I enter the train station trepidatiously. A foreigner-with-fancy-suitcases-and-tennis-shoes, I stand out against the locals in a sea of sandals, sarongs and saris. We board the train without incident and peer out the windows, eager to begin our journey. The train jolts and lurches forward; we travelers settle in.
We peer our heads out of the windows, breathing in a combination of warm-wind and train-smoke. The train clacks and bounces, while the intensity of both the beauty and the poverty rolling past our windows leaves me silently choked up.
How do people manage to live like this? I wonder. But they don’t appear to be asking themselves any such questions.
“The people seem happier here,” my ten-year-old daughter observed. I have not spoken with them–I don’t know if this is really true or not–but from my train window, I notice the same thing: there is a contentedness to simply be that I do not often see in my wealthy-and-developed-world.
Shop owners chat. Children walk alongside mothers. Three-wheeler drivers await customers. There is no urgency to hurry or consume or buy.
Who am I amidst this place? I wonder. My external trappings carry no label except white and wealthy foreigner. There can be no other put-on identity–funky, classy, intellectual, hip–except for this very obvious one.
It is undeniable that I do not belong here; but in spite of this, I cannot shrug the sense of strange belonging that comes with being a foreigner-wife. I am not merely a tourist in short shorts trekking the ancient ruins and soaking in the breathtaking shores, but a family member, returning to the same people journey after journey, eager to see the small changes, check out the new developments and embrace the arms that have held my babies. We may not share language or culture or skin or fashion, but we share the same love for the same hearts. This bond holds us steady.
For nearly fifteen years now, I have traveled here. The change since the civil war ended four years ago is marked. While the politics of such progress leave much to be desired, it cannot go unnoticed that walls have been torn down, flowers planted, streets cleaned, highways and sidewalks built. A foreigner entering today might not notice such things, but I see them, and my heart sings for the little signs of peace that slowly creep their way into this place.
I spent Christmas Eve in a sanctuary under a fan on a basket-woven pew relishing the voices belting out, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” Indeed, it is joyful to watch the faithful come, to join their voices for a moment and remember what it is not to indulge, but endure. Under these same fans, they have also sung their beloved Hymn for Ceylon with both deep sorrow and great hope.
Jehovah, thou hast promised, the isles shall wait for thee…
And wait they have, through a long and brutal twenty-five year civil war. Though the country’s beauty may suggest otherwise, there is no history of peace here. The battle was long and the consequences crippling. The family speaks in hushed tones of unspeakable atrocities and the newspapers tell stories of conflicting truths. While peace has begun, there is still so very far to go.
The jolting of the who-knows-how-old railcar shakes us all, and we hold on tightly as the train speeds along. The foreigner in me resurfaces, and I remember that soon I will return to my sanitized world of air-conditioning and smooth roads and clean(er) air. There will quite certainly be moments when I forget the hope-filled and enduring tunes sung here. I will, sadly, stumble back toward my native ways of consuming and indulging.
I am no story of perfection.
I am, however, just like this beloved country–a story of slow and broken progress. I, too, have so very far to go in my ability to live mindfully and simply in a world of harsh and conflicting truths. The battles will rage within, but perhaps more quietly with time. My tennis shoes and I will walk ourselves back across the globe, perhaps a bit dirtier on the surface, but humbled and grateful to have been scrubbed clean from within.
I spend my days learning about life from resilient immigrants while I supposedly teach them English, about joy (and handsoap) from my curious children who still love to dig bugs up in the back yard, and about hope from the faithful husband who walks through all the breaking and healing moments with me. We’ve moved from DC to The Cornfields to LA, with an occasional jaunt to Sri Lanka to stir the pot. I write about intercultural life at Between Worlds, a blog about living on a bridge between worlds, trying to find the links that make it all go round.
Image credit: Jody Fernando