Braces and Suitcases

In 1982, when I was ten, my family spent a year living in the island nation of Sri Lanka. I had many amazing experiences with ancient ruins, elephants, Buddhist nuns, jungle vistas and a few movie stars! Near the end of my adventures, the country plunged into a civil war that lasted 26 years. Now that the nation has stabilized, I am planning my first trip back to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2017 with my family. Leading up to our travels, this blog will chronicle the time I spent in Sri Lanka from 1982-1983 and some information and history about this wonderful country. My year on the island was a great influence on my life and because of the lengthy conflict that began while I was there, I am likely one of very few foreigners to have had such an experience in several decades.   I am sure the island has changed greatly since I was there 33 years ago, but I am excited to travel back to the place I briefly called home as a young girl.

Braces are the least of my concerns


Johanna – 4th Grade

Dr. Gringeri had probably told hundreds of children that they needed braces.  For me, a girl of 10, I’m sure the news would have been memorable from any source, but Dr. Gringeri  made it all the more unforgettable because he liked to sing opera to his patients.  Even pulling teeth, he happily sang to the music of the dental tools.  With his deep baritone muffled only slightly by his paper mask, he sang a rhyme about braces that impressively included the word orthodontist.  It seemed like devastating news to me.  Would braces lead to acne?  All the girls on my school bus with braces had pimples too.

I was having such a lousy day.  I’d been for a check-up at the doctor’s office just an hour before.   The doctor had said I was healthy.  On went the lights behind my x-rays hanging next to the exam table.  She showed my mother something about the spaces between the bones.  “I think she’s likely to grow no taller than 5 feet,” she said.  “So, I’d hate to see her get over 100 pounds or she’ll be chubby.”   As I heard the word chubby my gaze zeroed in on the full cheeks that bulged out from under her large green glasses.

Driving away from the dentist with my parents, it seemed like I could never get more annoying news than that just delivered by these two doctors.  The diagnoses of the day added up to a short, chubby girl with pimples and metal mouth.  I cried as we drove past the farmland I’d grown up with in The Finger Lakes.  My mother recounted the words of my pediatrician to my dad and made a sarcastic comment about the height and weight of the doctor which made me chuckle despite my mood. Mom and Dad exchanged a knowing look and told me they had some news that was sure to cheer me up.

My father was a professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.  I’d lived in the town at the tip of Seneca Lake with my mom and dad since I was just a baby.    A few months before, I’d become a big sister.  Janelle was 9 and ½ years younger than me and sat in the car seat next to me sucking on the strap of her jacket.  Dad explained that his recent meetings with professors from several other colleges across the Northeast had resulted in the creation of a new study abroad program in Sri Lanka. Students from any of the colleges could apply and participants would travel as a group with a professor from one of the consortium members.  As one of the key founders of the program my dad explained he was tapped to be the first person to lead the program.

“How long will you be gone?” I asked.

“That’s what we are so excited to tell you,” Mom said.  “Your father is due for a sabbatical, so after the program ends he can take the semester off from teaching and do research. We’ll all be going there together and staying for the whole year!”  An expectant pause followed during which Mom and Dad had I guess anticipated I would shout, “Hooray!”

I was stunned.  I could not believe my parents would think this was good news. I’d heard of Sri Lanka before.  My father had traveled there with some other professors setting up the program in the tiny tear drop shaped island off the Southern coast of India.  A third world country!  I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I was sure that it sounded worlds away from my friends, from Girl Scouts, from piano lessons, from my grandparents – from all the things I knew.  My parents had spent time in India before I was born.  I thought it was exotic that I’d almost been born in a mysterious far away country. But to live in such a place?!  I thought of the stories I’d heard of my parents’ time in India.  I didn’t think of their stories of the beauty of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains or the friends they’d made.  My head swam instead with tales I’d heard of dysentery.  Of the time my mother had seen worms in a patient’s throat as she inserted the intubation tube.  Of the lepers that begged outside of the temples in Agra.  Now, being a plump shorty with braces seemed like the least of my concerns.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

22 thoughts on “Braces and Suitcases”

    1. I am going to try to keep up with once a week. It might be a few weeks of “getting ready to get there” posts before I get into details of Sri Lanka, but we’ll get there! Thanks for reading it.


  1. Sharon and I are already anticipating your next installment. How can you remember thoughts and feelings from so long ago?


  2. This is awesome to read!!! It is impressive how well you can remember the events… Clearly it had a gigantic impact on you. Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us!
    ~~ And now you can guess how I got the link (no… Not the Steinwachs)


  3. My daughter, Maren Boothby, sent me this, Johanna. What a pleasure to read it. We’d considered that trip, but the timing is wrong for us. I’ll definitely look forward to reading your very engaging blog, though. I expect you’ll have as much fun writing it as we all anticipate in following it. You surely must have known about this latent writer who dwells within. How delightful you are letting others in on the secret: thanks!


  4. You’re a great writer! I just started reading about your adventures and already find myself excited to read the next installment. Someday I’ll be able to say to people, “Yes, I know Johanna Halperin”


  5. I’d planned to read along, but life got in the way. I just read the first and I’m hooked. I’m assuming you’re on the forth one, and you open the April ones from the bottom up: Two injections…
    I bet your kids will love your stories, or will be glad to have them when they get older. One of my best memories of my Mom was near her end, was when we discovered a diary of hers just as WW II was starting, and she was in Germany with her folks, acting as a hostess with some older folks, but flirting with the young SS men who worked across from their hotel. Nice to watch her light up with her memories. Barb


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