On one fine afternoon in the summer of 2017, my cousin treated my mother and I to lunch at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel during a visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka. The smell of the warm sea breeze greeted us as we stepped out from our vehicle while out past the hotel grounds lay that briny cauldron of foam we call the Indian Ocean. My cousin and I settled down to catch up over recent events and we chit-chatted away, her telling me about her two daughters’ antics at swim class.
It was by all means, a pleasant afternoon.
But no post goes on about the pleasantries of one quaint little afternoon meal by the sea.
This morning, as worshipers came together in prayer for Easter Sunday services, three churches and five hotels across Sri Lanka were subject to a series of terrorist bombings. The Cinnamon Grand was one of the hotels bombed. The bomb went off meters away from where my cousin and I were seated two years prior, discussing trivialities of the day.
On a related note, I have an eye for plants; they’re usually among the first things I spot when I arrive someplace new—and one of my favorite plants is the frangipani tree. I’ve always thought that their awkward, spindly, grey branches made them look a little alien-like. In season, they bloom modest but charming five-petaled flowers that range from white and yellow to deep pink and red. The Cinnamon Grand had a gorgeous frangipani tree that littered its flowers around on the grassy opening in front of the building.
I currently attend an international school in Malaysia whose gorgeous campus also looks out over a stretch of ocean—the historic Strait of Malacca. It’s far more placid and tranquil than the mighty cauldron of foam that greeted me two years ago in Sri Lanka, but it’s still part of the same ocean system.
Dotted about near the ocean-side of my campus are a splattering of frangipani trees that greet me every day as I make my way down to my school’s seaview cafeteria for lunch. They wave their spindly, grey-ish alien arms at me as I try my best to get to the front of the lunch queue.
But why talk about trees and bodies of water?
As I write this, the death toll in Sri Lanka grows higher and higher. When I began this post a half-hour ago, the death toll was reported at 207. As I write this line, the death toll stands at 215. Those are numbers—and numbers often seem to mean little. A tragedy an ocean away in some foreign country may concern you a little. You see it on the news, you shake your head, you mutter something under your breath about the cruelty of life, and you go on your way scrolling through Facebook.
Six months before sitting down with my cousin at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, I visited Colombo to attend a wedding reception at the Intercontinental Hotel—now named the Kingsbury Hotel.
To be brutally honest—I absolutely hated the event. I knew hardly anyone there, and was averse to the generic reaction of older relatives talking down to me, telling me they remembered seeing photos of me when I was four years old.
By far, the highlight of that night was seeing my cousin’s baby boy and getting to pinch his chubby little cheeks. I try to play the calm and collected teenage boy who has better things than babies to pay heed to—but I can’t help but dork out over babies with a full face just ready to be squished.
This morning at the Kingsbury, a bomb went off just one floor below where that wedding reception was held. Alongside the Cinnamon Grand, the Kingsbury was one of the five hotels targeted in the Easter bombings.
Fortunately, none of my family was harmed in this morning’s attacks. But it sure does make you think—why not my family? Far too often we subconsciously succumb to the just-world fallacy—the unconscious tendency to believe that the natural course of the world is for good to be rewarded and bad to be punished. I think it’s part of the reason that numbers mean so little. It’s just a natural psychological tendency of thought.
It takes something visual to snap us out of our ingrained group-thinking apathy. A photo of relatives tearfully mourning the dead. An image of an effigy of Christ splattered in the blood of worshipers. Whatever it is—something needs to remind you that those victims far away aren’t really all that far away from you. For me, it was the thought that there’s absolutely no reason those killed this morning weren’t my family. It was the idea that this morning, before they were so brutally killed, worshipers and travelers looked out towards the same vast expanse of water that I too had looked out upon two years prior. The idea that as my friends returned from their Easter morning services, somewhere in Sri Lanka, the same couldn’t be said.
Numbers are distant. The world becomes a far smaller place when you can think of the faces of babies whose cheeks you pinched, of the trees that waved their branches at you, and of the oceans whose shore wake called out to you.