The Middle Path


Those first few months in Sri Lanka our family life was inexorably intertwined with the college students. Evening dinner plans with friends would be abandoned if a student called to say they were ill. Disputes between program participants were worked out around our dining table as were cultural misunderstandings. It seemed that the students fell into three general camps.

There was the group that dove into the Sri Lankan lifestyle head first. These adventurous types spent their weekends at Buddhist meditation retreats, wore sarongs and challenged their palettes with exotic dishes. They were fairly self-sufficient and my father just needed to keep an eye on them to make certain they didn’t decide to abandon college and become stilt fishermen. A previous student of my father’s, a son of a prominent Orthodox Jewish family, had taken a semester in India and returned to the United States with an Indian bride. Understandably the couple feared sharing news of their nuptials with his family and had asked my father to mediate the encounter. Not that Dad would stand in the way of true love, and he was thrilled that some students were making the most of their experience, but these risk takers were a constant worry for my parents. I remember one late night listening to unfamiliar sounds in the house. I got out of bed and found my mother downstairs setting up a cot in the office off of the livingroom. My father and Sumanasena had left to collect a student who had been conducting his independent study deep in the jungle and had fallen ill. I helped my mother move the table from the center of the room and brought pillows from the guestroom upstairs before she told me to go back to bed. The next morning the door to the office was closed and for the next week I only caught brief glimpses of blond hair peeking from the top of blankets when my mom would emerge from checking on the patient. I heard whispers of malaria or sleeping sickness, but finally the boy recovered and emerged from the darkened room to resume his studies.

The second camp of students were those who may have over prepared for their tropical adventure. These were the ones who had read all the books about risks like Typhoid, Rabies and Malaria and were concerned that every ache meant they were headed for quarantine. A registered nurse, Mom examined and reassured at least one of these students a week.  One frightened girl came to the house with a bandana wrapped around her face and cried to my mother that she thought she had contracted the plague. It was when she left relieved that I learned that a blackened tongue is a harmless side effect of repeated doses of Pepto Bismol. At times members of this group were summoned to our living room to receive gentle tips about cultural sensitivity. I remember one particularly free-spirited woman who came to the house in a gauzy semi transparent striped jumper which she had purchased at an exclusive shop at the Oberoi hotel in Colombo. “They told me I could wear it anywhere,” she said. My father suggested a sacred shrine was probably not the most respectful location for such attire and commented to us afterwards that she looked like she was wearing a prison jumpsuit.

Like the Buddha, the final group took the middle path. They were not overly cautious, but had reasonable limits on the types of risks they were willing to take. They were the  “go with the flow” gang. These students generally didn’t have special meetings with my parents except for social calls or the occasional medical incident. One day Sumanasena arrived to pick me up from school and said we had to go into town. This was problematic for me because Hillwood girls were not to wear their uniforms outside of school hours, and so we were instructed to always go home and change as soon as school was finished. “We have to go home first,” I complained. “I don’t want to get demerits!” But, Sumanasena explained that a student was very sick and my parents had gone to meet them at the hospital in Kandy. Knowing the student was in the go with the flow category, we knew likely she was not overreacting. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctor was in the hallway of the hospital with my parents. He spoke to my parents in English and explained that the student needed immediate surgery to remove her appendix and that they wanted to take her in right away. My mother was dubious and didn’t feel the symptoms warranted surgery. “I think she may have measles,” Mom said. The doctor indicated that measles, rabies or appendicitis were all possibilities. Mom shook her head and marched down the hall and into the examining room with such confidence that nobody stopped her. Minutes later she emerged with the pale patient. “We are going to another hospital,” she stated. Dad, Sumanasena and I looked at each other, then at the doctor and simply shrugged as Mom walked past us and out the door. We helped the sick student into the van and headed to a small hospital run by the Seventh Day Adventists. The doctors there quickly agreed that measles was the correct diagnosis, and after a few days she was released with her appendix intact. After graduation, this particular student earned her PhD and became a colleague of my father, working in the Biology department of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Another female student in the easy-going camp was walking around the lake in Kandy one day when a man standing by a tree noticed her and made a bee line to her side. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” he asked. Women traveling alone anywhere are certainly cautious when approached by men. This particular student was indeed Jewish and thought there might be some danger in answering in the affirmative, but decided she would take a chance. “Actually, I am,” she replied. “Oh that is wonderful!” said the man. “I am hoping you can help me. My mother was Jewish and my father Sinhalese. She died when I was young and I know nothing about how to be a Jew. I have been asking tourists that I see if they could teach me. Can you help me?” Although it seemed a strange request, she felt the man was sincere and met with him several times to discuss Jewish culture and identity with him. They had a make-shift Shabbat with papperdams and curry at a local restaurant and she taught the eager student a few simple prayers. We all wondered how many others he had asked before he happened upon a willing and able helper.

I like to hope I take the middle path when I travel. I read the travel books and have avoided rivers where I know an intimate encounter with a Candiru is, however unlikely, a possibility. (Look it up if you are not familiar with this unique catfish.) But, I also try to experience the culture when I can. I have sampled grasshoppers, snakes and guinea pig. I have slept in a hammock on the beach and taken calligraphy lessons from a monk. As long as they only tell me about the more adventurous aspects after the fact, I hope my children take the middle path when traveling. That they will be cautious, but not afraid when they explore the world.


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

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