Saturday, August 16, 2014

Not Quite Paradise: A Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker

(April 2010) We usually take it for granted that living in a foreign country changes us—sometimes profoundly and sometimes superficially—and we usually develop strong feelings for the foreign country and for the total expatriate experience. The memories of that place can remain in frozen in time, even as the country itself changes at the normal pace of human history. Sometimes gigantic forces speed up the pace of change, and the place we remember is no longer there.

In 2001, Adele Barker and her teenage son went to Sri Lanka to experience a different life and culture. Ms. Barker taught Russian Literature at the University of Peradeniya and shares insights into the thinking of her students in addition to the individuals who help her at home (against her initial insistence not to hire servants, which she explains well in the book). The first part of the book is a fascinating and satisfying portrayal of local culture, food, flora, and fauna—encounters with ants, monkeys, the forest and jungle. We also learn something of the political history, colonialism, insurrections, bloody massacres, uneasy peace and prolonged civil war. There is a sense that an overwhelming amount of life and death is packed onto this small island.

The first part of the book closes with the reluctant goodbyes and hopeful promises to return someday as Ms. Barker heads back to the U.S. (her son having preceded her due to school considerations). This would have been the end of an informative and heartfelt memoir of one of the world's unique places.

Then, on December 26, 2006, the tsunami struck. "People remembered the wave as being black. Someone I know described it as a black cobra. What the wave brought with it was the bottom of the ocean, the silt, the sand, the plastic bottles, plastic lunch wrappers, pieces of metal, and everything that people had aimlessly thrown into the sea over the years." In a span of ten minutes, coastal villages in many places were obliterated by the waves swamping the buildings and then sucking everything out to sea.

Watching the television reports and receiving distressing phone calls from friends on the island, Ms. Barker was compelled to go back to Sri Lanka to see for herself. What follows is a collection of first-hand observations of some of the best and worst efforts of administering disaster aid from around the world as she interviews people along her journey. Political warfare seems to escalate. People seem trapped between the powers of nature and the struggles of armed extremists. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Against a milieu of escalating fighting, Ms. Barker discusses literature with her students—one feels the obscenity of violence against the struggle for peace and dignity.

Finally, it is time to leave again. "Going and coming, madam?" This time the answer is "No, just going."

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