I realize that I am not good at writing about ordinary life—what I did today, what it was like, etc. I tend to write about little experiences and loony ideas and dumb stuff that happens. Thus y’all are justified in writing emails to me about how you can’t picture Sri Lanka or imagine what my daily life is like. Actually, “y’all” don’t write me emails, it’s more like “y’few” and thanks to the few.
Still—I want to help explain these things because my not doing so only makes the whole thing more elusive and seem heroic or brave or whatever, prompting people to go, “wow, you lived in Sri Lanka!” or whatever. Which is something that bothers me, because once you get a couple weeks in, it’s just the place you live, with its own boring hassles and small pleasures. It’s no more brave or adventurous than living in any new place. However, in order to demystify my existence, I’m going to try to write more about the ordinary and the bizarre aspects of life here. (Which may or may not prove my point.)
For example: a biggish hassle recently was the shifting-annexes process, not because I had a ton of stuff or was going particularly far. I moved, literally, down the street and around the corner, to another of the several annexes in Dangolla (my village) that are often occupied by foreigners doing research. A lot of Peradeniya professors live around here and so there is this English-speaking middle class that has connections and therefore are able to get very desirable foreigner-tenants. Anyway, shifting would have been a cinch. I borrowed some boxes from Yvonne and Judee, the Fulbrighters down the street, and got Sumanasena, the ISLE program driver/mastermind, to bring his van around to help.
I had not, however, figured on the monkeys. In the packing process I put together rather a large bag of trash, including some irresistible items like stale packages of snacks and bananas gone overripe. I put this bag out on the verandah (the only thing I miss about the old place) and continued packing inside. I should have immediately taken the bloody thing up to the front gate but that’s a bit of a hike—up a flight of stairs, through the landlords’ garden, up another flight of stairs, through the carpark, up the steep driveway. So I let it languish. Bitterly did I regret this choice.
It started with just one or two, poking their evil little heads over the parapet, but eventually there were about fifteen monkeys around the porch, on the upstairs and downstairs balconies, on the neighbor’s retaining wall, in the fruit trees… I tried to scare them off with loud noises and waving a broom but frankly I am sure they are smart enough to have figured out that I was scared of them. A biggish male sort of stared at me and snarled while going for the luscious bag o’ trash.
Meanwhile Sumanasena, who is in his late sixties, was carrying my boxes of things up the aforementioned hike to the van outside the gate. I tried to get him to run monkey interference for me (and not do all the work!) but he just sort of laughed at me… “they will be happy for a long time! It’s a big garbage,” and left me to whimper, slam doors, brandish my broom, and dash around the house in a panic.
It would have been cute, really, except that it was my porch and I was trying to move. They found the packet of hakuru, traditional sweets that are wrapped in strips of wicker, which are sort of annoying to eat because getting the wicker off or the candy out is tedious. It was pretty comical to see little monkeys having the same problems and getting mad at the hakuru. One of them was holding a bag of crunchy salty snacks up on her belly and stuffing them in her face like a little hairy couch potato. Adorable. However they were making the nice bundled trash into a trashstorm on the porch.
Eventually I heard the welcome sounds of gunshots. Actually, firecrackers, which are the usual monkey deterrent. They aren’t quite scared by them—they sort of saunter off once the noise starts—but it gets them gone. My eversmiling (really, he doesn’t stop) landlord was on the porch above, grinning and lobbing firecrackers after the monkeys and rocking his at-home outfit of stripy tank top and cargo shorts parting to reveal his rice-paunch. I waved up at him, and he headwaggled back and said, as if it made sense, “they will remove all the roof tiles!”
Then of course I was able to finish moving. No monkeys at the new place. When I got here, I put everything inside with the help of Sumanasena and Dilanthi, the 19-year-old daughter of the new landfamily (as Jill says), who’s a Sri Lankan national swimming champion and is waiting to hear from US colleges. She applied to 22 schools (including Swarthmore!) in the hopes that someone will give her full financial aid. She and her parents invited me upstairs for tea and cookies and bananas and milk-toffee, in the midst of all my grubbiness, and we ended up yakking about college for quite a while.
Ordinary life, right?