Fear, bravery and bees

Fear, bravery and bees

The man talks rapidly in Sinhala and I have no idea what he’s saying. Possibly telling me to hurry up because of the giant honey bee nests hanging nearby. I grip the railing with sweaty palms because bees are the least of my worries right now.

20160718_143551
The “wasps” at Sigiriya are technically giant honey bees. No less aggressive and terrifying.

The bees at Sigiriya are known for being volatile. Some tourists climb in uncomfortably hot-looking beekeeping suits to ward off stings. I am not one of them. I’m mostly focused on not falling to my death.

I take a step and then another. A line of tourists behind the guide watches my painfully slow ascent.

At the top I stand beside a woman easily 20 years older than me. She’s catching her breath too. We both stand gasping for a few minutes before we can take a look around.

Later I’ll post beautiful views from the top with the history behind each picture. I’ll hesitate to focus on how hard it was for me. Everyone likes triumph over adversity, but I find it humiliating to admit the view didn’t come easily.

It’s not just the physical activity. It’s the sheer terror I get from heights.

It’s also the fear of being left behind. The fear of unwisely spending too much money on a tourist trap. The anxiety of not wearing the right clothes, maybe saying the wrong thing, of wondering what I ate that’s upset my stomach, when I’ll be able to get to a bathroom again, whether I’m a terrible girlfriend for even being here right now while Ryan is on the other side of the planet. I’m also nervous about the bees.

I step up into what must surely have been an impressive fortress. I look at the remnants of walls and pools, then gaze past to the deep green forests below.

fortress

 

I can see Katherine and Julia way up ahead. They’ve gone to take photos farther away from the other tourists. The girls look like they’ve gone right out to the edge, so I decide to look around by myself. I’ll gather the courage to go out there in a bit.

Me terrified

I envy their bravery.

It’s madness that I can brave bee attacks and push through my physical limitations to climb a rock fortress and still feel I’ve come up short.

The three of us talked about it earlier on our tuk tuk ride to Sigiriya. The way people back home sometimes tell us how brave we are, being in Sri Lanka.

We talked about how it doesn’t seem so brave when you know a lot of people who’ve done it. It seems even less brave when you think of some of the incompetent fools you’ve met doing the same thing.

Bravery seems like something reserved for heroes. We know we’re not remarkable.

Standing on the fortress, the wind blows hard. I imagine being blown over and falling to a painful death. I hold onto the railing.

Around me there are children and adults of all ages. One woman climbed with crutches. No one else is gripping onto anything with fear. I know I’m not remarkable.

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Those are honey combs covered in layers of giant honey bees (not actually wasps, as reported in

But maybe bravery isn’t about the fearless climb up a mountain or how far I wandered from home. When friends from Canada say I’m brave, I like to think they mean more than my desire to make good use of my passport.

They know I hold a bundle of fear in my belly and I don’t let it stop me. Bravery isn’t absence of fear; it’s taking action in spite of it.

Later, on the way down, I still hold tightly to the railing and my breathing is shallow with fright. When we pass the bees’ nests, I shiver and stop. Sometimes I like to remember the things I fear most of all.

I take my shaking, sweaty hands off the railing, hold up my phone and take a photo. Then I carefully place the phone back in my bag, take back my grip on the banister and continue down to safety.

To the summit: A climbing story from a girl who hates to exercise

To the summit: A climbing story from a girl who hates to exercise

 

The sky is getting light and I’m going to miss the sunset. My friends have powered on ahead, one of them taking the steps two at a time. They all love to be physically active. I do not.

I can feel my cotton shirt sticking to me with sweat. My lungs are aching and I want to stop. But I want to see the sunrise from the top of Pidurangala Rock. And I don’t want to see the looks of pity on my friends’ faces when they come back down to find me reading a book in the jeep. I don’t want to smile and say I decided to save my hiking energy for later in the day. It would be a lie we all have to pretend is true, even though the jiggle around my belly says otherwise.

We haven’t known each other that long. The four of us work for WUSC, a Canadian NGO in Sri Lanka and have met within the past two months. We’re on a weekend trip to Dambulla, seeing ancient historical sites. When we decided to go, I hadn’t counted on quite this much physical activity.

Hundreds of steps behind me and who knows how many to go. Iresha, our guide, waits patiently while yet again I stop on this never-ending staircase to catch my breath and let my heart slow before going on.

“Almost there,” she calls out. The steps are snaking along a huge rock face and I don’t believe her. A few minutes later we come to a plateau. There are half-built rooms under the rock and a large brick Buddha, partly covered in plaster.

MONKS JULY 17 2016

Iresha tells me the rooms were once for monks to meditate, many years ago. The rooms have been there for about 2,000 years. The Buddha was partially destroyed by thieves looking for gems under the plaster; the bricks are part of a restoration.

BUDDHA JULY 17 2016

My breathing feels less shallow as we walk along the flat ground. The view is stupendous. Lush Sri Lanka lays before me in the morning light, looking more like a painting than a real place.

VIEW FROM PID JULY 17 2016

But my friends are not here and we keep walking forward.

I’m a bit in awe of their commitment to physical activity. I hate going to the gym. Exercise for exercise’s sake doesn’t do much for me and the gym makes me feel self-conscious.

I’m always impressed by people who just assume that being active is a normal part of life, because it’s never been a part of mine. If I’ve done active things, it’s always been with ulterior motives: being in the outdoors, commuting without paying for the bus, trying to look slimmer. The idea that it might just be fun is alien to me.

The flatness ends abruptly with boulders and large painted arrows. This isn’t the straight, clear path of the stairs. The arrows and trash left behind by tourists are the only suggestion people have hiked here before.

Iresha begins to climb between and over the boulders. I pause before following her. We are far up and I’m terrified of falling. My leg muscles are shaking and I’m off-balance from my camera bag. I don’t trust my body.

Two years ago I walked 10 kilometres a day. I had two jobs, lived downtown and rarely took the bus anywhere if I could save the $3. Then I moved away from the city core, cars came into my life and the pounds slipped on slowly. I noticed a tight pair of jeans, then shirt buttons popping open. I felt my thighs, my stomach and my bum undulating when I walked.

I still didn’t go to the gym though, because I was busy with my masters and it didn’t seem fun. This experience is completely different. I’m struggling, but I’m motivated. There’s a place to go and a view to see.

To get there, I have to trust these muscles I haven’t taken care of. The sky isn’t pink with dawn yet, so I lean forward, place my hands on the boulders and use my legs to propel myself over the rock. I will not fall, I will not break any bones (or my camera) and I will not plunge to my death. Today is not the day.

I am slow. I struggle. I crawl sometimes when I don’t trust my legs to hold me upright. Iresha waits for me.

Part of me feels I should be embarrassed that I’m taking 30 minutes longer than my companions to climb fewer than 200 metres. But I don’t have the strength to feel self-conscious. I dismiss my ego and concentrate on moving forward, because giving up would be a bigger humiliation than being slow.

The last rock to climb is the hardest. There are no shortcuts and my hands are slippery with sweat. I toss my camera bag up ahead of me, forcing myself to drag my body up and onto the ledge. Then I roll up off the ground and stand straight. I am here.

ME PIDURANGALA JULY 17 2016

No one shames me for my slowness. The hiker who caught up behind us doesn’t complain that I slowed him down, even though I did. My friends smile to see me up here.

We sit and drink water, take photos and talk, and take in the beauty all around us. We see Sigiriya, the rock we’re going to climb tomorrow, with a fortress at the top.

PIDURANGAL VIEW JULY 17 2016

There are too many clouds to see the sunrise. Everyone but me is disappointed. I suspect I would have missed it while I was struggling farther down. The thick clouds allow me to be part of this moment.

I stand back to take photos of my three companions, thinking maybe I understand why they love exercise. It’s not just about gorgeous scenery, although that’s nice. It’s about pushing yourself.

GROUP PID JULY 17 2016

We may not have a love of the gym in common, but we are all the kind of people who will pick up and move to the other side of the world. We’re here to remind ourselves we’re more than who we are and what we do at home.

I may feel off-kilter and not up to my new friends’ level, when it comes to physical fitness. But I belong here. That’s as gratifying as the beautiful view, the adrenaline pulsing through me, and the soreness in my muscles.

Out behind the chicken coop: a story from my Sri Lankan homestay

Out behind the chicken coop: a story from my Sri Lankan homestay

I’d like to ask them about the war, but I can’t. Besides, we’ve been advised not to talk politics with anyone. A 30-year civil war is complex and divisive. It’s better to steer clear.

At the moment I’m most interested in where the bathroom is. Someone must have gone, but being in the presence of half the neighbourhood, I haven’t noticed. I’m hoping to see someone drift away, maybe to the back of the property, and deduce where to go, like Nancy Drew might have done.

Instead I resemble a cult leader, with a handful of flowers, linen pants and a group of loyal child followers.

Flowers 2 (1 of 1)

 

Stop. Reverse that. I am following the children; they are not following me. I look around and wonder how things have changed in the past decade, but I don’t even have my bearings in the present.

There’s a small white building behind the chicken coop. It may be the bathroom. It’s getting dark and I hardly want to go wandering in the woods to investigate. I don’t even know what to be afraid of.

(OK, I do, it’s spiders.)

I can hold it. I’ll be fine. It’s not dire.

Before moving here, I read books about Sri Lanka. I wanted to understand where I was coming to, especially with a long war less than a decade in the past. But I do not feel prepared.

When my coworkers dropped me off in the jungle with a family who didn’t speak English I was terrified. The family was smiling, my boss told me I could call her, but the wide valley of not-knowing was all I could think about.

It probably sounds strange, given that I flew for more than 20 hours to come and live here. I’ve survived a huntsman spider encounter, food poisoning and crossing the streets of Colombo in rush hour. But nothing has frightened me quite like my impending night in the jungle.

The family I’m staying with has a snug little brick house with cows in the yard. In the morning, I’ll get photos to show Ryan’s family.

Cow 1 (1 of 1)

As I sit with the children, one or the other will disappear and come back washed and changed into nice clothing. I feel sticky, sweaty and dusty. I consider trying to ask where I can wash. It will probably be near the washroom.

The matriarch of the family motions for me to bring my camera and get into a tuk-tuk with her and four children. We drive off into the dark night. I’m guessing this isn’t the way to the bathroom. Everyone’s dressed far too nicely.

Out of the black evening shine Buddhas and a white dagoba. Monks are chanting as we get out of the trishaw and walk toward the temple.

We place flowers at each statue. We fill small metal cups with oil and light cotton wicks. The matriarch prays. It’s beautiful. So lovely that I don’t lift my camera, I just watch and follow along behind the children.

When we climb the steps to the largest Buddha, one little girl suggests I take a photo. So I do.

Buddha 1 (1 of 1)

Then we go to the monk. He blesses the children and ties a white string on each person’s wrist for protection and good health (I will find this ironic two days later when I spend four hours throwing up in a van on my way back to Colombo).

We head back to the house and they make me a feast. I’m not to help in the kitchen. I know nothing about anything in this place and I would not be helpful.

Then there is curry. Such delicious curry. *

Now I need to go to the bathroom. No more guessing. No more worrying that they might not understand and I’ll have to awkwardly pantomime squatting.

I hope for the best and simply say, “Washroom?”

The matriarch takes me out to an outhouse with a squatter toilet behind the chicken coop, as I expected. The mystery is solved. I’m no Nancy Drew—she probably would have just asked.

 

* I’ve decided retrospectively that this cannot possibly be what made me sick. It was delicious, their hospitality was extensive and I refuse to accept it.

The great Canadian bucket list

-Celebrating Canada Day in a foreign country is a fun and interesting experience. I will gladly share what it’s like in Sri Lanka, once I’ve gone through it.

In advance of that, I am sharing a Canadian bucket list, stolen from a Facebook friend’s post and adapted as necessary. For example, getting divorced is not on my bucket list, though being able to get divorced is a freedom I have and appreciate, as a Canadian.

Also, some of these things have very little to do with Canada, but what-the-hey, the list came from Facebook and I like it. I’m also looking for additions, so please add in the comments!

I may not be able to check anything off while I’m in Sri Lanka, but it will give me tons to look forward to on my return.

  • Fired a Gun
  • Been to USA
  • Been to Hawaii, specifically
  • Been to Europe
  • Been to Montreal 
  • Been to Ottawa
  • Visited the Yukon
  • Visited Mexico 
  • Driven through the Rockies
  • Flown in a helicopter
  • Been on a cruise
  • Served on a jury (been called twice and excused twice)
  • Been in a movie
  • Been to Toronto 
  • Been to Vancouver
  • Been to the Maritimes
  • Played in a band 
  • Sang karaoke 
  • Caught a snowflake on your tongue
  • Licked a frozen pole (might sit this one out)
  • Been sledding on big hill
  • Been downhill skiing
  • Been water skiing
  • Rode on a motorcycle
  • Jumped out of a plane
  • Been to a drive-in movie
  • (Rode) Seen a wild elephant (You shouldn’t ride elephantst!)
  • Been on TV 
  • Been in newspaper
  • Been scuba diving 
  • Rode on a dog sled 
  • Driven an ATV 
  • Eaten oysters.
  • Eaten fresh maritime lobster
  • Played pond hockey
  • Been to West Edmonton Mall 
  • Seen the Northern Lights
  • Been to a Powwow  
  • Been to the Calgary Stampede
  • Been to a hockey game
  • Have gone ice fishing
  • Been to the CN Tower 
  • Rode the gondola in Banff 
Waiting for Ryan at the villa

Waiting for Ryan at the villa

I turn the air conditioning on. Then I get cold and turn it off. I open the back door. It’s humid. My mosquito bites itch. I go upstairs. The Internet says I can treat the bites with toothpaste. I don’t try it.

I read  Austin Clarke to try and get a feel for Barbados. The book is absorbing, but ends up mostly being set in Toronto–in winter. I go back downstairs and look longingly at the rum smoothie sitting in the fridge. I resist the urge to day-drink alone.

I’m sitting in the villa and waiting for Ryan.

As a kid I’d tell my mom I wanted to be able to ride my bike anywhere on my own. She’d ask me where I wanted to go and I could never answer.

I wanted to ride my bike down Pine Street, through Beavis Terrace and down the bridge on Armstrong. I wanted to ride up to the agricultural school. I wanted to ride to Tracy’s house, on the highway to Quebec. I wanted to visit my cousins on the other side of town and play hide-and-seek. I wanted to eat cookies with Grandmere. I wanted to go to the beach with the best playground in town.

I didn’t want to start with a destination in mind though. I longed for the freedom of being alone and making all of the choices.

So it’s been a surprise to me that I’ve mostly stayed inside this week. I want to see all of Barbados, but I want to see it with Ryan. I’m waiting for him at the villa.

My adult life has been all about doing things on my own. I went away to school far away from my family and close friends. I moved to another country. I moved to Ottawa. When my parents made suggestions about my life choices, I ignored them. When well-meaning friends told me to “get my life together” I stopped keeping in touch.

In each place, I wandered in museums, parks and malls alone. I ate out by myself. Then I met new friends and shared life-changing moments within days, weeks or months of meeting them. I learned you can have deep friendship with or without years of history together.

I have wonderful memories. But always choosing the path alone means you have good stories with few corroborators.

No one else in my day-to-day life knows who Rick McGhie is. No one hates Le Kimchi for not serving galbi the way they did in Arts Centre. No one has watched me have a freak out in a monkey forest. No one knows how friendships can be cemented by large, blue balloons that don’t fit in taxis. No one has drunk a sojito in The Park. For the most part, no one knows why I’d avoid any bar called Amigos.

So I sit in the pool. I do reading for my master’s. I write notes. I watch geckos. I make more coffee and sandwiches.

It was supposed to rain but it’s a beautiful day. I can see the sun just beyond the red leaves. For the first time, I want to make my choices with someone.

I wait for Ryan at the villa.

Canadian pride in unlikely places

Canadian pride in unlikely places

“You’re not going to waste those on the kids are you?” Shauna says at school on Canada Day. Looking at the stack of temporary tattoos on my desk, I shrug. I was going to use them as rewards in my classes today, but I have ‘Canada’ pencils, too.

My students are always much more excited about Canada stuff than I am. They know about “ice” hockey, and that we have lots of snow, and that Kim Yuna’s coach is Canadian.

Shauna’s also more excited than me about our shared homeland, so I decide that if it’s important to her, I’ll save the tattoos. I stuff them in my purse to bring to the bar in Bupyeong later.

That night, wearing a T-shirt that says “Canadian Celebrity” and red shorts and shoes, I feel ready to pretend I’m excited about being from Canada, too. Setting aside a table at Underground, I put down the ‘Canada’ tattoos, a pair of kitchen scissors I’ll never see again, and a small cup of water.

“I’m not wearing a Canada tattoo,” Mike says when he arrives. He’s very proud to be American, and I see no reason to force anyone to wear a maple leaf on their face if they don’t want to. Others also seem hesitant, walking near the table, eyeing the tattoos, then moving on to the bathroom or the electronic dart board.

The first non-Canadians we convert are Kiwis wearing red shirts. Then South Africans join us. Soon, we’re all posing in front of a Canadian flag as J-Man, the bar owner turns on Canadian music: Joel Plaskett, Tragically Hip, Shania Twain, Justin Bieber.

More people arrive and the neat rectangular sheets of tattoos are cut into lopsided paper snowflakes. There’s a small crowd of people trying to find the perfect one to complement their outfits.

It’s unlike any Canada Day spent watching fireworks and slapping at mosquitoes in Timmins, Ont. The bar is already out of Moosehead, the only Canadian beer I’ve ever seen in Korea. No big loss, in my opinion. The Littlest Hobo is projected onto the back wall of the bar and I explain to an Englishman what it is, if not why it’s playing. There’s barely room to move in between the waves of red and white clothing and tattoos. Even Mike has a maple leaf on his cheek now.

A warm glow of beer-drinking (spreads) out through the bar, along with the tattoos, and so does a kind of pride in being Canadian. Never expecting to find it here, I’m even proud to sing every word of ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman.’

I’m happy I didn’t waste the tattoos on the kids, happy I came to Korea, and happy I’m Canadian. And although I’m not sure the Founding Fathers would approve, I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Canada Day than in Korea, in a basement bar with friends from all over the world.

Of kittens and hagwons

Of kittens and hagwons

Turning my iPod up as loud as I can stand, I’m ignoring everyone else in the staffroom. Realizing that both of my coworkers are staring at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I start in surprise.

“Sabrina,” Kyung-Ha says, “is there a cat?”

Looking from my co-teachers to the cardboard box under Shauna’s desk and back again, I realize that the jig is up.

* * *

“No, Sabrina,” my mom says on the phone. “Don’t do this to me. No. No. No.”

Watching me make my overseas phone call, Shauna’s eyes are round and worried. Not wanting to be involved, Maria and Clare have gone home early. It’s just Shauna, Asia, Emile and me shifting and pacing in a loose huddle. Strangers are barely looking at us as they run up and down the stairs, going in and out of the batting cages.

Just under the steps, someone has laid out a newspaper. There’s a carton of milk and a spoon with just a dribble in it. Not paying the least bit of attention to the spoon or the milk is a tiny orange kitten, no bigger than a ball of yarn, meowing as loud as it can. With distorted K-pop music blaring at each carnival ride, glaring lights flashing and cheap fireworks going off the side of the pier, most people find it easy to ignore.

Before leaving Canada, I promised my mom I wouldn’t acquire any pets. She already has two cats and a dog and she heard a story about a girl who spent hundreds of dollars bringing a dog home from China. Under no circumstances am I to bring this cat home.

“Mom, it’s so small,” I say. “And I’m not bringing it home to you. Shauna’s bringing it home to her mom.”

My mom once nurtured a kitten back from near-death when the mother abandoned it, so I’m sure she can recommend a strategy for saving this one. She says that if we absolutely can’t find the mother, we should check out a pet store and find something called “kitten milk” and feed it slowly with an eye-dropper.

A girl working at the 7-11 generously donates an empty box to our cause and we find a taxi to take us to HomePlus: it’s after nine on a Tuesday and most pet stores are already closed. The kitten mews all through the ride and Emile tries to cover the sound with his own mewing.

Wondering briefly what the taxi driver thinks of foreigners who meow, I remember that my friend Yuri once told me that many Koreans don’t want pet cats because they are considered bad luck. This makes me worry that we won’t be able to find what we want, so I call Chris to see if he can do a Google search on what to feed unweaned kittens. He gives us a short list of ingredients and we head inside.

We quickly learn that HomePlus is not equipped to deal with the rescue of abandoned street cats: there is no kitten milk. Buying the ingredients Chris suggests, Shauna and I wish our friends goodnight and head back to our apartment building. The kitten’s mews are frantic now, but this time neither of us bothers to try and cover the sound for the driver.

It turns out that taking care of a kitten this young isn’t that different from caring for a newborn baby. She needs to be fed every few hours and this presents both the challenge of uninterrupted sleep and going to work. We’ve never explicitly been told we can’t bring pets to school, but it doesn’t seem likely that the kitten, newly named Frankie, will be welcome.

Our office is a narrow room with desks lining the walls. Serving as an irritating obstacle course, a “craft” table and ten chairs fill the rest of the room, forcing seven teachers and the occasional student to navigate with flexibility and gentle pushing. Shauna brings Frankie in a cardboard box and tucks her under her desk without anyone noticing.

For the first part of the day, Shauna manages to time her feedings so that Frankie is asleep while she’s teaching. Once the kindergarteners go home though, she starts teaching her six hour stretch with no real break.

She tries to feed her in the short interval between classes, but it must not be enough because some time after I put my headphones on, Frankie wakes up hungry and probably unimpressed by her cardboard prison. When my coworkers ask if there’s a cat and I hear her mewing, I don’t see how I can deny it.

Kyung-Ha and Helena take turns holding and petting Frankie, who fits comfortably in one hand. When Shauna walks in between classes, she stops, but everyone else coos over the kitten: it’s hard to dislike something so adorable.

For all the problems I have with my hagwon, this is probably the moment when I most appreciate our lack of clear communication. They comment that there is a cat, but no one tells Shauna to take Frankie home. They simply accept Shauna as a working cat-mother, bringing her baby to work when she can’t get a sitter and we simply accept their weirdly progressive views on cat-mother workplace policy.

Art courtesy of Shauna Smith.