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Ethan: An Intern’s View

“Nothing but Beads”

I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka just over a month ago to begin work with Emerge Lanka Foundation. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had been expecting a meditative experience, an opportunity to shed all of the anxiety and unrest I was experiencing in New York City. After the ride from Bandaranaike Airport to what would become my temporary abode in Nugegoda, however, I was quickly alleviated of that misconception. The area is anything but serene, and one can imagine how perturbed I was to realize that I was merely swapping one bustling city for another.

But, as I have realized, to say that the areas in and around Colombo are the same as the Big Apple would be the worst kind of oversimplification. Granted, constant overstimulation of the senses is a danger in both cities, as well as the excessive, and at times erratic, motor vehicle traffic. Nevertheless, it seems as though it is much easier to move with the flow of daily life here. Having almost no understanding of Sinhala is most definitely a hindrance to me, yet there is a certain rhythm that, being the product of a relatively homogenous culture, allows for a steady and even predictable flow of – how should we say? – unregulated chaos. That is to say, there’s a method to the madness; it doesn’t take long to catch on, provided you leave all linear thinking and Western assumptions at the doorstep of Bandaranaike International.

Traveling from Nugegoda to Kirulopona, or maybe from Thimbirigasyaya to Bombalapitiya, you are forced to pay attention to your surroundings. A traveler need not worry about the trivialities of the day, or of last night: the present chaos envelops the traveler as she continues with her day, from moment to moment. The present chaos can, and does, get to be a bit much to handle. But, experiencing the very present-ness of the chaos is itself a form of meditation; at least, this is what I have come to believe. To be free of your thoughts and to do nothing more than focus on living: that is a skill, a luxury, a privilege. In New York City, there is an abundance of monetary wealth. What it utterly lacks, though, is the present.

I realized this last week at Rammuthugala as I was helping a participant of Emerge’s program make jewelry. While counting beads, a thought occurred to me: I was thinking of nothing. Strange. How unlike me! Sure, there were many things I could have been worrying about, or maybe should have been. Yet none of that was going through my head, only the bead count.

Nirukshi, our Program Coordinator, had told me something similar a few weeks prior, and only on this day did I begin to fully comprehend what she meant. She said the girls at the shelters where Emerge works usually love the jewelry-making section of the program, partly because it keeps their minds off of the unpleasantness of past experiences or anticipated woes. They say it’s an escape, and if nothing else, Emerge can take pride in providing that much. Of course, the organization does and will continue to provide much more than that as well.

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