My Family and Other Animals
Updated: 7 days ago
I have spent a lot of time talking about what it was like growing up as a Black child in Sri Lanka. What I have not done is talk about what it was like growing up as a child in Sri Lanka. It is one of those places that has a magical undercurrent to it. You can feel it when the wind blows the leaves in the trees or when you look out of your car window and see a man riding an elephant.
Some of my fondest memories are of going away on family trips with a group of my school friends. Once, we stayed in a hotel that was attached to a farm. My naughtiest friend and I were sharing a room. I don’t know what our parents were thinking because the two of us together always caused the most trouble. It was late. We were not in bed. Obviously. And then, the squealing started. It was a horrific sound. A sound we should not of followed. It led us to the farm where everything was manic. It took us a while to register what was going on. The pigs were being slaughtered.
We ran back to our room and went straight to bed. The next night at dinner we were served a pork roast.
Sri Lanka is one of those places where you can never quite relax. You never know what you might find. My mother came home from work one night. I could hear her heels clickety clacket’ing across the cement floor. Then came the sounds of a commotion. Obviously. The dogs were behaving oddly, trying to get at something behind a curtain. My mother muttered something about a frog and moved it aside. It was a snake. A King Cobra to be exact. A King Cobra standing upright on it’s coils with it’s hood spread wide, ready to kill us all.
I’ve never seen my mother move so fast. She was upstairs in seconds. My brother moved himself to the furthest corner of the house and locked himself in the bathroom. I was not moving from my safe spot for anything. A useless bunch. My father, a brave man? A stupid man? I can’t decide which one on this occasion. Tied his sarong a little tighter around his waist, grabbed a broomstick and managed to kill the snake. I remember the rest of us being silently in awe of him that evening. He was the man of the house.
My father used to insist on taking us on family “holidays.” He used to insist because his choice of destination was usually unacceptable. We were taken to a shack in Yala (Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife park) once. It was a shack with one solid bedroom which was kindly given to my pregnant, at the time, mother. The rest of us were left with not much else as the building had no roof. It did rain. I did cry. I have not been back to Yala since.
Another one of these family “holidays” ended up with us on a safari in Habarana (a popular destination for safari lovers as it is heavily populated with elephants.) It was great fun. I was in the back of the jeep with my father, mother and cousin. The wind blowing through my hair. A gorgeous view. And look at all these elephants! What could go wrong? I’ll tell you what could go wrong - my uncle who was driving said that the best way to see the elephants would be to catch them at the watering hole.
So that’s why 30 minutes later our jeep was in the pathway between the watering hole and a huge herd of elephants trying to get to it. My uncle had frozen in fear by this point. Brilliant. My father, a jungle man of sorts says ‘we don’t need to worry, we are only in trouble if the males at the front raise their trunks and start stomping their feet.’ Obviously the three huge elephants at the front do just that as he finishes his sentence. My mother had now placed herself over me and my cousin and had her hand around my mouth (and nose.) She was trying to keep me quiet (and kill me by the looks of it.) You could feel the tension in the air. It was a real fear for our lives.
My father then manages to compose himself enough to squeeze himself through the window that connected the back of the jeep to the inside of it. He got my uncle, his brother to move over to the passenger seat and took over. The jeep was moving quickly away from the herd and my mother had stopped inadvertently trying to suffocate me. We were safe! The hotel we were at for this trip had a perfectly nice swimming pool. I don’t know why my family chose to position our vehicle in front of a herd of elephants trying to get to their watering hole instead.
Pigs, snakes and elephants aside. Sri Lanka gave me a real childhood. I got to grow up slowly. Spending my time in the garden with my dogs. Running barefoot in the streets with my friends. Climbing trees. Breaking teeth. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.