Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sri Lanka, my beloved country

The tsunami that hit South Asia in December 2004 changed my life. Not in the way you may think. I wasn't there when it happened. I didn't lose my home or my family or my job. In fact, before the tsunami, I had never even been to South Asia. I had no idea that over the next few years, my life would be changed because of this tragedy.

The summer of 2005, my dad asked me to go with him to Sri Lanka to help with tsunami relief. Well, maybe he didn’t really need me to help, but I think he wanted me to be exposed to that part of the world and see the needs of the people. A week after graduating from high school, I hopped on a plane and flew halfway around the world to a country I had only seen on a map in my World History class.

I had traveled out of the country several times before, and I had seen poverty. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-breaking scenes I would see when I stepped out of the airport into the hot, humid, dirty, beautiful city of Colombo. On the ride down to Galle, my eyes were glued to the side of the road. What used to be people’s homes was now nothing more than a pile of mud. Houses and people were swept away. We stopped at a tsunami camp along the way. People had been camping out in tents for 6 months, waiting for homes that were promised by the government, but in reality not expected to ever be built. A woman ran up to me crying, begging me in her language to help her. Her children were starving, she lost her husband, she had no money…she was nothing but skin and bones.

My eyes were wide in disbelief. I was frightened and confused. My heart was breaking. The needs were so overwhelming that it felt hopeless. Like there was nothing I could do that could possibly make a difference. I wanted to run away and burst into tears. Instead, I sat on the dirt floor of this ladies’ tent and did the only thing I could. Listen. I was silent most of the time. I mean, what do you even say in a situation like that?

Our trip only lasted a week and when it was over, I wasn’t ready to come home. I begged my dad to stay longer. I just had the feeling that my time in Sri Lanka wasn’t done yet. That week we had done a lot of small things to help the people. We dug wells and built a house. We delivered shoes and school supplies to the kids. We fed people in tsunami camps. But I knew there was so much more to be done. When I got on the plane headed home, I knew in my heart that I would be back.

The next summer I was able to return to Sri Lanka for 10 weeks. A year and a half had passed since the tsunami, yet still, people were suffering. Being there for over two months allowed me to develop deep friendships with the people in the villages and at Calvary church. I became known as “Merry,” since my name is difficult for them to pronounce.

One of my favorite things was driving up to my favorite village (Hikkaduwa). The kids would hear our van coming down the dirt path and would run from every direction, smiling and eager to play. “Merry! Merrrrry!!!” they would sing, “Play?!”

And play we would. We would throw coconut shells and play hand clapping games. We’d chase each other and dance to Hindi music in their dark, stuffy mud houses. Their mom’s would serve me tea and giggle while watching this funny white girl try to swallow the spicy snacks they had prepared for me.

I fell in love with the people. They became my “akkas and ayyas”, my “yaluwas” (sisters and brothers, friends). The family I lived with became like family. We would sit around the table and laugh, despite our cultural and language barriers. I loved worshiping with my church family at Calvary. The church was so hot I always left feeling as if I had been baptized in my own sweat, but I didn’t mind. It didn’t matter that the guitars were out of tune and the sermon was in a language I didn’t understand. I realized that God is the same in Sri Lanka as He is in my air-conditioned church in America. People all over the world encounter Him and praise Him in unique ways. That was just one of the many lessons I learned.

By the time August rolled around, I wasn’t ready to go home. I loved the simple life I had found on that small island in the Indian Ocean; The life of waking up to Buddhist monks chanting in the distance, drinking Milo on the front porch of our bungalow, wearing shorts and a t-shirt every day, and never wearing makeup or fixing my hair. The life where possessions don’t matter. All that matters is family, and spending time with people, and praising Jesus. Instead of watching movies on rainy days, we would play carrom for hours, laughing and goofing off.

I knew I would miss it. I just didn’t realize how much. The next few months were really tough for me. I struggled when I got back to the states. I don’t know that I would call it depression, just extreme homesickness for…Sri Lanka. My heart ached to be back on that island. To play with those precious children again and show them that they are loved by a God who is bigger than any wave that could threaten to sweep away their hopes for the future.

I couldn’t stay away for long. The next summer I went back again, this time for six weeks. When I went in 2007, I felt in my heart that it would be my last trip for a while. I wanted to experience other things and travel other places, but I needed to go that last time for closure and to soak up every smell, feel and sound of my beloved country.

That summer was beautiful. I had a wonderful reunion with my friends and met new people as well. My faith was challenged and strengthened at the same time. I wept as I visited a dying woman in a mud hut in a distant jungle. I rejoiced as I witnessed God heal a paralyzed man in front of my eyes! As my weeks in Sri Lanka came to an end, I was filled with heartache and joy at the same time.

I felt so blessed to have been able to spend a total of over four months in a country that was once so foreign to me. Over the years I had seen the people of Sri Lanka go from mourning to rejoicing. I myself had changed. I came the first time as a quiet 18-year-old, nervous and culture-shocked. I was leaving as a maturing 20-year-old, perhaps more at home in those villages than in my own neighborhood in North Carolina. I was sad to say goodbye, not knowing when I would return again. But I felt a peace about it. I knew God had guided me there for a purpose and trusted that He would guide me back if it was in His will.

It’s been nearly three years now and though I’ve experienced and changed much since that last summer, the memories I have of those dear people are just as vivid as ever. I see their faces on my wall every day and pray for them. I think a part of me will always remain in Sri Lanka.

I’m so happy to say that I will be traveling back to the most special place in the world in just over a month. This trip will be shorter than most, only two weeks. But it will be long enough for me to be reminded of the beauty of that country and its people. I realize many of the children probably won’t remember me because they were young at the time. But I remember them. Dineshika and Chompee and Hashinka and Ashini Hansika. I can’t wait to hug them and show them pictures from when “Merry Akka” used to play with them.

My heart is singing. It’s good to be going home.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Goals...and other things

After a long hiatus, I'm back to the blog world. I don't even know if anyone even reads this thing, but it's at least good for me to be able to look back on. I was just reading through some old blog entries and ran across the one from April 2, 2009. I made a list of 10 things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime. To my surprise, a year later, I've already done 6 or 7 of them! (recorded some original songs, got accepted to seminary, am serving as a missionary, have learned some basic cooking skills, have a plane ticket to go back to Sri Lanka, went skydiving, and even started writing a book). (Me and my friend Masa after we went skydiving!!!)

There's something very satisfying about marking things off of a to-do list. It makes me feel like I'm working towards a goal and it's liberating to accomplish those tasks. But today as I was journaling in a cute coffee shop in Kailua, I realized how depressing it would be to have accomplished all of my life goals by the time I'm 23. Impressive, yes...but it would kind of take away much of my ambition and excitement for the future.

So I decided that while it's good to have dreams and hopes for the future, I don't want my life to be all about marking things off of a list. I want to live in the moment and soak up every precious second God has given me.

There were three things left on my list that I have yet to do:
1. travel to every continent (still need to go to Africa and Australia)
2. get married and have kids (don't have much control of this one, but I'm still holding out hope!) , and
3. work in an orphanage in Africa or India.

I'd still love to do all of these things one day, but I guess that recently I've come to realize that maybe those goals aren't what I should focus on.

Maybe instead I should be living each day as if it was my last, looking for ways that I can delight in the here and now and bring joy to other people's lives. I still feel young, but I'm probably already a third of the way through my life. This world is so temporary. Even if I accomplish every goal I have in my lifetime, the reality is that no one will know or care, quite frankly.

But if I spend my time pouring into other people. Being selfless with my time and resources. Serving and loving others. Maybe, just maybe, that will make an impact on someone.

So I have a new life goal. Maybe it'll be my life mission statement for now:
Live each day as if it's my last. Treasure each moment. Laugh. Enjoy being with those I love. Do everything without complaining. See the good in every situation. Love people, regardless of whether they love me back. Show the world what God's love is all about.

Now there's a goal I don't have to worry about accomplishing by this time next year. I'm pretty sure it'll take a lifetime...but at least I'll have a goal to work toward by the time I'm 90 ;)