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.

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