Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Misunderstood Custom

WEDDING: I watched my two nangies fix their hair in the reflection of the only mirror in the house. They were putting the finishing touches on their best outfits as they prepared for their cousin's wedding. I stood still with my arms up to the side as my akka wrapped the ornate sari around me to the wedding.

When I had shown my family the plain dam pata (purple colour) sari fabric I had bought in Colombo, my akka insisted I borrow her purple one with beads and sequins instead. "Ruah akka, your sari is nice, but too plain for a wedding" she told me with a sympathetic smile.
Next, I showed my flat sandals with coloured sequins I had brought from New York. This immediately inspired my loku nangie to hand me an extra pair of gold Bata heels two sizes too small for my size 40 feet. "Kamaak nah," was her response: It wouldn't matter because my feet would be covered by the sari.

At the wedding, I observed my beautiful family and all of the guests in brilliant colours and designs. The saris were so amazing that it was even difficult for me to pay attention to anything else! I also realized that wearing a plain sari would have stood out even more than my white skin and blond hair.

As the evening passed through, standing out was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I felt the same hospitality and welcoming feeling I had experienced with host family in their home.

Once I got used to the beauty of the saris, I did my best to absorb other things going around me. As in my village, there were no English speakers at the wedding- at least none that I found amongst the 300 or so guests. So I depended on trusting my host family to explain things to me and follow as best as I could.

After both the bride's and groom's wedding parties had followed in procession to the ballroom, I encountered the first traditions of the wedding. I watched through the crowd as the young couple had their small fingers tied together and the groom drape the red sari around his new wife.

Next, I observed family and friends approaching the couple with sacred Bodhi leaves that would bring good luck. My akka took me by the hand to the front of the crowd and showed me what to do. I felt nervous as everyone watched me hand the bodhi leaves over and bow to pay respect. I guessed I had done it right when I stood up to see smiling faces and nods.

Guests around us mingled as we slowly made our way over to the table to sit with relatives who were inquiring about me. My host family told them my story with pride. My aiya explained his involvement with Sarvodaya and how I was placed in his family while I did my research for my post-graduate degree. I answered as many questions as I had the vocabulary for in Sinhala and let my family finish my sentences when I was stuck for words.

As I continued conversation with those around me, I ached to quench my thirst on the hot April day. As I had only recently become healthy after a long period of sickness, I was careful not to drink the tap water. I excused myself and found a waiter to ask for "unu watura" (boiled water). I waited for a while and asked another waiter, who told me I could return to my table and wait for it there.

Several minutes later, the father of the bride walked over to me with a cup of water on a silver platter. He moved the platter towards me and smiled. I felt shy and embarrassed to think that he had gone through the trouble of getting me boiled water. I thanked him for being so kind.

I took the glass with two hands - as I have learned is more respectful - and drank from it. It was cold. I wondered, did they have the water already prepared? I kept the thoughts to myself and looked up at the father with a smile. His expression changed to one of confusion, as did mine as I looked back at him. I watched him walk away briskly only to return to the table next to us with another glass of water. I turned to my akka for an explanation.

She was engaged in conversation with her cousin, and the two of them shifted their attention to me. Once I relayed the story, they started laughing. I had just drank the glass of water symbolizing the invitation to eat! The father of the bride returned to our table, and this time offered the cup to the other guests at the table.

I apologized to him for the mistake, and he told me "kamak nah." Everyone at the table laughed and looked pleased as they watched me respond in the polite way to accept the invitation by touching the platter with both hands. "Shall we go and eat?" my aiya asked. I nodded and joined my family to wait in line at the aromatic buffet of mouth-watering Sri Lankan cuisine.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bad Bada Recovery Deepens Strong Bonds

SICKNESS: It was another ideal morning in the coastal village of Thalpitiya. The skies were a brilliant blue and warm breezes blew fresh ocean air. The song of birds rejoiced in the beauty of the morning - yet I lay in my bed under a sheet shivering with the chills and a fever.
I stared out my window at the foliage and palm trees swaying and the aroma of coconut oil from my akka cooking in the kussiya (kitchen) was potent in my bedroom. Instead of enticing my appetite for the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine I have come to know and love, this time the scents induced feelings of nausea.

Sickness had overcome my body and mind, disturbing and distracting me in every way possible. I wondered if I would survive. I had not been able to eat or drink for days now, and even the thought of sitting up exhausted me. I felt utterly alone. Still, there was something that kept me going: the care and love of my host family.

Akka entered the room with a bucket of hot water and a cup of something she promised would help me to feel better. She sat next to me on my bed and spoke softly in Sinhala as she dipped a cloth into the water.

I felt some sense of relaxation from the cloth pressing in circular motions around my face and my neck. She helped me to turn over and rubbed my shoulders and back, relieving the tension in my muscles. The thought of anything entering my body was painful, yet, I trusted her, with a warm smile that touched my heart, she handed me a hot cup of liquid and fragrant spices.
My three host siblings entered the room and sat around me. I sipped the drink, rich with a flavour that tingled my taste buds. Loku nangie took the cup from me and akka helped me to lie down and cover me with the sheet. I settled into my pillow, which was soaked with tears and sweat.

My eyes closed as I lay still, feeling mildly better in the presence of my host family. I prayed for my health to return and I gave thanks for having people here who cared about me. Once I got better, for the sake of my health, I promised to better understand my body’s ability to adapt to its environment.

You see, I used to drink the tap water of my host family’s home in Thalpitiya. I thought it was a gesture towards them to show how I wanted to be like one of them-that I was committed to being a member of the household.

I also thought my body could handle it, as it had when I had lived in Senegal, where I experimented with drinking the water little by little over two and a half years until my body didn’t know the difference. Yet this time my body reacted differently to being forced to adapt to the unfamiliarity.

When I first arrived at my host family’s home in February, I followed the advice of a fellow graduate student and friend. I added three drops of bleach per litre of water and let it sit for 30 minutes, which would apparently kill whatever could make me sick. My host family was surprised at first that I did not drink the same water they did. I explained that my stomach was not familiar with the water, yet.

I sensed them feeling hurt or even offended. After several weeks of drinking bleached water, I felt inspired to experiment with drinking untreated water just a little at a time, to let my stomach adjust. I wanted so much for my family to know I was willing to adapt to their lives. I thought that by drinking their water they would see my intentions and accept me.

The first day my family watched me fill a glass of water from their tap, they smiled and nodded approvingly. I felt proud of not having to be a burden on them or my neighbors, either by asking for them to boil water or insisting that I drink my own bleached water. I sensed a bond of trust slowly developing through such small gestures as sharing the same water.

Then one day I became completely sick-the kind of sickness that takes over an entire body and mind. My akka took me to visit the local doctor, who was kind and patient. He tried prescribing several medicines, yet they didn’t improve my situation.

The one thing he was certain of was that I had something inside me that was making me ill, and most likely it came from the drinking water.

I was in bed for days as my body tried in vain to overcome what had invaded it. While the healing process was a difficult one, it was a time that I am truly grateful for.

The strong bond that I had already formed with my host family only deepened during my recovery. My akka, aiya, malli and nangies took incredible care of me - care that eventually led to me rebuilding my strength. On the hour, the family brought me medicine and sang to me, as my akka rubbed me down or massaged my temples with a hot cloth, tiger balm and loving care. They brought me boiled water with cheer, happy to bring me something that agreed with my bada (stomach).

On my first healthy day, my akka sent me to the beach for fresh air with my two nangies. She smiled and embraced me when we came back and told me I had ratu paata (red colour) in my cheeks again. Exhausted, I leaned on my giggling host sisters and I smiled back. At that moment, I felt so thankful to have this family in my life.

I remembered my promise to myself and decided to expand its scope. I once again vowed never to force my physical body-nor my mind-to adapt to its environment as I realized how my relationship with my host family was developing at its own natural-and wonderful-pace.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Welcome to Mage Gedera

THALPITIYA VILLAGE: Squeezing my hand, loku nangie (older sister), smiled and pulled me ahead in the night running over the railway tracks with hope of reaching the front of the elephant parade before it was too late. I felt like a true member of my homestay family as I sensed their excitement to show me my first perahera.

The entire family (akka, aiya, podi nangie and malli) ran directly behind us as we maneuvered through the crowd of villagers in the dark, surrounded by palm trees and homes resurrected after the tsunami.

Only the glow of flames from the perahera lit our path down a shortcut where two of my fellow graduate students finally caught up with us.
Sticking together closely we found a place on Galle road, to watch the parade of performers and elephants moving in rhythm to the chorus of singing, music and clapping.

Wiping the sweat off my cheek with a handkerchief from my host mother, my akka, I felt podi
nangie leaning on my shoulder. I sensed her petite hands playing with my hair and her body moving gently to the music passing by.
Then, tugging my salwaar she asked, "Ruah akka? heta oya yanawada?" I swayed my head from side to side, in the way that meant "Yes, tomorrow I will be leaving." Promising that I would return in another couple of weeks I felt a rush of warmth through my heart and reflected upon how I came to form such a close relationship with this Sri Lankan family that I met just months ago.

My life over the past six months has alternated between stays with a family in Thalpitiya village, doing research for my degree in Sustainable Development, and time devoted to my studies in Colombo.

There, together with 20 American and two Sri Lankan graduate students I take classes taught by professors from my American university, School for International Training,, at the Nagarodaya (Sarvodaya) Center in Borella.

As a believer in the law of kamma, which teaches that everything happens for a reason, I trusted that I was meant to come to Sri Lanka to educate myself and to share what knowledge I had with others.

After seeing the devastation wrought by the tsunami, I felt compelled to help in some way, yet wondered what meaningful contribution I could make from New York City, where I was working as the Associate Director of a language school. After much thought, I was moved to change my path to pursue a graduate degree in Sri Lanka.

Although my knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited, I was inspired to learn all that I could through books and the internet to prepare for my participation in the S.I.T. program that worked with Sarvodaya to commit to helping those affected by the tsunami.

After three weeks of orienting myself to Sri Lanka and taking Sinhala classes in Colombo, I left for the first time to a village for two weeks of shramadana (gift of labor) with my 21 classmates. Sarvodaya inspires people with their words, "we build the road, the road builds us."
This phrase has embodied our experience as we formed relationships with each other and the homestay families.

The village, the students and the Sarvodaya leadership all worked together and offered our physical labor to build roads, construct a playground and clean a temple. In the evenings, we all met together for singing and dancing.

The experience touched me deeply, and made it hard to leave at the end of the two weeks. I felt encouraged, knowing that I had the rest of the year to build relationships with people in the new village I would be placed in for the rest of the year.

I arrived to Thalpitiya in February along with four other graduate students, ready to stay in the home of a Sinhalese family while I conducted my research.

We all gathered in the garden of a community leader with cookies, bananas and tea as we were introduced to families that would host us. I introduced myself to the group in my best, if limited, Sinhala I had learned over my previous month in Sri Lanka.

The community leader's wife looked at me and we smiled at one another. She motioned for me to come - using a hand gesture that would just be waving "hi" in my own country, USA.
I stepped towards her and brought my hands together, "ayubowan." Her three children came close and smiled, adjusting their white clothes for Sunday school at the pansala, the Buddhist temple.

My new akka put her arm around my waist and led me into her home for the first time, the place I have now learned to call mage gedera (my home), too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Beginning of Sri Lanka Through Ruah's Eyes

As fate will have it, I have been presented with the incredible opportunity to write a weekly editorial column in one of Sri Lanka's leading newspapers, the Daily News ( I have been asked to write about my experiences here in Sri Lanka as an American/New Yorker.

I should admit that these days what is really at the forefront of my mind is the struggle for peace in this world and praying for those who suffer from violence and those who have power to make peace happen. However, in this weekly space I will really be focusing on my own personal experiences and perspectives of being here in Sri Lanka. I hope that this will be an opportunity to voice advocacy of my belief in the importance of seeking peaceful interactions with others through being conscientious in thoughts and actions. I will post the articles as they are published. However, feel free to go directly to them every Thursday on the Daily News website.

Finally, I feel compelled to pay special respect to my dear friends and family who provided me with feedback on the first piece. A special thank you to my dear friend and talented editor, Brian. He has been incredibly generous with his time and intellect. His 23 years of friendship is as good as it gets! Thank you!