Sri Lanka August 8-16
Colombo Travel Blog› entry 35 of 37 › view all entries
As time was ending at PW, Riskhan emerged from his â€śdisappearance.â€ť Riskhan was my first real â€śfriendâ€ť at PW. We lived in the same house, took all our meals together, and he spoke English decently. Though I wouldnâ€™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 â€śoldâ€ť 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 Iâ€™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
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
After a flight from
At his house, I quickly fell asleep beneath a single sheet in a second bed in Riskhanâ€™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 parentâ€™s house. I guess, because while its fine for my friends, Iâ€™m afraid of overstaying my welcome with their parents. That coupled with the fact that Riskhanâ€™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
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 Riskhanâ€™s house. Unlike the guesthouse in
Riskhan lives in a 2000 person
The second day, Riskhan woke and told me, as became customary, what the plan would be for the next few hours. â€śWe are going to wedding, be ready at 1.00.â€ť OK, I thought, not knowing who was getting married or what I was supposed to wear.
â€śFirst we have breakfast,â€ť 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 â€śIâ€™m full, I cannot eat anymoreâ€ť 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. â€śCome,â€ť 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, â€śEat like thisâ€ť 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 â€śscooping zoneâ€ť in the bowl. Everyone in our circle stopped to watch my first attempt. Relieved I didnâ€™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 â€śscooping zoneâ€ť 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. â€śNow desert,â€ť they said. â€śPlease help me!â€ť I cried inside my head. Fortunately, dessert was little.
Finishing, we rose and waddled from the eating hut. I was introduced to Riskhanâ€™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, â€śPlease sit.â€ť We made small talk for a few minutes â€“ about English, teaching, working at the NGO.
Then, â€śDo you believe in God?â€ť â€śYesâ€ť I said. â€śGood,â€ť he replied; and I breathed a sigh of relief that the conversation was overâ€¦ â€śWhat do you believe?â€ť he asked. â€śUh, I believe in one god that is everywhere and in everything,â€ť I said. He nodded, and I hesitated long enough for him to ask, â€śSo you are Christian?â€ť
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 Riskhanâ€™s friends, and was accepted as Riskhanâ€™s friend into this wedding. First, thoughts of safety â€“ will disclosing my Jewish identity endanger me? Then shame, - will having a Jew stay in your house bring shame to Riskhanâ€™s family. Then reason â€“ Riskhan has never even met a â€śJewâ€ť 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, â€śCome-on, answer man! Heâ€™s waiting!â€ť And then a flash of memory, transporting me back 19 years to sitting in Sunday school doing a roll-play drill â€“ the question posed, â€śWhat if you were invited to party by your employer and he said that he really wanted you to go, but that you couldnâ€™t tell anyone you were Jewish because they donâ€™t like Jews, what would you do?â€ť 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 â€śfooledâ€ť into liking a Jew. But here I am, in
â€śYeah â€“ sort of,â€ť I think I said, or maybe it was just â€śyeah.â€ť I donâ€™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 â€“ 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 didnâ€™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 donâ€™t knowâ€¦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
In the afternoon, I returned to Riskhanâ€™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 â€“ 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 Riskhanâ€™s motorcycle and we drove the 20 minutes have dinner with Riskhanâ€™s uncleâ€™s family so that I could meet his future wife. First we stopped at his uncleâ€™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
Day 3 involved touring Riskhanâ€™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, Riskhanâ€™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, â€śHis eating is good, his Carom is not so good.â€ť
This compliment was just slightly better than the one I received earlier in the day at Riskhanâ€™s NGO. Then, his coworker after looking at my photos and learning that I STILL was unmarried remarked, â€śYou could get a very nice girl from the village because your photos make you look much better than you look in person.â€ť
Brushing off 3 losses and only 1 Carom win, Riskhan and I retired.
The next day (Day 4) was a 2 day journey to
Day 7 we started out early in the morning, driving to Riskhanâ€™s motherâ€™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 groomâ€™s mother was in
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 Riskhanâ€™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 groomâ€™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 Kingâ€™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 stomachâ€¦The next morning I found out; and it was not pretty! I thought I was going back to the doctor for sure â€“ 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 timeâ€¦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
I had one last night at Riskhanâ€™s house. The next morning I returned to
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