Not just a Taembili

I know I haven’t written much about my time in Sri Lanka here. I think there’s a certain clarity of mind I crave when I write, and to be honest, these past (almost) three months have been filled with so much dynamic experience everyday that I’ve made an conscious and often unconscious decision to ride the waves and live it rather than focusing on putting it into words.

That said, I can try. And that’s what I hope to do to keep meaningfully connected with friends and family both close and afar.

I’d like to recount an experience from my very first day in Sri Lanka that sheds light on some of my broader perceptions of people and place here.

I woke up shortly before landing in Colombo, and looked out the window into a backdrop of darkness as the Indian Ocean gave way to the western land mass of Sri Lanka. We passed over the proliferating lights of the capital city, and proceeded inland so as to make a U-turn back to the airport in Negombo.

I remember looking out at a blanketing darkness spotted with the humble lights spotted here and there. It looked like the night sky. I remembered this feeling from two years ago, when I also flew into Sri Lanka at night. I knew there was an overwhelming presence of greenery and life that lay below, and that this darkness was only holding a transient cover over a place that I loved.

I got situated on the ground in a house which I was sharing with the other Fulbrighters in Dehiwala, a city next to Colombo, and I decided to take a walk to drink a taembili, or king coconut, which was and remains my absolute favorite beverage of choice during my time in Sri Lanka. I drink either one or two of them almost everyday.

I walked to a local shop and asked for one in the Sinhala I could remember. The shop keeper chopped it open, and I sat down on a step chatting with him as I relished in the simple pleasure I had craved from years past.

After a few minutes, an older, barefooted woman who must have been in her 80s walked up to the shop — I think she was buying a small amount of dhaal. She turns to me and gives me a smile, and we strike up conversation.  She asks me how long I’ve been in Sri Lanka — only a number of hours — and if I am married.

We speak for some time before I approach the shop keeper to pay. Before I can take my newly exchanged rupees out of my pocket, she says “epaa” (don’t) and insists on paying for the taembili. She reaches into her pocket and hands 35 rupees to the shop owner (about $0.20). I tried to express my thanks by saying bohoma istuutiyi, a formal phrase of gratitude but not used too often, but I realized that words could not do justice to the ethic of giving and reciprocity manifested so clearly and beautifully here.

It was my very first day in Sri Lanka, and I recognize the privilege associated with being a white foreign male in this place, especially in a place that was colonized by white males for almost 300 years. And here is this woman who is barefoot, who probably doesn’t have much money at all, insisting on paying for my taembili. She didn’t ask for my phone number, or have some ulterior agenda she hoped I could follow through on. In fact, I never saw her again.

Yes, there are people with good and bad intentions everywhere, and there certainly are in Sri Lanka. But in this place, as I have experienced time and time again, there is an ethic of giving and taking care of another that is infectious and unparalleled by most any place I have experienced before. If people are not giving with their money, they give with their time, with their tea, with their prayers, and with their smiles.

I often wonder why it seems the more we have, the less we’re likely to give up. Is it because the more possessions we have, the more we feel like we need to protect? Is there a certain amount of anxiety that comes with guarding what is mine, holding up a shield against the world to stay out? A recent NY Times op-ed cited that the top 20% of American income earners give ~1.4% of their income to charity, while the bottom 20% of earners give ~3.5%. Are the rich people we often hear about with their “foundations” really the most generous?

Only the shop owner witnessed this act of gratitude, and I’m sure the woman didn’t think I would pay tribute to her action in writing. But for her, I’m sure it doesn’t matter — I could see from the smile on her face that what mattered was the intrinsic value of giving and the sense of inner peace that comes with arriving a little bit closer to nibbana.