We finished our elephant volunteer project Friday and returned to Kandy. The volunteer house in Kandy, packed with new volunteers, didn’t have space for us and we checked in to a hotel for the weekend. Truthfully, hot water showers, a fitness center, a pool, and a real mattress would have appealed even if the volunteer house would have had enough space for us. And this hotel is truly beautiful. Red, orange and purple flowers. Green grass under a green canopy, green lily pads covering a pond reflecting green light. Monkeys scampering from the adjoining botanical garden. Grounds meticulously swept by an old Sri Lankan man wearing a sarong and a “Mahaweli Reach Resort” shirt.
Saturday morning, I wake early, determined to enjoy every second of this day. Eating breakfast, we notice a Sri Lankan couple striding across the lawn, photographer and assistant in tow. The young woman is dressed in a bright red sari embroidered with crystals and gold, an elaborate headdress, and gold shoes. Her groom, wearing a Sri Lankan military officer’s uniform, trails a half-step behind. This is her show, not his. The hotel grounds are a perfect location for wedding photos, and this will not be the only time we watch this scene play out. I want to take a picture of this beautiful and exotic couple, but I do not want to intrude on their moment. Now a Middle Eastern couple appears to the side of our breakfast table. The wife, wearing a hijab, the husband wearing Western clothing. They are exotic and foreign to us. The husband pulls out his cell phone and begins snapping pictures of the Sri Lankan couple. He strides over and mimes taking a selfie of himself with them. Both couples, to us, are foreign and exotic. Different than us. But the Sri Lankan couple is also foreign and exotic to the Middle Eastern couple, and they to the Sri Lankan couple.
We ourselves stand out wildly here at our volunteer placements. The whiteness of our skin almost embarrassing. Our bodies, taller. For once in my life, I feel like a giant. Our bags, larger. Our shoes, heavier. Our clothes, unsuited to the climate. Sri Lankans stare at us and we stare at ourselves. One day, waiting at a bus stop to catch a connecting bus, a white elbow rests lethargically outside the window of an arriving red bus. Our heads whip around to see who this might be, traveling in this out-of-the-way place. Two Slovenian men, with backpacks at their feet. The seats next to them on the bus, conspicuously empty. I take an empty seat next to one of them, grateful to sit and curious about these white people. We speak briefly about where they have been and where they are going before they hop off to catch a connecting bus to the Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage.
In a pharmacy, buying vitamin C and cold medicine, an old Sri Lankan woman approaches Samantha and me, tapping us on the arms. Four and a half feet tall, in a delicate pink and ivory sari, silver hair in a bun on the back of her head. Smiling, she gestures to us and to her, then touches our arms again. This happens more than once in Polambegoda. Unused to seeing white faces and Western clothing, and unable to speak any English, it is simply a way to say hello, to find a connection with us.
Connections. I wonder about connections. We so often focus on our differences – and they are certainly highlighted for us here – but what about our similarities, the things that connect us, tie us together?
In the fitness center Saturday afternoon, a local sports channel displays cricket matches and field hockey games as Nicholas and I sweat on the treadmill and stationary bike. Cricket players, sports stars in all of South Asia, command a huge audience. In the field hockey match, a man from the Indian team plays wearing a turban. Cheerleaders in one of the matches cheer in yellow and orange saris. But at the end of the day: sports stars, athletic matches, and cheerleaders.
At Amarasiri’s house, Dilhani dressed the children in their white uniforms, worn by each and every child attending school in Sri Lanka, and packed curry and rice in their lunches. The children study Buddhism, Sinhalese, and Tamil in addition to mathematics, history and science. But each morning looked eerily similar to mornings in my house. Children trying to leave without combing hair. An older son running out the door each morning, late to his bus, one shoe on and one shoe off. A mother packing lunches. Backpacks. School buses.
Talking to middle schoolers, they tell of different hobbies than typical teen-age American teens – badminton, cricket, watching cartoons. But they also want to know what music we listen to, what movies we watch, what games we play. What version iPhone do I have? How updated is its software? What does my home look like, what does my husband look like, what does my son look like? They watch Harry Potter, Frozen, and Tangled. Some sit awkwardly, as middle schoolers do.
On the buses each morning and each afternoon, people hanging out the doors of the ancient red buses, spilling over into aisles. The buses, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles talk to each other constantly. At home, cars honk in a fit of road rage or to ward off an accident. In Sri Lanka, a honk can be “Hello” or “I’m coming” or “Thanks for moving” or “Watch out.” And sometimes, it seems, Just Because. But those same talking buses, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles are filled with workers trying to get home, reading a magazine, or trying to sleep in a seat on the bus at the end of a long day.
In the jungle with Mali, her mahout Samndha spent much of our last day taking as many selfies, photos and videos of us we took of him and Mali. We want pictures of the monks we teach and they want pictures of us. In the villages, we sometimes pass villagers who look grumpy. Perhaps we look grumpy to them. I sometimes feel uncomfortable, worried I don’t belong, worried that I stand out, worried I look different and can’t speak Sinhalese. But a simple “Ayubowan” and a smile, and the grumpy face lights up with its own smile. All of us a little afraid of each other, unused to our differences. But all of us able to share a smile.
In the swimming pool this afternoon, the Middle Eastern woman sits in long pants and a long sleeve shirt, her head covered by her hijab, feet dangling in the pool, her husband standing in the water in front of her. Both glued to their cell phones. Nicholas swims past them, and the husband motions to Nicholas and mimes a selfie with Nicholas. He wants a photo of a Westerner just as much as we want a photo of a Middle Eastern couple and a Sri Lankan wedding couple. Nicholas agrees to the photo. I myself would like a photo of the Middle Eastern man taking a selfie with my son, of this snapshot in time.
That evening at the Mahaweli Reach Resort, a buffet dinner. Lavishly decorated tables, some with Sri Lankan food, some with Western food, others with sushi, pasta, soup. A table with at least 25 different desserts. I am in heaven. Russian desserts, English desserts, Sri Lankan desserts, Indian desserts. A world banquet of sugar, honey, and syrup, chocolate and vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom, creme, fruit. Members of a Sri Lankan wedding party, a Russian tour group, the Middle Eastern couple, a group of older Indian women, an American mother and her son. Everyone in awe of the choices in front of us, we all overeat. Nicholas and I roll back to our rooms. We all roll back to our rooms.
We all. All of us. We. Human beings, separated by time zones, geography, religion, ethnicity, age, generation, tradition, culture. We have been privileged to learn about these differences on this adventure, to celebrate these differences. But we have been even more privileged to learn about our similarities, our connections, our ties.
As human beings, we are united by a desire to care for loved ones, make friends, raise children and keep them safe, obtain an education and find a good job, play sports, take pictures, read, watch movies and listen to music, travel to weddings and travel on vacation, share experiences, eat new food and eat familiar food, learn about travelers from foreign lands. We are united by our desire for life and our hope to make the most of this precious gift we have all been given.
And Nicholas and I, given the opportunity to see the forest of connections through the trees of difference.