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)
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“But They’re Sri Lankan Bunnies!” Weeks 1 and 2

Hello everyone! I’ve been home for about 2 weeks now, and I’m sure 2-3 some of you have wondered why there has been this delay in posting stories of my Sri Lankan travels, and…I guess I don’t really have a real excuse for it. Uploading my pictures was a long ordeal that isn’t worth explaining; there were over 800 pictures and videos to look through, and I’m really not sure how I managed to take so many. Giving my camera to the kids a couple times probably contributed to the excess, and I suppose there were some really fantastic moments worth capturing. 40% of the pictures alone may just be of the various monkey species I encountered, which…you will thank me for later.

Anyway, I think the main reason for the delay has been my reluctance to dive into recounting my time away; sifting through 6 weeks of memories is not particularly easy, and I’ve been unsure as to how to go about it. In Ghana I posted every week, when the stories and feelings were still fresh, so even with my journal and guidebook by my side, placing myself back into moments that happened in late May and early June is going to be difficult, but we’ll see what happens. To spare myself time and because I want to finally get these pictures uploaded on here, I will divide each entry into 2-week accounts, with some days featured more than others. So bear with me, and I’ll understand if I lose you before the end.

Weeks One and Two: May 26-June 9

I’ll start by first saying that Sri Lanka is a small island off the southern tip of India, and is not, in fact, a part of India at all (I’m looking at you, mother). My father, sister, and best friend had no idea I was traveling to an island, so…just in case anyone else experienced confusion over where I was, hope this helped!

"I want to get a sense of what India is like"

“I want to get a sense of what India is like”

Traveling from New York to Sri Lanka takes a long time, and often involves flying through and missing an entire day. Who knew? Thanks to that pesky 9.5 hour time difference, I left on a Sunday night and didn’t arrive until that Tuesday morning. My first flight took me to Abu Dhabi, an over 13 hour experience that was spent largely sleeping, watching Once, and enjoying my first dabble with Rice and Curry. Little did I know (I kind of did) that for the next 6 weeks, there wouldn’t be much else consumed, save for the occasional springroll (there will be much to say about that delicacy), and the constant sugar bread thrown at us for breakfast. I downed some McDonalds while waiting for my 5 hour flight to Colombo (a problem, I know), and at this point I was just proud of myself for making it so far without experiencing fear-induced nausea.  My new hypothesis is that the farther away I get from home, the more calm I naturally become, cancelling out any anxiety I may feel about what comes next.

I finally made it to Colombo by around 4:30 AM, and was greeted by a cheerful member of the Projects Abroad staff who probably despised me/his life for having to pick up silly Americans at such a ridiculous hour.  I got myself some Rupees (getting to say I possessed that currency always made me giggle), picked up a sim card for my dusted-off Ghana phone, and walked out of the airport ready to commence my Sri Lankan adventure.

SOHOTSOHUMIDOHMYGODITHINKIMDYINGHELPMEHELPMEHELPME

I thought nothing would ever be as bad as Ghana’s heat, but…my body quickly went into panic mode, and probably tried getting me to turn around and hop on a plane back to America by reducing me to a sweaty disaster at a caliber not seen probably by anyone ever in history.

The Jesus shrine across the street from my house

The Jesus shrine across the street from my house

So things were going pretty well, I’d say. The drive to my host family’s house took about 25 minutes, allowing me to catch a small glimpse of my new environment. Paved roads! No goats! Strange Jesus shrines on every block! My quick, highly credible/intelligent assessment was that Sri Lanka’s development was a bit farther along than Ghana’s just for the fact that roads were paved and people weren’t pooping in the gutters.

By around 7:00 AM I had finally arrived to my home for 6 weeks, the household of Macmilan (Mac) and Paulita Jayamannah (may or may not have spelled everything there wrong). They live literally feet from the beach in the town of Kepungoda, Pamunugama, around 20km north of Colombo on the west coast, featuring a post office, a Church, and a bus station. Anything anyone could ever need, really. I spoke with Mac for a few minutes before I settled into my room, and here’s a breakdown of what was discussed/of what occurred:

    • Mr. Herman

      Mr. Herman

      Mac’s first question to me was whether or not I have a girlfriend. After I told him no, he told me that the girl volunteer also staying there who I hadn’t met yet could become that. Oh thank God!

    • He saw my tattoo and smacked my face, not hard, just kind of like a love tap.
    • At one point he grabbed my right boob.
    • He asked me my name, then asked if I was Catholic based off it. I actually told the truth this time, learning from my Ghana mistakes. But then he laughed and said, “I could tell by your nose.” He then expressed surprise when I said I eat pork and commented on how clever Jews are. Hooray for Jewish stereotypes!
    • Mr. Herman: This was a Dutch philanthropist who lived and worked with Mac for years before he tragically passed away in 2012. It took about 5 minutes for him to show me his fully-preserved bedroom and one of the plentiful pictures of him scattered throughout the house. More on him later.

I was brought over to meet my new English girlfriend/roommate, Hannah, who actually lived in the house directly behind mine, where my host parents’ son lives with his wife and baby daughter, Herma (as in…Herman). We spoke for a few minutes before she left for her first day of work at Bosco Sevana (she had arrived a few days before me). I don’t remember what exactly was discussed in that first conversation, but I surprised myself by how much effort I put into getting to know someone. Maybe I’m not a complete impotent human being after all! Or maybe the fact that she’s from England made her appeal instantly surpass the high levels required for me to care about asking questions. The two of us bonded over our interest in crappy reality TV, Adele, food, sarcasm, and talking about people behind their back. Sure, we may have disagreed on what the correct word is for things that shouldn’t have different words (underwear vs. pants, pants vs. trousers, rubber vs. eraser, tank vs. vest, rubbish vs. trash, plaster vs. band-aid, eggplant vs. aubergine, etc.), and she may have never heard of tacos and had the audacity to claim that her bagels/pizza were better than New York’s, but we somehow managed to overcome these obstacles and become friends! A shocking development for me, really. Anyway, more will be said of this wonderful lady (and everyone else worth mentioning) throughout the course of my accounts.

The lagoon!

The lagoon!

After sleeping for the entire day, Hannah took me to see the beach, which basically doubles as a trash pit. But at least there are pigs roaming around and there are beautiful views of the sunset. Our host mother led us to a lagoon about 5 minutes from home; as we were staring into the water, we were approached first by a cow (who would eventually attack multiple people), and then by some random fisherman who had us go for a ride with him. Probably not the safest thing to do on my first day, but Paulita didn’t object and that’s enough for me.We made it back for my first attempt at eating with my hands (right hand only, of course). Eating rice with my hands sounded simple enough, but when there is literally a mountain of it, steaming hot and topped with various curries and meats, things quickly deteriorated. Rice dribbled down my face and possibly my shirt. Mac was laughing at me and telling me to “watch how Hannah does it”, as if she was some hand-eating aficionado.  I wish I could say I improved over time, but…nope. Always a mess. Always rice.

Portion sizes were always a problem

Portion sizes were always a problem

Oh! There’s also a puppy living at home, a German Shepherd I named Fido. He is absolutely insane, and will likely be a danger to Herma in the next few months

Look how cute/psycho!

Look how cute/psychotic!

The next morning a member of the Projects Abroad staff came to take me to Bosco Sevana for the first time, just to show me how to get there and to introduce me to the Fathers, Brothers, and kids. After I made myself sound cooler than I am by telling her it was my third time with PA, we set off on my first encounter with Sri Lankan public transportation. To get there, you need to take 2 buses, the first one leaving just across the street from the house. There is the 273 to Bopitiya, which takes between 12-15 minutes and costs 16 Rupees ($0.12), and the 275 Colombo-bound bus that drops you off after about 10 minutes at Bosco, costing 10 Rupees ($0.08). So…travel was always costly. Once in a while if it was too hot (always) or we couldn’t be bothered waiting the potential 30+ minutes for a bus, we would splurge on a tuk tuk (taxi) for a steep $2.25, or tortured ourselves by walking halfway.

A typical bus crowd

A typical bus crowd

So despite the roughly 25 minutes of travel time, getting to work could take up to an hour depending on how long you wait for the bus to either come or to leave the station. But at this point in my life, sitting around waiting for things to happen is something I’ve mastered. I thought Ghanaian transportation was wild, but these buses are at a hectic level I had never experienced before. If you’re lucky you get a seat, just not in the front where seats are reserved for male/female clergy (female clergy? Don’t think that existed), “Pregnant ladies”, the elderly, or “disabled persons.” Obviously that rule was ignored constantly, because standing on those buses is not ideal. You’re either standing with the buses not very crowded and you fly up and down the aisle, or you’re standing in a packed bus and worry about sweating on everyone around you.  Traffic laws aren’t really a thing that exists there, so these buses are careening down roads at unadvisable speeds and take on way more people than recommended. There was at least 2 times that I was forced to stand on the stairs with the door open, which was honestly fantastic, but probably not the safest option. Oh, and sometimes we are blessed by the presence of renowned local entertainers who come aboard to dazzle us with their impressive tambourine playing and singing and demand our money.

The beach at Bosco Sevana

The beach at Bosco Sevana

When arriving at Bosco I was first taken aback by the fact that the place is literally on the beach, one that’s completely deserted and actually clean! The rest of Bosco isn’t that exciting to detail; there are 2 large buildings filled with classrooms, dormitories, a dining hall, a Church (naturally),  and…a zoo. Besides the numerous dogs that roam the sand and halls (Simba, Nala, and their babies), there are parrots, rat-eating turtles, and a porcupine named Kitty. I don’t know how I feel about Kitty. There are times when I looked at him (her? It.) and thought it was adorable with its tiny little legs and buck teeth, but when those spikes were raised and you can see the exposed pink skin, I wanted to puke. I also wasn’t too sure how dangerous those spikes were (can they be shot from their bodies?), so feeding it biscuits was always an ordeal. I was horrified when I saw that the kids just went in the little compound Kitty lived in to clean it and even pet him/her! I guess Kitty has been properly domesticated, but…yikes. Oh, there are also pigs there which I didn’t know until my last day.

Bosco's entrance

Bosco’s entrance

Before sitting in on the first class I would be teaching with Hannah, I met some of the kids who attend school there. I first believed that Bosco Sevana was just an orphanage and care center and didn’t expect to be doing any teaching, since, you know, I have zero qualifications for that. But it’s a fully functional school, attended by kids who live there full time and who can’t attend regular schools because of learning difficulties, kids who live at home but other schools won’t take them, and by those living nearby who want to take extra classes to improve English. There are only 8-10 kids who stay behind for school at Bosco (there was some variation as random kids weren’t able to go to school certain days because they lacked the correct shoes, or something like that), so that at least made the prospect of leading the classes less overwhelming. In total there are about 40-50 boys who live at Bosco Sevana, ranging from around 10-20 years old. Anyway, before I could even tell them my name, they latched onto my tattooed arm and ogled it; seriously, everywhere I went, fascination over my strange “butterfly” (I guess I can see the resemblance) tattoo followed.

I sat in as Hannah taught the first class of the day, these three 24-25 year old women who work at Bosco either as teachers or as an accountant and who wanted to practice their spoken English. Every day we mostly came up with various topics and questions to ask them, which turned out to be a fun way for us to learn about Sri Lanka while also being somewhat useful. We would have them talk for as long as they could about things like what their daily routines are, what they love to do on the weekend, childhood memories, likes/dislikes, etc. We literally discussed every possible thing minus sex, stooping to desperately low levels towards the end by asking what they’d want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island, or what one thing they’d save from their burning house. But on this first day, they were asked to talk about what their perfect day would be like, and I was forced to stand up and give my own example. Public speaking surprisingly isn’t something I excel at, so I ended up making up some sad scenario where I’d be lounging on a beach in Greece with my dog while beautiful people brought me food. It was rough, but I survived, and somehow managed to pull myself together for the most part and be a decent co-teacher. Maybe.

Hannah and I decided to see how much the boys knew by testing them on the alphabet. After introducing myself and struggling to remember/pronounce any of the names of the boys in attendance on my first day (Chamindu, Samo, Rauhl, Kasun, Anton, Jude), we learned that they do all know the order of the alphabet. But since only about 2 of the kids could speak any English words at all, getting them to list out words with each letter of the alphabet proved to be an obstacle. And even if they knew a word, spelling was out of the question. It didn’t help that their attention spans were about as developed as expected from young boys, and all they wanted to do was play football or cricket. On this first day I basically resigned myself to understanding that we probably wouldn’t make much progress with them, and that we’d need to celebrate any small achievement.

The original plan for that weekend was to just go to Colombo and this other town nearby called Negombo just to take things easy for our first weekend and to explore our area. But we received a text by another volunteer inviting us on their trip to Yala National Park and decided it would be better to do that, to meet everyone else and, I guess, because there are elephants and leopards supposedly all over that place. It was cute how they were concerned about me being the only boy traveling with 5 girls and how I’d have to share a room with them. Not a problem, ladies. Boys are dumb.

We left that Friday morning after our first class with the girls at 10:30, a morning that conveniently featured my first Sri Lankan monsoon. It was easily the heaviest rain I ever experienced, but I didn’t care at all because at least it was a little cooler out. I started to care a little later once our trip to Colombo started pushing 2 hours (those damned flooded roads) since we had a deadline for when we were supposed to meet up everyone. Considering the distance we had to travel (Yala is on the Southeastern coast), leaving earlier would’ve been a bit more intelligent, but…we were noobies. It didn’t help that the travel plans kept changing (a train ride was originally supposed to happen), and Hannah and I had no idea where we were going/what we were doing. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the greatest “first trip” idea, but I figured that after Ghana, any kind of travel would be relatively less unbearable.

I can’t remember how many buses we took (Bosco–>Colombo–>Panadura–>Matara–>Kataragama–>tuk tuk ride?) or what city we met up with everyone in, but I do know that this whole travel ordeal took around 12 hours. Welcome to Sri Lanka! I wish I could say that this was the worst day of traveling I’ve experienced, but nothing will likely ever rival the 21 hour Hell that was traveling to northern Ghana. Honestly I think it was a good thing being thrust right into long-distance travel; we figured that at least we wouldn’t have to deal with anything as bad as that day, which we were right about. And all those hours on the bus allowed me to start to get to know everyone I was with: Barbora from London, who I wish I got to spend more than 1 weekend traveling with; Karoline from Denmark, Hala from Lebanon/Canada, who’s super lucky and traveled to Thailand and Cambodia after Sri Lanka; Charlotte, this wonderful girl from Manchester with possibly the greatest accent I’ve encountered; and Bev from Australia, probably the coolest woman I’ve ever met. When I’m 48 and if I have kids, I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to still be going on adventures like she’s been able to. After arriving close to 11 PM, all we wanted to do was hobble to our rooms, after crowding together to use the Wi-Fi, of course.

My blonde posse wandering Kataragama

My blonde posse wandering Kataragama

The next morning before our afternoon safari, we traveled to Kataragama, described as “one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka”, a site important to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The town itself, named after a deity important to both Hindus and Buddhists, is small and quiet since there wasn’t a festival going on at the time, but it was nice being there when it wasn’t flooded with a lot of tourists. As my guidebook says, “it was a welcome alternative to the dusty mayhem that usually passes for urban life in Sri Lanka.” Well said. There were stalls filled with beautifully arranged fruit scattered around, but apparently those were only allowed for Buddha. Damn him.

The fruit offerings

The fruit offerings

We entered the Sacred Precinct, filled with various shrines devoted to the mentioned religions, and made our way to Maha Devale, a complex decorated with elephant and peacock statues, containing both Hindu and Buddhist relics and shrines, one of which represents Kataragama, and another, the Buddha. Close to the complex are stones surrounded by railings, where visitors come to smash coconuts that have been set on fire as offerings to Kataragama.

DSCN3254

Coconut offerings

Coconut offerings

But really, the most important aspect of Kataragama is that it is inundated with langur monkeys.

Nom

Nom

I like this monkey's basketball shape

I like this monkey’s basketball shape

My favorite monkey of all

My favorite monkey of all

We returned to the guesthouse, eager to start our 6 hour safari through “Sri Lanka’s most rewarding wildlife reserve”.  But really, I was ready to see some damn elephants again after the disappointment I experienced in Mole National Park. Things were going well, hopes were high during the 40 or so minutes it took to enter the park.  Early on we saw some wild boar and some water buffalo, leaving us hopeful that it was a sign of good things to come. We even saw a peacock, so we paused to admire its beauty for a while. I mean, they’re pretty amazing birds to see up close, so we figured it would be worth the pause.

This mouth

This mouth

The first of many peacock sightings

The first of many peacock sightings

And then…what? What was that? Is that…No…Is that rain? Okay, okay, it’s Sri Lanka during the rainy season. It rains all the time, right? And usually for just a few minutes and then the sun magically reappears again as if the past 20 minutes of torrential downpours never happened! So we didn’t let ourselves become discouraged; this was a 6 hour safari after all, so the weather couldn’t possibly be awful the entire time. Sure, we were in a truck that had no windows, and tying down the attached tarps to mitigate the rain assault may completely obscure our views and eliminate any chance of seeing anything, but it was just a small passing storm, right?

WRONG. It lasted a long time. There were a few momentary breaks which tricked us into believing the worst was over, but usually that was accompanied by rainfall at even greater velocities moments later. At least we all were able to share this one small towel! We were all left with fairly wet bums by the time the rain finally subsided, but at least we managed to mix in some laughs about the situation in between our mutual weather scorning. To make matters worse, even though the weather eventually cleared up, we were told that animal sightings would be hampered. We began to question the intelligence of choosing the 6-hour option.

The day wasn’t a complete washout, however. We were fortunate enough to see some pretty damn fascinating wildlife:

Wild dog

Wild dog

These deer

These deer

This bunny

This bunny

Luckily for all of our sanities, we were blessed by the presence of a couple elephants, my first time seeing one in the wild in 2 years. It was wonderful being with everyone else as they experienced their first elephant encounter, bringing back memories of my own; the awe doesn’t really diminish over time, no matter how many times I saw them up close in the past.

Hey buddy!

Hey buddy!

DSCN3361

And look at these fantastic birds!!

These pelicans

These pelicans

This guy

This guy

Pretty one!

Pretty one!

A Toucan!

A Toucan!

I think some people were disappointed that after 12 hours of traveling, all we saw were a few elephants and no leopards at all. I don’t know, I think it was worth it. There were a lot of laughs, friendships were formed (a pretty commendable accomplishment for me), and at least we got to eat the first of many chicken and “chips” dinners! Honestly though, the amount Hannah and I looked forward to our weekends just so we’d be able to eat non-rice and curry meals and to be able to use cutlery was ridiculous.

Group picture! From left: Hala, me, Charlotte, Barbora, Karoline, Hannah, Bev

Group picture! From left: Hala, me, Charlotte, Barbora, Karoline, Hannah, Bev

Things began on a potential high note during my second week when my host family believed they had won the lottery. As soon as I heard the words, “We received an email…”, I began to feel a little skeptical, but they were so damn excited so I kept my mouth shut, just in case something miraculous really had happened. Anyway, basically the entire family had us go to the computer to explain what the email said and what they’d have to do to claim their winnings (millions of rupees were involved, I think). The email, sent by “The Shell Lottery Program”, wanted bank information and other personal details that were definitely a trap, and luckily Hannah was the one who was mostly dealing with all this. She called the number provided and ended up talking to some Nigerian man. Womp. Sorry, host family. Y’all have been scammed! So much disappointment.

This week Hannah and I had to travel to Colombo and visit the Project’s Abroad office to extend our visas. We were told this could take a while, which, you know, is pretty obvious at this point. But at least there was air conditioning and a book to read! Really, it was basically like sitting at the DMV, or like any of the other times I’ve sat and done nothing while waiting for something to happen throughout this past year. Only this time, after the 5 hours of waiting, I had to give up $100 (so many rupees!) by virtue of being American, compared to the Europeans who pay closer to $30-50. The Hell is that nonsense.  But it’s okay, I had some nice conversations to pass the time. I debated in depth the following questions: “Is Georgia like California?” and “Is Georgia like a small village?”

The other non work-related event of the week was the arrival to our home of Oliver, a well-traveled 38 year old computer technician from Hamburg, Germany. He and his self-described “magic fingers” was a welcome addition to our lonely house(s), even if it meant having to share a room. He’ll definitely come up again fairly soon (preview: the teaching clothing fiasco).

At work, our spoken-English class with the girls was going strong. Have I mentioned how strange it was to be teaching people older than me? I’m not exactly used to giving people direction; I’ve always shied away from leadership positions, always preferring to be delegated to, not to be the delegator.  So to be listened to, to have my ideas and lessons really absorbed, it was a completely new experience. I like to think that I rose to the occasion, that I took on my role as a “teacher” as seriously as I could. That being said, by the end of that second week, Hannah and I were struggling with coming up with new topics to discuss with the girls.  This week’s topics included: embarrassing memories (I obviously spoke for a while), what time period they’d travel back to, holidays, and religion. When I was asked at the end of the week what the differences were between Christianity and Judaism, I knew we’d be in trouble in the coming weeks.

With the boys it was more of the alphabet, struggling with coming up with ways to make it more fun. That proved to be fairly impossible, so we ended up finishing our lessons early that week and gave them more time to play. Playing soccer football on the beach sounds like an amazing time, and it was, but…these kids are so damn competitive, and kicking the ball barefoot and on sand usually resulted in me kicking the ground and bruising my toes. Oh. And it was SO HOT. So sweaty. So filthy. So disgusting.

Alright, I guess I should introduce some of the kids:

Chamindu: This (questionable) 15 year old is an adequate football player, but is the undisputed cricket “champion”.  While his vocabulary may have been limited to “yes”, “no”, and “champion”, I feel like we managed to understand each other pretty well. He has one of the best smiles, and is one of the hardest workers. There were rumors that he likes to steal, but…I really just can’t imagine. He’s just too cute for theft.

Hannah and Chamindu

Hannah and Chamindu

Rauhl: One of my early-on favorites mainly because he tried the hardest in class. He (and everyone else) is obsessed with Ben 10, which is apparently a cartoon, and often mixes up his letters, creating ways of spelling words I never would have imagined. There was this one time I may have contributed to injuring his foot while playing football, resulting in him being out from class for a week, but that can’t be confirmed.

Me and Rauhl

Me and Rauhl

Kasun: A demon. But really, there were times when he worked so hard, and other times when he just sat there and threw hissy fits. His laugh was particularly hilarious, but he also enjoyed sometimes tossing dirt at me. So…demon.

Demon

Demon

Jude: I don’t even know where to start with this kid. First, there’s his height and age; he says he’s 14, but if you look at him and saw how impossibly tiny he is, you’d think he was 8 or 9. He makes up for his small stature by having the biggest personality and by being the most competitive. When he’s not showing off on the football field (he really is the Bosco football champion), you can find him dancing around to Gangnam Style. Really, thanks for choosing the literal worst song to use for your victory dances. He needs to have his way at all times, and when that doesn’t happen he often just sulks off to the beach and refuses to play. He releases frustration by doing backflips and break-dancing. Despite the amount of times I wanted to pick him up and punt him for his lack of humility, he is one of the kids Hannah and I were closest to.  He’ll be mentioned a lot as well.

Typical pose

Typical pose

This week we also started our evening class with 7-10 boys (and 1 girl!) who either live at Bosco or live close by and want to improve their English grammar. This was probably the hardest and most rewarding class we taught. It was hard because we had to teach grammar rules to people our age (again, so strange!) when we had never really learned the rules ourselves (thanks, America!) and had no idea how to explain them. Even our first topic, articles (the, a, an, some, no article) required extensive internet research on how to explain the differences (already forgot them). We only had one class with them that week, and we just gave them a diagnostic worksheet to see how much they knew about articles on their own (spoiler alert: not much). This class required the most effort, the most planning on our own time. It was the one class that I felt like a real teacher, and the class I was proudest of being a part of.

For our second weekend, we traveled inland to visit Dambulla and Sigiriya, parts of the “Cultural Triangle” where Sinhalese civilization began, and Sri Lanka’s most important historic region. It took only 5 hours to reach Dambulla, where we were picked up in a safari car, cause that’s just how you travel with Projects Abroad. This new American girl, Rachel (another blonde!), met up with us there; I now had somebody on my side when arguing whose word for something (mine vs. the Brits vs. Australia) was less ridiculous.

typical transport

typical transport

The next morning we traveled around Dambulla, home to rock cave temples filled with Buddhist art, statues, and murals. Oh, and most importantly, the monkeys. Even more than the previous weekend! And even cuter.

LOOK AT THEM

LOOK AT THEM

THERE'S A BABY

THERE’S A BABY

LOOK

LOOK

One more

One more (try to avoid looking. You couldn’t? Me neither.)

We visited the five or so Dambulla cave temples located over 300 feet above the town, offering beautiful views of the mountainous countryside and plains. At the base of the steps leading to the temples is the Golden Temple, depicting a 30 meter Buddha statue. They claim it’s the largest Buddha statue in the world, which is apparently a blatant lie (I love that). It’s not even the largest in Sri Lanka.

The perjury

The perjury

Dambulla views

Dambulla views

Each cave was filled to the rim with often dozens of Buddha statues, many of which were meters long, either reclining or sitting. Murals covered the ceilings and walls, depicting, shockingly, more Buddhas (and gardens, elephants, etc.).DSCN3452

DSCN3424

ceiling mural

ceiling mural

DSCN3432DSCN3441Our next stop was Sigirya, 15km northeast of Dambulla, home to a massive citadel sprawled over a giant chunk of gneiss rock, 200m above the surrounding flat countryside. This medieval capital is now a World Heritage Site and is Sri Lanka’s most coveted attraction. Sigirya was first used as a religious retreat for Buddhist monks during the 3rd century BC, and rose to prominence during the 5th century AD as the site of King Kassapa’s residence (until he killed himself).

Our excitement to climb Sigiriya Rock plummeted once we learned how much it would cost to visit it as a tourist: Rs 3750, compared to Rs 60 for locals, equivalent to $28.50 for us, and $0.46 for Sri Lankans. I agreed with everyone else that it was a ridiculous, outrageous price difference. I understand charging foreigners more than locals, but that’s completely unreasonable. We tried arguing that since we were volunteers, that we were working there and donating our time for free, we should be charged the local price or at least be given a discount. But nope! In the end we ended up splitting up, with 4 of us (myself included) choosing to visit the rock despite the wallet pillaging involved.

Our mutual reaction to the money scandal

Leading up to the Rock are the Water and Boulder Gardens dating from before and during King Kassapa’s era. The Boulder Gardens were fairly interesting, with some centuries-old paintings still visible and caves shaped liked cobra heads.DSCN3466

Cobra?

Cobra?

It was finally time to climb up the Rock, a feat that seemed pretty impossible at first glance as we approached it.  It really was enormous, and there didn’t seem to be any visible method of getting up there.  Obviously I was starting to be concerned, but luckily it looked like it wouldn’t be anything more difficult than climbing precarious-looking stairs all the way to the top. So things could have been much worse. The only issue was the wind, blasting 60-70mph+ at our faces and making my already-wobbly legs more unwilling to be mobile.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

Before reaching the top we climbed up this 19th century spiral staircase attached to the rock (absolute terror) to visit the Sigiriya Damsels, Sri Lanka’s most famous wall-paintings of “busty beauties”, painted during the 5th century. Nobody’s really sure what their significance is outside of being just some nude nymphs who happen to like flowers and fruits.

the staircase

the staircase

These pesky damsels

These pesky damsels

DSCN3484Towards the end of our steep ascent we reached the Lion Platform, where two massive paws are all that remain of a giant lion statue, the main symbol of Sinhalese royalty. There were also puppies here. We finally made it to the summit after only about an hour of climbing, and unfortunately not much of Kassap’s Royal Palace remains to be seen. The views of the surrounding countryside made everything worth it, and was easily the most beautiful site I had during my trip.

Lion's foot

Lion’s foot

Sigiriya Rock view

Sigiriya Rock view

The troopers: Hala, Bev, Me, Rachel

The troopers: Hala, Bev, Me, Rachel

We made our way back to Colombo the next morning, leaving our hotel in a fury after there was literally nobody there to serve us breakfast because they were at church. Typical Sri Lanka right there.  Once we made it to Colombo we traveled to Majestic City, which is a mall and not an actual city as I assumed. A few of us ended up going to Pizza Hut, a good indication that I was approaching the “halfway struggle.” But it was glorious, despite the self-hatred that followed.

Alright, that’s about it for now. I’ll have Part 2 completed hopefully very soon! I thought I’d end things with some journal quotes, which you’ll clearly notice is filled with the same level of eloquence seen here.

Excerpts from Matthew’s Journal:

  • “Welp…here we go again.” (May 27)
  • “IT’S SO HOT. IT’S SO HUMID. SWEAT. SWEAT EVERYWHERE. HELP ME!!” (May 28, after landing)
  • “Can’t remember the wife’s name. Juanita? That can’t be right…” (May 28)
  • “This. Weather. Will. Kill. Me.” (May 29)
  • And there’s a porcupine! What the Hell! Such a Botswana move” (May 29—there was a porcupine who came every night to eat our left overs when I was in Botswana)
  • We had a “Western” breakfast and it was definitely not at an IHOP level” (June 1)
  • “So wet everywhere, especially the butt” (June 1)
  • “Thanks, Ghana! No travel will ever be as miserable as your travel!” (June 2)
  • “Paulita handed me my underwear in front of Hannah” (June 4)
  • “So tired/hot always. Help me. 5 more weeks of this. HAHAHAHA” (June 4)
  • “Don’t flop, even it means Serena drags your wig across the clay that you’ll likely diarrhea on first “ (June 5, about wanting Maria Sharapova to reach the French Open final)
  • “If Oliver broke the fan in the bedroom I will poison his fucking curry” (June 5)
  • “Pretty sure my neck is diseased” (June 6)
  • This hotel is pure bliss. Wi-fi, beautiful chicken, AC, hot shower. There were even puppies who charged at us!” (June 7)
  • Got home just in time for second dinner! Really ready to puke, especially since ants were crawling all over it” (June 9)

Tro-Tro? More Like…Oh F**k

I know this has been a long, trying two weeks for those of you (shout out to Shari!) craving waiting to hear about my northern Ghanaian tales, and I hope my account isn’t too melodramatic hyperbolic.  I’ll attempt to show some restraint, but to paint an accurate picture of this past week I think it’ll be necessary to unleash higher dosages of sass than normal. Prepare yourself!

Monday, November 26

My two friends and I departed Monday morning at around 11 AM, eager to commence our trek to our first destination, Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region. I left armed with about 4 days worth of clothes, understanding that being disgustingly smelly and filthy would be inevitable and deciding to embrace it. There are a few different ways of reaching northern Ghana, ranging from the easy (45 minute plane ride) to the laborious (12-17 hour bus ride). We elected the borderline-psychotic method of taking a ferry along the Volta River that could take anywhere from 36-50 hours in supposedly fairly unpleasant conditions. All we wanted was to be the cool Oburonis, having the most unique experience of our other CIEE peers who journeyed up north.

I should have foreseen that any attempts of me being remotely cool would only end in disappointment and slight amounts of shame. According to our guidebook, one ferry left Akosombo at 4:00 every Monday. We were really worried that we’d arrive late, but had little reason to fear that Ghanaian transportation would not continue its trend of being completely unreliable with its timetables. When we reached the port at about 3:00, we were really proud of ourselves for being early.

And then we were told that the ferry left at 1:30. Thanks, Bradt Guidebook. After spending about 7 minutes feeling sorry for ourselves, we finally got ourselves together and found a silver lining: at least we’d arrive at Tamale earlier! We didn’t have a Plan B (whoops), but were adamant about not going on the Oburoni Walk of Shame back to Accra to start from scratch. We resolved to get to Kumasi by whatever non-Accra route necessary, which resulted in a tro-tro ride to Koforidua (capital of the Eastern Region) that featured the three of us and some furry friends:

There were at least 5 of these on board the tro-tro

There were at least 5 of these on board the tro-tro

We finally arrived in Kumasi at around 11:30 PM. We hadn’t really eaten anything all day and downed some indomie, too hungry to give much notice to the unfortunate fishy taste. After some debating, we elected to take an overnight bus to Tamale, leaving at 1:30 in the morning.

Tuesday, November 27

Sleeping on that slightly-more-luxurious tro-tro was a challenge I never really overcame. The roads were bumpy, the space was cramped, and there was this crazed music video (with laughable production value) blasting on the bus’s TV on loop. Also, my seatmate appeared to be in a perpetual state of misery and peril, evidenced by him keeping his head out the window on numerous occasions to discharge some probable fufu. Nasty.

We finally made it to Tamale by 8:30 AM, about 21 hours after leaving Accra. We stumbled out into the northern Ghanaian heat dazed and starving, and after a brief food search we settled on $0.50 rice and beans served on a newspaper. We had to share one spoon, but we weren’t about to complain at that point (There would be plenty of time for that later). This search allowed us to get a pretty good idea of what Tamale has to offer: a ton of mosques, lots of motorcycles, and…that’s about it.

Big ass mosque #1

Big ass mosque #1

Big ass mosque #2

Big ass mosque #2

Next on the agenda was locating our guest house, which nobody in this city appeared to have any knowledge of.  A taxi driver brought us to a random hotel, then demanded that we pay him more to bring us to the right one. That’s some pretty impressive logic, buddy. We finally made it there, and after some brief excitement over getting to sit on a bed, went on a search for this leather tannery; the guidebook says to just “follow your nose” through a suburb, which was a pretty accurate piece of advice. The tannery is run by Chief Slim, this eccentric dude who forced some sandals upon us; I purchased a pair supposedly made with goat skin.

some nasty part of the leather-making process

some nasty part of the leather-making process

Let’s play “Guess How Long Matthew’s New Sandals Last.” The answer will be given later on. We were allowed to watch the “entire” leather-making process for a fee that wasn’t really worth it, but we had to do something to justify our stop in this city and there weren’t many other options.

We headed back to the guest house to rest until dinner, which we had at this beautiful Indian restaurant. Naan was consumed. Definitely the highlight of Tamale. It was also around this time that we ran into the damn Projects Abroad crew that I talked about last time. All white people’s roads in northern Ghana end at Mole National Park, so we knew we’d be seeing them again soon.

Wednesday, November 28

We woke up bright and early, determined to get to the Metro Mass station at a time when it would be impossible to miss the bus to Mole (Mole-ay).  According to our never sometimes reliable guidebook, the bus left every day at 2:00. We got there before 10:30, went up to the ticket counter and were told we could purchase tickets at around 1:30. We parked ourselves in the shade and patiently waited, allowing me plenty of time to read the overwhelmingly miserable (and excessively long) Under the Dome

As 1:30 approached I stocked up on a loaf of bread to nibble on in case the ride took a while. The Projects Abroad crew arrived at a much more reasonable time than we did, and they came over to us for what I assumed would be to exchange some pleasantries.

Nope! They came over to tell us that there would be no buses to Mole that day! We spared 5 minutes to express our massive amounts of exasperation before heading over to the tro-tro station to see if it would be possible to get to Mole from there. We were ushered to a tro-tro that was heading to Wa (capital of the Upper West Region), told that we would be dropped off at Larabanga, 6km away from Mole. We got inside, paid our 15 cedi, and were informed that we’d be leaving at 5:30.  It was about 2:45, but at this point we were experts at sitting around waiting to leave for places; we were just happy that our day wouldn’t be a complete waste.

At 5:00, the tro-tro mate paid us a visit, taking this opportunity to inform us silly Oburonis that we wouldn’t be leaving at 5:30 that evening, but at 5:30 in the morning! WHAT?! He also took this opportunity to remind us that tickets are non-refundable, but was gracious enough to invite us to spend the night in the tro-tro. After a group meeting in which we spent a majority of the time cursing Tamale’s existence, we decided that we didn’t want to spend more money on a guest house and to accept the tro-tro douche’s offer. We drowned our sorrows in some beer, then went back to the Indian restaurant—a place we agreed to be Tamale’s only worthy attraction.

This sign's in the bathroom of Swad Fast  Food

This sign’s in the bathroom of Swad Fast Food

Thursday, November 29

We awoke from our night at Le Château Tro-Tro (name credit: Erika Baumann) before 5:00AM. Accommodations included: our own rows to sleep on, tight security (besides the whole window access possibility), free bug spray usage, and free entertainment, featuring music blasting at all hours of the night and a station recording bellowing, “WA! WA! WA! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!? WA! WA!”

We spent a few minutes lamenting that 2/3 nights of traveling so far were spent in a tro-tro, but we pushed that negativity aside pretty quickly because we were finally on our way to Mole! There was no argument that seeing elephants would eradicate any of the previous 3 days’ misfortunes.

The trip to Larabanga was about 3 hours, and we could either motorbike the 6km to Mole Motel or walk. We elected for the latter since the path was well marked and we missed the morning safari anyway. Off we went on our journey, leading a horde of children, not much unlike Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. Except I refused to give the children any of my manna bread. Or pens. They were on their way to school, so I’m sure they had access to writing utensils. If they don’t, well…sorry not sorry.

Mole National Park is without a doubt the grandest of all of Ghana’s Oburoni Traps. Elephant love isn’t a solely white-tourist phenomenon, right? Maybe. The amount of white people there was actually a bit overwhelming, and of course the Projects Abroad crew was already there, having shelled out $100 to take a taxi the previous day. The incredulous looks we received when we revealed our…unique method of arriving were probably well deserved, but…at least we spent $90 less than they did! Silver linings, remember?

We had a few hours to relax and sit on the observation deck until our 3:30 safari walk, and the multiple warthogs that roamed the grounds gave us some encouragement and hope that we’d be seeing some elephants either that night or the next morning.

Sorry for the crappy quality of this baby warthog

Sorry for the crappy quality of this baby warthog

The only picture of a warthog I used to posses, taken last summer

The only picture of a warthog I used to posses, taken last summer

We were talked into taking the jeep instead of walking since it wouldn’t be expensive when splitting the price 8 ways. The three of us rode on the roof for the first hour, bringing back more memories of my summer 2011 Botswana days. The wooden planks and bumpy roads didn’t make my already-sore butt too happy, but within the first 2 minutes of the trip we saw a baby baboon and all other thoughts ceased in favor of giddiness and joy. We didn’t see any elephants that afternoon, but we were still hopeful and convinced that our bad luck couldn’t possibly continue indefinitely.

our view from the top of the jeep. Baboons!

our view from the top of the jeep. Baboons!

BABY BABOON

BABY BABOON


Friday, November 30, 2012

WRONG.

I am clumsy. My ability to keep my body upright during any potential perilous situation is meager. Whenever I have to perform an activity that involves climbing or balancing, there is about an 86% chance that I will end up on the ground. Maybe my life is just one grand, pitiful self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the reason, by the time we left Mole that morning my shame levels were reaching its familiar peak.

We began our morning safari walk at 7:30 with high hopes and determination. The small group of us set off on our generally leisurely stroll through the Park, keeping our eyes open for some tusks and/or elephant poop. We didn’t see much early on besides the occasional antelope, but we weren’t worried. About an hour into the walk, we were told we’d be crossing some water.

That's me in the back. Struggling in the stream.

That’s me in the back. Struggling in the stream.

My mind instantly flashed back to June 7, 2011, the last time I attempted to successfully make it across a stream. That day we had to hop across some rocks to get to the other side, and I missed. And had to be rescued. Once I saw the log we had to maneuver across, I knew I was a goner. My friend and I made it about halfway across before she tumbled in and I followed right after. She managed to gracefully pick herself up and get across without further incident, but I took another spill. On the bright side, the water wasn’t too deep, it was surprisingly refreshing, and no valuables were damaged. (Hope that sentence doesn’t come across as too disingenuous).

No elephants were encountered, but at least we couldn’t say that this trip had so far been anything but consistent! I wasn’t as devastated as the others over this since I was lucky enough to spend 30 days literally living with wild elephants, something I unfortunately took for granted.  We licked our wounds (dumped water on our shoes), got ourselves together and left Mole saddened but hopeful that Wa would be better. And by better I mean filled with hippos.

To get to Wa, you could either catch the 4:00AM Metro Mass bus out of Mole, or…that’s about it, really. We sat around Larabanga hoping for a tro-tro to arrive, but we were about 0-7 in terms of transportation success so we had a feeling things weren’t going to go too well for us. I was also starting to feel a little nauseous, which is just what this trip had been lacking.

Desperation led us to seek alternative modes of transportation, and before I knew it we were chasing down a pickup truck begging the driver to let us sit in the back and take us anywhere towards Wa. Look, mom & dad guys. Hitchhiking is something I will never go out of my way to do. I understand that it can be potentially dangerous, but I also live by the probably naïve philosophy that people, at the end of the day, are generally not assholes. And we didn’t really have any other options; we were not staying in Larabanga for the night. And the allure of saving money was overpowering.

We really couldn’t believe our luck (really. Cause we’d had none up to that point) when we found out that the truck was going directly to Wa. We pushed aside a pair of Ghanaians who were also attempting to hitch a ride (an Oburoni’s gotta do what an Oburoni’s gotta do), and were on our way! The sickness I had been feeling earlier slowly began creeping back, and I was becoming increasingly concerned for the cleanliness of the vehicle and my fellow passengers. I made it until we were about 40 minutes away from Wa before I was forced to have our kind driver pull over for me to go kill some bushes.

I popped a pepto and all was well! We arrived at Wa in the early afternoon and made our way to Nakori, the site of a supposedly 15th century mud-and-stick mosque where we’d be allowed to climb onto the roof. We were met by yet another horde of children who followed us to the mosque.

The mosque

The mosque

Kids running away from me. What a surprise

Kids running away from me. What a surprise

We walked the more-than-4km back to Wa where we struggled to find our guest house. We went on a food hunt and went to sleep soon after to get an early start on our trip to Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary.

Saturday, December 1

Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary is probably Wa’s main tourist attraction, and like most Ghanaian tourist hubs, the inadequacy in its functionality is alarming. To get there, you need to either hire a motorbike or rent a bicycle and ride to the lodge. Oh. And you need to bring all the food and water you’ll require for the duration of your stay. Ghana, this is Tourism 101. If you want people to spend the day/night at your wonderful hippo sanctuary, make sure there’s some damned food and water waiting for us when we get there. The girls I traveled with were adamant about biking the 18km. All I could think about was that for $5.00 more, we could get there in comfort and in 7X less time. But I wasn’t about to be a party pooper, so after basically commandeering bikes from children in the town and stocking up on not nearly enough water and some bread/oranges, we were on our way!

These smiles wouldn't last long

These smiles wouldn’t last long

After about 7 minutes I had a feeling where this bike ride was going to go. The bikes we were using were beyond unequipped to handle the terrain we had to ride through. Not to mention the only biking I’ve done in the past 2 decades has been limited to the occasional 10 minute ride around my block with my mother along flat, paved roads.  Now I was being forced to ride a bike that was probably older than me across unpaved dirt roads and sand. For over 10 miles in the early afternoon. On the equator.

The water supply was depleted after about 2 hours, and my bike’s chains kept detaching. I contemplated death more times than I’m happy with towards the end, and I may or may not have cried. Not bawling or anything deranged like that, just frustration because I knew that this ride was going to be beyond my capabilities. My inability to open my mouth has been my downfall on numerous occasions, but I think from now on I may be more inclined to put the brakes on situations I foresee as being regrettable. But we made it, I didn’t fall off the bike  (about 12 close calls. Seriously, bikes aren’t ridden on the beach for a reason), and we had over an hour to recover before our river hippo safari.

I broke Africa’s #1 rule upon arrival by drinking un-treated water pumped out of the ground, but it was either drink that potentially worm-infested water or drop dead. Both options seemed appealing at that point.

Although I was rendered completely incapacitated, I mustered the minuscule amount of energy I had left to enjoy the canoe ride along the Black Volta River, which separates Burkina Faso from Ghana. During this ride our guide took out a bowl, scooped out some of the river water and proceeded to pour it down his throat, effectively eliminating any qualms I had about my drinking water situation. Despite my strange, often ridiculous history with hippopotami (Hippo“Matt”amus will never be forgotten), I had never seen one in the wild.

Hippos!

Hippos!

I like to think that the few hippos we came across sensed my despair and recognized me as one of their former biggest fans, and chose to bless us with their presence accordingly. Or maybe they understood that if they didn’t show their faces after that 18km bike ride, the fragile emotional state I was still in would have resulted in unpleasantness for all.

We stared in awe at those majestic creatures for a few minutes before heading back, not before making a likely illegal pit stop across the river to Burkina Faso, where we got out and took some victory pictures.

So excited to illegally be in Burkina Faso!

So excited to illegally be in Burkina Faso!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon recovering and reading, with somebody blasting Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” on repeat until we passed out by 7:00.  Ghana really loves this woman, perhaps more than I do.

Probably not.

Sunday, December 2

We left by motorcycle (we agreed that biking was NOT happening again) back to town to catch a tro-tro back to Wa. I said goodbye to my two friends who had more time to travel than I did, and I sat and waited for 4 hours for a tro-tro back to Tamale.

We began to leave the station at 2:40PM and the tro-tro instantly broke down, since no aspect of this trip was allowed to go smoothly.  We piled into another one and were on our way!

At around 5:00, our tro-tro succumbed to the crappy roads that make up northern Ghana. A tire popped while we were in the middle of nowhere, forcing all of us to get out while the spare was put on. As soon as we stepped outside we were bombarded by a swarm of gnats, reducing me to a flailing mess as I slapped myself repeatedly, killing countless amounts as all the Ghanaians laughed at me. It was a sad sight, but it fits in perfectly with the rest of the week’s events. We got back on the road, and at 6:00 we stopped in a town where we were all forced to get out and wait while the driver got the tire fixed.

A half hour later we were back on track, just in time for the arrival of a torrential storm. The roads connecting Wa and Tamale are fairly treacherous in sunny daylight, so those 40 minutes of blinding rain at night were terrifying. It was one of the few moments I can remember when I actually felt like my life was at risk, but I still tried to find the humor in the situation. Lord knows I would not have made it through the 20 years of ridiculousness that is my life if I didn’t constantly laugh at myself.

We finally pulled into Tamale at 9:30, and I decided to stay at the guesthouse close to the Indian restaurant we went to earlier in the week. The taxi driver tried charging me 10 cedi to get there when we paid 3 a few days earlier, and I was not in the mental state to put up with that nonsense. Maybe there’s hope for me after all, and I won’t actually let everyone I come across walk all over me. When I trudged into the guest house looking grosser than I’ve ever looked in my life, the receptionist had the chutzpah to tell me that there weren’t any rooms available, that I could stay there only if I agreed to be out before 6AM. I must have looked like I was about to burst into tears (I was), since a few minutes later I was comfortably settled into a room that I could stay in as long as I wanted the next morning.

Monday, December 3

I compensated my body for the physical/emotional trauma of the past few days by sleeping in, laying in bed and reading until 11 when I left to go the Indian restaurant one last time. I randomly ran into 2 CIEE students who I kind of (but not really) knew, but luckily it was right as I was leaving, sparing me any uncomfortable minutes of silence that would have likely followed if they joined my table.

I arrived at the airport a couple hours before my 3:40 flight, giving me a glimpse of more of this region’s inefficiency. The power at the airport kept going out and none of the metal detectors/scanners were working, forcing a full-body pat down and an airport official having to rifle through my putrid clothing. At least he had gloves!

The flight itself was wonderful. Leather seats! A headrest! Leg room! Ah, modern technology and comfortable travel. You were missed. 45 minutes later I was back in Accra. I planned on taking a tro-tro back to campus, but when I asked somebody where the station was he offered to just drive me there himself. I wasn’t about to say no to a free ride, and I found it fitting to end the week with one final outlandish transportation story.

December 4-Present

Switching gears, the next 24 hours were spent studying for Wednesday’s Colonial Rule and African Response final exam.  It was that Tuesday night as I was studying in the hallway that my right sandal broke. So for those of you who guessed 7 days, congratulations! You can come collect your prize of 3 broken sandals at any time.

There really has to be something wrong with my right foot

There really has to be something wrong with my right foot

My motivation levels were at their typical University of Ghana low, which turned out not to be a problem since the exam was laughable. We had over 2 hours to write 4 pages, answering two essay questions that we’d already been asked in earlier exams. Sometimes I suspect that these professors have no fucks to give when it comes to providing quality education. I miss you, GWU.

That Wednesday evening I had an interview for an internship position with Bread for the City, a non-profit that helps disadvantaged DC residents by providing free food, clothing, medical care, legal aid and social services. The interview was about as cringe-worthy as the one I had 2 weeks ago with the Wilson Center, perhaps more so since I spewed some BS about having no issues talking to people and soliciting them for money. I sent her a link to my blog in a desperate attempt to make her think I possess any semblance of intelligence.

She hasn’t gotten back to me yet, and I’m guessing she won’t be any time soon. Oh well! I consoled myself afterwards by realizing that on the bright side, if nothing works out, I’d at least have a lot of free time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

I hadn’t been to Beacon House in almost 2 weeks, and my greeting that Thursday afternoon was beautiful, with so many hugs. The kids are beyond excited for Christmas. One kid saw the Christmas Tree waiting to be set up and said, “Look at Christmas!!” as if it’s a person. They had visited a school that morning and were given books as presents, and one 4 year-old showed me his book about Halloween and said, “Look at my Bible!”  I’m really going to miss the verbal gold that comes out of their mouths. What I’ll miss most of all? This guy:

I'm not sure he even has a reason for making this face.

I’m not sure he even has a reason for making this face.

Maxwell and Prince

Maxwell and Prince

Alright, I'll miss these guys too

Alright, I’ll miss these guys too

Ghana’s presidential elections are currently taking place, beginning on Friday, December 7. We were told via email to remain on campus for own safety, but I’m not one to take my personal safety into consideration unless there’s climbing involved. I went to Beacon House that afternoon, experiencing no trouble other than the travesty of the Chinese restaurant I go to being closed. I took this opportunity as an excuse for me to buy some overpriced Oreos at the supermarket. Best lunch I’ve had in a while.

You're cute.

You’re cute.

It’s no surprise to me that Ghana’s elections have experienced some complications. Apparently many of the machines were faulty, forcing people back to polling stations today (Saturday) to vote again. You’d think that with the 4 year period between elections, people would make sure that these machines are working properly. Guess that’s asking for too much technological reliability.  Oh well. Pulling for you, John Mahama!

Oh, and the Wilson Center gave me a formal offer for the internship position next semester. So that’s exciting! My competition must have been non-existent.

If any of you managed to make it through this short story of a post, thank you! Really, the praise I’ve consistently received from some of you guys has been wonderful, and has motivated me to actually put some effort into these entries. I’m still having trouble seeing what’s so special about this drek, but for all the hours I spend on each entry it’s really nice to hear that people appreciate it. We’ve only got 10 days left here, with one final post in the works for next weekend, where I’ll attempt to reflect on this experience and provide some final thoughts, maybe on what’s in store for me in the coming months.

Until then, Happy Hanukkah! I think that’s going on now, but I actually have no idea.

Also, here’s more Amy Poehler being beautiful and smart and perfect.