Train of Thoughts: Summit

The everyday fuel came from the people; they kept me within tracks. The greatest difference among previous experiences regards the involvement of the community. Usually one-on-one interviews are guaranteed ways to obtain answers. However, in Badulla and surrounding regions, most of the community wanted to participate. One person would often act as a mediator and talk on behalf of the population, which would then gather around the person as though his/her words represented their communal thoughts.

During the first couple days, not realizing the cultural implications, I would try to focus solely on one individual; yet, as the filming progressed, such community feeling became the chosen style of the documentary. In one of our long drives, I remember Mr. Jayasingue asking me whether in Brazil or the United States, neighbors had similar union. Answers varied according to each country, but in reality, neither of these nations has such strong sense of community as the one encountered in Sri Lanka. The feeling was courteously extended towards my presence, taking the dark nights away: they were my summit.

Most of the interviews occurred within private spaces. Houses, farms, community clubs, the hosts would always offer drinks – and food in several instances. Second day alone, after filming the meeting, tea and rice cakes were served to all attendees. Just before I left, the house owner’s wife gifted me with a passion fruit filled bag. Later that same day, one of the farmers courted us with lunch at his outside patio: homemade food prepared at its best. Days would not be finished without dinner; always gently served at Mr. Prabath’s house – the organization’s founder and chief officer.

One striking characteristic regarding Sri Lankan food regards the use of spices and coconut milk; every meal of the day includes those two elements in its recipe. As far as ingredients, rice and jackfruit are certain accompaniments to any dish. Spicy rice noodles for breakfast obviously tasted foreign to me; yet, the greatest diversion did not derive from the food. It came from the hands. As we traveled through these villages, hands were the only separation between food and mouth – no forks, knives or spoons. Although some establishments did offer utensils, it would not make sense to not behave according to local traditions. If I wanted to get personal, cultural immersion was the better alternative.

One of the first experiences eating with my bare hands, must admit, it felt rather liberating – no rules, anticipations, or awkward placements. Besides hands, head gestures are also quite confusing in Sri Lanka. As opposed to the normal up and down movement, Sri Lankans concur by moving their heads from right to left – as in a “more or less” type of movement. I remember during the first meeting, the organization’s director kept moving his head sideways whenever I tried to make a point. I would just blankly stare at him wondering why he was not agreeing with any of my ideas. It took me time to realize the meaning of such gesture; but then again, same principle applied the other way around.

Most of the people we visited during the interviewing process are not accustomed to foreign cultures. One recurring procedure, during the interviews I always stand next to the camera, and ask people to talk directly to me; in an attempt to break the camera fear. Even though I could not understand a single word, I nodded; and I bet most of the interviewees wondered the reason why I kept disagreeing with their opinions.

Language and cultural barriers apart, we would always discover means to bond. I remember studying in college that nonverbal communication corresponds to over 80% of all engaged interaction; these levels were raised to 99% in Badulla. Head gestures, hand movements, single syllable words, and onomatopoeias: diverse realities connected through similar intentions.

The reality of the rural poor revolves around improper infrastructure. Yet, social problems go beyond housing standards; economical and environmental issues play an important role in the underdevelopment of the region. Environmentally speaking, foreign farming practices, such as the use of pesticides, have affected an otherwise fertile indigenous knowledge. The Uva province hosts over 3,000 water catchments along its mountainous landscape, and because of such practices, polluted water has added an extra sour taste to current issues. Harsh conditions, to say the least; still, villagers find strength to smile. They see the light.

Sunrays break through the clouds. Two seats ahead, on the opposite side, two girls stare at me. Just hours before, while I tried to recover from the 4:30AM wake up call, I unexpectedly opened my eyes, only to find a camera staring straight into my eyes – these two same girls were behind it. A rather awkward situation, I pretended as though my stare into the light was too quick to realize their failed undercover attempt to snap a photo. Could there possibly be a love affair? With eyes closed, I pretended to sleep. Hours past the occurrence, they continue to stare.

And the steady movement goes on.