Settling in

Dear readers,

this is my 5th day in Sri Lanka and time really flies – even if I do not have much to do.

After my one day quarantine I got my test results on Wednesday morning and was allowed to leave the hotel – imagine if that would have been positive! Already on that day I remembered the lesson I learned last time I was in Sri Lanka: You will always get to where you want to go, but nothing will work according to the time plan you made! In the end, I was glad that I had told the family I am staying with to tell the driver who picked me up to come at 12, even though I was told „I can leave before 12“ and „your test results will be back by 10“. After waiting half of the morning in my hotel room, I went out at 11:30 and my test results were just been co-signed by the hotel manager. I still had not payed any bills yet. But 11:52 we were done and my cab arrived two minutes later.

I do not like driving taxis. I am really bad at small talk. I never know what to say or how much to answer, or if and what I can ask back. Last time I was here, I was so glad to have my best friend with me who actually did all the talking with the taxi and tuk drivers. It is especially hard, if the other person’s English and my other languages are not the best and the sounds of the street and car make it more difficult to understand one another.

But then I arrived at the family, in the centre of Colombo. And until now I have not been able to leave. The lockdown has been extended once more until the 21st and I do not think it will get lifted any time soon. However, there are some exceptions to the rule – but more on that next time.

Living at someone else’s home

I had been living with other people before, but all these times it was much more informal and I knew that I could help with the work in the house. I know I am paying for staying here and that I am, thereby, also paying for the „service“, but I am still not used to having so much done for me, even brought the 5 o’clock tea to my room.

I am staying in a family in which the mother is a kindergarten teacher (and there is also online teaching there!), the father is already retired and the daughter is just a little younger than me. She was supposed to study abroad, but right when she was about to leave, the pandemic did what it did … So she is actually quite happy to have someone new in the house, to speak to someone other than her old friends from school or with her fellow students whom she has not yet met offline. So, I guess, we benefit from one another.

All of us – well, except the father, but I do not talk much with him – have a lot to do, so we mostly meet up during the meals. I usually eat with the daughter on the small table upstairs and when we are done, it’s the parent’s turn. This is also something I had to get used to, but I enjoy the time with the daughter, talking about anything but work – mostly new series on netflix 😉

Wednesday lunch
Friday morning breakfast

Of course, they are interested in what I am doing there. Luckily for me, the girl went to one of the schools I am doing my research on, so that helps a lot – I even got the 125 years anniversary book to read. The father’s uncle was affiliated with the school as well, and two other female family members went there. Until now, this is the best – an unforeseeable – thing that could happen to me while I am here in this situation. Anyway, it is even harder to speak with the family members about my research than it is with my interview partners. Because I do not know what their religious and political opinions are, I feel that I cannot yet tell them what my research hypothesis is. I don’t want to bring any bad tension between us, while I still have to stay here for three weeks.

I also feel like I cannot move freely around the house. The flat is on the second and third (top) floor of the house and I live on the top floor, next to the kitchen. So I usually stay in my room, also because the living rooms are always occupied. The mother teaches downstairs and the father watches TV upstairs. It is most during the mornings and afternoon nap-times (which I have come to enjoy very much!) that I walk in circles around the top floor and the balconies while reading a book. It is basically the only workout I get.

View from the balcony

Then, what do I do all day long?

Time really flies, because there is actually much more to do than I would have thought. Also, the days in the house here are so structured along the meals and tea time, that I tried to get into a daily routine. Of course, there is still is „normal“ work to do. I search for books, answer emails, next week there is even an online conference (in which I am to talk about „global history“ in religious studies – being halfway across the globe).

But then, I also brought some books with me. Some of them are biographies, one is a novel, one is a black feminism book and one – of course – is a Judith Butler book (which I have read first, who would have guessed that). I really enjoy having the time and space in my head to read again! Not just scanning books for „valuable“ information, but actually reading a book from the beginning to the end. I have read somewhere that this actually trains our minds, remembering one complete narrative along 300 pages. Well, this is brain training I will gladly do!

And then, of course, are the interviews. But before I can actually do them, I need to find people to interview and make an appointment or try reaching them in the middle of the day. I started of with a handful of contacts, I think one or two of each of the schools I am looking at. Now, my WhatsApp is filled up with contacts and chats, I cannot even remember all the people I have written to. I am so thankful to those who sent me their contacts. Once I got to know one, I had 5 more to write to. I even got WhatsApp numbers from Principals, Old Girl Association chairs, etc. I guess the best thing about getting to know people via others is that they really want to talk to me. If I had asked them, they would have probably said yes anyway but who knows how it would have went.

The interviews

I was lucky to have my first interview here in person – with the daughter. It was a good way to get starting with the type of questions I had and the idea of where I am going.

Since then, I had four online interviews – and all went perfect but so much different from each another. After speaking to my father (Hi, I know you are reading this 🙂 ), I knew that it was a good decision coming here, even with the lockdown and the online interviews. Because it is much harder doing online interviews, when you have nothing in common and no way to connect to the person on the other end of the line. But like this, we are all in Sri Lanka, we can talk about the lockdown, the pandemic, not being able to meet people. We have the same time zone, the same annoying mosquitos and the same heat and occasional rainfalls.

This makes it much easier to establish a connection. It is always ok to have a conversation with someone my age or even someone at uni doing similar things – those were the two interviews I had done before coming here – but how should I connect for example to a 47 year old teacher in Kandy, if not like this?

Anyway, even if my humble interview partners won’t believe that what they said could help me in any way, all of the conversations were immensely fruitful! I even found out about a school which I had not known before and might now become central to my study.

Reflecting, Writing, Repeat

To be able to think about and remember what I have experienced in this time, I have brought two note books with me. One of them is personal (formally, it consists of letters to my partner, but it is rather a diary for myself), the other is academically. I did not want to mix those two experiences with one another, but I think both are most crucial to my work here. Sometimes they overlap, but mostly they look at the same day through a different lens.

In the academic one, I also make notes during and after the interviews. I make little summaries and then note what this interview has brought to the study, what new questions it might have brought to include in the next one.

Of course these „findings“ are going to change in the end, having transcribed the interviews and trying to make sense out of it. But I think that makes them even more valuable.

PS: Any suggestions what to do about the mosquitos? I tried everything …

The other side of the balcony

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