Monday, April 16, 2007

Enough At Last

Ella is between Colombo and Mirissa, the beach we planned to visit next, so Talia went on in the obvious direction while I backtracked to pick up my new passport and submit my visa application at the Indian High Commission. I hoped to get everything done and be on a train headed south by 5pm, and I was worried about what to do with my bag. We had left our things in the baggage room of Fort Railway Station, Colombo’s main interchange, during our last visit, but it had ended badly; when we claimed our bags five hours after we’d left them, the storage fee had quadrupled from the one posted on the wall. The attendant insisted that it had gone up at the beginning of 2007, but I was in a foul mood. We had been required to fill out a form with our names, passport numbers, and port of embarkation when we deposited our bags. There was also a space on the form for the amount paid, so I demanded one of the three carbon copies of the form as a receipt. I didn’t really want a copy, I just thought this might induce the guy to give us the fair price. He refused, and I insisted; apparently, the triplicates get filed somewhere important, because the attendant finally sent someone out the door and into the city to make a photocopy. Our train was waiting, so we left without the receipt, and the attendant never yielded on the price. But after we’d squeezed ourselves into second class, the baggage room attendant stormed on, pushed through the crowd, thrust the receipt at Talia, who was closer to the door than I, and told her to tell me to “fuck off.” She did, with pleasure.

Obviously, I didn’t want to leave my bag in the care of someone with a grudge, so that meant I might be carrying it around all day as I traipsed around Colombo. I had spent my whole trip trying to make my bag lighter, so when I went through it again before I left Ella, it was hard to find anything I considered non-essential, but I finally parted with two things, my copy of Light On Yoga, and my set of 15 colored pens. As far as the yoga book went, I hadn’t felt like practicing for several months, and I figured if I was so moved one day, I’d just do the postures that I felt like doing, which wouldn’t be the ones I had to look up in a book.

Despite the mangled beggars bringing their hands to their mouths in supplication and the begrimed children singing out for “onepen,” or “schoolpen,” I had never given a rupee or a pen to anyone during the entire time I’d spent in this part of the world; such a small amount seemed an insult to the magnitude of the problem, like throwing a pinch of talcum powder on a burning baby, and besides, it was easier to ignore the need than try to choose where to bestow charity in such an on overwhelming sea of poverty. But I had been carrying my set of colored markers for months, and I had used them twice, at most. They were in my day-pack during my last walk in Ella, and when a pair of children waved at me from a field beside the tracks, I beckoned to them. When they arrived, I opened my pencil box, took out all 15 colors, and placed them in their open hands. The kids ran towards their hut, beaming; their parents smiled gratefully as I passed. What remained, three graphite pencils of varying hardness, a gummed eraser and a hard one, and one pen, rattled inside their plastic pencil box as I walked on.

It was a pleasure to give what must have been a windfall to those children, and my load was a little bit lighter when I shouldered it for my return to Colombo. The sleeper ticket I bought for the journey turned out to be a seat in a hard, slightly reclining chair in a car with a fluorescent light that never went off, so I was surprised when someone woke me up at 5am because the train had arrived at Fort Railway Station. I sat on a bench beside the track for a while, staring bleary-eyed ahead and considering how to go about my day, and then I went to the baggage room. Luckily, a different attendant manned the desk, so I went to Galle Face unburdened. Nothing, not even the Barista, opened until 9am, which was when the U.S. Consulate was scheduled to open, so I wandered around looking for a pleasant place to sit. I never found one, but I did get my new passport, finally. Then I walked down to the Indian High Commission and stood in line for four hours to submit my visa application. That done, I went back to the railway station, picked up my bag (paying the same quadrupled price as the last time) and boarded the five o’clock train.

The beach at Mirissa is a long, straight, unsheltered stretch of pounding waves and pristine sand with a jungle covered headland rising on the west end and a cluster of enormous rocks marking the east. Although there are a fair number of resorts and restaurant just above the high-tide line, none of them were full, and the beach was too long and wild to feel busy or crowded. Clumps of people playing in the waves sometimes dotted the water, and a few people emerged for a stroll around sunrise and sunset, but the surf was so loud that you couldn't hear anyone until they were very near. For the first five days Talia and I shared a front row bungalow with a view straight on to the water, but Talia was restless, and on the sixth day, she flew back to India, where we planned to meet up in about a week.

remains of a restaurant

Time is different by the sea; I wondered why the passing seconds, rolling up on the beach in audible increments, didn't resound as an exhortation to hurry up and accomplish something, why they did the opposite, lulling me with their eternal retreat and return. My days alone passed uneventfully, marked only by breakfast and dinner coupled with a morning and evening stroll between the ends of the beach. I took a few hikes, and caught the bus to a nearby town once or twice. It also dawned on me, finally, that I didn’t actually need a computer to write, so I spent a lot of time at the table on my porch, staring alternately at a piece of paper and the waves. Now that I had abandoned the book, I began practicing yoga again, and I made some drawings, using my pencils more than I had during my entire trip. It's funny how we'd rather do things when we're not expected to, by ourselves or anyone else.

A few days before my departure, during my usual early morning stroll, I walked down to the rocky end of the beach to search the high-tide line for sea-glass before turning toward the west end. Glancing to my right, I saw a Sri Lankan male doing something with his pants. Assuming he was going to pee against the tumble-down wall he was standing in front of, which is common, I looked toward the ocean. When I turned my head again, the man was looking straight at me, and had an organ large enough to be visible at that distance in his hand; he wasn’t using it to urinate, either. I looked quickly away and kept walking, flushing first with embarrassment, then with anger. Then I stopped, turned around, and shouted, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” The man just smiled wider and waved, with his other hand, of course. He obviously had no shame to be appealed to, so I kept on walking, willing myself not to hurry. At that moment, I wished I had a sheet to wrap myself in despite being modestly dressed already; when the incident sunk in a little further, I wished I had had a stick to poke out that guy’s eyes.

It took me several hours to cool down, but by late afternoon, I had put it aside. The rocks at the east end of the beach harbor several connected tidal pools, and as Mirissa’s waves are violent, that was the only place I felt safe snorkeling. So, I walked down there, put on my mask, and floated face down in a pool, holding onto a rock for stability as the water was drawn out and replenished in time with the waves breaking on the other side of the rocks. The pools were no more, and sometimes less, than a meter deep, and I felt like the god of a goldfish bowl; my body cast a swaying, continent-sized shadow on the sandy terrain beneath me as small, bright fish flitted through the dark patch in search of sustenance, unaware of my enormous, hovering presence. After a while, I brought my head up and knelt in the water to clear my mask, which has a small leak. It also has prescription lenses, so I could make out clearly the two Sri Lankan men standing on the top of a nearby rock watching me. Used to being stared at by this point, I stretched back into floating position and made my way through a gap to another small pool. Soon enough, I had water in my mask again, so up came my head. Glancing where the men had been standing, I saw there was now only one, and although he was slightly more furtive about it than the man from the morning, he looking down at me, masturbating. This time, my reaction was different; I resolved to continue what I was doing, undisturbed. The thought that went through my mind was, “you can masturbate all you want; I’m snorkeling.” The next time I came up to clear my mask, the man on the rock had put his equipment away; his friend had returned and was calling him. Although I couldn’t understand their Sinhalese, from their tones it sounded something like, “hey, what’s taking you so long?”
“Just watching this girl.”
“Well, hurry up, you jackass.”

Maybe it would have been more appropriate to get out of the water, hide under my sarong, and walk away, but that would have been a defeat. Why should I have to hide indoors because of another person’s behavioral problems? Both those men were at least four meters away from me; since the threat wasn’t physical, wasn’t the only power they really had over me the power I gave them? That was all I had, choosing how, or if, I'd react; if I didn’t let their behavior affect me, then they didn’t exist, right?

Wrong. Although I really did enjoy the rest of my afternoon snorkel, and I climbed up the very same rock to watch the sunset, those two incidents brought a mood that had been growing for a while to fullness. Sure, I’d managed to remain detached, but there comes a limit; there are situations you just don’t feel you should have to be faced with. All at once, I knew I was bone-tired of the difficulties of being a white woman in South Asia (where 99% of their pornography features busty, b-movie blonds), I was tired of being a walking dollar sign, and I was tired of the million little things that are so much harder to accomplish in a foreign land. I was tired of it all, and I was ready, finally, to go home.

But it was March 17th, and I still had 16 days until my flight departed from Delhi. I figured that it would be more trouble than it was worth to change my ticket again, and I had already applied for my new Indian visa, so I enjoyed my last days in Mirissa as best I could, picked up my visa in Colombo, and landed in Chennai, India, with two weeks to go.


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