Groundviews

For the Blink of an Eye

Image courtesy Virtual Tourist

I almost always enjoy my time in Jaffna.

Riding on the AC-bus to Jaffna is a no-brainer for me. It’s a long ride; the extra 450 rupees is worth it.

In Sri Lanka, I have witnessed fistfights, protests, vigorous debate after a car accident and even some mild vigilante justice after an incident of sexual harassment. I thought I had seen anger firsthand here; then I got on a Colombo bus headed for Jaffna that was supposed to have air conditioning.

Things were fine for the first hour, until we arrived in Negombo.

At first I am not even sure that I noticed. I was lost in an Ondaatje novel, Anil’s Ghost.

I heard loud voices towards the very front of the bus. I still only know a smattering of Tamil and do not understand Sinhala at all. Yet body language rarely requires translation. I took my eyes off my book. Seated in 16A, I could see and hear everything. Two older men, perspiring heavily, were giving the guy who had checked everyone’s tickets an earful.

I turned to the man sitting next to me; he was reading today’s Daily Mirror.

“What are they saying?”

The guy next to me said that he had no idea; he was from Jaffna and did not understand Sinhala either.

Eventually the men stopped screaming. I guess there was nothing that anyone could do. Both were drenched in sweat; they looked just like I (almost always) do!

Sri Lanka is a hot country. For me, air conditioning is a luxury here. This means that I am constantly sweating. Certainly, particular times are more sweaty that others. In Colombo, I am certain that the non-AC buses (departing from anywhere and going anywhere) are the hottest places that one could be before noon.

Then it hits me; I have been so engrossed in my book that I have failed to realize that I am now perspiring heavily and have already sweat through the front and back of my cotton shirt. Even for a perennial sweater like me, normally that does not happen when I am stationary.

I looked around and everyone I laid eyes on was hot and sticky. In a way this was comforting. Usually I feel like Sri Lankans are immune to the heat and that only other foreigners and I are the ones whose bodies seem to notice the weather.

At around 6am we get into Jaffna; I have not slept a wink and am pining for slumber. I could walk to the place where I am staying, but opt for a tuk-tuk instead.

The driver appears to be either heavily caffeinated or extremely curious (or both) because he will not stop talking to me in his surprisingly outstanding English.

“Do you like Sri Lanka? Do you like Jaffna? Do you like rice and curry? Do you like spicy food? What are you doing here? What country are you from? Do you miss your home? When will you be returning to your home?”

When I’m without coffee and also sleep deprived, I am not a nice person. But this guy was so effusively inquisitive, so genuinely curious that I just could not lash out at him.

“I like this place…a lot, excellent food. I have met many nice people. I have met other people who are not so nice. I still do not understand how people are able to drink tea with that much milk and sugar.”

Besides, if I am going to being sweating, Sri Lanka is not a bad place to do it. Okay, the nightlife isn’t great, but there’s quite a bit to see and do.

There are times when I have troubling communicating with people; that can be frustrating.

I wish that my linguistic ineptitude were not so profound, but I think Romance languages are as far as I’m going to get in this lifetime. Whenever I’ve had an especially productive day, I’ll head home and try to study Sinhala or Tamil. I stare at the words. I look at the way they are supposed to be pronounced. I may even speak out loud a couple of times. Yet I retain so little. The knowledge enters my brain, but usually exits shortly thereafter. After about thirty or forty-five minutes, I am left feeling weak and powerless. Then I normally read the papers, maybe have a couple drinks and relax. Eventually I forget that my brain is too old for learning new languages and repeat this process the following week.

What I should have told the tuk-tuk driver is that I am not sure that I have ever spent time in a more complicated, interesting place. I am not sure how anybody could have packed more natural beauty, tension and history into one island. And, at times, I am still surprised to think that, for the blink of an eye, a white guy from a Red State called Sri Lanka his home.