Foreigners elbow their way to the front of the line.


After a day of contemplation under the ancient and historic leaves of the Bo tree, our group ventured six hours farther North to Jaffna, at the Northern tip of Sri Lanka. As we grew closer to our destination, I noticed billboards and roadside signs looked different. Rather than Sinhalese on top and Tamil on the bottom, they were reversed and sometimes there was no Sinhalese at all. The Northern section of the country is inhabited largely by Tamils who represent a minority in most other regions of the country. We arrived in Jaffna as the sun was setting.


Janelle had been fussy all day and wasn’t moving her left arm much at all. The hotel was luxuriously mosquito-free, however, the area was experiencing a power outage, so nothing at all was humming. Our power in Colombo and later in Kandy went out all the time especially around the time when most folks were arriving home to a make dinner. The demand for power at that time was simply too much and lights would flicker on and off or simply stay off at least once or twice a week. Our cook became quite savvy at working around the brown outs. He would always make sure dinner was prepared before five o’clock and would heat it up using gas if necessary. Dinner by candlelight was a common occurrence out of necessity rather than in quest of ambience.  The staff of the Jaffna hotel was also well prepared for the inconsistencies of the electrical grid and we were provided with several lanterns.

Janelle cried as we made our way down the shadowy hall to our room. After we were settled Mom called the front desk to inquire about seeing a doctor. Not accustomed to foreign patients, the team fast tracked my sister past the long lines waiting in the hospital halls for treatment. The pediatrician wanted Janelle to be seen by an orthopedic specialist, so we were sent to another location. Our van raced away from the hospital and onto a busy shopping street and stopped in between a small shop selling electronics and one selling sandals. The doctor’s office was simple  – an open air waiting room two steps up from the hustle and bustle of the pavement. An examining table, chair and a small glass case with a smattering of drugs were all that made up the sparse orthopedic office. A dark skinned woman in a bright red sari who was leaving stopped to pinch Janelle’s tear-streaked cheeks as she left the doctor and her many gold bangles jingled as she gestured to my mother and said something which we interpreted to mean something like “poor child.” The office was more or less white and appeared more or less clean, so although the surroundings gave us some pause, my parents entered with Janelle and me.

The doctor was very excited to see us and we soon learned that he had done his medical training in England before returning to practice in his native Jaffna. He was thrilled, he admitted, to have a chance to practice some English in a treatment setting and immediately diagnosed Janelle with “nursemaid’s elbow” a fairly common elbow dislocation that happens in children when they are hoisted up or swung by their arms by adults. The doctor calmly spoke to Janelle and demonstrated to my mother how to reduce the elbow which he did in front of a small crowd that had gathered to watch at street level. Once her arm was back in its proper place Janelle was back to her cheerful self and entertained a group of curious onlookers who had gathered at street level with her smiles. Despite multiple protestations, the doctor refused any payment for his services. Mom popped Janelle’s elbow back into place herself on more than one occasion after that which always simultaneously terrified and impressed onlookers. Back at the hotel our exhausted family crashed right into bed. In the middle of the night power returned to the area, the lights came on. Dad quickly shut them off and went back to sleep.


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

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