” (“Welcome”) sign on my way to customs, until I step through the exit doors and am likely bombarded by a sea of taxi drivers attempting to overcharge me, just another wide-eyed overwhelmed Obruni, on my way to the hotel. Considering I’ve forgotten more or less all the Twi I learned last year, I may have to accept being bamboozled this one time until I’m settled in and know how much things are supposed to cost around East Legon.

And yet I haven’t really been plagued by the pre-travel fear-induced-nausea that I’m used to feeling in the days leading up to a trip like this. Part of that really is because I haven’t had much time at all to think about or plan for these 3 weeks; I’ve worked really hard this semester to not sink to the depths of extreme mediocrity that I found myself in last semester in terms of effort and GPA. This time around, I put in that extra work effort to hopefully bring myself back up my standard of just moderate mediocrity that I have settled for. Coupled with my “What am I doing here?!” internship at the State Department, Ghana has only managed to occupy just a small compartment of my too-cluttered brain up to this point.

I still don’t have much in terms of a plan for these three weeks; I’m predicting some memory whiplash as I wander the roads I can still see so clearly in my head, the paths I took, almost every detail still engrained in my mind. I may burst into tears at the sight of a baby goat, and I pity whoever is the first person to sell me some kelewele. These first few days will probably just be a nostalgia-driven rampage through the University of Ghana’s Night Market, eating every egg sandwich and kabob in sight, with some jollof in-between. I know it will all feel surreal, but I also believe I will be able to easily slip back into the way of life I became accustomed to there. As soon as I exit the airport Tuesday afternoon and I’m hit by the unbearable heat, and I look around and see the bustling activity that encompasses this country, I can almost guarantee a smile will be on my face. A smile of recognition,  a smile that accompanies an unexpected reunion.

Returning to Beacon House is really the only nervousness I’m feeling. It’ll be so strange being back there without so many familiar faces that I came to know over those 4 months, kids who have since been adopted and are living in the States. There are many that are still there, though, and I have no idea if they know I’m coming. I’m sure I will be received the way I was always welcomed each morning there—crazed hugs which always confused me, excitement over seeing me that never made much sense in my head. We all know who I’m hoping I’ll get to see again, but will I really be that self-involved to be upset that he’s home with his family in Washington? I would like to think that I won’t be, but I guess we will soon see.

People keep asking me, “Why Ghana?!” when they find out I’m spending my winter break there. I don’t really have a good answer to give, at least not one that I can articulate effectively, one that truly expresses what my time there meant to me. Of course, for those who have kept up with my blog, I think you know that those were some of the most important 20 weeks of my life. There was a tranquility resonating within me that had been foreign to me up to that point, and hasn’t really been felt much since. And this is truly why I wanted to go back. The possibility of recapturing even a piece of that feeling for 3 more weeks is an opportunity I didn’t want to ignore. I don’t want to look back, years down the road, and think about what could have been had I just made that decision to return.

I look forward to taking this stroll down memory lane with all of you, especially my CIEE crew, many of whom are probably secretly hexing me for getting to go back instead of them.  I can only imagine the blunders I will likely make in the days to come, hopefully none involving a trip into an Obruni Trap. But as always, no detail will be left out.

If I’m unable to update before Christmas due to internet misfortunes, I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season!

Wish me luck!

An Ode to Mango Friends: Weeks 5 and 6

Mango Friend: a Sinhalese saying for a long-standing friendship.

My final two weeks in Sri Lanka were two of the best weeks of my life, weeks filled with so much joy, adventure, and love, intermixed with tearful goodbyes and an emotional drainage that I’ve never really experienced before. It will be hard to put my final days into words, especially as I’m writing this two months later, but I’ll do my best to put myself back into those moments, no matter how painful it may be.

Things got off to a pretty poor start with our morning class; I had prepared a dialogue for the girls to memorize over the weekend and to perform that Monday, but they forgot. Obviously I wasn’t about to scold these women who are older than me/are employed and are productive members of society (unlike me), so we just let them do it the next day. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it involved a phone conversation about making plans for the weekend, filled with a couple obvious subliminal messages that didn’t really register with them the way I hoped (“I am craving Pizza Hut! It would be really nice to have a break from eating rice”). Otherwise the week was spent continuing with their short stories, with Hannah and I doing our best to explain the words they didn’t understand or couldn’t pronounce. “Three Musketeers” kept being pronounced as “Three Mosquitos”, and defining the word “source” was probably a bit more challenging than necessary.  Things quickly spiraled into a calamity when one of the girls came across the words “garter” and “girdle” (Really, what are those words even doing in children’s stories?), forcing us to Google Image both. So much discomfort. So much giggling by the girls.

I exerted a lot of effort with the boys during my 5th week, pushing myself to the limits with my intense and grueling crossword puzzles. WITH pictures. That’s some serious business, I’d say. We taught them as much as anyone can about clothing, and spent some time getting them to differentiate between domestic and wild animals. I think by the end of the week they may have finally understood that King Kong is not, in fact, an actual thing that exists in the world. We played so much cricket this week, and if I can’t say anything else about this class, at least I can say that these boys taught me how to play this game semi-decently. By the end of the week I was hitting so many “sixers” (still no clue what those are), and probably felt too much personal satisfaction over getting Jude out a few times. I was doing so well that I received the honor of Chamindu calling me “champion” a few times, which was honestly fantastic. Mostly I was happy that I progressed enough to stop hitting those damn sticks with my paddle-bat.

Jude on his way up the tree

Jude on his way up the tree

One time Jude launched their only tennis ball way up into one of the tallest coconut trees in the vicinity, but of course this wasn’t a problem for him. He climbed dozens of feet up the tree, and all I could think about was that I was about to witness the death of this ridiculous boy. I really should have stopped him, but these Sri Lankan boys must just be genetically predisposed to tree climbing. I couldn’t even handle climbing 8 feet without falling down and ripping open my wrist, so I was understandably dumbfounded.

I was also smacked in the penis this week while standing too close to one of the boys as he swung the bat.

Oh, and I wore my sarong to work. Because I wasn’t getting enough attention by just existing there. I was reduced to some serious waddle-walking.

Look at us!

Look at us!

I continued showing up to Bosco hours before my evening class this week and was rewarded by having to teach a class in the afternoon by myself to a different set of boys. This was predictably disastrous, and my attempts at covering some of the grammar we had been teaching to our evening class lasted roughly 9 minutes before I gave up and played Hangman. What can I say, I’m just that impressive.

Should've known they wouldn't be interested in "The Brothers Karamazov"

Should’ve known they wouldn’t be interested in “The Brothers Karamazov”

I was lucky enough to watch the boys play some fun new games in the afternoon, the most fascinating being the one in which they just threw a ball at each other with no apparent goal in mind besides to cause bum bruises. Otherwise, I just enjoyed the standard cuteness that took place on a regular basis. I made the (probable) poor decision of breaking out my Kindle with the innocent intention of helping a couple of the kids practice reading English, but that just deteriorated into the kids pushing all the buttons and trying to find the games that don’t exist on that device. My iPod was another hit, and no matter how many times the kids begged and pleaded, songs by Akon and Gangnam Style will never appear in my Purchased Songs list. Sorry, weirdos. No “Smack That” for you.

The majority of our energy was spent preparing our evening class for their first exam, the culmination of all our weeks of mostly unsuccessful attempts of getting these kids to understand topics we barely understood ourselves. I spent hours preparing a study guide, and hoped (in vain) that they would really listen when I said that reading through the examples and explanations would guarantee a decent grade.  Hannah and I created the exam together, and we both agreed that it was our crowning moment at Bosco the day we distributed that test. Sure, our expectations were about as low as they can get, but we still had some infinitesimal hope that they would not all, I don’t know, fail.

Our exam!

Our exam!

Guess which portion I contributed to

Guess which portion I contributed to

Our crowning moment

Our crowning moment

Based off our new criteria of needing to score a 50 and above to pass, everybody came out a winner! There was a lot of internal crying as I graded the papers and saw so many of them getting in the 50s and 60s, but cried actual tears of joy when one of the boys, Yomal, scored an 88. It was the happiest moment of my time there as a teacher as it was just so unexpected. He never really spoke much and kind of looked like he was about to start drooling on the desk every night, so it was such a pleasant shock for us. Selfishly, it made Hannah and I feel like we hadn’t been completely useless those past few weeks. Do all teachers feel that way when grading exams?

YOMAL!!

YOMAL!!

...Anthony.

…Anthony.

Our weekend trip to Mirissa was the one Hannah and I had anticipated the most (after Kandy), a trip to the beach culminating after 4 grueling weeks of virtual non-stop bustling around. We desperately needed a weekend to just do absolutely nothing, and as it was Hannah’s and Bev’s final weekend in Sri Lanka, we were determined to make it as relaxing, sentimental, and booze-filled as possible.

Just chilling out the train door

Just chilling out the train door

Supposedly one of the most “appealing places” to spend a few days, Mirissa is located right on the southern tip of the island, and we were eager to take one last scenic coastal train ride to get there. There was roughly 12 volunteers converging at our destination, some whom I had never met before, so I basically decided to ignore the people I would never see again after that weekend and just enjoy the company of those I actually liked had spent the past weeks with.

Our train ride to Weligama (a few kilometers away from Mirissa) took about 5 hours, hours spent mostly standing and crammed against each other. The crazy guy I am, I decided to spend a large portion of the trip hanging out the open door, clutching the handles and just, I don’t know…living. Such a large portion of my life is spent confined within closed doors, so damn it, I just wanted some exhilaration. Hannah and I squeezed our bums together and sat side-by-side with our legs dangling over the edge, nibbling on our spicy roti served in somebody’s old used school exam and newspaper. It was really fantastic.

I <3 sanitation

I ❤ sanitation

There was a moment of complete giddiness that was unparalleled in those weeks when we arrived at our guesthouse, the Central Beach Inn, and realized that we’d be living directly on the beach for the weekend. A clean beach! And completely empty (so we thought)! We were greeted by these boys who looked like they belonged in Malibu, but were actually just some young, life-loving, marijuana-smoking hotel employees.

Mirissa Beach

Mirissa Beach

And so commenced our weekend of doing absolutely nothing; good food, swimming, sun-bathing and reading was intermixed with some passive-aggression towards those we didn’t really know/didn’t want to know, and of course, the alcohol. Naturally, the wild alcoholic I am, I only had a couple cocktails, one called Sex on the Beach. Definitely fitting. As the night deteriorated wore on, the young hotel workers kept on blasting the same songs over and over again, songs I would grow to permanently despise by the end of the weekend, namely “Get Lucky”. The absolute worst song. Everyone was becoming more and more intoxicated, and I basically just sat back and watched everyone devolve into their varying degrees of sloppiness. Throughout the night the boys kept on smoking, constantly trying to get me to join them. I’m pretty sure they had a feeling how abnormal I am and just wanted to laugh at my expense, something I’m more than used to at this point.

Anyway, I did it. I smoked the ridiculous boys’ weed (their names are Chamin/maybe Charmin and Diisa). Having never done something remotely crazy/fun in my life, I naturally struggled. Really struggled. Chamin attempted to teach me how to do it, but it was just not happening. Including this little tidbit wasn’t something I really planned on doing, lest my mother keel over, or, I don’t know, employers somehow decide to read this and think I’m some kind of rascal and miscreant, but my desire for full disclosure won out. And really, it was just one inhale, or whatever you call it. Hit?

Now that I’ve probably shocked the few who read this entire world, I’ll redeem my loser image by saying I decided against staying up past midnight like everyone else who wanted to continue being fun, choosing sleep instead. The ridiculous music and crazed singing happening prevented any possibility of sleep, so by around 1:00 AM I ventured back outside, shocked by how much things had deteriorated in such a short time.

Me and Bev before the struggle happened

Me and Bev before the struggle happened

Bev. Dear, beautiful Bev. I don’t think anyone in my entire life, in any instance, had ever been as excited to see me as Bev was when I showed up at the bar. It was unbelievable, really. “Matthew, you came back!! I’m so happy you’re here!!!” was uttered repeatedly, and so many hugs were given. I had no idea how to respond to these foreign declarations of affection towards me, the awkward weirdo I am, so I was basically reduced to a lot of uncomfortable laughter and blushing. It was just so unexpected, but definitely appreciated. Didn’t stop me from running back to my room as soon as possible, however. My main reason for getting out of there was that there was this other group of girls, also volunteers, who were just so loud and drunk (my two least favorite things) and I just wanted to punt these ladies off our beach. Oh, and “Project Sri Lanka” will NEVER be better than Projects Abroad, no matter how much you rave about the cheap prices. So shush.

That damn music didn’t stop playing until after 4 AM, so sleeping was rough. Unsurprisingly, most of the crew wasn’t mobile at 8 like I was, and that wait for my pancakes was not enjoyable. I got over that nonsense, and we all wandered the beach, climbing up the small island nearby and just taking in the beautiful views Mirissa offers. We were a little disappointed that there weren’t any stilt fishermen around that morning, but that didn’t really take away from how perfect the day was. Throughout those sun-filled hours, Diisa and Charmin kept on being young and crazy, and kept on trying to corrupt me.

You can see the stilts in the background

You can see the stilts in the background

Me, Charmin and Diisa. Too bad my shirt was nasty here

Me, Charmin and Diisa. Too bad my shirt was nasty here

Just so much relaxation, a wonderful reward for our weeks of hard work, a nice boost to get me through my final week, one that was equally one of the best and toughest I’ve had in my life.

We left that Sunday afternoon, a train ride that brought a sad goodbye to Kym and Bev, two of my favorite people from the trip. The ride took roughly 8 hours, a massive delay on account of some ginormous church feast which apparently mobilized the entirety of the population between Colombo and Negombo. The bus was literally unable to move for over 45 minutes because of this. Thanks a lot, Jesus.

My favorite picture with Bev. We never did find out what that ice cream flavor was

My favorite picture with Bev. We never did find out what that ice cream flavor was

My final week began with the arrival of two new volunteers, Kirsten from the Netherlands and Jakub/”Kuba” from Poland. Apparently Jakub is too hard for people to pronounce? I wasn’t too enthusiastic about having 5 people in the house, the social butterfly I am, but luckily they met my usually-unattainable standards for likeability.

Having these new people in the house meant that Mac and Paulita needed to increase the food supply, so instead of preparing food that would be adequate for about 8 people (a reasonable amount at this point), they prepared food sufficient for at least 12. One morning, we walked into the kitchen for breakfast and were met with a platter of 20 “pancakes”/taquitos. Maybe if they actually tasted good I wouldn’t have minded, but they were just nasty. We ended up hoarding them into some plastic bags, smuggled them out of the house, and threw them away. We were awful human beings that day, but really, Macmilan, you need to learn about appropriate portion sizes.

NOT OKAY

NOT OKAY

This week was really about spending as much time at Bosco as possible. One more day was spent going over animals/clothing with the boys, including an “exam” that involved matching. Their horrendous scores affirmed the sad fact that we really didn’t accomplish much with them, but it was always the personal connections forged with the kids, really getting to know and understand them, that mattered to me anyway. We spent the last few days going over the human body, allowing us to display our artistic deficits capabilities one last time. And more word searches! If I can’t say anything else about that class, I can say that at least I helped develop their concentration and problem solving abilities. Maybe.

Volleyball Turmoil

Volleyball Turmoil

A lot of volleyball was played that week, probably the most popular sport in Sri Lanka. These boys are good, like…I didn’t want to participate and embarrass myself. Of course we did participate, and thankfully Hannah absorbed a majority of the jeers as her volleyball abilities are about as dreadful as my abilities at everything else. Jude was so pissed at her a few times, and I was really concerned that their friendship would be at jeopardy, devastating considering how much they loved each other. My cricket prowess was developed further, and football continued to render me disgusting looking and injured. One of my toes still hurts from kicking the ground instead of the ball, the talented athlete I am. Jakub solidified his status as Football Champion, his standing as Poland’s most talented young player leaving the kids in awe.

Our final week with the evening class was wonderful, as always. Hannah and I had purchased some biscuits and something extra for our shining pupil Yomal as rewards for surviving our grueling exam. That Monday night I marched into our office where I had stored the food, took out the bag and discovered that one of the biscuit packages was missing. Realizing that somebody had stolen it was one of the most miserable moments I had there; so many rupees down the drain (but really like $0.80)!! I had to dig deep into my pockets to muster the money required to replace what was taken, but in the end, there was so much joy over the food/”passing” the exam. We realized that we probably should’ve given that exam at the very end of our stay, because then we had to awkwardly begin a new topic, prepositions (why are there so many?!), that we’d only have about 4 total days to teach. These kids were struggling a lot with this topic, culminating in my favorite student, Anthony Saviour, writing, “I was under my wife when she died.” It was honestly one of the greatest things I’d ever witnessed, despite the fact that it likely underscored how ineffective I was at teaching. Oh well. At least we had some laughs.

It really began to dawn on the kids that Hannah and I would be leaving, and there was a noticeable somberness in the kids’ demeanor. It was different when I was in Ghana; I would say I’m leaving soon but the kids never really acted like they understood what that meant, that I wouldn’t be coming back. Here I just got the sense that everyone did understand, and I could tell that they were going to be hurt. They just kept asking when we’d be back, as if it’s so easy to hop back and forth throughout the year.

Hannah’s final day on July 3 would be the second saddest day of my 6 weeks in Sri Lanka, after my own, of course. I don’t really know how to describe her final day (and mine, for that matter), how to capture the beauty and misery that alternated those long hours.

This picture's perfect because Jude's actually smiling

This picture’s perfect because Jude’s actually smiling

I think we really tried to treat the day as normally as possible, to not dwell on the sadness and just make the day as fantastic as it could be. And for the most part we were successful, at least in the morning. And then as we were heading out of Bosco for lunch, Jude ran over and gave Hannah this card that he supposedly wrote for her. In reality I believe that card may have been one his parents had sent him; he had crossed out “Dearest one” and replaced it with “Dearest Hannah.” This beautiful act began our downward emotional spiral, one that became more and more severe with each passing hour.

We were back early that afternoon, desperate to spend as much time with the kids as possible. Those few hours before the evening class were again spent normally enough; we played a lot of volleyball, and basically did everything we could to ignore the fact that tears were likely on the horizon. At the end of Hannah’s final evening class, our students presented her with gifts—this plaque with a prayer, and this tiny model boat. It was so unexpected and sweet, but definitely deserved. That girl worked her ass off, and like me had really no idea what she was doing. We made the best of a difficult situation and devoted ourselves completely to those kids. Receiving some recognition was a real pleasant surprise, from a group of people who really made our trip worth it.

Our evening class <3

Our evening class ❤

After we took some group pictures, we made our way to the study room where all the kids work until dinner so Hannah could begin the impossible task of saying goodbye. I left her alone to spend time with Jude, and just wandered around trying to keep down that dread I mentioned from boiling over. Sasara helped with that; just when I thought Starbucks had exhausted every possible way of ridiculously spelling my name (Mat, Ben, Met, BET!!!!!), he comes up with “Matiw”. Granted, their Sinhala words are difficult to say/spell (Tuesday=Angaharuwada), but really. Just so creative!

It was at around 8:00 PM that everything really deteriorated; the entire Bosco Sevena population gathered in the room, forming this circle around Hannah. Clapping commenced, drums started being played, and everyone began singing this song with lyrics including “Thank you, thank you Hannah” or something like that. I couldn’t really make out much of what was being said because I had a serious case of the dreaded “insta-tears” that I seem to be really prone to these days. Hannah at this point was overcome with tears of her own, while simultaneously attempting to console Jude who was absolutely sobbing. There really is nothing more devastating then the tears of a child, someone so young who should never have to say permanent goodbyes yet. And the fact that this was Jude, truly one of the most special people we’ve encountered, just escalated the pain. I didn’t want to take away any of this moment from Hannah, so I snuck out of the room and just let her enjoy one of the most beautiful experiences I’m sure she’s had. If I’m honest with myself I know that I also left because I knew that I, too, might be receiving a similar send-off just a few days later, and it felt like I was gazing into a future I really didn’t want to see come true.

We all shared a feast prepared by Father Melinda, and finally by around 9:00 had said her final tearful goodbyes. She was given a Bosco Sevena shirt, really the one thing both of us had been looking forward to since we got there. Sure that shirt may have about 4 colors too many, but it’s still the greatest shirt she (and later I) have been given.

We had second dinner (of course) back home, and stayed up talking and just trying to prolong the inevitable, I suppose. As I laid in bed that night, I was reduced to someone I never thought actually existed: the person who cries himself to sleep while listening to Adele. Yup. That happened. It was just an emotionally draining day, and I guess it all caught up with me. And I suppose a lot of it did have to do with the thought of having to part from a friend the following morning. People who know me are probably going to be shocked to read that, and really, I was taken aback myself. I will always be the first to admit to not being the easiest person to be friends with; I’m guarded, insecure, apathetic, even, when it comes to forging relationships. I think my main issue has always been assuming people would just not see anything likeable in me, so I’ve just avoided trying to find out, really. But in situations like the one I was in with Hannah, when we were thrust together and forced to spend basically all our time together, it’s a little hard to avoid some kind of relationship, whether it’s one founded on like or disgust. By some miracle we experienced the former, and I can honestly say that she’s one of my favorite people today. I really don’t know how I would have made it through those weeks at Bosco without her help and laughter. Also she’s British, so…can’t really go wrong there.

Here's Hannah. With my underwear.

Here’s Hannah. With my underwear.

We said our final goodbyes the following morning at our bus stop, one final hug to start off a fairly miserable morning. Poor Anthony Saviour set the tone for the day when we arrived, saying to me “My heart is crying,” a sentiment I could definitely relate to, albeit in probably a less dramatic fashion. That kid really has a thing for hyperbole, as he would later tell me, “You are the greatest human.” Like…how does one really respond to such an over the top compliment, from somebody the same age as you?  I was not equipped.

Anyway, after our class with the girls (we talked extensively about Sri Lankan weddings again), we spent our usual time between classes on the Internet. At one point Jude came sulking in, looking about as glum as I expected, and said softly to me, “Hannah SMS?” Awwwww. I pulled out my phone and called Hannah, something we’d agreed to do before she boarded her plane. It was easily the cutest thing I’d seen so far, how completely Jude’s mood changed once he heard Hannah’s voice again. Obviously Hannah did most of the talking, but just seeing him smile again after the previous evening was wonderful.

From then on things were substantially better. I was encouraged to see that the boys weren’t sitting around mourning Hannah’s absence, which made me feel a little better about my own impending departure. The one thing that kept me worried in the months after leaving Ghana was the thought of the kids at Beacon House feeling sad or abandoned by me. Instead, when I arrived back to Bosco after lunch, I was treated to a mini concert put on by Jude and Kasun. They were bashing this symbol and rocking out on a chair/drum, unfortunately singing Gagnam Style. But that’s okay. They were so ridiculously happy! So much laughter. Also Kasun was wearing a FIRECE shirt.

That Friday afternoon, my three remaining housemates went off on their weekend trip to some wildlife park, leaving me to enjoy my final weekend on my own. I had decided weeks before to spend my final days at Bosco, partly because I didn’t have a lot of interest in spending time with a massive group of people I would only ever see for those 2 days, and because everyone I had known and became close with were gone at that point. My main reason was because I wanted to spend as much time with the kids as I could, because really, the weekend traveling was only secondary to the true reason I was there: to work. And also, I didn’t need to see more elephants.

I was really curious about what went on at Bosco on weekends, and was pleased to see when I arrived that Saturday morning that they have IT classes; they were learning things like where the Spacebar and Tab Key is. Adorable! Afterwards, they had a lot of free time, and I was treated to the first of many drum/singing performances by Sasara and the others. Their main objective was to get me to take videos of them, using me for my technology, basically. They certainly aren’t camera shy, which resulted in a few really amazing/sometimes violent/always cute recordings. I tried finding videos that didn’t devolve into bizarre faux-brawls, but that would have left me basically with one video to share. So…enjoy!

Sometime in the early afternoon, the boys were instructed to partake in some kind of chore. When it became apparent that that chore involved clearing the entire grounds of the hundreds of coconuts that had fallen over the past few days, I just couldn’t believe it. There was just so many. But they apparently loved every minute of it; really, I don’t think American kids would so readily spend a couple hours in the heat hurling coconuts into a massive pile.

Ridiculousness

Ridiculousness

That afternoon for lunch we were all brought to this nearby family’s home, for reasons I was a bit unclear on. I’m not sure how one family can prepare food for over 60 people, but it was lovely. I was fortunate to spend that hour sitting with a group of possibly the oldest people in existence, treating me to some awkward intelligible exchanges and some fabulous questions. The old man who was the most fond of me asked if I knew the Pope. Well…not too well, surprisingly.

I woke up on my second to last day to the surprising news that a new volunteer from France, Hugo, had arrived. My first thought, unsurprisingly, was No! Why?!  I did my best to come across as friendly and welcoming (probably unsuccessfully), but really wanted to get out of there and go to Bosco as quickly as possible. So by around 7:45 AM I had awkwardly left him alone, probably not the nicest thing to do to somebody who just landed. Sorry! Just to make my departure more unfortunate, I may or may not have been responsible for little Herma falling on her face. On concrete. Just so many screams and tears. I’m really not sure what happened, but…I just got out of there.

I got to Bosco in time to see what these kids eat for breakfast everyday: So. Much. Bread. Basically half a loaf per kid, making me feel a little better about my own giant pieces of sugar bread I was forced to consume every day. After breakfast the kids either played more games or attended their “Good Manners” class. With that name I assumed they’d be learning some dining etiquette or something ridiculous like that, but I’m pretty sure it just ended up being something Jesus-related. It was taught in Sinhala so I have no idea what actually went on there, but they certainly weren’t learning to say “Please” and “Thank you.” Afterwards I took a few more videos of crazed drum playing until I was treated to the biggest surprise of all that day:

BAND PRACTICE!

Almost everyone plays some kind of instrument, to the standard drums to the bizarre accordion/piano thing Sasara plays that involves blowing into a tube. And Jude with his tambourine? It was just too much. This powerful, authoritative lady arrived to conduct them, and she really took this seriously. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw them marching around the grounds rehearsing Sri Lanka’s National Anthem, looking like a legitimate, cohesive talented ensemble. It was just so strange, and so special to be a part of. Jude of course couldn’t refrain from causing mischief.

More games were played in the afternoon, and then a large portion of the boys were called away to do what I believe was cleaning out more gutter poop. Once again, boys were hoisted down into the depths of Bosco’s smelly sewers, shoveling bucket after bucket of (hopefully) mud out. My sympathy got the best of me once again, and I attempted to help. It took just about 12 seconds of me being in their presence for Sasara to drop a concrete slab in a puddle I was standing near, splattering me from the knees down in whatever it is they’re swimming around in. If anyone but Sasara had been the culprit I might have been displeased, but there’s no way I’m about to scold that kid. Especially when right after, he and a few others immediately proceeded to douse me with water in crazed attempts at cleaning me off. Really not that big of a deal, guys.

EW.

EW.

Thanks, guys

Thanks, guys

The boys finished their strange assignment just in time for the sunset, which I watched descend for my second to last time as they all washed off in the ocean. It was a rare cloudless evening, allowing for one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve sat through.IMG_4532

By the time I arrived back home that evening, everyone else had returned from their weekend travels. I heard all about the countless elephants they encountered, which I feigned some interest in learning about. In my mind I just kept thinking about how my weekend was probably superior. I mean…band practice! That’s worth about a thousand wild elephants, I’d say.

And so we come at last to my final day, July 8th. I never wrote about this day in my journal, but now, two months later, I still have basically every detail inscribed in my memory.

Like Hannah’s final day, mine began routinely enough. I had my final class with the girls, and they thanked me in the end for all my help. Honestly I struggled throughout with my role as a teacher to them, women who were substantially more accomplished and experienced than me. But I think we all helped each other, really; we learned so much about Sri Lankan culture from these women, and if Hannah and I managed to improve their English in any small way, then I’m satisfied.

I was surprised (and pleased) to see Sasara at Bosco that morning; It turns out he had done some sinister thing the previous day and his punishment was to stay home from school and to copy page after page of this history book. It was a mess, but I was happy to spend more time with the kid, probably getting him into more trouble by allowing him to play football with us when he was supposed to be working. But this was my final beach football game, so…the kid was going to play. I distributed some food offerings to all the boys in my class as a parting gift, including sweets Hannah’s mother had sent for her which finally arrived literally the day she left.  England really does know how to make some fantastic candy.

What every kid dreams of receiving

What every kid dreams of receiving

I returned to Bosco after lunch while the others went off to the pool, arriving in time to catch Sasara burst into tears over the “impossibility” of his writing punishment. Really not what I wanted to see on my last day, but I had at least brought some gifts to cheer him up! Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have purchased those 18 or so tennis balls, since, you know, there are over 40 total kids there. But I didn’t feel like blowing my remaining rupees on balls they’d probably be losing within 2 days, and I didn’t even know many of those boys. Definitely didn’t stop them from demanding asking for my goods. And the fact that so much joy and excitement came from receiving a tennis ball never ceased to amaze me, kind of like the balloon fiascos at Beacon House. Then I remember that these boys never receive presents and it all makes a little more sense. So as expected, Sasara’s mood picked up once I presented him with his tennis ball offering. Those tears needed to wait.

My emotional state started its slow descent into debilitation by the time my final evening class began. They all knew it was my last day, and Anthony was basically a complete mess. He demanded that I write down all my contact information for him, told me a few more times how his heart was crying. Mine too, buddy. We made it through my final lesson on prepositions (Hell), and that’s about when my first tears made their appearance. After I wrote down my email address on the board, I was presented with three(!!!) gifts from a few of my students. The first package contained a mug, and another this cross that flashes all these lights. My instant thought was, “Well…my mother is not going to want me hanging this up in the house…”.  The gift that really mattered to me was this plaque that’s specifically for teachers, and contained this prayer and words of gratitude. It was really just the sweetest thing anyone’s given me, and just made my heart begin its painful collapse. I made my way out to the study room where I knew things were about to get a lot worse.

Things were fine for a little while; I almost believed I’d be able to get through these final moments without any fuss. I still had a few tennis balls to distribute, and by this point everyone knew I had them. Unfortunately by this point I only had about 8 left, so I really had to think hard about who I was going to give them to. Except as soon as I made a move to take out the bag, I was swarmed by the entire room and the decision was (literally) taken out of my hands.  Welp. Sorry, guys.

At that point I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I decided it was time for me to finally get going. I made my way over to the few boys I really cared about, planning on saving Sasara for last, and that was about when the misery I had been expecting made its appearance. One by the one the boys starting coming up to me and commenced handing over these offerings, mostly some pictures depicting Don Bosco, or some kind of doodle. So that was really cute. Some of the boys had started to tear up, even ones I had barely spent time with. Before I knew it there was a lineup of kids against the wall, each looking sadder then the next, just standing there with tears streaming down their faces. All I could think was, “This is over ME?! Did I really matter that much to them?!” At a complete loss of what I should do, I just started hugging everybody. I don’t know how many tears my shirt absorbed that evening (mostly my own), but for the most part I had managed to keep myself together.

And then I look over and see Jude and Sasara in similar states of sadness, and it was at that point my efforts at keeping myself poised and collected began to crumble. I tried, really tried not to break down in front of them. I didn’t want them feeling worse than they did, and for me, I’m never one to let myself display that much vulnerability and pain in public. To that point I had never made a scene of my emotions before, always finding ways to keep my feelings bottled up until they could be released privately. I just couldn’t do it this time.

I eventually looked up and realized that the entirety of Bosco Sevena had crowded into the room, and once I saw a few of the boys holding drums I knew what was coming next. I was trapped in the circle of clapping, singing children, many of whom were still crying, chanting their “Thank you thank you Matthew” sendoff and if I had managed to keep myself under any semblance of control, that was basically gone by then. I couldn’t control the tears anymore, and just gave in to them. I suppose it was a really cathartic experience for me, one that I kind of wish didn’t have to happen in front of the other volunteers I had barely known. Sorry that you had to witness two emotional collapses within a week, Kirsten and Jakub. But I’m sure they had similar experiences when they left, even you, big manly Kuba.

At some point during the singing and drum blaring, Jude came in with one of the Fathers carrying a bag. He was sobbing uncontrollably, and before I could crouch down to hug the kid, he was on his knees, and KISSED MY FEET. I believe there was a “Matthew God bless you” uttered by him, but I just couldn’t believe that had just happened. Once I opened the bag and saw there was a Don Bosco shirt and Sarong(!!), there really just was no stopping the crying. I don’t know how to describe a moment like that, really. When in life are you ever shown so much love at one time by such a large group of people? It just doesn’t happen, at least not to me.

Finally the singing had stopped, and many of the boys left to go to the dining room, leaving a few crying stragglers behind. I took off my watch and placed in Jude’s hand; I just wanted him to have something of mine, something that would let him know that I cared, that his tears weren’t wasted. And then Sasara. I reached into my bag and pulled out my copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite book, one I had originally intended to leave for my host parents (sorry, guys). Obviously there is no way that kid will be reading it anytime soon, but I hope that one day, when he becomes Sri Lanka’s most intelligent young adult, he will pull out that book and read it/remember the awkward white boy who gave him it. Inside I had written “Goodbye, mango friend,” spending about 15 minutes writing out “goodbye” in Sinhala. It was time for some final hugs, giving Jude and Sasara extra long ones, hoping that somehow they understood that they were important to me. I led them out of the room and parted ways, giving one last look as I walked out of Bosco Sevena for the last time.

By the time we made it home by 9:00, I had managed to get myself together somewhat, just in time to enjoy my final Sri Lankan meal of…spring rolls. Freakin’ spring rolls. Fitting, I suppose. My flight was at around 4:45 the following morning, and since my host father was planning on driving me, I decided I would just head to the airport right after dinner. I wasn’t going to make him stay up so late for me, and I really just wanted to get these final goodbyes over with.IMG_4243

So at around 10:30 I was being driven alone by Mac, a quick 30 minute ride to the airport I assumed would be fairly uneventful. Of course there was some light conversation; he thanked me for coming, expressed hope that I would return and stay at his house again as a guest. That sounded like a pretty good deal to me, but then things started becoming exponentially uncomfortable. Mac started talking of his desire to come to America, asking me if I thought it would be difficult for him to find work there. “Well…I guess it depends on what you were looking to do” is what I basically told him. Cause I really don’t have any idea, really. And then he may or may have not requested my assistance in getting him a visa to America. UMMM…does it look like I have any knowledge of that process? I think he wanted me to go search out some kind of sponsor who could help get him into the country, or something to that effect. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Thankfully by this point we were pulling into the airport, so with a quick goodbye I rushed inside, finally alone, finding myself with absolutely nothing to do 5 hours before my flight would be boarding.

So how does one spend those long hours at Bandaranaike International Airport, too early to even check in and sit by your gate? Well…if you guessed sitting at the check in area struggling to contain reemerging tears, then good work! Because that’s really what ended up happening. For hours. Apparently I wasn’t finished publicly purging myself of the overwhelming sadness that had taken over me that day. Luckily I had numerous tissue packets stashed away in my suitcase, and boy did those come in handy. Those around me were probably confused as to why some white boy was sobbing alone at 1 in the morning (I was listening to Adele again, guys. So bad.), but there was just nothing that could be done.

I remember thinking to myself how strange it was to be having such a strong reaction, one that leaving Ghana didn’t come close to inducing no matter how sad I was that day too. It just didn’t make any sense. But I think now, after reflecting for a weeks on it, I do understand what was happening. It was just a combination of thoughts and feelings which, taken together, were too much for me. I was sad, so sad to leave those kids behind, and to leave behind yet again an experience that left me feeling fulfilled and had given me purpose. I had said too many goodbyes that year, and I was just tired of it, angry really, that they had to be said at all. There was some anger towards myself as well, anger that I let myself once again become attached to temporary people. And finally, most significant of all, I think, I was just sad to be returning back home to a life I just didn’t really want to go back to. I knew the calm, the contentedness, the excitement I felt waking up every morning was going to vanish in an instant, and it was just unbearable to think about at that point.

There were more tears to come throughout the 24 hours or so it took me to get home, including during the beginning of both flights. I managed to watch a ridiculous range of movies to take my mind off things, beginning with the light-hearted, fun and uplifting Stoker. I can’t even. What did you do to your face, Nicole Kidman?? Landing in New York the following afternoon, I took a little extra time to get myself through customs, just wanting to prolong for a couple minutes the bombardment I knew was coming my way.

My family, as always, did not disappoint.

Welcome Home balloon meant for war veterans

Welcome Home balloon meant for war veterans

IMG_4553 IMG_4571 IMG_4570 IMG_4555 Excerpts from Matthew’s Journal:

  • “A random turtle was placed on the stairs and pooped everywhere” (June 24)
  • “Those kids better study for tomorrow’s exam or so help me gawd” (June 25)
  • “I was hit in the peen” (June 27)
  • “God help Anthony. Scared for that boy” (June 27, after I graded his exam)
  • “Bev and I bonded, we talked about America sucking…” (June 28)
  • “They gave me their weed just to laugh at my inability to do it the right way. Whatever. I’m pure!” (June 29)
  • “Poor Himali. “The Three Musketeers” wasn’t a good choice since she can’t pronounce French names. Or musketeer” (July 1)
  • “One more week before I never have to have rice and curry again. I could cry from joy” (July 1)
  • “Another boy ran into a coconut tree and impaled himself” (July 1)
  • “He’s nice. And funny. And kind of miserable looking, so I approve. And he hates curry and water. HAHAHAHAHAHA. GOOD LUCK” (July 1, about Jakub)
  • “Oh, it’s 4th of July! NO FUCKS TO GIVE” (July 4)
  • “Woke up to the news that we have a new boy living here. French. Igu? That can’t be right” (July 7, about Hugo)
  • “Came back and faked interest in everybody’s weekend trip. DON’T CARE. Elephants? LIVED WITH ‘EM” (July 8)

Adam’s Weak: Weeks 3 and 4

Weeks 3 and 4: June 10-June 23

I would say that during my third week, there was finally some semblance of a routine in place. Our evening class was finally up and running, and we seemed to have some idea of what we were doing in each of our 3 classes throughout the day. Here’s a breakdown of how a typical day went during the week:

      • 7:00 AM: Wake up
      • 7:30: Breakfast, consisting of tea and disgustingly large slabs of sugar bread. If you’re lucky, the bread is actually bitable/won’t harm your teeth.
      • 8:00: Leave for Bosco, arriving by 8:45ish
      • 9:00: Spoken English class with the girls
      • 10:30: English class with the boys
      • 11:30: Back home for lunch/Second shower of the day/Lesson planning/relaxation
      • 4:30ish: Back to Bosco (would start leaving earlier)
      • 6:30: Evening grammar class
      • 7:30: Home/Dinner/Third shower of the day

8:30-9:00ish: Sleep

Breakfast. Every day.

Breakfast. Every day.

So really that 11:30-4:30 time-slot during the week is the only time outside of the weekend that we occasionally did something worth noting. The word “worth” may be a bit of a stretch, but for a town whose post office is the main place of interest, anything extra is exciting. Really all that’s around is this local pool/restaurant, and we took this week to treat ourselves by consuming something that wasn’t rice and to drink something that wasn’t tea. As an added bonus, there’s the occasional feral cat and decrepit puppy around just begging for me to cuddle with/get scratched by. This week really began my issue of having to pick up literally every cute thing that came in my path, no matter how unfortunate it looked or how many worms it may be infested with. Take, for example, this kitten:

Cute! And look at Herma!

Cute! And look at Herma!

In the middle of the week Hannah and I traveled to Colombo to purchase train tickets for our upcoming weekend trip to Kandy, just so we could finalize what time the trains leave and to make sure we don’t end up in third class where the chickens are supposedly kept.  So we arrived after probably 90 minutes of traveling just to learn that you apparently can’t reserve second class seats ahead of time, and we weren’t about to shell out $2.50ish for first class seats (so many rupees). This trip could almost be added to my list of times over the past year that time was wasted or travel plans imploded, but at least we got to meet up with a few friends for a nice afternoon wandering Colombo.

The Pettah

The Pettah

We visited the Pettah, Colombo’s main market, described as a “chaotic bazaar” which is “slow and rather exhausting” to traverse. Look, travel guide. I wandered through the largest open market in West Africa, so I know a thing or two about “chaotic” and “exhausting,” and I think you might need to consider dialing down the hyperbole. The Pettah is basically just a smellier, filthier NYC China Town, and without the fabulous dumplings.  The streets were a bit narrow and getting lost is almost guaranteed, but at least I didn’t encounter any slaughters. It did rain, however, and by then I really should’ve known to carry an umbrella on me at all times on this island. Luckily we entered a store selling the most appropriate umbrellas imaginable for me:

So unprepared for Sri Lankan weather

So unprepared for Sri Lankan weather

This umbrealla

This umbrella

Also, Hannah and I went to Pizza Hut for the second time that week. The halfway slump is real, people.  My lowest point was really yet to come.

It was on this day that I had to say goodbye to Charlotte, the beautifully-accented girl from Manchester. She loved the way I pronounced her name (Shar-lit vs. (Sha-lit), and I loved the way “book” and “buck” sounded exactly the same when coming out of her mouth. But really, Charlotte’s wonderful.

Over at Bosco Sevena, we reached our peak with our morning class with the girls, covering topics that were actually potentially interesting for me as someone interested in development and public health. We discussed the environment and social issues, hoping it would evolve into a discussion on what they believe Sri Lanka’s main issues are today.  I brought up gay rights and university costs as issues in America, and they basically looked at me like I was making less sense than usual. They offered up unemployment and self-reliance (the latter intrigued me), and then rambled about drug and sex trafficking. I attempted to get them to discuss women’s rights, but they brushed that off and basically said there aren’t really any gender disparities worth mentioning. Well…I obviously wasn’t going to say it, but two of them are getting married soon and plan on quitting their jobs to become housewives (a pretty standard practice), so…I’d say that’s a bit of an issue worth examining. But this was English class, so just getting them to speak for extended periods of time about anything was deemed a success.

With the boys, this week we had two new additions to our class; I thought they were going to be there every day after, but apparently they were only there in the first place because they didn’t have the proper shoes required by the regular schools. Seems like a pretty reasonable punishment. The boys:

Udayakamara: Co-cricket champion with Chamindu and one of my favorite kids. He constantly attempted to get me to flex my “muscles” for him, and no matter how many times I tried explaining that there was nothing there to see, he kept on grabbing my arm and squeezing the flab.DSCN3560

Sasara: I was always skeptical growing up when teachers would say they didn’t have any favorites in the class, because if this kid is any indication, having a favorite is really inevitable. No matter where I end up working, if it’s with kids, there’s always one that I get too attached to. It was Prince in Ghana, and it was Sasara here. Maybe it’s self-destructive or I’m sabotaging myself by letting myself get so close when it’s just temporary, but I don’t know. I think it would be worse, not letting myself feel what I want to feel, you know? Yes, saying goodbye is the most painful thing anyone can do, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to just avoid letting connections form. I think if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that. Anyway, miss ya, mango friend.

<3

This week we attempted to give lessons on food and clothing, and since variety is not the first word one would use to describe Sri Lankan cuisine, food was a bit of an issue. Really, it’s just rice, beef, chicken, pork, fish, onion, pepper. And food may have been an issue, but clothing was basically a catastrophe. We learned pretty quickly what happens when someone from Germany, America, and England attempts to teach words to Sinhala-speaking Sri Lankans whose grasp on the English language is infinitesimal.  Take, for example, pants. You know, those long, things you wear in the winter or for a nice dinner. For Hannah, they’re trousers, which, you know, is fine and all. But pants for me is underwear for her, tank tops for her are vests for me. And Oliver. Poor, poor Oliver. Look, man, you’re a really smart guy, and I’m sure you’re highly regarded in your field of expertise. But honey, you are NOT about to try getting these kids to think that the word for hat is “zelinda.” Sorry for completely obliterating that spelling, but seriously?? You do not get to express surprise when Hannah and I have never heard that word used before, and let’s be real. Between the three of us, it’s probably a bit more likely that Hannah and I would have a firmer grasp on appropriate English words than you. And don’t get me started on “chucks” and “gearbag.” (gearsack?) We did the best we could, and we Hannah had to incorporate her artistic talents often, but I think we managed to make some kind of progress. Getting them to draw out and write down each article of clothing might have been useful, but getting them to remember how to spell these words the next day was always impossible.

Notice Rauhl's injured foot. My fault.

Notice Rauhl’s injured foot. My fault.

But really, more noteworthy than classroom struggles was my first encounter with cricket, a sport that never ceased to confuse me and whose entertainment value I still find questionable.   Throw in the fact that these kids never followed the proper rules (as if I know what the proper rules are), and it was always just a mess. I was absolutely dreadful in the beginning, not knowing how to swing those weird paddle bats at all. I would end up swinging them tennis-style, and in those early attempts I always ended up just hitting those stick things that the pitcher is attempting to throw at. Needless to say, the kids were not pleased with me. Oh, and sometimes the ball was hit far into a coconut tree. This was never a problem for these psychos:

One of the many times the ball ended up in the coconut tree

One of the many times the ball ended up in the coconut tree

Over at the evening class, Hannah and I began the difficult task of actually, you know, teaching grammar.  We spent this week largely going over articles (the, a, an, some), explaining the differences and going over the rules and when they should be used. I’d give further details, but I don’t think I even remember the specific rules a month later. The fact that, growing up, we weren’t taught these rules ourselves and were just expected to instinctually know them, is probably concerning. We felt silly having to use the internet to look up how to explain something we should just know by now, but we didn’t have a choice. Hardest of all was explaining to them that sometimes an article isn’t used (I like pizza vs. I like the pizza). It was a struggle, we really needed a Teaching English Grammar for Dummies book, but little by little we started to see some results. It was a lot of work, there was a lot of frustration, but this is the class I really felt like an impact could be made. Even though we had no idea what we were doing, this belief pushed us to do the best that we could to organize exercises, to put in the extra time to grade papers and provide explanations. I wouldn’t say that the morning class with the young boys was neglected, but that there was a real understanding that this class was where we could really make our time at Bosco worth it.

At the end of the week, the three of us led a beach cleanup at Bosco. The amount of trash that littered the beach there wasn’t too monumental (I’ve definitely seen worse), and much of it was just branches and other natural debris that was a bit of an eyesore. Naturally, the kids focused a majority of their attention on these branches and not the actual, potentially hazardous, garbage. But hey, everyone had a good time, ridiculous pictures were taken, and an actual difference was seen by the end of the day.

Cute!

Cute!

Jude was being extra productive

Jude was being extra productive

Adorable!

Adorable!

Jude's picture of Hannah

Jude’s picture of Hannah

Hannah's picture of Jude

Hannah’s picture of Jude

LOVE

LOVE

Oh, and Hannah got wet.

Womp.

Womp.

This beach cleanup occurred on a Thursday, and we spent around 11 hours at Bosco that day, giving us a glimpse of a what a full day is like there for these kids. Thursdays became my favorite day there when we found out that the boys have their traditional Kandyan dance class in the afternoon. Impressive wouldn’t be an appropriate enough word to describe how musically talented seemingly everyone there is. It was a really special moment being able to watch them for a while.

We left that Friday morning for our trip to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last remaining independent kingdom before it fell to the British in 1815, and the region I looked forward to visiting more than any other. There were a few new people traveling with us: Kym from Scotland (lovely), Lena from Germany (also lovely), and Basma from Egypt/London (…). The trip from Colombo to Kandy was probably the most memorable, being my first train ride in Sri Lanka and all the ridiculousness that trains there involve. Our expectations were low, so not having a seat wasn’t unexpected.

Not sure whose hands these are

Not sure whose hands these are

We ended up spending a majority of the trip huddled on the floor, but I didn’t want to sit for long as we went further inland and the landscape began to change. Our surroundings became more and more beautiful as our elevation increased, slowly rising along steep green hills which sprang up the closer we got. I spent a lot of time standing right by the open train doors, taking in the breathtakingly perilous-looking mountainsides we were riding along. Was it the safest idea? Probably not. But man, it was definitely one of my favorite moments of my 6 weeks there.

After settling into our hotel and having lunch (and cherishing the cool climate we were finally in), our driver for the weekend, Diisa (so much more on him later), took us around the city and showed us basically everything there is to see there. We were taken first high up to a viewpoint, allowing us a glimpse of how truly beautiful this city is, its central lake surrounded by beautiful, European-esque buildings; I really couldn’t believe how different everything looked and felt there.

Kandy from above

Kandy from above

We were taken to this massive mall (lame) before attending a Kandyan dance and drumming show, one of the few tourist traps we visited that weekend. I generally feel weary about entertainment when traveling that’s catered mainly to white people, but I brushed aside those ridiculous thoughts and allowed myself to be blown away by the performances. Kandyan dance is intensely acrobatic, featuring “flamboyantly attired” men leaping, backflipping and twirling around at speeds I would never fathom to be possible. We were all left in awe at the end, really.RSCN3596

whatever the heck this is

whatever the heck this is

Our final stop that night was the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine, containing the “legendary” Buddha’s Tooth since the 16th century. This Tooth was supposedly taken after the Buddha was cremated in 543 BC, and has since surpassed its original religious significance to represent Sri Lankan sovereignty. Anyway, we were all really excited to see this tooth, even though I was forced to wear a pink bedsheet sarong and endure the laughter of large numbers of children (again).

Hawt

Hawt

We paid our hundreds of rupees to enter the Temple, quickly finding the line to enter the shrine and visit the tooth. After about 50 minutes of standing in a claustrophobic entranceway, the doors finally opened and we began pushing our way through the eager crowd. But wait! Turns out that since we’re white, we’re only allowed a one second glimpse of the shrine from a faraway distance. So really, this was all just a complete waste of time and money, and I we left saying some not so kind words to the Buddha.

Where we waited in vain to see the Tooth

Where we waited in vain to see the Tooth

We woke up early the next morning to visit our most anticipated pitstop of the weekend, Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, home to over 100 elephants of all ages, apparently the world’s largest group of captive elephants. I had read about Pinnewala in the days leading up to the trip, and I was more than a little apprehensive after discovering all the criticisms and animal rights’ concerns that people have after visiting. There is little that I despise more than animal cruelty, so reading about these elephants being chained, being abused during training, and often being sold for private ownership left me feeling more anxiety than excitement.

DSCN3640I don’t know if I was the only one feeling this major internal struggle once we entered the orphanage, but seeing what I just described in person was heartbreaking. Yes, there is little that’s more amazing than seeing elephants so close in person, and yes, I did pet those baby elephants who were chained (it’s impossible not to. They’re just too cute to be real), but really…it was hard. All I could think about was that I was contributing to their exploitation, and I honestly would recommend people to avoid visiting Pinnewala when visiting Sri Lanka. It’ll probably be difficult to resist, and at this point I have no right to criticize those who can’t, but it’s my advice nonetheless.

LOOK HOW CUTE

LOOK HOW CUTE

whatever's happening here

whatever’s happening here

Amazing, really

Amazing, really

Play time?

Play time?

The entry fee to Pinnewala included a “free tour” of an Ayurveda spice and herbal clinic, Sri Lanka’s system of traditional healthcare. I knew pretty much immediately, and especially after we were served this fabulous cinnamon tea, that we’d be spending all our rupees there.  Right after the tea was thrown at us, we were treated to a demonstration of their best-selling product, the herbal hair removing cream.

Effective.

Effective.

In order to entice the 7 or so ladies I was traveling with, the guide decided to demonstrate the power of that cream on one lucky individual. Naturally I was that lucky individual, and of course I didn’t protest being the guinea pig. Everyone crowded around as the cream was applied to a small area on my right leg, and after 5 minutes, gasps of shock and awe filled the air as the hair was completely wiped away. According to the man, if you apply that cream 3 times within a week (or something along those lines), the hair will not grow back for 30 years. I was just a little skeptical and should’ve requested a money back guarantee, but I can say that the one dose of the cream left my skin silky smooth for weeks. And the guide made a point of emphasizing that the cream was NOT just for ladies, using hand gestures and all to indicate where boys like to use it. THANKS FOR THE TIP.

We all bought some.

The scalp massage

The scalp massage

I and a few of the others were sporting a bit of a cold that weekend, and of course this clinic had just the right remedy for that. We were introduced to Green oil, used to treat migraines, sinusitis, and apparently hangovers. Other employees sprang out and treated us to more demonstrations of the powers of Ayurveda, leading to a ridiculous scalp massage as the oil was applied. I’m not sure who I’m gonna find to massage my head at home, but I’ll be damned, the stuff WORKS. We were ALL cured. Nobody needed further convincing of the wonders of this herbal center, and within the next 20 minutes we cleaned the place out of all its hair removal cream and sinus oil. The clerk failed in convincing me to purchase Kamayogi Bon-Bon, used to treat pre-ejaculation and “other sexual disabilities.” SORRY.

At this point, we were all ready to head on over to Dalhousie, the site where we’d be commencing our trek up to Adam’s Peak. It was about 3 hours away from Kandy, a ride that allowed us to take in more of the stunning scenery of the region and a chance to get to know Diisa, our driver, a bit better. He asked me roughly 5 times over those two days if I had a girlfriend, and no matter how many times I told him no he just kept on drilling me about it. I believe he asked me why, at 21, I was still single, and obviously I wasn’t about to get into this topic with him. I did, however, ask him why he was expressing surprise when he himself is a 26 year old Sri Lankan bachelor, a far more scandalous situation to be in. Yes, there was sass, but I only dish that out to people I like, and it was hard not to love this ridiculous man. At one point I told him to get himself a dog since he’s all alone, leading to a discussion of the state of Sri Lanka’s stray dog situation. He basically said “I don’t need a dog since I can see one whenever I want to on the streets”. So for the next 3 hours, he would point out virtually every rabid dog we came across (many) and say, “Look! A dog! See?”

It was around 7:00 when we finally arrived at our guesthouse, and surprise! No power! It was also raining, a clear sign that this was going to likely be an apocalyptic 12 hours. I convinced Diisa to stay at the guesthouse with us and to join us for our creepy candlelit dinner. Getting that man to do anything with us was impossible up to that point; he would just awkwardly stand alone on the side or wander looking like a sad pup. It didn’t take long for me to question this decision when he brought out his personal collection of arrack, some whisky/rum-type beverage made from coconut, basically the equivalent of Ghana’s akpeteshie (poison). By this point it was close to 8:00, and we planned to wake up at 12:30 AM to start our hike up the mountain. So really, Diisa, I don’t know why you were confused when most of us were not interested in taking shots with you all night. Yes, I and a few of the others had one, mostly because thinking about the next few hours was starting to make me feel ill with dread. And then I had 2 more. The psycho was actually disappointed in me for not agreeing to drink his second complete bottle, “just the two of us.” Sorry, buddy. I would like to actually make it up that mountain in the morning, while you get to sleep all day. See ya.

Now for a little background about Adam’s Peak. I went without looking at any pictures or reading anything about it in the guidebook because I was worried I would just run away scared, so I didn’t know much of this information until afterwards. I knew that it was one of Sri Lanka’s most significant places of pilgrimage for the past 1000 years, and that the depression at the summit is said to be the footprint of Buddha or of Adam after he was cast from heaven onto Earth.

It is recommended to climb Adam’s Peak at night, giving yourself at least 4 hours to reach the summit in time for sunrise, free from cloud obstruction. It’s also advised to go during pilgrimage season between December and May when the path is illuminated and there are teashops open whenever you need a break. Unfortunately, we were there in the middle of June, which meant we were going to be climbing in the dark and with far less people. It was time for me to break out my headtorch. The hike is 7km up a footpath of 5500 steps, which would likely, according to my guidebook, reduce us to “quivering wrecks.” But hey, I survived that 11 mile bike-ride in Ghana through sand in the middle of the afternoon, so I figured any other physical test would be comparably easy. And they were just steps! Not even real mountain climbing!

When our alarms went off at 12:30, I immediately noticed the sound of heavy rain pounding the roof. I’m pretty sure we all uttered a collective “Fuck”, and I knew right away that this was going to be one of the most unfortunate mornings of my life. We had no guide, there was nobody else climbing at that hour, it was so cold, so dark, so rainy. There was one small moment when I reconsidered the intelligence of climbing in these conditions, but nevertheless, by 1:00AM we were on our way.

To our surprise we were followed by about 3 random dogs who managed to climb the entire way with us. There were a few times when those dogs provided a much-needed morale boost, and I may or may not have shed a tear or two into some wet fur. The one benefit of the rain was that it allowed some tears to be safely released when necessary (thankfully it wasn’t really).

Saying that the climb was a struggle would be a massive understatement. In calm conditions those stairs would have been treacherous, but adding in the wind and cold and rain pelting us throughout the entire ordeal left us all complete messes. We got lost a couple times early on as the path was not well-defined, and one us basically hyperventilated and couldn’t control her breathing. We had no idea what we would’ve done if things got worse for her because there was nowhere for us to take her, and cell reception was non-existent. We slowed down the pace to avoid any health catastrophe, and were starting to worry we might be going too slow and miss the sunrise. More than anything else, I’m proud of myself for not falling (a real accomplishment).

Somewhere towards the middle of our climb, I looked down at my leg and noticed I was bleeding. That’s weird, I thought. I definitely hadn’t injured myself, and I didn’t feel any pain. The rain washed away the blood pretty quickly, and I continued my climb with a little extra caution. A few minutes later, I looked down at my leg again and saw to my/others’ horror that there was a leech attached to me. MY LIFE. I flicked that little douche off me, scolding myself for not covering my legs during this climb through a wet, leech-friendly environment. Whoops!

The climb was really becoming a problem towards the end, as some of the steps were so steep that you had to literally pull yourself up them on your hands and knees. Thankfully there were rails towards the summit, allowing me to hoist myself up. Throughout it all, the rain and wind didn’t really let up, and we began to realize that our chances of seeing the sunrise were diminishing. We really couldn’t believe it when we stumbled upon the summit just 3.5 hours after we started walking, convinced that all our breaks had jeopardized our chances of reaching the top on time.

Unsurprisingly there was nobody else around when we reached the top, and the gate you pass to be able to wander the summit was closed. And it was still raining. Just as we were ready to wallow on the ground in self-pity, we noticed someone peeking out through a tiny home at the mountain’s peek. We virtually demanded that we be allowed in, immediately feeling bad when we noticed that there were people sleeping inside that small room. We were so cold and wet and exhausted that desperation overpowered any feelings of guilt we may have had, and we proceeded to sit shoulder to shoulder on two of the beds, sharing cookies and basking in the warmth of a single candle as tea was being prepared for us. It turns out these were policemen living up there, and I don’t think I and the others had felt that thankful in a long time. Unfortunately they confirmed our fears that seeing the sunrise that day would be impossible, so by around 5:00 we sulked out of the house with our tail between our legs, beginning our climb back down. We all felt pretty sorry for ourselves at that point, but eventually we came to the conclusion that we really had achieved something special, something many would probably not be willing to do in the same conditions. I pushed myself further than I’ve been physically pushed in a long time, and none of us sustained any injury! I think that’s pretty damn commendable.

We really believed that it would take far less time to make it back to the bottom of Adam’s Peak, but my buckling knees and throbbing thighs made it clear pretty early on that this would likely not be the case. Within 20 minutes, half the group was out of sight ahead of me, leaving me and two others hobbling at a snail’s pace down those slippery steps. Thankfully it was becoming light out, allowing us our first real glimpse of where we were and what the climb really looked like.

Beautiful

Beautiful. Too bad leeches were probably inside my shoe in this picture.

We noticed things we had no idea were there as we climbed up in the dark, like all the mesmerizing waterfalls that littered the surrounding land. We decided to take advantage of our slow pace by taking in these views, stopping often and just appreciating where we were. It somehow took about 3 hours for us to make it back, more than an hour after the others who were already huddled around the breakfast room covered in blankets, looking like refugees/Titanic survivors. It truly was one of the most exhausting experiences of my life, but hey! I made it! I took off my hiking shoes, saying goodbye to shoes that had gotten me through all my travels these past 4 years. Turns out those shoes had the last laugh, as I looked down at my feet a few minutes later only to discover that they were bleeding. Guess I had leeches in there for hours! HAHAHA. Again, my life.

The aftermath

The aftermath

Early on during our drive back to the train station in Kandy, Diisa noticed my bleeding foot. He pulled over, examined my foot, and determined that there were apparently leech teeth imbedded in me. He plucked some leaves growing out of a plant by the road, pulled the teeth out of my ankle by hand, and used the leaves as a makeshift band-aid. I had already planned on throwing him so many rupees as a tip, but he earned a bonus with that move. He was easily my favorite non-child Sri Lankan I met.

The pain I felt in my legs when waking up for work the next morning was unprecedented, really. Hannah and I were basically immobilized, but we took solace in realizing that at least we had excuses to not have to play football or cricket with the kids that day. Unfortunately we couldn’t use our broken bodies as excuses with the morning class with the girls, and it became really apparent during this 4th week that we had reached the point of having zero more ideas of topics to discuss with them. I learned about some of the girls’ hobbies, learning to my dismay that my favorite in the class likes Twlight; overcoming that fault was a real struggle for me. It was this week that we stooped to our lowest points of desperation by asking what they’d save from their burning homes and what they’d want with them if they were stranded on an island. Their answers? Cell-phones. Thankfully they finally took pity on us and offered to switch things up, and from the end of the week onward the class was largely spent reading short stories and discussing words they had never heard before. Guess it takes actual teachers to know what kind of lessons should be conducted, I suppose.

We began our week with the boys pretty painfully; we were in no condition for proper lessons, so we spent a majority of the time playing Hang Man. We figured this would be a nice, simple thing to do to practice some of the animals and foods we had been going over the week before. Instead, it turned into 30 of the most painful minutes of my life. Seriously, boys, King Kong is NOT an animal. And really, Anton, if I heard you guess “Q” one more time I think I would have cried. That letter should NEVER be your first guess in Hang Man/anything in life. What really did me in/convinced me that this was the biggest mistake of my 4 weeks at Bosco was how impossible it was for the boys to guess the correct letter to complete this word: DU__K. REALLY??? I could understand if we hadn’t been going over that animal for days, but good God. So never again did we play that game.  The rest of the week we spent going over clothing again; this time I created word searches and word scrambles. Yeah, probably a bit of an easy option, but those kids needed a lot of work on concentration and I think word searches are extremely effective in that regard. And I also love them. I accidentally included diagonal words in one of the puzzles, a bit beyond their capabilities, which was disastrous. But at least it left little time available for football, and less sweat=happy Matthew.

I started spending more and more time at Bosco this week, leaving right after lunch/second shower to spend more time with the kids before our evening class. One afternoon that week I entered the grounds and immediately noticed a strong odor permeating the entranceway. I decided to investigate, and to my horror I saw a couple boys covered in (hopefully) mud climbing down into the sewage area by the bathroom and scooping out what I really hope was not poop. I got closer up and heard some singing coming from down there, peered down into the smelly hole and found Sasara drawing pictures in the mud/poo, happier than I’ve ever seen him. It was honestly one of the most disturbing/comical things I’ve ever witnessed.

SO happy down there

SO happy down there

I can’t believe these kids are forced to go down there and do the poop cleaning, but at least they didn’t seem to agree about how unfortunate that situation was. I felt really bad and decided to help Sasara carry the buckets out of the hole, resulting in me getting splattered a bit by whatever it is they were removing. This is just one of too many encounters with human waste this year; it’s the price of working with kids, I suppose.

I can't even

I can’t even

Another afternoon we were lucky enough to be able to attend Mass with the boys at the Bosco church. I like that I have only attended church outside America, and intend to keep it that way. The boys were super cute, as expected, especially Chamindu when he was dressed up in this ridiculous robe and led the procession.

Actually a little creepy

Actually a little creepy

This sunset

This sunset

We were making steady progress with the evening class; they seemed to finally understand the appropriate usage of articles and when not to use them. We decided to move on to other topics this week, quickly going over pronouns which they largely knew, thankfully, as well as question words. Which vs. What was a bit of a challenge, as was How vs. Why. Trying to teach the differences between and usages of verbs ending in “-ing” vs. “-ed” was equally difficult, but as always, we did the best we could. Hannah and I decided that we were going to give them an exam the following week, and you can imagine how excited they were by that prospect.

That Friday morning all the volunteers gathered at a tsunami camp to help paint the walls of a school, the monthly Projects Abroad “social.” I don’t know, I’ve had socials during my other trips with Projects Abroad, and those were basically excuses for everyone to go out once a week and spend a night drinking and having fun. But I suppose some community service is alright too. Unfortunately, the location was the furthest away for us, forcing the three of us to leave the house at 4:30 AM to catch a 3 hour train from Negombo to Panadura. The thought of traveling a few hours south when after we finished the social we would be traveling a few hours back north for our weekend trip left me feeling a bit displeased, but it is what it is.

The 10 or so of us gathered at the location eager to get this finished as soon as possible. The last time I painted was during a similar group community service activity in Ghana, so I felt like I was a wall-painting expert at that point. This was proven to be a little far from the truth when within about 2 minutes of painting my wall I splattered a girl in the face; I would’ve felt a little worse if this was Hannah or Bev, but…let’s just say I didn’t let myself feel too bad about that unfortunate event. Luckily I managed to further incidents and after two hours of painting, I’d say my yellow wall was about as close to a masterpiece anything can reach.

My wall!

My wall!

Not sure why I'm not looking into the camera here

Not sure why I’m not looking into the camera here

We were finally off to Anuradhapura, just a short 7 hour bus ride away!! This “magical city” makes up the most important part of Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle”, littered with countless monasteries and dagobas that have remained in place for over 1000 years. We were lucky enough to be arriving on poya day, or full moon, an extremely significant day in Buddhism marked by pilgrimages and festivals.

Honestly, we visited so many temples, ruins, and dagobas that they have all since blended together. I’ll do my best to give names to some of the places I saw, with the help of my guidebook, but don’t hold it against me if I end up describing the complete wrong place. I’ll get off to a good start by saying I have no idea what this place is called, just that it had to have some kind of importance since the President’s son flew in via helicopter to visit it while we were wandering around the grounds.

No clue what this place is called.

No clue what this place is called.

Next we visited The Citadel, the royal palace area, featuring moats and walls enclosing the remains of the Royal Palace, which dates to 1070 AD. This area also features the site of the original Temple of the Tooth, the Tooth’s first home when it was brought to the island in 313 AD. Also, there are temple puppies here.

Palace ruins?

Palace ruins?

Temple Pups!

Temple Pups!

Thought this might have been a door. But nope! Ancient toilet!

Thought this might have been a door. But nope! Ancient toilet!

Lankaramaya (maybe), a dagoba built between 89-77 BC.DSCN3731

This restored dagobaDSCN3749

The child monks!

The child monks!

Jetavana dagoba: originally 120m high and the third tallest structure in the world, surpassed only by two pyramids in Egypt. Today it is still the tallest and largest structure made entirely of brick, taking 25 years to build and containing 90 million bricks.

My favorite dagoba

My favorite dagoba

Monkeys on the dagoba!

Monkeys on the dagoba!

Samadhi Buddha: carved from limestone in the 4th century AD, this sculpture shows the Buddha in his meditation pose. Hundreds of people crowded this area to pray.DSCN3783

One of Anuradhapura’s “tanks”, man-made lakes created for irrigation purposes, the first dating all the way back to 20 BC.DSCN3736

Sri Maha Bodhi: Probably the highlight of our weekend, this is the Sacred Bo Tree. This tree was apparently taken from a cutting of the original bo tree in India, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The cutting was taken to Sri Lanka, and cuttings from this tree now litter the island and other places of Buddhist significance.DSCN3801

Truth time, this wasn’t really my favorite weekend trip; it was just dagoba after dagoba, ruins after ruins, and clearly I couldn’t be bothered enough to mark down the names of each. Being there during poya was definitely a benefit, as was seeing the bo tree, but in the back of my mind I was already looking ahead to the following week when I’d finally be going to the beach. After 4 weeks of constant running around and work, I guess I just wanted a break. My mental/emotional state was clearly more fragile than I ever imagined, a revelation discovered while dining in Colombo on our way back home. We stopped off at this place called Dutch Hospital, filled with expensive, Western restaurants and shops, just to treat ourselves after a hectic 3 days. A couple people ordered orange juice, and when it arrived on the table I was hit by the dreaded “instant tears.” Tears over orange juice. Really, there isn’t much that’s more pathetic than that. Besides this brief attack of psychosis, that really was the best meal I had while away. Bless Bev for giving me a piece of her feta cheese.

I calmed down enough to drink this

I calmed down enough to drink this

Excerpts from Matthew’s Journal:

  • I dreamed I sat next to Ellen and Portia at a Celine Dion concert. Ellen asked me if I’m Australian because I was so excited to be next to them. I replied with, “No, I just love you” (June 10)
  • “NO. MORE. RICE.” (June 10)
  • “The cat scratched me so I’ll likely perish soon. OH WELL” (June 11)”
  • “We spent over 11 hours at Bosco today. Good Lord. That’s some Beacon House shit.” (June 13)
  • “We went to a tea factory, but I was too tired to give a shit.” (June 15)
  • “Lord have mercy. Want to die.” (June 16, after Adam’s Peak)
  • “My legs. Oh my God. My thighs. Why am I not dead?” (June 17)
  • “How is it that not everyone is taught that Australia isn’t a continent? Wikipedia will provide the truth.” (June 17)
  • “My legs are still paining. Can I just cut them off?” (June 18)
  • “NO. MORE. SPRINGROLLS. PLEASE!!!” (June 18)

    Absolute Hell

    Absolute Hell

  • “NO. MORE. RICE. HELP ME JESUS!” (June 19)
  • “Leave me alone travel, I just want sleep.” (June 20)
  • “And she came with a suitcase. That’s a travel no no, honey.” (June 21)
  • “There’s something not right with that one. Some kind of evil brews inside her.” (June 22)
  • “Bought Herma a little dress. Bitch better like it/not spill rice and curry all over it” (June 22)

American Culture: Let’s Do Nothing!

I’m going to take this time, since people seem to enjoy reading my blog, to express my frustration over the tragedy that occurred in Newton, Connecticut, when 26 people—20 children—were murdered. I made the apparently senseless error of immediately venting on Facebook, asking, “How many kids need to be killed for there to be changes made to US gun laws?”

Some people think it’s inappropriate to be discussing gun control immediately after the massacre, while the country is mourning, while shock levels are still so high. But please, tell me, when exactly is the appropriate time to be having these conversations? What is the time frame post-school shootings for when America has healed and can begin questioning how and why something like this can happen so frequently here? For the parents of those 20 children and the families of the 6 adults, I wonder what the time frame is for them?

I have trouble understanding people who say that gun regulation would have little consequence in America. That “bad people will always find a way.” In America that does seem to be the case, a country that can likely boast the distinction of having the highest incidence of gun violence in the developed world. But of course we do, “our culture is different!” Those silly Canadians and Europeans have microscopic homicide deaths by firearm compared to the United States, but there’s no point in looking at those numbers because, “We aren’t like them.”

Ah, yes. American culture. So enduring, imperishable, utterly changeless. Our laws are in place and that’s just the way it is. Because apparently culture is stagnant, and looking elsewhere to see the regulations other countries have in place is just a waste of time. Well, I take issue with that, I take issue with the assertion that regulating gun access and banning assault weapons won’t bring any results. I take issue most of all with the people who think doing nothing at this time is the appropriate action, that being angry is insensitive, disrespectful to the families affected. There is no better time than now to politicize this issue, when emotions are still high, when media coverage is constant, to demand change.

Or we can do nothing and wait out the grief period, a period that will be eternal for some, and just hope that nothing like this happens again in the meantime. On and on the cycle goes.