Sri Lanka August 8-16

Colombo Travel Blog

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As time was ending at PW, Riskhan emerged from his “disappearance.”  Riskhan was my first real “friend” at PW.  We lived in the same house, took all our meals together, and he spoke English decently.  Though I wouldn’t say we had any deep conversations, we had very genuine interactions, and I missed him tremendously when he left after my first month.  He invited me to his wedding in October, but I was due back in my “old” life by then.  He told me to come in July instead.  That was in March, and I had not talked to him since.  Suddenly, 4 months later, on about August 1, he calls and asks when I’m coming to visit.  Scoping out flights, I ditched my plans for a quiet, relaxing reflective trip to the Andaman Islands in favor of staying with Riskhan in Sri Lanka. 


Riskhan is Muslim, I am Jewish.  We went to the Vivekananda Ilum in Chennai in March.  While perusing the life history of Swami Vivekananda, complete with photographs, translated speeches, and complimentary artwork, we came across the painting of rainbow lights, circled and emanating from the center.  Superimposed on the radiating colors were a crucifix, candelabra, a half-moon and the OM.  Riskhan knew all the symbols but the candelabra, which I understood to symbolize Judaism.  Riskhan did not know about Judaism, and, I suppose out of fear of driving a rift between us, I let the subject pass.  Accordingly, I too forgot the incident. 


After a flight from Madurai to Chennai, waiting 9 hours for the plane to Colombo, and a 2 hour flight, I landed in Sri Lanka at 4:00 a.m.  Riskhan was waiting for me, and we embraced as old friends.  Exhausted I slipped in and out of consciousness as we drove the 1 ½ hours to his village.  As the city was replaced by coconut trees, the highway by potholed concrete and then by corrugated dirt, the sun marked the beginning of the workday.  Men in long-sleeved white shirts, full dark beards emerged while women in black burkas passed along the sidewalk and rickety wood store fronts.  “My village,” Riskhan said when he saw me looking, “it’s a Muslim village.”      


At his house, I quickly fell asleep beneath a single sheet in a second bed in Riskhan’s room shortly before 6:00 am.  The next morning, 9 August, was the first of my 8 day stay with Riskhan.  I always feel uneasy about staying with my friends in their parent’s house.  I guess, because while its fine for my friends, I’m afraid of overstaying my welcome with their parents.  That coupled with the fact that Riskhan’s mother was serving me coffee in the morning, then breakfast, then tea in the afternoon, then lunch, then a snack before dinner, and then dinner made me feel as if the longer my stay, the greater the imposition.  Also, while Riskhan and his father spoke English well, his mother spoke almost exclusively Tamil.  I tried to the few Tamil words I learned in Madurai.  Nevertheless, Riskhan’s parents were very sweet and wonderful hosts. 


I was exhausted when my work at the NGO completed.  I did not realize what a physical and emotional toll, the long hours and 6 months had taken on me until I retreated into Riskhan’s house.  Unlike the guesthouse in Madurai, there were no horns, no blaring TVs, no screaming between our housemaid and her daughter.  Instead there was soft sand and coconut trees surrounding Riskhan’s house, the clucking of chickens.  As I slept, I began to relax, letting stress drip from me and frequently giving in to my burning tired eyes.  After my first day, of simply lounging on the cement living room floor watching the Olympics and cricket, we ventured out to take tea with Riskhan’s cousin. 


Riskhan lives in a 2000 person Muslim Village.  This is the village from which his father’s family derived, and Riskhan has 77 relatives in the village.  As he introduced me to them, this is my cousin, this is my brother, this is my cousin, this is my sister…I was quickly lost track of names.  Since they all shared a family resemblance, even recalling who I met was difficult.  Adding to the confusion, I learned several days later, that brother refers siblings from the same parents as well as to the children of your mother’s sister and to the children of your father’s brother.  Your mother’s brother’s children and your father’s sister’s children are cousins.  Lost, I kept asking Riskhan how many brothers he had, he said, “One.”  “But what about the guy we just me,” I asked.  “That is my uncle’s son,” he patiently explained again.  In case you are wondering, you can marry your cousin, but not your brother or sisters…


The second day, Riskhan woke and told me, as became customary, what the plan would be for the next few hours.  “We are going to wedding, be ready at 1.00.”  OK, I thought, not knowing who was getting married or what I was supposed to wear. 

“First we have breakfast,” Riskhan said at 9:00.  Rice rolled with coconut, prawns, chicken, and beef brains was breakfast Day 1.  After 3 plates, 2 involving pleadings of “I’m full, I cannot eat anymore” I was permitted to finish with breakfast. 


After a shower and dressing in my one pair of slacks, I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and we drove through the village arriving at a small house with a coconut thatch shade structure.  Beneath sat about 50 Muslim men eating in small circles around a shared bowl of food.  “Come,” Riskhan pulling me into the tent as I sat down and several of his cousins and school mates joined.  A huge bowl rice was set in the middle of us and then several side dishes handed to the circle of us.  Sprinkling centimeter-long dried brown fish over the rice, “Eat like this” Riskhan instructed, scooping the rice with his right hand, eating it with the left hand beneath as a plate.  As the few grains fell from his right hand to his left, he dropped them back into his “scooping zone” in the bowl.  Everyone in our circle stopped to watch my first attempt.  Relieved I didn’t wear the rice and dried fish, I successfully joined in the eating frenzy.  The conversation then resumed in Tamil, and I kept eating.  I was told, not fast enough though. 


Finishing the huge bowl of rice, I leaned back a little and inhaled deeply.  My stomach was full, waistband tight.  Some Tamil instructions were yelled from our circle, and a second bowl of rice, equally gargantuan arrived.  Beef curry, beef, and Dahl were poured over the rice, and hands clawed through the food, slowly transforming the rice castle into rubble and bones.  As the last grains were scraped from the communal bowl, a third bowl of rice was placed before us.  More dried fish and chicken curry and chicken pieces were pored over.  I must have looked like I was struggling, because Riskhan, with the hand he was eating with, ripped the chicken from the bone and dropped into my “scooping zone” to make it easier, and probably faster, for me to eat.  Somehow, and somewhere, the third bowl of rice found uncharted creases in my stomach.  “Now desert,” they said.  “Please help me!”  I cried inside my head.  Fortunately, dessert was little. 


Finishing, we rose and waddled from the eating hut.  I was introduced to Riskhan’s friend and English teacher at the local school.  A solidly built man, with a thick black beard, strong intense eyes, and a warm voice.  He said, “Please sit.”  We made small talk for a few minutes – about English, teaching, working at the NGO. 


Then, “Do you believe in God?”  “Yes” I said.  “Good,” he replied; and I breathed a sigh of relief that the conversation was over…  “What do you believe?” he asked.  “Uh, I believe in one god that is everywhere and in everything,” I said.  He nodded, and I hesitated long enough for him to ask, “So you are Christian?” 


And there it was, the one question I had not wanted, not thought, I would be asked.  And there it was on Day 2.  And what to do with it?  I am sitting before the man with intense eyes and a warm voice, having brotherly shared food with a group of Riskhan’s friends, and was accepted as Riskhan’s friend into this wedding.  First, thoughts of safety – will disclosing my Jewish identity endanger me?  Then shame, - will having a Jew stay in your house bring shame to Riskhan’s family.  Then reason – Riskhan has never even met a “Jew” before, there is none of that Middle East hatred in Sri Lanka, and besides his family works in an NGO, then a counter voice, but many of these people have done Hajj to Mecca they must be aware of the political situation.  And then another voice, “Come-on, answer man!  He’s waiting!”  And then a flash of memory, transporting me back 19 years to sitting in Sunday school doing a roll-play drill – the question posed, “What if you were invited to party by your employer and he said that he really wanted you to go, but that you couldn’t tell anyone you were Jewish because they don’t like Jews, what would you do?”  My answer then was that I would go, because my presence there and their friendliness would somehow prove the fallacy in their thinking, that they could be “fooled” into liking a Jew.  But here I am, in Sri Lanka, a foreign country in which I am unfamiliar with the country, the people, the culture. 


“Yeah – sort of,” I think I said, or maybe it was just “yeah.”  I don’t remember exactly.  What was clear was that at that moment, my religion, my faith, my ethnicity, my history, my family, an important piece of myself – all became my dirty little secret.  Reality check, it probably would not have mattered to Riskhan or his family.  Likely it would not have mattered to anyone else.  But because it mattered to me, and there was enough fear and shame associated with my Jewish identity, I remained silent, well actually, I accepted an untruth. 


So many times I wanted clarify the false disclosure, but ultimately I decided it didn’t matter to him and we were friends, and that it was better not to make an issue out of it.  Was it cowardice?  I don’t know…maybe. 


My conversation with the English teacher ended when Riskhan took me by the hand to meet the wedding couple.  But not after I accepted the offer to receive the Koran (with English translation) as a gift.  Though I did want to read it, I ended up leaving Sri Lanka without the copy. 


In the afternoon, I returned to Riskhan’s house, changed, and we all headed out for some fishing.  I was handed a single bamboo strip with a fishing line tied to one end and a hook about 3 feet from the end.  Everyone, but me, caught a fish – a mighty 3-inch fish from the saltwater river.  I however, fed the fish no less than a dozen worms.


After a few hours of fishing, and digesting the massive lunch, we went back to the house to change (and eat a snack).  That night I again hopped on the back of Riskhan’s motorcycle and we drove the 20 minutes have dinner with Riskhan’s uncle’s family so that I could meet his future wife.  First we stopped at his uncle’s small roadside shop for tea.  I spoke with him for some time.  He was a very sweet man, who unfortunately lost his left foot to diabetes.  Still he was planning his 4th Hajj to Mecca.  Riswana (a.k.a “Suji”) was Riskhan’s wife-to-be.  She was very sweet and shyly conversed with me in English.  I sat outside talking to Suji, her even-shyer sister, and playing with the small children.  The women were inside cooking.  When called for dinner, Riskhan and I sat with one of his young cousins.  We ate while the women waited outside and watched.  Only when we finished, and they were satisfied that I truly could not eat anything else, did we swap.  Riskhan and I sat outside while the women, who had spent hours cooking, took their turn to eat.  My request that we all eat together was quickly shot down…  After a solid meal we returned to Riskhan’s uncle’s house where we chatted for a bit before riding home.


Day 3 involved touring Riskhan’s NGO, meeting his coworkers, and catching up on a few emails.  I played cricket.  After striking out the first turn at bat, I then redeemed myself by scoring several runs.  Cricket was more similar to baseball than I originally thought, but different enough that I was still confused.  In the evening, Riskhan’s cousins came to the house and attempted to teach me Carom (sp).  Carom is cross between billiards, checkers, marbles and air-hockey.  One plays by clumping a bunch of dark and light checkers pieces in the middle of square table with pocketed corners.  You break by flicking a larger plastic chip into bunched checkers.  The goal is to flick the plastic chip (like the white ball) knock your colors into the pocket.  It was much harder than I initially thought.  For all my effort, I received the compliment, which Riskhan translated into English for me, “His eating is good, his Carom is not so good.” 


This compliment was just slightly better than the one I received earlier in the day at Riskhan’s NGO.  Then, his coworker after looking at my photos and learning that I STILL was unmarried remarked, “You could get a very nice girl from the village because your photos make you look much better than you look in person.”  


Brushing off 3 losses and only 1 Carom win, Riskhan and I retired.


The next day (Day 4) was a 2 day journey to Kandy.  Riskhan’s brother-in-law Raseem drove us out of his village and into the mountains.  I sat in the back, reading, talking, and staring at the beautiful tea-laden cliffs, waterfalls cascading down only to disappear beneath the road and reappear further down the sheer the cliff drop.  We stopped at tea plantations, a Buddhist monastery, and a farm (where we took pictures exhibiting inordinate fear from caged cows?)  After a quick sleep, we commenced our decent, stopping in Kandy for the Flower Garden and the Elephant Orphanage.  At around 9:00 pm we pulled off the main road and headed onto the unpaved road.  Bouncing into the darkness we winded our way to a Hindu temple festival.  There we met Riskhan’s NGO coworkers who were attending the festival.  We wandered around together discussing girls and politics, and weddings, and politics. 


 Day 7 we started out early in the morning, driving to Riskhan’s mother’s family, about an hour away.  Earlier that morning, Riskhan was visited by his brother/cousin who informed him that he was getting married that evening.  When the family disapproved of the marriage, the couple decided to marry anyway.  But the groom’s mother was in Kuwait working.  So the family relented and gave permission for the wedding, but asked him to wait until she returned.  All of this I did not learn until I was seated on the floor of the groom’s family’s house eating.  (Have you noticed the food theme?  Everything involved eating.) 


After lunch, we took the fishing boat out and set nets.  On board we were stopped by the machine-gun touting navy on a little dingy checking registrations and actively searching out Tamil Tiger guerrillas.  The Navy seemed perplexed by my appearance aboard the fishing dingy, disappointed that I spoke a little Tamil but not Singhalese, but were excited to exchange a few words in English and hear me speak.  We left with them in big smiles and a few waves goodbye.  Over the course of the next few hours, I bonded with Riskhan’s family.  My Tamil is very poor and their English was limited, so we found ways of communicating through gestures and Riskhan occasionally interpreting when we hit a wall.  Somehow, we forged a friendship as we walked along the beach and took the back roads, through the sand mines, and along the dirt pathways home.  After an outdoor shower, we headed out for our pre-dinner meal.  One cousin operated a small shop where he made parottas.  He went to task making parottas and I watched and videotaped the process to try later in the safety of my own kitchen. 


After a meal of egg parotta, potato parotta, and plain parotta, Riskhan told me it was time to return to the groom’s house for dinner.  Earlier in the day, the family bought crab, squid, and fish for dinner.  When we arrived it was all there, skillfully prepared by the women of the house.  We sat in circle, the food spread out before us, and began eating.  The crab was especially spicy, excellent and tasty, but fricking HOT.  Everyone was sweating.  Unhappy with the way I was shelling my crabs, several people, with their eating hands, shelled the crab and dropped the meat onto my plate.  Somehow, these things presented only a passing thought, and I was not overwhelmed by the thought of them eating from their hands, then cracking and scooping meat onto my plate.  After we filled ourselves, we returned to the Parotta King’s house for cards.  I noticed an uncomfortable burning sensation on my fingers and looked to see that the chili from the crab, stuck under my rings, was burning my fingers, which were turning red and oozing beneath my metal rings.  I wondered what was happening inside my stomach…The next morning I found out; and it was not pretty!  I thought I was going back to the doctor for sure – but fortunately chili has a shorter half-life than amebas. 


A few hours of cards, and then we slept together on the floor, the fan swirling overhead, 4 men in lungis, bare brick walls, and it all felt so normal.


The next day, after much back and forth, the wedding went forward.  Due to the last minute nature and unconventional approach it was poorly attended.  Still, we had a great time…and ate again.  This time though, I finally had an excuse not to eat so much; the chili still was working its way free.  At around 10:30 pm, we left the wedding to return to the Hindu Temple festival where a concert was occurring.  The free concert was packed with men dancing and a few women watching from a far.  The highlight was the famous singer who danced with, allegedly fanged and poisonous, cobras draped over his shoulders.  He was a famous dancer, but we’ll just say there are culture differences in what makes a good dancer. 


I had one last night at Riskhan’s house.  The next morning I returned to Colombo, spending the day shopping for souvenirs with Raseem, Riskhan’s friend Rajesh, and Riskhan.  We toured downtown Colombo and walked the boardwalk.  After my last Halal dinner we dropped Rajesh off at his family’s house where they made me promise to stay next time I was in Sri Lanka.  Then Riskhan dropped me at the airport.


The 8 days went so fast, too fast.  I confess there were times when I wished I could leave simply so I could stop eating; but I was truly sad to leave Riskhan.  Moreover, in spite of my best efforts to find an ATM, Riskhan refused to allow me to pay for anything the entire trip.  Needless to say, I was incredibly uncomfortable with this, but he was adamant.  No matter how quickly I pulled money out, or insisted, he sternly insisted that I was his guest and refused to let me help. 


I still am struck by the generosity and openness with which Riskhan and his family welcomed me into their homes and lives.  I thought I would get to see some of the reputed beautiful beaches in the south, the tsunami affected areas, or the hidden away waterfalls that only locals know about.  Instead, I was introduced to life in Sri Lanka.  Weddings, family issues, food, laughter and friendship.  Crossing security in the airport, the wand ringing, sad to leave Riskhan and grateful for our reunion and his generosity, there still was a little voice tucked way back in my head which wondered whether it would have mattered at all that I was Jewish…

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photo by: wanderingluster