Thursday, July 9, 2009

Village Heartbeat

The preschool children kept singing and marching barefoot in the ungodly heat. Every surface exposed to the sunlight looked bleached. My searing skin certainly felt bleached. The costumed kids, however, danced happily through a corridor of proud relatives (I hesitate to say parents...) as the procession wound from the school premises to the nearby temple and back again. The little troupers exhibited a resilience to the scorching sun that I severely lacked.

From Black Sand Journal
After taking photos of the Perahera (a Buddist-Sri Lankan cultural festival) for half an hour, the language barrier and high temperatures conspired to drive me crazy. I wanted to ask for names and ages, favorite colors and cricketers - what do you want to be when you grow up? But I couldn't. I smiled when the sun didn't compel my face to convulse with dissatisfaction. Essentially sulking as an adult, how on earth would I have handled the sweltering weather as a kid (with no football to distract me)? A tantrum of sorts, I suspect, followed by feigning heatstroke. Out of sixty-something preschoolers, I saw just one cry. I swear, kids today! - how I envy their temperament.

It is rural community like no other on this island - the literal English translation of its name is SugarTown. I volunteer for a local NGO that adopted this southern coastal region years before the tsunami occurred. It tried to improve the standard of living for impoverished villagers by providing children with educational material and their families with dry rations. On the day the tsunami hit, children from towns all along the southern shore were bused in to collect basic school supplies and backpacks. Those who could not run up to the temple were washed away by the waves. They say not a single family in town was spared losing a loved one. The trauma did not recede as easily as the tide. The harrowing search for bodies soon gave-way to the realization that by a whole generation of new orphans survived their dead parents.

From Black Sand Journal
Five years on, with the help of foreign and local donors alike, the NGO has rebuilt or restored over a thousand houses in the region. It established both a medical and dental clinic - services unavailable before the tsunami. English, computer and vocational training are offered to both kids and adults. The state-of-the-art sports center would sate any school in Colombo. Bryan Adams even donated a swimming pool. All that - housing, health care, education, recreation - free of charge.

Make no mistake - SugarTown is an entirely unique phenomenon. Rural stagnation is an epidemic in Sri Lanka's 12,ooo villages. Areas in the deep south are still struggling to recover from the tsunami after being left untouched by government relief. Though literacy in local languages is above 90%, the difference between realized potential and wasted talent is often a rudimentary knowledge of English that escapes most of the island's rural population. Even in areas where outside assistance is extremely pervasive, some of the renovated housing communities are slowly deteriorating into shanty towns. I saw young mothers cradle newborns in hollow door frames, using concrete bricks for chairs in otherwise unfurnished homes. Those villagers lucky enough to receive aid simply cannot earn enough money to maintain what they've been given. Even a child's free education comes with an opportunity cost to the poorest families. Reaching 10th grade is an achievement in itself, university for these children doesn't even register as a pipe-dream.

From Black Sand Journal
And this is what I've witnessed in the South - I cannot fathom the desolation in the war-ravaged North. The government makes it impossible to independently estimate the number of internally displaced people. The military conflict may be over, but there are countless other issues on the island that have gone unaddressed for decades. People keep referring to peace as a wonderful opportunity for this country to flourish, which I fear is a euphemism for rural development taking a backseat to commercial exploitation. In 15 years, I don't want Sri Lanka to be a land of hardened adults, who grew up in rowdy neighborhoods that discouraged them from dancing carefree down the street.

You can see the full album of my trip on my photography site.

Friday, July 3, 2009

No One Will Know

From Black Sand Journal

Though it can't guarantee no smoking, my zippo (more precisely, its engraving) promises no smalltalk. The aphorism comprehensively delineates what makes my friendship with Stefhan both compelling and durable, and it is the brazen model I'll adopt for this post.

Two weeks worth of private thought has woven together the bad patches of my past into a blanket personal philosophy. With some apprehension, I relived the moments that exposed my weaknesses, brought me to my knees, and left me feeling pathetic and worthless. Why I plummeted to such unbearable lows, I have recently learned, is intertwined with the fabric of my personality.

What makes me who I am? Let me start with what doesn't make me who I am. My nationality isn't obvious to me. Born in Vienna to Sri Lankan parents and the product of an international school education casts me as a cultural mongrel. My mélange accent is an apt testament to this. I am ethnically Sinhalese, but I can't even speak the language. Any attempt I make at pronouncing common words or phrases is often drowned out by laughter. My household has never been a religious one. My father raised me to be rational, not God-fearing. As for sexuality, I simply like people who challenge me. Ambiguity surrounds all the conventional characteristics of my identity. Because these traits don't narrow me down to a certain 'type' of person, they are about as useful as the thumb print on my pendant in describing who I am.

From Black Sand Journal
Who I am is wholly reflected in my personal choices. I don't hide myself behind labels. I do not identify with a religion to convert bigotry and homophobia into socially acceptable traditional values. I do not identify with a nationality or ethnicity to reclassify racism as a historical dispute. I do not identify with a sexual orientation to justify my behavior or dictate my social circles. I do not derive my 'wisdom' from a pool common to a community. I am accountable for my own opinions and actions.

But being exactly who I choose to be is both liberating and lonely. When I make a mistake, it is not a habit of my culture or religion or sexuality. It is just me. As my alcoholism began to bud with the flowers this spring, there was no way I could write it off as a part of the college lifestyle or my genetics. I made the decision not to drink this summer, supplemented with a wager with my brother-in-law. Now, whenever I decline to booze because of the bet to stay sober, someone always insists that "no one will know."

I am happy to say Dick Cheney is everything I am not. My mind could never follow a logic like: "3,000 Americans killed on 9/11 by Muslim extremists. I am American, therefore I am a victim and can authorize the use of torture on untried 'enemy non-combatants' with a clear consccience because it is all in the name of national security." Before Cheney tried to vindicate his sadistic orders, he acted like he never made any. Cheney vehemently opposed the disclosure of CIA memos that incriminated him (again, supposedly in the interest of national security). He carried out his most underhanded work as Vice-President assuming he would never be held responsible for abusing human rights. No fear of a guilty verdict, because no one was supposed to be aware of the crime.

But I fear my own recognition guilt. I do not know how to escape it, but the unyielding urge to neutralize guilt often foments the moments that expose my weaknesses, bring me to my knees, et cetera. I overcompensate or I realize later that the reasons for which I felt guilty were fabricated by people who act with no remorse. If vaccinating myself against guilt by disregarding my conscience is the only way to avoid revisiting those lows, then I rather be harmed than cause harm to others. I never want to share common ground with Dick Cheney.

Returning to why I still refuse liquor when confronted with that airtight "no one will know" argument? Well, I don't consider myself "no one."

From Black Sand Journal