Can you get reverse culture shock after only being away a month? It doesn’t feel legitimate somehow, and yet I feel a bit strange and unsettled.
I landed in London around 11pm and the sky was that glorious royal blue colour that it goes in summertime when the days are long and the sun hasn’t really set properly yet. This was the first thing. I had missed the gradual slide into high summer, and so it hit me like a shock, and yet it was the best welcome to England – our summers (wet or not) are such a gift of daylight, and the very English looking sky was such a queenly blue. I felt like I was home.
Home and chilly. It had been bucketing it down with rain on my last day in Colombo, and the driver of my taxi to the airport begged me to take the rain away with me. If we’re going to have wet summers for the next ten years like the scientists suggest, then I’d have gladly brought the hot monsoon showers of Sri Lanka back with me as a trade for the general damp and the 15 degree temperature drop.
The next morning I had toast for breakfast. Not daal. Not roti. I walked to the shop to buy milk and was vaguely disconcerted by how tidy the streets were and how non-dusty, how the buildings were not so obviously built out of breezeblocks, and the blatant absence of corrugated iron.
I met a friend for a drink and it was so normal and familiar, like the previous four weeks hadn’t happened. And trying to answer the question ‘How was it?’ vaguely impossible.
What do I talk about? The physical poverty I saw? The lack of basic amenities like clean water and electricity in a country which I didn’t expect to be so underdeveloped? The shabbiness of the children’s clothing, and the fact that they all swarmed to the centres in part because it might be the only meal they get that day.
Or do I focus on the emotional poverty? How neglect stunts development, and how even the smallest words of encouragement can give a child a reason to flourish? How the physically poor are excluded from general society on the grounds of their poverty, trapping them in a hopeless cycle? Do I mention how ashamed some of the children seemed to be to hold hands with us in circle games, afraid of being rejected and outcast?
Do I tell people what I saw as the impact of war on a country? How it wearies its people and sows the seeds for future trouble if it’s not properly resolved and reconciled? About all the empty and abandoned houses I saw, riddled with bullet holes and painted with ‘This belongs to the Army’?
Or I could describe the landscape and the wildlife – wild elephants, monkeys, bright blue kingfishers and yellow bee eaters, and loads of eagles? The beautiful bays and the beaches like a catalogue tropical paradise? How warm the sea was to swim in, and how blue. The fish I saw snorkelling and the basking sharks and the coral. Do I describe the mountain views and the splendour of the hill country and the tea plantations?
Maybe I could give account of my trip meal by meal, describing all the foods and the flavours and the terrible cravings I now have for kottu and gravy, roti, daal and sambol?
Perhaps I should I talk about the people I met – all the many different characters, Tamils, Sinhalese, expats and tourists, and all the conversations we had, and the secrets they told me whether I asked them or not?
Or should I quantify my trip in terms of what I did – not very much if I have to define it this way, just lots of games of dodgeball and cheering and trying to teach a handful of English words.
Can I really attempt to explain what impact it has had on me? Because in some undefinable way I’m not quite the same person I was. Something’s shifted, or maybe it’s that I can’t shift the dust of the places I’ve been from off my feet.
I’m not sure, but it’s strange to be back.
So I say ‘It was amazing. I don’t even know where to start, but I’m glad to be back’ and for the most part, that’s truth enough.