October 15, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Hotel Karma – Sri Lanka 1997

The clues are there all along. The way she's totally oblivious in casually interrupting others or stepping in front of the line. The tone of her voice when she wants to be snide or sarcastic. It’s all alarms from the very beginning.

Most of the Peace Corps Sri Lankan group of ’97 are youngish. Mid-20s is the average age and then a huge jump to the next group of the over-50s. I’m stuck in the middle; young enough to hang out with the kids and old enough to get the Hogan Heroes references. (If you don’t know who Hogan is, then this proves my point.) She happens to be a year younger than me, slim, athletic, funny, and thus it’s a mutual attraction, which simply screams: “Run away!”

There are only 25 of us, all whiteys in a country of very curious Sri Lankans. We stick out like rice on chocolate and after a couple of months, it gets to you. Being anonymous is not an option. Everywhere we turn, we’re the magnet to the almost-English-Speakers, and the helpfuls, and the kids. Constant staring. Whispers behind our backs. Yells from across the street.

 The lack of privacy makes our clique cling to each other. Of course, the escalating suicide bombing helps a bit, too. A small public bus explodes in a clutzy suicide bombing mistake; we huddle together and someone pulls out a joint. A trip downtown for a little shopping results in being mobbed by strangers; we hurry back to our little group house to let off steam. Everything is so strange; we are bored out of our minds. Jokes are funnier than they should be. Drinking is more urgent than needed. And everybody is aching for sex. Welcome to the Peace Corps.

So, she and I are the expected match. We hang out. We talk. We flirt. We do all those normal things, but in a quicken pace and desperate aura.

Okay, this is no excuse. I see the signs. I know the horrible ending before we even begin. But she leans into me and I let her. I don’t want to be in a relationship, having just escaped a terrible one in Seattle. I enjoy my new friends and spontaneity and not having to coordinate with anyone else if I want to hop a bus and swim in the Indian Ocean.

Yet, here I am in her hotel room, 11 o’clock at night, in bed but fully clothed, making out like teenagers. Gawd, I’m an idiot.

During all this, the reasonable voice in my head is tsk-tsking and saying “Get up. Get out. Walk away.” I know. I know. And believe it or not, I do exactly that.

Yes, in a moment of clarity and chapped lips, I say that I should go back to my hotel. She’s stunned. I laugh it off as not wanting to move too fast or something or other. I’m out the door – yes! I am out of her bed and walking along the open balcony on my way to the stairs. Soon I’ll be out the building and stumbling my way to the my little room across town.

Except the travel gods aren’t quite finished. Bad relationships are the crux of their mischief. The door to the stairs is locked. This is Sri Lanka, everyone, and a tinge of fear totally overrides any thought of safety. The miniscule chance of someone sneaking up to the third floor means nothing to the fact that in a fire, we’re all dead. The balcony is completely grated with iron lattice. No exit.

I stand in the darkness, weighing my options. I could pound on the door until the sleeping manager eventually drags himself up here. Meanwhile, every window curtain will part and the eyes will stare. Or …

I’m back in her room, shrugging. Laughing. And we’re kissing again. The travel gods are chuckling to themselves and the soap opera begins.