Last week I stayed in a rural village in Sri Lanka, at the home of a Sri Lankan I’d gotten to know in the States. My experiences are worth reporting because I got an exceptional opportunity to live intimately in a culture far different from anything I’ve known. A friend, colleague and neighbor of mine has traveled to Sri Lanka repeatedly, and for extended periods, over the last 25 years or so. He’s an American scholar of South Asia; he and his American, teenaged nephew brought me to the village.

They called my friend Sudumaama. Sudu means “white” in Sinhala, and maama is “uncle.” He consistently referred to his nephew as puta, which means “son” in Sinhala. The villagers called the nephew Suduputa. Familial relationships are everything in the village, so people often refer to others by relationship rather than proper name. There were about five houses in the immediate area, and all residents were related either by blood or marriage. It was quite a challenge for me to keep the relationships straight. All the doors were always open, and folks moved freely among the various houses. When parents went to work, grandparents or others took care of the little ones.  I noticed how the kids played together and were included in the adult activities. There seemed to be far less separation of the generations than in the States. The littlest kids were usually being held by someone, a parent, an uncle or aunt, or an older child. I can’t imagine these kids ever being bored; they were certainly never neglected. No one lacked for company.

Life was constantly communal. I’ve traveled enough in Latin America to have expected that, but this village was far more communal than anything I’ve experienced. I found it tiring, for I’m not used to being in a group of people all day and night, but it was also inspiring. Folks really care about one another, and anything that happens to one is known to all immediately. One evening I stumbled into a ditch and scraped my elbow and shin. Everyone expressed genuine concern, and word spread that I’d hurt myself. Folks came to see my wounds and recommend treatments. It’s hard for me to imagine this environment creating the lonely mass killers now so typical of American culture. These folks can’t become alienated. Sudumaama reported that young couples sometimes complain they can’t get a private moment to make a baby; there’s always someone else in the room.

As soon as it was light, I could hear the women working in the kitchen next to my room. All three meals were the same, but every meal was different. There was a bowl of rice, grown by my host, and three or four bowls of curries, with an additional bowl of fried chilies and papadam. The food was consistently outstanding, with each curry centering around some vegetable flavored in a special way. I love spicy food, but I found it difficult to eat chilies three times a day; still, it was hard to say “no” to such tasty food. We held our bowl in one hand and ate with the other. You’re done eating when you take your bowl back to the kitchen and wash your curry-covered right hand.

What goes in must come out. The latrine was a small shack with a squat toilet, a water tap, and a bucket. These facilities can only be used wearing a sarong. You hike up your sarong, squat over the hole in the floor and do your business. Then you fill the bucket from the tap and pour the water over your genitals while splashing it onto the soiled region. There’s no toilet paper. You wash your hands, stand up, and your sarong falls back to its normal position drying your wet butt. From this description, it sounds unclean and/or unpleasant, but I found it to be a most satisfactory form of defecation, and it showed me how this basic act is a cultural construct. All the parts fit together. There’s no need for toilet paper or towel, and the only waste product is the fecal matter gone down the hole. The floor of the latrine is wet, but clean. You are barefoot in the latrine, but you come out feeling clean and satisfied. I became convinced that the squat position makes everything come out gracefully, easily, and completely.

Since Sri Lanka is near the equator, the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year. It was very hot and humid in the village, so I was usually miserable by about 5 pm. But the best part of every day came around 5:30, when folks went to the nearby lake to bathe. Everybody does this every day. There are small man-made lakes, called tanks, dotting the countryside. The water is used for irrigation, but also for bathing. There is a sloping section with sand extending out into the lake, so you can stand comfortably on the sand and keep your feet away from mud. You bring a bar of soap, a towel, and a fresh sarong. Men and women are somewhat separate, but not by more than a few yards. Everyone is clothed during bathing, but it’s easy to soap up, rinse and get changed without any immodest revelation. Maybe it’s because people live so communally; folks have learned how to be modest, even in company. The architecture of the sarong helps enormously.

It would be very easy for a feminist such as myself to reject this culture as sexist. The women do all the cooking. Men eat first, with other men, and the women clean up afterwards. But the men aren’t getting a free ride; my host went to his paddy fields often, to irrigate or fertilize, and he had plenty of duties with childcare. Both my host and his wife worked in an agricultural development office. They got dressed up for office work in the mornings, she in a saree and he in black pants and white shirt. When they got off work, he switched to a sarong and she to a shirt and wide skirt. He wore his sarong to go to the paddy fields. The family’s income depended on both the office work and the agriculture. My host showed me a back room of their house with thousands of pounds of rice he’d grown. Next to that room was the kitchen, where only the women worked.

Sudumaama gets well taken care of. The women of the village compete for opportunities to feed him, and everyone was eager to offer hospitality to Suduputa and me. When Sudumaama walks through the village, his passage is very slow; he stops at most houses and is invited in for conversation and tea. On our first day, Suduputa and I accompanied Sudumaama, and we stopped in at the house of an elderly ayurvedic healer. The old man was very frail, but he happily roused himself to greet his guests. He offered us drinks and sweets, followed by betel nut. I’d never chewed betel, so Sudumaama had to show me how to do it. The taste wasn’t bad at all, and I definitely got a head buzz that lasted about an hour. The old man had been chewing betel all his life and scarcely had a tooth left in his head. Dental problems aside, this seemed a pretty appealing drug for daily use; it is a mild stimulant. When we took our leave of the old healer, Sudumaama worshipped him. This had happened to me when I’d been teaching at the university in the city, but it somehow carried more weight in the village. My friend knelt before the old healer and touched his forehead to the ground. The elder stroked my friend’s head in blessing. Worshipping like this is done by younger folks to show respect to elders.

Sudumaama has a gaggle of age mate friends in the village. One afternoon a friend came by on a motorbike and announced that a herd of elephants had come to a tank down the road. We all piled onto motorbikes and drove down the road to see the wild elephants. The herd was reported to be 60, but we only saw about fifteen. We humans were about the same number, and we walked out onto an embankment above the tank to get a good look at the huge beasts. Everyone said that this was some of the best elephant viewing they’d had in years, for we had a body of water between the elephants and us. That allowed the elephants to feel less nervous about our presence and vice versa. Villagers talk about the elephants nearly daily, for they are a danger and an economic problem. They come to the paddy fields and eat the crops, and they come into the gardens of the houses and eat the fruits and vegetables. An uncle of the family had been killed by an elephant several years ago, causing much heartache. On two of my nights in the village, an elephant came into the yard and did some damage. But our viewing across the tank was outstanding. Water buffalo wallowed among the lotus flowers; ibis birds waded and soared; and four of the elephants came right to the water, including two babies. They drank and splashed, and we got to watch from very close by.

The group of us watching were sharing an experience. We were quiet, to avoid scaring the elephants, and we’d point out individuals to one another. It felt good to be a part of that group, especially because I often felt alienated by my cultural cluelessness and my lack of Sinhala. For hours every day I’d sit and listen as Sudumaama chatted in Sinhala with his friends. On the last evening, we dined at a different house, and I felt more included. Three of this family’s daughters were teens or young adults, and they had studied English in school. It wasn’t easy to communicate, but we did so anyway, driven in large part by a charismatic young woman who was eager to take advantage of a rare chance to actually speak in the language she’d learned mostly as a book subject. Trying to give her opportunities to speak, I asked her if she had any hobbies. She said that she liked to sing, so we asked her to do so. After much blushing and hesitation, she sang a song of exceptional beauty. I’m not accustomed to this form of music, so it sounded wonderfully exotic, with vocal modulations not used in western music. But most of the charm came from the generous performance and the lovely moment of sharing. We all applauded when the song was finished, and the singer announced that her younger sisters were good at dancing. So four six-to-ten year olds sang a little song to accompany themselves while dancing. They had synchronized gestures for parts of the song, and they loved being the center of attention. After the dancing and dinner we chatted more, until I was nodding off. The younger dancers had already gone to bed. I rose to leave, and the three older girls offered me the worshiping I’d seen earlier in the visit. I was most touched to be so honored.

Sudumaama has a special relationship with this little bit of paradise. I couldn’t possibly live like these people live. I need my space, as they say; but I admire how richly these people live together and care about one another. All that togetherness also means that they cared about a visitor from far away. Their hospitality and generosity were outstanding and showed me some of the benefits of living as a village.