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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Where’s Matthew? The Sri Lanka Edition

I’ve been home for about two weeks now, days largely spent experiencing the wonders of TLC: Long Island Medium, America’s Worst Tattoos, Breaking Amish, etc. There is so much beauty and so much brain rot involved, all of which has been the perfect remedy to recover from probably the worst semester I’ve had at college so far. Maybe transitioning back to school in Washington, D.C. after my semester in Ghana was harder than I anticipated, or maybe I took on more than I was able to maintain. And for whatever reason, I struggled a lot with motivation, with generating the desire I’ve had for most of my life to succeed academically. I can’t blame this all on Ghana; yes, those were 4 of the best months I’ve had in my life, and the rigor of the University of Ghana’s workload is miniscule compared to GW’s, but…I don’t know. That can’t be an excuse for how apathetic and distracted I was these past months. Maybe I burnt myself out? Or maybe economics is just evil personified. Needless to say, despite my efforts in the end, which even involved my first all-nighter (hell), I effectively obliterated any progress I made with my GPA since my first semester at school. I believe I’ve hit that proverbial rock-bottom, and definitely won’t let this happen to me again. Hopefully.

So…I’m leaving for Sri Lanka tomorrow night. I don’t know how else to describe what I’m feeling without stating how completely nervous, and borderline terrified I am. You would think that after all these trips I’ve taken, this would be easier for me. I suppose everything seems easier when it’s months away, when it’s just an idea or some faraway date. And then all of a sudden it’s the day before you’re leaving and you realize how completely unprepared you are. I have a feeling I didn’t think this through, that I rushed into this trip; maybe my mother’s psychic was right (long sad story) and I am more careless or impulsive than I thought I was.

But what I’ve learned over the years and with all my trips is that anxiety is normal, probably healthy, when going off on your own to another country. And I know all this has to do with all the uncertainties and the fact that so much of what I’ll be doing is vague or completely unknown. But this is also where the excitement comes; so much of my life is structured and deliberate and planned ahead of time, and these trips provide a complete break from this lifestyle. Essentially, I’m just not an exciting person in any way, and these adventures push me to be more than just some no-fun blob.

There really is nothing I love more than visiting somewhere new and completely foreign to me. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to see so much of the world already at such a young age, to have parents (shout out to Irwin!) who allow me to do these crazy things on my own, even when I was just 17 years old. That’s when this all began, my first trip with Projects Abroad to Peru for 2 weeks, two weeks which felt like such a long time at that point. I’ve come a long way from that terrifying plane ride which featured the closest I came to a panic attack that I can remember. I mean, nobody in my family or really anybody I knew had done something like that, so it felt like a big deal. In a part of Long Island where going out of state to college constitutes a major journey, I’d say my experiences have been pretty…unique? My second trip with Projects Abroad at 19 is probably an experience that will remain unparalleled in terms of the “once in a lifetime” aura that surrounded it. To have lived in a wildlife reserve in Botswana where seeing elephants multiple times a day was the norm is something I wish I had appreciated more at the time. Every day was unique and every day felt like a priceless safari. Yes, I fell in a river this one time and may have ripped open my wrist falling down a tree, but…that’s to be expected at this point.

I wish I had detailed information about where I’ll be staying and what I’ll be doing these next 6 weeks. I’ll be living a few kilometers north of the capital, Colombo, with a host family, this married couple associated with some massive Sri Lankan charity. Obviously I’m a bit nervous about living in somebody’s home, but I think it’ll be good for me. There isn’t a better way to learn about a country than by living with people who’ve spent their entire lives there, something I was too apprehensive to do in Ghana. I may have one other volunteer there as well, but won’t know for sure until I show up at around 4:00 in the morning local time (sorry, host family/Projects Abroad transport team). In terms of what I’ll be doing, all I know is I’ll be working at this care center/orphanage for boys located right on the beach called Bosco Sevana (you can read a brief description of the place here.) I hope they don’t expect me to have all these lesson plans and ideas compiled, and really hope I’m not just thrust into some role I’m not prepared for.

But hey, I’ve mentioned before how life doesn’t really wait to see whether or not you’re ready for what it throws at you, and this will be no different. All I can do is hope I manage to adapt in ways that have been successful in the past. Patience is most important, and understanding that it won’t be easy in the beginning, or even at all. No amount of preparations can truly get you ready for experiences like this; you learn as you go, you figure out a routine that keeps your feet on the ground and your heart beating at normal rates.

I wish I could say I’ll be able to maintain this blog the way I was able to when I was in Ghana, but I don’t think that will be the case. I will likely not be bringing my laptop, so I’ll have to think of something once I’m there. I’m sure there will be internet cafes readily accessible, and maybe I can at least give short updates. Otherwise, once I’m home I’ll detail the trip in a few installments, maybe one per week that I was there. We’ll see.

Alright, well, I guess this is goodbye until July 9th!  Thank you again to everybody who has complimented my writing, and I hope you enjoy the likely ridiculous and/or amazing stories I’ll have to share either soon or when I return.