I have been in Sri Lanka for about a month now, and I love it here. Each day, I’ve collected fascinating stories, read a mass of books, and eaten delicious food. I absolutely adore everyone I am living with so I’ve enjoyed many amusing evenings of laughs and conversations.
Also, the work I’ve done has been incredibly interesting. I initially shadowed doctors at the Negombo District Hospital, alternating through wards such as the mental health, occupational therapy, and rheumatology while learning about the health system in Sri Lanka as a whole. Currently, I am working with the regional epidemiologist of the area, the Auntie I am staying with, and we have been traveling around, checking different critical dengue sites. Furthermore, it’s been an emotional but pleasant experience reacquainting with extended family after so many years.
In addition to my work and spending time with family and friends, I’ve had a great time going out and exploring Sri Lanka. The mannerisms, practices and personalities of the people of Sri Lanka, coupled with the food and traditions of the country, vaguely remind me of my family and close friends. This familiarity makes me comfy and fosters a strange affection that I can best describe as fondness for the country as a whole.
Overall, I’m having a wonderful time and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.
Unfortunately, amidst all the exciting chaos of working, laughing, and exploration, I’ve forgotten some of the key practices I had been taught during the GGYF Summer Intensive, namely the need to communicate and connect with the community while traveling abroad. I realized this mistake while eating breakfast with Niesha, Nisali, and Nishala, the three girls I live with, on a Saturday morning.
We were all sitting in our usual places eating Kiribath, salmon and sambola (milk rice, salmon, and a spicy chili side dish). I was pretending to reprimand the girls in feigned exasperation as they giggled at me. Despite their adorable appearances and deceptively sweet demeanors, these girls loved to tease and scare the living daylights out of me. Today, Nishala, the youngest, had popped out as I was making my way downstairs, and I was so startled that I shrieked, grasped the railing for dear life, and nearly fell down the stairs. The girls were still snickering and imitating my reaction when Auntie Thushani burst through the door, clutching her stomach with laughter. We all stopped and stared, confused at the image of the usually poised Auntie Thushani grabbing the table, practically gulping for air. Before I could question her, Auntie gasped out, “Thilini, the whole neighborhood thinks you’re a ghost.” I snorted in amusement, not quite understanding what she meant, and asked, “What?” When she finally caught her breath and she explained:
As Auntie Thushani had been coming home from the usual Saturday grocery shopping, she noticed a small crowd gathering near the neighborhood watcher. When she approached them in her three-wheeler and inquired them, she was told multiple stories of a tall, smiling ghost with amplifiers in her ears drifting through the neighborhood. Allegedly, the girl would stalk the streets and when you looked upon her, she’d smile and then disappear. They asked Auntie if she’d seen this girl before and she, confused, had said no and asked the three-wheeler driver to bring her home. On her way back, she started to piece the time of the ghost’s arrival and the description together, and realized it was me—I was the ghost. It turns out that the entire time I had been living here, the neighborhood has been terrified of me, believing I was an undead soul haunting their streets.
We laughed so hard. All five of us were practically crying, desperately holding on to the table and screaming with mirth—we found it so funny. Between the laughs, we recounted the stories and attempted to reason how they came to be. The first and most obvious rationalization was that the mixture of Sri Lankan culture’s strong spiritual beliefs, my almost daily walks around the neighborhood, and my lack of introduction to the people, had caused them to believe I was a ghost. Also, the people had seen me riding in the three wheeler with Dharamaratne uncle, who on several occasions has driven me to and back from the hospital, but when he was questioned, he forgot. He claimed to have no recollection of driving such a girl and actually became scared.
My supposed tendency to disappear was also explained by another story. Apparently, Christy uncle, a man next door, was watering his plants when suddenly I appeared. When he looked at me, I smiled at him, but when he put down his hose and looked up again, I had vanished. I can specifically recall this instance, because it was the first time I had seen bananas growing on a tree. I had smiled at him, walked away, seen the bananas, and slipped into a lot near the house to examine them. There were several stories and sightings such as these that, together, led people to believe I was an undead spirit.
Though it was, and is, amusing, I did feel a little bad for making the residents feel so scared in their own homes. Because of my familiarity with the culture, the abundance of my friends and family in the area, and my Sri Lankan appearance, I assumed I would be instantly accepted if I was simply polite, but, despite all those things, I was still a stranger in that community. I should’ve engaged more, introduced myself and actively tried to connect with them because I was a foreigner in their territory. After this realization, I walked over, introduced myself to the neighborhood watcher and had a good laugh about the rumors. I also spoke with Christy, the man who thought I disappeared, and assured him I was a real, living girl. Eventually, I will make my way throughout the neighborhood and finally meet the people I’ve been living around for the past month—or maybe not. Perhaps I will disregard intercultural sensitivity and forever be immortalized as the ghost of Rukmani Devi Mawatha Road.