Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker
It takes a certain kind of woman to up and move from Arizona to a war-torn, wet country on the other side of the world. Such a woman is Adele Barker, who, in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, brings – drags? – her fifteen-year-old son Noah to Sri Lanka where she will spend the next year teaching Russian literature.
Barker and her son settle in a house at the edge of the jungle where they quickly realize that they are not alone. Along with many ants, the house is inhabited by rats and geckos, and frequently visited by monkeys, one of which steals the television antenna. Although Barker has been planning on doing the housekeeping herself, and resists anything that smacks of colonialism, she soon finds herself with a maid, a tuk-tuk driver, and a gardener. After all, these people are depending upon her for employment. Over the course of her stay, these people also become her friends.
The author never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka. She spends a lot of time trying to sort out the conflict between the Muslim Tamil Tigers, revolutionaries who have pretty much taken over the north of the island, and the Buddhist Sinhalese. (Barker lives in primarily Buddhist Kandy, where there is a shrine housing the Buddha’s tooth.) She is also curiously remote about her personal life. Although she mentions the break-up of a friend’s marriage, she never writes about her own romantic entanglements. (Don’t expect Eat, Pray, Love in Sri Lanka here.) Also, as an expat mother myself, I was interested in her relationship with her son. How did she convince him to go to Sri Lanka? What was his school life like once he got there? Was he adopted? (She mentions that he is from Paraguay.) Does he have a father? Although she alludes to some problems that Noah is having at school, and to his boredom in a place with no TV or decent soccer pitch, she doesn’t go into great detail. Perhaps this is out of consideration for her son’s privacy, or an innate reserve, but I wanted to know more.
When Barker leaves at the end of the year, she vows to return one day to hear the northerners’ point of view on the civil war, but then something bigger happens – here, where most people had never heard the word “tsunami” before, a 30-foot wave crashes over the coast of Sri Lanka washing away tens of thousands of people. Barker returns to the country, this time without her son, who is now a college student, to check up on friends and survey the damage wrought on “the day when the sea came to the land.” She finds heartbreak and loss at every turn, but also resilience.
At one point, she admires a woman’s gold necklace:
“It was all we had left,” a young woman who looked to be pregnant said. “When the sea came to the land, many of us had our saris on. Do you know how to wrap a sari?” she asked me with laughing eyes.
“Don’t test me on it,” I replied, “but kind of. With help. With pins.”
They all laughed.
The one who was all smiles continued. “We lost our saris in the wave. The sea unwrapped them from us. When we came out of the sea, we were nearly naked. Some of us had slips on. Some of us had nothing. But we had our jewelry.”
Although Barker herself remains something of an enigma, her affection for the people and the country is never in doubt. And as one disaster supplants another in the public imagination, she presents a clear portrait of an island nation persevering in the face of challenges.