Digging through my photo files from last year, remembering all the beautiful people I encountered in India and Sri Lanka, and wondering what became of them. A few of my favorite portraits.
So it’s timorously early here in Portland, around 5:30 a.m., and I’m sitting awake in the dark of my bedroom. I spent the night lost in dreams of Northern India. I was wandering the dusty roads of the Himalayan foothills, meeting elephants and smoking charas and looking for a friend I’d somehow lost along a steep and winding trail.
I got home four days ago and this persistent, overpowering sense of semantic disorientation has thrown me for a minor loop. It took two days for my ears to stop ringing thunderously. I sleep weird. I wake up too early. I’ve only left the house a couple of times and whenever I do the world feels big and overwhelming and empty.
I work mornings in my pajamas, then I go on walks and hear people talking to each other, quotidian conversations that always catch me by surprise with their dailyness and their booming tenor.
“Americans!” I’ll think, and turn to have a look, because we met fewer than half a dozen of our brethren during our five weeks in India, and the accent became a wary kind of touchstone.
Then I remind myself that everybody is American, here, and I stuff my hands into my pockets against the February chill and keep moving, to the co-op for a $7 turkey sandwich, or the doctor’s on Alberta to have these itchy, itchy bites inspected. (Not scabies. Sand mites.)
I’m trying to figure out my taxes, to return phone calls, to pay bills, to return to Planet Earth, but I’m stuck in this otherwordly orbit, looping aimlessly.
I suppose I am struggling to distill my experiences into something interpretable, and I hadn’t expected that. This sort of muted and tiny feeling that comes over me when I’m dreaming, or waking, too early. I’ve been away from home for far longer than this before, and my returns have always felt sort-of-triumphant and mostly easy peasy. Even after a year or two away, home felt beautiful and natural.
“Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola / oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola,” as Bob Dylan would sing. That’s been me. All beautiful things here in America, all well. I love my home, truly, and, rejecting the vitriol shared by some of my countrymen, I am never sad to return to it.
“Go spend time in one of the real shitholes of the earth and then come back tell me what you think of America,” I used to hiss at aforementioned haters, when I was younger and infinitely wiser and nastier. Now I just nod and accept that how you think of Home says more about the times you’ve left it than it does about the times you’ve chosen to stay. That Home is a fluid kind of thing, connoting, mostly, your relationship with Otherness.
After India, I seem to have adopted a duality of thinking when it comes to what, exactly, constitutes Other. India is the Ultimate Other. But so is Here, once you’ve spent time There. And both places will go on with their messy general business of living, with our without me and my pointy-headed, liberal arts school philosophizing. That makes me feel small, but in all the right ways.
My phone rings a lot. People call to ask how India and Sri Lanka were. I tell them: wonderful, filthy, beautiful, disgusting, overpowering, the ultimate ultimate. Airport fires and chai and cockroaches and charas and masalas and Technicolor sunsets and tiny little brown children shitting atop garbage piles and filthy, filmy beauty everywhere you turn, in your nose and eyes and ears like a saffron-colored vapor, so ugly it turns back into beautiful, and then switch that and repeat.
I’m already halfway planning to go back next winter, maybe give the North a real shot this time around. India is definitely not a one-off deal, that much is for sure. Nah. This one’s gonna take some serious doing.
So we’re back in Palolem, India, and settling into that tremulous and mystical moment in a longish trip away when time and travel sort of slow down. Lately, life has been less about recording and more about observing. Also, less about moving and more about standing still. We’ve no plans to leave the beach anytime soon, because life here is comfortable and warm and the big cities in this part of the world strike me as a bit haggard and harried and charmless, just like the big cities in every other part of the world I’ve visited. Cities make me nuts.
I’m also working remotely, now, so my days are a strange brew of big thinking and non thinking, in punctuated intervals. We’ve got a bit more than a week left of the trip, though, so perhaps our physical and mental slowing is a way to prolong the magic.
The current count:
One morning of dodgy stomach
Two countries and about a dozen cities and towns visited
One headlamp lost
One gigantic cockroach discovered in my clothes
One blister packet of Diazepam
Two packs of cigarettes (jeez, I know)
One journal three pages from full
One bag full of exotic spices stinking up my luggage like nobody’s business
A pocketful of trinkets for friends and family
Four postcards purchased but neither written on nor mailed. Sorry, guys. Not my strong suit.
Oh, yeah, and half a dozen bizarre and elaborate dream sequences, courtesy of my anti-malarial pills. In the best-worst of these, I was wandering the countryside barefoot and in tears because I’d lost both my travel partners and my shoes. The solution was easy: I put on an old pair of shoes I’d forgotten I had in my backpack and then kept on moving alone. There’s a metaphor in there. Plain sight, but it’s got nothing to do with this trip, or my travel partner, Emily, with whom I am getting along famously. Probably, it’s more about needs versus wants, and stomaching losses with minimal wailing and gnashing of teeth in general. In the “Real World,” to which I will soon return, and where I struggle mightily to stay centered and calm.
The hope is always that the lessons will make their way home with you, and continue to work on you well into the future. Adversity begets character, for sure. Even the good kinds of adversity, the kinds you hurtle at yourself, just to see. Like traveling to rag-tag countries full of wild smells and sights. Pretty much a sure thing.
Last night in Sri Lanka and we’re spending it in Negombo, a little beach town not far from the airport. We left Kandy early this morning on a second-class train that seemed to spend as much time moving backwards as it did moving forwards. I’m not sure why, but we passed the many hours making friends with a little bindied Sri Lankan baby seated next to us. He spent most of our time together trying to eat our hands and faces, and we placated him in return with coconut biscuits and mixed nuts.
Negombo is pretty but hot and bizzy and mosquito-y and we’re more than ready to get back to the India beaches. We just ate some amazing street food – kotu and rotti – and dudes are setting off M-16s in the lobby of the hotel. Shit is crazy!
So this week I get back on the work wagon. I’ll be editing remotely from the beach till we return home and am a bit conflicted about the occasion. It’ll be nice to get cashflow going again, but vacation … I haven’t had three weeks off since I finished grad school in 2009, but I’m so quickly acclimated to doing nothing it should be a crime. Anyway, lots to report, but I am desperate for a shower and sleep so it will have to wait.
Colombo – Bangalore – Goa tomorrow. It’s gonna be a 12-hour experience, for sure!
So it’s mid-afternoon and Emily and I are chugging along on this rickety little passenger train through the Sri Lankan Hill Country. It’s a windy route that’s taken us through countless and ever-astounding changes of scenery, from rambling, brilliantly green tea and spice plantations carved into steep mountainsides to low, soggy rice paddies nurturing brand new sprouts to dusty little workaday towns and villages busy with their mid-week duties.
I must have taken like 300 photos in the past four hours. I’m doublefisting it, in fact, with the Canon SLR in one hand and the Canon point-and-shoot in the other because there’s just too much goodness out there. I’ll post the results soonish.
Everybody stops and waves and smiles and holds their babies up for us to admire when we pass them working in tea fields or waiting at a train crossing. Sounds very off-the-mappy and authentic, hey?
Weeeeell … Full disclosure: it’s kinda not. They wave probably because we Westerners are seated in our very own Observation Car, which, as it turns out, is really just exactly like the second- and third-class cars, except with a few large, cracked panes of glass replacing the caboose’s back wall. Yes, we are part of a we. A large, amorphous mass of blue-green eyes and sandy hair, traveling along at a slow and jerky clip.
Awhile back, on account of some kind of problem with the train tracks, we stalled out for some minutes at the edge of a little hill town called Hatton. The event of our minor breakdown drew out half the town to the edges of the tracks, from wadi and betel vendors eager to capitalize on the delay to a few tiny gangs of Sri Lankan kids still dressed in school uniform and tie to the perfunctory swathes of curious, barefoot men on break from working and wanting to put in their two cents about the cause of the gum-up. To help out and maybe catch a little gossip.
I took advantage of the occasion to hop off the car and have a quick smoke (I’m on vacation, so piss off!) and while I smoked, I exchanged a few easy words with one of the vendors, who begged me for a cigarette with a rather destitute look about his eyes, despite the fact that we’d seen a French passenger hand him one a mere minute before. He pulled out wads of rupees from his breast pocket to prove that the smoke in question was long gone, I sassily told him to go buy his own cigarettes with said giant wad of money, and we both laughed, and he went on his merry way.
The train track problem was duly solved with the assistance of about 10 local guys, who squatted around staring at the problem track and hitting at it with one very rusty-looking hammer, and now we’re back on the road again.
We started out our day in the hill town of Ella, a small but bustling kind of place overrun with monkeys and rotti shops and cluttered conveniences and many, many buildings in various stages of construction. Judging from the reactions of the locals, who were all very friendly and sort of bemused, tourism is only just recently kicked into high gear in these parts. But humans are nothing if not masters of their domains, – that is to say, quick to adapt – so we also spent time brushing off the ministrations of countless randoms hawking “Rose Quartz” through car windows (obviously just hunks of agate they’d picked up off the ground 20 feet away, but you can’t blame a person for trying, I suppose), shrieking at the pinched-faced monkeys swinging through the trees and swooping in among us in search of mangoes and bananas, and turning down countless offers to “take photos” of local women whose arms were full of bundles of sticks, which they promptly threw to the ground upon our polite refusals. Very authentic, indeed?
Thing about traveling is, it’s mighty tough to sort out when your experiences and impressions are authentic and when they are complete bunk. And we crave a genuine and irreplicable experience, like most backpackers do, and we look for it everywhere, so the temptation is to perpetuate the ruse instead of unmasking it when you realize you’ve been taken in, or that you’re not nearly so far off the map as you’d been prepared to imagine.
Cases in point: Erin compulsively deleting any trip photos that have other Westerners in their frame, because that makes them not nearly so cool and friends at home might not be impressed by your train journey through the Sri Lankan Hill Country if they knew that you made it in the company of like 50 high-heeled Russians on some kind of group tour. Erin asking the Indian chai walla to pour the cup of tea just one more time because she didn’t quite get the photo just right the first go-round. Erin sneaking photos of monks on the bus in Colombo because it’s just too irresistibly cool a picture, even though it’s kind of rude and the lady next to expresses her disapproval with a low cluck of her tongue. Erin paying 100rs to some random Indian dude dressed in local garb and toting an ornately bejeweled cow with headdress around Vagator so she can take a picture. Erin paying another random Sri Lankan dude 100rs to let her hold his boa constrictor, Layla, around her neck, to the shrieking delight of a crowd of fascinated and horrified locals, none of whom were shaken down for cash at the end of the spectacle.
As a trained journalist, I feel conflicted by these indiscretions, even though I’m copping to them, even though it’s just vacation. I am somehow compelled to disclose the inauthenticities of my time away from the U.S. as well as to share the deeply genuine and intimate ones. And there have been many of those, too: meeting a man named Abdulla at the Carnakata Railway Station one Midnight and being invited to attend his upcoming wedding to the woman of his dreams, who will be presented to him in an overwhelmingly fetching show of splendor. (“She will wear so many ornaments! She will look like an advertisement!”) Talking with a Sri Lankan women of similar age in a tour outfit shop about her life, her husband, the benefits of love-marriages versus arranged-marriages, and the proper age to marry and settle down. (“Women your age have no husband, they must seek help to find a proposal!”) Strolling along the Arabian Sea boardwalk at dusk and making friends with all the sweet little families splashing down in the water, fully clothed, the whooping groups of teenaged boys shyly asking to have their photos taken with us so they can post them on Facebook and earn a bit of cachet with their friends for the feat of boldness.
It’s all beautiful. But it’s not the whole story, and the secret, often unspoken other half of any trip is this: everybody’s been there before you. No, really. Everybody. Yes, there are faraway places full of strange and wonderful and baffling customs, and you will visit them and eat strange and wonderful and baffling foods, and encounter people so shockingly different from you that there’s nothing to do but stand at the edge of a malfunctioning train tack together and giggle into each other’s eyes. Yes, there are countless hordes of people across this planet who have never spoken directly to an American, there are a lifetime’s worth of amazing and exotic corners to turn down in every new and dusty town. But no truly untried lands, or at least, few enough that I haven’t yet hit on one in 31 years and 33 countries. It is an incredible and humbling thought, and making peace with it is just a part of the longer journey I’m on as a traveler.
Maybe it’s the hardest part. And, sometimes, also the most important part.
We’re baking in the sun in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, a blissed out little beach town straddling the edge of the Indian Ocean oh-way down south. And “straddle” may be putting it generously. Unawatuna was all but wiped out by a mega-tsunami in 2004, and despite the government’s attempts to tighten building regulations and move restaurants and hotels further back from the soft, pliable shoreline, everything was rebuilt literally on the sand. At the moment, I’m sitting on the upper veranda of the Peacock Hotel, and if I took a running leap, I could literally jump into the Indian Ocean. It’d be shallow and I’d probably break something, but still. Lucky I’m not one to take running leaps. At least not indiscriminately.
I’ve got my first sunburn of the trip, which I feel minorly guilty about. I’ve also still got fleas, apparently, because I’m itchy on my arms and stomach and back. But I can’t complain. The water is bluer than the sky, and the sky is bluer than most skies I’ve seen in awhile. The view from Peacock is great.
Vendors are passing by with huge baskets of fresh fruits and sarongs and hand-carved Buddha statues and the fishing boats are motoring in and out and everybody’s lying comatose on beach chairs and towels. Emily and I are planning to hike down the beach to a Buddhist temple perched way way out on a nearby peninsula. We’ll probably eat some awesome food, too.
Here’s a journal entry I made yesterday morning on the train out of Colombo.
1/14/2013 – 6:32 a.m. – Train to Unawatuna, Galle
Got up way too early and boarded a southern-bound train out of Colombo. Sounds like a bad song lyric, I know, but then, there are no bad songs. Not really really.
Actually, we’ve no idea if or not said train will deposit us in Unawatuna, as we were given bunk instructions and boarded the wrong train entirely. Picture: six blue-shirted Sri Lankan railway employees crowded around our wrinkled ticket for the first-class 6:55 a.m. train, arguing and gesturing and scratching heads at the whistle blows at 6:25 a.m. and an engine on platform 5 roars to life. As a kind of default, most people around here say “Yes” to anything and everything, so they ushered us aboard on the quick, and as the train rolled out of Fort Station with us in tow, a conductor examined our ticket and shook his head.
“Different train,” he said. “But going same place.”
So. No first class A/C Observatory car for us. Not today. Instead, we’ve dropped out packs in a few empty second-class seats, wiped the early morning sweat from our foreheads, and resigned ourselves to a minorly lesser fate.
“You gotta roll with the punches,” Emily said, which compelled me to belt out a few lyrics from that old Steve Winwood song: “When life is too much, roll with it baby / Don’t stop and lose your touch, oh no baby.” I can’t sing, not really, but I do appreciate Mr. Winwood’s sentiment in a new way since landing in this place.
Today is still good. We’re ambling along at sunrise, the Arabian Sea washing up along an agatey-orange beach just 10 feet to my right, the old metal train fan whipping the stillish and already warm morning air into a pleasant, whirring breeze. Outside the window, the cows chewing and the pigs rifling and the world waking up to its business. Inside the window, the babies gurgling and the children pointing and the young men staring immodestly.
There are no bad songs.
Polishing off a cup of lukewarm milk tea on our first morning in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This city is gritty and noisy and friendly and completely disorienting. We tried to wander our way to a few sights yesterday afternoon but it kept ending up with us lost at the corner of some 12-way intersection or other, soliciting directions from earnest but very confused locals who pointed us in ever-widening circles until we gave up and hopped a rickshaw back to our part of town – Bambalapitiya. I still haven’t sorted out how it’s pronounced.
We’re staying at Hotel Sunshine. It’s got a shabby colonial vibe with that drab, spare Communist kind of aesthetic peeking out around the edges, just a bit. We keep ordering sodas and coffees and waters on the room service tab, mainly because it’s fun to get things served to you after a few weeks of budget-budget living, and it’s all like 50 cents, so who cares anyways? Although you never know just what you’ll end up with. A cold Diet Pepsi is liable to show up disguised as a warmish, sweating bottle of orangey Mirinda. Black coffee comes to you the color of butter caramel and tempered with enough spoonfuls of granulated sugar to set your teeth on edge. The poor front desk guy seems to be having some trouble deciphering our accents.
Then again, everyone does. I’m beginning to suspect that the American accent is a rarity in these parts. We’ll see how many others we encounter when we pick up the backpacker trail again, I guess. As it stands, we haven’t met any Americans in India so far, although we’ve heard American-sounding accents about 8 times. The best was this greasy, gray-gilled 50-something guy in Verkala, Kerala. He was wearing an oversized black T-shirt with “INDIA” written on it in huge letters, slurping a bottle beer, and wandering down the cobbled nighttime street mumbling in loud, North American tones about a stray dog who had saved the lives of everyone in a restaurant and that was the thanks it got? Yeah, don’t bother rereading that last sentence. it didn’t make any sense to us, either.
We’re off to check out whatever else this not-so-pretty city has to offer, and to purchase train tickets out of town on the quick. Tomorrow, we leave for the fabled golden shores of southern Sri Lanka. First stop: Unawatuna.
We’ve got a week here, and then it’s back to Southern India for a spell. I’ve been taking mad photos, but am having troubles with fritzy WiFi most everywhere. I have some awesome photos, so it’s kind of a shame. I’ll keep trying.