Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.


On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.

ICES HQ

Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

The Deception of Comfort

By Adriana Cefis

* This post mentions sexual harassment

I feel the need to start this post off by saying that the negative experiences detailed below are in no way representative of my time in Sri Lanka thus far. In fact, I often forget they happened. This is partially because so much is constantly happening here. Yes, the pace of life is much slower than at home, but at the same time so much is new to me – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the culture, the responsibility – it all feels very happening. At times, overwhelming.

At work, I research the implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This project has involved a significant amount of field work on my part. Among other things, I have discovered that I enjoy talking to people much more than I do sitting behind a desk from 9-5, reading other people’s research. The personal connection is what has made the work interesting for me. It has also instilled in me a heavy sense of duty: to write something compelling and nuanced that grasps at the complexity of the issues people from a variety of communities have shared while also speaking to larger structural problems. But I’ll leave that for a different blog post.

I’ve also had a fair number of personal distractions. On weekends, my friends and I travel, and let me tell you, other memories were quickly washed away and replaced by the time I was ejected from an inflatable boat and thrown over a few rapids whilst white water rafting. We accepted the recommendation for what the contact of a new-friend advertised as a “beginner’s” rafting adventure without much thought; the spontaneity of the decision seemed fitting in a country where plans are fluid. I’ve since been told that this activity is dangerous, especially in off-season when the water is wild from the excess rain. Luckily, we’re all fine. We are outsiders, but we’ve become comfortable outsiders, at times trusting our surroundings to a fault.

Spontaneous decision to go rafting – before picture (when we were still smiling)

I could share a number of positive experiences I’ve had and ways in which I’ve made little changes to my life, not because I’ve felt particularly pressed to do so but because I am comfortable.

This comfort was not present when I first arrived, but grew steadily over time. It took me three days to learn how to cross busy intersections – “you just have to start walking” – eventually I lifted my hands up like Moses parting the Red Sea and prayed for the best.  I also used to refuse to take tuk tuks alone after dark, opting for uber instead (until my friends pointed out that you can be locked into an uber). These precautionary measures marked the beginning of my stay, but they aren’t what I would tell you about now. Now I would tell you about how I’ve cut my nails short and learned to eat with my hands, and how much I look forward drinking fresh and frothy fruit juices in the peak heat of the afternoon. I would describe how happy I was to discover that the pineapple here is sweet and doesn’t cause my tongue to tingle uncomfortably. I would talk about how easy it is to make friends, especially with Colombo’s large network of short-term interns. I would rave about how helpful and kind the locals have been (provided they’re not driving, at which point road-rage takes on a whole new meaning). In fact, when I got water-poisoning on a weekend away in Kandy, the hostel owner offered to drive me to the doctor’s office and find me a ride back to Colombo (approximately 120km away).

All of these experiences contributed to my comfort, and feeling secure, I eventually let my guard down. This process happened so steadily I don’t think I was consciously aware of it. But at times, that comfort has betrayed me. On one occasion, my friends and I were bargaining with a tuk tuk driver. When he refused to lower his price, we moved to the next tuk, and its driver agreed to charge the amount we wanted. Before we knew it, several angry men including the previous tuk driver surrounded us, and one of them slapped our driver. My first instinct was to raise my voice and protest, luckily a good friend had the common sense to point out that we were about to be trapped in the tuk tuk and should leave before matters escalated.

On another occasion, I took the train alone between Kandy and Colombo, leaving my friends behind because I had water poisoning. I rationalized the decision to make the journey by myself because it was the middle of the day and I was sitting in the “pregnant mothers” section. To my credit, all my research pointed to these choices as safe decisions for solo female travellers: travel during the day, trains are fine, sit in the family section. But that didn’t stop the man who sat next to me from stroking my upper thigh and touching himself. If you’re wondering what happened, I promptly stood up and screamed at him until he left. My larger point here is that up until that moment, my biggest preoccupation was trying not to vomit on the train. When the man sat a little too close to me, I blamed my North American standards on personal space. After all, the train ride over was so packed people were practically falling out of the doors – western rules on capacity definitely don’t apply here. When the strange behavior persisted, I told myself I was being paranoid. I refused to trust my own instincts.

unclear whether being pregnant makes you a mother or whether the sign required one to be pregnant and have a born child to qualify, but that’s beside the point

While I consider my comfort here in Sri Lanka to be a beautiful testimony to my relationship with this place, the truth is that it has nearly gotten me into a trouble a few times. As exhausting as it may be, I do feel that an extra sense of self-guardedness is required here. This might seem evident; to the Adriana from 2 months ago it certainly would have been. To this I have two responses: firstly, things are different when you’ve spent time in a place, made friends, and learned to walk long distances on sidewalk-less streets without getting hit by a tuk tuk or accidentally stepping on exposed wiring. The once unfamiliar place I mostly knew for its 26-year civil war, the 2004 Tsunami, and reports of harassment from fellow female travellers became associated with happy, personal experiences, and these experiences made a difference. In my comfort, I thought I had earned some sort inside knowledge on how to avoid these situations. Secondly, I find this need to constantly be aware of one’s surroundings suffocating and burdensome. Sometimes so much so that I unconsciously abandon it.

Living in Sri Lanka is not easy. I don’t think I can afford the luxury of mindlessly doing things here without somehow compromising my safety. However, I also feel it’s fair to say that if you do stay on your guard you will have some beautiful, unparalleled experiences.

Elephant crossing in Udawalawe National Park

Sitting at the World’s End in Horton Plains

Delawalla Beach

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