Imagine eating the same meal twice a day for four months straight.
While spending their fall semester studying abroad on the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) program in Sri Lanka, juniors Emma Cutler and Erica Swan did just that. Their host families kept them well fed, but there was little nutritional variation.
"Rice and curry. All the time," Cutler declared. "I would get sick of it, but I realized I couldn't get sick of it because that's all I'd be eating for the next three months."
A typical Bowdoin student's day consists of a hearty breakfast at Moulton, strenuous classes and labs, a workout in Buck, and a quick pick-me-up at the Café before spending the rest of the night in the library.
A typical day in the shoes of Cutler and Swan consisted of waking up at 6 a.m., reporting to the ISLE center a little before 8 a.m., attending daily Sinhala language classes, participating in an elective class, enjoying a long lunch break and attending a second elective class.
Afterward, they usually engaged in an extracurricular activity, whether it was Kandian dance and drumming or batik-making.
Cutler, a mathematics and environmental studies major, first heard about the ISLE program from Associate Professor of Religion Elizabeth Pritchard, campus representative for ISLE.
"The way they described this program was that it would be strong cultural immersion, living with a host family the entire time. I really liked the sound of it," Cutler said.
Swan, a sociology major, also knew that she wanted to spend a semester away from Bowdoin and sought out programs that did not require prior knowledge of the given country's native language.
"I wanted it to be a program and an experience that was going to be completely different than anything I would have had at Bowdoin," said Swan. "I felt that enrolling in an English-speaking country would have been a waste of a semester away."
Cutler and Swan were two of ten students in their program, which is affiliated with a consortium of nine institutions, including Bowdoin.
According to Swan, the program was advertised as anthropology and religion-based with a focus on understanding Sri Lankan culture.
Both Cutler and Swan said that they experienced mixed feelings prior to embarking on their nearly four-month journey to south Asia.
"I was almost regretting my decision, and I felt that I would miss being at Bowdoin," Cutler said.
Flying out during Hurricane Irene did not help settle their uneasiness and they found that their anxiety did not dissipate even upon arriving in Sri Lanka.
"It was one in the morning when we arrived so it made things kind of miserable, especially in terms of physical comfort," Swan said.
Once the group arrived at ISLE program center in the city of Kandy, Swan said that she began to feel more excited, but the experience of meeting her host family presented its own challenges: "When I moved into my room for the first time, that's when I felt the most homesick."
"I felt welcome, but I felt really overwhelmed," Cutler echoed. "And it was awkward."
Sri Lankan natives often live in multigenerational homes, and Swan lived with a family of parents, two young children, and grandparents, while Cutler spent the semester with a couple who resided on the same compound as much of their extended family.
"I mostly hung out with little kids, and they were super into hanging out," said Swan. "For me it really helped having kids in the family because I felt like I didn't have to make small talk all the time."
Cutler and Swan said they realized that the culture of their new home necessitated some behavioral change. To avoid drawing unwanted attention, they wore loose clothing and learned not to smile at strangers.
During the week, Cutler and Swan returned home immediately after dark, around 5 or 6 p.m.
"I wouldn't want to get on a bus at night. Sometimes it would be a little boring, but I didn't find myself wanting to go out," Cutler said.
Additionally, they learned to follow their host families' customs.
"It was adjusting to a very different rhythm. Once I slept until 8 a.m., until I realized that I wasn't supposed to do that. Everyone's already up and that's when breakfast is ready and you don't want to hold them up," Swan said.
"It was really expected that if I was home and I wasn't doing homework, I would be with the family. That was hard sometimes," Cutler added.
Cutler and Swan said that they developed very close relationships with their host families.
"Just being with my family was the most memorable thing for me. When I was about to go on my independent study for a few weeks, I realized that I actually felt like a part of the family," Cutler said.
Swan commented that contact with native Sri Lankans other than her host family was fairly limited, except during her independent study in Ayurveda hospitals, which gave her the opportunity to practice her burgeoning knowledge of Sinhala with nurses.
Weekends were packed with travel. Aside from one northern tour organized by ISLE, the student group organized all of their own trips, with two restrictions: they were prohibited from leaving the country, and they were not allowed to visit northern or eastern Sri Lanka on their own because of the civil war in those regions.
According to Swan and Cutler, the lack of program-planned activities worked in their favor because it forced both of them to do a lot of independent organizing.
"We didn't have a lot of guidance or support with day-to-day life. At first, I was really scared about figuring things out on my own," said Cutler. "But I realized that I couldn't just go back and forth from the ISLE center to my host family's house."
Ultimately, though the experience was not without its hardships, both Cutler and Swan said that they found their semester in Sri Lanka incredibly rewarding. When asked if they intended to return to Sri Lanka one day, both responded with an emphatic yes.
"All of our host families said we should come back on our honeymoons," Cutler said.