Be Present and Always Carry a Fork: Reflections from Sri Lanka

July 30, 2018
Walking along the Galle fort rampart
Walking along the Galle Fort rampart near sunset.

By Courtney Wimberly, Master of Science in Global Health student

This summer I’m in Galle, Sri Lanka, collecting data on mental well-being in medical students at the University of Ruhuna Faculty of Medicine. We’re looking at the levels and ranges of positive and negative emotions and burnout in addition to some potential demographic correlates. We’re also interested in seeing how positive and negative mental health may affect academic performance. 

We’re employing a fairly novel instrument, called the Mental Health Continuum-Short Form (MHC-SF), to measure positive emotions and to see if positive mental health may protect against some of the disadvantageous effects of negative mental health.

Here are a few reflections on my experience in Sri Lanka so far:

What’s one thing you’ve learned about the community/culture you’re in this summer?

I’ve found that Sri Lankans are very good at intuiting the nature of a person. Within a few sentences, a few words or even a few simple gestures, locals can tell the quality of someone’s heart—whether an individual has come here simply to consume the country or to fully experience and appreciate it and its people, as a student might. This is not to say that Sri Lankans are unwelcoming to tourists. They are more than happy visitors are coming to the island. However, not all foreigners are respectful of the land and its people, and locals have a keenness about them, a seemingly unconscious talent for knowing when a person is genuine.

What’s the best piece of advice you got when preparing for your fieldwork?

“Always keep hand sanitizer and a fork on you.” – Lindy Reynolds MS’18 (who completed her fieldwork in Sri Lanka last summer)

What’s the most useful thing you packed for your trip this summer and why?

My yoga mat. I bought what I thought was a “travel” mat before I left Durham for the summer. I thought I would strap it to my carry-on backpack so I could be sure it would be with me when I arrived in Sri Lanka and so I could use it to stretch out or practice during long layovers. 

It ended up being quite heavy, so I gambled and rolled it into one of my checked bags, hoping it would survive the journey. To my delight, the bag teetered around the carousel in Colombo-Bandaranaike International, and the mat was still tucked securely inside. 

The first thing I did when I got to the guesthouse was whip out the mat and calm my nerves. Since then, I’ve practiced nearly every day. I’m so thankful to be in a place where I have the space and privacy to work on my home practice. If I’m confused, anxious, irritated, experiencing a creative block, or just need a little self-care that neither a book nor streaming a series can provide, I go to my mat. There I feel most like myself. Most in tune with the moment. 

I seek to bring this same awareness to my experiences here in Sri Lanka, to be present and fully engaged with the task at hand, whether it be collecting data, meeting with my onsite supervisor, eating out with colleagues, or speaking with a local on the bus. Be present. Pay attention, and there’s no telling what you’ll discover.