Starting tomorrow I’m traveling around India and Sri Lanka and India for seven weeks with my mom, then sister, then friend and my travel and life guru Liz Gilbert has me convinced there’s no reason not to carry on.
Kandy > Colombo > Unawatuna > Galle > Yala > Ella > Kandy > Sigiriya > Jaffna > Colombo > Delhi > Amritsar > Mumbai > Goa > Mumbai > Mangalore > Kochi > Bangalore > Colombo > Arugam Bay > Kandy > Colombo > Seattle!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
When I first came back from The Gambia I would get really frustrated by people asking me, “Omg how was it??!” because I didn’t feel I could possibly encapsulate the intensity of that year of lived experience with just, “Omg so amazing!” and that’s all anyone really expects to hear. Most people know they would personally not ever sign up to live in a cockroach-infested hut and get harassed by machete-wielding strangers, but all that holding of babies and watching drumming and dancing and the endurance of the human spirit must have been really incredible, right? Maybe, I dunno, mostly it just felt awful so I told people “It was interesting and I learned a lot!”, because that sounds less racist than “I hope I never have to go back to that horrible place.” No one who hadn’t been there could possibly grasp it (and I didn’t expect them to) so mostly I decided I’d rather just not talk about it. I felt pretty crazy for a while. I made some bad choices out of a kind of psychic desperation and then made some more bad choices and then spent a year trudging through them. I couldn’t really imagine describing anything as just “amazing,” everything seemed infinitely more complicated.
But then I came here and I’ve been running in the ocean and eating coconuts in all kinds of forms and laughing with everyone. I feel different. When people ask me how Sri Lanka was my totally honest response will be simple: “OMG SO AMAZINGGGGG!!!!!!!”
I first came here in 2006 as a study abroad student and then I came back for vacation in 2009 and then I came back to work in 2010 and then I came back again now, in 2013, to work for the program I initially studied abroad with. My application for this job was so corny—full of stuff about how I wanted to facilitate a life-changing experience—but the reason I wrote all that was because it was completely true. In “Goodbye to All That” Joan Didion describes her feelings about New York and they are exactly mine about Sri Lanka:
…quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.
Four months ago my students spent their first night with their host families and the next morning they came back totally freaked out, which totally freaked me out. Would they not fall in love with them like I did? Would they not fall in love with Sri Lanka? Because my host family was what did it for me; I laid it all out in an alumni blog post I wrote for the program a year before I came back:
Cricket is one of Sri Lanka’s national pastimes and I still could not even tell you the most basic rules of that sport, but another national pastime is gossiping and I came into the ISLE Program with an already very well-developed background in oopa doopa (that means gossip Sinhala and it is the perfect word). This love of talking about other people is helpful in bridging cultural divides and after we got through the get-to-know-you formalities Amma (host mother) and I got down to business discussing:
1. People who act like they were meditating but probably are not meditating at all
2. Which girls are going out drinking like a bunch of harlots
3. If so and so is ever going to get married
4. Who has the prettiest saris and who has the ugliest ones
5. Which people’s children are poorly behaved
6. Whether that one lady is actually as good of a cook as everyone says
That last one is particularly important because Sri Lankans take their food very seriously. There are a lot of rules: someone else has to serve you your food and once it’s on your plate you have to eat all of it but without utensils, only using your right hand (not the left, don’t be disgusting). This was pretty hard at first—to ball up rice and soupy curries with your fingertips and get them all the way from your plate to your mouth, but it is essential. “Only with the fingers does the good taste come,” my Tata (host father) told me. (My Amma was a rare Sri Lankan who disagreed, eating with spoons as a vestige of her education at an English boarding school in Colombo.) So with my fingers I learned to love fried eggplant and curried lentils and coconut flat breads and special Sri Lankan red rice. My Tata fed me pineapples and mangoes and bananas that he grew and introduced me to new fruits like the prickly sweet rambutan. I ate so much that one evening he remarked to me, gesturing at my stomach that had expanded over the months, “Now your belly has come!” Fair point.
I liked other things too. I liked spending entire days riding in trains, I liked absorbing the knowledge and stories of my legendary professors, I liked walking on the walls of the old fort in Galle, I liked dipping my French fries in spicy ketchup, I liked making jokes in Sinhala, I liked getting drenched in sweat on my walk to school and getting drenched in rain on the walk home. I remember feeling deliriously happy. This is so embarrassing to admit, but each night during the week before I left I would pack a little bit and each night I would sob into my freshly folded linen clothes. I was worried I would never be that happy again.
How melodramatic! But it’s how I felt. And last night as my students were saying teary goodbyes to their host families I embarrassingly started crying again, remembering how I felt leaving that time. I know their feelings about Sri Lanka are more complicated than my psychotic, anthropomorphic love—it’s harder to be here your first time, it’s harder with a host family, it’s harder when you don’t have the horrors of The Gambia against which to compare your experience, they’re probably less crazy—but I was happy that I think they were at least feeling something similar.
I was going to open this by saying that I’m not really a big fast food person in the US, but that is actually not true at all. I just don’t eat burgers because I am a vegetarian, but I have documented my enthusiasm for Egg McMuffins (without sausage) and I also go to Taco Time all the time, which if you ask me is not even really fast food because it is so expensive, but I don’t think most people would agree.
I’ve been getting the same thing at Taco Time for as long as I’ve been able to eat and I think that’s part of the appeal of fast food—it seems like a really static thing. You can get a Big Mac pretty much anywhere in the world at any time in recent history and it would taste the same, or so I hear, I’ve never actually eaten a Big Mac. This article portrays the advent and success of something as basic as Doritos Locos tacos as a being a total coup in the industry because stuff just rarely changes that much. McDonald’s’ failed attempts at innovation have found a final resting place on this Wikipedia page of discontinued menu items, which I find endlessly fascinating. Did you know that in the 60s they were trying to figure something to offer for Catholics on meatless Fridays, so they ran two competing sandwiches: a Hulaburger in which the beef patty was replaced with a slice of grilled pineapple vs. Filet-o-Fish? Guess which one won.
Innovation in fast food is more successful abroad when adjustment to different palates almost requires certain adaptations, like the McFalafel in Egypt or the McSatay in Indonesia or the McRice in Taiwan (those are all real). I’ve always thought that walking into a McDonald’s in a foreign country is a great way to experience the local culture. This guy’s idea for an Epcot-style McWorld where you can get all the menu items available at all McDonald’s international franchises is totally genius.
Because of the predominance of different religious restrictions on meat eating in India, none of the country’s McDonald’ses serve beef or pork, which I think makes it probably the most innovative McDonald’s in the world. As a vegetarian I find this dreamily next level. I’ve “liked” Indian McDonald’s on Facebook and have been poring over their website for the past few days and I’m really only writing this post to show you all the things I’m going to eat when I’m there next month:
Veg Supreme McMuffin™
Grilled veggie patty, with soft mushy spinach at the core along with tender corn, uniquely baked to have a crisp exterior and a soft & tender interior. Additionally spiced up with tangy mint mayonnaise, tomatoes and onions to give you not just a good morning, but a SUPREME morning!
Masala Grill Veg
It’s the taste your tongue knows well. A bit of bay leaves, peppercorns, and garam masala sprinkled on a tastefully grilled patty create one lip smacking flavour. Packed between caramelised buns with a bed of fresh onion, this burger is as Indian as it gets.
Crafted specially for India, McAloo Tikki™ continues to woo Indian hearts. A combination of a potato and peas patty with special Indian spices coated with breadcrumbs, served with sweet tomato mayo, fresh onions, tomatoes in a regular bun.
Spice up your life with unique McSpicy™ Paneer. A balanced blend of freshly caramelized bread, tender and soft crispy coated paneer which has spicy and dairy notes, fresh crisp lettuce and creamy tandoori mayonnaise taste. McSpicy™ Paneer won’t only satisfy your need for spice but also satiate your hunger!
I went to my friend Tilak’s house for lunch the other day and it was the best:
- Saw a wild boar running around in that ravine
- Day drank Lion Lager
- Saw that Tilak and my dad were both sporting similarly ill advised glasses in the 80s
- Ate a delicious lunch with a type of pappadum I’d never tried before
- Talked to Tilak’s daughter Priya who is the most poised and mature 20 year old
- Fed fruit and nut ice cream to a cat
Before I came to Sri Lanka I’d been living in Seattle for twenty months which is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I stopped having to ask my mom for permission to hang out with my friends. You can make a lot of friends in twenty months (especially if half of them are just a matter of doing some rekindling because you’ve lived in that city a lot before) and if your mom isn’t the boss of you then you can hang out with these friends all the time! Last spring I had to implement a personal goal of staying home one night per week because I was tired and poor, but even still I think I was only succeeded in that a couple times a month. That was so fun! This post is not about coming to Sri Lanka learning the value of taking life a little bit slower.
But despite my protestations, life is slower here—there is nothing really to do after 7 PM in Kandy and I only have like one friend—so I have many evenings free and also I have more money because I’m not spending it on craft cocktails and late night nachos. When I ran out of online TV to watch (which was a lot) there was nothing left to do but naturalish beauty treatments, particularly because that kind of stuff is readily available all over the place in Sri Lanka and I’m a total sucker for it. I do not believe in any kind of anti-aging products that makeup companies sell, I think it’s patriarchal capitalism, but I’ll rub whatever organic oil all over my face if the internet says it will get rid of my wrinkles, so some variation on that is a big part of how I’ve been spending my time and money (okay, I still get beers and snacks quite a bit too).
Pictured above are some pieces of my new beauty regimen. Also, the view from my desk, which I have never once sat at because I have a bed for that. The only ones I really recommend:
- Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. This is how I brush my teeth now because I read online that is the same stuff as Crest White Strips which are the same effectiveness as expensive whitening procedures, but it is cheaper than even cheap toothpaste. And I think it’s working.
- Jasmine scented hair oil. This is some ayurvedic stuff that says it will help with hair loss, graying, and poor eyesight (last one seems weird). Mostly I like it because it smells amazing, like the flower offerings part of a Hindu temple.
And pictured above is a fun Friday night with a seaweed face mask and avocado hair mask. I’m never been better moisturized, but I’m excited to come back and spend my weekend nights in shorts and orange lipstick.
A few days ago I Instagrammed about this frog that was creeping in my bathroom, but at the time I was mostly thinking about how if he got in then a snake could too. That is still a relevant concern, but just now I went to wash all my ayurvedic hair oils out of my hair (upcoming post?) and screamed because there he was again, sitting right where I was planning on standing with bare feet.
I went back to my room, put on my Chacos, then wearing those and those alone I tried to nudge him back down the drain with a squeegee. That was a little scary because frogs are unpredictable hoppers and even though the internet says the warts thing is an old wives’ tale, he sure looked like he could transmit warts and that’s enough for me to not want him to touch my bare skin. The picture above was taken when I thought I was about to see the last of him.
Then I thoughtlessly turned on the scalding hot water and was about to rinse this jasmine and other unpronounceable types of oil out of my hair, but before I could get to it he’d hopped out of the drain again! Omg I was cooking him with the hot water! I felt really bad because just earlier today when I was making ramen I thought about that parable about frogs in pots of boiling water.
I decided to try to put him in a bucket and carry him outside, but it quickly became apparent there was no way that was happening, so I returned to the squeegee method and spent about ten minutes chasing him out of my bathroom, through my bedroom, through the living room, and out the front door, screaming every time he hopped in an unpredictable direction, which was about fifty percent of the times he hopped. Aahahhh!
When I was a kid I used to always demand that my mom sign me up for dance and then I’d always immediately hate it and demand she let me quit, which sometimes she did, but whenever she didn’t it just resulted in months of dragging me to class and paying for shiny Lycra outfits so that I could barely fumble my way through the recital, of course in the back row. (I also played right field in softball.) This kind of continued into my senior year of college when I would sometimes spend cold Maine evenings enjoying [something that is perfectly legal now in WA and CO] and then eating English muffins with like half a stick of butter on each one and watching Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew and just being completely mesmerized and thinking about how I needed to dedicate my life to dance—unlike all my earlier performances this time I’d be great, I was sure of it.
You guys, I’d serve the world better by dedicating my life to eating English muffins. That year I took a Bollywood dance class because at my college you had to take two gym classes before they would give you a degree in political science. The reasoning behind that requirement is almost as mystifying to me as why I genuinely believed that I would be really great at Bollywood dance just because I’d been to India before. I was not and at the end of the class it was just like back in my early days of dance—running around, flailing about, hopefully in vaguely the same direction as other, more talented people, my experience eating authentic curries notwithstanding.
I didn’t forget about these failures when I started doing dance class here in Sri Lanka, I just once again thought that this time they didn’t apply. Since college I have acquired a lot of experience freestyle dancing all over the place—hipster clubs in DC, swanky clubs in Delhi, rural villages in The Gambia, closed bars in Seattle, the American Red Cross, everybody’s houses, everybody’s cars—and I thought that now I was a pretty fly dancer. But first of all, I’m probably not. And second of all, I should have known from my unsuccessful attempts to watch Beyoncé’s videos and copy her moves that this is all still just some fumbling and flailing—when confronted with real choreography I am completely undone and want to throw a temper tantrum, just like in my early ballet days.
I was working as a bartender before I came to Sri Lanka and that job was so hard and mentally taxing and as I was about to leave someone I know said, “Oh restaurant work is great if you want to just have fun and not use your brain,” and I was like WHAT?! Office work is far better for that cause all you have to do is write enough emails to keep your head above water and then you can watch Hulu the rest of the day. Bartending was having to know what thirty different kinds of beer taste like and how they were made and where they are from and what they taste like in relation to every other beer ever made that some beer nerd has tried and rated online and then doing that while running around on slippery hardwood floors for eight hours in an outfit that is uncomfortable enough that it’s cute enough to get tips and then keeping all these beers and which beer nerds wanted them and when you last talked to them all in your head. And also not crying when people are mean. That is not mindless work for me.
I’m telling you this to say that I now have this same level of appreciation for the intellect of the Rockettes. Right foot forward, left foot forward, right foot forward, right foot back: that is like literally all there is to this one step and I did not ever get it down. Even the few moves I actually knew would completely fall apart as soon as I let any thoughts float through my head that were not The Drum Beat and My Arms and Legs. Class was in the afternoon when it is real hot in Sri Lanka so I spent four hours a week being really bad at something, getting yelled at in Sinhala for being really bad, and sweating the whole time. I wanted to quit every day and every week it got worse not better. But even though my mom wasn’t making me stick with it I still did. Know why?
Because I wanted to wear the outfits and the makeup and take lots of pictures and post them on Facebook and Instagram and get lots of attention. That’s it, that’s the only reason, nothing about perseverance or hard work or anything like that, just a weird kind of vanity. During the dance I of course did a really bad job and messed up a lot and couldn’t stop laughing, but the pictures got a lot of “likes.” These costumes were way better than the shiny, sequined Lycra of my youth.
I have really thin eyebrows right now. So thin I should probably also be wearing dark lip liner and some big hoop earrings to make it a whole look. It’s fine, I don’t really care, except I have had a couple of flashes of OMG OMG OMG when I’ve caught my reflection, but mostly it’s fine. They are really thin, though.
I guess I went to the salon with some hope of getting myself a couple of perfectly sculpted eyebrows, but I knew there was a pretty high risk of this happening so that wasn’t really my primary intention, mostly I just went because I love cheap salons. I like all the ways they have to make you look beautiful, but how maybe not exactly my idea of beauty (even when I’m in America a lot of them aren’t of my culture), but still at least they are making you look different for a low price: body modification lite for the broke and needle averse? What I think I like most about cheap salons, though, is that they are like this undercover establishment within which women can transcend their cultural boundaries because it’s hard to be acting too cool and fake when tears are streaming down your face, getting in the way of the lady who is trying to thread the hair off of your cheeks.
I got all the hair threaded off my cheeks, off of my entire face, except for these skinny eyebrows. I don’t normally think of myself as a super hairy person, but this lady assured me (in the kindest way possible) that I looked like a boy or a cat and that I needed this treatment. When it was happening my skin turned red and I squealed and she told me I was her white baby doll (not sure?). I learned some new Sinhalese vocab too—“ridenewa” in the word for “hurting”.
But still I’m going back tomorrow to get my arms and legs waxed, then again next week to get Kandyan wedding makeup done—red eye shadow, frosted lipstick, and 20s silent film star style foundation that will almost certainly not be very close to my natural skin color.