By Adriana Cefis
* This post mentions sexual harassment
I feel the need to start this post off by saying that the negative experiences detailed below are in no way representative of my time in Sri Lanka thus far. In fact, I often forget they happened. This is partially because so much is constantly happening here. Yes, the pace of life is much slower than at home, but at the same time so much is new to me – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the culture, the responsibility – it all feels very happening. At times, overwhelming.
At work, I research the implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This project has involved a significant amount of field work on my part. Among other things, I have discovered that I enjoy talking to people much more than I do sitting behind a desk from 9-5, reading other people’s research. The personal connection is what has made the work interesting for me. It has also instilled in me a heavy sense of duty: to write something compelling and nuanced that grasps at the complexity of the issues people from a variety of communities have shared while also speaking to larger structural problems. But I’ll leave that for a different blog post.
I’ve also had a fair number of personal distractions. On weekends, my friends and I travel, and let me tell you, other memories were quickly washed away and replaced by the time I was ejected from an inflatable boat and thrown over a few rapids whilst white water rafting. We accepted the recommendation for what the contact of a new-friend advertised as a “beginner’s” rafting adventure without much thought; the spontaneity of the decision seemed fitting in a country where plans are fluid. I’ve since been told that this activity is dangerous, especially in off-season when the water is wild from the excess rain. Luckily, we’re all fine. We are outsiders, but we’ve become comfortable outsiders, at times trusting our surroundings to a fault.
I could share a number of positive experiences I’ve had and ways in which I’ve made little changes to my life, not because I’ve felt particularly pressed to do so but because I am comfortable.
This comfort was not present when I first arrived, but grew steadily over time. It took me three days to learn how to cross busy intersections – “you just have to start walking” – eventually I lifted my hands up like Moses parting the Red Sea and prayed for the best. I also used to refuse to take tuk tuks alone after dark, opting for uber instead (until my friends pointed out that you can be locked into an uber). These precautionary measures marked the beginning of my stay, but they aren’t what I would tell you about now. Now I would tell you about how I’ve cut my nails short and learned to eat with my hands, and how much I look forward drinking fresh and frothy fruit juices in the peak heat of the afternoon. I would describe how happy I was to discover that the pineapple here is sweet and doesn’t cause my tongue to tingle uncomfortably. I would talk about how easy it is to make friends, especially with Colombo’s large network of short-term interns. I would rave about how helpful and kind the locals have been (provided they’re not driving, at which point road-rage takes on a whole new meaning). In fact, when I got water-poisoning on a weekend away in Kandy, the hostel owner offered to drive me to the doctor’s office and find me a ride back to Colombo (approximately 120km away).
All of these experiences contributed to my comfort, and feeling secure, I eventually let my guard down. This process happened so steadily I don’t think I was consciously aware of it. But at times, that comfort has betrayed me. On one occasion, my friends and I were bargaining with a tuk tuk driver. When he refused to lower his price, we moved to the next tuk, and its driver agreed to charge the amount we wanted. Before we knew it, several angry men including the previous tuk driver surrounded us, and one of them slapped our driver. My first instinct was to raise my voice and protest, luckily a good friend had the common sense to point out that we were about to be trapped in the tuk tuk and should leave before matters escalated.
On another occasion, I took the train alone between Kandy and Colombo, leaving my friends behind because I had water poisoning. I rationalized the decision to make the journey by myself because it was the middle of the day and I was sitting in the “pregnant mothers” section. To my credit, all my research pointed to these choices as safe decisions for solo female travellers: travel during the day, trains are fine, sit in the family section. But that didn’t stop the man who sat next to me from stroking my upper thigh and touching himself. If you’re wondering what happened, I promptly stood up and screamed at him until he left. My larger point here is that up until that moment, my biggest preoccupation was trying not to vomit on the train. When the man sat a little too close to me, I blamed my North American standards on personal space. After all, the train ride over was so packed people were practically falling out of the doors – western rules on capacity definitely don’t apply here. When the strange behavior persisted, I told myself I was being paranoid. I refused to trust my own instincts.
While I consider my comfort here in Sri Lanka to be a beautiful testimony to my relationship with this place, the truth is that it has nearly gotten me into a trouble a few times. As exhausting as it may be, I do feel that an extra sense of self-guardedness is required here. This might seem evident; to the Adriana from 2 months ago it certainly would have been. To this I have two responses: firstly, things are different when you’ve spent time in a place, made friends, and learned to walk long distances on sidewalk-less streets without getting hit by a tuk tuk or accidentally stepping on exposed wiring. The once unfamiliar place I mostly knew for its 26-year civil war, the 2004 Tsunami, and reports of harassment from fellow female travellers became associated with happy, personal experiences, and these experiences made a difference. In my comfort, I thought I had earned some sort inside knowledge on how to avoid these situations. Secondly, I find this need to constantly be aware of one’s surroundings suffocating and burdensome. Sometimes so much so that I unconsciously abandon it.
Living in Sri Lanka is not easy. I don’t think I can afford the luxury of mindlessly doing things here without somehow compromising my safety. However, I also feel it’s fair to say that if you do stay on your guard you will have some beautiful, unparalleled experiences.