Monday, 29 August 2011

The difficult side of ex-pat life

Have you survived any natural disasters today?

This is the question I ask Hank now, every time I speak to him.  So far this week: just one hurricane and an earthquake.  But he - and our house - are fortunately still standing.   Hank has dealt with these things on his own, like a trooper.  

As for me, I just got back from a week in Sri Lanka - but not the swaying-palm-trees-pina-colada-on-the-beach kind, sadly.  My grandmother has been ill and my mother was advised to come to pay her last respects.  We, like other ex-pats of my mother's family, flew out the very next day, half expecting bad news by the time we landed.  We stayed with a kind aunt whose daughters plied us with sweet, milky tea and papaya from their garden, and her husband drove us to grandmother's house every day.   Perhaps the sight of so many family members buoyed my grandmother's health; she did perk up a bit for a while.  But we left her with heavy hearts yesterday, knowing she cannot survive much longer.

We call her "Archi." She has had a long and eventful life.  I enjoyed hearing stories from my relatives about their childhood in a country so far away from where I grew up.  My mother's awesome style of parenting clearly originated in what she learnt about child-rearing from Archi - keep 'em too busy to get into trouble, and always be just a little fearsome.   For my grandmother, a mother of twelve, raising the family was no mean feat.  I learnt how she and her husband had defended their children to the Police after a grumpy neighbour accused them of breaking windows which had simply expanded in the heat, then the same neighbour stole mangos from Archi's prize tree, and jealously put nails, spike-up, in shared parking spaces.  I heard how one of Archi's daughters was asked every Sunday at buddhism school by the monks if she had "performed any good deeds", and she relayed a list of ants she had saved from drowning.  The list became so predictable the exasperated monk soon stopped asking her.  Some would call this aunt cheeky but I think she was great; she -  not one of her brothers -  was the first of her generation to leave Sri Lanka for a job overseas, arriving in the UK in the 60s with a few pounds in her pocket, having never been to the west before.  She was not even 20 years old and had never seen snow.  She knew no-one.  No Lonely Planet guidebooks, no websites to prepare her.  The intrepid audacity of that woman is inspirational.  Now tragically she - and one other sister- are too unwell to travel to Sri Lanka to bid their mother farewell.  I guess in some cruel ways, an international lifestyle punishes the brave.       

Last week, Archi's children held an all-night pirith (blessings chanted by monks for family and friends) and a dhane (chanting and alms giving), to honour the 20th anniversary of my grandfather's death.  One of Archi's sons made a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura. There is little left to do now but keep Archi clean, nourished and close to her family and religion.  This burden falls solely to those in Colombo, to my own mother's great sadness.  I think of these aunts, uncles and cousins with respect and pride; we will be forever indebted to them.

My mum is getting old herself and is afraid of traveling alone.  She therefore returned with me to London when my job dictated.  We've visited Sri Lanka many times but have recently left bigger gaps between trips; this time over seven years.  And this time I really, really did not want to leave there.  It wasn't just because we were sad to leave Archi and our wonderful family.  Colombo has become a truly compelling place.  For years, whenever I went there I struggled to deal with the failing infrastructure - why were the roads in such a state, why didn't the government repair the buildings which had faces blown off by insurgents, and why didn't people have dependable water supplies and proper street cleansing services?  It annoyed me to see paramilitaries policing every municipal building and at regular checkpoints to always to have to show "papers" which I, a war novice, constantly forgot to carry.  I always blamed the war but was never sure it was really the heart of the problem.  I secretly worried that maybe that was just how Sri Lanka was. 

I was wrong.   How long has it been since the war ended?  Maybe three years?  Under a very right-wing, nationalist government [a fact which I'm ignoring for my sanity] the capital city is already unrecognisable.  I'm starting to think that I'm missing out!   The things which drew my mum to the UK in the 60s - the excitement and economic growth of a nation rebuilding itself after a war -  these things are evident in Sri Lanka right now.  It is an appealing environment in which to start a business. 

On my last evening in Colombo, a kind uncle took me in a tuk-tuk to Galle Face beach where kids traditionally fly kites in the sea breeze every summer, parents pack picnics and stalls display fried seafood treats.  It was busy but peaceful, immaculately clean and really magical.  It reminded me of the National Mall in DC, just with browner folks and curlier hair.  It was wonderful to see so many people enjoying themselves.  Were it not for my darling Hank, I believe I could happily move there tomorrow.

As I left Archi's house for the last time, the kind uncle gave me a small gift of 1000 rupees, just totally out of the blue.  To spend next time I come here, he said.  

His gentle and kind message was unspoken: don't leave it so long next time.

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