Last morning waking in Randeniya. In just five days the roar of the honking trucks, buses, and tuk-tuks dulled to normal. We slept well, even in the stifling heat. We took turns with the one fan between the two volunteer bedrooms, and last night was not our turn. Nicholas and I, sad to be leaving, load our backpacks. We will leave mid-afternoon, after one last morning with Mali.
A surprise at breakfast. Along-side our cold fried eggs, noodle hoppers stuffed with coconut and sugar, a local breakfast treat. “And you, Puta, are you like some black tea or milk tea?” Dilhani asks Nicholas, addressing him as Son. Nicholas smiles proudly at the nickname. Later, he tells me she has been calling him Puta for a couple of days.
We hop on the bus. One of the few times during the day our phones reliably connect to the Mobitel cell network, we are all glued to our screens, trying to download email and upload pictures and messages. I look up for a moment and recognize nothing. Instead of women in yellow, pink and orange saris walking on the streets, I see women wearing hijab and black burqas. I turn around, but this bus is packed, and I cannot see Amarasiri to ask where we are. We eventually pull into the main bus station in one of the local villages. Amarasiri, laughing. At a junction, two ancient buses argued. Our bus decided to go right instead of left to end the argument. A different route today, burqas instead of saris, and a window into Sri Lanka’s multi-faceted society.
America is not the only melting to in the world. Sri Lanka is full of ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese who only recently stopped fighting a brutal civil war. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Buses, decorated with Buddhas and Hindu deities such as Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi. The Buddhas are often surrounded by blinking blue, orange, yellow and lime green lights. Dilhani occasionally prays to Buddha in the evening, though Amarasiri eventually corrects me. She is meditating and chanting, not praying. But, he adds, we do pray to gods. Which ones? I ask. Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi. Religion and ethnicity have divided Sril Lanka in the past, but the reality is that Sri Lanka’s many religions mix openly. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians visit many of the same pilgrimage sites, not just co-existing but often sharing each other’s traditions. We drive past temples, mosques and churches on a daily basis. I originally assumed the baby girls with large black dots in the center of their foreheads were Hindu, following some tradition unknown to me. Now, seeing the melding of the religions in real life, I realize I may have been wrong. I ask Amarasiri. He laughs. “We do that too, for Kavishka and Bhagya. I don’t know why. Every family does it.” Maybe Dilhani will know? “No, no. She does not know. Just part of our tradition.”
We make our way to the village, bus fight notwithstanding, and say our goodbyes to Mali. The first few days, we ate lunch in a small village restaurant. Today, Amarasiri takes us home for a special lunch. At the village restaurant, each day’s food looked the same. Rice, cooked vegetables, and something with very hot chilies. Dhammike, one of the volunteer coordinators in Kandy, told us Sri Lankans eat so many chilies “because chilies help kill germs.” Certain we were ingesting food with flora our intestinal tracts are unaccustomed to, each day I ate as many hot chilies in the village restaurant as I could stand. Each day, the chilies exploded in my mouth and throat and burned away the unaccustomed flora, along with the lining in my stomach. Nicholas eventually asked sweetly, “Do you think you were a little too big for your britches, Mom? Maybe you can’t eat food just as hot as the Sri Lankans…” Eating Dilhani’s lunch instead of the village lunch is a welcome treat. Nicholas, Dilhani’s favorite, praised her fried rice two nights ago, and we arrive home to find it on our menu one last time.
After lunch, Amarasiri packs us into a van to return to Kandy. As we are leaving, thunder and lightning pierce through the dark clouds above and the skies open up. An aticuba’s sweet call, somewhere between an owl’s hoot and a dove’s coo, fills the air between the jungle behind their home and the lull in the roar of the traffic in front of their house. We all hug, and I take a last picture of Dilhani and Nicholas. “I will miss you, Ama,” he says quietly. She begins to cry.
Dilhani, Ama. Mother in this universe.