From the skyEsther Arthurson with permission for Varsity

The unloading bay of Bandaranaike International Airport is a daunting experience. The worryingly casual parking of a tired “van man”, intimidating army officers, and frantic travellers trigger survival instincts. Avoid being hit by the car, making sure your luggage doesn’t get stolen, and try not to run over the hordes of excitable children with your trolley …

Last summer, I left my family holiday earlier than my parents, meaning I travelled back to England alone. This was my first unsupervised experience of Sri Lanka, a prospect that excited me to an unreasonable extent.

Eventually all bags were unloaded from the van. A popular Sri Lankan sport is maximising the weight allowance, meaning I was bringing back coconut cake, unique fruits, spice mixes and a bag filled with raw rice. I thanked the driver for his assistance and safer-than-most driving skills in getting me to the airport. With a reluctant sense of relief, I filled my lungs with the dense air one last time, knowing that soon I would breathe easily again. Misplaced coconut trees swayed in the wind, waving goodbye, and the usually annoying tuk-tuks played a final harmonious fanfare as I entered the airport.

“There’s something quite beautiful about hearing the language my mother scolds me in being used to sell a necklace”

Tired from dragging the raw rice, I took a seat in a coffee shop where I overheard an excited South African tourist speaking to a baggage handler about the huge “rock” (Sigiriya) he had climbed. The tourist couldn’t wait to return. In response, the handler joked about how he was yet to visit the same rock, and he could not wait to leave Sri Lanka, hoping to join his emigrated brother in Australia.

Passing a small parade of shops, it dawned on me that the airport was my last opportunity to speak Sinhalese. I wandered around, feigning interests in luxury goods, conversing with every worker. There’s something quite beautiful about hearing the language my mother scolds me in being used to sell a necklace. It becomes apparent that there’s so much more to the language than profanities … Unfortunately, height and clothing meant workers overlooked the colour of my skin, conversing in English instead. In hindsight, this was for the best – my Sinhalese is usually treated more as comedic enterprise than genuine communication.

An airport runway – sunriseEsther Arthurson with permission for Varsity

Closer to my flight, I tried to decipher which queue I was supposed to stand in. My British Passport placed me in the foreigner queue rather than the Sri Lankan, which meant funny looks cast in my direction. As expected with most Sri Lankan operations, there were delays, so I was left standing for a while, observing those around me. The Sri Lankan queue provided a stark contrast to the jovial atmosphere of my own.

“A strong ‘before and after’ image materializes, exacerbated by the thought of those no longer present to witness the ‘after’”

Tears were rife. A mother clasped her eldest son’s face in both hands, coming to terms with the fact that he was about to disappear to a foreign land, 10 hours in the past. Like many others, he has probably been living outside of Sri Lanka for a while, but still saves up year-round to return to his beloved motherland. But the brief few weeks could never emulate the years of memories enjoyed in his childhood. Elsewhere, a father maintained a strained, stoic expression as he bid farewell to his departing daughter, leaving to attend a foreign university; the first time they’d be apart for more than a week.

A newlywed couple were permanently relocating. Parents were present, holding on to their children, almost trying to convince themselves that the promises of wealth and opportunity were larger than familial embrace. This is a common scene, with a common outcome; the couple may not be back in Sri Lanka for decades. And when that happens, parents may be greeted by a now hairless son who may have his own children (much like my father). A strong “before and after” image materialises, exacerbated by the thought of those no longer present to witness the “after”.


Mountain View

The childhood home and the Cambridge bubble

Not seeing my mother for multiple decades is not a concept that I have ever had to confront, but this is the reality for many of the Sri Lankan diaspora and others emigrating from the developing world. Looking at the queue, it was difficult to fully appreciate that some were saying goodbye for a lifetime. Some were leaving the country to perhaps never return, leaving the only culture and home they have ever known, to migrate to a new, unfamiliar setting with nothing but hope to support them.

The trip back was smooth, only with a minor blip at Heathrow and explaining raw rice. My experience in the airport has been etched into my memory, coupled with a sense of gratitude of never being burdened by such monumental decisions in my life. I saw my parents in a new light. They had travelled here alone, with only each other, simply to provide their children with a better life.