Spiritual Explorer: To Trust a Smile in Sri Lanka
Editors Note: This article is part of a series. Follow along as Jacob explores widely different cultures and places and delves into the spirituality, history, and people that make these places unique.
It’s as if I am wading through a curtain of warm mist. Every few steps it’s necessary to stop and take stock of my surroundings for a sense of clarity. There are waving green palms, brown faces similar to mine, but wreathed in smiles, and a deafening chorus of honking horns. Clouds roll away without haste, revealing a backdrop of pristinely azure sky. Crows call to each other in their singularly harsh manner from across the tops of trees.
Somewhere in all of this am I.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
[― Robert Louis Stevenson]
“In Sri Lanka, it is Almost Impossible to Feel Alone”
I am traveling by myself, but not nearly alone. In this tiny island nation of Sri Lanka, with some 21 million or so inhabitants it is almost impossible to feel alone. Only slightly larger than West Virginia, within the last five years the country has progressed from a long civil war to a period of stability and a wealth of potential.
None of these things is immediately noticeable while walking Sri Lanka’s narrow tuk tuk-choked streets, or riding the archaic train which is a relic from the British Empire. And especially while enjoying some freshly caught sea food in a beachside restaurant, it is the faces of the people, instead, their genuine warmth and hospitality, and an easygoing approach to life that values mutual respect, which strike me the most.
A small laugh, a handshake, a smile, and warm words of greeting are not difficult to come by here, and it is a highly appreciated change of pace.
Arriving in the Beach Town of Negombo
In my last post, detailing the unforeseen circumstances that brought me from Dubai to Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike Airport near the capital city of Colombo, I was led to question what purpose my being in Sri Lanka served. I was not entirely thrilled to have had my plans so disrupted, and had little enjoyed the flight to Sri Lanka. Unsure of what to expect, and with no plans or connections in the country on the night of my arrival, I settled into a small guesthouse after a 30 minute drive north and took a walk to the nearby beach in the town of Negombo.
It was quite dark as I made my way to the beach on unsure footing in the soft sand. Lights from nearby hotels that line the beach were barely reaching and reflecting on the shore in the gently lapping tide. The air was warm but not stifling, the salty air had a subtle taste, and for any of the reasons that brought me here, it felt undeniably worth it in that moment.
Sri Lanka: Something of the Marvelous
Aristotle once said, “In all things in nature, there is something of the marvelous.” As much as I’ve seen now of Sri Lanka, this reverberates through my spine. It is not a perfect place, I am not sure our earth knows perfection, but its flaws drown in its marvelous phenomena.
In ways in which I did not expect, I blend in here. I’ve discovered that, dependent on my manner of dress, it is possible to blend in here amongst the dark shades of brown skin. People approach me, speaking in the lilting cadence of the Sinhala language, and then generally disbelieve there is no one in my family of Sri Lankan heritage.
It is comforting, even if not true, and I find myself wishing that perhaps there might be someone in some distant ancestral bond, lost or forgotten, from an age before I could remember. There is a mutually recognizable sameness shared between me and the people here. It’s nearly impossible to make eye contact without exploding into a genuine smile as my new way of greeting people with whom I speak.
In the south of the country near a small beachside town slightly too overrun with tourists, I’m walking along the road and stopped by a young man driving a small truck. He says he noticed me earlier, winding my way along a back street near the train tracks, and insists to drive me wherever I need to go.
“A Few Steps Short of Pure Recklessness”
It isn’t typical that I accept rides from strangers on the shoulder of a highway. I think general common sense, along with a few unfortunate occurrences in past explorations, guides me to a certain level of caution that is at least a few steps short of pure recklessness.
Something about him is incredibly disarming, though. I accept, and we spend the day riding around the truck on his different errands. We speak in halting, broken English. He invites me to his home, and begins removing a big haul of large concrete blocks from the truck.
I offer to help, which he refuses profusely. He offers me a seat in his home, but is I think glad for the help when I insist. There will be a new addition to the house soon, he says, as his son proudly displays a collection of small plastic trucks. The father displays a collection of large plastic rugby trophies he won while playing for Sri Lanka’s national team.
A Sri Lankan flag adorns the wall. He explains he has for the whole of his life, excepting a short year spent working in Jordan, lived in this small town. He relates that he did not like living in Jordan and was glad to return to Sri Lanka to marry his wife. His brother lives in a similar house on the other end of the yard. We had driven past his father at some point in the day, standing and talking with friends, and we had exchanges waves.
“I Do Feel Like a Welcome Guest”
I do feel like a welcome guest. It isn’t an overwhelming sensation of being at ‘home,’ or whatever that might feel like, but I hadn’t expected in my explorations to stumble across a place in which I am so obviously welcome. Soon coconuts are brought in from the large yard, and he and I share lunch with his son in the small living room.
Perhaps so long a period of time traveling has led me to an unfortunate internal place that makes it difficult for me to trust in the kindness of strangers. Have I been equating a sort of hypervigilance to being sensible, rather than recognizing the paranoia which it may truly have been?
But here in Sri Lanka, I’ve found myself shedding that thick layer of pointed responses and barbed niceties, relaxing that one eye always left open in my sleep, which has been utterly draining me. I do try to always ask God to steer me in the direction of people to whom I stand to better myself from their company, or to those who need me in some way in which I can be of help.
“It is a Vulnerable Place to Put Oneself, Trusting Others”
I don’t consider anything that I’ve ever experienced to have been a loss, for everything is truly one big lesson. But I worry that the difficulties along the way have left me distant and cold. I understand the Buddhist perspective on trust which explains, “Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.”
I can attest that I’ve felt this separation from the people that surround me at times. It is uncomfortable and, like poison, it seeps its way into every interaction. It is a vulnerable place to put oneself, trusting others, but the reward is an antidote to that poison. I can only ask that God that will guide me along my way, and allow me to rest within that trust, and hope that He grants me that peace.
There is a place high in the mountains of Sri Lanka wherein reportedly lies a tooth of the Great Buddha enshrined in a large temple. Soon I will go there, holding no expectations, and not altogether sure what I will find.
Follow Jacob’s series “Spiritual Explorer” as he delves into unique cultures, spirituality, history, and people of the places he travels. Let us know whether you agree with his impressions.
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