The students arrive

My first week and a half in Sri Lanka was over. To a ten-year-old several weeks represents a significant amount of time to adjust even to such a vastly different culture.  In less than fourteen days I had transformed my diet from peanut butter and bread to bread-fruit and rice and had opened up to the sights and sounds around me. I had only scratched the surface of what I would learn and experience, but I felt like an expert. When the day came for the students to arrive from the United States, I explained to my parents that I felt it was important I accompany them to the airport to meet their flight. I wanted to reassure these new arrivals that any anxiety they were experiencing was normal and that they would get used to the unusual smells, hot climate and colorful markets.

Nineteen bleary-eyed students emerged from around the corner where they had been through customs at the Colombo airport. They wheeled, shouldered, and dragged their belongings. Some seemed to have packed all they possessed in coordinating designer suitcases while others carried modest assets on their backs. Although all appeared tired, their looks were also varied. There was the woman in the Indian skirt, not much taller than I, taking three steps to every stride the tall blond man in khakis and Izod polo took towards us.  A woman with well-coiffed, frosted-tipped hair appeared to have recently applied make-up and was getting assistance from a casual bearded man who may not have combed his hair in weeks. All gathered around my father whom they had met at various orientations at their colleges and we exited the airport to meet several vans which were waiting. As we loaded the vans, one of the female students held onto one of the circular support poles of the awning and spun around it repeatedly. “Aren’t you getting dizzy?” I asked. “I just like to spin,” she replied. “I do it a lot when I’m nervous.”

“I’ll ride in her van,” I whispered to my father, “I think she is scared.” On the way I pointed out various landmarks I was now familiar with as well as some of the things I had thought strange when I first arrived. “Those orange things the man is carrying are coconuts. That is a stuppa – it is a Buddhist temple. It might smell funny now, but you will get used it.” I must have sounded like a know it all, but I wanted to make them feel comfortable. A tall skinny woman with dark hair thanked me when we arrived at their dorm and said she hoped to see me in class. I laughed and said I was only ten, but later my father said that my mother and I should at least sit in on the intensive Sinhalese classes so we could learn some of the language. Back home when I was too sick to go to school but my parents both had to work, I would occasionally sit in the back of my father’s lectures. The idea of attending a college class seemed like fun to me, and then perhaps I could say a few words to the mysterious girl in the kitchen.

The students had very little time to adjust to their new surroundings, for they were to get a crash course on Sri Lanka with a ten day tour of the island after only a few days to adjust to jet lag. We piled in several vans and toured much of the country in just a few days.

A drive along the South West coast brought us to some beautiful beaches.  Just offshore at one stop were a host of strange skinny rickety wooden crosses. Precariously roosting atop the stilts were fishermen with slender bodies resembling their perches using fishing poles. I never witnessed how they maneuvered up to their post. The dozen or so bare-chested men with turbans were silhouetted against the darkening waters with the setting sun, each with a bag dangling from their seat which looked as if it would snap with the next crashing wave. The poles were lashed together in such a primitive way that the scene looked like it could have been an ancient art repeated for centuries. However, we were informed that the famous Sri Lankan stilt fishermen that grace the cover of nearly every Sri Lanka tourist publication had only been using this technique for about 40 years. At the end of World War II, the rocky coastal fishing locales became overcrowded, and men moved slightly off shore to secure better fishing spots. These rodmen would utilize airplane and ship wreckage discarded from offshore conflicts to anchor their fishing poles. Eventually, some began to fish from permanent stilts they planted in the coral reefs. Father’s passed their roosts to sons, and so a tradition began. The men balanced so dexterously on the meager wooden crosspieces but the job did not appear comfortable or terribly profitable. The small bags that hung below did not overflow and the fish they did catch seemed very small. Still it was a beautiful, intriguing site and I could understand why tourists would make the trip to see the unusual living statues in the waves.

stilt fishing

Other fishermen that made an impression on me were those along the Western coast around Negombo.  Out at sea we saw squared sails attached to outrigger canoes called oruvas. The masts of these vessels and the ropes that extend from the sails appeared too small to withstand the forces of the wind and waves, but dozens of them could be seen searching the water for fish. The beaches were covered with silvery mats of drying fish arranged in sparkling rectangles along the shore.  I loved the shape of these unique boats and we purchased a carved wooden replica with a collapsible mast that I displayed on my shelf for many years. When I returned to the United States, I saw a Duran Duran video (Save a Prayer for me Now) and immediately recognized the fleet of oruvas as well as the stilted fishermen and knew the band had been in Sri Lanka. Additional research led me to discover that Duran Duran made several videos in the country which they filmed in 1982, the same year we arrived in the country.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

2 thoughts on “The students arrive”

  1. I am friends with your sticky-handed, teething cracker-eating sidekick, and I am so grateful to her for sharing your blog with me! I’m sure I’ll get to meet you someday when I’ll tell you in person, but for now, I want you to know that I am thoroughly enjoying your posts, and am always looking forward to the next one!


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