I was recently in touch with a cousin I haven’t seen in some time (I haven’t seen any of them in a long time) – we were catching up with each other’s lives.
“I hear you are building a house?” she asked me. “Is that right? That’s so exciting!”
This conversation happened in May, six months after I had last been in Sri Lanka where I had indeed built a house – well, an over-priced beach hut. Exciting? …it certainly was at the time.
Looking back it seems extraordinary that I could have thought it was a good idea to set about such an endeavour at all. Absolutely mad, in fact. Just the other day I found a draft blog post, written while I was still there, bursting with my love for the people (one of whom was the main reason for my wanting to build a base there) and the place: the impassioned logic starts to make some sense again.
Logic and passion – incompatible states of mind?
So, other than being reminded of the context, I like to remind myself of the ‘rationale’.
- As the landowner said to me, “you need a place, he needs a place, I want to develop my land.” All of those things were true.
- Built to the original budget (two thirds of the final cost), it would save me money on accommodation over two seasons (2015 and 2016).
- Building something was exciting and fun.
- I was convinced that what I had there – i.e. the core relationship – would last at least another season (at least into 2016).
Little did I know how quickly everything would unravel after the money was spent…
And why would a Sri Lankan beach be a good place to have a base?
Who has experienced this little community? The tropical wilderness that is this place? It is breathtaking. It moves you away from all your normal reference points.
It was my medicine. After a decade of corporate toil, successive failed relationships (a superstar I didn’t think I was fit for, a player who I fell very hard for, a mistaken marriage that unravelled quickly, dramatically, hurtfully) I needed to mend bits of me that just couldn’t find joy back in the place I had been, doing the things I had been doing.
Sri Lanka was the starting point after quitting my job and selling as much of my stuff as I could – which wasn’t much, and giving away most of it (which can only be put down to inadequate planning on my part and never enough time). Not happy with the idea of going away on a ‘holiday’, I chose to volunteer. After a few weeks, it wasn’t clear who was benefitting from my work there other than the NGO itself.
So, in August 2014 I left their mosquito-laden organic farm in Anuradhapura and went east to collect my thoughts, leaving my bags behind, thinking I’d return after a week. I ended up staying in the wave-filled paradise I found for the next five months, learning to surf, embracing more and more ‘basic’ living, meeting enchanting characters. I needed it. I needed to experience something new, reprioritise, disassociate from the life I had before. Previously seasick and squeamish, I even started going fishing. It’s where I chose to be and it was as humbling as it was thrilling.
Returning to Sri Lanka after a brief stint in Mwanza, Tanzania, felt like coming home; that was March 2015. I planned to stay for the season but it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable place to stay, no where seemed to suit both me and the fella. After hopping from base to base, I was very open to the suggestion to build a base of my own.
A white girl in the tropics
My race is centrally relevant to what happened. Apparently what I was doing is also a ‘thing’; naively, I didn’t even realise this until a more worldly-wise friend told me as much. It happens so often that a stereotype has grown up in relation to Sri Lanka – as is true also for Kenya, a place where single (white) women go, wittingly or otherwise – to find a guy. The guy is usually younger and the suggestion is that both sides tacitly know what they are doing – trading resources for favours.
Was it naïve of me to believe what I had found was genuine and to think that what I had wasn’t part of that?
“You know you’ve got a reputation,” said a school friend of mine to the boyfriend in the Bay and his close friend, the landowner, when she visited us on a break from her teaching job in Colombo. There was hardly a pause before we all giggled. On departure that evening she told to me, joyfully, how much the place and the people suited me. I was in my element.
There were stereotypes that lurked beneath the lived realities; those realities were too joyful to give any credence to the stereotypes – and yet they perfectly described the experience. Is this how the stuff that blindsides you works?
Do the privileges of my race excuse the moves that were made against me – if you can use such an antagonistic preposition – or at least make them forgivable?
I’m not looking to reproach anyone for anything that happened, nor paint a picture that leads to simplistic judgements about any of the parties involved; I’m interested in the dynamics that were at play, how this situation happened to and between kind, loving, intelligent human beings, and what – if anything – we gain from events like these.
Guardian of the Heart
I made the choice to spend a large chunk of my savings, time, and energy building a beautiful place with Kumbuk (Terminalia Arjuna) floors, “buy this wood and in ten years I’ll sell it, keep half the money and you will still make a profit on it” (not that I’d wanted to sell it nor make a profit, so I was surprised to hear these words at the time – and why ever would the bf keep half?). In any case, I was given to understand that this was the only acceptable choice of wood, and, in-step with all the decisions previously made on ‘project tree house’, I wanted this to be a joint decision.
Kumbuk. Terminalia Arjuna. This is a tree – ironically known as ‘Guardian of the Heart’ – that a tree house should be built on, not with, or even as one tourist visiting said to me “a wood so good you use it to make furniture, not floors!” And as I mournfully concluded, talking about the adventure with a friend shortly after my departure, certainly wouldn’t have been sourced from already-fallen trees… This floor became emblematic for me of the whole venture: over-egged, over-indulgent, and ill-considered.
I chose these things – this expenditure, this particular use of my time and energy and believed I was making something beautiful that I could share with someone special. I was glad that it would ultimately benefit the land on which it stood and the owner of that land. Ultimately.
Future fast forward
‘Ultimately’ became immediately and the relationships around me unwound before the construction was even complete.
So what happened? Was I conned all along?
Many people around me seemed to think so, “these boys are good at what they do,” was one incisive, coldly logical comment.
Yet another friend characterised my approach as “pushing”. I was surprised to hear this; I certainly had been keen, over-enthusiastic, delighted that the suggestions to build (who did they start with? I could never quite make this out, looking back) reflected (what I saw as) an acceptance by the community and (importantly) by the person I was dating. And yet it was seen differently. I guess it’s hard to share your own experience, isn’t it – even with those who seem to be right there, right then.
Before the completion of the build the special someone left me, complaining of “too much pressure for this thing” – at once vague and explicit enough.
The landowner vowed not to want the building and suggested that I was scheming to take his land from him adding a “f*** you, Debbie” for good measure.
“Your problem is you were too nice to everyone”
I saw some other friends a few months after the Bay break up who shared another observation with me, “your problem is that you were too nice to everyone.”
The meaning of this observation in particular is hard to decipher.
Breaking up with the Bay
Suffice it to say that all this was a good cue for me to leave with a pretty heavy heart, a lighter purse, and a complete incomprehension as to how a dream situation, begun in love and kindness, had become so disastrous all round.
Who am I writing this for?
Myself, mainly. My people: my family, my friends, the cousin who asked the question.
I wanted to make some of my experience last year public – I did even at the time – when everything seemed good, but felt I couldn’t. This is interesting in itself.
Cognitive dissonance theory holds out yet again
Visitors to the Bay who had a longer familiarity with the place were clearly skeptical about the build. And it’s interesting: why couldn’t I pay attention to their demeanor, heed their subtle advice?
I was already in too deep.
Race is again centrally relevant: I leave feeling that all the time I was there I was part of a transactional relationship. Surely he was authentic? Not many believe so. Does it matter what they believe? Yes and no: there is a word for this in Sinhala: ‘nate’, yes and no.
Who gains what?
One person now has a place to live in, which they didn’t have before.
Another person is propelled out of a situation which had become / they had let become an incredible drain on their time, energy, and resources – material and otherwise. Yes, that’s me.
I do not have enough insight to be able to speak for the third.
I learned something very useful about myself: I still have the ability to be highly naïve in love. Under the right conditions I can be generous to a fault. I am a people pleaser. I will bend over backwards to try to make something work, even if – were I able to be totally honest with myself as well as everyone else – it should be clear that it wasn’t the best thing for me nor those around me.
I learned something else that’s useful, too: next time, spend more time surfing and less time running across hot sand to buy lunch for the day labourers.