How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka

My most recent writing on The Write Place has focused on historical posts about Carrie Nation, Wyatt Earp and a West Virginia coal mining disaster in 1907. These personalities and events touch upon my work-in-progress, Wichita Snake. My original idea was to share nothing on this blog but historical tidbits to promote my fiction.

But there is a writer behind all his blogging–me!–and, as my friend Jon Harvey recently pointed out, some of the most engaging blog posts tell personal stories. So I’m going to shift gears and restructure The Write Place Blog. Not much, just a little. To avoid becoming a kind of ghost in the machine, I’ve decided to dedicate each third post to some personal story or idea I have about reading and literature and anything else that I believe informs my love of the written word.

Ghost in the Machine

Writing about A Life Change: The Write Place Blogger Steps Out of the Machine (Ghost in the Machine by Ky, CC BY 2.0)

So I’m going to dedicate these third posts to a new section on this blog called “Ramblings”. I’m also working on launching an e-newsletter called “Scribblings”. So there you have it. Ramblings and Scribblings will be phased in as part of this blog, starting with this post.

Okay, on to business. The topic of today’s rambling is making a major life change.

Life Change: Travel, University and Travel Again 

My love of the written word originally put me on a path to the university. I’m not just talking about going to college. A lot of people attend the university so they can become qualified to have a professional career.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

And yes, that was a part of it for me. I was an English major, first at Virginia Tech and then at SUNY Binghamton, where I ended up getting my Bachelor of Arts degree. I even had already had set my sights on graduate school and a career as an English professor. I had loved reading ever since childhood and I could think of no other profession that would allow me to spend as much time with books.

But something interesting happened after graduation. I grew restless. At a young 22 years old, did I really need to set such a clear, linear path into the future? Hell, no. So, in dramatic fashion the summer after I entered the so-called “real world”, I skipped town and moved to Alaska where I went to work on the slime line of a sockeye salmon processing center out near Bristol Bay. The shifts were 16 hours long, went all through the night and didn’t allow such a thing as weekends. Read: seven days a week. The job didn’t mess around. It was brutal.

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But I almost didn’t come back. It’s not just that the state is absolutely beautiful although my writer friend Lisa O’Kane (who I recently interviewed for this blog), just posted a stunning image of Denali National Park on her own blog. If THAT kind of scene doesn’t make you want to go to Alaska, I don’t know what will!

After gutting sockeye salmon in a perpetual zombie-like state over a period of about three months, I and the crew I had worked with were released from slime line bondage, flew back to civilization and ended up crashing in a seedy hotel room on Spenard Street in Anchorage. Around twelve of us slept two consecutive nights in one hotel room. One bed broke: don’t ask. But there were rumors coming in of another salmon run up in Cordova and Valdez. More work, in other words. So this was pretty exciting for someone at my young, impressionable age. I was actually kinda sorta starting to make it in Alaska after only a summer there. At least, for what passes as “making it” to a 22-year old.

As I said, I almost stayed.

Yet in the midst of decision-making in Anchorage, I discovered that the application I had put in to graduate school at Fordham University was accepted. I had to separate myself from the crew and take some time to myself. I went to the movies. I left the hotel room and spent a night alone in my tent at Centennial Park. I meditated on the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city in a ring. But I made my choice. I wished my salty comrades farewell, including a guy named Peter whom I had hit it off with particularly well and who had been arrested two years previously for stabbing a cop, and headed back east.

It was a blur moving from the culture of salmon processing centers to that of graduate school in the Bronx. I attended my first classes unshaven, with greasy, shoulder-length hair and wearing a black Ocean Beauty Seafoods cap (the patch of which showed a blonde mermaid with her arm around a giant red crab). But it didn’t take long for me to adjust and I quickly decided to focus my course of study on the modernist writers for whom I had always had a passionate interest.

So I began attending Fordham University the spring of 1995. And things went well. I learned to think in a way I never had before. I read great books. I read Ulysses, for god’s sake. My professors encouraged me. But then, fast forward and less than two years later, I took a leave of absence from my studies to join the Peace Corps and teach English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka.

Ernest Hemingway Took Me to the Library AND to the Airport

Truth be told, what informed my decision to travel AND to pursue academic studies was the same thing: books. My favorite modernist writer had always been Ernest Hemingway. I read his short stories in high school but it was a literature course I enrolled in as a freshman at Virginia Tech that really made the earth shake beneath my feet. Professor Hoge introduced me to life among the expatriates in Paris in The Sun Also Rises, to the Great War and a failed romance in A Farewell to Arms, and to safari hunting in Africa in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

What I took from Hemingway was a love of reading…and a love of life. I craved experience. What has always been a struggle for me (though less so now that I’m a father), is the struggle between the right, practical thing and doing whatever makes me a liver of life.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but that desire to live was working its magic under the surface even as I went through the motions of attending graduate school. That desire had already prompted me to head to Alaska…I should have known what was coming!

During that first year at Fordham, I can’t say I was unhappy. The life of the mind stimulated me then and continues to do so. But I took time from my studies to fill out an application for the Peace Corps and, following a long, tedious, painful federal government-driven process, I received an invitation to teach in Sri Lanka. I had shaved by this point, and had even cut and cleaned my hair. But it was nevertheless time to head off to the airport once again.

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Seven years after the discovery of Ernest Hemingway, my life started slipping away from the academic life and I moved deeper into the world of experience. I wouldn’t truly recognize what was happening until I returned to Fordham University a little over a year later and discovered, in an obscure library carrel, another writer whom I had not yet read before. Only in the discovery of a poem by the poet W.H. Auden, would I recognize what I was going through. But the realization was on its way.

I was going through a life change.

Avoiding Suicide Bombers and Other Experiences

I was a kind of expatriate in Sri Lanka, much as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald had been in Europe, though I lived in a different continent and for different reasons. In addition to volunteering (which Ernest did NOT go to Paris to do), there was booze, bleary-eyed mornings eating bananas and pineapples on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, friendships forged, cultural misunderstandings, a chronic and overwhelming sense of displacement, and intimacies that otherwise might not have occurred. A lot of those likely DID overlap with what it must have been like for those writers.

And there was war.

I lived in Kandy, the cultural capital of the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka. Most people who think of the Peace Corps envision mud huts and isolated villages, which had some truth to it for my fellow volunteers, though they mostly lived in cement homes smack in the middle of the jungle. But I lived in a beautiful city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, which had an amazing, cool climate. In that regard, most would say I was lucky. I also had email which, in those early days of the Internet, was about the most amazing luxury a Peace Corps volunteer could dream of!

Sri Lanka was also a nation in the middle of a civil war. Many of the Tamils who lived there had felt disenfranchised since England gave the nation independence in 1948. Freed of the yoke of the British Empire, the Sinhalese majority moved quickly into most of the powerful and influential positions in the government, education and the civil service, while the Tamil minority, originally brought over from India by the English in the 19th century to work on the tea plantations, wasn’t left with much at all.

In the early 1980s, the Tamils began fighting–literally–for their own homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Tamil Tigers were the first group internationally acknowledged to utilize suicide bombings as a political tool. Most of the “activity” between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil resistance fighters (which is how I describe them–I won’t make political overtures by designating them as terrorists or freedom fighters) took place in the north and east, and in the national capital of Colombo. So volunteers were, for the most part, not allowed in those places.

However, in 1998, Sri Lanka was celebrating 50 years of independence as a nation and the Tamil resistance decided to expand its operations. Prince Charles of England was scheduled to participate in Sri Lanka’s golden anniversary celebrations right in Kandy where I lived.

Except for one slight twist.

In early January 2008, not long before the celebrations were to begin, three Tamil Tigers drove an explosives-laden truck right into the Temple of the Tooth on a suicide mission. The Temple of the Tooth (or the Dalada Maligawa, in the Sinhala language) is the iconic heart of the Sinhalese culture in Kandy and is reputed to hold a tooth of the revered Buddha.

The Temple of the Tooth was also less than a half a mile from one of the schools where I taught. I had been in the temple twice and had walked past it more times than I could count. Sixteen people died and more than 20 were injured in the suicide attack.

Life Change: Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Tooth

Sixteen people were killed in an attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka in January 1998. (Photo: Joe Kovacs)

When it happened, I was on vacation in the resort of Unawatuna just outside Galle on the southern coast. I rushed back to Kandy that afternoon to make sure my host family was okay. Bad move on my part: I never called the Peace Corps office to check in and let our country director know I was okay. I had to pass through more checkpoints than I could remember on the trip back up to the hill country and, while the local soldiers were usually friendly with me–a visiting foreigner–there was no humor that day and my bags were ruthlessly searched along with those of every other native person coming into Kandy.

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In the days following that traumatic event, the city was on the edge of riot. I didn’t realize how close everything came until later. But right after the temple attack, a group of Sinhalese began marching around Kandy Lake in the middle of the city, gesticulating, screaming and yelling violent curses against Tamils. It took local Buddhist monks to enter and calm the crowd; without that intervention, who knows what might have occurred.

For several days, whenever I walked to my school, I saw armed Sinhalese soldiers standing in green uniforms and carrying very big firearms outside the residences and businesses of Tamil locals. I heard two stories about their presence. First, that the Sinhalese, in collusion with the authorities, were preparing a widespread assault on local Tamils. Second, and this seems more plausible, was the theory that the authorities had stationed these soldiers in front of Tamil establishments to protect innocent citizens from furious Sinhalese seeking revenge against those aligned by ethnic identification with the attackers.

The golden anniversary celebrations in Kandy never occurred and Prince Charles never came. This disruption, likely, was one key goal of the Tigers in staging the attack.

And I was not the only volunteer who experienced the impact of the Tigers’s decision to expand their operations that year. Another volunteer, my friend Sarah, lived in another hill country city, Nuwara Eliya, where the Tigers decided to shut down the power grid. Nuwara Eliya had, previously, been mostly untouched by the civil war. Well, no longer. The Peace Corps ended up getting Sarah to a beach resort and away from potential hostilities.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

In the weeks after my and Sarah’s experiences, the Peace Corps sent a security officer to Sri Lanka to assess the situation. In the end, that officer decided it was best to send the volunteers home. This was both annoying and embarrassing, from my point of view. It was annoying in the sense that I had chosen to be there. No one made me come to Sri Lanka and I could have left at any time. If I chose to stay, despite the dangers and challenges, well that was my choice, wasn’t it? Of course the Peace Corps’ first priority remains the safety of its volunteers…and it was with that in mind that they blew the whistle and called all the volunteers out of the pool. Still: groaning and eye-roll on my part.

And it was embarrassing because none of the other international volunteers were leaving. The British, the Australians, the Japanese–they were all staying. So we Americans looked squeamish to a ridiculous degree. And it wasn’t the Peace Corps security team who had to say goodbye to the families and friends we had made in our communities. It wasn’t them who had to explain that because of the kind of bombing event that Sri Lankans had become accustomed to as part of their lives, that we were leaving. I taught elementary school kids. Here’s a photo of some. What the hell was I supposed to say to them?

Life Change: Sri Lankan elementary school kids

Goodbye, Joe!

Reading and Traveling 

When I wasn’t teaching or trying to avoid suicide bombs, I read. I read a lot, in fact. I had a lot of down time as did the other volunteers. It became common for volunteers to read and exchange books, including such nuggets as Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which had just been published and was causing a stir, When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan , which was also blowing the pants off the local publishing world, novels by post-colonial writers Yasmine Gooneratne and Carl Muller, the travel diaries of R.K. Narayan and Peace Corps’ best known travel writer Paul Theroux.

But my decision to come to Sri Lanka meant, at least for a time, that I took my nose out of a book and left the university behind to live in a world of lush jungles, rogue elephants, suicide bombers, beautiful beaches, sacred Buddhism and civil war. It was a far cry from my decision, less than two years previously, to attend Fordham University and pursue a life of intellectualism.

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The worlds of the mind and of the body could not get much different.

So I wanted experience, right? Hemingway inspired me to not only study the great modernist writers but also pursue a life of experience. Well, I had it now!

I was in the middle of a life change.

Please share any thoughts you have about this story in the comments section below. Stay tuned, also, for my next personal post in mid-August (preceded by two historical posts) when I will write about my return to Fordham university, my discombobulated experience in the classroom, the discovery of an important poem by W.H. Auden, the way I said goodbye to graduate school and to a potential career as a professor, and my decision to move to Washington, DC and work for the Peace Corps.

Once again…stay tuned!

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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One Response to How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka

  1. Pingback: How a Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka II | The Write PlaceThe Write Place

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