I think it really - I mean I don't know how it took so long - really hit me that my experience as a fellow tsunami survivor was not so relevant to the situation any longer.
The discontinuity in our lives was a connecting bond, but the trajectories are far too different. I didn't need rice sacks and dahl and clean water delivered to the community shelter where I was housed with sixty families for months.
It might have happened in Hambantota, Sri Lanka that I realized quite another life experience bonded me more to survivors of natural disasters.
The west and south coast is fairly urban and one sees Army tent shelters alongside luxury gated resorts, but from Matara on, the scene changes to lush green rice paddies, stark white egrets and cocoa-dusted water buffalo. My contact lensed eyes felt refreshed after weeks of city dirt. I sunk into my seat and enjoyed a bus ride to Hambantota. (It was the bus ride from Hambantota I remarked on yesterday; that was altogether a different experience.)
Maybe the fact that 35% of the people are employed in agriculture comes alive here. This is the heartland.
There was a funeral that day. A fisherman in the neighborhood ran out of oxygen while part of a dive training program.
Death isn't foreign here. So many of the men died at market - too close to the sea - that Boxing Day, that it's mostly women in attendance today.
The monthly 'psycho-spiritual healing programme' at the temple school was running about a half-hour behind as mourners trickled in.
While the counselors and lecturer prepared, I entertained myself by glancing at posters - reminders for the teacher - such as: "A child is not a vessel to be filled - but a lamp to be lit."
As they settle, I count 28 although the numbers are in flux as kids arrive and elders depart throughout. One woman peels back her red blouse to nurse her baby as she listens attentively. Two hours glide by. Some other day I'll tell you more about those hours.
The program erases from my mind. At the end of the day, I'm introduced to a woman. Her hair is long and tucked back like most Sri Lankan woman and she wears what resembles a house-dress. She could have just walked out her bathroom. My mother snaps into focus with her signature house-dress and slippers. She is listless and numb too.
She stands there shifting slowly while the counselor speaks to me in English. The three girls are maybe eleven. Maybe twelve. They wear matching polyester blouse, skirt, black ponytails. When I was a child I would have sketched in the barefoot triplets with scrawls of burnt sienna Crayolas.
Crayola Inc adds a romantic dash to burnt sienna: The Japanese do not have a specific word named brown. Rather they use more descriptive names such as “tea-color," "fox-color," and "fallen-leaf.”
In Sri Lankan brown would be husked-coconut-color, bed-tea-color, water-buffalo-color, cinnamon-bark-color.
The three girls eyes aren't cloudy like their mother's. They mostly follow your gaze rather than look at the temple floor.
Christy was 14, Yvette was nine. I was just shy a few weeks before high school prom night when Papi died.
I'm close to that age when Mom was buying a casket for her husband at 42.
Mom's English was mangled but we understood her just fine. Her last job was teaching before she fled Cuba as a political refugee. She had a two-year teaching certificate. She didn't drive although we lived in suburban labyrinth of Miami.
There was no life insurance.
Now this life experience is much more relevant to the people I meet post-tsunami.
How to pay for my college education paled in comparison to how are we paying the mortgage and eating dinner and keeping the lights on. I feel blessed that no one was surveying us forlornly as the three of us stood to the left of our mother. But maybe it's too easy to be invisible at times like this.
One of the best things that happened to us wasn't a donation or a handout. Papi was no longer around to boom: "No, you can't have a job. Get good grades. Go to college." A man with a junior high education quickly surmises that you can't scrape by in the U.S.A. without an education.
"Can you type?" my aunt Nina asked in her chirpy Brazilian accent.
I don't remember the details but the program she found through her school system network aided underprivileged kids. We would be paired up with businesses; part of the salary was subsidized by the state of Florida. Even in the best of times my mother would never have hussled up this opportunity. She always bit her fingernails and worried the TV news would come to life in her family room. She demured to me as the oldest to make phone calls in English on her behalf ever since I got straight A's in English in third grade.
"Good. How fast can you type?" Nina is scurrying me through the application.
"I dunno know. I just learned last summer."
I was one of those crazed nerds that actually yearns for school to begin each fall. I'd had it with droning June-July-August and willingly signed up for summer school: Drivers Ed and Typing 101. It worked out great since there were a lot of fascinating kids that repeat failed classes in summer school. Kids I didn't normally hang with as a honor student. And that's where I met Ralph, my first boyfriend but I still managed to learn how to type on an electric typewriter too.
"Let's put down 50 words per minute."
My eyes bulge in protest: "I don't think..."
"Don't worry," she wags her wrist in a fine-fine-it's-fine gesture. "Know what I'm doing."
There's never any arguing with Nina. She'd do well on reality TV now that I think about it. Anyway, everyone knows that's it's easier to let her be right. Fifty words, twenty words, hundred words an hour. Okay, Nina. And I didn't expect this job thing to go anywhere anyway.
I got the job.
It was my first experience in customer service and working with a mix of fun-loving, hard-working Asian and black Americans at a privatized vehicle license tag agency. I absolutely loved it. I worked there through that summer, through my early years of college right until I got an engineering internship. I fondly look back on the experience as it taught me so much about my developing my own esteem, inner capacity and strength than gifting me the salary equivalent while I watched Three's Company or The Love Boat in despair ever could have.
p.s. I'm not sure if you'd call it being enchanted or being irrevocably touched, but I cannot simply write and not get engaged. You'll hear soon enough about projects I'm working on that you can also engage with. Sarvodaya, one of the oldest NGOs in Sri Lanka dedicated to grassroots village development, gave the psycho-spiritual healing program I visited above (tax deductible donations for US citizens here). This program offers a culturally sensitive one-on-one work that's a blend of "Western counseling with Eastern healing", please mention the Legal Movement Services Psycho-Spiritual Healing Programme with your donation. (I spent about three days visiting with their directors and counselors from Moratuwa to Kahawe to Hambantota, checking out their training of school counselors, providing feedback and scouting out their children and adult programs for myself).
p.p.s. My personal brush with the 'teach them to fish rather than hand them a fish' philosophy gives you some insight why I prefer drawing people forth, enhancing their dignity and reservoir of strength by giving them a boost rather than handing out donations.