Island of Bones

The fishermen thought it was a miracle, our guide and translator explained, seeing all the fish flopping about the dry ocean bed. The earthquake had pulled the water back far from the shore. Many were running around filling their baskets, others lit a fire and started cooking. Reports of a Tsunami began to come in over the radio, but many of the fishermen were not familiar with the Japanese word. By the time Sri Lankan families on the coast realized what was happening, the wave was over them.

When the earthquake happened in late 2004 I was on staff with the global non-profit Youth With A Mission, an organization dedicated to God and humanitarianism. Roughly three months after the tsunami hit I co-lead nine of us throughout the small island just below India. We encouraged the church, supplied camps, and helped other organizations with disaster relief. At times I can’t help but feel like we provided nothing more than entertainment, but poorly rehearsed dances, inexperienced musings on God and life, and sheer presence alone drew weary lips up into hopeful smiles.

Our group had just spent the past three months studying together and we’d worked pretty well together. “Which pill makes poop hard?” I asked the first-aid kit. “It’s the blue one,” Claire said. All the pills were blue. Claire was our first team leader. There were four of us and we took turns keeping the team on point and managing the money. We’d spent our last hours in America with Claire’s friend in LA. We’d had to raise all the money ourselves to take this trip and it took a lot of work. Most of our last week in the states was spent calling everyone we knew who had money to spare. Digestion aside, all was well in our tiny world. This was a completely new adventure for many. For some it was the first time they’d left their state. We’d glowed as we shared fantasies of a world we’d only seen through a computer.

Political turmoil split the island like the yin yang. The news had covered the civil war in Sri Lanka for years but we underestimated what it would really be like to live on the island with growing tension between the government and the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers were a liberation group fighting for an independent state in the northeast. Things weren’t so bad in the Southwest where the Sinhalese were the majority, but we were later told that traveling too far north could get extremely dangerous, even if we were there to help. The whole island had unexpected surprises: student meltdowns, giant spiders marked with symbols from the ass of Hell, tree snakes that have a flavor for all that’s shiny—eyes included.

Our first contact, Linton, came to Colombo, crammed us into a couple vans, and we were off to his home in Dambulla. We drank so much tea that we stopped every half-hour to piss. On one of those stops I wandered into the jungle brush, and watered a tree. When I returned, Linton (who wasn’t really paying much attention) told me I’d returned from a minefield. They were all over the island, deadly relics of conflicts between the Tamil and Sinhalese. Most of them were marked.

We saw a lot of the island with Linton. The radical evangelical took us to illegal house churches he’d established throughout Sri Lanka. I don’t mean illegal like you get put in jail for being a Christian or any other religion (the islands boasts about 1,400 Mormons), but you could end up dead. Buddhism is usually peaceful, but in it exists a small faction of violent extremists who destroy mosques, churches, and those caught inside. The Sri Lankan government, being dominantly Buddhist, didn’t do much about it, and religious violence was on the rise, part of which eventually matured into the Bodu Bala Sena: a terrorist organization that hit the media last year after they began to urge violence against Muslims.

Having dealt with extremists on several occasions, Linton was always a little edgy on Sunday mornings. To me and the others, it was another dull church service in a tiny, sweaty, gray garage, with the extra bonus of not knowing half of what anyone was saying. But to Linton it meant the possibility of having another gun held to head, for the third and most likely last time. The Tigars drove him and his wife away from their home in north by threat of death. Extremists had already destroyed one of his churches, injuring several members. People came to him in secrecy when they felt compelled to follow Christ because they didn’t want their family and community to push them away. Linton sheltered battered wives and gave food to the hungry. He and his wife housed and fed us for almost a month and didn’t expect much for it. He had everything set up so the churches would manage without him if ever the final bullet came.

Linton’s son, Lu, lived in a boarding house in Nuwara Eliya, near a tea factory. Around the end of our first month we spent a few days with him while we prepared to head further east. Lu arranged a tour of the factory so we got to see the entire tea making process from the women hunched under tea baskets strapped to their backs, to industrial dehumidifiers. Afterward they had us taste different teas but they expected us to spit them out like liquor—I don’t spit. Tea is a giant global industry that brings considerable money to the island and provides almost a million jobs around the globe. Beautiful culture, ocean, and thrill of adventure aside—I’d fly to the island now just to savor the sweet ballet rolling over my tongue.

We spent our last week with Linton on the open coast of Batticaloa. We were in the midst of the Tigers, who patrolled the white-sand cemeteries with semiautomatic guns, and we didn’t go into the cities after sunset due to casual crossfire. We spent our days walking a near-pristine coast among human skeletal remains scattered like driftwood, and the busted brick foundations protruding from the sand like outlines in the world’s most depressing coloring book. Every night the Earth stopped. There was no wind, just a lingering heat that made time snail on until dawn. Only one person in our group was smart enough to bring Deet: Jamie, who I married two years later. I stole her Deet and encouraged others to do the same. We emptied the bottle in a day and spent evenings after dinner flailing our arms at mosquito militias as we sang worship songs—Pentecostals would have been proud.

Perhaps it was constantly being set to simmer, or maybe it was the threat of a coconut falling on his head during the few minutes he slept, but around the middle of the week Ray had had enough. Ray was from Somewhere Boring, America and he joined our group with more books than clothes (not good books, just massive dictionaries and encyclopedias on unimportant details about the Bible) and he had the worst luck. There were only three guys on the trip and we all shared a room. One night I woke to Ray screaming, “It’s in my ear! Something crawled in my ear!” I followed him into the bathroom and watched his shaking hand jab a Q-tip into his ear and shovel up dead fragmented bug in between bits of yellow crust. Just days later, ants formed a long line next to his body like road around a mountain, so he bought a pink bug-net and secured it to with floor with cinder blocks and sprayed a dull toxic mist around his sleeping bag every hour he was wake. “It’s a centipede,” he cried at the dark room as I woke and watched him explode out of the net. I’m can’t recall what finally got to him on the coast. He threw a few things around and started screaming and yelling. We gave him a day, and offered to send him home if he wanted to go, but to our amazement he turned down the offer and continued with us north.

Our bus was long and bright against the dawn. A Swedish pair were smuggling us, food, and supplies into a refugee camp a few hours north of Batticaloa. War and devastation cut off access to many basic things like food and soap, some of the children there hadn’t eaten in days. We only had a few hours to feed everyone, offer some entertainment, and leave. The last thing we wanted was a run-in with the Tigers or any other group that didn’t like what we were doing.

Our team headed back west toward Kandy and spent a few quick weeks with John, our last major contact. He liked to say things like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m blacklisted here.” Grinning bigger than his face, “If they catch me they’ll put me in prison for a long time—HAHAHAHAHAHA!” And he’d really laugh that hysterically every time, even after joking about his wife dying. The drive across the island to reach John turned parts of my shirt black from the soot that blasted out of everything with an exhaust pipe. When we arrived two young girls showed us in and made a light dinner. We got comfortable and dined on rice and slimy green flora from old alien horror flicks.

We spent a lot of time walking around the University of Peradeniya. We broke into small groups and roamed around campus. The goal was to engage people about God but it was impossible without a translator. The students who did speak English thought we were crazy God-people but it didn’t stop us from inviting them to hang out. No one bothered. We spent three days fixing up an old Anglican church nobody really attended. We sang songs and played with some kids in an orphanage. We helped sort donations: things people couldn’t really use went in one corner, trash in another, and a small pile of things people really needed in another. One of women in our team tried to hook up with one of the locals. Ray almost got into a fight at one of the biggest festivals in the country. There was a KFC in Kandy and we all thought it would be nice to cut the mounting stress by treating ourselves. We laughed and shared stories—the high-calorie cure worked. Ray sat beside me and happily spun an ice-cream cone against his tongue, then his chair collapsed.

The second month of our stay was hard to get through. We spent the first month whipping around narrow mountain roads at 140kph all crushed together in a matchbox minivan the Cold War coughed up just before it died. Traveling with Linton from village to village and meeting so many new people in the freshness of everything was exciting but it wasn’t as fulfilling during our last weeks there, which lacked passion, but had what felt like more tangible results to me. We had nothing of real value to give the tiny house churches. Small donations aside, all we could do was pray for people. The last month we spent time doing practical things that involved feeding and fixing, but it was always hindered by the unforeseen. My then-girlfriend sent me a breakup email, Ray was always ready to burst, monkeys were stealing the women’s underwear at night as they air-dried on the line. At one point the only thing we could think of to help morale was sit in a circle and say one nice thing about each other, and some couldn’t do that.

For our last week in Sri Lanka, we relaxed at a tropical resort just above the center of the country. At the end of every trip we always took whatever money we had left, found a nice place to emotionally detox, and divided the rest. It was my birthday, so Jamie and some others went and bought me cigarettes and beer. Technically, I was of legal drinking age but some of the women on this particular trip believed alcohol was evil or something and poured it down the fucking toilet. I took my smokes and sat pool-side against the sun until I burned. We skinny dipped at night and in the morning we went down to a waterfall, an inviting pond that collected under a waterfall where the caretakers and others relaxed and swam. My swim trunks looked inflated and silly amid their bright Speedos. Past the fall ran a shallow river that ran between high earthy boulders smashed against the high grass. The caretakers warned us not to go too far out because those who illegally distill high-octane liquor might try to kill us.

It’s been 11 years since we boarded the plane back. Religious turmoil aside, the island is a fully restored paradise. There are highways now so you can get across the island quickly and safely. The Sinhalese won the civil war in 2009. Some estimates cap the death toll at about 100,000. I don’t know if Linton is still planting churches or if John was ever finally put in prison, I lost contact after I left the organization. I plan on going back someday, purely for tourism’s sake.

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