A major balancing act of our trip: to expose the kids (and ourselves) to the cultures, people, and places we are encountering in a meaningful way, while also providing the kids (and ourselves) some continuity and connection with life back home. It’s amazingly easy, even in places like Sri Lanka, to eat processed chicken nuggets, gorge on American media, and surround yourself with people (other tourists) who look just like you do. It’s also easy to forget, in the desire to wring meaning out of every moment, that kids can only take so much cultural immersion before they become exhausted, oversaturated, and you realize you’re probably defeating the purpose.
Striking the right balance sometimes seems an elusive goal. In India, we often felt we were missing the real country, ensconcing ourselves in ITCs and traveling in a chauffeured luxury van rather than sleeping in homestays and making use of India’s famed train system.
Here in Sri Lanka, we find it difficult to walk past restaurants welcoming “Foreigners Only,” where we know the girls will have options other than grimace-inducing rice and curry. (I’ll admit that we never walk past Foreigners Only Restrooms. While we’ve all grown accustomed to the Asian toilet style, a nice American Standard potty is always a treat.)
But every time we feel like we might as well be at Epcot Center, the balance suddenly seems to shift. Like the time we found ourselves indefinitely delayed in the insanely crowded domestic terminal of the Bagdograh airport. We were the only Westerners among hundreds of other passengers and the only remotely kid friendly snack was curry-flavored Pringles.
Or, on a happier note, the time we were invited by our luxury van driver to his home in Jaipur during Dewali. We ate holiday treats and drank tea with his wife and daughter-in-law, who, according to the tradition still followed by some Indian women, uncovered her face and spoke (in excellent English) only when her father-in-law left the room. A warm and welcoming family, we were so lucky to spend part of their holiday with them.
And then there was the time (just yesterday) when we visited one of Sri Lanka’s famed national parks, Horton’s Plain. Sitting at 6,000 ft in the center of the country, the plain covers 10,000 hectacres and terminates to the south with a 4,000 ft sheer cliff that provides breathtaking views to the river valley below. (Brendan showed me the press about tourists falling off the unguarded cliff only after our visit. I appreciated that.) It’s a 6 mile hike to the cliff, known as the World’s End. As we made our way there in the late morning hours, we saw several Western tourists on their way back, but curiously none headed in our direction… Only later did we learn that any right-minded person unaccustomed to the Sri Lankan heat starts the hike, which offers virtually no shade, several hours before we did.
Sri Lankan holiday makers, on the other hand, trailed behind us by an hour or so. Apparently, they prefer to start the walk after lunch. And on 26 December, a national holiday in Sri Lanka, many, many of them make the journey. Thus, as we death-marched ourselves back from the World’s End under the scorching sun, with not enough water and genuinely concerned about heat stroke, we ran into what seemed like hundreds of Sri Lankans.
As worried as we were about our beet-red faced American children, they offered biscuits and water (and, of course, took our picture). This kindness was matched only by that of the man who, at the beginning of the hike, loaned me his size 10 hightops, after I realized I’d left my hiking shoes two hours away, back at the inn.
A tourist experience for sure, but one that definitely did not feel at all like we were at Epcot.
What we’ve learned these past five months is that it’s probably impossible to achieve true balance between authenticity and ease in any one experience or even on any given day. Overall, though, we’ve found that if we’re patient, we get just about as much as we need of both.
Christmas certainly delivered in that regard. Our kids really cherish our Christmas traditons, about which we’re pretty religious. As the 25th approached, they made increasing reference to what “we would be doing now if we were at home.” And Brendan and I grew increasingly anxious that they would feel completely unmoored being so far from our home for the holiday.
Thanks in large part to the kids themselves, that was not the case. It was far from a traditional Christmas, to be sure. This was the Christmas tree in the dining room of the otherwise lovely mountain inn where we spent the 24th through the 26th.
Yes, that’s right, it’s constructed of wine and beer bottles.
And instead of candy canes, which seem to exist nowhere in SE Asia, we had this Sri Lankan delicacy, rambuttan, as a Christmas treat.
Delicious, but really no substitute.
For the most part though, with some minor adjustments, the most important aspects of our traditons traveled with us.
Holly and William spent hours using our arts and crafts travel kit to make homemade ornaments and fashion a pretty festive Christmas tree.
The girls constructed cookies for Santa with milk biscuits, Nutella, and sprinkles. The reindeer got a mango and peanuts. And on Christmas morning, we opened stockings in bed just like we do at home.
After that, the loot under the tree was revealed with great ceremony. The pile was small, lots of travel size shampoos, new toothbrushes, and books…
But everyone seemed pretty happy, especially with the Secret Santa presents the kids carefully choose for each other.
I’m sorry to say, we didn’t make it to Mass. The nearest English speaking service was a two-hour drive away. But we climbed a beatuiful Sri Lankan mountain, then played together in the pool before dinner. It felt like a pretty fitting birthday celebration for JC and definitely a Christmas we’ll always remember.
The next day, as we got ready to move to our next stop, we tackled a more balancing act of the trip: scrutinizing the contents of our bags to see what we could donate or ship home to lighten our load, being careful not to give up any essentials. As we completed the task, I had the feeling this was a lot like a backpacker’s Boxing Day.
We’re taking the train now from Ella to Kandy to explore more of Sri Lanka’s gorgeous interior. Our packs are more balanced and, not to be corny, but so are our spirits. Christmas can have that effect, even so far from home.