I used to be a traveler. Now I’m staying in.
I used to be a traveler. Now I’m staying in.
My family never traveled for leisure, except for the occasional family trip twice or thrice a year. When we went on those trips, we all jumped on a rented van with our extended family: maternal aunts, uncles, paternal aunts, their children, our cousins. It was like any other Sri Lankan middle-class family trip. “Ordinary,” a senior colleague from a neighboring school once described my family, and our trips.
I grew up in a middle class family. My parents had government jobs. My amma, a school teacher, thaththa, a draughtsman. We were an ordinary family. Our world was the four walls of our house. We weren’t neither poor nor rich. We had food on the table. We always ate well, with my amma preparing spicy, rampe-scented (pandan leaves) meat curries and thaththa mixing up garden-grown ingredients to serve flavorsome concoctions for our palates.
Both me and my little sister studied in government schools, like most children in Sri Lanka do. My parents always provided everything for us the best way they could. Money for pyramid chocolate cakes from P&S after school. Sinhala translations of Enid Blyton books at the age of eight. A desktop computer at 11, a laptop at 15, a phone at 19, satellite tv after the ordinary level exams so I can watch the cricket world cup. But travel was never their interest.
It was not their motive in life. Middle class families have dreams and goals and expectations. Their freedom, their sense of expression, so limited and guarded. They work hard to continuously keep their families fed. They want their kids to do better than them. They want their kids to achieve things they couldn’t. Things the world likes. Things like becoming a doctor or a lawyer. They are jobs respected by society. They are jobs with power and authority and some money.
When I didn’t become a doctor, their world, the little happy cocoon my parents had been dreaming about crashed down. “It was only for a while,” someone told me when it happened. Was it Farees, my friend from Canada who once lived in Pakistan? I’m not so sure now.
When I watched The Middle, the American TV show, I could always relate with it. The Middle is about a middle-class family in the American Midwest. It was so different from every other American TV show I had watched. It’s the story of five people (parents and their three kids) living in an ordinary house with so many unwanted things scattered in it. It’s like the house I grew up in. There were always rickety old plastic chairs, grade five textbooks and empty cardboard boxes filling the space. We could have thrown them out. They were of no use. But we didn’t. Thaththa didn’t. Amma used to say he treasured garbage.
Amma spent her after school hours doing accounts on discarded blank papers. Sometimes these were my old exercise books. Sometimes it was a page of a weekly Sinhala-language newspaper. She calculated the interest of her fixed deposits. She always saved. She saved for the future. My thaththa built a house for us to stay. So they didn’t travel. They were like Franky and Mike (the parents) in The Middle. Mike had never been on a plane, like my thaththa. Frankie and Mike didn’t have passports. My parents either.
My father, though, I found, was a curious mind. He always read books. He read Sinhala translations of Russian communist novels. He read books written by Tagore. He read Sinhala novels by Martin Wickramatunge. He read religious text, philosophy, politics, history, geography and everything. He took me to temples and lakes and ruins nearby and told me about their histories. He took me on train rides and told me that the British built the railways.
I finished my school in 2014. I was charmed by the photos of faraway places appearing on my Tumblr. I dreamed of sleeping in a hammock on a mountain and watching the night sky from a treehouse, the moonlight gently sweeping across the floor. In 2016, I did both for the first time. I lazed on a hammock in Ella. I slept on a cozy mattress on the floor of a treehouse.
This treehouse sat inside a shrubland fading into a ridgeline of the mountains far away. Occasionally, small trees, bearing their fruits (edible and non-edible) dotted the land. Elephants used to walk across the sweeping grass. I slept peacefully that night, the moonlight slowly kissing my weary body.
I have slept on many hammocks and treehouses since then, near and far. In 2014, when I saw dreamy, otherworldly photos edited with VSCO and Lightroom filters, I craved for those experiences. But I never wanted to hop countries or planes or airports. I always longed for the sense of a place. I wanted to hug them with both my hands. I wanted to kneel down, take cities and towns and villages to my palms and kiss them. I wanted to sleep by the rivers, on mountains and near seas. I wanted to savour a place, little by little.
When I met Nathan in 2015, my life kind of changed. I traveled with him and made him travel with me. We traveled together, sometimes every weekend, sometimes once a month. Together, we learnt how to unlearn and learn about a place.
Before we go somewhere, we, the hypothetical human, carry our projections about this place. We learn about the place before we even go there. Then once we actually go there, we unlearn parts (sometimes everything) of what we learnt and we learn again — this time, different things. We learn, unlearn and relearn when we travel. I grasped this little information in 2015. Five years later, I travel the same way.
My relearning of a place happens when I walk through its streets, eat in its many hole-in-the-walls, and drink with its people. When I relearn, my heart, without me knowing, soaks up the tidbits of a place. And then, even before I know it, I become emotional about the smell of teh tarik in a Malaysian cafe, or the earthy smell of paddy in the Sri lankan countryside. I become emotional about the uncles retreating with the daily Telegraph on a roadside bench in Kolkata. They slowly sip their mud-coloured tea. I’m emotional about the blue waters of Meghalaya and the misty mountains of Mizoram. I’m emotional about women-run markets in India, where women talk and shout and chatter and laugh. They chop meat and sell clothes and carry baskets full of living chicken on their heads. I’m emotional about the dust that once caked my tangled hair as I slept during a bumpy bus ride through rural Uttar Pradesh. I relearn [about] places and savour them and love them. So wherever I go, they go with me, their smells, sounds, memories and laughter. They lay in a corner of my heart, treasured.
In 2016, I started my undergraduate degree. I studied humanities. I read Shakespeare and Arundhati Roy and Ondaatje. I studied Durkheim and Foucault. I studied about Facebook and radio and newspapers, but also about hooting and burning fires to communicate. With my studies, I couldn’t travel much. I couldn’t stay for so long in an ocean away. I couldn’t skip more than a few classes. I had assignments and presentations and exams. I had books to read and homework to complete.
During those days, I planned my travels the best way I could so I could learn, unlearn and relearn about a place. When I was in class, my heart always carried a sense of longing and nostalgia for the things I’ve not seen or smelled or touched. They belonged to places, both I had been to and I hadn’t. I longed for it, the sense of relearning of a place, the kind of learning that happens beyond a textbook, a novel, a movie or a tv show.
I graduated in 2019. I went to Northeast India for the second time in my life. I returned after five weeks. I went there again, because there’s always so much relearning to do. We could spend our whole lives at one place, learning it, and we wouldn’t be able to finish. And by this time, Northeast India had stolen a large part of my heart. I didn’t even know how it happened.
But I missed Nathan, so I hopped on a plane to Colombo on February 25. While the dramatic landscapes of Northeast India begged me to return [or rather my heart begged myself to go back], I applied for a Pakisatni visa. My friend Saanu wanted me to shower me with food at her home in Karachi. Ali, my friend in Islamabad, told we could hike the mountains in Hunza together. My visa came in a few days. So did the Coronavirus?
It’s November now. Before the early wave/s of Covid shuttered Sri Lanka [and the globe], I went home to see my parents in Kurunegala, 120km from Colombo, in March. It was hard being home. The four walls of our house felt like a large prison cell. I couldn’t move beyond it. I cried while I sipped on powder-milk tea. I bingewatched Four More Shots without sleeping for 36 hours. I started doodling and drawing with old, withered colours left at home. I was not ready for not moving. Some of the watercolour tubes were so dry that they had no life in them. I poured water into them and stared at them until they gave me colour. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t.
It was hard. I wanted to run. I wanted to be constantly moving, seeing, smelling, and touching things. So I smelled the rice growing in the fields near our house. I saw the colors of the evening sky. I listened to the Buddhist chants in the evening. Our neighbours played them loud every day. For them, those religious chants brought a sense of security in uncertain times.
Nothing I tried, though, worked. I wanted to be moving. I wanted to be with Nathan. I wanted to feel a sense of home. In July, when the government had relaxed the curfew situation in Sri Lanka, I rented a van (I was hesitant to use public transport) and came to Colombo. I didn’t have a place in Colombo so I stayed at the place my parents had rented for my sister. I stayed there for two months and moved places in August.
And I’m home now. I’m with Nathan.
I have begun to love the sense of staying in. I have begun to prepare my food — if there’s one thing the Coronavirus gave me, it’s learning to cook (although I’ve to agree that I’m thankful for my best friend Sahid for pushing me to step into the culinary world). I cook biryani with aloo [creamy soft potatoes that cut like butter] and fry chili in ghee for my dal. Sometimes, I roast chicken and mash garlic. Soft, salty and buttery, with a generous sprinkle of dried thyme.
Nathan feeds me throughout the day. He’s always been a sweetheart. The better half of our relationship. The nicer one. But he’s more of a sweetheart now. I know there’s a word called love, but what I have for you, Nathan, is something else.
In the morning, before I’m up, he serves me buttered garlic toast plated with bacon ends and sunny-side up egg. Then arrives two soft pancakes topped with apple, cinnamon and palm syrup with a cup of tea as their smell tingles me. For lunch, I cook rice and dal, while Nathan makes a bean-fry in soy sauce with treacle and red chili flakes. Dinner is often grilled meat — either chicken or pork. So our little world at home is full of things we love: food, each other, cozy nooks and solitude.
In the evenings, sometimes, I sit outside in the garden. It’s my own little picnic place. I sit by a tree and watch birds. I don’t know their names, but they have many colours: black, green, maple brown, navy blue and crimson red.
I love home. Home, my home, where Nathan is.
But I’m also a traveler. So deep down, on most days, when I see snow-capped mountains and a far-flung Hunzani village appearing on my Facebook, I want to run. I want to hop on a plane that doesn’t (even) fly. Sometimes I check if someone somewhere is open to tourists. Sometimes I see photos of Meghalaya and photos my friends share and I live through them, vicariously. But I no longer can travel the way I once did, at least not for now.
We have the second wave of Covid now. This year, after I hopped on a plane to Colombo, I’ve been on exactly two [travel] trips. One was to the cold mountains of Nuwara Eliya, where the mist wrapped us and the beckoning rain kissed us alive. The second was to the colder mountains of Idalgashinna, where the mist swathed the landscape, playing hide-n-seek and the rain never ceased. It was a beautiful time by the railways in the hills. Mine and Nathan’s favourite.
But now, we can’t travel. We are home. We love it. Nathan loves it. He’s always been a homebody, a nestler. Coronavirus has taught me how to be a nestler, too. It was a hard, slow transition, from a traveler to a nestler. So I embrace it now. I finally love the idea of being home. I have slowly forged a love for it, the idea of staying in, the idea of a home and being a nestler. I’m a nestler now. I’m a homebody. (Let me be frank, I realized this first at my friend’s home in Guwahati.)
The pandemic taught me that I should let my life flow.
No matter how big your plans are, or how many skyscrapers you build in your world, there are things that you can’t control, like the pandemic. You can’t control a virus no matter what your plans are, especially when you aren’t a billionaire who has a private jet to fly to Bora Bora as we speak.
Life goes on. It flows. And I’ve learnt to embrace the unpleasant bits it throws at me, to grow and grow through them, slowly but firmly. I’ve learnt to love the small things even more now, like the way Nathan’s eyes crinkle when he sees the stray cat who frequents our home — her name is Emily — meows for water, or the way my best friend Sahid still loves me after I vent out my anger on him (I truly shouldn’t do this!). I’ve learnt to love the smell of the earth when rain kisses it after the August heat, or the way my little sister stands against anyone and everyone who doesn’t appreciate me. There’s beauty and magic in night jasmine carpeting my neighborhood streets at dawn and the light sun rays that appear through the mango trees in my garden. I’ve learnt to appreciate them more now. The earth. The people. Happiness.
I’m a nestler, until I travel again.
More photos of me, other people and things around me — all that I find beautiful.