Until this year, I didn’t know I get seasick.
I board a boat on the northern coast of what they now call Sri Lanka, outside my ammah’s hometown, and I sit down below. I accept my friend’s offer of a motion-sickness pill. I can’t tell if it does anything other than make my burps taste like ginger. I watch as a little boy climbs from his mother’s lap to her shoulders, his hand on top of her head as he peeks out the window to see if we’ve left yet. When we start moving, I don’t even notice, and for a few minutes I’m convinced we’re still docked, until the little boy climbs down from the window and curls up in his ammah’s arms.
The ride is an hour, and we sit so close together that when I put my head between my knees like I’ve seen people do in the movies, to keep from throwing up, I bump heads with the person across from me. I fantasize about fresh air, about what it will feel like to step onto land. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth because I feel like that’s what they always tell you to do, but they never say why.
My heart races in the way that it does when you’re holding back vomit, and I try to ignore the rocking back and forth and focus instead on anything but the present. The wild horses that inhabit the island we’re going to explore—how far did they travel to get here? The little boy, now sleeping—does he live in Jaffna? Does he take this boat every day?
I make it to the other side. I eat vadai and drink a cup of tea. We all commiserate about the ferry experience, worrying in the back of our minds about the return trip.
Every time I opened my eyes I felt sick, my friend tells me.
I nod even though my head still feels lighter than I expect it to. Me, too.
* * *
Ammah calls the man at our hotel thambi even though I feel like he’s not much younger than her. I wonder if he thinks we’re amusing, or if he sees families like ours all the time—coming back to eat hoppers and sit on the beach. We haven’t been back in fifteen years, since the conflict was still ongoing.
We take a small boat to another small boat, and it starts to rain but the man tells Ammah that’s okay. We follow the river to the beach, and the man’s seventeen-year-old son takes the three of us out onto the open ocean. I decide, as the beach shrinks into the distance, that I prefer to be under water than over it, prefer not to understand how vast things are and rather feel enveloped by them. I decide that maybe I’m more agoraphobic than claustrophobic, that just being able to make out a distant shore is scarier than not being able to see ten feet in front of me.
The boy spots a whale, and we zoom towards it, just us four and our small motor. I like this part—the zooming, the chase—but when we stop, and the whale’s tail goes up in the air, I can’t help but fear getting too close. I imagine that the blue whale, so much bigger than I thought a whale could be, will topple us over and take us down with it. Every time we stop, I start to feel myself get a little warm, feel the nausea run from my stomach to my chest and the pressure build in my head. I long for him to spot another so we can zoom again, bumping from wave to wave in pursuit.
We see a dozen whales. They aren’t supposed to be here at this time of year, and no one really knows why they are. I feel guilty. They come to the surface to take a breath, and just when they arrive we chase after them. Ammah asks the boy if we can return to the hotel, and he smiles at her. Wait, he tells her in Tamil. I’m sure I can find a few more.
* * *
A friend and I chat with our scuba instructor before we fall backwards off our boat. She is from Spain, but she has been on-and-off living on the island’s northeastern coast for years. She has a Tamil boyfriend, she tells us. We pass a part of the coastline just below a temple that’s on a cliff. There are statues there that fell into the sea—or had they been pushed?—and divers come from all over the world to explore them, to see what you can’t see from above.
I have never been diving before, and I pick nervously at the roti she hands me before our first dive. You’ll need the energy, she says. We talk about her life philosophy, about how she doesn’t want to be tied to any one place, about how much you can learn from dedicating yourself to appreciation, to diving in and looking around. I’m not so sure, although I want to believe her. I want to feel like I’m immersed rather than living in my head, not letting the thoughts build.
We jump into the warm, turquoise water and follow her to where the ocean abruptly becomes navy blue. We move with our hands tucked under our armpits and our flippers extended behind us, through shallow mazes of coral. We learn how to regulate our breathing to move up and down, to conserve what’s in our tanks. I look up periodically, and I realize how bad I am at estimating distance. What does fifteen meters mean, really? We grab onto the line that attaches to the boat, and we pop our ears when she motions to us every meter.
You have to equalize, she tells us. Or the pressure will be too much.