Taking A Vacation To My Past

You can go home, but you can never return

My mother grew up in a village, in a walauwa on a hill. They didn't have electricity for years, didn't have a phone line, and still cook over a wood fire. When Amma came back from boarding school she was given Ayurvedic medicine that made her copiously shit herself. Now people pay money for this experience. Who knew?

Hence I, in 2021, go to a 'hotel' which is essentially my grandmother's house with yoga. The very concept baffles most Sri Lankans. Why would you take a vacation from electricity? Why would you go back to the place you left? And yet this is the paradox of 'development'. In our mad rush to get ahead, we have left some terribly important things behind.

And so we return.

What we got away from from becomes the getaway. We check in where our ancestors checked out. Luxury is thus a loop, you finally end up right where you began. Back at your grandmother's house, having a madeleine or manioc, whatever takes you back. It's a literal vacation, in the vacant sense of the word. You return to a place once occupied, a place you can visit but not stay. Not without splitting yourself in two. As Robert Frost said:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

As much as we might like to visit the road not taken, that is not the road we took, and it's too late too turn back now. You can feel it as you leave the place, the muddy ruts leading out of camp, then gravel, then asphalt, onto villages, towns, and then the city itself. You can feel the gravity of modernity pulling you in, as inescapable for us as the past must have felt to our ancestors. To invert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one more traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And so we can only return as tourists, along the road less taken. Where the only notification is the changing of the light, or monkeys breaking into a fight. Where the showers are cold and the drinks are warm. Where you lack most creature comforts and are forced to just be a creature.

Frost uses the metaphor of a walk in the woods, but the experience is more like a river. We don't move ourselves as much as society moves us all along. All of our individual choices are shaped by options, by opinions, by what's opportune. You can feel the historical forces accelerated as you leave, sucking you back to where you belong.

My Amma once followed the same path out of the walauwa, only much slower. She took a similar dirt road out of the village, leading to gravel towards the town, then the pavement of the city, and finally the runway to far-off lands. That was the social goal at the time, that was success, and it is only 50 years later that I can look back and muse that we left some important luggage behind. Like bits of our bodies, our minds, our home.

And yet since the Big Bang time is an explosion and we can only look back as we hurtle forward. That is the gravity of the situation, and it compels us all. To invert F. Scott Fitzgerald, "So we beat on, boats with the current, borne ceaselessly away from the past."

The best you can do is get out of the boat for a minute and just float for a while, suspended in time. And so we went swimming in the wewa, tendrils of plant life pulling at our legs like distant memories. We come out itching, wishing for a hot shower. Then we pack up our things, get in our steel boats, return to the current, and hurtle ceaselessly away from the past.