Photo by Dominic Sansoni
It’s really weird to live in a place and then to come “home” and feel like a stranger there too. It’s unusual to be thinking utensils are superfluous and that all this air-conditioning is making me cold. Yet, throughout the summer to early fall – from Texas to New York to Maryland – the utensils sometimes seem to be getting in the way and all this A.C has been making me chilly. With winter right around the corner, I’m in even more trouble.
For starters, I miss the people in Sri Lanka, or at least many of them. And I still believe that Sri Lankan cuisine is the best in the world. I miss buying and holding newspapers, but I don’t necessarily miss reading what was inside – too many typos, too little analysis or decent writing even and too many large blocks of text which are just anodyne quotations. I miss browsing for books in Barefoot and eating lunch at Green Cabin on a regular basis.
It feels strange to miss both the fun and the annoyance of tuk-tuks. Many people, including this writer, might be surprised at how popular Uber has become. A few weeks ago I was in a trendy American bar talking with a friend of a friend. It was getting late and he asked me if I wanted to “do an Uber.” I told him that I was trying to stay away from that stuff. He gave me a strange look and we quickly got back to our drinks.
And yet things in Sri Lanka don’t seem to be too inviting either. Writing for special permission just to visit the North? Really? I saw that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un had disappeared recently. Maybe he had time to give President Rajapaksa a few pointers; after all, everyone needs role models.
I miss the island as much as I don’t miss the island; there’s good and bad and ugly and even personal stuff that I’m barely ready to ponder let alone write about. There’s a unique kaleidoscope of experience, emotion and desire captured in a single island – one where dreams die, where hope abounds and where everything left in between matters too.
I’ve been bouncing around the U.S. recently, but have been spending most of my time in Washington, D.C. I’ve had the privilege of speaking with some extremely thoughtful, generous people – at think tanks, NGOs on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. I keep getting reminded that – professionally speaking – I need to “branch out” and “look beyond Sri Lanka.” I keep hearing that Sri Lanka is “very small,” among other things.
Nonetheless, Sri Lanka remains – by virtually any standard – a fascinating place. And the way the war ended is still relevant – not just on the island, but globally. We’ve heard ‘never again’ too many times to actually believe that; Syria’s civil war further reinforces that notion. Nonetheless, this should give people all the more reason to watch Sri Lanka from afar; since this is exactly how not to win a war. Since this is another deeply troubling example of how the international community continues to fail. And because if we keep overlooking the lessons of the past, we will continue to make the same mistakes.
It’s a complicated issue, but the stark reality is that humanitarian endeavors still haven’t caught up with the pace and complexity of violent conflict. When that will change is anybody’s guess, yet there’s little to suggest that the end is near.
There’s something else too. There’s something about Sri Lanka that some outsiders can’t shake. Perhaps it’s the people, the history, the culture, the politics, something else entirely, or a mix of things. Regardless, I keep running into people who’ve never really left Sri Lanka. And then, at least for a fleeting moment, I don’t feel alone on this issue. And I love that. I love that there are others who have been swept up in that same beautiful storm, perhaps a delicate medley of fear, emotion and longing – only to depart from the island knowing that quitting is for losers and that the truth waits for no one.
Taylor Dibbert is the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.