About two weeks ago the bottoms of my bathing suit fell victim to a particular kind of overly-bold curiostiy Drew and I like to call the “fan club.” While in China, Drew and I caught a few bold young fellas snapping photos of me with their phones, simply because I’m a Western girl.
After we left China however, I became an ordinary plain jane again, (which I prefer) blending in with the many other Western tourists who frequent SouthEastern Asia. We all have the same dirty backpacks and the same unflattering wardrobe based primarily on the ability to be worn, wrinkled, crumpled, and rarely washed. Locals don’t pay attention to us so much anymore in tourist-heavy places like Bali, Langkawi, and Phuket.
A ten day trip to Sri Lanka gave us a break from the tourist crowds. But of course, with less tourism comes more attention from locals. The elderly women on the bus stroked my hair when I sat next to them on the crowded public buses. This was endearing and the sweet smiles they gave me made me feel welcome. This is an entirely different sort of attention than the attention of a “fan club.”
One day, for example, there was a crew of wireless-tower workers in town for a job occupying the room next to ours in Trincomalee. Each of the boys looked barely older than high-school age. They were energetic boys and despite their lack of English, they communicated an invitation for us to join them on the beach. The gathering was an awkward blend of shared snacks and rediclous requests, all documented on each boy’s smart-phone. Sometimes we were prompted to high-five, and other times simply to lay our hands on top of their hands. Through all of their bizarre requests, the camera was planted most directly on me. At one point a boy took his photo with me, sent it to someone, and before I knew it he was handing his phone to me. There was the voice of yet another young man on the other line. “Hello?” I said. The boy made a few remarks and hung up. Then of course there were more thumbs ups and high-fives and hand-stacks that added to the utter senselessness of the affection. The most attentive of the boys pointed to his bracelett, then to the elastic hair-tie around my wrist. It seemed he wanted to see it so I took it off to show him. As soon as his fingers touched the silly little elastic band, he snatched it and placed it on his own wrist, thanking me for my “gift.” This obnoxious affection was making me suspicious. The day before, I had felt their eyes on me when I hung my bathing suit out to dry and now I felt their eyes on me while I did nothing what-so-ever. They laughed and said things I couldn’t understand. They were never rude…but something was very uncomfortable about all the excitement they had over a few photos of perfect strangers.
When I returned to the clothesline outside of my room, the bottoms of my bathing suit were missing. Perhaps I’m being too suspicious, but the eagerness to snatch my menial little hair-tie certainly didn’t help.
That evening there was a transformation in the town that couldn’t be timed more perfectly. A festival was coming to town: the MahaShivratri. This was a Hindu festival full of ancient traditions and the best part about it was it had nothing to do with tourists: nothing to do with us. The celebration is a five-night event during which a procession of music and ceremony parades through the districts of Trincomalee, beginning at the main temple and going all night to the outskirting villiages, only to do the very same thing down a different street to a different outskirting villiage the next night. Upuvelli was the district we had made our home for the week and this was the first year it would be included in the night parades. When we decided to flag a tuk-tuk to take us to the parade’s beginning, for the first time while in Asia, it was hard to get their attention. Despite the inconvenience, it was so nice to see the people focusing on their own affairs. One busy driver agreed to give our group of four a lift. (A crowded tuk-tuk ride is a story in itself.)
When we reached the activity, the streets were transformed into chaotic masses of people all in sarongs or saris of brightly decorated fabrics. Dots were painted in the center of their foreheads and they stood in front of little shrine-like arrangements. Each arrangement had flowers or fruit, candles or oil lamps, and of course stacks of coconuts. This festival includes a peculiar tradition of smashing coconuts to the ground for good luck and fertility. A coconut that shatters into many pieces represents good luck, (or at the very least, a strong arm.) A coconut that doesn’t shatter is thrown again and again until it too shatters into pieces, thus signifying good luck. These stacks of coconuts looked like little christmas trees topped with bundles of incense or sometimes little flames that burned off the husk.
Just ahead of the parade, young men stacked homemade fireworks into thick lines. People cleared the street while a brave young pair of boys lit the line. Sometimes this took a few tries and the boys had to dash back into the smoking mess. It sounded like war but the people were excited and celebratory. I wondered if there were people in the crowd flinching at the bursting crack of each explosion, remembering the recent civil war.
The procession began with musicians on a truck. There was an oboe-like instrument accompanied by precussionists who I’m sure grew tired of my photographing them. Following this truck was a massive shrine decorated with Christmas lights on the back of a jeep. Priests dressed in white sarongs stood among the decorative flowers and burning lamps of this float and collected the offerings from the crowds. People rushed to the float to give and receive baskets of fruit to be blessed with water and flower petals. Some offered money. Others smashed their singed coconuts on the ground in front of the float, watching with joy as shards of coconut sprinkled the streets.
It was a thumping, clanging clatter enhanced by he sounds of the excited spectators. The entire din made me starkly aware of what a vibrant and different culture I was experiencing and it thrilled me. For a moment I felt like a reporter for the National Geographic or a host on the Travel Channel. This was the travel I dreamt of in youth, void of touristy adaptations. This was a beautiful display of culture that couldn’t be sold or over-sold on billboards, fliers or in the pressuring sales-pitches of locals trying to make a dime or a euro. This was something the people were doing for themselves, and had been doing centuries before tourism arrived.
We were not entirely unnoticed, as Westerners without sarongs, saris, or stacks of coconuts. Amidst the excitement of the festival the lively children turned to stare and call out “hello!” as we walked by. Some adults were eager to approach us and teach us about their festival. I saw pride in their stories and it made me happy to be less of an obstacle and more of a guest. This street had much more to pay attention to than the face of an American plain jane.