Spiritual Explorer: Faces in Sri Lanka
I see the faces washing past me
As would a rapidly moving stream
My eyes search for their hopes
Their dreams, fears, wants
And needs wishing to see
What it is they feel.
It’s an oddly different sensation to be in crowded place and not speak a word of the language, then to have every voice and word soak into your sphere of consciousness. I recall the last time I visited the States just this past Summer for some time after being outside of English-speaking countries for nearly two years, and finding it oddly difficult to cope.
For me, at least something of the comfort of being in a foreign country is being surrounded by language I don’t understand. It could be lonely, and often it is, but there’s something of the mysterious it lends to being near people, which I quite enjoy. It allows the mind space to wonder, and I find it nearly impossible to not do so. Curiosity, which fuels my wonderings, has been a constant friend to me, and here in Sri Lanka it has been no different.
Being so unable to understand Sinhala nor Tamil, the chiefly spoken languages of the people, gives me that space, but I struggle to not feel detached from my surroundings. Many people speak a smattering of English, but often it is only a few simple phrases they’ve learned to deal with the constant flow of tourists.
This is not the rule, of course: many people here have studied overseas, have been to a language school or picked up a decent amount of words from their own independent study. It’s easy possibly to hold an expectation for people to speak some English, and I try to stay away from that.
Still though, it’s led, over time, to a practiced engagement of other forms of awareness in interaction with people beyond verbal communication. Particularly, as I consider empathy as a function, paramount to our development as emotionally intelligent beings. To converse in depth on a subject lends such a radical ability to empathize with someone’s life story, and see the benefit their acquaintance can have of your own perception of the world, and vice versa.
At a loss of that, I instead use my eyes, my intuitions, and attempt to utilize the principled elements of my style of engagement to underscore my actions. There is a distinct style to Sri Lankan communication: the head gestures, the hands, and a closeness in the larger cities due to the density that creates rubbed shoulders. Light taps, or brusque shocks on the pavements, buses, and trains.
Then there are smiles, head waggles to direct, to instruct, to listen, as greeting, and as dismissal with their own distinction accompanied with knowing eyes. Hopefully knowing, because confusion is often, and simple tasks become lengthy at the slightest miscommunication of distance, or amount. A hand shake is long: it’s almost a hand hold with a slow rhythmic pump and light grasp.
Just some days ago on a short trip to the city center of Kandy – for the purpose of an early dinner as it so happened -the large park just across the main outdoor market played host to a campaign rally in preparation for the local elections in the Central province. The former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose political reputation here in Sri Lanka is a source of major debate, and has been for some time now, was a major weight behind the campaigns of the present officials.
Despite having been removed from office in an unsuccessful bid for his third term in office, he still holds a large amount of power in the tiny island nation amongst the Sinhala majority. His successor, Maithripala Sirisena, did not ascend to power with ease. Allegations that he attempted to remain in power utilizing military influence after it becoming evident that he was to lose the elections arose, and were denied vehemently by him personally.
Moving through the crowded park, and trying to catch the tone of the fiery speeches being made from the stage, and witnessing the reactions from the onlookers, it was difficult to gauge the mood. For certain, I did not feel a sense of fear in the midst of the throngs of people. A platform had been dedicated to a small group of laity near to the stage, women and children were present, and the general tone of the crowd seemed non-threatening, but it is hard to ignore the recent history of the embattled nation.
With war crimes having been committed on either side of the 25 year civil war, there is a wealth of information and eyewitness accounts to support the assertions of government-supported violence against civilians. The onset of the war is largely attributed to “Black July,” a period in the summer of 1983 in which riots led to the deaths of hundreds of Tamil citizens, and the looting and destruction of millions of dollars of property.
Many of the men I’ve met here roughly over the age of 30 played a part in the Army, Navy, or Air Force of Sri Lankan in some fashion . Seeing pictures and hearing of the past violence, and then coming in contact with the people, it is such a difficult fact to grasp. Of the Sri Lankan identity I can say that it has not been overwhelmed by grief, despite difficulty and although social, economic, educational, and cultural progression has been hampered by the internal conflict, their pride and resolve as a nation to rebuild beyond past disputes stands firm.
Still, I say this having come in contact largely with Sinahalese people, and having had not yet traveled to the far North where the brunt of the war was fought. I have heard incredibly disparaging comments made against Tamil people, and it’s worrying to think of the potential that some of the people I’ve met during my time here possibly engaged in some of the violence.
Having spent my schooling days a citizen of the United States during the Bush Administration, many young men and women I knew when to fight in wars I thought of as unnecessary and unjust. It was difficult to see friends leave and think they might not return, but in a manner particular to Americans, war seemed a distant fact of life than in so many ways.
I’ve seen in other countries the ways in which people have adapted to war in their own backyards. It seems to age a person, to add premature wrinkles to their face, and a heavy weight to their eyes. Small dangers, and brief contention, affects a person less so, and the risk of certain callousness if high.
As the country moves with hope into the future, some will wear those wrinkles on their faces like scars. Silently, with my eyes open wide, flitting through the stream of passers-by, I look for glints of a person’s soul as etched on their countenance. It is there, it is always there, and though lost in their words I find in their being a connection, a counterpoint to my own person. To empathize as a global community with our neighbors across seas, deserts, mountain ranges, language, cultures, and custom is an essential function of healthy emotion and disallows our conflicts to overshadow our existence. We cannot war effectively against people we care for as much as we care for ourselves.