Changing scenery: An untimely update

Hi again.

It’s been over four months since my last update. An unexpected whirlwind of change hit my life just a few weeks after I last wrote here, affecting so many others in even more profound, serious, life-changing ways.

On April 21—Easter Sunday—a series of terrorist attacks unfolded in Sri Lanka.

Most of you are/were aware of this news even if you’ve now forgotten the details. I still get a few surprised looks from folks with whom I share my story, evidence of the seemingling neverending list of volatile events that we hear about nowadays. Many others have written about the attacks more eloquently and authentically than I can, but long-story-short, I’m okay. Everyone who worked on our project is okay. And the island seems to be recovering now. None of this erases what happens, and one reason I’ve waited so long to provide an update is out of respect to those who were impacted in much more terrible ways than I was. The other reasons I’ve been putting off this update have to do with my emotions surrounding these events: sadness, frustration, bewilderment.

Along with the other Fulbrighters conducting work in Sri Lanka, I was evacuated from the island in May. More accurately though, I never got to return after having left Sri Lanka in late April for a trip to Thailand. I received the first news of the bombings as I was walking among a group of elephants at a tourist camp, surprised but convinced that the incidents would be rather isolated in their impacts on Sri Lankan daily life. But the numbers of people injured or killed by the bombs kept rising as I checked back every hour. Very quickly, all social media activity was prohibited and it was difficult to get an accurate idea of what was happening. Even though I was off the island, I received the same instructions that my fellow Fulbrighters were getting: stay inside, be vigilant, don’t bring attention to yourself. I was scheduled to fly back to Sri Lanka in five days, sure that everything would calm down by then.

But in the quiet chaos that followed, no one seemed to know what was going on. A week passed: social media was still down, strict curfews were in effect, and all Fulbrighters were still inside. My flight back to Colombo was indefinitely postponed as I monitored the situation in a hotel room in Bangkok. Three or four days after I was supposed to have returned to Sri Lanka, I got the official word: I wasn’t going to be returning to the island. Fulbright quickly purchased a series of flights from Bangkok back to Dallas as they simultaneously organized the more immediate evacuation of Fulbrighters still in Sri Lanka. Within a week of that phone call, there would be no Fulbright scholars left in Sri Lanka. Our elephant research was immediately put on hold as our plans were completely derailed.

My arrival back in the US was not the sort of triumphant homecoming I had been envisioning for months. I was still in a daze as I walked through the airport, collecting the single suitcase I had packed for a 10-day trip to Thailand from the baggage carousel. It took me almost three weeks to overcome the jet lag as I woke up habitually at 2:00am only to fall back asleep at 10:00am, trying to be a functioning person after waking up from a nap around noon. I took this as a subconscious signal that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. My mind and heart were still in Sri Lanka, worried about everyone I had met during my six months on the island and concerned about the direction of the work that will ultimately help me earn my PhD.

What helped me get out of this haze was to keep moving. Within three-and-a-half weeks of being back in the US, I flew to Mexico with family to go SCUBA diving (a long-forgotten hobby of mine). I needed to go to a place that had no elephants and where I could forget about everything. Three days after Mexico, I went to Colorado to see my sister and dog, sources of happiness that I’ve always appreciated. And one week after that, I resumed our research at US zoos. I fell back into being a nomad, surviving off the small collection of clothing I brought back from Thailand—all of my stuff was still back in Sri Lanka because I was not allowed to return from Thailand to retrieve it (this whole story was detailed here by Anne Reynolds at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences [CHSS] at George Mason University). And since then, I’ve visited five different zoos across the country for at least one week each, roadtripping from Colorado (again), Ohio, and New York. And next week, I drive back to Virginia to resume teaching at Mason for the fall semester. Maybe the changing scenery has been a distraction to help cope with the unexpected challenges. But all the travel time has also been an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts.

Today would have been the day I would’ve returned to the US if I had been able to carry out the full term of my Fulbright grant. Lately, I’ve been wondering how I would’ve finished my last three months in Sri Lanka. I like to think that the relationships I’ve built with folks back on the island would be even stronger. Maybe I would have more exciting, goofy stories to share about fieldwork. I hope I would’ve had profound revelations about how the world works and what this means for the conservation of elephants and other species. But maybe none of that could or would have happened and I should just be happy that I’m safe. I can’t help but feel a little angry about the whole thing though.

We plan for me to return to Sri Lanka next May for the summer to finish data collection on elephants in Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks. For reasons that are still unclear to me, Fulbright will be unable to fund the remaining fieldwork, so we’ll need to find other ways to pay for that. I finally received my personal belongings that remained when I left for Thailand, but all of our research equipment and samples are still in Sri Lanka. Hopefully we can get all of that back safely by the end of the year. Our anticipated research timeline is being stretched longer than we planned, but we should be able to achieve the objectives we set out for ourselves. Our funding sources have been incredibly understanding and accommodating given the circumstances.

On a more personal level, I need to go back to Sri Lanka to see the people and elephants again and finish what I started. More and more, it’s where I feel like I’m supposed to be. I began my time in Sri Lanka trying to embrace the notions of serendipity and adaptability. I got used to being out of touch with friends and family back home, the loneliness that followed that, and then the weird sense of freedom that daily life on the island provided. It’s not that I resent the expectations of a productive member of society here in the US (or that these are significantly different from anywhere else in the world), nor do I think I represent the archetype of some sort of unbridled adventurer that can’t stoop to the monotonous life of the typical citizen. It’s that I willingly or unwillingly adapted my lifestyle to fit my environment. So appropriately, I’ve fallen back to the relatively trivial minutiae of answering emails, writing manuscripts and grant proposals, and preparing for classes. These activities make my time in Sri Lanka seem like it happened to a wholly different person, like the photos I took came from a travel website and not my own camera. But I’m the same person, just on a different part of the same winding path I’ve been on all along. That sounds like a phrase you’d find inside of a cheap bereavement card, but I guess I’m in a sappy, reflective mood as I write this.

My time since Sri Lanka has been a three-month-long forced meditation session, a practice that normally prompts an eye-roll from me, a person who likes to be grounded in the more tangible world. My life on the island and the setbacks that followed have helped me identify the people and things that matter to me personally. More importantly, this reflection has helped put my work and life in a bigger perspective. This experience and those of others help to form a larger, unfolding story, one that is all at once some combination of unpredictable, heartwarming, confusing, inspiring, and ultimately worthwhile. It is all we have.

So that’s my update for those that hoped or insisted I provide a follow-up. Our work isn’t finished, but it’s been put on hold. I continue to appreciate the people who support me on a personal level, and I try to bury myself in other work so that this hiatus isn’t completely in vain. I’ll continue to write here as things develop, but these posts will almost certainly be less frequent than those I provided during fieldwork. Keep the people and elephants of Sri Lanka in mind as they prove to be resilient and optimistic, eager to show the rest of the world that they stand against the ideas and actions that have recently brought them to the world’s attention.

Oh, and on an unrelated note, today (August 12) is World Elephant Day. Go appreciate some elephants to celebrate. And if you can, support my favorite groups that work to help elephants: the International Elephant Foundation and Asian Elephant Support.

Until next time—